The Fifth Panzer Army Attacks the 28th Infantry Division
The battle plans and tactics of the Fifth Panzer Army, more than those of any other German army that took part in the Ardennes counteroffensive, bore the very strong personal imprint of its commander, General Manteuffel. As a junior officer in the prewar panzer troops, Manteuffel had made a mark as an armored specialist. His record in North Africa and Russia, where he achieved a reputation for energetic leadership and personal bravery, brought him to Hitler's attention and promotion directly from a division to an army command. Despite the failure of his Fifth Panzer Army in the Lorraine campaign against Patton's Third Army, Manteuffel was listed by Hitler for command in the Ardennes. His staff, carefully selected and personally devoted to the little general, was probably the best German staff on the Western Front.
Manteuffel had found himself in almost complete disagreement with the original operations plan handed down by Jodl in November. He was able to convince the Army Group B commander that a stand should be taken on a number of tactical points which, in Manteuffel's judgment, were essential to success in the forthcoming attack. In the last planning conference held at Hitler's headquarters, Model and Manteuffel combined forces in a forthright appeal that carried the day on a series of tactical decisions although it failed to sway the Fuehrer from his strategic decision for the Big Solution. The Fifth Panzer Army commander was bitterly opposed to that part of the plan which called for a tremendous opening barrage at 0800 and a two-hour artillery preparation before the attack jumped off. He argued that the enemy literally must not be awakened and that the assault forces should move forward the moment the guns sounded. This point was conceded when Hitler ruled that the artillery fires along the entire front would begin at 0530. Manteuffel also held strongly for infiltration tactics by small detachments, such as were conventionally employed by both opponents on the Eastern Front. Hitler himself seems to have favored this concept (it is found in the first Fuehrer operations order), but only in the Fifth Panzer attack would assault detachments be found inside the American positions when the initial barrage opened up.
Manteuffel likewise opposed the concept proposed by Jodl in which the attack would be carried by two panzer corps advancing in column. He wanted an attack on a broad front with both tank corps in the line at the opening gun-this point Hitler conceded. Viewing
the ground in front of his right armored corps as especially difficult, Manteuffel would give Generaloberst Walter Krueger's LVIII Panzer Corps a fairly narrow front for the initial assault. Believing that once across the Our River, his left armored attack force, General der Panzertruppen Heinrich Freiherr von Luettwitz' XLVII Panzer Corps, would find the going better than on the right, he assigned Luettwitz a rather wide front. In final form, the LVIII Panzer Corps' mission was to cross the Our River on both sides of Ouren, drive west on the Houffalize axis, and create a bridgehead over the Meuse River in the neighborhood of Namur and Andenne. At the same time the XLVII Panzer Corps would cross the Our in the vicinity of Dasburg and Gemünd, push west via Clerf, seize the vital road center at Bastogne, form in a deep column echeloned to the left and rear, then race for the Meuse River crossings south of Namur. Manteuffel had two armored formations in reserve, the Panzer Lehr Division and the Fuehrer Begleit Brigade.1 These he intended to throw in behind the armored corps which made the first bridgehead at the Our. Although success or failure would turn
on the operations of the two armored corps, the Fifth Panzer Army had been given a small infantry corps of two divisions to flesh out its right shoulder. This was General der Artillerie Walther Lucht's LXVI Corps. In early planning there had been some question as to whether the Americans in the Schnee Eifel should be left to the Fifth or the Sixth. Unhappy about this thorn in his side, Manteuffel won the assignment of the Schnee Eifel heights to his army and personally developed a scheme to mop up resistance in this sector at the earliest possible moment. Despite the general dictum that defended towns would be bypassed, Manteuffel wanted St. Vith as a blocking position and so ordered Lucht to capture it. Once through St. Vith the LXVI would follow Krueger to Andenne, but if things grew rough on the left wing Manteuffel intended to switch Lucht's corps to the south.
The Fifth Panzer commander seems to have been fairly optimistic, although he gave little ear to Hitler's promise of air support. He personally rated four of his armored divisions as good attack formations (the 116th, 2d, Panzer Lehr, and Fuehrer Begleit), and his panzer corps commanders were of his own choosing. Krueger and Luettwitz were old hands at mechanized warfare, had learned their business as commanders of the 1st and 2d Panzer Divisions, respectively, and had fought side by side in Lorraine. Krueger was the elder of the two and lacked something of Luettwitz' dash. The latter was a hard-driving commander, daring and tenacious, and had a reputation of giving help to neighboring formations without debate.
With this team Manteuffel hoped to win a quick penetration and get rolling. His first concern would be to gain the ridge west of the Our and thus cover the armor crossings, for he recognized that it would be a difficult stream to bridge. He expected that the tactics of predawn infiltration would pay off and that his assault detachments would have reached the crest line, Lascheid-Heinerscheid-Roder-Hosingen, before noon on D-day. He hoped that the armored debouchment into the bridgehead would commence during the early afternoon. Manteuffel had no precise schedule for his right wing but after the war was over would say that he had hoped for the seizure of St. Vith on the first day of the attack. One thing clearly worried him: would the Seventh Army keep pace and cover his left flank to Bastogne? His appeal for a mechanized division to be given the neighboring Seventh the Fuehrer personally denied.2
On the second day of December, a staff officer from General Luettwitz' XLVII Panzer Corps arrived at the headquarters of the Fifth Panzer Army to receive the highly secret word of a great counteroffensive in the Ardennes sector. At the moment Luettwitz' corps was fighting in the bogs and swamps of southwest Holland, where the 30 British Corps and the U.S. 84th Division had essayed an attack in the sector around Geilenkirchen intended to erase the salient retained by the Germans on the left flank of the US Ninth Army. Earlier the XLVII Panzer Corps headquarters had taken part in the Fifth Panzer Army counterattack against the US Third Army in September, had been given new divisions to spearhead the brief spoiling attack in late October against the British and American advance in southwest Holland, and had returned to the line in this sector in mid-November to bolster the failing German defenses. Luettwitz turned the Geilenkirchen sector over to the XVII SS Corps on 6 December and moved with his staff to Kyllburg, close to the Fifth Panzer Army headquarters, where a few trusted officers set feverishly to work on plans for Christrose, the code name for the coming offensive.
The mission given Luettwitz conformed to his reputation for drive and audacity. The XLVII Panzer Corps, if all went well, would cross the Our and Clerf Rivers, make a dash "over Bastogne" to the Meuse, seize the Meuse River crossings near Namur by surprise, and drive on through Brussels to Antwerp. Two thins were necessary to success. First, Luettwitz could not allow any slackening to an infantry pace by frontal attacks against strongly defended American positions. Second, he had to disregard his own flanks, particularly on the south, and resolutely refuse to detach any force for flank protection until the main body was west of the Meuse. The only security for the southern flank would have to come from an advance in echelon and such protection as the less mobile divisions of the Seventh Army could offer on the left.
Intelligence reports indicated that the elements of the US 28th Infantry Division likely to be encountered during the first hours of the attack were battle-weary, small in number, and widely dispersed. The problem then, as seen by Manteuffel and Luettwitz, was not how to achieve the initial breakthrough at the Our and Clerf Rivers, but rather how to employ the armor once these two rivers lay behind. The roads in the corps zone of attack were narrow, twisting, and certain to be muddy; they were particularly bad on the axis assigned to Luettwitz' southern columns. Just east of Bastogne the roads straightened somewhat, but good tank-going could not be expected until the Marche-Rochefort line was reached midway between Bastogne and the Meuse. The road center at Bastogne presented a special problem, a problem recognized in the first German plans. Luettwitz and the army commander ran at least two map exercises to arrive at a solution, but Bastogne lay nineteen air-miles west of the German jump-off positions on the Our River and the final orders to Luettwitz' divisions were couched in very general terms. One thing was agreed upon: Bastogne had to be taken before the bulk of the XLVII Panzer
The sector at the Our River in which Luettwitz' corps would begin the attack was a little over seven miles wide, the villages of Dahnen on the north and Stolzembourg on the south serving as boundary markers. This initial zone was roughly equivalent to the American defensive position manned west of the Our by the 110th Infantry, the center regiment of the 28th Infantry Division, although the width of the 110th front was about two miles greater than the front assigned the panzer corps. The latter consisted of three divisions. The 26th Volks Grenadier Division (Generalmajor Heinz Kokott) already was deployed in the Eifel sector of the West Wall adjacent to the Our where it covered not only the XLVII Panzer Corps zone but a wide frontage beyond. An old line division, the 26th had fought on the Eastern Front from July 1941 to the last days of September 1944, winning many decorations but little rest. Finally, after a grueling battle in the Baranôw-Warsaw sector the division was relieved for the first time since the beginning of the Russian campaign and brought back to Poznan, there receiving the title of Volks Grenadier (regarded as somewhat less than an honor by the survivors of the old regular army 26th Infantry Division).
To the surprise of the division staff the task of re-equipping and replenishing the 26th went amazingly fast for the beginning of the sixth year of the war. Replacements, mostly from the Navy, were whipped into shape by the "Old 26th," and first-rate equipment replaced that lost in the east. The division commander, officers, and noncoms were veterans; training throughout the division was reported as adequate. Ration strength was more than 17,000, and forty-two 75-mm. antitank guns supplemented the weapons organic to the conventional Volks Grenadier division. Like all such units, however, the 26th was geared to foot power and horsepower; there were 5,000 horses in the division, including a few of the tough "winterized" Russian breed. The new mission given General Kokott was this: the 26th would force the crossings at the Our and Clerf Rivers on the left of the corps, hold open for the armor, then follow the more mobile panzer units to Bastogne. At that crucial point the infantry had to take Bastogne as quickly as possible, with or without the help of the armored divisions. Once this barrier was passed the 26th would be responsible for covering the left flank of the corps while the armored divisions made the Meuse crossings.
The initial penetration by the corps' right was charged to the armored infantry of the famous 2d Panzer Division (Colonel Meinrad von Lauchert), a unit that had fought the Allies all the way from Normandy back to the German frontier. When the 2d Panzer Division was relieved at the end of September its tanks were gone, but there remained a large cadre of veterans who had escaped to the West Wall on foot. In the weeks that followed, the division rested and re-formed in the Bitburg-Wittlich area, its units moving constantly to escape Allied observation. Replacements, generally better than the average, were
brought in from Austria (the home station for the 2d Panzer Division was Vienna), and new-model Panther tanks, equipped for night fighting with the new infrared sighting apparatus, arrived fresh from assembly plants near Breslau. On the eve of commitment the two tank battalions were about full strength, with 27 Mark IV's, 58 Panthers, and 48 armored assault guns in the division tank parks. Sufficient trucks were available to motorize most of the division, but there was a shortage of tracked cross-country vehicles. One battalion of armored infantry was given bicycles, and would move so slowly through the mud and over the hills that its function during the drive to the west was simply that of a replacement battalion, feeding into the more mobile units up ahead.
Once the 2d Panzer Division had thrown a bridge across the Our at Dasburg and the 26th Volks Grenadier Division had put a bridge in at Gemünd, the well-known Panzer Lehr Division would be ready to roll, advancing behind the two forward divisions until the corps had cleared the Clerf River, then pushing ahead of the infantry on the corps left in the race to Bastogne. The Panzer Lehr (Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein) was one of the divisions earmarked in November for use in the Ardennes counteroffensive, but the American offensive in Lorraine and Alsace had forced OKW to release the Panzer Lehr from its position in the strategic reserve. Hitler had committed Bayerlein's tanks in an abortive counterattack designed to roll up the exposed flank of the American Third Army on the Saar.4 This Panzer Lehr thrust failed, and at the beginning of December Bayerlein's command was brought north to the Eifel district for an emergency attempt at refitting. Losses in equipment had been particularly heavy. Tanks, tank destroyers, and guns were rushed up from the depots at Mayen, but on 15 December the two panzer grenadier regiments were still missing 60 percent of their regular rifle strength and the panzer regiment had ready only one of its two battalions (with 27 Mark IV's and 30 Panthers). To compensate for the armored weakness of the battered division, two battalions of armored tank destroyers and an assault gun brigade were given Bayerlein just before the attack to the west began. The best troops and newest equipment were placed in the division reconnaissance battalion, heavily reinforced, which was slated to join the reconnaissance battalion of the 26th Volks Grenadier Division in spear-heading the advance once the Clerf River had been crossed.
With three divisions, and added corps troops, the XLVII Panzer Corps possessed a considerable amount of shock and fire power. Manteuffel allotted Luettwitz the 15th Volks Werfer Brigade (108 pieces), the 766th Volks Artillery Corps (76 pieces), the 600th Army Engineer Battalion, and the 182d Flak Regiment, all motorized. Each division was reinforced with additional self-propelled assault guns or tank destroyers and each had a full complement of divisional artillery (four battalions for the infantry division and three motorized battalions in the armored divisions). Finally Luettwitz was promised two 60-ton bridges-capable of carrying his Panthers-and very considerable support from the Luftwaffe. Both Luettwitz and Manteuffel had been "promised" air support
on numerous occasions before; so it is questionable whether either of them expected the Luftwaffe to make good. Luettwitz, at least, pinned his faith on bad flying weather, night operations, and the large number of flak guns dispersed through his columns.
The sector designated for the XLVII Panzer Corps breakthrough was held by the 1st and 3d Battalions of the 110th Infantry (28th Infantry Division), commanded by Col. Hurley E. Fuller. This regiment formed the division center, with the 112th Infantry on the north and the 109th Infantry aligned to the south. Battered and fatigued by weary, bloody fighting in the Hürtgen Forest, the 28th Division came into the quiet front on the Our during mid-November. 5 During the division attack of 2-1 November in the Schmidt-Vossenack sector the 28th had taken 6,184 casualties. The task of rebuilding the rifle companies, repairing battle damage, and training replacements was of necessity a slow one. But by the middle of December the 110th Infantry had almost a full roster-a roster numbering many men and some officers who yet had to see their first action. The 109th and 112th were in like status.
Fuller had only two battalions at his disposal because the 2d Battalion, located at Donnange, constituted the division reserve. Anything even remotely resembling a continuous line across the 9- to 10-mile regimental front was beyond the strength of the 1st and 3d Battalions. As a substitute, a system of village strongpoints-each manned in about rifle company strength-was set up on the ridge line separating the Our and Clerf Rivers, which here is traced by the excellent north-south highway connecting St. Vith and Diekirch. This highway (known to the Americans as the Skyline Drive) and the garrison line paralleled the Our at a distance of one and a half to two and a half miles. Each battalion was responsible for five outposts along the west bank of the Our, but these vantage points were occupied only during daylight hours and then in squad strength. At night the strip between the ridge and the river became a no man's land where German and American patrols stalked one another. Even in daytime it was possible for German patrols to move about on the west bank, using the cover provided by the deep, wooded draws.
The Our, in many places, was no more than forty feet wide and easily fordable, but the roads leading to the river made circuitous and abrupt descent as they neared its banks. In the 110th zone four roads ran from the German border at the Our, up and over the Skyline Drive, and down to the Clerf. The American strongpoints were therefore located with an eye to blocking these entry ways while at the same time defending the lateral ridge road which connected the 110th with its neighboring regiments and provided the main artery sustaining the entire division front. The northernmost of the four roads had a good all-weather surface, was the only main through road running east to west through the area, and gave direct access to Clerf and Bastogne. The Germans planned to connect this route to their own supply lines by bridging the Our at Dasburg. The remaining roads
through the 110th sector normally were poor but were made worse by the rains prior to 16 December; the 26th Volks Grenadier Division intended to enter the two southernmost roads by throwing a bridge across at Gemünd.6
The Americans had identified the 26th long since as the unit garrisoning the West Wall bunkers on the German bank. The presence of two panzer units on the 110th Infantry front was not suspected. General Cota and the 28th Division Staff were prepared for some kind of German effort west of the Our, but the intelligence coming down from higher headquarters pointed only to the possibility of a limited German attack against the 109th Infantry and the American communications running north from Luxembourg City. There was no hint from any source that the enemy was about to strike squarely into the center of the 8th Division and in overwhelming array.
In the late afternoon of 15 December General Luettwitz gathered his division commanders in the XLVII Panzer Corps forward headquarters at Ringhuscheid for final instructions and introduction to the new commander of the 2d Panzer Division, Colonel von Lauchert, who had been selected at the last moment by the Fifth Panzer Army leader to replace an incumbent who was not an experienced tanker. Lauchert arrived too late to meet all of his regimental commanders, but the 2d Panzer, like the rest of the corps, was already in position to move the moment darkness came. Apprehensive lest the Americans be prematurely warned, Army Group B had forbidden the movement of any troops across the Our in advance of the opening barrage set for 0530 on 16 December. Conforming to these instructions the 2d Panzer Division moved its assault columns to Dasburg during the night of 15-16 December but halted in assembly areas east of the river.
On the corps left, however, General Kokott and the 26th Volks Grenadier Division jumped the gun. Kokott's screening regiment, the 78th, had been in the habit of throwing out an outpost line west of the Our from nightfall till dawn. On the evening of 15 December the outpost troops, considerably reinforced, crossed to the west bank as usual and moved cautiously forward. About 0300 engineers manning pneumatic rubber boats began ferrying the 80-man assault companies and heavy infantry weapons across the river. As each company debarked it marched inland to the line of departure which the outpost force now held close to the American garrison points. The 77th Regiment formed on the right near Hosingen and the 39th, echeloned to the left and rear, assembled in the woods north of Wahlhausen. With surprise almost certainly assured and the knowledge that the Americans
had no cohesive line of defense, General Kokott had ordered the 77th Regiment to circle north of Hosingen and head straight for the Clerf bridges at Drauffelt, while the 39th cut cross-country, avoiding the villages on the western side of the ridge line, and seized the road junction and bridges at Wilwerwiltz on the Clerf. The eye of the division commander would be on the assault echelons of his right wing regiment, for they would make the main effort to reach the Clerf. The timetable for the 26th Volks Grenadier Division advance called for both its attacking regiments to reach the Clerf River by nightfall of the first day. Adherence to this schedule meant that the villages garrisoned by the American companies would have to be avoided or captured quickly.
The units of the 110th Infantry were disposed as follows to face three full German divisions. On the left of the regimental zone, the 1st Battalion (Lt. Col. Donald Paul) held the intersection of the Skyline Drive and the Dasburg-Bastogne main highway at Marnach, employing Company B and a platoon from the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion. To the southwest, Company C and the regimental cannon company were deployed in and around Munshausen, guarding the side road which cut cross-country from Marnach to Drauffelt. Company A, at Heinerscheid, was on the extreme left flank of the 110th and so lay outside the path of the XLVII Panzer Corps attack, as did Company D at Grindhausen. The 3d Battalion (Maj. Harold F. Milton) formed the regimental right, with its companies on both sides of the ridge line. Company K, reinforced by Company B, 103d Engineer Combat Battalion, garrisoned Hosingen, a village on the Skyline Drive overlooking two of the four roads which wound from the Our up over the ridge. To the south Company I held Weiler-les-Putscheid, a hamlet in a knot of trails and byroads on the forward slopes of the ridge line. The 110th Antitank Company was in Hoscheid just to the west. Both of these positions lay adjacent to the prospective boundary between the XLVII and LXXXV Corps. West of the ridge, Company L in Holzthum and the headquarters company and Company M in Consthum barred a direct approach to the Clerf crossing site at Wilwerwiltz. Behind the Clerf River and to the west of the regimental command post in the town of Clerf the 2d Battalion (Lt. Col. Ross C. Henbest) lay in divisional reserve. Separated of necessity by the width of the front and the requirements of some depth in the defenses athwart the east-west roads, the units of the 110th could offer little reciprocal support against an enemy attacking in any force.
The massed guns and Werfers of the XLVII Panzer Corps which roared out at 0530 on 16 December gave the Americans their first warning. But the tactical effect of this artillery preparation was considerably less than the German planners had anticipated. The telephone wires connecting the American-held villages were shot out in the first few minutes and Fuller could not reach any of his battalions; artillery radios, however, continued to function. The German barrage, with a limited number of rounds at the guns, dwindled away after about half an hour to sporadic salvos and stray single shots, leaving the advancing infantry without cover while they were still short of the American positions.
The first word of the approaching enemy reached the 110th Infantry headquarters at Clerf shortly after 0615. Company L, on the western side of the ridge at Holzthum, reported figures in the half-light but, peering through the ground fog, which clung all along the division front, could not be sure whether they were American troops passing through the area or the enemy. In fact, detachments of the 39th Regiment had crossed the Skyline Drive unobserved and were moving in to surprise Holzthum. To some extent, then, Kokott's decision in favor of premature assembly west of the Our had gained ground for the 26th. Fuller, however, was able to get a warning message through to the 28th Division command post about 0900.
As the morning passed the small German detachments west of the ridge increased in strength. Before noon five separate assaults had been made at Consthum, but all were beaten off by small arms, .50-caliber, and artillery fire. Finally the Germans took the village, only to be driven out again. A German attempt to cut the road between Consthum and Holzthum failed when Capt. Norman G. Maurer, 3 of the 3d Battalion, leading a sortie of twenty men, surprised the enemy and drove him back with very heavy casualties. Between Holzthum and Buchholz, Battery C of the 109th Field Artillery was hit hard but held its positions, firing the 105-mm. howitzers with one- and two-second fuzes. The battery commander and fifteen gunners were casualties of the close-range fight before help arrived. This came late in the morning, after the 28th Division commander, General Cota, ordered a tank platoon from the 707th man infantry out of the Battery C area.
The 26th Volks Grenadier Division poured more troops into the 3d Battalion sector, compressing the American companies in the village positions. At the crossroads village of Hosingen atop the Skyline Drive, the leading detachments of the 77th swung to the north, cutting the road but moving on in the direction of the Clerf. The 2d Battalion of the 77th, under the cover provided by German artillery, drove in to the south edge of Hosingen, contrary to orders, and there grappled in house-to-house fighting with Company D and Company B, 103d Engineer Battalion. Meanwhile the 39th Regiment, echeloned to the left of the 77th, ran into a snag. The 1st Platoon of Company I had been deployed along the Wahlhausen road on the forward slope of the ridge, covering an observation post. From this point the American artillery observers could see the enemy assembling in the woods just to the north. Accurately adjusted fire held the enemy battalion at bay and forced it to call on neighboring battalions, attacking Weiler, to help outflank the thin infantry line on the Wahlhausen road.
The defenders at Weiler would not be easily pushed aside. Company I (minus the platoon at Wahlhausen), a section of 81-mm. mortars, and an antitank platoon repelled wave after wave of attacking German infantry. When the mortar crews and antitank platoon had used all their ammunition they joined the infantry in the center of the village and fought as riflemen. Twice during the morning the attackers were allowed to send in aid men and remove their wounded. At 1330 the enemy ceased
GERMAN TROOPS ADVANCING PAST ABANDONED AMERICAN EQUIPMENT
fire and sent forward a white flag, with an offer for the Americans to surrender. When this was refused the Germans systematically set to work to surround the village; by dark they had ringed Weiler.
In the 1st Battalion zone to the north the advance detachments of the 2d Panzer Division moved straight for Marnach, attempting with one quick blow to clear the Americans obstructing the through road from Dasburg to Clerf.7 While the German engineers labored at the Dasburg site to bring their heavy tank bridging equipment down to the river, the 28th Panzer Engineer Battalion and the 2d Battalion, 304th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, crossed the Our in rubber boats and moved west through the predawn darkness. The advance was delayed somewhat when the grenadiers marched into an American mine field, but by 0800 the leading Germans had reached Marnach. Company B and a platoon of the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion were well entrenched there and gave the Germans a warm reception, although themselves under fire from batteries east of the Our. Minus his heavy weapons, the enemy failed to knock the
Marnach garrison out of the way, but an hour later Company B radioed that three hundred Germans were northwest and southwest of Marnach. The 1st Battalion commander had already ordered Company A, located three miles farther north on the Skyline Drive at Heinerscheid, to send a patrol south and make contact with Company B. In midmorning Paul ordered Company C to march north from Munshausen, leaving the cannon company there, and counterattack the Germans in the Company B area.
By this time, however, the advance infantry detachments of the 2d Panzer Division were not only involved in a battle to knock out Marnach but were pushing past the village en route to Clerf. The 24-man patrol from Company A ran into the German flank at Fishbach, about 1120, and had to withdraw under intense fire. Two hours later the enemy struck at Company A, apparently an attempt to clear the north-south Skyline Drive, but artillery fire beat him off. In the meantime the Company C advance north toward Marnach also ran into trouble: persistent small arms fire forced the infantry to leave the road and move slowly across country. Tanks, ordered up from the division reserve, had not yet arrived. In Marnach the hard-beset garrison fought on, now under the command of the battalion executive officer, Capt. J. H. Burns, who had taken over when the company commander was wounded.
Back to the west, in the 28th Division command post at Wiltz, General Cota took what steps he could to help the 110th Infantry. The bulk of his very limited reserve consisted of the 2d Battalion, 110th Infantry, and the 707th Tank Battalion. By the middle of the morning it was apparent that the VIII Corps was under attack all along the front and that the 28th Division would have to make out with what it had. Radio communication, which was functioning fairly well, showed that the division center was most endangered. About 1000, therefore, General Cota ordered Companies A and B of the 707th Tank Battalion to reinforce the 110th Infantry, with the intention of clearing up the deepest enemy penetrations and sweeping the ridge road clear. Although Fuller pled for the return of the 2d Battalion to his regiment, Cota refused to release this last division reserve.
Shortly before noon a platoon of Company B's tanks reached the hardpressed field artillery battery near Buchholz and reported the situation in hand.8 But the enemy here represented only the probing forefinger of the main attack. Company B moved east to aid the 3d Battalion, and Company A, less a platoon in mobile reserve at Clerf, moved to the northern sector. At nearly every point the American tanks would have to fight their way down the roads to reach the infantry holding the villages. To the east, at Dasburg, the German engineers were straining to finish the tank bridge which would bring the German armor into play. Time was running out for the American companies: ammunition
was low and the short winter day was drawing to a close-with the likelihood that the small garrisons would be overwhelmed in the darkness by sheer weight of numbers.
On the Wahlhausen road the 3d Battalion observation post, defended by the Company I platoon, called for ammunition and was told that tanks were being sent with resupply. At Weiler the rest of the company and the antitank platoon, their supply of ammunition dwindling, also awaited the tanks. For some reason the tank platoon sent from the 707th had not reached the Company I area when night fell. About 1830 troops at the battalion observation post reported that enemy vehicles were attacking with multiple 20-mm. guns and asked for American artillery fire on their own positions. This was the end. Only one man escaped. At Weiler the Americans, with only a few rounds left, were completely surrounded and decided to fight their way out. They divided into two groups and headed west through the enemy lines.
On the west slopes of the ridge a platoon of medium tanks was committed early in the afternoon to drive the Germans off the side road linking Holzthum and Consthum. Co-ordination between small packets of infantry and armor, hard at best, was made most difficult by this kind of piecemeal commitment. The tankers had been told that there were no friendly troops on the road and just Outside Holzthum knocked out an antitank gun placed there by Company I. After some delay, while the tank platoon and the infantry identified themselves, the tanks rolled south to the 3d Battalion headquarters at Consthum. At Hosingen, on the ridge road, Company D and Company B were fighting German infantry hand to hand inside the village. In response to their call for reinforcement and ammunition four tanks fought their way through the German infantry along the Skyline Drive, arriving in Hosingen about 2200-but with no rifle ammunition.
In the 1st Battalion sector, late in the afternoon, two tank platoons arrived in Munshausen to support Company C, already on its way north to relieve Company B in Marnach. Company C had been driven off the road, and the tanks, missing the infantry entirely, rolled into Marnach. One tank platoon remained there to bolster the defense, while the other turned back to the south, picked up Company C, and, on orders, returned with the infantry to Munshausen. About dusk the Marnach garrison radioed that half-tracks could be heard moving toward the village. This was the last word from Marnach. Late in the afternoon, Colonel Fuller had ordered Company D, a platoon of heavy machine guns, and a provisional rifle company hastily assembled from men on pass in Clerf, to move to Reuler and protect Battery B of the 109th Field Artillery Battalion, then firing in support of the troops in Marnach and very hard pressed by the enemy. These reinforcements arrived at Reuler in time to take a hand against the Germans pouring past Marnach toward Clerf and its bridges. But Battery A of the battalion was swept up by the Germans who had bypassed the left wing anchor of the regiment at Heinerscheid.
During most of this first day of attack the German infantry had fought west of the Our without heavy weapons, although the bulk of two regiments from
both the 26th Volks Grenadier Division and the 2d Panzer Division had crossed the river and taken some part in the fight. Shortly before dark the 60-ton bridges were completed at Gemünd and Dasburg (inexperienced engineers and the difficulties attendant on moving the heavy structures down to the river bed had slowed construction markedly), and the German tanks and assault guns moved across to give the coup de grâce to the villages still defended by the 110th Infantry. On the left the 26th Volks Grenadier Division finally achieved contact with the 5th Parachute Division, which had been advancing cautiously along the boundary between the 109th and 110th Infantry and had done nothing to help Kokott's southern regiment, the 39th. With an open left flank and under artillery fire called down by the American observation post on the Wahlhausen road, the 39th swerved from the westward axis of attack and became involved at Weiler, contrary to orders. There the American tank platoon from Company B, 707th Tank Battalion, hit into the German flank while attempting to reach Weiler and, it would appear, caused disorganization and confusion. Kokott's right, the 77th Regiment, pushed elements beyond Hosingen (actually moving between the 1st and 3d Battalions of the 110th Infantry), but these detachments, stopped by the American 105-mm. howitzers and the tank platoon near Buchholz, again had to side-step in the drive to the Clerf. Back at Hosingen the attempt to break American resistance had won an early lodgment in the south edge of the village, but had achieved no more. The 26th Volks Grenadier Division needed Hosinen badly. Without it the western exit road from the Gemünd bridge was hopelessly blocked; through Hosingen ran the main divisional supply route to the Clerf. Just before dark, therefore, Kokott threw a part of his replacement training battalion into the action; these fresh troops succeeded in forcing their way into the north edge of the village, although with heavy losses.
A whole series of monkey wrenches had been thrown into the well-oiled machinery of the 26th Volks Grenadier Division. The American infantry had made excellent use of the ground and had held their positions, refusing to buckle under the weight of numbers. The 39th Regiment had got involved in local actions and been diverted from the westward axis-sustaining high losses in the bargain. The 77th had been unable to win a quick decision at Hosingen. Now, at the end of the day, the armored reconnaissance battalion of the Panzer Lehr Division found itself crawling rather than racing west from the Gemünd bridge. The road to Hosingen was muddy and winding; but worse, at the western exit of the bridge an American abatis and a series of bomb craters blocked the flow of traffic. A few light tanks and self-propelled guns got forward late in the evening, but the bulk of the Panzer Lehr reconnaissance battalion remained backed up at the bridge. Kokott's infantry would have to carry the battle through the night. The 39th regrouped and turned to assault Holzthum and Consthum in force. The 77th marched toward Drauffelt on the Clerf River, leaving the replacement training battalion to continue the fight at Hosingen. Kokott's reserve regiment, the 78th, crossed the Our at dusk and moved forward
between the two assault regiments. On the right its 1st Battalion marched on Hosingen, bringing flame throwers and self-propelled guns to blast the Americans from the village; the 2d Battalion moved straight for the Clerf River, aiming at control of the crossings and road net at Wilwerwiltz. The 26th Volks Grenadier Division was across the Our River in force but had failed to gain its first-day objective, control of the Clerf River crossings. The German infantry would have to fight step by step; the hope of a quick breakthrough had proven illusory.
The story in the 2d Panzer Division zone was the same. There the infantry driving toward the town of Clerf had been stopped short of their objective. Marnach remained in American hands, even after the Dasburg bridge was completed and the leading tanks of the 3d Panzer Regiment entered the fight. The 304th Regiment had suffered severely at American hands: the regimental commander was a casualty and one battalion had been badly scattered during the piecemeal counterattacks by the American tank platoons.
General Luettwitz was none too pleased with the progress made by his two attack divisions on this first day. But the credit side of the ledger showed a few entries. The two heavy tank bridges were the Americans obviously were weakening, and the 2d Panzer Division had been able to move its tanks forward on the relatively good road in the northern part of the corps zone. Luettwitz concluded that the Clerf River now would be crossed not later than the evening of the second day.
Across the lines General Cota had little reason to expect that the 110th Infantry could continue to delay the German attack at the 28th Division center as it had this first day. But at dark he ordered his regimental commanders to hold their positions "at all costs" and began preparations to commit his remaining reserves to restore the situation in the Marnach sector and block the road to Clerf. This seemed to be the most endangered sector of the whole division front, for here the 2d Panzer Division had been identified and here was the main hard-surface road to Bastogne. As yet, however, the Americans had no way of knowing that the bulk of the 2d Panzer Division actually was moving down the road to Clerf or that a counterattack would collide with any such German force.
Meanwhile, General Middleton, the VIII Corps commander, issued a holdfast order to all his troops. All VIII Corps units were to hold their positions until they were "completely untenable," and in no event would they fall back beyond a specified final defense line. In the 110th Infantry sector this line ran through Lieler and Buchholz to Lellingen. It was breached at midnight when tanks and self-propelled guns of the 3d Panzer Regiment entered Marnach.
General Cota still had in hand a reserve on the night of the 16th, but it was the last reserve of the 28th Division. It consisted of the 2d Battalion, 110th Infantry, at Donnange and the light tank company of the 707th Tank Battalion, which was located at Weiswampach behind the division north flank in support of the 112th Infantry. By the late evening the picture as seen at the division command post had cleared to this extent: the two flank regiments, the 109th and 112th, had lost
relatively little ground; the 110th was very hard pressed; and German tanks were moving along the main road to Bastogne by way of Marnach. At 2100, therefore, General Cota turned the reserve rifle battalion back to the 110th Infantry, minus Company G which was moved to Wiltz to defend the division command post, and agreed with Colonel Fuller's proposal that the battalion be used in an attack eastward to restore American control at Marnach. At the same time the light tank company in the 112th area was alerted by division headquarters for an attack south along the Skyline Drive, also directed toward Marnach, as soon as daylight came. To complete the concentration against the enemy in or around Marnach, Colonel Fuller ordered the medium tank platoon in Munshausen to attack to the northeast with a rifle platoon from Company C. When Fuller heard of the light tanks, he ordered Colonel Henbest to delay the 2d Battalion attack next morning until the incoming tank detachment was ready to attack on the Skyline Drive.
There was still hope on the morning of 17 December that at least one platoon from Company B was holding on in Marnach. About 0730 the two rifle companies of the 2d Battalion jumped off at the ridge east of Clerf. In a matter of minutes the left company ran into a strong German skirmish line, deployed at the edge of a wood, which was supported by tanks and self-propelled artillery firing from around Marnach. The battalion commander ordered his right company down to block the paved road from Marnach to Clerf, but this road was in the hands of the 2d Panzer Division, whose tanks were rolling toward wing of the 110th, had been overrun or forced to displace. Only one battery of the 109th Field Artillery Battalion was firing during the morning and it ran low on ammunition. This battery was driven from Buchholz with the loss of half its howitzers. By noon the 2d Battalion, helpless against massed tanks and without artillery support, was held in check along the ridge running southwest from Urspelt to the Clerf road, only a thousand yards from its line of departure.
The southern prong of the three-pronged counterattack to shut off the German armored drive moving through Marnach toward Clerf also was outgunned and outnumbered but did reach Marnach, only to report that no friendly infantry could be found. About 1000 the small tank-infantry team was allowed to return to its original position at Munshausen, and Fuller then ordered the tank platoon to fight its way to Clerf and help defend the town. These two attacks from west and south had made no headway but were not too costly.
The attack by the light tank company of the 707th along the Skyline Drive was disastrous. About 0720 the company crossed into the 110th Infantry zone, where the ground rose away from the highway and forced the tanks to advance in column on the road. As the column emerged from the village of Heinerscheid, concealed high-velocity guns opened on the skimpily armored light tanks, picking them off like clay pipes in a shooting gallery. Eight tanks were knocked out by the enemy gunners and in the confusion three more fell prey to bazooka fire. The entire action lasted ten minutes. Two of the American tanks
destroyed during the German assault later in the day. The company commander withdrew the remaining five tanks on a side road and reached Urspelt, taking position near the 2d Battalion command post.9
The American pincers action had failed to constrict at Marnach. Yet there was still an opportunity to retard the 2d Panzer march along the road to Bastogne. Less than two miles west of Marnach lay the Clerf River and the town of Clerf, the latter the headquarters of the 110th Infantry. The town itself lies in a horseshoe bend of the river. From town and river rise wooded and precipitous slopes, particularly sharp and difficult to the east. Descent to the town and its bridges is made on this side by two winding roads. The main paved road from Marnach approaches Clerf through a shallow draw, passing just to the south of the little village of Reuler, which perches on the high ground overlooking the river bend. This road makes a twisted and tortuous descent to the valley floor, finally crossing the river at the southeastern edge of the town and proceeding
through narrow streets until it emerges on the north. A secondary road, on the right of the through highway to Bastogne, approaches Clerf from the hamlet of Urspelt. A sharp hairpin turn breaks the descent; then the road crosses the river into the northern edge of Clerf near the railroad station and enters the main highway. In sum, the way through Clerf would be none too easy for an armored division.10
Colonel Fuller's command post was in a hotel only a few yards from the north bridge. Across town the regimental headquarters company was billeted in an ancient château, now partially modernized but retaining the heavy stone walls behind which, since the twelfth century, fighting men had dominated the river bend and controlled the main bridge site. In the late evening of 16 December German artillery began to range into Clerf, apparently covering the advance of patrols from Marnach. About 0345 the German artillery quieted. Small detachments with burp guns now crept down through the dark and engaged the troops in and around the château. At dawn a single tank or self-propelled gun began firing from the curving road to the south; more enemy infantry joined the fire fight near the château as the morning advanced.
Then rolling down the Marnach road came the German advance guard, perhaps two platoons of Mark IV tanks and as many as thirty half-tracks filled with armored grenadiers. Colonel Fuller had ordered a platoon of the 2d Battalion to swing south and bar the road, but it was already dominated by the German armor. About 0930 the 2d Platoon of Company A, 707th Tank Battalion, climbed out of Clerf to meet the German Mark IV's. At the top of the ascent the tanks met: four German tanks were knocked out, three American tanks destroyed. The 1st Platoon of Company A, which had returned to Munshausen after the unsuccessful attempt to reach Marnach, moved north meanwhile to help the 2d Platoon. A radio message alerted the commander to the danger of a direct approach; so the platoon and some accompanying infantry entered Clerf by a secondary road along the river. German tanks opened fire on them, but a direct hit stopped the leading Mark IV, for the moment effectively blocking the serpentine approach from Marnach. At the château, however, headquarters company still was hard pressed by riflemen and machine gunners in the houses nearby. And German tanks still fired from the eastern height. Shortly before noon German pressure noticeably relaxed. East of Clerf the left flank of the 2d Battalion started to move forward against an enemy assembly point in a woods northeast of Reuler. This threat north of the Marnach road seems to have caused the German commander some concern. Then too, some welcome tank support had arrived on the scene. On General Middleton's order, CCR, 9th Armored Division, had put a task force backstop position behind the threatened center of the 28th Division. Company B of the 2d Tank Battalion, en route to set up a roadblock northeast of Clerf, was appropriated by General Cota and sent to support the 110th Infantry. It arrived in Clerf with nineteen medium tanks. Colonel Fuller set
one platoon to clearing the Germans out of the south end of town, sent one platoon to Reuler to help the 2d Battalion, and, sent one to the 1st Battalion at Heinerscheid where the light tanks of the 707th Tank Battalion had been smashed earlier in the day. The appearance of the Shermans in Clerf cooled the ardor of the German infantry.
The 2d Panzer Division advance guard had taken a bloody nose on the Marnach road, but more tanks and infantry were arriving hourly and maneuver was possible. During the afternoon the Germans pressed the 2d Battalion back through Reuler, the Americans fighting stubbornly with the aid of the dwindling tank force from the 9th Armored Division and the few remaining towed tank destroyers of Company B, 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion. A platoon of self-propelled tank destroyers had arrived early in the afternoon but left precipitately, losing one gun as it careened down the road back through Clerf. Shortly before dusk Companies E and F dug in on a ridge north of Reuler under a rain of German shells. On their left German tanks were wiping out the last posts of the 1st Battalion. At Heinerscheid, Company A had been overrun in midafternoon, leaving open an avenue into the 2d Battalion left flank. Then the enemy grenadiers encircled the American roadblock at Urspelt, whereupon the light tank platoon destroyed its single remaining tank and withdrew on foot to Wiltz-the 2d Battalion flanks were wide open.
Colonel Lauchert was worried about the slow rate of the 2d Panzer advance. He even dispatched a kampfgruppe to seize a bridge considerably south of Clerf apparently intending to swing his attack column to a poorer road in the event that Clerf continued to hold. But now the north road into the town was open. A small tank-infantry team blasted the single 57-mm. antitank gun in the path and crossed the bridge at the railroad station. At the same time a tank platoon, shrouded in darkness and with no American tanks left to contest the passage, wound its way into the south end of Clerf. At l825 Colonel Fuller phoned the 28th Division chief of staff that his command post was under fire and that enemy tanks occupied the town. Fuller and some of his staff made their escape, hoping to join Company G, which had been released at division headquarters and was supposed to be coming in from the west. Later Colonel Fuller was captured, with a group of stragglers he commanded, while attempting to break through to the west. At 1839 the sergeant at the regimental switchboard called the division to report that he was alone-only the switchboard was left.
This was not quite the end in Clerf. At the château by the south bridge 102 officers and men of the regimental headquarters company still were in action. Around them Clerf was crawling with tanks, for most of the Mark IV Battalion of the 3d Panzer Regiment had assembled in the town during the night. Perhaps the tankers were too busy looting the American freight cars and supply dumps to bother with the little force in the château. Perhaps they did not care to risk bazooka fire in the dark. In any case the defenders made radio contact (their last) with the 28th Division as late as 0528 on the morning of 18 December. The final word on the defense of Clerf would come from the enemy.
At dawn the Panther Battalion of the 3d Panzer Regiment came clanking into Clerf, after a night move from the Our River, and found tanks from the Mark IV Battalion playing cat and mouse with the Americans in the château. Bullet fire from the old stone walls was no menace to armored vehicles, bazooka teams sent down from the château were killed or captured, and the German tank battalions moved on, north and west toward Bastogne. But the German infantry were more vulnerable and their march was delayed for several hours before engineers and self-propelled 88's finally set the riddled château afire and forced the Americans to surrender. It is impossible to assess in hours the violence done the 2d Panzer Division timetable at Clerf, but it is clear that the race by this division to Bastogne was lost as the result of the gallant action by the 110th Infantry in front of and at the Clerf crossings.
On 18 December what was left of the 110th Infantry was wiped out or withdrew to the west.11 Survivors in the north headed toward Donnange and, with Company G, joined elements of the 9th Armored Division to make a stand. Those in the south fell back toward Wiltz, the division command post. The 2d Battalion, surrounded on the ridge east of Clerf, attempted to filter through the enemy lines in the early morning hours. Seven officers and fifty to sixty men did reach Donnange. Of the 1st Battalion, only a part of Company C retained its organization. It had held on at Munshausen, with the 110th Cannon Company and a section of tank destroyers, all through the 17th.12 The riflemen and cannoneers made a fight of it, barricading the village streets with overturned trucks, fighting from house to house. After the Germans captured the howitzers, a bazooka team of a company officer and a sergeant held the enemy tanks at bay, destroying two which ventured into the village. Before daybreak on 18 December the survivors, now only a handful, started west.
Remnants of the 3d Battalion had assembled at Consthum, the battalion headquarters. The garrison of a hundred or so was reinforced by Company L, ordered back from Holzthum to avoid entrapment. After dark on 17 December a captain led in about twenty-five men of Company I from Weiler, after a desperate march, narrow escapes, and an ambuscade. Only Company K in Hosingen was yet to be heard from. For two days and nights Company K and Company B of the 103d Engineer Combat Battalion fought off all enemy attempts to eradicate this block on the Skyline Drive. On the morning of the 17th German tanks had set the town ablaze, but the few American Shermans had held them at bay. By that night the defenders were without ammunition, but they continued the battle with hand grenades, withdrawing slowly and stubbornly from house to house. The American
artillery by this time had displaced to the west and was out of range. Finally, on the morning of 18 December, the surviving members of the garrison sent out a last radio message; they had no choice but surrender.
After the fall of Hosingen the 3d Battalion elements in Consthum offered the last organized resistance in the 28th Infantry Division center east of the Clerf River. Col. Daniel Strickler, the regimental executive officer, who now had assumed command at Consthum, organized a perimeter defense of the town, set out mines along the approaches, and disposed his three effective tanks and three armored cars to watch for the enemy armor known to be on the road from Holzthum. Some artillery support was still available from a battery of the 687th Field Artillery Battalion, whose shells swept the open fields between the two villages. A half hour before dawn on 18 December German guns and mortars opened heavy fire. With daylight the fire lifted and the enemy infantry advanced, attacking in one wave after another as the morning progressed but making no headway. About 1300 a thick, soupy December fog rolled in on the village. Under this natural smoke screen German tanks and grenadiers poured into Consthum. While tanks dueled in the street like gunmen of the Old West the 3d Battalion made its orderly way out the west side of the town, reorganized, and as night descended marched to Nocher. There it dug in to defend the battery which had given aid during the battle. The Bofors crews belonging to the 447th Antiaircraft Artillery lingered on near Consthum as a rear guard, discouraging all pursuit with their fast, accurate fire. The next day General Cota ordered the battalion to Wiltz, where it would take part in the defense of the division headquarters.
The German attack to penetrate the front lines of the 28th Division succeeded on the first day of the offensive in splitting the 112th Infantry from the rest of the division. For this reason the fight put up by the 112th Infantry on the north flank of the division had little or no effect on the operations of its sister regiment east of Bastogne. Furthermore, lack of communication between the 28th Division and its northern regiment would ultimately force the regimental commander, Col. Gustin M. Nelson, to act on his own. The action of the 112th Infantry in this part of the 28th Division story stands therefore as an episode in itself until, after four days' fighting, the regiment joins the forces arrayed in defense of St. Vith.13
When the 28th Division arrived on the VIII Corps front in mid-November its regiments were in pitiable condition. The fight in the Schmidt area had cost the 112th Infantry alone about 2,000 killed, wounded, missing, and nonbattle casualties. In a month's time the flow of replacements had brought the regiment to full strength. The regimental commander believed that morale had been restored to a high degree and that the new officers and men now were fairly well trained.
The sector held by the 112th Infantry was approximately six miles wide. Most of the positions occupied lay on the east
or German bank of the Our River. In the north, contact was maintained with the 106th Infantry Division at a point northwest of Lützkampen. The regimental position, really a series of squad and platoon posts, followed a ridge line south through Harspelt and Sevenig, then bent back across the Our and followed the western slopes of the river nearly to Kalborn. Here in the south daylight patrols also operated to maintain control of the eastern bank, although the main positions were around Lieler and Lausdorn.
The 229th Field Artillery Battalion was emplaced behind the north flank near Welchenhausen on the German side of the river. Two rifle battalions manned the main battle positions east of the Our: the 1st facing Lützkampen, the 3d occupying and flanking Sevenig. The 2d Battalion manned observation posts and operated patrols across the river but was deployed in a refused position west of the Our. It was accounted the regimental reserve, having fixed schemes of employment for support of the two battalions in the north by counterattack either northeast or southeast.
Hills intersected by wooded draws marked the terrain in this sector. Extensive pine forests covered much of the area, making observation difficult. In general the ground on the east bank commanded. The road net was adequate, although mired by constant rain, but the two forward battalions had to be supplied at night because of German fire. The 3d Battalion positions on the German bank were built around captured pillboxes, for here earlier American advances had pierced the first line of the German West Wall. Since most of these works were "blind" the final protective line turned on foxholes and extensive patches of barbed wire which the battalion itself had constructed. Because the West Wall angled away to the east near Lützkampen the 1st Battalion was denied pillbox protection but, at the insistence of the regimental commander, had constructed a foxhole line with great care.
Aside from patrol activity (generally small raids against individual pillboxes) the 112th Infantry sector had been quiet. Men in the observation posts watched the enemy move about his daily chores and reported flares and occasional rounds of mortar or artillery fire. Early in the month the Germans had undertaken what appeared to be a routine relief in their forward positions. On the nights of 14 and 15 December, sounds of horse-drawn vehicles and motors moving in slow gear drifted to the American outposts; but since the same commotion had attended an earlier relief in the German lines, it was reported and perfunctorily dismissed.
The stir and movement in the enemy lines during the two nights prior to 16 December was occasioned by troops moving in and troops moving out. The 26th Volks Grenadier Division, which had allowed the 112th to go about its training program with only very minor interruption, marched south to join the XLVII Panzer Corps and take part in the attack for Bastogne. Its pillboxes and supporting positions were occupied in greater strength as the LVIII Panzer Corps (Krueger) moved in. In the first German blueprint for the Ardennes counteroffensive the latter corps had been assigned four divisions and the mission of driving to and across the
Meuse River on the right of its old comrade, the XLVII Panzer Corps. The mission remained, but the troops available on 16 December were less than half the number promised: one armored division, the 116th Panzer Division, and two-thirds of an infantry division, the 560th Volks Grenadier Division.
The 116th had fought itself out in almost continuous battles during the withdrawal across France and the defense of the West Wall but had a fine reputation and was fairly well refitted. It had ninety-two Panthers and forty-seven Mark IV tanks; perhaps 40 percent of its organic vehicles were missing. The 560th, activated from inexperienced garrison units in Norway and Denmark, had been tagged for the Russian front. Directed to the west by Hitler's orders, the division would see its first action in the Ardennes. One rifle regiment and part of the division engineers were still in Denmark. The artillery supporting the LVIII Panzer Corps consisted of five battalions plus two Werfer battalions, and a few batteries of heavy guns. It appears that the corps had only moderate support in the way of engineers and bridge trains.
The immediate mission of Krueger's corps, like that of the XLVII Panzer Corps on its left, was to seize crossings at the Our River. The areas selected by the two corps for their main efforts were some six to seven air-line miles apart-an indication of the weight to be thrown against the American 28th Infantry Division. The line of departure for Krueger's corps began across the Our from Kalborn and extended north to a point east of Burg Reuland. The bulk of his two divisions, as a consequence, faced the 112th Infantry, albeit the corps zone overlapped somewhat the sectors of the 106th Infantry Division in the north and the 110th Infantry in the south. Krueger had based his plan of attack on the intelligence reports dealing with the Our bridges. Since the American troops east of the Our were deployed in the Lützkampen-Sevenig area, Krueger determined that his main effort should be made there. Roads and bridges, he reckoned, must be in shape to support the American troops east of the river. These roads and bridges he intended to seize by surprise.
On the corps right, then, the 116th Panzer Division (Generalmajor Siegfried von Waldenburg) had orders to attack north of Lützkampen; at least two or more bridges crossed the Our in this sector. The 560th Volks Grenadier Division (Generalmajor Rudolf Langhaeuser) was assigned two specific bridges as targets, one just north of Ouren, the other a stone arch a little to the south of the village. Because surprise was essential in this stroke for the bridges, artillery fire on the American forward positions in the first moments of the assault was forbidden.
The heavy barrage and the pyrotechnic display which opened elsewhere on the 28th Division front on 16 December was viewed at first with some detachment by the men at the 112th observation posts. They heard, and duly reported, heavy artillery to the south, they saw searchlights and flames lighting up the sky, but again in the south. About 0620, however, the 1st Battalion phoned to say that shells were coming over the battalion command post. The German guns and Werfers had finally opened fire to neutralize or destroy the rearward artillery and reserve positions in the
112th sector. As the enemy gun layers dropped their range back to the river and then to the American positions, the searchlights blinked on, searching out pillboxes and bunkers. When daylight came, the German infantry already were stealing through the draws behind and around the forward platoons, aiming to assemble in the wooded areas to the rear.14
The 3d Battalion (Maj. Walden F. Woodward), in the regimental center, was hit by the 1130th Regiment of the 560th Volks Grenadier Division. This German blow fell on either side of Sevenig, held by Company L. The American barbed wire line had not been completed across the draws to the north and south of the village; through these gaps the shock companies advanced. The company leading the left battalion surprised a platoon of Company L at breakfast, overran the company kitchen (which was only 800 to goo yards behind the rifle line) and killed the platoon commander. Leaderless, the platoon broke. A part of the German company, perhaps a platoon in strength, succeeded in reaching the stone bridge over the Our south of Ouren, but was dispersed.
The bulk of the 3d Battalion held their positions despite surprise, defending from pillboxes and foxholes. Later the Americans in this sector reported that the attackers must have been "awfully green"-as indeed they were. The enemy attempt to capture or destroy the American command posts, kitchens, and observation posts was only partially successful, although the grenadier assault parties were well inside the 3d Battalion positions when day broke. Two company kitchens were captured and one or two observation posts cut off, but the artillery observer inside Sevenig was able to direct the 229th Field Artillery howitzers onto the Germans in the draw. Meanwhile the mortar crews took a hand from their foxholes on the hill behind Sevenig, dropping mortar shells into the hollows where the Germans congregated or picking them off with carbines.
Early morning reports of considerable German penetration and the threat to the Our bridges in the 3d Battalion area led the regimental commander to put one of his counterattack plans into operation. At 0930 two companies of the 2d Battalion (Lt. Col. J. L. MacSalka) assembled in a draw between Ouren and Lieler (west of the river), crossed the bridges the German patrol at the stone bridge had evaporated under machine gun fire-and moved toward Sevenig. The Germans in the way quickly withdrew to the east. By nightfall the 3d Battalion line on the Sevenig ridge had been restored while the commander of the 1130th reported that his regiment, despite many attempts, had not been able "to get going."
The main effort launched by the LVIII Panzer Corps on 16 December was assigned the 116th Panzer Division. This attack aimed at the bridges near Burg Reuland (in the 106th Division sector) and Oberhausen, in the rear of the positions manned by the left
battalion of the 112th. General Waldenburg committed his infantry here, in the predawn hours, hoping that the 60th Regiment would break through on the right or that the 156th Regiment would reach the river on the left and so secure a bridgehead through which his tank regiment could be passed. The lay of the ground and defenses in the area north of Lützkampen were such that Waldenburg's right regiment had to move northwestward at an oblique to the axis of his left wing advance.
In common with the German assault tactics employed all along the front on 16 December, both regiments led off with a predawn advance by shock companies eighty men strong. The company from the 60th ran into trouble almost immediately when it was immobilized in some woods northwest of Berg by flanking fire from Heckhuscheid, in the 424th Infantry sector. Later reports indicate that this group was almost wiped out. The assault company from the 156th was initially more fortunate in its advance west of Lützkampen. By 0630 the grenadiers were behind the command post of the 1st Battalion (Lt. Col. William H. Allen) in Harspelt; the first sign of their presence was a kitchen truck ambushed while journeying to the rear. The advance party of grenadiers had moved along the wooded draw between the two companies holding the 1st Battalion line.
When day came the Americans caught the troops following the advance party of the assault company out in the open. Interlocking machine gun and rifle fire blocked off the German reinforcements some sixty were captured and the rest dug in where they could. Company D, in its support position on the high ground overlooking Lützkampen, meanwhile commenced mopping up the enemy who had filtered between the companies on the line. By noon Company D had so many prisoners that it "couldn't handle them all!" Nonetheless some part of the assault wave had broken through as far as the battery positions near Welchenhausen, where they were repelled by the .50-caliber quadruple mounts of the antiaircraft artillery.
Shortly before noon the advance guard of the 60th Panzer Regiment, rolling along the Lützkampen-Leidenborn road, appeared on the knoll west of Lützkampen. The seven tanks counted here strangely enough made no effort to attack (perhaps the rough terrain and dragon's teeth along the American bunker line did not appear too promising) . After a brief pause they wheeled back into Lützkampen. 15 About dark infantry from Lützkampen attacked in close order formation against Company B. Maps picked up from dead Germans showed that the American machine gun positions had been exactly plotted-but as they had existed up to a change made just before the 16th. The enemy made three attacks in the same close formation over the same ground before they discovered the error of their ways. Company B, however, had been badly shot up during the engagement and probably somewhat shaken by the presence of two or three flame-throwing tanks-a new experience to most American troops on the Western Front. Nevertheless by midnight the 1st Battalion front had
quieted down, although there still were small groups of the enemy crawling about in the gap breached that morning Lützkampen would continue as a sally port for sorties against the 1st Battalion and the best efforts by the American field pieces to flatten the village failed to still the men and vehicles moving in its streets.
The German plans had been altered during the day, but of course some time was needed for orders to reach the front-line troops. Bad tank going in the West Wall maze north of Lützkampen and the initial reverse suffered by the assault company of the 60th Regiment led the corps commander to order the 116th Panzer Division to pivot its weight on Lützkampen in a drive southwestward toward Ouren. Leaving only a screening force behind, the 60th Regiment started a march intended to bring it east of Sevenig on the left of the 156th Regiment. Although the left division (the 560th Volks Grenadier Division) had not fared too well in the attack on Sevenig, farther to the south its 1128th Regiment had seized a blasted bridge three kilometers east of Heinerscheid and established a bridgehead over the Our at the boundary between the 112th Infantry and the 110th Infantry. This had been accomplished by noon on the first day-as usual a boundary line had proved a point of little resistance-and the German engineers moved in. The approach road on the east bank was blocked with trees and mines, the bridge debris would have taken much effort to clear, and to Krueger's disappointment there was no assurance that a bridge could be in before the night of 17 December. On the evening of 16 December, therefore, the German commander ordered the corps to continue the attack for the bridges at Ouren. Meanwhile he dispatched the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 116th Panzer Division to cross the XLVII Panzer Corps bridge at Dasburg and commence a sweep along the western bank calculated to take the Ouren crossings from the rear.
At the close of this first day the 112th Infantry remained in its positions east of the Our.16 The 2d Battalion had not yet been seriously engaged, although one company had been detached to reinforce the 3d. Both flanks of the regiment, however, were in process of being uncovered by enemy thrusts against the neighboring units-although this effect may not have been immediately apparent. A gap remained in the center of the 1st Battalion line and small groups of the enemy were wandering along the Our River.
Considerable damage had been done the German assault forces. Although the 116th Panzer Division losses were moderate, the inexperienced 560th Volks Grenadier Division had suffered an estimated 1,000 casualties-a figure, however, that included the reinforced fusilier company which got lost in the woods southwest of Sevenig and was not seen again for two days. Perhaps the Americans had some reason for elation on the night of 16 December, but all knew that harder blows would be dealt on the morrow. Wrote one in his diary: "Nobody able to sleep and no hot meals
today. This place is not healthy anymore."
The presence of enemy tanks in Lützkampen constituted a distinct threat, even to infantry in pillboxes. Colonel Nelson's antitank reserve, Company C, 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion, was deployed on the ridge west of the river, but these were towed guns, dug in and relatively immobile. Even so, the unit accounted for six tanks on the 16th and broke up two panzer assaults of company size. On the afternoon of the 16th the division commander had loaned Neslon the light tank company of the 707th Tank Battalion, but after a sweep through the 1st Battalion area in which not a shot was fired the tanks recrossed the river. Subsequently General Cota ordered them to go to the aid of the hardpressed 110th Infantry. This move was made early in the morning with disastrous results recorded earlier. Some additional help for the 112th did arrive before daybreak on 17 December, four self-propelled tank destroyers out of the 811th Tank Destroyer Battalion borrowed from Combat Command Reserve, 9th Armored Division, at Trois Vierges. Finally, the regimental antitank and cannon companies were disposed around Ouren guarding the bridges, the roads, and the regimental command post.
Through the early hours of 17 December American outposts reported sounds of tank movement in Lützkampen. This was the Mark V Battalion of the 116th Panzer Division assembling to lead the attack toward the Ouren bridges. About an hour before dawn eleven searchlights flicked on, their rays glancing dully from the low clouds back onto the Lützkampen-Sevenig ridge. The German artillery could take a hand this morning, particularly since a number of forward observers had wormed into the American positions. First the Werfers and guns pounded the front line, particularly the 1st Battalion positions. Then as the attack got moving they were raised to lay heavy counterbattery fire on the 229th Field Artillery Battalion (Lt. Col. John C. Fairchild). With the first light some eighteen Mark V tanks started down the ridge spur pointing toward Ouren; at the same time the 1130th Regiment and the 156th Regiment resumed the attack to cut off and destroy the forward American companies. Company A, directly in the way, lost a platoon to tanks rolling and firing methodically along the foxhole line. Through this gap the panzers moved in on the support positions held by Company D.
Earlier a German infantry company in close order had been caught in the glare of its own headlights atop a hill and been massacred by Company D sections lying on the reverse slope, but at 0755 Company D was forced to send out an urgent plea for help "and damn quick." West of Harspelt the self-propelled tank destroyer platoon from the 811th arrived in time to destroy four of the panzers, but at the cost of all but one of its own guns. Colonel Nelson sent back request after request for air support. The first American planes arrived at 0935, immobilizing the German tanks momentarily. Company D positions had been taken by assault only a few minutes earlier. About this time a German tank platoon appeared on the ridge less than a thousand yards from the regimental command post in Ouren. Five hundred yards from the Germans, on the far side of a draw, the
OUREN, SHOWING BRIDGES
cannon company gunners quickly bore-sighted their pieces, loaded reduced charge, and with direct fire knocked out four of the panzers. A scratch platoon of less than fifty men collected from the regimental headquarters and Ouren held the supporting German infantry at bay along the ridge east of the village.
The tank thrust through the 1st Battalion center pushed parts of companies C (a platoon of which had joined the battalion from training), A, and D back through the woods toward Welchenhausen. Here about ten o'clock, Battery C of the 229th came under direct tank fire but stopped the tanks with howitzer fire at close range while Company C of the 447th Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion used its quad mount machine guns to chop down the infantry following behind.
About noon the 2d Battalion counterattacked and German pressure along the 112th front began to wane. The 229th Field Artillery Battalion pounded the German assembly point at Lützkampen as hard as limited stock of shells permitted and fighter-bombers plastered the village: "air tremendously effective" reported the expectant ground observers. But there were too few guns and too few air sorties to keep the enemy immobilized for long. Probably by this time a good share of the 116th tanks had been committed. Certainly the enemy infantry were spreading rapidly through the woods and draws between the American front line and the Our River. By 1315 the howitzers around Welchenhausen again were firing at their minimum range. Three-quarters of an hour later the regimental commander ordered the artillery to displace behind the river; Colonel Fairchild moved the battalion across the river without losing a piece and immediately resumed firing.
Throughout this entire action the 229th gave the 112th Infantry such support as to elicit from the regimental commander the opinion that "it was the best artillery in the army," an expression which would be used by other infantry commanders about other artillery units during these trying days. In this case, as in many others during the American withdrawal, the full story is that of the cooperation of the combined arms. The field artillery commander in his turn would credit the ably served .50-caliber machine guns and 40-mm. Bofors of the protecting antiaircraft company with saving his howitzers.
News of the battle on the right and left of the 112th Infantry sector had been sparse. During the afternoon General Cota radioed Colonel Nelson to be especially watchful of his northern flank, but added that if his own position became untenable he should withdraw at dark behind the Our. About 1515 Nelson sent his executive officer, Lt. Col. William F. Train, to the 28th Division command post with orders to report personally on the regiment's position. Cota, as it turned out, already had phoned the corps commander and asked permission to bring the 112th back to the high ground west of the river. General Middleton agreed, but with the proviso that the regiment should remain close enough to the river to deny an enemy crossing.
Although this final word seems to have reached Ouren about 1600, Colonel Nelson did not act immediately on the order because he still had hopes that the entrapped 1st Battalion could be
reached. The 3d Battalion, fighting mostly against infantry, had held its own through the day, aided greatly by the possession of the pillbox line, far stronger than the defensive positions in the 1st Battalion sector. Then, too, the 2d Battalion had once again used the stone bridge south of Ouren to launch a counterattack across the river and, during the afternoon, materially restored the 3d Battalion positions. But the German tanks were fanning out as the day drew to a close, turning attention to the south as well as the west. Patrols could not reach the 1st Battalion and at dusk the 3d Battalion reported that the panzers finally were in position to rake its ridge defenses with fire from the north-the pillbox line no longer was tenable. Colonel Nelson gave the order to withdraw behind the river under cover of darkness.
The regimental command post staff left Ouren even while the enemy was filtering into the village and moved to Weiswampach. The speed of the German attack caught most of the regimental medical company and troops from the headquarters and cannon companies. The 3d Battalion commenced its withdrawal at 2200 under orders to pull back through Ouren. Fortunately Major Woodward, the battalion commanding officer, was suspicious of this route. His suspicions were confirmed when a patrol sent into the town failed to return. The 3d Battalion then crossed the river farther to the south, circled and finally dug in along the OurenWeiswampach road, where its flank would be covered by the refused line of the 2d Battalion. A patrol which had been sent from the 3d Battalion to carry the withdrawal order to the 1st Battalion command post, still holding on at Harspelt, failed to get through. Fortunately radio contact was re-established from Weiswampach shortly after midnight and the 1st Battalion was given orders to withdraw through the former 3d Battalion positions. Company B, on the extreme north flank, had been forced back into the 424th Infantry area, but about 235 men withdrew cross-country toward Ouren.
Near the village a patrol found that the stone bridge was guarded by only a half squad of Germans. The Americans lined up in German formation and, while an officer shouted commands in German, marched boldly across the bridge. The next morning Colonel Nelson was able to tell General Cota, "Very good news. 1st Battalion has worked [its] way back." The little group from regimental headquarters which had been deployed on the ridge line at Ouren was less successful. Completely surrounded by the enemy, it had hoped to join the withdrawal of the line companies. The group never established contact, however, and most of its members were captured when they attempted to break away the following morning.
Although the enemy had seized all of the ground which the 112th Infantry was occupying east of the Our and finally had secured a bridgehead at Ouren, the cost to him on 17 December had been high. At least fifteen tanks had been disabled or destroyed on the first day and German sources indicate that this figure may have doubled on the 17th. The Americans had taken 186 prisoners and killed or wounded two or three times that number; the losses in the 1130th Regiment were "very high," said the enemy reports. It is impossible
to give an accurate count of losses in the 112th Infantry, but they seem to have been moderate. Most members of the 1st Battalion, for example, eventually found their way back to the regiment.
The degree of tactical success achieved by the 112th Infantry and the fact that it was able to hold intact as a regiment may be explained by a number of factors. The ground east of the river was favorable to the defender, who was well entrenched as the result of careful planning and inspection by Nelson and his staff, and whose guns covered the few routes of mechanized advance. The numerous pillboxes provided a substantial amount of cover; the 3d Battalion, for example, was not seriously endangered until the attacking tanks maneuvered close enough for direct fire. The refused positions of the 2d Battalion allowed fairly free use of a regimental reserve during both days and good counterattack plans were ready. Equally important, the green 1130th Regiment (incorporated into the 116th Panzer Division attack on the second day) had failed to follow closely in the path of the tanks and so gave American riflemen and machine gunners time to get set after the tanks rolled past.
Even before the seizure of Ouren the LVIII Panzer Corps had shifted its interest to the south. By the second day it was apparent that the combination of stubborn resistance and poor approach roads would delay the projected crossing at Ouren. The orders given the 116th Panzer Division on the night of 16 December to switch to the left were altered on the 17th to start its infantry regiments marching still farther south to the Dasburg bridgehead held by the neighboring corps. Although delayed by inadequate deliveries of POL and the traffic jam on the damaged Dasburg-Marnach road the entire division, including its tank regiment, assembled on the west bank around Heinerscheid during the night of 17-18 December. The main body of the 560th Volks Grenadier Division also had detoured around the stubborn men and difficult ground in the 112th Infantry area, extending the bridgehead which the 1128th Regiment had seized east of Heinerscheid on 17 December. Only the weakened 1130th Regiment and the division fusilier company, once again in touch with its fellows, were left behind to extend the bridgehead formed at Ouren.
All this gave the 112th Infantry a chance to get its breath on 18 December. A few attacks were started against the new American line, which now covered Beiler, Lieler, and Lausdorn, but none were energetic. Throughout the day the American outposts watched masses of foot troops and vehicles defile westward through Heinerscheid, only some two thousand yards to the south. The regimental cannon company also provided some interested spectators, who trained their howitzers on Heinerscheid with such good effect that enemy records take rueful note of this harassing fire from the north.
Communication between the 112th and division headquarters had been sketchy since 16 December, depending on artillery radio nets and liaison officers. Early in the afternoon of 18 December a radio message finally arrived at the division command post asking that the regiment be given instructions. General Cota had been trying through most of the morning to reach Nelson
with an order to hold in essentially the positions which the regiment now occupied. 17 But the situation east of Bastogne was growing more precarious and the division commander decided to bring the 112th back to join in the defense of Bastogne. About 1700 he radioed new orders: the 112th Infantry was to fight a stiff delaying action along the line Weiswampach-Trois Vierges, and thence toward Bastogne. Two hours later the 112th Infantry acknowledged receipt of these instructions.
Colonel Nelson decided to pull back through Huldange since enemy tanks were known to be in Trois Vierges. Early on 19 December the 112th Infantry and 229th Field Artillery Battalion moved under cover of a heavy fog and assembled without hindrance around Huldange, the defensive front now facing south. Here Nelson received a message from the 28th Division which ordered the regiment to hold the line LausdornWeiswampach-Beiler, which the 112th Infantry had just abandoned. Colonel Nelson at this moment had two contradictory orders and would have to risk his regiment if he carried out either.
Through the roundabout artillery channels he asked permission to join the 106th Infantry Division, only a little distance away to the north. Nelson also reported to General Jones at Vielsalm and set the problem before him. Jones attached the 112th Infantry to his own division on the spot, assuring Nelson that he would assume full responsibility. The sequence of events in this story of difficulties in command and communication is none too clear, but the VIII Corps commander approved the attachment. On the morning of the 20th Jones ordered the regiment to sideslip back to the east, reoccupy Beiler, and dig in along the eastwest ridge line, Leithum-Beiler-Malscheid. Thus deployed on the right of the 424th Infantry, the 112th was another piece filling out the fast developing "island defense" of St. Vith.
The total impact of the severe German blows dealt the 110th Infantry in the late afternoon and evening of 17 December was not felt at the division and corps headquarters for several hours. Information on the hard-pressed battalions and their companies was sketchy and secondhand. At 2013 General Cota phoned the VIII Corps commander to say that the situation was critical, that routes were open for the German tanks to come through, and that "there is some question in regard to the 110th Infantry CP." He added, however, that he had "three battalions now trying to counterattack from Clerf to Marnach." (By this hour, of course, the story was quite different: the 1st Battalion was cut to pieces, most of the 2d Battalion was surrounded, and the 3d Battalion was holding at Consthum and Hosingen only by the skin of its teeth.)
The corps commander was loath to yield ground to the enemy. Nonetheless he advised Cota to withdraw the 110th back of the Clerf, that "under the circumstances it was necessary." Furthermore, Middleton instructed Cota to use
his tanks and tank destroyers to block the roads west of the river.
The 28th Division commander agreed to pull back where he could, but by the morning of the 18th it was apparent that to re-establish any sort of front behind the Clerf was impossible. The bridges at Clerf and Wilwerwiltz were in German hands (no preparations had been made to destroy them); most of the sixty tanks committed in the central sector were destroyed. No help could be expected from either the right or left wing regiments in shoring up the division center. The 109th Infantry was losing ground on its north flank and soon would be forced back fanwise into the 9th Armored Division zone. The 112th Infantry south wing was giving way under heavy attack, and during the day all communications between the regiment and division were lost.
Miscellaneous troops of the 110th Infantry had joined with units of Combat Command R of the 9th Armored Division (briefly under operational control of the 28th Infantry Division) to defend along the main road to Bastogne in the area west of Clerf. The responsibility for command here was assumed directly by the VIII Corps. General Cota, as a result, decided to concentrate what was left to him-headquarters troops, engineers, stragglers, and the handful of organized units moving back from across the Clerf-in defense of Wiltz, the 28th Division command post. This sizable town lay in a bend of the Wiltz River valley, southwest of Clerf and some three miles away from the enemy-held crossings at Wilwerwiltz. Next to the paved through highway via Clerf, the Wiltz valley offered the best avenue westward. The road center at Wiltz and the bridges there were only about twelve miles from Bastogne. It would be natural, therefore, for the Germans debouching from the Wilwerwiltz bridgehead to defile through the Wiltz valley.
About 1000 on 18 December, General Cota received the welcome word that a combat command of the 10th Armored Division was moving forward to his assistance, probably to be in position to give support by the late afternoon. Middleton had ordered the 44th Engineer Combat Battalion (Lt. Col. Clarion J. Kjeldseth) to Wiltz on the previous evening with about six hundred men (it had been operating sawmills and rock crushers, working on roads, and the like). This unit now relieved the provisional battalion, hastily formed from the 28th Division headquarters, by setting up positions north and east of the town. There were also available some tanks and guns to help the engineers, bandsmen, telephone linemen, and paymasters who composed the defense. All that remained of the 707th Tank Battalion-some six crippled tanks and five assault guns was gathered in Wiltz after a rear guard action in Wilwerwiltz. Six three-inch towed tank destroyers from the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion, weapons of the 447th Antiaircraft Battalion, and light armored cars of the 28th Reconnaissance Troop reinforced the perimeter. Southeast of the town the undergunned batteries of the 687th Field Artillery Battalion held firing positions along the road, sited to cover the Wiltz perimeter or support the 3d Battalion, 110th Infantry, fighting at Consthum.
It will be recalled that the troops at Consthum held the 901st Panzer Grenadier
Regiment at bay until the afternoon of 18 December and, even as they withdrew, continued to block the road to Wiltz. The northern regiment of the Panzer Lehr Division, the 902d, made better progress. The capitulation of the gallant garrison at Hosingen, during the morning, removed this threat to the 902d supply road. The 26th Volks Grenadier Division, having completed its initial mission by seizing an undamaged bridge across the Clerf at Drauffelt during the night, made way for the Panzer Lehr Division to strike for Bastogne. The Panzer Lehr Reconnaissance Battalion, earlier withdrawn from the fight at Holzthum, reverted to its parent command and crossed the river first. The 902d, advancing by way of Munshausen, now cleared of Americans, followed. Despite harassing fire from American guns and mortars the Germans moved swiftly. At the crossroads east of Eschweiler the Reconnaissance Battalion turned to the left and bore down on Wiltz. The 902d, led in person by the division commander, continued toward the west, although briefly delayed in a fight with a few towed antitank guns and armored cars near Eschweiler.18
German field guns, by this time west of the Clerf, opened fire on Wiltz at noon. Two hours later tanks and self-propelled guns struck the 44th Engineers, which was outposting the little hamlets northeast of Wiltz. A section of tank destroyers, supporting the forward outpost, was overrun by the more mobile German tanks, but the engineers held their fire for the German infantry on the heels of the panzers and then cut loose, with satisfying results. The American howitzers, south of Wiltz, also took a hand in slowing the German attack. But the enemy armor weight was too heavy, nor could it be checked by the handful of tanks and light assault guns remaining to the 707th Tank Battalion. By dusk the American line had been pushed back nearly to Weidingen when orders came to withdraw behind the Wiltz River and destroy the bridge at Weidingen. For some reason the bridge was not blown. But the pressure on the Wiltz perimeter relaxed briefly as the Panzer Lehr Reconnaissance Battalion turned back toward the north to rejoin its division in the race for Bastogne. Infantry of the 26th Volks Grenadier Division took over the attack on the northeast (probably the 39th Volks Grenadier Regiment).
On German operations maps Wiltz lay athwart the boundary which divided the attack zones of the XLVII Panzer Corps and the LXXXV Corps. On 19 December the right wing division of the latter, the 5th Parachute Division, took over the attack on Wiltz, or perhaps more accurately, drifted into a fight for the town. On the evening of the 18th Col. Ludwig Heilmann, commander of the 5th Parachute Division, knew that the divisions on his right and left were well ahead of his own. In fact the troops of the 26th Volks Grenadier Division sent against Wiltz from the northeast were acting under orders to protect the flank and rear of Panzer Lehr against possible American counterattack from the Wiltz valley. Heilmann, therefore, had decided
to bypass Wiltz on 19 December with his entire division but now found that he could not get his regiments back in hand. The 5th Parachute Division commander had already experienced great difficulty in maintaining control of his units in action. His staff and regimental commanders, appointees of Generaloberst Kurt Student, had formed a clique against the previous commander and were hostile to Heilmann.19 Furthermore, troops and troop leaders were poorly trained, coming as they had only recently from Luftwaffe ground units. Even on the first day of the offensive one of Heilmann's regiments had been lost for several hours. This experience, events would show, had borne little fruit.
On the morning of 19 December the headquarters of the 28th Infantry Division transferred from Wiltz to Sibret, southwest of Bastogne. The provisional battalion which had been recruited from the headquarters staff remained in Wiltz. Meanwhile General Cota had ordered Colonel Strickler to move in the 3d Battalion, 110th Infantry, from Nocher. The battalion, perhaps 200 strong, arrived in Wiltz about noon and Strickler assumed command of the forces in the town. During the morning the 26th Volks Grenadier Division engaged in desultory action, moving troops around to the north. Since the Wiltz bridge had not been destroyed, the American assault gun platoon was ordered back to Erpeldange, covering the northeastern approach to the bridge and the engineer outposts. Four of the 707th tanks that had been crippled the previous day were drawn up on the ridge east of Wiltz to give what help they might as more or less stationary artillery. The Americans were not too worried by the flanking move because tanks of the 10th Armored Division were expected momentarily.
The German infantry on the north side of town aligned for the assault about 1400. A sharp attack drove a provisional platoon, made up from the 28th Division band, off the high ground to the northwest, thus exposing the engineer line. The 44th was hit from the northeast and east by infantry armed with machine pistols charging in alongside single tanks. As American riflemen and machine gunners cut down the German assault teams, they saw their own ranks thinning. In this fight the crossroads near Erpeldange changed hands four times. The assault gun platoon gave good support wherever the line was threatened, but by the end of the afternoon its fuel and ammunition were nearly gone and the gunners, after four days of nearly continuous action, were approaching complete exhaustion. When darkness finally came, the 44th withdrew with the assault guns into Wiltz, having lost four officers and 150 men. This time the bridge was blown. On orders, the three remaining assault guns went back to cover the wrecked structure. Their fate is unknown.
While elements of the 26th Volks Grenadier Division were attacking on the north side of the Wiltz, detachments of the 5th Parachute Division struck the American perimeter on the south and southeast. This timing might seem to
indicate a co-ordinated attack. In fact it represented Heilmann's failure to gain control of his division, for the orders were to bypass Wiltz. The division advance guard from the 15th Parachute Regiment (supposedly on its way to capture Sibret) somehow became confused, wandered away northward, and about 1500 struck the 687th Field Artillery Battalion, whose batteries had displaced to a road angling southeast from the town.20 Battery A met the tanks leading the German column with direct fire, disabled or destroyed them, and briefly slowed the advance toward Wiltz. But menaced as they were, the artillery commander could not risk his howitzers further. Battery B fired its few remaining rounds to cover the other batteries, the battalion assembling during the evening at a crossroad southeast of Harlange.
By nightfall the American perimeter had been pierced at many points and the defenders pushed back into the center of Wiltz. Most of the tanks and assault guns were out of action, there were insufficient machine guns to cover the final protective line, radio communication between the desperate units was practically nonexistent, searchlight rays glancing from the low clouds lighted the path of the attackers, and ammunition was running very low.
Attempts during the evening to send a task force of stragglers and trains forward from the 28th Division headquarters at Sibret were abortive; the roads east to Wiltz now were blocked every few kilometers by enemy infantry and self-propelled guns.
On the ridges which look down over Wiltz more Germans appeared in the early evening, apparently. eager to be in at the kill. The 14th Parachute Regiment, which had been moving slowly westward (the 5th Parachute Division commander ascribed its dilatory movement to the habit of attacking small villages in order to have billets for the cold December nights), entered the fight via a climb onto the eastern ridge overlooking the town. At least a third of the 5th Parachute Division was finally engaged at Wiltz contrary to Heilmann's orders.
Colonel Strickler decided to evacuate Wiltz by infiltration and regroup at Sibret, but with the Germans pressing in from all sides and no means of reaching his units except by runner the actual withdrawal would be difficult to control. It was his intention, however, to move the provisional battalion first, leaving the 3d Battalion to keep the escape exits open while the 44th Engineers acted as rear guard. The 687th Field Artillery Battalion pulled out to the southwest and the 3d Battalion also started to move, under the impression that this was the plan. When orders finally arrived to hold in place, the 3d Battalion had reached a trident crossroad southwest of the town. After a long wait the battalion commanding officer, Major Milton, went back into Wiltz to get further orders; when he returned most of his battalion had disappeared. With the few troops remaining, Milton successfully made his way cross-country to the west.
The bulk of the provisional battalion, inside Wiltz, started southwest an hour or so before midnight, some on foot, the rest riding on trucks, half-tracks, and tank destroyers. A few hundred yards had been traversed when, at the first crossroad, the leading half-track ran into a patch of mines laid in front of a German roadblock and exploded. An unidentified crew of a 447th Antiaircraft Artillery half-track drove straight onto the mines, its .50-caliber fire searching out the enemy riflemen. The half-track was demolished, but the field had been exploded and the covering infantry cleared away.
column and, attacking through the dark with grenades and bayonets, cleared the position.
Only a short distance beyond, at a third block, fire swept into the column from all sides. This was the end: shots, blazing vehicles, and screaming wounded. Those who could left the road, scattering in small parties into the dark. In the darkness and confusion many stragglers made their way into Bastogne and Vaux-lez-Rosières. (Strickler made it to the latter point where General Cota placed him in charge of the defense.) Farther to the south the 687th Field Artillery Battalion was surrounded at a crossroad about seven miles from Wiltz. The gunners and their attached antiaircraft artillery unit made a stand with their carbines, Colts, and a few .50-caliber machine guns. For nearly two hours enemy flares methodically picked out targets for mortar and bullet fire, while the Americans were so closely beset that the Bofors and murderous quad mounts could not retaliate without cutting down their own people. Only three of the howitzers left could be withdrawn and losses among the cannoneers and drivers were high. The 44th Combat Engineers, the rear guard unit at Wiltz, probably suffered most, the enemy accounting for 18 officers and 160 men during the final withdrawal.
The fall of Wiltz ended the 28th Division's delaying action before Bastogne. Other American troops now had to take over the actual defense of that all-important road center, but without the gallant bargain struck by the 110th Infantry and its allied units-men for time-the German plans for a coup-de-main at Bastogne would have turned to accomplished fact.21 The cost had been high, much higher than American units expected to pay at this stage of the war: the 110th Infantry virtually destroyed, the men and fighting vehicles of five tank companies lost, the equivalent of three combat engineer companies dead or missing, and tank destroyer, artillery, and miscellaneous units engulfed in this battle. In the last analysis the losses inflicted on the enemy may have equaled those sustained by the Americans-certainly the Germans paid dearly for their hurried frontal attacks against stonewalled villages and towns-but the final measure of success and failure would be in terms of hours and minutes won by the Americans and lost to the enemy.