897th and 3562nd Ordnance Heavy Automotive Maintenance Companies, 1941-1945
The Battle of Stavelot, 1944

The bridge over the Ambléve River runs behind the foreground buildings as viewed from the north (American) side.

The 897 Ordnance H.A.M. Co. at Stavelot, Belgium, as related to the Ardennes Campaign: The Battle of the Bulge.
"Why the sudden exodus of the 897 Ordnance Co. from Stavelot, Belgium on Sunday evening, December 17, 1944?"

The story doesn't mention the 897th, it only describes the fighting that pushed away this company that was equipped primarily for duties other than combat.

The following is an excerpt from "United States Army in World War II, The European Theater of Operations, The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge" as published by the Office of the Chief of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C.

The story deals with the crucial period of the campaign conducted in the Belgian Ardennes and specifically Stavelot and immediate vicinity. Although the German planning antedates the opening gun by several weeks, the story of the combat operations begins on Sat., Dec. 16, 1944.

General Josef "Sepp" Dietrich's Sixth Panzer Army was selected to make the main effort in the Ardennes offensive which was to begin at 0530 on Dec. 16 (Sat.). Because of its size, it was broken down into columns or march groups. One of these was commanded by Colonel Peiper and contained the bulk of the 1st Panzer Regiment and thus represented the spearhead of the division. On the morning of the 16th, Peiper's infantry failed to make a gap in the American lines as assigned, and his column was further delayed by a blown bridge N.W. of Losheim, which he finally reached at 1930, where he received a radio message that the next railroad overpass was out. The caused him to detour to Lanzerath which he reached by midnight, losing a number of tanks and other vehicles in the process, to mines and antitank fire. At 0400 on Sun., Dec. 17, Peiper attacked Honsfeld which was taken with ease. By this time Peiper's group was running low on gasoline and he headed for Bullingen where he found an American gas dump as predicted, and, using American prisoners, he refueled his tanks after which he destroyed a number of artillery planes on a nearby field. American gunners shelled Bullingen and he moved on, suffering some casualties.

Photos below without snow are approximatly dated in October of 1944, before the December battle.

Road outside Stavelot
Wreckage and townsfolk encountered by the 897th near Stavelot
Wreckage and townsfolk encountered by the 897th near Stavelot
Al Carfora, Ed Vander Wal, Harold Erwin, Stavelot station, courtesy Rich Hammond, grandson of Howard Hammond
Town and work areas near Stavelot, courtesy Rich Hammond, grandson of Howard Hammond
Town and work areas near Stavelot, courtesy Rich Hammond, grandson of Howard Hammond
JC Davies, Stavelot station, courtesy Rich Hammond, grandson of Howard Hammond
Jim Kasup, courtesy Rich Hammond, grandson of Howard Hammond

It was between noon and one o'clock on Sun., Dec. 17, on the road between Modersheid and Ligneuville that the German advance guard ran into an American convoy moving south from Malmedy. This was the ill-fated Battery B of the 285 Field Artillery Observation Bn. The convoy was shot up and the advance guard rolled on, leaving the troops to the rear to deal with the Americans who had taken to the woods and ditches. About two hours later, the Americans who had been rounded up were marched into a field where they were shot down with machine gun and pistol fire. A few escaped by feigning death but the wounded who moved or screamed were sought out and shot in the head. This was not the first killing of unarmed prisoners chargeable to Kampfgruppe Peiper on Sun., Dec. 17. Irrefutable evidence shows that the nineteen unarmed Americans were shot down in Honsfeld and fifty at Bullingen also.

December 17, US Army photo

The point of Peiper's column reached Ligneuville sometime before 1300 Sun., Dec. 17 in time to eat the lunch which had been prepared for an American detachment stationed in the village. Here the road divided, the north fork going to Malmedy and the western going to Stavelot. Peiper's path lay straight ahead, through Stavelot, Trois Ponts, Werbomont, Ouffet, Seny and Huy.

About 1400 the group resumed march, advancing along the south bank of the Ambleve River. The advance guard reached Stavelot, the point where the river must be crossed. at dusk on Sun., Dec. 17. Looking down on the town the Germans saw hundreds of trucks, while on the opposite bank, the road from Stavelot to Malmedy was jammed with vehicles. Although the Germans did not know it, many of these trucks were moving to help evacuate the great First Army gasoline dumps north of Stavelot and Malmedy. March serials of the 7th Armored Div. also were moving through Stavelot en route to Vielsalm.

The small town of Stavelot (population 5,000) lies in the Ambleve River valley surrounded by high, sparsely wooded bluffs. Most of the town is built on the north bank of the river or on the slopes above. There are a few scattered buildings on the south bank. Like most of the watercourses in this part of the Ardennes, the Ambleve was no particular obstacle to infantry but the deeply incised valley at this point offered hard going to tanks, while the river, by reason of the difficult approaches, was a tougher than usual tank barrier. Only one vehicular bridge spanned the river at Stavelot. The sole approach to this bridge was by the main highway; here the ground to the left fell away sharply and to the right a steep bank rose above the road.

Stavelot ruins encountered by the 897th
Stavelot ruins encountered by the 897th
Stavelot ruins encountered by the 897th

Stavelot and its bridge were open for the taking. The only combat troops in town at this time were a squad from the 291 Engineer Combat Bn., which had been sent from Malmedy to construct a roadblock on the road leading to the bridge. For some reason Peiper's advance guard halted on the south side of the river, one of those quirks in the conduct of military operations. Months after the event, Peiper told interrogators that his force had been checked by American antitank weapons covering the narrow approach to the bridge, that Stavelot was "heavily defended". But his detailed description of what happened when the Germans attacked to take the town and bridge shows he was confused in his chronology and he was thinking of events which transpired on Mon., Dec. 18. It is true that during the early evening of the 17th (Sun.) that three German tanks made a rush for the bridge, but when the leader hit a hasty mine field laid by American engineers the others turned back - nor were they seen for the rest of the night.

Perhaps the sight of the numerous American vehicles parked in the streets left Peiper to believe that the town was held in force and that a night attack held the only chance of taking the bridge intact. If so, the single effort made by the German point is out of keeping with Peiper's usual ruthless drive and daring. Whatever the reason - Peiper's Kampfgruppe came to a halt on Sun. night, Dec. 17 at the Stavelot bridge.

Gocek and Heilman, December 1944

During the night of Dec. 17-18, First Army ordered a platoon of 3-inch towed tank destroyers from the 526 Armored Inf. Bn. to outpost Stavelot; two platoons on the south bank of the river (with a section of tank destroyers at the old roadblock); one platoon with three 57 MM antitank guns and the second section of tank destroyers in reserve around the town square north of the river. The troops began to move into position just before daybreak on Mon., Dec. 18, but before the riflemen could organize a defense the German infantry attacked, captured the tank destroyers and drove the two platoons back across the bridge. Taken by surprise, the Americans failed to destroy the bridge and a Panther [Panzer?] made a dash about 0800 which carried it onto the north bank. More tanks followed. For some while the Germans were held in the houses next to the river; an anti aircraft artillery battery of the 7 Armored Div. wandered into the firefight and did considerable damage before it went on its way. A Co. from the 202 Eng. Combat Bn. joined in the fray. By the end of the morning however, the German firing line had built up to the point where the Americans could no longer hold inside the village proper, particularly since the hostile tanks were roving at will in the streets.

Bastogne Station: Neer, Gocek and Appleman in front

What remained of the detachment of tank destroyers and antitank guns retired to the top of the hill above Stavelot. In the confusion of disengagement however, the remaining antitank weapons and all but one rifle platoon fell back along the Malmedy road. With German tanks climbing the hill behind the lone platoon and without any means of antitank defense, the C.O. seized some of the gasoline from the Francorchamps dump, had his men pour it in a deep road cut where there was no turn-out and set it ablaze. The result was a perfect antitank barrier and the German tanks turned back to Stavelot. 124,000 gallons of gas were used for this operation - it was the closest that Kampfgruppe Peiper came to the great stores of gas which might have taken the 1st SS Panzer Div. to the Meuse Rover.

Trois Ponts gains its name from three highway bridges; two over the Salm and one over the Ambleve. The road from Stavelot passes under railroad tracks as it nears Trois Ponts then veers sharply to the south, crosses the Ambleve and finally enters the village.

While the battle in Stavelot was still in progress, Peiper turned some of his Mark IV tanks toward Trois Ponts by following a narrow side road on the near bank of the river. The road was almost impassable and when the group came under American fire this approach was abandoned. The main part of the Kampfgruppe swung through Stavelot and advanced on Trois Ponts, by the highway which followed the north bank of the river.

Gocek and Vander Wal

At this time, Trois Ponts was occupied by Co. C, 51 Eng. Combat Bn. The Co. had been ordered out of the sawmills it had been operating and dispatched to Trois Ponts where it detrucked about midnight of Sun., Dec. 17. During the night the Co. was deployed at roadblocks covering the railroad tracks north of the river. On the morning of Mon., Dec. 18 part of an artillery column of the 7 Armored Div. passed through Trois Ponts after a detour to avoid the German armor south of Malmedy and with them was one 57 MM antitank gun and crew which became lost when the remnants of the 526 Armored Inf. Bn. withdrew to the top of the hill at Stavelot. The gun and crew were placed on the Stavelot road to the east of the underpass where mines had been laid.

At 1145 the advance guard of Peiper's column came rolling along the road. A shot from the 57 MM gun stopped the foremost German tank but after a brief skirmish the 57 MM gun was knocked out, four of the crew were killed and the engineers were driven back. The hit on the lead tank checked the German column just long enough to give warning to the bridge guards who then blew the Ambleve bridge and then the Salm bridge. In the meantime one of the engineer platoons had discouraged the German tank company from further advance along the side road and it had turned back to Stavelot.

Frustrated, Peiper now turned northward toward La Gleize. Nearby, at the hamlet of Cheneux, Peiper found a bridge intact over the Ambleve but when the weather cleared American fighter-bombers knocked out three tanks and seven half-tracks, blocking the road for a long time. When night came Peiper was three miles from Werbomont. During the evening a German detachment did cross a bridge and swung toward Werbomont. Near Chevron this force was ambushed by a Bn. of the 30th Div. and cut to pieces. Few Germans escaped. Since there was nothing left but to double back on his tracks, Peiper left a guard on the bridge at Cheneux and moved his advance guard through the dark toward Stoumont, situated on the Ambleve River road from which the abortive detour had been made during the afternoon of the same day, Mon., Dec. 18.

At daybreak on Mon., Dec. 18, the 119 Infantry was alerted for movement to Stavelot but before trucks could arrive in Eupen, Stavelot fell to the enemy. Expecting the 3rd Parachute Div. to reinforce him soon, Peiper left only a small holding force in Stavelot. In the meantime the U.S. 117 Inf. made contact with the U.S. 526 Armored Inf. Bn. near Stavelot and launched an attack to retake the town. With the help of American fighter-bombers, half of the town was retaken.

The fight for Stavelot continued all night of the 18th with German tanks now free from the air threat, working through the streets as far as the town square. At daybreak the 1st Bn. and its tanks went to work and by noon had reclaimed all the town down to the Ambleve R. Twice during the afternoon, enemy-led tank formations drive toward the town but both times American gunners dispersed the field gray infantry and the tanks decided not to chance the assault alone. It is not surprising that the German infantry gave over the field. The 118th cannoneers fired 3500 shells into the assault waves, working their guns so fast that the tubes had to be cooled with water.

By Tues. night, Dec. 19, the first Bn. had a firm grip on Stavelot - but, in the most telling stroke of all, its attached engineers had dynamited the Ambleve bridge across which Peiper's force had rolled west on Mon., Dec. 18. Without the Ambleve bridge, and a free line of communication through Stavelot, there was no fuel for Peiper. Without Peiper, the freeway to the Meuse which the 1st SS Panzer Div. was to open for the following divisions of the Sixth Panzer Army remained nothing more than cul-de-sac.