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December 18, 2005

On this day in 1944...

I thought this year I'd excerpt from the Official History - The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge, by Hugh Cole.

The 2d Division Withdraws to the Elsenborn Line 19 December

At 1800 on 18 December the V Corps commander attached General Lauer's 99th Division to Robertson's 2d Division. General Gerow's instructions, given Robertson late on 17 December for a defense of the Rocherath-Krinkelt-Wirtzfeld line until such time as the isolated American troops to the east could be withdrawn, finally were fulfilled on the night of 18-19 December when the remnants of the 1st Battalion of the 393d and the 2d Battalion of the 394th came back through the 2d Division lines. These were the last organized units to find their way to safety, although small groups and individual stragglers would appear at the Elsenborn rallying point for some days to come. Then, despite the fact that the 2d Division was hard pressed, Robertson made good on his promise to the corps commander that he would release the 99th Division elements which had been placed in the 2d Division line and send them to Elsenborn for reorganization within their own division. The tactical problem remaining was to disengage the 2d Division and its attached troops, particularly those in the twin villages, while at the same time establishing a new and solid defense along the Elsenborn ridge.

The failure to break through at the twin villages on 18 December and so open the way south to the main armored route via Büllingen had repercussions all through the successive layers of German command on the Western Front. Realizing that the road system and the terrain in front of the Sixth Panzer Army presented more difficulties than those confronting the Fifth, it had been agreed to narrow the Sixth Panzer Army zone of attack and in effect ram through the American front by placing two panzer corps in column. The southern wing of the 1st SS Panzer Corps, in the Sixth Panzer Army van, had speedily punched a hole between the 106th and 99th American divisions and by 18 December the leading tank columns of the 1st SS Panzer Division were deep in the American rear areas. The northern wing, however, had made very slow progress and thus far had failed to shake any tanks loose in a dash forward on the northern routes chosen for armored penetration. Peremptory telephone messages from the headquarters of OB WEST harassed Dietrich, the Sixth Panzer Army commander, all during the 18th and were repeated-doubtless by progressively sharpening voices-all the way to the Krinkelt-Rocherath front. But exhortation had been fruitless.

Continued in the Flash Traffic/Extended Entry.

Although Dietrich continued to needle his subordinates to get the right wing of the army rolling forward, he also sought to remedy the situation by changing the I SS Panzer Corps tactics. Dietrich suggested to General Priess that the 12th SS Panzer Division disengage, swing south, bypass Butgenbach, and get back onto the main route some place west of the thorny American position The I SS Panzer Corps commander and his staff politely rejected this idea on the grounds that the byroads were impassable and that Krinkelt, Rocherath, and Butgenbach must be cleared to open the better road net. Eventually Dietrich prevailed-or some compromise was reached-for late on 18 December armored elements of the 12th SS Panzer Division began to withdraw from the twin villages, while the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division, which had been scheduled for the fight at Monschau, marched west from reserve to take over the battle with the 2d Division.

The German plans for 19 December were these: the 277th Volks Grenadier Division and advancing troops of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division were to continue the attack at Krinkelt and Rocherath; the 89th Regiment, 12 Volks Grenadier Division, which had come up from reserve and initiated an attack from Mürringen against Krinkelt the day before, was to maintain pressure in this sector. Meanwhile, the 12th SS Panzer Division was to complete its withdrawal from the twin villages and move as quickly as the poor roads would allow to join a kampfgruppe of the 12 Volks Grenadier Division in a thrust against the American flank position at Butgenbach. The direction of the German main effort, as a result, would shift, substituting an armored thrust against the flank for the battering-ram frontal attack against the now well-developed defenses in the area of Krinkelt-Rocherath. Fresh German infantry were en route to the twin villages, and some reinforcements would be employed there on the 19th, but the attack would lack the armored weight whose momentum had carried earlier assault waves into the heart of the American positions.

At dawn, on 19 December, and blanketed in thick fog, the German grenadiers advanced on Krinkelt and Rocherath. The batteries back on Elsenborn ridge once again laid down a defensive barrage, ending the attack before it could make any headway. Another advance, rolling forward under an incoming fog about 1000, placed enemy snipers and machine gunners close to the American positions. Shortly after noon a few German tanks churned toward the villages and unloaded machine gunners to work the weapons on derelict tanks which had been abandoned close to the American foxhole line. Apparently the enemy infantry were edging in as close as they could in preparation for a final night assault. Headlong assault tactics were no longer in evidence, however. In the meantime the defenders picked up the sounds of extensive vehicular movement (representing the departing elements of the 12th SS Panzer Division), and a platoon of tanks appeared northeast of Rocherath but quickly retired when artillery concentrations and direct fire were brought to bear.

Inside the twin villages' perimeter the defenders were aware that a phase of the battle was ending. Colonel Stokes, the assistant division commander, was preparing plans for withdrawal to the Elsenborn lines. Colonel Boos had the 38th Infantry and its attached troops at work quietly destroying the weapons and equipment, German and American, which could not be evacuated. Finally, at 1345, the withdrawal order was issued, to be put in effect beginning at 1730. The 395th Infantry was to retire from its lines north of the villages and move cross-country (by a single boggy trail) west to Elsenborn. The 38th Infantry and its attached units, more closely engaged and in actual physical contact with the enemy, would break away from the villages, fall back west through Wirtzfeld, then move along the temporary road which the 2d Division engineers had constructed between Wirtzfeld and Berg. Once the 38th had cleared through the Wirtzfeld position, now held by elements of the 9th Infantry and a battalion of the 23d, it would occupy a new defensive line west and northwest of Wirtzfeld, while the 9th Infantry in turn evacuated that village.

Company officers commanding troops facing the enemy had been carefully briefed to avoid the word "withdrawal" in final instructions to their men. This
was to be "a move to new positions"; all were to walk, not run. Col. Leland W. Skaggs' 741St Tank Battalion, tank destroyers from the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and the 2d Division engineers would form a covering force in the villages, laying mines and beating off any attempt at "pursuit." Disengagement was made from left to right, "stripping" the 2d Division line from Rocherath to Wirtzfeld. First, the 2d Battalion of the 38th Infantry pulled out of the north edge of Rocherath; the 1st Battalion, deployed in both villages, followed; the 3d Battalion tacked on at Krinkelt. A half hour later, just as the Germans moved into Rocherath, Company C of the 644th and Company B of the 741st hauled out, the tanks carrying the engineers. The move through Wirtzfeld, now in flames, brought the 38th under German guns and resulted in some casualties and confusion, but at 0200 on 20 December the rear guard tank platoon left Wirtzfeld and half an hour later the 9th Infantry passed through the new lines occupied by the 38th Infantry a thousand yards west of the village.

The four-day battle which had pitted the 2d Infantry Division and the 99th Infantry Division against the spearheads of the Sixth Panzer Army had cost both sides heavily in men and materiel. But in the balance sheet for this desperate initial phase of the German counteroffensive, where lives weighed less than hours won or lost, the reckoning was favorable to the Americans. What the fruitless bid for a quick decision had cost the Germans in terms of dead and wounded has no accounting. The losses of the untried 99th Division, fighting its first major action under circumstances far more difficult than was the lot of most American infantry divisions in the European Theater of Operations, have been compiled only as a total for the whole month of December. A careful check shows that the 99th had few casualties prior to 16 December or after 19 December; nine-tenths or more of the following list, therefore, represents the cost of four days of battle: 14 officers and men killed in action; 53 officers and 1,341 men missing in action; 51 officers and 864 men wounded in action. About 600 officers and men passed through the division clearing station before 20 December as nonbattle casualties; half were trench foot cases.

The veteran 2d Division had taken considerable punishment from exposure and battle loss beginning on 13 December with the start of the Wahlerscheid operation. It is impossible to determine the ratio between the casualties suffered in the first four days of attack and those of the final three days of defense. Indeed no total is available for the 2d Division during these important seven days. The 23d Infantry, in reserve before 16 December and then committed by battalion, sustained these battle losses: 1st Battalion, 10 officers and 221 men; 2d Battalion, 1 officer and 100 men; 3d Battalion, 10 officers and 341 men. The 9th Infantry, which was engaged both at Wahlerscheid and the twin villages, lists 47 officers and men killed, 425 wounded, and 192 missing. The regiment likewise had lost nearly 600 officers and men as nonbattle casualties (trench foot, respiratory diseases induced by exposure, fatigue, and related causes), a figure which tells something of the cost of lengthy battle in snow, damp, and mud, but also reflects the high incidence of nonbattle cases in a veteran unit whose ranks are filled with troops previously wounded or hospitalized-often more than once. The bitter character of the initial twenty-four hours of the 2d Division fight to occupy and hold Krinkelt and Rocherath, after the march south, is mirrored in the battle losses taken by the 38th Infantry in that critical period: 389 officers and men were missing (many of them killed in action but not so counted since the Americans subsequently lost the battleground); 50 wounded were evacuated; and 1l were counted as killed in action. In the three days at the twin villages the 38th Infantry suffered 625 casualties.

The defense of Krinkelt and Rocherath, so successful that by the second day many officers and men believed that the sector could be held against all attack, is a story of determination and skilled leadership in a veteran command. But more than that, the American battle here exemplifies a high order of coordination and cooperation (typed though these terms have become) between the ground arms. Although the infantry almost single-handedly secured the ground and held it for the first few hours, the main German assaults were met and checked by infantry, tanks, tank destroyers,' and artillery. The men of the 2d Division had on call and within range ample artillery support. Communications between the firing battalions on Elsenborn ridge and the rifle companies in buildings and foxholes functioned when needed-although the losses suffered among the artillery forward observers were unusually high. Artillery throughout this fight offered the first line of antitank defense, immobilizing many panzers before they reached the foxhole line, leaving them with broken tracks and sprocket wheels like crippled geese in front of the hunter. The 155-mm. batteries were best at this work. The accuracy and weight of the defensive concentrations laid on from Elsenborn ridge must also be accounted one of the main reasons the American infantry were not completely overrun during the night assaults of the 17th and 18th. One battalion of the 2d Division artillery (the 38th Field Artillery (fired more than 5,000 rounds on the 18th. But men counted as much as weight of metal. Of the 48 forward observers working with the 15th Field Artillery Battalion, 32 were evacuated for wounds or exposure in six days of battle.

Although an experienced outfit, the 2d Infantry Division made its first fight against a large force of tanks in the action at Krinkelt-Rocherath. In the early evening of 18 December General Robertson telephoned his assistant division commander: "This is a tank battle-if there are any tank replacements we could use them as crews are pretty tired. We could use the tanks mounting a 90m. [gun]." Robertson's wish for an American tank with adequate armament to cope with the German Panthers and Tigers was being echoed and would be echoed-prayerfully and profanely-wherever the enemy panzer divisions appeared out of the Ardennes hills and forests. What the 2d Division actually had was a little less than a battalion of Sherman tanks mounting the standard 75mm. Gun, a tank weapon already proven unequal to a duel with Panther or Tiger in head-to-head encounter. It must be said, however, that the 2d Division tank support came from a seasoned armored outfit-the 741st Tank Battalion-which had landed at OMAHA Beach on 6 June and had been almost constantly in action since. Unable to engage the 12th SS Panthers and the GHQ Tigers on equal terms in the open field, the Shermans were parceled out in and around the villages in two's and three's. Hidden by walls, houses, and hedgerows, or making sudden forays into the open, the American tankers stalked the heavier, better armed panzers, maneuvering under cover for a clear shot at flank or tail, or lying quietly in a lane until a Panther or Tiger crossed the sights.

Since most of the enemy tanks entered the villages in the dark or in the fog, the defenders generally fought on distinctly advantageous terms and at ranges where-if the heavy frontal protection of the German tank could be avoided-a kill was certain. The 741st knocked out an estimated 27 tanks (nearly all of which actually were examined) and lost 11 Shermans.9 Even disabled tanks, immobilized inside the American lines, continued to have a hand in the fight. Two crippled Shermans parked in a Rocherath lane accounted for five Tigers which incautiously came by broadside. On the second night the German tanks entered the villages prepared to ferret out the American armor. Each assault tank was accompanied by foot soldiers armed with bazookas, fires were started to light dark streets and alleys, and many of the Germans boldly used their searchlights. These tactics failed; illumination served the waiting American tanks as well as the enemy. German bazooka teams did succeed in knocking out a pair of Shermans but generally found the American infantry, dismounted tankers, and tank destroyer crewmen, waiting to erase the walking infantry screens.

The American tank destroyers shared honors with the tanks in this battle, but as it often happened in the Ardennes the fight had to be carried by the self-propelled guns, the towed guns serving mostly as convenient targets for the enemy. The 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion (minus one company) employed its self-propelled 3-inch guns with such effect as to destroy 17 tanks, disable 3, and knock out 2 German assault guns. Two guns of the battalion were damaged beyond recovery. Most of these kills were made in or near the villages against enemy tanks which had halted and were not firing, at ranges from 25 to 1,000 yards. In some instances one round of high-velocity, armor-piercing ammunition was sufficient to set a Panther aflame; generally two or three rounds with base detonating fuzes were needed and, as the Sherman tanks had found, direct hits on the German frontal armor or mantlet had the unpleasant habit of glancing off.

The experience of the 801st Tank Destroyer Battalion, a towed outfit, was markedly different. Emplaced close to the infantry line, its 3-inch guns were brought under intense shelling and could be moved only at night. During attack, bogged in mud and unable to shift firing positions, the towed tank destroyers quickly fell prey to direct fire or infantry assault. Between 17 and 19 December the 801st lost 17 guns and 16 half-tracks. Indeed, the greatest combat value of the towed battalion came from the mines carried on the half-tracks (which were used with effect by adjacent riflemen) and the employment of the gun crews as infantry. On the afternoon of 18 December, with guns and vehicles gone, the bulk of the battalion was ordered to Elsenborn. Even so there were a few instances when the towed guns were able to fight and make kills under favorable circumstances. One gun from the 801st had been placed to cover a straggler line in the vicinity of Hünningen and here, deep inside the American position, surprised and knocked out four Mark IV's before it was destroyed.

The infantry antitank weapons employed in the defense of Krinkelt-Rocherath varied considerably in effectiveness. The 57-mm. battalion antitank guns-and their crews-simply were tank fodder. The mobility of this towed piece, which had been a feature of the gun on design boards and in proving ground tests, failed in the mud at the forward positions. Only a very lucky shot could damage a Panther or Tiger, and at the close of this operation both the 2d and 99th Divisions recommended the abolition of the 57-mm. as an infantry antitank gun. The rifle battalions which were hurried south from Wahlerscheid on 17 December had left their mines in the forest or with the battalion trains. Even the few antitank mines on hand could not be put to proper use during the first night engagement when stragglers and vehicular columns were pouring along the same routes the enemy armor was using. In the first contact at the crossroads east of Rocherath the German tanks were halted by a hasty mine field, but the rifle company made its most effective use of this defense by laying mines to protect the rear of the American position after the tanks had rolled by. The bazooka in the hands of the defending infantry proved extremely useful. During the dark hours, bazooka teams were able to work close to their prey under the cover provided by walls, houses and hedgerows. But, as in the case of the tank destroyers, most hits were scored against tanks which had paused or been stranded by the detonation of mines and high-explosive shellfire. In the various melees at the villages the German tank crews seldom escaped no matter what weapon was used against them. Most crewmen were burned as the tank blew up or they were cut down by bullet fire at close range. The 2d Division, like most veteran divisions, had armed itself beyond the limits of approved tables of equipment. Nearly every rifle platoon, as a result, had at least two bazookas, so that team play to distract and then destroy the target tank was feasible.

Although fought mostly as a series of close quarter actions, the infantry battle

in this sector saw little American use of the bayonet. Small arms and light machine guns took over where the friendly artillery left off, followed by grenades and rifle butts when the enemy closed. The problem of illuminating the scene of battle was partially solved by burning buildings and tanks. Illuminating shells fired by the 60-mm. mortars had some local usefulness, but the precise coordination between infantry and artillery required for the effective use of star shell never was achieved in this battle.