St Vith, The Ardennes, 17 – 21 December 1944, US units expecting a quiet Christmas before pushing forward in to Germany find themselves confronting what seems to be the entire German army. One such unit is the 168th Combat Engineers. Ian Hill explains the background to the battle and gives us an idea for a force selected for this battle in Bolt Action
Ian: A day before Brigadier General Macauliffe famously gave the German commander at Bastogne the answer “Nuts”, the battle of St Vith some 50 kilometres to the north east was already done. The 101st Airborne at Bastogne and 82nd Airborne at Rochelinval may have acquired a well-deserved fame, but perhaps the most telling contribution to disrupting the German advance was made at St Vith by Combat Command “B” of the 7th Armoured Division.
7th Armour Shermans await the attack near St Vith
The pot-pourri of units from several divisions that combined to stall the German offensive, arguably prevented the decisive breakthrough that may, just may, have disrupted Allied plans and extended the war by many months.
So many of the units that found themselves at this crucial crossroads town deserve greater recognition than posterity often grants them. One, though, stands out for its ingenuity, courage and flexibility in stalling the advance whilst around them reigned confusion, defeat and uncertainty. That is the men of the 168th Combat Engineers.
St Vith is a small town in the heart of the Ardennes and in 1944 was close to the boundary between Generals Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army and Sepp Dietrich’s 6th Panzer Army. As Manteuffel said after the campaign, German success required the achievement of three objectives:
- a) The attack needed surprise
- b) The weather had to prevent allied airstrikes being able to interdict progress
- c) The main advance had to pass through and beyond St Vith rapidly.
Whilst objectives a and b were achieved c was not, at least until the night of 21 December when the forces holding the town withdrew. Initial plans were to capture the town by 18:00 on 17th December just one day into the offensive. By holding out for 5 days not only was the German 5th Panzer Army’s entire north flank threatened, but the 6th Army similarly found its westward progress stalled.
When the German offensive began on 16 December, the 168th were part of the US First Army’s VIII Corps reserve and, along with the 81st Combat Engineers of the 106th Infantry Division, were engaged in duties around St Vith. In the confusion of that first day, whilst two regiments of the 106th found themselves virtually encircled in the Schnee Eifel, the 168th were the main defenders of St Vith, establishing roadblocks to block traffic advancing from the east towards the town.
By the morning of the 17th, however, the extent of German intent became much clearer and unit after unit of the US forces found itself in retreat or cut-off. At 10:30 that morning the 168th were placed under the command of the 106th Division’s Lt Col Thomas Riggs. Their three companies; together with 40 men from the 81st Combat Engineers battalion HQ and its A Company plus a platoon of infantry, were ordered to take up defensive positions at Heum (five miles east of St Vith and a mile from Schoenburg) and to hold them at all costs. With reconnaissance reporting Heum already taken, the unit dug in on the eastern slope of Prumerberg, the first high ground east of St Vith.
By 1pm, having persuaded a unit of the 14th cavalry to stop their retreat and provide support whilst positions were finished, the 168th had set up either side of the Schoenburg – St Vith road and, within a very short time, they faced the first probing attacks of the German advance.
Halftracks from the 116th Panzer Division pass destroyed M10
It was from then that the 168th began to truly make its name. Just one example of their bravery was when a reconnaissance patrol led by Lt Bill Holland (commander of Company B) and his first sergeant, Richard Lennox, came across men of the infantry platoon retreating; having abandoned their heavy machine gun position some 100 yards further forward. Getting them to turn back, Holland and his three companions retraced their steps to the gun, crawling the last few yards to avoid being seen. From their position they were able to see not only a Tiger tank but also the crew of a 105 mm howitzer deploying some 110 metres ahead and about 20 metres above them. Re-crewing the gun Holland and his team opened fire wiping out the gun crew to a man before facing the spitting fire of the Tiger’s machine guns. Unable to depress its gun low enough to fire at the men, the Tiger was virtually powerless to prevent Holland’s next daring deed. Snatching up a bazooka he fired three rounds into the belly of the behemoth, his third one setting it ablaze.
Relocating quickly, the four men took up a new position 50 metres away. From there they could see the effect of their work. Tanks had backed up for nearly a quarter of mile followed by trucks and yet more tanks. The poor weather and narrow roads had served to grind the advance to a halt whilst the road was cleared. One unfortunate tank commander raised his head through his cupola only to be cut down by a single carbine shot from Holland.
To add fortune to fortitude, four P47 Thunderbolts flew over the tank column, one of the few sorties possible on that day. Although not equipped with bombs, the planes and Holland managed to cause chaos with strafing fire forcing crews to abandon their vehicles only to be harried by fire from Holland’s small band who, when out of ammunition, withdrew to the main defensive positions.
How long this action delayed and disrupted the advance can only be guessed at but it certainly set the Germans back several hours forcing more precious fuel to be consumed whilst traffic jams clogged the roads.
By 2 pm on that day, Greyhound armoured cars had arrived to reinforce the position. Late that afternoon, the 168th again managed to destroy a German tank probing their positions. Further attacks followed as Tigers and Panzers with supporting infantry tried to force the defenders back. Using bazookas, machine guns and small arms the 168th were again able to destroy a Tiger and hold off the assault. At one point to prevent a breakthrough men of C Company dragged a line of mines across the road, much like a modern police stinger, destroying the threat and driving back the infantry.
Throughout the 18th and 19th December, the positions that held so courageously were reinforced with infantry from the 38th Armoured Infantry Battalion which brought much needed mortar support and two 76mm Shermans. As German forces continued their onslaught men from the 168th not only defended their own positions but provided flexible reinforcements to plug the line for their compatriots. Helped by men of the 275th Field Artillery who had bravely volunteered to stay to provide artillery spotting, the 168th and its reinforcements managed to destroy two further tanks and two assault guns. Each one an increasingly scant resource for the Germans.
A typical engineers day to day task of immobilising enemy equipment such as this Tiger II
Early on the 19th, US infantry patrols found the Germans had withdrawn from their attacking positions. For the rest of that day, and the next, the defenders came under increasing artillery fire which intensified at 3 pm on the 21st as the Germans again sought to breakthrough into St Vith and the country beyond. By this time the US forces were depleted well below half strength, suffering from rapidly dwindling supplies and broken lines of communications, and unlikely to hold off the concerted assault they all knew was coming. At 10 pm the inevitable attack came, effectively surrounding and cutting off the defenders. Shermans sent forward from the town were destroyed or forced to retreat and by midnight it was clear the position was untenable. The 168th, though, remained the only unit not to have its lines breached.
Exhausted from six days of fighting, the defenders of Prumerberg began a game of cat and mouse as they withdrew in small groups south and west. Whilst many were captured a few were able to rejoin the rest of 7th Armoured division as it too retreated, under Montgomery’s orders, away from the town.
Unlike Bastogne, which also had a decisive influence on the Ardennes offensive, St Vith was a vital town in the German’s advance onto the Meuse River that had to be taken. By pinning down so many forces for so long the German assault in the area was broken and plans to reverse the Axis fortunes in the west stymied.
For its bravery the 168th, along with the other defenders of St Vith, received a Presidential Unit Citation, much like the 101st Airborne, and General Bruce Clarke, who went on to command the US Army in Europe in the early 60s, titled his autobiography Clarke of St Vith.
Using the 168th Combat Engineers in Bolt Action
The defenders of Prumerberg were a mixed bag. I represented this, to try out at my club, by using this unofficial list; A 168th Combat Engineers can be made up of one or more reinforced platoons from the following selector:
Note that to reflect the weather conditions air forward observers have been excluded from the list. Two artillery observers, however, reflect the support provided by the 275th Field Artillery. You might, for historical accuracy, also like to think carefully before deploying flamethrowers in your engineer squads!
1 Lieutenant – First or Second
2 Infantry squads: Regular Engineers or regular Infantry squads (early/mid-war)
0-1 Captain or Major
0-1 Medic team
0-2 Forward Observer (Artillery)
0-4 Infantry squads: Regular Infantry squads (early/mid-war), Inexperienced Infantry squads, a maximum of one Engineer squad.
0-2 Machine Gun teams
0-1 Mortar team: light or medium
0-2 Bazooka teams
0-1 Sniper teams
0-2 Armoured Car or Recce vehicle: M8 Greyhound
Tanks, Tank Destroyers, Self-propelled artillery and Anti-aircraft artillery
0-1 vehicle from M4A1 Sherman 75 mm medium tank, M4A1 Sherman 76 mm medium tank, M4 mortar carrier, M21 mortar carrier.
Transports and Tows
0-1 Transport vehicle per infantry unit in the Reinforced Platoon from: Jeep.
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US 168th Combat Engineers Company
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