GIVEN THE CRUSHING weight of air power which had undermined German morale in Normandy, how did the three attacking armies manage to move all the troops, tanks, horses, artillery and supplies they required for Herbstnebel? As we have seen from the relevant Ultra decrypts, despite attempts by the Allied bomber fleets, German railways continued to function until the very end of the war. This was because the Fatherland had always put an excessive reliance on its railway infrastructure, the largest in Europe. In the nineteenth century, all main lines had been built with strategy in mind, and ran east–west with plenty of spare capacity, the Army General Staff having a special railway department dealing with this important state asset.
Deutsche Reichsbahn was the largest single public enterprise in the world at the time of its nationalisation in 1937, when its 660,000 employees ran 24,000 locomotives and 20,000 stations, with 40,000 miles of track. It took over the Austrian system in 1938, that of Czechoslovakia in 1939 (who made first-class rolling stock and engines), and during the war the militarised state railway operated a staggering total of 50,000 locomotives and at least three million freight cars, more than double that of the United States. This included those absorbed from conquered nations, but they also manufactured another 15,000 engines and 245,000 wagons to keep pace with losses.1
By June 1944, 1.6 million people, including 200,000 women, worked for the German-run railway system across Europe, despatching 29,000 military trains per day and loading up to a million wagons per week, carrying everything from casualties, reinforcements, horses and prisoners, to munitions, supplies, even entire panzer divisions. Trains had advantages over road transport; they could operate at night and could travel further: German staff calculations worked on the basis of a troop train covering 500 miles per day. Furthermore, they used coal (and occasionally wood), which the Reich possessed in abundance, rather than gasoline that trucks required, which was in critically short supply.
The Third Reich relied on railways rather than motor transport to move and concentrate all its formations for the Ardennes. During the war, Deutsche Reichbahn operated over three million pieces of rolling stock and 50,000 locomotives of its own and from conquered countries, like this one, captured from the French state railways, SNCF. (Author’s collection)
Although stations and marshalling yards were hammered by air attacks each night, the individual lines were difficult to hit. There were spare lengths of rail and wooden sleepers alongside most lines and roving rail repair crews who could, within a few hours, make good the damage wrought by the previous night’s bombing. As sabotage was only an issue in occupied countries, not within the Reich, the destruction caused by Allied bombing was a pinprick compared to the railway resources at the disposal of the Fatherland.2 Thus, the sight of an eagle and swastika-adorned locomotive belching smoke, pulling an endless line of flat car after flat car, each bearing a tank or truck under camouflage netting with a bored soldier scanning the skies for hostile aircraft, was considered neither remarkable nor unusual in early December 1944. It was what the Reichsbahn had been doing for the Wehrmacht ever since September 1939, and for the armies of several Kaisers before that.
If Germany’s expectations of a final victory relied on her railways then Hitler’s hopes for victory in the Ardennes rested firmly on the shoulders of his two panzer armies, the veteran Fifth and the brand-new Sixth. In his own mind he was confident, of course, that the Allies would be unable to react quickly or forcefully until after his armoured forces had reached and crossed the Meuse. Certain that the US Army would initially crumble in the face of adversity, he also anticipated Eisenhower would mount some form of counter-attack against its western bank. Even the sceptical Model, along with many of his subordinate commanders, was of the opinion that German forces could probably get as far as the Meuse before the American reacted in a coordinated way – though all, with the exception of Hitler, seem to have reasoned that any progress beyond that river was unlikely. Yet, as we have seen, under no circumstances was the Führer prepared to switch to a less ambitious goal, or reduce his striking force at the expense of defending his flanks. The meagre allocation of an assault gun brigade to Brandenberger’s Seventh Army was about the only compromise he agreed, expressed in his blind refusal to alter his plans in any way from conception to execution.
Encouraged by Himmler, the Führer pinned his personal hopes on Dietrich’s Waffen-SS in the Sixth Army triumphing over the Americans in the Ardennes. In fact it would be Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer who did best of all. We have already met its diminutive boss, the forty-seven-year-old General Hasso-Eccard Freiherr von Manteuffel, who in so many ways represented the traditional aristocratic Prussian officer that Hitler loathed. It is a mark of his ability that he succeeded in the Third Reich when the odds were stacked heavily against him. Everything about Manteuffel’s background put him at odds with Hitler: born in Potsdam, scion of a Junker family that traced its origins to 1287 (his great-uncle had been a Prussian field marshal); student at the Royal Prussian Cadet School (then considered an academy for the elite); young officer in the famous Zieten Hussars, a regiment that dated back to 1730, founded in the days of Frederick the Great; Olympic pentathlon champion at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and expert horseman.3Reputed to be the shortest officer in the German army, he was extremely tough, wiry, resourceful and athletic. He was the sort of individual one would encounter leading a Special Forces unit today.
Corporal Hitler by contrast, the outsider, technically an Austrian by birth, rose from an uncertain poverty-stricken environment, collected fellow outsiders from equally low backgrounds around him, and was more at home in the beer halls of Munich and Nuremberg than fashionable Berlin; yet somehow he and Manteuffel forged a workable Faustian pact. Perhaps Hitler had heard of his legendary physical courage and habit of leading from the front, which brought him wounds as well as medals, on occasion refusing to leave his command post to receive medical treatment; the Führer always admired such examples of sacrifice for the Fatherland.
Hasso-Eccard, Freiherr (Baron) von Manteuffel (1897–1978) was short, wiry and full of explosive energy. Like George S. Patton, the Baron was an Olympics-level pentathlete (Patton competed at Stockholm in 1912, Manteuffel at the 1936 Berlin Olympics). Despite the striking difference in their backgrounds, Hitler, who generally loathed aristocrats, was greatly impressed by Manteuffel and promoted him straight from a division to command of the Fifth Army on 1 September 1944. Manteuffel’s troops achieved the greatest penetrations in the Bulge and had Hitler given him a fraction of the resources allocated to Dietrich’s Waffen-SS, the Fifth Army would have undoubtedly reached the Meuse. (Author’s collection)
As Leutnant Freiherr von Manteuffel of the Reichswehr, the future general published a treatise on mounted infantry in 1922 and later taught at the new Wunsdorf Panzer training school under the eye of Guderian from 1935, who tutored this enthusiastic convert to tank warfare. Invading Russia in 1941 as a battalion commander, he swiftly took over a regiment after its colonel had been killed and was rewarded with a division in Tunisia in 1943. The baron soon moved on to command the elite GrossDeutschland Panzergrenadiers, a unit of hand-picked warriors of generally tall stature. Manteuffel was easily the shortest man in the division. No matter: by this time he had been awarded a Knight’s Cross and Oak Leaves, which is what brought him to Hitler’s attention. Promotion straight to command of an army – the Fifth Panzer – followed on 1 September 1944. He took up his appointment on the 12th, and gathering a carefully selected staff around him, who were personally devoted to their little general, he led the Fifth in the Lorraine campaign and struggle for Aachen. Far more than the Seventh’s Brandenberger or Dietrich of the Sixth, he stamped his personality on his army and their battle plans and tactics.
Manteuffel had found himself in violent if respectful disagreement with the original plans handed to him by Jodl back in November. In defiance of his orders, he had made a personal reconnaissance of his future battle terrain, disguising himself as a Wehrmacht colonel and visiting front-line units which regularly patrolled into American territory. What they revealed amazed him: the American outposts manned their foxholes from an hour before dawn, but retired to warm buildings after dark: at night their positions were unmanned! At the last planning conference held with Hitler in the Berlin Reichskanzlei on 2 December, Manteuffel, in the presence of Model and Sepp Dietrich, wrung from his Führer several tactical alterations, which greatly assisted the initial hours of his assault. This was the last occasion when those present tried to dissuade Hitler from his ‘Big Solution’ in favour of the more practical ‘Small Solution’ of encircling the Americans around Aachen. Though Hitler refused to yield on the major part of his plan, perhaps the concessions granted to Manteuffel were a form of compensation for one of his favourite generals. Reflecting Hitler’s fire, from his headquarters in Manderscheid, north-east of Bitburg, the baron demanded of his commanders that consideration be given only to the advance; the flanks would have to look after themselves, and above all, the pace must not slacken.
He had been uneasy with Hitler’s idea of an opening barrage, beginning at 07.30 a.m., prior to the attack going in at 11.00 a.m. On 2 December, Manteuffel argued wisely that ‘all this will do is wake the Americans and they will then have three and a half hours to organise their counter-measures before our assault comes … After 4:00 pm it will be dark. So you will have only five hours, after the assault at 11:00 am, in which to achieve the break-through.’4 It would also use up huge quantities of ammunition, already in short supply. Eventually Hitler conceded a ninety-minute cannonade, starting much earlier, at 05.30 a.m. when the Americans would be groggy. Manteuffel also asked permission to throw small storm detachments forward, at the same hour, under cover of their own fire, to infiltrate their opponents’ positions, as the Germans had done in 1917–18, and which both sides did routinely in the east; a good ploy, but it would only be used by Fifth Army. The use of searchlights, bouncing light off the clouds was his idea too.
This bizarre circumstance, that an army commander had to seek permission from his head of state to make such tactical alterations to an operation plan, sums up the impracticality of Hitler’s constant interference, down to deciding the hour of attack. He was poorly advised, too, for Manteuffel observed that ‘Keitel, Jodl and Warlimont [Jodl’s deputy] had never been in the war. At the same time their lack of fighting experience tended to make them underrate the practical difficulties, and encourage Hitler to believe that things could be done that were quite impossible.’5The Führer intervened because he could, so he did.
Speaking to the British historian Basil Liddell Hart within a year of the events, in 1945, Manteuffel was highly critical of Jodl at OKW in particular, laying the blame for fuel shortages at his door. ‘Jodl had assured us there would be sufficient petrol to develop our full strength and carry our drive through. This assurance proved completely mistaken. Part of the trouble was that OKW worked out a mathematical and stereotyped calculation of the amount of petrol required to move a division for a hundred kilometres. My experience in Russia had taught me that double this scale was really needed under battlefield conditions. Jodl didn’t understand this. Taking account of the extra difficulties likely to be met in a winter battle in such difficult country as the Ardennes, I told Hitler that five times the standard scale of petrol ought to be provided. Actually when the offensive was launched, only one and a half times the standard scale had been provided. Worse still, much of it was kept too far back, in large lorry columns on the east bank of the Rhine.’6
With high expectations of the baron, his Fifth Army was given three panzer and four infantry divisions with which to prosecute Herbstnebel, spread throughout three corps – over 90,000 men, 963 guns and almost 300 tanks and assault guns. Left to get on with his own planning and aided by the able Generalmajor Carl Gustav Wagener, his chief of staff, the pair planned to use General Walter Lucht’s LXVI Corps of two Volksgrenadier divisions to encircle Alan W. Jones’s US 106th Infantry Division on their northern flank.7 The Americans were deployed along the high ground of the Schnee Eifel, occupying outposts of the Siegfried Line around the villages of Auw, Bleialf and Winterspelt, and known to be newly arrived and inexperienced. The wider Eifel region is, effectively, the Germanic name for the range of high hills, narrow gorges and forests – the best word to describe the landscape is ‘rugged’ – known further west as the Ardennes. The two are one and the same and, apart from crossing a frontier, a traveller would not be aware of crossing from the Ardennes to the Eifel because they constitute a single geological feature.
In Roman times a huge impenetrable forest of Brothers Grimm proportions, by 1944, as now, a controlled agricultural programme of forestry meant that much of the woodland on the high ground on the Schnee Eifel had been felled, with innumerable clearings, but passage across the upper landscape was slow with reliance on poorly drained logging trails. Movement across the lower ground was channelled by many small stretches of water, where run-off from the heights collected and flowed south into the Our. Small, stone-built villages had evolved at each crossroads or frontier post. It was, and remains, picturesque, a favourite with hikers and hunters, though offering few locations with grandstand panoramas at which to site good observation posts. Few roads were paved, as most of the pre-war traffic was horse-drawn. The confusing array of local hills frequently screened wireless contact, and line-of-sight communications was prevented by trees, which also interrupted fields of fire. This meant the defending troops placed an over-reliance on line communications, particularly field telephones. During the opening barrage on 16 December, this mode of signalling was the first to fold as German shells cut American wire.
Having encircled the Schnee Eifel, Lucht would then move straight on via Schönberg to seize the important town of St Vith, eight miles beyond the frontier, and as vital a route centre in the north of the Ardennes as Bastogne was further south. Manteuffel ordered St Vith seized by the end of Day One. Thereafter their journey would take them, via Vielsalm, along roads heading west, to the Meuse.8
Lucht’s two Volksgrenadier divisions were both ill-equipped and under-strength, comprising sweepings mostly from the Luftwaffe. Few of Oberst Günther Hoffmann-Schönborn’s 18th had campaign ribbons or decorations. According to the division’s chief of staff, Oberstleutnant Dietrich Moll, the division, activated on 2 September, was very much the result of Himmler’s ‘hero-snatching units’ and comprised 2,500 Luftwaffe men who had been trounced out of Normandy in August, and 3,000 redundant Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine personnel acquired in Denmark, where the division first trained. More recruits came from a pool of middle-aged men combed out of industry. Very few were young, and even fewer had seen any action, including the officers: altogether the 18th was extraordinarily inexperienced formation, considering Germany was in her sixth year of war.9
By contrast its commander, Hoffmann-Schönborn, holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, conformed to Himmler’s requirement for highly decorated combat leaders and had served already in Poland, France, Greece and Russia. With such a disparate unit, in November Hoffmann-Schönborn had felt obliged to dish out some National Socialist discipline pour encourager les autres. A captured divisional order signed by him read that ‘Traitors from our ranks have deserted to the enemy’. After naming them, the divisional commander went on:
These bastards have given away important military secrets. The result is that for the past few days the Americans have been laying quite accurate artillery fire on your positions, your bunkers, your company and platoon headquarters, your field kitchens and your messenger routes. Deceitful Jewish mud-slingers taunt you with their pamphlets and try to entice you into becoming bastards also. Let them spew their poison! We stand watch over Germany’s frontier. Death and destruction to all enemies who tread on Germany’s soil. As for the contemptible traitors who have forgotten their honour, rest assured the division will see that they never see home and loved ones again. Their families will have to atone for their treason. The destiny of a people has never depended on traitors and bastards. The true German soldier was and is the best in the world. Unwavering behind him is the Fatherland, and at the end is our Victory. Long live Germany! Heil the Fuhrer!10
This crude missive, with its coarse language, was clearly not written by the divisional commander who in any case had better things to do. It was the work of the divisional Nationalsozialistischer Führungsoffizier (Nazi Guidance Officer), one of the loathsome commissar-like creatures inserted by Himmler personally into each staff headquarters, in place of the division’s chaplain. From now on the poor old grenadier had vicious enemies behind him as well as in front.
Known as the die Mondscheindivision (Moonshine Division), after its insignia, Lucht’s other division was the 62nd Volksgrenadiers, commanded by Oberst Friedrich Kittel. He had served in the Bavarian army in the First War, and spent most of the Second on the Eastern Front. In contrast to their middle-aged stable-mates of the 18th Volksgrenadier Division, on taking over his new formation on 1 November, Kittel found that two of his sub-units contained seventeen-year-old Hitler Youths: 164th VolksgrenadierRegiment included HitlerJugend from Düsseldorf and its sister 183rd Regiment, youths from nearby Cologne. Both of Lucht’s Volksgrenadier divisions were to fix Jones’s US 106th and prevent them from interfering with the advance of Manteuffel’s two panzer corps, further south.
The baron’s real achievements would turn on the success or failure of his two panzer corps, whose missions were the same: to use their Volksgrenadiers to cross the River Our and overwhelm the forward American defences on the ridge west of the river, thus covering the construction of bridges for his panzers. The Our, then as now, was neither deep nor wide, but the slopes to it were steep, with little room to manoeuvre. Manteuffel wanted this completed by midday in order for the tank divisions, following closely behind, to cross to the west bank by mid-afternoon; they would then take the lead and race beyond by road as quickly as possible, seizing towns and road junctions on the way to the Meuse. In the centre, Manteuffel intended General Walter Krüger’s LVIII Panzer Corps to use the 560th Volksgrenadiers to cross the river at Ouren and break into the US lines, whereupon Siegfried von Waldenburg’s 116th Panzer Division would then exploit the breach and race for the Meuse via Houffalize.11
We have already met some of 116th’s men at Hotton, and their commander, Waldenburg, being given his Knight’s Cross by Hitler at Ziegenberg. Another East Prussian, old-school aristocrat, Waldenburg, forty-six, had served in the exclusive Emperor Alexander Grenadier Guards from 1915, later attending the Kriegsakademie and acting as a staff officer in France and Russia, before commanding panzer units in the east.12 His Windhund (Greyhound) Division had been formed only in March 1944 and was led through the attritional Normandy campaign by Gerhard Graf von Schwerin, whose removal from command Himmler had engineered during the battle for Aachen. The replacement was Waldenburg, appointed on 14 September, ably assisted by his young chief of staff and operations officer (the ‘Ia’), Major Heinz-Günther Guderian, son of the founder of the Reich’s panzer force. The Greyhounds had already fought at Mortain and Falaise, where they were gradually whittled down to 600 men and twelve tanks.
In readiness for the Ardennes, on 10 December 1944 Waldenburg’s Sixteenth Panzer Regiment reported forty-three Panthers in its First Battalion, while its Second Battalion had twenty-six operational Panzer IVs, a divisional total of sixty-nine tanks. Of course, to an opposing US infantry division equipped with few or no tanks, the Greyhound Division was frighteningly powerful, but, in reality, 116th Panzer was a shadow of its former self. This was less than the strength of a German tank battalion: in Normandy, the formation had fielded 157 panzers.13
Krüger’s Volksgrenadier Division was the 560th, raised in Norway on 10 October, and comprised of surplus garrison units – the fortress battalions – of trained soldiers from Denmark and Norway’s coastal defences.14 Led by a former artillery officer, forty-six-year-old Generalmajor Rudolf Bader from 10 November, the division was identified by its badge of Thor’s hammer. It was the weakest German division deployed, intended for the Russian Front but sent to the Ardennes at the last minute – many of its soldiers were still en route from Norway on 16 December. Consequently, on the line of departure each regiment was at half-strength, being able to field only a battalion apiece, while the division’s anti-tank battalion of tracked assault guns was absent altogether.
The division also started the battle without its commander, who was in hospital; it was led by forty-four-year-old Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser, commander of 1128nd Regiment, until Bader’s return on 27 December. Like all the Volksgrenadier units, they were totally reliant on horses for mobility, being authorised 3,002, though few units ever acquired this number. In turn, the animals required a veterinary company of 152 officers and men to treat, shoe and look after them. Altogether, Herbstnebel would involve over 50,000 horses struggling along the freezing roads – not the usual image we have of the battle.15 While the Wehrmacht’s Propaganda Kompanie photographers and cameramen mostly took images of panzers crashing through the Ardennes, the truth is that for every German tank deployed in the winter offensive there were forty horses.
In the case of the 560th Volksgrenadiers, only their Flak and anti-tank battalions possessed any motorised transport at all, and all units were encouraged to capture and use American vehicles and fuel. However, that the Wehrmacht relied on horses so heavily and had relatively few vehicles produced an interesting, oft-overlooked consequence – that not many German soldiers knew how to drive a motor vehicle. Many had been brought up before the war on the land and understood horses, while their contemporaries in the United States, with the highest car-ownership in the world, were learning to drive automobiles. Comparative figures for 1935 reveal that 1.6 per cent of Germans owned a motor vehicle, compared with 4.5 per cent in Britain, 4.9 per cent in France and a staggering 20.5 per cent in the USA, or one-in-five of the entire population.16 By contrast, the German army actually awarded a driver’s badge to those who could sit behind a steering wheel with proficiency.
Thus, when the Volksgrenadiers captured many US vehicles in the initial days, fuelled up and ready to go, they were not always able to use them, and sometimes compelled GI prisoners of war to drive captured trucks. This was the case even with armoured formations. On 17 December, when the 1st SS-Leibstandarte Panzer Division arrived at the Baugnez crossroads outside Malmedy on 17 December, and took more than a hundred GIs prisoner, their first action was to request drivers for captured American vehicles.17
The truth of the Ardennes offensive was that for every German tank deployed, there were forty horses. As so little of the Wehrmacht was motorised, few German soldiers knew how to drive a motor vehicle, with dire consequences when vast numbers of American trucks and jeeps were captured. (Author’s collection)
Horses pulled all the guns and ammunition wagons of the 560th Division’s VolksArtillerie regiment in which Kanonier Josef Reusch served. Born in 1927, he was not yet seventeen when he was drafted on 25 March 1944. He grew up in the border village of Bleialf, soon to be the scene of hard fighting, and attended school in St Vith, likewise bitterly contested. Trained as a Rechner (tabulator) on a 105mm howitzer and a forward observer, he later learned similar duties on a 75mm anti-tank gun. Reusch was stunned to learn on 15 December that he was going into battle only a few miles north of his home, now occupied by Americans.
To their south, and adjacent to Heilmann’s 5th Fallschirmjäger of the Seventh Army, lurked General von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzer Corps, the strongest of Manteuffel’s three army corps. It was only on 2 December that Lüttwitz, then fighting the British around Geilenkirchen, received word from Manteuffel that his corps would feature in a forthcoming counter-offensive in the Ardennes. Four days later he had disengaged and relocated closer to Fifth Panzer Army headquarters. This was incredibly short notice for a formation to plan an important operation beginning a few days’ hence. He was lucky, however, with the quantity of corps assets he was given for Herbstnebel: the 15th VolksWerfer Brigade and 766th VolksArtillerie Corps, totalling nearly 200 weapons, 600th Army Engineer Battalion, and 182nd Flak Regiment, all motorised.
Their mission was for the 26th Volksgrenadiers to cross the Our at Gemünd and establish a bridgehead for Panzer Lehr to follow in their wake. Meanwhile, to their north, 2nd Panzer would bridge the same river at Dasburg, climb the opposing banks, seize the lateral road that ran along the high ground (christened the Skyline Drive) and the little fortress town of Clervaux – or Clerf, to the Germans – a distance of seven miles. Thereafter 2nd Panzer was to grind its way through the remaining American lines, seizing Bastogne, a mere eighteen miles further, preferably by the end of the first day.
Today Bastogne is less than an hour’s drive from Dasburg, which straddles the Our. In 1944, those same twenty-five miles were narrow, twisting, largely unpaved and particularly muddy; the road network only improved west of Bastogne. Lüttwitz’s mission boiled down to one essential: Bastogne had to be taken if the Meuse was to be reached. Should his panzers fail to take the town, the Volksgrenadiers were to besiege it, leaving the tanks free to continue their dash to the Meuse, which they were ordered to reach by the end of the second day. With his corps advancing on two axes, Lüttwitz envisaged Panzer Lehr as being able to reinforce or relieve 2nd Panzer, or the 26th Volksgrenadiers, and to exploit any opportunity that arose.18
An important German figure in the story of the Bulge was General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz, a baron, like his army commander. This old school aristocrat was yet another example of an individual who epitomised all that Hitler loathed nevertheless doing well in the classless Third Reich. With his monocled right eye, peaked cap and huge Iron Cross swinging from the neck, Lüttwitz looked like the stereotypical German officer from central casting. Looks can be deceptive: he was clever and an instinctive leader. He had been appointed Ensign of a smart Uhlan cavalry squadron in October 1914, served in mounted regiments on the Eastern Front from 1915 to 1917, fronted a reconnaissance battalion in Poland in 1939 where he was wounded, missed the French campaign but recovered in time for Operation Barbarossa in 1941.
Two years later Lüttwitz had risen to command a panzer division, and on 5 September 1944, the bearer of a Knight’s Cross and Oak Leaves, he was promoted to lead the XLVII Panzer Corps. On 27 October, as we have seen, he had already caught the British napping in his two-division attack further north, at Meijel in the Peel Marshes, and the lessons of stealth, surprise, speed and momentum in difficult country cannot have been lost on him. Although Lüttwitz turned forty-eight just ten days before he led his formation into the Ardennes, there is evidence that he was physically exhausted, having commanded formations in action almost without a break for nearly three and a half years. Photographs of him at this time show a man looking far older: evidence of the strain of continuous fighting, surely shared by many of Hitler’s combat leaders.
Oberst Heinz Kokott’s 26th Volksgrenadier Division was a ‘hollowed out’ formation, retaining a few veterans from the Russian and Normandy fronts, but mostly Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine replacements. Like all Volksgrenadier units, their mobility was hampered by total reliance on horses, some of which were a tough Russian breed, used to winter. Nevertheless, they were up to strength with an outstanding cadre of sub-unit leaders and experienced troops, on whom the new arrivals could lean for experience. Its Panzerjäger (anti-tank) battalion had its full complement of fourteen tracked Hetzer tank destroyers, and an impressive forty-two 75mm anti-tank guns, making the 26th one of the best-equipped Volksgrenadier units in the Ardennes.
Though protected by the opening bombardment and in the dark, before they even reached the river Kokott’s Volksgrenadiers had to penetrate hundreds of felled trees, copious barbed wire entanglements and large areas of mines, all left behind by retreating German troops earlier in the year.19 Next, they had to navigate the fast-flowing Our by rubber assault craft, climb the not inconsiderable far slopes, and overwhelm the forward American lines. Meanwhile, bridging units were to prepare crossing sites for the waiting 2nd Panzer Division. Superbly able and energetic, the bespectacled, buck-toothed Kokott had joined the German army on 1 October 1918 just before the Armistice and had carried on as a career officer, mostly serving in Russia, where he won a Knight’s Cross in 1943. An unlikely brother-in-law of SS chief Heinrich Himmler, in late 1945 the distinguished American historian Colonel S.L.A. Marshall found him ‘a shy, scholarly and dignified commander who never raises his voice and appears to be temperate in his actions and judgments’.20
The 2nd Panzer Division was Lüttwitz’s old division, which he had led in Normandy. Raised in Austria by its first commander, Heinz Guderian, in 1935, and known as the Wiener (Vienna) Division, it had fought in Poland, France and the Balkans. In Russia its forward units had witnessed the winter sun glinting off the onion domes of the Kremlin on 2 December 1941: the high tide of the Wehrmacht’s advance into Russia. Later it was transferred to the west before D-Day in 1944. On the eve of the Normandy invasion, the formation was several hundred men over-strength and reported ninety-four operational Panzer IVs and seventy-three Panthers: a very strong unit.
Fighting at Mortain alongside the 116th Greyhounds, both divisions lost heavily in the Jabo Rennstrecke (fighter-bomber racecourse) that was Normandy.21 By 21 August, they had escaped from the Falaise Pocket with little more than an infantry battalion left; it possessed not a single surviving tank. Although refitted and re-equipped, its War Diary indicates that on 10 December it could boast only 49 Panthers, 26 Panzer IVs and 45 StuG assault guns.22
It was still powerful, at 120 tanks and assault guns, but far less so than its peak Normandy strength of 167, and half the size of the US Third Armored Division. Nevertheless, some Panthers were the latest factory-fresh model, equipped with novel infra-red optics for night-fighting. Noteworthy was the high number of turretless assault guns, rather than true tanks, that 2nd Panzer deployed and more evidence of the dilution of its strength. By 1944 German armoured doctrine was to break down into self-contained Kampfgruppen (battlegroups) for combat, which comprised tanks, engineers, artillery and mechanised infantry in half-tracks, each named after its senior commander.23
Until 14 December, Generalmajor Henning Schönfeld had led 2nd Panzer Division, since taking over from Lüttwitz on the latter’s elevation to corps command. However, the fifty-year-old Schönfeld, like many of his contemporaries, felt the resources allocated to him were woefully inadequate to the task and voiced his opinion too vociferously to his superiors, Lüttwitz and Manteuffel. It cost him his division. In the post-20 July atmosphere, where a lack of enthusiasm could be misconstrued in some quarters as treason, Manteuffel felt he had no option but to remove him immediately. A promising young colonel, who had attended a divisional commander’s course and recently relinquished leadership of a panzer regiment in Russia, was found and the thirty-nine-year-old Oberst Meinrad von Lauchert found himself the new commander of 2nd Panzer, appointed on the day before the offensive was launched.
The official reason for the departure of Schönfeld, an infantryman by background, was stated to be his lack of experience with armour, but that was clearly nonsense. It underlined the extreme anxiety that was attached to executing Hitler’s pet project as well as possible. These were the days anyone could face a firing squad if the Führer or Himmler perceived in them a lack of vigour. Being appointed the day before to lead a division at the spearhead of a major offensive must have been nerve-wracking for Lauchert, but on the other hand that is the nub of the military profession – coping with the unexpected quickly – and he managed well although, as he later complained, he hadn’t even time to meet his regimental commanders.24
Lüttwitz’s other tank unit was the 130th Panzer Division, better known by its designation Panzer Lehr (the ‘Panzer Instruction’ unit). Its task was to reinforce the advance wherever Lüttwitz saw an opportunity. It had been formed in France that January by combining the staff and instructors of the Wehrmacht’s panzer training schools and demonstration units into a combat formation, which made it something of an elite, highly experienced unit from birth. The Lehr had served in Normandy where, like so many armoured formations, it had been almost annihilated, fielding just eleven tanks, no artillery and fewer than 500 men by 1 September. Its commander later described the experience of being under Allied air attack, which underlined how battle-hardened the division was by December 1944. Other veterans fighting in the Ardennes would echo this, where the same punishment was repeated:
The duration of the bombing created depression and a feeling of helplessness, weakness, and inferiority. Therefore the morale of a great number of men grew so bad that they, feeling the uselessness of fighting, surrendered, deserted to the enemy, or escaped to the rear, [in] as far as they survived the bombing. The shock effect was nearly as strong as the physical effect. For me, who, during this war, was in every theatre committed at the point of the main effort, this was the worst I ever saw. The well-dug-in infantry were smashed by heavy bombs in their foxholes and dugouts or killed and buried by blast. The whole bombed area was transformed into fields covered with craters, in which no human being was alive. Tanks and guns were destroyed and overturned and could not be recovered, because all roads and passages were blocked.25
This was the story of Allied air supremacy for the rest of the war – unless the fog of an Ardennes winter could intervene.
Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein, as we’ve seen, was the popular, high-profile commander of Panzer Lehr, both in Normandy and the Ardennes. One of Germany’s younger divisional generals at forty-five, he just caught the end of the First World War, being drafted in 1917. After the war he went through officer training in 1921 and was lucky to be one of the 4,000 officers retained in the reduced Reichswehr. The invasion of Poland saw Oberst Bayerlein as chief of staff in Guderian’s panzer corps, and he continued as Guderian’s right-hand man for the invasion of France the following year, crossing the Meuse at Sedan on 14 May. He had drafted Guderian’s corps operations order to undertake that opposed river crossing with three divisions (over 20,000 men) – it came to a succinct two pages. Bayerlein gained a high profile and he was next posted as chief of staff to Rommel’s Afrika Korps during 1941–3.
His appointment to Panzer Lehr in 1944 was Guderian’s doing; the war required that the Wehrmacht’s elite armour training and demonstration units be broken up and drafted into a division. Guderian (as Inspector-General of Armoured Troops) wanted to protect this investment of his finest personnel with a brilliant commander. He chose Bayerlein, who had served in every theatre (east, west and Africa), experienced Allied tactical air power at first hand, and worked as chief of staff to the key exponents of armoured warfare, Guderian and Rommel. Before HerbstnebelBayerlein was concerned at operating with Kokott’s 26th Volksgrenadiers who were to precede his advance, due to the differential mobility of Panzer Lehr with the almost medieval Volksgrenadiers, equipped with horses and bicycles; his anxiety would prove justified. However, as Manteuffel and Lüttwitz soon came to realise, Bayerlein was also exhausted and past his best by December 1944.26
Although re-equipped when earmarked in September for the Ardennes, Panzer Lehr was deployed to counter Patton’s thrust into the Saar region, and had to be refitted again in early December. Then its tank commander, Oberst Rudolph Gerhardt, reported 23 Panthers, 30 Mark IVs and 14 assault guns operational – a far cry from the 14,699 personnel, 612 half-tracks and 149 panzers of its peak strength in June 1944.27 In terms of armoured infantry, both Panzergrenadier regiments were between 40 and 50 per cent under their authorised strength, though more replacements were ‘promised’.28 As the assault guns came from an attached brigade, this meant that Panzer Lehr was actually at, or below, half-strength and should not have been deployed at all, even though Manteuffel felt all of his three panzer divisions ‘very suitable for attack’ in mid-December, even if lamentably short of equipment.29
From this roll-call of German commanders it becomes clear that a majority of Hitler’s panzer commanders seemed to be Freiherren (barons), Ritteren (knights) or have acquired the suffix ‘von’ after their name, meaning they or an ancestor owned the terrain after which they took their surname. Hitler may have been suspicious of his aristocrats, but there were a surprising number in the Wehrmacht, and particularly in the Panzerwaffe (tank arm). As in most European nations, medieval landowners had ridden into battle, which evolved into their descendants joining cavalry regiments. With the decline of the horse for offensive and shock action (as opposed to logistics), cavalry officers adapted by crewing armoured cars and tanks, hence most German mounted units became part of a panzer division. As many of these officers had been brought up together, were educated as the same schools or interconnected by marriage, such informal familiarity often helped command and control in battle.
All these divisions constituted the ‘shock wave’ of Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army. However, if necessary, the baron could – and, indeed, did – request reserve formations from Army Group ‘B’ or OKW. Several were committed to combat in the later stages of Herbstnebel, though permission to do so had to be granted at the highest level. They included the Führer-Begleit (leader’s escort)-Brigade, an expansion of Hitler’s personal bodyguard battalion – not an SS formation, but one filled by the army. In 1939–40 this had been commanded by an obscure colonel named Rommel, but it had gradually been enlarged to become an elite formation which fought on the Eastern Front. When refitting after battling the Soviet steamroller in East Prussia, Hitler had ordered it to head west in early December 1944 to prepare for the Ardennes. We have already seen how Ultra had detected its presence and considered it a combat indicator of ‘trouble brewing’. This was because it was really a mini-division rather than a brigade, and comprised just over 6,000 battle-hardened personnel, including 200 officers. A very powerful formation, it included a armoured regiment of two battalions (nearly 100 tanks) and Panzergrenadier regiment of three battalions, with around 150 half-tracks, a Flak regiment and an artillery battalion.
Fully motorised, it reflected Hitler’s bizarre favouritism – showering equipment on some units at the expense of others: the formation had more vehicles than all the Volksgrenadier divisions combined. Its presence in the Ardennes was undoubtedly political: Hitler expected another of his favourites – like the Sixth Panzer Army – to shine with National Socialist fervour in the forthcoming battle. In background, experience and equipment it was on a par with Waffen-SS formations, and its presence was also a reward for its commander. Oberst Otto-Ernst Remer was another of Hitler’s protégés, who had played a key role in foiling the 20 July 1944 Stauffenberg plot in Berlin. As a result, on 21 July Major Remer had been promoted straight to Oberst. With the Knight’s Cross and Oak Leaves glinting at his throat, the tall, athletic Remer, thirty-two, was resourceful, highly dangerous and had already proven himself rabidly National Socialist.
It would not be until 4.00 p.m. on 18 December that he was ordered to join the battle and take his Führer-Begleit-Brigade to the St Vith front under Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzer Corps; Manteuffel, though glad of its combat power, also felt Remer to be Hitler’s personal spy in his camp.30 Also in OKW reserve was the Führer-Grenadier-Brigade, which sprang from similar origins, and likewise was considered an elite and equally unusual formation, very similar in size and capability to its twin, the Begleit-Brigade. Not released from OKW until 22 December, this powerful unit was scattered along march routes in traffic jams, when it was ordered south to face the US Third Army.
As we consider Manteuffel’s Fifth Army, several themes emerge. All his four infantry divisions, the Volksgrenadiers, were new formations which had undertaken little training, and none as divisions. If their leaders were experienced, the vast majority of grenadiers were new to combat. One Volksgrenadier commander, Bader, was in hospital and the battle run initially by one of his sub-unit colonels, Langhäuser. If the panzer divisions were formed of veterans, they were hopelessly under- strength, and two of the three divisional commanders, Waldenburg and Lauchert, were new. The third, Bayerlein, was tired. We have seen how General Baptist Kneiss, a corps commander in Brandenberger’s Seventh Army, took a month’s leave and returned the day the offensive began, which hardly seems professional. Perhaps Kneiss was making the same point as the sacked Generalmajor Schönfeld of 2nd Panzer – but in a subtler way – that he, like Field Marshal von Rundstedt, had little faith in the offensive and thus wanted no part in planning it.
All of this put the attacking force at an enormous disadvantage, with little pre-battle training and none at higher formation level. Few of the commanders had worked together, so could not guess their superiors’ or subordinates’ intentions; combat flows more smoothly when commanders instinctively sense their colleagues’ movements, the result of months or years of fighting together.
This was in great contrast to Middleton’s VIII Corps. Although many were tired and degraded because of the Hürtgen battles, the Americans had been campaigning together since June in Normandy, and even the newcomers, such as Jones’s 106th or Leonard’s 9th, had trained together for longer than any of the Volksgrenadier units. The US Army – whether experienced but tired, or green and nervous – were vastly better resourced than their Wehrmacht counterparts. Manteuffel’s army alone boasted over 15,000 horses, whereas the Americans relied entirely on wheeled and tracked mobility, with unlimited fuel, now that Allied logistics flowed from Antwerp and the Red Ball Express had build up a reserve of combat supplies close to the front.
All the panzer divisions were woefully understrength; many of the anti-tank battalions were deficient in tracked tank destroyers, air defence units reported shortages of Flak guns, and ammunition and gasoline were in critically short supply. As Rundstedt admitted to the historian Liddell Hart in 1945, ‘there were no adequate reinforcements, no [re]supplies of ammunition, and although the number of armoured divisions was high, their strength in tanks was low – it was largely paper strength’.
The morale of German troops picked up when they saw the extent of resources carefully husbanded and camouflaged all around them. Perhaps they could win, after all? Gefreiter Hans Hejny, with 2nd Panzer Division, mirrored the experience of any soldier who has had to drive with minimal lighting in a convoy at night. It is exhausting on the eyes (the consequence is usually the ‘bug-eyed’ look tired soldiers exhibit in daylight), for a moment’s lapse of concentration can lead to a wrong turning or worse. Hejny remembered a trek to the concentration area, at the head of his armoured engineer battalion: ‘Orders were given quietly, and lights were dimmed. Only a thin ray of brightness came from the convoy-light made the lane even barely visible. It was hard to see the roads and we had to concentrate to avoid falling into the trackside ditches. We reached the top of a hill and could see the vague outlines of Luxembourg. The road extended from a forest into a plain and ahead were the tail-lights of another column gliding downwards and disappearing into the woods.’31