The 'Battle of Elsenborn Ridge' was a battle fought by German and US forces within the northernmost part of the German 'Wacht am Rhein' offensive (16/26 December 1944).
The area between Elsenborn Ridge and Monschau was the only sector of the US front attacked during the Battle of the Bulge in which the Germans failed to make any advance. The battle centered on the crescent-shaped Elsenborn Ridge lying to the east of Elsenborn in Belgium and marking the most westerly ridge of the Ardennes, rising to a height of more than 2,000 ft (610 m). Unlike the uplands farther to the north, east and south, the ridge had been extensively logged and, to to its west, where the land descends in gentle hills to the cities of Liége and Spa, was a network of Allied supply bases and a well-developed road network. The Germans planned to make use of two key routes through the area to advance for the seizure of the strategically vital port city Antwerp and force a separate peace with the USA and UK, thereby allowing its forces to be concentrated on the Eastern Front for the the checking of the Soviet advance to the west. The capture of Monschau, the nearby village of Höfen, and the twin villages of Rocherath-Krinkelt just to the east of the ridge was key to the success of the German plan, and Adolf Hitler therefore committed his best armoured formations to the area.
The untested troops of Major General Walter E. Lauer’s US 99th Division of Major General Leonard T. Gerow’s US V Corps within Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army had been sited in the sector since the middle of November because the Allies believed the area unlikely to see battle. The division was stretched thinly along a 22-mile (35-km) front, with all three of its regiments in line and no reserve. Early in December, Major General Walter M. Robertson’s US 2nd Division was assigned to capture the Wahlerscheid road junction at the southern tip of the Hurtgen forest. German forces counterattacked in what the Americans initially thought was a localised spoiling action, but was actually a leading element of 'Wacht am Rhein'. The 2nd Division consolidated its lines, pulling back into Hünningen, then into Rocherath-Krinkelt, and finally into the dug-in positions held by the 99th Division at Elsenborn Ridge.
In a fierce battle lasting 10 days, the German and US lines were often confused. During the first three days, the battle raged in and around Rocherath-Krinkelt. Attacking Elsenborn Ridge itself, the Germans employed effective combined-arms tactics and penetrated the US line on several occasions, but their attacks were not well co-ordinated and were frustrated by the rugged terrain and the built-up area. To push the Germans back, the US Army called in indirect fire on their own positions, and at one point rushed administrative and headquarters personnel to reinforce their lines. The Americans had positioned much artillery behind Elsenborn Ridge and this repeatedly pounded the German advance. Although possessing superior armour and numbers, the Germans were held by the Americans' well-prepared defensive positions, new proximity-fused shells for their artillery, and innovative tactics, which included co-ordinated time-on-target artillery strikes.
SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Joseph Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzerarmee was unable to take its immediate objectives on the Meuse river. The stubborn US resistance forced SS-Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper’s Kampfgruppe 'Peiper' to choose an alternative route well to the south of Monschau and Elsenborn Ridge. Peiper was able to advance about 29 miles (46 km) to the west to Stoumont before his column was stopped by the 2nd Division, Major General Leland S. Hobbs’s 30th Division and Major General James M. Gavin’s 82nd Airborne Division. In the end Peiper’s force ran out of fuel and ammunition. On 24 December, Peiper abandoned his vehicles and retreated with his remaining 800 men. German wounded and US prisoners were also left. According to Peiper, a mere 717 out of an original 3,000 men returned to the German lines.
During the battle the Americans lost about 5,000 men killed, and many more wounded; exact German losses are not known, but included significant quantities of armour. While the US forces had considerable supplies and enough troops with which to replace their losses, the German losses of men and high-quality matériel could not be replaced.
'We gamble everything!' were the words used by Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber 'West', to describe 'Wacht am Rhein'. Hitler had initially sketched his surprise offensive to senior officers on 16 September 1944. The offensive’s ambitious goal was for the forces of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe 'B' to plunge through the US 1st Army’s thinly held line between Monschau and Wasserbillig by the end of the first day, push the German armour into the gap thus created and drive through the Ardennes by the end of the second day, reach the Meuse river between Liége and Dinant by the third day, and seize Antwerp and the western bank of the Scheldt river estuary by the fourth day. The Germans had designated five routes through the sector near Elsenborn which would give them direct access to the road network leading to Antwerp, who capture would split the US and British armies. Hitler believed the attack would inflame rivalries between the US and the British, and that the two countries would therefore be persuaded to negotiate a peace settlement with Germany. Hitler’s generals tried to persuade him to set a less ambitious goal, but Hitler was adamant. As they had done in 1914 and 1940, the Germans planned to attack through the Losheim gap in Belgium.
From north to south, the armour-equipped formations deployed by the 6th SS Panzerarmee were Generalleutnant Otto Hitzfeld’s LXVII Corps with two Volksgrenadier divisions; SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Hermann Priess’s I SS Panzerkorps with Generalmajor Wilhelm Viebig’s 277h Volksgrenadierdivision (six Jagdpanther tank destroyers), SS-Brigadeführer Hugo Kraas 's 12th SS Panzerdivision 'Hitlerjugend' (38 PZKpfw V Panther battle tanks, 39 PzKpfw IV battle tanks and 47 Jagdpanther tank destroyers), Generalleutnant Gerhard Engel’s 12th Volksgrenadierdivision (six Sturmgeschütz assault guns), SS-Brigadeführer under General der Waffen-SS Wilhelm Mohnke’s 1st SS Panzerdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' (37 PzKpfw V Panther tanks, 34 PzKpfw IV tanks, 10 Jagdpanther tank destroyers and 30 PzKpfw VI Tiger II heavy tanks), Generalmajor Walter Wadehn’s 3rd Fallschirmjägerdivision and SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny’s 150th Panzerbrigade; and SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Willi Bittrich’s II SS Panzerkorps with SS-Gruppenführer un Generalleitnant der Waffen-SS Heinz Lammerding’s 2nd SS Panzerdivision 'Das Reich' (58 PxKpfw V Panther, 28 PzKpfw IV and 28 Sturmgeschütz machines) and SS-Brigadeführer Sylverster Stadler’s 9th SS Panzerdivision 'Hohenstaufen' (35 PzKpfw V Panther, 39 PzKpfw IV, 21 Jagdpanzer, 30 PzKpfw Tiger II and 56 Sturmgeschütz vehicles).
Hitler personally selected the best formations available and officers he trusted. The leading role was given to Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzerarmee, while General Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzerarmee was to attack to its south and thus covering the 6th SS Panzerarmee's left flank. The 6th SS Panzerarmee was accorded priority for equipment and supplies, and was assigned the shortest route to Antwerp, the offensive’s ultimate objective. The 6th SS Panzerarmee included the elite of the Waffen-SS, and totalled four Panzer and seven infantry divisions in three corps, and its combination of more than 1,000 pieces of artillery and 90 Tiger II heavy tanks made it the most formidable of the three armies deployed in 'Wacht am Rhein'. Although the front on which the 6th SS Panzerarmee was deployed was a mere 23 miles (37 km), Dietrich’s assault was concentrated on less than half that length. Relying on a superiority of at least 6/1 in men at the breakthrough points, Dietrich expected to overwhelm the Americans facing his onslaught and thus to reach the Meuse river by the fall of night on the offensive’s third day. The German assault force also included many Volksgrenadier units: these were new units formed in the autumn of 1944 by the conscription of boys and elderly men previously rejected as physically unfit for service, wounded soldiers returning from hospital, and transfers from the quickly shrinking German navy and air force. The Volksgrenadier units were usually organised around cadres of veterans.
The German troops holding the region around Monschau were part of Hitzfeld’s LXVII Corps, which had been placed under the command of the 6th SS Panzerarmee in preparation for 'Wacht am Rhein'. The LXVII Corps' sector covered about 20 miles (32 km) from a point just to the south of Vossenack, 6.2 miles (12 km) to the north-east of Monschau, to a point to the south-east of Camp d’Elsenborn in the south. The LXVII Corps comprised Generalmajor Erwin Kaschner’s 326th Volksgrenadierdivision, Generalleutnant Eugen König’s 272nd Volksgrenadierdivision, Generalmajor Peter Körte’s 246th Volksgrenadierdivision and Generalleutnant Walter Denkert’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision. The 326th Volksgrenadierdivsion was to take the area to the north and south of Monschau. The 246th Volksgrenadierdivision and the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision were to take Höfen, Monschau and nearby villages and then drive to the north-west on order to seize the Eupen road, which would allow the I SS Panzerkorps to attack to the west over the so-called 'Rollbahn B' axis.
To the south of the LXVII Corps was the I SS Panzerkorps, which comprised the 1st SS Panzerdivision, 12th SS Panzerdivision, 12th Volksgrenadierdivision, Generalmajor Wilhelm Viebig’s 277th Volksgrenadierdivision and 3rd Fallschirmjägerdivision. The 1st SS Panzerdivision had been created on the basis of Hitler’s personal bodyguard regiment, and had the primary responsibility for breaking through the Allied line and reaching the Meuse river and then Antwerp. The 12th SS Panzerdivision comprised junior officers and enlisted men drawn from members of the Hitlerjugend movement, while its senior non-commissioned officers and officers were generally veterans of the war on the Eastern Front. The I SS Panzerkorps was given the role of breaking through to an east/west road in the northern sector of the Ardennes, code-named 'Rollbahn B', through Spa. The 3rd Fallschirmjägerdivision and Generalleutnant Gerhard Engel’s 12th Volksgrenadierdivision were responsible for opening the way to 'Rollbahn D' for the Kampfgruppe 'Peiper', the spearhead element of the 1st SS Panzerdivision.
According to Dietrich’s plan, the LXVII Corps was to secure the 6th SS Panzerarmee's northern flank. Sidestepping Monschau to seize the area of poor roads, forested hills and upland moors of the Hohe Venn region, the LXVII Corps' divisions would thus block the main roads leading into the breakthrough area from the north and west. Simultaneously, the I SS Panzerkorps to the south was to use its three infantry divisions to punch holes through the US line before wheeling to the north-west to join the LXVII Corps' left flank. Together, the infantry divisions were therefore to create a solid shoulder, behind which the tanks of the I SS Panzerkorps and II SS Panzerkorps were to advance along 6th SS Panzerarmee's routes leading to the west and north-west.
To maximise the speed of the advance, and to avoid potential bottlenecks and logistical confusion, the two Panzer divisions of the I SS Panzerkorps were assigned separate routes to the west. The 12th SS Panzerdivision was to use three routes ('Rollbahn A', 'Rollbahn B' and 'Rollbahn C') to the north through Elsenborn, Bütgenbach, Malmedy, Spa and Liége. The 1st SS Panzerdivision was given two southern routes ('Rollbahn D' and 'Rollbahn E') through Losheim, Lieugneville, Vielsalm, Werbomont and Huy. The German plan of advance included 'Rollbahn A' passing through a crossroads in the centre of Rocherath and 'Rollbahn B' skirting the southern edge of Krinkelt and continuing toward Wirtzfeld. The Germans' first objective was to break through the defending line of the inexperienced US 99th Division and the positions of the battle-hardened US 2nd Division. Once they broke through the US formations, the Germans needed to seize Elsenborn Ridge so they could control the roads to the south and west, and thereby ensure supply to their advancing formations,
The plan also included 'Stösser', a paratrooper drop behind US lines in the Hohe Venn area at the Baraque Michel crossroads 7 miles (11 km) to the north of Malmedy. Its objective was to seize terrain and bridges ahead of the main body after the two corps had broken through the US defences. The drop was scheduled for 03.00 on 17 December and the units dropped were ordered to hold the crossroads for 24 hours until the arrival of the 12th SS Panzerdivision.
Dietrich planned to commit his third major formation, the II SS Panzerkorps, with the 2nd SS Panzerdivision and 9th SS Panzerdivision, in the second wave. Once the I SS Panzerkorps had broken the US lines, the 2nd SS Panzerdivision was to exploit the opening.
Monschau, on the northernmost sector of 'Wacht am Rhein', was an essential objective of the German offensive: a key road led north-west some 17 miles (27 km) to Eupen, where the headquarters of the US V Corps was located. The same road continued 7.5 miles (12 km) farther to Liége, the location of the headquarters of Hodges’s US 1st Army. Liége also hosted several large supply depots for the US forces in the area of Namur and Liége. On 16 December, the only combat unit guarding the road to Eupen was the US 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron.
Except for its positions around Höfen, the 99th Division and its 393rd Infantry, 394th Infantry and 395th Infantry components, were positioned within towns and villages to the east and south of Elsenborn Ridge and in the thick coniferous forest around them. The division had not yet fired its weapons in combat, there were not sufficient troops to man defensive positions along the entire front, and the Americans could maintain only a series of strongpoints. Each regiment was responsible for protecting some 6.8 miles (11 km) of front, roughly equivalent to one man every 100 yards (90 m). There were undefended gaps in many places along the line which could only be patrolled. There were no units in reserve.
With so long a sector of the front as his responsibility, Lauer found it necessary to place all three of his division’s regiments on the front line. The 1 and 3/395th Infantry were located in the north, and some 600 front-line troops held a position about 6,000 yards (5485 m) long and had nothing in reserve. The infantry at Höfen occupied a line of foxholes along 1,000 yards (915 m) of front to the east of the village, backed up by dug-in support positions.
At this relatively quiet period of the war on the Western Front, the 99th Division used the time to prepare an extensive defensive system, including redundant lines of communication, precise positioning of weapons to provide interlocking fields of fire, and aggressive patrolling that kept the Germans off guard. They also carefully integrated artillery support and registered likely targets based on probable German approaches. The 93rd Infantry held the centre of the division’s line and the 394th Infantry watched over the south. By the middle of December, the troops were well entrenched and had wired their positions with barbed wire and trip flares. Their fox holes were covered with felled timber. The weather was unusually calm and cold. Between 19 December 1944 and 31 January 1945, the average maximum temperature along the front line in western Europe was 0.83° C (33.5° F) and the average minimum temperature -5.2° C (22.6° F).
The US defensive line in the Ardennes had a gap to the south of Losheimergraben, and this was recognised by Gerow, commander of the US V Corps, as a possible axis of attack by the Germans. Lying between V Corps and Major General Troy H. Middleton’s US VIII Corps to its south, was undefended and merely patrolled by Jeep-mounted troops.
Early in December, the experienced US 2nd Division had been assigned the task of taking and holding the crossroads at Wahlerscheid, about 5.6 miles (9 km) to the north of Krinkelt-Rocherath, in what became known as the 'Battle of Heartbreak Crossroads'. After attacking for two days without result, on 14 December two squads found a way through the well-emplaced German artillery on the southern side of the road, cut the barbed wire and opened a path through the German defences as they penetrated as far as a trench line behind the pillboxes and then held off German patrols for five hours. After the fall of night, the squads returned to the US lines. On 15 December, a US patrol advanced once more through the breach in the barbed wire and captured a portion of the trench line, and then alerted its regimental command post, after which a battalion commander led two companies into the trenches behind the pillboxes. By a time early in the morning of 16 December, the 9th Infantry had pressed the attack another 1,500 yards (1370 m) against stubborn resistance, capturing the crossroads and the road network around it. The Americans lacked sufficient explosives to destroy the pillboxes, however.
On the morning of 16 December, as a snowstorm blanketed the forested Ardennes and the temperature was only -12° C (10° F), 'Wacht am Rhein' began with a massive artillery bombardment along a 100 miles (160 km) of front just before 05.30. US commanders initially believed that the German fire was a retaliatory assault in response to the US advance at the Wahlerscheid crossroads. Large numbers of German infantry followed the barrage.
The northern assault was led by the I SS Panzerkorps, spearheaded by the 1st SS Panzerdivision in the form of the Kampfgruppe 'Peiper' of 4,800 men and 600 vehicles, including 35 Panther, 45 PzKpfw IV, 45 Tiger I and 149 half-tracked vehicles, 18 105-mm (4.13-in) and six 150-mm (5.91-in) pieces of artillery, and 30 anti-aircraft weapons. Dietrich’s plan was for the 12th Panzerdivision to follow the 12th Volksgrenadierdivision's infantry, who were tasked with capturing the villages and towns immediately west of the main road between Lanzerath and Losheimergraben and then advancing to the north-west in the direction of Losheimergraben. From there the the German advance was to take Bucholz station and then drive 72 miles (116 km) through Honsfeld, Büllingen and a group of villages named Trois-Ponts, to the Belgian Route Nationale N-23 and then cross the Meuse river. During the battle which developed, the 1st SS Panzerdivision instead bypassed Elsenborn, taking a route farther to the south than had been planned.
Comprising mostly inexperienced and poorly trained conscripts, the 277th Volksgrenadierdivision had been assigned the task of capturing Krinkelt-Rocherath, just to the south-east of Elsenborn Ridge. Rocherath to the north and Krinkelt to the south shared the same main street. The infantry advance was supported by a searchlight detachment that illuminated the undersides of the cloud cover like moonlight, making it possible for the inexperienced German infantry to find their way, but in some locations the German troops, backlit by the searchlights, became easy targets for the US forces. This cloud, and the snowstorms over the following days, prevented the superior Allied air forces from attacking German forces. The US troops in the forward positions near the international highway were quickly overrun and killed, captured or merely bypassed by the Germans, intent on adhering to their timetable for a rapid advance.
However, during their earlier retreat during the autumn the Germans had destroyed the bridge over the railway on the road linking Losheim and Losheimergraben over the railway. German engineers were slow to repair the bridge on the morning of 16 December, preventing German vehicles from using this route, and it emerged that a railway overpass the Germans had selected as their alternative route could not bear the weight of the German armour. Peiper received new orders directing him to move to the west along the road through Lanzerath to Bucholz Station. Before even reaching Lanzerath, Peiper lost three of his tanks to German mines and was slowed by mine-clearing operations.
The small village of Lanzerath, comprising about 15 houses, lay astride a road junction lying to the south-east of Krinkelt-Rocherath. This crossroads was held by a single intelligence and reconnaissance platoon of the 394th Infantry dug into a slight ridge to the north-east of the village and parallel with the road. The platoon was initially supported by Task Force X, made up of 2nd Platoon, Company A, 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and 22 men of the 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion’s 2nd Reconnaissance Platoon under the command of Lieutenant John Arculeer and mounted on an armoured half-track vehicle and two Jeeps. Shortly after the end of the German early-morning bombardment, Task Force X pulled out without a word and headed to the south, leaving the 18 men of the reconnaissance platoon alone, along with four forward artillery observers, to fill the gap.
During a fight that lasted 20 hours, the platoon commanded by Lieutenant Lyle Bouck inflicted about 93 casualties on the Germans. The US troops thus seriously disrupted the 6th SS Panzerarmee's entire schedule of attack along the northern edge of the offensive. The entire platoon was eventually taken prisoner.
The 3/395th Infantry was positioned about 5 miles (8 km) to the north of Elsenborn Ridge near the towns of Monschau and Höfen. From 05.25 to 05.30 on 16 December, the battalion’s positions received a heavy barrage of artillery and rocket fire covering its whole position. The German artillery, rocket and mortar fire cut all land-line communications between the front-line units and headquarters. and only some radio communications between front line and the heavy weapons company remained operational. After 20 minutes the barrage lifted, and infantry of the 753rd Volksgrenadierregiment attacked the 3/395th Infantry in the dark in strength at five points. The German attack concentrated on the battalion’s centre, between Companies I and K, and another German force attempted to penetrate the Monschau area, immediately to the north of the battalion’s left flank. The 3/395th Infantry was outnumbered 5/1 and was at times surrounded.
The battalion initially pushed the Germans back with machine gun, small arms and mortar fire and then in hand-to-hand fighting stopped the German advance. Without radio communication between the front-line artillery liaison officer and 196th Field Artillery, the latter’s guns could not be brought to bear on the German assault until communication had been restored at 06.50. The artillery had registered the forward positions of the US infantry and shelled the advancing Germans as the US soldiers remained in their covered foxholes. This was the only sector of the US front attacked during 'Wacht am Rhein' in which the Germans failed to advance. By 07.45, all the Germans had withdrawn except for a group which had penetrated the battalion’s centre and was soon repulsed. At 12.35, the Germans resumed their attack, but were driven back by artillery and mortar fire. The result of the first day of what would become known as the 'Battle of the Bulge' was 104 German dead 'in an area 50 yards [46 m] in front of our lines to 100 yards [90 m] behind the line, and another 160 wounded counted in front of battalion lines.' The 3/395th Infantry lost just four men killed, seven wounded and four missing.
Lauer ordered Robertson at Wahlerscheid on 16 December to hold his position until at least the next morning, when more orders would be forthcoming. Robertson was concerned that the 395th Combat Engineers and two regiments of the 2nd Division would be cut off by the advancing Germans,and te told his men to hold and to be prepared for an orderly withdrawal in the morning. Early in the morning of the following day, Gerow told Robertson to turn to the south and withdraw to a crossroads just to the north of Rocherath-Krinkelt, where a roadblock was to be established. Robertson’s troops were heavily engaged and withdrawal was a complex matter, but was completed successfully. The 9th Infantry pulled back to the Baracken crossroads at the edge of the forest, about 5 miles (8 km) to the south of the crossroads at Wahlerscheid, and the other units moved to the south through the area near Rocherath-Krinkelt. Robertson moved his headquarters from Wirtzfeld from an area lying to the south and west of Rocherath-Krinkelt, to Elsenborn, just to the west of the ridge line. Robertson also informed Gerow that he intended to hold Rocherath-Krinkelt until troops to the east of the villages had retreated through them to the ridge line, which then would become the next line of defence. This defensive line was intended to safeguard the key high ground on Elsenborn Ridge from the German advance. The area around Elsenborn Ridge became a collection point for widely assorted groups of US troops whose units had been broken and scattered at the start of the German offensive. With so many troops from different units arriving in every kind of condition, the organisation of a coherent defence was a very demanding task, but one that was effected with surprising speed under the circumstances. Intelligence about the attack that reached the US forces was both sketchy in in many cases contradictory.
To the east of Rocherath and Krinkelt, the Germans had made a deep penetration. Rocherath-Krinkelt had to be held to allow the 2nd Division with its heavy weapons and vehicles to reach positions around Elsenborn. The 99th Division had already committed last reserve into the line. The 2nd Division, with the attached 395th Infantry, was left to defend the endangered sector of the corridor to the south.
As noted above, 'Stösser' was the German plan to drop paratroopers in the US rear in the Hohe Venn area, 6.8 miles (11 km) to the north of Malmedy, and to seize the key Baraque Michel crossroads leading to Antwerp. Led by Oberst Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte, the undertaking was a complete failure. To conceal the plans from the Allies and preserve secrecy, von der Heydte was not permitted to use his own experienced troops, and most of the replacement paratroops had little training. The Luftwaffe managed to assemble a force of 112 Junkers Ju 52/3m three-engined transport aircraft, but the pilots for these machines were inexperienced. They took off on the night of 16/17 December into strong winds, snow, and limited visibility with around 1,300 Fallschirmjäger troops.
It was the German paratroopers' sole nocturnal drop dof the war. The pilots dropped some of the men behind the German front line, others over Bonn, and only a few hundred behind the US lines, in widely scattered locations; some aircraft even landed with their troops still on board. Only a fraction of the force landed near the intended drop zone, and these were buffeted by strong winds that deflected many paratroopers and made for difficult landings. Since many of the German paratroopers were inexperienced, some were crippled on impact and others died where they landed. Some of their bodies were not found until the following spring when the snow melted. The dispersed nature of the drops led to considerable confusion among the Americans, as fallschirmjäger were reported all over the Ardennes, and the Allies believed a division-sized jump had taken place. The Americans allocated men to secure the rear instead of facing the main German thrust at the front. By noon on 17 December, von der Heydte’s unit had scouted the woods and rounded up a total of around 300 of its men. The force was too small to take the crossroads on its own, and had limited ammunition.
The main drive against Elsenborn Ridge was launched in the forests east of Rocherath-Krinkelt early in the morning of 17 December. This attack was launched by Panzer and Panzergrenadier units of 12th SS Panzerdivision. The 989th Infanterieregiment of Generalleutnant Albert Praun’s 277th Division succeeded, after heavy and costly fighting in the woods, in overrunning the forward US positions guarding the trails to the villages, capturing a large number of prisoners and leaving many small units isolated. By 11.00, this attack had driven units of 99th Division back into the area of Rocherath-Krinkelt, where these units were joined by elements of the 2nd Division moving into the villages from the north. The German attack swiftly bogged down in the face of heavy small arms and machine gun fire from the prepared positions of the 99th Division on their flanks as the German infantry struggled to progress through the dense woods and heavy brush. The German forces also drew a rapid response from the US artillery, which had registered the forward positions of their infantry: the artillery fired on the exposed Germans as they advanced while the US troops remained in their covered foxholes. The troops around the villages were assisted by the tanks of the 741st Tank Battalion aided by one M10 tank destroyer company of the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion, one company of the 612th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and a few towed 3-in (76-mm) guns of the 801st Tank Destroyer Battalion. These were instrumental in helping hold back the German advance in the fighting in and around Rocherath-Krinkelt.
To the north-east of the 99th Division, Major General Clift Andrus’s 1st Division had been recuperating near Liége after almost constant combat since it took part in the 'Overlord' campaign in Normandy from 6 June. When the German counterattack began, the 1st Division rapidly moved into the unguarded southern end of the 99th Division’s line near Bütgenbach. Troops of the 1st Division and Major General Louis A. Craig’s 9th Division moved into position to fortify Elsenborn Ridge and complete the defence, with the 9th Division holding positions on the northern portion of the ridge in the area of Kalterherberg.
Delayed by their inability to cross the railway bridge which German engineers were slow to repair, and by the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon of the 394th Infantry at Lanzerath Ridge, elements of the 1st SS Panzerdivision did not arrive in force at the 99th Division’s positions until the afternoon of 17 December. Finding 'Rollbahn C' blocked, the 1st SS Panzerdivision initially moved to the south for 'Rollbahn D'. The Germans then changed their minds about routing both units through the southern rollbahns, and on 18 December the 12th SS Panzerdivision was given the task of opening up the road to 'Rollbahn C'. The division delivered but failed in a probing attack during that afternoon. During the early morning of 17 December, the Kampfgruppe 'Peiper' quickly captured Honsfeld and shortly after this Büllingen. Peiper’s unit seized 50,000 US gal (190000 litres) of petrol for its vehicles. The Germans then paused to refuel before continuing their westward advance. They had been assigned 'Rollbahn B', which would take them through Spa. At 09.30 on 17 December, Peiper sent a section of the his force to the north on a reconnaissance, but this met strong resistance improvised by tank destroyers of the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and lost two PzKpfw IV tanks. Two days into the offensive, the high ground of Elsenborn Ridge and two of the three routes the Germans planned to use remained within the fortified US defence zones.
Believing that the way north to 'Rollbahn B' was blocked, knowing that the 12th SS Panzerdivision was well behind him and unable to dislodge the US forces from either the Elsenborn Ridge or Domaine Butgenbach, Peiper and the 1st SS Panzerdivision were forced to choose the more difficult southern 'Rollbahn D'. The road was narrow, in many places just a single-track route and in places unpaved. When Peiper reviewed his newly assigned alternative route on a map, he exclaimed that the road was 'suitable not for tanks but for bicycles'.
A succession of orders from Model and von Rundstedt that the Elsenborn Ridge must be captured and the advance of the 6th SS Panzerarmee must be resumed were despatched down the chain of command to the headquarters of the 12th SS Panzerdivision with increasing urgency. Priess, commanding the I SS Panzerkorps, ordered Kraas, commander of the 12th SS Panzerdivision, to take command of all the German forces facing the Elsenborn Ridge and capture it. The battle-hardened US tankers resisted repeated attacks by the leading elements of the 6th SS Panzerarmee between 16 and 19 December. Fighting against the superior German Panther battle tanks and Tiger heavy tanks supported by infantry, the battalion fought many small engagements: exploiting the smaller size and greater mobility of their M4 Sherman medium tanks, the US battalion stalked the German tanks in twos and threes until they could destroy or immobilise them with shots onto their flanks or rear.
The US withdrawal was hastened by an increasing shortage of ammunition. Fortunately for the defenders, three tank destroyers of 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion arrived with bazookas and anti-tank mines. These reinforcements were put to good use when the 12th SS Panzerdivision launched a powerful tank and infantry attack on Rocherath-Krinkelt. The US forces responded with a powerful artillery barrage supported by mortar fire, bazooka rocket fire, and anti-tank mines that repelled the German attack at about 00.00 on the night of 17/18 December. The German attack thus failed to clear a line of advance for the 12th SS Panzerdivision.
On 18 December, German infantry and armour resumed their attack on Rocherath-Krinkelt, and in this were supported by the 560th schwere Panzerjägerabteilung equipped with the powerful Jagdpanther tank destroyer: this was armed with an 88-mm (3.465-in) high-velocity gun, and the German leadership expected it to be a decisive element of the battle. The encounter opened with both sides targeting the village area with repeated artillery attacks, and German armoured vehicles advanced into Rocherath-Krinkelt. The battle raged right through the day and night, with Waffen-SS tanks and assault guns hitting the villages from the east, supported by a barrage of Nebelwerfer artillery rockets. These forces were met in turn by heavy artillery fire, about 20 Sherman tanks of the 741st Tank Battalion and several M10 tank destroyers. The narrow streets of the town made effective manoeuvring tricky. Bazooka rounds fired from rooftops and artillery air bursts resulting from the use of proximity-fused shells combined to create a lethal rain of splinters. Lurking in alleys and behind buildings, Sherman tanks quickly knocked out six German tanks; another eight were destroyed by 57-mm anti-tank guns, anti-tank rockets, bazookas and mines. Neither side was inclined to take prisoners, and the losses on both sides were heavy.
During the night of 18/19 December, the 1 and 2/395th Infantry occupied positions in the woods to the north of Krinkelt and to the south of the Wahlerscheid road junction. Colonel A. J. MacKenzie, responding to orders he thought were from Lauer, ordered the units to withdraw. During the withdrawal, MacKenzie reported his progress to Lauer, who told macKenzie he had given no such order and ordered MacKenzie back into his previous positions. The gap in the lines was undetected by the Germans who, had they been able to exploit the weakness in the US lines, could have moved into the area behind the 2nd Division and thereby threatened the whole formation. MacKenzie ordered his men back into the positions they had held only a few hours before, a task rendered very difficult as a result of the darkness and the risk of being detected. The commander of the 2/395th Infantry refused and was summarily replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Boyden. Despite these difficulties, the US troops successfully slipped back into their old foxholes before the arrival of daylight.
At dawn on 19 December, the Germans decided to shift the main axis of their attack to the area lying to the south of Elsenborn Ridge. A new armoured attack, led by the 12th SS Panzerdivision and supported by the 12th Volksgrenadierdivision, was launched against Domäne Bütgenbach, to the south-east of Bütgenbach, in an attempt to expose the US forces' right flank. The 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision, supported by elements of the 12th Volkgrenadierdivision and 277th Volksgrenadierdivision to its left and right respectively, delivered a frontal attack on the Elsenborn Ridge with the object of seizing the high Roderhohe feature. The soft ground in front of the ridge was almost impassable, however, and a succession of Sturmgeschütz assault guns became bogged and the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision lost 15 armoured vehicles to US artillery fire during the day.
During 19 December, about 100 Germans seized four buildings in the village of Höfen, driving into the US lines a wedge about 100 yards (90 m) deep and 400 yards (370 m) wide. After US small arms and mortar fire failed to dislodge the this German penetration, the 612th Tank Destroyer Battalion brought its 57-mm anti-tank guns to bear directly on them. Follow-up attacks with white phosphorus grenades finally persuaded the surviving 25 Germans to surrender; the other 75 were found dead within the buildings. The German attack on the extreme left flank of the US defence was repulsed by artillery and rifle fire. Despite the fierce onslaught, the battalion did not commit its reserve, which comprised only one 40-man platoon.
The Americans abandoned Rocherath-Krinkelt, now reduced to rubble, and Robertson ordered the remnants of the 2nd Division to withdraw to defensive positions dug into the open terrain along the ridge. Troops from the remaining elements of 99th Division also used this time to withdraw onto Elsenborn Ridge and fortify positions: the frozen ground was so hard that explosives were needed to blast foxholes. Elements of the 741st Tank Battalion formed the rearguard to allow an orderly withdrawal from Rocherath-Krinkelt to positions behind Wirtzfeld to the west and north-west. By the afternoon the tank crews had reported their destruction of 27 German tanks, two Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers, two armoured cars and two half-tracked vehicles while losing eight of their own tanks. At the battalion level, units reported knocking out 16 tanks; regimental 57-mm guns claimed 19 'kills', and bazooka teams claimed to have knocked out 17 more. While the numbers were undoubtedly exaggerated, they provide a clear indication of the fighting’s ferocity. The German tank companies were rendered ineffective and played no significant role in later fighting.
At 17.30, the remaining troops of 393rd Infantry and 394th Infantry withdrew from their positions around the Baracken crossroads, just to the north of Krinkelt-Rocherath, and fell back along a boggy trail about 2.5 miles (4 km) toward Elsenborn Ridge. The US lines collapsed on either side. Lieutenant Colonel Cleman Butler, the commander of the 395th Infantry, later said that 'We were sticking out like a finger there.' Increasingly isolated, the unit was running short of ammunition, but a platoon leader discovered an abandoned German ammunition dump, and Butler claimed that 'We stopped the tail end of that push with guns and ammunition taken off the German dead.'
On 20 December, and now bolstered by reinforcements from the 12th Volksgrenadierdivision, the Germans attacked from the south and east, but this assault also failed. On 21 December, the Germans tried to bypass Dom Butgenbach to the south-west, and although a few German armoured units penetrated into Butgenbach, the 2/395th Infantry, assisted by some reinforcements, once gain halted them.
On 20 December, in an attempt to improve command and control of the northern shoulder, Eisenhower gave Montgomery, commander of the 21st Army Group, operational command of all the Allied forces to the north of the German advance. On the same day, the 6th SS Panzerarmee made several all-out attempts to smash the US lines: it committed artillery, tanks, self-propelled guns and infantry, supported by a Jagdpanther battalion and remnants of the PzKpfw IV and Jagdpanzer IV units.
On 21 December, Waffen-SS Panzergrenadier units supported by Nebelwerfer rocket launchers and heavy artillery attacked the defences of the 1st Division’s 26th Infantry in and around Dom Butgenbach at 09.00, 11.00 and 17.30. The fighting continued into the night. The Germans penetrated the US lines several times, but were driven back by a combination of infantry, artillery and the 613th Tank Destroyer Battalion equipped with the new M36 tank destroyer. At the end of the fighting, the battlefield was strewn with destroyed German armour and scores of German dead, many as of the latter youths as young as 15 and 16 years. US graves registration units counted 782 German dead in front of the 26th Infantry’s positions. The US forces had also destroyed 47 German tanks.
On 22 December, the Germans attacked on the right of Elsenborn Ridge. Their action was once again shattered by US heavy artillery fire, including 240-mm (9.45-in) M1 howitzers, which fired 10,000 rounds on this day. The 26th Infantry and one company of Sherman tanks from 745th Tank Battalion played key roles.
On 23 December a cold wind from the north-east brought clear weather and froze the ground, allowing the free movement of tracked vehicles and, for the Americans, the very welcome return of effective air support. The attack of 22 December had been the last German attempt to capture the ridge, and while on 23 December the Americans readied themselves to face another assault, the Germans sent only patrols against the battalion front lines until the Germans retreated. Air attacks played a significant role in the final defeat of the German attack.
The nature of the route used by the Kampfgruppe 'Peiper' forced the vehicles to move in a single column, creating a column of infantry and armour up to 16 miles (25 km) long, and prevented the Kampfgruppe from concentrating its strength. Peiper was able to advance about 29 miles (46 km) to the west as far as Stoumont before his column was stopped by the 2nd Division, 30th Division and 82nd Airborne Division. Ultimately, the Kampfgruppe 'Peiper' ran out of fuel and ammunition. On 24 December, Peiper abandoned his vehicles and retreated with his remaining 800 men, German wounded and US prisoners being abandoned.
The Germans had sacrificed the bulk of two of their best divisions deployed on the Western Front during the repeated attempts to overrun the Elsenborn Ridge and Monschau. Unable to access the road linking Monschau and Eupen and that linking Malmedy and Verviers, the Germans were unable to commit the II SS Panzerkorps, which was still waiting in reserve on the I SS Panzerkorps' eastern flank. The Germans' hopes of reaching Liége via Verviers had been halted in their tracks by the stubborn US resistance.
On 26 December, the 246th Volksgrenadierdivision made a final but forlorn attack on the Elsenborn Ridge against units of the 99th Division: the German division’s infantry conscripts were scythed down by artillery fire virtually at the moment of their start. The artillery concentration of a whole US corps made the Elsenborn Ridge position virtually unassailable.
At sunrise on 27 December, Dietrich and his 6th SS Panzerarmee were in a difficult situation to the east of the Elsenborn Ridge. The 12th SS Panzerdivision, the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision and their supporting Volksgrenadier divisions had fought themselves into a state of incapability in attacks on the heavily fortified US positions. They could advance no further, and as the Americans counterattacked, on 16 January 1945, the 6th SS Panzerarmee was transferred to the Eastern Front.
From a time late in December there was a marked improvement in the weather, which made it possible for Allied warplanes to attack the Germans and seriously hinder their movement. The Germans launched an air offensive of their own, namely 'Bodenplatte', destroying many Allied aircraft but sacrificing even more of their own aircraft and more of their dwindling stock of irreplaceable skilled pilots. The Germans also launched the 'Nordwind' (iii) offensive in Alsace on 1 January, but failed to regain the initiative. The end of the 'Battle of the Bulge' is officially considered to be 16 January, exactly one month after the Germans launched it, but fighting continued for three more weeks until a time early in February, when the front lines were re-established on the positions held on 16 December.
The organised retreat of 2nd Division and 99th Division to the Elsenborn Ridge line and the two divisions' subsequent stubborn defense had blocked the 6th Panzerarmee's access to key roads in northern Belgium on which they were relying for their planned advance to Antwerp. It was the only sector of the US front line during the 'Battle of the Bulge' where the Germans failed to advance. Peiper’s force was beset by overcrowding, flanking attacks, blown bridges and lack of fuel, meaning that the Germans were unable to repeat the rapid advances they achieved during May 1940’s 'Sichelschnitt' in the same area. The Germans were denied access to three of five planned axis of advance across their northern sector of 'Wacht am Rhein', and were required to effect a significant alteration of their plans, considerably slowing their advance in the north. This success allowed the US forces to retain the freedom to manoeuvre effectively across the northern flank of the Germans' line of advance.
Lying some 20 miles (32 km) to the north-west of Spa, Liége was the location of one of the largest US supply centres in the European theatre and was also the headquarters of the 1st Army. Only 11 miles (18 km) from Spa lay Verviers, an important and densely stocked railhead. Had the Germans been able to capture this area, the outcome of the battle may have been different.
Contrary to some popular beliefs, the 'Battle of the Bulge' was not fought solely in Bastogne. In the northern sector of the Ardennes, elements of tragedy, heroism and self-sacrifice exerted a great influence upon the result of German intentions.
The cost of the relentless and intense close-quarter fighting was high for both sides, but the German losses were irreplaceable. An exact casualty accounting for the Elsenborn Ridge battle is not possible. The casualties of the 2nd Division and 99th Division are known, as too are the losses of only the Germans' armoured fighting vehicles. During the battle, small US units of up to a company in size and often acting independently, fought fierce local counterattacks and mounted stubborn defences, frustrating the Germans' plans for a rapid advance and badly dislocating their timetable. By 17 December, German military planners knew that their objectives along the Elsenborn Ridge would not be taken when planned.
The 99th Division devastated the Volksgrenadier formations which attacked it. The 99th Division lost about 20% of its effective strength, including 465 men killed and 2,524 evacuated as a result of wounds, injuries, fatigue or illness. This performance prevented the 6th SS Panzerarmee from outflanking the Elsenborn Ridge.
It is worth noting that the power and mobility of the German offensive was dependent on the use of Germany’s latest weapons and armoured fighting vehicles. In the first stages of World War II, the German army had led the world in the tactics of mechanised warfare to overwhelm opponents with their rapid Bewegungskrieg or 'Blitzkrieg' method of combined-arms warfare. Late in the war, the Germans had developed a number of advanced armoured vehicles. The Tiger II, Panther and Jagdpanther were all armed with either the new high-velocity 88-mm (3.465-in) KwK 43 and 75-mm (2.95-in) KwK 42 guns. As a result of these high-velocity guns' flat trajectories and greater armour penetration, and the fact that thicker armour was used to shield them, German tanks enjoyed a superiority in firepower over nearly every US vehicle then in service. Despite their superiority, however, the advanced German tanks were few in number and often suffered breakdowns because of the use of unreliable mechanical parts.
These units were supported by new Volkswerfer brigades: these were artillery units firing masses of 150-mm (5.91-in) and 300-mm (11.81-in) rockets. Although lacking in accuracy, a barrage of these rockets could saturate a large area with high explosive. For more infantry firepower, Waffen-SS Panzergrenadier soldiers were equipped with the new Sturmgewehr 44, which was the world’s first mass-produced assault rifle and more advanced than any other military rifle at the time. The new Panzerfaust 100 was an improved short-range anti-tank rocket grenade that could penetrate any armour fielded by the US army.
German tactics for the offensive involved an initial artillery barrage of great intensity, followed by an immediate attacks by the Volksgrenadier divisions supported by light assault guns such as the Sturmgeschütz IV. This initial attack with relatively unmechanised and comparatively expendable troops was used to clear major roads for use by the Waffen-SS Panzer divisions, which would then rapidly move to capture bridges on the Meuse river for the planned terminal advance on Antwerp. These armoured divisions were used in a considerably more organised and controlled fashion, and with better leadership, than was usual for the US forces. The German concept of the Panzer division was an independent formation which carried with it all its supporting elements, making it more mobile and flexible than a US armoured division, and able to concentrate greater force at the point of attack. Shock and speed were intended to overwhelm resistance, as it did during the 'Sichelschnitt' first drive through the Ardennes in 1940. The German high command expected that the Allied high command would take weeks to adjust to the impact, but Hitler failed to take into consideration the constricted, winding and often unpaved roads of the northern Ardennes and underrated the capabilities of the US formations and units on the northern shoulder.
On the US side, the defence was centred on field fortifications, the innovative use of light anti-tank weapons such as the bazooka and anti-tank mines, and most importantly the support of a formidable array of indirect artillery fire. US tanks and anti-tank guns were considered ineffective against the newer German fighting vehicles, but this was offset to a degree by use of the 3-in (76.2-mm) M1A1 gun mounted on the Sherman medium tank and the M18 Hellcat tank destroyer. The British had also designed high-velocity anti-armour ammunition for the 57-mm anti-tank gun to give this weapon a new lease of life against the heavier German tanks. US gunners were quick to trade whatever their allies wanted for this highly effective ammunition. The Americans also adapted the 90-mm (3.54-in) anti-aircraft gun to the anti-tank role, and mounted it on an open turret of a Sherman tank chassis as the M36 Jackson tank destroyer.
Since the Normandy invasion, the US army had suffered greater than expected losses, and found the handling of German armoured attacks particularly difficult. Learning from this, US tactical doctrine began to include a defence in depth, using mobile armoured cavalry squadrons with light tanks and anti-tank guns to screen defensive positions. When attacked, these units would delay the Germans for a short time, then retreat through defensive positions to their rear. These positions consisted of fortifications centred on terrain chokepoints such as villages, passes and bridges: in the Elsenborn Ridge area, the twin villages of Domäne-Bütgenbach and the area around them proved to be the best areas for defence. Machine gun and infantry positions would be protected by barbed wire and minefields. Also employed were anti-tank mine 'daisy chains', comprising a line of mines lashed in a row which would be dragged across a road with a rope when a column of German tanks approached. This defensive line was backed by bazooka positions in buildings, dug-in anti-tank guns, and tank destroyers firing from covered positions further to the rear.
As German mobile formations and units ran into the US defences, the US force utilised their superior communications and artillery tactics, such as 'time on target' that was a sequence of firing so that all the shells impacted the target simultaneously. This allowed large numbers of artillery pieces, distant from the battle, to concentrate unprecedented firepower on German attackers.
Also new to the European battlefield was proximity-fused artillery ammunition. Proximity fuses had been developed in 1942 and were first used by ships in anti-aircraft guns. During the German bomber and V-weapon campaign against the UK in 1944, they helped bring down German aircraft and flying bombs over England. Rather than exploding upon direct impact, the shells detected their proximity to a target and detonated before impact, thereby maximising the effect of the shell fragments. Shells armed with these fuses were very effective, but the Allies limited their use in Europe as the authorities in the USA feared that a 'dud' would be recovered by the Germans who would reverse-engineer it and use the information to design radar countermeasures or employ them against the Allies. Near Monschau, the 326th Volksgrenadierdivision quickly overran the US forward positions, whereupon Colonel Oscar A. Axelson, commander of the 405th Field Artillery Group, saw a need and ignored orders, and 196th Battalion was one of the first to use the fuses.
The US ground forces were also lavishly supplied with the self-propelled artillery and ammunition required to make these firepower-based tactics successful. When effectively employed and co-ordinated, these attacks negated the advantage of the German forces' superior armour and armoured tactics. The effectiveness of the new fused shells exploding in mid-air persuaded some German soldiers to refuse orders to move out of their bunkers during an artillery attack.
The US defence also involved abundant tactical air support, usually by Republic P-47 Thunderbolt single-engined fighter-bombers. These 'flying tanks' were armed with air-to-surface rockets of a type very effective against the thinly protected upper decks of German armoured vehicles. However, snow storms prevented the utilisation of these fighter-bomber aircraft in the battle until the weather cleared on 23 December.