Monday, October 4, 2010

Praxis: "The Damned Engineers" -- A study in character and command.

I picked up a copy of a book I read long ago at the gun show this weekend for the lordly price of $2.50. Entitled The Damned Engineers by Janice Holt Giles, it details the heroic tale of the 291st Combat Engineer Battalion under Colonel David Pergrin and the role they played in stopping the German assault in the Battle of the Bulge.

I picked up the book just in time for a couple nights of insomnia, and finished it this morning. There are many valuable lessons in this book,but the most striking to me is that the 291st stuck against overwhelming numbers when everybody else was pulling out largely because of the character of their commander and the combat ethic that he had inculcated in his unit. Even when individual squads and platoons were spread out in penny-packets all across the critical part of the front, the combat engineers of the 291st acted as if Pergrin were watching over their shoulders. Unlike many units, none of them disgraced themselves, all played a part in stopping the Germans, especially the Waffen SS Kampfgruppe of Jochen Peiper, the Nazi spearhead. An element of the 291st blew the bridge at Habiemont in front of him:

Only a few vehicles behind the lead tanks, Peiper heard and saw the bridge go. Up she went in rainbows and thunder, an expert, beautiful demolition job. Peiper could only only sit with a leaden heart and fact the fact that time and his luck had entirely run out on him. Though he would battle desperately for five more days to escape the box he was now caught in, it was here he faced the inevitable end. And he could only sit helplessly, pound his knee and swear, "The damned engineers! The damned engineers!" -- p. 261.

I put this post as a praxis because I believe it should be read by every American armed citizen as an example of the influence of character on command. Here is another snippet:

Shortly after Colonel Pergrin radioed for the Company A machine guns and gunners a runner arrived at his CP with the news that the road patrol on the back road to Spa had met the advance elements of the Norwegian Battalion who said they had been sent by First Army to reinforce Malmedy. A colonel was with them, the runner said. The colonel wanted to know how he should come into Malmedy.

This was the best news Pergrin had had all day. Finally a little help was arriving. "Tell him to stay on that back road," Pergrin told the runner. "Tell him the main road is under artillery fire. And bring the colonel to my CP."

At 10:00PM, Colonel H.D. Hansen and his Executive Officer, Major Bjornstad, arrived at Pergrin's command post. Not much time was wasted on formalities. Pergrin and Hansen were of the same rank, both lieutenant colonels. They shook hands and sat down to look at the map and study a reinforced defense line. Colonel Hansen had noticed the felled trees at the abatis roadblock on the back road. "How many men do you have here?" he asked.

"Approximately a hundred and eighty," Pergrin said.

Hansen stared at him, unbelievingly. "One hundred and eighty! And you stayed here? My God, man, why didn't you run like hell?"

Pergrin did not really know. It was a little bit of several things, probably. Because everything else got out, he got stubborn and would not. And then that little Battery got it in the neck, and the SS troops had brutally murdered them, and something in him just dug in his toes and he would not join the pell-mell retreat going on all around him. There was undoubtedly much anger. But there was moreover that iron sense of duty he so constantly preached to the 291st. And there was the good engineer's knowledge that he might at least delay the enemy for a while with his mines and demolitions. And of course, and not least, there was just plain guts. What he could do, he would do, for as long as he could. -- pp. 198-199.

The "Malmedy Massacre" -- eighty four American prisoners shot down at the Five Points crossroads at Baugnez, south of Malmedy, Belgium, in cold blood by the Waffen SS troops of Jochen Peiper, 17 December 1944. It was the 291st Engineers who rescued the survivors of the massacre and got the word out to the rest of the army.

Pergrin had interviewed the 17 survivors his battalion had rescued and passed their stories on to higher headquarters as soon as possible.

The decision to give wide publicity to the massacre was implemented immediately. By midnight it had gone into almost every unit of First Army, and by the next day very few GIs in the entire U.S. Army had not heard of the Malmedy Massacre.

It had the opposite effect from that which Hitler had expected when he ordered that this offensive be waged ruthlessly and without pity. This had worked on his onslaughts before, because the helpless civilians of overrun countries had to live with his hordes. It did not work with U.S. soldiers. Instead of dissolving the men of the U.S. Army into whimpering, cowering, panicky men, the massacre became the psychological turning point. It turned the vast conglomeration of careless, casual, nonchalant GIs into soldiers. It stiffened them, determined them, and its total effect was to weld them together again. After December 17 the U.S. Army had one more reason for defeating the enemy -- to avenge the men of Malmedy. -- pp. 181-182.

The few times I could get my Uncle Bill Vanderboegh, who served with Patton's Third Army, to talk about the war, he brought up two things that to him condemned all things German -- the concentration camps he helped liberate and the Malmedy Massacre. For a while after Malmedy, it was real hard for a Waffen SS man to get his surrender accepted without a getting bullet instead. Yet without Pergrin "sticking" in Malmedy against all odds, SGT Bill Vanderboegh and the American army would not have found out about the massacre at Five Points for weeks, if not months. Here again we see the consequences of character.

I highly recommend reading The Damned Engineers. Though now out of print, it is available at many libraries, or by library loan.



Pericles said...

The character of the commander is indeed a key to creating a "crack" unit. Even on active duty, the Army realized it had only chosen well for battalion commanders 2 out of 3 times. The ratio was even lower in the Guard and Reserve.

We can go back in history to see the effect this has on militia units. Check out the 5th Maryland at the battle of Bladensburg in 1814. A detachment of Marines and the 5th Maryland provided the only impediment to the British Army (withdrawing from the field only when ordered to do so), and bought what time there was to evacuate Washington. Good leaders build good units capable of functioning even when the leader is not personally present.

Anonymous said...

I can understand your Uncle Bill. My father, veteran of North Africa, Sicily, Normandy and an early liberator of Dachau, felt much the same way about Germans as your uncle.
When posted to Germany in the early 1960s, a pompous German (of his age and certainly a veteran of the Wehrmacht) asked, "Well, Major S****, now that you've lived in Germany a few years, what do you think of Germans now?" His answer was, "I think we should have killed more of them after the war."

B said...

Sappers lead the way!


jdege said...

I first read it, 25 years ago, when it was listed on the recommended readings at the Engineer Officer's Basic Course.

The 291st was cut off from communication. Pergrin had his men rig the bridges on his own authority. The Lt who ordered that bridge blown did so on his own initiative, after seeing a couple of tanks crest the hill.

It wasn't until many years later that anyone worked out just how many tanks were on the other side of the hill - and what would have happened had they crossed that last bridge.

BrianF said...

Thanks for pointing this read out for us Mike. My wife's Grandfather was a General with the 101st Engineers during WW2 (started in the Cav during WW1)This should make a good read.

Anonymous said... also has this book, but it's listed for $30.95. ouch


Anonymous said...

Pericles ratio is way off wrong - its more like 1/3 active duty battalion commanders are worth a damn, and worse as you go higher; that comment on Guard and Reserve needs a little more data to back it up. Been there, done that: AD, AD training NG and Reserves, AD deployed with Guard and Reserves; simply not true that their commanders do not match up. (I'm AD retired).

Ex Pluribus Unum said...

See also John S. D. Eisenhower's "The Bitter Woods" ...

explach said...

Courage in battle matters, and this right here is hard proof.

tjbbpgobIII said...

In todays army or other forces I am afraid the word about a Malmandy would never be allowed to be released for other troop to enrage them into holding at all cost. Instead one of these new bean counters in charge would arrest anyone for a little extra legal killing of the enemy. Read todays headlines.

ebd10 said...

As an interesting aside, one of the survivors of the Malmedy Massacre is actor Charles Durning.

tjbbpgobIII said...

Oh, Mike if your uncle is still with us please thank him for the rest of us. My ex-brother in law served at Bastogine with the 101st and received a Silver Star there for rescuing his captain who was wounded and under heavey fire outside the wire. I have never seen anyone else who could kill a dove on the winf with either a MI Grande or a Springfield.

neal said...

My dad felt the same way about the Japanese. He had two ships sunk out from under him by Japanese subs during WW II. In fact, I am named after his best friend who was killed when the Helena went down in Kula Gulf.

Chuck Martel said...

I suggest that you also read "The G.I. journal of Sergeant Giles (Studies in military engineering)" by Henry Giles, Janice Holt Giles' husband. Sgt. Giles was in the 291st and inspired her to write "The Damned Engineers".

suek said...

Wow...did you ever get a good deal! Better figure out what makes certain volumes "collectibles"...!

Anonymous said...

hey jdege,

it's sitting on my shelf too.
Ft Belvoir in summer of 85

lead the way!

anom ├žause no grid accounts

aughtsix said...

The unofficial motto of the Combat Engineers:

"First we dig 'em... then we die in 'em!"

It takes an unusual degree of intestinal fortitude to perform the many tasks of construction, or destruction, while under fire.

As to the preeminence of character as a determinant of outcome, one need only look to the negative example of the present "leadership" of the Nation... which is the result of the Left's attempt to guarantee the "equality" of outcomes.

Comparisons of the character of our forebears (whether of the era of the Founding or of the defense of Liberty in WW II) with our own of the present day, leave me less than hopeful of the possibility that we will pass forward the torch of Liberty.


Anonymous said...

This story of the 291 st Combat engineers is not the total truth. They tell it as if they were the only unit in the town of Stavelot Belgium and they rushed there to stop the SS Panzer advance.
My father's combat engineer unit the 202 nd Company C had been in Stavelot for days before the Battle of the Bulge and the bridge was wired before the 291 st had even arrived.The 291 st act as if they were the total Army in Stavelot and even mention they only had 13 men trying to blow the bridge when my Father's 202 bd Combat Engineer Company C had over 110 men there in Stavelot for days before 12-17-1944.
I have read many times about the 291 st but each time they leave out any mention of the 202nd Combat Engineers Company C. My Father and his fellow engineers fought in Stavelot and they to deserve to be recognized fir their sacrifice as much as does the 291 st.
Sincerely...Tim Cullen son of Raymond Wesley Cullen 202 nd Combat Engineers Company C

tjbbpgobIII said...

Pericles; I had a friend (now deceased) who worked at a steel factory that was taken over back in the 80's. He was an 82nd Airborne from WWII. He had a lot of Airborne, relating to the 82nd. on his briefcase. A young Japanese manager of the new company ask him what all of that was on his briefcase. His answer to that was 'if WWII had lasted any longer no Jap in his right mind would have had to ask that question' and I paraphrase his remarks. He was soon after that remark, fired, with no pension, no benefits and no good references to help him get another job. He just had to retire on SS.

Anonymous said...

Charles Hensel listed in the book was a friend of mine. He was one of the 13 men that stopped the Germans at Stavelot & also cleaned up the massacre at Malmedy. No better man ever lived & it was an honor to call him a friend.