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US Army

From the Bulge to the Elbe

 

From the Bulge to the Elbe
 
After breaching the Siegfried Line, the next major obstacle for the 84th Infantry Division was the crossing of the Roer River which proved to be quite an obstacle.  We were closing in on the Roer on 16 December 1944 when the Germans launched their biggest offensive in the battle of Western Europe known as the Battle of the Bulge.   We continued to accomplish our objective in our assigned sector, and our planes would fly over the front lines from daylight till dark looking for targets and communicating with our Infantry. 
 
Our planes were popular targets for the Germans because they knew we could observe their movement. We could adjust on them faster than our observers on the ground; our position in the air added a third dimension to the adjustment.  They shot at us with just about everything they had from rifle fire to 88mm cannons and mortar fire.
 
Around 18 or 19 December 1944, the 84th Division was ordered to take up positions around Marche, Belgium, and establish a line of defense between Marche and Hotton.  I took the Air Section’s only 6-by-6 truck and three or four of our crew, and we joined the advance party to go south toward the Ardennes in search of our front line.  We arrived just outside the town of Marche at the same time some German tanks drove up to the outskirts of Marche from another direction.  They did drop a few rounds on the town, but, fortunately for us, they were not daring enough to enter the town.  By the next morning, elements of our Division started rolling in.  The troop shortage was so bad that even our Division Commander General Bolling was directing traffic.
 
On 21 December 1944, I took my crew and truck, and we back tracked about 2000 yards looking for a landing strip.  The terrain was hilly and covered with snow, but we finally found a place on the side of a hill. We had to land by putting the plane into a slip over a bunch of tall popular trees so it was a tricky place to land and take off.  The night before our planes arrived from the Geilenkirchen area, there was a tank battle down on the other side of the hill from our selected air strip. It turned out that this battle was the farthest point the Germans were able to penetrate during the Battle of the Bulge. It was the 24th of December 1944, and my small crew and I were very grateful when the tank battle was over.  After our planes arrived and we set up our schedule, we began to fly the line between Marche and Hotton, and I recall flying the line on Christmas Day.
 
We moved our air strip several times during the Battle of the Bulge, and, at one point, we had moved back from the front to a place just outside of Liege, Belgium.  We occupied a chateau with about 20 bedrooms, and it turned out to be right in the line of fire of the buzz bombs.  The Germans were trying to hit our big ammunition dump close to Liege.  They never did, but one bomb landed about 15 feet from my plane and twisted it up like you twist a newspaper.
 
As the battle continued, we had to move along to be accessible to the troops.  Generally, we fought toward Bastogne which was the area where the Germans had the 101st Airborne Division bottled up.  This is the famous place where the Germans had sent a messenger to tell the Commanding General Anthony McAuliffe to give up.  The General sent back his answer: “Nuts.”    As we were gradually pinched off by the 3rd Army on the right and other troops on our left, we were relieved to return to our positions in the north part of Germany in the vicinity of Geilenkirchen and the Roer River.
 
Now our attention had to be returned to crossing the Roer River which varied in width from 60 to 260 feet and from 2 to 12 feet deep.  The Germans managed to open the gates of the Hemback Dam and blow up Erft Reservoir, so the Roer was at its maximum height and width for about all of February.
 
The Air Section resumed the job of flying the front and engaging targets of opportunity or on any targets we might be directed to fire on by the Fire Direction Center of the Division Artillery, or of one of the Battalions.  By doing this, we helped to force the enemy to keep their movements to a minimum. The 84th Artillery and our attached Battalions, which at times were as many as 36 battalions, pounded the far side of the Roer to prepare the way for our eventual crossing. The forward observers and air observers made it very costly for Germans to move around.  The Infantry crossed the Roer under cover of darkness so we could not fly across, but we had helped to soften up the enemy during the daytime preparations.
 
Once we had our Infantry across the Roer, we moved in a generally north direction.  From the Roer to the Rhine, it was move, shoot, and communicate, and we moved our air strip several times reaching the Rhine River about 5 March 1945.
 
Our front became the Rhine River, and we flew this path every day.  We shot at everything that moved on the other side of the river for about a month while our Infantry rested.  We were located directly across the Rhine from Duisburg.  Dusseldorf was just south of Duisburg, and the whole east side in this area was industrial.  Every time a train would try to move during the day time, we would fire on it with our Artillery.
 
Our Division did not have the job of establishing the bridgehead on the other side of the Rhine.  The 79th Infantry Division did that for us, so our Division crossed in the day time on the pontoon bridge established by the engineers.
 
The plan was for the 5th Armored to drive toward the Elbe River with the 84th close behind to clean up any pockets of resistance, but we still had to cross the Weser River before the Elbe.
 
General Eisenhower had ordered leaflets to be dropped with a message that if the Germans would display white flags, we would not shoot up their villages.  As my observer and I were flying well beyond the leading elements of our troops to determine compliance with his request, I spotted the Weser River.    We flew up over the river, and I had quite an eerie feeling about the territory down below.  Just as I banked the plane to turn around, we caught a concentration of machine gun fire. I straightened up the plane and pushed forward on the stick to go down to a lower altitude, but nothing happened.  They had shot out my elevator cables. Fortunately, I thought about the trim tab and used it to maneuver the plane.
 
When they hit us a second time, they knocked out our radio, and my observer got hit with several pieces of metal in the back of his head.  How they managed to miss me, I’ll never know.  I guess that fellow upstairs decided it wasn’t my time. The plane was damaged badly and could hardly fly, so I started looking for a place to land. I eased the plane down using the trim tab, helped the observer out, and we walked over to a small civilian hospital (German).  Luck was still with us as no German soldiers were around, and the hospital personnel took care of my observer.  Then, we started walking down the road toward our lines.  After a while, a jeep came along and took us back to our air strip.
 
As the Division moved up to the Weser River, the front stabilized for a few days.  Hanover came into view from the air, and the enemy was defending more vigorously since the river gave them a good barrier.  We pushed across the Weser and to the outlying area of Hanover.  After we took Hanover and passed it by, our air strips were being moved forward toward the Elbe River. Near each air strip selected, we found German POW Camps and camps for displaced persons who were literally starving to death.
 
After we moved up close to the Elbe, a large building came into view and a large sign on the building disclosed that it was a Singer Sewing Machine manufacturing plant.  I believe it was the town of Willenburg on the east side of the Elbe.  General Eisenhower had made an agreement with the Russian Command to allow the Russians to take the territory on the other side of the river, so we sat there for several days since we beat them to the Elbe.
 
Source: The Bulge Bugle November 2015

By Captain V. L. AULD

 

Liaison Pilot,

909th Field Artillery Battalion

84th Infantry Division

 

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium