A Christmas with Lovelady

A Christmas with Lovelady

Captain Eaton A. ROBERTS

 

Grey clouds and cold mists blanketed the always drab landscape around Mausbach, Gressenich, and Sherpenseel (Germany).

It was the 16th of December 1944. Radios blared the news that large German force, concentrated in the vicinity of Prum, had made a breakthrough in the weakest part of the American lines. Looking at our maps, we found Prum, sighed slightly, and remarked, "That's south of us, not even in our Corps' sector. Somebody else can worry about that!" Satisfied, we our card games, letters, made evening snacks from recently received Christmas packages, and went to bed. We were, perhaps, more complacent about the starling news than most of the world. There was more air activity than usual that night. We could hear planes strafing not far away, and there were larger ships, too, bombers, we supposed. The steady pulsation of their motors warned us that they were German. In the morning, we learned that unknown numbers of enemy paratroopers had been dropped behind our lines to destroy bridges, harass small groups of soldiers, and generally, to disrupt communications. Most of these were apprehended during the day and no damage was done to Task Force Lovelady.

On 17th and 18th of December, we became more interested in the bold attack. The grave possibilities of this furious counter-offensive began to dawn on us. Already, Field Marshal von Rundstedt's forces were driving their wedge deep into our crumbling lines, destroying normally rear echelon installations, capturing hospitals, and supply dumps. They were headed toward Spa, Liege, then perhaps the Meuse River behind the entire First United States Army, to Antwerp. The Fifth Panzer and the Sixth S.S. Armies were throwing every ounce of strengh into this last bitter attempt to avert defeat. Rules of warfare were thrown to the winds as the atrocity minded Germans massacred American prisoners rather than transport them rearward. The weather turned cold, the mists changed to snow, and soon the ground was white. Roads were deep with snow, making cross-country travel more difficult than ever. The men of Task Force Lovelady made other plans for Christmas.

On the 19th of December, we packed hurriedly, driving as quickly as possible to an assembly position near Spa (Belgium). It was after midnight when we finally halted in open fields, cold and wind-swept, atop a hill. We had seen occasional V-1 "Buzz Bombs" before, but now we must have been along their main route of flight to Liege and Antwerp. All night, their trobbing, sputtering motors droned, spiting streaks of fire from their exhausts, like dotted lines across a great celestial map. By dawn, we had more definite orders, and proceeded southward to secure a road junction towards which the enemy spearheads were rapidly advancing in their unabated dash from Stavelot to Spa, Marche, Liege. Spa, world famous for its mineral baths, had been the site of First United States Army headquarters (Hotel Britannique). In imminent danger of capture, they had moved out (near Chaudfontaine), behind only a few service troops, who happily guided, with sighs of relief, the tanks of Task Force Lovelady through the city. A short distance further on, we passed through a tremendous gazoline dump (between Spa and La Gleize), millions of five-gallon can stacked at intervals through hundreds of acres of dense forests. service troops were hastily loading these in trucks, moving them to safety (near Spa). We later learned that the Germans were just as earnestly drawing gazoline from the other side of the dump (from La Gleize).

 

Attack to liberate Stavelot

As we wound along the narrow, snowy roads, it became clear that American troops were scarce. The only visible defense were anti-aircraft guns, the larger one being used for road blocks, strategically dug-in on curves and tops of hills. Soon, these disapeared and we were in no-man's land, approaching the road junction we were to secure (Roanne-Coo). "E" Company (33rd Armored Regiment) was in the lead that day, commanded by the 1st Lieutenant Hope.

They reached their objective at the same time an enemy column was driving through (Coo). This surprised the Germans, all of whom were killed or captured before they could fire their guns. Leaving road blocks here, we received orders to move on to Stavelot. An enemy armored column had apparently received orders exactly contrary to ours, for they were coming, with equal resolve, toward us. The two spearheads met (near Petit-Spai bridge at Trois-Ponts on the Stavelot road), locking horns of hot steel in ferocious mortal combat. Lieutenant Hope was killed when his tank was hit, and Lieutenant Stanko wounded. Casualties mounted but were not excessive, considering the raging battle. The day ended and we had lost four Sherman tanks by anti-tank and tank fire. The enemy task force must have sent a gloomy report back to their higher headquarters (Legros' Farm Stavelot), too, because they lost a Mark IV tank with a 150 millimeter cannon mounted on it, five armored and two personnel and supply trucks, one towed 150 millimeter artillery piece, two towed 75mm anti-tank guns, three large personnel carrying half-tracks, and one volkswagen (all at Coo). Thus ended our first day in the Battle of the Bulge, with the promise of even harder ones to come. Von Rundstedt must exploit his advantage to the fullest extent before we could get organized, or lose his great gamble.

Our Combat Command was attached to the XVIIIth Airborne Corps and the 82nd Airborne Division worked along our right flank (504th and 505th Airborne Regiments), also in the direction of Stavelot. The "E" Company battle group was still detained in the vicinity of Trois-Ponts, when "D" Company tried to ease the predicament by a flanking movement to the left. At Parfondruy, they encountered large numbers of enemy infantry. These troops were more than ordinarily savage, composed mostly of S.S. and Paratroopers. Since infancy, they had been Hitler's favorite children, whose only creed was "VICTORY OR DEATH FOR THE FUHRER !" Their minds had become warped by the narrow limits of military training to such an extent that the ommitment of atrocities was a fascinating diversion for them. Human life was the least precious of German commodities, and they dealt their blows and gave their own lives with the same sadistic abandon.

D Company at Parfondruy

It is difficult for Americans to develop the emotion called hate. Good sportmanship, fair play, reluctance to kill, failure to beat the foe when he is down, will oftimes lose a battle, for by these rules, a team dedicated to killing, cannot be fully aggressive. Parfondruy shall remain a monument to the birth of the deepest, fiercest hate for the German people by all the ranks in the command of Task force Lovelady. When "D" Company with infantry liberated the tiny village ( jointly see Monique at Parfondruy story), they found only a few living civilians, huddled in darks corners of cellars, too terrified, too overcome by grief, to move or welcome american troops with their usual hearty greetings. For, strewn about the houses were the corpses of wholes families, from babies to prents killed by beating or shooting, in cold blood. Compassion for the victims and burning hate for the foe welled up simultaneously in the hearts of the soldiers who witnessed these gruesome scenes.

We had read accounts of the massacre at Malmedy, but no amount of reading can replace of few minutes of seeing. With doubled efforts, Task Force Lovelady suddenly became a wild beast, stampeding enemy positions with increased ruthlessness and ferocity, which often, throughout this memorable campaign, made amazement, their dying soldiers more than once expiring, not with the word of their Fuhrer on their tongues, but a final conviction, learned far too late, "DEUTCHLAND KAPUT !" By way of disposition of our Task Force, the situation was peculiar. The command post, in order to maintain liaison with both battle groups, split into two communications sections, one at Moulin-du-Ruy, one in the railroad station (Roanne-Coo), on the road to Grand-Coo. Driving from the command post to Grand-Coo, a distance of two miles a southerly direction, one loooked down into a valley on the right side with a parallel range of hills rising above it. Halfway up this range was the town of La Gleize, strongly held by the 1st S.S. "Adolf Hitler" Panzer Division.

Task Force Lovelady and others units had cut them off completely, then left them quite alone, while Task Force Mac George and his First Battalion systematically set about to eliminate this potent pocket. In the meantime, as one rove from our command post towards Grand-Coo, he would invariably be fired upon by enemy tanks in La Gleize, which often could be plainly seen as they changed positions.

Petit Coo

At Grand-Coo, the route turned sharply eastward, through Petit-Coo, whose only installations were the aid station guarded by a platoon of light tanks from "B" Company and the Reconnaissance platoon. Half a mile further east was Trois-Ponts, the right boundary of the main line of resistance, held by "E" Company in charge of Major Stallings. North of this was Parfondruy, the left boundary of the main line of resistance, held by the "D" Company battle group, led by Captain Richard Edmark. Thus a triangle was formed by the two battle groups and the aid Station, the left leg of which was exposed to enemy attack, unprotected and ungarded except for occasional patrols. The right leg was secure by virtue of a small river (Ambleve River) with units of the 82nd Airborne Division on the other side.

To relieve the increasingly desperate plight of Hitler's finest soldiers in La Gleize, the logical axis of advance would be behind our two battle groups, the attack proceeding from the northeast, directed toward Petit-Coo, thence up the valley to their objective. Unfortunately, this important probability, although it occurred to us, was not seriously considered, since our chief interest was directed towards organizing an attack to retake Stavelot.

Early in the afternoon on the 22nd of December, the present writer returned to Petit-Coo from the command post and engaged in replacing a radio in the jeep. One of the light tankers noticed a group of soldiers walking toward us, in the distance. The radio was disregarded temporarily, its aerial left unconnected. Had it been in operation, a frantic warning from Major Stallings would have been heard, telling us to get out of there in a hurry. Standing complacently in the doorway of the aid station, previously a restaurant, we watched, with little more than mild interest, the advancing soldiers, silhouetted against the sunlit hillside. We recognized them as enemy troops when they were perhaps 200 yards away. There were about fifty of them, but more came over the crest of the hill until approximately eighty were counted. They advanced in approved infantry fashion, irregularly dispersed and about six paces apart. Nonchalantly, and with no effort at concealment, they marched towards us, utterly disregarding our plainly visible light tanks, whose guns were now threateningly trained upon them. With admirable presence of mind, seen so frequently among tankers, the "B" Company men held their fire until the enemy was about 50 yards away.

By that time, our aid station personnel were so intrigued by the attack, in which no shots had yet been fired, and so confident that our light tanks could annihilate what we thought was simply a large patrol, that no effort was made to escape. Finally, the tanks opened up smartly and in unison, with their .30 caliber bow guns, spraying the thoroughly exposed German infantry mercilessly. Many fell, but many more continued their advance, still marching almost at attention, polished black boots and aluminum mess equipment shining brightly. Then our tanks began firing their 37 millimeter guns loaded with high explosive ammunition, among the foe. More fell, and more advanced, seeking cover behind the buildings on their side of the road. Now the Germans began to fire rifle and other small arms at us, the first round shattering a large mirror behind the doorway we had been standing in. This brought us, the medical section, to the shocking realization that we were not watching a training film, and, in fact, were in the midst of a fire fight. Judiciously, we repaired to the basement, there to discuss our sad predicament.

Another wave of enemy infantry came over the hill, followed by others which we did not wait to see. Their mortar support had arrived, and these unbearable missiles crashed around the aid station until it became completely untenable. the first groups of the attackers had reached cellars in the houses across the street, from whose windows they fired bazookas at our far from impregnable light tanks, knocking two of them out, killing or wounding most of the courageous occupants. A brief and trembling underground council brought us to the decision that we should try to escape by dashing through a barbed wire fence to the slightly sunken railroad bed, thence towards Grand-Coo. This we did, but when the sixth man was shot to death by a machine gun, the remaining two aid men returned to the basement, where they spent a harrowing forty-eight hours waiting for us to retake the village, at the same time performing valuable services to the wounded left behind. The rest of us escaped unharmed, and reported the details of the incident. The reconnaissance platoon fared less well, nearly all of them being captured, including Lieutenant Grey and Corporal Dye.

In the meantime, the two battle groups were completely cut off, and only the river prevented them from being surrounded. By utilizing every bit of fire power they had, and by the very close artillery support offered by the 82nd Airborne unit, the main fighting elements of the task force held their ground. We were still in radio communication and Major Stallings would report at regular intervals that everything was "Just fine, thank you!" Since all of the infantry was with these isolated battle groups, "B" Company had to launch an attack against the intruders alone. This they did, but it was simply impossible to retake a diligently defended town with nothing but tanks. However, they did lengthen the enemy casualty list and prevented further penetration towards La Gleize.

On the second day, part of the 30th Infantry Division joined our light tanks and what few medium tanks were available, retaking Petit-Coo, establishing contact with the battle groups, and sending the remanants of the S.S. infantry regiment back over the hill. Many of the enemy soldiers were dressed in American uniforms and wore American equipment. Almost all were S.S. troops, and most aggressive we had ever met.

 

 

24th December 1944

Major Stallings reported that they had had a good time and felt that they could kill more Germans when they were attacked on three sides, than when they could fire only one direction. The La Gleize pocket had been expertly demolished (24th of December), and the 30th Infantry Division resumed the attack on Stavelot as Task Force Lovelady moved to another front on Christmas Eve. The crunching of fresh, dry snow added another sound to the ordinary noises that tanks make, as Task Force Lovelady rolled through the crisp, moonlit night. Whole forest of Christmas trees spread out before us, and could have been adorned no more beautiffully than by their natural trimmings.

Paradoxically, some seemed to be hung with silvery artificial icicles, the same as we used to use on the trees at home. Closer scruting revealed these to be bunches of narrow tin-foil strips dropped by Allied bombers to distort enemy radar equipment. Real stars hung over our Christmas trees and they were lighted by the dooted tinsel of exhaust flames from the frequent flights of "Buzz Bombs". Shivering in the cold steel of half-tracks, jeeps, and tanks, we drove into the night, finalyy bivouacking, in the early morning hours in a grove of scrupe spruce. We made our beds on the snow, and were worn out sufficiently by the long cold ride, to sleep for a few hours. Awakening more from coldness than necessity, we stretched our benumbed legs, beat our arms against our bodies, and half-heartedly wished one another "Merry Christmas!". By ten o'clock, we were again on the move, stopping in the afternoon for turkey dinner, served from the kitchen trucks. The mess personnel deserved much credit for preparing such a heartening repast under such untoward conditions. Spirits lightened and we set up defense around Oppagne, sleeping more soundly and comfortably than we had on Christmas Eve.

On the 26th of December, we moved a few miles where we institued strategic defenses from the high ground east of Ny to the railroad tracks in Melreux. Never had the tanks of Task force Lovelady been so firmly entrenced against an anticipated enemy attack. We had been brought here to thwart the most recent German threat, whose cold steel fingers were already probing the area for a weak spot. Daily the line of defense was elaborated upon. Tank dozers scooped out tons of earth, where all but the turrets of tanks were thoroughly concealed. Then they were camoflaged so expertly that anyone who did not know they were there would have difficulty finding them. Mines were laid, and concertina wire stretched between trees for hundreds of yards.