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December 20, 2005

On this day in 1944...

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INFANTRY AGAINST TANKS Ben Nason Center for Military History Collection

This year I'm excerpting from the Official History - The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge, by Hugh Cole. Continuing with that theme:

A second try came just before dawn, this time straight down the road from Büllingen. Ten German tanks in single file were sighted as they came over a slight ridge to the front of Company F. Two tank destroyers and three antitank guns drove the tanks off or at least caused them to turn west in search of a weaker spot in the 2d Battalion defenses. In the next thrust a platoon of Company G was badly cut up before friendly artillery finally checked the attack. Fifteen minutes later, apparently still seeking a hole, the Germans hit Company E, next in line to the west. The 60-mm. mortars illuminated the ground in front of the company at just the right moment and two of three tanks heading the assault were knocked out by bazooka and 57-mm. fire from the flank. The third tank commander stuck his head out of the escape hatch to take a look around and was promptly pistoled by an American corporal.10 By this time shellfire had scattered the German infantry. Nor did the enemy make another try until dusk, and then only with combat patrols.

Relatively quiet in this sector - unless this was the day you died.

The rest is in the Flash Traffic/Extended Entry.

Renewed Drive Around Bastogne

Around the eastern arc of the Bastogne perimeter the events of the 20th had convinced the Fifth Panzer Army that no more time should be wasted here and that the westward momentum of the XLVII Panzer Corps must be revived. The command solution to the Bastogne problem called for the 2d Panzer Division to shake loose and hurry past the city in the north. This move, highlighted by the seizure of the Ortheuville bridge, began late on the 20th. Luettwitz divided the armor of the Panzer Lehr Division, one kampfgruppe to swing south of Bastogne and on to the west, one to stay behind for a few hours and aid the 5th Parachute Division in reducing the city. The latter division would be left the unpleasant and difficult task (as General Kokott, the commander, saw it) of containing the American forces in and around the city while at the same time shifting the axis of attack from the east to the south and west.

On the afternoon of the 20th General Kokott gave orders to set the first phase of this new plan in motion. The 39th Regiment, attacking on the south side of Bastogne, was told to continue across the Bastogne-Martelange highway and capture the high ground in the vicinity of Assenois. The 26th Reconnaissance Battalion would assemble, pass through the rifle regiment at dark, swing around Bastogne, and seize and hold the village of Senonchamps immediately west of Bastogne. From this point the battalion would lead an attack into the city. The 26th's commander had high hopes for this admittedly risky foray. The reconnaissance battalion was in good condition and its commander, Major Kunkel, had a reputation for daring. Kokott expected the battalion to reach Senonchamps during the morning of the 21st.

By the morning of 20 December, therefore, the 82d Airborne Division had pushed a defensive screen north, east, south, and west of Werbomont. It is true that to the south and west the screen consisted only of motorized patrols and widely separated pickets in small villages, but now there was a good chance that any major enemy thrust could be detected and channelized or retarded. Thus far, however, the XVIII Airborne Corps was making its deployment against an unseen enemy. Indeed, so confused was the situation into which Ridgway had been thrust that at midnight on 19 December he was forced to send an urgent message to Hodges asking for information on any V or VIII Corps units in his zone. But his corps was substantially strengthened by the next morning. CCB of the 3d Armored Division had reached Theux, about ten miles north of Stoumont, and was ready for immediate use. The 3d Armored Division (minus CCA and CCB) had reached the road between Hotton and Manhay on the corps' right wing.

Ridgway had detailed plans for continuing the pressure along the corps front from northeast to southwest. CCB, 3d Armored, was to clear the east and north banks of the Amblève and establish contact with the 117th Infantry, which had its hands full in Stavelot. The reinforced 119th Infantry was to secure the Amblève River line from Stoumont to La Gleize. The 82d Airborne Division was to take over the Salm River bridges at Trois Ponts, drive the enemy from the area between the Amblève and the Werbomont-Trois Ponts road, and make contact with CCB when the latter reached Stavelot, thus completing the encirclement of such enemy forces as might be left to the north. The 3d Armored Division was to fan out and push reconnaissance as far as the road between Manhay and Houffalize, locating and developing the shadowy German force believed to be bearing down on the sketchy corps right wing somewhere north of Houffalize.

The immediate and proximate threat, on the morning of 20 December, was Peiper's force of the 1st SS Panzer Division, now concentrated with its bulk in
the Stoumont-La Gleize area, but with an outpost holding the light bridge over the Amblève at Cheneux and its tail involved in a fight to reopen the rearward line of communications through Stavelot. Kampfgruppe Peiper, it should be noticed, was considerably weakened by this piecemeal deployment; furthermore, it lacked the gasoline to undertake much maneuver even in this constricted area.

CCB (Brig. Gen. Truman E. Boudinot) moved south past Spa on the morning of the 20th in three task forces, using three roads leading to the Stoumont-La Gleize-Trois Ponts triangle. The largest of these detachments, Task Force Lovelady (Lt. Col. William B. Lovelady), had been given a complete tank battalion, reinforced by a company of armored infantry, and the important job of cutting the Stavelot-Stoumont road. Colonel Lovelady, then, led the force which formed the left jaw of the vise forming to clamp down on Kampfgruppe Peiper. His task force, proceeding on the easternmost of the three routes, reached the junction of the Trois Ponts-Stoumont roads without sign of the enemy. Just as the column was making the turn south toward Trois Ponts, a small enemy column of artillery, infantry, and supply trucks appeared, apparently on its way to reinforce Peiper's main body.

Since Trois Ponts and Stavelot were both in American hands, the appearance of this train was surprising. What had happened was this: German engineers had reinforced a small footbridge east of Trois Ponts, at least to the point that it would sustain a self-propelled gun carriage, and since the night of 18 December supply trucks and reinforcements had used the bridge to slip between the two American-held towns. German records indicate that some much-needed gasoline reached Peiper through this hole in the American net, but the amount was insufficient to set the kampfgruppe rolling again even if the road west had been free. As to this particular German column, the Americans disposed of it in short order. Task Force Lovelady continued on its mission and established three roadblocks along the main road between Trois Ponts and La Gleize. The Germans in the Stoumont sector were definitely sealed in, albeit still active, for four Shermans were destroyed by hidden antitank guns.

The two remaining task forces of CCB and companion units from the 30th Division were less successful. Task Force McGeorge (Maj. K. T. McGeorge), the center column, made its advance along a road built on the side of a ridge which ran obliquely from the northeast toward La Gleize. Most of the ridge road was traversed with no sight of the Germans. At Cour, about two miles from La Gleize, Task Force McGeorge picked up Company K of the 117th Infantry and moved on to assault the latter town. Midway the Americans encountered a roadblock held by a tank and a couple of assault guns. Because the pitch of the ridge slope precluded any tank maneuver, the rifle company circled the German outpost and advanced as far as the outskirts of La Gleize. A sharp counterattack drove the infantry back into the tanks, still road-bound, and when the tanks themselves were threatened by close-in work McGeorge withdrew the task force for the night to the hamlet of Borgoumont perched above La Gleize. It was apparent that the Germans intended to hold on to La Gleize, although in fact E the greater part of Peiper's command by this time was congregated to the west on the higher ground around Stoumont.

The attack on Stoumont on the 20th was a continuation of that begun late on the previous afternoon by the 1st Battalion of the 119th Infantry. The maneuver now, however, was concentric. The 1st Battalion and its accompanying tank company from the 740th Tank Battalion pushed along the road from the west while Task Force Jordan (Capt. John W. Jordan), the last and smallest of the three CCB detachments, attempted a thrust from the north via the Spa road, which had given the First Army headquarters so much concern. Task Force Jordan was within sight of Stoumont when the tanks forming the point were suddenly brought under flanking fire by German tanks that had been dug in to give hull defilade. The two American lead tanks were knocked out immediately. The rest of the column, fixed to the roadway by the forest and abrupt ground, could not deploy. Search for some other means of approach was futile, and the task force halted for the night on the road.

The 1st Battalion, 119th Infantry, and the company of medium tanks from the 740th Tank Battalion found slow but steady going in the first hours of the attack along the western road. With Company B and the tanks leading and with artillery and mortars firing rapidly in support, the battalion moved through Targnon. The Germans had constructed a series of mine fields to bar the winding road which climbed up the Stoumont hill and had left rear guard infantry on the slopes north of the road to cover these barriers by fire. At the close of day the attacking column had traversed some 3,000 yards and passed five mine fields (with only two tanks lost), the infantry advance guard climbing the wooded hillside to flank and denude each barrier.

Now within 800 yards of the western edge of Stoumont and with darkness and a heavy fog settling over the town, Colonel Herlong gave orders for the column to close up for the night. One of the disabled tanks was turned sidewise to block the narrow road, while Companies B and C moved up the hill north of this improvised barrier to seize a sanatorium which overlooked the road and the town. The main sanatorium building stood on an earthen platform filled in as a projection from the hillside rising north of the road. Its inmates, some two hundred sick children and old people, had taken to the basement. After a brief shelling the American infantry climbed over the fill and, shrouded in the fog, assaulted the building. The German infantry were driven out and four 20-mm. guns taken. Companies B and C dug in to form a line on the hillside in and around the sanatorium, and Company A disposed itself to cover the valley road. Four tanks were brought up the slope just below the fill and in this forward position were refueled by armored utility cars. The enemy foxhole line lay only some three hundred yards east of the companies on the hill.

An hour before midnight the Germans suddenly descended on the sanatorium, shouting "Heil Hitler" and firing wildly. On the slope above the building German tanks had inched forward to positions from which they could fire directly into the sanatorium. American tanks were brought up but could not negotiate the steep banks at the fill. One was set afire by a bazooka; two more were knocked out by German tanks which had crept down the main road. The flaming tanks and some outbuildings which had been set afire near the sanatorium so lighted the approach to the building that further American tank maneuver on the slope was impossible. By this time German tanks had run in close enough to fire through the windows of the sanatorium. The frenzied fight inside and around the building went on for a half hour or so, a duel with grenades and bullet fire at close quarters. About thirty men from Company B were captured as the battle eddied through rooms and hallways, and the attackers finally gained possession of the main building. However, Sgt. William J. Widener with a group of eleven men held on in a small annex, the sergeant shouting out sensings-while American shells fell-to an artillery observer in a foxhole some fifty yards away. (Widener and Pfc. John Leinen, who braved enemy fire to keep the defenders of the annex supplied with ammunition, later received the DSC.)

Although the German assault had won possession of the sanatorium and had pushed back the American line on the slope to the north, accurate and incessant shellfire checked the attackers short of a breakthrough. About 0530 the enemy tried it again in a sortie from the town headed for the main road. But tank reinforcements had arrived for the 1st Battalion and their fire, thickening that of the artillery, broke the attack before it could make appreciable headway. When day broke, the Americans still held the roadblock position but the enemy had the sanatorium. In the night of wild fighting half the complement of Companies B and C had been lost, including five platoon leaders.

Despite the setbacks suffered during the American advance of 20 December on the Stoumont-La Gleize area, the net had been drawn appreciably tighter around Peiper. The German line of supply-or retreat-was cut by Task Force Lovelady and the Americans in Stavelot. The roads from Stoumont and La Gleize north to Spa were blocked by tank-infantry teams which had pushed very close to the former two towns. The 1st Battalion of the 119th Infantry had been checked at the sanatorium but nonetheless was at the very entrance to Stoumont and had the 2d Battalion behind it in regimental reserve.

Also, during the 20th, the 82d Airborne Division moved to close the circle around Peiper by operations aimed at erasing the small German bridgehead at Cheneux on the Amblève southeast of Stoumont. The 82d had planned an advance that morning to drive the enemy from the area bounded on the north by the Amblève River and by the Trois Ponts-Werbomont road on the south. The two regiments involved (the 504th Parachute Infantry on the left and the 505th on the right) marched to their attack positions east of Werbomont with virtually no information except that they were to block the enemy, wherever he might be found, in conjunction with friendly forces operating somewhere off to the north and south. The first task, obviously, was to reconnoiter for either enemy or friendly forces in the area.

Patrols sent out at daybreak were gone for hours, but about noon, as bits of information began to arrive at General Gavin's headquarters, the picture took some shape. Patrols working due north reached the 119th Infantry on the road west of Stoumont and reported that the countryside was free of the enemy. Civilians questioned by patrols on the Werbomont-Stoumont road told the Americans that there was a concentration of tanks and other vehicles around Cheneux. Working eastward, other patrols found that Trois Ponts was occupied by Company C, 51st Engineers, and that the important bridges there had all been damaged or destroyed. This word from Trois Ponts came as a surprise back at General Gavin's headquarters where the presence of this single engineer company at the critical Trois Ponts crossing site was quite unknown.10

The most important discovery made by the airborne infantry patrols was the location of the 7th Armored Division troops in the gap between the XVIII Airborne Corps and Bastogne. The whereabouts of the westernmost 7th Armored Division positions had been a question of grave import in the higher American headquarters for the past two days. Now a patrol from the 505th Parachute Infantry came in with information that they had reached a reconnaissance party of the 7th Armored in the village of Fosse, a little over two miles southwest of Trois Ponts, and that troops of that division were forming an outpost line just to the south of the 505th positions.

Once General Gavin had a moderately clear picture of the situation confronting his division he ordered the two leading regiments forward: the 504th to Cheneux, where the enemy had been reported, and the 505th to Trois Ponts. The 505th commander, Col. William E. Ekman, already had dispatched bazooka teams to reinforce the engineer company at the latter point and by late afternoon had his 2d Battalion in Trois Ponts, with one company holding a bridgehead across the Salm.

Acting under orders to reach Cheneux as quickly as possible and seize the Amblève bridge, the 504th commander, Col. Reuben H. Tucker, 3d, sent Companies B and C of his 1st Battalion hurrying toward the village. The leading company was nearing the outskirts of Cheneux in midafternoon when it came into a hail of machine gun and flak fire. Both companies deployed and took up the fire fight but quickly found that the village was strongly defended. Ground haze was heavy and friendly artillery could not be adjusted to give a helping hand. Dark was coming on and the companies withdrew to a wood west of Cheneux to await further orders.

The 1st Battalion had not long to wait. New plans which would greatly extend the 82d Airborne Division front were already in execution and it was imperative that the German bridgehead on the north flank of the division be erased promptly. Colonel Tucker ordered the 1st Battalion commander (Lt. Col. Willard E. Harrison) to take the two companies and try a night attack. At 1930 they moved out astride the road west of Cheneux, two tank destroyers their only heavy support. The approach to the village brought the paratroopers across a knob completely barren of cover, sloping gradually up to the German positions and crisscrossed with barbed wire. The hostile garrison, from the 2d SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment, was heavily reinforced by mobile flak pieces, mortars, machine guns, and assault artillery.

To breast this heavy fire and rush the four hundred yards of open terrain, the two companies attacked in four waves at intervals of about fifty yards. The moment the leading American assault waves could be discerned through the darkness the enemy opened an intense, accurate fire. Twice the attackers were driven back, both times with gaping ranks. The first two waves were almost completely shot down. Company C ran into the wire and, having no wire cutters available, was stalled momentarily. Finally the two tank destroyers worked their way to the front and began to shell the German guns. With their support a third assault was thrown at the village. This time a few men lived to reach the outlying houses. In a brief engagement at close quarters the Americans silenced some of the flak and machine guns, then set up a defense to guard this slight toehold until reinforcements could arrive.

The West Flank of the XVIII Airborne Corps
20 December

The general advance of the XVIII Airborne Corps on 20 December included the mission assigned to the 3d Armored Division of securing the Bastogne-Liège highway between Manhay and Houffalize, thus screening the right or western flank of the corps. The bulk of the 3d Armored was engaged elsewhere: CCA deployed as a defense for the Eupen area, CCB driving with troops of the
30th Infantry Division against Kampfgruppe Peiper. When General Rose moved his forward command post to Hotton on 20 December, the residue of the 3d Armored was assembling between Hotton and Soy, a force numbering only the small reserve combat command and the 83d Reconnaissance Battalion. Nothing was known of any friendly troops to the front, nor did information on the location and strength of the enemy have more than the validity of rumor. Since it was necessary to reconnoiter and clear the area west of the important section of the north-south highway, now his objective, General Rose decided to divide his limited strength into three columns, two attacking via generally north-south routes and then swinging eastward; the third, on the extreme left, driving east to the Manhay crossroads and then turning south on the main highway.

This was a risky decision, as the 3d Armored commander well knew, for the zone of attack was very broad and if one of the small columns ran into a superior enemy force the best it could do would be to fight a delaying action on its own. Terrain and weather, however, would aid the reconnaissance somewhat, for although the area was laced by back roads and trails German maneuver would be drastically curtailed and a German advance limited to the few open and passable roads. General Rose tried to retain as much flexibility as he could, in view of the vague status of the enemy and the width of the front to be covered. The three task forces, or more properly reconnaissance teams, assigned to Lt. Col. Prentice E. Yeomans each had a reconnaissance troop, a medium tank company, a battery of armored field artillery, and a platoon of light tanks. The reserve, commanded by Col. Robert L. Howze, Jr., was made up of an armored infantry battalion, two companies of light tanks and one of mediums, plus a company of engineers. This reserve would follow the middle task force.

The attack or reconnaissance, time would tell which, began in early afternoon. On the right Task Force Hogan (Lt. Col. Samuel M. Hogan) set out along a secondary road surmounting the ridge which rose on the east bank of the Ourthe River and extended south to La Roche, the boundary for the XVIII Airborne Corps right wing. The Ourthe River, then, would form a natural screen on this flank. Hogan's column met no opposition en route to La Roche and upon arrival there found that the town was defended by roadblocks that had been thrown up by the 7th Armored Division trains. At this point the route dropped into the river valley, following the twists and turns of the Ourthe toward the southeast. Hogan sent on a small scouting force which covered some three miles before it was confronted by a German roadblock. There was no way around, daylight was running out, and the force halted.

The road assigned Task Force Tucker (Maj. John Tucker), the center column, followed the Aisne River valley southward. At the village of Dochamps this route began an ascent from the valley onto the ridge or tableland where lay the town of Samrée. At Samrée Task Force Tucker was to make a left wheel onto the La Roche-Salmchâteau road (N28), which followed a high, narrow ridge line to the east, there crossing the main Liège-Bastogne highway. This intersection, the Baraque de Fraiture, would have a special importance in later fighting.

Tucker's column moved unopposed through the Aisne valley but at Dochamps, where began the ascent to the Samrée highland, it was engaged by a German force of unknown strength. In an attempt to continue the reconnaissance Major Tucker split his command in three. One force circled west and south to Samrée where, it had only now been learned, a part of the 7th Armored Division trains was fighting to hold the town. The second group turned east and finally made contact with Task Force Kane. Tucker's third group moved back north to Amonines.

Late in the afternoon General Rose learned that the 3d Armored tanks sent to Samrée had been knocked out and the town itself lost to the enemy. The elevation on which Samrée stood and its importance as a barrier on the highway from La Roche to the division objective made recapture of the town almost mandatory. Rose ordered Colonel Yeomans to regain Samrée and hold it; for this mission two companies of armored infantry from the reserve combat command were detailed to Lt. Col. William R. Orr. Colonel Orr picked up the remaining elements of Task Force Tucker and arrived outside of Dochamps a little before midnight, setting up a roadblock for the remainder of the night.

Task Force Kane (Lt. Col. Matthew W. Kane), on the left in the three column advance, found easy going on 20 December. Acting as the pivot for the swing south and east, Kane's column was charged with the occupation of Malempré, about 3,000 yards southeast of the vital Manhay crossroads. This latter junction on the Liège-Bastogne highway represented a position tactically untenable. Hills away to the east and west dominated the village, and to the southeast an extensive woods promised cover from which the enemy could bring fire on the crossroads. By reason of the ground, therefore, Malempré, on a hill beyond the woods, was the chosen objective. Kane's task force reached Manhay and pushed advance elements as far as Malempré without meeting the enemy.

The three reconnaissance forces of the 3d Armored Division by the close of 20 December had accomplished a part of their mission by discovering the general direction of the German advance northwest of Houffalize and, on two of the three roads, had made contact with the enemy. It remained to establish the enemy's strength and his immediate intentions. As yet no prisoners had been taken nor precise identifications secured, but the G-2 of the 3d Armored Division (Lt. Col. Andrew Barr) made a guess, based on earlier reports, that the three task forces had met the 116th Panzer Division and that the 560th Volks Grenadier Division was following the former as support.

Action in Front of the XVIII Airborne Corps Right Wing on 20 December

As the 3d Armored Division assembled for advance on the morning of 20 December, and indeed for most of the day, it was unaware that little groups of Americans continued to hold roadblocks and delay the enemy in the area lying to the front of the XVIII Airborne Corps right wing. These miniature delaying positions had been formed on 18 and 19 December by men belonging to the 7th

Armored Division trains, commanded by Colonel Adams, and by two combat engineer battalions, the 51st and 158th. As the 7th Armored advanced into combat around St. Vith on 18 December and it became apparent that German thrusts were piercing deep on both flanks of this position, Adams received orders to move the division trains into the area around La Roche and prepare a defense for that town and the Ourthe bridges. Most of the vehicles under Adams' command were concentrated west of La Roche by 20 December, but large stores of ammunition, rations, and gasoline had just been moved to dumps at Samrée.

If this seems a little muddled - I'm playing a trick. Rather than give you Cole's neat, organized layout of events... I'm giving you *something* of an idea of how it looked to commanders and staffs... who had to make sense of it all as it happened, without benefit of hindsight and neatly organized data. That's one of the things that chaps my fat butt about armchair historians and Monday morning quarterbacks - their sniffing disdain for the guys in the arena, because it's all just so *obvious* in hindsight - especially when the armchair general has the benefit of dozens of researchers and historians who take weeks, months, years, to collect, collate, analyze and summarize what the participants had hours and minutes to synthesize and make decisions about. Many times while being shot at. Not that some of the players in the arena don't deserve the disdain, in the sum of all things.

To be continued...