The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge/Chapter XXIII
The Battle Between the Salm and the Ourthe 24 December-2 January
The Sixth Panzer Army had begun the Ardennes counteroffensive with two distinct missions in hand: the first, to cross the Meuse River between Liège and Huy as a prelude to the seizure of Antwerp; the second, to wheel a cordon of divisions onto a blocking line extending due east of Liège to cover the depth of the advancing army and to deny incoming Allied reinforcements the use of the highway complex southeast of Liège. Constricted by the American grip on the Elsenborn Ridge "door post" (as the German High Command called this position), the Sixth Panzer Army had bumped and jostled some of its divisions past Elsenborn and on toward the west, but had failed to achieve the momentum and maneuver room requisite to the assigned missions. The armored gallop for the Meuse had foundered on the north bank of the Amblève River when Peiper's mobile task force from the 1st SS Panzer Division had run squarely against the 30th Infantry Division. The 12th SS Panzer Division, supposed originally to be running mate with the 1st SS Panzer, had become involved in a costly and time-consuming fight to budge the American "door post," failing thereby to keep its place in the German scheme of maneuver. Therefore, the task-and glory-of leading the drive across the Meuse had passed to the Fifth Panzer Army.
But General Sepp Dietrich's SS formations had failed quite as signally to achieve the second mission-to create the blocking line east of Liège. Left free to deploy along the proliferating highway system southeast of Liège, the Americans had been able to throw two fresh corps into defensive array along the Salm, the Ourthe, the Lesse, and L'Homme Rivers, thus still further obstructing the advance of the Sixth Panzer and, more important, endangering the exposed right flank of the Fifth Panzer as it maneuvered before the Meuse. (See Map VIII.)
By 24 December the westernmost armored columns of the Fifth Panzer Army had been slowed to a walk quite literally, for the OB WEST orders on that date called for the advance toward the Meuse "to proceed on foot." In part the loss of momentum arose from supply failure, but basically the slowing process stemmed from the failure of the Sixth Panzer Army to form a protected corridor for its neighbor to the south
and so to cover the flank, the rear, and the line of communications for Manteuffel's salient.
It was apparent by the 24th to all of the higher German commanders that the advance must be strengthened in depth and-if possible-enlarged by pushing out the northern flank on the Marche plateau. German intelligence sources now estimated that the Allies were in the process of bringing a total of four armored and seven infantry divisions against the northern flank between the Salm and Meuse Rivers. The Sixth Panzer Army had to transfer its weight to the west. Hitler, who had been adamant that Sepp Dietrich should drive the Americans back from the Elsenborn position, finally granted permission on 24 December to give over the battle there and move in second-line divisions capable only of defensive action. Rundstedt already had gone on record that it was "useless" to keep five divisions in the Elsenborn sector. Neither Rundstedt nor Model had completely given up hope that the point of the Sixth Panzer Army might shake free and start moving again, for the German successes in the Vielsalm area at the expense of the American XVIII Airborne Corps promised much if Dietrich could reinforce his troops on this western flank. Nonetheless, the main play still would be given the Fifth Panzer Army.
The orders passed to Dietrich for 24 December were that his attack forces in the Salm River sector should push hard toward the northwest to seize the high ground extending from the swampy plateau of the Hohes Venn southwest across the Ourthe River. In the opinion of Rundstedt's staff the Fifth Panzer Army was at tactical disadvantage because its westernmost divisions, which had followed the level path of the Famenne Depression at Marche and Rochefort, were under attack from American forces holding command of the high ground on the Marche plateau to the north. It therefore seemed essential for the Sixth Panzer to establish itself on the same high ground if it was to relieve the pressure on Manteuffel's open and endangered north flank. In theory the strategic objectives of the Sixth Panzer were Liège and Eupen, but the German war diaries show clearly that Rundstedt (and probably Model) hoped only that Dietrich could wheel his forward divisions into a good position on defensible ground from which the Fifth Panzer Army could be covered and supported.1
On the morning of 24 December the Sixth Panzer Army was deployed in an uneven stairstep line descending southwest from the boundary with the Fifteenth Army (near Monschau) to the Ourthe River, newly designated as the dividing line between the Fifth and Sixth. In the Monschau-Höfen sector the LXVII Corps held a north-south line, the corps' front then bending at a right
angle past the Elsenborn ridge line. This corps front coincided almost exactly with that of the American V Corps. The I SS Panzer Corps continued the German line west along the Amblève River where it faced the reinforced 30th Infantry Division, but at the juncture of the Amblève and the Salm the line bent south at a sharp angle, following the east bank of the latter river as far as Vielsalm. This section of the German line opposite the 82d Airborne Division was poorly manned. The 1st SS Panzer Division (the only division available to the corps) had put troops across both the Amblève and Salm, but by the 24th the 1st SS, already badly beaten, was able to do little more than patrol its corner position.
The fall of St. Vith had opened the way for the westernmost corps of the Sixth Panzer Army to form a base of attack running generally west from Vielsalm and the Salm River to the crossroads at Baraque de Fraiture (Parker's Crossroads). This corps, the II SS Panzer, had relieved the 560th Volks Grenadier Division of its attack against the south front of the 82d Airborne and 3d Armored Divisions, the 560th sideslipping further west to take over the front, facing elements of the 3d Armored Division between the Aisne and Ourthe Rivers. The diagonal course of the Ourthe valley and the broken nature of the ground lying east of it posed an organization and command problem for both Germans and Americans. Those elements of the 3d Armored east of the Ourthe, though belonging to Collins' VII Corps, were actors in the story of the XVIII Airborne Corps. The same lack of neat accord between battle roles and order of battle listings was reflected on the German side of the line. There the LVIII Panzer Corps, forming the right wing tip of the Fifth Panzer Army, lay astride the Ourthe with its armor (the 116th Panzer) on the west bank and the bulk of its infantry (the 560th Volks Grenadier Division) on the east bank, echeloned in front of the incoming II SS Panzer Corps.
When, on the night of 22 December, the advance guard of Bittrich's II SS Panzer Corps first descended on the American-held crossroads at Baraque de Fraiture, General Bittrich had only one regiment of the 2d SS Panzer Division available for mounting this new Sixth Panzer Army attack. On 23 December, when the Americans at the crossroads finally succumbed to superior numbers, Bittrich had nearly all of the 2d SS at his disposal and the advance guard of his 9th SS Panzer Division was nearing the east bank of the Salm. Field Marshal Model had just wheeled the two infantry divisions of the LXVI Corps northward with orders to attack astride the Salm valley, thus bolstering Bittrich's right flank, now insecurely held by the decimated 1st SS Panzer Division.
General Bittrich had been promised still more forces for his attack to the northwest. The Fuehrer Begleit Brigade, re-forming after its battles in the St. Vith sector, was en route to join the 2d SS Panzer at the Baraque de Fraiture crossroads. The 12th SS Panzer Division, so Bittrich was told, would be relieved in the Elsenborn sector and hurried to the new Sixth Panzer front. Finally, Hitler himself would order the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division moved from the Elsenborn battle to the fight looming between the Salm and the Ourthe. Bittrich has not recorded any gloomy suspicion of
this potential plethora of riches, but as a veteran commander he no doubt recognized the many slips possible between cup and lip: the increasing poverty of POL, Allied air strikes against any and all moving columns, the poor state of the few roads leading back through the narrow Sixth Panzer zone of communications, and, finally, the pressing and probably overriding demands of the Fifth Panzer Army with one foot entangled at Bastogne and the other poised only a few miles from the Meuse.
The German attack plans, formulated during the night of 3 December as the 2d SS Panzer mopped up the last of the defenders around the Baraque de Fraiture crossroads, called for a continuation of the 2d SS Panzer attack northwest, astride the Liège highway on the 24th. The immediate objective was the Manhay crossroads five miles away. Once at Manhay the attack could either peel off along the road west to Hotton, there freeing the Fifth Panzer Army formations hung up at the Hotton-Marche road, or swing northwest to gain the main Ourthe bridge site at Durbuy. The II SS Panzer Corps attack base on the Salmchâteau-La Roche road seemed secure enough. On the left the 560th had driven a salient clear to Soy, a distance of eleven miles. On the right American stragglers from St. Vith were fighting to escape northward through or around Salmchâteau. The 82d Airborne Division still had an outpost line covering much of the road west of Salmchâteau, but the Fuehrer Begleit Brigade was in position to roll back the Americans in this sector. In any case the 9th SS Panzer Division would, in a matter of hours, cross the Salm River in the Vielsalm-Salmchâteau area and swing northwest to march forward at the right shoulder of the 2d SS Panzer. This was the outline plan for 24 December.
On the morning of 24 December the American troops between the Salm and Ourthe Rivers were deployed on a front, if so it can be called, of over thirty miles. This, of course, was no flankless and integrated position. On the west wing in particular the American line consisted of small task forces from the 3d Armored, each defending or attacking a hill or hamlet in what were almost independent operations. In the Salm sector the 82d Airborne Division faced north, east, and south, this disposition reflecting the topsy-turvy condition encountered when the division first came in to cover the deployment of the XVIII Airborne Corps. The 504th Parachute Infantry (Col. Reuben H. Tucker), on the division north flank, was bent at an angle reaching west and south from the confluence of the Amblève and Salm Rivers, a position assumed while Kampfgruppe Peiper was on the rampage west of Stavelot. The 505th Parachute Infantry (Col. William E. Ekman) over-watched the Salm from positions on the west bank extending from Trois Ponts south past Grand Halleux. The 508th Parachute Infantry (Col. Roy E. Lindquist) held a series of bluffs and ridges which faced the bridge sites at Vielsalm and Salmchâteau, then extended westward overlooking the La Roche highway. The 325th Glider Infantry (Col. Charles Billingslea) held the division right flank and continued the westward line along the ridges looking down on the La Roche road; its wing was affixed to the village of Fraiture