Tiger Hunting in the Ardennes

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On 16 December 2015, I was lucky enough to be in the Belgian Ardennes, exactly 71 years since Hitler launched the Battle of the Bulge. It was gloomy, foggy and very wet, and I decided to do a spot of tiger hunting. I would follow the route taken by Kampfgruppe Peiper, the lead armoured fist of the elite 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler in its drive towards the Meuse River.

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SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Jochen Peiper’s battle group crossed through the Losheim Gap into Belgium on 16 December 1944.

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The unit, with SS Panzer Abteilung 501’s massive King Tigers in the vanguard, took an American fuel dump at Honsfeld before continuing on to Malmedy. I drove first to Malmedy from Germany, site of the infamous Malmedy Massacre when a reconnaissance unit of the 1st SS Panzer executed over 80 American prisoners-of-war in cold blood. History buffs will enjoy the nearby Baugnez 44 Historical Center, with its superb collection of exhibits and more information about the dark event that forever carries the name of the local town.

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Moving on from Malmedy through the thick pine forest, I followed Kampfgruppe Peiper’s original route to the village of Trois-Ponts. On 18 December 1944 Peiper’s unit had run into stiff resistance at Stavelot. Leaving a blocking force in place, the bulk of Peiper’s forces had been directed to Trois-Ponts. However, when the SS arrived they discovered that American engineers had blown the bridges across the Ambleve River and were putting up stiff resistance.

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Peiper left another blocking force in position at Trois-Ponts and then headed for La Gleize. I too then swung north away from the Ambleve, climbing like Peiper up into hilly, wooded terrain towards Grand Coo on narrow country lanes that must have been ground to mud by King Tigers, eventually arriving after some GPS confusion at the tiny village of La Gleize.

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This village marked the limit of Peiper’s advance towards the Meuse, and outside the December 44 Historical Museum opposite La Gleize church stands one of the rarest tanks in existence – the Tiger II, or King Tiger. Perhaps even more extraordinary is the fact that this tank, 213, was actually abandoned by the SS almost exactly where it still stands today.

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It remains an incredibly powerful sight, an incongruously massive beast sitting impassively beside a narrow village road, its huge 88mm gun pointing across a shallow valley towards where American armoured forces were advancing to recapture the village 71 years ago.

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Kampfgruppe Peiper had captured the area around La Gleize without undue difficulty, but it had failed to secure another nearby American fuel dump. At this point, the SS simply ran out of fuel, and Peiper was forced onto the defensive.

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Although SS Panzer Abteilung 501 had 45 King Tiger’s on strength on 16 December 1944, many failed to make it far into Belgium to the constant mechanical difficulties. Some had been left at Stavelot and Trois-Ponts by Peiper to cover the flanks of his advance. Six made it intact to La Gleize. Peiper positioned King Tigers 213 and 221 near the church, their 88mm guns covering all approaches to the village from the east and southeast.

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Forced onto the defensive, Kampfgruppe Peiper defended a perimeter around La Gleize in the hope that the Luftwaffe could airdrop supplies of petrol to the stranded armour. But when the Luftwaffe tried, they dropped the fuel in the wrong area, right into the hands of the Americans. Below is a photo of one of the petrol containers dropped by parachute:

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On 22 December 1944 King Tigers 213 and 221 engaged US Sherman tanks from Task Force McGeorge at a range of 2,000 yards, as the American noose was tightened around La Gleize and Kampfgruppe Peiper became progressively surrounded. The two King Tigers scored many hits on the inferior US tanks, halting the column. But the remaining Shermans concentrated their fire at the two immobilised King Tigers.

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SS-Obersturmfuhrer Dollinger’s 213 had the front third of its massive gun blown off by a lucky shot, while SS-Untersturmfuhrer Hantusch’s 221 received damage to its reversing mechanism. Even if fuel now reached the battle group, these two tanks were now useless and were abandoned by their crews.

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When it became clear that he could expect no relief or fuel, Peiper decided to abandon his attack and retreat back to German lines. This meant abandoning all his vehicles, the SS walking 20 miles through the snow to reach safety. An astonishing 135 German vehicles were left behind in La Gleize alone, including all six King Tigers and 13 Panther tanks.

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By the summer of 1945 US Army clean-up crews had arrived at La Gleize to begun towing away wrecked vehicles for scrapping. King Tiger 213, owing to its being located up a narrow and curving little road outside the church, was the last to be removed. But just as it was being towed off, local bar owner Jenny Geenen ran outside and ‘bought’ the tank for a bottle of cognac. She believed that the tank should remain in La Gleize as a memorial to the village’s wartime suffering. Left to deteriorate until 1951, the King Tiger’s gun was repaired with parts from a couple of Panther tanks, before it was moved to its current position outside the war museum. In 1975 King Tiger 213 was overhauled and repainted. It remains a potent symbol of the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last throw of the dice in the West.

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Kill Hitler! The World’s First Suicide Bomber

‘Hitler is the arch enemy not only of Germany but of the world…A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defence of his convictions.’

Generalmajor Henning von Treskow, 1944

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His back ramrod straight, Rudolf von Gersdorff raised his right hand in the Nazi salute as Hitler entered the large covered courtyard. Outside, the thunder of applause still hung in the air from Hitler’s rousing and defiant speech to the assembled party faithful. Gersdorff looked at Hitler, careful to keep his face blank, as the Führer approached him. Hitler, who was slightly stooped by this stage of the war, was dressed in his customary field grey jacket and black trousers, his valet Heinz Linge just a step behind him carrying Hitler’s grey and brown cap. Flanking the Führer were several tough-looking RSD bodyguards in grey SS officers uniforms, their gloved hands never straying far from their pistol holsters. Gersdorff’s right hand remained in its rigid ‘German greeting’ while his left hand quickly and surreptitiously reached into his tunic pocket. He set the fuse to the bomb that he was carrying and spoke: ‘Heil, mein Führer!’ Hitler barely acknowledged him, just slightly raising his own right hand in a perfunctory salute. Gersdorff smiled inwardly – in just a few minutes this monster would be dead and Germany would be saved.

With the debacle of Stalingrad in early 1943 finally revealing the military incompetence of Hitler’s leadership, as well as his evident willingness to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of German soldiers in such a needless battle, the mood in Germany was both depressed and shocked. It was probably the best time to launch a successful coup against the Nazi government. ‘A successful undertaking at that time might, despite the recently announced ‘Unconditional Surrender’ strategy of the Allies, have stood a chance of splitting them,’ notes Sir Ian Kershaw. ‘The removal of the Nazi leadership and offer of capitulation in the west…would at any rate have placed the western Allies in a quandary about whether to respond to peace-feelers.’

But the plotters had much to lose, and although they schemed and encouraged, they were unlikely to raise a hand personally against Hitler. Any attempt on the Führer’s life would have been suicidal, and such self-sacrificial behaviour was left to more hotheaded junior officers. This posed a serious problem for the resistance, for, as the war continued, Hitler’s security began to limit the numbers and the ranks of the officers who could be in his presence, perhaps sensing a latent threat from particular groups.

Though attempting to kill Hitler would be a virtual suicide mission, one officer, Rittmeister Eberhard von Breitenbuch, had already contemplated shooting Hitler using a concealed pistol at the Berghof, but the plot was thwarted at the last minute. Breitenbuch was not the only young patriot to step forward and volunteer to do the unthinkable. One such officer, Oberst Count von Stauffenberg, summed up the feeling among the German Resistance: ‘Since the generals have up to now managed nothing, the colonels have now to step in.’

One such colonel was Oberst Rudolf Christoph Baron von Gersdorff who said to von Treskow a few days after Breitenbuch’s failed attempt on Hitler’s life: ‘It must be done. This is our only chance…Hitler must be cut down like a rabid dog.’ Gersdorff, Head of the Staff Section at Army Group Centre had just volunteered to become the world’s first suicide bomber.

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Gersdorff volunteered to kill Hitler when he discovered that he had been selected to act as a tour guide while the Führer perused captured Soviet weaponry at the Zeughaus, the old Berlin Arsenal, on the Unter den Linden.

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The Zeughaus in 2016

It was part of the celebrations for Heroes Memorial Day. Gersdorff believed that he had a real chance at killing Hitler because he would be close to him for about thirty minutes. He ruled out using a pistol, as he believed that the security would be too tight at the event and that Hitler’s RSD bodyguards would shoot him down before he had a chance to take proper aim. It was also suspected by the plotters that Hitler routinely wore a bulletproof vest under his tunic. Gersdorff first decided instead to blow Hitler up by planting a bomb in his speaker’s rostrum shortly before Hitler arrived to deliver his annual speech.

Gersdorff flew to Berlin on 20 March with Generalfeldmarschall Walther Model, Commander-in-Chief of the Ninth Army, who would also be attending the ceremony. He carried two Clam Mines, small but powerful British explosive devices about the same size and thickness as a paperback book. Treskow had given these to him after he had retrieved them following the failed attempt on Hitler’s plane.

Gersdorff carried out a quiet and unobtrusive reconnaissance of the Zeughaus on the afternoon of 20 March and soon realised that planting a bomb was out of the question. Wherever Hitler would walk, stand or sit was carefully guarded or watched, so Gersdorff rejected any notion of a Georg Elser-style attack on the Führer. Instead, Gersdorff decided upon a radical course of action. He would conceal one of the clam mines in his pocket. As soon as Hitler entered the glass-covered Zeughaus courtyard where the exhibition of weaponry had been set up, Gersdorff would start the timer. He would then stand as close to Hitler as possible and die in the resulting explosion, hopefully taking Hitler with him. Gersdorff faced several significant problems. Firstly, he had no idea of Hitler’s security and guarding arrangements and whether he would be permitted to stand close enough to Hitler for the bomb to be lethally effective. He had noticed that the covered inner courtyard where the display was to be held was huge and airy – any detonation by a small bomb would be quickly dispersed. Secondly, and most importantly, he could not find a sufficiently short fuse; the best that he could manage was one of ten minutes. This meant that Gersdorff would have to closely shadow the Führer to keep him in range of the bomb blast. Would the RSD permit an officer to trail along behind Hitler after the Führer had moved on from Gersdorff’s section of the exhibit? It appeared unlikely, so Gersdorff resolved to try and engage Hitler in conversation whilst demonstrating the Soviet weapons to try and keep him close while the fuse counted down to destruction.

Gersdorff stood next to Model as Hitler entered the covered courtyard at the head of practically the entire senior Nazi leadership circle. Behind Hitler was Hermann Göring dressed incongruously in a white uniform of his own design and wearing red leather jackboots and wearing makeup. Heinrich Himmler’s cold eyes stared out from behind his wire-framed glasses, his lips pursed and disapproving while Hitler’s two senior military commanders, the tall, pompous and slightly rotund Generalfeldmarschall Keitel and Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, both men grasping their ornate rank batons in their right hands, followed behind the Nazis.

Hitler had already delivered his short speech outside, and Gersdorff had listened, as the German national anthem was played followed by the Horst Wessel, the Nazi’s unofficial anthem. Hitler now had thirty minutes to use up at the exhibition before the wreath laying ceremony commenced once more outside the Zeughaus.

Hitler moved towards Gersdorff’s section of the exhibition, the gallant Baron arming his bomb as the Führer approached. Gersdorff had ten minutes left to live and determined to kill Hitler he smiled and attempted to interest the Führer in the display of Soviet weaponry laid out on table before him. Hitler, a disinterested scowl on his face, moved along the tables with Gersdorff staying as close to Hitler as possible, all the time trying to talk to him. It is a measure of Gersdorff’s incredible bravery that he showed absolutely no outward sign of the impending and horrifically violent end of his life, carrying on as if everything were absolutely normal. The RSD guards never suspected a thing. But suddenly Hitler, instead of asking questions about the weapons, ‘went – or rather ran – out of the side door,’ recalled Gersdorff. ‘During his short tour around the exhibition, he had barely looked at anything and had not said a word.’  A tour that was supposed to have taken thirty minutes had lasted for barely two. Gersdorff considered attempting to follow Hitler from the courtyard but quickly realised that this forbidden behaviour would only alert the RSD and SS-Begleit-Kommando guards in the Führer’s vicinity and have led to his apprehension. Instead, Gersdorff made his excuses and locked himself inside a toilet cubicle. He frantically managed to disarm the bomb with only seconds to spare.

Later that same day a fellow army officer approached Gersdorff and jokingly explained how he could have ‘killed Adolf today.’ Hitler, he said, ‘drove very slowly in an open top car down Unter den Linden, right in front of my ground-floor room in the Hotel Bristol. It would have been child’s play to heave a hand-grenade over the sidewalk and into his car.’ Gersdorff, white faced, just stared at him blankly. The following day Baron von Gersdorff was transferred back to Army Group Centre on the Eastern Front and his plot to kill the Führer was never discovered.