|General Albin F. Irzyk
Liberator of Chaumont Revisits 1944
Author : Ivan Steenkiste
Updated : 01.10.2009
Page dedicated to General Albin F
Irzyk and All US Veterans
of the 4th Armored Division and other Divisions under Gen. Patton's
Third Army and Leadership,
and to my Father, who refused to work for the German occupier in WWII
and who was forced to live hidden during 4 years, aged 19 to 23.
Source : "He Rode Up Front For Patton" by Brig. General Albin F. Irzyk, USA ret.
Table of Contents
General Albin F Irzyk Revisits
Bastogne and the Chaumont Battlegrounds - here
General Irzyk, Liberator of Chaumont - Historic Background and The Chaumont Battleground - here
Career : Combat - Tactical - here
General Irzyk as Author - here
About the Author of this Article - here
General Albin F. Irzyk Revisits Bastogne and the Chaumont Battlegrounds
Ceremony at the Mardasson
December 10, 2006
On December 10, 2006 at 10:30, there was a private ceremony at the Mardasson Memorial in Bastogne to the attention of two US Generals, General Albin F. Irzyk and General James Leach. Both are veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. The assistant to the Mayor of Bastogne, Mr. Jean-Claude Crémer made a speech in honor of these two gentlemen and the American Forces who liberated Bastogne.
Arrival of the Convoy at Mardasson
Generals Leach and Irzyk arrive at 10:20
General Albin F Irzyk and son in the back
General Irzyk is welcomed
General Jimmy Leach and Jean-Claude Crémer
Salute to the Monument remembering the US Troops
Mr Stevenot (Belgian Battle of the Bulge Veteran)
and General Albin Irzyk
General Albin Irzyk
and Mr Stevenot (Belgian Battle of the Bulge Veteran)
General A.F. Irzyk, Liberator of Chaumont - The Story
General Irzyk in front of the Beech Tree of Chaumont,
along the dirt road where his tank was hit on December 23, 1944
General Albin Irzyk and Ivan Steenkiste
at the Collin Hotel, Bastogne
General Irzyk at the Assenois Corridor
General Irzyk in front of the frame given by
John Hunter Harris at Hotel Grandru
General Irzyk and Mr Stevenot at James Hendrickx Memorial
Chaumont, December 23 - 25, 1944
from the Book "He Rode Up Front for Patton" by General Albin F Irzyk
Major Al F. 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.
" 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 "
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.
" 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! "
Forêt d'Anlier in winter
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 ?
" It was still dark, gray, and hazy – with the ceiling just about them "
Mist and cold in the area north of Forêt d'Anlier
They advanced safely along three kilometers of fairly open ground, when they entered the extremely tight confines of the huge Forêt d'Anlier. 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.
" Here the trees looked like huge evergreens – the tallest, thickest, most stately, most imposing ones Al Irzyk had ever seen "
Forêt d'Anlier in winter
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 Forêt d'Anlier, 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.
" the first real objective – the sizable town of Fauvillers " - here, General Irzyk turned left towards Hotte
Up ahead were more woods – this time the Bois Habaru – and a stream called the Troquebou Rau.
" Up ahead were more woods – this time the Bois Habaru – and a stream called the Troquebou Rau "
" The stream appeared relatively innocent "
the Bois de Habaru - " 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"
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.
" and advanced through the small towns of Hotte and Menufontaine "
Dodge 6x6 historic vehicle of Mr Ph. Mordant
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.
" 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"
This house is still there today as a witness of the fights north of Menufontaine along the road towards Burnon
"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 valley, on the right of the road, prior to crossing the bridge before entering into Burnon - below is the Sûre
"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 valley, on the right of the road, prior to crossing the bridge before entering into Burnon - below is the Sûre
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"
Down the valley is the bridge of Burnon that had been blown up by German troops.
Immediately after this bridge, the road climbs towards to village of Burnon
"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"
The bridge of Burnon that had been blown up by German troops.
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 22nd 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 10th 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 24th Armored Engineer Battalion was another experienced, well-trained, dedicated unit of the 4th 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 tread way 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 10th 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 tread way in the dark, joined the infantry, and then moved out ahead. The remaining elements of the 8th Tank Battalion and 10th 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.
Together the tanks and infantry seized the small town of Burnon about a kilometer north of the bridge side
Right of the bridge (not in sight), is the Sûre river that had to be crossed. Burnon is visible in the upper left corner of the picture
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 (Fôret de Lambaichenet) of Burnon.
Battle damage at Burnon, still visible today, 63 years after the fights
" 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 "
Land road leaving Burnon towards Chaumont - the Lambaichenet Forest is in the back of the picture (center)
Fôret de Lambaichenet where Captain Fred Sklar was missed in combat, December 23, 1944
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.
" instructions to keep security forces in place and to stop for the night "
Bivouac area between Burnon and Chaumont (looking towards Burnon) - the Lambaichenet Forest is on the left
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.
" 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 5th 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 161 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.
" It was very dark, visibility continued to be extremely poor, and it was bitter cold "
Chaumont seen from the Hotel Grandru under snowfall and mist which make visibility poor
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 25th 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.
Photo US Army
The Beech Tree at Chaumont with the 6x6 Dodge of Ph. Mordant
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 – Grandru. 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 Grandru.
" It sat on low ground much like being in the bottom of a saucer. To advance into town, the forces would be going downhill "
Chaumont seen from the Beech Tree of Chaumont where General Irzyk's tank was hit
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.
" Al Irzyk lost another officer, Lieutenant Blackmer of “B” Company, who was killed in town "
65 US military were killed on December 23, 1944 in their effort to liberate Chaumont
“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 40 to 60 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.
" 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 Grandru 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 22 and 25 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 resample 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 climbed 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.
World War II: Battle of the Bulge - 4th Armored Division Help
End the Siege of Bastogne
A Veteran of the Battle of the Bulge tells the story of the 4th Armored Division's Combat Command B and the relief of the encircled city.
By Brig. Gen. Albin F. Irzyk, U.S. Army (ret.)
"Just before dark on the day after Christmas 1944, elements of Lieutenant General George S. Patton, Jr.'s 4th Armored Division, attacking from the south, succeeded in making contact with the beleaguered Americans at Bastogne. The encircled 101st Airborne Division had occupied that critically vital Belgian town for several days, categorically refusing German demands for surrender.
The dramatic linkup of the two forces broke the siege of Bastogne and was one of the great turning points in the Battle of the Bulge. This legendary event has often been described in histories of World War II, but there is a fascinating subplot to the story that is little-known.
It took the 4th Armored Division five days of bitter, costly fighting to break the ring of German units encircling the 101st, but only six days before the linkup, elements of that same division had actually been in Bastogne on the day it was being encircled. In fact, during that earlier movement into the town, those forces had come within one kilometer of the same spot to which they would return six days later, after heavy fighting. How could this have happened ?
To understand this enigma, we must go back to December 8, 1944, the day the 4th Armored Division was pulled back from heavy fighting after reaching the Maginot Line, at a point a little more than nine miles from the German border. It was time for refitting and rest so that the division would be better prepared to cross the border and continue its assault to the east. The move to the rest area was not only welcome and richly deserved but necessary. The men of the division were exhausted after incessant fighting during the heavy, record-breaking November rains. The weather, the enemy and the gummy mud combined to make conditions deplorable and had taken a serious toll on the men and their tracked vehicles. Such extended breaks in the fighting were rare, and spirits were high.
At the time, I was serving with Combat Command B (CCB) of the 4th Armored Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Holmes E. Dager, and its 8th Tank Battalion, which I commanded as a young major. During the division's rest period my command post was in Domnon-les-Dieuze, a tiny, wet, muddy and depressing French village about 40 miles northeast of Nancy. Almost immediately, the town became littered with tank parts and equipment of all types. Not knowing how long we would be there, the men wasted no time in tackling their tasks.
On the fourth day the troops were excited and energized by the visit of the Third Army commander, General Patton, who swooped in for a quick stop. He arrived at high speed in his jeep, with a wide, crooked grin and all his stars blazing. He was jolly, animated and interested in how we were doing. After jumping out of his jeep, he worked his way along the entire length of the small town. He stopped at every vehicle, talked with every cluster of soldiers and had something to say to each - a question, a word of encouragement or appreciation, a compliment, a wisecrack, a good-natured dig. He was a master at this kind of rapprochement. His visits were brief, and he kept moving. But in 30 minutes or so, he had worked his magic - he had "touched" virtually every man in that battalion.
We soon learned that the 8th Tank Battalion was the only battalion in the division that he visited. Although the troops had no inkling of the momentous events that lay just ahead, Patton was apparently aware that an attack might be in the offing. After visiting the three other divisions of the XII Corps that day, he wrote in his diary that he had decided to put the 6th Armored Division and the 26th Infantry Division into the III Corps because "if the enemy attacks the VIII Corps of the First Army, as is probable, I can use the III Corps to help."
December 18 is a day I will always remember as the most confusing day of the entire war. Early that morning I was told to attend a meeting at division headquarters, but before I left for the meeting it was called off. The previous day I had been told that a move was imminent and to have my troops ready to move on short notice.
At 10:45 a.m. on the 18th, CCB was placed on a one-hour alert. I continued with my preparations for the move the next day to the east, as well as the subsequent attack into Germany, by sending billeting parties forward to obtain billets for the battalion to occupy at the end of the march to the border.
At 5 p.m. the one-hour alert was canceled. Shortly afterward, I also received word the move to the east the next day was off. I recalled my billeting parties. With no order for the next day, the men settled in for the night after the evening meal.
Then, suddenly, at 11 p.m. the 8th was ordered by CCB to be prepared to move at once. That directive was quickly followed up with instructions to cross the initial point, or IP (as yet to be designated), at 12:50 a.m. and then move in a totally different direction - north ! We would be moving to the III Corps zone (wherever that was) to assist in stopping a strong German counterattack in that sector.
The radical change in mission, the confusion that had preceded it, the lack of information, the uncertainty, the hasty departure in the pitch-dark and the highly unusual timing of the move - 50 minutes after midnight - all combined to indicate we were involved in something serious. A cloud of apprehension hovered over the entire battalion.
As ordered, the 8th Tank Battalion crossed the IP at 12:50 a.m. on December 19. We had no information about the situation up ahead or about the enemy. CCB's orders were to move to an area in the vicinity of Longwy, France, many miles to the north. The 4th Armored Division, previously attached to the XII Corps, was now assigned to the III Corps.
Combat Command B, with its 8th Tank Battalion out front, led the advance of the division. Combat Command A (CCA) would be the next to move out, nine hours behind CCB and along the same route. Thus, the 8th led the odyssey north into the cold, black night, reinforced with the halftracks of the 10th Armored Infantry Battalion. At the head of the 8th was my tank, making it the lead element of the Third Army in its advance to the north.
Amazingly, the combat command had but one map, and that was with General Dager. During our rapid movements across France that summer and autumn, we occasionally had to rely on Michelin road maps for direction. But to be completely without maps was a new experience.
Once the column was on the road, we rolled mile after mile into the unknown. I was guided and directed by General Dager in a variety of ways. He radioed instructions from his jeep, his staff relayed radio messages, he sometimes rode alongside to shout directions at me in my turret, and at tricky intersections he dismounted and pointed the way.
The hours and miles passed, and Longwy loomed closer. The end was in sight. But then our spirits were dashed. As we reached Longwy, we were waved on, and we rolled through the city without slackening our pace. Our tank guns were still pointed to the north, and now, for the first time in the war, we were in Belgium. We passed through Arlon and changed direction to the northwest, still with no reduction of speed.
We began our journey in darkness and were to end it in darkness, as night came upon us again. A difficult situation became considerably more difficult, since we now had to travel under blackout conditions, and our progress would be greatly slowed. On top of that we had absolutely no idea of what lay ahead, and we were expecting to be fired on by the enemy at any moment.
Neufchâteau, another milestone, came and went as we continued to roll, still without enemy contact. Again we changed direction slightly, this time moving to the northeast. Now we were on the Neufchâteau - Bastogne road, headed toward Bastogne, another unfamiliar town.
As we neared the town of Vaux-les-Rosières, we were at last told to stop for the night. Combat Command B moved into that location, which was west of the road. I selected a spot about two kilometers east of the road for our bivouac area (I would later learn that it was near a town named Nives). By the time we settled in, it was 11 p.m.
Except for brief halts, and one longer one to refuel, we had been on the move unceasingly for more than 22 hours - half of one night, all day and half of another night under blackout conditions. Remarkably, we had traveled 161 miles over roads that were sometimes bad - without maps and without confusion. The fact that we arrived was a tribute to both our men and vehicles and spoke volumes for the work we had accomplished during the recent rest period. Most important, there had been no enemy contact.
That night none of us realized that we were the vanguard of what would later be called the greatest mass movement of men in the shortest period of time in the history of warfare. Patton's troops had been poised to attack the Saar to the east. Forced to abandon that plan, he ordered the major part of his Third Army to make a gigantic 90-degree wheeling movement and then drive north at full speed. Involved in the spectacular maneuver were thousands of men and vehicles operating in damnable weather, often over icy roads.
Once we reached the bivouac area, there was still no rest for many of us. Many of the men were exhausted, but as soon as we reached our position we sent forward some strong patrols of light tanks and armored infantry to detect any enemy movement from the north.
Early the next morning, December 20, I was, figuratively speaking, hit by a thunderbolt. General Dager called me on his radio and, without any preliminaries, ordered me to send a task force into Bastogne. I was stunned. I protested vehemently, reminding him that the situation up ahead was unclear, terribly confused, and that this was no time for a piecemeal commitment of my forces. To my great surprise, Dager agreed with me. He said that he had just made the same arguments in a tug of war with Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton of the VIII Corps. Middleton had ordered him to take all of CCB into Bastogne, and he had hotly resisted, insisting that Middleton wait until General Hugh Gaffey arrived with the rest of the 4th Armored Division. Middleton finally agreed not to commit the entire combat command, but only after Dager conceded that he would send a task force instead.
As ordered, I formed the task force. It consisted of A Company, 8th Tank Battalion; C Company, 10th Armored Infantry Battalion; and C Battery, 22nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion. I placed in command of the task force Captain Bert P. Ezell, my battalion executive officer. His force would henceforth be known as "Task Force Ezell." Ezell's mission was to report to Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, learn about the situation in Bastogne, receive instructions and render support if so ordered.
The task force moved northeast on the Neufchâteau - Bastogne road and reached Bastogne without seeing any enemy troops. Upon entering the city, Ezell was told to report for instructions - not to McAuliffe, but to Colonel William Roberts, commander of Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division.
Shortly after Ezell radioed me that he was in Bastogne and had made contact with our troops, I was astonished to receive an order from divisional headquarters to recall the task force to Nives at once. I immediately called Ezell, whose radio operator told me that he was out talking to a colonel. I shouted, "Get him!" I reached him not a moment too soon, for at that very instant Ezell had been receiving instructions for deployment from Colonel Roberts. When I told him to return, Ezell was dumbfounded. As was to be expected, he had a difficult time convincing Roberts that he had to leave with his force just after arriving in Bastogne. A short time later, just after noon, a delighted and vastly relieved task force was on the road again.
Seven hours after it set out for Bastogne, Ezell's task force returned to our bivouac area with many more vehicles than it had when it pulled out. The men were beside themselves, chatting and shouting excitedly. They had seen some strange sights - so strange that they had a difficult time explaining it all to the rest of us.
As the task force moved away from Bastogne, they had encountered an American 2 1/2-ton truck in a ditch on the right side of the road. The truck was barely damaged and its driver was still sitting behind the wheel. But the top of his head had been blown off above the eyes, apparently by an armor-piercing round.
Moving a little farther down the road beyond the ditched truck, the troops noticed tank tracks running across the asphalt pavement. They were much wider tracks than could be made by American tanks and must have been made by German Panther or Tiger tanks.
The task force then came upon another strange sight - about two battalions of U.S. artillery stopped along the road. The equipment seemed to be in good shape, but there was no sign of any troops. Some of the vehicles were still idling. It was not clear whether the artillery units had been attacked and their positions overrun, or if they had been spooked by the sight of German tanks crossing the road just to the north of them and had abandoned their guns and vehicles. Given the evidence they had seen so far, it appeared that a strong German force had moved rapidly west and cut across the Neufchâteau - Bastogne road while Ezell was moving toward Bastogne. Perhaps the lead German elements had been moving so rapidly that following forces had not yet caught up with the vanguard. Ezell's units had apparently managed to slip through a gap in the enemy echelons driving west. The task force hauled back as much of the abandoned artillery equipment as they could handle and encountered no resistance on the way back to the bivouac area.
As December 20 passed, events continued to move swiftly. At 2 p.m., CCB was reassigned to III Corps with the rest of the division. The 8th Tank Battalion was ordered to retrace its steps of the previous night and move southwest to Neufchâteau, then southeast to Léglise. We arrived in the vicinity of Léglise after dark on the 20th. Shortly after, I was surprised to learn that the rest of the division had remained in the vicinity of Arlon, and none of its units had made any attempt to close up on CCB. Only later did we learn why CCB had gone where it did and when it did.
On the 21st, I received my orders from General Dager at CCB headquarters for the attack that would take place the following day. I was also informed that during the previous night and early that morning very strong German forces had driven west and flanked the city of Bastogne on the north and south. The two forces had met west of the city and completely encircled Bastogne. Trapped in the city was the 101st Airborne Division, to which were attached elements of the 9th and 10th Armored divisions.
This was shocking news, but Task Force Ezell had provided ample clues that the Germans had been on the move the previous day. What really was disturbing was the realization that the encirclement had been taking place while Ezell's group had been in Bastogne, and it had continued with unabated fury after the 8th Tank Battalion and CCB had left the area.
I could not help but think about what could have happened. If he had not been recalled by divisional headquarters, Ezell and his men might have been trapped in Bastogne along with Colonel Roberts' combat command of the 10th Armored. And what if General Dager had not won the day in his tussle with General Middleton? All the 4th Armored's CCB - if we had moved into Bastogne as General Middleton had originally ordered - might well be stuck in the besieged city.
We moved out of Léglise at 4:30am the next morning - the 22nd - so as to arrive at the IP at 6am. The 8th Tank Battalion and the rest of CCB were part of the 4th Armored Division's attacking force, coordinated with the 80th and 26th Infantry divisions of III Corps. The 4th Armored was on the left flank.
We began our slow, difficult return to Bastogne. The following day, at Chaumont, the 8th Tank Battalion was on the receiving end of one of the most powerful tank-led counterattacks of the war, temporarily slowing its advance to Bastogne and inflicting heavy casualties. Ironically, the battle at Chaumont was fought just four kilometers east of the quiet bivouac area we had occupied at Nives just three days earlier.
It took five days of bitter fighting to relieve the 101st in Bastogne, but by December 28 the area had been cleared of the enemy, and all of our positions had been consolidated. When Captain Ezell walked into the 8th Tank Battalion command post in Assenois, he was just one kilometer southeast of where his task force had been eight days earlier as it rolled into Bastogne.
Those of us who participated in this confusing operation, as well as historians who have analyzed the Battle of the Bulge in the years following World War II, could not help but note the ironies and incongruities surrounding the battle.
A number of questions have been raised about our mission:
Why did CCB, whose original destination was the vicinity of Longwy, continue on alone until it reached a position in VIII Corps sector, only nine kilometers from Bastogne ?
Why did General Middleton of VIII Corps seem to exert "ownership" of CCB ?
Why did the rest of the 4th Armored Division not close up behind CCB instead of leaving CCB near Bastogne while the rest of the division assembled well to the rear, in the Arlon area ?
If General Dager had not protested dividing his command, what might have happened to CCB if it had rolled into Bastogne as ordered, on the day when the enemy was very much on the move ?
After moving into Bastogne, why was Task Force Ezell immediately and summarily recalled, especially considering that General Middleton had argued strongly for its presence there ?
After the elements of Task Force Ezell had returned to their parent units, why was all of CCB relieved from assignment to VIII Corps and withdrawn--back to the rear--less than a day after arriving in the forward position ?
Should commanders at higher levels have exploited Task Force Ezell's rapid progress to Bastogne once they knew the unit had entered the town without a fight and returned ? And should General Middleton have been allowed to hold onto CCB and use it to try to keep the Neufchâteau Bastogne highway open, possibly preventing the encirclement of Bastogne ?
Once CCB had moved into its bivouac at Vaux-les-Rosières, should the rest of the 4th Armored Division have capitalized on the situation, moving up to attack from the bivouac location only a short distance from Bastogne rather than consolidating for the attack farther south and then fighting its way north along the difficult forest axis from Arlon to the encircled city ?
Among those who have answered "Yes" to the last two questions is Charles B. MacDonald, who stated in his book A Time for Trumpets: "If Middleton had been allowed to hold CCB and with it keep open the Neufchâteau / Bastogne highway, Bastogne probably never would have been surrounded. Even if the Germans had cut the Neufchâteau / Bastogne highway, the Fourth Armored Division might have capitalized on the location of CCB and attacked from Vaux-les-Rosières instead of from Arlon. Which would have spared many officers and men of the Fourth Armored Division a great deal of misery and, in some cases, death." The following additional information about the events leading up to the Battle of Bastogne provides answers to some of these nagging questions.
On December 18, Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, commander of all U.S. ground forces, called off Patton's planned offensive into the Saar. Without hesitation, Patton told Bradley that he would concentrate the 4th Armored Division in the vicinity of Longwy, pull the 80th Infantry Division out of the line and get the 26th Infantry Division moving within 24 hours. Much later that same day he issued the order that got CCB moving just after midnight.
General Patton met with his staff at 8 the next morning, December 19, as CCB was already well on its way to Longwy. His plan, he told his staff, was to strike due north and hit the underbelly of the German penetration where it would hurt. During the next hour, Patton and his staff planned, in outline, three distinct operations. Arrangements were made for a simple code to indicate, via a brief telephone call, which operation would be implemented.
Later that same day, Patton met at Verdun with Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower and a distinguished gathering of senior commanders that some have called perhaps the most historically significant conference of the 1944-45 campaign. All agreed that there should be a counterattack at the earliest possible moment. Patton told the group that he could be ready to attack with three divisions of the III Corps on December 22. A stronger force, he said, would take several more days to assemble and would forfeit surprise. The group was astonished at his rapid response to the situation and was more than satisfied with his proposal. It should be emphasized that at this meeting Patton pledged a three-division counterattack with the entire 4th Armored Division as the key division in the corps. He was completely unaware that CCB was then on its way toward Bastogne.
Given the situation, it is absolutely inconceivable that CCB should have been sent on its merry way all the way to the outskirts of Bastogne and told to report to the VIII Corps. It turned out that General Bradley was responsible for that trip. Whatever the rationale for its mission may have been, the motivation for this decision is difficult to comprehend.
In his memoir War As I Knew It, General Patton wrote, "The next morning I arrived at Bradley's headquarters in Luxembourg and found that he had, without notifying me, detached Combat Command 'B' [General Dager] of the 4th Armored Division from Arlon to a position southwest of Bastogne. Since the Combat Command had not been engaged, I withdrew it to Arlon [not Arlon but Léglise]."
Historian Martin Blumenson, in the second volume of The Patton Papers, quotes from General Patton's diary entry of the same day, December 20: "In the morning I drove to Luxembourg, arriving at 0900. Bradley had halted the 80th Division at Luxembourg and had also engaged one combat command of the 4th Armored Division in the vicinity east of Bastogne [not east but southeast] without letting me know, but I said nothing."
General Patton then drove to Arlon, to the headquarters of General Middleton's troubled VIII Corps to get a firsthand picture of the situation in the Bulge. When he arrived, he found Maj. Gen. Hugh J. Gaffey of the 4th Armored Division, Maj. Gen. Willard S. Paul of the 26th Infantry Division, and Maj. Gen. John Milliken of the III Corps already there. There is considerable speculation and some difference of opinion about what actually took place during their meeting. However, subsequent events lead easily to certain assumptions.
General Middleton still must have been anxious to send CCB into Bastogne behind Task Force Ezell and surely requested permission to do so. Elements of his corps were already scattered, and his armor was especially fragmented. Middleton wanted to avoid more of the same. General Gaffey must have wanted his combat command returned. With a major attack coming up in just two days, he needed his division at full strength, and it would have been severely handicapped without CCB. General Milliken also knew that the key to his III Corps three-division attack was having the 4th Armored at full strength. He surely must have supported Gaffey's argument to have his CCB returned.
As events later developed, CCB shouldered an extremely heavy share of the 4th Armored's fight at Bastogne. The combat command acted as the powerful left flank, not only of the division, but also of the III Corps all the way to the encircled city. In retrospect, General Dager's resistance to committing CCB to Bastogne earlier surely saved the unit. If he had not protested, CCB probably would have been in Bastogne before Patton was aware that it had been given away by Bradley.
It was fortunate that Task Force Ezell returned unscathed from its fruitless mission. The loss of a tank company, an armored infantry company and an artillery battery would have considerably weakened CCB.
At the Verdun meeting, General Patton had committed himself to a coordinated attack with three full divisions. He knew that the situation in the Bulge at that moment was confused. That was not the time to reinforce a failing situation and risk having elements of the 4th Armored committed prematurely. Patton's decision was revealed when Task Force Ezell was ordered out of Bastogne shortly after noon and CCB was directed to move to the rear, which it began to do by mid afternoon.
Patton chose as his ultimate course of action a well-planned, well-coordinated, orderly attack toward a known, specific objective. He jumped off from ground that was firmly in his hands. His planning and execution were sound and professional. Undeterred by the panic around him, he kept his eye on the ball.
Patton's counteroffensive not only broke the ring enclosing Bastogne but also destroyed a portion of the German penetrating force, eliminating hundreds of enemy vehicles and thousands of troops. Because of his rapidly organized and well-executed counterattack, he was able to snatch the momentum from the Germans and seize the initiative. He had done what he had promised his commanders he would do.
In the eyes of historians, the experience of Task Force Ezell is an extremely minor episode in the war in Europe. It did not have any significant impact on any campaign. But finding the answers to some of the more puzzling aspects of Ezell's mission helps to enrich our understanding of the Battle of the Bulge. It clarifies how the counterattack was planned and provides some fascinating sidelights on the men who made the decisions and brought about the dramatic linkup at Bastogne. No one who learns about Ezell's trip to the city during its encirclement can help but be struck by the story's ironies and might-have-beens. Although I was a participant in much that happened, I still find it a strange and fascinating tale. In sharing my own experience and research, my goal has been to shed a little light on an obscure, yet telling, incident that had formerly been shrouded by the fog of war.
Brigadier General Albin F. Irzyk is the author of He Rode Up Front for Patton. Further reading: A Time For Trumpets, by Charles B. McDonald; and Battle: The Story of the Bulge, by John Toland.
This article was originally published in the November 1999 issue of World War II.
Brig Gen Albin Irzyk who served in Patton’s Third Army, summed up the General this way : “He’s the purest warrior we’ve ever had, I think he’s by far the greatest field commander we’ve ever had. He couldn’t have been a Marshall, he couldn’t have been an Eisenhower, he was Patton. He climbed his mountain. There was nothing left for him to conquer."
Career : Combat - Tactical
General Irzyk fought five WW II campaigns in Europe as a 27/28 year old - 8th Tank Battalion Commander (76 Tanks) in the 4th Armored Division which spearheaded General George S. Patton’s Third Army all across Europe, and which relieved the surrounded forces at Bastogne. He was wounded twice (Purple Heart OLC), was awarded for extraordinary heroism the Distinguished Service Cross, and holds the Silver Star, (OLC), Bronze Star (3 OLC), and Legion Of Merit (2 OLC).
To view all of General Irzyk's medals, please click here
27/28 year old 8th Tank Battalion Commander
Served with the U.S. Constabulary in the Occupation of Germany until 1947. During the Cold War, he commanded the famed 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the NATO “trip wire”, responsible for 300 miles of the “Iron Curtain” and the Fulda Gap. His command was at maximum alert during the Berlin Crisis in August 1961 when the Berlin Wall went up and Khrushchev threatened to block U.S. access to Berlin. Served two years in Vietnam. During the first year, his Military Policemen and Reaction Forces saved the U.S. Embassy, and other key installations in Saigon during the TET attack of 1968. During his second year, as Assistant Division Commander of the 4th Infantry Division, he had over 600 combat hours in a helicopter supervising combat operations, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and 11 Air Medals.
Other Career Assignments : Served on the Staff of the Commander in Chief, Pacific in Hawaii. Was a U.S. delegate to several SEATO conferences in the Far East. Served on the staff of the Commander Allied Land Forces Central Europe (NATO) in Fontainebleau, France. Spent time commanding Ft. Knox, KY, and Ft. Dix, NJ.
Education: BA Mass. State College (UMASS) 1940. Commissioned 2d Lieut. Horse Cavalry (ROTC). MA International Relations, American Univ. Washington, DC. Graduate Army Command and General Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth, KS, and the National War College, Washington, DC. For two years headed the U.S. Army Armor School, Ft. Knox, KY. After retirement, was General Manager and acting Headmaster of a private college preparatory school.
Community Service : Has served on such boards as The American Red Cross, United Way, Rotary, and helped found Consumer Credit Counseling Service as well as the Information and Referral Service.
General Irzyk as Author
He retired in 1971 at Ft. Devens, where he was the Commanding General. He moved to West Palm Beach, FL, where he still resides with Evelyn, his wife.
He is the author of numerous articles that have been published in Military Journals, and of the book entitled, “He Rode Up Front For Patton.”
A book entitled, “Gasoline To Patton, A Different War” has been published in June 2005.
Written by Brigadier General Albin F. Irzyk (Ret.), who fought in World War II in Europe as a Tank Battalion Commander in the 4th Armored Division, Gasoline To Patton: A Different War is a hard-hitting criticism of a military decision made by General Eisenhower in late 1944. As both a historian and a participant, Irzyk voices his belief that if Eisenhower had chosen differently, the war in Europe would have been over before the end of 1944, with no "Market Garden", no "Battle of the Bulge", and the Russian advance stopped outside of East Germany. Suggesting that politics and the need to appease the English by catering to their allegedly incompetent general outweighed the need for effective strategy in Eisenhower's mind, and claiming that General Patton himself would have chosen to resign from the Army and tell the damning truth had he lived, Irzyk "comes clean" with his point-by-point breakdown of what happened, what went wrong, and what could have been. A truly involving and at times disturbing account, part military memoir, part historical speculation, sparsely illustrated with black-and-white photographs.
(Source : http://www.geocities.com/usconstabulary2/Gen_Irzyk.html )
About the Author of this Article - Ivan R. Steenkiste
General Albin Irzyk in Chaumont, with the author, Ivan R. Steenkiste of this page
Brigadier General Albin "Al" F. Irzyk in front of his original military staff maps highlighting the
Fourth Armored Division's successful move towards Bastogne in December 1944.
Picture taken at the home of General Irzyk, Florida, USA - October 2007
was the Tank Commander of the 8th Tank Battalion, 4th Armored Division,
of General George S. Patton's Third US Army - he is a liberator of Chaumont and Grandru (see stories here below)
I was born in Oostende in September 1949. After my studies and military service (6 TTR Lüdenscheid), I started to work for the Pharmaceutical Company Pfizer in 1972. Through the years, I worked in several positions in Sales and Marketing Departments, and spent almost one year at our HQ in New York, NY (1986) after which I became Pharmaceutical Division Director (1986 - 1996). From 1997 to 2000, I worked as a Euroteam Leader in the European business context leading to lots of traveling to the USA and within Europe. In 2000, I returned to the Belgian commercial organization and worked as Managing Director at Pfizer Luxembourg sarl in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg until September 2009.
Mrs. Ann L. Wagner
Madame Ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg
In order to compensate for a busy professional life, my wife and I invested more time, as of 1997, in the discovery of nature and most of our free time was and is spent in enjoying bird watching in Belgium (the Polders, the Ardennes), in several European countries (Texel / NL, Scotland, La Brenne - Les Cévennes - Camargue - Somme area / F), in Africa (Egypt, The Gambia, Senegal, South-Africa), Canada, the USA, the Middle-East (Israel, the United Arab Emirates), as well as Malaysia and Japan.
Ivan and Rose Steenkiste and in the middle, Jean-François Hellio (famous nature photographer)
La Brenne, France - September 2003
I am also interested in modern history and military strategies, in particular related to World War II. Hence the underlying reason for this article on some aspects of the military battle that was fought in the Belgian Ardennes late 1944, which is better known as "The Battle of the Bulge". With this story about the happenings around the "Beech Tree of Chaumont", it was also my goal to illustrate and highlight the immense involvement of - and the incredible price paid by the Allied troops, mainly the US, and British Armies (and Canadians in the north of the country), in helping to restore piece and democracy in our country in 1944 / 45, all too much at immense and heavy personal costs. Though I was born 4 years after the end of WO II, and hence didn't have to suffer under the terror of war, I think current and future generations should know and realize that freedom, liberty and democracy are not taken for granted and that many thousands of young local and foreign people have given their lives so that later generations can enjoy freedom, liberty and a democratic lifestyle.
Finally, nature photography has become a big passion too and if you have a minute, a selection of pictures can be seen by clicking on the icon below: