The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge/Chapter XVI
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Chapter XVI: One Threat Subsides; Another Emerges
|Chapter XVII: St. Vith is lost→|
The Attempt To Relieve Peiper's Kampfgruppe
- The quick and cheaply won victories which had taken Peiper's armored kampfgruppe so close to the Meuse bridges in so short a time may have blinded the higher German staffs for a while to the fact that Peiper was in danger. By the 21st, however, the most strenuous efforts were being made to save the ground he had won north of the Amblève and to rescue the men and matériel in his command. What happened to leave the kampfgruppe stranded and alone?
- The 1st SS Panzer Division had begun its drive west in four march groups moving independently. The bulk of the 1st Panzer Regiment, a motorized battalion of armored infantry, a mobile company of engineers, and a battery of self-propelled artillery (as well as most of the gasoline available) had gone to Peiper with the expectation that the armored weight and the mobile character of this spearhead detachment would permit a quick breakthrough and exploitation even to the Meuse River. The balance of the division was to follow hard on Peiper's heels, provide reinforcement as required, and keep the line of communications open until such time as following divisions could take over and be prepared to re-form as a unit at the Meuse. By noon of 17 December Peiper's kampfgruppe was out of touch with the second and third march columns of the division and was racing alone toward the west. The strongest of the rearward columns, the fourth, which amounted to a reinforced armored infantry regiment, had been held up by mines at the entrance to its designated route' and in fact never made a start until 18 December. The student of first causes may wish to speculate on the fateful role of the unknown cavalry, engineers, and foot soldiers who laid the mines between Lanzerath and Manderfeld, thus delaying most of the 1st SS Panzer Division armored infantry for a critical twenty-four hours.
- By 19 December, it will be recalled, Peiper was over the Hohes Venn highlands, had crossed to the north bank of the Amblève River, and had secured the Stoumont-La Gleize area. At the same time he had almost completely drained his fuel tanks. On that same day radio communication of a sort had been re-established between Peiper and the 1st SS Panzer Division headquarters, so that his plight was known. The second march group, the mobile Reconnaissance Battalion, had come up and engaged the Americans at Stavelot, getting through some reinforcement to Peiper but failing in the larger task of keeping the door open behind Peiper. Meanwhile the third march group was moving slowly toward Stavelot while the fourth, following the southern route through Recht, had become involved at roadblocks on the north flank of the 7th Armored Division salient.
- The hardening American resistance ahead of Peiper and on his exposed north flank, plus reports that his fuel supply was low, prompted the Sixth Panzer Army commander and staff to undertake new plans and orders calculated to get the kampfgruppe rolling once again. The army chief of staff was particularly concerned lest Peiper be forced to face north so as to protect his endangered flank and line of communications-as in fact happened. The nearest intact formation was the 3d Parachute Division. But if this division were taken out of its blocking position south of Waimes the road would be open for American reinforcements from the north to reach St. Vith. The 12th SS Panzer Division, originally scheduled to be the 1st SS Panzer Division's running mate on the north, had been taken out of the fight at Krinkelt-Rocherath but was engaged in refitting and a very roundabout move to get back onto the road west. There was no chance now that the 12th SS could reach the Malmédy sector as planned and so cover Peiper's flank. Peculiarly enough (and a commentary on the state of communications), both Peiper and the commander of the 3d Parachute Division thought that the 12th SS Panzer Division actually was in the vicinity of Malmédy, there covering the north flank. The II SS Panzer Corps, whose two armored divisions were supposed to form a second wave behind the I SS Panzer Corps, was still in the army rear and could not reach the Stoumont-La Gleize sector for three or four days, even if committed at once.
- The glaring fact was that the Sixth Panzer Army had failed to crack a gap in the American front wide enough for the passage west of the two armored divisions supposedly leading the I SS Panzer Corps or for the quick forward movement of the infantry divisions that were earmarked for the northern block protecting the line of communications to the west. The best the Sixth Panzer Army could do on the 19th and 20th was to order supply troops and a small reconnaissance detachment of the 12th SS Panzer Division to guard the north flank between the 3d Parachute Division positions and Peiper, tell General Priess (the I SS Panzer Corps commander) to collect the 1st SS Panzer Division (-) for an attack to relieve Peiper, and urgently request the Luftwaffe to drop gasoline and ammunition for the isolated kampfgruppe. (One air resupply mission was flown on the night of 21 December. But it was difficult to hit the constricted zone in darkness, and the kampfgruppe got only enough gasoline to keep its radios going and to move a few of its tanks to more favorable firing positions. Thereafter the Luftwaffe refused all Sixth Army requests for such missions.)
- On the morning of 21 December SS-Oberfuehrer Mohnke, the 1st SS Panzer Division commander, had collected most of his third and fourth march groups in the area south of Stavelot and east of Trois Ponts. To reach Peiper it would be necessary to get onto the north bank of the Amblève and strike northwest or to cross the Salm and then turn north. What Mohnke's intentions actually were is hard to tell. Apparently he sent part of his infantry to ford the Amblève between Trois Ponts and Stavelot about the same time that Task Force Lovelady crossed to the north bank. The two forces probably missed each other in the morning fog, but it seems certain that the sizable German detachment encountered by Colonel Lovelady when he attempted to push away from the north bank and up the ridge was that sent by Mohnke. Meanwhile, when the Germans tried to cross heavy assault guns on the temporary bridge above Trois Ponts the frail structure collapsed out of hand. Attempts to put in bridges at other points were all frustrated by artillery fire.
- Mohnke made his main effort with a westward thrust at the Salm River line, first in the direction of Trois Ponts, then as a groping attempt to find some weak spot farther south. His force would collide with the 505th Parachute Infantry, now spread along an 8,000-yard front reaching from Trois Ponts south to Grand Halleux. The initial German attack was thrown against E Company of the 505th Parachute Infantry, which had organized a small bridgehead on the cliff across the river east of Trois Ponts the day before. Fleeing civilians halted by patrols on the morning of the 21st bore word of German tanks and infantry assembling in Wanne. Shortly before noon a company led by self-propelled guns appeared through the fog along a road running past the rise held by the paratroopers. An 8-man bazooka section knocked out the assault guns, but its members were captured or killed. The howitzers of the 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion west of the river went to work and for a time disorganized the enemy. Tanks were seen moving about and more German infantry were heard gathering in the woods and draws.
- The commander of the 2d Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry (Lt. Col. Benjamin H. Vandervoort) tried unsuccessfully to reach his regimental commander by radio. In the absence of specific instructions as to the bridgehead, he then dispatched Company F to climb the cliff across the river. Company F moved into the woods on the right of Company E, while a jeep towed a single 57-mm. antitank gun across stringers laid atop the broken bridge structure. This gun, manned by Lt. Jake Wurtich, fought an unequal duel with the panzers-its shells bouncing off the German armor-until it was knocked out and Wurtich killed. The tanks, however, could not maneuver on the soggy, snow-covered ground and the fight broke into a series of hand-to-hand engagements swirling around little knots of infantrymen.
- The American rifle line was steadily decreasing in strength, denuded by casualties and carrying parties laboriously moving the wounded down and ammunition up the cliff. Vandervoort put one more platoon across the river. By this time the assistant division commander and the regimental commander both had reached Trois Ponts and it was agreed that Ekman could withdraw his troops from the minuscule bridgehead. Having a third of his regiment committed at this single point on his extended and exposed front, Colonel Ekman decided to chance a daylight withdrawal. Some troops came back over the bridge but many, hard pressed, leaped off the cliff into the river. A number of the enemy, in close pursuit, crossed behind the Americans by fording or swinging along the broken bridges. Before the 2d Battalion could reorganize on the west bank, at least two German platoons had crossed the river. They were immediately knocked back, however.
- To the south of Trois Ponts the 3d Battalion of the 505th had been deployed on a wide front which was extended still more as its neighboring battalion concentrated at Trois Ponts. Near the three or four houses of the hamlet of La Neuville a bridge still spanned the Salm, covered by a platoon roadblock on the east bank. At dark a German column of tanks (or assault guns) and infantry approached the bridge. The platoon called for artillery, engaged in a short exchange of fire, withdrew, and blew the bridge. Four large enemy fighting vehicles remained at the bridge site when the rest of the thwarted column turned away. They were too close for shellfire; so a four-man patrol armed with Gammon grenades crossed in the dark to deal with them, but as the patrol reached the east bank the tanks turned and lumbered off. During the evening enemy foot soldiers also tried to sneak across the wreckage of the railroad bridge south of Trois Ponts, an attack quickly ended when shellfire caught them right at the river.
- Although most of the night of 21 December passed quietly it was a time of strain because the 505th line at Trois Ponts was thin, the enemy was known to be strong, and the river was fordable. The 82d Airborne Division as a whole was too widely dispersed to permit immediate and large-scale help in the Trois Ponts sector. General Gavin, who had been in and out of the regimental command post all day long, could give Colonel Ekman only one rifle company and a battery of groundmount .50 caliber machine guns for help on the morrow.
- When 22 December dawned the XVIII Airborne Corps still was engaged in maneuvering to create a solid barrier along its 45-mile front against the Germans heading for the Meuse. Things were not going too well. The St. Vith salient had been dealt heavy blows and the lines there were crumbling. The enemy had pushed as far along the Ourthe River valley as Hotton and was gathering to the west of that river. General Hobbs, whose 30th Division was holding the corps north flank, felt that his sector now was secure although he knew that enemy reinforcements had crossed the Amblève. But he was concerned lest the Germans bring off a successful eccentric attack north of Trois Ponts which would separate the 30th Division from the 82d Airborne. This he told General Ridgway in a telephone conversation on the morning of the 22d, but Ridgway gave him Gavin's assurance that the paratroopers would hold, that nothing would get through to the west. To the corps commander the priority project in this sector remained that of eliminating the La Gleize-Stoumont pocket as rapidly and as thoroughly as possible, freeing the 30th Division and its attached armor for urgent work elsewhere.
- After a quiet night in most of the 30th Division lines the day came with intense cold, falling snow, and heavy overcast. Veteran troops by this time had learned that beautifully clear weather at the foxhole line often meant bad flying weather back at the air bases; but they knew too that close tactical support necessitated a decent modicum of clear weather. At 0806 the 30th Division air officer learned that his targets had been approved and that a fighter-bomber group would be on hand "weather permitting." At almost the same moment General Hobbs got the word that he could expect no help from the air. The resumption of the attack to deflate the pocket would depend on ground troops and guns, most of all guns. The artillery, however, was finding it difficult to get into good firing positions, and the American troops were so near the target towns as to require the nicest type of precision ranging. Prospects for the attackers seemed as discouraging as the weather.
- The plan of 22 December included the continuation of the drive to take La Gleize and Stoumont plus an attack to mop up the 1st SS Panzer Division relief detachment which had dug in north of the Amblève between Stavelot and Ster. This latter group was established on the nose of a ridge, from which its fire swept north, west, and south, and in surrounding woods. Two rifle companies of the 3d Battalion, 117th Infantry, working from the north, and the rifle company of the 120th Infantry attached to Task Force Lovelady, attacking from the west, found every move checked by mortars, Werfers, and bullet fire. Finally a rifle company was sent from Stavelot to hit the Germans in the rear. Thereafter the Americans were able to converge on the ridge, but as day ended pockets of the enemy still remained in the woods. During the day other enemy troops had crossed the Amblève and for a time isolated one of Lovelady's roadblocks north of Trois Ponts.1 But at no time on the 22d did organized units of the relieving force of the 1st SS Panzer Division succeed in breaking through to Peiper in La Gleize.
- At the west end of the Peiper pocket the night of 21 December had witnessed the final reduction of the sanatorium, opening the way for a direct attack on Stoumont by Task Force Harrison. Early that evening an officer of the 740th Tank Battalion had crawled into the enemy lines, scouting for a way to bring tanks around to the northwest of the building. Returning to his own lines he called for volunteers to build a ramp over the fill, or embankment, which had barred direct assault earlier in the fight. The ramp, constructed from shell castings, worked, and by midnight four Shermans were firing into the sanatorium. Shortly thereafter the Germans left the place. When the Americans entered the basement, they found that none of the civilian inhabitants had been killed or injured.
- General Harrison felt that it would be possible to bring in his attached armor and the 3d Battalion, 119th Infantry, from the north, now that the enemy flanking position on the high ground was gone. He set up this attack to precede the final assault from the west. Patrols, groping their way through the morning snowstorm, found Stoumont strangely quiet, but Harrison was well aware that the 119th had been seriously weakened and went ahead with plans for pounding the town with artillery preparatory to the all-out infantry-armor push he had ordered for 1300. At noon the storm was beginning to break and visibility promised to improve, a necessity if the artillery was to give support by fire so close to the American lines. At 1320 the guns opened the fifteen-minute drum fire intended to pave the way for the northern assault. Almost at once shells began to explode in the American assembly areas, and there was nothing to do but call off the barrage. The 3d Battalion and the tanks nevertheless started forward. By 1410 they were at the edge of Stoumont, and the 1st Battalion had started in from the west.
- No German fire was received-the occupants of Stoumont were wounded Germans and Americans left in the houses. Peiper had withdrawn his last forces in Stoumont during the night and early morning with the intention of fighting a last-ditch action at La Gleize where the ground permitted an easier all-round defense. La Gleize, be it added, lay closer to the area where the remainder of the 1st SS Panzer Division had assembled. But it seems likely, as Peiper himself later said, that Peiper's decision to abandon the western town had been prompted to great degree by the threat, posed by the 2d Battalion, 119th Infantry, on 21 December, to the line of communications linking Stoumont and La Gleize. Despite General Hobbs's insistence that Task Force Harrison push on promptly to La Gleize the advance was halted just east of the recaptured town. It was now late in the day, and patrols had discovered German tanks operating as rear guard on the road to La Gleize.
- Elsewhere on the northern edge of the Peiper pocket the status quo had obtained through most of the day. A little after noon Task Force McGeorge, blocked on the valley road east of La Gleize, saw a column of German tanks and infantry move out to the north along the ridge road on the opposite side of the valley, the same route McGeorge's column had been forced to abandon the day before. This reconnaissance, for it seems to have been no more, was driven off by a few artillery concentrations. Later in the day Task Force McGeorge made a pass at the block barring the river road in the bend but lost its two lead tanks. Colonel Johnson of the 117th Infantry, commanding in this sector, advised General Hobbs that tanks could not get past the bend and into La Gleize, that foot soldiers would have to do the job.
- To the south along the Salm River line the 1st SS Panzer Division made a number of attempts on 22 December to seize a bridge, build a bridge, or in some manner gain a crossing. The 505th Parachute Infantry had little trouble in wiping out the few small detachments that actually made it across, but with so much enemy activity apparent on the east bank the 505th anticipated momentarily the launching of a full-scale assault. Mohnke, it appears, was trying to do too much with too little and so dissipated his limited strength that a forthright blow was not struck at any one point during the 22d. The strongest effort came late in the evening when two of his companies tried to seize the bridge at Grand Halleux; this bridge was blown when the leading Germans actually were on the span. On the whole the day had gone as badly for the 1st SS Panzer Division as for Peiper. It is true that few of the American riflemen had had German infantry in their sights, but the artillery supporting the 30th Division and 505th by interdiction fire had taken heavy toll in the enemy assembly areas and on the roads, as later attested by the Germans themselves.
- Priess, the I SS Panzer Corps commander, had reasoned with the Sixth Panzer Army staff that Peiper should be given a chance to break out to the east while his force still was reasonably intact. The higher German commands, all the way up to OKW, remained convinced on 22 December that despite the growing strength of the Americans on the north flank the build-up there would not reach dangerous proportions before their own armored columns had reached and crossed the Meuse. Peiper, therefore, had to hold until such time as reinforcement and resupply could once again set his kampfgruppe on the way west.
- During the night of 22 December twenty Luftwaffe planes carrying gasoline and ammunition flew to the trapped force. Probably the pilots had been briefed on the assumption that Peiper still held Stoumont, for many of the gasoline containers parachuted into American hands there. Peiper certainly was helped little by this minor and mistaken effort. On this occasion, as it turned out, the American air-warning net worked a bit too well. Both the 30th Division and the 82d Airborne were placed on alert against an airborne attack (although General Hobbs avowed that such an attack made little sense in this heavily forested and broken country). The numerous antiaircraft artillery batteries backing up the divisions stood to their guns all night long, and the infantry were given little sleep as rumors ran wild of parachutists sighted hither and yon.
- Interrogation of prisoners and artillery observer reports had indicated that the Germans were moving troops into the sector south of Malmédy reviving the earlier American concern that a hard blow might be dealt there at the 30th Division. As a result General Hobbs was able to hold onto all the reinforcements which had accumulated to the 30th, as well as CCB, 3d Armored Division. The Malmédy threat seems to have been raised by a few troops of the 3d Parachute Division, who had moved west of Waimes, and by rumors rife in the German camp that the 12th SS Panzer Division (held up by the Sixth Army attempt to seize the Elsenborn ridge) was moving in to support the 1st SS Panzer Division. Actually the 23d passed quietly in the Malmédy-Stavelot sector. Opposite the 505th Parachute Infantry the enemy contented himself with sporadic firing across the river. Mohnke, it would appear, lacked the strength needed for resumption of the attack to free Peiper. At least his corps commander, Priess, asked the II SS Panzer Corps to deflect the 9th SS Panzer Division, coming forward on the left, and throw it in at Stavelot. This request was denied.
- Major action on 23 December did flare up at La Gleize and along the north bank of the Amblève, where a part of the 1st SS Panzer Division relief force still maintained a foothold. In the latter sector six American rifle companies were assembled to clear out the woods and restore the cut made by the enemy on the road between Trois Ponts and Stavelot. Regrouping in the heavy woods took nearly all day and was marked by some sharp clashes. At Petit Coo, close by Stavelot, S/Sgt. Paul Bolden and T/Sgt. Russell N. Snoad decided to attack a house from which the Germans were firing. While his companion fired to cover him, Bolden rushed the door, tossed in a pair of hand grenades, then went in firing his Tommy gun. Bolden killed twenty of the enemy, then withdrew. A blast of fire killed Bolden's comrade and wounded the sergeant, but he dashed back into the house, killing fifteen more of the enemy. (Bolden later received the Medal of Honor and Snoad was awarded the DSC posthumously.)
- As for La Gleize the story once again was one of frustration and failure. Most of Peiper's troops were driven to the cellars of the town by the incessant shellfire, increasing in the afternoon as the American attack brought forward observers closer to the target, and made even more effective by the new POZIT fuze which the 113th Field Artillery was using. But wherever and whenever the attacking tanks and infantry tried to move along the roads and trails winding up the ridge nose to La Gleize, they encountered mine plots swept by direct fire from deeply dug in tanks and antitank guns. Progress then was slow; the leading American tank would be knocked out or burned by a direct hit with armor-piercing ammunition, eventually the infantry would work around and destroy or neutralize the German weapon, the engineers would remove the mine field, and the advance would continue.
- Harrison decided that a flanking move through the woods to the north might work and in the afternoon elements of the American rifle companies reached the edge of La Gleize, only to come under machine gun and 20-mm. fire from streets and houses. General Harrison's main worry was the heavy German tanks gathered in the center of the town. Would they break out in a desperate counterattack against the lighter and more vulnerable Shermans? Would they slip through the net and bludgeon their way to the Amblève? To deal with the tanks, Allied planes were promised for a strike at the town square. They came as promised but hit Malmédy instead of La Gleize, their bombs burying a number of civilians in one of the hotel buildings before the strike could be called off.
- Peiper had yet to be driven out of La Gleize; the 1st SS Panzer Division bridgehead force north of the Amblève (which had cut off a part of Task Force Lovelady) still had to be liquidated. But this fight in the bend of the Amblève had become anticlimactic, dwarfed by far more important operations elsewhere on the northern shoulder of the Ardennes salient. Through the early evening of the 23d the telephone wires connecting the headquarters of the First Army, the XVIII Airborne Corps, and the 30th Division were busy: the First Army insisting that Hobbs must release CCB, 3d Armored, for immediate return to its hard-pressed division; the 30th Division commander protesting that the loss of the combat command would leave La Gleize open on two sides and make it impossible to mop up the bridgehead force; General Ridgway for his part essaying on the scene the role of the honest broker. The final decision was favorable to Hobbs: General Boudinot, the CCB commander, would start his trains moving but at least two-thirds of the command would be left for the final tough fight envisaged for the coming morning.
- The net had been drawn tight around Peiper, as tight as it could be drawn in this complex of woods and hills. But on the morning of the 24th most of the quarry had flown. Late the previous afternoon Mohnke had radioed Peiper permission to break out. Peiper knew that he could not take his vehicles or his wounded, that the escape would have to be made at night and on foot. Leaving a rear guard to demolish the tanks, trucks, and guns, Peiper and some eight hundred of his command started at 0100 in single file through the woods fringing La Gleize on the south, crossed the river, and as day broke took cover among the densely wooded hills north of Trois Ponts. On the night of the 24th Peiper's force crossed the Salm, briefly engaging troops of the 82d Airborne Division in a brisk exchange of fire, and on Christmas morning rejoined the 1st SS Panzer Division south of Stavelot.
- The 30th Division commander, under pressure from corps and army to finish the job at La Gleize and release Boudinot's armor, had made no promises that La Gleize would fall on the 24th but had urged his unit commanders to get the attack rolling early and finish off the defenders. To tired troops who had expected a desperate last stand it must have been gratifying to find the town open for the taking. They liberated about 170 Americans, most of whom had been captured at Stoumont on 19 December. The prisoners they took, nearly all wounded, numbered 300. Twenty-eight tanks, 70 half-tracks, and 25 artillery pieces were found in the town. This booty, plus the German tanks and guns destroyed earlier in the operation, accounted for nearly the entire heavy equipment of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment. Although those of Peiper's troops who had escaped were back in the line with the reconstituted 1st SS Panzer Division, that elite unit could no longer be considered an armored division.
- In an epilogue to the taking of La Gleize, foot troops of the 117th and 120th Infantry Regiments began the slow work of beating the woods in the triangle formed by the Salm and the Amblève where a part of the 1st SS Panzer Division relief force continued to hold out. In the woods north of La Gleize some fifty Germans who apparently had not received the orders to withdraw tried to fight it out. All were killed. What German strength had seeped into this appendix at the rivers no one knew. Rumors of twenty-five enemy tanks hiding in the road cuts north of Trois Ponts had the result of delaying the relief of CCB of the 3d Armored Division. That some armored vehicles had crossed to the north bank of the Amblève by improvised bridging seems certain, but most succeeded in escaping to the south. By the 26th the last Germans had been captured, killed, or driven off from the north bank of the Amblève. The satisfaction which the 30th Division could take in giving the quietus to Kampfgruppe Peiper was alloyed by untoward events at Malmédy on the 24th and 25th. On these days American planes bombed the 120th Infantry (at least thirty-seven Americans lost their lives on the first day), killed a considerable number of civilians, and set the town afire. A mass flight started by the population was halted only with great difficulty.2
The 3d Armored Division Is Checked, 21-23 December
- Still minus two of its combat commands the 3d Armored Division was prepared, on the morning of 21 December, to retake Samrée, the communications and supply center on the middle route of the 3d Armored (-) advance which had been seized by the enemy the previous afternoon. (Map VII) With this intent General Rose sent a part of his very small reserve to reinforce the center task force (now Task Force Orr) north of the village of Dochamps. During the previous night Rose had asked General Ridgway for respite from his main mission, that is, the advance to the Liège-Bastogne highway and an attempt to re-establish contact with the VIII Corps, until the situation at Samrée could be cleared up. At 0815, however, Rose assured Ridgway that the 3d Armored was moving once again to accomplish its major mission. Less than a half-hour later German tanks were discovered moving toward Hotton, where the rear command post and installations of the 3d Armored Division were located. The immediate result of this threat was to nullify the reinforcement readied for dispatch from Soy, where the combat reserve held by Colonel Howie was located, to the Samrée sector.
- General Krueger, the LVIII Panzer Corps commander, had reason to congratulate himself at the close of the 20th for the decision to back away from the Ourthe River line northwest of Bastogne. In turning north his corps had crossed the east-west segment of that river without trouble, had discovered large stocks of gasoline at Samrée, and had met so little opposition as to indicate a general retrograde move on the part of the Americans. Krueger determined to strike while the iron was hot, drive northwest at top speed to the bridgehead town of Hotton, recross the Ourthe River at that point, and concentrate his corps on the far bank before the Americans could establish a blocking line. Thus far Krueger's advance guard had fought only outpost or patrol actions with the 3d Armored Division and there was little reason, as Krueger saw it, to anticipate much resistance during the next twenty-four hours. He did know, from radio messages intercepted by OB WEST, that one combat command of the 3d Armored Division had moved into the Werbomont area on 19 December.
- After the seizure of Samrée, Krueger dispatched an armored task force (Kampfgruppe Bayer) from the 116th Panzer Division to gain control of the road between Soy and Hotton preliminary to seizure of the latter bridgehead town. During the night of 20 December this task force marched northwest along a secondary route parallel to and between the roads on which Task Force Hogan and Task Force Orr had made their advance during the day. Just at daybreak members of an American patrol operating out of the Combat Command Reserve headquarters at Soy were fired upon. They reported that they "thought" they had heard German voices. This was the first evidence that the enemy had penetrated to the 3d Armored rear. The next message from Soy to reach the division command post at Erezée came at 0850: "many enemy tanks" had debouched astride the Soy-Hotton road and were heading west toward Hotton. Actually the attack at Hotton had already begun.
- The town of Hotton (about ten miles northwest of La Roche) is built astride the main channel of the Ourthe at a point where the valley widens. Here a series of roads converge to cross the river and proceed on the west bank to the more important junction center at Marche from which roads radiate in all directions. In the center of Hotton the river was spanned at this time by a class 70 two-way wooden bridge. In the buildings east of the river were installed about two hundred men from the service detachments of the division and CCR headquarters. There were, in addition, one light and one medium tank. On the west bank at the bridge exit a platoon of the 51st Engineer Battalion (Capt. Preston C. Hodges) was deployed, reinforced by two 40-mm. antitank guns, a 37-mm. antitank gun, and a Sherman tank. A squad of engineers guarded a footbridge at Hampteau, two thousand yards south of the At dawn mortar and small arms fire suddenly gave notice of the enemy. Despite casualties and confusion a defense was hastily set up by the executive officer of the 23d Armored Engineer Battalion (Maj. Jack W. Fickessen), engineer trucks were driven out to block the roads, and bazookas and machine guns were distributed for a close-in defense of the town. Taking advantage of the woods that came right up to the eastern edge of Hotton, four or five enemy tanks rumbled forward to lead the assault. The two American tanks east of the river were knocked out at once; but on the opposite bank a 90-mm. tank destroyer "appeared from nowhere," got a direct hit on a Panther and perhaps a second German as well. The enemy infantry were able to take about half the buildings on the near bank but were checked short of the bridge by the rifles, bazookas, and machine guns in the hands of men on both banks of the river. (A "hailstorm of fire," say the Germans.) The engineer squad guarding the footbridge south of Hotton was overrun, apparently by Germans wearing American uniforms, but fortunately this bridge could bear no vehicles.
- By the middle of the morning the defenders, now recovered from their initial surprise, were holding their own and the vehicles in the town were evacuated to the north along with most of the medical personnel and ambulances. Two or three more German tanks were destroyed by bazookas (one was even chalked up to the account of the 37-mm. antitank gun). For some reason the enemy had not thrown all of his tanks into the battle at once, a fortunate circumstance. By 1400 the tanks still in town joined those on the hill east of Hotton against the counterattack which Colonel Howze had launched along the Soy road. About this time Howze was able to get a small group of tanks and infantry around to the north of the attackers and into Hotton, redressing the balance somewhat. As yet it was impossible to bring any friendly artillery to bear, and the foot troops continued to rely largely on their own weapons for the rest of the day.
- General Rose, as already indicated, had at his immediate disposal a very limited reserve. Although he had ordered Howze to counterattack with the entire force of the Combat Command Reserve it became apparent as day wore on that this would be insufficient. The ground over which the counterattack from Soy had to move gave every advantage to the Germans. Maneuver was restricted by the cuts through which ran the Hotton road, by a stream bordering the road on the south, and by the German position atop the nose of the hill between the two towns which gave observation and fire over the barren ground to the north. Since General Rose had been promised the use of a battalion from the 517th Parachute Infantry, he decided to hold up the drive from Soy until it arrived. Also it appeared that the defenders of Hotton would shortly be reinforced by part of the leading RCT of the 84th Infantry Division, moving via Marche under orders from Ridgway to secure the Ourthe River line south of Hotton.
- This help was slow in coming. As early as 0900 the 51st Engineer Battalion commander had asked the 84th to send aid to Hotton but the staff of the latter seem to have taken rather skeptically reports of the enemy strength involved. Two platoons finally arrived in Hotton late in the afternoon but by this time the German infantry were leaving the town and loading into their half-tracks as if the fight were over. Through the night American mortars in Hotton laid down a defensive barrage of illuminating shell and high explosives, but the enemy made no move to return to the assault.
- The commander of the 116th Panzer Division, as well as General Manteuffel, would later pay tribute to "the bravery of the American engineers" at Hotton. They had reason for this acknowledgment (in which they could have included signal and service troops, unknown gun and tank crews) because the failure to secure the Hotton bridge was decisive in the future history of the LVIII Panzer Corps. Credit must also go to the Combat Command Reserve at Soy whose fire, as the enemy acknowledged, caught Kampfgruppe Bayer in the flank and checkmated its single-minded employment against Hotton. Finally, a share in the successful defense of the Hotton bridge should be assigned those elements of the three 3d Armored task forces which, on the 21st, had engaged the bulk of the 116th Panzer Division and 560th Volks Grenadier Division and prevented a wholesale advance into the Hotton sector.
- Krueger's original intention had been to risk a thrust for the Hotton bridge without regard to flank security. The armored task force moving on Hotton accordingly contained most of the forward combat elements of the 116th Panzer Regiment and 60th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. But the presence of American armor and infantry in the a between Soy and Dochamps, as this became apparent during the morning of 21 December, forced Krueger to face much of the strength of the two regiments to the east and northeast so as to form a protected corridor for the drive into Hotton.
- Through this corridor the 156th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, which had been in reserve south of Samrée, moved late in the afternoon to an assembly area around Beffe. At the base of the corridor, that is, around Dochamps, the 1128th Regiment of the 560th Volks Grenadier Division made an attack to widen the path northwest to the Ourthe crossing. Early in the day the grenadiers collided with Task Force Orr while the latter was trying to eradicate the roadblock which barred the road up to Dochamps and Samrée. In a sharp action at a hairpin turn in the road at the base of the Dochamps hill the German infantry infiltrated close enough to bazooka three tanks but themselves took a beating from the American artillery. Twice during the day Orr had to order a withdrawal, the last bringing the task force to Amonines, three miles southeast of Soy. Here on a slight rise overlooking the Aisne valley road Orr's column formed a perimeter defense for the night.
- Task Force Hogan, checked the previous day in the winding Ourthe valley southeast of La Roche, came under attack early on the 21st by small enemy groups striking out from the roadblock. The LVIII Panzer Corps commander had no intention of taking La Roche unless it could be occupied without a fight and had committed only a fraction of the 60th Panzer Grenadier Regiment to throw out a screen here. Later in the day part of the Reconnaissance Battalion, 116th Panzer Division, arrived from Houffalize and started running combat patrols through the woods in front of La Roche. Hogan, under orders to hold up his own advance until Orr could take Samrée, finally received a change in orders about 1300 which directed his task force to fall back on Amonines. It was crystal clear by this hour that there could be no advance to Samrée. Hogan's column moved north, skirmishing with small German forces along the way, but at twilight ran into machine gun fire and lost its lead tank to a German bazooka just at the edge of the hamlet of Beffe. Without realizing the fact, the Americans had hit the assembly area of the 156th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. There was nothing for it at this time of day but to pull away. Task Force Hogan retired to the south and bivouacked on a hill near Marcouray. Although their plight was not immediately apparent, Hogan and his 400 men had been cut off from the rest of the 3d Armored Division.
- The eastern column, Task Force Kane, alone of the 3d Armored forces passed the morning of the 21st without enemy contact. As planned, Kane sent a detachment south to the important crossroads at Baraque de Fraiture, on the Vielsalm-Samrée route, to reinforce the mixed group of Americans already there and to take part in the final attack on Samrée. This detachment reached the crossroads in the middle of the afternoon and there met the 7th Armored Division cavalry which had come in from Vielsalm the previous evening. Caught up in the fight already started at the crossroads, the tanks and armored cars were unable to proceed to Samrée. The remaining troops of Task Force Kane received orders during the afternoon to move on Dochamps as part of a projected concentric maneuver to retake Samrée and did advance about a mile south of Grandménil before darkness closed in.
- The 3d Armored Division had met a superior force on the 21st, had failed to retake Samrée, had been forced to use its reserves in a fight to reopen the road to Hotton, and had seen its western and center task forces pushed back. But there were some reasons to expect an improvement in what had been a deteriorating situation. The Hotton bridge had been held and there was word that the 84th Infantry Division would lend a hand. The 3d Armored Division was going to get back its own CCA, although under a corps prohibition against using it save in dire circumstances, and during the night of 21 December CCA did close north of Manhay. At least a battalion of the 517th Parachute Infantry was on its way to reinforce the Combat Command Reserve at Soy. The eastern flank had been more or less secured by contact made between Task Force Kane and the 82d Airborne Division during the day. All this was heartening, but there remained the worry as to what the full enemy strength and intentions might be.
- Operations maps posted on the night of the 21st in the bunkers housing the Wehrmachtfuehrungsstab showed the LVIII Panzer Corps as the most advanced unit of all the German forces driving west, with its 116th Panzer Division at Hotton, only twenty air-line miles from the Meuse River. But the fight at Hotton, despite what the operations map might show, had convinced the LVIII Panzer Corps commander that, instead of finding a quick and easy way to cross the Ourthe by his shift to the northwest, he stood an excellent chance of running his corps into a cul-de-sac. Unwilling to continue down what might turn into a blind alley, if the Americans continued to defend Hotton as staunchly as they had during the day, General Krueger revised his plans. His southern neighbor, Lauchert's 2d Panzer Division, was reported to have seized a bridge across the western arm of the Ourthe and might be expected to move so rapidly into the Marche sector, on the west side of the main channel, that the American barrier line which Krueger had feared at the Ourthe could not be placed in operation. Krueger, therefore, ordered the 116th Panzer Division to disengage on the Soy-Hotton road, pull back as rapidly as possible to the south, and cross the Ourthe at La Roche. This town had been abandoned by the Americans during the afternoon when the 7th Armored Division trains, threatened with encirclement, crossed the river and moved to Marche, leaving only some pickets to guard the roadblocks at the various bridges.
- Krueger intended to use the 560th Volks Grenadier Division to continue the attack northwest, aiming for the Ourthe crossings at Han north of Hotton. At twilight the leading elements of the 2d SS Panzer Division were in position on the right flank of the 560th. This fresh division, when assembled, was to pass to the LVIII Panzer Corps and could be used to cover the exposed eastern flank-a source of continuous concern to the corps commander. General Krueger, an experienced and intelligent officer, may not have been as hopeful of success as his plans for 22 December would indicate. He records that his command had suffered very heavy casualties during the fighting of the 21st, that troop morale was flagging, that fatigue was beginning to tell, and that, for the first time, the advance had begun to decelerate.
- While Krueger laid plans for shifting the LVIII Panzer Corps armor to the west bank of the Ourthe, his opponent, General Ridgway, was issuing orders designed to strengthen and extend the XVIII Airborne Corps right wing west of the Ourthe. At dawn of the 22d, CCA of the 3d Armored Division had just completed its move to rejoin General Rose when the corps commander ordered Rose to throw out a screen on the west bank between La Roche and St. Hubert as cover for the American concentration in process around Marche. By noon a task force from CCA was en route to carry out this mission. Of the reinforcement that General Rose had counted on only one tank battalion and one company of armored infantry were left. The 3d Armored Division would have to continue the battle to establish a holding position with forces hardly stronger than those which had been driven back on the 21st. The final orders for the day were "counterattack": first, to drive the enemy out of the Soy-Hotton sector, second, to retake the hill mass at Dochamps-Samrée in the center of the division zone. The job of dealing with German penetration between the Ourthe and the Aisne Rivers fell to CCR (and Task Force Hogan). For this Colonel Howze would get the battalion from the 517th Parachute Infantry as soon as it arrived. Those troops of CCA still in the division commander's hand (Task Force Richardson) would serve as backstop behind the two remaining task forces, Orr and Kane, which were charged with the capture of Dochamps.
- Task Force Orr was at the vortex of the action on the 22d, standing as it did in the path of the main movement by the 560th Volks Grenadier Division. The 116th Panzer Division, on the German left, would have to disengage its forward units during the coming night, and in order to effect the relief the 560th had to be brought forward. This German advance, begun by two regiments abreast, started at daylight, its object the command of the Erezée-Soy-Hotton road. Meanwhile Colonel Orr led his counterattack force out of Amonines, heading down the Aisne valley road for Dochamps. One company of armored infantry had been left to defend the base at Amonines. The detachment with Orr consisted of a company of armored infantry plus three medium and three light tanks.
- About 0900 the small American column saw an enemy column coming up the road from Dochamps, and each halted to size up the other. Task Force Orr's opponent was the 1128th Regiment which, though reduced to a combat strength of seven hundred, was the strongest unit in the 560th Volks Grenadier Division. As it happened a part of the German force had been pinned down by an attack against flank and rear thrown in by Task Force Kane, but this intelligence was unknown to Orr. The German commander disengaged from Kane, put in his engineer battalion to hold Dochamps, then moved to the ridge east of the valley road and began the fire fight. Shortly after noon Orr's scouts on the ridge west of the valley reported more German troops moving northwest. This looked like a trap of some sort and Orr withdrew his column to the starting point on the crest at Amonines, where he was reinforced by infantry and tank destroyers. The 1128th did not follow in force (Task Force Kane still threatened from the east) but was content to fire smoke shells onto the American position and probe with patrols. The troops in field gray seen moving west of the valley were the 1129th Regiment en route to Beffe to relieve the 116th Panzer Division. They paid no attention to Task Force Orr.
- Task Force Kane, easternmost of the 3d Armored detachments, obviously was playing an important part in delaying the German advance toward Amonines. The attack toward Dochamps, started the previous afternoon and resumed on the 22d, was hampered by the necessity of keeping a blocking force at the Manhay junction and reinforcing the scratch defense farther south at the Baraque de Fraiture crossroads. Despite the fact that Task Force Kane was fighting with its left arm tied down, by noon the drive toward Dochamps reached the village of Lamorménil. During these morning hours the American tanks proved too much for the German infantry; it is probable that an entire battalion of the 1128th was engaged and siphoned away from the attack against Orr.
- The terrain beyond Lamorménil, however, was distinctly adverse to armored tactics. A single road wound southward through a narrow semiwooded valley until, about eight hundred yards east of Dochamps, it climbed abruptly up the east face of a bare hill to reach the village. As soon as Kane's tanks reached the foot of the hill German antitank guns started to work. Maneuver on the soft earth flanking the road promised that the tanks would bog down; attack straight along the road was suicidal. After futile attempts at counterbattery against the enemy gunners the tanks withdrew to the north. Kane's column had been short of infantry, and Dochamps presented a problem to which the answer was infantry.
- Just after dark there appeared in the American bivouac six trucks carrying two officers and eighty men belonging to the 1st Battalion, 517th Parachute Infantry. Lost from its convoy the detachment had been passed around from headquarters to headquarters, finally ending up with Kane. The paratroopers were handed the job of taking Dochamps, this time by an attack from the north guiding on a narrow-gauge railway which approached the village. Twice the detachment moved forward, only to meet machine gun fire from front and flank. The second try ended when the Germans counterattacked from a hill northwest of the village. More than a handful of infantry would be required if the 3d Armored Division was to regain control of the Dochamps-Samrée heights.
- The story of Task Force Hogan on the 22d is quickly told. Cut off at Marcouray, Hogan received radio orders to try once more to break out northeast through Beffe. Little aid could be spared by the Americans in the north, but a small task force from CCA was organized to drive toward Hogan. There proved to be simply too many Germans between Beffe and the Soy-Hotton road. In any case, Hogan, who had been rushed into action with his tanks half full, was running out of gasoline. In early afternoon his column retired to Marcouray and sent out requests for fuel, surgical supplies, and reinforcements. All this while the enemy knew Hogan's exact whereabouts but paid him scant attention. When the 116th Panzer Division moved out on the night of 22 December, the commander of the 560th detailed some of his engineers to watch Hogan's laager.
- The armored German kampfgruppe astride the road between Soy and Hotton was content to remain on the defensive pending its withdrawal southward, but the German tanks and antitank guns ruled as "King of the Rock" on the crest overwatching the road. Grooved by the road, the first American attack from Soy toward Hotton slammed straight into direct fire and lost six medium and two light tanks. Cross-country maneuver by infantry was indicated. Long awaited, the 1st Battalion of the 517th Parachute Infantry and a company from the 643d Tank Destroyer Battalion arrived in Soy at twilight. Howze had expected to use the paratroopers in a daylight attack to reopen the Hotton road, but the division commander demanded an immediate commitment. Thrown into assault over strange ground, only half an hour after crawling out of their trucks, the paratroopers made little headway against six German self-propelled guns and clusters of machine gun nests. By 2000 the attack west from Soy was stopped dead still.
- An alarm from Hotton, suddenly assailed after a day of quiet, forced a second try. This time Howze ordered two of the paratroop platoons, tank supported, to circle around and into Hotton from the north, intending a squeeze play by attack in the dark from both Soy and Hotton. But neither claw was able to grip the enemy holding the core high ground. So the night ended. During its course the 560th Volks Grenadier Division had made a smooth and unperceived relief of the 116th Panzer Division. At dawn the grenadiers held an irregular front reaching from the Ourthe River east to the Baraque de Fraiture crossroads athwart the Liège-Bastogne highway. This sector from river to highway now formed the center of the LVIII Panzer Corps with the 2d SS Panzer Division moving in on the east and the 116th Panzer Division circling to form the western wing beyond the Ourthe.
- Events of the 22d had shown a movement of large German forces to the west, consequent to the fall of St. Vith, and brought the threat-epitomized by the appearance of the 2d SS Panzer Division-of a large-scale buildup for an attack to push through the XVIII Airborne Corps in a climactic, dramatic bid for Spa and Liège. The orders issued by General Ridgway on the night of 22 December, it will be remembered, were a detailed expression of the larger Allied plan to halt and then amputate the German forces swelling the western end of the salient, orders to hold the line or win more favorable positions while the VII Corps assembled on the right flank and a counterattack to regain St. Vith formed on the left.
- Between the Ourthe River and the Liège-Bastogne road the single combat command of the 3d Armored Division, now reinforced, had the mission on the 23d of building a forward line along the Salmchâteau-La Roche road as a breakwater against the anticipated German surge to the north. From the head of the enemy salient, between Soy and Hotton, to the Salmchâteau-La Roche road was a distance of eleven miles. Attempts to get this counterattack moving in the night battles near Hotton and Dochamps had failed. Strength to do the job had increased somewhat but far from enough to guarantee success. With the main force of CCA west of the Ourthe and CCB still mopping up in Kampfgruppe Peiper's stronghold, General Rose had available three tank battalions and four armored infantry companies of his own division. Newly arrived reinforcements had swelled the rifle contingent by two battalions, the 1st Battalion of the 517th Parachute Infantry and the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion. Total artillery support consisted of the 105-mm. self-propelled howitzers belonging to the 54th and 83d Armored Field Artillery Battalions, plus three self-propelled 155-mm. guns from the 991st Field Artillery Battalion-any unbalance of force favorable to the Germans hardly would be redressed by the weight of American gun metal. In conference on the morning of the 23d the commanders of the XVIII Airborne and VII Corps agreed that Rose needed more troops. But the one battalion of the 75th Infantry Division assigned could not reach the scene for some hours.
- The story of the 23d is one of local counterattacks to hold or restore existing positions against an enemy who retained the initiative and maintained the momentum of the attack rolling northward. The critical point would be the Baraque de Fraiture crossroads at the boundary between the 3d Armored Division and the 82d Airborne Division, a point marking the thrust line along which the 2d SS Panzer Division intended to proceed north. The action at this road junction, "Parker's Crossroads," requires independent treatment. It has bearing at this point because the small combat reserve available to the 3d Armored Division would be drained away here and because American operations set in train to east and west would be conditioned by the shaky character of the 3d Armored left flank.
- In front of Dochamps Task Force Kane resumed the attack broken off in the early morning. German mortars lobbing down 81-mm. and l20-mm. shells stopped the infantry on the slopes, and direct fire knocked out an entire platoon of Sherman tanks when they tried to ascend the hill road. The plain fact was that Kane lacked the men, tanks, and guns to take Dochamps. But this was not all. During the day a part of the task force had to be diverted to man roadblocks along the valley north to Grandménil which was both Kane's flank and line of communications. In the afternoon the 1130th Regiment (possibly reduced to battalion strength) and an assault gun platoon moved in from the west to cut the Dochamps-Grandménil road. Fighting at Freyneux and Lamorménil was touch and go, but the enemy suffered badly and failed to gain the road. This maneuver from the west had been given top priority by the 560th Volks Grenadier Division whose command was as anxious to erase the Dochamps salient as General Rose was to pinch out the Hotton bulge.
- Sometime after dark the Germans hit the valley route again, but this time farther north and from the opposite side. Five light tanks and a squad of riflemen posted at Odeigne were set upon by enemy infantry who lighted their targets by flares and moved in with self-propelled 40-mm. guns to make the kill. The Americans held their ground until nearly surrounded, then-when so ordered-withdrew. This foray came from the Baraque de Fraiture crossroads sector, where the 2d SS Panzer Division finally had broken through, and was made by elements of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Regiment moving with much difficulty along the narrow forest trails south of Odeigne. Now Task Force Kane would have to battle to hold its narrow corridor against an enemy closing in from both flanks and circling to the rear.
- In the center sector, at Amonines, Task Force Orr waited for CCR to wipe out the enemy between Soy and Hotton, then turn south in an attack with the two forces abreast. With the exception of the maneuver to clear the Americans out of the territory north of Dochamps described earlier, the 560th Volks Grenadier Division was in no hurry to attack those American positions where the defenders seemed willing and able to put up a stiff fight. After all, the German corps commander had promised the support of fresh assault troops. Therefore, although the Germans pressed in around Amonines they made no move to tackle Task Force Orr.
- The vise created the night before to close on the German hill positions astride the Soy-Hotton road compressed very slowly on the 23d, nor did the jaws meet. Radio communication between the two American assault forces failed to function in the morning, the Hotton group was forced to spend much of the day mopping up the enemy who had seeped into the village during the night battle, and both the eastern and western groups-when the attack finally started moving-were too weak to make headway against German tanks and antitank guns firing from hull defilade on the high ground. Four tanks from the Soy force were knocked out in five minutes; there was little point in courting such losses and in any case there was only a single tank still operating so the battle was left to the infantry.
- Lacking the numbers needed to envelope the German position, the infantry turned to a fire fight that lasted well into the night. Pfc. Melvin Biddle, a paratrooper, tried to carry the fight to the enemy by advancing in front of his own troops to throw grenades and pick off the enemy infantry with his rifle. (Later he was awarded the Medal of Honor.) But there was no apparent diminution in the enemy firepower and toward dawn the fight dwindled away. The rifle battalion promised from the 75th Infantry Division had not arrived.
- Task Force Hogan, out of gasoline and immobile in its ridge road laager at Marcouray, was not hard pressed by the encircling German pickets. Enemy parlementaires appeared during the afternoon with a demand for immediate surrender but were politely told that if they wanted Marcouray they could come and take it. To underline the isolation of the American force, a detachment of enemy infantry started an assault; this promptly was blasted by slugs pouring from the multiple .50-caliber machine guns carried by a half-track section of the 486th Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion.
- Hogan had accompanied his radio report of the German surrender demand with a request for "maximum support." CCR was having its hands more than full in its own backyard on the 23d, and the Germans obviously could not be left to one side while a relief party went to aid Hogan. The immediate question then was how to supply the task force and keep it in being until the tactical situation improved. The 54th Armored Field Artillery Battalion was near enough to Marcouray for an attempt to shoot medical supplies into Hogan's lines. The gunners loaded howitzer shells with medical packets, using the same technique as with propaganda leaflets, but the supplies were so damaged on impact as to be worthless. Resupply by airdrop went awry.3
- The position of the 3d Armored Division was measurably more difficult by the end of the 23d. As in the days just past General Rose had the promise of some addition to his command, but thus far piecemeal reinforcement had failed to keep pace with growing enemy strength, much less create a balance. Late in the afternoon the 3d Armored Division was assigned to the VII Corps, which had assumed the conduct of operations west of the Ourthe. Tactically the transfer made no marked change. Rose's command east of the Ourthe remained tied to the 82d Airborne Division and the XVIII Airborne Corps, sharing the same terrain compartment and facing the same major enemy maneuver. General Collins, the VII Corps commander, managed to provide some assistance to the 3d Armored, during the night attaching the 290th Infantry of the 75th Division and the 188th Field Artillery Battalion, whose 155-mm. howitzers would provide a weight and range sadly deficient in the artillery supporting Rose.
- Even so, the coming day promised to be grim. All plans for counterattack to regain the La Roche-Salmchâteau line were dismissed. The critical hour was at hand. General Rose told the CCR commander, "Impress on every individual that we must stay right here or there will be a war to be fought all over again, and we won't be here to fight it." The 560th Volks Grenadier Division could be held, had been held. Could the 3d Armored Division and the troops forming the western wing of the 82d Airborne Division throw back the fresh 2d SS Panzer Division, which had already punched a deep hole at the interdivision boundary, and hold other German forces believed to be moving into the battle zone?
The Fight at the Baraque de Fraiture Crossroads, 23 December
- Baraque de Fraiture is a handful of buildings at a crossroads south of the Belgian hamlet of Fraiture. There are many such crossroads in the Belgian Ardennes, but this crossing of ways stands on one of the highest summits of the Ardennes, a small shelf or tableland at an elevation of 652 meters (2,139 feet). The roads which here intersect are important: N15, the north-south road, is the through paved highway linking Liège and Bastogne; N28, the east-west road, is classed as secondary but is the most direct route for movement along the northern side of the Ourthe River, connecting, for example, St. Vith with La Roche. The crossroads and the few buildings are on cleared ground, but heavy woods form a crescent to the north and west, and a fringe of timber points at the junction from the southeast. In the main the area to south and east is completely barren. Here the ground descends, forming a glacis for the firing parapet around the crossroads.
- The tactical stature of the Baraque de Fraiture intersection was only partially derived from the configuration of roads and terrain. The manner in which the XVIII Airborne Corps had deployed its units in the initial attempt to draw a cordon along the northwest flank of the German advance was equally important. The mission assigned the three reconnaissance forces of the 3d Armored Division had been to close up to the Liège-Bastogne highway (with the crossroads as an objective), but it had not been carried out. East of the same highway the 82d Airborne had deployed, but with its weight and axis of advance away from the crossroads. Circumstance, notably the direction of the German attacks from 20 December onward, left the Baraque de Fraiture crossroads, and with it the inner flanks of the two divisions, to be defended on a strictly catch-as-catch-can basis.
- On the afternoon of 19 December Maj. Arthur C. Parker III, led three 105-mm. howitzers of the ill-starred 589th Field Artillery Battalion on the crossroads. The rest of the battalion had been cut off on the Schnee Eifel or ambushed during the withdrawal to St. Vith. Parker's mission was to establish one of the roadblocks that the 106th Division was preparing behind St. Vith. The next day, four half-tracks mounting multiple .50-caliber machine guns arrived from the 203d Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion, now moving in with the 7th Armored Division to establish the defensive lines around St. Vith. That night, for the first time, vehicles were heard moving about to the south along the road to Houffalize. (They probably belonged to the 560th Volks Grenadier Division, which that afternoon had taken part in the capture of Samrée.) Before dawn an 80-man enemy patrol came up the road from Houffalize, stumbled onto the American half-tracks, and was cut to pieces by streams of bullet fire. The dead and prisoners were grenadiers from the 560th, but among them was an officer from the 2d SS Panzer Division, scouting out the route of advance for his incoming division. In the afternoon D Troop of the 87th Cavalry Squadron, earlier dispatched by the 7th Armored to aid Task Force Orr in the projected counterattack at Samrée, came in to join the crossroads garrison. The troop leader had gone to Dochamps to meet Orr but, finding Germans in the town, disposed his men and vehicles under orders from General Hasbrouck that the crossroads must be held.
- Fog settling over the tableland in late afternoon gave the enemy a chance to probe the defense erected at the crossroads, but these jabs were no more than a warning of things to come. Meanwhile eleven tanks and a reconnaissance platoon arrived from Task Force Kane. The Americans spent the night of 21 December ringed around the crossroads, tanks alternating with armored cars in a stockade beyond which lay the rifle line. There was no sign of the enemy despite reports from all sorts of sources that German armor was gathering at Houffalize. Messengers coming in from the headquarters of the 3d Armored and 82d Airborne Divisions brought the same message, "Hold as long as you can."
- General Gavin was especially concerned by the threat to the 82d flank developing at the crossroads and went to talk the matter over with Rose at his command post in Manhay. The 3d Armored commander assured Gavin that his troops would continue to cover the western wing of the 82d Airborne. Gavin nevertheless acted at once to send the 2d Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry, from his division reserve to defend Fraiture, the latter on a ridge three-quarters of a mile northeast of Parker's crossroads position. In addition, having made a personal reconnaissance of the area, Gavin told Col. Charles E. Billingslea, the regimental commander, to dispatch a company of the glider infantry to reinforce the crossroads defenders. The 2d Battalion reached Fraiture before dawn on the 22d, and Capt. Junior R. Woodruff led F Company into the circle around the crossroads just before noon. This slight reinforcement was negated when Kane took away his tanks to stiffen the attack going on in front of Dochamps.
- The day of 22 December was spent in waiting. The 2d SS Panzer Division was having fuel troubles and moving in fits and starts. Mortar fire, laid on by the German reconnaissance screen left in this area as the 560th Volks Grenadier Division advanced northwest, from time to time interrupted movement in and out of the crossroads position. That was all. During the day the 3d Armored had received some reinforcements; these were parceled out across the front with a platoon from the 643d Tank Destroyer Battalion going to the crossroads. En route south from Manhay on the night of the 22d the tank destroyer detachment lost its way and halted some distance north of the crossroads. German infantry surprised and captured the platoon in the early morning. Already the 2d SS Panzer Division was moving to cut off and erase the crossroads garrison. Attack was near at hand, a fact made clear when an officer patrol from the 2d SS was captured at dawn in the woods near the American foxholes.
- At daylight, shelling increased at the crossroads as German mortar and gun crews went into position; yet the long awaited assault hung fire. The reason was lack of fuel. The 2d SS Panzer Division had only enough gasoline to move its Reconnaissance Battalion on the 21st and this had been committed near Vielsalm. All through the 22d the division waited in its final assembly areas. Toward evening enough fuel arrived to set the 4th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, some tanks, and an artillery battalion to moving. In the course of the night the grenadiers relieved the small reconnaissance detachments of the 560th, which had been watching the crossroads, and filed through the woods to set up a cordon west and north of Baraque de Fraiture. The commander of the 4th Panzer Grenadier had placed his 2d Battalion on the right of the main north-south highway, while his 3d Battalion deployed around and to the rear of the crossroads. In the dark hours before dawn of the 23d the first move came, as the 2d Battalion made a surprise attack on Fraiture and was driven back after a bitter fight with the paratroopers.4
- The surprise attack at Fraiture having aborted, the Germans settled down to hem in and soften up the crossroads defense. Radios that had been taken from captured American vehicles were used to jam the wave band on which the American forward observers were calling for fire. Whenever word flashed over the air that shells were on their way, enemy mortar crews dumped shells on American observation posts-easily discernible in the limited perimeter-making sensing virtually impossible. Late in the morning Lt. Col. Walter B. Richardson, who had a small force backing up Kane and Orr, sent more infantry and a platoon of tanks toward the crossroads. By this time the German grenadiers occupied the woods to the north in sufficient strength to halt the foot soldiers. The American tanks, impervious to small arms fire, reached the perimeter at about 1300, whereupon the rifle line pushed out to east and south to give the tankers a chance to maneuver.
- But at the crossroads time was running out. Shortly after 1600 the German artillery really got to work, for twenty minutes pummeling the area around the crossroads. Then, preceded by two panzer companies (perhaps the final assault had waited upon their appearance), the entire rifle strength of the 4th Panzer Grenadier Regiment closed upon the Americans. Outlined against new-fallen snow the line of defense was clearly visible to the panzers, and the Shermans had no maneuver room in which to back up the line. The fight was brief, moving to a foregone conclusion. At 1700 the commander of F Company asked Billingslea for permission to withdraw; but Gavin's order still was "hold at all costs." Within the next hour the Germans completed the reduction of the crossroads defense, sweeping up prisoners, armored cars, half-tracks, and the three howitzers. Three American tanks managed to escape under the veil of half-light. Earlier they had succeeded in spotting some panzers, who were firing flares, and knocked them out. A number of men escaped north through the woods; some got a break when a herd of cattle stampeded near the crossroads, providing a momentary screen. Company F of the 325th Glider Infantry suffered the most but stood its ground until Billingslea gave permission to come out. Ultimately forty-four of the original one hundred sixteen who had gone to the crossroads returned to their own lines. Drastically outnumbered and unable to compensate for weakness by maneuver, the defenders of the Baraque de Fraiture crossroads had succumbed, like so many small forces at other crossroads in the Ardennes.
- The dent made here at the boundary between the 3d Armored and the 82d Airborne Divisions could all too quickly develop into a ragged tear, parting the two and unraveling their inner flanks. The next intersection on the Liège road, at Manhay, was only four miles to the north. From Manhay the lateral road between Trois Ponts and Hotton would place the Germans on the deep flank and rear of both divisions. Generals Rose and Gavin reacted to this threat at once; so did General Ridgway. Order followed order, but there remained a paucity of means to implement the orders. The deficit in reserves was somewhat remedied by the troops of the 106th Division and the 7th Armored who, all day long, had been pouring through the lines of the 82d Airborne after the hard-fought battle of St. Vith.5 General Hoge, CCB, 9th Armored commander, had been told at noon to send his 14th Tank Battalion to bolster the right flank of the 82d. One tank company went to the Manhay crossroads; the rest moved into Malempré, two miles to the southeast and off the Liège highway. Coincident with the German attack at Baraque de Fraiture General Hoge received a torrent of reports and orders. By this time Hoge was not sure as to either his attachment or mission. He finally gathered that the Baraque de Fraiture crossroads had been lost and CCB was to join the defense already forming on the road to Manhay.
- As darkness settled and the enemy reformed to continue the attack beyond the crossroads, Maj. Olin F. Brewster formed a strongpoint at the north edge of a fringe of woods about 3,000 yards north of Baraque de Fraiture. There he placed Company C of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, which earlier had failed to break through from the north with Richardson's tanks, a platoon of armored infantry, and a tank platoon. With straggling tanks and infantry drifting in from the south and a platoon of tank destroyers sent in by General Hoge, Brewster's force grew. All through the night German infantry tried to filter past and on toward Manhay, but when morning came Brewster's command still stood between the 2d SS Panzer Division and Manhay. A new and critical phase of operations was about to open-the battle for the Manhay crossroads.
-  During the confused ebb and flow of battle on 22 December, Sgt. John Bueno and Cpl. Adam F. Burko of the division engineer battalion (105th Engineer Combat Battalion) took part in a fierce and successful attempt to recapture an American aid station and evacuate the wounded. After the platoon leader was killed, these two men inspired their comrades, led in the fight, and were largely responsible for the rescue of the wounded. Both were awarded the DSC.
-  The unfortunate and costly bombing raids on Malmédy were the result of tragic errors. This was acknowledged by the IX Bombardment Division but the Ninth Air Force and General Carl Spaatz at first refused to do so and referred to the "alleged" errors at Malmédy, a view corrected in Craven and Cate (eds.), Europe: ARGUMENT to V-E Day, p. 670. Royce L. Thompson has a quite complete study of these air strikes in his unpublished manuscript entitled Malmédy, Belgium, Mistaken Bombing, 23 and 25 December 1944 (1952), in OCMH files. Thompson's work is based on official Air Force records.
-  A very complete and instructive analysis of the failure to resupply Task Force Hogan by air is in Thompson's MS, Air Supply to Isolated Units, pp. 34-63.
-  The main actions of the 2d SS Panzer in this sector are developed as a part of Chapter XXIII.
-  The final withdrawal from St. Vith into the lines of the XVIII Airborne Corps is described at length in the following chapter.