History of the Second World War, Volume 6

American armour deploys during a counterblow against the Bulge. Within ten days of the initial German thrust the American forces were again on the offensive but their efforts were much hampered by weather conditions like this No one could have discerned it with any certainty at the time but the day of December 221944 saw the beginning of the climax of the battle in the Ardennes. On that day in a blinding snowstorm General Patton made good his promise to counterattack. While rushing an infantry division into the line north-east of Luxembourg city to bolster a weakening American position at the southern base of the bulge he threw another infantry division and the veteran 4th Armoured Division into a drive to breakthrough to encircled Bastogne. The 3rd Army had withdrawn in the face of the enemy and executed a 90° shift indirection of attack with a speed unparalleled in military history. On that day too the Germans surrounding Bastogne tightened their encirclement and delivered a surrender ultimatum only to be left to ponder the meaning of the reply that came back in American slang: ‘Nuts! Also on the 22nd the Germans launched what they hoped would bethe last leg on the drive to the Meuse —the II Panzer Division already across the west branch of the river and the 116th Panzer Division driving from Houffalize along the north bank of the main branch with plans to cross the river where it swings north near Out of the east emerged what weathermen call a ‘Russian high', bringing in the wake of the days heavy snowfall sharply dropping temperatures that froze the ground allowing tanks —both Ameri­can and German —to manoeuvre freely but also bringing weather that allowed aircraft to operate again. Given the overwhelming Allied superiority in aircraft the advan­tage of clear skies rested fully with the Allied side. As December 23 dawned fighter-bombers and mediums would be out in force, wreaking havoc on German columns that heretofore had enjoyed virtual immunity to punishment from the air. Out in force too, would be big C-47 transport aircraft looking like pregnant geese against the sky and dropping multi-hued parachutes bearing critical supplies to the troops in beleaguered Bastogne. For all the assistance from the air by mid-day of December 23 a hasty line thrown up by the 84th Division beyond the Ourthe around Marche was in serious trouble. So was the American line between the Salm and the Ourthe where the II SS Panzer Division attacked alongside the 116th Panzer Division. So devastating were the German strikes against the combat command of the 3rd Ar­ moured Division that contingents of another infantry division ear- Hotton. General von Manteuffel was hoping to reinforce these two divisions the II Panzer with the Panzer Lehr once the latter could shake loose from Bastogne the 116th Panzer with the II SS Panzer Division shifted from Dietrichs army. Yet the Germans had lost too much time getting through Noville, waiting for fuel beyond the Ourthe and countermarching to Houffalize to enjoy the same freewheeling they had inexperienced earlier days: for the divisions scheduled to ‘flesh out Joe Collins’ 7th Corps for counterattack were now arriving. First a combat command of the 3rd Armoured Division which Hodges committed astride the Houffalize-Liege highway to extend westward all the way to the Ourthe the southward-facing positions assumed by the 82nd Airborne Division between the Salm and the Ourthe. Second, the 84th Infantry Division which in assembling behind the Ourthe near the town of Marche would lie full in the projected path of the II Panzer Division north-westward from Ourtheville toward the Meuse. And before the battle south of the Meuse was over the other two divisions joining Collins corps also would enter the fight. Another move began on the 22nd —American withdrawal from the St Vith horseshoe. Having lost 8000 out of some 22000 men not counting the regiments of the 106th Division that had been trapped on the Schnee Eifel the defenders of St Vith came back under orders from Montgomery. They were orders laced with the kind of accolade that had long ago endeared the Field-Marshal to the British Tommy: the heroic defenders of St Vith were authorised to withdraw ‘with all honour They put up a wonderful show. The last of them would make it before daylight on December 23, not to return to some warm safe haven but to re-enter the line for by this time the positions of the 82nd Airborne and 3rd Ar­ moured Divisions between the Salm and the .Ourthe were under heavy attack. One final event on the 22nd would have an authoritative impact on the continuing battle. As darkness .chill fell winds began to blow. marked to join Collins counterattacking reserve were pulled into this fray leaving only one division of armour from the counter­attacking force still uncommitted. Once the remnants of the St Vith defenders were safely within American lines Montgomery aided this fight by ordering the 82nd Airborne Division to withdraw from what had become a sharp corner at Vielsalm along the Salm river west of St Vith. Crisis there was between the Salm and the Ourthe but to Ameri­can commanders the most serious crisis was developing in what represented the tip of the bulge beyond the Ourthe where the II Panzer Division bounced off the flank of the 84th Division and continued toward the Meuse. Hereby mid-day of the 23rd the last of the units that Montgomery had hoped to assemble as a reserve, the 2nd Armoured Division was arriving. This development was destined to bring to ahead a kind of covert contest of wills that since the day Montgomery had assumed com­mand had been running between Montgomery and the commander of the US 1st Army Courtney Hodges. As demonstrated by Mont­ gomerys early wish to withdraw from St Vith and the Elsenborn Ridge the British commander believed in a policy of rolling with the punches. The Americans for their part shocked at what a presumably defeated German army had done to them were reluct­ant sometimes to the point of fault to give up any ground unless forced particularly ground that American soldiers had bought with blood. Montgomerys theory was that by holding the most economical line possible in the north and amassing a reserve in the process, he might force the Germans to overextend themselves whereupon he would strike with Collins 7th Corps. Montgomery was relatively unconcerned about the Germans reaching or even crossing the Meuse: by this time he had moved a British armoured brigade to cover the critical bridges on either side of the big bend at Namur. Furthermore even should the Germans cross the Meuse he had a reserve corps in position to annihilate them. 2242 U S Army
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