In Patton at the Battle of the Bulge, Army veteran and historian Leo Barron explores one of the most famous yet little-told clashes of WWII, a vitally important chapter in one of history’s most legendary battles. Includes photographs!“Barron captures the fiery general’s command presence and the pivotal commitment of his Third Army tanks to relieve the embattled crossroads town of Bastogne.”—Michael E. Haskew, Author of West Point 1915: Eisenhower, Bradley, and the Class the Stars Fell On
December 1944. For the besieged American defenders of Bastogne, time was running out. Hitler’s forces had pressed in on the small Belgian town in a desperate offensive designed to push back the Allies. The U.S. soldiers had managed to repel repeated attacks, but as their ammunition dwindled, the weary paratroopers of the 101st Airborne could only hope for a miracle.
More than a hundred miles away, General George S. Patton was putting in motion the most crucial charge of his career. Tapped to spearhead the counterstrike was the 4th Armored Division, a hard-fighting unit that had slogged its way across France. But blazing a trail into Belgium meant going up against some of the best infantry and tank units in the German Army. And failure to reach Bastogne in time could result in the overrunning of the 101st and turn the tide of the war against the Allies.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Battle of the Bulge, fought between December 16, 1944, and January 25, 1945, was the bloodiest month in the United States Army’s history. The U.S. Army in Europe sustained 77,726 casualties in December, and incurred a further 69,119 casualties in January. In December, 15,333 soldiers and airmen lost their lives, and January was not much better: An additional 12,190 soldiers and airmen perished. In total, in those two months our country sustained 146,845 casualties, and of those, 27,523 were deaths. Most of those occurred in that forty-day period when Germany and the United States were locked in the largest battle of the Western Front.
In contrast, in July 1863, the month of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, our country, both North and South, suffered 120,426 casualties combined. In fifty-one days, from May through June 1864, when the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Cold Harbor raged, the butcher’s bill was 146,046 casualties. The only other bloodletting that came close to the Bulge’s total was during the forty-seven days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in October and November 1918, when the U.S. Army Expeditionary Force lost 122,063 men, and of those, 26,277 were deaths.
In short, the Battle of the Bulge was truly a national sacrifice, on par with the battles of Gettysburg and the Meuse-Argonne. Citizens of Belgium and Luxembourg still remember our sacrifice and annually commemorate the events of those dark days.Yet many of our own students know little about the Bulge. Their lack of historical appreciation is the number one reason why I chose this subject.
Yet it is not the only reason. The Bulge and the Siege of Bastogne are also compelling stories. When Don Cygan and I decided to publish No Silent Night: The Christmas Battle for Bastogne, I already had planned to write the sequel, because the story about Bastogne is a two-part saga. The most popular is the account about the 101st Airborne Division and its epic defense of the city. However, every story about a besieged force usually has two armies involved: the besieged and the forces sent to relieve them. Now is the time to tell the tale of Patton’s 4th Armored Division and their race to relieve the paratroopers and glider men of the 101st.
Like No Silent Night, Patton at the Battle of the Bulge provides a German viewpoint to contrast with the American perspective. This story follows several German soldiers who fought with the 5th Fallschirmjäger Division. Contrary to popular myth, not all German soldiers were monsters. In this book are several examples where German soldiers showed remarkable kindness and mercy toward their sworn enemies, the American army. Sadly, there are also examples of brutality, where German soldiers executed innocent Belgian civilians.
True, Belgian civilians did perish as a result of American bombs, but those bombs were not meant for the hapless civilians hiding in houses and huddling in cellars. Surgical strikes did not exist in 1944 and 1945, because bombings were far less accurate in World War II than they are today. My research revealed several incidents where Allied aircraft even strafed and bombed American tanks instead of German panzers. In the cloud of war, good intentions did not always result in accurate targeting. On the other hand, the Germans did intend to execute civilians.
Furthermore, this work provides a civilian point of view. For those living in the path of these armies, the days around Christmas were harrowing ones. In many cases, they exhibited as much amazing courage and selfless sacrifice as the soldiers and tankers who fought among them. This book is also a story about them.
In addition, I dramatize the German operational briefings, turning them into dialogues. I know some purists might balk at that technique, but I want to present an enthralling story, not a dry account. The words in the briefings are almost entirely verbatim from the sources. In many instances, all I added were quotation marks.
Patton at the Battle of the Bulge, like all good books, was a collaborative effort. I made use of several German and local accounts, for which I would like to thank Roland Gaul, who provided them, including several valuable video interviews and letters; Guy Ries and his website on Bigonville. Jürg Herzig also gave me the lengthy account of Conrad Klemment, which proved indispensable in this story. I would like to thank Ivan Steenkiste, who was crucial in supplying me with information about the battles around Chaumont. His website is a treasure trove of information.
On the American side, I would like to offer my gratitude to several individuals. Jamie Leach, the son of Jimmie Leach, was an excellent resource in regard to his father. His father’s 37th Tank Battalion radio logs, complete with notations, were a wealth of information. Rochelle Dwight gave me great material on her father, William Dwight. She still sends me hilarious daily e-mails that make me laugh. I would like to thank Robert T. Murrell, an 80th Infantry Division veteran, who helped me find information on the 318th Infantry Regiment. Andrew Adkins, the archivist for the 80th Infantry Division website, was hugely instrumental in assisting me with personnel records and personal stories from the 318th. I would like to extend my thanks to Chris Bucholtz and Lynn Gamma, who helped me with finding records concerning the 362nd Fighter Group. I would like to thank Doris Davis, an executive officer for the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Association. Without her help, I would have never been able to contact countless veterans and their families.
Most important are the veterans and their families who provided me their accounts via questionnaires, letters, or interviews. The following accounts were invaluable to the story of the 4th Armored Division and their support elements: Roscoe M. Mulvey Jr., Armand Poirier, Bob Shaw, Jim Sanders, William Leaphart, Howard Lipscomb, Irving Heath, George Whitten, Robert Calvert, Matteo Damiano, Michael George, Eugene Wright, John P. Tvrdovsky, the family of Jack Holmes, Albert Gaydos and the Gaydos family, and Raymond Green. A special thanks goes out to Irving Heath, who provided me his personal photo album from the war. In addition to Irving Heath, another special thanks goes out to Robert Riley’s family, especially his daughter, Linda Riggs, who provided me several written accounts about his wartime experiences. Of course, one of the most valuable interviews was with retired brigadier general Albin F. Irzyk. I spent several hours speaking with him about his experiences. His memory was as sharp as a tack, and it was a wonderful experience providing him with information on the Germans who fought his unit at Chaumont. His autobiography was also an amazing source of information about the 4th Armored Division.
In addition to veterans’ interviews, several researchers and archivists also supported me in this endeavor. I would like to thank Dieter Stenger, who once again translated dozens of German documents into English. I would like to thank Susan Strange and Tim Frank, who spent innumerable hours poring over documents in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. Without them, I would not have had thousands of valuable primary sources to examine. William Murray was my researcher at the Army Historical Education Center and helped me with the Oscar W. Koch collection, which was essential to the 4th Armored Division story. Megan Harris was my contact at the Library of Congress’s Veterans Oral History Project. Her assistance was instrumental in my success. Javier Tome, a specialist on the 653rd Schwere Panzerjäger Battalion, sent to me some interesting information on the whereabouts of the 653rd, and his contribution helped me answer the question of who attacked Major Albin Irzyk on December 23 in Chaumont.
I would be remiss if I did not mention Don M. Fox, author of Patton’s Vanguard: The United States Army Fourth Armored Division. A good historian always builds on the work of other great historians. Don’s book was my introduction to the 4th Armored Division. Though I had known about the 4th Armored, it was always in a supporting role to the 101st. After reading Don’s book, I realized how special the 4th Armored Division truly was, and I decided to start where he left off. Furthermore, his personal input helped me clear up several issues. His work was first-rate, and it still is the seminal book on the 4th Armored’s impact in the Second World War.
I would like to thank my agent, George Bick. His excellent advice pointed me in the right direction, and he is a superb sounding board for ideas. I would also like to thank Talia Platz, my editor, who offered me another chance at NAL Caliber. I hope you do not regret it! I cannot forget Brent Howard, who was my second editor at NAL. Thank you for your title ideas. I owe a debt of gratitude to General Dynamics and the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, which continue to employ me as an instructor at the Military Intelligence Officer Transition Course. Thank you for indulging my research pursuits and allowing me to use the same data from my books to teach future military intelligence officers in the United States Army.
Last, I would like to thank my wonderful wife, Caulyne. No man is an island, and without her support, none of this would have happened. She is the rock in our marriage, and she is my better half.1
| 0845 HOURS, SATURDAY, DECEMBER 23, 1944 |
Lead Platoon, Dog Company,
Private Bruce Fenchel knew Christmas was canceled the moment his first sergeant had barged into his room more than ninety-six hours before and announced, “Pack your duffel bags and get ready to roll. One man go to the kitchen and take any food you can get.”
Fenchel had been writing a letter to his mother when the sergeant broke the news, and a collective moan arose from the men. So much for R & R, thought Fenchel. Unmoved, the sergeant continued to bark out orders. “The rest of you put the machine guns back on your tanks and gas them and be ready to roll in two hours. The Germans have broken through our line in Bastogne, and Eisenhower has ordered General Patton’s 4th Armored to immediately head north.”
Twenty-year-old Fenchel could not believe it. His unit, the 8th Tank Battalion, part of the 4th Armored Division, had been locked in combat for months. Now, after more than eighty days on the line, the Eight Ballers were taking a much-needed break. Unfortunately, the Germans had other plans for the holidays. Instead of relaxing for Christmas, Fenchel and the rest of his division were driving back into battle.
Two years before, Bruce Donald Fenchel thought he was joining the Army Air Force. At his induction center at Camp Dodge, Des Moines, Iowa, he had taken several tests and passed all with flying colors. To his surprise, he learned that instead he was going to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he would learn to drive a tank. Initially crestfallen, he remembered that his induction center company commander had suggested that he apply to Officer Candidate School and become an infantry officer. Fenchel knew that an infantry officer had a short life span. Tanks seemed a whole lot safer than being a bullet catcher—a foot soldier. He decided against the move, and was off to Fort Knox.1Now, Fenchel’s 8th Tank Battalion was under the command of a promising young officer, Major Albin F. Irzyk, who like Fenchel was also in his twenties. Irzyk did not waste much time. Receiving the order to move out, he had pushed his battalion onto the roads early on the morning of December 19. All day and night Fenchel and battalion rolled northward from their staging area at Domnom-lès-Dieuze in Lorraine, France, all the way into Belgium. By the morning of the twenty-third, they had reached a point several kilometers south of the village of Chaumont.
The 8th Tank Battalion was part of a larger force known as Combat Command B of the 4th Armored Division. A U.S. Armored Division had three combat commands: A, B, and R (Reserve). Each was a combined arms team that usually was comprised of a tank battalion, an armored infantry battalion, a self-propelled artillery battalion, an assortment of engineers, motorized cavalry (jeeps), and other support units. In addition, each command would further divide its force into task forces, cross-loading various infantry units with armor units. Therefore, 8th Tank Battalion had infantry and tanks as it wound its way north to Bastogne that early morning. Their mission: Get to Bastogne and relieve the 101st Airborne Division before the Germans crushed the beleaguered paratroopers.2Despite the importance of the task ahead, Fenchel simply wanted to stay warm and get some sleep. After clearing the town of Burnon during the previous afternoon, the young tank driver had assumed his unit would establish a perimeter for the night and continue their advance the following morning. He was wrong.
At 1834 hours, the orders came down from Combat Command B Headquarters over the radio: “Push onto Checkpoint Forty-four all night.”
A radio operator from another unit asked higher headquarters to confirm the order. It took them only seven minutes to reply: “We are moving on CP Forty-four all night. On foot if necessary.” Everyone now knew the command was probably coming from the top man himself—Lieutenant General George S. Patton.3Patton, the commander of the U.S. Third Army, sensed that the road to Bastogne was open. His army’s spearhead was the 4th Armored Division, and leading the 4th was CCB. At the forefront of Patton’s entire army was Private Fenchel in his little Stuart tank. So far, the 4th had met only determined resistance near Martelange, several kilometers southeast of Fenchel’s current position.4During World War II, armored units rarely conducted operations during hours of limited visibility. Unlike today, troopers back then did not have night-vision goggles. They drove their vehicles almost bumper-to-bumper, their eyes fixed on the slivers of light in front of them emanating from the partially covered headlights. These covered lights, known as “cat’s eyes,” barely gave off enough light for a man to see, and if he fell too far behind, he would lose sight of the vehicle in front of him.
Major Irzyk, deciding that the more maneuverable Stuarts and jeeps might be better suited to driving at night than the heavier and slower Shermans, ordered a platoon of jeeps from Baker Troop, 25th Cavalry Squadron, followed by a platoon of light tanks from Dog Company, to take the lead. Around 2300 hours, after they had completed their refueling, his battalion resumed their progress northward. It was slow going. Coupled with a lack of sleep, Fenchel had a hard time staying focused on the vehicle in front of him. At one point, he lost sight of the cat’s eyes. When he found them again, it was too late, and his tank crashed into the rear of another tank in his platoon. Luckily, no one was hurt and neither vehicle was damaged.5Finally, after several hours they reached a point about a kilometer and a half south of Chaumont. The top of the sun was barely over the eastern horizon, illuminating the shapes of the woods and open fields that bordered the road. During the night, Fenchel’s column had received intermittent small-arms fire, but nothing serious. Still, tanks were fickle creatures that demanded constant upkeep. Several Stuarts pulled off the road and their crews began routine maintenance while cavalry troopers in their jeeps scouted ahead to provide security.
Suddenly, at around 0845 hours, Germans from the 5th Fallschirmjäger Division opened up with machine guns and Panzerfausts from the woods that lined both sides of the road, catching the column in a deadly cross fire. From along a ridge in the distance, StuG self-propelled assault guns flashed, followed by a deafening crack. Almost instantly, an American jeep exploded, killing all the occupants. The burning vehicle cast an eerie, flickering shadow across the pearl-white snow as it rolled to a stop by a tree.6 The Germans turned their barrage to another jeep, which also burst into flame.
Fenchel recalled that “most of the men were out of their tanks, and then it—just as day broke—it just appeared that that whole ridge was moving toward us, and that whole ridge was just column after column of German tanks.”
Several American Stuart tanks opened up with their machine guns, directing most of their fire toward a piece of high ground several hundred meters north of the Lambay Chênet Woods, which bordered the road to the east. Meanwhile, Irzyk ordered the M5 Stuart light tanks to flush out the German defenders and prevent the enemy from bottling up the column on the road. The drivers pushed hard on their control sticks and the tanks lurched forward onto the hardened fields separating the road and the wood line.7The ferocity of the German ambush dashed Irzyk’s hope that the 4th Armored Division would roll to Bastogne with little difficulty. As he received initial reports of casualties, the major knew that he had an arduous fight on his hands. But he had no other options. The paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division were low on supplies. The 4th simply had to break through. It was a race to see who would reach Bastogne first—German panzers or American Shermans. “Patton’s Best” was the unofficial name for the division, and now Patton wanted them to prove it—again.8
| NOVEMBER 6 TO DECEMBER 15, 1944 |
“The last chance in a Game of Hazard.”
—Oberst Ludwig Heilmann, Commander of the 5th FJ Division
Monday, November 6
Death was never far from the mind of Oberst (Colonel) Rudolph-Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff. With every summons he received to visit some headquarters for a top-secret meeting, he wondered whether the Gestapo had discovered who he really was—a conspirator, a traitor. Yet von Gersdorff knew who he was—in his mind, he was a hero. Germany was under the control of a madman, and that madman branded anyone a traitor who dared to question his authority. More than a year ago, von Gersdorff had done more than just question Adolf Hitler—he had tried to kill the Führer on March 21, 1943. In a half-cocked operation, von Gersdorff had planned to blow himself up while standing next to Hitler, using limpet mines at a Berlin captured-weapons exhibition. He had hidden the mines in his coat pockets, planning to hug Hitler seconds before the mines detonated. Unfortunately, as if divine providence or the devil had whispered in Hitler’s ear to keep moving, the Führer rushed through the exhibition before von Gersdorff could reach him. Frustrated, von Gersdorff disarmed the mines in a nearby toilet.
Undeterred, the officer from Silesia tried again, joining the plot known as Operation Valkyrie, which led to the July 20, 1944, assassination attempt. When the plot failed and Hitler miraculously survived, the Gestapo ruthlessly rounded up anyone suspected of involvement and summarily executed scores of men like Count Claus von Stauffenberg, who had planted the bomb. Mere suspicion was usually enough to put anyone in front of a firing squad. Yet no one had accused von Gersdorff, despite his deep involvement in both bomb plots.
It had been several months since the last attempt on Hitler’s life, and von Gersdorff was now en route to a meeting at Army Group B Headquarters—still alive and still serving the devil. He shook his head and stared out the window of the car. The view outside did little to assuage his fears and disgust. The once bustling city of Krefeld was now a graveyard. The smashed buildings resembled stalagmites, jutting up from the earth, while overhead, the dreary sky kept up a steady torrent of cold rain. Three months after von Gersdorff’s botched suicide bombing attempt, British Lancasters and Halifaxes laid waste to the city by dropping more than two thousand tons of bombs. The venerable old town, which had existed since the Middle Ages and survived several wars, perished under the wrath of the RAF.1Von Gersdorff gritted his teeth. Though he blamed Churchill for the bombing, to this proud Silesian, Hitler also shared much of the responsibility for Krefeld’s destruction. Hitler had wanted war, and now, with the war clearly lost, the German government should have been seeking peace terms. Instead, Hitler refused to discuss the possibility, and so the interminable fighting continued, and more cities like Krefeld became mass graves.
Von Gersdorff, like many other senior German officers, wondered when the war would end, but continued to do his duty. He had resigned himself to the horror. At least he had tried to stop Hitler, which was more than he could say for many of his fellow officers. Instead of lying in a shallow grave, though, like his fellow conspirators, von Gersdorff was now a colonel and the chief of staff for the Seventh Army. In 1939, he had been a mere captain, and he owed his meteoric rise through the ranks to his skills, but also to attrition. The crucible of war quickly determined which officers were warriors, and which were worthless.
Born in 1905 in the town of Lubin, Silesia, the intrepid colonel was only a year shy of forty, but the war had aged him beyond his years. His full head of thick, dark hair had thinned so that it now almost resembled a shaved mohawk.
His father had also served in the army, attaining the rank of major general. Rudolph was too young to serve in the First World War, but he still managed to secure a cadet commission in 1923, when commissions in the Reichswehr were scarce. He reached the rank of lieutenant in 1926 and served in the 7th Cavalry Regiment. Throughout most of the interwar years, von Gersdorff remained in various cavalry units.
In 1938, he attended the War Academy in Berlin to become a general staff officer, and when the war broke out in 1939 he was a captain on the staff of the Fourteenth Army. For the next couple of years he bounced around, serving in various general staff jobs, while simultaneously climbing the ranks. In 1941, he joined the staff of Army Group Center, thanks to General Henning von Tresckow, who introduced him to others who shared his animosity toward Hitler. For two years the conspirators planned, before von Gersdorff conducted his failed suicide bomb attempt. Nine months later he attended the general staff school in Döberitz for future general officers. Upon his completion, he returned to the Western Front and served as the chief of staff for the LXXXVII Corps when the Allies landed in Normandy. By now he was an Oberst (colonel), and his hard work had earned him the respect of his peers and superiors.
On July 27, 1944, he became the chief of staff for the Seventh Army. It was not an auspicious start. The U.S. Army’s Operation Cobra had begun only two days earlier, and it was the breakout the German army’s High Command had feared since D-day. Despite his best efforts, the Allies punched through von Gersdorff’s Seventh Army and within several weeks had almost completely surrounded it. Now was the time for escape. Through the perseverance and courage of many officers and soldiers like von Gersdorff, the Seventh survived—barely—and retreated eastward to reach the safety of the Siegfried Line. In recognition of his skills, the German High Command awarded von Gersdorff the Knight’s Cross on August 26. The irony probably was not lost on Rudolph. On the day he received his medal for his service to the Third Reich, most of his fellow conspirators were dead and buried, while the German people were feting him as a hero.2Now the war was in its fifth year, and no one could see how it could end well for Germany. Still, he had a duty to his men and to his commander, General Erich Brandenberger, who had ordered him to attend a secret meeting at Army Group B Headquarters, south of Krefeld. When Rudolph arrived, the soldiers standing guard at the front entrance snapped a salute and quickly ushered him inside. It did not take long for the others to arrive, and soon von Gersdorff was with several other army chiefs of staff. First was SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Kraemer, who was a Waffen SS officer and the chief of staff for the SS Sixth Panzer Army. Next to him was Lieutenant General Alfred Gause, the chief of staff of the Fifth Panzer Army. Like Gersdorff, they probably wondered why they were there.3Finally, the door to the room swung open, and General Hans Krebs entered. They exchanged the customary salutations, befitting the ranks of senior officers. General der Infanterie Hans Krebs was only few years older than von Gersdorff, and he had held the position of chief of staff of Army Group B since the previous September. A dedicated soldier, he was, like von Gersdorff, a holder of the Knight’s Cross.4After several minutes of small talk, Krebs turned to business. “Gentlemen, I must require you to sign an oath swearing absolute secrecy for what I’m about to tell you.”
Von Gersdorff could only guess that the other officers were mildly insulted. All had sworn oaths before, and to ask them to swear another seemed like overkill, especially at this point in the war. Still, they did as they were told and signed. When they were finished, Krebs handed each a message in an envelope. Von Gersdorff opened his and read the coded message to himself. The opening sentence caused his jaw to drop.
“The German war potential enables us,” the message read, “by summoning all our powers of organization and by straining every nerve, to form an offensive force by rehabilitating and completely reconstituting the twelve panzer and panzergrenadier divisions at present employed on the Western Front, as well as some twenty volksgrenadier divisions and two airborne divisions. With the aid of these forces, the last that Germany is able to collect, the Führer intends to mount a decisive offensive. Since such an organization would offer no prospect of a decisive success on the vast Eastern Front, and since a similar operation could not be of decisive strategic significance, he has resolved to unleash his attack from the West Wall. The success of this operation will depend fundamentally upon the degree of surprise achieved. Therefore, the time and place for this offensive will be such as to completely deceive the enemy. Considering the situation, the terrain, and the weather, the enemy will be least likely to expect such an attack shortly before Christmas, from the Eifel, and against a front only thinly held by him. The objective of the offensive will be Antwerp, in order to rob the Allies of this very important supply port and to drive a wedge between the British and the American forces. After achieving the objective, we will annihilate the British and American forces then surrounded in the area of Aachen–Liège—north of Brussels. In the air, the operation will be supported by several thousand of the best and most modern German fighters, which will secure—at least temporarily—supremacy in the air. The most important factor will be first—SURPRISE, and next—SPEED!”5Before von Gersdorff could digest what he had just read, General Krebs presented them with their maps, each stenciled with the respective objectives for each of the three armies. Von Gersdorff unrolled his map while Krebs briefed them on a summary of the concept of the operations.
At the beginning Krebs cautioned the staff officers, “At this time, gentlemen, only your commanding officer, you, your Ia [Operations] officer, and one officer of your choosing can be privy to this operation.”
The men nodded their consent, and Krebs continued. Since the SS Sixth Panzer Army was the decisive operation, Krebs outlined its mission first. Then he went over the scheme of maneuver for the Fifth Panzer Army. Finally, he started to brief them on the Seventh Army’s objectives, using the map to guide von Gersdorff.
“Oberst von Gersdorff,” Krebs began, “the primary mission of your army is the protection of the southern flank of the strong panzer forces of the Fifth Panzer Army.” As he spoke, Krebs’s finger traced a line that originated at the town of Bastogne and then went to Namur. From there, the line continued westward to Brussels and finally terminated at Antwerp.
“To defend this flank,” Krebs continued, “your army will advance to this approximate line.” He pointed at several towns on the map. “The line starts in Givet, and then extends eastward to Libramont, on to Martelange, then Mersch, and ends in Wasserbillig.”
The oberst could see that the task for his army was a daunting one, but he said nothing as Krebs carried on with his brief. The general listed what the Seventh Army would have for this operation. “For the accomplishment of this mission, Army Group B will assign to the Seventh Army the following: three corps staffs, six infantry divisions, one panzergrenadier division, several volks artillery corps, several battalions of army [Heeres] artillery, two volks projector brigades, several artillery brigades to include assault guns, one engineer brigade, one Organization Todt brigade, and six bridging columns.”
Krebs concluded his presentation. “Preparations for the offensive will be completed by the end of November. Army Group Headquarters will decide when to reveal the operation to the corps and division staffs, as well the other members of the army staff.”
Von Gersdorff accepted the task on behalf of his commander. He did not have a choice. On paper it was a mighty force, but he knew that what existed on paper did not necessarily exist in reality. Krebs probably would not have listened to his doubts anyway.6With that, General Krebs left the room. As the other chiefs of staff gathered their maps and orders as they prepared to leave, von Gersdorff quickly went over the plan in his head. The Herculean task bordered on the impossible. First, the Seventh Army was a shadow of its former self, because the withdrawal from France wrecked the entire army. Some divisions reached the West Wall with only a hundred combat troops, while some of the panzer divisions had only one tank each. In one particular case, the LXXXIV Corps made it to the West Wall with only one working artillery piece. Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (German Army Command, or OKW) would have to rebuild almost entire divisions from scratch. In addition, someone would have to train these replacement soldiers, since many were from the Luftwaffe or Kriegsmarine and, as airmen and seamen, had little experience handling weapons and fighting as infantry. These men would make up the majority of these reconstituted units.
Furthermore, the Allies were not idling along the frontier, allowing the Germans to recover. Instead, the American First Army was hitting hard the area around Aachen, an operation that had continued well into October. General George S. Patton’s Third Army was also on the move, having raced across France and slammed into the retreating Army Group G in the Moselle region. To even a civilian, the objectives for the U.S. Twelfth Army Group were obvious. Beyond Aachen lay the Ruhr river basin, and beyond the Moselle lay the Saar region. Both were the industrial centers of the Reich. Without them, the Nazi war machine would grind to a halt. If the Allies seized the two regions, the war would end in weeks, regardless of Hitler’s maniacal plans. As a result, the Allies had focused their combat power in those two sectors, which left a huge gap between them in the Ardennes region, opposite the Eifel.
It was this part of the plan that had merit. German military intelligence had correctly deduced that the Allies, specifically the Americans, were weak in the Ardennes, since it seemed unlikely to them that Germans were going to mount a major offensive from the Eifel. As von Gersdorff knew from experience, the Eifel was unsuitable for major offensive combat operations, especially in the late fall and early winter. Its narrow roads and deep gullies were a nightmare for armored and motorized units, and with the fall rains and winter snows, everything would be roadbound. Therefore, the Americans had left only four divisions to defend it, and those divisions were either green or recovering from the slaughterhouse of the Hürtgen Forest campaign.
Von Gersdorff understood Hitler’s reasoning for an attack in the west. Three armies, with a quarter of a million men, would enjoy some tactical success in the east, but the Russians would grind it down like they had done many a German army. Moreover, the Eastern Front was a vast, endless steppe, and strategic objectives were few and far between. To the south, an attack in Italy would do little to relieve the threat to Germany’s vital frontiers, especially its industrial region along the Rhine River. On the other hand, Antwerp was only a couple hours by car from the West Wall, and if the Germans captured the port, it would set back the Allied plans by months. In addition, as in May 1940, when the German army trapped a good portion of the French army in Belgium, they could repeat the feat, except the victim this time would be the Americans and the British. Still, it was a long shot, but Hitler wanted to gamble. To von Gersdorff, the Führer would not allow Germany to die a slow death in a war of attrition. No, he wanted to try one last time with a surprise winter offensive. The stakes were high, and the risks were even greater. Despite the odds, Hitler wanted to go down fighting.
The German High Command had made a huge assumption about American intentions. According to their strategic assessment, OKW believed that the Americans would react to the German surprise attack by massing their combat power to prevent a German assault across the Meuse River. Hence, the operation required that the panzer armies reach the Meuse before the Americans could establish a viable defense. The idea that the Americans would instead strike at the flanks of the bulge was something that OKW did not consider. To von Gersdorff, this seemed shortsighted. He was right.7Wednesday, November 29 Seventh Army Headquarters, Camp Falke Six Kilometers East of Bad Münstereifel, Germany
After several weeks of harried staff work, Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel) Werner Voigt-Ruscheweyh, the Ia, or operations officer, of the Seventh Army, had finished the initial plan for the winter offensive. Now it was time to conduct a map exercise with the various subordinate corps commanders. As such, Oberst von Gersdorff had summoned them to the Seventh Army Headquarters, east of Bad Münstereifel.
Bad Münstereifel provided a fitting backdrop for the staff exercise. Like many other towns in Rhine-Westphalia, Bad Münstereifel could trace its lineage back to the Middle Ages. Many of its half-timber-framed homes tucked along its narrow cobblestone streets were several hundred years old, while surrounding the town was an impressive stone wall built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The wall builders, the counts of Jülich, had also built themselves a citadel, which overlooked the town like a sentinel. The quintessential Rhineland town had so far escaped the ravages of war. If the corps commanders, who had gathered together for their exercise, failed in their mission, though, then this quaint town would fall. Even worse, it might end up like Krefeld—a shell, a municipal mausoleum. Von Gersdorff hoped that would not happen, but he had his doubts.8However, he had a meeting to run, and so he put his doubts behind him. All the senior commanders were present, including each of the three corps commanders, General Erich Brandenberger, von Gersdorff’s boss and commander of the Seventh Army, and Field Marshal Walter Model, commander of Army Group B and Brandenberger’s direct superior. General Brandenberger was older, and his drawn face looked like the American cartoon dog Droopy, his cheeks seeming to dangle slightly over his jaw. He was almost bald, and what little hair he had was shaved, leaving a dark pepper-colored patch at the top of his head. He wore wire-rimmed glasses. Despite his strange appearance, his mind, which years of war had honed like a finely tuned machine, was sharp.
Brandenberger’s meritorious career spanned four decades. Born in 1892, he had joined the army in 1911. He fought with distinction in the First World War, serving with the Royal Bavarian Artillery, and for his bravery on the battlefield he was awarded the Iron Cross. During the interwar years, he continued to serve in the artillery as he climbed up the ranks. When the Second World War began, he was the chief of staff of the XXIII Corps, and he participated in the invasion of France in May 1940. The German High Command, rewarding Brandenberger’s talents, appointed him the commander of the 8th Panzer Division, which he led during the invasion of Russia that summer. In recognition of his achievements, Adolf Hitler awarded him the Knight’s Cross in July 1941. His career did not plateau there. In August of 1943, after reaching the rank of general der artillerie (somewhat equivalent to the rank of full general in the U.S. Army), he assumed command of the XXIX Corps. In this role, he continued to earn the praise of his contemporaries on the Eastern Front. Finally, he took over the Seventh Army on August 31, 1944. At the time, the Seventh Army was in tatters, but he managed to nurse it back to health so that it was ready for the Ardennes offensive.9Brandenberger had brought his three corps commanders with him. The first was Dr. Franz Beyer, commander of the LXXX Army Corps. Next to him was General Baptist Knieß, the commander of the LXXXV Army Corps. Knieß was a stocky man who looked more like a fat German baker than a German general. Knieß was seven years older than Brandenberger, and like Brandenberger, he served in World War I, but as an infantry officer. In addition, like his commander, he too earned the Iron Cross in the Great War. After the trenches, he continued to serve as an officer in the Reichswehr. When World War II broke out, he was the commander of the 215th Infantry Division, and he served as its commander for several years through several campaigns, mostly on the Eastern Front. In July 1944, he assumed command of the LXXXV Corps, after having attained the rank of general der infanterie, and as the commander of LXXXV Corps, he would lead the initial main effort of the Seventh Army.10The last of the three corps commanders was General der Kavallerie Edwin Graf von Rothkirch und Trach. Rothkirch, born in 1888, bore some resemblance to Hollywood actor Fred Astaire, but unlike Astaire, Rothkirch was an officer in the Royal Prussian Army who had also earned the Iron Cross in the trenches of the First World War. He remained in the cavalry during the interwar years. At the beginning of the Second World War, Rothkirch served in a variety of staff posts before he finally took command of the 330th Infantry Division on the Eastern Front in early January 1942, which he led successfully for several months. In November of 1944, after Hitler promoted him to general der kavallerie, Rothkirch became the commander of the newly formed LIII Corps. By the end of November, Rothkirch had only a corps staff and support elements; he did not have a single division or regiment under his direct command. In short, he was a corps commander in name only, but he rightly assumed that would change soon.11Soon the men all huddled around a large map table replete with blocks depicting units and objectives. The Seventh Army operations staff, seeing that everyone was ready, began the brief.
“Gentlemen,” one staff officer came forward and announced, as he pointed to the map, “four volksgrenadier divisions controlled by two corps will lead the attack. The LXXXV Infantry Corps will be on the right [north], and LXXX Infantry Corps will be on the left [south]. Both will attack abreast in the sector between the towns of Vianden, Wallendorf, and Echternach. They will smash through the enemy front, destroying him in the process. The LXXXV Infantry Corps’ immediate objective will be the ridge line and the road from Diekirch to Hosingen.” The staff officer, reading from his notes, indicated the location on the map, using a wooden pointer.
When he saw that everyone had found the spot, he continued. “This corps will take this objective before the end of the first day of the attack, and it will continue to advance straight westward, committing—if necessary—its advance reserves in order to seize the crossings over the Clerf and Sauer.”
General Baptist Knieß, the thickset commander of the LXXXV Corps, looked closely at the map. He could see the terrain around the Our River was severely restrictive. Steep banks, combined with a fast-moving and swollen river, would make the crossing a difficult proposition. Fortunately, the opponent he faced on the opposite side of the river was a tired one. German intelligence had detected the U.S. Army’s 28th Infantry Division, which had recently arrived in the area and was refitting after the bloodbath that was the Hürtgen Forest. German patrols had reported little activity along the Our River to indicate that the American division was either completely neglecting security (which it was not) or was too spread out (which it was). Either way, Knieß did not expect much resistance from the Americans as his corps tried to cross the Our.12The operations officer continued, tracing another line along the map. “Gentlemen, the 25th Panzergrenadier Division initially will be in the army reserve and behind the right wing following the first day of the attack. It will then be moved across the tank bridge set up in the meantime at Wallendorf. Afterward, this division will push straight ahead through Ettelbruck, to Harlange, and then south of Saint-Hubert, continuing in a westerly direction. It is essential that it maintain contact with the left flank of Fifth Panzer Army and to protect, by aggressive action, the southern flank in the sector of Gedinne and Neufchâteau.”
As the men took notes, the briefer glanced over at Count Rothkirch and said, “At this time, the staff of LIII Corps will be placed in operational control of the right wing. The divisions of LXXXV Corps will then go on the defensive, en masse, along the approximate line of Neufchâteau, to Martelange, and finally to Mersch. This will be done so that tactical centers of gravity can be established in accordance with the enemy situation and the anticipated enemy movements along the roads leading north and northeast.” Rothkirch acknowledged the briefer, silently nodding.13The officer leaned over and tapped the map with his pointer. “Next, advance elements will push forward rapidly to the Semois sector to reconnoiter the area. In addition, they must deny the crossing sites to the enemy, and to stop, or at least delay, the enemy advance.”
He looked up at the audience. “Most important is this: The Seventh Army main effort will definitely be assigned to the right corps [LXXXV and then the LIII Corps]. We will augment this effort with the attachment of two volks projector brigades, two volks artillery corps, one artillery brigade, which will have self-propelled assault guns, and one heavy tank destroyer battalion. Furthermore, the left corps (LXXX Infantry Corps) will attack with two volksgrenadier divisions across the Sauer in the Wallendorf–Echternach sector and then, turning soon thereafter to the south and the southwest, will quickly seize the known enemy artillery area in the vicinity of Medernach, Christnach, and Alt Trier. Then it will conduct a mobile defense along the Wasserbillig–Mersch line, and send strong advance elements into the area north of Luxembourg.”
With that, the first portion of the map exercise was complete. Thanks to Werner Voigt-Ruscheweyh’s operations staff, everyone in the room had a clear understanding of the upcoming mission. Still, not everyone was satisfied, and many started to discuss various details of the plan. Should the assault start during the hours of darkness? Many in the room felt this was the worst course of action. Their troops were too inexperienced for a nighttime attack, which required the highest degree of training.
The officers debated the type of artillery bombardment that would precede the attack, proposing a short barrage, since they did not have a lot of intelligence on actual American targets. Most of the rounds would likely land in virgin forests and open fields, and not on American positions. Field Marshal Model approved.
The officers proceeded to other topics like the river crossings, the suppression of enemy artillery positions, and the need for an army-level reserve. To Brandenberger, however, the most pressing issue was Patton. While Field Marshal Model and the staff at Army Group B concluded that the American army would strike the Germans at the tip of the bulge, not at the flanks, Brandenberger disagreed. He later wrote:
Seventh Army, in contrast to this, was firmly convinced that the German operation would evoke a speedy reaction from the enemy. Since it was highly probable that the Franco-Belgian area contained no large reserve, the possibility had to be considered that all available enemy troops in the area of Metz and perhaps also in the sector opposite Army Group G would be brought up for offensive action against the southern flank of the attacking German armies. And for that, the roads leading north through Luxembourg and Arlon would be considered first. Seventh Army estimated that strong enemy forces would arrive in [the] Arlon area north of Luxembourg not earlier than the fourth day of the attacks. The fact that these forces would probably be commanded by General Patton (who, in the Battle of France, had given proof of his extraordinary skill in armored warfare, which he conducted according to the fundamental German conception) made it quite likely that the enemy would direct a heavy punch against the deep flank of the German forces scheduled to be in the vicinity of Bastogne.
To ensure that Patton would not destroy his army, Brandenberger requested more fuel, more ammunition, more artillery, and most of all, more antitank weapons. The response from his superiors was discouraging. Von Gersdorff noted that Brandenberger’s “requests were answered with vague promises that a number of units would be placed behind the left wing of the attack as army group, High Command West (OB West) or Wehrmacht reserves and that, consequently, these would be available for temporary use at least, in the southern zone of the attack. The requests of Seventh Army for ample supplies of ammunition, as well as adequate supplies of other equipment, unfortunately remained unheeded.”14This lack of support would prove costly to the Seventh Army. At least, thought von Gersdorff, they had a panzergrenadier division to lead the main effort. Unfortunately, the Seventh Army was about to lose its much-anticipated panzergrenadier division. With the offensive only two weeks away, Army Group G, the southern neighbor to Army Group B, had placed an emergency request for support to stop Patton around the city of Metz, and OKW responded by sending the same panzergrenadier division to the south. Its replacement, a reconstituted fallschirmjäger division, was not what the Seventh Army needed. To face Patton’s Third Army, all they had were four infantry divisions, and none of them had panzers. The only antitank armor support came from a brigade of StuG self-propelled assault guns. It was not enough. For many of the seamen and airmen turned soldiers, this would be their first experience with the horrors of war. They would quickly learn that combat was a harsh teacher, and Patton one of its best students.15Sometime Between December 1 and 10 Area of Operations of 352nd Volksgrenadier Division Near Roth, Germany, Along the Banks of the Our River
The Our River, near the town of Roth, was a winding snake that twisted its way through the steep, wooded hills. It was this reason that made the Our so defensible. Though it was not wide, its fast-moving current and sheer banks made any crossing treacherous. In early December, it was even more perilous, as autumn rains turned the swollen banks to muddy quicksand.
The German sentries manning the defenses along the West Wall cared little for the pastoral scenery of the Our River. They were tired of war, and sentry duty was dreadfully boring. Early December’s weather added to the misery. The temperature hovered above freezing, while drizzly rain saturated their clothes. A soldier would spend most of his shift shivering, looking for excuses to stand underneath a roof.
From across the river the Americans would occasionally send patrols to capture some hapless German to interrogate for intelligence on troop movements, morale, etc. The landsers that patrolled the roads near the Our had to be alert. Since November, the sentries had strict orders to prevent units from scouting along the riverbanks. They did not know why, but that was the order, so no one was allowed in the restricted area between the West Wall and the river. It was strictly verboten.
Yet tonight, an old-looking private appeared before the sentries, requesting permission to approach the river. The sentries asked for his papers. To their surprise, his documents allowed him to do just that. Asking no more questions, they sent the old private on his way. Within minutes, he vanished in the mist. They probably thought Germany was scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel if it was enlisting middle-aged gefreiters.
This gefreiter, who bore a striking resemblance to Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges, but with a little more heft, was not a private in the Wehrmacht, but an oberst in the Luftwaffe, though not a pilot. He was a fallschirmjäger (paratrooper) and the division commander of the 5th Fallschirmjäger Division. His name was Ludwig Heilmann, and he was strolling along the Our River because he was conducting his own reconnaissance. He could not order his men to do this, because his men could not know what he knew—that Germany was preparing to launch a major offensive. To ensure that surprise was complete and total, General Heilmann was the only person in his entire division of more than sixteen thousand men who had knowledge of the impending attack. Heilmann had a job to do, yet he did not want to arouse suspicion, so he donned a gefreiter’s uniform and sauntered down to the river alone. If the sentries had seen a Luftwaffe general in the restricted areas, they might have started talking to their comrades in the mess halls, and then who knows what would have happened next. No, Heilmann needed to do it alone, and so here he was, clambering over the slippery rocks and mossy undergrowth that littered the riverbanks, looking for indicators of enemy activity and assessing the terrain.16Ludwig Heilmann was no stranger to important and dangerous missions. At the age of forty-one, he had already seen a great deal of combat. Unlike his senior officers, Ludwig was too young for the First World War. He joined the Reichs-wehr in 1921, and his first unit was the 21st Infantry Regiment. By 1935, he attained the rank of captain, and was a company commander in the 91st Infantry Regiment when the war broke out in 1939. He participated in the Polish Campaign and in the invasion of France and the Low Countries the following year.
The infantry, though, was not enough excitement for Ludwig, and so he volunteered to join the ranks of the fallschirmjägers in November 1940. He soon had his fill of danger and excitement, for in May 1941, he jumped into Crete. On account of his bravery and leadership in the battle for Catania, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross. Later that year, he led his unit in the battles around Leningrad. At the end of 1942, the Luftwaffe promoted him to oberstleutnant (lieutenant colonel), and he took command of the 3rd Fallschirmjäger Regiment. The following year, he led the 3rd Fallschirmjäger in Sicily and throughout the rest of the Italian Campaign, including Monte Cassino, where he earned the Oak Leaves and Swords for his Knight’s Cross. In recognition of his abilities, the Luftwaffe appointed him to command the 5th Fallschirmjäger Division in September 1944, and he was later promoted to generalmajor on December 1, 1944 (though he did not learn of the promotion until the twenty-third).17Heilmann’s 5th Fallschirmjäger Division was a relatively new unit, having entered the Luftwaffe order of battle in March 1944. When the Allies invaded at Normandy in June, OKW moved the 5th Fallschirmjäger Division to Saint-Lô, where it saw intense combat. By the end of July, the division was wrecked, and only its remnants escaped the Falaise pocket in August. Throughout the fall, the 5th underwent reconstitution, as Heilmann took control of the division.18Unfortunately, Heilmann’s division was not much of a fighting force at this point in the war. The division was lacking vital equipment like some of its heavy mortars and antitank guns. True, unlike many of the Wehrmacht units by the fall of 1944, the 5th Fallschirmjäger Division was practically at full strength. On paper, it had twenty thousand men, but four thousand of those were at Trier, undergoing training. Still, sixteen thousand men was a significant force, considering the typical volksgrenadier division had only around eleven thousand soldiers. In addition, he had a proper table of organization with three fallschirmjäger regiments, an artillery regiment, a pioneer battalion, an antitank battalion, an antiaircraft battalion, a mortar battalion, and attached to the division was the 11th Assault Gun Brigade to provide some mobile striking power for Heilmann.
Despite these impressive statistics, Heilmann knew his division was capable of only defensive operations. The next operation was to be a full-blown offensive. The reason for Heilmann’s low estimation was the division’s level of individual and collective training. Most of the soldiers were young, under twenty years of age, and most were former Luftwaffe aircrew mechanics and staff. They had received little infantry training, and many barely knew how to shoot a rifle. The commanders and noncommissioned officers were also former Luftwaffe staff officers. It was a clear case of the blind leading the blind. This issue extended all the way up to the regimental commanders. One, the commander of the 14th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, had no infantry experience at all. Oberst (Colonel) Arno Schimmel, the commanding officer of the 14th, was a technical adviser to the German air ministry, a far cry from leading fallschirmjägers into battle.
Unlike the 14th, which had an oberst as a commander, the commander for the 13th Fallschirmjäger Regiment was Major Goswin Wahl. The 13th also had a dearth of trained soldiers. According to Oberleutnant Rudolf Petrikat, the commander of 7th Company, 13th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, some of the men had fired their rifle only twice at the range, while some hadn’t fired a rifle at all. Petrikat, though, had some experience as an infantryman in Crete, and he passed it on to his men the best he could in the limited amount of time he had to prepare his company. As for the other companies in his regiment, Petrikat was not confident in their tactical skills.19Sadly, the division’s problems were deeper than a lack of proper training and essential equipment. Many of these senior officers and NCOs had little taste for war. They had spent most of the war in the occupied territories, living a pampered life on the various airfields. For many of the senior NCOs, the war was lost, and the idea to sacrifice themselves in combat seemed like suicide this late in the conflict. Luckily, unlike their leaders, the younger enlisted fallschirmjägers were eager to prove themselves in combat.
Heilmann soon discovered, however, that the problems were worse than he thought. While relaxing in the occupied territories, the division staff had concocted a lucrative profiteering scheme. According to Heilmann, everyone on the staff was involved in the nefarious plot. When the general ended the criminal enterprise, he lost the support of his division staff. Thus, he had a staff he did not trust, and the majority of his commanders were not even infantrymen.
In addition to the graft and corruption, the 5th Fallschirmjäger did not have enough artillery. To augment the division, Seventh Army would allocate three battalions of artillery from its order of battle. Generalmajor Paul Riedel, the artillery commander of the Seventh Army, did this because he believed that the two battalions of artillery organic to the 5th Fallschirmjäger had no mobility, and more important, the fallschirmjäger artillerymen had received little training.20Not everything, though, was bad. According to Heilmann, his 15th Fallschirmjäger Regiment was a veteran unit. Its commander, Oberst Kurt Gröschke, had led the regiment since the previous July. The regiment had spent five weeks around Bremen, Germany, and Haarlem, Holland, training the new recruits, who were mainly Luftwaffe technicians. The reconstituted regiment arrived at Bitburg on December 10. Unlike many other units, the 15th Fallschirmjäger Regiment still had many seasoned junior and noncommissioned officers who had survived the fighting in France. Furthermore, it had a proper table of organization and equipment. Each rifle squad had the requisite two light machine guns and each squad leader was armed with an MP-40. Sprinkled throughout the rifle companies were automatic rifles like the Fallschirmjägergewehr 42. Each line company had two panzerschrecks and the heavy weapons company had several heavy machine guns mounted on tripods and four 8cm mortars.
The 5th Fallschirmjäger Pioneer Battalion, under the command of Major Gerhard Martin, was fully trained and ready for combat. The attached 11th Assault Gun Brigade had twenty assault guns (most likely StuG IIIs). These three units would form the backbone of Heilmann’s offensive combat power.21Heilmann was not the only one who was less than thrilled with the 5th Fallschirmjäger Division leading the attack for the Seventh Army. When he learned that the 5th Fallschirmjäger would replace the 25th Panzergrenadier Division, Brandenberger was furious. He jumped the chain of command and complained directly to General Alfred Jodl, the chief of the operations staff of the Armed Forces High Command, but Jodl told him to make do with what he had.22Von Gersdorff, Brandenberger’s chief of staff, had come to the same conclusions as his boss. He rated Heilmann as an outstanding division commander, but, like Heilmann, graded most of the regimental commanders as poor. On the other hand, the morale of the younger enlisted fallschirmjägers did impress the senior commanders, and the division was lavishly equipped with panzerfausts and other antitank weapons. In the end, von Gersdorff concluded in his final evaluation that the 5th had “limited fighting qualities, because of defective training, unqualified commanders and limited mobility.”23A division of limited fighting qualities was now the main effort for the entire Seventh Army, and its mission was a difficult one. On the first day of the offensive, Heilmann’s units had to penetrate the enemy defenses around Wahlhausen, Putscheid, Nachtmanderscheid, Vianden, and Walsdorf. From there, it needed to advance along an axis from Saint-Hubert, to Neufchâteau, on to Mellier, and through Attert. Next, the division’s chief purpose was to protect the southern flank of the Fifth Panzer Army, which would be advancing simultaneously to the Meuse River, via Bastogne.24Despite his misgivings, Heilmann scrambled down to the Our River to reconnoiter his crossing points and objectives. He quickly observed that the terrain was excellent for infantry. The thick vales and countless hollows along the eastern banks of the Our River would provide cover and concealment for the infantry assembly areas. On the other hand, few trafficable roads existed, and those that did exist turned into muddy bogs when it rained, which was often this time of year. Hence, moving the towed artillery pieces would be problematic, since they required all-weather roads.
The river itself was a formidable obstacle. With its steep banks, fast current, and up to two-meter depth, the river provided the enemy with terrain that a much smaller force could effectively defend. As General Heilmann knelt down near the river’s edge, he stared upward and saw the massive gothic fortress of Vianden towering over the valley like a hawk perched atop a crag, searching for prey. He suddenly realized the prey would be his German fallschirmjägers, attempting to cross the river. The intimidating castle, built between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, had been the seat of the Vianden counts for several hundred years. Its thick walls and arched gables would provide the American defenders excellent cover from small-arms fire and artillery barrages.25Heilmann knew that the Americans had placed few if any forces along the river’s edge. Other than an occasional stray rifle shot and errant artillery round, there was little enemy activity along the river itself. From his own intelligence reports, he knew that the American artillery would conduct harassing fire at night, targeting the villages and crossroads, but that was the extent of their operations in this sector. From the same reports, he knew the unit that occupied the positions across the river was not interested in conducting significant offensive operations like raids and ambushes. The 28th Infantry Division was still licking its wounds from the Hürtgen Forest.
Heilmann had seen enough. He stood up, wiped the caked mud and dried leaves from his knees, and started to walk back to the traffic control point. Later that day, when he made it to his command post, a pillbox northeast of Vianden, he pulled out some maps and jotted down some notes. The lack of enemy activity and the current intelligence picture told him that the enemy probably had ceded much of the west bank of the Our River—in effect, turning the ground around the Our into a veritable no-man’s-land. The American main line of resistance was likely farther back on higher ground. Heilmann took his pencil and traced a line from Wahlhausen to Putscheid. From there, the line continued to Nachtmanderscheid and on to Walsdorf.
“That’s it,” he said to himself, tapping the pencil on the map.
Judging the terrain and relying on his own experience, the fallschirmjäger general assessed that the Americans were defending the sector with a battalion. In addition, the Americans likely had established listening and observation posts in the castle fortress of Vianden while buttressing those positions with some light artillery. Now he had to devise a plan.
To help himself think, Heilmann scribbled some more notes. After several minutes, he developed a basic concept of operations. First, his division’s best chance for success was attacking during hours of darkness. Poor visibility almost always favored the attacker. The American battle positions that overlooked the valley probably had predesignated target reference points with clear fields of fire. The less time the Germans spent out in the open and exposed, the better their chance for success. The early morning hours would give them that required concealment.
However, conducting a night assault was an operation fraught with risk, so Heilmann would rely on his best units to lead the attack. Once they had achieved a sizable penetration, the other units, which were not as well trained, would push through behind them to secure the flanks and rear. The lead units, meanwhile, would advance westward while bypassing centers of resistance. Heilmann estimated that the Americans were occupying strongpoints in the villages and manning roadblocks along the major routes. His fallschirmjägers would use the forests as their highways to get around the American defenses. It was a simple plan, but it was the only one that would have any chance of success.26Wednesday, December 13 Sülm, Germany Headquarters, 5th Fallschirmjäger Division
Oberst Ludwig Heilmann, the commander of the 5th Fallschirmjäger, stood outside the makeshift headquarters as he waited for his overall boss, General Erich Brandenberger, the commander of the Seventh Army, to arrive. The air was crisp, and he thought he could see flurries. Sülm was located in the South Eifel, in the region known as the Rhineland-Palatinate. A small town with fewer than several hundred inhabitants, it was surrounded by rolling hills and spindly forests. The picturesque Kyll River served as the town’s eastern boundary, while to the north was the larger town of Bitburg. Sülm had existed for more than a thousand years, but thanks to its small size, it had escaped the attention of Allied bombers. If the Allies knew about this meeting, then Sülm would become very significant, thought Heilmann.
As he watched the general’s retinue arrive, Heilmann wondered whether his army commander had the same misgivings about the upcoming operation as he did. After the war, Heilmann wrote, “I prepared the attack in such a way as I thought it to be the duty of a soldier, though I did not believe in a victory of Germany over its enemies . . . [in] a long time.”27Two days before, on December 11, Heilmann, along with his corps commander General Baptist Knieß, had attended a conference with more than a dozen other commanders to see Hitler himself at the Führer’s headquarters in Ziegenberg to discuss the upcoming Ardennes operation. For the first time, Heilmann saw how sick Hitler had become. “He entered the conference room with slow steps and immediately sat down at the table,” Heilmann remembered. “Shrunk, with hanging shoulders and lusterless eyes, waxy faced, the Highest Warlord sat in front of his Generals. . . .”
Heilmann’s final impression of the meeting left little doubt as to the importance of the next major operation: “this offensive would stake everything on one throw of the dice; the last chance in a game of hazard.” Unfortunately, Heilmann did not think there was much chance of success. The Americans had rigged the game in their favor. 28When Brandenberger stepped out of the staff car, Heilmann saluted his superior officer and then led him and his aides inside the headquarters to the map room, where Heilmann’s own staff and subordinate commanders were waiting. Heilmann announced that the commander of the Seventh Army had arrived, and everyone stood at attention. Brandenberger nodded and ordered them to take their seats so that the briefing could begin.
Heilmann was the first to speak. “Sir, welcome to our map exercise. You probably know most of the men here, but I will introduce them to you just in case.”
The commander of the 5th Fallschirmjäger Division presented to Brandenberger each senior staff officer and regimental commander of his division. After he finished with the staff, Heilmann then started with his subordinate commanders. The first was Oberst Kurt Gröschke, commanding officer of the 15th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, and Heilmann’s most experienced commander. Gröschke had commanded the regiment since July, and unlike his contemporaries in the other regiments, who were former Luftwaffe staff officers, Gröschke was a real fallschirmjäger. With his slicked-back hair and defined jaw, the veteran officer looked a lot like Albert Speer, the Minister of Armaments and War and Production. Born in 1907 in Berlin, Gröschke was commissioned a lieutenant in the Luftwaffe in 1934 and joined the fledging fallschirmjäger corps at the end of 1935. When the war broke out, he was a company commander in the 1st Fallschirmjäger Regiment, and jumped into the Netherlands at Dordrecht in May 1940. The next year, he jumped again into Crete as part of Operation Merkur in May 1941. By 1942, he was a battalion commander, serving in Russia, and twelve months later he was fighting in Italy against the Americans, where he earned the German Cross in Gold. His career continued to rise, and in June 1944, he was in Normandy, where he earned the Knight’s Cross on June 9. In recognition of his abilities, the Luftwaffe promoted him, and he assumed command of the 15th Fallschirmjäger Regiment in July. Fortunately, unlike many of his comrades, he escaped the Falaise pocket. The 15th Fallschirmjäger had already seen a great deal of combat, fighting with the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division, and ceased to exist by the beginning of August due to severe losses fighting in Normandy. Despite this, Gröschke rebuilt much of the regiment by the fall.29Heilmann’s other veteran commander was Major Gerhard Martin, the commander of the 5th Fallschirmjäger Pioneer Battalion. Martin was not even twenty-five years old, but he had more combat experience than many of his senior commanders. The rest of the senior officers from the other regiments were novices at ground combat, since many of them were former Luftwaffe airfield staff officers, and Heilmann probably thought that General Brandenberger would not know them anyway because of that fact.30The commanding officer of the 5th Fallschirmjäger Division then directed everyone’s attention to the map table in the center of the large room so that he could continue with the map exercise. “Gentlemen,” he announced to let everyone know he was starting. In response, several men edged closer to the table to get a better look.
When the shuffling ended, he resumed. “The 5th Fallschirmjäger Division attacks the enemy from an assembly position behind the West Wall in the hilly terrain west of the Our River. From there, it will break through the enemy position with point of the main effort directed at Vianden, and then it will advance as far west as Wiltz. As the offensive proceeds, the division will reach the general line of Sibret, Vaux-lez-Rosières, and Martelange.” To orient everyone, Heilmann then would tap on the map with his pointer as he read off the name of each location.
After that, Heilmann mapped out the axis of advance for the follow-on forces. “Next, elements with sufficient combat power will advance as far west as Neufchâteau, Mellier, [and] Attert, as well as Saint-Hubert and Libramont. The division then protects, using a mobile defense, the southern flank of the Fifth Panzer Army, which is advancing with its left wing via Bastogne.” He paused to let the information sink in.
Heilmann then glanced over at Oberst Gröschke. “Kurt,” he began, “the 15th Fallschirmjäger, your regiment, will attack at Roth and then cross the Our to take possession of the heights at Vianden. From there, you will reach the Wiltz sector by continuing your assault. Your initial objective is to keep open the crossings at Bourscheid. Your next objective is Martelange.”
Oberst Arno Schimmel, the commander of the 14th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, was next in line. “Arno,” Heilmann said, looking over at the Luftwaffe officer, “the 14th crosses the Our River at Stolzembourg. Next, it will break through the enemy positions at Putscheid. Once you’ve accomplished that, your regiment will continue westward and take possession of the Wiltz crossings, which are west of Hohscheid. It is crucial that you keep those crossings open.”
Schimmel nodded and replied, “Yes, sir.”
Heilmann then stared back at the group. “Gentlemen, the 5th Pioneer Battalion will ferry the assault companies across the Our by pneumatic pontoons, build a ferry at Bauler, and reach the Wiltz River with its main forces and ferrying material via Hohscheid. All this will happen on the first day of the attack. Is that understood, Major Martin?”
Major Martin quickly responded, “Understood, sir.”
“In addition to this, the following units will move into the assembly area in the vicinity of Sinspelt, Oberweis, and Obergegen so that they can start marching via the town of Roth as soon as the bridge will be ready. Those units are: the 5th Pioneer Battalion, Advance Detachment 15, and Sturmgeschütz Brigade 11.” Heil-mann then circled the area on the map with his pointer.
He continued his brief. “They must reach the Wiltz crossings between Bourscheid and Hohscheid. After they reconsolidate, they will advance via Nothum, Doncols, and Sibret toward Saint-Hubert. Then they will reconnoiter as soon as possible as far as to the line Vaux-lez-Rosières and Martelange. To ensure effective command and control, Advance Detachment 15 is subordinated to the commander of Sturmgeschütz Brigade 11.”
Hauptmann (Captain) Höllander, the commander of the 11th Sturmgeschütz Brigade, nodded, acknowledging the order.31Someone then asked, “Sir, what constitutes an advance detachment?”
Heilmann answered, “Good question. According to the LXXXV Corps’ order, the division must form two advance detachments. Each detachment will consist of the following. . . .” Heilmann then pulled out a sheet of paper and read from it. “It will have one rifle battalion, which is reinforced by an engineer platoon. In addition, it will have one heavy machine gun platoon and one light flak platoon. Moreover, each regiment must furnish an assault company with one combat engineer unit, a mine locating unit, and antitank units.”
After everyone finished writing down the composition of the advance detachments, Heilmann looked over at Oberst Bernd Wintzer, the commander of the 5th Fallschirmjäger Artillery Regiment, and said, “At the beginning of the attack, we will execute a sudden concentration of fire on the villages occupied by the enemy. Next, during the attack, our artillery will suppress the artillery of the enemy and identify objectives. Moreover, the main effort for our artillery fire is Fouren [Fouhren]. To ensure continuous support, one light field howitzer battalion must be prepared to change position, so that it can cross the river by ferry at Stolzembourg and can support the attack of the 14th Fallschirmjäger Regiment.”
Following Heilmann’s brief on the specific tasks to his subordinate units, the conversation turned to other pressing items. First, the main road that led to the crossing site near Roth had an almost insurmountable obstacle: a bomb crater. Until someone filled in the gaping hole, no vehicle traffic would cross the Our River. Unfortunately for the Germans, they would have to fill the crater on the day of the attack, because any effort prior to X-day would immediately tip off the American observers that something was afoot on the German side of the river. The solution was to construct a ferry the day of the attack, but Heilmann concluded that his men would be without the support of the larger-caliber weapons until the crater was gone, and that would not likely happen until after the first day of operations.
The various commanders and staff officers then reviewed the plan for the assembly of the troops and equipment. General Heilmann once again started off the discussion. “Gentlemen, on the night before X-day [the day of the attack], the regiments will move without their vehicles into the assigned assembly areas behind the ‘West Wall.’ Then they will establish communications with the 5th Fallschirmjäger Engineer Battalion, which will assign to each unit a designated guide who is responsible for leading each regiment and battalion through our minefields.”
Heilmann tapped his watch, as if reminding them of an upcoming appointment. “This is important,” he said. “Military police will control all the roads, but they will allow army pioneers to pass through the traffic. At approximately 0300 hours all troops must be ready to jump off. From 0400 hours onward there will be freedom of movement for the reconnaissance patrols. At X-hour [time of the attack] the division assault companies will cross the Our River and establish a bridgehead. Combat patrols of the engineer battalion will then occupy Vianden. Furthermore, the positions of the artillery and heavy weapons are the immediate objectives of the regiments.”
Most of the men present nodded in silence. Heilmann slammed his hand on the map table and declared, “The main thing is to gain the Wiltz crossings intact on the first day. We must bypass the villages and detour around any islands of resistance. Roads are to be avoided. Advance Detachment 15 will quickly travel from the Wiltz sector to Sibret and Vaux-lez-Rosières. From there it will move without its assault guns to Saint-Hubert and make contact with the Fifth Panzer Army. Meanwhile, the main body of the division will form into ranks along the line of Vaux-lez-Rosières to Martelange for defense. The 13th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, under my control, will follow behind the 15th Regiment and clear up any remaining pockets of resistance.”
With that, Heilmann ended the map exercise. He wondered whether he’d stressed enough the importance of bypassing pockets of resistance. The goal was to reach Vaux-lez-Rosières and Martelange to establish a strong enough defense for the counterattack that Heilmann predicted would surely come. The more time they wasted mopping up resistance in the tiny villages that dotted this region of the Ardennes, the less time they would have for digging foxholes and preparing fields of fire for Patton’s tanks.
Luckily, Heilmann had altered the plan somewhat. His corps commander wanted him to spread his forces out equally, but the seasoned fallschirmjäger believed that was a recipe for failure. He had seen how well that tactic had worked in Russia, especially at Stalingrad, where the forces on the flanks were too weak, and the Russians easily swept them aside as they closed the noose around the trapped German Sixth Army. No, Heilmann was going to mass his combat power where his forces butted up against the Fifth Panzer Army along his northern flank. To his south, he would establish a disruption zone, using a screen line of smaller forces that would delay the Americans and buy time for his main effort. He knew his superiors would not approve of his change, and so he kept mum on the subject. It was all he could do, and as the staff filed out of the map room, Heilmann hoped he had prepared them enough for the frosty hell that was sure to come.
Alone with his thoughts, Heilmann glanced over the map one last time and wondered whether his adversaries could sense the impending steel blizzard over the horizon. Surprise was everything. Without it, the German offensive would surely fail. Unfortunately for Heilmann and the men of the Seventh Army, there was one intelligence officer on the American side who had started to piece together the mosaic that was the Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine).32Thursday, December 14 Molitor Barracks, Nancy, France Headquarters, U.S. Third Army
Everyone in the U.S. Twelfth Army G-2 Intelligence Section thought the Germans were defeated. In fact, Brigadier General Edwin L. Sibert, the G-2 of the Twelfth Army, had published a memorandum on December 12, 1944, in which one of his staff concluded, “It is now certain that the attrition is steadily sapping the strength of the German forces on the Western Front and that the crust of defenses is thinner, more brittle and more vulnerable than it appears on our G-2 maps or to troops in the line.” The memo concluded, “All of the enemy’s major capabilities, therefore, depend on the balance between the rate of attrition imposed by the Allied offensives and the rate of infantry reinforcements. The balance at present is in favor of the Allies. With continued Allied pressure in the South [Saar region] and in the North [Ruhr region] the breaking point may develop suddenly and without warning.”33The officer reading the document took off his horn-rimmed glasses and rubbed his bald head, while looking at the maps on his desk. With his horseshoe-ringed hair and razor-thin mustache, he looked more like a small-town banker than a colonel in the U.S. Army. Despite his mild appearance, Colonel Oscar W. Koch was far from harmless. As the senior intelligence officer in General George S. Patton’s vaunted Third Army, he was one of the reasons for Patton’s string of successes throughout the war in Europe and the Mediterranean. Koch had an innate ability to understand the enemy, and as the war progressed, so did his skills. Patton and his staff developed plans based on Koch’s assessments, and most of the time Koch was right. Hence Patton won most of his battles, leading to a whirlwind campaign through France that was already the stuff of legend.
Like many of the senior officers in the Second World War, Koch had served during the lean interwar years. At the age of eighteen, Koch joined the army in 1915 as a member of the Light Horse Squadron, later known as A Troop, 1st Wisconsin Cavalry. He did not have to wait long to see action, participating in the Punitive Expedition into Mexico in 1916 under General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. When the United States entered World War I, the army decided to commission him a second lieutenant when he turned twenty-one. After the war, he became an instructor at the U.S. Army Cavalry School, and later, while serving at Fort Riley, Kansas, he met his future boss, George Patton. His first job in World War II was as Patton’s chief of staff for Task Force Blackstone during the invasion of Morocco. Patton recognized his talents, and from then on, Koch worked for Patton.34Since February 1944, Koch had served as the G-2 for Patton’s Third Army, which arrived on the continent in midsummer of that year. Since then, he had learned how to analyze and organize intelligence better than most officers on both sides of the front. It was this conviction that was telling him that his senior intelligence counterpart, General Sibert, was wrong. The Germans were not near the breaking point. In fact, the opposite was true—the Germans were getting ready to launch a large spoiling attack and maybe even a counteroffensive.
Earlier that day, Third Army’s XII Corps had detained a German soldier who boasted that Hitler had ordered a counteroffensive, and the Germans would attack in the next couple of weeks. The Waffen SS panzergrenadier from the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division had been carrying a verbal message when he had been captured: “Last night’s message ordering your retreat was false. Everyone is to hold and prepare for a counterattack that is in the making.”35
By itself, the message could have been the bluster of a Waffen SS zealot. However, as Koch looked over his notes from the past few weeks, the communication was one of many alarming indicators. The chief issue was the number of uncommitted panzer divisions. According to Koch’s estimates, the Germans had amassed eight panzer divisions behind the line: the 1st SS Panzer, 2nd SS Panzer, 9th SS Panzer, 10th SS Panzer, 12th SS Panzer, 2nd Panzer, 116th Panzer, and the Panzer Lehr Division. With all of these, the Germans now had an offensive capability. Three fallschirmjäger divisions and three infantry divisions were also refitting behind the front. The question was what Hitler planned to do with these panzers and paratroopers. The most dangerous course of action was a large-scale counteroffensive to disrupt the offensives in the area around Aachen, using the SS panzer divisions, or another attack along the boundary between the Third and First U.S. Armies in Luxembourg, using the 2nd and Panzer Lehr divisions. Still, eight panzer divisions was a significant amount of combat power, and some of them, like the 2nd, had been off the line for more than a month. As a result, unlike many other divisions, the Wehrmacht likely had refitted these units with new equipment and replacements. Now Koch had this prisoner of war claiming a counteroffensive was in the offing.36The G-2 colonel had alerted Patton to his initial suspicions on December 9. In a meeting, Koch outlined the buildup of German forces opposite the U.S. First Army’s VIII Corps, the unit directly north of the Third Army. Even though the German concentration was not opposite the Third Army’s area of operations, it was in their own area of interest because, by Koch’s estimation, a German attack there would threaten their flank.
Koch warned Patton and the rest of his staff that VIII Corps’ front was weak. At the time, the corps had three infantry divisions and one armored division, which was not at full strength. Arrayed against them were four enemy infantry divisions, while behind those were two panzer divisions and another three infantry divisions. Even worse was the amount of ground the VIII Corps had to defend—nearly eighty miles of thick forest and deep gullies. Major General Troy Middleton, the commander of VIII Corps, could not concentrate his forces anywhere along that line. If the Germans went on the offensive, they would attack a weak spot in the Allied lines and likely break through. Additionally, bad weather had grounded Allied airpower for most of the autumn months, allowing the Luftwaffe to rebuild its squadrons and train new pilots. Hence the Luftwaffe, in theory, could support ground offensive operations if the need arose.
Bolstered with these facts, Koch concluded his briefing, saying, “The enemy has an approximate two-to-one numerical advantage in the area, offset to some extent by low combat efficiency of poorly trained and inexperienced units. His buildup has been gradual and highly secret. A successful diversionary attack, even of a limited nature, would have a great psychological effect—a ‘shot in the arm’ for Germany and Japan.”
Patton sensed his intelligence officer was right again, despite the estimates and claims from his higher headquarters that the Wehrmacht was on its last legs. Still, he reasoned, Koch’s theory was still only a theory. Planning would continue for Third Army’s eventual operation to seize the city of Frankfurt, but he ordered Koch and the rest of his staff to prepare for a contingency operation to stop a German offensive in VIII Corps’ area of operation.
With the briefing over, Patton stood up and said, “We’ll be in a position to meet whatever happens.”37Now Koch was growing more convinced that the contingency plan that Patton had ordered on the ninth was about to become the plan. Koch did not know it at the time, but he was not the only one with misgivings. His northern counterpart in the U.S. First Army, Colonel Benjamin “Monk” Dickson, also was having doubts. In his “G-2 Estimate Number 27,” dated December 10, 1944, Dickson wrote, “It is plain that his [Hitler’s] strategy in defense of the Reich is based on the exhaustion of our offensive to be followed by an all-out counterattack with armor, between the Roer and the Erft, supported by every weapon he can bring up to bear.” In addition, Dickson reported that the morale of recently captured German soldiers had “achieved a new high.” In fact, as evidence of this new development, German prisoners of war were attempting to escape and rejoin their comrades, something that Dickson had not seen in a while, and thereby contradicting the U.S. Twelfth Army Group’s assessment that the German army was a beaten and vanquished foe. Even more worrisome was the report of a Colonel Otto Skorzeny seeking to recruit German soldiers who could speak American English. Dickson concluded that the Germans were planning sabotage and other missions behind Allied lines that would be part of a much larger offensive. He assessed that Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt would launch this strike once the Allied forces crossed the Roer River.38Dickson grew even more alarmed that day when he learned that the 28th Infantry Division had picked up a Luxembourg civilian who had reported seeing bridging equipment on the German side of the Our River, indicating possible offensive operations. To Dickson, that was the final straw.
“It’s the Ardennes!” he reportedly exclaimed to a stunned First Army staff and their commander, General Courtney Hodges.
Excerpted from "Patton at the Battle of the Bulge"
Copyright © 2015 Leo Barron.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents
Prologue "Move All Night!" 1
Chapter 1 The German Plan 9
Chapter 2 The American Response 42
Chapter 3 First Contact 76
Chapter 4 Chaumont 111
Chapter 5 Flatzbourhof 143
Chapter 6 Warnach 176
Chapter 7 Bigonville 203
Chapter 8 Tintange 236
Chapter 9 Chaumont II 262
Chapter 10 Assenois 278
Works Cited 333
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“In Patton at the Battle of the Bulge, Leo Barron masterfully describes the vigor and sheer determination of Patton’s drive.”—Don M. Fox, author of Patton’s Vanguard: The United States Army Fourth Armored Division
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I had read many, many books on the Battle of the Bulge. This was the first book that detailed the 4th Armored division's advance north to break the siege of Bastogne. Very detailed and readable. Mr. Barron writes in such a way to grab and keep the reader's interest. I especially liked the detail that Mr. Barron put into the German defenders and their role in the battle.