In the heart of Rocherath, Lieutenant George Adams and several members of his 2nd Platoon, C Company, 38th Infantry, were holed up in a two-story house belonging to the Drosch family. On the street outside they saw eleven German tanks approaching, with infantry riding aboard. One of Adams’s squad leaders, Sergeant Richard Shinefelt, fired several rifle grenades at them. The grenades did no damage to the tanks, but they reaped a grim harvest among the infantry. Time and again, the Germans in the twin villages attacked with infantrymen riding aboard tanks, making the foot soldiers ideal targets in such a contested, confined environment. They would have been much better advised to dismount their infantry and place them alongside the tanks, as protection from bazooka men (similar to what the Americans did at Aachen). The vaunted reputation of the SS aside, this revealed an amateurish ignorance among the commanders and troops of the 12th SS Panzer Division. The Americans made them pay by slaughtering the infantry soldiers with impunity.
Bereft of infantry support, the tanks rolled past the Drosch house. Adams’s men showered them with bazooka shots but did no damage. At one point, several of the tanks stopped and unleashed three or four shots into the house. Masonry, walls, and stairs collapsed. In the recollection of Lieutenant Adams, “visibility was nil in the clouds of stifling smoke.” The tanks moved on to points unknown. For a time, Adams and his men left the house, but they returned when the dust settled. Eventually, they were all that stood in the way of an enemy tank-infantry attack that threatened to overrun C Company’s command post. Adams and his platoon sergeant, Rudolf Kraft, grabbed bazookas and climbed into what was left of the attic. Here was the ultimate infantry hands-on leadership. This platoon leader and platoon sergeant did not order others to do this dangerous job. They took it upon themselves and they did it together.
They both loaded and, at the count of three, pulled their respective triggers. Adams’s misfired. Kraft scored a hit on the bogey wheels of the tank. Adams threw his defective bazooka aside and reloaded Kraft’s tube. The sergeant fired a second shot that hit the turret of the enemy tank. The lieutenant bent over to reload. As he did so, two tank shells hit the attic, in quick succession. “The first round piled the wall, ceiling, and rubble on top of the two men so that the second which entered the attic and burst did no damage,” a post-battle report later detailed. The tanks pumped round after round into the disintegrating house. As they did so, Adams, Kraft, and the other men simply took shelter in the basement alongside the terrified Drosch family. Between shots, the Americans went upstairs and manned their positions. The standoff benefited the Americans since they were the defenders.
The problem for German tank crews in the villages was one of movement versus imminent danger. Their mission was to seize the towns quickly, yet they had to be wary of any forward movement because death could come from any direction. The ruined houses and rubble-strewn streets offered ideal cover for American tanks, tank destroyers, and bazooka-toting infantrymen. A tank crew could find themselves perfectly safe on one corner while their platoon mates a block away were in a kill zone. The streets around the Krinkelt church exemplified this unpleasant reality. As Staff Sergeant Willi Fischer’s Mark V Panther neared the church, he watched American antitank fire hit the tank ahead of his. The commander managed to get out but his loader was cut down by American rifle fire as he tried to exit the wrecked tank. Fischer glanced in another direction and noticed another Panther in trouble. “Brodel’s tank [was] burning slightly. Brodel could be seen sitting in the turret—lifeless. Ahead of me on the road, all tanks were shot out of action, some of them still ablaze.”
Fischer gingerly withdrew his tank, dodging one near miss from an American antitank gun. A second shot hit his Panther’s side and its track. Nobody was hurt, but the tread came off, miring the Panther uselessly in the mud. Fischer got out. Americans were still in the nearby buildings, shooting at anyone who moved in the streets. “Some of these killed our comrade Bandow . . . shooting him through his heart . . . right in front of my eyes.” Nearby, another German tank commander, Sergeant Gerhard Engel, was gloomily looking at the destroyed remnants of several Panthers when, “at that moment a single Panther tank approaches . . . and, at a distance of a mere 100 metres [sic], turns into a flaming torch.” In just a few hours, his company was almost totally destroyed. Near the church alone they lost five tanks. The Americans lost three Shermans and several other vehicles there.
As the battle raged, houses changed hands several times. Some men, from both sides, were captured, liberated, then captured again. Infantrymen learned to take shelter in cellars. Tankers figured out how best to use the buildings and limited fields of fire to their advantage. According to one report, the Sherman crewmen “proved themselves adept at the art of waylaying and killing ‘Tigers.’ From well-camouflaged positions, by expert maneuvering and stalking, tank after tank of the enemy forces were destroyed by flank and tail shots.”
Maneuvering for such kill shots took nerves of steel, alertness, and, most of all, patience. At times this led to significant tension between the tank crewmen and the dogfaces. The U.S. armor crewmen knew that the German tanks had better guns and thicker armor. They could not afford to go toe to toe with them. The consequences of failure were horrifying. The average tank carried 150 gallons of fuel and over one hundred shells, thus making an ideal tinder-box. If their tank was hit by an armor-piercing round from an enemy tank, they would probably be blasted, shredded, concussed, or, in all too many cases, burned. For these reasons, the crewmen were trained to employ extreme caution, especially within the confined environment of towns. “Some doughboys [infantry] don’t seem to realize that the field of vision of a tanker is very restricted,” a Sherman crewman commented. “Except for the tank commander, the crew have only a narrow slit to look through. This led the tanker to be a bit cautious. We tankers did not lack physical or moral courage. But there were times when courage simply wasn’t the answer.”
Most of the infantrymen did not appreciate, or understand, the kind of dangers the tank crewmen faced. Dogfaces knew that theirs was the most dangerous job. They had no protection except personal weapons and the clothes on their backs. So, in their view, the tankers were sheltered nicely behind several inches of armor, with the added security of a cannon and machine guns. As a result, they expected the tankers to always come to their aid, no matter the circumstances, just as a fellow infantryman might. “We in the infantry are screwed without you,” an infantry officer once wrote in an article intended for tankers. In so doing he adeptly summed up the infantryman’s mind-set. “You have to realize that your ‘protection’ means jack**** to me as an infantry soldier.”
If the tankers did not provide the support that infantrymen, in their necessarily narrow view, expected, then trouble soon followed. Sergeant Hunt of the 9th Infantry blamed the loss of his company at Lausdell to the lack of tank support. He claimed that during the battle he only saw one tank. “That tanker stopped at my foxhole, looked down in the valley, saw the German tanks, spun about, and took off for the hills.”
At one point during the fighting in Rocherath, Lieutenant Adams saw a German tank parked at a crossroads and asked a nearby tank destroyer crew to shoot at it. The destroyer’s commander claimed that he could not see the German tank through his telescopic sights. Adams even offered to look through the sights himself and take the shot. The tankers demurred. Meanwhile, one of the infantrymen, a sergeant, grew so exasperated with this dialogue that he picked up a .30-caliber machine gun and took matters into his own hands. According to a unit post-battle report, the sergeant “draped a belt of ammunition around his neck and walked toward the enemy tank firing his machine gun from the hip.” He did no damage to the tank, and he somehow escaped unscathed. Another time, Adams tried to get a Sherman tank crew to fire on a column of approaching troops. In the confusion of darkness, the tank commander could not tell if the troops were German or American, so he refused to shoot. As it turned out, they were soldiers from E Company of the 38th Infantry. “The tanker probably saved a friendly unit from suffering unnecessary casualties,” Adams later admitted.
When a German tank closed to within a block of Sergeant Joseph Kiss’s infantry squad, he ran to a nearby tank destroyer and ordered the crew to knock out the enemy tank. They refused, claiming they needed authorization from one of their own officers. “But we need you right now,” Sergeant Kiss pleaded. Still they refused. He was so livid that he reported them to headquarters for refusing to obey orders. He also called them “yellow and other things.” None of this had any effect.
Captain Halland Hankel, commander of M Company, 38th Infantry, had an ugly run-in with a Sherman crew during the fighting. Supported by a platoon of infantry soldiers, a lone German tank—Hankel claimed it was a Tiger—ended up perched right outside of his command post. Hankel’s machine gunners and some service troops dispersed the enemy infantry troops with accurate fire. A Sherman tank was parked twenty-five feet away from the Tiger, in position for a perfect broadside shot against this vulnerable flank of the behemoth. The captain was standing right next to the Sherman and he expected to hear the friendly tank’s main gun open up. Instead, he saw “the Sherman tank crew dismounting with well-practiced, precision drill, and explaining in terrified gesticulations that their armor was no match for the Tiger and that it would be suicide to stay in their tank.” The captain had little sympathy for them. In his opinion, the crew was failing to do their job. He attempted to get the crew back in their tank “by physical persuasion.” They resisted the unfamiliar infantry captain, refusing to get back in.
Meanwhile, other armored crewmen demonstrated more resolve, and this was typical. As Captain Hankel argued with the Sherman crew, an unseen American tank destroyer shot at the Tiger, missing it and hitting an unoccupied American jeep and trailer. The Tiger rolled forward. At that exact moment, the regiment’s supply officer (S4) turned a corner in his own jeep and came face-to-face with the German tank. The officer and his driver ejected themselves “as if by jet propulsion” just as the tank ran over the jeep and completely flattened it.
The Tiger’s gun was apparently damaged because it did not shoot. In the next few moments, as the tank flailed around, bumping into telephone poles, attempting to escape, it came under renewed assault from the unseen tank destroyer, an antitank gun crew, and a bazooka team. The destroyer scored a fatal hit, the Tiger bursting into flames. This was a rather typical instance. For every tank crew that refused pleas for help from the infantrymen, others remained on the job, helping in their own deliberate way. Together with the infantry soldiers, they all inflicted the proverbial death by a thousand cuts on the superior German tanks, peppering them with main-gun rounds, antitank shells, bazooka rockets, grenades, and even small-arms fire. Combined arms reigned supreme. It was rather like a pack of wildcats attacking an elephant. At the twin villages, it worked very well. For nearly three critical days, they held the Germans off in this fashion, wrecking their timetable completely.
At midday on December 19, Generals Lauer and Robertson decided to withdraw north from the villages, to stronger defensive positions along Elsenborn Ridge. Thereafter, the survivors of both divisions gradually disengaged and withdrew. “On the night of 19-20 Dec., the 2nd Inf Div., plus . . . the 99th, executed a night withdrawal by phases, over a one-way secondary road to prepared and partially organized defensive positions,” General Robertson later wrote. At Losheimergraben, the Krinkelter Wald, the Lausdell crossroads, and the twin villages, their troops had stymied a key route of advance that the Germans badly needed. The enemy made no subsequent headway against the new American defensive line at Elsenborn. This forced them west, to Butgenbach, where they were then stopped cold by the Blue Spaders from the 2nd Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, under none other than Lieutenant Colonel Derrill Daniel, whose outfit had figured so prominently in the capture of Aachen.
The cost was considerable. In a four-day period, the 99th Division lost 133 men killed in action, 1,394 missing in action (many of whom were POWs), 915 wounded, and another 600 non-battle casualties to frostbite, trench foot, combat fatigue, and sickness. The 38th Infantry alone suffered 625 casualties at the twin villages; the 9th Infantry lost 664; the 23rd lost 773 soldiers. In the villages, the Americans inflicted over 2,000 casualties on the Germans. That damage, in tandem with the previous two days’ grim harvest, crippled the 277th Volksgrenadiers and greatly weakened the 12th SS.
Weeks later, when the Americans retook the villages, they counted seventy-two destroyed enemy vehicles. Most were Mark IV and Mark V tanks. Tank destroyers had gotten nineteen of them. Shermans from the 741st Tank Battalion accounted for twenty-seven, while losing eleven of their own. Infantry soldiers with bazookas had killed almost half of the enemy tanks. “Determined infantry armed with its organic weapons can and will stop German armor, principally by use of the rocket launcher (bazooka) and by destroying the attack of the accompanying enemy infantry,” Colonel Boos, the 38th Infantry commander, later wrote. At the villages, his Indian Head soldiers and their friends demonstrated the potency of resolute infantrymen on a confined winter battlefield.
The vulgarity and destruction they experienced were the very embodiment of modern ground combat. The horrors were nearly indescribable for most. The trauma of the fighting left deep wounds on the psyches of everyone who was there. “Man is mad, stark raving mad!” Private Harold Etter, a 99th Division soldier, wrote to his mother, after fighting in the villages. “Why must this mess go on, why can’t I go home and raise my family like I should and [the] Germans do the same. This is war and I know that nothing is worse. If the sacrafices [sic] we have to put up with will end this maddness [sic] for all time, I guess it will be worth it. I am afraid it won’t though, I am a little afraid for my own son.” He was right to be fearful. In expressing his concerns, Etter sensed one of history’s most enduring lessons and perhaps its greatest tragedy—the persistence of war. Like nearly every generation before, his infant son’s life would not be spared.