A Command Ops Christmas Special No. 3 – The Race for Bastogne

December 18, 1944

By dawn on the 18th, the Germans had eliminated the last pockets of American resistance east of the Clerve and captured the crossings at both Drauffelt and Clervaux. With the 110th Infantry Regiment almost completely destroyed, except for Company G (which had been en route to aid Fuller before the collapse of the defense in Clervaux) and the 3rd Battalion (which had managed to fall back across the Clerve from Consthum, south of Hosingen, with moderate losses). Nor was the 112th Infantry likely to be involved: they had been pushed back to the west, where they were rapidly becoming critical to the defense of St. Vith. The 109th Infantry remained steadfast in the face of infantry and Fallschirmjäger attacks on the southern shoulder of the penetration, and would eventually fall back on a defensive line ending at Wiltz.

That left the defense in the hands of the commander of VIII Corps, Troy Middleton, a former dean at LSU, who was running “distressingly low on troops with which to slow the German advance.” At hand he had the remains of the 110th Infantry, three engineer battalions, an armored field artillery battalion, and the 9th Armored Division’s CCR. (For much of the Second World War, American armored divisions were organized into three combat commands: A, B, and Reserve. I’m too old-fashioned and too newfangled by turns, so if I call them brigades [which are forces on the same organizational level as infantry regiments, for those less familiar with the terminology], as they were up to the middle of the war and again after it, you’ll have to forgive me.) All told it was maybe two-thirds of a division, and it would have to delay three German divisions for at least 24 hours before the 101st Airborne and CCB of the 10th Armored Division could reach Bastogne and get into fighting positions.

CCR/9th was the most combat-effective formation at Middleton’s disposal: one battalion each of armored infantry, medium tanks, and armored field artillery, and a company each of tank destroyers, armored engineers, and anti-aircraft artillery, somewhat reduced by various commitments to reinforce the 110th Infantry Regiment. (The American AA vehicles were the well-known Half-Track, M16 Gun Motor Carriage, Anti-Aircraft, mounting four Browning M2 .50-caliber machine guns. While A Time for Trumpets is full of accounts of ground-based anti-aircraft vehicles being used in a direct-fire anti-infantry role, I can’t recall a single point at which MacDonald writes of them being fired at aircraft.) Middleton ordered them to establish roadblocks at a two important points in front of Bastogne: the junction between the Clervaux road and the N12 highway between St. Vith and Bastogne at Antoniushof, and at Fe’itsch where the road from Wiltz met the N12 highway. Neither position was good defensive terrain; they bucked the trend in the Ardennes by being largely un-forested and un-crisscrossed by ravines and streams and draws and suchlike. Nor were there many buildings at Antoniushof or Fe’itsch for tanks to hide behind. Nevertheless, they were critical points at which to fight delaying actions.

At Antoniushof, Task Force Rose (named for its commander, Captain Lawrence Rose, as were most American task forces), comprising a company of tanks and armored infantry, plus a company of engineers and a battery of artillery near enough to provide fire support. A company of American foot infantry was nearby at Donnange, dug in behind the village. Task Force Harper (under Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Harper) at Fe’itsch had a company of tanks, a company of armored infantry, and fire support from the two batteries of the 73rd Armored Field Artillery Battalion. Already there were a hundred men and ten officers of the reorganizing 110th Infantry Regiment, organized under Colonel Theodore Seely, a former commander of the regiment who had been injured in the Hürtgenwald (at the corps headquarters, Middleton had told him, “Go find your regiment and take command of it”).

The fighting was to start at daybreak, and men of the 110th Infantry would see the first of it once again. A forward observer team attached to Company G climbed the steeple in Donnange, spotting German tanks where they had been spending the night. Sergeant Charles Johnson, the spotter, sent his radio operator back to Company G to let them know of the nearby German force. Company G moved toward Donnange, but the Germans spotted the movement and took them under fire. Sergeant Johnson and his radio operator, who had brought the jeep back into town, followed Company G in making a narrow escape back to Lullange, where they weathered two attacks that day before being forced back to Task Force Harper’s positions at Fe’itsch. Task Force Rose saw attacks starting in midmorning, the first one of which drove the inexperienced armored infantry (this was CCR/9th’s first taste of combat) away in a disorganized rout toward Fe’itsch. Captain Rose requested permission to withdraw, but Middleton refused it. By dark, Rose had been forced out of the road junction, and decided to fall back on his own authority. The direct road to Bastogne was blocked, so Task Force Rose aimed northwest at Houffalize, along the Ourthe River, where they ran into reconnaissance elements of the 116th Panzer Division. Only a few men escaped back to Bastogne.

Nor did Task Force Harper do much better: at twilight, Panzergrenadiers attacked Fe’itsch in force. MacDonald writes that they were supported after dark by Pzkpfw IVs and Panthers equipped with active-infrared night-sighting devices. Such equipment was tested starting in summer 1944, but I can’t find sources corroborating their presence in this particular engagement, or indeed in any combat. Either way, Task Force Harper was quickly forced to vacate Fe’itsch, falling back on CCR/9th’s headquarters at Longvilly. Company G and Seely’s remnants from the 110th Infantry held a little longer, but soon fell back themselves. At Longvilly, the combat command headquarters waited for the attack to fall, but it never did: half a mile northeast of Longvilly, the German force turned off the N12 highway to bypass Bastogne. Their objective was the Meuse. That turn saved the headquarters and the stragglers, but it did cut off the screening force Colonel Gilbreth (CCR’s commander) had established between Fe’itsch and Longvilly. Of a company of infantry and two platoons of tanks and tank destroyers, a surprising 225 men made it back to Bastogne, some as many as six days later.

Fritz Bayerlein, the commander of the Panzer Lehr Division, passed south of Fe’itsch with the advance guard of his division while the German attacks on that strongpoint continued, reaching Mageret, only about three miles from Bastogne. Bayerlein was very close to victory in the race for the crucial junction at Bastogne, but a Belgian farmer, questioned by Bayerlein’s men, reported that forty American tanks had just passed Mageret going toward Longvilly. Worried about such a strong American force behind his own (of some Panzergrenadiers and fifteen tanks), he waited in Mageret for the situation to develop.

American tanks had passed through Mageret not long ago, but they numbered far fewer than forty. At about 4:00 p.m., Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division began to arrive in Bastogne. Middleton ordered that it be split into three teams, a decision which didn’t sit well with CCB’s commander:

Like most experienced armored commanders, Colonel Roberts, who had taught armored doctrine at the Command and General Staff College, was always wary of the way doughboy generals might employ armor. They had a tendency to use it in the fashion that helped bring the downfall of the French Army in 1940, not as a powerful massed force but in increments, often as infantry support. And Middleton—Roberts was aware—was a doughboy general.

Team Cherry, under Lt. Colonel Henry T. Cherry, rolled through Mageret shortly before Bayerlein arrived. It had not forty tanks, but in actual fact only seventeen Shermans and ten light tanks. It reached Longvilly, where it had been ordered to hold, at 7:00 p.m. Around the same time, the 101st Airborne arrived at their assembly area near Bastogne. Nothing substantive was to come of the German presence in Mageret, beyond a failed American attempt to evict them. By a scant few hours, the Americans had won the race for Bastogne.

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