Noville is an Old World farming village in rustic Belgium, roughly 100 miles from Brussels. The surrounding terrain is postcard material, framed by rolling hillsides, emerald pastures, and gentle streams. From end to end, the village spans less than a few city blocks, and in the mere seconds it might take you to traverse the main road, an occasional cow might cross in front of you. – by Andy Kutler, Author.
Common to this corner of the world, the handful of structures in Noville are clustered around a centuries-old church, one displaying an extraordinary tribute to a little-known chapter of American military history that few outside the village boundaries have ever heard of. It is a modest shrine, nestled in the church’s small alcove, dedicated to a small detachment of American soldiers from long ago. And as we near the 75th anniversary of a momentous clash that proved so pivotal to the war in Europe, their story merits more attention.
The Battle of the Bulge is considered by most military scholars as the greatest campaign in the storied history of the United States Army. It began late in the war, six months after the Allied invasion of Normandy, with the Germans on their heels, reeling from losses and ongoing retreats across most of France, Italy, Holland, and Belgium. By December, 1944, the Allies were on the cusp of final victory, preparing to deliver the knockout blow and sweep into Germany itself. Or so they thought. Despite numerous warning signs, the Allied high command was caught unaware of the colossal force Hitler had secretly amassed along one of the front’s quietest sectors, across the Belgian border from a heavily-wooded region known as the Ardennes.
The Allies should have paid more attention to history. It was the Ardennes that the German Army stormed through in 1914, and again in 1940. And with their failure to learn from the past, the Allies were condemned to repeat it. In the early morning hours of December 16, 1944, 30 German divisions – numbering more than 200,000 men and 1,000 tanks – smashed through the American lines, held by a paltry three divisions, two of which were untested in combat and freshly-arrived from the United States.
As the German forces punched into Belgium across an 80-mile front, Allied commanders tried to sort through the chaos and make sense of what was unfolding. They did not know Hitler’s outlandish objective – to drive his potent but fuel-starved armor all the way to the Belgian port of Antwerp and split the American and British armies in two – but it was evident the German force was massive and moving with great speed. Every map at Allied headquarters told the same story, and all eyes fell upon Bastogne, a small Belgian town sitting atop a juncture of seven highways. Any drive westward by the German armor required the taking of the town and those paved roads. Without Bastogne, the German offensive would grind to a halt. Reinforcing the town before the Germans arrived became imperative, and the race was on.
What happened in Bastogne has become revered storytelling, and what a tale it is. The elite 101st Airborne Division, the closest American fighting force, would comprise the town’s main defense. But the weary division was more than 100 miles away, recuperating in northern France after months of intensive fighting from Normandy to Holland. The 101st was hastily ordered into trucks – with just the ammunition and rations they carried – and rushed to Bastogne.
The “Screaming Eagles” would not, however, be the first reinforcements to arrive. That distinction belonged to a brigade-size component of the 10th Armored Division, also bivouacked in northern France and recovering from their first action of the war. Urgently mobilized, forward elements of the 10th Armored began rolling into Bastogne hours before the 101st Airborne would arrive. They would not stay long.
Those in command quickly grasped the urgency of slowing the German advance before it reached the still undefended town. Three detachments of 10th Armored tanks and infantry were quickly dispatched to villages on the outskirts of Bastogne with orders to block the main approaches into town. In command of one of those teams was 26-year-old Major William Desobry, who led his small force of 15 tanks and 400 men into Noville, just five miles from Bastogne. Team Desobry, as it was known, dug in and began establishing their perimeter defenses and road blocks, as a haze of fog settled over the village, further blinding men already operating in the early morning darkness and bone chilling December cold. What they could not see just a short distance away, and had no intelligence on, was the enemy force quickly closing in on their position. It was the entire German 2nd Panzer Division, a crack outfit with more than 130 tanks and 16,000 veteran troops.
The two sides collided in those pre-dawn hours. Many of the details of what unfolded in Noville are dramatized in my new historical fiction novel, “The Batter’s Box.” Simply put, if not for the skill and resolve of the 10th Armored men in impeding the German advance toward Bastogne, the vital crossroads would have surely been lost. After holding out for nearly two days, the surviving remnants of the 10th Armored eventually withdrew from their outposts, joining the paratroopers in what became an epic stand to hold Bastogne. Greatly outnumbered and cut off from resupply and reinforcement, the surrounded Americans held out for five more days in sub-freezing temperatures, lacking food, ammunition, and medicine. In response to the German demand for surrender, the American commander famously and defiantly replied, “Nuts.” The day after Christmas, General Patton’s Third Army tanks arrived from France and broke through the German stranglehold. Within a month, the Battle of the Bulge was over, but not before extracting a terrible toll on both sides, with more than 100,000 German and 80,000 American casualties. Unable to replenish their losses, it was a decisive defeat for Germany, and three months later, the war in Europe officially ended.
The siege of Bastogne is today center stage in Army lore. The doggedness and grit of the paratroopers has been justly celebrated in literature and film, most notably in the landmark HBO series, “Band of Brothers.” The contributions of the 10th Armored, however, are too often overlooked and underappreciated. The division was instrumental in changing the course of that historic battle, and leaders like William Desobry deserve wider recognition.
The village of Noville agrees. The community was mostly obliterated during the fighting, with hardly a single house, barn, or other structure left standing. The villagers who hid in cellars or fled before the fighting began returned to mostly burning mounds of rubble. They rebuilt their homes, renamed one of the main roads the Rue du Général Desobry, and resolved to preserve the story of the Americans who fought so valiantly on their ground.
Anyone visiting the reconstructed church today can hear the story of Noville, directly from the man who was at its center, courtesy of a video display. Filmed perhaps in the early 1980s, the video features an aging but still-spry William Desobry, newly-retired as a three-star Army general. Standing before family and former colleagues in the village center, with cars and trucks whisking by, Desobry recounts his experience from decades ago. As the words pour out on screen, Desobry is charismatic, likeable, and in command, just as he was 40 years earlier before he was grievously wounded, evacuated from Noville, and then captured by the Germans. It’s a vivid, gripping account, and like so many other war veterans who have retraced their footsteps, it is clear Desobry can remember every sight, sound, and smell from those fateful December days and nights. His words are tinged with emotion, humor, and still, decades later, a hint of awe over what he and his men accomplished against impossible odds.
He remembers. Noville remembers. And 75 years later, we should all remember.
Andy Kutler is an award-winning author and writer living in Arlington, Virginia. His latest book, “The Batter’s Box” (Warrior Publishing Group) is available from Amazon, Barnes and March-Noble, and other fine bookstores on 12 March 2019.