IT WAS A NIGHT FOR DRIFTERS, the night of December 19-20. As the darkness grew, more men from the elements which had been shattered to the east of Bastogne came moving back through the regimental lines of the 101st. Few of them stayed. Colonel Ewell and his officers talked to these men. They could tell very little of what had happened to them. Many of them were inarticulate. Infantrymen from units of the 28th Division still trickled into the area in groups of three or four. They made no attempt to organize themselves and they did not for the most part wish to be organized by anyone else. Some of these straggling infantrymen would ask Ewell's men, "What are you doing?" Upon being told, "We are fighting Germans," they would look at the paratroopers as if they were stark mad.
But not all were like that. Some who seemed utterly wretched and spent when they came to within the lines, upon being handed a K ration, would eat it and look around and ask where they could get a rifle. They were ready to fight again. But to others food and companionship made no difference. They had been shocked so badly that they wanted only to keep on drifting. They were allowed to do so. This disorder had no ill effect on the combat force. The demoralization did not seem to bother the nerves of the men who were still fighting and they accepted it as the natural product of battle it often is.1
A battalion of Field Artillery, the 109th of the 28th Division, came through as a unit and attached itself to the 907th Glider Field Artillery Battalion. Those groups from the 9th Armored Division which had been compelled to withdraw from the advanced ground along the Longvilly road were in good order and high spirits when they reached the lines around Bastogne. One platoon of armored infantry attached itself to Major Homan's battalion (2d Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry) and helped them carry the fight during the next several days.2 Seven tanks
arrived from the 9th Armored Division and constituted them-
selves a small task force operating in support of the battalion. At 0200 the 2d Platoon of Company B, 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion arrived with four tank destroyers and took position on the south edge of Bizory.3
These reinforcements got there in the nick of time. At 0530, December 20, while the 501st Parachute Infantry was patrolling toward its front, the 2d Battalion got an attack over the same big hill to the east of Bizory where they bad been stopped by the German reconnaissance force the day before. At a range of 3,000 yards, the tank destroyer men saw six enemy tanks rolling toward them from the southeast. Sergeant Floyd A. Johnson led his section to the bill north of Bizory and put the two tank destroyers on either side of the road. First Lieutenant Frederic Mallon led the second section to the higher ground southeast of town and waited for the German tanks in an open field.4
The firing opened at 0730, the tank destroyers withholding their fire from the enemy infantry so as not to compromise an engagement with the enemy armor, which by this time comprised one Mark IV, one Mark V and two 75mm. self-propelled guns.5 These were following the infantry line by 400 yards—it was a full battalion of infantry, the 2d of the 76th Regiment, 26th Volksgrenadier Division .6 In the first long-range exchange of fire, one tank destroyer was disabled and its loader killed by a direct hit on the turret; it limped away to the rear. The second tank destroyer in this section, after knocking out the Mark IV tanks, pulled back into Bizory where, in taking up another position, it damaged the tube of its gun by running against a building and became incapacitated. The other tank destroyer section opened fire at 600 yards on the Mark IV tank and one self-propelled gun, destroying both.7
This was the crux of the engagement: most of the in-fighting of that morning of December 20 was done by the heavy guns.8 Major Homan's machine guns had opened up on the German infantry while the tanks were coming on and by so doing bad kept them at a distance. Within a few minutes of this first body check to the German battalion, all the artillery that General McAuliffe could turn eastward from Bastogne blasted them (Plate
25). Homan's infantry along the ridge was too far distant to do much bullet damage to the advancing German formations but his men had a clear view of the German ranks coming on slowly, of the automatic fire making them hesitate, of the shells falling among them, of the attack gradually spending itself and of the enemy that was left then breaking away to the northward to escape the fire.9
Colonel Ewell's own infantry losses were almost nothing, but two tank destroyers were out of action for the time being and the defense had also lost two tanks. So ended the first, though not the most ruinous, of the piecemeal efforts which on this day presaged the failure of the German battle. This particular fighting had lasted about two hours, the artillery barrage perhaps
twenty minutes.10 Prisoners-of-war letters captured from the 76th Regiment said that their losses had been terrible.11
There followed a day-long wait along Colonel Ewell's 501st Parachute Infantry front. About 1900 the Germans put a heavy shelling from tanks and self-propelling guns on sensitive points over the ground held by the 501st-Bizory, Mont and the road junctions. The bombardment severed all the telephone wires connecting the battalions with the rear.12
As the German artillery slacked off, the 1st Battalion of the 501st radioed to Ewell that the enemy was charging straight down the road from Neffe (Map 10, page 75). Major Raymond V. Bottomly's 1st Battalion could hear the tanks coming on but it was so dark that they could tell little else.13 All the guns from the eleven artillery battalions in Bastogne dropped a dam of fire across the road one or two hundred yards west of Neffe—the heaviest and most effective American defensive fire during the siege. Three German tanks, two of them Panthers and one a Tiger Royal, were hit and destroyed just as they drew past the last houses in the village.14 Some German infantry, which had moved down the Bastogne road before the barrage dropped, met their fate from machine guns Company B had posted in a house by the side of the road. That company took the shock without having to yield one yard of ground. Their strongpoint controlled the terrain so well that not one German drew near enough to close on the infantry line.15 They were killed to the last man, and for weeks later, their grotesque forms along the roadside, heaped over by the Ardennes snows, showed where the German death march ended. The most forward of these bodies was 300 yards ahead of the shattered tanks.16
The German thrust from Neffe coincided with an assault on the 3d Battalion's position at Mont, though here the battle took a quite different form because of Major Templeton's tank destroyers.17 The 1st Platoon of Company B, 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, under command of First Lieutenant Robert Andrews, had arrived to reinforce Colonel Griswold's 3d Battalion position on the evening of December 19. One tank destroyer was posted at the bend in the road. From here it could cover both the dirt
road winding across the valley from Neffe and a draw leading off to the southward. A second tank destroyer took position by the last house, which put it somewhat behind, but in line with, the tank destroyer blocking the Neffe road. The other section was placed on the north side of Mont to check any tank advance from directly across the valley. The tank destroyers held these positions until the hour came when they were most needed, on the night of December 20.18
Between 1900 and 1930 on that night the enemy struck through the fields lying between Neffe and Mont, advancing against Colonel Griswold's left. But the presence of the tank destroyers had intimidated the German armor. It took refuge in the little wood lying just west of the Neffe château and from the grove it shelled Mont. The German infantry advanced under this fire.19 Enemy self-propelled guns moved along the railway line from Neffe a short distance (the rails here ran through a cut) and went to work on the same target.20 These two lines of fire converged on Griswold's positions at almost a right angle; the men in the forward line had to give ground, falling back on the village.21 The most forward of the tank destroyers, commanded by Sergeant George N. Schmidt, became their rallying point. Schmidt unloaded most of his crew and told them to join the fight with small arms. He then joined the infantry machine gunners who were already searching the down slopes with every automatic gun the Battalion could bring to bear; in the next few minutes be threw 2,000 rounds of caliber .50 at the enemy. Lieutenant Andrews used a radio-equipped jeep as his command post and central control station, and used his security section as ammunition carriers to feed the stuff up to whichever tank destroyer was calling for it most urgently. The other three tank destroyers, under Sergeant Darrell J. Lindley, were shooting at the railway line. They tried at first to spot the self-propelled guns by firing at muzzle blasts; when that failed, they put flares up over the valley.22
The fighting died about 2300.23 By that time, the three self-propelled guns were out, and lines of German dead littered the hillside.24 Because of the dark the defenders of Mont had no
clear idea of why their automatic fire had made such a clean reaping of the German attack or of where the attack had broken. But in the light of the next morning, December 21, they could see what had happened. The hillside between Neffe and Mont (Plate 26) is crossed in both directions by barbed-wire fences spaced between thirty and fifty yards apart, with five or six strands in each fence. In ordinary times they were used, apparently, as feeder pens for cattle. With the tank fire behind them the Germans tried to come right through this fenced area without first destroying the fences in any way or equipping infantry to cut them. On coming to the fences they tried to climb through but the spaces were small and their individual equipment was bulky. Griswold's men bad perfectly clear fields of fire and so did the tank destroyer supporting them. The fences were as effective as any entanglement. The evenly spaced lines of dead told the story. They had charged right into a giant mantrap.25
Colonel Ewell had the impression that night that the 901st Panzer Regiment had about expended itself and that it could no longer muster enough men to be an effective offensive force. They bad been somewhat roughly handled before they got to Neffe and his own men furthered the good work.26
So on December 19 the Germans, having gained contact with the 501st Parachute Infantry on a wide front, at first drew back to defensive positions. On December 20 the enemy made three attacks and the infantry, armor and tank destroyers in Colonel Ewell's sector beat them all down.27 One of these fights was tactically less spectacular but strategically more useful than the others.
During the period of the fighting at Noville and Neffe there had been an action between the flanks of the 501st and 506th Parachute Infantry regiments which, although just a minor affair in itself, was to have an important effect on the general situation. When the two regiments moved out to their positions on December 19, one going east and the other going north, they could not initially form a common front. In theory they were joined somewhere along the railroad track below Lahez (11 miles south of
Foy) but in fact there was a considerable gap between their closest elements. Each became so closely engaged in its local situation that the matter of contact was neglected. Colonel Sink was alarmed about the peril to his right flank from the beginning, but it was not until late on the night of December 19 that Colonel Ewell fully shared his apprehension.
Company A of the 501st was in reserve in a small wood just north of the quarry on the Neffe road, which made it the most rearward element in the 501st's general position. Several hundred yards to its rear were the guns of the 907th Glider Field Artillery Battalion's forward battery.
At 2300, December 19, a German patrol of thirty men came in between the company and the battery, moving from out of the northeast. A man on outpost duty for Company A saw the patrol and alerted the company. The patrol was permitted to come on. As it drew near the wood where the company had bivouacked, both the artillery and the infantry opened fire. The enemy dispersed into a nearby wood, though one member of the patrol was taken prisoner. Upon being interrogated he said that the patrol had come forward through the gap between the two infantry regiments and that its mission had been to get in behind and cut the Bastogne road. The incident gave the artillery grave fears about the security of their base and it also called Colonel Ewell's attention to the most vulnerable sector of his front.
Sometime on the morning of December 20, after the Germans had attacked at Bizory and then sideslipped northward, Company A of the 501st was attached to the 2d Battalion with the mission of occupying the woods south of the railroad and making contact with the 506th Parachute Infantry. However, it did not proceed immediately on this assignment and during most of that day the effort to join with the 506th was limited to patrol actions out of Company D, 501st, which was in reserve in the 2d Battalion. Four times during the day patrols from Company D tried to move north along the general line of the road running to Foy. But they were always turned back from the vicinity of Halt, where the enemy bad taken up fire positions.
At the same time Company D, 506th Parachute Infantry, was
pushing rightward toward the railroad station at Halt against stubborn resistance. When evening of the 20th came the company had reached the Foy-Bizory road. It stayed there with its right flank some hundreds of yards distant from the railroad station at Halt, which was held by an enemy force. There had been no contact with the 501st. Colonel Sink (Plate 3), commander of the 506th, called both Headquarters, 501st Parachute Infantry, and Headquarters, 101st Division, and urged that the 501st swing leftward to meet him. He said that his force was standing on the railroad line which was supposed to be the regimental boundary—but this overstated the case.
The first three patrols which had gone out from Company D of the 501st to search for the 506th's flank had been turned back by fire from the Bois Jacques. They got no idea of the enemy strength in the forest area for they were beaten back by a scattering small-arms fire at long range whenever they moved to right of the Foy-Bizory road in an attempt to gain the railroad.
Corporal Frank Lasik of Company D, 501st, led out his fourth patrol of the day just as the evening twilight of the 20th came on. There were eight men with him, and instead of beating over the same ground as the earlier patrols they swung around to the westward of the Bizory-Foy road. When within a short distance of the railroad Lasik dropped six of his men and continued on with two others. They reached the rail line and moved east along it to within a hundred yards of the Halt station. At that point they saw a force of seven German tanks supported by a body of infantry moving straight toward them down the railroad track, and only 75 yards away. Private Manzi fired one shot toward the enemy force and then the three men withdrew as rapidly as they could. Lasik knew that Company A had been given an assignment and was supposed to be moving toward the same ground which the Germans were approaching. He rushed to the Battalion command post and told them to get word to Company A, 501st, that tanks were coming down the railway track.
Company A had moved out about 1600 on December 20 and was already engaged in clearing the woods that lay south of the railroad and west of the Foy-Bizory road. They found no enemy
in the first wood and so they continued on to the next plantation lying south of the tracks and between them and the station at Halt. In the middle of this journey they met a patrol from the 506th Parachute Infantry. Until that meeting they had believed that the 506th was already on the railroad track. But from the patrol they learned that the actual flank of the 506th was about 600 yards north of the railroad track and that Company D, 506th, had been having a running fight with small groups of the enemy for control of the station at Halt.
From the second woods, Sergeant Lyle B. Chamberlain of Company A, 501st, was sent with a four-man patrol eastward along the tracks to search for the enemy. This was at just about the time that Lasik was getting back to warn the battalion. Sergeant Chamberlain's patrol moved through the swampy ground that lay to the left of the tracks and had gone but a short distance when they sighted a German patrol coming toward them. It looked to Chamberlain like the point of a company. Darkness was already closing around them and the German group did not see Sergeant Chamberlain's patrol. The patrol fell back on the company and reported what they had seen. Hastily, the 3d Platoon of Company A was deployed along the edge of the woods north of the railroad track to lay an ambush, for the enemy group which Sergeant Chamberlain had sighted was all northward of the track. While the platoon was deploying thick fog closed in around the woods and this coupled with the darkness reduced visibility to almost nothing. The Germans were allowed to approach within 10 to 15 yards before Company A opened fire. The surprise volley wholly disorganized the leading German platoon and the men who were not cut down ran to the rear to the swampy ground.
The whole Company A front had by this time become engaged. The enemy bad been advancing with two companies abreast astride the railway track. On Company A's right, the 1st and 2d Platoons did not get the same chance to close with the enemy at short range, and after the dispersion of the German right, mortar, grenade and automatic fire from the German force south of the tracks beat heavily against the two platoons. Because
of the darkness and the fog the men of the company could get no idea what losses they were taking themselves and could only judge the progress of the action by the build-up of the enemy fire. They saw little or nothing of the Germans they were engaging. The skirmish went on with both forces firing toward the flashes and sounds in the position of the opposite force. Company A lost fifteen men in the night engagements, three of whom were killed in action. But in the black darkness the men of the Company thought at the time that they were taking much heavier losses. The fog made more vivid their impressions of the opposing fire while keeping them from feeling their own strength. The murk was so thick by this time that it was only by the sounds of fire that a man could tell where his nearest comrade was fighting.
While the fire fight on the south of the tracks continued, the Germans who had fallen back toward the swampy ground on the north of the track gradually collected themselves again. For half an hour or more there was a lull in the action on this side except that both forces tried to carry on at long range with hand grenades. Then the 3d Platoon of Company A heard the enemy moving out through the woods around their left flank.
Apprehensive that they would be outflanked if they maintained themselves in the forward ground, the 3d Platoon pulled back its own left flank to the westward so as to cover the rear of the company position. This change in the form of the enemy attack was also indicated on the right flank. Private First Class William C. Michel, a German-speaking soldier who was with the company executive officer, Lieutenant Joseph B. Schweiker, could hear the enemy shouting commands and telling his men to move out around the left and right of the American force. The order may have been a ruse intended to cover a withdrawal, but as the fire fight began to build up again it seemed to Lieutenant Schweiker that the enemy was actively pushing out around the flanks of Company A and threatening his rear.
At about 2230, December 20, Lieutenant Schweiker ordered the company to fall back to the line of the second woods. Lieutenant James C. Murphy called all of the squad leaders together and told them that the signal for withdrawal would be a
long burst of machine-gun fire and that all of the other machine guns were to be kept quiet until this signal came. The withdrawal was made in reasonably good order, the circumstances considered.
When Company A took up its position in the second wood it was deployed to right of the railway line. The company was not pressed there at any time during the night. Apparently the Germans had ordered a withdrawal at about the same time. After staying in the woods for somewhat more than an hour the company withdrew a little to the southward and bivouacked in a third plantation.
The advance of the enemy down the railroad track had put them on the rear of Company D, 506th Parachute Infantry, but it was not until 0400 that Company D, which was somewhat engaged by small groups hitting directly at its front, discovered that its flank had been turned. Lieutenant Colonel Strayer reported to Colonel Sink that he believed an enemy force of about two platoons had penetrated between his battalion of the 506th and the 501st. But he did not know that Company D, 501st, was meeting this force frontally. Colonel Sink ordered Company D, 506th, to face some of its men toward the rear and bold their present ground. This, they did. The 1st Battalion, 506th, then in reserve at Luzery, was ordered to send Companies A and C forward to help contain the penetrating force. Both of these companies were badly depleted from their fight in Noville.
When morning of December 21 came the situation was about as follows: Company A, 501st, which had not been further disturbed during its bivouac, moved back up without opposition to exactly the same positions it bad occupied during the night engagement. Company D, 501st, which had bivouacked just to the south of Company A's bivouac area under the mistaken impression that it bad moved into the woods lying south of the railroad tracks, discovered its error when the light came. It immediately moved farther north, with one platoon going directly toward the objective woods and the others detouring east to clean out another small wood which they thought might contain enemy forces.
Through the accident of these shifts, the 501st Parachute Infantry thus had forces advancing from west, southwest and south as if to bring about a general envelopment of the German force at the Halt station. Coinciding with these movements from the south and west the two reserve companies (A and C) of the 506th reached the area to the northward at about 0815 and were committed in companies abreast to beat through the forests lying south and west of Company D's position. The morning of the 21st was heavy with fog; none of these approaching forces moving in on them from northeast, north, west, southwest and south was visible to the Germans dug in around the Halt station and in some of the plantations to westward of it. They were so completely misled as to their own position that when the platoons that had marched east for Company D, 501st, started their sweep north toward the Halt station, several of the enemy glimpsed them through the fog and came walking up to meet them, thinking they were friendly troops.
The line of the 506th came slowly but methodically on toward the railway tracks. Some of the Germans stayed to fight. Others gave up. Still others, in trying to get away were forced back into the killing ground established by the semicircular advance of the different forces of the 501st. By about 1100, December 2 1, the envelopment was complete and Companies A and C of the 506th had made full contact with units of the 501st along the railway line. The two companies were then ordered to return to Luzery, leaving Company D to solidify the front.
But in moving south and westward through the forest Companies A and C, 506th, discovered that the job was by no means completed. The morning advance had forced many of the enemy into the woods to the westward beyond the lines of Company A, 501st Parachute Infantry. The rat hunting continued throughout the day and it was almost dark before the 506th was convinced that the mop-up operation was complete. By that time it was realized that the original estimate of two platoons of enemy—these were troops of the 77th Volksgrenadier Regiment of the 26th Volksgrenadier Division—had far undershot the mark. The German force was more nearly the size of a battalion. About 100
of the enemy were captured and 55 killed by the units of the 506th Parachute Infantry in an operation that cost them only five or six casualties. About 80 Germans were driven into 501st's sector, where they were either killed or captured. Later, when the whole battle could be reviewed clearly, the senior commanders of 101st reckoned that the enemy missed his finest opportunity on this ground and during these hours. A strongly weighted attack straight down the railroad track could have carried through to Bastogne and turned the flanks of 501st and 506th Regiments.28
With the end of this engagement on December 21, re sectors of both the 501st and 506th became relatively quiet until after January 1. But there were other important consequences. Firm contact had been established between the two regiments, and it was never broken or weakened after that time the Germans were served notice that the road to Bastogne from the east and north was not open.
Out of these things also developed a new feeling of confidence among the artillery in the Bastogne area. They were now fully covered on the north and east by a reasonably strong shield and they could more easily direct their attention to the other parts of the defensive circle, wherever the danger mounted.
From December 21 on, the Germans gave over their attack against the 501st Parachute Infantry's part of the Bastogne front. The road to Bastogne did not lie through Colonel Ewell and his 501st.