Head for the Meuse! Part I

General der Panzertruppe Hasso von Manteuffel was angry. Several matters irritated the baron on 20 December, but no more so than his subordinate’s failure to take Bastogne on the evening of the 18th. He came over to Panzer Lehr’s HQ in person and berated Fritz Bayerlein for his stupidity in choosing a muddy track to Mageret ‘like an officer cadet who couldn’t read a map’. He blamed him for undue caution throughout the 19th and a ‘lack of fighting spirit’ within the division – accusations which could get a commander shot in the Third Reich of late 1944. Lüttwitz had little doubt that, had Bayerlein chosen an alternative route, he would have broken through the roadblocks of Teams Desobry or O’Hara, neither of whom were fully deployed, and gained the town easily – the 101st being off-balance, in the process of arriving and short of ammunition. Kokott’s Volksgrenadiers would have assisted in mopping up many of the straggling GIs in the vicinity. History suggests that Manteuffel and Lüttwitz were probably correct.

On the other hand, Heinz Kokott’s 26th Volksgrenadiers, struggling through the mud on foot with wagons and artillery drawn by 3,000 horses, had done a magnificent job of keeping up with the tanks. Henceforth their task would be to stay and subdue Bastogne, in place of the panzers which had by then begun to hurry westwards. In fact, Lüttwitz and Manteuffel had already recommended Kokott for promotion to Generalmajor, which came through on 1 January. Meanwhile, Bayerlein was instructed to leave one of his Panzergrenadier Regiments, the 901st, to stay behind with Kokott, while the rest of the division moved on. Part of Heilmann’s 5th Fallschirmjäger Division was also sent to Bastogne, but for the panzers – next stop, the Meuse!

The most northerly of Manteuffel’s three panzer divisions was Siegfried von Waldenburg’s 116th Panzer Division (the Windhund, or Greyhounds), which, accompanied by Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers, belonged to Krüger’s LVIII Panzer Corps. The Windhund Division had fought hard at Lützkampen to the north of the 2nd Panzer in the initial assault on the 16th. Despite attempts to build a bridge at Ouren, on the night of 16–17 December and throughout the 17th, they crossed the River Our using 2nd Panzer’s bridge at Dasburg, captured Heinerscheid and Hupperdange on 17 December, destroying sixteen tanks and taking 373 prisoners (from Nelson’s 112th Regiment), for similar losses of their own. They were under constant pressure from their superiors, Fifth Army and LVIII Corps, to get westwards as quickly as possible, using the opportunity of the ‘German-friendly weather – fog and drizzle’, but a heavy mortar shell exploded in the middle of a circle of commanders, the division’s War Diary noted, killing twelve including ‘our excellent Division physician, Professor Bickert’.

By late on 18 December the 116th Panzer’s advance guard had entered Houffalize, capturing or destroying ‘many trucks and vehicles and one Sherman’ and seizing the Ourthe river bridges undamaged. Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers were making ‘quite an effort’ to keep pace with them, though at this stage, aware of the clock ticking, Army Group ‘B’ ordered the pace of advance accelerated. Manteuffel, meanwhile, was concerned about the division’s order of march. ‘Spearheads [are] too thin and narrow. When [you are] near the enemy, attack him from broader formations with fire. Heavy weapons throughout [are] much too far back. Armoured groups [must be] to the front everywhere, not just Panzergrenadiers by themselves.’ On this day the first complaints about fuel shortages surfaced in the war diary, ‘No fuel’, reported some of the artillery formations. ‘All units that have arrived have enough for 20 kilometres, the advance battalion for 10 kilometres. Roads in the back jammed. [Which prevented trucks bearing fuel from moving forward.] Nothing coming in. Some tanks usable only by siphoning.’

Just as Bayerlein was grinding down his atrociously muddy track into Mageret, Major Fritz Vogelsang, the 116th Division’s IIa (Adjutant for officers), with supreme optimism, reflected their experience of Belgian roads. He noted, ‘Now, everything is rolling smoothly in both directions, but above all, into the area of the breach … The weather is again misty, damp, cold and rainy. For our offensive it could not be any better! However, mud and dirt on the ruined roads and in the torn-up terrain almost remind one of Russian conditions! In most cases the grey of our uniforms show only in a few places between the layers of mud … The hole in the enemy front now finally seems to have been bored through. Merrily, the attack rolls west – hopefully for long!’

South of Houffalize, 116th Panzer came up against American units, where ‘a large number of tanks and motor vehicles were captured or destroyed’ along with 400 prisoners taken. There was, however, a cautionary note that ‘the division attack on the morning of 19 December suffered considerable delays due to lack of fuel’. Fortunately that evening they overran Gives-Givroule, where a large fuel and supply depot was captured, enabling vehicles to top up – but petrol was becoming an ever-present concern for the 116th’s commanders. By the evening of the 19th, Generalmajor Waldenburg had established his HQ near Bertogne, seven miles north-west of Bastogne, but the division was having to sideslip south-west to find intact bridges over the rivers. His formation was becoming dangerously spread out, a situation governed by centres of opposition, destroyed bridges and the road network.

The enthusiasm of the initial advance was caught in Adjutant Vogelsang’s record for 20 December, which also reflected the deprivations all German soldiers had suffered during the preceding couple of years. ‘The Americans are completely surprised and in constant turmoil. Long columns of prisoners march toward the east, many tanks were destroyed or captured. Our Landsers are loaded with cigarettes, chocolates, and canned food, and are smiling from ear to ear. The combat units were able to fill the gaps caused by missing vehicles in their convoys with captured ones. Along the roads are immense piles of artillery ammunition. I estimate the amount to be 25,000 rounds. How wonderful that this blessing will not fall on our heads!’

Even though his advance looked promising, Waldenburg had already run out of intact bridges west and south of the Ourthe, with no time and few facilities to build replacements. Risking the loss of a whole day, he reluctantly ordered his division to turn around, retrace their steps to Houffalize and cross to the north and east bank of the Ourthe river, and thence head for La Roche and Noiseux. These are journeys of a few minutes today, with scarcely a blink of the eye when a small local river is crossed. Back in 1944 the loss of a single bridge could send a whole division scurrying hither and thither, wasting their two most precious resources in short supply – time and fuel. This gave the Americans time to strengthen their defences, for example at La Roche, where twenty-four tanks were observed on the morning of 20 December, when before there had been none.

There was some compensation when at 4.00 p.m., in Samrée, when Waldenburg destroyed twelve tanks guarding a supply depot containing 26,400 gallons of fuel, neatly stacked in five-gallon jerrycans for ready use. The 16th Panzer Regiment’s War Diary recorded, ‘The successes of the last past days create great enthusiasm among our soldiers, especially since many prisoners were brought in …’ A beaming Manteuffel congratulated Waldenburg by radio on the 21st: ‘Appreciation and gratitude to your magnificent men, your commanders and to you. Your successes adhere to proud tradition.’ More succinctly, as the divisional adjutant put it, ‘The faces of the prisoners are full of disbelief and amazement’.

Yet the loss of time was crucial, for it allowed Major-General Maurice Rose’s 3rd Armored Division to deploy opposite the 116th on the 20th, followed by General Alex Bolling’s 84th ‘Railsplitters’ Infantry Division (also known as the ‘Hatchet Men’) on the 21st – both units of J. Lawton Collins’ US VII Corps. With the 84th were Harold P. ‘Bud’ Leinbaugh and John D. Campbell, both with Company ‘K’ of the 333rd Infantry Regiment (not connected with the artillery unit of the same number). As they arrived in Serinchamps, a hamlet due west of Marche, the local mayor told them, ‘this was 1940 all over again; he seemed sure of it. He seemed to take perverse pride in explaining that Rommel had personally led his panzers through the region en route to the Meuse four years earlier’. Looking at Company ‘K’s weaponry, the mayor asked about American tanks, clearly anxious they had more than rifles to halt the German armour. ‘The local phones were working’, the mayor told them, ‘and he’d received calls an hour earlier reporting panzers rolling through villages ten miles away.’ Behind them, along the west bank of the Meuse, Montgomery had started to position the British XXX Corps, with fifty tanks of the 29th Armoured Brigade defending the bridges at Namur, Dinant and Givet. Lieutenant D.H. Clark of the Royal Army Medical Corps remembered their Sherman tanks ‘rumbling past, massive and effective-looking; the drivers were Hussars who had fought in them all the way up from Normandy. The tanks looked like tinkers’ caravans, with cooking pots, wine flagons, bed rolls and miscellaneous loot dangling from the camouflage netting.’

On the shortest day of the year, 21 December, the Windhund Division lunged for the little bridge over the Ourthe at Hotton, which is where this study of the Bulge campaign began. There, the mixed bag of defenders, numbering no more than 200, armed with one 57mm anti-tank and two 40mm anti-aircraft guns, were now wiser and perhaps the attackers over-confident. The Americans were fortunate to have present some combat engineers, who not only prepared the bridge for destruction but hastily laid mines and overturned vehicles to make roadblocks.

Using the cover of a forest that came close to the town, at 08.30 a.m. seven of the Windhund’s tanks and half-tracks suddenly hit Hotton after the briefest of artillery barrages. The 116th Division’s War Diary noted that ‘Nobody was expecting an attack, though the village, especially the bridge, was well secured by enemy tanks [in fact there were only two present to begin with], anti-tank guns and sharpshooters. A platoon was guarding a pedestrian footbridge upriver at Hampteau. Due to the loss of Oberleutnant Köhn’s leading Panther and the wounding of several commanders by headshots, the attack, which was only escorted by weak infantry units, came to a halt. Köhn lost an eye and three men from his crew were killed. There was heavy fighting with enemy tanks, in which the opponent suffered heavy losses … our units in Hotton were under heavy fire all day.’

Although the Windhund had the advantage of surprise, and the two US tanks were destroyed, the assault came to a halt because the Germans were too cocky. Had the attack been properly coordinated between tanks and Panzergrenadiers, Waldenburg would have got his bridge. However, his panzers went in without a proper reconnaissance and pretty much alone, and were picked off one by one. The town was not well defended at all, though the Germans perceived it to be. A strong, well-planned attack would have removed the defenders in a trice and one is left with the impression of a botched attempt to take Hotton on 21 December. Failure to take the town in the morning led to US reinforcements from 638th Tank Destroyer Battalion and Bolling’s 84th Infantry Division arriving from Soy, to the north-east, at exactly the right moment in the afternoon, as the Germans tired, and eventually they began to outnumber the attackers.

The US defenders also dominated the terrain north-east of Hotton as far as Soy, and constantly threatened to outflank their attackers, who were compelled to use their armour in defence. Using up fuel by manoeuvring off-road remained a concern, although the almost empty panzer regiment had been able to refuel completely with the petrol captured at Samrée. Oberfeldwebel Pichler, commanding three Panthers, destroyed five Shermans at Soy, but the arrival of the 1st Battalion, 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment (to which the future Medal of Honor-winner Melvin E. Biddle was attached), and a company of tank destroyers on 22 December emphasised the fact that any further German advance by way of Hotton was out of the question.

By 22 December the 116th Division’s attack at Hotton had culminated, although the Fifth Army orders received that night commanded ‘Bypass resistance, only [lightly] cover the flanks, bulk [effort] remains the advance towards Maas [the Meuse]. Continue to confuse, split up, surround, reconnoitre in force, and deceive [the Americans]’. However, the reality of the campaign was already apparent. The assault was hopelessly behind schedule. The Hotton attack emphasised just how alert the US Army in the once-sleepy Ardennes had become.

To the 116th Division’s north, the Sixth Panzer Army remained stuck on the Elsenborn Ridge, and General Lücht’s LXVI Corps on their immediate right had just finished fighting for St Vith (it was captured on the night of 21–22 December). On their left, Panzer Lehr had reached Rochefort (south-west of Marche) and 2nd Panzer Division, Bande (between Marche and La Roche); part of Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzer Corps was still delayed at Bastogne. Behind them, Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers were attacking at Dochamps, midway between Manhay and Marche, while reinforcements in the form of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich were attacking the Baraque de Fraiture crossroads, north-east of La Roche.

At the same time, 2nd Panzer Division was pulling away on its dash to the Meuse, largely because it had managed to avoid American strongpoints after Bastogne. Viewed from the air (which was not yet possible), Lauchert’s division would have looked like a finger, stretching for seven miles north-westwards, from Bastogne towards Dinant. However, there were no units to guard its flanks, for both Panzer Lehr to its left and 116th Panzer on its right had encountered tougher opposition and fallen behind. The 2nd Panzer was having to use some of its own combat power to protect its flanks, which inevitably slowed its advance. The further it lunged towards the Meuse, the weaker its spearhead became. The freezing weather took its toll on vehicles as well as people.

Hans Behrens, a wireless operator in a Panzer IV following behind with Generalleutnant Harald Freiherr von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer Division, recalled of his opponents, ‘The Americans came amiss as they had rubber pads on their tank tracks, and when the roads were icy, they just slid all over the place … Roads were just six inches of solid frozen gleaming ice … One saw an unending succession of lorries that had crashed out of control … On the camber of a road two men could slide one [panzer] sideways by merely pushing it.’ Due to widespread American knowledge of the massacre of GIs by Waffen-SS soldiers at Malmedy on 17 December, panzer crewmen like Behrens also learned that US troops had taken to shooting SS men automatically on capture. This often extended to tank crews, whose black panzer uniform and death’s head badge was frequently mistaken for membership of Himmler’s legions. Behrens spent the Bulge dreading capture. The reaction of Company ‘K’ of the 333rd Infantry was that ‘the SS was going to have to pay, and pay heavily’. They ‘just wanted to start killing Germans’.

Already it was apparent that the Americans were reacting far quicker than expected, both in terms of delaying the advance but also in terms of flooding the area with reinforcements. The daily report from Army Group ‘B’, Model’s headquarters, acknowledged that ‘the continuous action of the 116th Panzer Division and the 2nd Panzer Division, under difficult terrain conditions and heavy enemy resistance, has caused combat effectiveness to drop heavily’. In fact, the Windhund Division started 22 December with no battle-worthy tanks at all, but six replacement panzers arrived at midday, with twenty-seven soon following from the repair workshops. Some personnel began to trickle through to replace casualties, but shortages of fuel and ammunition still concerned the divisional staff.

Two last (and largely pointless) attempts were made to seize the bridge at Hotton at midnight on the 22nd and 02.15 a.m. on 23 December, using a battalion of Panzergrenadiers supported by tanks, after which responsibility for Hotton was handed to Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers (in whose ranks sixteen-year-old Grenadier Werner Klippel was serving) and the 116th Windhund disengaged. The latter were now weak from casualties, equipment losses and lack of fuel, but some troops slipped south towards Marche, discovering that US blocking forces were in place, ready to meet them.

On Saturday, 23 December, Manteuffel had his three panzer divisions ready to strike for the Meuse; on the left, Panzer Lehr was about to attack Rochefort. In the centre, 2nd Panzer was closest to the Meuse, though strung out and not concentrated, with its advance guard four miles east of Celles and only eleven miles from the river line. The 116th Panzer was still fixed in the Hotton–Marche area. Behind these three panzer divisions, the second echelon of von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer Division, in company with Remer’s Führer-Begleit-Brigade and part of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, were struggling forward, but all of these formations suffered from the same afflictions – superior Allied numbers, lack of fuel and ammunition and the crushing weight of hostile air power when the weather permitted.

Just as Manteuffel had skilfully rebalanced his forces and was poised to strike at the Meuse, the weather changed. The 23rd saw the first good flying conditions since the campaign began and the skies soon filled with Allied aircraft. The 116th War Diary lamented, ‘continuous air raids on supply roads and towns of the rearward areas. No Luftwaffe.’ They were there, but perhaps not visible to the 116th on the ground.

Men of the US 333rd Infantry Regiment recorded, ‘Hundreds of planes, German and American, but mostly American as far as we could tell, crisscrossed the sky, leaving long contrails from horizon to horizon. The dogfights were fascinating. Near noontime five smoking planes went down simultaneously. Flight after flight of low-flying Thunderbolts, Mustangs and Lightnings roared overhead toward the German lines. The planes gave a big boost to our morale … They were like geese in the sky.’ Lloyd Swenson was a twenty-year-old B-26 bomber pilot whose squadron had been getting ready to abandon its airbase on the Franco-Belgian border ‘because the Germans were getting so close. We couldn’t take anything with us, except our uniform and a toothbrush. Then on the twenty-third the fog lifted and it was a bright, clear day.’ In the morning his squadron of twin-engined B-26 Marauders, ‘a medium-range bomber, fast and very maneuvrable with a crew of five’, was assigned a mission to destroy a vital rail bridge supplying the Bulge. Thirty-six aircraft from the 387th Bomb Group set out with Swenson, who remembered ‘a few miles off Bastogne about twenty-five Messerschmitt 109s hurtled into our formation. As they did some of our P-51s [Mustang fighters] responded to our Mayday call. Over the intercom the tail gunner described the dogfight but I had to keep my eyes on flying the plane.’

Down below, the Windhund Division noted, ‘Across the entire western horizon the countless streaks of white vapour trails moved across the sky, an impressive, but scary show. The air was filled with uninterrupted humming. The number of bombers, fighter-bombers and fighters could not be counted!’ No sooner had Swenson returned from his bombing mission (in which five from his group of thirty-six were shot down) than he was assigned another in the afternoon to hit a communications centre at Prüm, just behind the German lines. Flak and fighters took a heavy toll of Allied aircraft that day and forty-one Ninth Air Force B-26s were shot down – ‘by far the blackest day in Marauder history,’ added Swenson. The following day, equally good for flying, he added another two missions over the Ardennes and eventually accumulated sixty-one before returning home.

Despite air attacks, Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr ground forward through that Saturday and when darkness fell he and fifteen panzers had reached the outskirts of Rochefort, where Companies ‘K’ and ‘I’ of the US 335th Regiment (belonging to the Railsplitters’ 84th Division) were waiting in defence. Few of the inhabitants had fled and numbers were swollen with refugees; none of the 4,000 civilians had anywhere to go but huddle in their cellars. The Lehr assaulted the town through the night of 23–24 December, as Obergefreiter Schüssler recalled: ‘Dismount! The panzer we had been riding on rolled forward a bit, hit a low garden wall and knocked it over. The enemy machine-gun which had fired at us disappeared with a crunching impact … An arrow of tracers turned on us and threw us behind the cover of another wall. My machine-gun shuddered in my hands. The bolt ate the belt of ammo and spat out the empty cases. It fell quiet abruptly … We reached a back courtyard. As I was running I saw the brilliant flashes of bursting mortar rounds; I saw the “dark mice” [as he dubbed the mortar rounds] descend and impact on the roof. A hand grenade flew over our heads into the room where the Americans were. Its ear-deafening blast made us hit the deck. The enemy guns, set up on sandbags along the windows, fell silent.’