The VIII Corps Barrier Lines

On the morning of 16 December General Middleton's VIII Corps had a formal corps reserve consisting of one armored combat command and four engineer combat battalions. In dire circumstances Middleton might count on three additional engineer combat battalions which, under First Army command, were engaged as the 1128th Engineer Group in direct support of the normal engineer operations on foot in the VIII Corps area. In exceptionally adverse circumstances, that is under conditions then so remote as to be hardly worth a thought, the VIII Corps would have a last combat residue-poorly armed and ill-trained for combat-made up of rear echelon headquarters, supply, and technical service troops, plus the increment of stragglers who might, in the course of battle, stray back from the front lines. General Middleton would be called upon to use all of these "reserves." Their total effect in the fight to delay the German forces hammering through the VIII Corps center would be extremely important but at the same time generally incalculable, nor would many of these troops enter the pages of history.1

A handful of ordnance mechanics manning a Sherman tank fresh from the repair shop are seen at a bridge. By their mere presence they check an enemy column long enough for the bridge to be demolished. The tank and its crew disappear. They have affected the course of the Ardennes battle, even though minutely, but history does not record from whence they came or whither they went. A signal officer checking his wire along a byroad encounters a German column; he wheels his jeep and races back to alert a section of tank destroyers standing at a crossroad. Both he and the gunners are and remain anonymous. Yet the tank destroyers with a few shots rob the enemy of precious minutes, even hours. A platoon of engineers appears in one terse sentence of a German commander's report. They have fought bravely, says the foe, and forced him to waste a couple of hours in deployment and maneuver. In this brief emergence from the fog of war the engineer platoon


makes its bid for recognition in history. That is all. A small group of stragglers suddenly become tired of what seems to be eternally retreating. Miles back they ceased to be part of an organized combat formation, and recorded history, at that point, lost them. The sound of firing is heard for fifteen minutes, an hour, coming from a patch of woods, a tiny village, the opposite side of a hill. The enemy has been delayed; the enemy resumes the march westward. Weeks later a graves registration team uncovers mute evidence of a last-ditch stand at woods, village, or hill.

The story of the units that were retained under tactical control and employed directly by General Middleton in the attempt to form some defense in depth in the VIII Corps center has been partially recorded and therefore can be narrated. The effect that these units had in retarding the German advances, a course of action evolving extemporaneously, must be considered along with the role played by the uncoordinated front-line formations in the haphazard sequence of their delaying actions from east to west. For convenience sake the VIII Corps action is recounted here in independent detail.

With the very limited forces at his disposal prior to 16 December the VIII Corps commander found it physically impossible to erect any of the standard defenses taught in the higher army schools or prescribed in the field service regulations. The best he could do to defend the extended front was to deploy his troops as a screen, retaining local reserves for local counterattack at potentially dangerous points. In effect, therefore, the main part of Middleton's reserve consisted of the battalions and companies assembled in or close to the villages which formed the strongpoints of the screen. Under the circumstances there could be no thought of an elastic defense with strong formations echeloned in any depth behind the forward positions. In the event of a general attack in great strength delivered against all parts of the corps front simultaneously, Middleton had little choice but to carry out the general directive to "defend in place." With four engineer battalions and one small armored combat command as the only corps reserve behind an elongated and brittle linear defense Middleton's commitment of this last reserve would turn on the attempt to plug a few of the gaps in the forward line, slow the enemy columns on a few main roads, and strengthen by human means two or three of the natural physical barriers deep in the corps rear area.

Middleton's First Moves

During the daylight hours of 16 December the direction of the German main effort and the weight of the forces involved was only vaguely perceived by the VIII Corps and higher commands. In the front lines the troops actually grappling with the enemy initially reported piecemeal and seemingly localized attacks. As the day progressed and the attackers appeared in greater numbers the changing situation duly was reported through the chain of command. By this time, however, communications had been so disrupted that the time lag as represented on the situation maps in corps and army headquarters was a matter of several hours. As a result CCR, 9th Armored Division, and the four engineer combat battalions received alert


orders and carried out assembly, but only the 168th Engineer Combat Battalion was committed and it had a string attached that restricted its free employment by the 106th Infantry Division. Of the three army engineer battalions in the VIII Corps zone under the 1128th Engineer Group, one, the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion, already was in the battle area. During the day its sawmills at Diekirch received a part in a First Army security plan, prepared a fortnight earlier. About one o'clock on the morning of the 16th the 299th was put on alert status with other units in the army rear area to meet expected landings of German paratroops. Through the first day of the counteroffensive, therefore, the 1128th had most of its men reinforcing the guards at rear area headquarters and installations or manning observation points.

During the night of 16 December communications deteriorated still further, particularly from regimental command posts forward. The outline of the German attack began to emerge, and the pattern tentatively pointed to Liège as the enemy objective and made the size of the German effort more or less apparent. But the growing hiatus in time between the initial contact with enemy troops at a given point and the ultimate "fix" in grease pencil on the acetate overlays in the higher American headquarters made any true and timely picture of the extent of the German penetrations impossible. Enough information filtered into the VIII Corps command post at Bastogne, nevertheless, to enable Middleton to formulate his countermoves. The defensive plan he adopted consisted of two phases: first, to defend in place along the corps front as long as possible, thus carrying out the existing First Army directive; second, to deny the enemy full and free use of the Ardennes road net by building the strongest possible defense, with the limited force at hand, in front of the key communications centers, St. Vith, Houffalize, Bastogne, and Luxembourg City. Although General Middleton counted on reinforcements from outside his own command to garrison these four key points, it would fall to the VIII Corps to deny the enemy access thereto during the hours or days which would pass before reinforcements could take over.

St. Vith and Bastogne appeared to be in the greatest immediate danger as cracks commenced in the linear defense on the 17th. Friendly armor was hurrying down from the north to bolster the 106th Division and St. Vith; so, having turned one of his engineer battalions over to General Jones, the corps commander directed his attention to the approaches to Bastogne, a natural thing in view of the dangerous condition of the VIII Corps center. Thus a pattern was forming in which the meager resources at Middleton's disposal would be committed to delaying actions in the southwestern part of the corps area while a vacuum formed south of St. Vith and to the rear of that sector. (See Map IV.)

By the afternoon German advances at the expense of the 28th Division center forced Middleton to deploy the bulk of his reserve along the road net east of Bastogne. The presence of enemy reconnaissance at the Clerf River indicated that the main crossings would be made near Clerf and Wilwerwiltz. From the Clerf bridgehead a main, hard-surfaced highway led into Bastogne. The Wilwerwiltz bridgehead gave entry to the


Wiltz valley and a complex of secondary roads wending toward Bastogne. CCR, 9th Armored (which earlier had sent some tank destroyers to Clerf), drew the assignment of blocking the Clerf-Bastogne highway. One engineer battalion, the 44th, was ordered to reinforce the headquarters force of the 707th Tank Battalion for the defense of Wilwerwiltz, but events were moving too fast and the battalion was diverted to the 28th Division command post at Wiltz. There remained the problem of barring the way to Luxembourg City, east of which the 4th Infantry Division was having a hard time. Already in the area, the 159th Engineer Combat Battalion was attached to Barton's division in the late afternoon and headed for Consdorf.

Of what might be considered the formal reserve of the VIII Corps, General Middleton had left, by 1600 of 17 December, only the 35th Engineer Combat Battalion; he retained in addition a partial voice in the disposition of the 28th Engineer Group. The corps engineer officer, meanwhile, had proposed a plan for defending a line from Foy to Neffe which would screen the eastern entries to Bastogne. To form this screen the 35th and the 158th Engineer Combat Battalion, the latter taken from the 8th Group, assembled their companies, vehicles, and equipment. Both battalions had been dispersed in numerous working parties; their trucks were hauling road-building stores, timber, and the like. Weapons long in disuse had to be collected and checked-land mines and explosives had to be gathered. Furthermore the 35th had the responsibility of guarding the VIII Corps headquarters and could not be released immediately.

At the close of day other engineer units were on the move. Pontoon and light equipment companies pulled onto the roads leading west with orders to take their bridges, air compressors, graders, and other paraphernalia out of enemy reach. Some of these units, like the 626th Engineer Light Equipment Company, would find themselves directly in the path of the German advance. At Diekirch the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion, under orders to rejoin its group in the west, shut down the sawmills and entrucked under artillery fire. As yet no large numbers of foot stragglers had come from the front lines, but the roads to the rear were crowded with supply vehicles, medium and heavy artillery, service and headquarters trucks, jeeps, and command cars. Around the headquarters and installations farther to the west, clerks, mechanics, truck drivers, and the like stripped the canvas from truck-mounted machine guns, filled the ammunition racks on deadlined tanks, listened to hurried explanations of bazooka mechanisms, or passed in inspection before sergeants who for the first time in weeks were seriously concerned with the appearance of each carbine and pistol.

At daylight on 18 December the 158th Engineer Combat Battalion commenced digging on its designated position northeast of Bastogne between Foy and Neffe. In addition barriers manned in platoon strength were set up at Neffe, Mageret, and Longvilly on the Clerf highway. By dint of borrowing right and left 950 anti-tank mines could be used to strengthen the 158th position. At Bizory, northwest of Mageret, a part of Company C, 9th Armored Engineer Battalion, had been loaned by CCR and during the morning dug in on the high ground facing toward the Bastogne road.


Photo:  La Roche and the Ourthe River


Help was on the way to the VIII Corps, two airborne divisions and one armored. Of these reinforcements the 101st Airborne Division and the 10th Armored Division were expected to assemble in the neighborhood of Bastogne. The problem then, during the 18th, was to extend the slim screen already in position east of Bastogne so as to provide cover north and south of the city against any enemy interruption of the assembly process. On the south side the 1102d Engineer Group gathered ordnance, quartermaster, signal, and engineer units, placing them east of the highway running to Arlon. At the moment, however, this sector gave no cause for immediate concern, for the southern flank of the corps still was holding.

North of Bastogne a German threat was beginning to take shape. During the morning word reached the VIII Corps command post that the 740th Field Artillery Battalion had been overrun by the 1st SS Panzer Division at Poteau, west of St. Vith. Also, the left wing of the 28th Infantry Division had been forced back across the Our River and it appeared that a penetration was in progress south of St. Vith. To head off any roaming German reconnaissance units


north of Bastogne, a collection of antiaircraft, tank destroyer, ordnance, and engineer units moved to intersections and bridges along the Bastogne-La Roche road. In the latter bridgehead town the 7th Armored Division trains took over responsibility for blocking the roads which there united to cross the Ourthe River. East of this line lay Houffalize, one of the four key road centers designated by Middleton for defense, but the 82d Airborne Division was en route to the battle and the VIII Corps commander expected that it would be deployed in the Houffalize sector. The Germans were moving too fast. At 1400 on the eighteenth a radio message reached Bastogne that the enemy had overrun the rear command post of an engineer company at Steinbach, just east of Houffalize.

There remained the very real threat of a coup de main against Bastogne from the east. In the afternoon bad news from this sector came thick and fast: at 1405 a telephone call from the commander of CCR, 9th Armored Division, reported that his most advanced roadblock force (Task Force Rose) was "as good as surrounded"; at 1430 the Germans were reported advancing on the second roadblock; at 1525 came confirmation that Task Force Rose had been overrun. On the Clerf highway, then, the enemy was less than nine miles from Bastogne. Troops of the 28th Division continued to hold the town of Wiltz, but they could not bar the valley corridor to the Germans. An officer patrol, in armored cars taken out of ordnance workshops, made an attempt to reconnoiter a proposed barrier line between CCR and Wiltz. Toward evening their report reached Bastogne: the Germans were west of the proposed line. The project was dropped.

As ordered by General Hodges, most of the VIII Corps headquarters moved during the day to Neufchâteau, about eighteen miles southwest of Bastogne, but General Middleton and a small staff remained in the city to brief the incoming airborne and armored commander and to maintain what little control still could be exercised over the course of battle. The 35th Engineer Combat Battalion, headquarters guard, was more urgently needed east of Bastogne; at 1800 Middleton ordered the battalion to move in on the right of the 158th. With two battalions in line there was a screen, albeit very thin, extending from the Houffalize-Bastogne road to the Arlon-Bastogne road. Then, since the center of gravity for the corps was rapidly shifting to the southwest, Middleton took his last two engineer battalions, the 1278th and 299th, to establish a screen facing generally north between Libramont and Martelange. Behind this screen, southwest of Bastogne, he hoped to assemble the stragglers and broken units of his corps.

The situation as seen by Middleton and his staff on the night of the 18th was this. CCB of the 10th Armored had arrived from the Third Army and taken positions between Bastogne and Wiltz. Some part of CCR, 9th Armored, remained intact at Longvilly astride the Clerf road. The 101st Airborne Division was detrucking in its concentration area west of Bastogne. The Germans had achieved a clear penetration in the corps center and for all practical purposes the American forces in the St. Vith sector were separated from those under Middleton's immediate control. The deep and dangerous penetration made by the


armored columns of the 1st SS Panzer Division in the V Corps sector north and west of St. Vith had forced the First Army and 12th Army Group commanders to choose between an attempt to restore the breach between Bastogne and St. Vith and one to stop the 1st SS Panzer Division.

The decision, made during the afternoon, was to assemble the 82d airborne Division at Werbomont, instead of Houffalize as Middleton had intended. Houffalize would have to go and without a fight. Rumors in the early evening already placed it in German hands. Since there was no force at hand to close the Houffalize gap the most that could be done was to vulcanize the edges of the tear by holding on at St. Vith and Bastogne. Perhaps, too, the enemy rushing through the gap might be caused some difficulty and delay by the creation of a barrier line along the Ourthe River and its tributaries. Plans for such a barrier line already were in execution in heterogeneous units hurrying to outpost bridges, villages, and road intersections between La Roche and Bastogne.

The night of 18 December was rife with rumor. By the quarter hour new reports came in from excited truck drivers, jeep patrols, or lonely clerks on unfamiliar outpost duty, placing the Germans in some village or on some road actually well to the west of the real locations of the most advanced enemy spearheads. The rear areas of the corps-if one could continue to speak of any "rear" area-was crawling with vehicles. Supply points, truckheads, and medical installations were moving to the westsome for the third time in as many days. New collecting points for the dead were opening. And closer to the vague and fragmentary front line, roads, trails, and paths carried stragglers singly or in large herds, toiling painfully on foot or clinging tenaciously to some vehicle, back to Bastogne or beyond to the west.

The Gap North of Bastogne

The action east of Bastogne during the night of 18 December, the absorption of the engineer screen into the larger defending forces, and the final fate of CCR, 9th Armored, has already been described. Here the focus is on the attempt to impede the probing advance guards and reconnaissance parties of the Fifth Panzer Army pushing into the gap north of Bastogne.

Construction of a really tough barrier line along the Ourthe River hardly could be expected. The stream itself, even when swollen by the winter snows, was narrow. At some points the approaches to the crossing sites were difficult to negotiate and lent themselves to blocks and barriers, but there were many bridges and numerous fords which an enemy could use to bypass a barred crossing site. At best only a very few companies of engineers could be found for the business of preparing bridge demolition charges, erecting barriers, laying antitank mines, and blasting craters in the roads. Some engineer tools and equipment had been lost to the enemy, but there was probably as much available as the small number of engineers could properly use. It was one thing to strengthen the physical barriers in the path of the oncoming enemy; it was quite another to defend at these barriers with sufficient rifle strength and antitank weapons. The men and weapons required


for a continuous defensive line along the Ourthe simply were not available. On the other hand the German columns would not hit the Ourthe line in a coordinated and general attack; furthermore their initial appearance could be predicted along the well-defined and major routes westward.

On the morning of 19 December reconnaissance troops of two German armored divisions, the 2d Panzer Division and the 116th Panzer Division, funneled through a narrow corridor, only two miles in width, between Noville and Houffalize. The southern wall of this corridor was formed by the American troops who had pushed the rapidly forming Bastogne perimeter as far out as Noville. In the north where the town of Houffalize had been abandoned the corridor wall was formed by nature, for Houffalize was a bridgehead on the east-west channel of the Ourthe River. The two corps whose armored divisions were leading the Fifth Panzer Army pack in the race for the Meuse were strung out for miles behind the foremost reconnaissance forces. The main forces of the two armored divisions, although relatively close to the reconnaissance teams, were still a few hours behind.

On the German left the 2d Panzer Division, leading the XLVII Panzer Corps, collided with the Noville defenses early on the 19th. Partly by chance and partly by design, for General Lauchert needed more road room in which to pass his division around Bastogne, the 2d Panzer Division column became involved in a fight which extended from Noville east to Longvilly and lasted all through the day and following night. Caught up in this fight the advance elements of the division did not push beyond the Houffalize-Bastogne road until darkness had fallen. On the German right the reconnaissance battalion of the 116th Panzer Division moved along the south side of the Ourthe swinging wide to avoid Houffalize (this before noon), then turning to the northwest with the intention of crossing the Ourthe and seizing the La Roche bridges from the rear. This advance, though unopposed, was slow. Shortly after noon a few light reconnaissance vehicles reached Bertogne, from which a secondary road led across the Ourthe and on to La Roche.

General Middleton had spotted Bertogne as one of the chief approaches to the Ourthe and La Roche. Having been promised the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, en route south from the Ninth Army, he ordered the battalion to erect roadblocks at both Bertogne and La Roche. The 705th, coming by way of Liège, was a few hours distant when the German scouts entered Bertogne. Across the river the commander of the 7th Armored Division trains had taken independent action to protect his trucks and supplies gathered in the neighborhood of La Roche by installing outpost detachments and roadblocks to the south and east. Someone (who is not clear) had blown the Ourthe bridge northwest of Bertogne. To prevent the reconstruction of this bridge Colonel Adams sent Company C, 129th Ordnance Maintenance Battalion, and a couple of antiaircraft half-tracks mounting 37-mm. guns to form a block on the near bank about a half mile from the village of Ortho.

It was midafternoon when the enemy reached the far bank. A self-propelled gun at the head of the small German column got in the first blow, its shells knocking out the half-track crews.


Capt. Robert E. Spriggs withdrew his company to a ridge overlooking the river and radioed for reinforcements. The enemy would not risk a daylight crossing, nor could the German engineers repair the damaged span while under direct fire. In the early evening five more half-tracks from the 203d Antiaircraft Battalion and a pair of self-propelled tank destroyers from the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion came up.

It must have been about this time that the 116th Panzer Division commander received the unwelcome news that he had no bridge on which to cross the western branch of the Ourthe. The forward combat teams of the division were west of the Houffalize-Bastogne road but not yet up to the river. They had defiled with difficulty on the limited road net north of the Bastogne outworks, and a part of the tank regiment had stopped by the way to aid the 2d Panzer Division at Noville. In the twilight reconnaissance troops who had pushed west along the Ourthe after the setback at the Bertogne crossing discovered a Bailey bridge, still standing, at Ortheuville. Whether the bridge could be captured in usable condition was yet to be seen, but as soon as this find was radioed to the 116th Panzer Division commander he directed the advance guard of the division toward Ortheuville.

The Ourthe River resembles a misshapen Y in which the down stroke runs east to west and the open arms extend toward the northwest and southwest. The bifurcation in this Y comes about five miles west of Houffalize. The west branch of the Ourthe, as Belgian hydrographers name it, was the obstacle confronting the German armored spearheads on the night of 19 December. All during that day engineers from the VIII Corps and First Army had toiled to make a barrier line of the two arms west of Houffalize, blowing bridges which were not on the main American supply lines, fixing charges for future destruction of others, planting antitank mines at possible fording sites, erecting and manning roadblocks on roads and in the villages along the main approaches to the river. On the north branch, that is the line Durbuy-Hotton-La Roche, the 51st Engineer Combat Battalion (Lt. Col. Harvey R. Fraser) was hard at work.2 Only three companies were on hand to prepare this twelve-mile stretch of the river barrier, for Company C had been hurried northeast to Trois Ponts where it would administer a severe setback to Kampfgruppe Peiper of the 1st SS Panzer Division. South of La Roche, whose important bridges were outposted by the 7th Armored trains, the 9th Canadian Forestry Company had left sawmills and logging tracts to prepare demolitions and guard the crossing sites on a tributary of the Ourthe. The steps taken to bar the western branch of the Ourthe northwest of Bertogne and the initial reverse imposed on the enemy reconnaissance there have already been noted. Strung across the land neck between La Roche and the bridgehead at Ortheuville were a few platoons of the 1278th Engineer Combat Battalion.

At Ortheuville one of the main VIII Corps supply roads (Bastogne-Marche-Namur) crossed the western branch of


the river by means of a heavy Bailey bridge. Shortly after noon on the 19th a platoon or less of the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion arrived in Ortheuville to prepare this important span for destruction. Although the VIII Corps staff had given priority to defense at this bridge, there was little enough that could be put in the effort. Three companies of the 299th and a small portion of the 1278th Engineer Combat Battalions comprised all the troops-available for a barrier line now being constructed from Martelange northwest along Highway N46 to the Ourthe River, thence on both banks of the river to Ortheuville-a distance of about twenty-seven miles.

In the meantime the 158th Engineer Combat Battalion (Lt. Col. Sam Tabets) which, as part of the screen east of Bastogne, had been in a fire fight throughout the morning, 3 was relieved by the 501st Parachute Infantry, the battalion leaving the sector about 1430. The companies of the 158th were returning to their separate and original bivouacs when corps orders suddenly arrived dispatching the battalion to the Ourthe line. It would take some while to reassemble the battalion but Company C was reached and diverted to Ortheuville. Here it closed about 1900. To his surprise and relief the engineer company commander found that he would have some antitank support-desultory shellfire already was falling on the village and it was known that German armor was close at hand. The 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, which Middleton had attached to the 101st Airborne Division, was on the move to Bastogne. Originally ordered to use the road through Bertogne, the battalion had been forced to detour when the battalion commander found the enemy there. The 705th, following the near bank of the Ourthe west to St. Hubert, dropped off eight tank destroyers to bar an enemy crossing while its trains passed through Ortheuville. These guns, as it turned out, would not reach Bastogne for a number of days.

So things stood as the evening advanced: the engineers and tank destroyer crews waiting for some enemy move to take the bridge; the German self-propelled guns and tanks lobbing in a shell now and again to keep the Americans away from the bridge and perhaps with hopes of cutting the wires on the demolition charges. Back to the east the advance guard of the 116th Panzer Division was marching toward Ortheuville.

At this point General Krueger, the LVIII Panzer Corps commander, made his fateful decision. The bridge northwest of Bertogne was gone, the bridge at Ortheuville probably would be blown in any attack, and furthermore it would be difficult to squeeze the entire corps through the small opening between the east-west channel of the Ourthe and Noville. Late in the evening he ordered the 116th Panzer Division advance guard, then at Salle three miles southeast of the Ortheuville bridge, to a halt. Then he sent orders to the division commanders and corps troops which would countermarch the forces west of the Houffalize-Bastogne road and turn the entire LVIII Panzer Corps to the north,


through the Houffalize bridgehead, and away from the western branch of the Ourthe.

A flurry of enemy activity a little before midnight on the roads northwest of Bastogne masked the withdrawal of the LVIII Panzer Corps. Armored cars and half-tracks raced up and down the roads shooting up small convoys, sparring with American outposts, and engendering a flock of rumors which placed German spearheads in a half dozen spots beyond the Ourthe. In truth the only serious efforts to cross the west branch in the late evening were those made by roving reconnaissance elements of the 2d Panzer Division, whose main combat strength remained tied down in the fight for Noville. An hour before midnight these scouts did appear in front of a bridge at Sprimont, which crossed a tributary of the Ourthe south of Ortheuville; for their pains the American engineers blew the bridge in their faces.

A few engineers, ordnance troops, and antiaircraft and tank destroyer crews on 19 December had contributed mightily to the German decision which turned an entire armored corps from the road west and plunged it into profitless adventures in a side alley. Of all the disappointments suffered by the Fifth Panzer Army on this day, and there were many, perhaps the greatest stemmed from the reverses suffered in fact at the bridge beyond Bertogne and in anticipation at the Bailey span in Ortheuville.

While Krueger's corps turned in its tracks during the night of 19 December, General Luettwitz issued commands to his XLVII Panzer Corps, whose forward column was bunching up around Bastogne. Reports from the troops pressing onto the city from the north and east led Luettwitz to conclude that hard-hitting tactics in the coming day might break the will of the defenders, loosen their grip on the Bastogne road net, and give the armor of the 2d Panzer Division and Panzer Lehr a clear highway west. Luettwitz put a time limit on the attack prepared for the 20th, instructing his armored divisions to be ready to bypass Bastogne. His reconnaissance pushed around the city, meanwhile, both north and south, and tangled with the defenders of the makeshift, attenuated barrier lines.

At Ortheuville a lull developed shortly after midnight as the light armor screening the 116th Panzer Division finally pulled away. The engineers patrolled across the river along the Bastogne road but found no one except American wounded whose trucks had been shot up by German raiders earlier in the night. Just before dawn, light tanks and armored infantry from the 2d Panzer Division arrived to take their turn at the bridge. After some time spent probing the bridge defenses by fire, the German infantry rushed forward behind a careening scout car. As much to their surprise as to that of the American engineers the bridge remained intact. For some reason, perhaps the enemy shelling a few hours earlier, the demolition charges on the span failed to explode when the plunger went home. At the first shock the defenders had fallen back across the bridge to the houses by the river bank and started firing. They had only a few minutes to wait before a column of German vehicles led by a light tank appeared on the opposite bank. When the leader started across the span, one of the two American tank destroyers which had been run down


close to the bridge got a direct hit, thus blocking the span. Peculiarly enough the enemy made no further attempt to win a way across. In the afternoon, when the troops of the 158th and the 9th Canadian Forestry Company undertook a counterattack across the river they found no trace of the enemy. So confused was the location of friend and foe that for a few hours two-way traffic between Marche and Bastogne was resumed.

The capture of Noville during the afternoon freed the 2d Panzer Division to continue the advance toward the Meuse. On the other hand, Luettwitz' corps was having trouble bringing gasoline forward on the crowded, winding supply roads in its sector; furthermore, the 2d Panzer Division would take some time to reassemble for the move on Marche.4

It remained for the division reconnaissance battalion, reinforced by artillery and engineers, to make the next foray against the Ortheuville crossing site. The reconnaissance troops got there about 2200. For two hours German howitzers, mortars, and machine guns pummeled the American defenses on the far bank, setting buildings aflame and tying the engineers and tank destroyers to their positions. At midnight the enemy infantry forded the river, attacking from out of the darkness against defenders whose movements were etched by the light of flares and burning houses. While those who had waded the river circled to the engineer flanks, more Germans crossed into the village, this time by way of the bridge. Earlier the Americans had rewired demolition charges and installed the detonator in a foxhole close to the span, but for some reason there again was no explosion.

The bridge defenders were in contact with the 1128th Engineer Group headquarters through the Belgian telephone system (which continued in operation although its wire ran through the German lines). A request for infantry support could not be filled and the commanding officer of the 1128th ordered the defenders to fall back southwest to St. Hubert. Most of the 158th Engineer Combat Battalion reached St. Hubert. As a parting gesture the tank destroyers, which had seen no tank targets, laid indirect fire on the bridge. A muffled explosion led the engineers to report that the span was at least severely damaged.

If so, the German engineers were quick to make repairs, for the advance guard of the 2d Panzer Division began to roll almost immediately on this and other temporary bridges thrown across east of Ortheuville. When daylight came the 2d Panzer Division was bunched up in assembly area with its head across the river near Tenneville and its rear guard, arrayed to meet a counterattack from Bastogne, near Salle. Inexplicably, so far as the American patrols were concerned, the 2d Panzer Division did not bestir itself during the 21st to employ its victory at Ortheuville for a move on Marche, in which the advance regimental combat team of the 84th Infantry Division was assembling. The answer here was logistical, not tactical: Lauchert's armor would have to waste the entire day waiting for gasoline.


Defense Southwest of Bastogne

Throughout the 21st the VIII Corps had worked hard to strengthen the engineer barrier line in front of Neufchâteau and Arlon, centers around which the corps was re-forming, because the presence of German patrols south and southwest of Bastogne gave ample warning of imminent attack. Actually it is incorrect to consider these defenses in the sense of a line. There was no continuous natural barrier on which to build. The defense of this sector, as a result, consisted of erecting obstacles at important road crossings, bridge demolitions, cratering concrete and macadam road surfaces, and mining fords and narrow stretches of roads. The troop detachments to cover these barriers remained small and heterogeneous, their weapons usually no more than carbines, rifles, machine guns, and bazookas. Heavy antitank weapons-a handful of tank destroyers, headquarters tanks, and howitzers-would be found in ones and twos at the most important points. In general these defensive positions were organized with an eye to barring the roads which approached Neufchâteau (the VIII Corps headquarters) and Arlon (the western gateway to Luxembourg City) from the north.

Strongpoints-the term is relative-had been created at St. Hubert, Libramont, Sibret, and Martelange, of which the last two were in the most imminent danger. Sibret, where remnants of the 28th Infantry Division had reorganized as Task Force Caraway, lay only four miles southwest of Bastogne. Martelange, on the highway to Arlon, was thirteen miles due south of Bastogne. Possession of this town was of pressing importance.

General Middleton asked his troops, at 1600, to hold the barrier line in front of Neufchâteau and Arlon for forty hours, or until help could come, and he specifically named Martelange. Here a branch of the Sure River provided a natural hindrance to troops advancing from the north; but here also an enemy penetration would endanger the assembly of reinforcements coming up through Luxembourg and Arlon and would lay bare the right flank of the VIII Corps screen.

At dusk a platoon from Company B, 299th Engineer Combat Battalion, which was holding Martelange, came under attack by tanks and infantry. The platoon blew the two bridges in the center of the town and withdrew. In great confusion the corps hastily gathered more engineers to defend the road to Arlon by a counterattack, but the Germans remained quietly in the town and made no attempt to repair the bridges. An advance in force south on Arlon was no part of the XLVII Panzer Corps plan. The foray at Martelange had been made by column from the assault gun brigade attached to the 5th Parachute Division, the division itself being strung out around Wiltz, which it had taken earlier. Poor communications, by this time as baneful an influence on the operations of the XLVII Panzer Corps as on those of the American VIII Corps, gave the 5th Parachute Division commander an extremely muddled picture of what had happened at Martelange. Heilmann did not know for sure who had the town until the next afternoon and in the interim became gravely worried about his exposed south flank, which at this moment was the left anchor of both the corps and army. In a postwar account


Heilmann concluded that in the Martelange action "quite a few things had gone wrong," a conclusion which General Middleton could have shared.

The next engagement in the new VIII Corps sector took place at Sibret. As the enemy closed on Wiltz General Cota had withdrawn the 28th Division command post, setting it up in Sibret on the night of 19 December. A straggler line established around Neufchâteau brought in some troops, and these were placed at roadblocks between Bastogne and Sibret. The 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion, having supported the 28th Infantry Division from 16 December on, took station at a road junction south of Sibret. The battalion, be it said, consisted of parts of Company B and the headquarters-but without their guns. North and west of Sibret a number of artillery outfits belonging to the 333d Field Artillery Group and the 28th Division had gone into firing positions from which to support the 101st Airborne troops around Bastogne. Some were intact, others were no more than headquarters batteries with a few pieces and a collection of cannoneers armed with rifles or carbines. Cavalry, tank, and tank destroyer units which had come back as the 28th Division center withdrew also were present with the artillery, but they too were remnants of battalion and company headquarters with few men and few weapons. In Sibret General Cota had perhaps two hundred men, mostly stragglers and strangers, for his headquarters and service people had been organized as a provisional battalion and thrown in to help hold Wiltz. There were three howitzers near the village, but the main antitank defense consisted of two bazookas which the assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. George A. Davis, ordered held "in reserve." Sibret, then, was a "strongpoint" in the VIII Corps screen but could be so considered only in relation to the surrounding roadblocks manned by squads and sections.

Renewed Drive Around Bastogne

Around the eastern arc of the Bastogne perimeter the events of the 20th had convinced the Fifth Panzer Army that no more time should be wasted here and that the westward momentum of the XLVII Panzer Corps must be revived. The command solution to the Bastogne problem called for the 2d Panzer Division to shake loose and hurry past the city in the north. This move, highlighted by the seizure of the Ortheuville bridge, began late on the 20th. Luettwitz divided the armor of the Panzer Lehr Division, one kampfgruppe to swing south of Bastogne and on to the west, one to stay behind for a few hours and aid the 5th Parachute Division in reducing the city. The latter division would be left the unpleasant and difficult task (as General Kokott, the commander, saw it) of containing the American forces in and around the city while at the same time shifting the axis of attack from the east to the south and west.

On the afternoon of the 20th General Kokott gave orders to set the first phase of this new plan in motion. The 39th Regiment, attacking on the south side of Bastogne, was told to continue across the Bastogne-Martelange highway and capture the high ground in the vicinity of Assenois. The 26th Reconnaissance Battalion would assemble, pass through


the rifle regiment at dark, swing around Bastogne, and seize and hold the village of Senonchamps immediately west of Bastogne. From this point the battalion would lead an attack into the city. The 26th's commander had high hopes for this admittedly risky foray. The reconnaissance battalion was in good condition and its commander, Major Kunkel, had a reputation for daring. Kokott expected the battalion to reach Senonchamps during the morning of the 21st.

Through the dark hours General Kokott waited for some word from Kunkel's kampfgruppe. At daybreak the first report arrived: the reconnaissance battalion was in a hard fight at Sibret, two miles south of its objective. Next came an irate message from the corps commander: the 5th Parachute Division had captured Sibret and what was the 26th Reconnaissance Battalion doing hanging around that village? Kokott, his pride hurt, sent the division G-3 jolting uncomfortably on a half-track motorcycle to find out what had gone wrong.

From very sketchy German and American sources the following broad outline of the fight for Sibret emerges. When Kunkel crossed the Bastogne-Neufchâteau road, he came upon a stray rifle company of the 5th Parachute Division which was engaged south of Sibret in a fire fight. About 0300 this German company had reached the road junction at which the remnants of the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion formed their roadblock. The American gunners, fighting on foot with rifles, apparently delayed the Germans for a couple of hours. Then the rifle company and troopers from Kunkel's command advanced through the dark to the south edge of Sibret, while German mortar fire started falling in the village. The first rush carried a group of the enemy into the solidly built gendarmerie at the southern entrance. Probably it was this initial success which was credited to the 5th Parachute Division.

General Cota went through the streets rounding up all the troops he could find for a counterattack against the gendarmerie, but the building could not be taken by unsupported riflemen. It was well after daybreak now, but very foggy; the armored vehicles of the German battalion were closing on the village and it was necessary to reoccupy the gendarmerie as a barrier. The three howitzers in the village defense had been overrun by tanks, but a battery of the 771st Field Artillery Battalion remained emplaced some two thousand yards northwest of the village. After much maneuvering to attain a firing site where there was no minimum elevation, the battery opened on the Germans barricaded in the gendarmerie. At almost the same time the enemy started a very heavy shelling. It was about 0900 and Kampfgruppe Kunkel was well behind schedule. The garbled radio messages reaching the XLVII Panzer Corps retracted the early report that Sibret had been taken and told of heavy fighting in the "strongly garrisoned" village. But the Germans could not be shelled out of the gendarmerie, tanks moved in on the American battery, and General Cota ordered his small force to retire south to Vaux-lez-Rosières; there he set up his division command post.

Meanwhile the staff of the 771st Field Artillery managed to get two guns into position to meet the enemy advance north of Sibret, but both guns and their tractors were put out of action by direct


shelling. Kampfgruppe Kunkel rode roughshod into the artillery assembly areas north and west of Sibret, coming upon guns hooked to their prime movers, motors turning, and all the signs of hurried exodus. Kunkel reported the capture of more than a score of artillery pieces, much ammunition and many prisoners. Quickly the kampfgruppe moved on Senonchamps, leaving only a small force to protect its left flank by a drive toward Chenogne.

The 26th Reconnaissance Battalion was not alone west of Bastogne. During the previous night the reconnaissance battalion of the Panzer Lehr Division had been relieved at Wardin, strengthened by the attachment of the division engineer battalion, and started on a march around the south side of Bastogne as advance guard in the resumption of the Panzer Lehr attack toward the Meuse. This Panzer Lehr task force had orders to scout in the direction of St. Hubert, the key to the road complex west of Bastogne. Following the 26th Reconnaissance Battalion through Sibret, the Panzer Lehr column turned northwest and fanned out on the eastern side of the Ourthe River in the neighborhood of Amberloup and Tillet. There were numerous fords and crossing sites along this stretch of the river, but the enemy was concerned with securing good roads and bridges for the heavy columns following.

The approaches to St. Hubert were defended on the 21st by the 35th Engineer Combat Battalion (Lt. Col. Paul H. Symbol), which had barricaded the northern entrance from Ortheuville and erected a strongpoint (held by Company C) at a crossroad in a loop of the Ourthe north of the village of Moircy. This latter defense barred the most direct line of march between Bastogne and St. Hubert. A company of German infantry and four tanks appeared in front of the Company C abatis and foxholes before 0900, but two of the tanks were rendered hors de combat by a bazooka team and the action turned into a small arms duel. For some reason the attackers were not immediately reinforced, perhaps because there were other and more attractive targets in the vicinity. The 724th Engineer Base Depot Company, earlier manhandling supplies in the depots at St. Hubert, marched in to thicken the American firing line, and by noon the fight had dwindled to an occasional exchange of shots. During the lull of early afternoon the 158th Engineer Combat Battalion and the tank destroyers which had retreated from Ortheuville to St. Hubert were ordered south to take over the defense of Libramont. The 35th was left alone to blockade and delay a possible thrust by the 2d Panzer Division forces now crossing at Ortheuville or the more direct threat from the east.

During the morning roving detachments of the Panzer Lehr task force had enjoyed a field day. For one thing they seized a large truck convoy, perhaps sixty to eighty vehicles, en route to Bastogne. They also surrounded the 58th Armored Field Artillery Battalion near Tillet, although no serious attempt was made to eradicate it. The bulk of the German task force crossed the Ourthe north of the Company C strongpoint but found that the American engineers had done a remarkably thorough job of blocking the roads leading to St. Hubert. Abatis (mined and boobytrapped), blown culverts, stretches corduroyed with felled trees, and extensive minefields


Photo:  Combat engineer setting a charge

When the charge detonates, the tree will fall across
the road to form part of a roadblock.

prompted reports to the Panzer Lehr Division commander that it would be some time before the eastern and northeastern approaches to St. Hubert could be cleared.

In the late afternoon the Panzer Lehr task force brought artillery into position and started shelling the Company C position. By this time the VIII Corps line no longer ran north and south in front of the German drive but was forming from east to west with the enemy passing across the corps front. A single battalion of engineers and miscellaneous antiaircraft and depot troops could not be expected to hold what remained of the barrier line on the western branch of the Ourthe. Fearful lest the engineers be cut off, VIII Corps headquarters ordered the 35th to hold as long as feasible, then rejoin the VIII Corps in the south. Using several hundred pounds of TNT which had arrived in the afternoon the engineers prepared demolitions to be blown coincident with the withdrawal through St. Hubert and Libramont. The enemy, hindered by darkness, mines, craters, and abatis, did not interfere with the engineers, and the latter fell back through Libramont, entrucked, and by midnight were in a new assembly area at Bouillon close to the French frontier.

Somewhat earlier a German detachment had seized a bridge over the Ourthe at Moircy, to the south of the Company C strongpoints. This bridge gave access to a back road which entered St. Hubert from the southeast. Despite the fact that this secondary route was relatively free from the craters and obstacles which cluttered the main roads, the Panzer Lehr task force made no move to strike for the town but instead spread out farther north. The 902d Regiment of the division had been relieved near Neffe during the evening of 21 December and been assigned an advance via St. Hubert. The light armor of the task force remained nearly immobile for the next twenty-four hours, and it was left to the main body of the division to utilize the Moircy road.5

With the withdrawal of the 35th Engineer Combat Battalion the VIII Corps no longer had elements directly in the path of the main German drive, always excepting, of course, the troops


defending Bastogne, which by this time were cut off from the rest of the corps. The outposts of the corps at Recogne (held by the 7th Tank Destroyer Group) and at Vaux-lez-Rosières (defended by a scratch force from the 28th Division, reinforced by the 527th Engineer Light Pontoon Company) thus far had escaped the attention of an enemy moving west, not southwest. General Middleton was concerned about his open left flank and as his engineers came back ordered a barrier line formed along the Semois River. On the VIII Corps right, in the area south of Bastogne, reinforcements from the Third Army were concentrating under the command of the III Corps. The VIII Corps tactical air command post, which had been moved to Florenville on the 21st, continued to receive rumors and half-true reports of German forces turning southwest against its front, but it was fairly clear that the main threat was past.

To meet the German forces scouting and probing along the corps sector General Middleton organized a counter-reconnaissance screen. Behind this were collected stragglers and strays, many of whom had crossed the French border and got as far as Sedan. What was left of the corps artillery, mainly the 402d Field Artillery Group, assembled for tactical control and re-equipment. Other field artillery battalions, as well as tank destroyer battalions, engineer regiments, and the like, were arriving to reinforce the corps and help make good its losses. New infantry formations were on the way to restore the striking power of the corps and the Third Army commander already was planning the employment on the offensive-of a revitalized VIII Corps.

There remained one more battle to be fought by the residue of General Cota's command, gathered around the outpost position at Vaux-lez-Rosières on the Bastogne-Neufchâteau road. During the night of 21 December some two hundred survivors of the 110th Infantry fight at Wiltz reached the 28th Division command post. Those who could be provided with clothes and weapons were put back into the line. Cota had in addition the engineer light pontoon company, retained as riflemen over the protests of the corps engineer, a few howitzers sited as single pieces around the village perimeter, and a platoon of self-propelled 76-mm. tank destroyers from the 602d Tank Destroyer Battalion, which had just come up from the Third Army. While the stragglers were being organized, about 0800 on the 22d, German shells commenced to burst over the perimeter. Enemy riflemen opened fire and an incautious light tank poked its nose into range of an American tank destroyer, which destroyed it. One prisoner was taken before this first flurry ended, a rifleman from the 5th Parachute Division.

The 5th Parachute Division, it will be recalled, had the mission of extending westward the cordon which the Seventh Army was to erect to forestall American counterattack against the south flank of the Fifth Panzer Army. The terminus of this extension was intended as the line Sibret-Vaux-lez-Rosières-Martelange, at which point the 5th Parachute Division would go over to the defense. Colonel Heilmann's troops had taken Martelange, the eastern anchor for this projected line, late on the 21st while small detachments reconnoitered to the west; it was one of


these which briefly engaged the 28th Division (-) perimeter at Vaux-lez-Rosières.

When the dispositions of the XLVII Panzer Corps around Bastogne were altered on the 21st, Heilmann expected that his division would be given a more ambitious mission. For this reason he ordered reconnaissance to be pushed south from Martelange and southwest toward Libramont on the 22d. That morning, however, a new corps commander, General der Kavallerie Edwin Graf von Rothkirch, arrived on the scene. He advised Heilmann to be "foresighted," advice which the latter, drawing on his battle experience in Italy, interpreted as a warning to secure the original defensive line in preparation for imminent American counterattack. Sibret and Martelange were held by the 5th Parachute; so Heilmann started his leading regiment, the 14th, for Vaux-lez-Rosières. It was growing dark when the German advance guard appeared northeast of the village.

General Cota had placed his tank destroyers here, anticipating correctly the point of greatest danger, but this precaution was useless. The enemy pushed to the fore a platoon of long-barreled 88-mm. assault guns mounted on an old model Tiger body with exceptionally heavy armor. The armor-piercing shells fired by the American 76-mm. guns had no effect whatever. The 28th Division headquarters flashed a radio warning to the VIII Corps command post, reported that it had five bazookas left, and affirmed that these weapons could stop Tiger tanks, so much had the American infantryman's respect for the bazooka grown in the trying days of the Ardennes. But the troops manning the perimeter were untrained engineers or men exhausted by constant battle and retreat, thrown again into a fight where the odds were with the enemy and organized in pitifully small groups with strange officers and companions. Vaux-lez-Rosières fell to the Germans, and the 28th Division command post moved once more, this time to Neufchâteau.

There is a footnote to the events west of Bastogne on 22 December-the story of the 58th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. This battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Walter J. Paton, had taken part in the fight at Longvilly and the ensuing withdrawal to Bastogne. With eight guns left the 58th went into position west of the town to fire for the 101st Airborne. On the afternoon of the 21st, with the enemy on the prowl in every direction, the battalion moved close to Tillet. Here it was cut off by enemy reconnaissance units, and Colonel Paton ordered his drivers and gunners to dig a foxhole circle around guns and vehicles. Shortly after midnight a radio message came through: the battalion was to try to reach Bastogne. The column formed but had gone only a little way when the tank at its head was knocked off by an antitank gun; then mortars and machine guns raked the road. Returning to the position which it had just left, the battalion waited for daylight.

In the meantime strong forces of the Panzer Lehr Division were on the move west and troops were detached to wipe out this "strongpoint." For most of the morning the encircled Americans stood to their guns or fought from their foxholes. As one participant in the bitter fight phrased it, "We gave them everything


we had and they gave it back just as fast." Only one of the eight self-propelled howitzers was in firing condition when Colonel Paton gave the order to destroy all equipment and make a break for it. Moving in little groups, shielded by trees and falling snow, most of the battalion succeeded in reaching the VIII Corps lines.

There is a German peroration to this action. The commander of the Panzer Lehr Division recalling the route taken by his division as it marched toward St Hubert drafts a detour showing the advance guard swerving close to Tillet to engage an American "armored unit." And late on the night of the 22d a gray-clad staff officer posting the situation map in the operations section of OKW makes a heavy pencil stroke. It is under the name Tillet.

No accurate computation can be made of the hours added to the German march tables by the efforts of the engineers, artillery, and other small detachments who fought to delay the enemy advance through the rear areas of the VIII Corps. But there is no question that the LVIII Panzer Corps was diverted from the main stream of the western advance by these efforts-halving, for many hours, the spearhead strength of the Fifth Panzer Army. Students of the retrograde action fought by the VIII Corps between 16 and 22 December will wish to examine the question as to the most profitable use of engineer troops who formed the backbone of the rear area defense in such circumstances.6 The "magnificent job" which General Middleton later ascribed to the engineers credits the engineers in their role as infantry. The VIII Corps engineer and the various engineer group commanders at that time and later believed the engineer battalions and companies could have done more to impede the German advance if they had been denied the eastern firing line and employed in a tactically unified second line of defense in the western part of the corps area. For this latter purpose General Middleton would have had some 3,300 engineers in addition to those organic in the divisions. But it is questionable whether the 7th Armored Division would have had time to establish itself at St. Vith, not to speak of the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne, without the intervention of the engineer battalions. Nonetheless, the story of the Ardennes barrier lines does make clear that the use of engineers in their capacity as trained technicians often paid greater dividends than their use as infantry, and that a squad equipped with sufficient TNT could, in the right spot, do more to slow the enemy advance than a company armed with rifles and machine guns.


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Last updated 13 December 2005