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US Army

Colonel Joseph H. GILBRETH and the Defense of Longvilly, Belgium

Colonel Joseph H. GILBRETH

and the Defense of Longvilly, Belgium

"The first phase of the historic defense of Bastogne consisted primarily of armored action."[1]

[1] John S.D. Eisenhower, The Bitter Woods: The Battle of the Bulge (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995), P.307.

 
One of the officers in charge of American armor facing the Germans east of Bastogne in the early days of the Battle of the Bulge was Colonel Joseph Howard Gilbreth, commander of Combat Command R (CCR) of the Ninth Armored Division.
 
Joseph Howard Gilbreth

Photo courtesy Marilee Meyer, Archivist/Cullum

US Military Academy, West Point Association of Graduates.
 
When the 526th Armored Infantry Battalion (AIB) trained with Canal Defense Light (CDL) M-3, also known as Leaflet tanks, at Camp Bouse, Arizona, it was part of the Ninth Tank Group commanded by Colonel Gilbreth.
 
Gilbreth was born at Fort Sheridan near Chicago, Illinois on July 27, 1905. Appointed to the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, he was active in football, track and basketball.  Nicknamed "Duke", he was compared to a thoroughbred when he ran track, and was known as a strong, rapid and forceful debater.  In 1927 his West Point Yearbook described him as a quick jester, and a generous comrade.[2]  Commissioned in the Infantry, he married Leona Ferrandou on March 20, 1929.  The couple had three sons, two of whom grew to adulthood.[3]

[2] U.S. Military Academy, Gilbreth 8106-1927 Cullum File, (West Point, NY: West Point Association of Graduates) retrieved from Marilee Meyer, Archivist, February 2009.

[3] U.S. Military Academy, Gilbreth 8106-1927 Cullum File.

 
Gilbreth's pre-World War II assignments were not described in the records obtained as of this writing, but there is information available about the Army that Gilbreth encountered in the 1920s and 30s.  In the pre-war era the military survived on a lean budget.  There was minimal ammunition available for training, and at some military posts wasted newsprint from local newspapers was used for mimeographing training schedules.  At Fort Sheridan, where Gilbreth was born, only one small light was allowed in a squad bay room in a barracks.  Any other light had to be turned off.  Even toilet paper was rationed.[4]

[4] Edward M. Coffman, The Regulars: The American Army 1898-1941 (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), pp. 233-234

 
The Army was under-strength.  In an infantry rifle company, only seven or eight men might be available for training.  Future Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall noted in 1934 that, "the combat force available in the States could be comfortably seated in the stadium at Chicago's Soldier Field." [5]

[5]Coffman, The Regulars, pp. 233-234

 
What the Army lacked in manpower and budget, it made up in spit, polish and esprit de corps.  In 1921 regimental insignia were authorized to individualize regiments and to document their past campaigns.  Insignia were worn proudly on uniforms and soldiers carefully polished their shoes, uniforms brass and the stocks of their Springfield 1903 rifles.  Historian Edward M. Coffman states, "There was a saying that you were not ready until you could see the reflection of your rifle stock in your shoes and your shoes reflected in your stock."[6]

[6] Coffman, The Regulars, pp. 290-291

 
This, briefly, was the army that Gilbreth served in from his graduation from West Point until the beginning of World War II.  At some point Gilbreth switched from the Infantry to the Armor branch.  In the late summer of 1942, as a Lieutenant Colonel, Gilbreth took command of the Eighth Tank Group at Camp Rucker, Alabama.[7]  Tank Groups were designed to serve as administrative and tactical headquarters for separate tank battalions that were to provide direct support to infantry operations.[8]
 

[7] Roger M. Baty and Eddie L. Maddox Jr., Editors, Where Heroes Trained: 736th Medium Tank Battalion (Special), (Tucson, AZ: Fenestra Books, 2004), p.35

[8] Steven J. Zagola, U.S. Tank and Tank Destroyer Battalions in the ETO 1944-45, (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2005), p.8.

 
At Camp Bouse, Arizona, now in command of the Ninth Tank Group, Gilbreth began training troops on the top secret Cassock/Leaflet or Canal Defense Light (CDL) project.  In August 1943 an "Order for Immediate Possession" was filed barring nine mining companies from their lands, "by condemnation under judicial process."  Gilbreth had an immediate concern about the operation of two mines interfering with the training.  By the fall, the miners had left, abandoning a donkey who would become known as "Eight Ball."  During this time, army units, including the 526th Armored Infantry Battalion (AIB) were coming in to the Butler Valley.  Besides the 526th, there were several tank battalions, (736th and 738th), an ordnance unit and the 150th Station Hospital. Colonel Gilbreth concentrated trainings on the fundamentals of small unit tactics.  He wanted a strong foundation in the basics before moving on to combat training.[9]

[9] Baty and Maddox, Eds, Where Heroes Trained, pp.108-110 and pp.116-117.

 
Major General Alvin C. Gillem, commander of the Armored Force, visited units fighting in Sicily.  He returned to the United States calling for more armor/infantry cooperation.  One inspection tour took Gillem to Camp Bouse.[10]  On November 11, 1943 at 2300 hours under a full moon, there was a demonstration of the CDL for General Gillem.  The 526th AIB was one of the units which participated in the maneuvers.  Gillem thought that the CDLs would increase the army's ability to fight at night, but he was concerned about the absence of a combat doctrine on the use of the CDL tanks.  This concern fell into place with Gillem's call for more armor/infantry cooperation and coordination.

[10] Zaloga, U.S. Tank and Tank Destroyer Battalions, p.10.

 
Major General Alvan C. Gillem

Photo taken in April 1945

From http://www.army.mil

 
Gillem was also was worried about the limitations of the weapon itself.  Some of the limitations dealt with operations in the fog, rain and the short range of the actual illumination – 1200 yards.  Colonel Gilbreth was among those appointed to a special board of Armor branch officers to develop a combat doctrine for the employment of CDL tanks.[11]  At this time, the basic CDL Company was comprised of three platoons of six tanks each, (a fighter tank, and five CDL tanks), a Headquarters Section, a Maintenance Section and an ammunition and supply section.[12]

[11] Baty and Maddox, Eds, Where Heroes Trained, pp.108-110 and pp.123-127.

[12] Zaloga, U.S. Tank and Tank Destroyer Battalions, p.28.

 
In December 1943 the Tenth Tank Group, which included two tank battalions, joined the units training at Camp Bouse.  The Tenth had been training in Yakima, Washington.  At the end of January 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Carlisle B. Irwin was given command of the Tenth Tank Group and the 526th AIB detached from the Ninth Tank Group and became part of the Tenth Group.[13]

[13] Baty and Maddox, Eds, Where Heroes Trained, pp.128, and pp.134-135.

 
One day "Eight Ball", who liked 3.2 percent beer, got into trouble.  He started to eat the laundry of the nurses (150th Station Hospital) which was hanging out to dry.  A nurse reported this and Colonel William Dodge of the 736th Tank Battalion shot "Eight Ball" who fell to the ground wheezing.  Another soldier put the wounded animal out of his misery, a sad end for the examining donkey.[14]

[14] Baty and Maddox, Eds, Where Heroes Trained, Jesse R. "Pete" Henson oral history interview, p.190.

 
 
Colonel Gilbreth left the desert and by the fall of 1944 was Chief of Staff of the Ninth Armored Division which had arrived in Normandy in September 1944.[15]  In November Gilbreth took command of Combat Command Reserve (CCR) of the Ninth.  When the Germans attacked through the Ardennes on December 16th, CCR was supporting the 28th Infantry Division in the VIII Corps area in and around Bastogne.  Historian John C. McManus noted that the German attack kept CCR busy.  Busy indeed! CCR and other units were destined to play a vital role in the initial defense of Bastogne.  The Germans overwhelmed the 110th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Division and on December 17th, captured the town of Clervaux, about fifteen miles to the east of Bastogne.  With the capture of the town, Gilbreth lost a tank company that had supported the 110th Infantry Regiment.[16]

[15] U.S. Military Academy, Gilbreth 8106-1927 Cullum File.

[16] John C. McManus, Alamo in the Ardennes: The Untold Story of the American Soldiers Who Made the Defense of Bastogne Possible (New York, NY: New American Library, a Division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2007), p.93, pp.117-120, and p. 150.

 
With the fall of Clervaux, Lieutenant General Troy Middleton, commanding VIII Corps, gave Gilbreth the job of setting up roadblocks at Antoniushaff and near Allerborn, three miles away.  Until reinforcements could arrive, CCR was the only sizeable force between the important crossroads town of Bastogne and the advancing Germans.
 
Gilbreth divided CCR into three task forces, named for their commanding officers, Rose, Harper and Booth.  Captain Lyle Rose's task force, ("A" Company, 2nd Tank Battalion, Rose's "C" Company, 52nd Armored Infantry Battalion and a platoon from the 9th Armored Engineers) took up positions at Antoniushaff along Highway N12.  Rose positioned his tanks around the crossroads.  There was very little cover for the men and vehicles.  The armored infantry company dug in front of the tank positions.[17]

[17] McManus, Alamo in the Ardennes:, p.xxxiii, pp 150-151 (Note: Charles B. MacDonald, A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge (New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1985) identifies Rose as Lawrence K. Rose, p.283 and pp. 286-287).

 
Task Force Harper, under Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Harper, consisted of what remained of his own 2nd Tank Battalion, and "B" Company, 52nd Armored Infantry Battalion.  Harper's force took up positions at Feitsch crossroads southwest of Antoniushaff along the road to Longvilly and Bastogne.[18]

[18] McManus, Alamo in the Ardennes: p. xxxiii, pp 150-151.

 
Gilbreth's third task force was under Lieutenant Colonel Robert Booth, Commanding Officer of the 52nd Armored Infantry Battalion.  Booth was a West Point graduate, class of 1935. Booth's force consisted of Headquarters Company of the 52nd Armored Infantry Battalion, two platoons of the 52nd's "A" Company, a platoon of tank destroyers from the 811 Tank Destroyer Battalion and a platoon of light tank from Company "D", 2nd Tank Battalion. Booth's roadblock was at Moinet, north of Longvilly.[19]

[19] McManus, Alamo in the Ardennes: p. 161 and p. 170.

 
 
Colonel Joseph H. Gilbreth's three task forces were now in defensive positions.  Colonel Gilbreth's command post was in Longvilly, east of Bastogne.  At Antoniushaff, six miles from Longvilly, Captain L. Rose's forces repelled a German assault made by three tanks from the 2nd Panzer Division's reconnaissance battalion.  This was just a probe of the American lines.  The Germans were gathering forces for an attack on the crossroads at Antoniushaff.  They dropped a smoke screen in front of Rose’s positions and began an assault with armor and infantry.  McManus describes the German strength as overwhelming.  Gilbreth was kept informed by radio reports and reported to Major General Troy Middleton (Commander of VIII Corps) in Bastogne that Task Force Rose was surrounded and asked for authority to withdraw Rose’s men.  “TF" is being hit from three sides.
 
Recommend that they fight their way out to the Allenborn roadblock near where TF Harper was situated.  Gilbreth wanted what was left of TF Rose to reinforce that task force.[20]

[20] John C. McManus, Alamo in the Ardennes: The Untold Story of the American Soldiers Who Made the Defense of Bastogne Possible (New York, NY: New American Library, a Division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2007), pp. 151-152.

 
 
Because of the desperate situation faced by American forces in the whole area, Middleton himself had no authority to withdraw Task Force Rose.  That sealed the fate of Captain Rose and his men.  The Germans seized the crossroads and the American troops scattered, leaving the N12 road open south to Allerborn and Feitsch.  Some of the men made their way out to Houffalize and Bastogne. McManus notes that TF Rose “had delayed the German advance for seven crucial daylight hours.” [21]

[21] McManus, Alamo in the Ardennes, p. 152.

 
West of Task Force Harper’s position on the Feitsch crossroads was the 110th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division commanded by Colonel Theodore Seely.  Seely had just assumed command of what was left of the 110th Infantry which had been battered by the German onslaught.  Seely’s Command Post was in Allerborn.  As they had with TF Rose, the German assault rolled through TF Harper’s T shaped roadblock at Feitsch and headed west towards Allerborn and the strategic seven road network at Bastogne.  Lieutenant Colonel Harper was killed trying to escape with some half-tracks.  McManus notes that both task forces bought time for other units to reach Bastogne.[22]

[22] McManus, Alamo in the Ardennes, pp. 157-158.

 
The German advance headed towards Longvilly.  Bastogne was six miles away.  Gilbreth now had lost two-thirds of his fighting force and the Germans were coming fast.  Because of a lack of radio or telephone communication, Gilbreth thought that Task Force Booth was also destroyed, but they were in defensive positions around Moinet.  Booth’s armored infantrymen from the 52nd Armored Infantry Battalion were dug in east of Moinet and Longvilly supported by tanks and tank destroyers. Stragglers from the Rose and Harper task forces came into Booth’s defensive positions.  As quoted by McManus, one soldier said, “They were real shook up.”  Booth’s men were waiting for the Germans to come, but on the night of December 18, they did not make an assault towards Moinet and Longvilly.  The German 2nd Panzer Division had orders to head for the Meuse River and its commander, Colonel Meinhard von Lauchert, chose to flank Longvilly from the northwest in the direction of Bourcy and Noville.  The Panzer Lehr Division (Lieutenant General Fritz Bayerlein) headed towards Bastogne along a muddy, unpaved country road past Longvilly.[23]

[23] McManus, Alamo in the Ardennes, pp. 161-162.

 
One of the American units headed towards Bastogne was Combat Command B (CCB) of the 10th Armored Division, recently released from the Third Army to support the First Army in the Ardennes.  One of CCB’s units was Team Cherry commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Henry T. Cherry. Colonel Cherry was directed to Longvilly.  Lieutenant Edward P. Hyduke led the way.  He halted just west of Longvilly.  Hyduke did not want to get his vehicles mixed up with Gilbreth’s CCR vehicles.  Once contact was made by radio, CCR officers asked that Colonel Cherry come into town to meet Gilbreth.  Gilbreth happily greeted Cherry and his operations officer, slapping them on the back and saying, “You couldn’t look better to me if you were Jesus Christ himself.”  Colonel Gilbreth thought that Cherry would continue east and reinforce what remained of Task Force Harper at the Feitsch crossroads, but Cherry had no orders to go beyond Longvilly.  Gilbreth’s good mood must not have lasted long. Colonel Cherry must have been disappointed too.  He thought that Gilbreth could provide him vital information on the situation, but Gilbreth, had little to offer beyond an assurance that his unit would try to hold “at all costs.” [24]

[24] McManus, Alamo in the Ardennes, pp. 162-163. See also Charles B. MacDonald, A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge (New York, William Morrow and Company, 1985), p. 292.

 
Shortly before midnight on December 18, Gilbreth directed his staff to begin to withdraw towards Bastogne.  The word to withdraw spread quickly and the men who had been hit so hard, so recently, headed west out of Longvilly in a panic.  Historian Charles B. MacDonald described the scene as, “…Pitch darkness, a clinging fog, German searchlights in the distance, fiery arcs of tracer bullets, eerie flicker of flares.  There was shelling, the occasional chatter of burp guns from German patrols, and everywhere untold confusion.”  In the dark, Gilbreth could not coordinate the withdrawal and soon his vehicles were in a bad traffic jam with Cherry’s vehicles on Highway N12.  McManus states that one of Gilbreth’s officers said that the retreat should halt until daylight.  Gilbreth agreed. The next day, Tuesday, December 19, the retreat continued.  Vehicles moved slowly - entangled with Team Cherry’s vehicles.  This all made a very good target for the attacking Germans who were on high ground overlooking the chaotic scene on Highway N12.  Three different German divisions opened fire on the American vehicles, creating what McManus termed a “kill sack.”  Gilbreth and others finally were able to make their way into Bastogne along back roads.  McManus states that, “the colonel himself was thoroughly exhausted as were his battered survivors. Gilbreth’s command had basically ceased to exist.” [25]

[25] McManus, Alamo in the Ardennes, p. 173, pp. 189-190, p. 192. See also MacDonald, A Time For Trumpets, pp. 293-294.

 
That same day the 101st Airborne Division, which had been resting at Mourmelon, France after its tough fall campaign in Holland (Operation Market-Garden), took up the defense of Bastogne.  The first major counter-attack launched from Bastogne was directed towards CCR positions at Longvilly.  As the defense built, CCB of the Tenth Armored Division received permission to use stragglers from CCR and other units that came into Bastogne from the east.  Colonel William Roberts of CCB used hot food and military police to form what became known as Team SNAFU. [26]

[26] Leonard Rapport and Arthur Northwood, Jr., Rendezvous With Destiny: A History of the 101st Airborne Division (Greenville, TX, 101st Airborne Division Association, 1948), p. 442 and p. 472.

 
In January 1945, after it was all over, the 101st Commanding General (CG), Maxwell Taylor wrote to General John Leonard, CG of the Ninth Armored Division, to thank him for the “gallant support rendered by Combat Command ‘R’ in the recent defense of Bastogne, Belgium.  This division [the 101st] is proud to have shared the battlefield with your command.” Taylor recommended a unit citation for CCR. The citation and the recognition were never received. CCR was on a secret list and no public recognition was allowed. [27]

[27] McManus, Alamo in the Ardennes, p. 255.

 
Colonel Joseph Gilbreth continued serving in the Army after the war.  In the early 1950s, he commanded a supply depot in Darmstadt, West Germany and in 1957, when he retired from the Army, he was G-3 Operations Officer for the Sixth Army at the Presidio of San Francisco.  Gilbreth died November 29, 1962 at Brooke General Hospital, Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.[28]

[28] U.S. Military Academy, Cullum File

 

General John W. Leonard

1942 - 1945 Commanding General 9th Armored Division, North-West Europe
1945 - Commanding General 20th Armored Division, North-West Europe
1946 - 1948 Commandant Armor School
1948 - 1951 Military Attaché to London
1951 - Commanding General V Corps
1952 - Commanding General XVIII Airborne Corps
1952 Retired

General Leonard was a classmate of Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley at West Point. Here he is attending Catholic Mass in August 1945 upon his return to his hometown in Toledo, Ohio.
His gravemarker at Arlington National Cemetery
 
Editor’s note: It is interesting to note that General Leonard had similar circumstances of a classified top secret background, as the 526th, training with the CDL tanks. Because of these secretive operations, General Leonard, like the 526th, did not receive proper recognition in the history books.
 
Source: The PEKAN Newsletter - 526th Armored Infantry Battalion - May and November 2009

Tom HANCHETT

526th A.I.B. Historian

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium