(W)Archives: Pinching the Bulge

January 16, 2015

The usual date cited for the end of the Battle of the Bulge is Jan. 16, 1945—seventy years ago today—though half of the “bulge” remained in German hands for more than a month after that. Records held at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and the website of the 11th Armored Division Legacy Group tell the story of that day. They depict an interesting contrast between how war looks at higher headquarters and how it looks at the front lines.

The Germans launched their great offensive in the Ardennes on Dec. 16, 1944, breaching the thinly manned Ardennes front of General Omar Bradley’s U.S. 12th Army Group. Four days later, the Allied Supreme Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower gave control of the U.S. First Army to British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commanding the 21st Army Group. Eisenhower also transferred to Montgomery’s control the U.S. Ninth Army farther north. When Eisenhower had delivered the order to Bradley, the latter had been so incensed that he was losing two of his armies that he had threatened to resign, but he backed down. Despite these squabbles, the Allied forces set to work containing, then pushing back and pinching off the German salient.

On Jan. 16, Montgomery cabled to Eisenhower to announce the end of the great battle. His message said:

I have great pleasure in reporting to you that the task you gave me in the ARDENNES is now concluded. First and Third Armies have joined hands at HOUFFALIZE and are advancing eastwards. It can therefore be said that we have achieved tactical victory within the salient. I am returning First Army to BRADLEY tomorrow as ordered by you. I would like to say what a great pleasure it has been to have such a splendid Army under my Command and how very well it has done.

Hidden behind Montgomery’s anodyne language on Jan. 16 was the fact that the linkup between General George S. Patton’s Third Army and General Courtney Hodge’s First Army was, like all tactical actions, an uncertain and dangerous affair.

The Third Army unit involved in the linkup was the 11th Armored Division. Far south of the Ardennes when the great battle started, it had raced to the front on a forced road march that covered 345 miles over four days. Its first day of battle, Jan. 1, had been costly to the tune of 49 medium and 15 light tanks. Now it had the job of cutting off the German penetration by joining up with the First Army’s 2d Armored Division at Houffalize.

By mid-January, General Patton was eager to have his forces make contact with the First Army. The job fell to a task force of the 11th Armored Division’s 41st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron. On Jan. 15, the task force began an arduous journey over treacherous ice-covered trails to sneak 10 miles behind enemy lines to make contact with the 2d Armored Division.

At just past 0630 hours the following morning, everything looked good. “Up until the moment that the lead armored car fell into a tank trap, I had firmly believed that the task force could sneak into Houffalize undetected,” recalled then Major Michael Greene, the task force commander. The trapped M8 armored car was only 200 yards short of the objective. Greene dismounted from his own armored car—his command halftrack had struck a mine while underway—and, accompanied by a lieutenant, walked to the town limits sign. The men congratulated one another on having reached Houffalize but more trouble was ahead.

The lieutenant spotted a couple of soldiers in a foxhole on a nearby hill and the cavalrymen, assuming them to be from the 2d Armored Division, walked towards them. In fact, they were Germans. The German soldiers waited until their prey were within 20 feet and stood, pointing a machine gun at them and yelling for them to raise their hands.

“This is a German up here—fire at him!” Greene yelled to Sergeant Till in the command M8, and the sergeant immediately cut loose with the antiaircraft machine gun. Rather than shooting, the Germans dove for cover, and the cavalrymen skidded down the hill as fast as they could. The cavalry had established contact with the enemy but not yet with their American brethren.

The alerted defenders opened up with small arms, mortars, and antitank guns, and the American column beat a hasty retreat to the cover of a nearby mill. Greene decided to contain the Germans with assault-gun fire while Troop D moved to high ground to try to determine whether elements of the 2d Armored Division had arrived. Troop D moved into position, while two assault guns laid direct fire into Houffalize and the remaining four fired indirectly.

The first sign of friendly troops was a barrage of shells that dropped on Troop D. Greene realized they had originated in the presumed 2d Armored Division sector, and he ordered the troop to withdraw and passed a request up the line that First Army be told to cease the shelling.

At about 0900 hours, the troopers spotted figures advancing some 1,500 yards away. Judging them to be Americans, Greene sent a patrol forward to establish contact. In the meantime, he ordered Company F, a light tank company, to conduct a lightning raid on Houffalize to establish the enemy’s strength.

Greene recalled that Company F:

had little difficulty getting across the open ground, receiving only small-arms and mortar fire as it advanced. There was no opposition to its move to the high ground because troops in the town had no good fields of fire. The tanks then moved into the town firing 37mm and machine guns, setting fire to buildings, flushing several Germans from houses, and then withdrawing to their previously designated positions.”

At 1000 hours, the patrol reported back that it had finally made contact with the 41st Armored Infantry Battalion, 2d Armored Division. A platoon of Troop A, meanwhile, had met patrols from the 2d Armored Division’s 82d Armored Reconnaissance Battalion and the 334th Infantry Regiment along the Ourthe River. The cavalry had given the final pinch to close the Bulge. The 41st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron’s after action report described the immediate aftermath: “On every side, we saw abandoned Jerry equipment, from bullets to Tiger tanks and the ‘good’ Jerries, the frozen stiffs. The cold of winter does have its advantages.”

To paraphrase a certain Prussian strategist, once again it was shown that in war the simple view at headquarters conceals the difficult tasks on the ground.

 

Harry Yeide is the author of several histories of the U.S. Army in World War II, including The Longest Battle: September 1944-February 1945: From Aachen to the Roer and Across and Steeds of Steel: A History of American Mechanized Cavalry in World War II. His most recent book is Fighting Patton.