The Battle Before the Meuse
Across the western edge of the Ardennes massif runs the Meuse River. This river, throughout history, has been the natural line of resistance against an enemy advancing from east to west over the Belgian highlands. Actually, of course, the river channel changes direction as it passes through Belgium, running south to north between Maastricht and Liège, generally following an east-west line between Liège and Namur, and bending sharply at Namur to assume a south to north orientation. Although rather shallow, the Meuse averages a width of 120 yards in its main course and is fed by so many streams that its current is unusually rapid, particularly in the winter season. There are some fairly level approaches to the Meuse crossing sites; there also are long stretches of steep banks bordering the channel, some of them are cliffs nearly three hundred feet high. As a complement to the natural strength of this barrier the Belgian Government, before World War II, had limited the number of bridges spanning the Meuse. The events of 1940, however, demonstrated that modern armies could cross the Meuse speedily, either by surprise or by an overwhelming concentration of force.
Within forty-eight hours of the launching of the 1944 attack the Allied high command diagnosed the enemy intent as that of driving to the Meuse in the vicinity of Liège. But there could be no certainty in the early phases of the German counteroffensive that such a diagnosis was correct. It was quite possible that the enemy might swerve south at the Meuse, following the historical invasion route past Sedan and on to Paris instead of turning north toward Liège and Antwerp. General Middleton and the VIII Corps staff were concerned particularly with the possibility that the enemy plan might unfold into a thrust southward through the Meuse valley.
Busy with plans and troop movements designed to bolster the threatened sector of the First Army front and harden the shoulders of the corridor through which the German divisions were crowding, SHAEF took its first steps to defend the line of the Meuse (with anything more than local security measures) on 18 December. Late that day General Eisenhower ordered the 17th Airborne and 11th Armored Divisions, both training in the United Kingdom, to move to the Continent without delay. These two divisions were intended for use north and west of the Meuse, but they could not be expected for some days. From Reims, which was designated as concentration area for the airborne division, the airborne could be moved to the west bank; the armored division was slated
for use on the north bank. On the 20th, however, the 11th Armored Division was ordered to assemble north of Reims. At the same time SHAEF instructed the 6th Airborne Division (British) to move at once by sea to the 21 Army Group area as a preliminary to strengthening the defense on the north bank of the Meuse.
In the meantime the 1st SS Panzer Division was drawing uncomfortably close to the Huy-Dinant sector of the Meuse and the Fifth Panzer Army had ruptured the VIII Corps center. If the German forces continued to hold their pace westward the reinforcements from the United Kingdom would arrive at the Meuse too late. On 19 December, therefore, Field Marshal Montgomery on his own initiative started troops moving south from the 21 Army Group. The British commander had been in process of shifting the weight of his forces to the north in preparation for an offensive in the Rhineland when the Germans unleashed the attack in the Ardennes; indeed Montgomery's southernmost command, the 30 Corps, already had started its advance parties moving north to the Canadian front. But at 1730 on 19 December the 21 Army Group commander ordered General Horrocks to move his 30 Corps from Boxtel, Holland, into the area between Liège and Brussels and gave him the Guards Armoured Division and the 43d, 51st, and 53d Infantry Divisions, as well as three armored brigades.
Because the situation late on the 19th "remained unpleasantly vague," to use Montgomery's own phrase, the British commander undertook emergency measures to bar the Meuse crossings between Liège and Givet while the 30 Corps made its move. Reconnaissance attachments hastily organized from Special Air Services (British) and tank replacement center troops joined the American Communications Zone personnel to set up cover parties at the bridges between Liège and Givet. British armored cars patrolled the north bank of the river between Liège and Namur. The 29th Armoured Brigade, then refitting with new tanks in western Belgium, was ordered to pick up its old tanks and hurry to defend the Namur-Dinant sector. Reports from the First Army at the close of the 19th led Montgomery to believe that there was "little to prevent German armoured cars and reconnaissance elements [from] bounding the Meuse and advancing on Brussels." That night British troops erected barriers and deployed roadblock detachments to protect the capital city, which had been liberated by the Guards Armoured Division on 3 September.1
The rapid deployment of the British screen between Liège and Givet decreased considerably the chance of a surprise crossing on this stretch of the Meuse, and the concentration of the 30 Corps would be accomplished in time to provide a strong counterattack force in the event that the enemy did win a bridgehead. The 120-mile stretch of river from Givet (terminal point of the British line) to Verdun was far less strongly defended than that in the north. It would take approximately a week to bring the 17th Airborne and 11th Armored Divisions from the United Kingdom into the line. Reinforcements moving from the Third and Ninth Armies
BRITISH TANK PATROLLING THE MEUSE AT NAMUR
were already tagged for stiffening the First Army line of battle in the Ardennes. In these first critical days, then, the southern line of the Meuse would have to be guarded on a catch-as-catch-can basis by troops brought up from the depots, supply dumps, administrative installations, and headquarters in France and western Belgium. As late as the 22d there were bridges with no organized defense whatever.
The initial danger, or so it seemed, was posed by saboteurs, parachutists, or small motorized detachments masquerading as Americans or Belgian civilians. The bits of tactical intelligence accumulating as prisoners and documents came into the forward headquarters indicated clearly enough that the enemy had trained and committed special forces to seize the Meuse crossings. Parachutists captured behind the forward lines in the first hours of the battle told lurid tales of the plans to capture General Eisenhower, blow up ammunition dumps, and destroy radio and telephone installations and POL pipelines. When a few bona fide Germans were captured complete with American uniforms, dog tags, and jeeps, the word spread through the battle area and raced from mouth to mouth back into France.
Rumors, grossly elaborated from the few bits of fact, quickly jammed the
roads to Paris and Liège with hundreds of jeeps carrying enemy saboteurs or raiding parties in American uniform. Belgian or French café keepers who for weeks had been selling vin ordinaire, watered cognac, and sour champagne to the GI's suddenly were elevated by rumor, suspicion, and hysteria to captaincies in the Waffen-SS. Ladies of no certain virtue who so far forgot themselves as to use some Teutonic phrase picked up from their clients during the years of German occupation found themselves explaining this linguistic lapse to the military police or Counterintelligence Corps agents with far more earnestness than they had ever shown in justifying a moral lapse to agent or flic. The American officer who had the misfortune to appear on the heels of the most recent rumor in some headquarters where he was unknown stood a good chance of being welcomed with a cocked pistol leveled at his belt buckle. Jeep drivers who had forgotten their grade school geography quickly brushed up on the list of the forty-eight state capitals after having been stopped six or seven times by guards who thrust the muzzle of an Ml into the driver's seat with a gruff demand for a quick identification of the capital of Alabama or Oregon. Field grade officers tried once to "rank" their way past a barricade, then resigned themselves to singing the first bars of "Mairzy Doats" for the edification of an adamant young private. And the heavily wrapped, pregnant farm wife who wished to cross any bridge found her delicate condition a cause of considerable embarrassment both to herself and the suspicious bridge guards.2
In the first days of the German advance, security measures along the Meuse had been handled by the commanders of installations in the army rear areas. By the 20th this responsibility, particularly along the Meuse south of Givet, had been largely handed over to the Communications Zone and its commander, Lt. Gen. John C. H. Lee. General Lee's responsibility of course reached far west of the Meuse. Guards had to be provided for the great supply dumps and headquarters cities, so also for rail lines, pipelines, supply roads, and the French telephone and telegraph system. Far to the west in Normandy supply troops went on the alert against a possible raid by the German garrisons of the Channel Islands. In Paris, the GI's Mecca, soldiers on leave were rounded up and started back to their units; those who remained in the City of Light found night life drastically curtailed by a rigidly enforced curfew.
Four engineer general service regiments could be assembled for the Meuse line but would require some time to make the move. The commander of the Oise Intermediate Section of the Communications Zone, Brig. Gen. Charles O. Thrasher, had two locally available engineer units, the 354th and 1313th Engineer General Service Regiments, and these were organized as Task Force Thrasher on 20 December, beginning at once the work of preparing the Meuse rail and road bridges for demolition. Shortly afterward General Thrasher was authorized to blow these bridges if their
capture appeared imminent.3 Earlier this decision had rested with the tactical commands. One can only speculate as to what would have happened if a German armored column had kept to schedule and reached one of the important bridges before the bridge guards received authority to destroy the span.
On 22 and 23 December, the 342d, 392d, 366th, and 1308th Engineer Regiments took up positions along the Meuse, reinforced by a field artillery battalion, a regimental antitank company, and six French light infantry battalions provided by the military governor of Metz. These recently organized French troops were poorly equipped with a motley collection of small arms and a few trucks but they proved very useful in screening the military and civilian traffic along the roads leading to the Meuse, both east and west of the river. All of these troops and the responsibility for the sector Givet to Verdun were handed over to the VIII Corps on the 23d by orders of the Third Army commander, who by now had command on the south side of the Bulge.
Even at this late date Middleton and Patton had some apprehension that the enemy columns might make a left wheel on the east or west bank of the Meuse and drive for Sedan. There was no definition of the VIII Corps rear boundary; as the corps commander saw his responsibility, "a vast area was involved." Not only were the corps west flank and rear open to a German turning movement but the main corps supply line, over which Middleton's troops were being re-equipped, could be cut by raids directed against the Semois and Chiers Rivers, eastern tributaries of the Meuse. Corps engineers were stationed at crossings as far west as Bouillon, and the Semois bridges west of Bouillon that had not been destroyed by the Germans during the September retreat were blown.
The enemy did not turn against the VIII Corps east-west line, and the added burden of defending the Meuse between Givet and Semois, accorded Middleton on the 23d, rested more lightly when a part of the 11th Armored Division reached the west bank on the following day. This division, moving by forced marches from Normandy, closed on the 25th; its commander, Brig. Gen. Charles S. Kilburn, took charge of all troops in the sector. The 17th Airborne Division, ordered from the United Kingdom at the same time as the 11th Armored, was delayed by bad weather which grounded its carrier planes. It finally closed at Charleville on 27 December, by which date the threat south of Givet had faded.
The German panzer forces, had actually aimed at crossing the Meuse between Givet and Liège. Montgomery had reacted promptly to the danger posed by the onrushing 1st SS Panzer Division, but with his 21 Army Group caught off balance in the middle of its shift from south to north the plans and orders of the 19th could be implemented but slowly and in sketchy form. The American Communications Zone personnel and the few British troops who took over the bridges were hardly enough to prepare demolitions, screen the traffic passing back and forth over the river in
the large bridgehead cities, and maintain patrols, much less make an adequate defense against any crossing attempt in force.
As of noon, 21 December, Brig. Gen. Ewart C. Plank reported that the vital crossings at Liège, Huy, Namur, and Givet were guarded only by the 29th Infantry (a separate regiment assigned to line of communications duty), two antiaircraft gun battalions, two antitank guns, four British scout cars, and a British reconnaissance force of 300 men. The great bridgehead city of Liège had as crossing guards only two rifle companies and two cannon company platoons. The bridges at Liège and other nearby points presented a special problem. The V-bomb barrage directed into the area and German bombing planes made any installation of demolition charges on the bridge structures a hazardous business. Fearful that these important spans would be prematurely destroyed by sympathetic explosion, the engineers could do no more than collect explosives and detonating devices in the vicinity of, but not on, the bridges in question.
Although the crossings north of the bend in the Meuse still were weakly held on the 21st, the danger of a successful enemy penetration beyond the river had lessened. The movement of the 30 Corps, begun late on the 19th, was not designed to erect a linear defense for every yard of the Meuse line but instead was the first phase of Field Marshal Montgomery's plan to create a counterattack force capable of dealing with any German columns which might reach and cross the river. By the afternoon of the 20th the British 43d Division and an attached tank brigade were west of Maastricht, poised to roll up the flank of any penetration across the Meuse.
Next day the new disposition of the 30 Corps was completed. The 29th Armoured Brigade had returned to its battle-worn tanks and armored cars and was established along the river between Namur and Givet. The 2d Household Cavalry Regiment, already on the river line for the past twenty-four hours, crossed the Meuse and pushed reconnaissance as far as Marche and Rochefort, meeting American patrols but no enemy. By the close of the day, General Horrocks could decide and did that now it was possible to hold the enemy at the Meuse line. The British responsibility, be it remembered, extended only as far south as Givet and did not include the actual defense of the bridges at Liège.
On the night of 23 December a jeep load of Germans dressed as Americans appeared at Dinant, one of the few actual materializations of the oft-rumored saboteur parties. The jeep and its crew were captured by a British post. It was a little late for such tactics. By this time each of the main crossings-Givet, Dinant, and Namur-was guarded by an armored regiment and a rifle company, and it is a fair assumption that the opportunity for a German coup de main in the British-held sector was gone by the 23d.4 In the VIII Corps sector south of Givet the possibility of a surprise stroke still existed on this date, for there remained a number of weak links in the Meuse chain, but the odds were increasing that the defender could at
REFUGEES AT THE DINANT BRIDGE
least enforce delay at the Meuse. There remained, of course, the possibility that German armor might reach the Meuse somewhere along its length in sufficient strength to gain by force what no longer could be won easily by stealth or surprise.
By Christmas Eve the German counteroffensive showed signs of losing cohesion. The outlines of the over-all strategic plan still were discernible, but the higher field commands had begun to extemporize: in a word the German armies had commenced to "react" to the moves made by the enemy or in supposition of what those moves might be. True, some German troops were very close to the Meuse and the advance to the west still had considerable momentum, but the initiative was gradually slipping from German fingers and could not be regained unless the German armies held the Marche plateau as a wider base for the final drive to and over the Meuse.
A résumé of decisions made in the higher German headquarters between 22 December and the night of the 24th will show what was happening. On the 22d OB WEST prepared for Jodl an intelligence appreciation which said that a major Allied counterattack from the north and south by reserves from the
U.S. Third and Seventh Armies was unlikely before 1 January, and that a "limited" intervention against the flanks of the Bulge probably could not be attempted before 28 December. OB WEST did recognize that the Allies might assemble a strong force northwest of the Meuse and assumed that they would be able to defend the Meuse in considerable force by 30 December. It appeared from this analysis that time still was on the side of the German armies, time to interject armor from the Sixth Panzer Army into the columns driving for the Meuse and to give the depth to the forces in the van which Rundstedt now regarded as absolutely essential. On the 23d a report that the advance guard of the 2d Panzer Division was only nine kilometers from the Meuse flashed to Model, Rundstedt-and Hitler. The Fuehrer replied with congratulations and, more to the point, released the 9th Panzer and 15th Panzer Grenadier Divisions for free use by OB WEST. That same evening Model phoned Rundstedt to tell of a strong American counterattack forming to relieve Bastogne which must be expected to strike on 24 December; he, Model, would have to retain a kampfgruppe of the 15th Panzer Grenadier for the expanding battle at Bastogne, but the remainder of this division and the new 9th Panzer would be rushed westward to assist the 2d Panzer.
On the morning of the 24th a note of urgency appeared in the orders coming out of Model's command post: the Fifth Panzer Army must take Bastogne at once and "lance this boil" in the southern flank. For this purpose Manteuffel would
retain a kampfgruppe of the 9th Panzer southeast of Bastogne as a link with the Seventh Army, now hard pressed by the American counterattack from the south. The sense of urgency heightened as the day wore on-it can almost be plotted like a fever chart in the exchanges between Rundstedt and Model: Rundstedt demanding that the Sixth Panzer Army get its armored divisions forward and alongside Manteuffel's spearhead before the Allies can counterattack from both south and north; Rundstedt ordering that the Allied forces be destroyed east of the Meuse before they can organize a major counter-effort; Model telling Rundstedt that the 2d Panzer has run short of motor fuel and that he has ordered the advance guard to march for the Meuse on foot. (One has the impression-it can never be verified-that as tension mounted Model commenced to turn to the older and more experienced field marshal for moral support.)
General Manteuffel faced a military and political dilemma as day drew to a close on 24 December. Janus-like, his Fifth Panzer Army faced toward the Marche plateau and the road to Dinant and toward Bastogne. Manteuffel later would say that he saw no opportunity for a successful battle west of the Meuse (although he still hoped for military success east of the river), but the decision as to which direction the Fifth Panzer would throw its weight obviously had to be made by Hitler himself. This appeal to the highest German authority was made through various channels by Manteuffel and his chief of staff, Wagener, on the 24th and 25th. Hitler's order, as relayed to the Fifth Panzer headquarters by Jodl early on the 25th, told Manteuffel to put all available forces into the battle for control of the Marche plateau. Manteuffel could hardly disengage from Bastogne and turn the fight over to the Seventh Army (indeed, this was not the Fuehrer's intention), but it was crystal clear that the 2d Panzer Division advance guard had to be reinforced and the narrow wedge it had driven toward the Meuse had to be expanded into a pile driver blow to cross that river.5
Manteuffel's immediate tactical problem had four parts: the road to the isolated 2d Panzer advance guard must be reopened, 6 both for tank fuel and reinforcements; the northern flank of the salient reaching toward Dinant would have to be covered at once and in considerable strength; in the southwest where signs of an American concentration were appearing the southern side of the corridor toward the Meuse must be barricaded, perhaps as far back as Bastogne; finally, the assault front in the center required greater width and depth on the Marche plateau. The solution of this problem demanded more strength than the Fifth Panzer Army, with its tail caught in the crack at Bastogne, could amass.
Manteuffel had been promised at least three more divisions, Jodl had assured him that the II SS Panzer Corps was being rushed forward by the Sixth Panzer Army to take over the fight on his right wing east of the Ourthe River, and he had reason to expect that the 9th Panzer Division would arrive in time to take part in the attack planned for
Christmas Day. For this attack, primarily designed to reach the "extended index finger" (as one German report calls it) formed by the advance detachment of the 2d Panzer in the woods around Foy-Notre Dame, Manteuffel counted on a drive by the bulk of the 2d Panzer to reach its cut-off troops while the Panzer Lehr attacked Humain and Buissonville to reopen the line of communication.
In addition the Fifth Panzer Army commander had plans to employ the divisions already in this northwestern sector as the vertebrae on which a full-bodied and integrated salient could be developed reaching to and overlapping the Meuse. The right shoulder of the expanding salient would, in Manteuffel's plan, be formed by the 116th Panzer Division. This unit was now in full force on the west bank of the Ourthe, had penetrated the American line at Verdenne, and was in position to bring artillery fire on the Hotton-Marche road. The objective given the 116th Panzer, therefore, was the town of Baillonville (north of Marche), from where it could block an Allied attack southward along the highway from Liège to Marche. The 9th Panzer Division, upon arrival, was ticketed to take position on the right of the Panzer Lehr, thus beefing up the 2d Panzer attack in the center. This was the German plan for 25 December.
Although the VII Corps had become involved in a defensive battle, General Collins still expected to launch the corps counterattack which would signal the beginning of aggressive operations against the north flank of the Bulge. In midafternoon on 24 December General Harmon telephoned the VII Corps command post and asked permission to throw another combat command of his 2d Armored Division against elements of the 2d Panzer which had been identified in the neighborhood of Ciney and Celles. (See Map VIII.) The corps commander was away from the command post visiting his divisions; so the call was taken by the corps artillery commander, Brig. Gen. Williston B. Palmer. Palmer knew that the First Army had attached strings to any wholesale commitment of Harmon's division and that Hodges' consent and probably Montgomery's would be needed before more of the 2d Armored was unleashed. He therefore told Harmon to wait-it was too late in the day to launch an attack in any case-until the corps commander reached the 2d Armored command post. Harmon was persistent and called again asking for "immediate authority." Palmer, sorely tempted to give Harmon the permission he needed, reluctantly steeled himself and told Harmon to await Collins' appearance at the 2d Armored command post.
A few minutes later Palmer had a call from the First Army chief of staff, General Kean, who said that Collins was authorized to use all his corps and could change his defensive line. In guarded words Kean asked Palmer if he saw "a town A and a town H" on the map and then mentioned a "pivoting move." Palmer, imbued with Collins' attack philosophy and eager to give the green light to the 2d Armored, looked hastily at the map spread before him, picked out two villages southwest of Ciney and forward of the 2d Armored positions: Achêne and (Le) Houisse. This looked
like the go signal for the VII Corps and an attack to advance its western wing. Because the wire line to the 2d Armored command post had gone out, Palmer sent his aide with a message for Collins giving his own optimistic interpretation of the conversation with Kean.
The aide had just departed when Kean called again. On further reflection, he said (perhaps Kean had caught a tone of exultation in Palmer's voice), he doubted whether Palmer had understood him correctly. Then came the cold water douche: "Now get this. I'm only going to say it once. Roll with the punch." Palmer's glance flicked over the map, this time to the north; there, thirty miles to the rear of the villages he had selected earlier were the towns of Andenne and Huy. Palmer remembers that this was the only moment in the war when he was "ill with disapproval."
Out went a second messenger with an explanation of Palmer's mistake and an urgent request for Collins to come home. Collins, who had received the first message at Harmon's command post, was just giving the finishing touches to an attack plan for the entire 2d Armored when the second messenger appeared. Telling Harmon to "hold everything" but making clear that the 2d Armored was to go ahead with plans for the attack on Christmas morning, Collins hurried back to his own headquarters. He arrived there about 1830 but nothing more could be done until a liaison officer, promised by Kean, came in from the First Army.
Two hours later the First Army staff officer (Col. R. F. Akers) appeared and confirmed the bad news. Montgomery and Hodges had agreed to shorten the First Army line in order to halt the German advance. The VII corps, therefore, was to go on the defensive and its commander was "authorized" on his own judgment to drop back to the line Andenne-Hotton-Manhay. In any case the VII Corps was to retain a firm contact with the XVIII Airborne Corps, which that evening was withdrawing to the Manhay position.
Although General Collins courteously asked the senior members of his corps staff to give their opinions on the action now to be taken by the corps, neither he nor any of his officers considered giving over the attack planned for the 2d Armored. During the day Harmon's tanks had inflicted very severe damage on the German columns; the 84th Division had experienced some reverses but seemed to be holding its own. On balance the picture as seen from the VII Corps' point of view was far less gloomy than that apparently prevailing in higher headquarters. Collins recognized that a retrograde move would strengthen the defenses of Huy and Liège. He also knew that such a move would expose Namur and the major Meuse crossings south of that city, for example, those at Dinant. The final decision, made by the corps commander himself, probably could have been predicted: on 25 December the 2d Armored Division would advance as planned; the corps then would continue with limited objective attacks to break up any dangerous concentration of enemy forces on its front.7
The boundary between the VII Corps and the XVIII Airborne Corps lay generally along the direct road from Bastogne to Liège, but this was essentially
an artificial division and coincided neither with the compartmentalization of the terrain, naturally divided as it was by the Ourthe River, nor with the manner in which the German attack was developing.8 The ebb and flow of the battle on Christmas Day may best be understood by tracing the movements of three German divisions: the 2d Panzer, the Panzer Lehr, and the 116th Panzer. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the attempted movements, for the day came bright and clear, bringing the American and British air forces into the skies over the Bulge in one of the greatest demonstrations of tactical ground support ever witnessed by American troops.
By the morning of the 25th the advance kampfgruppe of the 2d Panzer had been split in two, in part by a loss of direction during the night march toward Dinant, in part by the activity of American tank patrols operating out of Ciney, where CCB of the 2d Armored had established its base for future operations. The 2d Panzer reconnaissance battalion and a part of the German artillery column had bivouacked near Foy-Notre Dame, only four or five miles from the bridges at Dinant. Major Cochenhausen, who commanded the main column, including a tank battalion and a regiment of panzer grenadiers, halted at daylight in the woods southwest of Conneaux-perhaps 5,000 meters behind the detachment in Foy-Notre Dame.
Lauchert, the division commander, was acutely aware of the perilous situation confronting his forward troops and knew they had to be reinforced and resupplied at once. His orders, however, were to use the rest of his division to protect the right flank of Luettwitz' XLVII Panzer Corps in the Marche sector until the incoming 9th Panzer Division could take over the task. Since the Americans in and around Marche seemed quiet, Lauchert proposed to Luettwitz that he be relieved of this security mission. While Panzer Lehr attacked west of Marche to reopen the road, Lauchert wanted to switch the main body of his division back through Rochefort, then push northwest to the troops in what German reports already were calling the Conneaux Pocket. At first Luettwitz would not listen to the importunate Lauchert. Probably the refusal made no difference. As Lauchert himself admits, the air was so thick with Allied Jabos that his tactical units could not move during the daylight hours, nor was there a German interceptor plane to be seen this far to the west.
In the early afternoon Manteuffel and his chief of staff visited General Luettwitz. The latter once more proposed that the forward echelons of the 2d Panzer be withdrawn-although he was well aware that such a decision was beyond the power of the Fifth Army commander-and once again was refused. Something might be done, however. Since a kampfgruppe of the 9th Panzer was finally at hand and could be used to relieve Lauchert in the Hargimont sector facing Marche, the 2d Panzer commander received permission to carry out his relief operation. All day long radio reports from Cochenhausen had told of bitter fighting, heavy losses at the hands of
Allied planes and tanks, dwindling ammunition, and no fuel. Now, just as Lauchert had his orders in hand, he heard that radio contact with the force cut off at Foy-Notre Dame had ceased.
The attack mapped out by Collins and Harmon late the previous afternoon was launched by CCB at 0800 on Christmas Day, the idea a double-pronged sweep to capture Celles and annihilate the German armor believed to be thereabouts.9 For this maneuver General White divided his command into two task forces. Task Force A (Lt. Col. Harry Hillyard) had its line of departure on the Achêne road and orders to take the Bois de Geauvelant, a large wood some thousand meters across, which lay midway between Achêne and Celles. It was to assemble for the final assault on high ground northwest of Celles. Task Force B (Maj. Clifton B. Batchelder), starting its move near Leignon, was to make the main envelopment and cut off Celles on the southeast. The 82d Armored Reconnaissance Battalion went in on the open right flank of the attack to screen toward the west and as far forward as the Lesse River, south of Celles. CCB would be supported by artillery emplaced west of Ciney and by both American and British fighter-bombers.
Task Force A, medium tanks to the front, went through the Bois de Geauvelant with almost no opposition. As it debouched it came under fire from a little farm near Foy-Notre Dame and lost three half-tracks. The 370th Fighter Group of the IX Tactical Air Command, flying in support of CCB, then flushed out four Panther tanks and put them out of action, at least temporarily. The column again drew fire near Boisselles, but two platoons of the 67th Armored Regiment moved in and destroyed three Panthers doing the shooting. By the middle of the afternoon Task Force A reached the high ground overlooking Celles, blocking the roads to the west and southwest. Task Force B had a brief battle at Conjoux, then rushed on-knocking out isolated tanks and guns- until it arrived on the ridge 1,300 yards southeast of Celles.
The British 29th Armoured Brigade was conducting its own private battle west of Foy-Notre Dame while pushing reconnaissance toward the Lesse River. The British knocked out three Panthers and some infantry near Sorinne, then shot up more German vehicles and took prisoners around Foy-Notre Dame. In the skirmish near Boisselles a few tanks of the British 3d Royal Tank Regiment and some British gunners gave a hand to Task Force A.10
Meanwhile the 82d Reconnaissance Battalion had run into the remnants of the 2d Panzer reconnaissance battalion at Foy-Notre Dame (part of this group had escaped eastward to rejoin the main force huddled in the woods northeast of Celles). These Germans intended to make a fight of it, though at first sight Foy-Notre Dame seemed a peaceful farming village-nothing more. When a
platoon from the 82d moved in, the enemy began a fusillade of antitank and machine gun fire from hidden positions. Worse, four Panthers on high ground just south of the village took a hand. The American cavalry suffered some casualties, but Sergeant Rogers used his assault gun to charge a German antitank gun in the middle of the village and the mop-up began. The four Panthers were brought under fire by British gunners, then finally destroyed by air attack. (Probably these were the tanks which had struck Task Force A near the Bois de Geauvelant.) This skirmish marked the end of the German reconnaissance battalion: the commander and 147 others were captured, and much of its remaining equipment was taken.
When General White's two task forces finally sent tanks into Celles they met little resistance. At first it seemed empty except for the townspeople who had gathered in the church; later some 200 dispirited prisoners were rounded up in and near the town. With the capture of Celles the string was drawn on the bag in the forest between that town and Conjoux. Harmon ordered CCB to turn back the next morning and give the coup de grâce to the trapped enemy.
Although Christmas Day had brought much sporadic action and occasional flare-ups like the fight at Foy-Notre Dame the main German pocket simply had been bypassed. It is known that Cochenhausen's tanks had very little gasoline, probably not enough to permit any appreciable skirmishing or tactical movement, but the German sluggishness in the pocket may be credited to the gunners supporting CCB, the army pilots in their flying OP's," and the close coordination between the artillery and the fighter-bombers of the 370th Fighter Group and Royal Air Force 83 Group. At noon, for example, a spotter plane picked up a column of seven enemy tanks north of Celles-all were destroyed by artillery fire. Twelve P38's and an unknown number of British Typhoons, taking time out only to replenish fuel tanks and ammunition racks, worked over the woods where lay Cochenhausen's command and strafed roads and trails whenever vehicles showed signs of making a break for it.
What of the German efforts to reach Cochenhausen's force? Two small forays were attempted during the day by the Panzer Lehr, whose commander had dispatched tanks along the Custinne road toward Celles, but these efforts were foiled by the ubiquitous Allied planes. That night the kampfgruppe with which the 2d Panzer had been blocking in the Hargimont sector was relieved by the 9th Panzer, and Lauchert finally was free to attempt Cochenhausen's relief. The force which he led from the Rochefort road through the Bois de Famenne and Ciergnon was not likely to give much confidence of success: a company or two of tanks, a battalion of armored infantry, a light artillery battalion, two companies of engineers, and part of a flak battalion.
The Germans had neared the twin villages of Petite and Grande Trisogne, little more than a mile from Celles, when they saw the ridge ahead "crawling with tanks." (These may have been British tanks because the 29th Armoured Brigade was blocking behind the CCB lines.) 11 The 2d Panzer never got to
launch an attack, for the American guns opened "a hellish fire" (their targets spotted-as Lauchert later recalled-by five artillery planes). Then to top this came the P-38's and Typhoons. On nearby roads more Allied tanks hove in sight but made no concerted attack. Lauchert's group was saved by an order radioed from the XLVII Panzer Corps: he was to return to Rochefort at once; the troops in the pocket would have to destroy their vehicles, leave their wounded, and get out on foot. A Panzer Lehr attempt to reach the pocket via Custinne on 26 December was equally futile, and for the same reasons. Bayerlein's kampfgruppe-at no time in the battles on the Marche front did the Panzer Lehr commander have his entire division in hand-also was ordered back to Rochefort during the night of 26 December.
The story of the 2d Panzer pocket is quickly told. CCB spent two days clearing the thick woods and dense under- brush between Celles and Conjoux. The procedure was simple and effective: first, heavy shelling on a given area, then a slow, methodical advance by the infantry line backed with the tanks. In an extension of the Bois de Geauvelant, where tanks could operate with some freedom, an armored sweep was made which killed about 150 of the enemy. In the main forest near Celles a final squeeze produced 200 prisoners, 12 guns, and 80 vehicles of various types to add to the larger bag. Nonetheless many of the German troops did succeed in escaping on foot. Major von Cochenhausen and nearly 600 of his men ultimately reached Rochefort, but all the equipment of the reconnaissance battalion, the 304th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, the 2d Battalion of the 3d Panzer Regiment, three artillery battalions, and two-thirds of the division flak battalion had to be left behind.12
The 2d Armored Division's "limited objective" attack, so carefully planned for Christmas Day, included a drive by CCA straight south from Buissonville on the paved highway to Rochefort, there to relieve the battalion of the 84th Division. This move never was carried through, although Harmon did not learn that the Rochefort troops had escaped until early afternoon. Instead CCA and the 4th Cavalry Group were caught up in a quite unexpected battle whose focal point was Humain, east of Buissonville. During the night of 24 December Troop A of the 24th Cavalry Squadron occupied Humain as an outpost for the CCA assembly area at Buissonville. But the troopers had short tenure in Humain, for across the lines the Panzer Lehr was gathering its few tanks to break the American stranglehold on the throat of the 2d Panzer spearhead. Bayerlein divided his Panthers into two assault groups: a platoon, supported by a rifle company, to seize Humain; a company, reinforced by an understrength rifle battalion, to drive on the left for Havrenne, then Buissonville.
The German blow struck Humain at first light, driving the cavalry out of town. The attack to the west rolled past the burned-out relics of the American
successes of the day before-2d Panzer trucks, many armored cars, halftracks, and, near Havrenne, the guns of an entire artillery battalion. Havrenne being empty, the German column moved on toward Buissonville, Here a ruse was tried and worked. A German officer in American uniform went forward to the two Sherman tanks guarding the bridge over which the Havrenne road entered Buissonville; so effective an actor was he that the tank crews obeyed without question his order that they return to their bivouac. Four of the German tanks actually crossed the bridge at daylight, but were driven out by fire from the CCA tanks' guns. On the heels of this skirmish, the leading CCA task force started down the road for Rochefort. Near Havrenne the Panther company attempted to make a stand but was outgunned and lost five tanks. Havrenne fell to the Americans, but CCA discontinued the advance toward Rochefort for by this time it was known that the friendly infantry there had escaped. Meanwhile a considerable threat was looming on the exposed flank at Humain.
Col. John C. MacDonald's 4th Cavalry Group had set about retaking Humain, but his light tanks and tank destroyers were no match for the heavier German Panthers; nor could the American assault guns get a direct shot at them, shielded as they were behind the stone walls of the village. MacDonald tried a dismounted assault, but this failed. Artillery was unable to dislodge the enemy. Late in the afternoon Harmon sent a company of medium tanks to assist the 24h Cavalry Squadron. One last attack was made in the waning daylight-this, too, made no headway. At midnight General Collier, on his own cognizance, ordered the American cavalry to withdraw, blocking the roads to the north and east lest the enemy erupt toward Marche.
When the 26th dawned the defenders had a fresh force in the town. Panzer Lehr, it will be remembered, had been relieved during the night by the 9th Panzer to engage in the sortie toward Celles. The 9th Panzer Division (Brig. Gen. Elverfeldt) had been brought from Holland on 22 December. In view of its exposure to air attack and delays while it waited along the road for tank fuel the division had made very good time, albeit arriving in the battle line a day behind schedule. A veteran of the Arnhem and Aachen battles (it had opposed the 84th Infantry Division at Geronsweiler in the north), the 9th Panzer may have had as many as 90 tanks and 35 self-propelled assault guns or tank destroyers. Apparently the division artillery regiment did not arrive until three or four days later. When the first march column reached the line on the afternoon of the 25th it deployed south of Marche, there taking over the Marloie-Hedree blocking position held by the 2d Panzer.
As more troops arrived the 9th Panzer extended westward, thus including Humain in its bailiwick, but Elverfeldt's fresh division had more than a defensive mission. Although Luettwitz intended to employ this new armor to nourish the drive westward, it is questionable whether the XLVII Panzer Corps commander had anything more in mind than the defeat of the American armor east of the Meuse when he gave the 9th Panzer its orders on the night of 25 December: attack from the Humain sector and take Buissonville.
About 0700 the cavalry observation
posts north of Humain saw tanks defiling from the town onto the Havrenne-Buissonville road. This word was flashed to the 2d Armored command post where Harmon ordered Col. Carl Hutton, the division artillery commander, to fire a "serenade" (a TOT) on Humain with all the 155-mm. and 8-inch battalions in range "right away." The avalanche of heavy shells falling in Humain did not disrupt the German attack formation en route to Havrenne but may have prevented its prompt reinforcement. The engagement at Havrenne began within a half-hour, carried by fifteen Panther tanks and a battalion of grenadiers from the 10th Panzer Grenadier riding in armored half-tracks. At the edge of the village the German infantry took over the initial assault, only to be beaten off by tank guns, tank destroyers, and artillery. Company I of the 66th Armored Regiment, with its attached platoons of infantry and tank destroyers, met and threw back three separate attacks during the day. The job was made easier by the capture of the German attack plan and the warm attention paid Humain-the German sally port-by Hutton's artillery and MacDonald's light armor, the latter engaged in shooting up the thin-skinned half-tracks bringing reinforcements into Humain.
It may seem strange that the 9th Panzer, with fresh troops and close to its full tank complement, did not press the attack against CCA. But the 9th, like the 2d Panzer and Panzer Lehr before it, was fighting with one arm behind its back. Luettwitz, gravely concerned that the Americans might break through west of Bastogne and surge north to cut off the divisions in the salient beyond Rochefort, turned the blocking position at Rochefort over to the 9th Panzer, leaving that division with its line bent at a right angle.
All through the night of 26 December the medium and heavy calibers of the 2d Armored Division artillery blasted away at the Germans in Humain. The town had to be retaken, for it presented a continuing point of entry into the left flank of the 2d Armored. But as part of the larger VII Corps' scheme, Harmon had the task of carrying forward the American front to the east-west line of the L'Homme and Lesse Rivers. For this general advance Harmon brought up CCR (Col. Sidney R. Hinds), which had been waiting at Hogne since Christmas Day, and attached it to Collier's CCA. Collier ordered CCR to take on the Panthers in Humain and sent CCA to clear the large forested area and the roads running south to Rochefort and L'Homme. CCB was thus left in the west to eradicate the last remnants of the Celles pocket while extending patrols, in cooperation with the British 29th Armoured Brigade-all of its troops now east of the Meuse-to the line of the Lesse River.
To trap the Humain garrison, Colonel Hinds made his attack on the morning of the 7th with tanks circling south, east, and west of the town, and the armored infantry moving in from the north. The 2d Battalion (Lt. Col. Lemuel E. Pope) of the 67th Armored Regiment had isolated Humain by 1015 but found the Panthers missing, driven out during the night by the artillery bombardment. There remained considerable bite in the Humain defenders and they momentarily halted the American tank column led by Pope. Pope went to the head of the column,
2D ARMORED DIVISION INFANTRYMEN MOVING TO NEW POSITIONS
reorganized the formation under intense fire, and started the attack moving again. (Colonel Pope was awarded the DSC.) By noon CCR was in Humain, where it took another ten hours to clear the houses of the 150 grenadiers who had been left behind. Even while this fight was in progress Harmon telephoned Collier to "go to the river with abandon."
This was not quite the end of the three-day battle. An artillery spotter plane flying over Hargimont in the early afternoon saw a column of German vehicles gathering for a march down the Humain road. It seems rather appropriate that this last effort against the 2d Armored should have been dealt with by the fighter-bombers whose cooperation had contributed in striking measure to the 2d Armored successes before the Meuse. Fourteen P-38's from the 370th Fighter Group struck Hargimont and, as a cavalry outpost happily reported, "gave them everything they had." Two more flights were vectored in: "much flame and smoke observed." As a final and fitting gesture of Allied cooperation it may be noted that CCR, faced with a stubborn hold-out detachment in a large chateau east of Humain, called on the flame-throwing Crocodile tanks of the
Scottish Fife and Forfar Yeomanry to apply the finishing touch to the fight for Humain.13
The ill-fated battle of the XLVII Panzer Corps in front of Dinant was ended. Luettwitz had new orders: his corps must make one final, all-out effort to take Bastogne, leaving a minimum force in the Rochefort area to guard its back. Across the lines, on 28 December, the 83d Infantry Division and the British 53d Division began to replace the 2d Armored Division combat commands.14 By 31 December the 2d Armored was in billets, belatedly eating its Christmas dinner. During the brief operation east of the Meuse the 2d Armored Division had racked up a considerable tally: 1,213 prisoners taken, 82 tanks, 83 guns, and 441 vehicles captured or destroyed. The American losses in armor were light: 5 light tanks and 22 mediums. The fight had cost the 2d Armored Division and its attached units 17 killed, 26 missing, and 201 wounded-an illuminating commentary on the use by a veteran formation of the combined arms, the impossibility of striking power inherent in the piecemeal tactics employed by the enemy, the lack of a strong German artillery to counter the weight of metal always available to the Americans, and the complete absence of German attack planes in skies ruled by the American and British fighter-bombers.
On the night of 4 December the 84th Infantry Division was deployed along an arc of some twelve miles reaching from Hogne, northwest of Marche, through Waha, south of Marche, thence bowing back to the northeast in front of the Marche-Hotton road.15 On the right, the 4th Cavalry Group formed a screen masking the infantry line. The center at the moment was quiet, but on the left the 116th Panzer Division had broken through the outpost line and despite the successful American counterattack made late in the afternoon still held an entrant position at Verdenne.
The 116th Panzer faced a lone battle as it prepared to carry out the Fifth Panzer Army orders for attack westward. Thus far the fighting on its right in the sector east of the Ourthe River had not gone too well; neither the 2d SS Panzer nor the 560th Volks Grenadier Division managing to gain ground on the 24th. To the left the attention of the 2d Panzer was centered on Foy-Notre Dame and Celles far to the west. Nonetheless so long as Luettwitz' armor had any chance of breaking through to the Meuse the 116th had to continue its attack to breach the American defenses north of Marche and press forward as a covering shell for the drive to Dinant.
General Bolling knew that some Germans still were around Verdenne on the night of 24 December, but the 84th Division was unaware that the enemy had slipped on into the woods between Verdenne and Bourdon until a lucky fluke revealed the new threat. About
midnight Companies A and K of the 334th Infantry and Company L, 333d Infantry, started along the woods trails and byroads to converge in a night assault against Verdenne. Moving in from the west, Company K took a wrong turn and suddenly bumped into a column of six or eight tanks. Sgt. Donald Phelps, marching at the point, went forward to check the lead tank. Suddenly a figure leaning out of the tank shouted, "Halt!" Phelps, recognizing the German accent, took a snap shot at the figure who screamed as the bullet struck. The German tanks opened fire with not only their machine guns but their main armament, and the American infantry file hit the dirt. Severely lacerated before it could break away, the remaining forty men of Company K joined the main assault against Verdenne an hour later.
The Germans inside Verdenne had been softened by an intense preparatory shelling and the American infantry succeeded in getting clear through the village-although fighting resumed in daylight with the dangerous task of house clearing. One enemy tank showed up during the night, but Sgt. E. T. Reineke killed the tank commander with a rifle ball, then tossed a grenade into the open turret. More American infantry arrived in the morning, and by the end of Christmas Day 289 Germans had surrendered.
The seizure of Verdenne cast a loop around the German tanks and infantry in the woods north of the village. At noon on Christmas Day a tank company from the 16th Panzer Regiment tried an assault in staggered formation against Verdenne but found Company B of the 771st Tank Battalion waiting and lost nine tanks-its entire complement. Waldenburg still had hopes that the detachment in the woods could be saved, for during the day the Fuehrer Begleit Brigade came in on his right, freeing the troops he had deployed to watch Hampteau and the Hotton approaches. More than this, Waldenburg apparently expected to use the wedge which would be created in reaching the pocket as a means of splitting the Marche-Hotton line and starting the major advance westward.
The area in which the Germans were hemmed posed a very neat problem in minor tactics. It was about 800 yards by 300, densely wooded, and shaped with an inner declivity somewhat like a serving platter. Guns beyond the rim could not bring direct fire on the targets inside, and tanks rolling down into the pocket would be exposed before they could train their weapons. Tanks inside the pocket would be in the same position if they moved up and over the edge. Assault by infantry could be met with tank fire whether the assault went into or came out of the pocket.
Just such an assault was the first tried by the 333d Infantry, which put Companies A and B into a predawn attack on 26 December. The American skirmish line, its movements given away by the snow crackling under foot, took a number of casualties and was beaten back, but it gave some test of the enemy strength, now estimated to be two rifle companies and five tanks. Actually most of the Germans in the 1st Battalion, 60th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, took part in the fighting at the pocket or in attempted infiltration through the woods to join their comrades there. One such relief party, led by a tank platoon, did cut its way in on the morning of the 26th. Now
that the enemy had been reinforced the 333d Infantry decided to try the artillery, although not before Colonel Pedley had been given brass-bound assurance that the gunners would lay their pieces with such minute precision as to miss the friendly infantry edging the pocket. Through the rest of the day an 8-inch howitzer battalion and a battalion of 155's hammered the target area, intent on jarring the panzers loose, while a chemical mortar company tried to burn them out.
On 27 December patrols edged their way into the pocket, to find nothing but abandoned tanks. The previous evening General Waldenburg heard that the Fuehrer Begleit Brigade was being taken away from his right flank and that he must go over to the defensive at once. Still in radio contact with the pocket, Waldenburg ordered the troops there to come out, synchronizing their move with an attack at dusk which would be made toward Ménil, northeast of Verdenne. Perhaps the feint at Ménil served its purpose-in any event most of the grenadiers made their escape, riding out on the tanks still capable of movement.
Although this last sortie against Ménil was only a ruse, Ménil and the surrounding area had been the scene of bitter fighting and stubborn German attacks on 26 December. Krueger, the LVIII Panzer Corps commander, saw in the newly arrived Fuehrer Begleit an opportunity to carve the Hotton garrison, which had been so effectively barring his advance over the Ourthe, down to size. The villages of Hotton, Hampteau, and Ménil form a triangle, Hampteau being the apex of the triangle, if this is pictured as projecting toward the German lines. Krueger's plan was to smash through Hampteau, grab the ridge running back to the west where it overlooked Hotton and Ménil, and take Hotton by attack from the rear, that is, the west bank of the river. Success at Hotton would permit the 116th Panzer to peel the American flank back from the Marche road.
The first contingent from the Fuehrer Begleit came into the line opposite Hampteau at noon, deployed, and at 1400 hit Company G of the 334th Infantry, which was guarding the Hampteau bridge site. This attack seems to have been poorly organized (prisoners said that the attack formation had been wrecked in the assembly area by artillery fire). In any event it crumbled under the shells of tank destroyers and the 84th Division artillery. This proved to be the single pinch-hit performance of the Fuehrer Begleit, for later in the afternoon it was ordered out of the line and sent marching for Bastogne.
At 1830 the German attack shifted toward Ménil, conducted as an envelopment on the east and west by infantry and tanks of the 116th Panzer. The western blade of the scissors ran into trouble when the tanks leading the attacking column were forced off the road by a daisychain of antitank mines. While attempting to re-form, the tanks were suddenly assailed by salvo fire from three field artillery battalions. Six tanks fell prey to the American cannoneers and the attack collapsed. Later the enemy made a demonstration here as part of Waldenburg's feint. On the east side of the town the assault had to be made across 500 yards of bare ground. The enemy fusiliers bravely attempted the passage, attempted it several times during the course of two hours, but unprotected
flesh and blood were no match for the 2,000 rounds of high explosive which the 326th Field Artillery Battalion poured down on this killing ground.
By the morning of 27 December the whole Marche-Hotton front had quieted. In the enemy lines the crippled and demoralized 116th Panzer licked its wounds and dug defensive works while its neighbor on the left, the XLVII Panzer Corps, retired to a shortened position in order to free men and tanks for the new fight brewing at Bastogne. The 84th Infantry Division sent out patrols and counted its prisoners-592 for the Verdenne engagement. The entire operation as part of the VII Corps cost the 84th Division 112 killed, 122 missing, and 348 wounded. On New Year's Day the 84th was relieved by the British 53d Division and moved north, prepared to team once again with the 2d Armored Division-but this time for the offensive.