Battle of the Bulge: What Really Happened at Spa?

Armies, Battles on Land
Flattop
Joined: 17 Nov 2008, 18:31

13 Dec 2008, 20:12 #1

Part I: Preparations
One of the best WWII stories is about how a small group of American soldiers stopped a kampfgruppe of an SS panzer division by pouring drums of gasoline onto a road and thus blocking the direct route to a huge gasoline dump and Spa, Belgium.  The story was so good that it made it into the Henry Fonda movie about the battle.  The trouble is, it never happened.



It was Battery D, 110th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Gun Battalion that stopped the 1st SS Panzer Division at Spa.  How they did it is also a very good story, and maybe a better one.

The Battle of the Bulge, Hitler's last big gmble on the western front, began on Sunday, December 16, 1944.  By the 18th Kamfgruppe Peiper had penetrated to La Gleize, Belgium, a few miles south of Battery D at Creppe.  Captain Julius Reiver describes the 110th's battle plan:

"Knowing that the enemy was so close, they should have put most of the battalion on a line between Spa and La Gleize.  Instead, they used an anti-aircraft defense and put a large X over a map of Spa and assigned each battery a quadrant to defend."

Reiver's Battery D was assigned a road junction south of Creppe in the Army's main fuel dump, where millions of gallons were stored in five-gallon cans.  The captain wanted to cover the road with his two 90mm guns, and his men were trying to position them when one gun slipped of the road into some soft mud.

"Somebody asked if time should be taken to anchor the prime mover [tractor] that towed the gun to some trees to pull the gun out of the mud," said Reiver.  "I said to try and pull it out without anchoring the prime mover.  When the power was applied, the prime mover pulled itself into the mud with the gun.  Now we were in real trouble.

"We took the remaining prime mover away from the other gun and fastened it to some trees and tried to pull the stuck prime mover from the mud.  We revved the engine over and over again and broke shear pin after shear pin [safety devices that prevent the winches from breaking].  When we finally pulled it from the mud, we fastened that prime mover to some trees and hooked both prime movers to the gun.  With more engine revving, replacing shear pins, refilling gas tanks, and hard digging, the gun came out of the mud and we got it into position.  That mistake cost us a lot of extra work."

While this was going on the rest of the battery set up their three M51 machine-gun mounts.  Battery D also placed land mines on a bend in the road.  "Our plan was to let the Germans hit the land mines, or if they stopped short, shoot them with our 90mm guns," explained Reiver.
Last edited by Flattop on 20 Dec 2014, 01:12, edited 1 time in total.
"It'd be nice to please everyone but I thought it would be more interesting to have a point of view."
-- Oscar Levant
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Flattop
Joined: 17 Nov 2008, 18:31

13 Dec 2008, 20:14 #2

Captain Reiver continues the story:

"About a quarter after 4 that [following] afternoon, here came the Germans.  We could see them only through an opening in the forest, and they weren't the huge tanks . . . but light armored vehicles.  We could have fired at them, but I said to wait until they were closer.  The road was roughly parallel to the one we were on, but we couldn't see them after they had passed that opening in the trees.

"Suddenly, the Germans began to fire."

Reiver knew that the Germans had not passed the bend in the road and could not see the land mines or the gasoline cans.  What were they shooting at, he wondered.  He found out from a GI who had run from the direction of the Germans.

"He said they were shooting at land mines.  I said they couldn't because they had not turned the bend in the road.  He said that he had moved the mines around the bend to the other side because he thought they were too close to his foxhole.  Now there was nothing we could do but wait.  I told everyone to hold his fire and that we would have to hit the first vehicle so that the others would have to stop."

But then: "One of our quad machine machine guns [M51s] opened up.  I had not given the command to fire, and all hell broke loose.  The Germans fired everything they could, and we did the same [bazookas and small arms].  We didn't fire our 90mm guns because the enemy was downhill from us and the 90mm gun will not depress below horizontal.  There was so much firing going on that it sounded like the invasion of Normandy all over again.  Then, just as suddenly as it started, the shooting stopped and the Germans turned and ran.  We couldn't believe it."

The M51 that had started the firing was completely destroyed as the Germans had concentrated their fire on it.  The operator was killed and another soldier wounded.
Last edited by Flattop on 20 Dec 2014, 01:13, edited 1 time in total.
"It'd be nice to please everyone but I thought it would be more interesting to have a point of view."
-- Oscar Levant
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Flattop
Joined: 17 Nov 2008, 18:31

13 Dec 2008, 20:16 #3

About two hours later, Captain Reiver heard tanks rumbling.  The men manned their guns thinking the Germans were returning.  But nothing happened, and Reiver soon realized the tanks were coming down the same road the battery had the day before.  The tanks belonged to the 3rd Armored Division.

"A most welcome sight," Reiver recalled.  "I stopped them and briefed a general on what lay ahead.  He asked me to direct Combat Command A down one road and Combat Command B down the other to hit the Germans in the rear.  We warned them about those huge tanks [seen by a patrol] but he said not to worry, having the Germans out of gasoline was a big help."

As he directed traffic, Reiver was able to figure out why the Germans had retreated.  The American tanks going straight ahead had simply started their engines and moved out.  Those making left turns revved their engines and pulled the left hand brake to make the turn.  It sounded very much like what Battery D had been doing the previous night when they were trying to get their 90mm gun out of the mud.  It occured to Reiver that the Germans, who had been only a quarter of a mile down the road must have thought all that noise made by the prime movers had been a enitre armored division moving into position.

Some men of Battery D received the Sliver Star while Reiver received a Bronze Star which he insists he did not deserve.

A reporter later asked him what had happened and Reiver said it hadn't been a "large battle, just a little firefight.  I guess he didn't know what a firefight was because he wrote that we started a fire to defeat the enemy."

There is a final irony to the story of this little firefight.  When the grateful Belgians dedicated a monument to the battle they placed it at the point they thought was the farthest point of the German advance.  "They set it up," said Reiver, "at the place we were supposed to have made our stand.  But, if we had set up there, the Germans would have captured a couple of millions of gallons of gasoline before the got to us, and things would have been different."

Source: "Mistakes and a Language Barrier Changed the Course and History of the Battle of the Bulge" by Robert W. Marsh, World War II, November 2000, pages 80-84.
Last edited by Flattop on 20 Dec 2014, 01:14, edited 1 time in total.
"It'd be nice to please everyone but I thought it would be more interesting to have a point of view."
-- Oscar Levant
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Flattop
Joined: 17 Nov 2008, 18:31

13 Dec 2008, 20:18 #4

The battle of the bulge, just like the invasion, is full of such stories. Over the time I have read quite a lot (not the above), but hardly remember any
details.
"It'd be nice to please everyone but I thought it would be more interesting to have a point of view."
-- Oscar Levant
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JohnPic
Joined: 11 Mar 2017, 04:56

11 Mar 2017, 04:56 #5

My uncle was there, he told me the story many times. He served with D Battery 110th AAA throughout the war. His photo can be found on page 54 of the book, 110thAAA Driving Hitlers Crawlin Coffin. He loved to watch the movie with Robert Shaw. 
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JohnPic
Joined: 11 Mar 2017, 04:56

11 Mar 2017, 05:02 #6

The soldier who fired the quad 50 had his head blown right off by a gun mounted on a German halftrack.
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