20 December: Cut-off

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series Battle of the Bulge Day by Day

Peiper was in a dire situation at the beginning of this day. He was forced to withdraw the exposed troops west of Stoumont station. The 119th Infantry Regiment and 740 Tank Battalion attacked and eventually reached the western edge of Stoumont. Here, however, their advance stalled at a well-defended minefield. The Sanatorium “St. Édouard”, a large building north of the road, now became the focal point of the battle.

The position was of such strategic importance that fierce fighting broke out in and around the building, and it changed hands several times. The occupants had no choice but to take shelter in the basement. By the end of the day, the Sanatorium was in German hands and the Americans withdrew.

Advance of Combat Command B

Meanwhile, danger also loomed from a northern direction, from which Combat Command B (CCB) of the 3rd Armoured Division was advancing. CCB was divided into three battalion-sized Task Forces, named after their commanders: TF Jordan was moving towards Stoumont from the north, while TF McGeorge and TF Lovelady were heading towards La Gleize.

Peiper had meanwhile received welcome reinforcements from Sandig’s 2nd battalion Panzergrenadier-Regiment 2. They had made their way from the west bank of the Amblève to La Gleize on foot, as the bridge at Petit-Spai could not carry their vehicles.

At this time, several King Tigers and Panzer IVs, supported by Panzergrenadiere, had taken up blocking positions on the roads towards the village. Tiger 334, was positioned in the north, on the road towards Bourgomont. Sperrgruppe Mühle (Blocking group “mill”) was situated on an important junction towards Trois-Ponts near Moulin Maréchal. The group consisted of Hantusch’s Tiger 221 along with some Panzer IVs and a Puma reconnaissance vehicle. However, when the half-tracks and tanks from TF Lovelady marched from Francorchamps towards Trois-Ponts, they were able to pass the German blocking position unscathed.

Moulin Marechal Google maps
Moulin Maréchal along the N33 towards La Gleize (left). Source: Google maps

When the fog in the valley lifted, the column of about 30 vehicles was actually sighted by a scout of the blocking group. However, at the idea to attack the approaching tanks on the higher road, east of their position Hantusch is supposed to have said, “Fire uphill? I’m not tired of living. I only have 3 centimeters of armour on top”. The German failure to engage Lovelady’s column, proved to be a critical mistake, substantially worsening their tactical situation.

Lovelady’s task force managed to surprise and destroy a petrol supply convoy as they emerged from the treeline along the La Gleize – Trois-Ponts road. Subsequently, their advance on Trois-Ponts forced Knittel to fight a defensive battle with his rearguard, supported by Brandt’s King Tiger and 75 mm guns. Under the cover of dense fog that hung in the river valley, the Task Force was able to advance far beyond Trois-Ponts. From a short distance, the Germans shot six Sherman tanks to pieces, which remained criss-crossed along the road.

6th SS Panzerarmee map dec 20 25
Map of the actions from 20-25 December. Colours added by author for clarity. Source: Cole, The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge

Stavelot and Cheneux

Schnelle Gruppe Knittel and Kampfgruppe Sandig were still frantically trying to force a way through Stavelot so that Peiper could be provided with the necessary supplies. Sandig’s attack force had by now been reduced to just the first battalion of SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 2, after the 2nd and 3rd had joined Peiper. The task at hand seems to have become almost impossible after the bridge was blown up the day before.

91 15 indianamilitary.org Scenes of the 105th Combat Engineers
A view of the destroyed Stavelot bridge and the Amblève river after the war. A wooden footbridge had since been erected over the gap. Source: indianamilitary.org, “Scenes of the 105th Combat Engineers”

During the attack, which began early in the morning, the Germans waded neck-deep through the river. A perilous operation, not least because of the fast-flowing, freezing water. By the light of illuminating flares fired overhead, the American defenders on the north bank had a clear field of fire. As such, the wading soldiers posed easy targets and were picked off one by one.

Knittel continued to put pressure on Stavelot from the other side of the river. He almost succeeded in penetrating the town from the north unseen, but the attackers were discovered, and the attack was broken off. Wendt’s Tiger 132 supported the failed attack by 2./SS-Aufklärungsabteilung 1.

To the south-east, the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne, had launched a frontal attack on Cheneux. Here exhausted elements of the SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 2, which had taken part in the fighting around Stoumont the previous day, lay in defensive positions, supported by Flakpanzer and artillery. The paratroopers suffered high losses in the repeated attacks on Cheneux. By the evening, their terrain gains were small, only a few hundred meters.

Field Artillery
Field Artillery position somewhere in the Ardennes

Along with the influx of US troops on the battlefield, there was also an increase in available artillery support. Any German troop movement was punished by artillery bombardment. In addition, German positions were alternately shelled with heavy and lighter artillery barrages. It is even said that when at one time a battery ran out of normal rounds, they kept firing empty propaganda ammunition, just to keep shells pouring down on the Germans.

Grille SPG
One of Peiper’s “Grille” self-propelled artillery guns

All the while the American artillery grew in power, that of Peiper remained virtually silent. The dwindling supplies of fuel and ammunition began to have a crippling effect on Kampfgruppe Peiper. After contact could finally be made with divisional headquarters, a supply drop for on the 22nd was arranged. But was Peiper able to last that long?