87th Infantry Division
Who Really Liberated Bastogne?
A Historical Inquiry

By Mitchell Kaidy
first published: The Golden Acorn News

Almost 60 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 month-long Battle of the Bulge, or Ardennes campaign, fought in grueling cold amid whiteouts of the windswept battlefield.

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 Germany’s 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, Belgium.

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 English-language ultimatum to Bastogne, threatening "annihilation" if the
101st Airborne and attached troops didn’t surrender.

With almost no patrolling to feel out the enemy, the 87th Division was committed to 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 suffered predictably high casualties.

Why was it done that way? And what did we contribute 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 European Theater Historical Division; plus books written by Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton, the
Vlllth Corps commander; the private notes of Third Army commander Patton, and the volume "Crusade in Europe" by Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.

Arriving 12 days after the first Nazi thrusts, we attacked towns immediately outside Bastogne that the Germans had specifically boasted as their strongpoints—the ones they cited in the surrender demand delivered to Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne Division.

In one revealing sentence of the definitive text "Dark December", Merriam confirms the critical and heroic role of the 87th Infantry/11th Armored attacks. He observes: "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 which puts the
87th Division’s achievement 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 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 the next day the Nazis launched "probably the biggest coordinated counterattack that troops under my command have ever experienced."

Of his order for the two untested 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."

Along with Patton, the man who had the most tactical impact on the 87th Division was VIIIth Corps commander Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton, cited during World War 1 as the Army’s premier tactician. Middleton’s decision to hold Bastogne was later described by Patton as "a stroke of genius."

In his biography published by Louisiana State University, Middleton discussed how, once the reinforcing 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 11th carrying the main load." The third division was the 17th Airborne, which was delayed in arriving until the first week in January.

That was the plan; those were the objectives. However, because the 11th Armored absorbed heavy casualties, the plan didn’t fully function. Instead of the tanks 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 records in his biography.

Then appears on page 262 of the biography 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 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. (In wartime interviews, Middleton spoke against oversimplifying Bastogne into a headline-grabbing defense by the 101st Airborne and credited the 110th regiment of the 28th Infantry Division with slowing the powerful initial Nazi attack.)

But the 4th Armored battalion’s thrust was at best tenuous and narrow. And, if the dictionary definition of "siege" is observed, that battalion did not lift the Nazi threat of "annihilation" in the note delivered to the 101st Airborne. Bastogne remained subject to complete envelopment.

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, Adolph 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 in "Dark December." Confirmation of these words is found in Supreme Commander Eisenhower’s account, "Crusade in Europe". After the 4th Armored battalion’s linkup with Bastogne, "the really hard fighting developed around Bastogne," Eisenhower observes.

Initially, the Nazis’ "best divisions" were repelled by the 87th Infantry/11th Armored tandem, plus other VIIIth Corps units. But the 11th Armored faltered, while the 87th "fought well", according to Middleton. So major credit for lifting the siege of Bastogne must inure to the division which not only cut the highway lifeline but drove on to recapture other key strongpoints identified by the Nazis in their surrender demand—Libramont, St. Hubert, 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? Both Middleton and Patton insisted that Bastogne was the key, but you could accuse them of being self-serving. Supreme Commander Eisenhower agreed, writing: "the defense of Bastogne…had a great effect upon the outcome of the battle."

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 our 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 Reichmarshal Hermann Goering, second in command to Hitler, Bastogne was unqualifiedly "the keystone of the entire offensive."

Other divisions such as the
4th Armored, the Big Red One and 101st Airborne were in the line much longer than the 87th Division. If, however, as Gen. Patton wrote, the 101st "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 patrolling, tortuous weather as well as the foundering of a coordinating unit, those were victories that broke the back of the massive Nazi counteroffensive and liberated Bastogne, and those were critical contributions by the young and inexperienced 87th (Golden Acorn) Infantry Division toward winning the Battle of the Bulge, America’s largest, longest and bloodiest battle in history.

Remember those victories well. Now and forever.

Site design & initiative: Hans Houterman
Page text by: Mr. Mitchell Kaidy (Cpl. D Company, 345th Infantry Regiment, 87th Infantry Division)
Page created by: Jeroen Koppes
Last update: 02.03.2003-CSS