Panthers in the Snow IV

December 23, 1944, dawned biting cold but clear. This would be a day of retribution for Allied pilots. The sunshine scattered the Germans into the woods, who knew well what P-47 Thunderbolts and P-38 Lightnings did. The Germans between Hotton and Soy melted into the trees. But they didn’t give up the road or their wooded high ground. Combat Command Reserve kept at it all day, backed by air strikes. Hotton, though, remained firmly in American hands.

Sam Hogan’s personal Lone Star flag still flew at Marcouray. His task force occupied the hole in the doughnut. Well-hidden German volksgrenadiers persisted in their choke hold. But now Hogan’s wounded, more every few hours, needed key medical supplies. His vehicles were running on fumes. The entire thing started to smell like that famous 1836 Texas stand at the Alamo. That one hadn’t ended well.

Maurice Rose let his cannoneers try firing bandages and blood plasma into Marcouray inside hollow 105 shells normally used for propaganda leaflets. What landed looked like cold pizza, a mess. An airdrop later in the day also failed. The Germans picked up the bundles and the U.S. Army Air Forces lost cargo planes. The outlook for TF Hogan appeared bleak.

The 560th Volksgrenadier Division continued to press TF Orr at Amonines and TF Kane east of Dochamps. Wary of the roaming American aircraft, the Germans settled for attacking by fire, mortars mainly, plus an occasional antitank gun round. The Germans waited for darkness. The Americans waited for more troops.

At last, Rose had some to give. Combat Command A returned to the fold, closing in an assembly area north of Manhay at 1:30 a.m. on December 23. While most of CCA moved west to Marche to gain a firm handshake with the incoming 84th Infantry Division, Lieutenant Colonel Rich Richardson’s task force came under Spearhead Division control. Richardson came with more than expected, his usual cast, built around his own 3rd Battalion, 32nd Armored Regiment and Company I of the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment. Most of Richardson’s tankers and infantry moved to backstop Manhay, equal to embattled Hotton as the other anchor of Rose’s thin green line. The Germans hadn’t pushed there . . . yet.

About noon, Rose directed Richardson to send a Sherman tank platoon and a half-track rifle platoon south to Baraque de Fraiture. The infantry got hung up at a roadblock—ominously, Waffen SS there—but the five Sherman crews closed their hatches, shrugged off the German small-arms fire, and clanked onward. They got to the critical crossroads at about 1:00 p.m. American glider men there told of a failed SS attack that morning. Evidently the 2nd SS Panzer Division had made its appearance. There’d surely be more.

There was.

About 4:00, as the sun set—and the American airplanes went away—German artillery and mortars commenced a twenty-minute concentrated bombardment. The bare hill at Baraque de Fraiture offered no cover other than the trio of farmsteads. The Germans methodically shredded those. American glider troops crouched in their foxholes. Tank crews rode it out with every lid shut. Hot fragments rattled on the Sherman hulls.

Right on cue, the way they taught you in any good infantry school, the SS panzergrenadiers came running from the south and west, hop-scotching from dim hummock to barely seen dip, almost touching the last few shell bursts, coming on the American infantry holes just as the last German mortar bombs deonated. Mark IV Panzers appeared. Two Shermans flamed. So did two Panzers. The 106th Infantry Division howitzer crews knocked out two more Mark IVs. So far, so good—then the Panthers showed up.

The Panthers immediately blew away two more Shermans. A third American tank tried to use the foundation of the Belgian house as cover. The G.I. crew edged out and shot twice at a Panther, but the 75mm rounds hit the Panther’s sloping front plate and zinged away, “like throwing peas at a plate glass window.” The Panther nailed the Sherman, and then two more. Meanwhile, the SS panzergrenadiers pawed through the wreckage of the three buildings. The enemy overran the position. Only a few Americans made it out. The glider infantry company reported seventy-one men missing. The crews from 3rd Armored Division never came back. The Germans had grabbed the vital crossroads at Baraque de Fraiture. Next came Manhay. Then the Meuse.

The moment of crisis had arrived. Everything Maurice Rose had was in the fight. The 82nd Airborne had no more to loan to the Spearheaders. This battle had to be won with what the 3rd Armored Division owned—not much, maybe not enough. Rose knew it, too.

And it had to be the 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich,” notorious slayers imbued with Nazi propaganda. The Americans heard the stories, bad ones. The Waffen SS had already murdered eighty-six American prisoners at Malmedy, and Bill Lovelady’s task force in Combat Command B reported slain Belgian civilians at the tiny village of Parfondruy. There a Waffen SS unit shot an old man in bed, drilled another elder in the street, killed a family, including a six-month-old baby, and murdered six more children. Lovelady’s men took SS troops captive who freely admitted the slaughter. The enemy officers encouraged them to “fight in the old SS way.” No prisoners. And now an entire panzer division of these Nazi zealots drove on Manhay.

Rose didn’t hesitate. He’d spent days in and around Manhay, thinking about how to defend the place. The village itself wasn’t the key. No, the high ground to the northwest near the hamlet of Grandmenil formed a bow that also ran athwart the highway to the Meuse. Hold that ridge, from just past Grandmenil around to the north end of Manhay. Hold it with tanks, infantry, engineers, and pounding artillery and the Germans weren’t going anywhere, Waffen SS or not.

It’s of interest that Field Marshal Montgomery also grasped the importance of these crucial heights. In his traditional efficient style, on December 20–23 Monty made daily whirlwind tours of his new American corps headquarters, seeing and being seen, and offering bon mots—“see him off with a bowl,” “hit him for a boundary”—incomprehensible and vaguely condescending to non-cricketeer Americans. Monty quickly sized up conditions and commenced his tidying thing, making straight the ways in the spirit of the approaching Yuletide. Effective December 23, 1944, Matt Ridgway’s XVIII Airborne Corps stopped at Manhay, to be held by the battered 7th Armored Division and the rump of the 106th Infantry Division. Joe Collins’s VII Corps inherited everything west of Manhay, starting with Maurice Rose’s 3rd Armored Division at the vital Grandmenil heights and on west through Amonines to Soy, to Hotton, to Marche, and out to the Meuse crossings at Dinant. Behind the designated American line, rather clean on Monty’s map board, British armored brigades moved into position at the crucial Meuse bridges: Dinant, Namur, Huy, and Liege, sticky wickets all. Neat, clean, and gripped up; so ruled Monty.

But the mixed-up situation on the ground did not so swiftly unsnarl itself, especially with the 2nd SS Panzer Division pushing north toward Manhay. And Monty wouldn’t run this fight near Manhay. Rose would.

Overnight on December 23–24, Rose’s orders went out: Howze and CCR must clean up Soy-Hotton once and for all. Orr and Kane need to hold the center: Orr at Amonines, Kane at Grandmenil. Richardson had to tie tightly into TF Kane and defend the heights north and west of Manhay; he also must cooperate with the hodge-podge gathering there from the 82nd Airborne and 7th Armored divisions. And Hogan? One more day, one more airdrop, then pull the plug. Whatever that might really mean. Rose couldn’t dwell on it. The weather people presented good news for Christmas Eve, another good flying day, with Christmas likely the same. The fighter-bombers would be active. Rose’s artillery chief, Colonel Fred Brown, promised eighteen battalions in range and on call. Air and artillery, big hammers—and the Spearheaders had need of them.

Rose insisted on one more action. Overnight on December 23–24, Rose told Richardson to get a force, as much as he could scrape up, down toward Baraque de Fraiture to make contact with the Waffen SS. The Germans would probably wait until night before renewing their attack toward Manhay. Richardson sent Major Olin Brewster with a swept-together task force of seven tanks, four half-tracks of armored riflemen, Company A of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, and Company C, 1st Battalion, 290th Infantry, 75th Infantry Division. That last unit had just shown up for duty. They had no prior combat experience, and now had to stand in the face of the 2nd SS Panzer Division. Brewster’s makeshift battalion made it as far as a defile at Belle Haie. They felled trees and blocked the road, then dug in for a 360-degree fight right on the main enemy axis of advance. Brewster’s orders came from Rich Richardson, who’d gotten the word from Maurice Rose: “hold at all costs.”80 With Baraque de Fraiture gone, by first light on December 24, TF Brewster formed the early warning outpost and a breakwater on the highway to Manhay.

Risking air attacks, the Germans spent the daylight hours on Christmas Eve slipping forces up toward Manhay to set up for a decisive night attack. As a result, Brewster’s men battled small bands of SS panzergrenadiers all day. The rookies from the 75th Infantry Division got a faceful of Germans, a steep learning curve, all right. Brewster’s tanks held their own. The Waffen SS weren’t mounted in half-tracks, nor backed by panzers. Odd that—Brewster didn’t realize it, but the Germans lacked gasoline. They’d siphoned and scrimped to fill up the lead vehicles in their Panther column. And that element didn’t dare drive right up a defended defile road with Sherman tanks in ambush, artillery zeroed in, and quartets of P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft wheeling overhead hunting for prey.

One of those Waffen SS panzer columns wriggled through the woods west of TF Brewster and moved north toward Grandmenil. Two Panther companies pushed north with SS panzergrenadiers riding the panzers to economize on scarce gasoline. Just after 8:00 a.m. at a hamlet called Freyneux, two miles southwest of Grandmenil, the Germans clanked into an open field. The dark Panthers contrasted nicely as they waddled through the sunlit snow.

Freyneux was defended by a team from TF Kane including five American M4 Shermans (one with the new, larger 76mm cannon), four M5 Stuarts, and forty-five 83rd Recon scouts. The Americans waited in carefully chosen concealed firing positions as the Germans blithely approached. German officers up in the turrets noticed nothing unusual. And then . . .

Sergeant Jim Vance opened fire with his tank’s 76mm cannon, whacking a Panther on its vulnerable side. He then hit another Panther in its belly as the German vehicle crested a bump. Another American Sherman damaged a third Panther. The Germans backed into the trees. See first, shoot first, hit first—exactly like training at Fort Knox.

Vance and the other TCs then sprayed the withdrawing German Panthers with .50 caliber heavy machine gun fire. That unceremoniously unloaded the onboard panzergrenadiers. The four M5 Stuarts and dismounted recon men opened fire. The Stuart’s puny 37mm main gun did nothing much to panzers. But against scurrying German ground troops, it more than filled the bill.

The German Panthers hit one Sherman and a Stuart, too. When four more Panthers attempted to cross the snowy meadow, TC Sergeant Reece Graham spotted them at 2,000 yards (more than a mile away), dark silhouettes on the white carpet, broadside to Graham’s standard-issue 75mm gun. Sherman tankers loved Panther side shots. Graham engaged, quickly knocking out two of the distant Panthers; their stricken crews probably had no idea where the kill-shots originated. The surviving Waffen SS panzers backed away, retracing the dirt trail they’d used to get to Freyneux. Vectored in by alert forward air controllers with TF Kane, American fighter-bombers found them and set a Panther afire. Five Panthers gone, three damaged, numerous panzergrenadiers killed, wounded, or wandering in the trees. Clearly, this attack didn’t work for the SS. Kane’s men saw to that.

Along the Hotton-Grandmenil road, greatly aided by U.S. airstrikes and fearsome artillery concentrations, Rose’s task forces established a solid line for the first time since December 20. Combat Command A linked in with the 84th Infantry Division in Marche. Combat Command Reserve with another regiment of the 75th Infantry Division strongly held Hotton and Soy. Task Force Orr guarded Amonines. Task Force Kane just south and TF Richardson just north held the high ground west of Grandmenil. Matt Kane placed four attached tank destroyers inside the village itself. When the 2nd SS Panzer Division main effort came, Rose’s men dominated the good ground.

While the 2nd SS Panzer Division commanders reassessed their efforts to get around TF Kane and TF Brewster, Sam Hogan also met the Germans. One of his Sherman sergeants reported a German officer approaching alone on foot. The man carried a stick with a white flag. A lieutenant blindfolded the enemy leader and took him on a magical mystery tour—no need to let the German gain intelligence. After a reasonable length of time, the German came face-to-face with Hogan and his Lone Star flag. The U.S. escort removed the eye covering. In good English, the German officer told Hogan that three panzer divisions surrounded the American battalion. Surrender now, he said.

Hogan emphatically refused. A battlewise veteran by now, Hogan could see by his foe’s uniform that this was no panzer man, but a regular infantry officer. Panzers or not, the Germans certainly outnumbered the Americans and held most of the cards. But as Hogan told his unwelcome guest, the Americans had orders to hold, and they would. The German was again blindfolded and escorted back to whence he came. A similar scene near Bastogne brought everlasting fame to the 101st Airborne Division. But unlike the 101st, no Third Army divisions were driving to succor TF Hogan. Sam Hogan and his G.I.s stood alone. Maurice Rose had nothing to send them.

That afternoon, Army Air Forces C-47 Dakota transports again dropped supplies by parachute. The encircling Germans again enjoyed the American largesse, and shot down at least one airplane, too. Two airmen parachuted into TF Hogan’s defensive position. Two more mouths to feed, thought Hogan, and with almost no gasoline left and ammunition shortages, too.85 Defiant words aside, TF Hogan was nearly spent.

Christmas Eve night brought not peace, but pain. In Manhay, both the 7th Armored Division and the 82nd Airborne Division troops began the Montgomery-ordered realignment. By happenstance, a Waffen SS column of Panthers bearing panzergrenadiers stormed into town about 9:00 p.m., catching several American outfits by surprise just as the G.I.s loaded up to pull out. In a running gunfight, the Americans lost dozens of vehicles and sustained hundreds of casualties.

The Germans grabbed the town as U.S. trucks, tanks, and foot troops scattered. For good measure, Waffen SS Panthers also chucked out the four TF Kane tank destroyers in the village of Grandmenil. All bad, all ugly—and all tactically irrelevant, as the Americans absolutely controlled the key terrain. Daylight would bring more rampaging P-47s. The Germans had taken Manhay. Merry Christmas. But Manhay didn’t matter anymore. The 2nd SS Panzer Division was out of fuel and out of options.

So were two of Maurice Rose’s exposed task forces. With the 3rd Armored Division fought out after the slugfest along the Hotton-Manhay line, and unrelenting German pressure up and down that front, no viable force remained to rescue TF Hogan or TF Brewster. What would become of them?

Maurice Rose had been pondering TF Hogan’s state for days. At midday on Christmas Day, Rose authorized Sam Hogan to destroy his vehicles and withdraw on foot under the cover of night. Lacking gasoline and engineer demolition charges, Hogan’s men drained all the oil reservoirs and resorted to the preferred method of teenage vandals, pouring sugar into the gas tanks and then racing the engines until they seized up. Gunners collected breech blocks from howitzers and tank guns; these went down a well in Marcouray. Men with hammers and wrenches bashed radios to pieces, then for good measure cracked up gunsight optics. Battalion surgeon Captain Louis Spiegelmann volunteered to stay behind with the dozens of immobile G.I. wounded, some captured Germans, and the remains of the one American killed in the Marcouray perimeter. The walking wounded went out with Hogan.

At twilight, the Americans discarded their heavy, noisy metal helmets, rubbed ashes on their faces, and set out in disciplined platoons, no panic, all business. A recon team had found a gap in the German lines. “Hogan’s 400” used it. The last man in the march turned out to be Sam Hogan himself, not due to any bold gesture—though he had guts aplenty—but because the task force commander wore fur-lined Royal Air Force flight boots, excellent for hours standing in a cold metal tank and thoroughly awful for tromping through deep snow. Even so, the Americans got cleanly away and reached American lines near Hotton on the bright morning of December 26.

When he met up with G.I. defenders, Hogan was packed into a peep and sent to Omaha Forward. Rose greeted him, congratulated him on his stalwart defense, and praised Hogan for getting most of his men out. When the general asked why Hogan walked in last, the Texan eschewed a chance to say something heroic, and instead offered, “My feet hurt.” American newspaper reporters and radio broadcasters told and retold the story of Hogan’s 400. These soldiers epitomized American grit.

A different experience awaited Major Olin Brewster. His stitched-together battalion-strength task force at Belle Haie still held the place “at all costs,” as ordered by Maurice Rose. But once Manhay fell to the Germans, that no longer made sense. The Waffen SS had gone from Belle Haie. But they’d be back. Brewster talked by radio to Rich Richardson, who OK’d a withdrawal in the wee hours of December 25. “Get out now if you can,” Richardson said, “but don’t use the road you went up on. Try east.” Bring out all vehicles and soldiers. Go toward the 82nd Airborne Division’s area. Avoid Manhay.

Brewster tried the eastern road. It didn’t go well. At about 3:00 a.m. on Christmas morning, the vehicle column slowly chugged down a tight one-lane farm track. Concealed German antitank guns nailed the lead tank and then the trail tank. German machine guns opened up from the south, not effective at first, but getting there. In a snap decision, fight or flight, Brewster opted for the latter. He ordered all his troops to dismount and head north through the dark woods. The Americans moved out with a purpose. It was not a bug-out, but an organized tactical effort, taking advantage of the darkness and German confusion, some of it caused by TF Brewster’s previous stand at Belle Haie. The U.S. task force left behind a half-track, a peep, a two-and-a-half-ton truck, and five intact Sherman tanks. Men said they’d disabled the vehicles, and no doubt did what they could under German fire. But the need to break contact took priority.

By dawn, Brewster’s soldiers met with friendly paratroopers. Like Hogan, the major was trucked to 3rd Armored Division headquarters. Brewster met a reception as cold as that Belgian winter morning. Maurice Rose sat silently behind an olive drab wooden field desk. His posture suggested judge, jury, and executioner. So did his tone.

“Brewster, what happened?”

Exhausted, unshaven, filthy, Brewster did his best to explain. He emphasized that he had Rich Richardson’s approval to withdraw. Rose didn’t buy it. He asked if TF Brewster still had fuel and ammunition. The major answered affirmatively.

“And you quit fighting?”

Brewster tried to reply. Rose cut him off.

“Brewster, you are under arrest for misbehavior before the enemy.”

Rose dismissed the shocked officer.

Maurice Rose was as well-accoutered as ever that morning. But the general had gutted out a week on little more than an hour or two of sleep a day. He’d been going, and going, and going, roadblock to roadblock, Hotton to Manhay and all the nasty points in between, day and night. Rose had seen too many of his men dead, too much blood on the snow. Unlucky Brewster caught both barrels.

Once Brigadier General Doyle Hickey, Colonel Tubby Doan, and Lieutenant Colonel Rich Richardson intervened, and Rose got some sleep, the matter went down the memory hole. Olin Brewster went back to Task Force Richardson and served with distinction until wounded badly on January 8, 1945. Yet G.I.s talked to one another about what happened to Brewster. It wasn’t fair, they said. And it wasn’t like Rose. Apparently the crushing stresses of the Bulge got to him, too.

“The operation was a bluff,” Rose explained afterward, “because on occasions the enemy had enough strength to overrun the division.” In that decisive first week in the Ardennes, “the division succeeded in its mission because it attacked instead of passively defending.” Rose referred to this period as the most critical five days of his entire military service. Indeed it was.

The Spearheaders successfully fought off four German formations: 1st SS Panzer Division (Combat Command B’s opponent from December 20–25), 2nd SS Panzer Division, 116th Panzer Division, and 560th Volksgrenadier Division. Except for the last one, those outfits constituted elite enemy troops, and the 560th proved themselves more than able, too. Maurice Rose’s men had done as much as any American division to blunt the great German offensive of December 1944.

That achievement came at a high price. Rose’s division lost 187 men killed and 1,386 wounded. German gunners took out 125 Sherman tanks—more than half the division’s assigned fleet—38 light tanks, six self-propelled howitzers, and 158 half-tracks, armored cars, and trucks. No other single battle levied such a toll.

The G-2 counters credited the 3rd Armored Division with killing 1,705 Germans and wounding 545. Despite the precise figures, those were estimates, of course, but within reason. The division took 2,510 prisoners by actual head count. Division troops claimed 118 panzers, 31 of them Panthers, by physical inspection of the wrecks.93 Some of those probably represented double counts for Allied airpower or the 82nd Airborne and other units. More important than any roll-up, the Germans never crossed the Meuse River. The people of Antwerp never saw a single panzer.

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