Most people interested in the Ardennes Offensive or the Battle of the Bulge have heard about the breakthrough that occurred north of Assenois, Belgium. 

On December 26, 1944, elements of C Company, 37th Tank Battalion of the 4th Armored Division broke through the German encirclement of Bastogne and relieved the 101st Airborne Division.

(Photo: Lt. Charles Boggess’s “Cobra King”, 37th Tank Battalion.)

(Click on the photos below to enlarge.)

However, what many do not know is that six days earlier, there was already contact made with the 101st Airborne Division by the 4th Armored Division.

Here’s the story;

When the Ardennes Offensive was launched, the US Third Army was ordered to turn north as part of the counteroffensive. One of the divisions involved was the 4th Armored Division. The major part of this unit would move north through the Belgian province of Luxembourg (Combat Commands A and B) while part (Combat Command R) would move through part of the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg. It was stopped at Bigonville and then was ordered to the left side of the bulk of the 4th Armored Division. CCR would eventually be the one breaking through at the bunker site north of Assenois.

On December 19, 1944, Combat Command B (Brigadier General Holmes E. Dager) of the 4th Armored Division moved up to the north and – in all the confusion resulting from the Ardennes Offensive – found itself in the zone of the US VIII Army Corps and was attached to this army corps by order of Major General Troy Middleton. Dager’s force was to be used piecemeal into the defense of the Bastogne perimeter.

The CCB columns were moved through Neufchâteau and were then turned towards the direction of Bastogne following the current N85 road. While the headquarters of CCB installed itself in Vaux-lez-Rosieres, the rest of CCB set up a bivouac area between the villages of Surré and Nives.

The next day, December 20, 1944, still under the command of US VIII Army Corps, but trying to avoid his force to be split up (like the 9th and 10th Armored Divisions which were split up into task forces and combat teams), Brigadier General Dager suggested sending a single task force into Bastogne while the rest of CCB remained positioned southwest of the city. Little did they know that, slowly but surely, elements of Panzer Lehr, 5. Fallschirmjäger and 26. Volksgrenadier Divisions were nearing the sector.

Major Albin F. Irzyk, commander of the 8th Tank Battalion was tasked to assemble this task force; consisting of A Company (Lt. Len Kieley) of his own 8th Tank Battalion, C Company (Capt. Kenneth Hoffman?) of the 10th Armored Infantry Battalion and C Battery (Capt. Henri Frank?) of the 22nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion. Captain Abe Baum (the S-3 of the 10th Armored Infantry Battalion) also joined this force. The latter would become famous for the Hammelburg Raid (March 26, 1945). Commanding the task force was Captain Bert E. Ezell of the 8th Tank Battalion.

Task Force Ezell departed at 1030 hours from their assembly area. Captain Ezell was to report to Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne. As Ezell’s task force drove toward the town, they passed some GIs moving on foot away from Bastogne in the direction of Sibret (probably stragglers from the 28th Infantry Division). A little later, Ezell’s men passed several 155mm howitzers along the side of the road.

Arriving in Bastogne, Ezell and Baum reported to Gen. McAuliffe who sent them over to the commander of CCB/10th Armored Division (Colonel William Roberts). Col. Roberts instructed them to assemble in the vicinity of Villeroux.

Later that day, Brigadier General Dager had finally reached his commanding officer (Major General Gaffey) who ordered Dager to get Task Force Ezell out of Bastogne as quickly as possible.

Task Force Ezell returned via the route (along the current N85) it took before when heading towards Bastogne. Along the way, they came upon an abandoned American truck in a roadside ditch with the driver dead behind the steering wheel. Further down the road, wide tank tracks were seen that cut the road in  a westerly direction (probably elements of the German Panzer Lehr that were slowly moving towards Morhet and further on towards Saint-Hubert). As the task force again came upon the abandoned artillery howitzers they had passed before, Lt. Kieley ordered his men to hitch up the artillery pieces and take control over the abandoned prime movers as well. So the force returned with more equipment than they had when heading to Bastogne.

Later in the afternoon of December 20, CCB (Task Force Ezell included) headed back south in the direction of Neufchâteau and then turned southeast toward an assembly area in the vicinity of Louftémont, Anlier, and Habay-la-Neuve. There, they would await the arrival of Combat Command A and both combat commands would soon start their epic advance towards Bastogne which was by now about to be completely encircled by the German forces.

Sources:

  • “Task Force Ezell” by John H. Harris, 4th Armored Div., 22nd Armd FA Bn, Battery C.
  • “Task Force EZELL” by Don Fox (Facebook article).
  • “Bastogne; a fascinating, obscure vignette” by BG Albin F. Irzyk (Armor Magazine, March-April 1986).
  • Photos: US Army (Signal Corps), Bundesarchiv, Erwin Verholen.
  • Maps used:
    • AMS-703-bastogne-sheet-121-1943
    • “ARLON” sheet 17, 1943.
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