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The little road junction of Wahlerscheid was a veritable German fortress. Large concrete bunkers and log-covered pillboxes dotted the landscape, while the forest trails and roads bristled with mines and machine-gun nests. Barricades of barbed wire, piled high and 8 to 10 feet deep, covered all avenues of approach. Out in front of the bunkers, fields of fire had been cleared to provide yet another advantage to the defenders, while the thick trees and dense undergrowth further stymied attackers.
For 2 1/2 days the Americans had been stopped in their tracks, but by 0600 on December 16, 1944, the Americans' hold on the crossroads was complete, the mopping up finished. Evidence of the effort expended to capture Wahlerscheid was plain to see–shattered tree trunks stood starkly against the snow-covered ground, and branches littered the forest floor. Large, deep holes made by every type of shell were evident in great numbers. Telephone wire and other communications cables were strung out crazily. Ammunition boxes, empty bandoleers and clips lay all over the torn ground. Then there were the men, tired and disheveled. Some walked around poking through the debris. Others stood smoking cigarettes, silent. Still others, laid out in neat, straight rows, did nothing. The battle for Wahlerscheid was over, but soon the Battle of the Bulge would unfold, and the survivors would call it 'Heartbreak Crossroads.'
Located inside Germany, across the German/Belgian border, the road junction of Wahlerscheid was a key piece of the puzzle. The Roer River dams, long a major source of irritation to Allied planners, had to be captured before an advance across the wide, flat Roer Plain could be attempted. Once taken, Wahlerscheid would provide not only decent roads but also a good axis of attack toward the dams, which lay just a few miles to the northeast.
While the newly formed 78th Infantry Division attacked German positions farther north along the German border between Lammersdorf and Monschau, the task of capturing Wahlerscheid fell to the 2nd Infantry Division, a seasoned outfit that had recently been pulled out of the line farther south. Assembled near the town of Elsenborn the first week of December, two of the 2nd Division's three infantry regiments, the 9th and the 38th (the third, the 23rd Infantry, was held in reserve near Elsenborn), were trucked to Büllingen, then north to Rocherath and Krinkelt, two villages so close together they had been nicknamed the 'Twin Villages.' From there, the two regiments marched north for six miles along the only road to Wahlerscheid. This single road, the main avenue of approach, was the only route by which supplies and reinforcements could be funneled to the forward regiments from divisional headquarters at Wirtzfeld.
For two days the Germans fought with grim determination, until several members of a lone U.S. patrol cut their way undetected through one barricade after another until they were in the bunker line. They later slipped back to report the breach, and late on December 15, first a company, then a battalion, and then another battalion had slipped through the opening in the wire. By early the next morning, the fight for Wahlerscheid was over.
A couple miles east of and parallel to the 2nd Division's line of march, through a dense forest belt, lay the front lines of the green 99th Infantry Division. On the Continent for just over a month, the 99th held a line from Monschau, northwest of Wahlerscheid, to the border village of Lanzerath, southeast of the Elsenborn Ridge, a distance of nearly 19 miles. Except for the area around Höfen, a village located southeast of Monschau, the 99th's front lay inside a thick, coniferous forest. During the first week of December, the forward rifle companies, rather than presenting a solid line, were positioned just inside the forest and parceled out in platoon-sized outposts along the entire line, thus leaving numerous undefended gaps. The longest section of the line ran parallel to a major road, dubbed the International Highway, from a point just west of Hollerath, Germany, south to the frontier village of Losheimergraben. Intersecting the front were two trails that led from the highway west, back through the forest, where they converged about 1 1/2 miles northeast of the Twin Villages. The northernmost trail left the highway just west of Hollerath in an area covered by the 393rd Infantry Regiment. The southern trail entered the forest west of Neuhof, also in Germany, at a point just north of where the lines of the 393rd and 394th Infantry regiments met.
To support the 2nd Division's attack at Wahlerscheid and to draw away enemy troops, the 395th Regimental Combat Team (RCT), composed of two battalions of the 395th Infantry Regiment and one from the 393rd, had initiated an attack on December 13 against German positions about 1 1/2 miles southeast of Wahlerscheid. Progressing smoothly at first, the diversion began to bog down as German resistance stiffened on December 14. Terrible weather soon brought it to a complete standstill.
First Army and V Corps Intelligence believed that a German counterattack would probably occur along the 99th Division's front. For this reason, when an awesome artillery bombardment rolled over the 99th's front to the south of Wahlerscheid beginning at about 0530 hours on December 16, commanders up and down the line thought the Germans were merely responding to the breakthrough at Wahlerscheid.
To the southeast, along the International Highway, the 99th's two southernmost regiments were shelled. A major in the 12th Volksgrenadier Division remembered, 'We old soldiers had seen many a heavy barrage, but never before anything like this.' The intensity and duration of the shelling came as a surprise to some of the GIs, as Army Intelligence had previously reported that the Germans had only two horse-drawn artillery pieces in the entire sector. Up front, at a forward battalion command post (CP), one of the 99th's staff officers quipped, 'Christ, they sure are working those two poor horses to death.' The GIs had prepared their positions well, however. Deep, log-covered dugouts and foxholes provided good cover, and casualties from the shelling were notably light.
As the shelling stopped or moved on to the rear at about 0635 on the 16th, German troops charged. In the north near Höfen the initial ground assault against a battalion of the 395th Infantry Regiment was so intense that on at least three occasions the bodies of Germans shot at point-blank range fell into the foxholes on top of the defending GIs.
Along the International Highway where the 393rd was positioned, large numbers of German infantry from the 12th Volksgrenadier Division followed closely on the heels of the barrage. Sweeping from behind the bunkers of the West Wall (also known as the Siegfried Line), they streamed up the slopes, dashed west across the road and hit the 3rd Battalion especially hard. As one GI put it, 'It seemed like they were coming right at us and for some reason ignoring everybody else.' One company, positioned where the northernmost forest trail joined the highway, was nearly wiped out–only one platoon escaped.
When notified of the situation near the highway, the battalion commander ordered the remaining companies to fall back on the battalion CP, to prevent it from being overrun. Meanwhile, scores of Germans pushed on down the trail and by dusk had reached the Jansbach Creek, nearly halfway through the forest. During the late afternoon, Maj. Gen. Walter Lauer, the 99th Division commander, ordered a company from the division reserve rushed to the 3rd Battalion's assistance. That company fought its way east along firebreaks running parallel to the trail until darkness forced a halt to the fighting. Although the Germans had punched a sizable dent in the 3rd Battalion's line, they failed to achieve the major breakthrough needed to clear the way for the tanks of the waiting 12th SS Panzer Division.
Just to the south, the 393rd's 1st Battalion underwent the same punishment. There, however, most of the foxholes were positioned on the very edge of the forest with clear fields of fire, and the GIs exacted a greater toll on the advancing enemy. The first wave of grenadiers broke, then fell back in disarray, leaving behind a large number of dead and wounded. Shortly afterward, the second assault achieved several penetrations, forcing one American company to fall back some 300 yards into the forest. After being reinforced in the afternoon, that company counterattacked and pushed the Germans back almost to the original line.
By nightfall on December 16, the 393rd's line was for the most part intact, though holed in several places. German patrols of 50 or more men infiltrated through the gaps and probed the woods for American defenses.
South of the 393rd's 1st Battalion, the 394th's 2nd Battalion had been hit shortly after the barrage had lifted early on the 16th. There, the enemy force was not as strong, roughly equal to what the 2nd Battalion had on the line. The GIs fought off all attacks, including one in which the Germans used several self-propelled guns. The 99th's supporting artillery laid on deadly fire that quickly put an end to attempts to break through.
Likewise, the 394th's 1st and 3rd battalions in and around Losheimergraben had come under attack from several directions. Both units sat astride roads that had been designated as primary march routes for the 1st SS Panzer Division, commanded by SS Oberführer Wilhelm Mohnke. The 1st Battalion's lines crossed the main road, which branched off the International Highway at Losheimergraben and then wound westward through Büllingen and Malmedy. The 3rd Battalion, which constituted the division reserve, was in position near Bucholz and the little rail station there. Its lines stretched across the secondary road that led from Lanzerath through Bucholz to Honsfeld and eventually Malmedy. Absolutely vital to the German advance, the two roads had to be captured quickly by German infantry, for just behind the foot troops several hundred tanks, halftracks and armored cars waited. Once the Losheimergraben crossroads was taken, the pent-up force of SS Colonel Joachim 'Jochen' Peiper's armored battle group (Kampfgruppe) of the 1st SS Panzer Division would rush through the breach and dash headlong for the Meuse River and beyond. The division's ultimate objective was Antwerp.
Not long after the artillery barrage ended, German infantry at Losheim advanced toward Bucholz along the deep cut of the rail line. At about the same time, two other battalions of enemy infantry fought their way up to and then across the International Highway just northeast of the crossroads and forced a gap between two companies of GIs. Only the superb actions of the attached mortar platoons saved the tenuous American toehold.
As the attack from the northeast progressed, more Germans probed, then struck from the other side of the crossroads. The pressure against the 1st Battalion mounted on both sides of Losheimergraben, but with help from the 3rd Battalion the crossroads remained in American hands. However, the reinforcement of the crossroads left the American positions in and around Bucholz dangerously thin.
In the little hamlet of Lanzerath, just south of Bucholz, the 394th's Intelligence and Reconnaissance (I&R) Platoon had been fighting all morning on December 16. Charged with maintaining contact with the 99th Division's southern neighbor, the 14th Cavalry Group, across the two-mile-wide Losheim Gap, Lieutenant Lyle Bouck and his handful of men had been battling paratroopers of the German 3rd Fallschirmjäger (Parachute) Division since before dawn. Shortly after the artillery barrage ended, strong thrusts against the 14th Cavalry Group led to its withdrawal, and contact with the I&R platoon was broken. Members of a towed tank destroyer outfit in Lanzerath also retreated, leaving the little band of men to fend for themselves.
Occupying good defensive positions atop a tree-covered hill overlooking Lanzerath, Bouck and his men had watched in the pre-dawn darkness as a long column of enemy infantry marched up the road toward Lanzerath. Just slightly behind the main column, Bouck noticed three men talking as they walked along. Thinking that they must be the 3rd Parachute Division commander and part of his staff, Bouck ordered his men to shoot the three. Taking careful aim, the GIs were about to fire when a little girl ran to the three men and pointed straight at the American positions. One of the men yelled a command and the paratroopers dropped into ditches alongside the road. A fierce firefight erupted, but the I&R platoon kept the Germans in check all day long. Then, after dark, the Germans worked around the flanks and overran the determined GIs, killing several and capturing the rest, including Lieutenant Bouck. At that point it was only the few men remaining in Bucholz who were keeping the Germans from rolling up the entire right flank of the 99th Division.
Early on the afternoon of December 16, the 2nd Division's 23rd Infantry Regiment minus one battalion was attached to the 99th Infantry Division. The 1st Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. John C. Hightower, was ordered by General Lauer to move to Hünningen, several miles northwest of Losheimergraben on the main road to Büllingen. Lauer hoped the move would shore up his flagging southern flank. Pulling into position late in the afternoon, the 1st Battalion quickly established defenses south and southeast of Hünningen.
Meanwhile, the 3rd Battalion, under Lt. Col. Paul Tuttle, moved out to the north and east of the Twin Villages. Early the following morning, part of the battalion was to attack east and link up with the remainder of the 393rd's 3rd Battalion, which was still positioned along the northern forest trail. The rest of the battalion was to take up positions astride the southern trail to provide backup for the 393rd's other battalion. However, by the time the 3rd Battalion arrived it was already growing dark, and little movement actually took place. A short time later, Tuttle received orders from Maj. Gen. Walter Robinson, 2nd Division commander, to stay put and establish positions across both trails.
As midnight approached in Lanzerath on December 16, the Kampfgruppe of the 1st SS Panzer Division drove into the village. The commander, Colonel Peiper, was furious. After being stalled all day at the rear of a long column, he had finally received orders to break out to the west any way he could. Pushing the men and equipment ahead of him off the road, he had finally reached Lanzerath–several hours later than scheduled. Waiting for the 3rd Parachute Division to clear a path through the 99th's lines, in addition to traversing broken terrain and mined roads, had cost him even more time–time that he feared he might not be able to make up. He was not in the mood for any more delays.
Inside a small cafe, he found the commander of the 9th Parachute Regiment, Colonel Helmut von Hoffman, and demanded to know why he had not moved farther. More than a little intimidated by the SS officer, the paratroop colonel explained that his men had run into stiff resistance and that the woods and road ahead were packed with American troops and tanks. Peiper asked if any reconnaissance had been conducted, and, as he had anticipated, the answer was no. Thoroughly disgusted, Peiper demanded that a battalion of paratroopers accompany his tanks. He was going ahead. Prisoner Lyle Bouck, lying on the floor of the cafe, watched as Peiper stormed out.
Around 0400 on December 17, the lead tanks of Kampfgruppe Peiper left Lanzerath and rolled into Bucholz, completely routing the small American garrison there. Only one man, a headquarters company radio operator, remained in the town, hidden in a cellar. He counted the number of tanks as they rolled by and relayed information to division headquarters until he was captured.
The Germans forged ahead toward Honsfeld. Just short of their destination, they came upon a stream of American vehicles, all headed west through the little village. Rather than opening fire, the Germans, in the confusion and pre-dawn darkness, simply joined the convoy, pulling into line as breaks presented themselves. Once inside the village proper, the German tanks and infantry riding them opened fire with telling results. Honsfeld, site of one of the 99th Division's rest centers, was crowded with men and equipment of all types, and retreating vehicles clogging the narrow streets added to the congestion. As the Germans sprayed buildings and vehicles with tank and automatic-weapons fire, GIs emerged only to be killed or captured. In some instances GI drivers hastily abandoned their vehicles and fled on foot. In very short order, Peiper had control of Honsfeld and a supply of something else he desperately needed–gasoline.
His tanks refueled, Peiper proceeded toward Büllingen, just a few miles away. He was met by a hastily formed defense consisting of U.S. engineers, headquarters personnel and a few tank destroyers. Fighting raged in and around the village throughout the morning, but the sheer weight of numbers on the German side finally forced the defenders to fall back. By late morning, a last-ditch effort to block the Butgenbach road took shape. Instead of forcing the issue and driving north, however, a move that would have most certainly trapped the 2nd and 99th divisions, Peiper's battle group turned southwest, completely confounding the Americans. As General Lauer later commented, 'The enemy had the key to success within his hands but did not know it.'
By late afternoon on December 16, the 2nd Division commander's feeling of uneasiness had turned to one of impending disaster. General Robertson had by then lost his division reserve to the 99th as well as a combat command of the 9th Armored Division, on loan to him to use when the Wahlerscheid breakthrough was completed. Most of his infantry and two divisional artillery battalions were well forward, which would make any withdrawal extremely difficult at best because only a single road led south from Wahlerscheid. Earlier in the day he had requested permission from the First Army through the V Corps to call off the Wahlerscheid attack but was turned down. Since no one at First Army headquarters realized the scope of the German offensive at this stage, there seemed little to gain and much to lose by pulling back from the Wahlerscheid position. Undaunted, Robertson personally called the regimental commanders at Wahlerscheid late that evening and ordered them to hold tight for the night; they were to continue the attack in the morning, but only upon his express order.
The Germans renewed their attack at Losheimergraben early on December 17. Strong attacks from both flanks and the front failed to achieve any significant progress, but the thinly held American line was crumbling rapidly as the remnants of the 394th's 1st Battalion were reduced to small groups able to offer little more than token resistance. Compounding the Americans' problems, German engineers had repaired a bridge along the Losheim-Losheimergraben road, and shortly before noon German armor made an appearance on the road, crawling slowly toward the disputed crossroads. As even more enemy infantry joined the fray, the few remaining GIs pulled back from the woods and took up positions in basements in the few buildings around a small customs house.
Around 1400, a withdrawal from the Losheimergraben area was authorized. Moving back through the woods, men of the 1st and 3rd battalions found themselves in Mürringen, due south of the Twin Villages and just north of Hünningen, where the lone battalion from the 23rd Infantry still held positions.
During the withdrawal, the 2nd Battalion clashed with a large group of Germans. With his ammunition dangerously low, the American commander was unwilling to risk another fight, and he led his troops into the woods southeast of Mürringen until a clear determination of friendly positions was made.
At Hünningen, Colonel Hightower anticipated a major attack as the Germans moved past his rear. But what the 1st Battalion commander did not realize was that the enemy column (Kampfgruppe Peiper) was actually detouring around Hünningen, interested only in getting back onto its assigned route.
At 1600, the expected attack unfolded, but not from the rear. Heavy shelling preceded an infantry attack from around Losheimergraben. American artillery fire, called down by an observer in the church steeple, was highly effective in stopping the onrushing German troops. But the enemy kept coming, the German commander sending seven distinct attacking waves during the afternoon and early evening. Several penetrations of the thin American line were made but at no time was the enemy able to take Hünningen.
Sometime during the afternoon, Hightower received a radio message removing him from the 394th and assigning him to the 9th Infantry Division headquartered in Wirtzfeld. The message, from Colonel Chester Hirschfelder, 9th Infantry commander, also instructed Hightower to 'pull back to new positions or you will be cut off.' By then, however, Hightower's men were so closely engaged with the Germans that he was not sure if he could break off and move without great difficulty. Nevertheless, he called Colonel Riley of the 394th and advised him of the change in plans. Riley was notably upset, for if Hightower's men pulled out now, his entire right flank would be up in the air, and he still did not know the whereabouts of his 2nd Battalion. A quick radio exchange with General Lauer confirmed the order. Riley knew now that he had no alternative–with ammunition running out and enemy pressure increasing by the minute, he would also have to pull back. Lauer agreed but insisted that any move would have to be coordinated with the 23rd Infantry. Riley spoke with Hightower again, and between them a plan took shape. The withdrawal from Hünningen and Mürringen would commence soon after midnight.
The men of the 393rd's 3rd Battalion, meanwhile, had counterattacked east along the northern forest trail early on December 17, in an attempt to regain their positions along the International Highway. They drove the Germans back off the trail, but then ran into a reinforced battalion of SS Panzergrenadiers coming from the opposite direction and soon joined by the 12th SS Panzer Division. Roving teams of GIs using bazookas managed to hold the panzers at bay for a short time, but the combination of armor and numerical superiority was too much for the defenders. The GIs–critically short of just about everything by then–had to withdraw again.
At 1030, Colonel Jean Scott, 393rd Regiment commander, obtained the OK to withdraw to a new line east of Rocherath. The 3rd Battalion slowly withdrew along the trail and firebreaks, eventually passing through the line established by the 23rd Infantry's 3rd Battalion. As they filed past, the men of the 23rd Infantry begged for any ammunition the others could spare, since they had been issued only the basic load, which would not last for long. At that point, although they did not know it, the few hundred men of the 23rd Infantry's 3rd Battalion were all that stood in the way of the Germans' cutting off all 2nd and 99th Division troops in the Wahlerscheid sector.
By late morning, the situation in the woods had deteriorated to such an extent that Colonel Tuttle's orders had been changed to 'Hold at all costs.' Unsure of what to expect, Tuttle called his company commanders together and passed the order to them.
Robertson had realized by daybreak on December 17 that his division and the 99th were fighting for their very existence. Finally receiving permission to call off the Wahlerscheid attack, he immediately began to implement the withdrawal that had been planned during the night. The plan,'skinning the cat' as Robertson phrased it, called for the most forward units at Wahlerscheid to pull back first, through those behind them. This included the three battalions of the 395th RCT, which was now attached to the 2nd Division. Robertson's plan envisioned the RCT pulling back along a trail that ran nearly parallel to the main road, before joining it about a mile and a half north of Rocherath. Marching south along that trail, the RCT would provide a cover for the other battalions coming back south along the main road.
Waiting on the main road, Robertson met the first of the RCT members and directed the 1st Battalion to positions north of Rocherath, along both sides of the Wahlerscheid road. The first of his own units, the 38th Infantry's 3rd Battalion, came into view a short time later. As had previously been arranged, Colonel Frank Boos, the 38th Infantry commander, had instructed his 3rd Battalion to proceed south past Krinkelt and establish a line south-southeast of the village to deny use of the roads in that area to the Germans.
In the early afternoon, the 9th Infantry's 1st Battalion started south down the main road. The 1st Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. William D. McKinley (a grand-nephew of President William McKinley) was last in line. As they headed south, the men heard the sound of the battle through the falling snow.
East of the road, the battle in the forest reached a critical stage. Just after the survivors of the 393rd's 3rd Battalion had passed, German tanks and infantry unleashed a torrent of fire against the 23rd Infantry's roadblock. Company I was hit especially hard but held its ground until ammunition gave out. Falling back to a firebreak just a few yards behind their original line, the Americans attempted to establish another defensive position, but the Germans, sensing victory, closed too quickly. Two Sherman tanks positioned to back up the 3rd Battalion dueled with the advancing panzers in a gallant effort, but they were no match for the Tigers and Panthers and were quickly knocked out.
As they withdrew, the GIs came out onto large stretches of open ground that were raked by German artillery and rocket fire, adding to the confusion. Many men became separated from their units and made their way to the rear individually or were rounded up and captured by the rapidly advancing Germans.
At 1600, Robertson learned that the 393rd's 3rd Battalion had pulled back from the woods and that his 23rd Infantry's 3rd Battalion had been badly mauled. He realized that there was now no effective resistance to the east and that the Twin Villages and the Wahlerscheid road could be captured at any time. Hurrying back along the road toward Wahlerscheid, he came upon Company K of the 9th Infantry's 3rd Battalion. He quickly directed the commander to take his men southeast to Lausdell, a point where several farm roads and trails converged. That done, he jumped back into his jeep and rushed north toward Wahlerscheid again. Just up the road he met McKinley's badly depleted 3rd Battalion. Locating 10 trucks, Robertson instructed McKinley to load as many men as possible and have the rest follow on foot. He then led the convoy to the Lausdell junction. Once there, he told McKinley to round up and take command of all the troops in the immediate vicinity, set up a defense around the junction and hold 'until ordered otherwise.'
McKinley's force–roughly 600 men–began the tedious but necessary task of digging in. As they began, survivors from the 23rd Infantry streamed back from the woods to the east. Seeing the friendly faces, one of the retiring troops asked which outfit was taking up the Lausdell position. Through gritted teeth one of the digging men replied: 'Ninth Infantry. It ain't enough we attack for five f–ing days. We gotta turn around and take up somebody else's defense.' By 1800, McKinley's positions were fairly well-established, including some mines and a direct communications line to supporting artillery emplaced around Elsenborn.
At about 1830, one of the forward companies reported that tanks were approaching. By now it was pitch dark, and positive identification of the armor was impossible. Forewarned that still more men from the 23rd, 393rd and 394th might yet come out of the forest, the GIs held their fire, and by the time anyone realized the tanks were German they had rumbled past the forward outposts and headed for Rocherath. A short distance behind the front line, two GIs started on their way to verify the tanks' identity. As they were standing alongside the road SS Panzergrenadiers walked right past the GIs, not paying them any attention. Then the tanks came roaring by, and one of the commanders riding high in a turret gestured rudely at the two men as he passed. As the two men raced off quickly toward the CP to request artillery support, the Germans opened fire, killing one of them. The other made it to the CP, and soon mortars were falling, but just one tank was hit.
Meanwhile, more tanks and infantry appeared at the front. Realizing now that anything approaching along the road from the forest was German, McKinley's men were galvanized to action. A string of mines pulled across the road stopped two of the panzers, while daring bazooka teams accounted for two more. Along another road still more German armor appeared. Artillery fire took out four of those tanks, but several others ran the gantlet of fire and continued on to Rocherath. Just a few minutes later, still more enemy tanks materialized on the main road, this time accompanied by a large number of infantry. The artillery liaison officer screamed into his radio handset for fire on the rapidly closing column, saying, 'If you don't get it out now, it'll be too goddamned late!' The response came a minute later in a deafening crash of exploding shells, and the German attack withered under the brutal pounding. When the shelling ceased, a silence described by one man as 'almost frightening' fell over the battlefield.
While McKinley's men were digging in, the last American troops left Wahlerscheid en route to the Twin Villages. Two battalions from the 38th Infantry were nearing an area called the Baracken Crossroads when German artillery began to fall on them. The 1st Battalion, under Lt. Col. Frank Mildren, ran through the deadly fire, with two companies taking heavy casualties. Making his way to Rocherath, Mildren tried to locate his executive officer. He finally spotted him near the gray stone church that separated the two villages. Mildren got a quick briefing, then made his way to the CP, a house just south of the church. Locating as many of his men as possible, he directed them into positions east and northeast of Krinkelt, placing one platoon farther out in front of the others to give the alarm if the Germans broke through. The 2nd Battalion, meanwhile, filtered into Rocherath to positions east and northeast of that village, almost directly behind McKinley's positions at Lausdell.
West of Krinkelt, engineers from the 2nd Division worked feverishly to shore up the single dirt road between the Twin Villages and Wirtzfeld. It was along that road that Robertson planned to move the men from the two divisions as soon as a cohesive defense could be created along the Elsenborn Ridge.
That night, east of the Twin Villages, the roads and fields were akin to a scene from hell. Vehicles and buildings burned brightly, tracers skipped back and forth, and flares of all colors floated down through the inky darkness while artillery shells and rockets exploded everywhere. As one officer saw it, 'The night was ablaze with more noise and flame [than he had] thought possible for men to create.'
In the Twin Villages, the tanks that had earlier gotten by McKinley's men roamed the streets shooting at anything that moved. Near the church they encountered three Shermans. The ensuing fight was short and one-sided; soon all three American tanks were smoking hulks. Adding to the bedlam, German artillery bracketed the villages, setting more buildings afire.
Late on December 17, two events occurred that would have an effect not only on the raging battle in and around the Twin Villages, but also, later, the defense of the Elsenborn Ridge itself. First, the 1st Infantry Division's 26th Infantry Regiment had arrived and taken up positions between Butgenbach and Büllingen. This took some of the pressure off the few remaining troops of the 99th Division south and southwest of the Twin Villages. It also strengthened the weak southern flank and alleviated some of Robertson's concern about a thrust from Büllingen. Secondly, the remaining men of the 394th's 1st Battalion at Mürringen, as well as the 23rd's 1st Battalion at Hünningen, gave up their positions. Adhering to Lauer's orders, both units broke off contact and made their way to the Twin Villages. In the confusion around Krinkelt, many men became lost and separated, but the majority of the 394th made it through Krinkelt and Wirtzfeld to Elsenborn while those of the 23rd made it to Wirtzfeld, where they joined the 9th Infantry in establishing a defense of the village.
Throughout the night, artillery continued to pound the Twin Villages as German tanks prowled the streets in search of American positions. But more than a few panzers fell prey to teams of bazooka-firing GIs who stalked and then destroyed the steel behemoths in the narrow lanes. In several cases when bazooka rockets ran out, GIs emptied gasoline cans over the often slow-moving tanks and lit them with thermite grenades. After losing their infantry support, three German tanks hid in the rubble and played dead, content to wait until daylight before resuming the attack. Farther east, throughout the night, the Germans funneled men and armor into the woods in preparation for an all-out assault at dawn.
At 0700, with thick fog and smoke obscuring the battlefield, the Germans sallied forth again, a heavy barrage of artillery and rockets preceding their advance. Near Lausdell, McKinley's men, fed and resupplied overnight, prepared to meet the challenge. They did not have to wait long–soon, hundreds of SS Panzergrenadiers supported by tanks loomed out of the fog. Letting the first wave of armor pass, the GIs rose from their foxholes and engaged the enemy infantry with any weapon at hand–guns, knives, even shovels. 'One man tried to stop a tank by jamming his rifle between the cleats of its track,' recalled an eyewitness. Bazooka teams crept up to the slow-moving armor and knocked out several, small-arms fire picking off any crewman who tried to escape. Excellent shooting by American artillery finally broke up the savage attack, but the determined Germans were not finished. At 0830, after regrouping in the woods, they came on again in even larger numbers. This time, even with the deadly artillery fire right on target, the GIs around Lausdell were unable to stem the German tide. Several tanks broke through followed closely by German infantry, both headed for the cauldron that was the Twin Villages.
During the night, McKinley had received word that his men would be withdrawn as soon as the 38th Infantry's 2nd Battalion had established its defense, but the Germans struck before McKinley's men could pull out. Via radio, McKinley told Colonel Boos that he could not disengage unless tank or tank destroyer support could be found. Suddenly, as if on cue, four Shermans appeared at the Baracken Crossroads. Asked if he wanted to fight, the tank platoon commander yelled loudly, 'Hell, yes!' The Shermans moved in quickly, firing at enemy armor between the front lines and Rocherath. In quick succession, they accounted for four knocked out German tanks. The planned withdrawal commenced shortly after noon with the Shermans providing close support, as American artillery again rose to the occasion and prevented any interference by the enemy infantry. The last out of the CP, McKinley and his operations officer ran, heads lowered, towards the Baracken Crossroads, and as they fled they heard Germans shouting behind them, demanding their unit's surrender.
Just a little over a day earlier, 600 men had gone into Lausdell; now only 217 came out. The magnificent stand by McKinley and his men was a high point seldom witnessed in battle. 'You have saved my regiment,' Boos told him.
In Krinkelt, the men of Mildren's 1st Battalion had been fighting tanks practically barehanded all morning long. Mildren had tried more than once to secure assistance from Boos in Rocherath, but to no avail. As the morning wore on and more panzers appeared, Mildren directed one of his staff to call the CP again for armored support. In short order, a junior officer was on the radio talking with Boos. 'Sir, we've got to have TDs [tank destroyers]. We're being overrun by Jerry tanks.' Calmly, Boos asked, 'How many tanks? And just how close are they to you?' Just then, one of the German tanks roared by outside Mildren's CP, shaking the house to its very foundation. The young officer then replied, 'Well, Colonel, if I went up to the second floor, I could piss out the window and hit at least six.'
The savage fighting continued nonstop all day. Infantry and tank battles raged throughout the villages. The streets and lanes of both were filled with wrecked and burning tanks. Bodies of American and German dead were strewn about everywhere, frozen into the grotesque positions that only violent death can fashion. Men were captured, escaped and were recaptured. For hours GIs and grenadiers fought one another separated only by a narrow road. Word that the SS had been murdering prisoners and bayoneting wounded spread like wildfire through the American ranks and as the battle for Krinkelt and Rocherath continued–they neither gave nor expected quarter.
Near Mildren's CP in Krinkelt, a Tiger tank was wreaking havoc. Lieutenant Jesse Morrow, Mildren's communications officer, watched as the 60-ton monster rolled over a jeep, flattening it. Grabbing a bazooka that had been flung from the jeep, Morrow aimed at the rear of the tank and fired. The tank rolled on a little, out of control, then careened into a house. A crewman stuck his head out of the top hatch, and Morrow fired his .45 at him until it was empty. Just then a second jeep came toward the young officer. Spotting another bazooka in the vehicle, he stopped the driver, grabbed the weapon and leaped around the corner, ready to fire. Then he froze. He was looking directly down the tank's cannon. The tank's gunner fired, and the concussion from the shell exploding behind him knocked Morrow unconscious.
Coming to, Morrow saw the tank was a smoking hulk. He crawled back to the CP where Mildren, who had watched the entire scene unfold, could not believe that Morrow was still alive–alive, but not unscathed. The 88mm round from the Tiger had grazed Morrow's neck as it passed, and he was bleeding profusely. Mildren ordered him evacuated immediately to a field hospital. As he was being loaded into an ambulance, Morrow noticed three badly burned German prisoners. A medic told him, 'These guys were in the tank that shot you. A GI threw a thermite bomb down the turret.' Smiling at the young American officer, one of the Germans asked, 'Do you have a cigarette? Cigarette?' Morrow tried to get up. But with his fingers still clawing at the German, he dropped back, unconscious.
The plan for the withdrawal from the Twin Villages had been finalized by early morning December 19. It was simple: units would be pulled out from left to right, or from north to south. General Robertson encouraged the officers who were actually leading men not to use the word 'withdrawal.' This action was 'a move to new positions,' and would be conducted in an orderly fashion. The men would 'walk, not run.' About 1330, Colonel Boos ordered all equipment that could not be carried out of the villages to be destroyed. The Germans, still unwilling to give up, attacked throughout the day, but not on the scale of previous days. This was partially due to the fact that the 12th SS Panzer Division had been ordered to detour south and bypass the bottleneck, and continue on to its final objective–the banks of the Meuse River.
Commencing at 1730, the 395th RCT fell back from positions around the Baracken Crossroads, withdrawing along a boggy trail toward Elsenborn. The 38th Infantry's 2nd Battalion was next, followed by Mildren's 1st Battalion. Soon thereafter, the majority of American troops were gone, out of the charnel house that the Twin Villages had become. A rear guard consisting of infantry, engineers and some tank destroyers held the back door through Wirtzfeld open until early morning on December 20. Then they too made their way back along the muddy, deeply rutted road to Elsenborn.
After three long, difficult days of practically nonstop combat (seven days for most of the 2nd Division), the initial phase of the battle around Elsenborn Ridge was over. Although some units lost as much as 80 percent of their combat strength, the back of the German offensive in the Ardennes was effectively broken at the Twin Villages. The continuing efforts of the 2nd and 99th divisions, in concert with the 1st Division to the south and the 78th Division in the north, near Elsenborn Ridge, would end all German hopes for a successful drive to the Meuse River and then the vital Belgian port of Antwerp.
This article was written by Ralph E. Hersko, Jr. and originally published in the November 1998 issue of World War II.
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