THE BATTLEFIELD

ST. VITH, Belgium

St. Vith is a town in the Belgian Province of Liège.  At the beginning of the German Blitzkrieg in 1940, the town and most of Eastern Belgium was annexed by the Third Reich. The district of  Eupen-Malmedy had been part of Germany until after the Great War.  It was declared Belgian territory by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 as a war reparation.


St. Vith has a history of military conquests, starting in Roman times and the latest dating back from WWII. It is a vital road and rail network and considered to be one of the main transport hubs through the Ardennes.  After the town had been liberated in September 1944 by troops of the 4th Infantry Division, the division headquarters was installed in the Sankt Josef's Kloster, the local convent. The 106th Infantry Division also had it's HQ there, after relieving the 2nd "Indianhead" Division.

With the presence of road and railway installations, the town of St. Vith was the main objective for the German Fifth Panzer Armee, commanded by General Hasso Eccard Von Manteuffel.  

The heroic defense of St. Vith became known as "The Battle for the Fortified Goose Egg" and earned unit citations for the 81st and 168th Combat Engineer Battalions, the 331st Medical battalion and the 106th Division Band.

The town finally fell to the Germans on 21 December 1944.  Heavy fighting followed and the city of St. Vith was obliterated in extensive aerial bombings on Christmas 1944 and in January 1945.  It was at last retaken by US troops of the 7th Armored Division on 25 January 1945, while the remnants of the 106th Division recaptured the ground north of St. Vith..

This aerial photo of St. Vith, Belgium shows the extent of the destruction after several Allied air raids on the town. 90 percent of the town was destroyed and rebuilt after the war. (Photo Carl Wouters Collection)

WINTERSPELT, Germany

On the morning of 16 December 1944 one of the key objectives of the German 62nd Volksgrenadier Division was the capture of the town of Winterspelt. The village, located along the Habscheid - St. Vith road, led to the bridge across the Our River at Steinebrück. The defenses of the 106th Infantry Division were mainly located in front of Winterspelt, where the Cannon Company of the 424th Infantry Regiment was dug in at Eigelscheid. Faced with strong German attacks on the morning of 16 December 1944, General Jones reluctantly released the 1st Battalion, 424th Infantry to engage the enemy at Winterspelt. They held in spite of fierce resistance until the Battalion was virtually wiped out during an overwhelming attack at dusk. Survivors of the 1st Battalion pulled back to the heights across the Our River and set up their defenses.

The road from Habscheid to Winterspelt. Along this road the 62nd Volksgrenadier Division attacked on the morning of 16 December 1944. In Winterspelt, rifle companies of the 1st Battalion, 424th Infantry were deployed, but suffered heavy losses. (Photo by Webmaster)

SCHÖNBERG, Belgium

The small border village of Schönberg lies tucked away in the wooded hills of the Our valley. The stone bridge across the Our River was a main objective of the German drive towards St. Vith. Lightly defended by Company "B" of the 81st Engineer Battalion and a battery of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, the village would be captured by troops of the German 18th Volksgrenadier Division in a pincer movement. By taking Schönberg, they were able to successfully encircle approximately 7,000 troops of the 106th Division, who were still engaging the enemy several miles across the German border. During a final attack on 19 December 1944, troops of the 422nd and 423rd Infantry Regiment attempted to recapture Schönberg and create an escape corridor to St. Vith. Due to overwhelming German forces on the Schönberg - St. Vith road and the inability of the 7th and 9th Armored Divisions to counterattack towards Schönberg, the remnants of the two surrounded Regimental Combat Teams were forced to surrender.

A view on the snow covered village of Schönberg. In the valley below flows the Our River, spanned by a stone bridge which was a key target for the German advance towards St. Vith. (Photo by webmaster)

MANHAY and GRANDMENIL, Belgium

The Belgian towns of Manhay and Grandmenil were the objectives of the 424th Infantry Regiment for two subsequent attacks on 25 and 26 December 1944. The villages, under siege by the German 2nd SS Panzer Division were vital road junctions. Troops of the 106th Division, 7th and 3rd Armored Division were positioned on the high ground. Two seperate attempts to take the villages failed due to heavy concentrations of artillery and enemy crossfire. Eventually troops of the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment were able to clear the village on 27 December 1944.


Much of the village was destroyed in the fighting. Only in 2013 did the commune of Manhay receive reparations payments for the war damage suffered. After a legal battle against the Belgian State which lasted for decades, a sum of more than 6 million euros was paid.

91 year old Marcus Bartusek, who served with Company "H", 424th Infantry Regiment during the battle for Manhay in December 1944, returned to the village in June 2016. Behind him stands a German Panther tank that was abandoned by the 2nd SS Panzer Division. (Photo by Webmaster)

BARAQUE DE FRAITURE, Belgium

The Baraque de Fraiture is a key crossroads on top of the third highest peak of Belgium. Here the remnants of the 589th Field Artillery Battalion, under the command of Major Arthur C. Parker III, set up a perimeter defense with three 105mm Howitzers. A few AAA halftracks of the 7th Armored Division, tanks of the 3rd Armored Division, a rifle company of the 325th Glider Infantry and a platoon of Tank Destroyers of the 634th TD Battalion joined the defense during the following days. They were faced by troops of the 560th Volksgrenadier Division and tanks of the 2nd SS Panzer Division. The men at 'Parker's Crossroads' were able to repel several attacks until the defense was finally overpowered on the evening of 23 December 1944.

The café Laurent-Jacquet, on the road to Houffalize was one of the buildings used by the 589th Field Artillery Battalion during the defense of Parker's Crossroads. In front of the building stands one of the burned-out Sherman tanks of the 3rd Armored Division. (Photo courtesy of Eddy Monfort)

SCHNEE EIFEL RIDGE, Germany

Remnants of German "Z" trenches on the road between Bleialf and Sellerich. These trenches were part of the German West Wall defenses, taken over by the 106th Division in December 1944. Even after 70+ years the traces of these fortifications are still visible. (Photo by Webmaster)

PRÜMERBERG, Belgium

The Prümerberg is a large hill on the eastern outskirts of St. Vith. In December 1944 it was a vital defense point for the US forces holding the town. The hill dominates not only the main road from Schönberg to St. Vith but also a secondary road leading from the Our River valley through Schlierbach to St. Vith. A combined force from the 81st and 168th Engineer Combated Battalions defended it in December 1944, reinforced by advance units of CCB, 7th Armored Division.


Fifth Panzer Armee commander, General Hasso Von Manteuffel stressed the importance of capturing St. Vith as soon as possible. To gain access to the town, the attacking forces needed to pass the Prümerberg heights, with their commanding view on the two roads leading into St. Vith. With most of the combat strength of the 106th Division cut-off several miles east of the town, all available units were thrown into the fight. The 168th Combat Engineer Battalion, attached to the Division from VIII Corps, dug in on the Prümerberg with orders to hold at all costs. They were joined by the remnants of two companies of the 81st Combat Engineer Battalion, organic to the 106th. The defenders were reinforced by advance elements of Combat Command “B” (CCB) of the 7th Armored Division, being the 38th Armored Infantry Battalion and Troop B of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron.

On 18th December 1944 the attacking Germans tried three times to rush their way through the outpost line, but the American holding force drove back the attacks. They held for three more days in spite of being subjected to heavy infantry and artillery attacks.

On the night of 21st December, at 21.30 hours, the defenders of the Prümerberg received orders from Brig. General Bruce C. Clarke, then commanding the St. Vith perimeter, to withdraw. This order proved impossible to execute as they were now cut off. Individually, or in small groups the Prümerberg defenders tried to make their way out on foot. Only a few men were able to make it back.

Today, foxholes dug by the 168th and 81st Engineers can still be found on the heights of the Prümerberg. A memorial to the 168th Engineers was inaugurated in 1994.

 

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