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CHAPTER XII


The First Attacks at St. Vith


St. Vith lay approximately twelve miles behind the front lines on 16 December. This was an average Belgian town, with a population of a little over 2,000 and sufficient billets to house a division headquarters. It was important, however, as the knot which tied the roads running around the Schnee Eifel barrier to the net which fanned out toward the north, south, and west. Six paved or macadam roads entered St. Vith. None of these were considered by the German planners to be major military trunk lines, although in the late summer of 1944 work had been started to recondition the road running east from St. Vith to Stadtkyll as a branch of the main military system, because normally the Schnee Eifel range served as a break-water diverting heavy highway traffic so that it passed to the north or south of St. Vith. (See Map III.)


In German plans the hub at St. Vith was important, but it was not on the axis of any of the main armored thrusts. The German armored corps advancing through the northeastern Ardennes were slated to swing wide of the Schnee Eifel and St. Vith, the I SS Panzer Corps passing north, the LVIII Panzer Corps passing south. But despite admonitions from the German High Command that the armored spearheads should race forward without regard to their flanks it was obvious that St. Vith had to be threefold: to insure the complete isolation of the troops that might be trapped on the Schnee Eifel, to cover the German supply lines unraveling behind the armored corps to the north and south, and to feed reinforcements laterally into the main thrusts by using the St. Vith road net. The closest of the northern armored routes, as these appeared on the German operations maps, ran through Recht, about five miles northwest of St. Vith. The closest of the primary armored routes in the south ran through Burg Reuland, some five miles south.


St. Vith is built on a low hill surrounded on all sides by slightly higher rises. On the south the Braunlauf Creek swings past St. Vith and from the stream a draw extends to the west edge of the town. About a mile and a half to the east a large wooded hill mass rises as a screen. This is crossed by the road to Schonberg, which then dips into the Our valley and follows the north bank of the river until the Schonberg bridge is reached, approximately six miles from St. Vith.


On the morning of 16 December the messages reporting the initial German attacks in the 106th Division positions were punctuated for the division staff by occasional large-caliber shells falling in St. Vith. This fire was quite ineffectual and there was little comprehension in