Extract : The Ardennes, Battle of the Bulge, the German Northern Shoulder, Hughe M. Cole, Office of the Chief of Military History.
General Walter M. Robertson’s plan for moving his 2nd Infantry Division south was to skin the cat, pulling the most advanced battalions in the Wahlerscheid sector back through the others. In addition to the Main Supply Road (MSR), a part of the division could use the secondary route running more or less parallel to the Wahlerscheid road until the two met at a fork about a mile north of Rocherath. The 395th Infantry Regiment (99-ID) was in the woods east of the northernmost section of the 2-ID withdrawal route and would provide cover for the first stage of the tricky move parallel to and close behind the rapidly deteriorating front. Then too the enemy at the Wahlerscheid road junction seemed hardly strong or aggressive enough to make even a daylight disengagement difficult. The danger zone would be the twin villages. Roads from the east led into Rocherath and Krinkelt. And, to the east, as information from the 99-ID rifle battalions warned, the Germans had made a deep penetration and were liable at any moment to come bursting out of the forest. Rocherath and Krinkelt had to be held if the 2-ID was to reach the Elsenborn position intact and with its heavy weapons and vehicles. The 99-ID had long since thrown its last reserve into the battle; therefore the 2-ID (with the attached 395/99-ID) alone had to provide for the defense of this endangered sector of the corridor south.
The 2-ID commander assigned responsibility to his officers as follows. Col Chester J. Hirschfelder, commanding the 9-IR, was charged with the actual withdrawal from Wahlerscheid. The assistant division commander, Col John H. Stokes Jr, took over the defense of Rocherath. Col Philip D. Ginder, assigned to the division as a spare regimental commander, was given the task of establishing a blocking position southeast of Wirtzfeld – the village at which the 2-ID would have to turn toward Elsenborn. Gen Robertson himself would spend the crucial hours of December 17 working up and down the Rocherath road, gathering additional troops where he could, intervening to change the disposition of battalions and even companies as the complexion of the battle altered.
The men turning south were concerned with a fight for their lives. Some units of the division would be able to occupy their assigned positions and entrench before the enemy struck. Others would have to attack in order to take their designated place in the new line of resistance. Meanwhile the rumor that American prisoners were being butchered in cold blood by SS troops was spreading like wildfire through the 2-ID, a partial explanation of the bitter fight finally made at the twin villages. Robertson’s order, withdraw at once, reached the 9-IR a little after 1000. By 1100, the 2/9-IR had assembled and started south, with the 3/9-IR and the 1/9-IR forming in that order to complete the column. The withdrawal from the front lines, shielded by a heavy barrage laid on the West Wall positions, was accomplished readily but of course took much time. The 1/9-IR, bringing up the rear of the 9-IR column, did not set out until 1415.
Before the five battalions at Wahlerscheid commenced to disengage, Gen Robertson marched his only reserve, the 3/38-IR, south through Rocherath and Krinkelt. At this time in the morning the imminent German threat was in the area north of Büllingen. For this reason Robertson placed the 3/38 (-) at the southern edge of Krinkelt, where, by 1130, it was entrenched. One rifle company, plus the antitank and service companies, took positions around Rocherath guarding the roads entering the village from the north and east. The redeployment of the 2-ID had a double aim : securing a firm hold on Wirtzfeld, essential to the control of the road net in the final phase of the move to Elsenborn, and defending Krinkelt and Rocherath until such time as both the 2-ID and the 99-ID could be withdrawn to the Elsenborn ridge.
Wahlerscheid, Heartbreak Crossroads. (Photos source : James D. Edwards, son of Pfc James D. Edwards, Military Police Platoon, 2nd Infantry Division, World War Two. James is the Author of the very good book Defining Moment at Wirtzfeld)
The 9-IR, leading the move, was to concentrate the bulk of its troops around Wirtzfeld; the 38-IR, to build up a defensive line at Krinkelt – Rocherath as its battalions arrived. Before dark the 2/9-IR had traversed the seven and a half miles of congested and shell-torn road, deploying south of Wirtzfeld in line with the 2/23-IR. The 3/9-IR, next in the column, arrived after dark and dug in between the two battalions already south of Wirtzfeld. En route the 2-ID commander had detached King Co and sent it posthaste to the line forming northeast of Rocherath and to the rear of the fragmented 3/393-IR (99-ID). Through the afternoon the prospect of a large-scale German armored attack from Büllingen had loomed large in the calculations of both Gen Robertson and Gen Lauer. Fortunately the attack failed to come. In the late afternoon two rifle battalions were on their way to Krinkelt and Rocherath : the 1/9-IR (Lt Col William D. McKinley) cleared the Wahlerscheid area at 1415; the 1/38-IR (Lt Col Frank T. Mildren) started on its way at 1530. The road south was now under German shellfire, going was slow, and only a short span of daylight remained. The danger involved in the movement across the front multiplied with each hour, for the 99-ID center, east of the twin villages, was collapsing. On the road Gen Robertson met Col McKinley and told him that he had just come from the command post of the 395-IR where he had learned that the Germans had broken through the 393-IR. Robertson had split the preceding battalion of the 9-IR to send a rifle company and part of the headquarters company to bar the main road from the forest into Rocherath. Now he ordered McKinley to rush his battalion to Rocherath and hold the woods road until ordered to withdraw. At dusk, the 1/9-IR was in position, deployed on a slight rise overlooking a shallow depression from which a gradual ascent led into the forest.
A thick fog lay close to the snow-covered ground. Around was a scene of wild confusion, stragglers with and without arms hurrying along the road and across the fields, the sound and flash of gunfire coming from the woods to the east. King Co, now attached to the 1/9-IR, already was north of the road, backed up by three guns from the 644-TDB. Charlie Co closed beside King Co; Baker Co dug in at the road; Able Co lay to the south. The battalion had not picked up its mines during the disengagement, but was able to get a few from the tank destroyers for use at the road. There were fifteen extra bazookas on the ammunition vehicles, and these were handed to riflemen earlier trained by McKinley as bazooka men. Forward observers from the 15-FAB hurriedly set up their communications. In the woods, less than a thousand yards away, firing continued as darkness closed over the American position.
Note : (T/O 1944) An Infantry Division (ID), has 3 Infantry Regiments (IR), each comprising 3 Infantry Battalions (IB), each comprising 4 compagnies : Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog for the 1st Battalion; Easy, Fox, George, How for the 2nd Battalion and Item, King, Love and Mike for the 3rd Battalion. To avoid misunderstanding between the letter I (Item) and the letter J (written form), the later will never be used.
Friendly infantry and tanks were known to be coming west. About 1930 three tanks and a platoon or so of infantry came through Baker Co. They had passed on toward Rocherath before anyone realized that this was the first of the enemy. Half an hour later more tanks came clanking along the road, the dark shapes of infantrymen following. This time Baker Co took no chances. The first two German tanks struck the American mines. Then two more tried to swing off the road, only to be knocked out by bazooka fire. By this time the Germans were milling about, apparently completely surprised, while the 15th Field Artillery Battalion added to the confusion by beating the road close to the 1/9-IR foxholes. It took the enemy an hour or so to reorganize. Then five or six German tanks attacked in line, rolling to within a couple of hundred yards of the foxhole line where they halted and fired for nearly half an hour. Next the accompanying infantry rushed in, but were cut down by the heavy machine guns on the final protective line. Finally the enemy tankers and riflemen got together in an assault that broke through.
The 1st Battalion refused to panic and set to work with bazookas against the flanks of the blinded tanks. One of the panzers was crippled, but the crew compartment proved impervious to bazooka rounds. So, Cpl Charles Roberts (Dog Co) and Sgt Otis Bone (Baker Co) drained some gasoline from an abandoned vehicle, doused the tank, and lit the whole with M-14 Thermit hand grenades. When German tanks moved into the area of Able Co, American artillery responded to the urgent call for help and within three minutes dropped in a concentration that stopped the assault. Meanwhile the American gunners, firing from new emplacements near Camp Elsenborn, had effectively checked further troop moves on the road from the forest, seven battalions finally joining in the shoot. By midnight all was quiet in front of the 1st Battalion except for the distant crash of friendly artillery – around the foxholes the silence was frightening. Stubborn determination, mines, machine guns, and bazookas had checked this first series of assaults, but the battalion commander would credit the gunners at Elsenborn with saving his battalion.
It will be recalled that the 1/38-IR had started south shortly after the departure of the last troops of the 9-IR. The actual withdrawal was screened by the 2/38-IR, the final covering force of the 2-ID, and was aided by fire and smoke laid down by the 37th Field Artillery Battalion’s 81-MM and 4.2-inch mortars. On the road the regimental executive officer met Col Mildren and explained the 1st Battalion mission : to go into the line forming at the twin villages on the left of the 3/38-IR, east and northeast of Krinkelt. Mildren learned in addition that the battalion probably would have to fight its way to the assigned position, a jarring note that pleased none this close to nightfall.
About a thousand yards north of Rocherath the battalion column came to a crossroads which had been picked as a profitable target for the enemy artillery and Werfers. Able Co, at the head of the column, passed safely but the rest came into a gauntlet of the most severe shelling the veteran battalion ever had encountered. Charlie Co, third in the serial, suffered most and became badly disorganized. German tanks were near the crossroads and might have cut into the American infantry had not T/4 Truman Kimbro placed mines across the eastern entry. Kimbro was killed, after having been hit innumerable times. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. The leading company, now alone, entered Rocherath at dusk but found no guides and marched on through the next village until met by bullet fire. Twice the company doubled back on its trail until finally found by the battalion executive and directed to the proper position. Baker Co arriving about 2130, moved in on the left of Able Co but was still on the surface (not having had time to entrench) when German tanks and infantry struck from the northeast at Krinkelt. Able Co, well dug in and with all its weapons emplaced, let the tanks roll past and then took on the infantry. Its neighbor, Baker Co, exposed and without its supporting weapons, was riddled, only one platoon managing to escape. Baker Co survivors, joined by what was left of Charlie Co, fell back to the regimental command post in Rocherath and joined the antitank company in the street fight raging there.
Back at Krinkelt three German tanks with infantry clinging to their decks got into the eastern streets : with this foothold won more Germans appeared as the night went on. The fight for Krinkelt surged back and forth, building to building, hedgerow to hedgerow. Men on both sides were captured and recaptured as the tide of battle turned. A German attempt to seize the heavy-walled church on the northern edge of the village was beaten off by the reconnaissance company of the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion, which had lost a platoon in Büllingen during the morning. The communications officer of the 1/38-IR, 1/Lt Jesse Morrow, knocked out a tank with only a rifle grenade. (Morrow later was awarded the DSC). The situation in Krinkelt was further confused by retreating troops from the 99-ID, intermixed as they were with the infiltrating enemy. One German, using a captured American to give the password, got past two outposts, but a sentry finally killed both men. At midnight a column of 99-ID vehicles started pouring through the town and continued the rest of the night.
At Rocherath, the Germans who had so boldly entered the village earlier in the evening destroyed three American tanks as these inched their way out of the village to help King Co (38-IR). Here too the fight was bitter and confused. At one time a battalion commander of the 38-IR was reported to have men from sixteen different companies fighting under his command. By midnight, however, the enemy tanks behind the American lines had been accounted for and the German infantrymen captured or killed. When the wild night of fighting drew to a close, the Americans still were in control of the two villages and the near sector of the Wahlerscheid withdrawal route. The rear guard 2/38-IR had made a highly successful withdrawal and was assembled a half mile north of Rocherath. The 395/99-ID had moved back as ordered and, thus far in good shape, held the left flank of the 2-ID northeast of Rocherath astride the two approaches to the fork above the village. (It had left the 324th Engineer Combat Battalion isolated on Rath Hill, however, and when the engineers started west on the morning of December 18, they came under fire from both the 395-IR and the enemy.) Straggler lines were operating around the twin villages and a start was being made at regrouping the strays and tying together the bits and pieces of the American line.
Wirtzfeld, the one good escape hatch to Elsenborn, was ready for a defense in force. The 2-ID artillery and its reinforcing battalions had displaced to the Elsenborn ridge in positions within range of the entire front. Gen Robertson’s 2-ID and attached troops had carried through a highly complex maneuver in the face of the enemy, disengaging in a fortified zone, withdrawing across a crumbling front, then wheeling from column to secure and organize a defensive line in the dark and under attack. Having completed this mission, the 2-ID was under orders to hold in place while the remnants of the 99-ID right wing passed through to Elsenborn; then it was to break away and re-form for the defense of the Elsenborn ridge. The appearance of the 2-ID at the twin villages probably came as a complete surprise to the German command. German intelligence had failed completely as regards the location of this division and believed that it was in reserve at Elsenborn. Peculiarly enough, the fact that the 2-ID was attacking through the 99-ID positions never was reported to the 6.SS-Panzer-Army headquarters. Dietrich expected, therefore, to break through the 99-ID and meet the 2-ID somewhere to the rear or possibly to the right rear of the 99-ID. This may explain the German failure to attempt an end run and drive for Elsenborn.
The German attempt to take Krinkelt and Rocherath during the night of December 17-18 had not been well coordinated, carried out as it was by the advance guards of two divisions attacking piecemeal in the dark over unknown terrain against resistance which was completely surprising. By the morning of December 18, however, the enemy strength had increased substantially despite the miserable state of the woods roads leading to the twin villages. The 989.VGR of the 277.Volks-Grenadier-Division (probably reinforced by a third battalion) had reached Rocherath. The 12.SS-Panzer-Division, whose tanks and armored infantry carriers made extremely slow progress on the muddy secondary roads quickly chewed up by churning tracks – was able by dawn to assemble the 25.Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment, an assault gun battalion, and one full tank battalion east of the villages. During December 18, this force was strengthened by one more tank battalion, the final armored commitment being about equally divided between Panzer StuG III and Mark V Panthers.
The American strength at Krinkelt and Rocherath was substantial and by daylight on December 18, was assuming a cohesive defensive pattern as the battalions reorganized after the race south and the confused night battle. Most of the 38-IR (Col Francis H. Boos) was in and around the two villages, plus about a battalion and a half of the 9th Infantry and a few platoons of the 23d Infantry (Col. Jay B. Loveless). Although these 2-ID troops had gaping ranks, so had their opponents. Fortunately in view of the number of tanks ready in the German camp, the American infantry had the means of antitank defense at hand the 741-TB, 644-TDB, a company of the 612-TDB, and a few guns from the 801-TDB. On Elsenborn ridge, but well within supporting range, lay the 2-ID artillery (which had displaced after firing from extreme forward positions), the bulk of the 99-ID artillery, and some corps field artillery battalions. The flanks of the 2-ID position at the villages were more or less covered by elements of the 9-IR and 23-IR (2-ID) in Wirtzfeld, to the southwest, and the battalions of the 393-IR (99-ID) deployed in blocking positions to hold the road net north of Rocherath. As yet, however, there was no homogeneous line sealing the 2-ID front, and the men and vehicles of the 99-ID still passing through to the west complicated the problem of coordinating the defense and artillery fire.
An ominous quiet prevailed around Rocherath during the early, dark hours of the day, but just before first light the enemy resumed the assault, this time employing his tanks and infantry in ordered company. The 1/9-IR, deployed east of the village along the road from the woods, took the first blow. Apparently a company of tanks had been brought close to the American line during the night battle, and these now attacked with more than a battalion of infantry. While the batteries on Elsenborn ridge furiously shelled the road, a confused fight spread all along the foxhole line. The morning fog was heavy, visibility almost nil. The American infantry let the tanks roll past, then tailed them with bazookas or turned to meet the oncoming infantry at close quarters with grenades, and even bayonets or knives. This first assault was beaten off, while a number of the German tanks were crippled or destroyed by bazooka teams stalking successfully under cover of the fog.
When the fog lifted about 0830, three German tanks rolled right along the foxhole line firing their machine guns while the German infantry rushed forward. Lt Stephen P. Truppner of Able Co radioed that his company had been overrun and asked for artillery to fire on his own position. For thirty minutes an American battalion shelled this area. Only twelve men escaped. King Co, which had been attached to the battalion the day before, likewise was engulfed. Capt Jack J. Garvey, sending a last message from the cellar of the house which was his command post, refused to leave because he could not get his company out. Ten men and one officer escaped. On the left Baker and Charlie Cos were able to hold their ground; a few from Baker Co broke and ran but were sent back by the battalion commander. The German wave carried tanks and infantry inside Rocherath, the fight eddying from house to house, wall to wall, along streets and down narrow alleys. Tanks fought tanks; men were captured, then captured again. Meanwhile, Col Boos did what he could to form some defense behind what was left of the 1/9-IR. He radioed Col McKinley that as soon as the 2/38-IR could swing into position, a matter of an hour or more, the 1st Bn should withdraw. With his remaining two companies transfixed by direct tank fire and surrounded by German infantry, McKinley replied that no withdrawal was possible unless friendly tanks or tank destroyers arrived. Miraculously, as the 1st Bn later reported, a platoon of Sherman tanks came into view. This was a part of Able co, 741-TB, which had been patrolling the Wahlerscheid road.
When the platoon commander was asked if he wanted to do some fighting the reply was profanely affirmative. First the tanks joined the infantry in a counter attack to reach the positions which had been held by Able and King Cos. Two of the three German tanks which had been harassing the battalion were destroyed by the Shermans, but no contact was made with the lost companies. A second counterattack by the tank platoon covered the 1st Bn withdrawal, but the last riflemen out had the Germans yelling at their heels. The shattered battalion withdrew through the 2/38-IR, fell back to Rocherath, and then marched to Krinkelt, where it billeted in a deserted hotel. Approximately 240 officers and men were left of the original battalion and its attached units. In addition to the nearly total loss of Able and King Cos, all of the Mike Co machine gunners attached to the 1st Bn were missing in action. Of the group that had been rushed in the previous evening from Headquarters Co, 3rd Bn, only thirteen were left. It seems probable that the entire 989.VGR had been employed in wresting the road to Rocherath from the stubborn 1st Bn; the fight had gone on for nearly six hours and had given the 38-IR time to regroup to meet the enemy drive. Col Boos gratefully acknowledged that this gallant stand had saved his regiment.
The 3/393-IR (99-ID), after hard fighting on December 17, had withdrawn northeast of Rocherath and tied in sketchily on the left of the 1/9-IR. Col Allen’s battalion was about half strength and had lost all of its machine guns, mortars, and antitank guns. The furious morning attack against the 1st Bn, with a tank platoon in the lead, also struck the 3rd Bn. Unable to combat the tanks although one was hit by a bazooka round, the battalion fell back a thousand yards to the northwest. Good radio communication with the 395-IR (99-ID) allowed its cannon company to take a hand effectively, covering the retirement and discouraging close pursuit. About noon Allen’s men were ordered to Wirtzfeld, then on to the line forming at Elsenborn. Although enemy tanks and foot troops had penetrated as far as the 38-IR CP inside Rocherath, they were successfully hunted out during the morning. The Germans continued to hammer along the forest road, striving to win free entrance to the village, but they found the 2/38-IR (Lt Col Jack K. Norris), now standing in the way, a tough opponent. The most successful assault of the afternoon forced the 2nd Bn to retire one hedgerow.
The battle for Krinkelt, if it can be separated from that raging around Rocherath, commenced sometime before dawn when five tanks and a body of infantry moved cautiously up to the eastern edge of the village. When the enemy tankers halted to confer with their infantry escort, Love Co, 23-IR, which had been placed in the line after its retreat from the woods the evening before, killed some forty of the Germans and the panzers decamped. A brief period of quiet followed and during this lull the foot detachment of the 394-IR from Mürringen passed through the American lines en route to Wirtzfeld and Elsenborn. By 0830, however, the fight for Krinkelt was on in earnest. A number of attacks were checked by shellfire before they could make much headway. Nonetheless, a tank platoon penetrated as far as the 1/38-IR, command post before it was destroyed, and a few German tanks got as far as the road south to Wirtzfeld. In this quarter, as at Rocherath, the American tanks, tank destroyers, and bazooka teams left the German tanks smoking and broken. During the night of December 18, the 2nd Infantry Division still held the twin villages while the last organized units of the 99th Infantry Division moved west on their way to Elsenborn. In the dark, German bazooka teams crept along walls and hedgerows seeking the hiding places of the American tanks and tank destroyers which had done so much to foil the armored attacks during the day. The panzers again made forays into the villages, made their kills, and in turn were destroyed.
Although the American hold in this sector remained firm, some of the confusion and loss of control normally inherent in a tactical situation like that faced by the 2 and 99 Divisions was beginning to tell. Orders from the 99-ID had been addressed to the 394-IR, at 0808, stressing that the regiment was not to withdraw to Elsenborn but instead should take position south of Krinkelt beside the 38-IR. The main body of the 394-IR already had passed through Krinkelt by that hour and probably never received the order until it arrived at Elsenborn. Confused communications also had an impact in the area held by the 395-IR on the north flank. Gen Robertson, about 0200 on the morning of December 18, had radioed the 395-IR to maintain contact with the 38-IR but to prepare for a move to Elsenborn. Thus far the enemy had made no move to strike the 395-IR positions in force. A radio message reached the 395-IR command post about 1600 ordering the regiment to withdraw to Elsenborn. The move began while Col Mackenzie went on to the 99-ID headquarters at Elsenborn to report. Here he was informed that no such order had been sent (it had been sent but was garbled) and Gen Lauer told him that his battalions must be sent back to their positions at once. Mackenzie was able to reach two battalions on the road and turn them back, but the 1/395-IR, had arrived in Elsenborn before word could reach it. The counter march was made successfully and the old positions reoccupied at 0500 on December 19. Information that the 395-IR had left, denuding the north flank, reached the 38-IR commander during the night and caused much concern. But the 990.VGR, at the forest edge east of the 395-IR positions, either had failed to notice the withdrawal or had been unwilling to make a move with darkness settling.
At 1800 on December 18 the V Corps commander (Gen Leonard T. Gerow) attached Gen Lauer’s 99th Infantry Division to Robertson’s 2nd Infantry Division. Gen Gerow’s instructions, given Robertson late on December 17 for a defense of the Rocherath-Krinkelt-Wirtzfeld line until such time as the isolated American troops to the east could be withdrawn, finally were fulfilled on the night of December 18-19 when the remnants of the 1/393-IR and the 2/394-IR came back through the 2-ID lines. These were the last organized units to find their way to safety, although small groups and individual stragglers would appear at the Elsenborn rallying point for some days to come. Then, despite the fact that the 2-ID was hard pressed, Robertson made good on his promise to the corps commander that he would release the 99-ID elements which had been placed in the 2-ID line and send them to Elsenborn for reorganization within their own division. The tactical problem remaining was to disengage the 2-ID and its attached troops, particularly those in the twin villages, while at the same time establishing a new and solid defense along the Elsenborn ridge.
The failure to break through at the twin villages on December 18 and so open the way south to the main armored route via Büllingen had repercussions all through the successive layers of German command on the Western Front. Realizing that the road system and the terrain in front of the 6.SS-Panzer-Army presented more difficulties than those confronting the 5.Panzer-Army, it had been agreed to narrow the 6.SS-Panzer-Army zone of attack and in effect ram through the American front by placing two panzer corps in column. The southern wing of the 1.SS-Panzer-Corps, in the 6.SS-Panzer-Army van, had speedily punched a hole between the 106 and 99 American Infantry Divisions and by December 18, the leading tank columns of the 1.SS-Panzer-Division (Kampfgruppe Peiper) were deep in the American rear areas. The northern wing, however, had made very slow progress and thus far had failed to shake any tanks loose in a dash forward on the northern routes chosen for armored penetration. Peremptory telephone messages from the headquarters of OB WEST harassed Dietrich, the 6.SS-Panzer-Army commander, all during the 18 of December and were repeated – doubtless by progressively sharpening voices – all the way to the Krinkelt-Rocherath front. But exhortation had been fruitless.
Although SS-Oberstgruppenführer Joseph Dietrich continued to needle his subordinates to get the right wing of the army rolling forward, he also sought to remedy the situation by changing the 1.SS-Panzer-Corps tactics. Dietrich suggested to SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Priess that the 12.SS-Panzer-Division disengage, swing south, bypass Butgenbach, and get back onto the main route some place west of the thorny American position. The I.SS-Panzer-Corps commander and his staff politely rejected this idea on the grounds that the byroads were impassable and that Krinkelt, Rocherath, and Butgenbach must be cleared to open the better road net. Eventually Dietrich prevailed – or some compromise was reached – for late on December 19, armored elements of the 12.SS-Panzer-Division began to withdraw from the twin villages, while the 3.Panzer-Grenadier-Division, which had been scheduled for the fight at Monschau, marched west from reserve to take over the battle with the 2-ID. The German plans for December 19, were these : the 277.VGD and advancing troops of the 3.Panzer-Grenadier-Division were to continue the attack at Krinkelt and Rocherath; the 89.VGR (12.VGD), which had come up from reserve and initiated an attack from Mürringen against Krinkelt the day before, was to maintain pressure in this sector. Meanwhile, the 12.SS-Panzer-Division was to complete its withdrawal from the twin villages and move as quickly as the poor roads would allow to join a kampfgruppe of the 12.VGD in a thrust against the American flank position at Butgenbach. The direction of the German main effort, as a result, would shift, substituting an armored thrust against the flank for the battering-ram frontal attack against the now well-developed defenses in the area of Krinkelt-Rocherath. Fresh German infantry were en route to the twin villages, and some reinforcements would be employed there on December 19, but the attack would lack the armored weight whose momentum had carried earlier assault waves into the heart of the American positions.
At dawn, on December 19, and blanketed in thick fog, the German grenadiers advanced on Krinkelt and Rocherath. The batteries back on Elsenborn ridge once again laid down a defensive barrage, ending the attack before it could make any headway. Another advance, rolling forward under an incoming fog about 1000, placed enemy snipers and machine gunners close to the American positions. Shortly after noon a few German tanks churned toward the villages and unloaded machine gunners to work the weapons on derelict tanks which had been abandoned close to the American foxhole line. Apparently the enemy infantry were edging in as close as they could in preparation for a final night assault. Headlong assault tactics were no longer in evidence, however. In the meantime the defenders picked up the sounds of extensive vehicular movement (representing the departing elements of the 12.SS-Panzer-Division), and a platoon of tanks appeared northeast of Rocherath but quickly retired when artillery concentrations and direct fire were brought to bear.
Inside the twin villages’ perimeter the defenders were aware that a phase of the battle was ending. Col Stokes, the assistant division commander, was preparing plans for withdrawal to the Elsenborn lines. Col Boos had the 38-IR and its attached troops at work quietly destroying the weapons and equipment, German and American, which could not be evacuated. Finally, at 1345, the withdrawal order was issued, to be put in effect beginning at 1730. The 395-IR was to retire from its lines north of the villages and move cross-country (by a single boggy trail) west to Elsenborn. The 38-IR and its attached units, more closely engaged and in actual physical contact with the enemy, would break away from the villages, fall back west through Wirtzfeld, then move along the temporary road which the 2-ID engineers had constructed between Wirtzfeld and Berg. Once the 38-IR had cleared through the Wirtzfeld position, now held by elements of the 9-IR and a battalion of the 23-IR, it would occupy a new defensive line west and northwest of Wirtzfeld, while the 9-IR in turn evacuated that village.
Company officers commanding troops facing the enemy had been carefully briefed to avoid the word withdrawal in final instructions to their men. This was to be a move to new positions; all were to walk, not run. Col Leland W. Skaggs’ 741-TB, tank destroyers from the 644-TDB, and the 2-ID engineers would form a covering force in the villages, laying mines and beating off any attempt at pursuit. Disengagement was made from left to right, stripping the 2-ID line from Rocherath to Wirtzfeld. First, the 2/38 pulled out of the north edge of Rocherath; the 1/38, deployed in both villages, followed; the 3/38 tacked on at Krinkelt. A half hour later, just as the Germans moved into Rocherath, Charlie-644-TDB and Baker-741-TB hauled out, the tanks carrying the engineers. The move through Wirtzfeld, now in flames, brought the 38-IR under German guns and resulted in some casualties and confusion, but at 0200, December 20, the rear guard tank platoon left Wirtzfeld and half an hour later the 9-IR passed through the new lines occupied by the 38-IR a thousand yards west of the village.
The four-day battle which had pitted the 2nd Infantry Division Indiand head and the 99th Infantry Division Checkerboard against the spearheads of the 6.SS-Panzer-Army had cost both sides heavily in men and matériel. But in the balance sheet for this desperate initial phase of the German counter offensive, where lives weighed less than hours won or lost, the reckoning was favorable to the Americans. What the fruitless bid for a quick decision had cost the Germans in terms of dead and wounded has no accounting. The losses of the untried but heroic 99th Infantry Division, fighting its first major action under circumstances far more difficult than was the lot of most American infantry divisions in the European Theater of Operations, have been compiled only as a total for the whole month of December. A careful check shows that the Battle Babies had few casualties prior to December 16 or after December 19; nine-tenths or more of the following list, therefore, represents the cost of four days of battle : 14 officers and men killed in action; 53 officers and 1.341 men missing in action; 51 officers and 864 men wounded in action. About 600 officers and men passed through the division clearing station before December 20 as non battle casualties; half were trench foot cases.
The veteran 2nd Infantry Division had taken considerable punishment from exposure and battle loss beginning on December 13 with the start of the Wahlerscheid operation. It is impossible to determine the ratio between the casualties suffered in the first four days of attack and those of the final three days of defense. Indeed no total is available for the 2nd Infantry Division during these important seven days. The 23rd Infantry Regiment, in reserve before December 16 and then committed by battalion, sustained these battle losses : 1st-Bn, 10 officers and 221 men; 2nd-Bn, 1 officer and 100 men; 3rd-Bn, 10 officers and 341 men. The 9th Infantry Regiment, which was engaged both at Wahlerscheid and the twin villages, lists 47 officers and men killed, 425 wounded, and 192 missing. The regiment likewise had lost nearly 600 officers and men as non battle casualties (trench foot, respiratory diseases induced by exposure, fatigue, and related causes), a figure which tells something of the cost of lengthy battle in snow, damp, and mud, but also reflects the high incidence of non battle cases in a veteran unit whose ranks are filled with troops previously wounded or hospitalized – often more than once. The bitter character of the initial twenty-four hours of the 2nd Infantry Division fight to occupy and hold Krinkelt and Rocherath, after the march south, is mirrored in the battle losses taken by the 38-IR in that critical period : 389 officers and men were missing (many of them killed in action but not so counted since the Americans subsequently lost the battleground); 50 wounded were evacuated; and 11 were counted as killed in action. In the three days at the twin villages the 38-IR suffered 625 casualties.
The defense of Krinkelt and Rocherath, so successful that by the second day many officers and men believed that the sector could be held against all attack, is a story of determination and skilled leadership in a veteran command. But more than that, the American battle here exemplifies a high order of coordination and cooperation (typed though these terms have become) between the ground arms. Although the infantry almost single-handedly secured the ground and held it for the first few hours, the main German assaults were met and checked by infantry, tanks, tank destroyers, and artillery. The men of the 2nd Infantry Division had on call and within range ample artillery support. Communications between the firing battalions on Elsenborn ridge and the rifle companies in buildings and foxholes functioned when needed – although the losses suffered among the artillery forward observers were unusually high. Artillery throughout this fight offered the first line of antitank defense, immobilizing many panzers before they reached the foxhole line, leaving them with broken tracks and sprocket wheels like crippled geese in front of the hunter. The 155-MM batteries were best at this work. The accuracy and weight of the defensive concentrations laid on from Elsenborn ridge must also be accounted one of the main reasons the American infantry were not completely overrun during the night assaults of December 17 and 18. One battalion of the 2-ID artillery (the 38th Field Artillery) fired more than 5.000 rounds on December 18. But men counted as much as weight of metal. Of the 48 forward observers working with the 15-FAB, 32 were evacuated for wounds or exposure in six days of battle.
Although an experienced outfit, the 2Nd Infantry Division made its first fight against a large force of tanks in the action at Krinkelt-Rocherath. In the early evening of December 18, Gen Robertson telephoned his assistant division commander : This is a tank battle – if there are any tank replacements we could use them as crews are pretty tired. We could use the tanks mounting a 90-MM [gun]. Robertson’s wish for an American tank with adequate armament to cope with the German Panthers and Tigers was being echoed and would be echoed – prayerfully and profanely – wherever the enemy panzer divisions appeared out of the Ardennes hills and forests. What the 2nd Infantry Division actually had was a little less than a battalion of Sherman tanks mounting the standard 75-MM gun, a tank weapon already proven unequal to a duel with a Panther or a Tiger in head-to-head encounter. It must be said, however, that the 2nd Infantry Division tank support came from a seasoned armored outfit – the 741st Tank Battalion – which had landed at Omaha Beach on June 6 and had been almost constantly in action since. Unable to engage the 12.SS’ Panthers on equal terms in the open field, the Shermans were parceled out in and around the villages in two’s and three’s. Hidden by walls, houses, and hedgerows, or making sudden forays into the open, the American tankers stalked the heavier, better armed panzers, maneuvering under cover for a clear shot at flank or tail, or lying quietly in a lane until a StuG III or a Panther crossed the sights.
Since most of the enemy tanks entered the villages in the dark or in the fog, the defenders generally fought on distinctly advantageous terms and at ranges where – if the heavy frontal protection of the German tank could be avoided – a kill was certain. The 741st knocked out an estimated 27 tanks (nearly all of which actually were examined) and lost 11 Shermans. Even disabled tanks, immobilized inside the American lines, continued to have a hand in the fight. Two crippled Shermans parked in a Rocherath lane accounted for five Panthers which incautiously came by broadside. On the second night the German tanks entered the villages prepared to ferret out the American armor. Each assault tank was accompanied by foot soldiers armed with bazookas, fires were started to light dark streets and alleys, and many of the Germans boldly used their searchlights. These tactics failed; illumination served the waiting American tanks as well as the enemy. German bazooka teams did succeed in knocking out a pair of Shermans but generally found the American infantry, dismounted tankers, and tank destroyer crewmen, waiting to erase the walking infantry screens.
The American tank destroyers shared honors with the tanks in this battle, but as it often happened in the Ardennes the fight had to be carried by the self-propelled guns, the towed guns serving mostly as convenient targets for the enemy. The 644-TDB (minus one company) employed its self-propelled 3-inch guns with such effect as to destroy 17 tanks, disable 3, and knock out 2 German assault guns. Two guns of the battalion were damaged beyond recovery. Most of these kills were made in or near the villages against enemy tanks which had halted and were not firing, at ranges from 25 to 1000 yards. In some instances one round of high-velocity, armor-piercing ammunition was sufficient to set a Panther aflame; generally two or three rounds with base detonating fuzes were needed and, as the Sherman tanks had found, direct hits on the German frontal armor or mantle had the unpleasant habit of glancing off.
The experience of the 801-TDB, a towed outfit, was markedly different. Emplaced close to the infantry line, its 3-inch guns were brought under intense shelling and could be moved only at night. During attack, bogged in mud and unable to shift firing positions, the towed tank destroyers quickly fell prey to direct fire or infantry assault. Between December 17 and 19, the 801 lost 17 guns and 16 half-tracks. Indeed, the greatest combat value of the towed battalion came from the mines carried on the half-tracks (which were used with effect by adjacent riflemen) and the employment of the gun crews as infantry. On the afternoon of December 18, with guns and vehicles gone, the bulk of the battalion was ordered to Elsenborn. Even so there were a few instances when the towed guns were able to fight and make kills under favorable circumstances. One gun from the 801 had been placed to cover a straggler line in the vicinity of Hünningen and here, deep inside the American position, surprised and knocked out four Mark IV before it was destroyed.
The infantry antitank weapons employed in the defense of Krinkelt-Rocherath varied considerably in effectiveness. The 57-MM battalion antitank guns – and their crews – simply were tank fodder. The mobility of this towed piece, which had been a feature of the gun on design boards and in proving ground tests, failed in the mud at the forward positions. Only a very lucky shot could damage a Panther, and at the close of this operation both the 2-ID and 99-ID recommended the abolition of the 57-MM as an infantry antitank gun. The rifle battalions which were hurried south from Wahlerscheid on December 17 had left their mines in the forest or with the battalion trains. Even the few antitank mines on hand could not be put to proper use during the first night engagement when stragglers and vehicular columns were pouring along the same routes the enemy armor was using. In the first contact at the crossroads east of Rocherath the German tanks were halted by a hasty mine field, but the rifle company made its most effective use of this defense by laying mines to protect the rear of the American position after the tanks had rolled by. The bazooka in the hands of the defending infantry proved extremely useful. During the dark hours, bazooka teams were able to work close to their prey under the cover provided by walls, houses and hedgerows. But, as in the case of the tank destroyers, most hits were scored against tanks which had paused or been stranded by the detonation of mines and high-explosive shellfire. In the various melees at the villages the German tank crews seldom escaped no matter what weapon was used against them. Most crewmen were burned as the tank blew up or they were cut down by bullet fire at close range. The 2-ID, like most veteran divisions, had armed itself beyond the limits of approved tables of equipment. Nearly every rifle platoon, as a result, had at least two bazookas, so that team play to distract and then destroy the target tank was feasible.
Although fought mostly as a series of close quarter actions, the infantry battle in this sector saw little American use of the bayonet. Small arms and light machine guns took over where the friendly artillery left off, followed by grenades and rifle butts when the enemy closed. The problem of illuminating the scene of battle was partially solved by burning buildings and tanks. Illuminating shells fired by the 60-MM mortars had some local usefulness, but the precise coordination between infantry and artillery required for the effective use of star shell never was achieved in this battle.
On December 19, German General Staff officers from the high headquarters of WFSt and OB WEST appeared in the battle zone to peer over the shoulders of the combat commanders and diagnose the irritating failure to achieve a complete breakthrough. The conclusions they reported (which obviously took no official account of stubborn American resistance) were as follows. The check sustained in this sector could not be attributed to intervention by Allied air, an interesting reflection of the importance which Allied air-ground cooperation had assumed in German tactical thought by the end of 1944. The road net opened by the advance on December 16 had not been put in good repair. This the observers attributed to a breakdown of the para-military Todt Organization, whose labor groups were charged with the mission. Since the whole concept of the Todt Organization reached high into the realm of Nazi politics and personalities, this open animadversion is surprising and undoubtedly caused some consternation. The chief source of failure, said the General Staff observers, was the inadequate training of the troops who had been used in the attack. The conclusion reached as to the future conduct of operations on the 6.SS-Panzer-Army front was simple enough and in accordance with established German doctrine : more maneuver room must be secured so that the attack could unfold; the entire Elsenborn area, therefore, must be won and at once. The right wing must be brought abreast of the 1.SS-Panzer-Division, at this moment twenty miles to the west of Stoumont.
This new plan, probably only a reflection of conclusions already reached in the higher echelons, actually had gone into effect on December 19 when German tanks and infantry made the first serious attempt to drive northwest from Büllingen, shoulder the Americans out of the Butgenbach position, and open the Büllingen-Malmédy highway.