Pennsylvanians in the Ardennes: the 28th and 99th Infantry Divisions
On 16 December 1944, Operation Wacht am Rhein, Hitler’s Ardennes Counteroffensive and the eventual “Battle of the Bulge”, initially crashed into two units originally formed in the Grand Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: the US 28th Infantry Division on the southern shoulder of the Bulge, and the US 99th Infantry Division on the northern shoulder of the Bulge.
In the south, MG Norman Cota’s 28th “Keystone” Infantry Division of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, aka “The Bloody Bucket”, had its three regimental combat teams (RCTs) on line due to the enormity of its front. Along the Our River which separated Luxembourg and Germany, the 28th unwittingly faced the entirety of both German XLVIII Panzer and LXXXV Corps. Each RCT had more than two German divisions opposite them.
After the initial surprise on 16 December 1944, the 28th’s northernmost RCT, the 112th from Butler and northwestern PA, held the Our River bridge at Ourthe for over two days against overwhelming odds before falling back in good order to St Vith to take part in the critical defense there with the US 7th Armored Division. The Germans expected to capture the Our River Bridge in the first hours of the first day.
In the south, the 109th RCT from Scranton and northeastern PA, defeated the 352nd Volksgrenadier Division and rendered them combat ineffective for the rest of the battle. The 109th only fell back when their positions became untenable because of the breakthroughs to their north in the 110th RCT’s sector. The entire 109th RCT received Luxembourg’s Croix De Guerre for their defense of the small duchy.
In the center of the 28th’s line, the 110th RCT from Uniontown and southwestern PA felt the full weight of three German divisions: the 2nd Panzer, Panzer Lehr and 26th Volksgrenadier divisions. The 110th’s defensive positions didn’t even form a continuous line, but consisted of company strongpoints kept in contact with adjacent units through patrolling. Although the initial attacks were repulsed, sheer weight of numbers broke through the forward defenses along “Skyline Drive”, the north-south highway along which they defended. Still, isolated companies and platoons of the 110th fought the Germans to a standstill for two critical days before they were broken. The 110th’s stand culminated with the defense of Clervaux on the Clerf River where the scouts, cooks, bakers, and staff personnel of the 110th’s HQ Company held the fortified chateaux until they ran out of ammunition. That bridge was another initial German objective that took two full days to capture. The time the 110th bought allowed some of Eisenhower’s only reserves, the 101st Airborne Division, to arrive at the key crossroads town of Bastogne before the Germans. By the 19th, most of the 110th RCT was either dead, wounded, or captured, but the survivors formed the core of “Team Snafu” which palyed a vital role in the 101’s defense of Bastogne.
In the north, the US 99th “Checkerboard” Infantry Division had only recently arrived in Europe, but it was in position just west of the Siegfried Line long enough to adequately dig in, if only to keep warm. The 99th formed in 1942 from mostly Western Pennsylvanians and eastern Ohioans, and took their division insignia from the shield used on the Pittsburgh city crest and the emblem of Pittsburgh’s recently renamed football team, the Steelers.
On 16 December 1944, the division was struck by the vanguard of the 6th SS Panzer Army, and many units broke under the onslaught. However, isolated companies and platoons fought back savagely and prevented a German breakthrough. Though the center collapsed, on the far left of the 99th’s line, three companies of the 395th RCT at Hofen defeated the 396th Volksgrenadier Division. On the far right at the other end of the line, a single Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon of 22 men under LT Lyle Bouck fought off the entire German 9th Parachute Regiment near the Belgian town of Lanzerath.
On the night of the 16th, the commander of the unit behind the paratroopers, the infamous Jochim Peiper of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment of the 1st SS Panzer Division, stormed into their command post demanding to know why the attack stalled. The commander of the 9th told him there was an entire battalion dug in and fiercely defending the ridge above the town. Peiper ordered the paratroopers to support his Panther and King Tiger tanks in a deliberate attack that night. He was furious to find out that only a single platoon had held up an entire panzer corps for 24 hours.
Although chaos reigned throughout the 99ths sector on 16 December, they held the Germans long enough for LTG Gerow of the US V Corps to unilaterally order the US 2nd Infantry Division to the twin towns of Rocheroth and Krinkelt. On the 15th, the 2nd was attacking the Siegfried Line to the north of the 99th and immediately stopped, turned and headed south to help the 99th. The 2nd held the towns long enough for the remains of the 99th to pass through and set up a new defensive line on Elsenborn Ridge, less than 10 miles from their original positions.
The 6th SS Panzer Army broke out to the west but their objective was Antwerp which was to the north. As Peiper and the 1st SS Panzer Division proceeded west instead of northwest they were increasingly pushed onto roads designated for other German units further to their south, which caused massive traffic jams. The 2nd and 99th Divisions (with the 1st Infantry Division to their right at Bullingen) held Elsenbrn Ridge and the northern shoulder of the Bulge for the rest of the battle despite furious and increasingly desperate German attacks to move forward.
On the 16th of December 1944, surprise was complete and the majority of the American units in the Ardennes collapsed. However some did not, despite the German’s best efforts. By the end of the day the Germans’ strict timetable was already irreparably upset. The Battle of the Bulge was all about roads, road marches, and road junctions. On Day One, the NCOs, and junior and field grade officers of the 28th and 99th Divisions denied the attacking German Army the roads and time they needed to win the battle.
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