Major Jürgen von Lüttwitz looked at the small orders group, most of his Kampfgruppe were either dead, missing, or off somewhere guarding the back door as he tried to extricate what was left of his small unit from the hills near Wirtzfeld. These men were all that were left under his direct control of the subunit commanders of Kampfgruppe (mot) von Lüttwitz.
They had started the battle on the 16th of December with 527 men and 96 vehicles. Of those vehicles, ten were StuG III assault guns, seven were the little Panzerspähwagen II "Luchs" reconnaissance tanks, and fourteen were light PzKw III Ausf M tanks. Most of the assault guns were gone, the last he knew there was one still running. He had those men and that vehicle holding his left flank as he tried to breakthrough the ever narrowing circle of American men and steel threatening to trap his Kampfgruppe and destroy what was left.
He wanted to bring the Panzer IIIs out with him, but they were so low on fuel that simply getting them to where he wanted to breakout would have exhausted their last supplies of that precious item. "Drive to Antwerp," von Lüttwitz thought to himself, "Hitler is truly insane if he thought that was even remotely possible."
All he had left for vehicles were five of the Panzerspähwagens of Oberleutnant Köhler's little company. They were supposed to have gone to the Eastern Front but had been diverted to his Kampfgruppe for the Ardennes attack. It looks like they would not be leaving the Ardennes, ever. Most of Köhler's support staff had been wiped out by American air attacks over the past week.
There were still a few trucks and halftracks but there was no fuel for them, the Kampfgruppe was motorized now in name only. The next morning the infantry would advance on foot behind Köhler's little panzers. At least they were reasonably assured of hitting a gap in the American lines which Köhler's men had discovered earlier in the day.
Another snowstorm was keeping enemy aircraft on the ground, though the rumor mill had rumbles of a grand attack by the Luftwaffe on New Year's Day. Thousands of aircraft had attacked Allied airfields in Belgium, destroying hundreds of Allied aircraft on the ground. Or so the story went. Von Lüttwitz would be surprised if even a tenth of what the Propaganda Ministry spouted was true.
He looked around at the men in front of him -
Hauptfeldwebel Klaus-Peter Keller, the Kampfgruppe's Spieß, Hauptmann Hermann Krüger, commander of the 1st Company, Leutnant Manfred Sauer, his old friend and commander of Krüger's 1st Platoon, Feldwebel Klaus Haasen, commander of Krüger's 3rd Platoon, Feldwebel Wilhelm Vogel, commanding the 1st Platoon of the 2nd Company, the remainder of which was occupied holding the American 1st Infantry Division away from the Kampfgruppe's rear, and finally Oberleutnant Ludwig Köhler, commanding the Panzerspähwagens.
Oberleutnant Köhler was also the son of one of Sauer's squad leaders, the man everyone in the Kampfgruppe affectionately referred to as "Opa¹." Unteroffizier Karl-Heinz Köhler was a veteran of the Great War and had been called up to serve in this war as well. He had come in as a private and was now a sergeant. If von Lüttwitz had his way, Köhler the elder would be getting promoted again. The man was nearly indestructible and had held the 1st Company together through thick and thin. His commander, Leutnant Manfred Sauer said, "without Opa, we would have all died in the Hürtgen, now he's keeping us alive in another forest!"
"Gentlemen, what you see before you is a last ditch effort to get ourselves out of this trap. We are nearly surrounded by elements of two very good American units, their 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions. The 1st has chased us since Normandy and is knocking at our back door even as we speak. The other elements of the Kampfgruppe have been ordered to begin falling back towards our position after dark. That will be, of course, problematical. No fuel, inadequate rations, I left it up to the commanders whether they would try to fall back or fight in place until they ran out of ammunition." von Lüttwitz paused, he thought of Berlin's insane orders to "fight to the last man" and realized he sounded almost the same as those idiots in Berlin. But he wouldn't countenance surrender, not yet.
"Note that gentlemen, last bullet, not last man. The same goes here, fight until you can fight no longer. But again, if anyone tries to desert, shoot them. I will not let the cowards run away while good men are still willing to stand. Questions?"
The others remained silent, but eventually Manfred Sauer cleared his throat, "Sir, I understood that sentiment a week ago. But now? I doubt any of the men will leave their units when we're so close to the end. Besides, the Amis seem loath to take prisoners, thanks to the antics of our Waffen SS brethren." Sauer delivered that last phrase with a great deal of contempt in his voice, then he continued.
"I've told the panzer men that they should strip their tunics of their Death's Head badges. While we know the difference between the Army version and the SS, I doubt the Amis will even notice, or even care. But I thought it best not to tempt fate. Not all have complied." Sauer looked at Köhler the younger as he said that. Köhler's badges were still conspicuously in place.
|Army pattern Death's Head, left. Waffen SS pattern, right.|
"I've offered my men the opportunity to divest themselves of their Death's Head badges, Herr Major. However, I will not deface my own uniform. Furthermore, not one of my men has removed their badges, most have refused. They share my sentiments. If the Amis wish to be as criminal as the SS, we don't care. They will probably shoot us for being German, or for wearing black uniforms, or perhaps because they're angry for having to continue this insane war. But I..."
Köhler stopped and held his breath, realizing what he had just said.
Major von Lüttwitz looked around and said, "The war was insane when it started, it has gotten worse since then, but yes, removing one's badges is probably of no help. The Amis are not stupid, they would notice, and become suspicious if badges were missing. I will not enforce such an order, Leutnant Sauer." von Lüttwitz paused, then continued.
"Study the map gentlemen, we move at first light. Dismissed." With that von Lüttwitz left the shelter of the small barn and stepped back into the night. He noticed that it was still snowing, if it kept up, they might get away with this.
Sgt. Stump Gentile raised his hand to signal a halt, the wind was blowing hard enough so that visibility through the falling snow was nearly non-existent. The patrol from 1st Lt. Nathan Paddock's 2nd Platoon had just crested a low ridge and before heading down into the small valley in front of them, Sgt. Gentile wanted to make sure they didn't blunder into the Germans.
Every indication they had was that the Germans were falling back. Abandoned vehicles and equipment littered the landscape. But Able and Baker companies had both hit dug in Krauts earlier that morning and the road to Charlie Company's north was still blocked. They had made contact with some guys from the 99th, apparently the Krauts blocking that road were now officially the 99th's problem.
As Gentile pulled out his field glasses, S/Sgt Stephen Hernandez joined him.
"We just got here, Top. I'm waiting for the wind to die down. But yeah, the scouts were right, seems there's a gap in the line right here. Maybe the Krauts expected us to stick to the roads." Gentile brought his glasses up as the wind died down. The valley below looked clear, though there were a lot of trees, they were mostly deciduous and the snow on the ground revealed all the secrets of the small forest.
"Looks clear, Top, but I'm going to send the scouts down first. We'll cover 'em from here."
"Sounds good, I'll bring the rest of the platoon up, wait until we get here." Hernandez had the feeling that there wasn't anything in front of them, but he wasn't going to risk lives based on a hunch.
When the rest of the 2nd Platoon had arrived atop the small ridge, they received a radio message from the company commander, Cpt. Tony Palminteri. They were to dig in as best as they could on the ridge and hold that position until receipt of further orders.
"Dig in? In this shit, L.T.? Damned ground is frozen solid." S/Sgt Hernandez was furious.
"Look, Top, there are Krauts to our north falling back in front of the 99th. If we move forward we might get mixed in with them. Then we have to fight Krauts and take the chance of getting hit by our own artillery. Cap'n wants the company to hold here." 1st Lt. Paddock's tone left no room for argument.
Charlie Company spent a cold night on the exposed ridge. It was a good thing that the Germans were now reeling. 2nd Platoon had front row seats when the artillery of the 99th Infantry Division opened up on a small German column retreating down the road to Wirtzfeld. They didn't know that they were watching the final destruction of Grenadierkompanie Koch, late of Kampfgruppe (mot) von Lüttwitz. Truth be told, they were more concerned with trying to stay warm!
Oberleutnant Ludwig Köhler was low in his commander's cupola, he'd learned that the Amis loved to shoot officers, particularly tank officers. He was determined not to present an inviting target. He was exposed just enough to have a clear field of view.
That view encompassed his five tanks and the ninety-three infantrymen walking behind them in support. Of his original support train of men and vehicles, only one truck was left, and two men. The truck had broken down while trying to negotiate the rough terrain of the Ardennes. His two men were now on foot, carrying rifles.
Reports had come in from Grenadierkompanie Koch. They had been forced to retreat when the Amis had brought up tanks. They had been on the road in full retreat, many of the young soldiers discarding everything they carried in order to run faster. American artillery had caught them on the road. Köhler had been on the radio with one of the last men of Koch's command. His transmission had ended abruptly. Köhler had to assume that Koch's company had been annihilated.
The wind was gusty today, fortunately it was overcast as well, it kept the Jabos on the ground. But the blowing snow made visibility iffy at best. At times he could see out to five or six hundred meters, at other times he was lucky to see the front of his vehicle.
It was cold and Oberleutnant Köhler was shivering in his turret, he could well imagine what Hell the men on foot were suffering. Looking back over his shoulder he caught a glimpse of his father, Unteroffizier Karl-Heinz Köhler, leading his squad. He felt a sudden wave of affection for the old man.
Köhler's father was not one to wear his emotions on his sleeve. His first war had taught him not to grow close to any man, not even his own sons. But Köhler knew that his father cared deeply for the men he led, it showed in the way he tried to teach them how to stay alive. Even now he was gesturing to his men, showing them where to watch, and how to advance.
His musings caused Oberleutnant Köhler to miss the sudden vision of enemy tanks not two hundred meters ahead. The snow had stopped as had the wind. Köhler's first awareness of danger came when Panzer 116, off to his right flank, blew up in spectacular fashion, its turret flipping into the air like it weighed nothing at all. Four men died while Köhler was turning to that direction.
Unteroffizier Franz Zimmermann, 116's commander, driver Reiter Reinhard Schuster, loader Oberreiter Gerd Mayer, and radioman Reiter Rainer Arnold, never knew what hit them.
Köhler dropped into his seat and slammed the hatch shut, he was already slewing Panzer 101's turret in the direction of the enemy tanks. But it was far too little, far too late. At the range that the platoon of Shermans had opened fire, Köhler's little Panzerspähwagens stood no chance a all. They all died in nearly as spectacular a fashion as Panzer 116.
Köhler's tank didn't explode, but the impact of a Sherman round at close range killed both his driver and his radioman - Reiter Egon Stein and Oberreiter Detlef Sommer - and set 101 on fire. Köhler and his loader, Reiter Frank Hoffmann, managed to get out of the vehicle, though Hoffman was immediately killed by enemy machine gun fire. Köhler managed to crawl clear of 101 before passing out. He too had been hit.
Major von Lüttwitz was screaming for his men to fall back. There was a thick band of trees along the edge of the nearby lake. It was their only chance for survival. Fortunately the wind came up again and a heavy snow squall moved through, shielding them from the Americans who had ambushed them.
In the space of only a few minutes, what was left of von Lüttwitz's force had lost sixty men, out of a strength of one-hundred and fifteen.
"Herr Major, could you come with me, please?" Leutnant Manfred Sauer sounded defeated. Von Lüttwitz had never heard the man sound so down. He followed his old comrade from Normandy and through France through the dark woods. Nightfall had stopped the killing.
They came to a small woodsman's hut set beside the lake. Pulling aside a shelter half used to cover the entrance, Sauer gestured for the Major to enter. With some trepidation, the Major went in.
The Sanitäter² was kneeling off to one side of two men, one prone, being held by the other. In the dim light of an oil lamp, von Lüttwitz recognized Opa Köhler, holding someone in his arms. Köhler was sobbing quietly.
"I tried to save him, Herr Major, but he was badly wounded. If we had a surgeon, and the right equipment, he still would have died." Unteroffizier Peter Krause shook his head as he passed through the shelter half shielding the entrance to the hut.
Von Lüttwitz looked at Sauer and mouthed, "Who?"
Sauer whispered, "It's Oberleutnant Köhler, Opa's son. Lange and Thomas dragged him off the field, they could see he was still alive. Barely."
Von Lüttwitz moved to the elder Köhler's side and knelt beside him.
"Es tut mir leid, Karl-Heinz.³ He was a good man and a fine officer. I don't know what to say..."
"I'll be all right, Herr Major. We've lost too many good men, too many sons have died. For what? My only worry is what to tell his mother, this will kill her."
Von Lüttwitz placed his hand on Köhler's shoulder. There was little he could say, or do. His chief concern now was trying to save what was left of his command. Surrender seemed like the only option. He stood up and said to Sauer, "Manfred, we need to make some hard decisions tonight."
"Yes Sir, we do..."
³ I am sorry, Karl-Heinz.
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