The story of the 106th Infantry Division and the attached 14th Cavalry Group is tragic. It is also highly controversial. Since the major part of the division was eliminated from combined operations with other American forces on the second day of the German counteroffensive, information from contemporary records is scanty and, as to particulars, often completely lacking. The historian, as a result, must tread warily through the maze of recrimination and highly personalized recollection which surrounds this story. It should not be concluded that reminiscence by those caught up in this disaster is consciously tendentious. But the officers and men of the 106th Division who so narrowly escaped the German trap or who spent months in German prisons would be less than human if they did not seek to discover the cause of this debacle in either human error or frailty. Since the author has been forced to depend in so great degree on the human memory, unaided or unchallenged by the written record, the scholar's old rule "one witness, no witness" has been generally applied. Even so, some relaxation of the rule is necessary if a sustained and sequential narrative is to be presented. Fortunately, the picture as seen from the German side of the Schnee Eifel is fairly complete and can be applied as a corrective in most of the major areas of controversy and contradiction.*
The LXVI Corps Attacks the 106th Infantry Division
16-19 December 1944
Dispositions of the 106th Infantry Division
From the Eifel plateau protrude three distinct ridges or ranges, the central being called the Schnee Eifel. This middle ridge, so important in the action that developed in the 106th Division sector, inclines northeast-southwest. At the western foot of the Schnee Eifel there runs a long narrow valley incised in the high plain, the so-called Losheim Gap. On the western side of the gap the Our River meanders along, and beyond the river to the west the plateau appears once more in heavily wooded form. The Losheim Gap is no pleasant, pastoral valley but is cluttered by abrupt hills, some bare, others covered by fir trees and thick undergrowth. Most of the little villages here are found in the draws and potholes which further scoop out the main valley. The Losheim Gap was occupied on 16 December by a reinforced squadron of the 14th Cavalry Group. (Map III)
The fate of the 106th Infantry Division and the 14th Cavalry Group was bound together on that day by official orders attaching the cavalry to the infantry, by circumstances of terrain, and by the German plan of attack. To the left of the cavalry group ran the boundary between the VIII Corps and V Corps, its northern neighbor being the 99th Infantry Division. To the right of the 106th lay the 28th Division, constituting the center of General Middleton's corps. The 106th itself occupied the central and southern sections of the heavily forested Schnee Eifel.
American successes some weeks earlier had driven the enemy from a part of the West Wall positions along the Schnee Eifel, creating a salient which jutted deep into the German lines. Although such a salient was exposed, the possession of at least a wedge in the West Wall seemed to compensate for the risk involved. It should be noticed that the Schnee Eifel range is terminated in the south by a cross corridor, running against the usual north to south grain of the Eifel plateau. This is the valley of the Alf, a small creek which makes a long horse-shoe bend around the Schnee Eifel east to the village of Pronsfeld.
Three main roads run through this area. From the crossroads village of Hallschlag the northernmost descends into the Our valley, crossing and recrossing the river until it reaches St. Vith. The center road, secondary in construction, traverses the Loshen Gap from Roth southwestward. The southernmost road follows the valley of the Alf from Prüm, but eventually turns through Winterspelt toward the northwest and St. Vith. Thus two main roads, of macadam construction and some twenty-two feet wide, ran through the American positions directly to St. Vith. These roads were characteristic of the eastern Ardennes, winding, with many blind turns, squeezing through narrow village streets, dipping abruptly, and rising suddenly across the ravines. But each of the roads to St. Vith circles around the Schnee Eifel at one of its termini.
The width of the sector held by the 106th Infantry Division and the attached 14th Cavalry Group was approximately eighteen air-line miles. When traced on the ground, the line these forces were responsible for defending was actually more than twenty-one miles in length. The 14th Cavalry Group (Col. Mark Devine) was charged with a 9,000-yard front in the 106th Division sector along
the line Lanzerath-Krewinkel-Roth-Kobscheid. This disposition placed the cavalry to the north of the Schnee Eifel and across the northeastern entrance to the Losheim Gap. The section of the West Wall which barred egress from the gap lay beyond the cavalry positions.
The dispositions of the 106th Infantry Division (Maj. Gen. Alan W. Jones) followed an irregular line which in general trended from northeast to southwest. The 422d Infantry (Col. George L. Descheneaux, Jr.) occupied the forward positions of the West Wall on the crest and western slopes of the midsection of the Schnee Eifel. This regiment and the cavalry, therefore, combined as defenders of a salient protruding beyond the neighbors to the north and south. The line occupied by the 423d Infantry (Col. Charles C. Cavender) continued briefly on the Schnee Eifel, then as this range dropped away swung back into the western portion of the Alf valley. Thence followed a gap screened by the division reconnaissance troop. The 424th Infantry (Col. Alexander D. Reid) continued the bend to the west at Grosslangenfeld and joined the 28th Infantry Division, at least by periodic patrols, north of Lützkampen.
On 19 October the 18th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron had taken over the positions in the Losheim Gap from another cavalry squadron attached to the 2d Infantry Division with instructions to occupy the infantry positions then existing. The 14th Cavalry Group took over the sector on 11 December, using the 18th and a company of 3-inch towed tank destroyers much as they had been deployed earlier. The ground occupied by the cavalry was relatively flat here at the mouth of the gap, although broken by streams and knotted by hills as is common on the Ardennes plateau. In contrast to the ridge lines the floor of the gap had a few trees. The infantry positions inherited by the cavalry were in the little villages, most of which had been built in depressions offering some protection against the raw winds which sweep the Ardennes. There were eight garrison points; a homogeneous defense line, of course, was out of the question. In addition, there existed substantial gaps on both flanks of the cavalry. In the north the gap between the 14th Cavalry Group and the 99th Infantry Division was approximately two miles across. A small party from the attached tank destroyer outfit (Company A, 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion) patrolled this opening at two-hour intervals in conjunction with an I and R Platoon from the 99th Division. There was an unoccupied strip between the right of the cavalry and the left of the 422d Infantry about one and a half miles across; the responsibility for patrolling here was given to the infantry.
At best the cavalry positions could only be described as small islands of resistance, manned usually in platoon strength and depending on automatic weapons dismounted from the cavalry vehicles or on the towed 3-inch guns of the tank destroyer company. Some barbed wire had been strung around the garrison villages. Mine fields, both German and American, were known to be in the area, but neither the 14th Cavalry Group nor the 2d Infantry Division before it could chart their location. On 14 December Colonel Devine had asked corps for engineers and more mines.
Contrary to the doctrine and training
of mechanized cavalry, the 14th Cavalry Group was committed to a positional defense. Since the cavalry squadron does not have the staying power for defense in depth, and since the width of this front made an interlocking linear defense impossible, the 14th--if hit hard--was at best capable only of delaying action. Lacking the freedom of maneuver usually accorded cavalry, the 14th Cavalry Group would have little hope of winning time by counterattack. The 32d Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, refitting near Vielsalm, Belgium, was available on short notice to reinforce the rest of the cavalry group; its officers had reconnoitered forward positions and telephone wire had been laid in at a few points. There seems to have been no specific plan for the employment of the 32d Squadron. Colonel Devine and his staff, during the few days available, had worked out a general defensive plan giving specific routes of withdrawal and successive defense lines. Apparently this plan was finished on the night of 15 December but was never circulated.
The staff of the cavalry group was evidently familiar with the defensive plan worked out earlier by the 2d Division which, in the Losheim area, called for an initial withdrawal to the Manderfeld ridge and an American counterattack by forces taken from the Schnee Eifel. During the brief attachment of the 14th Cavalry Group to the 106th Division no comparable plan to support the forces on the low ground in the gap by withdrawing troops from the more readily defended line on the Schnee Eifel was ever issued, although Colonel Devine had made several trips to the 106th on this matter. The 2d Division also had an artillery plan which provided for approximately 200 prearranged concentrations to be fired on call in the gap. There is no evidence that this plan was taken over by the 106th Division artillery (which would have had to shift its battalions), but the cavalry did have one battalion of 105-mm. howitzers, the 275th Armored (Lt. Col. Roy Udell Clay), in support about two and a half miles west of Manderfeld.
Much of the subsequent story of events in the Losheim Gap and the Schnee Eifel turns on the relations between the 106th Division and the 14th Cavalry Group. The brief span of their acquaintance is therefore pertinent. On 20 October the 106th Division shipped from the United States. On 11 December it assumed its first combat role, taking over the quiet sector on the left of the VIII Corps where the veteran 2d Infantry Division had been resting. The relief was completed a day later. The 18th Cavalry Squadron had been in the gap positions since 19 October, less B Troop which was deployed on the south flank of the 2d Division and which remained in that area when the 106th arrived. General Robertson, the 2d Division commander, had long regarded the single cavalry squadron as insufficient to cover the Losheim Gap and had centered his sole divisional reserve, a reinforced infantry battalion, in the vicinity of Auw so as to support either the cavalry or infantry. Robertson's recommendations finally were noticed and on 11 December the 106th Division had attached to it a full cavalry reconnaissance group instead of only the one squadron. But time to organize the defense of the individual sectors of the 106th Division, much less to coordinate over-all defensive plans and preparations, was short.
The 106th Infantry Division had been activated in March 1943. Early in 1944 the division took part in the Tennessee maneuvers, but its training program (as in the case of many new divisions) was more or less vitiated when some 60 percent of the enlisted strength was drained off to meet the heavy demands for trained infantry before and after D-day. When the 106th Division relieved the 2d Division on 11-12 December, freeing the latter for use in the proposed V Corps attack to seize the Roer River dams, it moved into well-prepared positions and a fairly quiet front. The veteran 2d Division had protected its front-line units against the bitter Ardennes weather with log dugouts for the rifle and weapon squads. Stoves were in the squad huts and the kitchen ranges were up front in covered dugouts. Heavy weapons were exchanged, the 106th taking over the .50-caliber machine guns, mortars, and other weapons where they had been emplaced in order to conceal the relief from the enemy. The extensive communications net prepared by the 2d Division, with wire to almost every squad and outpost, was left to the 106th, but unlike its predecessor the 106th had few sound-powered telephones.
Before his departure the 2d Division commander handed over his defensive scheme and briefed the incoming commander and staff. Because General Robertson had looked upon the Losheim Gap as particularly sensitive, the 2d Division defensive and counterattack plans laid special emphasis on support for troops in that sector. In brief, the 2d Division planned to pull the forces in the gap back to the Manderfeld ridge while the two regimental combat teams on the Schnee Eifel would withdraw west to a shortened line along the Auw-Bleialf ridge road, thus freeing one combat team for counterattack in the north. Local counterattack plans prepared by regiments and battalions likewise were handed over. From 12 through 15 December the 106th Division commander and staff reconnoitered the new area; then, after a conference with the VIII Corps commander, they began study on detailed recommendations for a more adequate defense. These were never completed or submitted although General Jones did make oral requests to alter his deployment.
In the circumstances then existing, adequate measures to cope with the problem of such an extended front would have required one of two things: substantial reinforcement or withdrawal to a shorter line. Some five weeks earlier General Middleton had acted to reduce the Schnee Eifel salient by withdrawing the 23d Infantry (2d Division) from its forward positions in the West Wall. It was into this new westward sector on the right flank of the salient that the 424th Infantry moved--even so, the regiment took over a front of nearly six miles. Middleton was under compulsion from higher headquarters to retain the Schnee Eifel salient and the existing dispositions of the two regiments therein. There were plans afoot for an attack toward Bonn, as part of the forthcoming Allied offensive, and the gap in the West Wall represented by this salient would be extremely useful in any sortie against Bonn.
Besides the 14th Cavalry Group the 106th Division possessed the conventional attached units: a tank destroyer battalion (the 820th) and an antiaircraft battalion (the 634th Automatic
Weapons). In addition to the 275th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, supporting the cavalry, eight battalions of corps artillery were in position to reinforce the 106th Division artillery by fire when called.1 These battalions represented the bulk of the VIII Corps artillery.
The road net within the division area and to its front was limited and in poor condition, but this was an endemic condition in the Ardennes, particularly during winter months. The macadam stretches required constant mending and the dirt roads quickly sank away where not shored up with logs and stone. But though transit by heavy vehicular columns was difficult it was by no means impossible--as the event proved. Four avenues of penetration were open to a road-bound enemy. All four would be used. Following from north to south, they were: (1) Hallschlag, southwest through Manderfeld (the 14th Cavalry Group command post) and Schönberg (at this point crossing the Our River), thence to St. Vith; (2) a secondary road from Roth, west through Auw, then to Schönberg or Bleialf; (3) Prüm (a large German communications center) northwest to Bleialf and on to Schönberg; (4) Pronsfeld, directly northwest through Habscheid and Winterspelt to the Our River bridges at Steinebrück, then on to St. Vith. These roads, following the natural channels around and west of the Schnee Eifel, extend across the Our River by way of bridges at Andler, Schönberg, and Steinebrück. St. Vith is the funnel through which the roads coming from the Our pass to the west.
The degree to which the green 106th Division had been acclimatized to its new surroundings by the morning of 16 December is impossible to determine. The arduous truck journey across France and Belgium, through bitter cold and clinging damp, must have been dispiriting to untried troops. The front-line shelters in which the veterans of the 2d Infantry Division had made themselves relatively comfortable probably did little more than take the raw edge off the miserable weather prevalent when the 106th marched to the bunkers, foxholes, and dugouts. By 15 December a number of trench foot cases already had occurred, particularly in the 422d Infantry, which had been the last regiment to draw overshoes.
The extent to which the division was armed to defend itself is also a matter of debate. All units had the normal basic load of ammunition on hand, although there seems to have been a shortage of carbine and bazooka rounds. The nearest ammunition supply point was at Noville, over forty miles southwest of St. Vith, making resupply slow and difficult. Jones had requested antitank mines but these were not delivered in time. A thin, linear defense such as that inherited in the Schnee Eifel required an extraordinary number of automatic weapons. Although by this time the veteran ETO divisions were carrying BAR's and light machine guns far in excess of authorized allowances, the 106th Division possessed only the regulation number and type of issue weapons--fewer than were needed to organize a twenty-one mile front. On the whole, however, the 106th seems to have entered the line with a high state of morale; had it not exchanged the tedium of training and "show-down" inspections for the excitement of an active
theater of operations where victory was always the American portion?
Enemy Preparations for Another Cannae
Late in November 1944 General Lucht, commander of the LXVI Corps was called to the headquarters of the Fifth Panzer Army. Here Manteuffel told him of the coming offensive in the Ardennes and said that his corps would form the army right wing. The corps' mission, in brief, would be to bypass the Schnee Eifel on either side, seize the road net at St. Vith, and thrust in columnar formation to and across the Meuse River. Lucht would be given only two infantry divisions, one of which, the 18th Volks Grenadier Division, was holding the section of the West Wall along the northern reaches of the Schnee Eifel. The second division, unnamed, would not be designated or available until shortly before the attack. The LXVI Corps commander apparently was not unduly concerned by the lack of weight allotted; after all, the main army effort turned on its two panzer corps. But like all veteran German field commanders on the Western Front, Lucht was vitally concerned with the problem of air support. The first question he put to Manteuffel phrased this concern. Manteuffel parried with the stock answer: OKW had promised adequate air support; but in any case it was hoped that bad flying weather during December would drastically curtail the enemy effectiveness in the air.
About 1 December the commander of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division, Generalmajor Hoffmann-Schönborn, was let in on the closely guarded secret, joining Lucht and his chief of staff at the planning table. The Luftwaffe could furnish no terrain photos, but detailed maps and terrain appreciations for this area were on file. The final terrain estimate concluded that the sector north of the Schnee Eifel offered fewer natural obstacles than that to the south. Furthermore, the Losheim Gap appeared to have the weakest defending force. The Our River was an obstacle, but known crossing sites existed at Andler, Schönberg, and Steinebrück. St. Vith was nearly equidistant from the planned attack positions north or south of the Schnee Eifel, twelve to fourteen straight-line miles.
The final plan of maneuver, largely dictated by Manteuffel, made the 18th Volks Grenadier Division responsible for a concentric attack moving north and south of the Schnee Eifel. The division would place its strongest kampfgruppe in the north, however, and make the main corps effort there. Lucht reasoned that the 18th knew the ground and would make the quickest progress; but he also wished to retain close control over the drive when it reached St. Vith, and such control could best be exercised by a single command. Furthermore the second division would have no time to learn the ground and, set to make a single envelopment in the southern part of the corps sector, would face extensive field fortifications on broken, wooded terrain. The fact that Lucht did not expect the thin American line to his front to offer strong resistance may be one of the reasons he risked splitting the 18th Volks Grenadier Division, rather than committing one division at each end of the Schnee Eifel. Since none of the German planners expected an American
counterthrust across the Schnee Eifel range, a very small force from the 18th Volks Grenadier Replacement Battalion was reckoned a sufficient screen on the heights. The corps lacked a tank battalion and was assigned an assault gun brigade in its place. The corps artillery was deemed too weak to engage the Americans in a counterbattery duel at the outset of the attack, and in addition the Germans hoped to make early and deep penetrations by surprise; concerted artillery preparations prior to H-hour, then, were ruled out. Neither Fifth Panzer Army nor LXVI Corps seems to have fixed a definite timetable; the 18th Volks Grenadier Division is said not to have expected to reach St. Vith earlier than 18 December.
Both the divisions which subsequently took part in the Schnee Eifel operation were newly organized and inexperienced. The 18th had been formed during September on the ruins of the 18th Air Force Field Division, earlier destroyed in the Mons pocket. Reconstructed from Luftwaffe and Navy units, plus a strong admixture of Volksdeutsche and workers drawn in by the new draft laws, the 18th lacked trained noncoms and officers. But the unit was more fortunate than many another in that its occupation of the northern sector in the Schnee Eifel did not bring on many losses prior to the counteroffensive and permitted its troops to be rotated through training areas in the rear.
The division commander seems to have sold General Lucht on the idea of making the main thrust toward St. Vith from north of the Schnee Eifel although both were certain that the double envelopment envisaged would cut off a very large American force. The right attack group was heavily weighted, consisting of two regiments, most of the division artillery, and the assault gun brigade. In reserve, for exploitation of any success on the right wing, was a mobile battalion, made up of the division tank destroyer battalion, a reconnaissance company, and an engineer company. The main breakthrough was to be attempted in the vicinity of Roth. The left attack group, one regiment and a battalion of self-propelled artillery, was directed to make its penetration through Bleialf, where the Americans probably would be encountered in force. Nevertheless, this kampfgruppe had the mission of seizing the Schönberg bridge. The division replacement battalion, two hundred strong, would be left to man the division center along the Schnee Eifel. Early in December the 62d Volks Grenadier Division, Lucht's second division, detrained at Prüm, but did not go immediately into the forward corps sector. The 62d bore the number of an infantry division which had been destroyed on the Eastern Front, but it had been rebuilt from the ground up. Never before in action, the 62d was commanded by a general who likewise lacked combat experience, Generalmajor Frederich Kittel. The division was at full strength for its class: like the 18th it numbered three regiments of two-battalion strength. Equipment was new and complete. The mission now handed the newly arrived division was to effect a break-through on the left of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division in the Grosslangenfeld-Heckhuscheid sector, advance northwest on a broad front (clearing the Pronsfeld-St. Vith road), and seize the Our River crossings at Steinebrück. The 62nd Volks Grenadier Division
was to leave to its northern neighbor the task of capturing St. Vith, but was expected to block the western and southern exits.
The LXVI Corps staff was acutely conscious that the American observation posts on the Schnee Eifel overlooked the German positions. Everything possible was done to avoid exciting American suspicion or arousing American interest. All patrolling was banned from 10 December on, but the arrival of the 106th Division (which the Germans immediately spotted as new and inexperienced) led to a limited relaxation of this order. Patrols working at night about 12 or 13 December did discover something of interest--but in the 14th Cavalry Group sector. Here it was found that the two thousand yards separating Roth and Weckerath (on the south flank of the cavalry position) was unoccupied, and that the two villages were weakly held. Plans were made at once to exploit this weak spot--an explanation, perhaps, of the decision to make the main penetration by the northern attack group in the Roth area.
From 5 to 12 December the German artillery moved forward to carefully camouflaged positions from which the attack could be supported. The artillery regiment of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division occupied old emplacements in the West Wall area behind the corps right flank. Corps artillery formed a groupment southwest of Prüm to give general support to the southern attack group of the 18th and the green 62d. On the north wing the assault gun brigade would have to move to its attack positions through the West Wall antitank line. Because demolition might alert the Americans, underpinning for inclined ramps was built over the dragon's teeth during the nights before the attack. All that remained was to fasten on the planking (and this job was later done, the assault guns climbing over with ease). Meanwhile a special field artillery observation battalion was at work, spotting the American gun positions and reporting minor changes in the opposing battery alignment. The LXVI Corps staff, it may be added, were very much concerned over the artillery weight known to be available to the American defenders in the zone of projected advance.
On the night of 14 December it seemed for a moment that all the careful precautions the LXVI Corps had taken to mask its intentions might go for nought. The 2d Panzer Division tanks, which had detrained at Stadtkyll, moved along the roads behind the corps' left flank en route to the south. Through the clear, cold air the noise of tracks and motors could be heard for miles. But much to General Lucht's relief no American reconnaissance planes appeared the following day. Apparently the secret preparations for attack still were secret.2
The 18th Volks Grenadier Division sector narrowed somewhat on 15 December when the northern neighbor, I SS Panzer Corps, extended its left wing to include Neuhof and Ormont; the division sector at the commencement of the attack now would be about ten miles wide. The night of 15 December was frosty and clear, offering good visibility for the last moves to the line of departure. On the right the forty guns of the assault gun brigade took station
near the dragon's teeth. On the left the two assault regiments of the 62d Volks Grenadier Division moved for the first time into the positions held earlier by the 26th Volks Grenadier Division. Also for the first time, the assault company commanders heard officially of the great counteroffensive and were given instructions as to their own particular roles.
With assembly completed, the juxtaposition of German and American formations on the morning of 16 December was as follows. The boundary between the Fifth and Sixth Panzer armies bisected the 14th Cavalry Group area by an extension south of Krewinkel and Manderfeld. North of the line elements of the 3d Parachute Division, reinforced by tanks, faced two platoons of Troop C, 18th Cavalry Squadron, two reconnaissance platoons and one gun company of the 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion, plus the squadron and group headquarters at Manderfeld. South of the boundary the 294th and 295th Regiments of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division, forty assault guns, and a reinforced tank destroyer battalion faced Troop A and one platoon of Troop C, 18th Cavalry Squadron. On no other part of the American front would the enemy so outnumber the defenders at the start of the Ardennes counteroffensive.
On the Schnee Eifel the 422d Infantry, composing the left wing of the 106th Division, had only minute screening elements opposite. The 423d Infantry, with one flank on the Schnee Eifel range and the other in the Bleialf depression, was in the path of the 293d Regiment (18th Volks Grenadier Division). The 424th Infantry, in positions running to the southwest, stood opposite the 62d Volks Grenadier Division. In the event that the neighboring corps south of the LXVI made progress, one of its regiments, the 60th Regiment (116th Panzer Division), would be brought against the right flank of the 424th Infantry.
The compilation of opposing forces, above, will show that the odds against the defender in the Schnee Eifel area were not inordinate--except in the cavalry sector. The Germans would have to make the utmost use of surprise, concentration of effort, and ground favorable to attack, if they were to achieve any large measure of success. Fully aware that the American line had numerous weak spots and that no substantial reserves were near, General Lucht and his division commanders saw three factors that might limit success: the weakness of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division center, enemy superiority in the artillery arm, and strong intervention by unfriendly air. All evidence of the play of these factors, particularly the last two, would be carefully observed as D-day came.
Although the LXVI advance on 16 December was planned and effected as the co-ordinated effort of two divisions, the story must begin with the 18th Volks Grenadier Division attack. This in turn will follow the German scheme of maneuver, the right wing first, then the left. The fight in the zone of the 424th Infantry quickly becomes an independent action and will be so considered.3
The Attack in the Losheim Gap
The shock companies of the 18th began to move toward the American cavalry positions about 0400 on 16
December. An hour later the main strength of the two attacking regiments followed, the 294th advancing toward Weckerath and the Our valley, the 295th heading for Roth and Kobscheid. Supporting artillery, mortars, and Werfers opened fire over the heads of the German infantry shortly after 0830. (Actually the first concentrations to arouse the Americans were fired as part of the Sixth Panzer Army artillery preparation prior to H-hour and landed in the northern part of the 14th Cavalry zone). Roth and Kobscheid, closest to the enemy jump-off positions, received only one battery salvo; apparently the German infantry were already around the villages. When day broke, cloudy and drizzling, the assault force moving between Weckerath and Roth was well on its way to the commanding crossroads village of Auw. Visibility was so poor, the American village positions so dispersed, that the cavalrymen for some time did not detect nor engage the infantry moving past. (The Germans, having received no fire, first suspected that the main American line had been moved back to the Our River.) Furthermore, predawn attacks on Roth and Kobscheid had occupied the attention of the troopers. At Roth a company of grenadiers was checked by shellfire. The attackers at Kobscheid actually got inside the cavalry defense, but nearly forty were captured.
Before dawn none of the village garrisons in the southern sector had been seriously menaced. The effects of the enemy penetrations, however, became apparent soon after daylight. At 0830 a message from Roth reported that the Germans were inside the village, that a tank seventy-five yards from the command post was "belting us with direct fire." Light tanks, dispatched from Manderfeld, hurried to give aid but were stopped cold by fire from Auw, some 3,500 yards to the west, which was occupied by the Germans. Nothing more was heard from Roth. The remainder of Troop A, in Kobscheid, also was cut off; by 0900 the attackers had established a hold inside the village. Weckerath, which lay to one side of the German advance on Auw, was hit by elements of the 294th. Here the 3d Platoon of Troop C was located east of the village in a small patch of woods on the road to Krewinkel, well dug in and protected by barbed wire on all sides. The first German assault was checked by mortars and machine guns, reinforced by accurate artillery fire. Two enemy companies, however, swept around the wood and converged on the village, where some twenty men of Troop C headquarters held them at bay with bullet fire. A platoon of American light tanks arrived from Manderfeld shortly after 0930, appearing just in time to engage groups of enemy infantry infiltrating the eastern edge of the village. At 1100 observers at Weckerath saw an enemy column moving from Roth in the direction of Auw. They counted fifteen "tanks"--probably a battalion of assault guns--and at least one battalion of foot troops, marching intermixed with the assault guns. Artillery fire was directed onto the column, with but little effect. The Germans pressed on to the west.
In the northern sector of the 14th Cavalry Group fortune had treated the defenders with mixed favor during the morning. The German force committed here consisted of a reinforced regiment of the 3d Parachute Division (it will be
recalled that the boundary between the Fifth and Sixth Panzer Armies ran just south of Krewinkel and Manderfeld) attacking initially without the support of heavy weapons. The 3d Parachute Division axis cut straight through the northern cavalry sector, then angled northwest in the direction of Faymonville, the division advancing as the left flank of the I SS Panzer Corps. At Krewinkel, the most advanced American post in the area, the 2d Platoon of Troop C and a reconnaissance platoon of Company A, 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion, occupied a position from which excellent observation and fields of fire covered all approaches to the village from the east. An hour before dawn a German shock company boldly approached the village in column of fours. The troopers held their fire until the enemy infantry were within twenty yards of the outer strands of wire--then cut loose. The column disintegrated, but the assault was quickly resumed in more open order and shortly the Germans were in the village streets. At one point half the village was in German hands, but eventually the defenders got the upper hand and the enemy withdrew.
One of the last to leave shouted in English, "Take a ten minute break. We'll be back." An exasperated trooper hastened to assure him profanely, "___, we'll still be here." With the full morning light the enemy returned, as promised, after his artillery had tried unsuccessfully to jar the Americans loose. Head-on assault from the east by fresh troops made no progress. By noon, but two of the defenders had been wounded. The troopers estimated that the German dead now totaled 375--doubtless an exaggerated figure but still an indication of the costliness of the German tactics. At the neighboring village of Afst, the 1st Platoon of Troop C was similarly attacked. The platoon beat off two enemy companies, with heavy loss to the Germans.
The American left wing was composed of Company A and two reconnaissance platoons of the 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion, occupying the villages of Berterath, Merlscheid, and Lanzerath. The 3-inch towed guns, sited to cover the roads and eastern approaches, had no protection whatever. The gun sections were unable to put up more than short resistance to the German infantry, nor could most of the pieces be hooked up and towed out with the enemy already in the position. Here as elsewhere during the Ardennes fighting the towed tank destroyer lacked the maneuverability to deal with infiltration or to displace when in danger. Three tank destroyers were pulled back toward Manderfeld and better firing positions; the rest, with one exception, were destroyed on orders. Most of the company reached the cavalry group headquarters at Manderfeld and continued the fight as infantry.
Colonel Devine and the staffs of the 14th Cavalry Group and 18th Cavalry Squadron had been alerted by the first shells of the opening predawn concentration dropping on Manderfeld. Telephone wires went out during the barrage, and radio communication was made difficult by the cacophony of phonograph records introduced by the Germans along the American wave lengths. About 0600 the 14th Cavalry Group executive officer talked by phone to the 106th Division command post and asked for wire teams to restore the lines. Whether he asked for permission to
move up the 32d Cavalry Squadron is uncertain. In any event the orders from the division were to alert the reserve squadron, but not to move it. At 0640 another call from Manderfeld reached the command post at St. Vith, this time with a request to move the 32d forward to a position halfway between the division and group command posts. Twenty-five minutes later the G-3 journal of the 106th Division records a telephone order to the cavalry: "Move 32 Cavalry Squadron as soon as you like." This squadron had been resting and refitting, indeed some of its vehicles were partially disassembled when the alert order arrived. About 0930 the squadron was on the road, minus Company F, which took another hour and a half to ready its light tanks for movement.
Colonel Devine, realizing that the forward platoons of the 18th Cavalry Squadron were in danger of destruction and could make no more futile efforts, cut off and isolated as they were, planned to make a stand along the Manderfeld ridge. This ridge line was some 3,000 yards in the rear of the original cavalry line and about twice that distance from the West Wall positions out of which the German attack had erupted. Devine intended to defend along the ridge with the 32d Squadron and thus cover the withdrawal of his forward troops. Shortly after 1100 the fresh squadron reached Manderfeld, Troop E moving its assault guns into previously reconnoitered positions at Manderfeld, Troop C deploying northwest of the town to cover the road from Lanzerath, and two dismounted platoons of Troop A digging in southwest of Manderfeld. While this area defense was forming Troop B took stations near Andler; at this village, just west of the German spearhead in Auw, the Our bridge remained an intact and important prize. The remainder of Troop A was dispatched to Holzheim, there to cover the group's left and rear.
Shortly before the arrival of the 32d Cavalry Squadron, Devine had asked General Jones to make a counterattack north from the 106th Division area. He was told that no infantry support could be given "at this time." When Devine answered that he would have to withdraw in the south to a line from Manderfeld through Verschneid, Jones made no comment. Thus far, it must be said, there was little or no inclination at the 106th Division headquarters to regard the situation in the cavalry sector as unduly serious. Devine's final comment during this telephone conversation--that he intended to counterattack with the 32d Cavalry Squadron on its arrival and attempt to restore the Krewinkel-Roth-Kobscheid line--may have helped confirm the somewhat optimistic view held at the division headquarters.
At noon Colonel Devine finally issued withdrawal orders to the 18th Cavalry Squadron. Troop C alone was able to comply. The 3d Platoon, which had held its own in the fight east of Weckerath, mounted two armored cars and a few jeeps, then made its way with guns blazing into the village. Here the command post group and light tanks joined, the column moving west along roads lined with German riflemen, but this was no headlong dash because cold motors and congealed transmission grease slowed the column to fifteen miles per hour. Meanwhile the village it had just left was blasted by a terrific shelling--apparently the Germans had
been preparing for a final assault. The garrisons at Krewinkel and Afst moved back at 1240 without incident. As Krewinkel was lost to view the troopers could see German infantry swarming in from the east.4 When Troop C and the light tanks reached Manderfeld, the assault gun troop, which had been deployed along the ridge north and south of the town, poured direct fire on the enemy now streaming southwest through the draws at the source of the Our River. The morning fog had lifted and the gunners were able to inflict considerable damage with their 75-mm. howitzers.
The story of the garrisons in Roth and Kobscheid is difficult to reconstruct, although the troopers held on for some hours after being surrounded. In the early part of the fight, forward observers in Kobscheid were in contact with the 275th Armored Field Artillery Battalion; this artillery support unquestionably was of signal aid to the troopers, as were the quad mounts of the 413th Antiaircraft Battalion which were sent to help the Roth defenders. About 1100 the Roth command post radioed Kobscheid that the troops of the 106th Division farther south were moving back, that the Roth garrison would try to withdraw, and that the Kobscheid group should do likewise. Apparently the German grip on Roth was too firm; sometime during the afternoon the troopers there surrendered. Kobscheid held out until about 1630. Then, as dusk settled sixty-one men led by 1st Lt. Lorenz Herdrick started through the snow cross-country in a westerly direction. They returned to the American lines at St. Vith on 19 December.5
Early in the afternoon it was apparent to the force at Manderfeld that the Germans were pushing west around both flanks. A patrol sent in the direction of Auw reported that the entrance to the Our valley was wide open, contact with the 99th Division in the north had been lost, and the 106th Division reported that it lacked the troops to counterattack toward the cavalry. Colonel Devine therefore organized a task force about 1400 to retake the ground around Lanzerath and thus cover his northern flank. The task force, commanded by Maj. J. L. Mayes, consisted of Troop C and the assault gun troop of the 18th Cavalry Squadron. Moving north the task force reached a road junction 1,600 yards north of Manderfeld, where it was beset from three sides by infantry and self-propelled guns. The cavalry self-propelled howitzers were able to maneuver and do considerable execution in this close-range fire fight, but the counterattack was checked. By this time the situation on the opposite flank was precarious; the Germans already had passed through Wischeid, southwest of Manderfeld, and were moving toward the Our bridge at Andler.
Shortly after four o'clock the 14th Cavalry Group executive officer telephoned the 106th Division command post and asked permission to withdraw to the line Andler-Holzheim, a position
represented by a series of ridges covered on the east by a tributary of the Our. The division headquarters authorized the withdrawal. Devine ordered Task Force Mayes to fight a delaying action southwest along the road from Losheim, while the Manderfeld defenders withdrew to the west. This movement was carried through successfully, the 32d Cavalry howitzers on the Manderfeld ridge ably supporting the task force. The last troops left Manderfeld about 1700, setting the town afire in an attempt to destroy records of value to the enemy.
Troops E and C of the 18th reached Holzheim at twilight, joining Troop A of the 32d which already was in position as the anchor of the 14th Cavalry north flank. Troop B of the 32d had remained at Andler since its morning arrival; it now screened the southern flank with reconnaissance teams pushing out on the roads to south, east, and north. The light tank company of the 32d Squadron was disposed to the southwest of the cavalry line at Heuem, covering the road from Schönberg to St. Vith and worrying about the absence of communications. The remainder of the 32d Squadron was at Herresbach and that of the 18th Squadron near Wereth, both villages behind the Holzheim-Andler line. By early evening the 14th Cavalry Group was in its defensive positions, except for such regrouping as would be needed to sort out elements of the two squadrons. Its supporting artillery battalion (the 275th) was in the process of moving to new positions near St. Vith. As yet there were no signs of an enemy pursuit. The forward artillery observers were active "along the deserted front" until 1900 but found nothing to report. Contact with the Germans had been lost.
The German attack in the Losheim Gap during 16 December had gone according to schedule. The northern arm of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division envelopment had penetrated as far as Auw and overrun most of the American artillery positions. As daylight ended the 294th Regiment assembled around Auw and the 295th regrouped in the Roth-Kobscheid area, both awaiting the arrival of their heavy weapons. Now General Lucht told the division commander to call forward his armored mobile battalion and send it to join the 294th and elements of the assault gun brigade the next morning in a drive on Andler. In the north the 3d Parachute Division continued its advance during the night, marching through the rough, heavily forested area northwest of Manderfeld and Lanzerath. Along the roads to the east the armored formations of the 1st SS Panzer Division toiled forward in the dark, ready to push through the opening between the American 99th Division and the 14th Cavalry Group. As things stood, therefore, the 14th Cavalry was deployed in the gap which was opening as the 18th Volks Grenadier Division continued westward and the 3d Parachute Division angled toward the northwest. The cavalry flanks, however, rested on roads which would be essential to the enemy--roads along which the German armor was moving for commitment on the second day of the offensive. In the meantime the 14th Cavalry Group commander had gone to St. Vith to explain to the 106th Division staff his situation and the arrangements he had made. General Jones, busy with plans for a counterattack by armored reinforcements which the corps commander had promised for
the next morning, had no comment to offer and merely asked Colonel Devine to wait at the command post.
The Attack Hits the 106th Division
The 14th Cavalry Group withdrawal to the Holzheim-Andler line in the late afternoon of 16 December had no practical adverse effect on its southern neighbor, the 422d Infantry. By this time the enemy thrust had driven so deep and with such force between the cavalry and the 422d that the northern flank of the 106th Infantry Division was exposed regardless of movements undertaken by the cavalry. Ominous events had transpired in the zone of the 106th.
Seven of the nine rifle battalions under General Jones' command were in the line on the morning of 16 December. The 2d Battalion, 423d Infantry, was in division reserve near Born, 5,000 yards north of St. Vith. The 1st Battalion, 424th Infantry, was located at Steinebrück on the road to Winterspelt and also was in division reserve. The 422d Infantry had its three battalions in the West Wall positions on the Schnee Eifel, defending a front of eight to nine thousand yards. Attached was Company A, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion; direct support was given by the 589th Field Artillery Battalion whose batteries were emplaced southwest of Auw. Located west of Auw were the 155-mm. howitzers of the 592d Field Artillery Battalion. The regimental command post was in the crossroads village of Schlausenbach, with the cannon company to the west on Hill 612. All of these locations lay in the northern section of the regimental area not far from the 14th Cavalry Group boundary. A company of engineers occupied Auw, the most important road center in the 422d sector. The forward positions of the 422d in the West Wall were based on a series of heavily wooded ridges running north and south. However a number of ravines, densely screened by trees, led directly back into the regimental area; one such ran straight down to Schlausenbach.
The 423d Infantry--in the division center--was deployed on a curving line a little more than 8,000 yards long, with one battalion in the West Wall, the other bending around the southern nose of the Schnee Eifel and back to the west. A gap existed between the rifle battalion positions and the village of Bleialf. The regimental right wing was fleshed out by a provisional battalion (the antitank company, one platoon of the cannon company, a rifle platoon, and Troop B, 18th Cavalry Squadron). This scratch force, acting as riflemen, was reinforced by Company C, 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion. The 590th Field Artillery Battalion supported the regiment from positions northwest of Oberlascheid, and the regimental cannon company was close to that village.
The 424th Infantry held a six-mile line angled slightly from the Ihren Creek southwestward to the vicinity of Grosskampenberg. The gap between it and the 423d, a distance of 4,000 yards, was screened thinly by the 106th Reconnaissance Troop and the cannon company. The 591st Field Artillery Battalion was situated behind the regimental center with two battalions forward and one in the rear to cover any displacement.
During the evening of 15 December enemy aircraft droned through the air
over the 106th Division lines attempting to divert attention from the noise created by the German ground columns moving forward to the line of departure. Their efforts were wasted. The vehicular activity behind the German front was heard and duly recorded, but it caused no alarm. Enemy patrols also were unusually active during the night--except at the Schnee Eifel positions of the 422d Infantry which did not figure in the German attack plans. Again there was no particular reaction among the Americans. No one anticipated a German attack, although with the advantage of hindsight all these warning signs and others would be resurrected and given an importance never accorded them on the night of 15 December.
At 0530, 16 December, the guns, Werfers, and mortars of the LXVI Corps opened fire, marking the commencement of the advance against the 106th Division. The artillery available to the LXVI was limited, by comparison with most other parts of the front, but was well served by its forward observers and did much damage to telephone wire, ammunition dumps, and other supply points. The first word from a specific target reached the division headquarters at St. Vith about 0550, a report that the 423d Antitank Company had been shelled since 0530. The 423d Infantry was in fact bearing the brunt of the enemy barrage and most of its telephone lines to the forward units went out in the first few minutes. Within the hour messages from the 28th Division and the 99th Division told of heavy shelling to the south and the north of the 106th. But the German assault troops who had been moving forward in the darkness onto the 106th positions since 0500 were not immediately detected. German pressure would first be felt in these areas within the regimental sectors: the Heckhuscheid and Winterspelt areas (424th Infantry); the Bleialf area (423d Infantry); and on the Auw-Schönberg road (422d Infantry). In the last case, the northern assault wing of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division concentric attack would strike the American cavalry before turning on the north flank of the 106th Division.
At dusk on 15 December the 62d Volks Grenadier Division, forming the left of the LXVI Corps, had come into the lines opposite the left and center of the 424th Infantry. This new division would have no opportunity to reconnoiter the broken and heavily wooded ground over which it was to advance the next morning--a fact which had direct bearing on the subsequent story of the 424th Infantry--but its scheme of maneuver had been given detailed study. The attack would open with two regiments abreast attempting a breakthrough on a wide front. The main effort would be made in the vicinity of Winterspelt, breaching the American switch line southeast of that village and thus gaining entrance to the main macadam road to St. Vith. Once in position astride the road, the mobile reserve of the 62d would be committed for the penetration, while the two regiments extended their hold on either side of the road. On the left, therefore, the 183d Regiment had as its objective the northern side of the plateau on which lay the village of Heckhuscheid. Possession of this high ground was deemed essential to the German plan. On the right the 190th Regiment aimed at the wooded heights at Eigelscheid around
which twisted the road to Winterspelt, two thousand yards westward.
The 3d Battalion of the 424th Infantry received the first German blow in its positions north of Heckhuscheid. After a 20-minute concentration of artillery and mortar fire a shock company of the 183d drove in on Companies K and L about 0645. Although the defenders got word back to their own artillery, when daylight came the enemy had penetrated well into the position. The 3d Battalion, however, was on ground which favored the defender and not unduly extended. The most serious threat developed to the north on the weak flank screening the switch position. Here the regimental cannon company (Capt. Joseph Freesland), armed only with rifles and machine guns, was deployed at the Weissenhof crossroads blocking the main road to Winterspelt. Guided by flashlights and flares the Germans made their attack in column, advancing erect, shouting and screaming. The cannoneers, nothing daunted, did well in their infantry role, holding for several hours against assault from front and flank. Colonel Reid, the regimental commander, ordered his 1st Battalion, in reserve at Steinebrück, to the support of the threatened north flank. Company C arrived to reinforce the cannon company and the rest of the reserve battalion hurriedly established defensive positions to the rear at Winterspelt.
In the 3d Battalion zone Company I came in to help restore the line. A series of counterattacks, well supported by fire from the 591st Field Artillery Battalion, erased the dents in the American position, and a sortie led by the battalion S-3, Capt. Lee Berwick, entered Heckhuscheid and took 107 prisoners. A four-man patrol from Company K rounded up another forty prisoners in the woods nearby. By noon the 424th had driven the enemy back along the whole of its front.
Coincidentally and without realizing what had been accomplished, the southern elements of the 424th put a crimp in the plans of the Germans attacking to outflank the neighboring 112th Infantry. Men of the 2d Battalion, supported by the 3d Platoon of Company B, 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion, caught the assault company leading the 60th Panzer Grenadier Regiment attack in a wood west of Grosskampenberg. German reports say that the company was "nearly destroyed." This sharp setback so discouraged the 116th Panzer Division commander that before the day ended he switched the 60th Panzer Grenadier Regiment to the south. Although this attempt to drive a wedge between the 112th and 424th was not renewed, the latter was able to give its neighbors a helping hand later in the day. During the afternoon a gunner from the tank destroyer platoon, Pfc. Paul C. Rosenthal, sighted five German tanks and a truck moving north of Lützkampen. Firing his 3-inch gun at 2,000 yards range he destroyed all, tanks and truck; he had used only eighteen rounds of high-explosive and armor-piercing-capped ammunition.
About noon a report reached the 62d Volks Grenadier Division command post that troops of the 190th Regiment (the Germans who had broken through north of the cannon company positions) were on high ground north of Eigelscheid overlooking the road to Winterspelt. General Kittel ordered his mobile battalion up from the 164th Regiment
reserve at Pronsfeld and into the attack along the Winterspelt road. This battalion, "mobile" in the sense that it was mounted on bicycles and reinforced by a company of self-propelled assault guns, was forced to stick to the macadam road. As a result it came up against the American cannon company at the Weissenhof crossroads. Outnumbered and in danger of encirclement the cannoneers and their rifle support from Company C made a deliberate and fighting withdrawal toward Winterspelt, platoon by platoon. When the 2d Platoon was ordered back, its commander (Lt. Crawford Wheeler) stayed behind with a bazooka to meet the leading assault gun and was killed by point-blank fire.
By dark the German mobile battalion and infantry from the 190th Regiment were closing in on Winterspelt, where the 1st Battalion and remnants of the cannon company stood ready to meet them. The fight raged through the evening and by midnight at least a company of Germans was inside the village, with more coming in by the hour. In the 3d Battalion sector the enemy had got nowhere with his frontal attacks around Heckhuscheid, the village remaining under American control at the close of the day. Casualties in the 62d Volks Grenadier Division had been substantial, particularly, as might be expected in the case of a green division in its first attack, among the officers. Losses in the 424th had not been high. But the position of the regiment on the night of the 16th was potentially a serious one--despite the rough body check given the enemy. The battalion and regimental reserves all had been committed, the 591st Field Artillery Battalion had fired nearly all its ammunition (over 2,600 rounds), and the enemy had made a dent toward Winterspelt. Contact with the 112th Infantry, on the south flank, had been lost. But fortunately the enemy had given over the idea of a penetration here.
The intense fire laid on the 423d Infantry on the morning of 16 December had disrupted telephone lines, but the radio net seems to have functioned well. By 0600 the regimental commander had word that his antitank company was under small arms fire at Bleialf, the key to the southern route around the Schnee Eifel and the Alf Creek depression. Along this depression extended the 423d's weak wing, echeloned to the right and rear of the two rifle battalions, one on the Schnee Eifel and one curving along the southern nose of the range. The heterogeneous units screening along the wing had been grouped as a provisional battalion, but they formed no cohesive front and were charged with defending the least defensible ground on the regimental front. When shock troops of the 293d Regiment (18th Volks Grenadier Division) struck the antitank company in Bleialf, one group filtered into the village and another, marching along the railroad, cut between Bleialf and Troop B (18th Cavalry Squadron), blocking out the latter and destroying the right platoon of the antitank company.
Although radio reception was poor in this area the commander of the 423d Infantry and the regimental executive (Lt. Col. Frederick W. Nagle) were able to alert and move reserves promptly, but Colonel Cavender's request for the release of his 2d Battalion, then in division reserve, was refused. About 0920 the service company and
cannon company were at Bleialf, where they found most of the village held by the Germans. Later Company B, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion, and the headquarters company were thrown into the fight. By 1500 these units had ejected the enemy from Bleialf after a series of hand-to-hand fights in the streets and houses. The cavalry troop on the extreme regimental right remained cut off from the friendly troops to the north. Finally getting permission by radio to withdraw, the troopers pulled back in the early afternoon to Winterscheid, 2,500 yards southwest of Bleialf. While the enemy was attacking around Bleialf, a few small patrols tried to get into the positions of the 1st and 3d Battalions to the north--but no real attack was attempted during the 16th.
The 293d had failed to carry out its part as the southern jaw of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division pincers, for without Bleialf the road to Steinebrück was barred. The Americans had recovered their balance quickly after the initial shock at Bleialf. The battalions on the Schnee Eifel had brought the German flank under accurate and punishing fire at the first light of day, interdicting all reinforcement by the heavy weapons needed to reduce the village. On the whole the situation in the 423d sector seemed satisfactory, although two items remained for a final accounting. The southern flank of the regiment now was in the air, and its 2d Battalion, as division reserve, had been sent forward to aid the endangered 422d Infantry on the north.
High on the center of the Schnee Eifel the 422d Infantry missed the first rude shock of a predawn attack. Although it was no part of the German plan to engage the 422d by frontal assault, the enemy penetration between Roth and Weckerath, during the dark hours, quickly brought the assault troops of the 294th Regiment down the road to Auw and onto the American regiment's flank and rear. Company A of the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion was billeted at Auw, and despite the enemy shelling in the early morning the engineers had turned out as usual to work on the roads. As the enemy approached Auw the bulk of the company hurried back to the village, set up their machine guns, and engaged the German column. This column (at least a battalion of the 294th) was reinforced by self-propelled guns, which shelled the engineers out of their positions. When the 1st Platoon, the last to leave, finally essayed a dash from the village to the protection of a nearby wood lot, Cpl. Edward S. Withee remained behind to cover his comrades, with only his submachine gun as a weapon against the enemy armor.6 By this time the American batteries southwest of the village were blasting the Germans there, for a time halting further advance. At daylight small groups began pressure against the forward battalions of the 422d, but this seems to have been no more than an attempt to fix American attention to the front. Company L, however, had to be rushed to the defense of the regimental command post at Schlausenbach.
About noon the enemy in Auw became active, moving south against the artillery groupment composed of the 589th Field Artillery Battalion (astride the Auw-Bleialf road) and the 592d, a
155-mm. howitzer battalion, close by. The German 294th was acting under orders to clear the way into the Our valley, but to do so it had to neutralize or destroy the American artillery, whose positions had been plotted earlier by the corps observation battalion. Stealing forward by squads and platoons, the grenadiers brought the battery positions under crossfire from their machine pistols while mortar crews and gunners worked to knock out the American field pieces.
Colonel Descheneaux, intent on easing the increasing pressure, dispatched a task force about 1300 to recapture Auw and cut off the enemy to the south. This counterattack, employing Company L, the cannon company, and part of the antitank company, was based on a plan taken over from the 2d Infantry Division. The task force started its advance in the midst of a sudden snowstorm, made contact with the Germans near Auw, then suddenly received orders to return to the regimental command post at Schlausenbach, which was now threatened by infantry advancing along the draw from the east. Even while the task force was approaching Auw the enemy had stepped up the drive to overrun the artillery, sending assault guns in to do the job. But the American cannoneers stayed with their howitzers, firing with the shortest fuze possible, while others of the artillery worked their way to within bazooka range of enemy assault guns. The attack was stopped, after three assault guns had been knocked out. The Germans returned to the softening-up process and waited for night to fall; artillery and mortar fire accounted for 36 men in Battery A of the 592d in the late afternoon.
When day closed, the attempt to destroy the artillery was resumed, flares and searchlights marking the German movements. Earlier, General Jones had taken steps to block the gap between the 14th Cavalry Group and the 422d, ordering his reserve, the 2d Battalion, 423d Infantry (Lt. Col. Joseph F. Puett), to move through St. Vith to Schönberg. By 1730 Puett's battalion had detrucked and set up defenses to cover the road net at the latter point. Three hours later General Jones telephoned Colonel Puett, ordering an immediate attack to cover the open left flank of the 422d and permit the two hard-pressed artillery battalions to displace southward. Apparently General Jones intended that the battalion should turn north to Andler and push aside the enemy along the Auw-Andler-Schönberg road. Puett, however, got on the wrong road and turned south, leaving the northern approach to Schönberg open. (About the same time, the cavalry troop at Andler pulled out.) Ultimately the 2d Battalion found its way through the dark across country and reached the 89th Field Artillery Battalion. Meanwhile the 422d commander had swung his left battalion (the 2d) around to face north, expecting to link up with the reserve battalion.
This, then, was the situation. The 106th Division had lost relatively little ground during the daylight hours of the 16th. Still, the enemy had succeeded in creating a shallow salient in the Winterspelt sector, had penetrated between the 424th and 423d, and had uncovered the left flank and rear of the 422d Infantry. Through the night of 16-17 December, therefore, the German LXVI Corps continued to push its tired infantry into these sectors, while fresh troops
moved up with heavy weapons and motor vehicles for commitment on the morrow. There was no longer any doubt as to the German maneuver. The intelligence section of the 106th Division staff analyzed the enemy plan correctly in its report on the night of 16 December. "The enemy is capable of pinching off the Schnee Eifel area by employing one VG Division plus armor from the 14th Cavalry Group sector and one VG Division plus armor from the 423d Infantry sector at any time." This estimate hardly is vitiated by the fact that only one German division, the 18th Volks Grenadier, formed the pincers poised to grip the 106th Division. After all, the entire 62d Volks Grenadier Division stood poised to break through in the Winterspelt area and to strengthen or lengthen the southern jaw of the pincers.
General Lucht, leading the LXVI Corps, could look with some complacency at the events of this first day, even though his left wing had failed to break through the American main line of resistance. Not a single one of the much feared Jabo's had appeared in the sky, the superior weight of metal available to the American artillery had not been utilized in the early and crucial hours of the assault, and the defenders on the Schnee Eifel had made not a single move to threaten the weak and grossly extended center of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division. This inactivity by the 106th Division on the first day, combined with the failure to counterattack against the weak center on the Schnee Eifel or the flanks of the German salients, was inexplicable to the German commanders but also a matter of relief. Lucht anticipated that the Americans would counterattack on 17 December but that their reaction would come too late and the encirclements would be completed according to plan. His own plans for the second day were simple. On the right the mobile battalion of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division was already moving on Andler en route to seize the Schönberg bridge and the road to St. Vith. The left kampfgruppe of the 18th also would make way for a mobile thrust. Finally, the 62d Volks Grenadier Division had orders to break loose at Heckhuscheid and drive for the Our valley "at all costs."
By the night of 16 December General Jones had committed all the reserves available to the 106th Division except a battalion of engineers at St. Vith. But reinforcements, hastily gathered by the VIII Corps, First Army, and 12th Army Group, were on the way. When the 2d Infantry Division turned over its area to the 106th it had taken its armored support, Combat Command B, 9th Armored Division, north to the V Corps sector. Replacement was made by the 9th Armored's Combat Command R, which assembled at Trois Vierges--some twenty road miles south of St. Vith--in position to reinforce the 106th if need should arise. This small armored group represented the only mobile counterattack force available in the VIII Corps. The extent of the German threat on 16 December, slowly comprehended though it was, obviously required more drastic countermeasures than the limited resources of the VIII Corps could provide. At 1025, therefore, the First Army released CCB, 9th Armored, to the VIII Corps, thus permitting Middleton to move his armored reserve (CCR) as a backstop for the 28th
Division. CCB, 9th Armored (Brig. Gen. William M. Hoge), was assembled around Faymonville, about 12 miles north of St. Vith, awaiting orders to reinforce the 2d Infantry Division attack toward the Roer River dams.
The attachment of CCB to the 106th Division, as ordered by Middleton, was logical; Hoge's troops would be returning to old and familiar terrain. During the day CCB remained at Faymonville "attached in place," as the military verbalism runs. The 106th Division commander could not move CCB without corps approval and was not too concerned with the enemy advance in his northern sector. He made no move to put CCB on the road, merely ordering a platoon of its tank destroyers to St. Vith. Shortly after dark General Hoge and his staff arrived at St. Vith to confer with General Jones. There a plan was made for CCB to counterattack and retake Schönberg. This plan shortly was discarded for during the evening the corps commander telephoned Jones that he now could have additional armored help, that CCB, 7th Armored Division, was on its way from the Ninth Army and would reach St. Vith by 0700 the next morning.
As events would show, this estimate of the 7th Armored combat command's availability was far too sanguine. Why it was made is not clear. Lt. Col. W. M. Slayden of the VIII Corps staff was with General Jones at the time of this call. He later said that he should have warned Jones that the corps commander was "over optimistic" because he knew that the combat command was so far distant. In any case, Jones decided at midnight that the 7th Armored combat command should make the counterattack on the north flank and that Hoge's command should march at once to a position near Steinebrück, there ready to attack toward Winterspelt where incoming reports showed a rapidly deteriorating situation. It would appear that this decision to employ CCB, 9th Armored, on the south flank reflected either General Middleton's intention to restore the connection between the 106th and 28th Divisions or a direct order from the corps to that effect. Also, the corps commander did not want to pass both armored commands through St. Vith. Subsequently, however, both commands did move through the city.
The 424th Infantry and CCB, 9th Armored
On the morning of 17 December the precarious situation of the 424th Infantry gave Colonel Reid reason to fear encirclement. His extended left flank was in the air. Because communications had failed, Reid did not know that his right flank was still covered by the 112th Infantry. In any case, the enemy in this sector had brought up tanks and was attacking in considerable force. The 424th had its back to the Our River and if the enemy seized the bridge at Steinebrück and spread along the far bank it would be hard put to withdraw westward. Communications with the division command post at St. Vith was limited to the exchange of liaison officers traveling along a road now being shelled by the German guns.
Through the early, dark hours of the 17th the enemy laid mortar and artillery fire on the front-line positions of the 424th. Opposite the right battalion,
which thus far had held its ground, German patrols wormed forward to cut the barbed wire and lob hand grenades toward the American foxholes. An hour or so before dawn the German searchlights flickered on, followed by a storm of shells from guns and Werfers. The fusillade actually was directed against the juncture between the 424th and 112th, but Company G, 424th, came under this fire and suffered many dead as day came and the pounding continued. The main German thrust, however, was made farther north, at Winterspelt. A company or more of the 62d Volks Grenadier Division had taken possession of the eastern half of the village during the night and at daybreak reinforcements finally drove the 1st Battalion from Winterspelt.
Even so, the 424th still blocked the road to the Our River and Steinebrück. To speed up the attack, the German corps commander, General Lucht, himself hurried to Winterspelt to get the 62d moving toward the Our. Apparently the 62d had become somewhat disorganized, its losses had been high, and its left regiment had made little headway in the Heckhuscheid sector. Furthermore, the division on its left, which had been pushing toward the south flank of the 424th, now pulled out and left the 62d to go it alone, seriously hampering Lucht's ability to exploit the dent hammered into the American lines at Winterspelt. But the right regiment of the 62d advanced almost unopposed north of Winterspelt while the division center, now composed of the 2d Battalion, 164th Regiment, reinforced by assault guns and engineers, continued beyond Winterspelt to occupy the saddle which overlooked the approaches to Steinebrück. The left wing of the 424th was pushed out of the way, folding back toward the south and west, but finally was pegged down by a scratch task force led by 1st Lt. Jarrett M. Huddleston, Jr. To hold this flank and extend it as the enemy moved into the gap, Colonel Reid kept adding whatever troops he could find to this junior officer's command. Steinebrück bridge remained in American hands.
General Hoge's CCB, 9th Armored Division, diverted to the Winterspelt area on the night of the 16th, arrived in St. Vith before dawn on the 17th and received its final orders. The armored infantry (27th Armored Infantry Battalion) would move at once to seize the series of hills near Winterspelt; the tanks (14th Tank Battalion) would assemble west of the Our River and thence be committed as the situation unrolled. About this time the 106th Division commander borrowed a platoon of the 811th Tank Destroyer Battalion from CCB, sending it to Schönberg to relieve the forward command post of the 106th (the platoon did reach the 423d Infantry). The situation in front of St. Vith was changing so rapidly that a platoon of the reconnaissance troop leading CCB had to be sent to defend the road out of St. Vith to the east, while a company of tanks and another of tank destroyers were diverted to screen the entry of the 7th Armored Division.
Word that Winterspelt was no longer in friendly hands reached CCB just as its two leading rifle companies started moving to the Our. By 0930 one company was across the river and had run into German infantry dug in along the high ground overlooking the village of Elcherath, fifteen hundred yards from
Steinebrück. The terrain and general uncertainty as to the enemy strength and dispositions dictated a coordinated attack. By noon the 16th Armored Field Artillery Battalion was in position west of the river to support the attack. At this time General Hoge had in hand three companies of armored infantry and the 14th Tank Battalion, a force deemed sufficient to drive the Germans back from Elcherath. But the enemy also was bringing up reinforcements, for at noon an American spotter plane reported a column of vehicles entering Winterspelt (perhaps this was the 2d Battalion of the 164th Regiment).
Two companies of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion (Lt. Col. George W. Seeley) advanced to clear the hills flanking Elcherath while Company B moved along the main road. Threshed by small arms fire from the grenadiers on the wooded slopes Company B suffered about forty casualties, but the surprise appearance of a tank platoon shook the enemy infantry somewhat. About ninety Germans, hands high, came forward to surrender. A little after 1500 General Hoge ordered his infantry to halt and dig in; he had decided to throw in the less vulnerable tank battalion and thrust for the high ground east of Winterspelt. The 14th Tank Battalion was on its way to the Steinebrück bridge when the assistant division commander of the 106th arrived with word from General Jones that Hoge might make the attack if he wished, but that CCB must withdraw behind the Our that night. Since there was little or no point to further effort in the direction of Winterspelt, Hoge told his infantry to dig in and wait for nightfall, then withdrew the tanks to their assembly area.
In the early afternoon Colonel Reid had gathered the staff of the 424th to review the regimental position. Nothing was known of friendly units to the right and left; no information was getting through from the division headquarters; the enemy appeared to be working his way around the left flank of the 424th and had penetrated into the regimental service area. If a withdrawal was to be made starting in the early evening, preparations would have to begin at once. Reid decided to hold where he was for he had no orders releasing his regiment from the "hold at all costs" mission. Finally, at 1730, the regimental liaison officer arrived with orders from Jones that the 424th should withdraw immediately. During the night of 17-18 December both CCB, 9th Armored, and the 424th Infantry made a successful move across the river, although in the hurried withdrawal the latter was forced to leave much equipment behind. The line now occupied by these two units stretched a distance of seven thousand yards, from Weppler (northeast of Steinebrück) south to Burg Reuland.
The intervention of the 9th Armored combat command had not achieved the results which had been hoped for, but had contributed indirectly to the successful withdrawal of the 424th Infantry and had delayed the drive by the 62d Volks Grenadier Division toward the Our crossings--and St. Vith. The German division commander later wrote of the "serious crisis" caused by the American counterattacks around Elcherath. The heavy concentration of American artillery supporting CCB also gave the Germans pause. It seems probable that the failure of the 183d
Regiment to make any headway against the American right wing in the Heckhuscheid sector on 16 and 17 December was largely caused by the sharp tactics in progressive displacement and the excellent defensive fires of the 591st Field Artillery Battalion (Lt. Col. Phillip F. Hoover) and its reinforcing battalions from the corps artillery. The 8-inch howitzers of the 578th Field Artillery Battalion, for example, fired 108 tons of shells between the beginning of the German attack and 1030 on 17 December against the enemy attack positions opposite the 424th Infantry. But only in the Heckhuscheid-Winterspelt sector had the prearranged and sizable groupment of VIII Corps artillery behind the corps left wing played any decisive role on 16 and 17 December.
Cannae in the Schnee Eifel
During a telephone conversation early in the evening of 16 December the corps commander had apprised General Jones of his concern over the security of the 422d and 423d Regiments. General Middleton stressed the importance of retaining the Schnee Eifel position but told Jones that it was untenable unless the north flank could be "heavily protected." Later, when reports coming into the corps headquarters at Bastogne indicated that enemy pressure along the corps front was not only continuing but increasing, Middleton got a call from Jones in which the 106th commander made a tentative suggestion to pull the two regiments back to less exposed positions. Middleton answered in the sense of the time-honored Army rule of decision by "the man on the round" and left the phone expecting Jones to withdraw.7 Perhaps General Jones's opinion was altered by the knowledge that armored support was on its way, perhaps by the VIII Corps order, received somewhat later, that no troops were to be withdrawn unless their positions became completely untenable. (However, the "hold at all costs" line drawn to accompany this order was fixed as the west bank of the Our and all nine rifle battalions of the 106th Division were east of that river.) Perhaps Jones felt that the corps commander was passing the buck and would leave him in the lurch if a withdrawal order was issued. In any case Jones decided not to withdraw the two regiments.
The fateful day for the 106th Division would be 17 December. On both sides of the battle line reinforcements were moving, the Germans to close the trap on the Schnee Eifel troops, the Americans to wedge its jaws apart. The battle had continued all through the night of 16-17 December, with results whose impact would be fully appreciated only after daylight on the 17th.
Colonel Devine, the 14th Cavalry group commander, left the 106th Division command post about 0800 on the morning of 17 December, still, insofar as it can be ascertained, without instructions. The previous evening V Corps had asked VIII Corps to re-establish contact between the 99th Division and the 14th Cavalry. This call had been routed to Colonel Devine, at St. Vith, who spoke on the phone to the 99th Division headquarters and agreed to regain contact at Wereth. The conversation took place
about 2130. But in the ensuing hours the situation of Devine's command had altered radically.
It will be recalled that the 14th Cavalry Group had withdrawn to the Holzheim-Andler line, breaking contact with the enemy. About 1830 on 16 December the units of the 18th Reconnaissance Squadron which had moved to Holzheim on the left of the line withdrew to Wereth, farther west, with the consent of the group commander. This move left Troop A of the 32d by itself at Holzheim. The troop commander was concerned with his exposed left flank and requested permission to move to Honsfeld, in the 99th Division zone, somewhat over two miles to the north. Group headquarters was loath to approve such a move and asked for a report by liaison officer. Finally the commander of Troop A decided to act on his own initiative; the troop reached Honsfeld at 2100 and was incorporated in the defense of that village. Its subsequent story belongs with that of the 99th Division.
During the evening German troops had been reported on the road south of Holzheim. The executive officer of the 32d Squadron received this report at Herresbach, where the squadron headquarters and Troops E and C were assembled. Although no Germans had yet appeared, the executive officer was apprehensive lest Herresbach become a cul-de-sac. The road southeast to Andler might be ambushed. The poor secondary road northwest to Wereth was blocked by fallen trees, probably felled by the Belgians. Reconnaissance showed one way out of the village, a poor dirt trail, which led westward for about four miles was decided that this trail would be used if the elements in Herresbach had to withdraw any farther.
As a result of the reshuffling during the night the cavalry position extended obliquely southeast from Wereth through Herresbach to Andler. Troop B at Andler, then, lay close to the enemy, directly astride the main approach to Schönberg and St. Vith. At daybreak two of the troop's reconnaissance teams--about twenty men--were suddenly engulfed by Tiger tanks and infantry. This apparition was the 506th Panzer Battalion which had been thrown in by the Sixth Panzer Army to reinforce its advance toward Vielsalm, and which had detoured south of the inter-army boundary in search of a passable road. Contact was momentary. Troop B hastily withdrew south to Schönberg while the Tigers went lumbering off to the northwest. Now that Andler was in enemy hands the 32d Cavalry Squadron at Herresbach was isolated. The squadron executive officer requested permission to withdraw via the woods trail, which had been surveyed earlier, and the 14th Cavalry Group commander--who had arrived at his command post in Meyerode--gave consent. About 0830 the 32d Squadron and the numerous strays and stragglers who had congregated in Herresbach began the difficult move. All vehicles finally emerged from the woods and joined group headquarters at Meyerode.
Thus far only Troop B had actually seen and engaged the Germans. Troop B was hit again at Schönberg, this time by elements of the 294th Regiment led in person by the 18th Volks Grenadier Division commander, and headed west along the St. Vith road, looking for a
defile or cut which would afford an effective delaying position. The abandonment of Schönberg proved to be decisive. The northern kampfgruppe of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division would shortly be joined by the southern, which had just broken through the American lines at Bleialf, thus closing the trap on the American forces within the triangle Auw-Schönberg-Bleialf.
Troop B finally reached a favorable point at a sharp bend in the road near Heuem, about 2,000 yards west of Schönberg. Here, while other American troops streamed through from the east, the cavalry deployed its six armored cars and ten machine gun and mortar jeeps. When the first German vehicle, a tank or assault gun, rounded the bend two of the armored cars opened up with 37-mm. guns which did no damage but induced it to withdraw. Then, for nearly two hours, the troopers' light machine guns and mortars repelled every attempt that the advance guard of the 294th made to move forward. Finally at 1050 the 14th Cavalry Group sent radio orders for Troop B to withdraw through St. Vith and rejoin the 32d Squadron northeast of that city. This move was part of a general withdrawal which Colonel Devine had ordered on his own initiative after scouts sent out by the 18th Squadron at Wereth reported seeing German troops to the west (probably the advance guard of the 3d Parachute Division moving in the direction of Malmédy).
By noontime, or shortly thereafter, the 32d Squadron was in position at Wallerode and the 18th Squadron was on the high ground at Born, northwest of Wallerode. On the whole this represented a favorable defensive line and placed the group in position to block the main road from Büllingen in the north to St. Vith. Colonel Devine informed the headquarters at St. Vith that he had withdrawn to a "final delaying position," and sent an overlay to the 106th command post showing the new position. Furthermore, Devine advised that he would "have [a] counterattack force available your orders." It seems that General Jones did not question this latest retrograde movement, for it was reported to the VIII Corps forthwith and without comment. At 1220 the G-3 journal of the 106th Division records a telephone message from the 14th Cavalry Group asking for "the general plan" (this was an hour after the withdrawal message arrived at St. Vith). The reply was "stay on the line where you are. Ln O coming to you."
Although the 106th Division had not ordered the group to withdraw in the first instance to the Wallerode-Born position, a cavalry screen in this area would be very useful as outpost cover for the 7th Armored Division elements still moving south to St. Vith. Certainly a roadblock here to the north of the city was essential.
But once more the group commander gave the order to withdraw, this about 1530. There never has been a clear explanation for this order; the group had no contact with the enemy and had reported the Wallerode-Born line as a "final delaying position." A liaison officer from the 106th Division was at the group command post, but it is impossible to say whether Colonel Devine received any definite order to hold this position. Liaison officers carried the new orders to the two squadrons: the 18th to occupy the village of Recht and the 32d to deploy along the Recht River astride the
St. Vith-Vielsalm road. Again there was confusion, either in the orders issued or their execution. Instead of moving back by separate roads both squadrons moved onto the main highway leading west from St. Vith to Vielsalm. Darkness found the group caught up in the traffic jam, three columns wide, crawling slowly out of or into St. Vith.
Before dawn, on 17 December, the enemy renewed his attack to envelop the major part of the 106th Division. At 0725 a radio message from the 423d Infantry reported that the Germans had overrun Bleialf and requested the division to send help at once to prevent a thrust in force to the north. In the 14th Cavalry Group sector, the enemy was in Andler and driving toward Schönberg. Finally, at 0905, the news reached the 106th Division command post in St. Vith that the enemy forces striking north from Bleialf had pushed the 423d Infantry back to the northeast and had joined hands with the forces at Schönberg. The German plan of envelopment had succeeded--the 422d and 423d Regiments were encircled. The only question remaining was whether the two units could break out or be released by an American counterthrust from the west. The answer lies in the state and dispositions of the trapped regiments.
The 2d Battalion, 423d, committed the previous evening, had organized a defensive position astride the Auw-Bleialf road close behind the beleaguered 589th Field Artillery Battalion. Most of the 589th reached the infantry lines, but Battery C had become mired in an area which was under constant fire and toward dawn the bogged howitzers were destroyed where they lay. The medium pieces of the 592d Field Artillery Battalion had been less close-pressed by the German infantry; during the early morning of 17 December the battalion, with only one howitzer missing, withdrew to St. Vith. The two remaining batteries of the 589th were less fortunate. While en route to St. Vith the column was surprised on the road about a mile south of Schönberg; three of the remaining pieces were lost there (two had been lost at firing positions). The three howitzers left to the battalion were emplaced in support of the hasty defenses being reared around St. Vith. The 590th Field Artillery Battalion, having moved north from the 423d Infantry zone during the night, also was en route to the west when suddenly its escape was blocked by the tanks which had struck the 589th. Reconnaissance showed that the other exit routes were held by the enemy or were mired to the extent of being impassable. The battalion therefore rejoined the forces in the pocket and took up firing positions in the Halenfelder Wald. This one battalion of the division artillery could be of little help, for its service battery, sent west for ammunition, would be unable to return.
While the artillery was attempting escape, with varying degrees of success, the 2d Battalion, 423d, repelled two enemy attempts to advance south of Auw. Meanwhile patrols had discovered some German troops at Laudesfeld, about a thousand yards west of the battalion positions. The 2d Battalion commander, now out of contact with the command post at St. Vith, decided to fall back and defend Schönberg. When the battalion finally turned to follow the artillery out of the trap, it found the way effectively blocked by German tanks. Although the
battalion antitank guns did well in the unequal contest with the panzers--destroying three at one point--neither they nor the attached platoon of tank destroyers could hope to force the entry to the Schönberg road. Puett's battalion could now move only in one direction--to the east. At noontime the 2d Battalion joined the 423d Infantry near Radscheid. Communication with the division having failed, Puett placed himself and his battalion at the disposal of the commander of the 423d and was ordered into the perimeter defense slowly forming.
It is probable that both the 423d and 422d were aware of their plight by 0900; at least radio reports of the unsuccessful attempt by the 590th to run the Schönberg gantlet had been received. The 106th Division took cognizance of the situation in which the regiments now found themselves by a radio order sent out at 0945: "Withdraw from present positions if they become untenable." The message added that the division expected to clear out the area "west of you" with reinforcements during the afternoon. This communication, unfortunately, was delayed in transit. Actually neither regiment made any move except to bring some troops out of the Schnee Eifel and sketch in perimeter defenses. The only contact between the 422d and 423d was by radio and patrols. During the afternoon the enemy constricted their hold, albeit loosely by deployment along the Bleialf-Auw road, but on the whole the Americans were left to their own devices while German infantry, guns, and vehicles poured past on their way to the west.
The early morning breakthrough in the Bleialf sector, necessary to the German encirclement of the Schnee Eifel forces, had been accomplished by the southern jaw of the German vise only after strong exhortation and admonition of the 293d Regiment by its parent division and corps. At the close of 16 December the provisional battalion of the 423d Infantry still held Bleialf, from which the enemy had been ejected earlier in the day. During the night the 293d Regiment re-formed for the attack, urged on by its higher headquarters, and at 0530 the next morning struck Bleialf in force. Within an hour the attackers had driven the provisional battalion from the village (the Germans later reported a stiff fight) and were on the march north to Schönberg. Nothing stood in the way, although the enemy vanguard ran into the American artillery withdrawal and was slightly delayed, and about 0900 the leading troops of the 293d met their division commander and his battalion from the 294th near Schönberg.
Most of the Bleialf garrison succeeded in joining the two rifle battalions of the 423d. But on the extreme right flank of the regiment, south of Bleialf, elements of Company B, 81st Engineer Battalion, were overrun and Troop B, 18th Cavalry Squadron, was left isolated. Unable to reach the 423d, the troop was given permission to try the Schönberg exit. About dark Troop B started north, followed by a part of the 106th Reconnaissance Troop which had become separated from the 424th Infantry. Keeping to the west of the enemy-occupied Bleialf-Schönberg road, the cavalry column reached the edge of Schönberg. (By this time the situation was so confused that a Volkswagen full of grenadiers moved into the column just ahead of an armored car--whose gunner promptly destroyed the intruding vehicle and its occupants.)
Because Schönberg was known to be in German hands, the 3d Platoon moved in to determine the situation. The platoon had crossed the Our bridge and was at the north end of the village when there appeared a column of American trucks, but filled with Germans carrying arms. The three armored cars, forming the point of the platoon, wheeled over to the side of the road and raced toward the head of the column, firing their machine guns and 37-mm. cannon as they passed the yelling Germans. Suddenly a Mark IV tank slipped out of a side road. Only one of the American armored cars got away. When informed by radio of this engagement the 423d Infantry instructed Troop B to "make your own decision." Unsuccessful in finding any passable secondary road, the troopers destroyed their vehicles and broke up into small groups for the journey toward St. Vith. Hiding by day and traveling by night some fifty reached the St. Vith lines. The 106th Reconnaissance Troop had become completely disorganized while following Troop B, and one platoon was left in Grosslangenfeld with neither orders nor word of the withdrawal. Most of the officers and men surrendered the next morning without a fight.8
When darkness came on 17 December, some eight or nine thousand Americans were effectively bottled up west of the Schnee Eifel. Their story henceforth has little connection with events outside the pocket. In addition to the 422d and 423d Infantry Regiments the list of attached and supporting units that were severed from the main thread of American operations included all or part of the following:
589th Field Artillery Battalion (-)
590th Field Artillery Battalion
Company B, 81st Engineer Battalion
Battery D, 634th Antiaircraft Automatic Weapons Battalion
Company C, 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion
Company B, 331st Medical Battalion
106th Reconnaissance Troop
Troop B, 18th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (-)
The 422d Infantry on that night was forming a perimeter defense, its center south of Schlausenbach. To the southwest the 423d Infantry was assuming a similar stance on the high ground around Oberlascheid and Buchet. At the moment there was no shortage of rifle ammunition, there was a basic load for the mortars (but the 590th Field Artillery Battalion had only about 300 rounds for its 105-mm. howitzers), approximately one day's extra K rations were at hand, and surgical supplies were very short. Most of the regimental vehicles had been saved--although the service company of the 422d had been cut off near Auw and some kitchen trucks had been lost. Casualties were not high in either regiment; the 422d, for example, reported only forty wounded for evacuation.
Both regimental commanders had been assured by radio that reinforcements from the west would attempt to break through sometime after daylight on 18 December and, further, that supplies would be dropped by air. A division order to withdraw to the Our River,
sent out at 1445, was followed six hours later by the question: "When do you plan to move?" These orders, relayed through the artillery radio net, took a long time and much repetition before they could reach the entrapped regiments. The initial order to withdraw to the Our River line was not received until about midnight of the 17th. The two regimental commanders agreed that this order now was out of date because messages, signed later in the day, had promised resupply by air.
Late in the evening of the 17th General Jones consulted the VIII Corps commander and at 0215 the next morning sent out an order: "Panzer regtl CT on Elmerscheid9-Schönberg-St. Vith Rd, head near St. Vith. Our mission is to destroy by fire from dug in positions S of Schönberg-St. Vith Rd. Am, food and water will be dropped. When mission accomplished, move to area St. Vith-Wallerode-Weppler. Organize and move to W." This message reached the 423d Infantry, which alone had some sporadic radio link with the division, about 0730; it reached the 422d Infantry about half an hour later. The regimental commanders decided to begin the move to the west at 1000, with their regiments abreast (although the only contact was by patrol) and in column of battalions. As understood, the mission was to advance across the Bleialf-Schönberg road and attack from the south side of the road between Schönberg and St. Vith, that is, bypassing Schönberg.
From the time of this joint decision there was little contact between the regiments. The 423d destroyed its kitchens and excess equipment, left the wounded with medical aid men in the regimental collecting station, and started off on the road through Oberlascheid and Radscheid.10 About 1130 Puett's 2d Battalion, leading, met the Germans near the Schönberg-Bleialf road. With the aid of its heavy weapons company, whose mortars did yeoman service, the battalion began to push the enemy back toward Bleialf. Meanwhile Colonel Cavender had gone forward to see what the situation was, but en route he received a radio message from General Jones telling him that the relief attack by the American armor would not take place and ordering the two regiments to shift their move to Schönberg. Cavender passed word of this new mission to Colonel Descheneaux and ordered his own 3d Battalion to come up on Puett's right. At noon Puett sent an urgent plea for help, but none arrived at this critical point in the fire fight and the attack finally lost momentum. The 3d Battalion had advanced across the Ihren Creek and dug in perhaps 1,000 to 1,500 yards from the edge of Schönberg, but in doing so lost touch with both its own regiment and the 422d Infantry. About dusk the 1st Battalion was put in on the left of the 2d to help clear the German infantry from the woods astride the Bleialf-Schönberg road, but the psychological moment had passed.11
The last message from the division (actually dispatched at 1445 the day before) was heard an hour or so before
midnight, "It is imperative that Schönberg be taken." Colonel Cavender already had decided to disengage his two left battalions, in light of the next mission, and shift northward to support a dawn attack by the 3d Battalion. By this time the 423d was going it alone, for all attempts to reach the sister regiment had failed. During the night the regiment pulled itself together in some semblance of order along Ridge 536, just southeast of Schönberg. Losses had been high--some 300 casualties (including 16 officers). No more rounds were left for the 81-mm. mortars, most of the machine guns were gone, there was little bazooka ammunition, and rifle clips were low.
The surrounding enemy forces were surprised that the American regiments made no move to counterattack during the night of 18-19 December; one report says: "In the Kessel absolute quiet reigned." The troops actually ringing the pocket were relatively few: the 293d Infantry Regiment, the 18th Volks Grenadier Division Replacement Battalion (which had come over the Schnee Eifel), and the newly arrived 669th 0st Battalion. Since the roads at the Schönberg bottleneck were jammed, the LXVI Corps commander could bring only one battalion of field guns that far forward; therefore the corps artillery was instructed to concentrate fire on the pocket during the 19th.
The 423d still was attempting to form for the attack, when, an hour or so after dawn on 19 December, German field pieces along the Bleialf-Schönberg road opened fire, sweeping the southeastern slope of Ridge 536. Soon the shelling ceased and the enemy infantry closed in, overrunning the 590th Field Artillery Battalion and other heterogeneous units which had been moving in the rear of the rifle battalions. Despite this blow Lt. Col. Earl F. Klinck's 3d Battalion jumped off in good order at 1000. One company was cut off and captured, but two rifle companies reached the environs of Schönberg, then had to retire in a storm of antiaircraft fire. The 1st Battalion was able to put one company in the advance, but by midafternoon it was eliminated. When brought forward on the right the 2d Battalion became separated and was subjected to fire from the 422d Infantry, then about 400 yards to the north. At last, with tactical control gone, only five to ten rifle rounds per man, no supporting weapons, and an increasing number of wounded untended (despite yeoman effort by the regimental surgeon, Maj. Gaylord D. Fridline, and his staff), the commander of the 423d Infantry surrendered his regiment. The time was about 1630.
The experience of the 422d Infantry was very similar to that of its sister regiment. Largely quiescent during the 17th, the 422d acted as promptly as possible when the division order was received on the following morning. Colonel Descheneaux, acting in concert with the 423d, ordered an advance in column of battalions, the axis to the northwest in the direction of Schönberg. Excess equipment was destroyed, the wounded were left with an aid man, the regimental cannon company fired its last smoke rounds into Auw (as a slight deterrent to enemy observers), then spiked the pieces. In two columns--one made up of foot troops lugging all portable weapons, the other made up of regimental vehicles--the movement encountered nothing but small groups of the enemy. Reconnaissance had been confined to the map, although
the I and R Platoon was used as point during the march, and when the two columns reassembled at dusk the 422d was lost. A wood had been selected on the map as a suitable assembly area from which to launch a coordinated attack against Schönberg, this about one and a half miles from the village. In fact, however, the regiment had bivouacked northeast of Oberlascheid in a wood about three miles from its objective--nor apparently was anyone the wiser.
During the early evening the I and R Platoon reported that contact had been made with the neighboring regiment, which intended to attack Schönberg. No further liaison was made. While gunfire sounded off to the west and northwest the rifle battalions marched through the darkness to three smaller woods, preparatory for an attack at daylight on the 19th. The dispositions now taken were farther to the north, facing the Bleialf-Auw road, with the battalions deployed so that the 1st Battalion was farthest north, the 2d Battalion in the center, and the 3d Battalion on the south. At daybreak the three battalions moved out abreast, advancing in approach march formation toward the objective--Schönberg--believed to be little more than a mile distant. The leading troops were just crossing the Bleialf-Auw road when they were hit by machine gun and tank fire
AMERICAN PRISONERS. The tank is a German Tiger.
coming from the north. At this point the road curved to the east, and the enemy apparently had taken a position in woods north of the bend which allowed him to enfilade the straightway. The 1st Battalion commander ordered his men to turn back from the road and move southward. In the meantime the 2d and 3d Battalions had jumped off, but at the road their lead companies also came under severe frontal and flanking fire.
It will be recalled that the 422d and its sister regiment to the south had no contact. While the right wing battalion of the 423d was attempting to advance northwestward, it was discerned by the left flank troops of the 422d who, mistaking this movement for a German flanking attack, poured bullet fire into the draw where the men of the 423d were moving. In the brief exchange of fire which followed both these inner flank units became considerably disorganized.
But finally it was fire superiority in the hands of the enemy which checked further movement. About 1400, tanks were heard approaching from the north. In a last desperate flare of optimism the Americans thought that these were friendly tanks--but they were not. By a stroke of ill fortune the Fuehrer Begleit Brigade had been ordered forward to support the LXVI Corps attack on St. Vith. En route from Auw to Schönberg, the panzers arrived at the fork where the road split toward Schönberg and Bleialf just in time to give the coup-de-grâce. The tanks rolled through the battalions on the right while the German infantry poured in from the woods. At 1430 the regimental commander decided to surrender that part of his regiment which was disorganized and entrapped. After negotiations to determine that the Germans would feed the Americans and provide care for the wounded, the surrender was completed about 1600.
A group of about 400, however, were reorganized by the 2d Battalion executive officer (Maj. Albert A. Ouellette) in the woods which had been the 2d Battalion assembly area. This group attempted to move southwest the following day, but it too was surrounded. After destroying weapons and equipment Ouellette's people surrendered on the morning of 21 December. Another band, representing most of the vehicular column, had attempted to break out through Bleialf on the late afternoon of 19 December but was halted by a mine field at the edge of the village, surrounded, and forced to capitulate. Not more than 150 men of the 422d Infantry succeeded in escaping to the American lines.
The number of officers and men taken prisoner on the capitulation of the two regiments and their attached troops cannot be accurately ascertained. At least seven thousand were lost here and the figure probably is closer to eight or nine thousand. The amount lost in arms and equipment, of course, was very substantial. The Schnee Eifel battle, therefore, represents the most serious reverse suffered by American arms during the operations of 1944-45 in the European theater. The Americans would regard this defeat as a blow to Allied prestige. The Germans would see in this victory, won without great superiority in numbers, a dramatic reaffirmation of the Schlieffen-Cannae concept.
The fate of the two regiments was not immediately known to the 106th Division and the VIII Corps. The last message
radioed out of the pocket had been dispatched at 1535 on 18 December, simply saying that the regiments had started to comply with the orders for an attack to the northwest; it was received at St. Vith on the morning of the 19th. By the night of the 20th the division must have given up hope, what with the German reinforcements from the east congregating in front of St. Vith, but one last attempt to reach the 423d Infantry by radio was made two days later.
The Question of Air Resupply
One question mark still dangles over the fate of the two regiments captured in the Schnee Eifel. Why were they not resupplied by airdrop? General Jones and the two regimental commanders made their wants known as early as the 17th and evidently had some reason to believe that ammunition, medical supplies, and other necessities would be delivered to the encircled regiments before they essayed the final attempt at escape. Although most of the processing involved in handling the 106th Division requests was by telephone and without record, two facts are certain: General Jones did all in his power to secure air resupply; the weather did permit planes to fly on 18 December when resupply was most needed.12
At 1051 on 17 December the commander of the 423d Infantry radioed a request for an airdrop. Relayed through the division artillery net, this request was logged in at the 106th Division headquarters at 1500. In the meantime Jones apparently decided to act on his own and asked the VIII Corps air officer to arrange a resupply mission. The time of this conversation cannot be fixed, but by 1345 a message was en route from St. Vith to the 423d Infantry promising a drop in the vicinity of Buchet "tonight." Within a quarter of an hour a second message was on the air for the 422d. The VIII Corps air officer (Lt. Col. Josiah T. Towne) meanwhile had relayed Jones's request through the IX Fighter Command to the IX Tactical Air Command.13 At this point the chain of events and the chain of responsibility both become unclear.
The IX Tactical Air Command normally would have referred the request to First Army for clearance. The report of the G-4 at the latter headquarters simply says that on the afternoon of 17 December the plight of the two regiments was made known by telephone calls and that preparations for supply by air "were promptly set in motion."14 Since carrier planes would have to come from the United Kingdom it was necessary at some stage to bring CATOR (Combined Air Transport Operations Room) at SHAEF into the picture. How many telephone calls were made before the First Army request reached CATOR
and how many headquarters were involved cannot be determined.
The IX Troop Carrier Command, whose planes would fly the mission, got the word from CATOR sometime during the early morning of the 18th with orders to prepare forty planeloads of ammunition and medical supplies. The 435th Troop Carrier Group, at Welford, drew this assignment and loaded up with parapacks and door bundles. Orders were precise. The group was to fly to the airfield at Florennes, Belgium, and there be briefed on the mission and meet its fighter cover. The Welford base was closing in when--at an unspecified time--the first serial took off. Nonetheless twenty-three C-47's arrived in the air over Florennes. This field, it is reported, was "too busy to take care of the 435th formation," which was ordered to another field near Liège. The commander and his wingman landed at Florennes, however, only to find that there was no information for a briefing, nobody had the map coordinates for the scheduled drop, and no fighter escort had been arranged. During this time the 435th had been diverted again, finally landing at Dreux in France. Here the planes would stay until 23 December, their original mission on-again, off-again daily. Somewhere along the line additional requests from the 106th Division had swelled the mission to 138 planeloads and ultimately it was decided to make this larger drop with planes from the United Kingdom. The entire mission was canceled on 22 December in order to support the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne.15
Two melancholy facts emerge from this story: fixed responsibility and coordination were lacking; supplies prepared for airdropping had to come from the United Kingdom, despite the fact that Allied ground troops were at the German border. Attempts to prevent a similar fiasco were initiated in a matter of days, but too late to help the dispirited Americans marching into German captivity. On 21 December the 12th Army Group issued an order "confirming" the procedure for airdrops to ground troops. This of course could be only a palliative so long as air and ground coordination remained in abeyance. A day later the commanding officer of the Communications Zone, Lt. Gen. John C. H. Lee, requested SHAEF to set up stocks of ready-packed supplies, capable of air delivery, at airfields strategically located on the Continent. This proposal was accepted.
Perhaps the coordination of separate services and the proper application of new military techniques must always be learned the hard way. If so, the cost is very dear and the prospect in future wars depressing.
Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (VI) * Next Chapter (VIII)
*. The records and reports of the 106th Division and the 424th Infantry are intact although rather scanty in content. The records of the 422d and 423d were destroyed before the capture of these regiments, but the Historical Division, ETO, did interview a large number of officers and men from these regiments when they were released from German prisons. First Army conducted Inspector General investigations of the actions of the 106th Division, the 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion, the 106th Reconnaissance Troop, and the 14th Cavalry Group. Most of the records of the 14th Cavalry Group were destroyed but the commanding officer, Col. Mark Devine, provided the author with some personal papers. The VIII Corps after action report and G-2 and G-3 journals are very useful for the relations between corps and division. Participants in this battle made special reports for the Advanced Infantry Officers Course No. 1 (Maj. William P. Moon, Maj. J. C. Hollinger, and Capt. Alan W. Jones, Jr.) See also, the 275th Armored Field Artillery Battalion journal and S-2 report. Col. R. Ernest Dupuy has written a very good semiofficial history entitled, St. Vith: Lion in the Way, the 106th Infantry Division in World War II (Washington: Infantry Journal Press, 1949). Dupuy's work has been heavily drawn on, but the reader will find several points at which Dupuy and the present account differ. The German manuscripts are very detailed and useful; see particularly MSS # B-026, Effects of Ardennes Offensive on Army Group G (SS Generaloberst Waffen-SS Paul Hauser); B-688 (incorporating B-734), 18th Volks Grenadier Division, 1 September 1944-45 January 1945 (Lt. Col. Dietrich Moll); A-924 (Kraemer); B-333, LXVI Corps, October-23 December 1944 (General der Artillerie Walter Lucht).
1. These were the 770th, 965th, 333d, 771st, 559th, 561st, 578th, and 740th Field Artillery Battalions.
2. It will be recalled that the 106th had noticed unusual vehicular noise. See above, p. 59.
3. See also ch. XVII.
4. These troops were armored infantry from the 1st SS Panzer Division whose commander finally had thrown them in to get the attack rolling.
5. Three members of the 18th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron were awarded the DSC for gallantry in the battle at the villages: 1st Lt. A. L. Mills, S. Sgt. Woodrow W. Reeves, and Cpl. C. E. Statler.
6. Withee was captured after his lone fight. He was given the DSC.
7. Combat Interv with Middleton and Evans; also Ltr, Middleton to Theater Historian ETO, 30 Jul 45.
8. This according to the FUSA Inspector General report.
9. Probably this message referred to the Amelscheid "cut-off" through which Americans had been attempting to evade the enemy.
10. Lt. Col. William Craig, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, died of wounds on this day.
11. 1st Lt. R. H. Thompson personally destroyed two enemy machine guns and their crews in this series of actions; he then made a lone attack on an enemy assault gun and was seriously wounded. He received the DSC.
12. Much effort has been made to trace this story through the numerous headquarters which were involved but there are great gaps in the journal files. Interviews with officers concerned have only compounded confusion, yielding bits and pieces of information which, lacking in written record, cannot be put together in sequence. Royce L. Thompson made an exhaustive search of the records and conducted a number of personal interviews with officers involved in staffing the 106th requests. See his Air Supply to Isolated Units; Ardennes Campaign. OCMH, 1951.
13. Dupuy (St. Vith: Lion in the Way, page 134f.), goes no further than the First Army headquarters to find a culprit, following in this the combat interview with Colonel Towne, 16 January 1945.
14. First United States Army, Report of Operations, an. 2, G-4 Sec, p. 120f.
15. Headquarters, IX Troop Carrier Command, Operation Repulse, Resupply by Air, Belgium, December 1944 (January 1945); 435th Troop Carrier Group Unit History, MS dated 1 January 1945.