At dawn on 19 December, Peiper surprised the American defenders of Stoumont by sending infantry from the 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Regiment in an attack and a company of Fallschirmjäger to infiltrate their lines.
He followed this with a Panzer attack, gaining the eastern edge of the town. An American tank battalion arrived but, after a two-hour tank battle, Peiper finally captured Stoumont at 10:30. Knittel joined up with Peiper and reported the Americans had recaptured Stavelot to their east.
Peiper ordered Knittel to retake Stavelot. Assessing his own situation, he determined that his Kampfgruppe did not have sufficient fuel to cross the bridge west of Stoumont and continue his advance.
He maintained his lines west of Stoumont for a while, until the evening of 19 December when he withdrew them to the village edge. On the same evening the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division under Maj. Gen. James Gavin arrived and deployed at La Gleize and along Peiper’s planned route of advance.
German efforts to reinforce Peiper were unsuccessful. Kampfgruppe Hansen was still struggling against bad road conditions and stiff American resistance on the southern route. Schnellgruppe Knittel was forced to disengage from the heights around Stavelot.
Kampfgruppe Sandig, which had been ordered to take Stavelot, launched another attack without success.
Sixth Panzer Army commander SS-Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich ordered Hermann Prieß, commanding officer of the I SS Panzer Corps, to increase its efforts to back Peiper’s Kampfgruppe, but Prieß was unable to break through.
Small units of the U.S. 2nd Battalion of the 119th Regiment attacked the dispersed units of Kampfgruppe Peiper during the morning of 21 December, but were pushed back and a number captured, including their battalion commander, Maj. Hal McCown.
Peiper learned that German reinforcements were to be concentrated in La Gleize and withdrew his forces eastward, leaving wounded Americans and Germans in the Froidcourt castle (fr). Attempting to withdraw from Cheneux, American paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division engaged the Germans in fierce house-to-house fighting.
The Americans shelled Kampfgruppe Peiper on 22 December, and although the Germans had run out of food and had virtually no fuel, they continued to fight. A Luftwaffe resupply mission went badly when SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke insisted the grid coordinates supplied by Peiper were wrong, parachuting supplies into American hands in Stoumont.
In La Gleize, Peiper set up defenses waiting for German relief. When the relief force was unable to penetrate the Allied lines, he decided to break through the Allied lines and return to the German lines on 23 December.
The men of the Kampfgruppe were forced to abandon their vehicles and heavy equipment, although most of what remained of the unit was able to escape.
Operation Stösser was a paratroop drop into the American rear in the High Fens (French: Hautes Fagnes; German: Hohes Venn; Dutch: Hoge Venen) area. The objective was the “Baraque Michel” crossroads. It was led by Oberst Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte, considered by Germans to be a hero of the Battle of Crete.
It was the German paratroopers’ only nighttime drop during World War II. Von der Heydte was given only eight days to prepare prior to the assault. He was not allowed to use his own regiment because their movement might alert the Allies to the impending counterattack. Instead, he was provided with a Kampfgruppe of 800 men.
The II Parachute Corps was tasked with contributing 100 men from each of its regiments. In loyalty to their commander, 150 men from von der Heydte’s own unit, the 6th Parachute Regiment, went against orders and joined him.
They had little time to establish any unit cohesion or train together.
The parachute drop was a complete failure. Von der Heydte ended up with a total of around 300 troops. Too small and too weak to counter the Allies, they abandoned plans to take the crossroads and instead converted his mission to reconnaissance.
With only enough ammunition for a single fight, they withdrew towards Germany and attacked the rear of the American lines. Only about 100 of his weary men finally reached the German rear.
Another, smaller massacre was committed in Wereth, Belgium, approximately 1000 yards northeast of Saint-Vith, on 17 December 1944. Eleven black American soldiers were tortured after surrendering and then shot by men of the 1st SS Panzer Division belonging to Kampfgruppe Knittel.
The perpetrators were never punished for this crime and recent research indicates that men from Third Company of the Reconnaissance Battalion were responsible.
Attack in the center
The Germans fared better in the center (the 32 km (20 mi) Schnee Eifel sector) as the Fifth Panzer Army attacked positions held by the U.S. 28th and 106th Infantry Divisions.
The Germans lacked the overwhelming strength that had been deployed in the north, but still possessed a marked numerical and material superiority over the very thinly spread 28th and 106th divisions.
They succeeded in surrounding two largely intact regiments (422nd and 423rd) of the 106th Division in a pincer movement and forced their surrender, a tribute to the way Manteuffel’s new tactics had been applied.
The official U.S. Army history states: “At least seven thousand [men] were lost here and the figure probably is closer to eight or nine thousand. The amount lost in arms and equipment, of course, was very substantial.
The Schnee Eifel battle, therefore, represents the most serious reverse suffered by American arms during the operations of 1944–45 in the European theater.”
Battle for St. Vith
In the center the town of St. Vith, a vital road junction, presented the main challenge for both von Manteuffel’s and Dietrich’s forces. The defenders, led by the 7th Armored Division and including the remaining regiment of the 106th U.S. Infantry Division, with elements of the 9th Armored Division and 28th U.S. Infantry Division, all under the command of Gen. Bruce C. Clarke, successfully resisted the German attacks, significantly slowing the German advance.
At Montgomery’s orders, St. Vith was evacuated on 21 December; U.S. troops fell back to entrenched positions in the area, presenting an imposing obstacle to a successful German advance. By 23 December, as the Germans shattered their flanks, the defenders’ position became untenable and U.S. troops were ordered to retreat west of the Salm River.
Since the German plan called for the capture of St. Vith by 18:00 on 17 December, the prolonged action in and around it dealt a major setback to their timetable.
Meuse River bridges
To protect the river crossings on the Meuse at Givet, Dinant and Namur, Montgomery ordered those few units available to hold the bridges on 19 December. This led to a hastily assembled force including rear-echelon troops, military police and Army Air Force personnel.
The British 29th Armored Brigade, which had turned in its tanks for re-equipping, was told to take back their tanks and head to the area. XXX Corps in the Netherlands began their move to the area on 20 December.
The 6th Airborne Division in the UK was ordered to ports for ferrying to France.
Aside from the difficulties in the northern and southern sectors, the German advance in the center was the most successful. Fifth Panzer Army was spearheaded by the 2nd Panzer Division while Panzer Lehr Division came up from the south, leaving Bastogne to other units. The Ourthe River was passed at Ourtheville on 21 December.
Lack of fuel held up the advance for one day, but on 23 December the offensive was resumed towards the two small towns of Hargimont and Marche. Hargimont was captured the same day, but Marche was strongly defended by the American 84th Division. Gen. Lüttwitz, commander of the XXXXVII Panzer Corps, ordered the Division to turn westwards towards Dinant and the Meuse, leaving only a blocking force at Marche.
Although advancing only in a narrow corridor, 2nd Panzer Division was still making rapid headway, leading to jubilation in Berlin. Headquarters now freed up the 9th Panzer Division for Fifth Panzer Army, which was deployed at Marche
On 22/23 December the woods of Foy-Notre-Dame were reached, only a few kilometers ahead of Dinant. However, the narrow corridor caused considerable difficulties, as constant flanking attacks threatened the division.
On 24 December the furthest penetration was reached. Panzer Lehr Division took the town of Celles, while a bit farther north, parts of 2nd Panzer Division were in sight of the Meuse near Dinant at Foy-Notre-Dame.
A hastily assembled Allied blocking force on the east side of the river, however, prevented the German probing forces from approaching the Dinant bridge.
By late Christmas Eve the advance in this sector was stopped, as Allied forces threatened the narrow corridor held by the 2nd Panzer Division.
Operation Greif and Operation Währung
For Operation Greif, Otto Skorzeny successfully infiltrated a small part of his battalion of English-speaking Germans disguised in American uniforms behind the Allied lines. Although they failed to take the vital bridges over the Meuse, their presence caused confusion out of all proportion to their military activities, and rumors spread quickly.
Even General George Patton was alarmed and, on 17 December, described the situation to General Dwight Eisenhower as “Krauts…speaking perfect English…raising hell, cutting wires, turning road signs around, spooking whole divisions, and shoving a bulge into our defenses.”
Checkpoints were set up all over the Allied rear, greatly slowing the movement of soldiers and equipment. American MPs at these checkpoints grilled troops on things that every American was expected to know, like the identity of Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend, baseball scores, or the capital of a particular U.S. state—though many could not remember or did not know.
General Omar Bradley was briefly detained when he correctly identified Springfield as the capital of Illinois because the American MP who questioned him mistakenly believed the capital was Chicago.
The tightened security nonetheless made things very hard for the German infiltrators, and a number of them were captured. Even during interrogation, they continued their goal of spreading disinformation; when asked about their mission, some of them claimed they had been told to go to Paris to either kill or capture General Dwight Eisenhower.
Security around the general was greatly increased, and Eisenhower was confined to his headquarters. Because Skorzeny’s men were captured in American uniforms, they were executed as spies.
This was the standard practice of every army at the time, as many belligerents considered it necessary to protect their territory against the grave dangers of enemy spying.
Skorzeny said that he was told by German legal experts that as long he did not order his men to fight in combat while wearing American uniforms, such a tactic was a legitimate ruse of war.
Skorzeny and his men were fully aware of their likely fate, and most wore their German uniforms underneath their American ones in case of capture.
Skorzeny was tried by an American military tribunal in 1947 at the Dachau Trials for allegedly violating the laws of war stemming from his leadership of Operation Greif, but was acquitted. He later moved to Spain and South America.
In Operation Währung, a small number of German agents infiltrated Allied lines in American uniforms. These agents were then to use an existing Nazi intelligence network to attempt to bribe rail and port workers to disrupt Allied supply operations. However, this operation was a failure.