"F" Company, 359th, 90th Division 11/12 January 1945
Here we have section of the battlefield that was taken by the men of Company "F", 359th Infantry Regiment, 90th Division on the night of 11/12 January 1945. This operation is known as Surprise Night Attack. Colonel Bell's son had written down what his father had done this evening and how his Regiment played a part.Surprise Night Attack-1945by Bell, Raymond E Jr
The crunching of snow was all that could be heard. A battalion of battle-tested infantrymen walked single file along either side of the road towards the enemy. No one spoke. No light shined in the deep darkness of night. It was a bold, dangerous move. Would the troops be seen by the German parachutists dug in along the route and be annihilated, or would the American soldiers reach their objectives unrevealed to the enemy defenders?
The tough but cold combatants of the 359th Infantry Regiment, 90th Infantry Division, the "Tough Ombres" of Patton's Third Army, were making an audacious surprise night attack. It was alleged that the attack was the result of a misunderstanding that had occurred earlier in the day, and it involved not only correcting an erroneous report but upholding a reputation that had been earned the hard way from D-Day until this night. On January 11, 1945, this reputation was threatened when Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. was informed that a mission had been accomplished when it had not.
At that time, the 359th Infantry Regiment, commanded by then Col. Raymond E. Bell, was positioned on the southern rim of the Bulge in northwest Luxembourg to continue an attack against a well dug-in enemy in extremely cold and snowy weather. The Germans had long since come to respect a newly energized 90th Infantry Division. Their intelligence people had warned their troops to watch for indications of the appearance of the 90th Division, whether on vehicle markings, through prisoners or in intercepted wireless transmissions. The arrival of the division would mean trouble.
The 90th had gone into the line between the 35th and 26th Infantry Divisions, taking over part of the 26th's sector. To the north was Bastogne in Belgium, just recently relieved by the 4th Armored Division. By the first week in January 1945, the German onslaught had been stopped and the Wehrmacht was fighting a desperate rearguard action.
On January 9 the 359th Infantry had moved out with its battalions in column, one behind the other. The 1st Battalion led and initially made good progress as it moved through woods in the vicinity of the small Luxembourg town of Nothum, but beyond the woods, out in the open rolling hills, enemy resistance became fierce. German artillery and mortars, emplaced on an overlooking ridge, were well zeroed in and the Americans took an unmerciful pounding. The battalion began the attack with 21 officers in its three rifle companies. By the end of three days of fighting only one of the officers remained.
Bell later recounted, "We got clobbered. My men took a terrible licking-so much so I said to Gen. James A. Van Fleet (then commanding the 90th Infantry Division), 'I want to be relieved/He [Van Fleet] said, Oh, settle down; it will come out all right/Then it hit me: the idea of [a] limited objective attack at night without artillery preparation."
The urgency for such a risky attack emanated from a misunderstanding involving the regiment's operation's section, the Division G-3 section and Gen. Patton, who, when visiting division headquarters earlier in the day, was told that the 359th was on its objective when, in fact, the regiment was not. Van Fleet, on hearing of the incident, decided the situation must be corrected and thus agreed to the 359th making a night attack.
The Germans knew that the Americans did not like to fight at night. The enemy seldom encountered an attack then. Now that the weather was cold and there was deep snow on the ground, they expected even less that the Americans would attack at night, especially after having taken such a pounding in the previous days. If there was ever a time to surprise the Germans, it was now.
An unorthodox plan involving surprise was decided upon. The objective was a hill overlooking a vital crossroads, which, when seized, would cut the lines of communication of the German 5th Parachute Division. The 359th regimental zone encompassed a winding paved road leading from the regiment's line of departure to the objective. The plan called for putting the 2nd and 3rd Battalions side by side with soldiers advancing in single file. The 2nd would move on the right shoulder of the road and the 3rd on the left; thus was formed a regimental front two men wide. A relatively quiet M-IO self-propelled tank destroyer was to follow a couple of hundred yards behind the point men to add muscle to the attack in case it was required.
Down at battalion level after dark on January 11, Lt. Col. John E Smith, commanding the 3rd Battalion, who was to earn the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions the day before, assembled his company commanders around the rear of a three-quarter-ton truck. First Lt. John H. Cochran Jr., newly assigned as commander of the 3rd Battalion's Heavy Weapons Company ("M" Company), recounted that they gathered around a map lit by a flashlight beneath the vehicle's canvas tarp. He remembered Col. Smith saying something like, "I have been ordered to be on that hill to our front at daylight, and I damn well don't intend to be there by myself."
There was, as might be expected, a great deal of apprehension among the troops. Cochran also noted that, "Since resistance had been dogged and fierce during the day, we believed our end was at hand. How could anyone survive this night? We would be marching to our certain destruction!" It was probably not known at Cochran's level of command that Col. Bell also had his doubts. No matter how simple the plan, things were bound to go wrong. In this case, even a few minutes difference in time could have thrown the whole attack off schedule. It could have resulted, for example, in American troops firing on each other and both battalions suffering terrible casualties.
Maj. Orwin C. Talbott (later a lieutenant general), the regimental operations officer, remembered that the troops moved out at about 11:00 P.M. on the very cold night with the temperate at zero. Everyone was as quiet as possible. The Germans were billeted in the occasional farmhouse or huddled deep in their bunkers trying as best they could to keep from freezing.
Complete surprise was achieved. In spite of the cold, the two American battalions were "like a hot knife passing through butter." Unbeknownst to the Americans, their attack was going right down the division boundary between the German 5th Parachute Division and the 9th Volksgrenadier (an infantry) Division. Boundaries are always vulnerable seams between units, especially when coordination between them was as poor as it appeared to be in this situation.
For Cochran and the advancing American troops, however, the inconceivable was happening. "Were we so bold or were the Germans in shock? We kept moving, waiting for the inevitable to happen. These were the ones who had stopped us in the afternoon and inflicted severe casualties on us. They were now sitting on each side of the road and not firing a shot. I must say that our attack was one of audacity-to say the least."
Indeed it was audacious, and in more ways than one. Bell's regimental intelligence officer, Capt. Oscar Drake, who spoke fluent German, was one who helped make it so. As the American troops advanced up the road and had gone about a thousand yards, they heard coming from the north the sound of troops marching. As it was a dark, moonless night and the Americans were advancing silently, a German relief column was unaware that an American attack was under way.
Drake, who was near the head of the advancing Americans, yelled out in German, "You are surrounded, give up." The stunned and confused Germans reacted as ordered. Their battalion commander surrendered his unit intact and then went on to direct the Americans to the positions of the unit he was supposed to be relieving. All the Germans became prisoners.
The 90th Infantry Division after action report documented the 359th's actions in this manner:
The temperature dropped to five degrees above zero, but the surprise attack of the 3rd and 2nd Battalions was delivered on schedule and overran three enemy defensive positions and five 75 mm guns. The impetus of the assault carried the battalions through sleep-confused Germans to within 500 yards of their objective (the main crossroads just east of Bohoey [sic]) before enemy tanks, half-tracks and SP guns could be brought to stem the advance. Artillery was promptly called for and Company K seized the crossroads and captured 75 prisoners.
Once the Germans discovered what was happening early the next morning, they reacted swiftly and violently as a column of German tanks and trucks sought to escape from the jaws of the 90th Division's trap, which the 359th was snapping shut. American armor rushed to the mouth of the German's only escape route, destroying enemy mechanized equipment and dispersing personnel.
The German column was part of a combat group (Kampfgruppe) led by a Capt. Hensel and was reinforced with some armored personnel carriers and two self-propelled guns from the 9th Volksgrenadier Division's antitank battalion. As Smith's K Company approached the hillock overlooking the crossroads in the early morning hours, an alert Kampfgruppe led by Hensel offered stiff resistance. The Germans succeeded in slowing down the attackers until American tanks and tank destroyers came up and surrounded the enemy.
As the 359th consolidated their forces on the objective, the Germans launched a counterattack to reopen their escape route from the direction of the hamlet of Schleif. Elements of the German 911th Assault Gun Battalion commanded by Capt. Tomau and the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade's armored infantry battalion under the command of Maj. von Courbiere assaulted the American position to no avail. The Germans paid heavily for their efforts.
The 90th Infantry Division's after action report, in describing what happened the morning of January 12, stated that once the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were on their objectives, they brought division and corps artillery to bear on the enemy, with devastating results. Tank destroyers from Company C of the 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion surprised an enemy infantry company and killed an estimated 100 soldiers. The tank destroyers also destroyed a Mark II tank, two Mark IV tanks, three Mark V (Panther) tanks, an armored car, a half-track, seven self-propelled guns and a motorcycle.
Maj. Talbott, in commenting on the long-range effect of the surprise night attack, stated, "This move put the 90th in a commanding position deep within the German lines and resulted in major damage to the enemy's forces."
The official U.S. Army history of the battle states that the German 5th Parachute Division was "destroyed" in this action and that it was the only German unit of such a large size destroyed in the Battle of the Bulge. After action analysis found that in combat in the nearby hamlet of Doncols and at the crossroads outside Bohey, the Germans lost the 5th Parachute Division's mortar battalion, its antitank battalion and the majority of the 13th and 14th Parachute Infantry Regiments, the largest part of a once powerful division.
In the final analysis, it is the major commander who gets the official credit for the victory, or is sacked if defeated. Gen. Patton never had to be told by Van Fleet that the 359th was not on the objective as reported, but Van Fleet's reputation certainly could not have suffered in the eyes of his superiors as a result of the 359th Infantry Regiment's surprise night attack's success.
Indeed, the regiment's reputation was also not saved that night-it did not need to be-but it certainly was enhanced. The surprise night attack, although interesting from a tactical point of view and significant from an operational one, was for the 359th just one of its many successes.
On the night of January 11, the American soldiers were there to execute the mission in as short a time as possible with the least loss of life, not to perform some superhuman feat. Bold planning, good luck, skillful execution and sheer determination in spite of terrible weather conditions brought outstanding results. But that night when all that they could hear was the crunch of snow beneath their feet, when all that they could see were the dark outlines of trees and a few buildings and when all that they could feel was a deep bitter cold, the soldiers of the 359th Infantry Regiment were just getting the job done and accomplishing it in an exemplary way.
After action report details what happened that evening and the prior.
359th Infantry 2-3 Batt 10 Jan 1945:
3rd Battalion had attacked TRENTELHOF at 0720A but made little headway against this enemy strongpoint, which included 4 enemy tanks and 2 SP guns. Artillery and high velocity fire increased as the Germans tried to stall the advance. One TD was knocked out after it fired 12 rounds into TRENTELHOF. At 0900 1st Battalion swung past the right of 3rd Battalion to maneuver around it and cut off TRENTELHOF. From the high ground northeast of the WILTZ River the Germans with good observation directed mortar and artillery fire, disrupting the Battalion and blunting its attack. Closer in, enemy infantry, dug-in in the woods, controlled the open ground with MG's and small arms. An accompanying platoon of light tanks attempted to advance on the right flank of the 1st Battalion through dense woods, as the enemy was sensitive to all movement over open ground. Four of the tanks threw their tracks. Two were recovered under fire, but two had to be abandoned because of intense artillery and rocket barrages. 2nd Battalion cleared out a pocket of Germans behind the 3rd Battalion, capturing 40, including the Battalion Commander of the II Battalion, 36 Regiment, 9th Volksgrenadier Division. Although well-equipped and dug in, this enemy Battalion had suffered heavily with almost all officers killed or captured. 359's 2nd Battalion than cut between the stalled the Battalions at 1600 but was itself halted abreast of the 3rd Battalion. In view of the deadlock a night attack was ordered and planned for 0100A.
11 January 1945
The temperature dropped to 5 degrees above zero, but the surprise attack of 3rd and 2nd Battalions was delivered on schedule and overran three enemy defensive positions and five 75 mm guns. The impetus of the assault carried the Battalions through sleep-confused Germans to within 500 yards of their objective (the main crossroads just east of BOHOEY) before enemy tanks, halftracks and SP guns could be brought to stem the advance. Artillery was promptly called for and Company K seized the crossroads and captured 75 PWs. At daylight, the 3rd and 2nd Battalions consolidated their positions with 2nd Battalion refusing the right flank. Both Battalions then busied themselves with German vehicles lining the roads. Division and Corps artillery swung their fires, including concentrations of Pozit, on these columns with devastating results. TDs of Company C, 773rd TD Battalion, moving up, surprised a company of enemy infantry and killed an estimated 100. In addition, they destroyed 1 Mark III, 2 Mark IV, 3 Mark V, 1 armored car, 1 half-track, 7 SP guns and 1 motorcycle. In the afternoon Companies I and L seized Hill 510 to the Northeast driving off enemy resistance. Company K remained at the crossroad tied in with 357 on the left. 1st Battalion assembled vicinity TRENTELHOF. 380 PWs were taken in the night attack and subsequent blocking action during the day.
This ground is on my land, in 2008 when clearing the land of 65+ years of neglect I discovered the 16+ foxholes and impressions, all of the remaining traces were mapped and documented. While clearing one of the holes part of a helmet liner was exposed........It belonged to Michael Mincone.....