Panthers in the Snow III

Major-General Maurice Rose  

On the central advance, by midafternoon, Major John Tucker and his task force reached Dochamps without a problem. There they met a peep carrying Lieutenant Colonel Andrew A. Miller, Quartermaster Officer of the 7th Armored Division. He had 25,000 gallons of gasoline and 15,000 rations on the ground two miles south in the village of Samrée. German recon vehicles had been sighted. Could Tucker help? Well, he’d been sent to find the enemy. Task Force Tucker advanced toward Samrée in a single file on a narrow road bounded by tall trees.

Tucker’s column ran smack into waiting Panthers. The Germans saw first, fired first, and hit first, taking out six Shermans in a few minutes. The Americans reversed out of there. They didn’t know it yet, but Tucker’s men had found the lead companies of the 116th Panzer “Windhund” (Greyhound) Division. For their part, the enemy gobbled up 25,000 gallons of precious gasoline. Tucker’s task force scuttled north toward the crossroads of Amonines. The opposing panzers had been well and truly found.

To the east TF Kane made it to Manhay and pushed patrols outside town by dusk. That critical crossroads at Baraque de Fraiture, the 576853 map reference, lay three miles out ahead. Kane met Americans in Manhay who told him a unit from the U.S. 106th Infantry Division occupied Baraque de Fraiture. Rather than risk a “blue on blue” firefight among friends, Kane elected to wait until morning.

Maurice Rose did not. The general sifted through the results of the day’s fighting. He’d only seen his tanks and half-tracks moving today, having just missed both Hogan’s dustup south of La Roche and Tucker’s unhappy meeting engagement at Samrée. Rose did the mental math, and thought through his lineup. Sam Hogan was good to go. He’d sort out whatever showed up. Matt Kane had more work to do but seemed to be on the right track. John Tucker in the middle found real trouble; he needed help. Although he didn’t have much to commit, Rose peeled off Lieutenant Colonel Bill Orr’s 1st Battalion, 36th Armored Infantry Regiment to strengthen the center task force; Orr would take over, too. As Rose’s reserve, Colonel Bobby Howze’s CCR consisted of a Sherman tank company, a half-track infantry company, and an engineer company. It wasn’t much to react to whatever the Germans tried next.

The enemy tried something all right. At 4:30 a.m., prior to first light on December 21, soldiers hidden in roadside outposts southeast of Hotton heard vehicle noises, throaty engines, steel clanking. A radio check to TF Hogan reported no action there. Had the Germans gotten around Sam Hogan’s men?

They certainly had.

At 7:30 a.m., with the day as bright as it would get, German artillery and mortar rounds began falling in Hotton. German infantry appeared to be moving in the woodline southeast of town. Panzer sounds, metal on metal, motors racing, echoed through Hotton. Omaha Forward and 23rd Engineer troops raced to their foxholes, all hands on deck. A stranded U.S. Sherman and a Stuart, both in Hotton for minor repairs, joined the effort.

Two Panthers appeared right on the edge of Hotton. The Sherman shot first, but this time a Panther shot better. With that, Hotton’s defenders resorted to the tool of desperation, the bazooka. Engineers have secondary roles to fight as infantry. At Hotton, they did. In close, Sergeant Vern Sergent and Private Hugh Lander whacked the first Panther, setting it ablaze.

The partner Panther responded by drilling a hole in the M5 Stuart light tank. That American vehicle represented no problem to the Panther. But engaging the Stuart left the Panther crew unaware of another bazooka team, Corporal Phillip Popp and Private First Class Carl Nelson. They scored a close-in hit on the side of the Panther’s turret. Scratch the second panzer. In the distance, the German panzergrenadiers dropped to ground in the tree line. They had no idea they were fighting a scratch bunch of staff officers, engineers, clerks, and signalmen. To the east, at Maurice Rose’s order, Colonel Bobby Howze committed a platoon of Shermans and a platoon of half-track infantry to bail out Hotton. They arrived at 11:25 a.m.51 The 3rd Armored Division’s Combat Command Reserve amounted to part of a tank company, part of a rifle company, and a company of the 23rd Engineers. Margins were getting razor-thin.

Both sides paused.

The Germans awaited reinforcements, more panzers, to be exact. But one of the Windhund Division’s tank/infantry columns banged into TF Hogan. Colonel Bobby Howze ordered Sam Hogan to drive north to break up the hostile thrust on Hotton. But Hogan only got as far as Marcouray, seven miles southeast of Hotton. Germans stopped TF Hogan, then cut the roads both north and south, surrounding the Americans. But they couldn’t budge the tough Texan and his 400 or so troopers.

In the center, TF Orr also held up part of the 116th Panzer Division. Orr’s soldiers attempted to advance south to retake Dochamps—an aggressive act that threw off the Germans, even though the push failed and Orr had to withdraw back to Amonines. German Panthers and infantry threatened to push out Orr’s outnumbered task force. But Orr and his guys owned good high ground, and the German panzers needed to move up the roads one vehicle at a time. That favored the defenders.

To the east, TF Kane made it to the much-mentioned Baraque de Fraiture, map grid reference 576853, “X” marks the spot. The crossroads turned out to be atop an open hill with three small houses, the second-highest ground in the entire Ardennes Forest. No wonder XVIII Airborne Corps wanted it held. Kane found that as he’d heard, several 106th Infantry Division units guarded the vital junction: three towed 105mm howitzers, three antiaircraft half-tracks, and perhaps two hundred Americans. By Battle of the Bulge standards on December 21, 1944, that constituted a major force. Kane couldn’t stay. With Hotton in peril and TF Orr pressed hard, Rose told Kane to attack west toward Dochamps to cut off the German panzers menacing TF Orr. It did not work. But it confounded the Germans, and that counted for something.

Rose spent December 21 shuttling back and forth between embattled Hotton, TF Orr at Amonines, and TF Kane to the east. At 3:30 p.m., welcome news came that Combat Command A was on its way back. But CCA wouldn’t arrive until the next morning. Doyle Hickey’s combat command was returning with strings attached. Rose had to place them to the west, toward Marche, to make a firm link with the 84th Infantry Division as that new outfit showed up. Rose negotiated with Ridgway to spring loose Lieutenant Colonel Rich Richardson with a tank company and a half-track rifle company. Task Force Richardson had to go to Manhay. But that wouldn’t be possible until December 22, if all broke just right.

In Manhay as he moved through en route to TF Kane, Rose ran into Major General Jim Gavin of the 82nd Airborne Division. Gavin wasn’t happy. His division’s western end hung loose, too loose even for a paratrooper. Why wasn’t TF Kane holding Manhay? Why were they attacking west, toward Dochamps? Rose, literally down to a few uncommitted platoons, assured Gavin he’d juggle his tanks and infantry and get something to block the road at Baraque de Fraiture. Rose was thinking TF Richardson. But that battalion-size organization might be twenty-four hours away at best. Both generals wondered if the German panzers would get to Baraque de Fraiture and Manhay first. The 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich”—brutal bastards, heavily armed, fresh—had dropped right off the American intelligence overlays.55 What about them?

As the sunlight faded on December 21, thick dark low clouds promised snow on the morrow, a lot of it.

While Rose and his subordinate commanders shifted forces back and forth to frustrate German attacks, the high commanders gathered at the Twelfth Army Group’s rear headquarters at Verdun on December 19. There, just-elevated General of the Army (five stars) Ike Eisenhower brought together the major actors, with Bradley and Patton prominent in the group. Monty, as he often did, pleaded ongoing business and, in true passive-aggressive style, sent his chief of staff. Nobody invited Hodges. Nobody missed him, either.

The situation review described a huge penetration, sixty miles wide and already twenty-five miles deep. Bad stuff, but not all bad. The Ultra code breakers in England had missed most of the German buildup; inside the Reich, Hitler’s generals used German telephones, not radios, and those phone wires hadn’t been tapped. Now, with the enemy in motion and radios transmitting, Ultra again offered insight. The Germans had planned to be across the Meuse River by December 20, 1944. It didn’t look like they’d get there.

The two stanchions, up north (99th, 2nd, and 1st Infantry divisions) and down south (4th Infantry Division and part of 9th Armored Division), held up. The inexperienced 106th Infantry Division suffered horribly, with two regiments, 8,000-plus men, surrounded; they’d surrender by day’s end. The Hürtgen-bloodied 28th Infantry Division fell back in relatively sound order. The XVIII Airborne Corps with the 82nd Airborne and 3rd Armored divisions would shore up the north. The 101st Airborne Division had the task of holding the road nexus of Bastogne at all costs even as enemy contingents closed off exits from the city. The Germans drove deep. But the Meuse, not to mention Antwerp, lay far away.

In this meeting, Ike ratified two undertakings already in train. Every available force, to include brand-new divisions, sped to the front. The 75th Infantry Division, the 87th Infantry Division, and the 11th Armored Division (just arrived on December 17) all headed to the Bulge. Along with the divisions came separate artillery battalions, engineer outfits, tank destroyer units, antiaircraft batteries, and every other kind of combat power. Allied air groups stood ready to strike as soon as the weather broke. The meteorologists promised a “Russian high” in the wake of the predicted December 22 blizzard. Temperatures would plummet—agony for G.I.s in the Ardennes. But clear conditions augured success for the deadly Allied fighter-bombers. Soon.

Eisenhower also approved George Patton’s counterattack. Patton stunned the gathering by announcing he’d attack with a three-division corps on December 22. All present knew he’d do it, too, the old cavalryman riding to the rescue of the encircled 101st Airborne at Bastogne. As a subsequent newspaper headline blared: PATTON, OF COURSE.

Ike’s most important decision didn’t come during the meeting. Eisenhower recognized that Omar Bradley located his Twelfth Army Group headquarters in Luxembourg City, south of the Bulge. Bradley hadn’t seen Hodges face-to-face since the German offensive began. Communications to First Army near Liege were adequate for Bradley. But Ike didn’t give much credence to electronic encouragement. Hodges deserved more. And he was definitely going to get it.

No doubt swallowing very hard, Eisenhower turned to Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. Effective noon on December 20, 1944, Monty gained command of the American Ninth and First armies. Bradley retained Patton’s Third, the star player, to be sure, but only one army for an entire American army group HQ to look after. Monty, of course, could barely contain his glee. Bradley felt betrayed by his West Point colleague. Ike ignored these dramatics. Somebody needed to get a grip on Hodges. Nobody gripped like Monty.

The bird-like little British field marshal arrived at First Army headquarters promptly at 1:30 p.m. on December 20, 1944, “like Christ come to cleanse the temple.” Monty found conditions not to his liking: “divisions [including the 3rd Armored] in bits and pieces all over the place,” “a complete muddle,” “no reserves anywhere,” and, of course, “no grip.” Monty judged Hodges out of his depth, having not gone forward to see his subordinates. Monty asked Eisenhower to sack Hodges. As an American general noted, Hodges was “too old and too frail.” (He was two years younger than Patton and the same age as Montgomery.) In any event, Ike refused to let Montgomery get rid of Hodges.

So Monty did what Bradley and Ike did. He worked around Hodges. To lead the counterattack from the north, Montgomery asked for Lightning Joe Collins. Monty would only get VII Corps headquarters; Collins’s remaining divisions, less the 1st Infantry and 3rd Armored, stayed in place on the hard-won Roer River line. For his part, Collins gave his druthers. To lead Monty’s counterpunch, Lightning Joe requested the U.S. Army’s two heavy hitters, the 2nd Armored Division and, of course, Maurice Rose’s 3rd Armored Division. An impressive array—but first, the Germans must be stopped.

For Maurice Rose, counterattacking under Joe Collins was off in the distant future. Dealing with rampant Germans came first. Did it ever.

From west to east, Rose’s division faced enemy pressure. Hotton held with its small pickup team, backed by artillery fires that kept the Germans at bay. A defiant panzergrenadier battalion held part of the road east to Soy, where Colonel Bobby Howze’s Combat Command Reserve had found its meager ranks bolstered by the full-strength 1st Battalion, 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment, courtesy of XVII Airborne Corps. Howze and the paratroopers had the mission of clearing the Germans off the Soy-Hotton road—easier said than done. The heavy snowfall on December 22 made advancing on foot akin to slogging through knee-deep sand. It also kept the U.S. tanks road-bound. Howze’s tankers and the airborne troops stayed at it all day and well into the night. Nothing worked, except the American medics. They stayed plenty busy.

South of Hotton, Sam Hogan’s task force defended Marcouray. Even though they were only five miles from Hotton, they couldn’t move. Throughout that snowy day, Germans cut the road north and south and kept the perimeter under desultory small-arms fire. If the Germans wanted to take Hotton, they’d have to excise the hard knot of TF Hogan. Hogan had good radio communications, and so he made fine use of supporting artillery. Marcouray sat in the center of open fields. All-round defense worked well:

We had a regular turkey-shoot knocking out several [German] trucks and jeeps. One of the knocked-out jeeps apparently had a map or something of value in it because the Germans kept trying to get something out of it. Every time they would approach it we would lay in a round of tank fire. Later, one of our artillery pieces was laid in with the jeep as a base point and an occasional round kept the jeep clear until dark. Even then, we lobbed one in now and then for luck. The combination of moon and light snow enabled us to shoot up several German patrols which probed at us during the night.

Good stuff, and Hogan had a lot of ammunition, too. But Hogan’s vehicles, especially his Shermans, averaged about a third of a tank of gas. Task Force Hogan needed to go but five miles to reach an American position. They had enough fuel. But they had too many Germans.

East of TF Hogan, Bill Orr’s task force tried again to take Dochamps. The 116th Panzer Division had brought up infantry reinforcements from the 560th Volksgrenadier Division. Orr’s men floundered in the snow. It was TF Hogan’s situation in reverse, and again, the attacking side suffered. Orr pulled back to Amonines. He’d sustained so many infantrymen wounded or badly frostbitten that he dismounted tankers to hold key foxholes. Half-track drivers and cooks, too, helped hold the line.

East of TF Orr, Matt Kane’s tankers and infantry also attempted attacks on Dochamps. Two attached companies of the 509th Parachute Battalion joined the effort. Even though the airborne men tried two night attacks, the Germans didn’t budge.

Maurice Rose spent the day working back and forth between the two Dochamps efforts. At Rose’s order, mindful of the 82nd Airborne’s worries about Baraque de Fraiture, Rose told Kane to send something to back up that stitched-together defensive team. All Matt Kane spared, and even this hurt, amounted to two Shermans. They joined the three howitzer crews, half-track antiaircraft platoon, and Company F, 2nd Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry. In the morning, Rose promised more.

Although Rose and his beleaguered G.I.s didn’t know it, their stubborn, continuous resistance convinced the commander of the 116th Panzer Division to give up on routes to the Meuse through Hotton or Dochamps/Amonines. Days behind schedule and many miles from the Meuse, the Germans thought they confronted a much larger opponent. A few tanks here, a few tanks there, dug-in infantry, local counterattacks at Dochamps, and continuous fatal dosages of American artillery—an all-weather brand of firepower—made the foe hesitate. The 560th Volksgrenadiers stayed in contact. But the 116th Panzer Division began to pull out. They’d try their luck to the far west.