One More Nail in Hitler’s Coffin: The Heroic Defense of St. Vith

 In GDI, Defense

The U.S. 9th Armored Division arrived in the European Theater of Operations in late October 1944 as a reserve for Maj. Gen. Troy Middleton’s VIII Corps. On December 9, 1944, Brig. Gen. William Hoge’s Combat Command B (CCB) of the 9th was attached to V Corps to support the 2nd Infantry Division in its planned attack through the Monschau Forest as part of the U.S. Army’s strategy to capture or destroy the Roer River dams.

For this mission, CCB consisted of the 14th Tank Battalion, the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, the 16th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, and miscellaneous smaller units vital to any major command. General Hoge set up his command post in the Belgian village of Faymonville, approximately 12 miles north of the town of St. Vith, unaware of the pivotal role his command was to play in a very different battle.

The German plan for the attack through the Ardennes, an offensive that would forever be known as the Battle of the Bulge, was to be accomplished in the conventional manner. Infantry divisions would begin the attack along the entire length of a 50-mile front, forcing a rupture along the Allied line and giving the German panzer divisions freedom of movement in the unoccupied ground beyond the front.

Since speed was the key to success of the German plan, two panzer armies would spearhead the offensive. One, the Sixth Panzer Army, was commanded by SS Obergruppenführer (brigadier general) Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, and the other, the Fifth Panzer Army, was commanded by General Hasso von Manteuffel. The Fifth and Sixth Panzer Armies were to advance abreast, cross the Meuse River, and then drive for the Belgian port city of Antwerp, a major staging and supply center for the Allied armies in western Europe. Overall operational command for the offensive fell to Field Marshal Walther Model.

The Sixth Panzer Army, with the 15th Army on its right, was to launch the main attack between Monschau in the north and Prum in the south. It was to cross the Meuse on both sides of Liege before advancing on to Antwerp. South of Sixth Panzer Army was General Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army, with the Seventh Army on its left. Fifth Panzer was to attack from Prum in the north down to Bitburg and Bastogne in the south. The village of St. Vith lay approximately 12 miles behind the front lines on December 16, 1944, the day the offensive code-named Operation Watch on the Rhine began. The town was also in Fifth Panzer Army’s area of advance.

St. Vith is built on a low hill surrounded on all sides by slightly higher rises. Its population in 1944 was about 2,000, and its citizens were very much pro-German. Six paved or macadam roads converged at St. Vith, but none of these was considered by the Germans to be a major military trunk line. The closest of the northern German armored thrust routes ran through Recht, about five miles northwest of St. Vith. The closest primary German armored thrust route to the south ran through Burg Reuland, also about five miles from St. Vith.

The capture of St. Vith was, however, important for three other reasons: to ensure the complete isolation of Allied troops that might be trapped on a nearby ridge called the Schnee Eifel; to cover the German supply lines unraveling behind the armored corps to the north and south; and to feed reinforcements laterally into the main thrusts by using the St. Vith road net. Thus, the Fifth Panzer Army commander ordered that St. Vith be taken no later than the second day of the offensive.

The job of capturing St. Vith went to the Fifth Panzer Army’s 66th Corps, commanded by General Walther Lucht. The corps consisted of two infantry divisions. One, the 18th Volksgrenadier Division, was holding the northern reaches of the Schnee Eifel. The other, the 62nd Volksgrenadier Division, bore the number of an infantry division destroyed on the Eastern Front, which had been reconstituted. It was at full strength and supplied with the latest equipment. The 62nd, like the 18th, included three regiments of two battalions each. Its mission was to break through to the south of the 18th Volksgrenadier in the Grosslangenfeld-Heckhuschied sector, advance northwest on a broad front, and seize the Our River crossing at Steinebruck, five miles southeast of St. Vith.

Once the bridge at Steinebruck was seized, the 62nd was to support the 18th Volksgrenadier Division’s drive on St. Vith by blocking the western and southern routes in and out of the town.

At approximately 0530 on December 16, eight German armored divisions and 13 infantry divisions launched their all-out attack on five divisions of the U.S. First Army. The German armored and infantry attacks were preceded by the shelling of the American positions with at least 657 light, medium, and heavy guns and howitzers and 340 multiple rocket launchers. On this day, CCB of the 9th Armored Division was still in its assembly area in the vicinity of Faymonville. Its supporting field artillery battalion was at Kalterherberg, two miles south of Monschau, engaged in firing missions for the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions. The American plan was that once the 2nd Infantry Division reduced the German defenses at the Wahlerscheid crossroads, CCB was to spearhead a drive to the reservoirs north of Gemund and Schleiden.

To this end, General Hoge was in the town of Monschau to check on the possibility of getting his command across in that area. While making his reconnaissance at Monschau he received an urgent message to call V Corps headquarters. The message was that his command was now back with VIII Corps and that he was to go to St. Vith and report to Maj. Gen. Alan W. Jones, commander of the newly arrived 106th Infantry Division.

On his way to St. Vith, General Hoge stopped in Faymonville to alert his command to be prepared to move immediately. Hoge departed Faymonville at approximately 1800, arriving at General Jones’s headquarters in the St. Josephs Kloster about a half hour later. Within the Kloster, General Hoge found a division headquarters staff in a state of disarray and confusion. No one knew what was happening. Clerks were running everywhere and junior staff officers were arguing among themselves; upstairs, however, Hoge found General Jones remarkably composed.

Jones explained to Hoge that his division was being attacked along its entire front and that two of his three regiments, the 422nd and the 423rd, had been partly surrounded in the Schnee Eifel area just east of Schoenberg. What Jones did not tell Hoge was that in one of those regiments his own son was serving at regimental headquarters.

Initially, General Jones wanted Hoge to move his command into the Losheim Gap at Maderfeld and arrive there at dawn on December 17 to counterattack and erase the enemy penetrations that were threatening 106th Division positions on the Schnee Eifel. Soon after General Hoge left 106th Division headquarters for the drive back to Faymonville, Jones received a call from Middleton informing him that a combat command of Brig. Gen. Robert Hasbrouck’s 7th Armored Division would be arriving at St. Vith at 0700 on the 17th. The entire division was to follow shortly thereafter.

Slayden had Serious Doubts About His Mission, but Kept Quite

Although General Jones was deeply worried about his two regiments on the Schnee Eifel, he was also highly concerned about the German advances in the Winterspelt area where his 424th Infantry Regiment was defending. Situation reports suggested that the Germans were intent on crossing the Our River at Steinebruck. Now with a new armored combat command due to arrive at 0700 hours the next day, and with the rest of the division to follow, Jones believed he would soon have the potential to deal with both the Schnee Eifel and Winterspelt emergencies. Therefore, he decided to use the 9th Armored at Winterspelt, since capture of that area by the Germans would open to the enemy a direct route to St. Vith, a route even shorter than that leading from the Schnee Eifel.

Thus, the job of rescuing the two trapped infantry regiments on the Schnee Eifel passed from the 9th to the 7th Armored Division.

At St. Vith, Lt. Col. William H. Slayden was with Jones when Jones received the call from Middleton concerning 7th Armored Division support. Slayden had been sent to Jones by Middleton as an adviser until the 106th Division could become acclimated. Slayden, knowing that the nearest units of the 7th Armored Division were at least 60 miles away in the Netherlands, had serious doubts that a whole combat command could reach St. Vith on the 17th, much less by 0700 hours. However, he kept these misgivings to himself.

At CCB, 9th Armored Division’s headquarters in Faymonville, General Hoge was just finishing up his briefing for his command’s move to the Losheim Gap and Manderfeld when the call came through from General Jones informing him of 9th Armored’s new Winterspelt mission. Since the move from Faymonville to Winterspelt involved a greater distance, Hoge decided to get his command on the road immediately. The time was approximately 1800 on Saturday, December 16, when Combat Command B of the 9th Armored Division began its move to St. Vith.

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