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Lest We Forget – Relive The Past

Patton across the Sauer River – Battle of the Bulge

November 29, 2016 joedemadio 5 Comments

‘How human beings could endure this continuous fighting in sub-zero temperatures is still beyond my comprehension!’ – General George Smith Patton, Jr.

Nowadays, the people of Diekirch, Luxembourg, do their daily groceries at the local Lidl or Cactus Shopping Center. Little do they know that this particular part of the city played a big role in the Battle of the Bulge. In this article, I’d like to talk about the Sauer River Crossings at the city of Diekirch and tell you people what happened on these grounds in January 1945 and what role the 5th Infantry Division played in here. Being part of the Patton’s 3rd Army, we can clearly see his fighting spirit in these troops.

The Sauer River crossings by the 5th were the beginning of the end at the Southern Shoulder in the Battle of the Bulge. In my opinion it’s many times overlooked by people when talking about the German offensive. One author who looks closely to these Battles is Roland Gaul, owner of the Diekirch Military Museum. In his book The Battle of the Bulge in Luxembourg – The Southern Flank December 1944- January 145 – Volume II: The Americans he did a wonderful job in gathering information about the liberation of the Diekirch area.[1] It is probably the best account of the Diekirch Crossings. The purpose of this article is to shed light on the southern front of the Battle of the Bulge and raise more awareness for the troops that were involved in these battles. Most attention goes to the Northern Shoulder in Belgium and Bastogne. That doesn’t mean the south is less important. In fact, the south was very important. The 5th Infantry Division is responsible for narrowing the width of the German flanks. With the Diekirch crossings, the 5th Division penetrated the German southern flank to create a ‘bulge’ in the Bulge.

Lastly, with this article I hope to inspire future generations to relive the past and share the history of the greatest generation. I do this by pinpointing on the locations of the actions of this crossing. With the help of literature, pictures and maps, I will try to link the past to the present

diekirch-crossings1

Preparations
The Battle of the Bulge officially began on the early morning of December 16th. In the morning of the 20th the first German troops arrived in the city of Diekirch and as the offensive went on, the German advance moved up through Ettlebruck in the direction of Feulen, Mertzig all the way up to Bettborn. For almost four weeks Diekirch was in German hands. On December 19th, General Patton was ordered to stop the German Advance in the South. [2]

The 5th Infantry Division arrived on the Ardennes front around December 23rd 1944. It was assigned to the Echternach – Berdorf – Beaufort area with the goal to reach the Sauer river and push the Germans back into Germany. They completed their goal December 27th and 28th and were then transferred to take up positions on a line running from South of Diekirch to Reisdorf. By New Year’s Day the 5th Infantry Division had their forward outposts running along the Sauer river. The three infantry regiments of the 5th Division were the 2nd, 10th and 11th infantry regiment. The 2nd regiment was located in Stegen and had their outposts in the Hardt Woods south of Ingeldorf and Diekirch. The 10th Regiment was positioned South of Gilsdorf and had their line connected with the 2nd Regiment. Together they would form the Sauer front at Diekirch with the 11th Regiment in reserve.[3] The mission for the 5th Infantry division was to eventually make cross the Sauer river, capture Diekirch and move up further north to drive a wedge in the German advance.

Arnold Whittaker, a soldier from K Company, 10th Infantry regiment, recalls a moment on January 14th when he was positioned in the village of Reisdorf, Luxembourg. To follow him through the crossings we have to keep looking at movements of 3rd Battalion of the 10th Regiment. In the interview below, Whittaker mistakes the village being in Germany. Reisdorf was located exactly at the border of Germany and Luxembourg, so it’s not strange that Whittaker mistook this fact.

For two weeks, the 2nd and 10th Regiment did reconnaissance patrols and crossings on the Sauer. Hereby, gathering as much information as possible to prepare the regiments for their initial crossing over the river. The 10th regiment even changed their small front troop units 45 times so that the companies were going to be familiar with the terrain.[4] Second lieutenant Nelson of I Company participated in one of those reconnaissance patrols. He is seen in the picture below briefing a patrol[5]

lt-orvin-e-nelson-briefing-the-patrol-1

One of the reconnaissance patrols by the 10th turned out to be of much value to the division. The commander of L Company got the order to assemble a battle group consisting of a reinforced rifle platoon. They had to destroy known enemy positions in Bettendorf and bring in prisoners. Lieutenant William Longpre was put in command and briefed the man. The mission was carried out in the early morning at 2:00 AM on January 10th, 1945.[6] The battle group had their white camouflage suits on, as seen in the picture of Nelson. Because there was a shortage of those suits, they had to be returned after the mission. The shores were frozen, but they were able to make it across and moved in the town from the west. After the platoon had divided up in the village a German sentry noticed the patrol and opened fire. The patrol made sure there was no one left in the house where the sentry was located. They then cleared another quarter and took some prisoners here. They then quickly disappeared across a blown-up bridge and left Bettendorf with the German captives. The mission had only lasted for 90 minutes without one casualty![7]

‘One of the German prisoners, a non-commissioned officer, carried a messenger’s pouch with several important documents’ It included a complaint from the regimental commander of the German Grenadier Regiment 915, Major Hoffmeister. He had written the troops at Bettendorf about the insufficient security measures. Information about the fortified positions around Bettendorf was gained from the prisoners. The focal points of the German Defense were Bettendorf and the “Rue Clairefontaine”. This was the road running from Bleesbrück to Diekirch. Also, the Germans were only ordered the use of sporadic, but meager artillery fire. No further operations were to be expected by them. [8] This information was very useful for the division. Together with the continuous reconnaissance patrols, the gathered information made the crossing of January 18th much easier for the 10th regiment.

diekirch-crossings2

The Crossing
The preparations for the crossings of the division were being finalized on January 17th.  The next day on January 18th, the 2nd regiment would leave their positions in the Haardt Forest and cross south of Ingeldorf to capture Diekirch. The 10th regiment would move up to Bettendorf before driving a deeper wedge in the German advance. The 1st and 2nd battalion of the 2nd regiment got the task to make it across the river while the 3rd battalion remained in intermediate positions to provide cover fire for the first wave of the attack when necessary. The 10th regiment had their 1st battalion in reserve whereas the 2nd and 3rd battalion would cross the Sauer at Gilsdorf.[9] In the attached maps I’ve tried to visualize the troop movements so that it’s easier for you to understand.

When studying the map, you can see a blue line running along the tree lines of the Haardt Forest. If you’d visit these today, you’re most likely to spot some foxholes and dug outs of the 2nd Infantry Regiment. You’ll also have a perfect view over the Sauer River and Diekirch. This makes it easier for you to visualize troop movements.

k054_61Infantrymen of the US Third Army, advance along snowcovered trail. Their objective is Diekirch, Luxembourg. 19 Jan 1945 The soldiers descend the “Haardt”. – K054_61 – Collection MNHM Diekirch / Luxembourg

For the 2nd Infantry regiment, the crossings didn’t go to plan. At 3 AM, the 1st battalion would cross the Sauer to the west of Ingeldorf where engineers of the 7th Engineer Battalion would erect a footbridge. The engineers, however, came under heavy enemy machine-gun fire. The first losses were a fact and several boats received direct hits from German mortar fire. The troops inside drowned in the ice old water and were carried downstream, if they hadn’t been killed by shrapbel. Medics came to help and evacuated the wounded on improvised sleds. When the German machine-gun positions along the Sauer were pinned down by the soldiers who made it across, the rest of the 1st Battalion would cross the river. C company pushed forward to Erpeldingen while the engineers began to build a pontoon bridge in their sector. Later that morning the 2nd Battalion would need to three attempts to make it across on their own sector. With the help of engineers, they were able to cross the Sauer and capture Diekirch.[10]

diekirch-crossings3

If you cross the Sauer River present day at at Ingeldorf, you’ll find yourself in the village. Behind the houses there’s a Lidl Supermarket. From the parking place over there you have a great view on the Goldknapp Hill. The red lines indicate where the ridge of the hill starts. The green circle is where the current day bridge over the Sauer river into Ingeldorf is located. Now Rolands book shares a very interesting story with us.

‘During the river crossing, Private Charles H. Schroder, a BAR gunner, was wounded but declined to be evacuated to the rear. He remained with his unit instead. Lying with his weapon in open country between the Sauer and the “Golknapp” hill and he fired constantly at the enemy machine-gun positions on the heights. This way his own platoon was able to dorop back before the German defensive fire. Permanently without cover, he drew the enemy fire on himself until he fell to a direct hit from a mortar.’[11]

The 11th Infantry was in reserve that day, but was prepared to go across the river. Edgar n Valderrama from C Company, 11th Regiment recalls the following: I remember witnessing the crossing of the (I think) 2nd battalion from the Luxembourg side and watching most of them getting machine gunned and floating downstream.There was also a bridge that the engineers would repair daily, only to have a sputtering little plane drop a bomb in the middle, incapacitating it for another day.  That night there was a continuous and tremendous artillery barrage. Finally, after we crossed under fire, Gral Patton came up and wanted to know why we didn’t advance on Diekirch. Our captain, an excellent German-American officer told him we had to have tanks, so Patton had them floated across that night. We later went on to Diekirch but I don’t remember if we fought there. I was a clueless 19 yr old. (Co. C, 2nd Bat, 11th Reg.)

diekirch-crossings4Now the 10th Infantry Regiment crossed on the same day near the village of Gilsdorf, east of Diekirch. As an historian, I did my best to gather primary sources that would tell us about this event. Unfortunately, all I have is a chronology.  However, having visited this area myself, I can give you some interesting information.

On January 18th the 2nd and 3rd battalion crossed the Sauer river while their 1st Battalion stayed in reserve at a quarry in Broderbour. The 3rd Battalion is the one that went into Bettendorf. From here I will quote Gaul. ‘During the course of the day, 3rd Battalion reached the ‘Niederberg’ near Bettendorf, where it faced strong opposition from the enemy at company strength. The attack was beaten back and one company of the 3rd Battalion occupied the road coming into Bettendorf. The 2nd Battalion cleaned out Gilsdorf and occupied the strip of land called the “Muergeflesschen” on the road to Bettendorf.’[12] For those who are interested in the Niederberg. It’s located North-East of Bettendorf.

Interestingly, the unit history of the 10th Infantry says that one company occupied the road leading into Bastendorf. To me this sounds much more likely, for the position of the Niederberg being North-East of Bettendorf. The crossings for the 10th regiment went according to plan. This was probably due to the information that was gathered in the Bettendorf Raid, earlier that month.

One thing that I discovered in my journeys to Luxembourg is the Chateau in Bettendorf. One thing that I discovered in my journeys to Luxembourg is the Chateau in Bettendorf. When you drive from Diekirch to Bettendorf, continue straight ahead until you’ll see a chateau on your right side. You’ll notice right away that it contains some holes as if the walls are damaged. These are typical war time bullet holes. This could mean that the Germans were holding this chateau and were fired upon by soldier from either 3rd Battalion or from the patrol that went here during the Bettendorf Raid.

For those who are visiting the area at the bridge and the Lidl in Ingeldorf; I want you to imagine that there was no industrial area in January 1945. There must’ve been only a couple of farms and fields. When you stand in front of the Lidl, imagine German strong points being located on top of the hill on the other side of the road. For those interested, I highly suggest to visit the Diekirch Military Museum. They have a whole scene dedicated to the river crossings of the 5th Infantry Division. Now if you drive from Ingeldorf to the Diekirch Museum make sure to keep your eyes open. At a certain point, before entering the center, you’ll come across a railway station. If you look closely, you’ll see that the building is full of bullet holes that have been repaired. A true piece of World War 2 History that’s still visible today.

With this small article, I hope to have informed you about an attack that contributed to the end of the Bulge in the south.. Within 4 days, the 5th Infantry Division drove a wedge in the German lines from Diekirch to the line of Hoscheid-Brandenbourg. By the end of the month the 10th had captured Putscheid and the highlands around it. ‘The exhausted German units were never to recover from the attack on the Sauer front by the regiments of the 5th U.S. Infantry Division.’

 

NOTES:

[1] Roland Gaul, The Battle of the Bulge in Luxembourg – The Southern Flank December 1944- January 145 – Volume II: The Americans

[2] Ibidem

[3] Ibidem

[4] Ibidem

[5] Sent in by the son of Nelson through e-mail.

[6] Gaul, The Battle of the Bulge in Luxembourg 159-160.

[7] Ibidem 160, 184.

[8] Ibidem 160.

[9] Ibidem 161.

[10] Ibidem 161-162.

[11] Ibidem 168.

[12] Ibidem 173.

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Comments

  1. Russ Haughey
    November 29, 2016 - 10:12 pm

    The Sauer crossing was a big day for my father, Maj. Wilfrid Haughey. He was promoted to be CO of the 3rd Bn, 10th Infantry Regiment, the night of the Bn’s second try to cross. The previous commander was rotated back home. Imagine taking command of a new Batallion right before having to take a tough objective, on the second try at that. Strangely, the same thing happened September 9th, 1944, when he was promoted ti 1st Bn CO the afternoon before the crossing of the Moselle. The previous attemp at Dornot failed too.

  2. Edgar N Valderrama
    May 23, 2017 - 10:23 pm

    I crossed the Sauer with the 11th regiment, which you kept in reserve and then ignored. I remember witnessing the crossing of the (I think) 2nd battalion from the Luxembourg side and watching most of them getting machine gunned and floating downstream.There was also a bridge that the engineers would repair daily, only to have a sputtering little plane drop a bomb in the middle, incapacitating it for another day. That night there was a continuous and tremendous artillery barrage. Finally, after we crossed under fire, Gral Patton came up and wanted to know why we didn’t advance on Diekirch. Our captain, an excellent German-American officer told him we had to have tanks, so Patton had them floated across that night. We later went on to Diekirch but I don’t remember if we fought there. I was a clueless 19 yr old. (Co. C, 2nd Bat, 11th Reg.)

  3. Edgar N Valderrama
    May 29, 2017 - 7:14 pm

    Joe: Maybe you can help me. My thinking is a bit impaired from a stroke I had. I am confused regarding the Saar and Sauer rivers. I am not sure if we crossed both, but I think I remember the Sauer more prominently. My stories regarding crossings refer to the Sauer but I don’t remember if we crossed both.

  4. Mike Cash
    December 8, 2017 - 6:14 pm

    My Grandfather, Private Thomas L Conrad never spoke of any aspect of the war, but after his death I recieved his bronze star and citation letter with details of his heroism during that initial January 18th 3am crossing of the Sauer River. It was written by Lt Col Frank C. Castagneto and mentioned that it was a recon mission to get info about a farmhouse on a hill. I’d love any additional info or photos of that mission that you could point me to, and I’d be happy to sent you the pics that I have of the citation and a newspaper article that he saved about a rumor of Patton being there and yelling inspirational orders. Here’s a quote from the article- “The inspired doughboys dove in and swam across.” I’m trying to follow his war trail, so many THANK YOU’S for what you’ve put out!

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