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Defense Southwest of Bastogne


Throughout the 21st the VIII Corps had worked hard to strengthen the engineer barrier line in front of Neufchateau and Arlon, centers around which the corps was re-forming, because the presence of German patrols south and southwest of Bastogne gave ample warning of imminent attack. Actually it is incorrect to consider these defenses in the sense of a line. There was no continuous natural barrier on which to build. The defense of this sector, as a result, consisted of erecting obstacles at important road crossings, bridge demolitions, cratering concrete and macadam road surfaces, and mining fords and narrow stretches of roads. The troop detachments to cover these barriers remained small and heterogeneous, their weapons usually no more than carbines, rifles, machine guns, and bazookas. Heavy antitank weapons-a handful of tank destroyers, headquarters tanks, and howitzers-would be found in ones and twos at the most important points. In general these defensive positions were organized with an eye to barring the roads which approached Neufchateau (the VIII Corps headquarters) and Arlon (the western gateway to Luxembourg City) from the north.


Strongpoints-the term is relative-had been created at St. Hubert, Libramont, Sibret, and Martelange, of which the last two were in the most imminent danger. Sibret, where remnants of the 28th Infantry Division had reorganized as Task Force Caraway, lay only four miles southwest of Bastogne. Martelange, on the highway to Arlon, was thirteen miles due south of Bastogne. Possession of this town was of pressing importance.


General Middleton asked his troops, at 1600, to hold the barrier line in front of Neufchateau and Arlon for forty hours, or until help could come, and he specifically named Martelange. Here a branch of the Sure River provided a natural hindrance to troops advancing from the north; but here also an enemy penetration would endanger the assembly of reinforcements coming up through Luxembourg and Arlon and would lay bare the right flank of the VIII Corps screen.


At dusk a platoon from Company B, 299th Engineer Combat Battalion, which was holding Martelange, came under attack by tanks and infantry. The platoon blew the two bridges in the center of the town and withdrew. In great confusion the corps hastily gathered more engineers to defend the road to Arlon by a counterattack, but the Germans remained quietly in the town and made no attempt to repair the bridges. An advance in force south on Arlon was no part of the XLVII Panzer Corps plan. The foray at Martelange had been made by column from the assault gun brigade attached to the 5th Parachute Division, the division itself being strung out around Wiltz, which it had taken earlier. Poor communications, by this time as baneful an influence on the operations of the XLVII Panzer Corps as on those of the American VIII Corps, gave the 5th Parachute Division commander an extremely muddled picture of what had happened at Martelange. Heilmann did not know for sure who had the town until the next afternoon and in the interim became gravely worried about his exposed south flank, which at this moment was the left anchor of both the corps and army. In a postwar account