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Stories

Battle for Chaumont, Belgium. December 23, 1944


Battle for Chaumont, Belgium

December 23, 1944

On the road to Bastogne

From The book "He Rode Up Front For Patton."

Authorization to publish by letter dated of May 29, 2006

Major Al Irzyk was awake and up at 3:00 A.M.  It was now December 22.  The battalion moved out of Leglise at half past four, and traveled southeast along the Neufchateau – Arlon highway until they reached a village named Beheme.  The lead elements of the battalion turned off the main road onto a dirt road that was too narrow and too primitive even to be designated as a secondary road – more like a farm road or logging trail.  It ran almost due north to Bastogne, and it was Al’s assigned axis of advance to that city.  When Al Irzyk left the main road, he felt almost as though he had entered a narrow bowling alley. He would have to ride this road all the way – there would be no deviating from it.  It was as though he had on blinders; there was no right or left – only straight ahead.

He had crossed the I.P. at the designated time, and he was now on his way north.

At 6:00 A.M. it was dark. A low haze hung over everything and everyone; visibility was almost zero.  The fields were packed deep with snow, and the road was icy.  And it was cold !  The days following turned out to be the coldest period in over fifty years.

As they began their advance to the north, the atmosphere was one they had never experienced before.  It almost brought on the willies.  It was grim, foreboding, menacing, intimidating, ominous, and depressing.

They had experienced the lovely summer and perfect tank weather across France and the atrocious fall and horrible tank weather in Lorraine.  They were about to experience something totally new and different – a winter in the Belgian Ardennes.  In fact, winter officially began just the day before.

The tanks advanced slowly and cautiously, for even though daylight had come, visibility was still very poor.  It was still dark, gray, and hazy – with the ceiling just about them.  Who knew what was out there?

They advanced safely along three kilometers of fairly open ground, when they entered the extremely tight confines of the huge Forêt Danlier.  Here the opening was just a little over one tank wide.  The forest closed in tightly on both sides of the road.

The forests of France were nothing like this.  Here the trees looked like huge evergreens – the tallest, thickest, most stately, most imposing ones Al Irzyk had ever seen.  The branches were wide, thick, luxuriant, and seemed to interlock.  The trees had grown together so tightly that the forest seemed almost impenetrable.  Talk about menacing, intimidating, foreboding – this was it.

The only consolation was that that if there was enemy resistance, it had to come from the very edges of the forest.  Once individuals were in the forest, there were absolutely no fields of fire for them.

So the advancing tankers with their eyes glommed onto the edges of the woods, did not hesitate to fire at suspicious spots ahead of them – the ol’ reconnaissance by fire – to try to smoke them out, if they were there.

Holding their breaths, expecting a blow to land at any moment, the force advanced cautiously but steadily.  The trees on both sides were so thick and so huge that they seemed to close in suffocatingly.  The tenseness and stress brought a tightening of their chests which made it almost difficult to breathe.

Al Irzyk would later learn that one derivative of the word Ardennes was “The forest” and Al could really understand why.

They continued to persevere along the narrow passage and put yards and then kilometers behind them.   The trip, it appeared, was endless.

Finally, up ahead there became visible an apparent small patch of brightness.  Sure enough, it was the light at the end of their tunnel.   As they emerged from the Foret Danlier, Al Irzyk estimated from his map that they had traversed nearly six kilometers through that truly ominous patch of Belgium.   It seemed more like six miles and then some.

Up ahead just about a kilometer away, they could make out the first real objective – the sizable town of Fauvillers.  The terrain was now more open and visibility was better.  Still not knowing what to expect, they nevertheless moved aggressively to, and then, without hesitation, through the town.

Up ahead were more woods – this time the Bois Habaru – and a stream called the Troquebou Rau.   From his map, Al Irzyk concluded that the woods were not nearly as thick or as close to the road, and not anywhere near as extensive as the one they had just passed through.  The stream appeared relatively innocent. So now they pushed on more aggressively and confidentially.  Sure enough, they successfully negotiated the woods and the stream, and advanced through the small towns of Hotte and Menufontaine.  They now knew that the enemy was lurking out there.  Since leaving the large forest, they had begun to receive scattered, harassing, hit-and-run fire.  It was nothing serious since the positions available for the defenders did not give them much of an advantage over the attackers.  And every time there was enemy fire, Al’s tanks quickly returned it – with interest.  So thus far, enemy resistance had not appreciably slowed down Al’s advance.

But halfway between Menufontaine and the next town of Burnon the advance came to an abrupt and grinding halt. For the first time, the lead elements came under heavy enemy fire just north of Menufontaine.  The tanks of “A” Company immediately deployed to the left of the road and began pouring direct fire at the suspected enemy locations.  Fortunately, there were no woods here, so they had clear fields of fire.  A swollen stream flowed parallel to the road on the right and prevented deployment in that direction.

The heavy outpouring of fire from “A” Company seemed to quiet the enemy; so the tanks pushed ahead aggressively.

But their advance was short-lived, and to their crushing disappointment, they had to halt again.  About halfway between Menufontaine and Burnon the swollen La Sure River flowed across their path, and the bridge over it had been destroyed.  As they neared the stream, the tanks continued to pour fire across it.  Al Irzyk moved up, took one look, and realized that they could not move ahead without a bridge.  There was no way around it to the right or left; the stream was too deep and flowing too rapidly to even attempt to ford it.  So Al, without delay, sent word back for the engineers to come hurrying forward prepared to install a bridge.

Also for the first time since moving out, he had a requirement for artillery.  He called a request back to his supporting artillery, the Twenty-second Armored Field Artillery Battalion, that they immediately find an area in which to deploy, and begin dropping 105mm HE rounds on the bridge site and the area across it.

When he received word that they were ready to go, he pulled his tanks back a short distance, so the fire could go in unhindered; and it did. The artillery continued to pound the area, until the engineers had closed up to Al’s location.

At that point, he ordered the artillery fire to be lifted, and the tanks and elements of the Tenth Armored Infantry Battalion moved back to the bridge site to cover the engineers, as they began to work.

It was quickly obvious that Company “B” of the Twenty-four Armored Engineer Battalion was another experienced, well-trained, dedicated unit of the Fourth Armored Division.  After their arrival and with absolutely no wasted motion, no slippage, and completely ignoring the fact that they were extremely vulnerable to enemy fire – they quickly, professionally, quietly, and expertly installed a treadway bridge over the raging stream.

By this time darkness had descended on the bridge site. It had already been a long day.  Nevertheless, infantry from the Tenth Armored Battalion were poised and prepared, and the instant the bridge was pronounced ready, they, under the cover of “A” Company’s guns, dashed across the bridge and secured a bridgehead on the other side of the stream, which they quickly went about widening and deepening.

As soon as sufficient infantry was across, “A” Company’s tanks negotiated the treadway in the dark, joined the infantry, and then moved out ahead.  The remaining elements of the Eighth Tank Battalion and Tenth Armored Infantry Battalion continued to slow process of easing across the newly-constructed bridge.

After sufficient strength was across, the advance continued.  Together the tanks and infantry seized the small town of Burnon about a kilometer north of the bridge side.  There was no organized resistance, so the force moved through the town, and pushed north of it.  They fanned out on the open ground on both sides of the road.  From that point on, they received fire from time to time from the woods northeast of Burnon.

Things had now settled down sufficiently so that Al Irzyk was able to report his current situation to CCB.  That headquarters immediately came back with instructions to keep security forces in place and to stop for the night.

They reported to Al that CCA had considerable difficulty in the vicinity of Martelange, with extensive demolitions, a blown bridge, and a huge crater.  As they were attacking the town of Martelange, they found that clearing this built-up area was a slow process, due to heavy fire.  CCB also sent information that Reserve Command was located somewhere south of a town called Holtz, and they were being ordered to move to that town at first light the next morning for the attack on the larger town of Bigonville in Luxembourg, way to Al’s right.

CCB had declared that the main reason for stopping Al Irzyk in his present location was its concern about the Eighth Tank Battalion getting too far out ahead.  For the moment, CCA was bogged down in Martelange, and the three combat commands were severely echeloned to the right, with CCA about ten kilometers southeast of the Eighth Tank Battalion, and Reserve Command another nine kilometers or so southeast of CCA.  That meant that the Eighth of CCB was way out in front, and was sticking out like a sore thumb, almost inviting someone to give it a painful nudge.

The Eighth Tank Battalion with its supporting forces had already covered half the distance to Bastogne from its early morning I.P.  At their present rate of advance they were only about another day from that city.  However, the closer they got, the heavier and more determined resistance they could expect.  And with Al Irzyk closing in on Bastogne, and much more than a nose on front of the rest of the division, he could soon expect to draw plenty of attention.

He now turned his priorities from tactics to administration.  Not knowing what was ahead, and now that the day had ended, it was essential to be full up with ammo and gas for that next step.  So he ordered the supply trucks to come forward to service all the tactical troops. He sent back to the rear some light elements – light tanks, elements of the reconnaissance platoon, and some armored Infantry.  Their purpose was to secure the sides of the road so that the trucks would have smooth sailing, and not be interrupted by hostile fire.  The trucks were extremely vulnerable, and required protection.

As the tactical forces moved forward, the enemy could feasibly have sneaked back to the edges of the woods, which the attackers had passed, and with the approach so very narrow, could wreak havoc upon the supply column.

The trucks did make it safely, and were still in the process of resupplying, when Al Irzyk was hit by yet another thunderbolt.  It was 9:00 P.M.  The thunderbolts now, it seemed, were arriving with increased frequency, and were becoming almost commonplace; but they still were surprising, astonishing, and unpredictable.

This one was a lulu. It staggered all hands.  They were just in the process of settling in for the night, when they were slapped hard in the head.  That brought them awake in a hurry.  The new orders were, “Move all night!”

CCB was quick to explain that higher headquarters had sent the order. It was later learned that “higher headquarters”, as could be expected, was none other than General Patton himself.  Apparently, the excellent progress of CCB that day had gotten him fired up and his juices flowing – he could almost smell Bastogne, about a day away.

So, figuratively, he was using his spurs and riding crop to get there “firs test and the quickest.”  At this point, he had already made believers out of General Eisenhower and his fellow senior officers.  He had already met and even exceeded the promises he made to them many hours earlier, and already had, no doubt, astonished them.

It was later learned that Patton had ordered the night move with the very optimistic, but completely unrealistic, belief that the forces could reached Bastogne by daylight.  He probably almost smelled the touchdown.

Al Irzyk also later learned that the forces that he was fighting in the Burnon area were elements of the German Fifth Paratroop Division and 408th Artillery Corps.

So at midnight, it was hit the road again, Jack.  These were the guys who had made that difficult, trying one hundred sixty-one mile forced march.  They had been on the move patrolling, out posting and had gone in and out of Bastogne.  They had moved back to the rear and had been up since 3:00 A.M. and on the move ever since.

As they were moving out again, it was almost the exact hour merely three days ago that they were departing from Domnon-les-Dieuze (France) and they had hardly stopped – it was unbelievable.  How much living can you squeeze into seventy-two hours?  How much can a man endure?  How long and how far can you drive him?  That all remained to be seen.

So, as ordered, they moved all night.  The task was slow, difficult, and turned out to be painful and costly.

It was very dark, visibility continued to be extremely poor, and it was bitter cold. The night was as miserable as one could get.  This was one time when the ratio of effort expended to results gained was hardly favorable.  Nevertheless, they managed to advance closer to Bastogne.  But at first light good fortune ran out – the enemy was waiting.  Al’s units had reached a point about one and a half kilometers south of Chaumont, a name that by day’s end would be forever branded deeply in his mind, and in those of all members of the Eighth Tank Battalion.

The enemy launched an aggressive, vigorous counterattack using artillery, panzerfausts small arms fire, and self-propelled.  Because the horrible night had brought almost total blindness to the guys in the medium tanks turrets, Al Irzyk had pushed out in front to help him see some light tanks and elements of the attached Twenty-fifth Cavalry Reconnaissance.

The enemy attack from Chaumont came so swiftly and surprisingly that three vehicles of the Twenty-fifth Cavalry and one light tank were almost simultaneously knocked out.  Tanks of the Eighth Battalion quickly answered by fire, and immediately destroyed an S.P.  The Eighth Battalion continued firing heavily, and stopped the counterattack from moving closer.  Al noted, as they advanced, that because of the heavy responsive fire the enemy had suffered heavy losses in personnel.

It was quickly reported to A Irzyk as he sadly learned, that three of the four crewmen in the light tank were killed, and that Lieutenant Day was wounded and evacuated.

The counterattack sobered Al, and forced reality upon him.  He was now convinced that they had either hit the edge of the German’s firm, organized area, or as he had feared, they were rushing up forces to blunt that sore thumb sticking out at them.  Above all, he now recognized that despite their ardent wishes, Bastogne was a lot farther away than one day.  From now on, he could feasibly have a though fight for almost every yard.

After the counterattack was repulsed, the advance proceeded.  Sporadic fire continued to be received from the enemy, and even though it was daylight, visibility remained very poor.  Ground was gained, the lead elements reached the outskirts of Chaumont, and by noon they had captured and occupied the high ground southwest of the town.  However, the enemy had graphically demonstrated that he was present, accounted for, and prepared to fight.

Al Irzyk, sitting on the high ground, first made a visual reconnaissance from his tank turret. He looked out as far as he could see to his front, but poor visibility clouded and obscured objects farther out.  Having absorbed all he could with his eyes, he made a careful and detailed study of his map, and arrived at some conclusions.

He had to attack and seize Chaumont.  If he was going to Bastogne, he would have to follow the road through the town, and on to the next one – Grandrue.  There was no alternative.  He could not leave the road to the right or left.

The enemy had just demonstrated that he was out there, and Al’s battle sense presented him with a strong message: it would be dangerous and even foolhardy to continue advancing in column on a narrow front and to move aggressively down into town.

Chaumont, in addition to having just the one road, presented other problems. It sat on low ground much like being in the bottom of a saucer.  To advance into town, the forces would be going downhill rather sharply.  Once committed, there was only one way to go – down and through the town.  There was no right, left or back up.  Once through the town the road gradually rose again to Grandrue.

The ground to the left of the town was higher and wide open.  To the right (east) of the town, there was a long, prominent ridge running parallel, with trees on the slopes between the ridge and the town.

As Al Irzyk looked at the road that twisted and descended into town, he was reminded, somewhat, of Voellerdingen.  The road down was not quite as steep, and Chaumont was a much tinier town. However, as in Voellerdingen, once tanks got down into down, they were totally committed and super vulnerable.

After considering all factors, Al was convinced that although it would take time and might in the end not be really necessary, the situation required a coordinated attack on the town using his whole battalion, that of the Tenth Armored Infantry Battalion, and his supporting artillery.

He quickly developed his plan, and sent for his key commanders who were soon assembled at his tank.  Radio orders were not the answer this time.  He believed that this was so important that the commanders had to receive their orders firsthand, and to have their questions answered before they broke up.

Al Irzyk had decided to have “B” Company attack the town by driving down into it from the high ground.  Because they were so vulnerable moving down into that saucer, Al would have them protected from both sides – from the west and east.

 

“C” Company would be on the left.  They would be driving over wide-open, frozen, relatively level ground, and would operate close enough to support “B” Company in town, but yet far enough out, so that they could ward off an attack from the woods to the west.  “A” Company would be on the right, and would ride the ridge, advancing parallel to “B” Company, as it advanced.  This ridge was the dominant terrain feature overlooking Chaumont.  If “A” Company controlled this, Al felt confident that “B” Company would be amply protected from the right.  During the approach, the infantry of the Tenth would initially ride on the tanks of “B” and “A” Companies.  The ground over which “C” would be operating was too open and too vulnerable for infantry to be working with the tanks.

As had been demonstrated so many times during their months of combat, once the enemy realizes that they are not only being attacked from the front, but have forces flanking them on both sides – they rapidly begin to lose their will to fight.  Al Irzyk hoped that that would soon be the case here.

He felt very confident that he had developed a sound plan for the attack. He had instructed “C” and “A” Companies to move out when “B” Company did, and to coordinate their advance with that attacking company.  He told his commanders that he would be with “B” Company, and would position himself well forward in the column.

However, before the attack commenced, he wanted a heavy artillery preparation brought down first on the town, hopefully softening up the defenders before “B” company moved down into it, and then on the environs of the town – north, northeast and northwest.

In a minimum amount of time, it seemed, the tank company commanders reported that they were ready and poised.  Al gave the go to the artillery, and in no time at all, shells began hitting Chaumont.  All three tank companies advanced to their attack positions, and the moment the artillery lifted, the tanks moved into the attack.

As “B” Company began moving down into town, they received scattered artillery, antitank and small arms fire from the high ground northwest of Chaumont.  As Al Irzyk had requested, when the artillery lifted its fire from Chaumont, it continued to fire, hitting areas northeast and northwest of the town.  This fire, apparently, had been effective, and may have explained the uncoordinated and ineffective nature of the enemy resistance.“B” Company’s advance elements had started to enter the town, when Al received a totally unexpected jolt.  “C” Company provided him with the astonishing news that the ground that was wide open and frozen solid was not frozen solid.  The lead platoon of five tanks had simultaneously bogged down in that “frozen solid ground,” and were mired so deeply in the soft earth that they could not budge forward or backward.  They were absolutely useless, and vulnerable as hell.  Stephenson reported that he had backed off the rest of his tanks to avoid total disaster, and had to abandon his flanking efforts.

Al quickly glanced back at his map, and there it was – a faint blue, west-east line into town.  Al Irzyk had earlier noticed it, but quickly ignored it as not being a threat.  After all, this was the coldest winter in forty to sixty years; the ground had to be frozen.  But apparently the little blue line was a stream that probably was so full and so swift that even this severe winter couldn’t harness it.

Al was not only dumbfounded but greatly upset.  Despite what he thought was good and alert planning, he now found his entire left flank unprotected and extremely vulnerable with five useless tanks sitting out in a wide open field.

On a warm, sunny day some forty-six years later, Al Irzyk was able to physically examine that faint blue line.  He saw that there was, indeed, flowing water, and realized from watching it how the five bogged down tanks could easily be explained.

“B” Company had successfully moved down into town, seized Chaumont, now controlled it, and had moved through the tiny town to the outskirts.

Al had stopped his tank shortly after entering the town.  He saw firsthand that “B” Company had done its job.  He was mightily pleased and somewhat surprised that the attack had proceeded as quickly and as easily as it had.  There was still ample daylight remaining to continue the attack on Grandrue and beyond.  He was on the radio issuing instructions to his companies, hurrying them to get back on the road behind “B” Company when it happened.

It was the frightening, demoralizing, intimidating, unreal sounds, screeches, and screams of high velocity tank gun rounds hitting, crashing, exploding, and ricocheting all around them.  It shook, staggered, numbed, alarmed and unnerved the men. It had happened so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that for a brief instant, there was panic.  What the hell had happened?  Then there was instant realization that this was a heavy enemy tank counterattack.  The fire was so powerful and they were so vulnerable that as they reacted their thought flashed – was this doomsday, wipeout ?

After the initial shock and brief waves of panic, professionalism settled in.  Each tank began responding as it had been trained to do – each in its own way.  They began moving and shooting.  They moved as best they could within the narrow confines of the town shooting in the direction of the heaviest fire.  But the stuff was coming in much faster and more furiously than it was going out.  It was perfectly obvious that this was one time when they were outgunned and outnumbered – and could be overwhelmed.

The fire was so heavy that there had to be plenty of them out there.  The fire was aimed right down the alley from the higher ground to the north and especially from the ridge northeast of town.

Al’s tank was down in town, in the very bottom of the saucer, and was a prime target.  In seconds he could be a goner, so it was vitally essential that he, too, move and keep moving.  But the only place to move to was back up the road out of town.  There was no place to turn; even if there had been a place to turn around, it would have been suicide to be churning around in one place.  They had to keep moving but the only way was backward. So the tank continued backing in the direction from which it had come.  Al’s gunner and loader were working furiously, pouring out a volume of fire at suspected targets.  Al Irzyk was trying to spot targets, direct fire, give directions to the driver who was backing as rapidly as he could, and trying to talk to “B” Company, which was literally fighting for its life.

Al’s tank slowly but successfully continued backing up, while the guys in the turret kept pouring out the fire.  But as they left the town, the road began to rise and twist.  It was now impossible to continue backing with all eyes looking toward Chaumont.

So Al Irzyk ordered a final burst of fire, and then traversed the turret one hundred eighty degrees.  The front of the tank, its driver, and bow gunner, were still facing the town.  The tank was backing, and the gun was now pointing up the hill in the direction of their ascent.  Al gave clear and explicit directions to his driver on the intercom.  Even though the tank was going uphill, it was now able to pick up a bit of speed.  From the very outset they had moved; they had never stopped moving because they knew that a moving target was much harder to hit. But the tension had crackled, and it had been absolutely awful.  Al’s chest was sore – he had literally held his breath, was afraid to breathe.  He was inwardly squeezing himself – expecting at any moment to receive that hit.

Now they were out of town, moving a bit faster, opening up more distance from the enemy guns.  Al began to breathe easier, and then the one that they had been expecting – dreading – finally found them.

There was a low, loud, deafening, earsplitting sound, followed by a terrible, horrible, powerful, frightening blow.  The tank was shoved violently forward.  It was as though the tank had been hit in the back by a huge sledge hammer, and picked up and thrown forward by a superhuman hand.

The three in the turret were tossed and bounced like rag dolls.  Stunned and dazed, they quickly untangled themselves and got back on their feet.  This was not easy. While on the turret floor, they had been part of the clutter and utter chaos in the tank.  The large, heavy tank gun rounds, which had been clamped upright, were now strewn like huge matchsticks on the turret floor.  Every single item in the tank had been tossed about and pitched hither, thither, and yon.  It was as if a giant hand had grabbed everything in the turret, and tossed it violently about.  Not a single item was anywhere near its original resting place.  The inside of the tank looked as though a bunch of tables at a rummage sale had been picked up and upended.

The crew looked at one another – shocked, stunned – with stricken eyes.  What happened?  What was it?

Al Irzyk regained his composure and shouted, “Keep moving!”  With the range locked in, a second round could quickly and easily follow.  As though nudged by a prod, the tank picked up speed.

“What was it?”  Al asked himself, again.  He looked behind him from where the blow had come, and his utter amazement and astonishment, there behind his radio was a vertical crack in the turret!  A seam of daylight was showing.  It was perfectly obvious that the turret had been hit by a high velocity round from an enemy tank.  They had dreaded it, feared it – and it had happened.  They had been hit!

Now that they had calmed down, they could consider the big puzzle.  Why did the round not penetrate and blow them to smithereens?  Why were they still alive?  Why was the tank still able to move?  From the magnitude of the blow the round that hit must have had great power, and it surely was traveling at super speed.  Why did it not penetrate?

But this was not the time to continue conjecturing.  The answer would come later.  It was most urgent to get out of range and on safe ground.

Each man recognized that whatever had happened, each had been spared, each was alive, and the tank was basically intact.  Al Irzyk was convinced that it was a minor miracle – that they had been spared and uniquely blessed by the Supreme Being.  Al knew, without doubt, that he had felt his presence during that brief, frightening, moment immediately after impact, as he went sprawling down on the turret floor.  It was as though he had received a tap on his shoulder from the back, reassuring him that someone was behind him, protecting him.  For a second it had been an unreal, mystical feeling – not unlike the emotions he had experienced when he thought it was all over at Lorient.

The tank continued to move with Al talking his driver up the hill – easy left, more left, straight, now a hard left.  With each foot they were farther from danger and closer to safety.

Only then did he notice his right hand.  He was wearing a mitten.  The palm and thumb were cowhide; the back and long gauntlet with the strap at the wrist were of a GI colored fabric.  What caught Al’s eye, to his great surprise – for in all the excitement he had felt nothing – was that the mitten was soggy with blood.  He looked closer and saw that the thumb and area around it seemed to have been sliced and mangled, and blood was oozing through.  The initial numbness must have left him, for he was now aware that something had nicked him.   He could feel the damp, squishy blood inside the mitten, and the thumb, particularly, was now throbbing.  Al Irzyk knew that it was anything but life threatening, that he would not bleed to death, and that the best thing he could do for the moment was to leave the mitten as it was, so the blood could coagulate.  He still had far more important things to worry about than his hand.

He had guided his tank along the twisting, uphill road.  They were now out of direct fire range, and had safely reached the high ground south and outside of the town.  Al let out a sigh that emptied his chest and could have been heard by every German between there and Bastogne.

He let out yet another loud, healthy, hearty, sigh of relief.  The enemy counterattack, if not stopped, certainly appeared slowed.  There were no signs of them moving closer.  It may have been the immediate answering fire of “B” Company plus Al’s tank, while they were deep in town, together with the face-to-face fire of “A” Company on the ridge east of town that had discouraged the enemy from continuing to press the attack.

At any rate, the elements of Al’s task force, not hit or bogged down, were able to withdraw in an orderly manner, under the cover of “A’s” aggressive, heavy fire.  The fire appeared to be serving two purposes – protecting the withdrawing units and holding back the enemy.

As the units withdrew, they quickly established coordinated defensive positions on the high ground south and southeast of Chaumont, which they had earlier occupied, and from which they had launched their attack on the town.  The ground now occupied had good fields of fire. The enemy, which no longer had the advantage of surprise and momentum, would have the added disadvantage of exposing themselves and advancing uphill into the faces of Al’s forces that were deployed and in an excellent defensive posture.

Every element Al Irzyk could get his hands on was now included in the developing and strengthening defensive positions.  This included the uncommitted tanks of “C” Company, the assault guns and mortars, units of the Tenth Armored Infantry Battalion, and even the attached Twenty-fifth Cavalry.  With these elements now taking their turn providing covering fire, he had the tanks of “A” Company withdraw and add their firepower to the defensive positions.  As soon as “A” Company had disengaged, Al had his artillery start pouring fire on the enemy positions.

He had fully expected the enemy with the powerful force they had exhibited – as Al himself undoubtedly would have done – to resume their attack, and follow “A’s” tanks closely as they withdrew.

To Al’s great surprise, puzzlement but vast relief, the enemy chose to break off the engagement.  But why?  With a force superior in tanks he had stopped cold Al’s attack, and forced his elements back out of town.  These forces were at the height of their vulnerability as they withdrew and scrambled to the safety of their defensive positions south of town.  This was the time for him to follow up closely and aggressively; he should have tried to overrun those scattered elements before they could get organized. But he did not.

Perhaps the immediate counter fire from “B” Company in town and “A” Company on the ridge may have suggested to them a larger force than they were actually facing.  Perhaps it was the subsequent aggressive covering fire of “A” Company.  Perhaps their mission was simply to stop CCB.  Since it was late in the day, perhaps they were reluctant to continue the attack, because once night fell, they would have found themselves extremely vulnerable.

Major Al Irzyk could only speculate; he would never know.  Whatever the reasoning, he could only heartily applaud the enemy for not doing what they should have done.  Al realized that he had, in a sense, lucked out; he would be eternally grateful for the enemy decision not to continue the attack, or for someone’s indecision.  As he knew, over the centuries battles have been won, lost, or tied by a quick decision or lack of one. Today, Al had been temporarily stopped, but he had definitely not lost the battle; he would be back hard at it again in the morning.

Once he was satisfied that his task force was in the best possible defensive positions, which they would continue to adjust and improve throughout the night, he was busy on the radio reassuring his commanders, assessing just what had happened, and examining the status of his battalion and supporting forces.

There was no question that the battalion and the other forces of CCB had received their heaviest, most massive, concentrated and powerful tank counterattack of the war.  The consensus was that the attacking force had consisted of twenty-two and twenty-five tanks supported by artillery and infantry.  However, it was the tanks that caused the most grief.  The attack came with such rapidity and was so powerful that it immediately rocked the Eighth back on its heels.

Al learned much later that his under strength battalion was hit by a brigade. Apparently his forces had been counterattacked by the bulk of the tanks of the Führer Grenadier Brigade commanded by a Colonel Kailer, who reportedly was later wounded by the Fourth Armored Division.

As Al’s forces withdrew, Chaumont was left in flames with scarcely a building left undamaged.  This was graphic testimony of the intensity and ferocity of the enemy attack.Eleven tanks of the battalion were left in town.  Six were recovered when the Eighth Tank Battalion later recaptured Chaumont.

For the first time in the war, “B” Company, which had come close, was now stripped naked.  It was left without a single tank.  The other medium tank companies didn’t fare much better with one having seven left, and the other having six.  The total including Al’s, which was repaired during the night, was fourteen for the battalion. Yet, the Eighth Battalion resumed its attack toward Bastogne with a grand total of fourteen medium tanks.  In addition to his other casualties, Al Irzyk lost another officer, Lieutenant Blackmer of “B” Company, who was killed in town.  Like his tanks, Al’s leadership was dwindling.

One bright spot – an amazing one – was that two Focke-Wulf 190s, which had been flying over the action during the afternoon, were shot down by elements of the Eighth Battalion.  This was a most unusual but most laudable achievement for a tactical ground element.

Like a football coach whose team was driving for a touchdown only to have the ball snatched away by the opposing team for a long gain, Al wondered if perhaps he, too, had called the wrong play.  Before the attack kicked off, he believed that he had come up with an excellent plan.  He felt so good about it that he was convinced that if he had presented it to the Tactics Division at the Armor School, Fort Knox, or to the faculty at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, he would have received from each their highest grade, an “E” for excellent.

Before the attack, he had utilized his artillery which had fired an excellent preparation over the ground across which he would be attacking and beyond.  He had to send “B” Company down into town along the only road.  However, enveloping the town to the west and east and attacking abreast of “B” Company were “C” Company on the left and “A” Company on the right.  It appeared to be almost the perfect plan.  However, the theoretical plan prepared at desks in quiet classrooms, with no great sense of urgency, can never anticipate or make provisions for the imponderables of the battlefield.  Who could have anticipated or expected that as “C” Company rolled across the “frozen” ground during this most frigid winter, that its tanks would bog down preventing “C” Company from enveloping the town, and rendering it almost impotent?

Who would have expected “A” Company, which occupied the prominent, dominating ridge on the right, and which was to parallel "B's" advance and protect it from the right, would suddenly and surprisingly find itself sharing that ridge with a far superior, far more powerful force.

As Al Irzyk pondered and second guessed himself, he finally concluded that he had done the best he could have and as much as he could have.  He had simply, at a critical period, been overpowered. War battles take many twists and turns, much like chess games.  This was one time when David met Goliath, and could not slay him, for at that instant the stone in his sling was just too small.

Al Irzyk accepted the situation.  Even though his attack had been momentarily halted, he had suffered numerous personnel and vehicular casualties, and Bastogne had been pushed back a bit farther out of reach, he believed that under the circumstances he had fared remarkably well.  Despite the power and abruptness of the attack, his forces had never panicked; there had never been any sign of a rout.  Conversely, they had withdrawn in an orderly manner, quickly took control of the dominating ground south of Chaumont, shifted and improved their positions, and immediately began reorganizing their units.  There was never a point when they were a frightened rabble and not an organized, cohesive competent force.

They used the night to reorganize, regroup, and resupply so that by first light they would again be as combat ready as their resources permitted.  Now that Al Irzyk believed his current situation to be under control, he was burning to try to satisfy his curiosity.  Why did the high velocity, powerful, armor-piercing, round from the German tank not penetrate the turret of his Sherman?  It was just barely light, but Al climbet out on the back deck before the maintenance crew got their hands on it.  A quick study provided him with the amazing, incomprehensible, unbelievable answer.

Jutting out innocently and inconspicuously from the turret was the insignificant, nameless object that had saved his life.  He was frank to admit that it was so innocuous that he had never noticed it before. Why should he?  It served no useful purpose that he could tell.  Facing the rear of the tank it was located to the right of the antenna well, and was positioned on the turret almost directly behind the middle of Al's back as he stood in the turret.  The object was a stubby, jutting piece of steel about five inches wide, four inches high, and six inches deep.  The front was cut and sloped up at a rather sharp angle.  And of all things, this is precisely where the round had hit.  Even though the powerful round was armor-piercing and traveling at a speed of hundreds of feet per second when it hit, it just could not penetrate the six additional inches of steel.  With the front angled as it was, the projectile ricocheted and went screaming off into the wild blue yonder.  But the impact was so massive that something had to give; the turret then was so stressed that it cracked.  Al Irzyk was shaken, sobered, and chastened with the realization that if the round had hit a couple of inches up or down, right or left of this object, it would easily have penetrated the turret, hit Al in the middle of the back, blown him to smithereens, seriously damaged the tank, and undoubtedly badly hurt or killed the other two in the turret.

What really staggered Al was the realization that it definitely had his number on it, but some supernatural guidance system had forced it to home in on the only area that could have effectively blocked it off – and it did!

Many years later, a similar tank was mounted on a modest pedestal in front of Al's headquarters building at the Armor School, Fort Knox, as a World War II monument.  From time to time he would walk out the front door and stare in wonder at the back of the turret, as the gun pointed out to the road.  He could still not identify the object, or explain or comprehended why it had been welded to the turret in that particular position.  He asked no one to explain it.  This was his own private miracle – not to be shared.  Each time he looked he still found it unbelievable, mystical.  Memories would flood over him; and he would utter yet another prayer of thanksgiving.

He had one personal item that needed his attention, his hand.  The oozing of blood had long since stopped; the blood had dried and matted. It was time someone looked at it.

Although frightened, badly shaken, and bruised, the rest of the crew had survived in good shape, and were under fire control.  He told them that he was going to visit the medics, and would then go to CCB.  He instructed them to turn the tank over to battalion maintenance for necessary repairs, but to stay with it.  While the maintenance guys were working on the tank, the crew was to plow through the unbelievable mess, bring order out of chaos, and have the tank shipshape by first light.  With the severe shortage of tanks, Al just could not borrow one from one of the companies.

The medics cut away the bloody mitten.  The thumb and base had, somehow, been cut and mashed.  But after it had been cleaned, as so often happens with wounds, it was not nearly as ugly as it had appeared to be when the blood was oozing.

The medics sprinkled on sulfa powder; and with surgical tape and gauze they patched up the wound.  From somewhere they produced an extra large mitten – that would protect the bandage and keep the hand warm – some hot food, and a truly welcome mug of steaming coffee.  This was truly and literally an aid station, and Al Irzyk realized how much of a pick up this visit provided.  As he departed the medics, simple and pleasant as had been the visit, he shuddered when he realized how much worse it could have been.

He knew, too, that on this afternoon he had moved into a different category of combat soldier – he had been wounded in action. True, the wound was minor, superficial – but he had, indeed been hit by enemy fire.  Up until now he served and fought for his country.  It may be overstating and dramatizing what happened this day – and it is undoubtedly corny to even mention it – but he had, piddling though it was, also shed blood for his country.

Much to his surprise, he later learned that he would be awarded the Purple Heart for being wounded in action. The medics were required to report all wounds and treatment, and the award subsequently followed.

During the past hours, whenever he could, which was not often, his S-3 from the S-3 track reported to CCB throughout the day the situation as it developed.  Because of the day's heavy, frantic and volatile activity, those reports, understandably, were undoubtedly delayed, fragmented, confusing, and far from complete.

So Al Irzyk felt strongly compelled to give General Dager a firsthand report of the day's actions, the current situation, and plans for the next day.  In the darkness with an armed escort, he made the hazardous journey back to CCB.

Brigadier General

Albin F. "Al" IRZYK

U.S. Army (ret)

8th Tank Battalion

4th Armored Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium