James Gavin, the youngest Major General at the time.
American medium tanks M4 «Sherman’ 4th Armored Division and U.S. trucks 82nd Airborne Division U.S. in Belgium.
General Gavin was dining with his staff on the evening of December 17, 1944, when the telephone shrilled. The Germans had broken through in the Ardennes Forest the previous day, and the American situation was critical. The 18th Airborne Corps was alerted to move to the front within 24 hours after daylight the following day. Characteristically, Gavin moved swiftly. He sent word to the 101st Division, alerted his troop units, and briefed the commanders. Another telephone call informed Gavin that the crisis in the bulge was now more urgent, and the airborne corps was ordered to move immediately toward the strategic road junction town of Bastogne in Belgium.
Acting as temporary commander of the 18th Airborne Corps in the absence of General Ridgway, who was in England, Gavin issued orders for the All-Americans to move by truck toward Bastogne an hour after daylight on December 18, with the Screaming Eagles following in the afternoon. While his troopers drew weapons, rations, and extra ammunition, Gavin rushed to General Courtney Hodges’s U. S. First Army headquarters in Spa, Belgium. The First Army was bearing the brunt of the German offensive. Hodges assigned the 82nd Division to V Corps, defending terrain north of Bastogne and along the northern shoulder of the enemy penetration. The division would set up defensive positions around Werbomont, directly in the path of enemy units then attempting to encircle St.-Vith, while the Screaming Eagles were ordered to defend Bastogne.
Gavin met leading elements of his division when they started rolling into Werbomont on the evening of December 18. Roadblocks were set up, and Gavin established his command post in a farmhouse in the little crossroads village. Ridgway arrived that night as the truck columns continued to rumble in. As the enemy panzer and infantry groups pushed deeper into Belgium, Ridgway took over operational control of the 3rd Armored and 30th Infantry Divisions, conducting a brilliant defensive battle along the northern shoulder of the bulge.
At daylight on December 19, Gavin learned that Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s panzers had cut the road leading southward from Werbomont to Bastogne. The situation was serious. The outnumbered American units at St.-Vith and Bastogne held firm, though both towns were surrounded by December 20. The Germans were forced to split their forces as the Americans fought desperately, and the enemy offensive weakened.
While the Screaming Eagles under Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe, deputy commander, heroically held Bastogne, Gavin’s men fought equally hard to the north. After the encircled U. S. armored forces were pulled back from St.-Vith, the weight of the enemy attack fell upon units of the 82nd Airborne Division. The 504th Parachute and 325th Glider Infantry Regiments fought stubbornly against the Germans who had overrun St.-Vith, and refused to yield much ground. Colonel Tucker’s 504th Regiment was awarded its second Presidential Unit Citation for gallantry-the first such citation won by an American unit in the Battle of the Bulge.
When the enemy threatened to break through at an isolated key road junction at the village of Baraque de Fraiture, Gavin rushed in a company of glider troops to reinforce a motley force of tankers and infantrymen there. He also dispatched a glider infantry battalion to the town of Fraiture, a mile northeast of the crossroads. The two units arrived on the morning of December 22, just in time to confront the first contingent of the 2nd SS Panzer Division. Heavily outnumbered, the GIs withstood artillery barrages and assaults by tanks and a panzergrenadier regiment. The Americans stood their ground for more than an hour but were overwhelmed. Only 44 of the 116 glider troops sent to the junction escaped; the rest were killed or captured. After General Montgomery had been ordered by Eisenhower to “tidy” the Allied lines in the northern bulge, the 82nd Airborne withdrew to a stronger, more consolidated position a few miles to the north. Gavin’s troopers groused about retreating, but their morale was still high. They blew up bridges across the Salm River, planted mines, and strung wire. By Christmas morning, all was ready. The enemy counterattack had run out of steam in the snow-clad, fogshrouded Ardennes, and on December 26, besieged Bastogne was relieved by Sherman tanks of Lt. Col. Creighton W. Abrams’s 37th Tank Battalion of the 4th Armored Division.
The following day, Von Rundstedt threw the 9th SS Panzer and 62nd Volksgrenadier Divisions against Gavin’s All-Americans in a last desperate attempt to breach the northern shoulder of the Allied defense line. Howling and firing their weapons as they charged, the German infantry attacked the paratroopers east of the village of Manhay. One battalion was overrun, but the rest of the Americans held their ground. When they saw the big Tiger and Panther tanks rolling toward them, the GIs ducked down in their foxholes and rallied after they had passed. Gavin committed a reserve company, the Americans fought fiercely, and the Germans were forced back to their own lines. Some captured enemy soldiers said they had never before seen Americans fight so tenaciously.
On January 3, 1945, the Allied forces on the northern shoulder launched an offensive to reduce the German bulge. Gavin’s men were in the thick of it, fighting aggressively though hampered by deep snowdrifts and bitter weather. The 82nd and the 1st Infantry Division led the offensive. The All-Americans blasted through the dragons’ teeth of the Siegfried Line later that month, and by the night of February 2, they were on German soil. Switched to the Hürtgen Forest sector, the scene of a grim attritional struggle reminiscent of the Western Front in World War I, Gavin’s division took part in the advance to the Roer River. On February 17, the exhausted troopers were relieved and trucked back to Rheims.
The 82nd rested and refitted, and then went back into action in April 1945. It crossed the River Elbe, and on May 2, Gavin received the surrender of the German 21st Army Group. Threadbare but elegant in field gray, with red collar tabs and an Iron Cross at his throat, Lt. Gen. Kurt von Tippelskirch went to Gavin’s command post and asked for the general in charge. He was directed to Gavin, standing on a street corner wearing his faded jumpsuit and with his M-1 rifle slung over his shoulder. He looked like any other GI except for the two stars on his collar and helmet.
“He looked at me with some disdain,” Gavin reported, “saying that I was too young and did not look like a general to him. It took only a moment to change his mind.”
When the European hostilities ended, Gavin and his division were assigned to the U. S. occupation zone in Berlin. There, Jumping Jim served as the American representative on the City Kommandatura. On Sundays, though still pained by the cracks in his spine, he would drive out to the Tempelhof airfield and make parachute drops “to get the cobwebs out.” He and the All-Americans left Berlin in October 1945, and returned home in December. Gavin and his division proudly led New York City’s victory parade in 1946.