Head for the Meuse! Part II

The Americans in Rochefort put up a tough fight, but the town fell an hour after first light, with fewer than 150 of the two US infantry companies escaping. During the 24th, Panzer Lehr found themselves following the march route of 2nd Panzer Division; around Humain (north of Rochefort) they found the burned-out half-tracks of an entire Panzergrenadier company; ‘the battle-group directed to Buissonville encountered ten knocked-out German tanks right outside the village,’ recorded the Division. Christmas Day found the headquarters of Panzer Lehr in St Hubert (south-east of Rochefort), a town of 3,500, where they received a concerted Allied bombing campaign from noon. ‘The wrecks of divisional vehicles smouldered after the attacks … Through his binoculars the commander [Bayerlein] could see gliders heading in towards Bastogne, which was being supplied by air.’ Meanwhile, an American patrol watched a Panzer Lehr convoy heading towards Rochefort, which reflected a typical mix of German and impressed US vehicles, including ‘one company of infantry, five German tanks, two Sherman tanks, fifteen half-tracks, two American Jeeps, one American 2½ ton truck, and three German ambulances’.

By 24–25 December, the 116th Panzer Division was essentially fixed along the terrain between Hotton and Marche by General Alex Bolling’s US 84th Infantry Division and its accompanying 771st Tank Battalion. In continuous skirmishes, the latter were able to split the panzer division into separate battlegroups and sub-units, around the villages of Verdenne, Marenne, Menil-Favay and Hampteau south of the Marche–Hotton road. The panzers were unable to fight as larger formations because of the strength of US troops in the vicinity, minefields and air support the GIs had on call. Early on 24 December the hamlet of Verdenne and its château were attacked and taken by Major Gerhardt Tebbe’s 16th Panzer Regiment with a platoon (five) of Panzer IVs under Leutnant Grzonka, and another of four Panthers, led by Hauptmann Kuchenbach, supported by a weak battalion of Panzergrenadiers. Major Tebbe, an Ostfront veteran, who would be awarded a German Cross in Gold for his leadership in the Bulge and command panzers again in the future Bundeswehr, had already been obliged to abandon one of his Panthers along his line of march, in Houffalize. It is still there, mounted on a concrete plinth overlooking the right side of the road as you drive in from the direction of Bastogne and Noville.

Company ‘K’ of the 84th Division was detailed to investigate the Verdenne area, for the German incursion threatened to sever the important Marche–Hotton road, running south-west to north-east, effectively the 84th’s front line and crucial to their scheme of defence. Assured of support from Shermans of the 771st Tank Battalion, and under a clear Christmas Eve sky with ‘the feel of snow in the air, the ground lightly frozen and covered with frost’, they set off down a track which connected Verdenne with Bourdon, a mile to the north. ‘Just ahead a tank loomed out of the darkness, its huge bulk filling the narrow road, branches pressing in on either side brushing its steel plates. Sergeant Don Phelps went forward to liaise with the tankers, pounding on the side of the hull with his rifle, “Hey, you guys, open up!” The hatch opened slowly, a creak of metal, and the head and shoulders of a man appeared. “Was ist los?” Machine-guns started to chatter, tracers lit up the sky, tank guns fired, mortar rounds exploded, and Company ‘K’ scattered – and leapt straight into the foxholes of the Panzergrenadier battalion protecting their tanks. Major Tebbe reckoned he may have had around forty panzers and half-tracks hidden in the woods at this point. The German salient near Verdenne “had been discovered in a curious way”.’

When this began, Major Gerhardt Tebbe, the panzer commander, recalled to me that on Christmas Eve he was in his Befehlspanzer (command tank), studying his maps. The radio relayed a programme from Cologne Cathedral where the bells were ringing in the festive season. Suddenly his reverie was broken by gunfire nearby, and he slammed shut his turret hatch.24 On Christmas morning, some of the Railsplitters noticed ‘Two German soldiers came stumbling forward toward our positions in the half-light, hands held high, yelling “Nicht schiessen!” (“don’t shoot!”). We discovered that they actually understood very little German, and they finally made us understand they were Ukrainians, drafted into the German army.’

Their appearance in this sector puzzled intelligence staff, but they turned out to be from Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers, by far the weakest German formation in Herbstnebel, whose ranks included many older men from garrisons in Norway, with waif and strays from Russia and Ukraine. It is a sad reflection that many East European Volksgrenadier ‘volunteers’ never got the opportunity to surrender in this way. When suddenly faced with a figure in field grey waving his arms about and shouting incoherently (few Volksdeutsche had a good grasp of German, much less English), most nervous, trigger-happy GIs tended to shoot first and ask questions later.

At the end of Christmas Day, Verdenne had been cleared and 289 Windhund prisoners taken, though nine panzers counter-attacked in the afternoon, each one of which was destroyed by waiting Shermans. By then, many of the Windhund’s sub-units were scattered and encircled by stronger US forces in the Verdenne area. On 26 December, the 84th Hatchet Men went on to ambush an armoured column at Menil-Favay. The leading panzer ran over a pile of anti-tank mines which exploded with such force so as to blow the tank on to its side, ripping a hole in its belly armour, and killing the crew; this blocked the advance of the vehicles behind, leading to the destruction of twenty-six Windhund vehicles, including six tanks.

With US infantry and tank attacks proving too costly to subdue the 116th Panzer Division, the Americans used artillery instead. Their opponents noted, ‘the deployment of American guns was overwhelming’ – there were about 150 US cannon of varying calibres, including 155mm guns and eight-inch howitzers – which broke up every German attempt to break out. The 84th Division thought it ‘the heaviest, most devastating bombardment we had ever witnessed. When the fire stopped, the cries for help from wounded and dying Germans carried clearly to our lines. We admitted to ourselves that we were sorry for the poor bastards up there.’ Eventually, on hearing that further reinforcement or relief of the Windhund was not possible, Waldenburg ordered the vehicles in the Verdenne pocket abandoned and the division went over to the defensive. Remer’s Führer-Begleit-Brigade had almost reached him and the Hotton area, with Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer trailing behind – both with a view to continuing the push westwards – when Berlin switched Remer back to Bastogne on Hitler’s personal whim.

There is nothing remarkable about the Verdenne woods today, except that they are full of the defensive trenches and foxholes dug by both sides, where old ammunition boxes, mortar fragments and shrapnel still litter the forest floor.

The 2nd Panzer Division, which had advanced further, was in a similar predicament, being spread out in scattered battlegroups between an area south-west of Marche and as far as Foy-Notre-Dame, near the Meuse, which Hauptmann von Böhm’s Reconnaissance Battalion reached at midnight on 23 December. At the same moment a jeep manned by three Americans failed to stop at a joint Anglo-US manned checkpoint on the east bank of Meuse, at Dinant. When the vehicle careered through the Rocher Bayard feature – a narrow slit in the rock through which a Sherman could just squeeze – by a prearranged signal Sergeant Baldwin of the 8th Rifle Brigade (a British infantry battalion), a few hundred yards further on, pulled a necklace of anti-tank mines across the road, blowing up the jeep and killing its occupants. All three were found to be wearing US helmets and greatcoats over German uniforms; in their pockets were found very detailed plans of the Allied defences. These were almost certainly not Skorzeny commandos, but a scouting patrol of 2nd Panzer Division sent on ahead in an improvised disguise.

Lauchert immediately pushed forward another battlegroup of Panzergrenadiers, tanks, artillery and engineers under Major Ernst von Cochenhausen, which reach Celles soon after. As with the Windhund along the Marche–Hotton line, 2nd Panzer was, in the words of its War Diary, ‘hindered in its mobility through lack of fuel’. In other words, the Germans could advance no further. In two groups, Böhm at Foy and Cochenhausen at Celles, they dug in and virtually waited to be counter-attacked, but all the while hoping that 9th Panzer Division would break through behind them, or Panzer Lehr or the Windhund Division to their left and right flanks. The Germans’ right flank was unguarded because 116th Panzer had not been able to move forward beyond Hotton, and the left was similarly unprotected because Panzer Lehr also lagged behind.

Thanks to intelligence gathered by two former Belgian army officers, Baron Capitaine Jacques de Villenfagne and his cousin, Lieutenant Philippe le Hardy de Beaulieu, who, dressed in white from head to toe and wearing white gloves, trekked through the crystal-clear night in minus 30 degrees of frost to map the panzers’ positions, British troops in nearby Sorinnes were furnished with the exact locations and precise strengths of Kampfgruppe von Böhm. During 24 December, Shermans of Lieutenant-Colonel Alan Brown’s British 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (3 RTR) stationed on the east bank of the Meuse duelled cautiously with the forward tanks of Böhm’s Kampfgruppe; at the same time rocket-firing Typhoons and P-51s harassed the Germans. Aerial observers also appeared in the skies, directing ground artillery onto targets with great accuracy. It was also obvious the latter were short of fuel as each Panther was seen to be towing up to three trucks.

Hitler spent Christmas Eve, der Heilige Abend, in the Führerbunker at the Ziegenberg Adlerhorst complex, elated that 2nd Panzer was so close to the Meuse. The flag noting their position was duly moved on the situations map. He disregarded the fact that they were out of fuel and under air attack. In the afternoon, his staff remembered, he had stood outside the command bunker, watching as thousands of tiny specks glittered in the winter sky overhead. They were American bombers, heading eastwards to bomb the heartland of the Reich.

Knowing that two battlegroups of his division were dangerously exposed, Lauchert asked for permission to withdraw his forward elements and regroup. His request did not get beyond Manteuffel, who knew that neither Model nor Hitler would permit it. Afterwards, Lauchert’s chief of staff, Oberstleutnant Rüdiger Weitz, recorded, ‘During the night the front line elements sent urgent calls for reinforcements and supplies of ammunition and fuel. More and more reports came in stating that the enemy was constantly reinforcing and was, in some cases, on our own supply road. The process of marching on Dinant had come to a halt.’

On Christmas Day, Major-General Ernest N. Harmon’s US 2nd Armored Division attacked Lauchert’s exposed right flank at Foy-Notre-Dame, squeezing it between two task forces to the north and south. The US 82nd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion and 3 RTR also attacked from the west, forward of the Meuse. Major Noël Bell, serving with the British 8th Rifle Brigade, watched from a nearby vantage point. ‘A squadron of P-38 Lightnings roared over us and circled low, determined to have a festive Christmas Day. Three Panthers, a certain amount of transport and a large number of entrenched infantry … were subjected to merciless and incessant attack from the Lightnings which soon began to dive to rooftop height with machine-guns blazing, dropping bombs at the same time.’

The result was that Kampfgruppe von Böhm was surrounded, smashed and the survivors forced to surrender. After the Christmas Day battle, General Harmon reported that he ‘destroyed or captured eighty-two tanks, sixteen other armoured vehicles, eighty-three guns, and 280 motor vehicles. Twenty vehicles were captured and pressed into Allied service, including seven US trucks seized only days earlier. Harmon had taken the “panzer” out of the 2nd Panzer Division.’ The fact that only 148 men, including Böhm himself, were taken prisoner out of the thousand-plus personnel illustrated the crushing blow that had descended on the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 2nd Panzer Division. It had ceased to exist.

For the Führer’s last Christmas, Oberscharführer Rochus Misch told me in 1993, Hitler’s staff at the Adlerhorst conjured up a small Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree) complete with candles, under which lay modest gifts of cigarettes, of which the Führer disapproved, Stollen (fruit cake) and chocolates (he had a sweet tooth), wrapped in newsprint or bright paper. All present realised that any wistful references to the Christkind (Christ Child), a Krippenspiel (nativity play) or the Weihnachtsmann (St Nicholas or Santa Claus), who delivered a sack full of presents to good children, belonged to a different era, and were banned. The headquarters staff, secretaries and generals toasted one another with champagne; Hitler shared the intoxication of the moment, although he had not drunk alcohol: he was already high on the success of his armies. Yet the only Christmas present for which the Führer wished, victory in the Ardennes, was already unattainable.

‘That evening the Americans occupied the Farm Mayenne (formerly home to a Panther platoon)’, wrote Noël Bell. ‘Foy Notre Dame was a smouldering ruin in which half of “B” Squadron 3 RTR and the Americans leaguered for the night, after going round the village and getting Germans out of cellars, like ferrets after rats.’ Several Catholic GIs were recorded as lining up to confess their sins – with the aid of a pocket dictionary – to Father Coussin, a veteran of the Great War and the priest of Celles.

Tactically, Lauchert had overstretched 2nd Panzer, which was in any case out of fuel. The unrelenting pressure for progress came from General von Lüttwitz, who hovered nearby, protective of the division he had commanded from February to September in 1944, and forever breathing down Lauchert’s neck. Today, one of the 2nd Panzer Division’s Panther tanks has survived the attentions of the post-war scrap dealers, and – minus its road wheels and tracks – stands guard outside the crossroads in Celles, where a series of signboards with maps explain the battle in detail, reminding passing motorists how close the Fifth Panzer Army came to their goal of reaching the Meuse.

Thus the spearhead of the entire Herbstnebel campaign had been halted and blunted. The Army Group War Diary noted, ‘On 25 December, the attack by Army Group “B” was the target of strong enemy counter-attacks from the north and west against spearheads of the Fifth Panzer Army. The back-and-forth battles lasted the whole day.’ Panzer Lehr observed that their divisional logistics elements suffered terribly over 24–25 December. Every drop of gasoline had to be brought forward by vehicle and the division lost thirty fuel trucks during their march to the front, not including those bogged down in the mud, broken down or caught in accidents. ‘A Flak battery that attempted to reply to an attack of P-38 Lightnings simply disappeared under a hail of bombs. Hardly any men of the battery survived and the division’s armoured maintenance workshops were swept up in a maelstrom of fire.’

By the time Army Group ‘B’ ordered the Sixth Panzer Army to disengage from the Elsenborn Ridge and strengthen the effort of Fifth Army on 25 December, it was too late. On his own initiative, Bayerlein withdrew the forward elements of Panzer Lehr back into Rochefort during the night of 25–26 December. This was an acknowledgement that Hitler’s original plan of putting most weight on the German right, favouring the Waffen-SS, had been a disaster, and that Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army sector had always shown the greatest promise.

This was not just because of Manteuffel’s fighting qualities and judgement as a commander, but because the terrain was far better suited and offered more alternatives to fast-moving armoured troops. Surprise was the major advantage the Germans possessed and that had largely been thrown away by the length of time the panzer formations took to bridge their river lines during the first couple of days. Had the Fifth Army possessed Dietrich’s bridging equipment, engineering assets and weight of artillery support, enabling it to bridge efficiently and effectively on 16–17 December, it might have made the Meuse, but even then would not have managed to get much beyond.

On 26 December, 116th Panzer Division was ordered ‘onto the defensive’, in theory to await the arrival of second echelon relief units, but in reality acknowledging that the offensive was over. The battle would thenceforth be to retain whatever gains had been made. ‘The Other Fellow’, as Bradley habitually referred to his opponents, ‘reached his high-water mark today’, he reported to Bedell Smith at Ike’s headquarters. On this day Major Fritz Vogelsang, the 116th’s Divisional Adjutant, noted, ‘This morning, fighter-bombers and bombers turned La Roche into a smoking pile of rubble. Our anti-aircraft guns were able to shoot down some of the attackers … if only the weather would turn bad again!’ Vogelsang also assessed the accumulated personnel losses since the 16th, as at least 1,907 killed or wounded, 1,278 taken prisoner and an unspecified number missing; a total of 113 armoured vehicles of all types had been destroyed – only seven tanks and four tank destroyers were still battleworthy.

‘The Division lost much of its combat value, inner strength, quality, speed and flexibility of leadership. It will be able to compensate for these losses through its reserves, but not for those valuable officers, including a large number of battalion commanders, adjutants and company commanders and most of the junior leaders … of special impact is the loss of fifteen radio and three other armoured communications vehicles … Losses are so high that the two Panzergrenadier regiments, where all four battalion commanders became casualties, have to be considered as nearly destroyed.’ The combined battle strength on 29 December of the two Panzergrenadier regiments totalled 1,184 out of the nearly 5,000 who started the campaign. Divisional headquarters came in for some harsh treatment on the same day; in despair, as Major Vogelsang recorded, ‘Fighter-bombers appeared and took care of some of the few houses … Then artillery planes began to circle and directed well-controlled fire from heavy guns. Explosions everywhere! Finally it became too uncomfortable; nobody can conduct a paper war from a foxhole!’