BREAKTHROUGH TOWARDS BASTOGNE III

During the 18/19 December, General Lüttwitz had expected word at anytime to say that Bastogne had fallen, but none was forthcoming. The Americans had pipped the Germans to the post, although it was a close run race. For now reinforcements were arriving in the shape of the 101st Airborne Division.

The Airborne Division had en-trucked and made the journey south in good time. The drive was mostly in darkness, in pouring rain and brief snow flurries. After a bit of a mix up the 82nd Airborne were sent to Werbomont to shore-up the northern sector, and the 101st carried on to Bastogne. The 107 miles trip was made in eight hours and the leading column arrived in its assembly area around Mande St Etienne just west of Bastogne by midnight. By 0900 on 19 December, all four regiments of the 101st had arrived and General McAuliffe started his preparations.

The division consisted of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) (Lieutenant Colonel Julian J Ewell), the 506th PIR (Colonel Robert F Sink), 502nd PIR (Lieutenant Colonel Steve A Chappuis) and the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment (GIR) (Colonel Joseph H Harper), attached to the 327th was the 1st Battalion 401st GIR.

Also arriving in Bastogne at about the same time was the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, sent down from the Ninth Army up north. This battalion was equipped with M18 Hellcats armed with the new 76mm long barrelled gun, which put it on equal terms with the German Tigers with their 88mm guns. The 755th Field Artillery Battalion with its 155mm howitzers had received orders to leave its original position and head for Bastogne. By chance the 969th FAB had been supporting the 28th Division with its medium howitzers when it found itself within the Bastogne perimeter. The field artillery battalions were sent south-west, to the Villeroux and Senonchamps area. The 420th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, CCB 10th Armored Division was already in place. From these positions all the FABs would be able to lay down fire anywhere in the area when required.

Floyd Foster, serving with the 420th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 10th Armored Division recalls:

‘The 10th Armored Division withdrew from the front in the Saar River area, and proceeded northward as fast as possible to shore up the defences of the First Army north of Luxembourg City in Belgium, and the sector in Luxembourg itself. Having travelled all night, CCB arrived in Bastogne on the 18th. The 420th AFA Bn, had loaded up on gasoline and ammunition at Luxembourg City, with all we could carry with us… and left our supply trains there, to get additional big shells for our M-7’s [105mm Howitzers on an open tank chassis] and more gasoline and small arms ammo. They were to rejoin us as soon as possible.’

By 20 December, the 420th AFA Bn had positioned itself west of Bastogne proper, with the fire direction post and battalion headquarters set up at Senonchamps, (approximately three kilometres west on the Marche road). From this position we proceeded to support our three teams of 10th Armored tanks and infantry… Team O’ara (south of Wardin, on the Wiltz road – south-east)…Team Cherry (At Longvilly to the east)…and Team Desobry (north at Noville). Our 105s had a range of approximately seven miles (12,300 yards) and we were able to complete fire missions for all the teams from our location.’

Within two hours of its arrival the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion had all its elements occupying defensive positions along the line.

Lieutenant Wayne E. Tennant (705th TD Battalion):

‘The 705th TD Bn arrived in the Bastogne area on the 18 December 1944, with orders to report to the 101st Airborne Division. I was a Company Commander of Company C and my orders were to report to and support a 101st Airborne Infantry unit in a grove of trees [On the road to Foy] about three miles north of Bastogne. I left my Headquarters platoon and one platoon of tank destroyers in Bastogne and took two platoons of tank destroyers (eight TDs) with me. I found the grove of trees in the dark, near midnight, kept one platoon there with me and sent the other platoon on into Foy. The next morning just as it was nearing daylight we started receiving heavy fire. We also started receiving casualties, and I was one of them’.

Middleton, who we have already seen had his headquarters in the old army barracks in Bastogne, was advised to shift his command southwest to the town of Neufchateau. This he did, but he remained in order to brief McAuliffe on the disposition of his make-shift defence.

The 1st Battalion of the 501st were to set out immediately to reinforce CCR and Task Force Cherry. McAuliffe told the commander, Colonel Ewell:

‘Move out along this road to the east at 1800, make contact with the enemy, attack and clear up the situation.’

The 1st Battalion got no further than the village of Neffe. However, it was able to help Cherry and his staff escape the inferno of his command post at the chateau. In a classic three battalion attack the paratroopers pushed elements of the Panzer Lehr out of Bizory to the north of Mageret and held firm.

Colonel Roberts of the 10th Armored Division had put his arm around the young 26 year old Major Desobry in a fatherly gesture and told him,

‘By tomorrow morning you’ll probably be nervous. Then you’ll probably want to pull out. When you begin thinking like that, remember I told you NOT to pull out.’

Desobry spent a sleepless night in the village of Noville; with the morning came erratic attacks from German tanks. It was difficult to see anything, as the early morning fog was thickest in this particular area. At about mid morning the pea soup fog suddenly lifted. The American defenders were amazed to see the whole area crawling with German armour. The 2nd Panzer Division, on its way north-west towards the Meuse, had hit Noville. Desobry’s tank gunners started firing with everything they had. The enemy had been caught by surprise and their vehicles made excellent targets. To the north could be seen fourteen German tanks racing in column along a high ridge. It was like a shooting gallery, the small force of tank destroyers with their 90mm guns picked off ten of them in quick succession.

It was not long before ammunition was running short so Desobry radioed Colonel Roberts at CCB Headquarters to ask permission to pull back a couple of miles to regroup. Roberts replied, ‘You can use your own judgement about withdrawing. But I’m sending a battalion of paratroopers to reinforce you.’

‘I’ll get ready to counterattack,’ replied Desobry.

It was just the sort of thing that headquarters in Bastogne wanted to hear.

Team O’Hara, situated to the southeast of Wardin, had seen very little action, so far things had been quiet in the sector when elsewhere the sound of battle kept flaring up. This was worrying O’Hara – was something unpleasant gathering in the fog which shrouded the area? He called one of his officers over, Lieutenant John Drew Devereaux, and told him to take a Jeep and patrol north to the village of Wardin. All was quiet there, so Devereaux, with his two companion, drove on eastwards. The fog began lifting and visibility started to improve all round. Suddenly they spotted, in the near distance, German half-tracks heading their way. Lieutenant Devereaux was at the wheel and responding to the involuntary cry of ‘Krauts!’ he spun the Jeep around and, flattening the accelerator to the floor, raced back to report to O’Hara.

They had bumped into a reconnaissance patrol belonging to Panzer Lehr. At that precise moment a large part of Bayerlein’s armour was heading northeast to eradicate, what he considered to be, the peril behind him. He still thought that there was a large American presence at Longvilly.

That same day in Verdun, Eisenhower chaired a conference. The air of which was one of gloom and doom. He began the proceedings by saying,

‘The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster. There will only be cheerful faces at this conference table.’

General Patton was the first to reply. In his normal flamboyant way he blurted out.

‘Let’s have the guts to let the sons of bitches go all the way to Paris. Then we’ll really cut ‘em off and chew ‘em up.’

Immediately the atmosphere changed; a light-hearted mood descended over the conference. Eisenhower stated that the German attack must not go further than the River Meuse, and Patton he told to make an attack north to help relieve the présure on the struggling US First Army.

‘I want you to go to Luxembourg and take charge. When can you start up there.’

‘Now,!’ answered Patton.

‘You mean today.’ said Eisenhower. ‘I mean as soon as you’ve finished with us here.’ replied Patton.

Everybody at the table thought Patton was doing his usual thing, of boasting and Eisenhower got annoyed. Patton stood up, lit a cigar and pointed to the bulge on the operations map.

‘This time the Kraut has stuck his head in a meat grinder. And this time I’ve got hold of the handle.’

‘All right, George,’ said Eisenhower. ‘Start your attack no earlier than the twenty-second and no later than the twentythird.’

With the meeting finished Patton telephoned his headquarters in Nancy, and told them of his plan. Within a few minutes of the receiver being replaced Patton’s Third Army started to wheel the ninety degrees necessary to get them on the new track heading north.

Meanwhile at Bastogne, men were streaming in from all kinds of dissimilar units. The fleeing stragglers were immediately fed, for most had not slept or eaten for two days, before being rearmed and introduced into the defensive ring around the town.

At Noville the 1st Battalion of Colonel Robert F Sink’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment arrived to aid Team Desobry. The paratroopers commanded by Colonel La Prade linked up with the tanks and La Prade took charge. Within minutes the command post was hit by an artillery shell and La Prade lay dead and Desobry was evacuated badly wounded. The paratroopers, now under command of Major Harwick, had battled against a battalion-size force and along with Team Desobry, now renamed Team Hustead, dug in.

All night the men endured heavy shelling which steadily demolished the village. At dawn two German tanks came crashing into the village, both were destroyed, one by a bazooka, the other by a shell from a Sherman. This was just the start, for by mid-morning the 2nd Panzer Division was throwing everything at Noville and American casualties were mounting by the minute.

At midday, orders were received to fall back on the village of Foy. Men were crowded onto the surviving five Shermans and into the remaining half-tracks and, under cover of a now descending fog, headed south. Just outside Foy the lead halftrack stopped. Due to the poor visibility the second half-track in the line ran into the back of the stationary vehicle, effectively blocking the road. At the same time some Germans, who had infiltrated behind the village of Noville, began firing at the stalled convoy. A concentrated fusillade of machine gun and rifle fire put paid to the intruders. Shortly after the column got going it was fired on again, this time by a group of German tanks. Two Shermans were hit, one broke down, and another one got away but was destroyed as it reached Foy. The remaining Sherman was driverless after he had climbed down from his tank to try and sort out the traffic jam and was hit. No other driver could be found, so a group of paratroopers got in it and managed to lead what was left of the defenders of Noville, back to the relative safety of Foy.

General Heinrich von Lüttwitz:

The orders called for 2nd Panzer Division to take Noville under any circumstances, as fast as possible, and it was the troops of that division which carried the attack throughout. The attacks of the two divisions had not been coordinated. Although each division was supposed to proceed within its divisional zone and the faster it moved the better, they were in radio communication at all times, and each division knew what the other was doing. In this phase of the attack they could not change the plan. Before they attacked it was pretty clear that Bastogne would be difficult to take. On 12 December 1944, the Corps Commander issued this order to his division, “Bastogne must be taken eventually from the rear. If it is not taken, it will always remain an ulcer on our lines of communication, and for this reason it will contain too many forces. Therefore, first clear out the whole of Bastogne and then march on.” The northernmost infantry regiment of 26 Volks Gren Div had orders after going through Longvilly to proceed through Toy toward Longchamps, and it was elements of this division engaged in this movement which got into 506 PIR rear at Foy and threatened to split 506 and 501 PIR.’

[This was the force that made the split by attacking down the railway towards Bastogne 21 December.] The commander of the 2nd Panzer Division radioed headquarters for permission to attack south towards Bastogne, but was abruptly told to keep going for the Meuse and forget Bastogne. The task of subduing the town would be for the Panzer Lehr and 26th VGD. The Germans by this time were flowing north and south of Bastogne, clearly probing to find a weak spot in the now forming perimeter defence. They desperately needed to capture Bastogne.

By 20 December, McAuliffe had all his reinforcements in and around Bastogne. To the east, still holding, was Team Cherry along with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment; to the northeast at Foy was the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment; the northern perimeter was being held by the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR). Finally, the southern area was being covered by the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment (GIR). Scattered amongst these regiments was aid in the form of Robert’s CCB 10th Armored Division and the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion. The artillery was well within the comparative safety of the perimeter and could lay a barage down anywhere around it when called upon to do so.

The line was tested twice that day. Elements of Panzer Lehr attacked from the southeast, hitting Team O’Hara, manning a road block near the village of Marvie. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers crashed through the block and entered the village itself. Glider troops from Colonel Harper’s 327 GIR were rushed over to give aid to the hard-pressed tankers and house to house fighting ensued. After about two hours the Germans had been routed and Marvie was firmly in American hands once again.

Meanwhile, German infantry supported by tanks and selfpropelled artillery, hit the left-hand side of Ewell’s 501st PIR near the village of Bizory. After a hard fight and minus several tanks hit by anti-tank fire from the American lines the Germans sought cover. It was now that the artillery was called on for the first time. A twenty-minute concentration landed on the hapless Germans killing and wounding many.

Although the Volksgrenadiers lost many men they continued their attack that evening. After an artillery barrage, panzers and infantry attacked through Neffe towards Bastogne. The American artillery opened up once more creating a wall of fire. Infantry that succeeded in surviving this were promptly cut down by machine-gun fire from Ewell’s 1st Battalion. In unison with this attack another regiment of Volksgrenadiers attacked Ewell’s southern or right-hand line. As darkness fell the American infantry could hear the Germans moving about, and laid down fire in their direction. Screams and yells could be heard as bullets found targets. Next morning’s light revealed the grim sight of rows of dead Germans hanging on barbed wire. In the darkness the Germans had got themselves entangled amongst some farmers’ wire fences which crossed the fields in front of the American positions.

With a lull in the fighting on 20 December, McAuliffe decided to go to Neufchateau and see Middleton; he wanted to reassess the situation. McAuliffe told the Corps commander that he could hold out for perhaps another two days. Middleton was pleased and said:

‘Good luck Tony, Now don’t get yourself surrounded.’

McAuliffe returned in his jeep to Bastogne, no sooner had he entered the safety of the perimeter than the Germans moving north and south of the town cut the Neufchateau road, effectively encircling the town.

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