Thermopylae in the Ardennes
How six battalions of the 99th Infantry Division held off five Wehrmacht Divisions for 36 hours and ruined the plans of 6th Panzer Army for a quick breakout in Hitler's Ardennes counteroffensive of December 1944
By J.C. DOHERTY
104 N. Water St., Chestertown MD 21620
Expanded version of a presentation at the 99th Infantry Division Association annual convention, Crystal City VA, Aug. 31, 2007. Doherty was with H/393. He is the author of "The Shock of War," a history of the battle for the Elsenborn Ridge in December 1944.
The 99th Division moved to the Western Front in mid-November 1944. The sector assigned fronted Germany's fortified West Wall. It extended from the picturesque little town of Monschau on the headwaters of the Roer River, all the way south to the Losheim Gap, Germany's historic route for breaking into Belgium and France.
The distance covered by the 99th's front line was 23 miles — as the crow flies. But soldiers and their machines are not crows. Given the lay of the land in the eastern Ardennes region, the many obstacles on the ground, and time of the year with winter coming on, a 23-mile-long line can't even begin to suggest the actual amount of front line the 99th's three infantry regiments would be defending.
The high hills, trackless forests, marshes and farmers' fields, and the few villages connected by poor roads or none at all were more suitable for guerrilla warfare than for warfare between mechanized armies.
Nonetheless, Adolph Hitler, the absolute ruler of Germany and its armies, thought otherwise. He personally selected the sector occupied by the 99th for invasion by his favorite army, the newly created 6th Panzer Army. It was heavy with Panzers and would have a tough time with the terrain.
Sixth Panzer Army's 1st Panzer Korps with its attached 67th Infanterie Korps was the most formidable aggregation of armed might in the Wehrmacht's Ardennes counteroffensive of December 1944.
It brought to the front — and from that, mind you, was mostly in the area occupied by the 99th — the following power:
— Two SS Panzer Divisions, each with 20,000 men and boys and 200 tanks and other armored fighting vehicles.
— One Panzergrenadier Division, well armed with mobile, armored assault guns.
— One Luftwaffe ground division of infantry — paratroopers they were called, but weren't — poorly trained and led but large in numbers and determination.
— Four infantry divisions — called Volksgrenadiers.
— A battalion of Tiger tanks.
And all of this power on the ground was supported by 1,000 artillery and Werfer (rocket throwing) tubes.
The sector in eastern Belgium held by the 99th was the gateway for the infantry and armor of 1st SS Panzer Korps right wing to reach their first objective, the Meuse River near Liege, Belgium. They were not about to let a little enemy infantry division new to the front hold them up one single hour after they struck.
Six 99th Division battalions were particular targets for this aggregation of power. They occupied respectively:
— A village south of Monschau called Hofen. (For all locations, see map.)
— A vital — for the Germans — logging road through the woods to two little towns, the Twin Towns we all called them, because they were pretty much joined together. They were located halfway between the 99th's front in the woods and the Elsenborn Heights.
— And the most critical of all in the plans of 1st SS Panzer Korps, the Losheimergraben Crossroads, where two major highways came together at a custom post on what had been the German-Belgium border.
Lieutenant Colonel McClernand Butler's 3rd Battalion, 395th Infantry, occupied Hofen. The 38th Cavalry Recon Squadron was in Monschau and the village close by west of it.
Following an enormous artillery and rocket barrage that brought down many houses in Hofen and set Butler's command post afire, two battalions of the 326th Volksgrenadiers came marching in files in the glow of searchlights.
Their objective was to get through Butler's front line and into Hofen. The wave of marchers was beaten off by the mortars, machine gunners, and riflemen of the 3rd Battalion. And a couple of anti-tank gun crews on the line helped also, as did 99th artillery fire. A regiment of the 326th suffered awful casualties.
Over the next two days the 326th would try again and again to breach Butler's line. A hundred or so VG did get through the storm of the 3rd Battalion's fire to capture a few buildings in the town. They were routed out.
The story was much the same on Butler's left flank, a mile or so west of Monschau. The cavalry had lots of automatic weapons. It was reinforced by a platoon of big, mobile tank destroyers and artillery. After several sharp and costly assaults on the cavalry by the 326th Volksgrenadiers, they gave up. In three days of beating at Butler's men and the cavalry, the Germans had taken 1,500 casualties. Butler's unit, scarcely 50.
A Luftwaffe drop of a few hundred paratroops in the marshes a few miles west of Monschau was a fiasco. The brave Germans who managed to reach the ground safely were hunted down or lost in the wilderness.
Eight miles to the southeast, deep in what I called the Todeswald, the woods of death, was a logging road, muddy, gravel-covered. It went from the vital International Highway just east of the 99th front line, to the Twin Towns.
Two companies of Lieutenant Colonel Jack Allen's 3rd Battalion, 393rd Infantry, were emplaced on the left of the road. The other on the right.
On the right flank, the rifle companies of Major Matt Legler's 1st Battalion were spread around the snowy forest floor in foxholes and dugouts.
In the dark before dawn, the same horrendous artillery and Werfer attack came down on the two battalions as at Hofen.
When the fire lifted, the searchlights came on. Two battalions of the 277 Volksgrenadiers came running and screaming. 99th Division artillery hurt them badly, but they kept coming. Within an hour, two companies of the Allen-Legler defensive front were overwhelmed.
There now followed two days of close-in battling in the dense woods north and south on the logging road. Rifle and automatic fire was everywhere as small groups of opposing fighters dodged among the trees and had it out Indian style. Mortar and artillery shells on both sides kept exploding in the trees, also.
Both battalions received small reinforcements. Allen's, a company of riflemen; Legler's, a scratched-together platoon of 393rd Headquarters men.
By nightfall Dec. 16, Allen and his officers had been able to pull together enough survivors to form a perimeter around his command post. It was three miles west of what had been their front line when this all started.
Legler, too, was trying to build a fall-back defensive hedgehog based on his command post. But another battalion of 277th Volksgrenadiers had come into the forest. Having already lost the equivalent of four platoons of riflemen, dead, wounded, and prisoners captured, his 1st Battalion was in bad trouble.
The bad trouble got worse for both battalions that night (Dec. 16-17). The commander of 1st SS Panzer Korps ordered a regiment of Panzergrenadiers (12th SS Panzergrenadiers Division) riding troop carriers into the melee. He was frustrated. The attack by 277 VG on the 99th Division had not made the breakthrough he expected. His Volksgrenadiers were still stuck in the forest among the troops of the two American battalions.
Late Dec. 16, Allen received a radio message from the 393rd Regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jean Scott: Prepare to attack the enemy after daylight. Restore your lines, i.e., drive the Volksgrenadiers and Panzergrenadiers back to where they started.
Allen did as he was told. Even though his officers had to lean on their cold, tired, and hungry men to make them go. Everyone considered it a doomed effort. It was. Dogged, courageous, the company making the attack was broken apart by the Germans.
Shortly after noon Dec. 17, even Scott knew the game was up. He ordered Allen and Legler to break off contact with the enemy and get their soldiers out of the woods to an area behind a battalion of the 2nd Division's 23rd Regiment. It had been sent in as reinforcements early that day.
Five miles south was the Losheimergraben Crossroads. The 394th Infantry units there had formed a kind of triangle covering the good, paved roads and by-roads that were of first priority to 1st SS Panzer Korps. I called it the Fatal Triangle.
These roads, which passed through the triangle, formed the gateway to the upper part of the Losheim Gap, Germany's historic route of invasion.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Douglas' 1st Battalion, 394th Infantry, occupied one point of the triangle, the Losheimergraben customs post and the buildings supporting it, plus the fields and forests nearby.
Major Norman Moore's 3rd Battalion, minus one rifle company, occupied a railway station and the area around it a mile or so west of the crossroads. The second point.
Lieutenant Lyle Bouck's 25-man intelligence and recon platoon was positioned inside the Losheim Gap on a hill a mile south of Moore. The third point of the triangle.
Everywhere in the triangle space, the predawn shelling and rocketing by the guns and Werfer of 6th Panzer Army were more intense than at any of the other target areas along the front line of the 99th.
When the crashing and slashing, and storm of metal ceased, the 12th Volksgrenadier Division struck hard at Douglas and Moore's battalions. A third enemy division, 3rd Parachute, also was on the scene. Its vanguard marched confidently past Bouck's men well hidden on a hill nearby.
The Fusiliers (light infantry) of 12th Volksgrenadier came marching up the railroad track into Moore's 3rd Battalion space. They got in a fire fight with his infantry and command post soldiers, retreated, only to come back in force several times thereafter. Each time the Fusiliers were sent off licking their wounds.
Almost from the first moment after the shelling ceased and the 12th Volksgrenadiers' attacked, Douglas' soldiers at and around the crossroads in the building and in foxholes and bunkers dug out of the earth were in a fight for their lives.
A regiment of 12th VG sent combat teams straight at Douglas' company in the woods east of the crossroads. The attackers were hurt by their own artillery rounds falling short. Yet they still were able to break up Douglas' company; kill, wound, and capture about half of its soldiers; and send the rest running back to the crossroads.
Another company around Douglas' headquarters and the crossroads buildings was hit in the flank and pushed closer to the buildings. The Germans had more armored assault guns than the defenders had anti-tank guns. An 81mm mortar section of 1st Battalion's weapons company raised its tubes to a near 85-degree angle to drop its bombs on enemy soldiers about to overrun them.
Moore's battalion around the railway station, already shorthanded and suffering battle losses too, was ordered by regiment to send a company to reinforce Douglas. They took up positions on a hill overlooking the action.
By early morning Dec. 17 — it happened to be a Sunday — Douglas' principal fighters were holed up in the buildings around the crossroads. They had turned them into little fortresses. They were surrounded, had retreated to the basements, were firing at the Germans from the windows.
The commander of the besieging Volksgrenadier regiment put an end to it. He made plain that the buildings would be blown up with Douglas' men in them if they didn't surrender. They did.
Bouck's little platoon on the hill was soon discovered by the paratroops. The only message he received by radio from regiment was "Hold at all costs." Hold at all costs against a battalion of paratroops, 25 against 600.
The 600 were inept and poorly led. Bouck and his men held them off from dawn to dusk Dec. 16. But the sheer weight of the attackers, plus a few Unteroffizier who finally got some smarts, won out. Bouck and his surviving men were taken prisoner.
On the left flank of all this action, the 2nd Battalion of the 394th was located deep in the forest. They had no orders from regiment to hurry south to help in the Losheimergraben battle. In fact, they had no orders at all. Even though one of their companies was east of the International Highway.
And the battalion was in a fight of its own. Several, in fact, when Fusiliers of the 277th Volksgrenadier, supported by assault guns, struck at leading companies along the highway. Artillery fire, controlled by the forward observers using the 99th Division artillery radio net, drove the attackers off, finally.
The 99th Division command radio net was delivering mixed messages about the situation. And the battalion's commander had fallen apart. Captain Ben Legare and other HQ officers had to take over.
The mass withdrawal of the three battered 99th battalions from the woods west of the International Highway and the two at the Fatal Triangle around Losheimergraben, began in the afternoon of Dec. 17. This was close to 40 hours after the 1st SS Panzer Korps' divisions attacked them before dawn Dec. 16. Officers of these tired and wounded units had little information from higher commands as to what was expected of them, and what their eventual destination would be.
For the five battalions, now down to maybe 3,000 in total numbers, give or take, a dangerous new struggle was about to begin.
Their journey over the five or so miles of snow-covered fields, and icy, muddy roads and trails would be a nightmare of confusion, loss, and mistake. All of which would cost more lives.
Cold, wet, hungry they all were. Few officers in the exodus knew they were supposed to be heading toward the Elsenborn Heights. This was, and is, a high plateau, about eight miles from north to south. It was six miles west of what had been the 393rd Infantry's front line on Dec. 16. The long, flat ridge line at the top was perfect for defense, but if the ridge should be overrun, both Spa, Belgium, headquarters of U.S. 1st Army, and Eupen, Belgium, headquarters of Fifth Corps, would be in mortal danger. (See map. Elsenborn is on the summit.)
Officers of Fifth Corps HQ and the 99th and 2nd divisions were working obsessively to build an impregnable final fallback line in depth covering the heights of Elsenborn.
No small part of the defense would be a huge aggregation of artillery and mortar tubes: 16 battalions of artillery of four U.S. divisions; seven battalions of Corps artillery including large-bore howitzers and guns; the cannon companies of 12 infantry regiments; a 4.5-inch chemical mortar battalion; the 81mm mortars of 36 infantry battalions.
As the soldiers of the 99th Division and the 2nd Division's 23rd Regiment withdrew from the area east of the Twin Towns and the Losheimergraben Crossroads triangle, their Volksgrenadier enemies did not stay behind.
Soldiers of the 277th and 12th Volksgrenadier and 3rd Parachute divisions kept pressing the 99th and 2nd Division battalions hard. These included two of the 393rd Infantry, three of the 394th, and two of the 23rd Infantry. (The latter's 1st Battalion had come up late to reinforce the 394th, fought a short, sharp fight, and also was moving west before the German tide.)
In some places, the Germans had advanced to strong points they hurriedly put in place in front of the withdrawing American battalions. Vicious and costly little firefights followed as the 99th soldiers stumbled on these strong points by mistake or pushed to get around them.
Uncounted numbers of vehicles were in the withdrawal, adding to the impediments the walking soldiers encountered: gun carriages, trucks of all sizes, ambulances and improvised ambulances trying to get the badly wounded out, big artillery trains of trucks and guns.
The scores of walking wounded in this grim parade had to keep moving as best they could, usually supported by buddies on both sides.
The murderous enemy guns and Werfer had not gone silent. Shells and rockets kept crashing down at random on the masses of men moving over the fields and woods, and friendly artillery fire of 99th and 2nd divisions didn't always stay friendly.
On the left (south) of this boiling cauldron of moving struggle and strife, not a mile away was another 1st SS Panzer Korps power rolling west: Kampfgruppe Peiper of Malmedy Massacre fame, a 15-mile long anaconda of SS infantry and armor.
Peiper and his troops already had lapped up and made prisoners of the mixed groups of 99th Division and other American troops at the 99th rest camp along the way. His men murdered at least 20 of the scores of American troops they captured. The hugely powerful force was now on its way to take a 2nd and 99th service and supply center at the base of the Elsenborn Ridge. Peiper would make another haul there of prisoners and of American fuel, food, and cigarettes.
One group of major actors has been left out until now.
On Dec. 13 after daylight, two regimental combat teams of Major General Walter Robertson's 2nd Division, and the 395th RCT of the 99th, Colonel Alexander MacKenzie commanding, started to besiege the pillboxes of Germany's West Wall. These guarded a crossing of two forest roads surrounded by woods, five miles northeast of the Twin Towns.
A big force, some 9,000 men, backed by many guns brought in for the operation. Combat Command B of 9th Armored Division waited south of the Elsenborn Ridge to move forward once the infantry had pushed through the pillboxes.
After three days and nights of awful combat for the American side — flesh vs. barbed wire, machine gun bullets, exploding enemy mortar and artillery shells, and concrete walls, gains were made but at great cost to two of the combat teams, 9th and 395th.
About noon Dec. 17, four days after the start of the operation, General Robertson ordered it halted in place. Bad things were happening on the flanks. The three combat teams were in imminent danger of being encircled.
Also, they were needed to defend the Twin Towns. Ninety-ninth and 2nd Division headquarters and other troops there were facing a full-scale attack by 12th SS Panzer's grenadiers and armor.
Robertson believed the two little adjoining Belgium farm towns had to be held long enough for the Elsenborn Heights barrier line to be completed before 12th SS Panzer Division and the grenadiers of 277th VG got moving against it.
The 2nd Division commander now took on a heavy burden; bringing his 38th and 9th regimental combat teams south over a hilly, graveled road through the snow-covered forest. All the while 6th Panzer Army artillery and Werfer had the road under fire. And the 277 Volksgrenadier Division also was pressing the 395th RCT from the northeast.
He ordered MacKenzie to keep his men in the woods to serve as a flank guard for the 2nd Division soldiers moving south.
The 2nd Division commander was doubly handicapped in preparing for the defense of the Twin Towns by two decisions made at Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges' 1st U.S. Army headquarters.
1. On Dec. 16 the combat command of 9th Armored Division was taken away as Robertson's support and sent south toward St. Vith, Belgium, then under serious attack. He thereby lost a powerful force that was needed for the defense of both the Twin Towers and the Elsenborn Heights.
2. And Hodges did not want to give up the operation to break through the West Wall. He refused to allow Robertson to clear the forest until the morning of Dec. 17. This forced the 2nd Division to lose precious hours needed to race south to the Twin Towns, and prepare a defense against the onslaught of 12th SS Panzer Division.
Now it would be touch-and-go whether the tactics to be employed would be made inoperable by the speed and power of the onrushing Panzer division.
Two days of dangerous and destructive combat followed. 12th SS Panzer Division commanders sent wave after wave of armor and Panzergrenadiers at Robertson's men defending the two towns.
An unknown number of 99th infantry, medics, and artillery forward observers also mixed in the battle, as did a battalion each of tanks and mobile tank destroyers.
It turned out to be one of the most memorable tank-infantry battles of the war on the American side of WWII.
Thousands of infantry, more than 100 armored fighting vehicles on each side, artillery and rocket fires of both friend and foe adding to the conflagrations and carnage, night and day, up and down the narrow streets of the two little towns.
By the night of Dec. 19-20, Robertson's valiants had forced 12th SS Panzer Division to change plans. They started to move out of the Twin Towns — or what was left of them — to try to keep their advance to the distance Meuse River near Liege on schedule. 12th SS Panzer would go south to the Losheimergraben Crossroads, then roll west to the Meuse — or so 1st SS Panzer Korps hoped.
However, the two-day delay and upset of this schedule gave officers of U.S. V Corps' four infantry divisions — 1st, 2nd, 9th, and 99th — just about enough time to build an impregnable barrier line on the crest of the Elsenborn high plateau. And this spelled more disaster for 12th SS Panzer when one of its Kampfgruppe attacked the 1st Division on Dec. 31.
However, 6th Panzer Korps wasn't done with the 99th Division just yet. No sooner had Robertson's 38th Regiment evacuated the Twin Towns to move to the Elsenborn barrier line than the 3rd Panzergrenadier moved in. They used the towns as a base to mount a series of attacks directly at the 99th's positions still being built up on the heights. After three days of taking heavy losses, 3rd Panzergrenadier stood down. The tired and sorely tried 99th soldiers still showed enough gut power to fight off the Panzergrenadiers. And the masses of howitzers and guns supporting them laid on brutal punishment.
By the end of December, 1st SS Panzer Korps would have pulled all of its four armored and one armored infantry divisions out of the Elsenborn area.
The depleted Volksgrenadier divisions of 67 Korps remained to mount hopeless attacks directly at the 99th's positions still being built up on the heights.
Now loaded with replacements, all the 99th Infantry had to put up with from Dec. 20, 1944, until the end of January 1945, was bitter cold, blankets of snow, sleeping in icy foxholes, dodging sporadic enemy shelling and mortaring, and patrolling into enemy positions, which always resulted in wounds and death from mines, potato mashers (hand grenades), and small arms fire.
And this is not to mention three days after Christmas, when the German 67 Korps, now running the order of battle in front of the Elsenborn barrier line, sent its newly arrived 246 VG straight at the front line of the 394th and 393rd regiments. The Germans were scattered by the massed fires of the artillery and mortars. The same fate overcame the 246th Infantry and that of the now badly injured 12th VG when these two attacked the 2nd and 1st U.S. infantry divisions on the right flank of the barrier line simultaneous with the action against the 99th.
Thus ended aggressive enemy action to overcome the American barrier line on the Elsenborn Heights.
But not the killing and dying when the four U.S. infantry divisions started the long road back in mid-January. They now became the attackers. The diehard Germans made them pay dearly for every forested hill, field, and village the Americans recaptured in late January and February.
From the first of December until the end of January, 534 soldiers of the 99th and attached units were killed in action.*
The 99th and attached units suffered 1,700 dead and wounded between Dec. 15, 1944, and Jan. 15, 1945, when the fighting I described was raging. And 1,000 more were taken prisoner and marched off to the miserable Stalags of Germany.
By far most of the dead and wounded were from the five battalions that fought in the woods east of the Twin Towns and at the Fatal Triangle based on the Losheimergraben Crossroads.
The stalwarts of the 3rd Battalion, 395th Regiment at Hofen lost some 40 to death and wounds. 99th units supporting the infantry-artillery, combat engineers serving as infantry, military police, medics, and signalmen, etc., also took hits. Enemy counter battery fire extracted a heavy toll on the 99th artillery, as did service with the front line infantry of their forward observers.
The 99th men paid in blood on Dec. 16-17, 1944, to buy time:
— Time for officers of the V Corps and the 2nd and 99th divisions to put together the fallback barrier line on the Elsenborn Heights.
— Time for General Robertson to get his three regimental combat teams south and west from the penetrations they had made in the forests north of the Twin Towns; put them in a blocking position in and around the towns; and engage in the horrendous infantry-armor battle that stopped a Kampfgruppe of 12th SS Panzer Division and the 277th Volksgrenadier Division from pushing west to and over the Elsenborn Ridge.
— Time for Brigadier General Cliff Andrus, CO of 1st Infantry Division, to mobilize his men and guns to beat back repeated attempts of another 12th SS Kampfgruppe to go round the southern flank of the heights and keep moving west.
The delays and obstacles caused by the stubborn fight of the 99th's infantry all of the first day after the 1st SS Panzer Korps attacked Dec. 16 and most of the second day, made it possible for 2nd and 1st infantry divisions to stop 1st SS Panzer Korps' planned march over the Elsenborn Heights and on to the Meuse River near Liege, Belgium.
The plan of 6th Panzer Army, of the Wehrmacht high command, of Hitler himself was for 1st and 12th SS Panzer Divisions to move swiftly in parallel along five designated Rollbahnen, Panzer routes, west to the Meuse. Three of these Rollbahnen were in the sector assigned to the 12th SS. Elsenborn Heights cleared of American forces was necessary to the success of the Panzer mission.
After a day's delay, 1st SS Panzer Division's Kampfgruppe Peiper did break for the west; the two Kampfgruppe of 12th SS Panzer did not, a tactical setback that ruined 6th Panzer Army's Hitler-given mission of Schwerpunkting the great Ardennes counteroffensive.
The late, renowned military historian and veteran of the 23rd Infantry Regiment in the Battle of the Bulge, Charles D. McDonald, gave deserved credit to the soldiers of the 1st and 2nd Infantry divisions for the crucial role they played in the Elsenborn Ride battle. He also wrote of the 99th Division:
"The Germans had expected to penetrate the 99th Division's line and commit their armor soon after daylight on the first day. Despite some disarray in command at the division level, the fighting men of the 99th had denied that expectation by the many hours." ("A Time for Trumpets," page 410).
The soldiers of the 1st, 2nd, 9th, and 99th divisions in the battles that made it possible for the Elsenborn Heights barmier line to be made impregnable and held to the last paid a terrible price.
And the 99th Division infantry paid the highest price of all.
Between Dec. 15 and Jan. 16, the four divisions participating in what historians now call the Battle of the Elsenborn Heights, which went on for just about that much amount of time, suffered a total of 4,028 dead and wounded. Forty-two percent of these were in the 99th .
Before dawn the soldiers of the 99th were hit by a devastating artillery and rocket barrage from 1,000 tubes and Werfer. Their battalions holding Hofen, in the woods, at the Fatal Triangle were attacked by overwhelming numbers of enemy, outnumbering them three and four to one. The upfront fighters lost contact with leaders and each other. Reinforcements were late in coming. The 99th's fighters were not well served by higher commands far from the front and confused as to what was happening there. Landlines rearward had been torn up by the huge predawn artillery barrage. There was a pervasive belief at higher echelons that the Germans had no power remaining except for feeble local spoiling attacks that had to be put down quickly.
The only discernible orders that the COs of the 99th battalions in the eye of the storm received were to stand fast — if they received any orders at all.
Their men did, to their triumph and sorrow.
Triumph that they stood fast against an overwhelming enemy force of infantry and armor.
Sorrow that so many of their friends — from the training camps, the classrooms, and the foxhole line — lay dead, wounded or were missing.
*Casualty numbers are derived from the tables in "Dauntless: A History of the 99th Infantry Division," and in "Hitler's Last Gamble, The Battle of the Bulge," by Trevor N. Dupuy et al., pages 466-469.