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Document Source: After Action Report Maj Hal D. McCown, 1/119-IR, 30th Infantry Division, G-2 Periodic Report #198 December 30, 1944. Subject: Report of Major Hal D. McCown, 1st Battalion, 119th Infantry Regiment, 30th US Infantry Division, Observations of an American Field Officer captured by the enemy and who escaped from the 1.SS-Panzer-Division (Kampfgruppe Peiper) (LSSAH). Maj Hal D. McCown.
On the first of December, the general outlook of the war was good. The Allied forces had driven from the beachhead across France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and well into the industrial Rhineland Zone of Germany. The end of the war still loomed in the future but not as promisingly as it had at the beginning of October when the assault on the Siegfried Line seemed to the ordinary soldier the end of Germany. The Germans were masters at shifting forces and reserves from a quiet sector to one of action. Later, in the battle for the Rhine, this fact alone contributed greatly to their defeat. The loosely formed battalions and regiments had little coordination or communication. Individual commanders used tactics detrimental to the units on their flanks. As a whole, it could be now said that a general overall breakdown of German Army command and control was enveloping. The battles in the Line were exhausting; the US 1-A, 9-A, 3-A, and 7-A had so depleted enemy units that companies were reformed into squads and groups of companies from different units into battalions. Other companies were kept alive, although their strength might be only 15 to 20 men. Later, it was not uncommon to find troops of five or six different German companies in one company’s sector.
The picture in our own sector looked bad. We had cleared the West Bank of the Roer. The enemy still held the dams controlling the headwaters of the river to the south. They could at any time destroy the dams and flood the entire region. If the attack were resumed, Allied Troops on the East Bank would be cut off and could be destroyed at the enemy’s leisure. The 29th Infantry Division, on our right, was badly depleted, and the 2nd Armored Division, on our left, had lost a large portion of its tanks and armored vehicles, some of which had been lost in the Line and not yet replaced
Our weapons and vehicles were in extremely bad condition. We needed an almost complete re-equipping and a long rest after those many days of uninterrupted combat. While the 1-A was given the mission of capturing the dams, the 9-A stabilized its front and we began to pull back. On the first of December, our Regiment, the 119th Infantry, minus the 1st and 2nd Battalions and the Cannon Company, pulled back to Kohlscheid. The 1/119 was attached to the 2-AD in the vicinity of Frieldenhoven, and the 2/119 moved into the Division rest center at Herkrade, Holland. Our Cannon Company was needed to stabilize the front and was attached to the 197th Field Artillery Battalion near Setterich, Germany. In the days that followed, the 1/119 and Cannon Company returned to Kohlscheid. We now began to receive reinforcements in a number never before known. In a short period of time, all companies were back to strength, some even a little over-strength. Training programs and inspections followed so rapidly that it seemed we were back in basic training. The quality of the reinforcements was excellent; they learned rapidly and were smoothly absorbed into the unit. Many of these men were soon promoted to the vacancies left by our heavy non-commissioned casualties.
The battalions and separate companies were rotated at the rest center. Beards and long hair disappeared and pants once again wore creases. Smiles and laughter came out of hiding and liquor of a very dubious quality became plentiful. Some mathematician with nothing else to do computed and announced the fact that if all the foxholes we had dug were joined end to end, a ditch two-and-one-half feet deep, three feet wide, and 754 miles long could be used to bring pinups and booze from the beachhead to his personal doorstep.
Life was simple and quiet, and hot food was shoved down our throats three times a day. Crap and poker games flourished, even with the complications involved in the use of currency from four countries. Christmas packages arrived in their usual battered condition and the Christmas spirit prevailed. Men started to make Christmas presents for each other. Hand-carved pistol grips and a type of suspender used to hold up a cartridge belt were the most popular. Men gave as presents their cigarette lighters, knives, and captured pistols to their buddies, who had admired these articles at some time in the past. One man gave to his foxhole buddy a lucky rabbit’s foot which he sincerely believed had carried him safely from the beachhead. As trivial as this may seem, it was a noble gift, for soldiers in battle to become superstitious. Without his rabbit’s foot, the man was killed, 5 days later.
The sudden news of the German counteroffensive into Belgium brought us back to reality. The 2/119 was alerted and at 1000 was trucked to the vicinity of Erberich, Germany. Almost upon arrival, in the rapid occurrence of the events, the 2/119 was ordered back to Kohlcheid, and the entire Regiment was alerted for an instant move upon order, destination unknown. Our attachments rapidly arrived and the Regimental Combat Team consisted now of the 197-FAB; Able Co, 823-TDB; Baker Co, 105-ECB and Able Co, 105-MB. In a matter of minutes, the town awoke. Equipment, guns, supplies, and ammunition were quickly loaded and prepared for the move. No stage could have presented a more beautiful scene to a Commanding Officer than that of a well-trained Regiment in motion, each man at his individual task, with no confusion, only quiet, smooth efficiency.
It was only then that we began to realize that for the last month, the German High Command had been desperately hoarding its last major air, armored, and infantry forces for the final blow at the growing Allied strength. Suddenly on December 16, FM von Runstedt launched his abortive winter offensive. Masses of armor broke through the American front and fanned out into the snow-covered hills of the Belgian Ardennes. By December 17, the true magnitude of the offensive was realized. Supply and administrative installations were being overrun en mass in the axe of penetration, and the security of the Allied front was threatened. Movement orders and the QM trucks arrived quickly. By 1800 on December 17, the Regiment was motorized and moved south toward the fluid zone of the German breakthrough.
The Regiment moved quickly, yet cautiously, with air cover. Enemy information was lacking, and the move continued until after dark when the Regiment occupied an assembly area near Eupen, Belgium. Enemy aircraft were active on a scale unknown for months. During the night all antiaircraft weapons were used to fight off consistent bombing and strafing attacks. Service troops stationed in the area provided conflicting reports of the location of the nearest enemy troops and the direction of their movement. Retreating troops heading to the rear continued to pass through our column. Their movement and fresh rumors added confusion to the already scanty enemy information known. No enemy contact was made that night. The following day, December 18, orders were received assigning the Regiment a wide zone of advance running south and southeast from Spa, Belgium, with instructions to move on all main roads, find the spearheads of the German Panzer columns, and stabilize the front as rapidly as possible. Again the Regiment mounted its trucks and moved swiftly to the southwest.
The 2/119 was assigned the mission of covering the right, or westernmost, of the two main roads in the Regimental zone of advance. It moved quickly to the key road junction of Werbmont (Belgium), detrucked, and continued on foot with one platoon of self-propelled tank destroyers from Able 823-TDB, following closely behind the infantry point. Three miles from Werbomont they ran headlong into a German armored column of six half-tracks loaded with infantry, and six Mark VI-2 King Tigers tanks speeding west toward Werbomont. The platoon on the point deployed quickly and took the enemy under fire with bazookas and the TDs. Four half-tracks were destroyed, 15 of the enemy killed, and one prisoner was taken. The six German tanks with the two remaining half-tracks turned around hurriedly and withdrew to the first defilade, from which they sent 88-MM shells screaming in the general direction’ from which the surprise American attack had come. The remainder of the 2/119 moved up behind its point and established roadblocks and security for the night. They were ordered to hold this position till late the next day, December 19, when they were relieved by the elements of the 82nd Airborne Division and instructed to rejoin the Regiment.
In the meanwhile, on the 18, the 119-IR, less the 2/119, had continued moving by trucks on the main highway running through the western half of the Regimental zone. As darkness approached, the 1/119 detrucked and went into a temporary defensive position north of Lorcé–Chevron. The 3/119 detrucked at Stoumont, established roadblocks and security and sent out a strong patrol farther down the road. At 2130, the first definite enemy information was obtained. The 3/119 patrol discovered approximately 40 heavy German tanks coiled in an assembly area only 500 yards from Stoumont. Numerous infantry lounging around half-tracks were observed. These troops later proved to be the striking force of the 1.SS-Panzer-Division (LSSAH), the elite of the German armored divisions, chosen by the German High Command to drive up the Malmedy–Stoumont highway and seize the supply and communication center of Liège, thus threatening encirclement of the entire US 1-A and 9-A. Spa was only a few miles north of this powerful German force and was the US 1-A Headquarters. It contained many important administrative installations and large stores of vital war supplies. Upon receipt of this information, the Regiment immediately regrouped its available resources with a view of stopping the German advance up this vital valley. The 3/119 established a defensive position on the southern and eastern edges of Stoumont, blocking all roads with mines and AT guns, and pushing out strong outposts. Able Co 823-TDB (less one platoon), the 400-AFAB (which did not get into firing position until 1700 on December 19), plus four 90-MM guns of the 110-AAAB and the 143-AAAB, were attached to the 3/119 to augment its defense.
The 90-MM Guns were deployed in depth along the main highway as AT secondary defense. The remaining 40-MM and the .50 cal. AAA-AW were both attached to the 1/129 in Regimental reserve and on roadblocks in the Lorcé–Chevron area. No tank support was available on the spot, although it had been promised and was reported on the way. One lone regiment, less one of its battalions, stood between one of the crack divisions of the German army and Runstedt’s main intermediate objective in the west, Liège. At 0615 on December 19, Item Co reported that a large enemy tank and infantry column was forming just east of Stoumont. By 0645, the full force of the attack struck the 3/119. Massed armor and infantry charged the Battalion outposts. Mark V Panthers and Mark VI-2 King Tigers, moving abreast parallel to the highway, were closely followed by shouting infantry. The enemy, by sheer force of numbers, poured through the advance positions. Riflemen of the 3/119 ignored the charging tanks and poured concentrated small arms fire on the fanatical foot-troops dodging behind the armor. Regardless of the casualties they were suffering, they continued to attack. Waves of fresh German infantry moved forward behind the steady advance of the tanks. Four towed tank destroyers fired repeatedly to see their shots bounce harmlessly off the front plates of the oncoming heavy armor. All four TDs were finally overrun. One 90-MM gun in this sector was destroyed completely by an 88-MM tank shell, but not until one of its rounds had gone completely through the turret of one Mark V Panther and set the whole thing afire.
With AT support gone, the 3/119 fought a hopeless action to hold the town of Stoumont. Four medium tanks from Charlie Co 743-TB arrived and were rushed up to form a fall-back line for the overrun troops of the Battalion. Although the bulk of the German armor was through the forward positions of the Battalion, men continued to fight savagely with the German infantry. Casualties fell in increasing numbers on both sides. Aid men continued to evacuate the wounded and rendered aid in the open fields until they were captured. Single men and isolated squads remained behind to cover the withdrawal when they saw it was impossible to hold against such overwhelming superiority. One rifleman, calmly selecting his targets, destroyed two half-tracks with rifle grenades as they rolled past his foxhole. Two more Panthers and one half-track were destroyed by bazooka fire at close range as the armor entered the built-up area of Stoumont. The American medium tank platoon, waiting on the western edge of Stoumont to cover the withdrawal, opened up and accounted for one Mark IV and one Mark V making the total casualties inflicted on the enemy thus far: 4 Mark Vs, 1 Mark IVs, three half-tracks, and an unknown but large amount of infantry.
The Panzer IV was the most numerous German tank and the second-most numerous German fully tracked armored fighting vehicle of WW2; 8553 Panzer IVs of all versions were built during WW2, only exceeded by the StuG III assault gun with 10.086 vehicles. Its chassis was also used as the base for many other fighting vehicles, including the Sturmgeschütz IV assault gun, the Jagdpanzer IV self-propelled anti-tank gun, the Wirbelwind self-propelled anti-aircraft gun, and the Brummbär self-propelled gun.
The 3/119 withdrew through the 1/119 and began reorganization. It had suffered 7 casualties, 152 of which had remained behind to cover the withdrawal and were for the most part captured. The fanatical attack swept on through Stoumont, 1000 yards on to Targnon, and 2000 yards beyond to a point just past the Stoumont Station, where it came to an abrupt halt when it ran against the fresh troops of the 1/119 waiting for them. By this time the delaying action of the 3/119 had forced the main body of the enemy to deploy and to commit part of their reserve on the right flank. The 3/119 had absorbed most of the shock of the spearhead and had definitely blunted its penetrating power. Meanwhile, the Regiment was exerting strenuous efforts to improve its precarious position in the face of the overwhelming strength of the enemy. Headquarters were stripped to furnish riflemen to man roadblocks on the dangerous open flanks. Service Company furnished an assorted but determined group of 60 men, recruited from the cooks and clerks, to form the Regiment’s last available mobile reserve. AT Company moved most of its guns from the exposed flanks down the road into the 1/119’s position to strengthen the forward defense. Then, fortune smiled a little and the 1/119 received its first stroke of luck since joining the action. The 740-TB was attached to the 1/119 and arrived just prior to the final withdrawal of the 3/119. This tank battalion had never seen action in combat before and was using hastily secured tanks from a nearby Ordnance Depot; yet these, though inexperienced, were far better than none at all. It was with a feeling of relief that the 1/119 watched them rumble into the forward positions of the 1/119 to await the oncoming enemy.
This second stage of the action opened with the enemy sending three Panthers with infantry down the road from the Stoumont Station, apparently to see if there were any organized American defense left to their front. When the lead tank reached a point 600 yards from the 119 CP, the 1/119 struck, and the 740-TB opened up. One Panther was knocked-out by Bazooka fire, two were destroyed by tank fire, and all of the accompanying infantry troops were killed or captured. One more Panther moved up from the Stoumont Station to cover the possible evacuation of the knocked-out tank crews and it, too, was added to the score by one of the 740-TB’s M-4. From this point on, the trend of the battle changed. Heartened by the addition of the fresh and willing tank unit, the 199-IR had also received the information that his 2nd Battalion would return to it during the coming night. The Regiment still smarted from the drubbing it had taken that morning. Every man in every echelon knew that the Regiment’s mission was not merely to halt this panzer column but to destroy it or be destroyed and that it would take every available resource to do so. During the remainder of the afternoon of December 19, the Service Company borrowed and salvaged deserted equipment and raided abandoned supply and ordnance dumps to replace the lost equipment of the 3/119. Men of this company traveled throughout the day and night over uncleared roads and without maps to locate and replace AT guns, small arms, mortars, ammunition, radios, and vehicles.
By daylight the next morning the badly mauled 3/119 had regained much of its equipment and was once more ready to close with the enemy. On the morning of December 20, the Regiment opened its new offensive phase with an attack of 1/119, with one company of the 740-TB and one platoon of Able Co 823-TDB attached. At 0830, they jumped off from their original defensive positions and ran into an organized defense of infantry supported by direct tank fire. Direct approach down the road was impossible so the action developed into a slow, strenuous business of flanking each position by hazardous routes up the hills north of the road. The SS men resisted, with unusual ferocity, any attempt to drive them back and had to be killed or completely encircled. By nightfall, these tactics had regained the Regiment a large portion of the lost ground, and the 1/119 now occupied a position 500 yards west of Stoumont. The final prize of the day was a large chateau on the commanding ground above the road. The 3/119 had been moved on December 20 around through Menthouat down to a position 1200 yards north of Stoutmont to partially encircle that position. The 2/119 was moved up to Targnon, where it established a second strong defensive line behind that of the 1/119’s farther east.
At 2200 on the night of December 20, the enemy struck back viciously in a strong tank and infantry attack. The 1/119 had moved its attached tanks well forward from their usual night positions for just such an attack. They immediately opened up, and a fierce tank fight raged in the darkness, each force firing at the other’s flashes. Three American tanks were hit and burned. Finally one of the enemy tanks exploded as one of the 1st Battalion’s tanks found its mark. The darkness permitted the German infantry to work in close before they were discovered; then they charged with their characteristic shouting. Their favorite cry seemed to be ‘God damn Roosevelt!’ The German radio had been calling us, for some time, ‘Roosevelt’s SS Troops’. This cry was evidently supposed to be a grave insult, but what they failed to understand was that we also had a few Republicans in the Regiment. The old chateau quickly became the focal point of the fighting. One platoon, defending in and around it, found itself attacked by an enemy company. The fighting was close and in some cases hand-to-hand. Grenades were tossed in windows and from room to room as both groups fought for possession of the building. The remainder of the 1/119’s line repulsed the attack in the other sectors. One unit, Fox Co 2/119 was alerted and moved up into the First Battalion’s positions to safeguard against a possible breakthrough in the chateau area. The fighting here raged all night and into the next day, December 21. When daylight came, the 1/119’s positions were still practically intact. One small band still held out in one room of the chateau and directed artillery fire to help stop each new lunge of the German attackers. Fresh tanks from the 740-TB were pushed up to replace those knocked out the right before. They added their firepower to the fight by shooting straight down the valley into the trees lining the sides of the highway, where the bulk of the enemy was concentrated to form each attacking wave. In the face of this increased show of strength, the German effort lost power and finally stopped altogether, both sides holding their ground for a much-needed breathing spell.
On December 20, the Combat Team Artillery (197-FAB), had arrived in the area and started an intensive harassing fire on the enemy, much to the relief of the Regiment. The German counterattacks thrown after its arrival inflicted heavy casualties. After the final German thrust was stopped on December 21, the rest of the day was spent in desperate preparations for a concentrated effort by the whole Regiment. Ammunition for tanks, .50 cal. guns, and artillery, all of which had run dangerously low, were hunted out in the far-separated ammunition dumps of this sector. Briefings of the plan were held. The Regiment was going to reduce the enemy garrison at Stoumont by complete encirclement. The fresh 2/119 was to swing around in a wide move to the north and chop the Stoumont – La Gleize Road. The 3/119 would attack from the north and the 1/119 from the west.
Early on the morning of December 22, the 2/119 moved out on its cross-country operation. Under full combat equipment, men worked their way up the steep snow-covered slopes. In spite of the bitter cold, every man was son drenched with sweat from the strenuous exertion. Through thick underbrush along the crest of the high ridge, the Battalion swung due east and moved on past Menthouat deep into the thick evergreens halfway to La Gleize. Then, it cut straight south, right at the vulnerable rear of the Stoumont position. At this time, the 1/119 and the 3/119 jumped off to assault Stoumont frontally. The enemy immediately moved up his heavy armor and blasted straight up the main highway and the Menthouat Road, denying their use by friendly armor. An intensive barrage of small arms opened up as the Regiment attempted to push into the open fields just north and west of the town. The 197-FAB and the 400-FAB laid continuous heavy concentrations on the town and adjacent high ground to neutralize this deadly fire and assist the infantry through the flat open fields. Both battalions worked closer toward the town, but the number of casualties being suffered in the frontal assault became excessive, and the Regiment was ordered to hold up these two battalions.
In the meantime, the 2/119 had chopped the main road between Stoumont and La Gleize at a point approximately halfway between these two towns. Trees were being felled and mines laid straight across the highway covered by bazooka fire (no tanks or AT guns were able to move on the tortuous cross-country route). The Battalion CO was moving at the right rear of his right company in an effort to personally contact the 3/119 when he was captured with two of his men by a strong German outpost. In view of this, and also because of the unsuccessful assault on Stoumont, the Battalion was ordered to abandon its roadblock and withdraw to the north to the high ground, moving out of its present precarious position.
The Men of the 119-IR
(Next Page) After Action report: The experience of Maj Hal D. McCown, CO of the 2/119 (30-ID), who was captured by a German patrol of the 1.SS-Panzer-Division (LSSAH) in the vicinity of Stoumont on December 21/22 1944.