644th Tank Destroyer Battalion
Operations in the Ardennes
The 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion (SP)(Self Propelled) commanded by Lt Col Ephriam F. Gaham, sailed from the USA on January 2 1944, on board of the HMT Aquitania. The battalion landed in northern Ireland on January 13 and there continued its training with emphasis placed on indirect fire. The 644-TDB left the USA equipped with the 3 inch (76.2-MM) motor gun carriage, M-10, the vehicle it retained throughout its operations in Europe. On May 10 the battalion moved to Hungerford, England, where, along with more training, preparations were made for the move to the Normandy Peninsula. On July 11, the major part of the battalion moved across the English Channel while the remainder of the unit, under the control of its executive officer, Maj Edward R. Garton, landed also on Utah Beach one day later. On July 15, the 644-TDB was attached to the 8th Infantry Division and although elements of the battalion were from time to time attached to other divisions, the battalion itself remained so attached until early December 1944.
In late autumn 1944, the US forces driving across Europe were confronted with the Roer River in their northern sector. The crossing of the river itself as it flowed at this time presented no great problem. However, two very important and well defended dams were located on this river, the Urftalsperre (Urf Dam) 4000 meters east of Simmerath and the Rurtalsperre – Schwammenauel (Rur Dam) in the vicinity of Rurberg. The importance of these dams was fully realized by both the Allies and the Germans. Should these dams be blown, the released water would cause the river below to become so swollen and swift that a relatively small defending force could render a military crossing in this area next to impossible. The 1A (Lt Gen Courtney H. Hodges) stated, in its report of operations for that period :
since the middle of the month of September our attention had been directed toward the problem presented by the Roer River dams, the Urftalsperre (Urf Dam) and the Rurtalsperre – Schwammenauel (Rur Dam). It was realized at that time that no large-scale crossing of the Roer River below the dams could be undertaken until they were in friendly hands
V Corps, (1A), stretched thin its lines in the south so that it might assemble a force in sufficient strength to attack these dams.
- [ … early in December 1944, changes were made in V Corps dispositions in order to attack in the area of the Roer Dams. On December 7, the newly attached 78th Infantry Division commenced to arrive and closed one of its regiments into the assembly areas in the zone of the V Corps, its second regiment arriving the following day …]
On December 10, the 2nd Infantry Division commenced moving its units from the front line positions in the Schnee Eifel area to the area of the V Corps.
On December 12, CCB, 9th Armored Division was attached to V Corps as well as the 2nd Infantry Division which was attached at 1030 hours and closed in assembly areas. The 78th Infantry Division took over the center of the corps front from Lammersdorf to Monschau, relieving the 102nd Cavalry Group. To its left (northern boundary) the 8th Infantry Division continued along the line of the Kall River (Roetgen, Kämpchen, Lammersdrof, Simmerath to include, east, the Brandenberg Ridge between Huertgen and Niddegen. To its right (southern boundary) the 99th Infantry Division still held the front from Monschau, Kuchelscheid trough Wirtzfeld, Krinkelt, Rocherath, Murringen then up to Losheimergraben and Lanzerath. The corps southern boundary being located somewhere in the Bucholz Forest. The 2nd Infantry Division was now assembled in and around the Military Camp in Elsenborn ready to participate in the attack by passing through part of the 99th Infantry Division front.
The V Corps order of the battle on December 13 1944 was as follows (front line units being listed in order from north to south) :
8th Infantry Division
78th Infantry Division
2nd Infantry Division
99th Infantry Division
CCB/9th Armored Division (in reserve)
102nd Cavalry Group (in reserve)
CCR-5th Armored Division (in reserve)
Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his account of World War II, wrote the following in connection with the situation existing in this area :
[… Through late November and early December the badly stretched condition of our troops caused constant concern … In order to maintain the two attacks that we then considered important we had to concentrate forces in the vicinity of the Roer dams on the north and bordering the Saar on the south. This weakened the static, or protective, force in the Ardennes region. For a period we had a total of only three divisions on a front of some 75 miles between Trier and Monschau and were never able to place more than four in that region … Our conclusion was that in the Ardennes region we were running a definite risk but we believed it to be a mistaken policy to suspend our attacks all along the front merely to make ourselves safe until all reinforcements arriving from the United States could bring us up to peak strength …]
In the fall of 1944 the German troops and equipment at the front were generally in a poor state after ten years of fighting and repeated Allied bombings of industries and transportation. The Germans were engaged in the east along a wide front against the Russians. On the western front the Allies were attacking the border of the Homeland. The German defenders had been forced back to the Siegfried Line and in the north to the line of the Roer River. Hitler, anxious to regain the initiative and bolster home front morale, was extremely desirous of mounting an offensive. He reasoned that no decisive objectives could be gained on the eastern front against the unlimited Russian manpower. In the west prospects looked better to him. An attack through the difficult, but thinly held Belgian Ardennes Forest could with surprise cross the Meuse River, capture the port of Anvers and destroy the northern half of the Allied Forces. The Siegfried Line positions were to be held with a minimum of troops. The best units were withdrawn, reorganized, and completely reequipped for this grand offensive.
Three armies were to attack. On the north, SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer u. Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Joseph “Sepp” Dietrich’s 6. SS-Panzer-Army; in the center, General d. Panzertruppe Hasso-Eccard Freiherr von Manteuffel’s 5. Panzer-Army; on the south, General d. Panzertruppe Adolf Robert Erich Brandenberger’s 7. Panzer Army. The 6. SS-Panzer-Army, assigned the major effort, was forced, because of the terrain and narrow front, to attack with the I. SS-Panzer-Corps followed by the II. SS-Panzer-Corps. The Corps was to break through on its own sector of the enemy’s main field of combat with the three infantry divisions : the 277. Volksgrenadier Division (right) to reach the area of Elsenborn, the 12. Volksgrenadier Division (center) to reach the area of Nidrum – Weywertz, and the 3. Fallschirmjäger Division (left) to reach the area of Schoppen – Eiberdingen. SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Kraemer, Chief of Staff 6. SS-Panzer-Army, in his report of the commitment of that army, wrote the following :
The best division was the 12. Volksgrenadier Division which had an especially skilled Commander and had fought excellently in the Battle of Aachen
The 1. SS Panzer-Division (LSSAH) and 12. SS-Panzer-Division (Hitlerjugend) were not to be used in the initial breakthrough. The strength of these divisions was to be conserved for the thrust beyond this.
On December 14 1944 at noon, the Corps took over the command of its attack sector. Following formations were committed in the sector :
277. Volksgrenadier Division, the right wing of which stood at the edge of the wood about 2000 meters southeast of Alzen, and thus, inside the sector of the contiguous corps (LXVII). The left wing was near Losheim. One battalion of the neighboring corps on the left (LXVI) was near Krewinkel.
Moving into the assembly areas
In the evening of the December 15, the 12. Volksgrenadier-Division and the 3. Fallschirmjäger-Division moved into their attack sectors and assembly areas.
Situation immediately before the attack
The reinforcedn of the 277. Volksgrenadier-Division, which was in the LXVII Corps sector, had not been relieved, so that it was absent at the beginning of the attack. This weakened the right wing attack group. The 12. Volksgrenadier-Division had completed its preparations according to plan, and had undertaken its own security. The 3. Fallschirmjäger-Division, which had been put under Corps command on December 14 by Army Group (Heeresgruppe), arrived during the early evening of December 15 with only two regiments (the second regiment of which was without heavy weapons in some of the elements). At 0530, the artillery opened its preparatory fire.
Operations (Pre-battle movement)
In the early days of December, the US 8th Infantry Division (1A) was fighting its way through the Huertgen Forest in an attempt to capture the Roer River Dams. The resistance displayed by the Germans proved too stubborn for such a head-on attack by this depleted division. The 1A CG, Lt Gen Hodges, organized a new plan calling for a strong ground thrust from the south, just north of the Ardennes, aimed at these all important dams. The attack was to be made by the 2nd Infantry Division on December 13. To add more power to the attack, the US V Corps, on December 8, ordered the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion (minus one gun company and one reconnaissance platoon) detached from the 8-ID and attached to the 2-ID, then commanded by Maj Gen Walter M. Robertson. The order was received on December 8. The 644-TDB’s commander, Col Ephriam F. Gaham, accompanied by Capt Harry L. Godshall Jr, the battalion S-3, proceeded immediately to the headquarters of the 2-ID located at St Vith, Belgium, where orders for the battalion to proceed to Sourbrodt, Belgium, on December 11 were received. Graham and Godshall returned to the battalion area, located at Huertgen, on December 9 to make plans for the move.
On December 10, the 817-TDB (Towed), a unit believed to be less suited for offensive operations because its weapons were towed, relieved the 644-TDB (minus B Co and one platoon of the Recon Co). On the morning of December 11 at approximately 0930, the 644-TDB set out on its move from Huertgen to Sourbrodt, a distance of approximately 80 Kms (50 miles). The weather was very cold and all roads were covered with snow. No enemy interference was encountered, and the battalion completed the move without incident at 1745 the same day. The battalion CP was set up in Sourbrodt and the tank destroyers were serviced and made ready for the operations to come.
On December 12, A Co was attached to the 9-IR (2-ID), then located at Rocherath. A Co moved to the regiment’s assembly area located in the Monschau Forest north of Rocherath, and closed by dark. C Co was attached to the 38-IR (2-ID) which was at that time located at Camp Elsenborn. Plans were made to move C Co forward to the regiment’s assembly area on order. The rest of the 644-TDB was also attached to the 2-ID but to the divisional artillery. The plan to capture the Roer River Dams initially called for the 9-ID to pass through the positions held by the 2-Recon-Troop and the 99-ID north of Rocherath, attack and seize that portion of the Siegfried Line located at the Wahlerscheid Road Junction (Heartbreak Crossroad). The regiment was then to swing north and seize the town of Rohren lying to the north beyond the Monschau Forest. When the 9-IR had taken Wahlerscheid, the 38-IR was to pass through the 9-IR and advance through the Monschau Forest toward Dreiborn, Germany.
Operations December 13
At 0830, the 9-IR began the attack as planned. The regiment advanced through the woods along both sides of the Rocherath – Wahlerscheid Road. Because the woods on both sides of this road contained many swamps, the tanks and tank destroyers were confined to the road. With the morning had come a sudden thaw. The snow on the road turned to slush. Visibility was very poor. In order to gain surprise, no artillery preparations were fired. By 1330 the regiment had advanced to within 550 meters (600 yards) of the Crossroads. There it met a German strong point impervious to quick attack. The road junction was defended by 24 enemy pillboxes placed 20 or 30 yards apart. In front of these pillboxes was an anti-tank ditch, a wide belt of barbed wire concertinas, and thickly sewn anti-personnel mines. The Rocherath – Wahlerscheid Road was also mined, thereby denying the infantry the direct fire support of the tanks and tank destroyers.
On October 29 1944, the 277. Volksgrenadier-Division was sent to the Eifel region to take over a sector starting from the Forsthaus Wahlerscheid in the north to Losheim in the south. Their task was to secure and defend the first line of the Westwall (Siegfried Line). These static positions were retained during November and the first weeks of December before the start of the Ardennes offensive. Artillery Regiment 277 was spread out along this sector in support of the Grenadier Regiments. (Source photo and caption Project 1944 (Belgium)
Operations December 14
On December 14, the regiment was not successful in its efforts to seize this strong point. This was largely due to the lack of effective supporting artillery and to the weather, which kept our tactical bombers grounded. On this date the 644-TDB forward CP moved to Rocherath. The battalion forward CP, as was normal, consisted of the battalion commander, the S-2 and S-3 sections, and the Recon Co.
Operations December 15
The morning of December 15 found the weather still too hazy for the use of tactical bombing. The 9-IR spent the day patrolling and probing the objective. The 38-IR made plans this date to relieve the 9-IR on December 16. The regiment planned to employ the 3rd Bn in a flank attack against the position from the southeast. During the day routes and positions were reconnoitered for the attached tanks and tank destroyers so that their direct fire weapons could be brought to bear on the objective, thereby assisting the 3rd Bn in the main attack. Just after dark on December 15, Lt Col Walter M. Higgins Jr, CO 2/9-IR, sent a patrol to cross the German lines. The patrol reported the Germans off guard and an attack in strength was made by the 2nd Bn. The attack was successful.
Operations December 16
The 1/9-IR and 3/9-IR advanced through the gap made by the 2/9-IR in the enemy lines, prior to daylight on December 16. By 1200, what was to be remembered as Heartbreak Crossroads was taken, and the 9-IR was in the process of consolidating its positions. Due to the success of the 9-IR attack, the 38-IR did not carry out the attack planned the previous day, but advanced north to pass through the 9-IR as called for in the original plan. By 1700, the 38-IR was located in a defensive position for the night along the high ground approximately 1100 yards directly east of the Wahlerscheid Road Junction. C Co, 644-TDB, which had been in support of the 38-IR was disposed as follows on December 16 :
east of the Rocherath – Wahlerscheid Road
approximately 5500 yards north of Rocherath
approximately 3000 yards north of Rocherath
600 yards east of the Rocherath – Wahlerscheid Road
vicinity of the 2-395/99-IR
remainder of C Co
Rocherath where the company CP had been moved this date
Late in the evening of December 16, A and C Cos were ordered released to 644-TDB control as of December 17. On December 16, the Germans launched their counteroffensive in the Belgian Ardennes. Their attack extended from Kesternich in the north, to include all of the frontier of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg in the south. In the area immediately concerning the 2-ID the Germans had attacked the over-extended 99-ID lines and succeeded in local penetrations. The US lines held, however, and by the end of the day the situation was partially restored. The Germans had, in their attack, succeeded in breaking contact between the 99-ID in the area located north of Manderfeld (Lanzerath) and the 106th Infantry Division on the south of Manderfeld (Schoenberg – Bleialf) by capturing that town. On the afternoon of December 16, the 23/2-ID, then located at the Camp of Elsenborn, received orders to attach its 1/23 and 3/23 to the 99-ID. 1/23 was attached to the 394-IR. This battalion left on trucks at 2330 and proceeded to Büllingen where the troops were detrucked and marched southeast to Hünningen where the battalion took up a defensive position. 3/23 was attached to the 393-IR, and left its area on trucks at 1400. At 1630 the battalion arrived at the western edge of the Krinkelterwald (Krinkelt Forest) and immediately deployed north and south of the road, in the 393-ID area. 2/23, under 23-IR control, was moved at 1345 a distance of approximately 15 miles by truck to an assembly area 3000 yards north of Krinkelt, arriving at 1430.
Operations December 17 and 18
Early, on December 17, SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke CG of the 1.-SS-Panzer-Division (LSSAH) committed its armor in the attack. The four Kampfgruppen :
(SS-Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper)
84. Flak-Battalion (attached)
501. Heavy-Panzer-Battalion (attached)
I. SS-Panzer-Pioneer-Battalion (-)
(SS-Standartenführer Max Hansen)
(SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Sandig)
2. SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment (-)
1. SS-Panzer-Pioneer-Battalion (-)
(SS-Sturmbannführer Gustav Knittel)
of the LSSAH smashed to the northwest on the railroad running from Losheim to Bütgenbach, and overran the town of Honsfeld. By 0830 hours the armored force was in Büllingen, and shortly thereafter sent an armored thrust northwest toward the villages of Wirtzfeld and Krinkelt. The 644-TDB received information of the heavy armor attack advancing toward Büllingen. One platoon of the Recon Co (1/Lt Edward B. Patterson), was sent immediately to establish and maintain contact with the enemy tanks. The platoon was surrounded in Büllingen and the 1st Section was captured. The 2nd Section escaped capture by breaking from the encirclement.
To meet the enemy armor thrust driving from the southeast the 1st Plat. C Co, 644-TDB and one platoon of the 741-TB were ordered to pick up infantry of the 23-IR and proceed south. At 0845 the TDs and tanks contacted E Co, 2/23-IR, north of Rocherath. With the company of infantry mounted on the tanks and tank destroyers, the small force moved south through Rocherath and into Krinkelt. Col Stokes (ADC) 2-ID, met these tanks and tank destroyers at Krinkelt. He ordered the tank destroyers and that part of E Co mounted on them to go to Wirtzfeld. The four tanks and accompanying infantry, he ordered to Büllingen under Capt Byrd.
The tanks had gone only a short distance out of Krinkelt when they encountered a Mark IV tank, a half track, and an armored car. The infantry dismounted and took cover while the tanks prepared to open fire. Meanwhile the three tank destroyers which had turned right toward Wirtzfeld sighted the enemy vehicles. After the infantry had dismounted, the tank destroyers immediately, opened fire and knocked out all three enemy vehicles. The infantry from the tanks and tank destroyers joined forces and captured 12 prisoners who were hiding along the road in the vicinity of the three enemy vehicles.
A Co (minus 2d Platoon), 644-TDB, had been ordered to Wirtzfeld early on the morning of December 17 arrived just as the 1st Plat, C Co, had knocked out the three enemy vehicles. The commanding officer of A Co was wounded by a shell fragment and evacuated. 1/Lt Clarence Steves assumed command of the company and was ordered to provide anti-armor defense for Wirtzfeld, relieving C Co without delay. The CO of C Co, was ordered to provide anti-armor defense for the Rocherath – Krinkelt area. With the bulk of the battalion located in Wirtzfeld and Krinkelt, the forward CP (minus the Recon Co) was moved to Wirtzfeld. Capt Godshall, the battalion S-3, was ordered to take command of A Co late in the afternoon of this date. The CO 38-IR assumed responsibility for the defense of the Krinkelt – Rocherath area.
The 2/9-IR, and the 3/9-IR (minus K Co), had moved from Wahlerscheid down to Wirtzfeld about noon on December 17. The 2/9-IR was given the mission of protecting the road out of Wirtzfeld to the east. The 3/9-IR (minus K Co) was positioned between Wirtzfeld and Büllingen with the mission of protecting Wirtzfeld from the direction of Büllingen which was in the hands of the Germans. The CO, 9-IR was made responsible for the defense of Wirtzfeld where his CP was now located. From the time the elements of the tank destroyer battalion
moved to Wirtzfeld and Krinkelt, heavy artillery fell throughout the area.
On December 17, the Germans pushed forward directly from the east in an attempt to take Krinkelt and Rocherath, and joined its southern forces attacking toward Büllingen and Bütgenbach. The enemy unit making this attack directly from the east was the German 277. Volksgrenadier-Division reinforced with assault guns. The plan for this attack was recorded by Gen Kraemer as follows :
The 277 Volksgrenadier-Division was to continue their attack on both sides of Udenbreth past Krinkelt, Rocherath and Wirtzfeld for a later assault on Elsenbord and Sourbrodt, south Elsenborn. The division was reinforced by an assault gun detachment that had not been ready for the commitment on December 16, because the last parts of this detachment could not be extricated from the battle zone. It was to be expected that the division with their attack in the direction of Elsenborn would gain terrain and contain the enemy forces that were situated in this area.
The seriousness of the attack was realized by Maj Gen Walter M. Robertson, CG 2-ID. One platoon of A Co, 677-TDB was sent to guard the crossroads located about 1400 yards east of Rocherath. Also sent to this location were the Ammunition and Pioneer Platoon, K Co and the 1st Platoon, M Co, all the elements of the 3/9-IR. Orders to proceed to this location were received while this unit was proceeding south between Rocherath and Wirtzfeld. The units bearing the brunt of the German attack aimed east toward Rocherath were those of the 23/2-ID and 393/99-ID. It was apparent that this line was about to give way to the German thrust. The movement of the 1/9-IR to the south was intercepted by Gen Robertson about 4000 yards north of Rocherath. The battalion was ordered to move to the road junction recently occupied by the platoon of A Co, 644-TDB. Gen Robertson punctuated the urgency of the situation by personally loading the leading elements of the infantry in commandeered 2,5 ton trucks and leading them to within 1000 yards of the road net. The CO of 1/9-IR had orders to command all friendly troops in the area. The battalion managed to get A and B Cos astride the road facing southeast just as darkness fell.
The CO of the 1st Battalion, having of necessity left all the battalion anti-tank mines in the Wahlerscheid area contacted the tank destroyer platoon leader and arranged for the use of anti-tank mines in the possession of the tank destroyer platoon. The problem of setting up a defense in this area, at this time, was extremely difficult. The elements in contact with the enemy were falling back in a disorganized fashion. The area was subjected to direct enemy machine gun fire. With darkness setting in the units attempted to set up their defenses in an unfamiliar area. The CO, I Co, 23-IR arrived without men from the east. He was shown the area he would occupy and defend when and if he could get control of his company. A hurried defense plan was given the CO at the 1st Battalion CP, located 300 yards northwest of the crossroads. The battalion artillery liaison officer had been out of contact with his artillery battalion for over two hours. He worked feverishly to restore communications and as darkness set in he succeeded. He immediately planned his defensive fires along the road in front of the position.
With the darkness came the first enemy attack. The entire situation was confusing. While the enemy was attacking, elements of the withdrawing front line units were entering the battalion’s position from the same direction. In attempting to allow friendly elements to pass into this position, enemy vehicles, including tanks, were allowed to pass through. When this was discovered, a “daisy chain”, made of the tank destroyer platoon’s antitank mines, was dragged across the road. This measure along with artillery fire support and direct fires from the battle position stopped the attack. By midnight this force had destroyed five enemy tanks and an undetermined number of foot troops. Throughout the night artillery fire was placed continuously in front of the position.
Tacoman Chases Nazi Tanks Around Town With Bazooka : I like him already ! 1/Lt Robert A. Parker who earned the Distinguished Service Cross while serving with the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion. He was credited for destroying 3 tanks and damaging several others single handedly with a bazooka. He survived the war and came home to be an architect
At 0645 December 18, the full force of the German armor fell in this zone. Every means at hand was employed to repel this attack, but the task became impossible. Had it not been for a platoon of A Co, 741-TB, which was sent forward to the position about noon, this unit could not have been withdrawn. By employing tremendous amounts of artillery fire and counterattacks by the tank platoon, the defenders were able to withdraw through the 2/38-IR, and assemble 2000 yards northwest of Rocherath. For this action at the crossroads near Rocherath, known to the men of the battalion as ‘Heartbreak Crossroads’, the 1/9-IR (2-ID) received a Presidential Citation. Throughout this entire defensive action, the 2nd Platoon, A Co, 644-TDB, remained in its position at the crossroads, lending its support to the 1/9-IR. The platoon withdrew with the Battalion. This platoon proceeded to Krinkelt on the afternoon of December 18 and was attached to C Co, 644-TDB. The German’s view of the action of December 18 on this front as expressed by General Kraemer, was as follows :
The attempts, to win the roads Euskirchen – Monschau to the Elsenborn, and from there the roads from Büllingen to Weismes (Waimes), were continued in cooperation with the 277. Volksgrenadier-Division, that continued the attacks near Udenbreth. The 277. VGD advanced well forward on December 18, and took the heights north of Wirtzfeld. With this the Division was freed and together with the 12. VGD could attack in the direction of Elsenborn. This was ordered December 19. The attacks – Monschau – and Elsenborn – had to be under the direction of LXVII Corps. The 12. VGD, had together with the 12. SS-Panzer-Division taken Büllingen after a hard battle. Both divisions ought for the village of Bütgenbach against a strongly defended enemy, who for the first time attacked with tanks.
When the 644-TDB CP moved from Rocherath to Wirtzfeld on December 17, the Recon Co (-) one platoon remained in its position in Rocherath. At about 2030 that night the Germans who had passed through, and to the south of the defensive position of the 1/9-IR, forced their attack into Rocherath. The attack fell in the area of the Recon Co. The CP group was organized by the commanding officer and the company attempted to repel the enemy attack. The company managed to hold off the attackers until late in the morning of December 18, at which time the attack ceased. During this action the company destroyed an enemy tank, damaged another, and accounted for about 20 casualties among the enemy. The company lost all vehicles open to the attackers view, but suffered only minor personnel casualties.
On December 18, the commanding officer, 644-TDB, was made responsible for the anti-armor defense of the Wirtzfeld area. C Co, 612-TDB (Towed), and three guns of the 801-TDB (Towed) were attached to the 644-TDB. Throughout the day of December 18, elements of the 394/99-ID and 1/23-IR withdrew through the defensive positions of the Wirtzfeld – Krinkelt area. The 801-TDB had been attached to the 99-ID since November 9 1944. This battalion had met the brunt of the German attack with the 99-ID. The three guns attached to the 644-TDB on December 18 were of the 1st Platoon of A Co. These were the only guns remaining in the company. Lt Col F. B. Horsfall, CO, 801-TDB wrote of this in the unit’s after action reports :
December 18 – At 0215, the 1st plat of A Co was ordered to proceed to Wirtzfeld thru Krinkelt. Upon reaching Wirtzfeld they met with the 23/2-ID. There they set up AT defense on the north and east side of town with their remaining three guns. The rest of the company which had lost the majority of its equipment were employed with the infantry. All of the remaining guns of the battalion, less three in Wirtzfeld, were placed east of Elsenborn in AT defense. A provisional company was organized from these gun crews and placed under the command of the CO of C Co. The consensus of opinions of the plat leaders and the gun crews are that if it had not been for the fact of the non-mobility of the towed gun and the lack of armor protection for the gun crews and in most cases the over-running of the gun positions by the infantry many more tanks and vehicles could have been destroyed.
Enemy action on December 18 in the area consisted of armor and infantry attacks from the south and southeast. None of the attacks were successful, but the pressure being brought to bear by the powerful enemy caused the US forces to plan a withdrawal to the better defensive terrain of the Ridge in Elsenborn, approximately two miles west of Rocherath and Wirtzfeld. The pulling back of the forward units of V Corps resulted in the concentration of force in a tight semicircle to the west of Elsenborn.
Most of the books – especially in the History area – are not worth the paper used to print them. This doesn’t mean that I am an authority in the area but being in it since the early 1970s I have had the chance to meet several of the authors. This is my selection of books you can get because I have them, I have read them, in some, I have even worked with the author or financed the researches. For the northern shoulder of the Battle of the Bulge, you can really go for these books. Should I get other books on the area and find them valuable I will update the selection.
Operations, December 19
The withdrawal was planned for the night of December 19. Enemy artillery fire was moderate during the withdrawal. C Co covered the withdrawal from Rocherath – Krinkelt as rear guard. A Co covered the withdrawal from Wirtzfeld which was set on fire. The withdrawal was accomplished without undue difficulty.
On Elsenborn Ridge
Prior to daylight on December 20, one platoon of C Co moved into position on the high ground east of Berg in support of the 38/2-ID. A Co moved into reserve in Elsenborn. One platoon of A Co moved to high ground east of Elsenborn to provide anti-armor protection from the east. The battalion forward CP was established in Berg. On the morning, the 2-ID CG (Robertson), called the CO, 644-TDB, to personally commend the battalion. General Kraemer recorded the German actions on December 19, in this area, as follows :
December 19 1944 : On that day the enemy countermeasures were quite obvious. The enemy resistance at the LXVII Army Corps was growing. Counterattacks were made in the north. The terrain captured during the preceding days had to be given up. Kalterherberg, south of Monschau, was taken. The 277. VGD reached the road Forsterei Wahlerscheid – Rocherath. On the whole, no perceptible progress was made. On December 18, a Volksartillery Corps was attached to the LXVII Army Corps and was moving up to the new positions. The 12. SS-Panzer-Division and 12. VGD of the I. SS-Panzer-Corps could no more advance against the increasing enemy forces. The terrain being very muddy, the infantry advanced only slowly, and the tanks could not be committed off from the road. Enemy anti-tank guns and tanks were well emplaced. Stronger artillery fire and the difficult terrain would probably prevent our breakthrough past Bütgenbach, because it was no more possible for the attacking forces to move into the assembly positions. Evidently the two divisions did not find the appropriate terrain for the attack, the battalions could not advance on the muddy ground and had to use the roads, where they were exposed to the enemy artillery. That caused temporarily an uncoordinated direction of the two divisions. Tanks, that during the morning hours had found by-passing road south of Bütgenbach broke down in the mud at the west end of the village and only at night could be removed from there with great difficulties. A further advance was impossible the weather continued like this. Therefore, the Army gave order in the afternoon that the 12. SS-Panzer-Division cease the attack, be extracted rapidly and assembled in te area Baasen – Losheim – Mandersfeld, and be sent either after the 1. SS-Panzer-Division or the 9. SS-Panzer-Division.
During the period covered by this report the 644-TDB’s offensive operations were severely limited due to the terrain and weather. The method in which the battalion operated is shown however. As was normal, the battalion itself was attached to division artillery. The companies were attached to the infantry regiments. The platoons were attached to the infantry battalions. Then working with infantry on the offensive, the battalion attempted to operate in units no larger than platoon strength. On the defensive, the battalion operated where it was possible in company strength. At times however, when it was more suitable, it operated in platoon strength. Also, because of their flexible organization, there were times when platoons were attached to companies of the battalion other than their parent companies. In regard to destroying enemy armor in this operation, the 38-IR recorded the following :
In the attack, every effort was made to keep tanks and TD’s well forward to place direct fire on enemy fortifications and to repel any counterattacks. When the enemy launched his offensive available elements of 741-TB and 644-TDB, were employed to counter enemy armor. Because of the superior firepower and frontal armor of the enemy tanks, our armor was employed in TD fashion, taking up firing positions along the flanks of approaches and placing their fire on the flank and rear of enemy tanks. Normal procedure in countering enemy armored attacks on Rocherath and Krinkelt were to take enemy armor under fire with medium artillery before it reached our lines; then to hit individual tanks from the flank with our tanks, TD’s and 57-MM AT guns, and mop up infiltrations. Destroyed were set afire with gasoline-oil mixes poured on them and with thermite grenades set in the mouth of their barrel and burned through the barrel inside the firing system compartment. The 57-MM AT gun proved very unsatisfactory, only one effective hit being scored on the turret of one enemy tank. Medium artillery proved effective in breaking up enemy tank formations.
The close teamwork between infantry, artillery, tanks and TD’s accounted for 69 known enemy tanks, plus several armored trucks and scout cars. When the 2-ID had completed its withdrawal to the Elsenborn Ridge area, Gen Hodges phoned the following message to Gen Robertson :
What the 2nd Infantry Division has done in these past four days will live forever in the history of the United States Army.
The 644-TDB indeed played an important part in the defense of this area, for during the period starting on the morning of December 17 and ending on the night of December 19, the battalion destroyed 17 enemy tanks, knocked out two SP guns, and damaged two other enemy tanks.
Logistic & Personnel
The 644-TDB, during the period covered by this report, was well supplied with materiels and personnel. Moving supplies from the battalion CP located at Sourbrodt to the forward CP in Rocherath became a problem when the Germans launched their counteroffensive. The only practical route from Sourbrodt to the forward CP was the Elsenborn – Bütgenbach – Bullingen – Krinkelt road.
(Note from Gunter) The road known today as the Tank Track along the Elsenborn Proving Ground (Camp) didn’t exist during the first stage of the Battle of the Bulge. This road was constructed during the war by the US Corps of Engineers present in the area. In 1944, even in December, the only way to go from Krinkelt – Rocherath to Elsenborn with regular vehicles, no Tanks, was Wirtzfeld – Berg – Elsenborn; Wirtzfeld – Bütgenbach – Elsenborn or as described above. Being today a Belgian road and having been constructed in 1945 by the US Army is the sole reason why it still stands today. It was a regular road before the Belgian decided, because of the nearly Proving Ground, to make it a Tank Track using concrete plates.)
On the morning of December 17 a battalion supply convoy moving to the west, met the advancing Germans on the eastern edge of Büllingen. The supply vehicles were able to withdraw to Elsenborn. Only after much difficulty did they succeed in reaching the forward CP by moving over foot trails southeast of Elsenborn. Many routes appeared on the map in this area but these routes proved to be but trails. An engineer unit made a road from Wirtzfeld to Elsenborn (just to show that I read the text while publishing it) by enlarging one of these trails and it was used by all units in the area for both supply and withdrawal.
At no time were Class I supplies short in supply. Prior to December 17, the rations were picked up by company vehicles from the battalion CP. These consisted of 5 in 1 rations and when available, fresh meats and vegetables were sent forward. Three days supply of rations were carried with each unit. The company kitchen trucks were kept in the battalion CP area.
Classes II and IV
These classes of supply presented no problem. The only items not readily available were certain ordnance items. Due to the proximity of division and army supporting ordnance units and readily available transportation, these needed items could be obtained with little difficulty.
Because this unit was equipped with M-10 motor gun carriage, the fuel problem would have been that of diesel fuel. There was at no time however, any shortage in this fuel. There was also no problem in the supply of gasoline.
Ammunition supply was no problem during this period. There seemed to be always more than enough small arms ammunition available. This unit had opportunity to replace their 3 inch motor gun carriage, M-10 with the M-18 at various times in Europe. However, because the supply of 3 inch ammunition seemed always to be adequate, the commander retained the M-10. Such was the case during this operation, an adequate supply of 3 inch ammunition was at all times available. HVAP (High Velocity Armor Piercing) proved most effective and was in good supply.
This battalion was well trained in vehicular maintenance. Because of this the maintenance problem was kept to a minimum. Also, because of the excellent availability of Class II supplies and the availability of ordnance units, no serious problems were encountered.
This battalion used much wire. It made a practice of installing wire between its CP and the switchboard of the division to which it was attached. The forward CP also installed wire to the nearest regimental switchboard. Because of this, radio had to be used only between platoons and as a supplementary means of communications for forward and rear CP’s and the companies.
This battalion was kept to its authorized strength most of the time. The replacements received were seldom tank destroyer personnel. However, because the battalion had lost only between 10 and 15 percent of the personnel it landed with in Normandy, the training of these replacements presented no problem.