Like all the other villages in the area, the village of Lanzerath used to belong to Germany, but following the Treaty of Versailles, it became part of Belgium.
Lanzerath itself was so small that you would probably miss it if you blinked. Driving along the road that ran through the village, you would be excused for not noticing the 5 or 6 houses on each side of the road that comprised the village. The houses were of timber frame construction and offered little protection against even small arms fire. And yet this village was to become the site of one of the most significant, but little known battles of the Ardennes offensive. And yet, on the allies side, it only involved one platoon of the US 394th Infantry Regiment.
I wrote this some time ago, shortly after returning from Belgium, after researching the action a little more. It was always meant to accompany the final pictures of this story, when I finally got round to telling it…..…….
Major General Walter Lauer, commander of the 99th US Infantry Division, was uneasy. He had a front extending some 20 miles, most of it covered in dense forest where fields of fire were difficult to achieve, and the road network was so sparse that it would make it difficult to deploy his reserve battalion. Lauer’s flank was of great concern. There, four towns, Buchholz Station, Losheimergraben, Losheim and Lanzarath, formed a quadrangle with each town joined by excellent roads. Losheim was yet to be captured and was in German hands. The road running from Losheim forked just beyond Lanzarath, the left fork going straight to Buchholz Station, the right to Losheimergraben. You could drive a convoy through Lanzarath and into Buchholz Station without so much as smelling an allied soldier, let alone seeing one. It was the hole in Lauer’s side that he couldn’t easily plug. He simply didn’t have the men.
Colonel Don Riley was commander of the 394th Infantry Regiment and, under Lauer’s direction, positioned a battalion at Losheimergraben and one at Buchholz Station. With few men left he decided to position part of his force at Lanzarath. This ‘force’ consisted of the Regimental Intelligence and Reconaissance (I & R), platoon of 18 men.
The positioning of this small force saved a great many allied lives and prisoners, although it would take some years for the importance of the action at Lanzarath to be realised. It was on this road that the main thrust of Sepp Dietrichs drive to the Meuse would use. In the early hours of December 16th 1944, all hell would break loose on this tiny village.
The I & R platoon was a close knit group of men. It was commanded by First Lieutenant Lyle Bouck, who enlisted before legally of age and commissioned a second lieutenant at the age of 18. Sandy-haired, he stood a stocky 5 feet 9 inches and was a determined individual. His Platoon sergeant, technical Sargeant William Slape was a tall professional ‘lifer’. When the war was over, Slape would stay on for another 30 years.
The only man in the platoon younger than Bouck was Pfc. William James Tsakanikas, (he later dropped his last name and became William James), only just 19 years old, his age did not stop him being the most aggressive soldier in the platoon. He volunteered for every dangerous job and was always on point.
In the small hours of December 16th, Pfc. James and the other men of the I & R platoon were feeling uneasy. They could hear noises to their front at some distance away. Perhaps of greater concern was the fact that the platoon had been issued with extra ammunition, a Jeep with a 50cal mounted on it, and a double ration of liquor during the day. Not knowing what was brewing just made matters worse.
The platoon was positioned at the top of the rise in the ground above the town of Lanzarath, along the fringe of a densely forested area. The foxholes were really well made by their previous occupants, having solid roofs and clear fields of fire. It was maybe 100 yards from the platoons position, across a field sloping down into the village, to a low hedge which bordered the rear of four or five of the houses of Lanzarath. They had a clear view of not only the road leading into the village, but a panoramic view of miles of countryside beyond the village. They could clearly see the roofs of the houses in Losheim. In Lanzarath itself was a section from Company A, 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion. The were in contact with the I & R via field telephone, but never used it.
Just before dawn on 16th December the men of the I & R witnessed an incredible sight. The sky in front of the platoon and for miles either side, was suddenly lit up by the muzzle flashes of hundreds of artillery pieces. The flash of the barrage silhouetted hundreds of tanks and SP guns on the German skyline.
The platoon dived into their foxholes before the shells reached their position. It was their first time under fire and every man was almost paralysed with fear. The artillery barrage lasted for about an hour and as it lifted, Bouck ran from foxhole to foxhole, readying his men for the inevitable infantry assault that would follow it up. It was some time before it came.
Within 10 minutes of the barrage lifting, Bouck and his men witnessed an even more incredible sight as the TD’s sparked into life and went charging to the rear, crashing through the trees in what seemed like a blind panic. Some of his men expressed their feelings in typical fashion, a torrent of oaths and obscenities following the TDs into the woods. Bouck picked up his radio, reported the extent of the barrage and asked for instructions. ‘Send a patrol to Lanzarath, observe and report’ he was instructed. Bouck slammed the radio down and looked around. Four men would be enough.
Bouck, James, ‘Pop’ Robinson (he was 35 years old) and John Creger followed a ditch away from Lanzarath almost to the fork in the road, then followed another ditch into Lanzarath itself. They crashed into a house that provided an excellent view of Losheim in the distance, and down the road that ran into Lanzarath from the west. The men looked in awe as they witnessed a huge mass of German infantry and armour pouring out of Losheim and heading straight for them. The ranks of German armour and infantry would be coming up the road that ran through Lanzarath. If it turned up the left fork to Buchholz Station, the whole flank would be exposed. Bouck had seen all he needed to. He ordered Pop and John to stay and observe from the house and ran back with James to the platoon’s position. As he left he turned to Pop and John. ‘As soon as that Kraut column comes into the home stretch, about a mile aways, get yourselves back to the platoon position’.
Bouck tried the telephone lines to HQ in his foxhole but it was useless, the artillery barrage obviously having cut the cables. He managed to get the regimental HQ by radio and was soon screaming down the mouthpiece at the disbelieving officer at the other end.
‘GODAMMIT ! Don’t tell me what I don’t see ! I have twenty twenty vision. Bring down all the artillery you got on the road south of Lanzarath ! The whole goddamn Kraut army is coming down the road !’
No artillery came.
Then the phone line from the house where Pop and John were stationed rang, (it was put there by the TD group that left in such a hurry). ‘The Krauts are already in the goddamn house,’ they yelled. ‘What in gods name shall we do !!’. Bouck hesitated for a moment then barked an order to his men. A group jumped from their foxholes ready to go and rescue their comrades but it wasn’t necessary. Pop and John came clattering out of the house and ran up the hill to their foxholes. It hadn’t been krauts. It was the residents of the house taking cover in their cellar!
Bouck could now clearly see the German column coming up the road towards Lanzarath. His men also saw it and were keen to get to the rear as quickly as possible. Bouck grabbed a couple of them and pushed them back into their foxholes, ordering the platoon to get ready for action.
The platoon was disposed in a superb tactical position. Their foxholes were camouflaged at the edge of the forest and the ground sloped downwards to the village, giving clear fields of fire to the road and houses. The point nearest Lanzarath was the foxhole occupied by Bouck and James. A couple of 30cal MGs were covering the Buchholz/ Losheimergraben fork and most of the men had BARs. Bouck had a BAR himself. James had an M1, a grease gun he’d recently ‘acquired’ and the 50cal on the Jeep. This was protected from direct fire and could itself put a devastating fire down the slope, but whenever artillery came over, whoever manned the 50 had to get in a foxhole fast.
The men of the I & R platoon looked on in amazement as the Germans approached. Two columns were marching on either side of the road with weapons slung and no flank security. Bouck let a group go past and for a second realised that if they took the Buchholz fork he would be immediately outflanked. Fortunately the column went on up the right fork towards Losheimergraben. The Germans were in mottled uniforms. Paratroopers.
The I & R kept their nerve and let the ‘point’ of the column pass by, about 300 men. There was a small gap in the column, in the middle of which strode three officers. Bouck passed the word to wait for his command before opening fire on these three officers and the column behind them.
As the officers reached the centre of Lanzarath they stopped. James drew a bead on one of the officers and was squeezing the trigger when a small girl ran out of one of the houses to the officers, pointed directly at the I & R position, and ran back inside. One of the officers shouted a command and the column dived into the ditches by the side of the road. The chance for an ambush had passed.
But this was the start of the fire fight. The battalion that had taken cover were isolated from the rest of the column. The road was totally open to the south of the village so reinforcements couldn’t get to them, as fire from the 50cal made it suicidal.
The fire fight never ceased all day. James repeatedly dashed for the 50cal and, staying on his knees for protection, fired by observing the bullet strikes in the snow. The Germans kept attacking over the open ground in front of the platoons position, never once trying to flank them, and not once using artillery or mortar support. It was carnage. Wave after wave of mottled uniformed Germans came up the hill but all were cut down. Pfc James could see their faces they were so close and he tried to imagine he was firing at movement, not at men. It didn’t help much.
By mid morning the ground in front of the position was littered with dead and dying German paratroopers. A white flag appeared and German medical corpsmen came onto the hill to retrieve the wounded. The I & R held their fire, all except for James who took the opportunity to blast away at the column further down the road with the 50cal. As soon as the medics were finished the attack started again, but this time supported by mortar fire. This too was beaten off and, as the mortar fire lifted, Bouck and Slape checked on their men. Louis Kalil was severely wounded in the face by a rifle grenade but there were no other serious injuries. However, their only radio had been knocked out, severing all contact with the outside world. They were on their own.
The attacks continued throughout the afternoon and the morale of the I & R men began to drop. They knew the 3d Battalion 394th was a mile behind them so why the hell hadn’t they send re-inforcements? Perhaps the rear had already been over-run? In front of the platoon positions the Germans lay in heaps. Bouck estimated around 400 dead, James thought it more like 600.
Finally a lull came and Bouck ordered James to get the men to the rear while he covered them. James refused and got back into his foxhole, as did every other man. If Bouck was staying, so were they.
As the light began to fail, Boucks men were nearly out of ammo. Bouck passed word for the men to tell him when they were out of ammo. Then and only then would he pull out. A German soldier with a white flag approached their positions and shouted for the men to give up. One of the platoon, no-one knows who, started shooting at the German soldiers feet and the German dashed back down the hill, a string of obscenities close on his heels. Artillery started coming in again, the heaviest since the first barrage earlier that day.
Bouck sent two men back to HQ to get reinforcements or orders to pull out. Both men departed, but neither returned.
The Germans were now infiltrating the position under the cover of darkness and Boucks position was being over-run, one foxhole at a time. Those still left continued to fight. Slape jumped onto the Jeep and let loose with the last few rounds of 50cal, cursing violently as he did so. Small arms fire finally knocked the 50cal out with only 8 rounds of ammo left.
James and Bouck’s foxhole was attacked and an explosion picked James up off his feet and into the back of the foxhole. A burp gun had gone off a matter of inches from James’s face. Bouck grabbed him and dragged him out of the foxhole. The right side of his face had been shot away, his right eyeball hanging limply where his cheek should have been. The Germans had Bouck and James surrounded. An officer looked at James and gasped. ‘Mein Gott!’
Two other Germans closed in, one of them weeping and muttering to himself, clearly out for revenge. ‘Ach, meine kameraden!’ He raised his weapon and Bouck waited for the end. The German officer, however, leapt between the Germans and Americans and shouted ‘NEIN!’. James passed out.
Shortly after James regained consciousness. Bouck had been wounded in the leg but was carrying James with the help of a German soldier. The whole platoon had been captured and were being marched down the hill, falteringly. The bodies were so thick in the field it was impossible to not step on them.
They were put into the Café and treated by a German aidman as an officer questioned other members of the platoon. James could hear someone saying ‘Name, rank and serial number’ but it wasn’t for some minutes until he realised it was him, answer the Germans questions! The officer gave up and leaned in to James, whispering in English, ‘Ami, you and your comrades are brave men’.
The clock on the Café wall struck midnight. Lieutenant Lyle Bouck turned 21 years old.
‘What a hell of a way to become a man,’ he mumbled to himself.
The action of these 18 men of the I & R platoon had a profound effect on the first day of battle. They had blocked the advance of at least one Battalion, probably more of the 3d German Parachute Division. If this Battalion had gone unchecked, it would have put in a powerful attack on the southern flank of the 394th. If that attack had gone in, the American position in the area, although bad enough, would have been much much worse. It is far to say that this group of men were instrumental in preventing the deaths or capture of many hundreds, if not thousands of American soldiers.