All’s Quiet on the Western Front
The Allied armies were, by December, seven months ahead of their projected schedule. This rapid advance had caused a serious supply problem. In September the Allies were using 20,000 tons of provisions, 6 million gallons of gas and 2,000 tons of artillery ammunition every 24 hours. All this had to be trucked over a 300-mile trip from Cherbourg and Normandy.31 The Allies had captured Antwerp intact in early September, however, the Germans still dominated the Scheldt Estuary that controlled the movement of ships into Antwerp. Until this area was secure, and Antwerp used for supplies, there was no way to maintain an advance all along the front.
Another problem facing the Allies was the fact that they were strapped for soldiers. The losses in battle, the lack of speed with which troops were being shipped to Europe and the length of the front, required that some areas be thinned so that others could be bolstered. One such area that was thinned was the Ardennes region in Belgium and Luxembourg. The Americans, especially Bradley, did not believe the Germans would attack in the Ardennes during the winter. They still held the preWorld War II belief that the Ardennes was unsuited for armor, and that the Germans could do nothing more than stage local attacks. When Eisenhower discussed his apprehension concerning the Ardennes, Bradley called the thinning of the lines a “calculated risk,” and convinced Ike to accept the risk.
The lack of men and the over-confidence also led the Allies to develop no formal strategic reserves, or any plans for defensive measures. This would play an important role later, in the first days of the battle. Instead of keeping raw divisions and units behind in reserve while they finished their training, they were stationed along the front in areas where the Allies did not feel the Germans would attack. In fact, in a memo for Vifi Corps to the 106th, the division was scheduled to participate in field exercises and maneuvers as well as other combat training from 13 December through 3 January.
Because there was no fear of a German attack in the Ardennes region, the divisions, which were thinly spread over front, took on a lax attitude. The Germans units in the area could see that the Americans were careless in the region, and German reconnaissance reported that the American sentries stayed on guard for one hour after dark then retired only to reappear one hour before dawn. Dick Byers, a part of a field artillery observation team, confirmed this by saying, “Before the Bulge, we were a nine to five army in the Ardennes.”
Had American units in the Ardennes not been allowed to become so careless in their sentry duty and general front line military procedure, the attack that was to come may not have been such a surprise. This would have helped in the organization of 5 defenses after the attack had begun. This would also have interfered with the ability of the German artillery to pinpoint targets for the initial bombardment. Again, the Allies over-confidence in the deteriorating situation of the Wehrmacht and the belief of Germany’s inability to mount a major attack, all contributed to this slack attitude.
For centuries, the Ardennes has been viewed as an impenetrable forest that was of no use for offensive military purposes. The Ardennes region contains some of the roughest terrain in Europe. The terrain is extremely varied with ridges, plateaus, 5 valleys, steep ravines, forests and clear plains. Although centuries of clearing land for farming had thinned the forest, the Eifel area still consisted of a complex of heavily wooded hills between the Rhine and Moselle Rivers.
The Ardennes averages 35 to 40 inches of rainfall a year, the heaviest in November and early December. All this rainfall saturated the soil and made off-road travel difficult if not impossible. Fog or mist, that failed to clear before midday and reappeared in late afternoon, often blanketed the region. Snow sometime accumulated up to a foot in depth— deeper on the Schnee Eifel and the drifts; and the raw wind sweeping the heights brought the wind chill factor in December down below freezing.
Roman legions described the Arduenna Silva as “a frightful place, full of terrors.”35 Legend tells of how the four sons of Duke Aymon held out in the depths of the Ardennes for eight winters against Charlemagne. Even in modern times the Ardennes was viewed with a sense of fear. Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch summed up the military assessment of the region as “impenetrable.” A French officer warned in 1914, “If you go into the death trap of the Ardennes, you will never come out.”3’ Even the Maginot Line, which had been planned to stretch the entire French boarder, was stopped before the Ardennes for lack of money, and more importantly because it was still believed that the region provided protection from a rapid mobile attack. In 1944, with Allied armies on the German border, there was little thought of the Ardennes being a launching point for a German attack. It was felt that if there was going to be an attack, then it would be to the north or south of the Ardennes.
The Ardennes is made up of areas from Luxembourg, Belgium and Northern France. Although there were, and still are, no cities in the region, there were numerous small towns and villages that dotted the countryside. These quiet, picturesque villages, were a favorite tourist spot for the wealthy of Europe and America to visit before the war. Spa, the most famous of these spots attracted thousands of people a year to its medicinal hot mud baths.
One such town was St. Vith. This small Belgian town, on the border of Germany, had a population of approximately 2,000 people in 1944, and was just 12 5 miles behind the silent front line. St. Vith was part of Germany until the treaty of Versailles changed the borders. This may have changed the citizenship of the inhabitants but for many, their loyalties still lay with Germany.
St. Vith is situated on a low hill surrounded on all sides by slightly higher rises. On the southern side, Braunlauf Creek swings past the town. To the east, about a mile and a half away, a large wooded hill rises and serves as a screen. This hill is cut by the road to Schonberg, which then travels down into the Our Valley and follows the north bank of the river until the Schonberg bridge is reached approximately six miles away, where it crosses the river before heading into St. Vith.37
St. Vith was important because it was the center for six paved roads running around the dense wooded hill area of the Schnee Eifel that fanned out towards the North, south and west. However, the Schnee Eifel raz~ge served as a buffer that diverted heavy highway traffic so it passed to the north or south of St. Vith.
Lying to the East of St. Vith is the Eifel Plateau, with its three distinct protruding ridges or ranges, the central range being called the Schnee Eifel. The Schnee Eifel itself is a wooded ridge in the Eifel that was crested by the German West Wall fortifications. At the northwestern foot of the Schnee Eifel runs a long narrow valley, known as the Losheim Gap, incised in the Eifel Plateau. On the west side of the Losheim Gap runs the Our River, and to the west of the river, the plateau reappears. Running between the Our River and the Schnee Eifel, is one of the few good roads moving from Roth to Schonberg in a southwesterly direction. The Losheim Gap is cluttered by abrupt hills, some bare, others covered by fir trees and thick undergrowth, which makes travel off the road extremely difficult. To the south, the Schnee Eifel is terminated by a corridor called the Valley of the Aif, a small creek that makes a horseshoe bend around the Schnee Eifel east to the village of Pronsfeld.
The roads in the area were characteristic of the Eastern Ardennes, winding, with many blind turns, and at points squeezing through narrow village streets. The roads would dip abruptly and then rise suddenly as they crossed ravines or hills. Traveling on the roads in the Ardennes during the summer was challenging enough, but during the winter it was a more difficult task. The paved stretches of roads required constant mending and the dirt roads quickly sank away and needed shoring up with logs and stones.
There were three main roads that ran through the Schnee Eifel area: two paved roads ran around the Schnee Eifel while the center road, of secondary construction, ran through the Losheim Gap.4° For General Manteuffel, the control of these roads was crucial if there was to be any hope of his Fifth Panzerarrnee making a rapid move to the Meuse River.
|Page last revised 12/01/2005