They Sure Worked Those Two Horses to Death

HAVING OBSERVED THE reaction to the attacks of Brandenberger’s Seventh Army in the south and Manteuffel’s Fifth Army in the centre of the Bulge, the drama now swings north.

Opposite the proposed onslaught of Oberstgruppenführer Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army lay three US formations. On Dietrich’s left, bridging the boundary between General Troy Middleton’s VIII Corps and General ‘Gee’ Gerow’s Vth, was Colonel Mark A. Devine’s 14th Cavalry Group, stretched out in a static role totally unsuited to their low numbers, and that disdained their high mobility. A few minor sub-units were detached to Major-General Alan W. Jones’s Golden Lions Division further south, as we have seen, but the majority were clustered around the villages of the Losheim gap through which the inter-corps boundary ran.

North of the cavalry, and garrisoning the front from the Losheimergraben crossroads up to the twin villages of Krinkelt and Rotherath on the Elsenborn Ridge were the 14,208 men of Major-General Walter E. Lauer’s US 99th Division. Beyond them and guarding the rest of the northern flank, to the scenic, half-timbered town of Monschau, were Major-General Walter M. Robertson’s veteran Indianheads, the US 2nd Infantry Division. Since 14 December some of the 2nd were already committed to a small offensive to seize the Roer dams along with the US 78th Division, north of the Ardennes area, but would withdraw to aid their comrades, once the threat of Herbstnebel had manifested itself.

During the war the US Army created eighty-nine active divisions, of which sixty-one, including the 99th – the Checkerboard Division – served in Northern Europe. The Checkerboarders were almost as new to combat as the Golden Lions. They had arrived in foggy, wet England in six troopships, fresh from training in Texas. LSTs had then conveyed them to France, followed by a 285-mile trek along the Red Ball Express route to Belgium, taking over areas of the front from 9 November. Until they were warned for service in Europe, none of the division knew to which theatre they would be assigned – many feared in the autumn of 1944, when the European war appeared to be drawing to a conclusion, that they would be sent to the jungles of the Pacific – and felt they had experienced quite enough of that heat in Texas. In the Ardennes, from the outgoing troops, they rapidly picked up the nickname of ‘Battle Babies’, a descriptor they wore with pride.

A wave of depression quickly settled on the 99th when they met grey, overcast skies, icy rain, sleet and snow, mixed with endless forests, drab stone buildings and suspicious locals – many of whom had relatives over the border. Visibility was generally poor with less than eight hours of daylight; it usually grew light from 08.00 a.m. but it was dark by 4.00 p.m. Unlike the natives of Luxembourg further south, the neighbouring Belgians were reserved in their manner towards the American soldiers, fearing a German return. As with the 106th, the Checkerboard Division included 3,000 ASTP scholars-turned infantrymen to replace others previously sent to Europe. Many of these were initially the butt of bullying, jokes and insults from the older Checkerboarders, who derided the college boys with their aspirations to graduate and become officers.

The Brooklyn-born commanding general, Walter Lauer, had seen action in North Africa before taking command of the Checkerboarders in August 1943. December 1944 found him headquartered in a Belgian villa at Bütgenbach, about eight miles behind the front. It was equipped with a grand piano, for Lauer’s way of working off stress was to lose himself in music, and attack the keyboard as though nothing else mattered. His staff had no idea what to make of a grand piano in their CP.1 Having led his division for nearly sixteen months, Lauer was not popular with all his officers or soldiers, and several wrote in their memoirs of finding him ‘humorless, abrasive, arrogant and disagreeable’, yet he proved himself a good commander.2 His division’s front followed the Siegfried Line and was obscured by dense pine woods which removed fields of fire and visibility, but provided plenty of material for log huts, overhead cover for bunkers and trunks for engineer-constructed corduroy roads. They could take heart from the proximity of the seasoned veterans of the US 2nd Division, some of whom were already in combat, attempting to reach the Roer dams, in conjunction with Combat Command ‘B’ of the 9th Armored Division.

Taking over positions vacated by the US 9th Infantry Division, Lauer placed his three regiments in line – like the Golden Lions and Bloody Bucket divisions to his south, he was stretched thinly, covering a wide sector. Colonel Alexander J. Mackenzie’s 395th Regiment covered the northern flank to the boundary with US 2nd Division. In the centre Lauer placed Lieutenant-Colonel Jean D. Scott’s 393rd Infantry. In the south, Lauer felt the area around Losheimergraben, which marked his forward lines, to be his most challenging sector. This is where Colonel Don Riley’s 394th Infantry Regiment was assigned a five-mile front to garrison. If Lauer was unpopular, so was Riley; several Checkerboarders thought him ‘vainglorious and incompetent’. His final pep talk to his men before they headed overseas began, ‘War is fun!’ He was met with stony silence.3

Of all the areas in the Ardennes, that of Riley’s regiment covered the most likely, shortest and best movement corridor for an army hurrying from the east towards the Meuse. Initially the route stretched from Losheim, then in German hands, across the Americans’ front, where it was known as the International Highway. The favoured road to the Meuse then turned north-west at Losheimergraben and, today called the N632, ran on towards Liège, some fifty-six miles distant – these days a journey of less than two hours.

With his limited resources, Riley, who had taken command on 12 October, focused most of his attention on the triangle of settlements, each a mile apart, of Lanzerath to the south, Losheimergraben to the north and Buchholz railway station to the rear. He put two of his three 860-man battalions along the front, the third he kept in reserve, near Buchholz, while he placed the regiment’s I&R (Intelligence and Reconnaissance) Platoon near Lanzerath, in over-watch of the surrounding road network. The I&R Platoon, commanded by First Lieutenant Lyle Bouck, was a set-up similar to the 28th Division’s I&R outfit based in Vianden, who had interviewed the Luxembourg civilians escaping the Germans.

Bouck had volunteered for the army before the war, lying about his age, and been commissioned as an officer aged just eighteen.4 He had managed to scrounge some extra weapons and ammunition for his small unit, which boasted several machine guns and BARs (the 1917 model Browning Automatic Rifle, effectively a squad light machine gun which fired the same .30-06-inch ammunition as the Garand rifle), certainly more firepower than one might have expected for a small detachment; his communications back to the regimental CP were by a network of field telephones. He, the rest of Colonel Riley’s three battalions and the 14th Cavalry, would shortly have the misfortune to find themselves under attack by elements of three infantry divisions, the equivalent of eighteen battalions – and that was before a single German tank appeared.

The 99th at least had a month to acclimatise to their new surroundings before the maelstrom descended upon them, but their first few days were depressing. Byron Reburn noted his friends in Company ‘L’ of the US 394th Infantry ‘standing like harnessed draft horses, vapour rising from the irregular columns of young men, humbled by the penetrating cold, the impersonal discipline, and the gods of fate that put us there’.5 PFC Donald Wallace was also with Company ‘L’ and vividly remembered the division’s unimpressive stay in England before crossing to France. ‘It was always raining there, and it was mudsville; sloppy, mushy mudsville. We got one forty-eight-hour pass into London and for the first time witnessed a city in blackout. With overcast skies and complete blackout at night, we couldn’t see for any distance.’ Soon they crossed the Channel, bound for Belgium, and Wallace observed, ‘As we passed through villages, French and Belgian citizens threw apples to us and ran alongside the slow-moving trucks pouring wine and passing it up to us. It was very heart-warming for our cold bodies in those open trucks.’ On 11 December, his company moved into divisional reserve at Buchholz station, near the 3rd Battalion’s HQ.6

Kenneth F. Haas had grown up in the small town of Ellis, Kansas, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. With no job, he volunteered for the army before being drafted in August 1943 and was accepted on to an ASTP course. When the programme closed, he was assigned to the 99th and sailed for England. ‘About 1 November,’ he recalled, ‘we boarded ship at Southampton and docked at Le Havre, the first full division to disembark there since the Germans destroyed the port facilities. We went down rope ladders in full equipment at night and boarded “Red Ball” trucks for the drive across France and Belgium. On 4 November, we started passing “Long Tom” (155mm) artillery firing at the enemy many miles away. After fifteen months, we had arrived at the front.’ Haas was soon sent to the anti-tank platoon of Headquarters Company of the 2nd Battalion, 395th Infantry Regiment. Of his first month in Belgium, he recollected, ‘We spent a relatively quiet month on line watching the Germans across the way sawing wood, hanging out laundry and occasionally tossing a few mortar shells our way and we returned the favour.’ Haas and his comrades had to support the US 2nd Infantry Division’s assault on the Roer dams. His job was to ‘carry cases of ammunition, dynamite, and K-rations cross icy streams and snowy hills to the attacking forces. On the return trip, we often carried litters with recent casualties.’7

A foot of snow lay on the ground and some of the recently inherited dugouts from the 9th Division were little more than ‘a muddy hole with a makeshift roof of shelter halves’.8 As with the 106th Division, the Checkerboarders set to, by building log cabins behind their fighting positions where they could sleep in relative warmth, with stoves taken from deserted houses. Nevertheless the cold sapped morale, and the clothes they were issued didn’t help.

The GI-issue leather footwear let in water and cold to such an extent that in the period until 15 December some 822 of the division had reported sick with cold-related injuries, chiefly trench foot, a problem mirrored throughout the other US divisions. The 99th were wearing their M-43 olive drab four-pocket field jackets, made of water-repellent cotton, which had just replaced the earlier zipper-fronted M-41, produced from thinner wind-resistant cotton cloth and lined with shirting flannel. The latter was totally unsuited to winter conditions and the former not much better. A new high field boot had been designed, but not yet issued, to replace the ankle boots and khaki canvas leggings that GIs had worn to this point. The only concession to winter was a woollen overcoat, which many had discarded because they were too heavy. Some had retained their issue raincoats, which were waterproof but hardly warm. Looking back, one GI recalled how he had arrived as a replacement ‘without an overcoat (stolen) and throughout the winter wore long woollen underwear, two sets of olive drabs, a sweater and field jacket, a scarf and (replacement) overcoat, with two pairs of woollen socks under my combat boots and galoshes’.9 Men were theoretically issued a couple of blankets apiece; sleeping bags, on account of their bulk, were a rarity.10 (In a small Ardennes Gasthaus I visited in 1990, I was astonished to find my bed made up with a US-issue khaki woollen blanket, left behind as my elderly host explained, by a GI forty-five years earlier.)

Even by the standards of the day, this clothing and equipment was totally inadequate for the harsh winter of 1944–5, while no thought, either, had been given to white camouflaged snow gear. The reason was not a lack of care from the top brass, but that US military planning before D-Day had assumed the Allies would be further into Germany, fighting and sheltering in towns and cities. There had even been a vain expectation of victory before the Christmas of 1944, but certainly no prediction of being stuck in the woods along Germany’s borders. Nevertheless, Lauer’s response was unsympathetic, issuing an order that trench foot was to be regarded as ‘in the same category as a self-inflicted wound’.11 However, as the First World War had already demonstrated, the twin issues of trench foot and troop hygiene on operations boiled down to the good management of soldiers by their junior leaders – NCOs and young officers – not orders issued from on high.

Sergeant Rod Ingraham, a nineteen-year-old squad leader from Anderson, California, was one GI in the 99th who suffered with trench foot. It came about from sharing a snow-covered foxhole with another soldier that was seven feet by three feet and about two feet deep. ‘We always had two men to a foxhole. At night one person stayed awake while the other slept. We usually had one hour on and one hour off,’ Ingraham remembered. As his affliction worsened, he was assigned to work at the regimental headquarters a mile behind the front lines. ‘A few days after I left the front lines,’ he recalled, ‘half of my squad was killed by a machine-gun burst.’12 Meanwhile, General Lauer had been ordered to support the Roer dams attack, stripping one battalion from the 393rd and two from the 395th to do this, making his front even thinner than it already was. As elsewhere, the division was amazed at the stillness of the sector, though some of the outgoing Ninth Division had briefed William Bray, a former ASTP student and soldier with Company ‘L’ of the 394th, ‘Don’t bother the Germans when you have to go on patrol, and they won’t bother you. Don’t tell the officers, as they know nothing of the agreement.’13


Trench foot was a major cause of non-battle casualties during the First World War and resurfaced as a problem during the winter of 1944–45. Up to 20 per cent of some US infantry divisions were bedevilled with this complaint, the result of having to loiter in wet or freezing foxholes, wearing issue boots that were not waterproof. Recommended solutions included the frequent airing of feet and changes of socks, as here, which were almost impossible on the front line. Some commanders were unsympathetic, such as Major General Walter E. Lauer of the 99th Infantry Division, who decreed that trench foot was to be regarded ‘in the same category as a self-inflicted wound’. (NARA)

That no such arrangement really existed was amply illustrated when Dietrich’s guns opened fire at 05.30 a.m. on the 16th. Sergeant Richard Byers of the 371st Field Artillery Battalion remembered the sense of dread as he dived into his foxhole and felt as though he was ‘inside an enormous bell while giants pounded it with sledgehammers’.14 Captain Charles Pierce Roland of the 394th Infantry’s 3rd Battalion was woken by the ‘thunderclap of massed artillery fire … One moment our battalion chaplain and his assistant were kneeling beside their disabled vehicle. The next moment they were headless, decapitated by an exploding shell as if by the stroke of a guillotine.’ He immediately recalled the intelligence briefing he had received earlier, that ‘The enemy has only a handful of beaten and demoralised troops in front of us and they are being supported by only two pieces of horse-drawn artillery’. Captain Roland felt the entire division was ‘in peril of destruction’ and mused on the opposing artillery, ‘They sure worked those two horses to death’.15

South of Lauer’s division and Bouck’s I&R Platoon, Colonel Devine’s 14th Cavalry Group were garrisoning the road networks up to the divisional boundary with the Golden Lions. Just as with everyone else in Middleton’s VIII Corps, he was stretched thinly along a sector that far exceeded the doctrine handbook’s recommendations. His 9,000-yard front was normally the suggested patch for a division. Instead he had just two battalion-sized cavalry squadrons. The 18th Cavalry Squadron, consisting of just over 800 men under Lieutenant-Colonel William F. Damon, he placed strung out in the various towns and villages that constituted the front, between Lanzerath (also home to Bouck’s I&R Platoon), Merlscheid, Berterath, Krewinkel, Afst, Roth and Kobscheid. By sprinkling Damon’s 18th Squadron across the front in this fashion, Devine ensured that none of them would have any superiority in firepower to repel an attack, and each, in turn, would be overwhelmed. His second squadron, the 32nd commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Ridge, was ready in reserve at Vielsalm. When the attack came in, the reserve squadron was undergoing maintenance, to the extent that engines had to be reassembled before units could move. Devine based himself at Manderfeld, in the centre of his sector.

Following the barrage on 16 December, Colonel Devine first ordered the 32nd Squadron forward to join him in Manderfeld and, at about 12.30 p.m., to retake Lanzerath. However, they were soon intercepted by Fallschirmjägers using captured US tank destroyers to fire on them. The Golden Lions’ headquarters in St Vith heard the demise of the 18th Cavalry Squadron as it happened, including the exchange of insults between Lieutenant Farrens in Krewinkel and his attackers. What was left of the squadron withdrew at 1.00 p.m. on Devine’s orders to the ridgeline at Manderfeld; soon outflanked again, they were obliged to withdraw a second time, as darkness fell at 4.00 p.m., although none of Devine’s superiors had sanctioned this. During the day, the 18th Squadron lost 159 men and most of their vehicles. The situation had begun to overwhelm Devine, a disciplinarian who liked clean vehicles and smart uniforms. Having moved back from Manderfeld, he set off to confer with Major-General Jones of the 106th Division, to whose command he was attached. The latter, as we have seen, was himself being overtaken by the gradual encirclement of his division, and was about to have his game-changing conversation with General Middleton.

Jones was too busy to see Devine, but at St Josef’s Convent in St Vith he did encounter Brigadier-General William M. Hoge, the stern-faced leader of Combat Command ‘B’ of the 4th Armored Division. ‘What the devil’s happening out there?’ Hoge asked Devine, but the colonel was apparently too shattered to offer a coherent explanation, having witnessed both his beloved squadrons chewed up by panzers. The rock-like Hoge was as unimpressed by the combat-weary cavalry officer as he was by Major-General Jones. Both, he felt, were tired, reacting badly and hardly capable of rational decision-making. In fact, Jones may have been suffering from concussion after a near-miss from a shell. Meanwhile, Devine, who had gone to St Vith in search of orders, returned empty-handed to what was left of his 14th Cavalry Group.

On the 17th, Devine set up a new CP at Poteau, a few miles due west of St Vith (and shortly to become the centre of its own drama on 18 December), and at 5.00 p.m. again set off to see Jones in St Vith. This time, en route, at Kaiserbaracke crossroads, he ran straight into the vanguards of Kampfgruppe Hansen of 1st SS Division driving along their Rollbahn ‘E’. His vehicle was shot up, and, managing to escape on foot, a clearly shaken Devine returned to Poteau, told Damon to take temporary command of the whole Cavalry Group and proceeded again for St Vith. On his arrival, to General Jones the cavalry commander seemed ‘almost hysterical’, talking of being ‘chased by Tiger tanks’ and suggesting they evacuate the division’s headquarters in St Vith. Devine was certainly under a great deal of pressure and had clearly lost control of events. He never returned to the 14th Cavalry. Early the following day he was relieved of command, along with Lieutenant-Colonel Ridge, and what remained of the Group was merged into a provisional squadron under Lieutenant-Colonel Damon.16 Theirs were the first of many heads to roll in the American military hierarchy during the Battle of the Bulge.

Up at Lanzerath, rather than lurk in the houses and stay warm the eighteen-strong I&R Platoon commanded by First Lieutenant Lyle J. Bouck occupied a series of foxholes and bunkers with overhead cover outside Lanzerath, giving them commanding views into Germany – when the weather permitted. The I&R’s position was on the tree-lined crest of a small ridge overlooking Lanzerath, a straggle of stone-built houses in this frontier region that was neither Belgian nor German, but both. The settlement also contained a small US detachment of anti-tank guns from the 14th Cavalry Group, which underlined this was the inter-corps boundary. Bouck worked for V Corps, whereas the cavalry were owned by Middleton’s VIII Corps. Like some of the other GIs along the front, Bouck had sensed something amiss, for all of the I&R Platoon had heard continuous sounds of German transport drifting across the front on the 15th, which had kept his men awake. Thus they commenced 16 December having had no sleep. It meant they were probably the first to see the Germans approach, but the shelling had cut their landline communications.

As the opening barrage, heralding Herbstnebel, ceased falling on Lanzerath, the cavalry detachment withdrew, leaving Bouck’s men as the only Checkerboard unit along the inter-corps boundary guarding the key avenue of approach into their sector. Undaunted, he managed to call up his regiment by SCR-300 radio and was ordered to stay in place and send a patrol into Lanzerath. Observing an approaching formation of German infantry, recognisable as airborne forces by the camouflaged paratrooper smocks they wore, Bouck tried to call down artillery fire but discovered none was available, due to multiple attacks elsewhere within the divisional sector. As a column of Fallschirmjäger passed through Lanzerath in front of them, Bouck prepared to ambush the group by allowing a few to pass ahead unmolested.

As their commander arrived, a blonde teenage girl ran out of a house and pointed out Bouck’s position, destroying his surprise. Whether the girl was a genuine sympathiser or was just trying to minimise the damage to her village, or prevent subsequent retribution from angry Germans, is difficult to tell, but her actions underlined the tensions of the local communities, caught between both camps and having nowhere to flee. Peeling off the road to their left, the Fallschirmjäger tried initially to assault uphill towards the I&R’s position. The ground has changed little, about the length of a football field, then snow-covered and bisected by a fence. Whereas Bouck’s positions were dug deep and camouflaged by recent falls of snow, the attacking paratroopers in their dark jump smocks were silhouetted against the white, making excellent targets.

Lieutenant Bouck’s extra ammunition and machine guns wrought havoc with a whole battalion of the 9th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, all day. This is where the poor training of the ex-Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine and conscript personnel revealed itself. They made no attempt to outmanoeuvre Bouck’s position, as they could have done, but instead made at least three, costly, frontal assaults, being repulsed each time. After a pause to recover their wounded, the German paratroopers renewed their assault, though Bouck was again denied artillery support. Seconds after his last transmission, a bullet smashed the set he had been holding. By late afternoon the Platoon, who had been up all night, began to tire and run out of ammunition. As dusk arrived, about fifty paratroopers outflanked the I&R Platoon and began quickly to mop up each foxhole; each GI in the platoon became a prisoner, most were wounded, but astonishingly only one had been killed.

Bouck’s action at Lanzerath has been much studied for its astonishing effect. His eighteen-man band appeared to have inflicted hundreds of casualties, effectively destroying a battalion of Generalmajor Walther Wadehn’s 3rd Paratroopers. In fact, the Fallschirmjäger divisional records indicated thirty-three killed and eighty wounded, which was a very respectable rate of exchange for Bouck.17 The effect, in terms of morale, on the rest of the German battalion would have been immense. Unwittingly the platoon had halted not only the paratroopers but the 1st SS Panzer Division waiting behind for a corridor to be opened. Manteuffel’s prediction of the likelihood of blockages along the narrow routes chosen by Sixth Army was entirely correct. Given that Dietrich’s force was deemed Hitler’s main effort, Bouck’s tactical action had an operational effect in denying the advance of the panzers for a whole day.

In the confusion of the Ardennes battles, and because of the capture of Bouck’s entire unit, the US Army initially overlooked their achievement. John D. Eisenhower’s The Bitter Woods told their story in 1969, but it was not until October 1981 that the US Army belatedly awarded them a Presidential Unit Citation for Extraordinary Heroism (similar to a British ‘battle honour’): Lieutenant Bouck and three others received the Distinguished Service Cross, five received the Silver Star and the nine remaining Bronze Stars. Although it took thirty-seven years for them to be recognised, the I&R Platoon of the 394th became the US Army’s most decorated small unit of the Second World War.18

The action validated the infantry training of American divisions, for the 99th were new to combat themselves. In this sense, it suggests there was nothing at fault with the pre-battle preparation of the neighbouring Golden Lions Division either, or of any of the other units who were in the process of beginning to unravel further south. The stand of the platoon was down to Bouck’s personal leadership and clear decision-making under stress. He not only made some excellent calls that day, but carried the platoon along with him, when one or two had thought withdrawal a better option. At the time, he considered his military action a failure and had no idea of the significance of the effect he achieved until long after the war. Bouck’s platoon action was also representative of the legions of other, unrecognised American units who behaved similarly but did not survive. All along the front small groups of determined GIs were throwing grit into Hitler’s machinery and slowing it down. Herbstnebel was already in trouble.

The action at Lanzerath also showed up the totally inadequate preparation of Hitler’s infantry units for the Ardennes offensive. To label the unit that attacked Bouck as ‘Fallschirmjäger’ constituted a slur on the fighting reputation of Germany’s real parachute arm. Under other circumstances, well-trained German troops would have eliminated Bouck’s position within minutes, but the hapless so-called paratroopers of December 1944, poorly led by inexperienced officers, allowed the I&R Platoon to badly damage the whole Ardennes plan.19


Meanwhile, what of the panzers supposed to be following the Fallschirmjäger? Wilhelm Mohnke, the commander of Dietrich’s spearhead – the Leibstandarte Division – had issued orders to his Kampfgruppen (battlegroup) commanders on 14 December from his HQ in the village of Tonsdorf. He had divided his formation into four all-arms combat commands, the most important of which took the name of its twenty-nine-year-old commander, Kampfgruppe Peiper, who usually led the division’s panzer regiment. Max Hansen headed another, based on his 1st SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment, Rudolf Sandig a third, utilising his 2nd SS-Panzergrenadiers, and Gustav Knittel the fourth, built around his 1st SS Reconnaissance Battalion. There was even a StrafGruppe (penal unit) recorded in Kampfgruppe Hansen; its members had committed crimes and disciplinary breaches – which must have been extreme even by SS standards – and were put in Hansen’s Spitze (literally the ‘Point’, or most forward echelon) in order to redeem themselves in combat; on occasion they also had to remove mines. They were always cold-shouldered and never allowed to eat or camp with the rest until deemed to have served their penance.20

Peiper assembled a formidable force with which to plough through American lines, to the Meuse and beyond, made his plans and briefed his subordinates the following day. His team numbered 117 tanks, 149 half-tracks, eighteen 105mm and six 150mm guns, around 30 anti-aircraft guns, all motorised, totalling 800 vehicles and 4,800 men: stretched end to end his column would tail back for sixteen miles. At twenty-nine, Peiper was almost the oldest in his Kampfgruppe; only his unit’s medical officer, Sturmbannführer Kurt Sickel, aged thirty-seven, was older.21

The 1st SS-Leibstandarte Division and their twin, the 12th SS- Hitlerjugend, were to move on five roughly parallel routes, called Rollbahn. Those designated ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ were allocated to the 12th SS, while Mohnke was given ‘D’ and ‘E’. Devised by Krämer, the Sixth Army’s chief of staff, these were to keep snarl-ups to a minimum and ensure the smoothest possible flow of logistics. They were advisory and if divisional commanders wanted to take others, they were at liberty to do so.22 Peiper’s route was to be opened up by the Fallschirmjägers and Hansen’s by the 12th Volksgrenadiers. Peiper, as did the others, organised his vanguard into a Spitze (point), commanded by Sturmbannführer (Major) Werner Pötschke, comprising a few Panthers and Panzer IVs, with a company of Panzergrenadiers and platoon of engineers, all mounted in half-tracks. Pötschke had a reputation for recklessness, and the role suited him perfectly.23 So effective was this grouping, on roads or cross-country, that the Soviet army eventually incorporated it into their military doctrine as a ‘Combat Reconnaissance Patrol’, still practised today.

Various other groups followed at ten-minute intervals, Peiper himself followed another forward company, and bringing up the rear were his monster King Tigers, of which between fifteen and twenty were serviceable on Null-Tag. In Peiper’s view, the Tiger II, often referred to unofficially as the Königstiger (King Tiger), or Royal Tiger, was more trouble than it was worth. At sixty-nine tons, twenty-two feet in length and over twelve feet wide, these tanks guzzled fuel (under half a mile per gallon, where a Sherman or Panzer IV achieved more than double that), were too heavy for most bridges, too wide for much of the twisting Ardennes road network and, above all, prone to mechanical breakdowns and broken tracks. In daylight hours they acted as a magnet for Allied aircraft. The magnitude of the German gasoline problem was illustrated by the fact that, logistically, Kampfgruppe Peiper required 52,000 gallons to move sixty miles, necessitating the frequent resupply, or the capture, of fuel stocks along their route.24

It was in Kampfgruppe Peiper that Obersturmführer Hans Hennecke served, leading a platoon of tanks in the 1st Panther Company. In a post-war interview, Peiper observed that his assigned Rollbahn ‘D’ was suitable for one-way traffic only, being too narrow and was ‘not fit for tanks, only bicycles’, possessing two unpaved sections which dissolved into muddy tracks, defeating their logistics tail. Peiper thought the terrain ‘worse than Russia’.25 Dietrich’s chief of staff, Krämer, had been concerned about the Sixth Panzer Army’s route ever since being briefed for the attack. Consequently, he had driven to the Leibstandarte’s training area and asked Peiper’s advice. Krämer asked Peiper, as the expert in night-time tank advances, whether his column could manage a fifty-mile advance to Liège across the Eifel in the hours of darkness. Peiper said he’d drive the route personally and let him know. In fact, Hans Hennecke told me that he was the one who took his Panther over that distance on 11 December. ‘I drove to Bad Munstereifel. It was a crazy exercise because it proved nothing,’ he explained. ‘Only that a tank could drive that distance at night along paved roads. Our actual route in the attack was through the mud in forests. But Peiper didn’t ask me to do that. If he had, I’d have said it was not possible.’26 However, Peiper assured Krämer that the move was feasible, with the qualification that the result might be different for a long column of armour.

Peiper’s last minute orders to his Kampfgruppe commanders pulled no punches. ‘Owing to the unfavourable terrain’, he fully expected the leading panzers to be ‘rubbed out’. He eyeballed them all: the task of his column would only be accomplished if and when one panzer reached the Meuse. ‘You will go ahead at full speed on the assigned road. Your task will be fulfilled after you have been blown up.’ When that happened, Peiper reminded them, their replacement ‘is the tank right behind you. If shooting has to be done, it will be done while moving. There will be no stopping for anything. No booty will be taken, no confiscated enemy vehicles are to be examined … It is not the job of the spearhead to worry about prisoners of war. It is the job of the infantry following … Armed civilians will be treated as partisans.’27

The last few phrases would return to haunt Peiper.

It is clear his mission was all about speed, something the King Tigers couldn’t achieve on the Belgian road network. He didn’t like them and would have left them behind if he could have. Of this Hitler would have been unaware: he just looked naively at tank numbers and size: the bigger the better. Against this must be set the psychological value of these huge panzers when pitted against American infantry or even Shermans, with the latter’s relatively thin armour and less powerful main gun. Although many troops reported the presence of King Tigers, only two battalions, or less than fifty, were actually used across the whole front, but who could blame a GI stuck in a foxhole about to be run down by a panzer for misidentification? To most American troops, any big tank trying to kill you was a Tiger. Admittedly, the sloping frontal armour of a King resembled that of a Panther Tiger, but a soldier in trouble doesn’t stop to count the road wheels or turn to his recognition handbook. Similarly, many Allied memoirs talk of being under fire from ‘eighty-eights’, whereas most German field and anti-tank guns were of 75mm calibre. Thus, talk of ‘Tiger tanks’ and ‘88mm shellfire’ needs to be interpreted as shorthand for tanks and artillery, rather than a specific descriptor.

Meanwhile Bouck’s I&R Platoon, mostly wounded, had been brought down the hillside, which was littered with the bodies of dead paratroopers, and into the Café Scholzen in Lanzerath (these days a nightclub), where the injured were bandaged and those conscious then interrogated. The Fallschirmjäger officer quizzing the Americans at one point paused and observed, ‘Ami, you and your comrades are brave men’. The café contained a mixture of Americans and Germans, some wounded, all trying to doze; as the clock struck midnight, Bouck realised he had turned twenty-one. But shortly afterwards the door was flung open and in strode a furious figure dressed in black.

Peiper had experienced a bad day, to put it mildly. He had spent all of 16 December waiting for the Fallschirmjäger, or the 12th Volksgrenadiers to their north, to open up a route for his panzers, and was not best pleased. The roads were full of horse-drawn artillery belonging to Volksgrenadier and Fallschirmjäger units. Traffic moved forward at a crawl; eventually Peiper took the law into his own hands. Anything in his way would be run off the road by his panzers. Eventually he got going, moving cross-country when he needed. Reaching Losheim at 10.00 p.m. he heard the paratroopers had at last suppressed their opposition in Lanzerath and rushed forward to find them. The roads were still mined; ironically, these were not American devices: they had been laid by German engineers retreating in September.

Having lost two Panthers already, a third went up outside Merlscheid; its commander, Obersturmführer Werner Sternebeck, heard the explosion, felt the panzer jump and grind to a halt. Sternebeck had been given the unpleasant task of leading the Spitze by Peiper as a punishment for getting drunk in a Gasthaus just before the offensive. Fearing Peiper’s wrath at another delay, he swiftly abandoned his mount and leapt on to another.28 With his de-mining engineers too far back in the column to help, Peiper now used his half-tracks as mine detectors and lost some, with their crews, but that was his signature ruthlessness. At Lanzerath his temper hardly improved when he strode into their headquarters to find everyone asleep. Instead of fighting, the paratroopers appeared to have gone to bed. Where was the regimental commander? Oberst Helmuth von Hoffmann, new to ground combat, introduced himself. The SS officer unfolded his map. It was too big for the small table. He grabbed bayonets and crucified it to the wall. Peiper was ready for business.

Why were his men not advancing? – Hoffmann was waiting for artillery support. Why? – Because of American opposition. Where? The Oberst didn’t know. He had heard from a battalion commander, who had heard from a company commander … ‘Enough’. The shouting woke the American prisoners who feared the argument was over their fate. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Peiper’s mind was fixed on roads, rivers and bridges. The Americans huddled in the corner didn’t exist in his mind. ‘My battlegroup will move out at 04.00 a.m.; one of your battalions will accompany me.’ Oberst von Hoffmann, senior in rank to Obersturmbannführer Peiper, meekly acquiesced. Kampfgruppe Peiper was eighteen hours behind schedule.

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