"They have us surrounded. The poor bastards!"
U.S. paratrooper of 101st Airborne Division in December 19
THE SIEGE OF BASTOGNE
’Nuts’—thus replied Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, the U.S. commander in Bastogne and the deputy commander of the 101st Airborne Division, when the Germans urged him to surrender on 22 December 1944. This expression could just as well be used to summarize the completely mad and furious battle that raged for this small Belgian town. During a couple of bloody winter weeks, both Americans and Germans deployed the best of what they had available on the Western Front in a tug of war over who would ultimately come out on top in the ruins of Bastogne. How many human lives this claimed has never been possible to determine, but close to sixty percent of the town was destroyed, as well as most of the eighty villages and smaller communities that lay within a ten-mile radius of the town. In this area of death and destruction, forests were burned and sooty, and fields plowed up by countless shells were riddled with smashed, twisted and burned military equipment of all kinds. This is the story of the Battle of Bastogne.
Bastogne is an ancient communications hub. Here, on the plains between the hilly areas around Wiltz in the east and at Houffalize and La Roche in the northwest, everything from nomads in prehistory to later-day traders and armies have passed in a north - south direction. In 1944 the town had a population of about four thousand people, and had an important station on the railway between Libramont in the southwest and Sankt Vith in the north. Several of the most important roads in the region converged here— roads leading from Sankt Vith and Houffalize in the north, from Clervaux in the east, from Arlon and Neufchâteau in the south, and from Marche in the west. It was the most important communications hub in the area where the 5. Panzerarmee was advancing on its march towards the Meuse. Therefore, in his instructions for Operation ’Wacht am Rhein’/ ’Herbstnebel,’ Hitler had particularly stressed how important it was to take this town. The fact that U.S. 101st Airborne Division reached the town before the Germans, was a serious dash of the Nazi dictator’s plans.
The town itself was no more about a mile and a half in length from the southwest to the northeast along the railway line Libramont - Sankt Vith, and extended about a thousand yards from the west to the east. But the battle for Bastogne was no urban warfare. The battle was fought in the surrounding villages, on the major fields that spread out to the north, the west, the south and the east of the town, and in the forests in the northeast and the southwest.
Since the Germans on 18 December had conquered Neffe east of Bastogne, this was the frontline just outside the entrance to the city, but to assault in this area, the attacker would have to advance across almost completely flat plains against a defender—the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment—which was entrenched in stone buildings. To the north and the south of Neffe, the same open landscape spread out, over which the Americans had a perfect view from their higher-lying positions in Bastogne (the altitude difference is up to 200 feet). On the other side of the railway line between Bastogne and Bizory, northeast of the city, about two and a half miles from the population center, the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment held positions in the planted forest Bois Jacques—where the spruce trees stood close, in straight rows—and also on both sides of the main road from Bastogne to Houffalize in the north. About a thousand yards west of this highway, the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment took over. Its defensive positions were anchored at Longchamps and Monnaville—three miles north-northwest of Bastogne—from where the defenders dominated the fields between the American positions and the forests a bit farther away in the north, the west and the east. This Regiment’s 1st Battalion also held Champs, three miles northwest of Bastogne. Here again, just like further south, the landscape was dominated by open fields. In the area just north of the main road from Bastogne to Marche, a forward position was held at Flamierge, about four miles northwest of Bastogne, by the 1st Battalion, 401st Glider Infantry Regiment—incorporated into the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment as its 3rd Battalion. Four miles farther to the southeast, south of the main road and two miles west of Bastogne, the 1st Battalion, 327th Glider Infantry Regiment had taken up positions in the village of Senonchamps. Here the Germans had the advantage of being able to hide their attack preparations in the forest Bois de Fragotte just west of Senonchamps. The 327th Glider Infantry Regiment also was responsibile for the defense south and southeast of Bastogne. To the south, just outside of Bastogne’s industrial area, the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion, subordinateto the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, had established its positions. Another two miles to the east, slightly more than a mile southeast of Bastogne, the 2nd Battalion of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment held the village of Marvie. On this battalion’s left (northern) flank stood the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment east of Bastogne. In all, the American lines around Bastogne extended over a length of some twenty miles. The surrounded area was at most sixmiles wide from the west to the east and five miles deep from the north to the south.
Bastogne in the winter of 1944/1945. The photograph, taken from the east-northeast, clearly shows the open fields that dominated the landscape around Bastogne. (US Army)
Since many people had fled from Bastogne and the surrounding villages during the three days preceding the closing of the German ring around the town, and the acting mayor Leon Jacquin had ensured that large amounts of flour were brought into the city, plus the fact that meat and dairy products could be received from farms within the encircled area, there was no immediate food shortage. However, during the first few days the Americans had to make do with the ammunition they had brought along when they arrived at the town. A further difficulty was that the Airborne Division’s field hospital had been captured by German 116. Panzer-Division northwest of Bastogne on the evening of 19 December.
The Battle of Bastogne was no ordinary siege. One of its features was that the encircled troops were superior to their besiegers in most respects. When the 101st Airborne Division began to move in the direction of Bastogne on 17/18 December 1944, it had a strength of 805 officers and 11,035 soldiers, traversing in 380 vehicles. Until 20 December, the 101st Airborne’s four regiments (plus two battalions and four companies directly subordinated to the division) in Bastogne were joined by several other U.S. units—Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division with eight battalions and about thirty tanks, and the remnants of Combat Command Reserve, 9th Armored Division with nine remaining tanks, and a few other battalions that either escaped the German offensive or, like the 101st Airborne, were sent to Bastogne to defend this town. (Some of the latter were brought together into an ad hoc unit with the poetic but equally fully official designation SNAFU—the acronym for the American soldier’s gallow humor expression of the state of things, ’Situation Normal, All Fucked Up.’ In total, the U.S. strength in the encircled Bastogne amounted to about 18 000 men.1
On the German side stood the 26. Volksgrenadier-Division under Oberst Heinz Kokott. He had been instructed by the Corps commander, General Heinrich von Lüttwitz, to stay behind and deal with Bastogne while the panzer divisions in XLVII. Panzerkorps—the 2. Panzer Division and Panzer Lehr—raced on to the west in order to cross the Meuse. When the offensive began on 16 December, Kokott’s division was composed of three infantry regiments, an artillery regiment, and five other battalions subordinate to the division with a total of not more than 10,600 men.2 Since then, it had lost close to one thousand men in killed, wounded and missing, to which should be added non-battle related casualties.3 Kokott also hade at his disposal Kampfgruppe Hauser (also known as Kampfgruppe 901), under Oberst Paul von Hauser, which was left behind by Panzer Lehr as this division continued its advance south and west of Bastogne. Von Hauser’s force consisted of Panzer Lehr-Regiment 901, which mustered slightly more than three thousand men, and the 6. Kompanie from II. Abteilung/ Panzer Lehr-Regiment 103, plus the II. Abteilung of Panzer Lehr-Artillerie-Regiment, and the 3. Kompanie from Panzerjäger-Abteilung/Panzer Lehr. In total, barely twelve thousand men on the German side held eighteen thousand Americans besieged.
Northeast of Bastogne, U.S. 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment held positions in the planted forest Bois Jacques, where the spruce trees stood in close, straight rows. (NARA SC 197412/R.P. Runyan)
Additionally, the U.S. troops in Bastogne in general were better trained and more battle experienced than Kokott’s men. The 101st Airborne Division ’Screaming Eagles’ can justifiably be regarded as an elite unit. When this division was transferred to the European combat zone, the troops had undergone a prolonged specialized training that included independent operation in small battle groups, night combat, defense against enemy armor, and operations with massive artillery support. Combat spirits among ’the Screaming Eagles’ was sky high, and the toughness they displayed in battle had earned them the enemy’s healthy respect. When the 101st Airborne Division was ordered to go into position to defend Bastogne, the unit had combat experience since the first day of the Battle of Normandy half a year earlier.
The 26. Volksgrenadier-Division was built around the demoralized remnants that were left after the division (then designated 26. Infanterie-Division) had been virtually wiped out by the Red Army’s Lvov-Sandomierz offensive late summer 1944. The unit was reformed in September 1944, through an injection of teenage recruits, and ’dispensable’ personnel from the Luftwaffe and the German Navy. Having received a training that can hardly be described as sufficient, the soldiers of the new 26. Volksgrenadier-Division were hurriedly rushed to the Western Front to help cover the gap left after the disastrous defeat in France in late summer 1944. The division was at most adapted for defensive battles, but definitely not for offensive operations. In addition to major deficiencies regarding the troop training standards, the division was under-equipped with anti-tank weapons. When the 26. Volksgrenadier-Division went into position at Neuerburg on the Western Front in early November 1944, only a minority of its soldiers had any combat experience at all.
The bold attack with infantry alone on 16 December 1944, cost the inexperienced 26. Volksgrenadier-Division dearly, and the first attack on Bastogne on 20 December—in cooperation with Kampfgruppe Hauser— broke down in a terrible American artillery barrage that caused additional bloody losses. A new attempt to storm the town two days later resulted in a loss of four hundred men in killed, missing or wounded. Oberst Kokott noted that the losses in officers were particularly high.4
In terms of armor, McAuliffe had a numerical superiority of four to one. Indeed, German XLVII. Panzerkorps had dealt Combat Command B, 10th Armored Division and Combat Command Reserve, 9th Armored Division a terrible defeat east of Bastogne on 1819 December—the former unit escaped the battle with only about twenty tanks remaining, and of Combat Command Reserve, 9th Armored Division remained nine tanks. But at the same time, eight brand new tanks that were about to be delivered to the front had turned up in Bastogne, and at Neufchâteau southwest of Bastogne, a group of paratroopers encountered fourteen abandoned Shermans, which they promptly drove into Bastogne. Thus Bastogne’s defenders possessed around fifty tanks. On the German side, the only tanks available to Oberst Kokott were those of the 6. Kompanie from II. Abteilung/ Panzer Lehr-Regiment 103, which mustered fifteen Panzer IVs when the offensive began.5 Three of those had been lost during the attack against Bastogne on 20 December.6 Thus, Kokott disposed over no more than a dozen tanks as he was preparing a new assault on Bastogne after McAuliffe had rejected the offer of surrender on 22 December. Although the Panzer IV tank was technically superior to the American Sherman andStuart, it could hardly outweigh the American numerical superiority—especially as this was accentuated by a large force of tank destroyers.
The 101st Airborne Division Screaming Eagles can justifiably be regarded as an elite unit. When this division was transferred to the ETO, its soldiers had undergone a prolonged specialized training that included independent operations in small battle groups, night combat, defense against enemy armor, and infiltration operations with massive artillery support. The morale among the‘Screaming Eagles’ was sky high, and the toughness they showed in battle earned the enemy’s healthy respect. When the 101st Airborne Division was ordered to defend Bastogne, the unit had combat experience since the first day of the Battle of Normandy half a year earlier.(NARA, US Signal Corps)
Apart from the tanks in Bastogne, the Americans had a large number of tank destroyers from the 609th and 705th Tank Destroyer battalions. Both of these units were equipped with the M18 Hellcat, armed with the new M1 76mm anti-tank gun. These two battalions had a combined strength of seventy Hellcats before the battle of Noville— where no more than half a dozen were lost.
German Kampfgruppe Hauser was not equipped with any tank destroyers or assault guns, but the 26. Volksgrenadier-Division had fourteen Panzerjäger 38 (t) Hetzers in 2. Kompanie/ Panzerjäger-Abteilung 26 when the offensive began. All in all, there were close to one hundred and twenty American tanks and tank destroyers in Bastogne against around twenty in the surrounding German units.
However, the area in which the Americans held their greatest superiority at Bastogne, was—alongside the aviation—the artillery. Afterwards, McAuliffe said that ’airpower, artillery and the guts of GIs was what saved Bastogne.’7 As the ring closed around the town, eleven Field Artillery battalions with altogether one hundred and ten pieces were inside the surrounded area.8 Several of these were 155mm Long Toms, which surpassed everything thatthe Germans had in the shape of artillery at Bastogne. The American artillery fire controllers also had the advantage of the plains with large, open fields that spread out in front of their positions around Bastogne everywhere except in the northeast and southwest. Since the ground on top of that was covered with snow, German combat vehicles or troop concentrations could be spotted at a distance of several miles in clear weather.
On the German side, the Corps Artillery still had not managed to make its way to Bastogne on the narrow mountain roads. The 26. Volksgrenadier-Division’s Volk-Artillerie-Regiment 26 was composed of twenty heavy artillery pieces—twelve 150mm SFH-18 howitzers (schwere Feldhaubitze 18) and eight captured Soviet 122mm howitzers, SFH 396 (R). Each of the division’s three infantry regiments had eight 105mm IFH 18/40 infantry howitzers and a 75mm FK 16 field gun. Additionally, the division’s anti-tank battalion, Panzerjäger-Abteilung 26, had eighteen 75mm PaK 40 anti-tank guns. In Kampfgruppe Hauser, Panzer Lehr-Artillerie-Regiment’s II. Abteilung had six 105mm field howitzers, and the 3. Kompanie of Panzerjäger-Abteilung/Panzer Lehr had nine PaK 40s. In total then fifty howitzers or field guns and thirty anti-tank guns on the German side. How much of this was available at Bastogne on 23 December 1944 is not known.
Certainly, the German envelopment of Bastogne resulted in a temporary shortage in artillery rounds on the American side (until the supply flights got underway on 23 December), but this problem was no less great on the German side, where the transportation of supplies had to be carried out on narrow and winding back roads in the Eifel mountains.
Added to the American superiority in terms of numbers, equipment and troop quality, was—from 23 December, the third day of the siege, and onward—the U.S. air support. No doubt, the U.S. forces in Bastogne would have been able to break out and join other American units further south at any time. But the task assigned to the ’Screaming Eagles’ was not to break out, but to hold the important road junction of Bastogne, thus in a decisive manner preventing the Germans from bringing up supplies to the front at the Meuse at the pace needed. Moreover, the encircled troops knew that Patton’s legendary Third Army was coming to relieve them from the south. And still, a certain ’siege mentality’ discerned on the U.S. side, at least among certain senior officers. Major General Troy Middleton, the commander of the VIII Corps, describes his impressions of the first five days and the frustration felt by the Americans because the weather did not allow for any noteworthy tactical air support:
Though we asked, for those first agonizing days we couldn’t get supplies flown in for air drops. We were running dangerously low on armor-piercing shells. We were also in poor shape medically because the Germans had captured intact the hospital of the 101st Airborne the night they were moving into Bastogne. The wounded kept coming in. And the cold! It was wicked. It’s hard to appreciate the diffculty weather can bring. At 1 A.M. one night the temperature descended to sixteen below zero. The metal of a rifle would stick to exposed skin at that temperature.9
The U.S. troops neither were used to, nor equipped for such a barbaric cold. ’Many of our casualties were because of frozen feet,’ said John Fague, who served as a Staff Sergeant during the Battle of Bastogne. ’It was cold and snow, the worst winter Belgium had in 40 years. We did not have the proper foot wear. We had leather shoes that were good in North Africa and Italy but not suitable for the cold and snow in Belgium. We would walk in the snow during the day and get our feet wet and then stand in a freezing fox hole all night. I heard that Sergeant Ferguson, our company sergeant, had to have his feet amputated. He was older than we boys. My feet turned a light grey and were very uncomfortable for several months but I did not have to be evacuated.’10
It was even worse to the Germans, who generally preferred captured U.S. outfit. ’The men suffered greatly from the cold weather. They had no winter clothing and on top of their uniforms were only thin linen coats for camouflage in snow’, wrote Oberst Kokott.11
Kokott probably had no great expectations when he renewed his attack against the heavily defended town at dawn on 23 December. In addition to the crippling cold, a heavy snowfall on the previous day had covered the entire area in a white blanket.
At seven in the morning, two hours before sunrise, 26. Volksgrenadier-Division’s Füsilier-Grenadier-Regiment 39 attacked the small village of Flamierge, north of the main road to Bastogne from the northwest. One of the Americans who held positions here, Robert M. Bowen, by then a Technical Sergeant in ’C’ Company of the 401st Glider Infantry Regiment’s 1st Battalion, recalls, ’The Germans came again early in the morning out of a heavy fog which hung over the bitter cold, snow covered hills wearing snowsuits and with tanks painted white.’ The fight began adversely to the Americans. A Sherman was immediately knocked out, the anti-aircraft gun in Bowen’s position was frozen in the ground and could not be traversed to fire on the enemy, and ’the crew of the half-track vanished.’
Oberst Heinz Kokott commanded German 26. Volksgrenadier-Division during the Ardennes Battle, and for a period was in command of all German units that besieged Bastogne.(BArch, Bild 146-2011-0118)
But soon the U.S. artillery fire set in. ’Everywhere the attacker was met by furious, well directed and sharply concentrated fire,’ wrote Kokott. ’The enemy artillery fire always lay at the decisive points in dense concentrations. As always, the enemy did not spare ammunition… The attacking infantry suffered heavily from the numerous anti-tank and tank guns and the wide angle salvos of the numerous enemy mortars. To judge by the messages coming in from the front, the enemy was having a great number of tanks at his disposal. For, in addition to the unmistakable fire of tank guns, all the messages also reported “the noise of tank engines”’12
At eight in the morning, the 26. Aufklärungs-Abteilung under Major Rolf Kunkel emerged from the Bois de Fragotte forest, two miles west of Bastogne, to attack. But here too, the Americans struck back with artillery and tanks. An hour later, with the day’s first rays of the sun, the American aviation appeared.
Since 19 December, Captain James E. Parker, a liaison officer from the 9th Air Force, had been stationed in Bastogne. He had set up an air control post with a radio transmitter in the town, and from there he was able to call the aircraft and lead their attacks against those sections of the front where air support was most badly needed. The heavy airstrikes at Bastogne in the morning on 23 December sufficed to force the entire German assault force to take cover and call off the attack. Then the American fighter-bombers shifted to attacks against houses and villages around Bastogne, in order to deprive the Germans of their accommodation facilities and to knock out their supplies. All around Bastogne, every village or larger farm was bombed at least once. Soon, the Belgian town was enveloped by a ring of smoke columns rising into the sky. Towards the evening, the smoke mingled with the winter haze and soon had covered the town in what could be compared to the famous London smog.
Inside the besieged town, paratroopers threw their helmets in the air and cheered at the sight of the Air Force’s effective work of destruction. Amidst all this, just before noon, they had even more reason for joy: a new kind of engine sound was heard, and between the columns of smoke in the sky, waves of C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft came thundering. They came from U.S. IX Troop Carrier Command, and behind the twin-engine C-47s, large numbers of parachutes developed. Beneath each of these hung a canister loaded with supplies for the encircled troops. During a four-hour period on 23 December, a total of two hundred and fifty-one C-47s came in, dropping nearly fifteen hundred supply canisters. The isolation was over! The acting mayor of Bastogne, Leon Jacquin, described the scenes in the town, ’The American soldiers were in raptures. Soldiers and civilians hugged each other. There was an explosion of feeling and a marked rise in morale; it is still an unforgettable memory. That day we were given the certainty of victory.’13
While the aviation held the Germans down, the Americans counterattacked with Team O’Hara’s tanks—drawn from Combat Command B, 10th Armored Division—at Bastogne’s southern front. They pushed back the Germans from the woods Bechou Bois, northeast of Assenois, and approached the small village. In a fierce melee, German 26. Panzerjäger-Abteilung managed, against a loss of two or three of its own tank destroyers, to knock out several U.S. tanks and halt the Americans.14
A German artilleryman fires a Nebelwerfer rocket launcher. (BArch, Bild 101I-277-0840-26/Jacob)
Douglas C-47 Skytrain, the military version of the civilian airliner DC-3, was the main transport aircraft in Allied service in World War II. The aircraft had a four-man crew and a cargo capacity of 28 fully equipped troops or 6,000 lbs. of cargo. The operational range was 1,300 miles. (NARA, 3A-5134)
At half past five in the evening of 23 December, an hour after sunset, the Germans resumed their attack. This time they attacked both from the northwest, at Flamierge, and from the southeast, towards the village of Marvie. At the latter place, U.S. 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion’s Hellcats and Team O’Hara’s Shermans encountered Kampfgruppe Hauser’s Panzer IVs.15 Following a fierce fight in the darkness, the Americans had to give up Marvie and pull back towards Bastogne. In the west, the 1st Battalion of the 401st Glider Infantry Regiment also was ordered to evacuate Flamierge and Mande Saint-Étienne (at Highway N 4, three miles northwest of Bastogne) to establish better positions closer to Bastogne.
But the German territorial conquests were only local, and overall, on 23 December the Americans had clearly showed the Germans that they would not be able to accomplish much at Bastogne with the forces available. Meanwhile, on the previous day Patton’s Third Army had begun to push on from south, and was closing in on Bastogne.
Desperate at the stiff-necked defense offered by the American ‘Screaming Eagles.’ Hitler decided already on 23 December to reinforce von Lüttwitz’ XLVII. Panzerkorps with the 9. Panzer-Division and the 15. Panzergrenadier-Division—although these originally had been intended for the second assault wave. However, only the latter division’s Panzergrenadier-Regiment 115 under Oberst Wolfgang Maucke was assigned to Bastogne—the other units were tasked to join the offensive against the Meuse. But to Kokott, it was a most welcome reinforcement, since this regiment included a company of eighteen Panzer IV tanks from Panzer-Abteilung 115, plus a company of tank destroyers.
While Maucke’s armor was on the road from Germany, Kokott decided to hold back his troops all day on Christmas Eve—with the exception of a limited thrust whereby the 26. Aufklärungs-Abteilung managed to take the village of Senonchamps, just west of Bastogne. But by abandoning that exposed place, the Americans established new and better positions, from where the open, snow-covered fields on the flat landscape between Bastogne and Senonchamps could be easily covered. At Senonchamps, the German-occupied forest Bois de Fragotte had extended all the way to the western edge of the village.
Meanwhile, the American airmen were quite busy. The Thunderbolt pilots of the 406th Fighter Group carried out its missions with particular eagerness. One of them, Theodore E. Wegerski, said, ’Our zealousness to fly to the assistance of the 101st Airborne Infantry Division in Bastogne attributed largely to friendships formed between our respective units when we were neighbors for a period on the same reservation at Mourmelon.’16 On Christmas Eve 1944, the 406th Fighter Group dropped napalm bombs on the villages Cobru, Morhet, Chenogne, Wardin, and Marvie around Bastogne. German vehicles were bombed at Vaux, and in Noville ten German tanks were attacked. In all, the 406th Fighter Group claimed to have destroyed fifteen tanks and ninety-two other motor vehicles on that day.17 When this unit’s pilots on one occasion attacked the Germans at Noville, they dropped their bombs so close to the American lines that U.S. VIII Corps radioed the XIX Tactical Air Command and requested that the attack be called off before American troops were hit.18
These operations also cost the 406th Fighter Group dearly, as testified by one of the participating pilots, Lieutenant Howard M. Park, ’The flak tracers were like garden hoses with projectiles arcing lazily through the air towards me. I remember so vividly my slipping and sliding and skidding as streams of flak fire reached for me, sometimes within three feet of my wing surfaces. Despite skill, a lot of luck was needed to escape unscathed. The flak took a toll. It seemed as if the 513th [Squadron] was always first out and it seemed we lost one of four in the lead flight every time. Actually, we lost five of the 513th in three days, and seven in a week during which the group lost a total of 10 pilots.’19
The 406th Fighter Group was but one of several U.S. fighter-bomber units in action against the German communication lines and battle positions around Bastogne throughout 24 December. The 365th and 404th Fighter groups attacked Noville north of Bastogne, Chenogne in the southwest, and Harlange to the southeast, as well as the road between Dasburg and Bastogne at Marnach and Clervaux. At the two latter places, German vehicle columns also were bombed and strafed by the 377th Fighter Group, and at Bourcy, northeast of Bastogne, some of this unit’s pilots claimed to have destroyed fourteen trucks and three tanks. In the vicinity of Bourcy, U.S. bombs hit a German ammunition dump which detonated with an explosion that could be heard to Bastogne. Wherever the U.S. troops looked towards enemy-controlled territory, they could see countless thick, black smoke columns rise from the American aviation’s targets around Bastogne. The suffocating smoke from the fires remained in the air and gave the Americans a quite good idea of what it was like for the German soldiers who were subject to these incessant air strikes.
American Technical Sergeant Robert M. Bowen had been captured when the Germans overran the positions held by ’C’ Company, 401st Glider Infantry Regiment at Flamierge on 23 December. His account of what he experienced while he was brought from the front area by the Germans, gives a good image of the situation behind the front lines of the besiegers at Bastogne:
We were hustled out of the house early the next morning [24 December] to a captured American weapons carrier with an attached trailer. We started down the main street in a northeasterly direction. The town was flooded with German troops and tanks, all going in the direction of Bastogne. Once we left the city we could see the carnage left by the German offensive. Burning villages, wrecked and burning tanks, trucks and smaller vehicles. Corpses, American and German, bloody, sprawled grotesquely in many instances on the whipped snow, ignored by small bands of refugees which wandered about like lost children. In the distance toward Bastogne could be heard the dull explosion of crashing shellfire and the rumble of German artillery. We came to a small village finally, one that had been recently bombed and strafed by our fighter planes. Houses were ablaze, walls knocked in by bombs, German soldiers with terror-stricken faces still lay in roadside ditches. Rescuers were going through the houses searching for victims. The wounded were taken from the weapons carrier and into a field hospital just about the time our planes came back. The Germans shouted ‘Jabos! Der Teufel! Der Teufel!’ [‘Fighter-bombers! That s.o.b! That s.o.b.!’] Every able man rushed outside, firing every weapon available at the screaming, diving, bullet spitting planes. We in the operating room huddled on the floor as bullets splintered the walls.20
The airfield at Chièvres, Belgium, December 1944. A P-47 D11 Thunderbolt from the 387th Fighter Squadron, 365th Fighter Group ‘Hell Hawks’ has had two 500lb. bombs mounted. The pilot, Lieutenant Gerald Kunkle, is about to enter the aircraft and take off for a new fighter-bomber missions over the German lines. (Don Kark via Don Barnes)
Inside Bastogne, McAuliffe sent a Christmas message to his men, ’What’s merry about all this, you ask?’ he wrote on a Christmas card that was printed in large numbers, with the common ’Merry Christmas’ at the top, ’We’re fighting - it’s cold - we aren’t home.’ The text continued:
’All true but what has the proud Eagle Division accomplished with its worthy comrades of the 10th Armored Division, the 705th Destroyer Battalion and all the rest? Just this: We have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the North, East, South and West. We have indentifications from four German Panzer Divisions, two German Infantry Divisions and one German Parachute Division.
These units spearheading the last desperate German lunge, were headed straight West for key points when the Eagle Division was hurriedly ordered to stem the advance. How effectively this was done will be written in History; not alone in our Division’s glorious History but in World History. The Germans actually did surround us, their radios blared our doom. Their Commander demanded our surrender in the following impudent arrogance.’
Next, McAuliffe had inserted the text of the German surrender offer, and—to the amusement of many of the American soldiers—his laconic reply: ’Nuts!’
This was a language that appealed to the hardened veterans of the 101st Airborne, the ’Screaming Eagles.’ But that the fighting spirits also were high among the opponents stood clear to McAuliffe when he later that day visited a group of German prisoners of war that had been locked into a cell at the town’s police station. ‘We’ll be in Antwerp in a few weeks,’ one of them defiantly said in English. ’Soon you will find yourself in captivity, Herr General,’ another said.21
SERGEANT DEAM’S UNEXPECTED ENCOUNTER
On the evening of Christmas Eve 1944, a lone American paratrooper, First Sergeant Donald Deam, was on his way back to his comrades at the front at Mont, east of Bastogne. He had been in the town and carved out a bosom full of champagne and cognac bottles that he was about to share with his mates. He walked along the road that runs eastwards from Bastogne towards Neffe, which at that time was held by German Grenadier-Regiment 78.
About a mile west of Neffe, a narrow gravel road turned down to the right and passed through a small tunnel under the railway that ran parallel to the main highway, and Deam took this path. Just as he entered the tunnel, another man appeared on the other side, just a few feet away from him—a German soldier wearing a steel helmet, white snow oversuit and carrying a Sturmgewehr! Deam knew that with all the bottles in his arms he would be completely defenseless if the German raised his rifle to shoot, so he tried his hand at what is commonly called a disarming smile—here in the real literal sense.
It was successful! The German soldier’s eyes met his, and it was obvious that the other was not in the mood to kill. With the weapon lowered, the German asked:
‘Do you have a cigarette, yankee?’
Deam exhaled. He put down the bottles in the snow and pulled out a packet of cigarettes and offered it to the German. The two men sat down, facing each other, and smoked in silence. It all felt surreal. Deam opened a brandy bottle and invited the German, who took a few sips and then handed the bottle to Deam. This eased the situation. Soon both young men were involved in attempts to a conversation on what little they mastered of each other’s language. They showed each other photographs of their families, and Deam perceived that the German had studied at the Goethe University in Frankfurt (a university that had previously been known for its left alignment). Eventually they exchanged addresses.
When they parted, it felt as if they were old friends. They waved at each other. The German fired a kind of ‘salute’ into the air with his Sturmgewehr. Deam did the same with his submachine gun.
Deam did not tell his comrades anything of this. But decades after the war, he began to wonder whether he had dreamt it all. Then one day he was contacted by a German woman who worked as an interpreter for the United Nations in New York. It turned out that she was the daughter of the German soldier. In his old age, the veteran had told his daughter of the encounter with the American, and had given her the American’s address and asked her to visit him if she ever came to the United States. By that time, the German veteran had passed away, but finally Deam at least got to meet his daughter.
Donald Deam died himself in October 2008.
Source: Bande, Vanguard of the Crusade: The 101st Airborne Division in World War II, p. 230.
Meanwhile, a staff officer visited General von Lüttwitz on Hitler’s behalf to convey the Führer’s demand that Bastogne must be captured by the next day, Christmas Day. That forced von Lüttwitz and Kokott to launch the new attack as soon as Oberst Maucke’s Panzergrenadier-Regiment 115 arrived, during the night of 24 December, in order to avoid the American fighter-bombers.
To compensate for his own still relatively weak artillery, von Lüttwitz asked for support from the Luftwaffe. This he received, in the shape of a bombing raid on Christmas evening. Beginning at half past eight in the evening, twin-engine Junkers 88s from I. Gruppe/ Kampfgeschwader 66 and Lehrgeschwader 1 attacked the town in two waves, dropping a total of two tons of bombs in the light of flares.
On Rue de Neufchâteau No. 21 (the main road N 85), the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion of U.S. 10th Armored Division had set up an aid station for wounded soldiers in the basement of a three-story house. Here two female volunteers, the Belgian Renee Lemaire and the Congolese Augusta Chiwy were working as nurses. A bomb from the first German aircraft that came in over the town this evening fell straight on the house, which collapsed and caught fire. The two women struggled to get the wounded out of the burning building, but after entering the increasingly violent burning building one last time, Lemaire failed to return. Afterwards, her dead body was found in the burnt out ruins, together with the bodies of thirty U.S. soldiers.
While large parts of Bastogne’s center were laid into ruins by German bombs, Oberst Wolfgang Maucke was appalled, ten miles from there, to hear that his unit was to attack almost immediately. Maucke protested against the risk it meant to send his tank crews into the darkness, against a strong enemy whose positions were relatively unknown, and in a terrain not familiar to the newly arrived men. But he spoke to deaf ears. His Panzer IVs would form the spearhead of the major attack against Bastogne, which would be launched from all sides. Shortly before three o’clock on Christmas morning, a group of German aircraft flew past 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment’s positions at Champs, three miles northwest of Bastogne, and attempted to hit the regimental headquarters in the adjacent Rolley with their bombs. At five in the morning, Panzergrenadier-Regiment 115 rolled out to attack.
The center of Bastogne after the German air attack on Christmas night 1944. (NARA, 111-SC-198445/PFC Sam Gilbert)
The frigid Christmas night of 1944 was fateful for the entire German Ardennes Offensive. In the far north, the remnants of SS-Kampfgruppe Peiper were fleeing through enemy-held territory after the last 800 men had slipped through the U.S. containment on the evening of 23 December. They made it across the Amblève on a wooden footbridge, and hid throughout Christmas Eve on the wooded hills on the river’s south side. When darkness fell again, they stumbled through the forest and down the southern slopes. They managed to cross the paved road running west from Trois-Ponts, but shortly afterwards ran into a small American squad. The Germans were able to detach themselves from the enemy, but when they assembled again, they discovered that the prisoner of war that they had brought along, the American battalion commander Major Hal McCown, had managed to escape. Tired and hungry, the Germans continued southeastwards, through the woods, towards the river Salm. The temperature was around 4 degrees, but the torrential river still had not frozen. Somewhere on the other side of the river stood SS-Kampfgruppe Hansen, but the west side was controlled by U.S. 82nd Airborne Division. SS-Unterscharführer Karl Wortmann, who participated in Peiper’s march, describes the situation:
’In front of us in the valley we can see the Salm! What would happen now? Everyone able to swim was called forward. But in this cold temperature, not very many stepped forward. Most of us sat on a high embankment. Ten feet further down the Salm whirled past. The noise from the water sent shivers down the spine of us. But then we were ordered to carry the large stones that some self-sacrificing comrades placed in the icy water. Then we formed a human chain, and made it from stone to stone, sometimes with water up to the waist, until we reached the other side of the river.22
Twelve miles farther to the east, the badly mauled 12. SS-Panzer-Division—which barely had been able to repair all of its damaged combat vehicles after the battles of the ’twin villages’ and Domäne Bütgenbach—was marching along the road from Büllingen to Sankt Vith.*Just as the division arrived at Sankt Vith, the town became subject to a violent air attack which totally blocked the accessibility.
Some ten miles southwest of Trois-Ponts, the advance units of the 2. SS-Panzer-Division ’Das Reich’ spent a dismal Christmas Night in the small village of Grandmenil, just west of Manhay, where it was subjected to a terrible bombardment by American artillery. Another twelve miles farther to the southwest, the 116. Panzer-Division was driven out of Verdenne and became surrounded by U.S. 84th Infantry Division and the 771st Tank Battalion. Twenty miles farther to the west, German 2. Panzer-Division’s spearhead was approaching the end. Hemmed in between Celles and Foy-Nôtre Dame, virtually all of its heavy equipment had been smashed by a full day of Allied air attacks and artillery bombardment. Everywhere on blackened fields, plowed up by explosions, lay dead or mutilated German soldiers. It was like a scene from Dante’s Inferno.
In the far south, Patton’s Third Army, with an armored division in the lead, inexorably pushed on northward towards Bastogne. In the German rear area, the narrow and slippery roads on this anything but peaceful night were filled with German vehicle columns that sought to exploit the darkness to bring up supplies to the front. They did not have to bother with any lighting, since all roads were lined with bullet-riddled vehicles still in flames. It was their good fortune that the Allies barely had any night attack aviation.
Amidst all this, to comply with Hitler’s demands, a small German armored force was hurled into a hasty attack to take Bastogne.
In the light of the full moon, the tanks of Kampfgruppe Hauser drove across snow-covered fields just west of Marvie, heading towards Bastogne from the southeast. But this force was not the only one to attack. This time, Oberst Kokott despatched all forces at his disposal to comply with the Führer’s demand that Bastogne must fall on Christmas Day. Northeast of the town, Grenadier-Regiment 78 assaulted the positions held by U.S. 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment in among the pine trees in the Bois de Jacques forest. South of Bastogne, from the small village of Assenois, Füsilier-Grenadier-Regiment 39 attacked. But the strongest attack was directed against the western section of the U.S. cauldron,’ between Champs and Hemroulle. While the infantry of Grenadier-Regiment 77 assaulted the U.S. positions at Champs from the northwest, the Panzer IV tanks of Panzergrenadier-Regiment 115 were despatched two miles farther to the south.
Everywhere the Americans met the Germans with a dogged resistance. ‘Very strong enemy fire,’ was reported by German Kampfgruppe Hauser and Grenadier-Regiment 78. The men of U.S. 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion fought with such stamina that the attacking German Füsilier-Grenadier-Regiment 39 described it as a ’completely fanatical American resistance.’23 German Grenadier-Regiment 77 initially managed to push into Champs, but there they were tied down in bloody house-to-house fighting with U.S. 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. The Americans temporarily had to vacate the village, but a counter-attack with heavy artillery support managed to oust the Germans again.
Only Panzergrenadier-Regiment 115 accomplished a real break-through. In the cold night, the German tanks rolled straight east, across wide open, almost completely flat, snow-covered fields, heading towards Hemroulle, a mile and a half northwest of Bastogne. The Americans lured them into an ambush in the dark. Hellcat tank destroyers from the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, Sherman tanks of the 10th Armored Division, guns from the 463rd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, and the paratroopers’ Bazookas caught the German tanks in a terrible crossfire. Afterwards, the bullet-riddled German tanks showed so many hits that it was impossible to determine which weapon had dealt the coup de grace. The German force was annihilated so quickly that it barely had time to send off a report to headquarters.
At nine in the morning, the American aviation joined in. Monday 25 December proved to be a day with even better visibility than the previous two days, and U.S. XIX Tactical Air Command despatched no less than 599 sorties, during which 74 tanks or other armored vehicles, plus 756 soft-skinned vehicles were claimed as destroyed or damaged.24 The fighter-bomber pilots were particularly effective in neutralizing the German artillery. For example, at 1145 hrs, one of them localated eight German artillery pieces at Assenois. Other planes were called in, and following their attacks, these German positions had been silenced.25 Elsewhere, four newly arrived 150mm howitzers of Artillerie-Regiment 33 were destroyed.
Oberst Kokott wrote, ’Towards noon—when everything had been committed and the artillery, while already running short of ammunition, was still directing its fire concentration with flexibility and full impact into the respective main areas (forest northeast of Grandes Fanges, Hemroulle and wooded sections to the north thereof)—the situation turned more and more to the worse.
The 15. Panzergrenadier-Division reported “that it had barely a single combat-fit tank at its disposal. “The tank battalion had been wiped out and annihilated in the area around Hemroulle and nothing was being heard of the “Kommandogruppe” (commando group) which had possibly made a breakthrough in the Bastogne direction.’26
Once again, the German divisional commander was forced to cancel the attack until the sun had set and the American aircraft disappeared. But on the afternoon of 25 December he received more bad news: In the south, Patton’s armor had finally broken through the 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division’s defensive positions, and was advancing towards Bastogne. The Battle of Bastogne had to be settled urgently, so in the evening, the 26. Aufklärungs-Abteilung, Grenadier-Regiment 77, and ten Hetzer tank destroyers of the 26. Panzerjäger-Abteilung were assembled west of Hemroulle, the section where the armor of Panzergrenadier-Regiment 115 had met its final destiny. The plan was to strike eastwards while Grenadier-Regiment 78 renewed its attack towards the west on the other side of the U.S. ’cauldron.’
But everything went wrong from the start. With new airborne supplies dropped into the besieged town, the American artillery now was richly equipped with ammunition. The Bastogne artillery in fact subjected German Grenadier-Regiment 78 in the east to such a terrible shelling that it was unable to even begin its attack. When this artillery barrage was over, the whole regiment was in bloody shambles. In one of its battalions, not even forty men remained alive or uninjured.27.
German soldiers have mounted these Panzer IVs just before the attack. These newly arrived tanks were rushed into combat before they had been coated with white camouflage paint.(BArch, Bild 101I-277-0835-02/Jacob)
However, on the western flank, the Germans attacked shortly after nightfall. In their initial onslaught, they managed to advance to a position nearly a mile west of Hemroulle, but there the tank destroyers were halted in front of an anti-tank ditch. These immediately became targeted by American anti-tank fire, which set five Hetzers on fire, including the command vehicle with 26. Panzerjäger-Abteilung’s commander, Hauptmann Heinz Junker.28 The remaining Hetzers rapidly withdrew under the cover of a smokescreen.
The ’desperate attempt,’ as Kokott described it, to achieve a decision at Bastogne on Christmas Day 1944, ended in a complete American victory. Kokott’s summary at the end of 25 December speaks a clear language:
’The 15. Panzergrenadier-Division was practically wiped out; the 26. Division counted more than 800 killed, wounded and missing. Grenadier-Regiment 77 had barely 300 men left in the front; one battalion had about 80 men, the other possibly 200 men. Aufklärungs-Abteilung 26 had, just as Füsilier-Grenadier-Regiment 39, been reduced to a fragment of its original strength. The companies in the front had, at best, 20 to 25 men left. Supply formations, staffs and other rear echelon units were thoroughly combed out. The Replacement Training Battalion—having transferred in the meantime some formations to Panzergrenadier-Regiment 901 as well as Füsilier-Grenadier-Regiment 39 and Grenadier-Regiment 78—had about 200 men left.
The losses of old, experienced subordinate commanders and men, the high losses of officers and trained specialists at the artillery and heavy infantry weapons, were of great importance.
A considerable amount of heavy weapons equipment had been destroyed by enemy fire and could not be replaced immediately.’29
The 5. Panzerarmee’s commander, General von Manteuffel, had no choice but to order the badly mauled 26. Volksgrenadier-Division and 15. Panzergrenadier-Division to revert to the defensive.30 McAuliffe’s men clearly had withstood the test.
The focus of the Battle of Bastogne now turned to the south.
PATTON’S OFFENSIVE BEGINS
’The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not disaster. There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table. By coming out of the Siegfried Line, the enemy has given us a great opportunity which we should seize as soon as possible. Instead of having to take the Siegfried Line pillbox by pillbox, we can now beat them by defending the Meuse while at the same time preparing our own offensive.’31
The Allied Supreme Commander Eisenhower tried to hold an upbeat tone when he met with his generals at the 12th Army Group’s headquarters in a drafty old French army barracks in Verdun shortly before noon on 19 December 1944.* This was a language that appealed to Lieutenant General George S. Patton, who commanded the TUSA (Third U.S. Army). He was mad because the German offensive had forced him to cancel his planned major offensive against the German Saar region, which he had hoped would be the largest ’Blitz offensive’ in the Army’s history.32
’Hell,’ the belligerent Patton said, ’let’s have the guts to let the sons of bitches go all the way to Paris. Then we’ll really cut ’em up and chew ’em up!’33
But Eisenhower urged him toward restraint: the Germans would not be allowed across the Meuse. Instead, he would seal off the German attack wedge through a pincer attack with the First Army from the north and the Third Army from the south. For the simple reason that the Germans were weaker against the Third Army, Patton’s army was to open the offensive.
’When can you start?’ Eisenhower asked Patton.
’As soon as you’re through with me,’ came the eager reply.
But Eisenhower needed to know more exactly. -’Okay, the morning of 21 December, with three divisions!’ Patton said. It was typical of the by then already legendary George Patton, who had earned the nick-name ’Ol ‘Blood and Guts’ among his soldiers. (When he placed them in difficult situations, they sometimes ironically said: ’Sûre, his guts and our blood!’) Although a significantly greater strength than three divisions had been set in readiness for the Third Army’s offensive towards the north, Patton wanted to get started as soon as possible with the units that had arrived at the northern front.
But Eisenhower wanted to assemble the forces properly first. ’Don’t be fatuous, George,’ he said. ’If you try to go that early, you won’t have all the three divisions ready and you’ll go piecemeal.’ Then he made the decision by himself: ’You will start on the twenty-second and I want your initial blow to be a strong one!’
Much can be said about George Patton, but he could be really flexible. Two days earlier, he had been totally against sending an armored division north to aid the heavily pressed First Army, but when he sent the 10th Armored Division, he also immediately set about making plans to continue to the north with even more forces. By now, he and his staff had already developed three different plans for such an operation, and all he had to do was make a phone call to get the ball rolling.
Already on 18 December, Patton had agreed with Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, the commander of the 12th Army Group, to let the TUSA’s 4th Armored Division follow in the footsteps of the 10th Armored Division. At a conference in Luxembourg in the forenoon of that day, Bradley had briefed Patton on the situation in the Ardennes, which he described as ’fluid’ and ’extremely critical,’ and for that reason he ordered Patton to cancel his planned offensive against the Saar. That evening, Patton ordered Major General John Millikin to transfer the headquarters of his III Corps from Metz in France to Arlon in Belgium, some twenty-five miles south of Bastogne.34 In addition to the 4th Armored Division, III Corps possessed over two infantry divisions, the 26th and the 80th, with which Millikin would get started with an offensive northwards by 22 December. When Patton left Verdun on the afternoon of 19 December, the preparations were already in full swing.
But succeeding events would enforce a modification of the plans before they could be put into action. That it would be no easy undertaking stood clear to Patton when he on the same evening was reached by reports on how Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division had been heavily decimated by General von Lüttwitz’ XLVII. Panzerkorps east of Bastogne. It also annoyed Patton that the British field marshal Montgomery was asppointed to command all U.S. forces north of the line Givet - Prüm, and thus led the entire northern part of the pincer operation that Eisenhower described at the meeting in Verdun on 19 December. Although Eisenhower’s decision also meant that Major General Troy Middleton’s VIII Corps was submitted to the Third Army, Patton was highly displeased. As we have seen previously, he had very little confidence in Montgomery, to say the least.
While Patton’s divisions were on the march to their positions of departure for the new offensive northwards, the whole scene underwent further changes. Bradley had indeed been right when he described the situation as ’fluid.’ On 20 December, the day after the conference in Verdun, German forces swept forward south of Bastogne, sweeping aside all American resistance and cut off the two main roads running into the town from the south. Thus, also the relief of Bastogne became an important aim for the Third Army’s offensive. But the Third Army Commander was primarily aiming at the destruction of the German army units, and not relieving own enveloped units. ’To Patton,’ wrote U.S. military historian Charles B. MacDonald, ’relieving Bastogne was as irritating as a burr under the saddle of a horse.’35 When Patton inspected his troops in Arlon on that evening, he met Middleton. ’Troy,’ he said, ’of all the goddamn crazy things I ever heard of, leaving the 101st Airborne to be surrounded in Bastogne is the worst!’36
Next day, 21 December, the situation deteriorated further when the First Army’s positions at Sankt Vith were overrun, and the troops that would have formed the northern part of the intended pincers conducted a partially disordered retreat, with strong German armored forces in hot pursuit. Meanwhile German units streamed into the area south of Bastogne to reinforce the siege of this city. They pushed demoralized remnants of the 28th Infantry Division towards the west and the south. On 22 December, the day when Patton’s offensive began, the headquarters of this division fled to Neufchâteau, some twenty miles southwest of Bastogne.37 The 28th Infantry Division proved to be too badly mauled, regarding its numerical strength as well as combat spirits, to be used in Patton’s counteroffensive.
Seemingly endless American vehicle columns heading north, towards Bastogne. Patton and his troops were expecting a fairly easy march past Bastogne in order to not only relieve the besieged town, but mainly to cut off von Manteuffel’s 5. Panzerarmee. They had not reckoned with the stiff resistance that would be offered by a single German paratroop division. (NARA, 111-SC-199635)
Most of the literature on the German Ardennes Offensive in the winter 1944-1945 has focused on the Battle of Bastogne. Therefore, the offensive opened by Patton’s Army a few days before Christmas 1944 has also often been depicted as though its primary aim was to relieve Bastogne. In actual fact, the relief of Bastogne was not even part of the original plan, since this was made before the town became surrounded. Instead, this was intended to be a major offensive with most of the Third Army deployed along a forty-five-mile front from the German border and westwards, across Luxembourg and to Neufchâteau in southeastern Belgium.
Millikin’s III Corps—the one among the TUSA’s Army Corps that has received the greatest attention in war literature—initially marched up with three divisions on a twenty-five-mile front from Neufchâteau and eastwards. To the right of this corps, on a twenty-mile front up to the German border, stood the XII Corps under Major General Manton S. Eddy, with Combat Command X (the 9th Armored Division’s Combat Command A, and the 10th Armored Division’s Combat Command A and Combat Command Reserve), the 4th and 5th Infantry divisions, and the 109th Regimental Combat Team. The first task of the III Corps was indeed to break the German siege of Bastogne, but immediately thereafter, the Corps was to continue to the northeast, to Sankt Vith, and in interaction with the XII Corps ’slam a steel door’ behind the German armies in the Ardennes.38 Patton’s counter-offensive thus had far greater ambitions than the simple relieving of the 101st Airborne Division.
During the course of the offensive, additional units would arrive to reinforce the attacking force. Before the offensive began, the 6th Armored Division was instructed to regroup to the XII Corps, so that Combat Command X could be transferred to the III Corps. On 18 December, Patton ordered the 35th and 87th Infantry divisions to be withdrawn from the front in the southeast for a few days of rest and recuperation, in order to be deployed in the offensive northward. On the same day, Eisenhower instructed the newly formed 17th Airborne Division to move from England to the Continent, where it would eventually be submitted to the III Corps. That also applied to the 11th Armored Division, which on 20 December was ordered to urgently regroup from England to the Meuse Front, where it would form a line of defense between Givet and Sedan. When this armored division arrived in the combat zone, the threat at the Meuse had already receded, so that it could be assigned to the III Corps. Eventually, the TUSA ‘s 90th Infantry Division also was to be called in to the ’northern front,’ where it too was used to reinforce III Corps.
Lieutenant General Patton (center) in conversation with Major General Willard S. Paul (right), C.O. of the 26th Infantry Division. 50-year-old Willard Stewart Paul had never led any troops in battle when his 26th Infantry Division was sent to France in September 1944. He passed away in 1966, at the age of 72. (NARA, SC 196125)
In all, even though not all were present at the same time, just over twelve American divisions—including over four armored divisions—would be involved in Patton’s counter-offensive. In all, the strength of the Third Army rose from 245,013 men on 30 November 1944 to 344,935 men on 31 December 1944.39 When the offensive began, the Third Army also was supported by no less than one hundred and eight artillery battalions with altogether 1,296 artillery pieces of at least 105mm caliber.40 ’I don’t see how the Boche can take this much artillery,’ an enthusiastic Patton jotted down in his diary.41
On top of this, General Otto P. Weyland’s XIX Tactical Air Command, responsible for direct air support of the Third Army, was reinforced with three Fighter groups from the IX Tactical Air Command—the 365th and 368th with Thunderbolts, and the 367th with Lightning—and, from the strategic 8th Air Force in England, Mustang-equipped 361st Fighter Group.
However, while Patton’s units began to roll, new German units also were heading for the area which the III Corps intended to seize: The LIII. Armeekorps, with the 79. Volksgrenadier-Division and the Führer Grenadier Brigade.42 The march order for the latter unit read: Cross River Our at Roth and then advance across Luxembourg, via Ettelbrück (taken by 352. Volksgrenadier-Division), to Martelange on the other side of the border with Belgium, some twelve miles south of Bastogne. There, on the central road of the three roads leading to Bastogne from the south, a small vanguard of Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15 of German 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division had moved into position on the evening of 21 December.
If the Führer Grenadier Brigade had been able to reach this place—right where Combat Command A of U.S. 4th Armored Division was advancing—Patton’s offensive would probably have taken an entirely different course. Indeed, the U.S. armored division was numerically superior, with 165 tanks against barely a quarter as many German, but the Führer Grenadier Brigade’s thirty-one serviceable Panthers and eight Panzer IVs were supplemented by forty-one tank destroyers.43 Moreover, the unit’s six thousand soldiers largely were hardened Eastern Front veterans hand-picked from Division Grossdeutschland, and the Brigade commander, Oberst Hans-Joachim Kahler, was a veteran who had been awarded with the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves.
The Führer Grenadier Brigade was in all respects an elite unit, but this could also be said about the American 4th Armored Division. Unlike most U.S. armored divisions, the 4th had chosen not to take any ’name,’ which was a particular figment by its former divisional commander— the tough Major General John Shirley Wood, usually called ’Tiger Jack’ or simply ’P.’ — ’They shall be known by their deeds alone,’ Wood had said about his armored troops when they landed in Normandy in July 1944. The 4th Armored developed into one of the American Army’s best armored divisions in Europe, much owing to its most capable commanding officer. Wood has been described as even tougher than Patton himself. In fact, Patton’s famous ’sweep’ through France in late summer of 1944 was much the work of Wood’s 4th Armored. However, like Patton, Wood had strong opinions about how the war should be conducted, and after a conflict with his closest superior in early December 1944, he was relieved from command and sent home to the States.
Nevertheless, the 4th Armored still was Patton’s favourite division, and he spent much time with its men. He liked its—well deserved—reputation as a ’slashing, freewheeling outfit.’44 He also selected his former chief of staff, Major General Hugh J. Gaffey, to be the division’s new commander. The 4th Armored Division included several other prominent American armored officers, such as Colonel Wendell Blanchard and Lieutenant Colonel Creighton W. Abrams, whom we shall become better acquainted with further on.
The outcome of a tank battle between the 4th Armored Division and a full-sized Führer Grenadier Brigade southeast of Bastogne around 23 December would have been anything but certain, but because of special circumstances, such a showdown would never take place. Still, the 4th Armored was to face another German elite division.
In heavy snowfall, at half past five in the morning on 22 December, U.S. III Corps’ counter-offensive started, supported by eleven Field Artillery battalions. ’Drive like hell,’ Patton said. Eisenhower issued an order of the day that bears a striking resemblance to the order of the day that his opponent von Rundstedt issued six days earlier:
’I call upon every man, of all the Allies, to rise now to new heights of courage, of resolution and of efforts. Let everyone hold before him a single thought—to destroy the enemy on the ground, in the air, everywhere—destroy him! United in this determination and with unshakable faith in the cause for which we fight, we will, with God’s help, go forward to our greatest victory.’45
By that time, the Germans had nothing more than limited forces against the III Corps—a few regiments of the 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division faced the entire 4th Armored Division on the western flank, and two regiments of the 352. Volksgrenadier-Division were pitted against the American 26th and 80th Infantry divisions. ’The 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division was by no means equipped to handle the task of warding off an armored thrust towards Bastogne,’ noted the 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division’s commander, Generalmajor Heilmann.46 At that stage, one of its three regiments, Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 13, still had not been able to assemble its full strength at the front, and among the division’s thirty StuG III assault guns, only half were in serviceable condition.47 The fact that Germans still managed if not to halt decisively, but at least to significantly delay the American offensive, is quite remarkable.
To the 4th Armored Division, it initially seemed to be a pretty simple game. The order issued by Major General Gaffey to the troops when the offensive began to roll northwards, read, ’You will drive in, relieve the force, and proceed from Bastogne to the north-east!’48 When the vehicles rumbled through no-man’s-land, everything went well. The only obstacle in the path of the Americans were some big holes that retreating Americans of the 28th Infantry Division previously had blown in the road to slow down the German advance. On the extreme left, Combat Command B, under Brigadier General Holmes E. Dager, took the road northwestwards from Arlon. The Americans continued through Habay-la-Neuve and then swung north into the great forest that extended until Fauvillers, twelve miles northwest of Arlon. The Americans, who had expected German assaults from within the dense, dark spruce forests, felt a relief when they at noon on 22 December came out among the large, open fields that extend from Hotte, just two miles north of Fauvillers, all the way up to Bastogne, about seven miles further north. Maybe this would be pretty easy, after all?
But right there, the American force met the first resistance. A small group of paratroopers from the 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division’s Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 14 had laid an ambush and were waiting for the Americans. The fact that the Germans were prepared was not only due to the sighting of CCB ‘s marching columns at half past nine in the evening of 21 December by a Luftwaffe reconnaissance plane—the Americans also had the bad habit of sending their radio messages in plain text, and already on the morning of 20 December the British Ultra code breakers could establish that the Germans knew that ’American 4th Armored Division’ was heading north, ’possibly followed by 80th Division.’49
A German soldier prepares to meet enemy tanks with a Raketenpanzer-büchse 54 Panzerschreck anti-tank rocket launcher. The Panzerschreck was able to knock out a Sherman at a distance of more than two hundred yards. Since this example of the weapon due to an unknown reason has no protection plate, the soldier carries a gas mask to protect his face against burns when the weapon fires. (BArch, Bild 101I-279-0943-22A/ Johannes Bergmann.)
Oberstleutnant Kurt Gröschke, the commander of German Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15 during the Ardennes Battle, was one of the most experienced unit commanders in the German Paratroop Force. The picture was taken on 9 January 1945, when he was awarded with the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross for his excellent leadership of this unit during the Ardennes Battle. Gröschke passed away in 1996, at the age of 88.(BArch, Bild 146-1981-104-07)
The German ambush forced Brigadier General Dager’s advance force to take cover. Major Albin Irzyk, commanding the 8th Tank Battalion in Combat Command B, ordered the Sherman tanks of ‘A’ Company forward. Their guns blew up a stone house and silenced the firing from the German side. But it was not long before the Americans would encounter the next obstacle.
When the leading U.S. vehicles gently rolled down the slippery slope that leads down to a stone bridge across River Sûre from Menufontaine, the Americans saw that the bridge was demolished. At this place, the Sûre usually is only five yards wide and not more than knee-deep, but because of the unusually heavy rainfalls during the previous weeks, it now was too deep and the current too strong to allow the river to freeze. Brigadier General Dager ordered the 22nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion to scoop 105mm explosive shells over the hill on the other side of the river, and engineer troops were called up. These worked all afternoon and into the evening of 22 December to complete a Bailey bridge. When this work was finished, and the tanks and trucks could begin rolling across the river, it had already grown dark.
The 8th Tank Battalion worked their way up the long hill on the way north. Just above the river, on the north side, lies the small village of Burnon. The Americans rapidly passed the village street—there were no more than two or three houses on each side—and when they came out on the fields on the other side, German paratroopers lay in wait among the spruce trees in the Fôret the Lambaichenet woods up to the right. The Germans had time to aim because the Americans could only traverse slowly and with great difficulty on the slippery and snowy uphill. When they reached the brow of the hill about a thousand yards off Burnon, the Germans fired a series of Panzerfaust shots. A couple of jeeps exploded with bright flashes of light, and the entire American force hurried back down to Burnon. There Brigadier General Dager ordered his men to go into night quarters.
Dager’s decision also was motivated by the fact that it had grown terribly cold, and furthermore, the 4th Armored Division’s two advancing combat commands had fallen far apart. Six miles farther to the southeast, Combat Command A under Brigadier General Herbert Earnest had become stuck in the small town of Martelange, the southernmost position reached by German 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division. Here too, the Germans were prepared—their aerial reconnaissance had detected the CCA’s vehicle columns on the main road N 4 between Arlon and Martelange at 0020 hrs on 22 December.
In this section, Brigadier General Earnest’s troops were pitted against Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15, led by Oberstleutnant Kurt Gröschke, one of the most experienced unit commanders in the German Paratroop Force. Gröschke himself had made combat jumps over the Netherlands and Narvik in 1940, and over Crete in 1941. Next he fought for two years on the Eastern Front, followed by combat operations in Italy, and, from June 1944, in Normandy. Gröschke was awarded with the Knight’s Cross in June 1944, and the following month he was appointed to command Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15.
Well aware of the fact that he was up against a considerably stronger enemy, Gröschke grouped his forces with great skill. Since the retreating Americans had demolished the town’s two bridges over River Sûre—which cuts Martelange into a northern and a southern part—this was nothing Gröschke needed to deal with. He positioned a small force—the 7. kompanie/ II. Bataillon—on the steep, wooded hills on the northern side of the river. This consisted of only about one hundred paratroopers, but from the top of their masked positions they could observe the town and the abutments below.50
The American engineers that were sent forward to construct a Bailey bridge immediately were exposed to an intense machine gun fire that forced them to take cover behind the houses. When a couple of Sherman tanks emerged, the Germans opened fire with Panzerschrecks and thus forced these too to seek refuge behind the houses.51 During the remainder of the day, Gröschke’s men subjected the Americans to fire from mortars that had been carefully aimed well in advance. Nightfall offered no relief to the Americans, because the clouds in the sky began to dissipate, and the full moon which was reflected in the snow made the slightest movement in front of the bridge visible to the Germans.
By the evening of 22 December, the 51st Armored Infantry Battalion of Combat Command A had taken such heavy casualties that Brigadier General Earnest was compelled to call in the 704th Tank Destroyer Battalion as a reinforcement.52
U.S. XII Corps, to the far right on Patton’s northern attack front, also stalled almost in its starting positions. As we have seen previously (Chapter 5), German LXXX. Armeekorps on the 7. Armee’s left flank had reverted to the defense following some limited territorial gains in the almost impassable mountainous area south of River Sauer/ Sûre on the border between Luxembourg and Germany. On either side of the Schwarze Ernz river (Ernz Noire), whose deep gorge effectively separated the two divisions of this corps, the 212. and 276. Volksgrenadier divisions became halted at between three and four miles depth into Luxembourgian territory. But at the same time as the Americans launched their attack on the morning of 22 December, Generalleutnant Franz Sensfuss renewed the attack with his 212. Volksgrenadier-Division. The two attacking forces collided and it resulted in a stalemate.
Major General Horace L. McBride’s American 80th Infantry Division—on the III Corps’ extreme right flank, six miles farther to the west—ended up in a similar situation. The 80th Infantry Division—known as the ’Blue Ridge Division’ because when it was set up during World War One, many of its soldiers came from the area around the Blue Ridge Mountains in the eastern United States— was fairly battle seasoned. It had received its baptism of fire in World War II in the breakthrough at Avranches in August 1944, and subsequently interacted with the 4th Armored Division in the sweep through France. The ’Blue Ridge Division’ started at dawn on 22 December in Mersch, with Ettelbrück, eight miles to the north, as the first goal. Its 319th Infantry Regiment advanced to the left and the 318th Infantry to the right, while the 317th Infantry was held in reserve so far. After inching through a no-man’s-land on and around the major road that runs north from the capital city of the Duchy of Luxembourg, the Americans reached up to the area just south of Ettelbrück at sunrise on 22 December.
This American attack also collided with a German advance. Grenadier-Regiment 914 from German 352. Volksgrenadier-Division had barely marched into Ettelbrück until its soldiers observed the 80th Infantry Division’s columns on the fields in the south. A German fire barrage quickly drove the Americans back to defensive positions.
This combat delayed the departure from Ettelbrück for the II. Bataillon of the 352. Volksgrenadier-Division’s Grenadier-Regiment 915. The regiment’s I. Bataillon had just had time to embark on the road to Grosbous, eight miles farther to the southwest, when the 80th Infantry Division attacked. However, with the arrival of Grenadier-Regiment 914, the American attack could be halted, and the II. Bataillon of Grenadier-Regiment 915 and elements of Grenadier-Regiment 916 soon were able to continue the march to the west.
While the battered U.S. 109th Regimental Combat Team retreated westward from Ettelbrück—which was evacuated during the night of 19 December (see Chapter 5)—the regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel James E. Rudder, ordered ’C’ Company of the 707th Tank Battalion to set up a rearguard force. In the gap between the two battalions of German Grenadier-Regiment 915, twenty-seven U.S. troops with a tank and three Bazookas laid an ambush on the road along which the leading German battalion had passed.53
The ambush hit Grenadier-Regiment 916 with a terrible effect. One of the German soldiers, Helmut Seibert, remembers how ’suddenly American tanks appeared and fired into our rows. Two guns, along with their draft horses, were immediately lost to direct hits, and I ran like mad in search of cover. Under mortar fire, which followed shortly thereafter, I crouched down in a roadside ditch.’54 Soon American artillery joined in, and then also troops from the 80th Infantry Division. These had heard the artillery rumble, and came in from the south. The Germans fled to Mertzig two miles northeast of Grosbous, with the main road ’littered with burning German vehicles and dead soldiers,’ according to the U.S. report.55 There they were able to establish defensive positions that halted U.S. 80th Infantry Division on this flank too.
U.S. 26th Infantry Division—’Yankee Division’— in the section between the 80th Infantry Division in the east and the 4th Armored Division in the west—was a relatively ’green’ division; neither its soldiers nor its divisional commander, Major General Willard S. Paul, had any combat experience when the unit was shipped over to France in September 1944. The following month, the division took part in the Third Army’s offensive in Lorraine in northeastern France. When the 26th Infantry Division on 12 December was withdrawn from the Lorraine front in order to rest and recuperate, it had sustained losses of more than six thousand men, and was down at about half its original fighting force.56 Since only 2,600 recruits arrived, men from rear units—clerks, kitchen personnel, drivers, etc.—had to be used to cover the gaps caused by the losses.
Only a week after the battered division had been withdrawn from the battle in Lorraine, it was ordered north to participate in Patton’s new offensive. To the veterans who had survived the Battle of Lorraine, this came as a shock, according to Major John J. Beeson, who served as a company commander in the ’Yankee Division’s’ 104th Infantry Regiment: ’It is certainly safe to say that their morale received a severe blow when this German counteroffensive rudely interrupted what they thought would be a month of reserve duty.’57 To the ’green’ soldiers of the Division, it was even worse. ’Some learned fast and lived but others were wounded or killed on their first day in action. Some who were taken prisoner were in a state of shock or bewilderment; some had but little idea of where they were and in a few cases did not know in which division they were in.’58
Similar to the other two divisions in the III Corps, the 26th Infantry made good progress as long as the soldiers were advancing through the no-man’s-land that extended between the III Corps’ departure area and German 7. Armee’s southernmost outposts. ’The general plan was for the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 104th Infantry to attack along parallel routes by simply walking north until they met the enemy, with the 3rd Battalion initially following in reserve,’ Major Beeson wrote in an account after the war. ’There was no definite information of the enemy, either as to his strength or location.’59
Here, in the westernmost part of Luxembourg, the dramatic mountains turned into large, open fields and forests. The landscape indeed is somewhat rolling, but without the sharp elevation differences that can be found further east. During their march through this area, the nervous American soldiers opened fire on every place where the Germans might have set an ambush—groves, farmhouses, and even individual bushes.60
As was the case with the XII Corps and the 80th Infantry Division, the ’Yankee Division’s’ advance collided with a German advance. Its 104th Infantry Regiment reached Grosbous, southwest of Ettelbrück, more or less simultaneously with the I. Bataillon of German 352. Volksgrenadier-Division’s Grenadier-Regiment 915. The Germans, who were supported by two Hetzer tank destroyers, rapidly pushed back the Americans, and then advanced southwards, down the steep hill to the next village, Pratz. There they were themselves subjected to a devastating artillery fire.61During the following night, the German forces withdrew.
On the ’Yankee Division’s’ left wing, the men of the 328th Infantry Regiment in the meantime made it through a no-man’s-land where they encountered soldiers from the 28th Infantry Division on the retreat, but no enemies—neither the 352. Volksgrenadier-Division nor the 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division had yet reached this area. And still the U.S. regiment snailed forward with the greatest caution, supported by two companies of the 735th Tank Battalion.
Meanwhile, the alarm went off on the German side. The 7. Armee’s reserve, LIII. Armeekorps under General Edward von Rothkirch, had, as previously mentioned, been ordered to the front on the same day. Its original mission was to participate in the offensive by advancing to Libramont and Saint-Hubert, southwest of Bastogne.62 But this changed over the course of 22 December, when reports came in about the morning battles at Ettelbrück. In the wooded area that extended three miles from Grosbous to Martelange in the west (where Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15 had a company), a large gap yawned in the German lines. And U.S. 328th Infantry Regiment was on its way from the south straight towards this area. General von Rothkirch ordered the 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division—which became incorporated into his Corps—and the Führer Grenadier Brigade to rapidly deploy units to plug this gap. Generalmajor Heilmann, the paratroop division’s C.O., gave the task to Major Goswin Wahl, acting commander of Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 13, who set his units in rapid motion towards the villages of Bigonville, Arsdorf, and Rambrouch in this section.63 The prime task was to prevent the Americans from getting across River Sûre, which in this area snakes between high mountains, first from the west to the east, and then bending southwards some six miles southeast of the town of Wiltz.
Although the ’Yankee Division’s’ 328th Infantry Regiment began its advance before the Germans—at six in the morning on 22 December—and furthermore only had six miles to cover to reach Rambrouch, the German paratroopers arrived there before the Americans. Shortly afterwards, they were joined by a small vanguard force—not more than a few dozen men—from the Führer Grenadier Brigade. This unit’s commander, Oberst Hans-Joachim Kahler, was faced with an even more difficult task than his colleague Major Wahl, since his motorized units had just started to cross River Our at Roth far to the east. In order to plug the gap in the front lines, Kahler had to give up the cohesion of his 6,000-strong brigade, which during the precipitous march westwards was stretched out along more than twenty-five miles. This would have dire consequences for the unit.
American 26th and 80th Infantry divisions encountered great difficulties during their advance through hilly wooded areas and deep snow in central and western Luxembourg. The picture shows U.S. soldiers in a firing position. (NARA, SC 364311s)
It was not until well into the afternoon of 22 December that U.S. 328th Infantry Regiment approached Rambrouch and Arsdorf. Here the landscape begins to change from the open, rolling fields that dominate further south to an increasingly hilly terrain with large deciduous forests. U.S. 26th Reconnaissance Troop detailed a group that passed just east of Rambrouch and took the narrow forest road that runs down towards Arsdorf, a mile or so further north. The small village of Arsdorf is nestled between wooded heights just south of Sûre. From the heights that rise between the houses in the village and River Sûre’s gorge a thousand yards from the town’s northern outskirts, the crews of two German tank destroyers saw the American vanguard force slowly come rolling down the forest road on the other side of the village. A few well-directed shots was enough for the Americans to hastily retreat back up the hill again. The U.S. scouting force soon reported to the regimental staff, and when the other reconnaissance group reported that Rambrouch was defended by ’a strong German force’—a considerable exaggeration—the decision was taken to set up camp for the night a bit to the south.64
For some reason, the opportunity that Patton’s Third Army missed through the exaggerated caution of some of its units on 22 December 1944, has been overlooked in most depictions of the battle. If the two infantry divisions on the right flank of U.S. III Corps—heavily supported by armor and artillery—would have carried out their attack with greater determination, they would probably immediately have been able to tear a twelve mile wide gap in the German lines. Without any doubt, they had the strength to overpower the single German regiment in Ettelbrück and the weakened Grenadier-Regiment 915 in Mertzig/ Grosbous, some ten-twelve miles to the southwest—not to mention the small vanguard force that just had reached Arsdorf and Rambrouch, another twelve miles to the west. In any event, these German positions could easily have been circumvented at midday on 22 December.
The Americans definitely could have been across River Sûre before the evening on 22 December, and would thence have been able to threaten the vital communications hub of Wiltz, three miles north of the river and about ten miles southeast of Bastogne. This in turn would have posed such a serious threat to the 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division’s eastern flank that this unit probably would have had to retreat from the positions it held in front of U.S. 4th Armored Division south of Bastogne. If this division in such a situation had turned to the northeast, into the area assigned to the two infantry divisions of U.S. III Corps, the Americans would have been able to create a quite dangerous wedge in the back of German 5. Panzerarmee southeast of Bastogne on 23 December—in a sector where the Germans at that time had nothing but comparatively weak units: The Panzer Lehr Division’s Kampfgruppe Hauser (of about a regiment’s size), Grenadier-Regiment 78 of 26. Volksgrenadier-Division, and the elements of the 5. Fallschirmjäger Division that would have had time to regroup there. (As we shall see, the clearing of the weather on 23 December also resulted in a situation where the American aviation could prevent most of the new units in the LIII. Armeekorps from reaching the frontlines.) From Wiltz, there were no more than ten miles up to Clervaux and one of the 5. Panzerarmee’s main supply routes. Of course, it is far from certain that such a maneuver could have accomplished a successfully sealing off of von Manteuffel’s panzer army—as we shall see, the Germans still had powerful reserves in the vicinity, albeit east of River Our—but if the thrust of U.S. III Corps on 22 to 23 December had been carried out with greater resolve, it definitely could have changed the entire strategic situation.
Through the exaggerated caution of the two U.S. infantry divisions, the Germans now instead were awarded time to bring forward new units that at least to a certain extent could plug the dangerous gap in the front. Then, when the American 26th and 80th Infantry divisions ran into these new German forces, the Americans recoiled back, and this gained the Germans even more time. The advance of the 26th and 80th Infantry divisions would eventually slow down to a snail’s pace. The 26th Infantry Division managed to cross River Sûre south of Wiltz only on the offensive’s sixth day. By that time, this division and the 80th Infantry Division faced more than three German divisions—the 352., the 79., and the 9. Volksgrenadier divisions, plus the Führer Grenadier Brigade.
‘MOVE ALL NIGHT!’
George Patton’s diary entry for 22 December 1944 is surprisingly low-key in its review of the limited results of the first day of the offensive, ’I am satisfied but not particularly happy over the results today.’65
In fact, Patton was deeply dissatisfied. After the war, Eisenhower told of how he on this day repeatedly was phoned by Patton, who expressed ’his disappointment because he could go no faster; at the Verdun conference on the morning of the nineteenth he had implied, or even predicted, that he would get into Bastogne in his first rush.’66 Then, when Patton in the evening was informed that the troops had stopped for the night, he seemed to have had enough. He contacted Millikin, the commander of the III Corps. ’This is our chance to win the war,’ Patton said, ’so the attack has to move all night!’67
At 2100 hrs on 22 December, the night encampments of the divisions received an order just as sharp as it was brief: ’Move all night!’68
Wisely, the infantry divisions of the III Corps now decided to try to circumvent the German defense positions. The 318th Infantry Regiment of U.S. 80th Infantry Division climbed the hills west of Ettelbrück, and from thence were able to seize a few blocks in the town’s western outskirts from the surprised Germans, who had not expected any American night attack.
In Pratz, in the southwest, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph A. Palladino again sent his 104th Infantry Regiment of the 26th Infantry Division up the long hill towards Grosbous—which proved to be abandoned by the Germans, who had retreated to Mertzig. But Palladino’s men came no further. A few hundred Germans of Grenadier-Regiment 915 under the new regimental commander Major Heinrich Hoffmeister (since Oberstleutnant Drawe had been wounded on the offensive’s second day), had braved the bitter cold and taken up positions among the bare deciduous trees in the woods southeast of Grosbous. They now laid an ambush which prevented the Americans from continuing to Mertzig.
American soldiers on the march through a typical Ardennes landscape.(NARA, US Signal Corps)
Before the morning dawned, the men of Grenadier-Regiment 915 in Mertzig would however find that they were surrounded. When Lieutenant Colonel Palladino’s men failed to advance farther to the east, they continued northwards instead, to Dellen, two miles on. And on the other side of Mertzig, in the east, American trucks with the 2nd Battalion of the 80th Infantry Division’s 319th Infantry Regiment, jolted along the forest road to Oberfeulen just before midnight. This small village, located between Mertzig in the west and Ettelbrück in the east, had been found to be unoccupied by German troops. There the American soldiers dismounted and formed columns for a foot march on the road north, towards Heiderscheid, four miles away.
The night between 22 and 23 December 1944 was terribly cold—the high pressure which came in from the east had caused the temperature to plummet to below 4 degrees. Over the course of the night, it grew a little brighter as the clouds gave way and the full moon could spread its light across the wintry landscape. Shivering with cold, the insufficiently clad soldiers from the 319th Infantry Regiment’s 2nd Battalion marched the long, protracted uphill towards Heiderscheid on numb feet. Next to them, the tanks of the 702nd Tank Battalion slipped and slid in their best efforts forward on the slippery surface. On both sides, the road was surrounded by a dark, looming spruce forest, but the Americans completed the advance with no other losses than by frostbite.
In Heiderscheid however, a company from Major Ernst-Günter Lehnhoff’s Panzer-Füsilier-Bataillon of the Führer Grenadier Brigade (I. Bataillon/ Panzergrenadier-Regiment 99) had managed to get into position. A specialty of this brigade was that many of its troops wore fur boots and thick, lined winter clothes brought along from the Eastern Front. Hence, they could cope with the the bitter cold better than the Americans, and it did not take many rounds to make the numb young Americans lose their eagerness to fight.
However, through this nocturnal advance, U.S. 319th Infantry Regiment had blocked one of the escape routes for Major Hoffmeister’s German Grenadier-Regiment 915 in Mertzig in the south. Meanwhile, Colonel Ben Jacobs received orders to despatch his 328th Infantry Regiment along the road to the northeast from Rambrouch, six miles southwest of Heiderscheid, thereby definitively sealing off the German regiment. Having traversed a good deal of the road without incidents, Colonel Jacobs’ troops were halted outside the small village of Grevels, about halfway to Heiderscheid. There, the Führer Grenadier Brigade had grouped an entire platoon of Panther tanks, and these brought a quick end to this American advance too. With yet another of Lehnhoff’s Panzer-Füsilier companies in Eschdorf, another two miles to the northeast, a narrow corridor was thus held open for Major Hoffmeister’s cut off men in Mertzig.
On the extreme left flank of the III Corps—in the Belgian village of Burnon, some ten miles northwest of Rambrouch and about the same distance south-southwest of Bastogne— the troops of Brigadier General Dager’s Combat Command B and Major Irzyk’s 8th Tank Battalion also were alerted late in the evening of 22 December by the order to move all night.
These German soldiers of the 18. Volksgrenadier-Division have become cut off in Luxembourg, and are using the radio to establish the position of the main lines. (BArch, Bild 183-T1123-506/Langl)
The soldiers of Combat Command B cursed and grumbled. It was pitch dark and terribly cold, but the Germans at least seemed to have left their positions in the Lambaichenet Forest north of Burnon. It probably was the bitter cold that had driven them away. What the Americans, however, did not know was that the opponent at that point exactly knew about their plans. During a fight in the darkness a couple of hours earlier, a staff jeep from Combat Command B had been overpowered by a small group of paratroopers, and in the vehicle the Germans found documents that described the American attack plan.
About four miles north of Burnon, in Hompré, Oberst Arno Schimmel, the commander of Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 14, had established his command post. One of his battalions had also been located to this place. Schimmel now decided to send up a paratroop company, supported by a company of StuG III assault guns of Sturmgeschütz-Brigade 11, to Chaumont—about halfway between Hompré and Burnon. The small German force was divided so that five StuG IIIs and half of the paratroopers went into position behind some trees on the fields south of the village, west of the road from Burnon, while the rest recaptured the Fôret de Lambaichenet woods on the right hand side of the road. They were able to take up positions before the Americans arrived.
The Americans were barely two miles away, in Burnon, so they advanced with great caution in the darkness. It was only at sunrise on 23 December, just before nine o’clock, that their vanguard, ’B’ Troop, 25th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, reached the road bend where the men could see Chaumont spread out a few hundred yards beneath the slope. Chaumont, which consisted of more than a dozen houses, is located in a small depression. The Americans suspiciously kept an eye on the wooded hill on the other, northern side of the village, where they thought that the Germans could have established firing positions. But instead, the Germans struck from both flanks.
Suddenly shells rained over the 25th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron column. Already in the first volley, a tank and three other vehicles blew up. These were left burning by the roadside while the other vehicles pulled back at breakneck speed.
The paratroopers at Chaumont definitely were no greenhorns, and they knew how to do their job. They had stormed into the village in the most brutal manner, broken into houses and transformed them into smaller fortifications. ’They are real bandits, all boys of between 17 and 20,’ said one of the villagers, Maria Lozet.69 ’We are going to push the Americans back to America,’ the presumptuous paratroopers declared to the terrified residents of Chaumont.
Afterward, one of the men of the 4th Armored Division said in regard to these paratroopers, with an allusion to McAuliffe’s famous words to the German parliamentaries who suggested that he surrender, ’In their way these panzer-trained paratroops are saying “nuts” to us. I want to describe these bastards because some observers have underrated them. They were to be unsure, inexperienced, being recently reorganised, but the fact is they didn’t act inexperienced. They were slick, savage, continously shooting, continously moving forward almost sullen in their bloody determination.’70
Using anti-tank weapons, machine-guns and mortars, a hundred paratroopers of Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15 in position on the heights on the north side of River Sûre managed to hold back Combat Command A of U.S. 4th Armored Division at Martelange. The picture shows paratroopers of the 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division carrying an iron stove to their pillbox in the Ardennes in the winter of 1944/1945. (BArch, Bild 183-2013-0226-501/Hanns Gross)
Meanwhile, Combat Command A had fallen far behind in the 4th Armored Division’s advance. This force remained in position throughout the night of 22/23 December, stuck on the south side of River Sûre at Martelange, six miles south-southeast of Chaumont. With anti-tank weapons, machine guns and mortars a hundred paratroopers of Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15 who held positions on the heights on the north side of the river, managed to prevent the American engineer troops from constructing a Bailey bridge. And from the east, the Führer Grenadier Brigade and the 79. Volksgrenadier-Division were on their way to join up. It could very well have been here that the Germans managed to finally halt the 4th Armored Division—had not 23 December 1944 also been the day when the weather cleared up so that the Allied aircraft could intervene in full strength. No less than seven different groups of fighter-bombers from the 9th Air Force, fighter planes from the 8th Air Force, and even British aircraft were deployed to support the III Corps.71 ’Fighter-bomber attacks in formations of up to 20 aircraft over Division sector,’ the 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division reported.72
Hompré, where Chaumont’s defender had their command post, was turned into a blazing hell. ’The enemy fighter-bombers dived down towards Hompré,’ wrote the commander of the 26. Volksgrenadier-Division, Oberst Kokott, ’and sprayed our columns with fire from their machine guns. While the anti-aircraft guns opened fire, all our soldiers directed their weapons up and fired all they had against the hated airplanes. Residential buildings went up in flames, vehicles burned, wounded lay in the middle of the street, horses that had been hit lashed.’73
Some of the heaviest air strikes were carried out against the bridges over the Our and Sauer/Sûre far to the east, at Luxembourg’s border with Germany, where the Führer Grenadier Brigade and the 79. Volksgrenadier-Division of German LIII. Armeekorps tried to get through. Hence, for example, the bridge at Echternach was exposed all day long to the incessant attacks by the 362nd, 377th, and 406th Fighter groups, whose Thunderbolt fighter-bombers attacked with rocket projectiles, napalm bombs and HE bombs. During the course of the day, larger and larger traffic jams formed at the increasingly heavily damaged bridges. This was where the heavy vehicles of the Führer Grenadier Brigade and the 79. Volksgrenadier-Division became stranded on the east side of the river. Those who managed to cross to the west side, had to crawl along the narrow, slippery roads that wound through the hilly area in Luxembourg, where they became easy prey for American fighter-bombers.
On the evening of 23 December, less than half of 79. Volksgrenadier-Division had managed to make its way to the combat zone—Volksgrenadier-Regiment 208 and I. Bataillon/ Grenadier-Regiment 212 went into position north of the 352. Volksgrenadier-Division. But the rest of Grenadier-Regiment 212 and the entire Grenadier-Regiment 266 still was on the German side of River Our, as well as the Division’s artillery regiment and Panzerjäger-Abteilung 179. The situation was similar to the Führer Grenadier Brigade: Because of enemy air attacks, only the 1124. Aufklärungs-Kompanie, the Panzer-Füsilier-Bataillon, two companies with a total of twenty-two Panthers from Panzer-Regiment 101, and a company of StuG IIIs from Sturmgeschütz-Brigade 911 had arrived at the front on 23 December.
As we have seen, a solitary company of Major Ernst-Günter Lehnhoff’s Panzer-Füsilier-Bataillon had repulsed the first American attack on Heiderscheid during the wee hours of 23 December. But American 80th Infantry Division made another attempt with the 319th Infantry Regiment’s 2nd Battalion on the morning of 23 December. With the support of Sherman tanks from the 702nd Tank Battalion and Thunderbolt fighter-bombers, they managed to now push the Germans out of the village. Oberst Kahler himself was badly wounded when his armored troop carrier was hit by a U.S. anti-tank gun.
The Germans retreated to the neighboring village of Eschdorf, slightly more than a mile farther to the west, where another of Major Lehnhoff’s Panzer-Füsilier companies had taken up positions. Major René de l’ Homme de Courbière temporarily took command of the brigade’s small frontal strength and ordered the Panther platoon in Grevels, three miles north, to shift to Eschdorf in order to try and regain Heiderscheid. But it was a poorly implemented counterattack. Twenty-nine combat vehicles—Sturmgeschütz IIIs, half-track vehicles, and some Panthers—simply drove straight out of Eschdorf, and in the open fields in the east they were met by tremendous American firepower. When eleven of the German vehicles, including at least one Panther, had been lost, de Courbière gave the order to retreat. This decided the fate of the 352. Volksgrenadier-Division’s Grenadier-Regiment 915, which on 23 December was ordered to break out of its encirclement in Mertzig (six miles southeast of Eschdorf) by circumventing the American positions, and join the rest of the division in Ettelbrück, four miles to the northeast.74 When the exhausted remnants of Grenadier-Regiment 915 finally reached Ettelbrück, about ninety men was all that was left of the regiment.75
U.S. soldiers inspect the battlefield after the Führer Grenadier Brigade’s attack against Heiderscheid has been repulsed. Among the bullet-riddled German combat vehicles are dead soldiers. Far to the left is a Sturmgeschütz III, and to the right, two Sonderkraftfahrzeug 251 armored personnel carriers.. (NARA, 111-SC-198412)
But just as on the previous day, the American 26th and 80th Infantry divisions failed to exploit their opponent’s weakness. The whole day these divisions acted relatively cautious, which allowed the Germans to gradually reinforce their defensive positions. It certainly seems as though the news that the armored elite unit Führer Grenadier Brigade arrived was enough to make the Americans wary. In any case, the commander of the III Corps, Major General Millikin, decided to also despatch Combat Command Reserve of the 4th Armored Division to the area where the Führer Grenadier Brigade was reported. Commanded by Colonel Wendell Blanchard, this combat command set off from Martelange towards Bigonville, three miles farther to the northeast, and two and a half miles northwest of Rambrouch, where U.S. 26th Infantry Division had been stalled. Thus Millikin hoped that it would be possible to help the two infantry divisions to break through in the direction of Wiltz.
Apart from artillery and support troops, the 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command Reserve consisted of the 53rd Armored Infantry Battalion and the 37th Tank Battalion—the latter led by Lieutenant Colonel Creighton W. Abrams, the legendary armor commander who later gave his name to the modern Abrams tank. Although Combat Command Reserve would be delayed by German paratroopers who on the day before had been rushed forward to plug the gap in the 7. Armee’s front lines, these would soon discover that they were up against a quite different kind of adversary.
The deputy commander of Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 13, Major Goswin Wahl (who led this regiment throughout the Ardennes Battle), had placed his I. Bataillon in positions in the area around Flatzbour, about two miles east of Martelange, and at Bigonville a little further to the north.76 A company of paratroopers, wearing white snow oversuits, lay in wait with two StuG IIIs and a captured Sherman at the edge of the deciduous forest at Flatzbour. When CCR’s armored column at midday on 23 December came rumbling on the road just southwest of Flatzbour, the paratroopers opened fire and knocked out two of the 37th Tank Battalion’s Shermans.77
The Americans halted and managed to put both of the assault guns and the German Sherman tank out of commission. During the next hour, their artillery and tank guns bombarded the wooded area from where the Germans had shelled the Americans with mortars. Then a company of infantry was sent into the woods to ’clear up.’ When they encountered nothing more than tracks in the snow that they didn’t bother to follow, the troops returned to the road. No sooner had they climbed into their vehicles again than the Germans resumed their fire. Now the 37th Tank Battalion’s Shermans were ordered up front. But then it turned out that the field was mined with anti-tank mines, so the tanks were pulled back again. When the German mortars continued to claim casualties among the Americans, Colonel Blanchard ordered a halt for the rest of the day.78 But the men of Combat Command Reserve had not had their final say— they would prove to be a notch tougher than those in the 4th Armored Division’s other two Combat commands; or at least Blanchard used a significantly more efficient ’shock and awe tactic.’
While this took place, the single company from German Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15 held the entire Combat Command A down at Martelange also during most of 23 December. In fact, Oberstleutnant Gröschke, the commander of Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15, had already at three in the morning on 23 December ordered back most of this company, with the exception of a small rearguard group which remained on the heights north of River Sûre.79 From there this little German group, using a single mortar, succeeded in holding down the American armored division until the U.S. engineer troops at two thirty in the afternoon—covered by a massive artillery fire—managed to place a Bailey bridge across the river. By that time, according to German reports, the small paratroop force had destroyed ten American tanks at Martelange.80
Meanwhile, Gröschke had been able to establish proper defensive positions in the next little community, Warnach—two miles north of Martelange. Here, Hauptmann Alfred Kitze, commander of the II. Bataillon/ Fallschirmjäger Regiment 15, had been assigned the task of grouping a small rearguard force. Kitze detailed fifteen paratroopers with four Panzerfausts from the staff of the 8. Kompanie under Leutnant Gebhard, two SMG platoons (machine gun platoons) from the 8. Kompanie, and a machine gun platoon from the 7. Kompanie. It had certainly been a totally inadequate strength even for a delay ingbattle, had it not been for the four StuG III assasult guns of Sturmgeschütz-Brigade 11 under Oberst Hollunder that also went into position at Warnach.
Brigadier General Earnest, commanding Combat Command A, 4th Armored Division, knew nothing of this when he ordered Lieutenant Colonel Delk Oden, the commander of the 35th Tank Battalion, to go into action with his tanks up the highway N 4 towards Bastogne. There were only about ten miles left to the American lines south of the town, and Earnest hoped to be there before midnight. Oden positioned the Stuart tanks of ’A’ Troop, 25th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron in the lead, followed by halftracks with infantry and Hellcat tank destroyers of ’A’ Company, 704th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and then a long column of Sherman tanks.
Warnach, located just to the east of Highway N 4 that runs north towards Bastogne, mainly consisted of twenty houses lined up along a small village street from the west to the east, with a small church in the middle. From the village street, a small dirt road ran diagonally to the south, through a little valley, and up a hill where a farm was located. Another six hundred yards away, on the other side of open fields, was a small copse.
A German soldier with a Sturmgewehr 44 has taken cover in a house ruin. (Månsson)
It had grown dark this frigid evening when Lieutenant Colonel Oden’s vehicle column came out from behind the snow-covered trees in the forest on the highway’s east side. The Germans let the Stuart tanks pass, but when the half-tracks with infantry became visible, the StuG Ills opened fire. Two half-track vehicles were hit and burned with a dazzling firelight.81
Lieutenant Colonel Oden called back his units. The Hellcat tank destroyers went into cover and took the small village under such a heavy fire that the Germans fled back to the forest just north of the village. Then one platoon of Stuart tanks and an infantry platoon with twenty-six soldiers attacked. From both sides troops rushed towards the partly burning village, which they reached about simultaneously. After a fierce hand-to-hand combat, the Americans retreated. All tanks except one were left behind in Warnach, which remained in the hands of the German paratroopers.82
Shaken by the dogged resistance, Lieutenant Colonel Oden ordered his forces to wait until after midnight—while the artillery continued to shell the small cluster of stone houses—before he made another attempt to take Warnach. This time, seventeen Shermans of ’B’ Company, 35th Tank Battalion, supported by ’B’ Company, 51st Armored Infantry Battalion, attacked. The Germans watched as the Americans approached across the snow-covered fields south and west of the village. As at Martelange the previous night, the attacking force stood out clearly against the snow under a full moon. The paratroopers held their fire as long as possible. It was only when the Americans came in among the houses that they opened up with everything they had. ’Feuer freil’ The leading Sherman tank was hit almost simultaneously by three Panzerfausts and became standing fully ablaze, while the firelight turned night into day. Another three Shermans were destroyed by the 75mm guns of the StuG Ills, and after hard fighting man to man on the village street, the surviving Americans stumbled back across the fields. The German paratroopers proved to be incredibly tough, as the Americans established, ’These men fought fanatically, with no sign that surrender was an option they were willing to consider.’83
Meanwhile, Patton grew increasingly impatient. He had almost promised McAuliffe that he would be in Bastogne on that day, and now he received a call for help from the surrounded 101st Airborne, which by then was at the mercy of Kokott’s repeated attacks, ’Our situation is getting pretty sticky around here. The enemy has attacked all along the south and some Panthers and Tigers are running around in our area. Request you ask 4th Armored to put on all possible pressure.’84 Patton in turn phoned the headquarters of the III Corps and complained, ’There is too much piddling around. Bypass these towns and clear them up later. Tanks can operate on this ground nowl’85
But the divisional commander Gaffey and his Combat Commands were of a different opinion—they realized that from the villages (’towns’ according to Patton’s vocabulary) held by the Germans, the American supply lines could be cut off if the Americans advanced across the fields to circumvent these villages.
With a strength of only 15 men with four Panzerfausts from the headquarters of the 8. Kompanie under Leutnant Gebhard, two machine-gun platoons from the 8. Kompanie, and a machine gun platoon from the 7. Kompanie, the II. Bataillon of German Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15 managed to halt Combat Command A of U.S. 4th Armored Division at Warnach. The battle for this small village cost the American unit quite dearly. Seen in the photo are destroyed Stuart tanks and Hellcat tank destroyers. (National Museum of Military history, Diekirch)
The situation looked the same at Chaumont on the 4th Armored Divisions left flank, five miles north-northwest of Warnach, where a company from Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 14 and a company of StuG Ills from Sturmgeschütz-Brigade 11 had repulsed the CCB’s reconnaissance thrust on the morning of 23 December. It stood clear to the Americans that it would require a veritable storm attack to take possession of this tiny village. While the attack force was assembled on the heights south of Chaumont, the 105mm howitzers of the 22nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion’s M7 SPGs opened up on Chaumont and its surroundings. Then whole swarms of Thunderbolt fighter-bombers from the 406th Fighter Group appeared and dropped 500-lb bombs and sprayed the village with fire from their .50 cal. machine guns. The German losses caused by this bombardment are not known, but historian Peter Schrijvers describes it from the perspective of Chaumont’s residents:
’Flames soared from the homes of the Dessoys, the Davids, the Hormans, the Lozets, the Paquays, and the Charneux. The school, too, was ablaze. Felicien Rosieres and his wife were dead. So was Marie Horman.’86
Shortly afterwards other aircraft intervened— Messerschmitt Bf 109s from the Luftwaffe’s fighter group IV. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 4, and the men on the ground witnessed a furious dogfight.
The terrible air and artillery bombardment was more than the German defenders could take, and completely demoralized, these floated back towards Hompré. There they were brusquely halted and sent back to Chaumont by higher officers. Moreover, four tanks with mounted infantry were put at their disposal.87 ’After a while, the young soldiers of the 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division managed to overcome their perfectly understandable initial shock and willingly adapted to the new situation,’ wrote Oberst Kokott.88
The American ground troops made the mistake of not immediately following up on the air strike against Chaumont. It took until half past two in the afternoon on 23 December before they attacked, with twenty-five Sherman tanks from Major Irzyk’s 8 th Tank Battalion and the infantry of Lieutenant Colonel Harold Cohen’s 10th Armored Infantry Battalion. While parts of the infantry went into the Fôret de Lambaichenet woods south of Chaumont, hundreds of soldiers and tanks came across the open fields that led down to the village from the south. While bitter close combat erupted in the dense spruce forest behind them, the troops of the American main force were able to enter Chaumont without having met anything but sporadic gunfire. But when the village street was filled with American troops, the Germans struck. Hidden behind a smokescreen, ten Sturmgeschütz IIIs and tanks came rolling down the hill up to the left and opened fire, while gray-clad paratroopers who clung atop the assault guns and tanks, jumped down and attacked the American infantry. According to one of the participating American soldiers, the Germans used captured American tanks, which still carried the emblems of the 7th Armored Division.89 Leaving eleven (own) Shermans and sixty-five killed behind, the Americans retreated from the village.
Chaumont. At this place, Combat Command B of U.S. 4th Armored Division was inflicted severe losses by a company from Oberst Arno Schimmels Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 14, supported by StuG IIIs from Sturmgeschütz-Brigade 11. The photo is taken from above the hill to the south of the village. The road on which the American half-track vehicle is driving, leads down to the small village of Chaumont, which is visible in the valley further down. In this photograph, the U.S. censor has painted over the face of the fallen American soldier lying in the snow to avoid identification. (NARA, 111-SC-199294/PFC D.R. Ornitz)
While this took place, the force that had entered the Fôret de Lambaichenet woods also was driven back. As the Americans staggered out of the woods again, Captain Fred Sklar, the commander of the 25th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, was among those missing. He was injured and taken prisoner by the Germans, but has since been reported missing in action. His case still remains uncleared.90.
It was a terrible setback for the Americans, and it hit the tough armored soldiers’ self-esteem particularly hard. It would take two days before they made another attempt to take Chaumont.
In Bastogne, six miles farther to the north, McAuliffe could not hide his disappointment at Patton’s shortcomings. On the evening of 23 December, he sent a bitter message directly to the 4th Armored Division’s headquarters: ’Sorry I did not get to shake hands today. I was disappointed.’ Shortly afterwards came another acidulous message from someone in the 101st Airborne’s headquarters: ’There is only one more shopping day before Christmas!’
24 December began with intense American air attacks, and they lasted all day. Particularly intensive air strikes were carried out to support the XII Corps, which on this day renewed its efforts to break through the front held by German 212. and 276. Volksgrenadier divisions in the far east at Luxembourg’s border with Germany. Here the bridge over the Sauer/Sûre at Bollendorf was destroyed through these air attacks, and at the bridge at Wallendorf, a few miles farther to the north, Thunderbolts from the 405th Fighter Group fell down over a concentration of two hundred German vehicles. The American pilots sprayed the entire vehicle column with machine gun fire and saw how several fuel trucks caught fire, with the result that the flames spread to other vehicles. Within a short time, the entire column was covered by a huge, black cloud of smoke. When the pilots returned to base, they reported that at least seventy German vehicles had been set on fire at this place.91 But taking advantage of the rough terrain, the Germans still were able to prevent U.S. XII Corps from advancing more than about a mile.
U.S. III Corps was in a similar situation. In Ettelbrück, about twelve miles west of the border river at Bollendorf, German 352. Volksgrenadier-Division had despatched Grenadier-Regiment 914 to reinforce Grenadier-Regiment 916. U.S. 80th Infantry Division mainly refrained from any ground attacks and instead had its artillery shell the increasingly destroyed town, which also was subjected to incessant napalm bombings that caused raging fires.
With telephone lines severed by artillery fire and aerial bombardment, ski-borne couriers became important on the German side. (BArch, Bild 146-1974-151-31)
At the front sector at Eschdorf and Heiderscheid, six miles west-northwest of Ettelbrück, the main part of the 80th Infantry Division and the 26th Infantry Division still had not managed to achieve any breakthrough to the branch of River Sûre that runs eastwards south of Wiltz. In view of the weakness of the German troops, the meager American successes in this section is quite remarkable. Because of the U.S. air attacks—especially against the bridges over the German border river—the Führer Grenadier Brigade’s artillery units had still on 24 December been unable to get through to the front, and one of the brigade’s three tank companies remained on the German side of River Our. The 79. Volksgrenadier-Division was in no better situation.
And still, U.S. 80th Infantry Division was pushed back as these German units mounted a surprising counterattack on Christmas Eve. The Germans advanced on a three-mile wide front—between the area northeast of Heiderscheid and Welscheid farther to the east—with the Führer Grenadier Brigade on the left and the 79. Volksgrenadier-Division on the right flank.92
The aviation of the XIX Tactical Air Command immediately intervened. Thunderbolts from the 362nd Fighter Group dropped napalm bombs on vehicle and troop columns in Bavigne and Bourscheid on roads leading to the German front in this area. The operations made on Christmas Eve by this Fighter Group against Eschdorf, a mile and a half west of Heiderscheid, illustrates the tremendous effect that air strikes could have on the morale of ground troops. ’P-47s of the 379th Squadron (362nd Fighter Group), out on their last mission of the day, swept low over the pine stands on the ridge, dropping fragmentation bombs and strafing. For some fifty Germans, well and wounded, this was the finishing touch; they came straggling out of the woods, hands high.’93 Alas, this could thus be achieved even against soldiers belonging to an elite unit such as the Führer Grenadier Brigade.
But the U.S. ground troops failed to take full advantage of these air strikes. It took until the next day before they entered the village of Eschdorf, and on the eastern flank, German 79. Volksgrenadier-Division exercised such a heavy pressure that U.S. 80th Infantry Division was forced to withdraw its 317th Infantry Regiment from Kehmen, which had been taken by the Americans on the previous day. The inhabitants of this village would have to wait another four weeks for their final liberation from the German occupation.
On the front section seven miles southwest of Heiderscheid, the 26th ’Yankee Division’ succeeded in taking Rambrouch on Christmas Eve, but that position had in any case become untenable for the Germans since the 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command Reserve two miles farther to the northwest had advanced from the Flatzbour area towards Bigonville. The 26th Infantry Division continued its advance only with the greatest caution. As the 735th Tank Battalion’s after action report says, the infantry occasionally refused to go forward unless it had a strong support by tanks or tank destroyers.94
As we have seen, on the evening of the 23rd, Combat Command Reserve, U.S. 4th Armored Division had been halted by the I. Bataillon of German Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 13, but the next morning the Americans attacked the German positions in Bigonville. The CCR’s commander, Colonel Blanchard, put in a kind of lightning attack: A heavy artillery barriage drove the German defenders down into the cellars of the houses in the village, and while the shells thundered down in the small community, two Sherman companies with two companies of mounted infantry broke out of the woods east and west of Bigonville and worked as fast as possible uphill and through thick snow on the fields outside the village. Many of the German paratroopers, who by then had been reinforced by a small vanguard of the Führer Grenadier Brigade, were completely taken by surprise. The Americans were inside the village before they knew it. One of the German paratroopers, Josef Schröder, says:
We were sitting huddled under quilts, for want of anything else, which we had found in the house, and were awaiting the outcome, surrounded by potatoes. Suddenly we heard the sound of hobnail boots upstairs. I peeped from under the quilt and caught sight of American paratrooper’s boots, familiar from past combat with our brothers from the opposite side. Everything that followed happened in a flash. Two hand grenades exploded in the cellar. The quilts took the fragments. I thought the time had come now to surrender, so I ran to the cellar stairs, yelled ‘Stop firing’ and looked straight down the barrels of American rifles. ‘Hands up’ came the terse answer from above, and so with our hands above our heads the four of us went up the stairs one after the other.95
According to U.S. 37th Tank Battalion’s after action report, several women were among the captured Germans, and thirty-nine U.S. soldiers and three officers who had been the prisoners of the Germans in Bigonville, were also liberated.96
Combat Command A also made a little progress on Christmas Eve. In the by now completely devastated village of Warnach—three miles northwest of Bigonville— the small group of German paratroopers from Hauptmann Kitze’s II. Bataillon in Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15 was unable to hold out against such a superior force much longer. On the morning of 24 December, the Americans renewed their attack—this time from three directions, with Sherman tanks from ’B’ Company, 35th Tank Battalion, the infantry of ’B’ Company, 51st Armored Infantry Regiment, and Hellcat tank destroyers from ’A’ Company, 704th Tank Destroyer Battalion. And yet, the ensuing combat was described as ’the most bitter fought by CCA during the whole Bastogne operation.’97 This cost the Americans the loss of another five Shermans—four destroyed by the German StuG IIIs, and a fifth knocked out by a Panzerfaust inside the village. The after action report of the 51st Armored Infantry Battalion reads:
’At 0530 “B” Company, mounted on tanks, moved east across the road to attack Warnach, and was met at the outskirts of the town by a hail of direct and small arms fire. Several hours of bitter street fighting drove the enemy armor and infantry into the northern portion of the town, where they defied efforts to dislodge them. At [illegible] it was decided to withdraw our small tank-infantry team slightly to the rear of the church, in order to employ artillery fire safely.’98
It should be borne in mind that the bitterly contested village was fairly modest in size. Most of the residential buildings in Warnach lay in a row on both sides of the no more than six to seven hundred yards long village street that runs from the west to the east. Behind (north of) the church, seven or eight houses lay in a row along a three hundred-yard-long road. In the other direction, to the north, another small road, lined by a dozen houses, ran through a small valley and up to a little hill, about 400 yards from the church, and there a farm was located. Warnach was surrounded by cattle fields. About a thousand yards away, dense spruce forests grew in the north, in the east and in the south, and a few hundred yards to the west, Highway N 4 passed across open fields, leading from the south to Bastogne in the north.
Unlike the U.S. Army, the German Army was never fully motorized. Horse-drawn wagons played an important role throughout the war, especially towards the end, when Germany was low on fuel. Here a German soldier has stopped to water the horses in a river in the Ardennes in the winter of 1944/1945. (BArch, Bild 183-J28657/Kriegsberichter Etzold)
Guided by the thick smoke columns that rose from the totally devastated and burning village, Thunderbolt planes from the 362nd Fighter Group dived down on the house ruins, dropped sixteen demolition bombs and eight incendiary bombs, and fired eighteen rocket projectiles, which, according to Combat Command A, led to ’excellent results.’99 And still, the remaining paratroopers continued to play cat and mouse with the Americans among the house ruins in Warnach until after sunset on 24 December, when they under the cover of darkness retreated to the Tantimont forest in the north. When the Americans finally seized the pitiful remains of the village, they encountered—besides a large number of dead bodies, a number of wounded, and all the American soldiers who previously had been captured by the paratroopers—no more than four destroyed vehicles (a StuG III, two armored cars and a truck), plus three vehicles and an anti-tank gun abandoned among the ruins by the Germans.100 The German paratroopers had managed to bring along all the other equipment when they retreated. The battle cost ’B’ Company, 51st Armored Infantry Regiment a loss of sixty-one in killed or wounded, i.e. more than one third of its entire force.101
Taking the small heap of ruins that remained of Warnach after such a prolonged struggle indeed was no great victory for the 4th Armored Division. Bastogne remained surrounded, and the radio message sent by Patton to McAuliffe in an attempt to cheer him up on Christmas Eve, sounded hollow, ’Xmas Eve present coming up. Hold on.’ The increasingly grim commander in Bastogne sent his terse response not to Patton, but to the commander of the VIII Corps, Middleton, in Neufchâteau, ’The finest Christmas present the 101st could get would be relief tomorrow.’
The pressure on the Third Army to relieve Bastogne mounted. ’This has been a very bad Christmas,’ Patton wrote in his diary that evening. ’All along our lines we have received violent counterattacks.’102
But even if the relatively weak German ground forces had done more than might have been expected of them against Patton’s forces, there was of course no reason for the Germans to look particularly brightly on the situation. In particular, the Allied total air superiority caused serious concern. The air units led by the XIX Tactical Air Command, which supported the Third Army, conducted no less than 638 individual air missions on 24 December 1944, and were reported to have destroyed or damaged 117 armored vehicles and 588 other vehicles.103 This may have been an overestimation of the actual results, but Generalmajor Heilmann, the commander of the 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division, made the following observation on this 24 December: ’When night fell a glow could be seen stretching back to the West Wall. The roads were marked by lines of flaming vehicles.’104
On the other side of the hill, Patton’s Third Army reported the following concerning 24 December 1944: ’The fighter bombers of the XIX TAC set so close a screen in front of the German Air Force that only one squadron was observed in the immediate Third Army battle area, and Bombay (IX Bomb Division) carried out 365 successful sorties without sighting an enemy aircraft.’105 Virtually the only German aircraft that managed to break through the Allied fighter screen on this day was a handful of jet-powered Arado Ar 234 B-2 bombers from bomber group III. Gruppe/ Kampfgeschwader 76 that attacked Liège and Namur.106 But for example the ground-attack wing Schlachtgeschwader 4, onto which such high hopes had been pinned, failed completely. An operation on the morning of 24 December to support their own ground troops south of Bastogne with about forty of the unit’s Focke Wulf 190 F-8s—many of them equipped with antitank rockets—ended in a total fiasco. Before they reached the front area they came under attack from U.S. fighters that shot down three Fw 190s. Another four crashed due to technical failures, and two others were reported missing after the mission.
’This day [24 December 1944] was the day of the Air Force, but unfortunately it was not ours. Not a single German aircraft appeared over Bastogne. What had happened to the air support we had been promised for vital sectors?’ wrote 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division’s Heilmann.107
That Schlachtgeschwader 4’s commander, the experienced Knight’s Cross wearer Oberstleutnant Ewald Janssen, was replaced by Oberst Alfred Druschel—who hitherto had coordinated the tactical air support of the 5. Panzerarmee108—would not change the situation.*Although Schlachtgeschwader 4 had a smaller proportion of inadequately trained aviators than the German fighter units in the West, the absence of an effective German fighter escort meant that the ground-attack airmen all too often were left completely at the mercy of Allied fighters—as was the case on 24 December 1944.
That the Germans still were able to resist the Third Army with such limited forces, was due in large part to a series of mistakes on the U.S. side. One of them was to spread out their forces too much. The Americans themselves were quite aware of this, and also that the hope for a ’Blitz’ that would sweep aside German 7. Armee and break ahead past Bastogne and further north had been too optimistic. Patton now took the decision to concentrate his efforts against Bastogne. The 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command Reserve, which just thirty-six hours earlier had been sent eastward, was ordered to turn around and at full speed move its troops to Neufchâteau on the Armored Division’s opposite flank. 109 Meanwhile, two battalions from the 80th Infantry Division’s 318th Infantry Regiment were shifted to the 4th Armored Division, which also was promised top priority for the XIX TAC ‘s direct air support on Christmas Day.
Millikin, the C.O. of the III Corps, also established that Patton’s idea of attacking around the clock had not produced much else than a total exhaustion of his troops— which also Patton himself admitted. So while the troops of the Armored Division’s Combat Command A and Combat Command B were allowed to rest during Christmas Night, Combat Command Reserve in the east departed from Bigonville, and drove back along the long and bad road to Neufchâteau, nearly twenty miles to the west.
On Christmas morning, Combat Command Reserve had assembled in its new area in the west, where the troops took Highway N 85 up towards Bastogne in the northeast. Colonel Wendell Blanchard, the CCR‘s commander, was a master at what could be described as a precursor to the later-days’ shock and awe tactics. Contrary to what Patton sometimes did, he avoided as far as possible going straight for the enemy pockets of resistance, but instead either evaded these to strike at weak points in the opponent’s lines, or, where this was not possible, he used artillery and direct air support in a way that even by American standards, was quite liberal.
A good three miles before Bastogne, the N 85 passes through Sibret. When the aerial reconnaissance revealed that the Germans had grouped a large force here, including armor, Blanchard decided to conduct a flanking movement to attack the little town in the flank. Therefore, he ordered his unit to veer off to the right about six miles before Sibret. This would lead Combat Command Reserve not only to a series of battles, but also to a place in the history of warfare.
Two and a half miles from the N 85, out in the open, windswept fields in the east, lay Remoiville, a small farming community with a few hundred inhabitants. This place was held by the III. Bataillon of German Fallschirmjäger- Regiment 14—a unit that would soon get acquainted with Blanchard’s famous attack tactics.
Behind the treetops of the grove on the other side of Remoiville, a smoke column rose against the blue sky. Loud bangs from artillery guns could be heard from that direction. That was Chaumont, a few miles away in the northeast, which was being bombarded by Combat Command B ahead of the final assault on Christmas evening. Soon it would be Remoiville’s turn. While Blanchard’s armor and motorized infantry were made ready for the assault, four artillery battalions started shelling the little village. It was the same tactic that had been used with such success against Bigonville. The Germans in Remoiville had been taken completely by surprise by the unexpected appearance of U.S. forces so far to the west, and the massive artillery barrier caused a bloodbath while the shocked survivors fled headlong down into the basements of the buildings.110 At that moment, Blanchard launched his armored attack.
Since Remoiville is located in a valley at a small creek, surrounded by a higher elevated terrain, the Americans were able to quickly get down amongst its thirty houses, many of which had been set burning by the artillery. When the Germans came up from the cellars where they had sought refuge, they immediately were overpowered by the American soldiers who flooded the village. Those who tried to offer resistance from the cellar air-holes were soon killed or driven out by direct fire from Sherman cannons. Three hundred and twenty-seven Germans, many of them wounded, were taken captive.
Christmas morning 1944. Soldiers from Lieutenant Colonel George Jaques’ 53d Armored Infantry Battalion have left the road N 85 and are marching southeast across the windswept fields. They watch how the artillery of Combat Command Reserve, 4th Armored Division is shelling Remoiville, where the III. Bataillon/ Fallschirmjäger Regiment 14 has established defensive positions. (NARA, 111-SC-198452)
Meanwhile, the by now rested and reinforced troops in Combat commands A and B also came loose. This was not least due to the air support. On this 25 December, the XIX Tactical Air Command despatched eight different Fighter groups in tactical support of the III Corps.111From Warnach, elements of Combat Command A, 4th Armoured Division continued towards the the northeast. A mile further ahead, the Germans were driven out of Tintange by Thunderbolts from the 362nd and 406th Fighter groups that set this little village burning with napalm bombs. This American thrust forced German Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15 to spread out its forces, since it suddenly also became necessary to block the road over Tintange against Wiltz, located eleven miles farther up in the northeast.
Meanwhile, the main force of Combat Command A carried on from Warnach along Highway N 4 towards the north. On their right side, the Tantimont forest stood in flames—also a result of napalm bombings—and Thunderbolt planes incessantly roamed in the air above the U.S. armored forces. Wherever the American soldiers turned their eyes, they could see black smoke columns rise from places that had been targets for fighter-bomber attacks, and on the snow-covered hills to the left, the artillery pieces in Combat Command B were in full action against Chaumont.
Oberstleutnant Gröschke, the commander of Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15, had no choice but to fall back to Hollange, three miles north of Warnach, where he established a new defensive position. As soon as this was observed by the American aviation, Brigadier General Earnest ordered his Combat Command A to halt in front of this village. ’The air support,’ a report from the 4th Armored Division established, ’was superior during the day and contributed particularly to the capture of Tintange. The air also reported that Hollange in front of CCA was strongly held and enabled the Division [4th AD] to fire the attached heavy artillery battalion on it during the night to soften it up for the next day’s attack.’112
Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 14 also was pushed back. Through the American thrusts on Christmas Day, the positions at Chaumont suddenly were threatened not only frontally, by Combat Command B; in addition to this, Combat Command A had marched up in front of Hollange, slightly more than a mile to the southeast, and another two and a half miles to the west stood Combat Command Reserve. Challenged by virtually the entire 4th Armored Division—which also had been reinforced by elements from the 80th Infantry Division—the Germans had no other option than to evacuate their little force from Chaumont. Supported by a battalion of the 318th Infantry Regiment and with very strong air support, Combat Command B attacked on Christmas evening and finally managed to take the ruins of Chaumont in possession. ’By dusk the Americans were in control of Chaumont. The GIs were exhausted, disheveled, and bearded. They smashed all the German guns they could find. Then they brought bacon and coffee and implored the villagers to fix them a hot meal.’113
But even if the 4th Armored Division succeeded in gaining some territory on Christmas Day, no real breakthrough had yet been accomplished. From their positions in Hollange, German Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15 held Highway N 4 to Bastogne barred to Combat Command A. With Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 14 concentrated in Remichampagne and the adjacent spruce forest Bois Cohet, about two miles northwest of Hollange, the Americans dared not let Combat Command B continue further north of Chaumont—which was located midway between the two villages—because this would mean exposing it to the risk of being sealed off. To the left of Combat Command B stood Combat Command Reserve, which just had seized Remoiville. Between this village and Remichampagne, a mile farther north, lay an open, snow-covered field, bordered by dark spruce forest on both sides. Since the sun would soon set and put an end to the close air support, Blanchard decided to halt his Combat Command Reserve for the night.
It should be kept in mind that at this point no more than a few days had passed since the Americans had been dealt a devastating defeat by a German force that they had not known the existence of, so although the 4th Armored Division and the Third Army enjoyed a considerable numerical superiority over their opponent, the U.S. caution should be seen in this light.
The situation was similar along the Third Army’s entire frontline: Where the Americans gained any territory on Christmas day, it was mainly due to the air operations. Far down to the southeast, the 5th Infantry Division of U.S. XII Corps could march into Echternach on Christmas Day, after this heavily bombed city had been evacuated by German 212. Volksgrenadier-Division. But then the XII Corps’ advance in the Luxembourg - German border area again grounded to a halt. Meanwhile, German 352. Volksgrenadier-Division withdrew Grenadier-Regiments 914 and 916 from their advanced positions in Ettelbrück, some twenty miles west-northwest of Echternach. This was the result not only of the previous day’s devastating American napalm bombing, combined with the fact that all German traffic to the town had been paralyzed by uninterrupted fighter-bomber attacks; moreover, the 317th Infantry Regiment of U.S. 80th Infantry Division had managed to advance far to the northwest of Ettelbrück. But this American success was to some extent neutralized by German 79. Volksgrenadier-Division, which pushed back the 317th Infantry Regiment through the counterattack launched on Christmas Eve, when Kehmen, four miles northwest of Ettelbrück, was recaptured by the Germans. On 25 December, the 317th Infantry Regiment was back in Niederfeulen—just two miles northwest of Ettelbrück—where it had been two days earlier. There, the 79. Volksgrenadier-Division managed to establish contact with the 52. Volksgrenadier-Division.114 One of the G.I.s of the 317th Infantry Regiment recalls:
’With little food or water remaining after maneuver over the frozen, inhospitable countryside, we encountered enemy resistance near Neiderfeulen on Christmas Day—a day I will never forget. It turned into one of the bloodiest battles L Company and its supporting companies would fight during the entire war. In frigid weather, over frozen snow-covered ground, the attack began up an open hillside that stretched for miles to its top. A hill that would be remembered forever by 317th dough’s as the “Bloody Knob.” Withering artillery, mortar, machine gun and rifle fire greeted us from all directions …. It was pure hell, fought in the worst weather conditions ever experienced in those parts.’115
When Patton had Christmas dinner with Bradley in Luxembourg in the evening on 25 December, the British Field Marshal Montgomery became the scapegoat for the lack of success. If Montgomery only had attacked in the north to relieve Patton in the south! Bradley just had returned from a meeting where he in vain had sought to persuade Montgomery to launch his attack prematurely, and he felt anything but pleased. He told Patton that Montgomery had said that ’the Germans had given us a real “bloody nose” it was useless to pretend that we were going to turn this quickly into a great victory.’ Bradley felt that Montgomery was ’more arrogant and egotistical than ever,’ and that the British Field Marshal had been ’scolding him like a school boy.’116 On top of this, said Bradley, Montgomery had not even invited his guest to lunch; Bradley’s Christmas lunch consisted of an apple!117
Patton on his behalf, felt that if only U.S. First Army was returned to Bradley’s 12th Army Group, ’we could bag the whole German army.’ That same evening he gave full vent to his frustration in his diary, ’Monty says that the First Army cannot attack for three months and that the only attack that can be made is by me, but that I am too weak!’118
Two days later Patton confided the frustration he felt with regard to his superiors to his diary, ’I wish Ike was more of a gambler, but he is certainly a lion compared to Montgomery, and Bradley is better than Ike as far as nerve is concerned. Of course he did make a bad mistake in being passive on the front of VIII Corps. Montgomery is a tired little fart. War requires the taking of risks and he won’t take them!’ Then he added, ’If I could get three more divisions, I could win this war now.’119_
Montgomery, however, had reason to be conservative in his judgment of the situation. That 25 December would be the day when the German offensive reached its peak, was of course not clear at the time— particularly not in the front sector commanded by Montgomery. On the previous day, the 2. SS-Panzer-Division ’Das Reich’ had dealt U.S. 7th Armored Division the heavy setback at Manhay as previously described. A counter-attack by Combat Command A of U.S. 3rd Armored Division and one of the regiments of the 75th Infantry Division was repulsed with severe American losses—of Task Force McGeorge’s seventeen tanks, only two remained after the clash with the 2. SS-Panzer-Division’s Panther tanks at Grandmenil.120 Farther to the southwest, the battle against German 116. Panzer-Division at Verdenne still hung in the balance, and although German 2. Panzer-Division appeared to have been halted near Dinant, the Allies knew that the Germans were bringing up new forces to this sector. Given how difficult it was for Patton’s Third Army to break through the relatively weakly held German positions in the south, it is easy to imagine what would have happened if Patton had been confronted with the more powerful German units that confronted Montgomery in the north.
A battalion commander in a German Volksgrenadier-Division instructs his company commanders on the map of a battle section in Luxembourg. (BArch, Bild 183-2013-0226-502/Langl)
A single German submarine also had foiled the plans to reinforce the Allied front in the Ardennes with another U.S. division. On 24 December, U.S. 66th Infantry Division was shipped out from England with the intent to relieve the 94th Infantry Division, an experienced unit engaged against the German-controlled Atlantic ports in Brittany. Subsequently, the latter would be transferred to the Third Army, thus enabling Patton to detail another division (the 90th Infantry) to the counter-offensive in the Ardennes. But one of the ships which transported the 66th Infantry Division was sunk by the German submarine U 486 in the English Channel. Of the 2,235 persons on board, 515 soldiers followed the ship down, and another 248 died of hypothermia or drowning. Through this disaster, the 66th Infantry Division’s ability to relieve the 94th Infantry Division was delayed so that the expected reinforcement of Patton’s attack forces in the Ardennes could not be realized until a full week into the new year.
As elsewhere in American headquarters, the mood in the IX Tactical Air Command’s headquarters in Lège was somber on this Christmas Day.’Christmas 1944 was the saddest we had spent in a long time,’ was noted in its war diary.121 On Christmas Eve, the Germans had given the Allies a nasty surprise in that the new Arado 234—the world’s first jet bomber—was despatched in attacks against Liège. With a top speed of 461 m.p.h., the twin-engine jet bomber could outrun any Allied fighter at the time. Between 0914 and 0926 hrs on Christmas Eve, nine Ar 234s of the III. Gruppe/ Kampfgeschwader 76 took off from the airbase at Burg. Eight of these set course for Liège, where they between 0950 and 1000 hrs attacked a fully occupied rail station, gliding in from 13,000 to 6,500 feet altitude, each dropping one 500-kg (1,100 lbs) bomb. A ninth Arado attacked the railway station in Namur. The German jets landed full strength between 1022 and 1044 hrs, and the pilots reported, ’Flak badly aimed, attacks by up to 6 Spitfire and Thunderbolt but no German losses; direct hits on railway installations and railway stations.’122
GERMAN U-BOATS SUPPORTING THE ARDENNES OFFENSIVE
Although the German U-boat Fleet by this time was almost completely defeated, it actually contributed to the Ardennes Offensive. An invaluable contribution was made by the U-boats U 870, U 1053, U 1009, and U 1232, which went out in the Atlantic Ocean and sent weather reconnaissance reports ahead of the Ardennes Offensive. This allowed the Germans to establish that a relatively prolonged low pressure area would settle over the front zone from mid-December 1944—which decided the timing for the attack.
Several Type VII C submarines—equipped with a schnorkel to the diesel engines, which enabled them to remain submerged—entered the English Channel to strike against the supply traffic to France. The most important contribution was made by U 486, commanded by Oberleutnant zur See Gerhard Meyer. On 18 December, this U-boat sank the merchant vessel Silver Laurel (6,142 GRT) in the English Channel, and followed up this success with the torpedoing on Christmas Eve 1944 of the transport ship Leopoldville (11,509 GRT), which delayed the deployment of a new American division at the Ardennes front. On the previous day, another schnorkel-equipped U-boat, U 322 under Oberleutnant zur See Gerhard Wysk, sank the steamer Dumfries (5,149 GRT) south of Isle of Wight.
On 29 December, Wysk carried out a bold attack against Convoy TBC-21 in the English Channel south of Portland. With his torpedoes he managed to inflict such serious damage to two large Liberty ships—the Arthur Sewall (7,176 GRT) and the Blackhawk (7,191 GRT)—that they could not be saved. But the audacity would cost the German U-boat dearly; the Canadian corvette Calgary localized it and managed to destroy it with depth charges. Not a single man of the fifty-two on board survived.
One of Hitler’s vaunted ‘wonder weapons’ was used by the German U-boat fleet to support the Ardennes Offensive—the electric-powered two-man midget submarine Model XXVII B Seehund. This vessel was not a ‘controlled mine’ like some other midget submarines, but it was a torpedo-armed submarine that could return to base after completing its mission.
The Seehund received its baptism of fire on 1 January 1945, when seventeen boats were sent out against Allied supply shipping in Scheldt Estuary.1
Because of its small size, the Seehund was virtually undetectable with the Allied SONAR, and its silent electric engines also hardly could be heard by the hydrophones that the Allies used to detect sounds from submarines. After the war, British Admiral sir Charles Little, Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth (approximately equivalent to the commander of the Homeland’s southern coast fleet) testified to the great threat that these Seehund could have been, ‘Fortunately for us these damn things arrived too late in the war to do any damage!’
It was Britain’s good fortune that the Seehund was rushed into service before its design was yet complete, and before the crews had time to familiarize themselves thoroughly with it. The first mission was a failure—only two boats returned, and only a single Allied ship was sunk. A new attempt to despatch eight Seehunds on 3 January was canceled due to inclement weather. A few days later, two Seehunds had to abort their mission due to engine failure. A further effort with five Seehunds against the coastal area of Margate was met with no success.
1 Schramm (red.), Kriegstagebuch des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht, Vol. 8, 2 January 1945, p. 978.
Although the Germans only mustered small groups of Arado jet bombers, the two attacks staged against Liège each day on 24 and 25 December sufficed to startle the Allies. Three Messerschmitt 262 jet fighter-bombers from Kampfgeschwader 51 also bombed Liège on Christmas Day. And in Tongres (Tongeren), a V 1 struck just three hundred yards from the First Army’s headquarters, injuring sixty-five men of the staff personnel.123
During the following night, U.S. 4th Armored Division reported an unfortunate incident in conjunction with a German air raid, ’During the night, an unidentified plane strafed the PW closure at Bercheux. During the confusion several prisoners attempted to rush the guards, but they were unsuccessful as ten were killed and twenty-two wounded.’124
In an attempt to finally break the deadlock, Patton brought forward more troops. U.S. 35th Infantry Division had on 20 December, after 160 consecutive days in the first line, been withdrawn to Metz behind the front to rest and recuperate ahead of its upcoming use in the Third Army’s counteroffensive in the Ardennes. But already on Christmas evening, this division received orders to decamp again and march to the front sector to the right of the 4th Armored Division. Meanwhile, the XII Corps was instructed to regroup Combat Command X (Combat Command A, 9th Armored Division, and the 10th Armored Division’s Combat Command A and Combat Command Reserve) to the III Corps’ left flank southwest of Bastogne.125 According to the original plan, the 6th Armored Division was supposed to replace it in the XII Corps, but Patton had by then given up on being able to achieve any significant breakthrough in this nearly impenetrable area. Therefore, it was determined that the 6th Armored Division also would be deployed towards Bastogne.
While the commander of the XII Corps, Major General Eddy, made up grandiose plans for a big offensive across River Sauer/Sûre, followed by an advance against German 5. Panzerarmee’s supply bridges ’from behind,’ Patton ordered the XII Corps to simply ’hold the positions.’126This also applied to the truncated 80th Infantry Division, which was transferred to the XII Corps. The experienced C-in-C of the Third Army understood that such a thrust into Germany as Eddy sketched probably would end in a disaster for the Americans. Although Patton was unaware of the details, one can in retrospect see that the Germans very well could have launched the armored units that by this time were made ready for an offensive into Alsace (Operation ’Nordwind’, see page 336) to isolate and destroy Eddy’s XII Corps if this had ventured across the river.
THE BREAKTHROUGH TO BASTOGNE
While Patton and Bradley had their Christmas turkey in Luxembourg, Colonel Blanchard and his staff officers in Combat Command Reserve, 4th Armored Division were leaning over a map that had just arrived with a liaison aircraft. This map showed all the German positions in the area—the result of the excellent U.S. air reconnaissance. No more than six miles remained to Bastogne, but first the German stronghold in Sibret on Highway N 85 had to be neutralized. Blanchard had tried to circumvent Sibret by veering off to the fields south of N 85, but now it seemed as though his Combat Command Reserve had no chance to avoid the positions held by German Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 14. The Germans had fortified themselves in Remichampagne, two miles south of Sibret and a mile north of Remoiville. (The latter place had been taken by the Americans on Christmas Day.) To the left lay the dark spruce forest Bois Cohet—and there too, German paratroopers were in position—and to the right was another forest. Beyond this was the CCB ‘s operating area, where this Combat Command on Christmas evening finally managed to break the tenacious German resistance in Chaumont.
Thus, there was only one way—forward. Before the assault on Remichampagne, Blanchard made sure that he would receive a proper close air support. In fact, his unit was something of a pioneer in cooperation between air and ground forces. A close cooperation was established with one of the Fighter Groups under XIX Tactical Air Command’s control. Thomas J. Evans, who by that time served as a captain in ’C’ Company, 740th Tank Destroyer Battalion, explains:
’We had direct contact with a P-47 fighter group. We, the Combat Command, mostly, would call for air strikes if we ran into resistance that would take a head-on attack to overcome. The P-47s would come in and drop their 500-lb bombs and strafe the area. In my command vehicle, I had a crystal in my radio so that I could call for an air strike if it was necessary. All we had to do was call in a ’possible target’ and give them the map coordinates. […] Usually, if we had a target, we’d call for the planes, then fire a smoke round into the target area to indicate where it was. We got very good at it. The air to ground communication was well coordinated. Lots of times, on their days off, these fliers would come up to visit us, to get to know who they were talking to on the radio. They wanted rides in the tanks and souvenirs.’127 In order to avoid friendly air attacks, the tankers used luminous plastic panels that they draped over the back or the turret of their tanks.128
Moreover, Patton asked General Weyland to focus the air operations of his XIX Tactical Air Command on direct air support directly at the front lines on 26 December, for the second day in a row, so that the Third Army would finally be able to ’break loose.’ Weyland was only too happy to adhere to the request.
German paratroopers man a 20mm Flakvierling 38. This weapon had a rate of fire of 280 rounds per minute, i.e. 1,120 rounds from all four barrels, and was much feared by American fighter-bomber aviators when they carried out attacks at low altitude. (BArch, Bild 146-1981-069-25)
The sun had barely risen on the morning of 26 December—which turned out to be yet another clear and sunny day—before the paratroopers in Remichampagne heard the ominous sound of aircraft engines. At 0925 hrs, sixteen Thunderbolt fighter-bombers from the 362nd Fighter Group swept down and dropped their bombs over Remichampagne and the Bois de Cohet forest. They were met by an intense anti-aircraft fire, which shot down three Thunderbolts. Just before his hit aircraft crashed into the ground, the the 362nd Fighter Group’s deputy C.O., Major Berry Chandler, shouted the almost classic words over the R/T: ’I’m hit and going in - give ‘em hell!’ That also was what Blanchard’s men were determined to do!
Allied air attacks on German transport routes played an important role to the outcome of the Ardennes Battle. The picture shows panicked horses while exploding bombs throw snow, dirt and smoke high into the air somewhere in the Ardennes in the winter of 1944/1945. (BArch, Bild 183-J28547/Henisch)
The air strike was the signal to the ground units. While the artillery began shelling the by now burning village and forest, the armor and infantry advanced across the snow-covered fields. The 37th Tank Battalion’s after action report describes the operation: ߣSimultaneously as the tanks and infantry started moving in, and the artillery was pouring it on, the P-47s started to bomb and strafe. The Bois de Cohet was given a good doing over. The coordination of tanks, infantry, artillery, and air was to perfection. Planes came over tanks at antenna altitude and strafed to the front.’129 The assault against Remichampagne was a repetition of the attacks against Bigonville and Remoiville. ’Assaulting immediately after the airstrike, B/37 and B/53 met only light resistance in Remichampagne, with the few defenders still dazed from the bombing.’130
By this time, the German troops that held the lines against the 4th Armored Division were pretty worn out. Not only were they fatigued after ten days of uninterrupted fighting, often with several consecutive days without any sleep. Early in the offensive, many of them had feasted on large amounts of captured American rations, but with the clearing of the weather on 23 December, the American aviation put an end not only to those profitable advances, but also to a large part of the transportation of supplies to the front. The Germans in the area south of Bastogne had already before that suffered great want of all kinds of maintenance, since there hardly were any proper roads from the depots in Germany to this sparsely populated area. Oberst Kokott wrote:
The transport of supplies to the entire southern section [i.e. south of Bastogne] was carried out on a single road, the one that went from Doncols [six miles southeast of Bastogne] to Lutremange [five miles to the southwest]. This was shared by the Panzer Lehr Division, the 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division, and the 26. Volksgrenadier-Division. It takes no great imagination to imagine the massive traffic jams that this caused, particularly as the supply traffic to these three divisions was restricted to the hours of darkness. And this on a lousy, broken and narrow little road! Fortunately, in the early stages the enemy only directed weak fire—and only against certain sections—against this artery. […] We suffered a shortage of ammunition for heavy mortars and heavy howitzers. We managed to bring up the required quantities of infantry ammunition, but the bread supply did not occur for days on end. Sometimes up to ten men had to share a loaf of bread a day.131
’Prisoners have had no food for from three to five days,’ Patton wrote in his diary on 26 December. ’We should attack!’132 On top of this, the German paratroopers often had been unable to wash their uniforms since the offensive began. After the first week of endurance in rain and fog, these personal equipments were incredibly muddy and wet, and there often was not even an opportunity to dry them.133 When the severe cold hit, the moist uniforms froze, which increased the cases of frostbite in the German army. ’Since the American uniforms were of much better quality than our own,’ says the German soldier Friedrich Lademann, ’we took those from fallen or captured American soldiers.’134 But in the tense atmosphere created by the fear of Skorzeny’s Greif men in U.S. uniforms, this was not looked upon with approval by the Americans.
All along the frontlines, Thunderbolt and Lightning fighter-bombers attacked the 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division’s positions on this 26 December. ’As always during these days, large formations of American fighter-bombers attacked villages and towns in the rear area, as well as artillery positions, from nine o’clock in the morning and onward,’ wrote the commander of German 5. Panzerarmee, General von Manteuffel.135 On this day, the air units under command of Weyland’s XIX Tactical Air Command would perform 558 sorties, chiefly in close air support, dropping 157 tons of bombs.136
Under this air umbrella, the 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command Reserve was set in motion in the afternoon on 26 December to reach attack positions south of Sibret, which Blanchard had ordered his troops to occupy. The engines of the Sherman tanks of Lieutenant Colonel Creighton Abrams’ 37th Tank Battalion barked into life while the infantry of the 53rd Armored Infantry Battalion began its march across the snow-covered fields north of Remichampagne. Thick black smoke hung in the air above them while the tanks and half-tracks jerked forward in column on the small road. To the right, on the other side of a one hundred yard wide ravine that had been created when the earth eroded around a small creek that flows down from the hills in the north, the foot soldiers made it through the snow. Soon they had reached the road junction which they were supposed to take to the left toward Sibret. Here, a memorial to the fallen in World One has been erected at the roadside.
The sun stood low in the sky and cast long shadows over the winter-clad landscape—it already was three in the afternoon. Wheel tracks in both directions revealed a lively German traffic. With a smoking cigar between his lips, Lieutenant Colonel Abrams trudged off to his colleague Lieutenant Colonel George Jaques, C.O. of the 53rd Armored Infantry Battalion, to discuss how they would proceed. Thirty-year-old Creighton Abrams was known as one of the best armor officers in the entire U.S. Army. He had personally formed the 37th Tank Battalion, and led it to its great success during the ’sweep’ across France in the previous summer. Long after the war, he gave his name to the American Abrams tank.
’We’ve got everything here,’ Abrams told a reporter. ’You want the Air Force—give ‘em a ring. We’ve got artillery so thick a German louse couldn’t crawl through it.’ He called it ’Overpowering violence’—’to save American lives.’137
But now Abrams hesitated. Colonel Blanchard had indeed ordered them to go on against Sibret, but because of its location on a hill, this town promised to be quite a hard nut to crack. With about a thousand inhabitants—Sibret had a station on the railroad Libramont -Bastogne—it was not one of those small villages that the 4th Armored Division hitherto had been able to overpower in the Ardennes. But the primary cause for Abrams’ concern was that air reconnaissance had detected that the Germans had assembled quite a significant strength in Sibret, including tanks—which the 4th Armoured had yet to meet during its Ardennes operation (at least German-made tanks). These were part of a company from the 15. Panzergrenadier-Division’s Panzergrenadier-Regiment 104, with half a dozen Panzer IVs. Although the air and artillery support was available in abundance, Abrams knew that the presence of German tanks was to be taken seriously. By that time, his 37th Tank Battalion had no more than twenty Shermans left. Lieutenant Colonel Jaques fully shared his opinion regarding Sibret. Jaques’ own force also had waned after having taken some losses.
Suddenly a rising engine sound was heard in the distance. Above their heads, what they thought were ’hundreds’ of twin-engine C-47 transport aircraft passed at low altitude, heading towards Bastogne in the north. Shortly afterwards, the blue sky was filled with clusters of parachutes, each with a supply canister for the beleaguered Bastogne. ’That so vividly underscored the plight of the men at Bastogne,’ wrote Charles B. MacDonald, ’that Abrams took an ever-present cigar from his lips and proposed that they say to hell with Sibret and barrel-ass through to Bastogne.’138
Without informing Colonel Blanchard, Abrams and Jaques ordered each battalion’s ’C’ Company to go full speed on the road straight towards Bastogne, passing through Clochimont and Assenois. This was the ’C Team’ under Captain William A. Dwight. Abrams used the usual tactics against the two small villages that stood in the CCR’s way: Via radio, he had four artillery battalions and a battery of 155mm guns fire ten rounds each—a total of four hundred and twenty shells against the two villages. Then the Americans attacked.
They quickly made their way along the road running dead straight to Clochimont, which they reached in a few minutes. The Sherman tanks surged through the little village street at full speed. Clochimont consisted of no more than a dozen houses, and only a couple of them lay along the road that the tanks took. There were only few Germans in the village, but they offered a frantic resistance. A half-track vehicle exploded, hit by what probably was a Panzerfaust. Other Germans blew up one of the heavy steel girders that serve as telephone poles in Belgium, with the result that it crashed on top of a Sherman that had to be abandoned. From inside of the houses and behind hedges or trees, other Germans opened fire. But Abrams and Jaques had ordered the troops to just run straight through the village, so while some infantry platoons stayed behind to deal with the surviving Germans, Sherman tanks and half- track vehicles with infantry carried on.
With snow spraying from the tracks, they surged on along the frozen little country road, leading across open fields towards Assenois. But at this place, a thousand yards further on, the Germans had had time to assemble the defense. Assenois was occupied by only a composite force consisting of maintenance soldiers, a handful of paratroopers, and the guard force of Füsilier-Grenadier-Regiment 39—lacking any other anti-tank weapons than Panzerfausts. On the previous day, 25 December, U.S. air bombs had turned the artillery in the small village into a smoldering heap of scrap. Still, the Germans were able to fight back the first American attack on the hills outside the village.
From the hill above the small village of Clochimont, soldiers from Combat Command Reserve, 4th Armored Division watch as C-47 transport planes (to the left in the picture) are flying in supplies to the besieged troops in Bastogne. (NARA, 111-SC-199293)
Abrams’ and Jaques’ lightning thrust, however, came completely out of the blue to the headquarters of the XLVII. Panzerkorps. When Oberst Kokott, the 26. Volksgrenadier-Division’s commander, now contacted the headquarters to ask for reinforcements to Assenois, he learned that ’the Corps only knew about the fighting near Remichampagne and was surprised to hear that the front near Clochimont had been ripped open.’139 But the Germans responded with customary swiftness. In Sibret, Panzergrenadier-Regiment 104 received orders to advance to Assenois in the northeast. Between four and six Panzer IVs were immediately ready. Infantry would ’hitchhike’ with the tanks. There was less than a mile and a half to Assenois, which even was within sight from Sibret. The Germans could have been there in less than a quarter of an hour—which would have given the battle for this village an entirely different course.
But out in the open and unprotected fields on the way to Assenois they became exposed to the furious attacks from swarms of bomb dropping Thunderbolts which forced the armored relief force to turn back.140 Once again, Abrams had called in the 362nd Fighter Group, which after eight fighter-bomber missions reported that ’damage was done particularly to enemy vehicles and truck concentrations at Sibret.’ 141
Meanwhile, the Americans prepared a new ground assault against Assenois. This time the preparatory artillery fire was combined with an air strike by the 406th Fighter Group’s Thunderbolts, dropping napalm bombs. Then the ground troops attacked. The commander of Füsilier-Grenadier-Regiment 39, Oberstleutnant Walter Kaufmann, reported:
’The enemy started a second attack, using Nebelwerfer, phosphorous shells, and being well supported by artillery. He penetrated the village; some elements bypassed it to the east. Bitter street fighting has taken place in Assenois. Mines, anti-tank close combat weapons, and antitank guns have put a number of enemy tanks and personnel carriers out of commission. Some of the crews have been wounded and taken prisoners.’142
Hurling anti-tank mines in front of the American tanks, the Germans managed to destroy one of these, and three more were knocked out with Panzerfausts.143 While the fight was raging, three Shermans—with the tank baptized ’Cobra King,’ commanded by First Lieutenant Charles Boggess Jr., in the lead—raced straight through the little village. ’I used the 75 (mm main gun) like it was a machine gun,’ the gunner of Boggess’ tank, Corporal Milton Dickerman, recounted afterward. ’[Loader Private James G.] Murphy was plenty busy throwing in shells. We shot 21 rounds in a few minutes and I don’t know how much machine gun stuff.’ They covered a total of eight hundred yards on the narrow road that runs almost dead straight across the fields north of Assenois, and after just three to four minutes reached a concrete pillbox—an old Belgian fortification—just where a small gravel back road crosses the road. Boggess ordered fire and a 75mm grenade from the tank’s cannon exploded against the bunker wall. Afterward, the German crew inside the bunker was found dead.
At that moment, Boggess, standing in the turret hatch, saw supply canisters in parachute thud down in the snow around. He let the driver move up the tank to the still smoldering bunker, and in the dusk he saw motions among the trees just behind the bunker. Green American steel helmets stood out against the snow covered branches of the spruce trees. Bogges heaved himself up and yelled. ‘Come on out! This is 4th Armored!’
A voice called back, ’I’m Lieutenant Webster of the 326th Engineers, 101st Airborne!’ After a brief moment of hesitation, a man wearing the paratroopers’ brown coat stood up and emerged from the woods. ’Glad to see you!’ said Second Lieutenant Duane J. Webster with a broad smile.
It was ten to five in the afternoon of 26 December 1944. Bastogne’s isolation was over—at least according to the American history writing. In reality, only five Sherman tanks had driven in behind the German lines—the first three were followed by a fourth, with the commmander of the ’C Team,’ Captain Dwight (a fifth tank in the group was destroyed by the Germans). A tough fight remained before the German resistance in Assenois could be finally cracked. When it was over, in the wee hours on 27 December, the Americans reported the bagging of 428 prisoners.144
But even if Captain Dwight and First Lieutenant Boggess’ relief force only consisted of a handful of tanks, Combat Command Reserve had punctuated the German lines through the daring raid on 26 December, and almost immediately 260 wounded soldiers in twenty-two ambulances and ten trucks from Bastogne were sent down the same road as Dwight and Boggess had come. Meanwhile McAuliffe, commander in Bastogne, hurried to the 326th Engineer Combat Battalion’s positions, where he saluted Captain Dwight with the quite informal words, ’Gee, I’m mighty glad to see you!’
The 101st Airborne had held out in Bastogne at the price of terrible losses. In just ten days, every sixth soldier and every seventh officer in the 101st Airborne Division was either killed, wounded or captured—a total of 115 officers and 1,933 soldiers.145 To just relieve Bastogne had cost the 4th Armored Division even more in terms of losses per day. In only four days, between 23 and 26 December, fourteen hundred of the Division’s troops were killed, wounded or captured—every seventh man.146
On 27 December, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Major General Maxwell Taylor, arrived at Bastogne to reassume command of the Division. Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, the highly competent general who had led the forces in Bastogne during the difficult siege, returned to his ordinary position as the Airborne Division’s artillery commander. In January 1945 he was transferred from Bastogne to the Sauer front and the 103rd Infantry Division, which he was assigned to command. Major General Taylor also transferred the 101st Airborne Division’s command post from the Heintz Barracks—where McAuliffe had rejected the German offer to surrender with the immortal word ’Nuts’—to Château d’ Isle-la-Hesse, a large mansion just west of Bastogne.
Among destroyed U.S. combat vehicles in the ruins of Bastogne, the newly arrived regular commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Major General Maxwell D. Taylor, hastens to confer with some of the division’s senior officers: Major James J. Hatch (S-3, operations officer, in the 502nd Parachute Infantry), Brigadier General Gerald J. Higgins (deputy commander of the 101st Airborne Division), Colonel Robert F. Sink (commander of the 506th Parachute Infantry), and Lieutenant Colonel Joseph H. Harper (commander of the 327th Glider Infantry). Of curiosity it could be noted that Robert F. Sink was played by Captain Dale Dye in the TV series ‘Band of Brothers’ (NARA, SC 199243/PFC E.L. Martin)
During the night of 26 December 1944, Oberstleutnant Gröschkes Fallschirmja-ger-Regiment 15 was regrouped to the hills at the villages of Sainlez and Livâr-champs, just east of Highway N 4. Here they managed to halt Combat Command A, 4th Armored Division for an entire day. The picture shows two Sherman tanks of the 35th Tank Battalion in combat with Gröschkes paratroopers at Sainlez. Over the course of 27 December, the temperature in the Bastogne area rose from 17 degrees to just above the melting point, which is visible through frost on the tanks. (NARA, 111-SC-198523)
FOCAL POINT BASTOGNE
The 4th Armored Division’s two other Combat commands still enountered great difficulties in their attempts to widen the wedge to Bastogne. On Boxing Day, when Combat Command Reserve drove the Germans from Remichampagne and Clochimont, it enabled Combat Command B to resume its advance from Chaumont, two miles southeast of Remichampagne. But it did not take long before its 318th Infantry Regiment and 8th Tank Battalion soon were halted by fire from 88mm guns. Only when fighter-bombers had silenced eight of these could the advance continue.147Still, on the evening of 26 December, Combat Command B had not reached beyond the intersection south of Clochimont, whence Combat Command Reserve had begun its thrust due north towards Bastogne a couple of hours earlier. The fighting on that day had cost Combat Command B such heavy losses, particularly in infantry, that its commander decided to halt at that place. Thus, the Germans could regroup during the following night, and for several days, Combat Command B was held checked by German Panzergrenadier-Regiment 104 in the area southeast of Assenois.
Sergeant Harry Traynor, at that time a driver of a Hellcat tank destroyer in the 1st Platoon of ’B’ Company, 704th Tank Destroyer Battalion—part of Combat Command B—tells of how ’the Ardennes Bulge and Bastogne bring back memories of biting, numbing cold, and white snow red with blood. It brings back memories of German 88s coming in day and night.’ Traynor continues, ’We had to learn that the enemy was using every trick in the book, covering their identity by using captured U.S. tanks,planes, and trucks. Intense fighting was the order of the day.’
The situation was further complicated because Combat Command A—which was supposed to advance to Bastogne along Highway N 4 in the east—remained in position at Hollange, three miles southeast of the positions reached by Combat Command B, throughout 26 December. Here, German Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15 had moved into position after the loss of Warnach.
Through rapid raids behind the American lines, the German paratroopers were able to capture a number of the kind of luminous plastic panels that the U.S. ground forces used to mark ’friendly forces’ to the aviation, and therefore the close air support could not be used with the same effect as before.148 Moreover, in daytime the Germans had switched to making only short, quick movements, and then to quickly hide in the groves of trees or under roofs, to sweep away wheel tracks and mask the vehicles. Furthermore, their artillery regularly changed position. Indeed, this significantly delayed all transports, but also helped to reduce the number of vehicles knocked out through air strikes. For example, on the morning of 26 December, Combat Command A called in the aviation against a German vehicle column that had been sighted on the main road from Bastogne. But when the flight arrived at 1210 hrs, no trace could be seen of the German vehicles. Instead the aviators dropped their bombs over a small grove of trees about six hundred yards north of Hollange, from where German artillery fire had been observed—without having a clue if this artillery still was there.
It was mainly the risk of getting outflanked because of the American advance to Assenois, four miles to the north, that compelled the Germans to withdraw Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 15 from the positions at Hollange on the west side of the N 4 during the night of 26 December. Instead, these paratroopers reinforced the positions in the hills at the villages Sainlez and Livârchamps on the other side of the road—two thousand and three thousand yards respectively to the northeast of Hollange, and three miles south of Bastogne. There they held back Combat Command A for another full day.
With a gap opened to Bastogne from the south by the Americans, both sides now began to reinforce their positions in this front sector. As we have seen, U.S. 35th Infantry Division and Combat Command X (Combat Command A, 9th Armored Division and the 10th AD’s Combat Command A and Combat Command Reserve) were instructed on 25 December to march up to the 4th Armored Division’s eastern and western flanks.*
Because of the turning point that was achieved along the entire western flank of the German Ardennes Front on 25-26 December, Field Marshal Montgomery informed Eisenhower on 27 December that he intended to start preparing for his own counter-offensive against the northwestern flank of the German Bulge. He expected to be ready to begin on 3 January. When Eisenhower received this information, he is said to have exclaimed, ’Praise God from whom all blessings flow!’** In any case, the Allied suprème commander hoped that Montgomery’s offensive would have the dual effect of beating the Germans in the Ardennes, and reducing the tensions between American generals and the British field marshal, which had become aggravated because of the German offensive.
Patton took the opportunity to ask Eisenhower to put the two fresh divisions, the 11th Armored and the 17th Airborne, recently shipped over from England to France, at the Third Army’s disposal. Eisenhower immediately agreed to this, although he added the sharp instructions that they must not be placed in the Saar region, but only at the Ardennes front. Meanwhile the Third Army’s 87th Infantry Division also was ordered to rapidly redeploy to the section southwest of Bastogne.
On the German side, Oberst Rèmer’s Führer Begleit Brigade was ordered on 26 December to regroup to the Sibret sector southwest of Bastogne, where the remnants of the 15. Panzergrenadier-Division had been positioned. As we have seen, the Führer Begleit Brigade’s departure from the Hotton section on River Ourthe sealed the fate of German 116. Panzer-Division. Moreover, the brigade’s march to the new combat zone was greatly delayed by air attacks. These were so intense that Rèmer found it necessary to let his forces take cover in the Hampteau forest south of Hotton and stay there until after sunset on 26 December. During the following night, fuel shortages hampered the brigade’s movèments over the icy roads along the southeastern side of River Ourthe (Ourthe Occidentale), via Champlon to Ortheuville on the Ourthe’s western branch. ’Fuel was so scarce that almost half of the vehicles had to be towed,’ wrote Oberst Rèmer.149
The events of 25 and 26 December led von Rundstedt and Model to the conclusion that they had to neutralize Bastogne and beat Patton before it was possible to resume the offensive towards the Meuse. Therefore, Generalleutnant Karl Decker’s XXXIX. Panzerkorps— which on 26 December had arrived with the 167. Volksgrenadier-Division at Houffalize—was also ordered to regroup to the Bastogne area and assume command of the German operations there.
In the evening on 27 December 1944, Hitler gave his approval to von Rundstedt’s and Model’s plan and ordered that ’the enemy wedge into Bastogne under all circumstances must be destroyed and cleaned up by concentrated attacks on its long flanks.’150 A few hours later, SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Priess received orders to detach two divisions—the 3. Panzergrenadier-Division and the 1. SS-Panzer-Division—from his I. SS-Panzerkorps at the northern Ardennes combat zone, and promptly shift them to the XXXIX. Panzerkorps in the area south and southeast of Bastogne. By that time, the 1. SS-Panzer-Division mustered twenty-five Panzer IVs, sixteen Panthers, and eighteen Panzerjäger I Vs, plus fifteen Königstigers from schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 501.151 Along with Rèmer’s Führer Begleit Brigade, this thus meant a significant strengthening of the German forces at Bastogne. In fact, when Oberst Rèmer arrived in the Bastogne area, he established that 26. Volksgrenadier-Division had no antitank weapons left.152
Meanwhile General von Lüttwitz’ XLVII. Panzerkorps established defensive positions in the far west, with the 9. Panzer-Division and the remainder of the 2. Panzer-Division in the Rochefort sector, and the bulk of Panzer Lehr at Saint-Hubert in the southwest.
Because of the Allied aviation, the Germans, however, were prevented from immediately bringing up all of their reinforcèments. The junction of Sankt Vith had been bombed to rubble on 25-26 December, and this made it impossible to use the major roads that ran through this city. Houffalize—where the 167. Volksgrenadier-Division had assembled—was razed in an attack by 9th Air Force B-26 bombers that cost the town’s population two hundred casualties. The Germans, who had sought refuge in the woods on the heights overlooking Houffalize, escaped with about fifty killed, but the damage caused by the bombs on the winding road up from the city, along with large amounts of rubble from collapsed houses, had a significant delaying effect on the 167. Volksgrenadier-Division’s march to Bastogne. At the same time, the 3. Panzergrenadier-Division’s columns were subjected to repeated fighter-bomber strikes which, according to U.S. estimates, resulted in the destruction of fifty-six vehicles, including eight tanks, and ’many soldiers killed.’153 The 3. Panzergrenadier-Division’s Panzer-Abteilung 103 alone was the target for seventeen air attacks over the course of 27 December. Although the American pilots’ estimates of the material damage they inflicted on the enemy were greatly exaggerated, the incessant air raids cost the Germans valuable time—besides the also actually considerable material losses. Generalmajor Friedrich von Mellenthin describes the sight that met him during a drive to the 9. Panzer-Division at the front northwest of Houffalize on 29 December:
A series of photos from the gun camera of a U.S. fighter-bomber shows how the American aircraft, with the pilot Lieutenant Richard D. Law, 378th Fighter Squadron, 362nd Fighter Group, fires on the target, which suddenly explodes in a ball of fire.
(NARA A 5-294 via Peter Björk)
’The icebound roads glittered in the sunshine and I witnessed the uninterrupted air attacks on our traffic routes and supply dumps. Not a single German plane was in the air, innumerable vehicles were shot up and their blackened wrecks littered the roads’154
The constant attacks of American fighter-bombers are some of the surviving German veterans’ strongest memories from this winter battle. The diary notes for Unteroffizier Horst Helmus from the 26. Volksgrenadier-Division, read:
’26 December 1944, Boxing Day: And over us … Jabos! They focus on Senonchamps with bombs and machine guns. Soldiers help the civilians to extinguish the flames and with the rescue work. They carry buckets of water to save what can be saved. In the streets, loose livestock run about. […]
Wednesday, 27 December 1944: Jabos, all day long! Always in formations of seven aircraft that drop demolition bombs and carry out low-level attacks, tormenting us with their machine guns until they are succeeded by a new formation—over and over again, from sunrise to sunset’155
In addition, the Allies launched their strategic aviation against the supply routes in western Germany, behind the Ardennes Front. On 27 December, 575 heavy bombers from the 8th Air Force attacked marshalling yards and rail bridges in the region, followed by attacks on the next day with more than one thousand heavy bombers escorted by six hundred fighters against such targets at Kaiserslautern, Homburg, and Koblenz.156 The following night, 167 British Lancaster bombers attacked the marshalling yards at Cologne-Gremberg. On 29 December, Ultra at Bletchley Park decrypted a German message that confirmed the efficacy of these airstrikes, ’Through the progressive destruction of railway lines and stations and several road junctions in the Eifel area, the supply situation is most seriously strained, and threatens to become really dangerous’157 A further consequence of the Allied air operations was that the 1. SS-Panzer-Division ’Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ was unable to begin its redeployment south until around noon on 29 December, because of inadequate supplies of fuel.158
The Führer Begleit Brigade was held down by U.S. fighter-bombers throughout 27 December, just like on the previous day—this time in the woods southeast of Ortheuville and northwest of Bastogne. ’Due to the enemy air activities, the brigade was compelled to take cover in the Bois de Herbaimont all day long’ said brigade commander Rèmer. ’The medical company, traveling during the day, was 40 per cent destroyed in a fighter-bomber attack lasting 35 minutes, in spite of all vehicles being painted white and carrying the red cross. A number of wounded men were thereby killed’159
The fact that the Führer Begleit Brigade took high alert against Allied air operations, however, cost the American transport aircraft that flew on Bastogne dearly. A formation from the 50th Troop Carrier Wing with fifty C-47 transport aircraft—each towing a Waco CG-4 (cargo glider) with ammunition and fuel—flew straight into the Führer Begleit Brigade’s flak. The U.S. report reads, ’Planes encountered a terrific barrage of heavy flak and small arms fire […] It is believed that a flak division must have moved to the area around Bastogne’160 The Germans claimed to have shot down ten C-47s.161 The actual U.S. losses on this 27 December amounted to nineteen C-47s and as many gliders. The hardest hit unit was the 440th Troop Carrier Group (one of two groups in the 50th Troop Carrier Wing), where only two—both severely damaged—out of its thirteen aircraft escaped the massacre.
However, the Führer Begleit Brigade was unable to intervene to defend Sibret on this day. Sibret, located on a height about four miles southwest of Bastogne, was a cornerstone of the siege of Bastogne. As we have seen, on the day before, the advance force of Combat Command Reserve, 4th Armored Division had avoided going straight on Sibret, which was held by a company of the 15. Panzergrenadier-Division’s Panzergrenadier-Regiment 104. But when Combat Command Reserve now—barely—had managed to punctuate the ring around Bastogne, the next task was to widen the breach. Therefore, the 9th Armored Division’s Combat Command A was brought forward to the III Corps’ western flank. On 27 December, this force attacked Sibret and Villeroux, a mile closer to Bastogne. In Sibret, fierce fighting raged throughout 27 December and well into the next morning, but in the end the Americans had managed to seize most of the locality. In Villeroux, however, the 26. Volksgrenadier-Division’s Fusilier-Grenadier-Regiment 39 managed to repulse the American assault. Only after a massive aerial and artillery bombardment on 28 December could the German resistance in Villeroux be subdued. Next, the Americans pushed on towards Chenogne and Senonchamps, two miles further north, to further widen the breach to Bastogne.
On the far western ’tip’ of the German Bulge in the Ardennes, two days of very intense bombardment by artillery and aircraft forced the Germans to relinquish the town of Rochefort on 29 December. The 9. Panzer-Division was pulled back to the hills two to three miles southeast of Rochefort, around Wavreille. There the 9. Panzer-Division’s left flank was linked to the positions held by 2. Panzer-Division from Wavreille to Bure, two miles further south, and on to Mirwart, another two miles to the south.162 The furthest advanced German position thus was the one held by the 9. Panzer-Division on its right flank at Hargimont, southwest of Marche.
The situation now was growing increasingly critical for the Germans. Von Lüttwitz wrote for 28 December 1944, ’Bastogne simply has to be taken!’163 The plan was for the 3. Panzergrenadier-Division to get established southwest of Bastogne, in the line Chenogne - the Bois de Fragotte forest, with the Führer Begleit Brigade—which was placed under the command of the 3. Panzergrenadier-Division—to the right, and the 15. Panzergrenadier-Division on the left, west of Bastogne, between Flamisoulle and Longchamps. But because of Allied air attacks, the main body of the 3. Panzergrenadier-Division had by the evening of 28 December still not reached its assigned area of operations, which spread the positions held by the Führer Begleit Brigade precariously thin.164 This brigade, which now finally could be deployed in the battle, however proved itself quite adequate to avert the continued American attacks.
This C-47 was one of nineteen Skytrains shot down by the Flak of the Führer Begleit Brigade west of Bastogne on 27 December 1944. The aircraft in the picture was from the 94th Troop Carrier Squadron, 439th Troop Carrier Group, and was baptized ‘Aint Missbehavin’ by the crew. The pilot was Captain Ernie Turner, with Lieutenant Keistutis J. ‘Casey’ Narbutas as co-pilot, Staff Sergeant Richard G. Whitehurst as radio operator, and Staff Sergeant John E. Douglas as the crew commander. All escaped unharmed from the èmergency landing at Savy northwest of Bastogne, behind the American lines. (NARA, 3A-5323)
At dawn on 29 December the Germans overtook their opponent with a counter-attack to retake Sibret. This, however, was repulsed with bloody losses, whereupon U.S. 9th Armored Division’s Combat Command A again attacked Chenogne and Senonchamps. Unteroffizier Horst Helmus, anti-tank gunner in the 26. Volksgrenadier-Division, depicted the battle of Senonchamps on 29 December 1944 in his diary:
Tank alarm! Leutnant Wiemann gives the order to deploy the gun to the intersection in the village center. Jabos!!! No one can move in the street. […] Can-non—marrrrch! March! March! 50 yards backward and according to orders in the middle of the intersection. Shrubs and straw are used to mask the gun. And then it breaks loose. Loud bangs are heard everywhere. Unteroffizier Mayer has taken an observation position on a rooftop next to the cannon. My comrades take cover in partially emptied turnip cellars. Turnips roll out into the street. Down in the cellars they wait for it to come. – Tank Sound! – Helmus! – This is it! Out of the basèment, to the cannon. For safety, the comrades remain in the shelter for a little while in order to reduce our losses. In front of me I have a 30-yard field of fire along the road. How unpleasant the situation may be, they must come down this road, straight towards my cannon. Three infantrymen help me to turn the piece. Then I am left on my own again. The clanking from the tank tracks and the engine sound has now grown so that it seems as if the tanks are driving right past me, but I still can’t see them. Mayer is yelling impatiently down from his shelter: ’Man, when will you open fire!’ But no matter if I look through the gunsight or lean over the armor shield and look around, I see nothing. The tension is unbearable.
There—in the haze one of the beasts moves through the road bend. At first I see only the left track, a part of the barrel, a part of the front, and then it shows itself it in its full width. A Sherman! I crank like crazy in the lateral direction and try to align the piece. Has the Yankee discovered me yet? Ratatatata— the first burst of tracer bullets pass above my head. This is it! I crank like mad, I slip and fall, get back on my feet with torn pants. A shell slams into the wall of the house behind me. Panting and completely beside myself, I dash into the basèment, immediately followed by Mayer. ’I’ll shoot myself! I’ll shoot myself!’ He is unable to say anything else. It is impossible to determine whether the detonations are from shots being fired or hits, whether it is from tanks or anti-tank guns.
Infantry with Panzerfausts come running after the tanks. A Sherman stands in front of the entrance to our cellar. The crew can be clearly heard talking with each other. It’s a horrible feeling to see the steel colossus through a small crack in the door.
Bombs go down nearby. Pungent hot air penetrates to us and the ground trembles. Nobody moves, although the comrades lay in multiple layers on each other. […]
Suddenly the village is filled with [German] soldiers. We can’t understand where they came from. We offer the ‘lately arrived’ comrades cigarettes. Destroyed tanks and armored vehicles are thoroughly plundered. A tank and three armored vehicles were destroyed by Pourmann’s cannon, five tanks were destroyed by the 7.5cm light howitzer, and two tanks and two armored vehicles were destroyed by the infantry’s Panzerfausts.
Panzerfaust duds are lying around among the turnips …’165
After fierce fighting, the Americans were pushed out of Senonchamps. In addition to several knocked out American tanks, the U.S. infantry had sustained such heavy losses that ‘morale was affected and, in some cases, the tanks were left to go on alone.’166 The commander of the Führer Begleit Brigade wrote: ’Penetrations which often got as far as the locality were mopped up by counter-attacks. In the evening, the situation was much the same as the previous day. During the night, bravely and skillfully conducted reconnaissance thrusts all the way to the forested areas south and southwest of Sibret reported the assembly of tanks and vehicles on the enemy side.’167
The Americans responded by calling in the Air Force. ’In the entire area constant low-level air attacks,’ German XLVII. Panzerkorps reported.168 On the afternoon of 29 December, fighter-bombers dropped incendiary bombs over Chenogne, where five German tanks or tank destroyers stood in flames when the aircraft left.169 But by that time, the intense combat activity since 23 December had taken a heavy toll on the U.S. air units, and despite great efforts by pilots and ground crews, the XIX Tactical Air Command’s aviation reached only 456 combat sorties on that day—down from 638 on 24 December and 558 on 26 December. The U.S. ground troops were not able either to follow up the air strikes. Three days of fighting had cost Combat Command A, 9th Armored Division about thirty of its fifty Sherman tanks.170
The state of the neighboring 4th Armored Division was only marginally better: on 30 December, this unit was down to a strength of forty-two Sherman tanks.171 This could be compared with the one hundred and eleven that the Division had on 24 December.172
With Sibret and Villeroux in American hands, the main road Bastogne - Neufchâteau was barely secured, but the Germans still held positions in the Bois de Fragotte forest and Senonchamps, a mile or so to the northwest, whence their artillery could cover the road with their fire. It stood absolutely clear to the Americans that they would have to fight for every inch of land in the breach opened to the besieged Bastogne.
The situation was similar at the III Corps’ eastern flank, where U.S. 26th Infantry Division finally began to work its way towards the river Sûre. German Fallschirmjager-Regiment 13, which had been inflicted with such severe losses by Combat Command Reserve, 4th Armored Division in Bigonville—actually the 26th Infantry Division’s western flank—had no choice but to retreat northward, behind River Sûre south of Wiltz.
A German PaK 40 anti-tank gun in anticipation of advancing American tanks. Behind the house stands a captured U.S. M8 halftrack vehicle. Painting by Unteroffizier Horst Helmus, 26. Volksgrenadier-Division.
Three miles farther to the east, a mile south of the Sûre, the Führer Grenadier Brigade was in the meantime practically bombed out of Eschdorf. Only a small force had been left in the village when the bulk of the brigade on Christmas Eve launched the counter-attack against U.S. 80th Infantry Division farther to the east. This resulted in both sides getting entangled in horribly costly battles on the III Corps’ eastern wing, but in the meantime U.S. 26th Infantry Division in the west managed to make its way to River Sûre, which it crossed on 26 December.
Horst Helmus, 26. Volksgrenadier-Division. (Foto: Helmus)
With the road junction Wiltz—three miles north of the Sûre—thus suddenly threatened, the strategic situation changed for the Germans. Although their 9. Volksgrenadier-Division—a newly committed division— had been ordered up to the combat zone already on 24 December, this unit still had not been able to reach the front line because of bad road conditions in the mountains and U.S. air strikes.173 Hence, Führer Grenadier Brigade was ordered to immediately cancel the counterattack that had begun on 24 December (see page 288), and to regroup—over Bourscheid and Goebelsmuhle—to the section north of the Sûre where the Americans had established a bridgehead. In addition, the Luftwaffe was brought in against the 26th Infantry Division’s river crossings.
On the afternoon of 26 December, these targets were attacked by three formations of German aircraft— with twelve Focke Wulf 190s, followed by six Messerschmitt Bf 109s, and finally seven Schlachtgeschwader 4 Focke Wulf 190s. But the Americans had already brought up a strong air defense to the area, and the 390th Antiaircraft Artillery (Automatic Weapons) Battalion was credited with the shooting down of thirteen of the attacking aircraft.174 Furthermore, various formations of Allied fighters arrived and chased the German aircraft eastwards. On the German side, fighter group II. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 1 lost eight, and ground-attack wing Schlachtgeschwader 4 lost five Fw 190s in the ’Bastogne area’ (the attacked sector is situated only six-seven miles southeast of Bastogne).175 Among those German pilots that got killed was Hauptmann Heinz Jungclaussen, squadron commander in the 3rd Staffel in Schlachtgeschwader 4, who with more than one thousand combat sorties was one of the war’s most experienced ground-attack aviators. Of the seven Focke Wulf 190s that he had taken off with, only two returned. U.S. 362nd Fighter Group claimed to have shot down eight or nine Focke Wulf 190s against the loss of a single Thunderbolt.
The Allied aviation was in total domination of the skies, and this forced the Führer Grenadier Brigade’s troops to lie in cover north of River Sûre at dawn on 27 December, while U.S. 26th Infantry Division surged across the river. But as soon as the American aircraft disappeared, the Germans launched an armored counter-attack that wiped out half a platoon of Sherman tanks at Kaundorf.176 ’But any hope of sweeping the north bank clear of the Americans evaporated when a dozen artillery battalions took the grenadiers under fire, followed less than two hours later by the Allied fighter-bombers,’ noted Hugh M. Cole. 177
An M36 Jackson tank destroyer crosses a snow-covered field in Luxembourg during the fighting in the winter of 1944/1945. (NARA, SC 198612/Hustead)
The first elements of the 9. Volksgrenadier-Division did not reach the battle area until 27 December. It would take three full days before the division as a whole had marched up to the front. On 28 December, U.S. 26th Infantry Division was able to capture Büderscheid, a small village nestled between forested mountains on the road northwards from the Sûre towards Wiltz.
In comparison with the situation on the German side, U.S. 35th Infantry Division could move its 16,000 troops to the area that previously had been the 26th Infantry Division’s western flank with considerably greater ease. On 27 December, the 137th Infantry Regiment on 35th Infantry Division’s left flank crossed River Sûre on a bridge established by an engineer unit of Combat Command A, 4th Armored Division south of Tintange, northeast of Warnach, on the border between Belgium and Luxembourg. When the Americans came out from Tintange, the 2nd Battalion took the small road that turns off to the northeast, and the men of the 3rd Battalion began an arduous march due north through the deep snow in wooded and hilly terrain. While the 3rd Battalion was spared any ambushes in this difficult terrain during 27 December, the 2nd Battalion encountered a small force from the 5. Fallschirm-Pionier-Bataillon at the crossroads at Surré, less than two and a half miles northeast of Tintange. Here the Americans stood three miles north of Bigonville—where I. Bataillon/ Fallschirmjager-Regiment 13 had been almost annihilated by the 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command Reserve three days earlier. After a few hours of fighting, the Germans at Surré retreated.
This American thrust had significant consequences for the Battle of Bastogne. From Surré, what remained of Fallschirmjager-Regiment 13 withdrew back up the hill to the hills just east of Surré, where the regiment along with flame thrower groups from Fallschirm-Pionier-Bataillon 5 managed to halt the Americans. But due to U.S. 26th Infantry Division’s crossing of River Sûre further east, Fallschirmjager-Regiment 13 had to hold a line extending two and a half miles, to Bavigne, where contact was established with the Führer Grenadier Brigade. To block the gap north of Surré, Generalmajor Heilmann, the commander of the 5. Fallschirmjager-Division, had to regroup Fallschirmjager-Regiment 15 to Harlange, just two miles north of Surré, as quickly as possible. The positions held by Fallschirmjager-Regiment 15 at Sainlez and Livârchamps, a mile and a half northwest of Surré, would instead be taken over by Fallschirmjager-Regiment 14, which in turn was pulled away from the area west of Highway N 4. Thus, the entire 5. Fallschirmjager-Division was pushed eastwards, which enabled U.S. 4th Armored Division to take control of a two and a half mile wide area south of Bastogne. It was only through this that the breach to Bastogne was really established.
While Fallschirmjager-Regiment 14 strived to take over Fallschirmjager-Regiment 15’s positions, U.S. 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command A managed to take Sainlez, from where the Germans had been able to prevent the Americans from continuing their advance towards Bastogne on Highway N 4. The 3rd Battalion of U.S. 137th Infantry Regiment—which had pressed on northwards from Tintange—and a battalion from the 35th Infantry Division’s reserve infantry regiment, the 134th, now joined the 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command A. During the course of 28 December, these units managed to outflank Fallschirmjager-Regiment 14 and take the small village of Lutrebois just east of the N 4. Thus, the German positions at Livârchamps, three miles further south, became untenable. In the evening on 28 December, Fallschirmjager-Regiment 14 withdrew to Villers-la-Bonne-Eau, a mile northeast of the Livârchamps and two miles south of Lutrebois.
Through the appearance of U.S. 35th Infantry Division in the sector between the American 4th Armored Division in the west and 26th Infantry Division in the east, German 5. Fallschirmjager-Division was forced back to a semi-circular defensive position southeast of Bastogne— extending from Bavigne, eight miles southeast of the town, three miles westwards to the hills east of Surré, and thence to Villers-la-Bonne-Eau, three miles further to the northwest, and on to the wooded area east of Lutrebois, two miles to the north and three miles southeast of Bastogne. Thus, the German paratroopers had been pushed a mile and a half east of Highway N 4. On the afternoon of 28 December, the Americans established positions at the castle Château de Losange east of the N 4, a mile north of Villers-la-Bonne-Eau, and during the following night they also entered that village.
The German divisional commander Heilmann was ordered to counter-attack immediately to regain the lost positions, but the odds were too uneven—he had no more than a weakened paratroop regiment against two U.S. infantry battalions and one third of the 4th Armored Division! However, his 5. Fallschirmjager-Division again succeeded in creating a stalemate in the American advance. Certainly, the 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command A managed to link up with the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne, but farther east, the U.S. advance was halted. After heavy fighting throughout 29 December, U.S. 134th Infantry Regiment had become stuck in Lutrebois, while ’K’ and ’L’ companies of the 137th Infantry Regiment’s 3rd Battalion still had not succeeded in driving out the German paratroopers from Villers-la- Bonne-Eau on the other side of the woods, just two miles further south; the few houses in this small village remained divided between Germans and Americans.
Slightly to the east, Oberstleutnant Groschke’s Fallschirmjager-Regiment 15 clung on to the the fortified farm estate Ferme Fuhrman just east of Harlange, where it managed to hold back the 320th Infantry Regiment on the 35th Infantry Division’s eastern flank. ’Locked in bitter battle,’ reported the 320th Infantry on the evening of 29 December. Still further east, U.S. 26th Infantry Division meanwhile clashed violently with German 9. Volksgrenadier-Division, which came to the aid of the Führer Grenadier Brigade and now counter-attacked south of Wiltz. Oberst Werner Kolb, commanding the 9. Volksgrenadier-Division, wrote:
’We succeeded in stopping completely the attack of the 26th American Division, which had been carried on successfully for over ten days. In spite of the commitment of enormous quantities of material, particularly of artillery and mortar ammunition, (15,000 shots were counted as fired on the divisional sector in one day and 3,000 shots a day were repeatedly fired at Noertrange—the divisional command post), the enemy did not score any successes worth mentioning. The intention of the Commander of the American 26th Infantry Div (according to a message intercepted by radio intelligence) to capture Wiltz on 1 January 45, was frustrated. The important Hill 490, southwest of Roullingen, after having been subjected to concentrated artillery fire, changed hands repeatedly, but always remained in enemy hands only for a short time. Every time, the enemy was expelled again in counter attack. […] Practically, it never came to infantry fighting. Only after the German front had been battered by the American superior artillery and mortar fire, the American infantry attacked and even then with support from tanks. In this stage of fighting, during which the enemy artillery had to cease firing, small German reserves, consisting often of no more than ten men, sufficed to repulse a manifold superior enemy infantry (even with attachéd tanks).’178
As we have already seen, the 26th Infantry Division ’Yankee’ was composed largely of recruits without any combat experience, and this stood them dearly when they now met the fresh 9. Volksgrenadier-Division, which had a cadre of quite combat experienced officers and NCOs. ’If even the veterans of the tough Yankee Division found the fighting between the Sûre and Wiltz in fog and freezing slush the hardest of the war, it is not surprising that it proved too much for some of the inexperienced men to take.’179
Farther northwest, the Americans were more successful. On this 29 December, U.S. 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command A, in close collaboration with fighter-bombers from the XIX Tactical Air Command, drove the Germans from Remoifosse—the last village on Highway N 4 before Bastogne, two miles south of the town. This opened this highway too to the previously completely surrounded town. The breach was further widened through an attack by the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, Hellcat tank destroyers from the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and Sherman tanks from Team O’Hara from within Bastogne, which managed to retake the village of Marvie, two miles southeast of the town. Thus the breach reached a width of four miles—from Marvie in the east to Villeroux in the west. The siege was definitely broken.
Luxembourg, 30 December 1944. Three U.S. soldiers returning from a patrol mission. From the left to the right, Sergeant James Storey, Private Frank A. Fox, and Corporal Dennis Lavanoha They use sheets acquired from local residents as provisional snow oversuits. In the Ardennes, this became a regular practice in the U.S. Army, which, unlike the Germans lacked snow oversuits. (NARA, SC 197832/Hustead)
THE SS COUNTERATTACKS
But the Germans already were planning a powerful countermove. Their 1. SS-Panzer-Division ’Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ and 167. Volksgrenadier-Division now were brought up against U.S. 35th Infantry Division. The SS Division assembled in Lutremange, east of the American positions along the forest road between Villers-la-Bonne-Eau and Lutrebois, and the 167. Volksgrenadier-Division was positioned a mile northeast of Lutrebois. These two divisions would form the eastern part of the German counteroffensive. This actually was supposed to have been launched on 29 December, but since these two divisions’ march to their new combat area was seriously delayed, Generalfeldmarschall Model decided to postpone the attack date until the 30th.180 Not even then had the entire 167. Volksgrenadier-Division arrived at the new combat zone; this division had to start the attack almost without any heavy weapons.181
On the afternoon of 29 December, von Manteuffel summoned his unit commanders to a conference. The slender little general—he measured only 5’2” (158 cm)— looked grim when he met the 5. Panzerarmee’s corps and division commanders. He began by reproaching them for their inability to understand how important it had been to take Bastogne at an early stage, and expressed support for Hitler’s, von Rundstedt’s and Model’s perception that to resume the advance on the Meuse, it was absolutely vital to first capture this town and ’beat Patton.’ He described Bastogne as the ’central problem’ and explained that the new situation at this town offered the Germans an opportunity to deal the Americans a new major defeat, or at least to tie down large U.S. forces so that they could not be deployed against Germany itself.
The operation plan presented by von Manteuffel, consisted of three phases: In the first, the ring around Bastogne would be sealed again through a joint pincer movèment from the west and the east against the Americans in the south. Next, Patton’s Army was to be pushed southwards, and finally all forces would be deployed to wipe out the U.S. forces in Bastogne. For this purpose, all German troops around Bastogne were brought together into the ad hoc grouping Armeegruppe Lüttwitz under General von Lüttwitz’ command, with the XLVII. Panzerkorps southwest of Bastogne and Generalleutnant Decker’s XXXIX. Panzerkorps southeast of the town.182 Moreover, the Germans had finally been able to bring forward considerable artillery to the positions at Bastogne— in total 321 artillery pieces and 306 Nebelwerfer.183 However, this artillery suffered from a lack of ammunition due to the American air attacks against its supply lines.184 Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe had promised to support the attack by despatching all available aircraft in a bombing attack against Bastogne on the night preceding the new offensive.
The bombing was carried out on the night of the 29th, and it became the hitherto heaviest air raid on Bastogne. Fifty-two aircraft participated, most of them twin-engine Junkers 88 and Junkers 188 bombers from bomber wing Kampfgeschwader 66. Private First Class John Trowbridge from U.S. 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment rèmembers that night:
’We took over prepared positions, which had both foxholes and deep slit trenches, some with thin covering, which were better for sleeping. We felt safer here away from the front lines, until one moonlit night when Jerry came over bombing and strafing. We were enjoying the fireworks, watching the antiaircraft tracers filling the sky, until a bomb exploded a few yards away from our hole.’185
Inside the little town with its small and narrow streets, it was as if hell had opened its gates. Entire neighborhoods were burned and hundreds of houses collapsed. Convinced that the final battle and the fall of the town had come, between fifteen hundred and two thousand terrified residents escaped on foot, with possessions loaded onto overcrowded bicycles or small carts, out from the town along the open highway to the south.
The ground attack in the east began with a rather weak artillery bombardment, and at 0625 on 30 December— two hours before sunrise—the Germans assaulted.
Initially it looked quite promising for the attacking side. During the night, thick clouds had settled over the battlefield, and it was snowing, which severely hampered Allied air operations. But owing to a lack of radio discipline on the German side, the British code breakers at Bletchley Park had been able to warn of the impending attack already in the morning on the day before.186 In addition to that, the 1. SS-Panzer-Division operated entirely on its own, leaving the 167. Volksgrenadier-Division, the considerably lighter equipped Wehrmacht Division of the SS unit’s northern flank, without the crucial armor support. Contrariwise, the 167. Volksgrenadier-Division had assigned its Grenadier-Regiment 331 to the SS Division’s support.
SS-Brigadefuhrer Wilhelm Mohnke had divided his 1. SS-Panzer-Division into two battlegroups. On the northern flank, the division’s tanks, two battalions of panzer grenadiers, and an engineer company merged into SS-Kampfgruppe Pötschke under SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Werner Pötschke, the commander of SS-Panzer-Regiment 1. Its aim was to take Lutrebois and thence severe the main road N 4 for the Americans. The second battlegroup, SS-Kampfgruppe Hansen under SS-Standartenfuhrer Max Hansen—consisting of the I. SS-Panzerjäger-Abteilung, the remaining panzer grenadiers, an SS reconnaissance platoon, and an engineer company—was assigned to recapture Villers-la-Bonne-Eau and then advance further on to cut off the N 4 at Sainlez. These SS troops also were supported by Fallschirmjager-Regiment 14. North of the SS Division, the 167. Volksgrenadier-Division was tasked to advance southwestwards, and cross the N 4, in the direction of Assenois.
At this time, the small village of Lutrebois consisted of mainly no more than thirty of those gray two-story stone houses that still are so typical of the countryside in this part of the Ardennes. These were lined up on either side of the narrow dirt road that from Remoifosse expired eastward from the N 4 and then bent south, parallel to the N 4, and connected three equally small villages in a row—Lutrebois, Villers-la-Bonne-Eau, and, in the far south, Livârchamps. Colonel Butler B. Miltonberger, the commander of the 134th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division had deployed two battalions to the defense of Lutrebois. The entire 2nd Battalion and ’A’ Company of the 654th Tank Destroyer Battalion were positioned against the wooded hill on the other side of the valley northeast of the village. The 3rd Battalion had placed ’L’ Company inside the village, with ’I’ Company and ’C’ Company in foxholes in the snow-covered fields to the east of the community.
Without any preparatory artillery fire—in order not to warn the opponent—the 167. Volksgrenadier-Division despatched Grenadier-Regiment 331 against Lutrebois at three in the morning on 30 December. The assault was made by the Regiment’s I. Batillon, reinforced with two platoons from the II. Bataillon. While the 2. Kompanie was advancing across the fields northwest of the village and the 3. Kompanie advanced on the southeast side, the men of the 1. Kompanie pushed into the village.187 In spite of being warned in advance, the Americans were caught totally by surprise. Forty U.S. soldiers that lay asleep in a barn received a brutal awakening, only to discover that they found themselves in captivity.188 The Germans assembled their prisoners in a line, and with a machine gun in the back of them these marched off to Doncols to be transported to prison camps in Germany.189
Intoxicated by the success, the Germans rushed forward in among the snow-covered young fir trees in the dark Chivresoux forest that extends from Lutrebois to Highway N 4, a thousand yards west of the village. In the forest’s southwestern edge, six hundred yards from Lutrebois, the 18th Century castle Château de Losange is located, and at this place the commander of U.S. 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command A, Brigadier General Herbert L. Earnest, had set up his command post.
The official U.S. account says that ’news of the attack reached CCA of the 4th Armored at 0635, and General Earnest promptly turned his command to face east in support of the 35th Division.’190 But rather, it was the Germans who brought their advance right up to Earnest’s front door! 51st Armored Infantry Battalion—the infantry battalion of Combat Command A, 4th Armored Division— was forced to hastily defend itself against the German advance. This is depicted in lively fashion in the battalion’s after action report:
At 0845 enemy machine gun fire from the woods east of the Battalion CP opened an enemy attack and German infantry followed the withdrawing troops of the 134th down the slope towards the Château. It was very difficult to fire on them since friendly infantry were emerging from the woods in the direct line of sight. The machine gun platoon which had outposted the Command Post with vehicles drew the first fire from both rifles and machine guns and one vehicle was abandoned for a short time as the fire became very intense and the half-track afforded little cover. About 15 rounds of mortar fire fell on and around the two buildings during the attack and tracers could be seen bouncing off vehicles and buildings. Men from Headquarters Company were placed at windows where observation on the attackers was good considering the denseness of the forest. Two tanks from ‘A’ Company of 35th Tank Battalion took up a position 50 yards north of the Château and all available small arms, machine guns, and 75mm tank gun fire power was poured into the enemy positions for a period of 10 minutes, driving the attackers back through the woods. Enemy killed and wounded could be seen lying at the edge of the woods.191
A Panzer IV J of the 1. SS-Panzer-Division ’Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ in the Lutrebois area. This tank carries the new Wire Mesh armor skirts, in German Thoma Schurzen, and the new swiwel hatch at the commander’s cupola hatch. On one side, the Thoma Schurzen are missing due to unknown reasons. (BArch, Bild 183-J28683/SS-Kriegsberichter Jackisch)
One of the soldiers of the German attacking force said: ’After the 1. Kompanie advanced through the village they met heavy small arms fire from the edge of the woods on the western side of the village and had to withdraw back to it. Up to this time the German tanks had not been employed.’
The SS did not despatch its tanks against Lutrebois until several hours later, and by then the Americans were naturally fully alerted, manning all battle positions—now also reinforced with the entire Combat Command A, 4th Armored Division, including the 35th Tank Battalion.
’The atmosphere this day was spooky,’ said SS-Rottenfuhrer Rolf Ehrhardt, driver on a Panzer IV of the 7. Kompanie/SS-Panzer-Regiment 1. ’It was wet and cold, foggy and unreal.’192
The SS tanks came from the south, in column on the frozen little dirt road that runs across partially open fields parallel to the forest road between Villers-la-Bonne-Eau and Lutrebois, about a thousand yards east of this road. Rolf Erhardt continues, ’Not far from our road, which lay a bit beyond the meadow landscape, we saw between sixty and eighty of our infantry men laying on the ground. Obviously they had all been killed there. Suddenly one in the group lifted out his upper body and called to us noticeably with his hand waving. A machine gun began to fire from the nearby edge of the forest and the poor devil was hit many times. A storm of bullets from the machine gun hit our Panzer as well. As soon as we moved to the front to beat out the guns that had been firing on us, there was a tense stillness in the air. The left edge of the forest was probably occupied by strong American infantry forces.’193
A few minutes later, a U.S. artillery observation aircraft from the 22nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion arrived at the scene and started circling above the German troops. First Lieutenant Robert Pearson, the pilot of the single-seat Piper L-4 aircraft, decided to defy the miserable flying weather. Thus, the Germans were subjected to artillery fire even before Lutrebois had come into view. ’We could have hit the observation planes if we threw rocks at them, they were that close, and the incoming artillery shells followed every move we made,’ said Rolf Ehrhardt.194 Soon, Thunderbolt planes also appeared. ’In response to urgent calls from the Regiment,’ wrote the American regimental commander, Colonel Miltonberger, ’relays of P-47 Thunderbolts began zooming down over the enemy.’195 The American fighter-bomber pilots recklessly put down their aircraft almost to the ground in order to see anything in the bad weather.
With artillery shells exploding around them and Thunderbolt planes trying to dot the German tanks with their bombs, the SS tanks continued forward on the hills southwest of Lutrebois. Four hundred yards southeast of Lutrebois there was a spruce forest a bit to the left of the road. ’American infantry lay strewn across the left part of the forest and close to the road,’ recalled another tank soldier of the SS-Panzer-Regiment’s 7. Kompanie, SS-Sturmmann Manfred Thorn: ’The forest bordered the road for about one hundred meters, then you could see the first farm house of Lutrebois. At the end of the forest to the right stood a Panther.’196
Flying a Piper L-4 artillery observation aircraft, First Lieutenant Robert Pearson from the 22nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion played an important role during the Battle of Lutrebois. The picture shows another L-4 in the Ardennes in the winter of 1944/1945. (US Army)
Oriented on the German armored column’s direction and position by radio from First Lieutenant Pearson in the Piper plane, Sherman tanks of the 35th Tank Battalion and M10 tank destroyers of ’A’ Company, 654th Tank Destroyer Battalion had laid an ambush inside the Chivresoux Forest. They waited until the German armor came out from behind the trees at the farm northeast of Lutrebois. The first tank to be eliminated was Sturmbannfuhrer Pötschke’s command vehicle, a Panther. It was probably this that Thorn saw. Pötschke himself managed to escape without injuries.
The other Panther tanks attempted a frontal assault, straight into the American line of fire. It was a typical SS surge, without any regard to their own losses. The Panthers insolently carried on in groups of two or three, past their own burning tanks, and as they entered the American line of fire, these too were knocked out. At this moment the American journalist Martha Gellhorn was in the command post of the 35th Tank Battalion—part of 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command A—where she heard the radio report of Lieutenant John Kingsley, commanding the 35th Tank Battalion’s ’B’ Company, ’Got one… Got two… Got three… We got ten and two more coming. Just wanted to keep you posted on the German tanks burning up here. It’s a beautiful sight, a beautiful sight, over!’197 According to the 35th Tank Battalion’s reports, a total of thirteen German tanks were knocked out, ’The first shot … put away the German commander’s tank and the other tanks milled about until all had been knocked out.’198 Upon the return to their base, the Thunderbolt pilots reported that they had knocked out four of these tanks.199Owing to the Panther’s solid design, only four Panthers in all were total losses—the others could be towed away to be repaired, but in a single blow all that remained of the I. Abteilung/ SS-Panzer-Regiment 1 had nevertheless been neutralized.
The Americans hardly believed their eyes when the Panzer IV tanks of the II. Abteilung appeared, neatly in line, behind the forest edge. 35th Tank Battalion’s First Lieutenant John Kingsley commented, ’If that German tank company commander isn’t dead I wish they would make him a battalion commander. I wish they were all that dumb!’200
Within a few minutes, six of the 7. Kompanie’s seven Panzer IVs had been decisively hit. ’Six more German tanks came along and all were destroyed or disabled,’ reads the 35th Tank Battalion’s after action report. ’In the meantime the American tank destroyers took on some accompanying assault guns, shot up three of them, and dispersed the neighboring grenadiers.’201 Rolf Ehrhardt, who managed to bail out of his hit tank, said, ’There was only one Panzer IV left which had stood the furthest forward. Obviously it had driven with full power right through the area where the Americans had been firing. The frozen ground and the light foliage had certainly helped them.’202
According to the first U.S. reports, one of the German tanks was destroyed by a mine and two by artillery fire. The M10s of the 654th Tank Destroyer Battalion were reported to have despatched another sixteen, including eleven in cooperation with Combat Command A, 4th Armored Division.203 U.S. III Corps reported, ’At the close of the day it was reported that at least fifteen and perhaps thirty enemy tanks had been knocked out by ground forces. The air had also been active during the day, and the three squadrons which had been placed in support of the 35th Infantry Division reported good results.’204 At the end of the day, the Germans had not gone beyond Lutrebois. The offensive that was supposed to cut off Bastogne from the south lay in tatters.
SS-Kampfgruppe Hansen was met with no greater success in its attack on the southern flank. Seven Panzer IV/70 tank destroyers—the terrified the Americans thought they were Tiger tanks—took the lead in the assault on Villers-la-Bonne-Eau. They were followed by the paratroopers of Fallschirmjager-Regiment 14 and a flame thrower platoon of 5. Fallschirm-Pionier-Bataillon. The Germans, who came down the high hills surrounding the village, were able to penetrate the village without much difficulty. The 35th Infantry Division’s combat report describes the battle sequences:
’The panzers moved in close, blasting the stone houses and setting the village ablaze. At 0845 a radio message reached the CP of the 137th Inf asking for the artillery to lay down a barrage of smoke and high explosive, but before the gunners could get a sensing the radio went dead. Only one of the 169 men inside the village got out.’205 But then the German advance ground to a halt.
Frustration over the failure led to sharp divisions between the SS and the Wehrmacht units. ’The officers and men [of the 1. SS-Panzer-Division] were combat-weary and fatigued, [and] adding to the physical and tactical difficulties, the SS troopers did not cooperate at all with the neighboring paratroopers of the 5th Parachute to the south: One SS officer tried to have the commander of the 14th Parachute Infantry Regiment court-martialed for incompetence a few days later, and the bad feeling between the divisions was mutual.’206
The commander of the German paratroop division, Ludwig Heilmann—who carried some of the Third Reich’s highest awards for gallantry, the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, and who had been promoted to Generalmajor for his division’s exceptional success during the first days of the offensive—wrote, ’The 1. SS-Panzer-Division blamed the 5. Fallschirmjager-Division for the lack of success, and a strained relationship developed between our two units. The SS spread a rumor that some paratroopers had been sitting and drinking in a friendly manner with some Americans in the cellar of one of the houses in Villers-la-Bonne-Eau. My Ic (intelligence officer) overheard a conversation that took place at the SS command post, where it was said something like that ”it’s high time that the paratroop division is cleaned up, it’s about time that someone up there took them by the nose.207
Although German 167. Volksgrenadier-Division on the northern flank had attacked almost without their heavy weapons (the transport of which had been delayed by U.S. air strikes), this Wehrmacht division made the initially most successful attack against the eastern flank of the American wedge to Bastogne. One third of the 12,000 soldiers of this division were veterans of the Eastern Front, and morale was high, according to the testimony of prisoners of war, who told their American captors that the Americans would be ’driven back to [the Normandy Invasion] beaches.’208
Triumphant U.S. soldiers are posing on top of a knocked out Panther tank from the 1. SS-Panzer-Division. The four white rings that are painted on the barrel mark four destroyed enemy tanks. (Via David E. Brown)
On 30 December, the 167. Volksgrenadier-Division’s northern flank force managed to cut off Highway N 4 and reached as far as the Bois Bechou forest northeast of the Assenois. But without any support from the 1. SS-Panzer-Division, which by then had stalled farther to the southeast, the 167. Volksgrenadier-Division stood no chance alone against U.S. 4th Armored Division. The 167. Volksgrenadier-Division’s lead battalion was entirely ’cut to pieces,’ as divisional commander, Generalleutnant Hans Kurt Höcker, put it, and the division was driven back to the east of the highway again.209 This cost the 167. Volksgrenadier-Division three hundred and fiftycasualties.210
Although the German counter-attack failed to achieve its aim of cutting off Bastogne from the south, it had the effect of completely halting the U.S. III Corps. While U.S. 35th Infantry Division was thrown back from Lutrebois and Villers-la-Bonne-Eau, the 26th Infantry Division’s advance on Wiltz ten miles farther east was halted through a counterattack by Fallschirmjager-Regiment 15 at Hill 490 at Berlé, southwest of Wiltz. Further west, Middleton’s reactivated VIII Corps fared no better.
PATTON’S OFFENSIVE IS HALTED
While von Rundstedt, Model and von Manteuffel were mainly focused on Bastogne and concentrated their efforts to reclose the encirclèment of the town, the Americans regarded the battle for this town as basically completed. Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton now were focused on the Third Army’s planned continued advance past Bastogne and north to Sankt Vith to seal off the 5. Panzerarmee in the area northwest of Bastogne. It was for this purpose that considerable reinforcèments were brought forward. The III Corps had, as we have seen, despatched the 35th Infantry Division east of Highway N 4, and 9th Armored Division’s Combat Command A, at the Corps’ western flank, at the western highway N 85. In addition to that, the veteran 6th Armored Division was en route from the south to reinforce and eventually take over the section of the III Corps’ front area that was held by the 4th Armored Division. To the left (west) of the III Corps, Major General Middleton’s VIII Corps was reactivated, partly through the arrival of three new divisions—the 87th Infantry, the 11th Armored, and the 17th Airborne—plus the shifting of the 101st Airborne Division inside Bastogne, and Combat Command A, 9th Armored Division southwest of Bastogne, to this Corps .
A Sturmgeschütz III and two Panzer IVs with mounted panzer grenadiers advance towards the battlefield. When the battle west of Bastogne began, the Führer Begleit Brigade had 24 operational Sturmgeschütz IIIs and 30 Panzer IVs. (BArch, Bild 101I-701-0356-30A/Utecht/Utrecht/Uetrecht)
According to the plan, the VIII Corps would break through the German front west of Bastogne, while the III Corps with the 6th Armored Division was supposed to break through in the area east and southeast of this town. Should this succeed, Patton’s army alone could have destroyed virtually the entire 5. Panzerarmee in a battle that would have eclipsed even the Battle at Avranches; such a devastating defeat might well have caused the entire German Western Front to collapse, which could have led to a quicker end of the war.
Patton and Middleton were optimistic as they positioned Combat Command A, 11th Armored Division and 87th Infantry Division on VIII Corps’ left wing, ten miles southwest of Bastogne, at Moircy and Remagne, twelve miles southeast of the German Bulge’s western tip at Wavreille. To the right (east) of the 87th Infantry Division, Combat Command B, 11th Armored Division reinforced the positions held by the battered Combat Command A, 9th Armored Division at Sibret, four miles southwest of Bastogne. The 17th Airborne Division would eventually also be deployed to this sector.
The troops of the 87th Infantry Division ’Golden Acorn’ consisted largely of former college students from the Northeast of the USA.211 The division had just been through its first battle—on the Saar Front on 3 December—when the order came to promptly regroup to the III Corps, 125 miles to the northwest. Thus, what Middleton received was not a particularly experienced division. The situation was similar regarding the 11th Armored and the 17th Airborne divisions, which were completely ’green’ outfits. The commanding officers of the 87th Infantry and 17th Airborne, Brigadier General Frank L. Culin, Jr., and Major General William M. Miley, had some personal combat experience from World War One, but like the C.O. of the 11th Armored Division, Brigadier General Charles S. Kilburn, none of them had any previous experience of leading troops in combat in World War II. They faced some highly experienced German units. Combat Command A, 11th Armored Division and the 87th Infantry Division at Moircy and Remagne in the west faced German Kampfgruppe 902 from Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr Division. Combat Command B, 11th Armored Division was up against not only Rèmer’s Führer Begleit Brigade, but by this time, the 3. Panzergrenadier-Division also had arrived in this sector. These German units were tucked into General von Lüttwitz’ XLVII. Panzerkorps. The 3. Panzergrenadier-Division had a long experience of fighting in Italy—including the battles at Cassino and Anzio—when it in the fall of 1944 was deployed to halt Patton at Metz. The division had more recently seen action in the Rocherath-Krinkelt sector. The divisional commander, Generalmajor Walter Denkert, had been awarded with the Knight’s Cross for his credentials as deputy commander of an armored division on the Eastern Front, when he in June 1944 was assigned to command the 3. Panzergrenadier-Division.
When the newly arrived 11th Armored and 87th Infantry divisions opened the attack on 30 December 1944, the battlefield was covered in thick fog that made it impossible for the American aviation to provide any support.
(NARA, US Signal Corps)
With a combined strength of close to 30,000 troops and 350 tanks—186 Shermans and 51 Stuarts in the 11th Armored Division, 54 Shermans and 17 Stuarts in the 87th Infantry Division’s 761st Tank Battalion, and 21 Shermans and 17 Stuarts in Combat Command A, 9th Armored Division—the Americans, however, enjoyed a significant numerical superiority over their opponents, who on 30 December mustered about forty serviceable tanks and fifty tank destroyers in this section.*
The 11th Armored Division arrived at the battlefield on the afternoon of 29 December, and the 87th Infantry Division followed duly the next night. Although the 17th Airborne Division would not arrive until three days later, these two divisions were hastily thrown into Patton’s offensive. ’They put us in open trucks to get to the front and this was during one of the worst winters in decades—I’d never seen grown men crying before, it was so cold,’ said one of the men of the 87th Infantry Division, Private First Class James Hennessey. ’Then they threw us into battle!’212
As on the eastern flank of the wedge to Bastogne, the American offensive collided with the German attempt to reclose the encirclèment of Bastogne. According to von Manteuffel’s plan, the 3. Panzergrenadier-Division and its temporarily subordinated Führer Begleit Brigade would attack through and around Sibret with the aim of linking up with the 1. SS-Panzer-Division and the 167. Volksgrenadier-Division in the Assenois area south of Bastogne.213
Having had no time to get acquainted with the battlefield, and this also on a battlefield that was enveloped in thick fog—which in turn prevented the vital air support— the American soldiers marched out to their jump-off positions for the attack in the gray and cold morning on 30 December. The first goal of Combat Command B, 11th Armored Division was to take Chenogne, a village of thirty houses, a church, a school and a small shop, five miles west-southwest of Bastogne, on the other side of the Bois de Fragotte forest, and a mile northwest of Sibret.214To avoid the dense forest, the 11th Armored Division’s Combat Command B was positioned on a mile’s width west of Sibret, with 9th Armored Division’s Combat Command A in reserve.
Four soldiers of U.S. 21st Armored Infantry Battalion in an M3 halftrack. From the left: Staff Sergeant John Fague, Private First Class Donald E. White, Private First Class Dock E. Deakle, and the driver, Technician Fifth Grade Orvin P. Rasnic. (John Fague)
But the Germans would be the first to attack, with Major Hubert Mickley’s II. (Schnell) Bataillon of the Führer Begleit Brigade’s Panzergrenadier-Regiment—as described by the brigade commander Oberst Rèmer,’ At the break of daylight, the II. Battalion started out, whilst the armored group expanded toward the south, gaining ground south of Chenogne. For the time being, the II. Battalion made good progress, however it got stuck on the Brul ditch just before Sibret in infantry fire and well placed artillery fire from Sibret. The brave commander (Oak Leaves holder, Major [Hubert] Mickley) was so badly wounded that he died a short time later when he tried to pull his battalion forward again. (The commander of the I. Battalion was likewise out of action by a traffic [accident] during the previous night).’215
Meanwhile, Remer’s two armored battalions pressed on southwards through Lavaselle—a tiny hamlet on the windswept fields a mile or so southwest of Chenogne and two miles northwest of the Sibret—in order to circumvent the American positions and assault Sibret from the south. As they approached Flohimont, the fog suddenly dispersed, as through a stroke of magic. In that moment both sides, to their amazèment caught sight of each other’s large tank forces. ’As the fog lifted,’ wrote Rèmer, ’the armored group, which was advancing on to Flohimont, recognized two armored groups of about 30 tanks each advancing to the north. As far as I recall, one was located in the area of Morhet [two miles west om Sibret], while the other was traveling in the direction of Jodenville [about half-way between Sibret och Morhet]. The armored group of the brigade opened fire at once and immediately put a number tanks out of action.’216
The German armored brigade had encountered the 11th Armored Division’s Combat Command B, whose Task Force Poker (41st Tank Battalion) and Task Force Pat (21st Armored Infantry Battalion) were advancing on the open fields west of Sibret. Lavaselle is located in a valley that runs from the east to the west, and both Americans and Germans had driven down into this valley from opposite directions when they discovered each other, with a large plain between them. The German force quickly retreated back to Bois de Valets, the forest that grows on the hill about two thousand yards north of Lavaselle, and from there they resumed the battle. John Fague, by then a Staff Sergeant in ’B’ Company, U.S. 21st Armored Infantry Battalion, describes the scene from the American perspective:
M3 half-tracks of the 21st Armored Infantry Battalion after it has been repulsed in the attack on 30 December 1944. Shortly after this picture was taken, this vehicle assembly was subjected to a concentrated German artillery fire. Erstwhile Staff Sergeant John Fague rèmembers, ‘When I got out to the boys I found them huddled behind hedges and sprawled in ditches. They looked scared to death and thought I was crazy walking around in the open. Several of the boys had been wounded in the field and a couple killed. Two boys lost control of their nerves and broke down from battle fatigue’ (NARA, 111-SC-198464)
I rèmember as we dashed down the hill seeing several of our General Sherman tanks burning on the plain below. Our tanks were no match for the German low silhouette Tiger tanks with their ’88’ cannons. The tanks that we were leading were already on the crest of the slope facing the woods that concealed the enemy guns. The engagèment was on. Our tanks were blasting away and received fire. We pulled up beside our tanks and dismounted. We formed a skirmish line of infantry across the hill. It was easy to see that our tanks were taking a beating. All along the line tanks were beginning to burn. The German anti-tanks guns and ’88’ pieces were well dug in and camouflaged. We had rallied to register a preliminary artillery fire on the enemy position. Our artillery only now was beginning to land a few shells in the woods. As we lay in the snow Lieutenant [Roy C.] Stringfellow gave command to fix bayonets. I think every man in the platoon had a little of that hysterical feeling of fear which will grip a man. The enemy must be close or why the order to fix bayonets. I expected to see a wave of German infantry come charging over the slight rise in front of us. All the time a few shells were coming in on us. A piece of shrapnel hit the half-track. Our tanks were firing and being fired at. At the time the enlisted men were ignorant of the plan of attack. We did not know what we were to do. I had only the faint idea that the enemy fire was coming from the woods ahead. I saw some of our shells land in the woods 500 yards ahead. I blame our officers for not acquainting us with the situation.
I later learned we were to assault the woods with the tanks in support. Lt. Stringfellow must have decided that we were too far from our objective to make an open assault, so he gave the order to mount up. This order didn’t take any coaxing. We all piled into the vehicles. With all the equipment in the ’track’ it didn’t seem as if there was enough room. Several of the boys in their haste sprawled across the knees of us who were sitting. We were gripped with a fear that at any time one of those German antitank shells which were knocking out the tanks would hit our vehicle.217
The Germans clearly had the upper hand, both through their superior tanks—Panzer IVs*—and more combat experience than the American armored division. Although the fog had eased, the weather—low clouds and a heavy snowfall—remained sufficiently bad to prevent the Americans from making any use of their aviation. John Fague describes the further course of the combat:
Soldiers of C Company, 1st Battalion of the 345th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 87th Infantry Division are enteringMoircy cautiously, in search of lurking German snipers. (NARA, 111-SC-199300)
’Because the armored group was itself located on a slope and was very soon under heavy tank fire and concentrated, well-placed artillery fire, it disengaged itself from the enemy, bringing the 21st Battalion with it, and continued to carry on the tank battle from the high terrain between Mande-Sainte-Marie and the patch of woods to the east. The 21st Battalion, disengaging itself, alas, among the tanks (rather than to the side), had considerable losses. Four of our tanks were thereby put out of action. The tank battle, led inexorably on both sides, lasted about two to three hours.’218
Against own losses of four Panzer IVs, the Führer Begleit Brigade claimed to have destroyed thirty American tanks. In the ranks of Combat Command B, 11th Armored Division, confusion and discouragèment ruled, as Fagueexplains:
At Jodenville the half-tracks were dispersed in a field behind the town and the men found what cover they could. This was the end of our action for the first day. Except for gaining the town the attack was a failure as I saw it. The failure was due to inexperienced officers and green troops. After our withdrawal from the hill the Lieutenant and I went into the town to contact the other officers and learn what the score was. The Krauts started to pour in mortar and artillery shells on the town and our vehicles. We ducked into a basèment and let the music play outside. As soon as the artillery had let up a little the Lieutenant sent me to where the vehicles were parked to bring the men into town where they could get protection in the buildings. When I got out to the boys I found them huddled behind hedges and sprawled in ditches. They looked scared to death and thought I was crazy walking around in the open. Several of the boys had been wounded in the field and a couple killed. Two boys lost control of their nerves and broke down from battle fatigue. One was from my squad.219
The VIII Corps fared no better on the western flank of its offensive. Combat Command A, 11th Armored Division began its attack with Task Force White (63rd Armored Infantry Battalion reinforced with two armored companies of the 42nd Tank Battalion) in the lead. The Americans advanced northwards from Laneuville, over the rolling fields up towards Remagne, ten miles southwest of Bastogne. But they did not get very far. On the bald little plateau just south of Remagne, slightly more than two miles from the jump-off positions, they were exposed to a terrible fire from a battle group of Panzer Lehr. Major Carl Sheely from the 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion said:
’At 0943 one tank leading “B” Company reached the high ground at (396-543). This tank was knocked out by German artillery. Artillery, mortar fire, and automatic weapons stopped the attack cold. The fighting was so heavy that the Battalion suffered about a hundred casualties in about 30 minutes. The men were ordered to dig in and defend.’220 This ambush cost Task Force White a loss of ten tanks.221
Combat Command A, 11th Armored Division then sent forward Task Force Blue (essentially most of the 42nd Tank Battalion) on the western flank in an effort to circumvent the German positions at Remagne. Through this move—made in coordination with the 345th Infantry Regiment of the 87th Infantry Division—the advanced German battle groups in the villages of Remagne and, a mile farther to the north-west, Moircy, were sealed off from Panzer Lehr’s main force. But the German Panzer division quickly rallied to a counter-attack. When Task Force Blue approached the crossroads at Pironpré, two thousand yards northeast of Moircy, the two leading Sherman tanks in the column were hit and set ablaze. Then it was as if ’all hell broke loose,’ as the commander of the 42nd Tank Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Ahee, put it.222 An intense German fire, with ’everything from small arms to rockets,’ forced the Americans to withdraw and revert to the defensive.223
In the evening of 30 December, both sides could establish that the opponent’s attacks had thwarted their own offensive plans. Even German 3. Panzergrenadier-Division was soon halted before it had reached its first goal, Villeroux, two miles southwest of Bastogne.224 However, the ’moral victory’ belonged to the Germans, who had withstood an overwhelming American numerical superiority.
From Morhet, just southwest of Lavaselle, an American M7 is shelling the Führer Begleit Brigade’s positions with its 105mm howitzer. (NARA, 111-SC-199014)
It was particularly humiliating to U.S. 11th Armored Division ’Thunderbolt.’ Its baptism of fire had ended in bloody losses and bitter tactical setbacks all along the line. In order to achieve a breakthrough, Combat Command A was regrouped from the westernmost flank— where the positions were taken over by Combat Command Reserve—to the battlefield at Chenogne, where Combat Command B had been repulsed by the Führer Begleit Brigade.225
The weather on New Year’s Eve was slightly better than on the previous day, and this was exploited by the aviation on both sides. Although German II. Jagdkorps was preparing for a major operation on the next day (more about this in the next chapter), it carried out 196 combat sorties on the last day of the year.226 Schlachtgeschwader 4 took off with twenty-two Focke Wulf 190 ground-attack aircraft at a quarter to eight in the morning, and twelve of these attacked Liège while seven others attacked various targets in the Liège area. One other aircraft aborted its mission and two others were lost.227 At around nine in the morning, Schlachtgeschwader 4 and various Luftwaffe fighter units were back over the frontlines, this time to support the ground troops at Bastogne.228 This, however, was less successful. Jagdgeschwader 4 alone lost seventeen Bf 109s and Fw 190s in combat with American fighters or in accidents.229 Among the unit’s killed pilots was Oberleutnant Hans Schleef, a veteran who had been in first-line service since the fall of 1940, and who had performed more than five hundred combat missions during which he was listed for ninety-nine air victories.
The German jet units were successful as usual. Ten Arado 234s from the III. Gruppe/ Kampfgeschwader 76 dropped one 500-kg bomb each over Bastogne and escaped the interception attempts by Mustang fighters from U.S. 352nd Fighter Group. The railway stations at Liège, Hasselt, and Neufchâteau were bombed by thirty Me 262s from Kampfgeschwader 51. These air raids were supplèmented with the usual ’hailstorm’ of V 1s, and on New Year’s Eve, twenty-one V 2s also were fired against different targets.
But of course, the Luftwaffe’s efforts were not much in comparison to the array of Allied aircraft that went into action when the weather cleared early on this 31 December. During the wee hours, the railway station Kalk-Nord in Cologne was bombed by 456 British bombers, while ninety-seven others dropped 530 tons of bombs on the small Belgian town of Houffalize—which by then still was burning following an attack by medium bombers from U.S. 9th Air Force on the day before. The sun had barely risen on 31 December, when 1,327 U.S. heavy bombers and 785 escort fighter took off from their bases in England to attack oil installations, various rail targets and bridges in western and northern Germany. Additionally, the 9th Air Force despatched 703 fighter-bombers.
The air strikes ordered by U.S. XIX Tactical Air Command were meant to pave the way for the 11th Armored Division when this on the morning of 31 December despatched Combat Command A against Lavaselle, slightly to the southwest of Chenogne. Major Carl Sheely in the division’s 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion reported that his troops were able to enter Lavaselle following ’an air strike of nine P-47s and massed artillery that reduced whatever German resistance was in Lavaselle and the 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion moved into the town.’230 But the Americans soon were hit by a series of counter-attacks from the Führer Begleit Brigade, which halted their further advance. The 11th Armoured Division’s chronicle states, ’On 31 December, the Germans counter-attacked with tanks, infantry, self-propelled guns and heavy artillery support. The battalion [42nd Tank Battalion 11th Armored Division] hung on and pushed the enemy back with help from air support, artillery and every other available weapon. The battalion [42nd Tank Battalion, 11th Armored Division] lost several tanks, but knocked out several German combat vehicles.’231
Meanwhile, 11th Armored Division’s Combat Command B assembled for a new effort to capture Chenogne. By that time, German 3.Panzergrenadier-Division had taken over the defense of this village, where twelve to fifteen Panzer IV/70 tank destroyers had been deployed.232The American attack was preceded by an air strike by Thunderbolts from the 362nd Fighter Group, but the weather soon deteriorated again, and after just a few hours the ground fog caused all flight operations in the area to cease.
These men from U.S. 26th Infantry Division suddenly find themselves subject to a burst of German mortar shells. (NARA SC 199093)
The first American ground assault, performed by the 21st Armored Infantry Battalion, was repulsed by a murderous German fire from within Chenogne. Staff Sergeant John Fague found himself lying flat on a snow-covered field, surrounded by nothing but dead and wounded comrades. He rèmembers, ’Sergeant Carl E. Petersen from Oregon and William Kidney from Toledo, Ohio were dead. Bill Bassert and Charles Höcker from Philadelphia were badly wounded. Johnny Kale, who was lying near me, began to whine in pain. He yelled to me he was hit’ Despite his exposed location-only a few dozen yards ahead a German machine gun opened fire against the slightest movèment out there in no man’s land-Fague managed to give his wounded comrade first aid. But the question he could ask himself was how long it would be before he also would lay there, bleeding from several wounds.
’Every time I hear that machine gun rip off a burst I tried to draw my buttocks more into the hole or pull in a leg,’ Fague said. ’At this time I experienced the loneliest and most desolate feeling I had ever gone through. I looked back and could see none of the rest of the platoon behind me. The few boys on my right had either been killed or were lying face down very still. On my left and in front there was nothing but Krauts. A few yards to my right lay a dead German. He must have been killed the day before, as he was frozen stiff’.’233
But soon the Americans launched the entire 22nd Tank Battalion in the attack. The Germans were pushed back towards Chenogne, and the Americans ended up in a fierce battle in among the houses in the village. ’The Germans fought hard and cleverly,’ noted Berry Craig in the 11th Armored Division’s Chronicle. ’They hid tanks under haystacks. American casualties mounted. The 22nd Tank Battalion lost two Shermans as they entered Chenogne. The enemy destroyed two more Shermans and a light Stuart tank in the town’234
Generalmajor Walter Denkert, the 3. Panzergrenadier-Division’s commander, describes the situation as viewed from the German perspective, ’If we succeeded in repelling all the attacks, this was due to a large extent to the Mark IV tank destroyers. They were not caught by the artillery barrage laid down by the enemy and were able to fight the tanks at long range. It is a well-known fact that the sight of their own tanks burning has a paralysing effect on attacking forces and therefore the main reason for the failure of attacks also in this case may be seen in the high number of tanks put out of action. I no longer rèmember the exact figures, but I do rèmember that reports of knocked out enemy tanks continously arrived at the command post of the 29 Pz Gren Regt north of the Bois des Valets, where the advanced command post of the Division had transferred to’235
On the evening of New Year’s Eve, the Americans had barely gained a foothold in the outskirts of Chenogne. There they were ordered to dig foxholes. Staff Sergeant Fague and a friend of his had barely got their foxhole completed when the Germans launched a terrible artillery fire. ’Robert Fordyce was killed in his hole behind us,’ Fague said. ’His hole wasn’t deep enough to protect him properly. While the barrage was going on, James O. Cust and I sat in our hole looking at each other. We were two frightened, cold, exhausted boys. Every time a shell hit, we closed our eyes and flinched. Shells crashed around our hole and threw dirt on us. How long would this shelling last I wondered. Would the next shell hit us?’236
A German soldier with a field telephone during the Ardennes Battle. (BArch, Bild 146-1974-097-40)
During two days of attacks, the 11th Armored Division ’Thunderbolt’ had, in spite of terrible losses, not achieved anything more than to take command of a few square miles of snow-covered fields and a few farms in the area south and west of Chenogne, plus a couple of houses in the outskirts of the hotly contested village. The goal—to smash up the German lines west of Bastogne and in cooperation with the 87th Infantry Division advance on to Houffalize and Sankt Vith, thereby turning the entire Ardennes Battle into an American strategic victory—had ignominiously failed.
A furious Patton reproached the divisional commander, Brigadier General Kilburn, for an ’uninspired direction of the division.’237 But the 11th Armored Division had fought hard. This is evident not least from the division’s own losses on 30-31 December—three hundred and forty men had been killed, wounded or missing. Captain Kenneth W. Moeller from the 11th Armored Division’s headquarters noted, ’In two days we had lost 30% of our tanks and 20% of our personnel—that was more than we lost all the rest of our time in combat in Europe.’ To a large extent, the 11th Armored Division’s failure and high losses were because this inexperienced division had been thrown headlong into an offensive in an area that it had no time to get acquainted with, against some of the 5. Panzerarmee’s most experienced units. But if the American shortcomings on December 30 and 31 showed anything, it was that the Americans had great difficulties on the ground whenever air support lacked.
Not even the battle-hardened 6th Armored Division, which was deployed in Bastogne on New Year’s Eve, was able to break through when this division on New Year’s Eve was launched against the badly mauled German Grenadier-Regiment 78 east of Bastogne. The men of the 6th Armored Division proudly called themselves the ’Super Sixth,’ and along with the 4th Armored, this was one of the best armored divisions in the U.S. Army. The unit commander, Major General Robert Walker Grow, saw his career end in disgrace a few years after the war, when he as the former military attaché in Moscow was court-martialed on charges of negligence because parts of his diary had ended up in Soviet hands.238 However, Grow deserves to be mentioned alongside ’Tiger Jack’ Wood, Creighton Abrams, and other prominent American armored officers during World War II. Like the ’Desert Fox’ Rommel on the German side, Grow spent as little time as possible in his headquarters, but rather was with his troops in the front line, where he formed an opinion about the situation on the battlefield.
When Combat Command A on 30 December 1944 arrived at Bastogne as the lead elèment of the 6th Armored Division, Grow and his men could look back on a highly successful campaign. Having landed in Normandy in July 1944, they completed a stunning sweep through Brittany and fought inside the German border at Saarbrücken before at Christmas time they were ordered up to the Ardennes Front. Patton’s intention was to use the ’Super Sixth’ as the spearhead of the Third Army’s continued offensive past Bastogne to seal off German 5. Panzerarmee. The first task of the ’Super Sixth’ was to crush the rather weakly held German front east of Bastogne, thereby opening the way to Sankt Vith in the north. The men of the 6th Armored knew nothing of what awaited them as they marched through Bastogne’s icy streets.
Combat Command A, mainly composed of the 69th Tank Battalion and the 44th Armored Infantry Battalion, attacked already at noon on 31 December.239 The German positions were overwhelmed with a massive fire from the artillery that the 6th Armored Division was so richly equipped with. Apart from the division’s own three artillery battalions, the attack received the support from four battalions of the 193rd Field Artillery Group, which also arrived at Bastogne on New Year’s Eve, plus artillery from the 101st Airborne Division. Hugh M. Cole noted laconically that ’the role of the artillery would be of prime importance in all the fighting done by the 6th Armored in what now had come to be called ”the Bastogne pocket.”’240
An American soldier inspects the holes made by German armor-piercing projectiles in a Sherman tank of the 11th Armored Division on New Year’s Eve 1944. (NARA SC 199244)
Neffe—located on the main road just a thousand yards from Bastogne’s eastern entrance—had hitherto been the most advanced German position at Bastogne. The village had been seized by Panzer Lehr on 18 December, and since then this position had been held by the 26. Volksgrenadier-Division’s Grenadier-Regiment 78. Now the 6th Armored Division’s Combat Command A drove the Germans away from the twenty or so houses that constituted this small village. But largely due to the lack of air support, the Americans were unable to get much further. They could take the forested slopes of the ridge to the east of Neffe, but then intense German gunfire brought them to a halt. ’Snow squalls clouded the landscape,’ wrote Cole, ’and the fighter-bombers sent to blast targets in front of CCA could not get through the overcast, and the armored infantry made little progress.’241,
Three miles farther to the south, rugged battles were raging throughout New Year’s Eve, as U.S. 35th Infantry Division and Combat Command A, 4th Armored Division in vain tried to recapture the two villages Lutrebois and Villers-la-Bonne-Eau. The Germans themselves refrained from trying to resume their own attack in this area, probably, according to the III Corps’ after action report, because of ’the volume and accuracy of artillery fire which had been placed on his assembly areas during the night and morning.’242 Throughout the night and the morning of 31 December, this artillery bombarded Lutrebois with repeated series of Time on Target salvoes (TOT). Time on Target meant that the artillery calculated the time to the impact of each fired shell, and in regard to this, the different artillery pieces opened fire at different times so that all the grenades would hit the target simultaneously. This substantially increased the artillery’s lethal effect, because it gave the opponent no time to take cover.
But when U.S. 35th Infantry Division on the next morning attacked Lutrebois with its 134th Infantry Regiment, supported by the 35th Tank Battalion, the Americans were met with such an intense fire from machine guns, mortars, and anti-tank guns that they immediately returned to their jump-off positions. Simultaneously, the attack carried out by the 137th Infantry Regiment against Villers-la-Bonne-Eau was stymied by German Fallschirmjager-Regiment 14. Two days of fighting over these two small villages cost both sides grim losses. The 1. SS- Panzer-Division reported near four hundred casualties on 30-31 December, and the already battered 5. Fallschirmjager-Division sustained just as high losses.243 On the American side, the 35th Infantry Division meanwhile lost five hundred and eighty men in killed, wounded or missing—of which the main part, around three hundred men, had been captured by the Germans.244The losses were on the whole very high for U.S. III Corps, which on the last day of the year reported its losses after ten days of offensive as 3,330 men killed, wounded and missing, of which however only 303 had been killed.245 This also applied to material losses. Despite replacèments, the tank strength of the 735th Tank Battalion, supporting the 26th Infantry Division, deeclined from 56 Shermans on 24 December 1944 to 37 on 2 January 1945.246
In spite of a considerable numerical superiority, particularly in armor and artillery, the Third Army’s major offensive northwards had been halted all along the line as the new year 1945 began. Even though von Manteuffel’s own offensive also had failed utterly, the defensive victory attained by halting Patton was of the same magnitude to the German side as the halting of the German offensive in front of the Meuse had been to the Allies. In particular, the 5. Fallschirmjager-Division had performed considerably well. Having wiped out all American resistance south of Bastogne during the offensive’s first week, the paratroopers had managed to delay U.S. 4th Armored Division in a way that could hardly have been expected in view of the uneven relations of forces. At the price of appalling losses of their own, the paratroopers thus bought Model precious time, which he could use to regroup his armor and panzer grenadier units. These then managed to completely halt Patton’s offensive. This in turn allowed the Germans to achieve a new turnabout in the Ardennes Battle—a turnabout that neither was expected by the Allies, nor is especially well documented in post-war literature, a turnabout that would cause the usually tough Patton to distressedly write in his diary, ’We can still lose this war.’
CONCLUSIONS AND RESULTS: 16-31 DECEMBER 1944
Thus, 1944 ended in a way that neither side had anticipated two weeks earlier. As far as the Allied are concerned, the German Ardennes Offensive and its great initial success had come as a huge shock. Despite cocky statèments by some commanders, confusion reigned from the top to the bottom on the Allied side. This found its expression among soldiers at the front in the shape of mass surrenders and panic, and in the higher military echelons not least in the shape of an intensified conflict between the U.S. and British commanders.
The American forces had sustained very high losses, particularly in captured soldiers and in tanks. As we saw previously, the U.S. Army’s own loss statistics are often shrouded in mystery, sometimes with obvious understatèments. There simply are no really reliable statistics on the number of U.S. soldiers who were captured during the Ardennes Battle’s first two weeks. The Germans, on the other hand—who of course more easily could count the number of captured American soldiers—gave clear figures. According to German data, 24,000 American soldiers were captured in the Ardennes through the end of 1944.247
It is even more difficult to obtain fully reliable figures for U.S. tank losses in the Ardennes Battle through the end of 1944. According to statistics produced by the highly esteèmed American military historian Richard C. Anderson Jr., Patton’s Third Army lost 132 Shermans with 75mm or 76mm guns between 17 December 1944 and 1 January 1945.248 For the First Army, losses are reported as 398 Shermans in December 1944.249 In total, therefore, the two U.S. armies should have lost 530 Sherman tanks. But due to an unfortunate culling in American military archives, several conspicuous gaps remain. Thus, for example, the 10th Armored Division’s losses in December 1944 are given as seven Shermans, but Team Cherry from Combat Command B, 10th Armored Division alone lost about twenty Shermans in the Battle of Longvilly; thereto must be added the losses inflicted on Combat Command B, 10th Armored Division in Bastogne after the Battle at Longvilly, and those of the 10th Armored Division ‘s Combat commands A and R. Another example is the 9th Armored Division’s losses, which officially are recorded as forty-five Shermans in December 1944, but this is the number that only one of the division’s armored battalions, the 2nd Tank Battalion of Combat Command Reserve, lost during the tank battles on 17 and 18 December.250 In addition to that, the 19th Tank Battalion of the 9th Armored Division’s Combat Command A lost around thirty Shermans between 27 and 29 December alone.251 Moreover, the 14th Tank Battalion of the 9th Armored Division’s Combat Command B lost at least thirteen Shermans between 17 and 24 December alone.252 In spite of a well-functioning supply of replacèments for losses on the American side, the 9th Armored Division’s tank strength dropped by eighty tanks between 16 December 1944 and 2 January 1945—from 176 to 96.253
Since the Sherman losses in the 9th and 10th Armored divisions were at least fifty tanks more than the official figures, it is reasonable to assume that the total U.S. Sherman losses in the Ardennes Battle until the end of 1944 is rather at least 600. If the losses of an estimated 200 light tanks, mainly M5 Stuarts, and 100 tank destroyers are added, the Americans probably lost at least about nine hundred tanks and tank destroyers. In addition to these, about 400 M8 and M20 armored cars also were lost.* This indicates that the German figures on U.S. armor losses in the Ardennes Battle actually could be quite accurate. According to those figures, a total of 1,230 American ’tanks and armored vehicles’ and over 400 artillery pieces were destroyed or captured in the Ardennes until the shift of the year 1944/1945.254
The U.S. tank losses in the Ardennes Battle were the highest ever inflicted on the U.S. Army. The exact figure has never been clarified, but it may be 900 tanks and tank destroyers between 16 and 31 December 1944 alone. (The Paul Warp Collection)
TANK LOSSES IN HEERESGRUPPE B, 16-31 DECEMBER 1944
Note that the totals do not quite match with the official German loss figures for Heeresgruppe B during this period, 77 Panzer IVs, 132, Panthers, and 13 Tigers, a total of 222. This may possibly be explained by a certain delay in unit reports to the Army Group Headquarters.
Main source: Dugdale, Panzer Divisions, Panzer Grenadier Divisions, Panzer Brigades of the Army and the Waffen SS in the West Autumn 1944 — February 1945 — Ardennes and Nordwind — Their Detailed and Precise Strengths and Organisations, Volume I. Also Jentz, Germany’s Panther Tank: The Quest for Combat Supremacy. Regarding 116. Panzer-Division: Bundesarchiv-Militararchiv RH 24/58, Kriegstagebuch LVIII. Panzer-Korps, Meldung 116. Pz.Div., Abt. Ia, Nr. 1101/44 g.Kdos. vom 29.12. 1944.
NEW CONFLICTS IN THE ALLIED COMMAND
In regard to the American numerical superiority and air power, the results achieved by Bradley and Patton after one week of offensive by U.S. Third Army must be regarded as no more than moderate. The relatively sparsely manned German positions south of Bastogne had been swept aside, but that was all. The aim of the attack plan, to cut off the 5. Panzerarmee in the Ardennes, had not been accomplished.
Under the impression of this situation, British Field Marshal Montgomery sent the suprème commander Eisenhower a letter on 29 December, warning him that the Allies risked ‘fail again.’1 Montgomery now made a new attempt to convince Eisenhower to appoint a suprème commander of all Allied ground forces on the Western Front. He argued that it was not sufficient that the two Allied army groups—Bradley’s 12th and his own 21 Army Group—merely collaborated, but that they also had to be brought under a unified command. At the same time, he repeated what he previously had stated, that this was a task that Eisenhower could not attend at the same time as he served as the suprème commander of all forces in Western Europe. Montgomery had pointed out to Eisenhower that ‘direct operational command of land armies in war involved close touch with subordinate commanders and therefore was a whole-time job,’ and in unvarnished terms said that this was not carried out at all.2 Now he suggested, without trying to hide his intentions, that he himself would be appointed to that position. Montgomery was so anxious that he even suggested Eisenhower how he would express himself when he announced this decision:
’From now onwards full operational direction, control, and co-ordination of these operations are vested in the C-in-C 21 Army Group, subject to such instructions as may be issued by the Suprème Commander from time to time.’3
In view of the fact Montgomery was well aware of how sensitive this issue was for American generals as well as U.S. domestic opinion, it seems pretty clear that the field marshal really felt a quite great concern about Bradley’s and Patton’s relative shortcomings.
However, on the same day as Montgomery sent his letter to Eisenhower, the same demands in a most unfortunate manner appeared in the British press. On 29 December, retired British lieutenant general sir Douglas Brownrigg wrote in the London newspaper the Evening that it was absolutely necessary to appoint a unified suprème commander of all ground forces in northwestern Europe as soon as possible, and that Eisenhower needed to be free to deal with the duties concerning politics and the military rule in the liberated countries. Brownrigg even bluntly urged Eisenhower to choose his ’most prominent commander’ for such a position, and did not fail to point out that ’Montgomery has been successful in every operation which he has been involved in.’
It was like poking a stick in a hornet’s nest. The Americans, who already were upset by the stinging defeat they had been inflicted by Model and von Manteuffel, responded with the fury of the humiliated. Sir Brownrigg’s article was the culmination of a more or less implicit criticism of Eisenhower’s leadership that had been voiced by the British press since the beginning of the German Ardennes Offensive. Many—including Bradley and Patton—suspected that Montgomery himself, directly or indirectly, was behind these media articles. However, it should be noted that Montgomery a few days into January 1945 sharply had turned against this media criticism of Eisenhower. However, the fact remains that Lieutenant General Brownrigg wrote his article immediately after a meeting with Montgomery.
Montgomery’s assessment that U.S. Third Army’s difficulties would make Eisenhower more open to the idea of a unified suprème command of all ground forces proved to be totally unfounded. On the contrary, Eisenhower reacted with an unusual vehèmence and wrote a letter to the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS)—the highest Allied military command—where he asked them to choose between him and Montgomery. Eisenhower knew that he had nothing to fear; he just had received a telegram from the American Chief of Staff of the Army, General George Marshall, who, owing to the critical articles in the British press informed Eisenhower that he enjoyed the full confidence of President Roosevelt, and that ’the appointment of a British officer to hold operational command or control over Bradley would be entirely unacceptable in America.’4
What seèmed to be shaping up into a really severe command crisis for the Allies, was averted only by the intervention of Montgomery’s chief of staff, Major General Francis de Guingand. He was informed by phone by Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, about how upset Eisenhower was, and immediately flew to Eisenhower’s headquarters. There de Guingand managed to persuade the suprème commander to wait another day to send his letter to the CCS, and then flew to Montgomery to inform him of the reaction his letter had caused.
Montgomery realized the grave situation and hurried to write a letter that Eisenhower received next day, New
’Dear Ike, I have seen Freddy and I understand you are greatly worried by many considerations in these very difficult days. […] Very distressed that my letter may have upset you and I would ask you to tear it up. Your very devoted subordinate Monty.’5
To Montgomery’s great relief, the reply came on New Year’s Day:
’Dear Monty, I received your very fine telegram this morning. I truly appreciate the understanding attitude it indicates. With the earnest hope that the year 1945 will be the most successful for you of your entire career, as ever Ike.’
The command crisis was averted—temporarily…
1 Montgomery, Th e Memoirs of Field-Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, K.G, p. 319.
2 Ibid., p. 316.
3 Ibid., p. 318.
4 Ibid., p. 319.
On the German side, 222 tank losses were recorded in the Ardennes from 16 to 31 December: 77 Panzer IVs, 132 Panthers, and 13 Tigers, plus 102 assault guns and tank destroyers.255
Neither to the Germans did the year end as had been expected fourteen days before. Despite initial large and exhilarating successes, the great offensive onto which such high hopes had been pinned, had stalled. The combination of Allied counter-moves on the ground and an Allied air power that prevented or in a decisive manner delayed both the supply of maintenance and replacèments, and of major German redeployments, caused the advance to stall. What had been a triumphant march towards the Meuse and Antwerp—where the most optimistic Germans had believed that they would have been able to celebrate the New Year—had turned into a bloody war of attrition at Bastogne. The German personnel losses reached appalling levels. Until the end of the year, more than 44 000 men had been killed, wounded or written off as missing.256
The armored divisions—the trump card of the German offensive—had been precariously worn down, much because of the difficulties in getting spare parts and replacèments. Hence, on the last day of the year, Panzer Lehr reported that it still had a strength of 23 Panthers and 27 Panzer IVs—the initial strength when the offensive began was 29 Panthers (26 serviceable) and 34 Panzer IVs (30 serviceable). Thus, the decline in the number of tanks was not particularly high, but the number of serviceable tanks on the last day of the year was just five Panthers and seven Panzer IVs.257Ahead of the Offensive, the 116. Panzer-Division reported a strength of 90 tanks and tank destroyers. Of these, 47 were lost (30 Panthers, 11 Panzer IVs, and 6 tank destroyers), but of the remaining 49, only 17 (12 tanks and 5 Panzerjäger) were operational on 29 December.258 The 2. SS-Panzer-Division ’Das Reich’ had lost no more than 11 of its original 58 Panthers and a single of its 34 Panzer IVs by the end of the year, but of the remaining tanks, only 12 Panthers and 16 Panzer IVs were in serviceable condition on the last day of the year.259 The 12. SS-Panzer-Division ’Hitler Jugend’ meanwhile mustered a full seven operational Panthers (out of 23 at hand), and 13 Panzer IVs (out of 29).260
On the American side, the situation in terms of replacèments for losses was completely different. For example, U.S. 7th Armored Division lost 110 tanks (78 Shermans and 32 Stuarts) in December 1944.261 And still this did not reduce the division’s tank strength more than from 256 (174 Shermans and 82 Stuarts) on 16 December 1944 to 203 (150 Shermans and 53 Stuarts) on 5 January 1945.262
However, that the German commanders would have regarded the Ardennes Offensive as a failure already by this time—at the shift of the year—must be dismissed as largely a reconstruction after the war. The German military command’s view of the situation is evidenced by Percy E. Schramm’s abstract of a conference in the OKW headquarters in early January 1945:
At the beginning of the new year, the senior military command drew a balance sheet. Was the offensive, as it had developed, to be regarded as a failure or a success? The interim goal to cross the Meuse had not been achieved, nor the ultimate goal, the conquest of Antwerp. Both of these goals had been set due to our intent to regain the initiative, which we had lost on 6 June 1944, and in order to neutralize the threat of a hostile advance to the Rhine which had existed both from the Aachen area and from the upper Rhine. […] At the beginning of the offensive several serious threats had existed: first, that the enemy would advance past Düren to Cologne, secondly, that he would cross the Rhine in the section that was held by Heeresgruppe Oberrhein in order to force back our units to the Black Forest, and thirdly, that he would advance to the Saarpfalz and threaten the Rhine Palatinate. If our offensive was considered from this perspective, it was not only to be regarded as a success, but at that time as a quite great success. The opponent’s previous intentions had been thwarted, and the threats that existed at Düren, the Saar and the Upper Rhine had all been elminated. Based on the information available, we could see that the enemy had employed practically all of his available units in the West, and that several of these could be regarded as battleunworthy for the foreseeable future. Particularly revealing of the enemy’s situation was the fact that he deployed airborne troops in ground combat, as this irregular use of these very valuable divisions indicated that no other units were available. Furthermore, it was a great relief to us that the threat of airborne operations, as the Battle of Arnhem had demonstrated so clearly, was eliminated in the near future. In so far as it applied to regain the initiative, the Ardennes Offensive’s objectives were considered as reached.263
But out on the cold and windswept front, it was a gloomy New Year’s Eve. The soldiers on both sides shivered in their foxholes while an increasing snowfall covered the fallen men that lay out there in the dark. One of the American soldiers in the perimeter around Bastogne, Sergeant Layton Black from the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, rèmembers that night:
‘Sleep would have come if it had not been for the sound of a wounded German soldier’s moan. Out in front of us, so very close, he was to die slowly. Yet, in so doing, he surely saved my men’s lives. He was the only proof we had that the Germans had been out there on this night, for we were yet to see them.’264
On the other side of the perimeter, Staff Sergeant John Fague—from Company ’B’, 21st Armored Infantry Battalion—experienced a harsh New Year’s Eve on the outskirts of the heavily disputed village Chenogne:
’Midnight, New Year’s Eve 1944-45. I was in a foxhole, cold, shivering, miserable, wondering if I would live to see the New Year in. Hell I was going to try. I had my rifle lying on a pile of dirt in front of me and three hand grenades there, just for good measure.’265
On the westernmost front, near Marche, German artillery officer Leutnant Ernst Schwörer of the 116. Panzer-Division wrote in his diary on the last day of 1944: ‘Our efforts have stalled everywhere. In our division we are short on tanks and particularly ammunition. The infantry has been mown down again. The enemy offers stiff resistance … What has become of our great plans? Have they given up on all of them? Or can we simply stand no more? … We no longer see our own air force. In clear weather, all lines toward the rear are cut in daytime … They already have destroyed all the bridges. We can’t understand how such an attack can be launched with nothing more than us, a few attack divisions, available. We no longer have any access to aerial reconnaissance. We rush ahead and then, when we can’t go any further, backwards again … We celebrate the New Year in a very somber mood. Soon, everything will be over.’266
Leutnant Schwörer and everyone else on the German side had every reason to worriedly gaze towards the sky. Between 23 and 31 December, U.S. 9th Air Force and the two fighter groups temporarily assigned from the 8th Air Force, carried out no fewer than 10,305 combat sorties, reporting the destruction of 2,323 German motor vehicles, 207 armored vehicles of all types, 173 artillery positions, and 620 train cars, 45 locomotives, 333 buildings, and seven bridges.267On the last day of the year, 703 combat flights were carried out. In the southern front section, the units subordinate to the XIX Tactical Air Command were reported to have knocked out more than 500 German motor vehicles and 23 armored vehicles.
Late on the evening of New Year’s Eve, German armaments minister Albert Speer was on the road in a car from a tour of inspection in the Ardennes. He felt quite dejected. He had seen a total Allied air superiority and widespread havoc on all roads. Several times he and his travel companion, liaison officer Manfred von Poser, had been close to getting hit by gunfire from the ever èmerging Jabos. Speer now drove towards Hitler’s ’Eagles Nest,’ the temporary headquarters on the Western Front, where he would report back to the Führer.
The armaments minister was amazed to find Hitler in a state of elation.268
’We will soon be up from this valley,’ proclaimed Hitler. ’In the end we will be victorious!’
Albert Speer could only shake his head. He knew nothing of the two big ’New Year surprises’ that Hitler had in store for the Allies.
This Sherman was turned over by a Nebelwerfer rocket in the town of Diekirch. (National Museum of Military History, Diekirch)
* This division had been ordered to regroup to the section that was held by the 2. SS-Panzer-Division southwest of Manhay. A few days later the advance units of the 12. SS-Panzer-Division barely had been deployed in the battle in this area when the division was ordered to regroup to the Bastogne sector.
* That the Allied Supreme Commander was not quite so optimistic is evident by the message that he had his deputy chief of staff, Major General Barker, convey to the War Department in Washington on the following day: ’Unless we are supported more strongly, we might lose the war!’ (Crosswell, Beetle: the Life of General Walter Bedell Smith, p. 840.)
* Janssen, who had served as a Stuka and ground-attack pilot since 1937, and had completed more than four hundred combat missions on the Western and Eastern fronts, was demoted to become a simple airport commander at the Cottbus air base.
* Eventually, however, the units of the 10th Armored Division would remain with the XII Corps.
** The first verse line of a well-known church hymn by the English Bishop Thomas Ken.
* See map
* The Führer Begleit Brigade hade thirty serviceable Panzer IVs and twenty-four StuG IIIs, Panzer Lehr five Panthers and seven serviceable Panzer IVs (out of thirty disposable Panthers and twenty-seven Panzer IVs) and four Jagdpanzer IVs, and the 3. Panzergrenadier-Division ten serviceable Jagdpanzer IVs and twelve StuG IIIs. (Dugdale, Panzer Division, Panzer Grenadier Divisions, Panzer Brigades of the Army and the Waffen SS in the West Autumn 1944 - February 1945 - Ardennes and Nordwind - Their Detailed and Precise Strengths and Organisations, Volume I, Part 4B, pp. 50 and 100, and Volume I, Part 4A, p. 9.)
* Tiger tanks, which Fague mentions, were not present at this place, but it was quite common for the Allies to misidentify Panzer IVs as Tiger Is, which were quite similar in appearance from the front.
* According to the loss statistics compiled by the American historian Richard C. Anderson, Jr., U.S. Army losses on the Western Front amounted to 17 M8s and 3 M20s during the period of 20 October to 20 November 1944, 87 M8s and 277 M20s during the period of 20 November to 20 December 1944, and 200 M8s and 18 M20s during the period of 20 December 1944 to 20 January 1945. Since the losses in M8 armored cars were unusually high during the American retreat between 16 and 23 December 1944, and it can be assumed that some of the M8 loss reports during this period lagged behind and were recorded during the following period. The same may apply to losses in light tanks, which, according to the same source, amounted to 83 in the period of 20 October to 20 November 1944, and 134 between 20 November and 20 December 1944, and 208 during the period of 20 December 1944 to 20 January 1945. As far as tank destroyers (M10, M18, and M36) are concerned, the American losses on the Western Front are recorded at 57 during the period of 20 October to 20 November 1944, and 127 between 20 November and 20 December 1944, and 122 during the period of 20 December 1944 to 20 January 1945. That most of these losses were caused in the Ardennes, is evidenced by the fact that the U.S. Ninth Army, again according to Anderson, lost exactly four Shermans and two M5 Stuarts through the entire period 13 December 1944 to 19 January 1945.