User:CORNELIUSSEON/World War II Project in Progress
- UNITED STATES ARMY IN WORLD WAR II
- The European Theater of Operations
- THE ARDENNES:
BATTLE OF THE BULGE
- OFFICE OF THE CHIEF OF MILITARY HISTORY
DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY
WASHINGTON, D.C., 1965
- CHAPTER XXI
The III Corps' Counterattack Toward Bastogne
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Preparations for the Attack
- 3 The Ezell Task Force
- 4 "Drive Like Hell"
- 5 The 80th Division Advance
- 6 The 26th Infantry Division Attack
- 7 The 4th Armored Division Attack
- 8 The 80th Division Battle in the Woods - 24-26 December
- 9 The 4th Armored Division Reaches Bastogne
- 10 Chapter XXI Notes
- The Verdun meeting on 19 December set in chain the first of a series of actions which the Allies would take to wrest the initiative from the enemy. Nonetheless a few momentous, nerve-shaking days had to elapse before the first gun of the counterattack could be fired. To gain time and save troops the Supreme Commander was willing to let the Allied forces fall back as far as necessary-although it was tacitly understood that the Meuse River must be the limit for any withdrawal. On the 20th General Strong, the SHAEF chief of intelligence, advised General Eisenhower that it looked as if the German command had committed everything it had to the offensive. Flying weather was poor and there was a chance that the Allies now could regroup for a concerted counterattack both north and south without these troop movements being discovered from the air. On this date, therefore, Eisenhower gave Bradley and Montgomery their orders for a counteroffensive against the German salient, to be undertaken as soon as possible.
- Air Chief Marshal Tedder, the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, and a number of others on the SHAEF staff feared that the impetuous Patton would persuade Bradley to let him start the counterattack from the south with only a couple of divisions and that it then would develop piecemeal, as had the German counterattack in Normandy, without a solid tactical base or concrete result. The Supreme Commander himself was well aware of the Third Army commander's penchant for cut and thrust tactics and probably needed little urging to take some action calculated to hold Patton within the constraints of "the big picture." On the other hand Eisenhower recognized that the continued occupation of Bastogne, the key to the entire road net on the south side of the German Bulge, was essential to future offensive operations. Patton, as the SHAEF staff saw it, would make the narrow thrust on the Arlon-Bastogne axis, but any more ambitious plans would have to be subordinated to the larger strategy. Eisenhower, therefore, told Bradley that the American counterattack via Bastogne should be held in check and not allowed to spread, that it was, after all, only a steppingstone for the "main counteroffensive."
Preparations for the Attack
Possibly the "lucky" commander needed some curb on his inherent optimism,
but regardless of any pose which Patton may have assumed in the war council at Verdun he and his staff went about the business of mounting this first counterattack coolly and methodically. The direction of attack already had been set by General Eisenhower, that is, north from an assembly area around Arlon. The immediate mission, assigned by the higher command after the Verdun meeting, was the "relief" of Bastogne and the use of its road net as a sally port for a drive by the Third Army to St. Vith in the larger Allied offensive. D-day for the counterattack was 22 December. It must be added that the Third Army order issued the day before the attack was rather ambitious, containing a typical Patton flourish in the prescription of an eventual wheel to the northeast and seizure of the Rhine crossings "in zone." The forces to be employed had been earmarked as early as the night of 18 December when Bradley and Patton agreed to move the new III Corps headquarters (as yet inexperienced and untried) from Metz to Arlon. The divisions given Maj. Gen. John Millikin (the 26th Infantry Division, 80th Infantry Division, and 4th Armored Division) all had been out of the line or in a quiet sector when the Third Army was ordered north, and thus were selected almost automatically.
The area chosen for the III Corps counterattack extended from the Alzette River on the east to Neufchâteau in the west, a front of some thirty miles. Actually these points were not on formal boundaries but rather represent the limits within which the III Corps operation finally developed. This zone, the eastern part lying in Luxembourg, the western in Belgium, contains some of the most rugged ground in the Ardennes. East of the Arlon-Bastogne axis two deeply eroded corridors, cut by the Sure and Wiltz Rivers, form effective barriers to mechanized or motorized advance from the south. The entire area is crisscrossed with rivers and streams, but those of the tableland west of Bastogne lack the gorge-like beds found to the east. Here, as in other parts of the Ardennes,
dense woods alternate with rolling fields and clearings. The land is veined with roads, but of varying quality; at their interlacings are found the single farmhouse or the village of a half-dozen dwellings, all promising the phenomenon common to military operations in the Ardennes-the fight for the crossroad. Bastogne, with seven entrant roads, naturally dominates the road complex in this area whether movement be from east to west, as attempted by the XLVII Panzer Corps, or from south to north, as planned for the American III Corps. But in addition to the south-to-north highway from Arlon to Bastogne, there are main roads branching from Arlon to the northeast and northwest, thus offering some flexibility of maneuver. Only one main road south of Bastogne runs east and west, that from Luxembourg City through Arlon to Neufchâteau. This road would form the base of operations for the III Corps. (See Map IX.)
The enemy situation on the new III Corps front was obscure. The Bastogne garrison knew little of the German deployment beyond the encircling units in direct contact, while the VIII Corps' screen, behind which the III Corps was forming, had been too weak to fight for information. The situation along most of the tenuous and sketchy VIII Corps line was indeed so confused that the location of friendly roadblocks or outposts could hardly be plotted. On the day before the counterattack it was known that the German columns had carried to and beyond Bastogne. It was presumed that the Arlon-Bastogne road had been cut, but this was not certain. Elements of four German divisions were supposed to be in the line opposite the III Corps: the 5th Parachute and the 212th, 276th, and 352d Volks Grenadier Divisions. All but the 5th Parachute had been identified days earlier as belonging to the Seventh Army. What these enemy divisions could do and what they intended to do quite literally was any man's guess. The III Corps attack would have to push off through a fragmentary screen of friendly troops whose positions were uncertain, against an enemy whose exact location was unknown, over terrain which had not been scouted by the Third Army.
The enemy was equally in the dark as to the III Corps capabilities and intentions. The 26th Infantry Division could not be located by German intelligence after it left Metz and would not be identified as present in its new sector until two days after the American drive commenced. The enemy traced the 80th into Luxembourg, but on 22 December believed it was reinforcing "remnants" of the 4th Infantry Division in a purely defensive role.
When General Millikin and his staff settled into the Arlon headquarters on 20 December, with only two days to go before the counterattack target date, the divisions that made up the attack force were either still on the move or were barely completing their shift. The 26th Infantry Division was en route from Metz to Arlon; the 80th Division had just closed into an assembly area near Luxembourg City after a march of 150 miles; the 4th Armored Division had reached Arlon and was trying to find its assembly area on the Arlon-Neufchâteau road. Nor were the three divisions equally ready for return to the fray.
- The 26th Division (Maj. Gen. Willard S. Paul) was full of rifle replacements, mostly inexperienced and lacking recent infantry training. This division had seen its first combat in October and had lost almost 3,000 men during bitter fighting in Lorraine. Withdrawn in early December to take over the Third Army "reinforcement" training program at Metz, the 26th Division had just received 2,585 men as replacements and, on 18 December, was beginning its program (scheduled for thirty days) when the German counteroffensive canceled its role as a training division. The "trainees," men taken from headquarters, antitank sections, and the like, at once were preempted to fill the ranks left gaping by the Lorraine battles. Knowing only that an undefined combat mission lay ahead, the division rolled north to Arlon, completing its move shortly before midnight of the 20th. Not until the next day did General Paul learn that his division was to attack on the early morning of the 22d.
- The 80th Division (General McBride) was in good condition. As one of the units being primed by the Third Army for the forthcoming attack against the West Wall, the 80th had been granted priority on replacements, had been rested at St. Avold, and on 18 December was on its way into the line near Zweibrücken when General Patton ordered the move to Luxembourg. There the 80th found itself under the control of the III Corps, its only orders to take up a reserve battle position in the 4th Infantry Division zone. On 21 December McBride first learned that his division would attack the following morning.
- The 4th Armored Division (Maj. Gen. Hugh J. Gaffey) had come north under hurried and contradictory orders, the result of the usual time lag between a command decision reached in personal conferences by the top commanders and the receipt of this decision in the lower tactical units. CCB, for example, operated for two days under VIII Corps while the rest of the division was en route to III Corps-a fact that has bearing on the subsequent story of Bastogne. On the night of 18 December General Bradley had told Patton, "I understand from General Ike you are to take over the VIII Corps." That same night CCB, 4th Armored, started for Longwy and the road to Luxembourg. The next day the rest of the division followed, under verbal orders from Patton attaching the 4th Armored Division to the III Corps. These orders were countermanded, then reaffirmed by the 12th Army Group in the course of the 19th.
- The advance party of CCB arrived meanwhile at Arlon, and found that the VIII Corps was the only corps operating in the area, the III Corps headquarters not yet having appeared on the scene. Brig. Gen. Holmes E. Dager reported to the commander of the VIII Corps, which was officially under the First Army and would be until noon on 20 December, although all concerned knew that it was to pass to the Third Army. General Middleton perforce had command of this Third Army unit before the anticipated change, whereas Third Army records continued to show the entire 4th Armored Division as assigned to the III Corps. At Dager's request the corps commander agreed to keep CCB together as a tactical unit instead of parceling it out along the front.
- The 4th Armored Division had won a brilliant reputation during the autumn battles in Lorraine. It was a favorite of the Third Army commander; so, when its leader, Maj. Gen. John S. Wood, was returned to the United States for rest and recuperation, General Patton named his own chief of staff as Wood's successor. On 10 December the 4th Armored Division came out of the line after five months of incessant fighting. The last phase of combat, the attack in the Saar mud, had been particularly trying and costly. Replacements, both men and matériel, were not to be had; trained tank crews could not be found in the conventional replacement centers-in fact these specialists no longer were trained in any number in the United States. When the division started for Luxembourg it was short 713 men and 19 officers in the tank and infantry battalions and the cavalry squadron.
- The state of matériel was much poorer, for there was a shortage of medium tanks throughout the European theater. The division could replace only a few of its actual losses and was short twenty-one Shermans when ordered north; worse, ordnance could not exchange worn and battle-damaged tanks for new. Tanks issued in the United Kingdom in the spring of 1944 were still operating, many of them after several major repair jobs, and all with mileage records beyond named life expectancy. Some could be run only at medium speed. Others had turrets whose electrical traverse no longer functioned and had to be cranked around by hand. Tracks and motors were worn badly: the 8th Tank Battalion alone had thirty-three tanks drop out because of mechanical failure in the 160-mile rush to the Ardennes. But even with battle-weary tanks and a large admixture of green tankers and armored infantry the 4th Armored Division, on its record, could be counted an asset in any operation requiring initiative and battle know-how.
The Ezell Task Force
It is obvious that the Third Army could never have put troops into the Luxembourg area as quickly as it did without a wholesale scuttling of "paper work" and "channels"; that improvisation and reliance on the field telephone as a medium for attaining clear understanding have inherent dangers is equally clear. A bizarre adventure that befell CCB of the 4th Armored in its peregrinations typifies the period of "piecemeal reaction," as some of the participants style it, when Middleton's VIII Corps was trying to plug the yawning gaps in its front with rifle platoons of engineers and mechanics, and before an American riposte could be made in force.
Bradley had told the VIII Corps commander on the night of 18 December that reinforcements were coming up from the Third Army. Sometime later Middleton learned that the 4th Armored Division was heading northward, led by CCB and apparently under attachment to his dwindling command. Another tank command from the Third Army (CCB, 10th Armored Division) had just arrived on the scene, but this Middleton had committed at once to shore up the crumbling defenses between Bastogne and Wiltz. At noon on the 19th (before the VIII Corps had passed to the Third Army) General Middleton telephoned the First Army commander and asked if he might use CCB of the 4th Armored on its arrival. Uncertain of the command situation Hodges referred the request to Bradley, who told the VIII Corps commander that he could employ CCB but only if necessary to hold his position.
By midnight CCB had ended its 150 mile ride and closed in villages on the east side of Vaux-lez-Rosières; all the journal sergeant could enter at this hour was "mission unknown." But by the morning of the 20th the status and duties of Dager's command were really confused, for the III Corps had opened its command post at Arlon and proceeded to give orders on the assumption that the 4th Armored Division in its entirety was reporting to General Millikin. The VIII Corps had ordered Dager to send an officer to Bastogne at daylight on the 20th to determine the exact situation there, but about 0500 that morning someone on the VIII Corps G-3 staff- who it was cannot be determined- ordered Dager to send a tank company, an armored infantry company, and a battery of self-propelled artillery into Bastogne.
Although Dager argued against this fragmentization of his force, at 1030 the small team was on its way, led by Capt. Bert Ezell, executive officer of the 8th Tank Battalion, who earlier had been named the liaison officer to the 101st Airborne. The only mission specified was "to aid CCB of the 10th Armored Division." Since CCB had bivouacked close to the Neufchâteau-Bastogne road this route was used. There had been rumors that the Germans had cut the road, but nobody seemed to know for certain and American reconnaissance was woefully lacking in this sector. En route the team received- or heard- a little small arms fire. In Bastogne Ezell reported to the 101st chief of staff, who turned him over to the division G-3, who passed him on to General McAuliffe, who assigned him to Colonel Roberts, commanding CCB of the 10th Armored. Roberts ordered Ezell to assemble his task force at Villeroux two and a half miles southwest of Bastogne and gave him a number of missions.
About 1400 a radio message from CCB rescinded Ezell's original orders and told him to return to Nives, the 8th Tank Battalion bivouack. This is what had happened. Telephone connection between CCB and General Gaffey's 4th Armored command post had opened, giving Dager an opportunity to express his concern over the way in which his command was being whittled away piecemeal. Gaffey immediately ordered Dager to recall the task force at Bastogne and to move CCB into assembly with the rest of the division northwest of Arlon.
Figuring that someone higher in authority would inform Roberts or McAuliffe, Ezell and his team started for home. On the way into Bastogne the task force had noticed two battalions of field artillery beside the road, the pieces and prime movers jammed together, equipment scattered, and most of the gunners fleeing along the road to the south. This time the task force stopped, found one dead man lying by his prime mover, shot in the head, and an artillery captain single-handedly trying to hitch up the guns and move them to the road. Lieutenant Kiley, who commanded the tank company, hitched three of the pieces to his tanks and left a few of his men to help the anonymous captain. Seven hours after the team set out it was back with CCB. Ezell had counted only three artillery rounds during the trip and had seen signal men calmly laying wire along the highway. At dusk on the 20th, then, the Neufchâteau-Bastogne road still was in friendly hands. Why was CCB as a unit not put in to hold this corridor
open? There is no certain answer. The episode of Ezell's task force can be read only through the fog of war as this is generated by the failure of communications, the complexity and unwieldiness of field command, and the natural, human proclivity for overrating (or underrating) the accomplishments of the enemy.
"Drive Like Hell"
General Patton inspected the III Corps dispositions and divisions on 20 December, concluded that the corps concentration was proceeding satisfactorily, and the following day gave the order for attack at 0600 on the 22d. The corps scheme of maneuver, issued to the divisions in the early afternoon, was simple. The III Corps would advance north in the direction of St. Vith. The 80th Infantry Division, on the right, would maintain contact during its advance with the left wing of the XII Corps. The 26th Division would form the center. The 4th Armored Division would advance on the left- Bastogne lay in its zone.
The last of the eleven field artillery battalions which had been taken from active engagement on the old Third Army front to form the corps artillery arrived during the day. They had wheeled north at an average twenty-mile-per-hour clip. In addition the infantry divisions each had a tank battalion and a self-propelled tank destroyer battalion attached. To eke out some cover on the open west flank, Task Force Lyon, consisting of the 178th Engineer Combat Battalion with reinforcements, was assigned the task of erecting roadblocks and preparing bridges for demolition.
The Third Army commander's last instruction to his commanders reflected the admonition against a dribbling attack given by General Eisenhower: he (General Patton) favored an attack in column of regiments, "or in any case lots of depth." As usual Patton was optimistic. He felt certain that the enemy was unaware of the storm about to break, that German intelligence had not spotted the appearance of the 26th Division in the area, and that it did not know the exact location of the other two divisions. "Drive like hell," said Patton.
The 80th Division Advance
Despite hurried preparations the III Corps attack got off at the appointed hour on the 22d. The 80th Division, whose regiments earlier had assembled north of Luxembourg for the defense of that city, had as line of departure the Mersch-Arlon road on a front of five and a half miles. During the night it was learned that the 109th Infantry of the dispersed 28th Division still was facing the enemy near Vichten, five miles to the north. This would give some cover for the development of the 80th Division attack; so McBride ordered his left wing regiment to pass through the
109th Infantry, relieving it in place. There was no artillery preparation (nor were there any certain targets) for the surprise attack.
The two assault regiments, the 319th Infantry on the left and the 318th Infantry on the right, went forward fast on this cold cloudy morning, tramping over a light blanket of snow which had fallen during the night. In two hours the 319th Infantry (Col. William N. Taylor) reached Vichten and relieved the 109th; as the regiment moved on toward Merzig the first few rounds of small arms fire came in. The 318th Infantry (Col. Lansing McVickar) headed for Ettelbruck, constricted to column formation by the Alzette River on the east and a high ridge on the west. South of the bridgehead town enemy shellfire briefly stopped the advance until the German guns were quieted by counter-battery from the 314th Field Artillery Battalion.
The cannonading was brought on by a peculiar circumstance. The 352d Volks Grenadier Division (General Schmidt) on this morning was advancing along the Diekirch-Ettelbruck-Merzig highway in front of but at a right angle to the American advance from the south. Schmidt was under the impression that his division had broken through the American line and was now marching through undefended, unoccupied country. The 914th Regiment had just entered Ettelbruck when the 318th Infantry appeared. It was the artillery regiment of the 352d, bringing up the tail of the division east of the town which ran afoul of the Americans. Quite obviously the Germans did not expect an attack from this direction. The 914th faced left and deployed hurriedly, using the town as a base, but in the process lost its heavy metal, for the German batteries were in no position to engage in an artillery duel, and fell back to Diekirch.
Farther west the rear of the 915th Regiment column was moving directly across the 319th Infantry line of march. To their amazement, troops of the 3d Battalion suddenly saw the Germans filing past, only a few hundred yards away and oblivious of any danger. Tanks, tank destroyers, and the 57-mm. antitank guns of the 1st Battalion ended this serene promenade. Many Germans were killed, a gun battery was blown to pieces, and numerous trucks and horse-drawn weapons were destroyed. The 319th Infantry had knifed between head and tail of the 352d. It now swung right onto the Ettelbruck road and that afternoon reached the villages of Oberfeulen and Niederfeulen. Merzig, however, remained in German hands.
At sundown the 80th Division could look back on a highly successful day. Extensive gains had been the story along the entire III Corps front and Patton was very much pleased. This was, he told General Millikin, a chance to win the war; the attack must be kept rolling through the night. The 319th Infantry put its 2d Battalion, the reserve, into trucks as far as Oberfeulen. There the battalion dismounted about midnight and under a full moon began an advance to take Heiderscheid. The 318th Infantry, which had found it difficult to maneuver on the constricted southern approach to Ettelbruck or to bring its tanks and tank destroyers to bear against the town, at nightfall began a series of successful assaults to gain the hills which looked down upon Ettelbruck from the
west. Company B moved with such speed that it reached the houses at the western edge of the town. Although its commander was wounded during the assault his company held on alone. The 80th Division would have to do some bitter fighting before this bridgehead over the Sure and Alzette was cleared of the enemy, but the division had cut one of the main supply routes of the German Seventh Army.
One lone rifle company holding a few houses hardly made for a hand-hold on Ettelbruck. In and around the town the enemy had a grenadier regiment and many direct-fire heavy weapons. Because the bluffs surrounding the town precluded much maneuver in attack, assault on the west, or American, bank of the Alzette had to be made frontally. Lt. Col. A. S. Tosi had brought the two other rifle companies of his 1st Battalion close to the edge of the town when daylight came on the 24th (B Company still held inside), but three separate attempts to reach the town failed, and with severe casualties. In the afternoon a few tanks were maneuvered into the van, and with their help the 1st Battalion reached the houses and took fifty or sixty prisoners. By this time the battalion had lost the equivalent of a full company, Colonel Tosi had been seriously wounded, and all company leaders had been killed or wounded. One tank reached the streets but found them cluttered with debris and impassable. The division commander decided to call off the attack; at dusk all of the companies withdrew while artillery plastered Ettelbruck. This second day had voided the bright promises of the first, for the 80th Division finally was in contact with the main German forces, well entrenched in towns and villages which could be attacked only over broken and difficult terrain.
In the course of the afternoon General McBride decided to keep the attack rolling by introducing his reserve regiment, the 317th, between the two attacking regiments. The 317th Infantry (Lt. Col. Henry G. Fisher), which had been following the 318th Infantry, was given the mission of clearing the ridge which ran north to Welscheid. Once beyond this town Fisher's troops were to turn east toward the Sure River, thus cutting to the rear of Ettelbruck. When night fell the regiment was on its way, the 2d Battalion in the lead and the 1st Battalion a thousand yards to its rear. Nearing Welscheid sometime after midnight, the forward battalion started into the assault over a series of rough slopes where each man was outlined by the bright moonlight reflecting from the glazed field of snow. The enemy, waiting with machine guns on the reverse slopes, had all the best of it. The American tanks tried but could not maneuver over the broken ground. The battalion commander therefore sent two of his companies to make a wide detour through a deep gorge, their place in the line being taken by the 1t Battalion. But too much time was consumed by this movement, and day broke on the 24th with the two battalions out in the open and dangerously exposed to German fire. The attack had to be abandoned; new plans were made for bypassing the town and striking directly at Bourscheid and the Sure River.
The 319h Infantry had continued its battle by sending the 2d Battalion against Heiderscheid, which lay on the Ettelbruck-Bastogne route and from
which a secondary road ran laterally west to Martelange across the 26th Division zone of advance. Just north of Heiderscheid were several crossing points on the Sure River, the chief natural obstacle to be surmounted by the 80th Division in its march northward. The 2d Battalion (Lt. Col. Paul Bandy) reached Heiderscheid about 0230 on the morning of the 23d, but when two rifle companies neared the edge of the village they were stopped by assault gun fire and machine guns firing tracers to point the targets for the gun crews. Infantrymen with submachine guns worked close enough to fire bursts into the positions from which the orange line of the tracers came but could not deal with the German assault guns. Two American tanks belonging to the 702d Tank Battalion came forward only to be checked by a mine field at a crossroad. A German gun took a shot at the tanks but in so doing gave away its own location, and a quick return shot set the assault gun afire. Guided by the light from the blazing gun carriage the American riflemen rushed the gendarmerie, took it, and there barricaded themselves. About this time the explosion of a German shell detonated the mine field, and the tanks ground forward to the village. An hour or so before noon the last of the stubborn defenders had been routed out and the 2d Battalion was north of the village.
The fight was not finished, for at noon two enemy companies converged in a yelling assault on Heiderscheid. Some of the 2d Battalion broke but the rest stood firm, killed the German infantry commander, and wrote quietus to this threat. Then affairs took a more serious turn as eleven enemy tanks hove in sight, decks and cupolas packed with snow for camouflage. While a hurried call was dispatched for armored aid, bazooka teams crawled forward to try their luck. Two of the enemy tanks fell prey to the bazooka teams, led by 2d Lt. Michael Hritsik,  whereupon the others showed themselves loath to close in. Friendly tank destroyers appeared in time to account for four more German tanks, and an American tank knocked out a fifth.
By the time the 3d Battalion (Lt. Col. Elliott B. Cheston) came hurrying up the battle was ended. Cheston's battalion, having spent most of the morning rounding up a large enemy detachment in Merzig, now turned northeast from Heiderscheid and marched through a deep defile to reach and take the hamlet of Tadler on the Sure. The Germans blew the nearby bridge, then sat back on the far bank to pound the battalion with rocket salvos. About dark the regimental commander ordered a company to move west along the river and outpost Heiderscheidergrund; admittedly this was poaching in the zone of the 26th Division, but the bridge there was needed. The company found the bridge intact and a stream of German vehicles running back and forth. Organizing an ambush, the company spent the night picking off unwary travelers.
On the eastern flank the 1st Battalion and its tank support spent most of the 23d negotiating the rough ground, dense woods, and deep snow in an advance from Feulen toward Kehmen. From a hill south of Kehmen the advance
guard counted twenty-four tanks rolling toward the village from the east, apparently on their way to retake Heiderscheid. Word already had gone back for more tanks, but those with infantry, plus a few tank destroyers, got in the first fire, immobilized two of the leaders, and so surprised the rest that they turned tail and hurried back to Bourscheid-which the 905th Field Artillery Battalion promptly took under fire. Discerning at least a tank platoon backing the grenadiers inside Kehmen, the 1st Battalion waited until after dark for reinforcements-ten tanks formerly attached to the 28th Infantry Division. With their help, the battalion delivered a sharp assault, destroying three German tanks and freeing the village.
The night battles had shown clearly that the 80th Infantry Division faced hard going as the 24th dawned. The advance had carried north to a point where it impinged on the Seventh Army communications leading to the Bastogne battleground. The main fight for the III Corps was that flaring farther west. Henceforth McBride's operation would be subsidiary to the attack by the corps' left and center, an operation designed to interdict the movement of reinforcements heading for Bastogne and to
contain the enemy in the Ettelbruck and Bourscheid sectors. Orders from General Millikin, received at the 80th Division command post early on the 24th, underlined the shift of gravity westward: McBride was to send two battalions of the 318th Infantry from Ettelbruck to assist the 4th Armored Division, and at once.
The 26th Infantry Division Attack
The 26th Division advance in the center of the III Corps zone began under circumstances similar to those in the sector of the 80th Division. Before dawn on 22 December the 104th Infantry and the 328th Infantry moved from their assembly areas east of Arlon to the line of departure at the Attert River. A very large number of men in the rifle companies had yet to see their first German, many of them were replacements whose only recent experience with a rifle consisted of a day or two at the Metz training ground. All had heard the current rumors of atrocities perpetrated by the German SS troops and paratroopers; all were steeled, according to the capacity of the individual, to meet a ruthless enemy.
The general axis of advance was Arlon-Wiltz; but there was no main road from the Attert north to Wiltz-indeed the advance would have to reach Eschdorf, seven air miles away, before it could follow a main thoroughfare. There were numerous secondary roads and trails going north, and, the attack would fan out over these. But this network became increasingly difficult to traverse as it descended into the ravines and through the forests leading to the gorges of the Sure River. The ground between the Sure trench and the valley of the Wiltz was equally rugged. Since little was known of the enemy, the division plan simply called for the troops to expand over roads and trails, eliminating German resistance wherever found.
While the 26th Reconnaissance Troop rolled out as a screen several thousand yards to the fore, the 104th Infantry (Lt. Col. Ralph A. Palladino) on the right and the 328th Infantry (Col. Ben R. Jacobs) on the left marched through dense woods and over slushy, muddy trails, finally coming out onto open, rolling fields near the village of Pratz, about three miles by road from the Attert. Unaware of the fact, the Americans were nearing the advance guard of the 915th Regiment, marching out from Ettelbruck. (It was this column of the 352d Volks Grenadier Division whose tail the 80th Division pinched near Merzig.)
The 104th Infantry continued north, assailed only by scattered small arms fire and machine gun bursts fired at long range. A mile farther on a small detachment of enemy tanks and infantry essayed an attack but were repelled by mortar fire.
The first real test of strength came when the leading company was a couple of miles southeast of Grosbous, from which town a road led north to Eschdorf. Here the advance battalion of the 915th Regiment struck so suddenly and
with such force that the lead company fell back for at least half a mile. The guns supporting the 104th Infantry were in position, however, and finally bent back the counterattack. In the meantime a handful of riflemen from the 109th Infantry, 28th Division, who had been waging a long battle in Grosbous until driven out by four German tanks, made their way back to the 104th. As it turned out the body of the 352d Volks Grenadier Division was not present here but was in the 80th Division zone. The 915th Regiment consisting of troops now split off from their trains, artillery, and the bulk of the division by the wedge which the 80th had thrust forward west of Ettelbruck, withdrew to make a stand in the neighborhood of Grosbous. Colonel Palladino left Company E to hold in check some Germans who had taken to the nearby woods, while the rest of the 104th Infantry continued tramping north along the road to Grosbous. The village itself was taken a couple of hours after midnight in a surprise attack by a combat patrol from Company G.
The series of blocks thrown against the 352d Volks Grenadier Division by the 80th Division and the 104th Infantry gave the western wing of the 26th Division a clear field. By the middle of the afternoon the 328th had covered nearly six miles without firing or receiving a shot. The advance guard was nearing the village of Arsdorf, from which a series of small roads and trails radiated through ravines and along ridges to the Sure, when a few rounds came in from self-propelled guns firing from a hill to the north. Concurrently reports arrived from the 26th Reconnaissance Troop that there was a strong German force in Rambrouch on the left flank. Night was near and the true strength of the enemy unknown; so the regiment halted while scouts worked their way to the front and flanks.
Who were these German troops? Since it was known that the 352d Volks Grenadier Division could not have reached this point the first guess was that the 5th Parachute Division, believed to be farther north, had pushed down into the area. Actually the 328th Infantry had run into the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, which the Seventh Army had borrowed from the OKW reserve, rushing it across the front to bolster this south flank. At first the brigade had been sent in to hold the Sure River line, but the Seventh Army then decided to expand its blocking position well to the south of the river, and so turned the brigade through Bourscheid and Eschdorf to the neighborhood of Arsdorf. This unit contained a battalion of forty Mark IV and Panther tanks, one battalion of mobile infantry, and one of foot, but thus far only a few tanks and the rifle battalion in personnel carriers were on the scene.
The new turn of events caused General Paul some concern about his left flank. The 4th Armored attack had carried abreast of the line held by the 328th Infantry but there remained a gap of three miles, densely wooded, between the two. As a temporary expedient a small task force, organized around Company K, 101st Infantry, and Company A, 735th Tank Battalion, deployed to screen the open left flank of the 26th Division.
Meanwhile Paul's two regiments prepared to continue the attack through the night as the army and corps commanders had ordered. The objective was Wiltz, once the command post of the American 28th Infantry Division, and now the headquarters of the German Seventh Army and the concentration point for enemy troops feeding in from the northeast.
While the 104th moved forward to hit the enemy congregated at Grosbous, the 328th Infantry reorganized to keep the drive going, under somewhat optimistic orders to seize crossings on the Wiltz River. At midnight the 1st and 3d Battalions jumped off to take Grevils-Brésil, from which a fairly good ridge road ran north to Eschdorf. The village was garrisoned by two companies of the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, reinforced by several Panthers from the Seventh Army reserve. Unshaken by a half-hour shelling, the Germans held tenaciously to the village all night long.
When daylight came on 23 December the 26th Division had little to show for its night attack. The 104th Infantry held Grosbous, but the 328th was checked at Grevils-Brésil by a company of stubborn German infantry backed up with a few tanks. In the woods south of Grosbous the men of Company E, 104th Infantry, had taken on more than they had bargained for: a couple of hundred riflemen from the 915th Regiment led in person by the regimental commander. (The American regimental commander had to throw in Company I, but even so this pocket was not wiped out until Christmas Eve.)
Although the right wing of the 26th Division was driving along the boundary between the isolated forward regiment of the 352d Volks Grenadier Division and the incoming Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, only a small part of the new brigade was in contact with the forward American battalions early on the 23d. The German brigade commander had been seriously wounded by a shell fragment while reconnoitering on the previous evening, the hurried march to action had prevented unified commitment, and the heavy woods south of the Sure made control very difficult. Also there were troubles with fuel.
The LXXXV Corps hoped to repel the American attack by means of a coordinated counterattack south of the Sure which would develop as a pincers movement, grappling the American troops who had penetrated into the dense forest north of the Ettelbruck-Grosbous road. For this maneuver, set to open on the 23d, the new 79th Volks Grenadier Division was to attack toward Niederfeulen, secure the Wark River, and hook to the northwest. On its right the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade would attack in a southeastern direction from Heiderscheid and Eschdorf with Grosbous and union with the 915th Regiment as the immediate objective. This German scheme was slow to come into operation and only a part of the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade was brought against the 26th Division during the 23d, and then mostly in small packets of infantry supported by a platoon or less of tanks.
The two attacking regiments of the 26th Division continued to fan out over secondary roads and trails, moving very cautiously for fear of ambush as the woods thickened and pressed closer to the roadways. Here the supporting weapons came into play. Detachments of the 390th Antiaircraft Artillery Automatic
Weapons Battalion, moving close behind the infantry point, blasted at wood lines, hedges, haystacks, and farm buildings. Their .50-caliber machine guns and the 37-mm. cannon mounted on half-tracks pinned the German infantry down until supporting artillery could be brought to bear, then shifted to a new position before the German gunners could get on target.
The American cannoneers wheeled their pieces from position to position so as to give the closest support possible. At one point the commanding officer of the 102d Field Artillery Battalion, Lt. Col. R. W. Kinney, went forward alone under direct enemy fire to pick out the targets for his guns. (Kinney was awarded the DSC.) When an enemy pocket was discovered in some corner of the woods the self-propelled tank destroyers went into action, spraying the enemy with high explosive. Thus a platoon of the 818th Tank Destroyer Battalion ultimately blasted the lost battalion of the 915th Regiment out of the woods near Grosbous.
It was no more than natural that the 26th Division, full of green troops, wanted the comforting presence of friendly tanks or guns. The 735th Tank Battalion after action report says that the 104th Infantry would not enter Dellen ahead of the tanks. The 328th Infantry also was slow in moving without tanks ahead. Since through all this day the Americans had little or no idea of the enemy strength that lay ahead or perhaps lurked on the flanks, the lack of swashbuckling haste was not abnormal.
The corps commander shared the feeling that caution was due. At dark he ordered General Paul to keep pushing with small patrols but enjoined him to keep the mass of the two regiments (the third was corps reserve) from getting too far forward. Patrols, Millikin advised, should try to get to the Sure River bridges before daylight of the 24th. As things now stood, the 80th Division had pushed a salient ahead on the right of the 26th Division in the Kehmen sector and was waiting for the center division to come abreast. On the left there remained a fair-sized gap between the 4th Armored Division and the 26th, only partially screened by very small detachments at roadblock positions. Thus far the enemy had failed to recognize or exploit this gap.
The 4th Armored Division Attack
On 21 December the 4th Armored Division, then assembled in the Léglise-Arlon area, learned what its mission would be when the III Corps attacked on the 22d: advance north and relieve Bastogne. Martelange, an outpost of the VIII Corps engineer barrier line on the Sure River, was twelve miles on a hard-surfaced highway from the center of Bastogne. A Sherman tank could make it from Martelange to Bastogne in a half hour-if the road was
passable and if the enemy confined his opposition to loosing rifle and machine gun bursts. The task at hand, however, was to "destroy the enemy in zone" and cover the open west flank of the corps.
Of the three divisions aligned to jump off in the III Corps counterattack, the 4th Armored would come under the closest scrutiny by the Third Army commander. Its mission was dramatic. It was also definite, geographically speaking, and so lent itself the more readily to assessment on the map in terms of success or failure. Furthermore, the reputation of the 4th Armored as a slashing, wheeling outfit would naturally attract attention, even though its matériel was not up to par, either in amount or mechanical fitness, and many green troops were riding in its tanks and infantry half-tracks. To all this must be added a less tangible item in evaluating readiness for battle. General Gaffey, the division commander, was a relative newcomer to this veteran and closely knit fighting team; he had as yet to lead the entire division in combat. CCA likewise had a commander who was a stranger to the division, Brig. Gen. Herbert L. Earnest. It might be expected, therefore, that the 4th Armored would take some little time in growing accustomed to the new leaders and their ways of conducting battle.
Theoretically the VIII Corps covered the western flank of the III Corps, but on 22 December the situation in Middleton's area was so fluid and his forces were so weak that no definite boundary or contact existed between the VIII and III Corps. The actual zone of operations for the 4th Armored Division, therefore, proved to be an area delimited by Bigonville on the east and Neufchâteau on the east and Neufchâteau on the west, a front of over fifteen miles. The mission assigned the 4th Armored, rather than zones and boundaries, determined the commitment of the division and the routes it would employ.
Bastogne could be reached from the south by two main approaches, on the right the Arlon-Bastogne road, on the left the Neufchâteau-Bastogne road. General Millikin and the III Corps staff preferred the Arlon route, at whose entrance the 4th Armored already was poised. General Middleton, whose VIII Corps nominally controlled the troops in Bastogne, favored a broad thrust to employ both routes but with the weight placed on the Neufchâteau road. The Arlon-Bastogne road was the shortest by a few miles and on the most direct line from the III Corps assembly area. To control the Arlon approach would block the reinforcement of the enemy troops already south of Bastogne. Attack on this axis also would allow the left and center divisions of the III Corps to maintain a somewhat closer contact with each other. The Neufchâteau-Bastogne route, on the other hand, was less tightly controlled by the enemy, although there was some evidence that German strength was building up in that direction.
The problem facing the III Corps was not the simple one of gaining access to Bastogne or of restoring physical contact with the forces therein, contact which had existed as late as 20 December. The problem was: (a) to restore and maintain a permanent corridor into the city; and (b) to jar the surrounding enemy loose so that Bastogne and its road net could be used by the Third Army as a base for further operations to the north and northeast. The problem was well understood by the
4th Armored Division. General Gaffey's letter of instructions to General Dager, commanding CCB, said, " . . . you will drive in, relieve the force, and proceed [italics supplied] from Bastogne to the NE...." The impression held by 4th Armored commanders and staff was that an independent tank column could cut its way through to the city ("at any time," said Dager), but that the opening of a corridor equivalent to the width of the road bed would be self-sealing once the thin-skinned or light armored columns started north to resupply and reinforce the heavy armor which reached Bastogne. The mission set the 4th Armored would require the co-ordinated efforts of the entire division, nor could it be fulfilled by a dramatic ride to the rescue of the Bastogne garrison, although this may have been what General Patton had in mind.
The Third Army commander, veteran tanker, himself prescribed the tactics to be used by Gaffey and the 4th Armored. The attack should lead off with the tanks, artillery, tank destroyers, and armored engineers in the van. The main body of armored infantry should be kept back. When stiff resistance was encountered, envelopment tactics should be used: no close-in envelopment should be attempted; all envelopments should be started a mile or a mile and a half mile back and be made at right angles. Patton, whose experience against the Panther tank during the Lorraine campaign had made him keenly aware of its superiority over the American Sherman in gun and armor, ordered that the new, modified Sherman with heavier armor (the so-called Jumbo) should be put in the lead when available. But there were very few of the Jumbos in the Third Army.
At 0600 on 22 December (H-hour for the III Corps counterattack) two combat commands stood ready behind a line of departure which stretched from Habay-la-Neuve east to Niedercolpach. General Gaffey planned to send CCA and CCB into the attack abreast, CCA working along the main Arlon-Bastogne road while CCB advanced on secondary roads to the west. In effect the two commands would be traversing parallel ridge lines. Although the full extent of damage done the roads and bridges during the VIII Corps withdrawal was not yet clear, it was known that the Sure bridges at Martelange had been blown. In the event that CCA was delayed unduly at the Sure crossing CCB might be switched east and take the lead on the main road. In any case CCB was scheduled to lead the 4th Armored Division into Bastogne.
On the right CCA (General Earnest) moved out behind A Troop of the 25th Cavalry Squadron in two task forces of battalion size. Visibility was poor, the ground was snow-covered, but the tracked vehicles were able to move without difficulty over the frozen terrain-without difficulty, that is, until the eastern task force commenced to encounter demolitions executed earlier by the VIII Corps engineers. The upshot was that both task forces converged on the main Arlon road and proceeded as a single column. Near Martelange a large crater delayed the column for some time. Shortly after noon it was bridged and the advance guard became embroiled in a fire fight with a rifle company of the 15th Regiment (5th Parachute Division) guarding the bridges, now demolished, at Martelange. The town,
sprawling on a series of terraces rising from the river, was too large for effective artillery fire and the enemy riflemen held on until about 0300 the next morning when, unaccountably, they allowed a company of armored infantry to cross on one of the broken spans. Most of the 23d was spent in bridging the Sure. The width and depth of the cut through which the stream flowed forbade the use of either pontoon or treadway. Corps engineers came up to fabricate a 90-foot Bailey bridge, but it was afternoon before the tanks could start moving. Delays, however, had not dimmed the general impression that CCA could cut its way through to Bastogne in short order, and at 1500 the III Corps sent word to Middleton that contact with the 101st was expected "by tonight."
On the lesser roads to the west, General Dager's CCB, which had started out at 0430, also was delayed by demolitions. Nonetheless at noon of the 22d the 8th Tank Battalion was in sight of Burnon, only seven miles from Bastogne, nor was there evidence that the enemy could make a stand. Here orders came from General Patton: the advance was to be continued through the night "to relieve Bastogne."  Then ensued the usual delay: still another bridge destroyed during the withdrawal had to be replaced, and it was past midnight when light tanks and infantry cleared a small German rear guard from Burnon itself.
Wary of German bazookas in this wooded country, tanks and cavalry jeeps moved cautiously over the frozen ground toward Chaumont, the next sizable village. Thus far the column had been subject only to small arms fire, although a couple of jeeps had been lost to German bazookas. But when the cavalry and light tanks neared Chaumont antitank guns knocked out one of the tanks and the advance guard withdrew to the main body, deployed on a ridge south of the village. Daylight was near. CCB had covered only about a quarter of a mile during the night, but because Chaumont appeared to be guarded by German guns on the flanking hills a formal, time-consuming, coordinated attack seemed necessary.
During the morning the 10th Armored Infantry Battalion and the twenty-two Shermans of the 8th Tank Battalion that were in fighting condition organized for a sweep around Chaumont to west and north, coupled with a direct punch to drive the enemy out of the village. To keep the enemy occupied, an armored field artillery battalion shelled the houses. Then, as the morning fog cleared away, fighter-bombers from the XIX Tactical Air Command (a trusted friend of the 4th Armored Division) detoured from their main mission of covering the cargo planes flying supplies to Bastogne and hammered Chaumont, pausing briefly for a dogfight with Luftwaffe intruders as tankers and infantry below formed a spellbound audience.
While CCB paused south of Chaumont and CCA waited for the Martelange bridge to be finished, the Third Army commander fretted at the delay. He telephoned the III Corps headquarters: "There is too much piddling around. Bypass these towns and clear them up later. Tanks can operate on this ground now." It was clear to all that General Patton's eye was on the 4th Armored Division
WATCHING A DOGFIGHT BETWEEN AMERICAN AND LUFTWAFFE PLANES
and his erstwhile chief of staff, General Gaffey, and that he counted on the 4th Armored to cut its way into Bastogne.
At Chaumont the ground assault came about 1330 on the heels of a particularly telling strike by friendly fighter-bombers. German artillery had begun to come alive an hour or so earlier, but with the Jabos in the sky the enemy gunners were quiet. Two rifle platoons mounted on tanks made a dash into the village, where more of the armored infantry soon arrived on foot. Even so, the lunge to envelop Chaumont on the west failed of its intent for the fields were thawing in the afternoon sun and the Shermans were left churning in the mud. A company of the 14th Regiment, 5th Parachute Division, tried to fight it out in the houses, but after a couple of hours nearly all the enemy had been rounded up. Then the scene changed with some abruptness.
During the night a liaison officer carrying the CCB attack orders had taken the wrong turning and driven into the German lines. Perhaps the enemy had seized the orders before they could be destroyed. Perhaps the cavalry foray in the early morning had given advance warning. In any case General Kokott,
4TH ARMORED DIVISION ROLLING TOWARD CHAUMONT past the bodies of American soldiers.
commanding the 26th Volks Grenadier Division responsible for the Chaumont-Martelange sector, had taken steps to reply to the attack on Chaumont. This village lies at the bottom of a bowl whose sides are formed by hills and connecting ridges. The rim to the northeast is densely wooded but is tapped by a trail leading on to the north. Along this trail, screened by the woods, the Germans brought up the 11th Assault Gun Brigade, numbering ten to fifteen remodeled Mark III carriages. bearing 75-mm. guns and with riflemen clinging to their decks and sides. Rolling down the slope behind an artillery smoke screen, the German assault guns knocked out those American tanks they could sight and discharged their gray-clad passengers into the village.
The American riflemen (Lt. Col. Harold Cohen's 10th Armored Infantry Battalion) battled beside the crippled and mired tanks in what Maj. Albin Irzyk, the veteran commander of the 9th Tank Battalion, called the bitterest fighting his battalion ever had encountered. The forward artillery observer was dead and there was no quick means of bringing fire on the enemy assault guns, which simply stood off and blasted a road for the German infantry. Company A,
10th Armored Infantry Battalion, which had led the original assault against Chaumont, lost some sixty-five men. The battle soon ended. In small groups the Americans fell back through the dusk to their original positions, leaving eleven Shermans as victims of the assault guns and the mud. The only officer of Company A left alive, 1st Lt. Charles R. Gniot, stayed behind to cover the withdrawal until he too was killed. Gniot was awarded the DSC, posthumously.
At the hour when the CCB assault first reached Chaumont, the eastern combat command had started moving across the Martelange bridge. Since it would take a long while for the whole column to close up and cross, General Earnest ordered Lt. Col. Delk Oden, commander of the 35th Tank Battalion, to forge ahead with his task force in a bid to reach Bastogne. The road ahead climbed out of the valley and onto a chain of ridges, these ridges closely flanked by higher ground so that the pavement ran through a series of cuts that limited maneuver off the road. The cavalry point had just gained the ridge line when, at a sharp bend, the Germans opened fire. Fortunately the tank company following was able to leave the highway and find cover behind the rise to the west of the pavement. For half an hour artillery worked over the enemy location, and then the artillery observer with the tanks "walked" the fire along the successive ridges while the tanks moved north in defilade. At the same time the half-tracks of Company G, 51st Armored Infantry Battalion, clanked forward along the pavement.
It was growing dark. Oden brought his light tank company and assault guns (used throughout the Bastogne relief as medium tanks) abreast of the medium tank company with orders to continue the advance through the night. The head of the task force now was close to the village of Warnach, which lay to the east of the main road. The light tanks had just come in sight of the village when the company of armored infantry appeared around a bend in the main road. The Germans in Warnach, apparently waiting for such a thin-skinned target, knocked out the first two half-tracks. To bypass the village at night was out of the question. While the assault guns shelled the houses a light tank platoon and a rifle platoon went in. Only one of the tanks got out, although most of the foot troops finally straggled back. Shortly after midnight a company of Shermans tried to get into Warnach but were stopped by antitank fire. Meanwhile tanks and infantry of the task force pushed on to the north, clearing the woods on either side of the main highway (the leading tank company ended up in a marsh).
It was daylight when tanks and infantry resumed the assault at Warnach, driving in from three sides with the riflemen clinging to the tanks. The battle which ensued was the most bitter fought by CCA during the whole Bastogne operation. Heilmann, commanding the 5th Parachute Division, had reasoned that the sector he held south of Bastogne was far too wide for a connected linear defense, and so had concentrated the 15th Parachute Regiment
along the Martelange-Bastogne road. Warnach was the regimental command post and there was at least one rifle battalion in the village, reinforced by a battery of self-propelled tank destroyers. Two American artillery battalions kept this enemy force down, firing with speed and accuracy as the Shermans swept in, but once the artillery lifted, a house-to-house battle royal commenced in earnest. Four Shermans were destroyed by tank destroyer fire at close range. The enemy infantry fought desperately, filtering back into houses which had been cleared, organizing short, savage rushes to retake lost buildings, and showing little taste for surrender. But try as they might the German paratroopers could not get past the American armored infantry and at the tanks-only one was knocked out by German bazooka fire. The result was slow to be seen but none the less certain. At noon, when the battle ended, the Americans had killed one hundred and thirty-five Germans and taken an equal number of prisoners. The little village cost them sixty-eight officers and men, dead and wounded.
Chaumont, on the 23d, and Warnach, on the 24th, are tabbed in the journals of the 4th Armored as "hot spots" on the march to Bastogne. Quite unexpectedly, however, a third developed at Bigonville, a village some two and a half miles east of the Bastogne highway close to the boundary between the 4th Armored and the 26th Infantry Division. The gap between these divisions, only partially screened by light forces, suddenly became a matter of more than normal concern on the night of 22 December with reports that a large body of German armor was moving in (actually the advance guard of the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade which had appeared in front of the left wing of the 26th Division). To protect CCA's open right flank, Gaffey ordered Col. Wendell Blanchard to form the Reserve Combat Command as a balanced task force (using the 53d Armored Infantry Battalion and 37th Tank Battalion) and advance toward Bigonville. Early on 23 December CCR left Quatre-Vents, followed the main road nearly to Martelange, then turned right onto a secondary road which angled northeast. This road was "sheer ice" and much time was consumed moving the column forward.
About noon the advance guard came under fire from a small plot of woods near a crossroads at which point CCR would have to turn due north. The accompanying artillery battalion went into action, pouring high explosive into the woods for nearly an hour. One rifle company then dismounted and went in to clean out the survivors. The company found no serious resistance, returned to the road, and was just mounting its half-tracks when a fusillade of bullets burst from the little wood. Apparently the enemy had withdrawn during the shelling, only to return at the heels of the departing Americans. Tanks were now sent toward the crossroad but were stopped by mines. All this had been time-consuming. Bigonville was still a mile away, and Blanchard ordered a halt. The enemy in the woods continued to inflict casualties on the troops halted beside the road. Even the tankers were not immune-nearly all of the tank commanders of one company were picked off by rifle fire.
In the course of the night the Germans left the wood and fell back to the shelter
of the stone houses in Bigonville. The assault on the morning of the 24th followed what had become standard tactics with the 4th Armored. First came a short concentration fired by the artillery. There followed an advance into the village by two teams, each composed of one tank and one infantry company working closely together. As at Chaumont and Warnach there was little trouble from the enemy artillery, for by this time the 5th Parachute Division was rationed to only seven rounds per howitzer a day. Mostly the German infantry held their fire until the Americans were in the streets, then cut loose with their bazookas, light mortars, and small arms. While the two assault companies of the 53d advanced from house to house the tanks of the 37th blasted the buildings ahead, machine-gunned the Germans when they broke into the open, and set barns and out-buildings afire with tracer bullets. One team burst through to the northern exit road and the garrison was trapped. By 1100 the village was clear. Most of the 328 prisoners taken here were from the 13th Parachute Regiment, which had just been released from its flank guard positions farther to the east on Heilmann's insistence that the 5th Parachute Division could not possibly block the American drive north with only two of its regiments in hand.
The pitched battles at Bigonville and Warnach on 24 December made a considerable dent in the front line fighting strength of the 5th Parachute Division but failed to bring CCR and CCA appreciably closer to Bastogne. CCB, the most advanced of the combat commands, had only two platoons of medium tanks left after the affair at Chaumont and had spent the day quietly waiting for replacement tanks from the repair echelons and for the rest of the division to draw abreast. Meanwhile the American paratroopers and their heterogeneous comrades inside the Bastogne perimeter fought and waited, confining their radio messages to oblique hints that the 4th Armored should get a move on. Thus, at the close of the 23d McAuliffe sent the message: "Sorry I did not get to shake hands today. I was disappointed." A less formal exhortation from one of his staff reached the 4th Armored command post at midnight: "There is only one more shopping day before Christmas! "
Perhaps a few of the armored officers still believed that a hell-for-leather tank attack could cleave a way to Bastogne. But by the evening of 24 December it seemed to both Gaffey and Millikin that tanks were bound to meet tough going in frontal attack on the hard-surfaced roads to which they were confined and that the operation would demand more use of the foot-slogger, particularly since the German infantry showed a marked proclivity for stealing back into the villages nominally "taken" by the tankers. Attack around the clock, enjoined by General Patton, had not been notably successful so far as the tank arm was concerned. From commander down, the 4th Armored was opposed to further use of the weakened tank battalions in hours of darkness. Further, night attacks by the two infantry divisions had failed to achieve any unusual gains and the troops were tiring.
The corps commander therefore ordered that his divisions hold during the night of the 24th in preparation for attack early on Christmas day. Two battalions of the 318th Infantry were joining
the 4th Armored to give the needed infantry strength in the corps' main effort. Reinforcement by the fighter-bombers had been requested (Gaffey asked the corps for high-priority flights over the 4th Armored as a Christmas present), and good flying weather seemed likely. On the debit side there were indications that reinforcements were arriving to bolster the German line facing the III Corps.
Thus far the Third Army counterattack had tended to be a slugging match with frontal assault and little maneuver. General Patton's insistence on bypassing centers of resistance had been negated by the terrain, the weather, and the wide-reaching impact of the earlier VIII Corps demolitions scheme. Perhaps the pace could be speeded up by maneuver, now that the enemy had been drawn into the defense of the Arlon-Bastogne approach. At Gaffey's request the III Corps commander shifted the boundary between the 4th Armored and the 26th Division, making the infantry division responsible for the Bigonville sector and releasing CCR, on the night of the 24th, for employment on the open west flank of the corps with entry into Bastogne as its primary mission.
The 80th Division Battle in the Woods - 24-26 December
On the morning of 24 December the 80th Division lost the two battalions pre-empted by the corps commander as infantry reinforcement for the 4th Armored Division. This diminution in its rifle strength and successive collisions with German units crossing the front en route to the Bastogne sector in the west constituted the closest link the 80th Division would have with the dramatic effort being made to reach the encircled 101st Airborne. From this time forward the 80th Division attack would be related to the fighting farther west only in that it was blocking the efforts of the Seventh Army to move its reserves into the Bastogne area.
For the next three days the division would wage a lone battle to reach and cross the Sure River, the scene of action being limited to the wedge formed on the north by the Sure and on the east by the Sauer River with a base represented by the Ettelbruck-Heiderscheidergrund road. This area the 80th came to know as the Bourscheid triangle. Within this frame lay thick forests, deep ravines, and masked ridges, the whole a checkerboard of little terrain compartments. Control of a force larger than the battalion would be most difficult, artillery support-except at clearings and villages-would be ineffective, and the maintenance of an interlocking, impervious front nigh impossible. Once a battalion cleared a compartment and advanced to the next the enemy could be counted on to seep back to his original position. Unobserved fire and loss of direction in the deep woods, down the blind draws, and along the twisting ridges made each American unit a potential threat to its neighbors, often forcing the use of a single battalion at a time. The infantryman would be duly thankful when tanks, tank destroyers, or artillery could give a hand or at least encourage by their presence, but the battle in woods and ravines was his own.
On the 23d the enemy forces facing the 80th Division were so weak and so disorganized that the Seventh Army
commander, Brandenberger, had feared that the 80th Division would drive across the Sure during the course of the night and sever the main line of communications leading to the west. By the morning of the 24th, however, reinforcements had arrived and the threat of a clean, quick American penetration was on the wane. The LXXXV Corps (Kniess) thus far had faced the American III Corps with only two divisions, the 5th Parachute and the 352d. Despite the Seventh Army apprehension that two divisions would not possibly hold the long blocking line from Ettelbruck to Vaux-lez-Rosières and despite daily requests that OKW release additional divisions to the army to strengthen this line, the German High Command was slow to dip into its strategic reserve.
The two larger units earmarked for employment by the Seventh Army were the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade and the 79th Volks Grenadier Division. Both were a considerable distance to the rear and both were equipped with the conglomeration of makeshift, battle-weary vehicles that was the lot of those divisions not scheduled to join in the original breakthrough and penetration. Even when they were released from the OKW Reserve, it would be a matter of days-not hours-before the mass of either unit could be placed in the front lines. When OKW finally responded to the pleas of the Seventh Army, the most optimistic estimates placed the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade and the 79th Volks Grenadier Division in the LXXXV Corps area on the morning of 23 December.
Neither of these two formations was rated as having a high combat value. Theoretically the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, a younger brother of the elite Grossdeutschland Panzer Division and like it charged with guarding Hitler's headquarters (albeit as the outer guard), should have been one of the first of the Wehrmacht formations. In fact this brigade was of very recent vintage, had suffered intense losses in East Prussia during its single commitment as a unit, and was not fully refitted when finally sent marching to the west. Replacements, drawn from the same pool as those for the Grossdeutschland and the Fuehrer Begleit Brigade, were hand-picked from the younger classes but had little training. The Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade numbered some six thousand men, had a rifle regiment mounted on armored half-tracks and 1 1/2-ton trucks, a reconnaissance battalion, an assault gun battalion, and a mixed tank battalion made up of Mark IV's and Panthers. The 79th Volks Grenadier Division possessed an old Wehrmacht number but, as it stood at the time of its commitment in the Ardennes, was a green division the bulk of whose riflemen had been combed out of headquarters troops in early December. Woefully under-strength in both transportation and supporting weapons, it had neither a flak battalion nor an assault gun battalion and would be forced to lean heavily on its artillery regiment.
The Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, the first to start for the battle front, was ordered to take the road from Ettelbruck to Martelange and there deploy in support of the 5th Parachute Division. Its
mission, assigned before the Third Army began its counterattack, was changed on the evening of 21 December, and so was its route, now menaced by the 80th Division advance on Ettelbruck. Trying to cross the Our River at the Roth bridges, the brigade ran into trouble. The bridges had been damaged by attack from the air, and traffic was backed up for miles on both sides of the river. Untrained drivers and mechanical failures further delayed the brigade as its columns entered the icy, narrow, twisting roads of the Ardennes, but by 23 December the reconnaissance battalion, a rifle battalion in armored carriers, and two tank companies had reached Eschdorf and Heiderscheid. Gravely concerned by the rate of the American advance, the Seventh Army commander sidetracked these troops short of the Bastogne sector to restore the gap which was opening between the 5th Parachute Division and the 352d Volks Grenadier Division, and, as already noted, the main body went in on on the 23d to stop the 80th Division at Heiderscheid. A part of the battalion of armored infantry marched south from Eschdorf and succeeded in getting cut off by the 26th Division night attack at Grevels-Brésil.
The heavy losses suffered by the green brigade in its first hours of battle had a marked adverse impact on the morale of the entire command. Many times, in subsequent days of battle, higher commanders would comment on the damage done the brigade by piecemeal commitment and defeat in its baptism of fire. The loss of the brigade commander, Col. Hans-Joachim Kahler, further demoralized the Fuehrer Grenadier. For successive days the command changed hands as new elements of the brigade arrived under more senior officers; this lack of leadership hardly was calculated to restore the shaken confidence of young, inexperienced troops. Yet despite these early reverses in the counterattack role the young soldiers of the brigade would prove tough and tenacious on the defensive.
On the morning of the 24th the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, still without artillery and with half of its tanks and infantry still east of the Our River, stood opposite the inner wings of the American 26th and 80th Divisions. The force of perhaps two rifle companies which had been cut off by the 26th Division south of Eschdorf was known to be fighting its way out to the east. The LXXXV Corps commander therefore decided to use his incoming reinforcements-infantry of the 79th Volks Grenadier Division-in a counterattack to regain contact with the lost companies somewhere around Eschdorf. This would be followed by a pivot to the east, intended to strike the Americans in the flank at Heiderscheid. For this maneuver Col. Alois Weber, commanding the 79th, had available one regiment, the 208th, and a single battalion of the 212th. His division, like the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, had encountered the traffic jam at the Our River and while crossing on the Gentingen bridge had been further delayed by American fighter-bombers. The assault gun battalion and tanks from the Fuehrer Grenadier were at Weber's disposal, but his artillery regiment was missing, entangled someplace on the road east
of the Our. By chance the 79th found an artillery battalion, belonging to the 5th Parachute Division, which had been left behind when its prime movers broke down, and these guns were impressed to support the counterattack toward Heiderscheid.
There remained to the LXXXV Corps the 352d Volks Grenadier Division, by this time reduced to two battered regiments huddled north and east of Ettelbruck. These regiments were needed where they stood for not only did they guard the Ettelbruck bridgehead, covering the flank of the Sauer crossings in the LXXXV Corps sector, but they also represented the only cohesive defense on the north bank of the river in the event that the American XII Corps decided to turn in that direction. The bulk of the 915th Regiment of the 352d, cut off by the American advance on 23 December, could no longer be reckoned with. (The major portion of these troops finally escaped through the thick woods, but would not reach the lines of the 352d until 2 December and then minus most of their equipment.) The fight to bring the American 80th Division to a halt south of the Sure, or at the river itself, would have to be waged by the half-strength 79th Volks Grenadier Division. The battleground, be it said, favored the defender so long as he retained sufficient strength to seal off all penetrations. Whether he could do so remained to be seen.
General McBride continued the attack on 24 December with the 317th and 319th, whose forward battalions had been engaged with the enemy all through the previous night. After the loss of the two battalions from the 318th to the 4th Armored Division, the 317th had simply bypassed Ettelbruck, and the 3d Battalion of the 318th was left to harass the enemy therein with artillery and mortar fire. The immediate division mission remained the same: to root out the enemy south of the Sure River and close in the north along the Sauer.
The 319th, on the left, was in possession of the road net at Heiderscheid and had only a mile to cover before the regiment was on the Sure. Indeed, two companies had spent the night within sight of the river at Heiderscheid although this was in the zone of the 26th Division. The 317th had farther to go because the Sure looped away to the north in its sector. Furthermore the regiment was advancing with its right flank exposed to any riposte coming from east of the Sauer River. Advance northward would have to be made under the eyes of German observers atop two dominating hill masses, one close to the Sure at Ringel, the other rising on the west bank of the Sauer near the bridgehead village of Bourscheid, the initial assembly area of the 79th Volks Grenadier Division. Fortunately for the Americans the 79th lacked the artillery to make full use of such commanding ground, but the German gunners proved to be very accurate.
For the past twenty-four hours the 317th Infantry had been attacking to reach Bourscheid and the high ground there. Although the 2d Battalion lunged ahead as far as Welscheid during the night, it failed to take the village and spent all the daylight hours of the 24th waiting for two companies to extricate themselves from the ridge on whose slope they lay pinned by German fire. (The regimental commander would later remark on the excellent musketry training
and first-rate small arms practice of this German unit.)
The 1st Battalion, meanwhile, tried to hook around to the northeast and gain entrance to Bourscheid along the main road. This advance brought the battalion onto open ground where the enemy assault guns spotted farther north could get to work. Then the battalion came under flanking fire from the Germans around Kehmen, in the zone of the neighboring regiment. Mercilessly pounded from front and flank the battalion fell back for half a mile; its casualties numbered 197, mostly wounded. At this point each of the three battalions had taken a crack at punching a way through to Bourscheid. At the close of the 24th the 317th Infantry could report severe losses but no progress and the German tanks and assault guns were raking the Americans wherever they concentrated, even laying with accuracy on the battalion command posts.
While the 317th was being held in check by well-directed gunfire, the 319th attack collided with the enemy counterattack aimed at Eschdorf and Heiderscheid. For this the 79th seems to have assembled at least two battalions of infantry, as well as tanks, assault guns, and armored cars from the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade. The 319th occupied a triangular position: at the apex the 3d Battalion held Tadler, overlooking the Sure, to the right and rear the 1st Battalion had bivouacked in Kehmen on the Bourscheid road; the 2d Battalion (less its two companies near the Heiderscheidergrund crossing) was stationed as the left wing anchor at Heiderscheid. Colonel Taylor, the regimental commander, wished to bring his right forward to the river. In the dark, on the morning of the 24th, the 1st Battalion (Lt. Col. Hiram D. Ives) marched west out of Kehmen intending to turn north at the next crossroad, two miles away, and push for Ringel on the river.
Daylight was breaking when the head of the column came in sight of the crossroad. About that time two things happened. A German detachment rushed into Kehmen, which the 1st Battalion had just left, while a German tank suddenly opened fire from a masked position near the crossroad and knocked out two Sherman tanks with the advance guard. The remaining American tanks hastily reversed to the cover of a nearby draw and the infantry deployed along the road. About 0930 one of the attached self-propelled tank destroyers sneaked forward and gave the coup de grâce to the German tank. New orders, however, left the battalion standing at the crossroad, for the 2d Battalion at Heiderscheid was hard hit by the main force of the German counterattack and needed protection on the east. Ultimately fire from the 1st Battalion did contribute to halting an enemy attempt at encircling Heiderscheid.
Colonel Bandy had held his 2d Battalion in Heiderscheid during the night of 23 December while awaiting the return of the two companies that had been sent down to the river. An hour or so before daylight the first German shells came in. After ten minutes of this preparation the enemy, on trucks, armored half-trucks, and armored cars, suddenly appeared at the southwest corner of the village. This was the main counterattack of the day for the 79th Volks Grenadier Division, launched as planned, from Eschdorf. The single American tank in
the way was surprised and put out of action, but strangely enough the German armored vehicles, mostly light flak tanks with 20-mm. guns, did not risk a precipitate dash into the village, contenting themselves with racing up and down the road which passed on the south, firing madly at the houses. The Americans, for their part, clustered at the windows and returned the fire with every weapon they could lay hand on.
One tank destroyer was in position to enfilade the road but by a curious chance it had been in the path of a bomb dropped by a stray German plane during the night and the firing mechanism was damaged. The tank destroyer commander tracked his gun on the passing targets, jumped up and down on the firing treadle, swore volubly, and banged the firing mechanism with a hammer but to no avail. Twice the German grenadiers got close enough to pitch grenades through windows. Finally one American tank worked its way around to get clear aim and did destroy four of the enemy armored vehicles. Eventually the enemy foot troops made their way into the streets. With this the forward observer for the 315th Field Artillery Battalion took over, calling for his 155-mm. howitzers to shell the village. For half an hour shells exploded, killing and lacerating the unprotected enemy. When the Germans retired they left 76 dead and 26 badly wounded; their Red Cross had removed many more during the fight.
By midafternoon firing died down all along the 319th front. The hastily organized 79th Volks Grenadier Division counterattack had failed in its larger purpose although it had led Colonel Taylor to recall his advance battalion from its position of vantage close to the Sure. On the whole the 80th Division had been through a hard day's fight, and McBride was more than willing to accept the corps commander's orders to hold up the attack until the following morning.
Across the lines the Seventh Army was bringing in a new, provisional headquarters to assume direction of the battle around Bastogne. The boundary, to be effective on Christmas Day, ran between Eschdorf and Heiderscheid, approximating that between the American 26th and 80th Infantry Divisions. The Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade now passed to the new Corps Rothkirch but would continue to oppose the 26th Division just as the major part of its strength had done on 24 December. The LXXXV Corps was left with the 79th and 352d. On Christmas Eve the last troops of the 352d left Ettelbruck, shelled out by high explosive and white phosphorus. The German line north and east of the city hereafter would rest on the far bank of the Sauer.
Kniess was not yet ready to withdraw his right wing to the protection of the river barrier, nor would the Seventh Army commander permit it, for the high ground in the Bourscheid bridgehead could still be used to observe and interdict any crossing of the Sauer farther south and at the same time act as an anchor at the eastern end of the Sure. Because the 79th Volks Grenadier Division still lacked much of its infantry and nearly all of its heavy weapons, the corps commander ordered Colonel Weber to defend the bridgehead by concentrating in the heavy woods around Kehmen and Welscheid. With the limited rifle strength at his disposal, Weber was able to man the Burden ridge, his
left flank thus adhering to the Sauer, but in the north the right flank of the 79th consisted only of a thin outpost line extending to Ringel Hill and the Sure.
Early on Christmas morning in the bitter cold the 80th Division returned to the attack, its main thrust aimed at Bourscheid. Colonel Fisher sent the 1st and 3d Battalions of the 317th Infantry toward Kehmen and Scheidel, hoping to open the road east into Bourscheid. At Scheidel the attack surprised the enemy infantry; one platoon captured the hamlet and a large number of prisoners. But when the two battalions turned north toward Kehmen the enemy (a battalion of the 266th Regiment) was ready and waiting. Each assault, made across open ground, was repelled by deadly fire from the village and the woods to the north. When General McBride finally intervened to end the attack the assault battalions had lost nearly two hundred officers and men. Kehmen once again had proved a hard nut to crack.
While the 317th Infantry hit head on against the main position held by the 79th Volks Grenadier Division, the 319th Infantry moved north into the gap on the German right flank. The 3d Battalion, which had withdrawn from its location close to the Sure in order to back up the other battalions in the fighting around Heiderscheid on the previous day, simply marched back into Tadler. Since General McBride had ordered the regiment to close up to the Sure but eschew any crossing attempt, the battalion was content to outpost along the river. From Tadler small groups of the enemy could be seen moving about on Ringel Hill, farther to the east. The 90th Field Artillery Battalion dropped a few shells into the village atop the hill; then the 2d Battalion occupied the area with little trouble. The hill position seriously endangered the German bridgehead, but the 79th was too far understrength to mount any sizable counterattack on this flank.
During the afternoon an American outpost saw a small German detachment marching in column of twos up a draw east of Ringel. The men at the outpost could not believe their eyes; they could only conclude that the approaching Germans were coming to surrender. When challenged the little column kept on coming, until a light machine gun put an end to this "counterattack." An hour before midnight more figures were seen approaching from the same direction. What had happened was that the Seventh Army commander had intervened personally to order that Ringel Hill be retaken. Not only was its possession necessary to the defense of the 79th Volks Grenadier Division bridgehead but Brandenberger needed the services of an army engineer brigade that had been committed as infantry on the north bank of the Sure, in the sector overlooked by the hill. If this high ground could be retaken and some command of this stretch of the Sure retained, the engineers could be employed elsewhere.
Since the fight with the 317th Infantry had died down some hours earlier, Colonel Weber was able to gather a substantial force for the counterattack, but there was little ammunition for the few
guns supporting the 79th. The Americans, on the other hand, were wired in to their division artillery and by now had a prearranged pattern of fire: four battalions answered the 2d Battalion call for help. A few of the attackers got close to Ringel, only to meet the whistling ricochet of armor-piercing shells fired by a single tank destroyer that rushed around the village like a man stamping out a lawn fire.
Christmas Day witnessed the most artillery activity of the entire division advance; the guns were well forward, the infantry held good ground for observation, and the fighting now surged at many points out of the woods and into the open. The total number of rounds fired by the 80th Division artillery was large when assessed against the terrain: 3,878 rounds and 142 missions. The 80th Division advance ended the day after Christmas, with the 319th Infantry chasing the enemy out of the woods on the near bank of the Sure, the 317th digging in opposite the Bourscheid bridgehead, and the lone battalion of the 318th exchanging fire with the Germans across the Sauer, in the course of which the commander of the 352d was severely wounded.
General Patton was in the process of strengthening the Third Army attack with more divisions. One of these, the 35th Division, was assembling in the rear before joining the III Corps. General McBride's division, as a result, transferred to the XII Corps on 26 December without a change of ground. In the days that followed battalions rotated between the deep snow of the outpost lines and the relative warmth of shell-torn villages, waiting while General Patton debated giving the XII Corps the go sign for an attack across the chill, swollen courses of the Sure and the Sauer. In the corresponding German headquarters other plans were under consideration, plans to use the Bourscheid bridgehead as a springboard from which to throw a spoiling attack against the flank of the American forces congregated around Bastogne. But neither Brandenberger nor Kniess could scrape up the men, guns, and shells for such an ambitious adventure. The 79th Volks Grenadier Division did what it could with what it had in almost daily counterattacks of small compass, only to be beaten off each time by the American howitzers. Ringel Hill continued as the chief objective in these fruitless and costly attempts, and here the 79th made its last full-blown effort in a predawn attack on 30 December. The previous evening Company E, 319th Infantry, at that time forming the Ringel garrison, learned from prisoners taken on patrol that the attack would be made. The American division arranged for nine battalions of field artillery to give protective fire and the men in the garrison strengthened their outposts. The enemy made the assault, as promised, but with such speed and skill as to enter the village before a single salvo could be fired. One group of Germans penetrated as far as the battalion command post, but Pfc. W. J. McKenzie drove them off, killing the leaders, then taking sixteen prisoners. (McKenzie was awarded the DSC.) Their surprise tactics failed to save the attackers.
Concentration after concentration poured in on the buildings that sheltered the garrison troops, killing, maiming, and demoralizing the grenadiers. Those of the enemy who could not escape surrendered in groups to the first Americans they could find.
When the 80th Division got its orders on 5 January to resume the attack, it could look back on a record of important accomplishment. It had contained and badly mauled two German divisions, had helped delay and cripple the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, on its way to enter the Bastogne battle, and had advanced sixteen miles and erased the Ettelbruck bridgehead, so important in the communications system of the Seventh Army.
The 26th Division Fight for a Bridgehead on the Sure 24-27 December
The 26th Division had not yet been able to push patrols through the woods to the Sure River when morning dawned on 24 December. Two companies of the 80th Division had crossed into the division zone and were waiting on the river near Heiderscheidergrund, but the foremost troops of the 26th Division were at Dellen, three and a half miles away, while the main force still was around Grosbous. Although small pockets of German riflemen fought stubbornly in the woods there seemed to be no cohesive, planned resistance by the enemy. To get the attack rolling and out of the woods, however, the Americans had to open the main road to the Sure. And to open the road they had to capture the town of Eschdorf.
There are many trails and byroads leading to the Sure but they become lost in deep, twisting ravines or run blindly through dense timber. All at this time were clogged by snow and ice. The road to Eschdorf follows a well-defined ridge and for much of its length gives a clear field of vision on both sides. Eschdorf, a town with perhaps two thousand people, is built on three hills which rise well above the surrounding countryside and give excellent observation over open ground for a half-mile to a mile in every direction. The ascent to the town is made across ridge folds. The main road coming in from the south turns away east to Heiderscheid and the Sauer crossing at Bourscheid, but other roads, three in all, continue north to the Sure River, one leading to the bridge at Heiderscheidergrund.
The road net centering at Eschdorf was very important in the German plans to hold the Seventh Army blocking position south of the Sure. Originally Brandenberger hoped to use the town as a concentration point for a counterattack by the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade along the road to Martelange. The brigade, as recounted earlier, had started this move by piecemeal commitment while the main body still was on the march to the front, but when the 26th Division banged into the Fuehrer Grenadier advance guard southwest of Eschdorf a part of the leading battalion was cut off and the way to Martelange effectively barred. The staff of the LXXXV Corps therefore drew new plans on the night of the 23d to conform with Brandenberger's order that the American attack must be checked south of the Sure. The idea was that the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, on the west, and the 79th Volks Grenadier Division, from the east,
should launch a concentric drive, pinching off the most forward units in the American advance. Although much of the heavy weapon strength of the brigade was loaned to the 79th, the brigade itself was expected to hold back the Americans south of Eschdorf, at the same time striking in strength east from that town to retake Heiderscheid. But whether the operation ordered for 24 December fared well or ill, the Seventh Army commander was adamant on one point: Eschdorf was to be held.
General Paul was equally convinced of the importance attaching to the command of Eschdorf and its radial roads. As early as the night of the 22d, when the III Corps optimistically prescribed the capture of Wiltz as the next step to be taken by the 26th Division, Paul ordered that a task force be created to leapfrog ahead of the 104th Infantry, capture Eschdorf, and chisel a groove to the Sure. Unwilling to expend his division reserve, Paul took the 2d Battalion, 328th Infantry, as the task force nucleus and turned it over to an officer with the division staff, Lt. Col. Paul Hamilton. A few tanks and tank destroyers were added, but through confusion in orders the engineer company supposed to be attached never joined the task force.
In the first hour of the 23d, Task Force Hamilton left Hostert in trucks. As the column turned north it found the 104th Infantry busy along the roadside with small groups of German infantry who were holding out in the woods. North of Grosbous two German tanks lay in wait just off the road, but were dispatched summarily by an assault gun. The column dismounted about a mile and a half south of Eschdorf, sent back the trucks, and put out pickets for the night. By this time Germans had appeared in some numbers east and west of the task force and their tanks had opened fire, but the 104th was coming up and by agreement was to cover Hamilton's flanks.
At daylight on the 24th scouts on the hills to the front reported much activity around Eschdorf, with vehicles dashing in and out of the town. The Fuehrer Grenadier attack against the 80th Division garrison in Heiderscheid was in full swing, although hardly developing according to plan. The road to Eschdorf, now ahead of Task Force Hamilton, rose and dipped to conform with the ridge folds reaching back to the hills on either side. The leading company had just climbed to the crest of one of these wooded folds when a storm of bullet and tank fire raked into its flank, coming down the length of the main ridge. The second company attempted to swing wide and to the van; it too found the ridge a bullet conductor. About this time the rear of the column came under direct and rapid shellfire from a hill on the right. Boxed in on front and rear, Task Force Hamilton spent most of the day trying to maneuver off the road and across the wooded nose ahead. The 81-mm. mortars got a real workout, churning the woods until they had fired four times their normal load of shells.
Toward sundown help came in the air. P-47's of the 379th Squadron (362d Fighter Group), out on their last mission of the day, swept low over the pine stands on the ridge, dropping fragmentation bombs and strafing. For some fifty Germans, well and wounded, this was the finishing touch; they came straggling
out of the woods, hands high. Now that bullet fire no longer shaved the ridge like a razor Task Force Hamilton could move. It took the hamlet of Hierheck, where the woods gave way to the open ground leading up to Eschdorf, and then Hamilton gave orders to dig in for the night-orders which were countermanded almost at once by the division commander, who wanted Eschdorf that night.
While Task Force Hamilton was pinned down, General Paul had notified the III Corps that the 104th Infantry was taking over the task force. In early evening the 104th Infantry received orders for the 1st Battalion (Maj. Leon D. Gladding) to take Eschdorf, while Hamilton went on to secure the Sure crossing. Later the division ordered the 1st Battalion, 104th Infantry, to make the Sure crossing and Hamilton to take Eschdorf. Taking Eschdorf would not be an easy job. When a small group of Hamilton's men started forward to set up an observation post, they encountered enemy fire before they had moved twenty-five yards from their foxholes. The Germans in Eschdorf were alert and waiting.
Colonel Hamilton and Maj. Albert Friedman, the 2d Battalion commander worked as rapidly as they could to de- vise a plan of attack and bring the task force into assault position, but it was midnight before all was ready. Two companies, E and F, were to lead the attack, moving on either side of Eschdorf with their inner flanks touching, but they were not to enter the village. Company G, with tank support, would follow the assault companies and clear the village. This plan had been adopted in deference to the ground, since Eschdorf
rose well above the undulating ridges and there was no higher ground to lend itself to a wider flanking movement.
Forty-five minutes after midnight the two rifle companies started to climb the highest of the three hills on which the town stands, this being the south side. The night was cold and clear, and a full moon was out. As the attackers tramped forward, long, grotesque black shadows followed on the glittering snow. For the first few minutes all was quiet, ominously lovely and peaceful; then, as the first line reached the crest, all hell broke loose. The German rifle line lay along the reverse slope, the grenadiers in white capes and sheets blending unobtrusively with the panorama of snow. Burp guns and rifles cut loose at the splendid targets the Americans provided. In face of such a fusillade the attack wavered, then fell back. Three tanks, all that Hamilton had, churned to the fore through the snow but were checked by a little creek, extended by an antitank ditch, about 300 yards from the nearest building.
A hurried call by Hamilton, who wanted reinforcements to cover his flanks, brought no reply from the division headquarters except "Take Eschdorf." There was little choice but to continue with frontal tactics. At 0400 a second assault started, this time with the tanks and Company G forming the center under orders to drive straight into Eschdorf without pause. Company G got only as far as the crest; the tanks went as far as before, and no farther. But the Germans facing the center were kept occupied long enough to start the wing companies moving. Firing as they went the two companies reached the village. Instead of marching past and around, the men closest to the buildings drifted inward, seeking the shadows and some kind of cover, dragging the two companies in with them.
What then happened cannot be recorded with any certainty. The story of Christmas Day inside Eschdorf was one of confusion at the time and recrimination later. Members of the 104th Infantry subsequently claimed to have captured Eschdorf and believed that no part of Task Force Hamilton held on in the town. Officers and men of the task force, somewhat closer to the scene, have a different story.16 The men of the two companies that had reached Eschdorf on Christmas Eve were stranded there in the houses while German armored vehicles jockeyed about, firing at doors and windows. In the meantime the bulk of the enemy infantry gathered in the southeastern corner to meet any attempt to reinforce the attackers. When day came the commander of Company E, Capt. Vaughn Swift, took his chances in the gauntlet of bullets and ran out to the American tanks. By some miracle he reached the Shermans alive and led them into Eschdorf. Two were knocked out there, but not before they had quieted the enemy armored vehicles. (Captain Swift was given the DSC.)
As the day went on the two company commanders tried to sort out their men and resume the drive to cut through to the roads entering Eschdorf from the north. Whether this was accomplished remains a matter of debate. Finally, in the late afternoon, the division headquarters responded to Hamilton's urging and instructed the 104th Infantry to send its 1st Battalion and envelop Eschdorf. The instructions were followed. Company C entered the village an hour or so after daylight on 26 December and by 0800 reported Eschdorf clear of the enemy.
Throughout Christmas Day corps and division artillery beat the northern approaches to Eschdorf, hoping to isolate the uncertain dogfight within the town. As it turned out, the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade had no intention of intervening there but was slipping north through the woods and ravines, while a few rear guard detachments fought on to form a new bulwark to defend the Sure River line. As early as the afternoon of 24 December the 3d Battalion, 104th Infantry (Lt. Col. Howard C. Dellert), had reached Heiderscheid, there secured guides from the 319th, and had gone on to relieve the two companies of the 319th on the river at Heiderscheidergrund.
While the 104th put troops along the river, its sister regiment made a march of three and a half miles over rough country but against little opposition and by nightfall of the 24th was near the bridge site at Bonnal. On the extreme left flank at Bilsdorf, Company C of the 249th Engineer Combat Battalion was on reconnaissance when it was struck by a much larger enemy force deployed in the village. The company commander, Capt. A. J. Cissna, elected to stay behind and cover his men as they withdrew from Bilsdorf; he fought alone until he was killed. Cissna was awarded the DSC posthumously. The 1st Battalion of the 328th (Lt. Col. W. A. Callanan), aided by the 2d Battalion, 101st Infantry, found a rear guard group of the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade holed up in Arsdorf, near the division west boundary, and spent the night of the 24th digging the grenadiers out of attics and cellars. By midmorning Arsdorf was in hand and the left flank of the 26th Division was fairly secure except for Bigonville, three miles northwest, which now passed into the division zone as CCR, 4th Armored Division, left that village to play a new role on the western flank of the corps.
But the main mission of the 26th Division, to make a crossing at the Sure River, had yet to be accomplished when Task Force Hamilton started the fight at Eschdorf on the night of 24 December. General Paul, beset by incessant urging from the III Corps commander, passed the word to his two forward regiments that the attack must get into high gear, then sent a message to General Millikin that he hoped to seize the Sure crossing before daylight on Christmas Day. Pitched battles at Eschdorf and Arsdorf so entangled the division that the idea of a general movement forward had to be abandoned, particularly when on Christmas Day an additional battalion had to be committed at both of these towns. Although troops of the two attacking regiments were within sight of the river on Christmas Eve they found that there would be no surprise crossing. In the zone of the 104th Infantry the enemy, alerted by the presence of the two companies of the 319th, had strengthened his position at the opposite end of the Heiderscheidergrund bridge and it was apparent that a crossing site would have to be sought elsewhere. On the left the 3d Battalion of the 328th Infantry (Lt. Col. Arthur C. Tillison) reached the bare hill above Bonnal on Christmas morning, just in time to see the last German half-track cross the bridge before it was blown.
The corps commander now released the 101st Infantry from reserve and ordered General Paul to "keep going" and get to Wiltz, four miles the other side of the Sure. Paul planned to relieve the 328th with his reserve regiment, but while arrangements were being made, on the night of the 25th, word flashed back that a bridge had been captured and that the 3d Battalion was crossing. This episode of the Bonnal bridge is an apt-and instructive-example of the "fog of war." The bridge actually had been destroyed eight to ten hours earlier, but it was nearly midnight before the 328th Infantry was able to ascertain that none of its troops had got across the river. Bad news never comes singly. The 104th Infantry had to report that the Germans had blown up one span of the bridge at Heiderscheidergrund.
The Sure River is in itself not too difficult an obstacle, at its widest point no more than twenty-five yards across. The current is not swift, and there are
many places where it is possible to wade across. (Plans actually were made for sending an assault party through the bitter cold stream, then wrapping the troops in blankets and thawing them out on the far bank.) The problem is to get down to the river and to get up the steep cliffs to the north bank. So twisting and tortuous is the river course and so blind are its bends that great care must be exercised in choosing a crossing point lest one have to cross the river twice. The approaches to the river, the meanderings of the river bed, and the exits on the north bank combined therefore to dictate where the 26th Division might cross.
Whether the enemy was strong enough to dictate how the division had to cross remained to be seen. The lay of the ground gave three potential crossing sites in the 26th Division zone: from east to west, Heiderscheidergrund, Esch-sur-Sure, and Bonnal. All had stone arch bridges of solid construction-or did prior to 25 December 1944. Heiderscheidergrund normally would present the most attractive of the three crossings because it gave entrance to the main Wiltz road. But the fight for Eschdorf had slowed down the 104th Infantry and prevented a thoroughgoing exploitation of the 319th toehold at Heiderscheidergrund. Furthermore the enemy had first concentrated to defend this, the most obvious of the three crossings. What he was set to do to defend Esch-sur-Sure and Bonnal remained to be tested.
The fragmented commitment of the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade had resulted in heavy losses and blunted the fighting edge of this "elite" unit. By the very nature of its dispersed and staggered commitment the brigade had succeeded in creating a picture of strength quite out of keeping with reality. The 1st Battalion of the brigade, for example, had first appeared in front of the west wing of the 26th Division headed southwest, then had been turned around, had bumped back across the front of the 328th-fighting here and there in the woods as it went-and then had taken a hand against the 104th. Furthermore the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade was an amorphous organization which accorded with none of the tables carried in the American handbook on German order of battle. Since its numbering and unit names fitted much of the description of the elder formation, the Grossdeutschland Panzer Division, the brigade had been first identified as the division. It would take much time and numerous prisoners before the 26th Division order of battle team could complete the true picture of the brigade.
When the Seventh Army commander ordered the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade to withdraw to the Sure on 25 December, he intended the defense to continue on the south bank of the river. But the brigade's rifle regiment, much understrength as the consequence of the rough handling received at Arsdorf, Eschdorf, and in the counterattack at Heiderscheid, could no longer provide the necessary infantry. The bulk of the brigade had apparently crossed to the north side of the river by the morning of 26 December, forming a line-or what passed for a line-east and west of Esch-sur-Sure. The only German reserve in this sector was the army engineer brigade at Nothum, a 2 1/2-mile march north of the Bonnal crossing. But General Brandenberger was loath to employ any of his small engineer complement in the firing line except under the direst of circumstances.
There was little artillery to defend the line of the Sure; most of the guns and Werfers which had good prime movers and could be hauled along the crowded roads west of the Our were at work around Bastogne or firing in defense of the Bourscheid bridgehead. One advantage the defenders did have: good observation from the heights overlooking the separate crossing sites.
The morning of 26 December dawned bright and clear with the promise of air support for the 26th Division at the river. On the left the 101st Infantry had relieved the 328th and stood ready to attempt the crossing. The 101st was fresh and its ranks were full. After its first effort to reach the piers of the stone bridge at Bonnal was met by rifle fire, a patrol discovered a good site farther to the west where a river loop curled to the American side. Engineer assault craft reached the 3d Battalion (Lt. Col. James N. Peale) shortly before noon, but a rumor had circulated that the enemy was lying in wait on the opposite bank and the troops showed some reluctance to move. Col. Walter T. Scott, the regimental commander, took a single bodyguard and crossed the river in a rubber boat, returning without mishap. The battalion then crossed, the silence broken only by the sound of the paddles, an occasional hoarse-voiced command, and a few rifle shots. The 1st Battalion (Maj. Albert L. Gramm), closer to Bonnal, likewise made an uneventful crossing. The enemy, no more than a few stray pickets, did not loiter. Engineers started a Bailey bridge, using the supports of the stone bridge at Bonnal, while the two battalions, tired by their scramble up the steep banks, dug in along the edge of the bluffs. The few enemy planes that tried to strafe along the river were destroyed or driven off by alert fighter-bombers and the 390th Antiaircraft Automatic Weapons Battalion. Nor did a small German counterattack during the evening have any effect.
The eyes of the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade were fixed on Heiderscheidergrund where the German fighting vehicles and riflemen waited for the main American effort. Although one span of the stone bridge had been blown as a precautionary measure, the enemy threw a trestle over the gap, preserving the bridge as a sally port to the south bank. Twice German tanks and assault guns made a bid to recross and counterattack the 104th Infantry. The first attempt was stopped short of the bridge by rapid shellfire. The second was more successful: four tanks and an assault gun rammed across the bridge but were abandoned by their crews when American guns and howitzers brought salvo after salvo of white phosphorus to sear the near bank. During the 26th, patrols operating in the 104th Infantry sector put their glasses on Esch-sur-Sure. They reported that there was no sign of the enemy in the village, but Colonel Palladino could not risk an immediate crossing on his left while the Germans opposite his right held a bridge and still seemed willing to carry the fight back to the American side of the river.
The troops in the attenuated 101st bridgehead easily repulsed a minor counterattack on the morning of 27 December. As yet there was nothing to indicate an enemy shift to meet this threat to the Sure River position. By midmorning the Bailey bridge was open and tanks and tank destroyers crossed to
support the 3d Battalion as it climbed on up the bluffs to Liefrange. Since the two bridges at Esch-sur-Sure had been demolished, the commander of the 104th Infantry arranged for his left battalion to borrow the Bonnal Bailey. As the right battalion put on a demonstration with much firing at Heiderscheidergrund, the left crossed, then swung back toward Kaundorf as if to command the road climbing from Esch-sur-Sure. While this maneuver was in process the engineers constructed a treadway bridge at Esch and tank destroyers were put across to reinforce Palladino's battalion on the far bank. By the close of the day it could be said that the Sure bridgehead was firm and the way open to recapture Wiltz.
The 4th Armored Division Reaches Bastogne
Christmas Day came and went leaving the 4th Armored Division toiling slowly toward Bastogne. The left wing of the III Corps now conformed to the slow,
foot-slogging pace of the divisions on the right and in the center. Both CCA and CCB had an additional rifle battalion when the attack resumed on the 25th, for the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 318th Infantry had reported to General Gaffey late on Christmas Eve after a cold, miserable, six-hour truck ride from the 80th Division sector. Both battalions, the 1st attached to CCA and the 2d to CCB, were considerably understrength after the bloody engagements at Ettelbruck. The 1st Battalion, whose officer losses had been very high, had a new commander and so did all of its companies.
During the fight at Warnach a few tanks from CCA had tried to drive on to Tintange but had bogged down. General Gaffey therefore decided to employ a part of his infantry reinforcement with the general mission of attacking to reach Bastogne, and the more immediate job of taking Tintange. After a freezing night bivouacked in the snow, Maj. George W. Connaughton's 1st Battalion, 318th, set off for a line of departure south of the village that was shown on the map as a small creek.
Gaffey had said that the battalion would have to fight for its line of departure. He was right. The two assault companies reached the creek only to discover that they faced a deep gorge, with Germans arrayed to defend it. Somehow the infantry scrambled down and up again while their opponents pitched in hand grenades. Emerging south of the village the attackers came under continuous rifle fire, but what stopped them cold was a single large-caliber assault gun whose shells burst wherever the Americans turned. The support, Company B (Capt. Reid McAllister), was given very special attention by the German gunners. Tired of taking losses where it lay, the company asked permission to take the burden of the assault on its own shoulders. Two platoons advanced through the forward companies and the enemy infantry inside the village immediately opened fire. In so doing the Germans gave away their locations to the third platoon, which had circled in from the east. Return fire coming in from the east momentarily silenced the garrison; galled by its losses Company B rushed the village, captured the maddening assault gun as its crew sought to escape, and took 161 prisoners. This action must be credited to the infantry, but it should be added that eight fighter-bombers from the 377th Squadron had hit Tintange on call, blasting with bombs and rockets just before the riflemen moved in. During the day the 51st Armored Infantry Battalion carried the advance on the west side of the Arlon-Bastogne highway as far as Hollange, pausing here with night coming on and the enemy showing his first intention of making a stand. CCA now had cleared another-stretch of woods and villages flanking the Bastogne highway-but the streets of Bastogne still were seven miles away.
The 2d Battalion, 318th Infantry (Lt. Col. Glenn H. Gardner), did its chore of woods clearing and village fighting on Christmas Day alongside the armored infantry and tanks of CCB. Chaumont, scene of the bitter action two days earlier, remained the immediate objective. This time the enemy was deeply dug in, all through the woods south of the village. While tanks from the 8th Tank Battalion edged around the woods firing indiscriminately into the pines, the foot troops routed out the German
AMERICAN TROOPS IN TINTANGE JUST AFTER ITS CAPTURE
infantry from holes and log-covered trenches where they sought shelter from the tankers' shells. This was a slow, precarious business. Some of the enemy paratroopers could be persuaded that surrender was the better part of valor, but many had to be finished off with grenades and even bayonets. In this manner the 2d Battalion worked through three successive wood lots, meeting strong rifle and automatic weapons fire in each. Here Sgt. Paul J. Wiedorfer made a lone charge against two German machine guns. He killed the crew serving the first weapon and forced the crew of the second to surrender. (He was awarded the Medal of Honor.)
Chaumont village was less of a problem. Prisoners had reported that a large number of panzers had come in during the night, but in fact there were no tanks, except the derelict Shermans left on the 23d. The American light tanks moved in with the infantry and by dark the village was in American hands-most of the enemy had withdrawn farther north after the struggle in the woods. The 2d Battalion saw nearly a hundred of its men evacuated for bullet wounds, mostly suffered inside the woods. Both here and at Tintange the 5th Parachute troopers had been forced to rely on their small arms; the 318th as a result sustained more casualties from bullet fire than at any time since its frontal attack at the Moselle River in early September.
Artillery and large numbers of fighter-bombers belabored the 5th Parachute Division
GERMAN PRISONERS CARRYING ONE OF THEIR WOUNDED IN A BLANKET
on 26 December. The advancing Americans of the two combat commands and the attached infantry found that more and more of the enemy were willing to lay down their arms after honor had been satisfied by token resistance, but for each point where the combination of American fighter-bombers, artillery, tanks, and infantry won quick surrender there was a crossroad, a patch of woods, or a tiny collection of houses to which a tough young officer and a few men clung fiercely. Bravery was matched with bravery. Pfc. O. M. Laughlin of the 318th broke up one German position with grenades after he had been hit in the shoulder and could not use his rifle. (He received the DSC.)
Spread across a wide front, CCA and CCB could maintain little contact; nor could the rifle battalions and tank-infantry teams. Much of the American combat
strength had to be diverted to screen the flanks of the individual detachments or to circle back to stamp out resistance flaring up unexpectedly in areas supposed to be free of the enemy. (CCA, for example, captured a battalion headquarters and a large number of prisoners in a fight at Hollange, south of Chaumont, which had been taken by CCB the day before.) Mines also made for delay. There were more in the path of the advance than ever before, but they had been laid hastily, were not well concealed, and often lacked fuzes. Again the most lethal and in numerous cases the sole German weapons were the rifle, machine gun, or machine pistol. These served the enemy well, and gaps in the ranks of the attackers widened even as the prisoner bag swelled. Captured paratroopers complained that they no longer had artillery support, that morale was cracking when friendly guns could not be seen or heard; nonetheless the dwindling strength of the 318th and the armored infantry battalions bore witness that the enemy still was in a fighting mood.
Despite all this the lines of the 101st Airborne Division were appreciably closer. By dark the 2d Battalion, 318th Infantry, after bitter battle and very heavy casualties, had reached the woods near Hompré, some 4,000 yards from the Bastogne perimeter. Using green and red light signals, learned from prisoners in the past two days, 1st Lt. Walter P. Carr and a four-man patrol stole through the German lines, reaching the Bastogne outposts at 0430. The return trip, with a situation map marked by the 101st Airborne G-3, wrote finis to a daring and successful mission. But other Americans had beaten Carr to Bastogne.
On Christmas Eve, when it was apparent that no quick breakthrough could be expected on the Arlon-Bastogne highway, the 4th Armored Division commander could look to two possible means of levering the slowing attack into high gear. The two battalions of the 318th were ready to add more riflemen to what had become a slow-paced infantry battle; perhaps this extra weight would tell and punch a hole through which the tanks of CCA and CCB could start rolling again. But General Gaffey was a veteran and convinced armored officer, serving a commander whose name was everywhere attached to feats of speed and daring in mechanized warfare and whose doctrine was simple: if the ground and the enemy combined to thwart the tanks in the area originally selected for attack, then find some other spot where the enemy might be less well situated to face a mechanized thrust.
The command had caught a cat nap by 1100, fuel tanks were filled, commanders were briefed, an artillery plane had oriented the gunners-and the drive began. The light tanks and a platoon of tank destroyers from the 704th Tank Destroyer Battalion led off, followed by paired teams of tank and armored infantry companies. The scattered German outposts, members of a replacement engineer battalion, dived for cover as the tanks raced along the road, then hastily surrendered to the infantry following. Beyond Vaux-lez-Rosières the column left the pavement and headed northeast on a secondary road, hoping to find it ill-defended Thus far the teams had leapfrogged, taking turns in dealing with the little villages away from the main route. About 1400 the advance guard was checked at a small creek near
Cobreville where the only bridge had just been blown. Abrams called for the battalion bulldozer, always kept close to the headquarters tank in the column. It took an hour for the bulldozer to demolish a stone wall and push the debris into the creek-then on went the column.
CCR of the 4th Armored Division had just taken Bigonville on the division east flank, and was counting its prisoners, waiting for orders, and making plans for feeding its troops a big Christmas dinner when Colonel Blanchard heard from the division commander. The order given was brief: move to Neufchâteau at once. Starting an hour after midnight, the combat command was near Neufchâteau when it received other and more detailed orders-attack toward Bastogne to assist the advance of CCB (then south of Chaumont) and to protect the left flank of the division and corps.
For this task CCR had the 37th Tank Battalion (Lt. Col. Creighton W. Abrams), the 53d Armored Infantry Battalion (Lt. Col. George Jaques), the self-propelled 94th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, and a battery of 155-mm. howitzers from the 177th Field Artillery Battalion. Although CCR normally was not employed as an integral tactical unit in 4th Armored practice, the tank and rifle companies of the two battalions had teamed together in many a fight.
Colonel Blanchard had selected his own route (to avoid blown bridges) and an assembly area southwest of Bercheux village on the Neufchâteau-Bastogne road. Here the column closed shortly before dawn on Christmas Day. Almost nothing was known about the German strength or dispositions along the twelve-mile stretch of road that lay ahead. Inside of Bercheux was a company of First Army engineers, which, as part of the VIII Corps barrier line, was preparing to make a stand. Thus far, however, the Germans had shown little disposition to push much beyond Vaux-lez-Rosières, a mile and a half farther up the road, from which the 28th Division headquarters had been driven on the night of the 22d.
Remonville was next. Perhaps some sixth sense warned that it was full of Germans; maybe a spotter plane had seen movement there or a frightened prisoner had talked. Whatever the reason, Remonville got the treatment. A company of Shermans lined up on the high ground outside the village with their guns trained on the houses. Four battalions of artillery, emplaced close enough to reach the target, opened rapid fire with high explosive and the tanks joined in. For five to ten minutes, long enough for the A Team to race to the village, shells rained down. In the streets the tank crews worked their machine guns until they were hot, while the infantry leaped from their half-tracks and sprinted from building to building. The German garrison, the 3d Battalion, 14th Parachute Regiment, had remained hidden up to this point. Some now emerged-but it was too late. Tank gunners and riflemen cut them down from every side. Hand grenades tossed through cellar windows and down cellar stairs quickly brought the recalcitrant-and living-to the surface. By dusk the job was finished. CCR had taken 327 prisoners.
The light tanks in the advance guard moved on, but only for a few hundred yards. A large crater pitting the road where a small creek made a detour impossible brought the column to a halt as the day ended. CCR had come abreast
of CCB, in fact was fearful of using its artillery against any targets to the east. Gaffey still expected CCB to make the breakthrough now that its west flank was protected. To this end General Taylor, impatient to reach his division in Bastogne, had joined General Dager's command post, bringing the first word Dager had that CCR had come up on his left. Even so the general mission for all of the 4th Armored Division remained the relief of the 101st Airborne.
On Christmas night Colonel Blanchard and his officers huddled over a map which had just arrived by liaison plane. This map showed the American disposition in the Bastogne perimeter, only six miles away, and a somewhat hypothetical scheme of the German order of battle as it faced in toward Bastogne and out toward the 4th Armored. The red-penciled symbols representing the enemy were most numerous and precise where they faced north; by now the 101st had had ample opportunity to gauge the German strength and dispositions hemming it in. The red figures farther south were few and accompanied by question marks.
Basing it on this rather sketchy information, Blanchard gave his plan for attack on 26 December. This called for an advance through Remichampagne, a mile and a half away, and Clochimont. Then the combat command would turn northwest to Sibret, thus returning to the Neufchâteau-Bastogne road. At Sibret, which air reconnaissance had reported to be full of troops, the main fight would apparently be made. Fighter-bomber support had been promised for the morning of the 26th, and CCR had seen the sky full of American planes over Bastogne. The four firing batteries with CCR would displace from Juseret to new positions south of Cobreville, but because the exact location of CCB was unknown the howitzers would not be laid on Remichampagne. Immediate targets would be two: a large block of woods west of Remichampagne, for which CCR could spare none of its limited armored infantry; and the road from Morhet, leading east of the Neufchâteau-Bastogne highway, on which spotter planes had observed German tanks.
When CCR started for Remichampagne on the morning of 26 December, the ground was frozen, and tank going was even better than it had been during the summer pursuit across France. The column had just gotten under way when suddenly a number of P-47's appeared. Although the 362d Fighter Group was slated to give CCR a hand, these particular planes, probably from the 362d, had not been called for. Bombing only a few hundred yards in front of the leading tanks, the P-47's shook all ideas of resistance out of the few Germans left in the village or the woods.
Next was Clochimont. CCR was reaching the point where a collision with the enemy main line of resistance could be expected or a strong counterattack be suffered. Carefully then, CCR deployed near Clochimont, moving its teams out to cover the flanks. Colonel Abrams dispatched one tank company northward hoping to uncover the next enemy position or draw fire from Assenois, straight to the fore, or Sibret, the objective on the Bastogne highway. It was about 1500 when these dispositions were completed. Orders called for the attack to be continued toward Sibret, over to the northwest, but this town was probably well
defended and German tanks, more likely than not, would be found guarding the main road. The 37th Tank Battalion had lost tanks here and there along the way and had no more than twenty Shermans in operation. The 53d Armored Infantry Battalion, weak to begin with, now was short 230 men. The two battalion commanders, Abrams and Jaques, stood by the road discussing the next move and watching what looked like hundreds of cargo planes flying overhead en route to drop supplies to the 101st when Abrams suggested that they try a dash through Assenois straight into Bastogne. It was true that Sibret was next on the CCR itinerary, but it was known to be strongly held and Bastogne was the 4th Armored Division objective. Jaques agreed.
Abrams radioed Capt. William Dwight, the battalion S-3, to bring the C Team forward. It was now about 1520. Another message, this time through the artillery liaison officer, gave the plan to the 94th Armored Field Artillery Battalion and asked that the 101st Airborne be told that the armor was coming in. The 94th already was registered to fire on Assenois, but there was little time in which to transmit data to the division artillery or arrange a fire plan. CCR alone among the combat commands had no telephone wire in. Continuous wave radio could not be counted on. Frequency modulation was working fairly well, but all messages would have to be relayed. Despite these handicaps, in fifteen minutes three artillery battalions borrowed from CCB (the 22d, 253d, and 776th) were tied in to make the shoot at Assenois when the call came.
Colonel Abrams had entrusted Captain Dwight with the shock troops (Company C of the 37th Tank Battalion and Company C of the 53d Armored Infantry Battalion), telling him: "It's the push!" By 1620 all was ready and the team moved out, Shermans leading and half-tracks behind. Abrams stayed glued to his radio. At 1634 he checked with the 94th Field Artillery Battalion and asked if he could get the concentration on Assenois at a minute's notice. Exactly one minute later the tank company commander, 1st Lt. Charles Boggess, called from the lead tank. Colonel Abrams passed the word to the artillery, "Concentration Number Nine, play it soft and sweet." A TOT could hardly be expected with existing communications, but the thirteen batteries (an unlucky number for the enemy) sent ten volleys crashing onto Assenois.
Eight antitank guns were sited around the village; here and there a gun crew fired a wild shot before a shell blasted the piece or the furious fire of the Sherman machine guns drove the cannoneers to their holes. At the dip in the road on the village edge Lieutenant Boggess called for the artillery to lift, then plunged ahead without waiting to see whether the 94th had his message. So close did the attack follow the artillery that not a hostile shot was fired as the tanks raced into the streets. The center of the village was almost as dark as night, the sun shut out by smoke and dust. Two tanks made a wrong turn. One infantry half-track got into the tank column; another was knocked out when an American shell exploded nearby. The initial fire plan had called for the battery of 155's to plaster the center of the town, and these shells still were coming in when the infantry half-tracks entered the streets. Far more vulnerable to the rain of shell fragments than the tankers,
the armored infantrymen leaped from their vehicles for the nearest doorway or wall. In the smoke and confusion the German garrison, a mixed group from the 5th Parachute and 26th Volks Grenadier Divisions, poured out of the cellars. The ensuing shooting, clubbing, stabbing melee was all that the armored infantry could handle and the C Team tanks rolled on to glory alone.
The "relief column" heading out of Assenois for the Bastogne perimeter now consisted of the three Sherman tanks commanded by Lieutenant Boggess, the one half-track which had blundered into the tank column, and two more Shermans bringing up the rear. Boggess moved fast, liberally spraying the tree line beside the highway with machine gun fire. But a 300-yard gap developed between the first three vehicles and the last three, giving the enemy just time to throw a few Teller mines out on the road before the half-track appeared. The half-track rolled over the first mine and exploded. Captain Dwight then ran his tow tanks onto the shoulder, the crews removed the mines, and the tanks rushed on to catch up with Boggess. At 1650 (the time is indelibly recorded in the 4th Armored Division record) Boggess saw some engineers in friendly uniform preparing to assault a pillbox near the highway. These were men from the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion-contact with the Bastogne garrison had been made. Twenty minutes later Colonel Abrams (subsequently awarded the DSC for the action at Assenois) shook hands with General McAuliffe, who had come to the outpost line to welcome the relieving force.
Colonel Jaques and the 53d Armored Infantry Battalion missed this dramatic moment; they were involved in a scrambling fight for possession of Assenois-strictly an infantry battle now that the artillery no longer could intervene. This battle continued into the night, the 53d capturing some five hundred prisoners in and around the town. One American, S./Sgt. James R. Hendrix, took on the crews of the two 88-mm. guns with only his rifle, adding crews and guns to the bag in Assenois. (Hendrix was awarded the Medal of Honor). More Germans filtered in along the dense woods which lined the east side of the Bastogne road north of Assenois. Here Company A of the 53d was put in to dig the Germans out, the company commander, Capt. Frank Kutak, directing the fight from his jeep for he had been wounded in both legs. (For bravery here and in other actions Kutak was awarded the DSC.)
An hour or so after midnight enough of the enemy had been killed or captured to give relatively safe passage along the Bastogne road. Over 200 vehicles had been gathered at Rossignol waiting for the road to open, and during the night the light tank company of the 37th Tank Battalion escorted forty trucks and seventy ambulances into Bastogne.
Chapter XXI Notes
- The Robb Notes are the source of the Supreme Commander's views.
- The operations of the Third Army in the Bastogne counterattack are the subject of a special journal prepared by the TUSA 3 staff (in the author's possession). In addition the TUSA chief of staff, General Gay, kept an official Third Army diary (referred to hereafter as Gay Diary), a copy of which was used by the author. The personal data on General Patton is interesting but adds little to the official records. See also George S. Patton, Jr., War As I Knew It (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1947) and Harry H. Semmes, Portrait of Patton (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1955).
- III Corps AR; G-2 and G-3 Jnls.
- Ezell's adventure was carefully checked at the time and is the subject of a special series of combat interviews.
- Very detailed coverage of the 80th Division operation will be found in the combat interviews. The division records are less useful than the AAR's and journals of the three infantry regiments. See also, Capt. Roy T. McGrann, The 610th Tank Destroyer Battalion (Pittsburgh, Pa.; Geyer Printing Company, 1946).
- Colonel Bandy was awarded the DSC for courageous leadership in the fighting on this day.
- Lieutenant Hritsik was awarded the DSC.
- The combat interviews are fragmentary for the 26th Division and the historian must rely on the regimental records. The 26th Division AAR is fairly complete, but the account of the action is very terse. The only publications of value are S/Sgt. Jerome J. Theise, ed., History of the Three Hundred Twenty-Eight Infantry Regiment, From Reactivation, 12 February 1943, to VE Day, 9 May (Wels: Verlagsdruckerei, 1945; and The History of the 26th Yankee Division (Salem, 1955).
- The American cavalry was greatly outnumbered at Rambrouch and forced to withdraw. Sgt. Lawrence L. Hatfield, whose platoon covered the withdrawal, was given the DSC.
- With the exception of those conducted with the 101st Airborne Division, the combat interviews with the 4th Armored Division are the most informative of all those bearing on the battle at Bastogne. The 4th Armored AAR and G-3 journal provide little exact or detailed information. The combat command AAR's and journals remedy this lack. Each battalion has either an AAR or unit journal. See also K. A. Koyen, The Fourth Armored Division (Munich, 1945); Lt. Col. D. M. Oden, 4th Armored Division-Relief of the 101st Airborne Division, Bastogne, Pamphlet Series, Command and General Staff College, 1947; History of the Ninety-Fourth Armored Field Artillery Battalion (n.d., n.p.); and The Armored School MS, Armor at Bastogne (May 1949).
- Patton, in his book, War As I Knew It (page 201), admits that his order for day and night attack by the armor was an error.
- The story of this fight at Chaumont is confused. As many as twentytwo "tanks" were reported by the Americans, and these are alleged to have swept in from west, north, and east. See combat interviews; CCB S-2 Jnl; and MS # B-023 (Heilmann).
- The history of the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade is included in Die Geschichte Des Panzerkorps Grossdeutschland, II, pp. 735ff. For other German units facing the XII Corps see MSS # B-023 (Heilmann); B-067 (Schmidt); B-030 (Kniess); and the German Seventh Army B.T.O., Taetigkeitsbericht, 2. Halbjahr, 944.
- Capt. Robert W. Smith, commanding Company K, was awarded the DSC for bravery and leadership displayed in the fight at Kehmen.
- Pfc. J. O. Bird, of Company G, 39th Infantry, was awarded the DSC for gallantry in the Ringel action. When his company was pinned down by an enemy machine gun, Private Bird went forward alone, under direct fire, and shot the crew; he accounted for fifteen Germans with his rifle.
- The Eschdorf fight is well covered in the combat interviews held shortly after the event. The orders and counterorders given Hamilton are found in the 26th Division G-3 journal and the 104th Infantry journal. The journal of the 104th records that Company F was driven out of Eschdorf (at 0835 on 25 December) and seems to have been interpreted as meaning that none of Hamilton's force was in the town. However, no part of the 1st Battalion, 104th Infantry, was committed in this fight until after the air strike on the afternoon of 25 December.
- There seems to have been some initial confusion as to the exact status of the troops already in that village, for in one of the rare changes made in an official periodic report that of the III Corps was amended to read that the 26th Division "relieved two companies of the 80th Division" in place of "liberated two companies of the 80th Division."
- The 26th Division fight on the far bank of the Sure is described in Chapter XXIV.
- The battles on 26 December elicited numerous deeds of heroism. DSC's were subsequently awarded to Capt. James H. Leach and 2d Lt. John A. Whitehill of the 4th Armored Division; Capt. Gabriel R. Martinez and Pfc. A. G. Means of the 318th Infantry; and 2d Lt. Frederick Rau of the 274th Armored Field Artillery Battalion.
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- Last updated 13 December 2005
U.S. Army Center for Military History publication