Mass German Surprise Attack
December 16, 1944!
The front suddenly erupted in an action that shocked the allied
world. German General Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, who was
generally accepted as the Reich's most able military leader,
had gambled his remaining western reserves in a bold stroke which
was designed to smash completely through allied lines of communication
and supply feeding the Anglo-American armies. The great counter-offensive
swept into the Ardennes, under cover of swirling fog and rain,
broke through a thin American line and began to exploit initial
gains. That Jerry was capable of such an attack was quite generally
conceded. First Army Intelligence knew that the Sixth SS and
the Fifth Panzer Armies had been out of the line preparing for
an offensive. The questions remaining were these: how much strength
might the enemy muster, and where would the blow fall? Now the
3rd Armored Division and other units of the First and Third Armies
were to have the answers delivered in hot steel and were to experience
the full fury of a Nazi force which held, for a horribly swaying
moment in history, the initiative of battle.
"About Face" to Belgium
The "Spearhead" Division picked up its tracks in
a hurry and roared out of the Stolberg area. Combat Command "A"
went first, on December 18, to the V Corps sector in the vicinity
of Eupen. Here, General Doyle O. Hickey's men engaged in a series
of short actions against German paratroopers who had been dropped
in the woods near the Eupen-Malmedy road. The command remained
in V Corps reserve until December 21, when it was reattached
to the division in the Grandmenil area.
In the meantime, Combat Command "B" rolled out of bivouac
to aid in the defense of Verviers. It looked like a pleasant
assignment, but appearances were deceiving. There was no time
for recreation - there was no time for anything but flaming,
total war. This was the supreme effort of Nazi Germany and the
world knew that if Adolf Hitler's legions failed in the last
great counter-offensive now under way, they also forfeited the
one chance of victory which might still remain. It was suddenly
all or nothing - take no prisoners - kill or be killed! That
was the creed, and that was the aim of this black-garbed tidal
wave of fanatic SS troopers sweeping into Belgium. It explained
the murdered Americans in the snow at Malmedy, and the civilians
- old people and children - shot down at Parfondry. It was an
indication that the rule book had been destroyed along with every
human instinct and, as never before, it disclosed the Nazi theory
in a white light of truth.
The snow covered hills of the Ardennes echoed to crashing
gunfire as elements of CC "B" were committed on the
LaGleize-Stavelot sector. Here, teamed with elements of the 30th
Infantry Division, General Boudinot's soldiers bored in to meet
the enemy's crack 1st SS LEIBSTANDARTE ADOLF HITLER Panzer Division.
A hard, swaying battle developed between the two expert and well
directed fighting machines, but slowly - and for the first time
in the new winter offensive - German units gave ground. Task
Force Lovelady, pounding south from Pont de Lorrain, destroyed
an enemy convoy on the road and went on to set up road blocks
at Trois Fonts and Grand Coo. Later, at Parfondry, after bitter
fighting, the task force was hemmed in for a time and attacked
from all sides.
Battling the same determined resistance, battle groups under
Major Kenneth T. McGeorge and Captain John W. Jordan punched
their way to the outskirts of La Gleize by December 24. Here
they inflicted heavy damage on the enemy and took the town. Twenty-six
tanks were destroyed by CC "B" in this action alone,
and German dead sprawled everywhere in the ditches. The command,
having accomplished its first "Bulge" mission successfully,
closed into an assembly area near Spa, Belgium, on Christmas
day. The rest of the division was not nearly so lucky.
Back at Stolberg, on December 19, there was a flurry of excitement
as British fighter squadrons took over the area formerly patrolled
by American P-47's. There were few identification experts
among units then on the line and heavy ack-ack met the English
pilots on their initial sweeps. It is recorded that no plane
of Britain was shot down that day, but certainly Anglo-American
relations must have been strained to a fine point before the
mistake was rectified.
While German civilians lined the streets, more division units
loaded up and clattered back toward Belgium. The situation was
confused and rumors from various points of contact were lurid
and garbled. Overhead, robot bombs by the hundred pursued their
somehow inhuman course across cloudy skies. Liege and Antwerp,
along with other cities along the supply lines, were pounded.
And, for the first time in months, the Luftwaffe swung over to
the offensive in some strength, using new jet fighter-bombers
to supplement the older, but still very effective, Messerschmitt
and Focke-Wulf airplanes. Allied vehicular convoys were strafed
and bombed everywhere on the swiftly moving front.
At this time the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion was detached
and sent to the extreme right flank of the "Bulge."
Here, in the high Schnee Eifel Mountains, they were attached
to the 1st Infantry Division and immediately committed to action.
The tank-busters were later to fight beside the 82nd Airborne
Division before rejoining their parent organization just prior
to the beginning of the January push at Manhay-Snamont.
Fluid & Confusing Frontlines
Information was still at a complete minimum. Operations maps
showed only the vague, general zones of contact. There were none
of the fine situation reports which had come to be accepted as
normal. No one knew for certain just where Jerry was or how far
he might go. The front was fluid and it was dangerous to move
without a heavy armored escort. Morale was still high in spite
of this. There was a general confidence among the men. They thought,
naively: "It was a good try, but the Krauts have lost."
Actually they hadn't lost at all, for the peak of the fighting
had yet to be reached and up to this point von Rundstedt's spearheads
had not even been checked.
On December 19, the remainder of the 3rd Armored Division, which
now consisted only of Forward Echelon, a small Combat Command
"Reserve," and the 83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion,
began a swift march to the Hotton-Manhay area, a spot which almost
immediately saw some of the heaviest fighting of the entire campaign.
The trip from Stolberg was a nightmare of muddy roads, bitter
cold, and heavy fog which so limited visibility that drivers
found themselves edging off the road at every turn. Trees and
cement guard rails loomed out of the murk within inches of careening
vehicles, and trucks became mired on the shoulders with disconcerting
regularity. On these occasions the column halted until the road-blocking
vehicles were either winched back or pushed to one side and left
for the following maintenance crews to handle.
Added to the fog and the pitch black night were hundreds of Jerry
buzz bombs which seemed to bore through the tree tops along the
route. Several of the robots crashed near vehicles of the command,
one landing less than 100 yards from General Rose's peep. The
blast threw his aide, Major Robert Bellinger out of the vehicle,
but the general was unhurt.
The movement from Stolberg began at dusk on the 19th, but it
was not until the following morning that all elements closed
in assembly areas near Manhay. Wet and muddy, weary with fatigue
induced by the nerve-wracking all night journey, men of the commands
waited for the inevitable order to establish contact with von
With Combat Command "A" still attached to the V Corps
in the vicinity of Eupen, and "B" fighting a hard battle
at La Gleize, General Rose found himself facing a particularly
difficult situation. His orders were to secure the road from
Manhay to Houffalize, a well nigh impossible task to accomplish
with one rather small combat command. However, the situation
was also serious and demanded immediate action. The general decided
The division area at this time might be described as an arc of
15 miles, cut by more than 30 roads and trails. Under these conditions,
and with the meager forces at his command, it appeared unlikely
that General Rose's tactics could prove much more than a delaying
action. However, it was necessary to act at once.
Aggressive 3AD Task Forces
Winter had locked the white Belgian hills in a tight embrace
as Task Force Kane rumbled down the main highway in a bold frontal
movement. Lt. Colonel William R. Orr's force pointed for Erezee,
Amonines, Dochamps and Samree - names which very soon became
synonymous with heavy winter combat. Lt. Colonel Sam Hogan led
his troopers along a secondary road which paralleled the Orthe
River. All three of the task forces were small and totally inadequate
for the task they had set, but the confident attack in itself
held a measure of bluff which worked well enough to blunt the
German spearheads and hold them at bay.
Orr's columns met heavy artillery fire and tanks on the outskirts
of Samree, but his men thrust boldly past the opposition and
set up a road block on the vital La Roche-Vielsam road. Heavy
fighting immediately developed in the area.
Hogan's force, also small, advanced rapidly in an effort to seize
the crossings of the Orthe River between Gouvy and Houffalize,
but was beaten back by a stone-wall defense and was thereupon
forced to pull into the little town of Beffe. Maneuver and constant
fighting soon depleted both gasoline and ammunition, so Hogan
set up a strong perimeter of defense based on high ground at
Marcouray. The Nazi tide of conquest rolled around this little
spot of resistance and within hours the small "Spearhead"
group was completely surrounded and facing annihilation. A German
commander, sensing this situation, promptly sent an ultimatum
to the trapped Americans. Sam Hogan chuckled. "If you want
this town," he said softly, "come right in and take
it." The Kraut tried, but after several abortive efforts
he contented himself with siege tactics.
By sunset on December 20, Kane's force had also met determined
resistance and was engaged in a hot fight just west of Malempre.
Thus far, General Rose's tactics had been dangerous but quite
successful. He had succeeded in screening the early assembly
and plans of the First Army's crack VII Corps which, as the enemy
very well knew, was usually spearheaded by the 3rd Armored Division.
Nazi forces, flushed with victory marches, were nonplussed to
find themselves brought up short against the well remembered
3rd. One captured German growled: "I thought you bastards
were on the Roer. How the hell do you move so fast... ?"
At any rate, the bold action of General Rose's elements in this
sector puzzled the enemy and gained precious time for allied
defenses then forming up. Rundstedt's combat commands hesitated
to bypass such veteran forces of resistance, and yet better judgement
demanded that the so-far rapid advance be continued. The panzer
spearheads attempted a sort of compromise. In so doing they isolated
Hogan at Marcouray and battered both Orr and Kane, but it was
a hollow victory as later events showed.
For one thing, more reinforcements were beginning to pour into
General Rose's command. On December 21, Combat Command "A"
moved into assembly areas near Grandmenil, and Task Force "X"
was ordered to cut the Marche-Basiogne road. Colonel Orr's elements
were given new units and were able to move forward and take Amonines
on December 22. On the 23rd, the division was further strengthened
by an attached combat team and other elements of infantry, artillery,
and paratroops. Task Force Richardson went into battle, taking
over a hotly contested road block which had been held by Kane's
command near Manhay.
With the attachment of more units, General Rose now had under
his command a force which approximated corps strength. In addition
to organic elements of the division there were two complete regimental
combat teams, two battalions of paratroopers, two companies of
4.2 mortars, four battalions of artillery, and two tank-destroyer
battalions. The "Spearhead" Division's usually attached
703rd TD Battalion was still fighting a vicious action with 1st
Infantry units up on the right flank of the "Bulge."
The situation was still far from being under control. On the
contrary, the tempo of action increased steadily and no one seemed
able to guess the probable outcome of events. At Hotton, where
Division Headquarters Company, the 143rd Armored Signal Company,
and Company "E" of the 23rd Armored Engineer Battalion,
plus personnel of the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment, had been
detached, a reinforced company of German infantry and tanks came
very close to overrunning the defenses.
At 0730 hours on December 21, a short mortar preparation fell
into the town and immediately afterward Nazi troops and tanks
began to move in. The defenders had only a few bazookas, machine
guns, and one Sherman tank, but they managed to repel the first
infiltration of panzer grenadiers in vicious street fighting.
Captain William L. Rodman, of Headquarters Company, and Captain
John L. Wilson, of the Signal Company, distinguished themselves
in this engagement.
Fighting at Hotton & Manhay
German tanks smashed into the outskirts of Hotton, but concentrated
fire from headquarters, signal and engineer personnel, plus the
punch of the one Sherman tank, drove them out again. By noon
the town was quiet, but six engineer bridge trucks and several
other vehicles had been knocked out. The enemy had suffered the
loss of three tanks, one of which he abandoned in the best of
Combat Command "Reserve" immediately attempted to move
to the assistance of this small force at Hotton but was unable
to get through an enemy road block at Soy. However, a platoon
each of tanks from "G" Company of the 32nd Armored
Regiment and "C" Company of the 33rd Armored Regiment,
plus "B" Company of the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment,
managed to reach the town. Under the command of Major Jack Fickesson,
executive officer of the 23rd Armored Engineer Battalion, a defensive
line was set up and held.
German forces continued to attack on December 24. In order to
stabilize the line, Combat Command Howze was ordered to advance
while Task Force Richardson removed its road block. Somehow,
eight enemy tanks and supporting infantry managed to get behind
this force in the town of Manhay. The road block, commanded by
Major Olin Brewster, was trapped. Caught by direct fire from
both sides of the route, Brewster quickly lost two of his light
tanks. He destroyed the remaining vehicles and came out on foot
with his men.
Task Force Hogan, still surrounded at Marcouray, was running
out of medical supplies as well as gasoline and ammunition. The
54th Armored Field Artillery Battalion attempted to shoot bandages
and plasma in to the besieged area, but the effort failed. Parachuted
materiel also fell into enemy hands. The task force, now called
"Hogan's 400," was hammered with German guns of all
calibers, hopelessly surrounded, and at last given up as lost.
Finally General Rose contacted Colonel Hogan by radio and ordered
all vehicles and equipment destroyed.
The work was done very quietly so that the enemy might not suspect,
and then, on Christmas night, the weary, beat up GI's who had
given and taken so much punishment proceeded to infiltrate back
to American lines through enemy siege forces.
There was no peace on earth for the "400." Behind them
were the wrecks of their fuelless vehicles, the wounded, and
the medics who volunteered to stay. Ahead - the long hills, the
German Army, and a desperate gamble for life. The "400,"
faces blackened, stumbled back to safety through the snowy hills
of Belgium. Hogan, the lean Texas tanker who drove through the
first Belgian offensive with a flag of the lone star state flying
from his command vehicle, came in last - grinning to hide the
hurt and the memory of those dead and wounded men he had to leave
behind in Marcouray.
Only once was the column halted on the way out. An alert German
sentry challenged the advance patrol. S/Sgt. Lee B. Porter, a
communications man and an all-around fighter of the 83rd Armored
Reconnaissance Battalion, slipped quietly forward and, before
the guard could challenge again, Porter had reached him with
After 14 hours of stealthy marching by compass and the stars,
Hogan's men contacted friendly infantry. Their amazing story
was flashed around the world in a matter of hours.
Christmas Eve Slaughter
For the 3rd Armored Division a climax of bitter fighting seemed
to be reached on Christmas eve. At Amonines, both flanks of Colonel
Orr's battle group were open and there was nothing to the rear.
He was deployed on a three mile front. Jerry troops, flushed
by victory in the so-far successful winter offensive, were determined
to smash through and rub out the irritating spot of opposition
which had held them for three days.
It was a beautiful night of clear, crisp cold, but to the men
of Orr's command there was no spirit of Christmas as wave after
wave of frenzied German soldiers attempted to overwhelm them.
Cooks, drivers, and maintenance men went into the line. Tankers
who had lost their Shermans in the furious fighting, went up
to dig foxholes and wait with the "Blitz Doughs." Every
available man, every straggler, every clerk and rear echelon
Joe was there that night with a rifle or a machine gun in his
hands. Still the defending force was woefully small.
The enemy tried a frontal assault with tanks, and suffered heavily.
He tried tanks and infantry combined; that didn't work. He came
back screaming mad in an infantry envelopment - and was slaughtered
in hundreds by the grim defenders. Supported by mortars, artillery,
and rocket fire, the German attack surged forward twelve separate
times - and twelve times it went reeling back in confusion leaving
mounds of dead on the new snow.
When the final Jerry attack failed and the salient quieted to
an occasional harassing round from enemy artillery, Colonel Orr
found that he had been sweating profusely in spite of the bitter
cold. "If they'd have had three more riflemen," he
said, "they'd probably have overrun our positions."
That was Amonines on Christmas eve, 1944.
It was that way all along the 3rd Armored Division front.
During the Christmas holidays, von Rundstedt's panzer armies
seemed to balance precariously on a wave which could mean victory
or defeat. Both sides suffered heavy casualties and the battle
reached an all-time peak of fury. It was the moment of crisis
and Jerry lost.
On December 26, Task Force Kane was withdrawn under cover of
heavy fog. The line now appeared to be secure and there was a
general feeling of relief. Somehow soldiers knew that the greatest
peril had been averted and that Rundstedt's ambitious gamble
had failed. Miles of barbed wire entanglements and thousands
of anti-tank mines protected the division front at this time.
Combat Command "B" relieved Colonel Howze's weary reserve
forces on the 27th, and defenses were further improved with this
infusion of relatively fresh elements.
There was little excitement until December 28, when a green infantry
division was committed in General Doyle O. Hickey's sector in
and around Sadzot, Belgium. The new doughboy outfit dug in with
one flank anchored on Task Force Orr's positions near Amonines.
The other flank was somewhere out in the blue wilderness - and
only God knew where! As a result, communications were completely
snarled and snafu location reports submitted. General Hickey
puffed on his pipe until the sparks flew.
Finally, after a confused action had developed at midnight on
December 27, the 54th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, which
was located north of Sadzot, discovered enemy units in that town,
despite reports to the contrary.
General Hickey immediately sent an attached parachute battalion
south to protect the gun positions. Task Force Richardson was
moved to Briscol as a precautionary measure. Sporadic fighting
broke out and continued all night. It was ascertained that two
companies of panzer grenadiers, supported by tanks, had attacked
Early on the following morning an American attack, led by Colonel
Richardson's force, contacted the remainder of this panzer grenadier
regiment and destroyed it after a sharp battle in which two light
tanks were lost.
Rest, Refit, & Move Out
On the morning of December 30, the 3rd Armored Division was
pulled out of the line to rest and refit in the area Ouffet-Ocquier.
There was a short breathing space in which to take stock of the
operation concluded and to prepare for a new offensive.
The victory had been too close for comfort. Order of Battle exerts
declared that the 3rd Armored Division had tangled tracks with
some of the best units of Nazi Germany. They were: the 2nd SS
DAS REICH Panzer Division, in the Manhay-Grandmenil sector; the
1st SS LEIBSTANDARDE ADOLF HITLER Panzer Division, at LaGleize;
and the 12th SS HITLER JUGEND Panzer Division in the Samree-Dochamps
area. The Manhay north-south road was the boundary between the
Sixth SS Panzer Army on the east and the Fifth Panzer Army on
the west. Their avowed intentions, as explained by captured documents,
were a powerful drive to Liege, and then a sweep to Antwerp coordinated
with a curving thrust to take Aachen. There was more than bluff
behind the Nazi propaganda threats to present this latter city
to Adolf Hitler as a Christmas present. They came awfully close.
In the final analysis, it was only because divisions like the
3rd Armored fought to the last cartridge and the last drop of
blood and gasoline that Jerry ground to a halt in flame and death
Now, the mauled and newly refitted "Spearhead " rolled
forward to line of battle again. Reinforcements laced the ranks,
but the division was still not up to strength in either manpower
or weapons. The 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion had been relieved
from its attachment to the 1st Infantry and the 82nd Airborne
Divisions, and was once again under General Rose's control. Hogan's
"400" were also back with a score to settle. It was
bitterly cold and snow covered the ground as combat commands
formed up on a line roughly, Manhay-Snamont.
Shades of Valley Forge, but it was cold! A bitter wind whipped
over the white Belgian hills and tankers found that their steel
battle-wagons were so many mechanized ice boxes. Trench foot
and frostbite became occupational diseases as the combat commands
jumped off on January 3 in an opening attack to deflate von Rundstedt's
salient. The objective of the First Army was a junction with
Third Army forces at Houffalize.
Difficult terrain, the worst weather a Belgian winter had to
offer, and the best of remaining German troops faced the multiple
spearhead columns of General Hickey and General Boudinot as they
went into line of battle. Four task forces advanced abreast in
the new offensive, and the 83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion
was echeloned to the rear.
These were the "bitter battles of the Bulge." The enemy
was determined to hold his ground, and the First Army was just
as intent on pushing through to close the escape gap. The shattered,
well remembered towns of Malempre, Floret, Jevigne, Baneaux,
Lancival, Xhout-si-Ploux, La Vaux, and Lierneux, bore mute testimony
to the fury of the fighting. Heavy shellfire had ripped the zone
of attack until no building remained untouched. Trees were splintered
across the roads, and the.snow was pocked with the sooty blossoms
left by shell and mortar bursts.
Ice, Snow, Cold & Suffering
The combat commands drove forward in bitter, crisping cold.
There was an icy, paralyzing mist over the entire battle front,
a cloud of fine, driving snow that left every tree silvered and
weighted with the clinging stuff. All of the roads glazed to
slippery ribbons, and tank tracks skidded alarmingly on the shoulders.
Snowdrifts covered extensive fields of anti-tank mines and hard
ground made foxhole construction a nightmare when shells were
falling. Men came out of the line with frozen feet, were treated
at aid stations and trudged back up to fight again. The Ardennes
looked like a Christmas card, but appearances were again deceptive.
It was agony all the way. Even the surcease of pain offered to
wounded men by morphine injections was often denied because the
syrettes froze. Medical aid men learned to tuck the syrettes
into their armpits to prevent freezing. The blood plasma, which
saved so many lives, was carried under the hoods of medical corps
peeps. Here, motor warmth kept the necessary distilled water
from becoming blocks of ice.
The ceaseless wind, the snow and icy roads made work especially
difficult for Signal wire teams. Sliding tanks cut the vital
lines of communication and drifting snow covered the breaks.
Ice formed on overheads, causing them to snap. The wire men worked
day and night at their task and often ended by stringing entire
new circuits to replace those destroyed by the elements.
After six days of heavy combat, the division had marched 11 hard-won
kilometers. Lierneux fell to Combat Command "A" after
an artillery duel and a clash of infantry and tanks. Here, the
83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion began to pass through other
division elements in order to screen further advances. At Lieurneux,
Pfc. John D. Poff, a survivor of "Hogan's 400" at Marcouray,
cradled a .30 caliber machine gun in his arms and charged a machine
gun nest of the enemy. The four Krauts attending that position
quickly lost all interest. There were a lot of good friends listed
as missing at Marcouray. Jerry had to foot the bill.
Lierneux was the site of a famed Belgian institution for the
mentally ill. This, however, did not deter German forces from
thoroughly booby trapping the area. Personnel of the 23rd Armored
Engineer Battalion carefully deloused each building to be occupied
by the division and, although land mines still wrecked an occasional
peep or tank, the majority of them were discovered and either
blown up or stacked neatly for later disposal.
Although most of the buildings in Lierneux had been struck repeatedly
by high explosive shells, most of them were made livable by a
generous boarding up of shattered windows and by the installation
of field stoves. Naturally, there were not enough of the stoves
to go around and therefore a greater majority of the fighting
men either "requisitioned" civilian models - or shivered
themselves to sleep each night. Typical was the case of Sgt.
Frank Miller and Pvt. Alexander Lapinski, a couple of CC "A"
liaison men. They had a stove which was taken from the wreckage
of a Belgian town along the route, but no stovepipe. Miller,
a former reconnaissance man, scouted around and discovered that
a nearby headquarters not only had a stove but a long length
of pipe as well - and the pipe extended out through a hole bored
in the boarded up window of their billet. At dusk, Miller and
Lapinski stalked the prize. Minutes later they had detached it
and were well on the way toward a comfortable evening. The headquarters
men pawed at their streaming eyes and wondered where all the
smoke was coming from!
The 45th Armored Medical Battalion established a rest center
at Lierneux which catered to combat fatigue and minor wounds.
Although enemy shells still howled down to burst in the area,
the center offered a temporary surcease of suffering to men whose
bodies and nerves were strained to a breaking point by the constant
grind of the attack.
String of Bitter Battles
There were old "acquaintances" ahead of the "Spearhead"
Division during the bitter battles. The 12th Volksgrenadier Division,
which had taken such a hammering on the Roer, once again felt
the punch of the 3rd. For all practical purposes, the 12th and
the 560th Volksgrenadier Divisions were destroyed. Units of the
326th Volksgrenadier Division were then noted along the front
line along with scattered elements of the 9th SS, and 15th Panzer
Grenadier Divisions. The advance was slow but steady. By January
20 another ten kilometers of ground had changed hands. More names
were engraved upon the memories of 3rd Armored Division soldiers:
Fraiture, and Verieumont, Grant Sart, Provedreoux, Ottre, and
Hebronval. They were smashed and cluttered places, with dead
men in the snowy ditches. There was constant shellfire and infantry
clashes. No summer soldiers in the line of battle here.
On January 11, troops of the 83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion
had passed through division elements east of Pisserotte. Their
mission was to take a road junction two kilometers north of Mont-le-Ban
and to deny the use of a nearby bridge to the enemy. The reconnaissance
men had reached their objective by 1430 hours, but found that
they were under the direct observation of German artillery. Task
force tanks were advised to remain behind until dusk and then
to come up and secure the bridge and road junction. In the meantime
the recon troopers directed Division Artillery on enemy positions
and outposted the area.
At dawn the attack was resumed, with "Able" Company
leading. Instead of the obvious route through Mont-le-Ban, Colonel
Yeomans, an old football player, mapped an end-sweep. The task
force rolled swiftly to the right of town through wooded country.
It was a soft spot in the German line. The "Spearhead"
task force shook loose and bowled ahead. By 1330 hours, Colonel
Yeomans' lead elements had taken under fire the vital Houffalize-St.
Vith road where it joined with the Mont-le-Ban highway, and his
tank-destroyers were blasting German armor off secondary roads
beyond the main artery. Back at Division Headquarters in Hebronval,
the news of this sweep was received with immense satisfaction.
The enemy was more surprised than he had been in weeks.
In the meantime, task forces under Colonels Kane and Hogan battered
into Mont-le-Ban. Task Force Lovelady took Lomre in a coordinated
tank attack and, on the following day, Colonel John C. Welborn's
men entered Baclain.
All of these towns saw heavy fighting. Enemy anti-tank guns,
artillery and armor often seemed to present an impenetrable wall
of defense. It was only through superior leadership and the plain,
everyday guts of the attacking soldiers, that progress was made
at all. It became apparent that Sherman tanks were no match for
the big German Panther and Tiger machines when the outcome depended
upon armor or gun performance. The Jerry's high velocity 75mm
and, of course, his famous 88mm weapons, consistently outperformed
the 75mm and 76mm rifles on allied vehicles. Dug in properly,
a heavy German tank was a formidable adversary - and most of
them were very well dug-in and camouflaged during the last phases
of the Bulge campaign.
However, at this time the 3rd Armored Division continued to take
its losses stoically and just as stubbornly ground ahead. Every
little town became a place of memory where comrades had been
killed or seriously wounded. At Lomre, the headquarters of Combat
Command "B" received a heavy shelling when a nearby
haybarn was set afire. One high explosive projectile whirled
into a room occupied by the staff and miraculously killed only
two out of the dozen or more men present. Trench foot, frozen
toes, battle fatigue - these were the hallmarks of the Ardennes
battlefront. Replacements arrived and yet the fighting units
were always under strength. The new men seemed terribly young,
and veterans scowled to see them come up front with the chalked
markings of a POE still upon their helmets. They were healthy,
clean kids, rather confused and wondering what the war was really
like. They'd know soon enough, the old men thought. Within a
few short days they'd know the horrible fatigue of the frontline
doughboy - the dragging step and the glazed eyes that see only
the enemy. They went up into the line and they came out for a
breather - some of them; and they went back again. By that time
they walked like mechanical creatures and they didn't look human
at all. Like the rest of the "Spearhead " soldiers
they were dirty, burdened, frostbitten, and tired to the marrow
of their bones. Yet they kept attacking day and night, taking
their losses, driving Jerry back and back until he had to break.
It was a terrible thing to see and yet there was something of
greatness in it too. In spite of cold and fear and sudden death,
these civilian soldiers went on to smash the professional fighting
men of Germany. But there was too much sorrow. Too much blood
on the snow.
Ordeals of Combat Engineers
A typical example of the sort of action which became commonplace
on the Ardennes battlefront, was that of the combat engineers
at Petit Langlir. Here the retreating enemy had blown a small
bridge in order to slow the attack. If the "Spearhead"
division planned to hold its initiative, the bridge had to be
repaired immediately. Enemy forces were aware of the situation
and consequently they pounded the area with high explosives.
A platoon of the 23rd Armored Engineer Battalion, commanded by
Lt. Clarence C. Buckley and S/Sgt. Lloyd Jacobs, was called upon
to do the job.
In complete darkness, a squad led by Sgt. Richard Scearcy and
Cpl. Claude Looney, cleared the rubble littered approaches of
land mines. It was heartbreaking work there in the mud and snow.
German guns maintained a constant harassing fire and, worse,
an American infantry unit, somehow mistaking the engineer crew
for an enemy patrol, opened up on it with small arms. This mistake
was soon rectified and the work went on.
A second squad, led by St. Ralph Wiley and Cpl. Henry Ferarro,
arrived to install the new bridge approaches. The men worked
frantically, feeling each timber into place and diving to the
ground when Jerry's artillery whistled nearby.
The last squad, led by Sgt. Hugo Mach and Cpl. James Tretter,
installed the finished 24-foot bridge. Under continuous bombardment
by German guns they backed a big engineer truck into position,
systematically laid the treadway and secured it in place. Three
members of Mach's squad were wounded and evacuated during the
operation, but the mission was accomplished. At dawn, attacking
armor of the 3rd Armored Division rolled over the little bridge
and on to a new objective. The daily communique never mentioned
small articles such as this, and yet their importance was great.
Without fanfare or glory, these engineer Joes worked long hours
under enemy bombardment at night, wading in icy, hip-deep water.
The world applauded the spectacular slash of tanks, but their
success was due in direct proportion to the work of the combat
engineers in many cases.
The towns of Sterpigny and Cherain are bitter memories to men
of the 3rd Armored Division. Here, on January 15, part of Colonel
John C. Welborn's task force was cut off and its light tanks
destroyed by a Mark-V Panther tank The Panther then absorbed
three rounds from one of Welborn's Shermans and proceeded to
set the American vehicle ablaze.
Cherain was initially attacked by Task Force Lovelady, which
also lost heavily in tanks to the German defenders and their
carefully emplaced anti-tank guns. The town finally fell to Lt.
Colonel Hogan's infantry elements, "I" Company of the
36th, but not before its ownership had changed several times.
Ambush of 3AD Tanks
The road which touched Cherain had to be cut and, come hell
or AT guns, snow or ice, the 3rd Armored Division intended to
do the job. Lt. Glen M. Alford led one company in an attack.
He had eight tanks, or, as the saying goes - first there were
Alford's company had barely moved out when a German Mark IV was
sighted and knocked out. Immediately afterward, Lt. Sheldon C.
Picard observed a column of self-propelled 88mm artillery pieces
and directed successfully artillery fire on it. The mission had
begun well, but the fortunes of war turned suddenly hostile.
Alford's tank hit a mine and was immobilized. He was unhurt.
A wicked cross fire caught two more of the force. That left five.
Desperately trying to hold the vital road, Jerry threw everything
in his anti-tank book at the advancing armor. Lt. Picard's tank
was knocked out along with another of the force. And now there
Sgt. Maurice L. Humphries assumed command and resolutely continued
to drive forward. German fire lanced out from flanks and direct
front. The enemy was well dug in and camouflaged.
"Can't see a damned thing," muttered Cpl. Octaviano
Carrion, "excepting for one Heinie, and I blew him right
out of his hole."
The ambush was nearly complete. An armor piercing round crashed
through Carrion's tank. Hot metal splashed the gunner's face.
Humphries, searching wildly for a target, spotted a Mark V. His
gunner, Cpl. Leslie Underwood, bounced five rounds off the heavy
enemy vehicle. The Panther's return fire sent one round through
the turret, another into the final drive. It was bail out or
As Humphries went over the side he noted bitterly that all of
his small command had been stopped. Sgt. Bill Burton's Sherman
had all hatches open and that meant only one thing - a hit.
German fire had increased its tempo. Mortars and machine guns
added to the din. Several "Spearhead" tankers were
badly hurt but those who had escaped injury led them to safety
in a ditch nearby.
Now, flushed with victory, the enemy closed in. Machine gun and
rifle fire rattled off the broken tanks. Friendly artillery crashed
into the advancing infantry but, drunk with success, the Kraut
Underwood, lying in a ditch beside his tank, saw an American
shellburst almost cover one Nazi. A second German threw the wounded
man over his shoulder and still came staggering forward!
A Miracle Escape
Most of the 3rd Armored Division men had made good their escape,
but slight chance was offered to Underwood, Humphries, Carrion,
and several others. Humphries managed to crawl out of sight.
Underwood played dead; he lay in the snow, face downward. A mortar
shell landed close enough to burn his jacket, but he never moved.
Presently a group of Germans approached. One grabbed the "Spearhead"
tanker by the collar and shook him. "Kaput," said the
German finally, and moved away. A second Kraut kicked the American's
ribs but awakened no response. They left him there, then, lying
in the snow.
Four hours later, after the sun had set, Underwood slowly began
his tedious trip back to the lines. He passed close to a pair
of German sentries and later painfully crawled the length of
a shallow ditch while machine gun fire raked the area.
Cpl. Calvin Wickware, Humphries, and Carrion, were also making
their way back at this time. The four men swam a deep stream,
pausing now and then as broken ice tinkled loudly in the night,
and German machine guns searched for the sound. Humphries added
even greater gallantry to his exploit by carrying a wounded infantryman
across the stream and by personally applying first aid.
Back at the command post, before a leaping fire, the men of the
ill fated task force stood about in Long Johns discussing their
adventure. The next morning they went back into new tanks and
moved out once again. There was another objective to be taken,
and there was no time for rest.
German Columns Battered
As the "Spearhead" Division battered south of Cherain
on January 16, German vehicles, attempting to pull out of the
rapidly closing Bulge pocket, streamed across the 3rd Armored
Division's direct front. Slipping and sliding on the icy pavements,
these columns were taken under fire by artillery of the 67th
Armored Field, the 83rd Armored Field, and the 183rd Armored
Field Artillery Battalions. Thirteen of a total 25 enemy tanks
observed were destroyed by the concentration of high explosives
laid down by Colonel Frederic J. Brown's command. It was a highly
satisfactory sight to the tired and half-frozen Yanks on this
arctic line of battle.
Mopping up continued in many of the small towns, and the process
was often a pitched battle rather than a simple operation. Retigny,
Renglez, and Bnsy, were some of the final objectives taken before
division elements moved northwest to reach rest areas in the
During the campaign, known facetiously and with some reason as
"the bitter battle for billets in the Belgian Bulge,"
the 3rd Armored Division had added greatly to its reputation
as the spearhead of the First Army. It had suffered greatly too,
and had operated the hottest sectors of the Ardennes. General
Rose's fighting men defended many of the most important routes
of advance in the early stages of von Rundstedt's drive. And,
as usual, the division was in at the kill, doing a full part
to pinch off and eliminate the salient. Men of the "Spearhead,"
the real victors of the campaign, came out of action with weariness
steeped in their bones and pain in their quiet eyes. They felt
an abiding hate for the enemy. There were no summer soldiers
now, not even among the newest recruits.
While refitting went on in the new area, a certain sense of relief
replaced the tense, frontline attitude of doughs and tankers.
There was a new feeling in the air. Even though springtime hesitated
to declare itself, the snow began to melt. There were only a
few robot bombs overhead, and the Luftwaffe had again retired
before the advance of the Thunderbolts and Mustangs.
End of a Bad Dream
Spearhead troops looked back on the Ardennes as they would
review a bad dream. They'd always remember the biting cold, the
snow and the ice. They'd dream sometimes of the night marches
and the racketing buzz bombs, the war against parachutists and
espionage agents dressed in GI uniforms. And, of course, there
were the good things to recall - like the sky-filling fleets
of Fortresses and Liberators passing overhead to bomb the enemy
on December 24 and 25 when the hour of peril was greatest. Those
American airplanes, shining like bits of tinsel in the high,
blue arch of the sky, were a promise and a token of that great
power which still guaranteed victory, in a moment when final
peace seemed a mirage in the far, far distance.
The campaign actually sobered those soldiers who had come to
believe that the German army had long since shot its bolt and
was done. They noted, squint eyed, the new Jerry jet fighters,
and they had seen too often the result when a Sherman and a Panther
tank slugged it out muzzle to muzzle. Unless it could catch the
enemy at a disadvantage, the Sherman usually lost and was left
wrecked and burning. Skill in maneuver was the Yank stock in
trade. They won by superior tactics, and there was no doubt in
American minds about the quality of enemy equipment; it was good.
It seemed that a cloud of misery had been dissipated as the 3rd
Armored Division rolled out of the Ardennes conflict. The snow
slowly disappeared and the grass was green again. There was a
great deal of hard work in refitting, but there were also movies
in the evening and a chance to relax without wearing a steel
helmet. New tanks, better guns, and the latest equipment were
issued. One day the inevitable order came down. The 3rd was moving
up. It was Germany again.
Prologue: Now the Ardennes was just another battle star. Even
the bitterness of that terrible campaign, the cold, the pain,
and the horrible weariness of unending combat flowed together
and was fused in one vast, foggy recollection. It was like an
arctic nightmare in which only the most jagged edges of pain
might be recalled.
Next Chapter: Rhineland, Phase 2