During the months of December 1944 and January 1945, an enormous battle raged in Europe – the well-known German offensive called the Battle of the Bulge. On December 16, 1944, with the Allies believing that the Germans were beat and the war would soon be over, Hitler’s massed armies attacked through the thinly defended Ardennes. The attack caught the Americans manning the eighty-mile stretch of border between Belgium and Germany by surprise. The Germans smashed through the American lines and pushed deep into Belgium and Luxemburg creating a “bulge” in the lines, thus the name given to the battle.
When the Battle of the Bulge is mentioned, many people think of the battle for Bastogne where the Germans had the 101st Airborne surrounded. But the battle was much bigger than that. It involved many divisions across a wide front. On the northern portion of the bulge the 30th Infantry Division stopped the German advance blocking a critical path to Liege and Antwerp.
After Aachen, the 30th Division came off the line and moved back to Holland for a much-needed rest. Then the Germans attacked on December 16th. When the Allied command realized that they were facing a major offensive, the 30th was called back into action. Loaded on trucks the 30th’s three combat regiments reached the front in Belgium on December 18th. The 117th Regiment encountered the enemy first near Stoumont in route to their assignment of Stavelot. The 120th proceeded to Malmedy while the 119th took up positions near Spa, where First Army Headquarters was being hastily dismantled and moved to the rear.
Spa, Malmedy and Stavelot form a rough triangle of roads suitable for an armored force to use in a winter offensive. Stoumont lies further west along the road running through Malmedy and Stavelot. Von Rundstedt planned to use these roads for the main German thrust to Liege where the Allies had huge stores of fuel, ammo and essential supplies. Thus the Germans would split the Allied forces and push on to recapture the port of Antwerp.
During their drive to the front lines, the men of Old Hickory first heard Axis Sally call them the “fanatical 30th Division, Roosevelt’s SS troops.” She also told them they would once again face the 1st SS Panzer Division spearheaded by Lt. Colonel Joachim Peiper. This was the same division they had stopped at Mortain months before.
Knowing roads were essential to the German tanks and trucks in the hilly, forested area, the 30th focused on blocking roads and destroying bridges across the many streams. The 291st Engineers blew up several key bridges early in the offensive essentially stopping Peiper’s advance. Two huge fuel dumps, one close to Stavelot and the other between Stoumont and Spa, could have provided the Germans with much-needed gasoline if captured. While the 30th fought to halt the German advance, supply units began moving the gasoline back out of danger. When elements of Peiper’s force neared the fuel dump near Stavelot, portions of the fuel were set ablaze to prevent their capture.
From December 18th through Christmas eve intense fighting ensued throughout the area assigned to the 30th. They fought bravely with Congressional Medals of Honor earned by Sgt. Frances S. Currey and Staff Sgt. Paul L. Bolden, both of the 120th Regiment. A Presidential Citation was awarded to the 119th Regiment and the attached Company C 740th Tank Battalion and 2nd Platoon Company A 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion for their battle with the 1st SS at Lorce-Chevron and Stoumont, Belgium.
Despite heavy losses on both sides, the Americans stopped the German advance. The strong resistance along the German’s preferred route to Liege and its supply depots forces Von Rundstedt to shift his focus further south toward the area around Bastogne where resistance was less – except for the stubborn 101st. The unmovable “Old Hickory” Division had blocked their path once again.
Reading accounts of the 30th’s action in those early days of the battle brought to mind scenes from the movie “The Battle of the Bulge” starring Henry Fonda. Although much of the movie is fictional and lacks historical accuracy, it is clear that the action portrayed is mainly in the 30th’s area, including the fuel dumps, the Malmedy massacre, and the intense fighting to block the roadways. The movie might have been better if the makers had included more of the real events. They avoided topics like the Army Air Force bombing our own troops in Malmedy, several times, because the communications was so bad. Another dramatic episode revolved around Americans captured by the Germans, including a major who gathered intelligence before escaping. Some of these prisoners were released when Peiper’s men abandoned their tanks and vehicles. Another dramatic episode would have been the tale of the 740th tank battalion with no tanks who raided a repair depot for anything that would run, taking a hodgepodge of equipment to valiantly fight the enemy.
The end of “The Battle of the Bulge” movie implies that the battle was over when the Germans retreated. This was far from the truth. Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge say that the fighting after Christmas and into January to recapture the ground lost was rougher and the weather worse than those first days stopping the German advance.
I’ve never understood why Hollywood hasn’t made a movie about the 30th. Either the fighting around Mortain or the action in the Malmedy-Stavelot-Stoumont area of Belgium would have made great movies.
Old Hickory played a key role in halting the last great German offensive. Many months of bitter fighting remained before the final surrender in May. The battle hardened troops of the 30th division would go on to take the fight onto German soil once again. Many proudly repeated the nickname given to them by their enemy – “Roosevelt’s SS.” Knowing that the most elite German forces were the SS, it was the highest compliment the enemy could give.