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Battle of St. Vith

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The Battle of St. Vith was a battle fought between the United States and Germany near the Belgian city of St. Vith during World War II. The German attack of St. Vith took place as a part of the northern German push towards Antwerp during the opening stages of the Battle of the Bulge. Though a relatively small town lying only twelve miles from the German frontline at the start of the campaign, St. Vith was the epicenter of six paved roads that ran around the Schnee Eifel region, a heavily wooded ridgeline that served as a barrier in the campaign.[1] Beginning on December 16, 1944, the opening day of the Battle of the Bulge, the battle for St. Vith lasted some six days until December 21 with a German victory as the result. Though the town was secured, the amount of troops tied down and delayed had essentially killed the momentum of the German advances throughout the frontline.[2] The fighting around St. Vith had also wasted precious time for the Germans, allowing the Allies tor regroup and eventually fully stop the offensive.

It is the war of the small men, the outpost commanders, the section commanders, the company commanders; those were the decisive people here, who were responsible for success or failure, victory or defeat. We depended upon their courage; they could not afford to get confused, and had to act according to their own decisions, until the higher command was again in a position to take over. I believe I can say, and I have the right to make this judgment, that the Germans did this admirably well, at the same time however, I am also convinced this was the case with the American forces, who after all succeeded in upsetting the entire time schedule, not only of the attacking unit in St. Vith, but also of the 5th and 6th Panzer Armies. That is a fact which cannot be denied. - Hasso von Manteuffel, German General der Panzertruppen

In the end, some 3,400 American military personnel had been killed, wounded, missing, or had become prisoners of war. 59 M4 Sherman tanks, 25 armored cars, and 29 M5A1 light tanks had also been lost. Though German casualties are unknown, it can be estimated that casualties would have been similarly high for such a large amount of heavy fighting.

PlanningEdit

GermanEdit

American traffic jam near St. Vith, December 1944

Traffic jams such as this American example proved to be a very big issue for both sides during the Battle of the Bulge, especially in towns with many road connections such as St. Vith.

As a part of the German Operation 'Wacht am Rhein', commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge or Ardennes Counteroffensive, the ultimate goal following the capture of St. Vith was to cross the Meuse River and seize the city of Antwerp. Hitler had planned the offensive as far back as September 1944, though the date for the operation had to be pushed to the end of the year in order to gather the necessary reserves of men and material. While the weather would prove a hindrance to troops trying to advance, it provided the advantage of a grounded Allied air force. What is perhaps most notable of Wacht am Rhein is that it was conducted in almost complete secrecy, the reserves of troops being shipped to the front lines explained as reinforcing for the new year.

The commander of 5. Panzer Armee, the army group tasked with breaking through St. Vith, was General Hasso von Manteuffel. Following reconnaissance that he had conducted himself in the Losheim area of the Ardennes, Manteuffel judged that the best course of action would be to send in small assault groups to infiltrate and break American lines. However, due to Hitler's wishes, Manteuffel was forced to use a preparatory bombardment before attacking, eventually settling for sending some of his units to infiltrate prior to alerting the Americans with the barrage.[2] The elements of the 5th Panzer Army fighting in and around the St. Vith area were the 116. Panzer-Division, 18. Volksgrenadier-Division, 62. Volksgrenadier Division, and the Führerbegleitbrigade, an armored brigade intended to provide additional vehicles for Manteuffel's attack.

AmericanEdit

At the time of the Ardennes Offensive, most Allied military commanders were busy planning the next step on the road to defeating the German army. Generally, these plans were aimed at other parts of the front from the Ardennes where the Germans were building up. They ranged from Bernard Montgomery's plan of attacking centrally through the Ruhr valley to Omar Bradley's goals just north of the Ardennnes. This left the forest itself as an inactive zone, where bloodied divisions were sent to rest and 'green' or fresh to the front divisions were sent to become acquainted with light combat if any at all. Though American military leaders recognized how thinly held the Ardennes was, it was deemed a nonissue as the decrypted Enigma traffic that was so trustingly relied on did not hint at any sign of a possible attack, largely because of the German efforts to maintain a policy of radio silence prior to the assault.[2] Commander of the American 7th US Armored Division, the division tasked with defending St. Vith along with the 106th Infantry Division and 9th US Armored Division, was Brigadier General Bruce C. Clarke.

BattleEdit

Ardennes Counteroffensive Map
Artillery fire of mixed accuracy began falling on St. Vith on the morning of December 16, 1944. At the same time, two regiments of the American 106th Infantry Division, a 'green unit', began reporting German attacks on the Schnee Eifel before losing contact with their headquarters in St. Vith and their commander, Major General Alan Jones. On the morning of December 17, Clarke and his combat command along with elements of Brigadier General William Hoge's 9th US Armored division combat command entered St. Vith at 1030 hours. Arriving somewhat later, the remnants of the utterly destroyed 14th Cavalry Group entered St. Vith with German troops approaching the town not long after.[2] Jones' tactical situation was in complete disarray with absolutely no communication to two of his regiments in threat of destruction, one of which had his son serving, only adding to his stress.[3] Seeing as Clarke's combat command unit was the most tactically able unit to defend the town, Jones handed over command. Just a mile east of St. Vith, an American force consisting of two 57 mm M1 Anti-Tank Guns, six tank destroyers, and a group of bazooka-equipped engineers was attacked by a mixed German force of tanks and infantry at around 1500 hours. The engagement was broken off after an air-to-ground liaison officer managed to call in a fighter-bomber attack on the Germans which managed to knock out a tank despite the harsh weather conditions. [3] In the meantime, Clarke's reinforcements trickled in one by one on clogged "one-tank" roads that barely fit all of the traffic driving on them, ranging from panic-stricken truck drivers trying to escape the German onslaught to American tankers trying to fight defend the front line. Though lacking many resources, Clarke was able to gather the services of the 275th Armored Field Artillery Battalion to serve as the only American artillery in St. Vith. Clarke and his command spent the rest of the 17th preparing defenses around the town and readying themselves for the Germans. That night, Manteuffel argued with German commander Walter Model who was also fighting in the area about how best to proceed. He had anticipated that St. Vith would have fallen on the first day, yet it remained a thorn in the German's side. Model suggested sending in the elite Führerbegleitbrigade to crush the defenders of St. Vith. Manteuffel agreed, though the FBB and the Volksgrenadier divisions could not be organized to attack fully until the night of December 19/20.
CCB of the 7th US Armored Division withdrawing from St. Vith, December 1944

The CCB of the 7th US Armored Division withdrawing from the St. Vith Salient on December 23

Initial attacks by the FBB were repulsed, though stepped up in intensity with additional reinforcements pouring in. One notable confrontation to happen on December 18 occurred between an American M8 Armored Car and a Tiger I heavy tank. This M8 from Troop B, 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Battalion had been parked in a concealed position when the tank passed it. The driver of the M8 carefully began to follow the tank, though in an effort to keep up, the M8's engine sounded loud enough for the Tiger's turret crew to notice it. The Tiger's turret immediately began turning to engage the small armored car while the Greyhound's driver sped up to get the armored car's 37 mm gun close enough to be able to penetrate the Tiger's rear armor. The Greyhound closed to within 22 meters and fired three shots, setting the Tiger on fire before returning to its original hiding spot.[3]

By the morning of December 20, the town had not yet fallen, proving incredibly damaging to the German timetable. Though the Americans on the Schnee Eifel had surrendered, German armored losses also increased and failed to break through American lines. At 1100 hours on December 21, the German attack renewed, far more ferocious than before. Initially attacking the northern and eastern portions of the St. Vith perimeter, the attack spread to just about every part of the front line. A battalion of the FBB had even managed to seize a road between St. Vith and Vielsalm, though was pushed back. Now free of the traffic jam of the earlier days, German artillery opened up fully on the defenders, allowing the Germans to breach the line in several locations. By 2200 hours, General Clarke pulled his troops out of St. Vith, having lost almost half his strength during that day's fighting alone. On the morning of December 22, the town was finally secured by 18. Volksgrenadier-Division.

AftermathEdit

Though the town was secured by German troops, fighting continued around the St. Vith Salient, with heavy attacks by the 2nd SS-Panzer Corps near Rodt on December 22. The American 82nd Airborne Division moved into Vielsalm promptly to secure an escape path for all those fighting within the St. Vith Salient. By December 23, all remaining American troops had cleared out of the St. Vith Salient. The fighting around St. Vith had proven to be incredibly decisive, ruining the German timetable, giving the Allies time to regroup, and ultimately helping to end the Battle of the Bulge.

ReferencesEdit

  1. Cole, Hugh M. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge. U.S. Army Center for Military History, Page 272. Link
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Zaloga, Steven J. Battle of the Bulge (1): St. Vith and the Northern Shoulder. Osprey Publishing (2003), Page 92
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Forty, George. The Reich's Last Gamble: The Ardennes Offensive. Cassell & Co. (2000), Page 163

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