By Kirk A. Freeman
The young men of Companies H and I of 3rd Battalion, 517th Parachute Regiment (PIR) were about to move out for their assault on the crossroad town of Manhay, Belgium. The paratroopers started at 1 am from their assembly area a mile northwest of Vaux Chavanne and hiked the two miles through dense underbrush and deep snow to a small wood line 1,000 yards northeast of Manhay.
It was getting close to 2 am, and the men were waiting with the usual mixed emotions before an attack. Some huddled together for a little warmth; smoking was not allowed, movement was restricted, and so the men waited silently like ghosts in the moonlit snow under the shadows of the trees. Some of the men probably were replaying how this moment in their lives was first set into motion.
Fighting For the Crossroads of the Ardennes
The severe winters of the Ardennes region usually start with harsh and heavy rains and thick fog in November and that turn into deep snowfalls in December. The clay soil is solid when frozen but turns quickly into slippery and sticky mire during rainfall. The northern sector of the German offensive in the heavily wooded Ardennes, which began on December 16, 1944, was a range of low, relatively open plains with some wooded areas and prominent ridgelines intermingled. The numerous small river crossings made cross-country travel with armor nearly impossible. To make any appreciable movement an army had to rely on the roads.
Towns and villages that were at the intersections of these vital roads were important points for defense and attack for each of the armies involved in the great series of actions that came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. These small crossroads became vital points for control of the flow of men and matériel during the German drive toward the Meuse River and then, it was hoped, on to Antwerp, the great Belgian seaport. They also were vital to the Americans in defense to deprive the enemy of their routes of advance and supply.
The objective of the German offensive was to capture Antwerp, denying the Allies a major port of entry for men and supplies and to drive a wedge between the American and British armies advancing toward the heartland of Germany. If successful, Hitler believed that the defeat might actually be such a catastrophic blow to the Allied effort that a separate peace might be negotiated in the West. Then the Führer intended to turn all his military might and attention toward the defeat of the marauding Soviet Red Army in the East.
Although the plan was deemed a sure failure by most German generals, Hitler believed in the desperate gamble and overruled his top commanders. The German war machine assembled in the Ardennes was indeed powerful but lacked fuel and other basic supplies, while some units were short of manpower.
The battle-hardened Sixth Panzer Army was assigned to the northern sector of the German offensive. However, after initial success in the attack the army was running out of the precious fuel and supplies to keep going. The mostly untried American infantry divisions that fell back during the first stages of the assault were quickly bolstered by more experienced units with better support. The 1st SS Panzer Division slammed into the American 30th Infantry Division several days after the initial assault. The 30th was an old adversary that previously tore the SS Division apart during the battles in northern France after the D-Day landings in June 1944 and forced it to reorganize for the Ardennes offensive.
History was repeating itself, for the 30th Division stopped the 1st SS in its northwesterly drive during the Bulge, and in the ensuing battles would again hammer the German division into near annihilation. The 12th SS and 9th SS, support divisions of the 1st SS, were slow in their advance and eventually became embroiled in bloody battles against an unmoving Allied line. Soon, other German SS and regular army units of the Fifth Panzer Army that were supposed to be preparing defensive positions were forced to attack strengthening American positions along the Salm, Orthe, and Lesse Rivers. This left the entire northern shoulder of the German offensive weakened and exposed to counterattacks.
Fuel For Das Reich
By December 24, the majority of the German advance in the north was forced to proceed on foot as supplies dwindled. The German command was sending in fresh units to bolster the northern sector and to attempt to take vital high ground occupied by the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division. The 82nd was, in turn, being reinforced by elements of other units, including the now exhausted troops that had fallen back after their stubborn but failed defense of the town of St. Vith, Belgium.
This pieced-together force was holding a fragile and scattered line along the Salm River, stretching about 30 miles roughly southwest to northeast and with vulnerable flanks. The American command decided that a strong armor-supported defense at the crossroads town of Manhay would deprive the Germans of that important hub and protect a wobbling flank of the line the 82nd Airborne was building. Elements of the 7th Armored Division and the remnants of the hard-hit 106th Infantry Division were ordered to dig in and hold Manhay and strengthen the high ground west and north of the town.
In the early morning hours of December 24, 1944, the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich arrived in the southeastern portion of the Manhay-Grandménil sector in the middle of the northern shoulder of the bulge. The division finally received fuel for its tanks on the 22nd and was moving into position to attack. To the right of the 2nd SS were the 9th and 1st SS and their support units. To the left was the 560th Volksgrenadier Division. Immediately, the 3rd and 4th Panzergrenadier Regiments (Deutschland and Der Führer, respectively) from the 2nd SS Panzer Division, both with armored support, moved up the road leading north into Manhay. The remaining German armor was stationed in the rear, hidden in heavily wooded areas with conserved fuel for a quick and decisive attack or defense when needed.
The American Defenses
The American defense of Manhay on the 24th never really had much support due to poor communication between the numerous unit commanders. Units could rarely make radio contact with their headquarters or one another. Additionally, high-ranking officers from some units refused to take orders from other officers of different divisions or corps as it went against their idea of the proper chain of command. The American command and communication failures were setting the stage for a military blunder that the Germans were, without knowing it, about to exploit at Manhay.
The town of Manhay in the Luxembourg Provence of Belgium was one of those small crossroads towns that were so vital to the German armies in the area. Through this small, ancient town passed the northbound road to Liege, while eastern and western roads linked points along which other German forces were advancing in their northwestern push toward Antwerp. Over 1,000 people lived in Manhay in 1944, but that all changed when the Germans overwhelmed the American forces in their initial assault to the east. For over a week retreating Allied soldiers were seen moving through the town. Those residents who did not flee soon found themselves in a combat zone.
On the morning of December 24, the exhausted and war-weary soldiers of Combat Command A, 7th Armored Division entered the sleepy town of Manhay and immediately urged the remaining residents to get out before it was too late. Many people rushed to nearby villages only to find that those residents were evacuating also. Then, toward the end of the day the Americans received a short message via radio giving them strict orders to keep the civilians in their homes. The American command, after long debate, decided to withdraw from this area under cover of darkness and take up a stronger defensive position on the higher ridges north of the village. Only a small scouting outpost was to remain behind to keep a lookout for any approaching enemy columns while the rest of the command removed to the new defensive line.
The Confused Fight For Manhay
From the southern road the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich was nearing its objective of Manhay. The 2nd SS Panzer Division was an elite combat unit originally formed in 1939. It served with distinction in the invasions of France and the Low Countries, the Balkans, and the Soviet Union. The 2nd was brought back to France to be refitted as a heavy armored division and to rebuild its depleted manpower after the Allies landed in Normandy in 1944. Even though it did not complete its refurbishing, the division moved north and fought almost continually, inflicting and receiving heavy losses. Now the division was moving forward once more to take on an old adversaries in a last-ditch effort that many of the soldiers believed was in vain. With that said, they considered it their sworn duty to achieve victory or die trying; they would not back down easily.
As a result of the heavy fighting on the flanks with American infantry and armor, other German units were draining men and matériel from the 2nd. Only two battalions made from elements of the two regiments of Der Führer and Deutschland were available to make up the attacking force. A bright moon was visible in the freezing night. The soldiers of both sides were visible as dark spots against the white, snow-covered ground, and their large vehicles appeared as clear targets. Just as Combat Command A started to move out of town, the SS soldiers and their tank columns arrived and immediately attacked.
Artillery and mortar fire poured into Manhay from both sides. The Germans aimed to eliminate the American armored column. Stuck in their homes, the citizens of Manhay were stunned by the ferocity of the artillery, mortar, and small-arms fire. Civilians fled their homes from one side of the town as the Das Reich soldiers entered the other. Both civilians and soldiers were now hit in the exchange. The roads became choked with wrecked vehicles, panic-stricken civilians, retreating soldiers, and the dead and wounded. In a short time the town of Manhay was in German hands. Casualties were heavy.
The Germans Reinforce the Grandménil-Manhay Sector
As the Americans retreated from Manhay, the remnants of Combat Command A moved westward barely a mile down the road to Grandménil. The American commander, Lt. Col. Walter B. Richardson, spotted two M10 tank destroyers of C Company, 629th Battalion, and ordered them quickly into defensive positions. Without infantry support their situation quickly became untenable. After a brief exchange of fire, both the Americans and Germans lost two tanks, and the German advance continued. As the Americans were pushed out of Grandménil, an artillery barrage ordered by Richardson started to fall on the road leading west from the town. The Americans used the artillery cover to retreat toward the town of Erezée about 4.4 miles farther west. Attacking German armor followed into Grandménil but halted due to the American artillery fire and waited for infantry support. The German advance lost precious time in the process. It took more than an hour for the infantry to come up and to establish a defensive perimeter before pushing on.
Meanwhile, Richardson came across soldiers of the 75th Infantry Division as his command retreated toward Erezée and ordered them to set up an ambush along the road. The Americans used the time to dig in and wait. Once their infantry arrived, the Germans renewed their attack. At the front of their column were several American Sherman tanks captured earlier at Manhay and Grandménil and pressed into service by the Germans. This ploy is debated as either being due to the lack of time to siphon all the fuel from the Shermans into German tanks or a clever tactical ruse to confuse the situation.
As the German spearhead thundered westward, the men of the 75th first saw the Sherman tanks coming toward them. Thinking they might be American, the mostly green soldiers of the 75th held their fire until the armor was right on top of them. In the ensuing melee, one of the Sherman tanks was taken out by a bazooka. As daylight approached, the German assault pulled back to Grandménil and Manhay to await reinforcements.
Throughout the evening of December 24, the 2nd SS Panzer Division moved into the Grandménil-Manhay sector. The 4th Regiment Der Führer defended Grandménil, and the 3rd Regiment Deutschland occupied positions in and around Manhay. According to one SS soldier, someone found a piano in a house that night and tried to play a few Christmas carols, but after a pitiful attempt to sing everyone realized they were not in a festive mood.
Clear Skies on Christmas Day
The dawning of Christmas Day 1944 in the Grandménil and Manhay sector was not a peaceful one. With the clear day, Allied aircraft were free to strafe, bomb, and gather intelligence on the Germans at will. At Manhay several Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter-bombers strafed and bombed the town, destroying German armor. In the treeline just over a half mile northeast of town, the war-weary men of the 2nd Battalion, 424th Regiment and a battalion from the 7th Armored Division moved into place. The exhausted infantrymen of the 424th had been in nearly continuous combat since the initial German assault at St. Vith on December 16. Christmas Eve was the first day they were allowed any appreciable rest, and men found floors in warm houses to sleep on until they were kicked awake with the warning that the Germans were at Manhay. On Christmas morning the tired American troops were digging foxholes in the woods northeast of Manhay, awaiting their slow-moving armored support, and officers were being quickly briefed about their attack that evening on Manhay.
Meanwhile, at Grandménil, the cruelty of war continued. The morning after the action with the German spearhead, the men of K Company, 75th Infantry Division moved into Grandménil. Halfway into town they were greeted with heavy machine-gun fire from the other side of the village. When German tanks began arriving the company quickly pulled out of town. Once more American artillery fire started to fall on the town. After the barrage, Companies I, K, and L assaulted and briefly occupied part of Grandménil until once again they were forced to pull out.
The towns of Grandménil and Manhay were now under almost constant American artillery bombardment and air attacks. All morning U.S. soldiers and equipment moved into position between Grandménil and Erezée and awaited the order to launch a heavy counterattack. Along with the 75th Infantry Division, the 289th Regimental Combat Team and elements of the U.S. 3rd Armored Division reached the area. That morning the 1st Battalion, Combat Command B, 33rd Armored Regiment occupied a position with the infantry just west of Grandménil while waiting for more reinforcements. Around 10 am, Companies D and F, 36th Infantry Regiment; A Company, 33rd Armored Regiment with light Stuart tanks; Companies F and I with medium Sherman tanks; and the 2nd Platoon, D Company, 23rd Combat Engineer Battalion arrived to bolster the assault force. The American attack was set for dusk. Meanwhile, artillery rounds continued falling on the Germans in both towns.
German Withdrawal From Manhay
At Manhay, the 2nd Battalion, 424th Infantry Regiment started its assault across open ground in the fading light. The German machine gunners allowed the attack to approach to within about 50 yards of the town and then laid down a deadly hail of bullets that snaked across the American advance through a field. Instinctively, the men of the 424th sought cover, and all forward movement stopped. As the winter darkness gathered, flares lit the sky for the gunners to find targets. The attackers were ordered to withdraw almost immediately, but the order did not reach most of the men who had advanced closest to the town. As American artillery fire resumed, these men were subjected to friendly fire. Small groups fell back to a sunken road that split the open plain north of Manhay. They quickly gathered the wounded for the medics to attend before moving farther back to safety. During its brief attack the 2nd Battalion suffered nearly 35 percent casualties.
Later that night, the Germans started to withdraw the majority of their soldiers from Manhay. Their tanks were nearly out of fuel, and ammunition was running low. German commanders decided to try another push in a new location while they still had the capabilities to attack. One SS pioneer officer with the Deutschland Regiment wrote in his journal about the American Christmas Day attack and subsequent shelling: “Our guns in an orgy of spendthrift recklessness reply with eight rounds—then cease fire.” Within days only a small detachment of German defenders remained in Manhay with a few tanks in support.
Taking Back Grandménil
After heavy preliminary artillery bombardment, the main attack at Grandménil finally gained a toehold in the town. Then the fighting became house to house. Many of the houses were aflame, and the forms of the soldiers and tanks could clearly be seen by all in the hellish landscape. At 10 pm, American tank columns started pushing toward the town with an infantry company in support, but the American armor was soon in trouble from German antitank fire, while heavy weapons fire also bogged the supporting infantry down. In one American tank column, eight of the 10 tanks were destroyed or disabled before getting into the village itself. All through Christmas night and into the next morning the struggle for the town continued. One German tank sat in a pit for cover and proved impossible to dislodge. That tank crew took out any American armor foolish enough to get in its sights. To make matters worse for the Americans, the tenacious panzergrenadiers were not showing any signs of leaving. Both sides took heavy casualties in the house-to-house fighting.
The Americans had not slept in over 40 hours, and exhaustion eroded their combat effectiveness. After a series of attacks and counterattacks neither side gained the upper hand. An order for the Americans to withdraw was sent early in the afternoon, and the troops started pulling out around 1:30 pm. The artillery again opened fire on the town around 3 pm. The weary Americans moved into Grandménil once again, but this time it was much quieter. Only a handful of Germans remained; the majority of the enemy forces had used the time to retreat. Others, trapped by the artillery fire, made a break toward Manhay. The Americans cut them down with small-arms fire and mortars as they crossed the open fields and the nearby road.
For the rest of the day and into the night the Americans fought to retake the town. For the next two days, German snipers and small mortar teams kept the Americans busy. Both sides occasionally lobbed shells at one another as well.
With Grandménil in American hands, the men of the 75th Division started digging foxholes east of the town, setting up a defensive perimeter. Soon, however, they found they were digging in an unmarked American minefield. Their task was quickly abandoned and the perimeter moved closer to the village. The ensuing days were spent rounding up German survivors in the town, collecting the wounded and dead, and dodging the occasional mortar round.
The 517th Parachute Regiment in the Bulge
Before the Christmas Day attacks on Manhay and Grandménil, the Germans decided that they could not get to Liege through those villages; the cost would be too great. On December 27, the Germans tried to push through Sadzot, a small village southwest of Manhay- Grandménil. That attack led to a series of blunders on both sides and a vicious fight that ended with an American victory. The Germans pulled the majority of their forces out of the Manhay-Grandménil sector in preparation for the failed Sadzot attack.
American commanders were unaware of the purpose of the German withdrawal and brought in the 3rd Battalion, 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team. The 517th was among the elite forces of World War II. The men were mostly hand picked, all airborne qualified, young, intelligent, and in top physical shape. They were veterans of the Italian campaign and Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of southern France. The 517th was an independent unit attached at various times to the 17th, 82nd, and 13th Airborne Divisions.
When the orders were received to deploy for action during the Battle of the Bulge, the 517th was in Soissons, France, getting much needed rest after 94 continuous days in combat during Operation Dragoon. It rained almost continually in the little time the men were at Soissons, and it was raining on the night of December 21 as they were loaded on trucks. The fortunate men rode in trucks with canvas covers. Others were exposed to the elements as they were driven through the night in the cold rain, sleet, and then snow as they moved closer to the northern shoulder of the bulge. The following day, men of the 1st Battalion were driven right into an artillery barrage and unloaded in a desperate battle near the towns of Soy and Hotton. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions were sent farther north to bolster gaps in the American lines and hold near Werbomont, south of Liege.
More Than 5,000 Rounds of Artillery
Company G, 3rd Battalion was detailed to guard the American headquarters at Harze. Companies H and I went into action accompanied by one platoon of the 596th Engineers and a section of the regimental demolitions platoon. On the night of December 26, the attack force moved to the treeline just northeast of Manhay and waited. At 2 am, the American artillery was to commence a 10-minute barrage. The troopers would move closer to the town and wait as a short secondary barrage started five minutes later. Once that barrage lifted the men were to mount a classic charge into the town with fixed bayonets. In all, more than 5,000 artillery rounds would drop in the vicinity of Manhay during that short time.
After the first barrage lifted, the men moved into the open field north of Manhay. When the second barrage came over, the fire of at least one artillery battery was short, the rounds landing on the men of 1st Platoon, I Company with devastating effect. First Lieutenant Floyd A. Stott was killed along with 12 others under his command, and at least 20 men were wounded. The rattled troops could not stay to take care of their friends; they had to advance as fast as they could into the town. Men from H Company had to pass through the carnage with comrades pleading for help, but the officers were shouting for everyone to keep moving.
The Americans rushed into the town and immediately started tossing white phosphorous grenades through cellar doors, into rooms, and other places where the enemy might be hiding. Within half an hour the town was in the paratroopers’ control. About 50 Germans were killed and 29 taken prisoner. Several German tanks were also destroyed by bazooka fire. Many buildings lay in ruins, and some were ablaze. As the Americans rounded up prisoners, a German Tiger tank started moving from the town to the woods south of Manhay. The Americans had believed it was out of action and overlooked it during their attack. The tank, however, rumbled off to a safe distance without attacking.
“You Never Walked in Manhay, You Ran!”
Around 4 am, a minor German counterattack against the 517th defenses proved ineffective; it was not heavily pressed, nor repeated. Small German infantry teams remained in the woods and continued to periodically fire anti- tank guns, mortars, or small arms into the town while they prepared to try the alternative route through Sadzot. Meanwhile, the Tiger that had rumbled off earlier stayed in the area for a few more days and occasionally fired down the streets at the men as they scurried about. For years, the old veterans jokingly recalled, “You never walked in Manhay, you ran!”
On the day Manhay was captured, three American P-38 planes flew over. Thinking the town was still in German hands, the pilots strafed and bombed the paratroopers, killing one man and tearing the arm off another before flying back to their base. The battle for Manhay was finally over.
Although the battles for Manhay and Grandménil were relatively small engagements compared to others, the men on both sides who were there fought with determination and great will power. Memories of the fighting at these two little crossroads towns would remain with them for the rest of their lives.