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December 19, 2005

On this day in 1944...

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BREAKFAST IN THE SNOW. Battle of the Bulge by Robert N. Blair Center for Military History Collection

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

On 19 December German General Staff officers from the high headquarters of WFSt and OB WEST appeared in the battle zone to peer over the shoulders of the combat commanders and diagnose the irritating failure to achieve a complete breakthrough. The conclusions they reported (which obviously took no official account of stubborn American resistance) were as follows. The check sustained in this sector could not be attributed to intervention by Allied air, an interesting reflection of the importance which Allied air-ground cooperation had assumed in German tactical thought by the end of 1944. The road net opened by the advance on 16 December had not been put in good repair. This the observers attributed to a breakdown of the para-military Todt Organization, whose labor groups were charged with the mission. Since the whole concept of the Todt Organization reached high into the realm of Nazi politics and personalities, this open animadversion is surprising and undoubtedly caused some consternation. The chief source of failure, said the General Staff observers, was the inadequate training of the troops who had been used in the attack. The conclusion reached as to the future conduct of operations on the Sixth Panzer Army front was simple enough and in accordance with established German doctrine: more maneuver room must be secured so that the attack could "unfold"; the entire Elsenborn area, therefore, must be won and at once. The right wing must be brought abreast of the 1st SS Panzer Division, at this moment twenty miles to the west of Stoumont.

This new plan, probably only a reflection of conclusions already reached in the higher echelons, actually had gone into effect on 19 December when German tanks and infantry made the first serious attempt to drive northwest from Büllingen, shoulder the Americans out of the Butgenbach position, and open the Büllingen-Malmédy highway.

Continued in the Flash Traffic/Extended Entry.

The Enemy Tries the Western Flank
19-23 December

In Butgenbach, forty-five hundred yards straight west of the 2d Division anchor point at Wirtzfeld, the 26th Infantry of the 1st Division covered the 2d Division's flank and rear. The area between the two villages was neutralized, insofar as any enemy operation was concerned, by a large lake and a series of streams. To build a defense in depth along the Büllingen-Butgenbach section of the Malmédy road and secure a place on high ground, the 2d Battalion had pushed forward to a ridge near Dom Butgenbach, a hamlet astride the highway. When the enemy failed to follow up his earlier sorties from Büllingen, American patrols scouted on the 18th in the direction of that village and established that it still belonged to the Germans.

The 26th Infantry held a none too favorable position. It was separated from its own division and could expect little help from the 99th, under which it had occupied Butgenbach, or from the 2d Division. Isolated action as a regimental combat team, however, was not unknown in the regiment's history for it had been so committed in North Africa during the Kasserine fight and at Barrafranca in Sicily. Although the lake reservoir gave some protection on the left flank the position held by the forward battalion, the 2d, protruded beyond this cover. The regimental right flank was bare-at least no infantry had been brought in to solidify this section of the line-and in theory the 26th Infantry was responsible for the defense of the four miles to the west between Butgenbach and the town of Weismes.

Colonel Daniel's 2d Battalion, sticking out like a sore thumb ahead of the rest of the regiment, had arrived from the north in a depleted state, a condition endemic throughout the 26th as a result of the very heavy losses sustained during the 1st Division attack toward the Roer River early in December. There, on the fringe of the Hürtgen Forest, Companies E and F had been virtually annihilated, Company G shattered. Now the 2d Battalion rifle companies were nine-tenths replacements and numbered not more than a hundred men apiece. All told there were only seven officers in the battalion who had been on the roster at the beginning of December. Two of the heavy machine gun platoons were manned by inexperienced gunners. There was a shortage of BAR's and grenade launchers. Fortunately, however, the 2d Battalion had been given ample time to prepare for defense. The rifle platoons had dug deep, covering the holes with logs and sandbags; wire was in to the 33d Field Artillery Battalion, emplaced to give support; and the artillery observers were dug in well forward.

During the night of 18-19 December the I SS Panzer Corps gathered in Büllingen the advance striking force designed for the attack against Butgenbach. It appears too that the forward command post of the 12th SS Panzer Division opened in Büllingen to direct the coming fight. At least one battalion of the 25th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment had arrived, plus a few tanks. The bulk of the division kampfgruppe which had fought at the twin villages was coming up by way of Losheimergraben. The tanks had an especially hard time on the road, which had been reduced to a river of mud (German officers later reported tanks along the route which had churned down nearly to their decks). In addition to the advance detachment and reconnaissance units of the 12th SS Panzer Division, the Büllingen force was swelled during the night by the 27th Fuesilier Regiment and 12th Fuesilier Battalion, both of the 12 Volks Grenadier Division, but the ranks of the latter units had been severely reduced during the fight for Losheimergraben.

About 0225 on the 19th some twenty truckloads of German infantry dismounted just west of Büllingen, deployed behind a dozen tanks, and moved against the 2d Battalion. The 33d Field Artillery Battalion opened up at once with illuminating shell, then poured in white phosphorus and high explosive. Some
could reach the American line; others were discouraged by bazooka and battalion antitank gunfire. Three tanks, however, kept on along the road leading into Dom Butgenbach until the 155-mm. howitzers of the 5th Field Artillery Battalion began to lob HE uncomfortably close. Possibly crippled by concussion, the tanks were abandoned but the crews got away.

The next German attack, at 1010, consisted of attempts in company strength to find weak points in the 1,800-yard line occupied by the 2d Battalion. One of these, against Company G, was broken up by shells fired in by four battalions of field artillery. A Panther and an armored scout car got through. Then a 57-mm. antitank gun crew crippled both, but the scout car got off one round that killed the crew, Cpl. Hale Williams and Pvt. Richard Wollenberg. However, the armored threat was ended at this point. On the east flank two of the battalion's antitank guns got the two leading tanks, and machine gun and mortar fire drove off the accompanying infantry. This action ended the first German attempt at cracking the Butgenbach block. The next would wait upon the assembly of the troops and vehicles slowly gathering at Büllingen, where the II SS Panzer Corps had taken over direction of the battle.

On 18 and 19 December the 3d Parachute Division, which had been following in the wake of the 1st SS Panzer Division westward, began to concentrate south of Weismes. It may be that the 3d Parachute Division thus far had received no orders as to the projected widening of the Sixth Panzer Army corridor of advance and was content with holding a blocking position along the German flank as originally planned. As it was, American reinforcements arrived in the Weismes area on 19 December before the enemy struck.

The 16th Infantry (Col. Frederick W. Gibb) was the second regimental combat team of the 1st Division to take its place in the barrier being erected on the northern shoulder of the expanding German salient. The 2d Battalion, leading the south-moving column, was well set in Weismes when, in the late afternoon of 19 December, the 3d Parachute Division commenced desultory jabs at the village. At the same time the balance of the 16th Infantry detrucked and swelled out the Weismes front, making contact to the west with troops of the veteran 30th Infantry Division which had just come into the Malmédy sector. By the evening of 19 December, then, the 1st Infantry Division had neighbors on either flank and its 26th Infantry, although still out in front, could concentrate on the enemy force building up at Büllingen.

During the night of l9-20 December the advance kampfgruppe of the 12th SS Panzer Division and the bulk of one regiment from the 12 Volks Grenadier Division completed their assembly. About 0600 twenty German tanks and a rifle battalion converged on Dom Butgenbach in the early morning fog and mist from south and east. The front lit up as the American mortars and artillery shot illuminating shell over the roads leading to the village. Concentration after concentration then plunged down, three battalions of field artillery and a 90-mm. battery of antiaircraft artillery firing as fast as the pieces could be worked. The enemy infantry, punished by this fire and the stream of bullets from the American foxhole line wavered, but a handful of tanks rolled off the roads and into Dom Butgenbach. (They had shot down three bazooka teams and a Company H machine gun section.) Here, in the dark, battalion antitank guns placed to defend the 2d Battalion command post went to work firing point-blank at the exhaust flashes as the German vehicles passed. Two enemy tanks were holed and the rest fled the village, although the antitank gun crews suffered at the hands of the German bazooka teams that had filtered in with the tanks.

To be continued...