This is the narrative of one phase of the greatest pitched battle on the Western Front in World War II. The battle at Saint Vith (Dec 17-23, 1944) is an excellent example of how American troops held their ground in the midst of confusion, defeat, and uncertainty; and thereby threw the German timetable sufficiently off schedule to allow American forces to regroup, hold, and then counterattack. The stand at St Vith has been recognized by both German and Allied commanders as a turning point in the Battle of the Bulge.
Gen Eisenhower fully appreciated the time given to him by the defenders of St Vith when on Dec 23 he addressed all commanders in the defensive horseshoe: the magnificent job you are doing is having a great beneficial effect on our whole situation. I am personally grateful to you and wish you would let all of your people know that if they continue to carry out their mission with the splendid spirit they have so far shown, they will have deserved well of their country.
The German plan for the Ardennes counter-offensive is supposed to have been conceived by Hitler himself during the summer of 1944. The plan was not well received by the German generals (they had also been lukewarm to the Ardennes offensive of 1940), who felt that it was far too ambitious. It was not to be the banzai charge of a hopeless foe, however, but a well planned and coordinated attack calculated to strike the American line in a relatively quiet sector with overwhelming force and to drive on to Anvers and Bruxelles before counter-measures could be taken. The success of this plan might well have changed the entire course of the war.
The academic questions as to the strategic soundness of this offensive, which was raised by German and Allied generals after the war, hold little interest to the men who were called upon to stand against overwhelming odds and turn back the onslaught. This story is concerned with the defense of the St Vith salient and will not deal with speculations as to the strategic expediency of the German plan. To be successful, it was necessary for the German counter-offensive to be carried out with surprise and speed. As the record indicates, the surprise was attained.
I told the Fuehrer on the first day of the attack that surprise had been completely achieved; the best indication was that no reinforcements were made in your sector before the attack, commented Jodl after the war.
How our intelligence could so mistake an attack of some 17 divisions representing probably a total of 200.000 men is not our problem here; it is enough to say that the surprise was gained by the enemy. The fact that speed was denied the enemy caused his defeat. The entire operation demanded that German spearheads be driven deep into the American rear installations, thus paralyzing the American ability and will to strike back.
I expected the right corps to capture St Vith on the first day of the attack and hoped that in the evening of the second day of the attack its advance detachments would be engaged west of the Salm River and the bulk of its forces at Vielsalm (Gen Hasso E. von Manteuffel).
The Report of Operations, US 1-A, points out: the elimination of the St Vith salient was of prime importance to the German Commander in Chief West. Because of the delay imposed here, the offensive was already three days behind schedule. In retrospect it can be said that almost from the second day of the offensive, von Rundstedt’s plan began to go wrong.
Late on December 16, Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model, commander of Army Group B, ordered: quick exploitation of the successes of the first day of the attack is decisive. The first objective is to achieve liberty of movement for the mobile units.
The stubborn defense of St Vith contributed materially to delaying the enemy and is credited as a major factor in the failure of the German main effort. The importance of the stand at St Vith is described in the 1-A Report of Operations: Without the communications center of St Vith, the focal point of five main highways and three rail lines, the enemy’s armored, infantry, and supply columns were all practically immobilized. The rugged, hilly terrain of the Belgian Ardennes, heavily forested, permitted no cross country movement. The few columns that were able to move, struggled along muddy, cratered, narrow secondary mads.
Traffic was jammed bumper-to-bumper for miles from the original point of departure and provided excellent targets for our artillery and fighter bombers. Also, lacking St Vith and its high ground the enemy could not launch his ‘Operation Greif’ in accordance with the plan. The salient at St Vith not only threatened the whole of Gen Manteuffel’s 5.Panzer-Army’s northern flank but continued to prevent the movement of the SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Dietrich’s 6.SS-Panzer-Army. This afforded Gen Courtney Hodges’s 1-A sufficient time to bring up reinforcements to a new defensive line
December 16, 1944 – the Front Line
On the eve of the German attack, the US 1-A (Gen Courtney Hodges) held a 165-mile front, roughly from Aachen to the southern tip of the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg. The US 3-A (Gen George S. Patton) was on the south flank and the new 9-A (Gen William Hood Simpson) was on the north flank. The 1-A had three corps in the line: the VII Corps (Gen Lawton J. Collins) in the north pushing toward the Roer River, the V Corps (Gen Leonard T. Gerow) in the center probing towards the Roer Dams, and the VIII Corps (Gen Troy Middleton) holding approximately a 90-mile front in the relatively quiet Ardennes sector. The 2nd Infantry Division (Gen Walter M. Robertson) and the 99th Infantry Division (Gen Walter E. Lauer) held the south flank of Gerow’s V Corps, nearest VIII Corps. The gap between the V and the VIII Corps was held by the 14th Cavalry Regiment (Mez) (Col Mark Devine) under the VIII Corps control. The VIII Corps sector front was held as follows, Northern Sector by Gen Allan W. Jones’ 106th Infantry Division, which had just arrived in Europe and had not yet received its baptism of fire; Center Sector by Gen Norman Cota’s 28th Infantry Division, whose front extended for 27 miles, east of Bastogne and the Southern Sector by units of Gen John W. Leonard’s 9th Armored Division and Gen Raymond O. Barton’s 4th Infantry Division
Although the sector was lightly held, it was considered improbable that a large-scale counter-attack would be attempted over this terrain under winter conditions. Gen Eisenhower and Gen Bradley accepted the calculated risk.
It was not even rated as much of a gamble; the American front was offensive-minded; the mental approach of all ranks was one of attack; no real action was anticipated here, hence the Allied portion of the line was not built up for attack. Intelligence reports of German troop concentrations were interpreted as an indication of a stiffer German defense. Our intelligence officers were optimists. Few seemed seriously to consider that the German had a Sunday punch left.
As finally ordered, the German plan earmarked elements of 17 divisions for the first day’s attack. To the north, Dietrich’s 6.SS-Panzer-Army sought to open a hole and to turn two SS panzer divisions of the I.SS-Panzer-Corps loose for a dash to the Meuse River. The infantry of Dietrich’s army collided head-on with Gen Gerow’s V Corps and Gen Lauer’s 99-ID finally, on Dec 19, fell back a couple of thousand yards to the Elsenborn Ridge; and there, with the help of the 26-IR (1-ID), withstood all enemy attacks and formed an anchor on the line.
South of Dietrich’s 6.SS-Panzer-Army, Manteuffel’s 5.Panzer-Army planned to strike using tank and infantry teams with only light artillery preparations. The LXVI Corps, (Lucht), was to strike Gen Jones’ 106-ID, isolate the Schnee Eifel, and drive rapidly into St Vith. Meanwhile, to the south, the LVIII Corps and the XLVII Corps were to burst through Gen Cota’s 28-ID, isolate Bastogne, and then drive on to the Meuse with the panzer divisions. The 7.Army (Brandenberger), was to push back Gen Barton’s 4-ID, furnish flank protection, and stem any attempt to reinforce the battle area from the south. With this picture, it can be seen that the mailed fist was pointed, poised, and ready to strike. Now, let us see how the blow was received by the troops in the St Vith area.
On that bleak cold morning of Dec 16, 1944, Germans troops from Manteuffel’s 5.Panzer-Army sprang out of hiding in the dense forests of the German part of the Schnee Eifel and began a gigantic pincer movement around the Schnee Eifel, the large ridge mass about 16 miles due east of St Vith. Astride this ridgelines were the 422-IR and the 423-IR (106-ID), which had landed in France less than two weeks prior to this time; this unit had been sent to the Ardennes for a conditioning and seasoning program prior to heavy fighting.
As the attack progressed, it became apparent that the Germans planned to by-pass the troops on the Schnee Eifel; cut them off; and converge upon St Vith. The American higher headquarters intended to counter by moving the 7-AD (Hasbrouck) into the area to assist in the restoration of the lines. Gen Allan Jones, CG 106-ID, moved CCB (9-AD) south to assist the 424-IR, the regiment on the southern flank of the 106-ID, a regiment just between two main German axes of penetration.
On Dec 16, 1944, Gen Hasbrouck’s 7-AD with its attached troops, located east and northeast of Heerlen in Holland as XIII Corps’ reserve. At 1730, it was alerted for early movement to VIII Corps in the vicinity of Bastogne, Belgium. The action taken is described by Gen Bruce C. Clarke, (CO CCB 7-AD), who was to play a leading role in the defense of St Vith.
At 2000, I received a telephone call from Gen Hasbrouck saying that the division had received orders to march immediately south to Bastogne and report there to the CG VIII Corps. What we were to do when we got to Bastogne was unknown. He told me that the division would march as soon as road clearances could be obtained. Gen Hasbrouck directed that I proceed immediately to Bastogne, report to CG VIII Corps, to get information on the situation. He said that my combat command would lead the division on its march of some 60 to 70 miles south. At 0400, Dec 17, Maj Owen E. Woodruff, my S-3, and I, with two drivers, were in Bastogne where we reported to Gen Troy H. Middleton that the 7-AD was marching south. I was told of the general situation and was told to go to St Vith at daylight and give the 106-ID help. At 1030, I was in St Vith where I learned a detailed situation. The Germans had attacked at daylight the day before. Two regiments (422-IR and 423-IR) of the Golden Lions Division were surrounded 7 or 8 miles to the east of St Vith. The other regiment (424-IR) had been hard hit. The situation to the north and south was hazy. Vehicles were streaming to the rear. Rumors of Tiger tanks were prevalent. Contact with elements of the division was sporadic. There was an air of impending disaster.
A radio message was sent to my combat command, which was leading the division on its march south, to report to me at St Vith. I later learned that the division had not started to move before 0500, Dec 17, because it had been unable to obtain road clearance. I planned to counter-attack and relieve the surrounded combat teams of the 106-ID, but traffic conditions prevented this action until it was too late.
The weather conditions on Dec 16, 1944, were typical of the weather which was to be, experienced for the next seven days. Overcast; cloudy; penetrating cold; snow flurries, turning to rain; poor aerial observation with no aerial activity; ground soft; roads muddy and slick, read the reports. The terrain between the Schnee Eifel and the Ardennes was rough, forested, and rocky. Frequent streams and numerous saddles added to the difficulties which channeled all vehicular traffic along the few narrow, tortuous roads which served the area. St Vith was one of the three key road junctions to the entire Ardennes, and from it roads radiated to Dinant and Liège in the west and northwest; to Malmedy and Stavelot in the north; to Houffalize and Bastogne in the south; and to Schoenberg and Prüm in the east. Through St Vith ran the only east-west railroad extending from the Rhine River through the Eifel and into the Ardennes.
The March to St Vith
On the morning of Dec 17, when it had been thought that the 7-AD would arrive in the St Vith area, the division was fighting clogged roads to the west rather than Germans. To reach the St Vith area, the division moved in multiple columns over two routes, east, and west. The weather was rainy and the roads were a sea of mud; movement cross-country or in the fields alongside the roads was impossible. The division was alerted to move at 0200, Dec 17. It received orders to cross the initial point on the west route at 0330. The column was on the road when further orders were received to delay the movement one hour. On the west route, the 87th Cavalry Recon Squadron led the way followed by CCB, CCA, 814th Tank Destroyer Batallion, 7-AD (Main) HQs, 33rd Armored Engineer Battalion, and the Division Trains. Clearances on the east route were delayed until 0800 Dec 17, when CCR led off followed by Division (TAC) Headquarters, Division Artillery, and the 203rd Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion.
Trouble was encountered from the beginning; German aircraft were active over the Heerlen area, more active than they had been for weeks. There had not been time for the proper dissemination of information and many staff officers and company commanders did not know their destination until their arrival in the St Vith area. Maps were not available, the mission was not known, and there had been little time to post the routes with guides.
The east route was cut by the enemy just south of Malmedy, between the Division (TAC) Headquarters and the Division Artillery, thus necessitating the artillery and the elements which followed to turn back and place themselves on the west route in the rear of the troops already moving on that road. This was successfully accomplished but resulted in considerable delay in the arrival of the artillery. Traffic on the west route continued to roll fairly well until noon of Dec 17, when it was slowed by congestion resulting from the ever-thickening stream of friendly troops flowing west and northwest from the threatened Poteau Vielsalm Beho St Vith areas. Towards nightfall, the traffic congestion increased, and the 7-AD column stretching from Poteau through Vielsalm, Trois-Ponts, and Stavelot to the north was brought to a complete standstill. The picture as described by Maj Donald P. Boyer, S-3, 38th Armored Infantry Battalion, gives some idea of the traffic conditions faced by the march columns as they tried to hasten to the defense of St Vith.
My driver and I arrived at the road junction at Poteau at about 1230, Dec 17. We were about an hour ahead of the 38-AIB which was the lead unit in the Reserve Command’s march column. As we arrived at the road junction, we were hit by a sight that we could not comprehend, at first; a constant stream of traffic hurtling to the rear (to the west) and nothing going to the front (to the east). We realized that this was not a convoy moving to the rear; it was a case of ‘every dog for himself’; it was a retreat, a rout! Here would come a 2.5-ton, with only a driver, then another with several men in it (most of them bareheaded and in various stages of undress, next perhaps an engineer crane truck or an armored car, then several artillery prime movers – perhaps one of them towing a gun, command cars with officers in them. 1/4-tons-anything which would run and which would get the driver and a few others away from the front. It wasn’t orderly; it wasn’t military; it wasn’t a pretty sight – we were seeing American soldiers running away. About a mile farther up the road at the little town of Petit-Thier, all traffic had stopped. In fact, it was the most perfect traffic jam I have ever seen. We had run into this hopeless mass of vehicles fleeing to the rear on a narrow road which would barely support two-way traffic at slow speeds. Vehicles streaming to the rear had attempted to pass each other in the intervals between the tanks of the 31-TB, which was leading CCB, and now no one could move. It was already 1515 and from the looks of the road jam, neither the tanks nor anything else was going to reach St Vith for a long time. Lt Col Fuller, Cpl Cox, and I took over the job of clearing a path for the tanks, and we started getting vehicles to move over to the sides. Slowly a path was beginning to open and the tanks began to roll along at a snail’s pace with halts ever 50 to 100 feet. Several times we had to wave the lead tank forward at full speed when some vehicle refused to pull over. Usually, the sight of 30-odd tons of steel roaring down on him was all we needed to get the driver to move over. Several times, senior officers in command cars attempted to pull out into a space which I was opening up, and each time I told them to get back, that I didn’t care who they were, nothing was coming through except our tanks and anything else which was headed for the front, and to get out of the way. One company commander, Capt Dudley J. Britton, Baker Co 23-AIB, said: ‘that day I saw the highest-ranking traffic cops I have ever seen’. Finally, in 2015, Able Co entered St Vith, followed closely by Baker Co and HQs Co. It had taken two and one-half hours for a company to move three miles – all because of the vehicles fleeing to the rear with men who refused to pull aside and let troops through (troops who actually would save them if they could reach the town before the Germans did). There was one of the biggest tragedies of St Vith; that American soldiers fled, and by their fleeing crowded the roads over which reinforcements were coming; and thus prevented the arrival of these reinforcements in time to launch a counter-attack to save the 422-IR and the 423-IR (106-ID), then cut off by the Germans east of St Vith.
Gen Bruce C. Clark (CCB-7-AD) commented on the traffic conditions as follows: the panic generated by the Germans counter-attack was so great that during the afternoon of Dec 17, at the road crossing just west of St Vith, an officer I had stationed there to stop rearward movement was simply pushed aside by senior officers and I had to take charge personally to control the traffic.
The Defense is Organized
At 1200, Dec 17, the situation in the St Vith area was critical. The 14-CG on the north of the 106-ID had been driven back to about a north-south line through St Vith. Their situation was one of confusion and was extremely hazy. To the east of St Vith, the 422-IR and the 423-IR (106-ID) were cut off to the southeast of Schoenberg. Communication with them by radio was sporadic. To the south of St Vith, CCB-9AD was attacking to try to retake Winterspelt (Germany). To its south, the 424-IR (106-ID) was holding the line. To their south, the situation was hazy. There was practically no tie-in of the units mentioned with units on their flanks.
The plan for an immediate attack east from St Vith, to take and hold Schoenberg and open escape corridors for the two surrounded regiments could not be carried out; it was impossible to bring the 7-AD up to the St Vith area over the traffic-congested roads in time to launch the attack that afternoon. CCB-7-AD (Clark) established its command post in a school building in the southeast corner of St Vith; the same building housed the command post of the 106-ID. Staff members of CCB tried to get a relatively accurate picture of the situation from officers of the 106-ID; but it was obvious that the shock of the initial German blow, together with their lack of combat experience, had partially disrupted the staff functioning of the 106-ID. All kinds of rumors were being spread; men who had fled from the front, apparently seeking to justify their action, gave an exaggerated and inaccurate picture of what was taking place. The situation most certainly was bad, and the impression that officers of CCB got was that the 106-ID no longer existed as an effective division.
As the staff sections of CCB began to arrive carrying their equipment into the building, they met men from the 106-ID HQs leaving with their equipment. The defense of the St Vith sector was turned over to Gen Clark by Gen Allan W. Jones the CG of the 106-ID at about 1430, Dec 17, and was largely in his hands for the remainder of the action. At the time of the transfer, the enemy was only about three or four thousand yards from the town, and small-arms fire from the east was coming into the vicinity of the command post. The troops from the 106-ID, which came under Gen Clarke’s command, were: HQs Co, 81st Engineer Combat Battalion, Lt Col T. J. Riggs; HQs Co, 168th Engineer Combat Battalion, Lt Col W. L. Nungesset; 1st Platoon, Fox Co, 423-IR (106-ID CP guard) and the 275th Armored Field Artillery Battalion (S)(105-MM).
This artillery battalion, the 275-AFAB (Separate) assigned to VIII Corps and in position near Ober Emmels (Belgium). They had remained in place despite the fact that no friendly troops were between them and the enemy. They had shifted their batteries so as to form roadblocks and had sited their guns for direct fire. When the 7-AD began to arrive at St Vith, the commanding officer of the 275-AFAB, Col Clay, offered his battalion’s services to Gen Clarke and this unit provided the entire artillery support for the initial defense until the organic artillery of the 7-AD could be brought up into position. The infantry platoon and the engineer elements were sent to the east of St Vith with instructions to proceed until they met Germans and then to dig in and hold. These troops furnished the only resistance to the German advance on St Vith until the arrival of 7-AD units.
The build-up of a defensive cordon around the town was a piecemeal procedure, units being placed in the line as they arrived. Troop B of the 87-CRS was the first unit to arrive. This troop was placed in position on the left of the roadblock established by the troops from the 106-ID. Other troops from CCB were added to the right and left as they arrived until a defensive line was formed east and north of St Vith.