Operations of A Co, 331st Inf. Regt, 83rd Infantry Division
Langlire, Belgium, January 11-12 1945
(Personal Experience of a Rifle Company Commander)
Maj Wilfred F. Barber
This monograph covers the operations of A Co, 331st Infantry Regiment, 33rd Infantry Division in the attack on Langlir, Belgium, 11-12 January 1945, during the offensive phase of the Ardenne Campaign. In order to orient the reader it will be necessary to discuss briefly the major events which led up to this action. On December 1 1944, the concept of the enemy capabilities was still as expressed in 0-2 estimate #36 Hqs US First Army, dated Nov 20 1944, which is quoted here in part :
1 – Enemy Capabilities
– (1) The enemy is capable of defense of the Reich west of the Rhine River, probably along the general line Ijssel – Maas – Roer and West Wall, and in the US Third Army Area, Maginot Line – West Wall and the Rhine River
– (2) The enemy is capable of retiring to a defense line behind the Rhine River
– (3) The enemy is capable of collapse or surrender
– (4) The enemy is capable of air blitz to regain air supremacy in limited vital areas
Evidence accumulated rapidly to alter this estimate. Outstanding items of intelligence were gathered daily from Theater and lower units. Such items as entire divisions being withdrawn from the Italian and Eastern fronts, reforming of troops in the enemy rear area, organizing new and special units, intensive training of these units. These were all indications of an enemy offensive operation, instead of defensive.
The Intelligence received during this period is summed up in G-2 estimate #37 Hqs US First Army dated Dec 10 1944 which is quoted here in part :
2 – Enemy Capabilities
– (1) The enemy is capable of continuing his defense of the line of the Roer north of Düren, his present front line west of the Roer covering the dams and thence south along the west wall
– (2) The enemy is capable of a concentrated counterattack with air, armor, Infantry, and secret weapons at a selected focal point at a time of his own choosing
– (3) The enemy is capable of defending on the line of the Erft and subsequently retiring behind the Rhine
– (4) The enemy is capable of collapse or surrender
On the morning of Dec 16 1944, the enemy launched the greatest counteroffensive against Allied Forces since the invasion of Normandy. The attack was initiated on the northern portion of the broad front held by the VIII Corps. It was supported by a heavy schedule of well coordinated artillery fire commencing at 0530 on front line troops, artillery positions, command posts and communications areas. After two and a half hours of this, long range artillery concentrated on key rear installations at at Roetgen, Eupen, Malmedy, Verviers, and St Vith with the bulk of the firing in the southern half of V Corps sector and all along the VIII Corps front. The broad plan of the enemy was to strike toward the Meuse River and on to Bruxelles then Anvers. With the 6 SS Panzer Army on the right driving through to Liège, and the 5. Panzer Army thrusting toward Namur. A diversionary attack was also to be made by the 7. Army with Luxembourg – as the objective. The area of attack was a sixty mile front between the Erfel and the Ardenne. This enemy offensive action made great progress, overrunning all friendly units in the area. This push continued to a depth of approximately seventy-five miles. By Jan 3 1945, Allied Forces had succeeded in halting this drive and was in position to start its counter offensive against the salient. The Allied Plan for the reduction of the salient called for the US Third Army to attack the southern flank, and the US First Army to attack the northern flank driving a wedge through the salient.
VII Corps Mission
The VII Corps was assigned the major attack mission of the 1st Army. It was composed of 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions, the 83rd and 84th Infantry Divisions, and 4th Cavalry Group. The Corps was to attack in its zone east of the Ourthe River capture Houffalize, then be prepared to attack east on army order.
At 0330 Jan 3 1945 the First Army launched an attack on a twenty-five mile front against the center of the enemy salient. In spite of the wintry weather substantial advances were made, in some areas up to 4000 yards, capturing several villages and key terrain features. This attack lost no momentum, by Jan 10 in the zone of VII Corps, the 4th Cavalry Group maintained contact with the British on the west bank of the Ourthe River near Marcout. Farther east, the 2nd Armored Division advanced more than 1000 yards, captured Samrée, and moved well into the Bois St Jean.
In the 83rd Infantry Division area, Bihain was cleared in the afternoon. The 331st Infantry repulsed a counterattack from the vicinity of Petite Langlire and captured an enemy strong point. The 329th Regiment destroyed an infantry-tank strong point east of Petite Langlire and advanced its lines along the Bois de Ronce nearly a half mile. The enemy was resisting stubbornly and appeared to have concentrated armor in this sector. Thus on the afternoon, Jan 10, we find the 331st Infantry and 329th Infantry on a line extending generally east and west approximately two kilometers north of Petite Langlire. The 331st Infantry had the 2nd and 3rd Battalions on line with the 1st Battalion in reserve. The 330th Infantry having been attached to the 3rd Armored Division, therefore leaving the Division with two Regiments. The mission, of the 83rd Division, in effect was to attack generally south to cut the St Vith – Houffalize highway.
Dispositions and Plans of the 331st Infantry Regiment
On the afternoon of Jan 10 the 331st Infantry was continuing the attack, in conjunction with the 329th Infantry. Both Regiments were pushing slowly forward against an enemy that was fighting a desperate delaying action. The enemy was utilizing key terrain features, and organizing them with infantry supported by tanks and self-propelled guns, further supported by artillery that was well zeroed in on points along the division front and all likely supply avenues in our rear. The 331st Infantry had the 2nd Battalion on the right and in the village of Bihain. The front line extended generally east with the 3rd Battalion on the left and in contact with the 329th Infantry approximately 1500 yards northeast of Petite Langlire.
The 1st Battalion, being in reserve, had closed in its new assembly area in the village Lierneux at approximately 1700. The Regimental Plan called for the 2nd and 3rd Battalions to continue the attack. The 1st Battalion was to pass through the 2nd Battalion near Bihain on the morning of Jan 11 as soon as they could get in position to do so.
1st Battalion (331st) Situation & Plan
The 1st Battalion 331st Infantry was commanded at the time by Lt Col Henry S. Neilson, the Company Commanders were :
– A Co : Capt Wilfred E Barber
– B Co : Capt Daniel M. Moore
– C Co : Capt Harlan Wright
– D Co : Capt Harry C, Gravelyn
All these officers with the exception of Captain Wright had been with the Battalion since before its arrival in England in April 1944. Capt Wright joined the Battalion as a replacement in August 1944. The Battalion was at approximately 90% strength with about 50% being comparatively new to combat, this included both officers and enlisted men. There was no problem with supplies, with the exception that there wasn’t enough overshoes to go around. The Battalion was gradually overcoming this by collecting the overshoes from the dead and wounded as they were being evacuated through the aid station, in spite of this, all companies were still short several pairs. The physical condition of the men wasn’t very good due to the fact that the Battalion had either been attacking or defending continuously since early December 1944. The intense cold and deep snow drifts had sapped their strength at a rapid rate until at this time they were in semi-exhausted condition. The morale was good. The men had rather fight than lie in cold, wet foxholes, by doing this they were able to keep much warmer, also prevent frozen feet and hands.
At about 2100, the CC of A Co received a message, stating in part to report to the Regimental CP, which at this time was in Halt on the southern outskirts of Hebronval. On arriving at the CP the CC was met by Lt Col Nellson, 1st Battalion CO, and informed that A Co was to make a night attack, as soon as possible. The plan called for A Co to pass through the 2nd Battalion in Bihain, attack generally southeast through the forest and secure the north bank of the Langlire River
The CC argued against this using these points :
– (1) No time for reconnaissance
– (2) The semi-exhausted condition of the men
– (3) The distance the men would have to march before reaching the line of departure (the distance being approximately 10000 yards)
– (4) The time now being almost 2200 hours
The plan was finally canceled and a new one called for a coordinated attack by the 1st Battalion as soon after daylight as completion of a reconnaissance would permit.
Daylight, on Jan 11, found the 1st Battalion on the march moving toward Bihain. The men had had a good night’s rest and a hot breakfast. The morale, at this time, was excellent. In the meantime the Battalion CO and staff. Company Commanders with radio operators and drivers were moving by jeep to Bihain to make the reconnaissance. Arriving just as the sun was rising, also just at the same time the enemy decided to counterattack the town. They struck with approximately two hundred infantry and five tanks. The attack caught the 2nd Battalion completely by surprise, most of the men were asleep. Before the attack could be halted the enemy succeeded in capturing the southern half of the town. To withdraw was impossible as all avenues of escape were cut, if not by men, then by fire. The fire fight raged for almost three hours before we succeeded in routing the enemy and driving the few survivors back into the forest. The only casualties suffered by the Reconnaissance group was two men killed and one wounded from D Co. The 2nd Battalion suffered quite heavily, but succeeded in knocking out three enemy tanks and killing an estimated one hundred infantry. By now the 1st Battalion had reached ab out 500 yards west of Otré, where they were halter by the Executive Officer, Maj Kenneth Scott. At this point is where the reconnaissance party rejoined the Battalion. It was here that the attack plan was formulated and still no reconnaissance had been made. The plan called for the Battalion to attack in column of companies with A Co leading followed by Co and B. The line of departure was to be the trail running generally east and west along the ridge line about 600 yards north of Bihain. The right boundary initially the main road leading into Bihain, left boundary, no limit. The direction of attack due south across the St Martin River into the edge of the forest, then southeast along the trail to the north bank of the Langlire River.
Report of the Actions
At 1120, Jan 11, A Co crossed the line of departure (LD) in column of platoons in wedge formation with extended interval. The 1st Plat leading, followed by HMG Plat attached from D Co, Co Command Group, 2nd Plat with LMG Section from A Co attached, remainder of the Weapons Plat, and the 3rd Plat. Maj Gen Robert C. Macon, the CG of the 83rd Infantry Division, was present at the line of departure as the Company crossed. By speaking words of encouragement and a pat on the back to some of the men, did more to bolster the morale of these battle weary men than any other one thing could have. The effect that this had on the men was, indeed, amazing. It was never forgotten by the men of A Co.
The attack jumped off without supporting fires from either : mortars or artillery, although there was forward observers from each with the Command Group Co. Both the artillery and mortars were in position to furnish fire on call.
As the 1st Plat advanced through the knee deep snow to within about 100 yards of the narrow St Martin River, enemy artillery began falling in and around the advancing troops. Due to the extended formation and the leadership of Lt Dodd (1st Plat Leader), the platoon continued to advance followed by the rest of the Company. The entire Company passed through this, not too accurate artillery, without any casualties. The 1st Platoon found the small St Martin River to be no more than a creek, and no obstacle whatsoever to foot troops, although vehicles could not be taken across at this point. As the 1st Plat crossed the remainder of the Company held up on the northern banks until the 1st Plat reached the edge of the forest, from where it sent several patrols well into the wooded area. This edge of the forest was found not to be occupied. On receiving the all clear signal from Lt Dodd the remainder of the company was moved into the near edge of the wood deployed with the 1st Plat on the right of the trail, the 2nd Plat under the leadership of Lt Donald Helm, on the left. So far the Company had received no small arms fire whatsoever. This seemed strange as this was near the point where strong counterattack had been launched against Bihain earlier in the morning.
As the edge of the woods was the initial objective of the Company, the CC made sure the flanks ware secured and notified the Battalion CO as to his position. The only means of communications at this time was by SCR 300 radio. Lt Col Neilson ordered the Company to continue the attack astride the trail to the battalion objective, he also stated that C Co would jump off immediately and join A Co on the objective. The trail was to be the boundary between Companies with C Co on the right. He further stated that if resistance was met as we advanced through the forest to notify Battalion, as to the location, and bypass it if possible and B Co would eliminate it as they moved up. This forest was like most on the European Continent being criss-crossed with fire breaks. These breaks were approximately thirty feet wide. In this area the terrain was made up mostly with low rolling hills with gentle slopes, which gave the enemy wonderful fields of fire, grazing fire in some places up to 400 yards. By setting machine guns up at the intersections of these fire breaks the enemy could control most of the forest with very few men and guns. This gave the enemy a marked advantage as we were not able to locate their positions until they had opened fire. The trees on the near edge of the forest was tall with no low branches, the snow wasn’t drifted within the woods but was just a little over knee deep to the average man. This made walking quite difficult. After the Company had advanced about 800 yards it suddenly found itself in a forest of young trees planted in rows of about six feet apart. The trees were approximately fifteen feet tall with the bottom branches about four feet above the ground. All branches were heavily laden with snow, visibility at no point was more than thirty feet. As the men advanced they would have to bend forward in order to clear the low branches. As they would brush against the branches the snow and pine needles would fall down their necks adding greatly to their discomfort.
After advancing about 100 yards through this young forest the left squad of the 2nd Platoon came to the first fire break, as they were crossing an enemy machine gun opened fire from about 200 yards up the break. The Company CO moved to the left flank to check on the situation. There he contacted Lt Helm and found that one squad was safely across, and the remainder of the platoon on the near side. This fire break ran diagonally across our front, where it intersected the trail on which we were advancing is where the enemy machine gun was set up. An attempt was made to get more men across, this met with failure, as they neared the break the enemy would open fire with machine guns and rifles. The enemy force was known to be at least two machine guns and several rifles. It was decided to leave the one squad across the fire break as a holding force until B Co could move up and clear the obstacle. The remainder of the 2nd Plat would move to the right of the trail and follow the 1st Plat. The Battalion CO was notified of this action and the Company moved on to the objective without further incident, arriving there at about 1600. An all around defense was set up to the left of the trail awaiting the arrival of C Co, which cams at about 1700. The flanks of both companies were tied in. The men dug in the best they could through frozen ground and snow. During this time intermittent artillery was falling in the area, also both companies were receiving machine gun fire from across the Langlire River.
The only contact with Battalion now was by the artillery radio that the forward observer had. We were notified that Battalion headquarters had moved into Bihain along with the aid station and ammunition dump, also that B Co was in Bihain and would remain there during the night. This left A and C Cos well over a 1000 yard forward of the front lines. With the enemy, of undetermined strength between them and friendly forces. With this in mind both companies prepared to spend the night in the edge of the forest.
The men started preparing positions for the night; after they had completed digging their foxholes it was noted that water was seeping in. This water continued rising until it had reached a depth of about one foot. The men were not able to keep their feet dry and warm, this added greatly to their discomfort as the temperature was around zero degrees and it had begun to snow again. Just before dark firing broke out in the rear of C Co. This proved to be a rather strong enemy force armed with Schmeisser Pistols and Panzerfaust. They succeeded in over running C Co’s mortar positions capturing the mortars and wounding several men. This fire fight was taking place about 100 yards from A Co’s right flank. Realizing the situation in C Co was rather serious after some of their men withdrew into A Co area, the Company CO of A Co sent a strong patrol to envelope the enemy roar. This was very effective as the enemy was soon routed with the loss of fifteen killed, but none captured. Nor was any of C Co’s equipment recovered. In this brief action C Co had one killed, five wounded; A Co one wounded. It is believed this was the enemy force that was bypassed earlier in the afternoon, as we had no further contact while in this position. The enemy artillery no longer was falling in the area and the machine gun fire to our front had ceased.
At 2130 Lt Col Neilson came to the CP of A Co. He stated that the battalion had been ordered to make a night attack and was due to jump off at 2200 hours, thirty minutes from now. The battalion was supposed to be on the western edge of Langlire at 2200 prepared to move into the town as soon as the artillery preparation had lifted. Thirteen battalions of artillery was to fire a fifteen minute TOT (Time on Target) the last rounds from one battalion was to be smoke so we would know the preparation was over. This was to be a division coordinated attack with both regiments, 331st and 329th attacking abreast with the main effort being in the area of Petite Langlire. 1st Battalion, 331st, was to attack generally East from its position on the bank of the Langlire River, seize the town of Langlire, prevent the enemy from reinforcing from the south, also to cut his escape route from the north. The Battalion plan was C Co to lead end seize the south half of the town. A Co to follow and seize the Main east-west road and the north half of the town.
Knowing by now that the Langlire River was only a small stream and the bridge as shown on the map was not a conventional type, but in reality was a man-made ford. The ford had a rocky bottom and the water not over six inches in depth. This was no obstacle whatsoever to either foot troops or vehicles of any type. The A Co CO realizing that it was impossible to accomplish the mission in the time alloted, called in his platoon leaders and issued his attack order. Locating the platoon leaders in the extreme darkness of the forest was in itself a big job. The trees were so thick and the air so full of snow that a person could only see a matter of a few Inches. It was not unusual to run into a tree before seeing it. These men being mostly combat veterans, would more than likely shoot first and ask questions later. In locating the Platoon Leaders and getting them to the CP took over thirty minutes.
Since the Company CO had no map of the area the attack order consisted of just telling the Platoon Leaders his plan, which was to lead with the 1st Plat followed by the 3rd Plat, both of these platoons would have one section of heavy machine guns attached, followed by the weapons less the light machine gun section which was attached to the 2nd Plat bringing up the rear. The 1st Plat was to seize and clear all the buildings on the left side of the street, the 3rd Plat with the same mission on the right side. The 2nd Plat and the remainder of the weapons platoon were to occupy these buildings and prevent the enemy from re-entering. To issue the order and get the company assembled took approximately one and one-half hours, making the time now after 2400.
It was now noted that C Co was not ready to move, a messenger was dispatched to C Co CP. On his return he stated that Capt Wright would not be ready for at least another hour. With this in mind, the Company CO of A decided to move out and let C follow. This information was sent to C and the Plat Leaders notified of the change in plans. The Company was to move on order of the Company CO after he had made a personal check of all Platoons. On returning to the head of the column the Company CO found that the 1st Plat had moved out. An attempt was made to contact it by SCR 536 radio, but no luck. Hoping the platoon would be fortunate enough in finding the objective the remainder of the Company moved out with the idea of following the trail left by the 1st Plat. On clearing the woods and crossing the river we moved into open ground. Here the wind, which was very strong by now, was blowing the snow terrifically, obliterating the trail of the 1st Plat. It was also impossible to locate the trail which would lead the Company into Langlire. The time now approximately 0130, Jan 11 1945.
The only way possible to move was by single file changing the lead man every few minutes. The terrain across which the Company moved was from almost bare ground to snow drifts up to five feet deep. The riflemen carried four bandoleers of ammunition extra, along with two hand grenades and one clip of BAR ammunition. This was SOP within the Company. Some of the men were fortunate enough to get snow capes, but these proved to be ineffective as they would become frozen and break, they were discarded during this move.
In this movement to Langlire the men became so exhausted that when they would slip and fall some would make no attempt to rise. The Platoon Leaders and Non-Com Officers had to continually patrol the column forcing these men to get on their feet. Sometimes this had to be done at the point of a gun. The weapons became clogged with snow, many bolts were frozen closed. The water in the water jackets of the machine guns became frozen although antifreeze had been used the guns were without at this point. The only means available to thaw these weapons was for the men to urinate on them, this was done many times throughout this operation. It is felt that if it hadn’t been for the good leadership ability of the Platoon Leaders and key Non-Com Officers that some of the men would have perished on this march.
By 0330 it had ceased snowing and the Company found itself about 200 yards from the edge of a village, there still wasn’t any contact with the 1st Plat. Here the Company was halted and a patrol was to be sent to the village to try to determine whether or not this was the company objective. Tanks could be heard moving around the town and firing occasionally. These were believed to be enemy tanks. Before the patrol could be sent out a patrol from the 1st Plat contacted the Company. This patrol informed the Company CO that the 1st Plat had succeeded in taking three houses without meeting any opposition, but believed this to be another Village since there were buildings only on one side of the street, also the tanks that could be heard was enemy, estimated at least seven and enemy foot troops could be heard in other sections of the town.
The Company CO went forward to the 1st Plat, it was here that it was decided that the Company was probably in the right town but in the wrong section. It was further noted that enemy was withdrawing and had not detected the presence of the 1st Plat. It was then decided to push the platoon up to the crossroads in hopes of being able to establish a road block, however, this was not accomplished as the next houses were occupied by the enemy most of whom were asleep. Some of these managed to escape, evidently notifying the tankers. It was not long before enemy tanks were firing direct fire from very close range, into the buildings occupied by the 1st Plat. It was then learned that the Company had only one bazooka, it had been destroyed by the first round that came through the building. The enemy made no effort to move ground troops against the 1st Plat’s positions, but continued his direct firing into any building that might be occupied by our troops. It was evident now that the enemy was withdrawing, as there were vehicles and men continuously on the main road moving to the south.
Altogether the Company had six buildings in its possession. It was decided to move the 3rd Plat into the town to help the 1st hold its initial gain. The 2nd Plat and remainder of the Weapons Plat were to dig in, in the area around the cemetery and protect the flanks and rear. The Company at this time did not have contact with either C Co or battalion headquarters knowing that the battalion had some tanks attached to it, the Company CO decided to take three men and return to the battalion area for these tanks. It was thought that C Co would be contacted on the return trip, however, no contact was made and C Co wasn’t in the woods where they were last seen. Moving on through the forest the patrol met Lt Col Neilson who was coming forward with a platoon of tanks. After orienting him on the situation he returned to Bihain to notify Regiment, also to try to locate C Co by radio. The Company CO and patrol returned with the tanks to a defilated area in rear of the 2nd Plat and detailed a squad from the Platoon as close in protection for the tanks. The Tank Platoon Leader was told by the Company CO to stay in this position until he was notified to move. The CO returned to the 1st Plat area only to find that in his absence that C Co had finally arrived on the scene. The Company CO had moved the entire Company into the buildings occupied by A Co.
By now it was around 0600 and the majority of the enemy force had withdrawn to the woods south of town. Their tanks were still firing at the buildings held by our troops. Since the enemy tanks had withdrawn A Co pushed across the main road and set up a road block that succeeded in stopping the enemy foot elements. By daylight A Co had succeeded in clearing all of C Co sector, realizing that the southern edge of the town was the more important. The C Co CO refused to assist, in any way, the attack on the town, the Company never moved from the buildings they initially occupied.
The 2nd Plat with the mortar section of A Co was still in the cemetery area. Around 0800 firing broke out in the tank platoon assembly area this firing appeared to be from friendly weapons. On investigating this firing it was found that the tank platoon was moving from its assembly area toward town. As they moved forward they were firing their weapons to the front. The Tank Cannons were firing into the buildings occupled by friendly troops. The machine guns were raking the entire area. As the tanks approached the 2nd Plat area their machine gun first killed one man and wounded four. As there was no communication with the tanks there was no way in which to stop them. They moved into town in single file, with one tank at the cross road they stopped, at this moment they were taken under fire by enemy tanks in the edge of the forest about 600 yards south of the town. Four of these tanks were knocked out immediately, the other managed to get under cover behind one of the buildings.
As the tanks were moving into town they must have been observed by the enemy. Just at this time enemy artillery began to fall into the town along with direct fire from tanks and self-propelled guns. This barrage was one of the most terrific that A Co had ever encountered. This fire also was very accurate. This put both companies in a cross fire, the enemy from the south and friendly tanks from the northwest. Movement of any kind in the town was now impossible. The enemy fire continued until after the four tanks had been knocked out. After that, terrific barrages, came at irregular intervals throughout the day. This artillery greatly hampered the movements of A Co and it wasn’t until 1120 that all buildings had been cleared and contact made with the 329th Infantry. This contact was made with a patrol from the 2nd Bn, 329th Infantry. At 1300, Jan 12 1945, the town of Langlire, Belgium was officially reported to Division Headquarters as being cleared of all enemy troops. At 1400, the 2nd Bn, 329th Infantry, relieved the 1st Bn of responsibility of the defense of Langlire.
The Battalion remained in the town awaiting its next mission. Evacuation of the wounded had been impossible sines there was no means available to do so. The aid station being in Bihain was over 2000 yards away. No litter bearers were made available to the assault companies and the only medical personnel present were the aid men with the Company. These aid men did a wonderful job with their limited amount of supplies, they had to carry morphine syrettes under their arm pits to keep them from freezing. A Co had thirty-four wounded men in Langlire that could not be evacuated due to the intense artillery fire from the enemy. These men weren’t evacuated until late in the afternoon and then by an armored ambulance borrowed from an armored unit in the area. Casualties for A Co for this operation was thirty-five wounded, one killed. Several men were evacuated within the next 84 hours due to exhaustion, frozen feet and hands.
End of Report !