A Baptism of Fire!
The early morning of 16 December was the same as the previous mornings to the soldiers of the 106th Division on the Eifel Plateau. Most of the men were still asleep at 0525, since a quiet sector provided this luxury. Soldiers who were unlucky enough to have guard duty held their posts in the freezing temperature of the early morning. About 0530 some of the men on guard duty noticed a strange sight to the East. They saw countless flickering pinpoints of lights on the horizon and for a brief moment there was a sense of wonder as to what they were. This was answered in seconds by the ear piercing explosions of artillery rounds coming from those flickers of lights. For almost all the men of the 106th Division and its supporting troops, including its officers, this would be their baptism of fire.
The Germans opened with over 2000 guns, ranging from 3-inch mortars to giant 16-inch railway guns and hit the entire length of the American front in the Ardennes region. The bombardment caught the Americans both in the line and back at headquarters by complete surprise. As the artillery barrage moved off to the American rear positions, giant searchlights flickered on and their beams were directed to the clouds where the light reflected off them, provided an eerie kind of moonlight.
The forward shock troops began to infiltrate the American positions, trying to get S behind the lines to create more confusion when the main force began its move.
By 0615 the shelling stopped and the motor and track sounds of German tanks began to fill the early morning air. Many American units were cut off from each other and from headquarters because the shelling had ripped to pieces the phone lines that were hardly buried, if at all. This had the effect of causing much confusion among the units on the line and regimental and divisional headquarters. Although some units still had partial contact with headquarters, most were now on their own to try to slow the German onslaught, unable to coordinate with the other units in the area concerning defensive moves. In many instances, the loss of communications meant the loss of the units.
The last thing Major General Troy Middleton’s U.S. Vifi Corps was expecting in the middle of December was an assault by German forces. Those higher in the command structure did not expect any move by the Germans in the Ardennes when they sent Middlleton’s four divisions, the 4ch, 28th, and 106th Infantry Divisions, the 92nd Armored Division, and 14th Mechanized Cavalry Group along with a reconnaissance regiment, to hold almost a 90 mile front. As mentioned earlier, the terrain was so difficult that this made it hard for these units, already stretched thinly by the length of their front, to form a contiguous front. As John Strawson described it; "Because of his frontage, Middleton had no proper system of mutually supporting dug-in defensive positions in depth, but rather a series of widely separated defended points strung out along river lines, such as the Our, with large gaps between them, gaps which often included the roads themselves.”
Even though these strong points had plenty of hardware, and most of these units were fully motorized, the lack of a continuous main defensive position, that could be manipulated as a whole in accordance with some master plan, led to uncoordinated fighting by each strong point.59 A further problem was the philosophy of the U.S. Army, which was one of training for powerfully supported, improvised and speedy attack, not for dogged, patient defense. This was especially true for those men of the 14th Cavalry Group, which is not meant for, and had not therefore been trained for, defensive actions. For other units in the area, inactivity had bred ill-preparedness. Therefore what was to happen in the course of the first few days of this battle were “many examples of low level resistance, determined on and executed by young lieutenants and sergeants with a handful of men and without benefit of either inspiring direction from above or adequate artillery support from behind.”
The northern thrust of Manteuffel’s LXVI Corps came through the southern edge of the Losheim Gap where the 14th Cavalry Group under command of Colonel Mark A. Devine Jr., was placed. Attached to his group was the 32~ Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, twelve 75mm. towed guns and two reconnaissance platoons of the 820 Tank Destroyer Battalion and the self-propelled 105mm howitzers of the 275” Armored Field Artillery Battalion attached to the 106th Division but detailed to support the 14th Cavalry Group. The eight hundred men from these units had to sacrifice the one genuine asset of lightly armored mechanized cavalry, and that was mobility. Instead, they occupied “little islands of defensive positions, mainly in widely separated villages.”” Most of these villages were built in depressions called “sugar bowls” by the G.I.’s stationed in them. They provided good defensive positions but poor maneuverability. The 14th Cavalry Group and its accompanying units garrisoned six of these small hamlets in the Losheim Gap. These men were to feel the brunt of the attack, as SS-ObersturmbannfuhrerJoachim Peiper’s ? SS Panzer Division vied for room with Oberst Hoffman-Schonborn’s 18th VG Division. The 14th Cavalry Group and the 32~ Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron were no match for either of these divisions, let along both. Fighting was fierce in five of the six villages as American troops stubbornly held on to their positions until either they were forced out or until the order finally came to withdraw. At Kobscheid, two platoons of cavalry managed to hold on to the village for much of the day, although the fighting ebbed back and forth many times during the battle’s course.
Roth, which lay next to the most direct route to the Our River, was a village the Germans needed to control to help with the movement of reinforcements and supporting guns. The Germans greatly out-numbered the lone platoon of cavalry under Captain Stanley Porché, and the Germans were further strengthened by the assault guns assigned to them, compared to the two 75mm howitzers that Porché’s platoon had. Colonel Devine tried to send a platoon of light tanks to help the situation, however they found the road blocked by those grenadiers that managed to slip around Roth. As the morning progressed, the situation facing the men in Roth was deteriorating rapidly.”
Further north at Weckerath, only a few men from Troop C were in the village but a contingent of light ranks quicky arrived to help the situation. Those in Weckerath saw the main thrust of the 18th VG Division march through the gap between Weckerath and Roth. Although the Americans opened fire, as did the artillery located on the ridge further back, the German soldiers continued to move methodically on as the northern pincer made its way around the Schnee Eifel in their planned encirclement of the 422”’ and 423~ Regiments of the 106th Division.”
At Krewinkel, the next village to the north, a platoon of cavalry and a platoon of attached reconnaissance troops were successful at repelling the first attack by the Third Fallschirmdivision, which was attached to the Sixth SS Panzerarmee. In a small version of Brig. General Anthony McAuliffe now famous response to the Germans demand to surrender at Bastogne, 1” Lieutenant Kenneth Ferrens, in response to a German soldier’s shout to “Take a ten minute break, soldier. We’ll be back.” responded, “And we’ll be waiting for you - you son of a bitch!”’ The two platoons were able to hold the village while only suffering two wounded and one killed. In front of them lay the dead bodies of about 150 German soldiers. The troops at Afst also were able to put up a fight and managed to hold on to the small village after the first assault by German units.
Although the action at the other five villages was a valiant attempt during a very dim situation, the fighting at Lanzerath is a story of questionable action. The small garrison of reconnaissance troops and the crews of two 75mm anti-tank guns of the 820” Tank Destroyer Battalion “bugged-out” very shortly after the shelling by the Germans stopped. This is supported by the fact that they left all their equipment behind intact, even their radios. This action may have been one of self-preservation, because even had they stood their ground, the first shot from a 75mm gun at an entrenched position was usually its last one. Either way, the withdrawal seems most likely to have been premature. Although they would have been shortly outnumbered, had they stayed, it would have helped to slow down the German advance in that sector, even if only by couple of hours. Instead, the Germans walked in, finding the village empty except for the local townspeople.
Colonel Devine realized the serious nature of the situation his troops were in. He had two choices, one was to leave his men committed to be either annihilated or captured, or to save what men he could and pull back to a more defensible position further back. His decision was to have his men fight another day, and so at 0930, without orders from the 106th Division, Colonel Devine ordered all the 75mm guns to pull back to the vicinity of Manderfeld. His decision meant that the northern flank of the 422”’ Regiment was now exposed and, more importantly, it speeded up the Germans’ ability to encircle and capture the 422”’ and 423~ regiments on the Schnee Eifel. His decision to withdraw his troops led to his immediate relief from command of the 14th Cavalry Group. By noon, the German column was passing through Auw on its way towards Schonberg to meet with the southern arm of the pincer movement.”
When the bombardment hit the 422”’ and 423’~’ regiments on the top of Schnee Eifel, the shells ripped into the giant fir trees, sending large branches crashing to the forest floor, and sending splinters of wood, like shrapnel, flying through the air from the tree bursts. Most of the positions occupied by the men of the two regiments, however, were in sturdy fortifications covered with logs, which greatly reduced the number of casualties. The heavy shelling also hit the villages behind the ridge line, particularly Schlausenbach and Bucket, sites of the command posts of the two regiments on the Eifel. Shelling was also heavy on the road junctions in the rear, especially Schönberg and St. Vith, which took a pounding from big railway guns.
After the shelling stopped, the two regiments on the Eifel faced little pressure S from German units directly in front of them, little more than a division’s field replacement battalion. This frontal attack by the Germans, was an attempt to try to hide the fact that the main German force in the area was moving around the Eifel on both sides in an attempt to encircle the two regiments on the ridge.
Units of the 422”’ and 42Y” regiments easily repulsed the Germans attempting to climb the steep slopes. The men of the 2”’ Division had warned their 1061h counterparts that the Germans would send strong patrols out to test the new front line unit, and because of the size and the weakness of the attack, many of the men believed that this frontal attack was just such a test.
Other than the shelling and the weak frontal attack by the Germans, the 422”’ missed the main shock of the pre-dawn attack. However, with the withdrawal of the 18th and 32”’ Cavalry units, the door was open for the 294th Regiment of the 18th VG Division to move around the rear flank of the 422”’ Regiment. By noon, the first grenadiers were beginning to move through this gap toward the village of Auw. Auw was the billeting area for Company A of the 81” Engineer Combat Battalion. Despite the early morning shelling, the engineers showed up for work on the roads as usual. However, when the enemy were spotted approaching Auw, the engineers hurried back to the village, set up their machine guns and engaged the German column. Supported by self-propelled assault guns, the Germans were able to shell the engineers out of their positions. By the time the last American units were making their way out of the village, American artillery batteries were sending shells into the German positions in the village. This stopped the German advance for the time being”
About noon, the 294th regiment once again became active. This time their task was to neutralize the American artillery units located astride the Auw-Bleialf road. These units were the 589th Medium Field Artillery Battalion and the 592nd a 155mm howitzer battalion. The grenadiers brought the positions under crossfire from small arms fire, while mortar crews and gunners worked on knocking out the field pieces. Auw was now the keystone for the protection of the rear flank of the 422”’ Regiment, and Colonel Desscbeneaux, the regimental commander, knew that. He immediately dispatched a small task force made up of Company L, (the cannon company) and part of an antitank company, to counterattack towards the hill village of Auw from which the Germans were coming.’9 As the task force started its way to Auw, a sudden snowstorm began which made the situation even worse. When the force made contact with the Germans near Auw, they received orders to immediately return to the regimental command post at Schlausenbach, which was now being threatened.
The Germans themselves had stepped up their drive to take over the artillery positions, by sending in assault guns to do the work. However, the American cannoneers were determined to stay with their guns, and put up a strong fight, firing shells with the shortest fuse possible. Other troops worked their way to within 5 bazooka range of the enemy assault guns. The German drive halted and retreated after three assault guns were knocked out. The Germans then returned to the “softening up process” and waited until nightfall. When night came, the Germans resumed their attempt to destroy the artillery.
Earlier, Jones had released the 2”’ Battalion, 423”’ Regiment, which was in reserve, to move through St. Vithto Schönberg. By 1730, the 2”’ Battalion was at Schonberg setting up defenses. Three hours later, Jones ordered Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Puett to immediately attack the German forces at Auw, in hopes of permitting the two hard pressed artillery battalions to withdraw southward. After getting on the wrong road, and heading the wrong way, the 2”’ Battalion finally found its way over the dark countryside and reached the artillery units. Meanwhile, Colonel Descheneaux had swung his left battalion, the 2”’ Battalion around to face north, expecting to link up with the reserve battalion.
Closer to the southern pincer movement of the 18th VG Division the fighting picked up in intensity. At Bleialf, a battalion of Volksgrenadiers attacked the village, thrusting back the bulk of the anti-tank company stationed there. Knowing that if Bleialf was allowed to fall, the 423”’ Regiment would be cut off from the 422”’ Regiment to their north, Colonel Cavender, commander of the 423”’ Regiment, called General Jones asking for the return of his 2d battalion, which had been held at Born as the mainstay of the division reserves. Jones refused to release the troops, not fully understanding the scope and gravity of the situation all along the front. Cavender, unable to get the men he needed from Jones, was left with assembling a makeshift counterattacking force built around his Service Company (the regimental supply troop), a company of the 81” Engineering Battalion, men from Headquarters Company and the remainder of anti-tank company, all fighting as infantry. These soldiers of the 423”’ Regiment were able to retake the village, only to be repulsed a short time later by a German counterattack. They mounted one last attempt to retake the village, and after house-to-house fighting, and as the sky began to darken, they had control once again of the village.’2 Although the determined efforts by those units to hold on to Bleialf were successful, little did they know that to their south-west, the order had been given to the 18th Cavalry Squadron to withdraw. The withdrawal of the 18th Cavalry Squadron meant that the right flank of the 423”’ was now totally exposed.
In the sector of the front held by the 424th Regiment, the 62”’ VG Division, with two regiments, side by side, attacked in two sectors. The main force was directed at Eigelscheid and the capture of the road to Steinebrück. The other force made a supporting attack just about two miles south of the main force, with the aim of gaining the high ground next to the village of Heckhuscheid. The 3d Battalion of the 424th Regiment was deployed at Heckhuscheid in the shape of an “inverted L.”3 The 5 Germans quickly seized a cluster of houses early in the attack, which allowed them to give support fire to a second assault against the positions held by Company L. The attack pushed Company L back to the next ridge line, where they were able to hold until the 3d Battalion’s reserve company arrived, allowing both units to counterattack and regain the ground lost.
Meanwhile, Company K was able to repel several attacks by the 62”’ VG Division, and in the process, they captured a wounded German officer. The German officer was carrying a map case and inside were documents that dealt with the subject:
Unternehmen Grezj74 The documents told of the German operation in American uniforms, and explained how they were to identify themselves to other Germans. This shocking information was immediately rushed up to the division G-2 where it was forwarded to those higher up. It would prove to be information that would put a quick end to the effectiveness of the Greif mission.
Further south, near the village of Grosskampenberg, it was dawn before the first German units struck the other forward positions of the 424th Regiment. They were from the 116th Panzerdivision, spilling over from their thrust against a neighboring regiment of the 28th Division. They were moving on the road leading from Lutzkamper to the rear of the 424~1~ Regiment. To prevent them from coming “that around the back of the 424t~~ Regiment, a bridge over the Our River at the village of Burg Reuland, had to be held. A reserve company was positioned astride the road to meet the German movement. Shortly after taking up positions, five Mark VI tanks appeared. The American unit opened up with small arms fire, which forced the tank commanders to close their hatches. Two tanks were immediately knocked out of action and the other three fell back. This ended the threat to the 424” right flank for the time being.
Meanwhile, back at Eigelscheid, located on the road to Steinebruck, and the main attack route of the 62”’ VG Division, Generalmajor Kittel, the commander of the division, hoped for a swift penetration. When this was achieved, he hope to commit a battalion on bicycles to seize St. Vith and capture trains loaded with gasoline.
Soon after daylight, the American defenders at Eigelscheid saw reminiscent of the First World War. Coming toward them, in the eaHy morning light, were German troops advancing in bunches standing erect. They were firing their weapons wildly without taking aim at a target. Meanwhile, squad leaders were yelling at them to move forward quickly, while whistles and bugles were sounding in the background.’’ Although the advancing German units suffered heavy casualties from artillery fire from the 591” Field Artillery Battalion, as well as machine guns and small arms fire, the number of men advancing made their movement formidable.
Early on in the attack, Captain Freesland requested the release of a reserve battalion located near Steinebrück. He learned that Jones had designated that battalion as part of the division reserves, and Colonel Alex Reid, the commander of the 424” Regiment, could only release the battalion with Jones’ approval. Reid sent the request to Jones, but as with Colonel Cavender, the answer was no.
By the time the answer came down, the situation at Eigelscheid had gotten considerably worse. The collapse of the 106th Reconnaissance Troop at Grosslangenfeld, just over a mile to the North, allowed another German force to advance on Eigelscheid from that direction. What the men at Eigelscheid saw come down the road were four self-propelled 75mm assault guns. Once again Freesland asked for the release of the reserve. By this time the assistant divisional commander, Brigadier General Herbert T. Perrin, bad come to Winterspelt, the first village behind Eigelscheid, to see the situation first hand. Freesland told Perrin of the situation and on his own decision, Perrin released a rifle company from the reserve, Company C. Shortly after noon, Perrin gained Jones’ approval to move the rest of the battalion, but by the time they were all assembled and ready to leave Winterspelt, the defenses of Eigelscheid were about to collapse and Winterspelt itself was under attack from German troops moving up from Grosslangenfeld.
The sheer size and weight of those German units attacking Eigelscheid, were beginning to take a toll on the troops holding the village. German soldiers were beginning to penetrate the village, and by early afternoon, the surviving American troops were making a fighting withdrawal back to Winterspek, where they were to join the rest of the 1” Battalion and a company of the 81” Engineer Battalion.
Other than the withdrawal at Eigelscheid, the 424th~5 defenses were still intact and the German plans for a swift thrust to St. Vith were ended. However, the situation was grave, the 591” Field Artillery Battalion had fired over 2,600 shells in stopping the Germans advance, and this was about all the ammunition they had on hand.
Shortly after nightfall, troops of the 62”’ VG Division renewed their attack, striking again at Winterspek. A crisis was developing close to the south flank of the 106th Division, but it was nowhere near the serious situation that was developing on the division’s northern flank. With the withdrawal of the 14” Cavalry Group, the northern flank of the 422”’ Regiment was now exposed to the Germans coining freely through the gap. if the 18th VG Division spearhead could not be blunted, then the 422”’ and 423”’ Regiments would be trapped.
By the end of the first day the 106th Division had lost relatively little ground during the daylight hours. However, the Germans had succeeded in creating a shallow salient in the Winterspek sector, between the 42Y’ and 424th Regiments. Also, because of the opening in the Losheim Gap, they were able to uncover the left and rear flanks of the 422”’ Regiment. Therefore, through the night, the 18th and 62”’ VG divisions continued to push into these sectors, while fresh troops moved up with heavy 5 equipment for the next day’s attacks.
There was no doubt at this point what the Germans were attempting to do. The intelligence section of the ~ Division analyzed the enemy plan correctly, and in its report on the night of 16 December stated; “The enemy is capable of pinching off the Schnee Eifel area by employing an VG division plus armor from the 14” Cavalry Group sector and one VG division and armor from the 423”’ Infantry sector at any time.”
General Lucht was satisfied with the events of the first day, even though the left wing of his attack had failed to break through. He was relieved that the superior weight of the American artillery had not been utilized in the early and crucial hours of the assault. Furthermore, he was surprised that the defenders on the Schnee Eifel had not made a single move to threaten the weak and grossly extended center of the 18th VG Division. The failures of these two actions were inexplicable to the German commanders. Although General Lucht expected the Americans in the sector to mount a counterattack the next day, he knew that it would come too late and the encirclement would be comp1ete!
By the night of 16 December, General Jones had committed all the reserves available to the 106th, except a battalion of engineers at St. Vith. Because Jones had been promised more reserves from Middleton, which included the Combat Command B of the 9th Armored Division and the entire 7’~’ Armored Division, he decided to leave the two regiments on the Schnee Eifel instead of pulling them back across the Our River. However, a severe underestimate of the time of arrival of the 7t1% Armored Division led to some troop decisions which would prove to be costly. Ultimately, command decisions based on inaccurate information would lead to the loss of the two regiments on the Schnee Eifel over the next two days.
|Page last revised 12/01/2005|