The battle of St Vith (18-23 December 1944) was a delaying action early in the battle of the Bulge that denied the Germans access to a key part of the road network in the Ardennes, and prevented them from moving the Sixth Panzer Army south once their own attack on the Elsenborn Ridge had failed.
St Vith didn’t actually lie on any of the ‘rollbahn’, the main routes allocated to the two panzer armies. The Sixth Panzer Army was to pass to the north of St. Vith, and the Fifth Panzer Army to the south. However once the main armoured columns were on the move, the roads running through St. Vith would have been essential supply routes. The town was thus one of von Manteuffel’s initial targets, and was expected to fall on or soon after 18 December. St. Vith’s roads became more important after the dramatic failure of the Sixth Panzer Army to achieve most of its initial objectives. The failure to clear the Elsenborn Ridge meant that three of the five rollbahn allocated to Dietrich’s men were blocked and the fourth was exposed to American artillery fire from the north.
When the Germans attacked on 16 December the front line to the east of St. Vith ran along the Schnee Eifel, a range of hills just across the German border, where the Allies had managed to penetrate the West Wall. This area was defended by the 106th Division, a newly arrived division that had only just taken up its new position. Two of the division’s three infantry regiments were posted on the Schnee Eifel, with the third further to the south. The Schnee Eifel was a dangerously exposed salient in the Allied line, a situation only made worse by the decision to leave the Losheim Gap almost undefended – only 800 men from the 18th Cavalry Squadron of the 14th Cavalry Group were in that key invasion route. To the right the line was held by the experienced by badly mauled 28th Division.
On the German side the attack on St. Vith would be carried out by the right flank of General von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army. Just as the Losheim Gap was a corps boundary for the Americans it was an army boundary for the Germans, with the Sixth Panzer Army to the north having access to most of the gap. Manteuffel was given just enough of the gap for the northern flank of a double-pronged drive around the Schnee Eifel. The plan was to attack around both flanks, meet up at Schonberg to cut off the 106th, then dash west for St. Vith.
Further south Manteuffel’s 58th Panzer Corps was to attack the US 28th Division east of the Our River, dash to the Cleif River, and open the way for the 116th Panzer Division to push into the gap between St. Vith and Bastogne.
On the northern flank the 14th Cavalry Group was quickly forced to retreat, opening up the Losheim Gap. Manteuffel’s right wing was able to advance until it stopped by artillery around Auw, nine miles east of St. Vith. General Alan Jones, commander of 106th Infantry, didn’t know that the cavalry had gone, so he sent one reserve battalion to reinforce his right wing and one to support the fighting at Auw. This second unit allowed the field artillery at Auw to retire to St. Vith.
Further south the attack around the southern flank of the Schnee Eifel was costly, with the Germans stopped two miles from their start point after street fighting in Bleialf – four miles south of Auw.
At the end of the day the commanders of the 106th Division weren’t too alarmed – they had fought off the attacks directly against their front – but they did ask for reinforcements. VIII Corps agreed to send one armoured combat command that had been withdrawn from an attack on the Roer dams, then on the evening of 16 December promised that the 7th Armoured Division, which had been ordered to the Ardennes, would reach them early on the next day. This would turn out to be far too optimistic, as the division would soon get bogged down in traffic retreating from the east.
Further south the 58th Corps attack was stopped by the US 112th Infantry Regiment. As a result Manteuffel ordered the 116th Panzers to send a battalion of Panzer IVs south to cross a bridge that had been captured in that sector, then advance north up the US side of the Our.
On the 47th Corps front the Germans infiltrated across the Our in the night, but were held up by stubborn US resistance at Holtzthum and Consthum and a series of other fortified villages. The 112th Infantry Regiment was eventually able to delay the Germans for two days, and they didn’t get across the Clerf, one of their targets for the first day, until 18 December.
Overnight the Germans had moved up reinforcements on both flanks of the Schnee Eifel, and by the end of the day the two wings of the German attack had met up. As a result around 8,000-9,000 US troops were trapped on the Schnee Eifel. They were forced to surrender two days later after all hopes of being rescued had gone and they were running short of supplies, in what became the largest surrender of US troops during the entire 1944-45 campaign. However even this success did slow the Germans down, giving the Americans time to organise a proper defence of St. Vith.
The vanguard of Combat Command B from the 7th Armoured Division reached Vielsalm, nine miles to the west of St. Vith, at around 11am. At this point its mission was to push east through St Vith to Schonberg, six miles further to the east, in an attempt to rescue the two regiments of the 106th Division trapped on the Schnee Eifel. However progress east was incredibly slow, as the tanks had to try and move against the flow of troops moving west. This included some defeated troops fleeing from the battle, but also artillery moving out of the danger area to new positions. As a result the leading tanks didn’t reach St. Vith until late on 17 December.
Luckily for the Americans, most of the Germans were in no position to take advantage of the chaos in St. Vith on 17 December. Only Peiper, whose task group was pushing past the town to the north, might have been able to capture it, but his attention was on the dash west (even if he had actually taken St. Vith the end result would probably only have been to move the upcoming battle a few miles further west, perhaps to Vielsalm). During the night more defenders began to arrive in the town, including the 424th regiment of the 106th Division and the combat command from the 9th Armoured Division. During the night the rest of the 7th Armoured Division arrived. The Americans would eventually commit 22,000 men to the battle of St. Vith, and most were in place by the end of 17 December.
The Defence of St. Vith
By the morning of 18 December the Americans had set up a curved defensive perimeter that ran for around fifteen miles, with St. Vith at the northern end of the line. The curved shape of this line earned it the name of the ‘St. Vith Horseshoe’. The northern flank of the horseshoe, from St. Vith west to Poteau, was defended by the 7th Armoured Division, while the eastern flan, from St. Vith south to Burg-Reuland then west to Huldange was defended by a mixed force containing CCB of the 9th Armoured, the 424th infantry from the 106th Division and the 112th Infantry from the 28th Division. The right flank was held by a series of improvised units, as far west as Cherain. However the 116th Panzer Division was about to advance past this area heading north-west.
The defence of the entire pocket was commanded by General Robert W. Hasbrouck (after some confusion about which of the generals in the area should be in command), commander of the 7th Armoured, with General Bruce C. Clarke, commander of the division’s Combat Command B, in charge at St. Vith itself.
Clarke quickly realised that the Germans were aiming at a deep penetration, so decided to conduct a fighting retreat, using ‘hit and retire tactics’. His view was if he retreated a mile or two every day, he was successfully disrupting the overall German plan. His actions helped convince von Manteuffel that St. Vith was defended by a much larger force, and allowed him to hold the town until 23 December.
The Germans launched four separate attacks on the new perimeter on 18 December, hitting all along the line. However their attacks weren’t terribly strong, mainly because many of their key support troops were stuck in traffic jams further to the east. Hasbrouck was able to move his troops around to deal with each threat, each time inflicting heavy loses on the Germans.
19 December was something of a repeat of the previous day, with the Germans carrying out a series of under strength attacks, each of which was repulsed. The Americans were further boosted by the arrival of the 112th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Division, retreating from the Our.
At this point the biggest danger for the defenders of St. Vith was that they were being outflanked to north and south. In the north Peiper’s task group was some way to their north-west, although his focus was still on the push west, and he was already dangerously isolated. The bigger threat came in the south, where by the evening the 116th Panzer Division had reached Houffalize, just over seventeen miles to the south-west of St. Vith. However once again this unit’s focus was on the push west, and a full day was wasted as they failed to find a way over the West Ourthe.
20 December was another day of limited German attacks on St. Vith, as the three units involved – the 62nd and 18th Volksgrenadier Divisions and the Fuhrer Begleit Brigade – moved into permission. General Remer, commander of the Fuhrer Begleit Brigade, did attempt a small scale attack on the northern flank, but this failed at the cost of four Panthers. In the east the 18th Volksgrenadier Division attempted to attach towards St. Vith railway station but was repulsed by heavy artillery fire that hit it as it assembled. To the south the 62nd Volksgrenadiers attempted to push towards Grufflange and Maldingen, which now formed the southern flank after the Americans had withdrawn north into better positions. The Germans were hit by artillery fire before they had identified the new American line and the attack failed with heavy losses.
By the evening the Germans were finally in position to organise a major attack for the following day.
20 December also saw Montgomery arrived at the First Army HQ to take command north of the Bulge. He largely approved of Hodges' orders, but dids suggest withdrawing from St. Vith and the Eisenborn Ridge to clear up the battlefield – St. Vith because it was a dangerous salient, and Eisenborn because it formed a sharp corner in the American front line. Hodges and his staff argued against these moves, and Montgomery lets them have their way
By 20 December the 82nd Airborne had concentrated about Werbomont, to act as a barrier if Peiper’s battle ground had managed to push further west. By this point Peiper had run out of fuel and was stuck at La Gleize, five or six miles to the east. Part of the 82nd Airborne was used to eliminate Peiper’s last foothold south of the Ambleve River, while the rest was pushed east to the Salm, taking up a new line from Trios Ponts in the north, south down the river towards Vielsalm then west for a few miles. Their main role at this point was to block any efforts by the rest of the 1st SS Panzer Division to reach Peiper, but they also formed the one land link to the St. Vith horseshoe. A patrol from the advancing paratroopers made contact with the western flank of the 7th Armoured. However there was still a five mile gap between the southern-most paratroopers and the south-western end of the St. Vith horseshoe, which still thus had an entirely open western side.
By 21 December the Germans had finally overcome the massive traffic jams further east, and were able to attack with part of the two infantry divisions and the panzer brigade (although the Fuhrer Begleit Brigade appears to have played a fairly minor role in the attack). The attack began with an artillery bombardment at 11am, and lasted for the entire day.
The attack didn’t begin well. In the north Remer ignored his orders to attack south from Neider-Emmels directly towards St. Vith and instead decided to attack at Rodt, two and a half miles to the west. This attack was stopped by American artillery, so he replaced it with a large raid. The raiding force did manage to get onto the American supply route from St. Vith to Vielsalm, and captured a number of vehicles. However the Germans then pushed on further south, and by the time they were ready to return to the brigade the Americans had woken up and they had to abandon most of the captured vehicles.
To the south one battalion from the 62nd Volksgrenadier Division attacked in the woods east of Grufflange but despite making some early progress were soon forced back.
The main attack came at St. Vith itself. The 18th Volksgrenadier Division was to attack from the north, and part of the 62nd Volksgrenadier Division from the east. This second attack would hit a task force commanded by Lt Col. William Fuller, which was defending the area between the roads heading north-east to Bullingen and east to Prum. This attack was supported by a heavy artillery bombardment. The main attack began at around 1600, but stopped after an hour while the Germans reorganised. At about 2000 they attacked again, this time focusing on the Prum road (also called the Schonberg road). This time the American line was broken, and the Germans were able to get into St. Vith itself. General Clarke realised the town was lost, and at about 2130 he ordered the remaining troops in St Vith to retreat to a new line west of the town.
To the north-west the 82nd Airborne fought off an attempt by the 1st SS Panzer Division to cross the Salm at Trois Ponts,
At the start of 22 December the American high command still wanted to try and hold on to the position west of St. Vith. The loss of the town itself hadn’t really altered the situation, but a separate crisis was developing to the south, where a captured German officer had revealed that the 2nd SS Panzer Division was heading that way. If this was true then the southern flank of the horseshoe would soon collapse, so General Ridgway, commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps, which was now in overall command at St. Vith, ordered the defenders to withdraw into a new position
General Ridgway wanted to organise a new defensive position about ten miles across, running from St. Vith to Vielsalm. This ‘fortified goose egg’ would be held by Hasbrouck’s forces and supplied from the air. The 82nd Airborne, would hold the area west of the River Salm until a relief force could be arranged. Hasbrouck disliked the idea, and wanted to withdraw, believing that his division would be wiped out if it wasn’t allowed to withdraw. Luckily for the Americans those German units that had taken St. Vith needed most of the 22nd to get reorganised. However to the north Remer managed force the Americans to retreat south.
At this point Montgomery intervened and overruled Ridgway. The defenders of St. Vith were ordered to withdraw, with Montgomery stating that ‘They can come back with all honour. They come back to the more secure positions. They put up a wonderful show’.
To their north the 1st SS Panzer Division made another attempt to cross the Salm, but once again the 82nd Airborne held them, off, keeping the escape route open.
The retreat began early on 23 December, after a cold snap froze the muddy roads, making movement easier. Luckily the ‘goose egg’ hadn’t yet been entirely isolated, and the Americans still held a 3,000 yard wide gap (just over a mile and a half) leading to bridges over the Slam at Vielsalm and Salmchateau. An attempt to retreat under the cover of darkness on the night of 22-23 December failed – it took too long to get the plans in place, and by the time the retreat was due to start at 0200 the Germans were attacking. This attack faded away after a couple of hours, and the pull out finally started just after 0600. The retreat took most of the day to complete, and the Americans were under attack for most of the time. However by the end of the day most American troops were back across the bridges, and the bridges were blown. General Clarke was one of the last men to leave the ‘egg’. His troops didn’t have much of a rest, as they soon had to move back into the line, but they had already played a major role in defeating the German attack. The escape was completed just in time – the 2nd SS Panzer Division was indeed in the area, and its advanced forces attacked at Salmchateau late in the day, helping to isolate the last American column.
The defenders of St. Vith had lost 8,000 of the 22,000 men involved in the battle, but they had held the centre of the line for an entire week, restricting the Germans to two narrow corridors. This combined with the successful defence of the Elsenborn Ridge and Bastogne to take all of the momentum out of the German attack. Once the roads through St. Vith had been cleared, the Germans were able to get more of their panzer divisions into the fight, but by then the Americans were ready for them, and had created a new defensive line to the west and north-west of the old St. Vith horseshoe that was pushed back, but never broken.