Norwich University and the Battle of the Bulge: 2nd Armored Division at Ciney

The entire Battlefield, as seen from Ciney

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.

2nd Armored Division at Ciney – December 21st – December 26th

On the 21st of December, the 2nd Armored Division had begun to receive word about the situation developing in Belgium: the Germans had broken through allied lines, and were headed west. (Harmon 1970, 228) On the same day, General Ernest Harmon was ordered from the 9th Army to the 1st Army, and to deploy 70 miles away, between the Muese River and Havelange, Belgium. They were to move 13,000 soldiers and 3,000 vehicles across snow and ice, during blackout conditions. The unit was also to avoid contact with the enemy, but to wait and secure their position for a counterattack against the incoming German soldiers.

By the evening of the 22nd, the entire 2nd Armored Division was in place. In a Christmas letter sent to Harmon a number of years after the Battle of the Bulge ended, Ted Miller recounted a brief encounter that the two shared:

’General’, said the young man, ‘do you remember at the Battle of the Bulge when your division stopped for rest at 2:00am? We were really fatigued, weren’t we? General, I stood right beside you at that time and you had a cup of coffee in your hand. You looked at me and said, “Boy, you’re pretty white. You need this coffee more than I do,” and gave me the cup.’ (Miller n.d.)

After arriving in the Marche Plain, Harmon met with locals in Havelange, ordering a stop to all civilian movements along the roads, to help with his own troop movements. (Harmon 1970, 232) Already, the German military had attempted to swing north, only to hit the 3rd Armored Division, and the 84th Infantry Division already in place in Marche on their left flank to the east. (Harmon 1970, 233) The 84th Infantry contained three Norwich men by the time of the Bulge: Captain Richard Bullens, ’40, Corporal Garret A. Kavenagh, ’47 and Private John Hurlburt, ‘45.

After the long trek across three countries, the 2nd Armored expected to wait for a week while waiting for German soldiers to show up. However, on the 23rd of December, Harmon received a report from a wounded soldier in the 82nd Reconnaissance coming in from a patrol, relaying that the Germans were already within ten miles of the Division. Harmon immediately ordered some of the nearest tanks to move out to Ciney and to block off the town. Only then did he turn around and tell his superior, Brigadier General Joseph Collins, that he was committed to the fight.(Toland 1999, 228) By the next day, Ciney was under the control of Brigadier General I.D. White’s ’22, Combat Control B and with CCA under the control of Brigadier General Joseph Collier, at Celles. (Harmon 1970) Collier, who would later be stationed at Fort Knox would have an aide, W. Russell Todd ‘50, who would rise through the ranks, and upon his retirement, become the President of Norwich University.

Brigadier General Collins authorized an attack on December 25th, described by Harmon that they “[knew] that the outcome of the whole Bulge battle might be riding in our turrets.” (Harmon 1970, 237) Moving south to Celles, Brigadier General White broke his unit into two columns, one to the south, positioned to cut off a German retreat, and another moved northeast and west of the town. One of these units, the 82nd Reconnaissance Battalion, was part of the task force that hit from the North, with 1st Lieutenant Herbert A. Baker ’41, helping to destroy the German battalion that they came into contact with. (Eisenhower 1995, 372) Their actions allowed them to take Celles by 5pm and fend off several counterattacks. (Harmon 1970, 237) While the 2nd SS Panzer Division was pushed back, they were soon to receive reinforcements from the 9th SS Panzer Division. (Eisenhower 1995, 368) However, at this point, it was increasingly clear to German planners that the offensive had begun to stall. (Toland 1999, 287) At some point on the 25th, Captain James Burt’s 66th Armored Regiment came across a German supply truck. After the doctor examined its contents, he and his men had a surprise dinner: steak. (Burt, Letter to Francis 1944)

In all, the 2nd Armored Division included at least eleven Norwich Alumni within its ranks: Major General Ernest Harmon ’16, Brigadier General I.D. White ’22, Lieutenant Colonel Clifton Batchelder ‘32, Colonel Briard P. Johnson ’27, Captain George D. Bacon ’33, Captain Donald P. Chace ’37, Captain Philip M. Hawes ’37, Captain Robert M. Hallam ’44, Captain James Burt ’39, 1st Lieutenant Herbert A. Baker ’41, 1st Lieutenant Robert C. Atwood ’40, Timothy M. Donahue Jr. ’47 and Ted Miller.

Nearby, and at the same time on the 25th of December, Captain Richard Bullens ’40, of the 84th Infantry Division led his unit to retake a village that had been taken by the 2nd SS Panzer Division the day before:

Lieut. Bullens was given the assignment of re-taking a village that had been captured by the Germans the day previous. Early on Christmas morning he attacked at the head of his company and was successful in his assignment. He was just about to set up his command post in the village when a sniper opened up on him, and he was shot twice through the left leg above the knee. After getting things organized, he was assisted to a dressing station by some of his men. (Lt. Dick Bullens, ’40, Wounded in Belgium 1945)

The next day, just to the west of the 84th Division, Brigadier General I.D. White’s CCB turned north to clear out any remaining German soldiers, spending the next couple of days in the area. By this time, the 2nd SS Panzers were ordered to pull back to Rochefort. (Eisenhower 1995, 374)

The actions on the 26th, with the combined victories from the 2nd Armored Division and the reestablishment of contact with the 101st Airborne in Bastogne, General Bradley informed Lieutenant General Walter Smith that he believed that the attack had “reached [its] high water mark today”. (Eisenhower 1995, 375) The allies had begun to win the battle.

While the high watermark had been reached, the battle was only half over, with further challenges to come. On the 27th, 2nd Lieutenant Tom Vollenweider ’46, of the 22nd Fighter Squadron, was shot down and killed over the battle zone. (Lt. Tom Vollenweider, ’46, Killed Over Belgium 1945)

At some point around this time, near the 84th Infantry and 2nd Armored Divisions, the 34th Railsplitter Infantry Division pushed German forces from Laroche, Belgium, the largest town to be retaken at that point:

Members of the 4th U.S. Cavalry, one of the oldest forces in the American Army, attached to the 34th Railsplitter [Infantry Division] beat the British by a few hours into this largest town yet retaken from the Germans in the Battle of the Belgian bulge.

Blizzard conditions, which are making this the most difficult fighting yet experienced by doughboys in Europe, Italy included, coated this Ourthe River town with a merciful mantle of white.

Late yesterday, the Fourth Cavalry Task Force under Col. John C. Macdonald of Fort Sam Houston, Texas, former commandant at Norwich University, avenged Task Force Hogan.

Task Force Hogan’s 400 had abandoned all of its equipment in the little mountain town of Marcourary, north of Laroche. The 84th [Infantry] Division’s cavalry retook Marcouray, driving the Germans back to the south.

Macdonald ’20, had never graduated from Norwich, but had left the University to serve overseas in the First World War, according to the 1920 War Whoop. In 1923, he returned to the school, where he served as the school’s Commandant until 1927.

Tomorrow, the end of the Battle.

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