His heart was racing a mile a minute. It might burst out of his chest if he dared to loosen his equipment. Tomorrow, if he lived to see it, would be his twenty-first birthday. That was seventy years ago today.
Artillery crashed on top of his position. His mind screamed with the concussions. Shrapnel ripped the air apart, relentlessly threatening to shred limbs and bodies.
First Lieutenant Lyle Bouck and his 18-man platoon had been in position only six days. His Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon was part of the 99th Division, a new and untested unit recently arrived from the States. The 99th was given a quiet part of the front so they could gain some experience.
The Germans, on the eve of their counteroffensive in the West that would become known as the Battle of the Bulge, must have been delighted with their stroke of luck.
Stay calm. Maybe they are just shooting artillery, he thought, as he peered through the morning mist covering the village of Lanzerath, the tiny Belgian town a few hundred meters away.
Lyle Bouck and his men felt alone in a snow-covered wood line, staring into Germany.
Whew! The blasts of artillery began to move off further west.
And that is when the problems really began.
His scouts reported German paratroopers, lots of them, coming into Lanzerath. “Go back and verify” was the skeptical response from his higher headquarters. It would not be the last frustrating transmission from the other end of the radio.
Lyle verified the report. German paratroopers in battalion strength had occupied the village. “What are my orders?”
“Hold at all costs!” The panic at the other end was evident. A fight against roughly 30:1 or greater odds.
Mass confusion had taken hold of the Division and Regimental leadership. This was a crisis they were insufficiently prepared to handle. The Division Commander was seen playing his piano.
The fog had begun to recede. “Get ready to fire!” Lyle ordered, as Germans moved along the road to his East – take as many as you can with you.
A young girl ran out of a house and pointed the Germans to Bouck’s position. He was compromised.
The German battalion began a frontal assault over open ground. Lyle’s platoon fended off three such attacks. The Germans suffered hundreds of killed and wounded.
Lyle requested artillery support. None would come. The order was repeated to hold at all costs. Shrapnel destroyed his radio, severing the only link with the Regiment.
Dusk approached. Two of his men were dead and several wounded. The platoon was nearly out of ammunition. Lyle struggled with the decision whether to withdraw and possibly face a court martial for failing to obey his last orders, or to keep fighting.
The Germans made the decision for him. An experienced German NCO named Vince Kühlbach convinced his battalion commander to allow him to lead a flank attack. They were on top of the American platoon before the latter knew what was happening.
Lyle and his men would spend the rest of the war as prisoners. When people would ask about his experiences, Lyle would note that he was told to hold at all costs, he fought until nearly out of ammunition, then was surrounded and captured. For years he felt like a failure and guilty for the lives lost and shattered.
Roughly forty years later, John D. Eisenhower was doing research for his book, Bitter Woods. He noted what a close-run thing the Battle of the Bulge had become, and wanted to uncover the key actions that led to the delays and demise of the German attack.
One of those key events was the American stand at Lanzerath.
Lyle and his platoon had delayed the German main attack for several critical hours. The armored column known as Kampfgruppe Peiper was to wait until the Parachute Regiment had seized key crossroads by mid-day on the 16th. Peiper did not move until the morning of the 17th. By December 21, he was trapped near La Gleize, Belgium, defeated.
Many works rightly cite 1LT Bouck’s skill and bravery. But what can we glean from the failures of his senior leaders?
1. Crisis Management Rehearsals. The panicked order to “Hold at all costs,” reflected insufficient preparation for crisis. Wargames and rehearsals for how to handle a German attack should have been among the first orders of business for the Division, and would have reduced the tendency toward ill-conceived guidance. An order to delay, for instance, may have had the same overall effect on the situation at less cost.
How well has your business rehearsed crisis management plans?
2. Get to the Scene. There is no evidence that any leadership or staff made any effort to get to the scene to re-establish communications and to see the situation personally. Had they done so, they could have better assessed the situation and perhaps pulled Bouck’s unit back a couple of kilometers to strengthen the defensive position at a critical crossroads called Buchholz Station. The Americans there were quickly swept aside by the Germans the next morning.
What are your plans to gain situational awareness at the critical points and times?
3. Every Person and Organization is Critical. If your enterprise is properly organized, every team and individual is a key part of your success or failure. In every critical situation, the people and teams at the point of contact, like Bouck’s platoon, will have an outsized effect – for good or for ill. Do they feel appreciated or hung out to dry when things go wrong?
What are you doing to make your people and teams feel supported and appreciated?
After the history was written, Bouck’s platoon received the Presidential Unit Citation. His was the most highly decorated platoon for a single action in the European Theater of Operations.
To read more about Lyle Bouck and his platoon see:
Cole C. Kingseed, Old Glory Stories: American Combat Leadership in World War Two;