In December 1944, the Ardennes front or “ghost front” was an area where either veteran Allied units rotated in to rest and recover from terrible combat losses or where new, untested units arrived to gather some combat experience from the minor skirmishes that would occasionally flare up. Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton’s U.S. Army VIII Corps was such a unit.
Three infantry divisions, the 28th, 4th, and 106th, comprised VIII Corps. The 28th and the 4th had been severely mauled in the bloody battles of the Hürtgen Forest. The 106th Infantry Division was newly arrived at the front, replacing the 2nd Infantry Division, and had yet to see combat. The three VIII Corps infantry divisions were responsible for an approximate 88-mile front that was just about three times that normally assigned an equivalent defending force. Although the Germans were on the ropes and expected to capitulate soon, General Middleton still worried about the thin spread of his on such a wide front.
“Don’t Worry Troy, They Won’t Come Through Here”
When General Omar Bradley, 12th Army Group commander, visited Middleton at his headquarters in Bastogne, Middleton expressed concern about the overall defensive situation, only to be told, “Don’t worry Troy, they won’t come through here.” Middleton replied, “Maybe not, Brad, but they’ve come through this area several times before.” To help assuage his fears, General Bradley provided VIII Corps with the newly arrived 9th Armored Division.
Major General John W. Leonard’s 9th Armored Division was, like most armored divisions of the period, divided into three separate combat commands (CC): A, B, and R (Reserve). Each combat command was a combined arms military organization of comparable size to a brigade or regiment and loosely patterned after the German combined arms approach to mechanized warfare. Each combat command usually consisted of one armored battalion and one armored infantry battalion. In addition, smaller units of tank destroyers, engineers, and mechanized cavalry were assigned as needed to accomplish any given mission.
In mid-December 1944, the three combat commands of the 9th Armored Division were scattered throughout the Ardennes front. CCA was placed just south of the confluence of the Our and Sure Rivers wedged between the 109th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division to its north and the 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division to its south. CCB found itself near the village of Faymonville and recently attached to V Corps to support the U.S. Army’s effort to capture or destroy the Roer River dams. CCR, under the command of Colonel Joseph H. Gilbreth, was stationed at Trois Vierges, roughly 20 miles northeast of the crossroads town of Bastogne, Belgium, in support of VIII Corps’ left and center.
Operation Watch on the Rhine
Unknown to the Americans, the Germans were planning a major offensive code-named Operation Watch on the Rhine. According to the German plan, the offensive would cut across the Ardennes front, capturing Bastogne, one of three critical communication/road network centers in Field Marshal Hasso von Manteuffel’s Fifth Army sector. The other two were St. Vith to the northeast and Marche-en-Famenne to the northwest. Thus, Bastogne, like St. Vith and Marche-en-Famenne, needed to be dealt with quickly to achieve Hitler’s goal of capturing the Belgian port city of Antwerp and splitting the Allies—both politically and geographically.
Bastogne lay in the sector of advance that Manteuffel assigned to XLVII Panzer Corps and its commander, General Heinrich von Luttwitz. General Luttwitz’s corps consisted of the 2nd Panzer Division, the Panzer Lehr Division, and the 26th Volksgrenadier Division (VGD) with the added strength of the 15th Volks Werfer (rocket launcher) Brigade, the 766th Volks Artillery Corps, the 600th Army Engineer Battalion, and the 182nd Flak Regiment.
Manteuffel’s instructions to Luttwitz were direct: “Panzer Lehr Division holds itself ready to advance by order of the corps following behind the 26th VGD by way of Gemund-Drauffeld toward Bastogne and the Meuse in the sector of Namur-Dinant. It is essential for the division to take up positions … close to the 2nd Panzer Division advancing over Noville. In the case of strong enemy resistance, Bastogne is to be outflanked, its capture is then up to the 26th VGD….”
Since the primary mission of the Fifth Panzer Army was to reach and cross the Meuse River by day three of the offensive in flank support of Sixth SS Panzer Army’s drive to capture Antwerp, the 2nd Panzer and the Panzer Lehr Divisions were to rapidly move beyond Bastogne regardless of who held it.
The area of the Ardennes designated for the XLVII Panzer Corps’ breakthrough was held by the 28th Infantry Division’s 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 110th Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Hurley F. Fuller. Fuller’s regimental front stretched approximately 10 miles, and anything even remotely resembling a continuous line of defense was far beyond the manpower capabilities of the 1st and 3rd Battalions. The best that could be done was a system of village strongpoints, each defended by troops in the approximate strength of a rifle company. The 26th VGD commander, General Heinz Kokott, was given the mission of forcing crossings at the Our and Clerf Rivers on the left of the Panzer Corps, holding them open for the armor of the 2nd Panzer Division, then following it to Bastogne. Panzer Lehr would follow directly behind the 26th VGD. Once Bastogne was secured, the 26th VGD would be responsible for covering the left flank of the Panzer Corps, allowing the two armored divisions to cross the Meuse unmolested.
To Slow the German Advance
In the early morning hours of December 16, 1944, all along the Ardennes front from Monchau in the north to Echternach in the south, American forces awoke to the sound of German artillery. In the 9th Armored Division’s CCR sector, the 52nd Armored Infantry Battalion seemed to be the primary target of the shelling. Lt. Col. Robert M. Booth, commander of the 52nd AIB, was informed at a midday briefing that there was nothing to worry about. The entire front was being subjected to similar bombardment, and the Germans were probably just putting on an artillery show or involved in some spoiling operation.
With reports of German assaults and penetrations coming in throughout the day from his entire VIII Corps sector, General Middleton realized that what was occurring was no simple spoiling attack but a major German offensive. Middleton understood that with the number of enemy units involved and with the speed at which they were attempting to move they would need more road available. Middleton therefore planned to hold his original VIII Corps positions as long as possible while building strong defenses in front of the road network hubs of St.Vith, Houffalize, and Bastogne. It was Middleton’s reasoning that a strong American concentration within these transportation centers would force the Germans to come to him and, in any case, American forces would be in strength on the enemy’s flank and rear. On December 16, however, the forces available to Middleton to implement this plan were not nearly enough.
Middleton conferred with his immediate boss, Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges, commander of First U.S. Army. Hodges agreed with Middleton’s assessment, and on the morning of December 17, Hodges was trying to reach General Bradley to have the only two SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) reserve divisions left on the European continent, the 101st and the 82nd Airborne divisions, released to VIII Corps for the immediate defense of Bastogne. Almost immediately after speaking to General Hodges, General Bradley put in a call to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander, requesting the release of the two reserve airborne divisions. It was not until 7 pm on December 17 that Eisenhower, reluctant to part with his last reserve divisions, gave permission.
Middleton, believing that he would eventually be granted the two reserve divisions, still had one major problem: how to slow down the German advance long enough to allow for the arrival and deployment of the paratroopers. Aside from a couple of engineer units, Middleton had only one combat unit in reserve and that was the newly arrived and untested 9th Armored Division. Moreover, because of the breadth of the German assault he could not even use the entire division in the Bastogne sector. CCB of the 9th Armored was immediately needed in St. Vith to shore up the 106th Infantry Division, while CCA was badly needed in the Wallendorf-Echternach area to support the 4th Infantry Division. Essentially, the only uncommitted combat unit he had left was CCR of the 9th Armored Division.
Bastogne: Key to the Southern Ardennes
By midday on December 17, Luttwitz’s 2nd Panzer Division, after crushing American resistance in Marnach, was pushing west toward Clervaux and its bridges across the Clerf River. The Clerf crossings lay only about 17 road miles from Bastogne. The German advance toward Bastogne took on an added urgency when, during late evening of the 17th, Fifth Panzer Army headquarters intercepted an Allied command message ordering the two American airborne divisions to Bastogne.
General Manteuffel had planned that Bastogne would be taken on the first day of the offensive. Although unexpected stiff pockets of American resistance had delayed Bastogne’s capture by at least a full day, all was far from lost. Manteuffel and Luttwitz believed that the two airborne divisions would reach Bastogne either during the night of December 18 or early on the 19th. Once Luttwitz’s XLVII Panzer Corps crossed the Clerf, Bastogne could be reached no later than midday of the 18th, thus allowing German command and control the use of its vital road network.