The British in the Battle of the Ardennes

The British in the Battle of the Ardennes

“For many of us the first fall of snow each year brings memories to those dark days into sharp relief”

Bill Robertson 5/7 Bn The Gordon Highlanders (51st Highland Division)

“The Battle of the Ardennes was definitely one of the most difficult in which I have been able to participate and the stakes were considerable.”

Field-Marshal B. Montgomery Commanding the 21st Army Group

As Winston Churchill himself conceded, the involvement of the British Forces in the Battle of the Ardennes never reached the same importance as the American Army which had borne the brunt of the German offensive. Nevertheless, though less important both in troops and duration of involvement, the British participation, stamped by the determination of its Commander-in-Chief the Victor of El Alamein, was to prove efficient and should not be underestimated.

In September 1944, after four years of occupation, our regions acclaimed their liberators and enjoyed their freedom. Mons, Namur, Liège and the Ardennes were liberated by the American Divisions. Tournai, Brussels and Antwerp by the British troops.

But, a few months later, the rejoicing was to be brutally interrupted by a major offensive launched by the German High Command. The objective was to reverse the tide of the war by striking through the Ardennes, to cross the River Meuse, to re-take the port of Antwerp, to isolate the British Army from the American Army, and to obtain a separate peace on the Western Front in order subsequently to confront the advance of the Russian Army on the Eastern Front.

On 16th December, at 5.30 a.m. on a cold and foggy morning, from Monschau to Echternach, began the Battle of the Ardennes, also known as “The Battle of the Bulge” or “The von Rundstedt Offensive”.

On 19th December, General Eisenhower decided, with the agreement of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, to temporarily redistribute command responsibilities within his ground forces. The units deployed to the north of the line Givet-Prüm would be placed under command of Field-Marshal Montgomery, Commander of the 21st Army Group, and the units deployed in the south were to be commanded by General Bradley, Commander of the 12th US Army Group. From the very next day, the Field-Marshal ordered the British XXX Corps, commanded by General Horrocks, to leave Holland, to swing towards the combat zone, to occupy defensive positions between Givet and Maastricht, and to prevent the Germans from crossing the River Meuse.

On 22nd December, the 51st Highland Division, the 53rd Welsh Division, the 29th and 33rd Armoured Brigades took-up their respective positions, the 43rd Wessex Division being held in reserve. Due to bad weather conditions which did not permit the drop of the 6th Airborne Division, the British Paras were rushed by boat and truck to the Ardennes, and were ordered to take up defensive positions between Dinant and Marche-en-Famenne, at the tip of the German offensive.

On 24th December, early in the morning and not far from Dinant, the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, supported by US tanks and the Royal Air Force, crossed the River Meuse and stopped an armoured column of the 2. Panzer. It was the first encounter between British and German troops in the Battle of the Ardennes. The German Army was never to cross the River Meuse and the tactical objective was no longer Antwerp and its port but Bastogne.

It’s Christmas ! But there is no respite. On all fronts the fighting is conducted with the same relentless fury.

At dawn on 3rd January 1945, in bitter cold, in the snow and along icy roads, began the general counter-attack decided by the Allied High Command.

Battalions of the 6th Airborne Division, supported by tanks of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry Regiment and the 23rd Hussars, were the first to become involved in the counter-offensive. After three days and nights of tough fighting and heavy losses, the men of the 13th Lancashire Battalion The Parachute Regiment liberated the village of Bure. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion occupied Rochefort and later, in its advance, was to discover with horror the bodies of 34 civilians murdered by the Germans on Christmas Eve in Bande near Nassogne.

It was on 4th January that the 53rd Welsh Division, supported by tanks of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry Regiment and the 144th R.A.C. Regiment, launched its attack between Marche-en-Famenne and Hotton. But its advance was to be slowed by the rough terrain, the woods, the snow and the ice cold weather.

On 8th January in snow-storm and bitter cold, the 51st Highland Division, with the support of tanks of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry Regiment, relieved the exhausted Welsh units. On the same day, becoming aware of the advance of the British and American units and the impossibility of crossing the River Meuse, the German High Command ordered its generals to withdraw their troops from the salient and to retreat eastwards while conducting rearguard actions.

On 11th January, preceded by armoured reconnaissance vehicles of the 2nd Derbyshire Yeomanry Regiment, and supported by tanks of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry Regiment, the 1st Battalion Black Watch entered the town of La Roche-en-Ardenne, devastated by successive allied bombings. The following day, a reconnaissance unit of the 84th US Infantry Division entered in turn the town and linked-up with the Scotsmen.

Despite the snow, the cold, the landmines and the roadblocks, as well as German defensive actions, the British troops continued their advance and hampered the withdrawal plans of the German troops, trying to escape from the pincer movement of the Allied armies.

On 16th January, having achieved all his objectives in the Ardennes, Field-Marshal Montgomery decided to withdraw the British XXX Corps and to move to the Netherlands in order to prepare for the battle for the Rhineland, with crossing of the River Rhine.

By 28th January, the German Army was finally pushed back to its initial positions on 16 December 44, beyond the Siegfried Line. This marked not only the end of the Battle of the Ardennes but also the end of the invasion and occupation of our regions.

Their share of the Battle of the Ardennes being done, none of the British service men who were in the Ardennes will ever forget the bad weather conditions, the rough terrain and the fierce fighting nor the 325 comrades left behind who lie forever in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Hotton. The youngest were hardly 18 years of age. They went, they fought, they died.