1st Army Antiaircaft Activities, Battle of the Bulge

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Official US Army War Report
First Army Antiaircraft in the Battle of the Bulge
Personal Experience of an Army AA Staff Officer
Lt Col Paul C. Davis

First Army AA at its peak consisted of 56 battalions; it is therefore manifestly impossible to discuss all AA action with the Army. I shall therefore highlight the battle by discussing only the following pertinent subjects and actions :

    The Liège Diver Belt-(V-1 Defense)
    Army AA in the Ground Role
    AA in the Primary role, which is subdivided into :

      (a) The Air and Airborne Attacks on V and Vll Corps-16 to 20 December
      (b) The Air Attack on Communications Centers West of the Meuse River
      (c) The New Year’s Day Raid

    The V-1 Attack

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Cal-50-quad-on-trailer-1944

As the Battle of the Bulge has been fully reported elsewhere (see, for example, Subject 0-426, British-American Ground Cooperation), I shall make only general reference to the German plan and execution. All references to locations may be found on Chart 1, appended hereto.

Terrain
The terrain of particular interest lies north of a line from St Vith to Namur, and south of Antwerp and Brussels. The region is drained by the Meuse River, an unfordable river, which flows north to Namur, east to Liège, and again north into Holland. On Dec 16, it was the First Army Rear Boundary. The area on the north and west of the Meuse is an extensive low plain, highly industrialized, in which lay the main airfields of IX TAC, supporting First Army. South and East of the Meuse is a hilly, heavily forested region, drained by three streams, all joining the Meuse at Liège. These are the :

    Vesdre River
    Amblève River
    Ourthe River

The ridges run generally southeast to north-west, not high, but with steep slopes down to the narrow winding streams. The road net is excellent. Main roads follow the rivers, where AT defenses could be profitably employed; while good roads run over the ridges as well. Those roads pertinent to the discussion are :

    Bullingen – Malmedy – Spa – Liège
    Malmedy – Stoumont – Aywaille – Huy
    Stavelot – Ouffet – Huy
    Aachen – Eupen – Malmedy
    Eupen – Verviers

Brits-ATS-LSB

The 1st Army Ground and AAA Situation on Dec 16 1944
On December 16, First Army was attacking with its main effort on the left, to secure the Urftalsperre Dam, the Schwamenauel Dam, the Paulushoff Dam, and the Heimbach Dam, controlling the Roer River, preparatory to launching a general offensive to the Rhine River. Front line and Corps boundaries are shown on Chart 1 (bellow). Antiaircraft dispositions at this time were as follows :

    49th Antiaircraft Artillery Brigade

      11th AAA Group
      16th AAA Group
      18th AAA Group
      103rd AAA Group

Of these, the 103rd, consisting of one gun and two AW (Automatic Weapons) battalions, was defending Army Hq at Spa, the Ammunition Depot in it, the army Maintenance Area at Herve – Soumagne, and the defiles in the vicinity of Verviers. This mission was a normal one. The 11th and the 18th Groups were deployed on a special mission, known as the “Liège Diver Belt”, or V-1 Defenses. This mission requires some explanation. The main V-1 defenses on the western front at this time were concentrated in front of Brussels and Antwerp, ideally situated from a tactical and gunnery standpoint. However,while these two centers were the main V-1 targets, Liège had intermittently received very heavy V-1 concentrations and required protection. Although Liège was behind the First Army Rear Boundary, the only possible place in which to deploy V-1 defenses for Liege was the First Army area, and First Army accordingly assumed this responsibility. Ideally, the defenses should have been situated just south and east of Liège. However, this was a heavily populated area, and one in which the Army Maintenance Area and vital dumps were located. As a large percentage of V-l’s when hit by AA, were exploding on the ground, this congested region was ruled cut as a position area and it became necessary to situate the defenses in Division sectors, a deployment to which the V and VIII Corps Commanders agreed. This deployment had the following disadvantages, which prevented the Defenses ever being as effective as those at Antwerp and Brussels.

    Early warning was not possible, as our weapons were but 4,000 to 8,000 yards behind the front-lines and because the V-1’s were flying at extremely low altitudes (900 to 1500 feet), still ascending from the launching ramps.

    Second, the altitude was so low that 90-MM radars could not make pick-ups at a reasonable range. (Firing was at Q.E.’s around 125 mils).

    Third, AW hits were ineffective against the strongly constructed V-l,which required about five 90-MM hits for destruction.

To partially overcome these disadvantages the VT fuze was released for use in the AA role on 15 December. Normal safety requirements would have prevented its use against the low-flying V-1. Therefore special tables had to be computed, taking a 1 in 1,000 risk of detonations due to hill mask, and thereby reducing the permissible Q.E. from 400 mils to about 100 mils. As firing at this elevation would not permit the self-destruction feature of the fuze to operate in case of a miss, we so situated the guns that all misses on a V-1 would burst over the German lines – thus accomplishing AA and FA fire simultaneously.

90-MM-AAA-Gun-US-1944

So much for these defenses, except to point out that the 11th Gp was deployed South of Bullingen, in the 99th Infantry Division and the 106th Infantry Division Sectors, on the very nose of the 6. SS Panzer Army attack. The 16th AAA Group, the remaining Army Group, far to the South with 2 gun and 1 AW Battalions, was defending 12th Army Group Hq, Radio Luxembourg, and the Differdange steel mill. So much for Army AA. Each Corps had its organic Group and attached battalions, while each Division had a battalion attached. This was the AA situation on Dec 16 1944.

Belgium-Unknown

The German Counter-Offensive Begins
The German Counter-offensive, it will be remembered, featured a drive on the Liège – Antwerp axis by the 6. SS Panzer Army on the right, with a parallel drive by 5. SS Panzer Army on the axis Namur – Brussels, while the 15. and 7. Armies were to block the flanks and hold open the gaps. The impact of the 6. SS Panzer Army was immediately felt by the 11th AA Group and Battalions in the Liège Diver Belt around Bullingen, one AA Battalion being forced to evacuate its position at Krinkelt-Rocherath early on the morning of Dec 16. All battalions came under heavy artillery and some infantry fire that day, and being unable to effectively continue their anti-V-l mission, they began an echeloned displacement to the rear, at the same time going into a ground blocking role. Authority to assume the ground role, which must be approved by the Army Commander, was, of course, immediately granted. One AW Battalion of the V-1 defenses was attached to the 106th Division and one to the 99th Division, the night of Dec 16.

The morning of Dec 17, two 90-MM Battalions of the V-1 Defenses were moved west to Steinbach and attached to V Corps for AT employment. The fire-control equipment was sent to Liège, and all VT fuzes were safely evacuated and accounted for. The 18th AAA Group east of Camp Elsenborn, which was also part of the V-l Defenses, was relieved from 49th AAA Brigade as well, and attached to V Corps at this time. The 49th AAA Brigade Hq (at Ligneuville) was forced to evacuate by advance elements of 12. SS Panzer Division, and this break in the communications forced the Army AA officer to assume direct command of all Army AA Groups until the Brigade could re-establish communications from a new CP. On Dec 17, the German thrust toward Malmedy and Stavelot offered a serious threat to Liège and Huy, and incidentally to Army Hq at Spa. At this time the Army G-3 delegated responsibility for deployment of other than major Army units to the Special Staff. In the next several days the AA officer executed a piecemeal deployment of AA in the ground role which was characterized by speed and improvisation, and which contributed in no small measure to halting 6. SS Panzer Army’s thrust toward Liège and Huy. On Dec 17 six 90-MM guns of the 110th AAA Gun Bn defending Army Hq, supplemented by a 40-MM battery, were attached to the Army Hq Security Force defending a 3 million gallon gas dump and the Army Hq at Spa, in an AT and FA role. Fire adjustment initially was by Air OP flown by the Air Artillery Officer of Army Hq. Meanwhile a telephone call to 21st Army Group obtained two gun and one AW Battalions from Antwerp X Defense; 52nd AAA Brigade of 9th Air Defense Command furnished one gun battalion; 9th Army to the north furnished another. These units arrived un-briefed and untried in front line combat. They were issued fragmentary orders by a liaison officer from Army Hq, and in most cases were given overlays with AT sites marked for each gun. They placed their fire-control and administrative equipment in trains areas and deployed in the AT role as follows :

    43rd AAA Gun Bn, vicinity Stoumont Station – Aywaille
    563rd AAA AW Bn, vicinity Stoumont Station – Aywaille
    125th AAA Gun Bn, vicinity Ouffet – Anthisnes
    141st AAA Gun Bn, Huy

The 11th Group Hq, formerly deployed in the V-1 Defenses, was assigned to command these AT Defenses. The other borrowed units were used to augment the AA Defenses of the vital Eupen – Verviers defile. Meanwhile, on Dec 18, the 1. SS Panzer Division had broken through the south of Butgenbach, had by-passed Malmedy and was probing for a break-through toward Spa and Stoumont. Spa was defended by the Army Hq Security Force, consisting of :

    1 Cavalry Rcn Troop
    6 90-MM guns of 110th AAA Gun Bn
    3 M-8 Assault Guns
    1 medium Tank Company
    25 MD’s
    Hq and Hq Co 9th Armored Group
    elements of 5th Belgian Fusilier Bn
    elements of 6th Belgian Fusilier Bn

Late on Dec 18, the 30th Infantry Division arrived from 9th Army and deployed in the vicinity of Stoumont – La Gleize. At 1615, Dec 19, 6 vehicles of the Rcn element of l. SS Pz Division reached to within 2,000 yards of Spa, where AA troops deployed as infantry supported by M-51 half-tracks destroyed this force; this ended the German thrust at Spa. At this time the Army Hq moved. Simultaneously, a tank column struck the 30th Division at Stoumont, where the 119th Infantry Regiment, supported by the AT guns of 143rd AAA Gun Bn, was deployed. A 90-MM gun destroyed the first Mark VI tank at 40 yards, and 2 guns were destroyed by tank fire in turn. The AA personnel then deployed as infantry. Two of them, at the request of an Infantry officer, manned a bazooka (which they had never fired before) destroying two tanks at a range of 40 yards. The force (119th Infantry and AA elements) then withdrew west to the Station in Stoumont, closely followed by the remainder of the tank column. Here a 90-MM gun destroyed two more tanks, effectively blocked the road and ended the German thrust toward Aywaille and Huy. The 1. SS Pz Division then side slipped to the southwest, probing toward Ouffet. But by this time 82nd Airborne Division had been deployed here, and the 6. SS Panzer Army had lost its last chance to reach the Meuse River. When the XVIII Corps (Airborne) arrived in this sector, the CO 11th AAA Group became the Corps AA officer and the AA battalions in this area gradually resumed their primary role. The score in tanks destroyed by 90-MM fire for the entire battle was 19.

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Antiaircraft in the Primary Role
The Air and Airborne Attacks on V and VII Corps
One of the most significant and important problems facing the AA officer was to prevent the deployment of AA in the ground role to such an extent as to jeopardize the primary mission. The 103rd AA Group, defending the Verviers defile, continued in the AA role, reinforced on Dec 18 by 1 Gun and 1 AW Bn from 21st Army Group; these defenses proved invaluable as all reinforcements from Ninth Army, as well as all Corps troops of VII Corps moved through this one defile to the Marche – Aywaille area, in a large-scale tactical movement characterized by careful traffic planning and exceptional speed. All VII Corps AA also remained in the AA role; and it was here that a remarkable action occurred from Dec 16 to Dec 20, for by strange coincidence and bad German judgment, the German air and paratroop effort was concentrated in this heavily defended area.

On Dec 16, 122 enemy sorties were flown – the largest number since D-Day. Almost all air effort on Dec 16 was at night, to cover the night paratrooper attack across VII Corps to the V Corps sector. This attack, consisting of 800 men under Col Von der Heydte, had the mission of cutting the Eupen – Malmedy road in the V Corps sector, to prevent reinforcements from the north until 1700, Dec 17, at which time a link-up with a Panzer Division was planned. During that night the 116th AAA Gun Bn engaged 87 enemy aircraft in a period of 8 hours, exhausted and replenished its entire prescribed load of ammunition and destroyed 14 planes with 5 more probably destroyed. Air action in VII Corps sector continued unabated for 4 days, the final score being 431 enemy aircraft over the area, of which 106 were destroyed and 37 probably destroyed. The 116th AAA Gun Bn destroyed or damaged approximately 2 of the 40 plus JU-52’s carrying paratroopers; and attained the unprecedented score in 4 days’ shooting of 29 planes destroyed and 11 probably destroyed. Using the VT fuze for the first time, it brought down 4 planes with 40 rounds. The failure of the German Airborne attack may be largely attributed to the selection of a flight route without due consideration of the disposition of AA defenses.

The Air Attack West of the Meuse
On Dec 21, the First Army’s Rear Boundary was moved far to the west of the Meuse. Concurrently 52nd AAA Brigade, comprising 4 Groups, 9 Gun Bns, and 9 AW Bns, was added to the First Army’s troop list. These units continued their previous missions – the AA defense of :

    Liège
    Huy
    Namur
    Dinant
    Charleroi
    + the airfields of IX TAC located in the Army area

Inner Artillery Zones which had formerly existed at all but Liège, but had been canceled when the enemy’s air could no longer reach them, were now re-established; while the one at Liège continued in existence. The Air Force’s inability to maintain and disseminate accurate information on the movements of friendly planes, and thus assure timely and accurate identifications, made these IAZ’s mandatory, and they proved most effective. At this time, the enemy suddenly shifted the area of his air effort, from the V and VII Corps sectors and the area southeast of Liège, where he had hoped for a break-through, to the communications centers and traffic of Liège, Huy, and Namur, the bulk of it against Liège. 60 to 70 sorties appeared daily until Dec 30, meeting with little success and suffering the usual losses of about 20%. Meanwhile, the 16th AAA Group, which was deployed in the vicinity of Luxembourg, at 1000 on Dec 17 lost communication with the 49th AAA Brigade, and thereafter operated independently, being transferred to Third Army along with VIII Corps on Dec 19. Until that time its action was mainly in the primary role, rendering, however, artillery support to 4th Infantry Division.

The New Year’s Day Raid
New Year’s Day, in the First Army AA history, was a red letter day, remembered along with those three other air – AA battles – the Normandy Beaches, August 6, 1944 (Operation Lüttich), and the Battle of Remagen Bridge. This German air operation, known as “Varus”, was carefully planned well in advance. Planning was begun Nov 1 on orders of Goering, who hoped to regain the Luftwaffe’s lost prestige. Like the ground operation, its aim was ambitious, its execution mediocre, although surprise was achieved in at least one sector of the Western Front. Its objective was counter air – the destruction of tactical air power on its airfields. On Dec 31, pinpoint strikes on the IX TAC EW radar, the main source of early warning for the First Army, and on the AA positions along the Meuse were made, to weaken the AA Defenses, but with practically no effect. On Jan 1, at 0855, the raid began, with Ju 88 night fighters especially equipped for navigation guiding each Staffel toward its target. On that day between 800 and 900 sorties crossed the Western Front, of which 280 attacked in the First Army area. Warning was adequate in the First Army area, and they were met at the front lines with such a volume of effective AW fire, that many groups soon abandoned their primary mission or became lost and turned to a dispersed and aimless strafing of targets of opportunity. One group of German planes did reach its objective, airfield Y-29 at St Trond. 50 planes attacked, and there ensued a notable example of air-AA cooperation. Two P-47 squadrons, already airborne, engaged them, but soon had to land to refuel and rearm. As Me 109’s flew on their tails almost to the ground, AA defending the field engaged them, destroying seven planes without damaging a single friendly plane.

In 2 hours and 45 minutes the raid was over. It took 30 days to process and confirm the claims of aircraft destroyed the score finally proving to be 67 Category I (destroyed) and 23 Category II (probably destroyed), or 24 %destroyed and 8 probably destroyed. To recapitulate our AA score in the Battle of the Bulge : from Dec 16 to Jan 2, 1198 German sorties crossed the First Army’s lines; of these, 267 were destroyed by AA and 101 more were probably destroyed. (22 % Cat. I, and 8% Cat. II.)

The V-1 Attack
In one respect the enemy attacked by air with impunity. On Dec 16 he drove our V-1 defenses from the Bullingen area, and simultaneously began a serious V-1 attack on Liège. That day 128 V-1’s were launched, and they continued at a daily rate of 40 to 70. The effectiveness of this weapons well illustrated by two random instances. On Dec 18, while the First Army Hq was moving from Spa to Chaudfontaine, a direct hit was scored on a serial containing the G-4 Traffic Control personnel, killing 16. The next day, on the same road, a V-1 hit an M-4 tractor towing a 90-MM gun of the 125th AAA Gun Bn. It demolished both tractor and gun, killed the 14 men of the gun crew, and blocked traffic for one hour. It is believed that had the enemy’s target been Verviers rather than Liège, serious interruption to the movement of units from the Ninth Army and VII Corps to the Marche battle area might have resulted.

Redeployment for the Rhine Offensive
The following month, the period of the allied counter-attack, was featured by the release of all AA units which had been borrowed from Ninth Army, Antwerp X Defense and IX TAC, the return of 16th AAA Group to First Army, re-establishment of the AA defense of the Army Maintenance Area east of the Meuse, and the complete redeployment of the First Army AA preparatory to the Rhine offensive. Positions were approximately as on Dec 16; the V-1 defense belt was, however, not reestablished.

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