St. Vith lay approximately twelve miles behind the front lines on 16 December. This was an average Belgian town, with a population of a little over 2,000 and sufficient billets to house a division headquarters. It was important, however, as the knot which tied the roads running around the Schnee Eifel barrier to the net which fanned out toward the north, south, and west. Six paved or macadam roads entered St. Vith. None of these were considered by the German planners to be major military trunk lines, although in the late summer of 1944 work had been started to recondition the road running east from St. Vith to Stadtkyll as a branch of the main military system, because normally the Schnee Eifel range served as a breakwater diverting heavy highway traffic so that it passed to the north or south of St. Vith. (See Map III.)
In German plans the hub at St. Vith was important, but it was not on the axis of any of the main armored thrusts. The German armored corps advancing through the northeastern Ardennes were slated to swing wide of the Schnee Eifel and St. Vith, the I SS Panzer Corps passing north, the LVIII Panzer Corps passing south. But despite admonitions from the German High Command that the armored spearheads should race forward without regard to their flanks, the reasons it was obvious that St. Vith had to be taken were threefold:
to insure the complete isolation of the troops that might be trapped on the Schnee Eifel,
to cover the German supply lines unraveling behind the armored corps to the north and south, and
to feed reinforcements laterally into the main thrusts by using the St. Vith road net.
The closest of the northern armored routes, as these appeared on the German operations maps, ran through Recht, about five miles northwest of St. Vith. The closest of the primary armored routes in the south ran through Burg Reuland, some five miles south.
St. Vith is built on a low hill surrounded on all sides by slightly higher rises. On the south the Braunlauf Creek swings past St. Vith and from the stream a draw extends to the west edge of the town. About a mile and a half to the east a large wooded hill mass rises as a screen. This is crossed by the road to Schönberg, which then dips into the Our valley and follows the north bank of the river until the Schönberg bridge is reached, approximately six miles from St. Vith.
On the morning of 16 December the messages reporting the initial German attacks in the 106th Division positions were punctuated for the division staff by occasional large-caliber shells falling in St. Vith. This fire was quite ineffectual and there was little comprehension of the German attack. The attachment of CCB, 9th Armored Division, to the 106th Division late in the morning promised such aid as then seemed necessary, but Hoge's command post was at Monschau and he would not receive his orders from Jones until about 1800. As a result CCB began its move for St. Vith about 2000 on the 16th.
As the size and direction of the first enemy effort began to assume some shadowy form on the situation maps in the corps and division headquarters, General Middleton advised the 106th Division commander that he could use the 168th Engineer Combat Battalion, which was engaged in routine duties around St. Vith and Vielsalm. This battalion (Lt. Col. W. L. Nungesser) was at about half strength-attendance at schools or special assignments accounted for the rest. The men had not been given any recent training in the use of bazookas or machine guns; a large percentage of the machine gunners would therefore be killed in the fight for St. Vith.
At 1030 on 17 December, reports of the German penetration from the east led General Jones to send the 168th out the St. Vith-Schönberg road with orders to defend astride the road at the village of Heuem. While en route, the engineers met troopers of the 32d Cavalry who had been involved in a running fight along the road west of Schönberg. Heuem, they reported, was in enemy hands and a German column was heading straight for St. Vith.
On the morning of the 17th Colonel Slayden, VIII Corps' assistant G-2, and Lt. Col. Earle Williams, the 106th Division signal officer, while doing independent scouting east of St. Vith, had seen the enemy and tapped the signal wire to ask for artillery interdiction of the highway. The combat engineer battalion deployed about two miles east of St. Vith along the outer edge of a pine forest fringing the ridge mask over which climbs the road from Schönberg. Here forty men or so of the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion (106th Division) joined the 168th. CCB, 9th Armored Division, had passed St. Vith en route to aid the 424th Infantry, and a platoon of Troop C, 89th Cavalry Squadron, was commandeered to reinforce the watch east of the town. This little force was digging in when, at noon, the first enemy patrols were sighted.
The 7th Armored Division Move to St. Vith
When the counteroffensive began, the 7th Armored Division (Brig. Gen. Robert W. Hasbrouck) was in the XIII Corps reserve, planning for possible commitment in the Ninth Army Operation DAGGER intended to clear the Germans from the west bank of the Roer River once the dams were destroyed.
The division, assembled about fifteen miles north of Aachen, had taken no part as a unit in the November drive toward the Roer, although companies and battalions on occasion had been attached to attacking infantry divisions. The period of rest and refitting, after heavy fighting at Metz and in Holland, had put the 7th Armored in good condition. When General Bradley and the 12th Army Group staff met in the afternoon of the 16th to make a tentative selection of divisions which could be taken from other fronts to reinforce the Ardennes sector, the choice in the north fell on Hasbrouck's command. Actually there were armored divisions in the First Army closer to the scene, but they had been alerted for use in the first phases of the attacks planned to seize the Roer River dams (a design not abandoned until 17 December) and as yet little sense of urgency attached to reinforcements in the VIII Corps area.
General Hasbrouck received a telephone call at 1730 alerting, his division for movement to the south (it took five more hours for the 7th Armored G-2 to learn that 'three or four German divisions were attacking'). Two hours later while the division assembled and made ready, an advance party left the division command post at Heerlen, Holland, for Bastogne where it was to receive instructions from the VIII Corps. Vielsalm, fourteen miles west of St. Vith by road, had already been designated as the new assembly area. At Bastogne General Middleton outlined the mission: one combat command would be prepared to assist the 106th Division, a second could be used if needed, but under no circumstances was the third to be committed. The decision was left to General Hasbrouck, who first was to consult with the 106th Division as to how and when his leading combat command would be employed. Even at this hour the scope of the German counteroffensive was but dimly seen and the 7th Armored Division advance party was informed that it would not be necessary to have the artillery accompany the combat command columns-in other words this would not be a tactical march from Heerlen to Vielsalm.
The movement plans prepared by the First Army staff assigned General Hasbrouck two routes of march: an east route, through Aachen, Eupen, Malmédy, and Recht, on which CCR would move; a west route, through Maastricht, Verviers, and Stavelot, which would be used by the main body of the division. The division artillery, which had been firing in support of the XIII Corps, was not to displace until the late morning of 17 December, when it would move on the eastern route. Shortly after midnight the Ninth Army was informed that the two columns would depart at 0330 and 0800; actually the western column moved out at 0430. The estimated time of arrival was 1400, 17 December, and of closure 0200, 18 December. A couple of hours earlier the First Army headquarters had told General Middleton that the west column would arrive at 0700 and close at 1900 on the 17th, and that the combat command on the east road would arrive at 1100 and close at 1700. It was on this estimate that General Middleton and the 106th Division commander based their plans for a counterattack by a combat command of the 7th Armored east of St. Vith early on 17 December.
Although this failure to make an accurate estimate of the time of arrival in the battle area bore on the fate of the two regiments on the Schnee Eifel, it was merely a single event in the sequence leading to the final encirclement and lacked any decisive import. The business of computing the lateral movement of an armored division close to a front through which the enemy was breaking could hardly attain the exactness of a Leavenworth solution complete with march graphs and tables. None of the charts on traffic density commonly used in general staff or armored school training could give a formula for establishing the coefficient of 'friction' in war, in this case the mass of jeeps, prime movers, guns, and trucks which jammed the roads along which the 7th Armored columns had to move to St. Vith. Also, the transmittal of the 7th Armored Division's own estimate of its possible progress was subject to 'friction.' This estimate was received at the headquarters of the VIII Corps at 0500 on 17 December, the first indication, it would appear, that the leading armored elements would arrive at 1400 instead of 0700 as planned. Thus far the Ninth Army had given Hasbrouck no information on the seriousness of the situation on the VIII Corps front.
The advance party sent by General Hasbrouck reached St. Vith about 0800 on 17 December, reporting to General Jones, who expected to find the armored columns right behind. Brig. Gen. Bruce Clarke, in advance of CCB, agreed with Jones's recommendation that his combat command be organized upon arrival into two task forces and committed in an attack to clear the St. Vith-Schönberg road. At Schönberg the 7th Armored task forces would turn south to join CCB of the 9th Armored Division, already engaged along the road to Winterspelt. If successful, the attack by the two combat commands would provide escape corridors for the beleaguered regiments of the 106th.
CCB of the 7th Armored had meanwhile been making good progress and arrived at Vielsalm about 1100, halting just to the east to gas up. Although Vielsalm was only fourteen miles by road from St. Vith, it would be literally a matter of hours before even the lightly armored advance guard could reach St. Vith. The mass of artillery, cavalry, and supply vehicles moving painfully through St. Vith to the west-with and without orders-formed a current almost impossible to breast. Although the mounted military police platoon in St. Vith had orders to sidetrack the withdrawing corps artillery when the armor appeared, the traffic jam had reached the point where the efforts of a few MP's were futile.
General Jones, beset by messages reporting the German advance along the Schönberg road, sent urgent requests for the armor to hurry. At 1300 German vehicles were seen in Setz, four and a half miles from the eastern edge of St. Vith. Half an hour later three enemy tanks and some infantry appeared before the 168th Engineer Battalion position astride the St. Vith road. Carelessly dismounting, one tank crew was riddled by machine gun fire; a second tank received a direct and killing blast from a bazooka; the third tank and the infantry withdrew. Another small German detachment deployed in front of the engineers an hour later was engaged and was finally put to flight by American fighter planes in one of their few appearances over the battlefield on this day.
About the same time the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, temporarily under the command of Maj. Charles A. Cannon, Jr., reported to General Clarke in St. Vith, the first unit of the 7th Armored to reach the 106th Division. Troop B was sent out the east road to reinforce the engineers, but the main body of the reconnaissance battalion deployed to screen the northeastern approaches to the Wallerode area. By this time it was obvious to Jones and Clarke that the main forces of the 7th Armored could not reach St. Vith in time to make a daylight attack. General Hasbrouck reached St. Vith at 1600-it had taken him all of five hours to thread his way through the traffic jam between Vielsalm and St. Vith. He found that General Jones already had turned the defense of St. Vith over to Clarke and the 7th Armored Division. After a hasty conference the counterattack was postponed until the following morning.
It was just turning dark when the assistant G-2 of the 7th Armored led a company of tanks and another of armored infantry into St. Vith. This detachment had literally forced its way, at pistol point and by threatening to run down the vehicles barring the road, from Vielsalm to St. Vith. About this time the Germans made another attempt, covered by artillery fire, to thrust a few tanks along the east road. Three American tank destroyers which had been dug in at a bend in the road were abandoned-their crews shelled out by accurate enemy concentrations but the attack made no further headway and perhaps was intended only as a patrol action. The 106th Division now could report, 'We have superior force in front of St. Vith.'
Why did the LXVI Corps fail to make a determined push toward St. Vith on 17 December? German assault guns or tanks had been spotted west of Schönberg as early as 0850. By noon German infantry were in Setz, with at least five hours of daylight remaining and less than five miles to go, much of that distance being uncontested. By mid-afternoon the enemy had reached the 168th Engineer positions less than two miles from St. Vith. Yet at no time during the day did the Germans use more than three assault guns and one or two platoons of infantry in the piecemeal attacks west of Schönberg. The successive concentrations laid by the American artillery on Schönberg and both sides of the road west-from 9 o'clock on-must have affected enemy movement considerably. The bombs dropped on Schönberg and its narrow streets late in the day may have delayed the arrival of reinforcements, and air attack certainly helped to scatter the most advanced German troops. The stand made by Troop B, 32d Cavalry Squadron, near Heuem and the later fight by the engineers gave the German point an excuse to report-as it did-the presence of 'stubborn resistance' east of St. Vith.
It seems likely, however, that only small German detachments actually reached the Schönberg-St. Vith road during the daylight hours of 17 December. The German corps commander, General Lucht, had ordered the Mobile Battalion of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division up from reserve during the previous night with orders to advance via Andler. (It will be remembered that the 18th Volks Grenadier Division was charged with the encirclement and capture of St. Vith.) The Mobile Battalion (comprising three platoons of assault guns, a company of engineers, and another of fusiliers) did not arrive at Schönberg until after noon. During the morning the division commander had led a battalion of the 294th Regiment to Schönberg, but seems to have halted there (perhaps to secure the Schönberg bridge against recapture), sending only small detachments against Troop B at Heuem. With the arrival of the assault guns some attempt was made to probe the American defenses east of St. Vith. This, however, was not the main mission assigned the advance guard of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division, for the original plan of advance had called on the Mobile Battalion to seize the high ground at Wallerode, northeast of St. Vith, which overlooked the valley road from Schönberg. The bulk of the German advance guard, as a result, toiled through the woods toward Wallerode, arriving there in the early evening.
An opportunity had been missed. Perhaps the German command did not realize the full extent of the gains won in the St. Vith area and was wedded too closely to its prior plans. In any case the German armored reserve was not available. Tanks of the Fuehrer Begleit Brigade, theoretically attached to the LXVI Corps but subject to commitment only on army orders, would not be released for use at St. Vith until too late for a successful coup de main.
On the movement of the main body of the 7th Armored Division on 17 December hung the fate of St. Vith. Behind the reconnaissance and advance elements the bulk of the division moved slowly southward along the east and west lines of march, forty-seven and sixty-seven miles long, respectively. The division staff knew little of the tactical situation and nothing of the extent to which the German armored columns had penetrated westward. It is probable that night-flying German planes spotted the American columns in the early hours of the 17th, but it is doubtful that the tank columns of the Sixth Panzer Army traveling west on roads cutting across the 7th Armored routes were aware of this American movement. Actually CCR of the 7th Armored, on the eastern route, came very close to colliding with the leading tank column of the 1st SS Panzer Division south of Malmédy but cleared the road before the Germans crossed on their way west. The western column made its march without coming in proximity to the west-moving German spearheads, its main problem being to negotiate roads jammed with west-bound traffic.
The division artillery, finally released in the north, took the east route, its three battalions and the 203d Antiaircraft Battalion moving as a single column. Early on the afternoon of the 17th the 440th Armored Field Artillery, leading the column, entered Malmédy, only to be greeted with the sign THIS ROAD UNDER ENEMY FIRE. The town square was a scene of utter confusion. Trucks loaded with soldiers and nurses from a nearby hospital, supply vehicles, and civilians of military age on bicycles eddied around the square in an attempt to get on the road leading out to the west; a battalion from a replacement depot threaded its way on foot between the vehicles, also en route to the west. All that the artillery could learn was that a German tank column was south of Malmédy. This, of course, was the panzer detachment of the 1st SS Panzer Division.
The 440th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, unable to reverse itself, turned west to Stavelot and subsequently joined the western group on its way to Vielsalm. Alerted by radio from the 440th, Maj. W. J. Scott (acting in the absence of the artillery commander who had gone ahead to report at the division headquarters) turned the column around in the square and to avoid the narrow and congested road led it back toward Eupen, cutting in to the western divisional route at Verviers. This roundabout move consumed the daylight hours and through the night the gun carriages streamed along the Verviers-Vielsalm road. The main artillery column again missed the 1st SS Panzer Division by only a hair's breadth.
As Battery D, 203d Antiaircraft Battalion, at the tail of the column, rolled through Stavelot about 0800 on the morning of 18 December, it found itself in the middle of a fire fight between the advance guard of the 1st SS Panzer Division and a small American force of armored infantry, engineers, and tank destroyers. The battery swung its quadruple machine guns around for ground laying and moved into the fight, firing at the enemy assembling along the banks of the Amblève River, which here ran through the south edge of the town. After an hour or so the battery turned once again and, taking no chances, circled wide to the west. It finally arrived in the division assembly area east of Vielsalm late in the afternoon. The bulk of the artillery column closed at Vielsalm during the morning, although the last few miles had to be made against the flow of vehicles surging from the threatened area around St. Vith.
While the 7th Armored Division artillery was working its way onto the west road during the evening of 17 December, most of the division assembled in the St. Vith area along positions roughly indicative of an unconsciously forming perimeter defense. From Recht, five miles northwest of St. Vith, to Beho, seven miles to the southwest of the 106th Division headquarters, the clockwise disposition of the American units was as follows. At Recht were located the command post of CCR and the rear headquarters of CCB, with the 17th Tank Battalion assembled to the southeast. The disorganized 14th Cavalry Group was dispersed through the area between Recht and Poteau. East of Hünningen the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (-) had formed roadblocks to bar the northern and northeastern approaches to St. Vith. To the right of the cavalry the most advanced units of CCB had reinforced the 168th Engineer Combat Battalion on the Schönberg road and pushed out to either side for some distance as flank protection. During the night, CCB, 9th Armored Division, and the 424th Infantry withdrew across the Our River and established a defensive line along the hill chain running from northeast of Steinebrück south to Burg Reuland; these troops eventually made contact with the advance elements of CCB, 7th Armored Division. Some six or seven miles west of Burg Reuland, CCA of the 7th Armored had assembled near Beho.
West of St. Vith, in position to give close support, were located the 275th Armored Field Artillery Battalion (Lt. Col. Roy Udell Clay) and the remainder of CCB. The 275th, reinforced by the 16th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, and three batteries of corps artillery, fired through the night to interdict the eastern approaches to St. Vith; this was all the artillery support remaining to the American troops in this sector. The 112th Infantry, now beginning to fold back to the north as the center of the 28th Division gave way, was no longer in contact with the 424th Infantry, its erstwhile left flank neighbor, but the axis of withdrawal ultimately would bring the 112th Infantry to piece out the southern sector of the defense slowly forming around St. Vith.
While it is true that an outline or trace of the subsequent St. Vith perimeter was unraveling on the night of 17-18 December, this was strictly fortuitous. General Jones and General Hasbrouck still expected that CCB would make its delayed drive east of St. Vith on the morning of the 18th. The strength of the German forces thrusting west was not yet fully appreciated. Information on the location of the enemy or the routes he was using was extremely vague and generally several hours out of date. Communication between the higher American headquarters and their subordinate units was sporadic and, for long periods, nonexistent. Late in the evening of the 17th and during the morning of the 18th, however, the scope and direction of the German drive thrusting past St. Vith in the north became more clearly discernible as the enemy struck in a series of attacks against Recht, Poteau, and Hünningen.
The Enemy Strikes at the St. Vith Perimeter
The 1st SS Panzer Division, forming the left of the I SS Panzer Corps advance in the zone north of St. Vith, had driven forward on two routes. The northern route, through Stavelot and the Amblève River valley, carried the main strength of the division, led by its panzer regiment. It was the first group in this northern column which CCR had unwittingly eluded and from which the tail of the 7th Armored artillery column had glanced at Stavelot. The southern route, through Recht and Vielsalm, was assigned to a kampfgruppe of the 1st SS Panzer Division made up of a reinforced panzer grenadier regiment and a battalion of assault guns. This group had been delayed by poor roads and American mine fields west of Manderfeld, and by the end of 17 December it was some hours behind the north column.
The headquarters of CCR, 7th Armored, opened in Recht in midafternoon of the 17th. At that time the combat command retained only the 17th Tank Battalion (assembled to the southeast) because its armored infantry battalion had been diverted to St. Vith. About 2045 CCR got its first word of the Germans it had so narrowly missed when the driver for the division chief of staff, Col. Church M. Matthews, appeared at the command post with the report that during the afternoon he had run afoul of a large tank column near Pont and that the colonel was missing. These Germans, of course, were part of the northern column. Lt. Col. Fred M. Warren, acting commanding officer, sent the driver on to division headquarters to tell his story, and at the same time he asked for a company of infantry. He then ordered the 17th Tank Battalion (Lt. Col. John P. Wemple) to send a tank company into Recht. Warren and Wemple studied the road net as shown on the map and agreed to try to hold Recht through the night. Stragglers came pouring through Recht in the meantime with rumors and reports of the enemy just behind them. The headquarters and tank company had little time to get set, for about 0200 the advance guard of the southern German column hit the village from the east and northeast. Unwilling to risk his tanks without infantry protection in a night fight through narrow streets, and uncertain of the enemy strength, Warren ordered a withdrawal after a sharp 45-minute engagement. CCR headquarters started down the road southwest toward Vielsalm, and the tanks rejoined Wemple.
Made cautious by the collision at Recht, the German column moved slowly, putting out feelers to the southeast before the main force resumed the march southwest along the Vielsalm road. Wemple and his tankers were able to repel these probing attempts without difficulty. CCR headquarters had meanwhile become ensnarled with the remnants of the 14th Cavalry Group and the residue of the corps artillery columns at the little village of Poteau, where the roads from Recht and St. Vith join en route to Vielsalm. This crossroads hamlet had been the worst bottleneck in the traffic jam on 17 December; indeed the situation seems to have been completely out of hand when the CCR headquarters arrived in the early morning hours and succeeded in restoring some order.
On the afternoon of 17 December the 14th Cavalry Group commander had ordered the remnants of his two squadrons to fall back to Recht. Through some confusion in orders both squadrons got onto the St. Vith-Poteau highway, although three reconnaissance teams did reach Recht and took part in the action there. About midnight orders from the 106th Division arrived at the group headquarters which had been set up in Poteau: the cavalry were to return to Born, which they had just evacuated, and occupy the high ground. By this time most of the 32d Squadron had threaded their way south through Poteau, apparently unaware that the group had established a command post there. Shortly after dark Colonel Devine departed with most of his staff for the 106th Division command post, but this command group was ambushed near Recht (Colonel Devine and two of his officers escaped on foot).
Early on the 18th, Lt. Col. Augustine Duggan, senior of the remaining staff, intercepted elements of the 18th Squadron, part of Troop C, 32d Squadron, and the one remaining platoon of towed 3-inch guns from the 820th Tank Destroyer. These were placed under the command of Maj. J. L. Mayes as a task force to comply with the orders from division. With great difficulty the task force vehicles were sorted out, lined the road, and then turned about and faced toward Recht. Mayes's group moved out from the crossroads at first light on 18 December but had gone only some two hundred yards when flame shot up from the leading light tank and an armored car, the two struck almost simultaneously by German bazooka fire. The glare thrown over the snow silhouetted the figures of enemy infantrymen advancing toward the Poteau crossroads. The task force pulled back into the village and hastily prepared a defense around the dozen or so houses there, while to the north a small cavalry patrol dug in on a hill overlooking the hamlet and made a fight of it. By this time the last of the milling traffic was leaving Poteau; eight 8-inch howitzers of the 740th Field Artillery Battalion were abandoned here as the German fire increased, ostensibly because they could not be hauled out of the mud onto the road.
All through the morning the enemy pressed in on Poteau, moving his machine guns, mortars, and assault guns closer and closer. At noon the situation was critical, the village was raked by fire, and the task force was no longer in communication with any other Americans. Colonel Duggan finally gave the order to retire down the road to Vielsalm. Three armored cars, two jeeps, and one light tank were able to disengage and carried the wounded out; apparently a major part of the force was able to make its way to Vielsalm on foot.
During the early morning Headquarters, CCR, set out from Poteau, heading down the valley road toward Vielsalm. At the small village of Petit Thier it was discovered that a lieutenant from the 23d Armored Infantry Battalion, separated from his column on the march south, had heard the firing at Poteau and had rounded up a collection of stray tanks, infantry, cavalry, and engineers to block the way to Vielsalm.4 The CCR commander took over this roadblock and, as the force swelled through the day with incoming stragglers and lost detachments, extended the position west of the village. The German column at Poteau, however, made no attempt to drive on to Vielsalm. The main body of the 1st SS Panzer Division needed reinforcements. The panzer grenadier regiment and the assault guns therefore were ordered off their assigned route and turned northeast to follow the column through Stavelot.
The 7th Armored counterattack from St. Vith to relieve the two trapped regiments of the 106th Division had been postponed on the 17th, not canceled. During the early morning hours of 18 December preparation was completed for the attack on Schönberg by the 31st Tank Battalion and the 23d Armored Infantry Battalion, now brigaded under CCB. This was risky business at best. The divisional artillery would not be in position to support the attack. The similar effort by CCB, 9th Armored Division, had been called off and the American forces south of the 422d Infantry and 423d Infantry had withdrawn behind the Our. That the German strength was increasing was made apparent by the events during the night of 17-18 December, but the 7th Armored light observation planes were not available for scouting the enemy dispositions or movements east of St. Vith. General Clarke was well aware of the chancy nature of this enterprise and, at 0645, when reporting to Colonel Ryan, the division chief of staff, pointed out that General Hasbrouck still had the option of canceling the attack.
It would be the enemy, however, and not a command decision that forced the abandonment of the proposed effort. About 0800 the Germans launched a reconnaissance in force northeast of St. Vith, advancing from Wallerode toward Hünningen. Here, only two thousand yards from St. Vith, two troops of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron and a few antiaircraft half-tracks offered the sole barrier to a thrust into the city. Who made up the enemy force and its strength is uncertain-probably this was the Mobile Battalion of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division, making the preliminary move in the scheme to encircle St. Vith. In any event enough pressure was exerted during the morning to drive the small American screening force back toward St. Vith.
As the cavalry commenced its delaying action a hurried call went out to CCB, 9th Armored, for tanks and antitank guns. Moving through St. Vith, two companies from the 14th Tank Battalion (Maj. Leonard E. Engeman) and one from the 811th Tank Destroyer Battalion took over the fight. One company of Shermans circled in the direction of Wallerode, falling on the enemy flank while the tank destroyers contained the head of the German column on the Hünnange road. Both American units were able to drive forward and the Shermans knocked out six light panzers or assault guns. By this time the 7th Armored plans for the Schönberg attack were definitely off and a company from the 31St Tank Battalion joined in the affair. American losses were small, the German foray was checked, and before the day closed the Hünningen position was restored, but it was clear that the enemy now was concentrating to the north as well as to the east of St. Vith.
Like the probing thrust at Hünnange, the German efforts on the road east of St. Vith during 18 December were advance guard actions fought while the main German force assembled. The 18th Volks Grenadier Division, charged with the initial attack against St. Vith, actually was riding two horses at the same time, attempting to close up for a decisive blow at St. Vith while maintaining the northern arc of the circle around the Americans on the Schnee Eifel. This tactical problem was made more difficult for the 18th Volks Grenadier Division and the LXVI Corps by the traffic situation on the roads east and north of Schönberg where columns belonging to the Sixth SS Panzer Army were swinging out of their proper one. Although the corps commander, General Lucht, personally intervened to 'rank' the intruders out of the area he seems to have been only moderately successful. Then, too, the artillery belonging to the division had been turned inward against the Schnee Eifel pocket on 18 December; only one battalion got up to the Schönberg-St. Vith road.
The attacks made east of St. Vith on 18 December were carried by a part of the 294th Infantry, whose patrols had been checked by the 168th Engineers the previous day. Three times the grenadiers tried to rush their way through the foxhole line held by the 38th Armored Infantry Battalion (Lt. Col. William H. G. Fuller) and B Troop of the 87th astride the Schönberg road. The second attempt, just before noon, was made under cover of a creeping barrage laid down by the German artillery battalion near Schönberg and momentarily shook the American firing line. But the armored infantry, rallied by their officers and aided by Nungesser's engineers, drove back the attackers. The last German assault, begun after a two-hour fire fight, made a dent in the center of the 38th Armored Infantry line. Again the 168th Engineers gave a hand, the bulk of the 23d Armored Infantry Battalion appeared to reinforce the line east of St. Vith, and by dark all lost ground had been retaken. During this entire action the 275th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, emplaced along the Recht road northwest of St. Vith, fired concentration after concentration against the enemy thrusting against the 38th and the engineers. Observation was poor-the 18th was a day of low-hanging fog but the nine hundred rounds plunging onto the Schönberg road did much to check the grenadiers.
Although the 18th Volks Grenadier Division was able, on this third day of the counteroffensive, to push some of its troops close in toward St. Vith, the 62d Volks Grenadier Division on the left had moved more slowly. Despite the American withdrawal from the WinterspeltHeckhuscheid area and the promptings of the impatient commander of the LXVI Corps, the 62d only tardily brought itself into conformity with the forward kampfgruppen of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division. The 164th Regiment, reinforced by engineers and assault guns, apparently took some time to re-form after its fight with the 9th Armored Division counterattack force on 17 December. Although German patrols continued up the road to Steinebrück, attempting in vain to seize the bridge during the night, the attack was not pressed until after daylight on the following morning. Two of the three Our bridges chosen for capture in the LXVI Corps' plan now were in German hands, but the bridge at Steinebrück still had to be taken.
The bend in the Our River near Steinebrück necessitated a switch in the new American positions on the far bank; thus while the main frontage held by the 424th and CCB, 9th Armored, faced east, the line at Steinebrück faced south, then swung back until it again faced east. In this sector Troop D, 89th Cavalry Reconnaissance Battalion, plus a light tank platoon and an assault gun platoon, was deployed along the 3,000 yard stretch between Steinebrück and Weppler, its left flank in the air at the latter village, its right more or less secured by a provisional company from the 424th Infantry west of Steinebrück.
On the morning of 18 December General Hoge, CCB commander, was ordered to hurry to the 106th headquarters where he was told of the threat developing north of St. Vith. When he sent back orders for the emergency task force from CCB to hasten north, the cavalry troop was included. Covered by one reconnaissance platoon and the cavalry assault guns, sited near the bridge, the remaining platoons of Troop D had left their positions and started filing toward the Steinebrück-St. Vith road when suddenly the movement order was canceled. The cavalry had been under fire since daybreak, and when the 2d Platoon attempted to return to its position on a commanding hill between Steinebrück and Weppler it was forced to move dismounted in a rain of bullets and shells. At the Steinebrück bridge the enemy increased in number as the morning progressed, slipping into positions on the south bank under cover given by exploding smoke shells. To counter this threat the light tank platoon moved into Steinebrück, leaving the American left uncovered. About the same time the provisional rifle company west of Steinebrück took off and one of the cavalry platoons had to be switched hastily to cover this gap.
Thus far the all-important bridge had been left intact, for there was still some hope that the 423d Infantry, at the least, might free itself from the Schnee Eifel trap. By noon the situation was such that the little group of troopers dared delay no longer. On General Hoge's order a platoon of armored engineers went down and blew the bridge-almost in the teeth of the grenadiers on the opposite bank.
An hour later the platoon west of the village saw an enemy column of horse-drawn artillery driving into position. The American gunners in the groupment west of Lommersweiler immediately answered the cavalry call for aid, apparently with some effect; yet within the hour at least a part of the twenty-two enemy guns counted here were in action, firing in preparation for an assault across the river. It would seem that a German rifle company first crossed into Weppler, now unoccupied, then wheeled and encircled the 2d Platoon on the hill. Only five Americans escaped.6 Two or more companies crossed near the blasted bridge and by 1530, despite the continual pounding administered by the 16th Armored Field Artillery Battalion and the rapid fire from the cavalry tank, assault, and machine guns, had nearly encircled Troop D. A cavalry request for medium tanks perforce was denied; the tank companies sent north to Hünningen had not yet returned and General Hoge had no reserve. A company of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, however, was put in to cover the cavalry left flank. With the enemy infantry inside Steinebrück and excellent direct laying by the German gunners picking off the American vehicles one by one, the cavalry withdrew along the St. Vith road.
The CCB position at the Our (where two companies of armored infantry, a company each of light and medium tanks, plus the reconnaissance company, were deployed on a front over 4,000 yards) was no longer tenable. There had been no contact whatever with the 424th Infantry to the south. General Hoge conferred with General Jones at St. Vith and the two decided that the combat command should withdraw from the river northwest to slightly higher ground. Commencing at dark, the move was made without trouble and CCB settled along an arc whose center was about two and a half miles southeast of St. Vith. In this position the combat command blocked the main Winterspelt-St. Vith highway and the valley of the Braunlauf Creek, a second natural corridor leading to St. Vith. The gap between Hoge's command and CCB, 7th Armored, which at dark had been 3,000 yards across, closed during the night when a light tank company and an anti-aircraft battery came in. Later, liaison was established with the 424th Infantry on the right, which had been out of contact with the enemy during the day and remained in its river line position. Although the 62d Volks Grenadier Division was quick to occupy the ground vacated by CCB, no attempt was made to follow into the new American position.
During the afternoon of 18 December while the combat commands of the 7th and 9th Armored Divisions were fighting holding actions along the eastern front of the St. Vith area, General Hasbrouck engaged in an attempt to restore the northern flank of the 7th Armored in the Poteau sector. The opportunity for a decisive American counterattack toward Schönberg was past, if indeed it had ever existed, and Hasbrouck's immediate concern was to establish his division north flank in a posture of defense in the St. Vith-Vielsalm area. The loss of the vital road junction at Poteau, earlier in the day, made the connection between the forces of the division at St. Vith, around Recht, and in the Vielsalm assembly area, more difficult and tenuous. Then too, it appeared that the enemy was concentrating in Recht and might try an attack through Poteau to Vielsalm. CCA (Col. Dwight A. Rosebaum), watching the southern flank of the 7th Armored around Beho, had not yet met the Germans (who were in fact driving past to the west, but on roads south of Beho). General Hasbrouck decided to leave a small force as observers around Beho and commit CCA to recover Poteau.
At noon the 48th Armored Infantry Battalion and the 40th Tank Battalion (-), representing the bulk of CCA, rolled through St. Vith and out along the Vielsalm road. As the leading tank platoon hove in sight of Poteau it came immediately under small arms and assault gun fire. The few houses here were separated by an abandoned railroad cut, just south of the crossroads, which ran east and west. Colonel Rosebaum sent the tank platoon and an armored infantry company to clear the houses south of the cut. This action continued through the afternoon, while tanks and assault guns played a dangerous game of hide-and-seek from behind the houses and the American infantry tried to knock out the German machine guns enfilading the railroad cut. Toward dark the Americans crossed the northern embankment and reached the road junction. Rosebaum posted the infantry company-now supported by an entire tank company-to hold the village, cheek by jowl with the Germans in the northernmost houses. Thus far CCA had no contact with CCR headquarters and its scratch force to the west at Petit Thier because the road from Poteau was under fire.
With the Poteau crossroad more or less in the hands of the 7th Armored, with a defensive arc forming north, east, and southeast of St. Vith, and with the Vielsalm-Petit Thier area under control in the west, the next step was to block the possible routes of approach from the south and southwest. Nearly all the American units in the St. Vith area were already committed; all that General Hasbrouck could do was to station a light tank company, a company of armored engineers, the headquarters battery of an antiaircraft battalion, and a reconnaissance troop piecemeal in a series of small villages south and west of Beho. At best these isolated detachments could serve only as pickets for the 7th Armored, but fortunately the German columns continued marching west. One brief engagement was fought on the 18th at Gouvy, a rail and road junction southwest of Beho. The headquarters battery, 440th Antiaircraft (AW) Battalion (Lt. Col. Robert 0. Stone), and a light tank platoon had been sent to set up an outpost at the village. As they approached Gouvy station, a railroad stop south of the village, they ran afoul of three German tanks which were just coming in from the south. The Germans started a dash to sweep the column broadside, but the first shot knocked out an air-compressor truck whose unwieldy hulk effectively blocked the road. After firing their last rounds at the town and the column, the German tanks withdrew. When Stone took a look around he found himself in charge of a rail-head stock of 80,000 rations-which had been set ablaze by the depot guards-an engineer vehicle park, and 350 Germans in a POW cage. Fortunately the fire could be checked without too much damage. Stone then organized a defense with the engineers, ordnance, and quartermaster people on the spot. Unwittingly, in the process of 'freezing' this heterogeneous command, Stone stopped the westward withdrawal of badly needed engineer vehicles (carrying earth augers, air compressors, and similar equipment) which the VIII Corps commander was attempting to gather for work on a barrier line being constructed by the corps engineers farther to the west.
The artillery battalions of the 7th Armored Division were in firing positions north and east of Vielsalm at the close of 18 December. They could not give aid to CCB, east of St. Vith, but there the 75th Armored Field Artillery Battalion was in range and already had given a fine demonstration of effective support. The 7th Armored trains, which had reached Salmchâteau by the western route on the morning of the 18th, were sent twenty-two miles west of La Roche, partly to keep them out of enemy reach but also because of the possibility that the division might soon have to retire behind the Ourthe River. The reserve available to General Hasbrouck was scant for such wide-flung positions: some 90-mm. guns from the 814th Tank Destroyer Battalion and the provisional squadron being formed from the remains of the 14th Cavalry Group.
Late in the day General Jones moved the 106th command post to Vielsalm, setting up near General Hasbrouck's headquarters. The orders given the 7th Armored Division still held-to assist the 106th Division. In fact, however, there was little left of the 106th; so responsibility tended to devolve on the junior commander, Hasbrouck.
The two generals had only a vague idea of what was happening beyond their own sphere. Telephone service to the VIII Corps headquarters at Bastogne ended on 18 December when that headquarters moved to Neufchâteau. But Hasbrouck had no doubt that General Middleton counted on the continued defense of the St. Vith road center-this part of the mission needed no reiteration. Since the VIII Corps itself was in possession of only fragmentary information on the German strength and locations there was little to be passed on to the division commanders.
Liaison and staff officers coming from Bastogne brought word of only meager American reinforcements anywhere in the neighborhood of St. Vith. One regiment of the 30th Infantry Division was in Malmédy, thirteen or fourteen miles to the north, but the intervening countryside was swamped German columns heading west. The 82d Airborne Division, it was estimated, would reach Werbomont (about the same distance northwest of Vielsalm) on the morning of 19 December, but it was apparent that in this area also the enemy barred any solid contact with the St. Vith defenders. At Bastogne the 101st Airborne Division was arriving to take over the fight at that critical road junction, but there were no additional reinforcements which General Middleton could employ in plugging the gap between St. Vith and Bastogne.
The problem of maintaining control over the heterogeneous formations in the St. Vith-Vielsalm area or of giving complete tactical unity to the defense was very difficult. Under sustained German pressure a wholly satisfactory solution never would be achieved. The piecemeal employment of lower units, made unavoidable by the march of events, resulted in most involved methods of communication. A tank company, for example, might have to report by radio through its own battalion headquarters, some distance away, which then relayed the message on other channels until it reached the infantry battalion to which the tank company was attached. The homogeneity of the battalion, in American practice the basic tactical unit, largely ceased to exist, nor did time and the enemy ever permit any substantial regrouping to restore this unity. It is surprising that under the circumstances control and communication functioned as well as they did. But the 7th Armored Division was a veteran organization; the general officers in the area dealt with one another on a very cooperative basis; and within the sub-commands established around the coalescing perimeter, the local commanders acted with considerable freedom and initiative.
Although all intention of attempting to breach the German ring around the two regiments of the 106th Division had been abandoned on 18 December and the mission no longer was counterattack, but rather defense in place, there still was a faint hope that the 422d and 423d somehow might be able to fight their way out through Schönberg as General Jones had ordered. During the early morning hours of 19 December messages from the 423d Infantry (dispatched at noon on the previous day) finally reached Vielsalm. From these Jones learned that both regiments had begun the attack westward, but no word on the progress of the attack followed nor did the American outposts on the Schönberg road catch any sound of firing moving west. Finally, late in the evening, a radio message arrived from the VII Corps: bad weather had intervened; the supplies promised the entrapped troops had not been dropped. By this time the last bit of hope for the lost regiments must have gone.
There was one fortunate but unexpected event on the 19th. The exact location and strength of the 112th Infantry, somewhere south of the 424th, were unknown. That a gap existed on the right of the 424th was known. Early on 19 December word reached General Jones by way of liaison officer that, as of the previous evening, the 112th Infantry was cut off from the 28th Division and had fallen back from the Our to the neighborhood of Weiswampach. A few hours later more information filtered back to Vielsalm: the 112th had withdrawn to Huldange, thus coming closer to the 7th Armored and 106th. Finally, in midafternoon, Colonel Nelson (commanding the 112th) appeared at the 106th Division command post and reported his situation, and the regiment was taken over by General Jones-a solution subsequently approved by General Middleton. Colonel Nelson brought a welcome addition to the St. Vith forces. His regiment had lost most of its vehicles, radios, and crew-served weapons but had suffered relatively light casualties and lost but few stragglers. It was well in the hand of its commander and ready to fight. Jones ordered the 112th Infantry to draw northward on the night of l9-20 December and make a firm connection with the southern flank of the 424th...