Elements of the 110th Regiment, 28th Infantry Division having reached Bastogne at the beginning of the siege, regroup outside a garage. 19 December 1944.
With three divisions, and added corps troops, the XLVII Panzer Corps possessed a considerable amount of shock and fire power. Manteuffel allotted Luettwitz the 15th Volks Werfer Brigade (108 pieces), the 766th Volks Artillery Corps (seventy-seven pieces), the 600th Army Engineer Battalion, and the 182nd Flak Regiment, all motorized. Each division was reinforced with additional self-propelled assault guns or tank destroyers and each had a full complement of divisional artillery (four battalions for the infantry division and three motorized battalions in the armoured divisions). Finally Luettwitz was promised two 60-ton bridges capable of carrying his Panthers and very considerable support from the Luftwaffe. Both Luettwitz and Manteuffel had been ‘promised’ air support on numerous occasions before; so it is questionable whether either of them expected the Luftwaffe to make good. Luettwitz, at least, pinned his faith on bad flying weather, night operations, and the large number of flak guns dispersed through his columns.
The sector designated for the XLVII Panzer Corps breakthrough was held by the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 110th Infantry (28th Infantry Division), commanded by Colonel Hurley E. Fuller. This regiment formed the division centre, with the 112th Infantry on the north and the 109th Infantry aligned to the south. Battered and fatigued by weary, bloody fighting in the Hürtgen Forest, the 28th Division came into the quiet front on the Our during mid-November. During the division attack of 1–2 November in the Schmidt-Vossenack sector the 28th had taken 6,184 casualties. The task of rebuilding the rifle companies, repairing battle damage, and training replacements was of necessity a slow one. But by the middle of December the 110th Infantry had almost a full roster—a roster numbering many men and some officers who yet had to see their first action. The 109th and 112th were in like status.
Fuller had only two battalions at his disposal because the 2nd Battalion located at Donnange, constituted the division reserve. Anything even remotely resembling a continuous line across the 9- to 10-mile regimental front was beyond the strength of the 1st and 3rd Battalions. As a substitute, a system of village strong points—each manned in about rifle company strength—was set up on the ridge line separating the Our and Clerf Rivers, which here is traced by the excellent north–south highway connecting St. Vith and Diekirch. This highway (known to the Americans as the Skyline Drive) and the garrison line paralleled the Our River at a distance of one and a half to two and a half miles. Each battalion was responsible for five outposts along the west bank of the Our River, but these vantage points were occupied only during daylight hours and then in squad strength. At night the strip between the ridge and the river became a no man’s land where German and American patrols stalked one another. Even in daytime it was possible for German patrols to move about on the west bank, using the cover provided by the deep, wooded draws.
The Our River, in many places, was no more than forty feet wide and easily fordable, but the roads leading to the river made circuitous and abrupt descent as they neared its banks. In the 110th zone four roads ran from the German border at the Our River, up and over the Skyline Drive, and down to the Clervaux. The American strong points were therefore located with an eye to blocking these entry ways while at the same time defending the lateral ridge road which connected the 110th with its neighbouring regiments and provided the main artery sustaining the entire division front. The northernmost of the four roads had a good all-weather surface, was the only main through road running east to west through the area, and gave direct access to Clervaux and Bastogne. The Germans planned to connect this route to their own supply lines by bridging the Our River at Dasburg. The remaining roads through the 110th sector normally were poor but were made worse by the rains prior to 16 December; the 26th Volks Grenadier Division intended to enter the two southernmost roads by throwing a bridge across at Gemünd.
The Americans had identified the 26th long since as the unit garrisoning the West Wall bunkers on the German bank. The presence of two panzer units on the 110th Infantry front was not suspected. General Cota and the 28th Division Staff were prepared for some kind of German effort west of the Our River, but the intelligence coming down from higher headquarters pointed only to the possibility of a limited German attack against the 109th Infantry and the American communications running north from Luxembourg City. There was no hint from any source that the enemy was about to strike squarely into the centre of the 8th Division and in overwhelming array.
In the late afternoon of 15 December General Luettwitz gathered his division commanders in the XLVII Panzer Corps forward headquarters at Ringhuscheid for final instructions and introduction to the new commander of the 2nd Panzer Division, Colonel von Lauchert, who had been selected at the last moment by the Fifth Panzer Army leader to replace an incumbent who was not an experienced tanker. Lauchert arrived too late to meet all of his regimental commanders, but the 2nd Panzer, like the rest of the corps, was already in position to move the moment darkness came. Apprehensive lest the Americans be prematurely warned, Army Group ‘B’ had forbidden the movement of any troops across the Our River in advance of the opening barrage set for 5.30 a.m. on 16 December. Conforming to these instructions the 2nd Panzer Division moved its assault columns to Dasburg during the night of 15–16 December but halted in assembly areas east of the river.
On the corps left, however, General Kokott and the 26th Volks Grenadier Division jumped the gun. Kokott’s screening regiment, the 78th, had been in the habit of throwing out an outpost line west of the Our River from nightfall till dawn. On the evening of 15 December the outpost troops, considerably reinforced, crossed to the west bank as usual and moved cautiously forward. About 3 a.m., engineers manning pneumatic rubber boats began ferrying the eighty-man assault companies and heavy infantry weapons across the river. As each company debarked it marched inland to the line of departure which the outpost force now held close to the American garrison points. The 77th Regiment formed on the right near Hosingen and the 39th, echeloned to the left and rear, assembled in the woods north of Wahlhausen. With surprise almost certainly assured and the knowledge that the Americans had no cohesive line of defence, General Kokott had ordered the 77th Regiment to circle north of Hosingen and head straight for the Clerf bridges at Drauffelt, while the 39th cut cross-country, avoiding the villages on the western side of the ridge line, and seized the road junction and bridges at Wilwerwiltz on the Clerf River. The eye of the division commander would be on the assault echelons of his right wing regiment, for they would make the main effort to reach the Clervaux. The timetable for the 26th Volks Grenadier Division advance called for both its attacking regiments to reach the Clerf River by nightfall of the first day. Adherence to this schedule meant that the villages garrisoned by the American companies would have to be avoided or captured quickly.
The units of the 110th Infantry were disposed as follows to face three full German divisions. On the left of the regimental zone, the 1st Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel Donald Paul) held the intersection of the Skyline Drive and the Dasburg–Bastogne main highway at Marnach, employing Company ‘B’ and a platoon from the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion. To the southwest, Company ‘C’ and the regimental cannon company were deployed in and around Munshausen, guarding the side road which cut cross-country from Marnach to Drauffelt. Company ‘A’, at Heinerscheid, was on the extreme left flank of the 110th and so lay outside the path of the XLVII Panzer Corps attack, as did Company ‘D’ at Grindhausen. The 3rd Battalion (Major Harold F. Milton) formed the regimental right, with its companies on both sides of the ridge line. Company ‘K’, reinforced by Company ‘B’, 103rd Engineer Combat Battalion, garrisoned Hosingen, a village on the Skyline Drive overlooking two of the four roads which wound from the Our up over the ridge. To the south Company ‘I’ held Weiler-les-Putscheid, a hamlet in a knot of trails and byroads on the forward slopes of the ridge line. The 110th Antitank Company was in Hoscheid just to the west. Both of these positions lay adjacent to the prospective boundary between the XLVII and LXXXV Corps. West of the ridge, Company ‘L’ in Holzthum and the Headquarters Company and Company ‘M’ in Consthum barred a direct approach to the Clerf River crossing site at Wilwerwiltz. Behind the Clerf River and to the west of the regimental command post in the town of Clervaux the 2nd Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel Ross C. Henbest) lay in divisional reserve. Separated of necessity by the width of the front and the requirements of some depth in the defences athwart the east–west roads, the units of the 110th could offer little reciprocal support against an enemy attacking in any force.
The massed guns and Werfers of the XLVII Panzer Corps which roared out at 5.30 a.m. on 16 December gave the Americans their first warning. But the tactical effect of this artillery preparation was considerably less than the German planners had anticipated. The telephone wires connecting the American-held villages were shot out in the first few minutes and Fuller could not reach any of his battalions; artillery radios, however, continued to function. The German barrage, with a limited number of rounds at the guns, dwindled away after about half an hour to sporadic salvos and stray single shots, leaving the advancing infantry without cover while they were still short of the American positions.
The first word of the approaching enemy reached the 110th Infantry headquarters at Clervaux shortly after 6.15 a.m. Company ‘L’, on the western side of the ridge at Holzthum, reported figures in the half-light but, peering through the ground fog, which clung all along the division front, could not be sure whether they were American troops passing through the area or the enemy. In fact, detachments of the 39th Regiment had crossed the Skyline Drive unobserved and were moving in to surprise Holzthum. To some extent, then, Kokott’s decision in favor of premature assembly west of the Our River had gained ground for the 26th. Fuller, however, was able to get a warning message through to the 28th Division command post about 9 a.m.
As the morning passed, the small German detachments west of the ridge increased in strength. Before noon five separate assaults had been made at Consthum, but all were beaten off by small arms, .50-caliber, and artillery fire. Finally the Germans took the village, only to be driven out again. A German attempt to cut the road between Consthum and Holzthum failed when Captain Norman G. Maurer, three of the 3rd Battalion, leading a sortie of twenty men, surprised the enemy and drove him back with very heavy casualties. Between Holzthum and Buchholz, Battery ‘C’ of the 109th Field Artillery was hit hard but held its positions, firing the 105-mm howitzers with one- and two-second fuses. The battery commander and fifteen gunners were casualties of the close-range fight before help arrived. This came late in the morning, after the 28th Division commander, General Cota, ordered a tank platoon from the 707th man infantry out of the Battery ‘C’ area.
The 26th Volks Grenadier Division poured more troops into the 3rd Battalion sector, compressing the American companies in the village positions. At the crossroads village of Hosingen atop the Skyline Drive, the leading detachments of the 77th swung to the north, cutting the road but moving on in the direction of the Clervaux. The 2nd Battalion of the 77th, under the cover provided by German artillery, drove in to the south edge of Hosingen, contrary to orders, and there grappled in house-to-house fighting with Company ‘D’ and Company ‘B’, 103rd Engineer Battalion. Meanwhile the 39th Regiment, echeloned to the left of the 77th, ran into a snag. The 1st Platoon of Company ‘I’ had been deployed along the Wahlhausen road on the forward slope of the ridge, covering an observation post. From this point the American artillery observers could see the enemy assembling in the woods just to the north. Accurately adjusted fire held the enemy battalion at bay and forced it to call on neighbouring battalions, attacking Weiler, to help outflank the thin infantry line on the Wahlhausen road.
The defenders at Weiler would not be easily pushed aside. Company ‘I’ (minus the platoon at Wahlhausen), a section of 81-mm mortars, and an antitank platoon repelled wave after wave of attacking German infantry. When the mortar crews and antitank platoon had used all their ammunition they joined the infantry in the centre of the village and fought as riflemen. Twice during the morning the attackers were allowed to send in aid men and remove their wounded. At 1.30 p.m. the enemy ceased fire and sent forward a white flag, with an offer for the Americans to surrender. When this was refused the Germans systematically set to work to surround the village; by dark, they had ringed Weiler.
In the 1st Battalion zone to the north the advance detachments of the 2nd Panzer Division moved straight for Marnach, attempting with one quick blow to clear the Americans obstructing the through road from Dasburg to Clervaux. While the German engineers laboured at the Dasburg site to bring their heavy tank bridging equipment down to the river, the 28th Panzer Engineer Battalion and the 2nd Battalion, 304th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, crossed the Our River in rubber boats and moved west through the predawn darkness. The advance was delayed somewhat when the grenadiers marched into an American mine field, but by 8 a.m. the leading Germans had reached Marnach. Company ‘B’ and a platoon of the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion were well entrenched there and gave the Germans a warm reception, although themselves under fire from batteries east of the Our River. Minus his heavy weapons, the enemy failed to knock the Marnach garrison out of the way, but an hour later Company ‘B’ radioed that three hundred Germans were northwest and southwest of Marnach. The 1st Battalion commander had already ordered Company ‘A’, located three miles farther north on the Skyline Drive at Heinerscheid, to send a patrol south and make contact with Company ‘B’. In midmorning Paul ordered Company ‘C’ to march north from Munshausen, leaving the cannon company there, and counterattack the Germans in the Company ‘B’ area.
By this time, however, the advance infantry detachments of the 2nd Panzer Division were not only involved in a battle to knock out Marnach but were pushing past the village en route to Clervaux. The twenty-fourman patrol from Company ‘A’ ran into the German flank at Fishbach, about 11.20 a.m., and had to withdraw under intense fire. Two hours later the enemy struck at Company ‘A’, apparently an attempt to clear the north-south Skyline Drive, but artillery fire beat him off. In the meantime the Company ‘C’ advance north toward Marnach also ran into trouble: persistent small arms fire forced the infantry to leave the road and move slowly across country. Tanks, ordered up from the division reserve, had not yet arrived. In Marnach the hard-beset garrison fought on, now under the command of the battalion executive officer, Captain J. H. Burns, who had taken over when the Company commander was wounded.
Back to the west, in the 28th Division command post at Wiltz, General Cota took what steps he could to help the 110th Infantry. The bulk of his very limited reserve consisted of the 2nd Battalion, 110th Infantry, and the 707th Tank Battalion. By the middle of the morning it was apparent that the VIII Corps was under attack all along the front and that the 28th Division would have to make out with what it had. Radio communication, which was functioning fairly well, showed that the division centre was most endangered. About 10 a.m., therefore, General Cota ordered Companies A and B of the 707th Tank Battalion to reinforce the 110th Infantry, with the intention of clearing up the deepest enemy penetrations and sweeping the ridge road clear. Although Fuller pled for the return of the 2nd Battalion to his regiment, Cota refused to release this last division reserve.
Shortly before noon a platoon of Company ‘B’s tanks reached the hard-pressed field artillery battery near Buchholz and reported the situation in hand. But the enemy here represented only the probing forefinger of the main attack. Company ‘B’ moved east to aid the 3rd Battalion, and Company ‘A’, less a platoon in mobile reserve at Clervaux, moved to the northern sector. At nearly every point the American tanks would have to fight their way down the roads to reach the infantry holding the villages. To the east, at Dasburg, the German engineers were straining to finish the tank bridge which would bring the German armour into play. Time was running out for the American companies: ammunition was low and the short winter day was drawing to a close, with the likelihood that the small garrisons would be overwhelmed in the darkness by sheer weight of numbers.
On the Wahlhausen road the 3rd Battalion observation post, defended by the Company ‘I’ platoon, called for ammunition and was told that tanks were being sent with resupply. At Weiler the rest of the Company and the antitank platoon, their supply of ammunition dwindling, also awaited the tanks. For some reason the tank platoon sent from the 707th had not reached the Company ‘I’ area when night fell. About 6.30 p.m. troops at the battalion observation post reported that enemy vehicles were attacking with multiple 20-mm guns and asked for American artillery fire on their own positions. This was the end. Only one man escaped. At Weiler the Americans, with only a few rounds left, were completely surrounded and decided to fight their way out. They divided into two groups and headed west through the enemy lines.
On the west slopes of the ridge a platoon of medium tanks was committed early in the afternoon to drive the Germans off the side road linking Holzthum and Consthum. Co-ordination between small packets of infantry and armour, hard at best, was made most difficult by this kind of piecemeal commitment. The tankers had been told that there were no friendly troops on the road and just Outside Holzthum knocked out an antitank gun placed there by Company ‘I’. After some delay, while the tank platoon and the infantry identified themselves, the tanks rolled south to the 3rd Battalion headquarters at Consthum. At Hosingen, on the ridge road, Company ‘D’ and Company ‘B’ were fighting German infantry hand to hand inside the village. In response to their call for reinforcement and ammunition four tanks fought their way through the German infantry along the Skyline Drive, arriving in Hosingen about 10 p.m.—but with no rifle ammunition.
In the 1st Battalion sector, late in the afternoon, two tank platoons arrived in Munshausen to support Company ‘C’, already on its way north to relieve Company ‘B’ in Marnach. Company ‘C’ had been driven off the road, and the tanks, missing the infantry entirely, rolled into Marnach. One tank platoon remained there to bolster the defence, while the other turned back to the south, picked up Company ‘C’, and, on orders, returned with the infantry to Munshausen. About dusk the Marnach garrison radioed that half-tracks could be heard moving toward the village. This was the last word from Marnach. Late in the afternoon, Colonel Fuller had ordered Company ‘D’, a platoon of heavy machine guns, and a provisional rifle company hastily assembled from men on pass in Clervaux, to move to Reuler and protect Battery ‘B’ of the 109th Field Artillery Battalion, then firing in support of the troops in Marnach and very hard pressed by the enemy. These reinforcements arrived at Reuler in time to take a hand against the Germans pouring past Marnach toward the Clerf River and its bridges. But Battery ‘A’ of the battalion was swept up by the Germans who had bypassed the left wing anchor of the regiment at Heinerscheid.
During most of this first day of attack the German infantry had fought west of the Our without heavy weapons, although the bulk of two regiments from both the 26th Volks Grenadier Division and the 2nd Panzer Division had crossed the river and taken some part in the fight. Shortly before dark the 60-ton bridges were completed at Gemünd and Dasburg (inexperienced engineers and the difficulties attendant on moving the heavy structures down to the river bed had slowed construction markedly), and the German tanks and assault guns moved across to give the coup de grâce to the villages still defended by the 110th Infantry. On the left the 26th Volks Grenadier Division finally achieved contact with the 5th Parachute Division, which had been advancing cautiously along the boundary between the 109th and 110th Infantry and had done nothing to help Kokott’s southern regiment, the 39th? With an open left flank and under artillery fire called down by the American observation post on the Wahlhausen road, the 39th swerved from the westward axis of attack and became involved at Weiler, contrary to orders. There the American tank platoon from Company ‘B’, 707th Tank Battalion, hit into the German flank while attempting to reach Weiler and, it would appear, caused disorganization and confusion. Kokott’s right, the 77th Regiment, pushed elements beyond Hosingen (actually moving between the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 110th Infantry), but these detachments, stopped by the American 105-mm howitzers and the tank platoon near Buchholz, again had to side-step in the drive to the Clerf River. Back at Hosingen the attempt to break American resistance had won an early lodgement in the south edge of the village, but had achieved no more. The 26th Volks Grenadier Division needed Hosingen badly. Without it the western exit road from the Gemünd Bridge was hopelessly blocked; through Hosingen ran the main divisional supply route to the Clervaux. Just before dark, therefore, Kokott threw a part of his replacement training battalion into the action; these fresh troops succeeded in forcing their way into the north edge of the village, although with heavy losses.