5.Panzerarmee I

Hasso-Eccard, Freiherr (Baron) von Manteuffel (1897–1978) was short, wiry and full of explosive energy. Like George S. Patton, the Baron was an Olympics-level pentathlete (Patton competed at Stockholm in 1912, Manteuffel at the 1936 Berlin Olympics). Despite the striking difference in their backgrounds, Hitler, who generally loathed aristocrats, was greatly impressed by Manteuffel and promoted him straight from a division to command of the Fifth Army on 1 September 1944. Manteuffel’s troops achieved the greatest penetrations in the Bulge and had Hitler given him a fraction of the resources allocated to Dietrich’s Waffen-SS, the Fifth Army would have undoubtedly reached the Meuse

Given the crushing weight of air power which had undermined German morale in Normandy, how did the three attacking armies manage to move all the troops, tanks, horses, artillery and supplies they required for Herbstnebel? As we have seen from the relevant Ultra decrypts, despite attempts by the Allied bomber fleets, German railways continued to function until the very end of the war. This was because the Fatherland had always put an excessive reliance on its railway infrastructure, the largest in Europe. In the nineteenth century, all main lines had been built with strategy in mind, and ran east–west with plenty of spare capacity, the Army General Staff having a special railway department dealing with this important state asset.

Deutsche Reichsbahn was the largest single public enterprise in the world at the time of its nationalisation in 1937, when its 660,000 employees ran 24,000 locomotives and 20,000 stations, with 40,000 miles of track. It took over the Austrian system in 1938, that of Czechoslovakia in 1939 (who made first-class rolling stock and engines), and during the war the militarised state railway operated a staggering total of 50,000 locomotives and at least three million freight cars, more than double that of the United States. This included those absorbed from conquered nations, but they also manufactured another 15,000 engines and 245,000 wagons to keep pace with losses.

By June 1944, 1.6 million people, including 200,000 women, worked for the German-run railway system across Europe, despatching 29,000 military trains per day and loading up to a million wagons per week, carrying everything from casualties, reinforcements, horses and prisoners, to munitions, supplies, even entire panzer divisions. Trains had advantages over road transport; they could operate at night and could travel further: German staff calculations worked on the basis of a troop train covering 500 miles per day. Furthermore, they used coal (and occasionally wood), which the Reich possessed in abundance, rather than gasoline that trucks required, which was in critically short supply.

Although stations and marshalling yards were hammered by air attacks each night, the individual lines were difficult to hit. There were spare lengths of rail and wooden sleepers alongside most lines and roving rail repair crews who could, within a few hours, make good the damage wrought by the previous night’s bombing. As sabotage was only an issue in occupied countries, not within the Reich, the destruction caused by Allied bombing was a pinprick compared to the railway resources at the disposal of the Fatherland.2 Thus, the sight of an eagle and swastika-adorned locomotive belching smoke, pulling an endless line of flat car after flat car, each bearing a tank or truck under camouflage netting with a bored soldier scanning the skies for hostile aircraft, was considered neither remarkable nor unusual in early December 1944. It was what the Reichsbahn had been doing for the Wehrmacht ever since September 1939, and for the armies of several Kaisers before that.

If Germany’s expectations of a final victory relied on her railways then Hitler’s hopes for victory in the Ardennes rested firmly on the shoulders of his two panzer armies, the veteran Fifth and the brand-new Sixth. In his own mind he was confident, of course, that the Allies would be unable to react quickly or forcefully until after his armoured forces had reached and crossed the Meuse. Certain that the US Army would initially crumble in the face of adversity, he also anticipated Eisenhower would mount some form of counter-attack against its western bank. Even the sceptical Model, along with many of his subordinate commanders, was of the opinion that German forces could probably get as far as the Meuse before the American reacted in a coordinated way – though all, with the exception of Hitler, seem to have reasoned that any progress beyond that river was unlikely. Yet, as we have seen, under no circumstances was the Führer prepared to switch to a less ambitious goal, or reduce his striking force at the expense of defending his flanks. The meagre allocation of an assault gun brigade to Brandenberger’s Seventh Army was about the only compromise he agreed, expressed in his blind refusal to alter his plans in any way from conception to execution.

Encouraged by Himmler, the Führer pinned his personal hopes on Dietrich’s Waffen-SS in the Sixth Army triumphing over the Americans in the Ardennes. In fact it would be Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer who did best of all. We have already met its diminutive boss, the forty-seven-year-old General Hasso-Eccard Freiherr von Manteuffel, who in so many ways represented the traditional aristocratic Prussian officer that Hitler loathed. It is a mark of his ability that he succeeded in the Third Reich when the odds were stacked heavily against him. Everything about Manteuffel’s background put him at odds with Hitler: born in Potsdam, scion of a Junker family that traced its origins to 1287 (his great-uncle had been a Prussian field marshal); student at the Royal Prussian Cadet School (then considered an academy for the elite); young officer in the famous Zieten Hussars, a regiment that dated back to 1730, founded in the days of Frederick the Great; Olympic pentathlon champion at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and expert horseman. Reputed to be the shortest officer in the German army, he was extremely tough, wiry, resourceful and athletic. He was the sort of individual one would encounter leading a Special Forces unit today.

Corporal Hitler by contrast, the outsider, technically an Austrian by birth, rose from an uncertain poverty-stricken environment, collected fellow outsiders from equally low backgrounds around him, and was more at home in the beer halls of Munich and Nuremberg than fashionable Berlin; yet somehow he and Manteuffel forged a workable Faustian pact. Perhaps Hitler had heard of his legendary physical courage and habit of leading from the front, which brought him wounds as well as medals, on occasion refusing to leave his command post to receive medical treatment; the Führer always admired such examples of sacrifice for the Fatherland.

As Leutnant Freiherr von Manteuffel of the Reichswehr, the future general published a treatise on mounted infantry in 1922 and later taught at the new Wunsdorf Panzer training school under the eye of Guderian from 1935, who tutored this enthusiastic convert to tank warfare. Invading Russia in 1941 as a battalion commander, he swiftly took over a regiment after its colonel had been killed and was rewarded with a division in Tunisia in 1943. The baron soon moved on to command the elite GrossDeutschland Panzergrenadiers, a unit of hand-picked warriors of generally tall stature. Manteuffel was easily the shortest man in the division. No matter: by this time he had been awarded a Knight’s Cross and Oak Leaves, which is what brought him to Hitler’s attention. Promotion straight to command of an army – the Fifth Panzer – followed on 1 September 1944. He took up his appointment on the 12th, and gathering a carefully selected staff around him, who were personally devoted to their little general, he led the Fifth in the Lorraine campaign and struggle for Aachen. Far more than the Seventh’s Brandenberger or Dietrich of the Sixth, he stamped his personality on his army and their battle plans and tactics.

Manteuffel had found himself in violent if respectful disagreement with the original plans handed to him by Jodl back in November. In defiance of his orders, he had made a personal reconnaissance of his future battle terrain, disguising himself as a Wehrmacht colonel and visiting front-line units which regularly patrolled into American territory. What they revealed amazed him: the American outposts manned their foxholes from an hour before dawn, but retired to warm buildings after dark: at night their positions were unmanned! At the last planning conference held with Hitler in the Berlin Reichskanzlei on 2 December, Manteuffel, in the presence of Model and Sepp Dietrich, wrung from his Führer several tactical alterations, which greatly assisted the initial hours of his assault. This was the last occasion when those present tried to dissuade Hitler from his ‘Big Solution’ in favour of the more practical ‘Small Solution’ of encircling the Americans around Aachen. Though Hitler refused to yield on the major part of his plan, perhaps the concessions granted to Manteuffel were a form of compensation for one of his favourite generals. Reflecting Hitler’s fire, from his headquarters in Manderscheid, north-east of Bitburg, the baron demanded of his commanders that consideration be given only to the advance; the flanks would have to look after themselves, and above all, the pace must not slacken.

He had been uneasy with Hitler’s idea of an opening barrage, beginning at 07.30 a.m., prior to the attack going in at 11.00 a.m. On 2 December, Manteuffel argued wisely that ‘all this will do is wake the Americans and they will then have three and a half hours to organise their counter-measures before our assault comes … After 4:00 pm it will be dark. So you will have only five hours, after the assault at 11:00 am, in which to achieve the break-through.’ It would also use up huge quantities of ammunition, already in short supply. Eventually Hitler conceded a ninety-minute cannonade, starting much earlier, at 05.30 a.m. when the Americans would be groggy. Manteuffel also asked permission to throw small storm detachments forward, at the same hour, under cover of their own fire, to infiltrate their opponents’ positions, as the Germans had done in 1917–18, and which both sides did routinely in the east; a good ploy, but it would only be used by Fifth Army. The use of searchlights, bouncing light off the clouds was his idea too.

This bizarre circumstance, that an army commander had to seek permission from his head of state to make such tactical alterations to an operation plan, sums up the impracticality of Hitler’s constant interference, down to deciding the hour of attack. He was poorly advised, too, for Manteuffel observed that ‘Keitel, Jodl and Warlimont [Jodl’s deputy] had never been in the war. At the same time their lack of fighting experience tended to make them underrate the practical difficulties, and encourage Hitler to believe that things could be done that were quite impossible.’ The Führer intervened because he could, so he did.

Speaking to the British historian Basil Liddell Hart within a year of the events, in 1945, Manteuffel was highly critical of Jodl at OKW in particular, laying the blame for fuel shortages at his door. ‘Jodl had assured us there would be sufficient petrol to develop our full strength and carry our drive through. This assurance proved completely mistaken. Part of the trouble was that OKW worked out a mathematical and stereotyped calculation of the amount of petrol required to move a division for a hundred kilometres. My experience in Russia had taught me that double this scale was really needed under battlefield conditions. Jodl didn’t understand this. Taking account of the extra difficulties likely to be met in a winter battle in such difficult country as the Ardennes, I told Hitler that five times the standard scale of petrol ought to be provided. Actually when the offensive was launched, only one and a half times the standard scale had been provided. Worse still, much of it was kept too far back, in large lorry columns on the east bank of the Rhine.’

With high expectations of the baron, his Fifth Army was given three panzer and four infantry divisions with which to prosecute Herbstnebel, spread throughout three corps – over 90,000 men, 963 guns and almost 300 tanks and assault guns. Left to get on with his own planning and aided by the able Generalmajor Carl Gustav Wagener, his chief of staff, the pair planned to use General Walter Lucht’s LXVI Corps of two Volksgrenadier divisions to encircle Alan W. Jones’s US 106th Infantry Division on their northern flank. The Americans were deployed along the high ground of the Schnee Eifel, occupying outposts of the Siegfried Line around the villages of Auw, Bleialf and Winterspelt, and known to be newly arrived and inexperienced. The wider Eifel region is, effectively, the Germanic name for the range of high hills, narrow gorges and forests – the best word to describe the landscape is ‘rugged’ – known further west as the Ardennes. The two are one and the same and, apart from crossing a frontier, a traveller would not be aware of crossing from the Ardennes to the Eifel because they constitute a single geological feature.

In Roman times a huge impenetrable forest of Brothers Grimm proportions, by 1944, as now, a controlled agricultural programme of forestry meant that much of the woodland on the high ground on the Schnee Eifel had been felled, with innumerable clearings, but passage across the upper landscape was slow with reliance on poorly drained logging trails. Movement across the lower ground was channelled by many small stretches of water, where run-off from the heights collected and flowed south into the Our. Small, stone-built villages had evolved at each crossroads or frontier post. It was, and remains, picturesque, a favourite with hikers and hunters, though offering few locations with grandstand panoramas at which to site good observation posts. Few roads were paved, as most of the pre-war traffic was horse-drawn. The confusing array of local hills frequently screened wireless contact, and line-of-sight communications was prevented by trees, which also interrupted fields of fire. This meant the defending troops placed an over-reliance on line communications, particularly field telephones. During the opening barrage on 16 December, this mode of signalling was the first to fold as German shells cut American wire.

Having encircled the Schnee Eifel, Lucht would then move straight on via Schönberg to seize the important town of St Vith, eight miles beyond the frontier, and as vital a route centre in the north of the Ardennes as Bastogne was further south. Manteuffel ordered St Vith seized by the end of Day One. Thereafter their journey would take them, via Vielsalm, along roads heading west, to the Meuse.

Lucht’s two Volksgrenadier divisions were both ill-equipped and under-strength, comprising sweepings mostly from the Luftwaffe. Few of Oberst Günther Hoffmann-Schönborn’s 18th had campaign ribbons or decorations. According to the division’s chief of staff, Oberstleutnant Dietrich Moll, the division, activated on 2 September, was very much the result of Himmler’s ‘hero-snatching units’ and comprised 2,500 Luftwaffe men who had been trounced out of Normandy in August, and 3,000 redundant Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine personnel acquired in Denmark, where the division first trained. More recruits came from a pool of middle-aged men combed out of industry. Very few were young, and even fewer had seen any action, including the officers: altogether the 18th was extraordinarily inexperienced formation, considering Germany was in her sixth year of war.

By contrast its commander, Hoffmann-Schönborn, holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, conformed to Himmler’s requirement for highly decorated combat leaders and had served already in Poland, France, Greece and Russia. With such a disparate unit, in November Hoffmann-Schönborn had felt obliged to dish out some National Socialist discipline pour encourager les autres. A captured divisional order signed by him read that ‘Traitors from our ranks have deserted to the enemy’. After naming them, the divisional commander went on:

These bastards have given away important military secrets. The result is that for the past few days the Americans have been laying quite accurate artillery fire on your positions, your bunkers, your company and platoon headquarters, your field kitchens and your messenger routes. Deceitful Jewish mud-slingers taunt you with their pamphlets and try to entice you into becoming bastards also. Let them spew their poison! We stand watch over Germany’s frontier. Death and destruction to all enemies who tread on Germany’s soil. As for the contemptible traitors who have forgotten their honour, rest assured the division will see that they never see home and loved ones again. Their families will have to atone for their treason. The destiny of a people has never depended on traitors and bastards. The true German soldier was and is the best in the world. Unwavering behind him is the Fatherland, and at the end is our Victory. Long live Germany! Heil the Fuhrer!

This crude missive, with its coarse language, was clearly not written by the divisional commander who in any case had better things to do. It was the work of the divisional Nationalsozialistischer Führungsoffizier (Nazi Guidance Officer), one of the loathsome commissar-like creatures inserted by Himmler personally into each staff headquarters, in place of the division’s chaplain. From now on the poor old grenadier had vicious enemies behind him as well as in front.

Known as the die Mondscheindivision (Moonshine Division), after its insignia, Lucht’s other division was the 62nd Volksgrenadiers, commanded by Oberst Friedrich Kittel. He had served in the Bavarian army in the First War, and spent most of the Second on the Eastern Front. In contrast to their middle-aged stable-mates of the 18th Volksgrenadier Division, on taking over his new formation on 1 November, Kittel found that two of his sub-units contained seventeen-year-old Hitler Youths: 164th Volksgrenadier Regiment included HitlerJugend from Düsseldorf and its sister 183rd Regiment, youths from nearby Cologne. Both of Lucht’s Volksgrenadier divisions were to fix Jones’s US 106th and prevent them from interfering with the advance of Manteuffel’s two panzer corps, further south.

The baron’s real achievements would turn on the success or failure of his two panzer corps, whose missions were the same: to use their Volksgrenadiers to cross the River Our and overwhelm the forward American defences on the ridge west of the river, thus covering the construction of bridges for his panzers. The Our, then as now, was neither deep nor wide, but the slopes to it were steep, with little room to manoeuvre. Manteuffel wanted this completed by midday in order for the tank divisions, following closely behind, to cross to the west bank by mid-afternoon; they would then take the lead and race beyond by road as quickly as possible, seizing towns and road junctions on the way to the Meuse. In the centre, Manteuffel intended General Walter Krüger’s LVIII Panzer Corps to use the 560th Volksgrenadiers to cross the river at Ouren and break into the US lines, whereupon Siegfried von Waldenburg’s 116th Panzer Division would then exploit the breach and race for the Meuse via Houffalize.

We have already met some of 116th’s men at Hotton, and their commander, Waldenburg, being given his Knight’s Cross by Hitler at Ziegenberg. Another East Prussian, old-school aristocrat, Waldenburg, forty-six, had served in the exclusive Emperor Alexander Grenadier Guards from 1915, later attending the Kriegsakademie and acting as a staff officer in France and Russia, before commanding panzer units in the east. His Windhund (Greyhound) Division had been formed only in March 1944 and was led through the attritional Normandy campaign by Gerhard Graf von Schwerin, whose removal from command Himmler had engineered during the battle for Aachen. The replacement was Waldenburg, appointed on 14 September, ably assisted by his young chief of staff and operations officer (the ‘Ia’), Major Heinz-Günther Guderian, son of the founder of the Reich’s panzer force. The Greyhounds had already fought at Mortain and Falaise, where they were gradually whittled down to 600 men and twelve tanks.

In readiness for the Ardennes, on 10 December 1944 Waldenburg’s Sixteenth Panzer Regiment reported forty-three Panthers in its First Battalion, while its Second Battalion had twenty-six operational Panzer IVs, a divisional total of sixty-nine tanks. Of course, to an opposing US infantry division equipped with few or no tanks, the Greyhound Division was frighteningly powerful, but, in reality, 116th Panzer was a shadow of its former self. This was less than the strength of a German tank battalion: in Normandy, the formation had fielded 157 panzers.

Krüger’s Volksgrenadier Division was the 560th, raised in Norway on 10 October, and comprised of surplus garrison units – the fortress battalions – of trained soldiers from Denmark and Norway’s coastal defences. Led by a former artillery officer, forty-six-year-old Generalmajor Rudolf Bader from 10 November, the division was identified by its badge of Thor’s hammer. It was the weakest German division deployed, intended for the Russian Front but sent to the Ardennes at the last minute – many of its soldiers were still en route from Norway on 16 December. Consequently, on the line of departure each regiment was at half-strength, being able to field only a battalion apiece, while the division’s anti-tank battalion of tracked assault guns was absent altogether.

The division also started the battle without its commander, who was in hospital; it was led by forty-four-year-old Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser, commander of 1128nd Regiment, until Bader’s return on 27 December. Like all the Volksgrenadier units, they were totally reliant on horses for mobility, being authorised 3,002, though few units ever acquired this number. In turn, the animals required a veterinary company of 152 officers and men to treat, shoe and look after them. Altogether, Herbstnebel would involve over 50,000 horses struggling along the freezing roads – not the usual image we have of the battle. While the Wehrmacht’s Propaganda Kompanie photographers and cameramen mostly took images of panzers crashing through the Ardennes, the truth is that for every German tank deployed in the winter offensive there were forty horses.

In the case of the 560th Volksgrenadiers, only their Flak and anti-tank battalions possessed any motorised transport at all, and all units were encouraged to capture and use American vehicles and fuel. However, that the Wehrmacht relied on horses so heavily and had relatively few vehicles produced an interesting, oft-overlooked consequence – that not many German soldiers knew how to drive a motor vehicle. Many had been brought up before the war on the land and understood horses, while their contemporaries in the United States, with the highest car-ownership in the world, were learning to drive automobiles. Comparative figures for 1935 reveal that 1.6 per cent of Germans owned a motor vehicle, compared with 4.5 per cent in Britain, 4.9 per cent in France and a staggering 20.5 per cent in the USA, or one-in-five of the entire population. By contrast, the German army actually awarded a driver’s badge to those who could sit behind a steering wheel with proficiency.

Thus, when the Volksgrenadiers captured many US vehicles in the initial days, fuelled up and ready to go, they were not always able to use them, and sometimes compelled GI prisoners of war to drive captured trucks. This was the case even with armoured formations. On 17 December, when the 1st SS-Leibstandarte Panzer Division arrived at the Baugnez crossroads outside Malmedy on 17 December, and took more than a hundred GIs prisoner, their first action was to request drivers for captured American vehicles.

Horses pulled all the guns and ammunition wagons of the 560th Division’s VolksArtillerie regiment in which Kanonier Josef Reusch served. Born in 1927, he was not yet seventeen when he was drafted on 25 March 1944. He grew up in the border village of Bleialf, soon to be the scene of hard fighting, and attended school in St Vith, likewise bitterly contested. Trained as a Rechner (tabulator) on a 105mm howitzer and a forward observer, he later learned similar duties on a 75mm anti-tank gun. Reusch was stunned to learn on 15 December that he was going into battle only a few miles north of his home, now occupied by Americans.

To their south, and adjacent to Heilmann’s 5th Fallschirmjäger of the Seventh Army, lurked General von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzer Corps, the strongest of Manteuffel’s three army corps. It was only on 2 December that Lüttwitz, then fighting the British around Geilenkirchen, received word from Manteuffel that his corps would feature in a forthcoming counter-offensive in the Ardennes. Four days later he had disengaged and relocated closer to Fifth Panzer Army headquarters. This was incredibly short notice for a formation to plan an important operation beginning a few days’ hence. He was lucky, however, with the quantity of corps assets he was given for Herbstnebel: the 15th VolksWerfer Brigade and 766th VolksArtillerie Corps, totalling nearly 200 weapons, 600th Army Engineer Battalion, and 182nd Flak Regiment, all motorised.

Their mission was for the 26th Volksgrenadiers to cross the Our at Gemünd and establish a bridgehead for Panzer Lehr to follow in their wake. Meanwhile, to their north, 2nd Panzer would bridge the same river at Dasburg, climb the opposing banks, seize the lateral road that ran along the high ground (christened the Skyline Drive) and the little fortress town of Clervaux – or Clerf, to the Germans – a distance of seven miles. Thereafter 2nd Panzer was to grind its way through the remaining American lines, seizing Bastogne, a mere eighteen miles further, preferably by the end of the first day.

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