Before the Allies won the Battle of the Bulge, the German spearpoint ripped an American division apart

THE FIRST EXPLOSIONS came as a jolt. At 5:30 on the wintry morning of Saturday, December 16, 1944, the American troops atop the Schnee Eifel in the Ardennes Forest weren’t expecting action. Only days before, the 106th Infantry Division had arrived on the high ground, whose name in German means “snowy Eifel ridge,” to relieve the 2nd Infantry in a sector so uneventful GIs had nicknamed the area the “Ghost Front.” With fresh snow dusting the tall pines, the Schnee Eifel was a beautiful place, low on enemy activity—a good thing, because as the 106th entered the line, rookie soldiers committed snafus born of inexperience. Poor hygiene and lax march discipline had already laid up 70 soldiers with trench foot; now they made a racket, accidentally torching a regimental command post and a battalion motor pool.

Command expected the setting to be forgiving. In 1944, the vast Ardennes, which reaches into Belgium, Germany, France, and Luxembourg, lay roughly at the center of the Allied front. Given the difficult terrain and inclement weather, the forest seemed perfect for acclimating a green outfit like the 106th to life in the field and frontline duty. The nearest German unit, the 18th Volksgrenadier Division, seemed to be doing as the 106th was: getting situated. A brief artillery barrage, random machine-gun bursts, an occasional German combat patrol—“social calls,” the GIs termed them—were the extent of the action, even though the Schnee Eifel was German soil jutting into the Siegfried Line’s barbed wire, tank traps, and interlocking fire zones. Occasionally German vehicles could be heard, the distant clatter muffled by snow. When the 106th’s commander, Major General Alan W. Jones, told his superiors at VIII Corps headquarters he was hearing armor, he got a rocket back: “Don’t be so jumpy, general.” The order of the day seemed to be, “I won’t shoot if you won’t shoot.”

The Ardennes was old-growth forest, in places still primeval. Settlement was scant, with small towns dotting a largely vacant landscape of trackless woods, rolling hills, and steep ravines and ridges. Winding trails and paths outnumbered the few paved roads, and narrow, steeply banked rivers sliced the forest into dozens of isolated districts. Although common military wisdom labeled the Ardennes “impenetrable,” armies had traversed it for years. The Schnee Eifel, a series of disconnected ridges, offered an attacker dozens of places in which to find a protected route forward. To the 106th’s north lay the Losheim Gap, five miles of relatively open valley—an ideal route for assaults like those that had worked so well for the Germans in 1940. Generals had long been wary of the woods. A Roman legionnaire described the forest as “a frightful place, full of terrors,” and the French epic The Song of Roland portrays even the doughty Charlemagne having nightmares about fighting in the Ardennes amid its eerie shadows and precipices.

That Saturday morning it was Americans’ turn to be living a nightmare as 8,000 artillery barrels, from nimble 81mm mortars to 16-inch railway guns, brought the Ghost Front to horrifying life with the first shots of what would be called the Battle of the Bulge. History and media memory present that slugging match as another display of American heroics, part of an inevitably triumphant Allied parade across Europe. But while the Bulge did make plenty of heroes, in the early days of the fight the American experience was anything but glorious.

The men of the 106th barely knew what hit them. They did what soldiers caught by surprise have always done. Some tumbled from their racks in a tragicomic vaudeville, some desperately tried to crank ice-cold jeep engines, some fired wildly in every direction. Much of the 16,000-man division tried to run.

Writing in 1949, division historian Colonel R. Ernest DuPuy distilled that bitter Saturday to its painful essence. “Panic, sheer unreasoning panic, flamed that road all day and into the night,” DuPuy wrote. “Everyone, it seemed who had any excuse and many who had none, were going west that day.”

 

THE ROUT HAD ROOTS in events of the autumn. By August 1944 Allied forces had smashed the German armies in Normandy and pursued them to the Rhine. But then the German defenses stiffened, the British failed to cross the Rhine at Arnhem, and at Aachen and in Lorraine and the Hürtgen Forest the Americans stalled as well. The Allies’ eastward thrust stopped at the Siegfried Line.

The Allied force at the German border in December was utterly fought out—or, like the 106th, utterly green.

The Germans, whose doctrine emphasized counterpunching exhausted adversaries, picked December to unleash a grand offensive in the Ardennes.

Hitler wanted to replay his greatest victory, the 1940 destruction of the French army. Tank divisions would penetrate dense forest, the last place foes would expect such an attack. Panzers would smash the weak American line and cross the woodlands and the Meuse River to seize the port city of Antwerp. Behind the tanks would swarm a battle-hardened field force of 250,000.

By mauling the Americans and cutting the Allies off from their main port, Hitler believed, he could unravel the Western alliance. He was going for broke, stripping other fronts of divisions and materiel to assure that the attack let slip three complete armies—in the north the 6th Panzer Army under SS General Josef Dietrich, at the center the 5th Panzer Army of General Hasso von Manteuffel, and to the south the Seventh Army under General Erich Brandenberger. Counting the units in reserve, 27 divisions—10 of them panzers—were ready to roll.

That the Germans could complete such massive preparations in near-total secrecy ranks among American military history’s worst failures of intelligence and imagination. No one on the Allied side could conceive that after three months of corrosive defeats the Germans had the wherewithal for a large-scale offensive. Allied rule of the skies should have been a trump card, but weather grounded the air forces, neutralizing the advantage of aerial reconnaissance. The Allies were oblivious—and no one was more oblivious than the 106th Division, parked directly in Manteuffel’s path.

The 106th was the last of the 66 U.S. infantry divisions activated in World War II and, like other latecomers, very much an assembly-line product, raw draftees led by a few experienced officers and NCOs. The division had been training since 1943, but as casualties mounted in Europe it lost men to the replacement pool. In 1944 alone, the 106th gave up about 60 percent of its enlisted personnel—more than 7,000 soldiers. Replacing them was a diverse parade: 1,100 air cadets, 2,500 from disbanded units and the supply and quartermaster services, and men released from the now-defunct Army Specialized Training Program. Men were still arriving only weeks before the division departed in October 1944 for Europe, hardly a recipe for cohesion. Even the unit’s fierce name—the “Golden Lions”—was artificial, a reference not to a historic victory or battle honor, but to the assigned divisional patch.

Atop the Schnee Eifel, the 106th found that its front meandered—18 miles as the crow flew, 21 on the ground—twice the length recommended for a force its size. That roundabout line reflected where American units had stopped when their autumn drive ran out of gas. The division’s position was weak in road coverage, fields of fire, and radio signal strength. A river, the Our, lay behind, rarely a good thing in an attack.

Still, the deployment seemed strong. General Jones had three regiments. At the north end was the 422nd under Colonel George L. Descheneaux, facing due east. To its right, the 423rd, under Colonel Charles C. Cavender, faced east and southeast. Next came a gap held by the divisional reconnaissance troop, and then, also facing southeast, the 424th Regiment, under Colonel Alexander D. Reid. The entire American line constituted a tiny salient, or bulge, jutting into the German lines, with the Our at its base. The stage was set for an uneven duel: Manteuffel’s seasoned army versus the untried Golden Lions.

 

THE GERMANS’ DECEMBER 16 BARRAGE enveloped the 106th’s divisional headquarters in St. Vith in a hurricane of fire. Mortars pounded the rest of the American line. Once the shelling ended, German infantrymen made a typically spirited attack. In the lead were Manteuffel’s 18th Volksgrenadiers, split into two columns. Neither charged the Schnee Eifel. Instead, one column thrust through the Losheim Gap around the 422nd Regiment’s northern flank; the other drove on Bleialf, a village on the 423rd’s southern flank. The first day’s fight for Bleialf, a bitter seesaw, ended with the Americans still in possession. Further south, an entire German division, the 62nd Volksgrenadier, was driving deep into the rear, bypassing the main American position on the ridge.

At dusk, neither Descheneaux nor Cavender seemed alarmed. They had faced attack, but had held their positions, taking only light casualties. But trouble festered. The regiments’ radio communications were spotty, and those with the outside world were all but nonexistent. The Germans were clearly working around their flanks, and in the south had driven off the divisional recon group and entered the void between Cavender and Reid. Up north, the German drive through the Losheim Gap had easily overrun the 14th Cavalry Group under Colonel Mark A. Devine. Descheneaux seemed not to know this, and no wonder: he could not reach Devine on the radio.

Fifteen miles back in St. Vith, General Jones was mortified. Situation maps at division headquarters showed his two forward regiments all but isolated. “It’s bad,” he muttered. Bad went to worse when Jones spoke with his superior, Major General Troy H. Middleton of VIII Corps. Their awful radio connection dropped entire sentences and forced them to shout. Misunderstanding reigned. “I’m worried about some of my people,” Jones told Middleton. They were, he said, “not well, and very lonely.” Middleton promised reinforcements—the 7th Armored Division—but the tanks were at Maastricht in the Netherlands, 90 miles and many hours away.

Jones asked whether he should order his men to retreat before the enemy encircled them. “Don’t you think I should call them out?” he said. Middleton later claimed not to have heard the other man’s question. “You know how things are up there better than I do,” Middleton asked Jones in return. “Don’t you think your troops should be withdrawn?” Jones later claimed he had not heard that question, and came away thinking Middleton wanted the regiments to remain in place.

On Sunday, December 17, Descheneaux and Cavender stayed put as German forces drove north and south around them. By morning enemy columns had linked up at the American regiments’ rear, seized Schönberg, and encircled the 422nd and 423rd, along with units attached to them: the 589th and 590th Field Artillery Battalions, Companies A and B of the 81st Engineer Battalion, and Company C of the 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion. The Germans now surrounded some 9,000 men in what the Wehrmacht called a Kessel—“cauldron”— measuring some six by four-and-a-half miles. German doctrine relentlessly stressed encirclement, and troops seasoned on the Eastern Front now prepared to fight Kesselschlacht—the destruction of an encircled enemy.

 

THE AMERICANS HAD the high ground. However, the Germans controlled the roads, and in mountain warfare the routes between ridges, not the heights themselves, are what matter. Each embattled regiment began to form a defensive perimeter, but did not strike at the enemy. Jones, thinking the 7th Armored would arrive Sunday morning, had promised tankers. However, their lead element, the 31st Tank Battalion, did not reach St. Vith until dark that day. The unit was supposed to drive on Schönberg to break the encirclement, but the Germans were at the gates of St. Vith. For days the American armor deployed there, holding a position later famous as the “fortified goose-egg ” that heroically warded off repeated attacks by superior enemy numbers.

Throughout, the 106th Division languished. By Monday morning, December 18, Cavender and Descheneaux knew that they would be getting no help. The colonels now did what they should have done on Sunday: attack west, toward Schönberg. The rugged, roadless terrain complicated the assault, as did the need to reverse fronts. The attack would be downhill, a theoretical advantage, but the Schnee Eifel’s steep western slopes were treacherous—and all movement would be overland.

The assault misfired from the start. Six battalions abreast, the Americans gingerly descended the ridge. Unable to maneuver easily—another characteristic of encirclement—the troops bunched up, making easy targets. “Oh, my poor men,” Descheneaux told his staff. “They’ll be cut to pieces.” To his credit, Descheneaux himself led the regiment. His operations officer protested. “You’re crazy, colonel,” he said. “You’re going to get yourself killed.” Descheneaux went ahead—but within the hour, his regiment had gotten lost. The 422nd wandered the ridge, casting off coats, gas masks, anything to lighten the load. “We abandoned everything except our weapons and ammunition,” a company commander recalled. Cavender’s regiment did no better. Under murderous artillery fire, the 423rd repeatedly went to ground. Even to an experienced officer like Lieutenant Colonel Thomas P. Kelly, commander of the 589th Field Artillery Battalion, “it sounded like every tree in the forest had been simultaneously blasted from its roots.”

With the attack stalled, relief out of reach, and supplies low, the regiments deflated. Men hadn’t eaten all day, and water was scarce—harsh, but hardly the stuff of desperation. But the men of the 106th felt desperate, and had no other yardstick.

Certainly their commanders despaired. Descheneaux had never seen combat; Cavender had—in World War I. Circumstance had plunged them into catastrophe: encircled and abandoned, architects of a failed assault that did not even make contact. Hemmed in, they could not avoid contemplating their dead and wounded. When Jones exhorted them on Monday to drive on Schönberg because their mission was “of the gravest importance to the nation,” they seethed. But the general had little else to offer. As shaken as his men, Jones became strangely passive. That day, December 18, he left St. Vith for the rear.

Tuesday, December 19, saw the ordeal turn uglier with another attempt to break out. Sapped by sodden morale, the previous day’s losses, and stragglers, that day’s effort was even less effective than Monday’s. As Cavender and his men were synchronizing watches, the air seemed to explode. “Look out!” someone shouted too late. German artillery had zeroed in on Cavender’s command post. The men spent another morning hunkering beneath killing barrages. A tank column materialized. “It’s one of ours!” a soldier cried just before a round from the column dashed that dream. The tanks were German, and now the 106th came under enemy tank fire. Constrained on jumbled terrain, nervous GIs shot at one another. Casualties multiplied. The latest abortive attack sliced the regiments into isolated groups.

Descheneaux seems to have been the first to recognize that the end was near. His regiment crowded a box two miles square, with carnage rampant. The plight of the wounded was particularly difficult. “There was nothing we could do except let them lie in their gore and shiver with the most goddam pitiful look in their eyes,” Colonel Kelly remembered. Suddenly, Descheneaux made a decision. “I don’t believe in fighting for glory, if it doesn’t accomplish anything,” he declared. “It looks like we’ll have to pack it in.” A few officers and men objected. “Desch, you can’t surrender,” one pleaded. “I’m going to save the lives of as many as I can,” the colonel replied. “And I don’t give a damn if I am court-martialed.” As Descheneaux addressed his staff, stretcher-bearers passed, carrying a company commander. A German shell had blown off one of the man’s legs. Cavender, too, hit bottom. His regiment was nearly out of ammunition. At 4 p.m. Tuesday he assembled his officers. “Now, what’s your attitude on surrender?” he asked.

 

SURRENDER HAS A PRECISE protocol. Cavender and Descheneaux each asked for volunteers willing to carry a white flag to the German lines. The 422nd’s man, Major William J. Cody Garlow, had impeccably American bloodlines; William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was his grandfather. Holding two handkerchiefs, Garlow, who spoke no German, arrived at the enemy front east of Schönberg. After much gesturing, a German lieutenant and a small patrol agreed to accompany Garlow to the 422nd command post. “If this is a trick, Major, you’re dead,” the German declared, jabbing Garlow with a machine pistol. On the ridge, Descheneaux saluted his foe and said firmly, “The troops are ready to surrender.” Cavender’s regiment followed suit, and at sunset the men began to file down the steep slope and into captivity.

The 106th Division had been in the line nine days; four days of combat had shredded it. The mass surrender—some 7,000 men—marked the worst blow to the U.S. Army in the European campaign. Save for the fall of Bataan, it was the largest surrender by American troops since the Civil War, and an undeniable disaster. Manpower was the most grievous loss, but a unit comprises more than soldiers. Like all World War II divisions, the 106th had tanks, artillery, and a fleet of motorized transport. In the entire war the United States formed only 89 divisions, compared to the Germans’ hundreds and over a thousand for the Soviets. The U.S. Army never seemed to have enough divisions, and now it had one division less.

Certainly, the 422nd and 423rd regiments of the Golden Lions fought clumsily, inadequate on defense and hopeless in attack. Their inexperienced officers, buffaloed by events into thinking that the best response to disaster was standing pat, let those men down. Colonels Descheneaux and Cavender acted resolutely only once—when they decided to surrender. General Jones ended his troubled divisional command with what was listed officially as a “heart attack” on December 23, five days after he left the front. Jones’s cardiac event did not come out of nowhere, and perhaps his ill health contributed to the 106th’s travails. But did he really have a heart attack? Historian Charles Whiting, an authority on the Bulge, has speculated that the official story may have been a “polite fiction” designed to mask a general’s—and by extension, the army’s—abject battlefield failure. Whiting closed his analysis on a sympathetic note.

“Perhaps it is not politic to inquire any further,” the historian wrote. Whether as a result of stress, nervous collapse, or simply the realization that he had failed as a commander, Jones was “a casualty of the battle just as surely as if he had been struck by a bullet,” Whiting suggested. And perhaps he was. Among the new POWs was a staff officer in the 423rd Regiment, First Lieutenant Alan W. Jones Jr., the general’s son.

Aus Auftrag und Lage entsteht der Entschluss,” reads an old German military proverb. “Out of the mission and the situation arises the decision.”

In the Ardennes, situation upon situation tested men, finding some valiant and others wanting. In due course, American soldiers reached inside themselves for the strength to throw back the Germans and claim an epic victory. But World War II was reality, not literature, and even big wins had moments of doubt and pain. The Battle of the Bulge ended well, but no account of that struggle should forget the 106th Division.

 

Originally published in the December 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.