Document Source: Infantry School, General Section, Military History Committee, Fort Benning, Georgia, Advanced Officers Course (1946-1947). Operations of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion (attached to the 82nd Airborne Division and the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment) in the Attack in the Vicinity of Trois-Ponts, Belgium, January 2 to January 7, 1945. Ardennes Campaign, Personal Experience of the Headquarters Company Commander, Capt Bill G. Smith.
SITUATION – INTRODUCTION
This archive covers the operations of the 551st Parachute Battalion (Goya), attached to the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and the 82nd Airborne Division, over the period January 2-7, 1945, during the Ardennes Campaign. In order to orient the reader it will be necessary to discuss the major events which led up to this operation. On December 16, 1944, the Germans attacked through the lightly held Eifel-Ardennes sector with Army Group B, under the command of FM Walter Model. The German Army Group B was composed of the 5.Panzer-Army (Manteufeull), the 6.Panzer-Army (Dietrich) and the newly reorganized 7.Army (Branderberger). This blow was aimed at the Liège – Namur – Antwerp area and it was delivered with such terrific force and surprise that the four American Divisions in that sector, Gen Walter M. Robertson’s 2nd Infantry Division, Gen Walter E. Lauer’s 99th Infantry Division, Gen Normand D Cota’s 28th Infantry Division and Gen Allan W. Jones’ 106th Infantry Division were quickly overrun or driven back. The German Armies then proceeded north and west almost unchecked, see Map A. Units from the Second British Army, Ninth US Army, First US Army, Third US Army, and the First Allied Airborne Army were quickly rushed to the threatened area and by December 27, and the German offensive had been stopped, and the Allied position as well was stabilized, see map B.
The blow had split the Twelfth Army Group into two parts, making control by Gen Omar N. Bradley all but impossible. Recognizing this situation, Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower fixed a boundary running east and west through the breach from Givet – Belgium to Prüm – Germany. All forces north of this boundary were placed under the command of FM Sir Bernard L. Montgomery while Gen Bradley retained command of that part of the Twelfth Army Group south of this boundary. FM Montgomery’s forces included the First Canadian Army, the Second British Army, the Ninth US Army, and the First US Army reinforced with portions of the First Allied Airborne Army (Gen Lewis H. Brereton) and the XVIII Airborne Corps (Gen Matthew B. Ridgway).
THE GENERAL SITUATION
On December 20, 1944, FM Montgomery received instructions from Gen Eisenhower to attack to the south with his forces and link up with the US 3-A in the vicinity of Houffalize – Belgium. The US 3-A was to begin its attack toward the north on December 22. The US 3-A relieved the embattled 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne on December 26, 1944. Accordingly, the US 1-A was given the mission of attacking south toward Houffalize and making contact with the 3-A in that vicinity. The attack was ordered for 0830 January 3, and the general plan of the Army was as follows: the XVIII Airborne Corps, consisting of the 30th Infantry Division, the 75th Infantry Division, the 106th Infantry Division (-), and the 82nd Airborne Division, would attack south and southeast from its present position, secure the Salm River line and the town of Vielsalm; the VII Corps was to attack south through the gap opened by the XVIII Airborne Corps and affect the link up, in the vicinity of Houffalize, with the US 3-A. The XVIII Airborne Corps assigned the mission of seizing and securing the Salm RiverSalm River Line and the town of Vielsalm to the 82nd Airborne Division, the Division in turn planned to attack south and southeast at 0830 January 3, 1945, with three regiments abreast: the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and the 325th Gilder Infantry Regiment in that order from left to right. The 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment were to be initiated in the division reserve. The line of contact was to be the line of departure. Contact was to be from left to right, see map C.
DISPOSITIONS AND PLANS OF THE 517TH PARACHUTE INFANTRY REGIMENT
The 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment, as of January 1, 1945, had its 2nd and 3rd Battalions in an assembly area north of Trois Ponts. The 1st Battalion was en route from an action while attached to the 3-AD and probably would not be available on the morning of January 3, 1945. However, the 1st Battalion was to be available to the regimental commander at approximately 1200, on January 3. The CG of the 82-A/B ordered the Regimental Commander of the 517-PIR to relieve the 504-PIR during the night of January 1/2 and to attack south and southeast at 0830 January 3, from its positions and secure the Salm River Line from Trois Ponts to Grand Halleux. The 3/517-PIR was ordered to effect the relief of the 504-PIR on the night of January 1/2. On January 2, the 551-PIB was attached to the 517-PIR for the attack commencing at 0830 on January 3. The Regimental Commander decided to attack with two battalions abreast: the 2/517-PIR and the 551-PIB with the 551st on the right and the 3/517-PIR in reserve, to assemble in the rear of the 2/517-PIR after the passage of the lines at 0830 January 3.
551-PIB BATTALION SITUATION
The 551-PIB had been in an assembly area to the rear of the 504-PIR since making a night attack on December 27/28, 1944. It was only slightly understrength in men and was up to T&OE in equipment. The morale was excellent and the combat efficiency of the unit was excellent. Before proceeding further it would be wise to review the organization of this separate parachute battalion. The 551-PIB had been reorganized during the months of May and June 1944 while in Italy. This reorganization, under the authorization of NATUSA (North African Thaater US Army), had increased the strength of the battalion slightly by: (1) relieving the headquarters company of its organic battalion administrative personnel and converting it into a heavy weapons company with one platoon of light machine guns, (two sections of four guns each), one 81-MM mortar platoon (four guns), and an anti-tank and demolition platoon (one anti-tank section of nine rocket launcher teams and a demolition section of twelve men): (2) organizing a battalion headquarters detachment comprised of the battalion staff and all battalion administrative personnel; and (3) organizing a service company detachment to perform the necessary logistical services for the battalion. Furthermore, after the invasion of Southern France, the battalion had been issued sufficient one-quarter-ton trucks to be issued two per rifle company and five to the headquarters company.
At approximately 1200, January 2, 1945, the battalion commander was notified to proceed to the Regimental Command Post, to receive the regimental attack order for the following day. He was told that his battalion would be one of the assault battalions and was given the boundaries for the regimental zone of action. The battalion commander immediately notified the company commanders of the impending attack and ordered them to make a quick reconnaissance of the regimental zone, notified them that the battalion attack order would be issued at 1400, January 2, at the Battalion Command Post, and departed for the Regimental Command Post. The weather on January 2, 1945, was foggy, heavily overcast, and cold (below-freezing night and day). There was a blanket of snow on the ground about twelve inches deep and frozen almost solid. Because of the fog visibility was limited to between one hundred and two hundred yards in the low areas while the high ground was completely obliterated. A quick reconnaissance was made but little knowledge of the terrain in front of the line of departure was gained, because of the fog. The Headquarters Company Commander and his platoon leaders proceeded to a high point, northeast of Basse Bodeux, in the right (west) portion of the regimental zone. The observation was limited to the present line of contact and about two hundred yards beyond. Based on the scant information available and a presumption of what would happen if the battalion were assigned the right (west) portion of the regimental zone, initial position areas were picked for all the platoons and so designated to the platoon leaders. Contact was also made with an observation group from the 3/517-PIR and some information about the terrain to the front was gained. At 1400 on January 2, the company commanders assembled at the Battalion CP to receive the battalion attack order.
THE BATTALION PLAN OF ATTACK
The battalion commander, after some consultation with the S-3, the S-2, the Artillery Liaison Officer, and the Headquarters Company Commander, issued the following oral order. An estimated enemy battalion of the 62.Volksgrenadier-Division, reinforced with some tanks, faces the regiment. Strong enemy positions are known to exist on the high ground south and southeast of Basse Bodeux. The 517-PIR attacks at 0830 on January 3, and secures the Salm River Line from Trois Ponts to Grand Halleux. The 2/517-PIR is on the left and the 551-PIB is on the right. The 3/505-PIR is on our right. Contact us from left to right. The 460-PFAB is in direct support of the regiment. There will be an artillery preparation from 0815 to 0830 on the initial objectives the last five minutes of which will be smoke. This battalion will attack at 0830 along the axis St Jacques – Dairomont – Petit Halleux and secure the crossings of the Salm River in the vicinity of Grand Halleux, Able Co on the left, Charlie Co on the right, and Baker Co in reserve. The line of Departure is the present line of contact. The forward assembly area is indicated on overlay (Map D).
Able Co, with one section of machine guns attached, will seize objective ONE and be prepared to continue the attack on order. Charlie Co, with one section of machine guns attached, will seize objective TWO and be prepared to continue the attack on order. The 81-MM mortar platoon will be in general support of the battalion and be prepared to fire smoke missions at 0830 on the near edge of objective TWO. Forward observers with SCR-300 radios will be furnished to Able and Charlie Cos. The anti-tank and demolition platoon will furnish three rocket launcher teams for the protection of the battalion command post. The demolition section will be prepared to remove any mines discovered along roads in the Battalion zone. Priority initially in the zone of Charlie Co. The balance of the platoon is under the control of the company commander. Baker Co will be in the battalion reserve. The initial position in the forward assembly area. Move forward on the order of the battalion commander. The battalion aid station at Basse Bodeux is to open at 0830, January 3. The battalion ammunition distributing point at Basse Bobeux. Squad rolls will be placed in company areas and picked up in that area by the S-4 tomorrow. Men will not wear overcoats or overshoes. One-third of a K ration and the SOP amount of ammunition will be issued in this area prior to the movement as it is impossible to get vehicles into the forward assembly area.
Communications SOP and the command group will follow Charlie Co initially. A forward assembly area had been selected and each company was instructed to send one non-commissioned officer to the assistant S-3 (a Captain) who would acquaint them with the area and the route thereto. The company commanders were given the location and ordered to make their own reconnaissance of the forward assembly area. After receiving the order there was approximately one hour of daylight left (the order was finished at approximately 1600) in which to execute a hurried reconnaissance and issue the company attack order. It was necessary to give the platoon leaders time to plan for their actions on the following day. The platoon leader of the machine gun platoon was sent to Charlie Co while his assistant platoon leader was sent to Able Co. The Headquarters Company Commander accompanied by the executive officer, the mortar platoon leader, the demolition officer, the company operations sergeant, the company communications sergeant, a radio operator, and a runner proceeded again to the high ground just east of Basse Bodeux and made as detailed a reconnaissance as was possible in the remaining few minutes of daylight.
The terrain was generally heavily wooded with ridge lines running in a north-south direction. The elevation of the ridge lines was from 400 to 500 meters. Small streams followed the low ground between the ridges but they, in themselves, did not constitute obstacles. The road net running east-west was generally good but the one running north-south was generally poor. Wheeled vehicles were pretty much restricted to the existing roads due to the forests and the snow. The terrain sloped gently down toward the line of departure and was open and smooth from the forward assembly area to the line of departure. From the line of departure to the initial objectives the terrain sloped gently upward and was open. The initial objectives were wooded high points approximately 800 yards from the line of departure. It was decided to emplace the mortar platoon in a draw just east of Basse Bodeux, the anti-tank and demolitions platoon (minus three teams) would move in the vicinity of the reserve company, the Company CP would be in a building in Basse Bodeux, and the company commander, the operations sergeant, a radio operator, and one runner would move with the battalion command group. It was further decided that the mortar platoon would occupy their positions prior to 2400, January 2, as the division had, beginning at 2400, allowed the road running south into Basse Bodeux to certain specified units at certain specified times.
The company attack order was given at approximately 1830 on January 2, and due to the group reconnaissance earlier, it was very brief. At approximately 1845, the platoon leaders began to orient their men and issue their own attack orders. Immediately after the men had been fed the units attached moved to their respective company bivouac areas, thus allowing the rifle company commanders to integrate them into their company organization much better. These attachments consisted of a machine gun section for each assault rifle company, a mortar forward observer team with an SCR-300 radio for each of the assault rifle companies, and three rocket launcher teams to the battalion headquarters. The company commander and the mortar platoon leader contacted the Battalion S-4 and obtained two additional two-and-one-half ton trucks which they immediately loaded with 81-MM mortar ammunition. The 81-MM mortar platoon then moved into its firing positions completing the move at approximately 2330 on January 2.