GERMANS MEASURES AFTER THE FALL OF ANTWERP

 

When V Corps and VII Corps launched their reconnaissance in force of the West Wall between Aachen en Trier ( 10 - 12 September 1944 ), XIX Corps - on the north wing of First U.S. Army - was engaged in operations to clear the reaming miles of Belgian and Dutch territory which still separated its forces from the German border. In order to accomplish this objective, the Americans first had to overcome two water barriers: the Albert canal between Hasselt and Maastricht, and the Maas ( Meuse ) River between Maastricht and Liege.

 

Along the far banks of these waterways, elements of two German armies were arrayed against U.S. XIX Corps. Between Hasselt and Maastricht the 176th Infantry Division, a replacement training division was committed along the Albert Canal. South of Maastricht the remaining elements of 275th Infantry division and 49th Infantry Division defended the Maastricht - Aachen area along the Maas River. The 176th Division fought under First Parachute Army, while 275th and 49th Divisions constituted the northern wing of LXXXI Corps, under the command of Seventy Army.

 

A brief study of the larger picture, from the German point of view, explaining how the Germans situation in the XIX Corps sector had developed, is an essential preliminary to a detailed discussion of these German forces and their attached and supporting units.

 

German operations in the West, from the Invasion to the end of the war, are marked by certain "key dates", milestones in time which indicate the end of one distinct phase and the start of another. The key date most pertinent to German operations against XIX Corps from mid-September until early October is 4 September. The coincidence of several significant events makes that day a logical point of departure.

 

After a record-breaking sweep through northern France and Belgium, British armored spearheads captured the city of Antwerp on 4 September. The British thrust to the Schelde cut off Fifteenth Army, still committed south of the river between Antwerp and the Channel Coast. The army commander, General der Infanterie Gustav von Zangen, weighed three possible courses of action:

 

(1) Fifteenth Army could try to fight its way out to the east where the battered remnants of German divisions under Fifth Panzer Army were streaming eastward toward the largely illusory sanctuary of the West Wall. But the first attempt in that direction failed, showing that the British wedge already was too strong to allow a German breakthrough. That left two other possibilities:

 

(2) Withdrawal westward to the Channel Coast where the fortified Channel ports, implemented by General von Zangen's forces, would be thus enabled to hold out for a great length of time;

 

(3) withdrawal northward to the banks of the Wester Schelde and to Walcheren and Zuid-Beverland. Such an operation entailed the Herculean task of crossing the wide waters of the Schelde Estuary, but would deny the Allies the use of Antwerp as a supply port for as long as Fifteenth Army could cling to the approaches.

 

This last course of action was chosen by Fifteenth Army, authorized by OKW, and carried out, relatively undisturbed by Allied air power, with a surprise degree of success. A glance at the map will reveal, however, that Fifteenth Army, thought not completely cut off, was nevertheless effectively isolated from the other German armies in the West.

 

On 4 September 1944 Headquarters, Fifth Panzer Army, under SS Oberstgruppenführer Josef ( "Sepp" ) Dietrich, was ordered to the Nancy area with the object of preparing a counteroffensive against the flank and rear of the advancing Allied armies. the forces formerly under General Dietrich's command were assigned to Seventh Army, under General der Panzertruppen Erich Brandenberger.

 

As Seventh Army withdrew eastward toward the west Wall and Fifteenth Army prepared to cross the Schelde Estuary west of Antwerp, a vacuum of critical proportions was created in the widening gap between the two armies. Between Maastricht and the Schelde Estuary, along the entire Albert Canal, only replacement and rear area units under the command of General der Flieger Friedrich Christiansen, the Wehrmachtbefehlshaber Niederlande ( Armed Forces Commander Netherlands ) were available, an inadequate defense against any major Allied drive. On 4 September the Commander in Chief West and Commander in Chief Army Group B, Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model, estimated that for the defense of the Albert Canal front - the northwestern wing of Army Group B - he required a minimum of ten new infantry divisions and five new armored divisions, to arrive by mid-September, "else the door to northwestern Germany stood open.....".

 

At the Wolfschanze - Hitlers headquarters near Rastenburg in East Prussia - news of the fall of Antwerp struck like a bolt from the blue and gave rise to consternation and panic.

 

While the Fürher conceivably flew into one of his famous rages, Generaloberst Kurt Student, commander of German parachute troops, was at work in his office at Wannsee, a lovely residential suburb of Berlin. In this appealing environment of lakes and pine forests, the German air arm had built a group of plush office buildings. Here on 4 September 1944 General Student received an urgent telephone call from OKW. To his surprise he was ordered to take command of First Parachute Army and to commit it in the gap along the Albert Canal. The OKW order overruled an earlier OB WEST move of 3 September to commit the army in the Nancy - Langres area.

 

First Parachute Army was placed under the command of Army Group B. Its sector would extend from east of Antwerp to Maastricht, with front along the northern bank of the Albert Canal.

 

General Student stayed in Berlin on 4 September to issue the most urgent orders from his headquarters there. The next day he flew wet to report to his new superiors, Field Marshals von Rundstedt and Model, to inspect the Albert canal front, and assume command of operations in his new sector. He found the Albert Canal inadequate as a defense position.

 

The initial organization of his new army General Student termed "an improvisation on the grandest scale." On arrival, he assumed command of LXXXVIII Corps ( General der Infanterie Hans Reinhard ) with 719th Infantry Division. On the same day ( 5 September 1944 ) Generalleutnant Kurt Chill reported to Student, and the remaining elements of Chill's 85th Infantry Division were attached to LXXXVIII Corps. The initial order of battle of First Parachute Army may be dealt with very briefly, since only the southeastern wing of the army, where 176h Division defending the Albert Canal between Hasselt and Maastricht, is of immediate interest to this study.

 

General Student committed General Reinhard's corps on the right wing of the Army, with 719th Division east of Antwerp and 85th Division committed at Beeringen, against the British breakthrough there on 5 September. Three new parachute regiments, which General Student had brought along from Germany, were organized as a new parachute division. Generalleutnant Wolfgang Erdmann, Student's chief of staff, took over this division. Division Erdmann, later designated 7th Parachute Division, was committed between Beeringen and Hasselt. The remaining sector of the First Parachute Army was held by 176th Division.

 

This was the initial order of battle of First Parachute Army. Since Field Marshal von Rundstedt placed great importance on this area, additional forces were moved into the sector, and General Student's army rapidly increased in strength.

 

As the only division of First Parachute Army to fight opposite American forces in mid-September 1944, 176th Division, commanded by Colonel Christian Landau, merits closer study. This division was not part of the German Field Army, but of the Replacement Army. It had been constituted in the fall of 1939 as Division Nr. 176 to command the replacement training units of Wehrkreis VI. Five years later, when the war threatened to engulf the German zone of the interior, Division Nr. 176 was committed in combat for the first time. It became 176th Infantry Division and was sent to the front with the replacement training units, convalescent, and semi-invalids under its command. On 3 September 1944 it received orders to occupy the West Wall, where its troops were to serve as a screening and rallying force. It was then still under the jurisdiction of Wehrkreis VI. Two days later the division was temporarily attached to LXXXVIII Corps when the latter was committed under the Wehrmachtsbefehlshaber Niederlande to hold the Albert Canal until the arrival of General Student and his staff. A few hours later on 5 September all units in the area, including 176th Infantry Division, passed under the command of General Student.

 

On 7 September Colonel Landau received orders to move his division from the West Wall into positions along the Albert Canal from Hasselt to Maastricht. "The situation on the right wing of Seventh Army and along the Albert Canal has made it necessary, in view of strong enemy pressure and the poor combat value of the elements remaining in that area, to shift 176th Division into the front line from its previous positions in the West Wall." The same day Field Marshal Model dispatched his most trusted aide, 1st Lieutenant Klaus Liebrechts, to inspect the newly committed division. To Lieutenant Liebrecht's detailed report we owe all our knowledge of the strength and disposition of forces with which 176th Division went into battle.

 

This replacement training division had never been organized according to a definite table of organization. For purpose of combat its subordinate units were grouped in three regimental teams.

 
Gruppe Müller (211th Regiment) consisted of the 39th Reconnaissance Battalion and the 306th Battalion, of 300 men each.
 
Gruppe Borchert was a Luftwaffe unit, not organic to the division, with two battalions of air force personnel ( 1000 men ).
 

Gruppe Stüper was made up of the 286th Ear Battalion * ( 800 men ), a rifle battalion ( 1000 men ), the 464th Battalion ( 600 men ), the 159th Battalion ( 400 men ), and the 193d battalion ( 200 men ).

 

*  "Ear Battalions", like "Stomach Battalions". were composed of men all suffering from similar ailments. The designations are largely self-explanatory: all members of ear battalions had hearing defects. The 176th Division consisted mostly of hospital returnees, convalescent, and men defective in some manner.

 

The 167th Battalion ( 650 men ) acted as division reserve. in addition, the division had 890 engineers in the 6th and 26th Engineer Battalions and a reconnaissance battalion, with two bicycle companies, totaling 200 men.

 

While the quality of its personnel left much to be desired, 176th Infantry Division was better equipped with artillery than most of its neighbors. The artillery regiment consisted of two son-called "light" artillery battalions with six 105mm howitzers, and one "heavy" battalion with eight infantry cannon, for 150mm howitzers ( German ), two Czech and two Russian 150mm howitzers. The division had only two antitank guns - one 88mm and one 75mm gun - while its antiaircraft battalion boasted four 88mm and twenty 20mm antiaircraft guns.

 

Only a small fraction of the seven to eight thousand men of the 176th Division were unconditionally fit for active duty; most of them were good only for limited combat duty or for labor. A large proportion of the men possessed neither overcoats nor shelter equipment.

 

The division had almost no services. There was no motor transport. The battalions had at most one field kitchen each - a number of battalions had none. There was so little signal equipment that even such essential signal communications as artillery observer to battery could not be established. The division had only half of one signal company, with two radio platoons.

 

On 7 September, the day 176th Division was committed along the Albert Canal, Field marshal von Rundstedt conferred with Field Marshal Model and then evaluated the German situation in the West in a report to OKW. He estimated Allied strength in Belgium and northern France at 54 divisions, Rundstedt continued, about eight to ten divisions with 600 tanks were committed against Fifteenth Army. Another five to six divisions, with about 400 tanks, stood poised to cross the Albert Canal, while six to eight divisions, with about 400 tanks, were probably moving up to the front. 

 

Between Hasselt and Thoul we must assume fifteen to eighteen divisions with round one thousand tanks. The probable enemy main effort points will be in the Hasselt area, Charleville - Sedan area, and Metz area. Against this array all of our forces are committed in combat and are badly mauled, operating without adequate artillery and antitank weapons. At present Army Group B has less than one hundred operationally fit tanks. Enemy rule of the air is total. Enemy pressure in the direction of Liege, indicating a thrust via Aachen into the Rhine-Westphalian industrial area, has developed into a grave danger. The immediate reinforcement of the army group by strong forces - at least five, better ten divisions with assault gun battalions - appears urgently necessary. All forces at the disposal of OB WEST are now moving toward the Aachen area because it is there that the Commander in Chief West sees the greatest danger....

 

 

   
 

 

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