Military history

Chapter Two

Breakthrough

GIs of the 75th Infantry Division move through Buissuonville past a tank of 2nd Armoured Division. Major-General Fay Prickett’s men supported 3rd Armoured Division as it opposed XXXXVII Panzerkorps’ drive to the Meuse. 111-SC-198286

Generalfeldmarschal Model

Generalfeldmarschal Model’s attack opened before dawn on 16 December 1944 following a short bombardment designed to distract the American troops and under cover of darkness long columns of vehicles and men began moving through the mist, guided by searchlights pointing into the sky. On the northern flank SS-Obergruppenführer Joseph ‘Sepp’ Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army encountered difficulties and to begin with, 99th Infantry Division repulsed LXVII Corps’ assault on the Elsenborn Ridge. As the attacks intensified 106th Division was in danger of being cut off on the high ground known as the Schnee Eifel as Dietrich’s men pushed through the thin American line and into the Losheim Gap. General Hasso von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army ran into 28th Division, resting after suffering heavy losses in the Hurtgen Forest and, despite holding an overstretched front, the American outposts delayed the armoured columns. By nightfall only a trickle of German troops had crossed the Our River seriously delaying von Manteuffel’s drive towards the important communications centre of Bastogne. The localised setback would have serious implications later as the offensive developed. The story was the same on Seventh Army’s front and although General Erich Brandenberger’s troops had crossed the Our, roadblocks prevented the offensive reaching its primary objectives.

By nightfall the anticipated breakthrough had not been made and while Hitler responded with confidence to the first day’s reports, von Rundstedt was pessimistic. Time had been lost and the Americans now knew where to concentrate their reserves. The race was on to reach the Meuse and while General Omar Bradley ordered his Generals to prepare to defend before going over to the counter-offensive, the GIs at the front line waited anxiously for reinforcements.

SS-Obergruppenführer ‘Sepp’ Dietrich

General Hasso von Manteuffel

Twenty-four hours into the offensive the American commanders assessment of the offensive showed that the Germans had attacked along a sixty-mile front with strong forces. So far little headway had been made and reinforcements were on the way but would they be in time? On VIII Corps’ front General Troy Middleton had decided to hold four road junctions, St Vith, Houffalize, Bastogne and Luxembourg city, but an unfortunate misunderstanding meant that one division, the 106th, was holding exposed positions on the Schnee Eifel against Middleton’s wishes. By nightfall the division would have been overrun, ripping a large hole in General Hodges’ line. Consequently, while V Corps held back the northern shoulder of the German attack, armoured columns were able to penetrate deep into the American lines.

General Erich Brandenberger

During the night of the 17th the Germans unveiled two new surprises designed to cause chaos behind First Army’s lines. A thousand strong parachute force was dropped onto high ground with the objective of seizing vital road junctions, meanwhile, SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorenzy, Hitler’s troubleshooter, made a daring raid through the American positions. His armoured brigade, manned by English speaking Germans dressed in GI uniforms and travelling in captured vehicles, misled roadblocks. Although the two operations caused fear and mistrust to spread behind First Army’s lines the paratroopers and spies were quickly rounded up.

A convoy of jeeps and trucks grinds its way towards the front line. Both American and German commanders found it difficult to manoeuvre their troops across the poor road network of the Ardennes. 111-SC-198279

The crew of this 90mm anti-aircraft gun reposition their weapon to cover one of the roads leading into Malmedy. 111-SC-198113

M7 Priest’s mounting 105mm howitzers form the mobile artillery for an Armoured Division. They are lined up ready to fire airbursts over advancing German troops. 111-SC-198146

Private Charles Preston brushes snow from his .03 calibre machine gun. His unit, 11 Regiment’s 2nd Battalion was moving with 5th Infantry Division towards the southern flank of the expanding Bulge. 111-SC-197627

An engineer of the 2nd Infantry Division sets mines at Wirtzfeld in front of 1 SS Panzerkorps’ advance towards St Vith. 111-SC-198118

Otto Skorenzy, an expert in covert missions, led Operation Greif, an armoured brigade composed of captured American vehicles and converted German equipment. Panzerbrigade 150 was manned with English speaking soldier dressed in

US battle smocks. The brigade was supposed to race through the Allied lines and seize bridges over the Meuse ahead of the main force. It achieved only a limited degree of success and had only passed through a few checkpoints before the alarm was raised. Confusion was caused behind the lines but after the first few hours every GI was viewed with suspicion.

Taylor Library

The call for captured equipment fell short of the required number and German vehicles painted with American markings had to be used in a crude attempt to get past roadblocks. 111-SC-198715

The soldiers at this checkpoint are taking no chances. For a time no one was trusted and GIs asked random questions on American history, sport or culture to check for spies. Few Germans would know the names or fortunes of football or baseball teams; stock conversation amongst the American soldiers. 111-SC-198390

The fear of infiltration continued for days after Otto Skorenzy’s’s men were finally rounded up. Here a checkpoint verifies a driver’s papers at Namur on the River Meuse. 111-SC-198429

Behind First Army’s line a manned post covered every road junction and crossroads looking for infiltrators, spies and paratroopers. Although Operation Grief failed in its mission, the impact it had on the movement of reinforcements was exceptional. 111-SC-198303

Paratroopers of the 17th Airborne Division captured this German soldier dressed in American clothing near Vireaux. The prisoner claimed to have escaped from a prisoner of war camp in Normandy and was trying to make his way back through Third Army’s lines. 111-SC-199297

This German soldier wearing American clothing was killed in Hotten. Several of his comrades who were taken alive were executed as spies. 111-SC-198280

Privates Parsons and Crosbie of 83rd Division’s Military Police Detachment check traffic moving through Buissonville en route for the Rochefort salient. 111-SC-198337

84th Division came across this poorly camouflaged German halftrack near Samrée. Advance elements of 3rd Armoured Division were severely mauled as they tried to hold the village against 116th Panzer Division on 20 December. Over a dozen Shermans were knocked out or disabled and General Krüger’s men captured over 30,000 gallons of fuel and a large cache of rations. 111-SC-199017

Oberstleutnant Friedrich von der Heydte. Taylor Library

Only days before the attack was launched, Oberstleutnant Freiherr von der Heydte was ordered to assemble and train a thousand strong unit of airborne trained men for Operation Stösser. The Fallschirmjäger were to jump behind First Army’s lines at dawn on the second day and secure the roads leading from Elsenborn and Malmedy toward Eupen and speed the way forward for the armoured units. The drop failed, the paratroopers were scattered and men like these spent anxious hours rounding up the stragglers. 111-SC-198180

The final stragglers of von Heydte’s force were flushed out like wild fowl. These men of 18 Infantry Regiment wait in line like the shooting line of a pheasant hunt while others move through the woods like beaters. 111-SC-198297

Oberstleutnant Friedrich von der Heydte. Heydte’s mission comes to an end. After holding out in the woods for several days the paratroopers’ leader had to admit defeat. Wounded and suffering from the effects of the cold, Heydte sent a message to the American troops searching for his position. Lieutenant Colonel John Woodruff, a medical officer of 9th Infantry Division looks after the injured German officer. 111-200716

103rd Tank Destroyer Battalion move up through heavy fog to support 82nd Airborne Division as it moves to counter Kampfgruppe Peiper’s advance towards the River Meuse. The mist over the Ardennes removed the Allies air superiority and covered the Panzer Divisions movements – two major elements of Hitler’s plan. 111-SC-198294

As Fifth Panzer Army approached Bastogne steps were taken to defend the vital communications centre. While heavy artillery was evacuated to a safe distance, tanks and halftracks were sent to help 101st Airborne Division form a perimeter. 111-SC-198295

Crews of 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion are forced to fight on as foot troops after losing their vehicles. The battalion fought alongside the 28th ‘Keystone’ Division as it defended Wiltz on the road to Bastogne. 111-SC-198296

26 Infantry Regiment move forward to counter I SS Panzerkorps’ drive onto the Elsenborn Ridge. Colonel John Seitz’s men seriously delayed the Panzers’ advance beyond Dom Bötgenbach. 111-SC-1098305

An anti-tank gun of the ‘Lucky Seventh’ Armoured Division waits expectantly near Vielsalm, an important crossing over the Salm River, as 1st Panzer Division advances closer. 111-SC-198389

A lone GI inspects a burnt out halftrack and a knocked out tank, caught by artillery fire as they fell back towards Bastogne. 111-SC-198393

Time and time again men cut off from their units slipped back through the German lines to try and find their own units.This group from 3rd Armoured Division eventually reached friendly lines on Christmas Day and queue up for their first hot meal. They had been forced to destroy their equipment, blacken their faces, and escape under cover of darkness. 111-SC-198386

Soldiers of the 23rd Armoured Infantry Battalion crawl forward along a snow covered road in their camouflage suits. The battalion formed part of 7th Armoured Division’s stalwart defence of St Vith. 111-SC-199032

A machine gunner of 26 Infantry Regiment surveys his surroundings having taken over a new outpost. He formed part of 1st Infantry Division’s defence on the northern shoulder of the Bulge. 111-SC-199628

Private Peter Stulgis of 51st Combat Engineer Battalion carries out the final checks on his handiwork before withdrawing. 4th Infantry Division blunted LXXX Armeekorps’ advance across the Süre River at Echternach. 111-SC-198397

Paratroopers of the 82nd All American Airborne Division form foxholes and shelters on a hillside near Vaux Chavanne. The airborne soldiers performed admirably in their ground role and stopped II SS Panzerkorps’ advance towards the River Meuse. 111-SC-198422

The German offensive killed hundreds of civilians and displaced thousands of others. Here families shelter from the shelling in an abandoned slate mine near Neufchateau. 111-SC-198447

Although the Luftwaffe had been shattered by this late stage in the war, Hitler gathered every available plane to support his drive across the Ardennes. Here Private John Pherson huddles against the cold as he mans his .05 calibre machine gun and watches the lightening sky. 111-SC-198447

Breakthrough had been achieved, but were they deep enough? General Hasso von Manteuffel discusses the situation with his commanders. Taylor Library

A commander of a Panzer unit briefs his officers amidst swirling snow. Taylor Library

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