In their new book and film, Voices of the Bulge, authors Martin King and Michael Collins provide new perspectives about and amplify new voices from one of the most intriguing and iconic battles of World War II -- the Battle of the Bulge. In Voices, the authors interview both German and American veterans, as well as civilians from the Ardennes region, to provide a uniquely balanced look at the engagement that shifted the tide of the war.
King and Collins recently took a moment to sit down with Zenith Press to discuss Voices of the Bulge and the awe-inspiring stories that fill its pages.
ZENITH PRESS: When did each of you first become intrigued by the Battle of the Bulge?
KING: I’ve always been interested in military history. My Grandfather had fought at Passchendale in the First World War, and I still have his medals. But it was while I was teaching European History at the university that I first heard about the Battle of the Bulge. I received a letter from Mr. James L. Cooley a 106th Division veteran (who appears in Voices of the Bulge). At his request I did some research on his unit and became absolutely engrossed in the story. Some months later I accompanied Mr. Cooley and his family back to the places he had fought in the Ardennes. That started me off 20 years ago. After that I wrote a paper on the Siege of Bastogne and began reading the works of McDonald, Toland and Whiting etc. They had all written excellent accounts of the battle, but they were also very subjective. Michael and I wanted to mildly emulate Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers approach. Get it from the horse’s mouth, for want of a better analogy. Unlike the previous authors, I live in quite close proximity to the actual area of the Ardennes where the battle occurred. As a result, I was able to jump in my car and visit whenever I liked. This gave me the possibility of really analyzing the battle from all angles.
COLLINS: The Battle of the Bulge is very personal for me. As I mention at the end of Voices of the Bulge, my grandfather fought in battle with the 10th Armored Division and survived despite the confusion, bitter cold, and difficult terrain. He never spoke of his experiences, and I never knew him, since he died before I was born. In 2005, my parents and I decided that we wanted to visit the D-day beaches in Normandy and also tour the Bastogne-area of Belgium. As it so happened, Martin showed us around. We started out early and, after seeing a few sites within Bastogne, Martin took us all over the Ardennes region, even into Luxembourg. It was the trip of lifetime to see the different places that I later heard veterans talk about, and it made my research even more fulfilling. I visit Martin in Belgium at least once a year, and it has become almost a second home to me. I had also read about the Battle of the Bulge through books by Toland and McDonald, but they were written over 50 years ago. I think we’ve learned so much more about it since then. Co-writing one has been a great journey. Hearing the stories from the veterans who fought in the battle gave me an even greater appreciation of the sacrifice they made during World War II.
ZENITH PRESS: In your view, what about the Battle of the Bulge sets it apart from so many other momentous battles of the past century?
KING: First, it was the largest land battle in US military history. The logistics alone were staggering. It occurred during a difficult time concerning Allied relations at ETO. Despite a certain lack of cohesion, they managed to rise to the challenge and show just how well they could deal with the situation when they had to. The numbers involved were also quite phenomenal.
COLLINS: Besides covering a large area of land, the Battle of the Bulge pitted a reinvigorated and relatively well-equipped German army against thinly spread out inexperienced American soldiers holding the line in the Ardennes. The tenacity and fighting spirit of these young soldiers, most notably the 106th Infantry Division, illustrated how difficult the fight would be for the confident Germans. Without these brave men fighting against all odds, the battle might have gone on much longer. These heroic veterans paint a more personal picture of the Battle of the Bulge.
ZENITH PRESS: For many Americans, the story of the Battle of the Bulge has almost exclusively been told from an Allied/U.S. perspective. Voices of the Bulge is much more even-handed, providing a strong voice to both the American and German sides of the story. What inspired you to take this approach?
KING: A battle is usually a multi-facetted encounter. We wanted our book to reflect the civilian experience as well as the combatants. Although the main focus is on US veterans, I think it was a good idea to get the Axis and civilian perspectives too. This gives the reader a more balanced view of the engagement as a whole. Moreover, I don’t think that we offer too many opinions in this volume. We decided early on to attempt to present as much information as possible and invite the reader to draw his or her own conclusions on the basis of the evidence presented.
COLLINS: The victors have always written the history of a war or a battle. We want the reader to be able to see what the Americans saw during the battle and how the Germans felt during the initial attack and subsequent retreat. A one-sided account leaves so many questions about how the other side felt during the same engagement. Having German veterans and civilians interspersed helped bring a balance to the book.
ZENITH PRESS: Opinions vary widely on why the Ardennes Offensive ultimately failed. Through your extensive research, what do you view as the prevailing reason(s) for the American victory over a better-equipped, better-manned German force?
KING: There are multiple reasons why the German offensive failed. I’ve always thought that one of the main reasons was the breakdown of ‘Command Control’ at OKW. From the Battle of Stalingrad onwards the German Generals were systematically being subjected to military emasculation by Adolph Hitler. The whole idea of command control was to empower the generals in the field, to delegate and allocate tasks secure in the knowledge that the appointed subordinate would execute these to the best of his ability. Command Control was about having enough confidence in the competence and skill of the generals to be able to trust their judgments implicitly. This system had worked incredibly well at the beginning of WWII, but by 1944 it was an altogether different atmosphere. Adolph Hitler’s growing paranoia and lack of faith in his generals severely undermined their talent, and many were replaced by nodding sycophants who were both incompetent and incapable of carrying out their duties. The only general capable of adequately speaking his mind in this climate of fear and repression was Walther Model, but his suggestions were largely ignored. Then there was the obvious problem of resources. The German army may have been technically superior to the Allied armies, but they simply lacked adequate resources. It also amazes me that some historians still refer to the Battle of the Bulge as the ‘Von Rundstedt Offensive,’ when in fact Von Rundstedt had very little to do with the eventual preparations and actual offensive.
COLLINS: Throughout World War II the German army was better equipped both technologically and experience-wise than the American army, but the Battle of the Bulge was the turning point. After campaigns in the desert, mountains, and beaches, it was the hills and forests of the Ardennes where the equalizer took place. The independent spirit of the American soldier helped them survive when the fighting became fierce. Twenty-year-old Americans led platoons of 18- and 19-year-old soldiers through the cold and fog. Some of their men had never seen snow before. Even inexperienced privates took control of difficult situations and rose to the occasion during the battle. During the interview process, many veterans told me how it was the leadership qualities of the average soldier that helped them the most during World War II. This was, in my opinion, one of the main reasons why the German army did not win the Battle of the Bulge.
ZENITH PRESS: With decades of military history research and study combined, the subject of the Battle of the Bulge is hardly new ground for either of you. With that said, did your extensive interviewing for Voices of the Bulge render any new or surprising pieces to what you already knew?
KING: The whole purpose of this volume is to uncover new perspectives on that battle and to effectively tell the story from the ground up. To get inside the hearts and minds of those who experienced it firsthand, if you will. Each chapter divulges what the veterans went through and what they knew at the time, but it also widens the parameters by proposing what they didn’t know. Through the centuries many battles have been appraised and reappraised often on the basis of new evidence and new opinions being submitted. That is also the case with Voices of the Bulge. These stories have never been heard or recorded before. They give a new insight into the terrifying and traumatic personal experience of the Battle of the Bulge.
COLLINS: Whether I interviewed a veteran who was an 18-year-old private who first saw action in the Battle of the Bulge, or a veteran from a military family who knew George Patton as a young child, I learned things that I never knew before. To be honest, many of these stories not only helped fill in many gaps in the history of the battle, but they also debunked a few previously established facts along the way.
ZENITH PRESS: The Ardennes Offensive is commonly viewed as Hitler’s last-ditch effort to regain momentum of a war that was slipping from his grasp. Did the German veterans you interviewed have any sense at the time of just how integral the offensive was to the German war effort – or the outcome of the war overall?
KING: There was great disparity of opinion amongst the German veterans. 12th SS Division veteran Hans Baumann told me that he thought that Hitler was an incompetent fool. I was quite taken aback by his modesty and humility, because that particular division had earned a reputation during the war of being quite fanatical. Baumann claimed that he had been press-ganged into joining the SS. The ‘Knights Cross’ holder Erwin Kressman was an entirely different case. He was the exact antithesis of Baumann. He was frequently arrogant to the point of belligerence and not in the slightest bit contrite. What doesn’t appear in the book is the rancorous argument that we filmed during an annual meeting of the German 116th Division in Nideggen. One of the other German veterans present accused Erwin Kressman of obtaining his ‘Knights Cross’ dishonestly. Kressman remained aloof and impervious throughout, but there were some vitriolic opinions exchanged that evening.
ZENITH PRESS: Of those you interviewed, what were the most noticeable differences between German and American attitudes and perspectives leading up to and during the battle?
KING: In general, leading up to the actual offensive, the Germans were very confident and morale was relatively high amongst the ranks. Their confidence was in some cases rapidly replaced by insecurity and distrust in their appointed leaders. The most apparent difference I encountered was in the attitudes in dealing with the situations as they arose. The Germans were quite intransigent, and it was their obvious incapacity to operate at anything less than regimental level that would determine the eventual outcome. Moreover, they preferred to stick to the plan, whereas the allies, particularly the US army, had an incredible capacity to adapt and use the resources at their disposal to the best of their ability. It was this polarity, intransigence and flexibility that determined the result. This ‘getting on with the job and making the best of it’ really epitomizes the American experience of the Bulge.
COLLINS: When I read the German interview transcripts that Martin sent over to me, I was struck by the difference in tone as opposed to that of the American soldier. Each German veteran offered a distinct perspective which I found fascinating.
ZENITH PRESS: In the U.S., the Battle of the Bulge has become as iconic as any battle in our country’s history—a true story of fighting against amazing odds in the worst of conditions and emerging victorious. How differently, if at all, is the battle remembered among Germans, whether it be veterans or the German public in general?
KING: For a start, most German veterans have the opinion that the Battle of the Bulge began when US forces entered the Hurtgen forest in September 1944, and not on December 16, as is written in most English language accounts. They refer to this as the first part of the offensive. Most German veterans acquiesce that the losses incurred during Operation ‘Wacht am Rhein’ were irrevocable and lead to the eventual collapse of Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, they still claim that the first part was a resounding victory for the Axis forces. The German public have long since lost the attitude of contrition that pervaded the 70’s and 80’s. The present generation is more analytical and studious concerning the Battle of the Bulge. That applies across the board to all elements of German involvement in WWII.
ZENITH PRESS: It is difficult to imagine the honor you must have felt at having been able to sit down and speak with such a remarkable group of veterans and civilians. Looking back on the experience, were there any interviews that stand out most in your mind?
KING: Both Mike and I have a reverence for these men and women that exceeds mere admiration. It was this reverence that excelled and inspired us to want to listen and record their stories. Mike interviewed more US veterans than I did, but the most emotional and engaging interview I personally conducted was the one I did with Congo born, black nurse Augusta Chiwy. Her story was completely riveting. The documents that Mike and I compiled about Augusta during the course of our research were submitted to Albert II King of Belgium who wrote to me personally and recommended her for a knighthood. This knighthood was awarded on June 24th, 2011. Voices of the Bulge changed someone’s life!
COLLINS: I agree with Martin about Augusta Chiwy. The fact that her whereabouts were unknown, especially after "Band of Brothers" became popular, was amazing. Meeting her in person was an honor, but every interview was special to me. The experience of being allowed to interview a veteran, who in some cases hadn’t talked about their experiences from over 65 years ago, will stay with me for the rest of my life.
ZENITH PRESS: At the end of the day, what is the one prevailing message you hope readers come away with after reading and viewing Voices of the Bulge?
KING: We hope that these ‘voices’ will touch the souls of those who encounter them. These are not ‘Supermen’ and ‘Superwomen’ they are just regular people who survived long enough to relate their stories. The least any of us can do is extend our utmost respect and gratitude to them for allowing us to glimpse into their past and see the world back then through their eyes. The most important message in Voices of the Bulge is that humans can rise to the challenge when confronted and overcome almost all adversity when they have to. The evidence of the endurance and tenacity of the human spirit is vividly depicted in the pages of this book. It doesn’t seek to glorify or vilify, and it doesn’t attempt to present the definitive account of the Battle of the Bulge. It simply presents the veterans stories and invites the reader to share the experience. Unfortunately, quite a few of our veterans passed away before the publication date, but we hope in our heart of hearts that their stories will live on. That’s why we wrote and compiled Voices of the Bulge.
COLLINS: The subject of memory and remembrance in history has been strong in the past decade. With many World War II veterans talking about their experiences due to movies such as “Saving Private Ryan” or through reunions with fellow veterans, oral history has been a major part of books on the subject. Voices of the Bulge includes only a small fraction of the men and women who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, but we believe their stories paint a picture of how large the battle was and the sacrifices made on both sides. We hope that Voices of the Bulge will preserve these veterans’ stories for many years to come.