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World War II: Desperate Hours at Kesternich

6/12/2006 • World War II
National Archives
Pfc Thomas W. Gilmore from Company A, 121st Infantry, photographed near Hürtgen on December 7, 1944. The winter of 1944-45 was a long one for First Army troops trying to drive to the Rhine.

Major General Edwin P. Parker, Jr., commander of the new 78th Lightning Infantry Division, was worried. His battalion attacking Kesternich was in trouble. The fight for the little farming village, about 15 miles southeast of Aachen, Germany, had started before daylight on Wednesday, December 13, 1944. Now it was evening, and Parker was one of many officers who had no idea what the situation was. The battalion commander whose men were locked in combat had no idea either. He was in a shell crater just outside the town, out of contact with his own command post and company commanders.

Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges, commander of the First U.S. Army, was upset as well. Reports from his liaison officer at Parker’s headquarters indicated a confused situation and lack of knowledge among Parker’s senior leaders. Hodges was worried the new division would get itself smacked by the Boche, and he bluntly told Maj. Gen. L.T. Gerow, the V Corps commander, to get the thing straightened out.

Unfortunately for the First Army, it would be some time before things were straightened out. The village of Kesternich and its resolute defenders swallowed up two battalions of infantry and made a third pay a high price for its capture six weeks later. What happened? What was so important about Kesternich, and why is it virtually unknown now?

The Roer River was the last major natural obstacle between the 12th U.S. Army Group and the Rhine River. The First Army had been trying since September 1944 to secure Roer crossing sites by attacking through the Hürtgen Forest. Weeks of very brutal fighting in the gloomy woods had brought little more than several thousand casualties, and in December the First Army was still on the west bank of the Roer.

Kesternich was important because of its location. It was perched on a high ridge above the Roer Valley and its two largest flood-control dams, the Schwammenauel and the Urft. The dams were under German control. The issue was simple: Control the dams and you control the level of the Roer. The Americans would be foolish to put a single soldier across the river unless they had the dams. Unfortunately, they had not been a stated target of the First Army. Air attacks in early December had failed to breach the dams, and the First Army had no choice but to have V Corps take them by a ground attack through the so-called Monschau Corridor. This was rolling farmland studded with villages such as Kesternich, as well as a thick band of West Wall (Siegfried Line) bunkers and anti-tank obstacles called dragon’s teeth. The area was far better for maneuvers than the adjacent Hürtgen Forest, but it was also known as a fine practice range for German artillerymen. The 78th Division would attack the Schwammenauel Dam, while the 2nd Infantry Division attacked the Urft Dam. No senior officer in V Corps had any illusion that the battle would be easy; however, most of the officers were surprised at how difficult the task turned out to be.

Parker’s staff developed a three-phased plan to clear the Monschau Corridor and hit the Schwammenauel Dam from the northwest. Kesternich and nearby Simmerath would fall in phase 1. In phase 2, the division would take Konzen, Eicherscheid and Imgenbroich to protect its vulnerable right flank. The towns of Schmidt, Steckenborn and Strauch were targets of the third phase. The ground assault on the Schwammenauel Dam would come last, but only after all the villages were in American hands.

Bone-chilling cold and a dense ground fog marked the dawn of December 13. The 2nd Battalion, 309th Infantry, moved on Kesternich from the northwest and hit trouble minutes after it jumped off. Company F, for example, ran into a thick belt of wood-cased anti-personnel mines. The flashes of the explosions were a signal for the German mortar crews to open fire on the survivors. Shells poured in, hammering the ground and simply erasing some soldiers.

The men of Company E, meanwhile, were riding tanks of the 709th Tank Battalion, attached to the 2nd Battalion. These men soon found themselves in a pasture covered by deep snowdrifts. German anti-tank gunners fired on the struggling tanks. The infantry dismounted amid plumes of muddy earth and continued on foot without tank support. Those who lived called it a fight between Company E and the German army. The men who made it through the mines, mortars, anti-tank and automatic-weapons fire to the first buildings in Kesternich were cut off from reinforcement. They had no radios with which to call for fire, and most of the tanks were still outside the town. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Wilson L. Burley, Jr., had started the battle riding on a tank, but had ended up in a shell crater near the main road leading into town from the west. Contact with his company commanders was intermittent, and he knew only as much about the battle as he could see from the crater. He was not sure of the location and strength of the German defenses, and he had no idea where most of his men were. His command post had no idea where he was. He finally reached the commanders of the two lead companies by radio and had them withdraw their men a few hundred yards to the west. There was no more progress that day. Burley was last heard from early on the 14th, after he had gone into Kesternich to assess the situation. His body was later found in the town. The executive officer was presumed dead, though his body was never recovered. The commander of Company H, Captain Douglas P. Frazier, took command. The day had gone generally well elsewhere, but there was nothing good for Parker to tell Gerow about Kesternich. They decided to reinforce Burley’s battalion. Time was critical. As one participant later said, There was no hope here, just death lurking in every shadow, every hollow, every house.

Parker ordered Lt. Col. Byron W. Ladd’s 2nd Battalion, 310th Infantry, to attack at 6 a.m. on December 14. Ladd was ordered to clear and hold Kesternich and block the roads leading into the town from the east. The battalion had spent December 13 moving forward but out of contact, and Ladd’s staff had not used the time it had to prepare plans for commitment. The battalion also did not conduct a thorough reconnaissance, a shortcoming the unit later paid for dearly. Much damage was inflicted on the battalion by a machine gun firing from a large, undetected, concrete bunker that covered the western approaches to Kesternich. Reportedly, in the days leading up to the attack, the battalion intelligence officer had not prepared a terrain analysis of the area, though the battalion had excellent, specially produced maps. Finally, Ladd knew only that a battalion of the 309th badly needed help. Like Burley, he knew little about the German defenses.

Companies E and F of the 310th made the main effort on the 14th. Company F had an attached platoon of tank destroyers, and Ladd held the attached tanks in battalion reserve. The German machine gunners reacted quickly to the figures wading through the snow-covered fields. When members of Company E tried to escape the fire, they touched off anti-personnel mines. This was the cue for the German artillery observers to call in a rain of shells. Company G, in reserve, was so close behind the attacking companies that it also suffered several casualties from the same fire that hit Company E. Division artillery refused Ladd’s call for supporting artillery fire because of concerns about injuring soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 309th Infantry, who might still be in town. But it mattered little in the end because no one could locate the forward observer.
National Archives
Having finally captured Kesternich, men of the 311th Infantry pause next to the body of a German soldier on February 1, 1945.

Ladd halted the attack shortly before dusk in order for the battalion to reorganize and resupply. The battalion also used the cover of darkness to begin an agonizingly slow evacuation of the wounded, who had remained in the open throughout the day. Shock was a serious problem, and several men died before they could be evacuated to the battalion aid station. The company commanders estimated the first day’s casualties in Ladd’s battalion at 25 percent.

The attack of the 2nd Battalion, 310th, had also done little to assist the remnants of the 2nd Battalion, 309th. Company E, for example, was down to about 40 effectives and was still without tank support. The attached tankers had told the infantrymen that the German fire was too intense for them to move into the town. They also wanted a tank-dozer or a bulldozer to clear the road of snow and debris. The commander of Company E and the commander of the 774th Tank Battalion were arguing about this when a shell hit nearby and wounded several men. When the bulldozer finally arrived, it reportedly would not advance in front of the tanks and the tanks would not advance without a bulldozer in front. Therefore, nobody advanced except the infantry.

An infantry lieutenant got up to lead an attack, but a German shell literally cut him in two. When an American soldier fired a bazooka at an approaching enemy armored vehicle, the round bounced off and return fire killed the soldier. Captain Frazier later reported that Company E had been virtually annihilated. Troops dubbed the battalion command post 88 Junction, so intense was the enemy fire.

That night, patrols maintained contact between the scattered elements of the 2nd Battalion, 309th Infantry, and 2nd Battalion, 310th. The V Corps commander, General Gerow, told General Parker of the 78th Infantry to do something about Kesternich immediately. At about 1 a.m. on the 15th, the executive officer of the 309th Infantry, Lt. Col. Creighton E. Likes, took control of both battalions.

Companies E and F of the 310th Infantry renewed the attack about dawn, and there was finally some progress. Company E skirted the bunker on the west side of Kesternich. Moving toward the southeast to skirt the town, Company F was well underway until mortars and mines stalled its attack. Some of the men eventually made it to Kesternich later in the day.The ensuing house-to-house fight caused the company to separate into several groups of men carrying out uncoordinated, though occasionally successful, close-combat assaults. Soldiers would throw grenades through holes in the walls and then burst through the doorways, firing constantly. Armored support, however, remained a problem throughout the day. For example, when an attached platoon of tanks reached the town, anti-tank fire and mines knocked out two or three tanks and the rest withdrew. They returned later to join a few tank destroyers that had also reached town.

A unit is most vulnerable in the minutes immediately following seizure of an objective. In the case of the 2nd Battalion, 310th, losses among officers had been high, and many soldiers, understandably shaken after the last two days of bitter combat, took shelter in houses without contacting other soldiers nearby. By midafternoon, many squad and platoon leaders no longer knew where their men were. Within a few hours they would desperately wish that they did.

The American attack worried the commander of the 272nd Volksgrenadier Division, Maj. Gen. Eugen König. Loss of the commanding high ground at Kesternich would split his division, which had its back to the treacherous Roer Valley. König had no reserve, and every available soldier was busy holding the line against the 78th Division’s multiple attacks. Worse still, the German Ardennes offensive was to begin in less than 48 hours, and loss of the Monschau Corridor would jeopardize the north flank of the attack. On December 14, König told his staff to plan a counterattack to begin at 3:30 p.m. the next day.

The artillery preparation began on time, hitting the Americans in the east end of town and then shifting west. The Volksgrenadiers moved out from a heavily wooded draw about 300 yards from the Americans. Three Hetzer self-propelled guns and a quad 20mm self-propelled flak wagon provided support.

Meanwhile, Ladd and his company commanders were meeting when a breathless messenger arrived and reported the counterattack. Ladd told the company commanders to get back to their units. The phone lines were already out, and by the time the artillery observers had word of the counterattack, it was too dark for them to see. This might not have been a critical problem had there been pre-planned targets on which they could fire. Unfortunately, there were none. The commander of Company E reported an endless line of German infantry approaching and supported by an assault gun or tank. Many riflemen left their foxholes at the edge of Kesternich and headed for the cellars of the town’s buildings. Seventy men from Company E managed to hold a few buildings at the western edge of town. The next morning, after taking another beating from automatic weapons and self-propelled guns, the 56 surviving men surrendered. Company F temporarily halted the Germans in its sector, but it, too, eventually buckled under the pressure. Ladd led several men from Company G in a futile stand near the battalion command post. The Germans took most of this group prisoner. Captain Adolf Thomae, a battalion commander in the 980th Grenadier Regiment, could not believe the enormous amount of materiel taken from the Americans. We tried out a portable radio. We could hear and understand the Americans, as they were near us for several hours, he later recalled.

To this day, no one is really sure what happened in Kesternich on the night of December 15-16. None of the patrols from Company E, 310th, sent to contact friendly elements to the west returned. Isolated fighting continued throughout the night, and on the afternoon of the 16th, the 3rd Battalion, 309th, with a few men from the 2nd Battalion, 310th, re-entered the western part of town. One officer said later, Very few men from the [2nd of the 310th] were found in any of the houses, none [of them] were alive. This force withdrew to the western edge of town. Estimates of losses in the 2nd Battalion, 310th Infantry, alone were six officers and 63 enlisted men killed and five officers and nearly 100 enlisted men wounded; nearly 300 officers and men were missing. Seventy-five men sustained non-battle injuries, mostly trench foot. Losses in the 2nd Battalion, 309th, were just as high. The authorized strength of a rifle battalion, less attachments, was 871. In three days, the 78th Division had lost well over 1,000 men, most of them at Kesternich, and had failed to clear the Monschau Corridor. The Battle of the Bulge began on the 16th and ended for the time being any more attacks on Kesternich and the Schwammenauel Dam. The division did not participate in the Battle of the Bulge. Rather, it spent this time learning the lessons of its brutal indoctrination to combat.

The 78th Division was part of the Ninth Army’s XIX Corps during its second attack on Kesternich. The detailed plans called for each rifle squad in the attacking battalion, the 2nd Battalion of the 311th Infantry, under Lt. Col. Richard W. Keyes, to take a specific building. The maps had each building designated by number. The town was divided into nine sub-objectives to ease reporting and command and control concerns. The 736th Tank Battalion and the 893rd Tank Destroyer Battalion provided support. Captain Thomae’s battalion was still in position and formed the major element of the German defense.

The American plan called for Company G, commanded by 1st Lt. Clyde H. Trivette, to lead at first, on the battalion right in a column of platoons. Company F, led by Captain William J. Curran, and an attached platoon of tanks would move on the left with platoons on line. Once in town, Company F would allow Company G to pass through and follow the main street. Company E, led by Captain John V. Rowan, Jr., would then pass through the gap created by the other companies to take the eastern end of town.

The attack began at 5:30 a.m. on January 30, 1945. Unfortunately, the detailed plans quickly fell apart. Snow covered the landmarks. Many tanks lost traction on the frozen earth and could not keep up with the infantry. Other tanks hit mines–usually no tankers were injured, but infantrymen always were. Company F lost precious time bringing up equipment to breach a wire obstacle, and the leader of the company’s assault platoon climbed aboard a tank that was still in action and directed it himself until it hit a mine. The concussion threw him to the hard ground, but he soon found a Bangalore torpedo and blew a gap in the obstacle. He was later wounded leading soldiers while mounted on a tank. At about 7 a.m., Company F reported that some of its men had entered houses in the town, but that the unit was receiving heavy small-arms fire. By 9 a.m., Captain Curran reported he had men on Kesternich’s main street.

Direct fire, meanwhile, had knocked out at least two of the attached tanks. One crewman, Sergeant Leonard S. Kizzer, dismounted to repair his tank, and, after several hours dodging rounds, got it back into action. Company G’s lead platoon exploited the gap made by Company F, entered the town and started to swing south. Unfortunately, the next platoon ran into a minefield and also took flanking machine-gun fire; only 15 men survived. Ladd committed Company E in midmorning, but heavy machine-gun fire halted it in the center of town. Colonel Chester M. Willingham, commander of the 311th Infantry, told Keyes to keep pushing, [the troops are moving] too slow, and not to hesitate committing the reserve tank platoon. Keyes then went forward to check the situation and found that radio communication between the infantry and the tanks was beginning to fail. Keyes later recalled that the situation was confusing: The battle had lost its coordination and the fighting had become piecemeal….It was very difficult to pick out specific buildings indicated on the sketch. Most of them had either been demolished completely, or had lost their form….Many elements of the companies were scattered and difficult to control….The tank-infantry coordination was not favorable. The tanks seemed to expect the infantry to lead them and the infantry was prone to wait for the tanks.

Keyes rejected Captain Rowan’s suggestion to halt and reorganize the battalion. Instead, he ordered the company commanders to renew the attack at 3 p.m. Advance by marching fire, he added.

Although the battalion was tired, continuing the attack kept the Germans from taking any rest. The infantrymen had to root out the defenders from the rubble while dodging snipers and running from one water-filled crater to another. One officer later remembered, Where there were two buildings, one behind the other, [a] tank would fire at the first building and, as the infantry started to mop up, the tanks would open fire on the second building. Keyes halted the attack at dark. In some places, the two lines were only 150 yards apart.

The attack continued at 8:30 a.m. on the 31st, and at least 15 more buildings fell within three hours. But Company G hit a strongpoint, and the frustrated Keyes was prepared to take it by weight of numbers rather than by fire and maneuver. It finally fell to massed tank fire. During this phase of the battle, a soldier yelled that German tanks were approaching from the rear. Another soldier, riding on a tank, yelled for the tank commander to traverse his gun and fire. He did–and a high-explosive round hit the front slope of an American tank destroyer not more than 100 yards away. There were no injuries to the crew. According to one report, some German soldiers who had apparently captured an American radio broadcast during the battle in broken English, Tankers….What are you trying to do, fight the war yourselves?

Several soldiers, including Colonel Keyes, mounted tanks to direct their fire. To get the attention of a buttoned-up tank commander, they often had to bang on the turret or cover the periscope. The infantry found that the phones mounted on the rear of the tanks had usually been torn away by shell fragments. Clearly, there were significant tank-infantry coordination problems, but under the circumstances the tankers probably did the best they could. Colonel Willingham, however, later stated, Hesitation and lack of aggression on the part of this tank unit, in my opinion, resulted in over 50 unnecessary casualties. A tank unit that is not aggressive is a detriment to the infantry.

German indirect fire streamed into Kesternich all morning, though the Germans had lost most of the town by midday. Staff Sergeant Jonah E. Kelley, a squad leader in Company E of the 311th, had been wounded in the back and left hand, but had refused evacuation. Unable to hold his rifle with both hands, he rested it on rubble or on his forearm. Despite the wounds, he rushed a house alone and killed three Germans on the 30th. On January 31, he again ordered his men to remain under cover while he charged a building. He was hit several times as he ran across open ground, and he fell mortally wounded just yards from the enemy. Before he died, he killed the enemy soldier who had shot him. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

The 224 additional men who fell at Kesternich in late January brought the 78th Division’s casualty total to more than 1,000. But at least Kesternich was in American hands, and the way was finally clear for the final attack on the Schwammenauel Dam, which fell on February 9.

The troops called it Little Aachen. Keyes called it a dog-eat-dog fight. Without Kesternich, the Americans could not have safely crossed the Roer River. The bitter fighting at Kesternich has been overshadowed by the Bulge and assault crossings of the Roer and Rhine. A new division had paid a high price for its blooding at Kesternich, but it had done very well indeed.

Almost a half century later, in June 1993, elderly German and American veterans gathered in Kesternich to dedicate a small monument to the 78th Infantry Division and the 272nd Volksgrenadier Division. Few of the Americans had been to Germany since the war. Many veterans of both sides had spent years trying to forget the events that had originally brought them together. The large crowd of veterans, their families and residents of Kesternich listened reverently first to Alte Kamaraden, then to taps. There were speeches. Young German and American soldiers stood with their national colors unfurled. And nearby, German school children listened silently as the elderly warriors reminded those present that they should not forget what happened in that little farming village in the miserable winter of 1944-45.

This article was written by Edward G. Miller and originally appeared in the November 1996 issue of World War II. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!

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