Operations of 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division
Battle of the Bulge (German Frontier – Belgium)
December 10 1944 – December 20 1944
I chose this subject because I think it is the most outstanding action that my regiment participated in during World War Two. I think it will illustrate again some of the capabilities of infantry units; that the principles we have been studying do apply at all levels; that sometimes what appears to be violations of accepted doctrine will work with a little luck and determined execution.
Maj George D. Callaway
Now, briefly the background of this picture. The 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division “Indian head” landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on D+1, fought through Normandy with the V Corps, and as part of VIII Corps helped reduce Brest to a pile of rubble and moved by rail and motor across France to relieve the 4th Infantry Division along the Siegfried Line in the Schnee Eiffel region east of St Vith in early October.
The normal supporting units were the :
36th Fld Arty Bn
C Co 2nd Engr Cbt Bn
C Co 2nd Med Bn
C Co 617th TDB
C Co 741st TB
The nature of this support was such that there was never any question of whether they were attached or supporting. There was always the closest cooperation – no argument as to whether or not a unit should be attached. After a two month period in a defensive position in the Siegfried Line (the division covered a twenty seven miles front,) in which the time was spent improving the position and living conditions, patrolling and being patrolled against, the division was relieved by the brand new l06-ID (Golden Lion) and amid great secrecy was sent north to the vicinity of Elsenborn (BE), to launch an attack to the northeast through the 99-ID to secure the Dams on the Roer and the Urft Rivers (GER).
Note from Snafu for the Historians : Elsenborn is almost a generic term for this entire part of Belgium. In fact, talking about Elsenborn while coming from the German border include the following towns and places name : Hergenwenn (N), Rorderhohe, Geisberg, Berg, Mühlenberg, Nidrum, Brûckberg, Grûnenberg, Bosfagne, Sourbrodt, Am Grüne Kloster, Kaltherherberg, Höfen, Alzen and Camp Elsenborn also called the Ridge. (see map bellow)
Due to the uncertainty of the situation and the close terrain the Division attacked in column of regiments, the 38-IR being second in column. The leading regiment attacked on Dec 13, all day and night sought to penetrate a fortified position around the custom house at Wahlerscheid on the Belgian-German border – a road junction that was later called “Heartbreak Crossroad”, because we had to give it up after a bitter struggle to get it. This was the first belt of the Siegfried Line and consisted of pillboxes protected by wire, mines and obstacles.
Attacking on the north of the Div was the 78-ID to seize the high ground west of the Dams. On the south one regiment of the 99-ID was to secure the Olef draw west and north of Hellenthal (GER). The terrain over which this operation takes place is along the Belgian-German border on the western edge of and in the Monschau Forest, about 30 miles south of Aachen (GER) and about 20 miles northeast of St Vith (BE). It is on the northern edge of that rugged, almost mountainous area through which the Germans launched their Ardennes counteroffensive. In this area, although it is all of fairly high altitude, the slopes are not steep and the terrain is of a rolling nature. The extremes in elevation differ less than 100 meters. The principal terrain features are the open high ground around are :
Monschau Forest (BE & GER)
the open high ground east of the Monschau Forest in the vicinity of Dreiborn (GER)
the lake formed by the dam on the Urft River (GER)
the lake formed by the dam on the Roer River (GER)
the Olef River which bounds the Dreiborn – Harperscheid (GER) area on the south and east
The road net is limited to one good road through Butgenbach (BE), Bullingen (BE), Krinkelt (BE) and Rocherath (BE), up through the Monschau Forest (GER) to Harperscheid (GER) and Dreiborn (GER). The Monschau Forest consists mainly of closely planted pine trees 20 to 30 feet in height. As with most of the forest land in Europe it has been well kept and was free of underbrush. Although it provided excellent cover and a concealment, it aid so for both sides. These trees also provided excellent obstacles when felled every few feet across the roads for stretches of hundreds of yards.
The dams on the Urft and on the Roer were critical in that they permitted the enemy to flood the Roer at will to hinder our offensive in the north. The 9A and the 7C were just short of the Roer River to the north and the Germans were withdrawing east of the river. The lakes built up by the dames held enough water to flood the lowlands across their entire front. The key terrain features which we are particularly concerned in this discussion are the Monschau Forest, the road from Rocherath to Dreiborn, the road junction in the forest, and the towns of Krinkelt and Rocherath. These two villages are actually only one. It sits on the end of a ridge which runs to the northeast along the main road. The houses are all of stone with thick walls and are huddled closely together with just room enough for the streets to pass through. It is identical to thousands of European villages. It is dominated by the tall church tower in the center of the town.
The weather had been around freezing and snow was on the ground, averaging about six inches at the start of the operation. A partial thaw had rendered cross country movement for vehicles and tanks very difficult. I should like to emphasize that this weather was extremely bad for offensive operations in that the snow was just on the verge of melting and was very wet. When a soldier crawled or fell he would soon be soaked and nearly freezing, that was extremely unpleasant. Wounded went rapidly into shock and the ones who were not wounded became fatigued much quicker than normal. As you recall the weather prevented our aerial reconnaissance and close air support anti and allowed the Germans to achieve surprise in the offensive operation.
On Dec 10, the 30-ID had followed the 9-IR through the gap in the initial minefields and barbed wire and by ten o’clock was attacking on the south of the 9-IR astride the road to Dreiborn with the 2nd Bn on the right and the 1st Bn on the left (North). The 3rd Bn was in reserve west of the road junction. Due to the restricted road net and the impossibility to move vehicles across country through the forest, only essential vehicles were being moved forward. These consisted of about 15 per battalion and a few for Regimental Hqs and Medics.
The 9 and 38-IRs (US 2-ID) had the task to capture the crossroads together with the 1st and 2nd Bns of the 395-IR (Col Alexander J. Mackenzie)(US 99-ID) and the attached 2nd Bn (393-IR)(Col Ernest C. Peters)(99-ID). They launched a series of attacks on the crossroads which was held by the 991. Grenadier-Regiment (277. VGD), which was later, on Dec 14, relieved by the 751 Grenadier-Regiment (326. VGD). The US attacks lead from the road Rocherath towards Wahlerscheid and from the Hasselpath area towards Hill 611 (Wiesenhardt) which lay south east from Heartbreak Crossroads, and was heavily fortified with concrete bunkers, trenches littered with anti personal mines and barbed wire entanglements. The fighting was fierce and a lot of casualties occurred. US troops stumbling into barbed wire entanglements one after the other couldn’t penetrate the Siegfried Line which was firmly held by the Germans. But after almost 2 days of hard fighting the first good news reached Col Walter M. Higgins (9-IR – 2-ID). A small squad of G Co had found an opening through the wire entanglements all the way to the German lines. This without being noticed by the Germans in that area they even surrounded a concrete pillbox. Higgins pushed F and E Cos through the small gap and destroyed all the other German strong points in the area while the enemy was unaware of what was happening. Soon another battalion also followed silently through the gap and in the morning of Dec 16 the crossroads were firmly in US hands. A lot of prisoners were being made of the 326. VGD (which later effected the strength of attacks the 326. VGD could made during the Bulge in the vicinity of Monschau / Konzen.)
To further relieve the congestion in the area, AT Co which was equipped with 57-MM towed guns was left in position along the road north of Rocherath and were not to be moved forward till we had cleared the forest. The Cannon Co had been required to furnish 24 men to the 2nd Medic Bn (C Co), as additional litter bearers, since there was such a great deal of hand carry of patients necessary. They also furnished 30 men to the 38-FAB as wiremen since it was most difficult to maintain communications through the forest and vehicles could not be used to lay wire. The remainder of the company was attached to Division Artillery and had to remain in vicinity of Kalterherberg (GER) – Kuchelscheid (BE) until they could be moved through the forest and placed in position in supporting distance. The Cannon Co, was equipped with the M-3 towed 105-MM infantry howitzers.
At this time, Regtl Hq was in the process of establishing a CP just off the main road in the forest. Most of the company was being used to lay wire and dig in the CP. In addition to the normal T/0 the company had a provisional MP platoon composed of a Lieutenant, a Sergeant, and about 21 men. They were being used to control traffic, guard prisoners and local security, augmented by a portion of the I&R Platoon. The Medical Det was operating normally with a section with each battalion and one with Regtl Hq. The Service Co was set up in the north edge of Rocherath with C Co, 2nd Med. The 38-FAB was under Division Artillery control and was in position north of the road in the edge of the forest. Part of C Co, 2nd Engr Bn was supporting the regiment, the rest being used with the remainder of the battalion road maintenance and were constructing a road between Witzfeld (Village)(BE) and Elsenborn (Village)(BE).
A Co, 741-TB had supported the advance of the 9-IR and was attached to the 38-IR to continue the attack. Resistance was still stubborn although the first line of pillboxes had been penetrated. At this time, on the morning of Dec l6, reports were received of heavy Artillery fire on the Division MSR (Main Supply Road) back as far as Division Hq, which should have indicated something. As a matter of fact, the 99-ID and the 106-ID were beginning to take a beating. However, there were no further orders from higher headquarters, so the attack continued. The objective of the regiment was the hill mass 3000 yards to the east at the junction of the roads from Dreiborn (GER) and Harperscheid (GER). The 9-IR was swinging to the north to take the town of Rohren (GER). Opposing our advance were elements of the German 277. VGD and 326. ID.
On the afternoon of Dec 16 the Regiment had advanced about 1000 yards east of the road junction. The situation was beginning to become a bit confused, with reports of an enemy attack in the vicinity of Monschau, heavy fighting to the south an reports of paratroopers to the rear. In view of all this the regiment consolidated its position to the front and moved the 3d battalion upon the west flank of the 9-IR. On the morning of Dec 17, the situation was getting bad – worse than we realized. Much of the information we were getting was very vague, but evidently the situation was critical. The enemy was reported to have broken through with tanks and infantry, as far as Bullingen (BE) and our liaison air strip was captured. The Division CP at Witzfeld (BE) was attacked by tanks and infantry and all the available personnel were used in its defense. A battalion of the 23-IR (2-ID) with tanks and TD’s moved in to protect the Div CP. The remainder of the 23-IR had been attached to the 99-ID.
Around noon, Dec 17, the Corps Commander ordered the Division to establish a line north of Rocherath – Kinkelt – Wirtzfeld to the lake east of Butgenbach (Berg)(BE). The 3rd Bn of the 38-IR was ordered to move back from its reserve position to Krinkelt and take up a defensive position to protect the withdrawal of the remainder of the division. At this time the regiment was about six miles northeast of Krinkelt (BE). The 3rd Bn moved into this position with little difficulty. The remainder of the regiment was to remain in position at Heartbreak Crossroad and protect the withdrawal of the 9-IR. The order of withdrawal was 1st Bn to follow the 9-IR and 2nd Bn with A Co, 741-TB follow the 1st. The 1st Bn started moving about 1530, closely following the 1st Bn 9-IR. AT Co was placed in position on the most likely approaches into Rocherath and Krinklet. The Division Artillery had withdrawn to positions in the vicinity of Elsenborn, the leading Bns of the 9-IR cleared trough Krinkelt and went into position south of Wirtzfeld. About 1700 there was a heavy concentration of Artillery and Tank fire on Rocherath and the road leading to the north. Service Co was blocking an approach from the east and was having a bad time. The 1st Bn, 9-IR, then on the road, was attached to the 38-IR and put into position northeast of Rocherath to enable the 1st and 2nd Bns to complete their withdrawal. This was in December, remember, and it began to get dark about this time.
Destroyed Panthers : two out of six that was knocked out by Lt Parker (644th Tank Destroyer Battalion). Lt Parker was rewarded with the DSC for Gallantry for his action in Krinkelt – Rocherath.
The 3rd Bn was engaging an enemy attack from the south and the remnants of Service Co were heavily engaged. Stragglers from other units were finding their way through our lines ahead of the German thrusts. At this time the Germans attack seemed to be a series of thrusts with armor at various points along our lines. Certainly at this time a strong coordinated German attack could have gone trough. The CO of Service Co endeavored to assemble as many of the stragglers as he could to bolster his own defense. He had little luck however. The CP of the 741-TB was in Rocherath. Upon request they sent several of their command tanks to help the company. I think all the tanks were knocked out.
The 1st Bn, 38-IR was caught in a heavy concentration of artillery fire just after dark and as they were approaching Rocherath. The battalion suffered many casualties and one company was badly disorganized. By 1900, A Co, B Co and part of D Co had been put into their assigned positions. C Co and one HMG Plat occupied its position about 2000. There was no firm contact established between companies however until daylight. At about 2000 five enemy tanks with some infantry broke through the lines and reached the Bn CP but were repulsed by Hqs Co and a platoon of B Co with one mortar platoon of D Co.
At about 2100, the 2nd Bn arrived at Rocherath in the order of F, G and E Cos and went into position with F Co tying in with the flank of the 1st Bn, 9-IR and with G Co in Regimental reserve – protecting the Regimental CP in Rocherath. E Co was ordered to take over the position held by Service Co. All these positions, excluding the 3rd Bn and AT Co had been occupied at night with little daylight reconnaissance, and under artillery fire. Lateral contact between units did not exist in many cases. The enemy made repeated thrusts at our lines and small groups infiltrated through. An estimated group of 5 tanks accompanied with and about 100 infantry broke through and assembled at the church in Rocherath. At day light they were attacked by G Co supported by tanks of the 741-TB and Tank Destroyer of C Co 644-TDB in which had been attached to the Regiment. The enemy tanks were knocked and most of the infantry killed or captured. 3 the enemy tanks were knocked out within l00 yards of the Regimental Command Post.
So far most of the attacks had been heavily supported by armor. Identifications includes elements of the :
Apparently the enemy was trying to rollback this shoulder of his penetration.
During Dec 18, continued attacks were made by the enemy at various points of our perimeter. We had lost contact with the unit to our north. We kept patrolling to establish contact, but our patrols could locate nothing, out the enemy. One attack forced E Co back about 200 yards. The battalion commander counter attacked with F Co from their position to the north and successfully repulsed the enemy. The 1st Bn 9-IR had taken a severe beating on our left flank and now numbered only less than 200 men. They were relieved from attachment and withdrawn through Krinkelt to rejoin their regiment. G Co was placed on our north flank, defending to the north and northwest. L Co was withdrawn from position and attached to the 2nd Bn to bolster a weak spot in their line on the right of E Co. A provisional company of stragglers commanded by our M Co Commander occupied the original position of L Co.
Some of the enemy attacks succeeded in penetrating our lines, but the gaps were quickly closed and the enemy destroyed within our position. On one such occasion a Panther (Panzer V) with some infantry got through; the infantry were all killed and the turret on the tank jammed. The tank raced down the main street of Krinkelt, clipped off a few telephone poles and ran down the Regimental S-4’s jeep which was standing outside the 3rd Bn CP (the S-4 and driver bailed out in time) and the Panther traveled about 100 yards further before it was completely knocked out by one of our TD’s.
Krinkelt : Destroyed Panther of SS-Hauptsturmführer Kurt Brödel (front) and the other one of SS-Oberscharführer Johann Beutelhauser. (Both from 3. Komp, I. Abt, 12. SS Pz Rgt, 12. SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend).
It was reported that an officer in the 1st Bn herded some cattle out of a barn into the path of an enemy tank on a narrow road, temporarily halting the tank so that a Bazooka (2.36′ Rocket Launcher (60-MM) team could knock it out. (You can take that or leave it) ! The Regimental CP moved from Rocherath to Kinkelt in anticipation of a shortening of our lines to form a tight perimeter around Krinkelt if we were forced to do it.
The 395-IR (99-ID) which was attached to the 2-ID on our north was consolidating its position northwest of Rocherath. The 26-IR (1-ID) had been put in position around Butgenbach. The 9-IR was holding in the vicinity of Wirtzfeld. Elements of the 23-IR (2-ID) were organizing a second line of defense on the Elsenborn ridge.
Our MSR had been through Butgenbach (BE) and Bullingen (BE) but now Bullingen was in the hands of the enemy. (I nave mentioned before that the engineers were working on a road from Wirtzfeld to Berg. It had been completed but was barely traffic-able due to the mud. This was our only means of ingress and egress to the area and for that reason logistic support was difficult in addition, the road was constantly under arty fire. Service Co, along with all the unit field trains was moved to Camp Elsenborn. The Service Co ammunition vehicles had been parked behind houses in the north edge of Wirtzfeld and had been disabled by artillery fire. Fortunately the 38-FAB with the Division Artillery was back in the vicinity of Elsenborn where they had better supply routes, yet were still able to cover our entire front with artillery fire.
The Regimental S-4 established a Class V Supply Point across the street from the 3rd Bn’s CP. Casualties were evacuated by litter and jeep to a collecting station in Krinkelt and the surgeon utilized his ambulances or any truck available to evacuate them to Camp Elsenborn. There was no opportunity to evacuate the dead, although a large number of bodies were collected in the vicinity of the aid station.
I have said very little about the supporting arms. The artillery had given us uninterrupted support and was very effective in stopping the enemy thrusts. The 38-FAB fired over 5000 rounds on Dec 18. The Tanks and Tank Destroyers were scattered throughout the town. The 741-TB had its CP in Rocherath and had elements of at least two tank companies. The Battalion CO of the 644-TDB was also in Rocherath and C Co plus possibly a few more TD’s were helping defend the town. I don’t know if there is anywhere a complete list of the units and elements of units that were defending this corner and unofficially at least, were under command of the CO 38-IR. A group composed of remnants of one of the regiments of the 99-ID which had been cut off and infiltrated back through our lines had been collected, hastily organized and put into the 3rd Bn sector to take the place of L Co which had been attached to the 2-ID. Wire communication was maintained effectively but with difficulty due to the artillery fire and the tanks and TD’s.
Since our greatest threat was from enemy armor, all available means of tank defense were employed. The first line of defense was the artillery which to my surprise was very effective. It kept the tanks buttoned up, knocked off the infantry support, which enabled our bazooka teams to fire on the tanks when they came in range and in some cases 155-MM howitzers set the enemy tanks on fire. The next line was our bazooka teams spread all around our front lines. Our defensive position was based on the built up area of the town and the fences and hedgerows adjacent to the buildings. Our fighting was done from the basements and windows of the stone houses and in the fence row positions near the houses.
Another German Panther knocked out by Sgt Stahsio Kempinski and crew of the 644 Tank Destroyer Battalion. This picture was put in scene a few moments after. Here you see Sgt Bernard Cook taking a “prisoner”. The Panther (126) was knocked out on December 17 at about 1100 (am).
At this time the snow has almost completely melted and the ground was very muddy. This kept the enemy armor for the most part on the roads. Our bazooka teams operated generally from covered positions in and behind houses,allowing the tanks to come very close before opening fire. By noon, Dec 18, there were a considerable number of destroyed tanks on the roads on the edge of town which provided excellent road blocks. On one road leading into the area occupied by C Co and part of AT Co one tank was knocked out on the road and as another attempted to go around it, it too was knocked out. (1st Panther was of SS-Hauptsturmführer Kurt Brödel, the other one of SS-Oberscharführer Johann Beutelhauser. (Both from 3. Komp, I. Abt, 12. SS Pz Rgt, 12. SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend). From then on that road was blocked.
All our 57-MM AT Guns were in position around critical road junctions. Although they weren’t too effective, they did damage some enemy tanks. The incident I mentioned of the tank with its turret jammed running over the S-4’s jeep had been caused by one of our 57-MM guns. The final punch to our defense was the Tank Co and Tank Destroyer Co which were scattered throughout the town. No enemy armor succeeded in going completely through. We lost a large number of our own tanks and TD’s however, particularly on the evening of the 17 and morning of the l8.
The situation remained the same throughout the 18 and morning of the 19. On Dec 19, a provisional battalion was formed by the division from the rear echelon personnel. It was commanded by the Division Special Service Officer and composed of all the Personnel Sections and Service Personnel which could be taken from their duties. Their job was to organize and dig in a defensive position extending from the lake east of Butgenbach to a point about 2000 yards northwest of Wirtzfeld. The plan was for the 38-IR, to withdraw to this line on the night of the 19. The 9-IR was then to withdraw from vicinity Wirtzfeld through the 38-IR and the 38-IR would complete the organization of this ground and hold it.
During the day all vehicles except those absolutely essential were withdrawn to Camp Elsenborn. The plan of withdrawal was for the battalions to peel off from East to West in order 2, 1, 3 and withdraw in column through Wirtzfeld up our makeshift MSR to our defensive position. The 1st Bn which was the most depleted was to continue through to a reserve position Northeast of Berg; the 2nd Bn would occupy the MLR from the road to the lake (Butgenbach); and the 3rd Bn would occupy the MLR from the road north to tie in with the 99-ID’s right flank. Each Battalion as it withdrew west was to cover its own withdrawal until the Bn was covered by the next Bn in the line. Battalions were to use a few Tanks and a TD’s protected by infantry to provide their own rear guards. About a half dozen tanks protected by the Regimental I&R Plat with some Engineers to lay mines behind them as they withdrew were to protect the withdrawal of the last elements of the regiment. This operation went off as planned after dark on Dec 19. By about midnight all units were in their new positions. As the tail of the 1st Bn and the head of the 3rd passed through Wirtzfeld the column was caught by a heavy concentration of artillery and nebelwerfer fire which caused a number of casualties and some confusion. Otherwise, the plan worked perfectly.
I believe the enemy was aware of our movement as evidenced by the artillery fire on the road, but he made no determined effort to keep pressure on us until day light on the 20, by which time the 9-IR had completed its withdrawal through our new position. I think this withdrawal was unique in that it was more of a side slipping rather than a withdrawal to the rear. We had been facing south and east around Rocherath and Krinkelt and we moved to tie West and occupied a position facing Southeast. I believe that the field manual solution would have been for each front line battalion to leave a covering shell in position and pullback across country to assembly positions, then form up and move out. I think that under these special circumstances the plan worked better because of the side-ward movement instead of rearward and because our units were all so badly cut up and in some cases disorganized that I believe that a withdrawal cross country by small units to assembly positions would have resulted in utter confusion and great difficulty in rounding them all up again. Maybe we were just lucky, but the whole thing went off very smoothly.
V Corps in the Corps history states that this stand on the north shoulder of the bulge prevented the widening of the penetration to permit the use of the 3 north routes planned to be used by the German 6. SS-Panzer Army.
A captured German officer when asked why their counter offensive was unsuccessful stated that their right flank ran up against a Wall. Six months later Maj Gen Huebner (CG 99th Infantry Division) stated the Rocherath battle
will be numbered among the greatest achievement of the European Campaign
On Dec 20, 1944, General Courtney H. Hodges, commanding the First US Army, sent a message to the division commander which said in part
What the 2nd Infantry Division has done in the last four days will live forever in the history of the United States Army
In three day’s of this operation, December 17 1944 – December 19 1944, the 38th Infantry Regiment suffered 625 casualties, about 200 of which were missing, presumably captured by the enemy. The enemy casualties were very large, many of them being killed after they penetrated our position. An estimated 76 tanks and/or self propelled guns were destroyed or disabled by the 38th Inf and the supporting artillery, tanks and TD’S. A large number of these were knocked out by bazooka teams. The entire operation was summed up in a letter of January 5 1945, by the division commander to the officers and men of the division, part of which follows :
In a span of twelve days the Division had undergone changes in tactical disposition ranging from a relief from a defensive area for a coordinated attack, execution of a bitter attack against and capture of a strongly fortified sector of the Siegfried Line, day light withdrawal to a defensive position across the front of a vigorous enemy attack, repelling of a strong armored and infantry thrust against the rear and flank of the division, defense of an area against continuous day and night fanatical attacks by determined enemy armor and infantry, preparation of a tenable defensive position, and finally a night withdrawal to occupy and defend that position