Minefield in Grandmenil

With the capture of Manhay, it looked like the 2nd SS Das Reich was on the right track again. After 8 days of fighting, the German troops were on their way to Erezée, hoping to meet the other troops in Hotton and further on, in Marche en Famenne.
I must say right away that the story that follows will remain vague. Lack of good reports and multiple accounts from German side makes it unclear who was where during this short period of time. None of the sources used could clarify a 100% what was going on here.
But I will give it a try.

According to several sources, the troops were split up: Frauscher’s tanks would proceed with the 1st and 2nd company/ regiment “Deutschland” to Grandmenil.

Deze afbeelding heeft een leeg alt-attribuut; de bestandsnaam is Panther-214.jpg

Hargesheimer’s 2nd company, 1st platoon was to follow them. The 3rd company/ “Deutschland” regiment and 3rd company/ “Der Furher” regiment went in the direction of Vaux-Chavanne. In ‘The sons of das Reich’ Michael Reynolds says: “Leaving Wislinecy’s 3rd Panzergrenadier Battalion and a few tanks to secure Manhay, the bulk of the Panthers and Grenadiers turned west towards […] Grandmenil.”
Combining all sources, it seems more likely that all tanks went westward and they only left the Panzergrenadiers in Manhay.
Before Frauscher left Manhay he climbed on a nearby Sherman, disabled by Barkmann, and took binoculars and a leather map case which were laying in the tank’s turret.
Turning west on the crossroads, the Panther tanks headed towards the little village of Grandmenil. If they could take that town, the troops were heading to a very difficult terrain with slopes, winding roads and no possibility of going cross-country. Without knowing it, by going in the Grandmenil direction they were signing the death sentence of the “Das Reich” Division.

Frauscher’s platoon of five Panthers was reduced to two tanks. With Frauscher up front, the 1.1 kilometers to Grandmenil seemed an easy ride. The lineup of the column is not 100% clear. If we follow the storyline and combine it with George Winter’s article (“Panther rampage in the Ardennes”) and the other sources it should be: Frauscher “435”, Fischer (432 or 433), Knocke’s platoon, Pohl’s “402”, Wissmann’s platoon, and lastly Hargesheimer’s platoon.

While pushing forward, a roadblock, piled up with tree trunks appeared before him all of a sudden.

Grandmenil road where the 2nd SS approached the hamlet on december 24.

Frauscher: “But we easily knocked it over so that it was not a hindrance again. The block was apparently laid in haste and was therefore not very effective.”
The road to Grandmenil was bordered by trees on both sides. Arriving at the road junction leading to Grandmenil – Bomal, Frauscher hesitated. A quick look at the map made sure he had to go straight forward.
According to Frauscher: “On coming into Grandmenil we approached the first houses cautiously. During the entire assault we had maintained a distance of approximately 50 meters between the tanks. I stopped in the center of the place on finding a crossroads. Approximately 50 meters from the crossroads I remained standing to reconnoiter the position. Suddenly I heard a shot and the 4th tank of my platoon, in confirming distance behind me, stood in flames.” (meaning: respecting the 50 meters between each Panther, during an attack, as learnt during training. BK)
While observing the situation at the crossroads, Frauscher had overlooked two tank destroyers of the 628thTDB/ company B. One TD was led by sgt. Gilbert Moser. The other by Sgt. Patrick Pennetti. The battalion had arrived in the area around 14.00hrs on the same day and Lt. Col. Walter Richardson had them attached to the 83rd Reconnaissance Battalion/ 3rdAD.  

The two TD’s had taken defensive positions in the Rue Alphonse Poncelet and established a roadblock at 01.30hrs, December 25th.

Gilbert N Moser and Patrick P. Pennetti who stopped the advancing tanks of Frauscher's platoon

Suddenly they heard an enemy column approaching. Sgt. Gilbert N. Moser permitted the leading tanks to come closer and fired at the second tank that neared the crossroads, knocking it out.
Frauscher: “Quickly realising the situation, I saw to my right at approximately 150 meters the Sherman (in fact a TD; BK) that had delivered the shot. Through the enormous fire light the visibility was very good. I gave the gunner the order to turn the turret to three o’clock and verified with the gunner that he saw the target and then gave the order to fire. In the next instant the Sherman stood in flames and I breathed easier.” This in fact was the tank of Pennetti. Pennetti, T5 Grizzle and pvt. Kent were wounded.
Frauscher spotted a second TD, hiding under some trees in the same area and he disabled it.
In personal statement Frauscher speaks about “4 tank”, the one that got taken out, suggesting this was tank “434” of his platoon. “Of the crew of 4 tank unfortunately 4 men were burnt, only the radioman escaped through the hatch on the road and came away unhurt.”
Commander Oskar Fischer, gunner Bischof  and the loader and driver were killed.
According to the 5thAD website, Moser and his crew knocked out a

The knocked and bunred out of Pennetti

second tank, but images, the statement of Frauscher and other stories contradict that claim. In the book of Eddy Monfort, we found pictures of another Panther tank at the same crossroads, but is facing the direction of Manhay. It is most likely that this tank was knocked out later, during the fights in Grandmenil. Therefor I did not place this tank (situated at the crossroads) on the map.

Just before this incident, around the Bomal-Manhay road junction:
Lt. Heinrich Knocke, in the lead of the 1st platoon, slipped of to the left side of the road and the barrel of the panther got stuck in the mud. As he climbed out of the tank, he could redirect the driver back on the road. Although his gunbarrel was totally useless because of the dirt in it, he continued. “I could not leave my comrades in the lurch. I could still use the turret and hull machine guns.”
Just before Heinrich Knocke arrived at the junction, he saw the Panther of Ortwin Pohl. Pohl got seriously wounded in the head by a piece of shrapnel and was driven to a nearby aid station. Knocke’s gunner moved to Pohl’s tank “402” and took command of it. According to George Winters this incident occurred just before Knocke entered Grandmenil, and must have happened right before or at the junction leading towards Bomal.
At that same junction the platoon of Wissmann decided to go cross country and left the road. The reason is not 100% sure: I found one source stating that the platoon was afraid that the road was mined. But this is strange: other tanks already bypassed and they were visible for Wissmann’s platoon. Another source says that a Panther was blocking the road. And this is possible: it could have been the “402” of Ortwin Pohl! Wissmann was unaware that right in front of him was a huge minefield. Some years ago I talked about it with 75thID/ 289th regiment, Canon company veteran Vernon Brantley. On the phone he stated that they laid around 600 mines in that field. On my question why they laid 600 of them, he answered “We didn’t have any more!”
Grandson of 238th Engineer Combat Battalion veteran Ssgt William G. Jameson,  Jamy Jameson visited the spot in 2018 with his wife.
His grandfather recalled: “It was December 22nd when we left and we drove through the night of the 23rd. We laid mines in the vicinity of Manhay and set up defensive positions to guard the mines. It was miserable weather, cold and we lived in the open 24 hours a day.”
The minefield was laid in a hasty pattern and the men did not have time to bury them. While laying it, many troops were already retreating, followed by US tanks. Although they were advised to retreat as well, the men of the 238th stayed in place. They were alone on the road junction.

The minefield of Grandmenil
NOTE: the yellow tanks are depicting the other tanks of Wissman’s platoon. I think they were not knocked out, but could retreat out of it.

On both sides of the road they had daisy chains (mines on a rope, which could be place quickly over the road.)
Jameson: “It was snowing like mad. There was a vacant house there about 50 feet off the road. It had no heat but we took turns going in to dry out.” According to the statement of John Wong (“Battle Bridges”) they took the house aside the road, leading to Grandmenil. (The house later was taken over by Frauscher’s men.) Because of the snow, the mines were not visible anymore.
Suddenly the men heard German tanks roaring down the road.
“As it turned out, the German tanks came down the road that the 2nd platoon of company C had mined. They left the road to go through the field, not knowing it was mined. The explosions were so loud that we thought they were in our field. Five Mark-V tanks had been disabled. The Germans were stopped.”
What is strange is that it went unnoticed by the Engineers, that Frauscher, (including another platoon, probably Knocke’s), already had bypassed the minefield. In the book of 238th Captain John B. Wong, twelve tanks attacked in the Grandmenil direction. Another member of the 238th stated that a couple of Panthers could bypass the minefield because they used a so called “Judas Goat”, a confiscated Sherman, driven by a German crew.
This is the first time “the Judas Goat” is mentioned. We will come back to it in the next chapter. By the way: Frauscher is not mentioning a Sherman tank driving in front of him.
According to Wenkin’s “Les temoins d’acier” it is the platoon of Hargesheimer that went into the minefield, knocking out the first four tanks. According to my information, it is Wissman’s platoon.

Grandmenil Minefield 238th ECB

Wenkin: “The Panther with tank no. 214 took the dirt road, bypassing the electric tower. After a bumpy journey of a hundred meters, it went into a muddy part in the field which still exists today. Snow fell before it started to freeze. Also, only a surface layer of the soil is hardened. The 45 tonnes of steel breaks the thin ice layer. The tank sunk in the marshy field. Immobilized, the dreaded tank is abandoned by its crew. During an interview carried out in 1984 with Mr. Louis Laurent from Manhay, he declared that only one of the three tanks was intact. It can only be the Panther that sits at the crossroads of Grandmenil today. A photo dated 1947 allows us to identify it as the number 214.”

Wow, wait…let’s take a short break here:
For many years a discussion has been going on about the number on the Grandmenil Panther. Researcher Frans Nooij (Netherlands) told me years ago that there was never a Panther with number 407.
At the moment we are researching Panther “407” (214) and it’s background. We will write an article about it later.
So, according to Wenkin it is Hargesheimer’s second company/ first platoon who drove into the minefield. But, according to George Winter (both in his book and his article) it was Wissmann’s, losing 4 tanks. In the personal statement of Frauscher, he is saying that Hargesheimer took over command after taking Grandmenil, indicating that his tanks were fine.
Winters: “The largest single loss suffered by the 4th Company occurred while 2nd Lt. Alfred Wissmann made the fatefull decision to take the 2nd platoon off the road and into a nearby meadow to avoid an obstruction. As soon as his tanks entered the minefield, their crews discovered that it had been sown with mines. Quickly all five Panthers were put out of action. After his command was wrecked, Wissmann made his way to the stone building in the foreground (see map; BK), where he held a conference with the company’s other two leaders.
Also in Winters’ article: “As the Panthers of the 2nd platoon advanced, they were stopped by Fisher’s burning tank, which blocked the road. Wissmann ordered his driver to turn to the left and enter the meadow bordering the road. The rest of the platoon dutifull followed. Within minutes all five Panthers ran over mines that had been placed in the field by the 238th Engineer Battalion. The explosions wrecked wheels, sprockets and tracks. Four of Wissmann’s tanks came to a halt and the fifth staggered to the edge of the road, where it too stopped.
So, here it becomes clear we are not 100% sure which company and platoon drove into that marsh. I have ideas about it. But only in theory. As Winters describes the scene, Wissman already was in Grandmenil and beyond the minefield, which is not correct.

The minefield nowadays

According to me, based on the sources, Ortwin Pohl’s tank was blocking the Bomal-Manhay road junction for a while when he got wounded. In front of him was Knocke’s platoon. Behind Pohl stood Wissmann’s platoon. Behind Wissmann were the tanks of Hargesheimer.  In order to keep moving on, four tanks from Wissmann’s platoon decided to go through the field. One of Hargesheimer’s tanks, the 214, followed Wissman.  Leaves us with one discrepancy: Knocke said he saw Pohl’s tank in front of him and his gunner took over the command, indicating Knocke was behind Pohl, instead of in front of him. Maybe he passed him by, to attach to Frauscher. So, Pohl was right behind Frauscher and Fischer.
On the famous aerial picture of William VanDivert, we can see the minefield and five tanks visible. Eddy Monforts book “Bataille des Carrefours” shows a map indicating that there were more tanks in that area.

Aerial picture made by Williamd VanDivert, LIFE photographer

In the article about Panther tank “214” I will go more into detail about this matter.

Back at the Grandmenil crossroads:
Frauscher was in shock, because he now was alone. Behind Fishers burning “434” tank, nobody was left. He had to estimate the strength of his opponents. Were there any other tanks or infantry left in the village? “My position was extremely dangerous. As a single tank at the crossroads I had little chance. It remained quiet for a while. I requested help over the radio from the company. There was no possibility for me to go around the burning tank on the narrow road.”
Frauscher already new that a platoon of tanks was knocked out by the minefield, so going back through the meadow was not an option.
“Time passed by and it was already after midnight. I was still alone.”
It was December 25th, Christmas. With the motor turned off, Frauscher listened tot he outside sounds in the night. All of a sudden he heard heavy motor noise from the left. He warned his crew and then he saw vehicles driving along the road. Frauscher was in doubt, maybe they were friendly tanks.  “Finally I recognised three Sherman tanks, only a short distance away. As the first tank passed the crossing I gave the order to fire but the gunner only fired at the third order. The same was repeated for the other tanks. The shells naturally missed the targets and went by the tanks. The three Shermans increased their speed to the left to their destination.” According to the gunner he had no vision on the tanks and therefore had not fired.
Frauscher: “It was now clear to me that a further advance to Erezée involved great risk. We were now only with a few tanks and found ourselves in the middle of enemy territory without any infantry support.”  
As said, Frauscher gathered with Wissmann and Knocke in the small house along the Grandmenil road.
“On foot, Wissmann cautiously made his way through the minefield and reached the road, taking shelter in a nearby stone house.

knocked out panther no 5 in Grandmenil

He was soon joined by Knocke, the commander of the first platoon.”
As they were discussing their next move, Frauscher entered the building.
The order to proceed towards the next town was given via radio and the march to Erezée began.
The tanks managed to bypass Fischer’s tank by driving through the front yard of the house that stood opposite Fisher’s tank.
Grandmenil was taken and firmly in German hands, although they had taken a serious beating with the minefield and the loss of Fischer’s panther.

Sgt. Gilbert Moser was awarded the Silver Star for his actions.
Last year he was was honored with 15” x 19” plaque to be displayed at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh, PA.in the Hall of Valor last
year by Doug Drumheller e.a
Sgt. Patrick P. Pennetti was awarded the bronze star.

Many thanks to Vernon Brantley, Eddy Monfort, Jurg Herzig, Tolga Alkan, Iwan Nieuwerth, Frans Nooij, Jamie Jameson and Kristof Nijs for editing the text.

– Manhay, the Ardennes christmas 1944 by George Winter
– Panthers rampage in the Ardennes by George Winter
– Armor Battles of the waffen SS by Will Fey
– Sons of the Reich by Michael Reynolds
– Personal statement of Franz Frauscher
– Bataille des carrefours by Eddy Monfort
– Bridges for liberty by Janny Beck Jameson
– Battle bridges by John B. Wong
– Les témoins d’acier 2 by Wenkin/ Dujardin
– Ghost Battalion by Bill Carr
– Panzerdivision “Das Reich” by Michael Reynolds
– 5ad.org, 628thTDB.
– The Battle of the Bulge by John Toland
– Manhay and Grandmenil, Belgium by Wesley Johnston
– Battle of the bulge throught the lens
– tankdestroyer.net

© Bob Konings

Coming up: The attack on Trou Du Loup! (rewritten version!)