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Stories

Off To The Ardennes, December 20, 1944

 
Off To The Ardennes

December 20, 1944

 
 We had just ended our first month of combat in and around Prummern, Beeck, Leiffarth, and Wurm.  These are villages in the Siegfried line North of Aachen, Germany where our casualty numbers nearly exceeded the initial number of men in the Battalion.  As we got ready to leave, December 20, 1944, it turned out to the Bulge; we thought our unit was going to a rest area to reorganize the Battalion.  Our convoy traveled for two days stopping for at least two night's rest.  I remember spending a night in a large chateau, sleeping in what appeared to be the upper floor under the roof.  The windows in the room were of the so-called dormer type.  The large room was unfinished with the roof rafters showing.  On returning to Belgium many years later I tried to locate the building but failed.  We also slept on a concrete floor in what appeared to be a school.  Our truck traveled most of the time with the headlights on.  This made us feel that we were many miles from any action.  It also somewhat supported the rumor of going to a rest area.  We had little information at the squad level.  The road signs and village names indicated Belgium or perhaps Luxembourg.  We did not know that the German Army was charging toward us.  At the end of our two-day drive we stopped in the small Belgian village of Bourdon.  There were rumors that Germans had been seen along our route.  This I doubt as the route we traveled was North and West of the German advances.  On the way to Belgium we passed through Pallenberg, Alsdorf, Aachen, Verviers, Durbuy, and then stopped in Bourdon.  At the time I never heard anything about Germans posing as GIs in rear areas.  Most history books cover this to a great extent.  There are claims that it caused much trouble.  Actually there were almost no Germans in GI uniforms; it was mostly rumor.  Even the German paratroop attack was a failure.  The closest German troops to our route were those in Hotton, probably 3 miles away.  When we arrived in Bourdon we, at least I, had no idea of why we were there or what was happening.
 
Bourdon in the Belgian Ardennes seemed remote, safe, and distant from all the living hell we had left a few days before.  As usual, there were more rumors than facts.  We billeted in a barn and collected rumors.  Depending on which were true the German Army was in the next town or miles away.  I don’t remember hearing gunfire but I was a very sound sleeper and could have been sleeping through any.  In fact the German Panzers were approaching Verdenne just over the hill south of Bourdon. 
 
The afternoon of December 24th, Bob Davies and I were ordered to make up a daisy chain.  We used eight mines from the stock carried on our Dodge 6 by 6 truck.  A commandeered Belgian rope was used to connect the mines together.  Our squad leader led us to a position before the first switch back in the road leading up a hill toward woods to the southeast.  Later I found the forest up the hill between the villages of Bourdon, Verdenne, and Marenne was the location of the 116 Panzer infiltration.  Our roadblock was only a short distance from the comfortable barn hayloft billet where we spent the previous night.  Orders were if attacked; let the first two tanks go by and pull the mines in front of the third tank.  Our position was in the open with no possibility of cover.  The hillside was totally bare, not even a small bush.  This was truly a mission impossible.  There were no ditches or structures within 150 yards.  Any enemy tank coming down the road would see us immediately on turning the upper switch back a short distance away.  It was possible they would have been so startled by our pluck or stupidity that they would have backed off thinking it was a trap of some kind. 
 
Approximately a half-hour before dark a Divisional M8 Greyhound armored reconnaissance vehicle appeared from the direction of Bourdon.  An officer was waist high out of the turret hatch.  The vehicle went around the first switch back and on up the hill.  An M8 Greyhound is a six-rubber tired armored vehicle with a 37-mm gun turret.  We wondered where it was going and why.  Any way we had no information to give the officer had he asked.  It did not even slow down as it passed us and disappeared around the switch back.  Within a minute the vehicle came back around the upper switchback and down the hill with the throttle wide open.  No one was in sight and when it reached our position.  The vehicle stopped sliding all six tires.  A small part of the officer's head appeared in the turret hatch shouting, "there are ten German tanks coming down the road, hold at all costs".  Gears clashed and the engine roared as the vehicle disappeared down the road into Bourdon. 
 
I learned later that the Germans were using captured M8 vehicles to lead some attack columns.  This possibility never entered our minds when we saw the vehicle coming past us.  We only had a vague idea of which way the Germans might come from.  At the time I felt Bourdon was south of Verdenne.  I had been given no map or compass; as privates our only responsibility was to take orders and follow the leader.  After the report and order from the Cavalry Lieutenant there was no doubt about the direction to the Germans.  I have determined since then that we were in the exact center of enemy's main attack.  Orders to the 116 Panzers were to cut the Marche-Hotton Road that was to the north of our position.  In fact this road could be easily seen from our elevated position.  With heavily defended Marche on one end and Hotton on the other Verdenne and Bourdon were the logical points to attempt a breakthrough.
 
I have attempted to find an origin for the phrase "hold at all costs".  I could not find any authority that traced the history of the statement.  It was used in the American Civil War and in the First World War.  I feel that almost all Officers that gave this order immediately left the area in the direction away from the enemy.  It is positively un-American to accept a suicide mission.  Suicide missions generally involve religion.  Persons volunteering for these missions feel they will get some reward in an afterlife.  Not wanting to disgrace their family or let the Emperor down was the motivation for the Kamikaze pilots in the Pacific.  I had already shown that I was not a coward, but none of the factors leading to a voluntary suicide mission applied to me.  I was not going to hold at all costs if my life was the currency.  Considering our position the only cost to the Germans would be a few machinegun cartridges.
 
After the M8 armored vehicle passed I quickly scouted the area for some cover.  Digging a foxhole in the possibly frozen and hard ground in the time that seemed available was out of the question.  The nearest good cover was down the hill in a railroad track siding.  There was a railroad car weighing scale pit.  Our rope was too short to reach the pit so we just stood by the side of the road and hoped for the best.  If we pulled the rope ahead of the first tank I think we would have had at least a 5% chance of one of us making the railroad pit.  If we waited for any tanks to pass the first one would have used its machinegun on us.  It was so quiet that we felt the reconnaissance officer may have just been seeing things.  We stayed on this position until well after dark but heard no tank engines and no tanks appeared.  I knew from my experience in Leiffarth, Germany that tanks could not approach undetected as the noise of the engine and the flop-flop of the treads can be heard from some distance.  The road on the hillside had two switchbacks after it came out of the woods.  We easily heard the recon-vehicle as it approached the switchback up the hill above us.
 
The tanks were there, as I discovered many years later, in the area now known as the Verdenne Pocket.  It is also reported in Heinz Gunther Guderian’s book, "From Normandy to the Ruhr With the 116th Panzer Division World War II" that their orders were to cut the Hotton-Marché road, which was down the hill and across the railroad track from our position.  Our two-man roadblock was the only defensive position in the way of this objective.  Since that time I have pondered reasons why an attack was not made down the hill.  The most probable is the German Commander Johannes Bayer did not want to sacrifice his men to a lost cause.  Fuel and other supplies were also a problem for the somewhat cutoff group.  I learned later that they had broken through our thinly manned foxhole line between Marche and Hotton to occupy the woods.  Also the 116th Panzer Division had driven our troops out of Verdenne.  A rifleman from one of our units described this attack to me.  Our heavy 30 caliber water-cooled machine guns were able to each fire only one round.  Water in the cooling jackets had frozen so the mechanism could not function.  The rifleman escaped down the back yards of a street in Verdenne with a enemy tank following him.  He vaulted over the back yard fences, which the tank was easily knocking down behind him.
 
We reported the incident of the recon-vehicle to our squad leader and as usual, he did nothing.  I will probably never know if whoever was directing our movements in this area received a report from the officer in reconnaissance vehicle.  However, the action of Company “K” 333rd Infantry indicated they didn’t know.  As usual, the so-called fog of war was very thick.  I also do not know whether any one was on our position when Company “K” 333rd Infantry took this road up the hill thinking it was the way to Verdenne.  A platoon from Company “K” was assigned the task of recapturing Verdenne.  I feel sure that our antitank squad members would have told them about the reported enemy tanks up the road.  When the Platoon from Company “K” came on the German tanks in the woods they thought they were their support tanks to aid them in retaking Verdenne.  When one of them rapped on the side of a tank to let them know that they were ready to advance on Verdenne the answer was "Vas ist los".  The excursion of “K” 333rd Infantry past our position is covered in the Leinbaugh/Campbell Book.  "The Men Of Company K".  See pages 134-144
 
In the fight with the German tanks and their supporting infantry several of the men from Company “K” 333rd Infantry were wounded.  However, most of them got back down the hill.
 
Of course the tanks that the reconnaissance officer told us about at least six hours before were the ones found by Company “K” 333rd Infantry.  Why there was not better transfer of information was probably due to military protocol.  The reconnaissance officer was from some attached cavalry unit.  He would have reported to his unit commander who would report of someone in division headquarters who might possibly pass it down.  Davies and I reported it to our squad leader; we had no other possibility or responsibility.
 
We left the position when relieved by two others from our platoon around ten.  We told them about the reported tanks.  I feel they must have left the position, as they would have reported the possibility of German tanks up the hill.  We were relieved around two hours before Company “K” 333rd Regiment men passed.  The first time I learned of the Company “K” 333rd Regiment venture up the hill was when reading Leinbaugh’s book over 50 years after the event. 
 
After a little sleep that night, we were awakened around midnight to prepare for the recapture of Verdenne.  We did find the correct road and entered around 0200 December 25 1944.  This road went up the hill with the woods on the left that was the location of the pocket (referred to in Guderian’s book as the hedgehog).
 
Guderian also reported that General Hasso Eccard von Manteuffel, head of the Fifth Panzer Army, was in Grimbiemont two miles to the southeast on December 24, 1944.  He was there to order an attack on the Marche Hotton Road.  This attack if made would have of course gone through our road block.
 
Draper reported in his book "The 84 Infantry Division in the Battle of Germany", that the retaking of Verdenne started at 0100 25 December 1944.
 
“As soon as the German position was sized up a second attack was launched at 0100 25 December.”  (Draper wrongly considered the aborted excursion up the hill by Company “K” 333rd Regiment as the first attack on Verdenne.  They were more than a mile away.)  Draper goes on:  “This time by the 333rd’s Company “L” and the 334th’s Company “K”, the later down to approximately 40 men.  It was now, Christmas morning.  Our attack was introduced by a heavy artillery and mortar barrage”.
 
"While shelling was still going strong, Company “L” entered.  The first two platoons to go in were temporarily outnumbered and found themselves engaged from three sides.  One enemy tank began to move in close.  A rifleman S/Sgt. Edward T Reineke, took careful aim, chose the tank commander as his target, and killed him.  The tank stopped, Reineke ran toward it, jumped, dropped a grenade into the turret, and finished the job himself.  This one-man victory turned the tide.  The two platoons swept through the town and dug in on the opposite side while the rest moved to mop up.  It was dark and many Germans were left.  Another tank showed up and terrorized the town until daylight.”
 
When we arrived in Verdenne less than an hour after the start of the attack we saw the tank that Reineke had attacked.  From the location of the dead Commander we felt he was probably standing on top when hit.  It may have been getting ready to move or just standing there waiting for something to happen.  Reineke single handed killed the crew and put this tank out of action.  Many have gotten a Congressional Medal of Honor for less.  Reineke did get a Silver Star for his aggressive action.  At least two Germans were dead inside the tank.  One was in the turret and the other in the machine gunners seat.  The engine was off.  I feel they were getting into the tank and were surprised by the attack.  This tank was later started and driven down toward the pocket by a GI with the intention of firing the turret gun at the German positions in the woods (the Verdenne pocket).  This never happened and later the tank was disabled by blowing off the end of the turret gun with explosive.  Chuck Car of our platoon climbed in the tank and removed the radio and used it for listing to radio broadcasts from the US armed services network.  Later when listening to this liberated radio he was the first in our unit to hear of President Roosevelt’s death.  This same tank is pictured in publications covering the 1944 battle in and around Verdenne.  The Book was published as part of the 50-year commemoration held in and around Verdenne.
 
I still don’t know what our mission was during the attack on Verdenne.  We were an antitank unit, but were not called on to fight the tank that Draper’s book indicated was terrorizing the town that early a.m. of Christmas day.  As usual the rifle platoon leader was not told of our presence.  I felt at the time that the German Troops did not expect any action on Christmas and were possibly partying.  A lot of prisoners were taken during the 25th and we helped in searching and guarding them.  By midday our trucks brought up our 57-mm antitank guns and the trucks were used to transport prisoners to Bourdon.  The road from Verdenne to Bourdon passed near the woods occupied by the Germans, the so-called Verdenne pocket.  Each time we drove the road we were fired on by automatic weapons.  The trips were made after dark and no one was hit.
 
During the 25 and 26 December most of the Antitank Platoon were in Verdenne on the North side of town.  Unknown to us at the time, we were only yards from the Verdenne Castle and the battles around it.  Sometime in the afternoon of the 26 a German tank was reported as crossing the field southeast of Verdenne.  The time agrees with the German Task Force Bayer's breakout from the pocket at 1800 hours.
 
One of the tanks turning right (southwest) was most likely the one reported to us.  Our support tanks (Shermans) refused to go south east down the street to engage the German tank, a Mark IV.  Several from the antitank platoon, myself included, volunteered to push our 57mm gun down the street and fire on the tank.  We moved our gun around 100 yards to a point where the tank was in sight in the open field to the south.  For some reason it had stopped, perhaps it was out of fuel or had mechanical problems.  We set the gun trails on the hard surface street and aimed the gun.  Several looked through the telescopic sight.  I found a stick to fire the shell as without the trails dug in the gun jumps back several feet from the recoil.  A 57mm antitank gun is usually fired from a kneeling position.  Elevation is by a crank screw and direction from a shoulder frame.  Sergeant Cable was about to fire the gun kneeling as I approached with the stick shouting to get back, don’t fire it that way it will back over you.  I think then he realized what would happen and moved clear.  I hit the firing pad with the stick and the gun jumped at least six feet back from the recoil.  Immediately the view to the tank was obscured by a dust cloud from the muzzle blast.  One of the riflemen watching from across the street shouted, "You hit it, you hit it".  Several more shots were registered on the tank from our gun.  Then one of our Shermans came roaring down the street fired a round as it came to a stop and then backed rapidly up the street.  It was the tank that refused to engage the German tank earlier.  I'm sure it reported that it knocked out the tank.
 
The crew of our gun all received Bronze Star awards for hitting the tank.  The citation read as follows:
"For meritorious service in connection with military operations against the enemy in Belgium, December 26, 1944. As a member of a gun crew occupying a position from which effective fire could not be placed on an enemy tank which was firing on friendly forces, Private First Class Harvey, completely disregarding his own safety, in full view of the enemy and under direct fire, together with four other soldiers, moved an anti-tank gun by hand a distance of approximately 50 yards and from this new position delivered fire which destroyed the enemy tank.  The dauntless, daring action, disdain for danger and exemplary conduct displayed by Private First Class Harvey enabled his unit to continue its advance and reflect the highest credit upon himself and the service of the United States."
 
We were not fired on and I felt other actions that I was in were more worthy of the award.  The German tanks that retreated that day had to pass through our defense which was essentially an ambush.  In our sector Hitler's "Wacht Am Rhein" was stopped and had had gone on the defense.
 
References:
Draper "The 84th Infantry Division in The Battle of Germany", The Viking Press, New York, 1946.
 
Leinbaugh/Campbell "The Men Of Company “K" William Morrow and Company, New York, 1985.
 
Guderian "From Normandy to the Ruhr With the 116th Panzer Division World War II" English Translation,  The Aberjona Press, Bedford, Pennsylvania, 2001.
 
Source: Story received from Douglas HARVEY by Email in January 6, 2014

By Pvt Douglas HARVEY

 

Antitank Platoon,

1st Battalion,

334th Infantry Regiment

84th Infantry Division 

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium