Disaster strikes at Sainlez

During the Ardennes Offensive, elements of Oberstleutnant Gröschkes Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15 (of the 5. Fallschirmjäger Division) occupied Sainlez and its surrounding area.

This unit was supported by assault guns (Sturmgeschütze III) of Fallschirm-Sturmgeschütz Brigade XI (commanded by Oberstleutnant Georg Hollunder).

December 25, 1944.

Combat Command A of the 4th Armored Division was slugging its way towards Bastogne, roughly following the N4 main road leading to the besieged town. The American force already had a rough time at Martelange and especially at Warnach the preceding days.

Over the skies above Honville and Sainlez, P-47 “Thunderbolt” fighter planes started to appear, ready to attack the German positions in that area. Soon, these planes were strafing and bombing anything that moved. American artillery also did its work by shelling known and presumed enemy positions, adding to the destruction already caused by the air force.

The P-47s belonged to the 9th United States Army Air Force’s 362nd Fighter Group (377th Fighter Squadron).

After having strafed a German vehicle at the crossroads of Honville, and killed a civilian, the P-47 Thunderbolts approached Sainlez like a swarm of wasps.

There, one of the pilots noticed a “Sturmgeschutz” (German assault gun) parked between a house and the village forge. He zeroed in on the target and released his bombs. One of them hit the fully resupplied assault gun (with fuel and ammunition).

The result was devastating. The blast obliterated not only the assault gun, but everything in its immediate area.

When American artillery started pounding the village, the Bihain and Goosse farms were transformed into shelters. Some seventy people filled the first, about forty others occupied the second.

A little down the road from the Sainlez church, the Grégoire forge was organized as a third shelter. Under the vault of the stable, next to the forge, M. Gustave Grégoire, his wife and children (Maria and Eloi) had sought shelter, together with his sister-in-law (Marie Talbot).

On Christmas Day, the shelling became even more intense and forced the German paratroopers to take cover. They occupied the cellar of the Didier house, driving out the family at the same time: Mr. Joseph Didier and his seven children: Marie-Angèle (16 years old), Alice (15 years old), Renée (13 years old ), Lucille (11 years old), Bernadette (9 years old), Lucien (8 years old) and Noël (6 years old).

This family joined the thirty people in the Grégoire house. Mr. Didier and his children had hardly reached the barn when American planes appeared over Sainlez. And then one of the pilots noticed the German assault gun …

Only one person escaped the resulting carnage from the blast: Mme Valentin-Gossiaux, a native of Rochefort but living in Marvie. The body of Mr. Eloi Grégoire was found in the fields, one hundred meters from the barn. 

Among the 30 civilian casualties was a German paratrooper who was buried in the grave of a family in Sainlez. When this family needed space in the vault a few years later, the body of the German soldier was moved and buried somewhere else at the cemetery.

A widowed father, Mr. Didier, and seven of his children were killed in this bombardment. 

His eldest son, a refugee in Carlsbourg, returned home to Sainlez after the battle, only to find nobody of his family alive.

At the end of February 1945, recovery teams cleared the ruins and tried to identify the bodies buried there.

Thanks to “La Mémoire Civile 1940-1945” for helping in creating this article. This organization has a museum (in the only building that was left standing!), as well as a documented walk in the area dedicated to the events that happened in and around Sainlez. 

Photos: US Army (Signal Corps) photos, Bundesarchiv, “La Mémoire Civile 1940-1945”, Google.

Maps by Erwin Verholen.

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