A Command Ops Christmas Special No. 5 – Surrounded

December 20th, 1944

The night of December 20th was not an easy one for Team Desobry and the battalion from the 506th Parachute Infantry. Panzergrenadiers and tanks in small groups probed the perimeter around Noville all night, and morning brought no respite as shellfire hit harder and German tanks moved in.

As tanks drew up alongside the first building in Noville, the crews failed to note that they were within ten yards of an American bazooka team. The first rocket […] set one of the tanks on fire.

A short distance up the highway, Staff Sgt. Michael Lesniak dismounted from his tank, had a look, returned to his tank, and moved into the center of the road. Before the Germans knew what was happening, Lesniak’s gunner fired and with his first round knocked out the other German tank. Yet a third tank that had stayed some distance behind the others threw a few shells into the village before falling back. One of those hit Lesniak’s tank, damaging the traversing mechanism on the turret.

Attacks came through midmorning, when the fog lifted as it had done the day before. Once again, increased visibility revealed a skirmish line of German tanks on the ridges overlooking the village, and the first American volley knocked out four. The rest fled behind the crest of the hill. At around the same time, Majors Harwick and Hustead, who had replaced Desobry and LaPrade, verified something that boded poorly: the road from Noville to Bastogne had been cut by German forces.

In Bastogne, General McAuliffe was not insensitive to the plight of his men in Noville, though owing to cut communications, Harwick and Hustead didn’t know that. McAuliffe sent another battalion of parachute infantry to push through to Noville from Longchamps, but they reached the highway and met Germans in sufficient force to stymie their attack. That and the deteriorating situation in Noville convinced McAuliffe that it would now be more prudent to pull the defenders out rather than reinforce them. A battalion of parachute infantry near Foy would retake that town, and when the men in Noville heard the noise, they were to make a fighting retreat to Bastogne.

To Majors Harwick and Hustead, the chances of a successful retreat looked bleak. The road from Noville to Foy ran straight as a ruler, open fields on either side, not a single tree, the only cover or concealment a lone farmhouse on the left of the road some five hundred yards short of Foy. […]

As if acting as a signal for the withdrawal to begin, the curtain of fog descended again. The foot troops in the lead made the march with few problems, and all might have gone well for everybody except for a freak incident. As the first half-track preceding the vehicles carrying the wounded came abreast of the farmhouse outside Foy, the armored shutter over the slit through which the driver looked out to drive fell shut. When the driver raised his arm to lift the shutter, an officer thought the man had been wounded and pulled the hand brake. As the vehicle came to an abrupt stop, the half-track behind it rammed into the rear. In accordion fashion, every vehicle along the entire column came to a halt. At that moment, small-arms fire struck the head of the column, some coming from the ditches on either side of the road, some from the farmhouse.

The column came under tank fire, as well, and three of the tanks escorting it were disabled. One TD saw some of its crew wounded, so paratroopers filled in, and in another instance the men of the 101st drove a tank all the way back to Bastogne:

When [Pfc. Thomas E.] Gallagher [the driver] said he was short of crew and had no gunner, two paratroopers climbed aboard. With a paratrooper doing the firing at a range of two hundred yards, Gallagher’s tank destroyer knocked out one of the tanks, and the other turned away. […]

The vehicles [that escaped] included the fifth tank, manned and driven by paratroopers, who climbed aboard swearing that they would learn how to drive “the son of a bitch.”

By dark, the defenders of Noville had gained Bastogne. Casualties ran to eleven tanks, five tank destroyers, and 400 men. Losses to the 2nd Panzer Division were north of 30 tanks and 600 men—and 48 hours plus fuel for the same, time the 2nd Panzer Division was supposed to be driving over lightly-defended territory to the west and northwest toward the Meuse. The two days Team Desobry bought were critical (though that’s a story for another AAR).

The 20th also saw an attack on Bastogne proper from the east: two regiments of the 26th Volksgrenadiers and two regiments from the Panzer Lehr Division made no progress against the northeast and southeast approaches to Bastogne. The 47th Panzer Corps and von Lüttwitz could point to only two successes for the whole of the 20th: they had driven the Americans from Noville, and more importantly, at the town of Sibret they had cut the highway northwest from Neufchâteau to Bastogne, along which ran the supplies to Bastogne. The last reinforcements to reach Bastogne before its relief had arrived, and now I feel more able to give an accounting of the American forces:

The 101st Airborne numbered about 10,000 men, and including an engineer battalion, and four battalions of artillery. It was largely free from casualties. The 10th Armored Division’s CCB had taken serious losses: Team Desobry and Team Cherry had both lost while fighting delaying actions, but Team O’Hara still had a full complement, and Roberts managed to find eight replacement Shermans in Bastogne, en route to the front. The front had come to them. The 9th Armored Division’s CCR had nearly evaporated. 23 tanks remained, supported by eight howitzers and sixty armored infantrymen; they were to become Team Pyle for the duration of the battle. Team SNAFU comprised remaining elements of CCR (tankers without tanks, armored infantrymen without halftracks), plus stragglers from the 110th Infantry. In total, they numbered about 600. 36 M18 Hellcats of the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion rounded out the defenders. The 101st plus the ragtag attachments were a reasonably formidable force, especially in artillery: they had 130 guns, a total of eleven battalions, when the average division had four.

There was one last story that came to an end on the 20th: the 4th Armored Division, Patton’s favorite, was expected to join the defense. Near midnight on the 19th, CCB arrived on the Neufchâteau-Bastogne Highway, and someone on Middleton’s staff ordered to Bastogne. McAuliffe ordered it to a reserve position—a position near Sibret, where the Germans (with a significantly smaller force) were soon to cut the highway. Hugh Gaffey, the commander of the 4th Armored Division, was formerly Patton’s chief of staff, and he resented having a third of his command stolen. He bent Patton’s ear, and with Patton’s authority, recalled his CCB back to the rest of his division. So did the Germans meet minimal opposition at Sibret, and so was the supply route to Bastogne was cut.

The patch to Command Ops I was waiting for is finished; now it just needs to be released.

Reading these accounts of combat (and playing Command Ops, for that matter) has changed my understanding of how war is fought at low levels: fronts are never as contiguous as they look on maps (i.e. the 110th Infantry behind the Our, or the various task forces around Bastogne who covered pretty much only the roads). High-intensity battlefields generally still come down to small units battling it out; there’s only so much that force can be concentrated (the 110th Infantry again). Tanks are not very useful in difficult terrain (there are at least a dozen accounts of German and American advances being held up because the road was blocked by a single damaged vehicle).

I was also talking with a friend about the battle, and came up with the General’s Triangle (by analogy to the Engineer’s Triangle): an attack (or a defense, with simple modifications) can be fast, bloodless, or deep-penetrating. Pick two. It seems particularly apt in this story: the Germans lost heavily in attacking quickly and deeply, while the Americans paid in blood for defenses that gave ground neither quickly nor in large quantities.

Obviously, it can’t be applied to all situations, and I can think of a lot of examples where ‘bloodless’ is the one generals didn’t pick, while I can’t think of many for the other two, so it may not even be that good a rule to begin with.

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