The Roer River Offensive
Among numerous considerations affecting the Ninth Army’s role in the November offensive, one of the most telling was German possession of the West Wall strongpoint of Geilenkirchen. Located ten miles north of Aachen along the Ninth Army’s northern boundary, Geilenkirchen in German hands severely restricted the frontage available for deployment at the start of the planned offensive. The solution to the problem posed by the town eventually was to alter a simple plan for a frontal attack into a complicated blueprint involving progressive shifts in corps and division boundaries. (See Map VII.)
Shifting the Ninth Army boundary northward was no solution, for any troops that attacked from northwest or north of Geilenkirchen eventually would have to cross the Wurm River, which could be a costly procedure. The situation was complicated further on the south wing because the congested urban district of Wuerselen was not desirable for early stages of the main attack. Once a sizable portion of the front at Wuerselen had been allotted to one division, the 30th, not quite six miles of frontage remained. The Ninth Army commander, General Simpson, had available for employment here the rest of the XIX Corps and all of General Gillem’s newly operational XIII Corps. Thus developed perhaps the only instance during the Siegfried Line Campaign when a commander had more troops than he had space in which to use them.
In the final analysis, General Simpson found his solution in temporary boundaries.
First, the adjacent 30 British Corps was to encompass Geilenkirchen in its sector temporarily and reduce the town with the assistance of the 84th U.S. Division. This arrangement had the dual virtue of taking care of Geilenkirchen while at the same time permitting employment at the start of at least a portion of the troops of General Gillem’s XIII Corps (the 84th Division). Beyond Geilenkirchen, the northeastward trace of the Wurm promised enlargement of the Ninth Army’s sector, thus permitting the 84th Division to return to the XIII Corps and other units of the corps to enter the line.
Second, General Simpson directed that the 2d Armored Division, which as northernmost element of the XIX Corps was to attack northeastward toward the Roer at Linnich, was to halt a mile or so short of Linnich at the communications center of Gereonsweiler. After capture of Gereonsweiler, the XIX Corps north boundary was to be shifted to the south, further broadening the sector available to the XIII Corps. Upon shift of the boundary, the 2d Armored Division was to pull into an assembly area near Juelich and prepare to exploit a river crossing to
be staged by infantry of the XIX Corps. The 2d Armored Division thus had the twofold mission of protecting the north flank of the XIX Corps during the drive on Juelich while at the same time developing maneuver space for commitment of the XIII Corps.
Third, after supply lines of the XIX Corps had been adjusted to the earlier temporary boundary, General Simpson planned another boundary adjustment, widening the XIII Corps sector by more than a mile and giving the XIII Corps more direct lines of communication leading to Linnich.1
As finally determined, the basic outline of the Ninth Army’s role in the November offensive was as follows:
On the heels of the target bombing which represented the Ninth Army’s share of Operation QUEEN, General McLain’s XIX Corps with three divisions (the 2d Armored, 29th, and 30th) was to make the Ninth Army’s main effort alongside the First Army’s left flank to seize a crossing of the Roer at Juelich. As an attached component of the 30 British Corps, which on 12 November had assumed responsibility for the Ninth Army’s troublesome seventeen-mile north flank running eastward from the Maas River, the 84th Division was to attack on D plus 1 to capture Geilenkirchen. Thereupon, General Gillem’s XIII Corps with the 113th Cavalry Group, two active divisions (the 84th and 102d), and a reserve division (the 7th Armored, which was recuperating from fighting in the Peel
Marshes) was to be committed on the Ninth Army’s north wing to cross the Roer at Linnich. After jumping the Roer, both corps were to drive northeast to the Rhine at Duesseldorf. Detailed plans for both the Roer crossings and the drive to the Rhine were to await developments, particularly in regard to the dams on the upper Roer which the Germans might blow to isolate any force east of the river.
Most of the terrain in the XIX Corps zone was typical of the Roer plain: generally flat, averaging about 300 feet above sea level, dotted with villages ranging in population from one to two thousand, composed primarily of cultivated fields outlined by shallow ditches and sparse hedges. Having seized the eastern slopes of the Wurm River valley during the October penetration of the West Wall, the XIX Corps already possessed the highest ground in the sector. From four villages along the periphery of the West
Wall "bridgehead"—Waurichen, Beggendorf, Baesweiler, and Oidtweiler—the ground slopes gently downward a remaining six miles to the Roer. The highest ground still in German hands was along the proposed route of advance of the 29th Division, from Baesweiler and Oidtweiler east through the road center of Aldenhoven to Juelich, and near the village of Setterich, northeast of Baesweiler, no more than a stone’s throw from the projected line of departure. Two major highways, both originating at Aachen, traversed the plain in the direction the XIX Corps wanted to go. One would serve the 2d Armored Division in the direction of Linnich; the other, the 29th Division on the route through Aldenhoven to Juelich. Another major road cuts laterally across the plain from Geilenkirchen southeast through Aldenhoven in the direction of Dueren.
Not only the main roads but also the secondary roads, crisscrossing the plain from village to village, attracted special attention. This was because commanders feared the soil off the roads might be too moist and soft for cross-country maneuver of tanks. Already indications had developed that the month of November might produce some kind of record for incessant rainfall and cloudiness. Meteorologists later were to note that a trace of rain appeared on all but two days of November and that one and a half inches fell in excess of a normally high precipitation.2
In hope of increasing tank flotation, the Ninth Army, as did the First Army, called upon maintenance companies and battalions to set up special shops and adopt assembly line methods to equip tanks with track connector extensions ("duck bills"). These were five-inch steel end connectors, a form of grouser. By D Day approximately three fourths of the medium tanks in both the 2d Armored Division and separate battalions supporting the infantry would have been modified.3
Still concerned, tankers lashed fascines to their vehicles to be used for increased traction should the tanks bog down. The 2d Armored Division commander, General Harmon, mounted a tank shortly before D Day for a personal test of the soil situation.4
General Harmon’s preoccupation with mobility had somber overtones. As an armored commander, he must have recognized the maxim that "armor attracts armor;" and the Ninth Army G-2, Colonel Bixel, had warned that the enemy’s 9th Panzer Division occupied a reserve position only a few miles behind the front line. In the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, Colonel Bixel noted, the Germans had another force containing armor in a reserve location not much farther away.5
Colonel Bixel was referring quite accurately to the two divisions which made up the OB WEST reserve in this sector, General von Luettwitz’ XLVII Panzer Corps. Only recently returned from the
spoiling attack in the Peel Marshes, the LXVII Panzer Corps had assumed a reserve position straddling the boundary between the XII SS and LXXXI Corps in rear areas of the Fifteenth Army (alias Gruppe von Manteuffel). From this position the reserve might move to the assistance of either corps.6 With their combined total of 66 tanks, 41 assault guns, and 65 105-mm. and 150-mm. howitzers, the two divisions of the XLVII Panzer Corps were capable of a telling contribution in the battle of the Roer plain.7 The boundary between the enemy’s XII SS and LXXXI Corps ran from the vicinity of Beggendorf and Loverich northeastward to Linnich.8
Other than the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division, which held the urban district about Wuerselen, that part of the LXXXI Corps opposite the Ninth U.S. Army consisted only of the 246th Volks Grenadier Division. Since Colonel Wilck’s melodramatic surrender at Aachen, the division had been commanded by a Colonel Koerte. Though rated weakest of all LXXXI Corps units, the 246th Division had 11041 men organized into three infantry regiments, an artillery regiment with about 30 pieces of varying caliber, an engineer battalion, and additional units containing 13 assault guns, 7 88’s, and 21 lesser pieces.9
Commanded temporarily by General der Infanterie Guenther Blumentritt, the XII SS Corps bore responsibility for almost twenty-two miles of front northwest of Loverich through Geilenkirchen all the way to the Maas River. This was a big assignment for a corps that had but two divisions, the 176th Infantry (Colonel Landau) and the 183d Volks Grenadier (General Lange). Having absorbed rough treatment at the hands of the XIX U.S. Corps in September, the 176th Division since that time had undergone major reorganization. It now was capable of fairly creditable defensive action. Though numbering only about 8,000 men, the division had able troops and relatively high morale. The division’s sector was opposite the British, from a point northwest of Geilenkirchen to the Maas River. The 183d Division, which had been rushed into the West Wall at the end of September, controlled Geilenkirchen and the corps south wing.
The commander of the XII SS Corps, General Blumentritt, was less concerned about the American front east of the Wurm than about the British front west of the river. The position of the 176th Division, General Blumentritt noted, invited a pincers attack from the west and from the south up the valley of the Wurm through Geilenkirchen to cut off the entire division. With this in mind, he directed the main weight of his defenses on either side of Geilenkirchen. His infantry reserve—a battalion from each division—was located in that vicinity and his artillery batteries were instructed to be ready to mass fire on Geilenkirchen. Having been promised the assistance of the new 388th Volks Artillery Corps, General Blumentritt intended to commit it so that its fires also could be directed on the Geilenkirchen sector.
General Blumentritt also concentrated his antitank defenses around Geilenkir-
chen. The backbone of the antitank screen was provided by 20 assault guns and the 75-mm. and 88-mm. pieces of both divisions. The 301st Tank Battalion with V Tiger tanks and the 559th Assault Gun Battalion with 21 assault guns were held in reserve.10
Neither General Blumentritt nor the commander of the LXXXI Corps, General Koechling, had any doubts that the Allies would resume their drive to the Roer and the Rhine in early November. Both expected the main effort to be directed toward Juelich and Dueren with a subsidiary effort toward Linnich. As indicated by concern about the 176th Division, General Blumentritt believed the British would participate actively in the offensive, thereby extending the zone of attack as far as Roermond, at the juncture of the Maas and the Roer sixteen miles northwest of Geilenkirchen.11
On the American side, Colonel Bixel and the XIX Corps G-2, Colonel Platt, had discerned quite accurately the kind of defense to be expected on the Roer plain. Having taken a leaf from Russian defensive tactics, the Germans had transformed the numerous villages into mutually supporting strongpoints. Fire trenches, foxholes, communications trenches, and antitank ditches wreathed the villages. Antitank and antipersonnel mines liberally dotted roads and other likely avenues of approach. Self-propelled guns could furnish direct support from within the villages, where they might be hidden behind stalwart stone houses. If driven from the trenches, German infantry might retire into the villages to cellars remarkable in the strength of their construction.12
American intelligence also had divined that the Germans looked upon the villages west of the Roer as integral parts of concentric arcs of defense fanning out from Juelich and Linnich, after the manner of ripples that spread on a pond when a pebble is thrown in. Since Juelich was the more important of the two towns, the concentric arcs protecting it overlapped at some points with those protecting Linnich.
The outer, or westernmost, defensive arc was marked by a radius a little less than six miles from Juelich. Not quite four miles from the Roer was an intermediate arc. The inner arc ran not quite two miles from Juelich.13
Probably because aerial photographs had revealed the enemy’s defensive pattern, most of the villages on the plain—plus Juelich, Linnich, and Heinsberg, the last a road center along the Wurm outside the Ninth Army’s zone—were included in plans for the target bombing in Operation QUEEN. Along with Dueren in the First Army’s zone, Juelich and Heinsberg were scheduled as targets for heavy bombers of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command. Mediums of the Ninth Air Force were to strike Linnich and Aldenhoven, while fighter-bombers of General Nugent’s XXIX Tactical Air Command were to concen-
trate upon the villages, including most of those comprising the outer defensive arc. Although target bombing as contrasted with carpet bombing to be executed for the First Army involved less danger to friendly troops, safety measures prescribed were basically the same.
In the matter of logistics, the Ninth Army on the eve of the Roer offensive was in a more delicate situation than was the First Army. Having moved to the sector north of Aachen only twenty days before the target date of 11 November, and having existed on a starvation diet for several weeks before the move, the Ninth Army had had little time to amass any sizable stockpiles or to alleviate shortages in several critical items. Artillery ammunition was of particular concern. Giving personal attention to this problem, General Simpson set up a strict rationing program by which he was able to build a small reserve before the attack began; nevertheless, certain types of ammunition were to remain on the ration list through the entire month. Mostly these were multipurpose high explosive shells for almost all calibers and white phosphorus for some artillery calibers and for 81-mm. mortars. Although the Ninth Army noted later that "Greater success would have been attained if more ammunition had been available," stocks accumulated through rationing were to prove basically adequate.14
Never during November was the Ninth Army able to keep its armored units supplied with medium tanks to fully authorized levels. This was true even after adoption of the First Army’s expedient table of organization and equipment reducing tank authorizations in units like the 2d Armored Division from 232 to 200 and separate tank battalions from 54 to 50. Because of slow replacement of combat losses and the fact that at least 10 percent of tank strength usually was in maintenance shops, both organic and attached tank battalions would operate during the Roer offensive at about 60 to 75 percent of authorized strength in medium tanks.15
One of the more serious problems confronting the Ninth Army’s G-4 section grew out of a combination of the Army’s narrow sector and its rapid increase in troop strength. Almost overnight, the Army had expanded from three to six divisions, plus a cavalry group and at least one tank, tank destroyer, and antiaircraft artillery battalion per infantry division. In addition, the Army had thirty-three nondivisional field artillery battalions, plus the numerous other units necessary for support: ordnance, signal, medical, quartermaster, and the like. Nowhere along the Western Front during the fall of 1944 were so many troops and installations jammed into such a narrow sector. Shelter against the cold and rain was at a premium. The solution to providing storage facilities with hard-road access lay only in stacking supplies along shoulders of main highways. An already difficult problem was compounded when the 30 British Corps on 12 November assumed responsibility for the sector from the Maas River to the area of Geilenkirchen. A limited number of bridges across the Albert Canal and the Maas providing access to the Army’s rear areas also added to
the logistical problems. Later in the month that aspect was to reach critical proportions as the Maas rose to flood stage and washed out British bridges downstream. Supplies for the 30 Corps then had to move across already overloaded and flood-strained American bridges at Maastricht.16
Encumbered with hundreds of vehicles, both in combat formations and supply trains, General Harmon’s 2d Armored Division was particularly hard-pressed for space. An exchange between General Harmon and the XIX Corps G-3, Col. Gustavus W. West, illustrates the point:
For all these problems and more, the Ninth Army nevertheless was ready to attack by the target date of 11 November, little more than six weeks after leaving the Breton peninsula and not quite three weeks after departure from a temporary post in Luxembourg. Small wonder that the American press dubbed this a "phantom" army and hailed the rapid shift as a miracle of modern warfare. Even so, many a commander within the Ninth Army must have been gratified by the additional opportunity for preparation provided by the five-day delay which bad weather imposed on the offensive.
On the eve of the attack, General Simpson and his subordinates were optimistic. In approving a policy of rest, before the jump-off, the XIX Corps Commander, General McLain, told one of his division commanders he would need plenty of rest, because "when you go again it will be a long drive. Right into Berlin."18 Though General McLain may have indulged in hyperbole, the commanders in general apparently shared "high hopes . . . that the enemy’s stronghold could be breached and he be beaten down before the harsh winter . . . set in."19 For his part, General Simpson warned against taking the enemy too lightly. Even second-rate troops, he noted, "can fight well from fortified areas like the towns of the Roer Valley." He put the matter succinctly when he told his staff, "I anticipate one hell of a fight." Nevertheless, the general view was that the XIX Corps could reach the Roer in five days.20
In transposing General Simpson’s plans from army to corps level, the XIX Corps commander, General McLain, inherited the problem of narrow frontage. Having bowed to reputed pitfalls in the Wuerselen industrial district and given the 30th Division a special mission there, he already had used more than half of ten miles of front available at his line of departure. To split the remaining four and a half miles equally between the 2d Armored
and 29th Divisions was no ready solution, for the natural route of approach to the village of Setterich, which under this kind of arrangement would fall to the 2d Armored Division, would lie in the 29th Division’s sector. Yet Setterich was important to the armor, because General Harmon needed to employ a main road leading from the Wurm River through Uebach, Baesweiler, and Setterich to the armored division’s objective of Gereonsweiler. On the other hand, if Setterich and the natural route of approach to the village were given to the armor from the start, the 29th Division would be left with a zone hardly wide enough at the line of departure for even one regiment.
Much as had General Simpson, General McLain solved his problem by means of a temporary boundary. Setterich and that portion of the road running through the village were to be captured by the 29th Division. Thereupon, the interdivision boundary was to be shifted a mile to the south to give the village and the road to the armor.21
At divisional level, plans of the 2d Armored Division also were influenced by the narrow zone. The armor drew a sector a mere two miles wide at the line of departure, marked by the villages of Waurichen and Beggendorf. Probably with the limited zone in mind, General McLain directed that the 2d Armored Division commit at first no more than one combat command. Designating CCB for the role, General Harmon told the commander, General White, to drive directly northeast to the division objective of Gereonsweiler, three miles away. Attached to CCB, both to assist in protecting the left flank and later to hold the high ground about Gereonsweiler after the objective was relinquished to the XIII Corps, was the 102d Division’s 406th Infantry, a part of the XIII Corps.
Once past the line of departure, the 2d Armored Division’s sector funneled out to an ultimate width of about five miles, so that in later stages of the attack General Harmon would have room for the rest of his division, plus two attached battalions of the 30th Division’s 119th Infantry. His maneuver space also would increase once the 29th Division captured Setterich. The second combat command, CCA, was to prepare to attack from Setterich almost due east along the division’s right flank to occupy the assembly area northwest of Juelich where the division was to prepare for crossing the Roer.
Having drawn responsibility for Setterich, the 29th Division had a sector about a mile wider than that of the armor. Attack plans of the 29th Division thus were less strongly affected by space limitations. Instead, the division commander, Maj. Gen. Charles H. Gerhardt, gave his attention to a scheme of maneuver based upon an analysis of the enemy’s defensive plan as interpreted through the 29th Division’s earlier experience in Normandy. Noting that the Germans depended upon the villages as strongpoints, General Gerhardt prepared to exploit what he deemed the weak points, the open ground between the villages. He told his regiments to stick to
the open terrain while isolating the villages; thereupon, company-size attacks should be sufficient to reduce each village.22
The 29th Division’s line of departure was marked by the villages of Baesweiler and Oidtweiler. The first division objective was the road center of Aldenhoven, not quite four miles away; then the Roer at Juelich, three miles beyond Aldenhoven. As for the special mission of reducing Setterich, General Gerhardt intended to wait until his main drive opposite Baesweiler and Oidtweiler had uncovered the southern flank of Setterich. At that point he intended to commit a portion of his division reserve along the natural route of approach to the village, the Aachen-Linnich highway.
General Gerhardt’s plan for taking Setterich reflected an air of basic optimism about the coming offensive. In view of the importance of Setterich to progress of the armor, Gerhardt hardly would have adopted a plan dependent upon his main drive turning the flank of the village had he anticipated that his main drive might be stopped or even slowed. In like manner, General McLain’s attack order to the 2d Armored Division conveyed an air of optimism. After the initial attack by one combat command, General McLain directed, the rest of the armor "assembles on corps order northwest of Juelich . . . ."23
Only General Harmon appeared to express any real concern about the situation as reflected in the planning. For several days he tried in vain to solicit a limited objective attack by the 102d Division to secure a knoll close alongside his left flank. Neither was he happy about the arrangement for taking Setterich. "I am quite concerned about that south end there," General Harmon told his CCB commander. "I am not so sure that it is going to work out so well."24
Certainly the American commanders had reasons for optimism, not the least of which was the strong American artillery arm. Counting both divisional and corps artillery, the XIX Corps had at hand 25 field artillery battalions. In organizing the artillery for the offensive, the XIX Corps artillery commander Brig. Gen. George D. Shea, allotted 3 of 13 corps battalions to general support of the 30th Division, 2 to the 29th Division, 3 to the 2d Armored Division, and the remaining 5 to general support throughout the corps zone as needed. To supplement this impressive strength, each infantry division had a battalion each of towed tank destroyers and medium tanks, the 2d Armored Division had its organic tanks and assault guns, and the bulk of the 92d Chemical Battalion’s 4.2-inch mortars were apportioned throughout the corps. Furthermore, organic artillery of the 84th Division of the XIII Corps was to provide support as needed on D Day to the 2d Armored Division. In general, the XIX Corps plan for artillery support called for a preliminary counterflak preparation during the air strike, followed by concentrations for a half hour against the initial village objectives, intensive counterbattery preparations by corps guns, and subsequent on-call missions.25
Commanders and troops in the XIX
Corps no doubt watched the clearing skies on D Day, 16 November, with much the same jubilation as did their neighbors in the First Army. Soon after midnight assault units of both the 2d Armored and 29th Divisions had begun to move to the line of departure. Considering the bulk and noisiness of tanks and the muddy, slippery condition of the roads, secrecy during the moves was particularly difficult for the 2d Armored Division. Yet no untoward incidents occurred, and the enemy displayed no indication that he detected anything unusual. Several dry runs which the armor had conducted on previous nights may have accustomed the Germans to the noise of churning vehicles behind the lines.
Though the air strike began on schedule, it subsequently proved as difficult to measure the effect of the bombardment in support of the Ninth Army as of the saturation bombing in front of the First Army. Thus no worth-while comparison between the two types, of air support could be made. That Juelich, Linnich, and Heinsberg incurred severe damage was readily apparent;26 yet how serious were these blows to the enemy’s war machine was open to question. A consensus of reports from prisoners was that the strikes on Linnich and Juelich "forced personnel to cover but did not cause excessive casualties or military damage. The bridge at Juelich was destroyed, effectively blocking movement through that town; however, German engineers quickly installed three ponton bridges capable of bearing more traffic than the original structure."27
The only major change in the original air plan was a last-minute cancellation of Aldenhoven as a target for the mediums. The change was requested by the 29th Division, which was reluctant to risk being blocked by rubble in the event an anticipated rapid thrust into Aldenhoven should materialize. Instead, the mediums hit the village of Luerken opposite the 30th Division.
In noting that the XXIX TAC’s fighter-bombers "did the best job they have ever done for the XIX Corps,"28 the corps apparently was favoring quality over quantity; for despite the dramatic clearing of the skies at the last minute, the P-47’s and P-38’s still ran into visibility problems. They flew but 136 sorties, and dropped but 46.5 tons of bombs.29 Yet to judge from initial reactions of the ground units, this limited program was effective. "Had excellent results," reported the 2d Armored Division. The air strike was effective, noted the 29th Division’s 115th Infantry, "On Setterich particularly so." The other regiment in the line, the 175th Infantry, said the bombing was "fine."30 Although German artillery fire subsequently proved "considerably less intense and effective than was expected,"31 it was hard to tell whether this was any more attributable to the air effort than to counterbattery fires or even to a possible G-2 overestimation of available German artillery.
Close behind the air strike, even as the
artillery concluded its own target preparation, tanks and infantry of the 2d Armored Division’s CCB struck northeastward just at H hour—1245. General White employed three task forces. The strongest operated on the south wing, first to seize the village of Loverich, then Puffendorf. The latter was a major objective, a crossroads village astride both the enemy’s main route of lateral communications and the highway leading northeast from Setterich to the division objective of Gereonsweiler. The second task force, in the center, first was to take Floverich, then Apweiler and a rise of ground between Apweiler and Puffendorf, not quite a mile from the final objective of Gereonsweiler. The third task force attacked from the vicinity of Waurichen toward Immendorf, there to defend the combat command’s north boundary.
Moving at first behind a smoke screen laid upon the enemy’s outpost line by chemical mortars, all three task forces found resistance weak and spotty. The Germans appeared awed by the horde of tanks descending upon them and often surrendered in bunches. In the absence of stanch resistance, the muddy ground offered few problems to the tanks. Soon the countryside was dotted with fascines which the tankers unceremoniously discarded when they did not need them for increased traction. As elsewhere in the XIX Corps zone, a major surprise was lack of accurate German shellfire. Much of the artillery fire the Germans belatedly expended landed well in rear of the attacking tanks and infantry. Early prisoners suggested the explanation that they had been surprised because American artillery had not employed the kind of heavy blanket preparation the Germans had come to expect before an attack.32
Task Force 1, strongest of the three task forces, was commanded by Col. Paul A. Disney, commander of the 67th Armored Regiment. Possessing a battalion of armored infantry and two battalions (less one company) of tanks, Colonel Disney had strength enough to split his force into two components, one to take Loverich, the other to bypass that village and capture Puffendorf. Though the component moving on Loverich came under intense antitank fire from the south flank at Setterich, a lieutenant bearing the illustrious name of Robert E. Lee directed fire of the leading tank company upon Setterich and in a matter of minutes silenced the guns. Loverich was under control not twenty minutes later.
Moving past Loverich on Puffendorf, the largest portion of Task Force 1 lost four tanks to mud and six to mines. Nevertheless, by 1500, little more than two hours after the jump-off, leading tanks and armored infantry were entering the village. "Get that place tonight if you can," General Harmon admonished, "so the men will have some place to sleep.["]33
Colonel Disney did that and more. After taking Puffendorf, he sent the component which earlier had taken Loverich to occupy a hill 700 yards northeast of Puffendorf astride & highway to Gereonsweiler. Boggy ground and antitank fire from higher ground southeast of Gereonsweiler interfered with this attack. Two tanks mired, another was lost to mines, two were disabled by antitank fire, and another burned after a direct hit. Nevertheless, as night came, the American
tanks commanded the hill along the Gereonsweiler road. Colonel Disney’s task force had seized the first day’s objectives and at the same time had gained a leg on the next day’s journey to Gereonsweiler.
Both CCB’s other task forces had similar experiences at first. Composed primarily of a battalion each of tanks and armored infantry, Task Force 2 in the center cleared Floverich in less than two hours. In the process the task force lost six tanks to mines, panzerfausts, mortar fire, and mechanical failure but received no fire from antitank guns, possibly because tank destroyers kept neighboring villages under fire. On CCB’s north wing, Task Force X, with a battalion of the 406th Infantry supported by Company H, 67th Armored Regiment; moved against Immendorf. In the assault echelon, Task Force X used two companies of infantry rather than tanks, but otherwise the story was much the same as elsewhere. Although four tanks were lost to mines, the village was secured in less than two hours. Task Force X spent the rest of the afternoon digging in to hold this village as protection for CCB’s left flank.
In the meantime, in the center of CCB’s attack zone, the most portentous event of the day had developed. Having occupied Floverich, Task Force 2 in midafternoon continued northeast toward the next objective of Apweiler. Moving slowly in second gear because of the soggy ground, the tanks were unopposed until they reached a point about 300 yards from Apweiler. Unannounced, antitank guns that lay hidden in orchards and groves along the fringe of the village suddenly opened an intense and unrelenting fire. In less than two minutes the German gunners knocked out seven of the U.S. tanks and scored glancing blows on a number of others. Three tanks burned.
Task Force 2 could not silence this fire. Every attempt to rush the defenses with infantry failed in the face of fire from automatic weapons also hidden among the trees. In the end, Task Force 2 fell back a few hundred yards to the Geilenkirchen-Aldenhoven highway and dug in for the night.34
The difficulty at Apweiler was strangely inconsonant in view of the relative ease with which CCB had conquered the other objectives. Yet any veteran tanker might point to numbers of instances where a few strategically placed antitank guns had dealt costly blows to an attacking combat command but had failed in the long run to alter the over-all picture. On the other hand, the defense at Apweiler might have broader implications. Many a tanker and infantryman in CCB must have pondered that thought during the night as one outpost after another reported the noise of track-laying vehicles moving behind German lines.
Meanwhile, to the south, in the zone of the 29th Division, events had been unfolding that were more in keeping with the difficulty at Apweiler than with CCB’s successes. At 1245, at the same time CCB had crossed the line of departure, a battalion each of the 29th Division’s 115th and 175th Infantry Regiments attacked. In line with General Gerhardt’s scheme to reduce the village strongpoints by first penetrating the reputed weak spots in between, the first
objectives were high ground north and southeast of the village of Siersdorf and southeast of Bettendorf.
Lying behind open, gently rolling fields a mile and a half southeast of the regimental line of departure at Baesweiler, the 115th Infantry’s objective was high ground about a coal mine 400 yards north of Siersdorf. It provided an acid test of General Gerhardt’s plan.
Though screened at first by smoke, the two leading companies of the 115th Infantry’s 1st Battalion came under small arms fire no more than 600 yards past the line of departure. The men still managed to advance by squad rushes. In the process, the commander of Company C on the left was killed, but the company nevertheless gained another 200 yards. Here a deadly cross fire struck both companies. From four directions it came-from Setterich off the left flank, from the settlement of Roetgen to the northeast, from Siersdorf to the southeast, and from a windmill a few hundred yards to the east. A platoon leader later called it "the most intense and accurate small arms fire ... I have ever encountered."35
The men hit the ground. Hugging the earth between rows of beets, they gained a measure of protection from the small arms fire, only to be subjected to round after round of mortar and artillery fire. An automatic rifle man who had expended his ammunition tried to crawl through a beet row to reach the corpse of his ammunition bearer. "He was hit, tore off his pack and rolled over to get at his canteen and sulfa pills. The Germans saw him move and shot him again and again as he struggled."36 Many men threw away their combat packs because the Germans could spot them protruding across the tops of the beets. Forced to court the ground like the others, squad and platoon leaders could do little to reorganize their men. Here in all the terror and misery of it was a clear example of what infantrymen meant by a term that was common in their language. These men were "pinned down."
The bulk of Company B on the south wing succeeded in falling back behind a slight rise in the ground, but Company C could not follow. Through the afternoon the men of Company C lay there, cruelly exposed. The battalion commander committed his reserve company. Artillery pounded the German positions. Yet neither helped appreciably. Not until after nightfall were any men of Company C able to escape. Only about twenty of them made it.
Had it not been for a drainage ditch furrowing open ground between Oidtweiler and Bettendorf, the 29th Division’s other attacking battalion from the 175th Infantry might have met the same fate. Otherwise the experiences were much the same. Small arms fire pinned the men to the ground. Shellfire pummeled them. The farthest advance was to the drainage ditch, not quite 400 yards west of Bettendorf. Every attempt to progress beyond the ditch brought unrelenting fire from Bettendorf and a railroad embankment to the southeast. As night came, the men clustered in the ditch for protection. Like the 115th Infantry, the 175th Infantry had moved no more than 600 yards past the line of departure.
The results on 16 November had revealed a fundamental misconception in General Gerhardt’s scheme of attack. Unlike Normandy, the Roer plain is open
country. Defensive positions could be mutually supporting, so that an attacker could not concentrate upon the weak spots to the exclusion of the strongpoints. Someone in the 175th Infantry later put it this way: "One objective (usually a town or village) must be made secure and used as an anchor before attacking the next objective. Because of this, towns which in reality are strong points cannot be bypassed."37 It could have been added that infantry alone might find the difficulties of advancing across exposed ground like this almost insurmountable. Some special provision might be needed, like, for example, exploiting the shock value of tanks.
Only after darkness produced immunity from German observation did any contingent of the 29th Division make any real advance on D Day. Near midnight, the 115th Infantry commander, Col. Edward H. McDaniel, sent his depleted 1st Battalion to eliminate the closest of the positions which had held up the battalion that afternoon. This was the windmill about halfway between Baesweiler and Siersdorf. When the battalion got there, the Germans had gone.
For all the limited advance in the 29th Division’s sector, the basic fact was that the division had fought only half a day and had committed but two battalions. Nevertheless, the neighboring 2d Armored Division was perturbed because of the effect the situation might have upon the taking of Setterich and thus upon continued progress of the armor. During the afternoon, General Harmon had reminded both General Gerhardt and the corps commander, General McLain, that he wanted to commit his second combat command through Setterich the next morning.38 Still, as night came, the 29th Division was yet to make a move against the village. "It’s head-on stuff," General Gerhardt told General Harmon, "and just how we’re going to work it out in the morning we don’t know. Whether we can guarantee that town by noon [17 November] is debatable . . . . Until we can get some ground straight ahead, we don’t want to start fooling with that flank thing . . . ."39
For his part, General McLain was inclined to be patient. Although both the armor and the 30th Division had far exceeded the 29th Division’s gains during the day, the 29th Division was striking frontally against the outer defensive arc of Juelich, whereas the other two divisions were hitting glancing blows along the receding ends of the arc. General Gerhardt’s job obviously was toughest. Committing more strength, General McLain told the 29th Division commander, "should loosen things up . . . . I think you’ll bust on through there tomorrow."40
General McLain’s patience was understandable, for from an over-all standpoint, progress of the XIX Corps on 16 November compared favorably with that of the VII Corps, where the First Army troops had run into trouble with the Donnerberg, the Hamich ridge, and the Huertgen Forest. In the Wuerselen industrial district, the 30th Division had gained a mile or more at two points and had sustained surprisingly light losses. The 2d Armored Division had made the most notable gains, more than two miles in one instance, and near Puffendorf had pierced the outer defensive arc of Juelich. For all the
difficulties encountered by the 29th Division, the average gain along the XIX Corps front was about a mile.
The XIX Corps also had dealt the enemy serious blows. The 2d Armored Division, for example, had virtually annihilated the 183d Volks Grenadier Division’s 330th Regiment and had taken 570 prisoners. The armor in turn had lost 196 men, 21 of them killed and 18 missing. Tank losses were 35, a somewhat disturbing figure except that many tanks’ were out of action only temporarily.41 No German armor had been sighted; German artillery, though troublesome and even deadly in some instances, had not lived up to expectations. American artillery, on the other hand, had fired the impressive total of 20,758 rounds while remaining within rationing restrictions.
All things considered, General McLain had reason to be encouraged. There was time for things to open up later.
In reality, the situation was more fraught with danger than General McLain estimated. Under normal circumstances, a commander could consider himself relatively immune from intervention by major enemy reserves for at least twenty-four hours after the start of an attack, and often longer. This was not to be the case in the battle of the Roer plain.
In midafternoon of 16 November, officers at OB WEST had estimated that five Allied armored and seven infantry divisions were involved in the offensive against Fifteenth Army (Gruppe von Manteuffel). Though they overestimated the number of divisions, they were correct in divining this as the Allied main effort. At 1715 Field Marshal von Rundstedt released his strongest reserve force to Army Group B for use in Fifteenth Army’s sector. This was the XLVII Panzer Corps with the 15th Panzer Grenadier and 9th Panzer Divisions, already positioned close behind Gruppe von Manteuffel’s front lines. Rundstedt also ordered two volks artillery corps and "all available GHQ combat forces" to move to the threatened sector.42
The most immediately dangerous threat obviously was the 2d U.S. Armored Division’s penetration at Puffendorf in the open "tank country" of the Roer plain. Fifteenth Army (Gruppe von Manteuffel) ordered that the 9th Panzer Division counterattack early the next morning, 17 November, to "wipe out" this penetration. The counterattack was to be supported by an attached headquarters unit, the 506th Heavy Tank Battalion, which had thirty-six Mark VI (Tiger) tanks.43
The track-laying vehicles which outposts of the 2d Armored Division reported moving behind German lines during the night of 16 November were those of General Harald Freiherr von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer Division. Unaware of the full import of these reports,
CAPTURED GERMAN TIGER (MARK VI) TANK with temporary U.S. markings. Note 88-mm. gun with flash hider.
the 2d Armored Division’s CCB prepared to renew the offensive at dawn on 17 November. One force was to take Apweiler, the village denied by the Germans the first afternoon, while another headed for the division objective of Gereonsweiler.
CCB’s tanks were moving to their lines of departure when out of a heavy mist rolled the German armor. Preceded by round after round of artillery fire, two columns of Mark V’s and VI’s appeared, one from the direction of Gereonsweiler against Colonel Disney’s Task Force 1 at Puffendorf, the other from Prummern, beyond the XIX Corps boundary, against Task Force X at Immendorf.
At Immendorf, the Germans employed a battalion of the 10th Panzer Grenadier Regiment supported by tanks variously estimated at from three to ten. Soon after the fight began, General Harmon placed the commander of the 406th Infantry, Col. Bernard F. Hurless, in command of Task Force X and authorized him to use all his regiment, if necessary. As events developed, Colonel Hurless needed no more than the one infantry battalion and a company each of tanks and tank destroyers already in the village. Using mortar, artillery, and small arms fire with deadly effect, the task force threw back the Germans after a fight lasting most of the morning. Guns of the 771st Tank Destroyer Battalion knocked out three Panther tanks.
When the Germans came back at dusk with a battalion of infantry and eight tanks, Colonel Hurless did dip into his reserve. This time one of the Mark V’s with a small escort of infantry broke into Immendorf. Calling up another of his infantry battalions, Colonel Hurless sent the men into action from their approach march formation to expel the German infantry, while a gunner from the 771st Tank Destroyer battalion knocked out the Panther at a range of thirty yards.
The heaviest of the counterstrokes hit Colonel Disney’s Task Force 1 at Puffendorf. Using twenty to thirty Panthers and Tigers accompanied by a battalion from the 11th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, the Germans caught Colonel Disney’s tanks drawn up in attack’ formation on the open hill northeast of Puffendorf. Lacking depth of formation, caught by surprise in the open, and outmaneuvered on the soggy ground by wider-tracked German tanks, the Americans were hard put to stop the thrust. German shelling pinned down Task Force 1’s infantry while American artillery stopped the pan-
zer grenadiers. The fight developed as a purely armored engagement.
Some idea of the amount of U.S. artillery fire used at Puffendorf could be gained from the figure of 26,628 rounds expended during 17 November on the XIX Corps front, the largest volume of any day of the November offensive; yet the artillery could claim but one enemy tank destroyed. Fighter-bombers of the XXIX TAC braved unfavorable elements to maintain a semblance of air cover over the battlefield through most of the day, but mists and rain denied any real contribution against pinpoint targets like tanks.
After several hours of fighting, some tanks of Task Force 1 were down to three or four rounds of ammunition. Although at least 11 German tanks were knocked out, the Panthers and Tigers obviously had the better of the situation. In one of Colonel Disney’s battalions, at least 2 light tanks and 7 mediums burned after direct hits. One company was down to 8 tanks, another to 4. Less directly engaged, the other tank battalion nevertheless came under fire from German support tanks near Gereonsweiler, perched out of range of U.S. 75-mm. and 76-mm. pieces. Long-range hits put the torch to at least 4 lights and 3 mediums. His tank afire, Sgt. Dennis D. French nevertheless managed to back into defilade and extinguish the blaze. Despite heroic actions like this, one of the companies of this battalion soon was down to 5 tanks, another down to 3. Colonel Disney decided to abandon the hill and fall back to the protection of the buildings in Puffendorf.
Task Force 1 was in no shape after the withdrawal to repel another strong German thrust. Fortunately, the Panthers and Tigers did not follow. As night came, the men of Task Force 1 worked without pause to replenish their ammunition over muddy, blacked-out secondary roads leading from distribution points far back near the Wurm River.
For all the strength of German thrusts on either wing of CCB’s sector, the 2d Armored Division nevertheless made two offensive moves on 17 November. The first was in the center of CCB’s sector at Apweiler, where the CCB commander, General White, directed that Task Force X send one of the newly acquired battalions of the 406th Infantry to assist Task Force 2. Both components were to attack from the south along parallel axes of advance from the Geilenkirchen-Aldenhoven highway near Floverich.
At 0800, even as the fight against the counterattacks raged, the two-pronged thrust against Apweiler began. It was a mistake. The Germans were as strong as before in Apweiler. In addition, the enemy tanks on the high ground near Gereonsweiler turned the approaches to Apweiler into a shooting gallery. They set one U.S. tank ablaze, knocked out another by a hit on the rear deck, and damaged the gun shield of a third. Another tank was disabled by a mine. In little more than an hour after the jump-off, both Task Force 2 and the battalion of the 406th Infantry were back at the Geilenkirchen-Aldenhoven highway. The Task Force 2 commander, Lt. Col. Harry L. Hillyard, notified General White that under existing circumstances, the nature of the ground precluded a successful attack by his force against Apweiler.
The second offensive move on 17 November involved a fresh force, a portion of CCA. Although General Harmon had counted upon committing CCA through Setterich, he had told the commander,
Colonel Collier, to prepare an alternate plan to bypass Setterich, move over secondary roads to Puffendorf, and drive northeast along CCB’s right flank on the village of Ederen.44 Whether to relieve pressure against CCB or merely in a general extension of the offensive, General Harmon ordered Colonel Collier to put the alternate plan into effect.
German shelling of the secondary roads leading to Puffendorf, a corollary of the counterattack, delayed a move by CCA until 1100. Even then, Task Force A, commanded by Col. Ira P. Swift and composed primarily of the headquarters and one battalion of the 66th Armored Regiment and a battalion of the 41st Armored Infantry, was subjected to brutal shelling while passing through Puffendorf.
Colonel Swift knew that between Puffendorf and Ederen he would encounter an antitank ditch of impressive proportions, about fifteen feet wide and ten feet deep. The ditch originated in the 29th Division’s sector, paralleled the Aldenhoven-Geilenkirchen road to a point east of Puffendorf, then swung north along the highway to Gereonsweiler. Aware of the obstacle, the 2d Armored Division had devised two methods of crossing it, one to form a bridge by driving tanks into the ditch and bulldozing them over with earth, another to use a portable treadway bridge improvised by the 17th Armored Engineer Battalion and transported by a T2 tank retriever.
Unfortunately, Task Force A on 17 November had no opportunity to test either expedient. German antitank guns emplaced beyond the ditch near Ederen and the same tanks on high ground near Gereonsweiler that had spelled trouble elsewhere denied so much as egress from Puffendorf. In a matter of minutes, Task Force A lost four medium tanks and a tank destroyer.
By this time the division commander, General Harmon, had become convinced that his men and tanks could do little through the rest of the day and possibly into the next day but hold their own. "I’ve been up there to see what the thing is like," General Harmon telephoned his operations officer. "Pretty tough. These tanks are on the other side of the ditch. We will have to come up on the other side of the ditch to get any place . . . ." Later General Harmon repeated this view to the corps commander. "Not much luck today," he said. "We have that tank ditch in front of us and can’t do much to the north [toward Gereonsweiler] unless we flank it . . . ."45
Though the 2d Armored Division had relinquished little ground during the first encounter with the 9th Panzer Division, General Harmon obviously was concerned about what another day might bring. In the second day’s fighting, CCB had lost 18 more medium tanks destroyed and 16 more damaged and out of action, plus 19 light tanks in similar categories. In a brief commitment, CCA had lost 4 mediums. Personnel casualties were double those of D Day: 56 killed, 281 wounded, 26 missing. "Sit tight the first thing tomorrow and see what develops," General Harmon told the CCB commander. "Have them alerted to be sharp as hell in the morning . . . . And for God’s sake, get word to me as soon as you get
attacked." He noted in conclusion, "I think you will have a holding mission tomorrow."46
General Harmon would have been much less concerned about renewing his attack in the face of the 9th Panzer Division had he possessed Setterich and the main highway leading from Setterich to Puffendorf. Without Setterich, he had no road adequate for supporting two combat commands. "There’s a question in my mind," General Harmon noted, "if by noon [18 November] I might make a try to cross that ditch with Swift [Task Force A]." On the other hand, he reflected, "I may have too much in Puffendorf. [I] was up that road . . . and it’s terrible. This rain isn’t [any] help . . . ."47
The 29th Division commander, General Gerhardt, had told General Harmon on D Day that he hoped to have Setterich by noon on 17 November, but he was not so optimistic after the new day dawned. "It looks more dubious now than it did," General Gerhardt telephoned. "I think I can say no."48 As events developed, the 29th Division by noon had not even begun an attack against Setterich.
Discouraged, General Harmon told the commander of his reserve to reconnoiter a route of attack toward Setterich because the 2d Armored Division "might have to attack it tomorrow." Later, General Harmon asked the corps commander to put pressure on the 29th Division. Because the infantry was to secure a crossing of the antitank ditch northeast of Setterich as well as take the village, a successful attack would afford the armor not only a good supply route but passage over the obstacle that was deterring Task Force A at Puffendorf. On this point, General Harmon himself discreetly pressured General Gerhardt. "We have that tank ditch in front of us," he said, "and it is giving us a lot of trouble. If you can get me a foothold across it, I will send a tank column across that will give them hell."49
For his part, the corps commander, General McLain displayed less patience than he had the night before. When General Gerhardt told him that his assault regiments had to reorganize and could not attack before late morning, General McLain objected. "That reorganization should have been done last night," he said. "It will slow us up another day." Later he specifically directed General Gerhardt to "push that left thing in front of the 2d Armored." Talking to a liaison officer from General Gerhardt’s reserve regiment, General McLain emphasized that the operation at Setterich "is the most important thing we’ve got."50
For all the pressure, the 29th Division was slow getting started on the second day of the offensive. In the main eastward drive, this no doubt was attributable to major alterations in the plan of attack; in the push on Setterich, possibly to General Gerhardt’s expressed reluctance to "start fooling with that flank thing" until he had secured "some ground straight ahead."
The plans for the main drive indicated recognition that the enemy strongpoints—the villages—had to be attacked directly. Yet the new plans revealed no appreciation of the fact that the shock value of
tanks was what had enabled the 2d Armored Division to advance. Again, neither of the 29th Division’s regiments made any provision for tanks to accompany the infantry.
In the end, the eastward drive accomplished no more than on the preceding day. A company of the 175th Infantry striking directly for Bettendorf eventually had to return to the drainage ditch 400 yards short of the village where the men had taken cover the night before. A battalion each of the 115th and 175th Infantry Regiments attacked due east against Siersdorf but gained no more than a few hundred yards. Small arms fire from deep zigzag trenches pinned the men to the flat, exposed ground, whereupon German mortars and artillery worked them over. It was a lamentable repetition of what had happened on D Day to the 115th Infantry’s Company C.
Not until near noon on the 17th did General Gerhardt waver from his theory that he had to gain ground to the east before attacking Setterich. Late the night before he had attached a battalion of his reserve regiment to the 115th Infantry to take Setterich, but not until he saw that his main drive would be delayed did he authorize the attack. At 1300 the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry, commanded by Maj. James S. Morris, was to move on Setterich from the southwest astride the Baesweiler-Setterich highway.51
Major Morris’ attack actually did not begin until more than an hour past the appointed time. Again none of the tanks attached to the division accompanied the infantry, and when small arms fire from trenches on the fringe of Setterich pinned the men to the ground, little could be done about it. A process of fire and movement enabled a handful of men to gain a toehold in a series of zigzag trenches 150 yards short of the village as night fell, but this achievement represented no real break in the issue.
During the evening, General Gerhardt turned to General Harmon for assistance. Specifically, Gerhardt wanted to pass a battalion through the 2d Armored Division’s sector to hit Setterich from the north and to obtain direct fire support from some of the armor. To this General Harmon agreed while reminding the 29th Division commander that he also wanted the infantry to get him a crossing of the antitank ditch northeast of Setterich. "If you could get me over that ditch," General Harmon said, "we’ll put 75 tanks over there."52
Having decided to broaden the efforts at Setterich, General Gerhardt gave full responsibility for taking the village to the 116th Infantry commander, Lt. Col. Harold A. Cassell.53 As finally determined, Major Morris was to continue to hit Setterich from the southwest while sending his reserve company to strike from the west. This attack was to begin before dawn the next day. In the meantime, another battalion of the 116th Infantry was to pass into the 2d Armored Division’s sector and as soon as possible—probably about noon on 18 November—attack from Loverich. In both attacks, General Gerhardt was to abandon his prejudice against using tanks on this sea of mud. A platoon of the 2d Armored
Division’s 66th Armored Regiment was to assist the attack from Loverich, while a platoon from the attached 747th Tank Battalion was to be split between the two components of Major Morris’ battalion.
In the first instance, the 29th Division’s reluctance to employ tanks appeared justified, though not because of mud. Of three tanks assigned to that part of Major Morris’ battalion southwest of Setterich, one struck a mine before reaching the line of departure, another succumbed to a panzerfaust, and the third withdrew after a projectile stuck in the barrel of its 75-mm. gun.
On the other hand, the difference tanks might make was demonstrated west of Setterich where two tanks supported the 116th Infantry’s Company A. When fire from a network of trenches in a sparse wood pinned down a platoon of riflemen, the tanks advanced to smother the trenches with both 75-mm. and machine gun fire. Another rifle platoon then found it relatively simple to swing around a flank of the first and charge the trenches. In much the same manner, the riflemen and their two tanks worked their way into the western fringe of Setterich and by nightfall had established a firm toehold.
Similarly, the platoon of tanks from the 2d Armored Division assisted the battalion of the 116th Infantry which attacked from Loverich. When the riflemen came upon an antipersonnel mine field, the tanks smashed a path through the mines. When the Germans opened fire with small arms from a trench system 150 yards short of the village, the tankers quickly silenced them. Some Germans threw up their hands without resistance. By midafternoon the infantry had reached the fringe of the village, while the tankers waited in the open to provide fire support without becoming involved among the streets and debris.
By nightfall of 18 November, third day of the offensive, the tide had turned at Setterich, though the 116th Infantry would require most of the next morning for mopping up and for gaining a crossing of the antitank ditch northeast of the village. The latter operation proved relatively simple because contingents of the 115th Infantry had come in behind the ditch farther south and sent a combat patrol northward along the east bank.
Not only at Setterich but also at Siersdorf and Bettendorf the 29th Division began to roll on 18 November. A clear day providing unobstructed observation for artillery and air support no doubt helped, but, much as it was at Setterich, the factor most directly affecting operations appeared to be the use of tanks.
On the south wing, a company attacking Bettendorf lost 2 of 5 tanks to mines and another to mud, but with the help of the other 2 gained the first buildings. Having expended their ammunition, the tanks withdrew; yet already they had accomplished their mission of helping the infantry across the open ground. By midafternoon of 18 November, Bettendorf was free of Germans. A battalion each of the 115th and 175th Infantry Regiments had support from the 747th Tank Battalion, both in reaching Siersdorf and in clearing the village. Of two platoons of tanks, only two were lost, both to fire from antitank guns.
At the coal mine north of Siersdorf, the impact of tank support was most markedly demonstrated. Here the 115th Infantry’s 2d Battalion attacked in concert with a platoon of mediums. For all the exposed ground leading to the coal mine,
the attack progressed satisfactorily until the tankers balked at German artillery fire and lost contact with the infantry. At this point the Germans began to spew small arms fire from trenches and foxholes near the mine. Just as were the earlier drives on the first two days of the offensive, this attack was stopped. Meanwhile, the 2d Battalion S-2, 1st Lt. James E. Ball, led the tanks into Siersdorf and directed an attack northward against the mine. As the tanks approached the enemy positions, Lieutenant Ball related, "They opened up with their 75-mm, guns and their .30-caliber machine guns. The enemy fire from the emplacements ceased and the enemy riflemen and machine gunners moved down deep in their holes."54 The Germans were finished.
After two days of halting, almost negligible, advance, the 29th Division had found itself. The day of 18 November had brought the first application of what proved to be the correct technique for fighting the battle of the Roer plain: determined infantry accompanied by close tank support and covered by mortars and artillery.
General Gerhardt himself reflected a changed viewpoint. During the first two days he had been almost placid.55 On 17 November, for example, he had cautioned the 175th Infantry commander against yielding to pressure "just to make us look good. Do it the way it ought to be," he said. "Don’t want you pushing it before we are ready." But on 18 November and for several days thereafter, General Gerhardt turned the telephone lines to his subordinates into his personal whiplash. "You’ve been doing nothing at all there now," General Gerhardt told the 175th Infantry commander in reference to Bettendorf. "We’ve got to do better . . . . We’ve got to quit fooling around." To another regimental commander he was equally insistent. "Corps 6 [General McLain] was just here and the general impression was, what’s the matter with us . . . . We’ve got to plan to go today, tomorrow, and the day after." Later General Gerhardt upbraided the same regimental commander again. "There’s been a tendency in your outfit to argue about things . . . . I think it’s just a stall. What we want to do is get down there. Change the mental attitude there if it needs it . . . . So pull up our socks now and let’s get at it."
No detail—from distribution of cigarettes to an unauthorized type of jacket worn by a company commander—was beyond General Gerhardt’s province. He called an engineer commander to "give him the devil" for not getting engineers into one town. "I want to push patrolling," he told another officer. "There seems to be a tendency to alibi it on somebody else." "That Fisher did a good job," he commented in another case; "put him in for a ribbon."56
Something—whether General Gerhardt’s remonstrance or, more likely, simply co-ordination of the various facilities available to the division—had an effect. By the end of 18 November, the 29th Division had broken the crust of the enemy’s 246th Division and in taking Siersdorf and Bettendorf had broken into the outer defensive arc of Juelich. On 19 November the division pushed into the next two villages, Duerboslar and Schleiden. Early on 20 November the
next village of Niedermerz fell to a battalion of the 175th Infantry, whereupon the regimental commander, Col. William C. Purnell, directed a two-pronged attack against the major road center of Aldenhoven. By nightfall of 21 November, Aldenhoven too was in hand. This meant that the second, or intermediate, defensive arc of Juelich was cracked. In the meantime, a battalion of the 116th Infantry had been committed along the 29th Division’s new boundary with the 2d Armored Division, which had come into effect after capture of Setterich. During three days, from 19 to 21 November, this battalion cleared three hamlets along the boundary and on 21 November seized the village of Engelsdorf, a mile northeast of Aldenhoven. This represented another break in the enemy’s intermediate defensive arc and put the 29th Division within a mile and a half of the Roer River.
Of all these attacks, none was more typical of the successful application of the techniques developed for assaulting the village strongpoints than was the 175th Infantry’s conquest of Schleiden on 19 November. Schleiden lies amid gently undulating fields less than a mile southeast of Siersdorf and a little more than a mile east of Bettendorf. Like most of the villages on the Roer plain, Schleiden is spread-eagled about a crossroads, a rambling, omnifarious collection of houses, barns, and shops made gray and grimy by the rain, mud, and dismal skies of November.
The 175th Infantry’s 3d Battalion under Lt. Col. William O. Blanford made the attack. Until the advance masked their fires, all the regiment’s heavy machine guns and 81-mm. mortars delivered support from nearby villages. A forward observer accompanying the leading infantry companies maintained artillery concentrations on the objective until the troops were within 300 yards of the westernmost buildings. Until the artillery was lifted, not a bullet or a round of German fire struck the infantry.
The infantry advance began in a skirmish formation just at dawn on 19 November. At the same time a platoon of medium tanks from the 747th Tank Battalion paralleled the infantry some 350 yards to the north so that shelling attracted by the tanks would not fall upon the infantry. The tankers maintained constant machine gun fire into German trenches and foxholes on the periphery of Schleiden and occasionally fired their 75’s into the village. When the forward observer lifted the supporting artillery, the tankers quickly shifted their 75-mm. fire to the trenches. It was only a question of time before the infantry gained the first houses and mop-up began. By 1430 Schleiden was clear of Germans.57
After the unexpected stand of the 246th Volks Grenadier Division in Siersdorf, Bettendorf, and Setterich, the Germans in Schleiden and the other villages provided few surprises. The bulk of the defenders were still from the 246th Division, though the efforts of the LXXXI Corps commander, General Koechling, to provide help resulted in commitment of a battalion each from the 3d Panzer Grenadier and 12th Divisions. At Niedermerz the appearance of a company of the 116th Panzer Division’s Reconnaissance Battal-
ion alerted the 29th Division G-2 for the coming of the entire division, but in reality this was no more than a portion of Panzer Group Bayer, which Koechling had managed to release from attachment to the 47th Division by shortening the front with staggered withdrawals.58
Though General von Zangen, the Fifteenth Army commander, frequently exhorted the LXXXI Corps to eliminate the 29th Division’s penetrations, General Koechling of the LXXXI Corps had only inadequate resources with which to work. Basically, the only reserves available were hastily re-formed remnants of disorganized units. Bigger developments were reserved during this period for the sector of the XII SS Corps farther north. The LXXXI Corps had to be content with a glimmer of hope for the future in word that came late on 19 November. This was that a volks grenadier division earmarked for the Ardennes offensive was en route to the front and would be used to back up the LXXXI Corps as an Army Group B reserve.59
Only in two instances was the LXXXI Corps able to mount genuine counterattacks against the 29th Division. The first was at Duerboslar on 19 November where the Germans committed twelve assault guns. Although bazooka teams either disabled or frightened away four guns which penetrated the village, it remained for fighter-bombers of the XXIX TAC to force the bulk of the guns to retire from a nearby hill from which they were making a misery of the 115th Infantry’s occupation of the village. The next day, after the 1 75th Infantry had moved into Niedermerz and Aldenhoven, a force of tanks variously estimated at from six to nine and accompanied by a hundred infantrymen counterattacked from the east. In this instance, credit for stopping the drive went to the artillery, which virtually annihilated the German infantry and prompted the tanks to wheel about in retreat.
After two days of disappointment, the 29th Division in four more days had reached the two-thirds mark in the drive to the Roer. In the process the division had incurred some 1,100 casualties, a figure that hardly could be considered disturbing in light of the fact that the Germans lost almost as many men as captives alone and in light of the kind of losses the divisions of the First Army’s VII Corps were taking in the neighboring drive.
As General Gerhardt on 21 November directed his regiments to continue their attacks across the remaining mile and a half to the Roer, two major developments influenced his plans. First, the new boundary between the 29th and 30th Divisions had become effective, allotting a narrow portion on the southern part of General Gerhardt’s former zone to the 30th Division. Second, various indications pointed to a possible German withdrawal behind the Roer. Get going, General Gerhardt told his regiments, get patrols down to the river. Unfortunately, as the 29th Division was to learn as early as the next day, 22 November, the mile and a half to the river would contain a brier patch or two. As night came on 22 November, the division’s forward position would remain almost the same as the night before.
While the 29th Division on the third day of the offensive had been concocting a formula for overcoming the village strongpoints, General Harmon’s 2d Armored Division still had been concerned with the 9th Panzer Division. Although CCB had stopped the first thrusts by this major reserve on 17 November, General Harmon expected the panzers to come back in strength the next day.
This was, in fact, what the Germans did. During the night of 17 November, Army Group B strengthened the armor by shifting the other component of the XLVII Panzer Corps, the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, to a position backing up the 9th Panzer Division.60
Even so, the counterattacks on 18 November were feeble in comparison to those on the preceding day. The most sizable thrust was a minor company-size counterattack against Task Force X on the 2d Armored Division’s north wing at Immendorf. A rare day of good flying weather may have kept the Germans under cover; for the XXIX TAC’s fighter-bombers roamed far and wide. The planes knocked out at least two German tanks, while tank destroyers accounted for three more, and the 2d Armored Division’s 92d Armored Field Artillery Battalion took credit for another.
For all the feebleness of the German strikes, General Harmon still needed a day of rest; first, to care for the wounds the panzers had inflicted; and second, to await access to Setterich in order to gain a main supply route and a crossing of the antitank ditch which was deterring commitment of a second combat command. What General Harmon did during 18 November was to conceal his tank weaknesses and his desire for a day’s respite by darting a swift jab toward a limited objective that had given trouble for two days—the village of Apweiler near the division’s northern boundary.
Because of long-range fire from German tanks and self-propelled guns, the formula of attacking the Roer villages with closely co-ordinated tanks and infantry had not worked in this case. On 18 November, the CCB commander, General White, proposed a variation. He gave the task to Colonel Hurless, commander of the attached 406th Infantry, who was doubling in brass as commander of Task Force X. Colonel Hurless was to use an infantry battalion without tank support along a new route of approach to Apweiler from the west, from the direction of Immendorf. At the same time, a company of the 67th Armored Regiment was to utilize a newly discovered draw to gain an open knoll southeast of Apweiler. The rest of CCB’s armor was to silence long-range German fire.
At 1400 Colonel Hurless sent his 3d Battalion, 406th Infantry, toward Apweiler under cover of an artillery preparation that began five minutes earlier. Crowding the artillery dangerously, the infantry was upon the German defenders before they could recover from the barrage. Not until the leading companies had gained an orchard on the western fringe of the village did the artillery lift. By 1445 Task Force X held Apweiler.
Though General Harmon might have put his entire division on the offensive the next day, 19 November, he played it safe.61 First he wanted to assure a firm
right flank for the main drive on Gereonsweiler by committing Colonel Collier’s CCA to seize a spur of high ground between the villages of Ederen and Freialdenhoven, east of Puffendorf. Both of Colonel Collier’s task forces were to attack: Task Force A from Puffendorf to traverse a newly discovered gap in the antitank ditch, Task Force B through Setterich to cross the ditch by means of the bridgehead established by the troops of the 29th Division.
Before CCA could strike on 19 November, CCB got another taste of German reserves sufficient to justify General Harmon’s foresight. Before daylight, a contingent of seven tanks and a battalion of infantry of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division struck that part of Task Force X which was occupying Apweiler. Sgt. Stanley Herrin and the crew of his tank of Company I, 67th Armored Regiment, were largely instrumental in stopping one prong of & counterattack. Spotting the foremost German tank, Sergeant Herrin knocked off its track with his first round. A tank destroyer finished the job by blowing off the turret. Sergeant Herrin and his crew then accounted for two tanks which followed.
Infantry alone took care of two other prongs of the German thrust. At one point, bazooka gunners knocked out three tanks, while an unidentified infantryman climbed atop the rear deck of a fourth and silenced the Germans inside by dropping hand grenades into the turret. At the other point, the Germans were without tank support and were stopped by a withering fusilade of small arms fire delivered at close range.
When CCA’s Task Force A attacked during the afternoon eastward from Puffendorf toward the gap in the antitank ditch, the Germans counterattacked again, this time against what they must have taken to be Task Force A’s exposed left flank. Using about a hundred infantry supported by four tanks, they seemingly forgot that CCB’s Task Force 1 still held Puffendorf. Catching the Germans in the flank, CCB’s tank destroyers knocked out two of the tanks, while a Sherman mounting a 76-mm. piece caught a Panther broadside. The Panther went up in flames. That ended the threat.
For all the help from Task Force 1, CCA’s Task Force A made only limited gains on 19 November. Enjoying excellent observation from Ederen, the Germans first stopped Task Force A’s infantry, then the tanks, and subjected both to round after round of accurate shellfire. When darkness provided relief, engineers hurried forward with bulldozers to shave the banks of the antitank ditch so that the tanks might cross the next morning on a broader front.
In the meantime, CCA’s Task Force B, composed basically of a battalion of the 66th Armored Regiment and an attached battalion of the 119th Infantry, attacked at 1245 from the bridgehead across the antitank ditch northeast of Setterich. In the face of the tanks, the German infantry fell back. Task Force B in less than an hour gained the Geilenkirchen-Aldenhoven highway only a few hundred yards short of Freialdenhoven. Here the attack stalled. Every attempt to advance ran into German mines which formed a barrier extending several hundred yards in either direction. Both the high ground about Freialdenhoven and the village it-
self were denied until engineers might breach the mine field after night fell.
Having recuperated for two days, CCB on 20 November was ready to resume the main drive to cover a remaining mile to Gereonsweiler. In ordering the attack, General Harmon directed also that CCA renew the push on Ederen and Freialdenhoven and assist CCB’s attack, if need be. After a deluge of rain that began during the night and continued into the day of 20 November, some wondered if at last November’s erratic weather had not erased all hope of trafficability. For his part, CCB’s General White was more perturbed that his tankers couldn’t see. "The sights will get wet and fogged up," he said. Yet General Harmon was reluctant to face postponement. "Don’t want to call if off if possible as the corps commander is anxious to get it started," General Harmon said. This drive was the pay-off to the four days of hard fighting that had preceded it. With Gereonsweiler in hand, the 2d Armored Division might award this sector to the XIII Corps and move to an assembly area behind the 29th Division to prepare for crossing the Roer.
They did not call it off. After delaying several hours in a vain hope of improved visibility, both CCA and CCB attacked in a driving rain.
Moving first about midmorning, CCA quickly resolved the question of trafficability. Despite the mud, the tanks in Colonel Swift’s Task Force A moving on Ederen soon outdistanced the infantry.
In the attack on Ederen, Task Force A lost a tank destroyer and six tanks to antitank guns emplaced on the fringe of the village before good fortune gave an unexpected assist. Ignited by tracer bullets, four haystacks along the line of march erupted in great swirls of smoke. A providential wind blowing perpendicular to the axis of attack turned the smoke into a first-rate screen. Advancing unseen, the tanks and infantry pounced upon the Germans in trenches near the skirt of the village and sent them streaming to the rear in captive bunches.
At Freialdenhoven, CCA’s Task Force B ran into the same mine field that had thwarted the attack on the village the day before. Until 1400, the commander, Colonel Hinds, delayed while engineers probed the field. At last he decided to commit his infantry and four attached British tanks, while withholding his organic tanks. The British tanks were from a squadron of the 1st Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, a unit equipped with flame-throwing Churchill tanks called Crocodiles.
The four Crocodiles and the infantry were almost through the mine field and into the village before three of the tanks struck mines and the fourth bogged down. But already the Crocodiles had done what was expected of them. They had helped the infantry across the open field. Only the mop-up process remained in Freialdenhoven, and by late afternoon (20 November) the village was clear.
In the main drive against Gereonsweiler, General White’s CCB concentrated the power of all three of its task forces in contemplation that here the Germans would make their most determined stand. Paradoxically, Gereonsweiler turned out to be one of the easier targets on the Roer plain.
At 1100 on 20 November, General White sent three columns toward Gereonsweiler: Task Force 1 to move from Puffendorf to take the high ground astride the road to Gereonsweiler that had been relinquished four days earlier to the 9th
Panzer Division, thence east to high ground between Ederen and Gereonsweiler; Task Force 2 in the center to seize the southern part of Gereonsweiler; and Task Force X attacking from Apweiler to capture the northern half of Gereonsweiler. Two troops of Crocodiles were attached to Task Force X.
Artillery officers prepared a detailed artillery fire plan, including heavy concentrations designed to isolate the village after capture. Beginning ten minutes before jump-off, six artillery battalions fired five rounds per gun into the western fringe of the village. During the next quarter hour, corps guns pounded commanding ground around the objective. Thereupon, the fire by the six battalions shifted from the fringe of the village to a rolling barrage that swept the entire objective.
Without the loss of a man or a tank, Task Force 1 took the high ground along the Puffendorf-Gereonsweiler highway. Because Task Force 2 on more exposed ground ran into trouble from machine gun emplacements and long-range tank fire, General White directed Task Force 1 to abandon its next objective and swing instead against Gereonsweiler. The maneuver worked. Within forty-five minutes after the start of the attack, some contingents of both task forces were entering the village.
In the meantime, Task Force X had been deterred by fire from self-propelled guns outside the corps sector to the north. When problems arose in getting clearance for artillery fire against the guns because of the reputed presence of troops of the XIII Corps, the task force commander, Colonel Hurless, turned a company of his tank destroyers against them. Though this cost the destroyers heavily, it was successful in diverting the German fire. Preceded by the British Crocodiles, which put the torch to everything in their path, the infantry of Task Force X moved rapidly into Gereonsweiler.
Not until the next day, 21 November, after CCB had pushed out to higher ground outside Gereonsweiler, did the Germans muster a counterattack. They concentrated against a particularly vulnerable infantry company of Task Force X—Company A, 406th Infantry—which was holding with exposed flanks on a rise a thousand yards north of Gereonsweiler. The first strike by a company of infantry in late afternoon was repulsed, but as darkness fell, three companies of the 11th Panzer Grenadier Regiment dealt a cruel blow. Two platoons of Company A were almost obliterated as the company fell back some 300 yards to gain defilade against small arms fire. There, with the aid of another company rushed up to one flank, Company A held. When Colonel Hurless rushed tanks and tank destroyers to help, the infantry and armor together pushed back to the crest of the rise and restored the line.
In the meantime, both task forces of CCA had been pushing eastward from Ederen and Freialdenhoven so that by nightfall of 21 November they held a line just outside Ederen and at least a thousand yards beyond Freialdenhoven. The Roer was plainly visible little more than a mile and a half to the east. Here and on the hills at Gereonsweiler the 2d Armored Division was destined to hold for several days while the XIII Corps effected relief at Gereonsweiler.
In six days, from 16 through 21 November, the 2d Armored Division had moved approximately six miles in a limited objective attack through a strongly de-
fended zone. This was a kind of attack far less attractive to armor than is exploitation but a legitimate function of armor nevertheless.
A notable feature of the attack was General Harmon’s employment not only of his division but of major attachments, including a regiment of the 102d Division, the 406th Infantry, and one of two battalions of the 119th Infantry; this in spite of a markedly narrow sector. Thereby General Harmon had upped the ratio of infantry to tanks in his division and had demonstrated that, in this instance, at least, a more balanced ratio was desirable.
In six days the 2d Armored Division had sustained some 1,300 personnel casualties, including approximately 600 in the attached 406th Infantry. Of the divisions of the XIX Corps, the armor had been the only one to meet major German reserves, yet the casualty figures were roughly similar to those of the infantry divisions. As reflected by a figure of 2,385 prisoners of war captured by the armored division during the entire month of November, German losses were considerably higher. Judging from subsequent activities of the 9th Panzer Division, that unit had been hard hit, and the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division also had been stopped. German tank losses the 2d Armored Division estimated at 86 for the entire month. Tank losses for the U.S. division might be estimated from figures provided for CCB. That combat command reported 18 medium tanks destroyed but noted that approximately 32 mediums were damaged and temporarily out of action for varying periods during the month.62 The entire 2d Armored Division to the end of the month probably incurred destruction or temporary damage to from 70 to 80 tanks, most of them in the first six days at Puffendorf, Apweiler, Immendorf, Ederen, Freialdenhoven, and Gereonsweiler.
Like the 29th Division, the 2d Armored had only a short distance to go to the Roer. Indeed, with the arrival of the XIII Corps and adjustment of the corps boundary on 24 November, the armor would have only two more villages to occupy. Yet, like the 29th Division, the armor might discover that this short distance was not to be taken for granted.
As of 22 November, the XIX Corps entered upon the final phase of the drive to the Roer. Already the 30th Division had completed clearing the Wuerselen industrial district and had pushed on abreast of the rest of the corps. Now all three divisions were to continue eastward side by side. Their mission was to penetrate the last defensive arc about Juelich.