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Initial attack of Losheimergraben revisited

To the south of the 393rd Infantry, the 394th (Col. Don Riley) held a defensive sector marking the right flank terminus for both the 99th Division and V Corps. The 6,500-yard front ran along the International Highway from a point west of Neuhof, in enemy hands, south to Losheimergraben. Nearly the entire line lay inside the forest belt.

On the right a two-mile gap existed between the regiment and the forward locations of the 14th Cavalry Group. To patrol this gap the Regimental I&R Platoon held an outpost on the high ground slightly northwest of Lanzerath and overlooking the road from that village. Thence hourly jeep patrols worked across the gap to meet patrols dispatched by the cavalry on the other side of the Corps boundary.

Acutely aware of the sensitive nature of this southern flank, General Lauer had stationed his division reserve (3rd Battalion of the 394th) near the Buchholz railroad station in echelon behind the right of the two battalions in the line.

The fateful position of the 394th would bring against it the main effort of the 1 SS Panzer Corps and, indeed, that of the Sixth Panzer Army. Two roads ran obliquely through the regimental area. One, a main road, intersected the north-south International Highway (and the forward line held by the 394th) at Losheimergraben and continued northwest-ward through Bullingen and Butgenbach to Malmedy. The other, a secondary road but generally passable in winter, branched from the International Highway north of Lanzerath, and curved west through Buchholz, Honsfeld, Schoppen, and Faymonville, roughly paralleling the main road to the north.

Of the five westward roads assigned the 1 SS Panzer Corps the two above were most important. The main road to Bullingen and Malmedy would be called "C" on the German maps; the secondary road would be named "D." These two roads had been selected as routes for the main armored columns, first for the panzer elements of the 1 SS Panzer Corps, then to carry the tank groups of the II SS Panzer Corps composing the second wave of the Sixth Panzer Army's attack.

But since the commitment of armored spearheads during the battle to break through the American main line of resistance had been ruled out, the initial German attempt to effect a penetration would turn on the efforts of the three infantry divisions loaned the 1 SS Panzer Corps for this purpose only.

The 277th Volksgrenadier Division, aligned opposite the American 393rd Infantry, had a mission which would turn its attack north on the axis selected for the armored advance. Nonetheless, success or failure by the 277th would determine the extent to which the tank routes might be menaced by American intervention from the north. The twin towns, Rocherath-Krinkelt, for example, commanded the road which cut across — and thus could be used to block — the Bullingen road, route C.

The 12th Volksgrenadier Division, regarded by the Sixth Army staff as the best of the infantry divisions, had as its axis of attack the Bullingen road (route C); its immediate objective was the crossroads point of departure for the westward highway at Losheimergraben and the opening beyond the thick Gerolstein Forest section of the woods belt. The ultimate objective for the 12th Division attack was the attainment of a line of Nidrum and Weywertz, eight airline miles beyond the American front, at which point the division was to face north as part of the infantry cordon covering the Sixth Panzer Army flank.

The first thunderclap of the massed German guns and Werfers at 0530 on 16 December was heard by outposts of the 394th Infantry as "outgoing mail," fire from friendly guns, but in a matter of minutes the entire regimental area was ware that something most unusual had occurred.

Intelligence reports had located only two horse-drawn artillery pieces opposite one of the American line battalions; after a bombardment of an hour and five minutes the battalion executive officer reported, "They sure worked those horses to death."

But until the German infantry were actually sighted moving through the trees, the American reaction to the searchlights and exploding shells was that the enemy simply was feinting in answer to the 2nd and 99th attack up north. In common with the rest of the 99th the line troops of the 394th had profited by the earlier quiet on this front to improve their positions by log roofing; so casualties during the early morning barrage were few.

The German infantry delayed in following up the artillery preparation, which ended about 0700. On this part of the forest front the enemy line of departure was inside the woods. The problem, then, was to get the attack rolling through the undergrowth, American barbed wire, and mine fields immediately to the German front. The groping nature of the attack was enhanced by the heavy mist hanging low in the forest.

The initial enemy action along the 394th Infantry center and south flank was intended to punch holes through which the panzer columns might debouch onto the Bullingen and Honsfeld roads. The prominent terrain feature, in the first hours of the fight, was a branch railroad line which crossed the frontier just north of Losheim and then twined back and forth, over and under the Bullingen-Malmedy highway westward.

During the autumn retreat the Germans themselves had destroyed the bridge which carried the Bullingen road over the railroad tracks north of Losheim. To the west the highway overpass on the Lanzerath-Losheimergraben section of the International Highway also had been demolished.

The crossroads at Losheimergraben would have to be taken if the German tanks were to have quick and easy access to the Bullingen road, but the approach to Losheimergraben, whether from Losheim or Lanzerath, was denied to all but infantry until such time as the railroad track could be captured and the highway overpasses restored.

The line of track also indicated the axis for the advance of the left wing of the 12th Volksgrenadier Division and, across the lines, marked a general boundary between the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 394th Infantry. When the barrage lifted, about 0700, the assault regiments of the 12th Division already were moving toward the American positions. The 48th Grenadier Regiment, in the north, headed through the woods for the Losheimergraben crossroads. Fallen trees, barbed wire, and mines, compounded with an almost complete ignorance of the forest trails, slowed this advance. The attack on the left, by the 27th Fusilier Regiment, had easier going, with much open country and a series of draws leading directly to the track and the American positions.

As a result of the stubborn stand at the station, some of the assault platoons of the 27th Fusilier Regiment circled back to the northeast and onto the left of the 1st Battalion (Lt. Col. Robert H. Douglas). Here one of the battalion anti-tank guns stopped the lead German tank and the supporting fusiliers were driven back by 81mm mortar fire thickened by an artillery barrage.

The major threat in the Losheimergraben sector came shortly afternoon when the 48th Grenadier Regiment finally completed its tortuous approach through the woods, mines, and wire, and struck between B and C Companies.

B Company lost some 60 men and was forced back about 400 yards; then, with the help of the attached heavy machine gun platoon, it stiffened and held. During the fight Sgt. Eddie Dolenc D/394 (Sgt. Dolenc was listed as MIA; he was awarded the DSC) moved his machine gun forward to a shell hole which gave a better field of fire. When last seen Sgt. Dolenc still was firing, a heap of gray-coated bodies lying in front of the shell hole.

The C Company outposts were driven in, but two platoons held their original positions throughout the day. Company A beat off the German infantry assault when this struck its forward platoon; then the battalion mortar platoon, raising its tubes to an 89-degree angle, rained shells on the assault group, leaving some 80 grenadiers dead or wounded.

The early morning attack against the right flank of the 394th had given alarming indication that the very tenuous connection with the 14th Cavalry Group had been severed and that the southern flank of the 99th Division was exposed to some depth. The only connecting flank, the 30-man I&R Platoon of the 394th, northwest of Lanzerath, had lost physical contact early in the day both with the cavalry and with its own regiment. Radio communication with the isolated platoon continued for some time, and at 1140 word was relayed to the 99th Division command post that the cavalry was pulling out of Lanzerath — confirmation, if such were needed, of the German breakthrough on the right of the 99th.

Belatedly, the 106th Infantry Division reported at 1315 that it could no longer maintain contact at the inter-division boundary. Less than an hour later the radio connection with the I&R Platoon failed. By this time observers had seen strong German forces pouring west through the Lanzerath area. (These were from the 3rd Parachute Division.)

General Lauer's plans for using the 3rd Battalion, 394th Infantry, as a counterattack force were no longer feasible. The 3rd Battalion, itself under attack, could not be committed elsewhere as a unit and reverted to its parent regiment. Not long after the final report from the I&R Platoon, the 3rd Battalion was faced to the southwest in positions along the railroad.

A check made after dark showed a discouraging situation in the 394th sector. It was true that the 2nd Battalion, in the north, had not been much affected by the day's events — but German troops were moving deeper on the left and right of the battalion. In the Losheimergraben area the 1st Battalion had re-formed in a thin and precarious line; the crossroads still were denied the enemy. But B Company had only 20 men available for combat, while the enemy settled down in the deserted American foxholes only a matter of yards away. Four platoons had been taken from the 3rd Battalion to reinforce the 1st, leaving the former with no more than 100 men along the railroad line. Farther to the west, however, about 125 men of the 3rd Battalion who had been on leave at the rest center in Honsfeld formed a provisional unit extending somewhat the precarious 394th flank position.

Some help was on the way. General Lauer had asked the 2nd Division for a rifle battalion to man a position which the 99th had prepared before the attack as a division backstop between Murringen and Hunningen. At 1600 Colonel Riley was told that the 394th would be reinforced by the 1st Battalion, 23rd infantry of the 2nd Division. During the night this fresh rifle battalion, and a company each of tanks and tank destroyers, under the command of Lt. Col. John M. Hightower, moved from Elsenborn to take up positions south and southeast of Hunningen. Before sunrise, Dec. 17, these reinforcements were in place.

During the night of Dec. 16-17, the entire infantry reserve in the 99th Division zone had been committed in the line or close behind it, this backup consisting of the local reserves of the 99th and the entire 23rd Infantry, which had been left at Elsenborn while its sister regiments took part in the 2nd Division attack to break out in the Wahlerscheid sector. The 3rd Battalion of the 23rd had set up a defensive position on a ridge northeast of Rocherath, prepared to support the 393rd Infantry. The 2nd Battalion had assembled in the late afternoon of the 16th approximately a mile and a quarter north of Rocherath. The 1st Battalion would be at Hunningen. Troops of the 2nd Division had continued the attack on Dec. 16, but during the afternoon Maj. Gen. Walter M. Robertson made plans for a withdrawal, if necessary, from the Wahlerscheid sector.

As early as 1100 word of the German attack son the V Corps front had produced results at the command post of the northern neighbor, the VII Corps. The 26th Infantry of the uncommitted 1st Infantry Division, then placed on a six-hour alert, finally entrucked at midnight and started the move south to Camp Elsenborn. The transfer of this regimental combat team to the V Corps would have a most important effect on the ensuing American defense.

This account was taken from the website of Hans Wijers.

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