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US Army

11th Armored Division in the Bulge

11th Armored Division in the Bulge

 
(The following was excerpted from the article “Preparation for Combat,” by Brigadier General Charles S. Kilburn, which appeared in the 11th Armored Division newsletter for April, 2002. Brigadier General Kilburn was Division Commander for the 11th)
 
At dusk on December 16, faint bits of news reached Chateau Briand of a formidable German counteroffensive somewhere on the front of the Twelfth Army Group.  In the meantime the majority of the division staff had reached the new Command Post and all hands were busy in the final features of the plans to relieve the 94th.  On the following day our plans for containing St. Nazaire and Lorient were complete.  Assignments to each combat command had been developed and the location and make-up of Colonel Bell's Reserve Command were confirmed.
 
The news from the front was ominous—the Germans had penetrated American lines to a depth of 35 miles. General Maloney (94th) and Kilburn held hourly conferences.  In the afternoon, General Kilburn motored to Rennes to look over the 21st Armored Infantry under Hoffman, the 55th Armored Infantry under Hearn and the 490 F.A. under Davitt, all having arrived at that point under the control of CC B and Colonel Yale.  To check last minute details with the Brittany Base Section, in Rennes, General Kilburn visited that headquarters and was handed this message: "Suspend all movement 11th Armored Division in place and await further orders—Signed Lee."  The message was paraphrased to Holbrook at Cherbourg with instructions to get word to Bell at Southampton.
 
The discussions within the staff went on far into the night.  On the morning of December 19, word reached Division Headquarters that the 11th Armored Division would move as promptly as possible on three routes to the vicinity of Reims in SHAEF Reserve.  The Zone of Communications under Lieutenant General John C. H. (Courthouse) Lee required all of the 19th to develop routes of march, gasoline supply, etc.
 
The Thunderbolts headed East at daylight of December 20.  Yale led the group now in bivouac at Rennes.  Holbrook started CCA and those units waiting at Cherbourg.  Bell put the heat on loading the last of our units out of England.  Six hundred miles away by circuitous routes marked with temporary bridges lay the first march objective in Europe.
 
General Kilburn accompanied by Colonel Williams and Captain Neiman headed for Paris.  With the mud and muck of winter ahead it was imperative that our new tanks be equipped with "track extensions" before our first action; the best source of supply was Paris.  Within 48 hours, 8000 pounds of medium tank track extensions were on the way to Soissons for installation on our tanks.  Just how much these accessories were to benefit many of our tank crews during those first bloody days at Bastogne may be questionable; yet there is satisfaction in the knowledge that no effort ever was spared in the Division to secure every possible advantage for its members by every staff and command echelon.
 
At a visit to SHAEF on December 22, the division commander was advised in an informal manner that, perchance, the 11th Armored Division might prove to be the lone remaining combat element between the advancing Germans under Von Rundstedt and the Atlantic Ocean.  That afternoon, having been preceded by Colonel Williams General Kilburn headed for Reims.  Arrival there found General Lee and his Reims commander in a rather portentous conference discussing the adequate defense of the Meuse River.  The knowledge that the Thunderbolts were concentrating on Reims dispelled materially the heavy atmosphere of anxiety.  (Note: With the remaining elements of the Division still moving out of England, the wheels and tracks of our march columns continued their grind over the roads of France.  In the meantime General Kilburn had been placed in charge of all defenses along the Meuse River from Verdun to Givet, some 160 miles.  A large portion of the Division Staff was assembled at Charleroi coordinating this mission.  In fact CC A had been ordered bivouacs north of that city for use as a mobile reserve.  Together with three battalions of French Resistance Forces, CC A, on arrival was to push reconnaissance elements well to the east of the river.
 
Christmas Day 1944 found the Division still moving on the Reims area with the Division Commander and Staff engaged in a mission remote from dose contact with our own elements.  During the day, great fleets of C-47's (Cargo Planes) soared over Charleroi headed for the embattled forces at Bastogne to drop desperately needed supplies.  The spirit of Christmas was not with us, but the situation of other men caught in the merciless pressure of the Bulge made our position enviable by comparison.  On the following day, the 26th, a message to this effect was phoned to General Kilburn from both SHAEF and General Bradley's Twelfth Army Group, "Your friends to the north may give a party.  It may be a large affair, but only a part of your family is invited to participate in some phases of it"—Transcribed, "The British forces to your north may execute an attack; their attack to be reinforced by certain elements of the 11th AD."
 
In accord with the foregoing message, word was received from the VIII Corps requesting the Division Commander to join in a reconnaissance with staff members of the Corps for assembly areas near Givet. General Kilburn with Lieutenant Colonel Downer, G-3, and General Holbrook and Staff spent the greater part of the day on this purpose.  On returning to Charleroi late in the afternoon, it was found that the 17th Airborne Division had arrived in such force as to enable them to assume the defense of the Meuse.  Our staff lost no time in departing for the Division C.P. which had been installed in a French manor house some distance northeast of Reims.  The assembled staff on the evening of the 27th was a welcome sight to General Kilburn who had been out of direct contact with the division since the 13th of the month. It was this night that the news was announced that the last of our units had closed in their assigned bivouacs at two o'clock that morning.
 
The first event on the morning of the 28th was a meeting of all unit commanders and staffs at the Division CP.  Without delay the combat groupments of the combat commands and reserve command were designated with the directive that liaison agents would report at once to appropriate headquarters.  Likewise the immediate preparation of an operating signal annex and other features of a SOP character, incident to our current situation were directed for early distribution.  The remainders of the daylight hours were given to checks of supply matters to assure adequate issues of ammunition, gasoline, etc.  A liaison officer already had been dispatched to the VIII Corps. (Captain Emmett Keough).  The wide dispersion of the division, with CC A north of Charleroi, gave some concern.
 
At 8:30 p.m. (28th) the Division Commander's phone rang with the Chief of Staff, VIII Corps, on the other end.  General Kilburn repeated this message, "Alert your division to march—Have the Signal Officer copy this coded message." To prepare the issue of orders and assure distribution down to subordinate units with a division requires six hours by all acceptable standards in Army circles. With some impatience the decoding of the message given to the Signal Officer, was awaited.  When clarified, the Division had received orders to move without delay to assembly areas southwest of the beleaguered town of Bastogne.  The only feasible route lay through Sedan with a one-way bridge on the Meuse River at that point.  Within an hour, march orders had been prepared and issued to the major commands.  By 1:00 a.m., December 29, CC A was in movement Midnight of that day was to find the 11th A.D. with a march depth in single column of over 50 miles, beyond a one-way bridge and closed in bivouac some 96 miles to the east.  Only a highly efficient, well organized, disciplined division could have accomplished that fear.
 
The Division CP was established at Neufchateau.  Enroute to that point, General Kilburn visited Headquarters VIII Corps.  There the proposed plan of attack of the Thunderbolts, to relieve besieged Bastogne, was discussed.  The Division was to attack at daylight, December 30 (The next morning).  It was noted that the plan specified an attack by one combat command to the east and the other to the west of a heavily wooded area; a situation which precluded any possible mutual support between these two major elements.  This feature was protested by the Division Commander as dangerous to the welfare of our units as well as futile towards decisive results.  This protest was over-ruled on the basis that the 87th Infantry Division would attack on our left and being a green division should be supported by the availability or armor.  The 11th A.D., also, was to taste combat for the first time. The plan as outlined, however, was to prevail—at a cost.
 
At 4:00 p.m. General Holbrook and Colonel Yale reported to the Division CP.  Both had been in contact with the 6th Cavalry Group which was in contact with German Forces in the area in which we were to launch our attack.  In so far as could be ascertained, two German Panzer Divisions held around which we must secure.  (Soon identified as the 3rd Panzer Grenadier and 15th Panzer Grenadier Divisions).  In addition the Reimer Brigade (an armored unit commanded by a Brigadier named Reimer who previously had been chief of Hitler's personal bodyguard.  A brigade comprising selected personnel of the most flagrant type of young and brutal Nazi.  Comparing tables of equipment, the German forces opposing us were potentially hr stronger in tanks than ourselves.  The proposed plan of attack was discussed and instructions given for the combat commanders to conduct final reconnaissance in view of the attack orders anticipated.  A concluding assembly of unit commanders would be held at 9:30 p.m. when the formal orders for the attack would be issued.
 
In the meantime the never ending stream of vehicles continued to flow through Neufchateau on their way to final assembly positions and their rendezvous with destiny and the German. Dusk fell and gave way to a clear, cloudless sky in which glowed a brilliant full moon.  The sound of airplanes announced the strafing of our columns by small flights of Messerschmitt’s.  Alert driving together with the effective actions of our 575th AAA Auto Weapons Battalion resulted in negligible casualties.  Later the 575th was to draw first enemy blood when their guns knocked down a lone German fighter who attempted to rake the Division CP.  The kitchen crew of Division Headquarters Mess brought in the first German prisoner when the wounded aviator landed by parachute close to their culinary operations. While after midnight, the mess crew, always alert ones, were on the job and pounced on the Heine the moment he struck the ground.
 
The formal written Corps Orders, for the attack, were delivered by Keough at dark and the provisions of the Division attack for the following morning were complete by 9:30 p.m. when the major unit commanders assembled in the caravan of the Division Commander.  The widely divergent maneuver by our two combat commands, previously specified by Corps, still held.  Details for the coordination of supporting artillery fires, particularly for the supporting role of Corps Artillery, were anything but clear and specific.  Air-ground liaison groups of the 9th Tactical Air Force operating under the Third Army had yet to appear.  Information of the hostile situation in our zone of action provided by the 6th Cavalry Group was, to the Division Commander, of a hazy and indefinite nature.
 
As to be proven during the five ensuing days, as now described by Robert E. Merriam in the book "Dark December", the division was to contribute hugely to the decisive Battle of the Bulge.  Its gallant and impetuous assault to assure American retention of the vital road-center of Bastogne was to result in the destruction of a great part of Von Rundstedt's hordes which otherwise, on withdrawal to the East, would have manned later the Siegfried Line.  As was declared afterwards by the VIII Corps Commander, the Thunderbolts saved that critical area and the attendant travail and confusion which would have prevailed had it fallen to the now desperate Germans.
 
By 10:30 p.m., the major unit commanders had received their orders, discussed last minute details and departed.  Within a dozen hours the Division was to have tasted the rigors and the cost of modern war.  The stakes were high but irrespective of cost the Division had that fiber and that caliber to meet, head on, the severest crisis of its history.  We were to join that Holy fraternity who, throughout American annals, have been launched into the throes of major battle in their first engagement.  Outnumbered in tanks, out-gunned in tank cannon, operating in tricky tank terrain, we were to force two crack Panzer Divisions and a picked armored brigade of the vaunted German legions to surrender over six miles of key ground.  Our junction with the intrepid 101st Airborne Division assisted materially in cracking the back of the Bulge.
 
Only a disciplined, trained division, high in esprit and pride, with complete confidence in every member could have boasted this magnificent achievement.  When the harsh winds of winter and the mild zephyrs of Spring flow over the graves of those valiant men of the division whom we left under European soil, one may distinguish, faintly but exaltedly, the undaunted refrain — "We were Thunderbolts".
 
Source: Bulge Bugle May 2002

Brig. General Charles S. KILBURN

11th Armored Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium