Battle of Elsenborn Ridge

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Battle of Elsenborn Ridge
Part of World War II, Battle of the Bulge
US Gun Position on Elsenborn Ridge.jpg
Discarded artillery shell casings litter a U.S. Artillery position on Elsenborn Ridge.
Date16 – 26 December 1944
Location
The Ardennes

50°26′47″N 6°15′51″E / 50.44639°N 6.26417°E / 50.44639; 6.26417Coordinates: 50°26′47″N 6°15′51″E / 50.44639°N 6.26417°E / 50.44639; 6.26417
Result American victory
Belligerents
 United States  Germany
Commanders and leaders
Omar N. Bradley
Walter E. Lauer
Walter M. Robertson
Sepp Dietrich
Hugo Kraas
Units involved
1st Infantry Division
2nd Infantry Division
9th Infantry Division
99th Infantry Division
7th Armored Division (United States)
82nd Airborne Division
102nd Cavalry Group
741st Tank Battalion
612th Tank Destroyer Battalion
820th Tank Destroyer Battalion
106th Infantry Division (United States)
405th Field Artillery Group
613th Tank Destroyer Battalion
62nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion
460th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion
1st SS Panzer Division
12th SS Panzer Division
3rd Panzergrenadier Division
277th Volksgenadier Division
12th Volksgrenadier Division
246th Volksgrenadier Division
3rd Fallschirmjäger Division
272nd Volksgrenadier
326th Volksgrenadier Divisions
753rd Volksgrenadier Regiment
Strength
28,000 men 56,000 men
Casualties and losses
12,000-15,000 casualties
5,000 men killed or missing
114 tanks lost [1]
Unknown, but high personnel losses
Battle of Elsenborn Ridge is located in Belgium
Battle of Elsenborn Ridge
Location within Belgium

The Battle of Elsenborn Ridge was the only sector of the American front lines during the Battle of the Bulge where the Germans failed to advance.[2]:33 The battle centered on the Elsenborn Ridge east of Elsenborn, Belgium in the Ardennes forest. West of Elsenborn Ridge, near the cities of Liège and Spa, Belgium, was a vast array of Allied supplies and the well-developed road network leading to the Meuse River and Antwerp. The Germans planned on using two key rollbahns or routes through the area to seize Antwerp and force a separate peace with the United States and Britain.[3]:259–271 Capturing Monschau and the nearby village of Höfen, and the twin villages of Rocherath-Krinkelt just east of Elsenborn Ridge, were key to the success of the German plans, and Hitler committed his best armored units and infantry troops to the area, including the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend.

The green, untested troops of the 99th Infantry Division had been placed in the sector during mid-November because the Allies thought it was an area unlikely to see battle. Their soldiers were stretched thin over a 22-mile (35 km) front, and all three regiments were on line, with no reserve. In early December, the 2nd Infantry Division was assigned to capture a vital crossroads marked by a customs house and a forester’s lodge named Wahlerscheid, at the southern tip of the Hurtgen Forest. They transitioned through the 99th Division's lines and after a deadly, costly battle, captured the crossroads. But Hitler counterattacked in what the Americans initially thought was a localized spoiling action, but was actually a leading element of the Battle of the Bulge. The 2nd Division consolidated their lines, pulling back into Hünningen, and then to the twin villages of Rocherath-Krinkelt, and finally at the dug-in positions held by the 99th Division at Elsenborn Ridge.

In a fierce battle lasting 10 days, the American and German lines were often confused. During the first three days, the battle raged over the twin villages of Rocherath-Krinkelt, during which American G.I.s were at times isolated in individual buildings surrounded by German armor. Attacking Elsenborn Ridge itself, the Germans, although superior in numbers, were stopped by the Americans' well-prepared and deeply dug-in defensive positions. The German attack plans were not well coordinated and frustrated by the rugged terrain, built-up areas around the twin villages, and massed American artillery firepower positioned behind Elsenborn Ridge. American artillery batteries repeatedly pounded the German advance. While the Germans employed an effective combined arms tactic and penetrated the U.S. lines several times, the Americans called in indirect fire on their own positions, pushing the Germans back. U.S. reserve forces consisting of clerks and headquarters personnel were rushed in at one point to reinforce the 395th Infantry Regiment's lines. Although the Germans possessed superior armor, they were held in check by the innovative American tactics, including better communications, coordinated time on target artillery strikes, new proximity fuses for artillery shells, and superior air power.

The Sixth Panzer Army was unable to break through and take its immediate objectives on the Meuse River. The stubborn American resistance forced Kampfgruppe Peiper to choose an alternative route well south of Monschau and Elsenborn Ridge. As a result, the German forces were strung out over miles of winding, single-track roads, unable to concentrate their armored units. Peiper's units were repeatedly stymied by U.S. Army engineers, who blew essential bridges along their route of advance. One column of roughly 40 tanks and support vehicles was destroyed on 17 December when they were discovered by an L4 air observer of the 62nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion, assigned to the 102nd Cavalry Group. They were attacked by the 62nd's 105 howitzers mounted on M7 SP's, Corps 155's and Army 240's.[4]:410–411 The panzers finally reached the Amblève River, only about halfway to the Meuse River, but ran out of fuel. Food and ammunition also ran low. After 10 days, the German forces had been reduced to an ineffective strength and withdrew. The Americans lost about 5,000 men; while exact German losses are not known, they included significant amounts of armor. While the Americans had considerable supplies and enough troops to re-equip their forces, German losses could not be replaced.

Background[edit]

Monschau lay on the very northernmost sector of the German offensive. Capturing it, the nearby town of Höfen, and the twin villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath were critical to the success of the German offensive because of the road network that lay to their west. The Germans had planned a seven-day campaign to seize Antwerp, and they were counting on the good quality road system to the west of Monschau and Elsenborn Ridge to help them achieve that objective.[5]

From Monschau highways led north and south, and east and west. A key road led directly northwest 27 kilometres (17 mi) to Eupen where the V Corps headquarters was located. That same road continued on 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) further to Liège where General Courtney Hodges maintained the First Army Headquarters. This included the vast supply depots positioned in the Namur-Liège areas.

On 16 December the only combat unit guarding the highway to Eupen was the 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron.[5]

German units and plans in the north[edit]

Walter Model, Gerd von Rundstedt and Hans Krebs plan for the Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge) in November 1944.

"We gamble everything!" were the words used by Gerd von Rundstedt, commander-in-chief of the German Western Front,[4]:97 to describe Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein ("Watch on the Rhine"). Adolf Hitler first officially outlined his surprise counter-offensive to his astonished generals on 16 September 1944. The assault's ambitious goal was to pierce the thinly held lines of the U.S. First Army between Monschau and Wasserbillig with Army Group B (Model) by the end of the first day, get the armor through the Ardennes by the end of the second day, reach the Meuse between Liège and Dinant by the third day, and seize Antwerp and the western bank of the Schelde estuary by the fourth day.[3]:1–64[6] The Germans had designated five rollbahns or routes through the sector near Elsenborn which would give them direct access to the road network leading to the valuable port of Antwerp, splitting the allied American and British armies. Hitler believed the attack would inflame rivalries between the Americans and the British.[4]:19–20 He felt certain the two countries would negotiate a peace as a result. His generals tried to persuade him to set a less ambitious goal, but he was adamant.[7]:216 As they had done in 1914 and 1940, they planned to attack through the Losheim Gap in Belgium.

The German's original plan for the Wacht Am Rhein Offensive called for the LXVII Armeekorps to capture the area north and south of Monschau.
Map depicting the northern shoulder of the Battle of the Bulge, or Ardennes Offensive, in which the German Sixth Panzer Army attacked United States' troops, but could not dislodge them. The 2nd and 99th Division's effective defense of the sector prevented the Germans from accessing the valuable road network and considerably slowed their timetable, allowing the Allies to bring up the 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions as reinforcements.

Adolf Hitler personally selected for the counter-offensive on the northern shoulder of the western front the best troops available and officers he trusted. The lead role in the attack was given to Sepp Dietrich’s 6th Panzer Army, while the 5th Panzer Army was to attack to their south, covering their flank. The 6th Panzer Army was given priority for supply and equipment and were assigned the shortest route to the ultimate objective of the offensive, Antwerp.[3]:1–64 The 6th Panzer Army included the elite of the Waffen-SS, including four Panzer divisions and five infantry divisions in three corps.[8]:8[9]:69 Hitler personally designated a group of 70 short tons (64 t), 128mm Jagdtiger tank destroyers from the 653rd Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion to assist with the attack, although their rail transport was held up by American air attacks.[9]:73

Monschau

The German troops holding the region around Monschau were part of the LXVII Armeekorps led by General der Infanterie Otto Hitzfeld. They had been placed under the command of the Sixth Panzer Army in preparation for Wacht Am Rhein. The LXVII Armeekorps sector covered about 32 kilometres (20 mi), from a point just south of Vossenack 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) northeast of Monschau, to a point southeast of Camp d’Elsenborn in the south. Although it occupied a critical junction, Field Marshal Walter Model forbid German artillery from firing on the resort village of Monschau, known for its ancient timbered buildings and as a site for honeymooners and artists.[9]:73

The LXVII Armeekorps was composed of the 326th and the 246th Volksgrenadier Division. The 326th was designated to take the area north and south of Monschau, which Field Marshal Walter Model had directed should be spared destruction. The 246th was tasked with taking Höfen and Monschau and nearby villages and then driving northwest to seize the Eupen road.[7]

According to Dietrich's plan, the LXVII Armeekorps would secure the Sixth Panzer Army's northern flank. By sidestepping Monschau to seize the area of poor roads, forested hills, and upland moors of the Hohe Venn, the LXVII's two divisions would block the main roads leading into the breakthrough area from the north and east. Simultaneously, the I SS Panzer Corps to the south would use its three infantry divisions to punch holes in the American line and swing northwesterly to join the left flank of the LXVII Corps. Together, the five divisions would form a solid shoulder, behind which the Panzers of the I and II SS Panzer Corps would advance along the Sixth Panzer Army's routes leading west and northwest.[10]

Butgenbach-Malmedy

The Sixth Panzer Army was set to attack in two waves. The first wave included the LXVII Corps and the newly organized 272nd Volksgrenadier and 326th Volksgrenadier Divisions. Also part of the attack the I SS Panzer Corps, with the 1st SS Panzer Division and 12th SS Panzer Division, the 12th Volksgrenadier Division and 277th Volksgrenadier Division, and the 3rd Fallschirmjäger Division.

The Sixth Panzer Army's 1,000-plus artillery pieces and 90 Tiger tanks made it the strongest force deployed. Although Dietrich's initial sector frontage was only 23 miles (37 km), his assault concentrated on less than half that ground. Relying on at least a 6:1 troop superiority at the breakthrough points, he expected to overwhelm the Americans and reach the Meuse River by nightfall of the third day.[10]

The I SS Panzer Corps included the 1st SS Panzer Division and the 12th SS Panzer Division. The 1st had been formed from Adolf Hitler's personal bodyguard regiment. It had the primary responsibility for breaking through the Allied lines and reaching the Meuse River and then Antwerp, Belgium. Major General Engel’s 12th SS Panzer Division was composed of junior officers and enlisted men who had been drawn from members of the Hitler Youth, while its senior NCOs and officers were generally veterans of the Eastern Front. The I SS Panzer Corps was given the critical role of breaking through two east-west roads in the northern sector of the Ardennes, code-named Rollbahn C and D.[7]:216

Krinkelt-Rocherath

The Germans hoped to preserve their armor by attacking the American lines with infantry, followed up by the armor. The 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division and the 277th Volksgrenadier Division were given the vital role of pushing the Americans out of the twin villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath in the north. This would allow the Deitrich’s Sixth Army to attack west over Rollbahn C.[11] To the south, the 3rd Fallschirmjäger Division and the 12th Volksgrenadier Division were in charge of opening the way to Rollbahn D for Kampfgruppe SS Standartenführer Joachim Peiper's 1st SS Panzer Division.[7]:216

Dietrich planned to commit his third corps, the II SS Panzer Corps, with the 2nd SS Panzer Division and 9th SS Panzer Divisions, in the second wave. Once I SS Panzer had broken the American lines, the 2nd SS Panzer Division would exploit the opening. Among the thirty-eight Waffen-SS divisions, it was an elite Waffen-SS unit. The 9th SS Panzer Division was an armored division formed of 18-year-old German conscripts led by a cadre of experienced staff from the 1st SS Panzer Division. Only minor units of the II SS Panzer Corps were involved in the initial assault and the rest of the corps was committed to major action near St. Vith on 21 December 1944. When the northern assault stalled, the corps was transferred south to help take Bastogne, where it suffered heavy losses.[7]:216

von Rundstedt believed the operation would decide the outcome of the war. A German document captured by the 394th Inf. Regt. on 16 December contained his orders:[12]

Soldiers of the West Front: Your great hour has struck. Strong attacking armies are advancing today against the Anglo-Americans. I don't need to say more to you. You all feel it. Everything is at stake. You bear in yourselves a holy duty to give everything and to achieve the superhuman for our fatherland and our Fuhrer!

Elsenborn Ridge

To maximize the speed of the operation, and to avoid potential bottlenecks and logistical confusion, the two armored divisions of the 1st SS-Panzer Corps were assigned separate routes west. The 12th SS Panzer Division was to utilize three routes (Rollbahn A, B and C) to the north through Elsenborn, Bütgenbach, Malmedy, Spa, and Liège. The 1st SS Panzer Division was given two routes in the south (Rollbahn D and E) through Losheim, Lieugneville, Vielsalm, Werbomont, and Huy.

The German plan of advance included Rollbahn A passing through a crossroad in the center of Rocherath and Rollbahn B skirting the southern edge of Krinkelt and continuing on toward Wirtzfeld. The Germens' first objective was to break through the defending line of the inexperienced U.S. 99th Infantry Division and positions of battle-hardened 2nd Infantry Division. Once they cleared the Americans from the twin villages, they needed to seize Elsenborn Ridge so they could control the roads to the south and west and ensure supply to the German troops.[13]

Paratroop drop

The plan also included Operation Stößer, a paratrooper drop deep behind the American lines in the High Fens at the Baraque Michel crossroads 7 miles (11 km) north of Malmedy. Their objective was to seize terrain and bridges ahead of the main body after the two corps broke through the American defenses The drop was set for 03:00 on 17 December and they were to hold the crossroads for 24 hours until the arrival of the 12th SS Panzer Division.

Initial Allied positions[edit]

Vehicles of the 99th Division moving through Wirtzfeld en route to Elsenborn.

The 3rd Battalion, 395th Infantry Regiment arrived in Hofen on 10 November 1944.[14][page needed] The American defenders around Elsenborn occupied a long narrow hill mass, about 6,000 yards (5,500 m) long. From it they could see the fields and roads to both the east and west. The hillsides were densely wooded and armored units could only use the few roads.

They began preparing defensive positions along a very long line closely following the international highway from near Monschau, Germany, south nearly 19 miles (31 km) to Losheimergraben, Belgium. The thin lines of the 394th were in places only 800 metres (2,600 ft) from the German lines. There were insufficient troops to prepare defensive positions along the entire front, and the Americans could only maintain a series of strong points. Each regiment was responsible for protecting approximately 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) of front, roughly equivalent to one front-line infantry man every 91 metres (299 ft).[15] There were unoccupied and undefended gaps along the entire line which could only be patrolled. The best they could do was man a series of strongpoints. They had no reserves. Lt. Col. McClernand Butler, commanding officer of the 395th, later wrote:

That is three to four times wider than recommended by Army textbooks. I never dreamed that we would have a defensive position of this size without any backup or help from our division or regiment. When I got to Höfen, I found the area too big to cover in one afternoon. So I stayed in the village overnight."[14]:79

Except for their positions around Höfen, the 99th Division and its three regiments, the 393rd, 394th, and the 395th were positioned within towns and villages to the east and south of Elsenborn Ridge and in the thick coniferous forest around them, carpeted with a blanket of snow.[13][3]:77–78 The division had not yet fired its weapons in battle.[16]

Monschau to Höfen

In early November, the 102d Cavalry Group and the 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, about 900 troops each, attached to the 102nd Cavalry Group, were assigned to defend the front lines to the north of Elsenborn Ridge from Monschau to Höfen, Germany. The 38th Cavalry was responsible for about 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) of the front lines from Monschau to Höfen. Some of the 38th Cavalry Squadron's positions lay within about 200 yards (180 m) from the German bunkers on the Siegfried Line.

Next to the 38th Cavalry Squadron, the similarly sized 3rd Battalion, 395th Infantry, 99th Infantry Division, occupied a 1,000 yards (910 m) front on the eastern side of the village of Hofen. To the southeast of the 38th Cavalry, the 99th Infantry Division held a line dug into the forest along a line about 2 miles (3.2 km) east of Krinkelt-Rocherath, roughly following the international highway, stretching from Höfen, Germany, about 35 kilometres (22 mi) to Losheimergraben, Belgium, in the south.

A camouflaged pillbox in the forest served as a regimental command post.

A single platoon of 40 men from Company L was held in reserve. In the event of an emergency, the battalion headquarters and company administrative personnel, including clerks and motor-pool staff, were to join the platoon, creating a small reserve force of about 100 men. If the Germans penetrated Höfen, the U.S. soldiers would have to withdraw several miles to the next defensible position.[17]

On 14 December, the veteran soldiers of Company A, 612th Tank Destroyer Battalion, dispersed its twelve towed 3-inch guns throughout the defensive system of Butler's Regiment around Höfen. They prepared firing positions against any forces approaching the road network and the village of Rohren, northeast of Höfen, which lay in the path of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division's planned line of attack towards the crossroads near Wahlerscheid and from which they anticipated a counterattack. The guns were sited well forward and covered in sheets as camouflage and for protection against the falling snow. The cannons could fire both high-explosive anti-personnel and armor-piercing shells.[16]

Hofen to Büllingen

With such a long front to watch over, Maj. Gen. Walter E. Lauer found it necessary to place all three regiments on line. The 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 395th Infantry Regiment in the north, about 600 front-line infantry men, held a position about 6,000 yards (5,500 m) long and had no units in reserve.[15]

The infantry at Höfen lay in a long line of foxholes along 910 metres (2,990 ft) of the front on the eastern side of the village, backed up by dug-in support positions. These would later prove instrumental in defending themselves from the attacking Germans and in protecting themselves when their own artillery fired on or just in front of their own positions, which happened at least six times over the next few weeks.[15]

The 99th Infantry Division used the relative quiet of the front to prepare an extensive defensive system, including redundant lines of communication, precise positioning of weapons to provide interlocking grazing fire, and aggressive patrols that kept the Germans off guard. They also carefully integrated artillery support that was planned and registered on likely targets based on the squadron's obstacles and likely enemy approaches.[5] The 393rd Regiment held the center and the 394th watched over the south.

Büllingen to Lanzerath

The American defensive line in the Ardennes had a gap south of Losheimergraben. General Leonard T. Gerow, in command of V Corps, recognized this area as a possible avenue of attack by the Germans.[18] This area, which lay between V Corps and Troy H. Middleton's VIII Corps, was undefended; just patrolled by jeep. The patrols in the northern part of the area were conducted by the 99th Infantry Division's 394th Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon, whereas those in the south were conducted by the 18th Cavalry Squadron, 14th Cavalry Group, attached to the 106th Infantry Division of the VIII Corps.

A towed M5 three-inch gun of the U.S. 7th Armored Division on 23 December 1944 in Vielsalm, Belgium.

On 10 December, an 18-man reconnaissance platoon led by 20-year-old Lt. Lyle Bouck, the second youngest man in the unit,[19]:84 was ordered by Major Robert Kriz, the 394th Regiment commanding officer, to a new position, about 6 miles (9.7 km) south east of Hünningen, near Lanzerath, Belgium, a village of about 15 homes. The village lay at a critical road junction in the northern part of the Losheim Gap. The 18-man unit was charged by Kriz with plugging a 5 miles (8.0 km) gap in the front line between the 106th Division to the south and the 99th Division to the north. Unknown to them, their position was outside the V Corps boundary. The only reserve was the 394th Infantry Regiment's 3rd Battalion, which was at Bucholz Station. Beyond their positions lay roads that would give the enemy rapid access to the Army's rear and allow them to easily flank the thinly placed 99th Division. Also present in the village were four U.S. Forward Artillery Observers.[20]:58

The reconnaissance platoon was reinforced by Task Force X, made up of four towed three-inch guns from the 2nd Platoon, Company A, 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion, which was attached to the 14th Cavalry Group, 106th Infantry Division located to their south. They were reinforced by the 22 men of the 820th's 2nd Recon Platoon, commanded by Lieutenant John Arculeer, who were mounted on an armored half-track and two jeeps.[8]:25

By mid-December, the troops were well dug in and had wired their positions with trip flares and barbed wire. They covered their fox holes with felled timbers. The weather was unusually calm and bone-chilling cold. Between 19 December 1944 and 31 January 1945, the average maximum temperature on the front lines in Europe was 33.5 °F. (0.83 °C.), and the average minimum temperature 22.6 °F. (−5.2 °C.).[21]

Battle of Heartbreak Crossroads[edit]

The Battle of Heartbreak Crossroads, part of the Battle of Hürtgen Forest and the attempt to capture the Roer River dams, was fought at a vital crossroads near a forester's cabin named Wahlerscheid, astride the Siegfried Line that ran along the Hoefen-Alzen and Dreiborn ridges, about 5.6 miles (9.0 km) north of Krinkelt-Rocherath.[22]:610 In early December, the U.S. V Corps trucked the experienced 2nd Infantry Division from positions it had held in the south to Krinkelt-Rocherath, twin villages near the southern tip of the Battle of Hürtgen Forest. On the eastern side of the Siegfried Line was an excellent road network leading to the Roer River dams a few miles to the northeast and the Allies' next goal. The Americans were assigned with capturing the crossroads with the goal of destroying the dams, or failing that, force the Germans to blow them up.[23]

After attacking for two days without any results, on 14 December two U.S. squads crawling on their stomachs found a way through the well-emplaced German guns on the south side of the road. They cut the barbed wire and forged a path between the German defenses. They penetrated a trench line behind the pill boxes and held off German patrols for five hours, but when darkness fell they returned to the American lines. On 15 December, an American patrol advanced once more through the breach in the barbed wire and captured a portion of the trench line. They alerted the regimental command post, and Colonel Higgens, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, led two companies of GIs into the trenches behind the pill boxes. By the early morning of 16 December, the 9th Infantry Regiment pressed the attack another 1,500 yards (1,400 m) against stubborn resistance and captured the crossroads and the road network around it.[23] They gained control of the crossroads, but didn't have sufficient TNT on hand to destroy the pillboxes.[23]

During the night of the 16th and dawn of the 17th, the Germans attacked to the east of Rocherath and Krinkelt and made a deep penetration. They were liable at any moment to come bursting out of the forest. Robertson ordered the 2nd Division with its heavy weapons and vehicles to withdraw to the twin villages. The 99th Division had already put its last reserve into the battle. The 2nd Division with the attached 395th were the only units in line defend the endangered sector of the corridor south of Wahlerscheid.[3]

The 9th Infantry Regiment pulled back to another crossroads in the forest at Baracken, about 5 miles (8.0 km) to the south of the cross roads at Wahlerscheid.[24] The other 2nd Division units moved south through the area near the twin villages. Robertson moved his headquarters from Wirtzfeld, south and west of the twin villages, to Elsenborn, just west of the ridge line. Robertson also informed General Gerow, commander of V Corps, that he intended to hold the twin villages until troops east of the villages had retreated through them to the ridge line, which then would become the next line of defense. This defensive line was intended to safeguard the key high ground on Elsenborn Ridge from the German advance.

German attack[edit]

16 December

On the morning of Saturday, 16 December, a snowstorm blanketed the forests and the temperature dropped to 10 °F (−12 °C). The attack opened with a massive artillery bombardment along a 100 miles (160 km) wide front just before 5:30 AM. When the Germans began their barrage that morning, U.S. commanders initially believed that the German attack was a retaliatory assault in response to the American advance at the Wahlerscheid crossroads. Large numbers of German infantry from the 12th Volksgrenadier Division followed the barrage and attacked, beginning the ground offensive from the International Highway 2 miles (3.2 km) east of the twin villages.[3]:75–106

The German 277th Volksgrenadier Division responsible for capturing Krinkelt-Rocherath was composed for the most part of recent, inexperienced and poorly trained infantry conscripts. They were assigned the task of capturing the twin villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath, just southeast of Elsenborn Ridge. Rocherath to the north and Krinkelt to the south share the same main street. They were the first German infantry force to advance on the Americans.

The German's initial position was east of the German-Belgium border and the Siegfried Line near Losheim. Peiper's unit was assigned responsibility for the key route on the northern part of the offensive, attacking roughly along the line of the Albert Canal from Aachen to Antwerp. Dietrich's plan was for the Sixth Panzer Division to follow 12th Volksgrenadier Division infantry who were tasked with capturing the villages and towns immediately west of the International Highway along the Lanzerath-Losheimergraben road and to advance northwest on Losheimergraben. From there they would capture Bucholz Station and then drive 72 miles (116 km) through Honsfeld, Büllingen, and a group of villages named Trois-Ponts, to connect to Belgian Route Nationale N-23, and cross the River Meuse.[20]:70 They planned to reach the Meuse in three days.

German main line of advance[edit]

A heavily armed member of Kampfgruppe Hansen carries ammunition boxes forward during an ambush that completely destroyed the U.S. 14th Cavalry Group on the road between the villages Poteau and Recht.

The northern assault was led by the I SS Panzer Corps, composed of two SS Panzer divisions, the 12th and 1st SS Panzer Divisions and supporting units. The 12th was allotted three of the five Rollbahns allocated to the 1st SS Panzer Corps through the Ardennes forest, the major choke point of the entire drive west.[4]:161–162 The 1st SS Panzer Division was the spearhead of the attack, led by SS Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich’s 6th Panzer Army, which consisted of 4,800 men and 600 vehicles, including 35 Panthers, 45 Panzer IVs, 45 Tiger IIs, 149 half-tracks, 18 105mm artillery, 6 150mm artillery, and 30 anti-aircraft weapons.

Unfortunately for the Germans, during their retreat earlier that autumn they had destroyed the Losheim-Losheimergraben road bridge over the railway. German engineers were slow to repair the bridge on the morning of 16 December, preventing German vehicles from using this route. A railroad overpass they had selected as an alternative route could not bear the weight of the German armor. Peiper instead directed his lead tank to cross the railroad and climb the embankment, but as soon as it reached the top on the far side, Peiper received new orders directing him west along the road through Lanzerath to Bucholz Station.[8]:34 He pulled back and headed for Lanzerath instead.

The infantry advance was also supported by an array of searchlights that lit up the clouds like moonlight allowing the inexperienced German infantry to find their way, but in some locations the German troops, backlit by the searchlights, became easy targets for American forces. These clouds and the snowstorms to follow prevented the superior Allied air forces from attacking German forces and temporarily tipped the operation in the German's favor.[3]:75–106 The American troops in the forward positions near the International Highway were quickly overrun and killed, captured, or even ignored by the Germans, intent on keeping to their time table for a rapid advance towards their eventual goal of Antwerp.[3]:75–106

Fighting for Monschau and Höfen[edit]

German infantry advance through the Ardennes forest.

The U.S. 3rd Battalion, 395th IR was positioned about 5 miles (8.0 km) to the north of Elsenborn Ridge near the towns of Monschau and Höfen. From 0525 to 0530 on 16 December, the battalion's positions "in and around Höfen received a heavy barrage of artillery and rockets covering our entire front line."[14]:173 The enemy artillery, Werfers, and mortars fire cut all land-line communication channels between the front-line units and headquarters. Only some radio communications between front line and the heavy weapons company remained intact.

Twenty minutes after the barrage was lifted, at 0555, German infantry from the 753rd Volksgrenadier Regiment, Heeresgruppe B, attacked the 395th in the dark in strength along five different points. The Volksgrenadier were new units formed within the German army in the fall of 1944. They were formed by conscripting boys and elderly men, men previously rejected as physically unfit for service, wounded soldiers returning from hospitals, and transfers from the "jobless" personnel of the quickly shrinking Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe, usually organized around small cadres of hardened veterans.

The German attack concentrated in the battalion's center, between I and K Companies. Another German force attempted to penetrate the Monschau area, immediately north of the Battalion's extreme left flank. Without radio communications between the front-line artillery liaison officer and 196th Field Artillery, their guns could not be brought to bear on the German assault until communication was restored in the midst of the battle at 0650. The 395th was outnumbered five to one and was at times surrounded.[25] They initially pushed the Germans back with machine guns, small arms, mortar fire, and hand-to-hand combat. Without any significant armor support, the 395th stopped the German advance cold. U.S. artillery had registered the forward positions of the U.S. infantry and rained fire on the exposed advancing Germans while the U.S. soldiers remained in their covered foxholes. It was the only sector of the American front line on the Battle of the Bulge where the Germans failed to advance.[2]:33

A U.S. First Army soldier manning an M1 81mm mortar listens for fire direction on a field phone during the German Ardennes offensive.

By 07:45, the Germans withdrew, except for a group of the 753rd Volksgrenadier Regiment who penetrated the Battalion's center. They were soon repulsed.

Just after noon, at 1235, the Germans launched their attack again, and they were pushed back by artillery and mortar fire. The result of the first day of what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge were 104 Germans dead "in an area 50 yards (46 m) yards in front of our lines to 100 yards (91 m) behind the line, and another 160 wounded counted in front of battalion lines."[14]:173 The 3rd Battalion lost four killed, seven wounded, and four missing. "We learned from a German Lieutenant prisoner of war that the enemy's mission was to take Höfen at all costs."[14]:173

Withdrawal from Heartbreak Crossroads[edit]

By the late evening of 16 December General Gerow, commander of US V Corps, recognized the magnitude of the attack. He first ordered General Walter Robertson, Commander of the 2nd Division, to hold in place and await further orders. Early the next morning he told Robertson to turn south and withdraw to a crossroads just north of the twin villages where they were to establish a road block.[26]:221 Robertson's troops were heavily engaged and withdrawal was complicated, but the forces peeled backward from the vital crossroads at Wahlerscheid that they had captured only the day before.

The 9th Infantry Regiment pulled back to the Baracken crossroads in the forest about 5 miles (8.0 km) to the south of the cross roads at Wahlerscheid.[24] The other units moved south through the area near the twin villages. Robertson moved his headquarters from Wirtzfeld, south and west of the twin villages, to Elsenborn, just west of the ridge line. Robertson also informed General Gerow that he intended to hold the twin villages until troops east of the villages had retreated through them to the ridge line, which then would become the next line of defense. This defensive line was intended to safeguard the key high ground on Elsenborn Ridge from the German advance.

To the east of Rocherath and Krinkelt, the Germans had made a deep penetration and were liable at any moment to come bursting out of the forest. The U.S. had to hold the twin villages to allow the 2nd ID with its heavy weapons and vehicles to reach positions around Elsenborn intact. The 99th Division had already put its last reserve into the battle. The 2nd ID with the attached 395th were left to defend the endangered sector of the corridor south.[3]

On the morning of 16 December, immediately southeast of Elsenborn, the 1st SS Panzer Division, spearhead of the entire German 6th Panzer Army, a critical element in the German offensive, was assigned to advance through the Losheim Gap and Losheimergraben. Peiper received new orders to advance towards Lanzerath. He was preceded by the 12th and 277th Volksgrenadier Divisions, but they failed to gain control of Lanzerath on the first day as planned.[13][27]:113–114 But before even reaching Lanzerath, Peiper lost three tanks to German mines and was slowed by mine-clearing operations.

The area around Elsenborn Ridge became a collection point for ragtag groups of American troops whose units been broken and scattered at the start of the enemy offensive. With so many troops from different units arriving in every kind of condition, organizing a coherent defense was a huge task, but one that occurred with surprising speed under the circumstances. Intelligence about the attack that reached the Americans was spotty and contradictory. General Lauer, commanding officer of the 99th, ordered Col. Robertson at Wahlerscheid to stay put until at least the next morning when more orders would be forthcoming. Robertson told his men to hold and he also prepared them for an orderly withdrawal in the morning.[3]:75–106

Battle for Dom Butgenbach[edit]

To the northeast of the 99th Division, the 1st Infantry Division had been recuperating near Liege, from nearly constant combat after landing on D-Day. When the German counterattack broke out and while the fight for the twin villages raged, the division hastily relocated on any available transport to the unguarded southern end of the 99th's line near Bütgenbach. Troops from the U.S. 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions, moved into position to fortify Elsenborn Ridge and complete the defense. The 9th Division held positions on the northern portion of the ridge, in the vicinity of Kalterherberg.[28]

The 2nd Battalion, 26th Infantry, First Infantry Division, commanded by Lt. Col. Derrill M. Daniels, linked up with the 99th. The rest of the 1st Division was strung out to the west to prevent the Germans from turning north. Its three companies were understrength, only able to field about 100 troops each. Daniels positioned them in a perimeter around a strongly built stone house that sat astride the road. He ordered the troops to dig in and build overhead cover. Their job was to kill the German infantry and let the armor pass. Daniels placed his three M-10 tank destroyers and a platoon of four M4 Shermans in the center.[28]

17 December

Held up by their inability to cross the railroad bridge that German engineers were slow to repair, and by the Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon of the 394th Infantry Regiment at Lanzerath Ridge, elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division did not arrive in force at Daniel's position until the afternoon of 17 December. Finding Rollbahn C blocked, they initially pushed off to the south for Rollbahn D. The Germans changed their mind and on 18 December the 12th SS Panzer Division was given the task of opening up the road. They made a probing attack that afternoon which failed.[13]

By the afternoon of 17 December, the 395th Regiment realized that the day's action was part of a much larger offensive. At one point in the middle of the next night, a German company commander marched his company of about 200 men up to a house that he thought was unoccupied, and next to a ditch in which an infantryman with a BAR was dug in.

Once the German officer got there, he called for a meeting of his noncoms—at a spot right in front of this BAR man's foxhole. That was a long night. The BAR man stood it just as long as he could and then he cut loose. The Germans pulled back to organize, and he pulled back to another foxhole. They attacked and he cut them down again. Then he moved back to his original foxhole and the Germans attacked where he’d been. He cut them down again. Then the rest of the men in the eight-man squad got into the act. Come daylight, there was one lieutenant and about eight Germans left.[29]

Attack on Krinkelt-Rocherath[edit]

American soldiers of Company G, 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, U.S. First Army, take refuge in doorways during mortar barrage laid down by Germans after the Americans seized a German forest stronghold camouflaged as a two-story residence.
Sgt. Bernard Cook guards a German prisoner walking past a burning Panzerkampfwagen V Panther tank at Krinkelt on 17 December 1944.
16–17 December

Operation Stößer fails[edit]

The Germans Operation Stößer planned to drop paratroopers in the American rear in the High Fens area 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) north of Malmédy and to seize the key Baraque Michel crossroads leading to Antwerp. The operation led by Oberst Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte was a complete failure. To conceal the plans from the Allies and preserve secrecy, von der Heydte wasn't allowed to use his own, experienced troops. Most of the new paratroops had little training.[30]

The Luftwaffe somehow managed to assemble 112 Ju 52 transport planes, but the pilots were very inexperienced. The pilots took off into strong winds, snow, and limited visibility.[31] It was the German paratroopers' only nighttime drop during World War II. While the aircraft took off with around 1,300 Fallschirmjäger, the pilots dropped some behind the German front lines, others over Bonn, and only a few hundred in widely scattered locations behind the American lines. Some aircraft landed with their troops still on board. Only a fraction of the force landed near the intended drop zone.[30]:161 The planes that were relatively close to the intended drop zone were buffeted by strong winds that deflected many paratroopers and made their landings far rougher. Since many of the German paratroopers were very inexperienced, some were crippled upon impact and died where they fell. Some of their bodies were found the following spring as the snow melted.[32]:218

The mis-drops led to considerable confusion among the Americans, as Fallschirmjäger were reported all over the Ardennes, and the Allies believed a major division-sized jump had taken place. The Americans allocated men to secure the rear instead of facing the main German thrust at the front.[33]:88 By noon on 17 December, von der Heydte's unit had scouted the woods and rounded up a total of around 300 troops. With only enough ammunition for a single fight, the force was too small to take the crossroads on its own.[33]:89

17 December

Capture Honsfeld and Büllingen[edit]

A Tiger II of schwere SS Panzer Abteilung 501 advances west past a column of American prisoners of the 99th Infantry Division captured at Honsfeld and Lanzerath.

In the early morning of 17 December, Kampfgruppe Peiper quickly captured Honsfeld and shortly afterward, Büllingen. Peiper's unit seized 50,000 US gallons (190,000 l; 42,000 imp gal) of fuel for his vehicles; the Tiger IIs consumption was about .5 miles per US gallon (470 L/100 km; 0.60 mpg‑imp).[27]:108 The Germans paused to refuel before continuing westward. They had been assigned Rollbahn B which would take them through Spa, Belgium.

At 0930 on 17 December, Peiper sent a section of the Kampfgruppe in reconnaissance to the north, but they quickly encountered strong American resistance improvised by a barrage of tank-destroyers of the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion and lost two Panzer IV. Two days into the offensive, the high ground of Elsenborn Ridge and two of the three routes the Germans planned to use remained solidly within American fortified defense zones.[4]:410[26]

Believing the way north to Rollbahn B was blocked, and knowing that the 12th Panzer was well behind him, unable to dislodge the Americans from Elsenborn Ridge, Kampfgruppe Peiper and the 1st SS Panzer Division were forced to choose the more difficult Rollbahn D to the south in its drive west to the Meuse River.[4]:371 The road was narrow, in many places single-track, at times unpaved. When Peiper reviewed his newly assigned alternative route on a map, he exclaimed that the road was "suitable not for tanks but for bicycles!"[9]:70[27][27]:108 The route forced vehicles to tail each other, creating a column of infantry and armor up to 25 kilometres (16 mi) long, and prevented them from concentrating their force which was their most effective use.[34]

17 December
A patrol of Company F, 3rd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, searches the woods between Eupen and Butgenbach, Belgium, for German parachutists who were dropped in that area

The main drive against Elsenborn Ridge was launched in the forests east of the twin villages on the early morning of 17 December. This attack was begun by tank and Panzergrenadier units of the 12th SS Panzer Division. The 989th Infantry Regiment of the 277th succeeded, after heavy and costly combat in the woods, in overrunning the forward U.S. positions guarding the trails to the villages, capturing a large number of prisoners and leaving many small units isolated behind the front lines. By 11:00, this attack had driven units of the U.S. 99th Infantry Division back into the area of the twin villages. These units were joined by forces of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division moving into the villages from the north. The German attack swiftly bogged down against the heavy small arms and machine gun fire from prepared positions of the American 99th Infantry Division on their flanks. The 990/277 and 991/277 Infantry Regiments had less success, struggling to get through the dense woods and heavy brush in their path.

At Krinkelt, T/5 Sgt Vernon McGarity was wounded by the early morning artillery barrage. After he was treated, he refused to be evacuated and returned to his squad. He and his squad repulsed four German tanks and their supporting infantry, and McGarity repeatedly braved direct fire to secure ammunition and rescue wounded soldiers. McGarity and his squad held the German forces back for a full day and were only captured on the morning of 17 December when they ran out of ammunition.[35] The German forces also drew a rapid response from U.S. artillery, who had registered the forward positions of their infantry. The artillery rained fire on the exposed advancing Germans while the U.S. troops remained in their covered foxholes.

In another example of the fierce, close fighting, a single soldier was responsible for disabling several tanks during a 24-hour period. On the evening of 17 December in nearby Rocherath, Pfc William A. Soderman of Company K, 9th Infantry, 2nd Infantry Division, heard enemy tanks approaching his position in the early evening. Armed with a bazooka, he waited until five Panthers were within pointblank range. He stood up in the road and fired a rocket into the lead tank, setting it on fire. The other tanks passed him by, but the next morning he repeated his actions. When five more German tanks approached, he jumped onto the road in front of the tanks and disabled the lead tank. The remaining tanks were unable to bypass the lead tank and withdrew. Soderman was severely wounded and received the Medal of Honor for his actions.[36]

2nd Division infantrymen on the march

The troops around the villages were assisted by tanks from the U.S. 741st Tank Battalion, assisted by a company of the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion equipped with M10 tank destroyers, a company of the 612th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and a few towed 3 inch guns from the 801st Tank Destroyer Battalion. They were instrumental in helping hold back the German advance in the fighting in and around Rocherath-Krinkelt.[3]

During the night of 17–18 December, the German attack was not well coordinated, carried out as it was by the advance guards of two divisions attacking piecemeal in the dark over unknown terrain against U.S. resistance which completely surprised the Germans.[3]

Fighting over twin villages[edit]

Captured soldiers from the 12th SS Panzer Division "Hitler Jugend"

Orders from Field Marshal Walter Model and Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt that Elsenborn Ridge be captured and the advance of Sixth Panzer Army resume had been pouring down the chain of command into 12th SS Panzer Headquarters.[4]:394–395 General Hermann Priess, commander of the 1st SS Panzer Corps, ordered Waffen-SS Obersturmbannführer Hugo Kraas, Commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division, to take command of all forces facing Elsenborn Ridge and capture it.[4]:181–182

The battle-seasoned veteran American tankers resisted repeated attacks by lead elements of the Sixth Panzer Army from 16–19 December. Fighting against the superior German Panther and Tiger tanks, supported by infantry, the battalion fought many small unit engagements. Using their size and mobility to their advantage, they stalked the German tanks in twos and threes until they could destroy or immobilize them with shots from the flanks or rear.

Fighting near St. Vith[edit]

Panzergrenadier-SS Kampfgruppe Hansen in action during clashes in Poteau against Task Force Myers, 18 December 1944
17 December

To Peiper's south, the advance of Kampfgruppe Hansen had stalled. SS Oberführer Mohnke ordered Schnellgruppe Knittel, which had been designated to follow Hansen, to instead move forward to support Peiper. SS Sturmbannführer Knittel crossed the bridge at Stavelot around 19:00 against American forces trying to retake the town. Knittel pressed forward towards La Gleize, and shortly afterward the Americans recaptured Stavelot. Peiper and Knittel both faced the prospect of being cut off.[37]:108

18 December

The U.S. withdrawal was hastened by an increasing shortage of ammunition. Fortunately for the defense, three tank destroyers of the U.S. 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion arrived with a good supply of bazookas and anti-tank mines. These reinforcements were put to good use when the 12th SS Panzer Division launched a powerful tank and infantry attack on the twin villages.[4]:166–167 The U.S. forces responded with a powerful artillery barrage supported by mortar fire, bazooka rockets, and anti-tank mines that repelled the German attack around midnight of 18 December.[4]:376–390 The German attack failed to clear a line of advance for the 12th SS.

12th Volksgrenadier troops strip boots and other equipment from the bodies of three dead U.S. soldiers at the crossroads at Honsfeld, west of Losheimergraben
Same crossroads as above, photo taken from different angle to show Losheimergraben junction

On 18 December, German infantry and armor resumed their attack on the twin villages. They were supported by the German 560th Heavy Antitank Battalion equipped with the state-of-the-art Jagdpanther tank destroyer.[4]:395,649 The Jagdpanther was armed with the 88mm cannon and the German leadership expected it to be the decisive element of the battle. The battle opened on the morning of the 18th with both sides targeting the village area with repeated artillery strikes, and German armored vehicles advanced into the twin villages. All that day and night, the battle raged, with SS tank and assault guns hitting the villages from the east, supported by a barrage of Nebelwerfer rockets. These forces were met in turn by a hailstorm of U.S. heavy artillery shells with proximity fuses and about 20 Sherman tanks belonging to the U.S. 741st Tank Battalion, and several M10 tank destroyers.

The narrow streets of the town made effective maneuver difficult. Bazooka rounds fired from rooftops and artillery air bursts caused by proximity fuses created a lethal rain of splinters. The Sherman tanks, hiding in alleyways and behind buildings, quickly knocked out six Panzers. Eight more SS Panzers were also hit and destroyed by 57mm anti-tank guns, anti-tank rockets, bazookas, and mines, leaving them unable to swiftly plow through the rubble and gain the open country of the ridge line. Neither side was inclined to take prisoners, and the losses on both sides were catastrophic.[4]:396–401 During the German attack, Sgt. Jose M. Lopez single-handedly manned a heavy machine gun. Falling back several times, he ignored enemy tank fire and falling artillery rounds, and killed more than 100 enemy infantry attempting to flank his unit, allowing them to successfully withdraw.[38]

On the morning of 18 December, Kampfgruppe Hansen, strengthened by some tank destroyers, successfully pressed the attack on the road from Recht to Poteau, and Combat Command R suffered heavy losses. On that same afternoon, the Americans were reinforced by Combat Command A of the 7th Armored Division, enabling the Americans to retake the intersection near Poteau and block the advance of Kampfgruppe Hansen. The Germans were temporarily locked down on the Rollbahn and unable to support Peiper, already ahead to the west several miles.[39][page needed]

Corps boundary gap[edit]

The small village of Lanzerath was at a key intersection southeast of Krinkelt-Rocherath.

It was held by a single Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon of the 394th Infantry Regiment, who were dug into a ridge near the village of about 15 homes. They were initially supported by Task Force X, made up of 2nd Platoon, Company A, 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion and 22 men of the 820th's 2nd Recon Platoon, commanded by Lieutenant John Arculeer, who were mounted on an armored half-track and two jeeps. But shortly after the early morning German bombardment ended, Task Force X pulled out without a word and headed south. That left the 18 men of the reconnaissance platoon alone, along with four forward artillery observers, to fill in the gap.

The U.S. troops were positioned on a slight ridge overlooking the village. During a 20-hour-long battle, the 18-man platoon, led by a 20-year-old lieutenant Lyle Bouck Jr., inflicted 93 casualties on the Germans. The U.S. troops seriously disrupted the entire German Sixth Panzer Army's schedule of attack along the northern edge of the offensive.[40] The entire platoon was captured, and only many years later were they recognized with a Presidential Unit Citation. Every member of the platoon was decorated, making it the most highly decorated platoon of World War II.[40]

19 December

At dawn on 19 December, on the third day of the offensive, the Germans decided to shift the main axis of the attack to the south of Elsenborn Ridge. A new armored attack led by the 12th SS Panzer Division, and supported by infantry of the 12th Volksgrenadier Division, was launched on the position of Domäne Bütgenbach, south east of Bütgenbach, to expose the right flank of the Americans. The 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division, supported by elements of the 12th and 277th Volksgrenadier Division to their left and right, made a frontal attack on the Elsenborn Ridge, with the objective of seizing the high feature called Roderhohe. But the soft ground in front of the ridge was almost impassible. One Sturmgeschütz assault gun after another got stuck, and the Pz Abt 103 of the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division lost 15 tanks that day to American artillery.[4]:401–404 The 2nd Battalion contributed to stopping the Germans.

During the day of 19 December, a group of about 100 Germans opened a wedge in the American lines about 100 yards (91 m) by 400 yards (370 m) and seized four stone buildings in the village of Höfen. The American's direct rifle and mortar fire failed to dislodge them from the buildings they occupied. The 612th Tank Destroyer Battalion brought their 57mm anti-tank guns to bear directly on them. Follow up attacks with white phosphorus grenades finally caused the remaining 25 Germans to surrender, while 75 were found dead within the buildings. The German attack on the U.S. extreme left flank was repulsed by artillery and rifle fire. Despite the fierce onslaught, the battalion was able to hold onto its reserves, which in any case only consisted of one platoon of forty men from L Company.[14]:173

U.S. withdrawal to Elsenborn Ridge[edit]

( Works related to The Sixth Panzer Army Attack at Wikisource)

Troops cross an open field near Krinkelt
Panzergrenadiers of the 1st SS Panzer Division look through abandoned American equipment at Hosfeld

During the day on 19 December all forces abandoned the rubble of the twin villages, and General Robertson ordered the remnants of the 2nd Division to withdraw to defensive positions dug into the open terrain along the ridge. Troops from the remaining elements of the 99th Infantry Division also used this time to withdraw to Elsenborn Ridge and fortify positions on it. They found it required dynamite to blow holes in the frozen ground.[41]:258

On 19 December, elements of the U.S. 741st Tank Battalion formed the rearguard to allow the Americans an orderly withdrawal from the twin villages to positions behind Wirtzfeld to the west and northwest.[3] By that afternoon the tankers had reported destroying 27 Panzers, two Jagdpanzer IV, two armored cars, and two half-tracks while losing eight of their own tanks. At the battalion level, units reported killing 16 tanks, regimental 57mm guns claimed 19, and bazooka teams reported to have killed 17 more. While the numbers didn't line up, they indicated the ferocity of the fighting. The German Panther companies were rendered ineffective and didn't play a significant role in later fighting.[2]:51

At 17:30 that evening, the remaining troops of the 393rd and 394th Infantry Regiments of the 99th Infantry Division withdrew from their positions around the Baracken crossroads, just north of the twin towns of Krinkelt and Rocherath, and retreated along a boggy trail about 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) toward Elsenborn Ridge. American lines collapsed on either side of the Regiment. "We were sticking out like a finger there", Butler said.[29] Increasingly isolated, the unit was running low on ammunition. A resourceful platoon leader found an abandoned German ammo dump. "We stopped the tail end of that push with guns and ammunition taken off the German dead", Butler said.[29]

By the time the fight for the villages ended, five U.S. troops had earned the Medal of Honor: Sgt. Lopez, Sgt. Richard Cowan, Pvt. Truman Kimbro, Sgt. Vernon McGarity, and Sgt William Soderman. Another Medal of Honor was posthumously awarded to Henry F. Warner of the 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division who single-handedly disabled several German tanks during a running battle near Bütgenbach through the night and into the day of 20 December 1944 before he was killed.

20 December

On 20 December, bolstered by reinforcements from the 12th Volksgrenadier Division, the Germans attacked from the south and east. This too failed. On 21 December, the Germans tried to bypass Dom Butgenbach to the southwest. A few German armored units penetrated Butgenbach, but the 2nd Battalion assisted by some reinforcements stopped them again.[28]

Troops of the 26th Infantry Regiment reposition an antitank cannon near Butgenbach
"A" Company, 612th Tank Destroyer battalion, carrying troops of the 2nd Infantry Division, 9th Infantry Regiment

Defense of Elsenborn Ridge[edit]

American Heavy Artillery M1 (9.5 inch) howitzer, one of the "Black Dragons", the largest field gun in U.S. service during World War II.

In an effort to bolster command and control of the northern shoulder, Eisenhower appointed Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, commander of the 21st Army Group, commander of all troops north of the German advance on 20 December. This was done in part because Montgomery controlled an uncommitted reserve, the British XXX Corps.[42]: 416–22, 478–9

This made little difference to the American troops defending Elsenborn Ridge, however. On the same day, the Sixth Panzer Army made several all-out attacks trying to smash U.S. lines. They committed artillery, tanks, infantry, self-propelled guns, supported by an attached Jagdpanther Battalion, remnants of the PzKpfw IV tanks and Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers. They unsuccessfully attacked at 09:00, 11:00 and 17:30 that day. The 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division, supported by elements of the 12th and 277th Volksgrenadier Division to left and right, made a frontal attack on the Elsenborn Ridge, with the objective of seizing the high feature called Roderhohe. But the German attack on Domäne Bütgenbach to break through the American lines foundered in face of strong American resistance.[2]:51 They were met by a deluge of American artillery and anti-tank gun fire from units of the American 1st Infantry Division.

The American lines were backed up by impressive artillery support. The 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division hit the left or north side of Elsenborn ridge from the Schwalm Creek valley against 99th Infantry Division. But their tanks found the soft ground almost impassible, and one after another the Sturmgeschütz III assault guns bogged down, making them easy prey for the American artillery. On 20 December, the Pz Abt 103 lost a total of fifteen StuG III. Twelve of them bogged down in front of the Elsenborn Ridge, the others ran onto mines inside Krinkelt and Rocherath.[citation needed] The Germans attacked for a second time on the 20th. All these attacks were repelled with heavy losses.[4]:409

21 December

On 21 December, the 12th SS Division made an even heavier attack, but the U.S. 613th Tank Destroyer Battalion equipped with the new M36 tank destroyer stopped the attack. On 22 December the Germans attacked on the right of Elsenborn Ridge for the last time which was also smothered by heavy American artillery fire from M1 howitzers. The Americans fired 10,000 rounds in one day. The 26th Infantry Regiment and a company of Sherman tanks from the 745th Tank Battalion played key roles. Fortunately for the Americans, the weather came to their assistance for the first time in the campaign. On 23 December a cold wind from the northeast brought clear weather and froze the ground, allowing free movement of tracked vehicles and the return of U.S. Army Air Forces to the skies. The U.S. defenders cheered wildly at the return of clearer weather and much heavier support. The air attacks played an instrumental role in defeating the German attack.[41]:323[42]: 478–87

12th Panzer attack stopped[edit]

Von Rundstedt had sacrificed most of four of the best divisions on the Western front during his repeated attempts to overrun the Elsenborn Ridge and Monschau. Unable to access the Monschau-Eupen and Malmedy-Verviers roads, he was unable to commit II Panzer Corps, which was still waiting in reserve on the east flank of I SS Panzer Corps. Von Rundstedt's hopes of reaching Liège via Verviers were stopped cold by the stubborn American resistance.[43]

26–29 December
Soldiers of the 99th Infantry Division attend a Christian service on New Year's Eve.

On 26 December, the 246th Volksgrenadier Division made a final, forlorn, attack on the Elsenborn Ridge against units of the U.S. 99th Infantry Division. This attack by more infantry conscripts was mowed down by artillery fire virtually at the moment of its start. The vast artillery concentration of an entire American army corps made the Elsenborn Ridge position virtually unassailable.[4]:404–411

At sunrise on 27 December 1944, Sepp Dietrich and his 6th Panzer Army were in a difficult situation east of Elsenborn Ridge.[4]:411 The 12th SS Panzer Division, 3rd Panzergrenadier Division, and its supporting Volksgrenadier divisions had beaten themselves into a state of uselessness against the heavily fortified American positions on Elsenborn Ridge.[4]:410 They could advance no further, and as the Americans counter-attacked, on 16 January 1945, the Sixth Panzer Army was transferred to the Eastern Front.[44]

1–16 January

The weather improved in late December and early January, allowing Allied planes to attack the Germans from the air and further slow their advance. The Germans launched a Luftwaffe offensive in the Netherlands, destroying many Allied aircraft but sacrificing many more of their own, irreplaceable aircraft and skilled pilots. They also launched a major ground offensive in Alsace on 1 January, but they failed to regain the initiative. The end of Battle of the Bulge is officially 16 January, exactly one month after the Germans launched it, but fighting continued for three more weeks until early February when the front lines were reestablished to the positions held on 16 December.[45]

Impact of the battle[edit]

The organized retreat of the U.S. 2nd and 99th Divisions to the Elsenborn Ridge line and their subsequent stubborn defensive action blocked the 6th Panzer Army's access to key roads in northern Belgium that they were counting on to reach Antwerp. It was the only sector of the American front line on the Battle of the Bulge where the Germans failed to advance.[2]:33 Historian John S.D. Eisenhower noted, "...the action of the 2nd and 99th divisions on the northern shoulder could be considered the most decisive of the Ardennes campaign."[26]:224

Peiper's forces were plagued by overcrowding, flanking attacks, blown bridges, and lack of fuel.[26]:463 The Germans were unable to repeat the rapid advances they achieved in 1940, when General Heinz Guderian’s panzers swept from the Ardennes to the English Channel, virtually unopposed.[46]:115

To the west of Elsenborn at Spa, the First Army had established its headquarters surrounded on every side by service installations, ammunition dumps, supply depots, and more than 3,000,000 US gallons (11,000,000 L) of gasoline.

Liège, 20 miles (32 km) northwest of Spa, was the location of one of the largest American supply centers in Europe. Only 11 miles (18 km) from Spa lay Verviers, an important and densely stocked railhead. Had the Germans been able to capture any portion of these supplies, the outcome of the battle might have been much different.[citation needed]

The cost of this relentless, close-quarters, intense combat was high for both sides, but the losses for Germany were irreplaceable. An exact casualty accounting for the Elsenborn Ridge battle itself is not precise. The U.S. Army's 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions later revealed their losses, while only the German's armored fighting vehicles losses are accounted for.[4]:410

Disproportionate German casualties[edit]

A dead German soldier lies on a corner in Stavelot, Belgium, on 2 Jan 1945.

The casualties inflicted by the 395th Infantry Regiment, 99th Division, on the Germans are reflected by the disproportionate numbers of dead and wounded. The 395th hit the Germans with such terrific small arms and machine gun fire that they couldn't even remove their dead and wounded in their rapid retreat.[47] The accurate fire from the twelve 3-inch guns of A Company, 612th Tank Destroyer Battalion, was instrumental in keeping German tanks from advancing. During the first day of the Battle of the Bulge, the 3rd Battalion took 19 prisoners and killed an estimated 200 Germans. Accurate estimates of German wounded were not possible, but about 20 percent of the 326th Volksgrenadier Division were lost. The 395th's casualties were extremely light: four dead, seven wounded, and four men missing.[48]:vii :51

On another day, the 3rd Battalion took 50 Germans prisoner and killed or wounded more than 800 Germans, losing only five dead and seven wounded themselves.[29] On more than one occasion, BAR gunners allowed German troops to walk within feet of their positions before opening fire, with the objective of increasing the odds of killing the attacking Germans. "In two cases, the enemy fell in the BAR gunners' foxholes."[14]:173 On at least six occasions they called in artillery strikes on or directly in front of their own positions.[49]

As the battle ensued, small units, company and less in size, often acting independently, conducted fierce local counterattacks and mounted stubborn defenses, frustrating the German's plans for a rapid advance, and badly upsetting their timetable. By 17 December, German military planners knew that their objectives along the Elsenborn Ridge would not be taken as soon as planned.[3]:75–106

The 99th as a whole, outnumbered five to one, inflicted casualties at a ratio of eighteen to one.[50] They devastated the attacking Volksgrenadier formations. The 99th lost about 20% of its effective strength, including 465 killed and 2,524 evacuated due to wounds, injuries, fatigue, or trench foot. German losses were much higher. In the northern sector opposite the 99th, this included deaths on a scale that routed the attacking infantry, and included the destruction of many tanks and assault guns. This performance prevented the Sixth Panzer Army from outflanking Elsenborn Ridge, and resulted in many commendations and unit citations for the 99th.[15]

Media attention[edit]

The 2nd and the 99th Infantry Divisions defending Elsenborn Ridge, along with the 1st Division to the south and the 78th Division in the north, were the only Allied units that completely stopped the German's main axis of advance during the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans were denied access to three of five planned routes of advance across their northern sector of the battle and were required to significantly alter their plans, considerably slowing their advance in the north. This success allowed the Americans to maintain the freedom to effectively maneuver across the north flank of the German's line of advance and continually limit the success of the German offensive.[13]

But despite their success, other units' actions during the Battle of the Bulge received much greater attention from the press. This was due in part because during early December 1944, Bastogne was a rest and recreation area for many war correspondents. The rapid advance by the German forces that resulted in the town being surrounded, the spectacular resupply operations via parachute and glider, along with the fast action of General Patton’s Third U.S. Army, all captured the public's imagination and were featured in newspaper articles and on radio. But there were no correspondents in the area of Saint-Vith, Elsenborn or Monschau.[51] The static, stubborn resistance of troops in the north, who refused to yield their ground in the cold snow and freezing rain despite the heavy German attacks, didn't get a casual observer excited. The image of supply troops trying to bring and ammunition and cold food, crawling through mud and snow, to front-line troops dug into frozen foxholes around Montjoie, Elsenborn and Butgenbach was not exciting news.[52]

After the war, Hasso von Manteuffel, Commanding General of the Fifth Panzer Army, wrote that the German counteroffensive "failed because our right flank near Monschau ran its head against a wall."[8]:6

The Battle of the ‘Bulge’ was not fought solely in Bastogne. Here in the northern sector of the Ardennes, elements of tragedy, heroism and self-sacrifice exerted a great influence upon the result of German intentions. Battles are won in the hearts of men, not only by the combinations of fire and movement, but also by working together. Teamwork is decisive, as was shown in the northern part of the Ardennes.[8]:7

General Courtney Hodges, Commanding General of the First U.S. Army, wrote the commanding general of the Indianhead Division, "What the Second Infantry Division has done in the last four days will live forever in the history of the United States Army."[8]:8

Weapons and tactics[edit]

The Battle of Elsenborn Ridge was a decisive component of the Battle of the Bulge because the U.S. Army was able to stop and deflect the strongest armored units of the German advance.[4]:410 Portions of both sides' forces had little battle experience, and both employed newer, more lethal weapons and tactics. This gave the battle a brutal intensity and impact, resulting in high casualties and traumatic memories and experiences for the participants.[5]

German combined arms[edit]

The 1st Battalion, U.S. 26th Infantry Regiment, lead element of the 1st Infantry Division, pass through the railway viaduct north of Bütgenbach, Belgium, on the Monschauer St. (N647) to Bütgenbach to reinforce the American lines.

The force and mobility of the attack depended on the commitment of Germany’s latest weapons and armored fighting vehicles. At the beginning of World War II, the German army had led the world in mechanized warfare tactics, overwhelming enemies repeatedly with their rapid blitzkrieg attack. Late in the war, the Germans had developed a number of advanced armored vehicles and they planned to use them to beat the Americans, despite not having won a major offensive battle against them since the Kasserine Pass in early 1943. These vehicles were armed with the most powerful weapons used in the course of the war. The Tiger II, Panther tank and Jagdpanther were armed with newer high velocity cannon, the 8.8 cm KwK 43 L/71 cannon, and the 7.5 cm KwK 42.[53]:154–61

Due to the flat trajectory and greater armor penetration of these guns, and the fact that thicker armor was used to shield them, German tanks enjoyed a definite superiority to any American vehicle in use. These units were supported by new Volks-Werfer Brigades, artillery units firing masses of 150 mm and 300 mm rockets. Although lacking in accuracy, a barrage from these units could cover greater areas with more high explosive. For more infantry firepower, SS panzergrenadiers were equipped with the new Sturmgewehr 44 (assault rifle model 1944). This was the world’s first assault rifle and more advanced than any other military rifle in the world. Another addition to the firepower of the German infantry was the Panzerfaust 100, an improved short range anti-tank rocket grenade that could penetrate any armor fielded by the American army.[53]:154–61 Despite their superiority, the advanced German tanks were few in number and often experienced breakdowns because of unreliable mechanical parts.

German infantry in half-tracked armored personnel carrier

German tactics for the offensive involved an initial intense artillery barrage, followed by an immediate infantry attack by the Volksgrenadier divisions supported with light assault guns like the Sturmgeschütz IV. This initial attack with relatively non-mobile and relatively expendable troops was intended to clear major roads for use by the SS Panzer divisions, which would then rapidly move to capture bridges on the Meuse river for the final drive to Antwerp. These armored divisions were employed in a much more organized and controlled fashion, and with better leadership, than was the standard in U.S. armies. The German concept of the armored division involved independent units that carried with them all their supporting elements, making them more mobile, flexible, and able to concentrate greater force at the point of attack. Shock and high speed would overwhelm resistance, as did the first drive from the Ardennes in 1940. These tactics made up what was referred to in the press as the blitzkrieg, or lightning war. This evolution of mechanized attack was more sophisticated than tactics used by the American army. The German command expected that the allied high command would take weeks to adjust to the impact.[54]:334, 340 But Hitler failed to consider the constricted, winding, often unpaved roads of the northern Ardennes and vastly underrated the capabilities of the American units on the northern shoulder.[20]

American innovations and tactics[edit]

M7 Self-propelled 105mm ("The Priest") near La Gleize, Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge.

On the American side, the defense depended on field fortifications, innovative use of light anti-tank weapons like the bazooka and anti-tank mines, and most importantly the support of a formidable array of indirect fire. American tanks and anti-tank guns were considered ineffective against the newer German fighting vehicles. This was compensated to some extent by use of the 76 mm (76.2 mm) M1A1 gun, designated as the 3-inch cannon, mounted on the Sherman tank and the M18 Hellcat tank destroyer. The British had also designed high velocity anti-armor ammunition for the 57mm anti-tank cannon, which gave this gun a new lease on life against the new heavier German units. American gunners were quick to trade for whatever their allies wanted for this highly effective ammunition.[4]:404 The Americans also adapted the 90mm anti-aircraft gun as an anti-tank cannon, the 90mm cannon, and mounted it on an open turret on the Sherman tank as the M36 Jackson tank-destroyer. This was another innovation effective against German heavy tanks.[55]:167

Aiming the 4.2 inch mortar with a direct sight. An excellent weapon for close support with a respectable range due to its rifled tube.

Since the invasion of Europe, the American army had suffered greater than expected losses, and found slashing German armored counter-attacks particularly difficult.[53]:11 Learning from this, overall American tactics began to include a defense in depth, using mobile armored cavalry squadrons with light tanks and anti-tank guns to screen defensive positions behind them. When attacked, these cavalry units would delay the Germans for a short time, then retreat through stronger positions to their rear. These positions consisted of fortifications set around terrain choke points like villages, passes, and bridges. In the area of Elsenborn Ridge, the twin villages and the area of Domäne Bütgenbach proved to be the best areas for defense. Machine gun and infantry positions would be protected by barbed wire and mine fields. Anti-tank mine "daisy chains" were also prepared. These were composed of a line of mines lashed in a row. This chain of mines would be dragged across a road with a rope when a column of German tanks threatened to advance down the road. This defensive line would be backed by bazooka positions in buildings, dug-in anti-tank guns, and tank destroyers firing from covered positions further in the rear.[53]:20–1

Artillery role[edit]

As German mobile units stacked up against the American defenses, the U.S. utilized their superior communications and artillery tactics like "time on target", a sequence of firing so that all shells impacted on the target simultaneously. This allowed vast arrays of artillery pieces, distant from the battle, to concentrate unprecedented firepower on attacking German units.[56]:112

Also new to the battlefield were artillery proximity fuses. These had been under development and used during selected battles for about a year. Rather than exploding upon direct contact with the target, the shells detonated near an aircraft or before they struck the ground. Shells armed with these fuses were very effective, but the Allies limited their use in Europe. The Pentagon feared that a dud would be recovered by the Germans who would reverse engineer it and use the information to design radar countermeasures and employ it against the Allies' aircraft and troops.

Near Monschau, the 326th Volksgrenadier Division quickly overran the Americans forward positions. Colonel Oscar A. Axelson, commanding officer of the 405th Field Artillery Group, saw a need and ignored orders, and the 196th Battalion was one of the first to use the fuses.[56][57] The U.S. Army was also lavishly supplied with the self-propelled artillery, aircraft, and the ammunition it took to make these firepower-based tactics successful. When effectively employed and coordinated, these attacks negated the advantage of superior German armor and armored tactics, although at a cost paid by the U.S. infantry, for saturation indirect fire tended to destroy both friend and foe alike.[56]

The Germans had felt relatively safe from timed artillery fire because they thought that the bad weather prevented the Allies from observing their movements accurately. When the Americans employed the POZIT proximity fuse, their artillery fire was far more devastating, decimating German troops caught in the open, causing up to 20% losses. The effectiveness of the new fused shells exploding in mid-air stirred some German soldiers to refuse orders to move out of their bunkers during an artillery attack. U.S. General George S. Patton said that the introduction of the proximity fuse required a full revision of the tactics of land warfare.[56]

The U.S. defense also involved abundant tactical air support, usually by P-47 Thunderbolt fighter bombers. These "flying tanks" were armed with air to surface rockets which were very effective against the thinly armored upper decks of German armored vehicles. Snowstorms prevented the U.S. from utilizing aircraft in the battle until the weather cleared on 23 December.[4]:396[56]

Legacy[edit]

Medal of Honor recipients[edit]

Pfc José M. López a machine gunner with Company K, 393rd Infantry Battalion, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage while conducting a fighting withdrawal with his unit from tree to tree.[58]

Sgt Richard Cowan killed about one hundred enemy while covering the retreat of Company I, 393rd Infantry Battalion, and was awarded the Medal of Honor.[59]

T/5 Sgt Vernon McGarity was wounded early in the battle, and after receiving first aid, returned to his unit. As squad leader, he directed and encouraged his soldiers throughout the intense fight which ensued. He repeatedly braved heavy fire to rescue wounded men, attack the advancing Germans, and retrieve supplies.[60]

Pvt Truman Kimbro led a squad that was assigned to mine a key crossroads near Rocherath, Belgium. The road was covered by enemy forces, and he left his men and although wounded, successfully laid mines across the road before he was killed by enemy fire.[61]

Sgt William A. Soderman faced German tanks three times on an open road and destroyed the leading tank with a bazooka, stopping or slowing the German advance, allowing his fellow troops to safely withdraw.[62]

Cpl Henry F. Warner of the 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for single-handedly disabling several German tanks during a running battle near Bütgenbach.[63]

Memorials[edit]

Monuments were built to commemorate the battle in several locations. Along with the memorials below, monuments were built in Ligneuville, Stavelot, Stoumont, and near Cheneaux at the Neufmolin Bridge.[64][65]

References[edit]

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Bibliography[edit]

 This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Army Center of Military History document "The Siegfried Line Campaign".

External links[edit]