» The 7th Armored Div Intro
» 'Book on the Battle for St Vith'
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    7th Armored Div at Baugnez,
    16 December 2005
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When the counteroffensive began, the 7th Armored Division (Brig. Gen. Robert W. Hasbrouck) was in the XIII Corps reserve, planning for possible commitment in the Ninth Army Operation DAGGER intended to clear the Germans from the west bank of the Roer River once the dams were destroyed.

The division, assembled about fifteen miles north of Aachen, had taken no part as a unit in the November drive toward the Roer, although companies and battalions on occasion had been attached to attacking infantry divisions. The period of rest and refitting, after heavy fighting at Metz and in Holland, had put the 7th Armored in good condition. When General Bradley and the 12th Army Group staff met in the afternoon of the 16th to make a tentative selection of divisions which could be taken from other fronts to reinforce the Ardennes sector, the choice in the north fell on Hasbrouck's command. Actually there were armored divisions in the First Army closer to the scene, but they had been alerted for use in the first phases of the attacks planned to seize the Roer River dams (a design not abandoned until 17 December) and as yet little sense of urgency attached to reinforcements in the VIII Corps area.

General Hasbrouck received a telephone call at 1730 alerting his division for movement to the south (it took five more hours for the 7th Armored G-2 to learn that "three or four German divisions were attacking"). Two hours later while the division assembled and made ready, an advance party left the division command post at Heerlen, Holland, for Bastogne where it was to receive instructions from the VIII Corps. Vielsalm, fourteen miles west of St. Vith by road, had already been designated as the new assembly area. At Bastogne General Middleton outlined the mission: one combat command would be prepared to assist the 106th Division, a second could be used if needed, but under no circumstances was the third to be committed. The decision was left to General Hasbrouck, who first was to consult with the 106th Division as to how and when his leading combat command would be employed. Even at this hour the scope of the German counteroffensive was but dimly seen and the 7th Armored Division advance party was informed that it would not be necessary to have the artillery accompany the combat command columns---in other words this would not be a tactical march from Heerlen to Vielsalm.

The movement plans prepared by the First Army staff assigned General Hasbrouck two routes of march: an east route, through Aachen, Eupen, Malmédy, and Recht, on which CCR would move; a west route, through Maastricht, Verviers, and Stavelot, which would be used by the main body of the division. The division artillery, which had been firing in support of the XIII Corps, was not to displace until the late morning of 17 December, when it would move on the eastern route. Shortly after midnight the Ninth Army was informed that the two columns would depart at 0330 and 0800; actually the western column moved out at 0430. The estimated time of arrival was 1400, 17 December, and of closure 0200, 18 December. A couple of hours earlier the First Army headquarters had told General Middleton that the west column would arrive at 0700 and close at 1900 on the 17th, and that the combat command on the east road would arrive at 1100 and close at 1700. It was on this estimate that General Middleton and the 106th Division commander based their plans for a counterattack by a combat command of the 7th Armored east of St. Vith early on 17 December.

Although this failure to make an accurate estimate of the time of arrival in the battle area bore on the fate of the two regiments on the Schnee Eifel, it was merely a single event in the sequence leading to the final encirclement and lacked any decisive import. The business of computing the lateral movement of an armored division close to a front through which the enemy was breaking could hardly attain the exactness of a Leavenworth solution complete with march graphs and tables. None of the charts on traffic density commonly used in general staff or armored school training could give a formula for establishing the coefficient of "friction" in war, in this case the mass of jeeps, prime movers, guns, and trucks which jammed the roads along which the 7th Armored columns had to move to St. Vith. Also, the transmittal of the 7th Armored Division's own estimate of its possible progress was subject to "friction." This estimate was received at the headquarters of the VIII Corps at 0500 on 17 December, the first indication, it would appear, that the leading armored elements would arrive at 1400 instead of 0700 as planned. Thus far the Ninth Army had given Hasbrouck no information on the seriousness of the situation on the VIII Corps front.

The advance party sent by General Hasbrouck reached St. Vith about 0800 on 17 December, reporting to General Jones, who expected to find the armored columns right behind. Brig. Gen. Bruce Clarke, in advance of CCB, agreed with Jones's recommendation that his combat command be organized upon arrival into two task forces and committed in an attack to clear the St. Vith-Schönberg road. At Schönberg the 7th Armored task forces would turn south to join CCB of the 9th Armored Division, already engaged along the road to Winterspelt. If successful, the attack by the two combat commands would provide escape corridors for the beleaguered regiments of the 106th.

CCB of the 7th Armored had meanwhile been making good progress and arrived at Vielsalm about 1100, halting just to the east to gas up. Although Vielsalm was only fourteen miles by road from St. Vith, it would be literally a matter of hours before even the lightly armored advance guard could reach St. Vith. The mass of artillery, cavalry, and supply vehicles moving painfully through St. Vith to the west---with and without orders---formed a current almost impossible to breast. Although the mounted military police platoon in St. Vith had orders to sidetrack the withdrawing corps artillery when the armor appeared, the traffic jam had reached the point where the efforts of a few MP's were futile.

General Jones, beset by messages reporting the German advance along the Schönberg road, sent urgent requests for the armor to hurry. At 1300 German vehicles were seen in Setz, four and a half miles from the eastern edge of St. Vith. Half an hour later three enemy tanks and some infantry appeared before the 168th Engineer Battalion position astride the St. Vith road. Carelessly dismounting, one tank crew was riddled by machine gun fire; a second tank received a direct and killing blast from a bazooka; the third tank and the infantry withdrew. Another small German detachment deployed in front of the engineers an hour later was engaged and was finally put to flight, by American fighter planes in one of their few appearances over the battlefield on this day.

 About the same time the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, temporarily under the command of Maj. Charles A. Cannon, Jr., reported to General Clarke in St. Vith, the first unit of the 7th Armored to reach the 106th Division. Troop B was sent out the east road to reinforce the engineers, but the main body of the reconnaissance battalion deployed to screen the northeastern approaches to the Wallerode Area. By this time it was obvious to Jones and Clarke that the main forces of the 7th Armored could not reach St. Vith in time to make a daylight attack. General Hasbrouck reached St. Vith at 1600---it had taken him all of five hours to thread his way through the traffic jam between Vielsalm and St. Vith. He found that General Jones already had turned the defense of St. Vith over to Clarke and the 7th Armored Division. After a hasty conference the counterattack was postponed until the following morning.

It was just turning dark when the assistant G-2 of the 7th Armored led a company of tanks and another of armored infantry into St. Vith. This detachment had literally forced its way, at pistol point and by threatening to run down the vehicles barring the road, from Vielsalm to St. Vith. About this time the Germans made another attempt, covered by artillery fire, to thrust a few tanks along the east road. Three American tank destroyers which had been dug in at a bend in the road were abandoned---their crews shelled out by accurate enemy concentrations---but the attack made no further headway and perhaps was intended only as a patrol action. The 106th Division now could report, "We have superior force in front of St. Vith."

Why did the LXVI Corps fail to make a determined push toward St. Vith on 17 December? German assault guns or tanks had been spotted west of Schönberg as early as 0850. By noon German infantry were in Setz, with at least five hours of daylight remaining and less than five miles to go, much of that distance being uncontested. By midafternoon the enemy had reached the 168th Engineer positions less than two miles from St. Vith. Yet at no time during the day did the Germans use more than three assault guns and one or two platoons of infantry in the piecemeal attacks west of Schönberg. The successive concentrations laid by the American artillery on Schönberg and both sides of the road west---from 9 o'clock on---must have affected enemy movement considerably. The bombs dropped on Schönberg and its narrow streets late in the day may have delayed the arrival of reinforcements, and air attack certainly helped to scatter the most advanced German troops. The stand made by Troop B, 32d Cavalry Squadron, near Heuem and the later fight by the engineers gave the German point an excuse to report---as it did---the presence of "stubborn resistance" east of St. Vith.

It seems likely, however, that only small German detachments actually reached the Schönberg-St. Vith road during the daylight hours of 17 December. The German corps commander, General Lucht, had ordered the Mobile Battalion of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division up from reserve during the previous night with orders to advance via Andler. (It will be remembered that the 18th Volks Grenadier Division was charged with the encirclement and capture of St. Vith.) The Mobile Battalion (comprising three platoons of assault guns, a company of engineers, and another of fusiliers) did not arrive at Schönberg until after noon. During the morning the division commander had led a battalion of the 294th Regiment to Schönberg, but seems to have halted there (perhaps to secure the Schönberg bridge against recapture) sending only small detachments against Troop B at Heuem. With the arrival of the assault guns some attempt was made to probe the American defenses east of St. Vith. This, however, was not the main mission assigned the advance guard of the 18th Volks Grenadier Division, for the original plan of advance had called on the Mobile Battalion to seize the high ground at Wallerode, northeast of St. Vith, which overlooked the valley road from Schönberg. The bulk of the German advance guard, as a result, toiled through the woods toward Wallerode, arriving there in the early evening.

An opportunity had been missed. Perhaps the German command did not realize the full extent of the gains won in the St. Vith area and was wedded too closely to its prior plans. In any case the German armored reserve was not available. Tanks of the Fuehrer Begleit Brigade, theoretically attached to the LXVI Corps but subject to commitment only on army orders, would not be released for use at St. Vith until too late for a successful coup de main.

On the movement of the main body of the 7th Armored Division on 17 December hung the fate of St. Vith. Behind the reconnaissance and advance elements the bulk of the division moved slowly southward along the east and west lines of march, forty-seven and sixty-seven miles long, respectively. The division staff knew little of the tactical situation and nothing of the extent to which the German armored columns had penetrated westward. It is probable that nightflying German planes spotted the American columns in the early hours of the 17th, but it is doubtful that the tank columns of the Sixth Panzer Army traveling west on roads cutting across the 7th Armored routes were aware of this American movement. Actually CCR of the 7th Armored, on the eastern route, came very close to colliding with the leading tank column of the 1st SS Panzer Division south of Malmédy but cleared the road before the Germans crossed on their way west. The western column made its march without coming in proximity to the west-moving German spearheads, its main problem being to negotiate roads jammed with west-bound traffic.

The division artillery, finally released in the north, took the east route, its three battalions and the 203d Antiaircraft Battalion moving as a single column. Early on the afternoon of the 17th the 440th Armored Field Artillery, leading the column, entered Malmédy, only to be greeted with the sign THIS ROAD UNDER ENEMY FIRE. The town square was a scene of utter confusion. Trucks loaded with soldiers and nurses from a nearby hospital, supply vehicles, and civilians of military age on bicycles eddied around the square in an attempt to get on the road leading out to the west; a battalion from a replacement depot threaded its way on foot between the vehicles, also en route to the west. All that the artillery could learn was that a German tank column was south of Malmédy. This, of course, was the panzer detachment of the 1st SS Panzer Division.

The 440th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, unable to reverse itself, turned west to Stavelot and subsequently joined the western group on its way to Vielsalm. Alerted by radio from the 440th, Maj. W.J. Scott (acting in the absence of the artillery commander who had gone ahead to report at the division headquarters) turned the column around in the square and to avoid the narrow and congested road led it back toward Eupen, cutting in to the western divisional route at Verviers. This roundabout move consumed the daylight hours and through the night the gun carriages streamed along the Verviers-Vielsalm road. The main artillery column again missed the 1st SS Panzer Division by only a hair's breadth.

As Battery D, 203d Antiaircraft (AW) Battalion, at the tail of the column, rolled through Stavelot about 0800 on the morning of 18 December, it found itself in the middle of a fire fight between the advance guard of the 1st SS Panzer Division and a small American force of armored infantry, engineers, and tank destroyers. The battery swung its quadruple machine guns around for ground laying and moved into the fight, firing at the enemy assembling along the banks of the Amblève River, which here ran through the south edge of the town. After an hour or so the battery turned once again and, taking no chances, circled wide to the west. It finally arrived in the division assembly area east of Vielsalm late in the afternoon. The bulk of the artillery column closed at Vielsalm during the morning, although the last few miles had to be made against the flow of vehicles surging from the threatened area around St. Vith.

While the 7th Armored Division artillery was working its way onto the west road during the evening of 17 December, most of the division assembled in the St. Vith area along positions roughly indicative of an unconsciously forming perimeter defense. From Recht, five miles northwest of St. Vith, to Beho, seven miles to the southwest of the 106th Division headquarters, the clockwise disposition of the American units was as follows. At Recht were located the command post of CCR and the rear headquarters of CCB, with the 17th Tank Battalion assembled to the southeast. The disorganized 14th Cavalry Group was dispersed through the area between Recht and Poteau. East of Hünningen the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (-) had formed roadblocks to bar the northern and northeastern approaches to St. Vith. To the right of the cavalry the most advanced units of CCB had reinforced the 168th Engineer Combat Battalion on the Schönberg road and pushed out to either side for some distance as flank protection. During the night, CCB, 9th Armored Division, and the 424th Infantry withdrew across the Our River and established a defensive line along the hill chain running from northeast of Steinebrück south to Burg Reuland; these troops eventually made contact with the advance elements of CCB, 7th Armored Division. Some six or seven miles west of Burg Reuland, CCA of the 7th Armored had assembled near Beho.

West of St. Vith, in position to give close support, were located the 275th Armored Field Artillery Battalion (Lt. Col. Roy Udell Clay) and the remainder of CCB. The 275th, reinforced by the 16th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, and three batteries of corps artillery, fired through the night to interdict the eastern approaches to St. Vith; this was all the artillery support remaining to the American troops in this sector. The 112th Infantry, now beginning to fold back to the north as the center of the 28th Division gave way, was no longer in contact with the 424th Infantry, its erstwhile left flank neighbor, but the axis of withdrawal ultimately would bring the 112th Infantry to piece out the southern sector of the defense slowly forming around St. Vith.

While it is true that an outline or trace of the subsequent St. Vith perimeter was unraveling on the night of 17--18 December, this was strictly fortuitous. General Jones and General Hasbrouck still expected that CCB would make its delayed drive east of St. Vith on the morning of the 18th. The strength of the German forces thrusting west was not yet fully appreciated. Information on the location of the enemy or the routes he was using was extremely vague and generally several hours out of date. Communication between the higher American headquarters and their subordinate units was sporadic and, for long periods, nonexistent. Late in the evening of the 17th and during the morning of the 18th, however, the scope and direction of the German drive thrusting past St. Vith in the north became more clearly discernible as the enemy struck in a series of attacks against Recht, Poteau, and Hünningen.