Page 556


Chapter XXII


The Battle Before the Meuse The Meuse River Line


Across the western edge of the Ardennes massif runs the Meuse River. This river, throughout history, has been the natural line of resistance against an enemy advancing from east to west over the Belgian highlands. Actually, of course, the river channel changes direction as it passes through Belgium, running south to north between Maastricht and Liege, generally following an east-west line between Liege and Namur, and bending sharply at Namur to assume a south to north orientation. Although rather shallow, the Meuse averages a width of 120 yards in its main course and is fed by so many streams that its current is unusually rapid, particularly in the winter season. There are some fairly level approaches to the Meuse crossing sites; there also are long stretches of steep banks bordering the channel, some of them are cliffs nearly three hundred feet high. As a complement to the natural strength of this barrier the Belgian Government, before World War II, had limited the number of bridges spanning the Meuse. The events of 1940, however, demonstrated that modern armies could cross the Meuse speedily, either by surprise or by an overwhelming concentration of force.


Within forty-eight hours of the launching of the 1944 attack the Allied high command diagnosed the enemy intent as that of driving to the Meuse in the vicinity of Liege. But there could be no certainty in the early phases of the German counteroffensive that such a diagnosis was correct. It was quite possible that the enemy might swerve south at the Meuse, following the historical invasion route past Sedan and on to Paris instead of turning north toward Liege and Antwerp. General Middleton and the VIII Corps staff were concerned particularly with the possibility that the enemy plan might unfold into a thrust southward through the Meuse valley.


Busy with plans and troop movements designed to bolster the threatened sector of the First Army front and harden the shoulders of the corridor through which the German divisions were crowding, SHAEF took its first steps to defend the line of the Meuse (with anything more than local security measures) on 18 December. Late that day General Eisenhower ordered the 17th Airborne and 11th Armored Divisions, both training in the United Kingdom, to move to the Continent without delay. These two divisions were intended for use north and west of the Meuse, but they could not be expected for some days. From Reims, which was designated as concentration area for the airborne division, the airborne could be moved to the west bank; the armored division was slated