THE THIRD BATTALION of the 501st Parachute Infantry had been caught in the traffic snarl west of Bastogne and was at a standstill. Colonel Ewell checked on them at 1200, December 19, and found that they had scarcely moved at all. After trying to get out of town, the battalion had backtracked, only to find that other routes were likewise clogged with outgoing troops.1 Yet even this delay had its benefits. Some of the infantrymen lacked helmets, rifles and ammunition. They begged them from the armored troops of Combat Command B, 10th Armored Division, who were in the town, and thus in the interval the battalion became somewhat better equipped .2 Colonel Ewell ordered Lieutenant Colonel George M. Griswold, commanding the 3d Battalion, to march his battalion to Mont, a little hamlet lying south of the Neffe road. (Plate 20.) It seemed like the best opportunity to get the battalion out of Bastogne. Ewell also directed that one of Griswold's companies be sent down the Wiltz road to cover the 3d Battalion's right flank as it moved. Colonel Griswold was told to send the company to the bend in the road directly east of the village of Marvie. Colonel Ewell planned to send the 3d Battalion against Neffe from the southwest after it had reached Mont, but he issued no orders to the effect at the time. He followed his usual plan of giving his subordinate commanders only a limited objective.3
At 1203 the 2d Battalion took Bizory (Map 4, page 35) without opposition except for unobserved fire from the German tanks in Neffe. Still convinced that the Neffe roadblock was the only immediate threat to his front, Ewell ordered his 2d Battalion to advance and seize Magéret. By this move he figured he would box the tanks in so that he could then move against them either from front or rear according to the advantages of the ground. But he specified that Major Sammie N. Homan, commander of the 2d Battalion, send one of his companies to seize the patch of woods directly north of Magéret. This wood is a small planta-
tion of very tall spruces. Ewell saw that the long ridge running across to the spruces dominated Magéret in the valley. It seemed to him that putting one company there might cover the approach to Magéret.4
Major Homan started out by road from Bizory to Magéret, but his route march ended quickly. At the crest of Hill 510 he ran into German infantry in dug-in positions: they were the Reconnaissance Platoon of the 26th Volksgrenadier Division. Homan took this first jolt almost without loss; not so, the enemy. Their line was moving forward from the foxholes and coming over the hill when the 2d Battalion mortars and Nelson's artillery caught them with full blast. The paratroopers saw a number of the enemy fall before the survivors ran back. Deploying the rest of his battalion, Homan sent Company F to the left to seize the coveted wood. When this extension was completed he reported to Colonel Ewell by radio that his hands were full and he was now engaged along his entire front. "For the time being," he said, "I cannot think of taking Magéret."5
Colonel Griswold's 3d Battalion reached Mont and found one of the engineer roadblocks outposting that point, but the further operation of the main body of the battalion was compromised by the nature of the ground between Mont and Neffe. The two villages are little more than a mile apart and from Neffe one can look right down the little valley and see Mont clearly. The tanks of Panzer Lehr, which were at Neffe,6 were shipping a few shells toward Griswold's infantry. It seemed possible that a small party might work its way toward Neffe but the ground was much too naked for the exposure of any large force. Colonel Griswold stopped his 3d Battalion where it was.
Company L which had drawn the assignment on the extreme right flank, was instructed to prowl the three large woods west and northwest of the village of Wardin. At 1330 Company I reported that they had checked the three woods and found no enemy. Colonel Ewell then told Company I to advance to Wardin and make contact with a friendly armored roadblock that was supposed to be there. Ewell had not been told officially of the existence of this force but had heard of it quite casually from
someone walking down the road.7 The company went on to make the contact Ewell had ordered. But for all practical effect, the stranger who had mentioned that there was a friendly roadblock near by might just as well have left his words unsaid.
This was Team O'Hara of Combat Command B, 10th Armored Division, which on the night of December 18 had taken up position on the high ground south of Wardin just short of the woods. The night had been quiet except for the stragglers coming through—mostly rear echelon people from the 28th Division whose idea of the enemy situation was confused. The morning of December 19 opened with fog. About 1000 the trickle of stragglers stopped altogether. This worried Team O'Hara for they figured it must mean that the enemy was coming next. They put out a platoon as a reconnaissance screen to the east which moved slowly along the road to Bras. At 1140 they engaged and destroyed a Volkswagen on the Wiltz-Bastogne highway. Just as they opened fire they saw the head of the enemy column break through the fog a few hundred yards away—two Mark IV tanks and a personnel carrier. The platoon had nothing with which to fight armor and so it cleared out rapidly, reporting its findings by radio. As a result of the message, unobserved fire was put on Bras by the 420th Armored Field Artillery Battalion.
At about the same time Captain Edward A. Carrigo, Team S-2, and First Lieutenant John D. Devereaux, commanding Company B of the 54th Armored Infantry Battalion, were entering Wardin from the southwest and finding it unhealthy (Map 5, page 42). The town was wrapped in fog; they could scarcely see anything at fifty yards' range. But they prowled on through the town and just as they got beyond it a projectile of antitank size hit the front bumper of their jeep. Nothing was hurt, but the two officers increased their speed and reported that there were people moving into Wardin who were quite unfriendly.8
By noon of the 19th the visibility lengthened to 800 yards. Second Lieutenant Theodore R. Hamer, observer for the 420th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, moved forward to the top of a small hill. There were five tanks of Team O'Hara on the crest when he got there. But before he had a chance to observe for
fire, his own tank was hit twice from the left by a high-velocity gun, wounding Hamer and three other crew members. One man was incinerated inside the tank. Another medium tank was bit in the turret by a shell that killed the gunner. The driver backed the tank down the hill wildly, not stopping until his vehicle became bogged; the tank could not be salvaged and later bad to be destroyed. The other tanks cleared away from the hill as rapidly as they could. Direct-fire artillery began to hit the force's main position from north across the valley. On the road ahead, the team had hastily set up a minefield. At 1300 a few Germans jumped from a Volkswagen and tried to remove the mines. From only 200 yards away to the west, five of the infantry half-tracks and five medium tanks opened fire on the German party. But they were able to jump in their car and make a clean getaway. Shortly after, an outpost at the south of the position saw another enemy group moving through woods northeast toward Wardin. One of the medium tanks moved up and put them under fire.9
These were the things that had happened before the time when Team O'Hara saw men coming toward them from the woods at their rear. These men were in patrol formation and wore an unfamiliar green uniform, which looked tight around the legs. The tankers were just about to fire and then someone in the approaching party yelled. The approaching men (Map 6, page 44) were the point of Company I, 501st Parachute Infantry. Their green jump suits had almost been their undoing. The main body of the Company was right behind them in the woods and the company was on its way to Wardin—good news to the tankers. The first infantry support had arrived and they could now withdraw their own patrols which had been reaching out toward the town.
Some fateful minutes passed and nothing was done to unify the action. With the enemy crowding in on them, the forces acted like two ships passing in the night. The paratroopers went on. Two medium tanks were placed so as to cover the exits from Wardin. That was all.10
Lieutenant Colonel James O’Hara, commander of the 54th Armored Infantry Battalion, 10th Armored Division, and Team
O'Hara of Combat Command B, had thought that the enemy would push west on the Wiltz-Bastogne highway. But he was wrong about it. The Germans bypassed his group—except for a few who squeezed a little too far over to the west and got themselves killed for their pains—and went on to Wardin, moving along a deep gully where O'Hara's tanks couldn't bring their fire to bear. The tankers could see the German infantry infiltrating by twos and threes, moving northwest toward the town, until a hundred or more had passed. They asked that artillery be put on the gully but the Bastogne artillery was occupied with the defense of Noville. Then the enemy began to fret O'Hara's immediate front again: one group came close enough to fire at a tank with a rocket that fell five yards short. Half-tracks sprayed the area with machine-gun fire and the tanks pounded away with their 75mms. Thus preoccupied, Team O'Hara paid no mind to Wardin. They knew there was fighting going on but the situation was "obscure."11
At 1415, December 19, Colonel Ewell heard that Company I was being fired on in Wardin. The reports trickling in during the next few minutes indicated that the company was doing pretty well. Armor was now opposing them, but they had already knocked out two tanks and were pushing the enemy infantry from the town. By 1600, Ewell was pretty much content with his general situation. He had three battalions approximately abreast; he was in contact with the enemy all along his front and there was a friendly roadblock—Team O'Hara—on his extreme right flank. But he felt that he had gone as far as he could with his offensive action and that such strength was now being committed against him that he could no longer think about his specific mission (to "seize the road junction at 676614 and hold it.") He therefore ordered his battalions to make plans to break contact at dark and draw back to defend a general line along the high ground to the west of Bizory-Neffe, and in an approximate extension of this line to the southward of the creek. At Division headquarters, General McAulliffe and Colonel Kinnard looked over his plan and approved it.12
As he was walking back through Bastogne he met a sergeant
from Company I who said to him, "Have you heard about Company I? We've been wiped out." Ewell got to his radio; he didn't believe the sergeant, but the story was nearer right than he thought. Company I had lost 45 men and 4 officers at Wardin and the survivors had scattered so badly that it was no longer possible to form even a platoon. The news was a shock. When he first heard that Company I was becoming involved in Wardin, Colonel Ewell had ordered it to disengage and withdraw. But before the company could comply, it had come under the full shock of an attack by seven tanks and one infantry battalion from Panzer Lehr. The survivors got out as best they could.13
This news simply strengthened Ewell's conviction that he must abandon all further offensive intention and tighten up his position. Colonel O'Hara had reached the same conclusion and for much the same reason. Four of the walking wounded who had gotten out of Wardin had come into his lines and told him the news. He saw his force now in an exposed position with no one on his right, an aggressive enemy on his left and pressure along his whole front, and he asked Combat Command B headquarters for permission to withdraw.
By radio he received his reply, "Contact friends on your left, hold what you have." This told him that headquarters still didn't understand the situation. So he sent his S-3, Captain George A. Renoux, to Bastogne to explain in person what he couldn't with safety discuss over the air, and then went to his rear to reconnoiter a better position. At 1715 he was ordered to withdraw to the high ground north of Marvie—the place he had by then already picked as the best defensive line in the area. The Headquarters Company, Heavy-Weapons Company and engineers were first to start digging into the new slope. When they were in place, the rest of the force came along, except for four medium tanks and one platoon of infantry which covered the withdrawal. Throughout the whole move, the 420th Armored Field Artillery Battalion put a heavy covering fire into, the ground where the enemy had been seen during the day. Not a shot was fired in return.14
Because of the loss of Company I and his feeling that the
enemy was building up on his right, Colonel Ewell asked Division headquarters to attach one battalion to his regiment for a right flank and reserve. He was given the 1st Battalion of the 327th Glider Infantry under Lieutenant Colonel Hartford F. Salee. They were put in behind Ewell's 3d Battalion which put them next to Team O'Hara.15
Between 1700 and 1800, December 19, the 501st Parachute Infantry fell back to the new defensive line. Estimating his gains and losses, Ewell didn't give his regiment too much credit. He thought that Company I had probably killed some Germans at Wardin, but since the enemy still held the town he couldn't be sure. His impression was that the execution done by his own right and center had not been very great. The honors of the day belonged to the artillery."' Colonel Ewell said, "Any actual killing of the enemy that day was due to the artillery."
Captain Ryerson's force (Company C, 20th Armored Infantry Battalion, 10th Armored Division) of Team Cherry (Map 7, page 47), having spent the day hoping that the infantry would get up to them, clung to three houses in the northwest edge of Magéret after dark. The enemy shot up flares and blazed away at Ryerson's vehicles with antitank guns, destroying three of them. Their infantry then came on but was driven back by the fire of the 420th Armored Field Artillery Battalion.
At 0030, December 20, Combat Command B Headquarters sent orders for Ryerson to withdraw before dawn, and to make contact with Colonel Ewell at Bizory. One line in the special instructions said, "The lead vehicle will inform outpost line of number of vehicles in his column to insure that no Germans follow column into our lines."
Captain Ryerson got ready to move his wounded to a point beyond the crest of the first hill—the first step on the way out.17