Action at Martelange

by Michael G. O’Connor

The United States Army engineer combat battalions(ECB’s) demonstrated unique capabilities during the Allied force’s campaign to liberate Europe from 1944-1945. These units were among the most skilled in the world at endeavors of engineering such as bridge and road construction, and at a moments notice could shift to the role of combat engineering, while still maintaining the skills of a combat infantryman. They were vital in every campaign fought on the continent, from the D-Day invasion to well after victory was declared against Hitler’s army. An especially illustrative example of their multifaceted effectiveness involved the 1128th Engineer Group, whose battalions undertook a number of combat and logistical missions to repel a massive counter offensive by German Field MarshallGerd von Rundstedt during the Ardennes offensive of December, 1944.

In December of 1944, the 1278th Engineer Combat Battalion occupied the thick wooded areas of the Ardennes, having been there since the 1st and 9th Armies switched positions on October 19th. The battalion had just completed a record setting feat, completing a 603 foot pile bent, steel stringer, two way class 70 highway bridge across the MeuseRiver at Maastricht, Holland. The bridge was completed from scratch in 11 days, and was at the time the longest and strongest fixed bridge ever built by American Army engineers. Now the battalion had taken up very comfortable quarters in the Ardennes while employed in logging operations, running up to 23 sawmills and producing about 50,000 board feet per day while preparing the Army for its winterization program. These operations would be interrupted by Field Marshall von Rundstedt’s massive counter offensive in the early morning hours of December 16th, 1944, and the engineers, who had spent most of their time on the Continent building bridges, clearing roads and landmines, were to receive their toughest test in their dual role as combat infantrymen.

In the fall of 1944, the German occupying forces were losing on all fronts, and could do little to stop the stream of supplies and fresh troops the Allies were pouring into the continent. In September the Russians had stalled in Warsaw and operation Market-Garden had faltered to the west. The Allies were now within striking distance of Germany. Adolph Hitler devised a plan for offensive reminiscent of operations his invasion forces initiated in 1940. This time the target would be the coast near Antwerp, Belgium, and the Allied supply lines running through to the front. The main thrust of his assault would initially target the weakly defended area of the Ardennes, and then move to Antwerp, which as of December 11th was giving the Allies a forward port from which to supply its front lines. Much like 1940, Hitler’s plan required shock and speed. Any prolonged engagement would prove too costly. Unlike 1940, Hitler was losing the confidence of his general staff, and was forced to overrule them in order to launch the offensive into the Ardennes. Even von Rundstedt himself opposed the idea.

On December 15th, just prior to the onset of hostile action, the 1278th was attached to the 1128th Engineer Combat Group, which was located in the vicinity of Habay-la-Vielle, Belgium, and consisted of the 1278th, 158th, and 299th Engineer Combat Battalions, the 467th Engineer Maintenance Company, and the 626th Engineer Light Equipment Company. In preexisting defense plans, the commanding officer of the 1128th, Colonel George C. Reinhardt, was appointed area commander for the vicinity of the Province of Luxembourg, Belgium, and would answer to the commanding officer of the 23rd Tank Destroyer Group, who would act as Security Command for the entire First Army in the event of a rear area engagement. Despite intelligence of the German Army building up its forces and reconstituting units on the Western front, the Allies remained rather casual about front line defenses in the Ardennes.

At12:55am on December 16th, a call was received from Security Command to expect paratroop landings in the rear areas, and to be on alert. Within three hours all sub unit commanders were notified, and all units, including the 1278th, occupied predetermined observation posts in accordance with the defense plan. Most of the day was spent patrolling and attempting to locate possible German paratroop concentrations. On the following day, the battalion was on the move, with half its troops going to Marloie and Libramont, Belgium to guard petrol and ammunition trains. At 5:00pm word was received that the Germans were moving in on the 28th Infantry Division at Wiltz. Late at night on the 17th, all combat engineer battalions were assembledimmediately for combat.Company C of the 1278thworked around the clock guarding trains at Libramont, and was joined by 250 men from Engineer Depot 513 on the 18th. At 10:00pm that evening, the entire 1278th was ordered to form a barrier line from Libramont to Vaux les Rosieres. The 299th ECB was tasked to do the same from Vaux les Rosieres to Martelange, Belgium. Along those lines the engineers were to make a stand against von Rundstedt’s counter attack, blowing bridges, laying ad hoc minefields, and establishing manned road blocks in the face of the advancing German paratroopers.

In the early hours of the 19th, enemy infantry and armor were threatening the lines established by the engineers. Company B of the 299th established it’s command post (CP) at Witry, Belgium, and began immediately to establish a barrier line, which they completed by noon. This barrier line was extended later by Company A of the 299th, and connected with that of the 1278th which extended to La Roche. Just prior to noon, Company B of the 299th made contact with small bands of German paratroopers, some impersonating American soldiers.After engaging oncoming German forces, Company B blew two bridges in Martelange (One on the N-46 and one further north on the N-4) as German forces were pushing into the town.

In the early morning hours December 20th, continued contact with the enemy was made by units in all sectors, as the enemy had fanned out south and west of Houffalize with infantry supported by armor and artillery. All engineer units in the vicinity were engaged in defense of road blocks and key bridge locations. Three men from Company B, 1278th, attacked a German halftrack and three tanks with grenade and rifle fire while maintaining a roadblock on a bridge by the OrtheRiver. Company B was busy blowing bridges along the river near the village of Orthe. Sergeant Willie Kilgore and Privates Bernard Chipego and Stanley Sitosky were positioned on the enemy side of the bridge when the German halftrack and three tanks with infantry support approached from the east. All three men attacked the lead halftrack with hand grenades and rifle fire from a ledge above, causing the vehicle to swerve to the side. The German infantry leapt from the backs of the tanks and deployed, returning fire towards Kilgore’s crew. Sergeant Kilgore and his men raced back to the river, but found that the bridge had already been blown. The men were forced to escape by swimming across the OurtheRiver. All three men received the Silver Star.

At 3:40pm, elements of the 299th had reported enemy armor moving into Martelange. Staff Sergeant John Funk of H&S Company (1278th), while on a reconnaissance patrol through La Roche, received artillery fire of an unknown caliber. While approaching the town of Martelange, Belgium, the weather worsened and the fog became thicker, making visibility difficult. As night was falling, he came across a Sherman tank parked along the N-4 road. He called out to it, and received a rifle shot in return. Thinking the shot must have come from a nervous American soldier on guard duty, he called out again. The soldier responded once more with a rifle shot, and a flare was set off, illuminating the scene. To Sergeant Funk’s surprise, the soldiers standing around the Sherman were German paratroops of the 5thFallschirmjager (Paratrooper) Division under the new command of Luftwaffe Generalmajor Ludwig Heilmann. A second tank, this one clearly German, was parked 100 yards further north. Funk’s driver retreated south on the N-4 while his rear gunner returned fire. Upon reaching a U.S. roadblock at Route 9 manned by the 511thEngineer Light Pontoon Company, it was blown.

The U.S. Army wanted Martelange, and made plans on December 20th to retake the town. German forces there would have to be defeated if Patton’s Third Army was to drive north and relieve Bastogne. At 5:45pm on December 20th, the 299th received orders to assault the town from the west. Two forces were organized. Captain Manion of the 299th met Captain Walter Sullivan of the 1278th, Company C in Habay-la-Vielle, and took element of his company, and then went on to the CP at Witry and met up with the platoon of 299th’s Company B, which had just blow the bridges in Martelange. Captain Manion took command of this total force, to be known as Company B’s force. Other elements of the 299th and 140 rifleman of the 341st Engineer General Service Regiment, code named ‘Buick’ force, established a perimeter south of Martelange on the N-4, and would attack the town from that direction. At 10:00pm, the Executive Officer of the 299th, Major Kohler, was sent to Company B’s CP at Witry to coordinate the assault on the town.

Captain Sullivan’s Company C of the 1278thwas awoken by whistles early in the cold, damp, hours of December 21st, and moved towards Martelange just after 2:00am. Earlier, reports of at least six German tanks plus paratroopers in the vicinity of Martelange were received by the 299th. The town was nowentirely in German control, and Company C, less two squads, as well as the depleted Company B of the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion, was tasked to assault the German positions in the town, and slow the German offensive. Martelange was in a key position along the N-4 road just 13 miles south of Bastogne, and loosening the German grasp on the town would help clear the way for Patton’s Third Army, now charging north to relieve elements of the 101st Airborne Division holding on to that besieged city.

Under cover of darkness, Company C congregated west of the town.The air was damp, and it had been drizzling on and off all night. The men climbed from the trucks and moved east on foot along the N-46 road, and waited at the outskirts for dawn to arrive.Company B of the 299th ECB positioned itself along the banks of the SureRiver just to the south, and was planning to follow the river as it bent north to support Company C’s assault east along the N-46. Buick force began sending patrols into the town from the south. After taking casualties, the patrols reported at least one Tiger tank as well as a captured U.S. tank destroyer being used by the German paratroopers. At 4:00am a small reconnaissance patrol from Captain Manion’s Company B came under fire as they reached a railway bridge on the western edge of the town. German flares were fired at regular intervals as the patrol returned to the company and waited for the break of dawn.

At 5:45 am Captain Manion ordered one platoon of Company C, led by Staff Sergeant Carl E. Pennington, to go back west on the N-46 road and cross over to the south side of the river, and signal him by flashlight when this was completed. (Moments later Lieutenants Zelazny and Christie were removed from the line, Christie for injuries resulting in a jeep accident early in the morning.)Two civilians carrying suitcases were questioned and turned back after explaining they were attempting to return to their homes in town. South of town, Buick force was being relieved by 299th’s Company A, which was to hold the position during the assault.

At 7:45am the order was given to move east into the town. Captain Sullivan led 1st and 2nd platoons of Company C along the N-46 to the center of town where a bridge over the SureRiver had been previously blown by engineers. Second squad of first platoon moved forward on the left side of the road led by Staff Sergeant John Anspach, with Staff Sergeant Carl Pennington leading third squad on the right side, with first squad in the rear. At about 8:00am, the point halted, seeing a man partially hidden behind a building on the east side of the river. Captain Sullivan moved forward to investigate why the point had halted. The man shouted something unintelligible to the engineers, to which Captain Sullivan responded, “Com bien”, attempting to draw the man into the open.

Moments later, as Captain Sullivan moved within thirty paces of the figure, a 20mm cannon from a camouflaged tank positioned in front of a hotel east of the river, or an unobserved mortar position in the same vicinity, opened fire. C Company scattered along either side of the road to take up defensive positions, and returned fire. Captain Sullivan immediately called for the .50 caliber machine gun when supporting fire from the 299th Battalion was itself suppressed by German tank fire. The ammunition carrier for the .50 caliber was hit by mortar fire as the gun advanced, and the gunner was hit shortly after setting up at the base of a stone wall overlooking the blown bridge. Private James Scott, acting as Captain Sullivan’s runner, was hit while covering him with fire from his M-1. Both Staff Sergeant Pennington and Anspach were wounded as fire from German burp guns and mortars intensified. Sergeant David Hoyer, commanding 3rd squad of 1st platoon, took a position along the road near two telephone poles with Sergeant Donald Reichert of company headquarters. Both men emptied the clips of their M-1s on the entrance to the hotel, bringing down 12-14 German paratroopers massed near the doorway.

The German paratroopers increased their fire, adding 88mm fire from surrounding armor, and increased mortar and machine gun fire. The mortar fire became extremely intense. Walking wounded began to fall back west along the N-46 road. Company C was not able to advance due to the blown bridge ahead of them, but they could not hold out at there current position along the road, as German forces had them surrounded and (unknown to Captain Sullivan at the time) were moving around the flank of the engineers, and were ambushing and capturing the trucks the 1278th came in on, cutting off any escape to the west. Captain Sullivan called for Company C to fall back about 100 yards to thewest and reorganize.

Men streamed back through the small town to the west, cutting through a small church yard while still receiving heavy fire from 88mm guns and mortars. Capt. Sullivan proposed a second attack, concentrating on the German left flank. Sgt. Roy Yates led an ad hoc squad and set up a base of cover fire as Capt. Sullivan and his men advanced on the flank. The Germans shifted their mortar and 88mm fire to Sgt. Yates position, forcing him to withdraw, and leaving Capt. Sullivan’s men with no cover fire. Captain Sullivan was forced to withdraw further south, and nearly as far west as their original start point for the 7:45am assault.

Soldiers from Company C of the 1278th worked their way south, crossing a rail bridge to the south side of the SureRiver. Captain Sullivan met up with Captain Manion of the 299th Combat Engineer Battalion, and learned that the trucks had been captured and they were cut off. The engineers now held the high ground to the south, but were not in control of the town. The two had by now also come to the realization that they were grossly outgunned by the German ambush. The captains immediately organized patrols to reach out for reserves. One patrol was to go towards Laglise and the other towards Habe-le-Neuve, Captain Sullivan leading the later.

At 9:30am 1278th, Company C’s first Sergeant reported in to the CP that German paratroopers in the vicinity of Fauvillers were cutting off the task force at Martelange. Company C of the 299th, which was held in reserve, was sent in to keep the roads open. Two tank destroyers aiding the roadblocks of the 552nd Heavy Pontoon Company were also asked to move into Martelange, but the crews refused until receiving orders from their own headquarters. At 10:05am Company C of the 299th arrived at Fauvillers. They cleared the town, killing at least two paratroopers and taking four prisoners. Company C of the 299th continued east towards Martelange, but was stopped when it came under heavy machine gun and mortar fire about a half mile outside Fauvillers. The company proceeded to the junction of N-45 and N-46 and reinforced the roadblocks in that vicinity. Armored reconnaissance vehicles were called forward to aid the cut off task force.

At 12:07pm the order was given from the CP for all units to disengage. The 1278th and 299th had taken significant casualties and several had been captured by enemy forces. Elements of Company B task force’s patrols under Captains Manion and Sullivan worked south past pockets of German paratroopers on their way to reinforce Martelange. A small force of men from 1278th’s Company C, first platoon worked there way south along the N-4 road and eventually made contact with lead patrols from the 4th Armored Division of Patton’s Third Army.They carried Staff Sergeant Pennington, who had been hit near the groin. Pennington was turned over to the 4th Armored Division for medical attention, and the rest of the platoon was fed a meal, ironically wieners and sauerkraut. At 1:20pm A Company of the 299th blew a huge crater in the N-4 just south of Martelange, enlarging an earlier crater blown on the 18th and keeping the remaining German forces bottled up to the north (but also creating an obstacle to the 4th Armored Division to bridge on their drive north). Over the next two days the 4th Armored Division defeated the remaining elements of the 15th Regiment, 5th Paratroop Division in Martelange and the surrounding area while punching north to Bastogne, while the remnants of the 1278th were reconstituting in Belgium.