Tuesday, December 16th marked the 70th anniversary of the greatest battle fought by soldiers of the United States army in the Northwest European Theatre in World War II following D-Day.
Despite the crushing defeat of the German armies in Normandy in August 1944 and the pursuit of the remnants to the very borders of the Reich, the Allied autumn advance had ground to a halt. Long supply lines which created a logistical nightmare, the still formidable fortifications of the Siegfried Line, the resilience of the German army, and foul fall conditions of rain, cold and mud combined to make further progress tediously slow and very costly.
Meanwhile Hitler, believing that a shattering counter-blow in the west could change Germany’s sagging fortunes, mustered a formidable reserve containing some of the best divisions in the German army and settled on the Ardennes, scene of a successful German breakthrough in 1940, as the location for such an offensive, and Antwerp to split the Allied armies in two, as the ultimate objective.
Although the offensive met with some initial success against a completely surprised and lightly held American front, determined defense by US troops slowed the enemy advance and bought time for the arrival of reinforcements to first halt the Germans and then drive them back. The battle lasted about a month and cost each side 100,000 casualties and 7-800 tanks and other armored vehicles. Heavy though these losses were to the Americans, they were disastrous for the Germans who had little strength left with which to oppose the final offensive into Germany.
My family and I visited parts of the Ardennes battlefield in the summer of 2013 including Bastogne, Belgium, where the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division made their epic and successful stand to deny the Germans this key road centre.
But we also visited a town called Stavelot further to the north that was the scene that cold December of a lesser known but equally important and epic battle waged by a single US infantry battalion (6-800 men) of the 30th Infantry Division.
A powerful kampfgruppe (or battlegroup) of the German 1st SS Panzer Division under ace panzer leader, Joachim Peiper, had penetrated deep into the American rear and threatened to reach the Meuse River, a potentially disastrous development. But in the constricted topography of the Ardennes, bridges over rivers and streams were critical to Peiper’s advance, and plucky bands of US engineers had seriously hindered the column by destroying several on his preferred routes to the Meuse.
Peiper seized the critical bridge over the Ambleve River at Stavelot, Belgium, against poorly led and disorganized American opposition. But after the bulk of his force continued west towards Stoumont along a single narrow road, the 1st Battalion of the 117th Infantry Regiment with attached companies of tanks and tank destroyers descended on Stavelot from the north and retook the town, thereby cutting Peiper off from the rest of 1st Panzer. Under fire, they also managed to blow the all-important Stavelot bridge.
There followed a fierce battle as the American troops fought furiously to simultaneously fend off efforts by the rest of the 1st SS Panzer Division to the south to force the Ambleve and retake the town, while resisting determined attacks from the west by elements of Peiper’s force sent back to restore his line of communication and supply.
But the Americans would not yield. Under attack by other American forces, what was left of Peiper’s kampfgruppe (800 out of an original force of 5800) eventually escaped on foot, abandoning all their vehicles and heavy weapons. The rest of the battered 1st SS Panzer Division ceded Stavelot to the indomitable men of the 1st Battalion, 117th. The spearhead of the 6th Panzer Army, designated by Hitler as his main effort, had been defeated.