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US Army

Withdrawal from Wirtzfeld, Sunday morning December 17, 1944

 

 Withdrawal from Wirtzfeld

 Sunday morning December 17, 1944

 
On the night of December 16, 1944, the 372nd Field Artillery Battalion withdrew from positions east of Rocherath to previous positions vicinity Wirtzfeld.  The three firing batteries were moved at two-hour intervals beginning at 2200 hours.  Abandoned in Rocherath were several vehicles damaged by shell fire including one M-5 tractor, one M-21 trailer, one 2½-ton truck.  Also left behind were three 50-cal. Machine guns, a gunner's quadrant, pioneer tools, all gas masks of "A" and "B" Batteries, and two men of "A" Battery's supply section who did not get the word to move out and were trapped in Krinkelt for five days.
 
The short three-mille move in light rain proceeded through the Twin Villages of Rocherath and Krinkelt which were being intermittently shelled by German artillery.  Fortunately, none of the battalion's vehicles were hit by the shell fire.
 
As executive officer of "C" Battery, I reported my howitzers "Ready to fire" at 0200 hours in Wirtzfeld.  My gun position was on the north edge of the town (959-052) and only 200 yards from the house occupied by Major General Robertson's forward command post of the 2nd Infantry Division.
 
The 16th had seemed like an especially long day – full of activity and excitement; therefore, by the time we closed in at Wirtzfeld my men and I were ready for some much needed sleep.  At 0400 hours my ammunition sergeant, Eugene Ferguson, awakened me and reported that he and his crew had remained in the Rocherath position (993-060) until they had loaded all of "C" Battery's 155 howitzer ammunition.  This turned out to be quite a feat since the position was frequently and accurately shelled during Ferguson's evacuation efforts.  The sergeant refused to leave the position until every round was loaded – despite being urged by some of his men to get out.  Thanks to Ferguson's bravery, "C" Battery had a full load of ammunition on the 17th of December.
 
At around 0800 hours on the17th December, I was awakened by the persistent buzz of my fire direction center phone which I kept next to my head at night.  Expecting to hear the familiar voice of the FDC operator, I was surprised when it turned out to be the battalion commander himself – Lieutenant Colonel Frank W. Mostek.  Our colonel was a terrific soldier and leader – and he was usually calm under duress.  But this time I detected a clear sense of urgency in his voice.  "Biggio" he said hurriedly, "March order one of your howitzers as fast as possible and bring it down here.  There are several German tanks approaching my headquarters from the south, and I want you to come down here and help defend my CP.  And make it fast."
 
I jumped out of my bed roll and cranked the phone to my fastest crew.  I directed the section chief, Sergeant Anthony Obreza, to march order his howitzer as fast as possible – and prepare to move out.  While hurriedly putting on my gear, I briefed my assistant and ran the 50 yards to Obreza's howitzer.  By the time I arrived at the piece, the howitzer was already being coupled to the prime mover – an M-5 tractor.  Quickly briefing Obreza on what I knew of the situation, we both jumped into the cab with the crew – and the driver took off full speed toward battalion, about a half mile away at the south edge of the town.
 
As we reached the main street that ran south through Wirtzfeld we approached the building which housed the command post of the 2nd Infantry Division (forward).  There standing in the middle of the street was an infantry captain of the 2nd Division.  He waved down my vehicle and asked: "Where the hell do you think you are going with that heavy artillery?  There's a firefight going on down there (pointing toward the south end of town.)"  Jumping out of the tractor I explained that just a few minutes ago my battalion commander had ordered that this howitzer be rushed to the south of town to defend his CP against German tanks.  I asked the captain to step aside and let us past.  I used every argument I could think of and pointed out that valuable minutes were being lost.  He kept shaking his head and saying he could not let us go down there.
 
Finally, the stalemate was broken when a wounded 2nd Division Infantryman staggered toward us with blood all over his shirt and asking for help.  The captain grabbed him and led him toward the division headquarters building.  Looking over his shoulder at me, the captain said: "Ok Lieutenant, you can go ahead, but don't say I didn't warn you."
 
Free at last to proceed, the driver gunned the accelerator and we sped down the main street of Wirtzfeld.
 
I must have had a rush of adrenalin because I felt more alert and clearheaded than I had ever felt before.  The thought popped into my mind that my men needed some guidance on what I expected of them when we confronted the tanks.  So I wheeled around and gave them instructions.  We would proceed to the south end of town and quickly locate a position which afforded us a clear view of the tanks.  Before uncoupling, the driver would swing around and point the muzzle toward the south.  We would then prepare for action at record speed and fire as many rounds as possible before the tank crews detected us.  To speed things up, the crew was told they were not to dig a trail trench or to jack up the piece (we would shoot from the wheels).  The ammunition corporal was told to use the lowest charge (charge I) to minimize the recoil.  The gunner was to lay on the nearest tank first.
 
While I was giving these instructions I could see fear in several faces.  In fact, one man was as pale as a ghost.  But no one grumbled.  I understood their fear because our chance of survival in a dual with several tanks was not particularly good – and the men knew it.  After all, the German tank guns had high muzzle velocities, flat trajectories and a high rate of fire.  They had protective armor and would be using direct fire – which for them was the norm.  We on the other hand, normally used indirect fire with our howitzers – and this would be our first experience with the direct fire method.  Direct fire would require two things: first to lay the piece for direction and second, to lay the piece for elevation (range).  Laying for direction would be easy if we could see the tanks clearly.  The gunner would simply zero his panoramic sight and traverse the piece until the vertical hair was on target.  Laying for range would be much more difficult because we would have to guess the range and the corresponding elevation to set on the gun.  We would need to have some luck to get a hit with the first round.
 
I anticipated that we might have two things working in our favor: initial surprise, and our much larger projectile.
 
Just as I finished my instructions, our tractor arrived at the south end of town.  I spotted an open area behind a house on the left.  Our excellent driver T/5 Virgil Works quickly maneuvered the howitzer into position facing south.  Obreza and I jumped to the ground yelling: "Prepare for action."  We immediately saw three German tanks about 70 yards a way on the forward slope of a ridge.  There were two Mark IV's (PZKW) and a Mark V Panther.  From our position, they appeared of medium size – and I recall having the impression that they were darker in color than I had expected.  All vehicles were clearly visible because there were no intervening trees or buildings.
 
Obreza's crew leaped out of the tractor and in a frenzy of activity they prepared the piece for action very quickly – probably no more than two minutes.  While the gunner, Corporal Donald L. Snow laid his sight on the nearest tank, other men loaded and primed the howitzer.  Obreza said "Ready!"  and I yelled "Fire!"  The lanyard was pulled and the piece fired.With great anxiety we watched the trajectory of the shell.  The round sailed over the tank – and over the ridge, a miss.  Our setting had been perfect for direction but too high in elevation.  In artillery parlance, it was a "line over."
 
The piece was immediately reloaded – but before we could fire a second round several things happened at once.  First, the gunner yelled, "Hey Lieutenant, I think those tanks have already been knocked out."  Corporal Snow had observed that the tanks were not firing and that several tankers were jumping out of their vehicles and running toward the top of the ridge.  And one tank seemed to have its gun in the traveling position pointing to the rear.
 
At about the same instant, a runner arrived from the 372nd Headquarters with a yellow message form.  The message was signed "Delaware 6" (Colonel Mostek's code name).  The handwritten message stated that we were not to fire except in an emergency because the ammunition situation was precarious.  When he wrote this message minutes earlier, Mostek was in possession of information was not know to me and my crew.  The colonel knew that while my howitzer crew was making it way to his CP, the Germans tanks had been knocked out.  Mostek could not communicate this to me because I had no radio in my tractor.
 
What I did not know was that the U.S. tank destroyers had arrived in Wirtzfeld just before dawn and taken position to defend the south flank of the town.A   German tank platoon came over the ridge south of town just after daylight (around 0800 hours) with the mission of making contact with the 12. SS Panzer Division, vicinity Krinkelt.  By then the U.S. tank destroyers were in positions south of Wirtzfeld and were ready.  In a short but furious firefight, the tank destroyers knocked all five of the German armored vehicles.  This duel took place just minutes before I arrived on the scene with my howitzer.
 
Colonel Mostek also knew that If German armor was moving west from the town of Bullingen our division's main supply route could be cut.  Even worse, our battalion's ammunition resupply dump at Waimes (ASP 126) could be overrun, thereby presenting Mostek with a serious problem of ammunition resupply.  Moreover, two of his batteries were low on ammunition.  Taking all these things into account, the colonel had decided to restrain me from firing except in an emergency.
 
I had no choice but to order "Cease firing."  Although I wanted in the worst way to continue firing and totally destroy the three tanks so they could not be salvaged.  Alas, the crew and I realized we were missing a rare opportunity.  After all, 155 howitzer crews rarely, if ever, got the fire using direct fire techniques, in which the target could be seen by the crew.  The same can be said of the lighter and more numerous 105mm howitzers.  In the Elsenborn sector, only one 105 crew (C/370) got the chance to fire directly at a German tank with one round.
 

As I was reading Colonel Mostek's message a third thing happened.Sergeant Ferguson roared up to our howitzer with his tractor and ammunition trailer.  His trailer was so overloaded with 155mm ammunition that the axle springs were flat.  Ferguson ran up to me with a bazooka across his shoulders and several rounds in this belt – looking every bit like an earlier version of "Rambo."  Not realizing the tanks were no longer a threat, the sergeant said: "Lieutenant, let's go get them with this bazooka."  He was told it was too late for that.  I asked why he had brought his tractor and trailer since I had not left instructions for him to do so."Oh" he replied, "I came on my own because I thought you might run out of ammunition and because when I heard there were German tanks down here I thought you could use a good bazooka man."  What a soldier.

 
Colonel Mostek kept our howitzer in this position and on the alert until he was reasonably certain that no other German tanks would come over the ridge to our south.  At about noon he directed me to arch order and return the piece to "C" Battery's position on the north edge of town.
 
At 1450 hours the 372nd Field Artillery Battalion displaced from Wirtzfeld to the north-west and took positions on some high ground which later was to become famous in American Military History as Elsenborn Ridge.
 
Source: Checkerboard 1998

By Lt Charles P BIGGIO Jr

Colonel US Army Ret.

deceased July 7, 2008

372nd Field Artillery Bn

99th Infantry Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium