Operation Battle of Lanzerath Ridge

The 'Battle of Lanzerath Ridge' was a small-scale engagement between German and US forces on the first day of 'Wacht am Rhein' (16/17 December 1944).

The engagement took place near the village of Lanzerath in Belgium along the key route for the German advance on the northern shoulder of the operation. The opposing US force comprised two squads,, totalling 18 men, of a reconnaissance platoon and four forward artillery observers, who were faced by a German battalion of about 500 paratroopers. During a day-long confrontation, the US defenders inflicted many casualties on the Germans and delayed by almost 20 hours the advance of SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke’s whole 1st SS Panzerdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler', which was the spearhead of SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Joseph Dietrich’s 6th Panzerarmee.

The Germans finally flanked the Americans at dusk, capturing them. Only one American, an artillery observer, was killed, while 14 others were wounded, while German casualties totalled 92 men. The Germans paused, believing the woods were filled with more US infantry and armour. It was only after SS-Standartenführer Joachim Peiper and his small armoured force arrived at 00.00, 12 hours behind schedule, that the Germans learned that the neighbourhood’s woods were empty.

As a result of the loss of communications with its battalion and then regimental headquarters, and its subsequent capture, its disposition and success in delaying the 6th Panzerarmee's advance was not known by US commanders.

Before the 'Battle of the Bulge', the US Army had been engaged in a campaign to attack the Roer river dams in the early stages of the invasion of western Germany. Major General Walter E. Lauer’s 99th Division, an inexperienced formaton, was supporting Major General Walter M. Robertson’s experienced but now battle-weary US 2nd Division in its attack on the 'Westwall' at Wahlerscheid. During two days of hard fighting, the US forces had finally managed to penetrate the German defences. The Americans were expecting a local counterattack, but their intelligence completely failed to detect the Germans' movement of hundreds of armoured vehicles and large numbers of infantry and artillery unit into the region. Much of the area was relatively quiet and was thus colloquially known as the 'ghost front'.

Early in December 1944, the US defensive line in the Ardennes had a gap to the south of Losheimergraben. Lieutenant General Leonard T. Gerow, commander of the US V Corps in Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 5th Army, recognised this area as a possible avenue of attack by the Germans. Lying between the V Corps and Major General Troy H. Middleton’s VIII Corps, this area was undefended and just patrolled by small unit in Jeeps. The patrols in the northern part of the area were undertaken by the 99th Division’s 394th Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon, whereas those in the south were conducted by the 18th Cavalry Squadron, 14th Cavalry Group, which was attached to Major General Allen W. Jones’s US 106th Division.

In this border area between Germany and Belgium, there was only one road network that could support a military advance: this was the so-called Losheim Gap, a narrow valley some 5 miles (8 km) long, at the western foot of the Schnee Eifel. This was the key route through which the 6th Panzerarmee and General Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzerarmee were to advance under the control of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe 'B'.

On 11 December Robertson, commander of the 2nd Division, was ordered to attack and seize the Roer river dams. In the event that he had to pull back, he chose Elsenborn Ridge as his defensive line. Lauer, commanding the 99th Division, was charged with improving the defences around Elsenborn Ridge. Lauer knew his front was long and very thinly manned, and gave instructions to his men to dig in and build cover for their foxholes.

The 99th Division had been deployed to the Ardennes in November, with its 394th Infantry relieving the 60th Infantry of Major General Louis A. Craig’s 9th Division. Among the units was the 394th Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon, consisting of well-trained men who had been selected because they were marksmen and in peak physical condition. The platoon was led by 20-year-old Lieutenant Lyle Bouck, one of the US Army’s youngest officers and the second youngest man in the unit. For the next few weeks his platoon established and maintained regimental listening and observation posts, undertook patrols behind the German lines, and gathered information. The platoon was accommodated in a brick building in Hünningen. The platoon was organised a two nine-man reconnaissance squads and a seven-man headquarters section. As it was not intended, nor trained, for combat, it was instructed to avoid direct engagement with the Germans. Even so, the platoon took part in several missions behind the German lines as far as Losheim, 2 miles (3.2 km) behind the front line, to capture German soldiers for intelligence. Most often their patrols took the form of creeping through snow-clogged defiles obscured by fog in an attempt to fix German positions.

On 10 December, the platoon was ordered by Major Robert Kriz, commanding officer of the 394th Infantry, to a new position about 6 miles (9.7 km) to the south-east of Hünningen, near Lanzerath, a Belgian village of 23 homes and a church. The village lay at a critical road junction in the northern part of the Losheim Gap. The 25 men were ordered by Kriz to plug a 5-mile (8-km) gap in the front line between the 106th Division to the south and the 99th Division to the north. The only reserve was the 3/394th Infantry, which was deployed at Bucholz station. Behind these forward positions lay roads that could give any German advance easy access to the US forces' rear and allow them to flank the thinly deployed 99th Division with ease.

The platoon took over positions, toward the top of a ridge immediately to the north-west of Lanzerath, which had previously been occupied by part of the 2nd Division. It was ordered to improve the foxhole positions and maintain contact with Task Force X, made up of 55 men with four towed 3-in (76.2-mm) guns of the 2nd Platoon, Company A, 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion. This last battalion was attached to the 14th Cavalry Group of the 106th Division of the VIII Corps. The intelligence and reconnaissance platoon and the 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion were reinforced by the 22 men of the 820th's 2nd Reconnaissance Platoon under the command of Lieutenant John Arculeer, who were mounted on an armoured half-track vehicle and two Jeeps. Members of the 2nd Platoon took up positions in two houses in Lanzerath about 200 yards (180 m) to the south-east. Together, the two units were the foremost US units in their sector facing the 'Siegfried-Linie'.

The Americans attacked through the 'Siegfried-Linie' at Walerscheid, about 5 miles (8 km) to the north, and a local counterattack was expected. Bouck followed procedure and ordered his men to establish defences with overlapping fields of fire. Taking advantage of the foxholes left by their predecessors, the men deepened the foxholes so that two or three men could stand in them and fire from the concealed edges. The men covered each foxhole with pine logs 8 to 12 in (20 to 30 cm) in diameter. The hill-top location was just inside the edge of a forest and overlooked a pasture cut by a 4-ft (1.2-m) high barbed wire fence running parallel to their location. The US position covered about 300 yards (270 m) along a shallow ridge line, about 30 ft (9.1 m) above the road and 200 yards (185 m) to the north-west of the village. The foxholes were situated in a shallow curve along the ridge line in a north-easterly direction, almost to a fork in the road on the left flank. Snow fell, covering the dug-in defences inside the woods, leaving them virtually invisible from the road.

They Americans took advantage of a small log hut behind their position in which to warm themselves. Bouck had augmented the unit’s 0.3-in (7.62-mm) weapons with four extra carbines, two Browning automatic rifles, and one light machine gun. He had also traded his unit’s collection of German memorabilia with an ordnance supply officer for an armoured Jeep with a mounted heavy machine gun. Bouck’s men dug an emplacement for this Jeep, placing it in enfilade down the road along the Germans' possible line of advance.

Once an hour, in an attempt to fill the gap in their sector, the Americans ran a Jeep patrol up and down the line to stay in contact with units on their right and left flanks, and to watch for any German activity. They hoped they would be relieved in the near future but, during the night of 16 December, heard the movement of armoured and wheeled vehicles in the distance. Bouck ordered his men to remain awake, and during the day the temperature ranged from a high of -1° C (30° F) to a low of -7° C (20° F).

Many of the German soldiers were recent conscripts with very little in the way of training or experience. Each unit was therefore a mix of teenage boys, men moe than 50 years old, men previously rejected as physically unfit for service, wounded soldiers newly released from hospitals, and men transferred from the shrinking Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe. Generalmajor Walter Wadehn’s (from 6 January 1945 Generalleutnant. Dipl.Ing. Richard Schimpf’s) 3rd Fallschirmjägerdivision, which had previously acquired an excellent combat reputation, had been virtually destroyed during the Failaise pocket final phase of 'Overlord', and had since been rebuilt with replacements from the 22nd, 51st and 53rd Luftwaffe Feldregimenter. The German units were usually organised around small cadres of seasoned veterans and, although they carried the new StG 44 assault rifle and were equipped with rifle grenades, few had ever fired them in combat. The German recruits were told that the US troops they faced would not have the nerve to stand and fight.

To preserve as much as possible of the available armour, the infantry of the division’s 9th Fallschirmjägerregiment had been ordered to lead the attack through Lanzerath and clear the village before advancing toward Honsfeld and thence Büllingen. At this last, the German commanders estimated they would face a full US division.

The initial position of the Kampfgruppe 'Peiper' was in the forest around Blankenheim in Germany, to the east of the German/Belgium border and the 'Siegfried-Linie'. Once the infantry had captured Lanzerath, the 6th Panzerarmee, spearheaded by te Kampfgruppe 'Peiper', was to advance without delay. The infantry would then secure the right flank of the attack route near Losheimergraben, and Peiper’s object was to cross the Meuse river at Huy in Belgium.

Despite the losses that had brought the Allies to the border of their homeland, German morale was surprisingly high. The men knew that the Allies were demanding an unconditional surrender, so they were now defending German soil and not just fighting for Adolf Hitler.

Dietrich knew the 'Wacht am Rhein' plan had flaws. The Germans had captured the same terrain within three days in the course of 'Sichelschnitt' during May 1940. Now they were being asked to do it in winter in five days, and against an opponent more experienced, better prepared and possessing good weapons. The plan counted on bad weather to keep the altogether superior Allied air power grounded. Dietrich only had one-quarter the fuel his army needed, so the plan was centered on the capture of Allied fuel depots and keeping to an ambitious timetable. Dietrich’s assigned Rollbahn (axis) included narrow roads, in many places only a single track, which would force units of the Kampfgruppe to tail each other, creating a column of infantry and armour up to 15.5 miles (25 km) long. The nature of the terrain and their roads would prevent the attackers from concentrating their forces in the Blitzkrieg fashion which had served them so well in the past. The main roads designated for their use had many hairpin bends and traversed steep hillsides that would delay his already slow-moving towed artillery and bridging trains. Dietrich knew that a determined fight at just a single such chokepoint by even a token US force could seriously impede his schedule. When Hitler’s operations officer, Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, gave him his orders, Dietrich shouted that he was 'a general, not a bloody undertaker!'.

At 05.30 on 16 December, the Germans launched a 90-minute artillery barrage using 1,600 pieces of artillery along an 80-mile (130-km) front, although the men of the US platoon was only aware of what was happening in their sector. Their first impression was that this was the anticipated counterattack resulting from the Allies' recent attack at the Wahlerscheid crossroads to the north, where the 2nd Division had driven a sizeable dent into the 'Siegfried-Linie'.

Many of the German shells exploded in the trees, driving steel fragments and wood splinters toward the ground, but the US soldiers were protected by their reinforced foxholes. The German infantry began to advance near Losheim before the artillery barrage had lifted, preparing to cross the front line as soon as the barrage had come to an end. They marched under the glow of massive searchlights, bouncing light off the clouds. The armour was located farther back, near Blankenheim in Germany. At 08.00, as the sun rose, the US platoon heard explosions and guns around Buchholz station and Losheimergraben to the east and north, where the 3 and 1/394th Infantry were located. The 55 men of 2nd Platoon, Company A, 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion were initially ordered to the south to help protect Manderfeld, but were soon redirected to join the active battle near Buchholz station. They withdrew from the village and left without contacting the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon, which was thus left as the only unit in the sector, and without armour support.

Bouck sent James, Slape and Creger to establish an observation post in a house on the eastern side of the village that had been abandoned by Task Force X. Accompanying them, Bouck sighted in the dawn light a long column of what appeared to be about 500 Germans headed toward them from the east. Their distinctive helmet style told Bouck they were airborne troops, among the best soldiers Germany could field. None of his training or experience had prepared him for this situation, outnumbered as he was by perhaps 20/1. Bouck and James scrambled back to the ridge top and the rest of their unit. The platoon’s telephone land line to the 1st Battalion’s headquarters in Losheimergraben was knocked out, but their radio still worked, and after contacting regimental headquarters at Hünningen requested permission to withdraw and engage in a delaying action. He was told to 'remain in position and reinforcements from the 3rd Battalion will come to support you.'

In town, Creger watched as a forward element of the German infantry advanced, with weapons slung, into Lanzerath, clearly not concerned by any possibility of encountering US soldiers. Creger radioed Bouck and told him of the Germans advancing through Lanzerath on the road between Creger and Bouck’s position. Bouck sent Robinson, McGeehee and Silvola to assist Creger, who crept down to the Bucholz station road and thence up a ditch towards Lanzerath. Before the three men reached Creger, he left the village using a more direct route. As he returned to the US line, he engaged and killed or wounded most of a German platoon.

On the eastern side of the road, Robinson, McGeehee and Silvola attempted to rejoin their platoon, but found the way blocked by German soldiers who threatened to flank them. They decided to head for Losheimergraben and seek reinforcements. They crossed a railway cutting some 20 ft (6.1 m) deep and on the far side encountered soldiers of the 27th Fusilierregiment of Generalleutnant Gerhard Engel’s 12th Volksgrenadierdivision. Trying to outflank 1/394th Infantry in Losheimergraben, the Germans spotted the three men. After a brief firefight, Robinson and McGeehee were wounded and all three of the men were taken prisoner.

German soldiers entered the house that Creger and Slape were using as an observation post. Slape climbed into the attic, while Creger had time only to hide himself behind a door. He pulled the pin on a grenade as the door knob jammed into his ribs. Bullets from the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon struck the building, and the Germans suddenly left. Creger and Slape exited by the back door and ducked into a nearby cowshed. They crossed a field and then found themselves in a minefield. Picking their way forward, they circled through the woods until they encountered a handful of Germans, whom they engaged and killed. Creger and Slape spotted Bouck and Milosevich across the road and sprinted toward them, drawing German fire. They made it back to their ridge-top position and Bouck called regimental Headquarters. He requested artillery support, but when he reported the German column advancing on his position, the voice on the other end of the radio told him that 'he must be seeing things'. Bouck told them he had 20/20 vision and demanded artillery fire on the road in front of his unit.

The platoon’s position at the southern end of the 99th Division’s sector was not only outside its own regimental boundary, but outside boundaries of the division and the corps. The division prioritised artillery fire for targets within its boundary. Bouck waited in vain for the sound of incoming artillery fire. He called regimental headquarters again, asking for directions, and was told to 'hold at all costs'. Bouck knew that if his platoon gave way, the 99th Division’s right flank, already thin and undermanned, could be in grave danger.

Four men of a forward observation team of Battery C, 371st Field Artillery had been in the village when the tank destroyer unit withdrew. Lieutenant Warren Springer and the other three men, Sergeant Peter Gacki, T/4 Willard Wibben, and T/5 Billy Queen joined Bouck’s unit on the ridge where they could continue to observe the German movement. Bouck distributed them among the foxholes to help reload magazines and reinforce their position.

Radio operator James Fort attempted to contact headquarters on the radio mounted on a Jeep by the command post, but found that German martial music jammed the channel. He then used a side-channel and Morse code, hoping the Germans weren’t listening, to send a status report to regimental headquarters.

As the Germans moved through Lanzerath and in front of their positions, Bouck and his men allowed the German unit’s leading men to pass, hoping to surprise the Germans, and were preparing to fire on three men whom they believed to be the German regiment’s officers when a girl from the village emerged from one of the houses. Talking to the officers, she pointed in their general direction. An officer yelled a command, and the paratroopers jumped for ditches on either side of the road. The Americans thought she had given away their position and fired on the Germans, wounding several.

The Germans deployed and about two platoons of the 2nd Companie, 1/9th Fallschirmjägerregiment then launched a frontal attack on the US position, bunched together in the open and charging straight up the hill, directly at the platoon’s hidden and well-protected positions. The Americans were surprised at the inexperience revealed by the German tactic. Several of the attackers were killed as they tried to climb over the 4-ft (1.2-m) high barbed wire fence that bisected the field, often at close range with a single shot to the heart or head. Springer used his Jeep-mounted radio to call in co-ordinates for artillery fire, and a few shells landed near the road outside Lanzerath, but they did not hinder the German attack. Springer’s Jeep was then struck by machine gun or mortar fire and his radio was destroyed.

Slape and Milosevich fired continually, as fast as they could reload. Slape thought that the Germans were mad to attack in such a suicidal manner, straight across the open field. After only about 30 seconds, the firing stopped, for almost all of the attacking Germans had been killed or wounded. Shot in the shoulder, McConnell was the only US casualty.

During a second attack, made at about 11.00, Milosevich fired the 0.5-in (12.7-mm) Jeep-mounted machine gun until German fire drove him back into his foxhole. In both the first and second attacks no German soldier got past the fence in the middle of the field. Bodies were piled around it. German medical personnel waved a white flag late in the morning and indicated they wanted to remove the wounded, which the US soldiers permitted. However, during the ceasefire US soldiers noticed that the German medical personnel were entering the US position’s co-ordinates, thereby nullifying the ceasefire. The Americans again suffered only one wounded in the second attack, when Private Kalil was struck in the face by a rifle grenade that failed to explode.

The Germans made a third attack at a time late in the afternoon at about 15.00. Several times German soldiers attempted to penetrate the US lines. The Americans left their foxholes and in close combat fired on the attackers to push them back down the hill. At one point Private First Class Milsovech spotted a medic working on and talking to a soldier he felt certain was already dead. As mortar fire on his position got more accurate, Milsovech noticed a pistol on the supposed medic’s belt, and decided he must be calling in fire on their position, and therefore shot and killed him. Bouck contacted regimental headquarters once again and asked for reinforcement. At 15.50, Fort sent the unit’s last update to regimental headquarters in Hünningen, reporting that the platoon was still receiving some artillery fire but were holding their position against an estimated German strength of about 75 men, who were attempting to advance from Lanzerath toward the railway to the north-west.

As dusk approached and their ammunition ran dangerously low, Bouck feared they could be flanked at any time and therefore planned to pull his men back just before dusk, when they would have enough light to escape through the woods. Bouck ordered his men to remove the distributor caps from their Jeeps and to prepare to evacuate to the rear. He dispatched Corporal Sam Jenkins and Private First Class Preston through the woods to locate Major Kriz at regimental headquarters and seek instructions or reinforcements.

Bouck tried to contact regimental headquarters by radio for instructions, but a German sniper shot the radio as Bouck held it to his ear. The sniper also hit the Jeep-mounted radio behind Bouck, destroying all possibility of calling for reinforcements or instructions.

The German troops were reluctant to make another frontal attack, and a non-commissioned officer pleaded with the officers of the 9th Fallschirmjägerregiment to allow his men to flank the Americans in the dusk. Some 50 men of the 27th Fusilierregiment were despatched to attack the Americans' southern flank through the woods. Just as Bouck was about to blow his whistle to signal the start of the withdrawal, German soldiers penetrated the US line and began to overrun the foxholes. Several attackers were killed by grenades rigged to wires and triggered by Americans in their foxholes. Each of the positions spread out over the ridge top was overrun in turn. Bouck was pulled from his foxhole by an officer with a sub-machine gun, and he thought he would be shot when the German put his weapon in his back and pulled the trigger, but the weapon was empty. Both Bouck and the German officer were then struck by bullets. The German fell seriously wounded, while Bouck was struck in the calf. The German non-commissioned officer asked Bouck who was in command and, after Bouck had replied that he was, asked why the Americans were still shooting, and Bouck said it was not his men doing it. Bouck surrendered and helped carry his wounded men down to the village.

During their dawn-to-dusk fight, the 15 remaining men of the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon, supplemented by the four men of the 371st Artillery’s forward observation team, and repeatedly engaged elements of the 1/9th Fallschirmjägerregiment totalling some 500 men. The Germans reported 16 men killed, 63 wounded and 13 missing in action. Other reports suggest the Americans inflicted between 60 and 500 casualties on the Germans. Only one American, forward artillery observer Billy Queen, was killed, and in Bouck’s platoon, 14 out of 18 men were wounded. The small US force had seriously disrupted the scheduled advance of the entire 6th Panzerarmee's drive for Antwerp along the critical northern edge of the 'Wacht am Rhein' offensive. After virtually no sleep during the preceding night and a full day of almost non-stop combat, with only a few rounds of ammunition remaining, flanked by a superior enemy force, the platoon and artillery observers were captured.

The German military took over several houses in Lanzerath and turned them into aid stations for the wounded of both sides. The rest of the houses were commandeered as temporary quarters.

The Kampfgruppe 'Peiper', the lead element of the the 6th Panzerarmee's spearhead, the 1st SS Panzerdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler', comprised 4,800 men and 600 vehicles. On 16 December, it started as much as 22 miles (36 km) to the east in Tondorf in Germany, and was unable to advance at its scheduled rate because of road congestion. The route from Scheid to Losheim was as solid traffic jam, in part as a result of the blown railway overpasses blocking the advance of the 3rd Fallschirmjägerdivision and 12th Volksgrenadierdivision to Losheimergraben, but also in part to the stiff US resistance. Peiper’s lead units did not reach Losheim until 19.30, when Peiper was ordered to swing to the west and join the 3rd Fallschirmjägerdivision, which had finally cleared the route through Lanzerath. Peiper was angered about the delay, and en route to Lanzerath, Peiper’s unit lost five tanks and five other armoured vehicles to US mines and anti-tank weapons. The Kampfgruppe 'Peiper' finally reached Lanzerath near 00.00 on 16/17 December.

At 04.30 on 17 December, and thus more than 18 hours behind schedule, the 1st SS Panzerdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' rumbled out of Lanzerath and headed to the north-west for Bucholz station. The entire timetable of their advance on the Meuse river and Antwerp had been seriously slowed, allowing the Americans precious hours to move in reinforcements.

The German advance never recovered from its initial delay, and the Kampfgruppe 'Peiper' got only as far as Stoumont, where its remaining vehicles ran out of fuel and came under heavy attack from US aircraft, artillery and armour. Having advanced less than half-way to the Meuse river, the Germans were forced to abandon more than 100 vehicles in the town, including six PzKpfw VI Tiger II heavy tanks. The soldiers were ordered to find their way back to the east on foot. The elements of Peiper’s battle group which had reached Stoumont retreated with only 800 men.

The task of defeating the 99th Division was the objective of SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Hugo Kraas’s 12th SS Panzerdivision 'Hitlerjugend' reinforced by Panzergrenadier and Volksgenadier divisions. On 17 December, German engineers repaired one of the road bridges over the railway along the road linking Losheim and Losheimergraben, and the 12th SS Panzerdivision's armour began to advance on the key road junction at Losheimergraben and the twin villages of Rocherath and Krinkelt. However, in more than 10 days of intense fighting, the 12th SS Panzerdivision was unable to dislodge the Americans from the Elsenborn ridge, where elements of the US V Corps prevented the German forces from reaching the key road network to their west.

As a result of the determined resistance of the US 99th Division, which was composed of relatively inexperienced troops, along with that of the experienced 2nd Division and 30th Division, the northern shoulder of 'Wacht am Rhein' was a sticking point for the entire German offensive. Had the Americans given way, the German advance might well have overrun the vast supply depots around Liége and Spa, and possibly have changed the outcome of the 'Battle of the Bulge'.