Operations of the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, Indian Head, in an Hasty Defense against a German Panzer Force Attack in the north of Krinkelt-Rocherath, December 17, to December 18, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, Belgium. Personal Experience of a Battalion Executive Officer.
Maj William F. Hancock
Introduction. This archive covers the operations of the 1st Battalion of the 9th Infantry Regiment (2nd Infantry Division) in the defense against the German counteroffensive in Dec 1944. In order to orient the reader, it will be necessary to discuss briefly some of the major military operations which led up to this action. On Jun 6, 1944, the Allied Armies successfully invaded the continent of Europe and by early Dec, had pushed inland across France and Belgium. The US 7-A and the French 1-A invaded the southern coast of France on Aug 15, 1944, moved rapidly north, and joined the US 3-A on the German Border. Here, the Allied Armies faced the Bunkers and the Dragoon’s Teeth of the German Siegfried Line also known as the West Wall. The Siegfried Line consisted of mutually supporting defenses in depth. These defenses were built around reinforced-concrete pillboxes. The US 1-A prepared plans for the continuation of the attack through the Siegfried Line.
Gen Walter M. Robertson’s 2-ID landed in France on D+1 and fought through the hedgerows country of Normandy as part of the US V Corps. On Aug 16, the Indian Head Division was withdrawn from the Normandy fighting and moved to the vicinity of Brest, France, to participate in the capture of the city. On Sept 18, the city of Brest fell and the 2-ID was again on the move across France and into Belgium. The division closed into an assembly area in the vicinity of St Vith, Belgium, and prepared to move into a defensive position in the Schnee Eifel region. The division moved into positions into the Schnee Eifel and remained there until Dec 11. At this time the division was relieved by the 106-ID and moved to the north to rejoin the US V Corps in the vicinity of Elsenborn, Belgium, in preparation for the planned US 1-A attack through the Siegfried Line.
General Situation. Since the middle of the month of Sept 1944, the attention of the US 1-A had been directed at the Roer River dams. It was realized that no large scale crossing of the Roer River below the dams could be undertaken until the dams were in friendly hands. Orders for the V Corps, as part of the 1-A, to attack and secure the Roer River dams were issued on Dec 7. At this period, the V Corps consisted of the 2-ID, the 8-ID, the 78-ID, and the 99-ID. Also in the V Corps were, the 102-CG, CCB 9-AD, and CCR, 5-AD as Corps reserve. According to the V Corps plan, the 2-ID was to seize successively the following objectives, the vicinity and road junction northwest of Arenberg, the ridge southwest of the road junction west of Schöneseiffen, the Harperscheid Schöneseiffen area and the Dreiborn area, the Herhahn Moresbach, a large area including the nose north of Dreiborn, the vicinity of Wollseifen, and the important Urft Talsperre (Urft Dam). Objectives of the 99-ID were to attack in conjunction with the 2-ID and to capture the high wooded ground west of Hellenthal and south Haperscheid. The operations of the 78-ID were to be in three phases. During the first phase, the initial effort was to push east from the Lammersdorf area to seize the high ground at Kesternich and then the high ground west of Rurberg overlooking the Paulushoff Dam area from the west. During the second phase, it was to support this action on the right of its initial effort by seizing Konzen, Imgenbroich, and Eicherscheid. During the third phase, it was to drive through Rollesbroich, and seize Steckenborn, advance up the ridge and seize Schmidt. Turning southeast, it was to secure a final objective on the Roer west of Hasenfeld, including the Hasenfeld Dam.
The 8-ID’s efforts were limited to maintaining pressure along the Kall River, and in being prepared to attack on the Corps order into the Kommerscheid Schmidt area to secure objectives in the Gemünd Forest between Hasenfeld and the south of the Kall River. The 102-CG; CCB 9-AD and CCR 5-AD were held in Corps reserve. The attack moved off on Dec 13.
On the morning of Dec 16, the German counter-offensive began in pré-dawn attacks all along with the 99-ID’s sector of the V Corps. During the afternoon, the orders from higher HQs stated that the V Corps was to continue the attack on Dec 17. The 6.SS-Panzer-Army threatening the 2-ID was spearheaded by the 1.SS-Panzer-Division and the 12.SS-Panzer-Division. These two SS Panzer Divisions were the German Elite troops, meticulously trained, who doubtless would be used in a sector where success was vital to the overall German strategy.
The 12.SS-Panzer-Division (Hitlerjugend) was described as fanatical and their one aim was to kill as brutally as possible. Prior to the attack, the division commander had addressed the troops as follows, I ask you and expect of you not to take any prisoners with the possible exception of a few officers to be kept alive for questioning. Opposite to the 12.SS-Panzer-Division were the battle-tested troops of the 2-ID. Their morale was high. The terrain in the area was generally rolling an in some sectors covered by heavy forest. Wirtzfeld, Rocherath, and Krinkelt commanded an important road net that led to Elsenborn.
The weather was cold and generally cloudy. The ground was covered with about one and a half feet of snow and ice. During the night of Dec 16, a heavy fog settled over the countryside, and observation became extremely poor. Supplies were well forward and constituted no immediate problem.
Gen Walter M. Robertson, the Commanding General of the 2-ID, took immediate steps to cope with the situation. Higher HQs had not sensed the extent of the threat and ordered a continuation of the attack towards the Corps’ objectives on Dec 17. Gen Robertson, on the spot, sized up the situation and acted decisively. When reports came in that the elements of the 2-ID and the 99-ID had been overrun, the 2/23-IR was ordered to move from its assembly area north of Rocherath to a position south of Krinkelt and Wirtzfeld. The 2/38-IR, located in a reserve position southwest of Wahlerscheid, was moved at once to Krinkelt and ordered to maintain a defensive position. The 9-IR was ordered to move all three battalions to a defensive position south of Wirtzfeld. The 38-IR was ordered to move its remaining two battalions to a defensive position around Rocherath. The 1/23-IR was moved into a defensive position around Mürringen. At this time the 3/23, was fighting a defensive action east of Rocherath in the sector of the 99-ID.
After hearing of the rapid deterioration of the defenses east of Rocherath in the sector of the 393-IR (99-ID), Gen Robertson intercepted the 9-IR column 4000 meters northeast of Rocherath. The regiment was moving in a column in order of 2/9, 3/9, and 1/9. Gen Robertson decided to cut the column. He directed King Co and some elements of HQs Co 3/9, to go into position on the crossroads 2000 meters northeast of Rocherath. He then proceeded down the road and met the 1/9. Here, he ordered the 1/9 to move into a defensive position 2000 meters northeast of Rocherath and hold the position at all costs until ordered to withdraw. Gen Robertson stated that he had already directed some elements of the 3/9 into the same position and that one platoon of the 644-TDB (T) was in position covering the road crossing.
Gen Robertson instructed then Col McKinley, the Commanding Officer of the 1/9, that he would take command of any troop that attempted to withdraw through the road crossing from the northeast. The division commander further stated that two battalions of the 38-IR Infantry were to withdraw down the road from Wahlerscheid to Rocherath and that the crossroads must hold until the 2-ID was able to form a defensive line to the west.
Battalion Situation. At 1700, the 1/9-IR moved to the road crossing and began organizing its defenses. King Co and thirty men from HQs Co (3/9) with a Platoon from the 644-TDB were already in position at the road crossing. With these reinforcements, the battalion was brought up to approximately sixty-five percent strength. The terrain in the area was generally flat with a gradual rise in the direction of the expected attack. A small ridgeline lay 200 meters west of the crossroads. The battalion ammunition vehicles included a 1.5-ton truck and four jeeps with trailers. These vehicles were located 600 meters in the rear of the defensive positions. The ammunition vehicles carried a basic load of ammunition and in addition, seventy-five rounds of bazooka ammunition along with fifteen extra bazookas. During a short rest period in early Dec, the battalion commander had directed the training of extra bazooka teams within each company.
The German forces opposing the battalion were elements of the 12.SS-Panzer-Division and of the 277.Volksgrenadier-Division. The weather was extremely cold, and snow covered the ground to a depth of one to two feet. An extremely heavy fog settled over the battalion positions and visibility was practically nil.
Battalion Plan of Defense. The plan of defense called for Able and Baker Cos (1/9) to prepare positions on the MLR (Main Line of Resistance). Baker Co was given the left sector and the responsibility of the main road leading into the battalion position. Able Co was assigned the sector on the right of Baker and given the responsibility of tying in with King Co (3/9) on the right. Charlie Co was assigned a position on the left flank of the battalion with the mission of giving depth to the battalion position and of refusing the battalion’s left flank. The heavy machine-guns of Dog Co were set up on the MLR with near-maximum grazing fire to the front and the flanks. The companies were instructed to remove all bazookas from the transportation and to place teams in each strong point on the MLR. Artillery fires were planned all along the front of the battalion while concentrations were planned on the road in front of Baker Co extending to the wooded area 2000 yards to the northeast.
Final Preparations For Action. At 1800 Dec 17, a meeting was held at the battalion command post. All unit commanders were given final instructions as to the urgency of the situation and were further instructed to again imbue the men with the absolute necessity of holding the position at all cost. The CO of Baker Co made arrangements for the platoon leader of the 644-TDB to deliver what AT mines his platoon had to the road crossing. The CO was instructed to plant mines on each side of the road leading into his position and to place Daisy Chains of mines across the road when the enemy armor made its appearance. The companies were warned that there were still remnants of routed friendly troops to the front, and that there were probably some friendly tanks still to be withdrawn from the front. At this time the artillery liaison officer gave the company commanders the number of three artillery concentrations that he had been able to register before darkness. The companies were issued extra ammunition. Particular attention was given to placing extra machine-gun, and extra bazooka ammunition on the defensive positions. The radio and wire communications were double-checked. The command radio was unable to reach the 9-IR and it was decided to save the batteries for the artillery radio, as no extra batteries were immediately available.
Defense of the Crossroads Dec 17. At 1900, a phone call from Baker Co indicated that the three tanks followed by approximately thirty infantrymen had passed through their lines and were proceeding towards Rocherath. Lt John Milesnick, CC of Baker Co stated that the tanks and infantrymen were believed to be friendly; however, he had not positively identified them due to the darkness and heavy fog that had settled over the countryside. Col McKinley, CO of the 1/9-IR, immediately directed Able Co to identify the tanks and infantry. This was done by a patrol, and the tanks and infantry were identified as German. Lt Stephen A. Truppner, CC of Able Co, directed artillery fire on the German force with good results. He reported that one tank was set on fire and that the troops were screaming and had dispersed in all directions. At approximately 2000, Baker Co reported that several tanks could be heard in the heavily wooded area 2000 yards to the northeast of the battalion position. This was verified by reports from the other front line companies. By this time the noise could be heard from the Battalion CP. It sounded as if a large column of tanks was approaching the battalion position from the road leading from the heavily wooded area to the northeast. The battalion CO directed that Baker Co mine the road in front of their position. This was done by Lt Roy Allen by placing a Daisy Chain across the road and covering it with two bazooka teams. Shortly after this was completed, the column of armor came down the road toward the battalion’s defensive position. The column of armor was in closed formation with a distance of approximately fifty yards between tanks. Each tank was followed by a platoon of infantry. Hitting the Daisy Chain, the leading tank was disabled. The second tank in column attempted to move around the disabled tank and was disabled by the same Daisy Chain.
The two disabled tanks formed a roadblock. The armored column was partially canalized by the high road banks on each side of the road, however, several of the tanks were able to pull off the road to the left continuing towards the battalion position. Lt Milesnick dispatched two bazooka teams to attack these bypassing tanks in the flank as they moved around the roadblock. Two additional tanks were destroyed by the bazooka fire. Lt Milesnick reported the events to the battalion CO and further stated that the tanks were continuing to move out of the woods to the northeast. There was evidence of confusion among the German forces as the tanks continued to close up in front of the battalion position. The battalion CO was quick to make an estimate of the situation. The German forces had apparently been surprised by the battalion’s defensive position. This as believed to have been brought about by the failure of the first elements of the German force to report the battalion’s position as they passed through earlier in the evening.
The battalion CO directed that all available artillery be brought down on this enemy column and in approximately five minutes, Lt Granville, Artillery Liaison Officer, had the entire 15-FAB firing on this target. The road was searched from a point just in front of Baker Co to a point 2000 meters to the northeast where the main road leading into the battalion position emerges from the woods. The artillery fires caught the German column in an extremely vulnerable position and the results were evidenced by the cries from the Germans in the burning tanks that had received direct hits from the concentrated artillery fire.
Fires from two light, four medium, and one heavy artillery battalion were available and full advantage was taken of this support. The road to the northeast and the heavily wooded area was under almost continuous fire during the entire hour that followed. The road between the battalion position and Rocherath was interdicted for the remainder of the night. At approximately 2100, the Germans deployed the tanks that they had been able to pull off the road. In conjunction with a company of infantry, they attacked the battalion position frontally. Six to eight tanks moved to within 200 meters of the battalion position attacking the front lines by fire for thirty minutes. Then the German infantry attempted to move in and eject the defender. The German attack failed when the attacking force ran into the final protective line of fire laid down by the heavy machine-guns from Dog Co. The enemy soon saw the futility of this sort of tactic and withdrew only to attack again in a few minutes with the tanks and infantry moving in together. The tanks penetrated the front lines all along the front of Baker and Able Cos. The fire from the tanks, however, was very ineffective due to the blindness of the tankers in the night and heavy fog.
The German infantry was stopped at the MLR with heavy losses. Due to the lack of visibility bazooka teams were able to move into within ten yards of the tanks that had penetrated the lines and destroy them. There were two Mark V Panther tanks that the bazooka teams could not destroy due to the thickness of their armor. These tanks made a stationary pillbox within the battalion lines and continued to harass Baker Co by machine-gun fire. Cpl Roberts (Dog Co) and Sgt Bone (Baker Co) teamed up to destroy these tanks by using gasoline. One of the men mounted the tanks, while the other passed him a five-gallon can of gasoline that was placed over the motor of the tank. An M-14 termite incendiary hand grenade on the gasoline did the rest. By 2400, the entire attack had bogged down and all was quiet except friendly artillery fire.
Control Re-Established – Re-Supply. The remainder of the night was spent in the re-establishment of control, readjustment of front lines, and re-supply. Leaders who had become casualties were replaced. Front line positions were improved. All the needed ammunitions were resupplied to the front line companies by the 81-MM Mortar Plat. of Dog Co. The close proximity of the ammunition truck simplified their task considerably. After the ammunition was resupplied, the 81-MM Mortar Platoon was used to tie in the rear of the battalion with Charlie Co on the left and King Co on the right. Roving patrols moved throughout the battalion area for the remainder of the night.
It was believed that the Germans would make a determined effort to infiltrate in and around the battalion position. A patrol from Dog Co checked into the battalion command post at 0100 and reported that all was quiet throughout the battalion area. Leaving the CP, the patrol leader jumped into the sunken road which ran by the Battalion CP. Hitting the ground, he found himself face to face with a five-man German patrol that was preparing to attack the battalion CP. The patrol leader with one short burst from his Thompson sub-machine gun killed four of the Germans.
A little while later, the battalion CO ordered Charlie Co to move to a position just north of Rocherath to prevent the Germans from infiltrating behind the battalion position and subsequently into the town. Capt Arnold Algier, CO of Charlie Co, moved his company down the road to the designated spot. Upon arrival he discovered that a company of the 38-IR had been ordered into the same position and Capt Algier moved his company back over the same route to his original position, the left flank of the battalion.
During the night, a wireline was laid between the battalion position and the 2/38. Col Boos, CO 38-IR, called Col McKinley and informed him that the 1/9-IR was now attached to the 38-IR. Col Boos further stated that the battalion could withdraw some time the following day when the 2/38 completed the establishment of the line west of the 1/9-IR’s present position. Col Boos emphasized the urgency of the entire situation and further stated that the present battalion position would be held at all costs until ordered to withdraw. This, however, was unnecessary as the division commander had been very emphatic about the battalion’s mission in the initial orders.
German Attack Dec 18. At 0600 on the morning of Dec 18, the full force of the German attack struck the entire battalion front. The fog was extremely heavy and visibility was limited to a few feet. The Germans attacked with tanks and infantry moving in simultaneously. The real gallantry and tenacity of the front line units proved to offset the superior forces of the Germans. As the tanks and infantry attempted to roll over the positions they were met with all means available. The tanks were permitted to pass into the lines while the accompanying infantry was attacked from all sides with bayonets and trench knives. This battle raged spasmodically for the following two hours and the defenders succeeded in defeating the foot troops. Several tanks were destroyed by bazooka fire and at 0830, the German force attacked again all along the front. Since the fog was lifting to some extent, the German tanks that had penetrated the positions earlier in the morning came to life. These tanks moved all along the front destroying the machine-guns on the MLR while they were firing on their final protective lines.
By this time, Able and King Cos were desperate. The Germans had completely overrun their positions, and the remnants of the two front line platoons of the company had been captured. The Support Platoon and Company HQs were still holding out. Baker Co was still holding the road crossing. Charlie Co had succeeded in preventing the left flank of the battalion from being turned by a platoon of infantry. At 1100, the battalion commander received orders from the CO of the 38-IR to formulate plans to withdraw through the 2/38 which was endeavoring to form a line to the west. The withdrawal was contingent, however, on the formation of this defensive line.
Counterattack – Withdrawal. All companies were contacted and given the tentative plan of withdrawal. At this time, Able and King Cos reported that it would be impossible to extricate any of their personnel with the possible exception of a few of the CP Group. Lt Truppner, CC of Able Co, called over his SCR-300 a few minutes later stating that he was about to destroy all his radios but, before doing it, he asked that a ten-minute artillery barrage be fired on his own position. He further informed that the few men that remained in his company could take cover in their foxholes and that the Germans were moving over his positions in mass. The artillery barrage was fired. No more was heard from Able Co.
At 1100, the battalion commander called the CO of the 38-IR informing him that it would be impossible to withdraw his battalion without the aid of tanks or tank destroyers. This conversation had not been completed when Lt Henski, the Battalion AT Officer walked into the CP with a tank platoon leader from the 741-TB. Although the tank platoon leader had been cut off by the enemy, he had managed to escape. He had four Sherman tanks a mile down the road towards Wahlerscheid. Volunteering his services, the tank platoon leader, Col McKinley, and Capt Harvey (S-3), set to work formulating a plan of counter-attack in conjunction with the proposed withdrawal. The plans were as follows, 1. the tank platoon was to destroy three German tanks that had Baker Co pinned down, and 2. the tank platoon was to envelop both flanks of the penetration in the vicinity of Able and Baker Cos’ sector. A thirty-minute artillery concentration was planned in conjunction with the counter-attack.
Shortly after 1100, the CO of the 2/38, notified Col McKinley that the withdrawal could commence at 1200. The completed withdrawal plan was given to all troops within reach. Able Co by this time was no longer considered in the withdrawal as their positions had been completely overrun. Capt Garvey, CO of King Co, stated that he preferred to stay with his company as it was impossible to withdraw any of his platoons. At 1115, the artillery preparations began and lasted until 1145. The four Sherman tanks which moved into position under cover of the artillery fire, attacked the three German tanks destroying two, while the remaining tank escaped towards Rocherath. Under the cover of the initial counter-attack, the following companies broke contact and withdrew to the rear, Charlie, the majority of Baker, Battalion HQs, and Dog, less the two heavy machine-gun platoons. The 644-TDB withdrew at this time. The tanks withdrew to the vicinity of the battalion CP. From this position, they launched another attack from a slightly different direction. In conjunction with this counter-attack, the reminder of Baker Co with two or three men from Able Co broke away and withdrew to the rear. At this time the battalion CO, S-3, and the tank platoon withdrew to the rear.
In brief summary of this battalion’s eighteen-hour defensive stand against overwhelming odds, it can be stated that the mission was completely accomplished. The eighteen-hour delay of the German force at this vital road crossing gave the remainder of the 2-ID time to set up a defensive line to the rear which held and remained intact during the entire German counter-offensive. The immediate results of the stand prompted Col Boos, CO of the 38-IR, to tell Col William McKinley, You have saved my regiment. Prompted, Maj Daniel Webster, G-3 of the 2-ID, to say, You have saved the entire 2-ID. Gen Hodges was prompted to phone the following message to Gen Walter M. Robertson, CG of the 2-ID, What the 2-ID has done in these last four days will live forever in the history of the United States Army.
The total strength of the reinforced battalion at the time of the attack by the German force was 26 officers and 487 enlisted men. Of this total, 20 officers and 220 enlisted men survived the withdrawal on Dec 18. The 308 officers and enlisted men who failed to withdraw are accounted for as follows, 17 known KIA, 61 WIA, 17 NBC, and 213 MIA. Although the losses of men and material were heavy, the eighteen-hour delay had not only saved the 2-ID from being cut off but had also permitted the piecemeal withdrawal of elements of the 99-ID through the 2-ID Lines.