Objective: the Roer River Dams
While American troops were approaching the Roer in late November and early December, concern was mounting in command circles about the obstacle that remained before sizable forces might cross the river with reasonable safety. This obstacle was the neglected objective, the dams on the upper reaches of the Roer which the Germans might employ to produce flood waters to isolate any force that had crossed the Roer.
By late November, tactical air headquarters had begun to dispatch reconnaissance flights over the dams almost daily.1 Intelligence officers pored over aerial photographs: any indication of demolitions? significant change in water level? marked increase in rate of discharge over the spillways? Message after message about the state of the dams reached headquarters at almost every echelon of command. Corps and division commanders warned their units to be prepared to evacuate low-lying portions of the Roer valley. Noting a sharp rise in the river, commanders in at least one instance feared the worst until a quick reconnaissance flight revealed that unusually heavy rainfall and not destruction of the dams was the cause.2
The American command had indicated the first firm appreciation of the genuine value of the Roer River Dams to the Germans when on 11 November both First and Ninth Army had directed no advance beyond the Roer "except on Army order."3 Even at that point and not for almost a month thereafter was any scheme revealed for taking the dams by ground assault, despite the fact that the dams were a two-edged sword. If American hands had controlled the spillways, those Germans west of the Roer who subsequently made such a fight of it in the Huertgen Forest and on the Roer plain could have been denied reinforcement and supply and subjected to defeat in detail in the same manner that the Germans anticipated should American troops cross to the east bank.4
Perhaps the explanation for the sins of omission that made the sobriquet "neglected objective" applicable to the dams lay in the great expectations that had accompanied start of the November offensive. Perhaps it was as chroniclers of
the Ninth Army put it later, that the American command anticipated a rapid advance which might produce capture of the dams in the natural course of events. "The progress made by First Army ... did not measure up to expectations, however . . . . Since the dams were not quickly overrun, . . . the possibility that the enemy would make good tactical use of the waters impounded by the dams became a matter for the most serious consideration."5
This explanation might well have been correct up to the point when it became obvious that the First and Ninth Armies were to achieve no rapid sweep to the Roer River. After that time, delay in launching a ground attack against the dams could be more correctly attributed to a hope that the dams might be breached from the air and the threat of controlled flooding thereby eliminated. If bombs could break the Urft Dam, upstream from the massive, earthen Schwammenauel Dam, the water level in the Schwammenauel reservoir might be raised to a point near the crest of the earthen dam, whereupon bombs might dig deep enough into the earth to get a small flow of water moving across the top of the dam. Erosion would do the rest.6
This kind of thinking was not without precedent. During October General Patton’s Third Army had faced a similar problem with a dam which impounded waters of the Etang de Lindre near Metz. The Etang de Lindre fed the Seille River, which ran through American lines. French engineers of the seventeenth century had built the dam as a cog in the defenses of Metz. In German hands this dam could have been used in much the same manner as it was feared the Roer River Dams might be employed, that is, to flood the Seille and isolate American units east of the river. But on 20 October two squadrons of P-47’s had achieved a fifteen-yard breach in the dam and removed the threat. Though the dam on the Etang de Lindre was considerably smaller than the Schwammenauel, key dam in the Roer system, it was of earth construction like the Schwammenauel.7
The chief proponent of the scheme to bomb the Roer River Dams was the ground commander most directly concerned with eliminating the dams, General Hodges. At least as early as 18 November, the First Army commander began studying the dams with an eye toward air bombardment and on 22 November urged General Bradley to support the plan.8 When the G-3 for Air at 12th Army Group passed the request to SHAEF, the air officers at Eisenhower’s headquarters allotted the project to the Royal Air Force, which specialized in the kind of low-level, precision bombing that would be required. The successful RAF attack on the Moehne Dam in the Ruhr in 1943, for example, came readily to mind. Yet apparently after consulting with the RAF, SHAEF air officers the next day, 23 November, reported the proposal impracticable. On the other hand, the air officers agreed that if the 12th Army Group considered breaching the dams "of paramount importance," SHAEF Air would "reconsider the matter."9
A week later, on 30 November, General Hodges learned with immense satisfaction that the RAF had finally consented to try to blow the dams,10 but his hopes that this would solve the problem were dashed during the next few days by unfavorable weather. On 30 November and the first two days of December, planned attacks against the dams had to be canceled because of the weather,11 while on 3 December 190 aircraft made the flight over the dams but failed to attack, presumably because of poor visibility. The next day 200 aircraft flew over the target, but only 25 Lancasters and 3 Mosquitos actually attacked. Damage to the dams was discouragingly negligible. Another attack on 5 December was canceled because of poor visibility.12
On 5 December SHAEF took another look at the question of breaching the dams from the air. The commander of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur T. Harris, objected to the project on the theory that irreplaceable personnel were being wasted in an effort foredoomed to failure. Yet so impressed by now with the importance of the target was the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower, that he ordered the attacks to be pushed over all objections.13
Three days later, on 8 December, 205 aircraft dropped 797 tons of bombs on the Urft and Schwammenauel Dams and on the regulating dam between the two, the Paulushof. Though two hits were registered on the Urft and 18 on the Schwammenauel, neither dam was broken. Yet for all the frustration and negligible results involved thus far, the First Army commander, General Hodges, remained firm in his belief that the dams could be broken from the air. A thousand bombers a day, Hodges believed, "should be sent over until the dam is broken."14
After another three-day wait occasioned by the weather, 230 Lancasters again attacked the dams. Of these, 178 concentrated against the Urft with 1,065 tons of bombs; but results again were discouraging. The bombs cut the top of the dam at the south end, allowing some water to spill through, but not enough. Although the RAF consented to two more tries, on 13 and 14 December, weather again forced cancellation. The air effort had failed.15
Even while the air program continued, General Hodges, for all his insistence that the dams could be breached from the air, was making plans for a ground attack. Early in December he directed General Gerow’s V Corps to seize the dams. General Gerow issued his field order for the attack on 7 December.16 The target date was 13 December.
That the V Corps should make the attack to seize the dams was in keeping both with the geographical location of the corps and with the First Army’s original
broad plan for the November offensive. Holding a twenty-five-mile front from the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge southwest, south, and southeast to a point beyond Camp d’Elsenborn, the V Corps was in a position to launch concentric attacks against the dams from three directions, from north, west, and southwest. (Map 9) Since General Hodges’ order to the corps at the start of the November offensive had been to be prepared to drive northeast alongside the VII Corps to the Rhine at Bonn, a move to the dams would be a step in the right direction. The commitment of north-wing elements of the corps in late November to assist the VII Corps in clearing the Huertgen Forest and the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge had in no way altered the original broad plan for the V Corps.
The terrain in front of the V Corps was as forbidding militarily as anything that had been encountered during the course of the Siegfried Line Campaign. Four good-size streams and numerous tributaries cut the sector into a complex quilt of sharply incised terrain compartments. Indeed, so precipitous are the hillsides and gorges in this region that terrain well may have been a major deterrent to earlier ground attack against the dams. A force moving against the dams from the north would have to cross the Kall River gorge and surmount the Kommerscheidt-Schmidt ridge, features already notorious as a result of the 28th Division’s tragic experience in early November. Attacking from the west, troops would have to conquer two bands of pillbox defenses in the Monschau Corridor, which had stymied the overextended 9th Division in September. A force approaching the dams from the southwest would encounter another part of the West Wall secreted within the Monschau Forest, a belt of woodland northeast of Camp d’Elsenborn, indistinguishable from the dreaded Huertgen Forest.
Strength available to General Gerow for the attack seemed more than sufficient, despite defensive responsibilities involved in his elongated front. In the north, the 8th Division, 2d Ranger Battalion, and CCR of the 5th Armored Division were putting the finishing touches to capture of the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge and held a line southwest along the Kall River into the Huertgen Forest at Deadman’s Moor (Todten Bruch). The 102d Cavalry Group and a regiment of the 1st Division, the latter only temporarily attached to the corps in a defensive role, faced the Monschau Corridor. From the Hoefen-Alzen ridge near Monschau southeast through the Monschau Forest to the corps right boundary, a new division, the 99th (Maj. Gen. Walter E. Lauer), held a "quiet sector" about twelve miles wide with a series of battalion and company strongpoints. Made available specifically for the attack was another new division, the 78th (Maj. Gen. Edwin P. Parker, Jr.), and the veteran 2d Division (Maj. Gen. Walter M. Robertson), which had been holding a portion of the inactive Ardennes front after having executed major assignments in Normandy and Brittany. A combat command of the inexperienced 9th Armored Division subsequently was attached as a corps reserve. Beyond normal divisional artillery, General Gerow possessed thirteen corps field artillery battalions of almost all calibers ranging as high as 8-inch and 240-mm. howitzers.17
In planning the corps maneuver, General Gerow decided to eschew the possibility of three concentric attacks at first in favor of a double envelopment by two divisions. The depleted condition of the 8th Division in the north, which might have formed a third prong, and the fact that the fighting for the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge had drawn enemy strength to the north no doubt influenced this decision.
The north wing of the envelopment was to be formed by the 78th Division. Attacking through the Monschau Corridor, the 78th first was to clear the pillbox- and village-studded plateau which marks the start of the corridor, then to continue northeast along the Strauch-Schmidt highway through extremities of the Huertgen Forest to Schmidt. From Schmidt the 78th Division might come upon the Roer River Dams from the north.
In the meantime, the 2d Division, as primary component of the south wing of the envelopment, was to attack northward into the Monschau Forest from twin Belgian border villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath, southeast of Camp d’Elsenborn. The 2d Division first was to break a West Wall strongpoint at a road junction marked by a customs house and a forester’s lodge named Wahlerscheid, thence to fan out in two directions, northwest to clear resistance opposite the Hoefen-Alzen ridge between the Wahlerscheid road junction and Monschau, and northeast along a higher ridge line, the Dreiborn ridge, which leads to the Roer River Dams.18 Perhaps in cognizance of the tribulations exposed flanks had wrought in the Huertgen Forest, General Gerow directed that a regiment of the 99th Division make a limited objective attack within the Monschau Forest alongside the 2d Division’s exposed right flank.
The German troops holding the Monschau Corridor and the Monschau Forest were part of the LXVII Corps (General der Infanterie Otto Hitzfeld), which had taken over the southern portion of the LXXIV Corps front under command of the Sixth Panzer Army in preparation for the Ardennes counteroffensive. The LXVII Corps sector covered some twenty miles from a point just south of Vossenack in the north to a point southeast of Camp d’Elsenborn in the south.19
The Monschau Corridor was the responsibility of the 272d Volks Grenadier Division (commanded now by Generalleutnant Eugen Koenig). This division typified many of the problems the Germans faced in keeping units intact for the Ardennes counteroffensive. As the high command tried to do with all the new volks grenadier divisions, the 272d had been assigned a quiet sector while awaiting the call for the counteroffensive, but the assignment could not last. When the V Corps took the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge, thereby threatening to cross the Roer, the 272d, then operating under the LXXIV Corps, had been the only unit at hand able to provide a force for counterattack. Having sent about two thirds of its infantry strength to Bergstein, the division would not get it back until 14
and 15 December, after heavy losses both at Bergstein and while helping deny the southwestern approaches to Dueren. As the Americans prepared to attack in the Monschau Corridor, the 272d was getting ready to regroup as the northernmost element of the Sixth Panzer Army and to participate in the counteroffensive.20
The Hoefen-Alzen ridge and the Monschau Forest were defended by the 277th Volks Grenadier Division, which also was awaiting Ardennes action. Though the 277th had been spared active commitment in the November fighting, its regiments were overextended after having been called on at intervals to extend their boundaries northward so that the greater concentration might be achieved in the Huertgen Forest.21
The impending participation of both the 272d and 277th Divisions in the Ardennes counteroffensive was indicative of the state of flux affecting almost the entire front of the LXVII Corps at this stage in December. The target date for the counteroffensive was only three days away. On 13 December the 85th Infantry Division, a depleted unit from Holland, was to begin relief of that part of the 272d Division near Bergstein and the entire 89th Infantry Division in the vicinity of Vossenack, so that the latter might be shored up for the counteroffensive.22
Like the Germans, but on a smaller scale, the V Corps took extraordinary precautions to maintain secrecy for the first blow, even to removing shoulder-patch insignia and obliterating unit vehicular markings. Not until the night of 11 December did the 78th Division relieve those troops which had been holding the face of the Monschau Corridor. Not until the very eve of the attack, in a blinding snowstorm, did the 2d Division arrive in assembly areas near Camp d’Elsenborn. On the assumption that secrecy had been preserved, none other than normal artillery fires were to precede the first blow.
The leaves had been still on the trees when in September a regiment of the 9th Division first had tried to break the two bands of West Wall pillboxes in the Monschau Corridor. As the 78th Division prepared to attack across the same high plateau almost three months later, roads were icy and snow concealed many of the scars of the earlier fight. Here as much as anywhere the slow pace of the Siegfried Line Campaign was markedly evident.
In the 78th Division’s first combat action, only two regiments were available, for General Gerow had directed that the third shore up the adjacent 8th Division, in poor shape after gaining the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge. The 78th Division’s commander, General Parker, ordered both remaining regiments to participate from the first. On the north, the 310th Infantry was to send a battalion from Lammersdorf east to Rollesbroich, while the 309th Infantry, close alongside, was to move two battalions southeast from Hill 554 at Paustenbach to take first the village of Bickerath, then Simmerath. These two objectives in hand, the 309th Infantry was to mount part of a third
battalion on attached tanks to seize Kesternich, the next village to the east.
These four villages—Rollesbroich, Bickerath, Simmerath, and Kesternich—represented the heart of the positions remaining to the enemy on the high plateau. Once these were taken, the 309th Infantry and an attached battalion of the 310th were to turn south and southwest to sweep that part of the plateau lying between Simmerath and the upper reaches of the Roer near Monschau. In the meantime, the 310th Infantry was to prepare to renew the assault from Rollesbroich to take two more villages, Strauch and Steckenborn, which guard the main highway running northeast from the plateau to Schmidt.23
As men of the 78th Division moved to the attack before day on 13 December, a soupy fog aided concealment. Under radio silence and without artillery preparation, they advanced almost without sound except for low-voiced orders and the crunch of snow underfoot. The early morning darkness was bitterly cold.
One man stepped on a mine. Germans in a pillbox fired sporadically, then surrendered on the pretext that they had exhausted their ammunition. German riflemen fired at isolated points along the line, but all in all the defense was halfhearted. A battalion of the 310th Infantry (Col. Earl M. Miner) had a firm foothold soon after daylight on a steep knoll overlooking Rollesbroich. Before noon the battalion was in the village, dealing with isolated resistance while dodging increasing shellfire as the enemy came to life.
On the division’s south wing, the story was much the same. Before noon one battalion of the 309th Infantry turned back the lower lip of the penetration by taking Bickerath, though mine fields and interlocking fire from pillboxes denied egress to higher ground south of the village. Despite mine fields and a stubborn strongpoint in a hamlet north of Simmerath, another battalion of the 309th Infantry gained Simmerath shortly after midday.
The first objectives in hand, the 309th Infantry commander, Col. John G. Ondrick, mounted a company of his remaining battalion on attached tanks of the 709th Tank Battalion and sent them beyond Simmerath to Kesternich. Only this time the enemy’s machine gunners and mortarmen, the latter occupying defilade in deep draws beyond Kesternich, were fully alert. The tanks bogged in the soft mud while rounds from German antitank guns cut ugly black patches in the snow about them. Though the infantrymen dismounted and fought forward alone, it took them all afternoon to gain the first houses of Kesternich. Because they were but one company, they hesitated to get involved in the sprawling village after dark. The rest of this company’s parent battalion either had been held up by shellfire or had become involved with pillboxes off to the flanks.
Though Kesternich remained out of reach, troops of the 78th Division on the night of 13 December could be encouraged by the results of their first day’s fight. They had lost 238 men in their first day of battle,24 yet this was hardly surprising for a first fight, particularly when they had gained all initial objectives
and had registered advances up to a mile and a half. As expected, they had encountered the enemy’s 272d Volks Grenadier Division. Their achievement of surprise against this force had been underscored by absence of counterattack all day.
On the other hand, as the day had worn on, resistance had stiffened like a coil spring under compression. This was emphasized by the fact that in almost all instances the Americans controlled only the villages and not the pillbox-studded ground nearby, some of it commanding ground. The bulk of the two regiments would require most of the next two days for mop-up and consolidation. As others had learned from bitter experience, men of the 78th Division discovered early that the Germans were great ones for infiltrating back into captured pillboxes and villages. Not only that, the snow and cold turned the limited action into a battle for self-preservation. The insidious enemy called Trench Foot was quick to put in an appearance.
While the bulk of the two regiments consolidated, the critical fight took place at the village of Kesternich. Here the 309th Infantry commander, Colonel Ondrick, directed renewed attack on 14 December by two battalions-his 2d Battalion, which had tried to get into the village on the first day, and the 2d Battalion, 310th Infantry, attached to the 309th.
First one, then the other, of these battalions essayed the German strongpoint. Attacking from the northwest, the 2d Battalion, 309th Infantry, failed even to regain the first houses which one company had held briefly the night before. German mortars and artillery pieces in the draws beyond Kesternich were particularly troublesome. Attacking from the west, the 2d Battalion, 310th Infantry, encountered much the same resistance. A platoon of accompanying tanks withdrew after antitank fire knocked out the lead vehicle. Though the infantry persisted alone and at last gained the first houses, here the Germans stood and increased their fire. Again as night came the Americans were forced to withdraw.
Apparent antidote for the German shelling was not lacking, for the 78th Division was well fixed with artillery support. In addition to normal divisional artillery and corps guns in general support, the corps commander had attached to the division two battalions of 105-mm. howitzers (one self-propelled) and the bulk of a battalion of self-propelled 155-mm. guns.25 Nor was the artillery slothful in responding to requests for fire. At one point eight battalions of divisional and corps artillery massed their fires on the draws beyond Kesternich. Afterward, the infantry could hear screams of German wounded, but the mortars were ready to cough again when the attack was renewed.26
During the night artillerymen laid detailed plans for a concentrated fifteen-minute barrage against Kesternich the next morning. Guns of the 709th Tank and 893d Tank Destroyer Battalions were to add their fire, as were the infantry weapons of the 2d Battalion, 309th Infantry, northwest of the village. The assault role fell to the 2d Battalion, 310th Infantry.
At 0700 men of the 310th Infantry attacked under a noisy curtain of shellfire.
MEN OF THE 2D DIVISION move through the Monschau Forest.
For all the fire support, advance was a dogged proposition. Nevertheless, by noon, Company E had bypassed a giant pillbox to break into the objective. Hugging the buildings alongside the streets to avoid grazing fire of German machine guns, men of this company pushed quickly through the village. Mop-up they left to others who were to follow.
By 1300 Company E had gained the eastern edge of Kesternich. Hardly had the men dug in when a battalion of the 272d Division’s 980th Regiment counterattacked. Though Company E repulsed the enemy with timely help from supporting artillery, only a shell of the original company remained when the action subsided. In the meantime another company had dug in south of Kesternich, while a third tried to clean out the houses. Though the job was complete as night came, the condition of the 2d Battalion, 310th Infantry, left much to be desired. No rifle company could muster more than forty men.
Shortly after midnight the battalion of the 980th Regiment came back. This time the Germans penetrated the village by exploiting gaps between the American companies. "Grey figures were all about, firing burp guns, throwing grenades."27 Communications to the rear went out. Patrols sent from other units to reach the battalion returned with no information.
The situation in Kesternich obviously was serious. Nor was there occasion for
complacency elsewhere, for in three days these two regiments of the 78th Division had lost almost a thousand men, 358 nonbattle casualties—mostly victims of trench foot—and 609 battle casualties. These losses left gaps in the line that looked more and more disturbing when after nightfall on 15 December prisoner identifications revealed the presence nearby of a new, presumably fresh German unit, the 326th Volks Grenadier Division. This was but the first in a series of ominous developments that were to occur with increasing frequency the next day, 16 December.
If these events on the north wing of the projected double envelopment ran a minor gamut of military experience—from early success at Rollesbroich, Simmerath, and Bickerath to apparent setback at Kesternich—those on the south wing during the same three days were remarkably unvaried. Here, in the Monschau Forest approximately eight miles south and southeast of the Monschau Corridor, the 2d Division and a regiment of the 99th Division experienced three days of monotonous frustration.
Aiming first at the Wahlerscheid road junction, the West Wall strongpoint deep within the forest at the meeting point of the Hoefen-Alzen and Dreiborn ridges, the 2d Division had but one road leading to the first objective. This was a secondary highway running north through the forest into Germany from the twin Belgian villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath. Faced with this restriction, the division commander, General Robertson, had little choice of formation for the first leg of the attack other than regiments in column. He directed the 9th Infantry (Col. Chester J. Hirschfelder) to attack astride the road, take the Wahlerscheid road junction, then swing northwest to clear those Germans opposite the Hoefen-Alzen ridge. Following in column as far as Wahlerscheid, the 38th Infantry (Col. Francis H. Boos) was to be committed northeast from the road junction along the Dreiborn ridge in the direction of the Roer River Dams. The 23d Infantry in division reserve was to remain near Camp d’Elsenborn.28
That part of the Monschau Forest through which the 9th Infantry first was to push was a kind of no man’s land of snow-covered firs, hostile patrols, mines, and roadblocks. Though the sector belonged within the 99th Division’s defensive responsibilities, that division held such an elongated front that defense of some parts had been left more to patrols than to fixed positions. Not for several miles on either side of the forest-cloaked road to Wahlerscheid were there any friendly positions in strength. The gap on the right of the road was of particular concern because the southeastward curve of the 99th Division’s line left the sector open to enemy penetration from the east. Approaching along forest trails, the Germans might sever the 2d Division’s lifeline, the lone highway to Wahlerscheid.
This threat had been what had prompted General Gerow to order a limited objective attack by a regiment of the 99th Division close alongside the 2d Division’s right flank. The assignment fell to the 395th Infantry under Col. A. J. Mackenzie. Since one of Colonel Mackenzie’s battalions still was defending the Hoefen-Alzen ridge, the division commander, General Lauer, attached to the regiment a battalion of the neighboring 393d Infantry. On D Day the three battalions were to attack to occupy wooded high ground about a mile and a half southeast of Wahlerscheid around the juncture of the Wies and Olef Creeks in a portion of the forest known as the Hellenthaler Wald. General Lauer himself added to the assignment by directing another battalion of the 393d Infantry to seize a hill off the battalion’s left flank which provided the enemy a choice location for enfilading fire.
Because the forested no man’s land between Krinkelt-Rocherath and Wahlerscheid was some three miles deep, obtaining accurate intelligence information before the attack was difficult. About all the 2d Division knew was that the strongpoint at Wahlerscheid was held by troops of the 277th Volks Grenadier Division’s 991st Regiment. Any real estimate of enemy strength at Wahlerscheid or any pinpoint locations of German pillboxes and other positions were missing. This situation made it particularly difficult to plan artillery fires in support of the attack.29 The artillery tried to solve the problem by plotting checkpoint concentrations by map, which might be shifted on call from infantry and forward observers as trouble developed. The fact that no preparation was to precede the attack also alleviated the problem of unspecific targets.
Looking upon the 2d Division’s attack as the main effort of the corps maneuver, the corps commander had provided strong fire support. Attached to the 2d Division was a battalion of 105-mm. howitzers, another of 4.5-inch rockets, a battery of 155-mm. self-propelled guns, a company of chemical mortars, the usual medium tank battalion, and two battalions of tank destroyers, one self—propelled. In addition, the 406th Field Artillery Group with four battalions of field pieces of 155-mm. caliber or larger was to reinforce the division’s fires. The corps reserve-CCB, 9th Armored Division-was attached for possible exploitation of a breakthrough, so that the organic artillery of this combat command also was available. Artillery of the 99th Division was reinforced with a battery of 155-mm. guns.
The Monschau Forest was almost uncannily silent as troops of the 9th Infantry moved forward on foot in approach march formation an hour after daylight on 13 December. Because the highway was known to be mined, the men had to plow through underbrush and snow drifts on either side. When a partial thaw set in, branches of fir trees heavy with snow dumped their wet loads upon the men beneath them. In some ravines the ground was so marshy that icy water oozed over the tops of the men’s overshoes. "A most taxing march," someone noted later.30 It would have been taxing even without usual combat impedimenta, and these men were carrying more than the norm. So impressed had been their
commanders with the misfortunes of the 28th Division when depending upon but one supply road at Schmidt that they had ordered the men to carry enough rations, ammunition, and antitank mines to last for at least twenty-four hours without resupply.
At 1240 the column neared the clearing about the Wahlerscheid road junction. "Both battalions have dropped packs," Colonel Hirschfelder reported; "contact imminent."31 Though occasional mortar and artillery fire had struck the column en route, Colonel Hirschfelder nourished the hope that the forest had concealed the size of his force, that the Germans anticipated approach of no more than patrols. Still hoping to achieve surprise, he ordered assault against Wahlerscheid by two battalions abreast without artillery preparation.
The 9th Infantry faced a formidable position that in some respects possessed the strength of a small fortress. Grouped compactly about the road junction and sited to provide interlocking fires were machine gun and rifle positions in and about four pillboxes, six concrete bunkers, a forester’s lodge, and a custom house. The forest and deep ravines formed a kind of moat around the entire position. Where trees and underbrush had encroached upon fields of fire, the Germans had cut them away. In some places rows of barbed wire entanglements stood six to ten deep. The snow hid a veritable quilt of lethal antipersonnel mines.
It took only a matter of minutes after the attack began for Colonel Hirschfelder to determine that his hope of surprise was empty. The road junction bristled with fire. Mortar and artillery shells burst in the treetops. Exploding mines brought down man after man. One after another, eight men whose job was to clear a narrow path for the 1st Battalion were killed or seriously wounded by mines. Bangalore torpedoes set beneath the barbed wire failed to ignite because fuzes were wet. One platoon of the 2d Battalion nevertheless pressed through five aprons of barbed wire before enemy fire at last forced a halt; yet several more aprons of unbreached wire lay ahead.
As night came the weather turned colder. Drenched to the skin, the men were miserable. Their clothing froze stiff. Through the night they tried to keep warm by painfully etching some form of foxhole or slit trench in the frozen earth.
In the woods southeast of Wahlerscheid, experience of the 99th Division’s 395th Infantry roughly paralleled that of the 9th Infantry. Moving northeast through the forest in a column of battalions to protect the 9th Infantry’s right flank, the 395th Infantry soon after noon struck a line of log bunkers deep in the woods near the juncture of the two streams that split the high ground the regiment sought to gain. Not a dent had been made in this position when night came. Like the men at Wahlerscheid, those deep in the forest set to work trying to scoop some measure of protection from the frozen ground.32
When a misty, viscous daylight came at Wahlerscheid the next morning, 14 December, American artillery began a systematic effort to soften the German
positions as a prelude to a fifteen-minute preparation for a new assault in midmorning. Although Colonel Hirschfelder asked for air attack as well, poor visibility was to deny close support from the air throughout the Wahlerscheid operation. Even assistance from the artillery was not as effective as usual because of difficulties in registration attributable to the dense forest, clinging fog, and concomitant lack of specific information on enemy positions and batteries. In at least one instance on 14 December, artillery fires fell short upon troops of the 9th Infantry.
Repeated attempts to assault and to outflank the Wahlerscheid position through the day of 14 December ended in failure. This prompted a directive from the division commander that set the tone for conduct of the next day’s operation. "Base future operations," General Robertson said, "on thorough reconnaissance, infiltration, and finesse. Get deliberate picture, then act."33
During the afternoon, Colonel Hirschfelder pulled back his battalions several hundred yards into the forest to provide his artillery a clear field. Throughout the night, patrols probed for gaps in the mine fields and for passage through the barbed wire obstacles. The next day, big corps guns began a bombardment. An attached battery of 155-mm. self-propelled guns inched up the lone highway through the forest to pour direct fire against the concrete fortifications. Expending 287 rounds, crews of the big guns claimed penetration of three pillboxes, though later investigation revealed no material damage.34
As darkness fell on 15 December, the 2d Division after three days of attack could point to no gain against the Wahlerscheid strongpoint. Though the adjacent 395th Infantry had achieved considerably more success in the pillbox belt southeast of the road junction, this was a subsidiary action geared in pace to the attack at Wahlerscheid and offered no real possibility of exploitation to assist the main attack. Both regiments had incurred heavy losses, as much from the cruel elements as from enemy action. of 737 casualties within the 9th Infantry during these three days, almost 400 were attributable to nonbattle causes.
All might have been gloom that third night except for one thin hope which stirred one of the battalion commanders, Lt. Col. Walter M. Higgins, Jr. During the afternoon of the second day of attack, 14 December, a squad of Company G had slithered under one after another of the enemy’s barbed wire entanglements until all were behind. Another squad had cut the wire so that a narrow four-foot gap existed. Yet neither squad had been in communication with the company headquarters; furthermore, their company commander had been wounded and evacuated. As a result, news of the breach had not reached the battalion commander, Colonel Higgins, until long after both squads had withdrawn. When the next night came and the 9th Infantry was as far as ever from cracking the defense of Wahlerscheid, Colonel Higgins saw an outside chance to exploit the narrow gap the two squads had forged the day before.
Soon after dark on 15 December Higgins sent an eleven-man patrol equipped with sound-powered telephone to pass through the gap and report on German strength and alertness. Though wandering errantly until joined by one of the
men who had cut the wire the day before, the patrol at 2130 reported an electrifying development. We have surrounded a pillbox, the word came back. The Germans apparently were unaware that anything was afoot.
That was all Colonel Higgins was waiting for. Within a matter of minutes Company F was plodding single file through the gap in the wire. Higgins himself followed with Company E and took such an active part in the fighting that he subsequently was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. By midnight the 2d Battalion held a substantial bridgehead within the Wahlerscheid strongpoint and another battalion was filing silently through the gap. One battalion swung northwest, the other northeast. From one position to another, the men moved swiftly, blowing the doors of pillboxes with beehive charges, killing or capturing the occupants, prodding sleepy Germans from foxholes, and capturing seventy-seven at one blow at the customs house. Two hours after daylight on 16 December even mop-up was completed, and the 38th Infantry already was moving forward to pass through the 9th Infantry’s positions and push northeastward along the Dreiborn ridge toward the Roer River Dams. The facility with which the 9th Infantry in the end had conquered Wahlerscheid was apparent from the regiment’s casualty list for 16 December: 1 man killed, 1 missing, 17 wounded.
In no small way was the local success attributable to the enemy’s preoccupation with his winter counteroffensive, for prior assignments in the counteroffensive had made it necessary to garrison Wahlerscheid on a catch-as-catch-can basis. The 326th Volks Grenadier Division, scheduled to attack in the counteroffensive under jurisdiction of the Sixth Panzer Army’s LXVII Corps, had begun to relieve the 277th Volks Grenadier Division during the night of 14 December. The 277th then had begun to shift southward to attack under the Sixth Panzer Army’s I SS Panzer Corps.
The unit which took over at Wahlerscheid was a battalion of the 326th Division’s 751st Regiment. The unfamiliarity of this battalion with the defensive positions was invitation enough to loss of the strongpoint, but the Germans had compounded it during the night of 15 December even as Colonel Higgins’ men were filing through the gap in the wire. So that the 751st Regiment might move along to its assigned role in the counteroffensive, the Germans had been replacing the battalion at Wahlerscheid with the 326th Division’s field replacement battalion. Caught in the process of relief, both units were ripe for annihilation.35
The Wahlerscheid road junction firmly in hand, General Robertson and others of the 2d Division now might give greater attention to other developments that, when dwelt upon, had disturbing connotations. Beginning two hours before daylight on 16 December, German artillery fire had been increasing with an ominous persistence. Counterbattery fire was particularly heavy. At 0747 the 99th Division reported a slight penetration between two companies of the 393d Infantry. There also was an attack against the 394th Infantry, "using searchlights." "The strength is unknown," the 99th Division reported. "We are out of communications."36
Something was in the air. Something disturbing. Perhaps something big. In little more than twenty-four hours after capturing the Wahlerscheid road junction, troops of the 9th Infantry would have a new name for it. They would come to know Wahlerscheid as Heartbreak Crossroads.
That something was astir was apparent at several points along the V Corps front. In three places, at Wahlerscheid, in the Monschau Corridor, and on the Hoefen-Alzen ridge, identification had been made of the 326th Volks Grenadier Division. Indeed, the attack reported in early morning "in unknown strength" against the 395th Infantry was by a battalion of the 326th Division on the Hoefen-Alzen ridge. Though beaten back, this attack when viewed in the context of other blows along other portions of the 99th Division’s elongated front prompted concern. By midmorning of 16 December the enemy had hit every regiment of the 99th Division, and in some cases the situation still was fluid. The unusual enemy tactic of using searchlights for illumination might have been construed to mean something special was in the offing.
Full portent of these developments still was not appreciated, though all division commanders began to take precautions. General Lauer of the 99th Division, who had virtually no reserves, shifted his units to provide a company here and there to reinforce threatened sectors. General Robertson of the 2d sent medium tanks to Wahlerscheid to back up his infantry in the continuing attack up the Dreiborn ridge. General Parker of the 78th released a battalion from Simmerath to go to the aid of those of his men who had been isolated the preceding night in Kesternich. Presumably at the instigation of the First Army and in light of recurring reports of serious attacks farther south against the adjacent VIII Corps, General Gerow at 1037 ordered the 9th Armored Division’s CCB relieved from attachment to the 2d Division and sent south to reinforce the VIII Corps.37
By noon on 16 December concern about the attacks against the 99th Division was growing by the minute. In the name of the corps commander, the V Corps G-3, Colonel Hill, directed the 2d Division commander, General Robertson, to place a battalion each of tanks and infantry at the disposal of the 99th Division "if the situation . . . was such as to demand such action." Not long after, Robertson sent Lauer a battalion of his reserve regiment. General Gerow, in the meantime, attached the 2d Ranger Battalion to the 78th Division to assist in the Monschau Corridor. At 1950 Robertson gave Lauer another battalion of his reserve. "Speed is essential," General Robertson told the regimental commander, "and for God’s sake get those trucks married up, and the tanks and TDs are to follow."38
Before daylight on 17 December, a flight Of JU-52’s disgorged about 200 German paratroopers in rear of the 78th Division’s positions. The day was only beginning when a German armored column approached the village of Buellingen, near Krinkelt-Rocherath, where some of the 2d Division’s service and engineer units had set up shop. At 0730 the 99th
Division began moving its command post a few miles to the rear. At 0800 enemy tanks and half-tracks appeared on a ridge overlooking the 2d Division’s command post and artillery installations. At 1015 General Robertson alerted his 9th and 38th Infantry Regiments near Wahlerscheid to be prepared to disengage and withdraw to Krinkelt-Rocherath. General Lauer did the same for his 395th Infantry. The integrity of these three units obviously was threatened. By seizing Buellingen, the enemy already had severed the main supply route but at a point where several secondary roads provided passage. If the twin villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath could be held and the road through the Monschau Forest maintained, then withdrawal still might be accomplished. By noon on 17 December the 9th and 38th had begun to pull back, and in late afternoon the 395th Infantry also had begun to withdraw.
The first ground attack to be aimed specifically at the Roer River Dams was over, cut short by the winter counteroffensive. By nightfall on 15 December, before first manifestations of the counteroffensive began to appear, the attack against the Roer River Dams had cost the V Corps approximately 2,500 men.39
Almost half were nonbattle casualties. Losses of the 8th Division would raise the total figure by a thousand; for simply in mopping up and consolidating after conclusion of the fight for the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge, the 8th Division had incurred as many losses as had either the 2d or 78th Division in their full-scale attacks.
The other part of the Allied front directly involved at the start of the counteroffensive was that held by the VIII U.S. Corps, south of the V Corps zone, in the Ardennes-Eifel region. This was the front eventually embracing eighty-eight miles which the VIII Corps had taken over from the V Corps in early October upon conclusion of the campaign in Brittany. The V Corps in turn had shifted northward in the First Army’s attempt to achieve greater concentration near Aachen.
The VIII Corps front in the Ardennes was at once the nursery and the old folks’ home of the American command. To this sector came new divisions to acquire their first taste of combat under relatively favorable conditions. Here too came old divisions licking their wounds from costly fighting like the Brittany peninsula and the Huertgen Forest.
The front ran from Losheim, between Camp d’Elsenborn and the northern end of the Schnee Eifel, southward generally along the Belgian and Luxembourgian borders with Germany. Eventually it stretched all the way to the southeastern corner of Luxembourg. It extended into Germany at two points: along the Schnee Eifel, where the 4th Division in September had pierced a thin sector of the West Wall, and near Uettfeld, where the 28th Division had driven a salient into the West Wall. The mission of the VIII Corps was to defend the long front in place, deceive the enemy by active patrolling, and make general plans and preparations for attacking to the Rhine.40
General Middleton’s VIII Corps at first was under the Ninth Army and controlled but two divisions, the 2d and 8th. The front at this time was approximately fifty miles long, sufficient to tax the two divisions severely.41 On 11 October the 83d Division was transferred from the Third Army to the VIII Corps but brought with it responsibility for the entire southern half of Luxembourg, thus enabling no shortening of the lines of the other divisions. The corps front then embraced about eighty-eight miles.
Arrival of the inexperienced 9th Armored Division to join the corps on 20 October did little to reduce frontages, for Middleton felt impelled to hold this force as a corps reserve. Some relief was afforded on this date by attachment of the 14th Cavalry Group with two squadrons, the 18th and 32d. Middleton attached one squadron to the 2d Division, the other to the 83d, each to screen a gap in the line, one of which was five miles long.
Holding the line in the Ardennes was not always the cinch it might have appeared to a casual observer. It was true that the men enjoyed a few amenities usually denied in more active sectors: comparatively low casualties, more frequent visits to shower points and to division and corps rest centers, hot food for most meals, and bunker-type squad huts, dugouts, or cellars instead of foxholes to sleep in. It was also true that the Germans on the other side of the line were for the most part content to emulate the Americans in keeping the sector relatively quiescent. As soon as the panzer and SS panzer divisions which had fought here in September could be replaced, the Germans manned the line with low-rated infantry divisions as widely stretched in their defensive positions as were the American units.
Yet it was also true that some portions of the long line were perennial hot spots, and any point—even behind the lines, where German patrols often threaded their way past scattered outposts—might erupt at any time in violent little actions that were real and terrifying to the men involved in them. The 83d Division in November, for example, lost 201 men as battle casualties, including 25 killed, and 550 to nonbattle causes. The 2d Division’s 23d Infantry, occupying terrain near Uettfeld where a flame-throwing half-track had awed men of the 28th Division’s 110th Infantry in September, was subjected to frequent and costly shelling and several night attacks, sometimes
in strength as great as two companies. There was no relief until the battalions finally blew up the West Wall pillboxes in an intricately planned and timed maneuver and withdrew on 2 November to positions of their own choosing a mile to the rear. Though the new positions contained gaps between companies sometimes greater than a mile, the withdrawal enabled General Robertson to withhold a battalion in reserve, thereby permitting gradual rotation of front-line units.
The corps commander, General Middleton, used the armored infantry of the 9th Armored Division to relieve battalions of other divisions temporarily, both to give the old units some rest and the new ones some battle experience. The bulk of the armored division’s artillery backed up the 83d Division on the corps south wing.
The men were not idle. You might not have to attack, but still you had to stand watch in mud that even duckboards in the bottom of foxholes did not eliminate entirely. You had to buck the wet, cold winds of the Ardennes heights. You had to fight trench foot. You had to patrol. You also had to keep improving your defenses constantly, stringing barbed wire, laying mine fields, roofing and sandbagging foxholes and squad huts, foraging for stoves, lanterns, fuel-these and myriad other tasks.
On 20 October, the 83d Division staged simultaneous river crossing demonstrations at three points along the Sauer and Moselle Rivers, hoping to draw fire that would reveal enemy gun positions. It was partially effective. The 2d Division on the anniversary of the World War I armistice demonstrated by fire but evoked hardly a shot in return. In early December, the VIII Corps at the direction of the First Army used headquarters of the 23d Special Troops to imitate a build-up of strength in hope of drawing enemy units from the Aachen sector. Using the name, shoulder patches, and vehicular markings of the 75th Division, not yet committed to action, the special troops simulated arrival of the division by occupying billets, command posts, and assembly areas, employing vehicular sound effects, and executing fictitious radio and telephonic traffic. For a time this activity was reflected on German intelligence maps by a question mark, but the Germans soon became satisfied that no new division existed.42
For all the violence of the Ardennes terrain and for all the width of the division zones—sometimes as much as twenty-five miles for one division—the four divisions which made up the VIII Corps through October and much of November might have been a genuinely effective stumbling block to the counteroffensive had they still occupied the line. They were here for a long time, came to know the weak and the strong points of the terrain, organized their defenses with thoroughness and adroitness, and prepared elaborate but workable withdrawal and counterattack plans. Yet not one of the infantry divisions and only part of the armored division was on hand when the Germans struck. They had been replaced by two badly spent divisions from the Huertgen Forest and another fresh from the United States.
On 19 November the 8th Division relinquished its zone to the 28th Division, a unit needing some 3,400 replacements. The 83d Division on 7 December gave
way to the 4th, which required as many or more replacements than the 28th. On 11 December the 2d Division moved to the Roer River Dams attack, making room for the green 106th Division. A combat command of the 9th Armored Division shifted coincidentally to provide a reserve for the V Corps. This was the situation when the Germans came out of the mists on 16 December.