THE 106TH INFANTRY Division, Alan Jones’s Golden Lions, had experienced a frustrating first day of combat on 16 December. None of their training back in the USA or England had prepared them for the freezing conditions of the Christmas-card-pretty Schnee Eifel, with its narrow, winding roads, and mist-shrouded, snowy hills, interspersed with dense forests of fir and pine. Neither had they expected a total lack of situational awareness. The hostile bombardment had cleverly hit their artillery positions first, then headquarters, finally infantry units. Confusion reigned because the lines were out; even those who got through did not get any orders: nobody knew anything.
Pete House served the 105mm guns of Battery ‘A’ of the division’s 590th Field Artillery Battalion, based in Oberlascheid, a tiny settlement midway on the Bleialf to Auw ‘Skyline Drive’, high on the Schnee Eifel. In 1994 he told me how his unit was hit hard on the 16th: ‘The German army knew the location of every rock and stream and could drop a shell wherever they wanted with great precision,’ he observed. ‘Each time we moved into position and fired our guns the Germans quickly located us and would fire back. We soon learned when orders for a fire mission came in to have everything packed and our trucks brought right up to the guns. As soon as the firing was over it was “move like hell” because immediate German counter-battery fire would be incoming.’1
Sergeant John P. Kline, a former ASTP scholar, had been brought up in Indiana where his best subjects at high school were ‘basketball and girls’. He remembered his first German artillery barrage: ‘It was unbelievable in its magnitude. It seemed that every square yard of ground was being covered. The initial barrage slackened after forty-five minutes or an hour. The woods were raked throughout the day by a constant barrage of small arms and artillery fire. We were pinned down in the edge of the woods and could not move. I found some protection in a small trench, by a tree, as the shelling started. I heard a piece of metal hit the ground. It was a large jagged, hot, smoking piece of shrapnel, about eighteen inches long and four inches wide. It landed a foot or two from my head. After it cooled off I reached out and picked it up.’2
‘Incoming mail’, as veterans referred to hostile artillery fire, turns any greenhorn into a veteran. It was – and remains – the first test of a soldier in battle, for the violence is random. Much of a GI’s ability to survive rested on skill and professionalism, but enduring shellfire was a mental test for those who could ‘take it’ and those could not. It was an exam that couldn’t be prepared for in advance: a soldier only knew how he would react when the storm of steel started to land around him. Some prayed; others were wonderstruck, describing the ground reverberating like Jell-O; still others ran around screaming in terror. John A. Swett in Company ‘H’ of the 423rd remembered a German victim of shellfire: ‘He appeared to be very young, perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old. He had a deep vertical slice in his back, perhaps twelve inches long and down to his rib cage. He had been given a cigarette and seemed to be unconcerned about his condition. Probably he was in a state of shock.’3 Some GIs shot themselves in the hand or foot, to be swiftly evacuated out of the battle zone. Corporal Hal Richard Taylor in the 423rd Regiment’s Anti-Tank Company saw a fellow GI reacting to fire for the first time ‘crouched near the floor. He had dropped his rifle and had his arms crossed over his head’ – inside a German bunker where he was perfectly safe.4
In the nearby 99th Division, William Bray recalled the post-shelling reaction of a pair of GIs ‘who crouched for two days whimpering with their knees drawn up and blankets over their head. They had gone to the toilet in their pants’, but he did not condemn them for the ‘horror of that artillery would cause a breakdown in the best of us’.5 John A. Swett remembered seeing ‘a tall lean fellow digging himself a foxhole. When he finished his hole he got into it and nothing could prise him loose. He was still digging for more than an hour afterwards.’6 Kline’s observations of those first moments under fire continued: ‘At one point, as I looked to the right along the edge of the woods, I saw six or eight ground bursts. They hit in a small area along the tree line where several soldiers were trying to find protection. One of those men was hurled through the air and his body was wrapped around a tree trunk several feet off the ground. There were continuous cries from the wounded screaming for Medics.’7
Perhaps the fact that the Golden Lions had the youngest average age of any division in the US Army decreased their resilience. Some were so young, green to combat and ill trained, they knew that they didn’t stand a chance. Pete House told me of some new arrivals at his POW camp in fresh-looking uniforms. He asked them for their division and was astonished to find they didn’t know. After basic training in the United States followed by ten weeks of training in one of the dreary redeployment camps (one of the infamous and much-hated ‘repo-depos’), they’d been dropped off at night next to their foxholes by a sergeant they’d never seen before or since, and soon after had been captured. Such a lack of unit cohesion increased a sense of isolation and disinclination to do anything, especially under fire.8 Some soldiers (British, German, as well as GIs) have admitted to me in interviews that they did not know the names of any towns or villages they passed through (‘all looked the same after shelling’), and barely knew the names of their officers.
Many of the newly conscripted Volksgrenadiers were as poorly trained, but in the first flush of victory their high morale spurred them on, as one wrote home on 24 December: ‘Yes, you are surprised that we are again in Belgium, but we advance every day. Well, what does father say to that? I had a conversation with him last time about the war and he was not very convinced then that we should be able to do such a thing. Everyone is enthusiastic as never before.’9 Late in the night of the 16th, as many of Middleton’s corps artillery units were ordered out of the sector, the Golden Lions hung on, in many cases unaware of the danger their forward units were in. They were determined to retain control of the Roth–Auw road, which would otherwise give the 18th Volksgrenadierscontrol of the northern sector of the 106th’s front, abutting the Losheim Gap. Equally important was the southern town of Bleialf – which boasted a population of over 1,000 and a railway station – and the route that ran from it to Schönberg, for dominance of that area would determine whether any of the Golden Lions could receive reinforcements – or withdraw.
Defending Roth, a gaggle of two dozen fieldstone houses and barns, Captain Stanley E. Porche’s Troop ‘A’ of the 18th Cavalry fought through the morning but were forced to surrender in the afternoon of the 16th. Bleialf, in the gap south of the Schnee Eifel hills, had, meanwhile, been surrounded and attacked since early on the 16th. It was a more significant town with several large mills and warehouses, for the area had prospered on lead mining for centuries (Blei meaning ‘lead’ and the Alf being the local stream). Corporal Hal Richard Taylor had been stationed there for a few days before the attacks came in, and remembered when the first barrage lifted: ‘The whole damned German army, it seemed, came right at us, yelling and cheering as if it were a football game!’10The ill-disciplined young grenadiers belonged to Oberstleutnant Witte’s 293rd Volksgrenadier Regiment.
During a lull in the struggle for Bleialf, the GIs called to some of the Volksgrenadiers to surrender; two stepped forward to obey, but were ordered back by their sergeant. The grenadiers stood there for a moment, undecided on what to do, eventually heading towards the American lines, whereupon their sergeant shot them dead. In clearing the town, Taylor remembered a driver ‘a big man, about 200 pounds … could lift twice his weight’ who worked his way through buildings in Bleialf, bayoneting Germans. As he did so, ‘he also hoisted them through the windows on his bayonet as if he were spearing hay with a pitchfork. Then he would shake them loose and let them drop to the ground below … As he pitched the freshly-slain Volksgrenadiers, everyone – Germans included – ceased fire and watched, awe-struck.’ Eventually the pitch-forker fell, but Taylor ‘counted more than thirty bayoneted Germans whom he had killed’.11 Sadly, it seems, medals and recognition escaped this unnamed hero.
In a counter-attack at noon, Taylor’s group in Bleialf had started to repel the Germans and under Captain Warren G. Stutler from the 423rd’s Headquarters Company began to clear the town. They were joined by men from the 81st Combat Engineers, members of the Regiment’s Cannon Company and cooks and clerks from Headquarters and Service Companies, none of whom were trained riflemen. This motley crew ousted the Germans from Bleialf and formed a ‘provisional battalion’ under Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick W. Nagle, executive officer of the 423rd – but at high cost. Of the 176 officers and enlisted men from the 81st Engineers who helped eject the Volksgrenadiers from Bleialf, only forty-six returned to their parent unit.12
Although the official histories suggest that Bleialf was taken on the 16th, Taylor’s evidence is at odds with this. He recorded that his unit of the 423rd Infantry kept its foothold in the key village, supported by US artillery, into the next morning and withdrew only when ordered by radio just before dawn on the 17th. Early that morning, Coleman Estes of the division’s 81st Combat Engineer Battalion remembered the frozen bodies of the dead, German and American, twisted in their final tortured moments of combat, ‘looking like wax sculptures in the snow’.13 John Kline saw Bleialf after the battle, too: ‘There was much evidence that a large-scale battle had just taken place … a real shoot-out, with hand-to-hand fighting. Dead Americans and Germans lay in doors, ditches and hung out of windows.’14 After the GIs departed, Bleialf was overrun, allowing German armour to make its way towards Schönberg virtually unopposed. Accounts of the Bulge suggest little or no activity in the air by either side on 17 December, but Taylor witnessed ‘a roar and saw a P-47 [Thunderbolt] right on the tail of a Focke-Wulf. The P-47 scored a hit and the German plane crashed. A few seconds later another P-47 tailing a Messerschmitt shot it down about half a mile away. Those were the only Allied planes I saw in the battle.’15
Apart from General Jones’s surreal conversation with his corps commander of 16 December, when Jones had thought Middleton was directing him to keep his two units on the Schnee Eifel, and Middleton thought he had ordered the opposite, poor communication between the 106th’s regiments and St Vith led to even more confusion over what exactly to do during the night of the 16–17 December. It was becoming clear to all that the Golden Lions’ 422nd (to the north) and 423rd Regiments, between Auw and Bleialf, were in danger of being bypassed. Incredibly, many in the two regiments had yet even to fire a shot, but already their only hope of survival lay in withdrawing from the Schnee Eifel and stopping the Germans at Schönberg, with its heavy stone bridge across the Our river. It did not happen: as we have seen, Jones had erroneously ordered them to stay in place, thinking that was Middleton’s wish. Schönberg was overwhelmed swiftly on 17 December with its vital bridge intact (it had not even been prepared for demolition) and that night both Manteuffel and Model, who liked to be up front with the troops, met in its cobbled streets. ‘I’m sending you the Führer-Begleit-Brigade’, the élite unit of troops who had once guarded Hitler and had their own tanks, the field marshal told the Fifth Army’s commander, amidst the chaos of the newly captured town, clogged with transport, prisoners and wounded. The Golden Lions’ fate had been sealed.
With German armour controlling the Auw–Schönberg–St Vith road, as well as the route to Bleialf, the two US regiments withdrew to the higher ground of the Schnee Eifel to regroup. Their situation was not desperate: they had a day’s supply of K-rations, ammunition, water, their own transport, but the swiftness of the German advance had meant they were unable to evacuate their casualties and were short of surgical supplies. They had the use of logging trails between their positions – which would soon turn to mud with frequent use – but the Germans controlled the road network below, which is what counted. Their biggest problem was that they were inexperienced and lacked dynamic leadership – both the regimental colonels, Cavender of the 423rd and the younger Descheneaux of the 422nd, tended to wait for orders rather than make their own decisions.
One thing was obvious, apart from the fact that the 422nd and 423rd were surrounded: they had to regain the initiative. The last message received from the Divisional HQ in St Vith at 8.00 p.m. on the 18th made it clear that it was imperative Schönberg be retaken. Overnight, the GIs moved out of their positions on the Schnee Eifel under cover of heavy fog, and prepared to seize the town, then move westwards towards St Vith. By this stage, the two regiments had separated, contact between them was lost and every unit had taken a few casualties. Artilleryman Pete House, with Lieutenant-Colonel Vanden Lackey’s 590th Battalion, remembered that as the 18th ended, ‘we were exhausted, hungry and cold. Cooks had not prepared any meals since the morning of the sixteenth. I received no emergency rations. Cold weather clothing and bedding was never issued. That night we moved to an open field. We only had four rounds for our 105 mm howitzers left. We received orders to destroy all the equipment and be prepared to hike back to our lines. It was with great pleasure that I destroyed two 610 FM communications radios with a pick as they had rarely worked.’16
Corporal Taylor noted that his Anti-Tank Company, usually numbering over a hundred men, had dwindled to about thirty.17 On the evening of the 18th, Technical Sergeant Willard F. Nelson, with the 422nd Regiment, remembered having to shoot his way through a mob of advancing Germans, using the .30-inch calibre machine gun mounted on his jeep. He was the company clerk and had never fired the gun before; the vibrations broke the windshield. Loaded with all the company records, Nelson and his driver careered away to safety. ‘About two miles later, we went around a corner too goddamned fast, tipped the Jeep over. It was upside down and I got thrown into a ditch. I remember spending the night in that ditch.’18
The battalions were moved into assembly areas before daylight on the 19th, and at 08.30 a.m. battalion commanders were given orders for their attack on Schönberg to begin at 10.00 a.m. However, caught between German positions in Auw and Bleialf, from 09.30 a.m. the 423rd Regiment started being subjected to heavy artillery concentrations, which killed one battalion CO and several company commanders.19 John Kline of Company ‘M’, the 423rd’s Heavy Weapons outfit, remembered the move towards his destination, ‘a heavily wooded area (Linscheid Hill, marked as Hill 546 on the map) southeast of the town … I was with a .30-inch calibre machine-gun high on a hill, overlooking a slope leading into a valley. I could see, about 1,000 yards to the northwest, the house tops of Schönberg.’ Kline assessed that the hostile artillery barrage came from German anti-aircraft units firing uphill from Schönberg. ‘Those guns were a decisive factor in the outcome of the battle,’ he felt. ‘We had very little artillery support. I learned after the war that the 423rd’s artillery support was overrun by the Germans troops.’20
The attacks went in, but the 1st and 3rd Battalions lost heavy casualties and became pinned down by artillery fire from the Flak guns. The Volksgrenadiers had massed these around Schönberg to protect the Our bridge and vehicle convoys on the main road to St Vith, but turned them instead on the GIs rushing down the tree-studded slopes above. The result was devastating: many of the companies were scattered and overwhelmed, or destroyed, piecemeal. The 2nd Battalion moved to the right and attached themselves to the 422nd Infantry Regiment. Gunner Pete House recalled to me: ‘When it became daylight on the nineteenth we moved up a steep field to the left and went into firing position along the edge of the woods – with only four 105mm rounds left. I opened a can of pork and gravy that we had “borrowed” from the navy while on the LST crossing the English Channel and was heating it when the Germans hit us with everything. Of course I should have dug a foxhole. One of the guys had borrowed my shovel so I ran into the woods looking for a stream bed for protection.’21
Corporal Taylor watched these attacks ‘from a grandstand seat’, thinking the sight ‘a scene of pure hell. As hundreds of men surged down the hill, the German artillery fired on them and shells exploded in the pine trees overhead. With that the men panicked and ran back up the hill,’ he remembered. ‘Officers yelled and swore at the men to form into an organised body, again and again. Three times, maybe seven times, this happened until finally the exhausted men simply sat down to rest, despite the urgings of officers who obviously were also exhausted and frustrated at the turn of events.’22 The attempt to retake Schönberg had been a disaster. The men were now scattered in small groups in the hills above the town, low on food and ammunition.
At 3.45 p.m., Colonel Cavender called a conference and several witnesses recalled his comments. ‘“There’s no ammunition left”, he began, “I was a GI in World War One and I try to see things from their standpoint. No man in this outfit has eaten all day and we haven’t had water since early morning. Now, what’s your attitude to surrendering?”’ The answer was stupefied silence. Then hostility. Cavender, with uncharacteristic decisiveness, settled the matter: ‘Gentlemen, we’re surrendering at 4.00 p.m’. Corporal Taylor was flabbergasted at what happened next. ‘Then small bodies of men began to hold up their hands. They were starting to surrender. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing.’23
The fact that the regiment was ordered to surrender, against the better judgement of many, only made it worse, and created a deep rancour that endured for decades. Some GIs begged their officers and NCOs to be able to continue the fight. PFC Kurt Vonnegut, a regimental scout, wanted to slink off and carry on fighting, but instead raged at his own powerlessness, having no food and only a few rounds of ammunition. He found somewhere to lie down and wait. Several others collapsed in exhaustion beside him; someone suggested they fix bayonets and die fighting. From the forest surrounding them a German-accented voice, amplified by a loudspeaker, echoed through the late afternoon gloom. ‘Come out!’ ordered the voice. Vonnegut got to his feet, raised his hands and joined what he later termed ‘the river of humiliation’.24 A historian of the Golden Lions recorded that from about 4.00 p.m. on the 19th and throughout 20 December, a German loudspeaker van played ‘American jazz intermingled with hearty invitations to come in for hot showers, warm beds and hot cakes for breakfast’. However, a few volunteers led by Staff Sergeant Richard A. Thomas eventually put an end to ‘Berlin Betty’s playful reference to the joys of playing baseball in a POW camp’ with a ‘well-directed hand grenade’.25
This sort of runaway success inspired one Landser to write home: ‘We shall probably not have another Christmas here at the front, since it is absolutely certain that the American is going to get something he did not under any circumstances reckon with. For the “Ami”, as we call him, expected he would celebrate Christmas in Berlin, as I gather from his letters. Even I, as a poor private, can easily tell that it won’t take much longer until the Ami will throw away his weapons. For if he sees that everybody else is retreating, he runs away and cannot be stopped any more. He is also war-weary, as I myself learned from prisoners.’26
Colonel Descheneaux’s 422nd Regiment to the north of Cavender’s 423rd suffered similar setbacks. When tanks appeared on the Roth, Auw and Schönberg roads, they were initially misidentified as being from the US 7th Armored coming to their rescue. The let-down was cruel when the force, actually belonging to Otto Remer’s Führer-Begleit-Brigade, raked the GIs with fire.27 Descheneaux sensed he was surrounded and powerless to resist further. Corporal Stanley Wojtusik of the 422nd hadn’t eaten for three days and remembered his regiment ‘was short of bazookas. I don’t know if they would have really stopped those tanks unless you hit them right in the bogey wheels – we surely couldn’t stop them with our M-1 rifles. We were able to shoot most of the ground troops, but we had no defence against the tanks.’28 From his ditch near the overturned jeep, Willard F. Nelson recalled ‘someone shouted “the tanks are coming, we got help”. See, [the caterpillar tracks of] tanks sound like a million mice screaming, they squeak. So, they came up over the hill and “Jesus Christ, that’s good, here’s the tanks” but they was German tanks. We surrendered.’29
Some troops, like PFC Leon Setter of Headquarters Company in the 422nd had no idea of the situation. He spent 16 and 17 December guarding the 2nd Battalion’s HQ in a pillbox two miles east of Schlausenbach. Setter was in complete ignorance of the coming catastrophe, merely on a ‘class-one alert because of enemy activity in the area’. His squad moved out through a fire-fight on the 19th and that afternoon to his amazement, ‘My squad leader called us together and told us our situation looked bad. We were surrounded. He concluded by telling us to dig foxholes to protect ourselves from the shelling.’
Aware of Cavender’s mood, Colonel Descheneaux called a conference of his own officers at his headquarters, which was situated next door to the regimental aid post. ‘I don’t believe in fighting for glory if it doesn’t accomplish anything. It looks as if we’ll have to pack it in.’ His friend, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas P. Kelly of the 589th Artillery, objected, ‘Jesus, Desh, you can’t surrender’. Descheneaux looked at the mounting pile of dead and wounded. ‘As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to save the lives of as many as I can. And I don’t give a damn if I am court-martialled!’ Medical Sergeant Bud Santoro remembered the tree bursts from the German Flak guns – ‘a tinkling rustling as the deadly shrapnel rained down’. After tending over twenty casualties, he climbed the hill to the regimental aid post. He saw Colonel Descheneaux and told him they needed to evacuate the casualties for better medical attention. Santoro remembered the tears in his colonel’s eyes as he was told ‘It’s OK, there’ll be evacuation, Sergeant. We are surrendering’.30 Leon Setter was perplexed. ‘As I finished digging my hole, the squad leader returned to tell me that Colonel Descheneaux had ordered the entire 422nd Regiment to surrender and destroy our weapons. Needless to say, I was confused. This had been my first day in actual combat. What was going to happen next?’31
Lieutenant Alan Jones, Jr, son of the division’s commander, and Operations Officer of the regiment’s 1st Battalion, stared dumbly in disbelief – then guilt. Technical Sergeant Edward L. Bohde, a platoon leader with Company ‘L’ of the 422nd, remembered the day’s combat as Volksgrenadiers advanced with panzers. ‘We lay there, firing away as the tanks came closer and closer firing their 88’s in our midst. Then, above the roar of gunfire and commotion, I heard our Company Commander shout, “Stop firing, Stop firing!”, and saw him stand up with a white cloth tied to the end of his rifle, raised high above his head. I, though, continued to fire at the enemy, either because I was in a state of disbelief or because that was the way I was trained. Kill the enemy! A number of men around me continued to do the same until we heard another order, “Cease firing, Cease firing, You’re getting innocent men killed. At this last order I did stop firing my rifle and saw all of my comrades standing up with their hands held high above their heads.’32
One of Descheneaux’s staff, Major William Cody Garlow, a grandson of ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, volunteered to fetch a German officer. Garlow fluttered a pair of white handkerchiefs and walked over to the Volksgrenadier artillery headquarters to arrange a ceasefire. In the wood line above the Schönberg–Andler road, thousands of GIs began destroying their weapons and equipment. A private fixed Descheneaux with a look of burning resentment, holding up his rifle. ‘I’ve carried this goddamn thing for months. I’ve never even fired it once in anger!’ he screamed as he broke it against a tree. Santoro, the medical sergeant, witnessed one lieutenant place his wristwatch on a rock and smash it, saying, ‘Those bastards don’t get this’.33 Major Garlow returned with a German Leutnant, but hadn’t the nerve to tell him of the thousands waiting to surrender. Garlow ‘represented 400–500 men’, he had stated. When the pair returned to Descheneaux, the German turned to Garlow. ‘Major, you told me you had only 400–500 men here, but … I understand,’ he said discreetly.
The Leutnant, who spoke French, and Descheneaux, a French Canadian, made the necessary arrangements. Corporal Wojtusik watched as the Germans approached his unit under the protection of a white banner. ‘We all saw that white flag and we thought they were surrendering to us,’ he recollected. ‘Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. They were there to let us know we were surrounded.’34 John A. Swett, manning the regiment’s 81mm mortars, recalled being out of ammunition: ‘A loud speaker came up from the base of the hill, and a voice with no trace of German accent said, “Your officers have surrendered you. Come down off the hill and form up on the road”. This was repeated a number of times and the lack of firing of any kind indicated this was probably the end of the war for us. When the truth of the situation sunk in, I had the immediate job of taking my weapons apart and throwing their parts as far as I could into the forest. I could see troops already forming up on the road as I came down the hill.’35 Tears streaming down his face, the colonel encouraged those who wished to try and filter through the lines to St Vith – and led the rest into humiliating captivity. On hand was a German Kriegsberichter camera crew who recorded several famous clips of helmeted American prisoners stumbling along the roadside and in the fields as panzers rolled past. The look of dejection on their faces was remarkable. This wasn’t how it was meant to be.36
Sergeant John Kline recalled, ‘there were many wounded and dead in the ditches and fields as we were led out of the woods, and a German truck burning in the middle of the road. Behind the truck was an American infantryman lying in the middle of the road in his winter uniform, a heavy winter coat, ammo belt and canteen. He was lying on his back, as if he were resting. The body had no head or neck. It was as if somebody had sliced it off with a surgical instrument, leaving no sign of blood.’ Swett remembered the headless corpse too. For Taylor, the imagery was different. He would never forget the ‘German soldier sitting in a captured Jeep, not a day over sixteen. He had found a case of chocolate and had a bar in each hand. His mouth was smeared and he was eating with double time speed.’37
GIs are marched towards Germany as a massive King Tiger tank fills the road; it is over 12 feet wide and 10 feet tall, but at 70 tons could cross very few bridges in the region and guzzled fuel. Such images, of large numbers of Americans being herded past the mighty panzers, made excellent propaganda for the Third Reich, but such dramas only occurred during the first three days – near St Vith, where two regiments of the 106th ‘Golden Lions’ Division were captured, and here in the Losheim gap, where prisoners from the 99th ‘Checkerboard’ Division are following the road back to Germany, between Lanzerath and Merlscheid. The both cases, GIs remembered that more primitive, horse-drawn transport followed the panzers, which the German cameras did not film. (NARA)
The elation of the Wehrmacht, which for years had experienced only defeat, knew no bounds. Hitherto, all had been fed on Goebbels’ lies of successes. All of a sudden they were faced with the reality of victory rather than mere propaganda. With their own eyes they witnessed the impossible: the surrender and seeming collapse of many American units. Leutnant Behrman, an artillery officer attacking through the Schnee Eifel with the 18th Volksgrenadiers, recorded in his diary:
18 December: The infantry is before St Vith. The men hear the wildest rumours of success.
19 December: Endless columns of prisoners pass; at first about a hundred, then another group of about one thousand. Our car gets stuck on the road. I get out and walk. Generalfeldmarschall Model himself directs the traffic. (He’s a little, undistinguished-looking man with a monocle.) Now the thing is going. The roads are littered with destroyed American vehicles, cars and tanks. Another column of prisoners passes.
20 December: The American soldiers have shown little spirit for fighting. Most of them often said, ‘What do we want here? At home we can have everything much better’. That was the spirit of the common soldier. If their officers thought that way??? A rumour has been started that Eisenhower was taken prisoner. It will probably prove to be only a rumour.
21 December: Roads still clogged, but traffic continues. Vehicles are almost exclusively captured American equipment. It was a tremendous haul. St Vith has fallen.38
The first moments of capture are shocking for any soldier. Tension and a sense of failure mingle. Though combat soldiers share the brotherhood and understanding of the front, both sides remain tense – one false or misinterpreted move can result in death. There are usually a few seconds after the hands or a white flag go up before the surrender gesture is registered and firing stops. Men can go down in those split seconds. An invisible line is then crossed from the moment a soldier might be legitimately killing a combatant, to committing a war crime in killing a prisoner. The tension is on both sides. Weapons are thrown down, often helmets too. Coleman Estes remembered, ‘we had to unbuckle our ammo belt holding our water bottle, medical package, gas mask, and everything down to our field jackets’.39
It is a sober reflection that the further back a captive soldier travels from the front line, the more likely he is to be abused. PFC Jim Forsythe was with Company ‘A’ of the 424th Regiment, defending Winterspelt in the southern sector of the 106th’s front. His experience of the changing behaviour of his captors illustrates the point. They had been attacked by Leutnant Kurt Schwerdtfeger’s 164th Grenadier Regiment, high on their stimulants. On the 17th, Forsythe’s captain surrendered to the first German he saw (rather too enthusiastically, Forsythe felt). ‘The one who searched me was polite. The first thing he did was to take two cigarettes from a pack of four in my coat pocket. He put one in his mouth and one in my mouth, lit them, and put the remaining two in my pocket. He spoke good English and told me to put my arms down and that if I behaved I would not be harmed.’ A day later, however, the combat troops had moved on, leaving the POWs with many others, lying wounded or dead in a barn at Winterspelt. Other troops arrived to march them off to a POW camp, but before they left, ‘the Germans went around the downed Americans, probing with bayonets, and any that flinched or moved were shot in the head with pistols … simply because they could not walk and keep up with the other prisoners’.40
Corporal Taylor was searched by a red-headed German youth, who ‘demanded the glasses I was wearing, which happened to be gold rimmed. He took them, broke the lenses, and crushed the frame into a wad which he dropped into a small canvas bag. It contained several pieces of gold, some of which were crowns still attached to teeth … He did the same to a second pair, then spotted my ring – a high school class ring. My fingers were swollen and the ring wouldn’t budge. He started to remedy that problem by whipping out a 6½ inch knife and motioning that he would cut off my finger. I shouted for an officer. That scared him, so he ran off and left me.’41 He was lucky. When Pete House was escorted down the hill to the road by mostly teenage artillerymen, ‘we carried three wounded men with us. I don’t know how many dead or wounded were left in the woods. Of course we were searched. They let me keep my pocket knife, watch, and overshoes. Treated us good – but no food. Some of us were ordered to prepare their Flak guns for moving. One American refused saying that it was against the Geneva Convention. A German officer pulled his pistol and shot him in the head. That’s when I learned to forget the Geneva Convention.’42
Far different was the case when II Battalion of the 293rd Volksgrenadier Regiment captured a group of 106th GIs on 20 December at Bleialf. In doing so, the grenadiers also freed some Germans who had earlier been taken prisoner. The Germans informed their liberators that they had been interrogated by ‘two Jewish-American soldiers from Berlin’, part of a six-man IPW (Interrogation of Prisoners of War) Team attached to the 106th. According to the documents of his trial, held on 20 April 1945, the German battalion commander, Hauptmann Kurt Bruns had the two GIs identified and, stating ‘The Jews have no right to live in Germany’, detailed Feldwebel Hoffmann to execute them immediately. On 13 February 1945 the remains of Staff Sergeant Kurt R. Jacobs and Technician 5th Grade Murray Zapler were discovered and identified outside Bleialf.43Despite protestations that he was ‘only following orders’, the judge at his trial sentenced Bruns to hang.
After the surrender of Bataan in the Philippines to Japan on 9 April 1942, where 15,000 American and 60,000 Filipino troops were marched into captivity, this was the largest mass surrender of US troops since the civil war, and most prisoners of the 106th shared John Kline’s experience of being ‘walked in columns to Bleialf and herded into a church yard. It had turned dark and the temperature was dropping. Most of us were without overcoats. We had only our field jackets and our winter issue of olive drab uniforms with long johns. We had to sleep on the ground. I remember how nervous I was. I wondered what was going to happen to us when day break came.’44
However, as Earl S. Parker, in Company ‘E’ of the 423rd, was marched back behind the panzers and self-propelled guns that had caused his regiment so much trouble, the old-fashioned nature of the Wehrmacht was revealed to him. He was ‘surprised to see horse-drawn artillery, supply wagons and field kitchens – even some officers on horseback’.45 Approximately 6,500 men went into captivity on 19 December, though word did not reach St Vith immediately of the surrender. By the 21st more were captured as isolated garrisons gave themselves up.
Others fought on. Several sub-units of the 18th Cavalry and 589th Artillery Battalion had separately battled their way into Schönberg, initially unaware it had been taken, or of the mass surrender taking place behind them. They came across rows of American 6 x 6 trucks lined up ahead of them and assumed the occupants to be GIs, but realised just in time from the shape of their helmets they were Germans. Some GIs backed off, others stayed to fight until they were faced with German tanks. These may have belonged to Remer’s Führer-Begleit-Brigade, but King Tigers from the 506th Heavy Tank Battalion were also beginning to use the route from Manderfeld via Andler and Schönberg, to reinforce their advance to Vielsalm. They belonged to the Sixth Panzer Army, but had trundled over their boundary into Manteuffel’s territory in order to use the main road, more suitable for the massive Tiger IIs.
From one such panzer unit, Leutnant Rockhammer wrote home to his wife on 22 December, ‘You cannot imagine what glorious hours and days we are experiencing now. It looks as if the Americans cannot withstand our important push. Today we overtook a fleeing column and finished it. We overtook it by a back road through the woods, just like on manoeuvres, with sixty Panthers. And then came the endless convoy, filled to the brim with American soldiers. It was a glorious bloodbath, vengeance for our destroyed homeland. Our soldiers still have the old zip, advancing and smashing everything. The snow must turn red with American blood. Victory was never as close as it is now.’46
All the GIs attacking Schönberg had eventually to abandon their vehicles and attempt to hike west towards St Vith and safety. Both Captain Arthur C. Brown and Lieutenant Eric Fisher Wood of the 589th Artillery shared similar experiences in Schönberg and escaped separately to the woods north-west of town. Brown and a small band of men were sheltered by a local farmer, Edmond Klein, near Stavelot. In his 1949 study of the 106th Division, Lion in the Way, Colonel Ernest Dupuy spent four pages describing the roving wolf-pack activities of Wood, who escaped into the trees just as the Germans were about to seize him and, possibly with other cut-off GIs, organised a guerrilla band which harassed German units from the woods around Meyerode. Charles Whiting in two of his books about the Bulge also wrote of Wood’s lonely six-week war against the Germans, and of the locals finding his body surrounded by seven dead Germans, whom he had despatched. Nearby lay the remains of PFC Lehman M. Wilson of the 82nd Airborne Division.
Their remains were discovered in early February 1945 with a date of death fixed at late January. It seems a perfect story, except that US official military records state Wood’s date of death as 17 December 1944 on the headstone bearing his name, in the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery.47 A forester certainly met and sheltered an American fugitive at this time who answered to Wood’s description, but no concrete evidence has ever surfaced as to Wood’s activities, or demise. That his father, a general, later became a member of General Eisenhower’s staff was perhaps instrumental in giving this tale of a latter-day Robin Hood some ‘legs’, and Belgians insist that Wood was buried where he fell; a stone cross stands where the local community in Meyerode commemorate him. Probably we shall never know whether an American dragon-slayer lurked in these woods, though most would wish it to be true.48
Post-war, Captain Alan Jones, Jr, the general’s son, penned a staff paper for the Infantry School at Fort Benning on the Schnee Eifel operation. Among many robust criticisms, he concluded the defeat was the result of ‘the combination of the weakest unit holding the least desirable defensive position, which controlled an important avenue of approach, and could have resulted only in success of the enemy’s attack’. The problem was exacerbated by the lack of reserves, as all three regiments were committed in line. Communications throughout the period, he wrote, ‘were erratic or non-existent’ and no schemes had been made during planning for alternate methods of contact.
Jones felt that, had aerial resupply drops been initiated, as they were for Bastogne, they ‘could have maintained the fighting strength of two surrounded infantry regiments and one field artillery battalion on the Schnee Eifel’. The two regimental staffs, he argued, should have made every effort to maintain the closest possible coordination, which they utterly failed to do. Lack of food and water (as Colonel Cavender had suggested) was no justification for organising the capitulation, he wrote, nor did he feel that a commander had the right to order his men to surrender in such circumstances. Finally, he insisted that a regimental command post should never be located next to the regimental aid post, for the sight of the 422nd’s casualties piling up on 19 December 1944 had obviously unnerved the already fraught Colonel Descheneaux. In short, Jones suggested, both senior officers had ‘lost the plot’.49
The Germans were even more critical, Oberstleutnant Dietrich Moll, chief of staff of the 18th Volksgrenadiers, observing, ‘The 106th Division’s failure must largely be blamed on the lack of initiative of its officers, NCOs and General Jones. There had been no combat reconnaissance even before the [German 16 December] attack began,’ he asserted. ‘A surprising fact, considering that bad weather had prevented air reconnaissance. Pushing eastward from the Schnee Eifel positions, a combat patrol would undoubtedly have discovered some indication of our preparations. No American preparations had been made to block the Our valley or blow up the bridge at Schönberg … Once their rear communications had been cut off, units surrendered too easily. Even after German units had penetrated deep into their positions, there was no evidence of coordinated leadership, nor was there any attempt to launch a counter attack.’50
But all was not in vain, for Manteuffel had expected to take St Vith on 17 December and the Golden Lions permanently damaged his precious timetable. It would take another week of brutal fighting before the Germans entered what would be the devastated remains. In 1970 Manteuffel wrote a letter to a retired 106th artillery officer, stating he could not understand why the division received so much criticism for the debacle of the Ardennes. As far as he was concerned, they held up an entire corps for four days, forcing many of his troops to manoeuvre north or south in their attempt to reach St Vith. That was a remarkable achievement by anyone’s standards, the baron felt, and worthy of great pride, not blame. By the war’s end the Golden Lions would have received the impressive tally of 325 Bronze Stars, sixty-four Silver Stars and one Distinguished Service Cross for their time in combat.
The little settlements that witnessed the hard fighting over 16–19 December 1944 have recovered and grown, to the extent that many of the 106th veterans I have met there display difficulty in orientating themselves. Builders in Bleialf still have to be careful with the legacy of unexploded wartime munitions – an earth-moving machine uncovered twenty large artillery shells in 2009 – all still assessed as lethal. Head north out of Bleialf and take a right at the first junction, to Auw. In 1944 this was called ‘Purple Heart Corner’, though some GIs dubbed it ‘88 Corner’. Either way, the nicknames indicated what would happen if a soldier lingered there.
On the left of the route to Auw – Skyline Drive – in the tree line, was where the 422nd and 423rd were ultimately surrounded and captured. In 1993, writer and historian Charles Whiting found a 1944 walkie-talkie from the drama, broken in two, in that very location. Ten years later I discovered a gas mask, a magazine for a Thompson sub-machine gun and a battered mess tin. Many of the old pillboxes inhabited by the Golden Lions were destroyed in March 1945 by the 315th Infantry Regiment of the US 90th Division, who ‘filled many of the larger forts with tons of captured explosives and ammunition. Then it detonated the charges, which in a mighty blast, destroyed the fruits of years of German planning and the work of thousands of slave labourers who had died in the construction of the impregnable Siegfried Line.’51 The former bunkers are now indicated by large lumps of moss-covered concrete. The area abounds with dugouts and the detritus of the battle, so much so that walking there is still hazardous, but the foxholes are now inhabited by, well – foxes.