DEFENSE OF ST. VITH
A HISTORY OF THE 106th UNDER GENERAL JONES' COMMAND
By ALAN W. JONES, Major General, USA, Retired
Source: The CUB, Vol 4, No. 3 Feb. 1948
In training, we adopted the motto "To Make History is Our Aim". Wherever military men gather to study or reminisce over famous campaigns of the past, the glorious defense of the Ardennes will be a foremost subject. We did make history! Below we present the text of the address which General Jones delivered on July 15, 1947, at our first annual convention, as part of the series of division history speeches made by our generals. Covering the period from activation to the evacuation of our wounded commanding general, this article gives the first-hand authentic story of the part played by the 106th in the Battle of the Bulge.
When Colonel Livesey suggested to me that I tell the story of the first two years of the Division's existence, and that I do it in fifteen minutes, three years vanished and I saw again the demon staff officer at his skillful distribution of work. Then I sat down and made a list of topic headings, only to find that it took more than fifteen minutes to read them. So, my work consists almost entirely of elimination, and I present to you the framework of the story of my time with the Division, together with an account of certain happenings and decisions that had their effect on the lives of most of us.
Although the official date of activation of the Division was March 15, 1943, work on organization, securing of equipment and supplies, and all the many hundreds of pre training details was completed in January and February, 1943. On March 8th personnel from every state in the Union, except those of the Pacific Coast, began to arrive at our first station, Fort Jackson, Columbia, South Carolina. By March 15th we officially started on a program which was to take us through the mid-west and eastern portions of the United States, England, France, Belgium and finally into Germany.
Of the time we spent at Fort Jackson, I shall make only a few statements. Like our own early life, it was extremely important to us at that time, but in view of later events it is difficult to recall in sharp definition. We received upon activation a grand total of 16,009 individuals, which included an over-strength of about 10% to take care of anticipated losses. Our average age at this time was about 21 years, including all the officers and the older age group of the cadre of some 1,800 from the 80th Division. The results of intelligence tests given these men showed an exceptionally high score, and our courts-martial and number of men AWOL were correspondingly low. At the time of our basic training tests, given exactly four years ago today, everything seemed to be going our way and the world looked bright and cheery. So, we started with enthusiasm and pride into the most productive of our advanced training when, in early August, the blow fell. We were ordered to send 3,000 of our trained infantrymen to the 28th and 31st Divisions so that they might replace their losses and go overseas. This was followed by a continuous drain on us for more and more officers and men, infantry, artillery and signal, until we felt the effects of acute anemia. By late September, in spite of replacements, we were down to less than 12,000 persons.
We completed our training of the smaller units in November and the Division went into the field for the remainder of the winter. A series of maneuvers under direction of XII Corps started on December 13th and continued until the middle of January, 1944. These were held in central South Carolina and for the first time we learned about living in deep mud and freezing rain. The short days of late January saw us moving, by motor, to the Tennessee maneuver area which comprised most of the central part of that State. Here, we participated with units of all kinds, including three other divisions, in daily maneuvers until the end of March. The weather almost duplicated that which we were to find a year later in the Ardennes. These months were extremely beneficial to us and we came out of Tennessee a trained division, with much experience and great promise. We learned how to get our trucks through mud and country roads, how to make the most of supper eaten at night in the rain without lights, how to wear mosquito head-nets in a snow storm; we learned through days and nights of discomfort how best to take care of ourselves and, best of all, we learned that, as a fighting division, we were better than most. Looking back, I think you who were there will agree that Tennessee was probably the hardest work we experienced in the States, and that definitely it separated the men from the boys, and I do not mean on a basis of age.
After finishing the maneuver program, we were fortunate enough to be ordered to Camp Atterbury—and Indianapolis—to make our final preparations for overseas. We expected to get new equipment and be on our way at once. But the poor planning for training and forwarding replacements to units overseas threw us for another loss. Immediately upon our arrival at Camp Atterbury in the first week of April, 1944, we commenced shipment of 2,800 infantrymen and 800 artillerymen to replacement centers. Men to replace these people were received slowly. We were placed in the first stage of "alert for overseas" early in June, the second stage in July and were given our month's advance notice on August 15th. During these last hurrying weeks of preparation for embarkation we lost, to my amazement which lasts to this day, practically all of our infantry lieutenants, privates first class and privates, a total of 500 officers and 3,000 men. These with losses in April totaled 600 officers and 6,600 men, all out of a division strength of about 14,000. To keep the record straight, our replacements consisted of: from ASTP, 1,200; from air cadets, 1,100; from other divisions, 1,500; and from miscellaneous sources such as disbanded military police units, special training battalions and various service commands, 2,800. These people were of the highest type, mentally and physically. We could not have received better material, but we had one foot on the gangplank. In spite of this sad story, our tour at Atterbury was an exceptionately pleasant one. Many of the people here went out of their way to be nice to us. With them, life-long friendships have grown. There is one family I have especially in mind. You know them, the Simpsons. They had the major part in assuring the success of this reunion.
After receiving our advance movement order, we received new equipment, turned in motor vehicles and did what training we could at odd intervals. Finally, in September we moved by rail to Camp Myles Standish at Taunton, Mass. This place was known as a staging area where life reached the maximum of not letting anyone know anything at all. As a matter of fact we existed on a monotonous routine of rumors until the day we redoubled on our tracks, returned to New York and sailed in October 1944 for various ports in England. The 423d Infantry with various attached units arrived October 21, the 422d and 424th regiments arrived October 28th with the artillery and some special units delayed until November 17th. We were deployed in one of the most interesting and certainly the most beautiful parts of England, the Cotswold section of the midlands. The 422d Infantry was stationed some 12 miles west and northwest of Oxford, the 424th Infantry near Banbury of Banbury Cross fame and the 423d Infantry and Division Artillery near Cheltenham and Gloucester respectively. Division headquarters and special units were located centrally in this 200 square mile area. We remained in England until the last days of November preparing for an expected early crossing of the Channel.
The Division embarked on the last day of November and first days of December for the long slow fifty mile trip from Southampton to Le Havre at the mouth of the Seine River. We disembarked at Le Havre and at Rouen, a town about one-third of the way up the Seine toward Paris, and went into bivouac in deep mud in the open fields in a cold drizzling rain, between the 1st and 8th of December. During these days liaison officers from First US Army headquarters arrived at odd intervals with conflicting and inconsistent sets of orders, so that during a 48 hour period we were assigned to three different corps in as many separate locations. Fortunately, troops and staffs were arriving in unrelated groups as the weather and the Navy allowed them ashore, so that no damage was done except to my disposition. The final messenger appeared on December 6 with instructions for us to leave for the St. Vith area, the first combat team to move on the 8th followed by the others as rapidly as possible. Upon arrival we were to relieve the 2d Infantry Division, then in a defensive position, as part of the VIII Corps whose headquarters was then at Bastogne. Troops being in the throes of landing after a rough winter crossing, staffs only partly present and maps few and far between, our move to the battlefield was a rather remarkable one and highly successful in spite of its discomfort. The route carried us nearly 300 miles through Amiens, Cambrai and Maubeuge in France to Philippeville in Belgium. After an overnight bivouac in extra deep mud near the latter town, we passed through Marche and the villages of eastern Belgium to the vicinity of St. Vith, arriving during the period December 9th to 15th. The relief of the 2d Division commenced on the 11th and was completed the 13th, responsibility for the defense of the sector passing to me on the 12th.
SCHNEE EIFEL POSITIONS
Our sector was partly in Belgium and partly in Germany, with the south flank of our southernmost regiment, the 424th, at the junction of the Luxemburg-Belgium-Germany borders. We joined there with the 28th Inf Div. Our left flank lay 27 miles to the north where we were supposed to have contact with the 99th Inf Div through the 14th Cavalry Group, an organization neither trained nor equipped for defensive action. Some 20 miles to the east of St. Vith lay a fifteen mile stretch of the German West Wall or Seigfried Line on the high, heavily wooded ridge known as the Schnee Eifel, and appropriately named it was. From left to right, or north to south, on this extended salient into German-held terrain were the 422d Combat Team and the 423d Combat Team. The roadnet throughout the sector was entirely inadequate for our purposes, one two-lane hard surfaced road which would have been classified as a "farm to market" road in this country led from the rear to both the 422d and the 423d areas. The 424th was no better served. Reserves in the VIII Corps 90 mile sector consisted of one combat command of the 9th Armored Div. As was later so well demonstrated at our expense, reserves from other areas could not arrive in time to be of use to us.
I have taken the time to fill in to a limited extent some of the lights and shadows on the picture of the St. Vith area and of our movement to it, in order to provide a background for the crystal-clear truth that the Division was in a situation which not only was tactically unsound but which left us no choice as to our own location of men and weapons--a situation that was tactically impossible should the Germans attack with even as few as two or three good divisions. They did, with that and more, and the Commanding General, US First Army was impelled to write to the Division later "No troops in the world, disposed as your division had to be, could have withstood the impact of the German attack which had its greatest weighs in your sector. Please tell these men for me what a grand job they did. By the delay they effected, they definitely upset von Rundstedt's time table".
It is not my purpose here to recount in detail the action of separate units following the attack starting at 5:30 on the morning of December 16. Much has been written of this, and a great deal more will appear in the future. It is sufficient to recall now that the Germans sent four divisions, two infantry and two panzer, to "take as out" so that their way could be opened through Liege and Namur to Brussels and Antwerp. During the day of the 16th they penetrated deeply into the wooded hills just to the north of the Division sector and into the ground held by reconnaissance units in an attempt to swing south behind the Schnee Eifel and so into our undefended rear areas. Engineers, hastily assembled, artillery and the northern units of the 422d blocked this move by nightfall. Further south in the 423d sector a strong attack penetrated our lines but was thrown back by a counterattack made up largely of service units, clerks, cooks and headquarters personnel. Similarly, in the 424th area, a series of counterattacks were necessary to restore our lines to their original locations by night. Information reached our CP that afternoon that one combat command of the 9th Armd Div and the entire 7th Armored Div would be available in our area the next morning. Accordingly, the only division reserves, one battalion of the 423d Inf and one battalion of the 424th Inf were committed that afternoon of the 16th. Plans were drawn up for the employment of the armored divisions to block the rush of Krauts past and around our north flank and, if there were any penetrations the next day to eject or destroy them. The plans were good ones. I am sure they would have been successful. The only unfortunate development was the failure of the 7th Armored Division to arrive at the time we had been told to expert them. In fairness to them, it must be stated that their move was made extremely difficult by jammed roads and snarled traffic. Probably an early arrival was not practical and higher headquarters had been more hopeful than sure. In any event, on the 17th, penetrations around our north flank and from the southeast were made, and although they were contested with every means we had, by dark such large German forces had reached and gotten behind our lines that hope for a large scale counterattack with forces which had not even arrived looked not too good. Late on the 18th the expected armor did reach us, but by then it took their every effort to prevent the occupation of the town of St. Vith itself, which our 81st Engr Bn was engaged in holding against overwhelming German forces. On the 18th too, the 424th, on my orders, reached a position further to the west along the Our River, and the 422d and 423d were ordered to attack in the direction of Schonberg to the west, in an attempt to break out of the German encirclement.
After a brilliantly executed move, both regiments attacked early on the morning of the 19th. But it was too late, the door of Schonberg was closed by powerful German panzer forces. Without armor, with but little artillery, ammunition fast running out and no resupply of food and water for four days, they nevertheless fought through the day, until finally in late afternoon they were forced, by sheer weight of number and artillery, to submit to capture.
You have probably noted the lack of mention of air forces during this narrative. They have not been mentioned for the reason that the weather did not permit their presence.
The 112th Inf of the 28th Id Div, having become separated from that division was attached to us on the 20th and, with the 424th lnf and Combat Command "B" of the 9th Armd Div held, with the 7th Armd Div to our north, St. Vith and the high ground to the south and southeast, constituting an island of resistance which has been credited with the all-important delay of the Sixth SS Panzer Army.
On the night of the 21st, under heavy enemy pressure, withdrawal of all forces in this general area was made to the west for a distance of five to ten miles. St. Vith was evacuated at 11:00 P.M.
The following night, December 22, saw the Division and other troops withdrawn by Corps order to the west of the Salm River, and our weary men for a few short hours took their first rest after eight days of cold and wet and sudden death.
I have tried to set down the facts as they appeared to me at the time of which I speak, and I have heard or seen nothing since to change my mind.
Now, having seen our side of the picture, we shall take a look at the German side and see some of the more immediate result of the action in, and around St. Vith as written in official War Department documents. The following I have taken from the First US Army Report of Operations:
The failure of the Sixth SS Panzer Army to live up to the high hopes of its commander, could be attributed to three factors: First, the failure of the II SS Panzer Corps to break through ... ; secondly, the equally dismal failure of the 1st SS Panzer Division ... ; lastly, but of at least equal importance, the failure to reduce in time the island of resistance at St. Vith, and on the high ground to the south and southeast. Without the communications center of St. Vith, focal point of five highways and three rail lines, the enemy's armored infantry and supply columns were all practically immobilized".
The initial phase of the German winter offensive ended December 22d . The elimination of the St. Vith salient was of prime importance to the (German) C in C West. Because of the delay imposed here the offensive was already three days behind schedule. In retrospect, it can be said that almost from the second day of the offensive, von Rundstedt's plans began to go wrong.”
"The salient at St. Vith not only threatened the whole of Fifth Panzer Army's north flank, but continued to hold and prevent the westward movement of Sixth SS Panzer Army. This afforded First US Army sufficient time to bring up reinforcements to a new defensive line."
This ends my quotations from the Operations Report of the First Army.
The facts are consistent and incontestable; The road through St. Vith did not become an open way to the German Army until the 22d of December, six days after the attack was launched.
I make no claim that our Division accomplished these tremendously important results alone. After the 18th of December, one combat command of the 9th Armored Division, the 7th Armored Division, the 112th Infantry Regiment and many smaller units operated in the St. Vith sector. What I do insist, however, is that during the first 48 hours, the 106th 1nfantry Division, alone and unaided, solely by its refusal to give ground and open the way to the West, decided the fate of Hitler's last bid for Europe.
(NOTE: Subheads and use of bold-face type were indicated by the Editor, and were not included in General Jones' speech manuscript.)