In view of the enemy’s relentless pressure, especially at the base of the salient, the 7-AD commander radioed Gen Clarke (CCB-7AD) and Gen Hoge (CCB-9-AD) this message: the situation is such on the west of the river south of the 82-A/B that if we don’t join them soon, the opportunity will be gone. It will be necessary to disengage, whether circumstances are favorable or not if we are to carry out any kind of withdrawal with equipment. Inform me of your situation at once, particularly with regard to the possibility of disengagement and execution of withdrawal.
THE SEVENTH DAY – DECEMBER 23
The enemy’s pressure from the east eased slightly, and H-hour for withdrawal was announced as 0600. CCB-9-AD, having received the announcement late, actually initiated the movement at about 0700. Gen Clarke, CCB-7-AD, ordered Col Wemple to bring out all vehicles and troops at Krombach and southwest thereof through Beho to Vielsalm. An infantry company of the 424-IR at Braunlauf was to accompany them. North of Krombach, all troops and vehicles were to come out through Hinderhausen to Commanster, thence to Vielsalm. A covering force under Col Boylan and consisting of a medium tank company, a tank destroyer company, and an infantry company, was ordered to hold Hinderhausen until all other troops had left and then to fall back with maximum delay; they were to take wounded with them. This was a narrow road, and in the event of vehicle failure, vehicles were to be dumped to the side of the road and destroyed with a minimum of delay, so that the column would not be held up.
The 956-FAB and the 275-FAB were withdrawn the night of Dec 22. The 434-AFAB came out just ahead of the covering forces, displacing battery by battery in order to give fire support to the covering forces, which were withdrawing under heavy pressure. It was providential that on the night of Dec 22/23 the roads froze, enabling practically all of the vehicles to get out. So far as is known, no men were left behind. The troops of CCB were originally given instructions to assemble at Lierneux, but later other instructions were received and the assembly area was changed to the vicinity of Xhoris. The combat command closed in the vicinity of town at 2300 Dec 23, and units were instructed to reorganize, refuel, and prepare for action in the morning.
It might be well to mention at this point some of the difficulties encountered in the problems of supply and maintenance. This story is well told by Col Erlenbusch CO of the 31-TB: we held a supply dump at St Vith belonging to the 106-ID and used it until it was exhausted (8000 rations and 10.000 gallons of gasoline). Resupply from the rear was extremely hazardous because a goodly portion of the enemy had gone around St Vith to the north and south. As a result of these forces ‘slipping by’ on the flanks, our division’s rear area was a mixture of friendly and enemy troops. Some Corps and Army ASPS were in our hands; some were in the hands of the enemy; some changed hands frequently; while other supply points were destroyed or evacuated by retiring friendly troops.
Division Trains were located at La Roche en Ardennes, where they were heavily engaged in combat in order to keep from being overrun, and little help could be expected from that quarter. The supply problem then was one of running trucks through miles of enemy-infested territory in search of friendly dumps having the desired type of supplies and then coming back through miles of the same enemy-infested territory to deliver the much-needed supplies to the combat elements.
The service facilities of the units of CCB were pooled, and the maintenance sections were all consolidated under Capt La Fountain, Maintenance Officer of the 31-TB, who set up a small ordnance shop. Any of our vehicles which could be evacuated to this shop were repaired there. At the same time, this group salvaged many vehicles and weapons which had been abandoned in the area by retreating units before the arrival of the 7-AD. This equipment was repaired, or if beyond repair, was ‘cannibalized’ for parts to use in the repair of other vehicles and equipment. Frequently this combined maintenance section operated under artillery fire, and many times they had to drop their work and engage in a small fight with enemy patrols that penetrated their area.
In one instance, a crew of four lost one man before they could withdraw from the scene with their equipment. There were two cases that stand out as indicative of the determination and heroic efforts of the service personnel to keep the combat elements supplied. In the first instance, seven trucks of the 31-TB with a corporal in charge of the convoy set out from the vicinity of Krombach to obtain fuel from a dump near Samrée. As no escort was available, only trucks with machine gun mounts were used. To help protect the convoy, two guards with rifles and Thompson M-1 sub guns were placed in the rear of each truck, the guards having been recruited from volunteers among the various company kitchen crews. This convoy was gone for two days and during that time they ‘ran the gauntlet’ of four enemy ambushes. When they arrived at their destination, they found one side of the dump burning and a light tank company from the 87-CRS bitterly defending the other portion. Under these conditions, the trucks were loaded to capacity and then started on the return trip, hiding out in the woods that night. The next day they had two engagements with the enemy; in one of these attacks the corporal in charge was killed and three men were wounded, while one truck was damaged so badly that it had to be towed the rest of the way. Arriving at Krombach at dusk of the second day, now commanded by a Pfc truck driver, it could report. ‘Mission accomplished’.
The other case is practically the same story. This convoy was commanded by Sgt Trapp and consisted of three trucks from the 31-TB and one truck of the 23-AIB, with a defense crew, organized very similarly to the first convoy. Their mission was to obtain badly needed ammunition from a dump in the La Roche en Ardennes area. Their experiences were about the same; they had two skirmishes and suffered one casualty. The ammunition dump was not guarded by friendly or enemy forces. Like the first group, they too returned at dusk of the second day, reporting, ‘Mission accomplished’.
The magnificent effort of all service personnel was recognized and appreciated by all troops in the line. In many cases, these service troops were called upon to repel enemy attacks. In one action (Dec 21), near Samrée, the Combat Command Assistant S4, Capt Robert H. Barth, was killed while attempting to maintain the constant flow of supplies to the front. The supply problems for artillery were especially critical. The only way ammunition supply could be kept up was by hunting for and finding abandoned dumps toward the front. Very little ammunition was getting through from the rear. Some of the artillery trains were with division trains in the vicinity of Samrée where they were forced to fight for their existence. A balance of ammunition was maintained between battalions; when the expenditures were exceptionally heavy in one battalion, several truckloads would be sent to it from another battalion.
On Dec 22, ammunition amounted to only a few rounds per 105-MM howitzer for CCB artillery. Any sizable amount of firing had to be approved by the Combat Command commander. At one time during this critical ammunition shortage, a German column got lost on the road between Nieder Emmels and Ober Emmels and stopped, bumper-to-bumper, a perfect target for a concentration. When the artillery was called for, the ammunition shortage had to be considered. Finally, it was decided that this target merited the firing of the remaining white phosphorus. The German column was burned and destroyed. Later, that same day, a 40-truck convoy carrying 5000 rounds of 105-MM ammunition finally made its way through after traveling many miles of circuitous routes and back roads. From then on the ammunition situation eased. The drivers of the 40-truck convoy which came through to the combat elements, on Dec 22, had been behind their steering wheels for hours on end without sleep. They had driven through ambushes by German patrols and had suffered casualties en route. Their devotion to duty saved the division and its attached units from almost certain disaster duping the ordered withdrawal which took place the next day. Without gasoline, many vehicles would have to have been abandoned. The artillery and other ammunition they brought held the enemy at bay until the Salm River was crossed.
In retrospect, it is difficult to understand how it was possible for CCB to hold St Vith against the overwhelming power and superiority in numbers possessed by the Germans. The German attack was well organized and the build-up of strength was achieved with great secrecy. The Germans gambled everything on striking a lightning blow and achieving surprise, so that they could knife through while our troops were disorganized and before the latter could be re-shifted to set up an effective defensive line. During the period the American troops were in St Vith, the weather was a strong ally of the Germans, and American planes were not seen for this entire period. One factor that probably caused the Germans to proceed so cautiously was the fact that elements of the 7-AD were in St Vith at all on Dec 17 when their intelligence had identified them in the Linnich (Germany) area on Dec 16. It is supposition, but they must have been surprised, and they must have felt that if these troops could be moved such a distance and be in the thick of the fighting so quickly, other dispositions could be effected as expeditiously.
Another factor that gave the Germans pause was the aggressiveness and tenacity of the defense. CCB was not content to dig in and merely try to hold the Germans when they attacked. Their patrols were aggressive, and wherever a weakness was sensed, a probing attack was made. Their counter-attacks were quick and effective. Had the Germans realized the limited strength CCB had at its disposal and the disorganization and loss of morale of some of the Allied troops caused by the initial attack, they could have closed the pincers and annihilated the American forces at their choosing. However, instead of committing their forces to a major blow, they dissipated their strength and lost valuable time in making limited objective and probing attacks. Defenders of St Vith were puzzled at the time as to why the Germans did not pour more artillery fire into St Vith. It was only after the third or fourth day that they began firing anything that resembled the intensity of an American barrage. Undoubtedly, they counted on a quick capture of the town and did not want to destroy it or make the streets impassable. As was learned afterward, in this offensive the Germans were counting heavily on using St Vith as a forward railhead.
The arrival of CCB-7-AD in St Vith on the afternoon of Dec 17 was quite timely. Advance patrols of the Germans were on the Schoenberg-St Vith road at that time. The only forces to stop them were the provisional engineer troops, and there is no doubt that the Germans could have, and probably would have, been in St Vith on the night of December 17, had 7-AD units not arrived and been placed in position when they were.
It would be very interesting indeed to have a transcript of the conversations between commanders of the various echelons of command of the Germans after their failure to take St Vith on schedule, particularly when they discovered the size of the small force that was denying this area to them. The attitude of the German command was well-expressed by a German lieutenant colonel who, while he was attempting to interrogate one of our men who had been captured, remarked: You and your damned panzer division have kept us from getting to Liège!
Every officer and man of the 7-AD who participated in the St Vith action sings the praises of the 275-AFAB. This VIII Corps Artillery Battalion, commanded by Col Clay, chose to stay and fight. The coolness and the poise of the officers and men in this organization were the subjects of admiration on the part of all who came in contact with them. The battalion reflected the excellent training that it had received, and the missions that it was called upon to fire were always fired effectively. The forward observers were outstanding in cooperating with front-line commanders of CCB. Six forward observers were lost during this action.
One of the more critical moments in the defense of St Vith occurred on the night of Dec 20/21 when the Germans finally penetrated the defense and isolated some of CCB’s troops. These troops had been constantly engaged since their commitment on Dec 17 and the nervous tension and fatigue produced by the constant pressure under which they were operating was beginning to tell. Combat fatigue casualties up to this time had been light, but with the Germans pouring through the men were rapidly being separated from the boys. One of the formers was 1/Sgt L. H. Ladd (B Troop – 87-CRS). This troop had gone into the line on Dec 17 with six officers and 136 men. When it was cut off to the east of St Vith on the night of Dec 21, 1/Sgt Ladd brought back about 46 men, which was all that remained of the troop. Unshaven, lines of fatigue showing on his face, his eyes bloodshot, he nevertheless demanded to see the Combat Command CO. Staff officers tried to dissuade him and told him to get what little rest he could before the remainder of the troop was committed again. 1/Sgt Ladd would have none of this and repeated his demand to see Gen Clarke. At about midnight, he found the general and said: I want to get it from you personally that B Troop was ordered out of the position that we were holding. My men and I had decided that we were not leaving and I just want to get it straight that we were ordered out by you. When Gen Clarke assured 1/Sgt Ladd that he had issued the order, the Sergeant was satisfied and moved out into the darkness and rain to occupy a new position in the defense line west of St Vith.
The following message from the 7-AD commander, Gen Robert W. Hasbrouck, was read to the men about Jan 4, 1945: To the Officers and Men of the 7th Armored Division!
Since it is impossible for me to talk personally to each of you, I am taking this method of bringing to your attention some of the things I want you to know. First of all, I want you to know that the German attack has been disrupted and their plans upset. This division, by its gallant action in denying the important road center of St Vith to the enemy for more than five days, contributed greatly to upsetting von Rundstedt carefully planned schedule. Gen Eisenhower and our old friends, the VII British Corps, have telegraphed us their congratulations. These messages will be read to you later.
Secondly, we are resuming the offensive! On Jan 3, the XVIII Corps (Airborne)(Ridgway) to which we now belong, resumed the offensive by attacking the south. We are in Corps Reserve and may be called upon at any time to add our power to the attack. This attack may help to shorten the war by many months. If the German forces to our south are cut off by the power and speed of our drive, the enemy will have suffered an overpowering defeat. Naturally, there will be obstacles to overcome. The Germans will fight savagely to avert defeat. We must fight even more savagely, knowing what is at stake and remembering the American prisoners who were shot down in cold blood by the Germans at Wereth, Stavelot, and Baugnez.
German paratroopers may be dropped in our rear; Germans in American uniforms may infiltrate our lines. This will necessitate unceasing vigilance by all troops, wherever located, to prevent sabotage and espionage. No matter how many parachutists come down in any one area, there will always be a far greater number of our troops in the vicinity who can be concentrated quickly against them.
The terrain we may expect to encounter is not good tank terrain, but when have we ever had good tank terrain? By willpower, muscle power, American ingenuity, and just plain guts we will get over roads and trails considered unfit for tanks and thus surprise the enemy. Last but not least, I want you to know that I am proud of the division. Thrown into combat piecemeal as you arrived on the scene, every unit and every man performed magnificently. God bless you all, and may 1945 bring the victories you so richly deserve.
The 7-AD was sent into the fight northwest of St Vith as the Allies resumed the offensive, and the Germans became the defenders of the town. The same German artillery officer (Lt Behman) quoted before had this to write in his diary as the Americans approached: January 20, 1945, I am ordered to organize a defense in St Vith. For the first time since Christmas, I’m in St Vith again. The town is in ruins, but we will defend the ruins. We expect the attack on St Vith. Only small forces are available for the defense. The ‘8-balls’ in the unit speak of a little Stalingrad.
January 21, 1945, There are no new messages. The battle noises come closer to the town. We can already see the infantry in some of the heights. I am organizing everything for the last defense. Rumor has it that the Tommies have the town surrounded. Some even believe It. At higher commands they believe that we will be forced to yield. These rear’ echelon men! I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic and I don’t give up hope. When the kitchen goes back, I will send all personnel not immediately needed back with it. During the day, it is naturally quiet. Will the enemy surround the town? I’m sending back all my personal belongings. One never knows. I wonder what Heide is doing?
January 22, 1945, Nothing new during the night. At eight o’clock the enemy recommences his saturation fire from the direction of Neider Emmels. Exactly one month ago, we took St Vith.
On Sunday January 23, 1945, during the afternoon, Combat Command B of the 7th Armored Division attacked and retook St Vith capturing this German artillery officer and his diary, but that is another story.