Hitler’s surprise winter offensive commenced on 16 December 1944 under the cover of heavy cloud and snow that kept the enemy fighter-bombers at bay. The 1st SS and 12th SS Panzer divisions launched the 6th SS Panzer Army’s main thrusts. Their spearhead, formed by Kampfgruppe Peiper drawn from 1st SS, consisted of 100 Panzer Mk IV and Panthers, about forty formidable Tiger IIs and twenty-five assault guns. In addition Otto Skorzeny’s Panzer Brigade 150’s three Kampfgruppen were also assigned to the 1st SS and 12th SS Panzer and the 12th Volksgrenadier Division.
Directly in the line of the 12th SS Panzers’ northern attack was the Elsenborn ridge. It was here that the Germans were halted dead in their tracks by the US Army and the panzers singularly failed to contribute to the huge bulge cut into the Allied lines further south. The defending US 99th Infantry Division were well dug in and their artillery and anti-tank guns played havoc with the German advance. It also forced Kampfgruppe Peiper further south, and south-east of Elsenborn the 1st SS Panzer Division was held up. Key amongst the American anti-tank units were elements of the 612th Tank Destroyer Battalion equipped with towed 3-inch guns around Höfen.
Alarm was caused when a reconnaissance tank company from Kampfgruppe Peiper’s spearhead threatened Wirtzfeld on 17 December. Occupation of Wirtzfeld and the twin villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath would roll up the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions from the flank. If Peiper reached Bütgenbach and moved north to Elsenborn the two divisions would be caught in the rear, completely unhinging the American defences and trapping up to 30,000 men.
With the panzers making for Bullingen the Americans set up an improvized defence south of Wirtzfeld with clerks, cooks, drivers and military police. They were reinforced by divisional artillery under Brigadier-General John H. Hinds, who deployed a battery of 105mm field guns and another of heavy 155mm howitzers to cover the approaches to Wirtzfeld and Bullingen. The defenders also had some 57mm anti-tank guns and four half-tracks with quad .50 calibre machine guns.
Panzers and armoured half-tracks roared out of the mist on the Bullingen road at about 0800 hours on 17 December and crossed a ridge outside Wirtzfeld to be met by a hail of fire. At this point the Americans received welcome reinforcements in the shape of five self-propelled tank destroyers from the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion. They destroyed four enemy vehicles in quick succession and the others withdrew to Bullingen.
Near Krinkelt-Rocherath the 12th Volksgrenadiers, suppor ted by 12th SS tanks, set about the 99th Infantry. Even in the face of five Tigers the Americans fell back grudgingly on the twin villages. In front of Rocherath the ground was littered with German dead and seventeen tanks. The streets of Krinkelt-Rocherath became a killing ground for the panzers, where they were caught by bazooka teams and hidden tanks and tank destroyers. American artillery and mines also took a toll, often leaving panzers disabled and at the mercy of bazookas. Remarkably two Shermans claimed five Tigers in Rocherath after the Germans became trapped on the narrow streets.
Nonetheless, tanks of the US 741st Tank Battalion covering the American withdrawal were destroyed by the advancing Panthers. Desperate to drive the Americans from Elsenborn the Germans threw themselves at Höfen and Monschau only to be stopped by US artillery fire. They renewed their attacks on the twin villages on 18 December, supported by Jagdpanthers of the 560th Heavy Anti-Tank Battalion.Armed with the 88mm gun they seemed unstoppable. However, Shermans from the 741st Tank Battalion as well as artillery and bazooka fire ensured the panzers did not break free to the open ridgeline. In the meantime two US infantry divisions moved to reinforce the defenders, who withdrew to the ridge.
Switching their emphasis, the 12th SS, supported by the 12th Volksgrenadier Division, attacked Domäne Butgenbach on the southern end of the ridge on 19 December. Two days later the 12th SS were halted by M36 tank destroyers of the 613th Tank Destroyer Battalion. The last German attack on the right took place on 22 December and was greeted by a devastating 10,000 rounds fired by US artillery.
Cole Barnard, a rifleman with the US 11th Armored Division, deployed southwest of Bastogne, recalled:
There are some interesting aspects to the attack and one of them was that Hitler had created a special brigade which would go along with the lead elements of the attack, get behind our lines, and capture the Meuse River bridges so they could hold those until the rest of the troops got up there.This brigade was outfitted with all captured American and British tanks. They had all captured American weapons and were all dressed in American uniforms.
Under Operation Grief Otto Skorzeny had been personally appointed by Hitler to command Panzer Brigade 150, tasked with capturing the vital Meuse bridges at Amay, Andenne or Huy before they could be demolished. Skorzeny was summoned to Hitler’s Rastenburg HQ on 22 October 1944, where he was congratulated on the success of his mission to Hungary and promoted from major to lieutenant-colonel. The Hungarian operation had used several hundred commandos from the 500th SS Parachute Battalion and the Jagdverbande. Skorzeny’s coup in Budapest, though, had hardly been subtle, as a company of massive Tiger II tanks had backed his seizure of Hungarian leader Admiral Horthy.
‘Stay awhile,’ said Hitler. ‘l am now going to give you the most important job of your life. In December Germany will start a great offensive. It may decide her fate.’ He outlined Operation Herbstnebel (Autumn Mist) or Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine), the forthcoming Ardennes counter-offensive. ‘He told me about the tremendous quantity of materiel which had been accumulated,’ noted Skorzeny ‘and I recall that he stated we would have 6,000 artillery pieces in the Ardennes, and, in addition, the Luftwaffe would have about 2,000 planes, including many of the new jet planes. He then told me that I would lead a panzer brigade which would be trained to reach the Meuse bridges and capture them intact.’
Despite Skorzeny’s repeated complaints, he found himself being supplied with German equipment rather than American. Skorzeny grumbled that‘he had to make up the difference with German vehicles.The only common feature of these vehicles was that they were all painted green, like American military vehicles.’ Initially his unit was equipped with five Panther tanks, five Sturmgeschütz or StuG assault guns, six German armoured cars and six armoured personnel carriers.
Skorzeny’s brigade was supposed to include two companies of panzers and by late November had been supplied with twenty-two Panther tanks and fourteen StuG assault guns, with the tank crews provided by the 6th Panzer Division. Panzerjäger crews for the StuGs came from Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion 655 and the armoured car crews came from the reconnaissance battalions of the 2nd Panzer Division and 90th Panzergrenadier Division. When they finally went into battle they seem to have deployed only ten Panthers and five StuGs.
There was simply no way to make a Panther look like a Sherman, so Skorzeny’s men ingeniously opted to make them look like the Sherman’s tank destroyer cousin, the M10 Wolverine, based on a Sherman chassis but with a much more angular hull and turret. To do this the Panthers were disguised with sheet metal, painted olive green and given prominent white five-pointed American recognition stars. These, Skorzeny cynically noted, were only sufficient to: ‘deceive very young American troops seeing them at night from very far away.’
Once Hohes Venn was reached Skorzeny’s three Kampfgruppen were to pass round their assigned units, but things did not run smoothly and they got horribly tangled up at Losheim. Skorzeny realised by the evening of the second day of the offensive that Panzer Brigade 150 would simply not reach the Meuse bridges, so he suggested that his unit serve as a regular combat force. Under the direction of Colonel Wilhelm Mohnke he was ordered to help take Malmédy to open up the roads to reach Kampfgruppe Peiper.
Although the Germans destroyed 300 American tanks, Eisenhower countered Hitler’s offensive by moving the US 7th Armored Division to St Vith and elements of the 10th Armored and US 101st Airborne Divisions to Bastogne.The Panzer Lehr Division was not quick enough and the Gls beat them to the town. Although the 116th Panzer Division slipped between Bastogne and St Vith, Bastogne’s defenders held up 2nd Panzer. St Vith fell on 21 December, but heavy American artillery fire forced the two Panzer armies to become ever more entangled.
All three of Skorzeny’s battlegroups joined 1st SS Panzer and were thrown into the attack on Malmédy on the 21st. However, any chance of his Kampfgruppen achieving a level of surprise was lost after one of his men was captured the day before and spilled the beans. To make matters worse, Skorzeny’s planned attack lacked artillery support to soften up the defenders or conduct counter-battery fire when the American artillery inevitably retaliated. Luftwaffe fighter cover was also completely out of the question.
Predictably, Hauptmann Scherff and Kampfgruppe Y were met by such heavy shelling that he quickly broke off his assault. This was not the covert operation he had planned and trained for. On the left Willi Hardieck’s Kampfgruppe X attacked with two companies of infantry supported by five fake M10 tank destroyers. They pushed from Ligneuville, through Bellevaux and along the route de Falize, striking west of Malmédy. The main force headed toward the Warche River bridge and Rollbahn C. Trip-wire flares illuminating the early morning gloom quickly alerted the American defenders and the fake M10s ran into a minefield and the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion command post, which was quickly surrounded and attacked.
Skorzeny watched from the hill on the route de Falise as one of his fake M10s, supported by German infantry in attack toward Malmédy, was driven off by an American anti-tank gun. The other nine tanks attempted to capture a bridge over the Warche in order to reach Stavelot, but the first tank was lost to a mine and began to burn. American infantry manning a roadblock were forced back, but when the Germans attempted to cross the bridge Gls armed with bazookas knocked out two more tanks. Two American tank destroyers then accounted for two further German tanks.
Skorzeny, seeing how things were progressing, ordered his men to fall back, but none of his remaining armour made it. One fake M10 coded B5 was disabled at Malmédy, another, B10, crashed into the café at La Falise. B7 got as far as the Ambléve Bridge at Malmédy but was brought to a halt by US bazooka fire. Several Sturmgeschütz in American markings were knocked out at Géromont.
A knocked-out snow-covered Sherman, belonging to the 5th Parachute Jäger Division, photographed outside the Hotel des Ardennes, epitomized the failure of Hitler’s Operation Grief. Skorzeny’s fake Shermans had got him nowhere. 2nd Panzer got closer to the Meuse than special Panzer Brigade 150 ever did.
Panzer Brigade 150 “Rabenhügel”
Formed on October 4, 1944 in preparation for action in the Ardennes Counteroffensive
This brigade, although called Panzer, was not part of the regular army’s panzer brigades. It was formed for one specific mission : infiltration! The idea put forward by Hitler, was that German soldiers in US uniforms and driving US vehicles would infiltrate the frontlines and seize crossroads and bridges for the following panzer troops. Although the idea was sound and based on apst experiences on the eastern front (the Brandenburg Commando’s), the lack of English-speaking soldiers and US equipment hampered the mission of the brigade. The force, commanded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny, was split up in two formations : Rabenhügel and Einheit Stilau.
Rabenhügel was formed from troops of
SS-Jagdverband “Mitte” (1 Kompanie)
SS-Fallschirmjäger Abteilung 600 (2 Kompanie)
Sonderverband “Jungwirth (2 Kompanie)
7. (reserve) Panzergrenadier Kompanie
11. Panzer Regiment (4. Kompanie)
Panzerjäger Abteilung 655 (1. Kompanie)
Panzer Aufklärung Abteilung 190 (1. Kompanie)
Panzer Aufklärung Abteilung 2 (1. Kompanie)
I./Artillerie Abteilung 40 (4. Batterie)
On January 23, 1944, the brigade was officially disbanded and the survivors returned to their parent formations
Formed on October 4, 1944 in preparation for action in the Ardennes Counteroffensive
About 150 of the best English-speaking personnel were formed into smaller detachments with specific missions:
4 Reconnaissance Detachments (3 – 4 men)
Wearing US Uniforms the 4 groups would reconnoiter deep into the US positions and send back any and all information of troop movements. Meanwhile they would pass on fake orders, reverse road signs, remove minefield warnings and cordon-off roads using white tape (minefield warning)
2 Demolition Detachments (6 men)
Also wearing US Uniforms the 2 groups would destroy fuel dumps, ammunition depots and small bridges (not on the intended route of advance)
3 Lead Detachments (3-4 men)
Also wearing US Uniforms the 3 groups were assigned to work with 1, 12 SS Panzer Division and 12. Volksgrenadier Division. Recognizable by their blue scarf, they would spread confusion in front of the divisions and lead them through lightly defended areas.
By December 18, 1944, the surprise effect was lost and the detachments were used as regular infantry. Although their number was small (44 men) their psychological effect was huge! All but 8 returned to the German lines (2 Recon detachments were captured and executed)