The Battle of the Bulge

 

The importance of the German defence was to prevent the Americans taking ground that was on the northern edge of the start line for the Ardennes offensive, a most secret plan which Hitler had been working on since September. His aim was a surprise counter-attack and rapid advance to split the Allied forces so they could be destroyed piecemeal and to capture Antwerp.

The Ardennes’ area was selected as it was held thinly by the Americans and the terrain would conceal the large force which would have to be assembled. The main breakthrough would be south of the Hürtgen Forest by the German Army Group B commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model. 6th SS Panzer Army under Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich would lead, spearhead the attack in the north, cross the River Meuse astride Liege and capture Antwerp. General der Panzertruppe Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army would support 6th Army’s left flank, cross the Meuse between Huy and Givet and advance northwest through Brussels. 15th Army under General der Infanterie Gustav von Langen was to guard the north flank of 6th Army and hold 9th US Army and VII US Corps. General der Panzertruppe Erich Brandenberger’s 7th Army was to attack between Viaden and Wasserbillic, capture Luxembourg and guard against Lieutenant General George Patton’s 3rd US Army to the south by advancing to the Meuse and River Semoir south of Givet. The American offensive through the forest reduced the German Order of Battle as some divisions were used to reinforce the forest’s defences.

 

Other tasks included Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny’s battlegroup (Skorzeny Kampfgruppe) of 2000 mainly English speaking men with captured US vehicles, uniforms and equipment to disrupt rear areas and to seize fuel dumps, and Oberstleutenant Friedrich von Heydte’s force or 1200 paratroops to jump on the night 16th/17th December to block roads north of 6th Army against any threats.

 

The plan was regarded by senior German commanders with some scepticism and as a last gamble. It was prepared under radio silence and pain of death for breaches of strict security measures. As part of a deception plan 6th Army’s assembly area was between Hanover and the River Weser to suggest a counter offensive would be further north.

 

6th SS Panzer Army’s initial objective was the Meuse breaking through five US divisions between Ruetgen and Losheim and crossing the Elsenborn Ridge. The main effort would be at the Losheim Gap and the commander estimated that it would take him four days to establish bridgeheads over the Meuse. The smaller 5th Army had a greater distance to go to the Meuse over the Schnee Eifel (western edge of the Eifel) and the two road communication centres St Vith and Bastogne.

The Losheim Gap countryside

This is a broad valley cutting through the Schnee- Eifel ridge just east of the Belgium-German border. It formed the boundary between the US V and VIII Corps and was a main route for the German advance.

On 16th December the Americans were advancing to attack the Roer Dams when the German offensive began with artillery fire at 0530 hours in thick fog which achieved surprise. The Americans delayed the German advance in St Vith and Bastogne but the three German thrusts were successful north of St Vith through the Losheim Gap by 6th Army and north and south of Bastogne by 5th Army.

 

6th Army was stopped at the Elsenborn Ridge and the villages of Elsenborn and Butgenbach which were firmly held by 2 and 99 US Infantry Divisions. Limited attacks by 2 Infantry Division southeast of Monschau also stopped or disrupted some of the attackers. There was little resistance in the Losheim Gap and 1st Panzer Regiment (Peiper Force) reached Stavelot on 17th December and Trois Ponts on 18th December. After that they were halted by 30 US Infantry Division.

 

5th Army encircled the Schnee Eifel trapping some of 106 US Division, crossed the River Our and opened the road to St Vith but failed to take it. On the southern flank two Panzer Korps were seriously delayed by fierce engagements, particularly at Clerf but by 18th December a 20km (12½ mile) gap had been opened in the American front leaving Bastogne exposed between the attackers and the Meuse. Three Panzer and two infantry divisions poured through the gap and on 20th December Bastogne was reached and attacked whilst other troops by-passed the town to the north and south.

 

The “Bulge” was beginning to appear with the 6th and 5th Army advances developing a salient although 7th Army were less successful and failed in the task of flank protection. By 20th December they had only advanced 10km and although 5 Para Division were 15km east of Bastogne the important route to the town from the south was still open.

 

When Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, the 12 US Army Group commander, received the situation reports on 16th December he deployed the US 7th Armoured Division from their rest area forward where it became the backbone of the defence of St Vith. 10th Armoured Division was moved from Patton’s army and 82 and 101 Airborne Divisions were put under Bradley’s command. 101 became the backbone of the defence at Bastogne. On 18th December 6th US Army Group was tasked with adopting a section of Patton’s front and Patton was ordered to counter attack with three divisions towards Bastogne on 22nd or 23rd December. On 19th December Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery was given command of all troops north of the German salient and XXX British Corps was moved south to cover the Meuse bridges.

 

From 20th to 25th December the Allies re-organised in the north and attacked in the south. In the north 6th Panzer Army was still fighting for objectives it was meant to have taken on the first day and as a sign of its failure two of its Panzer divisions were transferred to 5th Panzer Army. VII US Corps was redeployed from its front at Aachen southwest to the western edge of the German salient where its 7th Armoured Division arrived in time to defend St Vith.

The furthest points west reached by the German offensive came on the 25th December. The three leading Panzer divisions of 5th Panzer Army reached Hotton (failing to capture Marche), Celles just in sight of the Meuse and Rochefort. The Allies gradually went from defensive to offensive and these formations were gradually but effectively destroyed.

 

Bastogne was surrounded by 21st December and five German divisions attempted to capture it. The determined American defence diverted these formations from supporting the western thrust of the offensive. This was helped by Patton’s swift reorganisation and redeployment of III Corps. He received his orders on 18th December and by the 22nd III Corps had withdrawn from its eastward front and turned north as XII Corps simultaneously moved north to relieve the 4th Division, who were hard pressed. His attack went in as planned and broke through after four days.

 

The weather cleared to allow flying on 23rd December and the Luftwaffe lost about 1,600 ‘planes to Allied aircraft in their attempt to gain air superiority. Three British and three American air commands worked together to strafe supply routes, maintained surveillance and finally resupplied Bastogne.

 

By 29th December 2nd US Armoured Division had beaten 2nd Panzer Division in the Rochefort area and blocked the route to the Meuse. German forces continued to attack Bastogne and Patton’s troops were hard pressed to maintain his route into the town. Plans drawn up on 28th December for the counter attack were intended to defeat the maximum number of Germans but due to the continuing battle at Bastogne, and available formations in the north were west of the Bulge, the target selected for a pincer movement was Houffalize.

 

Between 29th December and 2nd January XXX British Corps took over the west edge of the Bulge and east to Hotton on the River Ourthe. This relieved VII US Corps which moved east of this river and on 3rd January attacked southwards with the river as its right boundary. 53 British Division was tasked with clearing the triangle Marche-Laroche-Hotton with a number of tough engagements such as 1st Battalion East Lancashire Regiment’s battle at Grimblemont.

 

By 16th January the Allies closed at Houffalize and St Vith was recaptured by 7th Armoured Division on 23rd January. It is questionable whether the German offensive prolonged the war or shortened by the loss of so many German formations. As so many were transferred from the Eastern Front it probably enabled the Russians to reach Berlin first.

The Battle of St Vith 16th – 23rd December 1944

 

On 16th December St Vith was defended by 106th Infantry Division with reconnaissance provided by 14th Cavalry Group from 9th Armoured Division who patrolled the Losheim Gap. 422 and 423 Regiments were deployed in the Schnee Eifel and another, 424 Regiment, was in reserve south of the town.

 

The Losheim Gap was the main axis of advance for 6th Panzer Army and two regiments of the 18th Volksgrenadier-Division of the 5th Panzer Army whose 62nd Volksgrenadier-Division was advancing further south. 14th Cavalry Group was deployed over 5 miles and completely outnumbered so promptly withdrew to positions between Born and Wallerode. 62nd VG came up against 424 Regiment which blocked their advance and held them.

 

There were no American positions east of St Vith to stop the 18th Volksgrenadier-Division which was advancing towards St Vith from their main axis to take advantage of this apparent gap. It was held on the Schoenberg Road by a mixed American force of 81st and 168th Engineer Battalions, the Divisional Headquarters Defence Platoon and some others.

17th December was a day of reinforcement with Combat Command B (an armoured brigade) of 9th Armoured Division positioned between 424 Regiment and St Vith to support the defence against 62nd Volksgrenadier-Division’s advance. 7th Armoured Division moved in and sent its Combat Command B to St Vith to counter-attack and free 422 and 423 Regiments. Combat Command R was sent to Recht and Combat Command A to Beho in reserve. The Division’s artillery was held up by spearhead units of 1st SS Panzer Division near Stavelot and were not in position until the evening of 18th December.

 

18th December was a critical day for the defence as positions were still being prepared when attacks were made by two Panzer divisions and two Volksgrenadier-Divisions. In the north 1st SS Panzer Division attacked at 0200 hours and captured Recht. At 1200 hours it attacked and took Poteau forcing Combat Command R to withdraw towards Vielsalm where it established road blocks at Petit-Thier. The reserve Combat Command A was committed and after tough fighting recaptured Poteau.

 

At 0800 hours in the east 18th Volksgrenadier-Division, supported by tanks, attacked Combat Command B along its entire front. The fighting continued all day but the position was held with valuable effective fire support from 275th Armoured Field Artillery Battalion. To the southeast Combat Command B face continuous attacks by 62nd Volksgrenadier-Division and eventually fell back to a defensive position along the heights west of the River Our. 424 Regiment extended their line to the southwest. In the south the 112th Infantry Regiment was isolated from its parent 28th Infantry Division by the advancing 116th Panzer Division and withdrew towards Huldange without facing a strong attack. Elements of Combat Command A remaining to the east of Gouvy held the flank guard of the Panzer Division. As a result of the continuing German attacks a counter-attack was ruled out and the two encircled regiments 422 and 423 were not relieved and both subsequently surrendered.

During the 19th December German divisions were unsuccessful in probing the perimeter defending St Vith. Returning units and stragglers were used to reinforce the lines and 7th Armoured Division’s artillery despite ammunition supply problems played a vital role in the battle. German units from 18th Volksgrenadier-Division were released by the loss of 422 and 423 Regiments and became available to help 9th SS Panzer Division’s vanguard reach Recht.

 

On 20th December all units in the St Vith salient came under 7th Armoured Division which in turn was under command of XVIII Airborne Corps. These units included the remnants of 106th Infantry Division, Combat Command B of 9th Armoured Division and 112 Regiment of 28th Infantry Division. In the south the former commander of 106th Infantry Division became commander of Task Force Jones and tasked with organising road blocks at Bovigny, Gouvy, Cherain and Deiffelt. The front was 25 miles (40 km) long. General Manteuffel, commanding 5th Panzer Army, sent the Fuhrer Begleit Brigade to the north of St Vith under LXVI Korps and 560th Volksgrenadier-Division followed up 116th panzer Division to the Gouvy area.

 

There was little change on the 21st December to the north and south but in the east Combat Command B of 7th Armoured Division blocked German attacks until having to withdraw at 1600 hours. They moved to high ground west of the town with Combat Command B of 9th Armoured Division as the Germans entered St Vith’s outskirts. On the 22nd the pressure increased as the line ran from Poteau to Beho and northwest and all troops were exhausted after five days of fighting. 9th SS Panzer Division was observed preparing to attack north of Poteau and at 1500 hours Field Marshal Montgomery ordered 7th Armoured Division to withdraw. Air support and firm frozen ground helped this go well and it was completed by evening of 23rd December.

Varied approaches to St Vith

Memorial in St Vith to the men of 106th Infantry Division

The Americans lost 3,000 men in this battle plus much armour but succeeded in disrupting the German advance by blocking a major communications route. They halted the impetus of their attack and destroyed its momentum for the rest of their operation.

The Battle of Bastogne 18th – 26rd December 1944

The headquarters of VIII US Corps was located at Bastogne at the start of the German offensive as it was a key road communications centre. Three regiments of 28th Infantry Division held a front of about 25 miles (40 km) when they were hit by three Panzer and three Infantry divisions in the first 48 hours of this battle. 112 Regiment was struck by 116 Panzer Division and withdrew into the St Vith defended area. 102 Regiment with the tanks of Combat Command R from 9th Armoured Division fought strong delaying actions at Consthum, Clervaux and other locations against XLVII Korps’ divisions until it was destroyed. Some stragglers made it back into Bastogne.

109 Regiment was hit by 5th Fallschirmjäger (Parachute) Division of 7th Army and after defending Wiltz withdrew to the south. The regiments imposed a significant delay on the German advance and enabled reinforcements to arrive and hold Bastogne but the 28th Infantry Division was destroyed in the process.

 

Prior to the battle General Patton’s 3rd Army transferred 10th Armoured Division to VIII Corps on 16th December. The commander, Major General Middleton used most of it to protect Luxembourg City but sent Combat Command B to Bastogne. On 17th December 101st Airborne Division, commanded by Brigadier General McAuliffe, was transferred to Bastogne from being in reserve in Reims. They arrived by 19th December.

 

Colonel Roberts commanding Combat Command B from 10th Armoured Division was tasked on 18th December to block three roads. He formed three combat teams under the names of their commander and sent Desobry team to Noville on the road from Houffalize, Cherry team to Longvilly on the road from St Vith, and O’Hara team to Wardin on the road to Wiltz. That evening leading elements of 2nd Panzer Division arrived east of Longvilly and turned north without meeting team Cherry. The Germans passed Bourcy and then met Team Desobry but continued to move north and attacked Noville. Desobry was reinforced by a battalion from the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment but by the 20th December the situation had deteriorated enough for them to withdraw assisted by 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment.

Bois Jacques Memorial to 506th Parachute Regiment

The location where the 506th attempted to support Team Desobry before having to fall back to Foy where they formed part of the defence perimeter around Bastogne. Traces of foxholes can still be found in the woods - but not easily.

Noville

Memorial in Noville

To the east the Panzer Lehr Division advanced on 19th December almost unopposed but cautiously via minor roads through Niederwampach, Mageret and Neffe. When it found out that Team Cherry was to their rear the division was even more cautious. After Neffe it met a battalion from 506 Parachute Regiment which was moving to Longvilly. Both sides spread out north and south attempting to outflank each other but were unsuccessful. Team Cherry left a rearguard at Longvilly whilst the remainder fought up the road to Mageret. The team was mostly destroyed eventually and a few stragglers made it back to Bastogne.

Longvilly - where some war damage can still be seen

Grotto of Notre Dame - as Team Cherry withdrew their advance guard comprising a few light tanks, armoured cars and a platoon of tank destroyers on the west of Longvilly fought a small battle by this grotto which stills bears some scars. The force was eventually ordered to withfdraw and rejoin the rest of the unit. After destroying their remaining vehicles they set off on foot.

Mageret

In the south Team O’Hara was attacked by a battle group from Panzer Lehr Division in Wardin and withdrew to Marvie in the evening of 19th December.

Hemroulle - Supplies were dropped near here on 23rd December when the defenders' ammunition was low. They also lacked camouflage kit so Major Hanlon, commanding in this area, and a local councillor went from door to door asking for white sheets to hide their vehicles in the snow. After the war he returned with a pair of white sheets for every home in the village.

On 20th December forces from 26th Volksgrenadier-Division with tanks from Panzer Lehr Division attacked Bizory at 0730 hours, Marvie at 1200 hours and the route from Longvilly to Bastogne at 1900 hours. None of these attacks were successful in seriously penetrating defences and an attack from Neffe towards Mont was defeated at 2300 hours. Another element of this formation made a large out-flanking move in the south towards Sibret.

 

The siege of Bastogne began on 21st December when three division of XLVIII Korps failed to enter the town but blocked all the roads leading into it. Brigadier General McAuliffe was given command of all troops in Bastogne and he deployed four regiments of 101st Airborne Division on the perimeter with Combat Command B of 10th Armoured Division as the mobile reserve together with elements of 9th Armoured Division and 28th Infantry Division. 2nd Panzer Division moved past Bastogne to the north and Panzer Lehr Division to the south. 26 Volksgrenadier-Division with 901st Panzergrenadier Regiment, artillery and tank destroyers was tasked with reducing the town.

 

On 22nd December emissaries from 26 Volksgrenadier-Division were sent to ask General McAuliffe to surrender Bastogne and got the answer “Nuts!” Generalmajor Kokott commanding the division later reported the general “had declined a surrender with remarkable brevity”.

 

In the meantime 26 Volksgrenadier-Division moved round to the south of Bastogne and captured Marvie and Sibret. On the 23rd the weather cleared and airdrops resupplied the town and were able to do so until the town was relieved.

Warnach - by 24th December heavy fighting was continuing all around the perimeter through villages such as this where many separate hard fought battles hve been commemorated.

 

In the meantime General Patton's 3rd Army was fighting its way north to relieve Bastogne but was facing heavier resistance than expected. However it became apparent to the Germans that 5th Fallschirmjäger Division would not be able to hold General Patton’s 4th Armoured Division’s advance on three approach routes much longer. They had been fighting continuously since 16th December and were in desperate need of more anti-tank weapons to stop the advance. It was urgent that Bastogne should be taken soon and the final German attack started on Christmas Day. An artillery bombardment at 0245 hours preceded H hour for the attack at 0330 hours. 15th Panzergrenadier Division attacked 502nd Regiment northwest of Bastogne at Champs and this was followed by 26 Volksgrenadier-Division attacking 327th Glider Infantry Regiment from the west just north of Mande-Ste-Etienne. Both attacks were supported by armour and after several minor breaches and very fierce fighting they were beaten off with heavy losses.

Chateau near Rolley from where 502 Parachute Infantry Regiment fought a fierce engagement against elements of 26 Volksgrenadier-Division and 15th Panzergrenadier Division on Christmas day and 26th December.

 

German attacks were renewed on 26th December but were again unsuccessful against the defenders and the 3rd Army advance. At 1645 hours the first tanks of the American 4th Armoured Division reached Bastogne’s perimeter and the breakthrough was established. Fighting ensued to expand the relief corridor and continued for over a week. With the siege now raised fresh attacks were launched to close off the German salient east of Houffalize.