Document Source: Report about the employment of four (4) Tank Destroyer Battalions in the ETO. Officers Advanced Course, Armored School. 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion (Self-Propelled), by Maj William F. Jackson, Maj John E. Wales III, Maj Marshall B. Garth, Maj John A. Rankin, Maj Alfred L. Dibelia, Maj Robert Hall, Capt George F. Sawyer, Capt Robert L. Perley, Capt James L. Higgins
The 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion (SP)(Self-Propelled), commanded by Col Ephriam F. Graham, sailed from the USA on Jan 2, 1944, on board of the HMT Aquitania. The battalion landed in Northern Ireland on Jan 13 and there continued its training with emphasis placed on indirect fire. This unit left the USA equipped with the 3-inch motor gun carriage M-10 (76.2-MM), the vehicle it retained throughout its operations in Europe.
On May 10, the Battalion moved to Hungerford, England, where, along with more training, preparations were made for the move to the Normandy Peninsula. In order to provide protection for the crews against artillery fragments, a cover for each tank destroyer turret was made. These covers were made of a one-quarter-inch armor plate. They completely covered the overhead openings of the turrets. The battalion landed in Europe on Utah Beach on Jul 11. The major portion of the battalion moved across the English Channel on Jul 11 in Landing Ships and Landing Tanks. The remainder of the battalion, also in LSTs and under the control of its executive officer, Maj Edward R. Garton, crossed the following day. On Jul 15, the 644-TDB was attached to the 8-ID and although elements of the battalion were from time to time attached to other divisions, the battalion itself remained so attached until early Dec 1944.
In late autumn 1944, the US forces driving across Europe were confronted with the Roer River and the Urft River in their northern sector. The crossing of these rivers itself as they flowed at this time presented no great problem. However, located on these German rivers, were two very important and well-defended Dams. On the Roer River was the Rurtalsperre Schwammenauel (53.679.760.560 US gal), and on the Urft River the Urfttalsperre (12.548.172.375 US gal). The importance of these dams was fully realized by both the Allies and the Germans. Should these dams be blown, the released water would cause the river below to become so swollen and swift that a relatively small defending force could render a military crossing in this area next to impossible.
The US 1-A (Gen Courtney H. Hodges) stated in its report of operations for that period ‘since the middle of September our attention had been directed toward the problem presented by the Roer River Dams. It was realized at that time that no large-scale crossing of the Roer River below the dams could be undertaken until they were in friendly hands. The V Corps (1-A), stretched thin its lines in the south so that it might assemble a force with sufficient strength to attack these dams. Early in December, changes were made in the V Corps dispositions in order to attack in the area of the Roer Dams. On Dec 7, the newly attached 78-ID commenced to arrive and close one of its regiments into assembly areas in the zone of the V Corps, its second regiment arriving the following day.
On Dec 10, the 2-ID commenced moving its units from front line positions in the Schnee Eifel area to the area of the V Corps. On Dec 12, CCB of the 9-AD was attached to the V Corps as well as the 2-ID which was attached at 1030 and closed in assembly areas. Still, on Dec 12, the 78-ID took over the center of the corps front from Lammersdorf to Monschau, relieving the 102-CG. To its left, the 8-ID continued along the line of the Kall to include the Brandenberg Ridge. To its right, the 99-ID still held the front from Monschau to the corps southern boundary in the Bucholz Forest northwest to Losheim, Germany. The 2-ID was now assembled in the town of Elsenborn (Camp & Vicinity) ready to participate in the attack by passing through part of the 99-ID front.
The V Corps order of the battle on Dec 13, 1944, was as follows ‘front line units being listed in order from north to south, 8-ID; 78-ID; 2-ID; 99-ID; CCB 9-AD (in reserve); 102-CG (in reserve) and CCR 5-AD (in reserve)’. Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his account of World War II, wrote the following in connection with the situation existing in this area through late November and early December the badly stretched condition of our troops caused constant concern. In order to maintain the two attacks that we then considered important, we had to concentrate forces in the vicinity of the Roer Dams on the north and bordering the Saar on the south. This weakened the static, or protective, force in the Ardennes region. For a period we had a total of only three divisions on a front of some seventy-five miles between Trier and Monschau and were never able to place more than four in that region. Our conclusion was that in the Ardennes region we were running a definite risk but we believed it to be a mistaken policy to suspend our attacks all along the front merely to make ourselves safe until all reinforcements arriving from the United States could bring us up to peak strength.
In the fall of 1944, the German troops and equipment at the front were generally in a poor state after five years of fighting and repeated Allied bombings of industries and transportation. The Germans were engaged in the east along a wide front against the Russians. On the western front, the Allies were attacking the border of the Homeland. The German defenders had been forced back to the Siegfried Line and in the north to the line of the Roer River. Hitler, anxious to regain the initiative and bolster home front morale, was extremely desirous of mounting an offensive. He reasoned that no decisive objectives could be gained on the eastern front against the unlimited Russian manpower. In the west, prospects looked better to him. An attack through the difficult but thinly held Ardennes could with surprise cross the Meuse River, capture the port of Anvers, and destroy the northern half of the Allied Forces. The Siegfried Line positions were to be held with a minimum of troops. The best units were withdrawn, reorganized, and completely reequipped for this grand offensive.
Three armies were to attack. On the north, Dietrich’s 6-Panzer-Army; in the center, Manteuffel’s 5.Panzer-Army; on the south, Brandenberg’s 7.Army. The 6.Panzer-Army assigned the major effort was forced, because of the terrain and narrow front, to attack with Hermann Preiss’s I.SS-Panzer-Corps followed by Wilhelm Bittrich’s 2.SS-Panzer-Corps. The plan was that the Corps was to break through on its own sector of the enemy’s main field of combat with three infantry divisions, the 277.VGD (right) to reach the area of Elsenborn, the 12.VGD (center) to reach the area of Nidrum-Weywertz and the 3.Fall-Div (left) to reach the area of Schoppen-Elberdingen. Gen Kraemer, chief of staff of the 6.Panzer-Army, in his report of the commitment of that army, wrote the following: the best division was the 12.VGD had an especially skilled Commander and had fought excellently in the Battle of Aachen.
The 1.SS-Panzer-Division and the 12.SS-Panzer-Division were not to be used in the initial breakthrough. The strength of these divisions was to be conserved for the thrust beyond this. On Dec 14, at noon, the Corps took over the command of its attack sector and the following formations were committed in the sector: the 277.VGD, the right wing of which stood at the edge of the wood about 2000 Meters southeast of Alzen, and thus, inside the sector of the contiguous corps (LXVII). The left-wing was near Losheim, and one battalion of the neighboring corps on the left (LXVI) was near Krewinkel. On the evening of Dec 15, the 12.VGD and the 3.Fall-Div moved into their attack sectors and assembly areas.
SITUATION IMMEDIATELY BEFORE THE ATTACK
The reinforced Battalion of the 277.VGD, which was in the LXVII Corps sector, had not been relieved so it was absent at the beginning of the attack. This weakened the right-wing attack group. The 12.VGD had completed its preparations according to plan and had undertaken its own security. The 3.Fall-Div, which had been put under Corps command on Dec 14 by the CG Army Group, arrived during the early evening of Dec 15 with only two regiments (the second regiment of which was without heavy weapons in some of the elements). At 0530, Dec 16, the artillery opened its preparatory fire.
OPERATION – PRE-BATTLE MOVEMENT
In the early days of December 1944, the 8-ID (1-A) was fighting its way through the Hürtgen Forest in an attempt to capture the Roer River Dams. The resistance displayed by the Germans proved too stubborn for such a head-on attack by this depleted division. Gen Courtney Hodges, CG 1-A, organized a new plan calling for a strong ground thrust from the south, just north of the Ardennes, aimed at these all-important dams. The attack was to be made by the 2-ID on Dec 13. To add more power to the attack, the V Corps ordered on Dec 8 that the 644-TDB (less one Gun Company and one Recon Platoon) detached from the 8-ID and attached to the 2-ID, then commanded by Gen Walter M. Robertson.
The order was received on Dec 8 and the battalion commander accompanied by Capt Harry L. Godshall (644 S-3), proceeded immediately to the Hqs of the 2-ID located at St Vith, Belgium, where orders for the battalion to proceed to Sourbrodt, Belgium, on Dec 11 were received. Graham and Godshall returned then to the battalion area, located at Hürtgen City, Germany on Dec 9, and plans were formulated for the move. On Dec 10, the 817-TDB (Towed), a unit believed to be less suited for offensive operations because its weapons were towed, relieved the 644-TDB, less Baker Co, and one platoon of the Recon Co. The battalion moved to Sourbrodt the next day. From this point on, in this report, when the 644-TDB is mentioned, it is to be understood that it is referring to the Battalion less Baker Co and one platoon of the Recon Co.
On the morning of Dec 11, at approximately 0930, the battalion set out on its move from Hürtgen to Sourbrodt. The distance was approximately 30 miles. The weather was very bad and all roads were covered with snow. No enemy interference was encountered, however, the battalion completed the move without incident at 1745 the same day. The battalion CP was set up in Sourbrodt and the tank destroyers were serviced and made ready for the operations to come.
On Dec 12, Able Co 644-TDB was attached to the 9-IR (2-ID), then located in Rocherath. Able 644 moved to the regiment’s assembly area located in the Monschau Forest north of Rocherath and closed by dark. Charlie 644 was attached to the 38-IR which was at that time located in the Camp in Elsenborn. Plans were made to move Charlie 644 forward to the regiment’s assembly area on order. The remainder of the 644-TDB was attached to the 2-ID Artillery. The plan to capture the Roer River Dams initially called for the 9-IR to pass through the positions held by the 2nd Recon Troop and the 99-ID north of Rocherath and to attack and seize that portion of the Siegfried Line located at the Wahlerscheid Road Junction (Heartbreak Crossroads). The regiment was then to swing north and seize the town of Röhren, Germany, lying to the north beyond the Monschau Forest. When the 9-IR had taken Wahlerscheid, the 38-IR was to pass through the 9-IR and advance through the Monschau Forest toward Dreiborn in Germany.
At 0830, the 9-IR began the attack as planned. The regiment advanced through the woods along both sides of the Rocherath Wahlerscheid Road. Because the woods on both sides of this road contained many swamps, the tanks and tank destroyers were confined to the road. With the morning had come a sudden thaw. The snow on the road turned to slush. The visibility was very poor. In order to gain surprise, no artillery preparations were fired. By 1330, the regiment had advanced to within 600 yards of the Wahlerscheid Road Junction. There it met a German strongpoint impervious to quick attack. The road junction was defended by 24 enemy pillboxes placed 20 or 30 yards apart. In front of these pillboxes was an AT ditch, a wide belt of barbed wire concertinas, and thickly sewn AP mines. The Rocherath Wahlerscheid Road was also mined, thereby denying the infantry the direct fire support of the tanks and tank destroyers.