General Middleton and the Battle of the Bulge

 

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander (left) and Gen. Troy Middleton, commander of the VIII Crops in Belgium, November 1944.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander (left) and Gen. Troy Middleton, commander of the VIII Crops in Belgium, November 1944.

Troy Middleton, president emeritus of LSU and for whom the main library on campus was named from 1979-2020, was a division and corps commander in World War II. The most important battle in which he led troops was the Battle of the Bulge, also known as the Ardennes Offensive, which took place between December 16, 1944 and January 25, 1945. In this blog post, we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the battle and Middleton’s role in it.

The Battle of the Bulge was the last major offensive mounted by the Germans in World War II and was named for an inward bulge in the line between the opposing American and German forces. The battle took place in the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg and was fought in unusually harsh winter conditions with sub-freezing temperatures, rain, snow, mist, and fog. The German objective was to break through a thinly-defended front, split the American and British forces, capture badly-needed fuel and other materiel, cross the Meuse River, and retake the port of Antwerp. The Germans would then envelope the Allies and sue for peace so that they could concentrate on fighting the Russians in the east. The key to the Ardennes was Bastogne, a town of 5,000 in eastern Belgium where seven major roads in the region converged and commanded the communications network in the area. Major General Troy Middleton, commander of the VIII Corps, had established his headquarters in Bastogne in November 1944 and, understanding the town’s importance, ordered that it be held.

Troy Middleton (1889-1976) had an exemplary record during his service in the United States Army. His first major assignment was guarding the US-Mexican border against incursions by Pancho Villa. During World War I, Middleton led troops in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives, and became the youngest man promoted to colonel in the war. In the 1920s, Middleton attended the Graduate Infantry School at Fort Benning, GA, attended and later taught at the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, KS (where he was a classmate of George S. Patton and taught Dwight Eisenhower and every World War II US corps commander in Europe), and the Army War College in Washington, DC. From 1930 to 1936, Middleton served as commandant of cadets (and dean of men from 1934 to 1936) at Louisiana State University. In 1936, Middleton returned to active duty with the army and was stationed in the Philippines, but in 1937 he was enticed back to LSU by President James Monroe Smith’s offer of the position of dean of the administration. He became comptroller in 1939 in the wake of the “University Scandals” involving theft and embezzlement for which President Smith and others went to prison.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Middleton offered his services to the army and requested a field command, but at 52 years old with arthritic knees and an irregular heartbeat, the Army was reluctant to allow him to command soldiers in battle. Eisenhower intervened on Middleton’s behalf, and, along with a promotion to major general, he was given command of the 45th Infantry Division, which took part in the invasion of Sicily and Italy in 1943. In 1944, Middleton became commander of the VIII Corps, serving in that capacity until the end of the war. The VIII Corps arrived in Normandy on June 13, 1944, as part of the follow-up force for the D-Day invasion, fought across Normandy, the Brittany peninsula, took the port city of Brest, France, and by mid-November, 1944, was holding an eighty-eight mile defensive position in the Ardennes region of eastern Belgium.

The Americans considered the heavily-forested and rugged Ardennes a safe rest area for battered units that had been rotated out of battle and a training area for green troops. Bastogne was about twenty miles from the German West Wall positions. Initially, the Germans had second-line troops posted opposite the American positions, but these troops were quietly exchanged for eighteen first-line divisions (approximately 200,000 men) to face approximately 68,000 Americans, made up primarily of the battle-weary and untested infantry divisions. The German offensive relied on speed and surprise for success, and one of their immediate objectives was to take Bastogne. Doing so would give them an unimpeded route across France and Belgium and would split the Allied armies, erasing the gains made since June 6.

At 5:30 on the morning of December 16, the Germans attacked and achieved almost total surprise. Hardest hit were divisions holding the northern part of the line. For the next three days, the Germans gained ground and pushed back the overwhelmed but hard-fighting Americans, but were unable to make as much progress as they had anticipated. The green 106th Infantry Division was almost completely surrounded on December 17 and most of its units had surrendered by December 21.

The general area where the Battle of the Bulge took place.  The arrow indicates the direction of the German offensive that began on December 16, 1944.

The general area where the Battle of the Bulge took place. The arrow indicates the direction of the German offensive that began on December 16, 1944.

After the German attack on December 16, the 101st Airborne Division, under the temporary command of Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, along with Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division, had been transferred to Middleton’s VIII Corps. On December 18, Middleton issued McAuliffe a simple order: Hold Bastogne. Other units arrived to defend the town and on December 19, Middleton was ordered to move his command to Neufchateau, seventeen miles southwest of Bastogne. The following day, the 101st Airborne established their positions on the perimeter of the town. One of the elements of the 101st was E (“Easy”) Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment whose story was told in the HBO series Band of Brothers.

By December 21, Bastogne was surrounded and was under heavy attack by the enemy. The situation was becoming dire: food and ammunition were in short supply and most of the medical equipment and personnel had been captured. The next day, the commander of the German troops facing Bastogne, Gen. Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz, sent emissaries demanding unconditional surrender and McAuliffe refused, answering “Nuts!”, meaning “go to Hell.”

The garrison held against a slow, steady advance characterized by heavy tank and artillery fire and sharp attacks, but ammunition shortages were becoming acute and bad weather conditions made aerial resupply impossible. From December 23-25, the perimeter around Bastogne continued to hold under repeated heavy attacks on all sides and after the weather began clearing on the 23rd, the town was heavily damaged due to aerial bombardment. The improved weather also enabled the beleaguered 101st to receive airdrops of ammunition and food.

The battle situation on December 26, 1944.  The white arrows indicate German advances, the black arrows indicate Allied counterattacks.  Note that Bastogne was completely surrounded; the black arrow south of Bastogne shows elements of the 4th Armored Division.

The battle situation on December 26, 1944. The white arrows indicate German advances, the black arrows indicate Allied counterattacks. Note that Bastogne was completely surrounded; the black arrow south of Bastogne shows elements of the 4th Armored Division.

On the December 26, elements of the 4th Armored Division of Patton’s Third Army reached the southern outskirts of Bastogne and by the next day, they had opened the roads for ambulances and trucks to relieve the 101st Airborne. Although the siege of Bastogne ended at this point, heavy fighting continued in the area and the Germans made several attempts to cut off the roads into Bastogne and surround the town, but were unsuccessful.

The battle situation on January 16, 1945 shows that the Germans were pushed back almost to the original line of December 16.

The battle situation on January 16, 1945 shows that the Germans were pushed back almost to the original line of December 16.

Fighting in the Ardennes continued through mid-January 1945, but the successful defense of Bastogne and linkup with elements of the Third Army marked the beginning of the end of the German offensive. The Germans were denied the road network of which Bastogne was the hub and were delayed enough during the initial attack that their plan to reach the Meuse River and retake Antwerp became impossible to execute.

Gen. Middleton, December 1944.  Winter weather in the Ardennes is exceptionally cold and wet, and the battle was characterized by fog, freezing temperatures, misty rain, snow, and ice.

Gen. Middleton, December 1944. Winter weather in the Ardennes is exceptionally cold and wet, and the battle was characterized by fog, freezing temperatures, misty rain, snow, and ice.

After the battle, Patton praised Middleton and the officers and men of the VIII Corps:

The magnificent tactical skill and hardihood which you and your commend displayed in slowing up the German offensive, and the determined valor and tactical prescience which caused you to retain possession of Bastogne, together with your subsequent resumption of a victorious offensive, constitute a truly superb feat of arms.

The Battle of the Bulge was the costliest American battle of World War II; 80,987 Americans were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. German casualties were estimated to be between 81,000 and 103,000.

Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and Patton all had a high regard for Middleton’s leadership and he earned a reputation as a corps commander of extraordinary abilities. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, and the Bronze Star during the war.

After the war, Middleton returned to LSU as comptroller and was named president in 1951. Among his administration’s accomplishments were the establishment of Boyd professorships, new degree programs in such fields as nuclear science and computer science, and a new main library was built, for which Middleton fought another battle, would be named in his honor.

Sources

Montecue J. Lowery, “Troy Houston Middleton: Military Educator and Combat Commander,” Military Review (1985):72-79.

Troy H. Middleton Papers and Middleton Room Memorabilia, RG #U106, Louisiana State University Archives, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA

Price, Frank James. Troy H. Middleton: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974.

The Battle of the Bulge: Battlebook. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Europe, 2013.

http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/gpo46222/4078.pdf

Editor’s note: this article was updated on July 8, 2020, to include information about the renaming of the LSU Library.

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