16 December: At a Snail’s Pace

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series Battle of the Bulge Day by Day

It is 5:20 in the morning when artillery fire from the 6th Army begins on the forward US positions, 10 minutes before H hour. Infantry of the 3rd Fallschirmjäger-Division and 12th Volksgrenadier-Division precede the Kampfgruppe to break US resistance along the main line of attack. To this end, they would advance through the ‘Losheim Gap’, a weakly defended point on the border of US VIII Corps and US V Corps.

Losheim Gap cut out
Map cut-out showing the Losheim gap between Losheimergraben and Losheim, as well as the relevant American and German unit positions. Source: Cole, The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge

However, the advance of the infantry did not go smooth. An 18-man strong, lightly armed Intelligence & Reconnaissance (I&R) platoon of the 394th Infantry Regiment kept the large force of incoming attackers at bay far longer than expected. They managed to repel the paratroopers’ attacks towards Lanzerath three times and inflict heavy losses upon them. Finally, due to lack of ammunition, they eventually had to give up their position, after which they were captured.

Watch this video featuring veterans of the I&R platoon of the 99th Infantry Division sharing their experiences of that day

As these fights were happening, Peiper waited for the big infantry breakthrough, which was a long time coming. Only around 16:00 did the order to advance towards Losheim come in anticipation of the capture of Lanzerath. Losheim was the starting point of Peipers attack route. He was assigned “Rollbahn D” (route D). In comparison to the other Rollbahnen, Peipers route was relatively poor, consisting of many narrow and windy single track roads. Even before the offensive began, Peiper had said his route was not suitable for tanks, but for bicycles.

The roads towards Losheim were completely clogged with advancing infantry, mounted artillery and numerous other German vehicles. Peiper ordered his troops to “push through rapidly and to run down anything in the road ruthlessly”.

When the column reached the viaduct over the Stadtkyll-Malmedy railway line, they found it was impassible. Indeed, after having been destroyed in the German retreat 3 months ago, the bridge had not been repaired yet. After some delay, a detour was found by which the railway could be crossed. Only later in the afternoon, engineers installed a temporary bridge.

Losheim railway bridge
A temporary bridge over the railway line was installed by engineers

Because of the narrow roads, most of the time the vehicles had to drive single file, making an almost 25 km long column. This meant that on the narrow and badly passable roads, it was by no means possible to change direction or reorganize. For this reason, the Spitze (spearhead) was extra reinforced, with Panzergrenadiere in half-tracks (III./SS-Pz.Rgt 2), as well as Panther and Panzer IV tanks from the 1st and 6st Companies of SS-Panzer-Regiment 1. The main body of the Kampfgruppe was to be followed by the King Tigers of the schwere SS Panzer-Abteilung 501.

Initial organization of sSS-Pz.Abt. 501, 45 Tigers strong, on the eve of battle. Source: Duel in the Mist 2, Les destin des Tiger de Peiper [exact commanders of the 1e Zug (platoon) 2./501 differ from source to source, I’ve taken the middle ground here]. The second Westerhagen in 331, is Heinz’ brother Rolf

Although the King Tigers were on the move, they were, in fact, still far behind the front. After delays, they set off from their staging area in the late afternoon. The Tigers were captured on video on this day in the small town of Tondorf in the Eifel. The footage, recorded by an SS-Kriegsberichter (war correspondent), shows how Tigers 222, 008 as well as 009 manoeuvre through the narrow Mechernicher Straße. The initial battalion’s marching order was supposed have been 2nd Company, Staff Company, 3rd Company, 1st Company.

The forward elements of the Kampfgruppe reached Losheim at 19:30. Prompted by the lack of a breakthrough by the 12th Volksgrenadier Division at Losheimergraben, the Kampfgruppe was now ordered to advance towards Honsfeld via Lanzerath. Without seeing an enemy along the way, several Panthers were still lost in German and American minefields.

On their way to Losheim, KG Peiper passed through Merlscheid, where this photo was taken.

They reached Lanzerath around midnight and encountered the Fallschirmjäger-Regiment (FJR) 9 here. It was only at dusk that the paratroopers had managed to capture this place by attacking from the flank. Peiper was enraged by all the delays, and when it appeared that the battalion of paratroopers were taking up defensive positions for the night, he demanded an attack on Honsfeld.

The commanding officer of the parachute regiment protested, citing fortified positions and mines reportedly present in the woods, but as it turned out, no one had scouted the area. Peiper commandeered the first battalion of FJR 9 which would lead the breakthrough the next day.

Peiper had realized all along it was a mistake to let the infantry spearhead the offensive, and indeed much valuable time had been lost as the advancing infantry failed to accomplish the necessary breakthroughs.


One response to “16 December: At a Snail’s Pace”

  1. This is a fantastic piece. I can’t wait to see the others.

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