This is part of our “Letters from War” series documenting the World War II letters of Irvin Schwartz of Pine Grove, PA. The letters were all published in the West Schuylkill Press-Herald between 1943 and 1945.
In 1990, the defense contractor SAIC published a study of anti-tank combat during the Second World War. As part of that study, the researchers collected and analyzed information about the Battle of Dom Bütgenbach in December 1944 and its important place in the wider Battle of the Bulge.
The researchers laid out their reason for studying the battle 45 years after it took place.
The objective of the effort was to collect historical data on at least five actions where the US was in defense of enemy armor. The data will be used in a joint US/UK analysis of the degradation in anti-armor defense effectiveness under combat actions. Thirteen combat actions were described in detail from the engagement at Dom Butgenbach, Belgium in December 1944. The combat actions are presented in both narrative form and in data tables with all identified data displayed…
We are interested in this study because it includes Irvin Schwartz’s first-hand recollections of the fighting in December 1944, collected in 1986. We’ve previously a contemporary account of the battle written by Schwartz – censored for publication in the West Schuylkill Press-Herald in February 1945. This narrative from decades later does a spectacular job of describing the situation near the manor house at Dom Bütgenbach on the frigid, foggy morning of December 21, 1944.
To set the scene, Schwartz and his comrades in the 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division were tasked with holding the American line on a ridge between the towns of Büllingen and Bütgenbach in Belgium during the German offensive in December 1944. This action was part of the larger Battle of the Bulge – this section of the fighting was located at what was known as the “northern shoulder” of the Bulge into American lines.
Throughout the night of December 20 to the morning of the 21st, German artillery pounded American positions on the ridge and presaged an attack at daylight. Schwartz and his fellow anti-tank gunners were positioned just south of the village of Dom Bütgenbach, holding a piece of ground in a tree line overlooking a vast forest known as Bütgenbacher Heck. German forces assembled on the other side of that forest and intended to break through American lines exactly where Schwartz was stationed.
The following map is included in the SAIC study and is helpful to visualize the actions described below:
When the German artillery ceased its barrage, an eerie silence over the battlefield. The American AT [anti-tank] gun crews, who had been huddling in their trenches for hours listening to shell fragments clang off their gun shields, crawled shakily out of their holes, relieved to find their guns still intact. At the far western end of the American line, S/Sgt. Noah Collier, commander of one of the 57s [57mm anti-tank gun] from 3rd Plt, AT Co, told his crew, “Load Sabot. Hold your fire until you can get a flank shot at about 20 feet.” Soon, the men heard the clanking of tank treads and shouts in German.
After leaving Morschheck, the panzers and half-tracks of “Hitlerjugend” had no room to spread out and deploy in proper attack formation until they had passed the northeastern corner of the Butgenbacher Heck, so for a brief interval they had to travel in a direction almost parallel to the American front line. At first they received no fire of any kind from the treeline where they knew the American positions to be, and they suspected that after the previous day’s attack, the Americans had little or no anti-tank defense left. To relieve the oppressive silence and possibly to suppress any Americans still left, the tank crews fired a few machine gun bursts into the treeline, 150 [meters] to their right. They could barely see that far in the fog and darkness.
The lead Panther of the attack column, commanded by SS-SubLt Schnittenhelm, had just reached the protruding square patch of the Butgenbacher Heck when one of the US 57mm AT guns fired, striking the Panther on the right flank and apparently detonating its ammunition. The tank was flung into the air by the force of the explosion and a huge mushroom cloud of oily black smoke enveloped the tank. Two of the crew clambered out of the wreck, but SS-SubLt Schnittenhelm was not one of the them.
Capt. Hils of the 560th Hvy PzJg Bn, following behind in his Jagdpanther, was now in command, and over his tank’s radio he ordered his forces to turn toward the US line and prepare to attack. He examined his map once again to orient himself, and then fired a flare towards the manor house to indicate the final attack direction. The men in the other panzers and panzerjagers awaited the signal to advance, “Marsch! Marsch!” but when no such signal was given after a few moments they turned back to see Hils’ Jagdpanther on fire, his crew abandoning the vehicle. Hils himself was nowhere to be seen.
Unnerved by the loss of two commanders in such a short space of time, the Germans advanced raggedly, and as soon as the panzers and half-tracks full of infantry came in full view of the MLR [main line of resistance], a terrific defensive artillery barrage began plunging into the formation, plowing up the hillside and devastating those grenadiers on foot.
Despite the American bombardment, the SS grenadiers charged the American line, yelling, and firing their weapons. Behind the treeline, Sgt. Collier picked up a BAR left by two wounded infantrymen near his gun and began spraying the onrushing Germans. Another member of his gun crew, PFC Donald Rose, fired his M-1 carbine into the attackers as well. As they rushed from the woods, the Germans were in a line almost perpendicular to the American MLR, so Rose and Collier were in an excellent position to fire into the attackers’ flank. So intent were they on holding back the grenadiers that they almost didn’t notice the Jagdpanther which loomed out of the fog to the left of their AT gun. Rose quickly dropped his carbine to assist the gunner, Cpl Irvin Schwartz, in taking out the behemoth. Schwartz fired the already loaded sabot round, which struck the panzerjager’s left front drive sprocket. This caused the left track to jam and the vehicle’s forward motion made it slue around sideways. Rose loaded another Sabot round and Schwartz fired again into the Jagdpanther’s exposed right flank. A tongue of yellow flame shot out of the vehicle and it ground to a halt, destroyed.
Adjacent to Schwartz and his comrades in the fight for their lives, more anti-tank crews furiously endeavored to blunt the German assault. Corporal Henry F. Warner posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions that day – Warner single-handedly disabled or destroyed three German tanks. Warner’s actions took place about 150 meters east of where Corporal Schwartz was fighting with his comrades in the 26th.
These attempts to stave off the German onslaught were initially unsuccessful and the lines around Dom Bütgenbach collapsed. However, thanks in part to assistance from American artillery and tank destroyers, the 26th Regiment held its ground on the ridgeline at tremendous cost in men and machinery.
As we’ve seen in the two previous letters written by Irvin Schwartz (HERE and HERE), this battle impacted the young soldier tremendously. In his future correspondence with the Press-Herald, he will occasionally come back to this frosty morning in Belgium when his life changed forever.
Featured Image: A destroyed Panther tank in the Battle of the Bulge (Wikimedia Commons)