Page 104

morning of the counteroffensive's second day, with the American position in the 99th Division and VIII Corps sector rapidly deteriorating, Gerow renewed his request. The First Army commander was unwilling to give orders for a withdrawal but authorized the V Corps commander to act as he saw fit. Gerow phoned Robertson; it was now about 0730.

For the first time the 2d Division commander learned that the enemy had broken through the 99th and that his own division was in danger of being cut off. Gerow's order was to set up a defensive position on the Elsenborn ridge-but first the 2d Division had to withdraw from the exposed Wahlerscheid sector. The immediate task confronting Robertson was that of gathering what troops he could to defend the single road back through Krinkelt-Rocherath to Wirtzfeld, while at the same time holding open the one-track road between Wirtzfeld and Elsenborn. [17] Two-thirds of his reserve, the 23d Infantry, would be attached to the 99th Division. The rifle strength of the two regiments around Wahlerscheid had been reduced by nearly 1,200 men. The 1st Battalion of the 9th Infantry, for example, had begun the Wahlerscheid attack on 13 December with 35 officers and 678 men; on the morning of 17 December the active roster was 22 officers and 387 men. All of the original company commanders and most of the platoon leaders were casualties. Fortunately, the tank and tank destroyer strength attached to support the 2d Division attack had been held in reserve well to the south in order to prevent a jam on the single communicating road during the infantry phase of the operation and so constituted a readily available reserve. But the appearance of German armor early on 17 December would force some piecemeal distribution to meet this threat.

Even before the withdrawal order reached the 2d Division command post at Wirtzfeld on the morning of the 17th, German tanks had been spotted moving on Bullingen, the main division supply point. General Robertson ordered the headquarters commandant to prepare a defense at the division command post (a few hundred yards north of Bullingen) and sent his only free rifle battalion, the 2d of the 23d Infantry, south from the Rocherath area. After the capture of Bullingen the German column turned away to the southwest, but a reconnaissance party composed of a tank platoon and a few riflemen in half-tracks continued in the direction of Wirtzfeld. They had been anticipated by only a few minutes with the arrival of a self-propelled gun platoon from C Company of the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion. When the Germans reached the ridge south of Wirtzfeld they were momentarily profiled against the sky line. Two of the American tank destroyers and a 57-mm. gun accounted for three of the panzers and a half-track. For the time being the threat to the southern terminus of the 2d Division line of withdrawal was ended. The 2d Battalion, 23d Infantry, and additional tank destroyers from the 644th soon arrived and deployed in the deep snow south of Wirtzfeld on the slope facing Bullingen, there

[17] The 2d Division engineers had worked on this secondary road until it offered a fairly passable single track.