On Saturday 16 December 1944, the Germans Ardennes offensive broke through the Losheim Gap and encircled two regiments of the 106th Infantry Division, soon to be the second largest surrender of American soldiers after the fall of Bataan two and a half years before. The German’s next target was the critical Belgian crossroads town of St Vith.
In the restricted terrain of the Ardennes Forest, the Battle of the Bulge was a fight for roads and crossroads. Unlike the French in 1940, Eisenhower quickly recognized this and ordered his reserves to two critical road junctions: the towns of Bastogne and St Vith.
The common historical narrative is that Eisenhower’s only reserves were the much ballyhooed Airborne divisions – the 82nd and 101st. This is not entirely accurate, he also had Bradley’s reserves which were sitting idle because of the confusion in Bradley’s 12th Army Group headquarters. Bradley was having difficulty getting back to his headquarters from Versaille due to German commandos dressed in US Army uniforms causing confusion and doubt on the roads (At one checkpoint, he was asked the name of Betty Grable’s current husband to prove he wasn’t German). Without Bradley, the 12 Army Group headquarter’s operations essentially ground to halt trying to figure out what was going on. Eisenhower took control and ordered Bradley’s reserves forward while his own reserves, the “airborne” divisions, were still trying to find trucks. He could do so because the Automotive Revolution had happened 40 years before and Bradley’s reserves were armored divisions.
The Infantry’s motto is “Follow Me!”, and whenever they get into trouble that phrase is usually followed by “Where are the tanks?” This could not have more true at the Battle of the Bulge, despite what the Airborne Mafia parrots daily. Troy Middleton’s infantry, who bore the brunt of the German’s Ardennes Offensive for the last 48 hours, were not going to be able to hold much longer without Bradley’s three armored divisions. The Tenth Armored Division moved to Bastogne where its Combat Command B provided the 101st the much needed firepower to prevent the lightly armed paratroopers from being rolled over by the German panzers like pierogi dough in my grandma’s kitchen. And the 7th Armored Division moved to St Vith where in true cavalry fashion they arrived on the evening of 17 December 1944 just in the nick of time to prevent its capture.
St. Vith was the junction of all of the roads between the Ambleve and Our Rivers, and no movement north or northwest out of the Ardennes was possible without taking the town. St Vith was a Day Two objective for the 9 ½ divisions of Erich Von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army.
The commander of Combat Command B of the 7th, Brigadier General Bruce C Clarke, arrived in town just as German reconnaissance units appeared on the hills just east of St Vith, the 106th Infantry Division’s headquarters. The commander of the 106th Infantry Division, broken by the entrapment and imminent destruction of two entire regiments of his division, turned the battle over to Clarke. With his tanks strung out in columns behind the town, Clarke immediately unsnarled the traffic jams and formed his men into a horseshoe shaped defense around the town and deftly incorporated retreating elements into the defense. The first of which was the 424th Regimental Combat Team, what remained of the 106th Infantry Division, and CCB of the 9th Armored Division, the only reason the 424th still existed. From the south, the 112th RCT was detached from the 28th Inf Division after its other two regiments withdrew east and south toward Bastogne and deeper into Luxembourg. The importance of St Vith was not lost on Eisenhower and he sent Clarke his reserve engineer battalion to further bolster its defenses.
BG Clarke, the 7th Armored Division’s CCB commander, took command of all of the combat units in St Vith: CCB and CCA of the 7th, the 424th, the 112th, the remains of the 14th Cavalry Group, Eisenhower’s engineers, and CCB of the 9th Armored Division, whose commander, also a BG, came to an understanding with Clarke. Eisenhower later called Clarke’s defense of St. Vith the “turning point of the battle”.
(The 7th’s actual division commander, Major General Robert Hasbrouck, spent the battle unscrewing the mayhem behind St Vith and fed Clarke units as they became available. Though lost to history now, Hasbrouck’s contribution in getting tanks and halftracks full of heavy infantry to Clarke was one of the only reasons Clarke held. Hasbrouck could have sped to St Vith to take over Clarke’s division sized command and left the odious and inglorious task of traffic cop to a less experienced subordinate, but instead stayed exactly where he was needed: generating combat power. Hasbrouck prevented Manteuffel from smashing Clarke and seizing the town in those critical early days of the battle.)
Clarke’s eclectic command held St Vith against overwhelming German force on 18, 19, and 20 December 1944. Their stand severely disrupted the German timetable and caused snarling traffic jams in the German rear areas. These traffic jams were so bad even Field Marshal Model himself couldn’t untangle them.) Although St Vith was threatened with encirclement because of German penetrations to its north and south, the 7th didn’t retreat until they were struck by an SS battalion of brand new German “King Tiger” super heavy tanks. This heavy battalion had wandered lost through the Ardennes looking for roads and bridges that could support its tanks great weight. For five days, it simultaneously assaulted any American units it encountered and “cleared” any German traffic jams in its way, both with equal fervor. Inevitably, the roads drew them to St Vith where they finally found a proper target to crush (and could do it before all of the King Tigers broke down).
On 21 Dec, the 506th SS Heavy Panzer Battalion struck and systematically destroyed the 7th’s much lighter Sherman tanks, whom could not penetrate the King Tiger’s armor anywhere at any nearly any range beyond muzzle blast. The other German units rallied to the King Tigers. Soon the town became a liability and Clarke was threatened with encirclement. In the late afternoon Clarke said, “This ground isn’t worth an acre a nickel to me”, and ordered the defenders of St Vith to fall back to the northwest to where the 82nd Airborne had established a defensive line. It took three days for the 82nd to round up enough trucks and get to the front, and though ordered to St. Vith by Eisenhower, never actually made it there. So when the Airborne Mafia tries to tell you that the 82nd was critical to the defense of St. Vith, as their 101st brothers were to Bastogne, you tell that lyin’ Bragg Bastard that there wasn’t a single paratrooper at St Vith, and its defense was primarily due to the efforts BG Bruce C Clarke and the mighty 7th Armored Division, “The Lucky Seventh”.
St Vith was an unimaginably important Day Two objective for the Germans. Along with the defense of Elsenborne Ridge by the 9th Armored, 2nd, 1st and 99th Infantry Divisions, St Vith was critical in preventing the Germans from breaking out north toward their objective, Antwerp. The Germans were pushing west when they wanted to go northwest, and though their offensive made for great drama, they were still going in the wrong direction and desperately trying to go around the American defenses now known as the “northern shoulder of the Bulge”. Because of the 7th Armored Division’s stand at St Vith, the Germans were four more days behind schedule and the 5th Panzer Army’s drive was all but stopped. Consequently, Model shifted the focus of the entire offensive further south around another vital crossroads, Bastogne.