History of the Second World War, Volume 5

way to contain and eventually erase a salient created by a major offensive —as proved in the First World War —was first to hold the shoulders o f the penetration. Firm shoulders would deny the enemy the room he required i f major forces were to be committed. Coun­terattack from the flanks then might lime in ­ate the restricted penetration. As modified only by a determination to deny the Ger­mans the critical road net at Bastogne th a twas how the American command went about facing its task. Yet all the early moves were makeshift, designed to meet the immediate emergency. The broad long-range decisions remained to betaken. These General Eisenhower faced ashe gathered on December 19 in a damp old caserne in Verdun with key members o f his staff. With him were Bradley Patton and Lieutenant-G eneral Jacob L. Devers the latter commanding the 6th Army Group, which controlled an American army and a French army forming the southern end of the Allied line. He wanted to see Eisenhower said at the first only cheerful faces. Anew in fan try division he revealed al­ ready had arrived in France and would be moved forward quickly. Three new divisions were to accelerate their shipping schedules from way-stations in Britain and he would ask that divisions alerted for early move­ment from the U n i ted States ship their in ­fan try regiments in advance direct to French ports. He also would ask authority for artil­lery units to use the radar-controlled 'prox­imity fuse (a scientific advance formerly deemed so secret th a tit had been employed only by anti-aircraft units protecting ships at sea) which caused shells to burst with deadly effect while instill the air above the target. The American offensives th a thad been underway north and south o f the Ardennes, Eisenhower directed were to be halted. Both Bradley and the commander o f the 21st Army Group Field-M arshal Bernard L. Montgomery were to look to the possibility of limited withdrawals to gain reserves but in no event were withdrawals to be made beyond the west bank o f the Meuse river. Simpson was to extend his 9th Army south­ward to release divisions o f the 1st Army around Aachen while Devers 6th Army Group was to extend northward to free the bulk o f P attons 3rd Army for counterattack. Although the more obvious and desirable method of counterattack was to strike simultaneously from north and south close along the base o f the German penetration, so preoccupied was Hodges with trying to contain the penetration that only Patton would be able to move swiftly. That being the case Patton was to attack not along the base of the penetration but toward Bastogne. thereFrom he was to continue north-east­ward to another road centre at Houffalize, thereto meet Hodges troops coming down from the north. While note lim in a ting the penetration th a tat least would contain it. As for the cheerful faces that Eisenhower requested Patton gave him ebullience. He could start his counterattack Patton in­sisted —despite looks o f incredulity on the faces o f his colleagues just—in over 72 hours, early on December 22. The meeting at Verdun had not long ad­journed when Eisenhowers Chief of In­telligence a British officer M ajor-G eneral Kenneth W. D. Strong remarked that soon the German thrust would so split the 12th Army Group th a tall forces north o f the pene­tration should be transferred to Field- Marshal M ontgom erys command. I twas an explosive suggestion for Eisenhower had so far resisted placing large bodies of American troops under foreign command and had specifically rejected an oft-recurring pro­posal that Montgomery be made overall ground commander on the Western Front. The proposal nevertheless made sense —as even a shocked and hurt Bradley would have to adm it—for direct telephone communica­tions already had been cut long-range radio was no substitute for the telephone and the German salient made travel between Brad­ leys headquarters in Luxembourg City and those of Hodges and Simpson in the north circuitous at best. Since the counteroffensive opened Bradley had met Hodges face to face only once and confusion there was not only from streams of stragglers and civilian refugees but in the command structure as well. Neither Hodges nor the corps com­mander Middleton could possibly maintain contact with all units on the broken flu ctu ­ a ting front. To pull Bradleys headquarters out o f Luxembourg City to a position west of the Meuse whence Bradley might control the entire front would be to flirt with panic among the civilian population and possibly to damage the morale of the troops as well. Yet what was more important to Eisen­ how er—and this sweetened the pill for Brad­ley —was that giving Montgomery command north of the penetration would assure use of British reserves which included an entire corps with four divisions and several ar­ moured brigades. I twas a step that would payoff as planned for Montgomery promptly ordered his 30th Corps to move to reserve positions between Liege and Brussels and announced that the British would assume responsibility for the Meuse bridges from Liege to the big bend in the rive rat N amur. Had Montgomery been an American or even had he been a less self-assured im­perious personality the shift in command would have been easier for American com­manders to take. As it was Montgomery on the 20th strode into the 1st Army s HQ (in the words of one o f his own staff) Christ'like come to cleanse the temple. He ignored the 1st Army s detailed operations map to con­sult a small one of his own on which he had plotted information provided by British liaison officers. He also declined General Hodges invitation to lunch turning instead to eat alone from a lunchbox and Thermos —which to be fair was his normal practice. Montgomery nevertheless approved the dispositions and measures Hodges had al­ ready taken. The incoming 30th Division, Hodges reported had cut Peipers supply byline retaking Stavelot other troops o f the 30th were battling Peiper at the tip o f his penetration to cover assembly of the 82nd Airborne Division a portion of the 3rd Arm oured Division was on the way Stand V ith was holding although the American position there had been compressed into a horseshoe-shaped salient maintaining only tenuous contact with other American forces to the rear. While approving Hodges moves Mont­gomery nevertheless urged withdrawal from two positions that the Americans considered to be key: the Elsenborn Ridge Stand V ith . I twas atypical Montgomery manoeuvre a step to 'tidy the battle field by removing what by any standards was a dangerous salient Stat V ith and to soften what was an admittedly sharp northern corner o f the German penetration at the Elsenborn Ridge. Yet when Hodges and his staff reacted with shocked disbelief Montgomery desisted. Having gone along with the American determination Montgomery went even farther sanctioning a move already planned by Hodges to send the 82nd Airborne Division skirting the south flank of Peiper’s penetration to push westward to the Salm river which represented the rear of the St V ith horseshoe. Other than Peipers task force which American reinforcements were now effectively bottling up tanks of the V I Panzer Army had yet to get over the Salm, so few were the roads available in the narrow corridor between the St V ith salient and the Elsenborn Ridge. To hold the Germans even temporarily at the Salm was to afford an avenue of escape for the troops inSt V ith while at the same time providing cover for assembling a force for counterattack. Montgomery wanted for counterattack he told Hodges the corps commander whom he deemed the 1st Army s most aggressive— M ajor-G eneral J. Law ton Collins who long ago had earned the nickname 'Lightning Joe. Pulled from the line near Aachen, Collins 7th Corps was to be filled out within fan try and armoured divisions and readied for counterattack to hit the Germans once they had extended themselves in their quest for bridges over the Meuse. inClosing on Bastogne As Montgomery was moving to shore up the extended northern shoulder combat com­mands o f the US 9th and 10th Arm oured Divisions were fighting a bitter delaying inaction front of Bastogne enabling the 101st Airborne Division to beat the Ger­mans into the town. Yet from Bastogne all the way north whereto the 82nd Airborne Division was assembling near W erbomont, no American line existed leaving a gap more than 20 miles wide that included the town of Houffalize. Having passed to the south o f St V ith two of General von M antueffels crack Panzer divisions —the II and the 116th —were h u rt­ ling almost without check into this gap. By nightfall of December 19 one column of 116th Panzer had reached H ouffalize while reconnaissance troops had pushed 10 miles farther to the south-west toward a west branch o f the O urthe river. This joins the east-west main branch at a point west of Houffalize where the O urthe makes a turn to the north-west for an eventual swing to the north. Fortunately for the American cause the troops forming for the defence o f Bastogne had pushed their northern perimeter out as far as the town o f N oville almost half the distance to Houffalize which left only one road leading west between N oville and Houffalize that already taken by the 116th Panzer Division. The position Nat oville blocked passage o f the II Panzer Division. Fortunately too General Middleton had rushed some of his conglomerate reserve —an engifieer battalion an independent tank destroyer battalion even a Canadian fores­try company—to destroy bridges and hold the west branch of the Ourthe. Before tanks of 116th Panzer could cross the way was barred with outposts and demolished bridges. Fortunately again the I I and 116th Pan­zer Divisions belonged to separate corps. Since the 116th had been scheduled to swing north-west after getting across the west branch o f the O urthe the corps commander deemed he had no choice in the absence of abridge but to recall his troops to Houffalize 2239
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