Steinebruck needs to come first. If I have any hope of breaking into the German backfield with my Combat Command of Stuart and Sherman tanks, I need to take Steinebruck. Without Steinebruck, there will be no St. Vith.
Two field artillery battalions are attached to the US 4th Armored Division’s CCA, and I am not going to let them go to waste. CCA commander, General Earnest, back at HQ orders a 75 minute preparatory bombardment of Steinebruck. He pities the civilians left inside the village, but he needs the bridge there.
Three kilometers away from the German frontline, 18 105mm howitzers from the 22nd fire at once, shells shrieking over battalions of waiting US infantry. Within minutes a second artillery battalion, the 66th’s guns, have joined them. Minutes stretch, as cigarettes are passed among the men of the 51st Armored Infantry Battalion and the 1st Battalion of the 318th Infantry Regiment. The snow covered ground, crunches underfoot as men shuffle back and forth waiting.
The crescent moon, illuminates the fields in front of the 51st Infantry battalion, bathing them in the grey light that comes just before dawn. There is a bare knob of a hill before them. Intelligence says elements of the 12th Volksgrenadier division are dug-in on the reverse slope above the river, shielded some from the American artillery observers. The fighting will be tough.
But fifteen minutes later in front of the 318th, those Germans are really getting it, maybe there is hope for an easy fight.
Thirty minutes into the bombardment, the 66th is shifting it’s fire a kilometer deeper, dropping 105mm HE shells onto Lommersweiler, 16 at a time. The 22nd continues bombarding Steinebruck.
Back at the American HQ in Winterspelt, Earnest can’t remember the C Company commander’s name as the first radio report comes in that they are “At Bat.” He imagines them marching in column through the pine woods, along a snow covered road. When will they come under fire and how will they respond?
7:45 AM: SNAFU: The bridge guys from the 24th have joined the 51st’s attack, two kilometers west of C Company. Back at HQ Earnest is screaming at his aides, “why would those MORONS do it?!?” They are engaged and taking casualties for five minutes before he can get an order to withdraw with immediate effect into that company’s commander. He makes a mental note to replace him, if the attack fails.
7:51 AM: Charlie and Baker companies are moving through the piney woods west of Steinebruck, past the husk of a burned out railway bridge over the river. That’s music to Earnest’s ears; the native Virginian, chomps a little harder on his cigar as he listens to their reports come in. They are in the game.
8:34 AM: New orders for the 35th Tank Battalion: they are to join the attack on Steinebruck. The 51st is stuck, and 1st Bn, 318th IR, isn’t moving fast enough.
Across the river, Baker company from 1st Battalion is disorganized and tired. Engaged in a firefight for twenty minutes, they take casualties and withdraw a few hundred meters to safety. Charlie company continues battling the Germans in the village. Drawing fire away from the approaching American tanks.
10:11 AM: The 35th Tank battalion is fully engaged with a German Assault Gun Company and the remnants of two infantry companies. A German mortar platoon has been knocked out and the rest of the defenders have been pushed back away from a handful of pillboxes by the bridge to the outskirts of Steinebruck. Meanwhile, the 22nd is shelling Lommersweiler again.
D Company’s 11 Stuart tanks are across the river and engaging the Germans. To get them across the bridge, Earnest has ordered the 66th to drop shells down onto the village, two hundred meters ahead of them. The tankers can see the shells impacting through their observation slits. Dull thuds, followed by clouds of dust and dirt. They are buttoned up and engaged. Turrets swinging side to side, looking for targets, the cough and bark of their guns sending hot shell casings discharging onto the floor of their tanks.
Overhead, the full morning sun has taken on a yellow quality, obscured by smoke and then only just barely visible, giving men on both sides in the village little warmth. Men are dying, German and American. Miraculously, the Luftwaffe is hitting the columns of men and tanks south of the river. Where is the US Airforce Earnest wonders aloud.
The fighting drags on.
11:02 AM: SUCCESS! The Germans are in retreat, falling back on Lommersweiler as they struggle under merciless artillery fire from the 22nd and 66th. D Company’s Stuarts have secured the village and 1st Battalion is across the river sweeping the woods for retreating Germans.
Earnest gets on the horn to 4th AD’s HQ and is surprised to be talking to his friend and Third Army commander, General George Patton.
“Earnest, you have done a fine job,” he politely compliments him. “But now I need you to kick your men in the tail again, and tell them to take Lommersweiler or I am going to come up there and do it for you.”
“Do you understand?”
“Yessir,” Earnest gulps.
“That’s fine Earnest. Good boy. We will have a glass of wine over this and a cigar, when we are done.”
Earnest hangs up the phone and looks around at his sheepish subordinates who have heard it all. “Well, what are we waiting for!” he shouts as he pulls another cigar from his pocket.
“Let’s get after it...”