17 December: Breakthrough

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series Battle of the Bulge Day by Day

Early in the morning, around 4 o’clock, Peiper, together with 1./FJR 9, launched the attack on Honsfeld, with Panther and M4 Sherman tanks. The latter were part of operation “Greif” in which German soldiers disguised as Americans tried to cause confusion. Although the day before the Fallschirmjäger still objected because of the many fortified positions, they managed to surprise the Americans and take the village. Large amounts of equipment, including trucks, half-tracks and guns were captured, under the loss of only two Panther tanks (232 and 235).

Soldiers from the Kampfgruppe Peiper Leibstandarte Division in the Belgian town of Honsfeld
German troops entering Honsfeld

As petrol is consumed at a much faster rate than expected, Peiper decides to head north towards Büllingen. According to intelligence, there is an American petrol depot located there. By heading in this direction, Peiper deviates from the ordered attack route “Rollbahn D” and now enters the Rollbahn of the 12th SS Panzerdivision “Hitler Jugend” advancing on his northern flank. However, as the 12th is still lagging behind, Peiper can do so without causing a massive traffic jam. Büllingen is taken without opposition at 8:30. Peiper later said that, 200,000 litres of petrol were captured. American prisonners are ordered to help refuel the tanks. An hour later, an American bombardment of Büllingen follows, causing some casualties.

Around 9 o’clock, the time Peiper entered Büllingen, Westerhagen’s Tigers reach Honsfeld. Here, a Tiger takes out two American anti-tank guns. In the afternoon, the Tigers pass through Büllingen. As the Tigers leave the village, the column is strafed by eleven Thunderbolt fighters of the IX TAC (Tactical Air Command). At least one Tiger is immobilized and stays behind.

Because of the poor roads, several Tigers suffer damage to final drives, drive sprockets and the like. Some return to Büllingen for repairs. Westerhagen’s battalion slowly begins to lose cohesion when some commanders, in search of better roads, choose a divergent route via southerly villages Amel, Deidenberg and Born. One of the Tigers that took this route was Kurt Sowa’s 222. This is perhaps the best photographed Tiger in the Ardennes. It was recorded by an unknown SS PK-Kriegsberichter at several locations along Rollbahn E. The images below show parachutists of the FJR 9 hitching a ride on the back of this particular Tiger.

The video below shows footage taken by the unknown Kriegsberichter. All scenes show elements of 1. SS-Panzer-Division “Leibstandarte“, but units of the schnelle Gruppe Knittel are most prominently featured. The footage was captured by the Americans during the offensive and never aired in Germany. The last minute illustrates the poor quality of the roads, full of mud and riddled with potholes.

Other Tigers continued to follow the same route as Peiper’s vanguard, which by now had moved on along Rollbahn D in a south-westerly direction past Schoppen and Moderscheid. For the first time during its advance, the Kampfgruppe faced stiff opposition in the form of tanks near Ligneuville (in German the village is called Engelsdorf). Several Sherman tanks and an M10 tank destroyer were knocked out, at the cost of one Panther and two half-tracks. The Hotel du Moulin located here acted as Brigadier-General Timberlake’s command post, but the latter managed to escape.

IMGP5302 web

Peiper could now advance towards Stavelot with its crucial bridge over the Amblève River. It was already dark when Peiper reached the hill south-east of Stavelot. The route followed a narrow road with a high cliff on the left and the river valley on the right. While they could already see Stavelot before them in the valley, the Kampfgruppe was startled by a lookout for a nearby American roadblock, which had been set up in haste earlier that afternoon. The lookout, armed with only a rifle is said to have shouted ‘Halt’, which was answered with a barrage of machine-gun fire. While the roadblock crew made their exit to the town, Peiper decided not to risk advancing further through the next bend.

He ordered his tanks to halt until the following morning. Little did he know that Stavelot was left virtually undefended at this point. The first reinforcements would not arrive until the following morning. Because of the march break, the King Tigers of the 501st, managed to catch up with the Kampfgruppe again, and would join the spearhead the next day.