On Dec. 21, 1944, a broken Maj. Gen. Alan W. Jones remarked to a subordinate officer, “I’ve lost a division quicker than any division commander in the U.S. Army.” In the first six days of the German Ardennes offensive, Jones’ 106th Infantry Division (the “Golden Lion”) had lost more than 8,000 men, nearly 7,000 of whom were captured.
On December 12 Jones’ untested 106th had assumed responsibility for a 27-mile sector of the seemingly sleepy Ardennes front. The division was at full strength, with nine infantry battalions organized into three regiments and the 14th Cavalry Group attached. All told, Jones had 16,000 men under his command, though most of his experienced infantrymen had been reassigned to other units over the previous months. Replacements had trickled in, but the division lacked seasoned soldiers and small-unit leaders.
The 106th’s sector lay along the German-Belgian border, encompassing the Schnee Eifel plateau in the center and the Losheim Gap to the north. The heavily wooded, restrictive terrain of the Schnee Eifel was difficult to defend, and the road network allowed the plateau to be bypassed and isolated. Jones assigned two of his regiments to its defense. Defending the Losheim Gap, a historic invasion route, was the 14th Cavalry—a unit adept at reconnaissance, not fixed defense.
The Ardennes fell under the overall command of Maj. Gen. Terry Middleton’s VIII Corps (to which the 106th belonged), whose troops were spread over an area three times greater than a typical corps frontage. Unknown to the Allies, closing on the overextended and largely unprepared force were some 200,000 soldiers and 1,000 tanks of two German panzer armies.
Early on December 16 elements of the German 3rd Fallschirmjäger and 18th Volksgrenadier divisions hit the 106th and routed the 14th Cavalry. The lead enemy units encountered little resistance as they slipped through gaps in the U.S. defenses. By day’s end they had turned south and partially enveloped the Schnee Eifel.
American regiments on the plateau held their own but were in danger of being cut off. At that critical juncture Jones failed to appreciate the peril of his forward regiments. He participated in a disastrous call with Middleton, during which the commander of the 106th believed he was ordered to hold the precarious Schnee Eifel. Middleton later insisted he’d directed Jones to withdraw his exposed units. Armored reinforcements were en route, but they arrived 12 hours after Jones expected them.
By midafternoon on December 17 German forces had enveloped the southern end of the Schnee Eifel, surrounding the plateau. With the regimental positions untenable, Jones provided garbled instructions regarding a breakout to the west. Poorly planned and coordinated, the maneuver bogged down, with units getting lost and running into German roadblocks. By December 19 all breakout attempts had ended, and the regiments had become a mob of some 7,000 confused and frightened individuals, milling about the woods at the mercy of German fire. Both units surrendered that afternoon.
Defeat is a shared event. Corps HQ poorly served the 106th with regard to intelligence, security and force disposition in a “quiet sector.”
Unit cohesion matters. The dispersal of the 106th’s experienced troops led to deployment of a marginally trained, unsure force.
When in command, command. Jones was indecisive and overwhelmed as events unfolded.
Communicate. Two generals’ failure to coordinate troop movements had disastrous consequences.
Stay agile or die. The 106th did not react quickly to the German assault, could not seize the initiative and was destroyed in place.