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First Blood
An Account of the Action of the 41st Tank Battalion
 in the Battle of the Bulge

Taken From Army Historical Records
First Published in the Armored Cavalry Journal, 1948

This is an account of a tank battalion "task force" which refused to be awed by the power of Von Rundstedt's breakthrough. Attacking under severe handicaps, and at a time when other troops in the area were either stopped or were defending, the men of the 41st Tank Battalion (11th Armored Division) plunged forward with a spirit which became the inspiration of their associates.

The ever-shifting fortunes of war had so dealt the cards in the closing days of1944 that the 11th Armored Division was subjected to a dizzying series of changes in orders which turned it from the Le Havre docks to Cherbourg, thereto plan the further containment of the enemy forces in the St. Nazaire area; then, before the debarking was half completed, the swift thrust of Hitler's panzertruppen in the Ardennes caused another about-face and sent the columns of the 11th hurtling across France into the Bastogne area and into a situation, the import of which was only dimly understood by the merest handful of officers.

It was a bitter dose to take as one's first taste of medicine. The headlong dash to the assembly areas, the terrible uncertainty of the general tactical and strategic situation, the biting zero weather of the Ardennes highlands, the forbidding darkness of the forests; all are familiar factors to the many divisions and separate units which took part in the Battle of the Bulge. Almost the sole favorable factor was the surprisingly good tank ground which lay between the patches of rolling woodland.

In its advance, the 11th had been held to strict radio silence. In view of the fact that a large number of the radios had been issued immediately prior to departure from England no time was available for tuning and otherwise getting the sets and nets in shape for combat on top of this, the division was committed to action even while its rear elements were closing in the Bastogne area. In effect, this resulted in a less than 50% effective communications system on the first day of com bat and was no doubt the greatest handicap under which the troops operated.

On arrival the men of the Eleventh quickly absorbed the full import of events. The valiant 101st Airborne was holding out in Bastogne, its siege having been broken by the swift action of the 4th Armored Division to restore its supply lines. But the 4th was immediately withdrawn and the only brothers-in-arms which were visible to the newcomers were the plucky remnants of CCA of the 9thArmored Division, holding just west of the town of Bastogne. The Germans were still very much on the offensive with, as later reports showed, two divisions engaged in pressing southward to widen the flanks of the Bulge salient. However, this pressure worked against them in the end, for whatever may have been the adverse effect of radio silence on operations of the 11th it had served to keep secret the imminent attack of the Division and a headlong meeting engagement ensued in which the Germans were unquestionably surprised.

As matters stood, it fell to the lot of the 41st Tank Battalion (reinforced) to bear the brunt of the attack of the entire division. Acting as the left of a two-column task force of CCB, the battalion, led by Lieutenant Colonel Wray Sagaser, displayed a ferocity and a tenacity of purpose which made it responsible for the major gains of the entire division during the Bulge operation.

The Journal staff was able to find in the files of the Historical section of the AGO an account of interviews with the battalion commander and members of his staff which needed little or no editing to bring out the problems with which many other similar commands were faced during those trying times. In the paragraphs which follow, the thread of narrative will be taken up by the historian of the day.

The battalion was in top-notch shape when it went into combat, despite the rugged, swift march across France. Equipment could hardly have been in better condition. The men had time to prepare certain improvements while in England. They built rails around the outside of the turrets; constructed luggage carriers on the rear decks and were thus able to put all. their bedding rolls and field bags outside of the tanks, which made for more efficient work during combat. They were able to cut the sides off the fenders to make a place to hang the track extensions in such a way as not to sling mud on the sight of the driver. They put hooks on the rear of the turrets in order to hook down aerials. These were just examples of some of the improvement made mostly developing from observing other divisions already in combat. The battalion was almost up to T/O strength when it went into combat, being short about 12 men, each company being short not more than 3 or 4 men. Shortages were due to last minute AWOL’s and a few foot diseases. Most of the men were in excellent physical shape.

As to equipment, there had been some difficulty in obtaining enough overshoes. But the men were up on their bedding, combat boots and other personal equipment. About 1/5 of the combat load of ammunition had been drawn in England. Advance elements of the battalion had made arrangements to pick up the rest en route. By the time the battalion had arrived, it had a complete combat load.

The battalion closed in the Bastogne area on the evening of 29 December at about2330, and word was immediately received that an attack was to be made the following morning. None of the battalion staff was very much pleased at the news, inasmuch as the battalion had just completed a 12~mile march that day. There was no opportunity for advance reconnaissance, for it was already after dark and the move up was to start before daylight. There was opportunity only to consult a few maps. Cannon had to be bore sighted after the approach march was under way.

It had been planned to get under way at 300600, hut the battalion actually left at0615 because of congestion on the main highway to Bastogne. There was no activity on the way up, but the LD (vicinity Morhet) proved to be in enemy hands as a result of an enemy counterattack against CCA of the 9th Armored Division the preceding night. Accordingly, a nearby road junction was selected as the LD, with the axis of advance Morhet-Lavaselle. Lavaselle had been picked on the map as the initial objective, but it turned out to be a very poor objective because like so many towns in the area it was in a bowl surrounded by high ground which commanded all approaches and from which the enemy could inflict great damage upon forces attempting to enter the town.

A platoon of the 41st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron was planned for use as an advance guard until contact was established, whereupon it would be switched as a left flank guard. However, the platoon got nearly to Lavaselle without establishing too much contact, so it pulled back after 15 or 20 minutes to the Morhet road.

The main force proceeded up the Morhet road with the light tank company leading, one platoon of lights acting as left flank guard. Company A with two platoons abreast advanced between the two trails Magerotte-Brul and Morhet-Lavaselle, with B Company (two platoons abreast) on line to the right of A. C Company proceeded in reserve 300 to 400 yards to the rear. All companies advanced across country. opposition was not initially very stiff; and consisted mainly of enemy infantry that had infiltrated into the area. Very few casualties were suffered in advancing toward Lavaselle and the area of the objective was reached at about 1030.

Seeing that Lavaselle was in a hollow and not a logical place for an objective, Colonel Sagaser elected to push his battalion onward to the high ground in the vicinity of Brul and Houmont, which in effect controlled Lavaselle.

There was some difficulty encountered in crossing the stream near Lavaselle. A bridge had been blown, and another bridge had a crater blown in the center, yet was still passable at an easy pace. Some of the tanks crossed the latter bridge, but most of them took a running jump and tried to cross the stream by getting a fast start. Four or five tanks were hung up for a short while crossing the stream, and mortar fire started to descend on the stream line.

D Company met considerable small-arms fire from the Bois des Haies de Magery while going through Magerotte, but for the rest of their journey along the left flank of the battalion, D Company was protected by a cut which enabled them to proceed in defiladed position toward Lavaselle. Both assault companies met a great deal of small-arms fire in both Brul, and Houmont, but, A Company pushed a platoon into Houmont and started to mop up the resistance quickly. The Houmont church had been used as an enemy OP, and a German staff sergeant was taken prisoner there, slowing up enemy artillery fire.

Company A of the 21st Armored Infantry Battalion had been attached to the 41st, and the entire force was known as Task Force Poker. The Armored Infantry dispersed around the tanks and went through the towns dismounted to assist in cleaning up. About 75 to 100 enemy troops surrendered in Houmont; they had few weapons of large caliber, but possessed mortars and bazookas and two antitank guns. In view of later developments, the battalion had comparatively light resistance in taking Brul and Houmont.

After the battalion had entered and organized these towns for defense, the enemy started knocking them with artillery and mortar fire from Hubermont, Rechrival, and the woods northwest of Chenogne. Being the only battalion that had moved out that far, it received fire from nearly every side. What seemed like an artillery preparation for an enemy counterattack descended, but the expected counterattack never materialized. Several casualties were suffered from Nebelwerfer and direct fire weapons, and one company commander was lost when Nebelwerfer fire sheared both hatches off his tank in a direct hit. Most of the casualties were suffered after dusk when re-supply necessitated personnel dismounting from their vehicles and congregating in small groups, which made them vulnerable to shell fragments. Total casualties for the first day of operations were 6 killed and about 25 wounded

When they had set up in position, defensive fire plans were worked out. Lieutenant John Grayson, who acted as an artillery officer on the battalion staff, lined up the six 105 mm assault guns and fired them in battery. Regular artillery support, which had been nonexistent at the start of the operation due to faulty communication returned to normal and was used effectively.

The general plan for the advance was to have the reinforced 21st Armored Infantry Battalion (TF Pat) take Chenogne, while TF Poker on the left was to support this force by fire, covering the woods northwest of Chenogne while TF Pat (the21st AIB plus a company of the 41st TK BN) moved into Chenogne.

CCB was ordered to move up, with its first objective the woods east of Houmont, and then the woods southwest of Mande-St. Etienne. The 21st Armored Infantry Battalion actually moved into Chenogne and then were pushed out.

TF Poker staved in the vicinity of Houmont and Brul on 31 December, and waited for TF Pat to come up abreast and take Chenogne. On 1 January, TF Pat took Chenogne for keeps.

The massed artillery fire of 12 battalions in a "serenade" preceded the 1January attack of the task forces on the woods north of Chenogne. Various observers reported that 550 enemy bodies were later found in these woods north of Chenogne, apparently most of them killed by artillery fire. The members of the Battalion were very enthusiastic about the results of the artillery serenade and said that its presence provided a marked contrast to the first day’s jump-off when there had been no artillery support to speak of. Timing of all phases of the attack was just about perfect.

The reinforced battalion jumped off at 1100 on 1 January with medium companies abreast, and-the light tank company as rear and left flank guard.

This attack was far better coordinated than the preceding day's, not only because of the presence of the artillery support, but because commanders could see the terrain over which they were to fight, and make necessary reconnaissance.. C Company started out on the left flank and A on the right flank, the plan being to have them converge and meet at a point of woods from which the armored infantry would comb the area dismounted. The armored infantry followed closely behind the tanks in their half tracks, and the plan was timed to perfection. No tanks were lost and only a handful of men wounded. Many enemy prisoners were captured when the infantry started through the woods; they were men from all branches—air corps ground crews, engineers, former tankers, and others who had been converted to infantrymen. Most of them fought stiffly until surrounded, then surrendered fairly easily.

The enemy defense in the woods apparently never contemplated the use of armor in mass. Tanks were used as tank destroyers and did not move around to a very great extent. Three to five tanks or anti-tank guns .might back up a battalion of enemy infantry. These tanks would always fall back in the face of our attack and try and preserve their integrity as long as possible, firing as mobile anti-tank guns.

At about noon on New Year's Day the 41st Tank Battalion tanks reached a point on open ground along the trail running northeast from Houmont. The infantry having cleaned out the first patch of woods south of the Monty-Houmont trail, mounted up on the tanks, 8 or 10 to a tank. There was about an hour's delay, and enemy artillery started falling on the concentration area. The tankers were protected, but the armored infantry mounted on the tanks had a rough time from this artillery fire.

The CCB commander was pressing for the force to drive on to secure a thin line of trees just southwest of Monty and northwest of the main Bois de Fragotte. Hence, between 1330 and 1400, the task force jumped off in a column of medium companies, A Company leading, followed by C with B in reserve. Company B supported. by fire from high ground, while the two leading companies advanced by bounds. First blood was drawn just as the tail of C Company had cleared from the line of departure, when a Mark IV tank was knocked out along the Bastogne road. Very shortly a stiff fight developed. The ground chosen for the advance turned out to be soft and boggy. Because of this fact, the enemy did not initially expect a penetration at this point and took a little time to adjust his fire on the boggy approaches. But when it became apparent that this was to be the axis of advance. the enemy trained all weapons in the chosen corridor of approach.

The3d Platoon of A Company was leading the force in platoon wedge formation, when the entire platoon became stuck in the marshy ground. Direct fire weapons immediately opened from along the Bastogne road and picked off the sitting ducks one by one, virtually wiping out the 3d platoon. Direct hits were scored from the Bastogne road and also from 75mm and 88mm fire which came from the high ground around Mande-St. Etienne. This scotched the entire plan to move across and take Monty. The entire tank battalion then maneuvered into position where they could fire through an entrance to the woods. In this critical period, the task force was handicapped by two things—a lack of sufficient dismounted personnel to protect the tanks; and the terrain, which as well as being soft also hemmed in the approaches on all sides by woods. And the battalion had by now learned that every patch of woods was a potential enemy strongpoint. The enemy had excellent defensive positions and prevented any additional penetration toward Monty on that night. It had been planned to feed the tanks through the gap one by one, but darkness and the ferocity of the enemy resistance prevented such a move.

After dark and all night long on 1 January, the task force heard the sound of burp guns in the area. The tanks backed up into the woods for cover, and their personnel was protected against the artillery in their buttoned-up vehicles. The armored infantry, however, suffered casualties from three bursts which did not damage the tanks because their force was lost. It was most apparent that although it was a good practice for the tanks to seek wooded cover, it would be a far better practice for the infantry to dig in in the open.

All night, artillery fire joined in with the burp guns. The task force on the right sent out numerous patrols, met numerous enemy patrols and there ensued small skirmishes interspersed with periods of silence before more hostile artillery would descend.

The problem of re-supply and refueling was very difficult on the night of 1-2January. About 2400-0100, Lieutenant Edwin Justice, platoon leader of the Reconnaissance Platoon of the 41st Tank Battalion, ran a light tank from the Lavaselle area along the Houmont-Monty trail to see whether it would be clear for the supply vehicles to go through.

Fortunately, Lieutenant Justice hit no mines, but he dragged a road block out of the road and opened the way for the supply trucks after flushing some German infantry out of the bushes; then, in the early hour of the morning, 25 vehicles lumbered down the trail with ammunition, food, water, fuel and maintenance personnel and vehicles.

During the critical period when the Battalion was around the open position between the woods, the enemy could not actually deliver observed artillery fire- directly, but any large movement of vehicles in one area was easy to pick up and it drew artillery. The task force felt very insecure in the position, but made the best of circumstances by using a platoon of the 41st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron to outpost the Battalion CP and the right flank, while the light tank company outposted on the rear of the positions on high ground.

The platoon of the cavalry reconnaissance squadron also conducted route reconnaissance prior to the jump-off the morning of 2 January. It had become evident that the position in which the troops had halted was most unfavorable and that an immediate advance was essential to the higher ground near the towns of Monty and Mande-St. Etienne. Considerable movement could be seen in the area of the towns, and shifting of enemy troops, but no observer knew the significance of this movement. Reconnaissance to determine passable ground for tanks was finally completed and at 1500 hours an artillery preparation and an air strike were placed on the towns.

The battalion jumped off at 160O, in a coordinated jump with the infantry on the right. C Company of the 41st Tank Battalion. was attached to the 21st Armored Infantry Battalion task force for the operation, while A Company of the 21stAIB remained with the 41st's task force. While B Company of the 41st supported by fire, A Company made a direct frontal assault with platoons abreast.

The artillery and tank fire set the towns ablaze, but it was not until after dark that the combined forces entered Mande-St. Etienne. After getting into town, a medium tank was destroyed by a direct fire weapon. There was considerable scuffling with hidden enemy infantry who refused to admit defeat. The enemy remained in the cellars of the town and sniped all night, after the task forces entered about 2000. The only thing to do under such circumstances was to sleep with the enemy and wait until morning to clear up the confused situation.

On the night of 2 January, the enemy was expected to counterattack and try to attack the town. A report was received at 2330 that an enemy armored column was driving down the Bastogne road toward Mande-St. Etienne. A wall of artillery was registered in front of this phantom column, but it never actually appeared to menace the occupants of the town.

AtO8OO on the morning of 3 January, elements of the 17th Airborne Division relieved the task forces in Mande-St. Etienne, and the battalion moved back to a rest area. The staff went over the situation with the officers of the 17thAirborne, and a supply of .30 caliber ammunition was turned over to the elements of the 17th Airborne when the 41st Tank Battalion departed.

Total battalion casualties for the operation from 30 December to 3 January were 112,of which 25 were killed. No light tanks were lost, and 12 medium tanks were knocked out. Replacements on these tanks were plentiful during the period between operations, but no personnel reinforcements were received. Of the medium companies, A had been the hardest hit during the first operation, largely because the 3d platoon of A had been wiped out when it became bogged down and mouse-trapped near the woods gap. C Company was in the best shape aside from the light tank company, which had been used mostly for flank and rear guard protection.

The records indicate that the interviewer classed the conduct of the 41st Tank Battalion throughout its initial action as superior. This classification is not too much nor should it be surprising.

The records also show that this organization and the division to which it belonged were one of the few units remaining in the States in the summer of 1944 which were not gutted by withdrawing trained personnel and sending them elsewhere as replacements. Consequently, the teamwork necessary for the excellent timing shown in the several attacks was first developed and then preserved.

It is also noteworthy that after entering combat practically without radio, the entire communications system was restored in the midst of battle conditions within twenty-four hours.

But perhaps the most important lesson to be gained from this account is the fact that attention to the details of coordination pays great dividends. A "serenade" by twelve battalions of artillery is indeed a lot of artillery fire. But greater concentrations have been fired in other battles without a commensurate return. On this occasion, apparently the troops were on the objective almost as soon as the sound of the last round had died away. As a result, we see an enemy dazed and unable to resist, after hundreds had already been killed by the terrific artillery concentrations. The cost to the attacker negligible!

A contrast is evident in the attempt to exploit this action. The task force commander displayed commendable boldness in immediately moving ahead before the enemy could recover or shift to meet the new threat. But his luck ran out and his leading tanks bogged down in a narrow passage which, having been in enemy hands, had been impossible to reconnoiter. By the time the situation had been adjusted the enemy had indeed shifted and was able to bring a destructive fire on the narrow route of approach which cost the major casualties of the entire action. Nevertheless, it was a true tanker's choice. For had time been taken out to make a careful reconnaissance, the enemy would have recovered anyway, with the same result. on the other hand, had ground been firm, a very decisive victory would have been scored which undoubtedly would have made the attacks of the next day unnecessary.

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