Page 319


the river by means of a heavy Bailey bridge. Shortly after noon on the 19th a platoon or less of the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion arrived in Ortheuville to prepare this important span for destruction. Although the VIII Corps staff had given priority to defense at this bridge, there was little enough that could be put in the effort. Three companies of the 299th and a small portion of the 1278th Engineer Combat Battalions comprised all the troops-available for a barrier line now being constructed from Martelange northwest along Highway N46 to the Ourthe River, thence on both banks of the river to Ortheuville-a distance of about twenty-seven miles.


In the meantime the 158th Engineer Combat Battalion (Lt. Col. Sam Tabets) which, as part of the screen east of Bastogne, had been in a fire fight throughout the morning, [3] was relieved by the 501st Parachute Infantry, the battalion leaving the sector about 1430. The companies of the 158th were returning to their separate and original bivouacs when corps orders suddenly arrived dispatching the battalion to the Ourthe line. It would take some while to reassemble the battalion but Company C was reached and diverted to Ortheuville. Here it closed about 1900. To his surprise and relief the engineer company commander found that he would have some antitank support-desultory shell-fire already was falling on the village and it was known that German armor was close at hand. The 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, which Middleton had attached to the 101st Airborne Division, was on the move to Bastogne. Originally ordered to use the road through Bertogne, the battalion had been forced to detour when the battalion commander found the enemy there. The 705th, following the near bank of the Ourthe west to St. Hubert, dropped off eight tank destroyers to bar an enemy crossing while its trains passed through Ortheuville. These guns, as it turned out, would not reach Bastogne for a number of days.


So things stood as the evening advanced: the engineers and tank destroyer crews waiting for some enemy move to take the bridge; the German self-propelled guns and tanks lobbing in a shell now and again to keep the Americans away from the bridge and perhaps with hopes of cutting the wires on the demolition charges. Back to the east the advance guard of the 116th Panzer Division was marching toward Ortheuville.


At this point General Krueger, the LVIII Panzer Corps commander, made his fateful decision. The bridge northwest of Bertogne was gone, the bridge at Ortheuville probably would be blown in any attack, and furthermore it would be difficult to squeeze the entire corps through the small opening between the east-west channel of the Ourthe and Noville. Late in the evening he ordered the 116th Panzer Division advance guard, then at Salle three miles southeast of the Ortheuville bridge, to a halt. Then he sent orders to the division commanders and corps troops which would countermarch the forces west of the HouffalizeBastogne road and turn the entire LVIII Panzer Corps to the north,


[3] When the first German assault hit the 158th, Pvt. Bernard Michin took on an enemy tank with a bazooka at a range of ten yards, was badly burned by the explosion but destroyed the tank. Unable to see because of his wounds he located an enemy machine gun by sound, threw a hand grenade, and wiped out the crew. He was awarded the DSC.