Sunday, September 28, 2008


It was lovely weather today and I had been promising my daughter for some time to go visit a well-known theme park in Coo, a village in the northern Ardennes, so today we packed and left for Belgium's east, in the footsteps of generations of Belgians. Because a day out for Belgians has for aeons been usually either to the coast or to the Ardennes. For those unfamiliar with Belgium's geography, despite the fact that it's a very small country (some 340 kloms across at its greatest length) there's several distinctive geographical regions. One can debate about how far one can go in subdividing the landscapes, but basically it's everything that lies between two "extremes", the 65 kilometer "long" Belgian coast with, true to say, fine beaches, and the Ardennes, which is an old massif nowhere higher than 700 meters. The coast is entirely in Flanders, the Ardennes are entirely in Wallonia, so to paraphrase Billy Joel, the Flemings hold the coastline and the Walloons the highlands, hehehe. We had a great day, especially the kiddos in that theme park, and when they are happy we are (more than) happy. So even when I couldn't do what I really like to do when in the Belgian Alps - hiking on my own with sturdy mountain shoes on, map at hand, rucksack well stocked - I had a field day, and a great view like the one below is just a bonus.

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Most readers will know by now I am a World War II buffoon, and while I swear I took the kids to this place only for their pleasure, I couldn't resist the temptation of taking, on the way home, a shortcut through La Gleize, which is a village some 5 kloms west of Coo. La Gleize is one of those places you wouldn't otherwise have heard of in a million years, were it not that 64 years ago - damn, how time flies - it was the scene of a tenacious fight between a German Kampfgruppe and elements of the US 30th Infantry Division and 82nd Airborne Division during the Ardennes Offensive, which in the US is known as the Battle of the Bulge. History has been a bit unkind to those US troops not fighting in Bastogne, because to many Americans the Battle in the Bulge is Bastogne. Few know that very heavy fighting took place in other sectors of the "bulge", and one of those sectors was the northern front, where the 6th Waffen SS Panzer Army (the 6th, led by Sepp Dietrich) attacked in the early morning hours of December 16, 1944. That Panzer Army's backbone was formed by four crack SS Panzer divisions, the 1st (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler), the 2nd (Das Reich), the 9th (Hohenstaufen) and the 12th (Hitlerjugend). 2nd SS and 9th SS were deployed only later on, the initial moves were by 1st SS and 12th SS. Of the former, the main element was the so-called Kampfgruppe Peiper (Battle Group Peiper), and ad hoc formation comprising the bulk of 1st SS's armour. Its commander was Obersturmbannfuehrer (Lieutenant Colonel) Jochen Peiper, an able and battle hardened veteran from the Eastern Front. His name would gain a notorious reputation, for on the second day of the offensive, when Peiper had effectively broken through the American lines, elements of his battle group overwhelmed the lightly armed Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion near Baugnez, a hamlet near the town of Malmédy, in German-speaking Belgium. Those who survived were driven together in a meadow. What happened next has been the subject of countless reconstructions and investigations, but at some point Germans started machinegunning the American POW's. About 90 men perished. Peiper himself was not directly involved, although at a post-war trial he was held accountable for orders he should have given stipulating that no prisoners were to be taken.

After this infamous episode which became known as the Malmédy Massacre, the whole of the Kampfgruppe move further along the narrow roads of the northern Ardennes, and in Trois Ponts point US engineers blew up a bridge right before his nose, denying Peiper a smoother ride to the crucial Meuse river and forcing him to move his troops even further down the tortuous Amblève valley in search for a bridge. This proved to be his swan song, because he got stuck in... La Gleize, and even though a forward party made it a bit further still, to Stoumont, ultimately the bulk of Peipers men and most of his armour, perhaps 2,000 men and 70 tanks, plus numerous other vehicles, found themselves surrounded in the tiny village, for behind their back the road to Trois Ponts had been cut off by 82nd Airborne. After six days, Peiper had run out of fuel and ammo and with a Luftwaffe unable to drop supplies, he asked for, and finally got, permission to break out. This he managed to do, and on the 25th Peiper was able to report to 1st SS Panzer Corps that he had extricated 770 of his men from the La Gleize pocket. He left behind all of his matériel, and since Kampfgruppe Peiper had been allocated a disproportionate amount of 1st SS's armour, it meant that the division had lost most of its teeth. This event would herald the eventual failure of "Wacht am Rhein", which waas the German codename for the whole Ardennes operation. A lot has been said and written about the causes and the reasons of that failure, but in Peipers case, I would wager that the man, although an able tactician on the regimental level, was given command of a formation that was too big for him. As mentioned before, his battlegroup not only counted the bulk of the parent division's armour, but also the schwere SS Panzer Abteilung 501 (Heavy SS Tank Battalion 501), normally an independent formation. From the accounts that I have read, I would wager that Kampfgruppe Peiper wasted away because its commander could not hold it together (nor use it properly in such a confined theatre). Anno 2008, there's still one tank from Kampfgruppe Peiper standing in La Gleize. It's the Koenigstiger (King Tiger) once commanded by Obersturmfuehrer Dollinger of the sSSPzAbt. 501. In almost mint condition it stands near the small museum "December 1944" in La Gleize's center. Which is where I landed this very evening after the kids had enjoyed their day out.

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A Koenigstiger was the final development of the heavy Tiger tank, and weighing close to 70 tons (far more than an M1-Abrams) it was the heaviest MBT to enter service by either party in World War II.

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And another pic up front. Notice the sheer menacing bulk of the beast. The gun is an 88mm L71, probably the best anti-tank gun of the war.

Standing next to the Koenigstiger this evening, it again struck me how massive this machine is. It was powered by a 700 HP engine, the same as the one used in the far lighter Panther tank. In the 45-ton chassis of this vehicle the Maybach performed very well (there were also MAN versions), but to propel a Koenigstiger properly was asked too much, and much has been said about the tank bogging down in rough terrain. A 1,000 HP engine was what was needed for this tank, but anno 1944 the German war industry, overwhelmed with hyperpressing demands from all sides, was unable to yet produce such a motor. Still, it is said that on good hard level going a Koenigstiger could reach a top speed of 38 kloms per hour. The following YouTube film of tanks of sSSPzAbt 501 passing through the German village of Tondorf prior to the Ardennes Offensive gives you an idea of their dynamics.

Shit. There I went again. Starting out with Plopsaland Coo and ending with a frigging Nazi tank. That can only be me. I really am a World War II nutter.


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