THE CONTEMPORARY accounts which attempted to apportion the credit for the saving of Bastogne had much to say about the 101st Airborne Division and relatively little about any other units. There was irony in the fact that a paratroop outfit which had already done equally brilliant work in Normandy and Holland won world recognition for the first time, and in so doing eclipsed the splendid help given by the other victors, at Bastogne. It was the belief of the commanders at Bastogne that the 28th Infantry Division had absorbed much of the shock of the attack before the enemy reached their front on that first day, and that the harassing of the German flank and rear by the armored forces that had gone out the Longvilly road further lightened the burden upon their own men of the 101st Airborne Division.1 In those critical hours the armor out along the roads leading north and east was to the infantry in Bastogne like a football end throwing himself in the path of interference so that the secondary defense can have a clean chance to get at the man with the ball.
One of the most desperately placed of these small armored forces was Team Desobry which assembled in the Noville area at 2300 on December 18. The town of Noville (Map 8, page 52) is on relatively high ground. Yet it is commanded by two ridges from about 800 yards, one in the southeast and the other running from north to northwest. Because the team arrived in the darkness, full advantage of the natural defenses of the area could not be taken immediately. Major William R. Desobry (Commanding Officer of the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion, 10th Armored Division) set up a perimeter defense of the town under Captain Gordon Geiger of Battalion Headquarters Company. He sent forward three outposts, each consisting of a depleted platoon of infantry and a section of medium tanks. One went east on the Bourcy road, one went northeast on the Houffalize road and the third set up its roadblock at some crosstrails on the road to
Vaux. This outpost line was about 800 yards from the main body. The engineers were instructed to install minefields in support of the roadblocks but found it impossible to comply with the order because of the flow of American stragglers back over these same roads. They came on all through the night-men from scattered engineer units, from Combat Command Reserve of the 9th Armored Division and from the 28th Infantry Division. Colonel Roberts had told Major Desobry to draft into his organization any men he could use.
Every vehicle that came down the road was searched for infantry soldiers. Desobry had already decided that he would incorporate any infantrymen or engineers into the local defense; he needed engineers to set up obstacles. But be ordered his men to let any armored vehicles pass through the lines and continue on to Bastogne. He figured that additional vehicles would merely
clog the streets of Noville and increase his vulnerability to enemy artillery fire. The infantry strays came into the line usually in groups of three or four. Many of them had discarded all fighting equipment; few were able to say where they had been; none had maps and none was able to pinpoint the area where he had last seen the Germans. It became the experience of Team Desobry that these stragglers who came to Noville singly or in small groups were of almost no value to the defense; when the action started, they took to the cellars.
This was not true of a platoon of armored infantry from CCR which fell back into Noville near midnight. Their lieutenant had held them together during a running 36-hour fight with enemy armored forces. He gave Major Desobry a vivid picture of his experience and of the action of the enemy forces moving toward Noville from the east. He volunteered to move his platoon into position at Noville and throughout the defense there, it fought courageously.
On the strength of what the lieutenant had told him about the enemy armor, Desobry decided that his own vehicles were overcrowding the village. He ordered the main streets to be cleared and the vehicles to be parked along the side roads. Detailing one officer to stand watch, he then suggested that the rest of the force within the village try to snatch some sleep.
At 0430 on December 19 the flow of stragglers abruptly ceased and Desobry's men grew tense as they waited for an enemy attack. At 0530 a group of half-tracks could be heard and dimly seen approaching the block on the Bourcy road. In the darkness the outpost could not tell whether they were friend or enemy. The sentry to the front yelled "Halt!" four times. The first vehicle pulled to a grinding halt within a few yards of him. Someone in the half-track yelled something in German. From a bank on the right of the road, Desobry's men showered the half-track with hand grenades. Several exploded as they landed in the vehicle. There was loud screaming as some of the Germans jumped or fell from the half-track and lay in the road. The rest of the enemy column quickly unloaded and deployed in the ditches along the road. There ensued a 20-minute close-up fight with
grenades and automatic weapons and although the roadblock crew was greatly outnumbered, the bullet fire did them no hurt because of the protection of the embankment. Staff Sergeant Leon D. Gantt finally decided that too many German potato-mashers were coming into the position and ordered his men to withdraw about 100 yards. At this the Germans turned their half-track around and ran for safety; they were apparently a reconnaissance element and had completed their mission by finding the American outpost. During the action the two tanks had done nothing although they were within 100 yards of the German column. Sergeant Gantt went to Second Lieutenant Allen L. Johnson and asked him why. Johnson replied that he hadn't been sure what to do. He then fired a couple of Parthian shots down the road but the enemy had already disappeared into the fog and darkness. At dawn the outpost fell back on Noville according to instructions.
Twenty minutes after the fighting had died on the Bourcy road three tanks approached the outpost on the Houffalize road. The sound of their motors seemed familiar to Staff Sergeant Major I. Jones who was out by himself some 75 yards in front of the roadblock. He thought they were American. When the tanks were 75 yards away Jones yelled, "Halt!" and fired a quick burst with his BAR over the turret of the lead tank. It stopped 50 yards from him. He heard the occupants conversing in English. Then fire from the tank's caliber .50 broke around Jones' foxhole in the sloping bank on the side of the road. He flattened quickly and the fire missed his back by inches. The men at the roadblock fired on the tanks. Suddenly a cry of "Cease fire, they're friendly troops!" was heard. Jones was not certain whether the cry came from the force in front of him or behind him. The small-arms fire ceased. But the two medium tanks which were supporting the roadblock and were standing about 100 yards from this new armor were less sanguine. The tank on the right side of the road fired its 75mm. The first round hit the bank 15 yards from Jones and almost blew him out of the hole. The foremost tank confronting Jones fired six quick rounds in reply. The first round knocked out the American tank on the right. The second round
knocked out the other one. The succeeding rounds also scored direct hits. Yet none of the tankers was killed though several were hard hit. One man had his right leg blown off and his left badly mangled. Private John J. Garry, an infantryman, moved over to the ditch to help the wounded tankers and was hit in the shoulder by a shell fragment.
Jones and the other men in the advanced positions were pinned to their foxholes by the grazing fire from the enemy guns. The American half-tracks were in line behind the Shermans. The position of the ruined armor not only blocked the enemy from coming down the road but gave the half-tracks partial cover so that they could turn their machine guns against the enemy column. A bazooka team tried to get forward but couldn't find a route by which they could bring their rockets to bear. Under these conditions of deadlock the two forces continued to slug it out toe-to-toe while the fog swirled around them and at last closed in so thick that they could scarcely see the muzzle Hashes of the guns. At 0730 the platoon disengaged and withdrew to Noville, acting on the orders given by Major Desobry the night before. They had held to the last minute and so complied with the order, but they were about through in any case, as enemy infantry was now coming up around the flank. The roadblock on the Vaux road was not attacked. But while that party likewise was withdrawing at 0730 they heard die enemy coming down from the north.
During the night of December 18-19 Captain Geiger had set up roadblocks on all roads entering Noville and had placed a thin screen of infantry in a circle just beyond the buildings. The position was particularly weak on the south and west-the sides which the enemy seemed least likely to approach. One tank was posted on the road leading to Bastogne and two were put on the other main exits from the town. In addition, one 57mm. gun and a 75mm. assault gun were placed to cover each of the roads which had been outposted during the night. The survivors of the two opening skirmishes had just drawn back within this defensive circle when 88mm. fire from the northward ripped out of the fog which by this time completely enveloped the village.
From Noville's main street the north-running road is straight for miles. The defenders figured that German tanks were sitting out there on the road somewhere and firing right down the slot. The fire was very heavy for half an hour. It destroyed three half-tracks and a jeep and blew the machine gun from an M8 car. But miraculously, no one was hurt.
At 0830 on the 19th two Tiger tanks nosed out of the fog and stopped within 20 yards of the machine-gun positions covering the northern sector. The 57mm. gun to the right of the road was within 30 yards of the tanks. A medium tank with a 75mm. gun was looking straight at them. The machine gunners alongside the road picked up their bazookas. All fired at the same time and in a second the two Tiger tanks had become just so much wrecked metal. Later, all hands claimed credit for the kill.
A few Germans jumped out of the tanks and started to flee. Machine gunners and riflemen in the outposts cut loose on them. But they could not be sure whether their fire found the targets because the fog swallowed the running men within 30 or 40 yards. Some German infantry had come along behind the tanks and Desobry's men had caught only a glimpse of their figures. But they turned back the moment the skirmish opened.
About 0930 the enemy began to press against the west sector with a series of small probing actions which lasted until 1030. The officer in charge of this ground, Second Lieutenant Eugene E. Todd, was new to action and began to feel that he was sustaining the weight of a major attack by the whole German Army. When he asked Captain Geiger for permission to withdraw, Geiger replied, "Hell, bold your ground and fight." He did.
The real thing started at 1030. The defenders had heard the rumblings of tanks and the puttering of smaller vehicles out in the fog as if a tremendous build-up were going on. Quite suddenly the fog lifted like a curtain going up and revealing the stage. The countryside was filled with tanks. From the second story of his command post in the Noville schoolhouse, Captain Omar R. Billett (Commanding Officer, Company B, 20th Armored Infantry Battalion, 10th Armored Division), saw at a glance more than 30 tanks. Others saw as many more from different
points of vantage. In an extended skirmish line along the ridge short of Vaux were 14 tanks. Desobry's men looked at this scene and knew that they were standing square in the road of an entire panzer division. At that moment they might well have uttered the words of Oliver, "Great are the hosts of these strange people, and we have here a very little company," but instead they picked up their arms. The leading enemy formations were 1,000 yards away. The distance made no difference even to the men working with caliber .50 machine guns; they fired with what they bad. When they bad closed to 800 yards out, the 14 tanks on the ridge halted and shelled the town. Other tanks were swinging around the right flank but on the left the enemy armor was already within 200 yards of the American position when the curtain went up.
The events of the next hour were shaped by the flashes of the heavy guns and the vagaries of the ever-shifting fog. The guns rolled in measure according to a visibility that came and went in the passage of only a few seconds. But it never became an infantryman's battle. Little knots of men on foot were coming up behind the German tanks and the batteries of the 420th Armored Field Artillery Battalion hammered at those afoot. It is doubtful if the American artillery stopped a single tank. About the time that the enemy army became fully revealed, a platoon from the 609th Tank Destroyer Battalion rolled into Noville, and added the gunpower of its four tank destroyers to the guns already shooting. The sudden, sharp focus given to the line of Mark IVs and Mark Vs as the fog cleared along the ridge line made them stand out like ducks in a shooting gallery. Nine were hit straightaway, three exploding in flames. One came charging down the highway and was turned into a flaming wreck 500 yards out. At a range of 600 yards an American cavalryman engaged a Panther tank with his armored car and knocked it out with one shot from his 37mm. gun-the most miraculous hit of the morning.
Two tanks that had been close in the foreground, ahead of the ridge, also charged the town at a speed that brought momentary confusion to Desobry's command post. But at 30 yards' range,
a 105mm. assault gun fired its first round, stopping one tank, but not disabling its gun. The German fired but missed, then tried to withdraw, but with a quick round the assault gun finished him off. The other German tank had been stopped by one of Desobry's mediums at a range of 75 yards. Looking in the direction from which they had come, observers in the taller buildings of Noville could see four more tanks lying in a draw-almost concealed. The ground cover was good enough so the Noville guns. couldn't get at them-until one of these tanks made the mistake of pulling out onto the road. It was a shining mark, 300 yards away. A tank destroyer fired and the tank exploded in a blaze. The fog swirled back, screening the draw, and the other three tanks ran off into it.
To the east of town, the run down the flank by the enemy armor ended with the destruction of three of the tanks. German infantry had appeared on that side in fairly large numbers, but when the lifting of the fog exposed them, they turned and ran, and bullet fire from Noville thinned their ranks while they were running. In Noville, the defending infantry company had lost 13 wounded; four of our vehicles had been wrecked and one tank destroyer smashed-mainly from indirect artillery fire with which the Germans had harassed the town as their tanks came on.2
By 1130 the fight had died, though intermittent shelling continued to worry the garrison.3A Its effect on Desobry had been as Colonel Roberts had predicted on the night before. The sudden lifting of the fog and revelation of the enemy position had made him acutely conscious that the conditions of ground imposed an inordinate handicap on his own force. From their positions along the ridges on three sides of Noville, the Germans could put their tanks in hull defilade and keep the village under a close artillery fire until all the walls were leveled. Desobry could see nothing but disaster ahead if be tried to hold the present ground. He figured he had better withdraw, but at the same time he remembered the counsel that Colonel Roberts had given him. In mid-morning, at the height of the German attack, he called Roberts and asked for permission to withdraw to the high ground around the village of Foy.3B
This was an act of near fatal consequences though in the end it saved the situation. What happened was that at Major Desobry's CP no effort was made to keep the message secret from all save its handlers. The operator spoke loudly and all others in the command post heard what he said. The word spread quickly to the troops out on the fighting line. In the course of the action these vague rumors hardened into a positive report that the command had received permission for a withdrawal to Foy. The wish had fathered the thought; the intensifying of the German fire made it very easy to believe. Groups of armored infantrymen—and nearly all of the stragglers who had been plugging gaps in the line—came drifting back into Noville; they had heard the story and had quit their foxholes. It seemed to Desobry that his line was about to disintegrate. He rallied his command post officers and noncoms and they began working frantically with these groups, bullying them, swearing that the rumor was false and turning them back to the action.
Reluctantly the men faced back toward the enemy but others kept on coming. There was no end to the problem. That one lapse in the CP kept the team off balance during the deadliest part of the day. Yet Desobry noted that his subordinates were accepting even these extra odds cheerfully. From the commander on down, not a man had any idea of the over-all importance of the engagement; it was just another local affair and they had scarcely related it even to the defense of Bastogne. What buoyed their spirits was that the Germans were coming in with their chins down; their own armor was remaining open. The difference was telling clearly in the marksmanship of the two sides and in the comparative losses in fighting vehicles. Every fair hit on an enemy tank produced a lift of enthusiasm for the fight partly offsetting the ill effect of the withdrawal rumor. Not all of those who drifted back to the village were bent on withdrawal; some came for just a moment to boast of what they had done to the enemy in their sector and then to return to their work again. Witnessing this strangely disordered contest and catching its wild notes of dismay and triumph, Major Desobry was reminded of a barroom brawl. His concern, however, was not solely due to
the power of the German attack. That morning he had sent patrols out to reconnoiter his rear and the patrols had not returned.3C
Colonel Roberts sparred with the request from Noville. He still possessed authority to sanction the withdrawal of his own elements but he reckoned that the situation required steadfastness for the time being and until the 101st Division was solidly established in Bastogne. So at first he gave no answer. He left his own CP and started for General McAuliffe's headquarters to see what could be done. Before he had gone halfway he ran into Brigadier General Higgins, assistant division commander of the 101st. Even as he rapidly sketched the situation to Higgins (the time was 1050) the 1st Battalion of 506th Parachute Infantry, under Lieutenant Colonel James L. LaPrade, passed by in the street. At the head of the regimental column, accompanying LaPrade, was the 506th's commander, Colonel Robert F. Sink. Convinced by Roberts' words that the Noville situation was fully desperate, Higgins on the spot ordered Sink to send a battalion to Noville and LaPrade automatically drew the assignment.4 Colonel Sink was further directed that his 2d and 3d Battalions should be put in Division reserve just north of Bastogne on the Noville road.5 At the same time the 1st Battalion, which had been given the Noville mission, was detached from Regiment and put under Division control.6 Colonel Roberts returned to his CP and called Major Desobry. "You can use your own judgment about withdrawing," he said, "but I'm sending a battalion of paratroopers to reinforce you."
Desobry replied, "I'll get ready to counterattack as soon as possible."
Colonel LaPrade and his staff got up to Major Desobry at 1130 and told him the battalion was on the way.7 It was not quite clear to either of the local commanders whether there had been an attachment of one force to the other but they decided that for the time being they would keep it a "mutual affair." Colonel LaPrade and his command had just one 1:100,000 map to serve them for the forthcoming operation.9
The commanders agreed that the next order of business was
to attack due north and seize the high ground the enemy had tried to use as a springboard during the morning. Infantry and armor would jump off together at 1400. However, Colonel LaPrade's battalion didn't arrive until 1330 and couldn't get ready that soon. So the jumpoff was postponed until 1430, December 19, since meanwhile there was a small matter of supply to be finally adjusted.10
The 506th Parachute Infantry had left Mourmelon in such a hurry that many of the men did not have helmets and others were short of weapons and ammunition. Colonel LaPrade told Major Desobry about this embarrassment and the armored force's S-4, Second Lieutenant George C. Rice, was sent packing to Foy to bring up ammunition. On the way he met the upcoming 1st Battalion and asked for their supply officer; but this officer was in Bastogne beating the woods for weapons and ammunition. So Lieutenant Rice asked the company officers what they needed most, and found that rocket launchers, mortars and all types of ammunition were the critical shortages. He then dashed on to Foy and loaded the jeep with cases of hand grenades and M1 ammunition. The jeep was turned around and the stuff was passed out to the paratroopers as they marched. On his next shuttle, Rice got back to the moving, battalion with a jeep and a truck overloaded with weapons and ammunition. The materiel was put alongside the road in five separate piles so that the men could pick up the things they needed as they went by. He made one more trip and caught the head of the column just before it reached the limits of Noville. A load of 81 mm. mortar ammunition came into town after the battalion got there.11
These details caused a slight delay in getting the battle under way again.