The Battle of Elsenborn - December 44 (Part V)

The Battle of Elsenborn, December 1944 (Part V)

Leon NYSSEN

THE BATTLE OF ELSENBORN ENDS

 

Starting on Saturday, December 23rd, every battalion holding the line along the Elsenborn Ridge was, one-by-one pulled off the front line and sent for rest and recuperation. At the Elsenborn Camp the GI's received a breakfast of doughnuts or pancakes covered with maple syrup, and for dinner, steak, potatoes, sweet peas, a peach for dessert and coffee. At Christmas they were served the traditional turkey and a bottle of wine to be shared by three soldiers. During the short R&R period the soldiers had the occasion to take a warm shower. They were also issued new uniforms. All of this took place in facilities set up in Sourbrodt by the engineers.

 

At the front, the army postal personnel went from foxhole to foxhole distributing letters and Christmas packages which had arrived from the United States. Everyone knew how important the mail could be to a soldier. The chaplains, assisted by volunteers, opened those parcels which had been addressed to those listed as "Absent". All the perishable goods were distributed to the troops while the valuable objects were sent back to the families.

 

On Monday, December 25th, the German artillery, far from respecting the Christmas truce, hoped to demoralize the GI's by increasing their firepower; the Germans did not succeed.

 

At dawn on Tuesday, December 26th, the Germans attempted one last attack on the American defensive line set up along the Elsenborn Ridge. For more than an hour they concentrated their artillery on Roderh he and Kodenh vel. The German infantry ran out of the forest located north of Rocherath at 06.45 (6:45 AM). They rushed to attack the area where the 393rd and 394th IRs, 99th ID met the 2nd ID. The Germans carried a great deal of equipment indicating they were convinced that not only would they succeed in pushing the Americans out of the area but also they would be able to settle into the American's positions. All these hopes were in vain. A rain of American shells, equipped with the Pozit fuse, mowed down the Germans in their tracks. As they pulled back the fields were covered with German bodies. The Battle of Elsenborn Ridge was finally over at 10.00 (10:00 AM).

 

WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF THE ELSENBORN BATTLE HAD NOT BEEN A SUCCESS?

 

It is fact that one should never write history based on "What if". However, it is not forbidden to ask questions in this particular case. Just think of what would have happened if the Germans had succeeded in overcoming the Elsenborn Ridge defenses? Some of the German Commanders, nazi fanatic like Model and von Manteuffel, agreed that even if the battle had turned in favor of the attacking Germans they would have never been able to cross the Meuse River. They might have reached the river between Vis and Li ge on one side of the front between Namur and Givet at the other end. If this had happened it would not be difficult to picture the efforts and sacrifices required from the Allies to push back the enemy across a territory wider than 100 kilometers (61 miles) and longer than 70 to 80 kilometers (43to 49 miles)...

 

We were witnesses to the destruction and suffering endured by the civilian populations of both Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg during the actual Battle of the Bulge. We dare not think of what would have happened if this hypothetical German success had turned out to be a reality. It is certain that Eupen, Verviers and Spa, just to mention three towns, would have not been spared and that the important logistic supply base of Li ge could have been taken by the Germans or would have had to be evacuated or destroyed resulting in awful consequences.

 

When you understand that it took 52 days for the Allies to push the Germans back to their original starting line one can well imagine that it would have taken at least twice the time to reacquire the lost ground discussed in this hypothetical event.

 

Another drawback one would have to contemplate was the reaction of the Russian Army. Would it have taken advantage of the Anglo-American delay created by the Germans reaching the Meuse River, crossing the Elbe River and going as far as the Rhine River?

 

The London agreements of November 14, 1944, had previously determined the different occupation zones. It was agreed that any of the Allied forces which reached further than their assigned zones before the Germans surrendered would pull back to the agreed-upon demarcation line. This is exactly what the American Army did after May 8, 1945. However, knowing Stalin one would fear that he would not have had the same scruples and the "Iron Curtain" would have fallen much closer to our borders. One could imagine the results of such an act.

 

WHAT ARE THE REASONS THAT MIGHT EXPLAIN THE SILENCE SURROUNDING THE ELSENBORN RIDGE BATTLE?

 

Early in December 1944, the little town of Bastogne was a resting area in which many war correspondents enjoyed some R&R. Throughout the tragic days which saw fire and blood covering the Ardennes these reporters wrote numerous "articles" dated Bastogne December, 1944. After 24 hours of imposed silence the same name was mentioned many times per day in various newspaper articles and broadcast on the radio. At Saint-Vith you could not find a war correspondent. Obviously none were available in Elsenborn or Montjoie (Monschau).

 

Just as one cannot mention Waterloo, without thinking about Cambronne's famous word, it is impossible to mention the Bastogne without having someone adding "Nuts!" this "historical" word was uttered by Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe as he was responding to the German's proposal to have the American troops surrender. The two are inseparable. There is not a book written concerning the Battle of Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge) that does not devote many paragraphs, if not pages, to this episode. Neither Generals Clarke nor Hasbrouck in Saint-Vith, nor Colonels Butler Mc Clernand or O'Brien in Montjoie (Monschau), nor Generals Lauer or Roberston at Elsenborn and Colonel Daniel at the Butgenbach estate had the free time to pronounce a historical word. If they ever did there were no war correspondents there to capture and relay them. They all did their duty with the goal of being efficient. They didn't try becoming popular by carrying revolvers decorated with mother-of-pearl grips, wearing defused hand grenades hooked up to their shoulder straps or go to the front line to take potshots at the enemy. This usually provoked the enemy to retaliate and caused unjustified losses to the GI's.

 

Saint-Vith finally fell into the hands of the Germans. Some Americans, who were only used to seeing their troops succeed, were surprised to see the bloody and deadly H rtgen battle which lasted from the end of October to early December 1944. Some event felt, erroneously, that the loss of Saint-Vith was a second defeat and was inappropriate to talk about. While losing sight of the very important delay caused to the enemy's advance.

 

These same people forgot the outstanding performance of the 7th Armored Division, which played a major role as an offensive unit. This division's tactical moves and defensive operations, followed by difficult enemy delaying combats, deserve to be recognized.

 

The withdrawal of American forces towards Bastogne, the fact that the town was surrounded, and then freed by General Patton's men are spectacular operations that consisted of rapid movements in both directions and attracted the attention of the public. The stubborn resistance of troops, who were holding their ground in the cold, the snow and the freezing rain, while never giving an inch to the enemy, never got the casual observer very excited. As soon as the battle of Elsenborn Ridge was organized it became a static battle. No large movement of troops; nothing but stationary resistance. It was wild, determined, and never giving an inch or reacquiring a few hundred meters (328 feet) temporarily given up during the engagement. This type of action did not excite an observer's imagination. One must remember that Bastogne was surrounded by the German forces for four days and eight hours. Even so, the battle on the surrounding areas of the town lasted much longer. It entered into the American mythology at the same level as the Little Big Horn or the Alamo. These units, who were rapidly deployed into combat, today still make young Yankees dream. No one knows how much the Indian Wars still affect the American imagination.

 

Also fondly remembered were the impressive spectacles of gliders landing loaded with ammunition, food, fuel and other supplies. But no paratroopers were used except a few pathfinders with special radio equipment. They guided the planes carrying medical equipment and a small number of doctors led by Major/Doctor Lamar Souter. All the paratroopers besieged in Bastogne had arrived by trucks from Mourmelon, near Reims, France. The three Parachute Infantry Regiments of the 101st Airborne Division had been ordered to move to Bastogne by General Eisenhower. None of these extraordinary moves ever happened at Saint-Vith and Elsenborn. On one hand these very colorful parachutes falling from the sky excited the imagination. On the other hand supply troops were crawling through the snow and mud to bring cold rations and ammunition to the front line troops located in frozen foxholes in Montjoie, Elsenborn and Butgenbach did not make for exciting news.

 

For other reasons, which are better understood by the Belgians, Saint-Vith and Elsenborn are located in the German speaking zone of Belgium. This area was taken from Germany by the League of Nations in 1919 and rended to Belgium after more than one century germanization (1815-1919). We are not talking about Montjoie (Monschau) which is a German town. Many people admire the beautiful scenery of this area. However, few people realize how much this area has suffered since 1815. The general public does not understand the awful suffering and turmoil created by the various wars and the uncertainties affecting the periods between the wars. Additionally, more than half of the local inhabitants were forced to evacuate the villages; some as early as mid October 1944. Some villages were completely deserted. Only 35 peoples were allowed to stay in Elsenborn and they were to take care of the cattle. The Americans told those who were displaced: "Take very little clothes and food, you will be back in a few days." For most of these people those "few days" lasted four months.

 

This evacuation was hopefully meant to shelter the people from the horrors of the battle. Unfortunately, some lost their lives during the exodus. As they came back, besides the damages done to their homes by the German artillery, their houses literally were emptied by the GI's who were trying to improve their foxholes. Most of the doors had been ripped off to serve as footbridges over the mudholes.

 

One may never forget that after the war, when it came time to honor the returning veterans of the Battle of Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge), they came back to visit the battlefields where they fought so valiantly. The little town of Bastogne was prepared in more ways than one to greet their liberators. Hotels and restaurants were available and various tourist businesses organized parades, visit to historic sites and tours of the best known combat areas. This town was able to plan ahead in order to take advantage of the resulting tourist attractions created by this historic battle. You can call this a well-orchestrated tourist attraction. It is regrettable to see many Ardennes towns like La Roche, Houffalize and Saint-Vith let the world know that their towns endured destruction which was far greater than Bastogne. They suffered the ire of the Nuts-City Historical Commission.

 

One should also mention the rivalry between General George S. Patton, Commander of the 3rd U.S. Army and General Hodges, Commander of the 1st U.S. Army. Each of them wanted to claim that he was the one who STOPPED the Germans. General Patton had a knack of getting the press to talk or to write about him. General Hodges was not concerned about his reputation. This created an atmosphere concerning the performance of his men as a reflection of his own less flamboyant management style. However, it is General Hodge who should have be given credit for defeating the Germans.

 

The fact that between December 20th and January 18th the 1st U.S. Army, except for the 8th Corps commanded by General Middleton, was under the command of Britain's Marshal Bernard Montgomery. This was difficult to be accepted by the Americans and especially by General Bradley. This definitely clouded the Elsenborn battle. It should be remembered that by December 19th all the large military units, which participated in this battle, were already in place or already assigned a specific area of the front. Marshall Bernard Montgomery was convinced that Li ge was not a major German target despite all indications to the contrary. He felt that the German's number one objective was to cross the Meuse River between Li ge and Namur. As a result he wanted to evacuate Elsenborn! General Omar Bradley obstinately refused to follow the order of his Commander. Montgomery finally accepted Bradley's point of view. From then on Montgomery did not get involved in the daily operations involving the Elsenborn battle. However, on December 24th, Montgomery stated: "The defense of this sector by the 99th Infantry Division is the most courageous performance of the war!" Curiously enough he was the only Allied military commander to recognize the men who were nicknamed the Battle Babies by John McDemott, the United Press war correspondent. Before January 1945 this Division was known as the Checkerboard.

 

The Belgian Government also recognized this Division: on June 17, 1946 Prince Charles, Prince Regent of Belgium, issued two citations to the 99th Infantry Division and to the units attached to it. He awardd the 1940 fourrag re to these units.

 

After all is said and done, one cannot deny that amongst all the communities which suffered during the Ardennes Battle, one was chosen as a symbol. For reasons previously mentioned, Bastogne was chosen to be the city. This would not have been troublesome if it not had been blown out of proportion to the point of smothering other battles where other GI's distinguished themselves, and to particularly ignore the Elsenborn battle.

 

WE WILL END WITH COMMENT MADE BY MEN WHO MADE A POINT TO STUDY HISTORY

 

The well-known French military historian, Jacques Nob court wrote:[61] "The Battle of the Bulge legend gives too much credit to those troops, who defended Bastogne, at the expense of those who fought to defend Saint-Vith. Without them the defense of Bastogne would have been probably compromised.........

[61] In his book "Le dernier coup de d s de Hitler" See source list

 

John Eisenhower, son of the Supreme Commander of all the Allied Forces on the European Western Front, stated that the December 1944 actions surrounding Elsenborn were the most decisive fought during the Battle of the Bulge.[62]

[62] In Op ration: Brouillards d'automne, See source list

 

Christian Kraft de la Saulx, the President of CRIBA[63] wrote "We must remember that the Northern section of the "Bulge", where two U.S. Divisions[64] supported by powerful artillery, which was located on Elsenborn Ridge were able to stop dead in their tracks, the German 6th Armored Army, which had just been resupplied with new equipment. The German's objective was to capture the Port of Antwerp. This major accomplishment which of course is much less spectacular than a war involving troop movements today is often forgotten.[65]

[63] CRIBA - Center of Research and Information concerning the Battle of Ardennes - Ch n e-Li ge

[64] The 2nd and the 99th Infantry Divisions

[65] In introduction in the book "Jour de Guerre n 21 - Jours de sursaut", See source list

 

Belgian Lieutenant-Colonel Emile Engels points out "that on December 16, 1944 both Hitler and General Model applied their principal efforts between Montjoie (Monschau) and Saint-Vith. They were counting on the German 6th Armored Army, commanded by Sepp Dietrich to pierce through the American defenses and spearhead the success. The crucial battle was fought in this sector. It was the deciding factor in the defeat of the German offensive. Five days later, the tenacity of the American defense forced Hitler to admit that the 6th Armored Army was stalled. He could not see or was not willing to see that the battle fought between Saint-Vith and Montjoie in other words the Elsenborn Ridge Battle, had definitely ended the offensive aimed at Antwerp.[66]

[66] In "Bastogne" See source list

 

Among the few short articles, often kept confidential, concerning the Elsenborn Battle one should mention those written by Andr Cailloux. In his book published in 2001, one of them refers to: "Elsenborn, the north end of the Ardennes Battle.[67]

[67] In Elsenborn, le Saillant Nord de la Bataille des Ardennes in Jours de sursaut, See source list

 

As far as Charles B. MacDonald, the official historian of the United States Army, he wrote an hour-by-hour, day-by-day account of his experiences as Commander, Company "I" of the 3rd Infantry Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. He stated:[68] "The Elsenborn resistance blocked the roads leading towards Verviers and Eupen, and consequently to the road the 1st U.S. Army supply depots located in Li ge and the vital harbor of Antwerp." McDonald also said: "At the time we had knowledge of the important contribution provided by the soldiers of the 2nd and 99th Infantry Division... the Germans aimed their principal efforts to the right side of their front, therefore Elsenborn, hoping to acquire the vital roads leading towards Antwerp... According to the German expectations; their infantry would pierce through the 99th Infantry Division defense line on the first day. The next day their tanks would drive through the Elsenborn Ridge defenses. The German tanks would reach the Meuse River on the third day. This schedule was never going to be met, thanks in part to the obstinate resistance of the 99th Infantry Division and in part to the unexpected presence of the 2nd Infantry Division near Elsenborn.

[68] In Commandant de compagnie, See source list

 

Strangely enough no book has ever been exclusively dedicated to this battle. However a little booklet was written by Gilbert Galez,[69]. He concentrated only on the 99th ID's engagements and completely ignores the actions of the 2nd ID. Basically it refers to only a part of the Elsenborn Battle. On the other hand only the 2nd ID was recognized and complimented by the American High Command. For one reason or another it chose to ignore the 99th ID which surely deserved the same flattering remarks. Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges, Commander of the U.S. 1st Army, stated: "What the 2nd Infantry Division was able to accomplish, will never be forgotten in the history of the United States Army". General Eisenhower added: "The 2nd Infantry Division tackled the task with great ability and resolution..... (fighting) one of the greatest battles of World War II ... General Robertson, who was in this sector, understood the situation and took the appropriate decision".

[69] In Histoire oubli e des hommes perdus, See source list

 

These words of praise were well deserved. However, they clouded the role played by the 99th ID without whom things would have turned out to be quite different. This can be explained by the personality of General Robertson, Commander of the 2nd ID, who was also the most senior Division Commander in Europe. He overshadowed General Lauer's mild and humble demeanor. As Commander, 99th ID, General Lauer's leadership cannot be underestimated when one studies the protective measures he provided to his men. Without these precautions the Elsenborn Ridge resistance would not have been possible.

 

L on Nyssen

 

Principal Sources of Information

 

The following list was purposely shortened. They are many more books and studies, which do nothing, more than paraphrase these major authors. Those sources referred to during this research often agreed with one another sometimes they disagreed and in certain cases even contradicted one another. None of the writing found in the previous pages can be attributed to one author. All the work was based upon different narrations and comments made by witnesses. The number of references, which would have been required to the numerous twists and turns needed to come up with the written point of view, would have made this study cumbersome, these references would not have made the text clearer. The choice of one version rather than another was bases on common sense.[70]

[70] Guy Thuiller and Jean Tuland - La m thode en histoire - (2nd edition) page 21 puf, Paris 1991

 

ANDRUS Clift - First Infantry Division in World War II - Tomes I & II - Turner Publishing Company, Paducah (Kentucky) 1995.

BERNARD Henri & GHEYSENS Roger - La bataille d'Ardenne- Duculot, Paris-Gembloux 1984.

CAILLOUX Andr - Elsenborn, le Saillant Nord de la bataille des Ardennes in Jours de guerre - Jours de sursant, p. 25-45 - Dexia Banque, Bruxelles 2001.

CAVANAGH William C.C. - "Dauntless" A History of the 99th Infantry Division - Taylor Publishing Company, Dallas, Texas, 1994.

CLAY Steven E. - Blood and Sacrifice- The History of the 16th Infantry Regiment - Cantiny First Division Foundation - 16th Infantry Regiment Association, Chicago and Maryland 2001.

COLE Hugh M. - La grande bataille des Ardennes (translated by Michele Gabriel) - Omer Marchal, Villance-en-Ardenne 1994.

COLIGNON Alain - M mories de la guerre et m moire de la guerre - (conference, Verviers March 24, 2001).

DELAVAL Maurice - Saint-Vith au cours de l'ultime Blitzhrieg de Hitler (t moignages non conformists) - Editions J.A.C., Vielsam 1984.

DOHERTY J. C. - The Shock of War - Vol. II - Vert Milon Press, Alexandria 1998.

EISENHOWER John S. D. - Operation: Brouillards d'automine (translated by R. Jouan) - Presses de la Cit , Paris 1969.

ENGELS Emile - Bastogne- Trente jours sous la neige et le feu - Racine, Bruxelles 1994.

G(ottfried) L(oup) - Seit ihr schon wieder da ? - in Der verh ngnisvolle Irrtum - Grenz-Echo, Eupen 1984.

GALLEZ Gilbert - Histoire oubli e des homes perdus - Everling, Arlon 1984.

GOOLRICK William K. et TANNER Ogden - La bataille des Ardennes (translated by M. Le Nan) - Time-Life Books B. V. Bruxelles 1981.

GRAILET Lambert - Prelude: valeureux Li geois sous les armes "V" in Jours de guerre n 21 - Jours de sursaut, p. 9 to 23 - Dexia Banque, Bruxelles 2001.

KRAFT de la SAULX Christian - Introduction - in Jours de guerre, n 21- Jours de sursaut, p. 5-7 - Dexia Banque, Bruxelles 2001.

KUROWSKI Frank - La bataille des Ardennes et l'agonie l'Ouest - preface de General von Manteuffel - (translated by Ursula Wetzel) - La Table Ronde, Paris 1968.

LAUER Walter E. (major general) - Battle Babies- The story of the 99th Infantry Division in World War II - The Battery Press, Nashville 1985

MacDONALD Charles B. - No l 44 - La bataille d'Ardenne (translated by Paul Maquet and Josette Maquet Dubois) - Didier Hatier, Bruxelles 1989.

MacDONALD Charles B. - Commandant de compagnie (translated by Paul Maquet and Josette Maquet Dubois) - Didier Hatier, Bruxelles 1990.

M LLER Richard Matthias - Des Krieg, der night sterben wollte - Monschau 1945 (Witnesses: Joseph C. Doherty, Paul B. Henze, Thor Ronningen and Fritz Vincken), Universitas, M nchen 2002.

N... - O Elsenborn, O Elsenborn - Band 2 - Publication de l' association Vereninigung f r Kultur und Folklore - Elsenborn, sd (1981 ?).

N.... - Selected Intelligence Reports - Vol. I - ( 1st Infantry Division).

N.... - The Battle for Elsenborn Ridge (video-cassette) - Bill Stokes Associates, Dallas 1991.

PELTIER Jean Gordon - World War II Diary.

NOB COURT Jacques - Le dernier coup de d s de Hitler - Robert Laffont, Paris 1962.

PROM Jeannine - L'hiver alli des Ardennes in Arm es d'aujourd'hui, n 196 - December 1944-January 1945, Service historique de l'arm e de terre. Paris 1994.

SCHAULEN Joachim von - Hasso von Manteuffel - Kurt Vowinckel, Berg am See 1983.

SCHEIBLER Walter - Das Monschauer Land im Kriege - Das Monschauer Land - Geschichtsverein des Kreises Monschau, Monschau 1955.

SCHERER Wingolf - Gefallen und vergessen? Helios, Aachen 2002

TAGHON Peter - Avec la 3rd U.S. Armored Division "Spearhead" en Belgique in 39-45 Magazine, n 100, page 28 to 34 - Heimdal, Bayeux October 1994.

TOLAND John - Bastogne (trad. par Roland Mehl) - Calmann-Levy, Paris 1962.

TREES Wolgang - Krieg ohne Sieg - Zeitungsverlag, Aachen 1978.

TREES Wolgang - Schlachtfeld zwischen Maas und Rhein - Triangel Verlag, Aachen 1995.