Key point: The tank destroyer crews were exhausted, but they brought much needed firepower to the beleaguered force.
Shortly after 10:30 am on December 19, 1944, 26-year-old Major William Desobry picked up his field telephone, called his combat commander, Colonel William Roberts, and asked if he could withdraw from the Belgian village of Noville. Desobry had been holding off the entire German 2nd Panzer Division—some 16,000-men with more than 120 tanks and assault guns—for the last six hours with only 400 men and a handful of tanks and tank destroyers.
With so many Germans bearing down on him, Desobry knew that staying could mean suicide. Roberts, from his Bastogne headquarters in the Hotel LeBrun, gave an answer that probably made Desobry’s blood run cold. He told the young officer to hold the phone line.
With the sounds of battle reverberating against his headquarters walls, Desobry held the line. After what must have seemed like an eternity, Roberts came back on the line. “You can use your own judgment about withdrawing,” he said, “but I’m sending a battalion of paratroopers to reinforce you.”
With almost 500 airborne soldiers heading his way, Desobry decided not only to stay but to attack. What had started as a day-long holding action became a major two-day battle, pitting a scratch force of Americans against a battle-hardened German division. The Battle of Noville helped decide the defense of Bastogne and the fate of the entire German Ardennes offensive—the Battle of the Bulge.
When the Germans launched their counteroffensive through the Ardennes Forest of Belgium and Luxembourg four days earlier, on December 16, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, immediately sent his 7th, 9th, and 10th Armored Divisions into the fray. Two of the 10th Armored’s Combat Commands, CCA and CCR (R for Reserve), each about the size of an infantry regiment, headed to Luxembourg City to hold the southern shoulder of the rapidly developing bulge, while Colonel William Roberts led his CCB to Bastogne, Belgium, to receive orders from Maj. Gen. Troy Middleton, the VIII Corps commander.
By December 18, an entire German panzer corps was barreling straight for Bastogne, and Middleton, outnumbered two to one, needed to buy time while more forces were brought to bear. The Germans had already sacked his 2nd Infantry Division and were grinding down his 9th Armored.
Middleton asked Roberts to break his command into three teams and defend Bastogne’s north, east, and southeast approaches. Roberts created three teams to hold the positions, each named after its commander. To the southeast he assigned Team O’Hara, to the east he assigned Team Cherry, and to the north he sent Team Desobry, consisting of soldiers from the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion and 15 Sherman tanks.
When Major Desobry learned of his assignment, he asked Roberts, “If the situation gets to the point where I think it’s necessary to withdraw, can I do that on my own or will I need permission from you?” Roberts paused, but then told him, “You know, Des, you will probably get nervous tomorrow morning and want to withdraw, so you had better wait for any withdrawal order from me.” With that, Desobry led his team through heavy winter fog toward the town of Noville.
Noville, three miles north of Bastogne, stood like an island amid flat farmland. It consisted of a handful of brown and gray stone homes, farmhouses, and buildings, with a church whose tower dominated the landscape. A mile to the south stood the town of Foy, on the edge of the woods surrounding Bastogne.
North of Noville the ground remained flat until it sloped up to ridges about 500 yards northeast and northwest of the town. The key to Noville was the intersection of the north/south road, N30, and an east/west road, ND77. Team Desobry had to hold that intersection.
Just as determined to capture Noville were the tankers of Maj. Gen. Meinrad von Lauchert’s 2nd Panzer Division. Lauchert needed to secure the town’s crossroads to continue west to the Meuse River and reach the German counteroffensive’s ultimate prize: the Belgian port city of Antwerp.
He did not have orders to take Bastogne, but if he blasted through Noville quickly while other German units were stalled to the east, he might be able to bag the town and its seven intersecting roads. Lauchert’s division counted 27 Panzer IV medium tanks, 58 Panther heavy tanks, and 48 assault guns, for a total of 133 armored heavy-weapons vehicles when it started heading west on December 16.
Once Desobry’s men reached Noville, they occupied the buildings around the intersection and smashed out windows with their rifle butts to prevent flying glass once the shooting started. Desobry, meanwhile, set up his headquarters in a schoolhouse cattycorner from the church. He then sent out three patrols to make contact with the enemy and told half his remaining men to get some sleep.
Each patrol consisted of two tanks and an infantry squad. He sent one northwest, the other directly north, and a third directly east to set up a roadblock outside of the village of Bourcy. His engineers were not allowed to lay mines since American stragglers would be coming through the lines. Desobry hoped to incorporate them into his defense.
Sure enough, stragglers intermittently passed through the outposts until around 4:30 am on December 19. Almost an hour later, a column of half-tracks approached the Bourcy roadblock. In the dark and fog, the sentries could not discern friend from foe until they heard German spoken in the lead vehicle. They immediately tossed hand grenades into the half-track’s open beds, which exploded among the packed infantry.
As wounded Germans screamed, others piled out of the half-tracks and opened fire. One of the sentries took a bullet in his cheek. Others tossed the rest of their grenades at the oncoming Germans, but, surprisingly, their support tanks did not fire a shot. The tankers were blind in the darkness and did not want to risk hitting their own armored infantry. After a 20-minute firefight, both sides pulled back and reported to their superiors that they had found the enemy.
In Noville, Desobry had slept for about an hour when he was woken by the sounds of explosions and gunfire to the east. He left his headquarters and stood outside, listening to the fight. He heard the distinct sounds of German armor circling to the north, then distant fire.
He did not know it, but he was listening to the destruction of elements of the 9th Armored Division. Task Force Booth, led by Lt. Col. Robert Booth, had retreated from a position east of Noville and had run into some German vehicles and infantry near where the Germans clashed with Desobry’s sentries.
Booth’s tanks and infantry quickly dispatched the Germans, then headed north and occupied the town of Hardigny, northeast of Noville. There they knocked out about a dozen enemy half-tracks and infantry, but before they could celebrate, German tanks and infantry surrounded them.
Task Force Booth had stumbled into the 2nd Panzer Division’s assembly area. The Germans quickly destroyed the American tanks and rained mortars on the infantry. The surviving Americans broke for a nearby wood, where the Germans hunted them down. They captured Booth, hobbled by a broken leg, but more than 200 men escaped to Bastogne, where they would continue to fight.
Task Force Booth took some of the pressure off Desobry. Every single German bullet, tank shot, and mortar round fired at Booth’s men was one less firing at Noville.
Back near Noville, the enemy column that Desobry heard soon encountered the sentries on the north-south road. One of the two Sherman tanks opened fire first, but its round exploded short. The lead German tank then fired six rapid shots, disabling both Shermans. The two burning tanks now blocked access to the town. Other German tanks spread out and fired their machine guns at the American infantry. Machine gunners in the town returned fire as the two sides sparred from a distance until Desobry ordered his patrol back into Noville.
Once the fighting died down, Desobry pulled all his outposts back toward the town. In the dense fog, small skirmishes broke out as the Germans probed the lines. The Americans could hear the enemy shouting orders in the dark. At some point, a German sniper wielding an assault rifle found a perch in a house’s crawlspace across from Desobry’s headquarters and fired at anyone coming in or out of the house.
At 10 am, the fog suddenly lifted and the men in Noville could finally see what they were facing. German tanks atop the hills to the north started rolling down toward them. The men spotted several German tanks driving down the main road, while some 30 panzers spread out in a skirmish line on a ridge to the west.
As the Germans bore down from the north, from the south raced a platoon of M-18 Tank Destroyers from the 609th Tank Destroyer Battalion. Desobry used the unit as his reserve and kept its platoon commander close. One tank destroyer crew west of the intersection scored a hit on the German lead tank. The crew then traversed the turret to the next panzer and fired. Before finding out if they had disabled the second tank, the crew retreated south. As it did so, American tanks and everyone else with a weapon opened fire on the advancing German tanks and infantry. The fight was on.