tv 1965 U.S. Army Documentary The Battle of St. Vith CSPAN January 11, 2015 11:30am-12:01pm EST
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>> the battle of on december 16, 1944 in belgium, luxembourg, and france. st. vith was a key crossroads village standing between the german army and their objective, the port of antwerp. 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 half-hour 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 panzer 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 dawn on the 16th, the massive german assault had achieved its first object, surprise. it overwhelmed the inexperienced
american troops in the forest east of st. vith, where some like colonel oliver patton, 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 i couldn't walk. late that night, i remember the battalion commander came through and told us that the battalion had to pull out. they had orders to continue to try to break 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 of colonel nelson. >> that afternoon, i received orders from division which was then at bastogne to fall back and fight stiff delaying action, direction bastogne.
i knew that this was impossible. >> the german attack in this sector was made by troops of the 5th panzer army. the capture of st. vith with the roads and railways 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. [speaking german] >> translator: i suspected the presence of scattered though very courageous forces which had come here from st. vith or other directions 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 nightfall 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 then 7th armor divisions hastily 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. and the rest was sheer laurel and hardy. we couldn't get the strap off.
because it was covered with mud. finally, we fought and got it unstrapped and we got it tangled in some camouflage 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. finally, we got the terminals wired. we got off one shot at this tank, big explosion by the tank, but we couldn't see any result. however, the german officer in the tank closed down the turret 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. accordingly, i ordered cca, my division 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. and so, 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 of the ninth armored division found itself backed up against a railroad cut and embankment 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 who was 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 of the seventh armored felt pretty 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.
their 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 attack after counter attack. >> the colonel was in the horseshoe's northern curve. >> 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. it's not milling with people. 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. that is all we know. 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." and it seemed so 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 both of the combat command b's. we were told we had prisoners of war who were from five german
divisions. this seemed impossible to me but was later shown to be correct. >> the defensive horseshoe was now a good 25 miles long reinforced by colonel nelson's regiment that had lost touch with its division. but the line was being pounded from a horseshoe into a fortified goose egg. lieutenant patton knew why. he was riding wounded on the hood of a jeep driven by a german officer back toward 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. and the other was the number of vehicles coming down, tanks, trucks, cars. and they were 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. but general hasbrouck's search for first army headquarters and his efforts to convince them he was facing more than a local german counterattack had been successful. >> on the morning of the 21st, we were overjoyed to find the 82nd airborne had arrived in our general vicinity and had made a
tenuous contact with us near a bridge. this was an eventful day in our sector. ccb of the 7th armored was attacked by a full german corps. >> by noon, heavy concentrations of german artillery started breaking on the woods in which my forces were located. screaming mimi barrages started. these 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 the hell do you know how long you can hold? you hold there as long as you have the ability to fire back. >> time meant nothing. but between 12:00 and 13:00 on the 21st until 23:00 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 now an island defending only itself. there colonel thomas j. riggs, the engineer whose roadblocks had been the first defense still 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 now filled with german 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 we broke off into five and eight-man groups. i gave them a compass bearing and told them to work their way to the west to rejoin general clark, combat command b, where we might continue the fight. by nightfall, 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 wounded. 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 obviously could not counterattack. 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. and 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 becoming 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. [speaking german] >> [translator] 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, infantry, 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 defensive line, our forces were driven back. and 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 out to them, they gained strength by coming back as the fingers would, and forming a fist. this gave them strength and coordination. >> the town would be the last defense. 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 what they needed -- time to rally and regroup. next morning, the skies were clear. the ground which had been a sea of slush and mud and would have mired hopelessly 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 also during the day, the 82nd airborne was attacked from the south. i finally sent a message to general clark and general hall telling them it was imperative they start their withdrawal, if they did not start now, they would be withdrawing into a bunch of germans instead of into 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 withdraw across
the bridge by 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 that the withdrawal would start immediately. and the plan would be that they would withdraw down the dirt wood road on a first come, first served basis. this required that i personally direct traffic at the crossroads at komanster. so i started the battle as the military police, and i ended the battle as the 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, the last to withdraw. >> so the american column passed through these little towns, and as they did, they became part of task force jones, which was the rear guard of the american unit coming out of st. vith. and my little platoon became part of the rear of the rear guard of the last unit out of st. vith. >> as we fell back onto the road i found it choked with vehicles from a task force of the 7th armored division. we attempted to work our way through these vehicles to find out what the trouble was, and we found that there was a burning tank and that the germans had apparently come around behind us with an anti-tank gun. >> in the meanwhile, someone had discovered a side road, up a
sort of a side canyon that went up this high mountain beside this somme river. just then, a beautiful thing happened. a full, bright moon came up over the hills. >> we went up this side road and then across country. and then one place we had to detail some of the tanks of the 7th armored division to pull 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 through the 82nd airborne division, out of the battle of the bulge, out of st. vith. 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 greeted 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. >> and toward the end i figured that i got practically no sleep for the last 72 hours before reporting to general hasbrouck behind the 82nd airborne lines. i wished him 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 and officers of the 106th infantry division with whom i went through such a dreadful 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. [speaking german] >> translator: it is the war of the small men, the outpost commanders, the section commanders, the company commanders. those were the decisive 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 decisions 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 germans did this admirably well. at the same time, however, i am 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 st. vith but also the 5th and 6th panzer armies. that is a fact which cannot be denied.
>> just one month later, in january, you can imagine how we felt. the satisfaction of regaining what we had been forced to lose. there was snow on the ground. a small road leading down to the right, a few farmhouses and trees, and st. vith itself. no movement, no noise, no dogs no smoke, lifeless. flattened. >> such is the rush of history that 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: and then we came back. one by one. the first to return were my father and my elder brothers. but when we came back, things
weren't over yet, by far. 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 there 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 gradually, things came back 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 one talks about
it, it comes back to one's memory, how awful it is. >> one of the things that's always bothered me most about the battle of st. vith is a number of heroic actions went unrecognized and unrewarded. of course, there were a good many silver stars and bronze stars awarded, because i delegated that authority to my commanders and they carried them in their pockets and were authorized to put them on the man at the time. but the higher decorations which many deserved were not forthcoming because the sworn statements 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 forgotten only too soon. ♪
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