By the end of the first week of December, three of the four attacking corps of the First and Ninth Armies had planted their standards on the west bank of the Roer River. The corps still with some distance to go was General Collins’ VII Corps, which originally had been labeled "main effort." In this case, "main effort" was no empty term; the VII Corps had been provided greater strength than the others—an extra division and an extra regimental combat team, plus preference in artillery support. The corps also had been furnished a preponderance of tonnage in the air bombardment preceding the offensive. Under these circumstances, the VII Corps might have been expected to be among the first at the river. Yet labeling the corps attack the "main effort" had done nothing to eliminate the difficult and constricted terrain in front of it, particularly the Huertgen Forest. (Map VIII)
By 28 November, when the neighboring XIX Corps had staked the first claim to the Roer’s west bank, indications already were developing that at least one of Collins’ four divisions might have to be replaced before the corps could reach the river. This was the 4th Division, reduced to near impotence by losses in the Huertgen Forest. By 3 December, when the XIII Corps gained the Roer, events at the village of Merode on the fringe of the forest had provided pointed evidence that the 1st Division also needed replacement. By 7 December, when the V Corps for all practical purposes reached the river at the eastern end of the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge, Collins had halted all offensive operations within the VII Corps and was involved in a detailed realignment of troops. The VII Corps still had a little more than three miles to go to the Roer.
On General Collins’ north wing, the 104th Division remained in the line, tired from clearing the Eschweiler-Weisweiler industrial complex and establishing bridgeheads across the Inde River at Inden and Lucherberg, but nevertheless capable of continuing to attack. Having seen but limited commitment, the 3d Armored Division also stayed with the corps. In the center, the veteran 9th Division replaced the 1st Division in a line running from the Aachen-Cologne autobahn at Luchem, southward through Langerwehe and Juengersdorf into the Huertgen Forest to a point south of Merode. Where the 4th Division had stalled at the western skirt of the forest opposite the settlement of Hof Hardt and the village of Gey, the 83d Division took over. This too was a veteran replacement which had seen action in Normandy and Brittany and for more than a month had rested with the VIII Corps in Luxembourg. To reinforce the corps right wing much as the 3d Armored Division strengthened the left, General Collins obtained the 5th Armored Division, minus one combat
command which had fought with the V Corps on the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge.
General Collins ordered the attack to be resumed on 10 December.1 On the left, the 104th Division was to clear a three-mile stretch of the Roer plain between the Inde and the Roer where three villages represent the only breaks in monotonously flat terrain. In the center, the 9th Division and a combat command of the 3d Armored Division were to operate "in close conjunction" in a zone less than four miles wide that technically was assigned to the 9th Division. The two units were to clear the northwestern and western approaches to Dueren, the Roer town which had been the VII Corps objective since September. On the right, the 83d Division was to sweep the southwestern approaches to Dueren. After gaining additional roads on the fringe of the Huertgen Forest, the 83d Division was to relinquish the extreme right of the corps zone to the 5th Armored Division so that the armor might bridge a gap between the infantry’s objectives near Dueren and the point on the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge where the V Corps had reached the river.
To supplement divisional artillery, General Collins had available considerably less corps artillery strength than in earlier stages of the drive to the Roer, yet a substantial force nevertheless: fourteen battalions ranging from 105-mm. howitzers to 8-inch howitzers and 4.5-inch guns, plus a separate battery of 155-mm. self-propelled guns.2 Five battalions also were self-propelled. To each of his divisions Collins attached one battalion, leaving nine battalions under corps control. The separate battery he split between the 9th and 104th Divisions.
Having seen ample evidence of the enemy’s pertinacity in this sector, the VII Corps G-2, Colonel Carter, expressed no expectation that the successes of the adjacent corps might prompt German withdrawal. In effect, the Germans were maintaining a re-entrant bridgehead on the west bank of the Roer along the approaches to Dueren. The question, Colonel Carter noted, was not the intent to hold the bridgehead but "how long can the enemy continue his defense in the face of his present rate of losses and the new demand for troops in the south [to counter successes achieved by the Third U.S. Army]."3 Colonel Carter correctly divined that the enemy’s main strength was in his artillery arm. He estimated 20 light artillery battalions, 5 medium battalions, and 15 to 20 self-propelled guns, plus some 10 tanks and likely assistance from the guns of the SS divisions, which presumably were in reserve between the Roer and the Rhine.
The enemy’s order of battle had undergone several changes while the VII Corps was regrouping. Immediately north of a new corps boundary, which was adjusted to give full responsibility for Dueren to General Koechling’s LXXXI Corps, was
the 3d Parachute Division, which had arrived in late November to relieve Gruppe Engel (remnants of the 12th and 47th Volks Grenadier Divisions). Brought almost to full strength by replacements, the parachute division was directed to provide two battalions for the specific task of defending Dueren.4 North of the parachutists stood the 246th Volks Grenadier Division. Removed from the line in late November for rehabilitation, the 246th had been sent back only a few days later. It was not much of a rehabilitation. Not one of the eight infantry battalions could muster as many as a hundred men.5
Still opposing the southern wing of the VII U.S. Corps was General Straube’s LXXIV Corps. For so long a component of the Seventh Army, the LXXIV Corps on the day the Americans resumed the offensive was to pass to control of the Fifteenth Army (Gruppe von Manteuffel) while Seventh Army headquarters moved south for its role in the Ardennes counteroffensive.6
That part of the LXXIV Corps front which would be involved at first in the renewed fighting belonged to the 353d Infantry Division, which had come up from the Luxembourg front in mid-November. A few remnants of the 344th Infantry Division, which like the 353d had been rushed into the Huertgen Forest in mid-November, still were around, but these were destined to be pulled out in a few days so that the division might be rehabilitated for the counteroffensive. South of the 353d, opposite the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge, contingents of the 272d Volks Grenadier Division also were destined for relief in a few days for return to the Monschau Corridor. The relieving unit was to be the 85th Infantry Division, brought down from Holland. This division also was to relieve the 89th Infantry Division, south of the 272d; but in the merry-go-round of reliefs preceding the counteroffensive, the 89th was to be recommitted on the extreme south of the Fifteenth Army on 15 December.7
Because of the configuration of terrain, the fighting in the final push to the Roer was to fall into two categories—one akin to the battle of the Roer plain, the other to the battle of the Huertgen Forest. In general, the dividing line between the two followed the boundary between the 9th and 83d Divisions. It ran from within the Huertgen Forest between Merode and Hof Hardt northeast to the Roer at Dueren. Almost from the outset, the engagements on either side of this line became replicas in miniature of the earlier campaigning on the plain and in the forest.
The script for the fighting north of the dividing line had been written and tested
by the Ninth Army’s XIII and XIX Corps. In adopting it, the 3d Armored, 9th, and 104th Divisions made only minor revisions.
As might have been expected, the 104th Division continued to exploit its proficiency in night attacks. Though used directly against but one of three villages still to be taken in the 104th Division’s sector, night attack was the key that opened all three.
The drive began conventionally early on 10 December as a battalion of the 44th Infantry attacked from the Inde bridgehead east of Inden toward each of the two northernmost villages, Schophoven and Pier. As elsewhere on the Roer plain, the enemy (246th Division) had dug elaborate entrenchments about the villages. Fire from the fortifications at Schophoven pinned down one battalion. Behind a rolling artillery barrage, the other battalion penetrated the defenses at Pier, only to be forced out after nightfall by a counterattack supported by three self-propelled guns. Through the next day of 11 December, the Germans continued to hold both Pier and Schophoven.
Against the third village of Merken, which lies along the Roer near the Aachen-Cologne autobahn southeast of Schophoven and Pier, a battalion of the 415th Infantry turned to the device of night attack. Moving before dawn on 11 December, the men guarded surprise by advancing with empty rifles. Employing a carefully detailed plan developed in close liaison with the infantry, artillery boxed in the route of advance. As the infantry neared a hamlet several hundred yards northwest of Merken, artillery fired a white phosphorus marker. Thereupon, a platoon dropped off to clear the hamlet while the main body effected an abrupt change of direction in the darkness to move southeast on Merken. Again the artillery fired white phosphorus to guide the way. Both Merken and the hamlet succumbed quickly to surprise assaults.8
In advancing to Merken, the 415th Infantry had passed south of Pier, thereby opening a route for a flanking force to hit that village from the south. Early the next day, 12 December, while the bulk of a battalion continued to strike Pier from the west, a company of infantry supported by tanks approached from the south. Actually, the maneuver was anticlimactic; the Germans had begun to withdraw. Artillery of the 104th Division wreaked havoc on enemy infantry scrambling across the Roer on a bridge east of Pier.
At Schophoven, the Germans proved more tenacious, but a flanking maneuver over the newly opened avenue from the south proved their undoing.9 By midafternoon of 13 December, four days after renewal of the offensive, the 104th Division had reached the Roer on a four-mile front.
Elsewhere north of the dividing line between the plain and the forest, the 3d Armored and 9th Divisions developed a variation upon an old theme, close coordination between infantry and armor. A combat command first was to stage a limited objective attack into the left half
of the infantry division’s zone, perhaps with a view to breaking any hard crust of resistance which might have formed while the VII Corps had been regrouping. Advancing two thirds of the distance to the Roer northwest of Dueren, the armor was to take three villages, Geich, Obergeich, and Echtz. After capture of Echtz, the 9th Division’s 60th Infantry was to relieve the combat command, presumably as a prelude to taking two remaining villages close along the west bank of the river, though General Collins did not at first spell out a definite plan for these last objectives. In the right half of the 9th Division’s zone, infantry alone was to attack but not until advance of the armor into Obergeich had bared one of the enemy’s flanks.
The difference between this tank-infantry attack and the usual was that neither command was subordinated to the other. Presumably, General Collins placed the onus of responsibility for coordination upon the infantry when he directed that the 9th Division attack "in close conjunction with" the armor.10 Yet in comparison with the usual method of attaching one unit to another, this was a somewhat loose command arrangement.
As events developed, the feature of the drive to the Roer in this sector was the close co-ordination achieved by these separate units of infantry and armor without formal and distinct command curbs. Perhaps the explanation lay in acceptance from the first by the infantry commander, General Craig, that the drive on Geich, Obergeich, and Echtz was not a separate assignment for the armor but a joint responsibility.11
On the first morning, 10 December, after the armor had run into trouble from a combination of mines and mud, General Craig sent a battalion of his 60th Infantry to assist. Together this battalion and a contingent of the 33d Armored Infantry Regiment pushed into the first objective of Obergeich. The same infantry battalion assisted the tanks and armored infantry in subduing the next village of Geich while General Craig sent another battalion of infantry to help a second contingent of armor take Echtz. By nightfall of the first day, all three initial objectives had fallen.
On 11 December, as General Collins decided on a definite plan for taking the two remaining villages west of the Roer, he varied from his arrangement of command by co-ordination to attach a battalion of the 60th Infantry to CCR (Col. Robert L. Howze, Jr.). The combined force was to take Hoven, northernmost of the two villages. The rest of the 60th Infantry was to take the other village of Mariaweiler.12
As troops of the XIII and XIX Corps earlier had discovered, pinning the enemy to a small toehold west of the Roer was no guarantee of his collapse. During the night of 11 December, for example, the Germans reinforced their garrisons in Hoven and Mariaweiler with two refitted companies of the 47th Volks Grenadier Division. The troops of the VII Corps also learned, as had others before them, that German observation from higher ground east of the Roer could be deadly. A first attack against Hoven on 11 December recoiled in the face of German artillery fire that reduced the attacking infantry by a third. On 12 December a
battalion of the 60th Infantry moving on Mariaweiler took more than a hundred casualties from shellfire before gaining protection of the first buildings. On the same day a smoke screen enabled the armor and infantry to make good on a second try at taking Hoven.
By nightfall of 12 December, despite a sharp counterattack supported by self-propelled guns at Mariaweiler, CCR and the 60th Infantry could claim control of most of the west bank of the Roer northwest and west of Dueren. A few tenacious outposts remained, but these the infantry alone could deal with almost at leisure. The last, a factory between Mariaweiler and Dueren, would fall on 14 December.
In the meantime, while armor and infantry had been co-ordinating in the main push, the 39th Infantry had been attacking alone to clear three villages in the southern portion of the 9th Division’s zone. These were Schlich, Derichsweiler, and Merode, the last the site where troops of the 1st Division had plunged out of the Huertgen Forest only to be annihilated by counterattack because they lacked a route for reinforcements. Perhaps in cognizance of this incident, the 39th Infantry commander, Colonel Bond, directed his battalions to delay until capture of Obergeich had bared the German north flank and provided good roads into all three objectives, including Merode. Colonel Bond also hoped by striking from the north to trap any Germans who remained in a promontory of the Huertgen Forest southwest of Merode.13
From the first the wisdom of Colonel Bond’s decision was apparent. In late afternoon of the first day of the renewed offensive, 10 December, a battalion advanced southeast from Obergeich to take a hamlet from which to stage the big push the next day. The hamlet fell readily. A hundred Germans surrendered, members of the same 3d Parachute Division which had dealt the cruel blow to the 1st Division in Merode.
After systematic fighting aided by an effective dive-bombing mission by P-38’s of the 368th Group, both Schlich and Merode were cleared by nightfall of 11 December. From this point, the going was relatively easy, for during the night the Germans had begun to replace the 3d Parachute Division with the hurriedly and inadequately rehabilitated 47th Volks Grenadier Division.14
In the afternoon of 12 December, the 39th Infantry established a firm grip on part of Derichsweiler and on 13 December completed the job. Because the 83d Division, attacking northeast out of the Huertgen Forest, would pinch out the regiment by passing diagonally across its front en route to the Roer at Dueren, the 39th Infantry was not to continue to the river. Except for some assistance to be given the 83d Division, the regiment had completed its assignment.
As elsewhere north of the dividing line between the Huertgen Forest and the Roer plain, the final push had taken most of four days. A dirty fight, lacking in both glamour and surprise, it had cost the 3d Armored, 9th, and 104th Divisions 1,074 casualties, of which 179 were killed and 75 missing.15
South of the dividing line between the 9th and 83d Divisions lay both forest and plain. As in the sector east of Stolberg through which part of the VII Corps earlier had attacked, densely wooded hills reluctantly give way to larger and more frequent clearings. Within a mile of Dueren the highlands merge with the flatlands of the plain. In approaching the settlement of Hof Hardt, in occupying Grosshau, and in gaining positions overlooking Gey, the 4th Division technically had reached the edge of the Huertgen Forest before casualties had prompted replacement. Yet in many aspects, including some of terrain, the fighting to be experienced by the two units renewing the drive would be markedly similar to that which had occurred deep within the forest.
The principal similarity had to do with a struggle for adequate roads. On the left wing of a four-mile zone which the 83d Division inherited initially, one regiment, which was to take Hof Hardt and drive northeast alongside and eventually pinch out the 9th Division’s 39th Infantry, had a good road, an extension of axial Route U which the 4th Division had used. But in the center and on the right wing, routes of communication were more potential than actual. Though the V Corps at Huertgen and Kleinhau and the 4th Division at Grosshau had made down payment on a good road net, another big installment would be required before clear title could be claimed.
The road net problem facing the 83d Division centered about the two villages of Gey and Strass, both northeast of Grosshau. These villages gather in several roads and trails from the Huertgen Forest, subject them to a minor multiplication process, then release them to the northeast, east, and southeast toward the Roer. To travel from Grosshau northeast toward Dueren, it is necessary to pass through Gey; to move east and southeast to the river, control of Strass is needed. The 83d Division commander, Maj. Gen. Robert C. Macon, assigned one regiment to each village, the 330th Infantry on the right to Strass, the 331st Infantry to Gey. The third regiment, the 329th Infantry, was to pursue the somewhat separate assignment of driving northeast along axial Route U on the division’s left wing.
After capture of Strass and Gey, the 330th Infantry presumably was to revert to reserve and the Mist Infantry to continue northeast from Gey toward Dueren. At this point, both villages were to serve as jump-off bases for the 5th Armored Division (less CCR) in a sweep east and southeast to the Roer to clear the southeastern corner of the VII Corps zone. One combat command was to move through Gey, thence east to an elevation overlooking the Roer, Hill 211. The other was to advance southeast from the vicinity of Strass to another height on the west bank of the Roer, the Hemgen Berg (Hill 253).16
The key to early success in this miniature battle of the Huertgen Forest obviously lay in quick seizure of Gey and Strass. That explained General Macon’s decision to put a regiment on each objective. It also explained why the enemy’s
353d Division made the villages keystones of their defense.
General Macon expected to take Gey and Strass in one swift stroke; indeed, the 5th Armored Division was scheduled to join the operation before nightfall of D Day, 10 December.17 Each regiment was to employ a battalion just before dawn, one to advance astride a dirt road leading from the west into Gey, the other along another unimproved road winding northeast through a patch of woods, past the settlement of Schafberg, thence to Strass. Each regiment would have to depend at first upon a narrow, muddy supply route closely embraced at some points by woods. Veterans of earlier fighting at Merode, at Huertgen, and at Schmidt might have looked upon the prospect with some degree of alarm.
Conscious of the need to get into Gey and Strass before daylight provided the enemy observation on open fields near the villages, the two attacking infantry battalions moved swiftly. On the left, troops of the 331st Infantry picked their way over deeply buried antitank mines, skirted unoccupied but booby-trapped trenches, and reached Gey shortly after dawn. The battalion of the 330th Infantry moved with equal success through the woods toward Schafberg, bypassed that settlement, and continued to Strass.
Both battalions got into the villages. In Gey the Germans fought tenaciously from house to house so that reduction of the village became a slow, systematic proposition. In Strass, the occupants gave up more readily, but an hour later they counterattacked with about a company of infantry supported by tanks or assault guns.
In both Gey and Strass, the Americans needed tanks—in Gey to tip the balance between infantry forces of about equal size, in Strass to halt the counterattack. Complexity and vexation entered the 83d Division’s operation when in midmorning of 10 December attached tanks of the 744th Tank Battalion first tried to get forward.
On the dirt road to Gey three tanks soon lost tracks in the antitank mine field through which the infantry had passed safely. They blocked the road. Through this day and the next engineers attempted to clear both this road and a main highway leading northeast from Grosshau into Gey. Observed German fire severely hampered the work. The dirt road was so full of shell fragments that mine detectors were of little use. On both
roads the engineers might deem a mine field cleared, only to watch in consternation as the lead tank would strike an undiscovered mine. The Germans in the meantime strengthened their garrison in Gey with infantry reinforcements. On 11 December, the 331st Infantry commander, Col. Robert H. York, also sent infantry reinforcements. The result was a stalemate.
First efforts to get tanks to Strass proved more successful. An entire tank company began the trip, but one platoon apparently took a wrong turn, ventured into enemy territory, and was annihilated. The rest made it. Yet in passing, the tank tracks cut deeply into the muddy dirt road so that many doubted if other vehicles would be able to follow.
As night came on 10 December, Strass was secure, though the Germans remained in close contact at some points, particularly along a half-mile stretch between Strass and Gey where they denied any liaison between the Americans in the two villages. Because of "traffic problems," presumably in moving through the Huertgen Forest to Grosshau and Kleinhau, the 5th Armored Division commander, General Oliver, decided to wait until the next day before joining the push.
After darkness, the Germans resorted to an old Huertgen Forest trick of infiltration. Along the wooded portion of the supply route to Strass, near Schafberg, they emplaced several antitank guns. Into Schafberg, which had not been cleared of Germans even though American tanks had passed through, they thrust infantry reinforcements. The American battalion in Strass was, in effect, cut off.
The 83d Division commander, General Macon, insisted nevertheless that armor could move over the road to Strass on 11 December. "The road is about as open as we can get it," he told General Oliver. "We can’t keep out the snipers."18 A commander like General Oliver, who less than three weeks before along the Germeter-Huertgen highway had seen what premature commitment could do to one of his combat commands, could be excused a measure of trepidation about a situation that appeared to be shaping up the same way. He discussed the matter with the corps commander, General Collins. Having checked with General Macon, Collins assured the armored commander that the road was open. "I told General Oliver," the corps commander said, "to go on ahead."
By daylight of 11 December, however, General Macon had decided, "We may have more to do than we anticipated." A new counterattack had hit Strass just before dawn; though contained, it made for intense fighting through much of the morning. More accurate reports of enemy strength along the road through Schafberg had prompted the 330th Infantry commander, Col. Robert T. Foster, to commit a fresh battalion to clear the road. The armored commander, General Oliver, decided nevertheless to proceed as planned. "Our going down there," he told General Macon, "ought to at least complicate their job of going in against you very severely [at Strass]."
Since no one even presumed that either a road to or a path through Gey was clear, no plans were made for immediate commitment of any but one combat command. This was CCB (Colonel Cole). The armor was to pass beyond Schafberg to a wooded knoll a mile to the east
(Hill 266), then to turn northeast against the village of Bergheim, and finally to occupy the Hemgen Berg (Hill 253) on the west bank of the Roer. The column actually was not to pass through Strass, though movement east from Schafberg obviously would be impossible if the enemy still held Strass.
In recognition of the fluid situation along the route to Schafberg, mounted armored infantry led the column. The infantry still was several hundred yards short of Schafberg when small arms fire and contact with the battalion of the 330th Infantry, which was attempting to clear the road, prompted an order to dismount. Though CCB’s infantry joined an attack toward Schafberg, the Germans when night came still were holding the settlement and effectively blocking the road, The fight had cost CCB 150 casualties.
Meanwhile, in Strass, the Germans had counterattacked a third time. Again American infantry and tanks beat them off, but the small force in Strass obviously was in a bad way. In two days the infantry battalion had run through four commanders: one killed, one missing, and two wounded. About sixty casualties had accumulated and were badly in need of medical supplies. No one had food or water. Ammunition was running low. Only seven tanks remained. Though a ten-man patrol carrying a few supplies broke through to Strass during the night of 11 December, the battalion in the village needed more help than that.
On the third day of the attack, on 12 December, the two regiments at Gey and Strass renewed their efforts to clear roads into the villages and enable the 5th Armored Division to move. In the meantime, on the 83d Division’s extreme left wing, more than a mile and a half northwest of Gey, a third regiment began to attack.
This was the 329th Infantry, commanded by Col. Edwin B. Crabill, which did not complete relief of 4th Division troops in its sector until 11 December. So removed from the rest of the 83d Division was this regiment at first that the corps commander contemplated attachment to the adjacent 9th Division, though later developments prompted reconsideration and instead a squadron of the 4th Cavalry Group was assigned to bridge the gap between the regiment and the rest of the division.19 The 329th Infantry was to advance along axial Route U through Hof Hardt, northeast to the village of Guerzenich, thence east through another village, Roelsdorf, to the Roer at Dueren.
Attacking through woods toward Hof Hardt in midmorning of 12 December, troops of the 329th Infantry quickly experienced some of the difficulties of Huertgen Forest fighting: tree bursts, extensive mine fields, and problems of control. The fresh regiment nevertheless gained Hof Hardt soon after midday and by dark had secured a line of departure along the skirt of the forest for continuing the attack to Guerzenich.
On 13 December, behind an effective smoke screen, a battalion of the 329th Infantry gained Guerzenich by noon. Thereby the regiment had outpaced the adjacent 9th Division’s 39th Infantry in the neighboring village of Derichsweiler. So impressed by this success was the
division commander, General Macon, that he directed the regiment to move the next day south against Birgel, a village that originally had been assigned to the 331st Infantry.
In the meantime, at Gey and Strass, the situation had taken a slow turn for the better. Behind a flail tank borrowed from the 5th Armored Division, a covey of tanks from the attached 744th Tank Battalion finally gained Gey during late afternoon of 12 December over the main road from Grosshau. Reduction of the stubborn resistance in the village now could be but a question of time. On the road to Strass, the 330th Infantry maneuvered one company after another against the bottleneck of Schafberg. Constant pressure of infantry and artillery gradually relaxed the enemy’s hold.
By midafternoon of 12 December Schafberg was clear, though reinforcements still could not reach Strass because German self-propelled guns controlled a portion of the supply route where it crossed open fields south of the village. The only relief afforded the Americans in Strass during daylight was provided by artillery liaison planes from which pilots dropped medical supplies and chocolate D rations. Yet this was a minor delay; for as night cut the enemy’s observation, no time was lost in sending into the village reinforcements, supplies, and evacuation vehicles for the wounded.
The condition of the battalion which had fought for Strass was indicative of another resemblance between fighting here and earlier combat deep within the Huertgen Forest. Slightly more than two reinforced rifle companies had reached Strass on 10 December; when relief arrived the night of 12 December, 150 men remained. In three days, the 83d Division had lost almost a thousand men, primarily in two regiments. Even CCB’s brief commitment on 11 December had cost 150 men. Perhaps the most surprising losses were those incurred by the 330th and 331st Infantry Regiments even before start of the attack. During five days of relatively static warfare while awaiting D Day, the two regiments had taken 472 casualties.
A road at last available through Schafberg to Strass, a second attempt to send the 5th Armored Division’s CCB eastward toward the Roer now was possible. This time the armored commander, General Oliver, wanted to wait until his second combat command might attack simultaneously through Gey. During the afternoon of 13 December, he conferred with the corps commander, General Collins, and the 83d Division commander, General Macon, to co-ordinate plans for the next day.
The entire southern half of the VII Corps zone was to come alive early on 14 December with attacks by two infantry regiments and two combat commands. On the extreme left, the 329th Infantry was to continue to clear Guerzenich en route to the Roer while at the same time moving south against Birgel. The 331st Infantry was to attack northeast from Gey, cross-country in the direction of Berzbuir and Lendersdorf, which lie between Birgel and the Roer. With a battalion of the 331st Infantry attached, CCA was to move east from Gey to the village of Kufferath and eventually to Hill 211 on the west bank of the Roer. Augmented by a battalion of the 330th Infantry, CCB was to follow the original plan of attacking east from Schafberg and Strass against Hill 266, thence to Bergheim, and finally to the Hemgen Berg
(Hill 253). The average distance from lines of departure to the Roer was about two miles.
On 14 December resistance varied in intensity in relation to the nature of the terrain. On the left, the 329th Infantry had put the Huertgen Forest behind and emerged on the Roer plain. By nightfall this regiment had cleared Guerzenich and occupied much of Birgel.
At Birgel, surrender of a battalion of the 47th Volks Grenadier Division at the first shot created for the Germans a critical situation not recognized on the American side. The capitulation severed contact between the LXXXI and LXXIV Corps, thereby endangering the so-called Dueren bridgehead at the very moment when the final shifts and assemblies for the Ardennes counteroffensive were being made. To remedy the situation, General von Zangen, commander of the Fifteenth Army, widened the LXXXI Corps sector to include Birgel and ordered the village retaken.20
At dusk the Germans counterattacked at Birgel with infantry supported by six assault guns. A machine gun squad leader in Company M, Sgt. Ralph G. Neppel, was largely responsible for driving off one of the assault guns and twenty accompanying infantrymen. When a round from the assault gun wounded Sergeant Neppel’s entire squad and severed one of his legs below the knee, the sergeant dragged himself back to his position on his elbows, remounted his gun and killed the remaining enemy riflemen. Stripped of infantry protection, the German vehicle withdrew. Sergeant Neppel subsequently received the Medal of Honor.
In the center of this portion of the VII Corps zone, where patches of forest still existed but where the plain was becoming more evident, the 331st Infantry and CCA found the going somewhat more tedious; nevertheless, as night came, they held a sharp rise overlooking Berzbuir and had drawn up on three sides of Kufferath. On the right, in a sector of broken and constricted terrain more nearly like the Huertgen Forest, CCB ran into serious problems.
Because of the muddy, deep-rutted road through the woods to Schafberg, CCB’s tanks could not get into position during the night of 13 December for an early morning attack. Infantry alone was to strike for the first objective, Hill 266, a mile east of Schafberg. Artillery first was to fire selected concentrations before H Hour, then to create a rolling barrage. Moving before dawn, CCB’s 15th Armored Infantry was to drive east from Schafberg while the attached battalion of the 330th Infantry pushed southeast from Strass. The battalions were to converge on the hill just at daylight with the specific mission of eliminating at least eight known German antitank guns.
The infantry had not long to wait before discovering that the enemy on Hill 266 was entrenched too deeply to be silenced by the artillery preparation. Further artillery concentrations, including a TOT in midmorning, were to no avail. A strafing and bombing mission in early afternoon also failed to help. Although tanks tried to get forward, they were too late to get the drive going again before nightfall.
General Oliver could not have been deeply concerned about CCB’s inability to
advance, because CCA’s push to Kufferath had provided an obvious opportunity to outflank the resistance from the north. This the Germans too must have noted, for on 15 December their defenses folded. Both the 5th Armored Division’s combat commands encountered unexpectedly light opposition. CCA took Kufferath early and by 0830 held the high ground along the river. Its main losses were four tanks knocked out by self-propelled guns roaming near the river. On Hill 266, CCB found abandoned weapons and deserted trenches. Bergheim was in hand by dark, and the Hemgen Berg (253) fell early in the morning of 16 December.
After a flurry of concern on 16 December about possible German counterattack in conjunction with the enemy’s surprising move in the Ardennes, the armor and the 83d Division the next day began a mop-up process to eliminate a few remaining pockets of resistance west of the Roer. Southeast of the 5th Armored Division’s CCB, the 4th Cavalry Group lent assistance. In contrast to the collapse on 15 December, the enemy now defended most of the pockets stanchly [sic]. As had been the case farther north on the Roer plain, enemy guns on higher ground east of the Roer were a constant menace. Nevertheless, by Christmas Day, the west bank of the river, from positions of the V Corps at the eastern end of the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge to outposts of the XIII Corps twenty-four air-line miles away at Linnich, would be free of the enemy.
Though offensive action would continue at several points in the VII Corps zone through Christmas Day, the corps—and thus, the First Army—for all practical purposes had reached the Roer by the end of 16 December. It had taken thirty-one days to move approximately seven miles. At one time or another, seven divisions (less one combat command of armor), representing an authorized strength of approximately 100,000 men, had participated. During the course of the drive, the corps had incurred 8,550 nonbattle casualties and 15,908 battle casualties, including 2,448 killed.21
The casualties of the V Corps, which fought for eighteen days to gain the Roer on a limited front, were also a part of the cost of the November offensive to the First Army. The V Corps employed actively an infantry division, a ranger battalion, and an armored combat command, a force representing an authorized strength of about 20,000 men. About 2,800 of these were lost in battle, while 1,200 became nonbattle casualties. Total losses for the First Army in the drive to the Roer thus reached approximately 28,000 men.
Artillery ammunition expenditures were high, despite scarcities in supply. During the period 1-16 December, for example, when artillery pieces available to the VII Corps were less than in earlier stages of the drive, divisional and corps artillery within the VII Corps fired 258,779
rounds. Artillery strength was greatest during late November when the First Army employed 526 light guns, 156 mediums, and 108 heavies, a total of 790 field artillery pieces.22
In armor, the First Army actively employed at one time or another during the course of the Roer drive two armored divisions and six separate medium tank battalions, a total of approximately 700 tanks. Of these, 240 were listed as "losses."23
When the offensive had opened on 16 November, the First Army had been looking beyond the Roer to the Rhine. A month later the troops and their commanders must have been gratified to gain the Roer, which originally had been an intermediate objective. Though full realization of the meaning of the enemy’s stubborn resistance was not to come until later in December when the extent of the Ardennes counteroffensive became known, this had been a German defensive victory, or, perhaps more accurately, a successful delaying action on a grand scale. If the VII Corps or any corps in this region had achieved a breakthrough, the enemy either could not have launched his counteroffensive or would have been forced to a drastic alteration in plans.
The fighting west of the Roer had not been without impact upon the counteroffensive, despite lack of a breakthrough. In prisoners alone, for example, the Germans had lost to the First Army upwards of 13,000 men.24 Against the VII Corps they had found it necessary to commit progressively seven divisions, an impressive number even though their strengths averaged no more than about 6,000 men. Hundreds of individual replacements and numbers of small units also were involved. Before start of the attack, for example, strength of the enemy opposite the VII Corps was estimated at 13,300 men; by early December, despite battlefield attrition, the number had risen to an estimated 21,800. Though any estimate of enemy losses is hazardous, German battle and nonbattle casualties opposite the First Army during the period probably approximated those of the First Army—something like 28,000.
As the First and Ninth Armies had been nearing the Roer, plans for clearing one remaining sector of the river’s west bank still were under discussion. This sector was a British responsibility, a triangle of generally marshy land between the Maas and the Roer short of the confluence of the two rivers at Roermond. Because of the tedious process of clearing the Germans from the west bank of the Maas, the British to this point had been unable to develop their intentions in the triangle.25 Though Field Marshal Montgomery planned for the 30 Corps to begin the operation on 12 or 13 December, he saw no hope of getting started on time
unless the ground dried out considerably.26
Allied commanders at this point actually were less concerned about this minor operation than about renewing the push beyond the Roer to the Rhine. In a meeting attended by Eisenhower, Montgomery, and Bradley at Maastricht on 7 December, the commanders discussed a plan for continuing the main push about 1 January. The Second British Army was to drive southeastward from Nijmegen between the Maas and the Rhine while the First and Ninth Armies crossed the Roer and at least one of the two turned north to meet the British. The Third Army presumably was to be closing to the Rhine also, whereupon General Eisenhower would send two gigantic thrusts across the river: the 21 Army Group and the Ninth Army north of the Ruhr and the First and Third Armies south of the Ruhr.27
As the days passed and no prospect of dry ground appeared, it became increasingly evident that Montgomery might have to move the 30 Corps northward for the main drive between the Maas and the Rhine before clearing the triangle west of the Roer. It looked more and more as if the job would fall to the Ninth Army. Insisting on the need for another division, General Bradley nevertheless agreed to the assignment, though he estimated it would be 10 January before he could get around to it because of the need to take the Roer River Dams. Bradley suggested that the main attack would have to be postponed to 15 January.28
As events developed, the entire discussion was for the moment academic. No decision had been made when on 16 December the Germans struck in the Ardennes.