BREAKTHROUGH TOWARDS BASTOGNE I

By dawn on the morning of 17 December 1944 the Germans had advanced eight miles west from their river crossings at Dasburg and Gemünd. Small groups of Volksgrenadiers had reached the outskirts of Clervaux and were firing small arms into the town. Fuller sent tanks to relieve his now surrounded outposts, but the tanks were forced back by superior German forces with heavy losses.

At 11.30 Colonel Hurley Fuller [110th Regiment of the US 28th Infantry Division] made a call to Major General Norman Cota [CO of US 28th Infantry Division] demanding more reinforcements,

‘I need more artillery support, more tanks.’

‘I’ll send you a battery of self-propelled guns and that’s all I can spare. I’ve got two other regiments screaming for help.’

Fuller shouted down the phone again

‘And we’ve got twelve Tigers sitting on the high ground east of town, looking down our throats.’

‘Sorry Fuller, one battery is all I can give you, remember your orders hold at all costs. No retreat, nobody comes back.’

Silence fell on the conversation.

‘Do you understand, Fuller?’

‘Yes sir, nobody comes back,’ the Colonel replied.

By mid afternoon German forces had just about encircled the men in Clervaux and Panzers were beginning to enter the town from three directions.

The US 110th’s 2nd Battalion which was due to attack Marnach that morning had, at 0730, run straight into the 2nd Panzer Division coming down the road from that village. Although it battled bravely against the superior fire-power it soon succumbed to the might of the German panzers.

The attack south into Marnach by the light M5 Stuart tanks along Skyline Drive was a complete disaster. The tanks were funnelled into a narrow road and were forced to advance in column. As they exited the village of Heinerscheid German 88mm guns began to pick them off one by one. It was like a shooting gallery, within ten minutes eight tanks had been destroyed by gunfire, three more were hit by Panzerfausts. Clervaux was now in serious danger of being captured. Fuller sent a platoon of tanks from the 707th Tank Battalion up the twisting road to the east. At the top of the hill the Shermans hit head on with the German advanced guard. Three Shermans and four Mk IV Panzers were destroyed.

The Germans were taken aback and their assault was stalled momentarily. The road into Clervaux became blocked with burning tanks belonging to both sides. The village of Hosingen was still being firmly held by Company K, but this village lay astride one of the roads much needed by Kokott’s 26th VGD. There was a bottleneck beginning to build up and the German transport started to tail back. Kokott ordered that Hosingen was to be bypassed and by the afternoon the Germans had secured bridgeheads over the River Clerf in at least four places, one of which was at Drauffelt.

Ludwig Lindemann of the 26th VGD:

‘During the Ardennes Offensive our battle commander was Hauptmann Josef Raab who had been awarded the Iron Cross on the Eastern Front for his bravery in connection with the defence of the Weichselbrückenkopf [bridgehead] near Pulawi. With our sixty-five-man combat group under his command he had prevented Russian troops from breaking through. With him in command of our company we felt confident.

‘The 77th Regiment and the 39th Fusilier Regiment of the 26th Volksgrenadier Division, had taken the Americans by surprise and opened up the route to the west. After heavy resistance by the enemy in the town of Hosingen our division succeeded in surrounding the whole town. We in the 2nd Battalion had to fight for every cellar and every garden wall. At midday, 18 December 1944, the Americans surrendered and we took sixteen Officers and three hundred and sixty-five men prisoner. Seven tanks were destroyed and a lot of war material was captured. This action opened the route to Bastogne.

But what started as a military success would end in streams of blood. Today the cemeteries of that region speak loud and clear of what awaited our troops.’

Leading elements of Panzer Lehr Division, with the Reconnaissance Battalion from the 26th VGD, were already moving west towards the all-important town of Bastogne.

General Heinrich von Lüttwitz:

‘The northern bridgeheads across the Clerf and the Our rivers had been built by 2 Panzer Division. These were the bridgeheads which controlled the movement of infantry on to the Longvilly road. The two lower bridgeheads, built by the 26th Volksgrenadier Division engineers over the same streams, made possible the sweep against the lines of communication south of Bastogne and the attack against the town from that direction. The dividing line between 2 Panzer Division and Panzer Lehr Division for the attack against Bastogne was on an east to west line about halfway between Noville and Bastogne. The objective of 2 Panzer Division was the road junction at Herbaimont northwest of Bastogne near Tenneville. The mission of Panzer Lehr Division was to take Bastogne from the south. This was the initial plan contained in the original order for the Ardennes attack.’

Because of the worrying situation in the US VIII Corps sector the principal strategic reserve force of north-west Europe was to be released. This consisted of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Both divisions were in the Rheims area of France busily refitting after their recent battles in Holland during Operation MARKET GARDEN. The men were there, letting off steam and the rivalry between the two divisions was immense, it did not take much provocation to start the two sides swinging fists at each other. During the evening of 17 December they were given their orders. It was so sudden a move that the 101st AB Division was caught without its commander, Major General Maxwell D Taylor, who was attending a conference in the United States. The Assistant Divisional Commander, Brigadier General Gerald J Higgins, was also away in England attending the ‘wash-up’ of Operation MARKET GARDEN. The ‘Screaming Eagles’ as they were known, were under the command of Brigadier General Anthony C McAuliffe, the Divisional Artillery Commander.

The 82nd was on the road first, closely followed by the long truck convoys of the 101st. It had been such a rush to get the men on the move that most had neither weapons nor helmets and some were still wearing their summer uniforms fresh from being dragged back off leave. These supply problems would be remedied en-route, or at their destination.

By evening of the 17th General Lauchert’s 2nd Panzer Division had found the northern road leading into Clervaux open. A small combined team of infantry and tanks brushed aside the solitary 57mm anti-tank gun guarding the bridge at the railway station. This now left the main body of armour free to roam through the streets unhindered. At 1825 Fuller telephoned Cota to tell him German tanks were directly outside his Command Post in the hotel. With that he and some of his staff made their escape to the west. He was captured later.

In the Chateau at the southern bridge of the town 102 officers and men still held out in the strongly built fortress. These men, were a mixture of the Regimental Headquarters Company, mainly clerks and such like. These men held the bridge for most of the night until the arrival at dawn of the Panther Battalion of the 3rd Panzer Regiment. Rifle fire bounced off the huge Panther tanks as they clanked by on their way to Bastogne. Behind them infantry, supported by self-propelled 88s, battered the chateau into submission and forced the Americans to surrender.

Major General Troy Middleton at VIII Corps headquarters in Bastogne was beginning to get a picture of what was happening, obviously Bastogne would be next on the Germans’ list of objectives. He called on his only armored reserve, the Combat Command Reserve (CCR)of the 9th Armored Division. This was made up of the 52nd Armored Infantry Battalion, 2nd Tank Battalion, 9th Armored Engineers and the 73rd Armored Field Artillery Battalion. It’s commander Colonel Joseph H Gilbreth had already positioned his Combat Command in the village of Oberwampach, immediately to the rear of the threatened 28th Division’s centre, when orders came through from VIII Corps. He was told to form two road blocks on the main road leading from the east into Bastogne. This order came to him at 21.40, ten minutes after word was received that the enemy had crossed the Clerf. The two road blocks were to be on the main road (N12) one near the village of Lullange, at a junction named Antoniushof where the Clervaux road meets the north-south road from St Vith to Bastogne. The other block planned as a backup and was positioned three miles southwest near the village of Allerborn, at a junction called Fe’itsch. Hold at all costs was emphasized to them.

The forces Colonel Gilbreth had available, with the units of the Combat Command Reserve, were far from adequate when faced with the task of stopping an entire panzer division.

Gilbreth split his forces into three, to the Antoniushof road junction he sent Task Force Rose, named after it’s commander Captain L K Rose, this consisted of Company A, 2nd Tank Battalion; Company C, 52nd Armored Infantry Battalion and a platoon of 9th Armored Engineers. The roadblock at Fe’itsch, was manned by Task Force Harper (Lieutenant Colonel Ralph S Harper), which was made up of Company C and part of Company D, 2nd Tank Battalion; Company B, 52nd Armored Infantry Battalion and a platoon of Company C, 9th Armored Engineers; five hundred yards behind these last units was Headquarters Company. The third task force was TF Booth (Lieutenant-Colonel Robert M Booth). This group was made up of what was virtually left of CCR to range on the high ground north of the main highway (N12) between the two roadblocks and protect Gilbreth’s HQ and the nearby 73rd AFAB and the independent 58th AFAB. Clervaux was only about five miles due east of these positions and was already aflame.

Gilbreth set up his Headquarters in a large house across the road from the church in Longvilly. He had outposts set up around the village in the form of three light tanks, one platoon from C Company 482nd AAA (AW) (Anti Aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion) and a few half tracks, clerks, mechanics and cooks also helping in the defences.

An excerpt from the 482nd AAA (AW) official history reads:

‘Longvilly, at this time, was nothing more than another village to us but little did we know that we would never forget it. Headquarters established a C.P. in town in one of the few houses while the sections went into firing positions around the outskirts. Every round of reserve ammo was distributed to the men for an attack was imminent. Captain Lovoi visited the sections and instructed them to hold their positions at all cost. We were to hold our present positions until we could bolster our lines with elements of the 10th Armored Division which was on the way to us. There was little to do but wait for the attacking Germans and pray that the 10th Armored would arrive soon. The sections were subjected to intense artillery fire all night long and history was being written.’

In addition to CCR, Middleton had to hand some combat engineers who had been involved in such jobs as road repairs and tree felling. These engineers were told to draw weapons, something they had not had to do for some time. The 158th Engineer Combat Battalion was to form a screen in front of Bastogne and by the early morning of the 18th were digging in on a line stretching between Foy and Neffe.

The 35th Combat Engineer Battalion had been assigned as VIII Corps Headquarters guard, and so could not be released immediately for adding to the screen. Shortly after midnight CCR was in position, further to the east the 110th Infantry Regiment was still struggling to hold back the German flood.

At 0830 on 18 December, armored infantrymen on the road facing Clervaux, at the northern roadblock, spotted three German tanks with infantry rolling out of the early morning fog. These were elements of the Reconnaissance Battalion of General Lauchert’s 2nd Panzer Division. The armored infantry withdrew to their tank positions and thirty minutes later the tankers also saw the panzers nudging their way towards them. The American tankers chose their moment and then let rip, knocking out one Mk IV and crippling the other two. Only a few minutes later an entire German tank column came into view, coming straight for them from the north. The Shermans opened fire and the lead German tank stopped and turned back.

The 73rd AFAB joined in and put a concentration of shells down into the area of the 2nd Panzer Division. The Germans likewise brought up their own artillery and fired smoke to cover their movements. There was a bit of a lull, whilst the Reconnaissance Battalion felt out the strength of the American road block and awaited the arrival of their heavy Panther tanks. These arrived at about 1100 and at the same time the shelling intensified. Another smoke screen was laid by the Germans which took over an hour to lift and clear. After it did, the Panthers had moved to within 800 yards of the American line and started firing at the helpless Shermans. One flared up and started burning, another’s gun was made useless and a third in frantic manoeuvring threw a track.

But they gave as good as they got and managed to knock out three German tanks. More panzers were noticed, this time coming in from the right. Some Shermans rushed over and destroyed one, sending the others scuttling back for cover. The Germans soon realized that the weakest spot was from the north and concentrated their attack from that direction. Task Force Rose was now fighting on three sides against an overwhelming opposition. Task Force Harper was aware of what was happening to their companions up the road but were refused permission to send them aid. Middleton was in total control and would not allow it.

Lieutenant DeRoche, commander of A Company 2nd Tank Battalion, finally received instructions to pull out and attack the Germans now on the road to Bastogne behind them. Task Force Rose managed to limp away, and took up its new positions near the village of Wincrange where it set up another road block. At nightfall the Germans started firing white phosphorus shells into their positions causing the Shermans to ‘button up’. The crews could hear the panzers moving all around them, and during the night more orders were received to pull back to the vicinity of Task Force Harper. This they found impossible as the 2nd Panzer Division had control of the entire area, so what was left of Task Force Rose set off across country.

Task Force Harper consolidated their defensive positions and awaited their turn. Orders were received ‘Hold at all cost and to the last man. Help is on its way.’

Suddenly, out of the blackness of the night, the attack came – it was 2000 hours. Tigers and Panthers blasted into Harper’s positions and with the advantage of their new infra-red night-sights the German tanks ran amok. They machine-gunned the infantry and punched huge holes into the Shermans. All was complete chaos. After four hours of total hell, Harper ordered what small amount of survivors there were to pull out and fight their way back to Longvilly. Some survivors, including Harper himself, worked their way up to the town of Houffalize and tried to set up defensive positions there. It was at Houffalize on the night 18/19 that Colonel Harper, whilst dismounting from his tank, was caught in a hail of machine-gun fire and killed.

Other stragglers from both task forces escaped west to the village of Longvilly where CCR Headquarters was situated.

General Heinrich von Lüttwitz:

‘The 2nd Panzer Division was moving fast, It had met heavy resistance in Clervaux from elements of the 28th Infantry Division, but without further contact with the enemy it moved along rapidly to a point on the Longvilly road. At the road crossing immediately east of Allerborn there was a panzer fight lasting about one hour with heavy losses to American Armor. When this engagement terminated, 2nd Panzer Division again moved rapidly on to Bourcy, just east of Noville.’

The US 73rd Armoured Field Artillery Battalion was now in the vicinity of Longvilly, and was pouring shells down onto the two roadblocks. Gilbreth wondered why the Germans had not followed up with an attack on Longvilly. At that particular time General Lauchert’s 2nd Panzer Division was more concerned about its primary objective, the Meuse. He had turned his column off the main highway just under a mile outside Longvilly and was bypassing Bastogne to the north. The men in Longvilly breathed a sigh of relief, but the German move trapped Task Force Booth.

Booth had lost radio contact with his headquarters and so during the night he had decided to save his men and move across country to establish a safer position. At the front of the long column there were about eighty men in half-tracks led by Major Eugene A Watts of the 52nd Armored Infantry Battalion. They rolled through the village of Hardingny and moved left. To their front they spotted a number of German personnel carriers. At once, Watts and his men opened fire, using their personal weapons and the machine guns mounted on the halftracks. They did the enemy some serious damage and were happy with their results. Suddenly all hell broke loose at the rear of the American column, which had just got into Hardingny. It was being shelled and machine-gunned. Vehicles were blowing up everywhere and no matter which way they turned they bumped into Germans, in fact, they had collided into the main force from the 2nd Panzer Division bypassing Bastogne.

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