The Battle for Hill La Roumiere - Hotton, Belgium - Dec. 1944
This page is dedicated to the memory of Alfred Roxburgh - 289th Cannon Company and to the men who sacrificed so much to achieve the victory at Hill La Roumiere in those first days of battle on the 24th and 25th of December, 1944. I will miss Al's friendship, his insightfulness, his dedication to the 75th Division and its Veterans, and his vision to preserve the history of this important and costly battle. I am forever grateful that he dedicated so much time to this work.
several years of searching for information about my Dad's Army service,
75th Division Veteran
Alfred Roxburgh gave me an
unexpected call one afternoon.
Al introduced himself and then proceeded to tell me about the research he
had undertaken. Al told me he had become
interested in a battle that took place in late December of 1944
during the Battle of the Bulge and of which there was very little
information about the 75h Division's involvement. On that day, I
learned almost precisely where my dad was during the fighting - the
first time I had ever had known anything that specific about my dad's
combat duty...and I was elated!
Hill La Roumiere is located to the southeast of Hotton, Belgium, near Melines. In December of 1944 La Roumiere was considered to be a highly strategic military position overlooking the Hotton - Soy landscape and road network. At the time it was held by the Germans - by elements of the 116th Panzer Regiment and 560th Volksgrenadiers. The battle for La Roumiere was relatively complex and involved several units of the 75th Division (then attached to the 3rd Armored Division) with, at least, two attacks on the hill before it was captured. It was Al's belief that the 75th units were utilized to take the hill in order to provide the Third Armored's "Task Force Hogan" a safe passage through to the American lines. Task Force Hogan had earlier been surrounded at Marcouray by German forces and escaped the entrapment by heading north and over Hill La Roumiere.
Al began collecting and compiling related
documents about this battle and also petitioned all of the veterans who
involved in the battle to submit their
concerning La Roumiere. Al's curiosity had been sparked in part
because the battle, as remembered by his veteran
friends, did not agree with what he had read in various novels and other publications.
It immediately became clear that there were errors in those
"unofficial" writings and this drove Al to find the truth
and settle the matter.
This has been a very brief introduction to a subject that has many interesting twists and turns. I hope the information provided here will serve to educate and correct any historical discrepancies. I want to close by stating that in no way have I intentionally tried to degrade or belittle the noble service of the men of the 517th PIR. Although I have not personally researched the WWII combat history of the 517th PIR, I do believe that they served with integrity and contributed significantly to our victory in Europe.
While I have attempted to include as much information as possible from Al Roxburgh's PKG, I may never be able to publish all of the information on this website. If you are interested in studying the entire PKG it is available at various archival centers. Please click here for information..
(note: It is believed but is not definite that this newspaper 'remembrance' by A. Scarlatella pertains to his recollections of the combat at La Roumiere)
From the Cincinnati Enquirer - December 25th, 1945.
Adobe Reader required
|"The Hotton Report" chronicles the combat activities of the 75th Infantry Division as they fought to capture Hill La Roumiere near Hotton, Belgium in late December of 1944. Well written and historically accurate.|
Photographs of Hill La Roumiere and the
Surrounding Terrain as it was in May of 2001.
Click on the thumbnails for a larger image.
Please see the following exposes' regarding the Battle for HIl La Roumiere:
by: Raymond Smith - AT 290
During the past several months, maybe you have wondered as I have, what was really going on during those first three chaotic days of combat, the 24th, 25th, and 26th of December 1944...A time neither we nor the officers leading us knew where we were or what we were doing there. But our battleground was indeed the hill called "La Roumiere." Now, time is running out when the recollections of those involved will remain vivid and accurate. But I think we have been able to capture enough of those memories to provide a corroborated, unprejudiced chronicle of events that will correct many of the serious flaws of error and omission present in certain publications describing the battle...Flaws present in books such as "A Blood Dimmed Tide," "Paratroopers Odyssey," and "Battling Buzzards." All three criticized the performance of the 75th Division's 2nd and 3rd Battalions, and awarded credit for winning the battle to a minor participant. As writers describing history, they were morally bound to seek all of the evidence relating to the event, weigh its credibility, and only then draw judicious conclusions based on the preponderance of that evidence. Instead they chose to form their judgments using only the biased and frequently, self-serving accounts of just one of the many participating units...And then unjustifiably claim the victory for them at the expense of the many who had made far greater sacrifices and in fact, were mainly responsible for winning the victory. We think we have been able to extract the truth through study of all the evidence from all the available resources...Resources that have included unit histories and corroborated eye witness testimonies compiled in his "PKG" by our associate member, A. Roxburgh (CN-289) His "PKG" is a work comprising personal remembrances of the La Roumiere action, as well as the histories of all the units involved, the surprising number of which are listed on page 7 at the end of this article. The remembrances are those written by the 290th soldiers who were there, fought the battle, and haven't forgotten the experience. Thanks to Al's dedication and determination, his PKG has been nationally distributed to more than ten archival repositories and has thereby become the premier reference for the battle for La Roumiere.
If you have lacked direct access to the narrative content of the PKG, the scope of what you could have known about that period would have been limited to the narrow coverage we have sought to give you in past M/C issues... Namely, those of December '91, November '94, and most recently, October '97. Now, having come into the possession of some additional, equally credible information, we think we can describe some of the specific aspects of that action with heightened accuracy. For example, some of the questions we think we can now answer are these: Where were the four platoons of AT company situated between the 24th and 26th of December? What was the 290th's 1st Battalion doing while the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were engaged at La Roumiere? What units of the 75th itself and the units attached to it, were involved at La Roumiere? Were there three or only two organized, coordinated attacks on the hill? What enemy units did they face? Were the troops of the 290th's 2nd and 3rd Battalions really rescued by the 517th Parachute Infantry, as inferred in books written by or about the 517th? Was the Commanding Officer of the 517th's 1st Battalion really in command of the 290th's forces on the hill? Who "won" the battle for La Roumiere? We may now be able to offer credible answers to those questions.
On pages 2 and 3 following, you will find two maps of the Hotton, Ny, Soy, Werpin, and Wy area. The first one on page 2, shows the deployment of the attack forces at 2330 hrs. 24 December 1944, when the first attack to capture the summit of La Roumiere hill was launched. The map on page 3 shows the deployment of the 290th's Company E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M the Ammunition & Pioneer Platoon of 2nd Bn's HQ Company, the 517th's Company A, and the 2nd Reconnaissance Platoon of the 629th TD Bn's Company B, at about 1500 hours on the 25 December 1944, as the second (and LAST) assault on La Roumiere began.
Background: The village of Wy and Hill La Roumiere were important objectives for our side for two big reasons: First, La Roumiere Hill was the highest of all the surrounding high ground, with a crest elevation of 362 meters (530 feet above the LOD). Thus, whoever commanded La Roumiere's high ground had artillery control over the intersecting valleys of the Ourthe river and the stream, (rau) L'isbelle, and of the roads running through them. Second, as we described in the October 1997 M/C edition, one of General Maurice Rose's task forces (Rose was the Commanding General of the 3rd armored Division to which the 290th had become attached on 24 December as a member of Combat Command R), Task Force Hogan, comprised of 467 men (loosely called "Hogan's 400") had become surrounded by units of the 116th Panzer division. Hogan was trapped with only limited supplies inside the town of Marcouray, about 5 to 10 miles southeast of La Roumiere. Rose was determined to have an escape route cleared for them, back through a corridor dominated by La Roumiere and its surrounding villages. All were occupied by Germans of the 560th VGD and 116th PZD. Rose was uncharacteristically willing to sacrifice their equipment but not the men; he wanted to get them back intact and that became his plan: They were ordered to (and did) destroy all their equipment, leaving behind anything metallic that could produce noise as they walked stealthily through the enemy's lines to reach ours. That included their helmets, canteens, mess gear, - even their weapons. Faces blackened, they began their ultimately successful, unarmed walk-out after dark in the evening of the 25th. As an aside, though most were unarmed as ordered, at least one of the "400" escapees, named Sydney Johnson, admits to having violated that order when he managed to save a treasured German P38 pistol by carrying it close to the ground, suspended in a sock so he could "lose" it quickly and quietly if he were to be captured...He wasn't. (Please see the addendum pertaining to anecdotal remarks regarding the TF Hogan episode on p. 7 and 8.)
Referring to the situation map, above, for December 24, Antitank Company's three gun platoons had set up defensive road blocks arrayed along the Hotton - Soy road to prevent enemy tanks from interfering with the capture of La Roumiere and its surrounding villages. (The gun icons representing the squads do not necessarily represent their intended fields of fire.) Menacing these positions from the south were infiltrating enemy infantry patrols from the 1129th Infantry Regiment, 560th Volksgrenadier Division. AT Company's 4th Platoon provided perimeter guard for the Company's CP in Ny, a town that only the previous day had been occupied by troops of the 560th VGD. Rifle Companies G and E of 2nd Battalion, supported by Heavy Weapons Company H, were assigned the task of taking and securing the village of Wy to the northeast of La Roumiere. Beginning at 2330 hrs December 24th, Company I had been assigned to protect the 3rd Armored Division's Headquarters at Hotton.
Also commencing at 2330 hrs on December 24th, rifle companies K and L of the 3rd Battalion were to attack up the northwestern slope of La Roumiere, a featureless pasture, two companies abreast with K to the right of L and both supported by Heavy Weapons Company M. Thus, this important and critical assault on La Roumiere was to be undertaken and carried out, not by a regiment, but by the cold, exhausted, inexperienced men of two Rifle Companies, men who had already been on the move for 18 hours, were lacking food (most only had eaten K rations for over 8 hours except for the few who were lucky enough to have passed through a hot chow line before the arrival of Brig. General Gerald Mickle, the Assistant Division Commander, who summarily ordered it closed), and had no maps of the terrain or any opportunity to reconnoiter their objective and assign positions for machine guns and mortar drops. Certainly, there was no time allowed for planning the optimum utilization of attached units such as the 629th TDs and the 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion. Also, already soaking wet, including their boots, from hours-long exposure to a cold rain in open trucks, they suffered the final deprivation of being issued a supply of small arms ammunition inadequate for the attack. [ One can only wonder what other factors could have compromised their chances of success...unless they might have been expected to attack weaponless, too...And did recon patrols no longer precede an attack?] The enemy, long since dug in at the crest, had the hill's slopes "sighted in" so they could fire mortars and machine guns at attackers unseen in the dark. Army intelligence had reported that these defenders consisted of "only a reinforced platoon": Soldiers of the 1129th Volksgrenadiers of the 560th VGD, supported from the rear by elements of the 116th Panzer Division.
Of L Company's three rifle platoons, only its 2nd Platoon actually participated in this midnight attack. Its 1st and 3rd Platoons remained behind the Line Of Departure all night. This left only the three Platoons of K Company riflemen and one of L Company to charge up the The Hill without any cover and in the face of withering defensive machine gun fire. In spite of these handicaps, K Company's platoons prevailed and reached the summit successfully, forcing the enemy off the crest. But then, one by one, they began to run out of ammunition.
That was not surprising: The men had each received but 48 rounds for the attack, less than half a combat load. Though probably not a significant factor during this first attack (because two-thirds of the L Company attack force never left the LOD), some of L Company's ammo issue was in obsolete, largely useless Springfield M1903 5-round clips, possibly of WW1 vintage! Reloading used M1 clips with rounds extracted from the M1903 clips or machine gun belts, during the battle and a freezing cold, dark night must have been a challenge for those who had to do it. Compounding the problem, the retreating Germans quickly recognized the symptoms of their attackers' ammunition shortage and counter-attacked, forcing a rapid retreat of K Company's survivors back down the hill. L Company's 2nd Platoon had been pinned down by machine gun fire on the slope to K Company's left and never reached their objective. They were also able to retreat to the base of The Hill, halting until morning in the vicinity of the stream, L'isbelle Rau.
Some sources have enthusiastically described a further but equally unsuccessful attack, one alleged to have been mounted at or near sunrise on the 25th (which occurred at about o845 Hrs.) by the survivors of the first assault, the difficulties to have been overcome in order to mount such an attack would have been enormous...So difficult as to present a near impossibility: Necessary, would have been ammunition re-supply, reorganization of stragglers lost in the darkness, arrangement for the now-demonstrated and critical need for artillery preparation, and finally, provision of replacements for the lost company-level leadership (e.g., all but one of K Company's officers were either wounded or dead and L Company had lost its Commanding Officer and two Platoon Leaders).
Though there may have been some subsequent, sporadic sorties by K and L survivors throughout the rest of the long night and into the Christmas morning hours (dawn would have been at about 0845 Hrs), no further organized American attack occurred until the late afternoon Christmas Day. However, given this indication of American strength and determination, and taking advantage of the ensuing lull, the Germans clearly reinforced their defenders overnight to bring them up to at least company strength.
During the forenoon of the 25th, a highly stressed Captain from the 87th Chemical Mortar Bn. proposed (literally, with tears in his eyes) to Colonel Duffner that he be allowed to fire the white phosphorus shells he still had, onto the enemy's positions to reduce the slaughter of 3rd Bn that continued on the Hill's slopes. Duffner refused the offer for whatever reason, saying "My men will get that ground without any help from you". The exchange was reported to Charles E. "Woody" Woodruff (of K Company's Weapons Platoon) and demonstrates the willingness of the attached unit, the 87th, to become directly involved in the action. However, though it had been refused, the opportunity may have been presented again later in the afternoon and executed as the Hill was being prepared for a final assault.
Ordered to commence prior to 1425 Hrs on the 25th, was a formidable 3rd AD Artillery barrage (probably joined by the 290th's Cannon Company, the 898th FA, and perhaps by the 87th Chemical Mortar Bn.) It was the preparation that had been sadly lacking for the first assault. Both Bob McElroy and Dal Raze witnessed this daylight assault, but from different vantage points. Bob's recollections seem to coincide very well with what the survivors of the action could remember and about which they wrote 50 years later for Al Roxburgh's PKG.
Referring to the map above, during the morning, I Company was withdrawn from Hotton, and joined by a reconnaissance Platoon of the 629th TD M-10 tank destroyers, crossed the Ourthe River using what remained of a partly destroyed, but patched up foot bridge at Hampteau, to capture and occupy the town of Werpin. From there, they formed up to attack La Roumiere from the west, to complete its envelopment while reorganized survivors of K and L Companies resumed their attack from the northwest. At the same time, and as a part of the organized attack on The Hill during the afternoon of the 25th, Company F of the 290th RCT attacked from the east, joined by Company A+ of the 517-1 PCT. The combined assault was to "jump off" at 1440 Hrs but probably didn't gather momentum until after 1500 Hrs. Though accounts differ as to its duration, most agree that The Hill was secured by 2300 Hrs.
"...It was now getting dusky dark and we thought we were getting a counterattack by the Germans. But it was the Colonel and 517th Parachute Troops and Co. F firing at each other before we recognized each other as Americans. They were coming up from the left side of the hill. The Colonel, being the ranking officer, took charge and told all of the men to close in around the big tree. I do not remember the number, maybe 50 or 75. He had the artillery forward observer calling artillery fire 50 to 100 yards on all four sides. Some of the shells fell pretty close to us around the tree. Then the Colonel said line up in single file and hold on to the cartridge belt of the man in front of you. He then called the BAR man in front with him and ordered all of us to be quiet and led us over the top of the hill to the edge of the cleared field. This was 9:00 or 10 at night. There was a squad of Germans. The Colonel challenged them in German and they did not respond. He had the BAR man open fire on them and they ran off the hill like the horse drawn artillery was behind them"... [ S/Sgt, Weapons Platoon, F-290] McConley Byrd - April 1994.
Most enlightening is the following excerpt from "Pass In Review", Vol. 1 No. 14 published by the men of the 2nd Bn 290th on 29 May 1945. It is particularly credible, because it was drafted within the same time frame as the attack itself, and thereby assumes credibility exceeding that of other accounts written many years after the fact and which may conflict with it:
" In the early morning hours of December 25, F Company was put into Regt'l Reserve. However, before daylight it was learned that 3rd Bn was in trouble and had been driven off a hill which they had taken that morning. Co. F was committed with 3rd Bn. "In a frontal assault across an open field swept by machine gun fire, F Co. attacked and took hill 87 [ La Roumiere] despite the enemy's dug-in defenses, thereby earning the commendation of the CO of a Paratroop unit [the 517th's Company A] which had arrived shortly after the objective had been attained." (Information in brackets [ ] and italicized emphasis added/inserted by the M/C author.)
So what was the role of the 517th-1 on the 25th? Their company A fought alongside 2nd Battalion's Company F, up the steep northeastern slope. Following is a description we were able to prompt from Bill Brannon after the 517th-1's April 6, 2000 reunion at Palm Springs, CA. Brannon was a member of the 517th, a scout for their Company A's 1st Platoon, 2nd Squad and as such, along with his comrade Don Vaughn, served as his Company's point to lead their Squad up The Hill. His email, abridged, but quoted essentially as forwarded to me [RC] to describe the event as he had experienced it, is quoted below:
"...I saw bodies of the 290th infantrymen lying at the approach to Hill La Roumiere, somewhere toward late morning or early afternoon, December 25th, 1944. Why they were cut down is beyond my scope of knowledge. I would suggest that survivors of the attack know the truth. I highly doubt that the entire regiment was wiped out."
"We had been advised that the 290th would move through our lines and attack Hill La Roumiere. If they were successful, we would enjoy a Christmas dinner and a few days rest. We heard only German machine gun fire which told us there would be no dinner. The sequence of events was as follows:
1. We were told to be ready to move out, and that my company (A) would be the point.
2. We moved into a ditch at the base of the hill where we received intense fire from the Germans at the top of the hill. We also suffered casualties.
3. Lt. Cook, our Platoon Leader, briefed us with the following instructions: a.) The 2nd Squad of our Platoon, under Sgt. Critchlow, would attack straight up the hill. Don Vaughn and I would lead the attack. b.) The 1st Squad would make an attack up the left flank of the hill.
"Unbeknown to us, the Germans had evacuated their position when they saw us moving up the hill in the front and on the flank. There were nothing but spent cartridges and debris where they had been. It was our lucky day. There is no question that we would have suffered heavy casualties if the Germans had held their position. My best guess is that our attack spelled their doom, so they ran. If that pillbox had been occupied by SS or paratroopers, I highly doubt that they would have abandoned that hill.
"As for the 290th, I take great exception with anyone who would make negative comments about their attack. The fact that they had the guts to move across the open field against the commanding position of the Germans on the hill tells me that they had great courage. It is my understanding that men of the 290th acquitted themselves with honor and courage in subsequent action...
"The reason why I'm sure of [the date] December 25th is that Sgt. Critchlow was killed the following day, December 26th, in a patch of trees about a half mile past Hill La Roumiere. That is a day none of us in the 2nd Squad will ever forget. I hope this helps. Sincerely, Bill Brannon"
There was general agreement that the casualties experienced during the Christmas afternoon action had been lighter than those for the night attack of the 24th. Complicating the count, however, is the fact that official figures lump together those for all three of the 290th's battalions engaged during the 24th, 25th, and 26th. (During the same time period, the 290th's 1st Bn. had been loaned to Ridgeway's XVII Corps. It fought in a different sector south of Manhay in a costly but unacknowledged attempt to extricate Task Force Brewster from a German trap.) Together with the 2nd and 3rd Battalions' losses at La Roumiere, the regiments casualties amounted to 256 men and officers during those three days. Of these, Company C lost 28 in the costly action defending TF Brewster south of Manhay. Company K lost 40, and L Company 14, the casualty ratio of 3:1, demonstrating K Company's cost for the disorganized Christmas Eve attack.
Total German casualties for this period are not known with any certainty. But based on Belgian Florent Lambert's body count, one that he personally performed at the edge of the Forest de La Roumiere after the action, it was 155 or more. And as late as May 10, 1945, upwards of 800 isolated German corpses were still being found in the surrounding forests and villages, (though not all necessarily associated with the December 24-26 battle).
One biased "chronicle" of the period (written about, by, and for the 517-1), points out that during the night [of 25 December] Colonel Robert L. Howze, the CO of Combat Command R, apparently dissatisfied with the way the 290th was performing under Col. Duffner, "placed LTC Boyle in command of all the troops on the objective, including the two battalions of the 290th Infantry". Rendering this order moot were two facts: First of all, by nightfall, (certainly before midnight of the 25th) the hill had already been secured - the battle was over. Secondly, no one will dispute that whenever an LTC from other than the 290th would have become present on The Hill, he, figuratively speaking, could have exerted command by virtue of article 119 of The Articles of War. During the afternoon of the 25th, Boyle was indeed on The Hill with a part of his Company A and had been joined by perhaps three platoons of the 290th's Company F and was leading them up the northeasterly slope. Inasmuch as neither Col. Duffner nor his battalion commanders Harris and Gleszer were on The Hill itself, Boyle would have outranked any and all of the other 290th Officers who were present. Thus, at the very least, Howze's appointment of Boyle would have been unnecessary even if it had been made during the attack (which it wasn't). But the fact remains that not one of the surviving 290th officers knew Boyle was there nor can any of them recall having received any direction from him during the battle or receiving the defense tutorial said to have been given to all 290th Company Commanders afterwards...A tutorial aimed at teaching the inexperienced 290th how it could hold The Hill against a counter attack (which never came), expected during the night of the 26th - 27th. All elements of the 517 - 1 had departed from The Hill for Soy by 1600 hrs on the 26th.
The success of the final assault has been attributed to various factors, not the least of which was the very extensive artillery preparation for it, and the eventual provision of an adequate supply of ammunition and manpower. Doubtless a key factor in the success of the second and final assault that came late on Christmas Day, was the morning respite or lull in the fighting that allowed for reinforcement of the assault teams by the addition of the 290th Companies F and I, a platoon of the 629th TD, and the 517 - 1 PCT's Company A+.
Conclusion: This chronicle has been written to document for historical purposes, the sacrifices made during the period 24-26 December 1944 by the men of the units named below. Together, they drove the German enemy from the village of Wy, Belgium and from the heights of La Roumiere Hill, both located south of the Belgian villages of Soy and Hotton; their purpose having been to secure an area through which the 400+ entrapped officers and men of Task Force Hogan could walk under cover of night to the safety of the 75th Division's front lines. The capture of Wy and La Roumiere was not just the accomplishment of one unit, though the majority of the resulting casualties were those suffered by the 290th Infantry Regiment. Allied forces known to have had primary or supporting roles in the battle were:
As addendum to the story of the extrication of Col. Hogan's Task Force, there have been several anecdotal references published, one by Hogan himself, that the escape was accomplished without the loss of a single man except for one who was "shot in the upper leg by a careless dough boy and [who] had bled to death" as the 400 crossed American lines. and in another account, " except for one man killed by a nervous sentry". The incident described may have been the one witnessed by George Gregory, a member of Company L's 2nd Platoon. He recalls that a BAR man (outfit unknown but not of L's 2nd Platoon) named "Lasser" had leaned his weapon against a tree, about the time the blackened-faced men of TF Hogan appeared, and that it fell or was kicked over and discharged one round as it hit the ground...a round that hit the 3rd AD man in the leg. Allegedly, that man died of the wound, possibly the result of an improperly treated, hemorrhaging femoral artery (this last is pure conjecture, but how else could a leg wound that everyone considered a minor one, cause a man's death...IF it really did?). Enough said.
Bibliography for "Chronicle: The Battle for Hill La Roumiere," AT~290 Message Center, September 2000
"...A Furlough in Paris?", privately published monograph by Sydney O. Johnson - Company A, 83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Armored Division.
"Chronicle - 517 Parachute Regimental Combat Team" page 16 (para. 8 and 9), covering activities 25 December 1944 from a report prepared by Col. Rupert D. Graves: "Operations of the First Battalion - 517 Parachute Combat Team - Battle of the Bulge."
Radio Log of the 36th AIR, 3rd AD (CCR) Significant Entries for 22,23,24,25, and 26 December 44 provided by Sgt (ret) Clark Archer. and/or Major (ret) Donald W. Frazer.
Memoir of 25 December 1944 by William Brannan (former scout of A 517 PCT)
A Time for Trumpets, Charles B. McDonald, William and Morrow & Co., NY, 1985, pp. 539-540, 554-555.
"The Story of the Task Force Hogan", as published in the Third Armored Division Association Newsletter for August 1987.
The Articles of War Annotated by Lee S. Tillotson, Col., J.A.G.D., U.S. Army, Retired, The Military Service Publishing Company, Harrisburg, PA, p. 261.
Pass in Review, Vol. 1, Nos. 13 and 14 Published by the men of the 2nd Bn. 290th; 21, 29 May 1945.
Spearhead In The West, The Third Armored Division...1941-45, pp. 111-112, 225-227.
Remembrances of the 290th RCT members, privately published in "The PKG" by Alfred S. Roxburgh (CN-289):
Lt. Elmer C. Dennis, HQ Co., 3rd Bn. 290th RCT
Robert L. Marks, I Co., 3rd Bn. 290th RCT
Capt. Andrew Robble, K Co., 3rd Bn., 290th RCT
Thomas W. Young, K Co., 3rd Bn., 290th RCT
Sgt. Joseph T. Harlukowicz, K Co., 3rd Bn., 290th RCT
Lt. Paul B. Ellis, Leader 2nd Platoon, K Co., 3rd Bn., 290th RCT
Lt. Roy Hammarlund, 4th Platoon, K Co., 3rd Bn., 290th RCT
S/Sgt Ross K. Rassmussen, 4th Platoon, K Co., 3rd Bn., 290th RCT
C.E. Woodruff, 4th Platoon, K Co., 3rd Bn., 290th RCT
John Hoy, 3rd Platoon, K Co., 3rd Bn., 290th RCT
Leonard P. Schur, K Co., 3rd Bn., 290th RCT
Gilbert M. Nelson, 2nd Platoon, L Co., 3rd Bn., 290th RCT
S/Sgt McConley Byrd, 4th Platoon, F Co., 2nd Bn., 290th RCT
J. George Gregory, 3rd Platoon, L Co., 290th RCT
LOSSES IN ACTION
24 25 26 DEC 44
(From Alfred Roxburgh's "PKG")
The initial attacking companies experienced severe casualties during the dark predawn morning hours. However, after the initial American forces were augmented to provide greater attacking force than the German defensive forces, the casualties were not as severe. The initial attacking companies E, G, K and L had somewhere between 680 to 720 officers and men. The figures would provide that all four companies were between a strength of 170-180.
There is no evidence that casualties for the initial attacking companies of the 2nd Bn 290 CT 24-25 Dec 44 were severe. Christmas Eve/Christmas Day-Night: Companies committed to battle 2d Bn 290th CT were Companies E, G and 2 machine gun Platoons from H Co. Estimated strength 320-440. There is evidence that the two companies K and L sustained high casualties in the initial attack 24-25 Dec 44. On the 25 Dec attack F Co suffered high casualties. The K and L companies were at or very near full strength officers and men each. The two weapons platoons were in reserve during the attack in the darkness reducing the attacking strength. Officers and men were exposed to enemy fire and possible casualties. If K Co. and L Co. were at full authorized strength, there was a possibility for 360 casualties before the augmented attack. Later, 25 Dec, with I Co. 3d Bn, F Co. 2d Bn and support from M Co. plus the contingent from the lst Bn 517 PCF and a platoon of 629 TD's casualties did increase. However, THESE FIVE ATTACKING COMPANIES DID NOT SUSTAIN 100% CASUALTIES, 900. The five attacking companies and the TD platoon would have to have been annihilated to produce 900 casualties!
The "900 casualties from a single regiment" did not include the "injured" referred to in "German weapons wreaked death and injury." [!!??] The lst Bn 517th surgeon's estimate of the injured is not given!?
K Co. had 53 out of 173 report for duty after the INITIAL ATTACK 24 25 DEC. If L Co. sustained the same high casualty rate as K Co., assuming all those who did not report for duty were casualties, THE TOTAL INITIAL ATTACK CASUALTIES COULD HAVE BEEN 240, NOT 900.
Companies of the 2d and 3d Battalions, 290th CT attacked and cleared the Germans from the towns of WY and WERPIN as well as the wooded high ground south of the SOY-HOTTON road. The defensive line which the 290 CT was established as ordered by CG 3d Armored Division and secured in the late hours of 25 Dec 44.
The bravery, perseverance, self-reliance and discharge of their individual and collective duties in the early dark hours of the attack was a major step in securing the high ground.
With the reinforcements requested in order to succeed against a larger German force
entrenched on high ground the same dedication to duty prevailed in spite of high casualties. The high ground was secured by companies of the 2d and 3d Bns of the 290th Inf Regt and the defense of the hill was aided by the augmented company from the 1st Bn 517 PIR.
The 1st Bn Cos A,B,C,D, assigned to units and Task Forces of the 3d AD, were engaged in combat south and southwest of Manhay 25 +/- Dec 44. *Their losses are listed in the following 290th Regimental Combat losses in Action Report
*The "losses" list has not been included in the online documentation.
December 21, 1993 ---- Men of L Company, 290th
From: Gilbert M. Nelson -- [2nd Platoon, L Company, 290th Regiment]
To: Alfred S. Roxburgh
Since attending the 75th's Reunion at the Pines, Labor Day week, I've had contacts with Paul Ellis, K Co 290, and Al Roxburgh, Cn Co 289. Al, with Paul's help, has conducted extensive research into what REALLY happened before, during and after the 290th's attacks Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, 1944. The research was a reaction to the derogatory references about OUR outfit and OUR attacks that were published in the book, A BLOOD DIMMED TIDE, [author] Gerald Astor, [Publisher] Donald I. Fine, 1992. I enclose copies of pages 334 and 335, containing the more serious allegations for your easy reference.
Al has compiled and drafted a comprehensive and detailed "CRITIQUE" of author Astor's references to the 75th. The 75th Div Vets Assn members have probably read Al and Paul's letter, p. 6, Dec Bulgebusters in which they invite contributions of (your) recollections of those actions. I, too, have been reacting and collecting information. By forwarding this letter and its enclosures to L Co men, I hope to provide a "distillation" of the work of Al, and many others, that perhaps will stir your memory and facilitate your response. I don't know all of you. If there are others you do know who might like to participate, please feel free to give them a copy. Enjoy.
As orientation, (which we didn't have, then), I enclose a map of the Hotton, Soy, Werpin, La Roumiere area. This is an enlargement of a map that is in Al's CRITIQUE. Also enclosed is a contour map of part of the same area. It has more topographic detail. Finally, I enclose a questionnaire for you. Answer it as you are willing and able. It is concerned with specific matters, that affected the operation, that still are fuzzy.
With that introduction, following is "my" summary of the evolving military situation, as L Co arrived in the combat area. Believe me, it is distilled from numerous sources, but I've tried to include only "supported" facts, or those that I felt were a "consensus", or those that I remember.
The village of Hotton was a principal German objective, because it contained the strategic Ourthe River bridge and several main-road intersections. The "hill", La Roumiere Ol' Fagne, more than 180 feet above the Ourthe River valley, "commanded" the villages and crossroads of Hotton, Hampteau, Werpin, Ny, Wy and Soy.
During the period 12/21 through 12/23, the US 3rd Armored Div, and numerous attached units, arrested the westerly and northerly thrusts of the German LVIII Panzer Corps -- generally along the Hotton, Soy, Grandmenil line, which was part of the US VII Corps sector. The US troops in the Hotton area included a company of the 517th Airborne Rgt and a platoon of the 509th Paratroop Inf Bn.
During that same period, units of the German 116 Panzer Div had attacked, but had failed to win Hotton, which was defended by rear echelon units of the US 3rd Armored Div; but, the Germans had occupied, and continued to hold the strategic La Roumiere with unit [s] of the 560th Volksgrenadier Div. on 12/24, a unit of the 517th attacked northeasterly along the Hotton, Soy Rd, and a tank company of the 3rd Armored Div attacked southwesterly from Soy. Together, they established an outpost on the Hotton, Soy Rd near Haid Hits, about a mile northwesterly of the wooded crest of La Roumiere. [At least the tank Co was still there 12/25 morning]. Nevertheless, German units were still active in the surrounding areas, and they HELD LA ROUMIERE!
Meanwhile, during the 12/22 through 12/24 period, the 289th and 290th Rgts of the 75th were moved to the battle area, attached to the 3rd Armored Div as Regimental Combat Teams. The 289 RCT was assigned to thinly-held sectors from Manhay and Grandmenil on the east to Erezee on the west. Indeed, the combat actions of the 289th were of major significance, but they are outside the scope of this discussion.
The 290 RCT was assigned to the Hotton, Soy sector. It had traveled via truck convoy from Hasselt [northwest of Liege] to the vicinity of Petit Han, and then by forced marches to Biron, just a few miles north of the German-held area. Late in the afternoon of the 24th, the 2nd and 3rd Bn of the 290th RCT, having assembled in the vicinity of Wy, were ordered to take, and to hold at all costs -- LA ROUMIERE!
ACHIEVING THE OBJECTIVE
I know of three attacks involving L Co on La Roumiere. There may have been more. The 12/24 attack, at about 2300 hours, involving the 2nd Plt as "point" and [presumably] the 1st and 3rd Plts. The 2nd Plt moved down a steep, wooded slope; crossed icy Lisbelle Rau; hiked up to the Werpin, Soy Rd; and, then moved-out, up the frosted-pasture slopes, to the wood-line of La Roumiere. We had lost contact with the Ist and 3rd platoons. We were suddenly pinned down by intense German machine-gun and rifle fire, my first evidence of German defenders. [At least one Plt of K Co mounted a 12/24 night attack, into the woods on our right flank, but it was not successful in holding their sector. L Co, at least partly regrouped, and with contact, made an attack along the left-flank farm road of La Roumiere at about 0600 hours 12/25. That attack did not succeed.
By now, all but three of K and L Co's officers were casualties, as were many non-coms. At about 1400 hours, 12/25, men of L and K Co, and I am told some from F Co, [I estimate a total of 100 to 125 men and six or seven non-coms] assembled along the Werpin, Soy Rd. There had been intensive artillery preparation. Part of a platoon served as a base of fire. The attack moved out across the sunlit, still-frosted pasture, past the wounded and the dead, past the cows, and through the barbed-wire farm fences, --- irresistibly through 800 yards and into the woods. Before dusk, THAT ATTACK HAD SUCCEEDED. The troops cleared, occupied, and then defended the broad, wooded crest of La Roumiere throughout that night and the ensuing days, until we were relieved by units of the 84th Inf Div. I saw ONLY troops of the 290th, 3rd Bn PARTICIPATE IN TAKING THE "HILL"'.
Our "victory" was achieved within about 20 hours after receiving the "orders". The men of the 290 RCT had OVERCOME ALL of the problems and deficiencies in command, communication, intelligence, supply, equipment, environment, experience, fatigue and hunger. The conquest of La Roumiere, BY MEN OF THE 290TH, ALONE, was NOT an "UNMITIGATED DISASTER", it WAS A TRIUMPH.
Each of us has his own memories of that time. Now, those memories are veiled by 49 years of more humane experiences. But, the stark realities of our gut-wrenching baptism to war cannot be veiled. That is our indelible bond. Please let me hear from you. I wish you a beautiful Christmas Season and a bountiful New Year.
The Operations of the Third Battalion, 290th Infantry Regiment of the 75th Infantry Division..
24 - 26 December 1944.. - Author: Captain David C. Clagett, Infantry.
Advanced Infantry Officer’s Course
Class No. 1 1949-1950
The Infantry School, Ft. Benning, GA
The Operations of the Third Battalion, 290th Infantry Regiment of the 75th Infantry Division near Hotton, Belgium.
24 - 26 December 1944
During the Ardennes - Alsace Campaign
Type of Operation Described:
The Infantry Battalion in the Attack in a Mountainous Terrain.
By: Captain David C. Clagett, Infantry
The author of this monograph is aware that some of the statements made herein are at variance with the statements contained in the official After Action Reports, 290th Inf. Regt., "The 75th Div. In Combat" and Toujours en Avant, The Combat History of the Third Bn., 290th Inf.." Notably such statements pertain to the success of the night attack launched by the Third Bn. During the night of 24 - 25 Dec. 1944. Such variances are based on the combined personal knowledge of the following officers, who participated in the attack:
Major John S. Baskin, then Bn Executive Officer 3rd Bn.
Major John F. Troll, then S-3 3rd Bn
Captain David C. Clagett, then Co. Commander Co. L
1st Lt. Andrew Robble, then Co. Commander Co. K
1st Lt. Pierce a. Yates, then Exec. Officer Co. L
Note: The After Action Report, 290th Infantry Regiment mentioned above is included in the Appendix of this monograph.
A-1 Crusade in Europe
General Dwight D. Eisenhower
A-2 Spearhead in the West 1941-1945
Third Armored Division - TIS Library
A-3 The 75th Infantry Division in Combat
The 75th Infantry Division - TIS Library
A-4 Toujours en Avant, The Combat history of the 3rd Bn., 290th Inf. Regmt. (Personal possession of the author)
A-5 Dark December
By Robert E. Merrian TIS Library
A-6 The Cooks and Clerks
By Sgt. Ed Cunningham - Yank, the Army Weekly 16 March 1945
(Personal possession of the author)
A-7 Attack Immediately
By Charles E. La Chaussee - The Infantry Journal - March 1944 - TIS Library
A-8 After Action Reports, 290th Inf. Regmt. 75th Inf. Div.
Official US Army Records
Microfilm No. 301, File 3176, 3177
A-9 Combat Diary, 290th Infantry Regiment
By T/4 Cecil J. Bond
(Personal possession of the author)
A-10 The War in Western Europe, Part 2
Dept. Of Military Art and Engineering
US Military Academy, West Point, NY 1949 (TIS Library)
(Note- TIS is the Infantry School at Ft. Benning near Columbus GA)
The Operation of the 3rd Bn., 290th Inf,. Near Hotton, Belgium
24 - 26 December 1944
This monograph covers the operations of the third battalion, 290th Infantry Regiment in an attack on the objective near Hotton, Belgium, 24 - 26 December, 1944 during the German Winter offensive in the Ardennes forest area. This offensive later became The Battle of the Bulge.
It is necessary to orient the reader briefly at this point that he be aware of the circumstances under which the 3rd Bn. Was committed to action.
On 6 June 1944 the Allied Armies had at last launched the long expected invasion of the European Continent, and throughout the Summer had advanced rapidly across France, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, sweeping the German Army before them. By November 1944 some areas of Germany had been conquered and sections of the vaunted Siegfried Line had been breached. The Allied Armies paused at the gateway to Germany to resupply their troops who had far outdistanced their logistical support, to regroup for the push into Germany proper. Thus we find in early December 1944 there was great activity along the Allied front, (generally a line that followed the banks of the Maas, Roer, and Saar Rivers). The US 3rd Army to the south of the Ardennes Forest was refitting its division preparatory to an offensive designed to carry across the Saar River to the banks of the Rhine, while to the north on the 13 Dec the US First Army launched an attack toward the Roer River Dams. This double pronged offensive of the allied Armies had very much stripped the US VIII Corps defending a seventy-five mile front in the Ardennes region to a strength of three infantry and one armored division. It was through this weak point in the Allied lines that the Germans launched their last great offensive of WWII. (1), (2). (See Map A)
Let us now consider for a moment the terrain of the masses running generally north and south and causing deep ravines and narrow valleys. The region contains heavily wooded areas of fir and scrub oak interspersed with open fields. It is traversed by relatively few roads which are suitable for heavy military traffic. The population of the section lives for the most part in the small strongly constructed towns which have grown up around major road intersections (3).
Through this difficult terrain on 16 December 1944 the Germans mounted an attack with the primary mission of denying the vital port of Antwerp, Belgium to the Allies. Employing three armies the Germans overwhelmed the thin lines of the VIII Corps, plunged through the Allied lines under cover of weather which prevented the effective use of Allied air power, and by 26 December had penetrated to a depth of fifty miles. (4). (See Map B)
This penetration either destroyed, or routed, the majority of VIII Corps units in the zones of its advance and tore a tremendous hole in the center of the Allied line. In this emergency Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force seized upon all available tactical, and some non-tactical units to stem the German tide, and by 22 December had succeeded in launching an attack by the US Third Army against the southern flank of the breakthrough, while on the northern flank of the salient Field Marshall Montgomery had regrouped his forces and was preparing to take the offensive (5).
THE GENERAL SITUATION
One of the units assigned to Montgomery’s command was the US VII Corps composed of the 2nd and 3rd US Armored Divisions, and the 84th US Infantry Division. The Corps held a line of approximately twenty-five miles in the Hotton - Rochefort - Ciney triangle (6), on the 24 December 1944, and was in contact with the Germans throughout the majority of its front. (See Map B) VII Corps was further strengthened on 22 December by the assignment of the US 75th Infantry Division, a unit which a few weeks before had been training in Wales, and which had originally been scheduled to join the US 9th Army in Holland. (7).
In view of the fact that German troops were continuing to attack along the Corps front, and that necessary reconnaissance, and movement forward as a unit would consume too much essential time, on 23 December the Commanding General of the VII Corps attached the 290th Regimental Combat Team of the 75th Division to the 3rd Armored Division which was then heavily engaged in repelling the attacks of the German LVIII Panzer Corps, (composed of the 116th Panzer Division, and the 560th and 62nd Volksgrenadier Divisions), along the line Hotton - Soy - Grandmenil. (See Map B) (8) (9).
Let us now digress momentarily and consider the situation from the viewpoint of the German LVIII Panzer Corps Commander. Although in the preceding days of the fighting in the Ardennes, the LVIII panzer Corps had suffered several rebuffs in its attempts to swing northward it had continued westward against relatively light resistance in an effort to seize crossings over the Meuse River. Units of the 116th Panzer Div. Had attempted to seize the vital Ourthe River bridge in the small Belgian town of Hotton during the period 21 - 23 Dec. They were able to secure the high ground east of the town which dominated Hotton and the approaches to the town. (See Map C), However, they were unable to overcome the stubborn defense of the town by "so-called" rear echelon units of the 3rd Armored Division. (10), (11), (12).
On the 24 December, a Company of paratroops from the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment, reinforced by a platoon of tanks reached the isolated garrison at Hotton and attacked north up the Hotton - Soy road in conjunction with an attack launched from Soy along the same road. Although stubborn resistance was encountered, the paratroops managed to clear the Hotton - Soy road pushing the Germans back to a hill mass about 1500 yards east of the road. (See Map C) (13), (14).
SITUATION OF THE 3RD BN. 290TH INFANTRY REGIMENT
The 3rd Bn. 290th Infantry Regmt., debarked at Le Havre, France on 10 Dec. 1944 and immediately moved into bivouac near Yvetot, France. It remained there for several days, then was ordered to Hasselt, Belgium (40 & 8) where it detrained on 21 Dec., prepared to join the remainder of the 75th Div., in the attack near Wiljre, Holland as part of the US 9th Army. (See Map A) (15).
The urgent need for troops to aid in repelling the German thrust through the Ardennes resulted in the transfer of the 75th Division from the US Ninth to the US First Army and consequently the 3rd Battalion, 290th Infantry Regiment, left Hasselt on the night of 22 December and the next day, after a night long motor movement in open trucks in freezing rain arrived at Petit Han, Belgium, where the battalion was ordered to take up defensive position with the mission of securing the important bridge across the Ourthe River in that area. During the night of 23 December the task of fortification of the battalion area and constant alerts because of alleged paratroop landings denied sleep to the majority of battalion personnel. Early on the morning of 24 December orders were received directing the battalion to move south and prepare defensive positions approximately one mile and a half north of Hotton in the wooded area along the Petit Han - Hotton road. At approximately 1000 hours, 24 December the battalion arrived in area and commenced to dig in. (See Map C) (16), (17), (18).
Because of the suddenness of the order directing the battalion to move to the area northeast of Hotton many of the personnel did not receive breakfast on the morning of 24 December, and no rations had been received for either the noon or evening meals. Another physical problem facing the numbers of the battalion, particularly the officers, was lack of sleep. Most of the battalion personnel had not slept for more than a few hours since the night of 21 - 22 December. Ammunition was critically short because of the rapid movement of the battalion over long distances, and the wide dispersion of divisional units, had imposed a tremendous strain on supply transportation. As a result, ammunition had been issued on a basis of five rounds per rifleman, and five 2.38 inch rockets per company. To further complicate the supply picture the rifle ammunition which had been issued was contained in clips suited only for the Springfield Rifle M1903. (19), (20).
PREPARATION FOR THE ATTACK
At 1400 hours on the orders from the Commanding Officer, 290th Infantry, one reinforced rifle company of the 3rd Battalion was directed to move to Melreux and thence southward along the railroad track to Hotton to relieve the 3rd Armored Division Detachment then holding the town. This circuitous route was necessitated by the fact that enemy forces occupying the high ground paralleling the Werpin - Soy road were placing direct fire on vehicles or personnel exposed either on the Hotton - Petit Han road, or on the flat plain over which the road ran. (21).
The order directing the movement of the rifle Co. To Hotton also stipulated that the Bn. C.O. And the commander of the designated rifle company would proceed on a route reconnaissance before sending the rifle company into the town. In compliance with the order the Bn Commander designated I Co., reinforced by a section of each heavy machine guns and 81mm mortars from M Company to occupy Hotton. Then accompanied by I and M Company Commanders, the Bn S-3 and several messengers, the Bn Commander proceeded along the prescribed route arriving in Hotton about 1500 hours. The I Company Commander then dispatched a messenger to guide the Company to Hotton and made a reconnaissance of the town and its defenses. I Company was not released to Bn control until 1415 hours, 25 December, 1944. (22).
After the I Company Commander had departed on reconnaissance the Battalion Commander, accompanied by the remainder of his group, contacted the Commander of the 3rd Armored Division detachment, and later crossed the Ourthe River and conferred with the Battalion Commander of the 84th Division Battalion defending the section of the town south of the river. At 1630 hours he commenced the trip back to the battalion assembly area.
At approximately 1600 hours the Bn Executive Officer who was commanding the Bn. In the absence of the Bn. C.O., received an order to report to the Regimental Command Post at Soy
Taking the Bn antitank platoon leader with him he drove to Soy where he was informed that the Bn would move to Ny immediately and prepare to launch an attack at 1800 hours. It was apparent to the Bn. Exec., that the Bn could not launch an attack at that time, however he ordered the anti-tank officer to return to the Bn area and guide the Bn to Ny and instruct the commanders of K and L Companies to join him at Soy for the attack order.
After the Antitank officer had left the Bn Exec. Officer convinced the regimental Commander that it was unfeasible to attack at 1800 hours, and a new time of attack was set at 2330 hours that night.
Specifically, the order stated that "3rd Battalion, in conjunction with the 2nd Battalion would attack at 2330 hours, and would seize and hold at all costs" (23) the high ground northeast of Hotton then held by the Germans. He then accompanied the Bn Commanding Officer of the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment, whose troops held a line along the Hotton - Soy road, on a reconnaissance of the area. When the Bn Executive Officer returned to Soy the Company Commanders had not yet arrived. After waiting until approximately 1800 hours he left Soy to rejoin the Battalion at Ny. (23).
The commander of the attached artillery Bn was not notified of the change of the attack time and consequently the scheduled prepatory fires for the attack were fired at 1800 hours rather than 2330 hours.
When the Antitank Officer arrived in the assembly area he contacted the Bn S-1, who either because the AT officer had given an erroneous message or through misunderstanding ordered the commanders of K and L Companies to drive to Hotton and then along the Hotton - Soy road until they met the Bn Exec who would orient them. In his haste to dispatch the Co. Commanders, the S-1 neglected to tell them that the Bn was to move to Ny immediately. In compliance with their orders the commanders of K and L companies accompanied by their platoon leaders departed for Hotton at about 1645 hours. (24).
At 1700 hours the Bn with the AT officer guiding moved out of the assembly area and started the march toward Ny. After an hour and a half of marching, (on the Bn S-1 orders all weapons were hand carried) The AT officer realized that he had lost his way. Fortunately at this point the Bn Exec arrived. He had gone to Ny and when he found that the Bn had not arrived , had started a search for them. He took command and counter marched the Bn to Ny, arriving at about 2200 hours. (25).
Now let us return to the Bn Commander, who with the Bn S-3 and the commander of M Company, had left Hotton and raced northward along the Hotton - Petit Han road in a ¼ ton truck dodging enemy artillery fire. When he arrived at the woods approximately one mile north of Hotton at 1700 hours he met K and L Company Commanders who with their platoon leaders were starting their reconnaissance. The commanders halted briefly, however, in one of those unfortunate incidents common to war, the Company Commanders assumed that the Bn Commander was aware of the impending attack, and the Bn Commander assumed that the Company Commanders were on routine reconnaissance. Thus after a brief discussion of the accuracy of the German artillery fire the commanders separated to go their different ways. (26)
When the Bn commander arrived in the assembly area it was deserted. A check of the roads failed to reveal the Bn location, and finally in desperation the Bn Commander drove to Soy to the Regimental Command Post. Here he was informed that the Bn had moved to Ny. The same situation faced the Company Commanders when they returned to the Bn assembly area. (27). As a result the Company Commanders did not arrive in Ny until 2300 hours shortly after the Bn Commander arrived. (28).
Shortly before 2300 hours the Bn kitchen trucks arrived in Ny with the first food of the day for the hungry troops. On orders from the Bn Executive Officer they prepared to issue a hot meal. As the troops lined up for mess, the Asst. Div. Exec. Commander arrived, and despite strenuous objection by the Bn Exec. Officer, ordered the trucks to leave, saying that serving the meal would delay the attack. (29) Meanwhile the Bn commander issued his attack order to his staff and the Company Commanders.
The Bn attack order was issued at 2300 hours. The general plan of attack called for an advance with K and L companies abreast, K company on the right. The weapons of M Company less those reinforcing I company in Hotton, would support the attack from the ridge along the Hotton-Soy road. The time of the attack was set at 2330 hours and the line of departure was set to be the line held by the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The support platoons of K and L companies would constitute the Bn reserve and would not be committed without prior approval of the Bn commander. The Bn moved out of Ny at 2310 hours (24 December) with the Company Commanders giving their attack orders while marching. (30). In both cases the issuing of orders was hindered considerably because of the reconnaissance of the Bn commander and the other officers had been extremely limited by approaching darkness and a lack of specific information concerning the plan of attack.
THE NIGHT ATTACK, 24 DEC. 1944 (See Map D, Overlay 1)
As the companies halted just prior to crossing the line of departure, the commanders of K and L companies held a hasty conference. The terrain to their front was hazily visible in the faint moonlight. From the line of departure the ground sloped steeply down into a small valley about 150 feet below. through this valley a small stream meandered, and on the far side of the stream a thickly wooded slope rose sharply for about 100 feet to a point where the ground leveled off slightly, and the trees ceased abruptly. From the edge of the trees a meadow, now covered with frost began, extending approximately 900 yards uphill to the crest held by the Germans. The top of the hill was concealed from view by dense woods.
Realizing that the combination of darkness and rugged terrain would at least partially disorganize their units the company commanders agreed to halt their companies at the edge of the woods across the ravine and to launch a coordinated attack from this new line of departure at 2400 hours. Shortly after 2330 hours the companies crossed the line of departure prescribed by the Bn Commander and commenced their descent in to the valley. As they reached the bottom of the slope and started across the floor of the valley the battalion commander determined that the companies had shifted to the left and were no longer moving toward the objective. In order to correct the situation he ordered K company to cross over to the right flank passing in rear of L company. For the next six hours the attack was conducted by L company. (31).
At 2400 hours the L Company Commander who with his command group had been following in rear of his left flank platoon arrived at the edge of the woods west of the ravine. During the movement through the woods he had lost contact with the two rifle platoons of his company which were on the right. All of the company radios had ceased to function, and he was unable to establish contact with any battalion units including the right flank platoons by messenger. Aware that the platoon leaders of his missing platoons were acquainted with the time of attack he decided to continue the advance up the hill hoping to reestablish contact in the meadow. (It was now pitch dark, the weak moonlight having been blotted out by clouds.) Consequently he ordered the left flank platoon and the weapons platoon following it, forward. As the leading platoon neared the woods atop the hill contact had still not been made with any other units. When the forward elements of the unit reached a point approximately fifty yards from the wood line they were pinned down by surprise small arms and mortar fire emanating from the woods. The lead platoon was suffering heavy casualties, and since no apparent aid was on the way from the other attacking units and the mortar and machine gun fire from the company weapons platoon did not diminish the effectiveness of the German fire, the L company commander ordered the lead platoon to withdraw. At this time contact with the lead platoon was lost. In the complete darkness it had unwittingly infiltrated the German lines and did not rejoin the L company until late 25 December. Lacking any rifle elements the company commander ordered his command group and weapons platoon to withdraw to the Werpin - Soy road where the remainder of the night was spent trying to locate the right flank platoons of L and K Companies. (32).
Meanwhile the Bn commander had been frantically trying to contact K and L companies. At about 0400 hours K company was raised on the radio and the Company Commander reported that he had successfully captured the Bn objective. A further check however revealed that due to the darkness and the confusion of crossing behind Company L in the valley, Company K had assaulted the unoccupied high ground extending south between Hotton and Werpin. Company K was ordered to move northeast, contact L company and continue the attack. Later Company K radioed that contact had been established with the right flank platoons of Company L, which had never left the line of departure set for 2400 hours. At this time a platoon of machine guns from Company M was attached to Company K by the Bn commander. (33)
At 0600 hours radio contact was established between the Bn commander and the L Company commander. This was the first information that the Bn commander had received concerning the actions of L company throughout the night. Shortly afterward Company K arrived in the L company area bringing with it the right flank platoons of L company and the machine gun platoon from M company.
THE DAWN ATTACK, 25 DECEMBER 1944 (See Map D, Overlay 2)
The rifle company commanders conferred again and since fire from a German 88 mm gun was falling in the position they decided to launch a coordinated attack immediately before there was enough daylight for the German gunner to aim at specific targets rather than a general area. The decision was reached to launch a frontal attack against the German positions employing two platoon of K Company and one platoon of L Company abreast, with the support platoons following in rear of the assault echelons. The machine gun platoons prepared positions along the Werpin - Soy road from which they could support the attack. No artillery or mortar preparation was called for since the location of the missing L Company platoon was unknown. (34)
In the meantime the remaining section of machine guns from M Company had been emplaced in the vicinity of the road junction of the Werpin - Soy road and a small connecting road paralleling the battalion left boundary from which they could support the planned attack. The 81 mm mortar platoon moved into positions in the valley directly east of the Hotton - Soy road.
At 0630 hours, just as day dawned the attack jumped off. In spite of heavy casualties the advancing troops employing assault fire managed to cross the open meadow and enter the woods. The impetus of the attack carried them to the top of the hill, however all semblance of organization was lost, and in the dense undergrowth squads, platoons, and companies intermingled. In the attack both company commanders, most of his platoon leaders, and many of the noncommissioned officers had become casualties. At this moment displaying excellent timing the Germans launched a counterattack driving the disorganized and now nearly ammunitionless American troops from the top of the hill. By dint of sheer tenacity and personal heroism the remaining troops of Companies K and L succeeded in blunting the force of the German counterattack short of the western edge of the woods
Communication was at least firmly established between the assault companies and the battalion commander. He ordered the rifle companies to hold their positions and called artillery fire down upon the German positions. In response to the battalion commander’s request the fire of nine artillery battalions was placed on the hill effectively blocking the further progress of the counterattack.
Realizing the critical situation which existed on top of the hill. And aware that heavy casualties had been incurred, the battalion commander requested and received permission from regiment to commit I Company. In addition, F Company, 290th Infantry, and a detachment of paratroops from the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment were attached to the battalion. Immediately plans were prepared for a new attack to be launched at 1600 hours of the same day. (35).
THE AFTERNOON ATTACK, 25 DECEMBER 1944 (See Map D, Overlay 3)
Aided by the artillery fire falling on the hilltop the troops of K and L Companies clung to their defensive positions on the edge of the woods until 1600 hours. During this period a limited amount of properly packaged ammunition was brought forward to them. At 1430 hours, on schedule, I Company reinforced by a platoon of M-10 Tank Destroyers from the 629th Tank Destroyer Battalion (36) crossed the Ourthe River at Hotton, moved along the south bank through the 84th Division area, re-crossed the river by means of a half-destroyed bridge, captured Werpin encountering only light resistance from snipers and attacking from the southwest drew abreast of K and L Companies. (37) Simultaneously I company reinforced by the detachment of paratroops assaulted the enemy positions from the northwest, thus executing a double envelopment of the German defenses. Together the four companies advanced through the woods driving the retreating Germans before them and causing them to withdraw across the open fields to the east. (38).
THE DEFENSE OF THE OBJECTIVE, 26 DECEMBER 1944 (See Map D, Overlay 3)
During the night of 25 - 26 December the companies of the 3rd Battalion dug in anticipating a counterattack on this position. Search parties and aid men worked desperately in the freezing darkness to locate the wounded and to evacuate on the decks of Tank Destroyers three who still lived. Supplies in quantity were brought forward, mines were laid, 350 yards of barbed wire strung. (39). Order was brought out of chaos.
The next day despite heavy shelling of the position no counterattack materialized and the day was spent in strengthening the position and collecting and evacuating the dead. In the early morning hours of 27 December a strong counterattack was launched against the battalion defenses, but the Germans never again seriously threatened the road center of Hotton. (40).
Interrogation of prisoners of war, and the identification of enemy dead revealed that on the night of 24 - 25 December the battalion objective had been occupied by a reinforced platoon of the German 116th Panzer Division. During the early morning hours of 25 December, however, more troops had been committed until the force atop the objective had reached the strength of a reinforced rifle company. German positions throughout the area were well constructed and camouflaged, with excellent fields of grazing fire across the open ground west of the woods. (41).
The casualties of the battalions in this section were extremely high. Company K - 1 officer KIA, 3 wounded with only the weapons platoon leader left. L Company lost 4 of its 6 officers, including the Company Commander. The battalion S-2 was severely wounded when his vehicle hit a mine near Werpin. Approximately 250 enlisted casualties resulted from this action. (42).
An examination of the KIA personnel indicated that many of the wounded had frozen to death in the extreme cold although their wounds would not have ordinarily been fatal. (43)
ANALYSIS AND CRITICISM
An analysis of the attack by the 3rd Bn in the Hotton area reveals that while the attack was eventually successful many mistakes were made in all echelons of command, and the casualties suffered by the Bn were not in proper proportion to the success achieved. As in most battles it is impossible to state that any one factor was the cause of either success or failure, or meant the difference between light or heavy casualties. Thus we must attempt to discover those factors that contributed most to the excessive expenditure of human lives.
Undoubtedly the most important factor contributing to the high casualty rate was the decision by higher headquarters that the 3rd Bn would launch an attack at 2330 hours on 24 December 1944, under such different circumstances, for it meant that an untried unit would be forced to make a night attack against experienced German Troops holding a strong defensive position. Furthermore because of the short time allowed between the receipt of the order and the time set for the attack was such that the attack would necessarily be made with inadequate daylight reconnaissance. These facts were undoubtedly considered by higher headquarters, and the importance of controlling the town of Hotton and denying that route toward Namur to the enemy must have outweighed these other considerations.
Even though the above circumstances did exist at the time of the attack they were beyond the control of the Bn Commander and consequently could not be changed. Thus rather than placing the burdon of guilt, if such it was, on higher headquarters, let us examine the failings of the Bn itself which contributed to the high casualty rate.
The failure of the Bn command Post and Companies K and L to maintain communication throughout the night is difficult to conceive, but an examination of the situation indicates a variety of reasons why communication was not maintained. A major share of the blame rests on the unit commanders. During unit training they had placed too much reliance on the organically assigned radios and telephones of their units, and when they were deprived of these channels of communication they found themselves without competent, well trained foot messengers. It is true that the lack of knowledge of the terrain, and the darkness of the night limited the speed and efficiency of the messengers however if the messengers had been properly trained they would probably not gotten lost.
Also worthy of consideration was the failure of the Bn S-1 to post guides when the Bn moved from the forward assembly area to Ny. The resulting time lost by the Bn Commander and the Company Commanders in arriving at Ny caused the issuance of attack orders in the dark while marching over strange terrain, making the issuance of proper orders extremely difficult, if not impossible. The lack of time also denied the Company Commanders an opportunity to make reconnaissance of the terrain over which they would move even though a reconnaissance would have had to be made in the dark.
2. SUPPLY AND EVACUATION
The failure of supply which initially sent the hungry troops with only five rounds of improper ammunition per man into combat caused acute problems in securing the objective. As has already been stated, the shortage of ammunition is understandable in view of the rapid and extensive movement of the Battalion over the past four days, particularly so since the transport of the Battalion did not accompany the unit when it moved from Yvetot to Tongres, but travled by road. In addition the 290th Regiment Combat Team was detached from its parent unit, the 75th Infantry Division, shortly before the attack, altering the existing logistical arrangement and adding confusion to the supply channels. The responsibility for issuing improperly packaged ammunition was never fixed, however it never reoccurred.
In any case the shortage of ammunition, combined with the fact that what was issued was not suitable, caused the assault echelons to withdraw from the objective once they had captured it, and but for the timely and intensive artillery support they might have lost the objective entirely. Theis shortage of ammunition not only jeopardized the success of the attack but added to the number of casualties reported as KIA, for when the American troops were driven back those wounded who lay in concealed places could not be evacuated, or for that matter even receive first aid until the battalion could recover the ground it had lost.
At this time let us consider the evacuation of wounded. It will be remembered that the area in which the battle took place was heavily wooded, and extremely rough. It will also be remembered that during the fire fight units were disorganized, and contact, even between squad members, often did not exist. When men were wounded, and unable to move they were often in areas where the other personnel of the battalion would not discover them, or could not reach them due to the volume of enemy fire, and consequently froze or bled to death before search parties could find them. Even though the company aid men and those troops who could be spared from the assault echelon worked unceasingly, the dense underbrush often hid the wounded from them until it was too late to render first aid. Had an adequate number of aid men been temporarily allotted to each company in excess of Table of Organization personnel this would have at least been partially alleviated.
Lack of information of the enemy in this attack, as in so many others, led to the commitment of the battalion piecemeal allowing defeat in detail. Partially at least, the responsibility of this piecemeal commitment of the battalion units rests on the shoulders of the L Company Commander. The L Company Commander was aware that German troops occupied the hill even though he did not know their strength, and perhaps should have waited unitl he was sure that other units of the battalion were advancing before he ordered his left flank platoon forward. On the other hand had adequate intelligence been obtained by the Battalion S-2 during the period from 1600 hours to 2330 hours, 24 December, through the employment of aggressive patrols, and through contact with the elements of the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment holding the Hotton - Soy road, and had this information been promptly disseminated it is extrememly doubtful if the L Company Commander would have continued the advance until he had determined the dispositions of the remainder of the assault echelon.
4. TACTICS AND LEADERSHIP
The decision of the Battalion Commander to move K Company across the Battalion zone in the rear of L Company when the Battalion was crossing unknown terrain in the dark was in error. Such a move even in a battle experienced unit, trained in night combat, would have been difficult; with green troops who were under the tension of meeting the enemy for the first time, under what to them would appear as at least unfavorable circumstances, such a move was nearly impossible. It would have been far better had the Battalion Commander halted the advance, even at the risk of delaying the attack and redisposed his companies by maintaining the original formatio, and moving the unit as a whole to the right.
Another mistake made during attack was the decision of K and L Company Commanders NOT to employ artillery support during the attack at 0630 hours. Granted that the position of the missing platoon of L Company was unknown, and that some of the casualties might have been caused by an artillery concentration on the objective, such losses would have been relatively small when considered against those resulting from launching a frontal attack across an open field against prepared defenses without artillery preparation.
Considering once more the attack ordered by the L Company Commander at 2400 hours, although at first examination it might appear to have been foolhardy, a closer examination reveals that had the attack been conducted as the K and L Company Commander had planned, it would probably have been successful. In the absence of communication and when he could not establish contact with other units, the L Company Commander had to take some action. If he remained behind with the left flank units and the remainder of the assault echelon advanced, their left flank would have been dangerously exposed. On the other hand, if he ordered the advance continued and the remaining units of the assault echelon followed the prearranged plan, contact could be established in the field. It is impossible to state whether one course of action was right or wrong, however, battles can only be won by aggressive leadership.
Also worthy of note in relation to leadership are the actions of the Assistant Division Commander, 75th Division, at Ny insofar as the feeding of the 3rd Battalion personnel was concerned, since they contributed materially to the number of troops who were officially recorded as killed in action. Althought the Assistant Division Commander was acquainted with the fact that the personnel of the battalion were tired, hungry and cold he ordered them into action immediately rather than allow them time to eat. Admittedly the time before the attack was scheduled to commence was short, however, it was not so short that the troops couldn’t have been fed hastily even though such feeding might not have allowed sufficient time for the cleaning of the mess gear. The hot meal which they might have consumed but for his orders would certainly have increased their battle efficiency markedly, and raised the physical resistance of those wounded who later froze to death.
I do not possess the maps referenced in this document, therefore they have not been included.
(1) A-1, p.343 345 (2) A-5 (3) A-3, p.3 (4) A-1, p.343 (5) A-1, p.358 (6) A-10, p.27,28 (7) A-3, p.4 (8) A-3, p.5 (9) A-2, p.225 (10) A-6 (11) A-5 p.165 (12) A-2 p.223 (13) A-7 (14) A-2 p.225 (15) A-7 p.1 (16) A-4 p.1 (17) A-2 p.225 (18) Personal Knowledge (19) Personal Knowledge (20) A-9 p.12 (21) Statement by Maj. J.F. Troll then Bn. S-3 (22) Statement by Maj. J.F. Troll then Bn. S-3 (23) A-8 (24) Personal Knowledge (25) Statement by Maj. J.S. Baskin then Bn. Exec. Officer, 3rd Bn., 290th Infantry (26) and (27) Statements by Maj. J.F. Troll, then S-3, 3rd Bn. (28) Personal Knowledge (29) Statement by Maj. J.S. Baskin, then Bn. Exec. Officer (30) Personal Knowledge (31) Personal Knowledge (32) Personal Knowledge (33) Statement of 1st Lt. Andrew Robble, then Co. Commander, Co. K, 290th Inf. (34) Personal Knowledge (35) Statement by Maj. J.F. Troll, then S-3, 3rd Bn., 290th Regiment (36) A-9, p.16 (37) A-8 (38) A-4, p.1 (39) A-8 (40) Statement by Maj. J.S. Baskin, then Exec. Officer, 3rd Bn., 290th Regiment (41) Statement by Maj. J.F. Troll, then S-3, 3rd Bn., 290th Inf. (42) A-8 (43) statement by 1st. Lt. P.A. Yates, then Exec. Officer, Co. L, 290th Inf.
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