A Marshy Country Crossroads

A Marshy Country Crossroads

Baraque de Fraiture in December 1944 or Parker's Crossroads.

Lucien CAILLOUX †

On this Tuesday 19 December 1944, fourth day of the German Offensive in the Ardennes, a small American Artillery column, led by Major Arthur C. Parker and belonging to the 589th Field Artillery Battalion (106th Infantry Division) is moving up the road from Salmchateau to the height of Baraque de Fraiture.

This a small unit of about one hundred men together with three 105mm howitzers had narrowly escaped capture on the morning of 17 December in the Schnee-Eifel in the vicinity of Schoenberg and, after various peregrinations to Saint-Vith and Bovigny, is setting up today at the desolate crossroads on the own initiative of its Commanding Officer. As a strategical position on the main road (Highway N15) to Liege and the Ourthe Valley and very busy with a traffic of various troops movements, the crossroads has experienced, on the previous days, the streaming of all the heavy artillery of the VIII Corps and the divisional convoys of the 7th Armored Division from east to west whereas the endless convoys of the 82nd Airborne Division coming from Houffalize and heading to Werbomont, had been moving through it relentlessly from south to north during the past night regardless of the sparse units moving up to Bastogne or withdrawing from the Saint-Vith - Vielsalm sector or from the north of the Great-Duchy of Luxembourg.

These successive moves intrigued the inhabitants of the place as two large buildings and the ruins of a cafe destroyed by fire in last September (by the retreating Germans), are still standing nearby the crossroads. An important Radar Station of the Royal Air Force moved out the day before with bag and pack, evacuating a lot of equipment. Having hardly detrucked, the small troop set up a defensive perimeter with its three howitzers and was not long to pick up a few attachments of Cavalry Reconnaissance (87th Squadron) and anti-aircraft units (203rd Battalion) belonging to the 7th Armored Division whose rations, fuel and ammunition dumps are located in Samr e and whose convoys are driving constantly between the latter locality and the Vielsalm and Saint-Vith area where heavy fighting is taking place.

 

 
 

Under an overcast and foggy sky, with very limited visibility, the G.Is are digging a few foxholes, emplacing each gun in firing position towards several directions and are awaiting the events of this troubled period. These start to materialize shortly before dawn of 20 December when enemy patrols of the 560th Volksgrenadiers Division, coming from the north of Great Duchy of Luxembourg and having crossed the Ourthe River at the Brisy bridge, are probing the defense of the crossroads, losing six men and fourteen prisoners in the course of those morning skirmishes.

The strength of the defense at the crossroads inclines the attackers to skirt the crossroads and slip to the west whereas Major Parker receives a reinforcement of tanks (two platoons of Sherman tanks from Task-Force Kane) belonging to the 3rd Armored Division whose dispersed elements left Bomal early afternoon to move up to the villages of Manhay and Malempre. An artillery liaison is also secured with the rear (Battery "A" of 54th Field Artillery Battalion) and a thin contact is kept to the north but the continuous German infiltrations into the thick forests are interfering with the lines of communications that will soon be cut to Salmchateau and to Samree by enemy roadblocks; only the road to Manhay is somewhat free. So each antagonist remains in expectation during the day of 21 December while growing progressively stronger.

Even if Major Parker's soldiers (who on this days is wounded and replaced by Major Goldstein) are receiving a reinforcement of Airborne Infantry during the morning of 22 (Company "F" under Captain R. Woodruff Junior belonging to the 82nd Airborne Division), the adversary brings up considerable strength as the 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich", after many difficulties due to the shortage of fuel and traffic jams has finally moved slowly into the Houffalize area and starts regrouping its regiments of Panzergrenadiers on the Plateau des Tailles and under cover of the forests. It is a very strong unit composed of young soldiers made fanatical and provided with heavy tanks. They should thus have at their disposal an appropriate road net and the Baraque de Fraiture crossroads is essential to them in order to start a breakthrough to the Ourthe valley while their Reconnaissance Battalion is exploring the ridges of Ottre and Provedroux. Therefore, the extent of skirmishes is growing in volume around Parker's position during the day of 23 December to develop at dusk into a fierce battle.

 
 

German artillery and the "Panther" tanks are pounding non-stop the American positions while the tanks are attacking from three directions the artillerymen and airborne troops insufficiently supported by heavy elements. The heavy howitzers (155mm) of the 592nd Field Artillery Battalion have indeed been emplaced near Ch ne-al-Pierre to assist in the defense and shoot two-hundred sixty rounds as from 1515h but radio contact is difficult and interrupted several times. The American High Command (in this case the XVIII Airborne Corps of General Matthew B. Ridgway) is confronted in that sector with a shortage of strength as the width of its moving front, the scattering of its units hastily committed and the hard battle that is taking place in the Vielsalm - Saint-Vith Salient are consuming the reinforcements; it is therefore practically impossible for it to help the crossroads but it has not failed to reinforce the rear by erecting strong roadblocks in the vicinity of Manhay, being assisted by the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion and the 3rd Armored Division.

The 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich" is firmly determined to eliminate a dangerous obstacle, the positions of which are revealed by a thin layer of snow, are submitted to a continuous harrassing fire of mortar and artillery shells; soon the heavy panzers arriving from three different directions are knocking out the Sherman tanks in the open ground in the clearing of the crossroads and are assailing the garrison whose radio links are constantly jammed and where the winter mist is concealing any maneuver of approach. Around 1700 h, the panzers and panzergrenadiers are overrunning the adverse defense that attempts, under the cover of incoming darkness to escape into the surrounding woods, leaving on the spot ten Sherman tanks (?) the three 105mm howitzers, four anti-aircraft halftracks, four tank-destroyers and eight trucks.

Captain Junior R. Woodruff's Airborne company (325th Glider Infantry Regiment) recovers twenty soldiers and will recuperate twenty-five more during the following days while the young General James M. Gavin, Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division, is attending from the vicinity of the village of Fraiture, the elimination of the stoppage position not without being somewhat apprehensive of the whole of the front, considering the essential strategical value of the crossroads and its dominating position. The artillerymen concealed in the damaged buildings and seeking shelter around them are, for a good part, captured and to be mentioned among them a young medic aged 19, John P. Ebbott who, due to join the 7th Armored Division on 19 December in the vicinity of Saint-Vith, took a wrong route in the fog and arrived at the crossroads to finally be taken prisoner of war along with six wounded together with Captain Arthur C. Brown, who earlier on 17 had already narronly escaped capture and who was commanding the three howitzers of the 589th Battalion on the spot. But very scarce are the soldiers who escaped from being captured, through incredible escapades, as for instance, the survivors of Troop "D", 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, who left on foot during the night through the forests and across country and nevertheless managed to recover one of their own vehicles, an armored car used by an SS reconnaissance unit! Captain George Huxel, Executive Officer of the Artillery, although wounded escapes along with some other soldiers thanks to the cattle left on the spot. (in this action may be included the farmer, Mr Jacquet, whose building was sheltering Parker's and Goldstein's CP).

A page is turned over, another is beginning to take shape as the thick forests and the marshy moors of Plateau des Tailles are confining the tanks to the roads only, in this prospect, General Ridgway will establish a series of roadblocks around Manhay to further obstruct the approach route to the SS attackers who are regrouping and overrunning also, in this evening of 23 December, the neighbouring village of Odeigne. So ends one of the many little known episodes missing in any civilian context, of that winter battle where small isolated units similar to that of Major Parker played a major role by slowing down the advance of the German armies. In the official nomenclature of that "Battle of the Bulge", the desolate summit of Baraque de Fraiture has become, "Parker's Crossroads" in memory of the tenacious as improvised defense during five days, of a small garrison of artillerymen, not at all prepared for fulfilling that delaying role.

 
 
 

The memorial erected at that place will remind the succeeding generations of the heroic action of our Liberators from across the Atlantic.