The Drive on Pruem
The Drive on Pruem
3-10 February 1945
Since General Eisenhower's order of February ending the 12th Army Group's main effort in the Eifel authorized the Third Army to "continue the probing attacks now in progress," General Middleton's VIII Corps was able to pursue its offensive almost without pause. The Third Army commander, General Patton, nevertheless altered the objective of the attack and provided additional strength. No longer was the Third Army affording flank protection for the First Army but instead was preparing the way for what Patton hoped could be developed eventually into a two-pronged drive to breach the West Wall on a wide front and drive on through the Eifel to the Rhine.
General Patton told Middleton to go beyond the Schnee Eifel ridgeline and take the road center of Pruem. Even before this objective was in hand, he hoped to start General Eddy's XII Corps on a drive northeastward from the vicinity of Echternach to take Bitburg, the other major road center in the western Eifel. Having thus carved out a deep foothold inside the Eifel, he would possess a fulcrum for persuading his superiors to support an offensive the rest of the way to the Rhine.1
The VIII Corps zone remained as before, approximately sixteen miles wide from the Loshiem Gap in the north to Luetzkampen, near the northern tip of Luxembourg. Three divisions already were in line, the 87th on the north, the 4th in the center, and the 90th on the south. (Map III)
Commanded now by Brig. Gen. Frank L. Culin, Jr, the 87th Division was to protect the corps north flank, a task of considerable importance since the adjacent divisions of the First Army were no longer advancing abreast. The 87th was to accomplish its mission by penetrating the West Wall and seizing a crossroads astride northern reaches of the Schnee Eifel ridge. In corps reserve, General Kilburn's 11th Armored Division was to be ready to use a part of its strength to protect the south flank of the corps, where the III Corps between Middleton's and Eddy's commands was to remain at first on the defensive.
The 4th and 90th Divisions together were to make the main attack. The 4th was to advance through the West Wall astride the Schnee Eifel north of the West Wall strongpoint of Brandscheid, then wheel against Brandscheid. With the strongpoint taken, the 4th was to turn the town over to the 90th Division and continue eastward to Pruem. The 90th Division was to widen the breach in the West Wall to include Habscheid, two and a half miles southwest of
Brandscheid, then go on to take Pronsfeld, another road center on the Pruem River five miles south of Pruem.2
Since no unit of the VIII Corps had yet entered the main part of the West Wall, no one could say with any certainty how completely and effectively the Germans had manned the line. Although patrols had found some bunkers undefended, it was unreasonable to suppose that the Germans would abandon the whole belt of fortifications.3
On the basis of identifications made in the drive up to the West Wall, the Americans believed that the Germans in front of the VIII Corps possessed remnants of 7 divisions with a possible total strength of about 7,000 perhaps supported by as many as 15 artillery battalions. Another 4,500 men of 3 panzer-type divisions with possibly 70 tanks and assault guns might be in tactical reserve.4 Thus in at least the first stages, the defenders would be pitting something like a reinforced company against each attacking regiment.
This was, in reality, a generally correct estimate of the German situation. What intelligence officers failed to note was that again the Americans would achieve an advantage by attacking almost astride a German interarmy boundary, that
between the LXVI Corps of the Fifth Panzer Army on the north and the XIII Corps of the Seventh Army on the south. As established near the end of January, the boundry ran generally southeastward between Pronsfeld and Pruem.5
In the two German corps, the task of trying to hold the West Wall had been detailed to volks grenadier divisions, none of which exceeded regimental strength even when reinforced by rear area security battalions that occupied some of the West Wall bunkers. All the more elite formations had left the line for rehabilitation or to assume reserve
roles. The last troops of the 9th Panzer Division, for example, had departed the LXVI Corps only two days earlier to be rebuilt before shifting to the north against the expected Allied main effort. What was left of the 5th Parachute Division--little more than a Kampfgruppe--still belonged to the XIII Corps but was out of the line in a backup position. Remnants of the 2d Panzer Division with a few tanks also were still around but in a reserve role for the Seventh Army. Artillery support averaged about two understrength battalions per front-line division, though additional support could be provided by a volks artillery corps located astride the interarmy boundary. The West Wall, on which German commanders counted strongly to offset the shift of troops to the north, was thinner astride the Schnee Eifel than anywhere else along the frontier. Furthermore, American troops occupying the Schnee Eifel from September until the beginning of the Ardennes counteroffensive had demolished many of the pillboxes.
Into the West Wall
The VIII Corps' 4th Division knew the demolished pillboxes well; it was the same unit that had attacked the Schnee Eifel in September. The division would get a rare opportunity to refight an earlier engagement over the same ground, under similar conditions of enemy strength, against at least one of the earlier opponents. Little would be changed except the weather and stronger support on the division's flanks.
In September two regiments of the 4th Division had caught the Germans unprepared atop the Schnee Eifel and had peeled off to left and right to clear the thin line of pillboxes, seize Brandscheid, and make room for the division's third regiment in the center. Yet no sooner had the infantrymen emerged from the woods cover of the Schnee Eifel onto relatively open but sharply compartmented ground leading to Pruem than hastily culled German artillery and infantry reserves had appeared. Overextended, tired from a long drive across France and Belgium, lacking the strength to exploit, the 4th had come to a halt.6
As in September, the 4th Division's plan in February was to pause one day in the shadow of the Schnee Eifel while patrols probed the West Wall. A delay also would afford time for engineers to clear and repair roads that were rapidly breaking down in an unseasonable thaw. In the very early hours of 4 February, however, a reinforced platoon of the 8th Infantry found the first belt of pillboxes unoccupied, the Germans milling about on foot and in horse-drawn wagons, obviously unprepared for a fight. Just as a previous commander had done in September, the division commander, General Blakeley, ordered immediate attack.
By 0600, 4 February, the 8th Infantry's 1st Battalion was toiling up the slopes of the Schnee Eifel in a snowstorm and utter darkness to lead the attack. An hour later the 22d Infantry's 1st Battalion, a few hundred yards to the south, joined the move. The first objective of both battalions was a road along the crest of the Schnee Eifel, a string beaded with pillboxes. Follow-up battalions of each regiment were to turn left and right to strip off the beads.
MEN OF THE 4TH DIVISION EATING INSIDE CAPTURED PILLBOX
As in September, success the first day was complete. Dazed, disorganized troops of the 326th Volks Grenadier Division were nowhere near a match for the assaulting force, even with the added strength of the pillboxes. The 8th Infantry took 128 prisoners and incurred only one casualty. After swinging southwest, the 22d Infantry reached a fortified crossroads at the woods line overlooking Brandscheid. Again as in September, seizing the crossroads and Brandscheid itself awaited the second day.
Unfortunately for the Americans, the similarities between the late summer thrust and the winter attack were not to end there. As before, the Germans would be unable to muster sufficient strength to expel the invaders, but they could make every yard of advance increasingly costly.
On the second day, 5 February, German artillery and mortar fire increased considerably. A battalion of the 22d Infantry toiled all morning to clear 11 pillboxes in and around the crossroads above Brandscheid. Thereupon 2 companies poised for a final assault out of the woods across five hundred yards of open ground into the village. With them
were 10 medium tanks and 7 tank destroyers equipped with 90-mm. guns.
Shortly after midday, tanks and tank destroyers opened fire against all visible pillboxes along the road into Brandscheid. Heavy machine guns from the woods line chattered support. Infantrymen burst from the forest cover, shooting their rifles and bazookas and tossing white phosphorus grenades as they ran. Although the Germans returned the fire at first, it diminished as the Americans closed in. Within three hours, the 22d Infantry held Brandscheid and a formidable ring of pillboxes. The cost was surprisingly light, a total of 43 casualties, of which 3 were fatalities.
The 8th Infantry for its part continued to roll up the fortified line to the northeast. As the day wore on, the job became increasingly difficult as resistance stiffened like a coil spring under compression.
A few hundred yards to the north, the 87th Division began during the night of 5 February to carry out its mission of cutting the road along the northern end of the Schnee Eifel to protect the corps left flank. Although men of the 87th had little trouble gaining the crest of the ridge, lateral movement the next day northeast and southwest was slowed, chiefly by the increased enemy artillery fire. The division nevertheless accomplished its limited mission in relatively short order.
The 90th Division thus far had participated in the fighting only with a demonstration by fire on 5 February against Habscheid to distract German attention from the 4th Division's attack; a more direct role was in the offing before daylight on the 6th. In performing it, the 90th too was destined to run into the same pattern of easy early success followed quickly by stiffening resistance.
The 90th was to make a two-pronged attack. The 359th Infantry was to take Habscheid in a frontal assault from a starting point just over a mile from the town along the main highway from the Our River through Habscheid to Pronsfeld. Thereupon the 357th Infantry was to pass through for the attack on Pronsfeld itself, not quite five miles away. The 358th Infantry in the meantime was to take over at Brandscheid and drive southeast to seize high ground along the Pruem River between Pronsfeld and Pruem.
At 0400 on 6 February, without artillery preparation, all three battalions of the 359th Infantry jumped off abreast, guiding on the main highway into Habscheid. Despite the general alert occasioned by the previous day's fighting, the regiments took the Germans by surprise. All but two rifle companies were inside Habscheid by daylight. Of about eighty Germans captured, some were taken asleep at their posts.
Then the problems began. On the approach to Habscheid the highway passed through a band of dragon's teeth, the road itself blocked by a heavy gate of logs anchored in concrete. As daylight neared, engineers blew the barrier, only to discover that the infantry passing in the dark had failed to take out enemy machine guns in nearby pillboxes that were sited to cover the gate. Alerted by the explosion, the Germans came to life, drenching the engineers with automatic weapons fire and calling down mortar and Nebelwerfer fire on the spot. Along with the engineers, the fires pinned down the two reserve rifle companies
that had yet to reach Habscheid. As daylight came, maneuvers to get around the enemy proved impossible.
While the engineers waited, unable to sweep the road ahead for mines, in and beyond Habscheid the bulk of the infantrymen, slowly clearing pillboxes, reported they had gone about as far as they could without tank support. The situation for a moment threatened to become a deadlock, but the Germans had not the numbers close at hand to exploit their temporary advantage. The moment passed. When at length a self-propelled 155-mm. gun arrived to fire directly at the pillboxes covering the approach to Habscheid, the defenders ran. The engineers at last could start sweeping the road. Even so, it was after nightfall before they had cleared it and tanks could get forward.
Meanwhile, it was at Brandscheid that the first of the enemy's adjustments in reaction to the attack became apparent. In the village nobody on either side got much sleep through the night of 5 February.
From the German viewpoint, the 4th Division's penetration at Brandscheid had virtually collapsed the south flank of the 326th Volks Grenadier Division. Constantly committed since 16 December, the division was a skeleton. Its two regiments had only about 140 men each. Only two 75-mm. guns were in the antitank battalion; only eight artillery pieces in support. The division's north flank broken by the surprise penetration of the West Wall on the Schnee Eifel, the division lacked the men even to seal off the thrust at Brandscheid, much less to counterattack. The corps commander, General Lucht, ordered help from the neighboring unit to the south, the 276th Volks Grenadier Division.7
Before daylight on 6 February, an infantry battalion plucked from the vicinity of Habscheid and the 326th's engineer battalion, a force totaling about 450 men, counterattacked at Brandscheid. For the Americans, the counterattack could have come at no more inopportune time. A few hours earlier, around midnight, a battalion of the 90th Division's 358th Infantry had moved toward Brandscheid to assume control from the 22d Infantry. It was a memorably miserable night--cold, black, half-raining, half-sleeting. After walking almost four miles, the men arrived in Brandscheid at 0430, thoroughly soaked. The relief of the 22d Infantry was in process when the Germans struck.
Hitting from the south, the Germans quickly stove in the 22d Infantry's line, shattered Company K, and penetrated into the village. While individual riflemen and the crews of the three tank destroyers fought on in the center of the village, Company L, the only unit whose relief had been completed, counterattacked. In a little over two hours the confused fight came to an end. More than 150 Germans surrendered.
Abortive as the Germans thrust proved, it caused substantial casualties. The relieving battalion of the 358th Infantry lost only 9 men, but the 3d Battalion, 22d Infantry, had 12 men killed, 98 wounded, and 38 missing; some of the missing, who had been cut off in pillboxes outside the village, later rejoined their companies.
After waiting through the morning to make sure Brandscheid was secure, two battalions of the 22d Infantry resumed the attack at noon, moving east from the crossroads above Brandscheid to take the first row of villages beyond the Schnee Eifel. Here in September another battalion of the 4th Division had run into trouble after neglecting to take high ground while advancing down a valley to cross the little Mon Creek. This time strength was at hand to do both jobs at once, and what was left of the 326th Volks Grenadier Division could have little effect on the outcome. Except for artillery fire, the Germans fought back feebly. The same was true on the Schnee Eifel where the 8th Infantry continued to roll up the pillbox line to the northeast and established contact with the 87th Division.
The 4th Division's success on 6 February boded well for the future, particularly when considered in context with an event of early morning on the south flank of the corps where, southwest of Habscheid, contingents of the 11th Armored Division had attacked the West Wall.
Scheduled to begin before dawn on 6 February, the 11th Armored Division barely struggled into position on time. The thaw and freeze, rain and snow, constant since 1 February, had turned roads into quagmires in some places and in others had glazed them with mud and ice. So great was the traffic congestion during the march that few of the division's tanks could make it forward, thus leaving the first assignment to the armored infantry. The enemy fortunately had no planes in the air to take advantage of the long columns of vehicles stalled bumper to bumper. Nothing was lost but tempers and sleep.
Even more than the attacks of the other divisions of the VIII Corps, that of the 11th Armored Division would benefit from striking along the enemy's interarmy boundary. From a point just south of Habscheid, the front was the responsibility of the Seventh Army's XIII Corps, but the volks grenadier division charged with the defense was so acutely short of men that a portion of the line close to the boundary could be defended only by outposts.
Beginning at 0400, shortly before the German counterthrust at Brandscheid, two dismounted armored infantry battalions moved abreast from Heckhuscheid, southwest of Habscheid, toward Losenseifen Hill (Hill 568), an eminence bristling with pillboxes that had been a key objective of an American division in September. No artillery preparation preceded the move. In the darkness, the Germans in the few pillboxes that were manned hardly knew what hit them. By 0830 the armored infantrymen completely controlled Losenseifen Hill in a penetration a mile and a half deep into the West Wall.
The successes of 6 February meant that the VIII Corps had breached the West Wall on a front of approximately eleven miles, prompting the corps commander, General Middleton, to accelerate and broaden the attack. Urging the 4th and 90th Divisions to increase the tempo of their thrusts, he told the 87th Division and the 11th Armored to disregard previously assigned objectives and "continue on through."8 The armor was to advance beyond the corps to high
ground some four miles southwest of Losenseifen Hill, there to help the neighboring III Corps to get across the Our River and into its section of the West Wall.
General Middleton's directive actually would have little practical effect. On 7 February the inevitable slowness of clearing pillboxes, combined with the local German countermeasures, provided the Germans an additional twenty-four hours to ready other steps to oppose the attack. Only on the left wing of the 4th Division was the defense still soft. There two battalions of the 8th Infantry descended the slopes of the Schnee Eifel and advanced almost unopposed as much as two miles, crossed the upper reaches of the Mon Creek, and reached the west bank of the Mehlen Creek.
On the north the 87th Division spent the day clearing pillboxes. The 11th Armored Division on the south did the same, postponing any major effort to execute its new mission until the adjacent regiment of the 90th Division came abreast.
It was in the center that the hard fighting took place as the 22d, 357th, and 358th Regiments pushed attacks toward Pruem and Pronsfeld. None could gain more than a mile, and all had to fight off a number of small but determined counterattacks launched by conglomerate units, anything Generals Lucht and Felber could find--remnants of division engineer battalions, local security forces, and the like. In only one case would the counterattacks cause genuine concern, but they would materially delay the advance nonetheless.
Attacking southeast along the Habscheid-Pronsfeld road, the 357th Infantry intended to slip one battalion in the darkness past Hill 510 to take a second height, Hill 511. Another battalion was to follow to seize the bypassed hill.
It failed to work out that way. Control proved difficult in the dark, and the approach march was slow. Daylight and with it enemy fire caught the two battalions strung out along the highway, the point of the leading battalion still short of Hill 511. Fire from the first hill, thick with pillboxes, split the column. The fire isolated most of the leading battalion in an open saddle between the two hills for the entire day. The other battalion finally cleared the pillboxes on Hill 510 but was unable to cross open ground to come to the support of the leading battalion until after dark. Only then were the men able to occupy Hill 511.
The 358th Infantry meanwhile launched a three-pronged attack out of Brandscheid. Moving southeast early on 7 February, the 3d Battalion had little trouble taking Hill 521, a wooded height on the west bank of the Mon Creek. On the other hand, both the 2d Battalion, clearing pillboxes between the other two units, and the 1st came under considerable fire and counted their successes not in yards gained but in pillboxes reduced.
The 1st Battalion proceeded methodically about its task, using tanks and tank destroyers as a base of fire to button up the pillboxes, and by dark had cleared ten and taken about eighty prisoners. The 2d Battalion moved much more slowly, partly because the men found many camouflaged pillboxes not previously reported, partly because the Germans took cover in the concrete forts
during preparatory artillery firing, then rushed outside as the shelling stopped to oppose the infantry from foxholes and trenches.
At noon, with the 3d Battalion already on Hill 521 and the 2d still only a few yards out of Brandscheid, the regimental commander, Lt. Col. Jacob W Bealke, Jr, ordered the 3d Battalion to send a force from Hill 521 westward against the flank of the defenders on Hill 519. Finding no covered route to the hills, the battalion commander asked for a delay until tanks could arrive and night provide concealment.
At dusk Colonel Bealke sent a five-man patrol to search for the best route to the hill, but mortar and small arms fire quickly killed three of the men, prompting the other two to return. A larger patrol from Company I followed with orders to take the hill, if possible, but shortly after emerging from the woods and starting up Hill 519, these men also drew fire and scattered. Not until daylight the next morning was the battalion to try a full-blooded attack.
Through this same day, the 22d Infantry, already in rear of the West Wall, was having its problems too, not with pillboxes but with counterattacks. The 2d Battalion of the 22d took Am Kopf (Hill 554), a piece of dominating ground just east of the Mon Creek, which had been the farthest point of advance in this sector in September. In early afternoon the Germans knocked the battalion off the hill, but the Americans recaptured it just before dark with a reserve company. Another company of the 2d Battalion entered Obermehlen, just over a half mile to the east, but before the end of the day was in "a hell of a fight" there with a company of Germans supported by three tanks.9
A few hundred yards to the southwest the 22d Infantry's 1st Battalion also got across the Mon Creek and onto high ground just short of Niedermehlen, but persistent counterattacks denied further advance. The regimental commander sent the 3d Battalion to back up the 2d, prepared to counterattack if necessary to save the beleaguered company in Obermehlen.
The regiment had 62 casualties during the day. Late in the afternoon the commander, Col. Charles T. Lanham, reported "We are. . . .[now] a very serious threat to Pruem. The Germans may be building up a very big thing against us."10
The "big thing" was the 2d Panzer Division--which sounded more formidable than it actually was--plus a shift in boundary that would eliminate the problem of divided command that had plagued the Germans since the day the VIII Corps began its attack. Both measures were to take effect the next day, 8 February.
Impressed by the presence of the American Third Army across the Our in Luxembourg, higher German commanders had continued to be concerned lest an American attack hit the Eifel even as the Germans hurried resources northward to meet the expected Allied main effort on the Cologne plain. Yet when the VIII Corps did attack on 4 February, immediate identification of only the 4th Division had led the Germans to ascribe "only local significance" to the strike.11 By 6 February, when two
more infantry divisions and the 11th Armored had been identified, the danger became obvious.
At this point the army group commander, Field Marshal Model, shifted the Seventh Army boundary northward to eliminate the nuisance of responsibility divided with the Fifth Panzer Army. He also permitted unrestricted use of the Seventh Army's reserve, the 2d Panzer Division.
Given a free hand, the Seventh Army commander, General Brandenberger, elected to reinforce the threatened sector not only with the panzer division but also with two Kampfgruppen--all that that was left--of the two volks grenadier divisions, the 276th and 340th. These he shifted into the sector of the XIII Corps from the adjoining corps to the south, even though continued identification of a U.S. armored division in Luxembourg indicated that the Third U.S. Army soon might launch another thrust farther south.
Brandenberger also directed northward from the Seventh Army's left wing a Kampfgruppe of the 352d Volks Grenadier Division. Felber's XIII Corps thus would contain Kampfgruppen of four volks grenadier divisions, the 5th Parachute Division, and the panzer division. The corps would have in addition a separate armored battalion equipped with Tiger tanks. Counting vehicles of this battalion, of the panzer division, and of occasional guns in the volks grenadier divisions, the XIII Corps would have approximately seventy serviceable tanks and assault guns.
For the Americans, the added German strength was all too apparent on 8 February. The only notable advance was in the north where the 87th Division's 345th Infantry, moving before daylight, seized a village on the upper reaches of the Pruem River. On the south flank the 359th Infantry cleared bypassed pillboxes in the 90th Division's zone, but enough of a gap still existed between the 90th Division and the 11th Armored Division to discourage the reluctant armor again from starting its drive to the southeast.
Hard fighting once more was the order of the day in the center where the arrival of the 2d Panzer Division made a clear impact. The 4th Division's 8th Infantry, which had reached the Mon Creek the day before against little opposition, had to fight all through the 8th and into the 9th to clear the village of Gondenbrett. On the regiment's right, two small counterattacks hit the company of the 22d Infantry in Obermehlen, while another struck Am Kopf Hill, west of the village. These delayed the 22d Infantry's own attack until shortly past noon on the 8th. In the afternoon the 2d and 3d Battalions set out to clear the last houses of Obermehlen and open slopes to the south, whereupon the 2d Battalion tried to cross the Mehlen Creek in order to take high ground between the creek and the settlement of Tafel, whence most of the counterattacks appeared to be coming.
Swollen by the thaw to a width of fifteen feet in some places, the Mehlen Creek proved a major obstacle. A few men of the 2d Battalion found fords; others stepped into deep water and had to swim for it. Except for the weapons platoon, which was cut to pieces by machine gun fire during the crossing, most of Company G nevertheless made the far bank. The platoons advanced halfway up the high ground against a surprising lack
of opposition and there prepared to defend in expectation of reinforcement after dark. The stage was unwittingly set for a repetition of a reverse that had happened to another company of the same division five months earlier only a few hundred yards away on the east bank of the Mon Creek.
The men of Company G had no heavy weapons--only their M1's and BAR's. These and their radios as well were soaked. They had salvaged only one bazooka, for which they had only one rocket, and it misfired. Company F, which was to have followed, bogged down under enemy fire west of the creek.
That was the situation when shortly before dark Germans of the 2d Panzer Division attacked in company strength with three to five tanks in support. The men of Company G had little alternative but to fall back across the creek in a sauve qui peut.
The 8th of February was a costly day for the 22d Infantry. Losses exceeded a hundred. Seventeen were known dead.
The story was much the same with the 357th and 358th Regiments of the 90th Division. Although the 358th absorbed relatively little punishment from enemy fire, the regiment still could not solve the problem of the open approaches to Hill 519. The wind was in the wrong direction for using smoke, and artillery could not neutralize the enemy in concrete shelters. By the close of the day, the 2d Battalion had cleared a few more pillboxes and had maneuvered into position in the woods on Hill 521, ready to hit Hill 519 in conjunction with the 3d Battalion, but the attack would have to await another day.
The 357th Infantry had no better luck at Hill 511 to the southwest. There, in early morning, a counterattack by contingents of the 352d Volks Grenadier Division hit Company K on the hill. Company I, mounted on tanks, hurried forward to help. Thus began a daylong fight in which the 3d Battalion in particular suffered. Driven off Hill 511, the battalion recaptured it before the day was out but was unable to advance beyond. Fire of all kinds beat in on the men from three sides. One supporting tank destroyer was knocked out by direct fire; two tanks were lost.
For the next two days, 9 and 10 February, hard fighting would continue almost everywhere except on the extreme flanks, with the 22d Infantry, the focal unit in the drive, coming in for the bloodiest fighting. Yet for all the difficulties imposed, the Germans clearly would have to muster considerably more strength than that already committed if Pruem and the west bank of the Pruem River were to be denied much longer.
Although what happened to the 4th Division continued to show striking similarities to the division's earlier experience in this same sector, one noteworthy difference between the two engagements was apparent. In September, when a company had fallen back from the high ground just beyond the Mon Creek, the 4th Division's regiments had been spent, all reserves committed. When on 8 February Company G, 22d Infantry, retreated from beyond the Mehlen Creek, both the 8th and 22d Regiments still were strong, the 8th particularly, and the division commander still had a reserve in the uncommitted 12th Infantry.
The day of 9 February opened auspiciously for the 8th Infantry when one battalion moved against only sporadic resistance into a village on the Pruem
River a little over a mile east of Gondenbrett. Yet when another battalion attempted to turn south to take a village on the road to Pruem, the opposition suddenly stiffened. The explanation was to be found in that the regiment had shifted its attack from the relatively undefended left flank of the Fifth Panzer Army into the Seventh Army's sector and the domain of the 2d Panzer Division.
The immediate task still facing the 22d Infantry on 9 February was to recapture the high ground between the Mehlen Creek and Tafel so that the village of Niedermehlen in turn might be taken and the main road to Pruem opened. The regiment's plan was to attack with the 1st Battalion across the creek, then to converge on Niedermehlen from two sides with its other two battalions.
Because road conditions precluded bringing up bridging equipment, the 4th Division's engineers decided to get the 1st Battalion across the creek on an improvised log bridge. By 0930 the bridge was in and two companies began to cross. Both these had made it when, within ten to fifteen minutes of the first man's crossing, an enemy machine gun opened fire up the creek valley from the south. This forced the third company to cover. During the next five hours, fifteen men fell while trying to brave the machine gun fire. Every effort to knock out the German gunner failed.
Companies A and C in the meantime made their way up the high ground and dug in to defend. Although more numerous than the three platoons of Company G the day before, they were little better off. Without tanks and with the only supply road--that through Niedermehlen--in enemy hands, they made no attempt to push farther.
At 1300 the enemy again sought a decision on the high ground. With five tanks and two companies of infantry, the Germans struck. In an hour Company A had shot all its bazooka rockets but had two tanks to show for them. Still neither the 1st Battalion's reserve company nor supporting tanks could get across the Mehlen Creek to help. Shells from German tanks plowed into the 2d Battalion in Obermehlen, disorganizing one company there. "Krauts," the 2d Battalion reported, "[are] all over the place."12 Yet up on the hill Companies A and C with the help of intensive shelling by the 44th Field Artillery Battalion absorbed the shock of the enemy thrust, taking severe casualties but giving no ground.
The 3d Battalion meanwhile had circled west of Niedermehlen, and even before the Germans struck at Companies A and C had attempted with the aid of a platoon of tanks and another of tank destroyers to push into the village. Fire from at least three German tanks or assault guns halted every attempt.
An inconclusive fire fight continued through the afternoon until Companies A and C had defeated the counterattack beyond the creek. At that point, behind a TOT13 fired by four battalions of artillery, companies of the 2d and 3d Battalions pressed into Niedermehlen. Resistance collapsed, and within two hours the village was clear, a hundred Germans captured. The day's fighting cost the 22d Infantry 121 men, most of
them lost on the high ground east of the Mehlen Creek.
Even as these events occurred, the 4th Division commander, General Blakeley, committed his reserve, the 12th Infantry, to take a village off the 22d Infantry's right flank. The regiment accomplished its task with little difficulty and the next day, 10 February, reached the west bank of the Pruem River southwest of Pruem.
The Final Phase
The 22d Infantry's task also was near completion, though remnants of the 2d Panzer Division with their backs to the Pruem River still fought hard for at least every other yard of ground. On 10 February the 1st Battalion engaged in a bitter house-to-house fight to clear Tafel and again had to repel a tank-supported counterattack. The 3d Battalion moved more easily to occupy high ground directly west of Pruem. During the day another seventy-three men were killed or wounded. Although the 22d Infantry was at the threshold of its objective, the town of Pruem, the regiment would arrive there nearly spent. Reluctant to commit individual replacements during the battle, the regimental commander doubted that his thinned and tired forces would have the strength for another house-to-house struggle the next day.14
On 9 and 10 February the 90th Division also advanced, slowly at first, but with a dash on the second day as the enemy in the north of the division's zone fell back behind the Pruem River. When the Germans withdrew from Hill 519 on 9 February, the 358th Infantry followed, then the next day broke free behind the last of the West Wall pillboxes to take high ground along the west bank of the Pruem. The 357th Infantry at the same time pushed about a mile south of Hill 511 in what was in effect flank protection for the 358th Infantry, while the third regiment, the 359th, cleared the last of the gap between the infantry and the armor on Losenseifen Hill. For the most part, during these two days the Germans were content to sting the attackers with mortar and artillery fire.
Operations at this point entered a new phase, dictated by an uncompromising tyrant called logistics. Not built for heavy military traffic, the roads of Belgium and Luxembourg had literally disintegrated under a combination of alternate freeze and thaw, daily rains and floods, and the coming and going of big tanks, trucks, and guns. The entire engineer strength of the VIII Corps was barely sufficient to keep the most essential supply routes open. In a few days the 22d Infantry was to report that with all roads to the regiment's rear impassable, nothing remained in the forward ammunition supply point. Some units of the VIII Corps had to be supplied by airdrops.
As early as 8 February, General Middleton, as eager as anybody in the Third Army to get on with the attack, felt impelled to suggest to General Patton that he call off the offensive until the road situation improved.15 The next day, 9 February, Patton agreed that when the corps reached the Pruem River, the attackers might desist and all units dig in for defense.
For the 4th Division this order was qualified by instructions to watch for
DROPPING SUPPLIES BY PARACHUTE TO THE 4TH DIVISION
any enemy withdrawal, and if one occurred to "jump on it."16 When prisoners on the 10th reported the Germans evacuating Pruem, General Blakeley took advantage of the qualification to continue the attack into the town. Despite its losses, the 22d Infantry fought into the fringes on the 11th and the next day occupied the rubble that Pruem had become.
It was the condition of the roads that stopped the VIII Corps, but even had the roads held up the attack would have come to a halt on 10 February. The VIII Corps had run out the period of grace granted with the general standfast orders of 1 February, and a new condition thwarted for the moment any subterfuge Patton might have attempted to change matters. On 10 February General Bradley ordered Patton to give up headquarters of the III Corps to the First Army, which meant that the VIII Corps would have to assume responsibility for General Millikin's sector. Although General Middleton would inherit one of the two divisions of the III Corps, the new responsibility still would involve considerable adjustment and reorganization.
The VIII Corps had achieved substantially the objectives set. The corps had made a clean penetration of the West Wall, and three out of four divisions had reached the Pruem River. Pruem itself was in hand. General Middleton thus would be free to turn his attention to the south where other events, under way since 6 February, invited participation by the VIII Corps.
For to the south General Patton had launched another of the probing attacks authorized by the decision of 1 February. The objective of the attack was limited--Bitburg, the other major road center in the western Eifel, eighteen miles southwest of Pruem; but Patton had more in mind than Bitburg. He was, he hoped, kindling a flame that eventually would become a full-fledged fire carrying the Third Army all the way to the Rhine.
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1. TUSA AAR, 1 Aug 44-9 May 45, p. 255; TUSA Opnl Dir, 3 Feb 45; Gay Diary, entries of 3-5 Feb 45.
2. Unless otherwise noted, the tacticial story is based on official unit records and combat interviews. See also Hal D. Steward, Thunderbolt--The History of the Eleventh Armored Division (Washington: Infantry Journal Press, 1948); Gerden F. Johnson, History of the Twelfth lnfantry Regiment in World War II (Boston: National Fourth Division Assoc., 1947); Joe I. Abrams, A History of the 90th Division in World War II (Baton Rouge: Army-Navy Publishing Co., 1946); A Historical and Pictorial Record of the 87th Infantry Division World War II (Baton Rouge: Army-Navy Publishing Co., 1946).
3. VIII Corps G-2 Estimate 19, 4 Feb 45.
5. The German story is based on OKW situation maps for the period and the following manuscripts: MSS # B-041 (Generalmajor Hans-Kurt Hoecker, CC 167th Volks Grenadier Division); # B-123 (Generalmajor Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff, CofS, Seventh Army); # B-561 (Generalmajor Karl Wagener, CofS, Fifth Panzer Army); # C-020 (Schramm).
6. The action is covered in MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign.
7. In addition to German sources previously cited see MS # B-561, 326th Volks Grenadier Division, 26 January-17 April 1945 (Generalmajor Erwin Kaschner, CG).
8. 4th Div Jnl, 6 Feb 45.
9. 22d Inf Jnl, 1 Feb 45.
11. MS # B-123 (Gersdorff).
12. 22d Inf Jnl, 9 Feb 45.
13. TOT stands for time on target, a method of timing the fire of artillery pieces in various locations to fall on a target simultaneously.
14. 22d Inf Jnl, 10 Feb 45.
15. Patton, War As I Knew It, p. 239.
16. 22d Inf Jnl, 10 Feb 45.