”We can still lose this war.”
Lieutenant General George S. Patton, commander of U.S. Third Army, diary notes on 4 January 1945.
THE BATTLE OF CHENOGNE
As the New Year 1945 dawned, the Americans still were, despite great efforts, far from the operational breakthrough that Eisenhower and Patton had hoped for. Due to its numerical superiority and strong air support, Patton’s Third Army had managed to achieve a breach to the forces that held Bastogne, but the efforts to develop this success into a major breakthrough that strategically transformed the entire Ardennes Battle into an American success had failed. When the tactical air support for various reasons did not materialize, the offensive slowed down and eventually was reduced to bitter battles over just a few hundred yards of snowy farmland or over any small village with a few dozen houses.
The situation was especially bad on the western flank of the Bastogne sector, where Middleton’s VIII Corps, not even with two new divisions—the 87th Infantry and the 11th Armored-was able to accomplish anything else than to push back the outnumbered German forces a few miles. But when New Year’s Day dawned with excellent flying weather—Middleton could not know anything of Operation ’Bodenplatte,’ which just had begun—a powerful new attempt was made to break through three miles southwest of Bastogne. The attack was launched on a four mile-wide front and was directed northwards. Middleton employed the 11th Armored Division, with Combat Command A on the left and Combat Command B in the center—against Chenogne—and the 19th Tank Battalion and 60th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 9th Armored Division’s Combat Command A to the right, towards the Bois de Fragotte woods just east of Chenogne.1 The aim was to first conquer Chenogne and the Bois de Fragotte woods, and then to cross the main road N 4 west of Bastogne, and continue north to link up with the VII Corps of U.S. First Army; the latter would, according to Montgomery’s assurances, launch a major attack in the Hotton - Manhay section, twenty miles north of Bastogne, two days later. But not much went according to the American plans, not least because most of the expected air support failed to turn up.
The 11th Armored Division’s Combat Command A was first out early this New Year’s morning. This was the most advanced American unit on this front section. The night before it had taken Rechrival, a small cluster of houses two miles northwest of Chenogne, after Führer Begleit Brigade had abandoned this place following a devastating American bombing raid against Lavaselle on the ridge a few miles further south. The plan was to launch a flank attack to force the Germans to give up their staunchly defended positions in Chenogne. While ’D’ Company, 42nd Tank Battalion in the early New Year’s morning rolled forward over the snow-covered fields north of Lavaselle, the soldiers could hear the terrible roar as thirteen U.S. artillery battalions opened up on Chenogne. From this small village, across the ridge to the right of these American tanks, thick, black smoke rose into the sky. The commander of the tank battalion’s ’D’ Company, Captain George D. Warriner, switched on the radio transmitter and called his crews to cheer them up, ’Keep going! This is going great!’ It would be the last anyone heard of him.
Initially, the Americans barely met any resistance, but when the tanks of the 42nd Tank Battalion slid downhill into German-occupied Hubermont—a couple of farms a few hundred yards north of Rechrival—German infantry lay in firing positions in houses and behind spruce trees in the roadside. ’Several enemy tanks that broke into Hubermont were put out of action in close combat [i.e. with anti-tank weapons],’ wrote the brigade commander Oberst Rèmer.2 According to German sources, another eight U.S. tanks were destroyed by a battery of 88mm anti-aircraft guns positioned in a grove of trees atop a small hill a mile northeast of Hubermont.3
The American assault formations were already badly mauled when the main tanks a few minutes later came down the hill and had passed the first farm—basically the tank crews had driven straight through the little hamlet and now had large, open field ahead. ’The sight that met me I’ll never forget,’ recalls the commander of one of the tank platoons, First Lieutenant Eli J. Warach, As far as the eye could see to the right of us, to the left of us, and in depth in front of us were enemy tanks—big enemy tanks. Later we were told they were Tiger tanks—but no difference, Tiger, Panther or any other variety, many of them carried the infamous ‘88—the scourge of even big tanks. It was so bad that I knew, absolutely knew, we were dead.’4
In this situation, Rèmer had employed his armored regiment—which still mustered about fifty serviceable Panzer IVs and StuG IIIs, which quite unsurprisingly made a terribly frightening impression, especially on the crews of the light Stuart tanks. Soon the fields around Hubermont were filled with smoldering and burning U.S. tank wrecks. ’D’ Company, 42nd Tank Battalion alone lost twelve of its fifteen Stuarts.5 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers quickly were on the spot and forced the Germans to retreat in among the fir trees, but the heavy losses forced Combat Command A to abort the attack northwards.
However, by creating a two mile-deep-wedge in the German lines, Middleton was able to launch the next phase of the operation—the attack on Chenogne, where the Germans had held out for four days. This small community consisted of thirty-two residential houses, a church, a small schoolhouse, a store, and a station building on rail line 624 between Sainte-Ode (five miles to the northwest) and Bastogne. Chenogne is located in a little hollow just west of the large Bois de Fragotte forest. Its 150 inhabitants were mainly farmers.6 But after a heavy American bombing raid on 29 December, and in particular the bombardment from thirteen artillery battalions on New Year’s morning, the little community had been turned into a heap of ruins. 7
The first attack, which came on from the south— where the 21st Armored Infantry Battalion and the 22nd Tank Battalion had managed to seize a couple of buildings in the village’s outskirts during the previous night— was met with no success. ’The Krauts were ready,’ recalls Staff Sergeant John Fague of the 21st Armored Infantry Battalion. ’As soon as our boys started over the crest of the hill into the town, the German machine guns sprang to life. Mortars opened up on the tanks. More artillery was called for. Our tanks and assault guns were moved up the crest to try to knock out those machine guns. […] The medics were very busy that morning. All across the line were cries of “Medic! Medic! Bring a stretcher!” The Germans were extrèmely accurate with their mortar fire. It seèmed as if they could drop their shells right in the turrets of our tanks. Several wounded tankers were lying in a shell hole waiting for medical aid.’8
This cost the 22nd Tank Battalion a loss of six tanks and twenty-one men.9 But the Germans were increasingly repressed by the superior American firepower. In addition, they were outflanked by the 41st Tank Battalion which came from the hills in the northwest. Meanwhile, the 60th Armored Infantry Battalion and 19th Tank Battalion from Combat Command A, 9th Armored Division went into the woods east of the village.10 All of this caused the German resistance in Chenogne to collapse. The 3. Panzergrenadier-Division was pulled back to a new defensive line, between Senonchamps (two miles northeast of Chenogne) and the Führer Begleit Brigade’s positions two and a half miles further to the north-west.11 It appears as though the Germans in the end had left only second class troops to delay the Americans in Chenogne and the Bois de Fragotte. The 60th Armored Infantry Battalion’s after action report gives a good image of the troops that the Americans encountered when they entered the Bois de Fragotte, ’Two abandoned 88 mm guns and five other abandoned AT positions were located in the woods. Fresh tank trails found indicated a withdrawal from this sector. In these woods we captured our first prisoners other than German (i.e. Polish, Czech, etc.) All prisoners had very low morale.’12 *
Even though the Americans finally managed to seize Chenogne and, a little further northwest, Houmont and Hubermont, this was still extrèmely limited territorial gains, and it had cost a great deal of American blood. According to German sources, the Americans lost forty-eight tanks during the fighting at Bastogne on 1 January 1945.13
A Sherman knocked out by German fire near Bastogne in early January 1945 is salvaged. U.S. veterans of the Ardennes Battle said that one of their worst tasks was to clean the inside of a knocked out tank that had been salvaged for repair. The remains of the dead crew members had to be scraped and scrubbed off. New tank crews that were assigned with repaired vehicles with plugged bullet holes could readily imagine what an easy prey they were to the German anti-tank weapons. (NARA, SC 197936)
The rugged combat at Chenogne and Hubermont on New Year’s Day 1945 brought Middleton’s attack to a complete halt on this front section. Generalmajor Denkert, German 3. Panzergrenadier-Division’s commander, wrote, ’By the evening of 1 January 1945, we succeeded in building up this new main line of resistance. In this area the enemy contended himself with the capture of Chenogne, so that the new main line of resistance was no longer attacked on this day.’14
THE 6TH ARMORED DIVISION IS DRIVEN BACK
The American failure to turn the battle to their advantage encouraged the Germans to continue their own aggressive posture against Bastogne. They still hoped that a seizure of this important transport hub would enable a resumption of the offensive towards River Meuse. And although Hitler at least temporarily had given up on the possibilities to reach Antwerp, he was of the opinion—not entirely incorrect— that a continued offensive in the Ardennes was motivated because it tied down large Allied forces. He also had some hopes that it would be possible to resume the offensive with its original target if the offensive in Alsace (’Nordwind’) was sufficiently successful.15
The German attempts to take Bastogne during the last week of December 1944, however, revealed that the available troops were insufficient to defeat the reinforced U.S. forces in the area. Therefore, on New Year’s Eve the I. SS-Panzerkorps with the 340. Volksgrenadier-Division and the 9. and 12. SS-Panzer divisions—thus transferred from the II. to the I. SS-Panzerkorps—were ordered to regroup south to the Bastogne sector. There the 9. SS-Panzer-Division ’Hohenstaufen’ was to take over the front section north of Bastogne, while the 12. SS-Panzer-Division ’Hitler Jugend’ was ordered to march up northeast of the town, while the 340. Volksgrenadier-Division would occupy positions east of Bastogne. On the latter division’s southern flank, southeast of Bastogne, the 167. Volksgrenadier-Division of Generalleutnant Karl Decker’s XXXIX. Panzerkorps (which also included the 1. SS-Panzer-Division and the remnants of the battered 5. Fallschirmjager-Division, plus Kampfgruppe Hauser from Panzer Lehr) joined in. What would really frighten the Americans was that schwere Panzer-Abteilung 506, commanded by Major Eberhard Lange, also marched up at Wardin in the same sector. This had thirteen serviceable Tiger tanks, most of which were Königstiger (only the 4. Kompanie had the Tiger I, which nevertheless also was armed with a 88mm gun).16 Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 506 had participated in the destruction of the Allied airborne force at Arnhem in September 1944, and in November 1944 it had smashed an attack by U.S. 2nd Armored Division ’Hell on Wheels’ by knocking out fifty-seven of its Shermans in a single day.
With the 12. SS-Panzer-Division ’Hitler Jugend,’ the 340. Volksgrenadier-Division and the Tiger tanks, the German positions were considerably reinforced in the section east of Bastogne, where Grenadier-Regiment 78 just had been pushed back by the newly arrived U.S. 6th Armored Division.
As we saw earlier, this American armored division’s Combat Command A had taken Neffe, on Bastogne’s eastern outskirts, on New Year’s Eve. The transfer of Combat Command B to the front was delayed by traffic jams on the slippery winter roads as two entire U.S. armored divisions simultaneously were brought to Bastogne—the 6th and the 11th. But on New Year’s morning the two Combat commands of the 6th Armored Division were in position to launch an attack northwards from Neffe. Four battalions— two armored and two infantry—supported by the majority of the 603rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, were deployed on a front no more than a mile and a half wide. To the already heavily decimated German Grenadier-Regiment 78, which still had not received any support from the other German units, this was a completely overwhelming force. By that time, Grenadier-Regiment 78 had been in continuous battle since 16 December. Since the regiment held some of the most advanced German positions at Bastogne, it had sustained very heavy losses, particularly to American artillery.
Covered by Sherman tanks, these soldiers from the 44th Armored Infantry Battalion, 6th Armored Division are using pickaxes to dig foxholes in the frozen ground to the east of Neffe. (NARA, 111-SC-198465)
On the left (western) flank, Combat Command B—with the 68th Tank Battalion and the 50th Armored Infantry Battalion—advanced across a mile of open fields against Bizory, a small station town about two miles northeast of Bastogne on the railway to Sankt Vith. After about an hour’s fight, the Germans retreated to Mageret, the adjacent village a mile further southeast. There the I. Bataillon/ Grenadier-Regiment 78 attempted to establish new positions on the hill just west of the village, Hill 510. But by deploying Combat Command A from positions a thousand feet south of Mageret, U.S. 6th Armored Division managed to drive away the Germans from this place too. Encouraged by these successes, the 68th Tank Battalion and the 50th Armored Infantry Battalion continued northwards and entered Arloncourt, slightly to the northeast of Mageret. But beyond that, the Americans came no further.
German 167. Volksgrenadier-Division—which a few days previously had been launched in the failed German attack southeast of Bastogne—swiftly regrouped one of its battalions north and pitted it against the 44th Armored Infantry Battalion on the American eastern flank. On the previous day, the 44th Armored Infantry Battalion had entrenched atop the ridge that begins just east of Neffe and runs south. One third of the men in the 167. Volksgrenadier-Division were battle-hardened veterans from the Eastern Front, and after heavy fighting these succeeded in forcing the Americans out of the wooded area to the east of Neffe.
This enabled Grenadier-Regiment 78 to concentrate its forces for a counter-attack against Combat Command B. While the American artillery was focused against the German positions on the ridge east of Neffe, Grenadier-Regiment 78 attacked two miles further north on New Year’s night. The Americans were completely taken by surprise, and their 68th Tank Battalion retreated from Arloncourt back to Mageret, while U.S. 50th Armored Infantry Battalion took refuge in the woods on the other side of the fields west of Arloncourt.
To Major General Grow, C.O. of the 6th Armored Division ’Super Sixth,’ it was clear that a fierce battle was impending east of Bastogne. Although he had launched almost all of his armored division against basically a weakened German infantry regiment, he had in two days failed to achieve anything more than to move front lines one or two miles ahead. It was far from the expected strategic breakthrough that the Americans sought to achieve— according to the plan, the 6th Armored Division would crush the German positions east of Bastogne and advance to Sankt Vith in the north. Had Grow and Patton known what force their opponent was in the process of building up east of Bastogne, they probably would have acted differently.
The units deployed by the Americans southwest of Bastogne had led Generalfeldmarschall Model to, at least temporarily, give up trying to annihilate the U.S. breach from the south to Bastogne. Instead he concentrated his forces for an attack against the town from the northeast and the north. Due to this plan, the I. SS- Panzerkorps was to attack on 2 January—the day after ’Bodenplatte’—which meant that the respective attacks of both sides once again came to collide. ’All my troops are just where they should be,’ wrote an expectant Patton in his diary on 1 January 1945.17
But with the Allied aviation to some extent neutralized by the previous day’s massive attack on the Allied airfields, it was the Luftwaffe which first appeared in the air above the battlefield. On the morning of 2 January, Messerschmitt and Focke Wulf fighter-bombers came roaring over Bastogne and dropped their bombs on the Americans. With more and more German planes in the air above them—on this day the Luftwaffe despatched three hundred aircraft in tactical air support only at the Bastogne sector18—the soldiers of German 167. Volksgrenadier-Division marched out to follow up the previous day’s attacks against U.S. 44th Armored Infantry Battalion on the hills east of Neffe. To the Germans, it was just like ’the good old days’! But they would soon be reminded that this was 1945 and not 1940. During the previous night the Americans had prepared a Time on Target artillery volley against the German positions.
The Germans had barely begun to leave their jump-off positions when a threatening rumble was heard from Bastogne. Before they knew it, the earth seèmed to dissolve into a terrible explosion. In a matter of seconds, artillery shells from nine American artillery battalions rained down on the Germans, who had no chance to escape on the bald ridge. All that was left was a large, blackened area. Of the German assault group remained nothing.
A 155 mm Long Tom at Bastogne. (The Paul Warp Collection)
Meanwhile, a mile and a half farther to the northeast, the newly arrived 340. Volksgrenadier-Division attacked Mageret with the 1. Kompanie of its 340. Fusilier-Bataillon, supported by a platoon of assault guns and a machine gun platoon.19 Departing from Arloncourt, the German troops stormed down the snowy hill east of the village, managed to overpower Combat Command B, 6th Armored Division and soon were inside Mageret. But the Americans immediately struck back. Inside the small woods east of the village, tanks of the U.S. 69th Tank Battalion had moved into position, and these now opened fire in the back of the Germans, who were forced to retreat back across the fields towards Arloncourt in the north. There, the Germans were bombed and strafed by one of their own aircraft, whose pilot dived out of the clouds and thought that what he saw was an American attack on Arloncourt.20
Major General Grow felt certain of victory when his 6th Armored Division began its attack. The 68th Tank Battalion was despatched from Mageret for a new attempt to take Arloncourt, while the 50th Armored Infantry Battalion came out from the forest to the north and attacked Oubourcy and Michamps, about a thousand yards north of Arloncourt. South of the railroad that runs in an east-westerly direction south of Mageret, Combat Command A meanwhiled attacked Wardin from two directions.
But the tank drivers in ’B’ Company, 68th Tank Battalion, which was supposed to seize Arloncourt, could not handle the slippery winter road. The Sherman tanks slid back and forth on their tracks, and eventually the unit commander had to order a halt. Soldiers were sent back to Mageret to collect straw that they could sprinkle in front of the tanks so that these could move on.
While this took place, battle noise was heard from the fields a little farther up in the northeast, where the 50th Armored Infantry Battalion moved in among the handful of houses that constituted Oubourcy. In this place, there was nothing more than a small group of German soldiers who soon came out with their hands in the air. But when the Americans attacked the adjacent village Michamps, the Germans were prepared. In Bourcy, the slightly larger village a mile further north, Nebelwerfer batteries opened fire. Trailing long puffs of flame, the rockets came whistling against Michamps, where they tore the American infantry formations to pieces. The American battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Arnold R. Wall, was severely wounded and had to be evacuated.
At that stage, the armor entered—on both sides! Königstiger tanks of Major Lange’s schwere Panzer-Abteilung 506 had been on the march towards the battle area on the road from the east when the fighting broke out. These arrived at Arloncourt just in time to meet ’B’ Company of U.S. 68th Tank Battalion, and two Königstigers were in firing position to fight the Shermans as these belatedly could resume their attack.
The American tanks rolled in a column up the hill heading towards Arloncourt. Through the small armored glass of the turret cupola, the leading Sherman tank commanders could see the first houses in Arloncourt slightly up to the left. But suddenly they discovered something else too. The Sherman in the front stood in flames! And then the next one also burned. The warning cry went through the communications radio, ’Anti-tank guns!’ The Americans had not discovered the whitewashed Königstigers that completely melted into the snow-covered landscape.
While the drivers of the remaining Sherman tanks desperately reversed to get away, the gunner on Königstiger number two pushed down the pedal that made the turret rotate to the left. This Königstiger had established a firing position a short distance down the hill to the right. ’Feuer!’ An armor-piercing shell crashed out of the long barrel and the next Sherman blew up.
With snow swirling around the tracks, the American tanks made it helter-skelter at full speed back towards Mageret. Meanwhile the 88mm guns of the Königstigers boomed and methodically set one Sherman tank after another on fire. In the end, fifteen Shermans of U.S. 68th Tank Battalion’s ’B’ Company stood like burning torches out on the snow-covered field between Arloncourt and Mageret. Only one managed to escape back to Mageret under the cover of a smoke screen.21 But the fight was not over.
It is possible that the Königstigers regrouped south and that they also were responsible for the seven tanks that U.S. 15th Tank Battalion lost shortly afterwards.22 The 6th Armored Division made a great effort to achieve a breakthrough on this 2 January, and Combat Command A was reinforced by the 15th Tank Battalion and the 9th Armored Infantry Battalion to relieve the battered 44th Armored Infantry Battalion in the attempt to capture Wardin, a mile and a half south of Mageret. But both the armor that attacked from the north, and the infantry, which attacked from the wooded hills south and southwest of Wardin, sustained heavy losses.
In the meantime, another German armored force went into action a bit farther to the north. Five Panthers and six Panzer IVs rumbled out from Bourcy. These belonged to the I. Abteilung of SS-Panzer-Regiment 12. In the leading Panther’s turret stood SS-Obersturmführer Rudolf von Ribbentrop, who had taken command following SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Jurgensen’s death at Domane Bütgenbach. Although the 23-year-old son of the German Foreign Minister had been wounded in the mouth by shrapnel less than two weeks earlier, he was back in the first line to lead the ’Hitler Jugend’ Division’s armor.
This armored thrust went straight on Michamps and Oubourcy, where it hit the 50th Armored Infantry Battalion with a terrible impact. With soldiers dropping dead or wounded to the left and the right, the American infantry retreated in the direction of the planted spruce forest Bois Jacques. Von Ribbentrop’s tank crews reported the destruction of nine Shermans and several anti-tank guns without any own losses.23 It may be assumed that the tanks knocked out by von Ribbentrop’s tankers belonged to the two other tank companies—with a total of thirty-four Shermans and Stuarts—that Combat Command B, 6th Armored Division sent forward for a counter-attack at Arloncourt after ’B’ Company’s annihilation at the hands of the Königstigers. The U.S. report says that these two other tank companies were forced back ’under fire on an arc of 220 degrees.’
A bit further south, Combat Command A temporarily managed to occupy Wardin, but in the early hours on 3 January the Germans took back the heavily disputed village in a counter-attack supported by assault guns.24 When U.S. 9th Armored Infantry Battalion withdrew, one quarter of its men had been lost in Wardin or on the blood-stained slopes south of the village.
The 6th Armored Division had been dealt a stinging setback that indeed also had repercussions on the troop’s morale.25 The Bastogne front turned out to be completely different than anything the men of the ’Super Sixth’ had ever experienced before. On top of the stiff-necked German resistance came the relentless cold. One of the division’s soldiers, Sergeant Mike Sovan, tank commander in a 15th Tank Battalion Sherman, said many years after the war, ’I was never as scared in my life as I was at Bastogne. It was freezing and I was afraid of dying from the cold.’26
And it would get even worse in the next few days!
On the other side of the frontlines, the mood was different. The proud SS soldiers who marched into the ruins of Michamps introduced themselves to the terrified villagers as ’those who never retreat.’27
But the Germans also had taken severe casualties. Their 167. Volksgrenadier-Division was badly decimated, and the 340. Volksgrenadier-Division definitely could have had a better start in their participation in the Battle of Bastogne. When Generalfeldmarschall Model visited the Bastogne front in the afternoon on 2 January, he found that neither the 340. Volksgrenadier-Division nor the 12. SS-Panzer-Division had managed to bring up all its subordinate units to the front. Therefore he decided to postpone the attack until 4 January.
Two soldiers of the 6th Armored Division view a U.S. 2 V2-ton truck destroyed in a German air attack when the Luftwaffe on 2 January 1945 suddenly not only appeared over the battlefield at Bastogne, but also seèmed to dominate the air. On this day, the Germans despatched about 300 aircraft over the Bastogne section, and sustained only limited own losses in the air. (NARA, 111-SC-199354/Lapine)
Model, however, would be preceded by Montgomery, who on 3 January opened his major offensive. The attack was carried out along a 35-mile wide front against the western side of the German Bulge, with the British forces striking in the southwest, against the western tip of the Bulge, U.S. VII Corps in the center, and U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps on both sides of River Salm. The most powerful among these forces was U.S. First Army’s VII Corps, which was directed against Houffalize, with the aim of linking up with U.S. Third Army at that place, thereby cutting off the German Bulge.
Ahead of the offensive, Major General ’Lightning Joe’ Collins, the VII Corps commander, had assembled a considerable force. At the end of December, its two armored divisions, the 2nd and the 3rd, and the 84th Infantry Division ’Rail Splitters,’ were joined by a fourth U.S. division, the 83rd Infantry Division ’Thunderbolt.’ Like the other units of the Corps, this was a battle experienced unit that had been in first-line service since Normandy in June 1944. The divisional commander, Major General Robert C. Macon, had been in combat action since the invasion of North Africa in November 1942. Under his command, the 83rd Infantry Division developed into a rather willful unit that became known to use any means of transport—regardless of whether it was abandoned German equipment or civilian vehicles. At one period the division even is supposed to have used a conquered Messerschmitt 109 fighter! All this led an American reporter to call the 83rd Division the ’RagTag Circus.’
The 2nd and 3rd Armored divisions had been replenished through an addition of two hundred Sherman tanks from British units further north.28 In total, the VII Corps mustered more than 100,000 troops, 616 tanks and around four hundred artillery pieces on 2 January 1945.29 In troops, Collins had a numerical superiority of seven to one against his opponent; in this section, the Germans had a total of about 15,000 men in the first line.30 The probably numerically strongest among the German units here was the 12. Volksgrenadier-Division, which on the night of New Years Eve arrived at the sector southeast of Manhay to replace the 9. SS-Panzer-Division as this was shifted southwards to the Bastogne area.31 But the 12. Volksgrenadier-Division hardly was fit to meet ’Lightning Joe’ Collin’s force. As we have seen previously (Chapter 6), this division was in a quite bad shape already when, on 16 December it was launched into the Ardennes Offensive on the 6. SS-Panzerarmee’s section, and since then it had lost about fifteen hundred of its 9,500 men.32
The situation was even worse with this division’s neighbor, the 560. Volksgrenadier-Division, which was under-strength when the Ardennes Offensive began. By this time, it had melted down to a strength of 2,500 troops. The 2. SS-Panzer-Division ’Das Reich’ also had been dealt heavy losses—especially through the persistent American artillery bombardment—and was down to 6,000 front-line soldiers.33 Although its pure battle losses were confined to eleven Panthers and a single Panzer IV, the difficulties in bringing up spare parts from Germany had resulted in a rapid decline in the number of combat ready tanks in the division.34 On 2 January 1945, one day before the American offensive, the ’Das Reich’ Division reported a total of twenty-eight serviceable tanks.35 In terms of armor, the Americans thus had a numerical superiority of more than twenty to one.
Yet despite their numerical superiority, the Allies would encounter a rugged and skillfully conducted German defense that slowed down the advance to a snail’s pace. To top it all, the offensive began in circumstances—including bad weather—that made it impossible for the Allied aircraft that had escaped destruction in Operation ’Bodenplatte’ to be deployed to support the ground troops. Danny S. Parker writes:
Between densely growing pine trees in a snowed Ardennes forest, these SS panzer grenadiers of the 2. SS-Panzer-Division have built a wooden pillbox that offers some protection against the cold and the blizzards. There seems to be nothing wrong with the soldiers’ mood. The picture is probably taken during the relatively quiet period around the turn of the year, before Montgomery’s offensive started on 3 January 1945. (BArch, Bild 183-J28648/Rottensteiner)
’If the German position was breached then the Americans could be almost certain that an enemy riposte was soon to follow, typically preceded by a sharp artillery barrage and paced by a handful of tanks or assault guns. Of course, such counterattacks would have to be thrown back before the advance could continue. And so the battle continued in a monotonously grim series of winter battles, horrifyingly reminiscent of a World War I version of Valley Forge. Casualties were high and advances were deliberate and painfully slow.’36
In the southwest, British XXX Corps was pitted against the 2. Panzer-Division of General von Lüttwitz’ XLVII. Panzerkorps, which still held the most advanced German positions in the Ardennes. But after the devastating defeat in the vicinity of Dinant at Christmastime, this badly mauled division had been pulled back to defensive positions in the area south of Rochefort, about midway between Bastogne in the southeast and Dinant in the northwest. On the 2. Panzer-Division’s right (northern) flank, in the sector south of Marche, was the 9. Panzer-Division. The section south of the 2. Panzer-Division was held by Panzer Lehr.
British 6th Airborne Division’s first objective on 3 January was the small village of Bure, six miles southeast of Rochefort. The attack, carried out by the 7th Parachute Battalion and 13th (Lancs) Parachute Battalion of the 5th Parachute Brigade, was supported by the Belgian SAS—a special force of Belgian commandos—and armor from the 29th Armoured Brigade. The attack force came down the hills to the north and northwest of Bure. Since one of the British Sherman tanks was blown up by a mine, the other tank crews became more cautious. When the paratroopers reached the valley between the hills in the north and the village itself, the Germans opened fire with machine guns and mortars. The commander of ’A’ Company, 13th Parachute Battalion, Major Jack Watson, recalled:
’The Germans knew we were there; they were waiting for us and as soon as we started to break cover, I looked up and I could see about a foot above my head the branches of trees being shattered by intense machine gun fire and mortaring. They obviously had the guns on fixed lines and they pinned us down before we even got off the start line. This was the first time I’d led a company attack and within minutes I’d lost about one-third of them. I could hear the men of my left-hand platoon shouting for our medics.’37
Next the 2. Panzer-Division counter-attacked with Panther tanks (which the British mistook for Tiger tanks), and these met the 29th Armoured Brigade in what developed into an armor battle, as described by Major Jack Watson, ’When we told H.Q. we had German tanks in the area they decided to bring in our own tanks in support, but they were no match for the Tigers. We had Shermans, and by the end of the battle 16 of them had been blown up.’38
The report from ’A’ Squadron, 29th Armoured Brigade, reads, ’Bure was, in fact, one of the nastiest spots the Squadron had ever been in. The Germans clung to the houses and ruins, hid in cellars and catacombs, fighting and sniping grimly to the end. It wasn’t a place for a depleted battalion and half a troop of tanks. Finally the attack was abandoned and our forces withdrawn.’39
Some twelve miles farther to the northeast, on the other side of River Ourthe, * U.S. 2nd Armored Division and 84th Infantry Division, the force on U.S. VII Corps’ right, flank, simultaneously launched its attack.* This force marched up on no more than about six miles’ width between Hotton and Manhay. Its first objectives were La Roche and Houffalize. In this sector, the Germans had nothing but weak elèments of the 116. Panzer-Division—which had the bulk of its strength on the other side of the Ourthe—and, to the east of these, units from the 2. SS-Panzer-Division of the II. SS-Panzerkorps.
During the first hours of the attack on 3 January, the Americans only encountered sporadic and disorganized resistance, and the main obstacle to their advance were the wintery roads. Sleet and rain poured down, and when the temperature dropped in the morning hours, the wet surface froze to ice. The American vehicle drivers were not at all accustomed to these conditions, so tanks and all kinds of vehicles skidded and slid around, collided with each other, drove into ditches and blocked the roads along which they tried to advance.40
Elèments of II. Bataillon/ SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 3 ’Deutschland’ were overpowered and surrendered—including most of the 6. Kompanie.41 But the Germans soon had reorganized their defense positions. The 116. Panzer-Division was placed under command of the II. SS-Panzerkorps, and in Mâgôster two SS companies were grouped for a delaying action. Trinal, barely a mile to the northeast, was taken by the Americans almost without any opposition. But then the real fighting began. SS-Obersturmführer Georg Vilzmann, commander of one of these two SS units—5. Kompanie/ SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 4—describes the grim battle for the tiny village of Mâgôster:
We counted 21 enemy tanks north of Mâgôster. But our grenadiers held their positions despite heavy fire from enemy artillery and tanks, although we only had a weak fire support. At 1030, the enemy attacked Mâgôster’s southeastern part with 14 tanks. Here, panzer grenadier Stephan performed particularly well. With his machine gun he relentlessly fired at the mass of the enemy infantry and thus separated them from the tanks. […]
At eleven o’clock, the enemy armor withdrew to the wooded area at Hill 405. At first I thought that our own side had launched a counter-attack, but it soon became clear that the enemy had succeeded in penetrating Mâgôster to the left of us, where 9. Kompanie of SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 3 ’Deutschland’ was, in Mâgôster’s northern part. […] Then the enemy renewed his attack from the wooded area at Hill 405, while Mâgôster’s southwestern part and the hill behind this was subjected to a heavy shelling from his artillery. […]
I grouped my company, which by then had melted down to 20 men, in a circle defense around the crossroads in the southern part of Mâgôster and the surrounding house ruins. […] The enemy attacked from all sides and soon there was no way out, so I decided to group my men in defensive positions in the last five houses and the chapel. […] We fought from house to house in some of the fiercest battles of my life. My grenadiers fought to defend each remainder of a wall and even the smallest mound.
At one o’clock the enemy managed to capture my command post. His tanks rolled forward as if on a parade to support the infantry. At around half past one we had to give up the last house and the chapel on the right hand side of the street. Then the remainder of my company, the signals group, and the few men of the 9. Kompanie of SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 3 ’Deutschland’ entrenched themselves in the two last house ruins, where we continued the unequal combat with Panzerfausts and handgrenades. Grenadier Niessen neutralized an enemy machine gunner who had taken up position in the house across the street. Oberscharführer Frenske fired his English submachine gun against a group of enemy soldiers who tried to cross the street, and neutralized the entire group.
I myself fired a Panzerfaust against a rocket launcher that the enemy had positioned at the chapel. However, I was unable to observe the effect of my fire because the enemy fired simultaneously and hit my position. As through a miracle I was unhurt, but the man next to me was injured.42
Having tied down the Americans in Mâgôster for several hours, Vilzmann and his SS troops finally were forced to withdraw. Covered by a powerful volley of Nebelwerfer rockets, they managed to break out and retreat to their own positions near Devant-Tave, a mile and a half further southeast. Vilzmann wrote, ’By the sound of the approaching Nebelwerfer rockets, I was able to determine that they would hit nearby. In the next moment the whole volley came crashing down, exactly on the ruined buildings at the crossroads where we had been. Their impact was terrible. The enemy’s armor was dazzled by the explosions and his infantry threw themselves into cover.’43
After Mâgôster further difficulties lay in wait for the Americans. Sergeant Theodore Draper from the 84th Infantry Division’s 335th Infantry Regiment describes this from the American perspective:
German panzer grenadiers behind a Panzer IV during the Ardennes Battle in the winter of 1944/1945. Drawing by the German soldier Horst Helmus.
The main objective that day was Devant-Tave past a cluster of woods and a hill. The tanks could not get through the woods and our infantry had to push ahead. We got through the woods safely and one company began to step out to cross the hill. 88s were waiting for them. 88s and rockets and mortars swept the hill and crashed into the woods. We had to pull back. Light tanks were used to evacuate the wounded; nothing else was possible in the snow. At three o’clock in the afternoon, we again tried to take Devant-Tave but again we could not get over that hill. We withdrew for the night east of Mâgôster.44
Meanwhile the Sherman tanks from Combat Command A, 2nd Armored Division that advanced to the east of Beffe—the adjacent village just southwest of Mâgôster— were subjected to a counter-attack by SS-Panzer-Regiment 2 and had to retreat.45 Roscoe Blunt, who served as a Private First Class in the 84th Infantry Division, witnessed the tank battle. He rèmembers how he lay in cover while one Sherman tank after another was hit and knocked out by fire from the superior guns of the Panther tanks. Afterwards, the whole field was filled with burning and knocked out Shermans and not that many destroyed German tanks.46 As darkness fell, the Americans withdrew to the hills outside of Beffe.47
Manhay, five miles northeast of Mâgôster, marked the seam between the two western and the two eastern divisions of U.S. VII Corps. Its 3rd Armored Division under Major General Maurice Rose—with 208 tanks and 177 tank destroyers—despatched Combat Command A and Combat Command B on a just two mile-broad front east of Highway N 15, between Manhay and the Lienne creek in the east. With the support of the 83rd Infantry Division, the American armored division’s first task was to seize the crossroads Baraque de Fraiture. The attack began with a very heavy artillery fire with the use of air burst shells (POZIT).48 In the village of Malempré, two miles southeast of Manhay, a group of civilians became witnesses to the terrible psychological effect of such a concentrated artillery fire. They huddled in the basèment of a house, when suddenly a weeping German soldier bolted down the stairs. He screamed that his two comrades had been killed and then he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.49
Yet the assault forces immediately faced a stiff resistance on this section. ’The Germans,’ said Belton Y. Cooper, a captain in the 3rd Armored Division, ‘were past masters at defense against armor by using their own armor skilfully. They took every advantage of their superior armor and used the buildings and rubble of the small fortified villages to conceal their tanks and self-propelled guns. Even when attacking one of these strong-points with a combination of infantry supported by armor and preceded by a quick, heavy artillery barrage, we still sustained heavy losses in our tanks.’50
The battle is over for this time one of the bloody days in early January 1945. Private First Class Frank Vukasin from ‘C’ Company, 331st Infantry Regiment of U.S. 83rd Infantry Division puts a new clip into his M1 Garand rifle. In front of him in the snow are two dead Germans, probably from the 2. SS-Panzer-Division. Vukasin survived the battle and was awarded a Bronze Star. He passed away in January 1995, at the age of 76. (NARA, 111-SC-198859)
The 2. SS-Panzer-Division went into position in the ruins of Malempré with SS-Panzer-Aufklarungs-Abteilung 2, under SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Ernst Krag, and an armored battalion from the III. Abteilung (gepanzert) ’Der Führer.’ Throughout 3 January, the 3rd Armored Division’s Task forces Lovelady and McGeorge made repeated attempts to seize this village, but German fire repeatedly drove them back, leaving a growing number of burning tanks behind. These were added to the snow-covered Sherman wrecks that had been there since the previous clash between the 2. SS-Panzer-Division and the 3rd Armored Division at the adjacent Belle Haie on Christmas Eve. During one of these attacks on 3 January alone, the Germans saw seven Sherman go up in flames.51
It was not until the American artillery towards the end of the day had laid the entire village in ruins, whereby air burst shells again came into use, that the Germans pulled back. By that time, all but five of the village’s seventy-four houses had been turned into piles of gravel, and the village church was half destroyed. But the Germans only regrouped to new fighting positions, and throughout the following night they fired on the Americans in Malempré with mortars, artillery and Nebelwerfer. When Task Force Lovelady’s Sherman tanks started to advance southwards from Malempré, they ended up in a German ambush. While the American tanks were held up in a minefield, they came under fire from a masked Panther which quickly set two Shermans ablaze.
To the left of the VII Corps was U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps under Major General Ridgway. This included the substantially reinforced 82nd Airborne Division, plus the 30th Infantry Division and what remained of the two divisions that had been almost completely destroyed in the first days of the German offensive—424th Infantry Regiment of the 106th Infantry Division and 112th Regimental Combat Team of the 28th Infantry Division. Moreover, the reconstructed remainders of another division that had been quite badly mauled during the Ardennes Battle’s first days, U.S. 7th Armored Division, was held in the airborne corps’ reserve. Furthermore, the XVIII Airborne Corps would soon receive an additional division, the 75th Infantry Division. Against this force, the Germans could mount no more than two weakened infantry divisions, the 62. Volksgrenadier-Division west of River Salm, and the 18. Volksgrenadier-Division on the river’s east side, south of Amblève. These were subordinated to the XIII. Armeekorps, which had been hastily deployed forward to organize the defense of the northwestern corner of the German Bulge when the I. SS- Panzerkorps in late December was transferred to the Bastogne sector. The corps commander, General Hans-Gustav Felber, was highly experienced and had been awarded with the Knight’s Cross for his merits as a corps commander during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
However, the opening onslaught by XVIII Airborne Corps against the Germans of XIII. Armeekorps on the morning of 3 January was carried out only by the 82nd Airborne Division with supporting units, and was directed against the positions held by 62. Volksgrenadier-Division. Since U.S. 82nd Airborne Division had evacuated its positions along River Salm at Vielsalm at Christmas time, these two units had been standing against each other along the road that runs to the southwest from Trois-Ponts at Salm and crosses the Lienne creek on its way to Manhay. Here, the front lines were just a few miles south of La Gleize, where SS-Kampfgruppe Peiper had met its demise a few weeks earlier.
An American medic pulls a wounded soldier on a sled through the snow. (NARA, SC 198 546)
Ridgway’s plan was to first break through on the western flank, and then employ the two ’leftover’ regiments from the north, and the 30th Infantry Division from the north-east in a pincer operation. The 7th Armored Division was held back for the honor of recapturing Sankt Vith, which this division had been forced to give up two weeks previously.
When Ridgway opened his assault, the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment was able to take Trois-Ponts almost without a fight—the Germans were in no position to hold this advanced position, which was beset by U.S. forces in the north and the west. But slightly to the west of this town, U.S. independent 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion sustained terrible losses. Its soldiers attacked from positions atop the fir-covered ridge on the north side of the road that runs from Trois-Ponts and southwestwards. Once across the road, a painstaking ripple through the snow in an open field began. In the woods five hundred yards ahead, one hundred and fifty Germans from Major Werner Duve’s Grenadier-Regiment 183 lay in cover and silently observed as the American lines drew closer.52 Carefully hidden among the pine trees, a Sturmgeschütz III stood ready. Behind the houses of the farm Laurent lurked another StuG III.
The Germans held their fire until the Americans were at a distance of about two hundred yards. ‘Then all hell broke loose,’ recalled one of the surviving American paratroopers, Staff Sergeant Charlie Fairlamb.53 Machine guns and mortars brought about a terrible carnage on the unprotected paratroopers. Shortly afterwards the two StuG IIIs rumbled forward and opened fire with their guns. Another American, Corporal Joe Cicchinelli said, ’It was just annihilation. You could hear the cries and screams of the guys as they went down. The snow was red with their blood.’54
It was only after Private Charles Miller had managed to knock out one of the German assault guns with a Bazooka—this after crawling through the snow all the way to a firing position close to his target—that the Americans were able to even evacuate their wounded.
To the right of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, two of the 82nd Airborne Division’s regiments meanwhile attacked along a three mile-wide front. Just over a mile southwest of the battlefield where the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion was being slaughtered, at Basse-Bodeux, the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment attacked, supported by 740th Tank Battalion’s ’A’ Company. The American tanks advanced on the small country road that ran south, with the infantry on both sides of the road.55 This force was pitted against German Grenadier-Regiment 190, whose antitank weapons destroyed three U.S. tanks.56 ’Apart from two minor enemy penetrations, the Regiment holds positions,’ Grenadier-Regiment 190 reported to the headquarters of the 62. Volksgrenadier-Division.57
But the third regiment of the German division, Grenadier-Regiment 164, failed to achieve much against U.S. 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, which in cooperation with the armor of 740th Tank Battalion’s ’B’ Company, attacked two miles farther to the south.58 Not only did artillery inflict severe losses on the Germans here, but in addition to that, U.S. 3rd Armored Division pushed back German 12. Volksgrenadier-Division in the front section immediately west of Grenadier-Regiment 164’s positions. Since the front ran in a southwesterly direction, the American breakthrough in the southwest forced the 62. Volksgrenadier-Division to fall back. Major Duve was ordered to pull back his Grenadier-Regiment 183 to Rochelinval just west of River Salm, about two miles south of Trois-Ponts. There the Germans would meet U.S. 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion in yet another bloody battle a couple days later. Meanwhile, Grenadier Regiment 190 took up new positions south of Duve’s regiment, and Grenadier-Regiment 164 fell back to the southeast. The commander of the latter regiment, Oberst Jüttner, had three Königstigers—abandoned when the SS left the area two weeks previously—at his disposal, and these would be used to delay the American advance—more on this later.
Lieutenant Richard Durkee of ’A’ Company, 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, rèmembers the sight that met him when he turned around and looked back at the field where the paratroopers had assaulted on the morning of 3 January:
’As we staggered down the road, I happened to look back at the battlefield, and the sight will never leave me. The bodies of our comrades were strewn about where they had fallen and were practically covered with snow. […] In the first day of the push we had lost our company commander, two platoon leaders and 68 men.’59
Forward again! Mounted upon a Sturmgeschütz III, a German soldier instructs his comrades.
(BArch, Bild 101I-709-0339-19A/Gerhard Gronefeld)
THE GERMANS REGAIN THE INITIATIVE AT BASTOGNE
While all of this took place in the north, the Germans struck with a devastating force at Bastogne. But first off to attack were the Americans. After a terribly cold night, the 101st Airborne Division’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment attacked northeast of Bastogne in the morning on 3 January, with the objective of driving the Germans from the southern part of the planted spruce forest Bois Jacques. This led to a series of German counter-attacks so powerful that it may seem as if the offensive planned by Model for 4 January had started a day earlier. The charging Americans immediately faced an intense artillery and Nebelwerfer fire, causing heavy casualties. In the afternoon, SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 26 of 12. SS-Panzer-Division attacked both the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment and 6th Armored Division’s Combat Command B. U.S. 50th Armored Infantry Battalion’s after action report describes the ensuing battle:
’Only men and tanks were in combat since the aircraft from both sides could not take off because of the bad weather, and the observation by the artillery deteriorated all the time. Finally, when the visibility was down to zero, the Germans played their trump card: They sent their reserves into battle. These exerted such a pressure that the much weakened battalion had to be withdrawn to its starting line west [sic] of the Bois Jacques to avoid being encircled. The extended line could not be held. […] Everything seèmed to work, as in a giant conspiracy, in favor of the Nazis. The heavy cold, the extrèmely poor visibility, the lack of contact and organization helped the enemy.’60
With an armored force of twenty tanks (thirteen Panzer IVs and seven Panthers) from SS-Panzer-Regiment 12, and no less than fifty-six tank destroyers (forty-three Panzer IV/70s and thirteen Jagdpanthers) from schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 560 in the lead, the Germans pushed back their opponents two miles.61 Several Sherman tanks employed by the Americans to assist their infantry were helplessly knocked out. Indeed, the infantry of SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 26 was inflicted with bloody losses out on the open, snow-covered fields, where it was exposed to fire of American machine guns, mortars and artillery, but when darkness fell, the Germans had reached the outskirts of Mageret and Bizory.
At the same time, three miles farther to the northwest, 9. SS-Panzer-Division ’Hohenstaufen’ attacked at Longchamps, with thirty tanks from SS-Panzer-Regiment 9 and infantry from SS-Panzergrenadier regiments 19 and 20.62 The positions held by ’F’ Company of 2nd Battalion, U.S. 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment were overpowered. One of the American paratroopers, Private First Class Walter F. Zagol, said, ’F Company was caught in the open by the German tanks and infantry. […] My company commander put up the white flag on his submachine gun and surrendered his men as the German tanks started to mow down our men in the hedges we were in.’63
This fight cost the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment a loss of close to one hundred and twenty men, including forty taken prisoner. This is particularly noteworthy given that the Americans actually knew of the German attack plans in advance. During the previous night, an orderly from SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 19 had got lost in the dark and was captured. It turned out that the POW carried the detailed German attack plan, so on the morning of 3 January, U.S. 101st Airborne Division had directed all the artillery in the area against that section.64 Shortly after the demise of ’F’ Company, a concentrated artillery fire slammed down on the German troops, who were forced back after taking some very heavy losses. Several of their tanks were left behind on the battlefield. But the American airborne division also sustained high casualties through the German attack. When 9. SS-Panzer Division renewed its attack during the following night, the Germans were able to take Longchamps and the adjacent village Monnaville, three miles north-northwest of Bastogne, after a couple of hours of night fighting.65
The Americans fared no better west of Bastogne, despite their great numerical and material superiority. A German report describes the situation for the 3. Panzergrenadier-Division, which stood against U.S. 11th Armored Division in the front area immediately to the west of Bastogne, in early January 1945, ’In the preceding battles our infantry had dwindled to such a degree that the new main line of resistance could be occupied only in the form of widely scattered small strongpoints. […] Already the irreplacable loss of signal communication facilities to the troops brought it about that several Kampfgruppen were forced to act on their own responsibility without orders from higher command organs. On these occasions not only young officers but even non-commissioned officers repeatedly distinguished themselves in a very prominent way. The training principle of “independence of subordinate commanders” which had already been taught during peace time now showed its far-reaching effect.’66
The 3. Panzergrenadier-Division’s most vulnerable position was at Senonchamps, in a mere thousand yardwide wedge south of Highway N 4 just west of Bastogne. There the Germans were pitted against U.S. 101st Airborne Division in the east and the 11th Armored Division in the west. A heavy pounding by almost all the artillery in Bastogne and 11th Armored Division’s artillery against this section, succeeded in forcing the Germans to retreat to new positions on the heights just north of Mande Saint-Etienne, a mile and a half northwest of Senonchamps, on 2 January. When U.S. 327th Glider Infantry Regiment and the 10th Armored Division entered Senonchamps, they found the village void of any German troops. But the scenes that met the Americans spoke of heavy fighting. Private First Class Charles Kocourek from the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment rèmembers how he first saw two or three burning American tanks, and then he and his comrades discovered several dead American soldiers stacked on top of each other in a hen house.67
Mande Saint-Etienne also could be seized without any opposition by the 11th Armored Division, since the Germans abandoned this village in a tactical withdrawal to the north. But shortly afterward, the soldiers who had entered Mande Saint-Etienne were subjected to a deadly rain of German artillery rounds. By that time the American armored division was in a quite bad shape. ’We were too exhausted and frost-bitten to carry out any effective attack,’ recalls Staff Sergeant John Fague.68
A ‘tank grave’ for the Americans. During its first five days of battle, U.S. 11th Armoured Division ‘Thunderbolt’ lost around 70 tanks and nearly 1,000 men. (US Army)
During its first five days of battle, the 11th Armoured Division lost around seventy tanks and up to one thousand men.69 According to German data, the fighting in the Ardennes on 3 January 1945 cost the Allies a loss of forty-eight tanks.70 That same day, Major General Middleton, the VIII Corps Commander, decided to pull the 11th Armored Division out of action.71 ’We licked our wounds, repaired our tanks, and resolved to fight smarter on our return to action,’ said Kenneth W. Moeller of the 11th Armored Division’s headquarters.72 The 9th Armored Division’s Combat Command A, which had sustained such heavy losses at Sibret at the end of December, also was withdrawn from first-line service on 3 January.73
This coincided with the arrival to this front section of U.S. 17th Airborne Division—totally fresh from troop training. The single armored battalion of the 11th Armored Division that was left in the first line proved to be totally inadequate for the task of supporting the ’green’ airborne division, which lacked both tanks and anti-tank guns.
Just as was the case with the 11th Armored Division and the 87th Infantry Division a few days earlier, the 17th Airborne Division barely had arrived in the battle area before Middleton ordered it to attack. The Corps Commander was eager to break through to link up with U.S. First Army in the north.
The 87th Infantry Division was again launched on Middleton’s western flank. Its first task was to smash the German positions at Pironpré, Bonneru and Jenneville at the crossroads ten miles west of Bastogne. But taking advantage of minefields and the rugged terrain, a German battlegroup of no more than thirty men and six tanks from Panzer Lehr managed to hold back basically an entire American division. The 87th Infantry Division Chronicle reads:
’The Germans had set up elaborate defensive positions at Jenneville, Bonneru and Pironpré to protect their main supply road from Houffalize. The entire area was heavily mined and booby trapped, the mountainous terrain covered with dense evergreen forests. In places, snow was waist deep.’74
Repeated attacks against Pironpré on 3 and 4 January 1945 cost the 87th Infantry Division a loss of nearly one hundred and fifty men killed, wounded and missing.75 According to Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein, Panzer Lehr Division’s commander, German tanks grouped behind piles of logs at the sawmill in Pironpré managed to knock out every single of the attacking American tanks.76
Further east, the 17th Airborne Division ended up in an even worse situation. Supported by the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion, the airborne soldiers began their attack in a whirling blizzard on the morning of 4 January.77 The first objective was to take control of Highway N 4 between Mande Saint-Etienne and Flamierge west of Bastogne.
A mile west of Mande Saint-Etienne, the N 4 crosses a not particularly high ridge, but on this height, soldiers of the Führer Begleit Brigades had dug in with machine guns and mortars. The men of the 17th Airborne Division that were pitted against these positions were to call the place ’Dead Man’s Ridge.’ The 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion’s after action report noted that ‘the enemy resisted our attack with heavy mortar and M.G. fire and small groups of infantry.’78 Oberst Rèmer, the Führer Begleit Brigade’s C.O., wrote, ’Because of our shortage in artillery ammunition, the enemy was repelled with nothing but infantry arms and machine gun fire. We opened fire only at the last moment, as the enemy was advancing up the slope, and the opponent suffered heavy losses.’79
Here, ’E’ Company, 2nd Battalion of U.S. 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment lost three company commanders in close succession. But as the paratroopers lay in cover in the snow, a shrill cry was heard, ‘Fix bayonets!’ It seèmed to have an electrifying effect on the young men, who stood up and, defying any enemy fire, stormed up the slope—yelling ’Geronimo’—the battle-cry shouted by paratroopers before they jump from their planes—and managed to overpower the German positions.
But this was futile. On the afternoon of 4 January the Germans launched nine Panzer IV/70s from the 3. Panzergrenadier-Division in a counter-attack.80 This hit the Americans with such an impact that they reported up to twenty attacking German tanks.81 As so often, the Americans believed that it was Tiger tanks. One of the men of the 513rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, Private First Class Al Bryant, describes that fateful 4 January 1945:
We finally made it to the road just north of the small village. It had high banks on both sides and that is where we were told to dig in. The Tiger tanks were shelling the tree tops that bordered the village. The raining shrapnel caused me to give thanks that I was not in the village. Our anti-tank weapons were useless against German Tiger tanks. When our bazookas fired a missle and it hit one of the tanks it might knock off a little metal but no real harm was done. We had a trooper dug in with a bazooka about forty feet in front of us. He fired his bazooka at a Tiger tank, the tank fired back and our trooper was directly hit by an eighty-eight millimeter shell. One of his body parts landed near me.
We had four tanks in support.Two were knocked out almost immediately by the Tiger tanks. In a disabled tank one of the crew was screaming for help. In plain view of the enemy our medic Captain climbed up on the tank and pulled him out. The surviving crew member had both feet blown off. We were out of anti-tank ammunition and up the road came two Germans under a white flag. The one in the back was holding a light machine gun. They told our officer in charge that down in the village where our wounded were being kept, they had a Tiger tank with the cannon pointed at them and they would be killed if we didn’t surrender. One of our troopers tried to bayonet the German holding the white flag and machine gun but several of our troopers stopped him. I rèmember that the officer who surrendered us was not our regular Battalion commander.
As the Germans marched us away, we passed a Tiger tank with the tank commander standing up in the turret. I held up two fingers in the shape of a ‘V’. Big mistake. The tank commander pulled out what looked like a forty-five pistol, aimed it at me and started shouting in German (which I didn’t understand). Luckily, there was someone nearby who understood German and told me that the person holding the gun wanted my gloves. I don’t need to go into detail on how quickly I responded to this request.82
The fighting for the ’Dead Man’s Ridge’ cost the 17th Airborne Division a loss of 275 men on this unit’s first day of battle alone.83 The Germans counted five destroyed U.S. tanks and two hundred prisoners, among them eight officers who were interrogated that same evening by Generalmajor Denkert at his command post in Wyompont, a mile northwest of Bastogne.84
A concerned Patton wrote in his diary, ’The 17th Airborne, which attacked this morning, got a very bloody nose and reported the loss of 40% in some of its battalions. This is, of course, hysterical. A loss for one day of over 8% to 10% can be put down to a damn lie, unless people run or surrender.’ Regarding the divisional commander, Major General William Miley, Patton wrote, ’General Miley did not impress me when I met him in Bastogne … He told me he did not know where his right regiment was, yet he was not out looking for it.’85
During the following night the Führer Begleit Brigade despatched twenty tanks in a counter-attack against the 17th Airborne Division’s western flank at Houmont and Pinsamont—which had cost the 11th Armored Division so dearly to seize a few days earlier—and forced the 193rd Parachute Infantry Regiment to retreat a mile. Eleven U.S. tanks deployed to support the 17th Airborne Division were eliminated. In his report for 6 January, Oberst Rèmer made the following observation:
The experience of the last several days had shown that the enemy did not begin his attacks, as a rule, until after a rather long artillery preparation. Then, if the attack following it met any resistance, it was immediately cancelled. Then an artillery preparation began again, followed by an infantry attack. That was repeated a number of times during the day. It was not until almost no resistance took place from the main line of resistance that the enemy infantry went forward. A paralysis of our heavy weapons, especially of the artillery, was hardly brought about, however, except temporarily by fighter-bombers. […] The command of the brigade was struck by the fact, during the last several days, that the enemy attacks were led in a quite disorganized manner in respect to time and place.86
While this took place west of Bastogne, German I. SS-Panzerkorps opened the attack east of the town as planned by Model. Following an artillery preparation by all available German artillery pieces and Nebelwerfers at dawn on 4 January, the Germans attacked the positions held by 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment and 6th Armored Division northeast of Bastogne. This was yet another day when the weather made the ground troops have to fight without air support. The Germans attacked in a southwesterly direction along the railroad Bastogne - Sankt Vith—with the 340. Volksgrenadier-Division to the west of the rail track, and SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 26 and Panzer IV/70 tank destroyers of Panzerjäger-Abteilung 12 to the east. The German advance proceeded at a rapid rate. In the forest Bois Jacques west of the German attack formations, the armor of Team O’Hara from Combat Command B, 10th Armored Division, came rumbling through the snow to meet the German assault. SS-Oberscharführer Ewald Rien, one of the panzer grenadiers of 7. Kompanie/ SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 26, wrote:
’After some 800 yards, the spearheads came under machine gun fire. Oberscharführer Kowalski and I went forward and determined that the fire came from tanks. We had no more Panzerfausts, so we fired a rifle-grenade at the tank. That was apparently enough to make the crew bail out. A closer look showed that we had captured two operational Shermans. The companies continued to advance and reached the lane and railroad bridge Foy-Mageret [about a thousand yards northwest of Bizory] at first light of the day.’87
Then eight Panzer IV/70s intervened and forced the remaining American tanks to retreat back into the forest. On the evening of 4 January, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment had been pushed back around a mile and a half. To the right (east) of this regiment, 6th Armored Division’s Combat Command B had been pushed back to Bizory, about two miles northeast of Bastogne, and to Mageret, a thousand yards to the southeast. This was quite something else than what the tough armor soldiers of the 6th Armored Division ’Super Sixth’ under Major General Robert Walker Grow had expected. Despite their numerical superiority— two days earlier the 6th Armored Division reported a strength of 271 tanks and tank destroyers, while the 12. SS-Panzer Division had no more than a third as many—they had to fall back.88 The order to retreat triggered panic in some quarters in the U.S. ranks. Under these circumstances, they could not hold Mageret either, and the 6th Armored Division fell back to positions on Hill 510, just west of Mageret. Slightly more than a mile farther to the south, the attempts by 6th Armored Division’s Combat Command A to seize Wardin transformed into a hasty retreat down the hill west of the city. Historian John Toland captured the situation when he wrote:
’The early darkness added even more terror to the retreat. The dense woods, the lonely trails, even open fields were fearsome places. Some, particularly the new replacèments who had yet found no comrade to trust, were running back in sheer panic. Others pulled back slowly, making the Germans pay for each yard of advance.
The Germans, tanks and men camouflaged in white, surged forward in triumph. They were hungry, frozen, low on supplies and ammunition but high in morale. […] Reports of[American] men drifting back from the front were alarming. Entire units, claimed many wildeyed refugees, had been cut off and were being wiped out. Back at Division, General Grow had no clear idea of how great his casualties were. But he did know it was the worst day in the history of his 6th Armored Division.’89
The losses sustained by the Americans through the German attacks on 3-4 January 1945 were some of the largest throughout the Ardennes Battle. The 101st Airborne Division and 6th Armored Division alone reported eight hundred and forty-one killed, wounded or missing during these two days. The after action report for the 50th Armored Infantry Battalion of Combat Command B, 6th Armored Division, reads:
Panther tanks and panzer grenadiers in armored troop carriers roll out against the enemy. (BArch, Bild 183-R98065)
’By the night of 4 January, so many officers and NCOs in key positions had been lost that the battalion was completely confused. There was another retreat, to a line which ran from the railway northeast of La Hez to the railroad junction northwest of Bizory. There, a mixed company from the remains of the infantry was set up. All officers of “A” Company had become casualties.’90
Cleo B. Wheeler, who served in the 6th Armored Division’s 603rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, rèmembers how the setbacks affected the American soldiers, ’Snow was falling January 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 at Bizory, Mageret and Oubourcy. Our hands were freezing, our guns were freezing, and our spirits were freezing. Lines extended, three days lost. Tanks, guns, and infantry standing toe-to-toe, fighting for every inch of ground’91
SS panzer grenadiers advance through a burning Belgian village in early January 1945. The new German offensive came as a shock to the Allies and even caused the tough Patton to express doubts in an Allied victory in the war. To Major General Grow, 4 January 1945 was the worst day in the 6th Armored Division’s history. (BArch, Bild 183-J28577/ SS-PK-Kriegsberichter Pospesch)
Instead of leading the American offensive, the 6th Armored Division became just another American division to be overthrown by Model’s panzer forces. Patton wrote in his diary, ’The Germans are colder and hungrier than we are, but they fight better’92
AMERICAN SETBACKS IN THE SOUTHEAST
Patton could not count on any support from the front section southeast of Bastogne, where his 26th and 35th Infantry divisions of the III Corps were held back by the 1. SS-Panzer-Division, the 5. Fallschirmjager-Division, the Führer Grenadier Brigade, and the 9. Volksgrenadier-Division. On New Year’s Eve, Major General Willard Paul’s 26th Infantry Division was pushed back by a counter-attack of Fallschirmjager-Regiment 15 at Berlé, five miles southeast of the 6th Armored Division’s positions at Wardin. When renewed American attacks were repelled on New Year’s Day, the 26th Infantry Division cancelled all efforts to break through towards Wiltz for the moment.
In the meantime, the 35th Infantry Division under Major General Paul W. Baade intensified its efforts to capture the small villages of Lutremange (three miles south-southwest of Wardin) and Villers-la-Bonne-Eau, a bit to the south. These had been lost to the 1. SS-Panzer-Division on 30 December. On New Year’s night, the German positions on this front section were exposed to one of the most powerful artillery barrages throughout the entire Ardennes Battle. U.S. 161st Field Artillery Regiment alone fired 2,226 shells on 31 December, and 2,895 on 1 January, including no less than eight Time on Target volleys where all shells hit the target simultaneously. A large number of air burst shells also were used. ‘Hitler, count your men’ the American soldiers said to each other as they watched how round after round buried the German positions in flames, smoke and huge fountains of spraying mud.93 This went on for days on end. Between 3 and 7 January, the 35th Infantry Division’s artillery, under Brigadier General Theodore L. Futch, fired 41,385 shells against the German positions.94
And yet, it took the Americans almost two weeks to regain the lost territory. The 134th Infantry Regiment’s chronicle noted, ’The Germans were fighting in excellent defensive terrain with good road networks. The entire area was filled with towns and villages and every house was transformed into a miniature fortress. Every hill and every small woods had to be taken separately. The 137th fought for 13 days before it battered down the defenses of Villers-la-Bonne-Eau.’95
On 3 January, the Americans managed to recapture Lutrebois, just north of Villers-la-Bonne-Eau, but an attempt on the next day to encircle the 1. SS-Panzer-Division and Fallschirmjager-Regiment 14 at Lutremange, Villers-la-Bonne-Eau, and the Luxembourgian border community of Harlange a bit further to the southeast, ended in a failure. On the morning of 4 January, the 1st Battalion of U.S. 35th Infantry Division’s 134th Infantry Regiment struck towards the southeast from Marvie, barely two miles northeast of Lutrebois. This advance, which was directed towards the Gros Bois forest in the southeast, collided head on with a simultaneous attempt by 1. SS- Panzer-Division’s Kampfgruppe Pötschke to take back Lutrebois. Although the SS troops failed to attain this objective, their thrust halted their opponent’s advance and cut the American battalion in two, with a significant force—at least ’C’ Company—isolated in the dense Gros Bois forest. The American battalion commander, Colonel Dan E. Craig, immediately issued an order to break out. One of the men in ’C’ Company, Private First Class Nathaniel Schaeffer, recalled:
This picture bears witness to the fierce battle between U.S. 35th Infantry Division and German Fallschirmjager-Regiment 14 for Lutremange, just northeast of Villers-la-Bonne-Eau. In the foreground, a German 88mm anti-aircraft gun, probably turned over by an aviation bomb. Across the road, a destroyed Sherman. Further back a destroyed unidentified vehicle.
’As we got ready to move, I can still rèmember some of the men begging, imploring, and entreating us not to leave them behind. I distinctively recall one man in particular, he had received four wounds, one in a vital part, struggle to his hands and knees and attempt to follow us by creeping along on his fours. What a sight to see him finally collapse, unable to keep up.’96
From the German side, SS-Sturmmann Manfred Thorn, crew member in a Panzer IV tank of the 7. Kompanie/ SS-Panzer-Regiment 1, described that same battle, ‘We surged forward at full speed with our tanks and blazed away at the forest with explosive shells and machine guns. We halted about a hundred yards in front of the woods and continued our fire, which had a terrible impact on Americans. Soon, two American soldiers with their hands above their heads èmerged from among the trees. We held our fire and motioned for them to come. It proved to be a paramedic and a sergeant. The medic told us that two companies from the 134th Regiment of U.S. 35th Infantry Division were in the woods and had been inflicted with very heavy casualties. A while after the medic had returned into the forest, about 150 Americans surrendered.’97
The other men of ’C’ Company retreated through Gros Bois, until they reached the western edge of the forest. Between the cut off Americans and friendly positions in Lutrebois, lay a thousand yard-wide open field which was impossible to cross in daylight. The American regimental commander, Colonel Butler B. Milton Berger, wrote, ’As the afternoon wore on, the men, numbed with cold, stood about talking in low whispers on the possibility of reaching friendly positions. Snow continued to fall intermittently, and the bitter cold penetrated through the heavy clothing. Feet were swelling with “trench foot” Some men nibbled on D rations in an effort to gain some energy. Water in canteens either had been given to the wounded (for taking sulfa tablets), or was frozen, and some of the men were scooping snow from the trees to eat.’98
When darkness fell, they set off. With two men abreast, they formed a human chain in order to maintain contact in the dark night. As quiet as possible they carefully tread out on the field. But after a few minutes, the silence was broken by the clattering sound from German machine guns. The entire column stopped, and a few seconds later, men began to rush back into the woods. It degenerated into a rout, with each man trying to save himself. Company commander Captain William M. Denny, awarded with the Silver Star for valor in combat, was one of the few who did not flee, but instead was captured by the Germans.99
Of ’C’ Company’s one hundred and twenty men, only thirty-seven returned to the American lines during the night of 4 January. A few stragglers followed in the following days. One of them was Sergeant Frank L. Mazzi, who was left alone, injured, behind the German lines. He ran into another lonely American, Second Lieutenant Lawrence Eschelman, and under the cover of darkness they reached the village Villers-la-Bonne-Eau, which was still in German hands. But they managed to avoid being detected and slipped down into the basèment of one of the houses, where they lived on carrots and potatoes for seven days until the village finally was captured by U.S. troops.
The fighting on 4 January 1945 cost U.S. 35th Infantry Division 317 casualties. Thus, since the 1. SS-Panzer-Division launched its attack on 30 December, this division had lost no less than 1,603 troops, of whom 531 had been captured or written off as missing. This represented more than a ten per cent-loss in less than a week. On 5 January the divisional commander Major General Baade requested permission to cancel the attacks.100 His request was granted. But even during the period of positional warfare on 5-7 January, the 35th Infantry Division lost 714 men, of whom 308 were captured or written off as missing.
CRISIS IN THE ALLIED COMMAND
On 5 January, not much of an Allied offensive could be seen in the Ardennes. Both southeast and southwest of Bastogne, as well as along the entire Bastogne front, the Americans had sustained bloody losses and been forced back onto the defensive. And Montgomery’s massive offensive in the west and northwest still was not particularly successful. Certainly, at the tip of the German Bulge’s western tip, British 6th Airborne Division and 29th Armoured Brigade finally late in the evening on 5 January managed to capture the last house ruins in Bure. But by then, the British had been fighting for three full days to take this small village, and it had cost them heavy casualties. The 13th Lancashire Parachute Battalion alone had 189 casualties. And beyond Bure, the Germans continued to offer a frantic resistance.
Further north, the 53rd Welsh Infantry Division and British 33rd Armoured Brigade had taken over the positions previously held by U.S. 84th Infantry Division at Marche west of River Ourthe. These British units opened the attack on 4 January—only to be almost immediately halted by the 116. Panzer Division, which had established positions in the forested hills east of Marche. Only on the previous day, the 116. Panzer-Division had received reinforcèments in the shape of the 7. Kompanie/ Panzer-Regiment 16 with fourteen assault guns. The war diary of II. Abteilung in 116. Panzer-Division’s Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 146 for 5 January, reads:
’Throughout the day the enemy attempted to break our front line, and in the Aux Bruyères sector, he managed to infiltrate the woods with weak forces. But we immediately deployed a battle group with a handful of tanks that hurled the enemy back to his starting positions.’101
In the northeast, U.S. VII Corps and XVIII Airborne Corps remained entangled in bitter fighting with German forces who offered an often absolutely fanatical resistance. It took U.S. 2nd Armored Division three full days to cover the three miles between Manhay and Odeigne in the south. Odeigne, located on the other side of a large, wooded height south of Manhay, was subject to American artillery shelling that began on the night of 2 January and continued for 48 hours. Throughout 5 January, U.S. 2nd Armored Division’s Combat Command B and SS troopers fought for every house, every group of trees, every garden wall in Odeigne. The last of the die-hard SS soldiers held out inside the church tower until all but one had been killed.
By that time, the two armored divisions in the U.S. VII Corps had lost close to eight hundred men since the offensive began three days earlier.102 The task force of Combat Command B, 2nd Armored Division that fought the battle of Odeigne had to be withdrawn from combat and was replaced by the Division’s Combat Command Reserve.103
What attracted the greatest attention on this 5 January, undoubtedly was the fact that the Germans continued to be on the offensive against Bastogne. Early on 5 January, the 12. SS-Panzer-Division and 340. Volksgrenadier-Division continued their advance northeast and east of the town. Following the costly fighting on 4 January, U.S. 6th Armored Division’s Combat Command A left their positions without any fight, according to German reports. As the troops of German 340. Volksgrenadier-Division took over the area, they encountered large quantities of abandoned weapons and equipment that suggested a hasty retreat.104 Mageret now was entirely in German hands. For a few hours they also held Hill 510 just west of the village, but a terrible artillery barrier from inside Bastogne made it necessary to leave this position. The Germans counted in four hundred American prisoners.105
The German offensive proceeded unabaited on the next day, 6 January. SS-Unterscharführer Alfred Schulz of SS-Panzerjäger-Abteilung 12 wrote, ’After several nocturnal battles we had cleared, together with our infantry, the wooden terrain up to Bastogne. The panzers of Obersturmführer [Georg] Hurdelbrink (commander of the 1. Kompanie), Untersturmfuhrer [Günther] Rehn (2. Kompanie) and Unterscharführer Schulz (2. Kompanie) had advanced the farthest. In the morning of 6 January, we were firing on enemy targets immediately north of Bastogne.’106
The 6th Armored Division’s chronicle dryly remarks that ’the Germans held the upper hand for five days, directing tank-infantry teams against the entire front.’107 Concerning Bastogne, the 68th Tank Battalion’s chronicle noted, ’The whole city resembled a slaughterhouse. It will probably never be known how desperate our situation was.’108
These new German successes were added to the effects of both Operation ’Bodenplatte’ and Operation ’Nordwind’—the German New Year’s offensive in Alsace— and of course also the Allied shortcomings. All in all this contributed to a worry in the Allied staffs that grew into pure panic. Even the tough Lieutenant General Patton confided the nervousness he felt in his diary on 4 January, ’We can still lose this war.’109
Patton obviously was in no better mood the next day, when he wrote a letter to his wife Beatrice: ’Those Germans are vicious fighters … Sometimes even I get skeptical about the end of this show.’110
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Alan Brooke, were just as alarmed as they visited the front area in the Ardennes during those days. When Churchill visited the SHAEF headquarters, Eisenhower emphasized how anxious he was to get help from the Soviets ’to take the pressure from the Ardennes battle.’111 This prompted Churchill to send a wire on 6 January to the Soviet dictator Stalin with a plea for help from the Red Army:
A German soldier with a panzerfaust. (BArch, Bild 101I-709-0337A-10A/Gerhard Gronefeld)
The battle in the West is very heavy … You know yourself from your own experience how very anxious the position is when a very broad front has to be defended after the temporary loss of the initiative … I shall be grateful if you can tell me whether we can count on a major Russian offensive on the Vistula front, or elsewhere, during January.112
That same day, Churchill—code-named ’Colonel Warden’— despatched a similar telegram to U.S. President Roosevelt— code name ’Admiral Q’: ’There is this brute fact: we need more fighting troops to make things move.’ But from where were these new troops to be taken within a reasonable time?
The only man who could rèmedy the situation in a decisive manner was Joseph Stalin, who already on 7 January delivered an answer that gave Churchill hope. The Soviet major offensive on the Eastern Front actually was scheduled for 20 January, but now Stalin promised to assist his allies by launching the attack earlier:
Taking into account the position of our Allies on the Western Front, the GHQ of the Suprème Council has decided to accelerate the completion of our preparation, and, regardless of weather, to commence the large-scale offensive operation against the Germans along the whole Central Front not later than the second half of January.113
Churchill hurriedly informed Eisenhower about this good news and then dictated a reply to Stalin, ’I am most grateful to you for your thrilling message. I have sent it over to General Eisenhower for his eyes only. May all good fortune rest upon your noble venture.’114
In the midst of this critical situation, what has passed into history as the Allied ’Battle of the Generals’ reached a new climax. It began with the British newspaper Daily Mail’s first page headline on 6 January: ’MONTGOMERY: Full Story of Breach Battle, British Halted Drive to the Meuse Line.’ The article read, ’The knowledge that Field Marshal Montgomery is now in full control there will be received with relief in this country.’
Next day Montgomery held a press conference at his headquarters in Belgian Zonhoven. Dressed in civilian beige corduroy pants, a blue-gray shirt, the paratroopers’ coat with a colonel’s insignia, and a red paratrooper beret jauntily askew on his head, the colorful field marshal received more than one hundred Allied reporters in a small brick building.
’Monty is still the showman,’ commented a British reporter for United Press. ’This dress may look rather curious,’ Montgomery said with a smile, and then he started to speak about the Ardennes Battle.
’As you know,’ he began, ’von Rundstedt attacked on 16 December and drove a deep wedge into the center of the First US Army. He split the American forces in two, and for a time the situation looked as if it might become awkward.’
’At that time,’ Montgomery continued, ’when I saw what was happening, having no jurisdiction down that was myself, I took certain measures to ensure that if the Germans did get to the Meuse, they would not get over it. I set in motion certain movèments that would ensure balance and poise to meet a situation that might become threatening. Those were purely precautions. I was thinking ahead up here in the north and taking certain measures.’
Having related how Eisenhower assigned him with the command of all Allied troops north of the German Bulge, he said that ’my view is that the really big thing in war is morale.’ He developed a bit on this, and then continued with what many of those present apprehended as a broadside against the U.S. Army, ’Applying that idea to this battle, you will find that having had this hard blow put in and the American Army being parted, it was clear that the battle area must be untidy. Therefore, the first thing I did when I was brought into this business by General Eisenhower was to busy myself getting the battle area tidy.’
With mounting indignance, the American reporters heard the British field marshal tell them that ’I got it sorted out, got reserves in the right places, and got balance. I regrouped the American and British areas and regrouped the whole show.’
Next, Montgomery spoke about American VII Corps, the main force of the Allied counter-offensive in the north, ’That US VII Corps has been formed by me for offensive action, but it took a knock. I said: “Dear me, this can’t go on. It’s being swallowed up in battle” I set to work and managed to form the corps again. Once more pressure was such that it began to disappear in a defensive battle. I said, “Come, come” and formed again…’
Indeed, Montgomery also praised the American soldiers by saying, ’I have spent my military life with the British soldier, and I love him and I think he is first class. I have now formed a great deal of affection and admiration for the American soldier, and would say that he is a very brave soldier…’ But that would not help. Most of the American reporters reacted strongly at what they perceived as a condescending tone towards the Americans in Montgomery’s speech. Montgomery finished with a few words about his immediate superior, General Eisenhower:
’We are the greatest friends. It grieves me to see uncomplimentary articles about him in the British press. He bears a great burden. He needs our full support and has the right to expect it. Let us all rally around the captain of the team and so help to win the match. Nobody objects to healthy criticism, but I appeal for an end to the destructive criticism which is impairing Allied solidarity, breaking up the team and helping the enemy.’
The American reporters were absolutely furious. As they saw it, the British field marshal tried to take credit for all American achievèments. Hugh Shuck at U.S. Daily News sent an agitated telegram to his editorial, ’To borrow expression of American General Tony McAuliffe, ”Nuts to you, Monty”’115
But that evening British Daily Mail published a commentary on Montgomery’s press conference. The front page headline read, ’Montgomery Foresaw Attack: Acted ’’On Own” to Save Day.’ The article, which appeared as the newspaper’s editorial, claimed that the Germans had been halted in front of the Meuse in December because Montgomery, on his own initiative, had taken command of the Allied armies along the northern part of the German Bulge before this had been accepted by the superior command, and it continued:
’Apparently the situation was so desperate that Field Marshal Montgomery, using his own initiative, threw in all his weight and authority and asserted his leadership which those round him accepted.’
On its part, British BBC announced, apropos Montgomery, ’It is the most brilliant and difficult task he has yet managed. He found no defense lines, the Americans somewhat bewildered, few reserves on hand and supply lines cut.’ 116
After the war, Montgomery wrote in his memoirs that ’it probably [was] a mistake to have held this conference at all,’ since ’so great was the feeling against me on part of the American generals, that whatever I said was bound to be wrong. I should therefore have said nothing.’117 Montgomery also pointed out in his memoirs what he might have said, but saved the audience from hearing. ’What I did not say was that, in the Battle of the Ardennes, the Allies got a real ”bloody nose,” the Americans had nearly 80,000 casualties, and that it would never had happened if we had fought the campaign properly after the great victory in Normandy, or had even ensured tactical balance in the dispositions of the land forces as the winter campaign developed.’118
To top it all, a German radio station in Arnhem transmitted a distorted, completely anti-American version of the BBC broadcast, pretending to be the genuine BBC broadcast. This fake version was heard in Lieutenant General Bradley’s headquarters, which allowed itself to be taken in by the fraud. This resulted in a veritable explosion of indignation. Bradley hastily convened a press conference in Luxembourg in order to explain why Eisenhower had transferred U.S. First Army and half the Ardennes sector to Montgomery. But British Daily Mail struck back with an editorial on 11 January, calling Bradley’s press conference ’a Slur on Monty.’
THE ALLIED STRATEGIC AVIATION INTERVENES
However, while Patton was concerned that the war could be lost, while Churchill appealed to Stalin for help from the East, and while the British and Americans were arguing about who conducted the war in the best way, the power of the German offensive subsided. In the absence of the tactical 9th Air Force, the strategic U.S. 8th Air Force, operating from bases in Britain, stepped in. Certainly, it had even earlier attacked various communication targets in western Germany—railway stations, marshalling yards, road junctions, and bridges—in addition to its ongoing strategic air offensive against German plants for the production of synthetic fuels, but after 1 January 1945 the 8th Air Force was entirely directed against communication targets in western Germany. On New Year’s Day, 850 heavy bombers of the 8th Air Force had attacked various German oil targets. But the next day it was different: The 8th Air Force despatched over a thousand heavy bombers with five hundred escort fighters against lines of communication and tactical objectives in western Germany. On 3 January, 1,168 heavy bombers and 589 fighters were deployed against various communication lines in western Germany, including railway bridges across the Rhine.
On 4 January 1945 the entry in the war diary of the German Armed Forces High Command read:
Our own units muster sufficient strengths in troops, artillery and armor, but these resources can not be utilized due to a lack of ammunition and fuel, which is the result of Allied air attacks on the railway network in the rear area. Since the enemy also directs his air attacks against the road network, this effect is amplified. An order has now been issued to withdraw the Flak from the battlefield, so that this may be used to protect roads and depots.119
The next day the 8th Air Force despatched over a thousand heavy bombers, escorted by almost 600 fighters, against different communication targets in western Germany. The supply situation at the German Ardennes Front deteriorated. On this 5 January, the war diary of II. Abteilung/ Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 146 of the 116. Panzer-Division recorded, ’During the day the battalion engages the enemy’s movèments with only short salvoes, as we now are very short on ammunition . .,’120
When the Allied tactical aviation was unable to support the ground troops, the strategic aviation took over. On 2 January 1945, U.S. 8th Air Force despatched 1,011 heavy bombers escorted by 500 fighters against lines of communication and tactical objectives in western Germany. Most of the 8th Air Force’s heavy bombers were Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, as seen in this picture. 715 of the bombers participating in the operation on 2 January 1945 were of this type. (US Air Force)
In this situation, the German High Command decided to return the 9. SS-Panzer-Division from the sector north of Bastogne to the II. SS-Panzerkorps’ front section farther to the northwest, in order to bolster the defense against U.S. VII Corps. However, the 9. SS-Panzer-Division’s supply situation was not much better. On 5 January, the commander of this division’s I. Bataillon/SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 20, SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Karl Appel, wrote in a letter to Otto Skorzeny, ’Very serious shortages of supplies, particularly clothing and boots.’121
But things would get even worse. During the night of 5 January, the 9. SS-Panzer-Division had assembled in the town of Houffalize, when suddenly the sky lit up by flares. A few minutes later an RAF bomber formation appeared at an altitude of 6,000 feet—nine twin-engine Mosquitoes and 131 four-engine Avro Lancasters. Each of the latter had the capacity to carry a bomb load of 14,000 lb. The attack took place between 0300 and 0330 hrs. Virtually all of Houffalize was destroyed and 189 civilians were killed. The 9. SS-Panzer-Division was hit just as hard. One of the soldiers in this division, SS-Unterscharführer Heinz Pech, described the effect of the bombing:
’The town, crowded with personnel and vehicles, suffered heavy damage. All the vehicles were damaged beyond immediate repair, and the bulk of mobile equipment of the 2. Bataillon of 19. SS-Grenadier-Regiment was destroyed. Many vehicles were buried under collapsed houses. I saw two anti-tank guns destroyed, and heard that more had been eliminated. Casualties among military personnel appear to have run as high as 50%. Traffic was delayed for about 10 hours.’122
Meanwhile, Model began to pull back even the 12. SS-Panzer-Division from the front and to the I. SS-Panzerkorps reserve, so that it would be prepared to meet the U.S. counter-offensive. Starting on 7 January, Oberst Tolsdorff’s 340. Volksgrenadier-Division gradually took over the 12. SS-Panzer-Division’s positions northeast of Bastogne, while the 26. Volksgrenadier-Division under Heinz Kokott (who on New Year’s Day was promoted to Generalmajor) regained their old positions left by the 9. SS-Panzer-Division north of the disputed town.
WAR OF ATTRITION WEST OF BASTOGNE
However, the fact that the German lines at Bastogne grew increasingly thinner, did not immediately lead to any major American successes. Far out on the German Bulge’s southwestern tip, around the small town of Saint-Hubert, nearly twenty miles west of Bastogne, Panzer Lehr Division’s Kampfgruppe 902 under Oberstleutnant Joachim Ritter von Poschinger held an eight-mile-wide wedge that separated British XXX Corps in the north from U.S. 87th Infantry Division in the south. Generalleutnant Bayerlein, commanding the Panzer Lehr Division, wrote:
’The Saint-Hubert sector was attacked unceasingly from 28 December on. But the positions were held by very weak defensive forces in fairly heavy battles […] All enemy attacks were repelled, and a great number of enemy tanks were destroyed. In particular all enemy attempts by an enveloping attack to break through the woods both sides of Hatrival and west of Vesqueville [a mile southwest of and a mile southeast of Saint-Hubert respectively] towards Saint-Hubert, failed.’123
Supported by Panzer IV tanks, these German panzer grenadiers have taken up positions on a snow-covered field. (BArch, Bild 101I-277-0844-15/Jacob)
As we saw earlier (page 352), in early January the 87th Infantry Division renewed its attempts to break through at the crossroads at Pironpré, four miles southeast of Saint-Hubert, where a small German force of thirty men and six tanks from Panzer Lehr had taken up positions behind minefields in the hilly, forested terrain. As this attack also was repulsed with bloody losses, the American divisional commander, Brigadier General Frank L. Culin, Jr., decided to attempt another attack two miles farther to the east, at Tillet. This section was defended by the II. Bataillon/ Panzergrenadier-Regiment FBB of Oberst Rèmer’s Führer Begleit Brigade. To give extra impetus to Culin’s attack, his division was supported by the 3rd French paratrooper regiment (3ème Regiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes) and the 761st Tank Battalion. The former, part of the British special forces, the SAS (Special Air Service), had distinguished itself during the fighting in Brittany in June 1944 (then designated the 4th Airborne Battalion, 4e Bataillon d’ Infanterie de l’ Air de l’Armee de l’ Air). The 761st Tank Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Hollis E. Hunt, was the first African-American armored unit, and it carried the proud name of the ’Black Panthers.’
The 87th Infantry Division attacked on 6 January, with the 346th Infantry Regiment in cooperation with the 761st Tank Battalion and the French paratroopers. Although the Führer Begleit Brigade’s battalion was numerically inferior, it was supported by flanking units from Kampfgruppe 902, as Generalleutnant Bayerlein pointed out, ’Anti-tank units which were placed well to the edge of the woods northwest of Tillet were able to interfere very effectively and successfully in the battle of the neighbor (Brigade Rèmer) near Gerimont and Tillet and they succeeded in putting out of action a number of enemy tanks and of inflicting losses on the attacking Infantry.’124 Oberst Rèmer reported on the combat on 6 January, ’During the day, repeated attacks were made against the section held by the II. battalion [of the panzer grenadier regiment] at Tillet. We managed to hold our positions, but at the price of very hard fighting.’125
Thus opened a battle which would rage for several days over Tillet—a small village located in a valley, surrounded by pine-clad heights. Beneath these hills there were open, snow-covered slopes, on which the Americans tried to advance—straight into the German fire. Many years later, one of the tank soldiers of the 761st Tank Battalion ’Black Panthers,’ Eddie MacDonald, said, ’I shall never forget Tillet. It took us one week to drive the Germans out of that town. They were really dug in. After an hour of fighting we knew we were fighting SS troops [a misconception which probably derived from the designation of the unit, the Führer Begleit Brigade].’126 On his part, Oberst Otto Rèmer characterized the U.S. troops at Tillet as the best he had ever encountered, ’excellent fighters’ who frequently ’came behind our lines where they stabbed many of our guards with their knives.’127 According to Rèmer, these were the only American soldiers ’for which we had respect, even during night fighting.’128
Meanwhile Patton exerted a mounting pressure on Major General Miley, the commander of the 17th Airborne Division—which had been overthrown by the Führer Begleit Brigade on 4-5 January—to resume the attack a bit farther to the east. According to Patton, virtually no German forces remained in front of the 17th Airborne Division. After the war, Miley told U.S. military historian Edward G. Miller, ’[Third Army] was still insisting there was nothing in front of us. Our patrols indicated that they were still out there. We couldn’t tell how many. But the Army said they were all pulling away from our front. And so we pushed.’129
On the evening of 6 January, the 17th Airborne Division received the orders to attack at nine o’clock the next morning. When the commander of ’I’ Company, 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Lieutenant Eugene Crowley, oriented his men, one of them raised his voice against ’the very idea of going in broad daylight over snow-covered, open terrain, completely dominated by an enemy-held ridge, when at least a good part of the attack route could be crossed in darkness.’ All that Crowley could say was, ’Orders are orders!’130
Patton’s assertion that there only were weakly manned German positions was not completely taken out of the air. At that stage, the Führer Begleit Brigade was in a miserable state after nearly three weeks of incessant fighting. Indeed, the III. Bataillon of the Brigade’s panzer grenadier regiment had managed to repel the 11th Armored Division on 30-31 December, but at the cost of a heavy draining of its own strength. Oberst Rèmer had no choice but to pull back this battalion from the front. In addition, one third of the panzer grenadier regiment’s two other battalions were withdrawn to form an operational reserve. Thus, the Brigade’s six-mile front—between Tillet in the west and the section west of Mande Saint-Etienne in the east—was held by utterly weak forces. The II. Bataillon/ Panzergrenadier-Regiment FBB, facing the 87th Infantry Division at Tillet, was the Brigade’s strongest battalion. On its left (eastern) flank, the I. Bataillon/ Panzergrenadier-Regiment FBB had no more than one hundred and fifty men in the first line against the entire U.S. 17th Airborne Division. Indeed, this battalion was supported by the Brigade’s panzer regiment, with some thirty serviceable tanks, but the commitment of these was strongly hampered by the increasing fuel shortage.131
In accordance with the orders, the 17th Airborne Division launched its assault at 0900 on 7 January. The paratroopers came out of the dark woods Bois de Valets and Bois de Fragotte south of Flamizoulle and Mande Saint-Etienne, with the 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment on the right flank, the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment in the center, and the 194th Glider Infantry Regiment to the left. Under the cover of fog and snowfall, and with artillery shells crashing down on the enemy positions in the north, the men of the 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment and the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment managed to cross the main road N 4—linking Bastogne with Marche—and started to plod through the snow towards the two villages Flamizoulle and Flamierge up to left on the other side of the road.
A group of German soldiers who had taken up positions in a forest south of Flamizoulle (a mile northwest of Mande Saint-Etienne) succeeded in halting the 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment, despite the heavy American artillery support. But in the open fields to the west of the grove, the American shelling made it impossible for other German units to hold their positions. Under the cover of a relentless artillery fire, hundreds of green-clad soldiers from the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment surged ahead across the fields, which by then had been completely plowed up by artillery shells. Gasping with exhaustion and more or less blinded by the snowfall, they ran head on towards their goal, Flamierge—the small village located on top of the ’Dead Man’s Ridge,’ a couple of hundred yards north of the N 4 and a thousand yards west of Flamizoulle. The 1st and 2nd battalions attacked straight from the south, while the 3rd Battalion under Major Morris Anderson, supported by five Sherman tanks, made a flanking movèment from the east. But there the Germans had grouped the three tank destroyers on a small hill. In the snowy mist the Americans failed to observe this threat until it was too late. One after another, four tanks were knocked out, and the fifth stopped.132
Next the German tank destroyers directed their fire against the troops of the 3rd Battalion, who were totally unprotected out in the fields. The shells exploded amidst the paratroopers and bloody body parts flew in all directions. The American advance instantly transformed into a rout back to the jump-off positions. Within short, of the 3rd Battalion’s one hundred and sixty-one men, less than one hundred remained.133
But as the jittery survivors lay flat on the ground, desperately seeking cover, the German fire suddenly stopped. A thousand yards to the right lay the men of the 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment, and to the left, a violent gunfire was heard from Flamierge, where the 1st and 2nd battalions were fighting with the Germans in the southern outskirts of the village. But in front of the men of Major Anderson’s 3rd Battalion, all resistance seèmed to have vanished. It turned out that the German tank destroyers had pulled back— probably because they had run out of ammunition. Major Anderson’s remaining men stood up and continued their rush across the field. This time everything went well, and when the Americans—apparently without being detected by the opponent—penetrated Flamierge from the east, the German resistance collapsed.
Generalmajor Denkert, the commander of the 3. Panzergrenadier-Division, immediately organized a counter-attack, for which he was reinforced by armor from the 9. Panzer-Division.134 But when the Germans attacked on the afternoon of 7 January, the Americans were prepared. A raging fire tore huge gaps among the supporting German infantry and hit several of the armored vehicles. The Germans were forced into a hasty retreat. ’Flamierge was defended tenaciously,’ Denkert wrote. ’We gained the impression that the enemy troops which were fighting there had been especially trained for combat in towns. As far as I can rèmember, prisoners brought in to Tronle belonged to an air landing division and I was very favorably impressed by their appearance.’135
Meanwhile U.S. 194th Glider Infantry Regiment attacked on the other side of Highway N 4—slightly farther to the south—and took Millomont, no more than a handful of houses a mile and a half southwest of Flamierge. From there the Americans continued towards the adjacent village of Renuâmont, on the other side of a two to three hundred yard-wide field. Oberst Rèmer describes the battle from the German perspective, ’In Renuâmont, into which the enemy thrust immediately thereafter, a weak company of about 20 men was assembled to hold on to two farms. Although surrounded and repeatedly attacked, it was still fighting stubbornly and bravely at 0300.’136
Less than three miles farther to the west, the battle of Tillet raged on between the II. Bataillon/ Panzergrenadier-Regiment FBB and U.S. 87th Infantry Division’s 346th Infantry Regiment, supported by the 761st Tank Battalion and the French paratroopers. It was an absolutely furious battle in which both sides fought with the same obstinacy. One of the soldiers of ’I’ Company, 346th Infantry, Staff Sergeant Curtis F. Shoup, distinguished himself during the fighting on this 7 January in such a way that he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor—bestowed upon just 464 men during World War II. The justification for the award reads:
An M10 tank destroyer opens fire on German positions during a night battle in the Ardennes in January 1945.
(The Paul Warp Collection)
Near Tillet, Belgium, his company attacked German troops on rising ground. Intense hostile machine gun fire pinned down and threatened to annihilate the American unit in an exposed position where frozen ground made it impossible to dig in for protection. Heavy mortar and artillery fire from enemy batteries was added to the storm of destruction falling on the Americans. Realizing that the machinegun must be silenced at all costs, Staff Sergeant Shoup, armed with an automatic rifle, crawled to within 75 yards of the enemy emplacèment. He found that his fire was ineffective from this position, and completely disregarding his own safety, stood up and grimly strode ahead into the murderous stream of bullets, firing his low-held weapon as he went. He was hit several times and finally was knocked to the ground. But he struggled to his feet and staggered forward until close enough to hurl a grenade, wiping out the enemy machinegun nest with his dying action. By his heroism, fearless determination, and suprème sacrifice, Staff Sergeant Shoup eliminated a hostile weapon which threatened to destroy his company and turned a desperate situation into victory.137
But when the day was over, Oberst Rèmer could report that all attacks against Tillet had been repulsed again.138
With the situation in this area thus reasonably under control, the I. Bataillon/ Panzergrenadier-Regiment FBB and the Führer Begleit Brigade’s panzer regiment were assembled for a counter-attack against the 17th Airborne Division on the evening of 7 January. The Germans attacked at nine thirty, in total darkness. The first objective was Flamierge, which was assaulted from two sides. American 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment’s 2nd Battalion was overpowered and fell back south, with the result that even the men of the 1st Battalion left their positions. The two American battalions retreated south across Highway N 4 and halted only in the forest Bois de Valets, where they manned their old positions. The 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment, on the American airborne division’s eastern flank, also was forced back. Thus, Major Anderson’s 3rd Battalion, 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment, found itself cut off in Flamierge.
Meanwhile, a hastily assembled German combat group consisting of only twenty-five men from the I. Bataillon/ Panzergrenadier-Regiment FBB managed to force the 194th Glider Infantry Regiment to abandon the positions south of the N 4 that recently had been conquered by this American regiment. While a few Germans occupied positions in the southern outskirts of Renuâmont, blocking the American possibilities to bring forward reinforcèments, the rest of the combat group managed to enter the village without being detected in the darkness. At a given signal, the Germans opened fire on the Americans, who were completely taken by surprise. The fighting raged from house to house, and the Germans seèmed to be everywhere. The Americans never realized how small the attack force was, as they constantly found themselves being fired at from several directions—from the south, where the exit was blocked, from the north, where the German combat group attacked, and also from the two farms where twenty encircled German troops held out since earlier that day. ’Despite the fact that the unshaken young company commander lost his right hand in close combat at the beginning,’ wrote Oberst Rèmer, ’he led this undertaking to a full success and did not take leave from the Brigade until the following morning.’139 The combat was over in a short time and one hundred and fifty soldiers of the 194th Glider Infantry Regiment were led away into captivity. Oberst Rèmer continues, ’Apparently, this nocturnal attack must have caused a very great panic, because we were able to occupy Hubermont and Millomont again almost without a fight.’140
This allowed the I. Bataillon/ Panzergrenadier-Regiment FBB to push forward one mile to Laval, thereby re-establishing the previously lost connection with the II. Bataillon at Tillet, a bit farther to the west.
The Führer Begleit Brigade’s situation was decidedly better the next day, 8 January, than it had been early on the 7th. With U.S. 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment split in two—two battalions had been driven back to the Bois de Valets south of Highway N 4 and one battalion was hemmed in at Flamierge—and the 194th Glider Infantry Regiment repulsed, the threat from the 17th Airborne Division was at least temporarily neutralized. Throughout 8 January the Germans noticed nothing but small reconnaissance operations by the American airborne division. Rèmer now was able to concentrate his forces on a counter-attack against his strongest opponent, the 87th Infantry Division ’Golden Acorn,’ and its subordinate units at Tillet. Supported by a heavy anti-aircraft battery, the II. Bataillon/ Panzergrenadier-Regiment FBB was able to drive back the 87th Infantry Division a mile and a half, past the positions the division had held before it launched its attack.
While this took place, German 3. Panzergrenadier-Division launched a new counter-attack against the Americans in Flamierge. But at this place, Major Anderson’s 3rd Battalion, 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment held its positions all day, defying a local German numerical superiority. The Americans evacuated the village only on the night of 8 January, and under the cover of darkness they succeeded in filtering through the sparsely manned German lines and were able to reach the rest of the regiment in the Bois de Valets forest. In this, they were aided by the extrèmely cold night—a temperature of 6 degrees was measured—which limited the German soldiers’ desire to move across the open fields more than they had been ordered to.
When the 3rd Battalion, 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment returned to Bois de Valets, no more than 81 officers and 1,036 soldiers remained of this regiment—out of an original strength of 144 officers and 2,290 soldiers six days earlier.141
A knocked out Sherman of the 761st Tank Battalion ‘Black Panthers’ is salvaged near Tillet in January 1945.
(NARA, SC 199013)
MONTGOMERY’S OFFENSIVE RUNS INTO DIFFICULTIES
While the Germans were on the offensive at several places at Bastogne, Montgomery’s counter-offensive stalled almost along the entire front. On 7 January, German 2. Panzer-Division, at the tip of the German western flank, mounted a surprising counter-attack which rapidly drove British 6 th Airborne Division and the 29th Armoured Brigade away from Bure—the village that had cost the British so much blood to conquer just two days earlier. A war correspondent of Australian Associated Press reported, ’Crews of German Panther tanks who had their armor destroyed fought as infantry to recapture Bure. They are fighting like tigers in the Bure-Jèmelle area, evidently in an effort to stabilise the tip of the salient.’142
Ten miles farther to the northeast, the 53rd Welsh Infantry Division and British 33rd Armoured Brigade were locked into bitter fighting with German 116. Panzer-Division, which was entrenched in the wooded hills around Grimbiémont, three miles southeast of Marche. These German positions could be captured only on 7 January, by which time the 53rd Welsh was completely worn down. Having sustained 627 casualties, the divsion was pulled out of combat and handed over its heavy equipment to the 51st Highland Division, which arrived in its place. This resulted in a break in the British advance. The 116. Panzer-Division reported a relative calm at the front throughout 8 January.143
Sherman tanks of the 3rd Armored Division open fire on German positions during Montgomery’s offensive in January 1945. (NARA, 111-SC-198597)
On the other (eastern) side of River Ourthe, U.S. 2nd Armored and 84th Infantry divisions—the two divisions on the right flank of ’Lightning Joe’ Collins’ U.S. VII Corps—advanced southwards, towards La Roche. If they managed to take this strategically important town, with its bridge over the Ourthe, the German force in the Grimbiémont section—six miles west of the river—would be enveloped. However, a small composite force from the 116. Panzer-Division (which on 8 January again was placed under the command of II. SS-Panzerkorps) and the 2. SS-Panzer-Division ’Das Reich’ managed to hold its own against the American attack.144 German tanks and antiaircraft guns deployed on the heights outside of Samrée, two miles northeast of La Roche, held back the Americans for four whole days. Sergeant Theodore Draper from U.S. 84th Infantry Division participated in this battle. He said, ’Samrée was seemingly impregnable. It was perched on an 1,800 foot hill. First we had to take two other hills, northeast and northwest of it. Our troops had to move through 1,500 yards of rolling ground in knee-deep snow. The enemy had perfect observation of every inch of the way. To tell the truth, it was hard to see how we could make it.’145
Meanwhile, three miles northeast of Samrée, U.S. 3rd Armored Division and 83rd Infantry Division were tied down in a fierce battle over the crossroads Baraque de Fraiture following the capture of Malempré on 3 January. According to the combat report of 2. SS-Panzer-Division’s SS-Panzer-Aufklarungs-Abteilung 2, which held defensive positions in this section, soldiers from the 3. Kompanie of SS-Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon 2 destroyed a number of U.S. tanks in close combat inside the village.146 Only on 7 January, when a local weather improvèment allowed the American aviation to interfere, could the SS unit be driven off from the crossroads. But immediately south of the road junction, the Americans were halted again. By that time, SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 3 ’Deutschland’ had arrived to reinforce the positions held by the small SS armored reconnaissance battalion.147
An American attempt to break through on 8 January cost the 3rd Armored Division’s 33rd Armored Regiment a loss of 15 Sherman tanks.148 For four days, SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Ernst Krag’s SS-Panzer-Aufklarungs-Abteilung 2 and SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 3 held the Americans outside of Tailles, just south of Baraque de Fraiture.
Farther to the northeast, Major General Ridgway’s U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps continued to exert a pressure on German 62. Volksgrenadier-Division between the Salm river to the east and the Lienne creek to the west. Ridgway’s first goal when he launched his attack on 3 January, was Vielsalm, a town that had 4,000 inhabitants before the war and which was a major communications hub and crossing over the Salm. When the XVIII Airborne Corps opened its offensive, the distance to Vielsalm was no more than four miles, but on the offensive’s third day, the 82nd Airborne Division had only reached Arbrefontaine, two miles from the U.S. jump-off positions. On this section, Grenadier-Regiment 164 from German 62. Volksgrenadier-Division fought a quite successful delaying action against the U.S. advance. This regiment was led by one of the most prominent German unit commanders of the Ardennes Battle, Oberst Arthur Jüttner. He had been in almost continuous first-line service since the campaign in Poland in 1939. Jüttner had extensive experience fighting on the Eastern Front, where he had fought battles such as those at Demyansk in 1942 and Kursk in 1943, and had been awarded with the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves. Before the war ended, he would also receive the Swords to the Oak Leaves, as one of only one hundred and fifty-nine Germans during World War II.
On 6 January, Jüttner’s men repulsed an American attempt to break through, and inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers. Leutnant Haase’s StuG III was reported to have knocked out three American tanks.
The 62. Volksgrenadier-Division also mustered a couple of the gigantic Königstiger tanks that had been left behind by schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 501 in this area, and on this 6 January one of these steel colossuses destroyed five Shermans. John Brush, a U.S. Army engineer, wrote:
‘6 January 1945 […] As we rounded the curve, we passed five knocked-out American Sherman tanks dispatched by a German Tiger Royal tank parked at the next bend. It probably sat there and let all five of the American tanks get around the corner before shooting the last one to block the road and then picking off the others one by one. All had neat holes through their armor from the Tiger’s 88mm cannon. The Tiger’s front armor was scarred by armor-piercing shells, one of them even embedded in the armor about five inches deep. The Tiger Royal had been destroyed by a direct hit on the side by a bomb. The turret was blown off, and the frontal armor was split open, which enabled us to see that the tank’s armor was nearly twelve inches thick.’149
On 7 January, the American divisional commander, Major General James Gavin, despatched all the Parachute Infantry regiments of the 82nd Airborne Division, supported by the 628th Tank Destroyer Battalion. They managed to break through, but before the Americans could attack Vielsalm it was necessary to secure Tier du Mont, the two-mile-long wooded ridge just southwest of the town. On the way to Tier du Mont the Americans had to take Goronne, a small village two to three miles west of Vielsalm.
Here, two of the best unit commanders of the Ardennes Battle clashed. Against Oberst Jüttner and his Grenadier-Regiment 164, entrusted with the defense of Goronne and Tier du Mont, stood Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort Hayes, the C.O. of the 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. ‘Vandy’ Vandervoort was a legendary American paratrooper. He had excelled in Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy and during operation ‘Market Garden.’ Ridgway characterized him as ‘one of the bravest and toughest battle commanders I ever knew.’
The whole 82nd Airborne Division advanced along the only navigable route from Arbrefontaine against Goronne, ‘creating a traffic congestion known only on Times Square on Saturday night,’ as Major William Carpenter, one of the officers in Vandervoort’s battalion, put it.150But right there, Oberst Jüttner had a surprise in store for his opponent. At the edge of the forest north of the road he had positioned a lonely Königstiger, and this rapidly knocked out two Shermans and two tank destroyers.151 ’Everyone now stalled due to the Tiger Royal standing in the way,’ rèmembers Major Carpenter. It was only when a tank destroyer managed to get around the German tank and score two hits in the lesser armored rear end on this, that the Königstiger could be neutralized.’152 But the Königstiger had not only delayed the Americans—among the men wounded by the German steel colossus was Lieutenant Colonel Vandervoort. He was rushed to the rear lines with severe injuries.
One of the men of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Private Allen Langdon, said that the loss of Vandervoort ’stunned the battalion, which had come to believe that its long-time commander was invincible.’153 Vandervoort’s injuries were so severe that he was forced to give up his military career. Thus the U.S. Army lost, according to U.S. Army historian SLA Marshall, ’a file that was destined for higher commands.’154
Meanwhile, the Germans folded in the face of the superior force and retreated to Tier du Mont. The 504th and 508th Parachute Infantry regiments marched on towards the ridge. Among the trees on the crest, Grenadier-Regiment 164 aimed the barrels of eight 88mm guns towards the thousand-yard-wide open terrain below, as this was filled with American paratroopers slowly plodding through the deep snow. Oberst Jüttner held the fire until the paratroopers were halfway out on the field. Then the Germans opened fire with a devastating effect. The snow was stained red with blood, but the surviving Americans continued forward, yelling the paratroopers’ battle cry, ’Geronimo!’ When the paratroopers then fought their way up the slippery slope, German soldiers opened up on the vulnerable men with their fire arms.
Afterwards Major General Gavin described the assault of Tier du Mont as ‘the finest job I’ve ever had done for me.’ The Americans managed to capture Tier du Mont, but afterwards the participating units were too badly mauled to be launched against Vielsalm. What remained of German Grenadier-Regiment 164 pulled back from Goronne and Tier du Mont and retreated to Vielsalm, where they set up defensive positions on the eastern side of the Salm river. Here they held the Americans at bay for more than a week. Three days later, the Americans were compelled to withdraw the battered 82nd Airborne Division from first-line service. By then it had sustained more than one thousand casualties in just a few days of offensive. One of its regiments, the 508th Parachute Infantry, had lost 887 men since it had been deployed against the German Ardennes Offensive barely three weeks earlier.155 The 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment also had been dealt severe losses, although not as heavy as those of the 508th—433 men.156 One of the soldiers of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Staff Sergeant Wheatley Christiansen, rèmembers that when his ’G’ Company was withdrawn from the front, ’we were down to less than fifty percent strength. In the past, we had lost more men killed, but no other place took quite a toll as the Ardennes.’ In the 82nd Airborne Division’s chronicle, Guy Lofaro wrote, ’Most telling was the loss of so many veterans, men whose battlefield experience had proved invaluable in the past.’157
While the three paratrooper regiments of the 82nd Airborne Division were subjected to this bloodletting on 7 January, other elèments of German 62. Volksgrenadier-Division inflicted even worse losses on the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion—subordinate to the 82nd Airborne Division—as this battalion attacked farther to the north on that same day.
By that time, the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion was completely run down. As we saw earlier, it was badly depleted already during the first day of the attack on 3 January. In the following days, this battalion struggled forward during difficult fighting in dense forests against small retrograde forces of Grenadier-Regiment 183. Meanwhile Major Werner Duve, the German regimental commander, grouped the bulk of his troops in defensive positions at Rochelinval at River Salm—two and a half miles south of Trois-Ponts, from where the Americans had launched their offensive. A battalion of 105mm field howitzers from Artillerie-Regiment 162 and a number of 88mm guns were also brought forward to this place. From the height where Rochelinval is located, the Germans could master a large area west and northwest of the village. They understood that the Americans would come out of the woods farther to the west, and that these would then be forced to cross the open fields to reach Rochelinval and River Salm. It would be a bloodbath…
With bayonets fixed, these German soldiers keep a sharp look-out towards a sector from which the enemy has been reported.
(BArch, Bild 101I-277-0844-16/Jacob)
When the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion reached the forest edge below Rochelinval on the evening of 5 January, only 250 of the 643 men who had started the offensive three days earlier remained. The battalion was ordered to dig in and await further orders, and during the following day it was replenished with large stocks of new ammunition. While the Germans sat in their warm quarters in the village and waited, the Americans shivered in their icy foxholes among the snow-covered fir trees northwest of the village. Then came the order: 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion will attack and take Rochelinval at dawn on 7 January!
The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Wood G. Joerg, protested. His battalion was severely weakened, and his remaining men were too exhausted and cold. To reach Rochelinval from their positions in the forest, the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion would have to cross a 300-yard wide open valley, covered by snow twelve inches deep—at first down the hill, and then uphill, straight against the German machine guns, mortars and cannons. But the order remained unchanged.
Three miles farther to the northeast, on the eastern side of River Salm, U.S. 30th Infantry Division had launched an attack towards the south on 6 January. Here, Regimental Combat Team 112* managed to overpower the weak positions held by a couple of companies of German 18. Volksgrenadier-Divisions Grenadier-Regiment 294.158 Over the course of 6 January, the112th Regimental Combat Team succeeded in gaining fairly much terrain south of Stavelot, which thus made it possible to break up the German resistance at River Salm through an attack from two directions. Therefore, it was regarded necessary to despatch the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion without any delay, even though its strength definitely was on the wane.
During the small hours of 7 January, the men of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion took up attack positions. But everything seèmed to be against them. To begin with, communications with the artillery which was supposed to prepare the attack, failed, so that only a few volleys were fired—which resulted in nothing more than an alert to the Germans. Then there was no armor support. The 740th Tank Battalion’s ’D’ Company was supposed to deploy two Stuarts and one of the new M24 Chaffee tanks to the attack on Rochelinval.** However, according to the tank battalion’s report, these were unable to participate ’due to woods and narrow trails.’159
Without any snow oversuits—clad in their usual olive green uniforms which stood out well against the white background—the paratroopers surged forward through the deep snow. One of those who participated in this attack, Lieutenant Richard Durkee, recalled, ’Our route of attack was a little country lane with scattered brush on each side. We were about 250 yards from the town and there was a fence to our right.The Germans were sitting up there in the town, just waiting for us. But orders were orders.’160
Another of the men of 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, Sergeant Don Garrigues, said, ’The riflèmen charged out of the woods, down the sloping area and across the cleared field. The Germans were fully awake by that time and had taken positions behind a rock fence. They seèmed to have a sizable force, including several machine guns and automatic weapons. Several of our riflèmen fell from the hail of enemy bullets. I was firing point blank at a German machine gun and our tracers were crossing. Pascal from Company A was lying beside me feeding the ammunition belt into the machine gun. Soon a burst of bullets tore into his arm and shoulder. He yelled, ”I’m hit!” and managed to crawl toward a depressed area behind us while I kept firing. A short time later I felt a jolt like getting hit on the shoulder with a ball bat. At first I thought that was it and then I felt the burning pain and blood. I instinctively yelled ”Medic!” and began crawling and pulling myself toward the depression or ditch behind me. It wasn’t long before a medic came to where I was lying and gave me a shot of morphine.’161
The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Joerg, who personally led the attack, grabbed the uniform sleeve of his liaison officer, Lieutenant John Belcher, and yelled, ’We’re supposed to have three tanks. Where the hell are they? Go find them!’162 The M24 Chaffee tank was ordered forward to ’fire five rounds into the town of Rochelinval and pull back again.’163 But before it had time to go into firing position, Lieutenant Colonel Joerg was hit by German gun fire and killed. The M24’s commander, Staff Sergeant Parks, fired all he had against Rochelinval, expending all the 48 shells of the tank’s 75mm cannon and almost all of the machine gun ammunition. But eventually, a hailstorm of German mortar shells compelled Parks to order a withdrawal.164
Owing to the fire support from the tank, Lieutenant Durkee was able to make it uphill to the outskirts of the village. When he reached there, he saw that only he and another man remained of his group. Durkee continues his story:
Then I saw one man about 50 yards back down to draw and recognized him as my runner, Private Pat Casanova, and I yelled at him to get the riflèmen up to me so we could continue the attack, and his answer is something I will never forget. He shouted back, ‘Sir, they’re all dead.’
Well, I figured we had had it. I told the bazookaman to crawl back down the draw and I would cover him. I figured there wasn’t any sense in attacking the town with two men. He got about three feet when a machine gun opened up on him and put about a quarter of a box of ammunition into him. I crawled around the bend in the lane, moving back, and I saw the reason for Casanova’s answer: there at our machine guns were the men who had been having such a great time the night before eating steak sandwiches.
A U.S. 155 mm Howitzer M1 howitzer of the 254th Field Artillery Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel William M. Thomson, ready to fire on German positions in the Ardennes. The 254th Field Artillery Battalion was part of the 82nd Airborne Division. (NARA, 111-SC-198446/CPL PJ. Petrony)
They were lying this way and that, some face up staring at the sky with sightless eyes, and others face down in the snow. Looking on down the lane I could see men sprawled every two or three yards. They were not wounded because they were in plain view of the Krauts, who had been using them for target practice or something because they had been hit many times. How I ever got out of that alive, God only knows… I found out I was now company commander of a company of nine men…165
In the meantime, Grenadier-Regiment 183 was pulling out of Rochelinval, leaving only a small retrograde force behind; but this was chiefly due to other reasons than the attack by the 551st PIB. At the same time, Regimental Combat Team 112 managed to occupy the villages of Wanne and Spineux just on the other (eastern) side of River Salm. On 7 January, a counter-attack by the 18. Volksgrenadier-Division with Panzerjäger-Abteilung 1818 and Grenadier-Regiment 294 was shot to pieces, whereafter nothing remained to the German units but to retreat to Logbiermé, just two miles east of Rochelinval.166 Thereby the positions of Grenadier-Regiment 183 became threatened, so this regiment had to fold back about a mile to the south, to new positions north of Grand-Halleux. The final conquest of Rochelinval was quite undramatic, as described in the 740th Tank Battalion’s after action report:
The other two M5A1’s were called up and the M24 withdrew for a resupply of amunition. As there had been no AT fire it was decided to run the two tanks into town with the Infantry (about a squad). The M24 furnished a base of fire and the M5 tanks moved in to about 400 yards from the town and sprayed positions and hedgerows with .30 cal, then moved up. The enemy began coming out of foxholes and surrendering. The two tanks moved into town 100 yards apart firing .30 cal and 37mm in all likely positions and basèments. At this time so many were surrendering that Staff Sergeant Parks and Sergeant Curtis manned AA guns to avoid hitting friendly infantry while they exposed themselves to the volume of small arms fire that a tank naturally draws. At 1130 the town was occupied. About 200 prisoners were taken and escorted to the rear. When tanks had taken a defensive position the crews dismounted and assisted in flushing fox-holes that had been by-passed.167
This battle marked the end of the independent 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion. Afterwards, no more than fourteen officers and ninety-six soldiers remained of the battalion. Two days later the unit was removed from the front, and on 27 January Major General Gavin dissolved the battalion. The remaining men were transferred to the 82nd Airborne Division.
North of Grand-Halleux, German Grenadier-Regiment 183 established new lines linked with those of the 18. Volksgrenadier-Division in the east. In this front section, these two German divisions would hold the Americans checked for a whole week. By gaining some valuable time to the Germans, the 62. Volksgrenadier-Division enabled a new division, the 326. Volksgrenadier-Division, to arrive and take up positions in the Vielsalm sector.168 Three weeks later the commander of Grenadier-Regiment 183, Major Duve, was awarded with the Knight’s Cross.
THE FINAL GERMAN ASSAULT
On 8 January 1945, the Allied offensive had been halted virtually everywhere in the Ardennes. Instead, it was the Germans who attacked. As we have seen, they retook Bure from the British on 7 January, and in the area west of Bastogne they pushed back U.S. 87th Infantry Division and the 17th Airborne Division between one and two miles, and recaptured Flaimerge on 8 January.
To the east of Bastogne, the 12. SS-Panzer-Division’s attack continued on 8 January. Here the Germans had advanced so far that they stood merely two miles from the center of Bastogne. Generalfeldmarschall Model now ordered the 12. SS-Panzer-Division ’Hitler Jugend’ to seize Hill 510, the strategically important height just west of Mageret.
But this time the 12. SS-Panzer Division’s commander, SS-Brigadefuhrer Hugo Kraas, protested. Twice in recent days, on 4 and 5 January, the Germans had taken this hill, but on both occasions, concentrated American artillery barriers had forced them to abandon the exposed spot. Moreover, by this time Kraas’ division was in the process of withdrawing from the combat zone in order to be placed in the reserve behind the front. But Model would not budge. Hill 510 was to be taken!
The task of carrying out the attack was assigned to SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Johannes Taubert’s 12. SS-Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon, although only its 2. Kompanie, with no more than eighty-one men, remained at the front. The assault force would be supported by the armor of the I. Abteilung of SS-Obersturmführer Rudolf von Ribbentrop’s SS-Panzer-Regiment 12, and the entire division artillery with Korpsartillerie-Abteilung 501 and the Nebelwerfer rocket launchers. On 7 January, SS-Brigadefuhrer Kraas, SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Taubert, and the commander of the assault company, SS-Obersturmführer Hans Richter, reconnoitred the front zone. Richter recalls:
’We climbed onto an armored personnel carrier and were made, as best as possible, familiar with the area. It had snowed, the weather was misty, the visibility was poor. During the scouting we encountered several panzers of von Ribbentrop’s Kompanie which were securing in the direction of Bizory. After returning to the divisional command post, the divisional commander gave orders to provide snow suits to camouflage the attackers. Around noon, the 2. Kompanie reached Magaret. The vehicles were left outside the village and camouflaged. The required preparations, such as putting together concentrated and elongated charges, readying flame throwers, etc., were carried out.’169
At six thirty in the morning of 8 January—one hour before sunrise—the German preparatory artillery fire opened up. The Americans, who enjoyed a substantial numerical advantage in artillery, immediately answered the fire, thereby focusing on the German assembly in Mageret. Although this small village had been the scene of many battles during the previous three weeks, many of the resort’s buildings still were relatively unharmed. But now these were blasted into ruins, and soon the village stood in flames. Thus, the Germans could not take advantage of the darkness, and when they launched their attack, the attack formations were lit by the glow from the fires in Mageret.
In spite of a furious fire from American machine guns and mortars, the SS troopers continued their attack up the hill, where they fell upon their enemy in close combat. With the help of explosives and flamethrowers, several dug-in American tanks were disposed of.170 At 0939 hrs, SS-Obersturmführer Richter could report the objective secured—Hill 510 was in German hands.
The seizure of the height had cost the SS company thirty casualties—including most of its platoon commanders. The forty men who remained were subjected to a hellish American artillery fusillade, and soon a company of Sherman tanks èmerged to counter-attack. But SS-Obersturmführer von Ribbentrop’s tanks drove up to meet the Shermans. The results described in U.S. 68th Tank Battalion’s after action report, ’Six tanks of “A” Company were knocked out like clay pigeons.’171 The remaining American tanks withdrew under the cover of a smoke screen.
However, the small German force could not possibly hold their positions atop the naked height that offered no protection against the U.S. artillery. Soon, the decision to withdraw had to be taken. With shells exploding all around, the SS soldiers crawled back through the snow, and, disheartened and exhausted, with many of their comrades left behind, reached Mageret at eleven in the morning.
Thus ended the last German offensive in the Ardennes. The last elèments of the 12. SS-Panzer Division ’Hitler Jugend’ now were pulled back to be held in reserve, with SS-Obersturmführer von Ribbentrop’s armor and SS-Panzerjäger-Abteilung 12 in Michamps, a mile and a half northeast of Mageret, and the rest of the division in the II. SS-Panzerkorps’ rear area between Houffalize and Sankt Vith. Its attempts to break through and seize Bastogne had definitely failed, but in return, the Germans had halted U.S. 6th Armored Division’s advance and even forced the proud ’Super Sixth’ onto the defensive. The battles of 3-4 January had cost the 12. SS-Panzer-Division a loss of forty killed, one hundred and ten wounded, and forty missing.172 It can be estimated that the division lost at least as many men during the following days. Its material losses at Bastogne amounted to thirteen tanks (seven Panzer IVs and six Panthers), twenty-four tank destroyers (seventeen Panzer IV/70s and seven Jagdpanthers), and eighteen armored personnel carriers.173
Two German machine-gunners are working their way through the snow to reach a better firing position. (BArch, Bild 101UI-Bueschel-091-07A/Buschel)
In a way, the small German combat force atop Hill 510 on the morning of 8 January 1945 captured the entire German situation in the Ardennes in a nutshell; in view of the circumstances, the gains were quite remarkable, but in the long run unsustainable. Above all, as it was noted in the German High Command’s war diary, the Allied air attacks made the German situation increasingly difficult.174 On 6 January, U.S. 8th Air Force’s campaign against German lines of communication in the rear of the Ardennes Front continued with air attacks against bridges over rivers Rhine and Moselle, and marshalling yards at Cologne, Koblenz, Ludwigshafen, Worms, and other places. On the next day, more than a thousand heavy bombers took off against these targets. On 8 January, communication nodes in e.g. Dasburg and Clervaux and in the area south of Sankt Vith were targeted by over seven hundred Flying Fortresses and Liberators. Aided by H2X ground mapping radar, the Americans could drop their bombs even through a heavy overcast—which offered a good protection against German Flak.* The effect of these attacks is obvious from the report dispatched to the Army High Command by the 5. Panzerarmee on 8 January, ’The acute fuel crisis continues unchanged. On 7 January there were again no allocations and thus stocks diminished further. […] Supply situation in ammunition extrèmely strained, because bringing-up is not assured in any way. Allocations again did not cover current consumption. Present quantities of stocks are so small that only continuous bringing-up can meet the serious situations. […] The rations supply situation remains critical.’175 Two days earlier, the 6. SS-Panzerarmee had reported, ’Supply situation continued extrèmely strained. Also in respect of ammunition. Armee [sic] had no stocks whatever of light field howitzer or medium field howitzer ammunitions either in trains or dumps. […] The only two roads available completely blocked by halted motor transports.’176On 12 January it was reported that the Führer Begleit Brigade had thirty serviceable tanks, but ‘no fuel in entire brigade.’177
In view of the deteriorating situation, Hitler issued an order on 8 January to withdraw the units facing U.S. VII Corps to a line extending from Dochamps in the north (four miles northeast of La Roche) to Longchamps (twelve miles farther to the south-southeast and four miles north-northwest of Bastogne). Since Hitler assumed that when the Allies became aware of this, they would shift the emphasis of their attacks to another front sector, he also instructed Heeresgruppe B to immediately release two panzer corps, four ’schnelles’ (mobile) Verbands, two Volksartilleriekorps, and two Werferbrigades from the front and group these as an intermediate reserve northeast of Sankt Vith and east of Wiltz in order to maintain the freedom of action.178 Next day, Hitler specified the order to apply to the two SS panzer corps with the four SS-Panzer divisions.179 The 6. SS-Panzerarmee was ordered to take command of this force, ’to be able to meet the enemy’s counter-attack.’180 This in practice meant that the Führer abandoned the offensive posture in the Ardennes, but on the other hand, Heeresgruppe B’s ability to fulfill its new role, to tie down as large Allied forces as possible in the Ardennes, was reinforced.
THE BATTLE OF THE HARLANGE WEDGE
While the Germans thus pulled units out of the battle, new units were brought forward on the Allied side. To the west of Bastogne, U.S. 87th Infantry Division at Tillet was reinforced with the 691st Tank Destroyer Battalion, and (arriving from the 4th Infantry Division) the 12th Infantry Regiment, whereby this division consisted of thirteen infantry battalions instead of the standard nine. To the east of Bastogne, U.S. 4th Armored Division went into position on a narrow sector to the left of Combat Command B, 6th Armored Division at Mageret. But the most important injection of new forces was the arrival of the 90th Infantry Division, which—completely undetected by the enemy— took up positions between the 35th Infantry Division and 26th Infantry Division, some six miles southeast of Bastogne. The 90th Infantry Division was a veteran unit that had been in first-line action since the landing at Utah Beach in Normandy on 6 June 1944. The divisional commander, 52-year-old Major General James A. Van Fleet, was yet another student from the so-called ’class the stars fell on’ at West Point—together with other prominent commanders such as Eisenhower and Omar Bradley. Van Fleet landed in Normandy on 6 June 1944 at the head of an infantry regiment, and was appointed to command the 90th Infantry Division in October 1944.
Patton hoped that these reinforcèments finally would make it possible to break the frustrating impasse, which he so often had held his subordinate unit commanders accountable for. He was so disappointed with the commanders of the 11th Armored and the 17th Airborne divisions, Kilburn and Miley, that he even considered dismissing them both.181 He called the commanders of the VIII Corps and III Corps, Middleton and Millikin, ‘too cautious’ and in his diary he complained that he ’had to use the whip’ on them.182 ’I know their men are tired,’ Patton wrote, ’but so are the Germans.’ He expressed his annoyance that his subordinate commanders did not seem to understand that ’we have to push people beyond their endurance in order to bring this war to an end.’183
Patton really had reason to feel dissatisfied. His famous TUSA—Third U.S. Army—had seen its offensive get stalled along the line. The ’Super Sixth’—the 6th Armored Division—had been inflicted a humiliating defeat at the hands of the 12. SS-Panzer-Division east of Bastogne. In the southwest, four of the Third Army’s divisions—the 9th Armored, the 11th Armored, the 17th Airborne, and the 87th Infantry—had been repulsed by comparatively weak German units. Southeast of Bastogne, the III Corps had been forced to give up on trying to retake the small villages of Lutrebois and Villers-la-Bonne-Eau after the 35th Infantry Division had been inflicted too heavy casualties. To the right of the 35th Infantry Division, Major General Willard Paul’s 26th Infantry Division was stuck in a positional warfare south of the objective assigned to the division when it had launched its offensive nearly three weeks earlier, Wiltz. And XII Corps down in the southeast had been bogged down in the rugged terrain along the border between Luxembourg and Germany.
It was only right at the seam between the III and the XII Corps that any success at all could be achieved. On 7 January, a surprise attack by U.S. 80th Infantry Division managed to take the two Luxembourgian villages Goesdorf and Dahl, two to three miles southeast of Wiltz. ’This attack keeps the enemy off balance,’ Patton scribbled down in his diary.184 It may sound like an exaggeration that the loss of these villages would have such a large effect on the German position, but events over the next two days would confirm the veracity of Patton’s assessment.
Patton’s diary entry for 8 January reads:
’I determined to renew the attack on Houffalize on the 9th by adding to the present stalled attack of the 87th Infantry and 17th Airborne divisions, a new attack by the 101st Airborne and the 4th Armored divisions. The attack in the morning will comprise eight divisions. The VIII Corps from left to right—87th Infantry, 17th and 101st Airborne divisions and the 4th Armored Division. The III Corps—6th Armored, 35th Infantry, 90th Infantry, and 26th Infantry divisions’185
Lieutenant Colonel George B. Randolph, C.O. of the 712th Tank Battalion, lies in the snow between two American tanks in Nothum, killed by shrapnel from German artillery on the morning of 9 January 1945. (NARA, 111-SC-198482/ PFC S. Gilbert)
The deployment of the 90th Infantry Division would prove to be absolutely crucial. This was assembled against the wedge that the Germans still held south of Bastogne. Here, General Rothkirch’s LIII. Armeekorps manned positions from the area south of Harlange, six miles southeast of Bastogne, to Villers-la- Bonne-Eau, two miles farther to the west. Thereby U.S. 6th Armored Division in the area east of Bastogne was separated from the 26th Infantry Division further southeast, south of Wiltz, which was an obstacle to Patton’s operations.
But when the 90th Infantry Division attacked straight from the south towards Harlange on the morning of 9 January, the German positions in the ’Harlange Wedge’ had been considerably weakened. When U.S. 80th Infantry Division’s captured Dahl, the threat against Wiltz, the important communications hub three miles farther to the northwest, increased. This prompted General Brandenberger, German 7. Armee’s commander, to deploy the bulk of the Führer Grenadier Brigade to this section.186 Left remaining in the Harlange Wedge was only the Führer Grenadier Brigade’s Panzer-Fusilier-Bataillon and 929. Infanterie-Bataillon, along with Grenadier-Regiment 36 from 9. Volksgrenadier-Division and the already heavily decimated 5. Fallschirmjager-Division. According to Generalmajor Heilmann, the commander of the latter unit, the 1. SS-Panzer-Division had begun to withdraw from this section already on 6 January, and by the time the Americans struck, the SS division’s panzer regiment had pulled out.187 Numbering 13,000 troops, U.S. 90th Infantry Division actually was four times stronger than these German units.
Following a brief artillery fire—lasting a mere ten minutes so as not to give the Germans time to prepare—the 90th Infantry Division attacked shortly before ten in the morning of 9 January, with the 357th Infantry Regiment, supported by the 712th Tank Battalion. Although the Germans were taken completely by surprise by the unexpected appearance of the 90th Infantry Division, they offered a quite effective resistance. The German paratroop division’s only heavy weapons was a lonely 88mm gun, which under Leutnant Teske from Fallschirm-Panzer Jager-Abteilung 5 was positioned atop Hill 490 between Bavigne and Berlé, three miles southwest of Wiltz. This turned out to be sufficient to inflict sizable losses on the attacking Americans during the first hours of the attack. 712th Tank Battalion sustained particularly bloody losses, including the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel George B. Randolph, who was killed by German artillery.188 Lieutenant Colonel Randolph’s popularity among his men was attested by Patton, who once said that he would ’give anything in the world if the Third Army had as much confidence’ in him ‘as the 712th Tank Battalion boys do in Colonel Randolph.’ The armored battalion’s ’B’ Company also lost its company commander and a platoon commander during the morning hours on 9 January.189 This single German gun even gave echo in Patton’s diary, which noted that ’the 90th Infantry Division, making the main effort, received heavy casualties from artillery and rocket fire just after the jumpoff’.’190
But American artillery soon zoomed in on Hill 490, and after a few hours the ’88 was silenced. At two in the afternoon, Sherman tanks of the 712th Tank Battalion had managed to crawl up the slippery slope and capture the height. From there, they continued, along with the Infantry in the 457th Infantry Regiment, downwards, towards the Berlé, which was taken two hours later. There, twenty-four Germans, including the commander of the Führer Grenadier Brigade’s 929. Infanterie-Bataillon, were captured.
Deprived of the support of heavy arms, German LIII. Armeekorps now was subjected to a murderous fire from more than a thousand U.S. artillery pieces.191 Oberst Werner Bodenstein, chief of staff of the Corps, wrote, ’We suffered serious losses and casualties in these battles mainly because of the almost uninterrupted strong enemy artillery fire which caused high losses in the battles in the wooded regions, but more so as we were unable to find proper shelter in the frozen ground.’192
This had a significant demoralizing effect on the Germans, and many of them totally lost their nerves. The Paratroop Division’s commander, the experienced Generalmajor Ludwig Heilmann, wrote, ’Many fled towards Wiltz, while others desperately tried to offer resistance. In Doncols, the commander of our Panzerjäger-Abteilung surrendered without a fight. The commander of Fallschirmjager-Regiment 14 hid in a house in Doncols. The commander of the division’s Granatenwerfer-Bataillon [mortar battalion] personally reported that he had lost his entire battalion, including all mortars. Nothing was heard from Fallschirmjager-Regiment 14. It was the end of our division’193 U.S. 712th Tank Battalion’s after action report for 9 January testifies to the breakdown of the combat morale on the German side:
’Around 1730 two columns of German Infantry approached the CP, one column on each side. They were halted and when they started running for cover, the platoon leader directed fire on them. During the firing a voice was heard calling on one side, ”Stop firing, for God’s sake stop firing! We’re Americans, we’re G.I’s returning from a patrol! Please stop firing!” After the firing had ceased, the voice was heard again, ”We’re Germans. We want to give up and be taken as P.W’s.” Twenty-seven prisoners were taken and an undetermined number killed.’194
Meanwhile, the Germans were assualted from both the northwest and the southwest. U.S. 35th Infantry Division’s 320th Infantry Regiment, and Combat Command A of the 6th Armored Division attacked on a two-milewide front in the Marvie area in the northwest.195 Three miles further south, the 35th Infantry Division’s 137th Infantry Regiment once again attacked Villers-la-Bonne-Eau, which was held by Fallschirmjager-Regiment 14 and a panzer grenadier battalion of the 1. SS-Panzer-Division. During the course of a few hours, American artillery fired no less than six thousand shellss against this little hamlet, which consisted of not more than fifteen by that time totally collapsed houses.196
Next day, 10 January, U.S. 90th Infantry Division despatched another regiment, the 359th, on the right flank. As this powerful American attack coincided with Hitler’s orders to withdraw the SS Panzer divisions—including the 1. SS-Panzer-Division, which had been the cornerstone of the German defense at Villers-la-Bonne-Eau—from combat, Model decided on 10 January to evacuate the Harlange Wedge. The SS Division deposed three Panthers and two Wirbelwind anti-aircraft tanks to cover the retreat. But just as the small road from Harlange to Bohey, five miles farther to the northeast—the only escape route available to the Germans—was filled with vehicles and marching columns on this 10 January, the weather cleared up.
The German troops marched back along the road in a temperature of five degrees when Thunderbolt fighter-bombers appeared from behind the tree tops. Panic broke out. In the next moment the road had turned into a jumble of burning vehicles.
The three Panther tanks of the 1. SS- Panzer-Division had engaged U.S. 712th Tank Battalion, holding back the Americans for a short time, but when the American aviation now entered the scene, this German force retreated. Not without bitterness, Generalmajor Heilmann noted that ’the SS troops failed to follow the orders, and instead vanished without a trace.’197
Private William J. Birthold from the 357th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 90th Infantry Division, with a BAR machine guns near Doncols during the Battle of the Harlange Wedge.
(NARA, 111-SC-199107/ T/4 Harding)
The German infantry units in the Harlange Wedge found themselves helplessly at the mercy of artillery bombardment and strafing Thunderbolt planes. The retreat turned into a rout, with the unit cohesion disintegrating into small groups of men who made it through the Gros Bois woods in the north. This became the next target to the powerful American artillery, with dire consequences to the men who were trapped there.
When the American soldiers later entered the woods, they met a terrible sight. Colonel Butler B. Milton Berger, commander of the 35th Infantry Division’s 134th Infantry Regiment, wrote, ’The advancing men were conscious of the smell of broken evergreens, and the death which had visited the woods so frequently. They saw the effects of the days of murderous mortar barrages of Companies D, H and M, and of the 4.2s, and of the unprecedented artillery fire which had torn through the woods. Never had they seen as many German dead, left on the battlefields’198 The Americans counted over one thousand POWs.199
The Battle of the Harlange Wedge undoubtedly was one of the greatest American successes since the Battle of the Ardennes had begun. German 5. Fallschirmjager-Division, whose losses amounted to the disastrous eight thousand men since 16 December—virtually had ceased to exist as an effective fighting unit.200 Von Manteuffel contacted the paratroop division’s commander Heilmann, and furiously told him that he personally had seen hundreds of leaderless paratroopers ’in tattered uniforms’ wander about the roads leading away from the front.201 It was, as Heilmann put it, the end of the 5. Fallschirmjager-Division.
When the demoralized remnants of the 5. Fallschirmjager-Division were ordered to carry out a counter-attack under the command of the SS, Heilmann crashed. ’Now it dawned on me,’ he wrote, ’that the Prussian militarism and the fanaticism of the SS was capable of any act of madness at any time.’202 Heilmann continued, ’In this situation I chose, for the first time in my military career, to go my own way. With nothing but the purpose of saving human lives, I pulled back my Pionier Bataillon and Fallschirmjager-Regiment 15 from the front and positioned them behind Wiltz, so that they could not be placed under the command of the SS.’203 On 12 January Generalmajor Heilmann was released from the command of the 5. Fallschirmjager-Division, which was subordinated to the SS.204 But the counter-attack never came to be. After the Battle of Harlange, the 1. SS-Panzer-Division was grouped as a reserve in the area between Houffalize and Sankt Vith.
And still, the remaining German troops managed to create new defense lines west of Wiltz, and prevented the Americans from capturing this town.
The losses also were significant on the American side. The 35th and 90th Infantry divisions sustained more than five hundred casualties on 9-10 January. To the 35th Infantry Division the Battle of the Harlange Wedge was something of a Pyrrhic victory. Of an initial strength of 16,092 troops, 3,391 had been lost in three weeks— including nearly one-third (911 men) in the category ’captured or missing.’ Patton had no choice but to withdraw the badly mauled division from the front.
BLACK PANTHERS AT TILLET
Meanwhile, Middleton’s U.S. VIII Corps renewed its efforts to break through in the area west of Bastogne. While the 17th Airborne Division, which had become one of Patton’s ’problem childs,’ remained passive south of Laval and Hubermont—where the American paratroopers had been pushed by the Führer Begleit Brigade on 7-8 January—the heavily reinforced 87th Infantry Division ’Golden Acorn’ attacked Tillet again on 9 January. But the Führer Begleit Brigade also had been reinforced, albeit limited in scope, so that its grenadier companies at least reached a strength of thirty men each, and the tank companies eighty.205
Although sustaining heavy casualties, the Americans refused to give up in this sector. Captain Charles A. Gates, commanding ’C’ Company, 761st Tank Battalion, led ten Sherman tanks against a height held by German tanks and anti-tank guns. The 761st Tank Battalion ’Black Panthers’ already had made itself famous for its high morale.
During the bitter fighting at Tillet on 9 January, the Sherman tank of Sergeant Theodore Windsor, one of Gates’ platoon commanders, was knocked out, whereby the driver was killed. Instead, Windsor climbed into Sergeant William McBurney’s tank, which made a solo raid far behind the German lines. Eventually even this tank was destroyed, but Windsor, McBurney and his driver survived. They crawled almost three miles through the snow, back to their own lines.206 Eight Shermans, including Gates’ own, were shot up, but the Americans fought on. Gates, who survived, continued to lead the assault on foot, with the two remaining—damaged—Sherman tanks. The tank commanded by Lieutenant Moses E. Dade had the turret blown off, but Dade undauntedly carried on, charging the German positions with his still-functioning front machine gun. The other remaining Sherman tank received several hits, but when Gates called the tank commander, Sergeant Frank C. Cochran, and asked about the condition, the reply came back, ’They’ve hit me three times, but I’m still giving them hell!’207
This tank soldier from the 761st Tank Battalion ‘Black Panthers’ was identified by the NARA as Corporal Carlton Chapman, machine-gunner in a Sherman. However, veterans of the units have found that this is a misidentification, and that it in fact is tank driver Technician Fourth Grade Claude Mann from Chicago. The 761st Tank Battalion performed excellently in the Battle of Tillet in January 1945. Oberst Rèmer, the commander of German Führer Begleit Brigade, described the American soldiers at Tillet as the best he had ever encountered, excellent fighters’ who frequently came behind our lines where they stabbed many of our guards with their knives’ (NARA, 111-SC-196106-S)
After five hours of fighting, the hill finally was in American hands. By that time, the men of the 761st Tank Battalion had destroyed a Panzer IV, three anti-tank guns and eight machine gun positions, and 106 killed German soldiers lay sprawled in the blackened ground on and around the hill.208 For his performance on that day, Captain Charles A. Gates was awarded the Silver Star, the third highest U.S. award for valor in combat.209
In the evening of 9 January, Oberst Rèmer, the commander of the Führer Begleit Brigade, was ordered to withdraw to Amberloup, a mile and a half north of Tillet. Next day the exhausted but triumphant soldiers of the 87th Infantry Division and the 761st Tank Battalion hoisted the Stars and Stripes over the ruins of Tillet.
PATTON IS HALTED AGAIN
However, when U.S. Third Army meanwhile launched an attack to the north and east of Bastogne—attempting to sever the German supply lines—things were quite different. On the morning of 9 January, the 101st Airborne Division despatched 501st and 506th Parachute Infantry regiments, supported by armor, to take Recogne and Noville north of Bastogne. The American attack formations were completely massacred by a concentrated mortar and artillery fire. The commander of the Headquarters Company in the 506th PIR’s 3rd Battalion, Captain James Morton, wrote:
’Headquarters 3rd was caught in a woods by a mortar barrage and my men dropped at every quarter. Webb went out of his mind. Beard, now a lieutenant, was shot in the arm. Lundquist was killed … Kopala, my runner, was hit at my side. A mortar shell hit the trees above us. Fragments wounded Kopala severely, but I was unscathed. I was blown off my feet twice, a most unpleasant experience.’210
The artillery and mortar fire was followed by a counter-attack with tanks of the 9. Panzer-Division’s Panzer-Regiment 33. ’Never have I lived through such a nightmare,’ wrote the field surgeon in 3rd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Captain Bernard L. Ryan. ’All night long, shells screamed into the woods, direct fire from tanks. It was nearly impossible to evacuate the wounded. They were dying like flies. Through the whole night we heard the screams of the wounded and the moans of the dying.’211 The next morning the snow in the forest was criss-crossed by numerous blood trails where badly wounded men had tried to crawl back to their own lines. This failed attack cost the 3rd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment alone a loss of one hundred fifty-six men. Among those wounded was the famous commander of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, Colonel Julian J. Ewell.
To the east of Bastogne, Combat Command B, 6th Armored Division and the 4th Armored Division made a joint attempt to recapture Mageret on the morning of 10 January. Although Combat Command B, 6th Armored Division had been dealt heavy losses in the previous days, and the 4th Armored Division was severely decimated after the advance to Bastogne in December—by that time it had just fifty tanks remaining, out of the one hundred and sixty-five it had disposed on 22 December—it was a quite strong attack force to be launched against just a small village.212 The German troops of the 340. Volksgrenadier-Division offered a frantic resistance, supported by three temporarily detailed Panther tanks from the 12. SS-Panzer-Division— commanded by SS-Untersturmfuhrer Willi Engel.213 The chronicle of U.S. 4th Armored Division noted, ’As it advanced, the lead elèments of CCB were hit with heavy mortar and artillery fire. A proliferation of machine guns and panzerfaust teams were positioned in the woods, which slowed the tanks down further.’214
The Americans and Germans were in the midst of bloody fighting for Mageret when the Third Army headquarters at noon on 10 January received a new SHAEF order that struck Patton as a bomb. He wrote in his diary:
’Higher authority decided that an armored division should be withdrawn from the line as a precautionary measure against the possible German attack from Saarbrücken. The attack of the 101st Airborne and 4th Armored Divisions was therefore called off at noon, and the 4th Armored will withdraw during darkness. At the same time the 101st Airborne Division and the 6th Armored Division will link up. The entire VIII Corps will limit offensive operations to vigorous patrolling.’215
The 4th Armored Division was ordered to urgently regroup to the city of Luxembourg in the south. The German Ardennes Offensive and Operation ’Nordwind’ had made the Allied superior command so nervous that it feared a new German offensive of almost the same size as the Ardennes Offensive just when a turning point finally had been reached in the Ardennes. The SHAEF was afraid that such an imagined major offensive was about to be launched further south, directed against the city of Luxembourg, with the intention of linking the German forces in the Ardennes with those who were on the offensive in Operation ’Nordwind.’
’This is the second time,’ lamented Patton, ’I have been stopped in a successful attack due to the fact that the Germans have more nerve than we.’ But as we have seen, only a few days earlier, Patton himself had, under the impression of the German offensive successes against his own army, scribbled down in his diary, ’We can still lose this war.’
GERMAN PANZER RESERVE
But the Germans had nowhere near the resources that such an additional offensive would have required. However, they still mustered considerable forces against the Allies in the Ardennes. In those days they were busy shortening the front lines and building up a powerful armored reserve in the rear area, in order to reinforce their positions in the Ardennes with the purpose of tying down even larger Allied forces. That was the reason why the German resistance farthest to the west suddenly declined. On 10 January, the British were able to retake Bure without a fight—which finds its explanation in that the 2. Panzer-Division, starting the night of 9 January, completely withdrew from the front lines.216 The 9. Panzer-Division also left the section farthest to the west and regrouped to Michamps, northwest of Bastogne, where the division on 12 January was subordinated to the LVIII. Panzerkorps.217 And at the bottom of the German Bulge’s southeastern corner—around Diekirch, where the 79. and 352. Volksgrenadier divisions stood against U.S. XII Corps—the headquarters of the LXXXV. Armeekorps under General Baptist Kniess was shifted to the 1. Armee (participating in the ’Nordwind’ offensive) on 10 January. The 79. Volksgrenadier-Division on the Corps’ northern flank was subordinated to the LIII. Armeekorps, and the 352. Volksgrenadier-Division was added to the LXXX. Armeekorps.218
A German 75mm PaK 40 anti-tank gun in position on a snow-covered field. The soldier on the far left wears a fur hat from Russia. (BArch, Bild 101I-690-0201-28/Kripgans)
It was this sudden regrouping on the German side that made the Allied suprème command so anxious. Already on the morning of 8 January 1945, the Ultra decrypted a German radio message dealing with the 9. Panzer-Division’s redeployment in the Marche and Rochefort sectors.219
On 10 January it was noted in Lieutenant General Hodges’ diary in the headquarters of U.S. First Army, ’The British continued to advance from the west without encountering any enemy opposition other than that of heavy minefields. There is no question now but that the Boche is pulling out all his heavy equipment leaving only light reconnaissance forces in the west in an attempt to slow down the advance. It is an orderly withdrawal and in no sense a rout or retreat.’220
Also in the Saint-Hubert area, Panzer Lehr Division prepared for the evacuation to the east.221 On 11 January, French 3ème Regiments de Chasseurs Parachutistes could capture Saint-Hubert without difficulties.222 Meanwhile, the troops of U.S. 87th Infantry Division marched through Bonneru and Pironpré where previously so much blood had been shed. In the northeast, Samrée was seized, and before noon on 11 January, U.S. 84th Infantry Division was able to enter the town of La Roche, which had been abandoned by the Germans on the day before. On the evening of the 11th, German 5. Panzerarmee reported that its units had completed the withdrawal ’according to the plan.’223
It was a major relief to the paratroopers of U.S. 17th Airborne Division when they resumed the attack on 12 January, and it turned out that they only met a very weak resistance, so that with relative ease they were able to retake Flamierge—this time definitively. During the previous night, the Führer Begleit Brigade also had been detached from the front to join the reserve that Hitler was assembling for another surprising blow againt the Allies in the Ardennes.224 That he really had this in mind, was suspected faster than no one else by the SHAEF.
As the Allies were well aware of at this point, the German armor in the Ardennes was far from beaten. In the SS panzer units deployed to the rear area, damaged and unserviceable tanks could be repaired relatively quickly. With just over three hundred tanks and tank destroyers in these units—and the artillery in two Volksartilleriekorps and two Werferbrigade—Hitler disposed of a reserve force which in other circumstances might have, if not turned the battle, at least extended it by several weeks.*
CONCLUSIONS AND RESULTS
Although several accounts of the fighting in the Ardennes during the winter of 1944/1945 tend to focus on the period up to the relief of Bastogne on 26 December 1944, the bloody battles in the snow east and northeast of this town, in conjunction with the 12. SS-Panzer-Division’s renewed offensive at the end of the first week of January 1945, are what have created the dominant image of American soldiers against German armor in the cold and snow during this winter battle.
At the start of the second week of January 1945, the Allied counter-offensive had failed miserably in the aim of destroying the German forces in the Ardennes—in spite of a manifold numerical superiority. And not only that—their opponent Generalfeldmarschall Model even had managed to regain the initiative east and north of Bastogne. While the 12. SS-Panzer-Division pushed U.S. 6th Armored Division ’Super Sixth’ back towards Bastogne, other German units met the Allied counter-offensive west and northwest of the disputed town with a resistance just as stubborn as that offered by the American soldiers at Bastogne during the first days of the German Ardennes Offensive. Just as the German qualitatively superior tanks had played the decisive role during the German operational breakthrough on 16-17 December 1944, these tanks now prevented the Allies from accomplishing a similar breakthrough.
The only sector of the Ardennes front where the Allies until 10 January 1945 had managed to both overpower and completely crush any major German units, was—quite symptomatically—the area where the Germans almost completely lacked any armor: the Harlange Wedge southeast Bastogne. There, U.S. Third Army finally could settle the score with the 5. Fallschirmjager-Division, the German division that, although fairly lightly equipped, had inflicted such humiliating setbacks, such extensive losses and so much frustration to the Americans in the previous three to four weeks. The price the 5. Fallschirmjager-Division had to pay was absolutely ghastly. When the Battle of the Harlange Wedge was over, most of the paratroopers who had crossed River Our less than four weeks previously were either killed, wounded or in U.S. captivity.
The Allied successes during the period of clear flying weather between 23 and 27 December—including the relief of Bastogne—and the difficulties the Allied ground forces ran into when the air support for various reasons ceased, highlights the important role played by the Allied aviation. That the U.S. strategic 8th Air Force could be deployed—often with more than one thousand heavy bombers at a time—when the tactical aviation could not be used, also serves to illustrate the Allied material superiority. The German ability to bring forward at least the minimum of maintenance required by the front troops to perform not only an elastic defense in the west, but also a new offensive at Bastogne, may be regarded as a remarkable feat.
By that time, the U.S. Army had sustained not only significant losses in personnel and equipment—on 10 January 1945 the Germans reported the destruction or capture of 350 Allied tanks since the shift of the year225 — but also a severe blow to its pride. This—again—came into evidence through the strong reaction from the American side on Montgomery’s press conference on 7 January 1945.
Due to fuel shortage and snowed-in roads, the Germans even had to resort to using dog teams to bring forward supplies to the frontlines. (BArch, Bild 183-2013-500/Bauer-Altvater)
However, at that stage it should have been quite clear to the German high command that the desired turning point of the war could not be achieved—not least because of the threat they saw looming on the Eastern Front. On 9 January, the diary of the German Armed Forces High Command recorded, ’Hostile attack intentions all along the Eastern Front: Apart from Hungary, concentrations of forces have been observed at Baranowo, Puławy, Magnuszew [all positions located in Poland], and East Prussia. The Army General Staff estimated that the attack will be initiated against Heeresgruppe A [in Poland] in the direction of Baranowo - Częstochowa, possibly combined with a flanking movèment around Warsaw. In the East Prussian sector we expect a thrust over River Narew towards Thorn, and an attack over the eastern border to the west and southwest.’226
As we shall see, this feared Soviet offensive would exert no small influence on the German military operations in the Ardennes.
A 155 mm Long Tom of 514th Field Artillery Battalion’s B’ Battery, U.S. 90th Infantry Division, shelling German positions in Luxembourg in January 1945.
Below: These German soldiers are clearly marked by several weeks of bloody winter war. As the Soviet big offensive came on 12 January 1945, prompting the Eastern Front to collapse like a house of cards, it was clear to the Germans that the war was lost. For another few days however, the hope remained that it would be possible to halt the Red Army. (BArch, Bild 101I-277-0844-17/Jacob)
* Probably soldiers from the parts of Poland and Czechoslovakia that had been incorporated into Germany.
* This refers to the branch of the Ourthe river that from the area west of Houffalize flows to the northwest, passing through La Roche and Hotton.
* The reconstructed 112th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division, which had been more or less wiped out in December 1944, now had been subordinated to the 30th Infantry Division.
** The M24 Chaffee was intended to replace the somewhat obsolete light tank Stuart. The Chaffee was armed with a 75mm M6 gun and three machine guns. Like other light tanks it was relatively lightly armored, with a frontal armor only one inch thick. The first thirty-four Chaffees were taken into service in November 1944, and the tank treated above was one of two M24 Chaffees received by the 740th Tank Battalion in December 1944.
* The H2X was a radar device mounted in the aircraft, through which flight crews could see an image of the ground below.
* On 15 January 1945, the 1. SS-Panzer-Division and its subordinate schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 501 reported a strength of sixty tanks and fifteen tank destroyers—thirty Königstigers, nineteen Panzer IVs, twelve Panthers, eleven Panzer IV/70s, and four StuG IIIs. Its ’twin division,’ the 12. SS-Panzer-Division, meanwhile reported a strength of thirty-nine tanks and tank destroyers. The 9. SS-Panzer-Division was reported to muster thirty-nine tanks and thirty-three tank destroyers. At about the same time, the 2. SS-Panzer-Division had fifty-five tanks (thirty Panthers and twenty-five Panzer IVs) and fourteen Panzerjäger IVs.