|The strategic capture of Hunnange by Task Force Seitz of the 517|
|The following narrative is our interview
with retired LTG Richard Seitz and his recollections of Task Force Seitz and their role in
the textbook recapture of Hunnange. During the Battle of the Bulge, the
strategic capture of Hunnange ultimately led to the recapture of St. Vith which was
critical to the Allied counter-offensive in mid-January 1945.
Prior to the start of the war, General Seitz received his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant at Kansas St. College in 1939 and was called to active duty in February of 1940. Approximately three years later he was given command of the 2nd Battalion of the 517th Parachute Infantry and took the battalion overseas fighting in Italy, France, Belgium, and Germany.
|Ill briefly provide some background on the 517s involvement in the recapture
of St. Vith. When the Germans commenced the Ardennes offensive, the allies determined
after a day or so that it was a major offensive. Prior to the offensive, the 7th Armored
Division which was in Germany, was suddenly moved at night to the critical roadbed of St.
Vith. St. Vith is a critical road junction along the quickest route to Leige and other
points which the Germans had in mind.
After about three or four days of intense fighting, General Ridgeway ordered the 7th Armored Division to withdraw from St. Vith on the 21st of December for the purpose shortening the lines and to consolidate the defense of the XVIII Airborne Corps back along the line of Malmedy-Ambleve. When the Allies commenced their counter-offensive in the early part of January, both the 7th Armored Division and 30th Infantry Division were under XVIII Airborne Corps command. Both units were roughly positioned behind Werbomont and Stavelot. General Ridgeway directed that the 7th Armored and 30th Infantry attack to the southeast to capture St. Vith.
I recall my battalion was in XVIII Airborne Corps reserve, the Corps being commanded by General Ridgeway. About this time, the 11th of January, the 2nd Battalion of the 517th was detached from the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment and attached to CCA of the 7th Armored Division. The CCA was commanded by Col. Triplet, who was a tall large man with a lot of armor and combat experience. I felt Triplet was truly an outstanding leader as well as a great human being. Triplet organized what was called Task Force Seitz, a force consisting of 2/517th PIR, B Co.17th Tank Battalion, an anti-tank platoon and a group of engineers. After forming the task force we spent a couple of days waiting for the XVIII Airborne Corps to give the order for the drive to St. Vith to start. As an aside, I would also like to point out something amusing that happened here. The first time I reported to Col. Triplet, I arrived at his CP and received my orders at the time his commanders briefing was breaking up and needless to say Col. Triplet was quite upset. I told him in no uncertain terms the reason I was late was I had walked to his goddamn CP, and as it turned out he had two jeeps and trailers that were out hauling ammunition, so Triplet was concerned that I didn't have any transportation. Triplet than gave me a half-track with the best communications that I've ever had during the war, and several other wheeled vehicles. Col. Triplet then told me: "Seitz, my crystal ball tells me that this Auf der Hardt Woods is an infantry job, and I want you to attack Auf der Hardt Woods."
At the time, I had moved the task force to an assembly position in a wooded area near Am Kreuz. Auf der Hardt Woods dominated the entire area including Born, which was the objective of Task Force Whipple in addition to Diedenberg which they recently captured, which then released me to make my attack. Triplet had told me that I could attack at any time that I wanted to. After making a daylight reconnaissance with my S-3, and because of the long expanse of open terrain, about a mile and a quarter to the objective, and the very deep snow, no cover and concealment, I decided that I would make the attack during the hours of darkness. But a key point that influenced me was a piece of intelligence we received from Division G-2 which concerned a captured German document. The document stated that when Americans were employing tanks it was unlikely that the they would attack at night. I felt that this intelligence was certainly a plus for making an attack during the hours of darkness.
My plan was to attack with two companies abreast, E Company on the right and D Company on the left and F Company in reserve. I planned no initial supporting artillery or mortar fire for the attack, but I did have specific artillery fire pre-planned for certain spots on call. I instructed the TD platoon I had on hand to hold and remain silent until I observed the outpost by Auf der Hardt Woods. On my order they were to close rapidly on the woods and I estimated this to be the beginning morning nautical twilight. My attack really depended a lot on surprise on what was considered a sole enemy outpost on the forward edge of the woods I also hoped to surprise the main German force which I had knowledge were also pretty well bunkered up.
The weather was cold as hell and it was snowing, in some places it was up to the soldiers' waists and in general it was above the knees. We jumped off at four o'clock in the morning. Prior to the attack, I estimated that if we had no problems it would take us two and a half to three hours to get to our objective. The fact it was snowing reduced the visibility considerably, but I felt afterward that this helped screen my preparatory movements as well as my movements during the attack. The attack was slow and difficult through the deep snow. As the attack unfolded, the one thing that worried me were communications and control of the unit due to the lack of visibility. I appreciated the fact that the falling snow more or less screened our movement from the Germans. We made a special effort to have connecting skirmish lines, side by side, to maintain contact because I wanted to maintain radio silence as well as all other silence. The troops were pretty loaded down with ammunition, although I had told them to leave all overcoats behind because I thought the overcoats would impede their movement through the deep snow plus they would be sweating a lot moving for two to three hours.
Just about the beginning of BMNT, which was about 8 o'clock, we surprised the outpost, and captured its defenders. The Germans had been in the area for a considerable time and they had lots of bunkers, which later on in the day would give us considerable trouble. During the attack our people killed several Germans, wounded about 30, and took about 16 or 17 prisoners. Meanwhile, the tanks closed up and passed through the woods, according to the plan. The Germans were completely surprised, although the Germans fought stubbornly, and D Company, as I recall, had a lot of trouble clearing out the Germans in their sector. During the melee, there was allot of sniping and the commander of E Company estimated that he had killed 40 or 50 Germans. By about 10 o'clock I was confident that we had the objective in hand. Prior to the attack, I asked the D Company commander to send out a combat patrol to the southwest of the objective to the village of Hockkreuz which was 3/4 of a mile south of the woods. There was a important road that ran from the river up north to St. Vith. I thought we could expect a counter attack from that area. The counterattack never materialized but the patrol captured a Mark IV tank and the crew. The patrol then moved to another small town, I dont recall the name, which was along that road. There they ran into problems, they did not surprise the Germans and some of our TD's were ambushed and destroyed by German self-propelled guns.
At this time I got word from CCA that taking Born was proving to be more difficult than anticipated, and there was also a rumor that the Peiper Group was holding Born. As you recall, they were the infamous force that massacred American Prisoners at Malmedy. Around midnight on the 21st after the attack on Auf der Hardt Woods, CCA ordered the 517th again to lead the attack on another woods, its name I cannot remember. This time I put D Company on tanks and Triplet gave me a bunch of half-tracks to carry E and F Companies and we moved down towards the wood without any difficulty. It was the terrain there that proved more challenging than anything else. As I recall, the tanks and TDs (tank destroyers) got through very well but E and F had to dismount from the half-tracks and cover the remaining two miles on foot. We started at midnight and midway through the next morning we were in that woods with no great opposition except some mortar fire and artillery fire. The woods provided the assembly area for our attack on Hunnange. Triplet gave us the mission of attacking Hunnange which was a key terrain and road net. The capture of Hunnange ensured the capture of St. Vith. We spent most of mid-day in those woods, so I had plenty of time to conduct reconnaissance and formulate my plan. I wanted to attack at noon rather than waiting until the next day and Triplet gave me the OK. I was very proud of this attack, I put D Company on tanks again, F Company on foot and E Company in reserve, and I decided to attack at 1700 at the beginning of evening nautical twilight. In the plan, I called on my artillery liaison officer to find out how much artillery we could get because I wanted the TOT to be fired on Hunnange just as F Company moved across the line of departure. He was very successful in that task, getting all the 7th Armored Division artillery, Corps Artillery, and the 30th Division artillery, an estimated 17 battalions of artillery firing on the TOT. The plan called for F Company to move out first and after crossing the line of departure the TOT would fire. Next, tanks with D Company on board would pass through F Company and after employing shock-action tactics would clear out Hunnange before the effects of the TOT could wear off. The plan worked perfectly. D Company and the tanks got into town very quickly, and it was quite a sight. It was open terrain for about 600 to 700 yards and I remember watching these tanks firing their cannons and the people on top firing the .50 calibres, it was like the 4th of July. The assault was truly was an example of shock-action tactics. As we entered the town many Germans came out of buildings and basements and some of them continued shooting and sniping at us.
I think two things were crucial to the attack. First, surprise I don't think the Germans expected us to attack that evening. Second, and most obvious, the tremendous artillery support we received. Again, the plan called for that when we captured Hunnange, a strong combat patrol would move down the main highway towards St. Vith, anticipating a German counterattack. During the assault on Hunnange, we captured numerous German equipment killed many Germans. The assault was involved in close combat for about three hours. I sent the combat patrol about 3/4 of a mile north of St. Vith which was a pretty good piece of terrain on that road, and they were to move to at least that point and hold there and set up a defensive position to prevent reinforcements from coming to St. Vith for a counterattack. In the morning I sent a platoon of tanks to this position and got word from CCA, I remembered I received an order from Triplet and he said "Well done, hold in place, take it easy." About 4 o'clock that afternoon CCB Gen. Bruce Clarke, photographers and all the newspaper people in the XVIII Corps area came rolling through, I think Task Force Rhea was in the lead. I think my people were surprised and relieved that they werent required to attack St. Vith. Unknown, to us at the time, the Germans had evacuated the town after we took Hunnange.
I've gone back to look at that area. It is the dominating terrain and road junction north of St. Vith. However, the last time I went back was hardly anything there. My wife and I went to a small restaurant near the road junction, in my minds eye it looked a hell of a lot bigger in '45.
For their actions in the St. Vith sector, 2/517 (Task Force Seitz) was nominated for a Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation.