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The Road to Elsenborn
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
March 2015

I never really intended to design Panzer Grenadier: Elsenborn Ridge, but when my old friend Belton Cooper died it brought many of the events shown in these scenarios to mind. I ghosted his memoir in the 1990's, and spent many hours talking about life and such. Belton never thought much of making a game out of war, but was immensely proud of his Spearhead Division, and I like to think that rather than trivializing the suffering and sacrifice we can remind people of what was at stake in 1944. "Great deeds, wrote Herodotus, "must not be forgotten."

Here's a look at some of these deeds.

Autumn Mist
16 December 1944

After a brief artillery bombardment, the Germans sent infantry divisions forward as the first wave of the attack known as Operation Herbstnebel, or Autumn Mist. These units would open the way through the American defenses for the panzer divisions to exploit deep into the Allied rear. At least that was the way it had been drawn up on Sixth SS Panzer Army's planning maps.

Using searchlights directed at the low-hanging cloud cover, the Germans created what they called "artificial moonlight" to enhance visibility. It could not, however, enhance the willingness of the raw Volksgrenadiers to stand up to American firepower. The advance made some initial headway, forcing the 393rd Infantry Regiment's Company K to surrender and surrounding the rest of the regiment's 3rd Battalion. But the American defense rallied and the German attack stalled.

Dismal Failure
16 December 1944

The northernmost attack of the Ardennes offensive targeted the town of Höfen, which stood directly on the front lines. The rough terrain here would not support a panzer drive, but Sixth SS Panzer Army considered it important to secure the wooded hills here. The road leading northward from Elsenborn needed to be broken, to make it difficult for the powerful American divisions around Aachen to strike southward into the German flank.

The German assault met disaster, as the Americans had carefully prepared their artillery fire plan and called down devastating shellfire on top of the attackers. No American position was taken, and the German division suffered massive casualties. It pulled back from the front and played no further role in the Battle of the Bulge, its combat effectiveness utterly destroyed in a few hours.

17 December 1944

The initial failures in the northern sector did not bode well for the German offensive. The roads had to be opened for the panzer divisions to meet their very ambitious objectives. Knowing it would weaken his drive later, corps commander Hermann Preiss ordered some of his tanks forward to assist the volksgrenadiers; if the American lines could not be breached, there would be no use for the panzer forces later. Meanwhile, the Americans had received tank and infantry reinforcements of their own and were determined to restore their lines.

The American and German attacks crashed into each other, generating surprise on both sides and saying little for either's scouting and preparation. The German attack had greater numbers behind it, and once a battalion of Panther tanks joined the fight they pushed the Americans back. But the Germans were still far behind schedule.

Twin Villages: Valor and Sacrifice
18 December 1944

Repelled by the furious American defense and overwhelming firepower, the young SS volunteers of the Hitler Youth re-formed to assault the "twin villages" of Krinkelt and Rocherath again at dawn. The SS unit could not advance to the west without securing the vital crossroads, yet as occurred at several other points during the Battle of the Bulge the positions took on an importance completely detached from operational reality as men fought and died in and around the small stone buildings. This time, the SS division committed its full panzer regiment.

Aided by their tanks, the panzer grenadiers finally made progress into the American positions, many of them taken only through point-blank cannon fire. But with the Americans having re-established communications with their artillery battalions, the massive rain of shells inflicted enormous casualties on the SS. At one point an American infantry company commander called down artillery fire on his own position - a step that sounds dramatic in movies, but in practice is utterly devastating. All but 12 of the riflemen were killed. Around noon a heavy barrage allowed McKinley's battalion to pull back into the twin villages; close to 3/4 of his initial force had become casualties.

Design Note: One of the design tricks I picked up from Brian Knipple is to design the series mapboards to be both "generic" and "specific." Two of the four boards included are roughly based on the Twin Villages, with some modifications to make them serve for other places as well.

Crossroads: We Fight and Die Here
19 December 1944

Pulled out of the line after its failure at the twin villages, the Hitler Youth Division swung instead onto the road to the large farm known to the Americans as Dom Bütgenbach. At first they found easier going over routes cleared by 1st SS Panzer Division, and then they ran head-on into the U.S. 1st Infantry Division. The SS recon battalion blundered into the Big Red One on the afternoon of the 18th and was badly shot up; by the time the rest of the SS division was ready to attack in the wee hours of the next morning, the Americans were primed and ready for them. "We fight and die here," Lt. Col. Derril Daniel told his 2nd Battalion of the 26th Infantry Regiment, a phrase his men would repeat to each other constantly over the next several days.

The Hitler Youth formed up just outside of American sighting range and then
began a wild assault on the manor. But having been bounced by a good American division, they now found themselves facing a great one. The Americans lit up the night with illumination rounds, and then poured artillery fire on the advancing Germans. Three German tank destroyers actually made it to the farm, but were driven off by artillery fire and the threat of American bazooka teams. The remnants of the German force drew off into the night, and once again the Hitler Youth would have to dig a grossly outnumbered force out of a crossroads village. Daniel remained highly confident: with a Ph.D. in entomology from Clemson University, he was a recognized expert in eradicating vermin.

Design Note: The Ardennes is dense, closely-packed terrain and that meant that most actions took place over a much more constricted area than in other theaters. Elsenborn Ridge has a much higher proportion of one-map scenarios than any other game in the series.

Roosevelt's SS
19 December 1944

German planners pinned most of their hopes on the 1st SS Panzer Division's Battle Group Peiper. This powerful force of tanks and infantry made outstanding progress for the first several days of the offensive against confused and scattered opposition; the greatest delays seemed to come from the constant pauses to murder Belgian civilians and American prisoners. But at the town of Stoumont, Hitler's SS ran into "Roosevelt's SS"; the National Guard's 30th Infantry Division, a veteran outfit so libeled by Nazi propagandist Axis Sally.

The Americans put up fierce resistance, but when the panzers reached the town and overran the last anti-tank guns, two of Lt. Col. Roy C. Fitzgerald's companies broke. The third company of North Carolina Guardsmen fought practically to the last man inside Stoumont, with only 24 surviving. Lt. Walter Macht's tank company emerged from the fight with all of its Shermans and none of its ammunition. On the German side, the SS quailed until Maj. Werner Poetschke snatched up a Panzerfaust and stalked from tank to tank, threatening to use it on the reluctant crews himself if they did not advance on the Americans.

Bastard Tanks
20 December 1944

Having lost Stoumont, 30th Division moved quickly to take it back. Another battalion of the 119th Infantry moved up to replace Fitzgerald's, and brought with it the 740th Tank Battalion. The tank battalion had just arrived at the front, with crews but no tanks, and Gen. Courtney Hodges of First Army ordered them to scrounge whatever vehicles they could from repair depots and join the attack. Maintenance crews worked throughout the night, cannibalizing vehicles whenever necessary, and when dawn broke 20 "bastard tanks" rolled out to support the Guardsmen.

Fighting quickly focused on the Catholic-run St. Edouard Sanitorium, a complex of stout stone buildings overlooking the road to Stoumont (hex 1105 on Board 24). It changed hands several times, with combat taking on the surreal quality known to veterans of countless battlefields. At one point the Sister Superior and her nuns knelt in prayer, repeating the rosary while a company of SS men charged uphill chanting "Heil Hitler." Snarling North Carolina Guardsmen answered with machine gun fire and then bayonets as the fighting raged from room to room. As night fell both sides had lost hundreds of men and the Americans pulled back to re-organize for another try.

Crossroads: The Last Gasp
21 December 1944

After days of disorder, the Hitler Youth division finally assembled its full strength in front of the Dom Bütgenbach farm. The division command decided on another night attack in hopes of negating the American advantage in artillery. The Waffen SS lacked the regular Army's general staff traditions and schools, and after the division took two full days to assemble itself some battalions promptly wandered off into the darkness. The attack only got underway more than three hours late, with dawn breaking and well after the preparatory artillery barrage had ended.

Once again, the Hitler Youth proved a dismal failure. The division was ordered out of the line again and sent south to attack Bastogne, where it would fail once more to break a determined American defense. The SS division left 782 dead lying in front of the American positions, and had lost over half its tanks in its defeats at the twin villages and the Dom Bütgenbach farm. American losses were also heavy, yet a single American infantry regiment had wrecked one of Hitler's supposedly elite panzer divisions.

Norwegian Nightmare
21 December 1944

With Battle Group Peiper trapped and Sixth SS Panzer Army unwilling to authorize a breakout, fresh reinforcements were flung into a relief attempt including Otto Skorzeny's "deception" brigade. His troops, clad in American uniforms, had been intended to seize the bridges over the Meuse River but now found themselves in regular ground combat.

Skorzney's misfit band had a run of gross misfortunes: first, they ran into the only American unit containing a large proportion of Norwegians, whose poor grasp of English made them immune to Skorzeny’s deception tactics. Next, they were attacking a scant few hundred yards from the site where SS men had murdered 86 unarmed American prisoners on the 17th; 43 men (including actor Charles Durning) escaped to bring the tale to other U.S. units. Finally, Allied headquarters had issued permission to use the deadly proximity fuze that made American artillery utterly devastating to infantry in the open. This would be its first use. Skorzeny's men attacked while shouting "surrender or die!" and the Norwegians drove them back. The Germans in turn tried to surrender, milling about and screaming "Kamerad!" The Norwegians instead gave them the second alternative, in the form of machine-gun fire and an artillery barrage.

21 December 1944

In Stoumont, the beleaguered SS troops of Battle Group Peiper came under intense, long-range direct fire from one of the "bastard" vehicles of the 740th Tank Battalion — a self-propelled 155mm GPF rifle, possibly stolen from its parent unit. Running out of fuel, the SS could neither move forward nor retreat. The Americans planned a fresh assault that started to go wrong when an infantry battalion and its tank support attacked from wildly different directions instead of together.

The 2nd Battalion of the 119th Infantry Regiment lost its commander early in the attack when he stumbled into a German patrol. Meanwhile the 3rd Armored Division's Task Force Jordan missed the infantry during its march south and, rather than keep looking for them, Capt. John Jordan ordered his troops to attack without them. Both units failed in their missions — one prong lacked tank support, the other sufficient infantry. The SS would soon slink away from Stoumont of their own accord.

The Forgotten Battalion
7 January 1945

The 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion had been formed in 1942 and trained in jungle warfare in the Panama Canal Zone for a combat drop on the French-ruled island of Martinique in the Caribbean. Sent to Europe when the island shifted to Free French allegiance, they had jumped into southern France in August 1944 and were with Seventh Army when they were summoned to the Ardennes as an emergency reinforcement. Despite massive losses, they pushed forward toward the town of Rochelinval, dominating the last intact bridge over the river Salm.

The "Goya" ("Get Off Your Ass") Battalion had gotten this far after days of limited sleep and rations and bitter hand-to-hand fighting, including a charge with fixed bayonets. They took Rochelinval in a bloody assault termed a "suicide mission" by their commander when he was denied artillery support. The 551st held, having lost 70 percent of its men; in Company A, only seven men remained standing. A month later the 110 survivors were distributed among units of the 82nd Airborne Division and the unit stricken from Army rolls. With its commander, Lt. Col. Wood Joerg, killed in action and battalion records destroyed, the battalion simply disappeared until 2001 when it received a Presidential Unit Citation for the stand at Rochelinval.

Click here for Part Two.

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