Prelude to the Attack of Sonlez
January 9th 1945, Major Hannes Kegel, ex-Luftwaffe pilot and a good friend of the commander of Fallschirmjaeger Regiment 13, Major Goswin Wahl, came to the Mill of Sonlez with his reserve Battalion. The big basement of the mill was used as the 13th Fallschirmjaeger Regiment Command Post. Major Kegel had the order to reinforce the Radfahrerbataillon (zbV-Bataillon 829 (Bicycle Battalion) on January 10th 1945 which was commanded by Hauptmann von Rosenboom, and placed in the village of Berlé. The Bicycle Battalion was attached to the 9th Volksgrenadier Division, and was exhausted from the hard and bloody fighting against outfits of the 26th Infantry (Yankee) Division near Nothum.
Around 9:20 a.m., the whole Battalion marches towards Berlé through the Sollerbach valley gorge by following a path called “Millewee” today. They advanced in two large columns on each side of the path. The 300 German soldiers have no idea that the 1st Battalion of the 357th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. 90th Infantry Division (Tough Hombres) captured the village of Berlé in the afternoon the day before.
At 9:30 a.m., Major William E. DePuy, commander of 1st Battalion, 357th Infantry Regiment, went to C Company, situated on the East side of Berlé, to give them orders to advance through the narrow valley “Henge Groendchen” and “Golette” to attack and seize the village of Doncols. However, before Major DePuy was able to finish giving his orders and to launch C Company towards Doncols, Captain George Spaeth from A Company, situated on the West side of the village, called him and asked him to come to the Church of the village as fast as he could.
Until the situation was cleared, the C Company advance to Doncols was on hold. Major DePuy was led to a Sergeant from the 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion standing on a Tank Destroyer situated in a gully on the right side of the Church of Berlé. DePuy was asked to climb into the Tank Destroyer’s turret, where the Sergeant handed him his binoculars and exciting pointing in direction to the Sollerbach valley gorge (today’s Millewee). He spotted Major Kegel's men in the valley, walking straight towards them in two large columns. Major DePuy and the Sergeant immediately plan to open fire with all 10 available tanks and tank destroyers. The tanks of A Company 712th Tank Battalion and mortars had the order to shell the right column first, while the Tank Destroyers, strafe the left column a few seconds later. H Company's mortar platoon, situated in woods Southwest of Berlé, will also support the barrage by firing in the direction of the columns with 81mm Mortars.
When the leading Germans were close of the intersection of the roads named today Millewee and Donkelserwee, it was too late, the Americans opened up on them in the valley. The Americans unleashed hell and death among the German columns and within minutes they were almost wiped out! Many of the German soldiers are dead or wounded after the shelling. It is believed that some of them are still somewhere near that intersection, unidentified, undiscovered - maybe forever...
After the Americans had cleared this dangerous situation, Major DePuy was back in the eastern part of Berlé and about to launch C Company’s assault towards Doncols. Out of a sudden, they got heavy fire from direction “Baemels”. DePuy made out five Sherman tanks along with supporting escort firing all guns and advancing Berlé. The C Company commander fired a white signal rocket as identification and Major DePuy together with his soldiers run into the open field, waving their jackets and coats to make the attacking unit (3rd Battalion Lt. Col. Smith) aware of the error and to cease the friendly fire. The attack was stopped immediately and the 3rd Battalion was re-routed in direction Pommerloch. Unfortunately, this friendly fire incident caused unnecessary casualties.
On January 11th 1945, G and E Companies, 357th Infantry Regiment, 90th Infantry Division advanced towards their next objective, the hamlet of Sonlez, heavily defended by German Fallschirmjaegers of the 5th Fallschirmjaeger-Division.
The Situation at the Sonlez Mill
In the basement of the Sonlez Mill, Major Wahl, decides to leave his Command Post together with Hauptmann Heinz Disselhoff, Leutnant Rudi Kilian, Oberleutnant Kunsch, a Feldwebel, and his driver, Unteroffizier Karl Klein.
At 12:00 o’clock, Wahl and his staff left the Mill as fast as they could, knowing that the Americans are less than a mile South of the Mill. They run to Major Wahl's Kuebelwagen parked in front of the Mill, but when Unteroffizier Karl Klein tries to start it, nothing happens, so they run towards the small creek named Sollerbaach, flowing between Sonlez and Berlé (which was completely frozen due to the sub-zero temperature in the area at that time.) They advanced on the frozen creek towards the village of Sonlez.
While running on the frozen solid creek, Major Wahl slips and injures his knee. His men carry him under the small bridge going under the main road in Sonlez, and into a house at the exit of the bridge. In this house, which was an artillery observation post of the Fallschirmjaeger- Regiment 15, they find the Battalion commander Hauptmann Kitze, a Leutnant, and a Feldwebel from that Battalion.
Together, they move on to the Division Headquarters in the old railroad station in Schleif, about 2 miles Northeast of Doncols. There, they meet Generalmajor Ludwig Heilmann, commander of the 5. Fallschirmjaeger-Division, who asks Major Wahl: "Wahl, how did you escape? Radio Luxembourg just announced that the Command Post of Fallschirmjaeger-Regiment 13 has been overrun and captured, and that the Regimental commander escaped minutes before the attack!"
At 12:30 p.m., the left boundary of the Tough Hombres Division is extended to take over a part of Task Force Scott's held territory. This was agreed in order that two hills, heavily defended by Germans infantry, could be engaged by 3rd Battalion of the 357th Infantry Regiment. Those two hills were overlooking a vital road, and it was of great importance to seize them, to allow the 358th Infantry Regiment to advance from Bavigne as fast as possible towards Sonlez and attack towards Bras, in Belgium. K Company was ordered to secure the northern hill approximately 900 yards South of Sonlez and L Company had to secure the second hill, to the South. At 13:35 p.m., both Companies moved forward from Berlé towards the two hills.
At the same time, G Company advanced towards Sonlez. They advanced to the high ground overlooking Sonlez just before noon p.m., under light artillery fire from the North.
The Assault to take the Sonlez Mill
Around noon, at the edge of the woods South of Sonlez, 1st Platoon of G Company, 357th Infantry Regiment gets the order to assault the Sonlez Mill by crossing two large fields leading directly to the Mill. 1st Platoon would attack the Mill using the fire and movement technique. In support of the 1st Platoons 2nd attack were several machine guns from a section of H Company's Heavy Machine gun Platoon, setup at the edge of the woods. The Machine guns opened up on the Mill and pinned the Germans down as much as possible. 1st Platoon, led by Lieutenant Berndt, crossed the two fields, firing their rifles as well while running.
By 14:35 p.m., the Mill was captured by G Company and 65 German paratroopers defending the Mill became P.O.W’s. One German prisoner was shot down after capture by a US infantryman as he was wearing captured U.S. Overshoes!! Many US soldiers were wounded during the general assault for Sonlez. One of them was Sergeant Jacques F. Cartier from New Hampshire USA, a Squad Leader in G Company of the 357th Infantry Regiment. My good friend Alexandre Ryelandt had communicated with Mr. Cartier and he had kindly shared his still vivid memories from 70 years ago. Sergeant Cartier was wounded in the early morning of January 11th 1945, South of the Sonlez Mill by a German machine gun bullet.
In one of his letters to Alexandre Reylandt, he says: "It had snowed during the night [January 10th - 11th 1945], and it was slow-going. I was scared. Machine guns started shooting at us from a black forest about a hundred yards in front of us. We could hear bullets all around us when suddenly, one hit my right arm and broke my ulna bone and knocked me down. I could still carry my rifle. I got up and started walking back. I still remember the Squad going by me without saying a word."
Sergeant Cartier and his Squad very probably marched back to the village of Berlé, which had been captured on January 9th 1945. A Company of the 315th Medical Battalion was in Berlé, and most likely treated Sergeant Cartier that day.
In the basement of the Mill, the Command Post of Fallschirmjaeger Regiment 13, many important documents fell in American hands. One document was duplicated and dropped over the German lines as anti-German propaganda. The leaflets encouraged the Germans to surrender, desert or to turn themselves in. The leaflet said that the Fallschirmjaegers of Fallschirmjaeger Regiment 13 had not been supplied well the last week. Many had not eaten for several days.
The assault for the Mill of Sonlez and the village was successful, but 16 men from G Company were killed in Action that day. Those 16 brave soldiers were: riflemen Gottlieb Swing, PFC Robert W. Boyd, Tec.5 Leland R. Bailey, Pvt. Don C. Coe, Pvt. Sydney E. Dye, PFC Charlie A. Fitch, PFC Alex C. Hoffman, Tec.4 John E. Holland, PFC Angelo Infurno, PFC Edwin B. Marcum, Pvt. Edward Johnson, Pvt. Raymond Moler, PFC Jing C. Ng, Automatic-rifleman PFC Stanton A. Einhorn, and ammunition handlers Pvt. Glen B. Butcher and PFC Olma D. Greene. Pvt. Paul E. Booth from E Company was also killed in action during the assault on Sonlez.
The Battle for Sonlez goes on
From the position G Company held, German troops could be seen running from one house to house. Heavy mortar fire was called in on those houses.
At 17:00 p.m., 2nd Battalion was still held-up at Sonlez.
Tanks from the 712th Tank Battalion were firing with their .50 caliber machine-guns at the windows of the houses to keep the Germans from firing on the exposed men of G and E Company. By radio, both Companies communicated and established a plan to trap the enemy in Sonlez. Since Doncols was already occupied by three Companies of the 1st Battalion, E Company would attack the village from the Northeast by crossing the road between Sonlez and Doncols and advancing a few yards towards the North, then coming back down towards Sonlez.
At the same time, K Company started attacking the northern hill around 900 yards South of Sonlez, and they are meeting determined resistance from German Fallschirmjaeger in their foxholes in the woods in a line of about 150 meters from the West to the East. Many Germans on the hill attacked by K Company are from a Signal Company according to P.O.W reports. Thirty minutes later, at 17:30 p.m., L Company sets off the attack against the hill to the South, meeting less resistance than K Company, but the dug in Germans are equipped with automatic weapons, which makes movement difficult for both Companies. At 19:45 p.m., K Company made its half way up the hill, taking approximately 150 German prisoners. The fighting conditions were terrible: it was freezing and a thick layer of snow was laying on the ground. Moreover, as if this was not enough, it was dark at this time during the winter, and there was no moon because of the cloudy sky. At 20:00 p.m., L Company succeeded in taking the southern hill and taking 53 German prisoners. After that, the German resistance collapsed, and the remaining German soldiers surrendered. At 20.40 p.m., both hills were in American hands. A few hours later, the 358th Infantry Regiment advanced from Bavigne to Sonlez, where they had a lively skirmish with German paratroopers not yet killed or taken prisoner, then from Sonlez towards Bras. I Company (357th) remained in reserve near Berlé. F Company (357th) remained in the woods South of the Sonlez Mill for the night.
G and E Company’s surprise attack to take Sonlez for good started at 22:20 p.m., and it trapped the German fighting force in Sonlez, not being able to fight the pressure from both sides. G and E Companies captured 650 German soldiers in total in Sonlez (including the Mill), mainly from the 5th Fallschirmjaeger Division, but also from the 1st SS Panzer Division, the Fuehrer Grenadier Brigade and elements of the 167th Volksgrenadier- Division.
The Germans still held the high ground North of Sonlez, and they used all available firepower to shell both G and E Companies, taking cover in houses of Sonlez. G Company was ordered to continue the attack to the North and destroy the German positions North of Sonlez. Not until 11:30 a.m. the next day, January 12th 1945, was Sonlez and the high ground to the North completely occupied by 2nd Battalion. H Company arrived in Sonlez with new 81mm mortars at around 12:30 p.m. that day.
G and E Companies lost 16 brave men on January 11th 1945, the day the Mill and the village of Sonlez were attacked. They must never be forgotten!
Sites you should visit in the Doncols / Sonlez Area
I would like to thank the following persons who helped and supported me on this tour:
· Mr Frank Rockenbrod - President N.L.M – for guiding me through several unknown sites in the Sonlez Area, telling unknown facts and sites and for a more than a 10 year close friendship.
· Mr Alexandre Reylandt for guiding me through the Sonlez Battelfield, helping me doing the text and the maps, providing details and inviting me to the Sonlez Mill.