Monday, November 11, 2013

The 82nd Airborne in the Battle of the Bulge December 18, 1944 – January 31, 1945

 
Today is Veteran’s Day November 11, 2013, so I wanted to post an entry to honor the veterans of the 82nd Airborne Division who fought in the Battle of the Bulge; the 69 anniversary of which is just a little over a month away.
 
What these men endured in that battle is unimaginable for many civilians living in the comfort and security of today’s modern society. Their achievements and losses fighting the  incomprehensible firepower of virtually indestructible German armored tanks and fanatical Nazi SS Panzer Grenadiers, in extreme cold, when the simple act of falling asleep meant death, demands our remembrance.
 
“Men fought, at times, with only rifles, grenades and knives against German armor. They fought with only light weapons in waist-deep snow, in blizzards, in near zero temperatures and in areas where heavy forestation and the almost total lack of roads presented problems that only men of stout hearts and iron determination could overcome.”
General James M. Gavin 82nd Airborne Division Commander circa February, 1945
Source: 82nd Airborne After Action Report
 
The “Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein” in German or “Operation Watch on the Rhine” was the second to last major German counter-offensive envisaged by Hitler in the west. Known as the “Battle of the Bulge’” by English speaking Allies, its objective was to break through the Allied lines in the heavily forested and hilly area of Belgium known as the Ardennes and drive west to recapture the Belgian port of Antwerp, cutting off the four Allied armies stationed in the north from their supply line and their forces fighting in the south. Beyond that, the Germans had no clear objective except to try to sue for a negotiated piece with the Western Allies so that they could put all of their resources into stifling the indomitable Russian advance in the east.

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.

German Counter-Offensive Map 1: Plan of German Offensive with Unit Dispositions (Click on Map 1 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. 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.

 Dietrich_thumb2

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

German Attacks 16 to 19 Dec

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.


 Map 3: Approximate routes of the 82nd Airborne from its bases around Reims, France to the front lines at Werbomont, Belgium. The Ardennes Campaign Credit Map superimposed in blue.
 
 
December 18: The German Spearhead Reaches the Salm River (Illustrated in Map 4 below)
 
After fighting their way from points east of Bullingen, then Ligneuville and Stavelot, Kampfgruppe Pieper's next target was the vital bridge over the Salm River at Trois-Ponts (Three Bridges). At this point in the Battle of the Bulge it was the key to the German breakthrough.

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.

Standing against the engineers was “Kampfgruppe Peiper”, a German battle group of the 1st SS Panzer Division under the command of the highly decorated, risk loving 29 year old SS Obersturmbannführer (equivalent to Lt. Colonel in the Wehrmacht) Joachim Peiper.
 
Kampfgruppe Peiper included the elite 1st SS Panzer Regiment, part of the powerful 1st Waffen SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH). The 1st SS was Hitler’s personal bodyguard.  Peiper was a three time veteran of the Russian Front,  and had commanded the 1st SS Panzer Regiment in Normandy. Among his many military honors, he twice received the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, Germany’s highest military honor for his bravery and leadership in hellish campaigns in the East.  His prowess in battle won him the adoration of Hitler and Nazi Germans alike. Prior to that he was the favorite son of Reichs Fuhrer Himmler, and became the oft quoted poster boy of the Third Reich.
 
 
Bundesarchiv_Bild_183R65485_Joachim_[2]
Photo 2: Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper
Source: Wikipedia Commons via Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R65485 / CC-BY-SA. The Bundesarchiv in no way endorses the content of this blog or the use of this photo

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.

Kampfgruppe Piper march Malmedy

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.

 

Massacre_de_Malmedy_23-0224a-1- 

Photo 4: Scene of the Malmedy Massacre. Source: Wikipedia Commons

After the war Peiper stood trial for the atrocity although he was not present when the massacre occurred and did not order it. He did however, assume responsibility for it since in his view, as commanding officer, he was ultimately accountable for the actions of his men. He was sentenced to death along with about half of his men. But his sentence was commuted to life in prison. Eleven years later he was released. He eventually went to live in Traves, France where he  made a living translating books about the war and where he was discovered because he was using his real name.  In 1976, aged 61, Peiper met his death when unidentified persons shot him in his house before burning it down. 
 
On Peiper’s left flank was another battle group of the 1st SS Panzer Division, commanded by Max Hansen whom at 36 years was the oldest of the in the 6th Panzer Army battle group commanders. Kampfgruppe  Hansen also had a devastating  strength of about 4,500 men and 750 vehicles. Source: Bouwmeester, H. “Beginning of the End: The Leadership of SS Obersturmbannführer Jochen Peiper”,  2004, p. 82
Hansen’s forces were composed of the 1st SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment, a tank destroyer battalion of Jagdpanzers, a battalion of self-propelled 105mm artillery, among sundry other vehicles, such as 20mm flak panzers, and armored troop carrying half-tracks mounted with machine guns or 75mm canons.  Source: Nordyke, P., “All American All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2005, p. 609.
 
December 18: The Salm River Bridge is Blown…Peiper Drives North looking for Another Bridge (Illustrated in Map 4 below)
 
Peiper managed to reach the Salm River bridge at Trois-Ponts on the morning of December 18, but Company C 51st Combat Engineers blew it up before his Panzer column could cross. It was not destroyed, but was damaged, rendered incapable of supporting the immense weight and girth of the German heavy tanks and tank destroyers. Under fire from the engineers on the west bank of the Salm, Peiper decided to moved north to try to find another road bridge leading west. Peiper had in fact been given complete freedom in choosing the route of the 6th Panzer Army.
 
He found an intact bridge at Cheneux, but it wasn’t capable of supporting the heaviest of his tanks. It could, however, support armored vehicles such as half-tracks, and self-propelled guns. He captured the town of Cheneux and fortified it with an anti-aircraft battalion. Then reconnaissance patrols were sent westward to look for good roads and bridges across the La Lienne creek, thereby establishing a route to Werbomont.  Both of these patrols were thwarted. One by engineers who blew up a key bridge at Neufmolin. The other had found another light bridge over La Lienne Creek and was using it to move on and capture Werbomont. This patrol was destroyed by a battalion of the 30th Infantry Division in a fire fight near Habiemont. Source: Gavin, J. “On To Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943- 1946”, 1978 p. 217 - 218. 
 
December 19: Peiper Captures Stoutmont (Illustrated in Map 4 below)
 
Peiper knew there were good road bridges to the northwest of Stoutmont, so he advanced on the town, taking it in a fierce fight with the 119th Infantry Regiment supported by tanks.
 
Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-J28619,_Ardennenoffensive,_gefangene_Amerikaner

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.

Also on December 19, Peiper sent a reconnaissance of panther tanks west to the bridge over the Ambleve River at La Lienne, but was forced back in an attack of 119th Infantry supported by tanks. At this point Peiper was becoming increasingly cut off from friendly forces in his rear and Kampfgruppe Hansen to his southwest. He also realized that given the situation, even if he did take the bridge at La Lienne, there was insufficient gasoline to continue his advance. While Peiper waited in the hope of resupply he pulled his forces back to a defensive ring around Stoutmont – Cheneux – La Gleize. Source: United States Army in World War II. European Theater of Operations. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge Cole, H. 1964, pp. 340 - 242.
 
December 20: The 82nd Airborne Take up Defensive Positions (Illustrated in Map 4 below)
 
The 82nd Airborne paratrooper’s had deployed in area on December 20. As the men arrived they were placed near key bridges and on a long line  measuring over 25,000 yards in the  surrounding area. Their objectives with the exception of the 504 PIR were initially to secure the bridgeheads over the Salm River and defend the line against the expected advancing Germans.
 
The 504th PIR goes on the Attack at Cheneux against Kampgruppe Piper (Illustrated in Map 4 below)
 
The 1st Battalion of the 504 PIR minus Company A was ordered to take Cheneux on December 20. At about noon they attacked Peiper's dug-in forces in and around the town. When the 504s 3rd Battalion was committed to the battle, the German's were surrounded, and had to fight a retreating battle. In the face of vicious hand to hand attacks by the 504 troopers, Peiper’s  remaining men attempted to breakout. They were forced out of the town on the evening of December 21, and moved defend Kampfgruppe Peiper’s positions on the opposite side of the Ambleve River. Source: Beginning of the end: The Leadership of SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Jochen Peiper. Bouwmeester, H. 2000 p. 112.
 
After sustaining heavy losses, 1st Battalion 504 minus Company A and first platoon of Company C 307th Engineer Battalion was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their performance at Cheneux. 
 
See Map 4 below for the positions of the paratroopers additional details on the movements and engagements of Kampfgruppe Peiper, prior to and after the arrival of the 82nd Airborne. Click on the red lines and place markers for information on the Germans and the blue for information on the American forces.
 
 
Map 4: December 18 – 21, 1944. Movements and engagements of Kampfgruppe Peiper. Positions of the 82nd Airborne.
 
December 21: A Relief Effort Launched to Rescue Trapped Kampfgruppe Peiper (Illustrated in Map 5 below)
 
At this point, Kampfguppe Piper was cut off, unable to link up with forces in its rear and those on its left and right flanks. On December 21 commander of the 6th Panzer Army, SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Josef Dietrich ordered the commander of the 1st SS Panzer Division (SS-Oberführer Wilhelm Mohnke) to launch a rescue of Kampfguppe Peiper. To give the rescuing forces time to reach him, Peiper pulled his forces back from Stoutmont. He formed a defensive perimeter around the town of La Gleize  called the La Gleize Pocket.
 
The rescue effort was to be attempted by Kampfgruppe Hansen. Later the awesome might 9th and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions showed promise in reaching Peiper, but only as a byproduct of their primary objectives which respectively, were to break through and outflank the 82nd airborne.
 
On the evening of December 21 three powerful SS Panzer Divisions (the 1st, 9th and 2nd)were closing in on the Salm River salient.  The 7th Armored Division, the 106th Infantry Division, and other US forces were retreating from the St. Vith pocket to the east. Only the 82nd Airborne stood in the way of  the relief effort  made by Kampfgruppe Hansen that may well have rejuvenated Kampfgruppe Peiper’s advance westward.
 
Mohnke ordered Hansen to throw his Jagdpanzer tank destroyers against Company E 505 at Trois-Ponts on December 21 in an attempt to capture the damaged bridge there, repair it and resupply Peiper’s men.
 
At 3:00 AM on December 21, two half-tracks of the 1st SS Panzer Division attacked Company E’s outpost positions on the Salm River’s east bank. One hit a mine, the other was taken out by a bazooka. Later in the morning 1st SS Division Panzer Grenadiers supported by five Jagdpanzers attacked E Co. 505. The paratroopers didn't retreat despite the terrifying onslaught. The attack failed with many SS Grenadiers lying dead in Co. E's foxholes beside the troopers. The Germans gathered for another attack with the addition of half-tracks mounted with 75mm guns and 20mm flak wagons. This time the attack partially broke through and some paratroopers were captured. Eventually, the enemy forced their retreat to the west bank, before moving swiftly on the Trois - Ponts bridge. As soon as the last Company E trooper was back across the river the previously damaged bridge was blown by the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion. This time it was completely destroyed. Source: “Four Stars of Valor: The Combat history of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II” Nordyke, P., 2006 p. 329 - 331. 
 
When that attack, failed Hansen attacked Company D’s positions along the Salm River to the south where they were defending a rail and road bridge over the river. Panzer Grenadiers tried to cross the river and were repelled by intense artillery and fire from Company D.
 
Later in the evening Hansen sent a column of tanks further south to try and cross the bridge at Rochelinval, where Company I 505 PIR was holding defensive positions along the west side of the river, but the bridge was blown by engineers of the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion as soon as the first tank moved towards it. Frustrated the tanks shelled Company I and a tremendous fire fight resulted.
 
December 22: The Peiper Relief Effort Continues Before Being Abandoned (Illustrated in Map 5 below)
 
On December 22 Mohnke ordered Hansen to try another attack using Panzer Grenadiers against 40 Service Company troopers of the 505 PIR who were called forward to plug a hole between Company D and Company I positions. Many Service Company troopers including some parachute riggers received their Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) that day for their part in repelling the attack.
 
By the evening of December 22, the relief effort on the part of the 1st Panzer Division under Hansen was called off.  With the other 1st SS Panzer Division units to Peiper’s rear unable to breakthrough, his Kampfgruppe was now on its own.
 
December 23: the 9th SS Panzer Division Attack (Illustrated in Map 5 below)
 
Any hope for Peiper’s men would have had to come from the 9th and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions which were to attack from the west and south, respectively. The 9th Panzer was attempting to breach the 82nd Airborne lines along the Salm River. The 2nd SS Panzer was trying to outflank the 82nd from the south. If either of these forces were successful, then relief may have come to Peiper, even if it was no longer the primary objective.
 
On the night of December 22, the 9th SS Panzer division which had been attacking westward was now ordered to attack across the Salm River to break through the 82nd Airborne line. Commanded by  SS Oberfuhrer Sylvester Stadler it was an incredibly awesome force of more than 16,000 men spread across two SS Panzer Grenadier regiments, 35 Panther tanks, 28 StuG III tank destroyers, 29 Tiger Mark VI (Tiger I) tanks, 21 Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers, 21 Jagdpanther tank destroyers, one artillery regiment, one flak battalion, and sundry support units. Source: Timothy J. “The Ardennes on Fire: The First Day of the German Assault”   2010 p. 58.
 
First, they tried to capture the bridge at Grand-Halleux. The attack was initiated by at least a battalion of SS Panzer Grenadiers against Company G 505 PIR in outposts on the east side of the river. The 505 troopers stopped the first attack by infantry before it could reach the bridge. Afterwards Company G was withdrawn from these outposts and the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion blew the bridge  just as the leading SS Panzer Grenadiers were crossing it in their second attack. The Grenadiers launched a futile third attack across the icy river without the bridge. Most were killed by Company G troopers from their positions on the west bank.
 
Also on December 23 the 9th SS Panzer Division tried another infantry attack supported by tanks, this time south at Petite-Halleux to capture the bridge there.  The 307th Airborne Engineers had again rigged the bridge to explode and waited for the first tank to cross before blowing it. During the night the Panzer grenadiers tried yet another futile attack by wading across the Salm River onto Company C 505 positions. Once again the 505 troopers decimated them. 
 
They probably thought if they could take the bridgehead, clear the area, another bridge could be built, and the 82nd Airborne line could be broken.
 
On the same day, the 19th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 9th SS Panzer Division attacked the defending 508th PIR units further south at Vielsalm. The 508th was in a desperate battle to keep the bridges at Vielsalm open to cover the retreating US forces which had been fighting the Germans in the St. Vith pocket to the east. These were the 7th Armored Division, the 106th Infantry Division and other US units. They were forced to fight a rear guard action ahead of the German onslaught in that area and the German 9th SS Panzer Division was hot on their heels.
 
When the withdrawal of the retreating forces behind the 82nd Airborne lines was complete the railroad bridge and two road bridges at Vielsalm were blown. Again the 9th SS Panzer Division failed to reach its objective of opening up a hole in the 82nd Airborne line. With the bridges blown they were not able to cross over the Salm River.
 
Retreating US units from the St. Vith pocket were also using the bridge at Salm-Chateau. During the evening of December 23 that bridge too was blown once the last of the friendly forces had safely passed through. Later that night elements of the 2nd SS Panzer Division took the town on the east side of the Salm River.
 
The 2nd SS Panzer Division Attacks the 82nd Airborne’s right flank (Illustrated in Map 5 below)
 
The 2nd SS Panzer Division under the command of SS Brigadefuhrer Heinz Lammerding was a titanic force of 18,000 men,  spread across two Panzer Grenadier regiments and two full Panzer regiments. The Panzer regiments contained  58 Panther tanks, 28 Mark VI Tiger tanks, 28 StuG III tank destroyers, 20 Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers, two artillery regiments, two flak battalions, and various support units. Source: Timothy J. “The Ardennes on Fire: The First Day of the German Assault”   2010 p. 58.
 
On December 23 it attacked from the south and overran the 325th GIR holding the Baraque- Fraiture crossroads on the 82nd’s southern flank, endangering the entire 82nd Airborne division. The 2nd SS Panzer’s objective was to outflank the 82nd Airborne. It was not an attack designed to reach Peiper, but it was his last chance, nonetheless.  If it did outflank the 82nd, it could have opened a corridor and reached the stranded yet still powerful Kampfgruppe. But the attack came too late.
 
At 5:00 PM on December 23, Peiper received a radio message that he would not receive anymore gasoline nor ammunition. He requested permission to breakout. His request was granted with the proviso that he take his vehicles and wounded. There wasn’t sufficient gasoline for that. Again Peiper asked for permission to breakout with only able bodied men. Permission to do so was flatly denied. Infuriated, Peiper blew up the radio and decided to breakout against orders after disabling all vehicles and leaving the wounded behind.
 
At 2:00 AM on December 24 Peiper starting moving out of the La Gleize pocket with 800 men. They hid during the day and moved at night. During their escape they encountered forces from 3rd Battalion 505 PIR, but eventually crossed the Salm River on December 25 and later that day reached the lead elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division  near the town of Wanne to the east. Source: Bouwmeester, H. “Beginning of the End: The Leadership of SS Obersturmbannführer Jochen Peiper”,  2004, p. 114 - 116
  
For an explanation of these events, click on the red lines and place markers for information on the Germans and the blue for information on the American forces in Map 5 below.
 

View 82nd Abn - German Positions 21 - 24 December in a larger map

Map 5: Attacks on the 82nd Airborne positions by the 1st SS Panzer Division (top), the 9th SS Panzer Division (center), and 2nd SS Panzer Division (bottom)
 
December 24: In a First for Division History, the 82nd Airborne Retreats (Illustrated in Map 6 below)
 
Occupying a very defensible natural river barrier, the 82nd Airborne Division a force with an official strength of 8,520 men was facing off against a vastly superior combined force of  43,000 men and over 1,200 armored fighting and artillery vehicles and pieces! Source 1: LoFaro G., “The Sword of St. Michael: The 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2011, p. 38. Source 2: Timothy J. “The Ardennes on Fire: The First Day of the German Assault”   2010 pp. 56-58.
 
This figure is even more staggering since the 82nd was under strength at the time because it had not yet received replacements after the Market-Garden Campaign. Of course the 82nd was augmented by organic and attached artillery batteries as well as attached tank and tank destroyer units. However, these were a poor match given the numbers and defenses of the German armor.
 
With the incredible, but all too real 2nd SS Panzer Division threatening to outflank and cut off the 82nd Airborne, the situation was precarious. The hilly forested terrain made it difficult for the 2nd and 9th Panzer Division to move and this was an advantage to the lightly armed 82nd Airborne. Their objectives had been to halt the advance of the 6th Army spearhead and then to hold the bridges across the Salm River open long enough for the retreating forces fighting in the St. Vith Pocket to make it safely back behind friendly lines. Once this was achieved, on December 24 British Field Marshal Montgomery – the ranking superior officer, ordered a retreat back to the line in Map 6 below. It was a defensible position being heavily forested and backing up against mountainous terrain with limited road approaches.
 
Reluctantly the 82nd Airborne followed these controversial orders. The general consensus was that the river running through a narrow gorge, offered the best defense against the powerful German armor.  Dug in on the west bank and ridge lines above it, and with the bridges blown, the paratroopers believed they could have held out indefinitely against infantry attempting to engage them by crossing the frigid Salm River. Source: Langdon, A. “Ready: The History of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment , 82nd airborne Division, World War II”, 1986 p. 111. 
 
From his perspective, General Gavin was worried about the affect of the retreat on the psyche of the 82nd troopers. Ever since Normandy they had a slogan “No ground gained was ever relinquished”. This withdrawal was to be the first retreat in their entire combat history. Source: Gavin, J. “On To Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943- 1946”, 1978 p. 239. 
 
The German’s pushed the advantage and pursued their retreat with the 2nd and 9th SS Panzer Divisions. The 2nd SS Panzer engaged the 82nd until December 28, when it and what was left of the 1st SS Panzer Division were ordered to move south to meet General Patton’s forces attacking in the area of Bastogne. Source: Nordyke, P., “All American All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2005, p. 655
 
Some units of the 9th SS Panzer including the 19th Panzer Grenadier Regiment stayed and fought the 82nd. They were joined by the 62nd Volksgrenadier Division. The 9th SS Panzer tried to breakthrough by attacking the 508 and 504 PIR positions, but ultimately failed. These attacks and subsequent patrol actions by the American and German forces led to a significant loss of strength in both the 9th SS Panzer and 62nd Volksgrenadier. Source: LoFaro G., “The Sword of St. Michael: The 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2011, p. 481
SS_trooper_captured
 
Photo 6: Digging in at Bra 504 PIR 3rd Bat. Co. H troopers capture a 19th SS Grenadier who was on a reconnaissance mission. Several other Grenadiers were killed.
Source: Wikipedia Commons
 
For an explanation of these events, click on the red lines and place markers for information on the Germans and the blue for information on the American forces in Map 6 below.
 
 
 Map 6: Attacks on the 82nd Airborne positions by the 62nd Volksgrenadier Division (top), the 9th SS Panzer Division (center), and 2nd SS Panzer Division (bottom)

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.

Col_wood_joerg_501st_pir

Photo 7: Lt. Colonel Joerg Commander of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion

Source: NARA

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

551st-PIR-bulge-moving-up

Photo 8: Men of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion moving up to the 82nd Airborne's position at the front

Source: NARA

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

 

Map 7: 82nd Airborne Counterattacks January 1 – 10. 
 
Map 7 Legend
Regiment/Battalion Color Code

505th PIR

505_thumb2

504th PIR

504_thumb2

325th GIR

325_thumb1

508th PIR

508_thumb1

517th PIR

517_thumb3

551st PIB

551_thumb2

 

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).

504 Jan 28

Photo 9: The Battle of the Bulge Continued. Men of the 504th PIR advancing on January 28, 1945 Source: NARA

© Copyright Jeffrey Clark 2013 All Rights Reserved.

5 comments:

  1. Excellent recounting. Most people know the 101st, 506th Parachute Infantry, (Band of Brothers), fought in the Bulge, Far fewer knew the 82nd Airborne, 508th PIR also played a part in Hitler's last gamble.

    My father enlisted as soon as he became of age and was assigned to the 508th PIR. Once in awhile he would answer my questions about his service but, never about the Bulge. Instead he would grow silent. I know he was remembering his best friend who was the assistant gunner of their Browning 1917 MG who was killed there along with many others.

    My dad passed in 1991 I keep his membership card and flag displayed and answer all questions to the best of my ability.

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    1. What company was your father in, my great Uncle Howard Alfrey was in H Company, 508th and was KIA Dec 27th but we know nothing of the nature of his death...

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  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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  3. My Father was in the 82nd and taken prisoner at the Bulge. He was rescued by the 101. My father said they weren't happy about that but they saved their lives.

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  4. My dad was a 19 year old kid from Oklahoma and was in the 82nd 505th PIR Co. B in the Ardennes. He was a replacement soldier arriving from Camp Suippes Frances about Dec 18, 1944 on a brutal 22 hour ride in a cattle transport in freezing weather. On Jan 3, 1945, his unit counter-attacked near Reharmont, Belgium, and he was seriously wounded by mortar and heavy shelling. His best friend in the Army was Pfc Joseph Ellis of NJ was killed later that day, a fact my dad did not know until 59 years later, after we researched it on the WW II Monument website. Dad passed in 2015 at age 89, and was able to connect with Pfc Ellis' sister about 3 years ago.

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