After several attempts to ‘rush’ vehicles up the grade and concurrent efforts to hastily corduroy the roadway, it was decided that the tanks would have to be used as prime movers for the other vehicles. Consequently, all available grousers, a maximum of two per tank track, were distributed and the slow process of pulling vehicles up the 100 yards long hill began. While about one-third of the personnel were thus employed, I directed that as many men as possible make maximum use of pioneer tools to chop ice from the road. Any other men not otherwise busy were to man the vehicular weapons to guard the column against surprise attack.

The move from the bridge to the top of this hill took two and a half hours. It was a continual battle against the ice, the night, and the increasing fatigue. Many men, especially those immobile in the vehicles, started falling asleep from sheer exhaustion. For this reason, it was imperative to detail an officer to continually ‘ride herd’ on the column and to get it reorganized. As each individual vehicle reached the crest, it resumed its place in the column and awaited those still to negotiate the slope. By 0530, all vehicles except the assault gun ammunition trailers were up the hill, all the men had been awakened, and we were prepared to continue on our way. The remainder of the route was the usual snow-covered, indistinct trail but without any serious hindrances to our advance.

At 0630, the column emerged from the La Couturie Wood and made the descent into the Ourthe River valley. As we rounded an unfinished water mill at the foot of the hill, our goal came into view some six hundred yards to the east. Perched on the ridge to our front stood Houffalize, a prewar resort town, now the focal point of a determined Allied effort to crush the German offensive.

CONTACT

Up until the moment that the lead armored car fell into a tank trap, I had firmly believed that the task force could sneak into Houffalize undetected. But a few minutes after passing a water mill the first armored car of Ellenson’s platoon dropped through the light coat of snow into a hastily dug, but well concealed, trap in the middle of the road. We were within two hundred yards of our target, within sight of Houffalize, but blocked by one of our own vehicles. Inasmuch as the assigned mission was to get to Houffalize and contact elements of the 2-AD to close the now-famous Ardennes Bulge, we had to go ahead in spite of the armored car.

To make a personal recon of the approaches to the town and to be able to report that the task force had reached its destination, I took Lt Ellenson and walked ahead two hundred yards to the city limits sign. We walked around this sign a couple of times and congratulated each other on the fact that we had finally reached Houffalize. As we started back toward the column Lt Ellenson suddenly said to me:
Say, Major, there’s someone up there on the hill to the left. It looks like an OP to me.
I could see where he was pointing and there did appear to be a man, or two men, in a foxhole. Lt Ellenson shouted several times to attract the man’s attention but got no reply.
Let’s go up there, Ellenson said. It’s probably a 2-AD patrol.
Without thinking, I said:
Okay, and we started up the hill.

Ellenson hollered to his car commander, Sgt Till, that we were going up the hill and would be right back. We climbed up about fifty yards until we were within fifteen of twenty feet of the outpost. Our high hopes were dashed to the ground as the man in the foxhole stood up, trained a machine gun on us, and shouted something in German. Both of us stopped dead in our tracks and reflected for a fraction of a second as to what we should do. Ellenson’s only weapon was his flashlight and mine was my pistol, snug in its holster. Before we could think very much, the German again said something that sounded much like hands up. Lt Ellenson threw his flashlight down and put his hands up saying as he did so, I guess we are caught, Major. I hesitated for a second, just long enough to shout to Sgt Till, this is a German up here, fire at him.
Fortunately, the alert sergeant heard me. He fired the antiaircraft machine gun in the direction of the German. This fire diverted his attention long enough for Ellenson to slide down the hill and for me to jump behind a nearby log. Why the German did not fire at us, I shall never know. Instead, when fired on, he jumped out of his foxhole and ran back into town. Ellenson and I hastily returned to the column.

The firing by Sgt Till seemed to awaken what troops were then in Houffalize because immediately small-arms, AT, and mortar fire began to fall all around us. I directed that the armored car in the rear be temporarily abandoned and that all other vehicles seek protection behind the mill, the town dominated the field east of the mill, which the column had started across. The sudden outburst of activity made it quite evident that Houffalize was still occupied by the enemy. If I were to establish contact with 1-A units, it would be necessary either to get into the town, to get patrols across the Ourthe River to the north, or to sit tight until I saw friendly elements approaching from the north and northwest. I decided to do all three things in combination. The plan at this time was to contain the German troops in the town by assault gun (75-MM) fire from our present position; to dispatch Troop D dismounted to the high ground south of the town to report what enemy or friendly activity they observed, and to have the tank company push closer to our objective on either side of the river. The remaining unit, Ellenson’s platoon, was to keep on the alert to detect the approach of any friendly patrols.

I reported by radio to the Squadron’s HQs that patrols had reached the objective; that it was still occupied by German troops; and that as yet no contact had been established with the 2-AD. In return, I received a message to the effect that CCA would continue its attack at about 0800, astride the Mabompré-Houffalize road, and therefore to be alert for the approach of these troops from the south; also, that there was no additional information as to the location of 1-A troops north of the river. I later learned that CCA and CCB of the 2-AD were disposed along the high ground some 1500 yards north of our position. I would have known the exact location of the 2-AD troops earlier if arrangements had been made at the Squadron or Division HQs to establish direct radio communications between the two divisions.

As it was, the only contact was through Army channels. Quite possibly, ‘on-the-spot’ contact between the two armies would have been established hours earlier had the two advancing divisions been in a radio or telephone communication. At 0800, Troop D reported its dismounted men in position. From the high ground, this troop could observe activity in Houffalize and its environs. Thus they could report enemy reinforcements into the town of the approach of CCA from the southwest. In addition, these men were perfectly situated to provide forward observation personnel for the control of the assault gunfire.

With reference to assault guns, I came to the conclusion that it would be possible to place only one platoon (two guns) in firing position in the vicinity of the mill. The most forward platoon, (1st Platoon, Troop E), was moved into the open field just fifty yards east of the mill. True, this was a vulnerable point, but it was the only suitable firing position in the immediate area; however, the enemy mortar and small-arms fire from Houffalize was sporadic and inaccurate. I believed that the Germans were firing unobserved harassing fire and that their field of fire was limited. Once the assault gun platoon was in position, it opened fire on the town in an effort to neutralize enemy forward observers and AT weapons. While these guns were firing, the troop commander, Capt Krivak, was making a recon for favorable positions for the other four guns. He recommended that these platoons fire by indirect fire methods from their positions in the column. This I approved. The method of indirect fire was made possible and effective by the use of the Troop D forward observers located on the high ground overlooking Houffalize.

Now that I had a firm base of fire and a holding (or observing) force, I was especially desirous of getting a maneuvering force into use. I planned to use the light tanks for this purpose. With this in mind, the tank company commander, Capt Mullins, and his other officers and senior NCOs conducted a thorough recon for suitable routes. They were looking for a means of getting into Houffalize either by crossing the Ourthe River of by swinging to the south and entering the town through Troop D’s position – the frontal approach to the objective was under German observation and the armored car was still blocking the road. All recon to the river and along trails other than the main one proved futile. There were no vehicular bridges of fords across the river and all other trails were effectively blocked by felled trees interlaced across them. The only tank approach to Houffalize was the route we were on across the field dominated by the town itself.

I directed that, under cover of assaulting fire, a tank be sent forward to pull the armored car out of the trap. This was done, only to cause an appreciable increase in the small-arms fire which began to become increasingly effective. The tank threw a track as it was just starting to pull the armored car out of the trap. Consequently, another tank was dispatched to complete the job. After several unsuccessful attempts, the disabled vehicle was pulled clear. At this moment, heavy mortar fire began to fall on the exposed assault gun platoon. This fire had telling effect as it hit in the trees over the guns and the tree bursts caused a shower of shell fragments on the open turret vehicles below. The platoon leader and several men were seriously wounded by these fragments; therefore, I ordered the guns to move back out of the position.

Simultaneously with the mortar attack, heavy artillery fire began to fall on the Troop’s positions. From my position, I could observe this fire and believed it to be friendly artillery fire coming in from the northwest. This belief was confirmed in a few moments by the troop commander as he requested permission to abandon his position. I ordered Troop D to move out of the impact area but to remain in a position from which they could continue observing to the north, south, and east. This change was subsequently reported to squadron headquarters along with a request that steps be taken to lift the 1-A artillery barrage.


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