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December 24, 2005

This day in 1944. 24 December.

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Infantrymen, attached to the 4th Armored Division, fire at German troops, in the American advance to relieve the pressure on surrounded airborne troops in Bastogne.(Photo credits: U.S. National Archives)

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

The assault on the morning of the 24th followed what had become standard tactics with the 4th Armored. First came a short concentration fired by the artillery. There followed an advance into the village by two teams, each composed of one tank and one infantry company working closely together. As at Chaumont and Warnach there was little trouble from the enemy artillery, for by this time the 5th Parachute Division was rationed to only seven rounds per howitzer a day. Mostly the German infantry held their fire until the Americans were in the streets, then cut loose with their bazookas, light mortars, and small arms. While the two assault companies of the 53d advanced from house to house the tanks of the 37th blasted the buildings ahead, machine-gunned the Germans when they broke into the open, and set barns and out-buildings afire with tracer bullets. One team burst through to the northern exit road and the garrison was trapped. By 1100 the village was clear. Most of the 328 prisoners taken here were from the 13th Parachute Regiment, which had just been released from its flank guard positions farther to the east on Heilmann's insistence that the 5th Parachute Division could not possibly block the American drive north with only two of its regiments in hand.

The pitched battles at Bigonville and Warnach on 24 December made a considerable dent in the front line fighting strength of the 5th Parachute Division but failed to bring CCR and CCA appreciably closer to Bastogne. CCB, the most advanced of the combat commands, had only two platoons of medium tanks left after the affair at Chaumont and had spent the day quietly waiting for replacement tanks from the repair echelons and for the rest of the division to draw abreast. Meanwhile the American paratroopers and their heterogeneous comrades inside the Bastogne perimeter fought and waited, confining their radio messages to oblique hints that the 4th Armored should get a move on. Thus, at the close of the 23d McAuliffe sent the message: "Sorry I did not get to shake hands today. I was disappointed." A less formal exhortation from one of his staff reached the 4th Armored command post at midnight: "There is only one more shopping day before Christmas! " [Ok, ok, emphasis mine, I admit it!]

If you're still interested, see the Flash Traffic/Extended Entry.

Perhaps a few of the armored officers still believed that a hell-for-leather tank attack could cleave a way to Bastogne. But by the evening of 24 December it seemed to both Gaffey and Millikin that tanks were bound to meet tough going in frontal attack on the hard-surfaced roads to which they were confined and that the operation would demand more use of the foot-slogger, particularly since the German infantry showed a marked proclivity for stealing back into the villages nominally "taken" by the tankers. Attack around the clock, enjoined by General Patton, had not been notably successful so far as the tank arm was concerned. From commander down, the 4th Armored was opposed to further use of the weakened tank battalions in hours of darkness. Further, night attacks by the two infantry divisions had failed to achieve any unusual gains and the troops were tiring.

The corps commander therefore ordered that his divisions hold during the night of the 24th in preparation for attack early on Christmas day. Two battalions of the 318th Infantry were joining the 4th Armored to give the needed infantry strength in the corps' main effort. Reinforcement by the fighter-bombers had been requested (Gaffey asked the corps for high-priority flights over the 4th Armored as a Christmas present), and good flying weather seemed likely. On the debit side there were indications that reinforcements were arriving to bolster the German line facing the III Corps.

Thus far the Third Army counterattack had tended to be a slugging match with frontal assault and little maneuver. General Patton's insistence on bypassing centers of resistance had been negated by the terrain, the weather, and the wide-reaching impact of the earlier VIII Corps demolitions scheme. Perhaps the pace could be speeded up by maneuver, now that the enemy had been drawn into the defense of the Arlon-Bastogne approach. At Gaffey's request the III Corps commander shifted the boundary between the 4th Armored and the 26th Division, making the infantry division responsible for the Bigonville sector and releasing CCR, on the night of the 24th, for employment on the open west flank of the corps with entry into Bastogne as its primary mission.

The 80th Division Battle in the Woods
24-26 December

On the morning of 24 December the 80th Division lost the two battalions pre-empted by the corps commander as infantry reinforcement for the 4th Armored Division. This diminution in its rifle strength and successive collisions with German units crossing the front en route to the Bastogne sector in the west constituted the closest link the 80th Division would have with the dramatic effort being made to reach the encircled 101st Airborne. From this time forward the 80th Division attack would be related to the fighting farther west only in that it was blocking the efforts of the Seventh Army to move its reserves into the Bastogne area.

For the next three days the division would wage a lone battle to reach and cross the Sure River, the scene of action being limited to the wedge formed on the north by the Sure and on the east by the Sauer River with a base represented by the Ettelbruck-Heiderscheidergrund road. This area the 80th came to know as the Bourscheid triangle. Within this frame lay thick forests, deep ravines, and masked ridges, the whole a checkerboard of little terrain compartments. Control of a force larger than the battalion would be most difficult, artillery support-except at clearings and villages-would be ineffective, and the maintenance of an interlocking, impervious front nigh impossible. Once a battalion cleared a compartment and advanced to the next the enemy could be counted on to seep back to his original position. Unobserved fire and loss of direction in the deep woods, down the blind draws, and along the twisting ridges made each American unit a potential threat to its neighbors, often forcing the use of a single battalion at a time. The infantryman would be duly thankful when tanks, tank destroyers, or artillery could give a hand or at least encourage by their presence, but the battle in woods and ravines was his own.

On the 23d the enemy forces facing the 80th Division were so weak and so disorganized that the Seventh Army commander, Brandenberger, had feared that the 80th Division would drive across the Sure during the course of the night and sever the main line of communications leading to the west. By the morning of the 24th, however, reinforcements had arrived and the threat of a clean, quick American penetration was on the wane. The LXXXV Corps (Kniess) thus far had faced the American III Corps with only two divisions, the 5th Parachute and the 352d. Despite the Seventh Army apprehension that two divisions would not possibly hold the long blocking line from Ettelbruck to Vaux-lez-Rosières and despite daily requests that OKW release additional divisions to the army to strengthen this line, the German High Command was slow to dip into its strategic reserve.

The two larger units earmarked for employment by the Seventh Army were the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade and the 79th Volks Grenadier Division. Both were a considerable distance to the rear and both were equipped with the conglomeration of makeshift, battle-weary vehicles that was the lot of those divisions not scheduled to join in the original breakthrough and penetration. Even when they were released from the OKW Reserve, it would be a matter of days-not hours-before the mass of either unit could be placed in the front lines. When OKW finally responded to the pleas of the Seventh Army, the most optimistic estimates placed the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade and the 79th Volks Grenadier Division in the LXXXV Corps area on the morning of 23 December.

Neither of these two formations was rated as having a high combat value. Theoretically the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, a younger brother of the elite Grossdeutschland Panzer Division and like it charged with guarding Hitler's headquarters (albeit as the outer guard), should have been one of the first of the Wehrmacht formations. In fact this brigade was of very recent vintage, had suffered intense losses in East Prussia during its single commitment as a unit, and was not fully refitted when finally sent marching to the west. Replacements, drawn from the same pool as those for the Grossdeutschland and the Fuehrer Begleit Brigade, were hand-picked from the younger classes but had little training. The Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade numbered some six thousand men, had a rifle regiment mounted on armored half-tracks and 1 1/2-ton trucks, a reconnaissance battalion, an assault gun battalion, and a mixed tank battalion made up of Mark IV's and Panthers. The 79th Volks Grenadier Division possessed an old Wehrmacht number but, as it stood at the time of its commitment in the Ardennes, was a green division the bulk of whose riflemen had been combed out of headquarters troops in early December. Woefully under-strength in both transportation and supporting weapons, it had neither a flak battalion nor an assault gun battalion and would be forced to lean heavily on its artillery regiment.

The Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, the first to start for the battle front, was ordered to take the road from Ettelbruck to Martelange and there deploy in support of the 5th Parachute Division.13 Its mission, assigned before the Third Army began its counterattack, was changed on the evening of 21 December, and so was its route, now menaced by the 80th Division advance on Ettelbruck. Trying to cross the Our River at the Roth bridges, the brigade ran into trouble. The bridges had been damaged by attack from the air, and traffic was backed up for miles on both sides of the river. Untrained drivers and mechanical failures further delayed the brigade as its columns entered the icy, narrow, twisting roads of the Ardennes, but by 23 December the reconnaissance battalion, a rifle battalion in armored carriers, and two tank companies had reached Eschdorf and Heiderscheid. Gravely concerned by the rate of the American advance, the Seventh Army commander sidetracked these troops short of the Bastogne sector to restore the gap which was opening between the 5th Parachute Division and the 352d Volks Grenadier Division, and, as already noted, the main body went in on on the 23d to stop the 80th Division at Heiderscheid. A part of the battalion of armored infantry marched south from Eschdorf and succeeded in getting cut off by the 26th Division night attack at Grevels-Brésil.

The heavy losses suffered by the green brigade in its first hours of battle had a marked adverse impact on the morale of the entire command. Many times, in subsequent days of battle, higher commanders would comment on the damage done the brigade by piecemeal commitment and defeat in its baptism of fire. The loss of the brigade commander, Col. Hans-Joachim Kahler, further demoralized the Fuehrer Grenadier. For successive days the command changed hands as new elements of the brigade arrived under more senior officers; this lack of leadership hardly was calculated to restore the shaken confidence of young, inexperienced troops. Yet despite these early reverses in the counterattack role the young soldiers of the brigade would prove tough and tenacious on the defensive.

On the morning of the 24th the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, still without artillery and with half of its tanks and infantry still east of the Our River, stood opposite the inner wings of the American 26th and 80th Divisions. The force of perhaps two rifle companies which had been cut off by the 26th Division south of Eschdorf was known to be fighting its way out to the east. The LXXXV Corps commander therefore decided to use his incoming reinforcements-infantry of the 79th Volks Grenadier Division-in a counterattack to regain contact with the lost companies somewhere around Eschdorf. This would be followed by a pivot to the east, intended to strike the Americans in the flank at Heiderscheid. For this maneuver Col. Alois Weber, commanding the 79th, had available one regiment, the 208th, and a single battalion of the 212th. His division, like the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, had encountered the traffic jam at the Our River and while crossing on the Gentingen bridge had been further delayed by American fighter-bombers. The assault gun battalion and tanks from the Fuehrer Grenadier were at Weber's disposal, but his artillery regiment was missing, entangled someplace on the road east of the Our. By chance the 79th found an artillery battalion, belonging to the 5th Parachute Division, which had been left behind when its prime movers broke down, and these guns were impressed to support the counterattack toward Heiderscheid.

There remained to the LXXXV Corps the 352d Volks Grenadier Division, by this time reduced to two battered regiments huddled north and east of Ettelbruck. These regiments were needed where they stood for not only did they guard the Ettelbruck bridgehead, covering the flank of the Sauer crossings in the LXXXV Corps sector, but they also represented the only cohesive defense on the north bank of the river in the event that the American XII Corps decided to turn in that direction. The bulk of the 915th Regiment of the 352d, cut off by the American advance on 23 December, could no longer be reckoned with. (The major portion of these troops finally escaped through the thick woods, but would not reach the lines of the 352d until 2 December and then minus most of their equipment.) The fight to bring the American 80th Division to a halt south of the Sure, or at the river itself, would have to be waged by the half-strength 79th Volks Grenadier Division. The battleground, be it said, favored the defender so long as he retained sufficient strength to seal off all penetrations. Whether he could do so remained to be seen.

General McBride continued the attack on 24 December with the 317th and 319th, whose forward battalions had been engaged with the enemy all through the previous night. After the loss of the two battalions from the 318th to the 4th Armored Division, the 317th had simply bypassed Ettelbruck, and the 3d Battalion of the 318th was left to harass the enemy therein with artillery and mortar fire. The immediate division mission remained the same: to root out the enemy south of the Sure River and close in the north along the Sauer.

The 319th, on the left, was in possession of the road net at Heiderscheid and had only a mile to cover before the regiment was on the Sure. Indeed, two companies had spent the night within sight of the river at Heiderscheid although this was in the zone of the 26th Division. The 317th had farther to go because the Sure looped away to the north in its sector. Furthermore the regiment was advancing with its right flank exposed to any riposte coming from east of the Sauer River. Advance northward would have to be made under the eyes of German observers atop two dominating hill masses, one close to the Sure at Ringel, the other rising on the west bank of the Sauer near the bridgehead village of Bourscheid, the initial assembly area of the 79th Volks Grenadier Division. Fortunately for the Americans the 79th lacked the artillery to make full use of such commanding ground, but the German gunners proved to be very accurate.

For the past twenty-four hours the 317th Infantry had been attacking to reach Bourscheid and the high ground there. Although the 2d Battalion lunged ahead as far as Welscheid during the night, it failed to take the village and spent all the daylight hours of the 24th waiting for two companies to extricate themselves from the ridge on whose slope they lay pinned by German fire. (The regimental commander would later remark on the excellent musketry training and first-rate small arms practice of this German unit.)

The 1st Battalion, meanwhile, tried to hook around to the northeast and gain entrance to Bourscheid along the main road. This advance brought the battalion onto open ground where the enemy assault guns spotted farther north could get to work. Then the battalion came under flanking fire from the Germans around Kehmen, in the zone of the neighboring regiment. Mercilessly pounded from front and flank the battalion fell back for half a mile; its casualties numbered 197, mostly wounded. At this point each of the three battalions had taken a crack at punching a way through to Bourscheid. At the close of the 24th the 317th Infantry could report severe losses but no progress and the German tanks and assault guns were raking the Americans wherever they concentrated, even laying with accuracy on the battalion command posts.

While the 317th was being held in check by well-directed gunfire, the 319th attack collided with the enemy counterattack aimed at Eschdorf and Heiderscheid. For this the 79th seems to have assembled at least two battalions of infantry, as well as tanks, assault guns, and armored cars from the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade. The 319th occupied a triangular position: at the apex the 3d Battalion held Tadler, overlooking the Sure, to the right and rear the 1st Battalion had bivouacked in Kehmen on the Bourscheid road; the 2d Battalion (less its two companies near the Heiderscheidergrund crossing) was stationed as the left wing anchor at Heiderscheid. Colonel Taylor, the regimental commander, wished to bring his right forward to the river. In the dark, on the morning of the 24th, the 1st Battalion (Lt. Col. Hiram D. Ives) marched west out of Kehmen intending to turn north at the next crossroad, two miles away, and push for Ringel on the river.

Daylight was breaking when the head of the column came in sight of the crossroad. About that time two things happened. A German detachment rushed into Kehmen, which the 1st Battalion had just left, while a German tank suddenly opened fire from a masked position near the crossroad and knocked out two Sherman tanks with the advance guard. The remaining American tanks hastily reversed to the cover of a nearby draw and the infantry deployed along the road. About 0930 one of the attached self-propelled tank destroyers sneaked forward and gave the coup de grâce to the German tank. New orders, however, left the battalion standing at the crossroad, for the 2d Battalion at Heiderscheid was hard hit by the main force of the German counterattack and needed protection on the east. Ultimately fire from the 1st Battalion did contribute to halting an enemy attempt at encircling Heiderscheid.

Colonel Bandy had held his 2d Battalion in Heiderscheid during the night of 23 December while awaiting the return of the two companies that had been sent down to the river. An hour or so before daylight the first German shells came in. After ten minutes of this preparation the enemy, on trucks, armored half-trucks, and armored cars, suddenly appeared at the southwest corner of the village. This was the main counterattack of the day for the 79th Volks Grenadier Division, launched as planned, from Eschdorf. The single American tank in the way was surprised and put out of action, but strangely enough the German armored vehicles, mostly light flak tanks with 20-mm. guns, did not risk a precipitate dash into the village, contenting themselves with racing up and down the road which passed on the south, firing madly at the houses. The Americans, for their part, clustered at the windows and returned the fire with every weapon they could lay hand on.

One tank destroyer was in position to enfilade the road but by a curious chance it had been in the path of a bomb dropped by a stray German plane during the night and the firing mechanism was damaged. The tank destroyer commander tracked his gun on the passing targets, jumped up and down on the firing treadle, swore volubly, and banged the firing mechanism with a hammer but to no avail. Twice the German grenadiers got close enough to pitch grenades through windows. Finally one American tank worked its way around to get clear aim and did destroy four of the enemy armored vehicles. Eventually the enemy foot troops made their way into the streets. With this the forward observer for the 315th Field Artillery Battalion took over, calling for his 155-mm. howitzers to shell the village. For half an hour shells exploded, killing and lacerating the unprotected enemy. When the Germans retired they left 76 dead and 26 badly wounded; their Red Cross had removed many more during the fight.

By midafternoon firing died down all along the 319th front. The hastily organized 79th Volks Grenadier Division counterattack had failed in its larger purpose although it had led Colonel Taylor to recall his advance battalion from its position of vantage close to the Sure. On the whole the 80th Division had been through a hard day's fight, and McBride was more than willing to accept the corps commander's orders to hold up the attack until the following morning.

Across the lines the Seventh Army was bringing in a new, provisional headquarters to assume direction of the battle around Bastogne. The boundary, to be effective on Christmas Day, ran between Eschdorf and Heiderscheid, approximating that between the American 26th and 80th Infantry Divisions. The Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade now passed to the new Corps Rothkirch but would continue to oppose the 26th Division just as the major part of its strength had done on 24 December. The LXXXV Corps was left with the 79th and 352d. On Christmas Eve the last troops of the 352d left Ettelbruck, shelled out by high explosive and white phosphorus. The German line north and east of the city hereafter would rest on the far bank of the Sauer.

Kniess was not yet ready to withdraw his right wing to the protection of the river barrier, nor would the Seventh Army commander permit it, for the high ground in the Bourscheid bridgehead could still be used to observe and interdict any crossing of the Sauer farther south and at the same time act as an anchor at the eastern end of the Sure. Because the 79th Volks Grenadier Division still lacked much of its infantry and nearly all of its heavy weapons, the corps commander ordered Colonel Weber to defend the bridgehead by concentrating in the heavy woods around Kehmen and Welscheid. With the limited rifle strength at his disposal, Weber was able to man the Burden ridge, his left flank thus adhering to the Sauer, but in the north the right flank of the 79th consisted only of a thin outpost line extending to Ringel Hill and the Sure.

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

On the morning of the 24th a note of urgency appeared in the orders coming out of Model's command post: the Fifth Panzer Army must take Bastogne at once and "lance this boil" in the southern flank. For this purpose Manteuffel would retain a kampfgruppe of the 9th Panzer southeast of Bastogne as a link with the Seventh Army, now hard pressed by the American counterattack from the south. The sense of urgency heightened as the day wore on-it can almost be plotted like a fever chart in the exchanges between Rundstedt and Model: Rundstedt demanding that the Sixth Panzer Army get its armored divisions forward and alongside Manteuffel's spearhead before the Allies can counterattack from both south and north; Rundstedt ordering that the Allied forces be destroyed east of the Meuse before they can organize a major counter-effort; Model telling Rundstedt that the 2d Panzer has run short of motor fuel and that he has ordered the advance guard to march for the Meuse on foot. (One has the impression-it can never be verified-that as tension mounted Model commenced to turn to the older and more experienced field marshal for moral support.)

General Manteuffel faced a military and political dilemma as day drew to a close on 24 December. Janus-like, his Fifth Panzer Army faced toward the Marche plateau and the road to Dinant and toward Bastogne. Manteuffel later would say that he saw no opportunity for a successful battle west of the Meuse (although he still hoped for military success east of the river), but the decision as to which direction the Fifth Panzer would throw its weight obviously had to be made by Hitler himself. This appeal to the highest German authority was made through various channels by Manteuffel and his chief of staff, Wagener, on the 24th and 25th. Hitler's order, as relayed to the Fifth Panzer headquarters by Jodl early on the 25th, told Manteuffel to put all available forces into the battle for control of the Marche plateau. Manteuffel could hardly disengage from Bastogne and turn the fight over to the Seventh Army (indeed, this was not the Fuehrer's intention), but it was crystal clear that the 2d Panzer Division advance guard had to be reinforced and the narrow wedge it had driven toward the Meuse had to be expanded into a pile driver blow to cross that river.5

Manteuffel's immediate tactical problem had four parts: the road to the isolated 2d Panzer advance guard must be reopened, 6 both for tank fuel and reinforcements; the northern flank of the salient reaching toward Dinant would have to be covered at once and in considerable strength; in the southwest where signs of an American concentration were appearing the southern side of the corridor toward the Meuse must be barricaded, perhaps as far back as Bastogne; finally, the assault front in the center required greater width and depth on the Marche plateau. The solution of this problem demanded more strength than the Fifth Panzer Army, with its tail caught in the crack at Bastogne, could amass.

Manteuffel had been promised at least three more divisions, Jodl had assured him that the II SS Panzer Corps was being rushed forward by the Sixth Panzer Army to take over the fight on his right wing east of the Ourthe River, and he had reason to expect that the 9th Panzer Division would arrive in time to take part in the attack planned for Christmas Day. For this attack, primarily designed to reach the "extended index finger" (as one German report calls it) formed by the advance detachment of the 2d Panzer in the woods around Foy-Notre Dame, Manteuffel counted on a drive by the bulk of the 2d Panzer to reach its cut-off troops while the Panzer Lehr attacked Humain and Buissonville to reopen the line of communication.

In addition the Fifth Panzer Army commander had plans to employ the divisions already in this northwestern sector as the vertebrae on which a full-bodied and integrated salient could be developed reaching to and overlapping the Meuse. The right shoulder of the expanding salient would, in Manteuffel's plan, be formed by the 116th Panzer Division. This unit was now in full force on the west bank of the Ourthe, had penetrated the American line at Verdenne, and was in position to bring artillery fire on the Hotton-Marche road. The objective given the 116th Panzer, therefore, was the town of Baillonville (north of Marche), from where it could block an Allied attack southward along the highway from Liège to Marche. The 9th Panzer Division, upon arrival, was ticketed to take position on the right of the Panzer Lehr, thus beefing up the 2d Panzer attack in the center. This was the German plan for 25 December.

The Celles Pocket

Although the VII Corps had become involved in a defensive battle, General Collins still expected to launch the corps counterattack which would signal the beginning of aggressive operations against the north flank of the Bulge. In midafternoon on 24 December General Harmon telephoned the VII Corps command post and asked permission to throw another combat command of his 2d Armored Division against elements of the 2d Panzer which had been identified in the neighborhood of Ciney and Celles. (See Map VIII.) The corps commander was away from the command post visiting his divisions; so the call was taken by the corps artillery commander, Brig. Gen. Williston B. Palmer. Palmer knew that the First Army had attached strings to any wholesale commitment of Harmon's division and that Hodges' consent and probably Montgomery's would be needed before more of the 2d Armored was unleashed. He therefore told Harmon to wait-it was too late in the day to launch an attack in any case-until the corps commander reached the 2d Armored command post. Harmon was persistent and called again asking for "immediate authority." Palmer, sorely tempted to give Harmon the permission he needed, reluctantly steeled himself and told Harmon to await Collins' appearance at the 2d Armored command post.

A few minutes later Palmer had a call from the First Army chief of staff, General Kean, who said that Collins was authorized to use all his corps and could change his defensive line. In guarded words Kean asked Palmer if he saw "a town A and a town H" on the map and then mentioned a "pivoting move." Palmer, imbued with Collins' attack philosophy and eager to give the green light to the 2d Armored, looked hastily at the map spread before him, picked out two villages southwest of Ciney and forward of the 2d Armored positions: Achêne and (Le) Houisse. This looked like the go signal for the VII Corps and an attack to advance its western wing. Because the wire line to the 2d Armored command post had gone out, Palmer sent his aide with a message for Collins giving his own optimistic interpretation of the conversation with Kean.

The aide had just departed when Kean called again. On further reflection, he said (perhaps Kean had caught a tone of exultation in Palmer's voice), he doubted whether Palmer had understood him correctly. Then came the cold water douche: "Now get this. I'm only going to say it once. Roll with the punch." Palmer's glance flicked over the map, this time to the north; there, thirty miles to the rear of the villages he had selected earlier were the towns of Andenne and Huy. Palmer remembers that this was the only moment in the war when he was "ill with disapproval."

Out went a second messenger with an explanation of Palmer's mistake and an urgent request for Collins to come home. Collins, who had received the first message at Harmon's command post, was just giving the finishing touches to an attack plan for the entire 2d Armored when the second messenger appeared. Telling Harmon to "hold everything" but making clear that the 2d Armored was to go ahead with plans for the attack on Christmas morning, Collins hurried back to his own headquarters. He arrived there about 1830 but nothing more could be done until a liaison officer, promised by Kean, came in from the First Army.

Two hours later the First Army staff officer (Col. R. F. Akers) appeared and confirmed the bad news. Montgomery and Hodges had agreed to shorten the First Army line in order to halt the German advance. The VII corps, therefore, was to go on the defensive and its commander was "authorized" on his own judgment to drop back to the line Andenne-Hotton-Manhay. In any case the VII Corps was to retain a firm contact with the XVIII Airborne Corps, which that evening was withdrawing to the Manhay position.

Although General Collins courteously asked the senior members of his corps staff to give their opinions on the action now to be taken by the corps, neither he nor any of his officers considered giving over the attack planned for the 2d Armored. During the day Harmon's tanks had inflicted very severe damage on the German columns; the 84th Division had experienced some reverses but seemed to be holding its own. On balance the picture as seen from the VII Corps' point of view was far less gloomy than that apparently prevailing in higher headquarters. Collins recognized that a retrograde move would strengthen the defenses of Huy and Liège. He also knew that such a move would expose Namur and the major Meuse crossings south of that city, for example, those at Dinant. The final decision, made by the corps commander himself, probably could have been predicted: on 25 December the 2d Armored Division would advance as planned; the corps then would continue with limited objective attacks to break up any dangerous concentration of enemy forces on its front.

The boundary between the VII Corps and the XVIII Airborne Corps lay generally along the direct road from Bastogne to Liège, but this was essentially an artificial division and coincided neither with the compartmentalization of the terrain, naturally divided as it was by the Ourthe River, nor with the manner in which the German attack was developing.8 The ebb and flow of the battle on Christmas Day may best be understood by tracing the movements of three German divisions: the 2d Panzer, the Panzer Lehr, and the 116th Panzer. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the attempted movements, for the day came bright and clear, bringing the American and British air forces into the skies over the Bulge in one of the greatest demonstrations of tactical ground support ever witnessed by American troops.

And in Bastogne...

On both sides of the line, then, the daylight hours of the 24th were spent in regrouping, this punctuated with heavy gusts of artillery and mortar fire whenever the opponent showed signs of movement. Once again, however, a beautiful flying day gave the Americans an edge. P-47 's belonging to the 512th, 513th, and 514th Squadrons of the XIX Tactical Air Command worked around the Bastogne perimeter, at one point, in the Noville sector, bombing so close to the airborne lines that the 101st sent frantic word to the VIII Corps asking that the flight leader be told to call off the mission. The 115th Kampfgruppe from the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division duly arrived for attachment to Kokott's division and took over a sector in the northwest between Flamierge and Givry. The 420th Armored Field Artillery Battalion and the medium howitzer battalions displaced to new firing positions just north of the Marche road and not more than a mile and a half from Bastogne. The Americans abandoned their last roadblock at Mande-St. Etienne-now it was too far out-and drew in the western line held by Team Roberts and the 3d Battalion of the 327th. Germans and Americans both claimed Marvie, a circumstance which may have accounted for an American air strike on Marvie by P-47's during the afternoon.

In the headquarters at Bastogne McAuliffe's staff had been kept pretty well abreast of the enemy movements indicative of incoming reinforcement. Team Anderson, scouting around Champs, reported armor and tracked vehicles moving into Givry (this was the new 115th Kampfgruppe); other reports noted the movement of German traffic coming from the northeast and moving southward across the American front. All this must have been a headache for the 101st G-2, but aside from shortening the lines and tightening up tactical control there was little the Americans could do but wait for the blow to fall.

Early in the afternoon the VIII Corps relayed a message from General Patton and the Third Army: "Xmas Eve present coming up. Hold on." But there were more tangible items to lessen the nostalgia and depression of the surrounded garrison on Christmas Eve. The second day of air resupply had been "a tremendous morale booster"-so reported CCB and most of the regiments. Allied air activity on the 24th had heartened the men on the ground. When night fell they could see the fires left as aftermath of the fighter-bomber strikes blazing all the way round the perimeter. (Twice during the night of 24 December, however, the Luftwaffe retaliated with very damaging and lethal bombing sorties on Bastogne and the surrounding area.) Less obtrusive but of considerable impact was the confidence that the commanders and the troops had in each other; a lesson for future commanders may be read in the considerable effort put forth by McAuliffe, Roberts, and the regimental commanders to apprise all the troops of the "situation."

Christmas Eve in the German headquarters brought forth some cognac and a few "Prosits" but in the main was devoted to preparations for a major attack on Christmas Day. As late as the evening of the 24th Luettwitz hoped to obtain more troops from the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, but the Fuehrer had other ideas. Earlier in the day the Fifth Panzer Army commander posed a question which finally reached Jodl and Hitler: should he turn to finish off Bastogne or continue, with the bulk of his divisions, toward the Meuse and seize the Marche plateau in an attempt to widen the German thrust? Hitler's answer, finally relayed by Model, was that the attack to seize the Marche plateau should be continued with all available forces. This answer did nothing to relieve Manteuffel's worries about his thin and endangered southern flank.18 To leave Bastogne as a sally port onto his left rear made no military sense to this experienced soldier-so Manteuffel ordered that Bastogne be taken on 25 December.

(The attack order read: "Displacement [in this context a kind of euphemism for "destruction"] of the enemy at Bastogne.")

The German order of battle on Christmas Eve was this (read from the north clockwise). The 26th Volks Grenadier engineer battalion and a few antitank guns maintained a security screen in the Foy-Recogne sector. The 78th Fuesiliers, brought back to strength by a large draft of replacements, held on a front extending from Foy to Neffe. The 901st, its ranks much depleted by the fighting just ended, continued the circle past Marvie and to a point west of the Arlon road. The 39th was deployed on both sides of the Neufchâteau road. What earlier had been the "western front"-that is, from Senonchamps north to the Marche road -was occupied by the reconnaissance battalion of the 26th Volks Grenadier Division, which had moved onto the ground left free by the American withdrawal on the 24th. The regiment from the incoming 5th Panzer Grenadier Division (Colonel Deckert) was bivouacked west of Flamizoulle. The 77th Fuesilier Regiment completed the circle, the bulk of its troops concentrated west of Champs. Uneasy about the ability of the 5th Parachute Division to cover his back, Kokott was forced to strip a few companies from his own division and the 901st to form a subsidiary front facing south.

The attack plan for the 25th turned on the fresh strength provided by the 15th Panzer Grenadier (-). The main effort would be made in the northwest between the Marche road and Champs, the latter point included as an initial objective. It was known that the American hold in this sector was weak, the frozen ground gave good tank going and observation for the artillery, and there were no large villages or woods to hold up the assault. To open a way for the main effort Kokott quietly assembled the major part of his division artillery around Flamierge and Givry. The plan included a heavy blow by the Luftwaffe against Bastogne itself (this eventuated in the two bombing attacks during the night of 24 December which killed a Belgian nurse and a score of wounded paratroopers).

The original time schedule was exceedingly optimistic: to put in the infantry assault at 0400; to break through the American rifle line by 0600, at which time the artillery could see to fire on targets of opportunity and the tanks would be able to move with speed; and to rush an armored group from the 15th Panzer Grenadier into Bastogne between 0800 and 0900 hours before the American fighter-bombers took to the air.

The optimism breathed by this schedule must have expired shortly after it was put on paper although the plan remained. Kokott has recorded his shock and surprise at the weak state of the reinforcements brought in by Deckert: the 115th Regiment (three battalions of fusiliers), the reconnaissance battalion and two armored field artillery battalions of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, a company of tank destroyers, and seventeen tanks belonging to the 115th Panzer Battalion. Hitler's failure to name Bastogne as the primary objective had been reflected in the dilatory and contradictory orders issued by the higher commanders for the employment of Deckert's division. True, the second of Deckert's regiments (the 104th) finally had been given to the XLVII Panzer Corps, but on Christmas Eve it was toiling slowly toward the east side of Bastogne and would not arrive in time to join the battle. Col. Wolfgang Maucke, commander of the 115th, objected-as strongly as a colonel would dare-when he received his orders toward dusk on the 24th. He had been given no time for reconnaissance; no coordination had been arranged with the tanks supposed to support the 115th. Maucke's superiors simply pointed out the tremendous advantage that would accrue to a surprise attack on Christmas Day-he had his orders.19

The main assault, handed the elements of the 15th Panzer Grenadier, was to be a straight thrust over Flamizoulle into Bastogne with the right wing guiding on the Marche highway, a distance of about four miles. For this Maucke put two battalions in line and one in reserve. The 1st Battalion, with tanks carrying some of the infantry, was to pass through Flamizoulle; the 2d Battalion, supported by the tank destroyer company, would circle Flamizoulle to the north and strike for the northern edge of Bastogne. To the left of Maucke's kampfgruppe the 77th Grenadier Regiment was ordered to attack along the secondary road running through Champs and Hemroulle into Bastogne. Here the 1st Battalion had the job of seizing Champs and opening the way while the 2d Battalion, following to the left and rear, would be prepared to leapfrog forward as Champs fell, the two making the final push into Bastogne abreast. The reconnaissance battalion of the 26th Volks Grenadier Division, south of Maucke's force, had a special mission: to attack from Senonchamps and pierce the new American position by seizing Isle-la-Hesse, a hamlet standing where the Senonchamps road fed into the Marche highway. Although nearly all the German units surrounding Bastogne had some diversionary mission during the Christmas Day assault, only the 39th Grenadier Regiment had a major attack assigned in support of the effort in the northwest, this to be an advance astride the Neufchâteau-Bastogne highway (which was never carried out).


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...