21

Stray Bullets Whined Through the Trees Around Us

IN THE SOUTH of the US 99th Division’s sector, Lieutenant Lyle Bouck with his I&R Platoon, among others, had critically delayed the attack of the 3rd Fallschirmjägers, who in turn were meant to be carving an opening for Mohnke’s Leibstandarte behind. By the end of the day, as we have seen, an angry Peiper had pushed forward, dragging the Fallschirmjäger along in his wake. Bouck’s valiant action had allowed the rest of Colonel Riley’s US 394th Infantry valuable time to counter other thrusts around Losheimergraben, being made by the experienced 12th Volksgrenadiersunder Generalmajor Gerhardt Engel. They, too, were trying to assist Peiper and Kraas by drilling holes in the American lines, allowing access to Rollbahn ‘C’ – the march route that passed from Losheim (in German hands) north-west via Losheimergraben to Büllingen and Bütgenbach.

The woods along the road between Losheim and Losheimergraben were, and remain, dense swathes of fir trees that line either side of the International Highway. On the eastern (German) side, sharp eyes will pick out the rows of moss-covered dragon’s teeth anti-tank obstacles that once heralded the defences of the Siegfried Line, now frequently engulfed by woodland and brush. Various elements of the 394th Regiment, and Lieutenant-Colonel Jean D. Scott’s 393rd, had garrisoned the Belgian (western) side and today their foxholes remain within the wood line. These are usually deep, with squared-off edges and therefore cannot be mistaken for natural depressions in the ground. Apart from the loss of their overhead cover – the foresters retrieved their logs after the war – the dugouts are pretty much how the GIs of the 99th left them in December 1944.

Shallower, more irregular holes mark the impact craters of artillery and mortar rounds. The surrounding trees have mostly been felled and replanted, but the new growth looks very much like the 1944 crop of pine trees would have seemed to the combatants, rushing through. In exactly this sector, Lieutenant Robert K. Dettor, Third Platoon commander with Company ‘K’ in Colonel Scott’s 393rd Infantry, survived to record his combat memories of 16 December. Later, in a prisoner-of-war camp, he wrote on hidden scraps of paper: ‘06:40 am: Communications to CP and outposts cut. No contact with men except those in foxholes in immediate vicinity. German troops to rear. [My] heavy machine-gun to front seen captured … Enemy closing to within 20 feet of foxhole … I had four rounds [left]. Burp-gun to left rear firing at my foxhole hitting Hunter. I believe Hunter was dead … Last American food (chocolate) at approximately 12:30 pm; position overrun.’1

Companies ‘B’ and ‘C’ were also overwhelmed and the only reserves available, led by twenty-three-year-old First Lieutenant Harry C. Parker, were sent to restore the situation at about 10.30 a.m.. Parker, who was from Vermont and knew cold weather, with his little force moved up the 393rd’s main supply road towards the International Highway. Taking advantage of the dense forest, they crept towards the Volksgrenadiers, who opened fire. Parker rose to his feet. ‘Hell, there’s no use lying here and getting killed,’ he addressed his cobbled together band of GIs from the Regimental Anti-tank Mine Platoon, Ammunition and Pioneer Platoon, as well as a handful of cooks, clerks and runners. Giving the order to fix bayonets, his force broke into a run, yelling like a band of wild and desperate men.

Completely surprised, the Germans couldn’t see what was coming but they could hear it. They fled in the opposite direction in complete disorder; those who didn’t move fast enough were bayoneted. Parker’s bayonet charge relieved the pressure and allowed Company ‘C’ to reorganise. The young officer received a Silver Star for this action. On a rainy day in November 1994, exactly where the bayonet charge occurred, and fifty years later, a set of dog tags surfaced from among the pine needles, along with remnants of a musette bag. They belonged to Harry C. Parker, who had survived the war, but dropped the bag containing his dog tags during the charge.2

A stroll around the sector today is instructive. Everywhere, keen eyes will detect the remains of US-issue gas masks and overshoes, both rubberised, and often the first things to be discarded by withdrawing soldiers – perhaps from Dettor’s or Parker’s men. A mangled canteen here, an old mess tin there, slivers of rusting shrapnel, cartridge cases and the tail fins of long-dead mortar bombs protrude from between the pine needles and there is generally the forlorn air of a long-forgotten battlefield about the place. It was these woods around Losheimergraben that Oberstleutnant Wilhelm Osterhold’s 48th Grenadier Regiment attacked in the early hours of 16 December. Osterhold, already the proud possessor of a Ritterkreuz swinging at his throat for leadership in Russia, and part of Gerhardt Engel’s 12th Volksgrenadier Division, himself led the initial assault on part of Riley’s US 394th Infantry Regiment.

Despite the 12th Volksgrenadier’s excellent reputation, the spry lieutenant-colonel – he was thirty – found some of his less experienced grenadiers had cut telephone wires leading to their own guns, erroneously thinking them to be attached to US booby traps. This breakdown of communications led to German artillery rounds falling short, injuring some of his men and stalling their advance. One of their early US captives observed of the Volksgrenadiers’ unimpressive performance, ‘Germans do a great deal of yelling in battle. At least one in three had automatic weapons, carried a great deal of equipment, wore camouflaged suits … German soldiers all ages. German officer had dress uniform on … Could not understand German form of attack. Men came, line upon line, through open field on left making them an easy target for flanking fire.’ 3

Some of Osterhold’s Germans, including Helmut Stiegeler, were seen off when the US 81mm mortar section of Company ‘D’, led by Sergeant Del Stumpff, elevated their weapons to 89 degrees (almost perpendicular to the ground, ensuring the mortar round would land at the shortest possible range). They repelled the Volksgrenadiers’ attack and earned the respect of the commander who had attacked them; Osterhold later said Stumpff and others in his unit deserved the highest recognition for their success in defeating his assault, though felt of his own preparation and training for Herbstnebel, ‘I never took part in an attack which was worse planned’. Nevertheless, the Wehrmacht would credit him with making one of the breakthroughs at Losheimergraben and decorate him again with Oak Leaves for his Knight’s Cross.4

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Each US infantry battalion contained a 166-man heavy weapons company of eight .30-inch heavy machine guns and six 81mm mortars, like this one. It was the largest weapon available to a battalion commander and could throw a 15-lb high explosive projectile from 100 to 3,200 yards. An assembled mortar weighed 136 pounds but could be broken down into lighter loads to be man-packed into secluded positions. In the woods around Losheim and Losheimergraben, mortars belonging to the US 99th Infantry Division repelled a VolksGrenadier attack by elevating their weapons to 89 degrees (almost perpendicular to the ground), ensuring the rounds would land at the shortest possible range. (NARA)

Not far away, in the same stretch of woods, Technical Sergeant Bob Walter had been drafted in 1942, aged twenty. December 1944 found him commanding a platoon with Company ‘L’ of the 393rd Infantry, who were deployed in the tree line along the International Highway. He remembered being unconcerned about the opening bombardment because something similar occurred most days: ‘For a few minutes we didn’t think much about the incoming rounds. We had already become familiar with the Germans’ habit of repeating their barrage patterns with clocklike precision. After that, we wouldn’t hear from them until the next day. We’d taken to calling this our “daily allowance” and figured they were finally breaking with tradition and getting things done a little early that morning.’5

Sergeant Rod Ingraham, who had been evacuated to his regimental HQ with trench foot, recalled the same morning barrage each breakfast-time. ‘I had been on the front line a couple of days when I got a new partner. He was an Italian boy from Brooklyn, New York. He had just finished basic training and been shipped over. His first words were, “So this is lock and load?” He could not believe that this was the front line of an ongoing war. Everything was quiet and people were walking around. I told him that in an hour or two we would be getting an artillery barrage. It was right on time. Give the Germans credit for being able to keep a schedule. A few landed fairly close, and I suddenly realized that he was hugging me.’ 6

After two hours of shelling, Sergeant Walter and his colleagues were mystified. ‘We couldn’t figure out what the Germans were shooting at and concluded that they were trying to knock out our artillery’. Once the bombardment had finished he was ordered to clear a German squad who’d infiltrated the company kitchen behind the lines, but the enigma continued: ‘Not yet halfway to our objective, we began running into Germans – a lot of them. Instead of simply hiking back to our kitchen, we ended up having to fight our way in.’ When Walter arrived, he radioed into his company CP, ‘Something’s wrong, sir. There are more Germans back here than there are in front of us!’ He noted that the Germans generally moved on at his appearance: ‘It seemed they were more interested in continuing west than in fighting us.’ A young PFC asked to stay close to Walter, whom he concluded was lucky; after about ten minutes Walter turned to ask him something. ‘He didn’t respond, so I glanced over at him. A bullet had caught him between the eyes and he was gone.’ 7

By this time, Lieutenant Dettor of the 393rd had been captured and was being marched back to Germany. As he was ushered back behind the Westwall, the view of his first moments of captivity was enlightening. ‘Roads filled with … staff cars, horses and wagons … ammunition trucks draped with large red crosses to disguise them as ambulances … heavy equipment coming to the front. Felt extremely depressed after seeing size of the attack.’ However, in a little while, Dettor was sufficiently aware to notice ‘German motor vehicles very poor. Much larger than American trucks but not as well made. Many vehicles broken down.’8 In a nutshell, Dettor had seized upon one of the factors that would ultimately bring Herbstnebel to a halt: logistics. Heavy traffic on the roads, as we have seen, slowed down Peiper, and would ultimately prevent enough combat supplies of fuel and ammunition from reaching their own forward troops.

Dettor wasn’t the only one marching into Germany. Private Roger V. Foehringer had been a freshman at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, when he was drafted. Posted to the Service Battery of 924th Field Artillery, attached to the 99th Division, 16 December found him on duty in Büllingen. The first he knew of trouble was when one of the 14th Cavalry Group’s M-8 armoured cars belted through the village, pausing long enough for a crewman to warn Foehringer ‘The whole damned German army is just down the road!’ There was little chance to mount a defence and, with no transport of their own in sight, Foehringer and his colleagues were swiftly overwhelmed by Panther tanks, including that of Hans Hennecke, and Panzergrenadiers in half-tracks from the 1st SS Division.

Being made to march east to Germany, Foehringer and his fellow prisoners saw many flattened corpses, where tanks and trucks had run over them: ‘They were like pancakes. We tried to detour round, but the guards made us march over them,’ he remembered. ‘In Honsfeld there were frozen corpses behind headstones. You could see how they had fought, one guy at a headstone, another behind a headstone, and there they were, frozen as they had been shot.’9 GI prisoners immediately noticed the difference between the Volksgrenadier first-wave grenadiers and the panzer troops following behind. ‘SS troops very cocky, treated American prisoners very rough,’ noted one. ‘While walking SS troops looted American prisoners, beat and kicked them. Ordinary front line soldier not too bad … Excellent camouflage discipline [of SS], vehicles, personnel emplacements, weapons.’ 10

PFC Donald Wallace, with 3rd Battalion of 394th Infantry at Buchholz station, also commented on the state of two Volksgrenadier prisoners he encountered. He never forgot that morning’s ‘terrible artillery barrage east of our position that lighted the horizon over the trees and went on for over an hour. The shooting war began soon after the barrage. From the farmhouse yard we could hear popping sounds coming from near the station. German troops had come out of the woods and Company “L” had taken them on. I crept along the yard in the front of the farmhouse [and] watched some of the fire fight near the station until I drew fire from somewhere near my position. Twigs were snapping on the shrubs above my head. The yard was full of holes from artillery explosions. I remember three German prisoners brought back to the farmhouse during the battle. Two of them were old men that were frightened and almost in tears.’11

A couple of miles north, Hugo Kraas’s 12th SS Panzer Division (the Hitlerjugend) were waiting impatiently while their attendant infantry division, Oberst Viebig’s 277th Volksgrenadiers, attempted to punch through the lines opposite the twin villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath on the high ground of the Elsenborn Ridge. This would allow the panzers access to the northernmost Rollbahn ‘A’ (Rocherath to Elsenborn and beyond), and its close neighbour, Rollbahn ‘B’, which stretched via Krinkelt, Wirtzfeld and Nidrum. They were opposed by elements of Colonel Alexander J. Mackenzie’s US 395th Regiment. Five miles further north, Generalmajor Kaschner’s 326th Volksgrenadiers (with Unteroffizier Josef Reinartz and the pipe-smoking Gefreiter Alfred Becker) were attacking Höfen and Monschau.

German prisoners volunteered praise of the 395th’s fighting skill at Höfen: an Oberstleutnant said the Checkerboard Division ‘was the best American outfit he ever had faced’, and later, in the divisional prisoner-of-war cage at Linz, a German Leutnant asked his interrogator the name of the elite American unit that had defended Höfen months earlier. It was the US 395th Regiment, who had allowed the Leutnant’s company to come within nine feet of its lines before opening up with such terrific small arms and machine-gun fire that the Germans couldn’t even remove their dead and wounded in their rapid retreat.12

In this area, near the eastern end of the Elsenborn Ridge, it was artillery even more than the Checkerboard’s infantry battalions that slowed the German attacks, then halted them. Initially it was General Walter Lauer’s field artillery battalions who checked the 12th SS and Volksgrenadiers, until the close of the 17th, when Gerow’s V Corps artillery took over the fight with such effectiveness that one infantry battalion recorded a defensive barrage of 11,500 rounds during the night of 17–18 December. This reflected the general importance of artillery in the Ardennes, where the US Army fired around 1,255,000 artillery rounds from over 4,155 artillery pieces – a capability the Germans simply could not match.13 The new American proximity fuse, which detonated a warhead when near, but not on, the target was also felt to be a hugely important innovation. Prior to the Ardennes the device, known as a VT (Variable Time) fuse, had only been issued to anti-aircraft units for fear the Germans might retrieve one and learn its secrets. Devastating against unprotected infantry, where the fuse could be set to explode a shell as an airburst fifteen to twenty feet above ground, it soon became the US weapon of choice against the Volksgrenadiers.

The Germans had missed the fact that a veteran division had also moved into the vicinity of the Elsenborn Ridge in order to lead the attack on the Roer dams. This was the US 2nd Indianhead Division, whose 23rd Infantry Regiment had occupied the woods in front of Krinkelt – the Krinkelterwald – and acted as a backstop to the Checkerboard’s 393rd and 395th Regiments. The inter-unit boundaries in this whole sector were messy, following firebreaks and forest tracks, and not always clear, hence the ‘alphabet soup’ of different American units occupying the same large chunk of woodland. This meant a thin line of nervous GIs freezing in half-dug foxholes, staring through the trees at hordes of indistinct figures rushing towards them.

To conclude our overview of the German attack all along the Ardennes front, we will stay with the 2nd Infantry Division into 17 December, when they were called forward after their Checkerboard colleagues of the 99th had fought themselves to a standstill on the preceding day. The mission of Oberst Wilhelm Viebig’s 277th Volksgrenadiers, along with Generalmajor Gerhard Engel’s 12th Volksgrenadiers to their south, had been to batter their way through the American front on 16 December, held in this sector by the US 99th Division. Such had been the unexpected resistance thrown up by the 99th – personified by Lieutenant Bouck’s I&R Platoon, but mirrored elsewhere – that Krämer in Sixth Army’s headquarters was forced to alter his plans. The Checkerboarders had few casualties prior to 16 December but, over the next four days, divisional records identified fourteen officers and men killed, 915 wounded and 1,394 missing in action. An additional 600 passed through the division clearing station before 20 December as non-battle casualties – injuries, fatigue, respiratory problems caused by exposure, and trench foot.14

Dietrich’s chief of staff now ordered the 12th SS-Hitlerjugend Panzer Division forward to join the two Volksgrenadier formations in a combined assault on the Losheimergraben–Krinkelt–Rotherath sector. This was in recognition of the desperate need to open Rollbahns ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’, without which the Hitlerjugend was going nowhere. Instead of the Volksgrenadiers clearing the way for the panzers, their roles had been reversed. We might pause and speculate that, had this been the case right across the front (river crossings permitting), putting the panzer divisions first would certainly have achieved many more, and deeper, break-ins sooner than was actually the case. The new attackers comprised II Battalion, 25th SS-Panzergrenadiers, under Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant-Colonel) Richard Schulze-Kossens, a former personal aide to Hitler. They deployed on foot and in armoured half-tracks, supported by some anti-aircraft vehicles, using their 20mm guns in a deadly anti-personnel role, and a few Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers.15

Untersturmführer (Second Lieutenant) Ernst Stuhr, a platoon commander in the 12th SS Division, remembered the attack by mechanised infantry into the American-held woods: ‘The Kompanie moved forward … I spotted Battalion commander Schulze standing upright at the side of the lane. [This was Rollbahn ‘A’.] He was looking through his binoculars. An armed reconnaissance vehicle had taken up position in front of him. Its commander, a holder of the Knight’s Cross, stood in the turret, observing the terrain through his binoculars … When we entered the woods there was a loud bang. A mine had exploded. An Unterscharführer [sergeant] lost his right lower leg. The woods were mined, the mines connected by above-ground wires … All sorts of shells exploded around us, not only on the ground, but also in the treetops.’16

Later on in the same attack, another officer, Obersturmführer (Lieutenant) Helmut Zeiner in the divisional anti-tank battalion, was driving his half-track along a narrow, occasionally winding forest lane [the same Rollbahn ‘A’], and at a track junction ‘all hell broke loose. The Americans had armour piercing weapons, snipers in the trees, and a few Shermans in ambush positions. Oberscharführer [Company Sergeant-Major] Roy was driving behind me. He was killed by a shot to the head. Roy had been awarded the Knight’s Cross during the invasion [of Normandy]. He was a likeable young lad with a lot of skill and courage. None of that helped! The death of our comrade surely provoked a rage in us all, and I drove ahead recklessly.’ The loss of his right-hand man, the senior NCO in the unit, was a grave loss to Zeiner, and indicated to him that the Ardennes fighting was every bit as deadly as Normandy.17

The sides were evenly matched, with excessive acts of bravery recognised by both the opposing armies. As the German armoured column ground down the forest track that was Rollbahn ‘A’ (and found to be in no way suitable as the main supply route of a major tank advance), Sergeant Vernon McGarity, from Tennessee, serving with Company ‘L’ of the Checkerboard’s 393rd Infantry, grabbed a bazooka and destroyed its leading armoured vehicle. Rescuing a wounded GI, he then brought up additional ammunition and directed fire which drove off the nearby Panzergrenadiers for a while. However, a German machine-gun squad had managed to work its way to his rear, cutting off his escape route. In a rage, he leapt towards the machine-gunners, despatching them with a rifle, and prevented all attempts to re-man the weapon. Only when he and his squad had run out of ammunition were they overwhelmed and taken prisoner. McGarity’s inspiring heroism later brought him a Medal of Honor.18

Schulze-Kossens, commander of the II Battalion, 25th SS-Panzergrenadiers, took up the story, highlighting the fact that so many of his unit were recent recruits. ‘Since the men were largely without combat experience, only the deployment of the officers in the front lines could help. In the first hours, all Kompanie chiefs were lost, either killed or wounded … Oberscharführers took over the companies. I remember the very difficult crossing of the Jansbach creek so well, because almost at the creek, I came under fire from snipers in the trees. I pretended to have been killed and, after some considerable time, I suddenly leapt up and into cover.’19

In effect, Schulze-Kossens acknowledged his battalion was so green that it could only function efficiently if its senior leaders were at the front doing the job of junior officers and NCOs. This was in complete contrast to their American counterparts, where the GIs may have been new to combat but all had undertaken between twelve and eighteen months’ training before reaching the Ardennes. Nevertheless, the vastly better resourced SS-Panzergrenadiers operating in half-tracks and on foot, working where possible with the support of their panzers, soon sliced through the remnants of the 99th, pushing them back on to positions held by the 23rd Infantry of the US Indianhead Division, a veteran outfit who were in no mood to yield terrain.

However, as a result of their First World War experiences in the Vosges and Ardennes, the Germans had studied the pitfalls of woodland fighting extensively. All their junior officers, Wehrmacht and SS, had to study forest combat techniques, as this textbook observed:

Thick woods are very apt to make men feel lost and bewildered, particularly when shots from an invisible hand come whistling through the branches. Wood fighting, owing to the constant danger of missing one’s way and losing direction, and the length of time a good sniper can carry on without being detected, is one of the least desirable forms of warfare, especially when troops unaccustomed to woods are pitted against trained sharpshooters.20

Among those who were contesting the same woods opposite Schulze-Kossens was Captain Charles B. MacDonald, commanding Company ‘I’ in the 23rd Infantry Regiment. MacDonald, all of twenty-one, had been called forward into the Krinkelterwald during the night of 16–17 December and remembered their slit trenches ‘amounted to little more than the snow scraped from the ground and a few inches of frozen earth removed’.21 His regimental commander was Colonel Jay B. Lovless, a Texan, who had taken over on 16 June after his outspoken predecessor had fallen out with the divisional commander and been sacked. We have already met the predecessor, for he was Colonel Hurley E. Fuller, who was at this moment fighting for his life further south on the Ardennes front, leading the 110th Infantry of Cota’s Bloody Bucket Division.

MacDonald’s experience of that first long, cold night in the Krinkelterwald was mirrored by his company. ‘I would drift off for a few minutes, only to awaken sharply with the realisation that I was shaking violently from the cold. I would get up, walk in a small circle, stamp my feet, and return to try once again to sleep.’ In the early light his men made their trenches and foxholes deeper and at around 10.00 a.m. ‘stray bullets from the small-arms fight up ahead began to zing through the woods. That was enough to tell us the attacking Germans were not far away.’ They gradually got closer, for a little later ‘a fury of small-arms fire sounded to the front. Stray bullets whined through the trees around us.’

Shortly after that, MacDonald noticed a jeep packed with men from the 99th Division, who should have been to their front, clip down the highway ‘toward the rear at breakneck speed’. Then, coming over the wooded ridge to his front, MacDonald counted about two hundred Checkerboard soldiers, the remnants of nine hundred who had been fighting for twenty-four hours since the Germans first attacked. They passed through his position, some handing their spare ammunition and hand grenades to his men as they stumbled back. ‘Two enlisted men, carrying a badly wounded lieutenant, stopped exhausted with my 3rd Platoon. They could carry him no further,’ MacDonald recalled.22

A five-minute walk into the Krinkelterwald from the nearby car park will take one straight to MacDonald’s position today, recognisable by the bigger dugout that his company headquarters required. Ahead, the ground slopes downhill slightly into a bowl with shallow inclines to left and right, then rises a few hundred yards away to a dominating crest, all within the forest. MacDonald next remembered ‘a hail of small-arms fire which sounded like the crack of thousands of rifles echoing through the forest. There was no doubt now. My men could see the billed caps of the approaching troops. They were Germans.’23 MacDonald’s frequent references to the small-arms fire leaves no doubt that these were MP-44 assault rifles, the Sturmgewehr, which fired at the same 500–600 rounds-per-minute rate as the Browning Automatic Rifles (BAR) with which Company ‘I’ was equipped. Another Second Division GI described the experience of being under fire: ‘when bullets come close to your head, they split the air so fast the air coming back together pops like a hard clap of hands. It really pops; only ricochets will buzz or whine or whir – so much for movie phoniness.’ 24

MacDonald fought off the first attack with mortars and corrected artillery fire, but his supporting Field Artillery Battalion was so short of shells they would only fire three rounds at a time, which did pitifully little damage to the advancing waves. ‘Another hail of small-arms fire told me the attackers had reorganised for a second assault … I lay on my back in the slit trench, the platoon phone in one ear, the receiver of the battalion radio to the other. The chill from the frozen earth seeped through my clothes and I shivered, but I was surprised at my own calmness … The small-arms fire reached another crackling crescendo.’25 Many junior military commanders today have perfected the art of listening to two radio nets simultaneously, a receiver in each ear as MacDonald was doing here, but this was a luxury denied to the Germans in 1944, who were issued only with a bulky radio down to company level.

Meanwhile the US 9th and 38th Infantry Regiments (the rest of the 2nd Division) who, with the 78th Infantry Division and CCB of the Ninth Armored, had been engaged on the operation to seize the Roer dams, were recalled after 07.00 a.m. on the 17th to help stem the tide on the high ground of the Elsenborn Ridge, around Krinkelt–Rotherath. Sergeant Joseph Jan Kiss, Jr, of the 38th Infantry, remembered of the move: ‘We pulled back in broad daylight, about seven or eight miles from near Wahlershied to the twin towns of Krinkelt and Rocherath in Belgium under artillery fire. I hit the ground near a German foxhole, afraid to get in it as it may be booby trapped. A machine gun burst over me, tearing black bark off trees, exposing the white wood underneath, causing me to dive in the foxhole anyway.’

Under fire, the sense of urgency, remembered Kiss, was palpable. ‘Keep moving. The dead or wounded that fell on the road were mashed by trucks, tanks and jeeps, bumper to bumper trying to escape. I saw men smashed flat as a pancake. You could see outlines of helmets through bodies twice a normal size, smashed flat. I had to stare at some for awhile to figure out that it was once a human being. Some animals in a burning barn across the road were crying and it sounded like the crying of human babies.’ While Kiss was still free, Private Foehringer of the 99th Division had witnessed much the same during his march to captivity. In moments of confusion and stress, demonstrations of good leadership were vital. Sergeant Kiss never forgot what happened next.

‘At a crossroad someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “What outfit, son?” I said, “Charlie Company, 38th Regiment, Second Division”. I saw two stars on his helmet, but I knew from pictures that he was General Walter Robertson, our Division Commander. He said, “Down this road to the left about two blocks to a brown brick house on the end”. I said “Yes, Sir”, called to my squad and took off. I heard later that he was all over the area trying to build up a good strong line and gather up stragglers.’26Just as Sergeant Kiss admired his general’s good leadership in a crisis, he also responded to humour: having decided to build himself a dugout as a German artillery shell destroyed his old one, ‘I had the new hole pretty deep when the new CO, Lieutenant Mode, walked up. “If you go any deeper, I’ll court martial you for desertion!”’27

Further south, back at Captain MacDonald’s position in the woods, after seven attacks by ‘suicidal waves of fanatical infantrymen, whooping and yelling and brandishing their rifles like men possessed’, at 3.30 p.m. the Germans brought up tanks (MacDonald called them ‘five giant Tigers’, but they were clearly Schulze-Kossens’ Jagdpanzer IVs), which prised his company out from their positions.28 Private Richard Cowan, in MacDonald’s company, remembered the Germans were close enough for him to hear the officers’ shouts and whistle signals.29 MacDonald thought, ‘Shades of General Custer. Our last stand. Hell, what does it matter? You never expected to get out of this war alive anyway. Not really.’30 Already out of ammunition, the presence of the panzers decided their next course of action and Company ‘I’ withdrew gradually, leapfrogging back into Rocherath, passing a couple of Company ‘C’ Shermans commanded by Lieutenant Victor L. Miller of the 741st Tank Battalion which had destroyed the leading Hitlerjugend panzer, to be in turn knocked out by the following Jagdpanzer; the area was soon dubbed Sherman Ecke(Sherman Corner) by the Germans.

The 741st experienced a trying day, having commenced it on an entirely different mission of supporting the 2nd Division’s thrust towards the Roer dams. By late morning they were fully engaged in the woods surrounding Rocherath and Krinkelt. Sergeant Ray Wilson, a gunner in a Company ‘B’ Sherman, remembered firing at a panzer that had suddenly appeared a mere seventy-five yards away. The shell bounced off its sloping frontal armour; there was no time to get in a second shot. Later on at dusk, when spotlights began stabbing the dark in all directions and one beam fell on a Sherman, Company ‘B’ realised the Germans had mounted searchlights on their tanks.31 A Second Division sergeant recalled the atmosphere as the daylight faded: ‘the artillery and machine gun fire was awful. German tracers were yellow, ours a reddish pink; they looked like pretty – but deadly – fireflies at night.’32

The 741st would destroy an estimated twenty-seven panzers over the next few days, losing eleven of their own, though some disabled tanks, immobilised inside the American lines, carried on the fight. With them, fighting in the same sector, was the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion, who had earlier accompanied the 2nd Division into the Hürtgen. There, they had experienced the attentions of both the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt 109s, followed by the ‘American Luftwaffe’s’ P-38 Lightnings, ‘taking over where the Germans left off’. At Krinkelt, the 644th employed their thirty-six self-propelled M-10s with such effect as to claim twenty-one panzers destroyed or disabled, for the loss of thirty-eight casualties and two M-10s. The experience of the 801st Tank Destroyer (towed) Battalion in the same area was strikingly different. Dug in along the infantry line, their three-inch guns received intense shelling and could be moved only at night. During the attack, bogged down in mud and unable to shift firing positions, their anti-tank guns quickly fell prey to direct fire or infantry assault; during 17–19 December the 801st lost seventeen guns and sixteen of the half-tracks which towed them, and the greatest combat value of the battalion came from the use of gun crews as infantry.33

Behind MacDonald’s Company ‘I’ in the woods was Company ‘M’, assigned to protect the regiment’s right flank, and provide depth support with several Browning .30-inch heavy machine guns set up on their tripods in fortified foxholes. As the grenadiers tore through Company ‘I’, one of the machine-gunners, PFC José M. Lopez, of Brownsville, Texas, picked up his heavy gun and repositioned himself to prevent the Germans from breaking through. First he mounted one of the 741st’s Company ‘B’ Shermans, which he thought was waiting for someone to direct its fire. ‘I climbed up and asked if anyone was alive. There was no answer.’ The crew were dead; Lopez then leapt into a shallow hole that exposed everything from his waist up to enemy fire, set up his gun five feet to MacDonald’s rear, and started spraying the advancing Landsers, dropping several. Undeterred by the presence of panzers in his vicinity, Lopez carried on machine-gunning his opponents, all the while under tank, artillery and small-arms fire.

Nearby, MacDonald watched as ‘An American Jeep with two aid men, their red Geneva crosses painted on their helmets, tore down the highway … I held my breath. The Tiger [sic] tank would surely blast them from the road. Couldn’t they see that the Germans were here now? They did. With the Jeep spinning on two wheels they turned around and tore back up the road. The tank did not fire.’34 Meanwhile, Lopez repositioned himself and his machine gun several times, only falling back when out of ammunition. More than anyone else, he had ensured Company ‘M’s survival, and later more than a hundred dead Panzergrenadiers were counted in an arc around his several positions. As late as 1993 it was still possible to trace Lopez’s various positions from the piles of empty .30-inch cartridges just beneath the forest floor. For his actions in the Krinkelterwald, Lopez was promoted to sergeant and awarded a Medal of Honor for what were dubbed his several ‘seemingly suicidal missions’.35

Meanwhile, Captain MacDonald arrived back at his battalion CP, distraught at having lost his company and, in his eyes, failed in his first combat. He was amazed to be told by his CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Paul V. Tuttle Jr, ‘Nice work, Mac … You held out much longer than I expected.’36

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