Panzer-Lehr From Bastogne to Rochefort

KAMPFGRUPPE 901 AT BASTOGNE

Kampfgruppe 901, consisting of Panzergrenadier-Lehr-Regiment 901, 6./ Panzer-Lehr-Regiment 130, III./ Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 130 and probably Sturmgeschützbrigade 243 was attached to the 26 th Volksgrenadier-Division for the battle of Bastogne effective 22 December 1944 to 6 January 1945. Its initial sector extended from a bridge across a stream southeast of Mont via Marvie and Remoifosse to a rural road from Salvacourt to Bastogne.

On 22 December Kampfgruppe 901 supported the 26th Volksgrenadier’s 39th Infanterie Regiment in its attack on Villeraux (Villeroux?) with an armoured group that advanced from the area south of Remoifosse to the Hazy woods. Assenois was cleared of American forces in the evening and Senonchamps captured, narrowing the ring around Bastogne. However, American forces of Patton’s 3rd Army were already exerting pressure from the south.

A reconnaissance patrol from the American 4th Armored Division of the American III Corps drove through the 5th Fallschirmjäger Divisionis screen of the westward advancing Panzer Lehr forces, setting several German vehicles on fire at an intersection three kilometres northwest of Remichampagne.

On 23 December, the 26th Volksgrenadier Division continued to attack. The attached Kampfgruppe 902 prepared for an evening assault on Marvie. During the day, American forces took Chaumont, to the south, endangering the 26th Volksgrenadier Division command post in Hompré. Generalmajor Kokott commandeered ‘four heavy tanks’, presumably Panthers of the II./ Panzer-Lehr-Regiment 130 en route from the workshop to the front, and put together a Kampfgruppe which succeeded in repulsing the American forces.

Somewhat delayed, Kampfgruppe 901’s attack northward on the Arlon–Bastogne highway took a large part of Marvie in extremely heavy fighting. The fighting continued throughout the night. The next day, both sides claimed that they were holding Marvie. In fact, the Americans still held houses in the northern fringe, the Germans the southern portion.

On 24 December Kampfgruppe 901 held the positions it had achieved, while securing the Bastogne–Arlon highway to the south with tanks, mines and other obstacles. 5th Panzerarmee informed the Generalmajor Kokott that, in addition to the 26th Volksgrenadier Division, he would have the use of the 15th Panzergrenadier-Division (which, in the event, turned out to be reduced to the use of merely one Kampfgruppe of about one-and-one half battalions of infantry and 20 tanks, the remainder being needed to help the 2nd Panzer Division at the ‘thin end’ of the wedge driving toward Dinant and the Meuse) to mount a major attack on Bastogne on 25 December.

On 25 December the action at Bastogne shifted to the northwest sector, with a major German attack between the Marche road and Champs. The attack got off to a promising start, as German tanks with infantry broke through the American lines in two locations, but the American lines closed tightly behind them, sealing off the penetration, the infantry separated from the tanks or swept from the tanks they were riding on by intense machine gun and rifle fire. All the German tanks were destroyed and the penetrating forces eliminated, with little information on their fate reaching German lines.

On 26 December, while Kampfgruppe 901 held its positions astride the Bastogne–Arlon highway, facing south, the American relief force linked up with the defenders of Bastogne. In the evening of 29 December, as command of the sector south of the Wiltz River passed to the XXXIX Panzer Korps, Kampfgruppe 901 was attached to the 167th Volksgrenadier Division. In an attempt to support a vain attack by the new Korps via Lutrebois to sever the newly opened supply route, the Panzer Lehr Panzer company was badly battered.

The American relief of Bastogne also cut the supply routes for the main body of Panzer Lehr Division 130, which had advanced toward Rochefort. Henceforth, logistical support for all German forces west of Bastogne was via a single road upon which Allied air concentrated its fury.

On 2 January the Americans attacked on a broad front in the Neffe area, entering Wardin, Neffe and Magéret, only to be forced back again by German counterattacks in a snowstorm on 3 January. Kampfgruppe 901’s sector then quieted down until, on 6 January, the Kampfgruppe, now mere remnants, a few officers, about 100 men and five Panzer IV, was ordered, after its relief, to return to its parent division. After two nights march, it rejoined Panzer Lehr Division 130 on 8 January.

THE MAIN BODY OF PANZER LEHR DIVISION 130 RESUMES THE WESTWARD MOVEMENT TOWARD THE MEUSE CROSSINGS

On 21 December the 2nd Panzer Division captured the bridge over the Ourthe River at Ortheuville. Although the 26th Volksgrenadier Division relieved Kampfgrruppe 902 near Neffe, fuel shortage allowed only the Advance Detachment (Kampfgruppe von Fallois), along with Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon 130 and Sturmgeschützbrigade 243 to resume the westward advance.

Initially following Aufklärungsabteilung 26 to Hompré, the Advance Detachment turned westward there, making contact with the enemy near Tillet and Moircy, capturing an American supply column with 60–80 lorries and, in the evening, encircling the American 58th Field Artillery Battalion near Tillet.

After supporting the defenders at Longvilly, eight self-propelled howitzers of the 58th Armored Field Artillery Battalion had withdrawn to a new position near Tillet. When the American artillery battalion was cut off by the Panzer Lehr reconnaissance battalion in the afternoon of 21 December, the drivers and gunners dug a circle of foxholes around their guns and vehicles. Thwarted in an initial attempt to breakout, as ordered, during the night, the battalion returned to its position and fought valiantly throughout the day of 21 December with their guns and from their foxholes. By the end of 22 December only one of the eight self-propelled howitzers was still in firing condition when the battalion’s commander, Colonel Paton, ordered destruction of all equipment and for the men to break out. Shielded by trees and moving in small groups through the falling snow, most of the American battalion made it back to VIII Corps lines.

On 22 December, leaving Kampfgruppe 901 behind at Bastogne, the main body of Panzer Lehr Division 130 moved out toward St. Hubert and, more distant, the Meuse River. The lead elements of Kampfgruppe 902 crossed the main Bastogne–Arlon road at noon. Overcoming light opposition, the Division made rapid progress via Morhet–Remagne–Moircy–Hatrival. Despite breaks in the clouds and clear intervals the column proceeded without attack from the air.

Fuel shortages began to interfere as the first tank ran dry west of Moircy, already having to draw on the spare gas cans carried by the wheeled Steyr troop-carriers. The hope for captured fuel in St. Hubert proved illusory.

Forced to wait for fuel to arrive, the Division made a delayed start from St. Hubert in the morning of 23 December. The Division advanced on Rochefort by two routes, the Advance Detachment (reinforced Aufklärungs-Lehr-Abteilung 130 under Major von Born-Fallois) moving via Masbourg–Fourrieres (Forrières), Kampfgruppe 902 via Grupont–Wavreilles (Wavreille). Generalleutnant Bayerlein rode with the Advance Detachment.

As early as 23 December reconnaissance patrols reported an increasing American presence on the Division’s south flank. Also, the 5th Fallschirmjäger Division, shielding to the south, was under mounting pressure as Patton’s relief force battled toward Bastogne and, at the same time, ruptured Panzer Lehr Division 130’s supply lines. The relief force linked up with the Bastogne defenders on 26 December.

By nightfall the leading company reached the hills south of Rochefort. Patrols sent to Rochefort reported that the town was undefended. Apparently the patrols did not enter the town.

The report was incorrect. The first of the divisions being assembled for the American General ‘Lightning Joe’ Collins’ VII Corps, which was to attack the flank of the advancing German forces from the north, was the American 84th Infantry Division, whose leading elements arrived in Marche two hours before midnight in the night of 20/21 December. The main body of the division was still coming out of the line near Geilenkirchen and would arrive within the next 24 hours.

One of the ubiquitous small forces of American engineers that so often played crucial local roles in the Ardennes battle delayed the 2nd Panzer Division in its capture intact of the Bailey Bridge over the Ourthe River at Ortheuville. Capture of the bridge was not followed by a renewed advance, however, for the 2nd Panzer Division then had to wait for fuel to arrive. Its tanks had run dry. This delay on 21 and 22 December allowed the American 84th Infantry Division to reach Marche. A small detachment of the American 51st Engineer Combat Battalion manned a small roadblock at a crossroads just three miles from the Ortheuville bridge named Barrière de Champlon. During the extra time provided by the delay they felled trees to strengthen the block and blew a large crater in the road.

When enough fuel had arrived to enable the 2nd Panzer Division’s Aufklärungsabteilung to resume its advance by nightfall of 22 December, the light tanks and armored cars of the reconnaissance battalion bypassed the roadblock using trails through the woods. However, when the main body of the 2nd Panzer Division finally got moving on 23 December its heavier vehicles had to wait an additional four hours while pioneers constructed a bypass around the crater.

Upon arriving in Marche, where he set up his headquarters in the late afternoon of 21 December, the commander of the 84th Infantry Division, General Bolling, learned that elements of the German 116th Panzer Division had already attacked the bridge over the Ourthe River at Hotton. By midnight of 21/22 December General Bolling had the entire 84th Infantry Division and attached 771st Tank Battalion assembled and deploying along a line of defense.

Realizing that his division’s assembly position was endangered by the German advance he immediately committed his 334th Infantry Regiment in front of the Hotton–Marche highway, with the 335th defending in front of the town of Marche, its line refused to protect the division’s open southern flank. Colonel Fraser, commanding the 51st Engineers Combat Battalion, requested aid from the 84th Infantry Division for his detachment that was defending the Hotton bridge. However, when the troops that Bolling sent from his 334th Infantry Regiment arrived at the Hotton bridge, they found that the detachment of the 51st Engineers Combat Battalion that had been guarding that bridge, aided by a few men of the arriving 3rd Armored Division, had halted the enemy and saved the bridge in a praiseworthy feat of arms.

Marche was as critical a transportation hub as Bastogne, astride two important paved highways, the main road north to Liège and the main road, N 4, to the Meuse crossing at Namur with an offshoot to Dinant. General von Manteuffel needed Highway N 4 as a first-class highway leading through easy tank-country directly to the Meuse at Namur for his 5th Panzerarmee’s advance. The 2nd Panzer Division was advancing toward Marche. Panzer Lehr Division 130 was advancing via lesser roads that converged via Rochefort, seven miles southwest of Marche, on Namur from southeast of Highway N 4. Rochefort was on the Liège–Sedan highway. Secondary hard-surface roads led west, north and southwest from Rochefort, offering another, though less favorable, route to the Dinant crossing of the Meuse by way of Ciergnon and Celles.

At noon on 22 December an order arrived from the American XVIII Airborne Corps, (General Collins’ VII Corps had not yet assumed command) instructing General Bolling to block all roads east, southeast and south of Rochefort until the American 3rd Armored Division could extend its flank to that area.

The 2nd Panzer Division’s delay allowed General Bolling to send a rifle company to Rochefort, followed later by a motorized infantry battalion, the 335th Infantry Regiment’s 3rd Battalion (minus two companies, one left in Hargimont, where it had run into German forces en route to Rochefort, and another sent on past Rochefort to scout villages further south)), and for a task force of the American 3rd Armored Division’s Combat Command A to arrive, strengthening General Bolling’s force.

During the day of 22 December General Collins and some of the corps troops of the VII Corps arrived in the new corps area southwest of Liège.

As Kampfgruppe 902 approached Rochefort, the 335th Infantry Regiment’s 3rd Battalion had, in addition two platoons of 57 mm antitank guns from the regimental anti-tank company, a platoon of the 309th Engineer Combat Battalion, a platoon of the 638th Tank Destroyer Battalion and a platoon of the 29th Infantry Regiment that had been defending the cable-communications repeater station at nearby Jemelles.

Based on the erroneous report that Rochefort was undefended, Bayerlein, who was personally supervising Panzer Lehr’s attack, allowed the Kampfgruppe to approach Rochefort through a defile between two commanding hills, without first securing the hills.

Heavy fire halted the attack at its onset. Generalleutnant Bayerlein immediately ordered a withdrawal, sent a platoon of tanks around behind the town to cut it off and prepared his forces for a deliberate midnight assault.

Rochefort was large enough so that the American force could not prevent the Germans from entering it. After a night of house-to-house fighting, the American forces were ordered to withdraw, having achieved the desired delay. The closely-engaged men of the battalion had difficulty disengaging, but most succeeded eventually in making their way back to Marche by circuitous routes.

After taking Rochefort, there was nothing left between Panzer Lehr Division 130 and the Meuse but another battalion of the 84th Infantry Division, which was ordered to withdraw from its position in the valley of the Lesse River during the night. However, while sending reconnaissance patrols to check out the Lesse River valley, Generalleutnant Bayerlein chose to delay again in Rochefort to give his exhausted troops a chance to rest and enjoy the special rations that had arrived for Christmas.

On 23 December skies cleared over the Ardennes and Allies air joined the battle in full force, flying over 7,000 sorties in the next four days.

General von Lüttwitz and General von Manteuffel met on the night of 23 December and agreed that the Americans now held Marche in strength, eliminating Highway N 4 as a feasible route to the Meuse at Namur. Since the 2nd Panzer Division had already bypassed Marche to the south, and Panzer Lehr Division 130 could now reach the valley of the Lesse River via Rochefort, the 5th Panzer Armee would now have to use that less favourable route from Rochefort to the Meuse at Dinant, a distance of only 14 miles.

However, the two Panzer divisions were now at the thin end of a long wedge with both flanks seriously exposed to the gathering American forces. Both divisions had already started shedding elements as they advanced to cover their flanks. German hopes rested on the possible arrival of the 9th Panzer Division sometime in the next day or two, as well as some part of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, which had already been, in part, committed at Bastogne. If the 116th Panzer Division succeeded in cutting and crossing the Marche–Hotton highway east of Marche and then Highway N 4, that would also prevent the Americans from concentrating their forces against the German spearhead. In the event, hard fighting and massive artillery support thwarted the German attempt to cross the Hotton–Marche highway and, in so doing, also scuttled the attempt to cover the vulnerable north flank of the 2nd Panzer Division.

Henceforth, Panzer Lehr’s actions can only be understood in relation to those of the 2nd Panzer Division as the Division’s drive to the Meuse was transformed into a last-ditch effort to save the cut-off elements of its desperate partner in the XLVII Panzer Korps.

The reconnaissance Abteilung and the leading Kampfgruppe of the 2nd Panzer Division, consisting of one Abteilung of the division’s 3rd Panzer Regiment with about 40 Panther tanks, 25 self-propelled guns–most of the division’s artillery–and Panzergrenadiers of the division’s 304th Infanterie Regiment in half-tracked SPW’s, bypassed Marche to the south and advanced through Humaine and Buissonville westward toward Dinant on the Meuse. The remainder of the 2nd Panzer Division was stretched all to way back to south of Marche with the dual missions of continuing the westward advance and of protecting XLVII Panzer Korps northern flank. Leading elements of the Aufklärungsabteilung reached Celles, only six miles from Dinant and the Meuse crossing, before daylight on 24 December.

At just about that time Combat Command B of the powerful American 2nd Armored Division began to arrive in Ciney, about six miles northeast of Celles. In the meanwhile, one of the two task forces of the 2nd Armored Division’s Combat Command A, under orders to reach Rochefort, passed through Buissonville after the passage of the 2nd Panzer Division force, the remainder of CCA joining its advance on parallel roads. A long German column approaching Buissonville was shot to pieces.

Nearby the 24th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron of the 4th Cavalry Group moved into Humain. With Buissonville and Humain in American hands, the 2nd Panzer Division route of advance was blocked, the Aufklärungsabteilung and leading Kampfgruppe cut off. The only route left for the German advance was the highway through Rochefort up the valley of the Lesse River, the road in front of the Panzer Lehr Division.

In the meanwhile, the 2nd Panzer Division Aufklärungsabteilung resumed its advance. The Kampfgruppe following it, however, was forced to halt in the village of Conjoux, two miles back from Celles and wait for fuel, its tanks almost dry.

After losing one tank to a mine at Celles, the German reconnaissance battalion then ran into five British Sherman tanks of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, which was defending the west bank of the Meuse at Dinant. Losing two vehicles to British fire and running out of petrol, the reconnaissance battalion went for cover among the houses of the nearby village of Foy-Notre Dame, only three miles from the Meuse. A single German tank, knocked out in the garden of the curé of the village of Foy-Notre Dame, marked the western limit of the German armoured advance. That was the closest any significant German force got to the Meuse crossings. General Model ordered the men of the Aufklärungsabteilung to leave their immobilized vehicles and continue to the Meuse on foot. That order was ignored.

At this point the main body of the German 2nd Panzer Division was blocked in its advance, its Aufklärungsabteilung and leading Kampfgruppe separated and cut off by strong American forces. Also, good flying weather exposed the 2nd Panzer Division, especially its leading elements that had been cut off and its supply columns, to savage and relentless aerial attack.

General Ernest Harmon, commanding the American 2nd Armored Division requested permission to attack the vulnerable German 2nd Panzer Division.

Field Marshal Montgomery was concerned about a possible major German attack. He felt that the enemy had the forces for another major breakout. Accordingly, in the afternoon of 24 December, he released General Collins from his mission to attack and authorized him to withdraw his forces, if necessary, to a line from Hotton northwest to the Meuse River at Andenne, twelve miles downstream (north) of the bend at Namur. General Collins, however, was only ‘authorized’, not ordered, to withdraw his forces. He also had been given unrestricted use of all his divisions. Having secured written orders to cover himself against recriminations, he gave General Harmon the go-ahead to attack.

The Germans were not yet aware of the arrival of the American 2nd Armored Division. Still hoping to attain the goal of the Meuse River, early on Christmas Day General von Lüttwitz, commanding the XLVII Panzer Korps ordered Panzer Lehr Division 130 to recapture Humain and Buissonville, reopening the 2nd Panzer Divisions’s line of communications and best route to the Meuse while the main body of the 2nd Panzer Division forced its way through to its cut-off elements.

All this was part of a larger plan to revive the offensive toward the Meuse. The 6th Panzer Armee was to rapidly advance its II SS-Panzer Korps to take over the fighting east of the Ourthe River on the right. The 116th Panzer Division of 5th Panzer Armee’s LVIII Panzer Korps was, after taking Vendenne and Marche, to move north to take Baillonville and then wheel left, advancing through Pessoux to Ciney, covering the 2nd Panzer Division’s right flank and giving breadth to the drive on the Meuse. The 9th Panzer Division was, on its arrival, to move in on Panzer Lehr’s right. In the event, none of the elements of this plan materialized.

On 25 December the American 2nd Armored Division launched its attack on the German 2nd Panzer Division, a two-pronged envelopment to destroy the German forces believed to be in the Celles area. The day was clear and the attack received some of the best tactical air support ever seen in the war. The 2nd Armored Division’s Combat Command B constituted two task forces that attacked southwest from Ciney, converging on Celles where they enveloped Kampfgruppe von Cochenhausen (reinforced Panzergrenadier-Regiment 304). By day’s end there was little left of the Kampfgruppe. At the same time the 2nd Armored Division’s 82nd Reconnaissance Battalion, supported to its right by the British 29th Tank Brigade, attacked Kampfgruppe von Böhm, (the Aufklärungsabteilung and part of the division’s artillery), destroying it with the help of close air support. Farther east, the 2nd Armored Division’s Combat Command A advanced south, cutting the 2nd Panzer Division axis of advance near Buissonville and Humain.

As ordered, Kampfgruppe 902 (von Poschinger) set out at midnight of 25/26 December for Humain, the Advance Detachment (Kampfgruppe von Fallois) for Buissonville. Kampfgruppe 902 drove the American 24th Cavalry Squadron out of Humain, but the Advance Detachment ran into the American 2nd Armored Division’s CCA which stopped it cold before Buissonville. Highway N 4 remained blocked, the 2nd Panzer Division Aufklärungsabteilung and forward regimental Kampfgruppe cut off from each other and from outside aid as they were annihilated by the American 2nd Armored Division and Allied air forces.

During the night of 25/26 December Panzeraufklärungs-Lehr-Abteilung 130 (Advance Detachment) was relieved in Humain by a Kampfgruppe from the 9th Panzer Division and returned to the Division at Rochefort.

On 26 December further German attempts by the 9th Panzer Division Kampfgruppe and by the remainder of the 2nd Panzer Division to break through to the cut-off elements of the 2nd Panzer Division failed. When the cut-off elements, bereft of fuel, finally received belated permission to withdraw, abandoning all their equipment, about 600 men made it back the following night to their own lines in Rochefort.

That marked the end of the German advance. The defunct Panther in the garden of the curé in Foy–Notre Dame was the western-most German tank, the last flotsam cast up at the high-water mark. Charles B. MacDonald put it very well when he said (A Time for Trumpets), ‘…the Germans in front of the Meuse on Christmas Day and the next day suffered ‘one of the most serious things that can possibly happen to one in battle’–as Tweedledee explained to Alice–getting one’s head cut off.’ Hitler still refused to admit that his forces could not reach the Meuse, but he placed immediate priority on the elimination of Bastogne. General von Manteuffel tacitly shifted his emphasis from continuing the drive for the Meuse to capturing Bastogne. Suddenly Panzer Lehr Division 130 and the truncated 2nd Panzer Division were out of the limelight. The 2nd Panzer Division was pulled back through Rochefort. Panzer Lehr Division 130 was shifted southeast to Remagne, five miles northwest of the Neufchâteau–Bastogne Highway where, no longer strong enough to attack, it would stubbornly hold a sector of the front while others struck the left flank of the corridor linking Bastogne with Patton’s Third Army to the south.

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