Operations of the 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division, in the Attack on D’Horn, Germany, December 4 – 10 1944, Rhineland Campaign. Personal Experience of an assistant member on the Battalion Staff, Captain Arvid P. Croonquist Jr
The action which this archive is to cover; that of the 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division during the period December 4-10 1944 as witnessed by an assistant member of the Battalion Staff, brings out several principles and small points concerning matters in planning and execution which ordinarily do not come to light. Usually they are passed over lightly and very few people ever give them a second thought. The attack which actually took place on December 10 was the first of a three day attack period and as far as the majority of men were concerned it was just one of many made by the battalion. Their aim was to get to the little town, which was the objective, alive and in one piece. The officers, had the same idea, only there was more to it because their’s was the problem of giving the men who did the fighting the benefit of their knowledge in the use of various means and aids which were available to assist them in accomplishing this feat. What is referred to in particular here is t he use of tactics, formations, supplies, attachments , and most important of all the use of supporting weapons. It is the last of the items mentioned above that played such a big factor in this particular action. All the others entered into it but this was by far and large the most important; in fact the use of these supporting weapons and attachments is the main lesson to be brought out in this archive.
THE GENERAL SITUATION
To bring the reader into the situation of the 2/39 and see where, when, and under what conditions this particular action took place, let us first glance at the situation of the 1st Army (US) as it existed on 4th December 1944. The progress of the American forces had cleared France, Belgium, and had brought the troops face to face with the German fortification system known as the Siegfried Line. This had been penetrated in a number of places along the front, but due to a lack of supplies the spearheads of the American Armies, 1st and 3rd, had come to a halt. Outfits could not move gas, tires, artillery ammunition, and other articles were rationed. Nothing could be done but wait till the supply lines across France had time to get reorganized and have the supplies built up again. The next thing we will consider is the condition of the troops on the front line. The long and fast chase across France had been followed by the sudden stubborn resistance of the Germans as our forces reached his homeland, Germany proper. Here the German was now defending not a conquered and subjected territory, but his own land and home. This along with the prepared defenses that the community workers had built, pushed our troops to fight three times as hard to gain just a few yards of ground. This situation had shown its effect on the fighting men in the front lines. These men were tired, very tired. Thus the 1st Army had come to almost a complete halt with units exceedingly under strength and badly needing rest. The 1st Army at this time comprised the VII Corps, the V Corps and the VIII Corps, all on line running from north to south in that order. This particular zone had taken in the famed Huertgen Forest area, the city of Aachen which Hitler had made a main strong point and finally, the Belgian Ardennes Forest and the Schnee Eifel area which had the strong Siegfried Line running through it. To the front was the Roer and Urft rivers beyond which lay Düren and the Cologne plain. To narrow the front down to units of interest let us look at the V Corps and the VII Corps. The VII Corps, comprised of the 104-ID, the 1-ID and the 4-ID, had advanced in a corps attack to a line which ran from the west of Lüchem south through Langerwehe.
The V Corps composed of CCR of the 5-AD, the 8-ID, the 102-CAV Group, and the 99-ID from north to south in that order held the line Huertgen, Monschau, Höfen, and Krinkelt-Rocherath. The 5-AD and 9-ID were in Corps reserve and under 1st Army control for possible employment in the VII Corps zone. These dispositions were as of December 4 1944. The 9-ID, minus the 47-IR was in V Corps reserve located at Camp Elsenborn, Belgium. They had been here since November 14, when they had been relieved from the line by elements of the 99-ID. The 39-IR (9-ID-), had bivouacked in the Elsenborn Forest and immediately gone into intensive training. Each battalion during this period submitted training schedules each week covering all the basic subjects. Problems on squad, platoon, and company levels were conducted, along with numerous conditioning road marches. Among other activities, were the appearance of several Red Cross Donut Dugouts, movies, ceremonies at which decorations were awarded, and by far the most enjoyable showers and clean clothes. During this period of inactivity as far as fighting goes, there were no casualties and on the other hand there was a decided increase in personnel due to the returning Purple Hearters. Company morning reports showed unheard of figures in the – present for duty – column for a line outfit. Units which before had felt over-strength when they showed 125 for duty now were up to T/O and then some. The fact that these returning soldiers arrived at this time helped considerably, because it gave them a chance. to learn the new faces of men who had become integral parts of the units. Also it brushed them up on fighting. The training got them into the right spirit. Thus we see the general background of the 2/39 on December 4, fresh, rested, over-strength and high in morale. Consequently it was not surprising that when the order was received to move back to the old VII Corps and relieve the 1-ID that the general attitude was one of Let’s get this war over with!, instead of the disheartened Here we go again!
THE BATTALION SITUATION
The order arrived on December 4, moving the 9-ID back to the VII Corps where they were to go into the line relieving the 1-ID. The 39-IR was designated to take over the, southern sector which was held by the 26-IR (1-ID). This sector ran from the south edge of Langerwehe south for about a mile and a half along the eastern edge of some woods. About 0700, the advance party of the 39-IR left from Elsenborn and went to the 26-IR CP in the vicinity of Schloss Laufenburg. There, the situation of the enemy and the 26-IR troops was outlined to the group. It was not a very attractive one. On the way up through the woods it became evident that a terrific fight had taken place. The woods had been leveled off at about a 12 foot height by extremely heavy artillery, dead still lay along the road – not only German but American. When American dead are still about several days after a fight one knows that the unit there must be in a bad fix. Upon questioning the regimental staff it was learned that the normal strength of each line company was approximately fifty men. That two companies, Easy and Fox of the 26-IR had been cut off and captured in the castle town of Merode. Further that, since then no effort had been made to get out of the front edge of the woods which over looked the open ground and the towns of Schlich, D’Horn, Merode, and Düren off on the distant skyline. After the initial orientation the various battalion groups followed their guides to the respective units they were to relieve. The 2/39, party went to the northern end of the ridge and there were met by the commanding officer of the 3/36 (1-ID). He seemed very happy that we were there and was exceptionally interested in helping us get in – anything to hurry the relief. With a casual glance at the condition of the trees one could easily see why he was so interested. They were matchwood.
Initially the 2nd Battalion was to occupy positions in the town of Jüngersdorf and along the front of the wooded area to the south. But that was changed and the whole 2/39 was to go into Jüngersdorf. This was decided at about 1130 and so the battalion was intercepted back on the route of march, halted, and moved off the road awaiting night-fall. The town of Jüngersdorf was on the forward slope of an open hill and could not be entered during daylight. Several of the advance party had tried it but were sniped down by a large caliber gun. Thus the idea of trying to personally contact the units in town was temporarily dropped. When darkness fell Easy and George Cos moved forward into the town, relieving those units of the 26-ID. Fox Co, remained behind in Langerwehe. At 2100, all was settled and the 26-IR had moved completely, outposts and all.
THE BATTALION PLAN OF ATTACK
On December 7, the VII Corps issued the order to have the corps attack and over-come all German resistance west of the Urft and the Roer rivers. The 104-ID had the objectives along the northern boundary, the 9-ID had those in the center and the 83-ID which had relieved the 4-ID had those objectives along the southern sector. The 9-ID in conjunction with the 3-AD was to take the towns of Obergeich, Geich, Echtz, Kozendorf, D’Horn, Schlich, Merode, and Derichsweiller. The task which the 2/39, fell heir to was an odd plan in that they were to attack from Jüngersdorf after the 60-IR had secured the towns of Geich and Obergeich, and seize the small town of D’Horn. This would outflank the German strong point of Schlich and Merode which up to this time had kept the Americans pinned to the edge of the woods at the base of the hill due east of Merode. The time, a very important factor, would not be before 1200 because the 60-IR did not start their attack 1200. That meant that the 2/39 would attack in broad daylight. But why should this prove such a important factor? Well, linked with the terrain over which the attack was to develop and looking at it from the German view point it was merely a matter of shooting at sitting ducks on a pond. From the front edge of Jüngersdorf to the near side of D’Horn was about 1700 yards of nothing but slightly slopping grass land, flat, and not one bush any place. To add to the obstacle of being wide open the ground was extremely soggy. Midway between the two towns was a small ditch system which was a drain and looked extremely soft. It later proved to be really too soft.
Thus the panoramic view as seen by the men of Easy and George Cos for five days prior to the attack did not bolster their morale. With this situation and the order to attack, Lt Col Frank L. Gunn, CO 2/39, went to work studying the terrain and how he could use it to advantage, if possible. The first worry was that of getting across the open area without any casualties. How? Well, all ideas offered by various members of the battalion staff such as suggestions of smoke, covering fire from small arms, support by artillery, and a few odd ones, were mulled over. After hours a few decisions were made. The first was to start immediately. The 155-MM Medium Artillery Battalion or larger, if possible, were to fire with delay fuze into the area between the two towns. The thought behind this was to dig holes and thus provide the infantry a possible means of cover if the Germans halted them out in the open ground. Every one knew that previously artillery was being rationed when it came to ammunition so with that and the fact that you had to have nothing less than a target consisting of a battalion strength of enemy before they would shoot it was figured best to get hot on the plan. Capt Bryant, Battalion Artillery Liaison Officer, did lots of talking and finally got certain Corps Artillery Battalions to shoot several concentrations at D’Horn and then had them moved back into the open area and fire a concentration or two.
With the first part out of the way and in operation Lt Col Gunn drew up the rest of the plan. The battalion would move out with Easy Co leading and going directly to the objective, D’Horn. At four to five hundred yards George Co would follow. As the latter got about five hundred yards from D’Horn it would move to the left and cross over the railroad fill, then move on into that part of D’Horn to the left of the tracks. Fox Co which was now located in the town of Langerwehe would move to Jüngerdorf the night before the attack and remain there as battalion reserve. How Co was split up, a section of heavy machine guns would be attached with each attacking company and the remaining platoon of machine guns would set up in Jüngersdorf and give overhead fire during the attack. The platoon of tanks from Able Co, 746-TB, which was attached to the 2/39 was assigned the mission of moving out with the lead company. Not behind, but right up with the front platoons. A platoon of Tank Destroyers which were also attached to the 2/39 was assigned the mission of picking covered positions in Jüngersdorf to which they would move when the attack started and fire on pre-observed targets, plus any of opportunity; oddly enough, they were very pleased with this plan and thought it excellent. Finally came the use of the supporting artillery, Regimental Cannon Company, and the battalion’s own 81-MM mortars.
On the left flank a railroad track ran along the top of a 12 to 20 foot hill which started about 400 yards east of Jüngersdorf. This furnished excellent an protection against both fire and observation from the left flank. However, the objective to the front was wide open and the right flank was not only open but covered by two towns; Schlich and Merode, both held by the Germans, and strongly held, at that. It wasn’t very hard to determine from this, as to what would be primary targets for us to shoot at, but what kind of fire should be put and where? After much discussion with Capt Bryant, and with the 26-FAB, a plan was arrived at that went as follows :
The towns of D’Horn, Schlich and Merode, would receive time fire from the 26-FAB initialy at H minus 10, then, at H hour smoke would be placed to the north of Schlich and Merode thus concealing any observation from those towns. The time fire on D’Horn was to continue till lifted by the leading attacking company. Then move to a greater range and fire on Derischweiller. The 34-FAB and the Regimental Cannon Company were to fire on Derischweiller where it was believed that the Germans had mortar positions. How Co’s 81-MM mortars were to initially supplement the artillery fires on Schilch and Merode then be prepared to give support to either attacking company as they got into D’Horn. These parts of the plan were immediately sent out to the people concerned; with the idea that knowing in advance what was expected they could commence stock piling a little extra ammunition and register. From here on minor plans and administrative procedures were ironed out. Feeding, issuing extra ammunition and obtaining special grenades, in fact everything was set. Except for H hour a time which would be governed by the attack of the 60-IR and elements of the 3-AD on the 2/39’s left flank. They were to jump-off at 1200 and take the two towns of Geich and Obergeich before the 2/39 moved.
TIME PRIOR TO THE ATTACK
Every one in the battalion settled down to wait. Plans had been made and all were thoroughly oriented. Nothing was left out. It just could not miss this time. All was fine, the weather cleared and on December 9, spirits in the battalion headquarters were high. However, about noon a little incident occurred that was like a spark to tinder. From then on it was one trouble after another. The only road from Langerwehe to Jüngersdorf that could be used ran right through a German farm. A big building built around a courtyard, then over the hill and into Jüngersdorf. This last part was exposed to the enemy and movement over it had been restricted to the time of darkness. The Battalion Commanding Officer had personally found this out on December 5 when he had been sniped at with a rather large gun while trying to make a run for it in his jeep. This one road was the supply route and was to be used to take the tanks and battalion antitank guns over that night. It had to be kept open! So what happens? A 4.2 inch mortar platoon moved in and set up in the farm yard. Digging like fury and getting set to register. Upon questioning it was found that they were to support the 60-IR on our left and thought that they had a perfect position. After a short orientation and lesson on the reasons for boundaries the chemical mortars moved out. Just about time that the battalion staff settled down and drew a sigh of relief a linesman came in and said a half-track was stuck and wanted some help. One of the battalion officers went out to see what could be done. Lo and behold, here was one of the 4.2 inch mortar platoons ammunition carriers, a half-track loaded with ammunition half off the road and in mud two feet deep. This blocked the road again because it was only a one way road and the opposite edge was also too muddy for vehicles to operate over. Little deliberation and discussion was followed by getting a tank up and hauling the half-track out. Engineer tape was then put out to help guide the vehicles that night.
All was quiet till dark except for German artillery, that had kept up continuously for the whole time. Most was destined for friendly artillery one terrain feature back, but there were a surprising number of shorts. At dark troubles started again. About 1930 a combat command of the 3-AD parked on the main road right outside the battalion command post. A mere 80 vehicles but all seemed to be huddled between where our platoon of tanks were and the entrance to our supply road. This group was to stay there till the adjacent attack jumped off the next day. Moving tanks at night under such conditions was not easy but with the combined efforts of all the battalion staff and Fox Co Officers, it was finally accomplished and all the battalion vehicles and attached tanks got through and into Jüngersdorf. No sooner had this last little tangle been straightened out than the Battalion Commander returned from a visit to Easy and George Cos with a lieutenant from George Co. This lieutenant would not attack. That was that! It was suicide! He could not make his men attack! Until now he was the best platoon leader in the battalion, had been awarded a Silver Star, and now this. What had happened? Sitting for several days and looking at the open expanse that had to be crossed, evidently had worked on his mind. Immediately there was the thought What about the Men ? How will they Act tomorrow ?. But there was lots to do so after a short talk between the lieutenant and the Battalion CO the former was sent to regiment and the battalion battle command post moved into Jüngersdorf, with Fox Co and prepared for the next day’s operation.
For the past several days there had been no activity. Rest and hot meals had been the vogue. Then came December 10, another clear sunny day. Time passed quickly with every one busy, tinkering around with little odds and ends but still busy, trying to keep their mind off of that open area. At 1200, the 60-IR with elements of the 3-AD jumped off toward both towns, Giech and Obergeich. It was quite a show from the 2/39’s Observation Post. The adjacent area to the north could be seen for 2 miles and the whole attack could be observed. A special Sherman mine exploder company led the unit of the 60-IR nearest our boundary. It’s odd looking tanks with tremendous metal disks being pushed in front of the tank proper, led the way toward Geich about half way to the town an antitank gun got a direct hit on the leading Mine Exploder tank. This seemed to mark the beginning. From then on the attack slowed and almost halted. Time passed quickly. At 1300, then at 1400, about this time every one started to get a little concerned because the 2/39 was to move out after the 60-IR got Geich and Obergeich, and as it looked from the OP it would be quite sometime before word crone saying they had taken the two objectives. Along about 1430 to 1450, Gen Collins, the VII Corps Commander, stopped by the 39-IR CP and inquired as to the progress of the attack. When told that the 2/39 was still waiting word from the 60-IR he immediately stated that the battalion should move out now and not wait.
After a telephone conversation between Battalion CO and Regimental CO time was set for the jump off at 1515. Word went to Easy and George Cos, tanks, tank destroyers, mortars, and artillery. At 1505, the artillery started as planned. D’Horn, Schlich and Merode were well covered. Next, the smoke started to spread and covered Schlich and Merode. There were minor adjustments of the supporting fires, but on the whole all went perfectly and according to plan. At 1515, Easy Co moved out of Jüngersdorf as ordered and it were the tanks, but only two instead of the four in the platoon. The fifth, a tank dozer, was left in Langerwehe to go via the highway after the objective was taken. The ground had been too soft and two tanks had gotten mired in the first 50 yards in an orchard. A little while later, not only brought the lead company out but all supporting weapons. Tank destroyers had opened up on the targets designated to them, heavy machine guns of How Co cut loose with overhead fire and mortars were being pushed to their maximum. Although not mentioned before .50 caliber machine guns available in the battalion at the time were also firing. It was learned too that supporting fires were coming from the other two battalions in the regiment and their targets were Merode and Schlich. Easy Co had cleared Jüngersdorf by now and was about half way across the field when a call came over the radio from the artillery Smoke is running out; will have to stop shortly. Immediately the Liaison Officer and the Battalion Commander went to work calling every one they knew trying to get more smoke. No matter where they turned they got the same answer, Sorry. So the artillery cut the density. Luckily the wind was perfect and the smoke drifted the right way, north-west. The Battalion 81-MM’s then proved themselves by taking up where the artillery left off. They had gotten all the smoke possible and were able to perform a perfect job. Added to this a platoon of 4.2 inch chemical mortars which were just put in support of this attack helped out.
About this time Easy Co received enemy mortar fire. It seemed to land right in the middle of the company formation. Nothing could be done at the time and the company kept on moving. By now they had crossed the greater part of the open ground, behind them and in the field were a number of odds and ends and a mine field of box mines. Due to the extreme dampness of the ground these mines did not go off when run over by the remaining tanks. Another tank stuck in the mud. A number of casualties were waiting for litter men, and a group of German prisoners was being herded back. This latter group was evidently an outpost group picked up in their foxholes. By now, Easy Co was nearing the town of D’Horn. From the OP we could see the last tank bog down and stop 400 yards short of the town. Shortly afterwards a call came over the SCR 300 from Easy Co saying : Lift the artillery we are moving in. Within a matter of seconds the calls were put in and the air suddenly cleared over the town. The artillery had lifted. The company quickened their pace and moved in on the double. Small arms fire could be read. The reports that came back were all favorable and within half an hour Easy Co had cleared the town taking a sizable number of prisoners and organizing to meet any possible counterattack.
George Co moved out and followed the same path as Easy Co for about 1200 yards then crossed over the tracks to the left without incident other than rounding up a number of prisoners and receiving sporadic small arms fire. George Co captured their section of the objective with very little resistance. Before the artillery fire lifted, the How Co machine guns which had initially given the overhead fire support had gone out of action and moved out to join both companies on the objective. The entire action had taken about one and one-half hours and was completed before darkness. Now as it grew dark the reorganizing got under way for the attack the next day on Schlich as the other two battalions of the regiment moved out against Merode. The highway in the 60-IR’s zone was supposedly opened and permission to use it was granted to our battalion for the use of supplying the companies. Wire was laid along the railroad track and all were tied in for the night. Till the next morning all was quiet in the 2/39 Sector except for occasional enemy artillery fire.