January 30, 1945 – Battle of St. Vith was part of the Battle of the Bulge, which began on 16 December 1944, and represented the right flank in the advance of the German center, 5th Panzer-Armee (Armored Army), toward the ultimate objective of Antwerp. The town of St. Vith, a vital road junction, was close to the boundary between the 5th and Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army, the two strongest units of the attack. St. Vith was also close to the western end of the Losheim Gap, a critical valley through the densely forested ridges of the Ardennes Forest and the axis of the entire German counteroffensive. Opposing this drive were units of the U.S. VIII Corps. These defenders were led by the U.S. 7th Armored Division and included the 424th Infantry (the remaining regiment of the 106th U.S. Infantry Division), elements of the 9th Armored Division’s Combat Command B and the 112th Infantry of the U.S. 28th Infantry Division. These units, which operated under the command of General Bruce C. Clarke, successfully resisted the German attacks, thereby significantly slowing the German advance. Under orders from Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, Clarke gave up St. Vith on 21 December 1944; U.S. troops fell back to positions supported by the 82nd Airborne Division to the west, presenting an imposing obstacle to a successful German advance. By 23 December, as the Germans shattered their flanks, the defenders’ position became untenable and U.S. troops were ordered to retreat west of the Salm River. As the German plan called for the capture of St. Vith by 18:00 on 17 December, the prolonged action in and around it presented a major blow to their timetable. A little before 5:30 AM, on Saturday, 16 December 1944, a selective artillery bombardment began falling on forward positions of the 106th Division on the Schee Eifel, moving gradually back to the division headquarters in St. Vith. This attack did not do much damage to troops or fortifications, but did cut up most of the telephone wires the American army used for communications. The Germans also used radio jamming stations that made wireless communications difficult. This had the effect of breaking the defense into isolated positions, and denying corps and army commands information on events at the front line. The most significant aspect of the bombardment is where it did not fall. The villages on the left flank north of the Schnee Eifel were not hit at all. Here Manteuffel had found an undefended gap running between Weckerath to Kobscheid. Into the gaps between the villages marched the 18th Volksgrenadier Division, which bypassed the defended villages and headed for Auw before the general bombardment began. This movement would coincide with a southern advance of the 18th around the right flank of the Schnee Eifel through Bleialaf to Schoenberg to surround American positions on the Schnee Eifel ridge. This double envelopment came as a complete surprise to the American forces as a result of the intelligence failure at First Army level. The high command did not spot the buildup of the German forces for the offensive, and made no preparations to deal with it. This caused a paralyzing lack of situational awareness through the defending forces in front of St. Vith. The American commands in the rear found it difficult to abandon their own planned offensive in view of reacting to an unanticipated German attack. They were slow to react on the first day of LXVI Corps attack, giving the initiative to the attackers and multiplying the damage done. After the initial artillery strike, searchlights behind the German line lit up, reflecting an eerie illumination from the clouds and lighting up the front lines. Moving forward with the glow, the 62nd Volksgrenadier Division advanced through Elgelscheid toward Winterspelt. This movement, combined with the advance of a southern column of the 18th Volksgrenadiers through Grosslangenfeld to meet the 62nd at Winterspelt and combine for a capture of Steinebruck, with its bridge over the Our River. The capture of Schoenberg, (six miles east of St. Vith), also with a bridge over the Our, and Steinebruck would set up LXVI Corps for an envelopment of St. Vith itself. The only significant check in the German advance was at Kobscheid, where the 18th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron had circled the village with barbed wire and dug in machine guns from their armored cars. Here, they held the village for the day; after dark, they destroyed their vehicles and abandoned their positions, withdrawing to St. Vith. In the other villages, the cavalry troops were forced to withdraw earlier in the day so as to avoid being surrounded and cut off. The Squadron was directed by Colonel Devine to take-up positions on a new defense line along the ridge running from Manderfeld to Andler, on the north side of the Our River. By the end of the first day, the Volksgrenadiers of LXVI Corps had not made it to St. Vith, or even the critical bridges on the Our River at Schoenberg and Steinebruck. The American village strong points set up by the cavalry groups and sustained artillery fire from both VIII Corps reserve and the units supporting the 106th division had denied LXVI Corps the roads, but the Volksgrenadiers had not been depending on them anyway. Their main problems proved to be the same miserable weather and terrain conditions that prompted the Ardennes counteroffensive in the first place. Colonel Frederich Kittel of the 62nd Division had set up a bicycle battalion to make a fast run on St. Vith from Eigelscheid, but the snow, ice, and mud had made it ineffective. Expert ski troops could have covered the 11 to 15 miles of snow covered forested ravines from the Schnee Eifel to St. Vith in one day, but the Volksgrenadiers simply did not have that kind of training or equipment. They did not even have the training it took to take full advantage of the motorized assault guns they did have. This was not enough to pull off a carefully timed series of sequential envelopments and advances through rough terrain. On the American side, the significant events were decisions from General Courtney Hodges, commander of First Army, and General Middleton of VIII Corps, committing combat commands of the 7th and 9th Armored Divisions to support the 106th Division defense. Middleton also threw in the 168th battalion of corps engineers from the Corps reserve. General Alan Walter Jones, commander of the 106th had also sent reinforcements to Winterspelt and Schoenberg around noon. There was also a counterattack by Colonel Charles C. Cavender of the 423d Regiment, which retook the village of Bleialf. The more significant event was an interruption in communications that led Jones to believe Middleton did not wish a retreat from the Schnee Eifel. Middleton stated to others that Jones would move the 106th west of the Our River about the same time. Before dawn on 17 December, the German LXVI Corps renewed its advance on the Our River. Winterspelt fell to the 62nd Volksgrenadiers early in the day. They then advanced to the critical bridge at Steinebruck and advanced past it, but were thrown back by a counterattack by the American 9th Armored Division’s CCB. They were also considering retaking Winterspelt, but Middleton ordered a general withdrawal behind the Our River. As German troops were massing on the opposite bank, the 9th Armored would blow up the bridge on 18 December, and fall back to a defensive line with the 7th Armored Division on the left and the remaining 424th Regiment of the 106th Division on the right. The southern arm of the 18th Volksgrenadiers overran Bleialf at about the same time as the attack on Winterspelt. The northern arm of the 18th struck at Andler, receiving unexpected help from the 6th SS Panzer Army. The lavish supply of heavy armored fighting vehicles had proved an embarrassment of riches in the area north of 5th Panzer Army – the road net in the northern area of the attack was unable to support the volume of the attack, so the vehicles of the Schwere Panzerabteilung 506 wandered south into the 5th Army’s area in search of a road west. The super heavy tanks of this unit, the Tiger II, were slow and of such colossal weight as to endanger any bridge they crossed. However, in combat they were virtually unstoppable and they easily routed the light cavalry forces of the 32nd Squadron’s Troop B, holding Andler. From there, the troops of the 18th Volksgrenadiers swept onward toward Schoenberg. The heavy tanks of the 506th did not join them, creating a traffic jam in the narrow streets of Andler. The jam was expanded by additional traffic from 6th Panzer Army, blocking the advance far more effectively than American forces could hope. This jam would be the first of many plaguing both sides in the paths of the German advance. Andler, Schoenberg, and the road west of St. Vith, to the west of the town of Rodt would all be the scenes of traffic blockages that would attract the personal intervention of most of the field commanders in the area of St. Vith, all to no avail. General Lucht of LXVI Corps was the first commander to waste his efforts clearing the jam at Andler, but not the last. The 18th Volksgrenadiers captured the bridge at Schoenberg by 8:45, cutting off American artillery units attempting to withdraw west of the Our River. The southern pincer of the 18th, advancing from Bleialf against scattered American resistance, was slower than the northern group. As a result, Manteuffel’s trap on the Schnee Eifel did not close until nightfall on 17 December. General Jones had given the troops east of the Our River permission to withdraw at 9:45 AM, but it was too late to organize an orderly withdrawal by that time. This order, and the slow German southern arm, gave more Americans a chance to escape, but since they had newly arrived in the area, and had few compasses or maps, most were unable to take advantage of the opportunity. The American positions east of the Our had become the Schnee Eifel Pocket. Following the German attacks sweeping around their position, the two regiments of the 106th Division, the 422nd and 423rd had remained in place, since they had heard that the Germans would launch artillery and patrols against them as they would any new division taking a place on the line. The German activity during the counter offensive seemed to follow this pattern, and since communication with the division headquarters in St. Vith was unreliable and intermittent, the Americans had remained for the most part inert. The few messages received indicated they could withdraw, but that counterattacks from the 7th and 9th Armored divisions would probably clear the Germans out of the area anyway. It was only at 2:15 AM on 18 December that they received an order from Jones to break out to the west along the Bleialf – Schoenberg – St. Vith road, clearing the area of Germans in the process. At 10 AM that morning, the breakout began with Colonel Cavender leading the attack with the 423d Infantry. By nightfall both regiments had covered three miles to the base of the ridge forming the east side of the Our River valley, and were prepared to attack and capture the bridge at Schoenberg at 10 AM the next day. At 9 AM on the 19th, the American positions came under artillery bombardment, and the 18th Volksgrenadiers overran the 590th Field Artillery Battalion who were to provide support for the attack. The attack was launched at 10 AM anyway, but came under assault gun and anti-aircraft gunfire from armored fighting vehicles on the ridge to their front. Volksgrenadiers advanced from the flanks firing small arms. This was bad enough, but then the tanks of the Führer Begleit Brigade appeared behind them, on their way around the traffic jam at Schoenberg, it was the last straw. The Americans were under fire from all sides and running low on ammunition. At this point Colonel Descheneaux, commander of the 422 decided to surrender the American forces in the pocket. At 4 PM, this surrender was formalized and the two regiments of the 106th division and all their supporting units, approximately 7,000 men, became prisoners of the German Army. A different grouping of scattered American soldiers under the command of Major Ouellette, numbering some 500 men surrendered later, but by 8 AM on 21 December, all organized resistance by American forces in the Schnee Eifel pocket ended. This marked the most extensive defeat suffered by American forces in the European Theatre. As the trap snapped shut on the Schnee Eifel on 17 December, rapid change was occurring at the headquarters of the 106th Division in St. Vith. Brigadier General Bruce Cooper Clarke, leader of CCB 7th Armored Division had arrived in the morning, with news that his command was on the road to St. Vith, but would probably not arrive until later that afternoon. This was bad news for Jones, who was hoping for a quick deliverance from his problems by the arrival of organized reinforcements. The situation was not improved by the appearance of a demoralized Colonel Devine with news that German Tiger tanks were right on his heels. With the appearance of German scouts on the hills east of town, Jones decided he had had enough. “I’ve thrown in my last chips.” He told Clarke, and turned over defense of the area to Clarke. Clarke saw his first task as getting his command into St. Vith, and proceeded to the traffic jams on the Rodt – St. Vith road to force his CCB into St. Vith. By midnight of the 17th, he had managed to set up the beginnings of what was called the “horseshoe defense” of St. Vith, a line of units to the north, east and south of town. These units came mainly from the 7th and 9th Armored Divisions, but included troops from the 424th Regiment of the 106th Division, and various supporting artillery, tank, and tank destroyer battalions. As Clarke was cursing and threatening his way through the traffic jams west of St. Vith, Model and Manteuffel were doing the same in the traffic jams east of Schoenberg. Meeting Manteuffel in the confusion, Model ordered him to capture St. Vith on the 18th, giving him control of the Fuhrer Begleit Brigade to make sure the objective would be met. It was not to be however, for the armor brigade had bogged down in the traffic jams, and the 18th and 62nd Volksgrenadiers were busy reducing the Schnee pocket and rebuilding the bridge at Steinbruck. The mechanized combat engineer battalion of the 18th Volksgrenadiers, with a group from the 1st SS Panzer, did attack from the north, but were repelled by counterattacks from the 7th and 9th Armored. The final attack on St. Vith was belatedly launched on 21 December, but by then St. Vith had become more of a liability than an asset. Attacks from the 1st SS Panzer Division had cut the Rodt – St. Vith road, and the advance of the LVIII Panzer Corps south of St. Vith threatened to close a pincer around the entire St. Vith salient at Vielsalm, eleven miles west of St. Vith, trapping most of the First Army. The German attack began at 3 PM with a heavy artillery barrage. The climax of the attack was, once again, the wandering German 506th Heavy Panzer Battalion. Six of these titans attacked from the Schoenberg – St. Vith road against American positions on the Prumberg. Attacking after dark at 5 PM the Tiger tanks fired star shells into American positions, blinding the defenders, and followed up with armor-piercing shell, destroying all the American defending vehicles. Around 9:30 PM, Clarke, who had earlier stated, “This terrain is not worth a nickel an acre to me.” ordered American forces to withdraw to the west. German forces poured into the town, happily looting the remaining American supplies and equipment, in the process creating another traffic jam that prevented pursuit of the American forces.