THE DIVISIONS ON the northern flank of the attack were to make the shortest journey to the River Meuse. As we have seen, Hitler’s prized 12th SS-Hitlerjugend and its accompanying Volksgrenadiers came to a grinding halt against the US 99th and 2nd Divisions of V Corps on the Elsenborn Ridge, preventing them from reaching the road network leading to the Meuse and Antwerp.
Despite the challenging terrain, the lure was that only twenty miles west of the front line lay Spa, a town of around 8,000. An attractive cluster of fine buildings, in a wooded valley surrounded by undulating hills and countless springs, Spa had long been renowned for its healing waters. In the eighteenth century many luxury hotels and casinos had sprung up to make it a fashionable resort. The abundance of comfortable rooms led the Kaiser’s army to use it as a major headquarters in the First World War. Patient signals interception had told Berlin that in December 1944 Courtney H. Hodges’ US First Army was doing the same. A dozen miles north of Spa was Verviers, a vital railhead. Liège, on the Meuse, the largest American supply centre in Europe, was another twenty-five miles north-west of Spa. Although crossings over the Meuse between Huy and Liège were the Sixth Army’s real objective, had Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich’s men managed to break through to any of these destinations they might have scored a major operational victory, delaying the Allied advance into Germany by several months.
With the stakes of the ‘northern shoulder’ so high, it was fortunate indeed that, from the Allied perspective, this was the only sector where the Germans had failed to advance. Between 16 and 19 December, Dietrich’s Sixth Army – fronted by the 326th, 277th and 12th VolksgrenadierDivisions – battled for the terrain north and south of the twin villages of Krinkelt–Rocherath; subsequently they moved against the Elsenborn Ridge itself, where they were halted by massive American artillery strikes and air power. Dietrich battered away at the ridge for a week, reinforcing failure day after day, before Hitler conceded defeat, and (far too late) on the 23rd, redirected his SS panzer divisions south to reinforce Manteuffel’s Fifth Army.
Krinkelt–Rocherath both dated from the eleventh century but had maintained their separate identities and never merged, though to the naked eye they seem as one. This corner of Belgium had experienced an unusually turbulent history long before 1944. Under Hapsburg domination from the fifteenth century, the area was, successively, under Spanish, Austrian and French rule before becoming part of the German Empire in 1871. After the First World War, Krinkelt–Rocherath became part of Belgium, but from May 1940 was annexed by the Third Reich, with 250 inhabitants conscripted into the Wehrmacht, of whom seventy-one would be killed by 1945.
The villagers found themselves trapped during the fighting. With the water mains ruptured, many houses burned down and most of their 3,000 head of cattle and pigs perished in agony in the flames, were felled by shrapnel or slaughtered by troops for meat. On 19 December some inhabitants managed to flee a mile west to Wirtzfeld, where they came upon some 2nd Division GIs who were standing around and drinking coffee. As the villagers begged for a hot drink, they were immediately surrounded by seven or eight Americans with outstretched cups. So shell-shocked were the refugees that their shaking hands could not lift the drinks to their mouths. Mrs Hedwig Drösch, wife of the US-appointed bürgermeister, remembered tearfully that the GIs instantly held their canteen cups to the villagers’ lips to help them drink.1 Krinkelt’s church was so badly damaged in the fighting that it had to be replaced, but opposite it today are two polished memorial stones, commemorating the heroism of the US 2nd and 99th Divisions.
As we have seen, the 277th and 12th Volksgrenadier Divisions overran many forward US positions on 16 December, but their attack swiftly became bogged down under the heavy fire from prepared positions of Major-General Walter E. Lauer’s 99th Infantry Division on their flanks. They also drew a rapid response from American artillery, who had pre-registered the areas forward of their own infantry. Further north, the 3rd Battalion of the US 395th Regiment covered the town of Höfen and Troops ‘B’ and ‘C’ of the 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, Monschau. Both were attacked by Generalmajor Kaschner’s 326th Volksgrenadiers. The cavalry’s defensive measures had included digging very good foxholes with plenty of overhead cover and laying eighty truckloads of barbed wire, trip flares, mines and booby traps. It paid off: they lost only fifteen killed.
The 38th Cavalry managed to hold the 751st Volksgrenadier Regiment at Monschau, and were eventually relieved by the US 9th Division, as Lieutenant Alfred H. M. Shehab, commanding 3rd Platoon of Troop ‘B’, recalled: ‘One of my lads came running into the CP and said, “Lieutenant, there is someone out there!” Crouching behind a tree, I hollered, “Who’s there?” A voice came back, “Well, who the hell are you?” So I replied, “Well, who the hell are you?” We finally made a deal, and met in an open space. They turned out to be the 47th Infantry Regiment, who had been told that we were wiped out.’2 The cavalry’s CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert O’Brien, observed afterwards, ‘The whole action was an example not of any heroic action, but of what an efficient, active defense can do. There was no great leadership: the men didn’t need it.’3
Further south, at Höfen, the German advance was stopped dead, even though the defenders lacked armoured support. Small-arms and mortar fire, as well as hand-to-hand combat, ejected those Germans who had penetrated into Höfen. Later, Lieutenant-Colonel McClernand Butler, a pre-war Illinois National Guardsman and the Third Battalion’s CO, observed of his opponents at Höfen, ‘The Germans made big mistakes when they committed their troops piecemeal. If they had used all three regiments of the 326th Volksgrenadier Division on that first day, they would have gone right through us.’4 The Germans here were weaker, possessing no tanks of their own, as their attack was designed to act as a flank guard to Dietrich’s panzers, in the same way that Brandenberger’s armourless Seventh Army guarded the southern flank of Manteuffel’s panzers.
On 17 December, the defending 99th Checkerboarders were joined by the US 2nd Infantry Division, including Charles B. MacDonald’s Company ‘I’ of the 23rd Regiment. Fortunately Major-General Leonard T. Gerow, commander of US V Corps since D-Day, had immediately appreciated the magnitude of the 16 December attack and the importance of the Elsenborn Ridge. On his own initiative, with the headquarters of First Army at Spa in disarray, Gerow ordered the 2nd Division to abandon their attack on the Roer dams and pull back on to the high ground of Elsenborn Ridge. American tanks and tank destroyers quickly arrived to help stem the onslaught, opposed by the 12th SS-Hitlerjugend and their infantry; but the Germans still failed to clear a route for their panzers.
Major-General Walter M. Robertson, of the 2nd Division (the Indianheads, after their distinctive shoulder patch) moved his headquarters into Elsenborn, stating that he intended to hold the twin villages until the Checkerboarders and his own men had retreated back through them and onto the Elsenborn Ridge. This would then become the MLR (Main Line of Resistance). The headquarters of the stern-faced Major-General Walter E. Lauer was in a commandeered villa in nearby Bütgenbach.
As for the civilian population, they had to cope as best they could: only thirty-five people were allowed to stay in Elsenborn, to take care of their cattle. The rest were instructed, ‘Take very few clothes and a little food; you will be back in a few days’. For most, those ‘few days’ would last four months. In late March 1945, they returned to find their livestock dead, their homes damaged or destroyed by artillery, from which nearly every piece of wood – doors, shutters, furniture, floorboards and stairways – had been removed by GIs, either for kindling or to provide overhead cover for their foxholes.
The seventeenth of December was the day of Charles MacDonald’s defence of the Krinkelterwald, when he witnessed the acts of valour that led to the award of a Medal of Honor to Sergeant José M. Lopez. Two other such medals were won in the vicinity that day, indicating the severity of the fighting. During 17–18 December near Rocherath, PFC William A. Soderman, also of the 2nd Division, disabled three Panthers and killed several groups of Germans with his bazooka before being severely wounded and evacuated. Meanwhile, PFC Richard E. Cowan of MacDonald’s Company ‘I’ fought off Volksgrenadiers all day from his machine-gun position, enabling his colleagues to withdraw.
On 18 December, German infantry and armour attacked the twin villages again, supported by Nebelwerfer (multi-barrelled mortar) units, and the 560th Schwere-Panzerjäger-Abteilung (Heavy Anti-tank Battalion), an army unit, equipped with Jagdpanzer IV and Jagdpanther (literally ‘hunting Panther’) tank destroyers. These were powerful armoured vehicles with an 88mm gun on a Panther chassis, but operated best in defence rather than attack. Their three-inch-thick, sloping frontal armour made them ideal for ambushes, but, being turretless, they were vulnerable in an advance without supporting infantry. Jagdpanther commanders liked to direct the vehicle standing up in their cupolas, for better battlefield awareness, but were frequently despatched by head shots.5 An American tank crewman, Sergeant Otie T. Cook, agreed with the need for all-round visibility. Before the war he had been a Virginia National Guardsman who then transferred into the 745th Tank Battalion and was attached to the US 1st Infantry Division in the Bulge. He confided, ‘You don’t realise that being in a tank, all you know is what you see in front of you, and what’s inside of the tank. Having to use the periscopes made that worse. You can’t see behind. You can’t see above. You don’t know anything else that’s going on.’6
In the event, the narrow streets of the twin villages proved the most unsuitable environment for the Jagdpanthers, where American bazooka rounds rained down from upper-storey windows. Operating conditions in the woodlands around the twin villages were not much better, where the SS armour was halted by artillery, anti-tank fire and mines. American tankers noted that the longer barrelled guns of the Panthers and Panzer IVs prevented their turrets from rotating between the trees, which was not a problem for the much shorter-barrelled 75mm Shermans.
As they loomed out of the fog, GIs had learned to let the panzers pass. Then they would emerge from their own foxholes to take on the following German infantry with any weapon to hand – rifles, grenades, bayonets, knives, sharpened shovels. One GI tried to stop a tank by jamming his rifle between the links of its tracks, recalled another. Defending Krinkelt, the 1st Battalion of the US 38th Infantry, under Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Mildren, came under huge pressure. He directed one of his staff to call the regimental CP for more armoured support. ‘Sir, we’re being overrun by Jerry tanks,’ went the message. The 38th’s commander replied, ‘Tell me, son, how many tanks? And just how close are they to you?’ As a German vehicle lumbered past, vibrating the whole building, the young officer then replied, ‘Well, Colonel, if I went up to the second floor, I could piss out the window and hit at least six.’7 Fearing an imminent breakthrough, it was that night, the evening of the 18th, when more than 2,000 First Army headquarters staff hurriedly packed up and left their comfortable billets in Spa.8
The mainstay of the American defence was the artillery they hastily assembled on the high ground of the Elsenborn Ridge. It was devastating in its intensity and accuracy: a total of 348 guns, including sixteen 105mm and 155mm battalions from the 1st, 2nd, 9th and 99th Divisions, plus heavier V Corps artillery, were quickly dug in, and able to respond instantly to requests from any quarter. By 21 December this figure had risen to twenty-three artillery battalions, and probably represented the ‘greatest concentration of artillery firepower in the European Theatre, if not in American history’.9 They were directed by Brigadier-General John H. Hinds (usually commander of the 2nd Division’s artillery) who, on 19 December, reported firing 5,760 rounds on the twin villages of Krinkelt–Rocherath in one twenty-minute fire mission.10 To these must be added the six 105mm guns that each US infantry regiment possessed in its canon company, the six 81mm mortars in each battalion heavy weapons company, and a US chemical mortar battalion possessing forty-eight 4.2-inch mortars. The latter could hurl a high-explosive mortar bomb nearly 4,000 yards. Driving past, PFC Alvin R. Whitehead, with the 394th Infantry, remembered seeing ‘more artillery in position than I thought existed in all of the Army’.11
The defence of the Northern Shoulder of the Bulge saw the ‘greatest concentration of artillery firepower in the European Theatre, if not in American history’. This included twenty-three battalions of guns, plus mortars and rockets, directed by Brigadier-General John H. Hinds (usually commander of the 2nd Division’s artillery). They were mostly 105mm howitzers like these, whose firepower defeated all German attempts to seize the Elsenborn Ridge. On 19 December, Hinds reported shooting 5,760 rounds at the twin villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath in one twenty-minute fire mission. (NARA)
Among the US artillery tactics employed were TOT (‘time on target’) concentrations, where rounds from different firing points and types of gun struck the target simultaneously, allowing the huge array of artillery available, close and distant, to concentrate firepower on the attackers. They were joined by eight-inch heavy guns firing from further back, and the 18th Field Artillery Battalion, who fired 4.5-inch rockets. ‘We heard their trucks forming a line on the Monschau–Kalterherberg–Elsenborn road … In a few moments, they launched two salvos of screaming rockets over our heads, totalling 1,025 rounds. Before the Germans could return fire, the mobile rocket battery had packed up and left,’ remembered one nearby GI.12
First Army’s Lieutenant-General Courtney H. Hodges wrote later of the Bulge that ‘all arms and services combined to inflict a disastrous defeat upon the enemy … Of the principal arms which could be brought to bear directly upon the enemy, infantry, armor, and air were seriously handicapped by weather and terrain. Through it all, however – day and night, good weather and bad – the flexibility and power of our artillery was applied unceasingly.’13 Soldiers of the US 99th Division one night thought they could hear tanks forward of their positions on the Elsenborn Ridge and called for artillery support. ‘It was awesome – the shells bursting in front of us and advancing toward the enemy like marching troops. In the morning we looked out and saw three German tanks and some half-tracks, all in ruins.’14 The SS-Hitlerjugend’s historian recorded, ‘In the final analysis, with infantry matched at 1:1, the American artillery superiority of 10:1 was the decisive factor’.15
One Checkerboard soldier manning a foxhole was detailed to help the artillery behind him register their guns. ‘They fired. I can still see and feel what happened. The shell landed about three feet in front of my position. The gunner asked where it had landed. I told him, “I am picking hot metal out of the hole in front of me.” Another round landed to my left. Two machine-gunners disappeared. We never found enough of them to have anything to bury. I was very upset, angry and disgusted. “Sorry,” said the artilleryman over the field telephone. They fired another round which landed well forward of our position. With a few more rounds, they had their guns sighted in.’16
‘Friendly’ artillery had its own limitations, however; as Captain Harry R. Ostler, commander of a battery of towed 105mm howitzers, reported, ‘Our battery displaces every day, sometimes for seven days in a row … When we drop trails in a new position, immediately the men begin the tedious task of digging. They never stop to rest until the gun is completely dug in, and their own trenches, with overhead cover, are complete. Issue sandbags are filled and used to form a parapet around the howitzer sections.’17Typically, in the hard winter conditions, GIs – whether infantry or artillerymen – found they needed explosives just to blow holes in the solid ground.
When ‘Mac’ McMurdie of the 394th Infantry tried to dig in on the Elsenborn Ridge at dusk on 20 December, he remembered, ‘The ground was frozen. We took our turn digging and got a little warmed up from the work. With our entrenching tools, we could only chip out little pieces at a time. We were digging holes about fifty feet or so apart – digging as if our lives depended on it. We got down about eighteen inches through the frozen ground before we got to regular earth and could dig at a decent rate.’18 In the white jungle of fir forests, another GI remembered his close encounter with some Germans doing the same. A platoon sergeant set off in the dark to contact a neighbouring company. He encountered some soldiers digging into the frozen ground. ‘“Company G?” he asked. Just as he spoke he realized they were Germans. “Nix” one of the German soldiers replied as he continued chipping at the ground. The sergeant pivoted slowly, and trudged off through the snow. He was well back to his company before some hostile fire followed in his direction.’19
Captain Richard Van Horne, of the 991st Field Artillery Battalion (attached to the 9th Division), bemoaned that ‘muzzle flash and blast were two of our greatest headaches. No matter how cleverly concealed a gun might be, the tremendous muzzle flash and the billowing clouds of white smoke immediately compromised the position.’20 Another artillery unit reported, ‘This battalion has one man in four wearing a Purple Heart after four months of combat … One night we had seven killed and nine wounded in one battery by counter-battery fire.’21
In this respect the limitations of the horse-drawn Volksgrenadier artillery and Nebelwerfer units were a significant obstacle to effective German fire support. Their older guns, of varying calibres, had neither the range nor the mobility to take on their opponents efficiently, and they had only limited stocks of ammunition. Fähnrich Rolf Odendahl, of the 3rd Fallschirmjäger Division, recalled that, ‘towards the end of the offensive, due to lack of ammunition, our forward artillery observer had only two rounds available to fix the locations of blocking barrages in case of an attack’. He remembered seeing the Americans walking around on the slopes opposite, ‘but [we] were not allowed to [open] fire. Only in an emergency were we permitted to fire.’22 These shortages extended even to the SS. Interrogation of an artilleryman in Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Sandig’s 2nd Panzergrenadier Regiment of the Leibstandarte revealed that his 75mm self-propelled gun had only thirty rounds and, ‘since he has had it, the gun has not been fired … Only enough fuel to make an ordered trip is issued. The SP now has five litres (about 1¼ gallons) in it.’23
American gun batteries preferred positions near hard-surfaced roads, for ease of ammunition resupply, but, unless strict camouflage discipline was enforced, their locations were soon compromised by the many German aircraft prowling around at night, dropping flares, ‘which lit up the area and tended to bring out the unnatural from the natural’. On such occasions, carefully planned and well executed camouflage discipline ‘was the difference between life and death … This meant no chow lines and no bunching of personnel into groups … At supper time we noted with alarm that mess kits glittered in the weak sun as the soldiers crowded close to the kitchen truck.’ Everything had to be dug in below ground level and covered with logs and sandbags, including, ‘Guns, oil, gas, water, kitchens, trucks, trailers, radios, everything – arms, projectiles, powder and fuzes’.24
Responding to orders issued at 1.45 p.m. on 19 December, the 393rd and 394th Infantry Regiments of the 99th began withdrawing from their positions in and around Krinkelt–Rocherath from about 5.30 p.m., and moved back the short distance north-west on to the Elsenborn Ridge. They were covered by a rearguard of the 741st Tank and 644th Tank Destroyer Battalions, with the last tank platoon leaving at 02.00 a.m. As they did, T/4 Truman Kimbro, who was serving with the 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion, laid a string of anti-tank mines under intense fire outside Rocherath. In doing so, he was riddled with bullets and died from his wounds, but for carrying out his mission under the greatest adversity he was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. William F. McMurdie, with Company ‘A’ of the 394th, remembered that the 1st Battalion in which he served could only muster 260 officers and men from the original 825 they started with three days earlier. Company ‘C’ had dwindled from 180 men to just eight. ‘Lieutenant-Colonel Robert H. Douglas, our battalion commander, almost cried when he saw how many men had been lost, and said he felt personally responsible.’25
Robertson’s US 2nd Division had reversed the direction of their attack (from the Roer dams to Elsenborn), reorientated instantly from assault to defensive mode, and then conducted a withdrawal from contact, all within three days. He later observed, ‘Leavenworth [the Command and General Staff College] would say it couldn’t be done – but I don’t want to have to do it again!’26 Today the high ground is a NATO training area, but in traversing the fifteen miles between Bütgenbach and Monschau it is possible to get a sense of the realigned American positions, after 19 December. Infantry foxholes ‘were in the shape of an “L’’,’ wrote a Checkerboard Division soldier. ‘The longer part was about seven feet long, the other about five feet. We took timbers and logs to put across the long part of our hole, and then put all the dirt on top of the wood, or behind us, so our helmeted heads would blend in with the background. We put a blanket across the entrance to the covered area, where we would then sleep … Our lamp was a water canteen filled with gasoline, with a sock as a wick. We collected all the blankets we could to make our “bed” dry … I remember that at the sixteenth blanket, properly folded and put in place, we decided we were “dry”.’27
The foxhole owner captured a German who commented on how surprised he was to find he had been fighting black troops. On being told there were no black troops in the line, he retorted, ‘but black men just captured me’. A check revealed that the Americans’ makeshift canteen lamps had covered their faces, necks, hair and hands with soot. The result was a twenty-four-hour pass to Verviers for a shower call.28 In the snowy landscape, another rifleman, PFC James R. McIlroy with Company ‘F’, of the 393rd Regiment, remembered, ‘We prayed, with shells falling all around us. Sometimes it seemed the shelling would never cease. There were so many hits by artillery that the landscape around us looked like a black and white checkerboard. We just held on and prayed the next one would be a dud.’29
Forward Artillery Observer James R. McGhee of the 334th Field Artillery later described the effect of a warhead that wasn’t a dud on an orders group. ‘Captain Nicolson, the company commander, called his platoon leaders and me together to give us our instructions. At that moment a horrendous explosion tore into us. In the instant before unconsciousness I saw a brilliant orange-yellow fireball with chunks of black in it, then nothing. Oblivion. When I started regaining my senses, I was still on my feet, reeling and staggering aimlessly about. The return of full consciousness was slow and labored, like struggling to wade through deep mud. Technical Sergeant Keith Mericle was dead with a gaping hole behind his right ear. Lieutenant Rerich was bleeding all over from multiple wounds. Lieutenant Lee Scott had been knocked out … We found the muzzle of a shattered carbine and verified that it ended in 6666, the last four digits of Captain Nicolson’s weapon. His helmet was collapsed from back to front and flattened.’ Of the captain himself, nothing was ever found.30 In many cases, such oblivion through artillery fire was the true meaning of ‘missing in action’. This was almost never communicated to next of kin, for whom the awfulness of being ripped apart and literally ‘atomised’ was too terrible to contemplate.
The intense cold made matters worse, as Lieutenant-Colonel McClernand Butler of the 395th Infantry remembered: ‘The snow got up to twelve-feet deep in drifts. I think it was about three feet deep on the flat. A man who got hit in the open could die within fifteen minutes unless he was evacuated. It was bitterly cold and it was a miserable time.’31 In summarising the medical effects on an infantry division in this sector, Lieutenant-Colonel Walter R. Cook, Chief Surgeon of the 2nd Infantry Division, reported in a 1 January 1945 secret document, ‘the total battle casualties for December was 1,966, of which eighty were officers. Total non-battle casualties evacuated from the division was 1,971. Of these, 148 cases were returned to duty from the clearing station within twenty-four hours. Practically all of these were mild combat exhaustion cases.’
The medics treated civilian and German casualties too. Captain Alex G. Shulman was a neurosurgeon who remembered one German soldier brought in. ‘He was fourteen, fifteen. Looked like a lost little boy … a sad, dirty looking kid with a terrible gash in his head … As I took him to the operating room, he started to cry … I could speak a little bit of German and a little bit of Yiddish helped. All I did was get a basin of hot water and some soap and washed his hair.’ Shulman looked at the wound, which was healing nicely. The boy finally explained his tears. ‘“They told me I’d be killed. And here you are, an American officer, washing my hands and face and hair.” I reminded him that I was a Jewish doctor, so he would get the full impact of it.’32
Lieutenant-Colonel Cook’s 1 January 1945 report continued: ‘Some 153 cases of trench foot (compared with thirty-eight last month) were admitted and 134 cases of respiratory disease (139 last Month). There were 651 cases of combat exhaustion as compared to fifty-nine cases in November … In all, 3,192 cases were evacuated from the division to the clearing station during the month of December, of which 352, or eleven percent, were returned to duty. During the recent counter-offensive, more than ninety percent of battle casualties were due to shell fragments.’33These were worrying figures, given that an infantry division’s strength was supposed to number just over 14,000 men and replacements were drying up.
Cook also noted ‘thirteen cases of acute gonorrhoea were incurred during the month, contracted in Paris while on pass’. On his R and R in Paris just before the Bulge, Sergeant Jay H. Stanley, with one of the division’s field artillery battalions, confided to me in 1994 that, with his buddies, ‘we hit a bar, and before we knew it we each had a girl on our laps. The girls were keen to show us they wore no underwear, “You buy me drink?” was how the conversation started. I was real tempted, but my girl walked off when I asked if she had treated German soldiers the same way.’34
One of Colonel Cook’s deputies, his neuropsychiatrist, Major Gilbert Kelly, appended a brief study of the combat exhaustion cases, which were clearly a major concern. Kelly observed, ‘When the men moved into the vicinity of Elsenborn they left heated shelters and slept in the cold, snow, mist and rain … in such conditions it was impossible to keep the men dry and warm. Many of the combat exhaustion cases were actually ones of exposure … Over ninety percent of the cases fell into one of three categories,’ observed Kelly. ‘In the first group were men who had been wounded and evacuated past the division level and had developed a conditioned fear complex. The second group comprised those who had previously been evacuated for exhaustion and returned to the division. The third group were men who had been fighting since the Division landed in Normandy and might be termed battle fatigue cases. There were very few who could be thought of as malingerers.’35
One of those sent back observed, ‘You can’t get any colder than in the back of a 2½-ton army truck in the Belgian winter … Finally, we arrived at our destination, which was an evacuation hospital consisting of large tents in a field … We were taken to one that had a stove and cots, so were able to get warm after our ride. They told us that the best they could do was to get hot water so we could wash, shave and change clothes. That was more than we had for a month. I can clearly remember how kind those men were to us.’
After the much-needed break, on the following morning he thought the abrupt change from warmth and safety back to the front line was almost unbearable. At the end of their return journey, ‘the talk stopped; we had travelled far enough to hear our artillery firing. Our escape from reality was about to end. The existence and endurance ability of a truckload of dogfaces was about to start once more … We left the truck and walked out of Elsenborn, past the shattered church and last houses, to the junction where the 4.2-inch mortar crew was set up, past the tank and company CP to the draw where the knocked-out ambulance was … But, as I went back to my hole dug into the deep snow and Belgian soil, my gut muscles hardened and my ears strained for any strange sound, I was thinking, “The break from combat was not worth it, because I had to come back”.’36
Another GI found his stay in the divisional hospital confused his loyalties. It was in a converted schoolhouse behind the lines, full of GIs with minor wounds, trench foot and the like. ‘I lingered as long as I could under the hot spray of the shower … I closed my eyes and let the heat from the steam put me into a brief stupor. As I returned from the shower, I passed a medical orderly munching on a Hershey bar. He nodded to me and asked if there was anything I would like. “Haven’t had one of those since I left Fort Jackson,” I answered, gesturing towards the candy bar. “Really? We get boxes of them. I’ll get ya some. I know the companies get ’em all the time.” “They probably never get past the command post and the mess hall,” I replied … After two nights I had taken all I could stand, in spite of the comforts of clean sheets, showers, and hot food. I was tired of the shirkers and felt guilty about being away from my squad, and requested a return to my unit.’37
Major Kelly’s study of combat exhaustion was an honest enquiry into a medical phenomenon that was then little understood (especially by Patton), and reflected similar figures for each American front-line division. No comparative German statistics have survived, but when fighting was of a similar intensity for the British and Canadians (for example in the Reichswald in February–March 1945), they suffered these rates too. Kelly went on to note that ‘In a period of two days, over 500 men were interviewed at Camp Elsenborn and approximately 400 of these were returned to their units. Unquestionably, a great many rejoined because of a deep feeling of individual and unit pride, and that now – if ever – they were needed.’38 Such ‘band of brothers’ loyalty in extreme adversity was a handy indicator of the efficacy of the American infantry’s training and preparation for combat. At least one US airman realised that life for the ‘Joes on the ground’ was very different. Having just completed a mission over the Ardennes, the flyer exclaimed from the comfort of his armchair, ‘I was just thinking. All of us guys flying planes are such lucky pr*cks. We go through hell, but then we come back to a bed and a hot meal and a good night’s sleep … But those poor goddam bastards in the f**king infantry …’39
Another battalion surgeon, Dr John Kerner, with the 35th Division, thought ‘In many ways, it was worse than Normandy. Although we had a better setup for our [aid] station, winter made the field conditions worse. It was extremely difficult to evacuate wounded men through the snow even with chains on jeeps and ambulances. There also was the problem of men literally freezing before the aid men could get to them with first aid and evacuation. I taught the medics to make sleds which had a low profile and moved through the snow easily.’ Kerner then reflected an anxiety which was common through the whole army, and is often overlooked by historians. ‘The worst thing about our situation was that we did not understand exactly what was going on’ – something that frequently pertains even to modern warfare. With remarkable honesty Kerner then concluded, ‘We were frightened and disheartened. We had thought the war was about over, and now we seemed to be fighting for survival.’40
Also attached to Cook’s secret report was that of Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil F. Jorms, CO of the 2nd Medical Battalion, responsible for administration of the division’s clearing stations and ambulances. He praised the staff of Collecting Station ‘C’, in Krinkelt, who on 17 December, when casualties had begun to accumulate in large numbers, transported them ‘out of town in all available ambulances and trucks, including the Collecting Company kitchen truck. They were all volunteer drivers, who had no assurance that a back road, improvised by the 2nd Engineer Battalion, was yet open’.
Jorms went on to record the loss of three clearly marked ambulances, struck by panzers, and that on the same evening in Krinkelt, after air bursts had shattered all the windows of the collecting station, a ‘German Tiger tank had taken up position twenty-five yards from the station. Members could hear German commands in broken English ordering American soldiers driving [Red Cross-marked medical] Jeeps and trucks around the corner to “dismount and be recognised”. These were shot in cold blood where they stood and two of them, still breathing, were brought into the Collecting Station where they died of their wounds, despite frantic efforts to save them … The experiences of the other two Collecting Companies [in Rocherath and Murringen] were equally unconventional and hazardous during the period 16 to 18 December 1944.’41
The troops who executed the drivers were from the 12th SS-Hitlerjugend, imbued with the same cold-blooded ruthlessness as their colleagues in the 1st SS-Leibstandarte, who had committed the Baugnez massacre only hours earlier, on the same day. Word soon spread throughout the 2nd Division of the brutality in the twin villages. ‘That stiffened us,’ remembered Vern B. Werst, from Oregon. ‘We all felt we had to be tougher from now on, and give no quarter to those bastards of the SS.’42 Some GIs taken prisoner in Krinkelt were interrogated by a German officer with a pistol held to their heads. At the end of each session the officer pulled the trigger, but the firing pin always struck an empty chamber. The German thought this hilarious, and would pat each of his victims on the shoulder, saying, ‘You and your friends are good soldiers’.43
The American dispositions on the northern shoulder looked like this. To the right and left of the Bütgenbach–Elsenborn–Monschau road, the US 1st Infantry Division (specifically released from ‘Lightning Joe’ Collins’ VII Corps due to the gravity of the situation) now occupied positions as far north as the village of Berg. An impressive obelisk on a traffic island south of Bütgenbach marks the presence here of the ‘Big Red One’ (as the 1st Division was called, after its shoulder badge) in 1944. The 2nd Infantry Division garrisoned the front beyond Berg up on to the crest of high ground, where the 99th Checkerboarders took over; Major-General Louis A. Craig’s 9th Division was responsible for the line as far as Kalterherberg. A 9th Division GI, Technical Sergeant Peter J. Dalessandro, was with Company ‘E’ of the 39th Infantry, holding a road junction overlooking Kalterherberg. On 22 December when a German attack developed, which threatened to overwhelm his position, he defeated it by personally directing mortar fire and did the same thing during a later assault. This second proved more serious, and he successively manned a machine gun, hurled hand grenades and finally called for a barrage on his own position: ‘OK, mortars, let me have it – right in this position!’ Incredibly, he survived, though a prisoner, his bravery later being recognised with a Medal of Honor.
In 1944, the 9th Division’s medical aid station was located between Höfen and Kalterherberg in a ‘Hansel-and-Gretel-like retreat, hidden alone in a dark wood, sporting a big shell hole in its roof. Bodies of GIs were also brought here to await interment in the division’s temporary burial ground.’44 This was the Hôtel Perlenau, still in business (and where I tend to stay when visiting the northern shoulder of the Bulge). The surrounding hillsides were once riddled with the foxholes of the 99th Checkerboard Division, and subsequently their 9th Division replacements. Prior to 16 December, four and a half infantry divisions had covered most of the eighty-plus miles of the Ardennes front; now four divisions were covering less than fifteen miles. Most of the infantry regiments in these divisions would spend the next few weeks manning foxholes in freezing temperatures, but they had achieved their purpose – despite all attempts, the Volksgrenadiers would never manage to set foot on the high ground.
On 19 December the Germans decided to abandon their costly frontal assaults against Krinkelt–Rocherath and disengage. Ironically, this was just as the Americans had decided to leave. Generalmajor Walter Denkert’s 3rd Panzergrenadier Division then took over responsibility for the twin villages and, at 02.25 a.m., long before first light, the SS-Hitlerjugend and 12th Volksgrenadier Divisions attacked the hamlet of Dom Bütgenbach, in an attempt to outflank the twin villages to the south.45 As we have seen, this was something Jochen Peiper could have achieved easily in the early hours of the 17th – when there was precious little there – but instead he hurried along his assigned Rollbahn. By 19 December, Dom Bütgenbach was a completely different proposition, and the assault was met by a deluge of fire from units of the Big Red One, as was a second attack on the 20th.
During this first attack, Corporal Henry F. Warner of the 26th Infantry, 1st Division, risked being overrun as he stayed at the 57mm gun he was serving and disabled two Hitlerjugend tanks; however, a third approached to within five yards while he was attempting to clear a jammed breach block. Demonstrating great spirit, Warner jumped from his gun pit, fired his pistol at the tank commander standing in the turret, killed him and forced the tank to withdraw. This was confirmed by the records of the 12th SS-Hitlerjugend Division: ‘The commander of the point Jagdpantheradvancing on the road was shot in the head when the American positions were approached. The driver pulled his vehicle back to escape the fire, but rammed the vehicle behind. Against the ferocious defensive fire from anti-tank guns … a company of Jagdpanthers succeeded in breaking into the American positions … prisoners were brought back and identified as members of the 26th Regiment of the US First Infantry Division.’46
On the 21st, an even heavier attack by the Hitlerjugend followed, preceded by a three-hour artillery bombardment of such ferocious intensity that it tore great holes in the US 1st Division’s lines. The Germans broke through the perimeter of Lieutenant-Colonel Derrill M. Daniel’s 2nd Battalion, 26th Infantry, then manoeuvred down his line, destroying machine guns and anti-tank weapons. The battalion commander and his staff dropped their radios and maps, picked up weapons and joined the fray. Wireless communication was lost and just when it seemed they had been overrun, a platoon of the 613th Tank Destroyer Battalion arrived and stabilised the situation. Its M-36 Jackson self-propelled guns, equipped with 90mm cannon, were some of the few US armoured fighting vehicles that could destroy heavy German tanks at a distance. Corporal Warner, with his little anti-tank gun, was again in action. He despatched another panzer and was in the process of engaging a second when a burst of fire from its machine gun killed him. For his acts of valour over the two days, Warner was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
The Germans saw their 21 December attack on Dom Bütgenbach like this: ‘Some veils of fog were still spreading across the pasture, but they were dissolving quickly. A flash of flame, as if ignited by the hand of a ghost, shot up from the rear of Untersturmführer Schittenhelm’s panzer. A thick, heavy mushroom cloud of smoke covered the vehicle, two men bailed out. Hauptmann Hils issued orders to take up position towards three o’clock. He stood in the turret of his panzer, studying the map. Then he fired a signal flare to mark the final direction. We awaited the [order to] “March!” Since nothing happened, I looked again at his panzer. The turret was burning! Hils could no longer be seen. The hull crew were leaving … It had to be assumed the turret crew had been killed. Abruptly, an almost indescribably devastating fire from the American artillery set in.’47By Christmas Eve, 782 German bodies had been counted in Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel’s sector, but his battalion had suffered over 250 killed, wounded or missing.48
The 22nd saw the last tank attack on the south of the Elsenborn Ridge, beginning at 06.30 a.m., also defeated by American artillery, which had fired 10,000 rounds the previous day. The Hitlerjugend reported the loss of twenty-nine panzers on 21 December and five more the following day; these were losses they could not sustain. On the 23rd, they received orders to abandon the Elsenborn Ridge and reinforce the Vielsalm sector, where they eventually arrived at Sadzot, as we have seen. Their War Diary noted, ‘movements will be possible only at dusk’.49 This was because the Allied air forces returned to the skies on 23 December, which cheered the defenders. ‘By the middle of the morning, the B-17’s started coming over, and they came and they came and they came,’ observed Staff Sergeant Richard H. Byers, with Battery ‘C’ of the 371st Field Artillery Battalion. ‘We all stood out in the yard, awed by fine feathery white streams of vapor streaked across the sky, and the fighters scrawling wavy designs, as they try to murder each other … Every so often we would see a B-17 get hit and start falling, leaving a trail of smoke which would break up into two or three streamers. Then we could see the parachutes blossom out and count them, hoping that everyone got out of that plane alive.’ Witnessing the perils of the airmen, Byers felt lucky to be on the ground where ‘They had to hit you to get you, not simply hit your vehicle’.50
On Christmas morning, First Lieutenant Samuel L. Lombardo, of Company ‘I’ with the 394th Infantry remembered waking to ‘the roar of hundreds of bombers filling the sky heading for the heart of Germany. I had been saving all the caramel candy bars from our rations and I decided to dump a few into my canteen cup full of coffee. What a discovery! The coffee turned out to be creamy and sweet. It’s amazing that such a simple thing could raise my morale that much.’51 More depressingly, others recalled their chaplain asking for a detail of men to ‘open the individual mail packages of those lost in each company. We had to take out all the perishable foods to eat. Valuables were sent back to families in the States.’ There were so many dead in Company ‘B’, remembered Technical Sergeant Bernard Nawrocki of the 393rd Infantry, that ‘we had a lot of food which came in handy for our frozen soldiers’.52 Life was radically different for their opponents. ‘A sad Christmas and still no food,’ wrote a Landser of Oberst Viebig’s 277th Volksgrenadier Division on 25 December, ‘The only water we have is from a foxhole. There are only a few men left in the battalion.’53 The following day, 26 December, a final Volksgrenadier attempt was made on the ridge itself, but artillery fire repeatedly broke up their attacks even as they were being formed.
The reaction of this young Fallschirmjäger Obergefreiter to becoming a prisoner of war speaks volumes about his sense of unit pride and shame of capture. German paratroopers were highly indoctrinated, and regarded as ‘true believers’ in the Nazi creed, on a par with the SS. This youthful captive was a rarity in the Luftwaffe’s 3rd Parachute Division, where few had ever jumped into combat. This was because he wears the diving eagle Parachutist’s badge (Fallschirmschützenabzeichen), for making five qualifying jumps, which will no doubt shortly become a GI souvenir. Part of Oberst Helmut von Hoffmann’s Fallschirm Regiment 9, this Obergefreiter had fought through Lanzerath attached to Kampfgruppe Peiper on 16 December, only to be captured by the US 1st Infantry Division at Weywertz, near Butgenbach, on 15 January 1945. (NARA)
Just before his death in 1990, Hugo Kraas, the former commander of the 12th SS-Hitlerjugend, revisited Dom Bütgenbach and recalled the fighting there ‘had been the darkest days of his military life’.54 North-east of Rotherath, a small portion of the line, once defended by the Checkerboard’s 395th Regiment, has been preserved and was opened in 2000 as the Hasselpath Memorial Site. It contains map boards explaining the combat and the original foxholes, a command bunker and rebuilt aid post that were contested by the GIs and grenadiers. Some of the former battlefields north of Elsenborn are likewise untouched, being off-limits to the public as a military training area. In the vicinity in 2008 a researcher came across positions of the 277th Volksgrenadier Division. Amidst the evidence of hand-to-hand combat – a US Garand rifle with its bayonet, German canteens and ammunition boxes – he found the possessions (but not the remains) of Grenadier Joh Zander, identified from the remains of his rotting backpack.
In the same year, other researchers discovered the remains of two 3rd Panzergrenadier Division soldiers, Hubert Redecker and Wilhelm Schlömann, in a shell hole where they had lain since being cut down by American artillery fire on 22 December 1944. Both were 29th Grenadier Regiment men, from its 3rd Company, and still wearing helmets and all their equipment. They were identified by their dog tags and later interred with due ceremony at the German military cemetery at Lommel in Belgium, alongside four others who, despite the researchers’ best efforts, eluded identification and were buried, alas, as ‘Unbekannt’ – unknown.55
The defenders and inhabitants of Elsenborn and Krinkelt–Rocherath look askance at the attention that has been paid to Bastogne since the Battle of the Bulge. The siege – with the presence of war correspondents and photographers, the newsworthy parachute drops, gliders landing with supplies, McAuliffe’s ‘Nuts!’ reply to the German surrender summons, and the arrival of Patton’s relief forces – stole the newspaper headlines. These events soon became the narrative of the Bulge and, in time, shorthand in popular memory for the wider Ardennes campaign.
Those present at St Vith and Elsenborn have felt – with every justification – left out of the story. St Vith perhaps, quite unfairly, might have been regarded by the less well-informed as a setback, because it was relinquished – though its defence was conducted in the finest tradition of the Alamo by Bruce Clarke and William Hoge. However, on the northern shoulder, between Monschau and Elsenborn, the American divisions stood firm and repelled the Germans every time. The ‘silence of northern shoulder’ was partly because there were no war correspondents present. The static nature of the fighting on the Elsenborn Ridge, which simply required GIs to hold their ground in the miserable weather, where there were no rapid movements of troops and tanks, was not as exciting to reporters – ‘stationary resistance’ did not make headlines.
There is another reason as to why the fighting around Elsenborn is less well-known than it should be. The northern areas of the fighting, around St Vith and Elsenborn, are located in the German-speaking zone of Belgium, which, as we have noted, had experienced a turbulent history even before joining the Kaiserreich in 1871 and Third Reich in 1940. The uncertainties of war and peace in this region have left its population less inclined to celebrate the dramas of 1944 and to concentrate on its wild scenery instead. Today, the area’s tourism is geared towards cycling and hiking, not war. Thus many of its visitors have no clue about its crucial importance to the defence of the Ardennes in December 1944.