Saddles and Sabers: Cavalry in the Defense Dec. 16-18, 1944

Slide 1
Figure 1. During the winter of 1944-1945 in the ETO, vehicles were camou¬flaged with white paint for use in snow conditions. Here the lead M8 Greyhound armored car has been painted, while the following M8 has not been.
Slide 2
Figure 2. A landser (German machinegunner) marches through the Ardennes in December 1944. The Germans shot this iconic image near the crossroads between Poteau and Recht, site of Kampfgruppe Hansen’s ambush of 14th Cavalry Group
early the morning of Dec. 18, 1944. The Germans used this image for propaganda.
Slide 3
Figure 3. Vehicle from 18th CRS destroyed at Poteau.

“I finally got to bed around midnight. But I could not sleep. I lay awake most of the night mulling over the impact of this massive attack. We had been caught flat-footed. We had to reorganize our strategy, not only to contain the attack but also to make Hitler pay a high cost for mounting it. If we played our cards right, we had a good chance of destroying the German army west of the Rhine. It would mean a radical shift in our thinking and strategic planning. We must break off all offensive attacks, take the full weight of Hodges south and the full weight of Patton north, closing giant pincers sealing the Germans off west of the Roer. It would be a ‘Falaise Gap’ on a far grander scale. But this time we would have to act with much greater speed and boldness.”1 –GEN of the Army Omar Bradley

Then-LTG Omar Bradley needed time to redirect his 12th Army Group in December 1944 after the massive German Ardennes attack caught his forces “flat footed.” A cavalry group would buy him much of the time he needed to recover from the shock of the attack.

While the conduct of war is ever-changing, the nature of war is constant. Battle is a mixture of confusion and disorder. Commanders train their units to master the natural chaos of the battlefield by using firepower, mobility and shock power to overcome an enemy. To maximize the inherent capabilities of cavalry to move, shoot and communicate, commanders task them to perform missions that acknowledge their capabilities and limitations.

The confusion of battle is subject to a host of variables. Most prominent among these are weather and enemy capabilities. These will try the mettle of any combat commander. The mental and physical strength required to successfully operate a cavalry unit under the stress of battle demands the utmost stamina from a leader. When faced with overwhelming odds and adverse weather conditions, one must lead by example, demonstrate technical and tactical competency, interact with subordinates and anticipate how best to employ the unit in the highly fluid environment of combat.

During World War II, 13 mechanized cavalry groups, each with two subordinate squadrons, fought in Europe. Cavalry groups were usually assigned to corps but were occasionally attached – by squadron – to divisions. Cavalry was primarily intended for reconnaissance missions. However, during the war they were usually employed in defensive, economy-of-force, security or screening missions. Armored field artillery, engineer and tank-destroyer units reinforced the cavalry groups for most missions.2

One of the 13 cavalry groups, the 14th Cavalry Group was assigned to VIII Corps in December 1944. As they manned defensive positions along the German-Belgium border, the German forces in the Ardennes were preparing a full-scale attack that would test the 14th Cavalry Group’s leadership. How they acquitted themselves over the first three days of the Battle of the Bulge has been a controversial subject for almost 70 years. Examining the actions of 14th Cavalry and its commanders under the stress of combat provides several lessons on leadership and tactics applicable to today’s cavalry force.


The U.S. Army’s transition from horse cavalry to mechanized cavalry started in the late 1930s. By the time the United States entered the war in 1941, the force-structure alteration was well underway. The horse-mounted 14th Cavalry Regiment transitioned to a mechanized cavalry group in July 1943 under the command of COL Thomas Q. Donaldson Jr. Each cavalry group was assigned two cavalry reconnaissance squadrons (CRS). The squadrons were organized thusly:

  • Three cavalry troops, lettered A to C, each equipped with 13 M-8 armored cars or jeeps and an assault gun;
  • Troop E, equipped with six M-8 howitzer motor carriages;
  • Company F, equipped with a light tank and 17 M-5 Stuart tanks;
  • A service company; and
  • A headquarters and headquarters company.

The 18th CRS was also assigned to the group in July 1943. LTC William F. Damon, a 1933 Military Academy graduate, commanded the squadron. The men in the squadron recall that he was an impressive officer – tall, neat in dress and utterly devoted to the welfare of his men. Thoughtful, dedicated and knowledgeable, Damon won their loyalty. In return, they had earned his respect.

The group, along with 18th CRS, moved from Fort Lewis, WA, to Camp White, OR, in October 1943. There the unit performed range firing and maneuver training. In November, 27th CRS arrived at Camp White from duty in Panama. It was redesignated as 32nd CRS and assigned to 14th Cavalry Group. LTC Ernest T. Aldridge assumed command.

Camp Maxey

The group trained in Oregon until April 1944, when they relocated to Camp Maxey, TX. COL Henry H. Cameron assumed command from Donaldson. As with other deployable units, 14th Cavalry underwent testing prior to certification for overseas duty. The Army Ground Forces (AGF) conducted individual and collective evaluations along with monitoring the completion of administrative requirements.3

While at Camp Maxey, 14th Cavalry came under MG John P. Lucas, commander of Fourth Army, headquartered in San Antonio, TX. As such, his inspection teams were responsible for certifying 14th as ready for deployment to the European Theater of Operations (ETO). Tank gunnery formed one of the requirements for certification. After three-plus years of rotating troops through Camp Maxey, the state of available equipment was anything but satisfactory. One observer commented on the situation when he wrote, “The tanks we had to use (the only ones available) were old M-3s, light tanks that had been bounced around over the boondocks for so long that the 37mm guns were loose on their mountings, making accurate fire almost impossible. However, all the orders and instructors stressed the fact that it was a test of equipment as well as men, so we ran the test of each crew with their own tank with very poor results.”4

The unsatisfactory results of 14th Cavalry’s test reached Lucas in San Antonio, and he relieved Cameron from command, replacing him with COL Mark A. Devine Jr., then commandant of the Tank Destroyer School at Camp Hood, TX. Lucas gave Devine a “free hand,” and he proceeded along a path designed to “straighten [14th Cav] out.”5

Devine as group commander

Devine – a cavalry officer commissioned in 1917 from the University of San Francisco – was a “hard-nosed, blunt-talking, spit and polish” officer.6 Commissioned too late to participate in World War I, he spent the interwar years undergoing the normal series of military schooling and assignments. Following the end of World War I, he was in the American occupation force of Germany.

Devine was 48 years old when he assumed command of 14th Cavalry Group. It was his first combat assignment. He immediately put his imprint on the unit. A new day had dawned, and it was not a pleasant one for the group. Assuming the evaluation failure to be solely the result of incompetent small-unit leaders, Devine instituted severe and, oftentimes, brutal disciplinary action against any squadron officers who crossed his path. These actions won him few admirers among the officers and men. The group did not fail any more evaluations.

Overseas movement

Before departing Camp Maxey for the port of embarkation (PoE) at Fort Hamilton, NY, 32nd Cavalry’s commander ran afoul of Devine. Among other things, Aldridge’s habit of chewing tobacco while speaking did not sit well with the new group commander. Devine replaced him with LTC John Murtaugh. Also, LTC Paul Ridge arrived from duty as post exchange officer in the British West Indies. He became the group executive officer.

The pace of deployment increased as they received complete allowances of combat-serviceable equipment before leaving Camp Maxey. Despite War Department orders to the contrary, Devine directed that all officers were to deploy with their Class A uniforms. At the time, this ensemble included cavalry breeches and boots. Devine believed they were destined for post-war occupation duty.7

Once at the PoE, the group boarded the Queen Mary Aug. 12, 1944, for the sea journey to England. Arriving in Great Britain Sept. 3, they quickly recovered their ship-transported equipment. By late September, the group assembled some 20 miles to the southwest of the port of Cherbourg at Les Pieux, France.


Devine’s leadership style continued to perplex his staff. For example, he informed the staff that he believed the authorized tents were inadequate and that larger tents were needed. “He was quite adamant on that point, telling us that a capable staff would be able to produce such equipment.”8 The staff then performed a “midnight requisition” of pyramid tents from a nearby evacuation hospital. Devine was quite pleased with the results of their actions; however, his staff began to question his sense of priorities.

In the minds of the staff, his reaction to what turned out to be a minor incident cast doubt on his ability to maintain his composure under stress. The Channel Islands still contained a German garrison. The group received a report that a large contingent from this garrison would land and conduct operations in their vicinity. The group was directed to repel the invaders. It proved to be a false alarm. The “invasion fleet” turned out to be a group of French fishing boats. Devine’s initial reaction startled his staff officers. He “blew his top and started issuing a bunch of conflicting orders, made you wonder what he would do in a real crisis.”9

Moving through France, the group headquarters arrived in Ettelbruck, Luxembourg, in late October minus their two cavalry squadrons. Prior to departing from group control, another leadership crisis occurred when Murtaugh was found drunk on duty. He was relieved and replaced by the group executive officer (Ridge). The 32nd Cavalry now had its third commander in 11 months.

Replacing Ridge as group executive officer was LTC Augustine D. Dugan, who preferred to be called “Patsy.” A 1924 Military Academy graduate, Patsy joined group headquarters in November 1944. Dugan was an outstanding cavalry officer. While serving in Normandy with 8th Infantry Division, he received the Silver Star. He was “easy going, business-like, alert and very likable.”10 In the days to come, Dugan would put these fine qualities to use in the midst of chaos.

Forward to Losheim

As stated earlier, cavalry groups routinely saw their subordinate squadrons attached to divisions for limited combat operations. This was true of 14th Cavalry Group. In early October, 32nd Cavalry was attached to 83rd Infantry Division. They engaged in several minor clashes. On Nov. 15, they moved to the Clervaux region of Belgium. Attached to 8th Infantry Division, they rested and refitted while patrolling along the Our River valley. By Dec. 10, they were enroute to Vielsalm, Belgium.

Their sister squadron, the 18th, left group control in mid-October and, with 2nd Infantry Division, got their first taste of combat. They pulled into the Losheim Gap region Oct. 22 and came under the control of VIII Corps headquarters. Damon established his headquarters in the town of Manderfeld and deployed his cavalry troops in positions between Lanzerrath and Roth.

Losheim Gap

Along the border between Germany and Belgium, there is only one region conducive to military movement. It is a five-mile wide area known as the Losheim Gap, named for the Belgium town of Losheim. The area contains many valleys and steep hills supported by a limited road network. During World War I, German horse cavalry advanced westward through the gap and quickly reached the Meuse River.

The same thing happened in 1940. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s division sped through the Losheim Gap to gain the Meuse River and then pushed to the English Channel. These operations took place in the summer months. Now, as snow covered the area that winter of 1944, the Germans again wanted to attain the Meuse River through the Losheim Gap. This time, however, the German army would meet resistance from a small but determined force of American armored cavalrymen.


LTG Troy Middleton’s VIII Corps tasked Devine’s group to defend an area of about seven miles between the newly arrived 106th Infantry Division in the south and 99th Infantry Division, assigned to V Corps, in the north. Also, the group was to maintain contact between the two divisions. It reported to 106th Infantry Division. Old acquaintances, Middleton respected Devine’s professional opinion and personal actions. He felt confident that Devine would accomplish the mission.

However, the soundest military minds in the Army at the time realized the units in the Losheim area were stretched thin. It was a calculated risk. There were not enough men and equipment to be strong everywhere. This was a quiet area of the line covered by LTG Courtney Hodges’ First U.S. Army. No one anticipated serious action occurring anywhere along the Army’s 26 miles of frontage.


Prevailing doctrine at the time said that the “reconnaissance squadron rarely will be called upon to execute a position defense, but it or its elements may be required to defend observation posts, bridges or defiles to accomplish reconnaissance missions. Defensive action may be required at other times as the result of enemy action. The decision to defend a position rather than to conduct a delaying action should be made only after weighing the advantage to be gained against the risk involved.”11

Field Manual (FM) 2-30 implies that a defensive assignment seldom provides cavalry the opportunity to excel. Moreover, the terrain, limited road net and appalling weather precluded 18th Cavalry from taking advantage of its greatest asset – mobility. Given the defensive mission, Damon had few choices. He had to cover a great deal of real estate with a small force.

Map study revealed two main armor avenues of approach. The principal route began on the German side of the border. It started at the village of Hallschlag and then followed the Our River valley through several Belgian villages. The 22-foot-wide macadam road twisted through the villages of Krewinkle, Weckerath, Andler and Schoenberg. The approach terminated in the city of St. Vith. The same type of road system gave an advancing force a secondary avenue of approach. This route began in Losheim. It then crossed Merischeid and Manderfeld. After Manderfeld, the route connected with the principal avenue at Andler. Typical of the terrain, these routes traversed narrow village streets, winding roads and blind turns. It was hardly a high-speed approach. However, both routes allowed movement by heavy military traffic.

To defend the sector, Damon placed his units in a series of strongpoints about 1,000 yards apart along the 9,000-yard front. CPT Stan Porsche led Troop A. Porsche put his 1st Platoon in Kobscheid. The 2nd and 3rd platoons went into position at Roth. LT Max Crawford of Troop C’s 1st Platoon occupied Afst, while LT Ken Farren’s 2nd Platoon went into Krewinkle. Troop C’s commander, CPT John Walker, placed LT Ledru King’s 3rd Platoon between the two towns.

Meanwhile, CPT Stanley Nash of Company A, 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion, put his men and anti tank (AT) systems in various positions throughout the sector. LT Walter Gledhill emplaced 1st Platoon minus two squads at Merischeid. LT John Arculeer’s 2nd Platoon was at Lanzerrath. LT Carl Johnston’s 3rd Platoon moved into Berterath. SGT Joe Fiscus of 1st Platoon took his two-gun squad into Roth.

Although Nash was concerned and uncomfortable with his tactical emplacements, he obeyed the order to occupy the previously attached AT company’s positions “man for man, and gun for gun.”12 Flabbergasted by the order, he however complied with the squadron S 3’s directive. Nash wondered why no one in the group had allowed him to place his 12 76mm towed AT guns in better positions. He had to cover likely avenues of enemy armored approach throughout the sector. His current locations were unsuitable. Hardly the perfect weapon system, the gun had to be ideally sited and camouflaged. The weapon then had to be dug into position. With a range of 5,500 yards, a catastrophic kill was hardly likely.

However, the round could disable a German tank or soft-skinned fighting vehicle. The key to success lay in the gun’s placement – the gun was emplaced to achieve either a flank or rear shot on an approaching enemy formation. The gun then had to be quickly repositioned to avoid destructive enemy counterfire. Placing the weapon in a new position required the crew of 10 to manhandle the 5,000-pound gun back onto the prime mover, an M-3 half-track. This was a dangerous, time-consuming operation to perform, especially when German tanks were breathing down your neck.

Damon had the squadron command post in Manderfeld. When Devine moved up Dec. 11, he placed the group command post in Manderfeld. The group followed VIII Corps’ instructions to avoid alerting the Germans as to the arrival of fresh units by replacing previously held positions “man for man, and gun for gun.” It was to no avail; the Germans observed their every move.

From Manderfeld, Damon’s Troop E and Company F supported the forward troops. Troop B was in the south under 106th Infantry Division’s control.

Behind Manderfeld, 275th Field Artillery established positions in and around the village of Medendorf. Forward-observation posts were co located with the cavalry at Merischeid, Afst, Krewinkle, Roth and Kobscheid. They plotted more than 200 artillery targets. A tried and tested artillery unit, LTC Roy Clay’s outfit would provide yeoman service in the days ahead.13

The cavalry troops were hardly idle while settling into their defensive positions. Crew-served weapons were dismounted, range cards were prepared and 60mm mortars were made ready as they vigorously patrolled the area to their front. If trouble was coming, they wanted to repel it. However, combat was the farthest thought from their minds. For the last few weeks, they had little if any contact with the enemy. The Germans intermittently fired artillery at them. The Americans believed the artillery firing to be nothing more than harassment.


The Germans, however, were in strength across the line from the Americans. The men of 18th Volks Grenadier Division (VGD), under the command of MG Gunther Hoffmann Schonborn, patrolled the Schnee Eifel area. These were not the soldiers of Rommel’s 1940 army. After five years of conflict, the Germans were scraping the bottom of the personnel barrel. The 18th VGD was a typical polyglot division. Formed in Denmark in September 1944, the division had 9,500 men assigned. They were formed into three grenadier regiments: 293rd, 294th and 295th. They were largely untrained civilians, displaced naval personnel and air-force ground crews. They averaged one officer and one noncommissioned officer (NCO) per company.

By early November, the division defended an area along the Schnee Eifel. While in this defensive position, LTC Dietrich Moll, the operations officer, attempted to mold the men into a coherent organization. Using the steady but small flow of previously wounded replacements, Moll organized an NCO training school far to the rear of their positions.

One hundred and fifty of the best men in the division were chosen to attend the school. They were in training when Moll received word of a newly formulated offensive action: Operation Watch on the Rhine. He was shocked. Up to this time, all his plans and training programs had been concerned with a withdrawal under enemy pressure to the Rhine River.

Sworn to absolute secrecy, the division commander received the details of the offensive orders Dec. 9. The orders were simple and to the point. The division was to attack from its current positions to the northwest. The attack would protect the northern shoulder of 5th Panzer Army’s penetration. The 244th Assault Gun Brigade would augment the division – this unit contained a hodgepodge of 40 light-skinned armored vehicles.

Hoffmann Schonborn could inform his regimental commanders of the attack no earlier than Dec. 13. They in turn could brief their subordinate battalion and company commanders no earlier than Dec. 14. The attack was to take place Dec. 16. Also, the division was forbidden from recalling the men attending the NCO school for fear of alerting the Americans.

Attacking to the north of 18th VGD, 3rd Parachute Division was the spearhead of 6th Panzer Army’s 1st SS Panzer Corps. The division enjoyed a superb combat reputation. However, like the 18th, the reputation hardly made up for the inexperience of the present members. Moll learned from his superior, LTG Hasso von Manteuffel, that there would be no artillery preparation fired in support of his operation.

Also, 5th Panzer Army made it clear they planned to bypass the town of St. Vith to the north. This meant that Moll would be attacking to the northwest while other forces attacked to his north. However, the danger of bumping into the other attacking force was minimal. With the danger of fratricide reduced, the formulation of the plan of attack consumed the time available to the division staff.

Initially, 18th VGD formed as a mobile battalion. This element had a 100-man bicycle-mounted reconnaissance company and one company of engineers in horse-drawn wagons. This force was attached to 1818 Tank Destroyer Battalion. The tank-destroyer (TD) battalion contained 12 self propelled 76mm tracked vehicles. Moll planned either to employ this force as a reserve or to exploit any breakthrough by the attacking regiments.

The division would form three attacking waves from the available force. These elements were designated, respectively, the assault, support and reserves force. The initial wave, the assault force, consisted of about one third of the troops from the two lead regiments, 294th and 295th Infantry. This force would move out at 4 a.m. Dec. 16. Their task was to infiltrate the thinly held American lines to their direct front. At 5 a.m., another third of the force, known as the support force, would advance to the northwest against the troopers of 14th Cavalry. The final third of both regiments, the reserve force, was to advance in route formation to link up with the support force.

Once the attack began, Moll fully expected 106th Infantry Division to conduct a violent counterattack into the German defensive positions along the Schnee Eifel. To forestall this expected reaction, 293rd Infantry Regiment was to deploy forward to meet and repel any American attack.

Moll’s objectives for each regiment on the first day of the attack were as follows:

  • 293rd Regiment – The high ground north of Radscheid after securing the defensive line Bleialf-Radscheid from the anticipated counterattack.
  • 294th Regiment – The high ground north of Radscheid after securing the defensive line Auw-Radscheid.
  • 295th Regiment – the high ground west of Schlausenbach. The mobile battalion formed the division reserve force.

It was an overly ambitious plan given the division’s composition and training. A bold counterattack by the Americans would spell doom for the hapless division. Moll understood this quite clearly. He gave the effort his best. On the other side of the line, men of 14th Cavalry would do their best to frustrate any German attack.

Clearly, both sides would go into battle with strengths and weaknesses. Victory would go to the side that put overwhelming strength against weakness. The battle balanced on quick movement to exploit a given weakness. People at the ground level of military strategy rarely appreciate these fine points. When the attack came, men on both sides would simply fight for survival. Talented, determined leadership forged this natural desire for survival into a formidable weapon. Battlefield success demanded this type of aggressive, concerned leadership. Would it be forthcoming? It was now about 5 a.m. Dec. 16.


The sound of incoming artillery and rockets broke the relative quiet of the morning. An incredible racket for so cold and bleak a morning, the impacting steel cut wire communications as men dashed for cover. Reports of the firing soon reached squadron headquarters. Despite the assurances of the panzer army commander that there would be no artillery preparation fired, someone failed to get the word and commenced firing at about the time Moll’s men were moving out. The barrage continued until about 6:30 a.m.

Mercifully, the intensity of the barrage shifted as 18th VGD came out of the fog. They had a hard time; the lack of training was evident. The attacking regiments lacked the expertise necessary to navigate through the Losheim Gap. To assist them, powerful searchlights stabbed through the fog, guiding their attack. All they had to do was follow the beam. Unfortunately, the beam also silhouetted them against the snow. Untrained and led by inexperienced NCOs, Schonborn’s men stumbled through the morning mist toward Manderfeld. As they came into range, the American cavalry outposts extracted a fearful toll. Automatic weapons and canister rounds hurled through the fog, ripping holes in the attackers’ ranks.

In Afst, Troop C’s T5 Hurley fired belt after belt into the massed German formation. Crawford’s outpost destroyed 40. The intensity of the defenders’ fire resulted in an enormous expenditure of ammunition. It was going to be difficult, if not impossible, to get ammunition to the beleaguered units. At noon, Damon ordered Walker to withdraw the Afst platoon to Manderfeld through Krewinkle. Before leaving, Crawford destroyed a German assault gun with a well aimed bazooka shot.

Nash’s TD men in the northern portion of the gap took a fearful pounding. Unable to contact anyone for assistance, waves of enemy infantry and armor overwhelmed them. Nash’s men withdrew under intense enemy pressure. This portion of the line had little with which to resist. The weather, the weight of the weapons, the onrushing Germans and the loss of land-line communications to Manderfeld forced the AT gunners to move. In some cases, they abandoned the heavy AT guns. Impacting artillery rounds landed near the M-3 half-track, shattering the distributor rotors. Without the prime movers, the weapons could not be moved. Seven of the heavy guns were lost. The Germans would soon employ five of these weapons against the retreating Americans.

Meanwhile, Farren’s platoon in Krewinkle confronted a large group of enemy soldiers. Amazingly, the soldiers were marching four abreast, oblivious to the American presence. These Germans were men from the reserve force who believed they were going forward to link up with the successful assault and support forces. They approached in a route-march formation, not expecting anything. Farren’s men held their fire until the force was 20 yards from their positions, then they opened fire. The shock power of the platoon’s organic weapons, supplemented by 275th Field Artillery’s massed artillery, made short order of the enemy. The German searchlights went off as their men struggled to get out of the concentrated fires.

Responding to a request for ammunition, the troop executive officer, LT Aubrey Mills, started forward. A force of 50 Germans quickly surrounded him. Refusing their demands for surrender, Mills ordered his driver to “keep going.” It was the last order he ever gave. A rifleman dispatched him with a bullet through the head.14

Despite the sudden onslaught, Damon was in control of the tactical situation. By 8 a.m., he had moved a platoon of five tanks forward to support King’s people in Weckerath. His two line troops continued to offer significant resistance to 18th VGD’s men.

Devine moved to restore the line. The group ordered Ridge’s 32nd Squadron to traverse the 20 miles from Vielsalm forward to Manderfeld. In short order, the squadron, minus Company F, moved toward Manderfeld.

Company F had been refitting. Given the urgency of the situation, CPT Horace N. Blair quickly reassembled his company. His 17 tanks were speeding to join the squadron within two hours.

Despite the loss of their AT weapons, LT Walter Gledhill’s 1st Platoon (Company A, 820th TD Battalion) in Merischeid poured well-aimed small-arms fire into the attacking Germans. They quickly halted the attackers. Nash now placed his 3rd Platoon on the east side of Manderfeld. The 2nd Platoon guarded the south side of the town. When 1st Platoon linked up with the company, they joined 3rd Platoon.

Early afternoon Dec. 16, 1944

It was now early afternoon. The 32nd rolled into Manderfeld. Troop E was at the head of the column. LT Earle A. Lawton, the commander, placed his 75mm howitzers 1,000 yards west of Manderfeld. Four of his six guns completed the road march. They quickly tied in with 275th Field Artillery’s fire-direction center.

Ridge’s Troop C now entered Manderfeld. Troops A and B were just outside Andler, five miles to the southwest. Devine directed C Troop to the north. Lawton’s guns were directed to support the troop. He then divided Troop A. Two platoons covered the high ground southwest of Manderfeld. The other platoon assumed the gigantic task of covering the area recently vacated by the TD company. (It was an impossible task.) CPT Franklin Lindsey and his Troop B of 18th CRS remained at Andler.

German formations moved into Auw. Devine planned to attack them and sent a reconnaissance patrol out. They encountered strong resistance and barely made it back to Manderfeld. The enemy was too strong in the south, so something had to be done. Devine ordered 32nd to retake Lanzerrath to the north. Troop C, supported by Troop E, moved out. They covered three-quarters of the two miles to the village when they were hit by elements of 3rd Parachute Division moving west. The commander of Troop C, CPT Charles Martin, was now in a fierce firefight. Martin’s guys barely held their position. Under a terrific pounding, the force returned to the start point.

Devine was intent on regaining lost ground. A task force formed under the control of MAJ Jim Mayes, 32nd’s S-3. About 2:30 p.m., Mayes’ task force attempted to take Krewinkle. The Germans stopped the Americans cold.

It was now clear that Manderfeld was about to be an island surrounded by strong enemy forces. The group had to reposition to survive. By 4 p.m. that day, it was all over in Manderfeld. The remnants of 18th CRS moved to Heppenbach and Holzheim. The group headquarters went to Meyerode.

As they moved, more bad news reached Damon. The Germans had destroyed Porsche and his troop in Roth and Kobscheid. On the plus side, Fiscus’ AT guns extracted a heavy toll from the Germans before succumbing around 3 p.m.

As if things were not bad enough for the Americans, Ridge, commander of 32nd CRS, personally went to “get ammunition.” According to observers, he was in a highly nervous state.15 MAJ John Kracke, the exec, led the squadron in his absence. By early evening, the squadron closed in on Herresbach.

Worried that a German pincer movement from Losheim to Honsfeld and another from Manderfeld to Andler would entrap him, LT Robert Reppa, commander of A Troop, 32nd CRS, moved to Honsfeld where he could observe both approaches. His troop arrived there after a hazardous trip under blackout conditions. He was surprised to find it was the rest center of 394th Infantry Regiment (99th Division). The men in the center believed they were well behind the front lines. They told Reppa to relax. Nevertheless, he established a loose perimeter defense of the town and awaited dawn. When traffic eased, he planned to move west and then south to 32nd’s assembly area.

His plan was thwarted. Before daylight, closely following retreating U.S. vehicles, German tanks and infantry moved through the town and made motor escape impossible. Reppa radioed 32nd of this huge armor breakthrough and surrendered. He then joined 92 other A Troopers on the long march into captivity. The lucky ones in the troop escaped on foot.

In Bastogne, to the south of the group, MAJ Levin L. Lee, the group S 4, concluded his duties as a member of a general court martial board. Hearing of the attack, he wisely decided not to attempt to rejoin the group until the next morning. Shortly after midnight, he received a call from the group liaison officer with 106th, CPT Garland Jones. Jones told Lee that the group urgently needed ammunition. However, he could not provide Lee with a clear picture of the tactical situation. Lee found a friend in the corps G-2 shop and questioned him about the situation. The friend told him that details were sketchy. However, given the available information, VIII Corps estimated that the Germans were making a limited counterattack to restore lost positions along the Siegfried Line. Again, perceptions lulled the Americans into a false sense of security. The corps staff believed the newly arrived division was just suffering from a bad case of the jitters.

This was hardly the case. The 106th infantrymen had a tough fight on their hands. They were fighting for their very lives. Two of the regiments on the Schnee Eifel were under heavy attack. The hard-pressed regimental commanders pleaded for help. The corps promised assistance to the division commander, MG Alan W. Jones. Given the circumstances, it would be difficult for Devine to get the division commander’s attention. Yet, something had to be done – quickly.

Devine was intent on regaining his original positions. To do it, the group needed assistance. He desperately needed ground troops and heavy artillery. The 106th had the assets required for a successful attack. Devine had to persuade the division to release those assets to his control. He went to the division command post to request assistance. Preoccupied with the disintegration of his division, Jones did not see or speak with Devine. For reasons known only to himself, rather than returning to the group, the cavalry commander paced the halls, hoping to see Jones. Devine waited all night without issuing orders for the next day’s action. Why didn’t he return to his unit? There was much to be done.

Without his direct control and personal leadership, 14th Cavalry moved through the night. His men were handicapped as much by the psychological impact of the leadership void as by the darkness of the winter night.

At 8 a.m. Dec. 17, Devine returned to his headquarters at Meyerode. He received no forces from the 106th. One thing was clear: he was on his own.

Day 2 (Dec. 17, 1944)

Things were not looking well for the group. The 18th CRS was down to Troop E and Company F. The 32nd CRS did not fare much better. The Germans had destroyed Troop A at Honsfeld. By 8 a.m., Devine discovered that B Troop, 32nd Cavalry, lost 19 men and several vehicles. The Germans caught them on the Auw road east of Schonberg. Yet B Troop extracted a heavy toll from the Germans.

At 10 a.m., patrols reported German tanks at Ambleve. The 32nd CRS now went to Meyerode. They arrived about 11 a.m. Devine directed the group to form a delay line along the Wallerode Born axis. By 1 p.m., Kracke had the squadron on the specified delay line.

American aircraft now attacked the suspected enemy locations in the gap. Despite the additional firepower, the Germans continued to move relatively unimpeded to the north of the group’s delay line. The battered 18th, along with the group headquarters, was forced into Poteau. Confusing moves now took place as the group directed 32nd to move off the delay line to Vielsalm. No enemy action caused them to move. The reasons for the move are unclear. Exhausted, the men struggled to organize for the move in the intense cold.

Kracke, commanding 32nd Cavalry since Ridge’s departure, maneuvered the squadron on this demanding day. Kracke was the ideal man for the job. Courageous, he assumed control with the cool confidence of a professional soldier. His task was awesome. Vehicles had to be started, emergency repairs performed and men fed. These tasks demanded time, but time was hardly on his side.

Meanwhile, Lee, the group S-4, was rounding up supply trucks. By noon, his men loaded them with ammunition and rejoined the group.

Late that afternoon, Devine decided to reconnoiter the Born-Recht-Poteau road system. He left the headquarters with his customary armored car escort. Dugan, the executive officer; MAJ Lawrence Smith, the operations officer; MAJ Jim Worthington, the intelligence officer; and Lee, the logistics officer, accompanied the group commander. The move placed Devine and his key staff members at grave risk.

Who was to manage the battle in Devine’s absence? Who was available? Ridge? No one had seen him for two days. Damon? He was readily available, yet he had not been designated as the interim commander.

Meanwhile, the group commander’s reconnaissance convoy was slowly treading its way north. At 6 p.m., Worthington, in the lead armored car of the party, saw movement to his front. Figures appeared on the road. The vehicles slowed. As one of the shadows approached, Worthington shouted, “He's a Jerry!” The S-2 promptly shot the enemy soldier. A flare lit the night sky. All hell broke loose as the machineguns of the convoy opened up on the troops deploying from the German vehicles. Bullets flew, crisscrossing the weirdly illuminated scene.

Somehow, the lead armored car in the party managed to turn around and return to Poteau. Devine, Dugan and Smith abandoned their vehicle and fled from the scene on foot. Five hours later, Devine arrived at the group headquarters in Poteau. He had a slight wound from the ambush. Dugan made it back to the command post about 2:30 a.m.

Exhausted from traveling overland for some nine miles, Devine turned to Dugan and said, “Patsy, you take over.”

Last day (Dec. 18, 1944)

At 1 a.m., the group headquarters received a message from VIII Corps. Middleton wanted to see the group commander. Damon and Ridge,16 who had returned, were in the group command post. Damon decided to go to VIII Corps headquarters in Bastogne. Why? There is much speculation over the rationale for his action. Was he going to corps to present his perception of the group commander’s management of the battle? There is no record of his discussing the matter with Devine’s exec, Dugan. Both Dugan and Ridge were senior to Damon. Yet Damon went to higher headquarters.

The crisis of the moment, however, precluded reflection on Damon’s motivation. Again, there was no love lost between the group commander and Damon. Obviously, there were more pressing problems for the group headquarters to contend with this cold night. About this time, Devine was evacuated as a non battle casualty.

Dugan was now in command of 14th Cav Group.

He received a message at midnight from 106th Infantry ordering him to attack and seize Born. He asked for a delay. The division granted his request. Dugan left the command post to assess the situation and see to the welfare of the men.

He decided they would attack to seize Born at first light. There was still much to be done. Exhausted but confident, he quickly swung into action. Dugan organized men, equipment and vehicles. With an unlit cigar in his mouth, he gathered four light tanks and a platoon of assault guns out of the heavy line of traffic streaming westward. Eventually, C Troop of 32nd joined their ranks. Dugan designated Mayes as commander of the attack. The sparse road network was going to impede their progress. The heavy movement of combat-service vehicles to the east only exacerbated the problem for the cavalrymen.

Kracke was in Vielsalm. He organized a task force to assist Mayes’ outfit. This hastily organized crew went onto the road bucking the westbound traffic. The task force made little headway. It was frustrating. No one would get out of his way. Ridge, the nominal squadron commander, appeared again about nine, arriving from group headquarters in Poteau. Ridge concluded they could not go up the road. Pulling Kracke aside, he announced, “It won’t work.” He was right. They could not use the road. Task Force Kracke made no further effort to reach Mayes’ force.

Meanwhile, Task Force Mayes valiantly attempted to accomplish its mission to no avail. The enemy was too strong. They held open the road running out of Poteau to the west. It was the best they could do under the circumstances. Mayes analyzed the situation and decided to withdraw his meager force to Vielsalm. They made it by late afternoon. Things were quickly coming to a head for the group.

End of cav stand

The scope of the German onslaught caused several reactions by the Allied command. Units went forward to plug the hole. Large American formations roared out of Holland. Moving into St. Vith, 7th Armored Division assumed control of the group at 1 p.m.

Dugan reported to division headquarters. Returning to the group, he announced that Devine and Ridge had been relieved. Ironically, Middleton ordered Dugan to the shattered 28th Infantry Division. He departed immediately for his new assignment. He would command an infantry battalion for the rest of the war.

At the same time, Damon received a message: “COL [Walter] Stanton, Chief of Staff, VIII Corps, VO (verbal order) attached 14th Cav Gp (Mecz) to 7th Armored Division. [BG Robert] Hasbrouck, commanding general 7th Armored Division, directed that 18th Cav Rcn Sq absorb 32nd Cav Rcn Sq and 14th Cav Gp for the purpose of creating rcn sq capable of operating – completed by 191200 Dec 1944.”

The group’s 72-hour delay action ended. Decimated, they needed men and material to continue fighting. They withdrew from the battle area.

Conclusions and observations

Battles can be understood on an emotional and intellectual level. Emotionally, those who slug it out in the dark, cold, wet misery of the battlefield understand and appreciate the risks and dangers of close combat. Intellectually, we learn and modify behavior regarding combat operations through map study, after-action reports and the personal recollections of the participants. The latter is the objective of this article, but we can never forget the former or we will fail to appreciate what, how and why human beings react in certain ways.

As cavalry-employment doctrine clearly recognized at the time, area-defensive operations were a high-risk venture for a CRS. There was also the appreciation that the risk could be lessened by supplementing the CRS with more combat power in the form of artillery, AT weapons and, most importantly, infantry. Only infantrymen, for example, could have defended a given position while the AT weapons of Company A, 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion, repositioned to engage enemy armored forces. Infantrymen to perform this and other tasks were simply not available.

To compensate for this lack of infantrymen, the VIII Corps staff should have done a better job of analyzing the terrain for major avenues of enemy approach. If they had done so, the CRS may well have been assigned a security rather than a defensive mission.

Also, the corps staffs’ terrain analysis should have resulted in requesting an armored division to be held in reserve. Recall that the defensive area allotted to 18th CRS was also the seam between two divisions (106th and 99th) assigned to two corps (VIII and V). In reality, this is what happened as 7th Armored Division came down from the north and placed positions in and around St. Vith. The point is that by the time 14th Cavalry Group reached 7th Armored Division, it was combat-ineffective. A planned rearward movement could have avoided this situation. Once again, there is no substitute for terrain analysis and wargaming courses of action.

Did Devine exercise competent command and control of the group during the three days of engagement? He assumed command in May 1944. Despite the administrative chaos, the group was certified for deployment and began movement to the ETO in September, landing in France in October and seeing the two subordinate squadrons immediately assigned to infantry divisions. When did Devine get an opportunity to exercise the unit or effectively interact with his subordinate commanders? The 18th CRS maintained Damon as their commander throughout this period while 32nd CRS saw, in the space of 11 months, their third commanding officer. The first time Devine assumed command of his group occurred Dec. 11. Even then, 32nd CRS was refitting at Vielsalm some 20 miles behind 18th’s positions at Losheim. This was hardly a stable environment in which Devine could exercise his unit, interact with his subordinates and demonstrate tactical competency.

When the attack came some four days later, Devine initially exercised effective control of his battlespace. He directed Ridge to determine enemy intentions by dispatching reconnaissance elements from 32nd to the north and south of the 18th CRS positions. As the 18th crumbled under enemy pressure, the 32nd’s commander suddenly departed for the rear, abandoning his own battlespace. Further, 106th Division headquarters at St. Vith could not assist Devine, and there was no other course of action available except to conduct a delay. At this stage, Devine appeared to be ably assisted by Dugan, Damon and Kracke. The redeployment of the group, however, was hopelessly complicated by the myriad of VIII Corps assets clogging the roads.

The various medical and engineer units moving westward out of the battle area inhibited Devine’s ability to establish a coherent delay position from which to engage the enemy. It was on the night of Day 2 that we witness the detrimental effects of weather, enemy and fatigue as Devine made a series of poor tactical decisions. Most prominent among these is his recon of the Poteau road system in the dead of night. Why did he personally attempt to execute an easily accomplished subordinate task? Why did he take the entire group staff with him? He may well have been suffering from sleep deprivation, exacerbated by the stress of seeing his unit suffer appalling losses. When he entrusted the command to a subordinate, Dugan, a stable line began to form and some semblance of tactical discipline returned to the group. Unfortunately, by this time, Devine had pushed himself too far, too fast, and physically collapsed. His failure to pace himself in a stress situation led to his subsequent medical evacuation and loss of command.

In the end, what had the group accomplished? The answer is “a great deal.” They ravaged 18th VGD to near uselessness. They blunted 3rd Parachute Division’s drive. They alerted higher headquarters of a heavy armor attack from the north by 1st SS Panzer Division. Most importantly, they delayed the enemy in their sector for at least a day and bought Bradley some of the precious time he needed to recover from being caught “flat footed” by the German attack. These were impressive results attained through decisive small-unit leadership, for which little credit has been given to 14th Cavalry Group.


1Bradley, Omar GEN, with Blair, Clay Jr., A General's Life: An Autobiography, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983., “U.S. Army In World War II.”

3Each training location within the United States was under the auspices of a given corps. The corps area was different from a tactical corps. The corps areas were set up in 1920, nine corps areas replacing the six previously existing departments. The department had been the primary geographic organization of the U.S. Army since the War of 1812 and still existed overseas (e.g., Hawaii and Alaska) at the time 14th Cavalry Group was certified. Each corps area, in addition to all department responsibilities, had an assignment to produce sets of corps, divisions and other tactical organizations during mobilization. The corps areas generated the forces, but AGF performed the certification.

4Alexander, Marshall LT, My Life and Times. This is a privately published record of Alexander’s service with 14th Cavalry Group in the author’s possession. There are no page numbers. Chapter headings have been used as reference points.

5Ibid., “Prelude and Preparation” chapter.

6Ibid., “Devine Intervention” chapter.

7Ibid., “Invasion” chapter.

8Ibid., “Invasion” chapter.

9Ibid., “Invasion” chapter.

10Letter to the author from retired LTC Levin L. Lee, former group S-4, dated June 2, 1990.

11FM 2-30, The Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, War Department, Washington, DC, Aug. 28, 1944.

12Letter to the author, CPT Stanton H. Nash, dated Jan. 14, 1986.

13The details on 14th Cavalry Group during the battle are derived from a variety of sources. The most prominent are Lion In The Way by COL R. Ernest Dupuy, A Time For Trumpets by Charles B. MacDonald and The Bitter Woods by John S.D. Eisenhower.

14Mills was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroic action.


16Ridge abruptly departed 32nd CRS as the Germans closed on the main battle area. However, his absence from 1:30 a.m. Dec. 17 until about 2 a.m. Dec. 18, 1944, did not materially affect 32nd’s combat performance. His highly capable executive officer, Kracke, ably assumed command in Ridge’s absence. After Ridge’s relief Dec. 20, Kracke retained command of the squadron until the war’s end. (National Archives and Records Administration, History of the 32nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized) 13 October 1944 - 28 December 1944.)