Seventy years ago today, the United States Army was engaged in the most desperate battle in its 240 year history. The scene was the Ardennes Forest on the German-Belgium border. Without warning in the predawn hours of December 16, 1944, the German Army attacked on a 50 mile front with half a million soldiers and every bit of armor they could muster.
The objective was to split the Allies between the British in the north and the Americans in the south. The Germans hoped to drive all the way to Antwerp on the coast, capturing fuel supplies as they went, and divide the alliance. It was a desperate gamble, literally the “Hail Mary” for Adolph Hitler and what remained of the once mighty Third Reich. In addition to the element of surprise, Hitler was counting on the worst winter in a half century to give his troops cover from the onslaught of Allied airpower.
Repeatedly in German military history, they have favored western attacks toward their traditional enemy, France, through the Ardennes. This was a strategy they employed during the Franco-Prussian War; the August 1914 attack that initiated World War I; and during the May 1940 attack that knocked France out of World War II. Once again, history would repeat itself.
So why did Hitler decide to attack through this route? For one thing, it was lightly defended because conventional thought was that the forest was impenetrable. Three decades ago in the early 1980s, I was stationed at an American airfield (Spangdahlem) on the edge of the Ardennes. The terrain is characterized by thick woods, deep river valleys and winding roads. It is slow-going to drive anywhere through this region – a twenty mile drive can easily take an hour or more.
I mentioned earlier that the weather was extremely harsh. My Father’s artillery battalion was located to the north of the Bulge and entered combat near Aachen on January 2, 1945. As a young man raised on a farm in neighboring Suwannee County, he told me that he had never been so cold in his entire life, before or since. It is not uncommon for a farmer today to uncover the body of a soldier who took shelter from the wind and snow by lying down in a hedgerow … and froze to death before he awoke.
In the northern sector of the Bulge, the Germans delivered their ‘Schwerpunkt’ or hammer blow against the green 99th and 106th Infantry Divisions. The 106th had replaced the 2nd Infantry “Indianhead” boys during the prior week to free up the 2nd for an attack toward the northeast and the Ruhr River dams. One of those Indianhead boys was none other than J.C. Agner. Carrol was a corporal and led a machine gun crew in providing close-in air defense for a 155 mm artillery battery.
The commander of the Indianhead boys was Major General Walter Robertson, an experienced soldier. Robertson was uneasy with his orders to attack because his troops would be using a single road for resupply with an unprotected right flank. He retained one of his three infantry regiments in reserve.
When the Germans attacked at Elsenborn after crumbling the two new divisions, Robertson organized the most amazing defense. He rushed the reserve regiment into the fight and conducted a fighting retreat with the two attacking regiments, an extremely difficult military problem. He organized the fleeing soldiers of the two broken divisions into a defensive sector along Elsenborn Ridge and placed his big guns there, along with Carrol Agner’s machine gun crew.
Now Elsenborn became the rallying point for defense of the Bulge. The attacking German armor had planned to use five roads running west through Belgium toward Antwerp. Robertson’s guns and defense controlled three of those roads, destroying anything that moved. This choked the German advance to the remaining two roads and slowed their progress considerably. The American and British reinforcements from the north moved into place to kill the German advance.
In the post-battle flow of commendations, this message arrived at the Indianhead headquarters from the Supreme Allied Commander and future president, Dwight Eisenhower: “I personally recommended the Second Division for the Presidential citation because in my opinion there is no single instance, tactical instance, in the war where a single division, with the issue so heavy, fought a better battle than did the Second Division on the seventeenth and eighteenth of December, 1944.” Now 70 years later, the defense of Elsenborn Ridge is still studied at the Army’s Command and General Staff College.
Carrol Agner recently died at the age of 92. He survived the war, returned home to marry his Hahira Georgia sweetheart Kitty Cole, and continue farming in Madison County. He excelled as a farmer, as his son Willie and grandson Bo have, following his example. More than a million soldiers from both sides fought for their very lives in the bitter cold and snow of the Ardennes that December long ago; casualties were nearly 200,000. Courtney Hodges’ First U.S. Army and Carrol Agner were among those who fought and survived.