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December 23, 2005

On this day in 1944. 23 December.

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TWO WAY TRAFFIC AT BASTOGNE by Olin Dows, Belgium, 1944. 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:

When daylight came on 23 December the 26th Division had little to show for its night attack. The 104th Infantry held Grosbous, but the 328th was checked at Grevils-Brésil by a company of stubborn German infantry backed up with a few tanks. In the woods south of Grosbous the men of Company E, 104th Infantry, had taken on more than they had bargained for: a couple of hundred riflemen from the 915th Regiment led in person by the regimental commander. (The American regimental commander had to throw in Company I, but even so this pocket was not wiped out until Christmas Eve.)

Although the right wing of the 26th Division was driving along the boundary between the isolated forward regiment of the 352d Volks Grenadier Division and the incoming Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, only a small part of the new brigade was in contact with the forward American battalions early on the 23d. The German brigade commander had been seriously wounded by a shell fragment while reconnoitering on the previous evening, the hurried march to action had prevented unified commitment, and the heavy woods south of the Sure made control very difficult. Also there were troubles with fuel.

The rest is in the Flash Traffic/Extended Entry.

The LXXXV Corps hoped to repel the American attack by means of a coordinated counterattack south of the Sure which would develop as a pincers movement, grappling the American troops who had penetrated into the dense forest north of the Ettelbruck-Grosbous road. For this maneuver, set to open on the 23d, the new 79th Volks Grenadier Division was to attack toward Niederfeulen, secure the Wark River, and hook to the northwest. On its right the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade would attack in a southeastern direction from Heiderscheid and Eschdorf with Grosbous and union with the 915th Regiment as the immediate objective. This German scheme was slow to come into operation and only a part of the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade was brought against the 26th Division during the 23d, and then mostly in small packets of infantry supported by a platoon or less of tanks.

The two attacking regiments of the 26th Division continued to fan out over secondary roads and trails, moving very cautiously for fear of ambush as the woods thickened and pressed closer to the roadways. Here the supporting weapons came into play. Detachments of the 390th Antiaircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion, moving close behind the infantry point, blasted at wood lines, hedges, haystacks, and farm buildings. Their .50-caliber machine guns and the 37-mm. cannon mounted on half-tracks pinned the German infantry down until supporting artillery could be brought to bear, then shifted to a new position before the German gunners could get on target.

The American cannoneers wheeled their pieces from position to position so as to give the closest support possible. At one point the commanding officer of the 102d Field Artillery Battalion, Lt. Col. R. W. Kinney, went forward alone under direct enemy fire to pick out the targets for his guns. (Kinney was awarded the DSC.) When an enemy pocket was discovered in some corner of the woods the self-propelled tank destroyers went into action, spraying the enemy with high explosive. Thus a platoon of the 818th Tank Destroyer Battalion ultimately blasted the lost battalion of the 915th Regiment out of the woods near Grosbous.

It was no more than natural that the 26th Division, full of green troops, wanted the comforting presence of friendly tanks or guns. The 735th Tank Battalion after action report says that the 104th Infantry would not enter Dellen ahead of the tanks. The 328th Infantry also was slow in moving without tanks ahead. Since through all this day the Americans had little or no idea of the enemy strength that lay ahead or perhaps lurked on the flanks, the lack of swashbuckling haste was not abnormal.

The corps commander shared the feeling that caution was due. At dark he ordered General Paul to keep pushing with small patrols but enjoined him to keep the mass of the two regiments (the third was corps reserve) from getting too far forward. Patrols, Millikin advised, should try to get to the Sure River bridges before daylight of the 24th. As things now stood, the 80th Division had pushed a salient ahead on the right of the 26th Division in the Kehmen sector and was waiting for the center division to come abreast. On the left there remained a fair-sized gap between the 4th Armored Division and the 26th, only partially screened by very small detachments at roadblock positions. Thus far the enemy had failed to recognize or exploit this gap.

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4TH Armored Division rolling toward Chaumont past the bodies of American soldiers.

The 4th Armored Division Attack

On 21 December the 4th Armored Division, then assembled in the Léglise-Arlon area, learned what its mission would be when the III Corps attacked on the 22d: advance north and relieve Bastogne.10 Martelange, an outpost of the VIII Corps engineer barrier line on the Sure River, was twelve miles on a hard-surfaced highway from the center of Bastogne. A Sherman tank could make it from Martelange to Bastogne in a half hour-if the road was passable and if the enemy confined his opposition to loosing rifle and machine gun bursts. The task at hand, however, was to "destroy the enemy in zone" and cover the open west flank of the corps.

Of the three divisions aligned to jump off in the III Corps counterattack, the 4th Armored would come under the closest scrutiny by the Third Army commander. Its mission was dramatic. It was also definite, geographically speaking, and so lent itself the more readily to assessment on the map in terms of success or failure. Furthermore, the reputation of the 4th Armored as a slashing, wheeling outfit would naturally attract attention, even though its matériel was not up to par, either in amount or mechanical fitness, and many green troops were riding in its tanks and infantry half-tracks. To all this must be added a less tangible item in evaluating readiness for battle. General Gaffey, the division commander, was a relative newcomer to this veteran and closely knit fighting team; he had as yet to lead the entire division in combat. CCA likewise had a commander who was a stranger to the division, Brig. Gen. Herbert L. Earnest. It might be expected, therefore, that the 4th Armored would take some little time in growing accustomed to the new leaders and their ways of conducting battle.

Theoretically the VIII Corps covered the western flank of the III Corps, but on 22 December the situation in Middleton's area was so fluid and his forces were so weak that no definite boundary or contact existed between the VIII and III Corps. The actual zone of operations for the 4th Armored Division, therefore, proved to be an area delimited by Bigonville on the east and Neufchâteau on the east and Neufchâteau on the west, a front of over fifteen miles. The mission assigned the 4th Armored, rather than zones and boundaries, determined the commitment of the division and the routes it would employ.

Bastogne could be reached from the south by two main approaches, on the right the Arlon-Bastogne road, on the left the Neufchâteau-Bastogne road. General Millikin and the III Corps staff preferred the Arlon route, at whose entrance the 4th Armored already was poised. General Middleton, whose VIII Corps nominally controlled the troops in Bastogne, favored a broad thrust to employ both routes but with the weight placed on the Neufchâteau road. The Arlon-Bastogne road was the shortest by a few miles and on the most direct line from the III Corps assembly area. To control the Arlon approach would block the reinforcement of the enemy troops already south of Bastogne. Attack on this axis also would allow the left and center divisions of the III Corps to maintain a somewhat closer contact with each other. The Neufchâteau-Bastogne route, on the other hand, was less tightly controlled by the enemy, although there was some evidence that German strength was building up in that direction.

The problem facing the III Corps was not the simple one of gaining access to Bastogne or of restoring physical contact with the forces therein, contact which had existed as late as 20 December. The problem was: (a) to restore and maintain a permanent corridor into the city; and (b) to jar the surrounding enemy loose so that Bastogne and its road net could be used by the Third Army as a base for further operations to the north and northeast. The problem was well understood by the 4th Armored Division. General Gaffey's letter of instructions to General Dager, commanding CCB, said, " . . . you will drive in, relieve the force, and proceed [italics supplied] from Bastogne to the NE...." The impression held by 4th Armored commanders and staff was that an independent tank column could cut its way through to the city ("at any time," said Dager), but that the opening of a corridor equivalent to the width of the road bed would be self-sealing once the thin-skinned or light armored columns started north to resupply and reinforce the heavy armor which reached Bastogne. The mission set the 4th Armored would require the co-ordinated efforts of the entire division, nor could it be fulfilled by a dramatic ride to the rescue of the Bastogne garrison, although this may have been what General Patton had in mind.

The Third Army commander, veteran tanker, himself prescribed the tactics to be used by Gaffey and the 4th Armored. The attack should lead off with the tanks, artillery, tank destroyers, and armored engineers in the van. The main body of armored infantry should be kept back. When stiff resistance was encountered, envelopment tactics should be used: no close-in envelopment should be attempted; all envelopments should be started a mile or a mile and a half mile back and be made at right angles. Patton, whose experience against the Panther tank during the Lorraine campaign had made him keenly aware of its superiority over the American Sherman in gun and armor, ordered that the new, modified Sherman with heavier armor (the so-called Jumbo) should be put in the lead when available. But there were very few of the Jumbos in the Third Army.

At 0600 on 22 December (H-hour for the III Corps counterattack) two combat commands stood ready behind a line of departure which stretched from Habay-la-Neuve east to Niedercolpach. General Gaffey planned to send CCA and CCB into the attack abreast, CCA working along the main Arlon-Bastogne road while CCB advanced on secondary roads to the west. In effect the two commands would be traversing parallel ridge lines. Although the full extent of damage done the roads and bridges during the VIII Corps withdrawal was not yet clear, it was known that the Sure bridges at Martelange had been blown. In the event that CCA was delayed unduly at the Sure crossing CCB might be switched east and take the lead on the main road. In any case CCB was scheduled to lead the 4th Armored Division into Bastogne.

On the right CCA (General Earnest) moved out behind A Troop of the 25th Cavalry Squadron in two task forces of battalion size. Visibility was poor, the ground was snow-covered, but the tracked vehicles were able to move without difficulty over the frozen terrain-without difficulty, that is, until the eastern task force commenced to encounter demolitions executed earlier by the VIII Corps engineers. The upshot was that both task forces converged on the main Arlon road and proceeded as a single column. Near Martelange a large crater delayed the column for some time. Shortly after noon it was bridged and the advance guard became embroiled in a fire fight with a rifle company of the 15th Regiment (5th Parachute Division) guarding the bridges, now demolished, at Martelange. The town, sprawling on a series of terraces rising from the river, was too large for effective artillery fire and the enemy riflemen held on until about 0300 the next morning when, unaccountably, they allowed a company of armored infantry to cross on one of the broken spans. Most of the 23d was spent in bridging the Sure. The width and depth of the cut through which the stream flowed forbade the use of either pontoon or treadway. Corps engineers came up to fabricate a 90-foot Bailey bridge, but it was afternoon before the tanks could start moving. Delays, however, had not dimmed the general impression that CCA could cut its way through to Bastogne in short order, and at 1500 the III Corps sent word to Middleton that contact with the 101st was expected "by tonight."

On the lesser roads to the west, General Dager's CCB, which had started out at 0430, also was delayed by demolitions. Nonetheless at noon of the 22d the 8th Tank Battalion was in sight of Burnon, only seven miles from Bastogne, nor was there evidence that the enemy could make a stand. Here orders came from General Patton: the advance was to be continued through the night "to relieve Bastogne." 11 Then ensued the usual delay: still another bridge destroyed during the withdrawal had to be replaced, and it was past midnight when light tanks and infantry cleared a small German rear guard from Burnon itself.

Wary of German bazookas in this wooded country, tanks and cavalry jeeps moved cautiously over the frozen ground toward Chaumont, the next sizable village. Thus far the column had been subject only to small arms fire, although a couple of jeeps had been lost to German bazookas. But when the cavalry and light tanks neared Chaumont antitank guns knocked out one of the tanks and the advance guard withdrew to the main body, deployed on a ridge south of the village. Daylight was near. CCB had covered only about a quarter of a mile during the night, but because Chaumont appeared to be guarded by German guns on the flanking hills a formal, time-consuming, coordinated attack seemed necessary.

During the morning the 10th Armored Infantry Battalion and the twenty-two Shermans of the 8th Tank Battalion that were in fighting condition organized for a sweep around Chaumont to west and north, coupled with a direct punch to drive the enemy out of the village. To keep the enemy occupied, an armored field artillery battalion shelled the houses. Then, as the morning fog cleared away, fighter-bombers from the XIX Tactical Air Command (a trusted friend of the 4th Armored Division) detoured from their main mission of covering the cargo planes flying supplies to Bastogne and hammered Chaumont, pausing briefly for a dogfight with Luftwaffe intruders as tankers and infantry below formed a spellbound audience.

While CCB paused south of Chaumont and CCA waited for the Martelange bridge to be finished, the Third Army commander fretted at the delay. He telephoned the III Corps headquarters: "There is too much piddling around. Bypass these towns and clear them up later. Tanks can operate on this ground now." It was clear to all that General Patton's eye was on the 4th Armored Division and his erstwhile chief of staff, General Gaffey, and that he counted on the 4th Armored to cut its way into Bastogne.

At Chaumont the ground assault came about 1330 on the heels of a particularly telling strike by friendly fighter-bombers. German artillery had begun to come alive an hour or so earlier, but with the Jabos in the sky the enemy gunners were quiet. Two rifle platoons mounted on tanks made a dash into the village, where more of the armored infantry soon arrived on foot. Even so, the lunge to envelop Chaumont on the west failed of its intent for the fields were thawing in the afternoon sun and the Shermans were left churning in the mud. A company of the 14th Regiment, 5th Parachute Division, tried to fight it out in the houses, but after a couple of hours nearly all the enemy had been rounded up. Then the scene changed with some abruptness.

During the night a liaison officer carrying the CCB attack orders had taken the wrong turning and driven into the German lines. Perhaps the enemy had seized the orders before they could be destroyed. Perhaps the cavalry foray in the early morning had given advance warning. In any case General Kokott, commanding the 26th Volks Grenadier Division responsible for the Chaumont-Martelange sector, had taken steps to reply to the attack on Chaumont. This village lies at the bottom of a bowl whose sides are formed by hills and connecting ridges. The rim to the northeast is densely wooded but is tapped by a trail leading on to the north. Along this trail, screened by the woods, the Germans brought up the 11th Assault Gun Brigade, numbering ten to fifteen remodeled Mark III carriages. bearing 75-mm. guns and with riflemen clinging to their decks and sides. Rolling down the slope behind an artillery smoke screen, the German assault guns knocked out those American tanks they could sight and discharged their gray-clad passengers into the village.

The American riflemen (Lt. Col. Harold Cohen's 10th Armored Infantry Battalion) battled beside the crippled and mired tanks in what Maj. Albin Irzyk, the veteran commander of the 9th Tank Battalion, called the bitterest fighting his battalion ever had encountered. The forward artillery observer was dead and there was no quick means of bringing fire on the enemy assault guns, which simply stood off and blasted a road for the German infantry. Company A,
10th Armored Infantry Battalion, which had led the original assault against Chaumont, lost some sixty-five men. The battle soon ended.12 In small groups the Americans fell back through the dusk to their original positions, leaving eleven Shermans as victims of the assault guns and the mud. The only officer of Company A left alive, 1st Lt. Charles R. Gniot, stayed behind to cover the withdrawal until he too was killed. Gniot was awarded the DSC, posthumously.

At the hour when the CCB assault first reached Chaumont, the eastern combat command had started moving across the Martelange bridge. Since it would take a long while for the whole column to close up and cross, General Earnest ordered Lt. Col. Delk Oden, commander of the 35th Tank Battalion, to forge ahead with his task force in a bid to reach Bastogne. The road ahead climbed out of the valley and onto a chain of ridges, these ridges closely flanked by higher ground so that the pavement ran through a series of cuts that limited maneuver off the road. The cavalry point had just gained the ridge line when, at a sharp bend, the Germans opened fire. Fortunately the tank company following was able to leave the highway and find cover behind the rise to the west of the pavement. For half an hour artillery worked over the enemy location, and then the artillery observer with the tanks "walked" the fire along the successive ridges while the tanks moved north in defilade. At the same time the half-tracks of Company G, 51st Armored Infantry Battalion, clanked forward along the pavement.

It was growing dark. Oden brought his light tank company and assault guns (used throughout the Bastogne relief as medium tanks) abreast of the medium tank company with orders to continue the advance through the night. The head of the task force now was close to the village of Warnach, which lay to the east of the main road. The light tanks had just come in sight of the village when the company of armored infantry appeared around a bend in the main road. The Germans in Warnach, apparently waiting for such a thin-skinned target, knocked out the first two half-tracks. To bypass the village at night was out of the question. While the assault guns shelled the houses a light tank platoon and a rifle platoon went in. Only one of the tanks got out, although most of the foot troops finally straggled back. Shortly after midnight a company of Shermans tried to get into Warnach but were stopped by antitank fire. Meanwhile tanks and infantry of the task force pushed on to the north, clearing the woods on either side of the main highway (the leading tank company ended up in a marsh).

It was daylight when tanks and infantry resumed the assault at Warnach, driving in from three sides with the riflemen clinging to the tanks. The battle which ensued was the most bitter fought by CCA during the whole Bastogne operation. Heilmann, commanding the 5th Parachute Division, had reasoned that the sector he held south of Bastogne was far too wide for a connected linear defense, and so had concentrated the 15th Parachute Regiment along the Martelange-Bastogne road. Warnach was the regimental command post and there was at least one rifle battalion in the village, reinforced by a battery of self-propelled tank destroyers. Two American artillery battalions kept this enemy force down, firing with speed and accuracy as the Shermans swept in, but once the artillery lifted, a house-to-house battle royal commenced in earnest. Four Shermans were destroyed by tank destroyer fire at close range. The enemy infantry fought desperately, filtering back into houses which had been cleared, organizing short, savage rushes to retake lost buildings, and showing little taste for surrender. But try as they might the German paratroopers could not get past the American armored infantry and at the tanks-only one was knocked out by German bazooka fire. The result was slow to be seen but none the less certain. At noon, when the battle ended, the Americans had killed one hundred and thirty-five Germans and taken an equal number of prisoners. The little village cost them sixty-eight officers and men, dead and wounded.

Chaumont, on the 23d, and Warnach, on the 24th, are tabbed in the journals of the 4th Armored as "hot spots" on the march to Bastogne. Quite unexpectedly, however, a third developed at Bigonville, a village some two and a half miles east of the Bastogne highway close to the boundary between the 4th Armored and the 26th Infantry Division. The gap between these divisions, only partially screened by light forces, suddenly became a matter of more than normal concern on the night of 22 December with reports that a large body of German armor was moving in (actually the advance guard of the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade which had appeared in front of the left wing of the 26th Division). To protect CCA's open right flank, Gaffey ordered Col. Wendell Blanchard to form the Reserve Combat Command as a balanced task force (using the 53d Armored Infantry Battalion and 37th Tank Battalion) and advance toward Bigonville. Early on 23 December CCR left Quatre-Vents, followed the main road nearly to Martelange, then turned right onto a secondary road which angled northeast. This road was "sheer ice" and much time was consumed moving the column forward.

About noon the advance guard came under fire from a small plot of woods near a crossroads at which point CCR would have to turn due north. The accompanying artillery battalion went into action, pouring high explosive into the woods for nearly an hour. One rifle company then dismounted and went in to clean out the survivors. The company found no serious resistance, returned to the road, and was just mounting its half-tracks when a fusillade of bullets burst from the little wood. Apparently the enemy had withdrawn during the shelling, only to return at the heels of the departing Americans. Tanks were now sent toward the crossroad but were stopped by mines. All this had been time-consuming. Bigonville was still a mile away, and Blanchard ordered a halt. The enemy in the woods continued to inflict casualties on the troops halted beside the road. Even the tankers were not immune-nearly all of the tank commanders of one company were picked off by rifle fire.

Meanwhile, in Bastogne...

The morning of 23 December broke clear and cold. "Visibility unlimited," the air-control posts happily reported all the way from the United Kingdom to the foxholes on the Ardennes front. To most of the American soldiery this would be a red-letter day-long remembered-because of the bombers and fighter-bombers once more streaming overhead like shoals of silver minnows in the bright winter sun, their sharply etched contrails making a wake behind them in the cold air.

In Bastogne, however, all eyes looked for the squat planes of the Troop Carrier Command. About 0900 a Pathfinder team dropped inside the perimeter and set up the apparatus to guide the C-47's over a drop zone between Senonchamps and Bastogne. The first of the carriers dropped its six parapacks at 1150, and in little more than four hours 241 planes had been vectored to Bastogne. Each plane carried some twelve hundred pounds, but not all reached the drop zone nor did all the parapacks fall where the Americans could recover them. Nevertheless this day's drop lessened the pinch-as the records of the 101st gratefully acknowledge. On 24 December a total of 160 planes would take part in the drop; poor flying weather on Christmas Day virtually scrubbed all cargo missions-although eleven gliders did bring in a team of four surgeons and some POL badly needed by Roberts' tanks. The biggest airlift day of the siege would come on the 26th with 289 planes flying the Bastogne run.15

The bulk of the air cargo brought to Bastogne during the siege was artillery ammunition. By the 24th the airborne batteries were down to ten rounds per tube and the work horse 420th Armored Field Artillery was expending no more than five rounds per mission, even on very lucrative targets. This battalion, covering a 360-degree front, would in fact be forced to make its original 1,400 rounds last for five days. The two 155-mm. howitzer battalions were really pawing at the bottom of the barrel. The 969th fired thirty-nine rounds on 24 December and two days later could allow its gunners only twenty-seven rounds, one-sixth the number of rounds expended per day when the battle began.

The airdrop on the 23d brought a dividend for the troops defending Bastogne. The cargo planes were all overwatched by fighters who, their protective mission accomplished, turned to hammer the Germans in the Bastogne ring. During the day eighty-two P-47's lashed out at this enemy with general-purpose and fragmentation bombs, napalm, and machine gun fire. The 101st reported to Middleton, whose staff was handling these air strikes for the division, that "air and artillery is having a field day around Bastogne."

The German attack on the 23d was mounted by the 26th Volks Grenadier Division and the attached regiment left behind by Panzer Lehr. Lacking the men and tanks for an assault around the entire perimeter, General Kokott elected to continue the fight at Senonchamps while attacking in two sectors diametrically opposite each other, the Marvie area in the southeast and the Flamierge area in the northwest. By the happenstance of its late and piecemeal deployment the 327th Glider Infantry stood in front of the enemy at both these critical points.

The 5th Parachute Division, now badly fought out and with gaping ranks, could be of little help at Bastogne. Actually this division was scattered on a front of eighteen miles, reaching from Neufchâteau clear back to the Sauer crossings. Indeed, during the day the 26th Volks Grenadier Division had to take over the portion of the 5th Parachute line between Clochimont and Hompré because the American forces from the south threatened to pierce this very thinly occupied segment of the blocking line. Kokott, then, could employ only two regiments and his reconnaissance battalion in the assault, while maintaining what pressure the remaining two regiments might have along the balance of the American perimeter.

The enemy tactics on this and the following days reflect the manner in which Kokott had to husband his resources. Extensive preparatory fires by artillery and Werfers opened the show while the infantry wormed in as close to the American foxhole line as possible. By this time the newfallen snow had put every dark object in full relief; the grenadiers now donned white snow capes and the panzers were painted white. (The Americans replied in kind with wholesale raids on Belgian bed linen and with whitewash for their armored vehicles.) The assault would be led by a tank platoon-normally four or five panzers-followed by fifty to a hundred infantry. If this first wave failed, a second or third-seldom larger than the initial wave-would be thrown in. It is clear, however, that the German commander and his troops were chary of massed tactics at this stage of the game.

The 39th Volks Grenadier Regiment, freshest in Kokott's division, was assembled to the west and northwest opposite Team Browne and the 3d Battalion of the 327th. The latter had maintained an observation post at Flamierge and a string of roadblocks along the Flamierge road well in front of the battalion position. Here the enemy dealt the first blow of the day and got into Flamierge, only to be chased out by a counterattack. Next, the enemy gathered south of Company C-positioned astride the Marche highway-and tried to shoot the Americans out with tank fire. In early evening the Germans moved in for the assault and at one point it was reported that Company C had been lost. This was far from fact for the American artillery beat off the attackers; the 3d Battalion, however, pulled back closer to Bastogne. This enemy effort also extended to embrace Team Browne. More infantry were hurried to Senonchamps on light tanks, and at 1830 McAuliffe sent one half of his mobile reserve (Team Cherry) to give a hand against the German tanks. But the American tanks, tank destroyers, and artillery already on the scene were able to handle the panzers without additional help-and even while this fight was on the cannoneers around Senonchamps turned their pieces to lob shells across the perimeter in support of the hard-driven paratroopers and tankers at Marvie.

During the hours of light the 901st made no move to carry out its scheduled attack between Marvie and the Arlon road. Quite possibly the activity of the American fighter-bombers, once more in the skies, made it necessary to wait for nightfall. Through the afternoon the enemy shelled the 2d Battalion, 327th, and its command post in Marvie. As night came on the barrage increased in intensity, sweeping along the battalion front and onto its northern flank-beyond Marvie-where Team O'Hara stood with its tanks.

At 1845 the 901st (with at least two tank companies in support) commenced a co-ordinated attack delivered by platoons and companies against the front manned by the 2d Battalion and Team O'Hara.16 One quick rush put an enemy detachment on a hill south of Marvie which overlooked this village. The platoon of paratroopers on the hill was surrounded and destroyed, but when a half-track and a brace of tanks tried to move down the hill into Marvie a lucky shot or a mine disabled the half-track, leaving no way past for the tanks. On the Bastogne-Arlon road a group of tanks (twelve were counted) started north toward the right flank of the 2d Battalion. Here Company F later reported that the tanks "made repeated attempts to overrun our positions but were halted." It is probable that the three medium tanks from Team O'Hara and the three tank destroyers from the 609th Tank Destroyer Battalion which stood astride the road (not to mention the darkness and artillery fire) had a more chastening effect on the panzers than the small arms fire of the paratroopers.

The Germans seem to have had the village of Marvie as their main objective for by midnight the fight had died down all along the line except at Marvie, where it burst out with fresh virulence. It is estimated that at least one rifle battalion and some fifteen tanks were thrown against Company E (now reinforced by an understrength company of airborne engineers) and Team O'Hara. Using the hill which earlier had been wrested from Company G as a mounting block, three German tanks made their way into the south edge of Marvie, but O'Hara's tanks and assault guns stopped a major penetration from the east by gunning down the panzers silhouetted in the glare of burning buildings, thus enabling the Americans to hold on in the north half of the village. The threat of a breach here impelled McAuliffe to send the remaining half of Team Cherry to Marvie. Because this switch stripped Bastogne of its last counterattack force, Cherry's detachment, which had gone west to assist Team Browne, was recalled to Bastogne. An hour before dawn on the 24th the battle ended and quiet came to Marvie. O'Hara's troops had accounted for eight panzers in this fight, but the village was still clutched by both antagonists.

The battle on the 23d had been viewed in a somewhat somber light inside Bastogne. That evening, only a few minutes after the German attack began in the Marvie sector, Lt. Col. Harry W. O. Kinnard (the 101st Airborne Division G-3) telephoned his opposite number at the VIII Corps command post. The gist of his report, as recorded in the corps G-3 journal, was this: "In regard to our situation it is getting pretty sticky around here. They [the 4th Armored Division] must keep coming. The enemy has attacked all along the south and some tanks are through and running around in our area. Request you inform 4th Armored Division of our situation and ask them to put on all possible pressure."

The events of the past hours had shown that the force under McAuliffe's command was overextended at a number of points. The artillery groupment west of Bastogne was particularly exposed, and the 327th Glider Infantry had already been forced to shorten its lines. Then too the segments of the perimeter defense were not as well coordinated as they might be. The tankers of CCB complained that they had no idea of the airborne positions, and quite probably the regiments of the 101st were hazy as to the location of the small tank and tank destroyer detachments on their flanks.

Colonel Kinnard, whose sharp tactical sense was rated highly by all the commanders who worked with him during the siege, drew up on 24 December a plan to regroup the Bastogne forces. The plan was put into operation that same evening. Kinnard's scheme placed all four regiments of the 101st Airborne on the line as combined arms teams. Team O'Hara and a platoon of the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion were attached to the 501st. The 506th, whose sector had been quiet, got two platoons of the 705th but no tanks. The 502d was given two platoons from the 705th and Team Anderson (it is symptomatic of the shoestring defense which perforce had evolved at the perimeter that Captain Anderson's "team" consisted of two cavalry assault guns, one tank destroyer, and two jeeps). The 327th took over the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion, two platoons of the 9th Armored Engineer Battalion (which had won distinction in the Noville fight), and four platoons of the 705th. Also attached to the 327th was the amalgam of infantry, tank destroyers, and tanks which had grown up around Browne's 420th Armored Field Artillery Battalion and which, on the 23d, had been reorganized as Team Roberts. (Colonel Browne was wounded by a shell fragment on the 24th and died the next day.) 17

This readjustment of the 101st positions resulted in a taut and tenuous line approximately sixteen miles. (Map 4) That it could not be defended in equal strength at all points was not only a military aphorism but a simple fact dictated by the troops available and the accidents of the ground. Creation of a tactical reserve was therefore mandatory, albeit difficult of accomplishment with the limited mechanized force at McAuliffe's disposal. The 101st reserve, as now organized, consisted of Roberts' CCB; that is Teams Cherry and Arnsdorf (with perhaps nine medium and five light tanks operational at any given time) plus a part of the original Team SNAFU, put together by Colonel Roberts from the remnants of CCR, 9th Armored, and various waifs and strays. (Colonel Gilbreth, the commander of SNAFU, was wounded on the 22d and then hospitalized.)

This reshuffle stripped CCB of its own reserve; so Roberts organized a new formation (Team Palmaccio, commanded by 1st Lt. Charles P. Palmaccio) equipped with four antiaircraft half-tracks, one tank destroyer, and two light tanks. Roadblocks at the entrances to Bastogne were established, each manned by two guns from Company C, 609th Tank Destroyer Battalion. Inside Bastogne itself, McAuliffe had a part of Team SNAFU as a kind of "interior guard," backed up by four self-propelled tank destroyers and forty men from the 705th. All this regrouping tightened and strengthened the rifle line surrounding Bastogne, but the resources at hand for fire fighting enemy armored incursions or for quick, local counterattacks were woefully limited-as shown by the commitment of Team Cherry on opposite sides of the perimeter during 23-24 December.

General Luettwitz, with only a reinforced division to use against Bastogne, was worse off than McAuliffe. He had been given rather vague promises of reinforcement, but no decision was rendered by the High Command until the 23d when Hitler agreed to release two fresh divisions (the 9th Panzer and 15th Panzer Grenadier) from the OKW reserve. Once these troops were handed over to Army Group B, Field Marshal Model decided that they were more sorely needed to shore up the left flank of the Fifth Panzer and Seventh Armies than at Bastogne. One regimental combat team from the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division was all he would give Luettwitz for the Bastogne operation.

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...

John | Permalink | Comments (0) | Historical Stuff
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