The counter-offensive was planned to surprise the Allies by attacking from their positions on Siegfried Line along the West Wall (the strongly fortified line along Germany’s western border). Using the cover of darkness, the dense forest of the Ardennes, and by maintaining complete radio silence their preparations for the attack went unobserved by air reconnaissance missions. The Germans had secretly moved their best fighting forces into the area for use as their spearhead. Among these were several SS Panzer Divisions: including the 1st, 2nd, 9th, and 12th SS Panzer Divisions. See Map 1 below for the German planned objective and unit dispositions along the West Wall.
Source: United States Army in World War II. European Theater of Operations. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge Cole, H. 1964, p. 51. Retrieved from http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/USA-E-Ardennes/maps/USA-E-Ardennes-I.jpg
The German plan had three main axes of attack: The 6th Panzer Army in the north, the 5th Panzer Army in the center, and the 7th German Army in the south. The 6th Panzer Army under Josef “Sepp” Dietrich was given the most important objective of capturing Antwerp. The 5th Panzer Army was assigned to the secondary objective of preventing an Allied attack on the 6th Panzer Army by holding a line from Antwerp, Brussels, Namur, and Dinant. The 7th army was to advance to the Meuse River and defend against attacks on the German left flank in the south. See Map 1 above. Source: United States Army in World War II. European Theater of Operations. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge Cole, H. 1964, p. 75.
Photo 1: Commander of the 6th SS Panzer Army SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Josef “Sepp” Dietrich Source: United States Army in World War II. European Theater of Operations. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge Cole, H. 1964, p. 76.
Everything hinged upon the success of the 6th Panzer Army. If it failed to take the bridges over the Ambleve, Salm, Ourthe, and Meuse Rivers, intact and in time the offensive would fail for three reasons. First, the element of surprise would evaporate as the Allies became aware of the German plan by sending in ground forces, blowing key bridges over rivers and, weather permitting, launching air attacks to halt the enemy advance. Second, the 6th Army did not have sufficient fuel for a prolonged offensive and were relying on capture of Allied fuel dumps to maintain their Blitzkrieg attack. Third, the 6th Army was the only force which could conceivably have reached the prime objective of Antwerp. It was composed of all of the SS Panzer Divisions used in the offensive. Refitted and filled to the full with most of the best remaining men and machines, this was the preeminent German force on the Western Front. The 5th and 7th Armies had nowhere near the comparable power.
On December 16 after an early morning artillery barrage, the Germans launched their panzers and shock troops of their spearhead divisions. The initial panzer attack got off to a poor start. Roads were clogged with the traffic of support troops and infantry units which delayed the armored spearhead by several hours and turned out to be a costly delay. Once they recovered, the Germans fell further behind schedule due to American forces fighting defensive battles. Roads in the area were poor and to make up for lost time, the westward advance had to continue at night further slowing the offensive. Source: Bouwmeester, H. “Beginning of the End: The Leadership of SS Obersturmbannführer Jochen Peiper”, 2004, pp. 99 - 106
By December 18 , after a fierce battle at Stavelot, the Germans had taken the bridge over the Ambleve River intact. They restarted their main thrust to Antwerp through the so called “Northern Shoulder” of the Bulge as per plan. Their next objective was to capture the Salm River bridges at Trois – Ponts, before moving westward. Source: Bouwmeester, H. “Beginning of the End: The Leadership of SS Obersturmbannführer Jochen Peiper”, 2004, p. 107
Map 2: 6th SS Panzer Army Attacks between December 16 – 19, 1944 (Click on Map 2 to view it in higher resolution)
Source: United States Army in World War II. European Theater of Operations. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge Cole, H. 1964, p. 107. Retrieved from http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/7-8/notes/MapII.jpg
By the December 17 the Allied command was already aware of the offensive and was beginning to formulate a plan of action which would later culminate in sending in reinforcements at key locations along the lines of the German line of advance.
The Role of the US Airborne Divisions
General Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, found himself in temporary command of the 18th Airborne Corps consisting of the 17th, 82nd, and 101st Airborne Divisions. General Ridgway, the commander of the Corps was stranded in England because aircraft were grounded by bad weather. Unable to fly to France he passed his leadership temporarily to Gavin who met with General Courtney Hodges commander of First Army at Spa, Belgium. Source: Booth T. “Paratrooper: The life Gen. James M. Gavin”, 1994 p. 250 - 251.
They studied the situation and correctly concluded that the main German thrust was on the “northern shoulder” of the Bulge. The strategic road juncture at Bastogne also seemed to be a critical German objective if their advance was to continue. Judging by the westward track taken by the main force it appeared that the Germans would advance on Werbomont, west of the Salm River. Based on this assessment, Gavin ordered the 101st Airborne to establish roadblocks at Bastogne and he sent the 82nd Airborne to Werbomont to deploy in that area and stop the 6th Panzer Army before they crossed the Salm River. Source: Gavin, J. “On To Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943- 1946”, 1978 pp. 205 - 206.
Although, at the time it was the general belief that Bastogne as a key road juncture was necessary for the German’s to advance westward, it was in fact not. Later when the lead units of 5th Panzer Army failed to capture it quickly, they merely surrounded it, while the main attack force bypassed it completely and advanced west toward their first major objective of Namur on the Meuse River in accordance with the German battle plans. The main German attack came in the north from the German held territory in the west through Bullingen in an almost direct line to the Salm River east of Werbomont and nearby points south of the town. It was there along the Salm River salient that the Battle of the Bulge was decided by the swift action of US Army Engineers, units of the, 30th Infantry Division, and later the 3rd and 7th Armored Divisions, and the 82nd Airborne Division. Source: Langdon, A. “Ready: The History of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment , 82nd airborne Division, World War II”, 1986 p. 121.
The 101st, and 82nd Airborne were both on leave recuperating and training after the high cost battles in Operation Market-Garden for which they were yet to receive replacements of men, and replenishment of supplies. They were quite a distance away from the front – some 150 miles. Most men who had fought in Holland were given six day furloughs. So at the time of the German offensive many of them had been on leave in Paris or London.
They mobilized quickly and were sent to the Ardennes to push the Germans back before they could secure the vital bridgeheads which connected the narrow winding roads of the hilly Ardennes forest that led to the Ourthe and Meuse Rivers and then virtually unimpeded to Antwerp. The winter of 1944/45 in the Ardennes was the worst in 40 years. The Americans had not yet issued winter uniforms to the troops. The German attack was so swift and decisive that the men had to be sent to the front in summer uniforms with only their field jackets and long john underwear to protect them from the cold. More would suffer and die from the cold than those killed or wounded from German fire.
The men of the 82nd Airborne were gathered post haste from their places of leave in Paris and London and taken to their bases in the area around Reims, France, the sight of horrific trench warfare in WWI. To the northwest the 504th and 508th PIRs were stationed at camp Sissonne. A few miles to the Southeast the 505th PIR was quartered in the WWI era French barracks at Suippes. The men not on leave or furloughs were rousted hastily before dawn on December 18. They grabbed their gear and clambered on board troop carriers. Absent were any of the usual pep talks, briefings on battle plans and objectives to be taken. Perhaps the 504th PIR had some remotely similar experience in the hasty preparations for the drop in Salerno. But this was quite a different thing altogether. Officers wore bewildered looks on their faces, and knew little more about the situation that the men did, which was the Germans had launched an offensive in Belgium.
This was pure bedlam. There was a distinct foreboding about this one which made men fearful and uncertain. As Bill would recount later, almost in despair, “You just can’t describe a situation like that – it happens once in a lifetime”. Source: “Military Biography of William A. Clark” Herd L. Bennett, Attorney at Law, January 26, 2000.
The troop carriers set out, on December 18 at 9:00 AM, packed with already cold men headed for a very uncertain future along the roads leading through eastern France, across the Franco-Belgian border of the Meuse River to their final destination, the small town of Werbomont, Belgium. The first troops arrived at 5:30 PM on December 18. The trucks kept bringing in men until 10:00 AM on December 19; 21 hours after the first departures. Source: Nordyke, P., “All American All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2005, p 589 - 591
See Map 3 below for the approximate routes and place names.
Before the 82nd Airborne troopers arrived, the only Allied troops present were the engineers from Company C 51st Engineer Combat Battalion. They had arrived on December 17 and set charges on the main bridge over the Salm River with orders to blow it if the Germans tried to cross. It was vital to the German advance since it could carry the massive loads of heavy armored German panzers and if it was captured, enemy columns would be at the Meuse River within a matter of hours via the highway leading through Werbomont to the west. The main bridge was one of three bridges in the vicinity of the town. There were two others; one over the Ambleve River, and another lesser bridge over the Salm unable to carry heavy German tanks.
Kampfgruppe Peiper was a ferocious war machine consisting of 5,000 SS Panzer Grenadiers, 40 new Mark V Panther tanks, 40 Mark IV Panzer tanks, 15 Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers, 42 King Tiger tanks, 5 anti-aircraft half tracks, 12 20mm guns, 25 self propelled 75mm guns, 12 105mm howitzers, six 150mm howitzers, four Russian Nebelwerfers (120mm mortars) , one Wirbelwind (Whirlwind) Flak panzer ( a 4 barreled anti-aircraft gun mounted on a Panzer Mark IV chassis), three Hetzler tank destroyers, and a large number of supply and troop transport carriers of various forms. Source: Timothy J. “The Ardennes on Fire: The First Day of the German Assault” 2010 pp. 56 – 57
It was the unit responsible for the atrocity of murdering 80 captured US troops known as the “Malmedy Massacre” near the town of Malmedy, Belgium to the east where Peiper's forces had come. Source: Bouwmeester, H., Beginning of the end: The Leadership of SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Jochen Peiper 2000. pp 103 – 105.
Photo 3: Kampfgruppe Peiper Advancing on Malmedy Source: United States Army in World War II. European Theater of Operations. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge Cole, H. 1964, p. 262.
Photo 4: Scene of the Malmedy Massacre. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Photo 5: Men of the 119th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division taken prisoner by Kampfgruppe Peiper’s men in Stoutmont, Belgium on 19 December 1944 Source: Wikipedia Commons via Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J28619 / Büschel / CC-BY-SA. The Bundesarchiv in no way endorses the content of this blog or the use of this photo.
View 82nd Abn. - German Positions Dec. 18 - 21, 1944 in a larger map
View 82nd Abn - German Positions 21 - 24 December in a larger map
View US - German Positions Dec. 24 - 28 1944 in a larger map
82nd Airborne Counterattacks (Illustrated in Map 7 below)
The failure of the 9th and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions to breakthrough the 82nd lines marked the end of the German offensive in the northern shoulder of the Bulge. The German objective now became one of defense.
Opposing the 82nd now was the remnants of the 9th SS Panzer Division and 62nd Volksgrenadier Division which loosely translates to “the people’s assault forces”. The 62nd was composed of the three grenadier regiments and one artillery regiment which had been formed in the Fall of 1944. However, its men consisted of mostly of Polish, Czechoslovakians, and Russians impressed into service. They were both young and old, spoke little to no German and were very poorly trained. Yet they were to fight and defend tenaciously, perhaps because they feared the Germans more than dying fighting the Allies. Some were wanted men by the communities from which they were conscripted. Without hope of survival back home these men willingly fought for the Germans. Source: Timothy J. “The Ardennes on Fire: The First Day of the German Assault” 2010 pg 60.
The 62nd Volksgrenadier Division was primarily a defensive unit and was charged with blocking the expected advance of the 82nd Airborne from its present positions to those it held prior to retreating from the Salm River area. In this task it was aided by what was left of the 9th SS Panzer Division. Even though the 62nd Volksgrenadier was not of the same quality as the SS Panzer Grenadier regiments, it did make excellent use of the densely forested, hilly terrain blanketed in snow; and towns characterized by well constructed defensible buildings.
Before the 82nd counterattack was launched the 62nd had time to deploy formidable defenses at strategic locations. They fortified buildings in townships. They concealed their defenses well, introducing an element of surprise. Making liberal use of barbed wire barriers, they dug deep trenches reinforced with sandbags where they placed mortars, and interlocking machine gun emplacements. This strategy, and the presence of armored vehicles, most notably Tiger tanks, which remained from the 9th SS Panzer (presumably they were low on fuel with a limited range), meant that gaining back the ground given up in the retreat was to prove very costly for the units of the 82nd.
On Christmas Day the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion (PIB) was attached to the 82nd Airborne. Then on January 1, the independent 517th PIR was attached. Source: Nordyke, P., “All American All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2005, p 653 – 655.
January 3: The Counterattack Begins (Illustrated in Map 7 below)
The 82nd planned counterattack began on January 3. The Airborne forces consisted of the 504, 505, and 508 PIRs, the 325 and 401st Glider Infantry Regiments (GIRs) - all of which had been initially deployed over December 18 – 19 and the newly attached 517 PIR and 551 PIB. Even with these additional forces, the Division was under strength.
The initial January 3 attack consisted of the 505 and 517 PIRs, the 325 and 401 GIRs, and the 551st PIB.
The plan called for the 505 PIR to thrust through the middle with the 325 GIR on the right flank and the 551 PIB as well as the 517 PIR on the left. The latter two units would form the first link in a pivot from the natural barrier the Salm River offered on the Division’s left flank allowing the 505 and 325 to swing out from their starting positions and gain ground rapidly. It was a strategy which worked because on the first day’s fighting the Division overran the 62nd Volksgrenadiers and the 9th SS Panzer’s positions capturing 2,400 prisoners. Source: Gavin, J. “On To Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943- 1946”, 1978 p. 249.
Besides being killed or wounded, many men were debilitated by severe frostbite from advancing through deep snow without overshoes. This was compounded by the frigid temperatures brought on by nightfall. By the dawn of January 4, all of the initial attacking units had encountered fierce enemy resistance in the form of artillery from 88mm guns, mortar and tank fire, as well as machine guns and small arms fire.
Given these attacks and the cold, January 3 was to be the most costly day in Division history Source: Nordyke, P., “All American All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2005, p 671.
January 4: Day Two of the Attack (Illustrated in Map 7 below)
The 505, 325, 551 all expanded on the territory they had gained on the previous day, while the 517 consolidated its position. The 551 suffered high casualties from intense and accurate artillery fire. 2nd Battalion, 505 met very strong resistance because the German forces wanted to hold onto a vital supply route in 505 line of advance. The 504 was moved from divisional reserve forward to fill the line between the 551 and 505. Source: 82nd Airborne After Action Report
January 5: Day Three of the Attack (Illustrated in Map 7 below)
The 82nd met with generally favorable results. The 62nd Volksgrenadiers were in retreat in an effort form a solid line due to the heavy losses they sustained especially on January 3. The 505, 504 and 325 made relatively easy gains. The 504 seized the high ground above Petite-Halleux. The 551 found itself engaged again in heavy fighting involving Mark IV tanks, infantry, and 88mm artillery fire. It reached the heights above Rochelinval, their final objective before the Salm River. The 517 threw back a powerful counter-attack in their sector by the enemy now left with nowhere to go and increasingly feeling cornered at the swing point of the pivoted attack. Source: 82nd Airborne After Action Report
January 6: Day Four of the Attack (Illustrated in Map 7 below)
January 6 was used to consolidate the gains made and prepare for the final battle to drive the Germans across to the east bank of the Salm River. The 505 was to attack through the valley leading through Goronne with the final objective of capturing Vielsalm. To achieve that it needed to take the high ground north of Goronne. To protect the 505 while it advanced across the valley, the high ground on the opposite side of the valley to the south would need to be taken as well. That high ground was known as the Thier-du-Mont. The 508 had taken it earlier and held it until the withdrawal orders came through on December 24. Now the regiment was being brought forward from Division reserve to attack and take it again. Source: 82nd Airborne After Action Report
The Decimation of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion
Also on January 6, the 551 was detached from the 517 and assigned to the 504. The 517 was to be placed in Division Reserve except for its 3rd Battalion which stayed on the Salm River line. The 551 had borne the the brunt of the fighting in the 517 sector and was down to 50 percent of their men despite receiving replacements. Now they were needed to lead the attack on Rochelinval on January 7.
Rochelinval was a hold out for one of the last large contingents of the 62nd Volksgrenadiers. It was a strategic objective because it was being used to guard one of the bridges over the Salm River over which the enemy could escape. Due to its layout and lanes of approach, the town was exquisitely suited for defense. Scouts had determined that around 500 enemy held the town and that they had taken advantage of its natural defensibility and high ground.
With the men of his depleted ranks cold, starved and exhausted, the 551 commander, Lt. Colonel Wood Joerg, knew that the attack would result the destruction of the battalion, so he asked for permission from headquarters for his men to be withdrawn. His plea was denied, and it was never known which individual at headquarters made the controversial decision.
The attack took off after first light without the tank support headquarters had promised. Artillery support before the attack was off target; only one shell landed in the town. Without armor and artillery, the 551 faced a tough fight in the face of the defenders. While they succeeded in eventually taking Rochelinval by 3:00 PM, the fight had all but annihilated the 551st Battalion.
Photo 7: Lt. Colonel Joerg Commander of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion
Of the 826 men that went into the Ardennes, only 110 came out. Having lost its charismatic leader Lt. Colonel Joerg, and almost all its men either wounded, killed, or frostbitten, the 551 was never reconstituted. The few soldiers that remained were later absorbed into units the 82nd Airborne. Source: “The Last Battle” published in the Journal “Army” April 2001 pp. 38-39
Photo 8: Men of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion moving up to the 82nd Airborne's position at the front
It wasn’t until 2001 that the veterans of the 551st got the recognition they deserved when the Battalion was finally awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for the feats and sacrifices its men made in the Ardennes. http://www.551stpib.com/newsite/presCitation.html
The Counterattack Continues without the 551st PIB
South of Rochelinval, the 504 advanced through stiff opposition from the 62nd Volksgranadiers, taking the town of Mont, and Farnieres in the south of their sector as well as consolidating positions along the Salm River.
January 7: Day Five of the Attack (Illustrated in Map 7 below)
The 505, advanced and captured the town of Gorrone then established a front line on the Salm River’s west bank north of the town of Rencheux. The 325 GIR had moved forward to occupy Grand Sart. It then took the high ground of Thier-del-Preux. The 508 attacked through the 325 sector to seize the high ground at Thier-du-Mont, though at great cost. Fifty percent of G Company were killed or wounded in the attack. Source: 82nd Airborne After Action Report
January 8: Day Six of the Attack (Illustrated in Map 7 below)
The destruction of the 62nd Volksgrenadiers and what had been left of the 9th SS Panzer Division was complete. The 504 took Petite-Halleux, before advancing across the Salm River to patrol Grand-Halleux. The 505 seized the high ground overlooking the Salm River above Rencheux and on January 9, captured the town. Next they set up road blocks around the Vielsalm bridges. Third battalion 517 was sent to establish a bridgehead at Grand-Halleux on January 10. Source: 82nd Airborne After Action Report
View 82nd Airborne Advance 1 - 10 January in a larger map
For the 82nd the first part of the Battle of the Bulge had ended. On January 10, the 75th Infantry Division relieved them. The survivors of the 505 PIR were moved to the town of Theux Belgium to recover. Throughout the town the citizens welcomed the troopers into their homes. The regiment had lost more than 50 percent of its men. Source: “Four Stars of Valor: The Combat history of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II” Nordyke, P., 2006 p. 377.
The other 82nd units had suffered similar casualties. They were sent to different towns, where over the period of January 12 – 20 they rested, refitted, took on replacements. They received training in the use of “panzerfausts” – German single use anti-tank RPGs. General Gavin was convinced that these were the only effective weapon infantry could rely upon against heavy German battle tanks such as the Tiger Mark VI, King Tiger, Panther, Jagdpanther, and Jadgtiger.
The men were getting ready to face the enemy again for the last part of the Ardennes Campaign’s counterattack. This time their objective was to eliminate the remaining “Bulge” by pushing the enemy back to the German border (January 28 – 31).
Photo 9: The Battle of the Bulge Continued. Men of the 504th PIR advancing on January 28, 1945 Source: NARA
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