The 80th Division Battle in the Woods

The 80th Division Battle in the Woods, 24-26 December 1944
Battle where George L. Rathfon’s unit won the Luxembourg War Cross
submitted by Dave RATHFON

On the morning of 24 December the 80th Division lost the two battalions pre-empted by the
corps commander as infantry reinforcement for the 4th Armored Division. This diminution in its
rifle strength and successive collisions with German units crossing the front en route to the
Bastogne sector in the west constituted the closest link the 80th Division would have with the
dramatic effort being made to reach the encircled 101st Airborne. From this time forward the
80th Division attack would be related to the fighting farther west only in that it was blocking the
efforts of the Seventh Army to move its reserves into the Bastogne area.

For the next three days the division would wage a lone battle to reach and cross the Sure River,
the scene of action being limited to the wedge formed on the north by the Sure and on the east by
the Sauer River with a base represented by the Ettelbruck-Heiderscheidergrund road.
This area the 80th came to know as the Bourscheid triangle. Within this frame lay thick forests, deep
ravines, and masked ridges, the whole a checkerboard of little terrain compartments. Control of a
force larger than the battalion would be most difficult, artillery support-except at clearings and
villages-would be ineffective, and the maintenance of an interlocking, impervious front nigh
impossible. Once a battalion cleared a compartment and advanced to the next the enemy could be
counted on to seep back to his original position. Unobserved fire and loss of direction in the deep
woods, down the blind draws, and along the twisting ridges made each American unit a potential
threat to its neighbors, often forcing the use of a single battalion at a time. The infantryman
would be duly thankful when tanks, tank destroyers, or artillery could give a hand or at least
encourage by their presence, but the battle in woods and ravines was his own.

On the 23d the enemy forces facing the 80th Division were so weak and so disorganized that the
Seventh Army commander, Brandenberger, had feared that the 80th Division would drive across
the Sure during the course of the night and sever the main line of communications leading to the
west. By the morning of the 24th, however, reinforcements had arrived and the threat of a clean,
quick American penetration was on the wane. The LXXXV Corps (Kniess) thus far had faced the
American III Corps with only two divisions, the 5th Parachute and the 352d. Despite the Seventh
Army apprehension that two divisions would not possibly hold the long blocking line from
Ettelbruck to Vaux-lez-Rosières and despite daily requests that OKW release additional divisions
to the army to strengthen this line, the German High Command was slow to dip into its strategic
The two larger units earmarked for employment by the Seventh Army were the Fuehrer
Grenadier Brigade and the 79th Volks Grenadier Division. Both were a considerable distance to
the rear and both were equipped with the conglomeration of makeshift, battle-weary vehicles that
was the lot of those divisions not scheduled to join in the original breakthrough and penetration.
Even when they were released from the OKW Reserve, it would be a matter of days-not
hours-before the mass of either unit could be placed in the front lines. When OKW finally
responded to the pleas of the Seventh Army, the most optimistic estimates placed the Fuehrer
Grenadier Brigade and the 79th Volks Grenadier Division in the LXXXV Corps area on the
morning of 23 December.
Neither of these two formations was rated as having a high combat value. Theoretically the
Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, a younger brother of the elite Grossdeutschland Panzer Division and
like it charged with guarding Hitler's headquarters (albeit as the outer guard), should have been
one of the first of the Wehrmacht formations. In fact this brigade was of very recent vintage, had
suffered intense losses in East Prussia during its single commitment as a unit, and was not fully
refitted when finally sent marching to the west. Replacements, drawn from the same pool as
those for the Grossdeutschland and the Fuehrer Begleit Brigade, were hand-picked from the
younger classes but had little training. The Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade numbered some six
thousand men, had a rifle regiment mounted on armored half-tracks and 1 1/2-ton trucks, a
reconnaissance battalion, an assault gun battalion, and a mixed tank battalion made up of Mark
IV's and Panthers. The 79th Volks Grenadier Division possessed an old Wehrmacht number but,
as it stood at the time of its commitment in the Ardennes, was a green division the bulk of whose
riflemen had been combed out of headquarters troops in early December. Woefully
under-strength in both transportation and supporting weapons, it had neither a flak battalion nor
an assault gun battalion and would be forced to lean heavily on its artillery regiment.
The Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, the first to start for the battle front, was ordered to take the road
from Ettelbruck to Martelange and there deploy in support of the 5th Parachute Division.13
Its mission, assigned before the Third Army began its counterattack, was changed on the evening
of 21 December, and so was its route, now menaced by the 80th Division advance on Ettelbruck.

Trying to cross the Our River at the Roth bridges, the brigade ran into trouble. The bridges had
been damaged by attack from the air, and traffic was backed up for miles on both sides of the
river. Untrained drivers and mechanical failures further delayed the brigade as its columns
entered the icy, narrow, twisting roads of the Ardennes, but by 23 December the reconnaissance
battalion, a rifle battalion in armored carriers, and two tank companies had reached Eschdorf and
Heiderscheid. Gravely concerned by the rate of the American advance, the Seventh Army
commander sidetracked these troops short of the Bastogne sector to restore the gap which was
opening between the 5th Parachute Division and the 352d Volks Grenadier Division, and, as
already noted, the main body went in on on the 23d to stop the 80th Division at Heiderscheid. A
part of the battalion of armored infantry marched south from Eschdorf and succeeded in getting
cut off by the 26th Division night attack at Grevels-Brésil.

The heavy losses suffered by the green brigade in its first hours of battle had a marked adverse
impact on the morale of the entire command. Many times, in subsequent days of battle, higher
commanders would comment on the damage done the brigade by piecemeal commitment and
defeat in its baptism of fire. The loss of the brigade commander, Col. Hans-Joachim Kahler,
further demoralized the Fuehrer Grenadier. For successive days the command changed hands as
new elements of the brigade arrived under more senior officers; this lack of leadership hardly was
calculated to restore the shaken confidence of young, inexperienced troops. Yet despite these
early reverses in the counterattack role the young soldiers of the brigade would prove tough and
tenacious on the defensive.

On the morning of the 24th the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, still without artillery and with half of
its tanks and infantry still east of the Our River, stood opposite the inner wings of the American
26th and 80th Divisions. The force of perhaps two rifle companies which had been cut off by the
26th Division south of Eschdorf was known to be fighting its way out to the east. The LXXXV
Corps commander therefore decided to use his incoming reinforcements-infantry of the 79th
Volks Grenadier Division-in a counterattack to regain contact with the lost companies
somewhere around Eschdorf. This would be followed by a pivot to the east, intended to strike the
Americans in the flank at Heiderscheid. For this maneuver Col. Alois Weber, commanding the
79th, had available one regiment, the 208th, and a single battalion of the 212th. His division, like
the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade, had encountered the traffic jam at the Our River and while
crossing on the Gentingen bridge had been further delayed by American fighter-bombers. The
assault gun battalion and tanks from the Fuehrer Grenadier were at Weber's disposal, but his
artillery regiment was missing, entangled someplace on the road east