tv 1965 U.S. Army Documentary The Battle of St. Vith CSPAN January 1, 2015 7:30am-8:01am EST
next a u.s. army the big picture episode from 1965 telling the story of the desperate fight around the small town from the perspective of men from both sides who were there, including lieutenant will rogers junior. this documentary is narrated by actor robert taylor. >> on the 18th of december, 1944, the conflict that would become the battle of the bulge was two days old. it had started with a huge german counter offensive planned with a strict timetable. by the 18th two armies should have reached the river driving toward their objective antwerp. instead, thousands of hitler's finest troops were fighting to take a small town in belgium. a junction of roads and
railways, the key to success for the counter offensive was the timetable. a key to the timetable was st. vith. at down on the 16th the german assault had achieved its first object, surprise. it overwhelmed the inexperienced troops in the forest where some, like colonel oliver patent were still trying to fight back to friendly lines on the 18th. >> the last attack down the road. in that attack, i was hit for the second time that day.
i was hit through both legs and couldn't walk. i remember the battalion commander came through and told us that the battalion had to pum out pull out. they were going to leave us. there were four or five of us. they would leave us with a medic. >> to the south the german attack had split the 28th division, cut off the 112th infantry. >> that afternoon i received orders from division which was then at bastion to fall back and fight stiff delaying action direction bastion. i know that this was impossible. >> the german attack in this sector was made by troops of the 5th panzer army. the capture with the roads and rail ways was vital to the advance. they had been expected to take st. vith with little resistance.
on the 18th their commander came up himself to see what was delaying the advance. >> translator: i suspected the presence of scattered though very courageous forces which had come here to assist the fighting troops. i was under the impression that up to the 17th and 18th the small, scattered battle troops were not under centralized command. however, on the eve of the 18th before night fall it became obvious that new enemy forces were approaching. >> the general's surmise was correct. but american intelligence of the size of the german attack was still so limited that some units of the 9th and 7th armor
divisions strung out to extend the american defenses from the original roadblock. to a long horseshoe line were still unaware that a little crossroads could be vital. there most troops had already withdrawn when lieutenant will rogers junior woke on the morning of the 18th to word that a german tank was in the street below. >> so we raced around my jeep to get the bazooka. the rest was sheer laurel and hardy. we couldn't get the strap off. we fought and bot it unstrapped and we got it tangled in in netting. i was so excited that when i grabbed for the rockets i took them out and they fell down into the mud. finally we got everything set. went down to the edge of this long hedge and here was a german tank very thankfully waiting
just right there waiting for us. we got the bazooka set, started to fire at the tank. nothing happened. we had forgot to wire the terminals properly. we got the terminals wired. we got off one shot big explosion, but we couldn't see any result. however, the german officer in the tank closed down the tourette and backed down out of this little town. >> significance of any threat to the defensive horseshoe was clear to the man who was building it, commander general robert hasbrook. >> early on the 18th i received bad news. the crossroads town, which lay to the left rear of general clark, had been captured by the germans. since there was a road leading directly to the rear, it was imperative to be recaptured at once.
i ordered cca my reserve, proceed immediately and recapture poteau. >> the northern front was being held by the 7th armored division combat command b under general bruce c. clark. >> it became apparent that a command post in the town of st. vith was too far forward. in the afternoon i sent my aide back around to find a place where we could move and move into a room where there were tables and chairs, a place for messengers and officers to park a room that could be blacked out to use it at night. the 19th of december was characterized by strong attacks by the germans all around the defensive horseshoe. most of these attacks were about
one company in size and were apparently looking for a soft spot. >> on the southern front of the horseshoe, combat command b found itself up against a railroad cut which could not be crossed. the commander fought side by side with general clark throughout the rest of the battle. >> in order that general clark, on my left would know what i was doing, i conferred with him and told him of the situation and that i intended to withdraw through st. vith and take up the new line on his right after dark on the night of the 19th. >> this very difficult operation was carried out in darkness and was very successful. we were most happy that that had occurred some two nights later when the attack took place which drove us out of the forward end
of the horseshoe and took st. vith. >> on the morning of the 20th we felt lonely. we had enemy on all sides and on the rear. we were out of touch with the 8th corps, which i learned had been forced to retreat. i decided to send a staff officer of mine to try and locate first army headquarters and apprise them of our situation and ask for help. >> the defenses east of st. vith still held. there colonel, then major don boyar was in the point of the horseshoe. >> communications were sparse. but they were sufficient to pass requests for artillery fires and exchange the necessary coordination for the attacks of the various battalions of the division as we received attacks from the germans and kicked them out with counter attacks after
counter attacks. >> i can't recall too many details at that time of specific attacks, because it seems that they went on around the clock. the battlefield is an extremely lonesome place. you don't see much. you hear things, tanks blowing up artillery, small rounds and things like that. >> for a private like bill, the battlefield was everywhere. >> minute by minute things changed. i only know what it is to be in just that little hole. maybe a squad or two around us. we know that little bit of territory that we have. >> you were constantly getting rumors. i remember one time we heard that the brightest spot on the western front was st. vith. many men believed the rumors
that different units had pulled out and in turn were panicked. i remember reading one of jim thurber's stories entitled "the day the dam broke." it seemed apropos to the situation that i asked every member of my staff to read that book and take it to heart. >> continued attacks went on during the day on the combat command b. we were told we had prisoners of war andin the epncloser. >> the defensive horseshoe was now a good 25 miles long reinforced by colonel nelson's regiment that had lost touch with its division. the line was being pounded from
a horseshoe into a fortified goose egg. lieutenant patent knew why he was riding wounded on the hood of a jeep to a german aid station. >> there were two things going on on the road that even a lieutenant as green as i was could add up and make sense of. first was the number of troops moving west along that road, infantry on either side of the road. the other was the number of vehicles coming down, tanks, trucks, cars. the biggest tanks had seen in my life. every time they would go by i would look at it and the lieutenant would grin. as i occupied my positions here on the east on the night of the 20th 21st, snow flurries in the air, all of us with frostbite,
some with frozen fingers and legs to our front to our right flank, to the left flank, all night long we heard the noise of trucks and the noise of tanks moving into position. >> at last the delayed coordinated german attack on st. vith fell. the general's search for first army headquarters and his efforts to convince them he was facing more than a local german attack had been successful. >> on the morning of the 21st we were overjoyed to find the 82nd airborne had arrived in our vicinity and had made a tenuous contact with us near a bridge. this was an eventful day in our sector. they were attacked by a full german corps. >> by noon heavy concentrations of artillery started breaking on the woods in which my forces were located.
it sounded like a huge spring being compressed and suddenly cut loose. it was a horrible din that came through the air among the trees. i remember one unit commander who i had who several times reported to me that he had to be relieved or had to have reinforcements that he could only hold maybe another hour or sometime three hours or sometimes eight hours. i remember telling him very definitely that -- saying, how do you know how long you can hold? hold there as long as you have the ability to fire back. >> time meant nothing. between 1,200 and 1,300 on the 21st until 2300 hours or 11:00
that night i saw my own immediate force which had been in the neighborhood of 680 men go to less than 200. >> the eastern point in the horseshoe defending st. vith was an island defending only itself. there colonel thomas j.ri riggs held the road under his original orders. >> by that evening the germans were building up their intensity and were starting to break through on both of our flanks. by about midnight we had lost communication on both flanks with the two units. so we knew we were being completely isolated. >> knowing that st. vith was filled with ger mran troops coming in from the east, the
north and the south. off to the right until we got in the vicinity of the road that led to prone and we broke into five and eight-man groups. i gave them a come pass baring and told them to work their way to the west to rejoin general clark, combat command b where we might continue the fight. by night fall i and the four men in my group were prisoners of the germans. and i realized that in the furious fight in the day before that i had been wound eded. and for me, the world had come to an end at that point. >> we could then in the dawn's light, see that all of the roads leading into st. vith were full
of german troops concentrating on and going through st. vith. we could not counter attack. i attempted at that time to split them up into patrols so they could attempt to work their way back to the friendly line the u.s. lines. we started two of these patrols out and watched both of them captured. shortly thereafter, i was captured with the remainder of the group. >> on the afternoon of 21st december, general clark informed me that the attack on st. vith was so heavy, they would be forced out of that position at evening. he said he would retreat to the west. i agreed to conform with his movement.
>> the delay we have suffered in my schedule left its mark on the army in the central corps as well as in the southern sector. until december 22nd therefore my efforts were concentrated on the coordination of the attack on st. vith, in other words, the cooperation of all arms infran try, storm guns, artillery tanks in a final attempt to take st. vith.
>> as i remember the 22nd of december, i remember it as a day of mud and rain and considerable confusion. as you pressed your tank in the morning of the 22nd against our new defenseive line our forces were driven back. the same time pressure from the north and the south was applied against our flanks. so as a result, by the night of the 22nd our forces banked pretty much in a semi-circle. >> it should be pointed out that when the men were disbursed on the ground they were like fingers of a hand. and as they withdrew, as i later pointed tout them, they gained strength by coming back as the fipgers would in forming a first. this gave them strength and coordination.
>> from there, general clark immediately sought an escape route to the the west, a dirt road through the woods. although the battle of the bulge would last for another month, its turning point had been reached. the defensive places like st. vith had given the allied armies time. next morning the skies were clear. the ground which had been a sea of slush and mud and would have mired the withdrawal of 23,000 men and thousands of vehicles was frozen hard. >> during the early morning hours of the 23rd, both ccb of the 7th armored and ccb of the 9th armored were engaged in the enemy. it was difficult for them to disengage. but during the day, the 82nd
airborne was attacked from the south. i sent a message to general clark and general hoag telling them it was imperative they start their withdrawal, if they did not start now, they would be withdrawing into a bunch of jermans instead of the ranks of the 82nd airborne division. >> there was no time to issue formal orders or orders under code, so i instructed that the radio to all units under my command be opened up and that the orders would be given in the clear. general hasbrouck told me i would have to go across the bridge at noon or else the bridge would have to be blown because of the pressure of the german army coming in from his flanks and i directed the withdrawal would start bleedly and the plan would be that they would withdraw down the dirt wood road on a first come first
serve basis. this required that i personally direct traffic at the crossroads at co-master, so i started the battle as the military police and i ended the battle as a military police. but of course that was necessary. >> i met bruce clark in the town where he was directing traffic at the time, trying to ease the confusion of the milling vehicles passing through. we went into position around the town. >> withdrawal started at 7 a.m. and went on constantly throughout that day. it went very smoothly, the covering forces operated efficiently and only one unit had trouble. that was task force jones on the southern flank last to withdraw. >> so the bhaern column passed through these little towns and as they did, they became part of task force jones which was the
rear guard of the bhaern unit coming out of san very. and my little platoon became part of the rear of the rear guard out of san very. >> i found the road choked with vehicles from a task force of the 7th armored division. we found there was a burning tank and the germans had come around behind us with a tank gun. >> someone had discovered a side road, a sort of side canyon that went up this high mountain behind this side river. then, a beautiful thing happened, a full bright moon came up over the hills. >> when up the side road and then across-country and then one
place, we had to detail some of the tanks of the 7th armored division to bull the wheeled vehicles over this -- over a highland swamp. and about 2:00 in the morning, we finally wound up behind the 82nd airborne lines. >> mile after mile, and we came out through the snow, this brilliant, beautiful moonlit night and then we saw another wonderful sight, about every 100 feet or so we saw a man in a white parka standing there and that was the 82nd airborne. and we came out you there the 82nd airborne division, out of the battle of the bull only out of san very. and that was task force jones, we were the tail end of the rear guard of the 7th armored division. >> i climbed up the slope in there where i was greated by general hasbrouck, drawn, tired, out on his feet, but still the type of commander standing there with his troops to the very last
minute. threw his arms around me and said, boylan, thank god you got them out. >> toward the end i figure $i got no sleep for 72 hours before reporting to general hasbrouck behind the 82nd air borne lines. it was a merry christmas, it was the day before but i wished him a merry christmas. >> but to us, it was just a big step to get home. >> i was and still am proud of the men of the 106th infantry division with whom i went through such a dread bath of blood during this action. i was so proud, as a matter of fact, that i returned to that unit after escaping from prisoner of war camp some 28 days later. >> translator: it is the war of the small men, the outpost commanders, the section commanders, the company commanders, those who were the divisive people here who were
responsible for success or failure, victory or defeat. we depended upon their courage. they could not afford to get confused and had to act according to their own decision until the higher command was again in a position to take over. i believe i can say, and i have the right to make this judgment that the jermans did thissed a mirably well. at the same time however, i'm also convinced this was the case with the american forces who, after all succeeded in upsetting the entire time schedule, not only of the attacking unit in san veet, but the 5th and 6th pan zer armies. that is a fact which cannot be denied. >> there was snow on the ground. small road leading down to the
right, a to you farmhouses and trees and st. vith itself. no moon, no noise no dogs, no smoke, lifeless. flattened. >> such is the rush of history, the st. vith belgium is almost lost in it now but not in the memories of those who made history there that winter or those who must take life up again when history is passed. >> translator: we came back. the one by one. first my father and old brothers. we came back. everything was destroyed here, but it wasn't too bad. somehow, children don't care too much for material values but the destroyed tanks were a horror. everywhere sometimes they were still burned bodies inside.
soldiers germans, americans and when we were playing sometimes or ventured into the woods, which was very dangerous when we tried to jump across the trench or something, suddenly we saw we were startled with horror because there was a body lying in there. but granly things came pack to normal. accidents were less frequent and in time, they were forgotten. and then it went on like that and in spite of everything we grew up and became strong. but still, something has remained. sometimes when someone talks about it, it comes back to one's memory how awful it was. >> one of the things that's always bothered me most about the bat of st. vith is the number of heroic actions went
unrecognized an unrewarded. of course, there weren't a good many silver stars and bronze stars awarded because i delegated that authority to my commanders, they carried them in their pockets and authorized to put them on them at the time. the higher decorations are not forthcoming because the sworn statement of witnesses were hard to get in the heat of battle. afterwards the witnesses were gone, in some cases, and in others, the act was fordon'tgotten only too soon. you have been watching c span's american history tv. we want to hear from you. follow us on twitter at c-span history. connect with us on facebook at facebook.com/c span history where you can leave comments as
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