Panthers in the Snow I

COUNTERPUNCH by Nicolas Trudgian

On 24 December 1944 at Hèdrée, Belgium, General Rose of the 3rd Armored Division put out the warning: there can be no retreat from the German onslaught “or there will be a war to be fought all over again”. His “Spearhead” tankers of Easy Company, 32nd AR, took the message to heart.

With this message ringing in their ears, they went on the offensive, cutting the N4 road and buying time for reinforcements to reach the Battle of the Bulge. The Allied counterpunch also continues in the skies above as P-38s of the 370th FG as they to hunt their targets.

3rd Armored Division under Maurice Rose

Be careful what you wish for. Despondent over the bloody impasse in and around the West Wall, Lieutenant General Omar Bradley wanted the Germans to quit ducking and covering and defending every ramshackle pillbox to the last man. Come out and play. Come out into a mobile scrum in more open terrain where American firepower could tear them up.

At 5:30 a.m. on December 16, 1944, the Germans obliged.

“Well, Brad, you’ve been wishing for a counterattack,” said Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s SHAEF chief of staff. “Now it looks as though you’ve got it.”

“A counterattack, yes,” replied Bradley. “But I’ll be damned if I wanted one this big.” The Twelfth Army Group commander got it anyway, courtesy of Adolf Hitler, no less. A winter offensive employing almost every viable mobile unit the Germans had left—no rational top commander would undertake such a massive gamble. But a megalomaniacal Austrian-born lance corporal? Why not?

The Germans struck hard against the First Army. Shielded from the Allied air armada by foul “Hitler weather,” the foe slammed into the southernmost 99th Infantry Division of the ill-used V Corps—still ensnared in the Hürtgen Forest—and tore up the strung-out VIII Corps: the brand-new 106th Infantry Division and the Hürtgen-ravaged 28th and 4th. The four U.S. divisions thinly outposted an eighty-mile front, the same Ardennes region that Bradley told himself wasn’t suitable for tanks. Poor Bradley. The map done him wrong again. Now three German field armies, a thousand panzers and a half million men, were on the move. The enemy envisioned going all the way to the just-opened port of Antwerp. Cut up the Americans, cut off the British, and possibly, at least in Hitler’s febrile mind, force the Allies to the bargaining table. Based on the thunderclap opening, Hitler’s troops might pull it off.

What now, Brad?

A book man to his bones, and fortunately not prone to panic, Bradley thought back to what he’d learned at West Point, Benning, and Leavenworth. Contain the breakthrough. Hold the shoulders. Block the foe’s leading panzer outfits at the major road junctions. Anchor on the high ground and rivers. And when the skies cleared—if that happy day ever came—tear ’em up. To do these things, Bradley needed more forces.

Here the Allied broad front approach, the U.S. 90-division force cap, and the British manpower shortage left the cupboard rather bare. Eisenhower had very little to offer his classmate Bradley. The SHAEF reserve consisted of XVIII Airborne Corps with the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne divisions. Both divisions were refitting after the September “bridge too far” operation in Holland. Although composed of well-led, hand-picked, highly trained volunteers, the airborne outfits were small (authorized 8,596 soldiers vs. a standard U.S. Army infantry division’s 14,253 men) and undergunned, with no tanks, no tank destroyers, and no standard field artillery. They’d have to pick up reinforcing units en route and make do. That was something at which the paratroopers and glider men excelled.

With the airborne troops en route, Bradley had to reconfigure his other chess pieces. Twenty-First Army Group to the north probably had nothing to provide; Monty had been borrowing U.S. divisions all through the fall of 1944. Sixth Army Group to the south had their own fish to fry and nothing to spare. So Bradley turned to his own three armies: the Ninth north of Aachen, the First with a gaping hole in its south end, and Patton’s Third Army fighting in the Saar. Bradley tapped the Ninth for the 7th Armored Division to speed toward the German penetration; the Ninth later sent the 30th Infantry Division, the 84th Infantry Division, and the 2nd Armored Division as well. Patton’s Third Army also received word to cough up the brand-new 10th Armored Division. Being Patton, and having already divined the German counteroffensive before it launched, the Third Army commander prepared to pivot his forces 90 degrees and attack into the south flank of the German forces. When the time came, Patton would be ready.

What about Hodges? His forces had taken it right in the teeth. But two-thirds of his First Army lay north of the German push. A good general would immediately march to the sound of the guns, moving right to the point of crisis to see and be seen, to steady the line. Not Hodges. The First Army commander did what he did best. Nothing. The fateful 16th of December passed calmly at the Hotel Britannique in Spa. The maps looked OK, and the bulk of the reports weren’t too alarming. The fact that a great many updates from the embattled VIII Corps were missing raised some eyebrows—that obviously wasn’t a good sign. Even so, the First Army commander didn’t stir from his headquarters. Indeed, Hodges kept his normal office schedule, to include hosting military visitors from SHAEF and going to bed on time. The general was nursing a head cold.

When looking at transcripts of fragmented radio messages from American headquarters in the Ardennes, Hodges told staff officers that the German offensive thrusts “were only what the General called ‘spoiling attacks’—to take the pressure off the important V Corps drive towards the Roer River dams.” The general assessed the German advances as being “in large patrol strength and others in battalion strength.” As a precaution, after calls from Joe Collins and the other corps commanders, Hodges consented to put the 1st Infantry Division, regrouping off-line, on six-hour alert for possible movement to the Ardennes. Hodges thought he might send a regiment off to backstop the hard-pressed 99th Infantry Division on the critical northern shoulder of the enemy offensive. The First Army commander was “neither optimistic nor pessimistic.” He was just Hodges. In later years, some would point to all of this as evidence of Hodges’s phlegm, resolution in the face of peril. Could be. Inertia became him.

Along with notifying the 1st Infantry Division to prepare to truck south, Hodges also sent an order putting the 3rd Armored Division on six-hour notice to go, too. It appears that the directive to ready the 1st Infantry and 3rd Armored divisions represented the First Army commander’s personal decision. Hodges picked the 1st Infantry Division because it was behind the front and available. He picked the 3rd Armored Division because of Maurice Rose.

Four days earlier and a lifetime ago, before the German onslaught, Hodges invited Major General Maurice Rose to the VII Corps command post near an abandoned segment of the West Wall. Joe Collins was there, of course. With hardly any preliminaries, the reticent First Army commander genuinely surprised Rose with an impromptu presentation. As a junior officer read the citation, Hodges stepped directly in front of his taller subordinate and pinned on the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second-highest valor award. Only the Medal of Honor stands higher. The citation referred to Rose’s “extraordinary heroism” and “intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty” from September 6 through September 9, 1944, during the advance across Belgium. As Hodges’s aide wrote afterward, Rose was “one of his [Hodges’s] favorite generals.” That constituted a very exclusive set given Hodges’s dour demeanor and disinterest in most of those he outranked.

The unexpected honor meant a great deal to Rose, as it would to any soldier. United States Army generals collect many medals, and in World War II that certainly held true. Most generals received the Distinguished Service Medal, prestigious no doubt, but presented for carrying out demanding responsibilities, not for valorous acts. Wiseacre G.I.s referred to it as the “generals’ good conduct medal,” the star-level version of a medal normally given to an enlisted soldier with a clean disciplinary record. Some World War II generals were awarded Silver Stars. Then Brigadier General Rose had one from Sicily to go with the two he’d received as a colonel in North Africa. He’d earned all three of them. Others seemed a bit gratuitous. Bradley, for example, received a Silver Star for “gallant actions” in 1945, although it’s not clear exactly what he did. Bravery comes in many forms.

The Distinguished Service Cross, though, came from a different category. That one resonated up and down the ranks. Hodges earned the award in 1918, and the First Army commander never approved a recommendation lightly. You could argue, as some Spearheaders did, that Rose deserved the medal more for the Rânes fight, or the contested Aisne River crossing, or Mons, or the bloodletting at the West Wall. No matter. Hodges signed what someone put on his desk, and did so without a second thought. With Maurice Rose, soldiers from general to private could vouch for his battlefield presence. They might not—indeed did not—know the man. But they knew where to find him.

Now with flotillas of German panzers crawling all over the floor of the Ardennes Forest, Rose got the call. It came late and garbled, transmitted from First Army through VII Corps. At 5:30 p.m. on December 18, 1944, Combat Command A moved out. They had orders to motor southwest and take up positions south of Eupen, Belgium. The Spearheaders hadn’t been in that neck of the woods since September. If the intelligence analysts had it right, enemy panzers were headed that way to link up with a German parachute drop.

Combat Command A’s Brigadier General Doyle O. Hickey asked a reasonable question. For whom did he work? The answers, and non-answers, spoke volumes.

First Army Headquarters initially claimed direct authority, but that didn’t last long. With reports of German SS panzers only seven miles south of Spa—and those frantic messages weren’t that far off—First Army command post troops began a hurried withdrawal to a secure location near Liege. Although later writings downplayed the degree of panic, the departure proved precipitate. Liaison officers from subordinate units who arrived at the deserted Hotel Britannique saw classified papers strewn about and marked maps on the wall. Telephones remained active. Even a fully trimmed Christmas tree had been left behind. Apparently, with his staff packing up and his forces in disarray, a dispirited, sick (and sick at heart) Hodges spent some time with his head on his desk. At least he got something useful done that day.

None of that helped Hickey and CCA. Hickey checked with V Corps headquarters, an organization busy with German infantry and panzers trying to overwhelm the north goalpost of what G.I.s had begun to call “the Bulge.” Weeks later, that became the name American soldiers used to refer to the bitter Ardennes combat. For CCA, there’d be no confrontation on the rim of the Bulge. Not yet. Their role involved hunting down German paratroopers dropped overnight on December 17–18. With that mission from V Corps, Hickey’s troops went to work.

The German airborne task force included officers and NCOs who’d fought at Carentan way back on June 13. There were other experienced men in the ranks, and some of the Luftwaffe Ju-52 transport pilots showed ability. Most of those doing the delivering and making the jump, however, were neophytes. Nazi Party fervor only took them so far. Buffeted by winds and dumped out by unsure pilots, 1,200 German jumpers scattered all over the north side of the Bulge. Some were put out as far to the east as Bonn on the Rhine River. After the botched assault, at least 125 enemy paratroopers gathered near Monschau and tried to cause some mayhem. Their ambuscades unnerved American rear echelon troops and headquarters staffs, including those at Hodges’s First Army. So Hickey’s CCA got told to sort it out.

A few bands of enemy airborne men ended up in the forests near Eupen. There CCA infantrymen and tankers made short work of the Germans. The Americans spread out, seeking parachutes draped in the trees along the main road running south from Eupen. Combat Command A patrols gathered up mis-dropped enemy ammunition, mortar, and machine gun cannisters, limiting the German airborne men to their shoulder arms and a few hand grenades. After a few brief clashes, a good number of the Germans raised their hands. The more enterprising melted into the woods, presumably heading for home.

With CCA already gone, the rest of 3rd Armored Division moved out on December 19. Beginning at 1:15 p.m., Combat Command B began heading to Spa to join XVIII Airborne Corps and stop the powerful German panzer force that flushed First Army headquarters. Courtney Hodges’s staff got away OK, but just south of Spa near the village of Stavelot lay an open-air depot containing a million gallons of gasoline. While First Army service trucks scrambled to gather these valuable stores, it proved no quick process. If a Waffen SS panzer column grabbed the fuel, they’d have enough gasoline to cross the Meuse River, no problem. The Allied strategic bombers had gutted much of Nazi Germany’s oil industry. But these Germans were more than willing to settle for gasoline from Oklahoma and Texas. Individual U.S. corps-echelon engineer battalions, displaced antiaircraft batteries, groups of truck drivers, and other orphan units blocked key routes snaking north toward the vital Stavelot gasoline yard. Sent by truck from north of Aachen, the American 30th Infantry Division filtered into the area company by company. Combat Command B rumbled south to join this critical fight.

A few hours after CCB departed, Major General Rose received orders to take his remaining forces (Omaha Forward, Combat Command Reserve, the 83rd Recon, and the Division Trains) sixty miles south and west to Hotton, Belgium, south of CCA’s para-hunting and west of CCB’s evolving Stavelot fight. Rose, too, had orders to report to XVIII Airborne Corps.

The motor march started as the gray day faded to inky blackness. Snow and sleet drifted down steadily all night, coating much of the roadway with a glaze of ice. The frozen moisture made it very tough to see, and the small vehicular telltale markers—in order to disguise the move from Luftwaffe aerial snoopers, headlights were not used—barely showed up a few feet away. The entire armored column of 1,200-plus vehicles extended dozens of miles. An officer described the situation:

The movement was a pure nightmare. Despite the system of guides and sentries the MPs [Military Police] had worked out on short notice, there was still lots of confusion and a stop and start situation all night. The intervals were extremely erratic and often after prolonged stops the vehicles would get stretched out. When this happened, the vehicle in the rear would drive rapidly to catch up, but in the mist and darkness it often came upon another stopped vehicle and banged into the rear of it. If a two-and-half-ton GMC [General Motors Corporation] truck happened to hit a three-quarter-ton weapons carrier, it would simply knock it off the road. If a tank skidded into a jeep it would squash it flatter than a pancake. I made sure I didn’t get in front of a tank that night.

Right in front rode Maurice Rose in his open-topped peep. Darkness and rotten winter weather may have grounded Allied air squadrons. But the unmanned German V-1 buzz bombs kept at it. Several pulsed overhead as Rose and his long column moved south. Liege was a favorite target, and at least one hit near the new First Army headquarters, killing sixteen officers and NCOs and wrecking two trucks. The V-1s added another danger to a night already replete with them.

As Rose’s peep passed Liege, the general’s aide Captain Bob Bellinger heard a buzz bomb’s characteristic putt-putt engine cut out. Not good. Out of the inky wet sky came a whoosh of air then a brilliant blossom of fire and thunderous detonation less than a hundred yards away. The blast wave skidded the peep to a stop, tossing Bellinger out. The aide picked himself up—head ringing, but all parts attached and working. He got back in the quarter-ton truck. Rose mentioned a headache, but nothing else. Off they went toward Hotton. The division’s tanks and trucks followed in fits and starts.

Just before midnight, near Hotton, frigid road guards of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry Regiment met what they identified as the “armored ‘point.’” It was Major General Rose leading the way. The glider men weren’t that surprised. Their division commander, Major General James Maurice “Slim Jim” Gavin, was cut from the same cloth.

Gavin’s superior, Major General Matthew Bunker Ridgway, also led from the front. In Normandy in June 1944, both paratrooper generals stalked the hedgerows, rifles in hand. In Holland in the autumn, the pair did likewise. By then, Gavin commanded the 82nd Airborne Division and Ridgway commanded XVIII Airborne Corps. But in Holland the British ran the show; Ridgway was just stopping by to see his men. Gavin remembered Ridgway’s sangfroid under German bombardment. Even for Gavin, it was too much: “You don’t just stand there looking at tree bursts. I told him to go be a hero someplace else.”

Now someplace else was the Ardennes, and Ridgway’s lightly armed airborne forces faced multiple panzer divisions. The paratroopers and glider men needed tank backup. Having been required to ship his 101st Airborne Division off to Bastogne and glory, Ridgway wanted Maurice Rose’s 3rd Armored Division yesterday. The XVIII Airborne commander realized that “the 3rd Armored was far away and coming piecemeal.” In typical Ridgway fashion, late on December 19, the paratrooper general went forward personally to find Maurice Rose.

In a Belgian hamlet not far from Hotton, Ridgway walked through the dark streets. Blowing snow and freezing rain made the going tough, even on foot. The corps commander saw a collection of M8 armored cars and peeps parked at a corner. The helmeted G.I.s aboard huddled against the wind, hands on their weapons. Ridgway and his aide waved. No problem. A gloved soldier in an M8 turret waved back. As Ridgway passed the halted armored car, the general spied a yellow light shining through a slightly open door. He knocked, a wise idea when those inside and out have firearms. The door cracked wider.

In the small room, a few soldiers had a map spread on a wooden table. Flashlights lit up the crumpled sheet. The Americans were from the 83rd Recon. They didn’t seem shocked at all to see a two-star general. They were used to Rose popping up all over. Their lieutenant showed Ridgway the 3rd Armored Division’s route. Ridgway thanked the men and left.