A Command Ops Christmas Special No. 4 – Digging In

December 19, 1944

On the night of the 18th and into the morning of the 19th, Colonel Gilbreth’s headquarters at Longvilly drew the remains of Task Force Harper, Company G, and what remained of Seely’s men from Fe’itsch. With the Germans not more than half a mile away, Gilbreth decided to pull his headquarters back to Bastogne proper, while leaving the line units in Longvilly to provide a screen. This was not the greatest of ideas:

Word for the headquarters troops to withdraw went out in a grim setting. Pitch darkness, a clinging fog, German searchlights in the distance, fiery arcs of tracer bullets, eerie flickers of flares. There was shelling, the occasional chatter of burp guns from German patrols, and everywhere untold confusion. To many a man it looked like Armageddon, and somewhere just over a hill or two, or maybe three, there was a place where he could escape it: Bastogne.

There was no way to confine word of the withdrawal to the few who were supposed to execute it, and for men who had just experienced the enemy’s deadly power at the Fe’itsch road junction, it was easy to convince themselves that the order to fall back applied to them, too. At the appointed hour for men of the headquarters to depart, seemingly every man, every vehicle, every gun in Longvilly converged on the western exit from the village. Soon there was panic, an ugly panic.

Somehow Colonel Gilbreth and his staff managed to stop it. Gilbreth “cut the column in the middle” and ordered that not another vehicle, not another man, including the headquarters troops, was to leave Longvilly until daylight.

Still, though, the flow of vehicles on the road from Longvilly to Mageret hit Team Cherry’s vehicles going the other direction, and the road wasn’t nearly big enough for both of them. The traffic jam lasted well into the morning. This would have been a problem if the Wehrmacht had been able to make its attack at dawn on the 19th as von Lüttwitz had ordered. That timetable proved unrealistic, though: disorganization and fatigue had taken their toll during the long advance through the night, and it wasn’t until late morning before two Volksgrenadier regiments and the Panzer Lehr Division managed an attack. Nebelwerfers and artillery pounded the American positions along the Longvilly-Mageret road, which was soon crowded with burning vehicles. The Panzer Lehr Division might have been able to completely eliminate the American forces along that clogged highway with a serious attack, but General Bayerlein was not giving the battle his full attention:

In a wood outside Mageret, his troops had found a platoon from an American field hospital, and among the staff, a “young, blonde, and beautiful” American nurse attracted Bayerlein’s attention. Through much of December 19, he “dallied” with the nurse, who “held him spellbound.”

The Wehrmacht was unable to organize a sufficient attack to defeat the handful of defenders Team Cherry had protecting their column on the road through the whole day. As darkness fell, the Americans were able to clear the highway, and most of the force escaped via Arloncourt back to Bastogne. That brought to a close the fighting in front of Bastogne, but there was still some drama to play out just north of town.

Noville was a small village four miles north of Bastogne, along the highway between Bastogne and Houffalize. It stood on windswept, treeless ground, with little cover and little concealment. It was also to be the site of some of the heaviest fighting in the days before the encirclement of Bastogne was complete. Major William Robertson Desobry arrived in Bastogne in the late hours of December 18, and immediately met with his commander, Colonel Roberts of CCB, 10th Armored Division.

Roberts pointed on a map to the village of Noville, and told Desobry to go there. He had no way of knowing, said Roberts, who was there: Americans, Germans, or nobody. General Middleton had nevertheless designated the village as an oupost for Bastogne at the limit of artillery support positioned closed to the town.

“You are young,” said Roberts, “and by tomorrow morning you will probably be nervous. By midmorning the idea will probably come to you that it would be better to withdraw from Noville. When you begin thinking that, remember that I told you it would be best not to withdraw until I order you to do so.”

To hold Noville, Major Desobry had about four hundred men: a company of seventeen Shermans, a company of armored infantry, and a handful of engineers, medics, and reconnaissance troops. Desobry established positions in an arc from the east to the northwest, and ordered his men to send any stragglers who looked willing to fight into Noville proper to be organized into provisional fighting units. They had only a few hours to dig in before the first German forces arrived:

It was close to four o’clock in the morning when the men on the road to Noville from the east and the village of Bourcy heard half-tracks approaching. Not certain whether they were American or German, a sentry yelled: “Halt!” As the leading half-track braked abruptly, someone shouted somethingin German. From an embankment above the road, the men in the outpost hurled hand grenades into the half-track, and a duel with more hand-grenades ensued.

The Americans withdrew a short distance toward Noville, while the half-track turned and left. Through the morning, the sound of tracked vehicles could be heard moving around the town. Two Shermans traded for two panzers in the fog at daybreak, but it wasn’t until 10:30 a.m. that the true nature of the situation became clear. Noville was situated on low ground, overlooked by ridges to the north and northeast (nobody in Bastogne had a detailed map). On the high ground were fourteen German tanks, and thirty to forty more were situated in various positions around Noville. The German infantry were unwilling to accompany the tanks over such a broad expanse of open ground, and the fight quickly turned into a duel between armored vehicles. The Americans were aided by the timely arrival of a platoon of tank destroyers (my other sources suggest that these were M18 Hellcats; MacDonald is, of course, silent on that issue), and knocked out nine of the fourteen panzers on the high ground in short order. An armored car mounting a mere 37mm gun scored a lucky hit on a Panther, knocking it out; the gunner himself found it “hard to believe”. All told, the Americans knocked out seventeen tanks, plus two more earlier, against losses of a single tank destroyer, four light vehicles, and thirteen men wounded. The position would not be defendable for very long, however: the Germans, in dug-in positions on the high ground, could pour fire into Noville with near-impunity.

Desobry was thinking, just as Colonel Roberts had predicted, that it would be better to withdraw from Noville. He also remembered that Roberts had said he was not to withdraw without permission. Radioing Roberts, he requested that permission.

Roberts’ hands were tied. Desobry’s position was not tenable in the long term, but there was nowhere behind Noville to fall back on before Bastogne, and that was not acceptable to General Middleton. Roberts compromised: he sent a battalion of parachute infantry from the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment under James LaPrade, and when they arrived, Desobry planned a counterattack to take the high ground. It gained no more than five hundred yards, coinciding as it did with another German attack on the town. The Germans lost yet more tanks. Though they failed to gain the town, Desobry was injured and LaPrade was killed by fire from German tanks, which was aimed at a vehicle in the center of Noville, but hit Desobry’s command post instead. Desobry was sent to a collecting station west of Bastogne for evacuation, but as the Wehrmacht began to flow around the town, Desobry and all the Americans at the collecting station were captured. Noville’s position had not improved, but the commander on the scene in Bastogne, General Anthony McAuliffe, had orders from General Middleton that Noville was not to be lost. It would hold through the night.

East and southeast of Bastogne, the Americans and the Germans fought small actions throughout the day. Parachute infantry from the 101st Airbone made attempts to retake Mageret, but were repulsed, and rather prudently requested permission to form a defensive line between Bizory and Neffe, two villages on roads into Bastogne from the east (they’ll feature on the map in tomorrow’s update).

So did the first phase of the battle for Bastogne end: the Americans had narrowly won the race, but faced several divisions of experienced German troops with an airborne division (much smaller than a standard infantry division) and a single combat command of armored troops, plus disorganized stragglers from the previous days’ fighting. The outcome could well have been different: the 110th Infantry, nearly obliterated as a fighting force, had stalled the Germans until the morning of December 18th. If they had folded twelve hours before, Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr Division would have reached Bastogne ahead of the 10th Armored Division’s CCB. The 9th Armored Division’s CCR was also reduced to a shadow of its original strength, taking heavy losses on the road from Antoniushof to Longvilly, but delaying the German arrival further. The German losses from the Our to Bastogne had been heavy, too, but the losses in time were to be felt far more dearly. Now von Manteuffel had a choice: Bastogne, the Meuse, or both?

Writing this so far has been a very interesting experience: MacDonald laid out his book in sections. The relevant ones so far have been the introduction (obviously), a full section on the first day of fighting in each locale, a section that covers (roughly) the 17th and the 18th, and a section that covers the parts of the battle where the German advance is contained (about the 19th through the 25th or 26th). This is handy to get a sense for the flow of the overall battle, but poor for a deep understanding of an individual part of it. Compiling this narrative so far has had me jumping from the first page of the book to the 480th, but in doing so I’ve gained a much better feel for the course of battle for Bastogne. I guess I owe you, the reader, a thank you for that—I doubt I would have learned as much if I had just read the book through once and put it away.

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