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.
Introduction – The Battle of the Bulge
The Battle of the Bulge was the most intense and costly engagement that the United States and its allies waged against the German military during the Second World War. Over a million soldiers on both sides were involved in the clash that would last for 41 days. In the pre-dawn hours of December 16th, 1944, the German military struck against the Allied advance along the German-Belgian border. Relying on a combination of inclement weather and surprise, the Germans caught Allied leaders by surprise, and were able to push through their lines far into Belgium. The 1947 memorial edition of the Norwich University War Whoop, described the battle succinctly:
We continued to advance against the Germans in Europe with occasional set-backs, such as “the Bulge”, which was not just another set-back for the men who were there, but a battle fought for the highest stakes by both sides.
Norwich University played its own role in the battle, with just under one hundred alumni spread out across the battlefield. The training and education that the school provided her alumni undoubtedly played a role in the conduct and leadership abilities that guided them as they were shipped off to Europe. By the time December 16th arrived, the Norwich University Record reported that 1,600 Norwich Men were involved in the war, with 1,218 of them serving as commissioned officers. A further 15 held the rank of General, demonstrating the value of the training they received in Vermont.
Norwich men occupied every level of the command structure in units that participated in the Battle of the Bulge, ranging from the rank of Private First Class on the front lines to Major General, overseeing the operations of an entire division. Each played a pivotal role in the direction of the battle’s outcome. In the fight, Norwich University alumni gave their blood and their lives in Belgium; the ultimate sacrifice for their country in a time of grave need.
Soldiers from Norwich were also present throughout the battle, from the first moments of the battle, to the last, over a month later, occupying airborne, infantry and most particularly, armored units, instrumental in all aspects of the battle.
Setting the Stage
On June 6th, 1944, Allied forces came ashore in Normandy, France, where the fight into Europe began in earnest, pushing the German military further back over the course of the fall that year. During that time, a number of Norwich University alumni arrived to fight for their country: On June 9th, elements of the 2nd Armored Division arrived on shore, under the command of General Edward Brooks ‘16, a Norwich graduate, who would eventually hand over command to General Ernest Harmon ‘16, who would continue to push deeper into Europe.
From Normandy, Allied forces moved to liberate Paris, engaging in a long campaign to capture the ground between the beaches and the capital, eventually doing so on August 25th, 1944.
In September 1944, the allies launched Operation Market-Garden against German positions in Holland. Allied forces looked to capture ground and allow for a quick march straight to Germany. Its eventual failure pushed back expectations that they would reach Berlin in a timely manner.
The 2nd Armored Division found themselves in the midst of the action as they pushed towards Germany and through the Siegfried Line, described as the division’s worst experiences in the war. During this campaign, Lieutenant Colonel Clifton Batchelder ‘32, and his unit were visited by a Red Cross truck with several women handing out supplies. The women were invited to join the officers, and Batchelder, pulling rank, sat next to one of the Red Cross nurses, Anne: “From then on, when I wasn’t fighting, I was chasing Anne; until two weeks after VE day when we were married.” (A. Batchelder n.d., 2) Batchelder had been a student at the same time that the division’s Commanding General, Ernest N. Harmon, had been the Professor of Military Science and later, Commandant of Cadets. He explained after the war that one of his highest points during his experience was Harmon’s instruction in equitation.
On October 13th, 1944, the 2nd Armored Division saw action at Wurselen, Germany, where Captain James Burt ‘39, of the 66th Armored Regiment’s B Company, earned the Medal of Honor for his actions against a German garrison over the course of nine days. During that time, he directed fire from his units, scouted enemy positions, and aided the wounded soldiers involved in the fight:
In the first day’s action, when infantrymen ran into murderous small-arms and mortar fire, Captain Burt dismounted from his tank about 200 yards to the rear and moved forward on foot beyond the infantry positions, where, as the enemy concentrated a tremendous volume of fire upon him, he calmly motioned his tanks into good firing positions. As our attack gained momentum, he climbed aboard his tank and directed the action from the rear deck, exposed to hostile volleys which finally wounded him painfully in the face and neck. He maintained his dangerous post despite pointblank self-propelled gunfire until friendly artillery knocked out these enemy weapons, and then proceeded to the advanced infantry scouts’ positions to deploy his tanks for the defense of the gains which had been made. The next day, when the enemy counterattacked, he left cover and went 75 yards through heavy fire to assist the infantry battalion commander who was seriously wounded. For the next 8 days, through rainy, miserable weather and under constant, heavy shelling, Captain Burt held the combined forces together, dominating and controlling the critical situation through the sheer force of his heroic example. To direct artillery fire, on 15 October, he took his tank 300 yards into the enemy lines, where he dismounted and remained for 1 hour giving accurate data to friendly gunners. Twice more that day he went into enemy territory under deadly fire on reconnaissance. In succeeding days he never faltered in his determination to defeat the strong German forces opposing him. Twice the tank in which he was riding was knocked out by enemy action, and each time he climbed aboard another vehicle and continued the fight. He took great risks to rescue wounded comrades and inflicted prodigious destruction on enemy personnel and materiel even though suffering from the wounds he received in the battle’s opening phase. (MOH Citation for James M. Burt n.d.)
Burt’s actions were understatedly heroic over an extended period of time. His letters to his wife from the same time reflect little of the actions that he had just carried out, and following the war, he returned to a quiet life as a high school teacher in New Hampshire: the very embodiment of a citizen soldier.
Tomorrow, the Breakthrough.