When this day rolls around annually, it’s difficult to pick a single unit, battle or warrior to honor. And despite all attempts, the story is only fractionally told. Truly all Veterans, from all wars, are to be honored, respected and given heartfelt thanks for their contributions to our freedoms. But this year I decided to zero in on Patton’s Tiger’s Division, serving in his Third Army, and single out only one of their remarkable accomplishments…Combat Command B’s Herculean efforts in WWII’s Siege of Bastogne in the war’s largest, and bloodiest, battle – the Ardennes-Alsace campaign. Or as it is more commonly known… the Battle of the Bulge.
Before I do narrow the focus to just the 10th, let me start with a brief overview of just some of the days, in one segment of the world, of the largest US involved land conflict that was crucial to Allied success. The nickname, Battle of the Bulge, came from the growing westward shape of the Allied forces advance towards Germany following the D-Day assault. More than a million men fought in that battle — 600,000 Germans, 500,000 Americans, and 55,000 British. American casualties over the approx 45 day siege, from mid Dec 1944 to the end of Jan 1945, stand at 19,000 with over 89,000 wounded. Two regiments of the 106th Infantry Division, cut off and surrounded in the mountain tops of Schnee Eiffel, surrendered after only brief fighting – make it the largest battlefield surrender of U.S. troops in the war.
The success of D-Day’s landing, and the ensuing Allied advance, also created a new strategic supply difficulty for the troops. There was a dearth of deepwater ports for supply routes in the initial months following the landings. Cherbourg, the only port under Allied control early on was virtually unusable since the Germans had destroyed the facilities and mined the harbor prior to Allied seizure. This meant vital supply lines to fatigued troops, spread thin in the battlefield, were mostly dependent upon the Normandy beach landing sites. The Allied capture of Antwerp a month after D-Day still did not become functionally operational until almost the beginning of December, 1944.
Eisenhower took command of the Ardennes area to guard the Antwerp supply line, and considered it an area that required minimal manpower in a war that was crunched for troops. The terrain was difficult, roads scarce, and it was in a region that the German’s only objective seemed to be some rest and refitting of troops.
Hitler, suffering setbacks on both the eastern front with the Soviets, and the western front with the US/British allies, was desperate to neutralize the western front… something he saw as more feasible than confronting the sheer numbers of the Soviets with his dwindling troops and equipment. He also underestimated the American’s determination in warfare, as he would soon learn.
Opting for one of two plans, Hitler designed his blitzkrieg for the Battle of the Bulge. The objective was to split the US and British troops, negotiate surrenders/truces outside of the Soviets, and recapture Antwerp. Trying to piggy back on his success in 1940 with France in the Ardennes, Hitler settled on a plan in the same region that was to prove his undoing.. but at great cost to American and British forces.
Four of Hitler’s SS Panzer armies were tasked with assaults. The northernmost tact was entrusted with the offensive’s primary objective, Antwerp. The middle route, assigned to the 5th Panzer army, was going for Brussels… but not before capturing Bastogne – the town where all major roads from the Ardennes intersected. The southernmost track was assigned to the 7th Panzer army to protect the flank.
Hitler’s plan required stealth, and Panzer movements under the cover of night to avoid being spotted by the Allied forces. Human intel was scant since the French Resistance network dried up this close to German borders. Also integral for Hitler’s plan was poor weather conditions that would ground the Allied forces superior aircraft. Since this was a region not on the Allied forces radar as a German objective, and these areas were less than optimal fighting terrain, the Allied forces were caught unaware of the assault… exactly what Hitler wanted them to think.
On the 16th of December, Hitler launched his attack first in the north with the 6th Panzer Army … a battle that the Americans erroneously assumed was a localized counter attack to the dent US forces had made in the Wahlerscheid sector to the north. Three days later, December 19th, Eisenhower knew this was part of something larger.. and he called senior Allied commanders – including Patton – together in a Verdun bunker for strategic counteroffensive planning.
According to the Patton Saber, part of the archives of General George Patton – the General was a surprised as everyone else at the scale of the assault… perhaps more because he did not have the access to the intel available to higher headquarters. General Omar Bradley’s initial order that Patton send his 10th Armored division north was not received well… until Patton recognized this was a completely new aspect to the war.
So even before the bunker conference, Patton was a step ahead, and had already set into motion a rapid relief response by his treasured division. By the 17th of December, Patton had already started the 10th’s Combat Command B forces towards Bastogne. When Ike asked Patton how long it would take to divert his forces to face the Panzer units, he was stunned when Patton told him within two days. It took less than that, since the Tigers Combat Command B unit’s Sherman’s commenced rollling into Bastogne, under the command of Col. William L. Roberts, the evening before.
Before leaving his headquarters for Verdun that morning, Patton had viewed the entire front and had foreseen what would be the outcome of the meeting – or at least one of three possibilities. Before climbing into his jeep he gave his chief of staff, General Hobart Gay, three possibilities, each with a codeword. When the decision was made – Patton was sure that it would be one of his alternatives – he would merely have to pass that codeword to Gay, and the machinery at Third Army could begin to function.
The meeting that morning was monopolized by the two old friends, Patton and Eisenhower. Once Ike had announced his decision to turn Patton’s Third Army northward toward Bastogne, deferring his attack in the Saar, the two men discussed the strength and the timing of the attack. Patton was a bit more optimistic than Ike, but they settled on a three-division attack to be executed in three days from Arlon toward the beleaguered town of Bastogne. Once they had agreed, Patton excused himself form the meeting, went to the telephone, and gave his codeword to his chief of staff. The Third Army was on the move.
Patton did not have to rely completely on his staff. Turning an army in a right angle direction was a difficult move – plans for road nets, supply depots and, above all, communications had to be changed. But Patton had these matters straight in his own mind. He dictated his instructions as he bounced along in his jeep.
At the time of Hitler’s initial assault, Bastogne and the surrounding region was being defended by the 28th Infantry Division, the VIII corps, under the command of Lt. General Troy Middleton, also in Patton’s Third Army. When Hitler launched his attack, the The 106th Division, located in the most exposed positions along the corps line, along with 28th Division, took the brunt of the attack From the Wiki version of Middleton’s Battle of the Bulge siege:
While two of the 28th Division’s regiments survived the German onslaught intact, the 110th Regiment, commanded by Colonel Hurley Fuller, was directly in the path of the massive advance. On 17 December Fuller counterattacked, but his lone regiment was up against three German divisions, and when Fuller’s command post was attacked his escape was thwarted and he was taken prisoner. Middleton next heard from him in April when he was released. Though the 110th Regiment was shattered, the stubborn resistance given by them and other VIII Corps units greatly slowed down the German timetable.
Middleton and his battle weary troops were supposed to leave Bastogne on the 18th of December. But he stayed behind to brief the new replacement commanders, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne, and Col. Roberts of the 10th’s Tiger Division. Patton’s CCB troops arrived first, pouring thru the city thru the night. The last standing order Middleton gave to Airborne’s McAuliffe on the morning of the 19th was to “Hold Bastogne”.
By noon of the 19th, the 28th Division had moved it’s command post to Wiltz, a small village to the southeast. They were overwhelmed with the Panzer assault, and retreated back to the city, blowing up a bridge behind them. Despite the fact they were spread so thinly, and easily bypassed, their valiant resistance – along with the bad weather hindering German progress on the ground – slowed the German advance in the south towards Bastogne.
It was the troops of the CCB of the 10th who alone defended the next eight hours holding the 5th Panzer Army’s march to the west at bay until 101′s Airborne reinforcement arrived later. For the first time since the assault began, Hitle’s 5th Panzer Army was stopped in it’s tracks at Bastogne. As more reinforcements started heading to the area, the Panzer corps decided to surround Bastogne from the south and southwest while the American focused their limited combat resources in the north and east. By noon on the 21st, all Airborne and Infantry forces were surrounded by the Panzer armies.
According to the far more complete and complex story of the Siege of Bastogne from Hugh M. Cole’s book, “The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge” published early circa 60s, prior to the 20th, McAuliffe (Airborne) and Roberts (10th Tigers Division) commanded independently. But as of that day, Middleton gave McAuliffe “the say” in superior commend. But Robert’s presence and prior history would prove invaluable.
Early in the war he had been the armored instructor at the Army Command and General Staff School, where his humorously illustrated “Do’s” and “Don’ts” of tank warfare showed a keen appreciation of the problems posed by armor and infantry cooperation. The paratroopers were in particular need of this advice for they seldom worked with armor, knew little of its capability, and even less of its limitations, and-as befitted troops who jumped into thin air-were a little contemptuous of men who fought behind plate steel. (During the Bastogne battle Roberts developed a formal memorandum on the proper employment of armor, but this was not distributed to the 101st until 28 December.) On the other hand the tankers had much to learn from commanders and troops who were used to fighting “surrounded.”
The 101st had suffered a severe loss the evening before with a German raid. Only eight officers and 44 men escaped, and the loss of doctors, aid men, and medical supplies was one of the most severe blows dealt the 101st. McAuliffe knew he was isolated, and had not made contingency plans for airlifted supplies.
It was about this time that McAuliffe’s infamous line as a response to the Nazi’s demand for surrender was delivered:
What may have been the biggest morale booster came with a reverse twist-the enemy “ultimatum.” About noon four Germans under a white flag entered the lines of the 2d Battalion, 327th. The terms of the announcement they carried were simple: “the honorable surrender of the encircled town,” this to be accomplished in two hours on threat of “annihilation” by the massed fires of the German artillery.~~~
Excerpt from Wiki version
When General Anthony McAuliffe, acting commander of the 101st, was told of the Nazi demand to surrender, a frustrated McAuliffe responded “Nuts!” After turning to other pressing issues, his staff reminded him that they should reply to the German demand. One officer (Harry Kinnard, then a Lieutenant Colonel) recommended that McAuliffe’s initial reply would be “tough to beat.” Thus McAuliffe wrote on the paper, which was typed up and delivered to the Germans the line he made famous and a morale booster to his troops: “NUTS!” That reply had to be explained, both to the Germans and to non-American Allies.[notes 3]~~~
The rest of the story has become legend: how General McAuliffe disdainfully answered “Nuts!”; and how Colonel Harper, commander of the 327th, hard pressed to translate the idiom, compromised on “Go to Hell!” The ultimatum had been signed rather ambiguously by “The German Commander,” and none of the German generals then in the Bastogne sector seem to have been anxious to claim authorship.14 Lt. Col. Paul A Danahy, G-2 of the 101st, saw to it that the story was circulated-and appropriately embellished-in the daily periodic report: “The Commanding General’s answer was, with a sarcastic air of humorous tolerance, emphatically negative.” Nonetheless the 101st expected that the coming day-the 23d-would be rough.
Needless to say, Hitler’s notion that a sound defeat would deter American warriors bore no resemblance to reality.Conditions did not improve when weather prohibited notable supplies from arriving. Despites hundreds of planes sent, not all reached the drop zone nor did all the parapacks fall where the Americans could recover them. To make things worse, on Christmas Eve, the Nazi’s bombed the town, taking the lives of many included a young Belgium nurse, Renee LeMaire, known as the Angel of Bastogne, who stayed behind to tend American wounded.
The Americans, refusing to surrender and still far from being well supplied, fought the the battles on Christmas Day. Due to weather, supplies would not arrive until a day later… gifted also with the arrival of Company D, 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment of the 4th Armored Division, reached Bastogne, officially ending the siege of Bastogne.
At the conclusion of the Battle of the Bulge, the 10th Armored Division’s, 21st Tank Battalion and Combat Command B were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their extraordinary heroism from 17 to 27 December 1944… along with the 101st Airborne division. But the price was great…
The 101st Airborne Division suffered battle casualties numbering 105 officers and 1,536 men. CCB of the 10th Armored Division had approximately 25 officers and 478 men as battle casualties. There is no means of numbering the killed, wounded, and missing in the miscellany of unrecorded tankers, gunners, infantry, and others who shared in the defense of Bastogne. Nor can any casualty roster now be compiled of those units which fought east of Bastogne prior to 19 December and gave the 101st Airborne Division the time and the tactical opportunity to array itself in the defense of that town.
Tho it was McAuliffe’s command in the Siege of Bastogne, years later he would lavish praise on the 10th Tiger Division, saying:
“In my opinion, Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division was never properly credited with their important role in the Bastogne battle.”
The “last reunion” of the Tiger soldiers was in 2006. At that time, the 10th Armored Division historian, Klaus Feindler, assembled and presented an honor roll of all division members killed in European Theater Operations. In the Tiger’s 124 days of combat, they participated in campaigns in Ardennes, Rhineland and Central Europe, taking a total of 43,208 prisoners of war. Tentative statistics put their division at 710 killed, 3400 wounded, 586 missing, and one captured.
Last month, veterans of the 10th Armored Division and their families returned to Bastogne for a MilSpec pilgrimage tour. It must have been a bitter sweet experience. Perhaps the 2008 pilgrimage of the son of Tiger soldier, CWO Howard S. Liddic, Service Company, 21st Tank Battalion, 10th Armored Division, gives us a glimpse to life in Bastogne today, thanks to those American soldiers. These are the memories of his own visit, as posted on the Tigersblog: McAuliffe Square, and portraits of the General in the local Bastogne establishments reveals a town in a foreign nation who, even 67 years later, still honors what those Americans who helped preserve their own freedoms. And perhaps there is no higher honor for serving than seeing those who value what was fought, and preserved, by others in their service.
As always, my utmost respect and endearing thanks to our veterans. May we remember them not only today, but every day.