Order of the Day
Soldiers of the Western front! Your great hour has come. Strong attacking armies have banded today against the Anglo-Americans. I don’t have to add anything to this. You sense it all! We gamble everything! Carry with you the holy duty to give everything and to do superhuman efforts. For our Fatherland and the Führer!
Signed: v. Rundstedt, OB West, Generalfeldmarschall.
Addendum to the Order of the Day
We will not disappoint the faith that the Führer and Fatherland have put in us, which has created the sword of retribution. Let’s move on in the spirit of Leuthen! Our slogan remains right now: No soldier in the world must be better than we soldiers of the Eifel and Aachen!
Signed: Model, Army Group ‘B’, Generalfeldmarschall.1
‘THE HISTORY OF a battle is not unlike the history of a ball,’ famously uttered Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, in 1815. ‘Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.’2 Wellington was thinking of Waterloo which he had just fought seven weeks earlier, but his quote encapsulates the difficult job of the military historian in trying to piece together a huge jigsaw of combat episodes.
If the swirling mass of troops at Waterloo was complicated, the Bulge was a hundred times more so. The 1944 winter campaign was a vast series of loosely interconnected battles, each fought in separate locales, often in ignorance of other, equally important, skirmishes taking place just down the road. Historical events are slippery and facts frequently burnished to a distracting lustre that alternately dulls or shines as its participants fade.
In order to understand what the Battle of the Bulge was really like, we need to spend a while piecing together the first days, getting to know the terrain. It makes sense to divide the terrain into three sectors, one for each attacking German army, and start on the southern flank of the offensive, with Brandenberger’s Seventh Army, and work our way gradually north. Most histories have tended to start – and linger – in the north, which distorts the sheer breadth of the offensive.
At precisely 05.30 a.m., Saturday, 16 December 1944, the misty gloom of the Ardennes was ripped apart by a deafening roar. To those who happened to be watching, the eastern horizon turned white, ‘as though a volcano had suddenly erupted or someone had turned a light switch on’.3The sudden cacophony rolled from the resort city of Echternach in the south and along eighty-nine miles of front, to the pretty half-timbered town of Monschau in the north. Woods were shredded, the earth trembled and the ground exploded in showers of stones and red-hot metal splinters. GIs cowered in their tree-trunk bunkers and stone houses, while every calibre of shell the Third Reich possessed was hurled at them.
All manner of weapons, from huge railway guns firing 280mm (eleven-inch) and 380mm (fifteen-inch) projectiles to V-1 flying bombs, and V-2 rockets were added to the range of firepower, hurtling their way beyond American lines to Liège, Brussels and Antwerp. At 3.20 p.m. one of the V-2s hit the Rex Cinema in central Antwerp, killing 567 people, including 296 Allied servicemen; they were part of a capacity audience watching Buffalo Bill, starring Joel McCrea and Maureen O’Hara. In the Ardennes, hunkering deeper, the US Army wondered what to make of the sudden storm of steel as nearly two thousand guns and rocket launchers made their lives hellish for ninety long minutes.4
The American presence in the Ardennes region amounted to around 85,000 GIs in elements of five infantry divisions and part of an armoured division – 242 Sherman tanks, 182 tank destroyers and 394 artillery pieces. Against them, the first wave of Hitler’s last great offensive began to march – around 200,000 men, supported by just over 600 tanks in thirteen infantry and five panzer divisions. Both sides would commit many more units to battle in the ensuing days. Such was the cloak of secrecy that all German divisional commanders had been told of their missions only on 9 December, then briefed personally by Hitler on 11 and 12 December at Ziegenberg – there were two briefings because of the number of personnel involved. Regimental commanders were let in on the great secret on 14 December, and their junior officers put in the picture on the 15th, the day before the offensive. These are ludicrously short times in which to plan any military endeavour, made more difficult because, for security reasons, personal reconnaissance of the forward terrain was forbidden and aerial photography in short supply. Never before in modern warfare had such a large force stumbled into combat with such a paltry knowledge of their opponents or the terrain.
In some sectors, to aid the advance of assault detachments in the early morning murk, searchlights were deployed, bouncing their beams off the low lying clouds, bringing an eerie half-light to the proceedings. Charlie Haug of the US 28th Division recalled, ‘The Germans had set up about ten or twelve gigantic searchlights on the hills about two or three miles from our positions. They aimed the beams of the lights up into the fog and clouds. This caused the lights to reflect down from the fog onto our positions and made it seem almost like moonlight’ – it was probably inspired by the British tactic of doing something similar in the closing stages of the Normandy campaign.5
Serving in the 212th Volksgrenadier Division, Bavarian Major Ernst Schrotberger had survived severe wounding in Lithuania to be posted to command a battery of six of these 105mm howitzers for Herbstnebel. Each gun had a range of 12,000 yards and with their ammunition limbers, were pulled by teams of six horses. (Author’s collection)
Opposite ‘Tubby’ Barton’s US 4th Division in the extreme south, where the terrain was exceptionally difficult, Generalleutnant Franz Sensfuss’s 212th Volksgrenadier Division was at full strength with a good core of experienced junior leaders. In its ranks were men like Grenadier Georg Jedelhauser, a native of Swabia, assigned to a Granatwerfer (mortar) squad. Aged nineteen and a shoemaker in Grösskotz (near Ulm) until conscripted, Georg had been the breadwinner for his mother, sister and younger brother, his father having died in 1930. Like many of his comrades, Jedelhauser was a Grünschnabel (literally green beak) and could not call on any previous combat experience, so would rely on the alte Hasen (old hares) for guidance.
Grenadier Friedrich ‘Fritz’ Gabriel provided that kind of experience. Born in West Prussia, and twenty-eight when he was called up in August 1941, Gabriel had served as a Luftwaffe anti-aircraft gunner in Russia before being retrained as a grenadier in December 1944 and joining the 5th Company of 423rd Grenadier Regiment. His was a typical Volksgrenadier experience, of a skilled Luftwaffe man being re-roled as infantry. Other experienced soldiers included Grenadier Peter Kelch, who served in the 212th’s Fusilier Battalion. In December 1944, Kelch had just turned twenty, but already boasted two years’ service in Russia. Although wounded in May 1943, he had returned to duty and was awarded an Iron Cross, Close Combat Badge in Bronze and Infantry Assault Badge between January and May 1944 – evidence of pretty desperate fighting. He was precisely the kind of veteran the new division needed to steady its green recruits as it prepared for battle.6
Bavarian Major Ernst Schrotberger was a veteran officer commanding a battery in the division’s artillery regiment. He had served in Russia since 1941, where his horses, commandeered in France, all perished in the cold. He recalled reaching Leningrad’s suburbs and being based at one stage in the Peterhof Palace. August 1944 saw him fighting in Lithuania, where he was ordered on account of his rank to take command of an infantry battalion – despite his background as a gunner – and lead it in a local counter-attack. Severely wounded in the action, he was evacuated; during his convalescence he was promoted from Hauptmann to Major, awarded an Iron Cross, but learned that his two fellow battery commanders and artillery CO, all close friends, had been killed. This was part of the collapse of Army Group Centre, from which he was lucky to have escaped. Once recovered from his wounds, Major Schrotberger was posted to command a horse-drawn battery of 105mm howitzers for the Ardennes attack.
The 212th had trained briefly at Schieradz (now Sieradz) in Poland in September–October, then entrained and transferred by rail to the Trier area before commitment to battle. Like most other Volksgrenadier units, they possessed virtually no vehicles and far fewer tank destroyers than authorised, starting Herbstnebel with five. Because of its confident commander, full strength, lively training and high morale, Brandenberger rated the 212th best of his four divisions. The downside of this was that he withdrew one of Sensfuss’s Grenadier regiments for use as his Seventh Army reserve.7
Against the Ivy Division’s northern sector, the 423rd Volksgrenadier Regiment (containing Georg Jedelhauser with his mortar, and Fritz Gabriel) were ordered to take the plateau where the US-occupied village of Berdorf stood. Sensfuss’s 320th Regiment was deployed in the south, opposite the bulk of Colonel Chance’s US 12th Infantry, while his third regiment was kept in reserve. For security reasons, the Volksgrenadiers had been forbidden to pre-register any artillery targets. Yet, with patient flash-spotting and sound-ranging, they had managed to pinpoint on their maps all the outposts of the US 4th Infantry Division and their supporting artillery.8
In fact the American positions were obvious, as the US rifle companies from Barton’s division simply garrisoned each village and dominated the surrounding terrain with fire. They were mostly quartered indoors, which offered a welcome change from the woodland foxholes filled with icy water. Although tactical measures of preparedness were not neglected, their mental attitude was one of relaxation and long overdue rest. Thanks to the ravages of the Hürtgen Forest campaign – that ‘Death Factory’ – this was the first time in the combat history of the Ivy Division that its commanding general had to report that his veteran unit was in other than excellent condition.
Reinforcing this ‘relaxed’ American attitude was an order that had been passed from SHAEF via General Omar Bradley to the First, Third and Ninth Armies back on 21 September, just as the latter formation was entering the line. This was when those forces had run perilously low on supplies, inhibiting their offensive capabilities, and were reliant on the Red Ball Express: ‘the First, Third and Ninth US Armies will remain on the defensive for the time being. So that the enemy learns nothing of this, in no case are clearly defensive-appearing manoeuvres to be carried out. These include among others: the construction of defensive positions, fortifications, the laying of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, barbed wire barriers, road blockades, mine traps, etc.’9 To what extent this mentality still prevailed in those three armies three months later is debatable, but some commanders would have been aware there had been an edict on minimising tactical defences in the recent past. As General Courtney Hodges, commanding the US First Army, and Patton, of the Third, were both committed to offensives, an argument can be made that those formations in the Ardennes might have been discouraged from anything but cursory defence. This mindset, in conjunction with the intelligence assessments belittling German offensive capability, cannot have been helpful in countering the 16 December attacks.
Franz Sensfuss knew that ‘Tubby’ Barton’s guns would need to be silenced quickly if the Volksgrenadiers were to get their own artillery, assault guns and transport safely over the Sauer in the first few hours of the offensive. Perhaps there was some subterfuge also. At the 67th Armored Field Artillery Battalion (US 3rd Armored Division), an entry for 14 December in the S-3 (Operations) Log read:
Two strange officers reported in the Division area this afternoon asking questions about anti-aircraft defenses, front lines, locations of and communication systems. Descriptions follow: A captain wearing .45 cal. Pistol, height six foot, 1 inch about 210 lbs. Dressed in new trench coat and all new army clothes, a 1st Lieutenant armed with a carbine, height five feet, ten inches, weight about 175Ibs., dressed in new clothes, trench coat, olive drab, heavy growth of beard. Story: ‘had come from Roer River and were interested in radio equipment’. Officers had not any transportation in evidence.10
They may have been imposters, but as this entry was written two days before Skorzeny’s commandos started their mission (after which many such accounts appeared), it thus has a ring of truth about it. Their fate remains unknown.
Ernest Hemingway, an accredited correspondent for Collier’s Magazine – though, as we have seen, also a self-appointed member of Barton’s 4th Division – sniffing danger, raced to the area, interrupting a riotous sojourn at the Ritz in Paris with his mistress, Mary Welsh. On hearing news of the attack, he equipped himself with GI-issue clothing, a helmet, two white fleece-lined jackets, a .45-inch pistol, boxes of cartridges, a Thompson sub-machine gun and a case of hand grenades. He had already been reprimanded for assembling a small arsenal and ‘commanding’ a group of resistance fighters in Normandy, dubbed ‘Hemingway’s Irregulars’ – unacceptable practice for a war correspondent – though he claimed that he was only offering advice. Undeterred, he wrote to his brother, Leicester, on 16 December, ‘There’s been a complete breakthrough, kid … This thing could cost us the works. Their armour is pouring in. They’re taking no prisoners.’11 Then he headed for the front, a witness capturing his departure: ‘He kissed Mary heartily, then clad in his two white fleece jackets, strode through the lobby of the Ritz like an overfed polar bear. A little crowd cheered the great author on his way to war again. Outside in the grey dawn, his driver gunned the engine of the Jeep, its exhaust steaming in the icy air. The steel-helmeted policeman with the old-fashioned rifle slung over his shoulder saluted, and Hemingway was off to his last battle.’12
To the sheltering GIs, the shock of the opening barrage was all the greater as it had been so quiet beforehand. German artillery fire from, among others, Major Ernst Schrotberger and his horse-drawn howitzers, soon cut many of the lateral communications, giving Chance’s 12th Regiment and Barton at the 4th Division’s command post in Junglinster (the village which housed the Grand Duchy’s most prized possession, Radio Luxembourg) very little situational awareness. They were focused on their own battle, and, assuming initially that this was a local incursion, felt they could deal with these troublesome guests themselves. To the Americans huddled in their shelters the shelling must have seemed random, but the primary targets of artillery positions, battalion and company command posts were chosen carefully and soon all wire communications had been cut. Much of the initial difficulty in assessing and controlling the resultant situation was due to the confusion caused by the destruction of the field telephone network and because a large number of 4th Division’s radio sets had been withdrawn, to undergo repair.
Colonel Chance had placed two battalions forward, covering the Sauer, with his third in divisional reserve; forward of them was a line of outposts on high bluffs along the river, with sweeping views. Yet none of the sparsely positioned, sleepy GIs appear to have spotted the pre-dawn crossing of the Sauer by some of the 212th’s Volksgrenadier Fusilier Battalion, which included the Ostfront veteran Peter Kelch. The first intimation of trouble came, as elsewhere, with the heavy and accurate barrage. While Chance’s men were taking cover, the first assault troops crossed quickly by rubber boats, any noise drowned by the shelling, and captured the outpost line, then moved on to Osweiler and Dickweiler, two settlements a couple of miles behind the lines. Yet, because other units had some difficulty in crossing the River Sauer, which was wide, fast-flowing and under fire, it was almost 10.00 a.m. before the 320th Volksgrenadier Regiment hit the main village positions of Chance’s 3rd Battalion. As a US company commander was reporting the assault by telephone to his superior, both were startled by a gruff German voice cutting in to announce, ‘We are here’. Strangely enough, the interloper continued to eavesdrop while the CO used the line like a radio link and continued to communicate in code.
Any serving soldier will be aware of the painful time lag as reported information works its way up the chain of command, and the story of Chance’s 2nd Battalion, further north, illustrates this well. Lieutenant McConnell of Company ‘F’ reported seeing a German detachment nearing the small village of Berdorf, two miles behind American lines. At 09.00 a.m. this news reached his battalion HQ, then Chance’s regimental command post some forty-five minutes later. By 10.20 a.m. the news had finally reached Barton at 4th Division, a full eighty minutes after the initial sighting. No one was particularly concerned until Lieutenant Feinsilver, also of Company ‘F’, screeched to a halt outside Barton’s HQ with his driver, who had been wounded in five places, slumped and bleeding beside him: they had just driven through a hail of bullets in Berdorf, Feinsilver having dramatically seized the wheel and performed a U-turn. The CO concluded that the area was occupied by a whole Volksgrenadier battalion and tasked his executive officer to investigate; it was 2.00 p.m. before he was able to send his assessment back from another nearby company HQ, five hours after the Germans had first been spotted. Only afterwards could Barton plan a response and release appropriate reserves to Chance.
Despite the rain of shells, it was shortly after noon that Colonel Chance and his men of the 12th Infantry realised that the fire-fights forward were more than a troublesome raid. Meanwhile, Barton in his headquarters had already concluded that both his advance battalions were under strong attack, and sent his divisional reserve (a third battalion) to aid Chance’s 12th Infantry, and instructed the 70th Tank Battalion to send a detachment to Colonel Chance as well.
Attached to each US infantry division was an independent tank battalion, and ever since H-Hour on D-Day at Utah Beach, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry E. Davidson Jr’s 70th Tank Battalion had worked with Barton’s 4th Division.13 However, as soon as both units had left the Hürtgen Forest, the armour had gone into workshops for long overdue maintenance. Consequently 16 December found forty-three of its complement of fifty-four tanks undergoing repair and out of action, thus only eleven of its Shermans were operational and able to help. The battalion had already suffered high casualties and from an average strength of 750 officers and men, they would suffer eventual losses of 166 killed or missing and 530 wounded in action by 1945.14
In the workshops everything became a mad scramble, as every spare man made an all-out effort to get each tank, half-track and other armoured vehicle back on the road. Caterpillar tracks and power packs had worn particularly; on the older tanks the Wright R975 radial engines suffered from a perennial problem of spark-plug fouling, created when tanks idled their engines while remaining stationary. They were being replaced by newer M-4A1 models with a Ford V8 water-cooled engine that had overcome the issue, but spare parts were in chronic short supply. There was a good deal of hasty cannibalisation to get a selection of vehicles into combat within hours, and some of the 70th’s tanks moving forward were engaged en route by plucky Panzerfaust-wielding Volksgrenadiers.15
Chance’s 12th Infantry Regiment was also supported by one of the division’s 105mm artillery battalions and two 155mm howitzer battalions from the 422nd Field Artillery Group. The former weapons had a maximum range of about six miles, the latter nine. He could also count on two Tank Destroyer battalions, the 802nd Towed and 803rd Self-propelled for anti-armour support, but their gun barrels and vehicles were tired, too. The latter, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Charles W. Goodwin, was equipped with thirty-six M-10 Tank Destroyers, basically a three-inch (76.2mm) gun in an open-topped turret, mounted on a Sherman chassis. The M-10’s gun proved ineffective against the frontal armour of Tigers and Panthers, but was better suited to engaging the more common tanks, like the Panzer IV, and self-propelled guns. An M-10 looked like a tank, behaved like a tank and had many engine and suspension parts in common with the Sherman; at a distance it was indistinguishable from one. Its open-topped turret theoretically left the crew vulnerable to artillery and mortar fire, especially in wooded areas, and the elements, but brought compensations too. These were much improved communications with accompanying infantry, excellent visibility, and the turret also made escape easier if the vehicle was hit.
Within the 4th Ivy Division itself, many weapons and wireless sets were being reserviced and the shortage of working radios would soon make itself felt. This was the case more generally throughout US First and Third Armies, whose equipment was worn or faulty after nearly six months of combat, and was being repaired as the support organisations caught up with the combat arms, after the heady gallop through France and Belgium of the autumn. The men were worn out too; some had begun to be sent back to R and R centres in Liège, Arlon or Luxembourg City. The latter, which also housed Bradley’s HQ, was only twenty miles distant.
On 15 December, Jack Capell, serving in the headquarters of 8th Infantry Regiment, had just arrived in Arlon and enjoyed his first night for ages on a cot with mattress, sheets and blankets. His morale soared with the hot water, clean laundry and good hot food, but on the morning of the 16th he and his friends were ordered back. ‘We were shocked and thought there must be a mistake … We protested loudly and a major then came on the scene … He said there was a problem at the front … so we reluctantly complied but complained bitterly.’16 Likewise, Tom Reid, an officer in the 22nd Infantry, had just stepped out of ‘the first hot shower I had enjoyed in over a month’ at the US-commandeered Luxembourg Country Club, when he got word of the German attack, dressed hurriedly and dashed back to join his company. In retrospect, he realised, speeding through the gloom in his open-top jeep, he had been lucky not to catch pneumonia in his haste.17
By nightfall, Chance’s 12th Infantry had lost over a hundred men killed or captured, and another fifty were missing, most of whom would eventually find their way back to friendly lines. His regiment was still holding the five main villages dominating his sector, Dickweiler, Osweiler, Echternach, Lauterborn and Berdorf; these five centres of resistance constituted the initial architecture of his defence, dominating all the routes within the regiment’s boundaries. The control of these roads and intersections would prove to be key, not only to the 4th Infantry Division’s successful defence of their area, but the model adopted independently by other American units – and one which would ultimately stall the German advance.
Of this, Barton was unaware; all he knew – from other reports now coming into his headquarters – was that he was in the midst of a large, local German attack; the enormity of the offensive was not obvious to many on the American front lines for a couple of days. This is true of the Bulge as a whole; because of the isolation of troops and breakdowns in communications it took a long time for the magnitude of Herbstnebel to become apparent on the US front lines. As Lieutenant Cecil E. Roberts of the 14th Tank Battalion observed, ‘on 18 December we finally began to realise we were in a situation that was more than a local spoiling attack by the Germans’, while another recorded, ‘it was 20 December before we found out this was the Battle of the Bulge and we were in it’.18
The 12th Infantry’s tactic of all-round defended centres of resistance, largely evolutionary and unplanned, but proven to be very effective, negated all German attempts to bypass the villages. The results of 16 December were mixed for both sides. At Dickweiler, the Volksgrenadiersoverran one outpost and were allowed to advance to a very short range, then hammered with mortars, machine-gun and tank fire which annihilated two infantry companies, surviving prisoners later testifying as to the devastating efficacy of this action. In Lauterborn, one US squad was surrounded, caught totally by surprise; as the Volksgrenadiers marched their captives down the road, their colleagues concealed in a stone-built mill opened fire, while the prisoners hit a roadside ditch, eventually escaping to rejoin their unit as the fire-fight erupted around them. An American company remained in defiant occupation of the Parc Hôtel in Berdorf (they would defy all attempts to remove them for five days); another refused to be prised out of Echternach, though the Volksgrenadiers moved beyond and captured a dominating hill to the south.
These actions forced Sensfuss’s 212th Volksgrenadiers into counter-attacks of progressively increasing size, but their efforts suffered through having virtually no artillery support. This was no reflection on Major Ernst Schrotberger and his colleagues of the 212th VolksArtillerie Regiment, but a result of poor communications, and the fact that the weight of fire support had been shifted to Seventh Army’s northern flank. The German advance was checked to such a degree by the ‘hedgehog’ style defence that it took the 212th three days to reach their initial Day One objectives. In a sense this mattered less to Brandenberger’s Seventh Army, which was not part of the German main effort; their mission was only shallow penetration of the American front in order to fix their opponents, and deflect counter-attacks from the Schwerpunkt of the two panzer armies, further north.
North of 4th Division lay Combat Command ‘A’ of John W. Leonard’s 9th Armored Division. In creating its armoured units, the US Army had initially designed them to be ‘heavy’, denoting a preponderance of tanks, but short on infantry. Combat operations forced the realisation that a better-balanced formation was needed, and in September 1943 the ‘light’ division structure was adopted and applied to most tank divisions. Leonard’s 9th, like all apart from the 1–3rd Armored Divisions, was therefore a ‘light’ formation. Outfits like Leonard’s had an authorised strength of 10,670 personnel, and contained three battalions each of tanks, armoured infantry and armoured field artillery as well as a mechanised cavalry squadron for reconnaissance, and armoured engineer, armoured medical and armoured ordnance battalions. They were bolstered by permanently assigned tank destroyer and self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery battalions and other support units. In combat, US armoured divisions were designed to be split down into three roughly equal groupings called Combat Commands, designated ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘R’ (for Reserve), a response to, and imitation of, the very effective German Kampfgruppen.
The mainstay of the division were its 195 M-4 Shermans, seventy-seven light tanks (Stuart M-5s), fifty-four self-propelled artillery pieces (the M-7, incorporating a 105mm howitzer on a Sherman hull) and 466 half-tracks. Raised in 1942, much of the Ninth Armored’s personnel had transferred in from the recently deactivated Second Cavalry Division, meaning Leonard’s command comprised a high percentage of regulars; Leonard himself had taken over the division in the autumn of 1942, and was a West Pointer, graduating in 1915, thus a classmate of Bradley and Eisenhower. Having only lately arrived in France, the Ninth, acclimatising to European combat, had been split into its separate combat commands to support several divisions in the Ardennes, which was how it would fight during the Bulge. In this sector, responsibility for defence rested with Colonel Thomas L. Harrold’s Combat Command ‘A’, who deployed his armoured infantry battalion, the 60th, forward to overlook the river.
Climate and terrain aided their opponents, Generalmajor Kurt Möhring’s 276th Division, of whom two Volksgrenadier regiments (four battalions) were ordered to advance against the single defending US armoured infantry battalion. Möhring’s VolksgrenadierDivision had been raised on 4 September 1944 from a predecessor unit which had been wiped out in Normandy; his six infantry battalions contained a high number of young conscripts and veterans recovered from wounds, while his artillery used captured Polish, French and Russian guns of a bewildering variety of calibres. They had gathered and trained at Graudenz (modern Grudziądz) in East Prussia, then in late November the entire division with all its equipment had transferred by rail to the Mosel area. Considered by Brandenberger to be the weakest of his four divisions, they were fortunate to be aided by thick fog.
This enabled the 276th to exploit several wooded ravines and filter through the American outposts, until they stumbled upon the main line of Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth W. Collins’s 60th Armored Infantry Battalion dug in overlooking the confluence of the Our and Sûre rivers, near Wallendorf. The Battalion’s After Action Report (AAR) for early December 1944 recounted the quiet before the storm: ‘We patrolled actively along our front but nothing took place to change this sector’s reputation of being exceptionally quiet … Enemy activity for the above mentioned period was confined to very light artillery fire covering the Battalion sector and limited night patrolling.’
Then the blow fell; quartered in Beaufort at his company command post was Captain Roger Shinn, about two miles from the River Sauer and leading Company ‘C’. He remembered, ‘A thunderclap awakened me abruptly … and chunks of plaster and dust rained down from the ceiling of the company’s CP. The building trembled, the ground shook. Shells exploded everywhere, such as we had never experienced before. Our senses were no longer capable of reacting reliably for a moment, for we were all so shocked and confused.’19 As it grew light, Shinn ‘saw numerous Jerries on the [far] bank of the river but could not spot a crossing point’, but many others were obviously over the water and gaining ground. At this stage it was German artillery that caused the greatest damage, hampering the American response and frightening local civilians, as it was designed to do.
A shell hit his CP and the roof caved in. As they started to evacuate the area, ‘we heard this dreadful howling in the air! These were the “screaming minnies” or nebelwerfer shells, whose nerve-numbing screech as they arrived had an even more paralysing effect than the explosion of its shell … Although the terrible howling noise frightened all my soldiers, its shrapnel effect was quite meager.’ Despite this, Shinn felt his men ‘did an excellent job in their first real battle’. This was, he reasoned, because ‘they were all very well known to me, since I had commanded and trained the same unit in the USA’.20 By the end of the day, however, the Germans had advanced as far as Beaufort and pushed Shinn’s company out of their defensive positions parallel to the river line, forcing their withdrawal. The escapades of the other forward companies were similar. The crisp, succinct AAR of the 60th Armored Infantry represents the story of many American units caught in the front line that first day.
At 160630 Dec 44 [05.30 a.m. Wehrmacht time] the Germans attacked our sector following a 1,000 round artillery preparation, consisting chiefly of nebelwerfer and medium caliber artillery. The attacking force was estimated at two Infantry Regiments, one to attack the Battalion and the other to move through and attack positions to our rear. The enemy used infiltration tactics successfully supported by many automatic weapons … The success of the infiltration tactics was aided by the heavily wooded terrain of our front line and our thinly held position. Vehicular bridges were established across the Our River at Dillegen, Wallendorf and Grundhof. From the moment the Germans were seen constructing the above mentioned bridges, they were heavily engaged with artillery fire by the 3rd FA Bn21 and mortar fire … During the afternoon of the 16 Dec the enemy infiltration tactics continued with success and the last of the Battalion reserve, the A[nti]/T[ank] platoon of Co[mpany] ‘B’, employed as riflemen, were dispatched to reinforce the center of our weakened line. 22
This was the beginning of a very busy month for the 60th Armored Infantry. Having lost eighteen personnel wounded or sick in October and November, December would see the outfit lose 494 officers and men killed, wounded, missing, captured or reporting sick, and twenty-eight vehicles destroyed or captured, though they would acquire 518 prisoners. The previous two months had seen them use no more than 1,500 rounds of machine-gun ammunition and 532 grenades. By the end of December, this had risen to 136,000 machine-gun rounds, 156,000 of rifle and carbine ammunition and 3,605 hand grenades.23 Its initial story for Herbstnebel was very similar to Chance’s 12th Infantry Regiment’s further south: both US units managed to hold their ground, though the Germans penetrated beyond and around them, but nowhere to a depth of more than two or three miles.
The 60th AIB, 19th Tank and 3rd FA Battalions were the principal elements of Colonel Harrold’s Combat Command ‘A’ (or CCA), whose artillery and tank support would prove vital in bolstering their friends of the armoured infantry. Lieutenant Colonel Ruhlen’s 3rd Field Artillery amounted to around 480 men with eighteen tracked M-7 105mm howitzers. He remembered the ‘dull rumble’ in the early hours of 16 December of artillery and identified them ‘from shell fragments as being 105, 150 and 170 mm calibers … The intensity of the fire increased, the echoes of the shots resounded down the Sauer valley … Nebelwerfer rockets, recognisable by their howl that penetrated to the bone, exploded not far from my dug-out gun positions … An advanced observer reported that some sixty Germans were in the process of crossing the Sauer near Dillingen on a narrow footbridge … All the phone lines were broken.’24
Armored field artillery battalions like Lieutenant Colonel Ruhlen’s 3rd AFA in the US 9th Armored Division comprised around 480 men with eighteen M-7 Motor Gun Carriages, which combined a 105mm howitzer mounted on a Sherman chassis. Each US armored division had three battalions of M-7s, whose weapons could reach out to 6 miles, giving them unsurpassed mobile artillery support. Tons of spare ammunition can be seen stacked ready for use, while the wintry conditions underline just how unpleasant was life on the line. (NARA)
This aptly demonstrated how vital communications were to the defenders. In military terms, the American ‘centre of gravity’ (their key vulnerability) on 16 December was their communication links: without correction, the US artillery could not hope to destroy the Germans’ own centre of gravity, their bridging sites. By destroying the US centre of gravity, the Volksgrenadiers had protected their own. Generalmajor Kurt Möhring’s staff had also done their homework, for by mid-afternoon Lieutenant-Colonel Ruhlen had discovered the gun positions occupied by his predecessors had taken ‘about 150 accurately aimed direct hits. Apparently the Germans knew the exact location of our positions all along the Sauer. Fortunately I didn’t occupy these positions.’25
By this time the Volksgrenadiers had infiltrated snipers into the outskirts of many blasted villages, and communication between all US units was proving problematical because of their reliance on field telephones, whose wires were cut. On hearing by radio that a company of the 60th was surrounded in Beaufort with no reserves available to help them, Ruhlen sent his three artillery observation tanks (Shermans equipped for fire-direction, armed with real machine guns but a dummy main gun) to rescue those trapped and bring them out. However, it soon became apparent that this situation prevailed for all the 60th’s rifle companies, who were beginning to be pushed back, and Ruhlen’s gun positions began to be overlooked by Volksgrenadier units seizing higher terrain. He, too, was obliged to withdraw, a move sanctioned by CCA, which recognised the weight of the German attack, and the paucity of local reserves with which to counter it.
By the end of the day, Brandenberger had been so unimpressed by 276th’s progress that he demanded they push forward through the night. Meanwhile, the US 60th Armored Infantry called down such effective artillery fire on Möhring’s chosen bridging site at Wallendorf that construction had to be completely abandoned, and efforts switched to an alternative site at Bollendorf. However, the Seventh Army was so short of engineering equipment that no replacements were available for the items destroyed. Eventually an irate Brandenberger relieved Generalmajor Möhring for his lack of progress, and his place was taken quickly by Oberst Hugo Dempwolff, one of several officers on standby to take over in just such an eventuality. As the sacked Möhring was being driven away from the front in a captured jeep on the evening of 18 December, he was killed by a burst of machine-gun fire at about 5.00 p.m. Although both the Germans and Americans at the time attributed this to a brave GI, the truth seems to be that a nervous young Volksgrenadier had seen an American vehicle driving at high speed in the gloom through terrain just captured and shot at it. Such incidents of ‘friendly fire’ were a remarkably common occurrence in the confusion of the Bulge.26
Hemingway, meanwhile, had reached ‘Tubby’ Barton’s HQ after dark on the 17th. ‘It’s a pretty hot show. You’d better come on up!’ Barton had told him in Paris. The writer, despite his fleece-lined jackets, had not travelled well in the arctic conditions, and arrived with the symptoms of flu. Colonel Buck Lanham – about to engage the Volksgrenadiers – banished Hemingway to sweat it out in bed at his CP, ‘a decaying old mill in the tiny hamlet of Rodenbourg’, a mile away from Barton’s own Junglinster HQ. Settled in the former home of the Abbé Didier, Hemingway adopted his own cure of working his way through the priest’s store of communion wine. ‘He took a maniacal delight in refilling every bottle with his own urine, re-corking it and labelling the bottles Schloss Hemingstein 1944’. The joke backfired one night when he searched in the dark and found a bottle of Hemingstein ’44. He was less than impressed by the vintage.27