Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Battle of the Bulge: 18th VG Division

A continuation on research into the Volks-grenadiers during the Ardennes Offensive.

I found reference to "Manuscripts of German Commanders" which were prepared for the Historical Division, U.S. Army Europe. The data gathered was taken from interviews held immediately after the war or from interrogations of prisoners.

In all, there were around 2,500 studies (not all translated into English) written between 1945 and 1959.  The studies were organized into nine series and I was able to locate two "B-Series" manuscripts (narrative histories of units on the Western Front) of the two VG Divisions in the St. Vith area of operations:

18th Volks Grenadier Division (1 SEP 1944 - 25 JAN 1945) by Oberstleutnant Dietrich Moll (MS# B-688)

and

462nd Volks Grenadier Division (12 NOV - 13 DEC 1944) questions presented to Generalleutnant Heinrich Kittel (MS# B-079).

The 462nd VG manuscript concerns the Germans defense of Metz but I will look into it for any insight on the VG formations.

MS#B-028 which is General Frierich Kittel's 62nd Volks Grenadier Division, 16 DEC 1944 to 27 JAN 1945 is on order and I'll post on the 62nd VG after receipt.

Credit for access to the 18th VG manuscript goes to the Sturmpanzer web site which is filled with excellent resources and I only wish I could find the equivalent for the Red Army.


Notes for the 18th VG Division

Oberstleutnant Dietrich Moll (rank equivalent to Lt. Colonel) was the 18th VG's Operations Officer. General Brandenberger (commander of the German Seventh Army) reviewed the report and an appendix is dedicated to his perspective on the narrative and issues raised by Dietrich Moll.

Activated 19 December 1944 near Kolding, Denmark the division was allocated a cadre of 2,500 from the 18th Luftwaffe Field Division and 3,000 men from other Luftwaffe and Navy sources. The manuscript describes how another 5,000 mean were drafted from the "indispensables" or men that had occupied positions vital to the war industry.  At least for the 18th VG, their cadre did not include many recent draftees so the age of the average Volks-grenadier was older than other field units. Despite the older age many of the officers and men had not seen much action (the exception being the veterans from the 18th Luftwaffe Field Division) and few men "had campaign ribbons or decorations". Most tellingly, the manuscript states that he original Luftwaffe officers and NCOs "seem to lack concern for their men" and "nearly all of the originally assigned Luftwaffe officers proved unreliable and had to be replaced".

It seems that the better weapons available to the 18th, to include infantry assault rifles, did not fully compensate for a reduced numerical strength (e.g. regiments reduced to two, vice three infantry battalions).

The division's anti-tank capability was lacking, due to a paucity of AT guns and panzerfausts issued.

Tactics


  • ..."higher headquarters should be reminded that the mobility of a unit is wholly determined by the rate of march of its infantry". Some units were provided with bicycles, but lack of spare parts and sever weather and terrain denied any appreciable increase in the unit's mobility rate.
  • "Unceasing combat reconnaissance" to make up for the German inferiority in the air.  This paid dividends at the start of the offensive as the 18th had located gaps in the lines of the 106th Infantry Division.
  • Artillery would constantly charge firing positions and fired single rounds from roving guns to prevent enemy counter-battery fire.
  • The Model 44 automatic rifle "proved an excellent weapons" and the telescopic sight rifle was also classified as good but "not used enough owing to the lack of trained marksmen".
  • The panzerfaust "proved an ideal weapon" for patrols and in close combat but the "bazooka" was not used in defense as it was "susceptible to damage from rust and sand".  My sense (later confirmed) is that the manuscript uses bazooka and panzerfaust interchangeably and does not refer to using captured American bazookas in defense. I have to wonder why rust and sand didn't impact offensive use but defensive use only.  My guess it that defensive use refers to strategic defense and not tactical defense situations, that is, the panzerfaust was good for combat operations but only for a limited amount of time and if kept in the field long, would become unreliable.
  • Medium and heavy mortars were good for defense, but were used sparingly due to lack of ammunition.

The Offensive

  • Based on the lack of response from the American artillery (no barrage fire and only scattered fire starting after 08300, the 18th had caught the defenders by surprise.
  • The first break through of American lines was reported by noon. Initial fight was conducted mostly by infantry and assault guns as the German's own anti-tank defenses prevented vehicles from crossing the bring and heavy support weapons had to be carried by hand.
  • By nightfall the number of casualties "was reasonable" and the number of American prisoners was low.
The initial American defense and eventual surrender of the 422nd and 423rd Regiments can be summed up by this passage:

"The behavior of the enemy on the second day of the attack was wholly incomprehensible. In the main, he did nothing. However, localized resistance was stubborn and eliminated only with difficulty. That is to say, the Americans fought bravely wherever fighting actually occurred. But their tactics were unsystematic."

Supply

  • Lack of trucks.
  • Ammunition supply "generally fair", with expenditure controlled by higher headquarters (such control judges as "hardly compatible with a conduct of battle..").
  • Serious shortages of mines, signal and tracer ammunition, and radio equipment.
  • Food, with few exceptions, was plentiful.
  • Supply of rough fodder for horses, "was wholly inadequate".
  • During the battle "no reissue of weapons or equipment".

Outcome

The smashing of the 106th Infantry Division by the 18th VG* was a terrible defeat but the American defense of St. Vith and the denial of the vital road junction for over 5 days contributed to the ultimate failure of the Ardennes Offensive. 

This passage from the manuscript provides some insight:

"The division's objectives were too distant. With an attack zone 19 kilometers wide and with only six available battalions, the destruction of an enemy at least equally strong was a task requiring the utmost skill. 

Perhaps, St.Vith would have been captured sooner if a motorized division, ably led and able to cling to the heels of the retreating enemy, had been moved forward through the gap which the division first opened. Whether the Fuehrer Escort Brigade had the march discipline, the drive, and the flexible system of command needed to execute this mission is a moot question".

Looks like I'll need to look into the Fuehrer Escort Brigade in a future post...

* The 424th Regiment stayed in the fight and acquitted itself well..

By 6 January, the 18th VG was depleted.  On 29 January Moll states there were only 138 men assigned as infantry holding a 9 kilometers wide sector.

The Americans


The manuscript not only gives insight into a VG regiment but also their American foes. American prisoner's physical stamina is compared favorably "with the Germans as they were prior to 1941".

American reliance on artillery, tactical excellence but also predictability is discussed:

  • Prior to the offensive - "The American defense consisted largely in laying down more or less constant artillery fire".
  • A set pattern of targets were taken under fire but any deviation from this patter indicated a change of units.
  • The accuracy of unobserved fire on the 18th's supply installations and road junctions "indicated that the enemy had skilled computors (not computers) and a method of accurate ballistic correction" which was "ofent adjusted by artillery observation planes".
  • Fire began every day at 0800 and ceased at 1700, with only a few rounds fired during the night.
More predictability:

"Artillery reconnaissance planes were active after 0900, disappearing for one hour at noon, and then building up to highest activity in the late afternoon, to disappear finally at 1700.".  To be fair, these were probably the only reliable daylight hours during the winter months.


From the manuscript











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Battle of the Bulge: 62nd Volks-grenadier Division

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