"This day was the day of the Air Force, but unfortunately it was not ours. Not a single German aircraft appeared over Bastogne. What had happened to the air support we had been promised for vital sectors? When the night fell a glow could be seen stretching back right to the West Waljor Ludwig Heiiml. The roads were marked by the lines of flaming vehicles"
Generalmajor Ludwig Heilmann, commander of German 5. Fallschirmjäger-Division, on 26 December 1944.1
AIR COMBAT OVER THE ARDENNES
During the night of 23 December 1944, the temperature suddenly dropped to 22 degrees. This was caused by an extreme high pressure, a so-called ’Russian high pressure,’ which came from the east, from Germany and spread over the Ardennes and northeastern France, where clouds and fog rapidly scattered.
To the Allies, the sudden clearing of the weather came just as it looked as darkest. The roar of aircraft engines at Allied airfields across western Belgium and northeastern France at dawn on 23 December 1944 announced the end of the German Ardennes Offensive. The first blow against the Offensive’s supply lines was executed by the British Royal Air Force Bomber Command, specialized in operations at night time. While the soldiers in the first line shivered in the Arctic cold, two hundred and seventy-two British bombers, most of them heavy four-engine Avro Lancasters and Handley Page Halifaxes, made their way across the increasingly moonlit night, towards two of the main hubs for the supply of the German Ardennes Front—the Rhine railway bridges at Koblenz and Bingerbrück. At Koblenz, one hundred and sixty-eight bombers destroyed two railway bridges and the Mosel station, thereby blocking all rail traffic to Mayen and Niederlahnstein—two other major hubs on the way to the Ardennes Front.2 The one hundred and six bombers that attacked Bingerbrück twenty miles further up the river, not only managed to completely destroy the railway station and sink two river ferries; their bombs also caused a landslide in the high vine hills, which buried the rail line Rüdesheim - Lamm under huge masses of earth.3
German OB West noted that ’the extent of the damage is so great that a large portion of the trains have to be unloaded on the Rhine’s right bank,’ which meant that the transfer to the front of units such as the 9. Panzer-Division and the 15. Panzergrenadier-Division was considerably delayed.4
The U.S. aviation, which operated in daylight, would carry out even more devastating airstrikes. In the dark hours early on 23 December—the sun does not rise until around eight forty-five in Belgium at this time of the year—the ground crews on airfields on both sides of the front line toiled to get combat aircraft operational. The Luftwaffe was, somewhat overconfident, just as certain as the Allied air command that the fine flying weather would favor its own side. At half past ten in the evening of 22 December, Generalmajor Dietrich Peltz, commander of the II. Jagdkorps, issued operational orders for the following day:
Jagdkorps II will support Army Group B by keeping free the attacking spearheads, protecting the main tank advance routes with screening to north and south. […] The weather will in the morning probably bring relief to us and difficulties to the enemy. In the afternoon the enemy will be able to fly. All forces are to be made ready, so as to be able to engage successfully in a possible air battle on a grand scale. […] From 0630 hrs 30 minutes readiness.5
The German unit commanders on the ground had a slightly more sober view of the situation. Oberst Heinz Kokott, C.O. of the 26. Volksgrenadier-Division outside Bastogne, wrote:
’The weather cleared up—for the first time since the start of the offensive. This had been dreaded by everybody for it was well known what a clear day would mean! […] From now on, the enemy was able to bring a dreaded and very effective weapon into battle. On the basis of the assurances and promises which had been given by the superior command to both the unit commanders and the men prior to the offensive, it could only be hoped that this time the Luftwaffe would knock the enemy out of the skies!’6
Lieutenant General George S. Patton, the commander of U.S. Third Army, which had been assigned with the task to initiate a counter-offensive from the south, was unreservedly positive. ’A clear cold Christmas, lovely weather for killing Germans,’ he wrote in his diary.7
With its vast numerical superiority—on 23 December the Allies carried out around five thousand air sorties against just about eight hundred on the German side—the U.S. Army Air Force and the Royal Air Force struck with devastating force. When the day was over, the supply lines to the German Ardennes Front had been inflicted with heavy damage. In addition to that, the fighter-bombers of the 9th Air Force reported the destruction of two hundred and thirty German vehicles of all kinds on the roads leading to the front, and on the battlefield itself, several battles had been settled to the Allied advantage by Allied fighter-bombers used as flying artillery.8
Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers are taking off to attack German ground targets in the Ardennes. The aircraft closest to the photographer was flown by First Lieutenant Archie Maltbie from the 365th Fighter Group. (NARA via Don Barnes)
In his account of the Ardennes Battle, Generalmajor Leo Zanssen, commanding the 15. Volkswerfer Brigade in LVIII. Panzerkorps, wrote, ’The bringing up of supplies of all kinds was rendered extremely difficult by the Allied air superiority and by the unceasing attacks on the supply lines. Traffic on the roads—also of individual vehicles—was next to impossible on days with clear visibility. The night movements of vehicles on the difficult roads to the Eifel brought about great delays and excessive wear and tear of vehicles. Concerning the losses in vehicles, about 50% had become total losses or requiring repairs. To my mind the failure of the offensive is due to the absolute air supremacy of the Allied forces’9
But some of the first fighter-bomber missions on 23 December in fact were performed by the Luftwaffe. In Chaudfontaine near Liège, nine German aircraft strafed and bombed U.S. First Army’s former headquarters. A 250-kilo bomb exploded right in front of Palace Hotel, where Hodges previously had been quartered. The commander of the First Army and his staff, however, had moved to Tongres (Tongeren) three days earlier.10
On the southern sector, the III Corps of Patton’s Third Army meanwhile reported, ’The enemy strafed columns and single vehicles and attempted to demolish bridges and supply installations.’11 But this cost the participating German units dearly. The inexperienced pilots knew very little about how to maneuver their aircraft to avoid anti-aircraft fire. A single squadron, the 8. Staffel of fighter wing Jagdgeschwader 4, lost six Focke Wulf 190 pilots on a mission at Sankt Vith.12
’After 0900 hrs the first [Allied] fighter-bombers of the day appeared,’ wrote Oberst Kokott. ’They swooped down on lines of communication and villages immediately behind the front line, setting vehicles and buildings on fire’13German fighter planes intervened to defend their ground troops, and as previously managed to force several fighter-bombers to jettison their bombs, but in the air combats that followed, the inadequately trained German pilots usually drew the shortest straw. French fighter ace Pierre Clostermann, who with the rank of a Flight Lieutenant flew a Hawker Tempest fighter with the RAF’s No. 274 Squadron during the Ardennes Battle, gave the following opinion on the German pilots on the Western Front at this time:
’In the Luftwaffe there seems to have been no ’middle” and German pilots could be divided into two quite distinct categories: The ”aces,” 15 to 20 per cent of the whole—pilots who were really superior to the average of Allied pilots. And the remainder—not up to much. Very brave, but incapable of getting the best out of their aircraft.’14
The remains of a German vehicle column in the Ardennes after an airstrike. (NARA 111-SC-199253)
The German fighter interception of the Thunderbolt fighter-bombers of the 514th Fighter Squadron/406th Fighter Group as these attacked a train near Trier at nine forty-five in the morning on 23 December 1944 perfectly illustrates Clostermann’s description. Twelve Messerschmitt 109s from fighter group IV. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 4, vectored by ground radar observations, were positioned high above their opponents, who were burdened by bombs. It ought to have been a perfect and devastating bouncing of the Thunderbolts. Moreover, the German formation was led by Oberleutnant Hans Schleef, a veteran who had been in first-line service since the fall of 1940, recording ninety-eight aerial victories. But the pilots under Schleef’s command completely missed the opportunity and became easily outsmarted by the Americans, who split up their formation so that some Thunderbolt pilots stayed at ten thousand feet altitude while all German aircraft came down on the P-47 Thunderbolts that were ’on the deck.’ First Lieutenant Bernard J. Sledzick was one of the American pilots who served as the top cover. He explains, ‘Below us the battle was raging. Every time we saw an Me 109 on the tail of a P-47, we dove down causing it to break away.’15
It did not help that Schleef was on the German side and shot down a Thunderbolt; five Messerschmitt 109s were downed in quick succession—three of those by First Lieutenant Herbert W. Scraper—while only two Thunderbolts were lost. As so often, the engagement lasted just a few minutes, after which all aircraft had disappeared, ’and parachutes of downed pilots filled the sky.’16 During the return flight, one more aircraft on each side crashed.
But above all, the Allies were able to bring considerably more aircraft into the air than the Germans, and several operations with U.S. or British fighter-bombers—Jabos, as the Germans called them—could be carried out without being intercepted by German fighters. Thus, the fighter-bombers of U.S. 362nd and 406th Fighter groups attacked the Sauer/Sûre bridge at Echternach with rockets, napalm, and explosive bombs in successive waves; the 362nd Fighter Group also bombed bridges across the Sauer/Sûre at Bollendorf and across the Our at Vianden. The 368th Fighter Group bombed and strafed trains and railway stations in Germany at Cochem, Oberstein, and other places. The 370th Fighter Group strafed and bombed German troop and vehicle columns at Sankt Vith and Recht. Near Dinant, Lockheed P-38 Lightnings of the 370th and 474th Fighter groups struck down on 2. Panzer-Division’s advance force.
The Luftwaffe failed almost completely in their intentions to support their own ground troops through low-level attacks against American positions. A major German effort against ground targets at Bastogne between ten and ten thirty in the morning had to be canceled because the Messerschmitt and Focke Wulf planes were forced not only to jettison their bombs, but also to turn back home due to what was reported as an overwhelming presence of U.S. fighter aircraft.17
A formation of U.S. Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers of the 9th Air Force. This aircraft had a top speed of287 m.p.h. The crew consisted of seven men. Bomb load was 4,000 lbs., and armament consisted of four fixed and seven flexible .50 Colt-Browning machine guns. (US Army)
The frozen German soldiers at Bastogne and other sections in the Ardennes bitterly repeated what had become something of a mantra during the fighting in the West since the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944: ’Wo bleibt die Luftwaffe?’—’Where is the Luftwaffe?’ The fact however is that the Luftwaffe maintained a high activity throughout this 23 December 1944, which was characterized by a long series of air battles, sometimes of vast dimensions. When the activity of the U.S. fighter-bombers reached its peak during the morning, the German fighter bases were alerted that large formations of enemy bombers were approaching. From bases in northeastern France, about two hundred twin-engine medium bombers from the 9th Air Force were approaching, and from southern England intense radio traffic revealed that the 8th Air Force was about to launch a new large-scale operation with hundreds of four-engine bomber and escort fighters. It was necessary to concentrate the bulk of the German fighter aviation against this double threat.
As early as on 19 December, Lieutenant General Bradley’s 12th Army Group and the 9th Air Force had jointly drawn up a plan for a massive operation aimed at cutting off the German transports to the front area of the Ardennes by despatching the 9th Air Force’s medium bombers against rail bridges at Mayen, Euskirchen, Ahrweiler, and Eller, the marshalling yard at Prüm, the railway station at Kyllburg, the road bridge at Saarburg, and ten other communication targets.18 In addition, the strategic U.S. 8th Air Force in England had detached 2nd Air Division to the 9th Air Force to supplement the operations of the medium bombers with attacks by four-engine B-24 Liberator bombers against the same targets. Now that the weather finally allowed the staging of this plan, not only these forces were deployed, but also the 8th Air Force’s 1st and the 3rd Air divisions, with over three hundred B-17 Flying Fortresses against rail targets farther to the east in Germany. Moreover, fighter-bombers were directed against targets on the rail routes Wengerohr - Koblenz, Daun - Mayen, Ahrdorf - Sinzig, Euskirchen - Ehrang, and Pronsfeld - Gerolstein.19
A U.S. Douglas A-20 Havoc attack bomber is set on fire through hits by German automatic cannon. This aircraft is an A-20J Havoc, serial number 43-10129, from the 416th Bomb Group of the 9th Air Force. The A-20J had a top speed of 317 m.p.h. The crew consisted of three men. The normal bomb load was 2000 lbs., and armament consisted of two fixed and three flexible .50 Colt-Browning machine guns. (US Air Force)
Captain Clyde Harkins, the pilot on one of the twin-engine B-26 Marauder bombers of the 558th Bomb Squadron, 387th Bomb Group, recalls:
’A target of high priority in this category was the railroad bridge at Mayen, Germany, which was one of the key bridges on the main railway from the German heartland to the Belgium Bulge. The 344-foot span of this bridge carried the enemy lifeline across the deep ravine of the Nette River, and its destruction would sever the railway for supplying the German offensive for a considerable period of time.
On the night of 22 December 1944 the 387th Bomb Group received its orders to attack this bridge the following morning. This was good news because for the past week at night our airbase near St. Quentin, France had been subjected to several German air raids, a strafing attack and some reports of enemy paratroopers dropping in our area.’20
But the Americans seemed to have forgotten their air war doctrine, FM 100-20. This, prepared by the two Britons Montgomery and Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham in the summer of 1943, emphasized that ’air superiority is the requirement for the success of any major land operation,’ and that air forces therefore ’must be employed primarily against the enemy’s air forces until air superiority is obtained.’ FM 100-20 assigned the tactical air forces three prioritized tasks, where ’gaining the necessary degree of air superiority’ through ’attacks against aircraft in the air and on the ground’ had top priority.21 That the Americans began their air operations with what was priority number two, attacks against lines of communication to isolate the battlefield, perhaps was an expression of the difficult situation on the ground; in any case, it would cost the airmen of the 9th Air Force bomber units dearly. On top of that, most of the American fighters assigned to fly escort missions failed to locate the bombers, leaving most of the twin-engine bombers alone against the German Messerschmitt and Focke Wulf fighters. Clyde Harkins recounts:
Near Bastone we started receiving moderate flak which required our standard evasive action turns. Shortly afterward, radio transmissions warned us of enemy aircraft in the area and almost immediately we were attacked by 15-25 enemy fighters consisting mostly of Me 109s. I kept my six-ship flight in close proximity to the box leader to provide for a concentration of firepower from our two flights.
While looking down at the low flight in our box, I observed many enemy fighters pressing the attack with guns firing and pieces falling from the B-26s as they burned and spun out of control. As I recall the action now, it seemed like the whole thing was in slow motion with fighters moving in and B-26s falling out of the sky. […]
Also, the PFF ship broke off from our formation for some unexplained reason, and was later observed below and behind the formation being attacked and destroyed by enemy fighters. All of us had received some damage from flak and fighters that day. One ship in my flight had to return on single engine and another one was so extensively damaged that it was salvaged upon return to base.22
Of the 387th Bomb Group’s twenty-six B-26s, five were shot down. The bloodletting could have been even worse, had the pilots of German fighter group II. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 11 not been so inexperienced: Only three of them attacked in the classical way with the sun in the back—everyone else attacked by slowly climbing below the American bombers, whose gunners thus had plenty of time to aim their machine guns. Hence, six Messerschmitt 109s were downed by the bombers’ defensive fire. Neither did the Germans manage to ward off the bombing attack.
Despite the fighter attack and despite an intense anti-aircraft fire, Harkins made two bomb runs towards the target, which turned out to be covered by clouds, and during the second approach he found a gap in the overcast through which his bombardier, Lieutenant Warren Butterfield, could put his bombs right on the target. Among the 387th Bomb Group B-26s, only the aircraft of Harkins’ flight succeeded in hitting the target, but that sufficed. A reconnaissance flight the next day found that one span of the bridge had been destroyed and another partially destroyed. In addition, the railway tracks leading up to the eastern approach of the bridge were cut by a direct hit. Both Captain Harkins and another of the unit’s pilots were awarded with the Silver Star for this mission, and the 387th Bomb Group received a Distinguished Unit Citation.23,
When the I. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 11 shortly after the attack against the 387th Bomb Group attempted to ward off the 397th Bomb Group’s attack on the railway bridge at Eller, these German pilots, flying heavily armed Focke Wulf 190 fighter aircraft, were able to down ten Marauders, but they lost five of their own number to the bombers’ defensive fire, and the remaining bombers managed to knock out this railway bridge too. Thereby an important supply route across the Moselle river to the Ardennes was interrupted.
Twenty minutes later, at five past eleven, Messerschmitt Bf 109s of I. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 77 attacked the Marauder bombers of the 322nd Bomb Group, escorted by Lightning fighters from the 367th Fighter Group. This time the Germans managed to shoot down no more than two Marauders and a Lightning, but they damaged twenty-two bombers—all within the space of two minutes, after which most of the German fighter pilots had finished their ammunition and hurriedly left the place, which they did without losing a single ’109. Meanwhile, Euskirchen, target to the 322nd Bomb Group, was turned into ‘a single field of bomb craters’ as a German eyewitness later said.
Other U.S. medium bomber units managed to completely ward off German fighter attacks without sustaining any own losses. But the 391st Bomb Group, which was despatched against the railway bridge at Ahrweiler, had the misfortune of being subjected to attacks by five German fighter groups. One of these was IV. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 3, whose Focke Wulf 190s were especially heavily armored and equipped with the large-caliber 30mm automatic cannon for close attacks against heavy bombers. When the battle was over, sixteen of the 391st Bomb Group’s thirty-two Marauder bombers had blasted out of the sky. One of the few American fighter units that went into battle to defend the bombers was the 368th Fighter Group, which claimed to have shot down twenty-nine German fighters against only two own losses. One of the unit’s pilots, First Lieutenant William Garry, was recorded to have shot down three Focke Wulf 190s and rammed a fourth. Captain Jerry B. Tullis, and First Lieutenants Hugh P. Matthews and William J. Wayland claimed three shot down apiece.
In total, the air battles on the morning of 23 December 1944 cost a loss of forty-three U.S. aircraft—thirty-six bombers, six Thunderbolts, and a Lightning—and between thirty and thirty-three German fighters.
Meanwhile, the 8th Air Force’s heavy bombers, in total more than four hundred, with over four hundred and thirty escort fighters, appeared. This armada was met by no more than seventy-eight German fighters, of which the Americans were reported to have downed twenty-nine against own losses of a single bomber and one fighter.24That the German fighter defense failed to mobilize any significant strength was largely due to the more than one hundred and eighty fighters sent out by the 8th Air Force on a fighter sweep in advance. These swooped down on the German fighters as they took off from their airfields or assembled to climb to the assigned combat altitude. Guided by MEW (Microwave Early Warning) ground radar, fifty-six Thunderbolts from the 56th Fighter Group, led by fighter ace Colonel David C. Schilling, managed to surprise a large formation of German fighters circling in the air over Euskirchen’s airfield. The Thunderbolts pounced on the Germans with a devastating effect. Within minutes, the 56th Fighter Group had chalked up no less than thirty-seven enemy aircraft shot down for the loss of three of their own. Colonel Schilling contributed by knocking down five German fighters, thus bringing his personal score to twenty-two air victories. On the German side Oberfeldwebel Heinrich Bartels, an ace in Jagdgeschwader 27 with ninety-nine air victories, was killed.
Immediately after the American heavy bombers followed a formation of thirty four-engine Lancaster bombers and a pair of twin-engine Mosquitoes from RAF Bomber Command. These made a bold attempt to attack Cologne’s railway station without any fighter escort. Just as the British bombers began their bomb run, they were attacked by seventeen fighters from II. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 26. These were some of the first of the newest version of the Focke Wulf 190—the D-9, Dora-9—which was at least on par with the best Allied fighters. In what would become a repetition of the morning’s massacre on American bombers, the Germans shot down eight Lancasters, this time without any own losses.
Hit! The pilot of a German Focke Wulf 190 fighter bails out of his aircraft which has been struck by fire from the attacking American fighter’s heavy machine guns. The picture is taken from the American gun camera. (NARA via Peter Bjork)
Only now does it have seemed to have dawned on the Allies that the neutralization of the German aviation, in accordance with the air war doctrine, actually had the highest priority. The 9th Air Force’s fighter units were ordered out against the German fighter aircraft. With the aid of radio surveillance (known as Y Service) and MEW radar, the American fighter pilots managed to surprise several German fighter units as these were about to land after combat missions, in a situation when the German aircraft were short on fuel and with no or almost no ammunition left.
The first German fighter unit to suffer was the III. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 53. The Messerschmitt 109s of this group were out on a ’Jabo hunting’ mission at noon, but without sighting any enemy aircraft. However, on the return flight the ’109s were surprisingly attacked by a large formation of Thunderbolts that shot down one of its Messerschmitts. II. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 53 also lost three Bf 109s in combat with Thunderbolts.
Other Thunderbolts, from the 36th and 373rd Fighter groups, meanwhile strafed the air bases of Cologne-Wahn and Bonn-Hangelar. At the former place, the Americans reported the bombing of several hangars and other buildings, and the destruction of nine aircraft on the ground.25 In connection with the attack on Bonn-Hangelar, the Americans clashed with some thirty Messerschmitt 109s and Focke Wulf 190s from I. and III. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 2, and III. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 77, and shot down seven ‘109s and five ‘190s. Several other German aircraft crashed while attempting to land at the by now bombed airfields. But this also cost the Americans heavily—they lost seven Thunderbolts, two of them shot down by the German ace Siegfried Lemke, piloting a Fw 190 Dora-9. Lemke, who commanded the III. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 2 even though he only was an Oberleutnant, thus reached a total of fifty air victories.
However, the greatest effort was made by the 9th Air Force fighter to shield the front area from German fighters. This became evident to the German fighter pilots who at three in the afternoon were despatched to the frontal zone. At first, all available Focke Wulf 190s in I. Gruppe / Jagdgeschwader 11 were sent out, followed by an equally large formation from III. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 11. ’It didn’t take long,’ one of the participating German aviators, Oberfähnrich Karl-Otto Buhmann, told German aviation historians Jochen Prien and Peter Rodeike, ’before Allied fighters, Thunderbolts as well as Spitfires and a couple of Mustangs, attacked us from all directions.’26
The Consolidated B-24 Liberator was, alongside the B-17 Flying Fortress, one of the U.S. Army Air Force’s two four-engine strategic bombers that carried out the air offensive against Germany between 1941 and 1945. The aircraft had a length of 67 ft 8 in and a wingspan of110 ft. The bomb load on long-range missions was 5,000 lbs. The armament consisted often flexible .50 M2 Colt-Browning machine guns. The aircraft had a crew of eleven and a top speed of290 m.p.h. (US Air Force)
When the uneven combat was over, the two German fighter groups had lost twenty Fw 190s—eleven alone from the I. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 11, which thus lost a total of seventeen aircraft in combat that day—while they themselves were only able to count five victories. The III. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 4 also participated in fighter sweeps across the front, and lost six Bf 109 without managing to achieve more than a single own victory.
Through this focus combating the German fighter aviation, the medium bombers of the 9th Air Force were able to complete the next major operation against the German lines of communication, on the afternoon of 23 December, without any interference from German fighters. The effect of their bombings stood clear to the 120th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. 30th Infantry Division when six aircraft from the 322nd Bomb Group made a navigational error and dropped eighty-six 250lb. demolition bombs over the American-controlled town of Malmedy in the belief that it was Hammersum in German-controlled area. Sergeant Lloyd Jelleberg in Norwegian-American 99th Infantry Battalion was standing on a hill overlooking the city when the bombs fell. ’I won’t forget it as long as I live,’ he said sixty-eight years after the event. ’Within a minute, the entire town had been turned into a burning, smoldering inferno. The twin-engine bombers came in at low altitude and dropped their bombs, even though we had markers out, and on Christmas Day, B-24s arrived to add to the devastation. It was terrible. Fires raged out of control across the town.’27
This was the start of three absolutely hellish days in the little Belgian town. Since the main water lines were severed and the reservoirs had been frozen, there was no possibility to fight the fires caused by the bombs with any efficiency.
The fires were still raging the next day, when a formation of eighteen B-24 Liberator heavy bombers from the 8th Air Force passed in the air above. Seeing the burning town, the airmen thought that it was their target in Germany and dropped their bombs, which multiplied the devastation in Malmedy. U.S. 120th Infantry Regiment sent a desperate message to the headquarters of the 30th Infantry Division: ’These planes are on us again; they are about to ruin us. Can you call them off?’28 Despite this, the fires in Malmedy attracted another four Marauder bombers on Christmas Day; these bomber crews had been sent out to attack Sankt Vith, which was in German hands, but instead they bombed Malmedy for the third consecutive day. In all, these American bombings caused 225 deaths among Malmedy’s population, and hundreds were injured, while the 120th Infantry Regiment lost thirty-seven killed and ninety wounded soldiers. Of the town’s 1,160 buildings, almost half were destroyed or made uninhabitable.
Although the Germans were those worst affected by the Allied air attacks, the American and British air offensive initially resulted in severe Allied losses. In total, the air operations on the Western Front on 23 December 1944 cost the Germans a loss of one hundred and thirtysix fighter planes.29The Allied losses also were quite substantial—eighty-four aircraft.* Both sides were shaken by the results of the first day of intense flight activity. A report from the headquarters of German Heeresgruppe B read, ’An intense hostile air activity in the entire Army Group area, with fighter-bomber attacks against German spearheads, and four-engine bombers attacking roads and other communication targets in the front zone.’ To the German ground troops, it was utterly demoralizing to note that once again they could not even get a glimpse of any own aircraft, while they constantly had to take cover against Allied airstrikes. Therefore, the II. Jagdkorps issued a new order: In the future, a share of the German fighter aircraft must unconditionally be assigned to tactical support at the front, no matter how great the need of air defense against Allied bombing is.
The crew of an M16 Multiple Gun Motor Carriage anti-aircraft mount is tensely observing the vapor trails of a raging dogfight in the blue sky above. The M16 MGMC was a variant of the half-track vehicle M3 equipped with a Maxson M45 Quad Mount with four .50-caliber M2HB machine guns. This weapon was baptized ‘the Meat Grinder’ by the soldiers because of its terrible effect when deployed against ground troops. (US Army)
On the Allied side it was once again determined to give the highest priority to fight the German aviation; the 8th Air Force even was commissioned to deploy every available heavy bombers in an ’all-out effort’ against German airfields and communication targets in the West on Christmas Eve.
24 December dawned with even clearer weather than on the previous day. Just before sunrise the Luftwaffe was despatched for a major effort to support their own ground forces, but was met with a massive Allied fighter screen. Hence, for example, fighter wing Jagdgeschwader 4 took off with thirty-three Messerschmitt 109s for a mission over the front area, but air combats with U.S. fighters cost them a loss of six aircraft without they themselves being able to list more than one shot down enemy machine.30Another two ’109s were lost in accidents, and two more were destroyed on the ground as the airfield Rhein-Main was attacked by U.S. fighter-bombers.31 The fighter group I. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 77 launched twenty-four Messerschmitt 109s on ’Jabo hunting’ over the 5. Panzerarmee’s area of operations, but became embroiled in difficult fighting with Lockheed Lightning fighters that soon were reinforced by several Thunderbolts. This cost a loss of sixteen German fighters, while the Germans themselves were unable to record more than one enemy aircraft shot down.32
Virtually the only German aircraft that managed to break through the Allied fighter screen on this 24 December, were the jet-powered Arado Ar 234 B-2 bombers from III. Gruppe/ Kampfgeschwader 76. These the world’s first operational jet bomber had shortly before been transferred to this bomber group in order to support the Ardennes Offensive. With a top speed of 461 m.p.h.—even 413 m.p.h. with a bomb load of 2,200 lbs—an Arado 234 pilot could outrun any Allied fighter aircraft at any time. The Arado 234 had its baptism of fire flying reconnaissance missions over Normandy in the summer of 1944, but on Christmas Eve 1944, the first bomber attack with Ar 234s was carried out, led by Hauptmann Dieter Lukesch—a veteran who had made about four hundred bombing mission. With a whistling sound, eight of these jet planes swept in above the railway station at Liège in the morning and dropped one 1,100lb. bomb each, while a ninth machine attacked the railway station at Namur—an important railway hub in the western Ardennes, some twelve miles north of Dinant.33But there were far too few of these aircraft to have any real impact on the battle.
When the 8th Air Force entered the skies over Western Germany with two thousand heavy bombers escorted by over eight hundred fighters, the battle for air superiority was definitely decided to the Allied advantage. Two thirds of these bombers went in against eleven of the most important German airfields west of the Rhine, and the others attacked fourteen different communication targets in the same area.* While one airfield after another was destroyed, the Germans were able to launch a few hundred fighters against the bomber armadas. At the cost of terrible own losses—nearly forty percent of the participating German fighters were lost—they shot down twelve U.S. bombers and ten escort fighters. Another twenty-four U.S. aircraft crashed on the return flight.
Meanwhile, the 9th Air Force and British 2nd Tactical Air Force were able to operate over the Ardennes at their own discretion, now with even greater efficiency than on the previous day. Major General Weyland’s XIX Tactical Air Command, reinforced with three fighter groups from the IX Tactical Air Command and the 8th Air Force, alone was reported to have destroyed or damaged 117 armored vehicles and 588 other vehicles on this day.34 In total, the Allied aviation conducted more than five thousand sorties over the course of 24 December. Although the Luftwaffe on this day made its biggest bet on the Western Front since the invasion of Normandy, the average was five Allied aircraft on each German. This cost a loss of ninety-three Allied aircraft—of which about half were in aerial combat—and one hundred fifty-seven German planes. After this date, OB West, Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt, noted that due to the Allied air operations, ’almost all daytime transport, either troops or of their supplies was impossible. Even regrouping of troops in occupied positions was rendered extremely difficult by the bombardment.’35
The same kind of scenes played out on Christmas Day, the third day in a row with really excellent flying weather. Fritz Wegner, who with the rank of an Oberleutnant flew a Focke Wulf 190 in II. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 1, tells of one of that day’s aerial combats: ’Our Gruppe was directed to the area west of the Rhine, but before we got there we were intercepted by U.S. fighters, an awful lot of Mustangs. Suddenly the sky was full of them and they tore our formation to pieces. Alone against eight Mustangs, I was shot down at Hennef and managed to save my life by bailing out.’36Another ninety-three German aircraft were lost on 25 December, while the German fighter pilots were reported to have shot down twenty-seven Allied aircraft.37
On Boxing Day the Luftwaffe managed to get no more than 404 aircraft into the air, and sixty-five of those were lost. The worst battered units belonged to the 3. Jagd-Division, which despatched a total of 276 fighters (164 Messerschmitt 109s and 112 Focke Wulf 190s) on ’Jabo hunting’ over the front area; they reported the shooting down of fourteen Thunderbolts, two Mustangs, and two artillery observer planes, but at a price of forty-five own aircraft and just as many pilots.38 The bloodbath on German fighter pilots continued on 27 December. On that day, 3. Jagd-Division sent all available aircraft to the area Dinant - Marche - Rochefort.39 But neither attacks against ground targets, nor ’Jabo hunting’ had any greater effect. Among eighteen Focke Wulf 190 pilots sent out by I. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 1 to carry out attacks against ground targets in support of the 2. Panzerdivision near Dinant, only three returned to base.40 Meanwhile, III. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 3 flew ’Jabo hunting’ in the same area, only to lose eight of its Messerschmitt 109s against the shooting down of three Thunderbolts.41 Against nearly three thousand Allied aircraft in the air on 27 December 1944, the Luftwaffe was not able to launch more than about four hundred German.
THE SANKT VITH WEDGE IS ELIMINATED
In the midst of this intense air activity, the Germans desperately attempted to continue their advance towards the Meuse. When the first sunrays began to shine down on the snowy battlefield in the Ardennes on Saturday 23 December 1944, the German offensive on the northern flank had finally been halted. While SS-Kampfgruppe Peiper came closer to its annihilation in La Gleize, the 12. SS-Panzer-Division spent the entire 23 December repairing its damaged vehicles and try to bring order to its shattered units in the rear area.
The fact that Model and von Rundstedt on 20 December decided to shift the emphasis of the offensive from the northern sector assigned to Sepp Dietrich’s SS, and to the sector where von Manteuffel’s 5. Panzerarmee was surging on forward, only underlined the fact that had already been established—that it was in this area that the German main attack de facto took place. In connection therewith, the 2. and 9. SS-Panzer divisions were shifted to the 5. Panzerarmee’s northern wing, where they once again were subordinated to SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Willi Bittrich’s II. SS-Panzerkorps. Quite ironically, on 23 December, General Lucht’s LXVI. Armeekorps, together with II. SS-Panzerkorps, were once again brought under the command of Sepp Dietrich’s 6. SS-Panzerarmee, but by that time it was Model rather than the weary SS general who effectively led the operations.
The section where the II. SS-Panzerkorps and the LXVI. Armeekorps operated became the scene of a dramatic development during the days immediately before Christmas. While the LXVI. Armeekorps, supported by the newly arrived Führer Begleit Brigade, managed to crush the American effort to hold the town of Sankt Vith, the 9. SS-Panzer-Division ’Hohenstaufen’ attacked from the north, from the area of Poteau (five miles northwest of Sankt Vith). Since the 2. SS-Panzer-Division ’Das Reich’ simultaneously attacked from the south, from the area northeast of Houffalize (about fifteen miles southwest of Sankt Vith), this formed a pincer that threatened to seal off and destroy the American forces that held wedge at Sankt Vith—7th Armored Division, and Combat Command B of the 9th Armored Division, plus the 112th and 424th Infantry regiments.
As we have seen before, Field Marshal Montgomery had at the last moment been able to persuade the commander of U.S. First Army, Hodges, to force Ridgway, the U.S. commander on this front section, to reluctantly give up his plan to hold this wedge and instead pull back behind River Salm, ten miles west of Sankt Vith. In the evening on 22 December, Ridgway dismissed Major General Jones, the commander of the 106th Infantry Division. At the same time he appointed Brigadier General Robert Hasbrouck—C.O. of the 7th Armored Division—to command all U.S. forces east of the Salm. Supported by Montgomery and his subordinate generals, Hasbrouck—who consistently had opposed Ridgway’s plan to hold out at Sankt Vith—immediately ordered a general retreat behind the Salm. There, the newly arrived 82nd Airborne Division had taken up defensive positions to meet the German advance. But the forces that this division was up against were quite overwhelming—in the south and southwest were the 2. SS-Panzer-Division and the 560. Volksgrenadier-Division, in the east and southeast the 9. SS-Panzer-Division, the Führer Begleit Brigade, the 18. Volksgrenadier-Division, and the 62. Volksgrenadier-Division, and in the northeast the 1. SS-Panzer-Division (by this time still including SS-Kampfgruppe Peiper).
Captain James R. Lloyd, liaison officer in the 9th Air Force, inspects a Panther destroyed by bombs dropped by U.S. fighter-bombers during the Ardennes Battle. (NARA, A-56251, via Peter Bjork)
It looked grim for the Americans when the Germans on 23 December launched their new attack with the 9. SS- Panzer-Division marching against Poteau, five miles northwest of Sankt Vith, and the Führer Begleit Brigade departing from Rodt, about two miles west of Sankt Vith. From Poteau, there were only about five miles to Vielsalm and its strategic bridge across the Salm. Would the 9. SS-Panzer-Division ’Hohenstaufen’ succeed in taking this place quickly, the U.S. forces in the Sankt Vith wedge would be confined to a single river crossing for their retreat, the one at Cierreux south of Salmchâteau, some four miles farther to the south. It certainly would have meant the end of most of the 7th Armored Division—Combat Command A and Combat Command Reserve, both of which were on the east side of the Salm at Poteau respectively northwest of Poteau.
During the night preceding the attack, the 9. SS-Panzer-Division had carried out a small tank raid against Poteau, destroying two U.S. tanks.42 When the mighty 9. SS-Panzer-Division was ready for the attack at dawn on 23 December, it finally was at full strength in that its Panzer Regiment finally had managed to make its way to the front on the crowded roads in the east.
Without a doubt, the clear weather on 23 December came in the nick of time for the Americans even on this front section. When the German attack formations moved forward to Poteau, they were hit by scores of twin-engine Lockheed Lightning fighter-bombers from the 370th Fighter Group that dropped bombs and sprayed the area with their heavy machine guns. This forced the Germans to halt and take cover, which was used by the Americans to lay an artillery barrage across the area. Five Panther tanks—including the one commanded by the C.O. of SS-Panzer-Regiment 9, SS-Sturmbannführer Eberhardt Telkamp (who, however, would escape unharmed)—were knocked out.43 Poteau could indeed be taken, but after that, incessant American fighter-bomber attacks made it impossible for the 9. SS-Panzer-Division to continue the advance, whereby the two Combat commands of the 7th Armored Division could be evacuated across River Salm at Vielsalm.
A winter-camouflaged Panzer IV and a group of panzer grenadiers. On the tank’s front section a killed soldier has been placed. (BArch, Bild 101I-700-0275-16/Vennemann)
Against Oberst Remer’s Führer Begleit Brigade, further south, however, the U.S. aviation was hardly able to intervene, since both friend and foe were on the move, making it difficult to tell them apart. At eight in the morning on 23 December, Oberst Remer’s armor drove out from Rodt and followed the narrow little country road over the snow-covered fields towards Hinderhausen, five miles southwest of Sankt Vith.44 The task was to seal off the American forces that still remained in the southern part of the Sankt Vith wedge—Combat Command B of the 7th Armored Division, Combat Command B of the 9th Armored Division, Task Force Jones, and the 112th and 424th Infantry regiments. The German brigade’s main goal was the roads leading from Beho to Salmchâteau and Vielsalm respectively, which—as the Germans could figure out—were the American main routes of retreat.
But the Führer Begleit Brigade only had a third of the 9. SS-Panzer-Division’s strength, and also had a greater distance to cover—this on significantly worse roads. At Hinderhausen, the Americans had positioned a rearguard force, consisting of elements of the 31st Tank Battalion and the 87th Armored Cavalry Squadron, reinforced with a platoon from the 814th Tank Destroyer Battalion. The latter was equipped with the latest tracked tank destroyer, the M36 Jackson, armed with the dreaded 90mm M3 anti-tank cannon—the American equivalent of the German 88mm gun. While this rearguard force delayed the Führer Begleit Brigade, hundreds of U.S. vehicles streamed south from Maldingen and Commanster, on the other side of the spruce forest Weistervenn (Kapellenbusch), two miles further south and southwest, filling the two roads that led north towards Vielsalm and northwest towards Salmchâteau. The gallant little force at Hinderhausen actually managed to save the bulk of the U.S. forces from having their retreat sealed off.
When Remer’s brigade finally was able to break the American opposition at Hinderhausen, most American troops were already on their way across the Salm. According to the German report, the battle for Hinderhausen cost a loss of two German and four American tanks.45 The U.S. report admits the loss of two Shermans and a tracked tank destroyer.46
Führer Begleit Brigade continued on the same narrow roads—in principle nothing but wheel tracks—into the Weistervenn forest—where the Germans found a number of abandoned American tanks.47 U.S. 87th Armored Cavalry Squadron’s after action report shows that one of its company commanders ’lost control’ of a platoon of Sherman tanks and three tracked tank destroyers that had left Hinterhausen.48
The Germans soon reached the main road Beho - Vielsalm at Commanster, but found that the Americans had eluded the trap.49 Frustrated, Remer ordered his troops to continue straight across the snow-covered fields to the southwest, to sever the road that runs north along the Salm’s riverbank—the last remaining American retreat route. But at Rogery, halfway between the two main roads, the Americans had positioned another unit—this time a battalion of the 112th Infantry Regiment under Colonel Gustin M. Nelson (the same unit that had held out at the crossroads at Ouren for several days). By now, Nelson’s little force had lost all of its anti-tank weapons, but held its own while a desperate call went to Hasbrouck, into whose armored division the 112th Infantry Regiment had been incorporated. All that Hasbrouck’s badly mauled division could muster in the form of reserves were two tracked tank destroyers that drove at full speed to Rogery. They arrived just to see a group of German tanks coming down the hill to the east. A fierce gun fire drove back the Germans, and soon a platoon of Stuart tanks and a number of towed anti-tank guns arrived to reinforce the defense of Rogery.
No German tank losses at Rogery are known, but this small American force also managed to hold back the Führer Begleit Brigade for several hours. Oberst Remer, who knew nothing about the strength of his opponent, decided to wait until his artillery battalion had moved into position to shell Rogery. When the Germans finally managed to capture the small village, shortly after it had been evacuated by the Americans, the sun had almost set.
Owing to the 112th Infantry Regiment, Task Force Jones—the ad hoc unit commanded by the 814th Tank Destroyer Battalion’s C.O., Lieutenant Colonel Robert B. Jones, that held the southern flank of the Sankt Vith wedge—just barely managed to slip away. Its rear units, however, were intercepted by the most advanced force of the Führer Begleit Brigade—consisting of a few tank destroyers. By then, Task Force Jones was moving along the road between Bovigny and Salmchâteau, which winds northwards along the Salm. The troops had just started to cross the bridge at Cierreux, west of Rogery, when Remer’s force struck. Oberst Remer wrote:
’The advance force reported an enemy column in a northerly direction on the road from Bovigny to Salmchâteau. I ordered my men to block the road south of the mill at Cierreux and follow just behind the enemy columns in order to gain as much ground as possible without engaging the enemy. However, this was soon noticed by the enemy, and the tank at the rear opened fire. I myself witnessed how our tank destroyers put five enemy tanks and two anti-tank guns out of action by driving 50 meters ahead one at a time, firing a flare in such a manner that the enemy tank was completely lit up. In most cases the enemy target was destroyed with the first shot.’50
When the American column then reached the outskirts of Salmchâteau, it was attacked by tank destroyers from SS-Sturmbannführer Krag’s armored reconnaissance battalion of the 2. SS-Panzer-Division, which came from the southwest in the darkness and knocked out a whole row of Stuart tanks. According to the 7th Armored Division’s after action report, these engagements cost Task Force Jones the loss of a Sherman, three Stuart tanks, four Hellcats (from ’B’ Company of the 814th Tank Destroyer Battalion), two towed anti-tank guns, and two other vehicles.51But the losses obviously were larger. Major John Medusky in the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of U.S. 82nd Airborne Division afterwards reported regarding Task Force Jones:
’Their morale was low, and they had been shot at so often in the preceding days that they were all pretty jumpy. They had been told where we were, but they had received so many previous stories about the presence of friendly troops that did not materialize, that you could not blame them too much for what happened subsequently. At any rate, when they got several hundred yards south of Salmchâteau, and enemy small-arms fire and the Tiger tank opened on them, many of them abandoned their vehicles and equipment and took off on foot. About 300 men and 40 vehicles—approximately half the force that left the Bovigny area—succeeded in escaping through the Salmchâteau gap and on toward Grand-Sart.’52 According to another report from the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Task Force Jones’ column consisted of 100 combat vehicles when it was subjected to the German attack.53
The barely 31-year-old Major Otto Ernst Remerplayed a critical role in the suppression of the 20 July plot against Hitler in 1944. A few months later he was promoted to Oberst and appointed to command the Führer Begleit Brigade, which he led with great success in the Ardennes Battle. Remer died in 1997 in Spain. In the photo, which was taken during the Ardennes Battle in January 1945, Remer carries the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, as well as the bracelet of the Grossdeutschland Division. The Führer Begleit Brigade still had organizational links to Panzerkorps Grossdeutschland.(BArch, Bild 183-2004-0330-500)
From the German side, Oberst Remer wrote, ’Because the enemy column was apparently stopped by the demolition of a bridge, about 12 tanks and 20 vehicles could be captured. The crews scattered into the terrain during the darkness.’54
In the general confusion, one of the American units was ’forgotten’—Colonel Nelson’s 112th Infantry Regiment, which at first had been ordered to retreat under the cover of Task Force Jones, only to receive a counterorder according to which the roles were reversed, with Nelson’s troops covering the retreat of Task Force Jones. But when this task was completed, Nelson received no new orders.
Over the course of 23 December, the weary men of the 112th—who lacked supplies since their supply roads had been sealed off—saw other American units stream past on their way west. When the last retreat column had passed, Colonel Nelson radioed the commander of the 7th Armored Division, Hasbrouck, to report this, but received no retreat orders.55
At three in the afternoon, Nelson decided in his sole discretion to allow a withdrawal of his men. Since the Germans by that time had taken the roads in the area, the Americans who departed at dusk had to make it on foot through the snow-covered hills in the area between Rogery in the south and River Salm in the north. It became a march in appalling conditions, where what remained of the regiment dissolved into countless small groups or even individual soldiers fighting to maintain the orientation in the frigid night, and to avoid detection by German patrols. Many were taken prisoner by the Germans or succumbed one way or another, but most managed to reach the lines held by the 82nd Airborne Division.56 A U.S. report describes the condition of the 112th Infantry Regiment when its exhausted and embittered soldiers staggered through the airborne division’s lines during the night of 23 December and through Christmas Eve, ’Rations low, morale low. The weather was very cold and the men were tired and hungry.’57
But the crisis was only temporarily resolved. Both the evacuated forces and the 82nd Airborne Division were subject to a new threat of being sealed off—this time from the two SS Panzer divisions ’Hohenstaufen’ (9.) in the northeast and ’Das Reich’ (2.) in the southwest.
THE BATTLE FOR BARAQUE DE FRAITURE
SS-Sturmbannführer Krag’s armored reconnaissance battalion, which had intercepted Task Force Jones at Salmchâteau, represented only the eastern flank of SS-Oberführer Heinz Lammerding’s 2. SS-Panzer-Division ’Das Reich,’ whose main force was heading north on Highway N 15 on 23 December.* This leads from Bastogne in the south, through Houffalize, and further northwards, via Manhay and on to Liège and the Meuse in the north. The ’Das Reich’ Division’s first goal on 23 December was the crossroads Baraque de Fraiture, where the N 15 crosses the east-west road between Salmchâteau at River Salm seven miles to the east, and La Roche on River Ourthe, ten miles to the west. Next, the 2. SS-Panzer-Division aimed at Manhay, the crossroads six miles farther to the northwest, where the main road west from Vielsalm crossed the N 15. Thus, this German force threatened to get up behind the American units that stood at River Salm in the east. If the 2. SS-Panzer-Division managed to capture Baraque de Fraiture and Manhay, and the 9. SS-Panzer-Division ’Hohenstaufen’ also captured Grand- Halleux at the Salm north of Vielsalm, both the U.S. units that just had slipped out of the trap at Sankt Vith, and the 82nd Airborne Division, would find themselves enveloped.
To the Americans, it was crucial that Lammerding was stopped at Baraque de Fraiture. The problem was that there were no coherent units to meet the 2. SS-Panzer-Division frontally.
Baraque de Fraiture was located at the seam between the 82nd Airborne Division under Major General James M. Gavin and the 3rd Armored Division under Major General Maurice E. Rose, two of the U.S. Army’s toughest divisional commanders, both equally strong-willed and both with the same respect for the other. Gavin’s Corps commander, Ridgway, characterized Rose as ’one of the most gallant soldiers I have ever known.’58 Actually it was Rose’s responsibility to hold the main road N 15. But even if his division was a ’heavy armored division’—with 14,000 troops and 390 tanks instead of 10,500 men and 263 tanks, it was by now both fragmented and under heavy pressure from various German units.59 Combat Command B still was tied to the battle against SS-Kampfgruppe Peiper at La Gleize on the north side of Amblève, twelve miles northeast of the Baraque de Fraiture, and was currently subordinated to the 30th Infantry Division. Large parts of Combat Command A and Combat Command Reserve were under heavy pressure from German 116. Panzer-Division—and as we have seen, one of its battlegroups, Task Force Hogan, was surrounded at Marcouray just east of the Ourthe river, ten miles or so southwest of Baraque de Fraiture.*
All that Rose’s armored division was able to assemble at Baraque de Fraiture was a Sherman platoon from the 3rd Battalion, 32nd Armored Regiment and a rifle platoon from ’I’ Company, 36th Armored Infantry Regiment. These joined the small and—to put it mildly—motley force that had been hastily pulled together and sent to Baraque de Fraiture.** Command of this force was assumed by the executive officer of the 589th Field Artillery Battalion, Major Arthur Parker, who a few days earlier had managed to escape the German envelopment of the 106th Infantry Division east of the Our river with three field howitzers. He thus had seen more than enough of the German attack ability. It did not help that the airborne general Gavin arrived at the small village of Fraiture just northeast of the crossroads at noon on 23 December to order Major Richard M. Gibson, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, to ’take command of all units regardless of designation at the crossroad.’60 (Italics in the original text.)
A U.S. aerial photo of Baraque de Fraiture in the winter of 1944/1945. The photograph is taken from the south and clearly shows the main road N15 extending into the spruce forests north of the intersection, towards Manhay. At Baraque de Fraiture, the N15 crossed the smaller road between Salmcha-teau (although it is not entirely correctly written Vielsalm in the photograph) to the east and La Roche, via Samree, in the west. The well-known inn is right next to the intersection, on the right. Just off the glade in the photograph’s top right corner is the village of Fraiture. (US Army)
Accounts of the ensuing battle often emphasizes the fact that the crossroads Baraque de Fraiture is located at an altitude of over 2,000 feet. This may give the impression that the Americans were in position on top of a great height with excellent view of the lower ground from where the Germans attacked. But the surrounding landscape also is high. In fact, the greatest elevation, slightly more than 2,000 feet, is located 500 yards northwest of the crossroads. The main road N 15, where the Germans came on their advance towards the crossroads, ran in a barely perceptible uphill slope towards Baraque de Fraiture. When one stands in the middle of the crossroads and looks to the south or southwest—which was the Americans perspective on 23 December1944—almost no altitude difference can be sensed. Only the road and the open fields to the east—towards Salmchâteau—can be apprehended as something of a downhill.
At half past three in the afternoon on 23 December, eight Panzer IVs from 7. Kompanie/ SS-Panzer-Regiment 2, led by SS-Obersturmfuh-rer Horst Gresiak in tank No. 701, rolled out on both sides of the N 15 southeast of Baraque de Fraiture. Their guns immediately knocked out two Shermans. (BArch, Bild 101I-277-0843-04A/Jacob)
The inn ‘Laurent Jacquet’ at Baraque de Fraiture was the scene of heavy fighting on 23 December 1944. The building was partially destroyed by a German tank that ran straight into the building. The house was rebuilt, however, during the war and today is still run by the same family. Today it is called ’Auberge du Carrefour’ The picture was taken just before World War II and shows the inn as it looked when the battle begun. (Photo via Esmeralda Lejeune, Auberge du Carrefour.)
In American literature, the fight for Baraque de Fraiture usually is described as a kind of extended, quite heavy battle. An attempt by a small force of seventy to ninety men from Kampfgruppe Schumann from the 560. Volksgrenadier-Division to capture the crossroads through a surprise attack at five in the morning on 23 December, failed due to the American vigilance, and was repulsed after an hour of fierce close combat.61 Then it took until shortly before dusk before the Germans made another attempt to attack.
At half past three in the afternoon on 23 December, after twenty minutes of preparatory artillery fire, eight Panzer IVs from the 7. Kompanie, SS-Panzer-Regiment 2, led by SS-Obersturmführer Horst Gresiak in tank No. 701, advanced on both sides of the N 15 in the southeast. Their guns immediately knocked out two Shermans. Via radio, the Americans sent a request for permission to withdraw, but the answer from Major General Gavin was short and stern: ’Hold at all costs!’62
This order had barely been assigned, when another German force attacked behind the U.S. troops. Panzergrenadiers and a couple of assault guns from the III. Bataillon/ SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 4 ’Der Führer’ had penetrated the woods west of Baraque de Fraiture, and as these now stormed out of the forest, the defense collapsed.63 Captain Junior R. Woodruff, who commanded ’F’ Company of the 2nd Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, radioed his regimental commander, Colonel George Billingslea, and desperately asked again for permission to pull back. Finally, he got the permission to do so, but for most of his men it was too late.64
The Americans departed heads over heel, with the three remaining Shermans setting off at full speed on the uphill to the north, and ’D’ Troop, 87th Cavalry Squadron reporting afterwards, ’All vehicles had been destroyed by enemy action and those still able to leave the position on foot were to do so.’65 Those Americans who failed to get away, took refuge in the tavern Laurent Jacquet at the crossroads, but this was not very helpful. One of these soldiers, Corporal John F. Gatens from the 589th Field Artillery Battalion, remembers how he heard a German officer shouting to them in broken English from the road outside, ’There is a German tank outside the door. His gun is pointing at you. Are you coming out or do I tell this guy to fire?’ The American soldiers came out on trembling knees and were searched by the Germans. Then they were herded together with a large group of other Americans that were lined up along the roadside with their hands over their heads. At some point a Panzer IV crashed right into the inn’s south side, but it is not quite clear when and why this took place.
This destroyed U.S. 105mm M2A1 howitzer testifies to the American defeat at Baraque de Fraiture.(NARA US Signal Corps)
When the battle was over, Gresiak’s tank company could count seventeen destroyed U.S. tanks, plus thirty destroyed or captured half-tracks and jeeps—all against own losses of four panzers.66 According to the U.S. report, eleven Sherman tanks and all four anti-tank guns, three 105mm howitzers, four half-tracks with ’Quad Fifty’ mounts, and eight 2 V ton trucks were lost at Baraque de Fraiture.67 Of the one hundred and nineteen men in Woodruff’s company, only forty-four came back from Baraque de Fraiture.68
The Americans who put up this brave fight to resist the SS troops at Baraque de Fraiture have today been honored with a monument at the crossroads—complete with such an M2A1 105mm field howitzer that was used to hold the important place, which today goes by the name of ’Parker’s Crossroad.’ The old tavern is still in use by the same family. The U.S. ground troops had indeed fought with great courage, but it was not really their earnings that the powerful 2. SS-Panzer-Division’s forward march actually was halted for most of 23 December.
ALLIED AIR POWER AGAINST GERMAN ARMOR
What in fact stopped the 2. SS-Panzer-Division from cleaving the U.S. forces between rivers Salm and Ourthe on 23 December, was the American aviation. Through ceaseless fighter-bomber attacks from sunrise on 23 December, the Thunderbolt pilots of the 406th Fighter Group and several other air units forced the Germans to take cover in the woods at Petites-Tailles southeast of Baraque de Fraiture.69
Then, when the crossroads finally was in German hands, the German divisional commander Lammerding decided to refrain from immediately continuing the advance, to avoid exposing his tanks to ambushes in the darkness from the woods that lined the N 15 north of Baraque de Fraiture. Instead, he sent panzer grenadiers from SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 4 ’Der Führer’ against the village of Odeigne, three miles farther to the west, on the night of the 23rd. With their Panzerfausts, these annihilated an entire platoon of Stuart tanks and captured the village.70But the rather confused nightly battle in the forest cost both sides dearly. The German regimental commander, SS-Obersturmbannführer Weidinger, wrote:
Immediately after the defeat at Baraque de Fraiture, the Americans did not have much to fight the mighty 2. SS-Panzer-Division ‘Das Reich.’ In the village of Fraiture on the other side of the forest northeast of the crossroads, the 2nd Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry Regiment of U.S. 82nd Airborne Division had taken up positions. In this picture, airborne troops are loading a 75mm Pack Howitzer M8 (Airborne). This was an easily detachable howitzer used by the American airborne forces. The piece weighed 1,339 lbs., had a firing range of 9,600 yards, and a rate of fire of three rounds per minute. (US Army)
’The 3. Company’s losses were extremely heavy. The advance platoon was virtually wiped out. The Company then took up defensive positions around Fraiture. In the marshy combat area a sudden temperature drop caused widespread frostbite, which took a severe toll in both battalions. The losses due to frostbite already amounts to between three and five percent.’71
The U.S. airstrikes that over the course of 23 December prevented 2. SS-Panzer-Division ’Das Reich’ from achieving a decisive breakthrough on the main road N 15 simply can’t be overestimated. As we had seen, the small American force at Baraque de Fraiture stood no chance against the powerful 2. SS- Panzer-Division. Neither were there any American forces in the rear area that would have been able to stop the SS Panzer Division. All that was available to meet the 2. SS- Panzer-Division along the N 15 north of Baraque de Fraiture on 23 December was ’C’ Company of Combat Command B, 9th Armored Division—which over the course of the day arrived at Manhay after the retreat from the sector south of Sankt Vith—and Task Force Brewster, a small force from the 3rd Armored Division. In addition to those forces, the 2nd Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division held the small hamlet of Fraiture about two thousand yards northeast of the crossroads. Without the American aviation’s contribution, these forces would have been swept away by the 2. SS- Panzer-Division on 23 December (as we shall see further on).
Had the 2. SS- Panzer-Division ’Das Reich’ broken through, it would have had far-reaching consequences. Firstly, it could either have sealed off U.S. 82nd Airborne Division and the recently evacuated elements of the 7th Armored Division at River Salm in the east, or it could (as we will also see later) have forced the 82nd Airborne Division to hastily abandon its positions at the Salm river to retreat northwestwards. If any of this had taken place on 23 December, German 9. SS-Panzer-Division would have been able to come to SS-Kampfgruppe Peiper’s relief. Thus, the entire northern German flank would have been open for a renewed offensive by the I. SS-Panzerkorps. At this time, the 1. SS-Panzer-Division still had at least ninety tanks (including thirty-two Königstigers) at its disposal. In such a situation, it is entirely possible that Montgomery would have been compelled to shift the forces that now were fighting the advance units of the 2. Panzer-Division at Dinant to the northeast. Thereby, the Germans would probably have been able to be across the Meuse already by Christmas Eve.
While the aviation forced SS-Oberführer Lammerding’s armor to take cover, German 116. Panzer-Division was running out of steam. This division was advancing in parallel with the 2. SS-Panzer-Division, six miles farther to the west. As we saw earlier, in the evening on 20 December the advance force of the 116. Panzer-Division’s Kampfgruppe Bayer had reached a point northeast of the small town of Hotton, about twelve miles west-northwest of Baraque de Fraiture and only eighteen miles south of River Meuse at the town of Huy. Via the bridge across the Ourthe at Hotton, a road led straight to Marche, just six miles farther to the southwest. At this important road junction, U.S. 84th Infantry Division was marching up on the right flank of German XLVII. Panzerkorps’ 2. Panzer-Division and Panzer Lehr. Even here the Germans had, at least theoretically, a great opportunity. Would the 116. Panzer-Division have been able to take this river crossing, and then assemble sufficient forces against Marche, not only could the advance units of the 2. Panzer-Division have been spared their demise, but it could also have led to the Germans actually crossing the Meuse.
In fact, a small force consisting of a platoon from U.S. 51st Engineer Combat Battalion under Captain Preston B. Hodges, a Hellcat tank destroyer, and two tank platoons from the 3rd Armored Division managed to halt the 116. Panzer-Division’s advance force before the weather permitted any major air operations. This of course was facilitated by the relative weakness of the German vanguard force—which by that time had no more than four serviceable tanks and a couple of motorized support troops at its disposal. The German attack at dawn on 21 December began with the leading Panther tank driving back the armor from the 3rd Armored Division by destroying a Sherman and Stuart. But before this Panther—with Oberleutnant Kurt Kohn as commander—could make its way across the bridge, it was subject to fire from a 37mm anti-aircraft gun on the other side of the river. Private Lee J. Ishmael fired sixteen shells in the space of three minutes.72 Thus the turning mechanism of the Panther’s turret was blocked, and the tank was immobilized because several of its drive wheels were shot apart. Next, the Panther was completely destroyed by the Hellcat’s powerful gun.73 Another German tank, a Panzer IV, was so badly damaged that it was abandoned by its crew.
Gunners from U.S. 195th Field Artillery Battalion prepare a 203mm M115 8-in howitzer to fire in the vicinity of Freyneux in December 1944. With its 16 ft 10 in long barrel the M115 fired 200lbs heavy HE M106 explosive shells with a range of fire of nearly 19,000 yards. (NARA, 111-SC-198372, US Army Signal Corps/S/Sgt Dwight Ellett)
Through this defensive battle, the Americans gained enough time for reinforcements—Combat Command Reserve, 3rd Armored Division from the north, and troops from the 84th Infantry Division from the south—to catch up. Generalmajor von Waldenburg, C.O. of the 116. Panzer-Division, wrote, ’Our own casualties in the battle of Hotton were heavy. Several of our tanks were lost through enemy artillery, others were damaged. The troops were tired, they had been in action without interruption from 16 December, continuously engaged in marches in cold, wet winter weather. Vehicles broke down due to continuous use in bad weather and bad roads.’74
On the morning of 22 December, von Waldenburg was ordered to re-route his advance towards Marche southwards and cross River Ourthe at La Roche, nine miles upstream (southeast) from Hotton. We have already seen how the bold commander of the 116. Panzer-Division had been rebuked by the Army commander von Manteuffel and the Corps commander Krüger for his wayward rapid thrusts. Not without bitterness, von Waldenburg wrote, ’The Division was now ordered to proceed in the very same vicinity, where it probably could have been on 20 December, had the Bertogne - Salle advance not been called off (19 December). This meant the loss of three important days, which undoubtedly played a large part during the coming battles east of Marche, and resulted in a tactical and operational disadvantage for the German attacks.’75
The situation was very complicated, and there was—as we shall see—an imminent threat to the 2. Panzer-Division, whose spearhead were in Hargimont, about twelve miles northwest of Ortheuville at the Western Ourthe (Ourthe Occidentale) and just four miles southwest of the positions held by the U.S. 84th Infantry Division at Marche. But by launching an attack from the northeast against the German force at Hotton on 23 December, Combat Command Reserve, 3rd Armored Division prevented von Waldenburg from making an immediate withdrawal of his advanced armor force. Thus, the Americans gained additional valuable time—even if it cost them a loss of six Shermans and two Stuarts.76
When von Waldenburg on 23 December had managed to assemble his tanks at La Roche, these were subject to aerial attacks by Lightning fighter-bombers from the 370th Fighter Group, and a flank attack by another force from the 3rd Armored Division, Task Force Kane of Combat Command B. However, the latter was forced to withdraw after having lost an entire platoon of Sherman tanks.77 Only on the evening on 23 December was Kampfgruppe Bayer able to start crossing the Ourthe at La Roche and begin the advance towards the northwest and Marche.
Christmas Eve dawned with even clearer skies than the previous day. The sun had barely risen before swarms of Allied fighter-bombers appeared above the battlefield. Their attacks were particularly intense in the area immediately east of the Ourthe, where the infantry of German 560. Volksgrenadier-Division held Task Force Hogan from U.S. 3rd Armored Division encircled at Marcouray. These air strikes drew the 560. Volksgrenadier-Division away from the exposed hills east of Marcouray on 24 December. An effort by seven twin-engine C-47 Skytrain transport planes to drop supplies to Task Force Hogan on the afternoon of that day, however, was less successful: all transport aircraft except one were shot down by anti-aircraft guns.78
Twenty-five miles farther to the northeast, on the other side of River Salm, the 9. SS-Panzer-Division ’Hohenstaufen’ had, as we have seen, ousted Colonel Rosebaum’s Combat Command A, 7th Armored Division from its positions at Poteau in the Sankt Vith area on 23 December. The British Ultra codebreakers in Bletchley Park intercepted an order from OB West von Rundstedt that the 9. SS-Panzer-Division ’at any cost’ must cross the Salm.79
This destroyed Sherman, covered in snow, was just one of many similar sad guises that the U.S. Army during the course of January 1945 encountered as it recaptured the area in the Ardennes which the Germans had captured in December 1944. (Via David E. Brown)
Hence, on the morning on 24 December large formations of Allied fighter-bombers were again vectored against the 9. SS-Panzer-Division. This time it was Typhoon planes of British 2nd Tactical Air Force, whose rocket projectiles knocked out at least forty of the ’Hohenstaufen’ Division’s motor vehicles and forced the German troops to take cover in the forests in the area.80 Only after dark late in the afternoon was the 9. SS-Panzer-Division able to resume its advance, and in the evening it reached the Salm, five miles west of Poteau.81 By that time, U.S. 7th Armored Division’s Combat Command A under Colonel Dwight A. Rosebaum had been able to pull back across the river at Vielsalm. Another effect of the American air attacks that held back the 2. SS-Panzer-Division on Highway N 15 at Baraque de Fraiture during most of 23 December, was that Colonel Rosebaum’s armor could continue through Lierneux and up to Manhay, five miles northwest of Baraque de Fraiture.82
The small village of Fraiture is located on the other side of the forest northeast of Baraque de Fraiture, two thousand yards or so north-east of the famous crossroads. Here, 2nd Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry Regiment could hold its positions still on the morning on 24 December, owing to the intervention of U.S. aircraft, as described in the American Battalion’s report:
’The enemy had penetrated the 2,000-yard gap in the regimental line between Fraiture and Regne [and] was now on the Battalion’s supply and evacuation route. […] Before half of the Battalion had left the town at 1015 a flight of eight American aircraft dive-bombed the crossroads to the southwest. Later captured enemy documents revealed that the enemy had planned a concerted attack on the positions at the crossroads and Fraiture with the mission of destroying the defensive force. The enemy plan was to attack the crossroads at 1030 with one Battalion of tanks, two battalions of infantry and one regiment of artillery in support. Another force was to outflank the crossroads to the west and hit Fraiture from the rear. The dive-bombers struck the lead elements of the attacking force just south of the crossroads at 1015 as the Battalion was evacuating Fraiture.’83*
On the German side, SS-Oberführer Lammerding sent an urgent request for fighter cover.84 When this however failed to materialize, he drew the conclusion that, as on the previous day, it would be almost impossible to continue the advance in daylight. In spite of the risk of getting ambushed from the dark forests that lined the N 15, he ordered a resumption of the offensive as soon as the sun had set on 24 December. While the SS troops took cover from the enemy aviation in the forests, they were subject to a murderous artillery fire, whereby the commander of the III. Bataillon/ SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiments 4 ’Der Führer,’ SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Heinz Werner, was injured.85
Another effect of the large presence of allied fighter-bombers was an increased American artillery superiority. As soon as Allied fighter-bombers were present in the air in an area, nearly all German artillery in the vicinity held its fire, to not disclose their positions. According Generalleutnant Karl Thoholte, artillery adviser to Generalfeldmarschall Model in Heeresgruppe B, the Allied air superiority led to a decrease in the German artillery activity by between 50 and 60 percent. ’This had such a serious effect that it was impossible to keep the enemy heavy guns down,’ wrote Thoholte.86
Possibly it was due to the massive fire from the almost unopposed American artillery—which with the assistance of artillery observation planes started to fire with an increasing precision—that Lammerding decided to launch his attack before nightfall, which had serious consequences for the Germans. The 2. and 3. Panzer-Kompanies of SS-Panzer-Regiment 2 were assigned to continue west from Odeigne, towards the village of Freyneux, in order to drive away the American armored force that had been identified in the area, Task Force Richardson—consisting of the bulk of the 3rd Battalion, 32nd Armored Regiment, and ’I’ Company, 36th Armored Infantry Regiment. This maneuver was aimed at covering the advance along the N 15 from flank attack.87
SS-Untersturmführer Fritz Langanke, tank commander in one of the Panthers of 2. Panzer-Kompanie/ SS-Panzer-Regiment 2, recalls, ’The attack was to begin during the night. When we started our advance, it was, regrettably, already daylight.’88 Allied fighter-bombers immediately fell upon the German tanks with bombs and rockets. Langanke continues his description:
We drove towards a gently rising, snow-covered slope, which glimmered brightly in the light of the sun low above the horizon. We were looking out of the hatches in order to see better. We had barely advanced 100 meters when the Americans opened fire. They fired simultaneously on us and the 3. Kompanie whose vehicles were showing their rear to them. Then, everything happened very quickly. The panzer of Untersturmführer Seeger caught on fire with the first hit. He was able to jump out, badly burned, but the four comrades of his crew died in the vehicle. The panzer of Oberscharführer Pippert was stopped, after taking hits, and its gun hung down, obviously out of action. The crew bailed out. I could not make out the fate of the fourth vehicle, as it drove slowly backward, after having been hit. I noticed that the Americans also fired to our sides and beyond us. I turned my head further back and watched as panzers of the 3. Kompanie were knocked out from behind. In such a situation, when one was almost completely helpless, a terrible rage set in. We pulled ahead a little and opened fire ourselves. Because of the heavy fire setting in, to which was added increased fighter-bomber activity, the grenadiers jumped off and found, with some difficulty, some cover in the shallow ditch next to the row of trees to our right.89
Langanke continued forward with his Panther and shot up a Sherman that had taken cover behind a pile of logs. Meanwhile, his own vehicle received an incessant fire from both fighter-bombers and one or more U.S. anti-tank guns, whose caliber nevertheless were insufficient to penetrate the Panther’s sloped front armor. But when this had received a dozen hits, the welds partially cracked up. Although the daylight shone through the cracks in the frontal armor, and although more armor-piercing shells hammered on the indomitable Panther, Langanke refused to give in. But when the tank had received around twenty hits, the driver, who was sitting just a few inches away from the exploding shells, had had enough. He went mad, and wildly screaming jumped out of the tank so that Langanke had to follow suit and pull him back into the vehicle.
In that situation, Langanke gave the orders to disengage. The mangled steel colossus rolled slowly back along the forest road, passing the two knocked out tanks, one of which by then was completely enveloped by flames. Langanke found that more and more American fighter-bombers mingled in the game and attacked the 3. Kompanie’s tanks. ’Every time the aircraft approached, we felt great anxiety in our panzers,’ Langanke recalls. ’The fighter-bombers, flying at very low altitude, had to pass right overhead and we were never sure if we might be their target.’90
Panther tanks of the 2. SS-Panzer-Division ‘Das Reich’ in the Ardennes. The German caption reads: ‘Ourgrenadiers are caught in a bitter fight with the Americans over a significant hill. To the sound of the battle alarm, Panther tanks are set in motion to join the battle.’ (BArch, Bild 183-J28646/SS-PK-Kriegsberichter Schulz)
The Thunderbolt pilots of the 397th Fighter Squadron, 368th Fighter Group claimed to have destroyed eleven German tanks and twelve trucks at Freyneux.91 This proved to be an exaggeration, but clearly these airstrikes contributed to the German tank losses.
SS-OBERSCHARFUHRER BARKMANN’S ACCIDENTAL RAID
But Task Force Richardson had been neutralized, and thus on Christmas Eve the 2. SS-Panzer-Division could begin its advance north along the N 15, with Manhay as the first goal. Against the SS armor stood, again, a rather motley U.S. defensive force. Manhay was defended by Combat Command A of the 7th Armored Division with thirty-one remaining tanks and six tank destroyers, plus ’C’ Company of Combat Command B, 9th Armored Division.92 In front of these forces, Task Force Brewster from the 32nd Armored Regiment (of Combat Command A, 3rd Armored Division) held positions at the crossroads Belle Haie, a mile or so after Baraque de Fraiture. Task Force Brewster consisted of three platoons of tanks, tank destroyers and infantry, reinforced by paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne’s 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and ’C’ Company, 290th Regiment of the newly arrived and completely inexperienced 75th Infantry Division.93 This force had been put together only on the day before by the commander of the 32nd Armored Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Walter B. Richardson, who placed it under the command of Major Olin F. Brewster, who was assigned with the somewhat unrealistic task to retake Baraque de Fraiture.
The Panther tanks in the 4. Panzer-Kompanie under SS-Hauptsturmführer Ortwin Pohl opened the attack at 2200 on 24 December. The vanguard consisted of the 3rd platoon under SS-Hauptscharführer Franz Frauscher. SS-Oberscharführer Ernst Barkmann, tank commander of Panther No. 401 later described the events:
’The tall fir trees that we pass on our way forward are weighted down by heavy snow. High above, the full moon shines from a starry sky so we can see all the contours from afar. To begin with, all goes well. From the south we reach the crossroads occupied by the opponent. We attack in double rows and open fire against all the identified goals with our anti-tank guns. The enemy hardly responds to our surprising attack.’94
In Belle Haie Major Brewster sent a request for permission to withdraw, but back came from Lieutenant Colonel Walter B. Richardson: ’Don’t give an inch unless I approve it!’95
In the midst of the assault on Belle Haie, SS-Hauptscharführer Frauscher on the German side radioed that he would continue along the N 15 towards Manhay. That he immediately thereafter became embroiled in a fierce battle with Brewster’s tanks, he could not communicate. In that situation, SS-Oberscharführer Barkmann decided to take the N 15 towards Manhay, a mile and a half farther to the north, to support his comrade. Unaware that he thus left Frauscher behind, Barkmann continued at full speed towards Manhay.
After a while Barkmann caught sight of a parked tank with the tank commander standing in the turret. Believing that it was Frauscher’s Panther, Barkmann stopped alongside this and called the tank commander. When the other man, terrified, popped into his tank and slammed the hatch, Barkmann realized his mistake—this was an American Sherman! Barkmann shouted out his orders, ’Gunner, the tank next to us is hostile! Fire!’ The Panther’s turret rotated to the right as quickly as possible, but the long gun barrel only banged against the Sherman’s turret. Barkmann’s driver, SS-Rottenführer Grundmeyer, however, reacted quickly and reversed at full speed before the enemy had time to start moving. At a distance of no more than a couple of yards, the gunner SS-Unterscharführer Horst Poggendorf fired an armor piercing shell that crashed into the rear of the Sherman, which exploded with a deafening bang. Large flames immediately shot out from the rear of the U.S. tank. Barkmann continues his account:
’We drive past the burning tank. Two other enemy tanks approach us from a forest clearing on the right. We immediately open fire! The first shows a hit effect by emitting a large black cloud of smoke, and the other one also is stopped.’96
Since he was unable to reach any radio contact with the Company, Barkmann assumed that Frauscher’s tank still was ahead of him, and continued forward. Suddenly a whole group of American tanks emerged in front of the lone Panther. These were seven Shermans from ’A’ Company of the 7th Armored Division’s 40th Tank Battalion, that had been positioned in a forest clearing at the Fond de la Justice on the road between Belle Haie and Manhay.97_
Barkmann decided to try to trick himself out of the dangerous situation, and actually managed to pass them all without a single shot being fired. The Americans must have taken the Panther for an American vehicle.
When the German tank passed the road bend after Fond de la Justice, open, snow-covered fields spread out to the right of the N 15. After a few minutes, two- and three-story houses suddenly piled up on both sides of the Panther. The Germans had driven straight into the enemy-held Manhay! The whole place was filled with American tanks and other military vehicles. Again luck was on the German side—the Americans apparently took the Panther for an own tank. Three hundred yards into the village, the main road between Marche and Trois-Ponts crosses the N 15, and the Panther made a U-turn to get out of Manhay again. But no sooner had the Germans started the trek out of the enemy-occupied village, when a jeep popped up on a counter course. An officer in the American vehicle’s passenger seat gave a signal to the tank to halt. ’Run over the jeep!’ Barkmann ordered. Just as the Panther crushed the jeep under its wide tracks, a Sherman appeared in front of the Germans, and in the next moment the two tanks collided. Only then did the Americans wake up and realize the alien tank’s identity.
Barkmann did not know this, but as he drove through the forest towards Manhay, the American defense lines had collapsed. Far behind him, SS-Hauptscharführer Frauscher finally passed Belle Haie, and in the path of Barkmann’s tank, his Panther attacked ’A’ Company of U.S. 40th Tank Battalion at Fond de la Justice. In rapid succession six of the seven Shermans were hit—five of them by gunfire from Frauscher’s Panther No. 431.98 Four Shermans turned into flaming wrecks, and the two other tanks that had been hit survived with damages. The surviving Sherman crews—who believed that their tanks had been hit by Bazookas99—retreated to Manhay.
Just before this took place, a U.S. attempt to counter-attack against Freyneux with ’C’ Company of the 14th Tank Battalion had been repulsed by SS-Untersturmführer Langanke. He had taken up position at the small road that leads north from Freyneux, when he saw some Shermans sliding in column down the snowy slope to the north. Langanke opened fire, setting all five American tanks on fire in rapid succession, as he himself recounted.100
The American attack force was commanded by Lieutenant Hugh Morrison, but he had placed his Sherman in the rear of the column, with Sergeant Meron J. Thompson’s tank in the lead. ’We had moved a short distance when I received the first hit which was on the barrel of my tank gun,’ recalled Thompson. ’The second one hit the engine, the third was underneath my feet.’ Thompson heard a loud explosion and then someone yelled in the radio, ’Thompson, get out! Your tank is on fire!’ Thompson needed no persuasion. He gave the crew order to bail out and jumped out through the suffocating smoke and landed in the snow. As he stood up, he could see three other tanks being hit consecutively.101
All tank crews had survived and they took refuge in the little ravine formed by the creek that runs up from the hills north of Freyneux. Only there did Thompson notice that he was injured. Dozens of small shrapnel had stained his entire face with blood, and in the severe cold the blood froze to ice, turning his face into a rigid mask. Tired, shaken, and frozen, the tank soldiers staggered back through the woods to the hamlet of Fosse, a mile north of Freyneux from which they had departed.*
’C’ Company of the 14th Tank Battalion in Combat Command B, 9th Armored Division reported four M4A-3 Shermans destroyed north of Freyneux. ’A’ Company lost three in a battle over the village Regne east of Baraque de Fraiture.102
But the 40th Tank Battalion’s escape from the Fond de la Justice was what triggered the panic on the American side. Lieutenant Colonel John C. Brown, C.O. of the 40th Tank Battalion, was in Manhay and witnessed the fight when Barkmann’s lone Panther surprised the Americans. ’All was quiet,’ said Brown, ’until suddenly a German tank which had worked its way in the column decided it was time to open up on the remainder of the column. The German side swiped a light tank of ’D’ Company, 40th Battalion, and then began to fire back at the column. Another light tank, several half-tracks, and a number of peeps [jeeps] were hit by the tank. The tank was not hit, and it is thought that he worked his way around to the East and back to his friendly column.’103
The disputed road junction at Manhay. This American aerial photograph was taken from the south. In the upper left corner the adjacent village of Grandmenil can be seen. (US Army)
Barkmann depicts the continued battle from his perspective:
’A couple of enemy vehicles, including a Sherman, are pursuing us. A number of well-aimed shells destroy all of them. The burning vehicles block the road to the others. […] Now we can hear the battle sounds, and the loud bangs of Panther guns can be clearly distinguished. It sounds like music to our ears. The Company is attacking Manhay! The radio operator turns the radio to the American frequency where we can hear: “German Tiger! German Tiger! Help! Help!” Apparently, our Panzer Vs are mistaken for Tiger tanks, but there are none of those on this front section. Under heavy pressure, the enemy withdraws mainly westwards towards Grandmenil and to the northeast, in the direction of Vaux Chavanne. We shell the retreating enemy vehicles with our tank gun. Several vehicles run off the road and are left standing in the deep snow.’104Barkmann counted the destroyed American vehicles: seven tanks, two tank destroyers, a half- track, and two jeeps.
A general confusion broke out on the American side, where tanks, half-tracks and other vehicles started up, swinging helter-skelter out on the roads out of Manhay. An officer of the 7th Armored Division desperately tried to stem the wild escape. ‘We’re not Abandoning Manhay! We’re going to reorganize!’ he shouted almost pleadingly as he stood by the roadside, but the terrified vehicle drivers paid no attention to him, and he had to jump aside to avoid getting run over. A captain from the 7th Armored Division came running and yelled, ‘Jerry tanks and infantry are streaming up the highway!’ Then he disappeared on the way north out of Manhay. The officer who tried to stop the escape, gave up and jumped up on one of the vehicles that were driving out of the village.
Lieutenant Colonel Richardson, the commander of the 3rd Armored Division’s 32nd Armored Regiment, was in a Manhay where utter panic prevailed. He called Lieutenant Goddard, the officer in charge for the mining of the bridge over the small stream outside the community, and screamed into the phone: ’Blow the bridge, Goddard!’ Back came the reply, ’I’ve been hit. All of my men are dead!’105
At that moment, the 4. Panzer-Kompanie’s Panther tanks came dashing along the road to the southeast, and wildly firing, they burst into Manhay. Richardson and Captain Maxwell, the commander of a tank destroyer platoon, found four Shermans that had been abandoned by their crews and climbed into one of them. But they had barely closed the hatch when they discovered a Panther in front of them—presumably the one commanded by the German Company commander SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Ortwin Pohl, who led the attack. ’Tigers!’ Richardson yelled.106Maxwell fired the American tank’s gun, but the shell just bounced off the Panther’s frontal armor. In the next moment their own tank was lit up by a flare. Richardson and Maxwell knew what it meant. They were lucky to be able to bail out of the Sherman before a shell from Panther set it ablaze. The two officers jumped into a jeep and escaped in full career to Manhay’s neighboring village Grandmenil.
By then the street through Manhay was filled with burning and exploding American tanks. SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Pohl claimed to have knocked out four tanks in Manhay. SS-Hauptscharführer Franz Frauscher’s crew also was credited with the destruction of four with their Panther No. 431. This gave Frauscher a total of nine that evening, for which he was awarded with the Knight’s Cross a week later. Pohl’s Panthers did not remain in Manhay, but with mounted infantry from SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 3 they swung onto the icy road down towards Grandmenil, located in a small hollow only a thousand yards to the west of Manhay. When the Americans saw them coming, they hastily left even this small community, which quickly was occupied by the SS.107
The remnants of Colonel Dwight A. Rosebaum’s Combat Command A, 7th Armored Division, which had retreated from Poteau after holding this place for several days, were virtually wiped out in the Battle of Manhay -Grandmenil on 24 December—out of thirty tanks, twenty-one were lost. The personnel losses amounted to four hundred and sixty men, most of whom were captured. In Lieutenant Colonel Brown’s 40th Tank Battalion, ’A’ Company lost eight tanks, and ’C’ Company lost all of its tanks.108 Furthermore, the commander of ’A’ Company, Captain Malcolm O. Allen, Jr., was captured, and the commander of ’D’ Company, Captain Walter J. Hughes, was killed.109 (Allen later managed to escape and make it back to the own lines.) On the German side, not even a single tank was lost during the Battle of Manhay - Grandmenil, and the infantry losses also were quite limited.110 Colonel Rosebaum, who had just been recommended for a second Silver Star for his successful defense of Poteau, was made scapegoat for the American defeat at Manhay.* On the orders of Major General Ridgway, the divisional commander
Hasbrouck very reluctantly relieved him of the command of Combat Command A.111 Rosebaum was succeeded by Colonel William S. Triplet, previously commander of the 66th Armored regiment, 2nd Armored Division.
Major Olin F. Brewster of the 3rd Armored Division also was given the blame for the failure. He finally received permission to withdraw his task force from Belle Haie, but the directives issued by Lieutenant Colonel Richardson were not very encouraging, ’Get out now if you can, but don’t use the road you went up on, try east ’112 In the east there was nothing but high, forested hills, with no roads, so the instructions assigned to Brewster meant that he had to abandon the vehicles that had escaped destruction during the battle with the German armor—five Shermans and three other vehicles.113 After an arduous march at the head of his dejected men through deep snow in the terribly cold night, Brewster reported to his divisional commander, Major General Maurice Rose, on the following day. Olin Brewster describes what happened:
’General Rose was sitting behind his desk looking like he had just stepped out of a band box and said, ’’Brewster, what happened?” I explained the situation and he asked if I had any ammunition and fuel left. My answer was ”Yes.” He said, ”And you quit fighting?” My explanation was that I had very few vehicles left that could be replaced and I had some good soldiers that would be hard to replace and I chose to bring them out on foot to fight another day rather than stay surrounded and sacrifice them.
At this point I should mention that I had been on the go from the morning of 23 December to the evening of 25 December without sleep. I had not shaved that day and with all the winter clothes I had on I am sure I looked like ”Sad Sack” [a popular American comic book character of an Army Private experiencing the absurdities of military life and the bullying of his superiors].
Without hesitation, the General said, ”Brewster, you are under arrest for misbehavior before the enemy. Give the Chief your gun!”’114
A few days later, however, Rose withdrew his decision. Afterwards Brewster learned that Brigadier General Doyle O. Hickey, the commander of Combat Command A, 3rd Armored Division, had threatened to resign unless the charges against Brewster were dropped. ’However,’ Major General Rose said, ‘I am going to keep my eye on you and if you screw up again, I will throw the book at you.’115 A couple of months later Rose was killed in combat with German armor.
THE MARCH TOWARDS THE MEUSE IS HALTED
Following the success on Christmas Eve, three SS panzer divisions—the 2., the 9., and the 12.—were put under the command of Bittrich’s II. SS- Panzerkorps, which received new orders from Model: Instead of continuing north towards Liège, the Panzer Corps would, departing from Manhay, turn onto the main road to Hotton and Marche in the west and southwest. The purpose of this operation was to support the 116. Panzer-Division, and, farther westward, the 2. Panzer-Division.
After the Battle of Manhay on Christmas Eve 1944. A destroyed Sherman of the 40th Tank Battalion. (US Army)
The advance of the SS armor from Baraque de Fraiture to Manhay and Grandmenil had created a ’notch’ in the American lines, so that their 82nd Airborne Division now found itself in a wedge protruding from the Manhay sector to Vielsalm, ten miles farther east, and thence along River Salm to Trois-Ponts, about six miles farther to the north. The 82nd Airborne Division, with the support of what remained of the badly mauled U.S. 112th Infantry Regiment, had a force of about fifteen thousand men at its disposal.116 Hitherto, the airborne division had played a most important role in the American defensive battle. Not only had it saved the forces in the Sankt Vith wedge from certain destruction, but it also had contributed to the destruction of SS-Kampfgruppe Peiper. Field Marshal Montgomery, the Allied supreme commander in the North, argued that after a well-done job, the 82nd Airborne Division should now be withdrawn northwestwards from the Vielsalm sector on the Salm to a defensive line from Trois-Ponts and straight southwestwards, to Manhay. The C.O. of the XIII Airborne Corps, Ridgway, previously had been opposed to any retreat, but since his so-called ‘fortified goose egg’ tactics at Sankt Vith had been close to ending in a disaster, he did not oppose Montgomery’s retreat orders this time. Although the divisional commander Gavin was concerned about how a withdrawal would affect the morale of the troops (it turned out that it really had no negative effect), the 82nd Airborne Division was pulled back during the night of 24 December in accordance with Montgomery’s instructions.117 Thereby the division escaped a looming encirclement and was available for Montgomery’s counteroffensive when this came on almost two weeks later.
German 9. SS-Panzer-Division ’Hohenstaufen,’ which managed to seize Vielsalm on Christmas night, did its utmost to pursue and annihilate the retreating American troops, but was prevented from doing so by air attacks. A column of twenty tanks and fifty other vehicles that tried to make their way to Vielsalm on Christmas Day was attacked by U.S. 366th Fighter Group, whose pilots claimed to have knocked out ten of the vehicles.118 This compelled the ’Hohenstaufen’ Division to cancel its advance during the remainder of the day.
Christmas Day was the third day running with perfect flying weather, and the Allied aviation made 1,700 fighter and fighter-bomber sorties and 820 bomber sorties to crack the German offensive. Among other targets, Sankt Vith was heavily bombed by Marauders from the 9th Air Force, blocking all roads through the town by rubble and bomb craters. The town was bombed again the next day; throughout these two days it was impossible to get through the town. Although a German engineer battalion worked around the clock to clear a passage, the accessibility through the town remained limited for another two weeks.119 Through the bombing of Sankt Vith, the transfer of the 12. SS-Panzer-Division ’Hitler Jugend’ to the II. SS-Panzerkorps’ left flank (between the 2. SS-Panzer-Division and the 560. Volksgrenadier-Division) at Samree was significantly delayed. The ’Hitler Jugend’ Division had to circumvent Sankt Vith, but when its long automotive column in the afternoon on 25 December was clogged between the houses in the village of Beho, six miles southwest of Sankt Vith, American fighter-bombers struck, causing mayhem and further delays.
When the 2. SS-Panzer-Division pulled back from Grandmenil on 26 December 1944, seven Panther tanks were left behind for various reasons. One of them remains as a memorial of the bloody winter day in late 1944 when this village with barely three hundred inhabitants became a focal point in the great Ardennes Battle. (Photo: The author)
A few lines in the diary of Leutnant Behmen from German 18. Volksgrenadier-Division’s Artillerie-Regiment 1818 on 25 December clearly reflect the frustration the German soldiers felt about the Allied air attacks:
’We are ordered to proceed to Hinderhausen. Over us circle enemy planes. All along the road, there are tremendous bomb craters, but it seems that very little was hit. Shortly before reaching Hinderhausen, we see a dive-bomber start for us. We are able to stop the truck in time to get off the road as the bullets start flying about us. Nothing is to be seen of our air force; where is it? The heavy bombers fly toward the Reich, quiet and undisturbed. The AA is getting heavier but it doesn’t seem to bother them. Only two bombers are knocked down. The pilots “hit the silk” but the dogs are lucky, and the wind drives them toward the West. They actually regain enemy territory. If they had landed in our lines wed slay them! In the evening, we see the fires in Sankt Vith. I could cry from rage and tear the prisoners apart.’120
To German 2. SS-Panzer-Division, Christmas Day meant a pure gauntlet. Firstly, after the division had taken Manhay and Grandmenil, more intense airstrikes than ever were directed against it. Thunderbolt pilots from the 389th Squadron, 366th Fighter Group swooped down on twenty of the ’Das Reich’ Division’s tanks, and reported that ’the panzers were seen to turn tail and head south for cover.’121 Lightning fighter-bombers from the 428th Squadron, 474th Fighter Group spotted and attacked six dug down German tanks at Manhay and strafed several masked motor vehicles with their machine guns.* Later, the 429th Squadron, 474th Fighter Group attacked a formation of twelve SS tanks in the same area and claimed to have destroyed two of these.122
Moreover, the Americans had brought forth not only a new division, the 75th Infantry, but also a quite powerful artillery to the area. With artillery observers in place on the hills to the west, where they had a perfect view of Manhay and Grandmenil, and also artillery observation aircraft constantly in the air, the area became a veritable killing field for the SS troops. On Christmas Day alone nearly two thousand artillery shells were fired against Grandmenil, a community no larger than 400 by 600 yards. Among the soldiers wounded during the fighting on 25 December was SS-Oberscharführer Barkmann.
Although the 2. SS-Panzer-Division still had sixty serviceable tanks by Christmas 1944, most of them took no part in the fighting.123 This was partly due to the heavy snowfall and the almost impassable terrain, but particularly to the Allied airstrikes that deprived the division of most of its fuel supply. So while most of the division’s tanks stood idle inside the forests on both sides of the road between Vielsalm and Baraque de Fraiture, Grandmenil was held mainly with infantry, supported by only two tank platoons.124 Albeit at the cost of heavy casualties, the Germans, however, held out at Grandmenil until Boxing Day, when the artillery and air bombardment forced them to pull back to Manhay. Left behind in the small hamlet were seven Panther tanks—knocked out by enemy fire, abandoned due to technical errors, or simply because they had run out of fuel.
However, one German success was attained at Marcouray, six miles farther southwest—two miles north of La Roche. On 25 December, Task Force Hogan from U.S. 3rd Armored Division, which had been sealed off to the east of River Ourthe, had to do what both SS-Kampfgruppe Peiper and Task Force Brewster had done the day before—abandon their heavy equipment and try to reach their own lines on foot. The fact that these American troops managed to accomplish this, was due in no small part to the American aviation. Generalmajor Gerhard Triepel, the artillery commander in the LVIII. Panzerkorps, reported that the Germans captured around thirty tanks and a number of trucks and other vehicles in Marcouray. However, all these vehicles had been made unserviceable by the Americans.125
But this limited German success was eclipsed by German 116. Panzer-Division’s demise. As we have seen, the first units of the 116. Panzer-Division crossed River Ourthe at La Roche on the evening of 23 December, and continued to the northwest, towards the town of Marche. Because time was short and this division’s Kampfgruppe Bayer had been held up at Hotton and Soy by U.S. 3rd Armored Division, 116. Panzer-Division had to cross the Ourthe piecemeal.
First across the river on 23 December was the 116. Panzer-Division’s Kampfgruppe Stephan—consisting of Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 116 and I. Abteilung of Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 146. The Germans took the road that meanders steeply up between the wooded hills west of the Ourthe. Having advanced nearly six miles over this hilly landscape without encountering any resistance, they reached the village Grimbiemont at noon. A mile further west, it was found that the bridge over the small creek that ran across the road to Marche had been demolished, and reconnaissance patrols reported that U.S. forces moved into position in the southern outskirts of the villages of Verdenne and Marche, located on the other side of the wooded heights, two to three miles north of Grimbiemont.
While elements of the German panzer division’s Pänzerjager-Abteilung 238 and I. Bataillon/ Panzergrenadier-Regiment 156 started across the Ourthe at La Roche to join the leading units, German artillery went into position east of Grimbiemont, and the armored reconnaissance battalion advanced to positions among the trees on the heights in the north.
At noon on 24 December, the Germans attacked with Verdenne as the primary objective. They hit right at the seam between two of U.S. 84th Infantry Division’s regiments, the 334th and the 335th, and during the course of the afternoon Verdenne was captured. In the afternoon, the fighting was concentrated to a small castle situated in a forest clearing just northeast of Verdenne, and at night the Americans had been driven back to the main route between Marche and Hotton.
The 116. Panzer-Division’s mission was to carry on in a northwesterly direction, past Marche, to cover the 2. Panzer-Division’s flank. It looked promising for the Germans when even the main force of Kampfgruppe Bayer—Panzergrenadier-Regiment 60, a battalion (I. Abteilung) from Panzerartillerie-Regiment 146, a company of Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon 675, plus thirteen Panthers and two Panzer IVs from Panzer-Regiment 16—arrived at Verdenne on Christmas Eve.
But U.S. forces that were rushed to the area now managed to prevent von Waldenburg’s forces from continuing their advance. The 116. Panzer Division indeed had sufficient fuel supplies—including those captured from the Americans—but air strikes made it almost impossible for the Germans to bring them across the Ourthe and to the battlefield at Verdenne.126 American reinforcements—including 155mm Long Tom artillery pieces from the 327th Field Artillery Battalion—flocked to the area. During Christmas night, units from the 84th Infantry Division, supported by the 771st Tank Battalion, counter-attacked, drew the Germans from Verdenne and surrounded them in the wooded area northeast of the village.
During their march, these Sherman tanks were exposed to hostile fire from within a spruce forest. The picture is typical of the dense forests in the area where the 2. SS-Panzer-Division operated at the end of December 1944. (NARA, US Army Signal Corps)
A German attack on 25 December from La Roche by I. Bataillon/ Panzergrenadier-Regiment 156, along with five Panzer IVs and four Panthers led by Hauptmann Werner Baumgarten-Crusis, was ambushed by Sherman tanks and tank destroyers from ‘B’ Company, 771st Tank Battalion. These were supported by fighter-bombers, whose bombs set several Panthers on fire.127 Among Baumgarten-Crusis’ tanks, four Panthers and a Panzer IV were lost.128The U.S. tank company reported the destruction of eight German tanks against a loss of two own tank destroyers.129
The Battle at Verdenne/Marche was settled mainly by four factors—the American infantry’s dogged resistance, a highly skilled leadership on the U.S. side, the German inability to bring forward the 116. Panzer-Division anyway but piecemeal, and the American air strikes. During the night of 26 December, von Waldhausen sent further elements of his division across the river to join the fight at Verdenne. Shortly afterward, twin-engine medium bombers from U.S. 9th Air Force laid La Roche in ruins, and this finally put an end to the German ability to relieve the surrounded Verdenne garrison. Meanwhile fighter-bombers from two American Fighter groups, the 36th and 48th, focused on hammering the 116. Panzer-Division.
The Americans experienced a moment of crisis when a new German force on the morning of 26 December appeared at Hotton and attacked. This was Oberst Remer’s Führer Begleit Brigade, which had been transferred to the LVIII. Panzerkorps. Remer began his attack at half past ten on the morning of 26 December. While the 105mm and 150mm howitzers of his Artillerie-Abteilung exposed the American positions west of the Ourthe to their fire, the Brigade’s Panzergrenadier-Regiment crossed the river south of Hotton, with the II. Bataillon to the left and the III. Bataillon to the right. The II. Bataillon—commanded by Major Hubert Mickley, a most experienced officer who had been awarded with the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves—rapidly managed to capture the small village Hampteau slightly more than a mile southeast of Hotton, on River Ourthe’s western side. Meanwhile, the III. Bataillon established positions in the Bois de Hampteau Forest, also on the river’s western side, between Hampteau and Hotton. There were no more than two miles between the Führer Begleit Brigade’s positions west of the Ourthe and Kampfgruppe Bayer at Verdenne, and Remer’s men could see black smoke rise from behind the treetops where fierce fighting was going on.
A U.S. 155 mm Ml gun fires on German positions in the Ardennes. The 22 ft 10 in long barrel earned this piece the name ‘Long Tom.’It could fire 95lb. HE M101 explosive shells, or 98lb. WP M104 white phosphorus shells with a range of fire of nearly 15 miles. White phosphorus was a particularly feared weapon among the Germans. About 20 percent of all U.S. artillery shells in World War II were loaded with white phosphorous. The ‘Long Tom’ also could be used to fight enemy armor. Its armor-piercing M112 shell could penetrate 152 mm of armor at a 30° impact angle at a distance of 1,000 yards. (NARA 111-SC-199101/PFC W. B. Allen)
By that time, the Führer Begleit Brigade had at least thirty serviceable Panzer IV tanks and a similar number of Sturmgeschutz III assault guns, so it was quite a considerable force that had marched up against the American flank at Verdenne.130 Oberst Remer was just about to send his panzer regiment into the battle when he suddenly received a counter-order. At Bastogne—which was held surrounded by the Germans since 22 December—the situation had deteriorated sharply, and this compelled Hitler to hastily order the Führer Begleit Brigade to cancel its attack at Hotton and instead quickly regroup to the Sibret area, southwest of Bastogne.131 ’I tried to change this order because I didn’t want to break up an attack during the day,’ Remer wrote afterwards. ’Such a maneuver is an extremely dangerous one, and could result in disastrous consequences. However, the Corps commander ordered me to move immediately, regardless of my present situation and I was obliged to discontinue my attack at once. At this time, I withdrew from the line and started toward Bastogne. Tanks of the 116. Panzer-Division, which had been pinched off in the Marenne [a thousand yards northeast of Verdenne] area, were left stranded by my withdrawal.’132
A final attack by the 116. Panzer-Division on Boxing Day was completely torn apart, as described in a report issued by U.S. 333rd Infantry Regiment, ’Eight tanks, ten half-tracks, several motorcycles, jeeps and 80 infantrymen struck the positions held by Company I and a machine gun section of Company M, 333rd. Hitting a string of mines planted across the road, the lead tank exploded, careening into a ditch. Bazooka teams went to work on the other tanks.
This American 30-in M5 anti-tank gun was knocked out through a direct hit during the Battle of Verdenne. The German projectile has passed right through the gun shield. (NARA 111-SC-198424)
Pfc Clarence E. Love, Cherry Valley, Ark., and Pfc Alex V. Tiler, Paris, Tenn., set a second tank afire, while Pfc Carl R. Tisdale, Parteskala, Ohio, and Pfc Robert C. Holloway, Englewood, Calif., blew tracks off a third. Sgt. James M. Scanlan, Danville, Ky., a one-man team, scored a hit on the fourth, then saw it strike a mine and explode.’133
German sources confirm the loss of four Panzer IVs in this engagement.134 Two more tanks were destroyed by U.S. artillery later in the day. In the end, Oberst Bayer, the German commander at Verdenne, had no choice but to order a breakout attempt toward their own lines. This was made during the night of 26 December. Of the seventeen Panthers and seven Panzer IVs fielded by 116. Panzer Division in the Battle of Verdenne, only nine Panthers and not a single Panzer IV returned. The participating regiments were in shambles.
This was the end of the famous ’Windhund’ Division’s offensive capabilities. Since the American aviation largely prevented the supply of replacements for losses and spare parts, the 116. Panzer-Division was down to no more than fifteen serviceable tanks, nine armored reconnaissance vehicles, thirty to forty armored personnel carriers, and a handful of assault guns after the Battle of Verdenne.135’On 27 December 1944, all further intentions to attack were finally given up or made impossible,’ the divisional commander Generalmajor von Waldenburg established.136
On 29 December, the 116. Panzer-Division’s casualties since the opening of the offensive were reported as 1,907 men—224 killed, 787 injured and 777 missing (of which the majority had been captured at Verdenne), plus 119 non-battle related casualties.137 The Division’s armored regiment, Panzer-Regiment 16, reported a loss of thirty Panthers and eleven Panzer IVs during the same period138—out of originally forty-three Panthers and twenty-two Panzer IVs.139 The two armored infantry regiments, Panzergrenadier-Regiments 60 and 156, were withdrawn from the first line in order to rest and recuperate already on the evening of 27 December.140
The role played by U.S. aviation in the defeat of the 116. Panzer-Division cannot be underestimated. Of particular importance were the air strikes against the ’Windhund’ Division’s supply roads between 23 and 26 December. ’The daily care of necessary fuel became worse and worse,’ wrote von Waldenburg. ‘Only with strict supervision, all kinds of substitutes and many difficulties were we able to make ends meet and keep the necessary services going. As a result of the air situation, the whole supply service, around 25 December, could be affected only at night.’141
The setback also had severe repercussions on the morale of the German Panzer Division, as confirmed by von Waldenburg: ’The offensive had brought a refreshing impulse to the troops, coupled with hopes, that it still would be possible to turn fate in favor of German arms or at least, to influence it in that way, so that many outstanding attainments by individual soldiers were made, in spite of the limited possibilities of the sixth year of war. On the other hand, the failure of the offensive gave place to a great depression and hopelessness. The leaders and men were very much disappointed by the complete failure of promises expressly made by the high command in respect to the reappearance of the German air force.’142 As we shall see later, this decline in morale, however was only temporary.
By this time, both sides were so much worn down that the 116. Panzer-Division’s front section would remain relatively quiet until 3 January. The Germans estimated U.S. losses in ’the area north of La Roche’ to seventy tanks ’from the 3rd and the 7th U.S. armored divisions.’143 According to U.S. sources, the 3rd Armored Division and the 771st Tank Battalion lost forty-four and nine Shermans respectively in December 1944.144 If the 7th Armored Division’s losses in and around Manhay are added, the sum is roughly equivalent to the German data. However, it should keep in mind that a large part of the 3rd Armored Division’s tank losses were caused by SS-Kampfgruppe Peiper twenty miles farther to the northeast. In any case, the losses were of such a magnitude that the 3rd Armored Division was withdrawn from the front lines on 30 December, after only ten days of battle, to rest and refit at Ouffet Ocquier in the rear area.145 During the relatively quiescent period that followed, the 116. Panzer-Division was able to recover some of its strength, not least in terms of the motivation of their soldiers.
This Panther frmrrth^ lf^rPanzer-Divis^Twas put out of commission by a U.S. air strike that placed a bomb on the bridge in the town of Houffalize which the tank was passing. The tanKlies helpless in the shallow waters of Rover Ourthe (Orientale). (NARA 111-SC-199190)
THE GERMAN SPEARHEAD IS SMASHED
The excellent flight weather really arrived in the nick of time for the Americans. On 23 December, when the 116. Panzer-Division crossed the Ourthe and reached Grimbiemont, southeast of Marche, Oberst Meinrad von Lauchert’s 2. Panzer Division—the lead unit of the XLVII. Panzerkorps—stood only three miles farther to the southwest. While American air attacks prevented the 2. SS-Panzer-Division from coming to the 116. Panzer-Division’s aid from Baraque de Fraiture and Manhay in the east, the Allied aviation would seal even the 2. Panzer-Division’s fate.
By now, General von Luttwitz’ XLVII. Panzerkorps—with the 2. Panzer-Division to the right and Generalleutnant Bayerleins Panzer Lehr division to the left—constituted the German offensive’s spearhead.The vanguard force of the 2. Panzer-Division was Kampfgruppe von Bohm—the reinforced armored reconnaissance battalion Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 2 under Hauptmann von Bohm—along with Kampfgruppe von Cochenhausen under the command of Major Ernst von Cochenhausen. During the night of 22 December, these units were resting at Hargimont, two to three miles southwest of Marche, with sights set on the Meuse at Dinant, twenty-five miles farther to the west.
The same Panther today. After the war, it was salvaged and put on display in Houff alize. (Photo: The author)
BLACK CHRISTMAS IN SANKT VITH
At three in the afternoon on Christmas Day 1944, seventy Marauder bombers from the 323rd and 387th Bomb groups came in above the important road junction of Sankt Vith, through which most of the II. SS-Panzerkorps’ supplies were transported. The first planes dropped 1,000lb. HE bombs that broke the stone buildings, leaving combustible material open to the thousands of incendiary bombs dropped by the following bombers.1 In all, 135 metric tons of bombs were dropped on the small town.
Exactly twenty-four hours later, a second air strike was delivered against Sankt Vith, this time by an even larger force. 282 of RAF Bomber Command’s four-engine bombers—146 Lancasters, 136 Halifaxes, and twelve twin-engine Mosquitoes. These two attacks wiped out around 90 percent of the buildings in the town and it is estimated that between 1,000 and 1,500 people lost their lives, nearly one in four of the entire population.2 Those who were lucky to escape unharmed or with minor wounds, took refuge in villages of Sankt Vith. or farms in the surroundings, or, in some cases, even in the railway tunnel at Lommersweiler, three miles southeast of the town.
1 Geschichts- und Museumsverein Zwischen Venn und Schneifel: 60. Jahrestag der Befreiung Belgiens. www.zvs.be/60jahre/?Ardennenoffensive:%DCberblick:Zeittafel. 23 Nov 2012.
A British Avro Lancaster bomber above the burning town
Just a few days earlier, this whole area had been virtually void of American units. But this had changed drastically. In fact, now one of the largest U.S. troop concentrations on the entire Western Front was made right at Marche. One of Field Marshal Montgomery’s first measures when he took command of the Allied forces opposing the northern part of the German Bulge in the Ardennes had been to transfer the headquarters of Major General J. Lawton Collins’ U.S. VII Corps from the Roer front to the Marche sector. This headquarters arrived on 22 December. ’Lightning Joe’ Collins was a very experienced commanding officer. In 1942/1943 he had commanded the U.S. forces in the battle against the Japanese at Guadalcanal. At Collins’ disposal were some quite effective units under capable commands. Elements of Combat Command A, 3rd Armored Division, and the bulk of the U.S. 84th Infantry Division had by then already arrived at Marche. Further to the west, Montgomery positioned British XXX Corps to defend the Meuse between Namur and Givet, and north of Marche, the entire U.S. 2nd Armored Division and the 4th Cavalry Group (759th Light Tank Battalion, 635th Tank Destroyer Battalion, the 4th and 24th Cavalry Reconnaissance squadrons, and the 87th Armored Field Artillery Battalion) arrived during the night of 22 December.
Lieutenant General Brian G. Horrocks, the C.O. of British XXX Corps, had fought in both the trenches of the First World War and during the war of intervention against Soviet Russia in 1919. He served under Montgomery both in France in 1940 and in North Africa, and has been described as one of the British Army’s best generals during World War II. Horrocks also was a successful athlete and represented the U.K. in the modern pentathlon at the Olympic Games in Paris in 1924. Quite interestingly, Ernest N. Harmond—who in December 1944 commanded Horrocks’ neighboring American unit, U.S. 2nd Armored Division—meanwhile was the U.S. representative in this Olympic sport.
Fifty-year old Major General Ernest N. Harmond probably was as close as one could get to the flat image of the boorish American general in Hollywood war movies; undoubtedly one of the U.S. Army’s most experienced and skilled armor officer, he was known for having a language as rough as his voice. In Tunisia in 1943, his contribution was crucial to the turning of the American defeat at Kasserine to a defensive victory. It was not without reason that Harmond’s 2nd Armored Division was called ’Hell on Wheels.’ Just as was the case with the 3rd Armored Division, the 2nd Armored Division was a ’heavy armored division’ and thus had an assigned strength of 14,000 men and 390 tanks (including 252 Shermans) instead of the standard 10,500 men and 263 tanks. Its actual strength when it was deployed against German 2. Panzer-Division, however, was 392 tanks (236 Shermans and 158 Stuarts) and 14,500 men, with another nearly 4,000 in various support units.146 When the 2nd Armored Division was formed at Fort Benning, the l renowned Brigadier General George S. Patton had been in charge of training. In December 1944, ’Hell on Wheels’ was one of the most combat experienced divisions in the U.S. Army in Europe. It had participated in the fighting in North Africa in late 1942, during the invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943, and the subsequent fighting in southern Italy, and in June 1944 it landed in Normandy. The division was subordinated to the Ninth Army at Roer when the order came on 20 December to urgently regroup to theVII Corps to stop German 5. Panzerarmee from reaching the Meuse.147
Collins’ corps, however, also was under heavy pressure from the German forces in the northeast—closest were the 116. Panzer-Division, and farther to the east the 560. Volksgrenadier-Division, and the 2. and 9. SS-Panzer divisions. Hence, Collins could not allocate more than the 2nd Armored Division, the 4th Cavalry Group, and the 84th Infantry Division’s 335th Infantry Regiment against German 2. Panzer-Division. Moreover, elements of the 335th Infantry were tied up by the other panzer division in the XLVII. Panzerkorps, Generalleutnant Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr, at Rochefort, six miles southwest of Marche.
In the area between Marche and Rochefort, German 2. Panzer-Division’s vanguard force—consisting of upwards a thousand combat vehicles—was being prepared on the night of 22 December 1944 to continue its advance towards River Meuse at Dinant on the following day. Things did not look bright to the Allies. At Dinant, British 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (included in the 29th Armoured Brigade, 11th Armoured Division) was instructed to weigh only a delay action and then leave the town and retreat to Saint-Gérard, five miles west of the Meuse.148 This certainly fit the warlike commander of British XXX Corps, Horrocks, who seriously proposed Montgomery to let the Germans get across the Meuse in order to beat them at Waterloo as a tribute to the Duke of Wellington—which the British field marshal of course turned down.149
But everything changed through the high pressure that over the course of the night became established over the area, dispersing the low pressure that had held the bulk of the Allied aircraft grounded. At ten in the evening of 22 December, a counter-order from the 29th Armoured Brigade’s staff arrived. The war diary of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment reads, ’Orders from Brigade cancelling previous orders. River must now be held at all costs.’150
At the air base A-78 at Florennes, twenty-five miles west of Dinant—the most forward airbase of the 9th Air Force, where the two Lightning-equipped 370th and 474th Fighter groups were stationed—the night was filled with tense anticipation. The eerie glow from the battlefield in the east, and sometimes even a distant artillery thunder, reminded the men of just how close the Germans were. The ground personnel worked frantically through the night to get all the Lightnings operational when the morning dawned. They were quite aware that it might well hang on to them if the Germans would succeed in reaching the air base or not.
At eight forty-five on the morning of 23 December, as the sun began to rise above the horizon, the first Lightning planes rose aloft from Florennes. Burdened by their bombs they set course for the area south of Marche. The first air strike hit the III. Abteilung of Volksartilleriekorps 766, en route to reach the vanguard units. Six trucks and three half-tracks were hit. One of the destroyed vehicles was the battalion’s only fuel truck, and with it, 900 U.S. gallons of gas was lost. This would prove fatal for von Cochenhausen’s and von Böhm’s forces.151
Major General Joseph Lawton Collins (left), C.O. of U.S. VII Corps, was handpicked by Field Marshal Montgomery (center). ‘Lightning Joe’ Collins had led U.S. 25th Infantry Division, the so-called ‘Tropic Lightning Division,’ against the Japanese on Guadalcanal and in New Guinea from 1942 to 1943. Prior to the landing in Normandy, he was appointed to command the VII Corps. Collins died in 1987, at the age of 91. The third person in the picture is the commander of U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps, Major General Matthew B. Ridgway. He often was at odds with his superior Montgomery during the Ardennes Battle, and in this photo one can almost imagine Ridgways feelings towards the British field marshal. (US Army)
The Lightning units in Florennes despatched everything they had against the 2. Panzer-Division’s advance, with the 474th Fighter Group conducting nine separate missions before the sun went down that night. Even a twin-engine P-61 Black Widow night fighter from the 422nd Night Fighter Squadron participated in the attempts to stem the march towards the Meuse through air attacks.
Over the course of 23 December, Highway N 4 on both sides of the Ourthe (Ourthe Occidentale) became lined with more and more burning or burnt-out German vehicles.* The 2. Panzer-Division’s and Panzer Lehr’s supplies went up in flames. But the advancing columns still were spared from any air attacks, mainly because it took until well into the afternoon on 23 December before the Americans began to realize just how deep the 2. Panzer-Division actually had penetrated. Therefore, the 2. Panzer-Division was able to continue its offensive in the same way as in the previous days. The events of that day reinforced the impression of the men in the German vanguard units that the U.S. forces in the area had received a final blow.
As we saw earlier, with joint forces, von Böhm’s and von Cochenhausen’s forces had beaten Task Force Doan from U.S. 3rd Armored Division and one of the battalions of the 335th Infantry Regiment at Hargimont, three miles southwest of Marche, in the evening on 22 December. The Germans pursued their retreating opponents up to Jamodenne and Aye, only a mile west of Marche. From there, von Böhm’s force proceeded on its continued reconnaissance thrust during the night of 22 December. A thousand yards northwest of Marche, von Böhm’s armored reconnaissance vehicles, which were accompanied by both artillery and some tanks, swung onto the highway N 4 and brazenly followed this in sharp uphills and downhills a bit to the north. After Sinsin, four miles northwest of Marche, they turned left onto a minor road.152 At Haversin, two miles further down the road, the advance patrol spotted an American unit with armor and anti-tank guns: A couple of M5 Stuart tanks from the 4th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron and some anti-tank guns from the 635th Tank Destroyer Battalion had just hours earlier been ordered into this small village.153 The Americans sensed no danger when they suddenly were exposed to a terrible fire from mortars and anti-tank guns from the forested hill south of Haversin, where von Böhm had positioned his unit on both sides of the railway. The U.S. force withdrew, and near the adjacent village of Haid the Germans shortly afterwards came upon an American armored car which promptly was knocked out by tank fire. At midnight on the night of 22/23 December, von Böhm sent a radio message to the headquarters of the 2. Panzer-Division: ’Spearhead has reached the area east of Harsin, 6 kilometers [3.75 miles] west of Marche.’154
0845 hrs in the morning on 23 December. With the clearing weather, Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter-bombers of the 370th Fighter Group taxi out to take off on the U.S. air base A-78 at Florennes, 25 miles west of Dinant. Their target is the 2. Panzer-Division’s supply columns on the highway south of Marche. The single-seat Lightning had a top speed of 445 m.p.h. Tests showed that at around 9,000 feet altitude it was 10-12 m.p.h. faster than the German Fw 190 A and Bf 109 G. The Lightning was armed with a 20mm cannon and four 12.7 mm .50-caliber machine guns in the nose. The max bomb load was 4,000 lbs., in fact just as much as a the B-26 medium bomber. (NARA 3A-5151)
A jeep with three ’Greif’ men in American uniforms drove ahead to reconnoitre. The jeep raced forward at full speed on small dirt roads that snaked across snow-covered fields, and soon came up to Leignon, a village with a station on the railway line Namur - Arlon, five miles northwest of Haversin. There, the Germans disguised as Americans met a lonely American paratrooper, Private First Class Milo Huempfner from the 82nd Airborne Division’s 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion. During a transfer a few nights earlier, he had accidentally run into a ditch and wrecked an ammunition truck, and had been ordered to stay behind and await the arrival of a recovery vehicle. With a conspicuously cultivated English, one of the officers asked if there were more U.S. troops in the village. When Huempfner replied in the negative, the jeep continued northwards towards the town Ciney.155
Later in the afternoon Milo Huempfner heard a terrible noise from the village street—’like a bunch of freight trains coming—just one hell of a roaring.’156 He rushed up and saw Hauptmann von Böhm’s entire column—with armored vehicles, tanks with mounted infantry, and trucks with artillery in tow—booming out between the houses. Huempfner immediately ran to his truck, which he poured gasoline on and set on fire, and then he was helped by the stationmaster at the railway station, Victor DeVille, to hide. In terror, Huempfner heard how Germans interrogated DeVille, and how he assured them there were no Americans in the resort.* Having encountered nothing but an American jeep in Leignon—which they immediately shot up—von Böhm’s men continued along the small rural road across the hills to the southwest and towards the evening they entered the village of Conneux, just six miles from Dinant at the Meuse.157
Meanwhile the main strength of Kampfgruppe von Cochenhausen also had resumed their advance. Von Cochenhausen left a panzer grenadier battalion in the Hargimont section, where heavy fighting continued to rage throughout the day. This battalion captured On, a mile southwest of Hargimont, and set up a semi-circular defensive position.158 Von Cochenhausen’s main force surged forward in a northwesterly direction—just south of the area where von Böhm advanced—and via Humain, Buissonville, four miles northwest of Hargimont, was reached by noon on 23 December. From there the Germans carried on straight to the northwest and joined von Böhm’s reconnaissance unit in Conneux, having completed a sixteen-mile advance from Hargimont on mainly poor back roads.
Enthusiastic about the success, the divisional commander, Oberst von Lauchert, appointed von Cochenhausen to ordinary C.O. of Panzergrenadier-Regiment 304 (he had until then only been deputy commander since the ordinary regimental commander, Oberstleutnant Christian Kübler, was injured). However, the new regimental commander also had some disappointing information to von Lauchert: The force that had reached Conneux would soon have exhausted all its fuel. And no new supplies were available—probably the most prominent result of the air strikes against the Germans supply traffic.
Meanwhile, the American picture of the German thrust grew clearer. Major General Harmon, the commander of the 2nd Armored Division, was having coffee in the headquarters at Havelange, twelve miles north-northwest of Marche, when suddenly a lieutenant, Everett C. Jones, his head covered with a bloody bandage, arrived. Jones came from ’D’ Company of the 82nd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, and it was his armored car that had been knocked out by the German tanks at Haid earlier that day. Harmon immediately realized that his opponent von Lauchert instead of seeking battle had bent westwards and now advanced at full speed towards the Meuse. After a quick glance at the map, he decided to immediately send his armor to Ciney, where they could attack the Germans in the flank. Harmon ran to a grove nearby, where an armored battalion bivouacked, and issued a most informal order, ’Get down that road to a town called Ciney … block the entrances and exits and start fighting. The whole damn division is coming right behind you!’159
At nine in the evening on 23 December, the spearhead of the 2nd Armored Division—the 66th Armored Regiment and the 41st Armored Infantry Regiment—clashed with the Germans at Leignon. The flank unit left behind by von Cochenhausen at this place was sufficient to repel the American attack, but through this engagement, the Germans became aware that the American 2nd Armored Division was in the area.**
Reports of quite heavy fighting also came from Hargimont, where U.S. 3rd Armored Division’s Task Force Doan renewed its attacks. In the afternoon the Americans managed to push back the German panzer grenadier battalion to the effect that their connection with the German advance units temporarily were severed. But the intervention of a small Luftwaffe air defense unit with 88mm guns forced the Americans to pull back again. On the evening of 23 December, the Germans had taken back Jamodenne and Aye, west of Marche.160
Generalleutnant Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr Division, tasked to cover the 2. Panzer-Division’s southern flank, also ran into difficulties. During their march from Saint-Hubert towards Rochefort, three to four miles southwest of Hargimont, this division ran the gauntlet of repeated U.S. air strikes. For example, at Nassogne, southeast of Rochefort, a column of ten tanks and twenty trucks was bombed and strafed by Thunderbolt fighter-bombers from the 356th Fighter Squadron, 354th Fighter Group. At Forrières, a bit farther to the west, other Thunderbolts attacked Panzer Lehr with napalm and HE bombs. At two in the afternoon on 23 December, twin-engine Lightning fighter-bombers from the 474th Fighter Group exposed Bayerlein’s troops to intensive bombing just southeast of Rochefort. On top of that, Panzer Lehr only had part of its strength in the lead: Kampfgruppe 901 had been left behind to support the 26. Volksgrenadier-Division in the siege of Bastogne, and Bayerlein had allocated elements of Kampfgruppe 902 to cover the southern flank. Thus, it was a rather weak German force that finally reached Rochefort, which was defended by the 3rd Battalion of U.S. 335th Infantry Regiment and the tank destroyers of U.S. 638th Tank Destroyer Battalion.
Heading for the Meuse. The vehicle closest in the picture is an Opel Blitz truck towing a 10-cm leichte Feldhaubitze 42 field howitzer. This gun had a firing range of eight miles. Kampfgruppe von Böhm had two such pieces.
(BArch, Bild 183-J28639/Friedrich Zschäckel)
The only way into Rochefort ran between two hills where the Americans had dug in. Bayerlein decided to attempt a surprise attack. ’Augen zu, und hinein!’—’Close your eyes and run in!’—he said, and a battalion from Panzergrenadier-Regiment 902 set off at full speed, only to end up in a hellish crossfire that rapidly forced them to turn back again.
Bayerlein now ordered the infantry to take up positions to besiege Rochefort, while the reinforced armored reconnaissance battalion under Major von Fallois—the Panther tanks of the 5. and 6. Kompanies/ Panzer-Lehr-Regiment 130, tank destroyers from schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 559, and motorized artillery—was ordered to take a long detour southwest of Rochefort, where the little river Lomme was crossed before the advance could continue.
Meanwhile, Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt urged on Oberst von Lauchert, ’Well done with Conneux. Keep it up.’161 Even though it was dark, and although they had been marching all day, the soldiers of Kampfgruppe von Böhm carried on from Conneux further west across the high plateau. The vehicles jolted on frozen, snow-covered roads. In the light of the full moon, large, open fields could be seen on both sides of the road, now and then an occasional grove of trees, and here and there a few farmhouses. But nowhere were any Allied troops to be seen. It appeared as though it would be an easy final leg to the Meuse. At midnight, the leading vehicles drove up the hill into the small hamlet of Foy-Nôtre Dame, three miles west of Conneux. There they had to halt because the fuel by that time definitely was on the wane. Von Böhm’s frozen and weary men also needed to rest.
Von Böhm spread out his unit around Foy-Nôtre Dame: the most forward position was established in among the snow-capped fir trees in the Seminaire Forest, west of Foy-Nôtre Dame, only two miles from River Meuse. The small group of Greif commandos continued the road to Dinant in their jeep in an attempt to seize the bridge over the Meuse through a coup. They were never seen again. A note on 24 December 1944 in the war diary for British 3rd Royal Tank Regiment shows what happened: ’0200 Jeep manned by enemy tried to run through RB posns but was stopped by mines. 2 German SS killed; one wounded taken PW.’162
The outcome of the German offensive now hung in balance. On 23 December, the commander of the 5. Panzerarmee, von Manteuffel, contacted Model, the German Army Group commander, and told him that it must be determined whether the offensive towards the west was to continue, or if the forces first were to concentrate on the capture of Bastogne. ’In any case,’ said von Manteuffel, ’the senior command must urgently bring forward the available reserve forces.’163 This request was forwarded to Hitler, who released the 9. Panzer-Division and the 15. Panzergrenadier-Division from the forces ready for the second attack wave.
While the latter was routed to the Bastogne section, the 9. Panzer-Division was instructed to regroup to the XLVII. Panzerkorps section to provide the 2. Panzer-Division with flank support.164 For its participation in the Ardennes Offensive’s second attack wave, the 9. Panzer-Division had been reinforced with schwere Panzer-Abteilung 301, equipped with twenty-nine heavy Tiger I tanks.
However, there were two major differences between the German and the Allied reinforcements. To begin with, the Allied reinforcements already were in place, unlike the fresh German units. Of even greater importance was the fact that the Allies were able to carry out their movements in the rear area without being significantly disturbed by the opponent, while the Germans from 23 December and onward met increasing difficulties to bring even the most basic supplies to the front because of Allied air attacks.
Just a mile north of Kampfgruppe von Böhm at Foy-Nôtre Dame, on the other side of a little valley with some bare, frozen broadleaf trees, British 3rd Royal Tank Regiment had set up its headquarters in the mansion Château de Sorinnes. The manor’s owner, Baron Jacques de Villenfagne, and his cousin, Philippe le Hardy de Beaulieu, volunteered to locate the German positions. Warmly dressed and wrapped in white rags, they set out on the frigid night of 23 December. The snow-covered terrain was dimly lit by the full moon, but this was nothing the two men needed—they knew the area like the back of their hands. Therefore, they also knew how to avoid being discovered by the German guards. They sneaked around the area, marked all German vehicles and positions, stopped at farmhouses and villages and asked home owners what they had seen.
It was four in the morning when they, frozen but full of information, stepped into the heat of the Château de Sorinnes. There the British officers waited, and for more than an hour, Villenfagne and de Beaulieu briefed the Britons. They carefully drew their sightings on a map of the area: In the hamlet of Liroux, a mile and a half northeast of Foy-Nôtre Dame, there were German tanks both inside the village and in small groves of trees south of the hamlet. All the way from there to Foy-Nôtre Dame, German armor, artillery and other combat vehicles were deployed so that they would be able to intervene if the British tried to attack. The German armored force in the Seminaire Forest, west of Foy-Nôtre Dame, also was mapped.165 This was invaluable information for the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment and the Allied aviation, which prepared the attack against the German armored spearhead.
In fact, several Belgian civilians played a prominent role in the mitigation of the German advance towards the Meuse on this Christmas. While the bulk of von Cochenhausen’s motorized forces had to stay behind at Conneux due to fuel shortages, the remaining gas was used for a small group of Panther tanks with mounted infantry, some trucks with ammunition and a fuel truck that in the wee hours continued west. The plan was to reach the Meuse before dawn, seize the bridge and hold it until the main force had received fuel to follow up. These Germans drove into the area just south of the section where von Böhm’s troops were.
It was about six on the morning of 24 December when an anti-tank mine went off under one of these Panthers at the road junction just north of the village of Celles, slightly more than a mile southwest of Foy-Nôtre Dame. The loud explosion woke up Madame Marthe Monrique, the proprietor of the inn ’Pavilion Ardennais’ which was located right at the crossroads. She lit a candle and went up to see what was going on. When the Germans saw a light in her window, they banged on the front door and asked if she knew anything about the condition of the road up to the Meuse.
The Belgian woman knew that the American troops had left in a rush and hardly would have had any time to plant mines on the road, but she was not particularly thrilled at the prospect of a return of the Nazi occupiers, so she lied and said that the Americans had been working day and night to plant mines on the road from Celles to Dinant. This made the Germans hesitant to use the road, which could have brought them to Dinant in less than an hour. Instead, they went out into the fields alongside the road, which delayed them decisively. Three years after the war the Belgian authorities decided to donate the blown up tank to Madame Monrique as a token of their appreciation. Today, it stands as a rather famous monument outside the inn ’Le Tank’ at Celles.
When the small German armored force finally reached the outskirts of Dinant, it was nearly dawn. The road into Dinant winds between steep cliffs, so the Germans had no choice but to try to surprise their opponents by running at full speed. But when they came around the last corner and saw the first houses in Dinant, five Sherman tanks stood ready to meet them.
These Shermans were of the British-modified Firefly version, equipped with an Ordnance QF (Quick Firing) 17-pound 76.2mm (3 inch) anti-tank gun—probably the best anti-tank gun in Western Allied service. With the armor piercing APC (Armor Piercing, Capped) grenade, the 17-pounder had a terrible penetration capacity. At a distance of 1,500 meters (1,640 yards), a Sherman Firefly’s 17-pounder Mk IV could penetrate an armor 104 mm (4.1 in) thick at an angle of impact of 30 degrees, which is more than twice the penetration capacity of the American M3 gun, and a 40 mm (1.5 in) deeper penetration capacity than that of the improved U.S. 3-in M1 anti-tank gun. With the 17-pounder, the British had an anti-tank gun that could match the German Panther’s KwK 25 gun. The British maintained that the 17-pounder’s new APDS (Armorpiercing discarding sabot) sabot round could penetrate virtually any German armor whatsoever.
However, as the German tanks approached on this gray morning, most of the British tank crews slept in their tanks, unsuspecting. At the last moment, Sergeant F. ’Geordie’ Probert, the tank commander on one of those British tanks, woke to the sound of running engines and the clanking of tank tracks. He flung the turret hatch open and what he saw made the blood freeze in his veins: Germans—heading towards the bridge!
The remains of the Panther tank from Kampfgruppe Cochenhausen that was destroyed by a mine at the northern entrance of Celles is still in place as a reminder of Hitler’s great winter offensive in 1944/1945. (Photo: The author)
Probert kicked the sleeping gunner beneath him and shouted, ’Fire!’ In a panic, the gunner missed the closest German tank. The grenade passed above it and slammed into an ammunitions truck, which exploded with a roar that must have woken up the entire town. The fire spread and soon the fuel truck also blew up, with the final quantity of expensive German fuel. Moreover, when the Germans saw the long barrels with the 17-pounder’s characteristic thick muzzle brakes on the Sherman tanks, they realized that they would not have any chance to break through on the narrow road between houses and steep cliffs inside Dinant. The by now totally exhausted men of the 2. Panzer-Division’s armed reconnaissance force swiftly withdrew back to Foy-Nôtre Dame. There, the German Ardennes Offensive ended.
On 24 December, the turn had come to the Allies to attack. It started with furious artillery shelling of the 2. Panzer-Division’s spearhead. Through the observations made by Baron de Villenfagne, the British artillery was able to pin-point the German vehicles and artillery pieces. During eighty minutes of uninterrupted artillery fire, a large number of German tanks, half-tracked vehicles and artillery pieces were destroyed.
A British Sherman, a so-called Firefly, equipped with a 17-pound gun, guarding the Meuse in December 1944. (US Army)
After the battle. An American half-track vehicle passes a Panzer IV that apparently has received a terrible hit as its more than three inches thick frontal armor is completely torn up, and also has cracked further up. The hit angle indicates that the tank has been knocked out from the air, possibly by an RP-3 rocket-projectile fired by a British Hawker Typhoon fighter-bomber. (NARA 111-SC-199108/Pvt. T.J. Halkins)
Throughout 24 December, the artillery and aviation played the main role on the Allied side in the Celles/Foy-Nôtre Dame section. Basically it can be said that what the artillery did not destroy during the bombardment in the morning, was dealt with by the aviation during the rest of the day. The Germans were virtually helpless, since they barely had any fuel to move their detected vehicles and artillery pieces. The devastation caused by artillery and aircraft was so extensive that the pilots of the sixth formation of Lightning fighter-bombers despatched to the area by U.S. 379th Fighter Group on this 24 December, failed to find any targets to attack, because ’all sighted vehicles were burning,’ and another formation of Lightning (from the 474th Fighter Group) was bombing the wooded area east of Celles.
Next, Harmon’s U.S. 2nd Armored Division launched its attack, heavily supported from the air. While Combat Command B performed a pincer attack against Celles, Combat Command A struck against Buissonville, nine miles east of Celles, in order to cut off the German force’s links to the rear area. The operation could be carried out in the knowledge that the German fighting vehicles in the area had almost completely run out of fuel—Montgomery had received this information through German radio messages that had been decrypted by Ultra.
Harmon exploited the tactical air support to a maximum. When the 3rd Battalion, 67th Armored Regiment of Combat Command B’s northern force (Task Force A) met resistance from three Panther tanks up on the farm of Mahenne, just east of Foy-Nôtre Dame, the American tanks pulled back behind the trees in the Bois de Jauvelan Forest in the east and called in aviation. Twelve Lightning fighter-bombers appeared and destroyed the three Panthers, after which the American ground force could pass without any trouble.* (Later, these German tanks were fired upon by British Sherman crews who, unaware that they already were destroyed, claimed to have knocked them out.)
Combat Command B’s southern pincer (Task Force B) departed from Ciney and scampered down to the small village of Conjoux, slightly more than two miles east-northeast of Celles. From there, it continued over the hills south of the Coreu Forest, between Conjoux and Celles, and soon reached the southern outskirts of Celle, where its tanks began to shell the German positions in the north.
Meanwhile, during the American advance ten miles farther to the east, Combat Command A met only a fairly weak German resistance, and on the evening of 24 December, the Americans seized Buissonville.166 Here they captured thirty-eight vehicles of various kinds, four antitank guns and six medium artillery guns, plus one hundred and eight POWs.167
By taking Buissonville, the Americans had sealed off the 2. Panzer-Division’s spearhead at Celles and Foy-Nôtre Dame. The 2nd Armored Division’s frequent use of tactical air support, however backfired shortly after the seizure of Buissonville, when a formation of Lightning fighter-bomber pilots by mistake attacked the American tanks in the village. When Combat Command A then tried to push on to the southeast, the Americans came upon the slightly larger force that von Lauchert had grouped in Hargimont, southwest of Marche, and had to withdraw.
The Germans now clung their hopes to the promised reinforcements from the 9. Panzer-Division. This division’s forty-seven Panthers, twenty-eight Panzer IVs, and eleven Panzer IV/70s might very well have been able to turn the table to the German advantage—not to mention what the Tiger I tanks of schwere Panzer-Abteilung 301 could have accomplished. General von Lüttwitz wrote:
’To the Corps, it was a trying Christmas Eve. We knew that victory or defeat balanced on the edge of a knife. If we succeeded in holding the 2. Panzer-Division’s march route open, and if the 9. Panzer-Division’s main force arrived on time, so that it could join the 2. Panzer-Division early on 25 December, an Allied attack against the 2. Panzer-Division’s long flanks would no longer be so worrisome.’168
Without doubt, it was the aviation that saved the situation for the Allies. The devastating bombings of the German communication hubs both blocked the 9. Panzer-Division’s movement and deprived it of much of the gasoline required for a quick march to the front. On 23 December it was reported that the 9. Panzer-Division could move ’only relatively slowly.’169 On 24 December, the 9. Panzer-Division stood more or less motionless because U.S. air attacks had halted or destroyed its supplies of fuel.170 Owing to the intense air attacks against lines of communication, the decision was taken to suspend the efforts to bring the division’s schwere Panzer-Abteilung 301 to the front at Celles. Instead, its heavy Tiger I tanks were unloaded at Nörvenich near Düren, to be held in reserve at that place.
The operations officer in the 2. Panzer Division, Oberstleutnant Rüdiger Weiz, wrote, ’Towards the evening [on 24 December] the commander of the 9. Panzer-Division [Generalmajor Harald von Elverfeldt] arrived at the division’s command post. His orientation revealed that his Division had been held up for 24 hours owing to a lack of gasoline. The arrival of the first elements of this Division could therefore not be expected for this evening, less so the planned relief of the 2. Panzer-Division in the course of the next 24 hours. Neither had the situation with the adjacent units turned to our advantage. Since both pockets reported that their supply of ammunition and gas would not allow them to continue the battle much longer, and since gas available at the front was not sufficient for the withdrawal of these forces, the nearly unsolvable question arose how to bring help to the elements fighting in the front line.’171
Panzer Lehr also was prevented, chiefly through the American aviation, from coming to the 2. Panzer-Division’s aid. Thunderbolt-equipped 379th Fighter Squadron of the 362nd Fighter Group alone was reported to have destroyed forty-five trucks in a single column in Panzer Lehr’s rear area.172
’The day began with a brilliant clear winter weather and a very active enemy aviation,’ a concerned General von Lüttwitz wrote for 25 December.173
On the same day, Panzer Lehr’s commander, Bayerlein, established that an entire anti-aircraft battery had been destroyed in an air attack while on the march, and that the road all the way from Champlon was lined with burned vehicles that had been loaded with supplies to the front. Moreover, Panzer Lehr’s armor repair shop in Birresborn was wiped out in a bombing raid. From Bayerlein’s forward observation post on this sunny Christmas Day, he could see swarms of Allied fighter-bombers carry out a massacre on the 2. Panzer-Division’s encircled troops.
In theory, the Germans still had a chance to resume their offensive. At a conference on 25 December, Generalfeldmarschall Model argued that it was high time to bring in all the reserves that stood at the offensive’s disposal. If this was carried out, he argued, all the Allied forces east of the Meuse could be destroyed if the 5. Panzerarmee turned north after it had reached the Meuse to link up with the 6. SS-Panzerarmee, which was supposed to continue westwards.174 He received the enthusiastic support from the 5. Panzerarmee’s commander, von Manteuffel, who said, ’Give me the reserves and I will take Bastogne and reach the Meuse!’175 However, both commanders agreed that everything depended on the neutralization of the Allied aviation. Von Manteuffel stressed that ’the reserves must have sufficient amounts of fuel,’ and that he needed air support. Hitherto, he said, he ‘had only seen the enemy’s air force.’176 Model seemed to turn to somewhat higher powers as he emphasized that the basic conditions for success were ’weather conditions that preclude enemy air operations.’177
In regard of the fact that the Luftwaffe in the West no longer had the ability to challenge the Allies for air superiority, and that no new extensive low pressure ridge could be expected over the next few days, the supreme commander in the West, von Rundstedt, was more realistic when he suggested Hitler call off the offensive because the supply routes had been cut by Allied air attacks.178 But to cancel the attack was out of the question to Hitler. To the contrary, he had set new plans—as we shall see later.
Meanwhile, bitter fighting continued to rage between U.S. 2nd Armored Division and German 2. Panzer-Division at Celles and Hargimont. On Christmas morning, British 3rd Royal Tank Regiment also joined the fight. Its Shermans drove through the valley between Sorinnes and Foy-Nôtre Dame while RAF Typhoon fighter-bombers came down at low altitude and fired their rocket projectiles against enemy vehicles. Shortly afterwards, the British troops were advancing between burning and smoking wrecks of German vehicles and guns, and took control of the little hamlet of Foy-Nôtre Dame. There they captured 148 German survivors, among them Hauptmann von Böhm.
Slightly more than a mile farther to the south, the surviving Germans of Kampfgruppe von Cochenhausen meanwhile had fled into the deciduous forests east of Celles, where they held out on Christmas Day. The Americans had no need to challenge them in direct combat, but instead called in air and artillery strikes. The American ground troops simply marked the wooded area where Germans had been identified with smoke grenades, and then several waves of fighter-bombers attacked until finally all German gunfire had ceased.
When a group of Panzer IV tanks later on Christmas Day attempted to counter-attack, the Americans called in artillery. The artillery of the 2nd Armored Division blasted more than two thousand grenades against the area. Afterwards, the American troops encountered the burned out wrecks of seven Panzer IVs and ten other vehicles.179
There was a glimmer of hope on the German side when a first task force from their 9. Panzer-Division reached Humain, two miles southeast of Buissonville, at three in the afternoon on 25 December.180 This force was able to block the attempts by U.S. 2nd Armored Division’s Combat Command A to break through towards Hargimont, another three miles farther to the southeast. Thus, Hauptmann Friedrich Holtmeyer’s Panzerjäger-Abteilung 38 of Panzergrenadier-Regiment 2, and Panther tanks of the 9. Panzer-Division’s Panzer-Regiment 33 could regroup from this section to Rochefort. The aim was to strike from that place to relieve the encircled troops, barely ten miles farther to the north. However, owing to the Allied air superiority the Germans had to wait until darkness before they undertook any of these movements, and this resulted in new difficulties.181 ’It proved difficult,’ wrote the 2. Panzer-Division’s Oberstleutnant Rüdiger Weiz, ’to pull out elements from the front and to assemble them on narrow roads and in pitch darkness; the operation was also disturbed by the presence of enemy groups placed between Hargimont and Rochefort, and therefore lasted all through the night. Uncertain reconnaissance reports occasioned a halt shortly before Rochefort, but with beginning daylight it was possible to reach the area northeast of Custinne in a rapid advance via Ciergnon. In spite of strong enemy artillery and even stronger armored superiority, we came up to 900 yards of the pocket by afternoon [on 26 December].’182
But there the Americans subjected the relief force to what the Germans described as ’a hellish fire’ from artillery led by artillery observation planes and several formations of fighter-bombers.183 In addition to this, according to the German report, eighty American tanks counter-attacked.184According to a U.S. report, however, the battle was decided mainly by the aviation and the artillery.185 Several Panthers were knocked out and Hauptmann Holtmeyer was killed.186 The relief force was forced to revert to the defense.
The two efforts made by Panzer Lehr on this Boxing Day to relieve Kampfgruppe von Cochenhausen met the same fate—both were repulsed mainly by Allied air attacks.187 Moreover, Panzer Lehr’s own supply roads were cut off through a bombing attack by the 406th Fighter Group that destroyed every house in Saint-Hubert with the exception of the church.
Only now were all the new forces requested by Model and von Manteuffel released. On 26 December, the 12. and 340. Volksgrenadier divisions, and the 3. Panzergrenadier-Division received orders to regroup to the 5. Panzerarmee. But this was too late. Even the war diary of von Rundstedt’s headquarters noted that ’all plans are infeasible’ if it would not be possible to rapidly solve and repair ’the damage to the railways and other lines of communication caused by the massed enemy air attacks in recent days, as well as their consequences to the transport and traffic situation (of which the most important is that owing to the fuel situation it has become almost impossible to bring forward supplies).’188
After the war, von Manteuffel said, not without bitterness, ’I received the remaining reserves only on 26 December—and by then they could not be moved. They stood still due to a lack of fuel—stranded along a hundred-mile stretch—just when they were needed most.’189 Even where fuel was available, the Allied air strikes reached such an intensity that it became almost impossible to traverse the roads in the German rear area in daylight. Generalmajor Richard Metz, artillery commander in the 5. Panzerarmee, described the situation on Boxing Day, ’The air attacks were so powerful that even single vehicles for the transport of personnel and motorcycles could only get through by going from cover to cover.’
On that same 26 December, Generalfeldmarschall Model’s war diary noted, ’On the entire front there were very heavy enemy low-level attacks with a focus on the 5. Panzerarmee which made movement and supply on the battlefield nearly impossible for the whole day. An officer sent by the General Inspector der Panzertruppen has reported considerable destruction of vehicles as a result of low-level attacks. The Luftwaffe could only offer local and temporary relief in the face of the massive use of enemy aircraft over the battle zone.’ Before the end of the day, Model had been compelled to order Heeresgruppe B to ’cancel all supply traffic at daytime.’190 At that stage, this had already in practice been implemented. On that day, the Allied airmen reported ’a considerable decrease in enemy vehicular traffic during daylight hours.’191
At 1530 hrs on 26 December, Model gave the 2. Panzer-Division permission to withdraw to Rochefort.192Kampfgruppe von Cochenhausen was ordered to destroy all heavy equipment. Quite curiously, the encircled troops managed to make it to Rochefort without much disturbance by the enemy. Von Manteuffel wrote, ’The enemy followed only hesitantly and refrained from attacking our retreat route.’193
Meanwhile, on the night of 26 December, the Luftwaffe made a desperate attempt to relieve the 2. Panzer-Division by despatching nine twin-engine Junkers 88 bombers from bomber group I. Gruppe/ Lehrgeschwader 1 against the marshalling yards of Namur-Flawinne. Without being able to accomplish much, the Germans lost three Ju 88s, including the one flown by the unit commander, Hauptmann Rüdiger Panneborg. At the same time—at midnight on the night of 26/27 December—German 3. Jagd-Division reported that it intended to support the armor through low-level attacks in formations of thirty fighters each in the area of Dinant - Marche - Rochefort every five minutes from 0630 hrs in the morning on 27 December.194 But by that time, the Battle of the Meuse had already been decided. At one o’clock that night, the poor remnants of Kampfgruppe Cochenhausen—six hundred men on foot, with Major von Cochenhausen in the lead—reached the German lines at Rochefort.195
The mopping-operation carried out by American 2nd Armored Division’s Combat Command B against the last German positions at Celles is described in an American military study, ’Two Task Forces, each following an independent axis, each consisting of a reinforced battalion, secured the high ground overlooking the town. Then, in a coordinated attack, the combat command entered and cleared the village. When interviewed after the war the German general who commanded the elements of the 2nd Panzer Division that were trapped in the woods, stated that his vehicles were practically immobilized due to the shortage of gasoline.’196
Most depictions of the Ardennes Battle provide heavily exaggerated figures for the 2. Panzer-Division’s losses at Foy-Nôtre Dame/Celles at Christmas 1944. This can be explained by the fact that the Allies published greatly inflated figures immediately after the battle: Eighty-two tanks, eighty-three anti-tank guns and artillery pieces, and five hundred other vehicles, together with 1,213 prisoners of war and about 900 killed German soldiers. It should be noted that eighty-two tanks was more than the 2. Panzer-Division had at its disposal when the Ardennes Offensive began (fifty-six Panthers and twenty-eight Panzer IVs). These figures may have been the result of double-counting. Baron de Villenfagne from Château de Sorinnes walked around the area around Celles and carefully counted the German losses. He came up with different figures as he noted in a report, ’It was a great cemetery of destroyed vehicles and abandoned equipment, half-buried in the snow. The Germans left behind 840 vehicles, including 40 tanks and we counted 900 dead Germans in the woods and fields to the north of Celles.’197 But in terms of armor losses, even these figures are too high.
According to what military historian Jeff Dugdale has found in previously lost German original documents, the 2. Panzer-Division lost a total of thirty tanks in December 1944—eighteen Panthers and twelve Panzer IVs—plus two Flakpanzers, two StuG III assault guns, seven armored cars, and seven SPGs.198 It is likely that some of the thirty-five armored vehicles lost by the division were misidentified as ’tanks’ when the first count of the spoils at Foy-Nôtre Dame/Celles was made. But several captured U.S. vehicles also were to be found among the materiel abandoned or otherwise lost by the 2. Panzer-Division at Christmas 1944. In any case, it is probable that the battle of envelopment at Foy-Nôtre Dame/Celles accounted for most of the 2. Panzer-Division’s materiel losses in December 1944. However, the Germans hardly could have lost more than twenty tanks in that section.
CONCLUSIONS AND RESULTS
The results of the first twelve days of the German Ardennes Offensive largely confirmed the assumptions that had been made by the German High Command before the battle. As long as the Allies were deprived of their air support, the Germans were able to attain great success—with the exception of the I. SS- Panzerkorps in the north, which proved to be far less effective than the German planners had anticipated.
General von Lüttwitz’ XLVII. Panzerkorps—the 2. Panzer-Division and Panzer Lehr—recorded impressive numerical successes: On 28 December, von Lüttwitz’ headquarters compiled a report of the number of enemy combat vehicles that had been destroyed or captured by the corps since the offensive had begun, and this included 325 tanks or tank destroyers and 267 other armored vehicles.199The other armored corps in the 5. Panzerarmee, LVIII. Panzerkorps—where the 116. Panzer Division constituted the main force—reported that in the same period it had destroyed 147 American tanks and 35 enemy armored reconnaissance vehicles, ’immobilized’ three American tanks, and taken a booty which included four American tanks.200 This gave a grand total for the 5. Panzerarmee’s both armored corps of 472 U.S. tanks or tank destroyers. These figures are actually quite well in line with available U.S. loss statistics, which indicate that U.S. First and Third Armies may have lost up to of 800-900 tanks and tank destroyers in the Ardennes in December 1944.
On the small square in front of the church of Foy-Nôtre Dame, some of the pitiful remnants of Kampfgruppe von Böhm can be seen. To the left one of the force’s thirteen Sonderkraftfahrzeug 251 half-track vehicles, next to a Sonderkraftfahrzeug 234/2 Puma armored car. At the front of the picture we can see a 10.5cm leichte Feldhaubitze 42. German steel helmets, Panzerfausts and other equipment is strewn on the ground.
THE MASSACRE AT BANDE
German 2. Panzer-Division barely had seized Bande at Highway N 4, four miles southeast of Marche, when a force from the Nazi Security Service SD (Sicherheitsdienst) arrived at the small village. They were seeking retribution for an incident on 5 September 1944, when the Belgian resistance movement had attacked a German ammunition dump in the vicinity and killed three soldiers. On the morning of Christmas Eve, the SD men went from house to house in Bande, taking away all men from the age of 17 and up. These were brought to the remains of a burned down sawmill where they were interrogated and in many cases tortured. Officers from the 2. Panzer-Division tried in vain to put an end to the abuses. That same evening, the SD men took thirty-two of the prisoners to Café de la Poste, on the other side of the main road, where all were executed. On the following day another two men were killed by the SD in the same place.
Only one of the perpetrators, a Swiss volunteer, was identified after the war. In 1948 a Swiss military court sentenced him to 20 years in prison, but he was pardoned after twelve years.
Memorial dedicated to the executed Belgians in Bande. (Photo: The author)
This illustrates not only the extent of the tank battles during the first two weeks of the Ardennes Battle, but also the complete superiority of the German tanks. The 2. Panzer-Division’s tank losses between 16 and 31 December can, minus the stock that was abandoned in Celles area, be estimated at between ten and fifteen tanks. Panzer Lehr lost no more than six Panthers between 16 December 1944 and 15 January 1945.201 In addition to that, seven Panzer IVs were lost between 16 and 31 December.202 Added to this, again excluding the abandoned equipment in the Celles area, the two armored divisions altogether lost about fifteen tank destroyers/assault guns. Overall, this means that the XLVII. Panzerkorps on average destroyed eight to ten American tanks or tank destroyers for each own corresponding loss—not included the abandoned equipment in the Celles area. Until 23 December, i.e. before the Battle of Celles, the 2. Panzer-Division’s personnel losses since the beginning of the offensive amounted to no more than forty-five killed, thirty-seven missing, and 173 wounded.203 Panzer Lehr’s casualties during the same period were on about the same level.
That the battle still ended in a German defeat, strategically and tactically, confirms the crucial role played by the Allied aviation—especially since the turning point came only with the shift in weather so that air operations on a larger scale could be carried out. If the Germans, through their armor, were superior on the ground, the Allies clearly had an even greater superiority in the air, and this proved to be decisive.
It is hardly conceivable that the 2. and 9. SS-Panzer divisions—two rested armored divisions—could have been prevented from relieving the 2. Panzer-Division and/or SS-Kampfgruppe Peiper without the efforts of the Allied air forces. The Allied aviation also played an important, though less decisive, role in the elimination of the 116. Panzer-Division’s offensive capability. What was of greater importance than anything else was the strategic defeating of General von Lüttwitz’ XLVII. Panzerkorps, and particularly its up to then so successful spearhead, the 2. Panzer-Division. The fact that this unit was first deprived of its flow of supplies, and then enveloped, after which the relief forces (Panzer Lehr and the 9. Panzer-Division) were prevented from breaking the encirclement, so that the encircled German forces finally could be wiped out, was due more than anything else to the Allied aviation.
Another most important effect of the extensive Allied air attacks against the roads leading to the Ardennes Front, was that the third German assault wave never was employed. Von Rundstedt instead decided to use this force, amounting to about a dozen divisions, including 450 tanks and tank destroyers, in a new relief offensive further south—more about this later. In view of the circumstances, this probably was a rational decision, since the Allied air power made it impossible to bring forward sufficient supplies even to the units already in the first line in the Ardennes.
Besides SS-Kampfgruppe Peiper’s largely self-inflicted destruction, the defeat at Foy-Nôtre Dame/Celles inflicted a death blow to the German offensive against the Meuse and a crucial turning point in the Ardennes Battle.* More than anyone else, the victory belonged to the British Field Marshal Montgomery.**
Indeed, ’Lightning Joe’ Collins, Major General Harmon, and the U.S. troops commanded by them played the main role on the ground, and the victory definitely would have been inconceivable without them and the American aviation. On the ground, the victory belonged to these American troops. But it was Montgomery who had positioned Collins’ excellent VII Corps and Harmons’ tough ’Hell on Wheels’ Division in the strategic positions from where they were able to defeat both the 2. Panzer-Division and other German forces in the area. It should be kept in mind that U.S. First Army’s C-in-C, Lieutenant General Hodges, only three days earlier had wanted to use these forces at Sankt Vith—in a battle whose outcome would have been uncertain, to say the least. By instead allowing the Germans to advance until their supply lines were stretched thin, and then wait and see which opportunities emerged, Montgomery created the conditions for this brilliant U.S. victory. That many depictions of the battle fail to give him ’credit,’ is quite symptomatic of the aversion to the eccentric British field marshal that has propagated through time.
With the German offensive against River Meuse halted, the battle now focused on the town that has become synonymous with the Ardennes Battle, Bastogne. Thus Montgomery’s antagonists within the Allied command, Patton and Bradley, came in the limelight.
U.S. 2nd Armored Division ‘Hell on Wheels’ arrives at the battle zone in the Ardennes in December 1944. (NARA SC 198342)
THE ATTACK THAT NEVER WAS
For a couple of days, German 25. Armee of Heeresgruppe H stood ready for an attack from its positions just east of the Maas (Meuse) estuary and directly towards Antwerp, about forty-five miles farther to the southwest. This thrust was not included in the original plan for Operation ‘Wacht am Rhein/Herbst Nebel.’ But then Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt on 18 December—owing to the fact that the 12. SS-Panzer-Division was stalled on 6. SS-Panzerarmee’s northern flank—ordered the cancellation of the 15. Armee’s planned follow-up attack from the northeast, he also ordered Heeresgruppe H to prepare the 25. Armee for an attack. According to von Rundstedt’s instructions, Antwerp was to be taken through the interaction of the 25. Armee from the north and the 6. SS-Panzerarmee from the south.1 The 25. Armee would employ three infantry divisions and the 6. Fallschirmjäger-Division.
On 19 December, von Rundstedt repeated his intention to despatch what he described as ‘an important complementary attack’ by the 25. Armee.2 But on the next day, the Red Army launched an attack in Hungary which would have consequences for the Ardennes Offensive. On 26 December, the same day that the Soviet forces encircled Budapest, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, chief of the German Army Staff, arrived at Hitler’s headquarters on the Western Front, the ‘Eagle’s Nest.’ Guderian described the crisis in Hungary and was able to convince both Hitler and von Rundstedt about the need to reinforce the German positions in this sector at the expense of the Western Front. Since von Rundstedt did not want to weaken the Ardennes Front, nor Heeresgruppe G in the south, he had no choice but to deploy units from the section where Heeresgruppe H was strongest, namely 25. Armee. This immediately sent two divisions to the eastern front, the 344. and 711. Infanterie divisions. In practice this meant the death knell for von Rundstedt’s planned attack against Antwerp from the north.
1 OKW/WFSt/Op (H) West Nr 774427 g.Kdos.Chefs. 18. 12. 1944; Jung, Die Ardennen-Offensive 1944/45, p. 151.
2 H.Gru.H. Ia Nr. 9/44 g.Kdos.Chefs. 19. 12. 1944; Jung, p. 156.
* Sixty-six from the 9th Air Force (forty-two medium bombers, fourteen Thunderbolts, two Lightnings, and eight twin-engine C-47 Skytrain transport planes), eight from the 8th Air Force (four Mustangs, three Thunderbolts, and a B-17 Flying Fortress), nine Lancasters from RAF Bomber Command, and a Typhoon fighter-bomber from British 2nd Tactical Air Force.
* On the evening of 24 December, the Germans reported the following airfields badly damaged by air attacks: Giessen, Nidda, Ettinghausen, Altenstadt, Rhein-Main, Babenhausen, Grossostheim, Zellhausen, and Merzhausen. (National Archives, Kew: Ultra files HW 5/637. CX/MSS/T 409/45 West.)
* Today the road is designed N 30.
* As has been explained previously, the Belgian River Ourthe really consists of two rivers: on one hand, the Ourthe Occidentale (Western Ourthe), which from the Libramont runs to the northeast, about nine miles northwest of Bastogne. At a point west of Houffalize it flows into the Ourthe Orientale (Eastern Ourthe), which from the heights just north of the northernmost tip of Luxembourg’s border with Belgium runs to the southwest and west. The two joined river parts then continue from the area west of Houffalize in a northwesterly direction, passing through the resorts of La Roche and Hotton, then a bit further north bending to the north to eventually flow into the Meuse. In the main text above, the Ourthe refers to the ‘united’ river, the northwestern pace through La Roche and Hotton.
** The infantry of ‘F’ Company of the 2nd Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry Regiment (82nd Airborne Division) and a company of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion. (National Archives and Records Administration: 325th Glider Infantry Regiment: Combat Interview Colonel George Billingslea, CO, March 24, 1945.) This infantry was supported by tanks from ‘D’ Troop of the 87th Cavalry Squadron (of the 7th Armored Division), a platoon of anti-tank guns from the 643rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, three 105mm field howitzers from the 589th Field Artillery Battalion (of the 106th Infantry Division), and four of the 203rd Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion’s half-tracks, each equipped with a quadrupel M51 .50-Cal. ‘Quad Fifty’ antiaircraft gun mounting. (National Archives and Records Administration: Morning Reports of ‘D’ Troop, 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron. Division Records, Entry 427, Record Group 407. File 607: 7th Armored Division.)
* The U.S. Army aviation had no real dive-bombers, but what the report referred to were ordinary fighter-bombers that carried out their attacks while diving.
* In Fosse, Thompson was evacuated for medical treatment, at first to Liège and then to Paris. However, his Company commander was not informed about this, with the result that Thompson was written off as missing. On 13 January 1945, his wife Katherine, who only days earlier had given birth to the couple’s daughter, received a telegram from the War Department that her husband was missing in combat since 24 December 1944. Fortunately this was not true, and after eight anguished days Katherine Thompson received a new telegram announcing that Meron was alive and was only wounded. (Via Stephen Thompson.)
* Rosebaum had been awarded a Silver Star on 7 September 1944.
* However, a formation of Lightnings also mistakenly attacked U.S. positions during this day’s concentrated airstrikes against Grandmenil, with the result that three U.S. officers and twenty-six enlisted men were killed.
* This refers to the western tributary of the Ourthe, which from the Libramont area south of Bastogne runs to the northeast. The elements of 116. Panzer-Division that meanwhile also crossed the Ourthe, crossed the part of the river that further to the northeast runs in a northwesterly direction.
* Over the next two days, Huempfner would earn fame for his one-man guerrilla war against German forces in the area. When the 2nd Armored Division on Christmas Day drove the Germans from the village, they were met by Huempfner with eighteen German prisoners of war. For this he was awarded with the Distinguished Service Cross. He has also been honored with a plaque on a wall in Leignon.
** Previously, the Germans had identified the 84th Infantry and 3rd Armored divisions at Marche. (National Archives, Kew: Ultra files HW 5/636 CX/MSS/R 404 (c) 63. BT 266 West.)
* Today, this is documented in pictures and words on a plaque on one of the houses of the farm estate Mahenne.
* The extent to which the German offensive shook the American confidence, is evidenced by the SHAEF’s American chief of staff, General Walter Bedell Smith, who in a conversation with Bradley, according to what the latter said after the war, as late as on 26 December 1944 expressed the belief that the Germans ‘will be across the Meuse in 48 hours.’ (Bradley, A Soldier’s Story, p. 482.)
** Military historian John Ellis, who is quite critical of the British field marshal, asserts that Montgomery’s restriction of the counterattack to ‘the western tip of the German penetration’ at Celles was ‘breath-takingly inadequate’ and concludes that ‘Montgomery did not really shine during the Allied counter-offensive in the Ardennes.’ (Ellis, Brute Force, p. 435.) But this review does not take the relation of forces into account. By this time, the Germans still had a quite powerful military capacity along the entire northern front sector of the Ardennes which had been assigned to Montgomery’s command. Even when Montgomery ten days later—after considerable Allied reinforcements had been brought forward while the German troops had been significantly worn down, and others had been transferred to the Bastogne section—launched his attempt to seal off the German Ardennes Bulge from the north, the troops under his command ran into severe difficulties. If Montgomery had not ‘restricted’ his attack to ‘the western tip’ in December 1944, but instead had attacked the SS Panzer divisions along the northern flank (as also suggested by Bradley and Patton), it probably would have resulted in such severe Allied losses that the cleansing of the Ardennes Bulge would have cost much more time and lives than now actually was the case.