The battle of the Elsenborn Ridge (16-23 December 1944) was a key American victory early in the battle of the Bulge that denied the Germans access to two of the four roads they required for their main attack towards the Meuse,
The Elsenborn Ridge was a key position on the northern edge of the Ardennes battlefield. A key part of the German plan called for the Sixth SS Panzer Army to seize the ridge, which would give the Germans control of a good quality paved road to Malmedy, and from there towards the Meuse and beyond that Antwerp. Once the ridge was secured, the 12th SS Panzer Division would be let loose to dash towards the river. The first job was to capture the town of Bullingen, east of the ridge. There were two routes into Bullingen – one from the north-east via Krinkelt and Rocherath and one from the south-east via Losheimergraben. The northern route was to be taken by the 277th Volksgrenadier Division and the southern by the 12th Volksgrenadier Division. General Dietrich, commander of the Sixth SS Panzer Army, expected to be able to brush the 99th Division aside without much trouble.
On the American side the area was held by the 99th Infantry Division, commanded by General Lauer. This was part of General Gerow’s V Corps, which was itself part of General Hodges’ First Army. The 99th Division had arrived on the Continent in November and placed on the Ardennes front to give it experience. Just before the start of the German attack Gerow had begin a small scale offensive of his own, part of a general American attempt to reach the Roer River. This involved the veteran 2nd Infantry Division, which attacked on 13 December and had made some progress, capturing a key crossroads on 16 December. One battalion from the 99th Division was posted north of this attack (3rd Battalion, 395th Infantry), with the rest of the division to the south – the rest of the 395th first, with the 393rd Infantry in the centre and the 394th Infantry on the right. The two battalions just to the south of the 2nd Division also took part in the attack on 13 December.
When the German attack began on 16 December the Americans proved to be more capable than the Germans had expected. The 277th Volksgrenadier Division attacked the part of the line held by the 393rd Infantry. The 12th Volksgrenadier Division was to attack along the main road to Losheimgraben, hitting the 394th Infantry. Its objectives were the villages of Nidrum and Weywertz, four miles west of Bullingen. On the left the 3rd Parachute Division was to attack on the left flank of the 12th Volksgrenadier, heading for an area a similar distance to the south-west of Bullingen.
The German artillery bombardment began at 0530, but the Americans were generally well protected in their dugouts, and casualties were low. The artillery bombardment ended at around 0700, and the infantry attack began. However the German infantry was unable to take Losheimergraben or Krinkelt and Rocherath, and Dietrich was forced to feed his tanks into the battle. By the end of the day at least part of the 12th SS Panzer Division had been committed to the battle, and although the 99th Division had been hit hard, both of its front line regiments were still holding on, and all three villages were still in American hands. However General Gerow was aware that his forces were in a dangerous position. To the south of the 99th Division’s lines the Germans had achieved a breakthrough, pushing back the US 14th Cavalry Group and reached Lanzerath, south of Losheimergraben. To the north of the new battle the US 2nd Division was still advancing east into Germany. General Hodges refused to cancel this attack, in the belief that the German attack was only a local offensive. This limited Gerow’s freedom of action, but he was able to move the 2nd Division’s reserve battalion, the 23rd Regiment, from the town of Elsenborn into positions just behind the 99th Division lines at Losheimergraben and Rocherath.
By the morning of 17 December Hodges had changed his mind. It was becoming clear that this was a major German offensive. The 2nd Division was now in real danger of being cut off, while the entire 99th Division position was threatened by the lead elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division, Colonel Peiper’s 1st SS Panzer Regiment, which had broken through the Losheim Gap and was advancing west around the southern end of the Elsenborn Ridge, after taking Bucholz in a midnight attack overnight. Early on 17 December the Germans began to advance towards Honsfeld, to the rear of the right flank of the 99th Division. The village was held by a very mixed garrison, which was simply overwhelmed before dawn on 17 December. Peiper’s orders were for him to advance along ‘Route D’, from Honsfeld to Schoppen, as part of the dash west. However he decided that this road was too poor, and instead diverted north into Bullingen. Here the defenders were pushed back soon after dawn, leaving the town in German hands. If Peiper had attacked north he would probably have been able to get behind the 99th and 2nd Divisions and trap them, but his orders were to push on to the west, so instead of advanced north from Bullingen he turned south-west to get back to Route D and the road to the Meuse.
Early on 17 December Hodges made two key decisions – first he gave Gerow the freedom to deploy his corps as he saw fit (effectively giving him permission to cancel the 2nd Division attack) and second he summoned the veteran 1st Infantry Division to the front. This division was currently resting around Aachen, with many of its men away on leave.
At 7.30am on 17 December General Walter M. Robertson, commander of the 2nd Division, was ordered to retreat south-west to Krinkelt and Rocherath, a distance of seven and a half miles. Robertson came up with a complex plan for a retreat in the face of the enemy. His leading battalions would retreat through the reserve battalions, which would thus become the new front line. The original front line units would take up a new defensive position, and the original reserve battalions would take their turn to retreat. This would continue until the 2nd Division had reached Krinkelt and Rocherath. They would then form a new defensive line, while the 99th Division retreated to the key Elsenborn Ridge. Finally the 2nd Division would retreat into the new defensive position. This was a potentially dangerous plan – visibility was poor, and there would be many chances for friendly fire incidents as the retreating units loomed out of the fog. It was also very possible that the different units would become intermingled, making it hard to control them.
The retreat began with the 9th Infantry Regiment pulling back from the most advanced American positions. The 9th passed through the 38th Infantry Regiment and took up new defensive positions at Rocherath to keep the road open for the 38th, and a little further south at Krinkelt to guard a forest road that led towards the Elsenborn Ridge. At this point the 99th Division still held a line east of Krinkelt and Rocherath and also held Losheimergraben, allowing the 2nd Division to retreat without being attached from the east or south.
During the day the main German attacks in this area hit the 99th Division. In the south the 12st Volksgrenadier pushed them out of Losheimergraben, while in the east the 277th Volksgrenadier and 12th SS Panzer had renewed their attack on the lines east of Krinkelt and Rocherath. The thin line from the 99th slowed down the attackers, but was forced to retreat through the 23rd Regiment. The Germans then attacked that line, and by the evening the Americans had been forced back into the twin villages.
To make things worse one of Peiper’s tank companies threatened the unguarded 2nd Division headquarters at Wirtzfield (west of the twin villages). The HQ staff managed to knock out two tanks and an armoured car in the first five minutes of the battle, suggesting that they had some effective anti-tank weapons at their disposal. They managed to hold on until the last uncommitted battalion from the 23rd Regiment came to their rescue. Luckily Peiper’s focus was on his dash west, and he probably failed to realise that he’d missed a chance to unhinge the US line.
The night of 17-18 December saw house to house fighting in the twin villages, but the Germans were still unable to take them. On the morning of 18 December the 12th SS Panzer joined the attack, and managed to get into Rocherath, but this attack was defeated with the help of artillery fire from the new American position on Elsenborn Ridge. During 18 December the 2nd Division troops held on to the twin villages, while the survivors of the 99th Division retreated through their lines and back onto the ridge. The two units became so badly mixed that General Robertson was given temporary command of both units. By the end of 18 December the last organised units from the 99th Division had successfully withdrawn from action, and the American still held onto the twin villages.
The Germans now attempted to outflank the American position. Dietrich was ordered to halt the frontal assaults on the twin villages, and instead sent the 12th SS Panzer south in an attempt to attack from the south. This attack was slowed down by the muddy conditions, which saw many of the heavy German tanks get bogged down. When the attack did take place, it was repulsed by the veterans of the 1st Division, which was now dug on the southern approaches to the ridge. With the 12th SS Panzer withdrawn from the eastern sector of the front, the 2nd Division troops were able to pull back, and by the end of 19 December they were on the ridge.
By the end of 20 December the Americans had a strong position around the Elsenborn Ridge. The experienced 9th Division had arrived from Aachen, and taken up a position on the northern flank. The 2nd and 99th Divisions held the centre of the line, facing towards Bullingen. The 1st Division formed the southern flank, stretching west to Waimes, to the south-west of the ridge. The new defensive position was supported by plenty of well sited artillery, which played a key part in repelling further German attacks.
On 20 December the Germans attacked the 99th Division three times, but each attack was repulsed. On 21 December the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division attempted another attack, but was hit by artillery while still forming up and the attack was cancelled.
On 21 December the 25th Panzer Grenadier Regiment and parts of the 12th SS Panzer Regiment attacked a relatively isolated US force at Dom Butgenbach. This time the Germans got dangerously close to a breakthrough, with some of their tanks getting close to the American battalion’s command post. However once again heavy artillery fire from the main ridge played a major role in defeating the attack. The Germans tried again on the following day but were repulsed once again.
On 22 December the 277th Volksgrenadier Division attacked further north on the ridge, aiming at high ground east of Kalterharberg. This attack actually got into the main American lines, but at daybreak on 23 December the Americans counterattacked and the 277th was forced out of all of its earlier gains. On the same day the last 12th SS Panzer attack further to the south ended, and with it any chance of the Germans forcing the Americans back off the ridge.
The Germans did carry out one further attack in this area, but with little impact. On 28 December elements from the 12th Volksgrenadier and 246th Volksgrenadier Divisions attempted to push the Americans back at Wirtzfeld, in an attempt to straighten out the German line, but the attack was repulsed by heavy artillery fire, and hardly any of the German troops involved got close to the American lines.
Between them the 99th and 2nd Divisions had suffered 6,000 casualties, but they had stopped the main thrust of the German attack. Of the powerful forces in the Sixth SS Panzer Army only Peiper’s Panzer Regiment had made significant progress, but that was limited to the Losheim gap.
Although the German attack hadn’t made as much progress as planned, it had badly disrupted communications between General Bradley, whose HQ was south of the Bulge and Generals Hodges and Simpson, whose HQs were to the north. As a result Eisenhower made the controversial decision to give Montgomery command of the US forces north of the bulge. On 20 December Montgomery arrived at Hodges 1st Army HQ, where he approved most of Hodges’s decisions. However he did suggest pulling out of St. Vith, which was now in a dangerous salient, and withdrawing on the Elsenborn Ridge to straighten up the American line. Hodges and his staff resisted both ideas, so Montgomery gave in. The Germans soon captured St. Vith anyway, but the Elsenborn Ridge position was held for the rest of the battle, greatly restricting the freedom of movement of Dietrich’s army.
On the German side the failure to take the Elsenborn Ridge meant that the main thrust of the Sixth Panzer Army attack was blocked. On 20 December the focus of the German attack was officially switched to Manteuffel’s more successful Fifth Panzer Army, and any chance of a quick dash to the Meuse ended.
On 21 December von Rundstedt ordered Dietrich to transfer two of his panzer divisions south to join Maunteuffel and avoid the traffic jam in the north. However the fuel situation was so disastrous that one of the two couldn’t move for 26 hours. Von Manteuffel planned to use one of these divisions, the 2nd SS Panzer Division, to reinforce the 116th Panzer Division, which was making good progress towards the Meuse. With the German armour moving south, any realistic threat to the Elsenborn position ended.