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December 21, 2005

On this day in 1944. 21 December.

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Outskirts of Neffe, Belgium, 1944, by Olin Down. Center for Military History Collection.

...it may have officially been the shortest day of the year - but for participants it probably seemed like it would never end. For many, however, it ended all too soon. This year I'm excerpting from the Official History - The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge, by Hugh Cole. Continuing with that theme:

The hardest blows dealt the 2d Battalion defenders at Dom Butgenbach came on 21 December. After repeated pleas from the 12th SS Panzer the guns and Werfers which had been used at Krinkelt-Rocherath were committed, and the entire 25th Panzer Grenadier Regiment was also made available, as well as one battalion or more of the 12th SS Panzer Regiment. About three hours before dawn guns, mortars, tanks, and Werfers began pounding the American foxhole line, which was outlined by a double row of trees, and the few houses in Dom Butgenbach. This fire continued unremittingly until the first light in the east, inflicting many casualties, destroying weapons by direct hits, and tearing large gaps in the main line of resistance. American counterbattery fire was intense but failed to still the enemy shelling. Now, as the Germans crossed the fields in assault formation, the American forward observers called for a defensive barrage to box their own front lines. At least ten field artillery battalions ultimately joined the fight (for this batteries of the 2d and 99th Divisions were tied into the 1st Division fire control system) and succeeded in discouraging the German infantry.

The rest is in the Flash Traffic/Extended Entry.

Some panzers and assault guns did make their way through the storm of exploding shells and against the 2d Battalion right. During the previous night two platoons of the regimental antitank company had taken station here right on the foxhole line and surprised the panzers with fire at no more than 100 yards. Two or three kills were inflicted by the 1st Platoon, but other tanks quickly shot down the 57-mm. crews and then overran the guns of the 2d Platoon.11 At this segment of the 2d Battalion main line of resistance the foxhole line followed a long hedgerow. Having broken through and destroyed the American antitank guns, the German tankers drove along the hedgerows searching out the automatic weapons which earlier had helped check the infantry assault. Undefended against moving steel, the BAR and machine gun crews were wiped out.

Through this gaping hole on the 2d Battalion right more tanks appeared as the morning progressed and moved down the slope toward Dom Butgenbach. A self-propelled tank destroyer belonging to the 634th Tank Destroyer Battalion accounted for seven tanks in succession as these, in column, hove in sight over the ridge line. Two Sherman tanks, lying close to a barn, got two of the Germans before they, in turn, were knocked out. Three of the enemy reached the cluster of buildings and fired pointblank into the houses and barns Colonel Daniel and the 2d Battalion command post group were defending. Every device was used to reach the tanks but with no success until, finding it warm, two made a break for the open and were stopped by a section of 90-mm. tank destroyers which had just come up. The last tank was flushed out from behind a barn by 81-mm. mortar fire but got away.

The battalion mortars had played an important role all along the line (one section firing 70 rounds before its position was blasted by close range tank fire), and so had every American weapon that could be brought to bear. But in late afternoon, when the German assault was dwindling, the 2d Battalion commander paid the infantryman's heartfelt compliment to the guns. "The artillery did a great job. I don't know where they got the ammo or when they took time out to flush the guns but we wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for them.... A hundred [Germans] ... came at one platoon and not one of them got through." 12 The regimental cannon company, the 1st Division Artillery, the 406th Field Artillery Group, and reinforcing batteries from the 2d and 99th Divisions fired over ten thousand rounds in support of the Dom Butgenbach defenders during an eight-hour shoot on the 21st, plastering enemy assembly areas and the road net and plowing up the fields across which the German attack came. For one period of three hours all communication between the hard-pressed rifle battalion and the artillery broke under German fire, but the American shells continued to arrive with devastating effect. A patrol sent into the woods from which had come the final assault against the riddled battalion flank reported a count of three hundred dead enemy infantry-the reason, perhaps, why the tanks that penetrated to the 2d Battalion command post came alone. At any rate the 12 Volks Grenadier Division had had enough. The division commander told his superiors that no more attacks could be made unless a promised assault gun battalion arrived to ramrod the infantry. The total German casualty list must have been high, and after these three days of battle heavy inroads had been made in the tank strength of the 12th SS Panzer Regiment. The 2d Battalion, understrength when it arrived to face the Germans, had been reduced by perhaps one quarter. Indeed, in midafternoon of the 21st, the battalion commander had planned withdrawing a thousand yards to the rear to compensate for the dwindling strength in the firing line. But when the 2d reorganized that evening its position was somewhat strengthened. Company C, with extra bazookas, had come up to man the denuded right flank, the 1st Engineer Combat Battalion laid a hasty field of about a thousand mines in front of the lines, and the regiment had attached the 4.2-inch mortars of the 2d Division chemical battalion to Daniel's command.

Meanwhile the enemy regrouped to continue the attack with new forces. The armored infantry reserve of the 12th SS Panzer Division, the 26th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, finally had negotiated the poor roads and traffic jams along the German line of communications and arrived in Büllingen, ready for its first commitment in the offensive. Shortly after day broke on 22 December patrols from the 26th commenced to probe at the 2d Battalion lines. The fresh enemy regiment, however, set out to vary the unsuccessful headlong tactics previously employed by striking at the flanks of the Dom Butgenbach position. The first assault, shortly before 1000, carried an undetermined number of panzer grenadiers through a gap between Companies A and K, on the right of the 2d Battalion. Here there were about twenty Mark V's and tank destroyers, but the 90-mm. tank destroyers from the 613th Tank Destroyer Battalion rushed in on the flank and Stopped the enemy. The continued threat, though serious, was countered by shifting local reserves from the 18th and 26th to close the gap, and by the end of the day the situation was well in hand. Again the American gunners had taken over a large share of the burden, firing over 300 missions. The cooperation between the artillery and infantry arms, it must be said, was reciprocal. The fact that the 26th Infantry had continued to hold its position on ground overlooking the German routes west had allowed the observers a grandstand seat and had caused the German columns taking the 1st SS Panzer Division detour through Schoppen to run a gantlet of accurate and continuous fire.

The successful withdrawal from the Krinkelt-Rocherath sector to the more favorable terrain of the Elsenborn ridge had resulted, by 20 December, in a fairly homogeneous and well-constructed defense with the 2d Division on the right and the 99th Division on the left. On the morning of this same day the 9th Infantry Division took over the Monschau-Höfen sector (its 47th Infantry had moved earlier into supporting position west of these two towns) and so covered the northern flank of the 99th.

The German attempt to crack the newly formed north-south line was handled in catch-as-catch-can and piecemeal fashion, for the primary mission was the flanking maneuver in the Butgenbach area. The 3d Panzer Grenadier Division, which had relieved the 12th SS Panzer Division at the twin villages, went to work at once against the 99th Division portion of the Elsenborn line although the bulk of its rifle strength was not yet in hand. On the morning of 20 December German tanks and infantry made the first of three assaults. But the 99th, on a forward slope with perfect visibility and good fields of fire, checked this and the subsequent attempts with heavy losses to the attacker. On the following day, the 3d Panzer Grenadier was caught by artillery fire just as its assault waves were forming. Confused and disorganized, the German infantry were unable to make another bid.

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.

Through the dark hours General Kokott waited for some word from Kunkel's kampfgruppe. At daybreak the first report arrived: the reconnaissance battalion was in a hard fight at Sibret, two miles south of its objective. Next came an irate message from the corps commander: the 5th Parachute Division had captured Sibret and what was the 26th Reconnaissance Battalion doing hanging around that village? Kokott, his pride hurt, sent the division G-3 jolting uncomfortably on a half-track motorcycle to find out what had gone wrong.

From very sketchy German and American sources the following broad outline of the fight for Sibret emerges. When Kunkel crossed the Bastogne-Neufchâteau road, he came upon a stray rifle company of the 5th Parachute Division which was engaged south of Sibret in a fire fight. About 0300 this German company had reached the road junction at which the remnants of the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion formed their roadblock. The American gunners, fighting on foot with rifles, apparently delayed the Germans for a couple of hours. Then the rifle company and troopers from Kunkel's command advanced through the dark to the south edge of Sibret, while German mortar fire started falling in the village. The first rush carried a group of the enemy into the solidly built gendarmerie at the southern entrance. Probably it was this initial success which was credited to the 5th Parachute Division.

General Cota went through the streets rounding up all the troops he could find for a counterattack against the gendarmerie, but the building could not be taken by unsupported riflemen. It was well after daybreak now, but very foggy; the armored vehicles of the German battalion were closing on the village and it was necessary to reoccupy the gendarmerie as a barrier. The three howitzers in the village defense had been overrun by tanks, but a battery of the 771st Field Artillery Battalion remained emplaced some two thousand yards northwest of the village. After much maneuvering to attain a firing site where there was no minimum elevation, the battery opened on the Germans barricaded in the gendarmerie. At almost the same time the enemy started a very heavy shelling. It was about 0900 and Kampfgruppe Kunkel was well behind schedule. The garbled radio messages reaching the XLVII Panzer Corps retracted the early report that Sibret had been taken and told of heavy fighting in the "strongly garrisoned" village. But the Germans could not be shelled out of the gendarmerie, tanks moved in on the American battery, and General Cota ordered his small force to retire south to Vaux-lez-Rosières; there he set up his division command post.

Meanwhile the staff of the 771st Field Artillery managed to get two guns into position to meet the enemy advance north of Sibret, but both guns and their tractors were put out of action by direct shelling. Kampfgruppe Kunkel rode roughshod into the artillery assembly areas north and west of Sibret, coming upon guns hooked to their prime movers, motors turning, and all the signs of hurried exodus. Kunkel reported the capture of more than a score of artillery pieces, much ammunition and many prisoners. Quickly the kampfgruppe moved on Senonchamps, leaving only a small force to protect its left flank by a drive toward Chenogne.

The 26th Reconnaissance Battalion was not alone west of Bastogne. During the previous night the reconnaissance battalion of the Panzer Lehr Division had been relieved at Wardin, strengthened by the attachment of the division engineer battalion, and started on a march around the south side of Bastogne as advance guard in the resumption of the Panzer Lehr attack toward the Meuse. This Panzer Lehr task force had orders to scout in the direction of St. Hubert, the key to the road complex west of Bastogne. Following the 26th Reconnaissance Battalion through Sibret, the Panzer Lehr column turned northwest and fanned out on the eastern side of the Ourthe River in the neighborhood of Amberloup and Tillet. There were numerous fords and crossing sites along this stretch of the river, but the enemy was concerned with securing good roads and bridges for the heavy columns following.

The approaches to St. Hubert were defended on the 21st by the 35th Engineer Combat Battalion (Lt. Col. Paul H. Symbol), which had barricaded the northern entrance from Ortheuville and erected a strongpoint (held by Company C) at a crossroad in a loop of the Ourthe north of the village of Moircy. This latter defense barred the most direct line of march between Bastogne and St. Hubert. A company of German infantry and four tanks appeared in front of the Company C abatis and foxholes before 0900, but two of the tanks were rendered hors de combat by a bazooka team and the action turned into a small arms duel. For some reason the attackers were not immediately reinforced, perhaps because there were other and more attractive targets in the vicinity. The 724th Engineer Base Depot Company, earlier manhandling supplies in the depots at St. Hubert, marched in to thicken the American firing line, and by noon the fight had dwindled to an occasional exchange of shots. During the lull of early afternoon the 158th Engineer Combat Battalion and the tank destroyers which had retreated from Ortheuville to St. Hubert were ordered south to take over the defense of Libramont. The 35th was left alone to blockade and delay a possible thrust by the 2d Panzer Division forces now crossing at Ortheuville or the more direct threat from the east.

During the morning roving detachments of the Panzer Lehr task force had enjoyed a field day. For one thing they seized a large truck convoy, perhaps sixty to eighty vehicles, en route to Bastogne. They also surrounded the 58th Armored Field Artillery Battalion near Tillet, although no serious attempt was made to eradicate it. The bulk of the German task force crossed the Ourthe north of the Company C strongpoint but found that the American engineers had done a remarkably thorough job of blocking the roads leading to St. Hubert. Abatis (mined and boobytrapped), blown culverts, stretches corduroyed with felled trees, and extensive minefields prompted reports to the Panzer Lehr Division commander that it would be some time before the eastern and northeastern approaches to St. Hubert could be cleared.

In the late afternoon the Panzer Lehr task force brought artillery into position and started shelling the Company C position. By this time the VIII Corps line no longer ran north and south in front of the German drive but was forming from east to west with the enemy passing across the corps front. A single battalion of engineers and miscellaneous antiaircraft and depot troops could not be expected to hold what remained of the barrier line on the western branch of the Ourthe. Fearful lest the engineers be cut off, VIII Corps headquarters ordered the 35th to hold as long as feasible, then rejoin the VIII Corps in the south. Using several hundred pounds of TNT which had arrived in the afternoon the engineers prepared demolitions to be blown coincident with the withdrawal through St. Hubert and Libramont. The enemy, hindered by darkness, mines, craters, and abatis, did not interfere with the engineers, and the latter fell back through Libramont, entrucked, and by midnight were in a new assembly area at Bouillon close to the French frontier.

Somewhat earlier a German detachment had seized a bridge over the Ourthe at Moircy, to the south of the Company C strongpoints. This bridge gave access to a back road which entered St. Hubert from the southeast. Despite the fact that this secondary route was relatively free from the craters and obstacles which cluttered the main roads, the Panzer Lehr task force made no move to strike for the town but instead spread out farther north. The 902d Regiment of the division had been relieved near Neffe during the evening of 21 December and been assigned an advance via St. Hubert. The light armor of the task force remained nearly immobile for the next twenty-four hours, and it was left to the main body of the division to utilize the Moircy road.5

With the withdrawal of the 35th Engineer Combat Battalion the VIII Corps no longer had elements directly in the path of the main German drive, always excepting, of course, the troops defending Bastogne, which by this time were cut off from the rest of the corps. The outposts of the corps at Recogne (held by the 7th Tank Destroyer Group) and at Vaux-lez-Rosières (defended by a scratch force from the 28th Division, reinforced by the 527th Engineer Light Pontoon Company) thus far had escaped the attention of an enemy moving west, not southwest. General Middleton was concerned about his open left flank and as his engineers came back ordered a barrier line formed along the Semois River. On the VIII Corps right, in the area south of Bastogne, reinforcements from the Third Army were concentrating under the command of the III Corps. The VIII Corps tactical air command post, which had been moved to Florenville on the 21st, continued to receive rumors and half-true reports of German forces turning southwest against its front, but it was fairly clear that the main threat was past.

To meet the German forces scouting and probing along the corps sector General Middleton organized a counter-reconnaissance screen. Behind this were collected stragglers and strays, many of whom had crossed the French border and got as far as Sedan. What was left of the corps artillery, mainly the 402d Field Artillery Group, assembled for tactical control and re-equipment. Other field artillery battalions, as well as tank destroyer battalions, engineer regiments, and the like, were arriving to reinforce the corps and help make good its losses. New infantry formations were on the way to restore the striking power of the corps and the Third Army commander already was planning the employment on the offensive-of a revitalized VIII Corps.

The Net Closes on Peiper

General Hobbs's division and CCB, 3d Armored Division, had a job to do before the XVIII Airborne Corps could be free to direct all its strength into a drive to re-establish contact with the VIII Corps and close the gap between Houffalize and Bastogne. Kampfgruppe Peiper, estimated as comprising at least half of the 1st SS Panzer Division, had to be eradicated north of the Amblève River. This force, whose rapid drive to the west had caused such alarm only a few hours before, appeared to be pocketed in the Stoumont-La Gleize sector. Effectively blocked off on the west the trapped Germans would probably try to cut their way to the rear via Stavelot or at least establish a bridgehead there as a potential escape hatch. Probably, too, the troops in the pocket would receive some aid from new German units moving along the north flank of the St Vith salient through the gap between Malmédy and Recht.

The operations designed for 21 December left the 30th Division and its reinforcing armor to finish off Peiper by tightening the net spread the day before. Thereafter the 30th had orders to link up with the 82d Airborne at Trois Ponts and prepare to join in the XVIII Airborne Corps advance by pushing south. The varied indications that the Germans were moving in some force toward Malmédy, the pivot point for both the corps and division left wing, seemed to be no reason for reverting strictly to the defensive. Malmédy had been prepared for defense since the scare of 17 December, the reports of enemy forces thereabouts were rather vague, and six American artillery battalions were in position to give support where needed. In detail, then, the plans prepared by Hobbs and his staff were formulated against the Germans in the pocket.

On the morning of 21 December the American forces in and around Malmédy were substantial: the 120th Infantry (minus a battalion in division reserve); the "Norwegians," that is, the 99th Infantry Battalion; the 526th Armored Infantry Battalion; a company from the 291st Engineer Battalion; a tank company

from the 740th; and two platoons from the 823d Tank Destroyer Battalion.14 The American infantry line formed an arc south of the town, swinging to east and west. On the left this line touched the 1st Infantry Division outposts near Waimes; on the right it had a tenuous connection with the 117th Infantry at the junction of the road from Stavelot and the road running north to Francorchamps. In passing it must be said that the responsibilities of the two sister regiments at the vaguely defined interregimental boundary were none too explicit. All roads leading to Malmédy had been blocked by mines and barricades or were barred by outpost detachments.

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The first action of 21 December, as it turned out, was neither against Peiper nor at the pocket, but an engagement at Malmédy with new German troops thus far unidentified as a regular tactical unit. The night before, an enemy force had assembled in Ligneuville, five miles south of Malmédy. This was the notorious 150th Panzer Brigade which, under the command of the equally notorious Colonel Skorzeny, had been especially trained to seize the Meuse bridges as a part of Operation Greif. When the German plans to reach the Hohes Venn on the second day of the counteroffensive miscarried and the regular German formations were checked so far from the Meuse as to make a dash by this special task force out of the question, Colonel Skorzeny sought for some other road to fame and glory. His recommendation, made to the Sixth Panzer Army commander, that the group be reassembled and committed as an ordinary combat unit was accepted, and the capture of Malmédy was assigned as its first mission.

The troops that gathered in Ligneuville must have made a motley crew. Some were completely equipped with American uniforms and dog-tags; others had olive drab trousers and American combat boots surmounted by field gray tunics; still others wore the German field uniform. Their vehicles were an assortment of German makes; captured American armored cars, tanks, and jeeps; and German models which had been given a facelifting job by the addition of dummy turrets, decks, and fronts to simulate an American equivalent. Despite this rag-tag appearance Skorzeny's command was composed of tough, picked men, abundantly armed with automatic and heavy weapons.

Skorzeny divided his brigade into three groups, two for the assault and one in reserve. About two hours before dawn the right group struck straight north along the Ligneuville road in an effort to seize the bridge south of Malmédy. The assault force was engaged by the 1st Battalion of the 120th Infantry and the 3d Battalion joined the fire fight as well; but it was left to the artillery to "plaster" the Germans, as the infantry were quick to acknowledge. Two hours later the attackers had disappeared. The morning came with a dense fog floating out from the Amblève River. Attacking under this cover the left German assault group, two rifle companies, and a tank company rolled in column along a secondary road which would bring it west of Malmédy against the 3d Battalion of the 120th. One detachment turned toward the town but came to a sudden halt when the lead vehicles hit a mine field in front of B Company, 99th Infantry Battalion. It took only minutes for mortars, machine guns, and artillery to dispel this assault.

Here, on the first day of use of the new POZIT fuze, the Germans were roughly dealt with. Nearly a hundred were killed by the shellbursts and for a moment panic spread among them, some running forward into the fire shouting "Kamerad." But Skorzeny's troops were tough and tried repeatedly to break Lt. Col. Harold D. Hansen's "Norwegians," an outfit characterized in the German intelligence reports as "old men." German machine gun crews tried to set up their pieces right in front of the railroad embankment where B Company lay but were shot down or blasted by hand grenades. Several times the enemy infantry reached the foot of the embankment, but could go no farther. Finally the assault died down.

The main enemy detachment headed for the Malmédy-Stavelot road, pushing its infantry to the fore. In the fog it encountered K Company of the 120th Infantry, knocked out a platoon deployed at a roadblock, and, using its tanks, drove the remaining American infantry back some distance to the north. Four 3-inch towed tank destroyers covering the road were abandoned after their crews removed the firing pins.

Not all the Americans fell back, however. One who stayed was 1st Lt. Kenneth R. Nelson, who decided to hold on with a few men left in his section and did so, savagely beating back the attackers. Nelson led the fight until he died of the wounds he had suffered. He received the DSC posthumously. T/Sgt. John Van Der Kamp then took command, although wounded, and held the position until ordered to withdraw. He was awarded the DSC. Part of K Company withdrew to a nearby factory, where Pfc. Francis Currey essayed a series of gallant deeds for which he later received the Medal of Honor. He knocked out a tank with bazooka fire, drove the German crews out of three tanks with antitank grenades, with a bazooka blew in the front of the house where the enemy tankers had taken refuge, and turned a half-track machine gun on the house with such effect as to silence the German fire and permit the escape of five Americans who had been cornered by the enemy.

This confused fight in the fog, taking place as it did on the boundary between the 120th and the 117th, had repercussions out of all relation to the event. By noon garbled reports and rumors placed German tanks (erroneously as it proved) in villages northwest of Malmédy; the 117th Infantry was worried that the Germans were left free to strike their left flank at Stavelot; the staff of the 120th Infantry was trying desperately to find out exactly what had happened; two battalions of antiaircraft artillery with 90-mm. guns were hurriedly taking positions to build a defense in depth as far back as the division command post; the 120th Infantry reserve was rushed west to Burnenville-but found no Germans. The much-touted German penetration finally boiled down to one tank and a half-track which had driven up and down the road in the fog with an English-speaking soldier shouting out lurid promises of warm female companionship for the Americans if they only would surrender.

The German thrust along the boundary between the two American regiments, as the event showed, had become jammed in the narrow corridor and most of its armor destroyed by cross fire coming in from the flanks. Deprived of tank support and followed unrelentingly by the new variety of shellbursts, the enemy infantry had withdrawn. Skorzeny, by this time fully aware of the defending strength at Malmédy, ordered his brigade to pull back to the south Thus ended the first and the last attack on Malmédy. The lines of the 3d Battalion were restored and two of the abandoned tank destroyer guns recovered and placed in action. Nonetheless, the unexpected strength of the German attack on Malmédy had impacts all up and down the American chain of command. At Hodges' First Army headquarters there had been a continuing question as to whether the enemy would try to shake loose in the north and drive for Liège. Momentarily it looked as if this indeed was the German intention.

To the west at Stavelot, a detachment from the rearward march echelons of the 1st SS Panzer Division made an abortive attempt to cross to the north bank of the Amblève preparatory to reopening the route leading to Kampfgruppe Peiper. The Americans holding the major section of the town had blown the last bridge, and the panzer grenadiers were forced to take to the icy stream. This crossing brought a hundred or so of the assault force in front of B Company, 117th Infantry, whose riflemen picked off most of the attackers while they still were in the stream. Beyond this one alarm the day passed quietly at Stavelot-although one major disaster occurred when a section of the 743d Tank Battalion fired high explosive into a building and set it afire, only to learn that it was filled with champagne and cognac.

The march echelons of the 1st SS Panzer Division en route to relieve Peiper were slow in assembling and their concentration area, southeast of Stavelot, was under constant interdiction by artillery fire. The 1st SS Panzer troops trapped to the west were closely engaged, and as yet Peiper had no orders which would permit a retrograde movement. On the American side the skirmish at Stavelot, coupled with German counterattacks in the La Gleize-Stoumont sector, made for bewilderment. General Hobbs dryly stated the prevailing opinion on the intentions of the trapped enemy, "They are trying to get out forward or backward or something."

The main task for the 30th Division and its reinforcing armored task forces remained that of eradicating all German troops north of the Amblève. The general plan was a continuation of the one set in operation the day before: the 119th Infantry (reinforced), now organized under the assistant division commander, General Harrison, as Task Force Harrison, to capture Stoumont and continue its eastward drive as far as La Gleize; the 3d Battalion of the 117th Infantry (reinforced) and the two 3d Armored task forces to carry through the concentric attack to seize La Gleize.

The latter maneuver got under way on 21 December. Task Force Lovelady, which had cut south between Stavelot and La Gleize on the previous day, reversed its course and moved north from the Trois Ponts area with the intention of securing the ridge which overlooked La Gleize from the southeast. Task Force McGeorge, stopped cold the evening before on the narrow ridge road which angled to La Gleize from the north, resumed the attack with K Company, 117th Infantry, trying to pry out the German block to the front. South of the Amblève, Task Force Lovelady was screened by the low-hanging fog from the strong enemy patrols working through the area; on the north bank, however, it ran into trouble while advancing on the sunken La Gleize road. Two leading tanks were crippled when they hit a patch of mines. Then German tanks or antitank guns knocked out the last two tanks in the column. At this point, therefore, the road was effectively blocked against further American or future German counterattacks. The infantry with Lovelady and a tank company spent the remainder of the day mopping up in the small villages along the river bank, finding evidences of revolting atrocities earlier perpetrated on the defenseless Belgians by Peiper's troops. Attempts to mount the ridge were checked by machine gun fire, and it became evident that the enemy had a strong force concentrated in this sector.

Task Force McGeorge and riflemen of the 117th Infantry likewise were unable to make much headway in extending the northern arm of the planned envelopment. The German barrier interposed by dug-in tanks and assault guns at a little stream about a thousand yards north of La Gleize could not be taken by maneuver, for McGeorge's tanks were unable to get off the road, or by single-handed infantry assault. The American column then drew back along the valley road. About a mile east of La Gleize the task force turned west to cross the valley and approach the town but was halted at a curve in the road by fire from dug-in tanks and antitank guns. The riflemen formed a line of skirmishers in front of the German block and the task force halted for the night.

The drive to pinch out the western contents of the Peiper pocket at Stoumont got off to a late start on the 21st. General Harrison's original plan called for a coordinated attack in the early morning. The 1st Battalion, 119th Infantry, was to continue the drive to enter the town from the west (after recapturing the sanatorium and the high ground flanking the entrance). The 2d Battalion would swing wide through the woods north of the town, block the escape route to La Gleize, and then attack from the east. Task Force Jordan and the reorganized 3d Battalion (which ioearlier had been thrown out of Stoumont) would attack from the north as soon as the sanatorium, which overlooked the northern entrance to the town as well as the western, was wrested from enemy hands. The sanatorium, then, and the rise on which it stood held the final control of Stoumont.

Peiper did not wait for the counterattack which might lose him the sanatorium. Sometime before 0500 the lull which had succeeded the night of fierce fighting was broken by a German assault against the 1st Battalion positions on the roadway west of the town. The road itself was blocked by a tank platoon from the 740th Tank Battalion, the infantry dug in behind. The first tank facing the enemy fell to an antitank gun; in the darkness three more were set aflame by Panzerfausts in the hands of the infiltrating enemy infantry. The Germans were finally thrown back but they had succeeded in disorganizing the 1st Battalion to the point where General Harrison felt that his own attack would have to be postponed. The division commander agreed to Harrison's proposal that the attack be launched at 1245 instead of 0730 as planned. In the meantime the regimental cannon company and the 197th Field Artillery Battalion set to work softening up the Germans.

At the new hour the 1st and 2d Battalions jumped off. The 1st Battalion assault drove the enemy infantry out of some of the sanatorium rooms, but when a heavy German tank moved in on the north side (where it was screened from the Americans) and started blasting through the windows the Americans withdrew under smoke cover laid down by friendly mortars. Although the 2d Battalion made some progress in its advance through the woods the battalion commander, Major McCown, was captured while making a personal reconnaissance, and his troops fell back to their original position. The American tanks, unable to advance along the narrow sunken road under the guns of the Panthers and Tigers, remained north of the town.

A call from the division commander in late afternoon for "the real picture down there" elicited a frankly pessimistic answer from General Harrison. Two battalions, the 1st and 3d, had been cut down and demoralized by earlier enemy counterattacks; they were "in pretty bad shape." As to the armored detachment: "The trouble is the only places where tanks of any kind can operate are on two sunken roads. The Germans have big tanks, so tanks have been of no help to us." Further, Harrison told Hobbs, he would advise against continuing the attack on the morrow: "That place [Stoumont] is very strong. I don't think those troops we have now, without some improvement, can take the thing. That is my honest opinion. They are way down in strength. The trouble is that we can only get light artillery fire on the town, and the Germans can shoot at us with tank guns and we can't get tanks to shoot back unless they come out and get hit." 15 To this forthright opinion there was little to add. General Hobbs cautioned Harrison to be on the lookout for a German attempt to break out during the night and head west, and told him that an attempt would be made to work out a scheme with General Ridgway for an attack by the 82d Airborne
Division against the southern side of the Stoumont-La Gleize pocket.

Earlier in the day Hobbs had assured the corps commander that if the 82d Airborne cleared out the south bank of the Amblève no further help would be needed. His request that evening for an attack by the 82d from the Trois Ponts sector came at a time when the situation along the entire corps front had drastically altered and in part deteriorated.16 To the south the XVIII Airborne Corps was heavily engaged, the 7th Armored Division was being pushed out of the St. Vith salient, and even in the Trois Ponts area there had been a sudden enemy resurgence. Furthermore a frontal attack from the south would be almost suicidal so long as the Germans held the higher ground on the north bank of the Amblève.

Hobbs's diagnosis of the problem as "the physical proposition of human beings" may have been a truism but it was sound. On the one side a tough force of cornered Germans weighted the scales, fighting in desperate fashion and given physical and moral backing by heavily armored tanks mounting a superior gun and able to employ hull defilade, blocking a few well-defined and straightened avenues of approach. On the other side the counterweight consisted of a relatively few tanks whose crews knew that their tanks were not heavy enough for a headlong attack and their guns could not match the German tank guns in long-range dueling, and who were working with infantry whose strength was no longer sufficient to pry the Panthers and Tigers out of their lairs. Nonetheless the "human being" could not be exactly equated at a discount rate against machines. Pfc. Jack Gebert demonstrated the point when he advanced through machine gun fire, destroyed a German tank with a bazooka round, climbed onto a US tank, and directed its fire until shot down. He was awarded the DSC posthumously.

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...