Strategic withdrawal through Krinkelt
Battle of the Bulge
The strategic withdrawal of the 99th Infantry Division through Krinkelt, Germany
The strategic withdrawal of the
99th Infantry Division through Krinkelt, Germany
During the early stages of the Battle of the Bulge, a command decision at the highest levels was made that elements of the 99th Division, particularly the 394th Infantry Regiment (where I was attached as the field artillery liaison officer to the 3rd Infantry Battalion), would make a strategic withdrawal, to reinforce the lines of defense on Elsenborn Hill; and thereby help prevent any attempted German lateral breakthrough as they were pushing south and west toward the Belgian coast to cut off the Allied Forces.
der Fuhrer's Grand Plan to end the war in launching what has become known as the Battle of the Bulge was laid out in Field Marshal Von Rundstedt's Battle Order (captured by our Company A, 3rd Bn., 394th Regt. on Dec. 16, 1944) where he wrote:
"Soldiers of the West Front: Your great hour has struck. Strong attacking armies are advancing today against the Anglo-Americans. I don't need to say more to you. You all feel it. Everything is at stake. You bear in yourselves a holy duty to give everything and to achieve the superhuman for Our Fatherland and Our Fuhrer!"
War historian and nationally respected writer Bill Meyer spoke glowingly and proudly about the great contribution of the 99th Division during the Battle of the Bulge:
"These snow covered and forested hills were the site of the largest American battle in World War II. At times it seemed impossible and the future was in doubt, for we were fighting, not only superior numbers, but also the elements of nature.
"Eventually it became what has been termed, according to Sir Winston Churchill 'the greatest victory of World War II'."
Speaking favorably of the critical obstacles overcome and the soundness of the strategic and tactical decisions made as the Allied Forces came up with their own plan of battle, Bill Meyer further writes:
"Veterans of the 99th Infantry Division can be justly proud of their heritage. They were struck by an awesome force and managed to maintain it.
"They were spread too thin on a long front, opposed by overwhelming odds, but managed to destroy the time table of the attacking German Army.
"The 99th not only fought a delaying action to save others but also participated in holding the North Shoulder at Elsenborn Ridge, which became the key to victory in denying the German offensive of reaching the port of Antwerp."
The key to a successful withdrawal and reestablishing strong defensive positions on Elsenborn Ridge by the 394th Infantry Regiment was to get through the town of Krinkelt, Germany, which had been partly held by the Germans. We were moving in pitch darkness, bitter cold weather, over country roads, on foot, supported by a cavalcade of army transport trucks and other motorized vehicles.
We had been told that friendly forces could keep the town of Krinkelt open for safe troop and vehicle passage as long as we cleared by midnight. However, as we reached the outskirts of town about 11 o'clock, the lead column drew some small arms and mortar fire. And that is where the commanding colonel made his first drastic mistake of judgment.
Instead of sending out an armed foot patrol to investigate and report back what was out there (i.e., friendly forces), the colonel sent word back through the column for all "command officers" to come forward to the head of the column for an emergency "staff meeting," at which I was present.
And that is when the colonel made his second serious mistake of "command" when he addressed his staff in the following words, which are indelibly sealed in my memory forever:
"Krinkelt has been taken by the Germans! We can't get through. Pass the word back to take off on foot and reassemble in Elsenborn!"
Keep in mind that the above order was made without giving the "command officers" an opportunity to get back to their troops, give them appropriate orders, and lead them through the 10 or 15 miles of snow-bound countryside that had to be traveled to get to the town of Elsenborn without going through Krinkelt. It was absolute bedlam, with no one positively sure where or by what route they were going.
Fortunately I was able to get back to my two jeeps and small staff of four or five noncoms before they pulled out pursuant to the "word of mouth" order passed down through the line. They were still waiting for me at their vehicles for further instructions.
Particularly they and the few infantrymen drivers who were still there wanted to know whether they should, as previously instructed in training exercises, destroy their engines with a hot metal "thermite grenade" that was mounted inside the hood of every vehicle before they abandoned them.
Somehow I must have had a premonition that things might turn out differently because I replied "No, don't destroy your engines but yes, do destroy your radios in case our vehicles are captured by the Germans."
Then began the long hike by some six or so of us, led by me, toward Elsenborn. We plowed through deep snow fields, "up hill and down dale," mercifully lit by a partial moon that had come up and our vision reinforced by a clear blue sky. I had told everyone to carry on their backs as much of their gear and possessions in their jeeps as they could carry - on the chance that they might not return.
After trudging forward for about an hour, we suddenly encountered a sight coming toward us that was beyond our wildest expectations: It was a group of three or four enlisted men from the 394th, our regiment, who were returning to report that the town of Krinkelt and the escape route was still in U.S. hands - and that it had been "friendly fire" that opened on our column several hours earlier, under the misapprehension that we were "the enemy." So we immediately turned around and retraced our steps, picking up from the snow along the way, our previously discarded but valued possessions.
When we got back to our jeeps and the column of tracks behind they were all still intact. As the only officer present at that point in time, I was automatically in command. So I assigned and commandeered sufficient drivers for all the trucks.
I then led the column through some back roads in a "never-never land" between the Germans and our lines. Dame fortune was with us as we safely got the column back to Division Headquarters outside of Elsenborn. I left the trucks and drivers in a bivouac area nearby so I could report to the G-3, the division operations officer, on the status, or lack of same, of the division.
I was dirty, unshaven, with bloodshot eyes, and a tired and drawn face from lack of food and sleep for over 24 hours, as I reported to the G-3:
"Colonel I wish to turn over to your command the motorized vehicles of the 394th Regiment.
"I respectfully and regret to report that the 394th Regiment does not presently exist as a fighting unit; and will not, until you set up "straggler lines" to reassemble the major portions of infantrymen of the 394th, who at this very moment are plodding on foot through the snow toward Elsenborn."
Looking at me as though I had lost it, he responded: "Reath, come over here to the operations map and you can see for yourself that here are the current battle positions of the 394th - and they are show here on this battle map in place as indicated by the heavy china marking blue pencil lines."
I was eventually able to persuade the colonel that the map was dead wrong and I was right. Straggler lines were then set up, the troops were reassigned to their units, and the regiment was subsequently put into defensive positions as part of the critical and successful defense of Elsenborn Hill, thus denying the Germans their attempted breakthrough that could have turned around the war, and snatched for them victory from defeat.
A personal comment
So much for the mobility, fluidity, and reality of war! It's an extraordinary miracle that defies reality. And yet, somehow the big picture is pieced together by little incidents like this, where those on the ground frequently are totally in the dark as to what the big picture really is.
And yes, the situation can be reversed as was the case here, where those in command at the top were similarly "in the dark" at any given moment of time, as to the true situation in the field.
The ultimate irony is that I subsequently heard that the commanding colonel of the regiment received a Silver Medal award for his role in getting us out of Krinkelt! I, as a lowly artillery officer, received a Bronze Star for "heroism in action."
Henry T. Reath graduated from Princeton University in 1942, as a member of the Princeton ROTC Field Artillery.
He was immediately inducted in to the Army as a second lieutenant and sent to Fort Bragg NC, for field artillery training. He was transferred to Fort Sill Field Artillery School in Lawton OK, for a three-month refresher training course.
From Fort Sill he was assigned as a cadre officer to help build from scratch, the 99th Infantry Division, and its field artillery components designated as division artillery. All of this took place at Camp Van Dorn MS, located about halfway between Jackson MS and New Orleans LA. At the time of its creation, the 99th Division was known as the "Checkerboard Division" since its patch was taken from the coat of arms of William Penn.
In the summer of 1943, the division was moved to Paris TX, where it received its final training for overseas combat in the European Theater of Operations, and was sent overseas in the fall of 1944. Reath was an artillery liaison officer assigned to the 371st Infantry Battalion and remained with that unit throughout the war.
In November 1944, the 99th Division was put into the line near Elsenborn, Belgium, and had its first combat during the Battle of the Bulge. Those staying with the division throughout, as Reath did, are privileged to wear four battle star ribbons: the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of the Ruhr Pocket, the Battle of the Remagen Bridgehead (crossing the Rhine), and the Crossing of the Danube as part of the assault toward Berlin (which was called off by the German surrender on May 7, 1945).
Henry Reath also was awarded a Bronze Star for heroism in action during the height of the Battle of the Bulge and the pull-back around the town of Krinkelt, Germany, (then half held by U.S. troops and half held by the Germans) as the 99th Division reinforced and consolidated its lines.
Reath took command of some 50 infantry troops, assigned them as drivers, and lead them and the motorized elements of the 394th Infantry Regiment through back roads through a no-man's land between the Allied and German lines, to reunite them with Division Headquarters and ultimately to rejoin their assigned infantry units.
At the end of the war in the spring of 1945, Reath was transferred to the U.S. Army First Division, proudly called the "Big Red One" for its many historic exploits in the service and defense of our nation, dating back to Revolutionary times. This was an interim transfer while awaiting accumulation of sufficient points for his return home for honorable discharge.
Reith received a most fortunate and interesting assignment when he was made the U.S. Army Commandant of the U.S. German Prisoner of war at Ansbach in Bavaria, Germany. He was in charge, assisted by a small but highly competent German Army Camp Staff, consisting of about 1,000 German soldiers. All except a special coterie of 100 SS troops and officers of high rank being held for war crimes trials in Geneva, Switzerland, were awaiting discharge from the German Army from our Ansbach discharge center, and sent home.
The highest ranking German officer that Reith personally discharged so he could be tried as a war criminal under the Geneva Convention was Grand Admiral Doenitz, who took over as the Fuhrer from Hitler after he was deposed and took his life.
It was a memorable moment for Reith, a U.S. Army captain, sitting behind a plain desk in an austere room in the Ansbach prison as Doenitz stood at rigid attention, then saluted Reith before answering some questions and completing and signing his application which Reith then duly signed.
In December 1945, Reith was transferred to Camp Patrick Henry for honorable discharge at Indian Town Gap PA, and reunited with his family in Philadelphia on Christmas Eve 1945.