Fifty-three years after World War II, not even those who spilled blood fully appreciate the 87th Infantry Division’s magnificent and decisive role during the largest land battle ever fought by American troops.
That was the Battle of the Bulge, or Ardennes campaign, as the U.S. Army referred to it.
We were young, barely battle-tested, yet well-educated — hardly the textbook characteristics of a tough, efficient military unit. Exhausted from a bone-numbing 300-mile roadmarch in open trucks from the Saar Valley by way of Rheims, France, on Dec. 29, 1944 we were thrown against the massive thrusts ordered by Adolph Hitler to capture the key highway center of Bastogne.
The numerically-superior Nazis, who had caught American troops by surprise, were making headway when, a few days before our arrival, they boldly delivered an ultimatum to Bastogne, threatening “annihilation” if the 101st Airborne and attached troops didn’t surrender.
With almost no patrolling to feel out the enemy, we were thrown into the raging battle the way shock troops are thrown into a melee. On orders of the bold and implacable Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, both the 87th and 11th Armored Divisions virtually walked into the arms of a waiting enemy — and predictably suffered high casualties.
Why was it done that way? And what did we accomplish of significance to the ultimate victory?
Deeply embedded in history, tiny kernels of enlightenment are as difficult to pry out as digging a foxhole during the frigid Bulge. But they are there, in the deeply-researched accounts of Robert E. Merriam, chief of the Ardennes Section of the European Theater Historical Division of the US Army; plus books written by Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton, the 8th Corps commander, and the private notes of Third Army Commander Patton.
Arriving nine days after the first Nazi thrusts, we attacked towns outside Bastogne that the Germans had specifically boasted as their strongpoints — the ones they cited in the note delivered to Brig. Gen. McAuliffe demanding Bastogne’s surrender.
In one revealing sentence of the softcover volume “The Battle of the Bulge,” Robert Merriam confirms the critical and heroic role of the 87th/11th Armored attacks. On page 153, he writes perceptively: “Their progress was tediously slow, their casualties exorbitantly high; all of them new to combat, they had to fight in the severest cold, on icy roads over which tank movements were almost impossible. These new troops had been moved over long distances, and then immediately committed to action with little time for reconnaissance.”
Now appears the assessment that puts the 87th Division’s accomplishment into perspective: “But had the attack been delayed long enough for adequate reconnaissance, it is probable the Germans would have launched another attack, and surrounded Bastogne.”
Writing in his diary that was published after the war, Gen. Patton sounded a similar theme. On Dec. 29, the two divisions “jumped off west of Bastogne and ran right into the flank of a large German counterattack headed toward Bastogne.” This “meeting engagement” or two armies clashing, proved to be fortunate for the Americans, for that day the Nazis launched “probably the biggest coordinated counterattack that troops under my command have ever experienced.”
Of his order for the two divisions to attack immediately on arrival, Patton told his diary: “Every one of the generals involved urged me to postpone the attack, but I held to my plan, although I did not know this German attack was coming. Some call it luck, some genius. I call it determination.”
Next to Patton, the man who had the most tactical impact on the 87th Division was Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton, cited in World War I as the Army’s premier tactician, whose decision to hold Bastogne was publicly lauded by Patton as “a stroke of genius.” In his biography published by Louisiana State University, Middleton discussed how, once the two divisions arrived, he planned to relieve Bastogne. “The 101st was to hold its position at Bastogne, and the other three (divisions) were to swing north, with the 87th and the 11th carrying the main load.” The third division was the 17th Airborne, which was delayed in arriving until January.
That was the plan; those were the carefully weighed objectives. However, because the 11th Armored absorbed heavy casualties, and the 17th Airborne’s delay, the plan didn’t fully function.
Instead of the tanks boldly taking the lead, they faltered, and the 11th’s commanding general asked Middleton for permission to drop back one of his three combat commands. “This would leave CCA’s vacated area to the infantrymen of the 87th,” Middleton reveals in his biography.
Then appears on page 267 this telling statement: “While the 11th’s armor had stalled, the infantrymen of the 87th were more successful on the Corps’ left … On Dec. 31, Jan. 1 and Jan. 2, 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.” The armored division, according to Middleton, later achieved “some limited success,” but ultimately its commanding general had to be relieved.
In popular lore, a battalion of the 4th Armored Division is credited with relieving Bastogne and lifting its siege. There is a cast plaque outside Bastogne that makes this claim. In fact, that battalion accomplished little more than boosting morale in Bastogne. It broke through and made contact with some of the troopers, but if the dictionary definition of “siege” is minimally observed, that battalion did not lift the Nazi threat of annihilation. Bastogne remained subject to complete envelopment; the contact certainly did not alter that stark fact.
A siege, according to the dictionary, is a sustained attempt to capture an objective. After the 4th Armored’s tenuous and temporary contact with Bastogne, Hitler ordered his “best divisions” to make unflagging attempts to subdue the city, Merriam and other historians agree. “By the first of the year, eight German divisions were closeted around Bastogne, closing in for the kill,” Merriam writes.
Initially, those “best divisions” were repelled by the 87th Division/11th Armored tandem. But the 11th Armored faltered, while the 87th “fought well.” So, the major credit for lifting the siege of Bastogne must logically go to the division which doggedly drove on to capture the key strongpoints — Libramont, St. Hubert, Moircy, Pironpre, and, after a week of bloody and sometimes hand-to-hand combat, wrested away the town of Tillet — the final blow that, as Patton put it, “stopped them cold.”
Was Bastogne really the key to winning the Battle of the Bulge? Letter writers to the “Bulge Bugle”, as well as otherwise well-informed books, make the case for other phases of the battle. Both Patton and Middleton insisted that Bastogne was the key, but you could accuse them of being self-serving.
Two authorities that could not be accused of partiality or prejudice are German. Gen. Hasso von Manteuffel was the tactical commander of German forces around Bastogne. In “Patton: Ordeal and Triumph,” Von Manteuffel is quoted by author Ladislas Farago as follows: “The importance of Bastogne was considerable. In enemy hands it must influence all the movements in the west, damage our supply system, and tie up considerable German forces. It was therefore essential that we capture it at once.”
And on the authority of Germany’s second highest ranking official, Reichmarshal Hermann Goering, later tried for war crimes, Bastogne was unqualifiedly “the keystone of the entire offensive.”
Other divisions such as the 4th Armored, Big Red One, and 101st Airborne were in the line much longer than the 87th. If, however, as Gen. Patton once said, the 101st Airborne “fought well but received too much credit,” the 87th Division fought well but received too little credit.
Libramont, St. Hubert, Moircy, Pironpre, Tillet. Overcoming inexperience and meager initial patrolling, as well as the foundering of a coordinating unit, those were victories that broke the back of the huge Nazi surprise offensive and liberated Bastogne; and they were critical contributions by the 87th (Golden Acorn) Division toward winning the Battle of the Bulge, America’s largest and bloodiest battle in history.
Remember those battles well. Now and forever.
Previously published in
The Golden Acorn News