THE SIEGE OF BASTOGNE is one chapter in the history of the battle of the Ardennes. On December 16, 1944, the Germans launched their greatest offensive of the war in the west. Achieving a considerable success in their first attacks, they broke through, penetrated 65 miles into Allied territory, halted the Allied offensive then going on, and threatened the entire front in the west. The failure of this German drive was due in part to the American resistance at St. Vith and Bastogne.
The background of Bastogne dates from the fall of 1944. At that time three American armies, forming the 12th Army Group, were in position on the central part of the western front. The U. S. First and Third Armies were along the Siegfried Line and the U. S. Ninth Army was facing the Roer River in Germany some thirty miles from the Rhine. All three armies were pushing for the Rhine over difficult terrain, across swollen rivers, and against determined enemy resistance. Except in the Aachen sector, where an advance was made to the Roer, the line did not move during October and November. The Third Army fought near Metz; the First and Ninth Armies made their advance farther north, near Aachen. In between these two major efforts the First Army held an extensive line of defense. Of this line the southern and major part was maintained by the U. S. VIII Corps.
On December 16, VIII Corps, under the command of Major General Troy H. Middleton (plate 1) had its headquarters in Bastogne, Belgium (Map 1, pages 2-3). Its area extended from Losheim, Germany, north to a point where the Our River crosses the Franco-German border. Generally parallel to the German frontier along eastern Belgium and Luxembourg, its front was 88 miles wide. The country, the Ardennes, has rugged hills; there are high plateaus, deep-cut valleys and a restricted road net.
The mission that First Army gave VIII Corps was to defend this line in place. New divisions were brought into this part of the front for battle indoctrination, and battle-worn divisions were
sent to VIII Corps for reequipment and rest. As divisions were rotated into the sector, they took over existing wire nets and other facilities.
At the beginning of the German attack in December, the VIII Corps front was held by two battle-weary divisions, a green infantry division, part of a green armored division, and a cavalry group. The battle-tested divisions (they had both seen months of fighting) were the 4th Infantry Division, which in November had fought a costly action through the Hürtgen Forest below Düren, Germany, and the 28th Infantry Division, which had sustained heavy casualties in the First Army drive to the Roer. The 106th Infantry Division, newly arrived on the Continent, entered the Corps line four days before the German offensive began. The 14th Cavalry Group, consisting of the 18th and 32d Cavalry Squadrons, held the north flank of VIII Corps, and the 9th Armored Division, minus Combat Command B which was with V Corps, had the most of its units attached to the divisions.
The enemy facing the VIII Corps was estimated at four divisions. From north to south these were the 18th, 26th, 352d and 212th. Early in December the 28th Division took prisoners and reaffirmed the presence of the 26th and 352d Divisions, but rumors that one or more panzer units were in rear of these infantry divisions were not confirmed. From December 12 on, the American outposts along the VIII Corps front heard sounds of a great volume of vehicular movement behind the enemy lines.
On the morning of December 16, the VIII Corps front, which had been quiet since the latter part of September, suddenly flared up. For more than a month the enemy had been concentrating some 25 divisions. It had been skilfully [sic] done and the extent of the concentration was not fully known to our forces. At 0500 heavy artillery concentrations struck along the entire VIII Corps front and these were soon followed by tank and infantry attacks. The strongest attacks were in the north, near the V and VIII Corps boundary.
The infantry-tank attack on the north flank of the VIII Corps began at 0800 on the 16th, and in three hours the enemy had
penetrated the position of the 14th Cavalry group three miles. Group reserves were committed and the 106th Division put out flank protection to the north. Through the right of the 106th Division the enemy advanced rapidly for a mile and a half, but then as reserves were brought up his progress was slowed. The German gains threatened to isolate two regiments of the 106th Division. Captured documents showed that on this day the enemy hoped to take St. Vith. This be did not do.
Against the 28th Division the enemy used two panzer divisions, three infantry divisions and one parachute division in an infantry-tank attack on the "Ridge Road" just west of the Our River. In this operation, two enemy divisions assaulted each regiment of the 28th. In the center and right of the 28th the enemy made advances up to four and a half miles and crossed the north-south highway at several points. In the southern part of the VIII Corps the 9th Armored and the 4th Infantry Divisions were also attacked by the enemy. These attacks were diversionary to prevent our shifting troops to the north.
At the start of the German offensive the VIII Corps reserve consisted of an armored combat command and four battalions of combat engineers. The engineers were assembled during the first morning, and as the seriousness of the enemy thrust became apparent, additional troops were made available. In the north on December 17, Combat Command R of the 9th Armored Division was released from V Corps and the 7th Armored Division was ordered to close into an assembly area near St. Vith. In the south the 10th Armored Division was moved toward an assembly area near the city of Luxembourg. Orders were also issued to move the 101st and 82d Airborne Divisions to the general area threatened.
From captured documents and from the direction of early thrusts it seemed evident to VIII Corps that the objective of the attacks was Liège and possibly Namur. This, however, was a clear case of VIII Corps misunderstanding the enemy's intent, though the same misunderstanding prevailed in the entire Army for months afterward. It was finally found, however, that Hitler
had given his commanders in the Bulge attack specific and inflexible orders to stay to the south of Liège.1*
On the 17th, the second day of the offensive, the enemy increased his pressure along the whole front especially in the north. The right flank of V Corps was forced back and in the VIII Corps, German infantry and armor had by 0900 cut off two regiments of the 106th Division. To stem the advance on St. Vith the 168th Engineer Combat Battalion fought a delaying action north and east of that town, Combat Command B of the 9th Armored Division was put into the line, and the 7th Armored Division was committed piecemeal to defensive action as it arrived during the evening.
In the 28th Division sector the Germans began their attacks early and made large gains. The left flank of the 28th was forced to withdraw to the west bank of the Our River and the right was pushed back an additional one to four miles. But it was in the center of the division that the enemy made his deepest penetrations, thursting [sic] one salient of eight miles and another of six. Everywhere the American withdrawal had been four to six miles. At some points the enemy was within 11 miles of Bastogne.
On the southern flank of the VIII Corps the 4th Infantry Division defended against strong attacks, but the enemy did not make the heavy effort here that he had made farther to the north. The 10th Armored Division reached the Luxembourg area in time to assure its defense.
On December 18, the third day of the offensive, the enemy increased the momentum of his drive in the center of VIII Corps. The Corps north flank was bolstered by the arrival of the 7th Armored Division but remained extremely critical because of the deep German penetrations into the V Corps sector. But the weight against the 28th Division was so overwhelming that its thin defenses disintegrated and the enemy achieved a breakthrough. The right Hank of the 28th, which pulled back across the Our River on the upper eastern border of Luxembourg the previous night, was unable to stabilize its lines. In the withdrawal a wide
*Key to notes begins on page 199.
gap was created through which the enemy pushed a great deal of armor. In the center, enemy thrusts between strongpoints encircled companies and destroyed or captured them one by one. To the 28th Division headquarters the picture was obscure throughout the day because of lost communications, but the appearance of many enemy columns behind the regimental sectors and the tragic tales of stragglers indicated a complete disintegration of regimental defenses. The 28th Division command post itself was attacked when the enemy approached Wiltz. The 44th Engineer Combat Battalion, the 447th Antiaircraft Battalion, and miscellaneous headquarters personnel from the division were used to defend the town. The command post had communications left with only one regiment.
Directly behind the 28th Division, on the St. Vith-Bastogne road, were roadblocks established by the Combat Command Reserve of the 9th Armored Division. One block, known as Task Force Rose, was attacked by the enemy in the morning and was overrun by 1400, December 18. A roadblock on the Wiltz-Bastogne road, known as Task Force Hayze, came under heavy attack by 1815. The Germans overran this roadblock during the night of December 18-19 to come within three kilometers of Bastogne. The defense of Bastogne now became the task of airborne infantry and armored units which had been ordered into the sector.2