Excerpt from Against the Panzers, by Allyn Vannoy and Jay Karamales
During December 17-19, 1944, the Belgian villages of Krinkelt and Rocherath, and the surrounding countryside, provided a setting that would determine whether or not the flank of the U.S. First Army would be rolled up and the German Ardennes breakthrough widened, permitting the Germans to reach their objectives beyond the Meuse. In the path of the German advance was a key crossroads held by a battalion of American infantry. While small in comparison to the larger campaign, it was an important event that effected actions in the following days. By slowing the advance of elements of the German 6th SS Panzer Army the Allies were able to buy time to block key roadways, preventing the widening of the German offensive and then stopping it.
By nightfall of 16 December, the US 2nd Infantry Division's CO, General Walter Robertson, was able to appreciate the division’s situation. Two of the division's three regiments, the 9th and the 38th, were clustered around the little village of Wahlerscheid, their only connection with the rest of the US V Corps, a narrow forest road that led seven kilometers south to the village of Rocherath. If the German forces attacking west down the Schwarzenbruch and Weisserstein Trails were able to cut this road before Robertson could withdraw the two regiments, then they faced the likelihood of being isolated and destroyed. To prevent this, plans were quickly worked out to disengage around Wahlerscheid and withdrawal to the Krinkelt-Rocherath area. Robertson called the V Corps commander, General Leonard Gerow, and requested permission to withdraw. Gerow bucked the decision up to the First Army commander, General Courtney Hodges, who gave permission for Robertson to halt the current Wahlerscheid attack but not to withdraw, though by 0730 the next morning, after repeated requests from Gerow, Hodges told him to, "act as he saw fit."
By this time the 2nd Division had been in action at Wahlerscheid continuously for nearly 96 hours and had lost 1,200 men. The 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, from a starting strength of 713 officers and men on 13 December, was down to 409. Worse, Company A had lost two company commanders, Companies B and C had each lost one, along with numerous platoon leaders and platoon sergeants. Such losses made the order to withdraw a bitter pill.
Robertson planned for the 1st Battalion to be the last to withdraw from the area, moving on the heels of the 3rd Battalion. The 3rd Battalion of the 9th began its withdrawal about 1200 hours. Company K, the last company in the column, was late getting started and as a result was several hundred yards behind the rest of the battalion. When Company K reached the Rocherather Baracken crossroads, about a kilometer north of Rocherath, at 1230, it was met by General Robertson, who ordered the company commander to move his unit as quickly as possible to the Lausdell crossroads—a complex of roads and farm trails near an isolated farmhouse, just over half way between the wood line to the east and Rocherath. Once there, Company K was to dig in.
As Company K turned east to comply with this order, Robertson intercepted the 3rd Battalion’s Ammunition and Pioneer Platoon and the 1st Platoon of Company M, a heavy machine gun platoon, and directed them to support Company K.
The 1st Battalion started its march south by first regrouping south of Wahlerscheid about 1500 hours, then proceeding down the forest road at about 1530. The column reached the Rocherather Baracken at 1600, where they encountered General Robertson. He directed men to board two trucks he had commandeered and sent them off to join the 3rd Battalion at the Lausdell crossroads. Robertson and the 1st Battalion commander, Lt. Col. William D. McKinley, grand-nephew of President William McKinley, followed the trucks in Robertson's jeep after ordering the battalion executive officer, Major William F. Hancock, to follow on foot with the rest of the battalion. Robertson authorized Hancock to commandeer any vehicles that passed him heading west and to use them to move his troops to Lausdell.
Robertson was well aware by this time that the 3rd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, in the woods east of the crossroads, was fighting for its life. He was determined to construct a new defense line at Lausdell before the Germans could break out of the forest. He authorized McKinley to take command of any troops he could lay his hands on to strengthen his force, warning him that large numbers of 2nd and 99th Division men would probably be straggling out of the woods into his position. For artillery, Robertson told McKinley he could call on the 15th and 924th Field Artillery Battalions, which had been supporting the Wahlerscheid attack from positions just northeast of the Rocherather Baracken.
By 1700, as the sun was setting, the 1st Battalion had reached the Lausdell area and was deployed on a slight rise overlooking a shallow depression from which a gradual ascent led into the forest—the Krinkelt Wald. A heavy fog clung to the snow covered ground limiting visibility to about 100 yards. As McKinley's men took up their positions, they could see that General Robertson's assessment of the situation had been correct. Stragglers from the 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry, and 3rd Battalion, 393rd Infantry, with and without arms, hurried along the roads and across the fields. Sounds of heavy fighting emanated from the dark forest. Company K, 9th Infantry, was dug in north of the Ruppenvenn-Rocherather Baracken road, supported by three self-propelled tank destroyers of the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion. Company C, with less than 50 men, established positions to the left of Company K north of the road, while Company B dug in astride the road. Company A assumed positions south of the road to Company B's right.
Having been rushed into these new defensive positions, the 1st Battalion had left its anti-tank mines behind. Fortunately the 644th’s tank destroyers had some mines with them, which McKinley's men hurriedly fashioned into five daisy chains of six mines each. The battalion's ammunition vehicles arrived carrying 15 bazookas. McKinley had organized five teams of riflemen within each company, specially trained in bazooka tactics and operations. As a result, there were a total of 22 bazooka teams with the 1st Battalion at the crossroads.
Company M's machine gun platoon placed its heavy machine guns on the high ground covering the road to the southeast in order to interdict a German advance from that direction. A platoon of four towed 3-inch tank destroyers of the 3rd Platoon of the 801st Tank Destroyer Battalion's Company B, also guarded the area. All told there were about 600 men in McKinley's battalion and its attachments.
About this time, the retreat of the 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry, from the Ruppenvenn area caused the commander of the 99th Infantry Division, General Lauer, to order the battered 3rd Battalion, 393rd Infantry, to return to action in an effort to help stop the German advance. The battalion commander, Colonel Allen, sent a four-man patrol south to reconnoiter. They made contact with Company C, 9th Infantry, at Lausdell. Before long the 3rd Battalion, 393rd Infantry, had tied in on the 1st Battalion's left flank.
Meanwhile, inside the Krinkelter Wald, to the east of the crossroads, the jagdpanzers and panzergrenadiers of Kampf Gruppen Müller, the II Battalion/25th SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment of the 277th Volks Grenadier Division, and a platoon of Panzerjaeger IV/48s from the 2nd SS-Panzerjaeger Company, had rooted out the last organized resistance of the 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry, and were preparing to continue driving toward Rocherath and Krinkelt.
Müller's force had suffered heavy casualties during fighting in the Krinkelter Wald. According to the commander of the II Battalion/25th SS-Panzergrenadier, SS-Obersturmbannführer Schulze-Kossens, "in the first hours all the company commanders had been killed or wounded, as well as the battalion adjutant…” As darkness fell KG Müller regrouped, the commander of the 12th SS-Panzerjaeger Battalion, SS-Hauptsturmführer Brockenschmidt, ordered the 1st Company, under SS-Obersturmführer Helmut Zeiner, and an attached panzergrenadier company, to spearhead an assault towards Rocherath. At about 1930, this force moved off down the Schwarzenbruch Trail, the panzers moving slowly so the foot-bound panzergrenadiers could keep up. In the darkness, fog, and blowing snow, the force was split. The leading four vehicles and a platoon of infantry, KG Zeiner, became separated from the rest of the company as the rear elements made a wrong turn at one of the trail intersections. KG Zeiner continued on the correct road to Rocherath, passing through the lines of Company B, 9th Infantry, without being challenged. Since friendly tanks and infantry were known to be in the area no one felt it necessary to check whether they might be German. Upon reaching the outskirts of Rocherath, Zeiner stopped his vehicles and sent infantry scouts ahead to see whether the village was occupied. He was unaware that he had passed through more than a battalion of enemy infantry.
By 1830 the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry's artillery liaison officer, Lt. John C. Granville, at the battalion CP, had just managed to repair a SCR-610 radio set and established contact with his command. Just then, Company B called the 1st Battalion CP to report the sound of tanks approaching from the east. It was the lost elements of Zeiner's 1st Panzerjaeger Company and their panzergrenadier escort, advancing down a trail north of and paralleling the Schwarzenbruch Trail. This time the Company B men made an effort to identify the vehicles, but by the time they had done so the first three jagdpanzers and a number of grenadiers had passed through their position, moved about 400 yards, and then pulled off the road and shut down their engines.
American hesitation suddenly came to an end as Lt. Granville called down artillery fire from the 15th Field Artillery Battalion on the three jagdpanzers, and Company A’s commander, Lt. Stephen A. Truppner, provided fire adjustments. One of the vehicles was hit and set aflame. Lt. Roy E. Allen and Sgt Ted Bickerstaff, both of Company B, pulled daisy chains of mines across the road. Two of the vehicles ran over the mines, blowing off their tracks and immobilizing them. Some of McKinley's bazooka teams tried to sneak up close enough to finish them off, but the light from the burning jagdpanzer made this impossible. Other jagdpanzers, following behind that unlucky pair, veered off the road in an attempt to continue cross-country; bazooka teams knocked out two of them, but the others proceeded to fan out across the fields. American artillery fire was also causing casualties among the German infantry, as they were caught out in the open when the barrage began. The Palm Farm, the only buildings in the vicinity, occupying the center of the battle area, was set on fire by either American artillery or the German tanks.
At about 1840, Company A spotted a column of seven tanks or jagdpanzers accompanied by infantry approaching its position. Granville adjusted artillery fire on the column, knocking out four of the seven vehicles and killing an undetermined number of infantry. The remaining three tanks churned through the Company A line, bereft of infantry support, and entered Rocherath before any other weapons could be brought to bear on them.
Simultaneously, the Company B commander, Lt. John Melesnick, reported a disturbing development to Major Hancock at the battalion CP. He had spotted another column of German armor and troops approaching his position. This column, however, appeared to be almost 1000 yards long, stretching back into the forest. Lt. Granville brought artillery fire down onto this column as well. The first salvos impacted right in front of Company B, as Granville then walked the rounds steadily back, working over the column for at least 10 minutes while Company B raked the Germans with machine gun fire.
Despite their heavy losses, German tanks and jagdpanzers were still infiltrating through and around McKinley's position. The Americans tried desperately to cope with those that had penetrated their line, but the American force had been greatly reduced by the ferocity of the German attack. At about 2215, Lt. Melesnick personally destroyed one German tank with a bazooka. Lt. Granville told the supporting artillery battalions to maintain their barrages on the road until informed to stop. Giving no quarter the GIs even picked off the panzer crews that emerged from their disabled vehicles.
One panzer was hit in the track and disabled by a bazooka round. Lt. Melesnick and several other bazooka teams fired at it in order to finish it off, but its armor shrugged off four rockets. The tank was proving to be a nuisance as it continued firing its machine guns and cannon at GIs in their foxholes. One machine gun burst wounded Melesnick in the leg, so Cpl Charles Roberts of Company D and Sgt Otis Bone of Company B, teamed up to neutralize it. They filled a five-gallon jerry can with gasoline drained from a nearby abandoned American half-track, approached the panzer from a blind side, doused it with the gasoline, and then lit it with a thermite grenade.
Around 2230 the Germans renewed their efforts to break through McKinley's thin line. Assembling around the Ruppenvenn, they launched simultaneous tank-infantry assaults down all three trails leading from the forest. Lt. Granville, who was having trouble getting artillery requests through on his radio because the Germans were using the same frequency, finally contacted his battalions and requested the heaviest possible fire on all three routes. Struggling to be heard over the din of battle he shouted into his radio, "If you don't get it [artillery] out right now, it will be too god-damn late!" Just then his communications were broken, perhaps by a German transmission, so that he never received acknowledgement of his request. Granville assumed that his message had not been heard. But three minutes later an astonishingly heavy artillery concentration blanketed all three Germans advance routes—the attacks disintegrated in the swirl of exploding artillery shells. Unknown to Granville at the time, General Robertson considered McKinley's defense of Lausdell so crucial that he had committed all the artillery under his control, except that engaged in emergency fire missions, to support the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry. As a result, at least seven battalions of artillery answered Granville's call, including all four of the 2nd Division's organic battalions and three 155-mm howitzer battalions of V Corps.
The artillery deluge afforded the defenders of Lausdell some breathing space. They took advantage of this opportunity to evacuate casualties, replenish ammunition, and lay a telephone wire from McKinley's command post dugout to Colonel Francis Boos' 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry, CP in Rocherath. McKinley's 1st Battalion was now attached to the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry, and Colonel Boos' first communication was to emphasize to McKinley the importance of his position. Boos also promised McKinley that his men would be permitted to withdraw the next day.
By 2315 the German attack had run out of steam under the American artillery bombardment, and McKinley's force, though badly mauled, had not yielded an inch. Only the four jagdpanzers of KG Zeiner had been able to get into Rocherath, and the Germans now seemed resigned to wait until daylight to resume the attack.
Both sides prepared for the renewed fighting they expected with first light. Meanwhile, a silence that Major Hancock described as "almost frightening" descended over the battlefield.
In the hours before dawn on December 18, Colonel Boos informed Colonel McKinley that he would be able to withdraw as soon as Colonel Jack Norris' 2nd Battalion, 38th Infantry, was firmly dug in behind him. This event was greatly anticipated by the 1st Battalion, which hoped to be able to leave the crossroads without a repeat of the previous night's carnage; however, at 0645, with the first morning light, the Germans renewed their attack. During the night, about a company of tanks from the I Panzer Battalion, 12th SS-Panzer Regiment, had apparently crept to within direct fire distance of the American foxholes. These vehicles fired their cannon and machine guns to cover panzers and a battalion of infantry advancing from the woods. This force included the 1st and 3rd Companies of the I Panzer Battalion, equipped with Mark V Panthers, followed by Mark IV’s of the 5th and 6th Companies, and infantry of the II Battalion, 25th SS-Panzergrenadier, which had assembled in a draw just east of Lausdell. To their left the I Battalion, 25th, was attacking directly east of Krinkelt.
Visibility was very poor, the weather hazy and drizzling, forcing the GIs to wait until the enemy was very close before opening fire. They engaged the Germans with every weapon at their disposal, including artillery, which the GIs called down virtually on top of their own positions. Private William K. Soderman of Company K leaped into a roadside ditch with a bazooka and knocked out the lead panzer of one column. This blocked the trail, forcing the following vehicles to withdraw. Returning to the Company K positions, Soderman ran across a platoon of panzergrenadiers in the fog and opened up on them with his rifle, killing at least three and forcing the rest to flee.
The tanks and jagdpanzers which had been knocked out on the trails that morning and the night before forced the attacking vehicles to drive across the fields. Five panzers approached the A&P Platoon position, passing the hulks of two tanks destroyed in the night attack. They fired point-blank at the Americans as they passed, and although two were knocked out by bazookas, the other three proceeded into Rocherath.
By 0800, while the panzers and grenadiers had completely overrun the 1st Battalion's front line companies south of the main road, the Americans still clung tenaciously to the crossroads. The tanks fired their cannon directly into the foxholes, and if the GIs tried to run they were mowed down by tank mounted machine guns. One soldier was seen desperately trying to immobilize a panzer by jamming his rifle between the cleats of its track. When half a dozen men on Company B's right flank ran out of bazooka rockets and headed for the rear, Colonel McKinley stepped out of his dugout CP just in time to stop them and sent them back to their units. All along the line, GIs and grenadiers engaged in fierce hand-to-hand fighting.
The dense fog over the crossroads lifted at about 0830, allowing Lt. Truppner, Company A CO, to register artillery fire on the Germans that had overrun his position. An entire artillery battalion dropped its shells on the Company A area for 30 minutes. The German attack was stopped, but only a dozen men from Company A survived. Truppner was not one of them. Company K, 9th Infantry, was likewise swamped.
From his CP in the basement of the Palm family farmhouse, Captain Garvey, the Company K commander, could see Germans taking his men from their foxholes. A German tank approached the CP and stopped with its cannon only a few feet from the front door. Aware that it would be a matter of seconds before the tank blasted the house to pieces, Garvey told one of his men who spoke German to call out that his company commander would surrender to a German officer. When a German lieutenant arrived, Garvey and his CP group filed out with their hands in the air.
Out of Company K's complement only one officer and 10 enlisted men escaped. Still, McKinley's line held. Colonel Boos radioed and said it would be another hour or more before the 2nd Battalion, 38th Infantry, was in position at the edge of Rocherath.
With Companies A and K effectively gone, the momentum of the German attack carried into Rocherath itself, but the remnants of Companies B and C, as well as the 3rd Battalion's A&P Platoon, still manned their positions. To the north the German attack had hit the 3rd Battalion, 393rd Infantry, which had been greatly reduced with the loss of half its men and all its machine guns, mortars, and anti-tank guns in the forest battle on December 16-17.
By 0900, the firing at Lausdell was beginning to die down, since much of the German force had now passed south of the 1st Battalion positions and into Rocherath; however, there were still considerable forces engaging McKinley's line.
Around 1000 a second wave of seven German tanks and infantry smashed into the American line, hitting mostly around the A & P Platoon's position. Several US tanks had just arrived in the area, one of which fired six shots at the oncoming panzers, all of which missed. The Shermans quickly retired. American artillery then fell on the panzers, one exploding when a round entered the panzer's open top hatch and detonated. The other six tanks swept on into Rocherath while the grenadiers stayed behind to mop up the A&P Platoon and nearby survivors of Company K. As panzers approached the remnants of his company, Pvt Soderman staged a repeat performance of his earlier action by disabling the lead panzer with one shot from his bazooka; however, as he ran for cover one of the tanks fired a burst of machine gun fire which tore into his right shoulder. Soderman fell, severely wounded, but managed to drag himself to cover.
About the same time, Colonel Boos called Colonel McKinley and told him that he could withdraw his battalion from the crossroads starting at 1300, since the 2nd Battalion, 38th Infantry, should be in position by then. This was welcome news to McKinley, but it had come almost too late—his command was virtually gone. As more German tanks and infantry poured into the Lausdell area from the woods, Lt. Granville called down emergency artillery fire on the area. The shells continued to fall for about 30 minutes, allowing the 1st Battalion and its attachments to fend off the remainder of the German assaults. McKinley told Colonel Boos that he could not hold out any longer, but that he also could not withdraw without being annihilated because his troops were too closely engaged and German tanks were blocking his withdrawal route. McKinley said he needed a counter-attack by tanks or self-propelled tank destroyers to cover his withdrawal.
No sooner had he said this than Lt. Eugene Hinski, the 1st Battalion's AT Platoon leader, spotted four Shermans of Company A, 741st Tank Battalion, moving north out of Rocherath on the road to the Rocherather Baracken. Moving quickly to intercept them, Hinski asked the tank platoon commander, Lt. Gaetano Barcellona, if he and his men wanted to fight.
"Hell, yes!" said Barcellona. Hinski led the tanks to the 1st Battalion, CP. There, McKinley explained the situation and told Barcellona that the battalion was facing four German tanks located between the Palm house and Rocherath, interdicting the battalion's withdrawal route. To counter this, Barcellona split his command into two pairs—one pair, including his own tank, stayed in defilade from where they could shoot at the panzers, while the other pair moved out into the open to lure the panzers into leaving their cover. At 1115, US artillery began firing to cover the withdrawal, and the two decoy Shermans moved out. The panzers followed. Barcellona knocked out the first with one shot, and three more rounds finished off the second. Discerning the trap too late, the remaining two panzers attempted to flee into Rocherath but one of the Shermans hit one in the rear, disabling it. The fourth panzer managed to make it to the comparative safety of the village.
With the armored threat disposed of, Barcellona's tanks turned back east to cover McKinley's withdrawal, two Shermans on either flank, their machine guns keeping the Germans pinned down while the GIs fell back. Colonel McKinley stood at the roadside, grasping the hand of each man as they passed, thanking them for their efforts. McKinley was the last to leave. As he and his operations officer, Captain James Harvey, left their command post, they could hear shouts of 'Hande hoch!' coming from near by.
The men of 1st Battalion and Company K, 9th Infantry, had enabled two battalions of the 38th Infantry to reach their defensive positions. "You've saved my regiment,” Boos told McKinley. The ground around the cluster of roads and trails and the battered farmhouse was littered with German dead and the hulls of 17 tanks and tank destroyers.
The remains of the 1st Battalion passed through the 2nd Battalion, 38th Infantry, and headed west to the high ground just northwest of the Rocherather Baracken. There McKinley was able to see for the first time the true extent of his losses. Company A had 12 men left; Company B had 27; Company C had just over 40; Company D, the heavy weapons company, still had 60 men; Company K had 11 or 12; the A&P Platoon, 3rd Battalion, also had just 12 men. Later in the day, when the battalion assembled in Rocherath, only 20 officers and 197 men were present out of the 600 that had arrived at the crossroads. They had demonstrated what a few determined men could do, but it had come at a high price.
Copyright © 2009 Allyn Vannoy and Jay Karamales
Written by Allyn Vannoy. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Allyn Vannoy at:
About the author:
Author Allyn Vannoy, lives in Hillsboro, Oregon, co-authored "Against the Panzers" (McFarland, 1996).
Published online: 07/19/2009.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.