By Edward P. Beck
An eternal grayness created a sense of constant gloom. The short, wintry days ended quickly, giving way to endless hours of dark, monotonous cold, and ever-present clouds of ghostlike fog crept slowly over the landscape, blocking all sight. To make matters worse, the swirling winds carried sounds from every direction that bedeviled the inexperienced soldiers with visions of skulking German sharpshooters and the steady, low rumble of enemy armor on the move.
Such was the Ardennes on December 15, 1944. The uneasy quiet was shattered early the next morning when German artillery unleashed a deluge of shells on the American positions. Heavy, accurate, and concentrated, the shelling destroyed much of the communications in the front-line areas and put the Americans on painful notice that they were the object of an impending assault. No one yet knew the sheer vastness of the attack, each unit believing it to be merely a limited local action. But as the GIs stared through the fog and snow, they began to see enemy forces moving toward their positions in staggering numbers. It was the beginning of Operation Herbstnebel (Autumn Fog), and it represented nothing less than Adolf Hitler’s final roll of the dice in World War II.
Beset on All Sides
The center of the Allied front line was located approximately 15 miles to the east of Bastogne, along the Our River, and was held by the vastly overstretched 110th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division. The division had suffered greatly in the fierce fighting in the Hürtgen Forest a few weeks earlier and was in the process of resting and refitting. Although back up to strength, the ranks were filled with many officers and men who had never seen combat. The 10 miles of front lines held by the 110th Regiment consisted of a series of occupied villages blocking key road exits from the rugged Our River valley. Various artillery and tank companies attached to the regiment supported the defensive positions. No continuous line connected the separate villages—the regiment was stretched too thin. The resulting gaps had to be constantly patrolled. Along the Our River, only a thin outpost line was manned during daylight hours and then withdrawn at night. Control of this defensive network rested with the 110th Regimental headquarters, located in the ancient and picturesque town of Clervaux, situated astride the twisting Clerf River.
The American forces were not sufficient to withstand the overpowering enemy force arrayed against them. Directly opposite the 110th were two German panzer divisions and a reinforced infantry division. The 2nd Panzer Division’s armored strength consisted of 27 Mark IV tanks, 58 of the dreaded Mark V Panthers, and 48 armored assault guns. The famous Panzer Lehr division had 57 tanks, augmented with two battalions of tank destroyers and an assault gun brigade. The 26th Volksgrenadier division numbered 17,000 men and had been bolstered by the attachment of 42 75mm antitank guns, which greatly increased its striking power. These units were part of the 5th Panzer Army commanded by Baron Hasso von Manteuffel, one of few German generals who dared to disagree openly with Hitler. Consisting of four infantry and three panzer divisions, its objective, after smashing through the front lines, included seizing the key crossroads village of Bastogne and then driving to the Meuse River some 50 miles west. In the grand scheme of things, Manteuffel would then move on to capture Antwerp, a key port on the North Sea.
Hitler’s Reach Over-Extending His Grasp
Only Hitler and a handful of his most ardent supporters could foresee such a successful outcome of the battle. Most of the German commanders, including Manteuffel, recognized the desperate situation Germany faced, with huge Russian armies pressing from the east and American and English forces advancing from the west. They had more limited expectations and a different definition of success. To hope to drive all the way to Antwerp, as Hitler did, splitting the Allied forces and compelling them to sue for a separate peace, was a ridiculous flight of fantasy, the product of a delusional mind. The German commanders were professional soldiers and knew well the unlikelihood of the Führer’s grandiose scheme. Some voiced private reservations, thinking it wiser for Germany to husband her meager resources to defend the homeland. However, after the attempted assassination of Hitler in July and the subsequent “cleansing” of the German officer corps, few spoke out openly in opposition to Hitler. Besides, being soldiers, they had no choice but to obey their orders and do everything in their power to achieve results. Privately, however, most German commanders hoped merely to buy some time by inflicting a limited if surprising defeat on the Allied forces in the Ardennes.
Despite such misgivings, German morale was high on the day of the planned offensive. Overwhelming force had been carefully husbanded and brought to bear, the cloudy weather was expected to ground Allied planes for an extended period of time, and the prospect of defeat, at any rate, was too dismal to contemplate. Field Marshal Gerd von Runstedt’s pre-attack message, read to all German troops immediately before the great offensive was launched, concluded with the portentous phrase, “We gamble everything.” Everyone understood that the stakes were high—victory was the only option.
An Early Morning Attack
The attack began at 6:15 am, and the men in 110th Regiment fought heroically to defend their village strongholds. Hosingen, atop the strategic ridge nicknamed Skyline Drive, was surrounded by troops from the German 77th Regiment, who had moved up unseen during the artillery barrage. The garrison surrendered only after all its ammunition was exhausted. In the village of Consthum, fierce house-to-house fighting developed and raged deeper into the village as the overwhelming strength of the attackers was brought to bear. Only after a circling movement threatened to cut the defenders off completely was a withdrawal ordered. In Clervaux, German tanks began prowling the narrow streets on the evening of the 17th. Elements of the regimental headquarters retreated to the ancient castle, where they held out until their ammunition was expended. In all, the 110th Regiment suffered 2,750 casualties. Virtually the entire regiment was lost.
By dusk of December 16, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower had become concerned enough over the scope of the German assault to order two U.S. armored divisions, the 7th from north of the Ardennes, and the 10th from Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s army to the south, to move immediately toward the threatened area. Combat Command B, an armored regiment of the 10th Armored Division, was deployed in front of Bastogne to contest the German advance.
Mud as Much the German Enemy as Americans
Massive traffic congestion slowed the German drive westward. Mud was as much their enemy as the Americans. Moving massive columns of men and equipment along the limited road network through a heavy, snow-covered forest proved exceedingly difficult, particularly when some of the roads were not paved and the mud became deeper with each passing vehicle. Delay piled upon delay. On the evening of December 17, through intercepted radio messages, the German command discovered that two U.S. Airborne divisions had been ordered to Bastogne. The urgency to move quickly became apparent.
But even the well-known German predilection for timetables and schedules could not overcome the mud, the terrible roads, and the unexpected stubbornness of the isolated pockets of American defenders encountered along the village line. Every German soldier knew only too well that as soon as the skies cleared the Allies’ dreaded air power would be brought to bear against them. Time was their enemy. To move slowly, for any reason, courted defeat.
The German Juggernaut Would Soon Break Free
Maj. Gen. Troy Middleton, commander of the U.S. VIII Corps headquartered in Bastogne, quickly realized that the German juggernaut would soon break free of the entanglements along the forward defenses and head straight for the village. Help was on the way, but immediate, short-term prospects were dim. Middleton had only three combat engineer battalions, elements of the 9th Armored Division’s Combat Command R, and an armored field artillery battalion with which to oppose three full German divisions. Combat Command B (CCB) of the U.S. 10th Armored Division was approaching Bastogne and would arrive sometime late in the day on December 18. On the night of the 17th, Middleton got the welcome news that the two airborne divisions had been transferred to his control and were on their way. The 82nd Airborne subsequently was redirected to face the rampaging 1st SS Panzer Division farther north, but the 101st Airborne was tearing east toward Bastogne with all dispatch.
The Clerf River lay anywhere from three to five miles west of the original front lines along the Our River; its course roughly paralleling the Our. Only two roads emerged from the rugged river valley, and by morning of December 18 both were heavily clogged with elements of three German divisions striving to break free of the congestion and reach the main highways leading to Bastogne. The road leading from Clervaux rose from the valley and joined the main highway to Bastogne (Highway N12) at the road junction of Antoniushof. The other major road rose from the village of Drauffelt, located on the Clerf River three miles south of Clervaux. Five miles west of Drauffelt, the road forked, and a secondary road lead north to Highway N12, joining it at the road junction of Fe’itsch. The other branch of the road ran eastward and eventually connected to the same main highway at the village of Mageret, passing to the south of Longvilly.
A Green Commander for the 9th Armored
CCR of the 9th Armored Division had never been in combat. It consisted of a battalion of M4 Sherman 75mm tanks, a battalion of armored infantry, a battalion of self-propelled 105mm artillery, a company of self-propelled tank destroyers, a company of armored engineers, and an antiaircraft company featuring halftracks mounted with .50-caliber machine guns. The three infantry companies had a various assortment of halftracks for transportation and were mounted with a variety of support weapons.
On December 17, Middleton ordered the 158th Engineer Battalion to form a screen protecting Bastogne running from the village of Foy to the northwest through Bizory and ending at Neffe. He also ordered CCR, under Colonel Joseph H. Gilbreth, to establish two blocking positions along the road leading into Bastogne from the east at points where the roads from Clervaux and Drauffelt connected with the main highway. Gilberth’s force moved on the 17th and set up the roadblocks by nightfall. One was located at the road junction of Antoniushof, 12 miles northeast of Bastogne, the other at the road junction of Fe’itsch, eight miles from Bastogne on the same highway. It was expected that the Germans would soon close on the highway via the roads leading to it from the east, once they had cleared the forward defensive positions and emerged from the Clerf River valley.
The Remaining 110th Regiment
The area around these two positions was uncharacteristic of the Ardennes. The ground was open and rolling, lacking the heavy woods and deep ravines found in many areas. To the defenders’ chagrin, they discovered that only two or three buildings occupied each site, affording precious little cover for their tanks. Around Antoniushof, Task Force Rose established one defensive position. Named for the commander on the scene, Captain Lawrence K. Rose, the force consisted of his company of Sherman tanks, a company of armored infantry, and a platoon of armored engineers supported by a battery of self-propelled artillery.
The defenses of Fe’itsch fell to Task Force Harper, Lt. Col. Ralph S. Harper commanding. His force consisted of a company of Shermans and a company of armored infantry, and was supported by two batteries of self-propelled artillery located near the village of Longvilly, two and a half miles to the southwest. Also at Fe’itsch were 10 officers and 100 men of the 110th Regiment, who somehow had survived the forward battles and had made their way westward to join the defense.
Crossing the Meuse
Gilbreth established his headquarters at the village of Longvilly. His remaining infantry company, a platoon of tank destroyers and a platoon of light tanks were placed on high ground overlooking Highway N12 between Longvilly and Fe’itsch. This force fell to the command of Lt. Col. Robert M. Booth, the armored infantry battalion commander, hence its name, Task Force Booth. This force not only shielded headquarters but also provided a defensive screen for the remaining two batteries of self-propelled artillery and an additional armored artillery battalion supporting his command.
The main objective of the German offensive was to cross the Meuse River. To that end, the 2nd Panzer Division was ordered to bypass Bastogne by moving northward around the town. Its route of march took it directly through Antoniushof and Fe’itsch before reaching Longvilly. The defenders of Antoniushof braced nervously for the tidal wave about to engulf them. Stragglers passing through their position freely warned them what was coming their way. By mid-morning of December 18, the procession of stragglers had virtually ceased. Everyone knew what that meant.
An Inevitable Outcome
German infantry belonging to the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 2nd Panzer Division emerged from the woods east of the American position and made two attempts to close on the defenders, but each time they were driven back by accurate artillery fire. The situation changed drastically around 11 am, when German armor began arriving on the scene. By early afternoon two battalions of German tanks had arrived—a coordinated assault was not long in coming. The attack by German Panzergrenadiers and the heavy fire of the tanks quickly drove the American infantry company from their positions and sent them reeling down the road toward Fe’itsch. A flanking movement by German tanks drove off the supporting American artillery as well. This left only the company of Sherman tanks commanded by Rose to face the full brunt of the 2nd Panzer Division’s determined attack.
The outcome was inevitable. Seven American tanks were quickly knocked out as the Germans pressed their attack. Saturating the American positions with white phosphorus, the Germans eventually surrounded the American armor and drove them from the road junction. With the junction now firmly in German hands and traffic flowing freely through it, Rose ordered a breakout attempt to the northwest. Five tanks and his assault- gun platoon broke free, but collided with elements of the German 116th Panzer Division 10 miles north of Bastogne. Only a few vehicles and their crews survived and eventually made their way into Bastogne.
Originally Published August 8, 2014