On Dec. 16, 1944, the Germans launched a massive offensive into the Ardennes Forest that caught the Allies off guard. As the Battle of the Bulge erupted, depleted American forces were rushed into the lines to shore up the defense. One of those units was the 1st Infantry Division’s 26th Infantry Regiment.
One of the veterans of the battalion, Henry Warner, was assigned to lead a 57mm anti-tank gun section in the battalion’s anti-tank company.
Warner had joined the Army at the age of 19 in January of 1943. After being assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, he fought through northern Europe with the 26th Infantry Regiment and received a promotion to Corporal.
When the Germans launched their major offensive, known to them as Operation Watch on the Rhine, Warner and the rest of his outfit were regrouping in Belgium after bitter fighting.
U.S. troops of the 26th infantry at Butgenbach positioning an anti-tank gun. (U.S. Army Center for Military History)
The 26th Infantry Regiment had been engaged in the brutal fighting in the Hürtgen Forest. The second battalion had been particularly hard hit. The unit had been so depleted that nine out of every ten men in the battalion were green replacements — and they were still understrength. At the outset of the Battle of the Bulge, only seven officers in the entire unit had been with the battalion the previous month.
While the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions blunted the initial German thrust at Elsenborn Ridge, the 1st Infantry Division went south to shore up the defenses and stop any attempts of an encirclement by the Germans. Linking up with the 99th Infantry Division was the 2nd Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment. The battalion commander dispersed his understrength unit to hold the Belgian town of Butgenbach.
The defenders at Butgenbach just happened to be right in the way of the planned German assault.
Although the 2nd Battalion was short on many things, including men, machine guns, and grenades, they were determined to hold the line.
U.S. troops defend their position near Luxembourg in Jan. 1945. (U.S. National Archives)
Stationed along a pivotal roadway was Warner’s anti-tank gun section. Thanks to the valiant efforts of the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions, Warner and his men had ample time to dig in and prepare their positions.
The first German attacks came on Dec. 19, but were beaten back by the American forces. The Germans then continued to probe American lines throughout the night.
On the morning of Dec. 20, the Germans came hard down the road manned by Warner and his men. At least ten German tanks supported by infantry fought their way into the American position. All along the line Americans and Germans engaged in close combat.
Anti-tank gunners and bazookas blasted the German tanks at point blank range as they tried to drive through the lines.
On that morning, three German tanks approached Warner’s position. Manning his 57mm gun, he promptly knocked out the first tank with a well-placed shot.
As the tanks continued to advance, Warner skillfully lined up another shot and put a second German tank out of action.
As the third tank neared his position, Warner’s gun jammed. He fought to clear the jam until the German tank was within only a few yards. Then, in a move that can only be deemed crazy, Warner jumped from his gun pit brandishing his .45 caliber 1911 pistol.
With the German tank right on top of him — and disregarding the intense fire all around from the attacking German infantry — Warner engaged the commander of the German tank in a pistol duel. Warner outgunned the German, killing him, and forcing his now leaderless tank to withdraw from the fight.
U.S. troops march a German prisoner past a burning Nazi tank. (U.S. Army Signal Corps photo | Dec. 17, 1944)
Supporting American artillery broke up the German infantry assault and, along with Warner’s heroics, had repelled the German attack.
Warner and the rest of the battalion continued to resist the German onslaught, turning back numerous infantry advances. The Germans rained down mortar and artillery fire throughout the rest of the day and that night, as well.
The next morning the Germans came in force once again. And once again Warner was manning his 57mm gun. As a Panzer Mark IV emerged into Warner’s view, he engaged it with precision fire. He set the tanks engine on fire but paid for it with a blast from a German machinegun.
Not out of the fight, Warner ignored his injuries and struggled to reload his gun and finish off the German tank. A second burst from a German machine gun cut him down before he could complete his task.
For his actions in stopping the German attacks, Cpl. Warner was awarded the Medal of Honor.
The rest of the 26th Infantry Regiment, spurred on by the bravery of soldiers like Warner, held its position against repeated German attacks.
The 1st Infantry Division, along with the 2nd, 9th, and 99th Infantry Divisions, now made up the northern shoulder of “the Bulge” and the strict time table for the attack was severely behind schedule.
Feb 9, 2017 1:15:34 pm
James Elphick is a veteran airborne infantryman of the 82nd Airborne Division having served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He has a Masters degree in International Studies from Texas State University and currently works for Veterans Upward Bound helping veterans returning to school.