The Desperate Hours – The Demise of the 106th Infantry Division during the opening, desperate hours of the Battle of the Bulge

By Ray Starmann

American infantrymen of the 290th Regiment fight in fresh snowfall near Amonines, Belgium. January 4, 1945. Braun. (Army) NARA FILE #: 111-SC-198534 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1077

Seventy-one years have passed since the Battle of the Bulge was fought. Yet, the truth about what happened to the 106th Infantry Division during four days in December of 1944 remains a mystery. As Hugh M. Cole states in The Ardennes: The Battle of the Bulge, the U.S. Army’s official history of the battle, “The historian, as a result, must tread warily through the maze of recriminations and highly personalized recollection which surrounds the story.” One thing is certain though; several correlating factors, not one inherent human act or event contributed to the demise of the 106th Infantry Division.

St. Vith, Lion in the Way by Colonel R. Ernest Depuy is the last definitive historical work on the subject and was first published in the 1950’s. Unfortunately, Depuy’s work, while detailed is too apologetic. Other fine works by Hugh M. Cole and Charles Macdonald have touched upon the subject. Still, the question lingers: how and why were two regiments of the 106th encircled and forced to surrender? As General Bradley would refer to the 106th Infantry Division’s demise, “ The Schnee Eifel battle represents the most serious reverse suffered by American arms during the operations of 1944-1945 in the European theater.”

The 106th Infantry Division was created on 29 November 1942, in accordance with a War Department plan to mold homogeneous units, who after having trained together, would be a fit team, ready for combat. “Unfortunately, the preceptors of this theory did not take into account the abnormally large casualty lists which would soon call for replacements.” In early 1944, the 106th participated in several field exercises in Tennessee. According to Colonel Depuy, “All in all, at the end of the Tennessee maneuvers the 106th was an average infantry division.” By August of 1944, sixty percent of the division’s enlisted strength or 7,247 men had been detached from the 106th and re-assigned to other units for immediate overseas service. From August until October of 1944, the division rebuilt with replacements from the ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program), the Air Corps and other army units. Referring to the training needed to fill the gap in the 106th created by the loss of 60% of its trained enlisted men, Depuy states, “It just couldn’t be done, no matter how good the replacements or the cadre were.” On the other hand, it was the job of the 106th’s officers and NCO’s to train these new men as quickly as possible. As time would tell, something went terribly wrong during the months leading to the division’s deployment in the ETO (European Theater of Operations).

The main body of the 106th Infantry Division landed in Liverpool, England on 17 November 1944. The division spent most of their time drawing equipment, and little time training. The 106th Division crossed the English Channel on 1-2 December 1944 and began a long, arduous, wet and freezing trek across France and Belgium to forward positions formerly occupied by the battle-scarred, veteran 2nd Infantry Division. “The 106th Division arrived at St. Vith, Belgium, on 10 December 1944 after a road march of 270 miles.”

On the First Army’s southern flank was VIII Corps commanded by Lieutenant General Troy Middleton. VIII Corps’ mission was as follows, “to continue on its previous mission of conducting aggressive defense within the corps zone.” On 12 December, the VIII Corps front from north to south consisted of: the 106th Infantry Division, the 28th Infantry Division, the 9th Armored Division minus CCB and CCR and the 4th Infantry Division. VIII Corps believed that the 106th could gain combat experience while taking few casualties in the process. In accordance to VIII Corps orders, the 106th Infantry Division would relieve the 2nd Infantry Division, “man for man and gun for gun.”

Two squadrons of the 14th Cavalry Group, the 18th and 32nd were attached to the 106th. The 14th Cavalry, commanded by Colonel Mark Devine would cover the gap between the 99th Infantry Division to the north and the 106th. Strangely, 800 men of the 14th Cavalry would have to cover 9,000 yards of ground between the two squadrons. Besides being deployed too thinly, Devine’s forces were guarding the Losheim Gap, a traditional invasion route into the Ardennes, north of the Schnee Eifel (A heavily wooded area on the Belgian/German border that consists of high plateaus, deep ravines and valleys.)

Devine deployed his stretched forces around strong points located near villages and over-watching so-called “sugar bowls”. They were described as “small islands of resistance, manned usually in platoon strength.” Colonel Devine’s staff had studied the defensive plans of the 2nd Infantry Division. These plans called for the 14th Cavalry to re-deploy to the Manderfeld Ridge before 2nd Infantry Division elements counter-attacked. Apparently, Devine had no such plans with the 106th, although he had made several trips to the 106th division headquarters to discuss the matter. Also, the 2nd Infantry Division had a fire support plan, which included over 200 pre-planned concentrations specifically located in the Losheim Gap. For some reason the plan was discarded by the 106th’s division staff because they would have had to move division artillery assets. This lack of totally staff coordination between Devine and the 106th commander, Major-General Alan W. Jones, and the apparent languidness of Jones and his staff would be a harbinger of worse things to come.

“The dispositions of the 106th Infantry Division followed an irregular line which in general trended from northeast to southwest.” The three regiments were deployed abreast. The 422nd Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel George Descheneaux Jr., was in the division’s northern sector, south of the 14th Cavalry. The 422nd’s positions extended “2000 yards to the west of the Siegfried Line” on the western slopes of the mid-section of the Schnee Eifel. To the south of the 422nd, the 423rd Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Charles Cavender defended the middle of the division sector as the Schnee Eifel flattened out into the Alf Valley. In the south, the 424th Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel Alexander Reid defended to the vicinity of Grosskampenberg and north of Luetzkampen. “Unlike the 2nd Infantry Division, the 106th had no attached tank battalion and its attached tank destroyers were not self-propelled, but towed. The lack of tanks was a crippling disadvantage.” As the inexperienced men of the 106th moved into the 2nd Infantry Division’s positions they were greeted with shouts of “Lucky guys! You’re coming into a rest camp!”

General Jones was concerned about the deployment of his green division into the most potentially dangerous salient along the First Army front. Jones voiced his concerns with the VIII Corps staff. They informed him that Hodges, Bradley and Eisenhower were intent on defending the Schnee Eifel and the Losheim Gap. Eisenhower was aware of the dangers and in Crusade of Europe later wrote, “The risk of a large German penetration in that area was mine alone.” Jones argued that too many of his positions were in valleys and his division could easily be cut off and surrounded. Since he had just arrived, Jones decided not to bring the matter up in a conference with General Middleton. It was a decision he would come to regret. One wonders why Hodges and Bradley did not deploy the veteran 4th or 28th Infantry Divisions in the Schnee Eifel instead of the 106th.

The story of the 106th in the Bulge includes usually negative information pertaining to the divisional supply situation. According to Major William P. Moon of the 422nd, during the first five days on the front, “The trench foot rate increased. This was primarily due to a lack of overshoes.” There were no reserve troops available and every man that departed the front left a gap in an already thin sector. “Class I and III supplies were normal and adequate while a major shortage of winter combat clothing was present.” Strangely, the division arrived at the front with less than the basic loads of mortar and artillery ammunition. The 2nd Division turned over any available surplus ammo they had to the 106th. But, this was not enough. In summation, the ammunition and winter clothing supplies of the 106th on the eve of the Bulge could be considered to be far below adequate. It appears that these logistics issues should have been remedied before arriving in the Schnee Eifel.

When moving into the 2nd Infantry Division’s positions, the 106th inherited the intricate wire line system the 2nd Infantry had devised. The 106th had been issued radios in England, but according to Captain Alan Jones Jr., they had not been calibrated or tested before arriving in the ETO. Now, that they were at the front and on radio silence, there was no immediate opportunity to do what should have been done months before.

The Schnee Eifel or Snow Eifel is an area on the Belgian/German border that consists of high plateaus, deep ravines and valleys. It is heavily wooded. The volcanic ridges of the region run east to west. In 1944, the road network in the Eifel was highly restricted and consisted of mainly narrow dirt roads in poor condition. When snow and ice covered them, they were generally incapable of handling wheeled-vehicle traffic. Although restricted, there were still four avenues of approach available to an attacking force.
The weather on during 12-15 December 1944 was cold with temperatures ranging from 30-40 degrees. The ground was hard as it was covered with snow and intermittent ice. Snow fell sporadically, leaving between 6 and 12 inches on the ground. Skies were grey and fog and mist clung to the tops of the thick pine trees. Dusk came early and dawn arrived late. In all, it was a dreary, lonely speck of territory to defend.

While the 106th Infantry Division was moving into position, the German Army was preparing for Operation Watch on Rhine, a clever, deceptive name for the planned offensive. In all, 29 divisions and three independent brigades would hit the Americans out of the fog and mist and snow. In front of the 106th Infantry Division was the veteran 3rd Parachute Division, which faced elements of C Troop, 18th Cavalry Squadron, 14th Cavalry Group. The 294th and 295th Regiments of the 18th Volksgrenadier Division faced A Troop, 18th Cavalry Squadron, 14th Cavalry Group. In the Schnee Eifel, the 422nd Infantry only had minor elements facing them. The 423rd Infantry to their south faced the 293rd Infantry Regiment. The 424th Infantry faced the 60th Infantry Regiment of the 62nd Volksgrenadier Division, which was being held in reserve to exploit any successes made. Both the 18th and 62nd Volksgrenadier Divisions were new and inexperienced. Both divisions were comprised mainly of Navy and Air Force personnel. Except for the forces arrayed against the 14th Cavalry, the attacker/defender ratio did not favor the Germans. They would need a combination of surprise, inclement weather and a lack of allied air cover to achieve their objectives. They did have high morale though. As Sergeant Hermann Bertenrath, an airborne veteran of Crete and Russia and Normandy with the 3rd Parachute Division remembers, “We were excited to be on the move again. Spirits were high.”

To obtain the element of surprise, most enemy patrols had ceased. But, the arrival of the 106th Infantry Division had been immediately spotted and therefore German commanders decided to order new patrols. Patrols out on the night of 12-13 December discovered a 2,000- yard gap in the 14th Cavalry’s sector. The commander of the 18th Volksgrenadier Division, Major-General Hoffmann-Schoenborn saw this as immense opportunity. “Plans were made at once to exploit this weak spot.” This 2,000-yard gap would be perfectly suited for swinging around the left flank of the 423rd Infantry Regiment. Enemy patrols were also active in the 422nd and 423rd sectors. When a battalion S-2 from the 423rd reported sounds of enemy vehicles moving in convoy at night, VIII Corps informed him that they were emanating from loudspeakers.
In fact the general malaise among the intelligence staffs seemed to have been worse the higher one climbed. The 12th Army Group G-2, Brigadier-General Siebert exclaimed, “It is now certain that attrition is steadily sapping the strength of German forces.” Field Marshal Montgomery’s G-2, Brigadier Williams stated, “The enemy is in a bad way. His situation is such that he cannot stage a major offensive.” Even with an array of ULTRA intercepts and human intelligence reports indicating something was happening, the only high-ranking intelligence officer who felt an attack was imminent was Colonel Monk Dickson, First Army G-2. Bradley, Hodges and Middleton ignored Dickson’s views. As army historian Charles Macdonald states, “Allied officers had looked in a mirror for the enemy and had seen a reflection of only their own intentions.”

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At 0530 on the morning of 16 December 1944, 14th Cavalry troopers in observation posts in the Losheim Gap reported seeing brilliant flickers of light on the horizon, which were soon followed by a violent bombardment from artillery, rockets and mortars. As the terrifying bombardment continued, Hoffmann-Schoenborn’s 18th Volksgrenadiers were moving through the 2,000-yard gap toward the village of Auw.

As fighting continued in his sector, Colonel Devine was seeing the effects of absolutely no coordination with the 106th. Having been brushed off days before by Jones and his staff, Devine decided to take matters into his own hands. He ordered the 18th Cavalry to conduct a fighting withdrawal back to the Manderfeld Ridge, 3000 yards west of their original position. Finally able to contact Jones, Devine asked him for infantry support and an immediate counter-attack north into the flank of the 18th Volksgrenadier. Jones refused, stating that, “no infantry support could be given at this time.”

As the main body of the 14th Cavalry began to defend the Manderfeld Ridge, Devine dispatched elements of the 32nd Cavalry to protect both of his flanks. At 1600 on the 16th, he withdrew to positions on the Andler-Holzheim Ridge, two miles west of Manderfeld, while securing his southern flank and attempting to deny the Germans access to the rear of the Schnee Eifel. Devine also paid a visit to Jones at the 106th Division headquarters in St. Vith. Devine pleaded for assistance, but Jones stated he was too busy to speak with him.

The three regiments of the 106th were also subject to the same grueling indirect fire bombardment the 14th Cavalry underwent. In the division’s southern sector, the 3rd Battalion, 424th Infantry was doing a splendid job of holding off the German attack and restoring its lines. The 424th played a key role that day in stopping the 60th Panzer Grenadier Regiment’s attempts at driving a wedge between the 112th Infantry, 28th Infantry Division and the 424th. As darkness fell, the 424th was exhausted, but had held. Contact with the 112th Infantry had been lost. But, the enemy knew there was going to be no immediate penetration through that sector.
In the 423rd Infantry Regiment sector, shock troops of the 293rd Regiment, 18th Volksgrenadier Regiment hit the 423rd’s weakest link near Bleialf. As the volksgrenadiers moved on the town, a violent series of melees began. After a series of hand to hand fights in streets and houses, the Americans, composed of B Company, 81st Engineers, drove the Germans back 2500 yards to Winterscheid, where they regrouped for the night. The 293rd had failed to accomplish its mission to capture Bleialf and seize the road to Steinebrueck. The 423rd had held satisfactorily, but the seam of the regiment with the 424th was in danger and the regiment’s 2nd battalion had been committed in the 422nd’s sector.

In the 422nd’s sector, the 294th Volksgrendier Regiment was threatening their northern flank after moving on Auw. As enemy reinforcements closed in on Auw, the 589th Field Artillery Battalion unleashed everything they had on the Germany infantry. As darkness fell, the enemy had accomplished the following on 16 December against the 106th: they had penetrated between the 423rd and the 424th, they had found the left flank and rear of the 422nd. Meanwhile, the enemy continued to filter infantry into these sectors. That night, the 106th Division’s G-2, Colonel Stout wrote, “The enemy is capable of pinching off the Schnee Eifel area at any time.”

With two of his regiments in mortal danger, one of which (the 423rd) his son Alan Jones Jr. was a staff officer in, you would think General Jones would have been more proactive. Yet, it took him until 2300 to authorize the division reserve battalion to move toward the 422nd. Perhaps, Jones felt an inner calm because he knew help was on the way. General Hoge’s CCB of the 9th Armored Division had been released to the 106th. When Hoge arrived in St. Vith and the 106th HQ he found it in a state of near panic. Strangely, Jones was seated calmly in his office. That night, Jones received more good news from Middleton. The whole 7th Armored Division was detached from the Ninth Army and on the way from Holland, 60 miles away. Jones ordered Hoge to move CCB, 9th Armored toward Winterspelt to block any further penetration between the 423rd and the 424th. The 7th Armored would move toward Schoenberg when it arrived at 0700 the next morning. This estimated arrival time was much too optimistic.

Later that evening, Jones began to have doubts about his two regiments on the Schnee Eifel. He put in a call to General Middleton. Jones asked Middleton what he should do. Middleton responded, “You know how things are up there better than I do.” In the midst of the phone call, several interruptions and disruptions occurred. Jones didn’t hear Middleton say, “But, I agree. It would be wise to withdraw them.” Both men hung up. Jones believed Middleton had ordered him to stay in place. After hanging up Middleton looked at his aides and stated, “I just talked to Jones. I told him to pull his regiments off the Schnee Eifel.” Even with the bungled conversation it appeared that Middleton was giving Jones some leeway. Jones was apparently too conservative or foolish to yet order a withdrawal. Surely though, he had to have known that the timetable for the 7th Armored was ridiculous.

As 17 December dawned, the 424th’s left wing was still being threatened. Colonel Reid had lost contact with the 112th Infantry of the 28th Division, and did not know that they were holding in place. At 1730 on 17 December, General Jones finally allowed the 424th, and CCB, 9th Armored Division to withdraw across the Our River.

Things were not going as well in the 14th Cavalry sector. The Germans were slowly penetrating the Losheim Gap. Devine sent a message to Jones stating that, “He was withdrawing to a final delaying position.”

By mid-morning on 17 December, the 422nd and 423rd Regiments were in serious jeopardy. At 0945, Jones issued an order to both regiments, “Withdraw from present positions if they become untenable.” Jones still hoped for the arrival of the 7th Armored, which was bottlenecked on narrow roads to St. Vith. The last part of the message read, “the area west of you will soon be cleared out.” Unfortunately, this order did not reach the regiments until nearly midnight of the 17th.

General Bruce Clarke arrived in St. Vith with advance elements of his CCB, 7th Armored Division on the afternoon of the 17th. Strangely, Jones, who out-ranked Clarke and the 7th Armored Division commander, Hasbrouck, told Clarke, “I’ve thrown in my last chips. Your combat command is the one that will defend this position. You take over command of St. Vith right now.” Clarke reluctantly accepted even though he was out-ranked by a number of his fellow one star generals and Jones who was a two-star general.

By 0100 of 18 December, elements of the 7th Armored Division were finally arriving in St. Vith and establishing positions, which would later be known as the fortified goose egg. As for the two regiments trapped on the Schnee Eifel, Jones had ordered an airdrop and instructed his troops to fight their way out. The initial message was sent out at 0215 hours with new and confusing orders as well. “Our mission is to destroy by fire from dug-in positions south of Schoenberg-St.Vith road. Ammo, food and water will be dropped. When mission accomplished move to St. Vith-Wallenrode-Weppler.” The regiments had apparently been told to hold and break out. Apparently upon breaking out, they would be relieved by elements of the 7th Armored Division. Most units received the order on the morning of the 18th.

As both regiments left the cover of their defensive positions, they were informed that the 7th Armored would not be relieving them and that they were to move toward Schoenberg and St. Vith on their own. Apparently, the decision had been made to save the 7th Armored for the defense of St. Vith. The 422nd and 423rd Regiments would have to make it back to St. Vith on their own.

Attempts to attack and break out by both the 422nd and 423rd Regiments were stopped cold. German reinforcements, such as the Fuehrer Begleit Brigade were pouring into the Schnee Eifel and moving toward St. Vith. All hopes of relief by the 7th Armored and planned airdrops had disappeared. The two regiments knew they had no chance to make it back to either St. Vith or their prepared defense positions in the Schnee Eifel. By ordering the regiments to break out too late and without airdrops, air cover or armored support from the 7th Armored, Jones had condemned his men to surrender and captivity.

Lost on the Schnee Eifel were 7,000 men from the 422nd, the 423rd and attached field artillery, engineers, tank destroyer, ADA, medical and cavalry units. Some men continued to fight in small groups, or on their own. Others evaded all contact until making their way back into St. Vith. General Jones’ requests for airdrops never materialized because of bureaucracy and bad weather. For the next several days, the 424th continued to fight and defend as part of the St. Vith fortified goose egg.

As two-thirds of the 106th Infantry Division and attached units were marched into captivity in Germany, General Jones was finally relieved of his command by General Ridgway on December 22nd. Ridgway had found Jones’ demeanor odd. After suffering such losses, Jones seemed indifferent, withdrawn and was too intent on hiding in his headquarters office. That night, in a final does of ignominy; Jones suffered a serious heart attack and was evacuated to Liege.

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As mentioned, the demise of the 106th Infantry is a result of what the Soviet Army used to call a correlation of forces. Certainly, a correlation of forces condemned the 106th Infantry Division to its fate. The German Army had very little to do with it. The units facing the 106th and the 14th Cavalry, with the exception of the 3rd Parachute Division, were inexperienced, perhaps even more inexperienced than the green 106th. The 106th’s failure in combat can be blamed on many of its officers, who from the division commander down to second lieutenants had an indifferent view of training, supply requisition, communications procedures, artillery preparation, and a thousand other details that can mean life or death in combat. The unit seemed to be lacking in that indefinable, but necessary quality, esprit de corps. With it the impossible can be accomplished, without it, defeat is near certain. The 424th’s survival can be certainly traced to their alignment with the veteran 28th Infantry Division, having suffered so much in the Huertgen Forest, but which rallied again in the Bulge.

Lastly, any unit is only as good as its commander. It appears that General Jones made mistakes from the beginning and kept making them. Perhaps, his physical condition precluded him from making competent decisions. Jones seemed to have had a dangerously casual attitude toward training and coordination with other units such as the 14th Cavalry. When his units were in trouble he dithered. When he finally ordered a breakout, they were either slaughtered or captured. When told of the 7th Armored’s absurd timetable from Holland to St. Vith, he accepted it and used it, even though he knew it was dead wrong. He placed too much confidence in the air corps and their promises for airdrops that never materialized. Finally, he accepted defeat too early, mentally detached himself from command of St. Vith and allowed a subordinate officer to take charge; decisions which would eventually have fateful consequences for the 106th.

Jones should never have been in command of the 106th. He would have probably made a fine staff officer, but he was no combat leader. The demise of the 106th Infantry Division is certainly enough to validate this last statement.

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