The Forgotten Epic Defense of St. Vith, Belgium in the Battle of the Bulge

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The Forgotten Epic Defense of St. Vith, Belgium

in the Battle of the Bulge
By William Hokanson, Lt Col, U.S. Army, Retired
In activities marking the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, most of the attention will be focused on Bastogne, where the surrounded but defiant American commander said “Nuts” to a German surrender demand. But the epic defense of St. Vith, a road and rail center that was even more vital to the German plan to seize Antwerp and split the Allies, has largely been forgotten.

The defenders of St. Vith, the 168th Engineer Combat Battalion, remnants of the 81st Engineer Combat Battalion, and elements of Combat Command B, 7th Armored Division which reinforced the engineers on the second day, didn’t get the press coverage that the surrounded 101st Airborne Division did at Bastogne. Part of the reason was that the beleagured defenders of St. Vith were eventually ordered to withdraw and St. Vith was ceded to the Germans. Those who could really tell the story of what happened at St. Vith were either killed or captured. Another reason for the dearth of coverage was that the poor performance of some units at St. Vith, most notably the green 106th Infantry Division, which had two of its regiments surrender, was an embarrassment to the American high command.

The details of the fighting in that cold December 60 years ago have remained largely untold. This account has been summarized from a longer article based on after action reports and unit journals recovered from the Army’s archives, personal accounts written by two officers who played key roles in the defense, and interviews with several 168th veterans.

Unlike the 106th Infantry, which had been in Europe only a week and in its assigned defensive sector only four days when the Germans attacked, the 168th Engineers had been in the area since late September. They were hardened veterans of the breakout from Normandy and the campaign to capture the Brittany peninsula and the fortified port city of Brest. The battalion had supported the 2nd Infantry Division in both Brittany and Belgium, and when the 2nd Division was replaced by the 106th it continued that mission in support of the 106th. This involved road and bridge repair to keep supply lines open, and timber cutting and sawing to provide materials for bunker and protective shelter construction.

The Germans unleashed their surprise offensive at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday, December 16, 1944. In the St. Vith sector, two motorized grenadier divisions and an SS armored division were thrown against the 106th Division, spread thinly over an 18-mile front. Not expecting any kind of major attack, many American units were thrown into confusion by the size of the onslaught. In places, the Germans managed a numerical superiority of ten to one. Ten miles east of St. Vith, two regiments of the 106th battled the Germans most of the day. By nightfall, the size of the German effort was beginning to be recognized; but by then the Germans had outflanked and cut off the two forward regiments and were ready to seize the town of Schoenburg, only six miles east of St. Vith.

Late on the afternoon of the first day of the attack, the 168th Engineer Battalion had been attached directly to the 106th Division and ordered to set up a perimeter defense of St. Vith. By 10 p.m. the engineers had established road blocks on all roads coming in from the north, east, and south. They also prepared obstacles and set up security patrols on all approaches. While chaos continued to the east and Combat Command B of the 7th Armored Division, (commanded by Brigadier General Bruce C. Clarke) was fighting clogged roads to come to the 106th’s relief, the 168th Engineers passed an uneventful night as the main defenders of St. Vith.

At 10:30 the next morning, the 168th was relieved of the perimeter defense mission and ordered to take up defensive positions in Heum, about a mile west of Schoenburg and about five miles east of St. Vith. Lt Col Thomas J. Riggs, the 106th’s Division Engineer and commander of the 81st Engineer Battalion, was placed in command of this defensive task force, which consisted of three companies of the 168th Engineers commanded by Lt Col William Nungesser, about 40 men from his own battalion’s headquarters and A company, and an infantry platoon that normally provided security for the 106th Division headquarters.

Reconnaissance reported that Heum was already in enemy hands, so Riggs, in consultation with Nungesser, decided to dig in their forces on the eastern slope of the Prumerberg, the first high ground east of St. Vith.

Defensive positions on both sides of the road were established by noon and some of the security platoon were sent forward to establish outposts. The engineers understood they had been ordered to hold this position “at all costs”, but it seemed to Lt Bill Holland, commander of Company B, 168th Engineers, that “everyone else seemed to have orders to withdraw.” Numerous division and corps artillery units, which had been ordered to displace to the rear, withdrew through the engineer position.

About 1 p.m. Holland persuaded a tank company commander of the 14th Cavalry Group, whose unit was heavily engaged near Schoenburg, not to withdraw as ordered, but to hold another hour to give the engineers more time to dig in and get their defensive positions set. Shortly thereafter, German patrols made contact with the 168th at two different places, but withdrew after brief fire fights.

Soon thereafter, Lt Holland and his first sergeant, Richard H. Lennox were making a reconnaissance forward of their position and met two infantrymen from the security platoon walking back toward them. They had abandoned a .50 caliber machine gun set up near the edge of the woods. They retraced their steps about 100 yards to show Holland and Lennox where the enemy was. Holland and Lennox crawled the last dozen yards to where the machine gun had been left.

Reaching the gun, Holland looked up and saw a German Tiger tank in the road about 125 yards ahead and about 25 feet higher than where he and Lennox were. The Germans were putting a 105mm towed artillery piece into position on the road in front of the tank. After the gun was in position, six or seven crew members lined up on both sides in a parade ground formation. Holland opened up on them with the .50 caliber and killed or wounded all of them.

The Tiger tank began spitting machine gun fire back at Holland and Lennox, but from its higher position it could not depress its gun low enough, even though it moved forward to the sloping edge of the road in an effort to tilt itself. Holland then grabbed a bazooka, and after discovering how to take the safety off (earlier models he was familiar with had no safety switch) fired two rounds at the tank before setting it afire with his third and last round.

Fearing other Germans might have spotted their position, Holland, Lennox, and the two infantrymen moved the machine gun another 75 yards south, away from the road. From their new position they could see around the curve and observed the serious problem they had created for the enemy. On the road, packed bumper-to bumper for nearly a quarter mile were more German tanks. Farther back, double parked along more tanks, were 2 1/2 ton trucks, some of which Holland thought were captured American equipment. He suspected that they were loaded with troops, but couldn’t really tell from his vantage point. The commander of one of the German tanks, about 150 yards away, stood up tall in his turret to try to see where the fire was coming from. Holland raised his .30 caliber carbine and fired one shot. The German fell back in the turret dead.

About this time, four American P-47 fighter planes flew over the tank column on a course perpendicular to the road. Holland could tell that they didn’t have bombs in their racks, but the Germans evidently could not. On the first strafing pass, a couple of the German tanks fired their machine guns at the planes, but without effect. On the second, third, and fourth passes, the Germans, apparently fearing being bombed, began bailing out of their tanks to seek shelter in the ditch. Every time the P-47’s strafed with their eight .50 caliber machine guns, Holland raked the dismounting enemy tank crews with withering fire from his machine gun. After emptying nearly two boxes of ammunition, Holland saw that his supply was running out. He fired the last two rounds into the lead enemy tank and then returned, with the others, to his company’s defensive position.

About 2 p.m. some armored cars with 37 mm. guns of Troop B, 87th Recon Squadron of the 7th Armored Division began arriving to reinforce the engineers. By 4:30 p.m. two other 7th Armored Division units had made it to St Vith – Company A, 31st Armored Battalion (Medium Tank) and Company B, 23rd Armored Infantry Battalion. None were part of the 38th Armored Infantry Battalion, whose commander, Lt Col W.H.G. Fuller, had been put in charge of all the defenders east of St Vith by Brig Gen Clarke.

Shortly before dusk Sgt Jim Hill and Pfc Lester Bornstein of Company B, 168th, stopped a German tank with a bazooka, that was making a probe of the position, accompanied by infantrymen. A few hours later, about 8 p.m. the Germans resumed their attack with several tanks accompanied by infantrymen straight up the road to St. Vith and into the engineer defensive position. The engineers opened up with everything they had – M-1 rifles, and both .30 and .50 caliber machine guns. (Over their months since Normandy they had acquired quite a few more machine guns than they were normally equipped with.) The lead Tiger tank was hit by a bazooka and brought to a halt. Another enemy tank, accompanied by infantry came up through a fire break in the woods. A detail from Company C pulled a “daisy chain” of mines across its path, while the rest of the company drove off the infantry with small arms fire. Fierce fighting continued for a couple of hours, with the platoon of Company C immediately adjacent to the road taking the heaviest casualties.

At 9 p.m. a company from the 38th Armored Infantry finally arrived to reinforce the engineers, who were then attached to Fuller’s 38th Armored Infantry Battalion. But according to Lt Holland, the units were already cooperating as a fighting unit under the direction of Major Donald P. Boyer, the S3 (operations officer) of the 38th. Throughout the engagement, Holland regarded Boyer as the tactical commander on the ground. (Commanders of the battalions involved were in command posts farther to the rear.)

When Company B of the 38th arrived around midnight, they dug defensive positions immediately behind the 168th Engineers. After the infantry was dug in on the right, Troop B of the 87th Recon Squadron was repositioned on the left side of the road. Then the engineers were ordered to withdraw through these units and shift to the right, extending the defensive line farther to the south. This realignment was carried out during the pre-dawn darkness without much interference, since the Germans were apparently having some problems of their own.

All Monday morning the Americans could hear the sounds of tanks and other vehicles moving into attack positions in front of them. At 10 a.m. the Germans launched an attack in force up the Schoenberg road into the position occupied by Company B of the 38th Armored Infantry. When the infantry line showed signs of not being strong enough to hold, elements of Holland’s B Company, 168th Engineers, moved over to bolster the defense. After a heavy hour-long fire fight, the enemy was repulsed.

At 11:45 a.m. after heavy mortar and artillery fire on the American position, the Germans attacked again. The combined efforts of officers of the 38th Infantry and 168th Engineers rallied the troops. Again, Holland’s Company B helped stop the enemy and forced them to withdraw.

Ten minutes later, several hundred yards to the south Companies A and C of the 168th Engineers came under heavy attack. Timely artillery and mortar fire helped the engineers stop the enemy from gaining any ground and caused them to withdraw.

At 12:45 p.m. a third enemy attack began against the 38th Infantry at the Schoenberg road. Again, Holland’s Company B came to their aid. After two hours of fierce fighting, the attack was again thrown back, with the assistance of artillery and mortar fire.

Besides the mortar support which had arrived the previous night with the 38th Armored Infantry, the defenders also had forward observers to call 105 mm artillery fire from the 275th Field Artillery Battalion. This was a unit that happened to be in the area and to its everlasting credit volunteered to remain and support the defending task force.

About 2 p.m. two Sherman tanks with 76 mm guns came up behind the 168th Engineer position to provide reinforcement. While one tank commander was being briefed by Lt. Holland, two enemy tanks and two track mounted assault guns broke through the woods about 800 yards to the front. The first shot from the Sherman hit the lead assault gun, spun it around sideways, and set it afire. The remaining enemy vehicles sped back into the woods.

Early the next morning, infantry patrols found that the area being used by the enemy for attack positions during the previous day had been evacuated. The entire infantry, armor, and engineer defensive line was moved forward into the German positions. To make these positions usable, more than 200 enemy dead had to be removed from the area.

The rest of December 19, 20 and into the early hours of December 21 saw noticeably increased enemy artillery fire falling on the American defensive positions. Artillery rounds bursting in trees caused the most casualties, despite efforts by the defenders to cover their foxholes with timber and earth. During this period there was little activity by enemy foot soldiers, but the defenders experienced increased difficulty maintaining communications because their telephone lines were frequently cut by enemy artillery. Unknown to the defenders on the Prumerberg, the Germans had been able to advance westward both to the north and south of St. Vith, leaving them on the forward nose of a narrow salient that was still under American control.

Enemy artillery continued to pound the American position, increasing in tempo as the day wore on. At 3 p.m. an intense barrage opened up with German 88’s, “screaming meemie” rockets, mortars, and other artillery. About dusk, at 5:30 p.m. the hostile fire died down. The defenders took stock as they waited for the assault they felt would soon be upon them. The engineers had incurred considerable casualties. Troop B, 87th Recon had 30 men left from its original 125. Company A of the 38th Armored Infantry was less than a quarter of its initial strength. It was evident to the commanders that a strong enemy assault would now be stopped only with the greatest difficulty.

Well after dark, about 10 p.m. on December 21, the Germans began a well-coordinated night attack with infantry and armor. Tank-infantry teams moved forward a short distance and stopped. The enemy infantry hit the ground and fired flares over the American positions, illuminating them. The tanks then picked targets and opened fire against the American Shermans and mortar half-tracks silhouetted by the flares. When the flares died, the tank-infantry teams resumed coordinated forward movement.

Ahead of this tank-infantry force, a charge by a German infantry unit had broken through behind Company B, 38th Infantry. German tanks rolled to a cross roads where four Sherman tanks opened up on them. More flares were launched behind the Shermans and two were knocked out. Two more Shermans came up from the south, one was disabled and the remaining three withdrew back toward St. Vith. Strong enemy patrols infiltrated through the front line positions and worked their way back behind the task force command post. Shortly after the American tanks had withdrawn, German armor rolled down the Schoenberg Road past the command post and on toward St. Vith. Behind them came a solid column of German troops. All that remained of the Prumerberg defense was that part of the line held by the 168th Engineers, which had never been penetrated.

Sometime after midnight, when it became clear that the Germans had finally succeeded in breaking through, orders were sent to those still in position, including all of the 168th Engineer companies, to form into small groups and attempt to infiltrate back into friendly lines. Lt Col Riggs came personally to the 168th Engineer position to give Lt. Holland the message, because he was afraid it had not been received by radio. Riggs’ plan was to withdraw south and west of St. Vith until friendly lines could be reached. It took Lt. Holland and the other officers several hours to notify all the men on line that they would be pulling out. They formed into small groups in the early morning light, the wet flakes of a heavy snow storm stinging their tired eyes. They held onto each other’s belts or coats to try to keep together. There was an extreme quietness of the battlefield, Lt Holland later recalled. Although exhausted from six days of fighting and practically no sleep, a few of the men managed to make it back to friendly lines. Most, although they evaded German patrols and sentries all that day and the next night, were taken prisoner by the Germans.

Eventually, these engineer, infantry, armor units as well as the rest of Clarke’s Combat Command B, 7th Armored Division, would receive Presidential Unit Citations for their heroic stand in defense of St. Vith. So significant was this engagement that Bruce Clarke, who later advanced to four stars, commanded both the 7th Army in Germany, the 8th Army in Korea and retired in 1962 as Commander in Chief, U.S. Army Europe, titled his auto-biography Clarke of St. Vith. In the 1950’s he authored an Armored School training pamphlet entitled: “The Defense of St Vith, Belgium: A Classic Example of Armor in the Defense.”

In a later strategic study of the Battle of the Bulge, the German writer Carl Wagener said:

“Nearly all accounts of the Ardennes offensive have come to the conclusion that the defense of St. Vith and Bastogne had decisive influence on the battle . . . . The first aim of the attacker (however) was the Meuse [River]. Any loss of time would have to be avoided. . . . The capture of Bastogne was not important to this aim . . . . St Vith played a different role because of its position just behind the front. The place had to be taken if the enemy [American] front were to be broken through there.”

The German plan called for the capture of St. Vith by the second day. But the stubborn, sometimes desperate defense by this small force of combat engineers, infantrymen, tankers, and artillerymen seriously disrupted the German timetable and doomed to failure Hitler’s last mad gamble of World War II. Unfortunately this heroic and significant defense of St. Vith has not received the recognition it deserves.
About the Author: William Hokanson, LTC, U.S. Army Retired, served as a lieutenant and captain in the 168th Engineer Battalion in Germany in 1960-63. (He is not a veteran of World War II) During his Army career he commanded an engineer construction company in Vietnam and a combat engineer battalion in Germany. He served in various staff assignments at battalion, division, corps, and army level. Following his retirement in 1980 he was Director of Communications, Harvard Business School in Boston until 1988. He holds a journalism degree and has been a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and other newspapers, editor of several small magazines, and a public relations consultant.

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