Duel in the Mist 2: The missing caption

A reader asked for a caption for the cover shot. Roddy MacDougall obliges:

The front cover shows Panther 101 which was originally the mount of Ostuf. Kremser the officer commanding 1./SS-Pz.Rgt.1 beside the Maison Communale in La Gleize looking South East. The vehicle behind Panther 101 is the Befehlspanther 002 that can also be seen on page 56. Panther 101 was originally commanded by Ostuf. Karl Kremser who was wounded on December 18th at Stavelot,  Ustuf. Hans Hennecke then assumed command of the company and as his own vehicle had been disabled during this action he also took over Ostuf. Kremser’s Panther. There are two further photographs of Panther 101 on pages 58 and 59.

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Duel in the Mist 2 Errata: Part 1

Conscientious authors that they are, the Duel in the Mist team have been finding a few things that needed correction. Over to them:

No Hellcats
This reserve was the result of the recent conversion to the mobile M-10 Wolverine tank destroyer. The 2nd Platoon, already equipped with four M-10 TD’s, had originally been with the 2nd Bn, 119th Inf Rgt and thus escaped the debacle at STOUMONT.

P.30 The 823rd TD Bn had a frustrating day as it tried in vain to get the ten M-10 TD’s they were scheduled to receive plus an additional four from the 9th US Army. At the end of the day, it was near TARGNON, with the 2nd Platoon having moved up its four M-10 TD’s all the way on the N.33 to the positions of the 1st Bn, 119th Inf Rgt on the outskirts of STOUMONT.

Replace M-18 Hellcat by M-10 Wolverine on pages 8 and 30.

703rd TD Bn
A platoon of M-36 tank destroyers from Company B, 703rd TD Bn, 3rd Armd Div was supposed to support the 504th PIR.

P.175 Map
Tank Destroyers of Company B, 703rd TD Bn supported the elimination of the remaining German strong points.

Replace Company C, 703rd TD Bn by Company B, 703rd TD Bn on pages 122 and 175.

The story of the 703rd TD Bn at CHENEUX

The old tank destroyer witch which must have laid some curse on us. Not only do the typos and errors rise in geometric proportions once we try to weave them into our narrative, invariably also new sources open up to us only after the story has gone into print. This was so with DITM 1, where the crucial engagement with the two Platoons of Company A, 823rd TD Bn at STOUMONT should be the subject of a rewrite as our understanding of this phase has deepened over the last three years. Maybe something we can set straight in a second edition. It has happened again with DITM 2.

As for the 703rd TD Bn at CHENEUX, we feel that the interested reader should have some additional information. One does recall that the men of 504th PIR were not impressed by the performance that the pair of M-36 Tank Destroyers put up in this engagement, to say the least. At one point, It it seems that an exasperated Lt Col Willard Harrison, Commanding Officer 1st Bn, 504th PIR, even ordered his men to shoot at the TD’s if they would continue to ignore his order to advance (DITM 2, p, 136). What do the tank destroyer men tell in turn? Their story can be glimpsed in their After Action Report that can be found on the fantastic website www.tankdestroyer.net.
First of all, we now can identify the unit as 2nd Platoon, Company B, 703rd TD Bn, led by a certain Lt Roberts. The report adds that the platoon was immediately attached to 2nd Battalion, 504th PIR for their night attack. Actually, they were attached to the 1st Battalion. The 2nd Battalion would eventually relieve the paratroopers from Red at CHENEUX on Dec. 22nd after the hard fought battle. Only a section (two TD’s) was available, the other two tank destroyers were down for repairs. Their mission was to move along the first elements of the paratrooper outfit, making as much noise as possible and shooting at everything in order to give the impression of a much bigger armoured thrust. This looked like a good idea, only with visibility down to 25 yards, the intended show of strength somehow failed to make a big impression on both the paratroopers and the Germans. In due course, the initial infantry attack stalled as is described in detail in DITM 2. The 20mm Flak near House Boutet was singled out to be the reason for all this trouble (see the Sd.Kfz. 10/5 in DITM 2, p. 132, as the likely suspect). The tank destroyers “were not in a position to take the 20mm under fire”, as the report reads. No wonder with them being hiding behind some brushes 400 yards back, we are inclined to add and of course there is no word about them being literally kicked into action. The next move in order to do something for the paratroopers was text-book frog leaping, only with one frog staying behind and the other one doing all the leaping: “One destroyer moved up the road while the other remained in position covering its advance.” With visibility down to 25 yards, the unlucky crew having drawn the up-front assignment would soon have scuttled out of sight of their supportive comrades, we suppose. The first thing they chanced upon was a German halftrack on the right side of the road. We think that this must have been the Sd.Kfz. 251/9 in its advanced position in front of the Boutet House (see DITM 2, p. 128). The visibility must indeed have been very low, as the ensuing action speaks of a frantic scramble to get the gun laid on this unsuspected target: “As the gunner swung the gun around, the tube struck the other vehicle” and the driver “immediately reversed the destroyer”. At the same time the German crew was abandoning the halftrack and “was considerably helped by a round of HE [high explosive] which completely destroyed the vehicle and crew.” Although it’s impossible to construct a clear timeline from all the accounts about the CHENEUX action, we still think that the halftrack had already been put out of action at this time by Pfc Del Grippo. The (wounded or shocked?) crew might still have lingered about, but that would not have been the sensible thing to do in this case. If the halftrack mentioned was indeed the Sd.Kfz. 251/9, the high explosive round didn’t completely destroy it, as could be expected against a fully armoured vehicle. Looking at the photograph, it’s interesting to note that a round fired from the tank destroyer coming in on the road behind would be into the rear of the halftrack. The vehicle wouldn’t have had a chance to quickly bring its fixed gun to bear on its adversary.

“In rapid succession”, the tank destroyer then knocked out the 20mm flak wagon and a halftracked prime mover. As before, we think that the 20mm flak wagon had been put out of action by the paratroopers earlier and that the tank destroyer probably only wanted to make sure it would stay dead. There was an Opel Maultier with a 10,5cm howitzer still in tow (see DITM 2, p. 128) on the right side of the road and another one stranded in a small lane just opposite the Boutet House on the left side (see DITM 2, p. 130). Could it be that the modification to its rear was done by the tank destroyer? We probably will never know.

What followed next ties in well with our own narrative. When the paratroopers had reached and consolidated their positions at the Boutet House, a Sd.Kfz. 251/17 prevented any further move down the road into the village. The LMG platoon was brought up, only to be shot to pieces. We think that this actually prompted a very angry battalion commander to get back to the tank destroyers and kick them in their backside (DITM 2, p. 138). If so, the real moment of glory for the tank destroyer crew was still to come. What happened now is quite interesting. Apparently, the halftrack was partially obstructed by the Gaspard House and the tank destroyer, being road bound in difficult terrain, couldn’t move into a good fire position. “Therefore, the next best choice was made- to knock away the protection and then go after the vehicle.” APC BDF ammo was used to blast away the wall and then to destroy the vehicle. Indeed, the Narrative of Action of the First Battalion, 504th PIR officially credited the tank destroyer with knocking out the “self-propelled 20mm gun” with two rounds. The tank destroyer AAR continues with two more halftracks being driven out from their hiding places behind [other] buildings and destroyed while attempting to retreat down the road. We haven’t been able to find any traces of these halftracks so far. The next wrecks on the road were yet another Opel Maultier in the process of pulling out a 10.5cm howitzer from cover and a Sd.Kfz. 10/5 (see DITM 2, p. 182 ff).

This conciliatory outcome surely helps to restore the reputation of the tank destroyers, wouldn’t it be for Pvt Kinney (see DITM 2, p. 137, Fn 457), having a well-deserved smoke in the backyard of the Gaspard House after knocking out a very troublesome German halftrack with his hand grenades and being scared to death by some tank destroyer suddenly firing into the house!

When on the next day, the paratroopers launched their attack, the tank destroyers were given the mission to drive through the village, “clearing out whatever they could find” until meeting with the flanking force. When the attack started, one tank destroyer almost immediately knocked out a 105mm gun and prime mover, thereby blocking the road which made it necessary to find an alternate route. Clearly we have arrived at the situation just described above (see DITM 2, p. 183 ff). The tank destroyers would move “cautiously through farmyards and alleys” while their infantry support mopped up pockets of resistance behind them. They finally joined the flanking force and by 2100, CHENEUX was cleared. Setting up a road black in the eastern portion of the village, during the night the section destroyed another flak wagon which had remained in concealment and tried to escape across the river towards LA GLEIZE. The next morning, 22nd Dec. 1944, the two other tank destroyers joined the section and provided anti-tank protection to the eastern approaches. In the afternoon, the platoon was ordered back to BRA into divisional reserve and would stay there till 24th Dec. 1944.

We think this is a perfect example that like coins, stories have two sides. We have learned that in a lot of cases, it’s almost impossible to get at the truth. Narratives are made by humans, not film cameras or recorders, and narratives of war are made by humans experiencing some of the most demanding situations of human condition, often overwhelmed by them. In the end, it’s up to reader to make up his own narrative and his own truth. We only strive to give him as much input as we can with prime sources.

“Duel in the Mist 2” – Cheers for that.

Forget “Bulge,” “Patton,” and words like “Nuts!” and remember “Duel in the Mist 2.’ It is an important telling of important events and will not disappoint. That’s “Duel in the Mist 2,” the second volume in the saga of the Leibstandarte and Kampfgruppe Peiper in the Ardennes Offensive.

If pitched by Hollywood agents, they would say it’s “24” meets “300” meets “Saving Private Ryan,” or “Das Boot,” but with tanks. No matter, it is where the sharp ends of two opposing armies met in winter hills and hamlets and clashed by day and night in the most unhospitable tank country imaginable. Fact: There are 23 continuous pages of photos of Panthers knocked out in and around LaGleize in this book. But more on photos later. Important as they are, they are just part of this package.
“DitM2” picks up where DitM left off. It is the night of December 19th-20th 1944. On December 20th, Combat Command B of U.S. 3rd Armored, split into two task forces, will clash with German forces in Stoumont. As with all encounters described in this book, the authors (Haasler, MacDougall, Vosters and Weber) set the stage with detailed orders of battle. Fact: By page 14, the end of the first chapter, they have already amassed 67 footnotes; not the anemic, distracting nonsense we filled our term papers with, but the meaty, satisfying notes that add a wealth of fascinating information to every statement. These notes are drawn from, among other sources, Unit Reports, map overlays, POW accounts, trial affidavits, G-2 Journals, and personal interviews, all interwoven into the main text. Like an 8.8cm gun platform on a suspension of interleaved road wheels, the text literally floats upon a layer of footnotes, smoothly and easily, allowing an unobstructed view of the story unfolding around you.

On page 33, the third outstanding element of his book is introduced: the maps. There are large, clear, concise, well-captioned maps in full color. Opposing forces, terrain features, routes of advance, road blocks, important buildings, etc. are all clearly deliniated. Fact: I love these maps.

The narrative has a tension all its own, from the clipped couplets of U.S. telephone logs (“I don’t want any excuses about getting in there tomorrow. Get going.”) to vivid accounts from tank interiors to lengthier passages of failed attacks. The story moves along with drama and verve and at times deadpan delivery: “Major McCown captured with a map board with all regimental installations on it.” And “May have to withdraw from chateau; enemy tank has drawn up and is firing point blank.” Germans, Americans and Belgian civilians all have their say in this accouting, and the authors achieve a nice interplay between the, by turns, aggressive and foolhardy Americans, the terrified and trapped civilians and the stoic and dangerous Germans: “The area started to receive fire by the U.S. tanks and two of Jaekel’s comrades disappear after a direct hit on their position.” “Ostubaf. Peiper saw to it that (Ostuf.) Sievers understood the importance of retaking the lost Sanatorium.” This is not a monolithic “Battle of the Bulge;” It is a constellation of probing attacks answered with wave after wave of vicious counterattacks; paratroopers vs. Flakwagons, Drilling vs. planes, planes vs. tanks, Panzerfausts vs. carbines. Fact: Anyone who bought Squadron/Signal’s “Panzergrenadier in Action” in the ’70s will finally get to read about the Sd.Kfz.251/2, /9, /17 and /21 actually “in action.” Deployed intelligently, they could be devastating. Turned against their original owners, they could be decisive. (Color profiles of the Sd.Kfz.251/7 and 251/9 as well as the SWPanther ‘211’ are also included.)

The authors have done a tremendous amount of work on the readers’ behalf and it shows on every page. You can reliably open the book at any point and be immersed in one action or plan of action after another: the harrowing attacks on the Sanatorium, the barbed wire of Cheneux, the slug fest in LaGleize. It’s all there: The chaos and ‘fog of war’ rendered in clarity and detail by those who’ve studied it longest. As embodied by the fictional Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” deep scholarship and high adventure need not be mutually exclusive.

Which brings us back to the photos. Just as German armored units were built up to full strength and then unleashed in the Ardennes, the authors have built up a formidable concentration of photos for this book, and they are presented here in unprecedented size and fidelity. David Thomson and Stefan DeMeyer of the Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC) provided an extensive selection of photographs painstakingly collected over a lifetime of research. Many more photos were acquired by the DitM team in the dozen years they have worked together on this project. Fact: there is more photo coverage here than you are likely to find anywhere else in the world – including the Ardennes itself.

“Duel in the Mist 2” is by turns somber, gritty, edge of the seat and exhaustive. It’s murder and mayhem and matter of fact: heroics wither in the face of high explosives whereas determination of the grimmest kind gains the objective, if only for a few hours.

Spend a few hours with ‘DitM2’ and you’ll be entertained and enlightened as never before. The best part? The DitM team are just hitting their stride and there’s more to come.

“Duel in the Mist 2” is getting its finishing touches now and has a planned release date of January, 2012, which gives you time to pick up the original “Duel in the Mist.”

Facts: DitM2 has 233 pages, 114 (mostly unpublished) images, 14 maps, 1 drawing, 10 profiles (3 different vehicles: 251/7 (4), 251/9 (4) and Panther 211 (2)) and four authors: Timm Haasler, Roddy MacDougall, Simon Vosters and Hans Weber.