Letters From War – The Battle of Dom Bütgenbach, December 21, 1944

This is part of our “Letters from War” series documenting the World War II letters of Irvin Schwartz of Pine Grove, PA. The letters were all published in the West Schuylkill Press-Herald between 1943 and 1945. 

Read the previous letter here

On December 21, 1944, Corporal Irvin Schwartz and his comrades faced the fiercest combat they would experience during the Second World War. Dug in on a ridge between the Belgian towns of Bullingen and Butenbach with their anti-tank guns, Schwartz stared out into the gloom of a bitterly cold December morning. It was to be the sixth day of the German offensive on the Western Front, in a fight that had immediately became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Schwartz 1944 (1)
A 1944 photograph of Irvin Schwartz

Schwartz’s 26th Infantry Regiment had been rushed into a breech in the American lines days earlier. But it was not until December 21st that Corporal Schwartz faced a full onslaught from German tanks and infantry intent on destroying them and creating a breakthrough in American lines.

Weeks after the fighting had ceased near the manor house and village known as Dom Bütgenbach on December 21, 1944, Schwartz, now promoted to staff sergeant, wrote home to the West Schuylkill Press-Herald office in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania to describe what he had seen and done on what he called “the day.” War-time censorship prevented him from giving explicit details of the engagement and its consequences (more on that after the letter).

The Press-Herald published the letter on February 2, 1945:

With the Allied Forces

In Belgium

January 12, 1945

Dear Mae:

We are continuing to make headlines with our work here on the Western Front. I shall try and describe briefly one of our more recent experiences. A battle wherein our anti-tank squad fought off a fierce enemy infantry and armour attack which was intended directly to a major breakthrough in our particular sector. But remember my explanations are strictly limited by current censorship rules and regulations, and I therefore may not write all the things I have in mind regarding our successes with von Runstedt’s men on that particular day.

It was early one cold Thursday morning. To us, the setting was simple as usual. Our anti-tank gun had been dug in the night previous, camouflaged with pine branches very carefully and held a round of A.P. [armor-piercing] ammunition in the chamber. More ammunition was piled neatly to the right side of the rear right trail.

Foxholes Bulge
THE ARDENNES OFFENSIVE 16 DECEMBER 1944 – 28 JANUARY 1945 (EA 50367) The Allied Counter Attack 25 December 1944 – 28 January 1945: American soldiers dig hasty foxholes in snow covered terrain as enemy fire opens up near Berismenil. A dead soldier lies in the foreground. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196578

As for our primary weapon, it was set for any enemy armour that might make its appearance. Three well-dug foxholes housed the members of our second squad. Some holes containing two men, others large enough for three. Our track driver, Corporal George Gutch of Swoyersville, Penna., wasn’t with us. After putting our gun into position, Gutch had taken the half-truck to a more suitable place nearby.

The watches showed us the time to 4:15 a.m. when Pfc. Ignatius Zakrzewski of Philadelphia, Penna., and Pfc. John Howard of Seattle, Washington, finished a two hours’ guard. They were relieved by Corporal Donald Rose of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and Pfc. William Ryon of Knoxville, Tenn., who carried our guard up to 6:15. During this period of time things were quiet, excepting a frequent mortar shell or an artillery burst. Few fell close to us, but would fail to attract our attention. We were in hotter spots on too many occasions.

But a few Jerry artillery and mortar shells wasn’t all. Thursday was ultimately a big battle day.

I was on guard no longer than three-quarters of an hour when our very capable platoon leader, Lt. Wallace Weyant of Bellmore, Long Island, received an order of a special alert. We were notified by our platoon sergeant, T/Sgt. Glenn Peters of Marienville, Penna., who was kept exceptionally busy throughout the night keeping in close contact with the three squads in his first platoon. In announcing the special alert, Peters stated that German infantry was headed our way.

Immediately our entire squad was awakened. We waited very patiently with a shell in our gun, and the safeties on our rifles, pistols, and carbines pulled. It was as dark as black can be.

Daylight hadn’t commenced to break when a Jerry machine gun spit out several hundreds of rounds to our immediate front. Several minutes of silence was followed by a second burst, mixed in with the chatter of German small arms fire. The enemy infantry was getting closer, but on our lines all fire was held. Our thoughts were glued on the firing we heard. Not on any tanks or any other armour. But we knew just when to open fire.

Evidently Jerry figured our lines to be further away after not receiving response to his initial fire. Eventually he came within our reach and machine guns, B.A.R.’s [Browning Automatic Rifles], mortars, artillery and everything else in the line of American firing devices greeted the enemy.

This marked the start of a long hard battle which stretched well into the late afternoon. It was a period wherein the throwing of a hand grenade would bring back the throwing of a “potato masher,” one of Jerry’s most deadly grenades. And the burst of a carbine or a pistol was answered by a shot from a German rifle. While our artillery poured into the enemy’s area, our mortars and theirs exchanged. It was hell to live in, and such a hell that we never thought of food and rest. But of more ammunition and more trigger squeeze on our small arms. All the while our large anti-tank gun stood there motionless. Just as if the atmosphere was as calmly as could be.

The noise seemed to ease up. Soon the chatter of small arms fire was practically at a standstill, for a short length of time. Much to our delight. But that wasn’t the end of activities.

The attack evidently had been planned very cautiously, and as a result the Wehrmacht’s infantrymen were well supported by panzers. The German tanks are known for their minimum amount of noise during operational moves, and the ones attacking us were no exceptions to the rule. The sound of tanks came very suddenly to our ears. While at the same time we were fighting off enemy infantry forces. Suddenly a Mark IV came crashing through a row of trees not more than a hundred short yards in front of us. The panzer came directly toward us with his gun barrel pointed directly into our eyes. A second tank followed.

A Mark IV Panzer during the Battle of the Bulge

The whole crew rushed to the gun and after pouring four rounds of ammo into the head tank we saw nothing but a huge block of flames. Its crew never received the slightest opportunity of escaping. In fact, not one of them had known what happened. It was just breaking daylight when we opened fire on the first tank and it barely could be seen through the sight of our gun. Yet we succeeded in making all our four rounds we fired perfect ones. All were direct hits and aerial photos later in the day proved that the number two tank also was knocked out during the tank battle. Our artillery and tank destroyers accounted for a great number more German tanks, in addition to those blown up by our other anti-tank squads.

Germany infantry continued the battle. Even while we fired upon Von Runstedt’s armour, we were shot at by Germans not more than ten yards to our front and to our right flank. At the same time we fired upon them with our rifles. The lulls between the four rounds from our anti-tank gun were occupied by our shooting our respective small arms rifles, carbines and pistols. And by the throwing of all available hand grenades.

Members of an anti-tank unit with the 26th Regiment move their gun during the battle at Dom Butgenbach. (US Army)

By the close of the day’s battle the area was littered with hundreds of German dead and knocked-out tanks. Many of which burned until the following day. But it was nothing pleasant, even for us. And it was not time for reading or writing mail. However, reconnaissance revealed that the enemy lost heavily in both men and equipment and his plans were simply “thrown into the bucket.” Furthermore, despite their fierce attempt for a large scale breakthrough into our lines, he failed to gain an inch.

A Mark IV panzer destroyed during the fighting at Dom Butenbach. (U.S. Army)

Thursday was a battle day wherein we again proved our superiority in men and equipment, and it, too, pushed Germany closer to its final total collapse and the end of the war in Europe.

Miss Bashore, as I said in my opening paragraphs, I wish I could describe “the day” in a more detailed fashion, but that is forbidden, so this is all ‘cause there is no more.

From the Allied forces in Europe –

A Victorious ’45,

S/Sgt. Irvin R. Schwartz,

U.S. Army

In next week’s post, we will examine a study conducted by a contractor for the Federal government and published in the 1980s analyzing the anti-tank tactics employed at the Battle of Dom Bütgenbach. In the report, an interview was conducted with Schwartz and his comrades that explores the battle on “the day” in tremendous detail and the awful dangers they faced and overcame.

Featured Image: Anti-tank gunners of the 26th Infantry Regiment during the Battle of the Bulge – U.S. Army 

This is part of a series titled: “Letters from War.” Read more of the letters written by Irvin Schwartz during World War II

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