110th Infantry, December 1944 Part II

A whole series of monkey wrenches had been thrown into the well-oiled machinery of the 26th Volks Grenadier Division. The American infantry had made excellent use of the ground and had held their positions, refusing to buckle under the weight of numbers. The 39th Regiment had got involved in local actions and been diverted from the westward axis, sustaining high losses in the bargain. The 77th had been unable to win a quick decision at Hosingen. Now, at the end of the day, the armoured reconnaissance battalion of the Panzer Lehr Division found itself crawling rather than racing west from the Gemünd Bridge. The road to Hosingen was muddy and winding; but worse, at the western exit of the bridge an American abates and a series of bomb craters blocked the flow of traffic. A few light tanks and self-propelled guns got forward late in the evening, but the bulk of the Panzer Lehr reconnaissance battalion remained backed up at the bridge. Kokott’s infantry would have to carry the battle through the night. The 39th regrouped and turned to assault Holzthum and Consthum in force. The 77th marched toward Drauffelt on the Clerf River, leaving the replacement training battalion to continue the fight at Hosingen.

Kokott’s reserve regiment, the 78th, crossed the Our River at dusk and moved forward between the two assault regiments. On the right its 1st Battalion marched on Hosingen, bringing flame throwers and self-propelled guns to blast the Americans from the village; the 2nd Battalion moved straight for the Clerf River, aiming at control of the crossings and road net at Wilwerwiltz. The 26th Volks Grenadier Division was across the Our River in force but had failed to gain its first-day objective, control of the Clerf River crossings. The German infantry would have to fight step by step; the hope of a quick breakthrough had proven illusory.

The story in the 2nd Panzer Division zone was the same. There the infantry driving toward the town of Clervaux had been stopped short of their objective. Marnach remained in American hands, even after the Dasburg bridge was completed and the leading tanks of the 3rd Panzer Regiment entered the fight. The 304th Regiment had suffered severely at American hands: the regimental commander was a casualty and one battalion had been badly scattered during the piecemeal counterattacks by the American tank platoons.

General Luettwitz was none too pleased with the progress made by his two attack divisions on this first day. But the credit side of the ledger showed a few entries. The two heavy tank bridges were the Americans obviously were weakening, and the 2nd Panzer Division had been able to move its tanks forward on the relatively good road in the northern part of the corps zone. Luettwitz concluded that the Clerf River now would be crossed not later than the evening of the second day.

Across the lines General Cota had little reason to expect that the 110th Infantry could continue to delay the German attack at the 28th Division centre as it had this first day. But at dark he ordered his regimental commanders to hold their positions ‘at all costs’ and began preparations to commit his remaining reserves to restore the situation in the Marnach sector and block the road to Clervaux. This seemed to be the most endangered sector of the whole division front, for here the 2nd Panzer Division had been identified and here was the main hard-surface road to Bastogne. As yet, however, the Americans had no way of knowing that the bulk of the 2nd Panzer Division actually was moving down the road to Clervaux or that a counterattack would collide with any such German force.

Meanwhile, General Middleton, the VIII Corps commander, issued a holdfast order to all his troops. All VIII Corps units were to hold their positions until they were ‘completely untenable,’ and in no event would they fall back beyond a specified final defence line. In the 110th Infantry sector this line ran through Lieler and Buchholz to Lellingen. It was breached at midnight when tanks and self-propelled guns of the 3rd Panzer Regiment entered Marnach.

General Cota still had in hand a reserve on the night of the 16th, but it was the last reserve of the 28th Division. It consisted of the 2nd Battalion, 110th Infantry, at Donnange and the light tank company of the 707th Tank Battalion, which was located at Weiswampach behind the division north flank in support of the 112th Infantry. By the late evening the picture as seen at the division command post had cleared to this extent: the two flank regiments, the 109th and 112th, had lost relatively little ground; the 110th was very hard pressed; and German tanks were moving along the main road to Bastogne by way of Marnach.

At 9 p.m., therefore, General Cota turned the reserve rifle battalion back to the 110th Infantry, minus Company G which was moved to Wiltz to defend the division command post, and agreed with Colonel Fuller’s proposal that the battalion be used in an attack eastward to restore American control at Marnach. At the same time the light tank company in the 112th area was alerted by division headquarters for an attack south along the Skyline Drive, also directed toward Marnach, as soon as daylight came. To complete the concentration against the enemy in or around Marnach, Colonel Fuller ordered the medium tank platoon in Munshausen to attack to the northeast with a rifle platoon from Company ‘C’. When Fuller heard of the light tanks, he ordered Colonel Henbest to delay the 2nd Battalion attack next morning until the incoming tank detachment was ready to attack on the Skyline Drive.

There was still hope on the morning of 17 December that at least one platoon from Company ‘B’ was holding on in Marnach. About 7.30 a.m. the two rifle companies of the 2nd Battalion jumped off at the ridge east of Clervaux. In a matter of minutes the left company ran into a strong German skirmish line, deployed at the edge of a wood, which was supported by tanks and self-propelled artillery firing from around Marnach. The battalion commander ordered his right company down to block the paved road from Marnach to Clervaux, but this road was in the hands of the 2nd Panzer Division, whose tanks were rolling toward wing of the 110th, had been overrun or forced to displace. Only one battery of the 109th Field Artillery Battalion was firing during the morning and it ran low on ammunition. This battery was driven from Buchholz with the loss of half its howitzers. By noon the 2nd Battalion, helpless against massed tanks and without artillery support, was held in check along the ridge running southwest from Urspelt to the Clervaux road, only a thousand yards from its line of departure.

The southern prong of the three-pronged counterattack to shut off the German armoured drive moving through Marnach toward Clervaux also was outgunned and outnumbered but did reach Marnach, only to report that no friendly infantry could be found. About 10 a.m. the small tank-infantry team was allowed to return to its original position at Munshausen, and Fuller then ordered the tank platoon to fight its way to Clervaux and help defend the town. These two attacks from west and south had made no headway but were not too costly.

The attack by the light tank company of the 707th along the Skyline Drive was disastrous. About 7.20 a.m. the Company crossed into the 110th Infantry zone, where the ground rose away from the highway and forced the tanks to advance in column on the road. As the column emerged from the village of Heinerscheid, concealed high-velocity guns opened on the skimpily armoured light tanks, picking them off like clay pipes in a shooting gallery. Eight tanks were knocked out by the enemy gunners and in the confusion three more fell prey to bazooka fire. The entire action lasted ten minutes.

Two of the American tanks destroyed during the German assault later in the day. The Company Commander withdrew the remaining five tanks on a side road and reached Urspelt, taking position near the 2nd Battalion command post. The American pincers action had failed to constrict at Marnach. Yet there was still an opportunity to retard the 2nd Panzer march along the road to Bastogne. Less than two miles west of Marnach lay the Clerf River and the town of Clervaux, the latter the headquarters of the 110th Infantry. The town itself lies in a horseshoe bend of the river. From town and river rise wooded and precipitous slopes, particularly sharp and difficult to the east. Descent to the town and its bridges is made on this side by two winding roads. The main paved road from Marnach approaches Clervaux through a shallow draw, passing just to the south of the little village of Reuler, which perches on the high ground overlooking the river bend. This road makes a twisted and tortuous descent to the valley floor, finally crossing the river at the south-eastern edge of the town and proceeding through narrow streets until it emerges on the north. A secondary road, on the right of the through highway to Bastogne, approaches Clervaux from the hamlet of Urspelt. A sharp hairpin turn breaks the descent; then the road crosses the river into the northern edge of Clervaux near the railroad station and enters the main highway. In sum, the way through Clervaux would be none too easy for an armoured division.

Colonel Fuller’s command post was in a hotel only a few yards from the north bridge. Across town the regimental headquarters company was billeted in an ancient château, now partially modernized but retaining the heavy stone walls behind which, since the twelfth century, fighting men had dominated the river bend and controlled the main bridge site. In the late evening of 16 December German artillery began to range into Clervaux, apparently covering the advance of patrols from Marnach. About 3.45 a.m. the German artillery quieted. Small detachments with burp guns now crept down through the dark and engaged the troops in and around the château. At dawn a single tank or self-propelled gun began firing from the curving road to the south; more enemy infantry joined the fire fight near the château as the morning advanced.

Then rolling down the Marnach road came the German advance guard, perhaps two platoons of Mark IV tanks and as many as thirty half-tracks filled with armoured grenadiers. Colonel Fuller had ordered a platoon of the 2nd Battalion to swing south and bar the road, but it was already dominated by the German armour. About 9.30 a.m. the 2nd Platoon of Company ‘A’, 707th Tank Battalion, climbed out of Clervaux to meet the German Mark IV’s. At the top of the ascent the tanks met: four German tanks were knocked out, three American tanks destroyed. The 1st Platoon of Company ‘A’, which had returned to Munshausen after the unsuccessful attempt to reach Marnach, moved north meanwhile to help the 2nd Platoon. A radio message alerted the commander to the danger of a direct approach; so the platoon and some accompanying infantry entered Clervaux by a secondary road along the river. German tanks opened fire on them, but a direct hit stopped the leading Mark IV, for the moment effectively blocking the serpentine approach from Marnach. At the château, however, Headquarters Company still was hard pressed by riflemen and machine gunners in the houses nearby. And German tanks still fired from the eastern height. Shortly before noon German pressure noticeably relaxed. East of Clerf the left flank of the 2nd Battalion started to move forward against an enemy assembly point in the woods northeast of Reuler. This threat north of the Marnach road seems to have caused the German commander some concern. Then too, some welcome tank support had arrived on the scene. On General Middleton’s order, Combat Command Reserve, 9th Armoured Division, had put a task force backstop position behind the threatened centre of the 28th Division. Company ‘B’ of the 2nd Tank Battalion, en route to set up a roadblock northeast of Clervaux, was appropriated by General Cota and sent to support the 110th Infantry. It arrived in Clervaux with nineteen medium tanks.

Colonel Fuller set one platoon to clearing the Germans out of the south end of town, sent one platoon to Reuler to help the 2nd Battalion, and, sent one to the 1st Battalion at Heinerscheid where the light tanks of the 707th Tank Battalion had been smashed earlier in the day. The appearance of the Shermans in Clervaux cooled the enthusiasm of the German infantry.

The 2nd Panzer Division advance guard had taken a bloody nose on the Marnach road, but more tanks and infantry were arriving hourly and manoeuvre was possible. During the afternoon the Germans pressed the 2nd Battalion back through Reuler, the Americans fighting stubbornly with the aid of the dwindling tank force from the 9th Armoured Division and the few remaining towed tank destroyers of Company ‘B’, 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion. A platoon of self-propelled tank destroyers had arrived early in the afternoon but left precipitately, losing one gun as it careened down the road back through Clervaux. Shortly before dusk Companies ‘E’ and ‘F’ dug in on a ridge north of Reuler under a rain of German shells. On their left German tanks were wiping out the last posts of the 1st Battalion. At Heinerscheid, Company ‘A’ had been overrun in mid-afternoon, leaving open an avenue into the 2nd Battalion left flank. Then the enemy grenadiers encircled the American roadblock at Urspelt, whereupon the light tank platoon destroyed its single remaining tank and withdrew on foot to Wiltz—the 2nd Battalion flanks were wide open.

Colonel Lauchert was worried about the slow rate of the 2nd Panzer advance. He even dispatched a kampfgruppe (combat formation) to seize a bridge considerably south of Clervaux apparently intending to swing his attack column to a poorer road in the event that Clervaux continued to hold. But now the north road into the town was open. A small tank-infantry team blasted the single 57-mm antitank gun in the path and crossed the bridge at the railroad station. At the same time a tank platoon, shrouded in darkness and with no American tanks left to contest the passage, wound its way into the south end of Clervaux. At 6.25 p.m. Colonel Fuller phoned the 28th Division chief of staff that his command post was under fire and that enemy tanks occupied the town. Fuller and some of his staff made their escape, hoping to join Company G, which had been released at division headquarters and was supposed to be coming in from the west. Later Colonel Fuller was captured, with a group of stragglers he commanded, while attempting to break through to the west. At 6.39 p.m. the sergeant at the regimental switchboard called the division to report that he was alone—only the switchboard was left.

This was not quite the end in Clervaux. At the château by the south bridge 102 officers and men of the regimental headquarters company still were in action. Around them Clervaux was crawling with tanks, for most of the Mark IV Battalion of the 3rd Panzer Regiment had assembled in the town during the night. Perhaps the tankers were too busy looting the American freight cars and supply dumps to bother with the little force in the château. Perhaps they did not care to risk bazooka fire in the dark. In any case the defenders made radio contact (their last) with the 28th Division as late as 5.28 a.m. on the morning of 18 December. The final word on the defence of Clervaux would come from the enemy.

At dawn the Panther Battalion of the 3rd Panzer Regiment came clanking into Clervaux, after a night move from the Our River, and found tanks from the Mark IV Battalion playing cat and mouse with the Americans in the château. Bullet fire from the old stone walls was no menace to armoured vehicles, bazooka teams sent down from the château were killed or captured, and the German tank battalions moved on, north and west toward Bastogne. But the German infantry were more vulnerable and their march was delayed for several hours before engineers and self-propelled 88’s finally set the riddled château afire and forced the Americans to surrender. It is impossible to assess in hours the violence done the 2nd Panzer Division timetable at Clervaux, but it is clear that the race by this division to Bastogne was lost as the result of the gallant action by the 110th Infantry in front of and at the Clerf River crossings.

On 18 December what was left of the 110th Infantry was wiped out or withdrew to the west. Survivors in the north headed toward Donnange and, with Company G, joined elements of the 9th Armoured Division to make a stand. Those in the south fell back toward Wiltz, the division command post. The 2nd Battalion, surrounded on the ridge east of Clervaux, attempted to filter through the enemy lines in the early morning hours. Seven officers and fifty to sixty men did reach Donnange. Of the 1st Battalion, only a part of Company ‘C’ retained its organization. It had held on at Munshausen, with the 110th Cannon Company and a section of tank destroyers, all through the 17th. The riflemen and cannoneers made a fight of it, barricading the village streets with overturned trucks, fighting from house to house. After the Germans captured the howitzers, a bazooka team of a company officer and a sergeant held the enemy tanks at bay, destroying two which ventured into the village. Before daybreak on 18 December the survivors, now only a handful, started west.

Remnants of the 3rd Battalion had assembled at Consthum, the battalion headquarters. The garrison of a hundred or so was reinforced by Company L, ordered back from Holzthum to avoid entrapment. After dark on 17 December a captain led in about twenty-five men of Company ‘I’ from Weiler, after a desperate march, narrow escapes, and an ambuscade. Only Company ‘K’ in Hosingen was yet to be heard from. For two days and nights Company ‘K’ and Company ‘B’ of the 103rd Engineer Combat Battalion fought off all enemy attempts to eradicate this block on the Skyline Drive. On the morning of the 17th German tanks had set the town ablaze, but the few American Sherman tanks had held them at bay. By that night the defenders were without ammunition, but they continued the battle with hand grenades, withdrawing slowly and stubbornly from house to house. The American artillery by this time had displaced to the west and was out of range. Finally, on the morning of 18 December, the surviving members of the garrison sent out a last radio message; they had no choice but surrender.