IN NOVILLE they were running short of armor-piercing shell as the morning of December 20 dawned.1 In Bastogne, General McAuliffe was wondering whether Noville was worth what he might have to pay to hold it, and was about to reach a decision.2 Deprived of any support from the commanding ridges, Noville is not a military position but just another village on low ground, and a perfect sinkhole for fog. The issue was already hanging in the balance because of the ammunition situation and the miscarriage of the American attack on December 19; only a little more pressure would tip it.3
On left flank of the 506th Parachute Infantry, the 502d had passed a quiet night. In midafternoon of December 19 the 502d had moved to Longchamps and established a perimeter defense there. Its 3d Battalion deployed on a high hill to south of the village. Its 1st Battalion was in the Bois de Niblamont which was southward of the hill. Initially, the 1st Battalion had held half of the front, but at 2400 of the 19th General McAuliffe told Lieutenant Colonel Steve Chappuis, commander of the 502d Parachute Infantry, that inasmuch as his regiment was the Division reserve he could leave one battalion on the northward-facing line. The 2d Battalion drew the assignment. It made no difference in any case, for though the battalion was stretched seven thousand yards, there was no action anywhere along its front that night.4
But to the eastward where 506th stood guard, the boys who had prayed for morning soon wondered why.5 At 0730 two enemy tanks came hell-roaring through the field along the Houffalize road, swung in beside the first building of Noville, wheeled so as to protect each other and then stopped. On their way in they had knocked out a jeep with one shell, and had sprayed forward with their machine guns as they rushed. Unseeing, they came to a halt within ten yards of a bazooka team and the first rocket fired set one of the tanks on fire. Staff Sergeant Michael
Lesniak, a tank commander, had heard the German armor roaring along. He dismounted from his tank, walked up the main street for a look, then went back and swung his gun in the right direction and moved to the center of the street. He fired before the enemy realized that he had gone into action and his first round finished the German tank. A third German tank that stayed just north along the road but out of sight in the fog threw a few loose shells into the town and one of them hit Sergeant Lesniak's tank, damaging the turret.6
That was the beginning. Almost nothing that followed could be seen as clearly. During the next two hours the defensive perimeter was under constant attack from the German armor and infantry. But the enemy pressure developed quite unevenly as if their forces, too, were groping or were keeping active simply to conceal some larger design. It was battle with the bewildering shifts of a montage; there were momentary exposures and quick shiftings of scene. The enemy came on in groups of a few tanks supported by small parties of infantry and were held off by the armored infantry and paratroopers with their own weapons just long enough to let a friendly tank or tank destroyer get into firing position. Fog mixed with smoke from the burning buildings again mantled the country between the village and the ridges, diffusing the efforts of both forces. It was all but impossible for anyone to get any impression of how the tide was moving; the combatants could tell only what went on right before their eyes.7
Curiously enough the tank destroyer men of 2d Platoon, Company C, 705th TD Battalion, who had taken position in the south of Noville, had the impression that in these early morning hours the infantry was standing off a full-fledged attack.8 They could see only a hundred yards beyond their own guns and they could hear large numbers of enemy tracked vehicles moving toward them through the fog. Their imaginings were further stimulated by a direct hit on one tank destroyer at the outset which killed the gunner, Corporal Stephen Cook, and wounded several of the crew.9 For two hours they fired in the general direction of where they thought the German armor was massing; they could see no targets but they thought their unobserved fire might have some
deterring effect.10 At 1000, December 20, the fog quite suddenly lifted and the sky became almost clear.11 In the field within view of the tank destroyer force were 15 German tanks; they were proceeding toward their own lines at about 1,000 yards range. Four of the tanks were hit and disabled and the tank destroyer men were confident that their own shells did it. They had seen their shots hit home and watched Private Steve E. Reed empty seven boxes of caliber .50 ammunition into the German crews as they tried to flee across the fields.12
Just before the fog had cleared a Tiger tank had charged right into the heart of Noville. Visibility among the buildings was just about zero. The tank stopped in front of the command post of Company B, 20th Armored Infantry Battalion. The tanker swung his gun uncertainly toward the door. Captain Omar Billett said a quick prayer.13 A joker beside him remarked, "Don't look now, but there is an 88 pointing at you."14
Sergeant Lesniak's tank was within twenty yards but the German had failed to see him in the fog; by rotating his damaged turret just a short space to the right Lesniak had his gun dead on the Tiger. At twenty yards he fired three rounds of 75mm. at the German tank without doing any apparent damage. The German quickly put his tank into reverse. But the left track ran up and over a jeep. The jeep was completely crushed but at the same time it fouled the track and beached the tank. The German kept on pushing back-the jeep under him. He next collided with a half-track and the tank tipped dangerously over on its right side.15 That was enough for the German crew. They jumped from the tank and ran out of the town, going through the American lines without getting a shot fired at them, such was the thickness of the fog.
The radio inside the Tiger was on a busy channel, and talk flowed on inside the dead tank. It looked like a wide-open opportunity, but before the command post could round up anyone who could understand German, the channel went out.16 The tankers destroyed this Tiger with thermite and later on they caught hell from Colonel Roberts for not bringing the tank back to Bastogne.17 But they had a good excuse. The losses among the tank
drivers were already such that they did not have enough men to maneuver their own armor. Two tanks were without drivers and partly without crews. So the tankers asked the paratroopers if there were any men among them who could handle tanks and two of Major Harwick's men of the 1st Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry, climbed aboard and started out with the Shermans. Later on both men were killed in their tanks during the withdrawal.18
They knew now that they would not be able to hold Noville much longer. The clearing of the fog revealed to Major Hustead (now commanding the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion) and his staff a situation they had already suspected. During the night of the 19th the men on the outposts had heard enemy armor moving across their rear, particularly to the southwestward.19 In the morning, patrols had gone out, and although they couldn't tell much because of the enveloping fog, they found enough to confirm the fact that enemy forces were between them and Bastogne. Hustead had lost radio contact with Combat Command B Headquarters during the night.20 So in the morning he sent First Lieutenant Herman C. Jacobs to Foy; he was to get to Headquarters, 3d Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry, in Foy and use their radio to inform Combat Command B of the situation and request that the Noville garrison either be withdrawn or reinforced. He carried out the mission in a half-track and several times on the way to Foy he blundered into enemy parties and had to shoot his way through. But at Foy he found no one; by this time 3d Battalion was engaging the enemy to the south of the village. Lieutenant Jacobs continued on to Bastogne and found Colonel Roberts who sent his only available reserve—an antiaircraft platoon—forward. But the platoon was blocked by enemy forces before it could get to Foy.21 The Germans were coming across the road from both sides. When the fog rolled away the men in Noville could look southward and see the circling armor. To make their isolation more complete, they bad lost all contact with the main body of 506th Parachute Infantry and they did not know whether the situation at Foy was developing for or against them.22
The Germans had already made their onfall against Colonel Sink's support position. In early morning, December 20, the 3d Battalion of the 506th received light shelling and flat-trajectory fire along its lines at Foy. During the night and through the first hours of daylight the enemy had taken advantage of the heavy fog and moved in very close to the American outposts, though it seems probable that they knew very little about the location of the American lines and were only groping.23
At 0800, December 20, a force of about two companies of infantry supported by three tanks attacked (Map 11, page 91) toward the ground defended by Companies I and H. By 0900, they had driven in far enough to put direct fire on the American positions with their supporting weapons.24 The tank destroyers of 3d Platoon, Reconnaissance Company of the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion were not in position to give the infantry any direct fire support during the engagement. They were in the woods south of Foy when the attack came on, and in the later stages of the action they were established as roadblocks, but during that morning they did not fire on any enemy armor.25 Company G in Recogne was engaged by another company of German infantry supported by three tanks. The command post of the 3d Battalion in Foy came under direct fire from an enemy tank. Until 1030 the Battalion held its ground in Foy and then withdrew to the high ground south of the village. Here it reformed for the counterattack.26
It was about mid-morning when 101st Airborne Division Headquarters called the 502d Parachute Infantry and directed that its 3d Battalion (under Lieutenant Colonel John P. Stopka) attack through Recogne and gain contact with the American force at Noville, thus reestablishing the left flank. The battalion crossed the line of departure at 1130 and then pushed right on, meeting little opposition.
But when the 3d Battalion, 502d, reached Recogne a change in the order came. At somewhere around noon General McAuliffe had decided that Noville wasn't important enough to warrant a last-ditch stand on the inferior ground around the village. Colonel Stopka was accordingly instructed to make a lim-
ited attack forward to cover the extrication of Major Harwick's men of the 3d Battalion, 506th. That battalion was to fight the same kind of action on the other flank. It was figured that the Noville force could sideslip into the area of the 502d once Stopka's battalion got up to it. However, his Battalion had fought its way only a short distance past Recogne when the plan was again changed.
Colonel Sink, commanding the 506th, had looked the situation over and decided that the best way out was for Major Harwick's force to retire down the Bastogne road. Colonel Stopka's battalion remained in position on a line running through Recogne with its left flank extended westward to join the 2d Battalion of the 502d. Its advance had been made wholly without artillery support because of the dense fog.27
Radio communication between Bastogne and Noville was not reestablished until 1300.28 The order then came through on the artillery radio net to Harwick and Hustead that their command would withdraw to the Bastogne perimeter of defense. They were told that an attack on Foy was being made immediately to relieve the pressure on Noville. When they saw that the attention of the enemy was diverted to the Foy attack, they were to make a break for the south.29
A few local problems had to be solved in Noville preceding the withdrawal. A considerable amount of ammunition had to be destroyed. There were more than fifty wounded men awaiting evacuation.30 But the shrinkage of manpower in the Noville force through battlefield deaths and casualties already evacuated had totalled so many men that, despite a steady loss in vehicles, there were enough tanks, half-tracks and trucks left to move back all the casualties and permit all the armored units and most of the paratroopers to ride out of Noville.
Company C of the 506th was already south of Noville in a reserve position, and accordingly, it was nominated as the advance guard to move out on foot.31 Three tanks would support Company C. The half-tracks and jeeps loaded with the wounded would come next in the column. Then would follow the main body, the personnel carriers and armor. Those of the infantry
who couldn't find a ride would move out in file on both sides of the road. Company B of the 506th was to be the rear guard, supported by four tank destroyers. One platoon from that company was detailed to destroy everything useful that could not be evacuated.32
At 1315, December 20, Company C took off. At 1325 the first vehicles quit Noville.33 Major Hustead and his engineer officer had prepared the ammunition dump for demolition; the dump was alongside a building and they were hopeful that the blast would lay the building low and block the highway. Hustead waited until the last vehicle had passed the ammunition point. He then gave the engineer the signal to set off the delayed charge. They heard the explosion as they moved on down the road.34
The start was good. Until 1300 the air had been crystal clear for most of the noon hour. Then, as if Providence again chose to intervene in their favor, the fog closed around them and screened their departure from the enemy.35 They knew that they could be, heard and they wondered whether the Germans would try to take them in flank while they were on the move.36 But the fire which might have been turned against the road was spared them and they moved along quite easily, except for an occasional flurry of bullets.
A little protecting belt of armor—one armored M8, followed by four half-tracks, and five medium tanks—moved in front of the vehicles containing the wounded.37 Just beyond the village, one of the tanks broke down and bad to be destroyed with thermite. The armored car took off at full speed without waiting for the others, and got to Bastogne without receiving any fire. The column continued on toward Foy and the half-tracks had come abreast of a farmhouse within 500 yards of the village when occurred one of those chance things which may change the whole course of a battle despite their own intrinsic unimportance.
In the leading half-track the shutter dropped and the driver could not see. The driver raised up and moved his arm to adjust the shutter and Major James B. Duncan mistook the gesture and thought that the man bad been wounded and was holding his eyes. So Duncan quickly pulled the hand brake. That stopped
the entire column.39 The first half-track was rammed from behind by the second half-track which had lost its brakes. The third half-track pulled up close. At that moment bullets and grenades bit into the column from both sides of the road. The men could not see clearly what they were fighting but they knew that some Germans were deployed in the ditches and that they were also drawing fire from the house. Major Duncan figured that he had to fight it out on that ground. The machine gunners in the half-tracks put heavy fire on the ditches; and the dismounted riflemen, after flattening themselves, blazed away with their tommy guns. In ten minutes the skirmish was over. Some of the enemy had been cut down. Others had dispersed into the fog.40
The fourth half-track had withdrawn a short distance to keep from jamming the column. Major Duncan had gone back that way. The amount of firing that he could hear from forward among the half-tracks, mingled with the noise of the firing of the 3d Battalion, 506th, which was attacking north toward Foy, gave Duncan an exaggerated idea of the importance of the action. He asked for the tanks to get forward and fire on the house.41
Meanwhile the three half-tracks had shoved on. Back through the column all men had dismounted and taken to the ditches. Major Hustead came for-ward to see what was blocking the road and he met Major Duncan near the head of the column. Both officers then tried to get the tanks moving again. The crew of the first tank told Major Hustead they had no ammunition. The second tank couldn't fire either; there was no ammunition for the big gun and the machine gun was jammed. Duncan prodded two of the tanks into carrying out the order and they shelled the house until it caught fire. Thereupon, they backed away. Duncan was still worrying because be could bear small-arms fire, so he ordered them to go in.42 As they moved away they were caught broadside by fire from three German tanks which had slipped through the fog from the eastward. The first American tank caught fire. In the second American tank the driver was hit and the tank came to a halt.43
Because of the murk, men who were only a few yards back in the column could get no true idea of what was happening. Cap-
tain William G. Schultz, the tank commander, was in the fifth tank. He walked up to the third tank, which was short of personnel, and drove it on down the road past the two disabled tanks. They were beyond his help and he thought that if he kept moving the rest of the column would follow.44
But in this he was mistaken. He drove through Foy alone and about a quarter-mile beyond the village his tank was hit by a shell from an enemy tank and disabled, but Captain Schultz and his men got out alive and walked on into Bastogne.45 Meanwhile, Major Hustead and Captain Billett were striving to get the column moving. A tank destroyer of the 705th TD Battalion whipped up from the rear of the column to try to get a line on the yet unseen German tanks. A Sherman tank from the forward group backed straight toward the tank destroyer and the tank destroyer, reversing direction to save itself, backed over and crushed a jeep.46 Then the Sherman moved on up to have another go at the house and it was hit by a shell from a German tank and exploded in flames. The turret blew off into the road and blocked the passage.47 The driver of the fifth tank, who had been with Schultz, had moved up and taken over the second tank just before it was demolished. This left the fifth tank driverless. As the road was now blocked by the turret, Hustead and Billett moved back and forth among the tankers looking for a driver so they could start the column moving across the field to Foy.48 There was not a single response. Every tanker replied that he was qualified for some other kind of work but couldn't move a tank. The paratroopers and the armored infantry jumped to the conclusion that the men were dogging it. They walked among the tankers cursing them and calling them "yellow bastards"; they threatend [sic] to beat up one man whom they suspected of being a driver. But they were all wrong about it. Most of these men were new replacements. Some were cooks, some were mechanics and some were riflemen. They were tankers only in that they belonged to a tank organization.49 The impasse at Foy could only be charged to the replacement system.
The paratroopers farther back along the road had picked themselves up and moved out through the fields on both sides. The
group on the right swept all the way to Foy, met no organized resistance but bagged a few Germans whom they found wandering around in the fog.50 The tank destroyer force at the rear also became restive and at 1430 First Lieutenant Tom E. Toms led his vehicles down a little stream line on the right of the road and by way of this defilade entered Foy from the west.51 He had gotten there in ten minutes. The paratroopers who had swung out to the right reached the village at the same time. The tank destroyers were not quite through for the day.52
The foot troops who had swung out to the east of the road were stopped by the line of fire which the unseen German tanks were throwing at the Shermans at the front of the column. They sent word back to the main body.53 However, the danger was removed by help from an unexpected quarter. Private First Class Thomas E. Gallagher was driving one of the tank destroyers which had gone into Foy and was on his way to an assembly area in a woods south of the village when be was stopped by an officer of the 3d Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry. He knew the location of the German tanks and told Gallagher to go after them. Gallagher said he had no crew and no one to work the gun. Two paratroopers climbed into the tank destroyer and took over the gun. Gallagher then moved forward and with the infantrymen doing the firing the tank destroyer engaged one tank at 200 yards range and destroyed it. The other German tank escaped over the hill.54
Because of the fog Major Hustead and Captain Billett hadn't seen the infantry parties move out to right and left. Billett felt that he ought to clear a route for the tanks and vehicles to advance and he sent back for his outfit, Company B of the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion. One platoon stayed back in the column with the vehicles and he started out with the other two platoons moving through the fields to the right. Major Hustead had the same idea but didn't know that it had already been put into execution twice on this same flank. He gathered about 20 paratroopers together and made an additional hook to the right. The odd part of it was that although this party groped its way forward over the same ground as the others, they did so in time to
reap part of the harvest. The enemy groups around Foy were now feeling the heat from both directions. Hustead's sweep toward Foy resulted in the capture of 43 Germans.
In the village Hustead met troops of the 3d Battalion, 506th, who had advanced from the south and he asked them, "Has our armor come through?"
The men had seen the three half-tracks and Captain Schultz's tank go by and they thought this was the armor Major Hustead was talking about. So they reassured him. Hustead borrowed a jeep and drove to Bastogne to report to Colonel Roberts that he had completed his mission. But when he got to town be learned that he was mistaken and could only tell Colonel Roberts that the column was on its way and should soon arrive.55
Major Hustead in Bastogne and Captain Billett in Foy were both on the radio urging the column to come around to the right. But Major Duncan and Second Lieutenant Burleigh P. Oxford were already jockeying the column through the fields. The fifth tank was on its way. A crew of paratroopers had climbed aboard after telling the tankers, "We'll learn bow to run the son of a bitch."56 When the column drew into Foy some of the vehicles got stuck in the soft ground. Lieutenant Oxford dismounted all of the men and got the winches and the manpower working first of all on extricating the vehicles that contained the wounded. At dusk of December 20 the column was finding its way through Foy and past the lines of the 3d Battalion, 506th.57 The command in Bastogne had intended that the force would go into a defensive position on the high ground south of Foy. But Hustead told Colonel Roberts that the column was dead beat and bad better be brought into Bastogne.58 The tank destroyers under Lieutenant Toms stayed in Foy supporting the 3d Battalion.59
Team Desobry had gone to Noville with fifteen tanks; it limped back with only four.60 The 1st Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry was in full strength when it went to Team Desobry's support. It lost 13 officers and 199 enlisted men at Noville.61 By their combined efforts they bad destroyed or badly crippled somewhere between twenty and thirty known enemy tanks of all types including not less than three Mark VIs.62 They probably dam-
aged or destroyed many more. Headquarters of the 506th estimated that the assaults of the German infantry had cost the enemy the equivalent of half a regiment.63
Yet all of these material measurements of what had been achieved were mean and meager weighed against the fact that the men of Noville had held their ground for a decisive 48 hours during which time the defense of Bastogne had opportunity to organize and grow confident of its own strength.64