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The Ardennes Battle of the Bulge

The Ardennes Battle of the Bulge

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Published by Bob Andrepont
United States Army history of the Battle of the Bulge.
United States Army history of the Battle of the Bulge.

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Published by: Bob Andrepont on Feb 07, 2011
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The action east of Bastogne during
the night of 18 December, the absorption
of the engineer screen into the larger
defending forces, and the final fate of
CCR, 9th Armored, has already been
described. Here the focus is on the at-
tempt to impede the probing advance
guards and reconnaissance parties of the
Fifth Panzer Army pushing into the gap
north of Bastogne.
Construction of a really tough bar-
rier line along the Ourthe River hardly
could be expected. The stream itself,
even when swollen by the winter snows,
was narrow. At some points the ap-
proaches to the crossing sites were diffi-
cult to negotiate and lent themselves to
blocks and barriers, but there were many
bridges and numerous fords which an
enemy could use to bypass a barred cross-
ing site. At best only a very few compa-
nies of engineers could be found for the
business of preparing bridge demolition
charges, erecting barriers, laying anti-
tank mines, and blasting craters in the
roads. Some engineer tools and equip-
ment had been lost to the enemy, but
there was probably as much available
as the small number of engineers could
properly use. It was one thing to
strengthen the physical barriers in the
path of the oncoming enemy; it was
quite another to defend at these barriers
with sufficient rifle strength and antitank
weapons. The men and weapons re-

THE VIII CORPS BARRIER LINES

317

quired for a continuous defensive line
along the Ourthe simply were not avail-
able. On the other hand the German col-
umns would not hit the Ourthe line in a
co-ordinated and general attack; further-
more their initial appearance could be
predicted along the well-defined and
major routes westward.
On the morning of 19 December re-
connaissance troops of two German
armored divisions, the 2d Panzer Divi-
sion
and the 116th Panzer Division, fun-
neled through a narrow corridor, only
two miles in width, between Noville and
Houffalize. The southern wall of this
corridor was formed by the American
troops who had pushed the rapidly form-
ing Bastogne perimeter as far out as
Noville. In the-north where the town
of Houffalize had been abandoned the
corridor wall was formed by nature, for
Houffalize was a bridgehead on the east-
west channel of the Ourthe River. The
two corps whose armored divisions were
leading the Fifth Panzer Army pack in
the race for the Meuse were strung
out for miles behind the foremost re-
connaissance forces. The main forces of
the two armored divisions, although rela-
tively close to the reconnaissance teams,
were still a few hours behind.
On the German left the 2d Panzer Di-
vision,
leading the XL VII Panzer Corps,
collided with the Noville defenses early
on the 19th. Partly by chance and partly
by design, for General Lauchert needed
more road room in which to pass his
division around Bastogne, the 2d Panzer
Division
column became involved in a
fight which extended from Noville east
to Longvilly and lasted all through the
day and following night. Caught up in
this fight the advance elements of the
division did not push beyond the

Houffalize-Bastogne road until darkness
had fallen. On the German right the
reconnaissance battalion of the 116th
Panzer Division
moved along the south
side of the Ourthe swinging wide to
avoid Houffalize (this before noon),
then turning to the northwest with the
intention of crossing the Ourthe and
seizing the La Roche bridges from the
rear. This advance, though unopposed,
was slow. Shortly after noon a few light
reconnaissance vehicles reached Ber-
togne, from which a secondary road led
across the Ourthe and on to La Roche.
General Middleton had spotted
Bertogne as one of the chief approaches
to the Ourthe and La Roche. Having
been promised the 705th Tank Destroyer
Battalion, en route south from the Ninth
Army, he ordered the battalion to erect
roadblocks at both Bertogne and La
Roche. The 705th, coming by way of
Liège, was a few hours distant when the
German scouts entered Bertogne. Across
the river the commander of the 7th Ar-
mored Division trains had taken inde-
pendent action to protect his trucks and
supplies gathered in the neighborhood
of La Roche by installing outpost detach-
ments and roadblocks to the south and
east. Someone (who is not clear) had
blown the Ourthe bridge northwest of
Bertogne. To prevent the reconstruction
of this bridge Colonel Adams sent Com-
pany C, 129th Ordnance Maintenance
Battalion, and a couple of antiaircraft
half-tracks mounting 37-mm. guns to
form a block on the near bank about a
half mile from the village of Ortho.
It was midafternoon when the enemy
reached the far bank. A self-propelled
gun at the head of the small German col-
umn got in the first blow, its shells knock-
ing out the half-track crews. Capt.

318

THE ARDENNES: BATTLE OF THE BULGE

Robert E. Spriggs withdrew his com-
pany to a ridge overlooking the river
and radioed for reinforcements. The
enemy would not risk a daylight cross-
ing, nor could the German engineers
repair the damaged span while under
direct fire. In the early evening five
more half-tracks from the 203d Antiair-
craft Battalion and a pair of self-pro-
pelled tank destroyers from the 705th
Tank Destroyer Battalion came up.
It must have been about this time that
the 116th Panzer Division command-
er received the unwelcome news that
he had no bridge on which to cross the
western branch of the Ourthe. The
forward combat teams of the division
were west of the Houffalize-Bastogne
road but not yet up to the river. They
had defiled with difficulty on the limited
road net north of the Bastogne outworks,
and a part of the tank regiment had
stopped by the way to aid the 2d Panzer
Division
at Noville. In the twilight re-
connaissance troops who had pushed
west along the Ourthe after the setback
at the Bertogne crossing discovered a
Bailey bridge, still standing, at Ortheu-
ville. Whether the bridge could be cap-
tured in usable condition was yet to be
seen, but as soon as this find was radioed
to the 116th Panzer Division command-
er he directed the advance guard of the
division toward Ortheuville.
The Ourthe River resembles a mis-
shapen Y in which the down stroke runs
east to west and the open arms extend
toward the northwest and southwest.
The bifurcation in this Y comes about
five miles west of Houffalize. The west
branch of the Ourthe, as Belgian hydrog-
raphers name it, was the obstacle con-
fronting the German armored spear-
heads on the night of 19 December. All

during that day engineers from the VIII
Corps and First Army had toiled to
make a barrier line of the two arms west
of Houffalize, blowing bridges which
were not on the main American supply
lines, fixing charges for future destruc-
tion of others, planting antitank mines
at possible fording sites, erecting and
manning roadblocks on roads and in the
villages along the main approaches to
the river. On the north branch, that is
the line Durbuy-Hotton-La Roche, the
51st Engineer Combat Battalion (Lt.
Col. Harvey R. Fraser) was hard at
work. 2 Only three companies were on
hand to prepare this twelve-mile stretch
of the river barrier, for Company C had
been hurried northeast to Trois Ponts
where it would administer a severe set-
back to Kampfgruppe Peiper of the 1st
SS Panzer Division. South of La Roche,
whose important bridges were outposted
by the 7th Armored trains, the 9th
Canadian Forestry Company had left
sawmills and logging tracts to prepare
demolitions and guard the crossing sites
on a tributary of the Ourthe. The steps
taken to bar the western branch of
the Ourthe northwest of Bertogne and
the initial reverse imposed on the enemy
reconnaissance there have already been
noted. Strung across the land neck be-
tween La Roche and the bridgehead at
Ortheuville were a few platoons of the
1278th Engineer Combat Battalion.
At Ortheuville one of the main VIII
Corps supply roads (Bastogne-Marche-
Namur) crossed the western branch of

3 The 51st held its main position for five days
and was given a Presidential Citation. The Ca-
nadian Forestry Company which worked with the
51st pays high tribute to the battalion and its
commander. See No. 1 Coy, Canadian Forestry
Corps, Report of Operations, 16–21 December
1944.

THE VIII CORPS BARRIER LINES

319

the river by means of a heavy Bailey
bridge. Shortly after noon on the 19th
a platoon or less of the 299th Engineer
Combat Battalion arrived in Ortheuville
to prepare this important span for de-
struction. Although the VIII Corps staff
had given priority to defense at this
bridge, there was little enough that
could be put in the effort. Three com-
panies of the 299th and a small portion
of the 1278th Engineer Combat Battal-
ions comprised all the troops available
for a barrier line now being constructed
from Martelange northwest along High-
way N46 to the Ourthe River, thence
on both banks of the river to Ortheu-
ville–a distance of about twenty-seven
miles.

In the meantime the 158th Engineer
Combat Battalion (Lt. Col. Sam Tabets)
which, as part of the screen east of
Bastogne, had been in a fire fight
throughout the morning, 3 was relieved
by the 501st Parachute Infantry, the bat-
talion leaving the sector about 1430. The
companies of the 158th were returning
to their separate and original bivouacs
when corps orders suddenly arrived dis-
patching the battalion to the Ourthe
line. It would take some while to reas-
semble the battalion but Company C was
reached and diverted to Ortheuville.
Here it closed about 1900. To his sur-
prise and relief the engineer company
commander found that he would have
some antitank support-desultory shell-
fire already was falling on the village and

3 When the first German assault hit the 158th,
Pvt. Bernard Michin took on an enemy tank with
a bazooka at a range of ten yards, was badly
burned by the explosion but destroyed the tank.
Unable to see because of his wounds he located
an enemy machine gun by sound, threw a hand
grenade, and wiped out the crew. He was awarded
the DSC.

it was known that German armor was
close at hand. The 705th Tank Destroyer
Battalion, which Middleton had attached
to the 101st Airborne Division, was on
the move to Bastogne. Originally ordered
to use the road through Bertogne, the
battalion had been forced to detour
when the battalion commander found
the enemy there. The 705th, following
the near bank of the Ourthe west to St.
Hubert, dropped off eight tank destroy-
ers to bar an enemy crossing while its
trains passed through Ortheuville. These
guns, as it turned out, would not reach
Bastogne for a number of days.
So things stood as the evening ad-
vanced: the engineers and tank destroy-
er crews waiting for some enemy move
to take the bridge; the German self-
propelled guns and tanks lobbing in a
shell now and again to keep the Ameri-
cans away from the bridge and perhaps
with hopes of cutting the wires on the
demolition charges. Back to the east the
advance guard of the 116th Panzer Divi-
sion
was marching toward Ortheuville.
At this point General Krueger, the
L VIII Panzer Corps commander, made
his fateful decision. The bridge north-
west of Bertogne was gone, the bridge
at Ortheuville probably would be blown
in any attack, and furthermore it would
be difficult to squeeze the entire corps
through the small opening between the
east-west channel of the Ourthe and
Noville. Late in the evening he ordered
the 116th Panzer Division advance
guard, then at Salle three miles south-
east of the Ortheuville bridge, to a halt.
Then he sent orders to the division com-
manders and corps troops which would
countermarch the forces west of the
Houffalize-Bastogne road and turn the
entire LVIII Panzer Corps to the north,

320

THE ARDENNES: BATTLE OF THE BULGE

through the Houffalize bridgehead, and
away from the western branch of the
Ourthe.

A flurry of enemy activity a little be-
fore midnight on the roads northwest
of Bastogne masked the withdrawal of
the LVIII Panzer Corps. Armored cars
and half-tracks raced up and down the
roads shooting up small convoys, sparring
with American outposts, and engender-
ing a flock of rumors which placed
German spearheads in a half dozen spots
beyond the Ourthe. In truth the only
serious efforts to cross the west branch
in the late evening were those made by
roving reconnaissance elements of the
2d Panzer Division, whose main combat
strength remained tied down in the fight
for Noville. An hour before midnight
these scouts did appear in front of a
bridge at Sprimont, which crossed a
tributary of the Ourthe south of Ortheu-
ville; for their pains the American en-
gineers blew the bridge in their faces.
A few engineers, ordnance troops, and
antiaircraft and tank destroyer crews on
19 December had contributed mightily
to the German decision which turned an
entire armored corps from the road west
and plunged it into profitless adventures
in a side alley. Of all the disappoint-
ments suffered by the Fifth Panzer
Army
on this day, and there were many,
perhaps the greatest stemmed from the
reverses suffered in fact at the bridge
beyond Bertogne and in anticipation at
the Bailey span in Ortheuville.
While Krueger’s corps turned in its
tracks during the night of 19 December,
General Luettwitz issued commands to
his XL VII Panzer Corps, whose forward
column was bunching up around
Bastogne. Reports from the troops press-
ing onto the city from the north and

east led Luettwitz to conclude that hard-
hitting tactics in the coming day might
break the will of the defenders, loosen
their grip on the Bastogne road net,
and give the armor of the 2d Panzer
Division
and Panzer Lehr a clear high-
way west. Luettwitz put a time limit on
the attack prepared for the 20th, in-
structing his armored divisions to be
ready to bypass Bastogne. His recon-
naissance pushed around the city, mean-
while, both north and south, and tangled
with the defenders of the makeshift,
attenuated barrier lines.
At Ortheuville a lull developed short-
ly after midnight as the light armor
screening the 116th Panzer Division final-
ly pulled away. The engineers patrolled
across the river along the Bastogne road
but found no one except American
wounded whose trucks had been shot
up by German raiders earlier in the
night. Just before dawn, light tanks
and armored infantry from the 2d Pan-
zer Division
arrived to take their turn
at the bridge. After some time spent
probing the bridge defenses by fire, the
German infantry rushed forward behind
a careening scout car. As much to their
surprise as to that of the American
engineers the bridge remained intact.
For some reason, perhaps the enemy
shelling a few hours earlier, the demo-
lition charges on the span failed to ex-
plode when the plunger went home. At
the first shock the defenders had fallen
back across the bridge to the houses by
the river bank and started firing. They
had only a few minutes to wait before
a column of German vehicles led by a
light tank appeared on the opposite
bank. When the leader started across
the span, one of the two American tank
destroyers which had been run down

THE VIII CORPS BARRIER LINES

321

close to the bridge got a direct hit, thus
blocking the span. Peculiarly enough
the enemy made no further attempt to
win a way across. In the afternoon, when
the troops of the 158th and the 9th
Canadian Forestry Company undertook
a counterattack across the river they
found no trace of the enemy. So confused
was the location of friend and foe that
for a few hours two-way traffic between
Marche and Bastogne was resumed.
The capture of Noville during the
afternoon freed the 2d Panzer Division
to continue the advance toward the
Meuse. On the other hand, Luettwitz’
corps was having trouble bringing gaso-
line forward on the crowded, winding
supply roads in its sector; furthermore,
the 2d Panzer Division would take some
time to reassemble for the move on
Marche. 4

It remained for the division recon-
naissance battalion, reinforced by artil-
lery and engineers, to make the next
foray against the Ortheuville crossing
site. The reconnaissance troops got there
about 2200. For two hours German
howitzers, mortars, and machine guns
pummeled the American defenses on the
far bank, setting buildings aflame and
tying the engineers and tank destroyers
to their positions. At midnight the en-
emy infantry forded the river, attacking
from out of the darkness against defen-
ders whose movements were etched by
the light of flares and burning houses.
While those who had waded the river
circled to the engineer flanks, more Ger-

4 The difficulties which beset the 2d Panzer are
well described in MSS #A–939 (Luettwitz) and
B–456, 2d Panzer Division, 21–26 December 1944
(Oberstleutnant Ruediger Weiz) and also in the
Third U.S. Army interrogation of Lauchert.

mans crossed into the village, this time
by way of the bridge. Earlier the Ameri-
cans had rewired demolition charges and
installed the detonator in a foxhole close
to the span, but for some reason there
again was no explosion.
The bridge defenders were in con-
tact with the 1128th Engineer Group
headquarters through the Belgian tele-
phone system (which continued in oper-
ation although its wire ran through the
German lines). A request for infantry
support could not be filled and the com-
manding officer of the 1128th ordered
the defenders to fall back southwest to
St. Hubert. Most of the 158th Engineer
Combat Battalion reached St. Hubert.
As a parting gesture the tank destroyers,
which had seen no tank targets, laid
indirect fire on the bridge. A muffled
explosion led the engineers to report
that the span was at least severely dam-
aged.

If so, the German engineers were
quick to make repairs, for the advance
guard of the 2d Panzer Division began
to roll almost immediately on this and
other temporary bridges thrown across
east of Ortheuville. When daylight came
the 2d Panzer Division was bunched up
in assembly area with its head across
the river near Tenneville and its rear
guard, arrayed to meet a counterattack
from Bastogne, near Salle. Inexplicably,
so far as the American patrols were con-
cerned, the 2d Panzer Division did not
bestir itself during the 21st to employ
its victory at Ortheuville for a move on
Marche, in which the advance regimental
combat team of the 84th Infantry Divi-
sion was assembling. The answer here
was logistical, not tactical: Lauchert’s
armor would have to waste the entire
day waiting for gasoline.

322

THE ARDENNES: BATTLE OF THE BULGE

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