The battle for Elsenborn Ridge

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While the Siege of Bastogne is often credited as the central point where the German offensive was stopped, the battle for Elsenborn Ridge was a decisive component of the Battle of the Bulge, deflecting the strongest armored units of the German advance.

Facing the 6th Panzer Army

On 16 December 1944, at 05:30, the Germans began the assault with a massive, 90-minute artillery barrage using 1,600 artillery pieces across a 130-kilometre (80 mi) front on the Allied troops facing the 6th Panzer Army.

The Americans’ initial impression was that this was the anticipated, localized counterattack resulting from the Allies’ recent attack in the Wahlerscheid sector to the north, where the 2nd Division had knocked a sizable dent in the Siegfried Line.

In the northern sector Dietrich’s 6th Panzer Army was held up for almost 24 hours by a single reconnaissance platoon and four U.S. Forward Artillery Observers dug in on a ridge overlooking a key road intersection in the village of Lanzerath. They then assaulted Losheim Gap and Elsenborn Ridge in an effort to break through to Liège and Antwerp.

Heavy snowstorms engulfed parts of the Ardennes area. While having the effect of keeping the Allied aircraft grounded, the weather also proved troublesome for the Germans because poor road conditions hampered their advance. Poor traffic control led to massive traffic jams and fuel shortages in forward units.

In the center, von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army attacked towards Bastogne and St. Vith, both road junctions of great strategic importance.

In the south, Brandenberger’s Seventh Army pushed towards Luxembourg in its efforts to secure the flank from Allied attacks. Only one month before 250 members of the Waffen-SS had unsuccessfully tried to recapture the town of Vianden with its castle from the Luxembourgish resistance during the Battle of Vianden.

Attack on the northern shoulder

While the Siege of Bastogne is often credited as the central point where the German offensive was stopped, the battle for Elsenborn Ridge was a decisive component of the Battle of the Bulge, deflecting the strongest armored units of the German advance.

The attack was led by one of the best equipped German divisions on the western front, the 1st SS Panzer Division (LSSAH).

The division made up the lead unit for the entire German 6th Panzer Army. SS Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper led Kampfgruppe Peiper, consisting of 4,800 men and 600 vehicles. It was charged with leading the main effort.

The attacks by the Sixth Panzer Army’s infantry units in the north fared badly because of unexpectedly fierce resistance by the U.S. 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions. On the first day, an entire German battalion of 500 men was held up for 10 hours at the small village of Lanzerath, through which passed a key route through the Losheim Gap. To preserve the quantity of armor available, the infantry of the 9th Fallschirmjaeger Regiment, 3rd Fallschirmjaeger Division, had been ordered to clear the village first. A single 18-man Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon from the 99th Infantry Division along with four Forward Air Controllers held up the battalion of about 500 German paratroopers until sunset, about 16:00, causing 92 casualties among the Germans.

This created a bottleneck in the German advance. Kampfgruppe Peiper, at the head of the SS Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army, had been designated to take the Losheim-Losheimergraben road, but it was closed by two collapsed overpasses. Peiper did not begin his advance until nearly 16:00, more than 16 hours behind schedule.

Kampfgruppe Peiper reached Bucholz Station in the early morning of 17 December and quickly captured portions of the 3rd Battalion of the 394th Infantry Regiment.

They shortly afterward seized a U.S. fuel depot at Büllingen, where they paused to refuel before continuing westward.

To the north, the 277th Volksgrenadier Division attempted to break through the defending line of the U.S. 99th Infantry Division and positions of 2nd Infantry Division.

The 12th SS Panzer Division, reinforced by additional infantry (Panzergrenadier and Volksgenadier) divisions, took the key road junction at Losheimergraben just north of Lanzerath and attacked the twin villages of Rocherath and Krinkelt.

Their intention was to control the twin villages of Rocherath-Krinkelt which would clear a path to the high ground of Elsenborn Ridge. Occupation of this dominating terrain would allow control of the roads to the south and west and ensure supply to Kampfgruppe Peiper’s armored task force.

The stiff American defense prevented the Germans from reaching the vast array of supplies near the Belgian cities of Liège and Spa and the road network west of the Elsenborn Ridge leading to the Meuse River.

After more than ten days of intense battle, they pushed the Americans out of the villages, but were unable to dislodge them from the ridge, where elements of the V Corps of the First U.S. Army prevented the German forces from reaching the road network to their west.

The 99th Infantry Division as a whole, outnumbered five to one, inflicted casualties in the ratio of eighteen to one. The division lost about 20% of its effective strength, including 465 killed and 2,524 evacuated due to wounds, injuries, fatigue, or trench foot.

German losses were much higher. In the northern sector opposite the 99th, this included more than 4,000 deaths and the destruction of sixty tanks and big guns.

Historian John S.D. Eisenhower wrote, “… the action of the 2nd and 99th Divisions on the northern shoulder could be considered the most decisive of the Ardennes campaign.”

Kampfgruppe Peiper drives west

Driving to the south-east of Elsenborn, Kampfgruppe Peiper entered Honsfield, where they encountered one of the 99th Division’s rest centers, clogged with confused American troops. They killed many, destroyed a number of American armored units and vehicles, and took several dozen prisoners who were murdered by elements of his force.

Peiper easily captured the town and 50,000 US gallons (190,000 l; 42,000 imp gal) of fuel for his vehicles. Peiper then advanced north-west towards Büllingen, keeping to the plan to move west, apparently unaware he had nearly taken the town and unknowingly bypassed an opportunity to flank and trap the entire 2nd and 99th Divisions.

Peiper turned south to detour around Hünningen, choosing a route designated Rollbahn D, as he had been given latitude to choose the best route west.

Malmedy massacre

At 12:30 on 17 December, Kampfgruppe Peiper was near the hamlet of Baugnez, on the height halfway between the town of Malmedy and Ligneuville, when they encountered elements of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, U.S. 7th Armored Division.

After a brief battle the lightly armed Americans surrendered. They were disarmed and, with some other Americans captured earlier (approximately 150 men), sent to stand in a field near the crossroads under light guard. About fifteen minutes after Peiper’s advance guard passed through, the main body under the command of SS Sturmbannführer Werner Pötschke arrived.

For reasons unknown to this day, the SS troopers suddenly opened fire on the prisoners. As soon as the firing began, the prisoners panicked. Most were shot where they stood, though some managed to flee.

Accounts of the killing vary, but 84 of the POWs were murdered. A few survived, and news of the killings of prisoners of war raced through Allied lines.

Following the end of the war, soldiers and officers of Kampfgruppe Peiper, including Joachim Peiper and SS general Sepp Dietrich, were tried for the incident at the Malmedy massacre trial.

Chenogne massacre

Following the Malmedy massacre, on New Year’s Day 1945, after having previously received orders to take no prisoners,[73] American soldiers shot approximately sixty German prisoners of war near the Belgian village of Chenogne (8 km from Bastogne).

Germans advance west

By the evening the spearhead had pushed north to engage the U.S. 99th Infantry Division and Kampfgruppe Peiper arrived in front of Stavelot. Peiper’s forces was already behind his timetable because of the stiff American resistance and because when the Americans fell back, their engineers blew up bridges and emptied fuel dumps.

Peiper’s unit was delayed and his vehicles denied critically needed fuel. They took 36 hours to advance from Eifel to Stavelot, while the same advance had taken just nine hours in 1940.

Kampfgruppe Peiper attacked Stavelot on 18 December but was unable to capture the town before the Americans evacuated a large fuel depot.

Three tanks attempted to take the bridge, but the lead vehicle was disabled by a mine. Following this, 60 grenadiers advanced forward but were stopped by concentrated American defensive fire.

After a fierce tank battle the next day, the Germans finally entered the village when U.S. engineers failed to blow the bridge.

Capitalizing on his success and not wanting to lose more time, Peiper rushed an advance group toward the vital bridge at Trois-Ponts, leaving the bulk of his strength in Stavelot. When they reached it at 11:30 on 18 December, retreating U.S. engineers blew it up in their faces.

Peiper detoured north towards the villages of La Gleize and Cheneux. At Cheneux, the advance guard was attacked by American fighter-bombers, destroying two tanks and five halftracks, blocking the narrow road.

The group got moving again at dusk at 16:00 and was able to return to its original route at around 18:00. Of the two bridges now remaining between Kampfgruppe Peiper and the Meuse, the bridge over the Lienne was blown by the Americans as the Germans approached.

Peiper turned north and halted his forces in the woods between La Gleize and Stoumont.He learned that Stoumont was strongly held and that the Americans were bringing up strong reinforcements from Spa.

To Peiper’s south, the advance of Kampfgruppe Hansen had stalled. SS Oberführer Mohnke ordered Schnellgruppe Knittel, which had been designated to follow Hansen, to instead move forward to support Peiper. SS Sturmbannführer Knittel crossed the bridge at Stavelot around 19:00 against American forces trying to retake the town.

Knittel pressed forward towards La Gleize, and shortly afterward the Americans recaptured Stavelot. Peiper and Knittel both faced the prospect of being cut off.