One major offensive was timed to jump off at 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 30, 1944. That was German.
Another major offensive was timed to jump off at 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 30, 1944. That was American.
In the center of this titanic clash was the 87th (Golden Acorn) Division, a predominantly Northeastern unit stocked with young New York and Pennsylvania engineering students and air cadets. The resulting battle, unique in American warfare, was a turning point not only in the Battle of the Bulge, but on the Western front.
Known by a military term that sounds like parlor talk as a “meeting engagement”, the battle has been recorded by both Lt. Gen. George S. Patton and Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton; in the comprehensive history compiled by Prof. Russell Weigley of Temple University, as well as by other historians.
After the German tank columns lunged west of Bastogne, Belgium, in their massive surprise offensive in mid-December, their rapid progress cut them off from ammunition, food and fuel. Desperately, they needed a road that would facilitate their re-supply. They picked the St. Hubert-Bastogne road that tied in with a road/rail net fanning out from the city of Bastogne.
That’s where the 87th Infantry Division came in. Thrown into battle virtually without patrolling after an exhausting 300-mile motor-march in open trucks from Germany’s Saar Valley during near-zero weather, the division was ordered to recapture villages that had been seized by the Germans to forge an iron collar around Bastogne.
The American tactician was Maj. Gen. Middleton, the VIIIth Corps commander, credited by Patton with “a stroke of genius” in plotting the city’s defense. A modest man, a scholar (he later became president of Louisiana State University), who presented a striking contrast to the profane, swashbuckling Patton, Middleton’s response to the Nazi siege was three-cornered.
He ordered the newly-arrived 87th Division, the 11th Armored and later the 17th Airborne Divisions to counterattack in a northeastern arc outside Bastogne, “with the 87th and 11th Armored carrying the main load,” according to his biography.
The precipitous, even reckless, timing of the attack, however, was all Patton’s. All the generals concerned, Patton has written, wanted a one-day delay to give the attacking divisions time to spread their maps as well to feel out the enemy with patrols. “Had I done so,” Patton retorted in his memoirs, “it would have permitted the Germans to drive home their attack”, imperiling the lifeline into the city that had been forged by Fourth Armored Division tanks.
“This meeting engagement,” Patton later reflected, “upset both attacks, but was very fortuitous as far as we were concerned, because had we not hit the flank of the Germans they might have again closed the corridor into Bastogne.” What Patton was unaware of was that on the very day he delivered his attack order, according to John Toland’s history, “Battle, the Story of the Bulge,” Adolph Hitler had ranted to his generals: “Above all, we must have Bastogne.” In perspective, as costly as the American attack proved to be, Patton’s seemingly rash decision represented one of the most daring, prescient and successful moves of World War II.
Middleton’s three-division tactic to protect Bastogne might have been soundly drawn, but one of its critical underpinnings, a division that had been expected to mount a strong push, faltered. The 11th Armored, absorbing heavy casualties as well as equipment losses, could not keep up. Its commanding general, later to be relieved, requested permission to vacate one regiment’s forward position — the only position that had been able to keep abreast of the 87th Division infantrymen.
“This,” records Middleton in his biography, “would leave CCA’s (a reinforced regiment) vacated area to the infantrymen of the 87th. While the 11th’s armor had stalled,” he writes, “the infantrymen of the 87th were more successful on the Corps’ left. They too covered their first five miles without bumping into the Germans. Then then took heavy losses in pushing attacks on Moircy and Jenneville, but the 87th carried its objectives. (author’s underscore). “On Dec. 31, Jan. 1 and 2nd (1945), the 87th’s infantrymen fought well in snow, sleet and deepening cold. They accomplished their mission of cutting the highway linking the Germans at St. Hubert with supply sources back in Germany.”
To any 87th Division GI who was there, it is idle to underscore the titanic collision of the two armies. It still resounds in their memory. And yet it is remarkable that this young, relatively untested division, heavily infused with college students, not only repulsed the furiously-attacking enemy, but remained able to continue attacking, retaking not only St. Hubert, but Bertrix, Tonny, Ochamps, Vesqueville, Bonnerue, Hatrival, Recogne, Remagne, Bras Haut and Tillet, all immediately outside Bastogne. Later it went on to help recapture St. Vith, as well as other key places that helped liquidate the Bulge salient.
Wresting away Tillet, less than 15 kilometers from Bastogne, after unrelieved ferocity, was an especially significant feat of arms, for it removed any possibility that the Nazis could penetrate Bastogne. Emblematic of the 87th’s achievement, that costly, weeklong struggle for Tillet produced both a Congressional Medal of Honor winner (posthumously) and a Distinguished Service Cross winner, as well as other valorous decorations.
But unaccountably, even though the 87th and other American forces had been relentlessly attacking from the south end of the Bulge salient toward Houffalize, there was to be no help from the north. It was in the north that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied commander, had appointed British Field Marshall Montgomery to command temporarily both British and American armies. During this time, these forces sat and accomplished almost nothing.
“We fought on the south side all the time,” records Middleton in his biography. This will accord with the memories of 87th Division veterans. “I doubt that the Germans would have gotten many men out of the (Bulge) salient if that attack (from the north) had been launched along with one that came from the south. What if the VIIIth Corps had been sitting around, tidying up, instead of attacking toward Houffalize on Dec. 30? The Germans might have run right across our front and broken into Bastogne after all. After the Germans saw they simply could not take Bastogne, they executed a general withdrawal”.
This critique is backed by Middleton’s superior in his 1947 memoirs “War As I Knew It.” The outspoken Patton wondered aloud not only why the British kept sitting, but why they did so at a time the Germans launched on Dec. 30 “probably the biggest coordinated counterattack that troops under my command have ever experienced.”
Even when the 87th Division isn’t explicitly in these highly-esteemed commanders’ observations, its role is clear in what Patton described as “the bitter struggle of Bastogne.” Pushing on after the Bulge to cross the Kyll, Moselle, Rhine and Mulde Rivers all the way to the German-Czechoslovakian border south of Berlin, this unit, which entered combat wearing World War I leggings and which faced the battle-hardened Panzer Lehr Division as well as SS troops, vanquished them all.
Having accomplished so much not only in Belgium but in Luxembourg and Germany, having captured the major city of Koblenz, forcing the Rhine and Moselle Rivers at their most difficult sectors, as well as assaulting the Siegfried Line, why was the 87th overlooked when the honors were handed out? Why did other units receive the Presidential Unit Citations and foreign government honors?
One can only speculate, but the Golden Acorn Division was a relative latecomer to Europe, and a low-profile one at that. Just another anonymous number, it had neither a history nor any special cachet to precede or follow it, as did the 101st Airborne and the Big Red One. Nor did it seek any.
The historian Russell Weigley, however, did notice the 87th. In his compendious history “Eisenhower’s Lieutenants”, he wrote that the Golden Acorn Division always provided “efficient performance under unassuming but thoroughly competent leadership.”
Written accolades included an eloquent tribute from Patton to the VIIIth Corps, in which the 87th played a central role. “None of us,” he wrote, “will ever forget the stark valor with which you and your Corps contested every foot of ground during Von Rundstedt’s attack.” Von Rundstedt’s attack was the Battle of the Bulge.
In another postwar tribute to the 87th’s commander, Maj. Gen. Frank L. Culin, the storied Patton praised the division as “splendid” and lauded “the magnificent fighting record you established.”
In his 1988 history, Prof. Weigley faulted the Allied generals for not heeding persistent intelligence reports that the enemy was preparing a bold, last-minute counterattack. “The victory in the Ardennes,” Weigley writes, “belonged to the American soldier.”
Perhaps that, and our memories, are enough.