Sixty-Seven Years ago, on December 16th, 1944, the German military struck back against Allied forces in Belgium, the first major blow to the advance to Germany. During the battle, over a hundred members of the Norwich University community participated; former students who had graduated and advanced in the ranks of the U.S. military, and students who had graduated early to join the fight. They fought under some of the harshest conditions imaginable, and succeeded after a month of combat in the Ardennes. In 2010, I began a research project for the University, studying the role of the students and the school in the Battle before travelling overseas to Belgium. They played an incredible role in the battle, and undoubtably helped with many of the successes that would eventually lead to an Allied victory.
Cleanup, December 26th – January 25th
Following the high water mark on December 26th, the 2nd Armored Division rested for several days following their combat operations, pulling out of the line on December 28th, and received orders on January 1st to move 30 miles to Grandmenil, north of Bastogne. (Harmon 1970, 242)
It was during this time that Staff Sargeant Walter Weatherill ‘44, of the 106th Infantry Division was killed:
Walter participated as a member of the 106th Division, which was cited by the President, in the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded in the shoulder, but fought on until he was hit with a hand grenade about the face. A companion carried him to a German medical station after they were captured. He died somewhere in Germany in a motorized German prison hospital on December 29th. (War Whoop 1947, 22)
On December 30th, the 11th Armored Division, with 1st Lieutenant Howard Chilson, ‘41, launched an attack from Neufchateau towards Bastogne, to hold open the highway. Behind them, the 17th Airborne Division moved into position to further reinforce the Bastogne highway.
By January 3rd, the 2nd Armored Division returned to the fight, moving with the 84th Infantry Division to Houffalize, where they would spend the next thirteen days fighting, described by Harmon as “the most difficult campaigning that I have ever experienced. Heavy snow fell continuously, blotting out all light like clouds of fog.” (Harmon 1970, 242) Captain James Burt, in a letter to his wife, Frances, noted that “…we have fought under every condition possible now. Including darkness in woods in [daylight?] with foot of snow already on the ground.” (Miller n.d.)
The division seized several towns on their way, and by January 16th, the 82nd Reconnaissance Battalion with 1st Lieutenant Herbert Baker, linked up with elements of the 11th Armored Division, 1st Lieutenant Howard Chilson, just west of Houffalize. (Harmon 1970, 245) The north and south elements of the U.S. Army had begun to close in.
The Associated Press praised Harmon’s efforts in the war in a profile of the General and his division shortly after the division had halted the German advance:
His men have taken several hundred prisoners and re-liberated a half dozen Belgian villages in weather that would bother a polar bear.
They are back in combat after only three days’ rest following one of the greatest battles of the war – a head-on smash that broke the Rundstedt’s drive towards the Meuse River, kicked back the Nazis 10 miles and practically destroyed a prize SS armored division.
A second force under Brig. Gen. I.D. White of Des Moines Iowa, swept through Ciney to Celles and polished off an enemy column just outside of town. (Maj. Gen. Harmon, ’16 And His 2nd Armored Break Runstedt Drive 1945)
At the same time, the 3rd Armored Division also moved ahead to converge on Houffalize, with the 82nd Airborne protecting their left flank. (Toland 1999, 334) British soldiers from the 6th Airborne also moved towards the city, and together, attacking from the north, west and south, struck against the entrenched German forces. The Germans, already suffering reduced numbers due to the ongoing fighting, received no replacements, unlike the American units, which were receiving new troops daily. (Toland 1999, 334)
On January 4th, the German military made a renewed attack against the Bastogne area, particularly against the 17th Airborne Division, who experienced their first combat on that day. (Toland 1999, 334) This unit contained four Norwich men: 1st Lieutenant Joseph M. Cronin, ’47, 1st Lieutenant Frank Diefauf, ’48, 1st Lieutenant Christo Zoukis, ’47 and Corporal James Logan, ’45. The unit received fierce resistance, and on the 7th, the 513th Regiment moved on Flamierge, where Corporal Logan, was killed:
“Jim’s unit,” the 17th Airborne Division, was flown to Paris from England, where they had completed their training, on December 24th, 1944. Because of a blinding blizzard, the Division went into action as infantry on January 1, 1945, for the blizzard blocked any plan for parachuting into combat. He was an expert rifleman, but was serving as a machine gunner on January 7th, 1945, near Flamierge, Belgium, when he was killed by an enemy tank artillery barrage after assisting a wounded companion into his foxhole.” (War Whoop 1947, 24)
However, by January 9th, German troops began to withdraw, starting with the 6th Panzers, while Patton, armed with the 26th, 35th, 87th and 90th Infantry Divisions, the 4th and the 6th Armored Divisions, and the 17th and 101st Airborne Divisions, pushed ahead.
2nd Lieutenant Arthur Pottle ’44, fighting with the 86th Mechanized Cavalry Squadron in the 6th Armored Division, was ordered to move from the southern-most part of the attack at the German-French borders on Christmas day. The unit arrived on January 1st, where he worked to listen in on the Germans. He helped to set up a listening post near Bastogne ridgeline, with German forces on the other side. He recalled ordering his men to dig foxholes in the frozen ground. Armed only with entrenching tools, they soon gave up.
“[We] had a heck of a time getting them going. Went into the position late in the afternoon. It was a moon-lit night, and we saw a couple of [artillery] batteries had pulled into a nearby field behind us. The Germans spotted them, and sent in aircraft to bomb them. Some of the bombs hit very, very close. I didn’t have to urge the troops to start digging.” (Pottle, Interview with Arthur Pottle 2011)
He would continue forward with his unit, noting that the weather was really bad with the ice and snow, and that they weren’t able to be resupplied from the air. At some point, the men in his unit built a large bonfire to ward off the cold, where he ran into a fellow classmate from another division, Hubert Schietinger ’43, as well as fellow 6th Armored Division member 1st Lieutenant Donald F. Wing ’44, of the 15th Tank Battalion. Following the meeting, towards the end of the Bulge, Pottle led his men to check a town. Crossing an empty field, he and his men discovered they had come across a minefield, and continued across, losing two soldiers in the process. The Germans promptly surrendered once they had reached the edge.
At this point, the 101st Airborne and 4th Armored Divisions were moving up to Noville, pushing past Bastogne, taking it on January 15th, the day before the 1st and 3rd Armies closed the gap between them. (Eisenhower 1995, 427) The 2nd Armored Division reached the Ourthe River at Houffalize, where they were joined by the 11th Armored Division on the next day. Two days later, the 17th Airborne Division relieved the 11th Armored Division.
Several days after meeting Pottle, Lieutenant Wing was killed in action on January 16th as the 6th Armored worked to push the German military back:
“When his platoon reached a ridge beyond the edge of town, the enemy met them with heavy, direct anti-tank fire. Realizing the situation would not permit the continuation of the attack until these guns were destroyed; he directed the withdrawal of his tanks and covered them with fire from his vehicle.” (Norwich University n.d.)
On the 16th, the Belgian Bulge was considered closed, although it would not be until the 25th of January that the Allied forces returned to their original positions held on December 16th.