August 1944 was a disastrous month for the Third Reich. In the West, American, British and Canadian armies had driven the Wehrmacht out of France and back to the Siegfried Line. In the East, the situation was even worse. Army Group Center, defending eastern Poland, was smashed by the Soviet summer offensive, and now a torrent of vengeful Red Army soldiers were pouring westward to the borders of Germany itself.
Radical action was needed if Adolf Hitler was going to have any chance to dramatically alter the course of the war. An early winter offensive in the East would be of little value. Not only would the climate and topography probably defeat such a thrust, but even if it succeeded, at most it would only result in the destruction of 25 or so Soviet divisions and limited territorial gains. In view of the size of the forces the Russians had at their disposal, such a success would have little effect on the overall situation in the East.
In Western Europe, however, things were not so bleak. An offensive launched through the wooded Ardennes region could provide the Führer with the decisive results he needed. In perhaps the Third Reich’s greatest triumph, it was there in 1940 that General Heinz Guderian had punched a hole through the French lines, crossed the Meuse River below Sedan and raced to the sea in just two weeks. The Ardennes thus had a certain emotional attraction. Furthermore, the American troops who now defended the region had yet to fight in a winter campaign and, if the attack could be organized quickly and launched early enough in the winter months, the weather could markedly reduce the effectiveness of Allied air cover.
All factors seemed to point to the Ardennes as the place for the Germans to launch their last great offensive. Having decided upon his course, Hitler began to strip away badly needed units from the Eastern Front and comb the Reich for additional manpower to bring his battered formations up to strength. He also hoarded precious fuel and armored vehicles. Aware that surprise was a critical component to success, the Germans carried out these preparations with the utmost secrecy.
Through stinginess and stealth, during the fall of ’44, the Führer was able to assemble a strike force whose size and strength had not been seen by German soldiers for years. As a final gesture to convince the Allies that the Germans had no plan for an offensive, Hitler’s last gamble was dubbed Operation Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine).
The Führer‘s plan called for two panzer armies, the Fifth and Sixth–consisting of seven armored, one parachute and eight Volksgrenadier divisions–to punch through three American infantry divisions, the 99th, 106th and 28th, which were spread along the Ardennes’ border with Germany.
After breaching the American line, the two panzer armies were to drive northwestward to the Belgian port of Antwerp and the sea, splitting the Allied line in two. Two other German armies, the Fifteenth and Seventh, would protect the northern and southern flanks of the principal German advance. Hitler hoped that such a blow would split the unity of the Allied alliance and cause it to crumble or, at the very least, so disrupt the Western Allies’ advance that he would be able to shift badly needed forces to the East to counter the Communist threat.
One of the principal units in the operation was General Heinrich von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzer Corps of General Hasso von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army. Lüttwitz’s panzer corps was to breach the American lines between the small towns of Marnach and Weiler, seize two main roads that ran east-west through those towns and cross the Clerf River on the offensive’s first day. After cracking the American line, Lüttwitz’s tanks were to pass through the crossroads city of Bastogne on the second day and seize the bridges over the Meuse just south of Namur and Dinant. In addition to the territorial objectives, Lüttwitz was instructed to support General Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army drive to Antwerp and the sea. The keys to the operation, in Hitler’s mind, were speed and audacity, just as they had been in 1940.
Unlike many other formations at this late stage of the war, the XLVII Panzer Corps was made up entirely of army divisions. Lüttwitz’s command consisted of the 2nd Panzer, Panzer Lehr and 26th Volksgrenadier divisions. The 2nd was highly regarded by many in the German army because it was one of the Wehrmacht‘s three original experimental panzer divisions. Since the start of the war it had seen extensive service in France and Russia before being removed from the maelstrom to rest and refit early in 1944.
After being reconstituted, the 2nd was assigned to the defense of the West Wall. Between June and August 1944, the 2nd took part in the fighting in Normandy’s bocage country, only to be pushed back by superior Allied forces, encircled and nearly destroyed during the ensuing campaign. Following the disastrous Normandy battles, what remained of the division was judiciously pulled out of the lines and sent to Wittlich, in the Schnee-Eifel area of Germany. Once in the rear, the division received new equipment and absorbed the remains of the 352nd Infantry Division, which had also been destroyed during the brutal fighting in France.
Just two days before the operation was supposed to begin, the reconstituted division was put under the command of Colonel Meinrad von Lauchert. Although Lauchert was an able officer who had served in the Panzertruppen since 1924, he had little time to acquaint himself with his surroundings and had not even had an opportunity to meet with all of his regimental commanders prior to the attack.
Panzer Lehr was another one of the Wehrmacht‘s premier divisions. Officially formed on January 10, 1944, in the Nancy-Verdun area of France from various armored training and demonstration units, Panzer Lehr had received its baptism of fire against the Soviets in Hungary. After helping to temporarily slow Soviet advances in the East, the division had been rushed back to France to try to stem the tide of British and American forces rampaging across Normandy. One of the strongest armored formations of the German army, Panzer Lehr fought the Allies at Caen and St. Lô until, like the 2nd, it escaped from the Falaise Pocket and was pulled out of the lines to be reconstituted. For Wacht am Rhein, the division was put under the stewardship of its original commander, Lt. Gen. Fritz Bayerlein.
The final weapon in General Lüttwitz’s arsenal was the 26th Volksgrenadier Division, which was assigned the task of infiltrating American positions and creating gaps large enough to allow Panzer Lehr to pass through to Bastogne and the Meuse unhindered. The 26th Volksgrenadier had its origins in the 26th Infantry Division. After that unit was virtually destroyed in the vicious battles in Russia in September 1944, the surviving members of the division were shipped to western Poland to the Warthelager training area to rest and refit. There, the division was reconstituted with what remained of the 582nd Infantry Division, along with new recruits and personnel combed from the ranks of the navy and air force. In order to inspire the men of this ad hoc command, as well as the many other German divisions being formed from the pieces and parts of other shattered divisions, in 1944 Hitler dubbed these new formations Volksgrenadiers (people’s grenadiers). The new 12,000-man 26th Volksgrenadier Division was given to Maj. Gen. Heinz Kokott, a sturdy and meticulous veteran of many campaigns.
Over Hitler’s initial objections, General Manteuffel declined the opportunity of preceding his attack with a lengthy bombardment. It was Manteuffel’s intention to achieve surprise at the start of the offensive by having his infantry infiltrate through the forward American positions before sunlight. Once in place, these men could quickly take the American strongpoints and clear a path for following units. After the American positions were taken, the tanks would roll through and race to the sea unchecked. General Kokott highlighted Manteuffel’s intent in his orders to his subordinate commanders: ‘Success or failure of the operation depends on an incessant and stubborn drive to the west and northwest. The forward waves of the attack must not be delayed or tied down by any form of resistance….Bastogne should fall on the second day of the operation or at least be encircled by then.’
Standing in Lüttwitz’s way were the men of the U.S. Army 28th Infantry Division’s 110th Regimental Combat Team (RCT). The 110th RCT consisted of the 110th Infantry Regiment and attached units. The whole team was commanded by Colonel William Hurley Fuller, a cantankerous Regular Army officer and World War I veteran who was out to redeem himself. A few months before, during the Normandy campaign, Fuller had commanded a regiment in the 2nd Infantry Division. When his regiment failed to reach its assigned objectives as ordered, Fuller was relieved of command. Once Paris was liberated, however, Fuller was able to convince his old comrade in arms, Lt. Gen. Troy Middleton, commander of the VIII Corps, to give him another chance. Middleton, who was forced to find replacement commanders for a number of regiments, gave Fuller command of the 110th Infantry Regiment in late November 1944 after its commander, Colonel Theodore Seeley, was wounded. In December the 110th RCT consisted of three rifle battalions; Company B, 109th Field Artillery Battalion; Battery C, 687th Field Artillery; Company B, 103rd Engineers; Company B, 103rd Medical Battalion; Company B, 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion; and Battery A, 447th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion.
The 28th Division had formerly been a component of the Pennsylvania National Guard. After mobilization, the division had been trained for participation in the invasion of France. On July 22, 1944, six weeks after D-Day, the 28th was shipped to France and quickly sent to the front. It fought with distinction throughout the Normandy campaign and, on August 29, had the privilege of representing the United States during celebration ceremonies marking the liberation of Paris. The men of the division did not have an opportunity to enjoy the City of Light, however. After marching through Paris they were immediately sent to the front. Once outside of Paris, the 28th, now under the command of Maj. Gen. Norman D. Cota, resumed its eastward journey. On September 7 the division rolled into Luxembourg, crossed the Our River south of Clervaux and became the first Allied division to breach Germany’s vaunted Siegfried Line.
The 28th was then moved to the vicinity of Rott, on the western edge of the Hürtgen Forest. As it assimilated new recruits, the division was assigned the job of capturing Schmidt and the forests surrounding the town. The 9th Division had tried to secure the area a few weeks earlier and had been massacred. Following the 9th’s failure, the 28th was sent into the breach and, unsupported by other First Army units, received a similar treatment from the forest’s German defenders.
After its bloodletting in the Hürtgen, the 28th Division was sent to the Ardennes, which Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower considered to be a quiet area where new divisions could receive experience and battle-weary units could rest. There, what was left of the division began to take in thousands of new recruits to replace the casualties lost during the summer and fall campaigns. But although the Ardennes was considered a quiet sector, the men still held positions on the front line. The 28th’s portion of the front was a 25-mile-long sector that was more than three times the area an infantry division was normally expected to defend. The 110th was assigned the vulnerable center section of the line. To make the task even more challenging, the regiment held this portion of the front with only two of its three battalions, the 1st and 3rd. The regiment’s remaining battalion, the 2nd, was held behind the lines at Donnange and Wiltz, where it served as the division’s only infantry reserve.
The bulk of the 110th was deployed along the St. Vith-Oiekirch Highway. Known to the Americans as ‘Skyline Drive,’ the highway was a hard-surfaced road that ran parallel to the Luxembourg-German border and overlooked the Our River and Germany to the east and the Clerf River and Luxembourg to the west. Along this road, which ran about two miles from each river, Colonel Fuller deployed his two battalions along a series of strongpoints: Company A, 110th, held Heinerscheid; three machine-gun crews from Company D held Reuler; Company B and five 57mm towed cannons from the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion held Marnach; Companies K and B, 103rd Engineers, held Hosingen; Company L held Holzthum; and Company I held Weiler. Most of these towns, except for Hosingen, were on roads that ran east-west from the Our River and the German lines to the American rear. Believing that they were in a quiet area and that the Germans were too battered to launch an attack of their own, Fuller allowed his men to occupy their positions during the daylight hours and to retire to warmer quarters in the evening. During the hours of darkness, the forward American positions were only lightly held.
Behind these strongpoints were Fuller’s reserves. At the resort town of Clervaux was the 110th’s command post, Headquarters Company, Supply Company, some of Cannon Company and Companies D and B of the 103rd Medical Battalion. Company C was in Munshausen, Companies M and A of the 447th Anti-Aircraft Artillery were in Consthum, and the 109th Field Artillery and Battery C of the 687th Field Artillery were deployed along the reverse slope of the ridge between Clervaux and Consthum.
All told, the 110th RCT numbered about 5,000 men on the evening of December 15, 1944. Across the Our River was Heinrich von Lüttwitz’s entire XLVII Panzer Corps, with 27,000 infantrymen and 216 tanks, assault guns or tank destroyers, which intended to smash through the 110th’s positions in one day, seize the Clerf River bridges intact and drive on to reach the Meuse two or three days later.
To seize control of the Our River, Manteuffel ordered his infantry battalions to go in first, crossing the Our in rubber boats in the early morning hours of December 16, when the American positions were manned by the fewest men. Once across the river, German soldiers would surround the forward American positions and attack soon after dawn. After these forward positions were seized, Manteuffel’s engineers would build a series of bridges over the Our to allow the mechanized units to cross. If all went according to plan, the armored battalions of the 2nd Panzer and Panzer Lehr would be across the Clerf River by the end of the first day and on their way to Bastogne and the Meuse by December 17 or 18.
Lüttwitz and his division commanders were confident that they could satisfy Manteuffel. They knew that their defenders across the river were spread thin. So weakly held was the American front that several reconnaissance patrols, unchallenged by sentries, had already crossed the Our, pinpointed enemy positions and marked infiltration lanes around them.
Soon after 1 a.m. on December 16, 1944, elements of the 304th Panzergrenadier Regiment from the 2nd Panzer Division and the 39th and 77th Volksgrenadiers from the 26th Volksgrenadier Division began their 20-yard crossing of the Our in small rubber boats. By 2 a.m., the Germans were across and headed west through the snow-covered, forested draws of the Our River valley toward their objectives. Quietly, skillfully, they approached to within 300 yards of the American defenses at Marnach, Hosingen, Holzthum, Weiler, Munshausen and Clervaux, surrounding them with squads, platoons, companies or–in Hosingen’s case–an entire battalion. Once they had worked themselves into position, the German formations sought cover and waited for the first shots of the artillery bombardment that signaled the beginning of the attack.
Just before dawn, the Germans began their artillery bombardment. Then around 7 a.m., after a brief period of calm, the German infantry who had infiltrated through the front lines began their assault. Well-coordinated attacks began to hit all of the 110th’s positions almost simultaneously.
Shivering lookouts from Company K, posted in a water tower in Hosingen, were startled to see an entire company of white-clad Germans from the 77th Volksgrenadiers charging across an open field to their front and trying to force their way into the town. Despite their surprise, the lookouts were able to alert their fellow GIs in positions around Hosingen. Soon the Americans were firing a .30-caliber machine gun, a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and M-1 rifles at the advancing enemy. The firing lasted only a few minutes before the Germans were forced to retreat back to the shelter of the woods.
It was the same across the 110th’s entire front. The Germans spilled out from cover, ‘coming out of the ground from all directions,’ as one American veteran put it. Most of those attacks, however, were quickly repulsed by the quick reaction of startled GIs along the front.
Despite their initial setback, however, the advancing Germans had been able to surround the 110th. Soon additional German infantrymen were coming to the front, increasing the pressure on the now isolated American positions. All along Skyline Drive the fighting was becoming more intense. So close had the action come that some artillerymen in batteries positioned between Munshausen and Consthum were engaged in close-quarter fighting. Although the artillerymen were able to successfully defend their positions, the distraction caused by the German attacks prevented them from supporting other hard-pressed American units. It was becoming clear to the American commanders that if the Germans could maintain the intensity of their attacks, there was no way the Americans’ strongpoints could continue to hold.
Back at regimental headquarters in Clervaux, Fuller was in a sour mood. His lines of communications to his forward outposts had been cut, and his headquarters was now under fire. Desperate for news of what was happening, Fuller quickly dispatched his executive officer, Lt. Col. Daniel Strickler, to get down to Consthum or Holzthum to find out what was going on in the 3rd Battalion’s sector. Fuller also managed to get word to General Cota that the Germans were making a major push against his command and that reinforcements were needed immediately. Cota informed Fuller that the division’s other regiments were also being hit and that he was reluctant to dispatch his few reserves until the situation became clearer.
Despite the shock of the early morning attack, the GIs of the 110th had been able to considerably slow the German advance. As a result, Lüttwitz’s soldiers failed to seize their assigned objectives on the morning of December 16 as expected. At that point 12 infantry companies from the 2nd Panzer Division were pinned down at Marnach by the 110th’s Company B and five 57mm cannons from the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion. Twelve other companies from the 26th Volksgrenadier Division had been stopped at Hosingen by the 110th’s Company K and Company B, 103rd Engineers.
In the southern sector, meanwhile, Company I was holding out against five companies from the 26th Volksgrenadier Division at Weiler and Holzthum, and along the route assigned to Panzer Lehr the men of Company L were somehow managing to hold out against seven companies of attacking Volksgrenadiers.
After four more hours of desperate fighting, Cota determined that the main German effort was indeed aimed at Fuller’s units. He then decided to dispatch 16 Sherman tanks from the 707th Tank Battalion to help relieve Marnach, Hosingen and Holzthum. Aware that all that stood between the Germans and a potentially critical rupture of American lines was the 110th RCT, Cota passed down a chilling order to the officers and men of his–‘Hold your position at all costs.’
Departing Wiltz a little after 1 p.m., the Shermans from the 707th Tank Battalion rumbled toward the front in a staggered column. About a mile from the Clerf, at a slushy fork in the road, the first four tanks were ordered to bear to the right and head for Holzthum to reinforce Company L. Once this platoon crossed the Clerf, it was forced to run a gantlet of fire from a half dozen squads of the 39th Volksgrenadiers, which had set up along the tree-lined road with MG42s. Fighting their way through to Consthum, the tank platoon was ordered to continue on to Holzthum. In the confusion of battle the lead tank mistook an anti-tank gun from Company M, which was posted near a cafe on the western side of Holzthum, for a German gun and fired on it, killing or wounding most of its crew.
Meanwhile, the rest of the tank column had taken the left fork out of Wiltz and had crossed the Clerf at Drauffelt. After going another mile and a half, the column once again split at a fork in the road. The first four tanks headed down the right fork and fought their way into Hosingen; the remainder took the left fork and headed north to Munshausen and Marnach. Of these, half stayed in Munshausen to reinforce Company C, some anti-tank guns from Company D and the 1st Battalion’s headquarters. The other four tanks went on to Marnach, fighting their way through the surrounding German infantry.
Soon after dusk, the engineer battalions from the 2nd Panzer and Panzer Lehr divisions had, after considerable confusion and delay, finally completed the bridges over the Our at Dasburg and Gemund, and the assault guns began to cross. However, the delay caused by the slow construction of the bridges meant that, instead of making a 15-minute drive to the captured bridges over the Clerf as originally planned, the 216 tanks, assault guns and tank destroyers of Lüttwitz’s corps were now diverted to aid their infantry brethren in clearing the roads to Bastogne of the resolute men of the 110th Infantry.
General Manteuffel was not happy when he attempted to sum up the situation on the evening of December 16 to his superiors: ‘The Clerf was not reached at any point. The enemy was unquestionably surprised by the attack. He offered, however, in many places tenacious and brave resistance in delaying by skillfully fought combat tactics. His counterattacks, which started at once, partly supported by small armored groups, resulted in many points in critical situations….The tenacious resistance of the enemy, together with the road blocks placed…were the most essential reasons for the slowing of the attack whose timing was not going according to plan.’
Determined to regain lost time, the Germans did not cease their attacks when darkness came. At Marnach, the lead elements of the 2nd Panzer Regiment rolled in to support the stymied 304th Panzergrenadier Regiment with tanks and halftracks. The subsequent combined arms assault was fast, furious and decisive. The Germans attacked the town with the help of artificial moonlight–tanks mounting spotlights, which bounced their beams off the low-lying clouds, illuminating the battlefield. Four Shermans from the 707th Tank Battalion and five towed guns from the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion were quickly knocked out. In addition, all of the infantrymen in Marnach were killed, captured or driven from the town.
Farther south at Hosingen, the stymied 77th Panzergrenadier Regiment was relieved by the 78th Panzergrenadiers and its assault guns so the 77th could push on to Drauffelt and secure the bridge over the Clerf as originally intended. In the dark, the 78th made a few probes but was unable to organize a full-scale attack until the next day.
As the Germans licked their wounds at Marnach and Holzthum, Cota decided to give Fuller the last of his available reserves. Companies F and H, 110th Infantry, and the last company from the 707th Tank Battalion, 18 Stuart light tanks, were dispatched to join the four remaining Shermans in Munshausen.
Fuller believed that Marnach was still holding out, and he assembled a force to relieve the beleaguered members of Company B on December 17. Four Shermans from the 707th and a hundred or so infantrymen from Company C were directed to attack Marnach from the south. Companies E and F, supported by machine guns from Company H, were to attack directly east up the road from Clervaux, and the 18 Stuart tanks from Company A were to swing down from the north from Heinerscheid.
Although Fuller began his counterattack with high hopes, the assault was a complete failure. The Stuarts were almost wiped out by ferocious German anti-tank fire. Only seven of the lightly armored tanks were able to escape, retreating back into Heinerscheid and into the arms of Company A. The infantry attack of Companies E, F and H was quickly repulsed by well-placed machine-gun fire, and the four Shermans coming up from Munshausen were driven back by German Mark IVs.
Once this local counterattack was thrown back, Lauchert ordered the 2nd Panzer forward to take Clervaux and the bridge across the Clerf. The Germans were now becoming impatient to get the operation moving again.
Lauchert’s reconnaissance battalion sped down the road first, followed by 10 Mark IVs and a few assault guns. Hanging onto the sides of the vehicle were infantrymen who had not become tangled up in the fierce small actions of the previous day. While the reconnaissance battalion pinned down the American force in Clervaux, Lauchert readied another, much more powerful force, to encircle the town and prevent the garrison from escaping. This second force was assembled on the western side of Marnach and consisted of the remainder of Lauchert’s Mark IVs, his 49 Panthers and the balance of his Panzergrenadiers.
Clervaux was not well situated for defense. It rested at the bottom of the Clerf River valley and was overlooked by a wooded ridgeline. The main north-south road bisected the town, and it was straddled on both sides by two- or three-story buildings and a few churches. The most prominent feature of Clervaux, on its northern edge, was a chateau with thick walls, which was strategically situated on a spur that ran off a wooded ridge that encircled the town.
Companies E, F and H, 110th Infantry, were the town’s principal defenders. Aware of the desperate nature of the situation, however, Fuller had also directed Headquarters Company–scouts, cooks and clerks, plus men from other units of the division who had been trapped in Clervaux when the offensive began–to grab whatever weapons were available and take up positions in the buildings throughout the town. The 707th Tank Battalion’s three remaining Shermans were deployed just outside of town. This gave Fuller, who was headquartered in the Hotel Claravallis on the northern edge of the town, about 450 men, three tanks and a few anti-tank guns to defend against Lauchert’s 5,000 infantry and 120 tanks and assault guns.
The battle for Clervaux could clearly become a bloody affair. Not wanting to become entangled in a vicious urban battle, the Germans hoped that, once encircled, the Americans would simply surrender. If they did not, however, the Germans knew that the town would have to be stormed, a costly proposition and one that the 2nd Panzer Division could ill afford. Fuller and the men of the 110th trapped in Clervaux, knew that surrender was not an option.
By the morning of the 17th, the leading vehicles of Lauchert’s reconnaissance battalion crested the ridge that overlooked Clervaux. After a quick review of the situation, the 2nd Panzer’s commander decided to bombard the low-lying town from the ridge while the 2nd Panzergrenadier Regiment conducted a dismounted double envelopment, capturing the crucial bridge and suppressing any enemy anti-tank fire.
While this force occupied the defenders, 16 armored vehicles would charge down the road to the bridge over the Clerf. From there, the tanks would continue on to the critically important crossroads town of Bastogne, with the reconnaissance battalion once again in the lead. Lauchert directed that while his forces moved in and around the town, artillery and mortar fire would rain down upon American strongpoints, especially upon the fortresslike chateau that dominated the landscape.
Soon German shells were raining down on the town. Instead of quickly surrendering as Lauchert hoped under this massive bombardment, however, Fuller’s command held out as best it could. Covered by direct and indirect artillery fire, Lauchert’s Panzergrenadiers were able to swing around both sides of the town, taking the ridge that overlooked the chateau. By 10 o’clock, they had secured the crossing for Lauchert’s tanks.
Desperate, Fuller called in what artillery he could from the division and ordered his four Shermans to come forward from the backside of the town to try to silence at least some of the assault guns, which were now among the buildings of the town and were cutting down his nearly defenseless men.
As the Shermans advanced through Clervaux, Sergeant Frank Kushnir exacted some revenge from the Germans who were now firing point-blank into American positions. Armed with a bolt-action M1903 Springfield sniper rifle in a tower of the chateau, Kushnir took the opportunity to kill a few careless Germans who were’smoking and joking’ outside their armored vehicles instead of safely inside with the hatches shut.
When the Shermans arrived on the eastern edge of the town, they fired a few times at the German tanks that were deployed along the ridge and then moved astride the road up through a snowy field. Their effort was of little value. Soon after moving into the field they were smashed by the combined fire of dozens of 75mm guns, which were posted on the heights above.
With the Shermans dispatched and the town in flames, Lauchert now ordered his main attack. The American position became even more tenuous as several German armored vehicles with supporting infantry charged down the road and invested the town from the east.
The struggle was becoming more intense. The Americans, however, refused to surrender, and the fighting moved like a tidal wave from street to street, house to house, room to room. While tanks clanked down the street, blasting American strongpoints at close range, dismounted Panzergrenadiers followed, pointing out targets to the tankers, guarding the flanks and rear of the armored vehicles and spraying the houses with rifle and machine-gun fire.
What the Germans had hoped would be a lightning-swift attack had now turned into a desperate, slow-moving fight where advances were measured in inches. The American soldiers fought desperately, but with so much enemy infantry now swarming through the town, they were unable to take out any of the tanks or assault guns that were destroying Clervaux one building at a time.
The fighting continued off and on all day. Still the Americans held the town. The Germans would push down a block, and the Americans would respond with a withering fire that would slow the advancing German infantry. The Germans would then call up supporting armored vehicles and push back the Americans. Although the Germans were slowly gaining the upper hand, they knew that by this time Lauchert’s Panthers were supposed to be moving out of Bastogne and heading north toward the Meuse. Instead of restoring the initiative to the German offensive, the 2nd Panzer was slugging it out with an ad hoc infantry battalion in Clervaux.
At 6:45, after fighting the Germans all day, Fuller sent his last message back to division. He requested that what remained of his battalion be allowed to retreat. Upon being told that this was not permissible and that he should fight on, Fuller responded that his command post was under direct enemy fire from German tanks and that he was going to try to get back to the division headquarters at Wiltz.
Totally cut off, overwhelmed and out of ammunition, the defenders of Clervaux now tried to escape from the battle area using the wooded draws around the town for cover. Fuller was forced to leave his second-story command post when a German tank began pumping artillery rounds into the first floor. There was no formal order of retreat. Fuller, what was left of his staff, and some wounded riflemen went out a back window of the hotel and climbed a cold steel ladder up the face of the windblown cliff that overlooked Clervaux. As they were exiting the building, they could hear the thud of German jackboots on the floor below.
The few GIs who had escaped the struggle now began to make their way westward as best they could. As the American defense disintegrated, Lauchert’s Panther Battalion, now two days behind schedule, began to roll through town and across the Clerf River. Fuller, without a command, tried to make his way westward. After a harrowing period of avoiding various German detachments, the unfortunate colonel was eventually captured. Unable to locate Fuller, Colonel Theodore Seeley returned to command what remained of the regiment.
Clervaux, however, was not yet completely in German hands. The chateau was still held by 50 or so stalwart souls under Captain Clark Mackey, commander of the 110th’s Headquarters Company, and Captain John Aiken, Fuller’s signal officer. All night long, as tanks of the 2nd Panzer Division raced west toward Bastogne, the Americans continued to fight.
Although the manpower was badly needed elsewhere, Lauchert was forced to leave an entire battalion behind to mop up opposition at the chateau. By the afternoon of December 18, totally out of ammunition and with the chateau burning and crumbling around them, the gallant defenders of ‘Fort Clervaux’ finally surrendered.
Kushnir volunteered to exit the building first. He held a prisoner in front of him to ensure that a vengeful German would not shoot him as he left the chateau. When he was not fired on, the rest of the Americans followed the sergeant out to surrender. Soon after surrendering, Kushnir remembered, ‘a German colonel asked the German sergeant who we had held as prisoner, ‘What was the treatment?’ ‘Well,’ the sergeant said, ‘they didn’t mistreat us, they fed us good, they took care of our wounded, and they also protected us within the chateau so we wouldn’t be under our own fire, you know.’ And then the colonel comes out in perfect English: ‘You men are so lucky. My intention was to shoot all of you for the dead comrades [who] are strung throughout the compound.”
Farther south, Panzer Lehr was now finally crossing the Clerf at Drauffelt. The long since bypassed American garrisons of Holzthum and Hosingen, still battling German formations left behind to finish them off, fought stubbornly from house to house before making the individual decision to either flee the battle area on the evening of December 17 or surrendered late on the morning of the 18th.
By the evening of the second day of the offensive, the only organized resistance east of the Clerf was in Consthum, where the 110th’s executive officer, Colonel Daniel Strickler, had assembled the scattered remnants of the 110th’s 3rd Battalion, the 447th Anti-Aircraft Battalion, and some 105mm howitzers from the 109th and 687th Field Artillery battalions along the ridges that flanked the town. With help from the rest of the 687th Field Artillery back at Wiltz, Strickler’s force now pounded the tanks and infantry of Panzer Lehr.
Strickler called in massive amounts of artillery fire on Bayerlein’s tanks and then as they passed through the town. ‘We killed off practically all of their infantry,’ Strickler later proudly recalled. ‘We just slaughtered their infantry who were with the tanks and following the tanks…we then brought up our artillery to the front lines and had them fire directly at the tanks coming down the road.’
Aware that he could not simply ignore this determined American force, Bayerlein was forced to detach badly needed tanks and men to subdue Strickler’s force. After a good deal of close-quarters fighting and many additional casualties, the Germans were finally able to subdue that Americans by nightfall.
With the fall of Consthum, the last strongpoint held by the 110th RCT was finally eliminated. Unlike Fuller, how-ever, Strickler was somehow able to avoid German patrols and make it back to Wiltz, where he was ordered by Cota to gather what troops remained and hold the enemy back as long as possible.
By December 19, the 28th Division had been swept from the map by the XLVII Panzer Corps. However, the units demise had not been in vain. Lüttwitz’s panzers were now three days behind schedule. The time that the Allies gained by the sacrifice of the 110th and the other elements of the 28th Infantry Division had allowed Eisenhower to rush reinforcements to the Ardennes. General Middleton could be happy with his decision to appoint Fuller to command the 110th. He later commented that ‘The 110th Infantry of the 28th Division, which was overrun by the attack, did a splendid job….It put up very stiff resistance for the three days. Had not this regiment put up the fight it did the Germans would have been in Bastogne long before the 101st Airborne reached that town.’ Colonel Fuller had been redeemed. Appropriately enough, when the XLVII Panzer Corps finally did reach Bastogne, fighting alongside the 101st in Bastogne was Team SNAFU, which was composed of individual members of the 28th Division who had been able to make their way back to American lines after their positions had been taken during the first three days of the German offensive.
Of the 5,000 officers and men of the 110th RCT who manned positions along Skyline Drive on the morning of December 16, only 532 officers and men were fit for duty after Hitler’s last great offensive had been defeated. Once the German offensive had been blunted and the Americans had a chance to catch their breath, the widely scattered elements of the 28th Division, including the 110th, which was now commanded by Strickler, were gathered together to reconstitute the division. In the spring of 1945, as the Allies went on the offensive all along the Western Front, the 28th was brought back up to strength with thousands of new replacements and sent to fight in the rugged Colmar Pocket. The division remained in combat until Germany surrendered in May 1945.
This article was written by Gary Schreckengost and originally appeared in the January 2001 issue of World War II.
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