Reprinted from Officer Review magazine
On Sept. 16, 1944, at a meeting with a number of senior officers in his study, Hitler listened to General Jodl discussing the American Army advance in the region of the Ardennes. At the mention of the Ardennes, Hitler told Jodl to stop and after a long pause, stated, “I have made a momentous decision. I shall go over to the offensive, that is to say here, out of the Ardennes, with the objective, Antwerp!”
By Dec. 15 the planned forces were in position to begin the attack the next day. The Germans had removed major units from defenses in France and had moved them into position while convincing U.S. intelligence that the German forces in the Ardennes were being reduced.
The U.S. Forces on the line in the Ardennes were, starting from the north, the 102nd Cavalry Squadron, the 99th Infantry Division, the 106th Infantry Division, the 28th Infantry Division and the 4th Infantry Division. An Engineer Combat Group with four battalions also supported this region.
The 99th Infantry Division had been raided for replacements for Europe prior to its deployment and had arrived in Europe five weeks before the attack. The Division had filled its ranks with replacements from Air Corps ground personnel, ASTP and anti-aircraft units. It covered a front of 22 miles from Monschau to the Losheim Gap.
The 106th Division was fresh off the boats in France with many replacements from ASTP for troops raided earlier for the Eruopean theater. On Dec. 10, it replaced the 2nd Infantry Division in its 18-mile front. The 2nd Division was participating in First Army’s attack on the Roer River Dams.
The 28th Infantry Division had lost 5,000 men in the Huertgen Forest fighting and was sent to the Ardennes to recover and receive replacements. This division took over a 22-mile front along the Our River from the Losheim Gap to the juncture of the Our and Sure Rivers.
The 4th Infantry Division had, like the 28th, lost 5,000 men at Huertgen. That division was also sent to the Ardennes to rest and receive replacements. Their front was 20 miles long from Eternach south to Luxembourg City.
The Allies had convinced themselves that Hitler could never gain assemble a force large enough to launch a major attack.
Facing the U.S. forces in this area were German troops of Army Group B, consisting of the Fifteenth Army in the north, the Sixth Panzer Army in the center and the Fifth Panzer Army in the south.
The Fifteenth Army consisted of three VG (Volksgrenadier) divisions (the 24th, 276th and 340th) and the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division in the 67th Corps.
The Fifth Panzer Army consisted of four Corps. The 47th Panzer Corps had three Panzer Divisions, the 26th VG Division and the Fuhrer Begleit Brigade; the 58th Panzer Corps was comprised of the 116th Panzer Division and the 560th VG Division; the 29th Panzer Corps had the 167th VG Division; the 66th Corps had the 18th and 62nd VG Divisions.
The Sixth Panzer Army was the largest and most powerful of the attacking forces with two powerful Corps. The I Corps had the 1st and 12th (Hitler Jugend) S.S. Panzer Divisions, the 3rd Parachute Division, the 12th, 277th and 326th VG Divisions and the 150th Panzer Brigade. The II Corps consisted of the 2nd and the 9th S.S. Panzer Divisions.
The powerful Fifth and Sixth Armies launched their attack early in the morning of Dec. 16, their line of attack practically along the boundary between the 99th and the 106th Infantry Divisions. Their fuel and ammunition stocks required that the attack reach Antwerp by the end of the third day. Success of this attack would provide the Germans with much needed ammunition, fuel and rations and would effectively separate the U.S. Forces from the British Forces to the north. And, to have a force of such strength in the rear areas of the U.S. positions, would constitute a serious threat to U.S. Forces and would probably necessitate a retreat to new defense positions to counter the powerful German Fifth and Sixth Panzer Armies. Supplies and replacements would, once again, have to come through the French ports, requiring tremendous increases in quantities of trucks and in distances to be covered. Just the gasoline needed for resupply would be a huge additional burden on the logistics.
The men of the 99th Infantry Division helped make history. Their blood wrote a few pages of the most glowing kind of history in the annals of American fighting men. On Dec. 16, 1944: A 22-mile front in the Ardennes forest, fog, cold, deep snow, dense woods and constant shelling by artillery. Outnumbered 5-to-1 all along the line and, in places, 15-to-1, soldiers of the 99th Division fought the Germans to a standstill despite the dense forests that made continuous defensive positions impossible. The 99th Division’s line was mostly separate strong points along the front. Ammunition was short and the soldiers waited until the enemy was nine to 10 feet from them and then opened fire, slaughtering the attackers. Soldiers wept when they had to retreat as they ran out of ammunition. Others fought until their ammunition was gone and then fought the Boches with bayonets. All supplies to the men in the cold, wet foxholes came by foot. Almost all of the men suffered frozen feet and hands. (The worst weather in 125 years permitted no air support until the weather broke on Dec. 23 and the U.S. Air Corps flew 5,000 bombing and strafing sorties, destroying much of the enemy’s lines of communications and logistics.)
The Fifteenth Army troops attacked through the northern sector of the 99th Division, a diversionary attack to prevent flank attacks by the Americans against the northern flank of the Sixth panzer Army and to get to Allied supplies at Aachen. Though seriously outnumbered the 395th Regiment halted the attack at Hofen, the Fifteenth Army was stopped and never overcame the resistance.
The Sixth Army attacked in the direction of the Losheim Gap which was, effectively, the divisional boundary between the 99th and the 106th Divisions. The 99th Division stymied the attack. The Fifth Army attacked through the divisional boundary between the 106th and the 28th Divisions. When the Fifth Army penetrated the defenses in their zone of attack the 99th Division faced attacks from the south as well as from the east. Despite being attacked by five German divisions in eight days the 99th never permitted the enemy to gain access to the only roads that led straight to Antwerp. The deadlines for achieving their objective lost, the Sixth Army forces turned south to take advantage of the breakthrough.
When it was obvious that they could not reach Antwerp, the Germans sought to revert to what they called “The Small Solution” which was to take Liege where there were large stocks of food, ammunition and fuel (this plan had been specifically prohibited by Hitler before the assault was launched). That objective, if taken, would possibly permit continuation of the attack in the direction of Antwerp. It was learned later that such a continuation of the attack would not have succeeded, the German troops were, at this point, concerned with two things: staying alive and defending the Fatherland.
Only the loss of one particular fight could have produced an American defeat of the Battle of the Bulge – a loss at the Northern Corner at Elsenborn Ridge. If the Northern Corner had not repulsed the Nazi attacks until reinforcements arrived to secure the Corner, the Sixth Panzer Army would have driven in hours to Antwerp and the Battle of the Bulge would have been lost or been fought from England. Holding back the Germans for two days produced the Northern Shoulder, and as the actual Battle of the Bulge confirmed – Victory.
Nothing contained in the above description of the Battle is intended to diminish the valor displayed by those divisions that fought to relieve Bastogne or defeat the German forces still in the Bulge (Seventh Army and strong elements of the Fifth and Sixth Panzer Armies). The Battle of the Bulge continued until Jan. 27, 1945.
The main point of this story is to remind the world that Hitler’s plan to take Antwerp, with its supplies and, at the same time, separate the U.S. and the British forces, was dead by Dec. 17, 1944. An additional benefit of this article is to acknowledge the heroic actions of the men of the 99th Infantry Division, the 2nd Infantry Division, the 106th Infantry Division, the supporting 14th Armored Cavalry units, Engineer Combat Groups and the Artillery units. The 99th Division’s casualties were 81 percent. The coldest winter in 125 years killed as many men as did the enemy.
At his surrender at the Ruhr Pocket, General Van Manteuffel stated, “The 99th Infantry Division were the elite troops of all the enemy troops we fought.”
In the past, too little has been made of this critical period in the Battle of the Bulge.
Major William L. Muncaster, AUS (Ret), as a 29-year-old captain, was the Executive Officer in Division Headquarters and Special Troops, 99th Infantry Division in 1944-45. He was among those whose feet froze.