As the attack progressed, it became apparent that the Germans planned to bypass 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. In 1730, it was alerted for early movement to VIII Corps in the vicinity of Bastogne. 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.
In 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, and 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 Schnee 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 for 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 (westward) and nothing going to the front (eastward). 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 that 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 every 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.