29

Head for the Meuse!

GENERAL DER PANZERTRUPPE Hasso von Manteuffel was angry. Several matters irritated the baron on 20 December, but no more so than his subordinate’s failure to take Bastogne on the evening of the 18th. He came over to Panzer Lehr’s HQ in person and berated Fritz Bayerlein for his stupidity in choosing a muddy track to Mageret ‘like an officer cadet who couldn’t read a map’. He blamed him for undue caution throughout the 19th and a ‘lack of fighting spirit’ within the division – accusations which could get a commander shot in the Third Reich of late 1944. Lüttwitz had little doubt that, had Bayerlein chosen an alternative route, he would have broken through the roadblocks of Teams Desobry or O’Hara, neither of whom were fully deployed, and gained the town easily – the 101st being off-balance, in the process of arriving and short of ammunition. Kokott’s Volksgrenadiers would have assisted in mopping up many of the straggling GIs in the vicinity. History suggests that Manteuffel and Lüttwitz were probably correct.

On the other hand, Heinz Kokott’s 26th Volksgrenadiers, struggling through the mud on foot with wagons and artillery drawn by 3,000 horses, had done a magnificent job of keeping up with the tanks. Henceforth their task would be to stay and subdue Bastogne, in place of the panzers which had by then begun to hurry westwards. In fact, Lüttwitz and Manteuffel had already recommended Kokott for promotion to Generalmajor, which came through on 1 January. Meanwhile, Bayerlein was instructed to leave one of his Panzergrenadier Regiments, the 901st, to stay behind with Kokott, while the rest of the division moved on. Part of Heilmann’s 5th Fallschirmjäger Division was also sent to Bastogne, but for the panzers – next stop, the Meuse!

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Differential mobility between the panzer and Volksgrenadier divisions was a constant challenge throughout the campaign. In front of Bastogne, for example, the 3,000 horses towing the logistics and artillery of Heinz Kokott’s 26th Volksgrenadiers struggled to keep up with the tanks and half-tracks of Panzer Lehr and 2nd Panzer Division. (Author’s collection)

The most northerly of Manteuffel’s three panzer divisions was Siegfried von Waldenburg’s 116th Panzer Division (the Windhund, or Greyhounds), which, accompanied by Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers, belonged to Krüger’s LVIII Panzer Corps. The WindhundDivision had fought hard at Lützkampen to the north of the 2nd Panzer in the initial assault on the 16th. Despite attempts to build a bridge at Ouren, on the night of 16–17 December and throughout the 17th, they crossed the River Our using 2nd Panzer’s bridge at Dasburg, captured Heinerscheid and Hupperdange on 17 December, destroying sixteen tanks and taking 373 prisoners (from Nelson’s 112th Regiment), for similar losses of their own. They were under constant pressure from their superiors, Fifth Army and LVIII Corps, to get westwards as quickly as possible, using the opportunity of the ‘German-friendly weather – fog and drizzle’, but a heavy mortar shell exploded in the middle of a circle of commanders, the division’s War Diary noted, killing twelve including ‘our excellent Division physician, Professor Bickert’.1

By late on 18 December the 116th Panzer’s advance guard had entered Houffalize, capturing or destroying ‘many trucks and vehicles and one Sherman’ and seizing the Ourthe river bridges undamaged. Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers were making ‘quite an effort’ to keep pace with them, though at this stage, aware of the clock ticking, Army Group ‘B’ ordered the pace of advance accelerated. Manteuffel, meanwhile, was concerned about the division’s order of march. ‘Spearheads [are] too thin and narrow. When [you are] near the enemy, attack him from broader formations with fire. Heavy weapons throughout [are] much too far back. Armoured groups [must be] to the front everywhere, not just Panzergrenadiers by themselves.’2 On this day the first complaints about fuel shortages surfaced in the war diary, ‘No fuel’, reported some of the artillery formations. ‘All units that have arrived have enough for 20 kilometres, the advance battalion for 10 kilometres. Roads in the back jammed. [Which prevented trucks bearing fuel from moving forward.] Nothing coming in. Some tanks usable only by siphoning.’3

Just as Bayerlein was grinding down his atrociously muddy track into Mageret, Major Fritz Vogelsang, the 116th Division’s IIa (Adjutant for officers), with supreme optimism, reflected their experience of Belgian roads. He noted, ‘Now, everything is rolling smoothly in both directions, but above all, into the area of the breach … The weather is again misty, damp, cold and rainy. For our offensive it could not be any better! However, mud and dirt on the ruined roads and in the torn-up terrain almost remind one of Russian conditions! In most cases the grey of our uniforms show only in a few places between the layers of mud … The hole in the enemy front now finally seems to have been bored through. Merrily, the attack rolls west – hopefully for long!’

South of Houffalize, 116th Panzer came up against American units, where ‘a large number of tanks and motor vehicles were captured or destroyed’ along with 400 prisoners taken. There was, however, a cautionary note that ‘the division attack on the morning of 19 December suffered considerable delays due to lack of fuel’. Fortunately that evening they overran Gives-Givroule, where a large fuel and supply depot was captured, enabling vehicles to top up – but petrol was becoming an ever-present concern for the 116th’s commanders. By the evening of the 19th, Generalmajor Waldenburg had established his HQ near Bertogne, seven miles north-west of Bastogne, but the division was having to sideslip south-west to find intact bridges over the rivers. His formation was becoming dangerously spread out, a situation governed by centres of opposition, destroyed bridges and the road network.

The enthusiasm of the initial advance was caught in Adjutant Vogelsang’s record for 20 December, which also reflected the deprivations all German soldiers had suffered during the preceding couple of years. ‘The Americans are completely surprised and in constant turmoil. Long columns of prisoners march toward the east, many tanks were destroyed or captured. Our Landsers are loaded with cigarettes, chocolates, and canned food, and are smiling from ear to ear. The combat units were able to fill the gaps caused by missing vehicles in their convoys with captured ones. Along the roads are immense piles of artillery ammunition. I estimate the amount to be 25,000 rounds. How wonderful that this blessing will not fall on our heads!’4

Even though his advance looked promising, Waldenburg had already run out of intact bridges west and south of the Ourthe, with no time and few facilities to build replacements. Risking the loss of a whole day, he reluctantly ordered his division to turn around, retrace their steps to Houffalize and cross to the north and east bank of the Ourthe river, and thence head for La Roche and Noiseux.5 These are journeys of a few minutes today, with scarcely a blink of the eye when a small local river is crossed. Back in 1944 the loss of a single bridge could send a whole division scurrying hither and thither, wasting their two most precious resources in short supply – time and fuel. This gave the Americans time to strengthen their defences, for example at La Roche, where twenty-four tanks were observed on the morning of 20 December, when before there had been none.

There was some compensation when at 4.00 p.m., in Samrée, when Waldenburg destroyed twelve tanks guarding a supply depot containing 26,400 gallons of fuel, neatly stacked in five-gallon jerrycans for ready use. The 16th Panzer Regiment’s War Diary recorded, ‘The successes of the last past days create great enthusiasm among our soldiers, especially since many prisoners were brought in …’6 A beaming Manteuffel congratulated Waldenburg by radio on the 21st: ‘Appreciation and gratitude to your magnificent men, your commanders and to you. Your successes adhere to proud tradition.’ More succinctly, as the divisional adjutant put it, ‘The faces of the prisoners are full of disbelief and amazement’.7

Yet the loss of time was crucial, for it allowed Major-General Maurice Rose’s 3rd Armored Division to deploy opposite the 116th on the 20th, followed by General Alex Bolling’s 84th ‘Railsplitters’ Infantry Division (also known as the ‘Hatchet Men’) on the 21st – both units of J. Lawton Collins’ US VII Corps. With the 84th were Harold P. ‘Bud’ Leinbaugh and John D. Campbell, both with Company ‘K’ of the 333rd Infantry Regiment (not connected with the artillery unit of the same number). As they arrived in Serinchamps, a hamlet due west of Marche, the local mayor told them, ‘this was 1940 all over again; he seemed sure of it. He seemed to take perverse pride in explaining that Rommel had personally led his panzers through the region en route to the Meuse four years earlier’. Looking at Company ‘K’s weaponry, the mayor asked about American tanks, clearly anxious they had more than rifles to halt the German armour.8 ‘The local phones were working’, the mayor told them, ‘and he’d received calls an hour earlier reporting panzers rolling through villages ten miles away.’ Behind them, along the west bank of the Meuse, Montgomery had started to position the British XXX Corps, with fifty tanks of the 29th Armoured Brigade defending the bridges at Namur, Dinant and Givet. Lieutenant D.H. Clark of the Royal Army Medical Corps remembered their Sherman tanks ‘rumbling past, massive and effective-looking; the drivers were Hussars who had fought in them all the way up from Normandy. The tanks looked like tinkers’ caravans, with cooking pots, wine flagons, bed rolls and miscellaneous loot dangling from the camouflage netting.’9

On the shortest day of the year, 21 December, the Windhund Division lunged for the little bridge over the Ourthe at Hotton, which is where this study of the Bulge campaign began. There, the mixed bag of defenders, numbering no more than 200, armed with one 57mm anti-tank and two 40mm anti-aircraft guns, were now wiser and perhaps the attackers over-confident. The Americans were fortunate to have present some combat engineers, who not only prepared the bridge for destruction but hastily laid mines and overturned vehicles to make roadblocks.

Using the cover of a forest that came close to the town, at 08.30 a.m. seven of the Windhund’s tanks and half-tracks suddenly hit Hotton after the briefest of artillery barrages. The 116th Division’s War Diary noted that ‘Nobody was expecting an attack, though the village, especially the bridge, was well secured by enemy tanks [in fact there were only two present to begin with], anti-tank guns and sharpshooters. A platoon was guarding a pedestrian footbridge upriver at Hampteau. Due to the loss of Oberleutnant Köhn’s leading Panther and the wounding of several commanders by headshots, the attack, which was only escorted by weak infantry units, came to a halt. Köhn lost an eye and three men from his crew were killed. There was heavy fighting with enemy tanks, in which the opponent suffered heavy losses … our units in Hotton were under heavy fire all day.’10

Although the Windhund had the advantage of surprise, and the two US tanks were destroyed, the assault came to a halt because the Germans were too cocky. Had the attack been properly coordinated between tanks and Panzergrenadiers, Waldenburg would have got his bridge. However, his panzers went in without a proper reconnaissance and pretty much alone, and were picked off one by one. The town was not well defended at all, though the Germans perceived it to be. A strong, well-planned attack would have removed the defenders in a trice and one is left with the impression of a botched attempt to take Hotton on 21 December. Failure to take the town in the morning led to US reinforcements from 638th Tank Destroyer Battalion and Bolling’s 84th Infantry Division arriving from Soy, to the north-east, at exactly the right moment in the afternoon, as the Germans tired, and eventually they began to outnumber the attackers.

The US defenders also dominated the terrain north-east of Hotton as far as Soy, and constantly threatened to outflank their attackers, who were compelled to use their armour in defence. Using up fuel by manoeuvring off-road remained a concern, although the almost empty panzer regiment had been able to refuel completely with the petrol captured at Samrée. Oberfeldwebel Pichler, commanding three Panthers, destroyed five Shermans at Soy, but the arrival of the 1st Battalion, 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment (to which the future Medal of Honor-winner Melvin E. Biddle was attached), and a company of tank destroyers on 22 December emphasised the fact that any further German advance by way of Hotton was out of the question.

By 22 December the 116th Division’s attack at Hotton had culminated, although the Fifth Army orders received that night commanded ‘Bypass resistance, only [lightly] cover the flanks, bulk [effort] remains the advance towards Maas [the Meuse]. Continue to confuse, split up, surround, reconnoitre in force, and deceive [the Americans]’. However, the reality of the campaign was already apparent. The assault was hopelessly behind schedule. The Hotton attack emphasised just how alert the US Army in the once-sleepy Ardennes had become.

To the 116th Division’s north, the Sixth Panzer Army remained stuck on the Elsenborn Ridge, and General Lücht’s LXVI Corps on their immediate right had just finished fighting for St Vith (it was captured on the night of 21–22 December). On their left, Panzer Lehr had reached Rochefort (south-west of Marche) and 2nd Panzer Division, Bande (between Marche and La Roche); part of Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzer Corps was still delayed at Bastogne. Behind them, Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers were attacking at Dochamps, midway between Manhay and Marche, while reinforcements in the form of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich were attacking the Baraque de Fraiture crossroads, north-east of La Roche.

At the same time, 2nd Panzer Division was pulling away on its dash to the Meuse, largely because it had managed to avoid American strongpoints after Bastogne. Viewed from the air (which was not yet possible), Lauchert’s division would have looked like a finger, stretching for seven miles north-westwards, from Bastogne towards Dinant. However, there were no units to guard its flanks, for both Panzer Lehr to its left and 116th Panzer on its right had encountered tougher opposition and fallen behind. The 2nd Panzer was having to use some of its own combat power to protect its flanks, which inevitably slowed its advance. The further it lunged towards the Meuse, the weaker its spearhead became. The freezing weather took its toll on vehicles as well as people.

Hans Behrens, a wireless operator in a Panzer IV following behind with Generalleutnant Harald Freiherr von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer Division, recalled of his opponents, ‘The Americans came amiss as they had rubber pads on their tank tracks, and when the roads were icy, they just slid all over the place … Roads were just six inches of solid frozen gleaming ice … One saw an unending succession of lorries that had crashed out of control … On the camber of a road two men could slide one [panzer] sideways by merely pushing it.’ Due to widespread American knowledge of the massacre of GIs by Waffen-SS soldiers at Malmedy on 17 December (which we shall examine shortly), panzer crewmen like Behrens also learned that US troops had taken to shooting SS men automatically on capture. This often extended to tank crews, whose black panzer uniform and death’s head badge was frequently mistaken for membership of Himmler’s legions. Behrens spent the Bulge dreading capture.11 The reaction of Company ‘K’ of the 333rd Infantry was that ‘the SS was going to have to pay, and pay heavily’. They ‘just wanted to start killing Germans’.12

Already it was apparent that the Americans were reacting far quicker than expected, both in terms of delaying the advance but also in terms of flooding the area with reinforcements. The daily report from Army Group ‘B’, Model’s headquarters, acknowledged that ‘the continuous action of the 116th Panzer Division and the 2nd Panzer Division, under difficult terrain conditions and heavy enemy resistance, has caused combat effectiveness to drop heavily’.13 In fact, the Windhund Division started 22 December with nobattle-worthy tanks at all, but six replacement panzers arrived at midday, with twenty-seven soon following from the repair workshops. Some personnel began to trickle through to replace casualties, but shortages of fuel and ammunition still concerned the divisional staff.

Two last (and largely pointless) attempts were made to seize the bridge at Hotton at midnight on the 22nd and 02.15 a.m. on 23 December, using a battalion of Panzergrenadiers supported by tanks, after which responsibility for Hotton was handed to Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers (in whose ranks sixteen-year-old Grenadier Werner Klippel was serving) and the 116th Windhund disengaged. The latter were now weak from casualties, equipment losses and lack of fuel, but some troops slipped south towards Marche, discovering that US blocking forces were in place, ready to meet them.

On Saturday, 23 December, Manteuffel had his three panzer divisions ready to strike for the Meuse; on the left, Panzer Lehr was about to attack Rochefort. In the centre, 2nd Panzer was closest to the Meuse, though strung out and not concentrated, with its advance guard four miles east of Celles and only eleven miles from the river line. The 116th Panzer was still fixed in the Hotton–Marche area. Behind these three panzer divisions, the second echelon of von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer Division, in company with Remer’s Führer-Begleit-Brigade and part of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, were struggling forward, but all of these formations suffered from the same afflictions – superior Allied numbers, lack of fuel and ammunition and the crushing weight of hostile air power when the weather permitted.

Just as Manteuffel had skilfully rebalanced his forces and was poised to strike at the Meuse, the weather changed. The 23rd saw the first good flying conditions since the campaign began and the skies soon filled with Allied aircraft. The 116th War Diary lamented, ‘continuous air raids on supply roads and towns of the rearward areas. No Luftwaffe.’ They were there, but perhaps not visible to the 116th on the ground.

Men of the US 333rd Infantry Regiment recorded, ‘Hundreds of planes, German and American, but mostly American as far as we could tell, crisscrossed the sky, leaving long contrails from horizon to horizon. The dogfights were fascinating. Near noontime five smoking planes went down simultaneously. Flight after flight of low-flying Thunderbolts, Mustangs and Lightnings roared overhead toward the German lines. The planes gave a big boost to our morale … They were like geese in the sky.’14 Lloyd Swenson was a twenty-year-old B-26 bomber pilot whose squadron had been getting ready to abandon its airbase on the Franco-Belgian border ‘because the Germans were getting so close. We couldn’t take anything with us, except our uniform and a toothbrush. Then on the twenty-third the fog lifted and it was a bright, clear day.’ In the morning his squadron of twin-engined B-26 Marauders, ‘a medium-range bomber, fast and very maneuvrable with a crew of five’, was assigned a mission to destroy a vital rail bridge supplying the Bulge. Thirty-six aircraft from the 387th Bomb Group set out with Swenson, who remembered ‘a few miles off Bastogne about twenty-five Messerschmitt 109s hurtled into our formation. As they did some of our P-51s [Mustang fighters] responded to our Mayday call. Over the intercom the tail gunner described the dogfight but I had to keep my eyes on flying the plane.’15

Down below, the Windhund Division noted, ‘Across the entire western horizon the countless streaks of white vapour trails moved across the sky, an impressive, but scary show. The air was filled with uninterrupted humming. The number of bombers, fighter-bombers and fighters could not be counted!’16 No sooner had Swenson returned from his bombing mission (in which five from his group of thirty-six were shot down) than he was assigned another in the afternoon to hit a communications centre at Prüm, just behind the German lines. Flak and fighters took a heavy toll of Allied aircraft that day and forty-one Ninth Air Force B-26s were shot down – ‘by far the blackest day in Marauder history,’ added Swenson. The following day, equally good for flying, he added another two missions over the Ardennes and eventually accumulated sixty-one before returning home.17

Despite air attacks, Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr ground forward through that Saturday and when darkness fell he and fifteen panzers had reached the outskirts of Rochefort, where Companies ‘K’ and ‘I’ of the US 335th Regiment (belonging to the Railsplitters’ 84th Division) were waiting in defence. Few of the inhabitants had fled and numbers were swollen with refugees; none of the 4,000 civilians had anywhere to go but huddle in their cellars. The Lehr assaulted the town through the night of 23–24 December, as Obergefreiter Schüssler recalled: ‘Dismount! The panzer we had been riding on rolled forward a bit, hit a low garden wall and knocked it over. The enemy machine-gun which had fired at us disappeared with a crunching impact … An arrow of tracers turned on us and threw us behind the cover of another wall. My machine-gun shuddered in my hands. The bolt ate the belt of ammo and spat out the empty cases. It fell quiet abruptly … We reached a back courtyard. As I was running I saw the brilliant flashes of bursting mortar rounds; I saw the “dark mice” [as he dubbed the mortar rounds] descend and impact on the roof. A hand grenade flew over our heads into the room where the Americans were. Its ear-deafening blast made us hit the deck. The enemy guns, set up on sandbags along the windows, fell silent.’18

The Americans in Rochefort put up a tough fight, but the town fell an hour after first light, with fewer than 150 of the two US infantry companies escaping. During the 24th, Panzer Lehr found themselves following the march route of 2nd Panzer Division; around Humain (north of Rochefort) they found the burned-out half-tracks of an entire Panzergrenadier company; ‘the battle-group directed to Buissonville encountered ten knocked-out German tanks right outside the village,’ recorded the Division.19 Christmas Day found the headquarters of Panzer Lehr in St Hubert (south-east of Rochefort), a town of 3,500, where they received a concerted Allied bombing campaign from noon. ‘The wrecks of divisional vehicles smouldered after the attacks … Through his binoculars the commander [Bayerlein] could see gliders heading in towards Bastogne, which was being supplied by air.’20 Meanwhile, an American patrol watched a Panzer Lehr convoy heading towards Rochefort, which reflected a typical mix of German and impressed US vehicles, including ‘one company of infantry, five German tanks, two Sherman tanks, fifteen half-tracks, two American Jeeps, one American 2½ ton truck, and three German ambulances’.21

By 24–25 December, the 116th Panzer Division was essentially fixed along the terrain between Hotton and Marche by General Alex Bolling’s US 84th Infantry Division and its accompanying 771st Tank Battalion. In continuous skirmishes, the latter were able to split the panzer division into separate battlegroups and sub-units, around the villages of Verdenne, Marenne, Menil-Favay and Hampteau south of the Marche–Hotton road. The panzers were unable to fight as larger formations because of the strength of US troops in the vicinity, minefields and air support the GIs had on call. Early on 24 December the hamlet of Verdenne and its château were attacked and taken by Major Gerhardt Tebbe’s 16th Panzer Regiment with a platoon (five) of Panzer IVs under Leutnant Grzonka, and another of four Panthers, led by Hauptmann Kuchenbach, supported by a weak battalion of Panzergrenadiers. Major Tebbe, an Ostfront veteran, who would be awarded a German Cross in Gold for his leadership in the Bulge and command panzers again in the future Bundeswehr, had already been obliged to abandon one of his Panthers along his line of march, in Houffalize. It is still there, mounted on a concrete plinth overlooking the right side of the road as you drive in from the direction of Bastogne and Noville.22

Company ‘K’ of the 84th Division was detailed to investigate the Verdenne area, for the German incursion threatened to sever the important Marche–Hotton road, running south-west to north-east, effectively the 84th’s front line and crucial to their scheme of defence. Assured of support from Shermans of the 771st Tank Battalion, and under a clear Christmas Eve sky with ‘the feel of snow in the air, the ground lightly frozen and covered with frost’, they set off down a track which connected Verdenne with Bourdon, a mile to the north. ‘Just ahead a tank loomed out of the darkness, its huge bulk filling the narrow road, branches pressing in on either side brushing its steel plates. Sergeant Don Phelps went forward to liaise with the tankers, pounding on the side of the hull with his rifle, “Hey, you guys, open up!” The hatch opened slowly, a creak of metal, and the head and shoulders of a man appeared. “Was ist los?” Machine-guns started to chatter, tracers lit up the sky, tank guns fired, mortar rounds exploded, and Company ‘K’ scattered – and leapt straight into the foxholes of the Panzergrenadier battalion protecting their tanks. Major Tebbe reckoned he may have had around forty panzers and half-tracks hidden in the woods at this point. The German salient near Verdenne “had been discovered in a curious way”.’23

When this began, Major Gerhardt Tebbe, the panzer commander, recalled to me that on Christmas Eve he was in his Befehlspanzer (command tank), studying his maps. The radio relayed a programme from Cologne Cathedral where the bells were ringing in the festive season. Suddenly his reverie was broken by gunfire nearby, and he slammed shut his turret hatch.24 On Christmas morning, some of the Railsplitters noticed ‘Two German soldiers came stumbling forward toward our positions in the half-light, hands held high, yelling “Nicht schiessen!” (“don’t shoot!”). We discovered that they actually understood very little German, and they finally made us understand they were Ukrainians, drafted into the German army.’25

Their appearance in this sector puzzled intelligence staff, but they turned out to be from Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers, by far the weakest German formation in Herbstnebel, whose ranks included many older men from garrisons in Norway, with waif and strays from Russia and Ukraine. It is a sad reflection that many East European Volksgrenadier ‘volunteers’ never got the opportunity to surrender in this way. When suddenly faced with a figure in field grey waving his arms about and shouting incoherently (few Volksdeutsche had a good grasp of German, much less English), most nervous, trigger-happy GIs tended to shoot first and ask questions later.

At the end of Christmas Day, Verdenne had been cleared and 289 Windhund prisoners taken, though nine panzers counter-attacked in the afternoon, each one of which was destroyed by waiting Shermans. By then, many of the Windhund’s sub-units were scattered and encircled by stronger US forces in the Verdenne area. On 26 December, the 84th Hatchet Men went on to ambush an armoured column at Menil-Favay. The leading panzer ran over a pile of anti-tank mines which exploded with such force so as to blow the tank on to its side, ripping a hole in its belly armour, and killing the crew; this blocked the advance of the vehicles behind, leading to the destruction of twenty-six Windhund vehicles, including six tanks.

With US infantry and tank attacks proving too costly to subdue the 116th Panzer Division, the Americans used artillery instead. Their opponents noted, ‘the deployment of American guns was overwhelming’ – there were about 150 US cannon of varying calibres, including 155mm guns and eight-inch howitzers – which broke up every German attempt to break out. The 84th Division thought it ‘the heaviest, most devastating bombardment we had ever witnessed. When the fire stopped, the cries for help from wounded and dying Germans carried clearly to our lines. We admitted to ourselves that we were sorry for the poor bastards up there.’26 Eventually, on hearing that further reinforcement or relief of the Windhund was not possible, Waldenburg ordered the vehicles in the Verdenne pocket abandoned and the division went over to the defensive.27 Remer’s Führer-Begleit-Brigade had almost reached him and the Hotton area, with Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer trailing behind – both with a view to continuing the push westwards – when Berlin switched Remer back to Bastogne on Hitler’s personal whim.28

There is nothing remarkable about the Verdenne woods today, except that they are full of the defensive trenches and foxholes dug by both sides, where old ammunition boxes, mortar fragments and shrapnel still litter the forest floor.

The 2nd Panzer Division, which had advanced further, was in a similar predicament, being spread out in scattered battlegroups between an area south-west of Marche and as far as Foy-Notre-Dame, near the Meuse, which Hauptmann von Böhm’s Reconnaissance Battalion reached at midnight on 23 December. At the same moment a jeep manned by three Americans failed to stop at a joint Anglo-US manned checkpoint on the east bank of Meuse, at Dinant. When the vehicle careered through the Rocher Bayard feature – a narrow slit in the rock through which a Sherman could just squeeze – by a prearranged signal Sergeant Baldwin of the 8th Rifle Brigade (a British infantry battalion), a few hundred yards further on, pulled a necklace of anti-tank mines across the road, blowing up the jeep and killing its occupants. All three were found to be wearing US helmets and greatcoats over German uniforms; in their pockets were found very detailed plans of the Allied defences. These were almost certainly not Skorzeny commandos, but a scouting patrol of 2nd Panzer Division sent on ahead in an improvised disguise.29

Lauchert immediately pushed forward another battlegroup of Panzergrenadiers, tanks, artillery and engineers under Major Ernst von Cochenhausen, which reach Celles soon after. As with the Windhund along the Marche–Hotton line, 2nd Panzer was, in the words of its War Diary, ‘hindered in its mobility through lack of fuel’. In other words, the Germans could advance no further. In two groups, Böhm at Foy and Cochenhausen at Celles, they dug in and virtually waited to be counter-attacked, but all the while hoping that 9th Panzer Division would break through behind them, or Panzer Lehr or the Windhund Division to their left and right flanks. The Germans’ right flank was unguarded because 116th Panzer had not been able to move forward beyond Hotton, and the left was similarly unprotected because Panzer Lehr also lagged behind.

Thanks to intelligence gathered by two former Belgian army officers, Baron Capitaine Jacques de Villenfagne and his cousin, Lieutenant Philippe le Hardy de Beaulieu, who, dressed in white from head to toe and wearing white gloves, trekked through the crystal-clear night in minus 30 degrees of frost to map the panzers’ positions, British troops in nearby Sorinnes were furnished with the exact locations and precise strengths of Kampfgruppe von Böhm.30 During 24 December, Shermans of Lieutenant-Colonel Alan Brown’s British 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (3 RTR) stationed on the east bank of the Meuse duelled cautiously with the forward tanks of Böhm’s Kampfgruppe; at the same time rocket-firing Typhoons and P-51s harassed the Germans. Aerial observers also appeared in the skies, directing ground artillery onto targets with great accuracy. It was also obvious the latter were short of fuel as each Panther was seen to be towing up to three trucks.

Hitler spent Christmas Eve, der Heilige Abend, in the Führerbunker at the Ziegenberg Adlerhorst complex, elated that 2nd Panzer was so close to the Meuse. The flag noting their position was duly moved on the situations map. He disregarded the fact that they were out of fuel and under air attack. In the afternoon, his staff remembered, he had stood outside the command bunker, watching as thousands of tiny specks glittered in the winter sky overhead. They were American bombers, heading eastwards to bomb the heartland of the Reich.

Knowing that two battlegroups of his division were dangerously exposed, Lauchert asked for permission to withdraw his forward elements and regroup. His request did not get beyond Manteuffel, who knew that neither Model nor Hitler would permit it. Afterwards, Lauchert’s chief of staff, Oberstleutnant Rüdiger Weitz, recorded, ‘During the night the front line elements sent urgent calls for reinforcements and supplies of ammunition and fuel. More and more reports came in stating that the enemy was constantly reinforcing and was, in some cases, on our own supply road. The process of marching on Dinant had come to a halt.’31

On Christmas Day, Major-General Ernest N. Harmon’s US 2nd Armored Division attacked Lauchert’s exposed right flank at Foy-Notre-Dame, squeezing it between two task forces to the north and south. The US 82nd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion and 3 RTR also attacked from the west, forward of the Meuse. Major Noël Bell, serving with the British 8th Rifle Brigade, watched from a nearby vantage point. ‘A squadron of P-38 Lightnings roared over us and circled low, determined to have a festive Christmas Day. Three Panthers, a certain amount of transport and a large number of entrenched infantry … were subjected to merciless and incessant attack from the Lightnings which soon began to dive to rooftop height with machine-guns blazing, dropping bombs at the same time.’32

The result was that Kampfgruppe von Böhm was surrounded, smashed and the survivors forced to surrender. After the Christmas Day battle, General Harmon reported that he ‘destroyed or captured eighty-two tanks, sixteen other armoured vehicles, eighty-three guns, and 280 motor vehicles. Twenty vehicles were captured and pressed into Allied service, including seven US trucks seized only days earlier. Harmon had taken the “panzer” out of the 2nd Panzer Division.’33 The fact that only 148 men, including Böhm himself, were taken prisoner out of the thousand-plus personnel illustrated the crushing blow that had descended on the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 2nd Panzer Division. It had ceased to exist.

For the Führer’s last Christmas, Oberscharführer Rochus Misch told me in 1993, Hitler’s staff at the Adlerhorst conjured up a small Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree) complete with candles, under which lay modest gifts of cigarettes, of which the Führer disapproved, Stollen (fruit cake) and chocolates (he had a sweet tooth), wrapped in newsprint or bright paper. All present realised that any wistful references to the Christkind (Christ Child), a Krippenspiel (nativity play) or the Weihnachtsmann (St Nicholas or Santa Claus), who delivered a sack full of presents to good children, belonged to a different era, and were banned. The headquarters staff, secretaries and generals toasted one another with champagne; Hitler shared the intoxication of the moment, although he had not drunk alcohol: he was already high on the success of his armies. Yet the only Christmas present for which the Führer wished, victory in the Ardennes, was already unattainable.34

‘That evening the Americans occupied the Farm Mayenne (formerly home to a Panther platoon)’, wrote Noël Bell. ‘Foy Notre Dame was a smouldering ruin in which half of “B” Squadron 3 RTR and the Americans leaguered for the night, after going round the village and getting Germans out of cellars, like ferrets after rats.’35 Several Catholic GIs were recorded as lining up to confess their sins – with the aid of a pocket dictionary – to Father Coussin, a veteran of the Great War and the priest of Celles.36

Tactically, Lauchert had overstretched 2nd Panzer, which was in any case out of fuel. The unrelenting pressure for progress came from General von Lüttwitz, who hovered nearby, protective of the division he had commanded from February to September in 1944, and forever breathing down Lauchert’s neck. Today, one of the 2nd Panzer Division’s Panther tanks has survived the attentions of the post-war scrap dealers, and – minus its road wheels and tracks – stands guard outside the crossroads in Celles, where a series of signboards with maps explain the battle in detail, reminding passing motorists how close the Fifth Panzer Army came to their goal of reaching the Meuse.

Thus the spearhead of the entire Herbstnebel campaign had been halted and blunted. The Army Group War Diary noted, ‘On 25 December, the attack by Army Group “B” was the target of strong enemy counter-attacks from the north and west against spearheads of the Fifth Panzer Army. The back-and-forth battles lasted the whole day.’ Panzer Lehr observed that their divisional logistics elements suffered terribly over 24–25 December. Every drop of gasoline had to be brought forward by vehicle and the division lost thirty fuel trucks during their march to the front, not including those bogged down in the mud, broken down or caught in accidents. ‘A Flak battery that attempted to reply to an attack of P-38 Lightnings simply disappeared under a hail of bombs. Hardly any men of the battery survived and the division’s armoured maintenance workshops were swept up in a maelstrom of fire.’37

By the time Army Group ‘B’ ordered the Sixth Panzer Army to disengage from the Elsenborn Ridge and strengthen the effort of Fifth Army on 25 December, it was too late. On his own initiative, Bayerlein withdrew the forward elements of Panzer Lehr back into Rochefort during the night of 25–26 December. This was an acknowledgement that Hitler’s original plan of putting most weight on the German right, favouring the Waffen-SS, had been a disaster, and that Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army sector had always shown the greatest promise.

This was not just because of Manteuffel’s fighting qualities and judgement as a commander, but because the terrain was far better suited and offered more alternatives to fast-moving armoured troops. Surprise was the major advantage the Germans possessed and that had largely been thrown away by the length of time the panzer formations took to bridge their river lines during the first couple of days. Had the Fifth Army possessed Dietrich’s bridging equipment, engineering assets and weight of artillery support, enabling it to bridge efficiently and effectively on 16–17 December, it might have made the Meuse, but even then would not have managed to get much beyond.

On 26 December, 116th Panzer Division was ordered ‘onto the defensive’, in theory to await the arrival of second echelon relief units, but in reality acknowledging that the offensive was over. The battle would thenceforth be to retain whatever gains had been made. ‘The Other Fellow’, as Bradley habitually referred to his opponents, ‘reached his high-water mark today’, he reported to Bedell Smith at Ike’s headquarters. On this day Major Fritz Vogelsang, the 116th’s Divisional Adjutant, noted, ‘This morning, fighter-bombers and bombers turned La Roche into a smoking pile of rubble. Our anti-aircraft guns were able to shoot down some of the attackers … if only the weather would turn bad again!’ Vogelsang also assessed the accumulated personnel losses since the 16th, as at least 1,907 killed or wounded, 1,278 taken prisoner and an unspecified number missing; a total of 113 armoured vehicles of all types had been destroyed – only seven tanks and four tank destroyers were still battleworthy.

‘The Division lost much of its combat value, inner strength, quality, speed and flexibility of leadership. It will be able to compensate for these losses through its reserves, but not for those valuable officers, including a large number of battalion commanders, adjutants and company commanders and most of the junior leaders … of special impact is the loss of fifteen radio and three other armoured communications vehicles … Losses are so high that the two Panzergrenadier regiments, where all four battalion commanders became casualties, have to be considered as nearly destroyed.’ The combined battle strength on 29 December of the two Panzergrenadier regiments totalled 1,184 out of the nearly 5,000 who started the campaign.38 Divisional headquarters came in for some harsh treatment on the same day; in despair, as Major Vogelsang recorded, ‘Fighter-bombers appeared and took care of some of the few houses … Then artillery planes began to circle and directed well-controlled fire from heavy guns. Explosions everywhere! Finally it became too uncomfortable; nobody can conduct a paper war from a foxhole!’39

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