Page 316

armored columns of the 1st SS Panzer Division in the V Corps sector north and west of St. Vith had forced the First Army and 12th Army Group commanders to choose between an attempt to restore the breach between Bastogne and St. Vith and one to stop the 1st SS Panzer Division.

The decision, made during the afternoon, was to assemble the 82d airborne Division at Werbomont, instead of Houffalize as Middleton had intended. Houffalize would have to go and without a fight. Rumors in the early evening already placed it in German hands. Since there was no force at hand to close the Houffalize gap the most that could be done was to vulcanize the edges of the tear by holding on at St. Vith and Bastogne. Perhaps, too, the enemy rushing through the gap might be caused some difficulty and delay by the creation of a barrier line along the Ourthe River and its tributaries. Plans for such a barrier line already were in execution in heterogeneous units hurrying to outpost bridges, villages, and road intersections between La Roche and Bastogne.

The night of 18 December was rife with rumor. By the quarter hour new reports came in from excited truck drivers, jeep patrols, or lonely clerks on unfamiliar outpost duty, placing the Germans in some village or on some road actually well to the west of the real locations of the most advanced enemy spearheads. The rear areas of the corps-if one could continue to speak of any "rear" area-was crawling with vehicles. Supply points, truckheads, and medical installations were moving to the westsome for the third time in as many days. New collecting points for the dead were opening. And closer to the vague and fragmentary front line, roads, trails, and paths carried stragglers singly or in large herds, toiling painfully on foot or clinging tenaciously to some vehicle, back to Bastogne or beyond to the west.

The Gap North of Bastogne

The action east of Bastogne during the night of 18 December, the absorption of the engineer screen into the larger defending forces, and the final fate of CCR, 9th Armored, has already been described. Here the focus is on the attempt to impede the probing advance guards and reconnaissance parties of the Fifth Panzer Army pushing into the gap north of Bastogne.

Construction of a really tough barrier line along the Ourthe River hardly could be expected. The stream itself, even when swollen by the winter snows, was narrow. At some points the approaches to the crossing sites were difficult to negotiate and lent themselves to blocks and barriers, but there were many bridges and numerous fords which an enemy could use to bypass a barred crossing site. At best only a very few companies of engineers could be found for the business of preparing bridge demolition charges, erecting barriers, laying antitank mines, and blasting craters in the roads. Some engineer tools and equipment had been lost to the enemy, but there was probably as much available as the small number of engineers could properly use. It was one thing to strengthen the physical barriers in the path of the oncoming enemy; it was quite another to defend at these barriers with sufficient rifle strength and antitank weapons. The men and weapons re-