Old soldier remembers the Hurtgen Forest and Battle of the Bulge during WWII

Maj. Fred Winterbottom of "The Village on the Isles" in Venice, Fla. is pictured when he served with NATO forces in Europe after World War II. Photo provided

Fred Winterbottom has been a soldier for most of his 92 years. Winterbottom, who lives at the Village on the Isles retirement complex in Venice, Fla. with his wife, Gwen, saw service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

A member of the 28th Infantry Division, he fought in the the Hurtgen Forest and in the Battle of the Bulge, two of the largest engagements of World War II.

“The Germans built the Siegfried Line through the Hurtgen Forest, 50 square miles of trees. They constructed concrete pillboxes with 3-foot-thick walls protecting machine guns and artillery,” Winterbottom said. “They had perfect fields of fire, with thousands of mines in front of each pillbox. We were supposed to attack that.”

Winterbottom was a captain. His job was battalion intelligence officer.

“By the time the 28th Division moved into the Hurtgen Forest, four other American infantry divisions had already been chewed up in those woods fighting the Germans, without gaining a yard of significant ground,” Winterbottom recalled. “The 11 months I spent in Europe in 1944 and 1945 fighting in the hellhole of the Hurtgen Forest was the worst.

“It was so terribly dark in there. During the day, I would pray for darkness and at night it was so bad and cold I would pray for daylight. It was so dark and rainy and the whole time we were in the forest we never had one day of air support. Never!” Winterbottom said.

By the time the 28th Division emerged from the woods on Nov. 14, 1944, “… only 300 to 400 soldiers of the more than 800 in our battalion survived. All of the officers in the four rifle companies that comprised our battalion had been killed or wounded,” Winterbottom said. “The 28th Division suffered 6,194 combat casualties during its 350-day fight. An additional 738 men developed trench foot, and 620 more 28th Division soldiers were suffering battle fatigue.”

What was left of Winterbottom’s division was sent to regroup and rearm in Luxembourg. They were given new clothes and equipment, good housing and excellent food while they recovered from the battering they suffered at the hands of the German army.

“Our division was assigned a 25-mile front, more than five times the area I was told a division should protect when I attended infantry school at Fort Benning, Ga.,” he said. “Both generals (Dwight D.) Eisenhower and (Omar) Bradley assured us the Ardennes sector of the front we were protecting would remain quiet.

“At 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 16, 1944, in the middle of a snowstorm, the Germans surprised us by attacking with 20 divisions in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge,” Winterbottom said. “The 28th Infantry Division was attacked by six German divisions.”

The weather was miserable. Temperatures fell to 10-degrees below zero and two feet of snow covered the ground.

It was the worst winter in Europe in 50 years.

Fred Winterbottom looks through 32 pages of handwritten notes he wrote to help him remember decades of military service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Sun photo by Don Moore

“On Dec. 24, 1944, with 200 men under my command, we were attacked and encircled by a much larger German unit. Suddenly, there was the chattering of heavy equipment approaching us from the rear as we hid in the bushes along a road,” he said. “To our overwhelming joy I jumped out of the bushes when I realized they were Americans, and told the captain in command in the lead vehicle there was a large number of German soldiers a short distance ahead.

“They charged ahead in their half-tracks with machine guns blazing. They were the advance guard of Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. Today, I still thank Gen. Patton for saving my life. He was a great man,” Winterbottom said.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, May 4, 2009 and is republished with permission.

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