Bitburg and the Vianden Bulge
Clearing of the Vianden Bulge and the Capture of Bitburg
6-28 February 1945
When Patton's Third Army drew up to the German frontier at the end of January, the army sector stretched for more than a hundred miles from the Losheim Gap in the north to the northwestern corner of the Saar industrial region, thence southeastward to a point on the Saar River midway between Saarlautern and Saarbruecken. From north to south, the Third Army's order of battle was the VIII Corps (Middleton), III Corps (Millikin), XII Corps (Eddy), and XX Corps (Walker).
Meandering northeastward from Trier, the Moselle River formed a natural division within the Third Army's zone. North of the Moselle lay the Eifel, inhospitable from the standpoint of terrain but inviting nevertheless because it screened the Rhine city of Koblenz and several Rhine bridges. South of the Moselle, the XX Corps faced the considerable obstacle of the Saar River plus the strongest network of concrete fortifications along the entire length of the West Wall. Severely restricted in the forces that might be committed to an offensive, General Patton had chosen the Eifel, for all its drawbacks.
Once the VIII Corps jumped off on 4 February to take Pruem, Patton intended that the XII Corps begin its attack on Bitburg the night of 6 February. Apparently on the assumption that the Germans caught in the middle of these two drives would withdraw when threatened with outflanking on north and south, he directed the III Corps in the center, from Luetzkampen to Vianden, to participate at first only with a series of minor probing attacks designed to prevent the Germans from shifting strength to north and south.
Like the attack of the VIII Corps on Pruem, the maneuver by the XII Corps against Bitburg had been tried once before--in September, by a single armored division, the 5th. At the end of the great pursuit across France and Belgium, the 5th Armored had attempted to take Bitburg by utilizing a semblance of a terrain corridor extending northeast from the village of Wallendorf, about halfway between Vianden and Echternach; but lacking reserves, the armor eventually had fallen back into Luxembourg.1
For the February attack General Patton approved a strike along a front of some seven and a half miles from Wallendorf southeast to Echternach. (Map IV) Although the same semblance of a terrain corridor northeast of Wallendorf still would be used for the final drive to Bitburg, the advance would be attempted only after wooded high ground southeast of Wallendorf, lying between the Sauer and Pruem Rivers at their confluence
near Echternach, had been taken and the corps south flank thus secured.
Before General Eisenhower's decision of 1 February, General Patton had intended that the XII Corps attack on 4 February in order to tie in with the Euskirchen offensive. Having protested the target date on the basis that Patton had no appreciation of "time and space factors," the XII Corps commander, General Eddy, was pleased when Eisenhower's general standfast orders resulted in a two-day postponement.2 Unfortunately, the postponement virtually coincided with the unseasonable thaw, and the XII Corps would find it difficult to be ready even by the night of 6 February. By the 2d many motor pools and supply depots already were under water, and rapidly rising rivers threatened tactical bridges. By the 4th the level of the Moselle had risen over thirteen feet and ripped away floating bridges uniting the XII and XX Corps. The river that the XII Corps had to cross, the Sauer, was a swollen torrent.
From the German point of view, the raging river was about the strongest deterrent to American success that commanders in this sector could count on. The remnants of two panzer divisions, which the U.S. Third Army G-2, Col. Oscar W. Koch, believed still with the Seventh Army, already had moved north; the only remaining armored reserve, the 2d Panzer Division, would be used to counter the attack on Pruem before the XII Corps operation got underway. The situation in the Seventh Army's center and on its left wing was thus much the same as that confronting the XIII Corps farther north--nothing left but weak volks grenadier divisions. The only exception was the 212th Volks Grenadier Division, located on the extreme left wing of the army near the confluence of the Sauer with the Moselle, protecting the city of Trier. The 212th had fallen back to the West Wall ahead of the others and thus had gained time to refit and reorganize.3
With the northern boundary just over a mile southeast of Vianden, the LXXX Corps under General Beyer was destined to come under attack first. From north to south, Beyer's divisions, all volks grenadier units, were the 79th, 352d, and the relatively strong 212th. Before the new American attack began, the 352d would be lost to the effort to protect Pruem.
Any weakening of the already thin line in the south worried the Germans. Rundstedt himself, the Commander in Chief West, remained for a long time seriously concerned over the possibility of an American advance up the general line of the Moselle on either side of Trier.4 Yet the Germans there would have the advantage of the West Wall, which was particularly strong on either side of Trier, the early thaw with its rains and swollen rivers, and the terrain. The Our and Sauer Rivers in the sector faced by the XII Corps run through sharp gorges with clifflike sides sometimes 600 feet high. The four-mile stretch from Bollendorf to Echternach, where the U.S. XII Corps would assault, was further protected by large wooded stretches close up to the Sauer.
Crossing the Sauer
Available to General Eddy for the Bitburg attack were three infantry divisions (the veteran 5th and 80th, the inexperienced 76th) and a veteran armored division (the 4th). To make the main effort on the right, Eddy chose the 5th Division (General Irwin), veteran of many a river crossing. Aided by an attached regimental combat team (the 417th) of the 76th Division to protect the right flank, the 5th was to cross between Bollendorf and Echternach to take the first hill mass, not quite a mile beyond the Sauer. The hill would afford control of the ground lying in an angle formed by confluence of the Sauer and the Pruem Rivers downstream from Echternach. With one flank secured by the Pruem River, the 5th Division then could turn north to gain more open ground southwest of Bitburg before jumping the Pruem and advancing on the main objective. The 80th Division (General McBride) meanwhile was to cross the Sauer from Wallendorf to Bollendorf and advance as far north as Mettendorf, five miles northeast of Wallendorf, to protect the left flank of the main effort. Each of the 80th's assault regiments received an armored infantry battalion of the 4th Armored Division as reinforcement, and each of the five assault regiments in the corps drew the support of a full engineer battalion.5
As engineers and riflemen moved down to the Sauer on the night of 6
February, a fitful rain turned to light snow. Seeking surprise, supporting artillery provided only moderate fire, directed at known enemy positions. Even this light fire produced some German response, most of it directed close along the water line.
From the first the main enemy was the river itself, swollen to double its normal 90-foot width, its current a turbulent twelve miles an hour. Salvaged from a captured Luftwaffe depot, the little inflatable rubber boats in which most of the assault companies were to cross would fight an unequal battle against the churning water.
When the first boats pushed out into the river some capsized almost immediately. Others rampaged out of control far down the stream or careened crazily back against the bank. Yet some survived. These had reached midstream when here and there lone rifle shots rang out. As if
CROSSING SITE ON THE SAUER RIVER NEAR ECHTERNACH
the shots were signals, the entire east bank of the river appeared to come to life. Brilliant flares lighted the scene. Even those men who survived the treacherous current could scarcely hope to escape the crisscross of fire from automatic weapons.
Only eight men--one boatload--of each assault regiment of the 5th Division reached the far shore. Continuing German fire denied reinforcement.
It was somewhat better at Echternach, where Companies A and B formed the assault wave of the 417th Infantry, protecting the 5th Division's right flank. Yet there too, many of the boats met disaster. A round of mortar or artillery fire hit one boat broadside, sinking it in a flash and sending the occupants with their heavy equipment floundering helplessly downstream. Another boat began to drift directly toward a German machine gun spitting fire from the bank. Frantically, the men in the boat tried to change their course by grabbing at rushes along the water's edge, but in the process, they swamped the frail craft. Shedding as much equipment as they could, the men
plunged into the icy water. Some made it to the bank. The current swept others downstream.
In such a melee, squad, platoon, and company organization went for naught. Thrown helter-skelter against the German-held bank, the men tried to reorganize but with little success. A house set afire on the Luxembourg side of the river lit the landscape with an eerie flame that aided German gunners. In the end it would be determined that 56 men and 3 officers of Company A had made it, 52 men and 2 officers of Company B; but no one could have arrived at any figures during the early hours. Before daylight came, most of Company C also got across, but nobody else. Only after nightfall brought concealment were crossings resumed.
In the 80th Division's sector near Wallendorf the attack began at 0300 the morning of 7 February, two hours later than the main assault. With surprise hardly possible in view of the general alert occasioned by the earlier assaults, the men of the 80th smoked likely crossing sites with shells from attached chemical mortars, thereby drawing enemy fire to the smoke, then began to cross the river elsewhere. The stratagem helped considerably and casualties were "not exceptionally heavy";6 during the first twenty-four hours the bulk of at least six companies gained the far bank.
Of the five attacking regiments, the two of the 5th Division had the worst of it. Although the two little separate eight-man groups hardly represented even a toehold, the division commander, General Irwin, determined to treat them as such. With no further need to withhold artillery support, he directed all available artillery battalions to mass their fire beyond the crossing site.7 Tanks and tank destroyers he told to move boldly forward to take German pillboxes under direct observed fire. The corps commander, General Eddy, personally ordered tank destroyers armed with 90-mm. pieces to go to the water's edge. He also told General Irwin to cross his regiments in the 80th Division's or 417th Infantry's sectors should those units establish firm bridgeheads before the 5th Division could get across.8 Yet as night came on 7 February, the sixteen still were the only men of the 5th Division on the German side of the river.
Contingents of both the 80th Division and the 417th Infantry meanwhile achieved some success against the high ground beyond the river. By nightfall of the first day (7 February), a battalion of the 80th Division held high ground northeast of Wallendorf, a mile and a half beyond the Sauer, and one company was in Wallendorf. With a verve and initiative often displayed by the inexperienced, Companies A and B of the 417th Infantry cleared pillbox after pillbox and occupied a portion of the high ground northeast of Echternach. There, in later afternoon, three German tanks and a small infantry force counterattacked, but Pfc. Lyle Corcoran knocked out one tank with a bozooka, another mired helpless in the mud, and a third withdrew. That ended the threat.
The big problem still was the river. Although all units had plans to put in bridges once the first wave of riflemen
was across, every effort to span the stream failed. In the 417th Infantry's sector, the 160th Engineer Battalion tried three times to anchor a cable across the river for a footbridge, but the current severed the first two and enemy machine gun fire sank the boat carrying the third. Despairing of success by this method, the engineers constructed a bridge on the near bank and tried to float it into position, but the current soon made quick work of it too.
Dependence on footbridges was one reason the 5th Division's right regiment, the 11th Infantry, failed to get more than eight men across the river. The regiment's assault plan was based on sending only patrols by boat, then constructing footbridges for the bulk of the infantry. Every effort to put in the bridges failed.
The coming of night on 7 February changed the situation but little. A few more men of the 80th Division got across, either in assault boats or by swimming when the boats capsized, but frustration continued generally to be everybody's lot.
Giving up hope of crossing during the night and planning a new attempt the next day, the 5th Division's 10th Infantry sent a boat to rescue its eight men from the far bank, while the eight of the 11th Infantry held fast. After a heavy machine gun section of the 11th Infantry's Company K and six boatloads of Company F got across, contact was at last established with the eight men who still remained on the far bank. Still no one could claim that the 5th Division possessed any kind of workable holding beyond the Sauer.
Some time in the early hours of the 8th, three platoons of Company G, 417th Infantry, and a heavy machine gun platoon of Company H conquered the current at Echternach, and before daylight another fifteen boatloads of riflemen made it. Yet as had happened to their predecessors twenty-four hours earlier, German fire and the raging river quickly cut these men off from reinforcement and supply.
The story would continue the same in the XII Corps for three more days, until 11 February when engineers at last succeeded in bridging the river. That the weak and usually isolated units on the far shore could hold their own and even expand their positions was a testament to the courage and tenacity of the men and commanders concerned, plus the excellent support they got from their artillery; but it was a testament, too, to the general ineffectiveness of their enemy. Although the Germans might defend a position doggedly and impose severe casualties on the attacker before giving up, a passive defense augmented by mortar and Nebelwerfer fire was about all they could offer. They simply had no reserves for determined counterattacks.
For the Americans it was an incredibly difficult operation. The cliffs on the east bank were no less precipitous whether a man was attacking up them or merely trying to manhandle a case of K rations to hungry comrades at the top. The mud was deep, the weather always wet and cold. Trench foot and respiratory diseases abounded, and evacuation across the swollen Sauer was virtually impossible. German fire and the river greedily consumed assault boats and bridging equipment, and bringing up more over the ruined roads of Luxembourg was a slow process.
In the end it was sheer power mixed with determination and ingenuity that did the job. Although the corps lost at
least a dozen bridges to the river, others at last were put in to stay. When two or three engineers were unable to bring back assault boats, six men did the job, limiting the number of infantrymen who could be carried but nevertheless gradually increasing the strength on the far bank. The 5th Division used big searchlights to illuminate the night crossings. Pontons lashed together served as ferries for vital heavy equipment. Moving up close to the river, 155-mm. self-propelled guns poured direct fire on German pillboxes. One battery alone destroyed eight pillboxes in one 24-hour period. To resupply men of the 417th Infantry on the heights above Echternach, fighter-bombers dropped specially loaded belly tanks. When these eluded the infantrymen, artillery liaison planes braved small arms fire to drop supplies with improvised parachutes. Whenever weather permitted, fighter-bombers of the XIX Tactical Air Command roamed far and wide, ready to strike at a moment's notice at any indication that the Germans were reinforcing the sector.
By 11 February, when the first tactical bridges were in, the 5th Division, including the attached 417th Infantry, had forged a bridgehead three miles wide and a mile deep; but several hundred yards of pillbox-studded terrain still separated the bridgehead from the closest regiment of the 80th Division. Nor had the two assault regiments of the 80th Division yet joined their holdings. On the other hand, within the two divisions, thirteen infantry battalions were across the river.
Visiting the sector on 12 February, General Patton was so appalled by the condition of the roads and yet so convinced that the crossings were no longer in danger that he volunteered permission to halt the attack for a day.9 General Eddy declined. The unremitting pressure of infantry and artillery was having a slow but inexorable effect; Eddy saw no reason to check the momentum.
Had General Eddy been able to view the situation through his adversary's eyes, he would have been even more convinced that he had chosen the right course. Once the Germans actually occupying the sector were rooted from their pillboxes, little else would stand in the way. Divining that the Echternach thrust was the southern arm of a pincers movement designed eventually to link with the attack of the VIII Corps on Pruem, the Germans gambled that no move would be made against Trier. They shifted the south regiment of the 212th Volks Grenadier Division from Trier to assist the rest of the division. Although Army Group B provided a weak Kampfgruppe of the 560th Volks Grenadier Division--all that was left of that unit--to replace the 212th's southern regiment, so critical was the situation around Echternach that this Kampfgruppe too had to be committed there. Beyond these two units, no other reinforcements were in prospect.10
The only other step the Germans were able to take immediately to help Beyer's LXXX Corps was to shift the right boundary of the corps to the south to a point just north of Wallendorf so that the adjacent LIII Corps (Rothkirch) could bear some of the burden. Thus once the 80th U.S. Division was across the river and turned north, the opposition came from units of the LIII Corps. Yet this corps had already been drained of resources in efforts to shore up the
faltering XIII Corps in the fight to save Pruem and could provide little more than conglomerate artillery and antitank units hastily converted to infantry roles.11
The Germans nevertheless continued to make a telling fight of it. So long as they were able, with the help of the West Wall, weather, terrain, and river, to restrict the size of the bridgehead, they would at the same time restrict the amount of power, including tanks, that the Americans might bring to bear.
Six more days--12 through 17 February--were to pass before the XII Corps could carve a full-fledged bridgehead from the inhospitable terrain. On the morning of the 12th the two assault regiments of the 80th Division finally linked their bridgeheads, and that evening the two divisions also joined. After 11 February, when the 417th Infantry reverted to control of its parent division, units of the 76th Infantry Division (Maj. Gen. William R. Schmidt) began crossing the river to assume defensive positions along the Pruem as the 5th Division turned north, but this was a slow process simply because the 5th's advance was slow.
On 14 February the 5th Division's 11th Infantry finally took Ernzen, southernmost of the villages on the high ground between the Sauer and the Pruem, but only after artillery lined up almost hub-to-hub on the other side of the Sauer joined with fighter-bombers to level the buildings. En route northward, a battalion of the 2d Infantry fought its way out of the woods as night came on the 16th and entered Schankweiler, thereby coming roughly abreast of the 80th Division, but the village was not entirely in hand until the next day.
Although the Germans in most places fought with determination, they could take credit for only part of the delay. The condition of supply roads west of the Sauer and continuing problems of getting men and heavy equipment across the swollen river accounted for much of it. Without the little M29 cargo carrier (Weasel), a kind of full-tracked jeep, vehicular traffic in the mud of the bridgehead would have ground to a halt. Nor did the 80th Division, in particular, launch any large-scale attacks, concentrating instead on mopping up pockets of resistance, jockeying for position on high ground north and northeast of Wallendorf, and building up strength in supporting weapons and supplies before making a major effort to expand and break out of the bridgehead.12 One unusual item of equipment introduced to both the 5th and 80th Divisions in the bridgehead was the T34 multiple rocket launcher, a 60-tube cluster of 4.5-inch rocket launchers mounted on a Sherman tank.13
The Vianden Bulge
The 80th Division was to begin its new advance early on 18 February, but at first it would be directed less toward capture of Bitburg than toward helping eliminate an enemy hold-out position lying between the XII Corps bridgehead and the penetration of the VIII Corps at Pruem. While the VIII Corps drove south and southeast, the 80th Division
was to move north and northeast, the two to join at the village of Mauel, on the Pruem River equidistant from Pruem and Bitburg.
The enemy's hold-out position quickly came to be known on the American side as the Vianden bulge, after a town on the Our. The bulge was some twenty-two miles wide from north to south, from the 90th Division's forward lines near Habscheid to the 80th Division's positions north of Wallendorf. It was eleven to thirteen miles deep, from the German frontier along the Our to the Pruem. It encompassed some of the most rugged terrain in the entire Eifel. A steep, heavily wooded bluff capped by limestone ledges marks the east bank of the Our. Behind the bluff and the pillboxes of the West Wall, the land alternately rises and plunges in a series of high, irregular ridges and deep ravines dotted with thick stands of fir trees and laced with twisting secondary roads.
German commanders responsible for the Vianden bulge wanted to withdraw, to exchange the extended, meandering periphery of the bulge for a considerably shorter line behind the Pruem River. Since they lacked the strength to counterattack the American penetrations to north and south, the bulge had little tactical significance. Nor did the Germans have enough resources even to hold the bulge for any appreciable time.
Once the boundary of the LIII Corps was shifted southward to give Rothkirch's troops some of the burden of the bridgehead battle with the XII U.S. Corps, responsibility for the Vianden bulge was split almost in half. Reduced to two weak volks grenadier divisions and a few conglomerate units, the LIII Corps held the southern half; General Felber's XIII Corps, severely straitened by the Pruem fighting, the northern half.
For all the desire of the corps commanders to withdraw, "Hitler, like a small child, refused to part with even a small portion of his toy, the West Wall."14 When General Felber broached the subject of withdrawal to the Seventh Army commander, General Brandenberger, the army commander had to refuse even though he personally favored it.15 Brandenberger himself had recommended the same thing to Army Group B, but Field Marshal Model, severely piqued because Brandenberger had failed to repulse the American drives, was in no mood to agree even had Hitler's standfast orders not blocked the way. Model already was contemplating relief of the Seventh Army commander.
Strained relations between the army and the army group commander came to a head only two days after the Americans opened their drive to eliminate the bulge. At a meeting at the Seventh Army's forward headquarters on 20 February, Model castigated Brandenberger before his staff and relieved him. He immediately elevated General Felber, who was present, to command of the Seventh Army.
If the disgrace of relief hurt Brandenberger's pride, it also may have saved his life. Hardly had he left when an American bomb landed on the headquarters building, killing or severely wounding several staff officers. The chief of staff, stripped of his clothing by the blast, incurred only a superficial head wound; the new commander, General Felber, who had just left the building for a farewell
tour of his XIII Corps, also incurred a slight wound.16
Upon Felber's advancement, Generalleutnant Graf Ralph von Oriola assumed command of the XIII Corps. After studying the situation in his sector, Oriola made the same recommendation to Felber that Felber had made to Brandenberger--withdraw behind the Pruem. The new Seventh Army commander found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to refuse the very request he himself had made a few days before.17
Forced to deny a maneuver that he actually endorsed, Felber devised a simple plan that assured him at least a measure of operational control of his army. Working through his chief of staff, General Gersdorff, he told his subordinate commanders they would in the future receive two versions of all orders. One would direct continued defense and was to be filed in official records. The other would give the order Felber actually intended; it was to be destroyed after receipt. To justify withdrawals, operational reports to higher headquarters were to be falsified, all withdrawals officially to be made because of overwhelming American strength.18
On the American side, neither the bogging down of the VIII Corps attack because of crumbling supply roads nor General Bradley's order of 10 February removing headquarters of the III Corps from the Third Army was to be allowed to thwart Patton's offensive. Although one division was to depart with the headquarters, the 6th Armored Division and the 6th Cavalry Group were to remain to be taken over by the VIII Corps. With two armored and three infantry divisions and a cavalry group, the VIII Corps would be strong enough to help eliminate the Vianden bulge, despite an elongated front. Time and almost superhuman engineer efforts eventually would correct the supply situation. The attack was to begin on 18 February at the same time the 80th Division of the XII Corps moved northeastward from Wallendorf.
The VIII Corps commander, General Middleton, planned to use only three of his divisions, plus the cavalry group. Shifting the 90th Division and the 11th Armored westward to enable greater concentration within the 6th Armored Division's sector along the Our, he directed the 90th to drive southeastward from Habscheid. The division was to gain the Pruem River from Pronsfeld all the way to the appointed contact point with the XII Corps at Mauel. Using only one combat command at first, the 11th Armored was to thrust due south to clear a pie-shaped sector between the 6th Armored and 90th Divisions, featured by high ground overlooking the village of Irrhausen on a relatively major east-west road. Two days after the first attacks, the 6th Armored Division was to strike southeastward from a small bridgehead already established across the Our north of the village of Dahnen, west of Irrhausen. The 6th Cavalry Group (Col. Edward M. Fickett) meanwhile was to cross the Our on the right flank of the 6th Armored and clear the southwestern corner of the bulge. Both armored divisions were to be pinched out as the attacks of the cavalry and the 90th Division converged along the south boundary of the corps.
Moving before daylight on 18 February without artillery preparation, both the 90th Division and the 11th Armored caught the Germans unprepared.
The more dramatic success was in the center, where the 90th Division's 359th Infantry struck through a thick belt of West Wall pillboxes toward Kesfeld, southwest of Losenseifen Hill, the dominating eminence taken during the Pruem offensive by contingents of the 11th Armored Division. Bypassing pillboxes in the darkness, Company I quickly moved into Kesfeld. It took only a short fire fight to secure the village. Meanwhile, the 2d Batalion and the rest of the 3d cleared forty-eight pillboxes on the approaches to Kesfeld. The regimental commanders and staffs of two regiments of the 167th Volks Grenadier Division and two battalion commanders and their staffs were captured in their bunks. Almost all of two companies also were captured, and by the end of the day more than 400 Germans were headed for prisoner-of-war cages.19
Carrying the burden of the attack for the 11th Armored Division, the reserve combat command had to fight harder but in the end gained more ground than did the 359th Infantry. In CCR's sector just west of Kesfeld, no penetration of the West Wall had yet been made; the attack thus involved passing through concrete dragon's teeth as well as pillboxes. Covered by fire from tanks, armored engineers soon blasted a path through the antitank obstacle, and tanks and armored infantrymen poured through. The advance benefited considerably from the fact that only hours before the attack a regiment of the 276th Volks Grenadier Division had relieved contingents of the 340th Volks Grenadier Division, and the newcomers were unfamiliar with the positions. By nightfall, some seventy-five prisoners were in hand and the 55th Armored Infantry Battalion held Leidenborn, more than one-fourth the distance to the final objective overlooking Irrhausen. The armor spent much of the next day consolidating its penetration.
The going meanwhile had been less encouraging southeast of Habscheid where the 358th Infantry almost a fortnight earlier had learned respect for the kind of opposition the Germans could muster in the pillboxes and on the steep hills along the Habscheid-Pronsfeld highway. Neither the 2d Battalion astride the highway nor the 3d Battalion west of the road gained more than a thousand yards in the face of intense machine gun and artillery fire.
Somewhat inexplicably, the bottom dropped out of the enemy's defense along that road early on the second day, 19 February. Hardly an hour of attack had passed when the battalion west of the road took its objective, the village of Masthorn. An hour later the battalion astride the highway took the last dominating hill short of the Pruem River. Neither battalion incurred a single casualty.
For all practical purposes, the 358th Infantry had reached the Pruem and might begin to pull out the bulk of its forces to participate in a wheeling maneuver that the division commander, General Rooks, set in motion during the afternoon of the 19th. When the 359th Infantry had advanced a mile and a half southeast of Kesfeld, then turned due east toward the Pruem, General Rooks sent his reserve regiment, the 357th Infantry,
WELCOME TO GERMANY FROM THE 6TH ARMORED DIVISION
swinging southeast around the 359th's right flank. Later he would commit the 358th Infantry around the right flank of the 357th to make a broader, final swing southeast to the Pruem at Mauel.
As this maneuver got underway on 20 February, the 6th Armored Division near Dahnen began to break out of its little bridgehead across the Our. Established originally by CCB as a diversion for the attack of the XII Corps on 6 February, the bridgehead was about two miles wide but less than a mile deep. It nevertheless provided a basis for penetrating the West Wall without having to attack the pillboxes frontally across the swollen Our and up the east bank escarpment.20
CCB made the first assault to break out of the bridgehead, while CCA, west of the Our and farther south opposite Dasburg, staged a mock crossing of the river. Beginning at 0645, artillery laid an intensive
preparation across CCB's entire front for twenty minutes, then lifted for ten minutes in hope that the Germans would move from their pillboxes into field fortifications outside. Then for one minute all the artillery switched to a mammoth TOT on the first specific objective, a fortified hill a mile and a half due north of Dahnen.
Close behind the artillery, dismounted armored infantrymen organized into special pillbox assault teams half a platoon strong started up the hill, while others organized as support fire teams took the embrasures of the pillboxes under small arms fire. As an assault team neared a pillbox, a prearranged signal--usually a colored smoke grenade--lifted the support team's fire. Equipped with wire cutters, rocket launchers, and demolition charges, the infantrymen closed in. By 0835 the first pillbox had fallen, and by noon seventeen pillboxes and the crest of the hill were clear. So effective was the method of attack that only one man was lost during the day to small arms fire. Of a total of 5 killed and 66 wounded during 20 February, almost all were lost to mines.
Before daylight the next day, 21 February, CCB struck again. While one force expanded the bridgehead south to take Dahnen, another drove southeast to take the village of Daleiden and thereby cut the major Dasburg-Irrhausen highway. In midmorning at Dahnen, a rifle platoon of the 9th Armored Infantry Battalion mounted a platoon of medium tanks and raced south, bypassing pillboxes, to invest Dasburg and clear a crossing site over the Our for CCA. In a matter of minutes, the tank-mounted infantry gained the village while two infantry companies started south from Dahnen as reinforcement, clearing pillboxes as they marched. By nightfall Dasburg and the pillboxes standing sentinel over the Our west of the village were secure, but fire from German positions south of Dasburg continued to deny CCA passage over the river.
During these two days, the 90th Division continued to push steadily east and southeast toward the Pruem River. While the 359th Infantry on 21 February approached the last two villages short of the river, the 357th Infantry in its wheeling maneuver overcame stanch resistance on open slopes of towering high ground around a crossroads settlement two miles from the Pruem. An opportune strike by fighter-bombers of the XIX Tactical Air Command provided an assist. In midafternoon, with the situation apparently opening up, General Rooks committed the 358th Infantry on its wider wheeling maneuver designed to reach the Pruem at the contact point with the XII Corps at Mauel.
If any doubt remained that the enemy defense was cracking, it rapidly dissipated early the next morning, 22 February, fifth day of the offensive. The 11th Armored Division, for example, heretofore primarily concerned with consolidating its penetration of the West Wall, dashed suddenly southward three miles and occupied its final objective, the high ground overlooking Irrhausen. A battalion of the 358th Infantry on the outer rim of the 90th Division's wheel raced southeast four miles to take a village only three and a half miles from Mauel. One squad of Company A alone took some 100 prisoners, most of them artillerymen frantically trying to hitch their horses to their pieces and escape. Breakthrough everywhere, with the exception of the
southwestern corner of the bulge where the light formation of the 6th Cavalry Group still found the going sticky.
Reports of continued rapid advances were coming in the next day, 23 February, when the corps commander, General Middleton, sat down to lunch at his command post in Luxembourg with the commander of the 6th Armored Division, General Grow. "How long will it take you," Middleton asked Grow, "to get a task force on the road to drive across the front of the 6th Cavalry Group and contact XII Corps?"21 By 1630 a strong force composed of a company each of light and medium tanks, a cavalry troop, an infantry company, a platoon of tank destroyers, and two squads of engineers was on the way. The commander was Lt. Col. Harold C. Davall.
Expanding the XII Corps Bridgehead
The troops that Davall's task force set out to contact had found the opposition stiffer than that facing the VIII Corps but nevertheless had made steady progress. With less ground to cover to reach the intercorps boundary, they would be on hand at the boundary when Davall arrived. These were men of the 80th Division, who on 18 February only a few hours after the VIII Corps jumped off had begun their assignment to help clear the Vianden bulge. At the same time they were expanding the XII Corps bridgehead and preparing the way for a final drive on Bitburg.
Early on 18 February, the 80th Division commander, General McBride, sent two regiments north from the vicinity of Wallendorf toward Mettendorf and Hill 408, the latter the most commanding ground in the second and third tier of hills beyond the German frontier. While protecting the left flank of the 5th Division in the corps main effort, the thrust also would uncover the West Wall pillboxes along the Our River.22
The 80th Division's two regiments took three days to reach Hill 408, but before daylight on 21 February a battalion of the 318th Infantry slipped through the darkness to occupy the height after firing only a few shots. In the meantime, a battalion of the 317th Infantry took the enemy by surprise at Enzen, on the little Enz River southeast of Hill 408, seized a bridge intact, and gained a leg on the next fold of high ground lying between the Enz and the Pruem.
The 319th Infantry meanwhile maneuvered against the pillboxes along the Our. Advancing along the west bank of the Gay Creek, the first stream line behind the river and the pillboxes, one battalion during the night of 18 February occupied high ground near Niedersgegen, nestled at the bottom of the creek valley, and soon after daylight took the village itself. The next day, 20 February, the same battalion turned west to the Our, cutting off the Germans in a two and a half mile stretch of the West Wall.
The job of mopping up the pillboxes fell to the 53d Armored Infantry Battalion, attached from the 4th Armored Division. The weather helped. With the ground free of snow and more than a hint of spring in the air, it was no time
to die. By nightfall of the 21st, when the mop-up was complete, 337 Germans had emerged from the West Wall bunkers, hands high in surrender.
With the West Wall eliminated and Hill 408 taken, time for exploitation appeared at hand. As a first step in commitment of the 4th Armored Division, the corps commander, General Eddy, attached Combat Command B to the 80th Division. On 23 February the armor drove northeast to take Sinspelt and its bridge over the Enz River on a main highway nine miles due west of Bitburg. It was no easy assignment, for in a last-ditch effort to prevent breakout, the Germans rushed the remnants of the 2d Panzer Division down from Pruem.23 Nevertheless, as night fell Sinspelt and a serviceable bridge over the Enz were secure.
Also taken was the settlement of Obergeckler, along the corps boundary just over a mile west and slightly north of Sinspelt. There a battalion of the 319th Infantry kept pace with the armor and as night came was in position to welcome Colonel Davall's task force from the 6th Armored Division, approaching from the north.
Task Force Davall had begun to move at 1630 from the village of Jucken, on a secondary road six miles northwest of Obergeckler. Brushing aside a show of resistance at a crossroads not quite two miles from the starting point, the task force continued southward through the night, gathering in surprised Germans along the way. At 0740 the next morning, 24 February, Task Force Davall made contact with contingents of the 80th Division just north of Obergeckler.
Before the day was out, the 90th Division too had swept to the corps boundary. At a cost of some 600 casualties, of which approximately 125 were killed, three divisions and a cavalry group had pierced the West Wall in the rough terrain of the Eifel and established a solid front along the Pruem River. In the process, they took more than 3,000 prisoners.24
To Bitburg and the Kyll
The Vianden bulge cleared, the XII Corps on 24 February was free to turn full attention to seizing Bitburg. Having assumed command of the corps temporarily when on 22 February General Eddy left for a brief rest, the 4th Armored Division commander, General Gaffey, ordered CCB released from control of the 80th Division and directed the entire armored division to strike northeastward. The armor was to jump the Pruem and Nims Rivers, cut major roads leading north out of Bitburg, and build up along the Kyll River two miles beyond the town. The 5th Infantry Division was to take the town and reach the Kyll to the east and southeast.
In the days since 18 February, while the 80th Division had been expanding the XII Corps bridgehead to north and northeast, the 5th Division had cleared the west bank of the Pruem to a point only six miles southwest of Bitburg. At the same time, the division had regrouped and turned over much of its Pruem River line in the south to the
76th Division.25 Once the 5th had crossed the Pruem, contingents of the 76th also were to cross and drive southeast to protect the 5th's right flank.
From the first it was apparent that crossing the Pruem River would be considerably easier than crossing the Sauer. There was nothing to equal the clifflike terrain along the Sauer, and the worst of the flood waters resulting from the early thaw had passed. Yet hardly anyone could have anticipated how "unquestionably easy" the crossing would be.26 Starting at 2300 the night of the 24th, a battalion of the 2d Infantry crossed the river within an hour and took high ground just north of the village of Wettlingen. An hour later a battalion of the 10th Infantry crossed a few miles to the south on the heels of a patrol that found a serviceable vehicular ford. Only scattered mortar and small arms fire opposed either crossing.
As the infantrymen fanned out to the north and northeast, the story was much the same everywhere. "Germans came forward bearing white flags and sickly smiles."27 By nightfall of 26 February, one battalion of the 2d Infantry stood on the Nims River less than a mile from the western edge of Bitburg. Another battalion of the 2d and two of the 10th Infantry were across the stream farther south and had cut the Echternach-Bitburg highway. The 2d Battalion, 2d Infantry, took a bridge over the Nims intact, and one of the 10th Infantry's battalions crossed over the ruins of a demolished bridge. A regiment of the 76th Division meanwhile crossed the Pruem through the 10th Infantry's bridgehead and also jumped the Nims.
The fate of Bitburg was sealed even had there been no 4th Armored Division racing northeastward along the left flank of the infantry. As early as the evening of 25 February, a day before the infantry crossed the Nims, a task force of the 4th Armored had a bridgehead over the second river a mile and a half northwest of Bitburg. With planes of the XIX Tactical Air Command almost constantly overhead, the bulk of two combat commands got across the Nims on 26 February and spread out to northeast and east. Part of the 80th Division's infantry followed in the wake of the armor to bring in the prisoners, while one regiment moved north and established contact with the VIII Corps at Mauel.
On the German side, the new Seventh Army commander, General Felber, appealed to his superiors time after time for help, but to little avail. In the end, Army Group B managed to detach a depleted infantry division, the 246th, from the Fifth Panzer Army to the north, but the division began to move toward Bitburg only on 27 February. That was far too late.28
As early as 26 February fighter-bomber pilots reported the Germans evacuating
Bitburg. Well they might, for by nightfall of the 26th a task force of the 4th Armored Division had reached the west bank of the Kyll two miles northeast of the town, and by nightfall of the 27th a battalion of the 5th Division's 11th Infantry occupied a village a mile southeast of the town while another battalion poised in the southern fringe of Bitburg itself. Before midday on 28 February the 11th Infantry delivered the coup de grâce to a town already severely battered by American planes and artillery.
Beginning on 4 February with the start of the VIII Corps offensive aimed at Pruem, two corps of the Third Army in just over three weeks had penetrated the West Wall in some of the most forbidding terrain to be found along the Western Front. At its widest point, the penetration measured more than twenty-five miles. The VIII Corps at the end of February stood on the Pruem while the XII Corps bulged eastward to the Kyll. Although the Rhine still lay some fifty miles away and terrain still might constitute a major obstacle, the enemy's prepared defenses lay behind, and only a miracle could enable the Germans to man another solid front in the Eifel.
The Third Army commander, General Patton, meanwhile had been turning his attention to one more detail that had to be attended to before he could make a final thrust to the Rhine. Striding into the 76th Division's command post early on 26 February, Patton placed a fist on the operations map at the ancient Roman city of Trier on the Moselle.29
Almost unnoticed in the bigger picture of the Western Front, an infantry division and an armored division of the Third Army's XX Corps had been nibbling away at the German position south of Trier that had become known as the Saar-Moselle triangle. The XX Corps from the south and the 76th Division from the north, Patton directed, were to envelop Trier.
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1. MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign.
2. Quotation is from Patton, War As I Knew It, p. 234.
3. The German story is based principally on MS # B-123 (Gersdorff), as confirmed by German situation maps for the period.
4. MS # C-020 (Maj. Percy E. Schramm).
5. XII Corps FO 14, 3 Feb 45; 5th Div FO 16 and 80th Div FO 30, both dated 4 Feb 45. Detailed combat interviews supplement official records of both the 5th and 80th Divisions. See also Fifth Division Historical Section, The Fifth Infantry Division in the ETO (Atlanta: Albert Love Enterprises, 1945).
6. 80th Div AAR, Feb 45.
7. Between 0130 and 0600 divisional and corps artillery in the XII Corps fired 29,000 rounds. See TUSA AAR.
8. XII Corps msg file, 7 Feb 45.
9. Patton, War As I Knew It, p. 240.
10. MS # B-123 (Gersdorff).
11. Ibid.; XII Corps G-2 Periodic Rpts.
12. 80th Div AAR, Feb 45.
13. For an evaluation of these weapons, see Constance McLaughlin Green, Harry C. Thomson, and Peter C. Roots, The Ordnance Department: Planning Munitions for War, UNITED STATES ARMY IN WORLD WAR II (Washington, 1955), pp. 329-30.
14. MS # B-123 (Gersdorff).
15. MS # B-494 (Felber).
16. Interview, Maj. Fred Meyer with Gersdorff, 28 Jul 53; MS # B-123 (Gersdorff).
17. MS # B-052, XIII Corps, 18 February-21 March 1945 (Oriola).
18. Interview, Meyer with Gersdorff, 26 Jul 53.
19. 90th Div AAR, Feb 45.
20. The 6th Armored Division, under the supervision of its commander, General Grow, published an unusual history. Providing a day-by-day factual account of all units, without embellishment, it is an excellent source. See Combat Record of the Sixth Armored Division (Germany, 1945). Action in the 20 February attack also is covered by extensive combat interviews.
21. Interview, Meyer with Grow, 6 Aug 53.
22. 80th Div FO 31, 14 Feb 45.
23. MS # B-123 (Gersdorff).
24. Div and cavalry group AAR's, Feb 45.
25. On 27 February, as Pfc. Herman C. Wallace of the 76th Division's 301st Engineer Combat Battalion was helping clear mines from a road near the river, he stepped on an S-mine, an antipersonnel device that when activated normally leaps upward to explode in the air. Hearing the sound indicating that his step had activated the mine, Private Wallace spared those around him by holding his foot on the mine and placing his other firmly beside it. This confined the explosion to the ground but inevitably killed him in the process. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
26. The Fifth Infantry Division in the ETO, "Across the Sauer Into the Siegfried Line."
28. MS # B-831, Seventh Army, 20 February-26 March 1945 (Felber).
29. 1st Lt. Joseph J. Hutnik and Tech. 4 Leonard Kobrick, eds., We Ripened Fast--The Unofficial History of the Seventy-Sixth Infantry Division (Germany, n.d.), p. 102.