To speak in the language of today — which I usually do not — I want to “Give a Shout-Out” to Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, former commanding officer of the British Army in World War ll, whose command also briefly included the unit in which my father served. This somewhat unusual salute is the result of the following story.
On December 16, 1944, on the cusp of the coldest European winter in a century, the German army launched an offensive through the “impenetrable” Ardennes Forest into Belgium, thus beginning what would be the largest battle in the history of the United States Army; the Battle of the Bulge.
At that moment, my father was a staff sergeant and commander of an M4 Sherman tank; a member of Combat Command B (CCB) of the Seventh Armored Division, currently in Heerlen, Holland expecting — after just completing a long difficult campaign securing the Scheldt Estuary — to wait out the winter before the all-out push into Germany.
When the German army came swarming West in many locations over a broad front, the principal objective, initially, was the Belgian town of St. Vith, which contained an important crossroads, as well as a vital railroad junction. In fact, the only railroad line from that area to the west; something upon which the German Army was counting quite heavily.
So late in the afternoon of the 16th, my father, and the rest of his unit were ordered to travel overnight, some 60 miles to St. Vith; there to establish a defensive perimeter, and hold the town against the German onslaught.
After forcing their way through the chaos of retreating American units, CCB Commanding General Bruce C. Clark organized his, and remaining US forces, and set in to defend St. Vith. Recognizing how vital the rail-head at St. Vith was to the German plan, the order was to hold the town at all cost.
After several days of repelling constant, brutal, probing in-force, and finally a massed assault, by the German Fifth Panzer Army, including, among others, the elite 1st SS Panzer Division, the so-called “Adolf Hitler Division”, Clark’s CO sent word up the chain of command that if they continued to hold, his unit would shortly cease to exist. Word came back that every hour the Germans could be delayed was vital, and to buy as much time as possible in an Alamo-like fight to the last man in the snows of Belgium.
It was at this time that the American command determined that they could not effectively orchestrate forces in the northern portion of the battle area, including St. Vith, and over the objections of tactical commander Gen. Omar Bradley, command of the “Northern Salient” was passed to Field Marshal Montgomery.
The Field Marshal visited that most critical location of his new command, St. Vith, and determined that it was not necessary for these men to perish. He would instead reorganize forces in the north into a stronger defensive line and ordered Clark to execute a fighting retreat, buying as much time as was possible for the vaunted Patton, and other reinforcements to arrive.
On Dec 23, taking advantage of the falling temperature which had turned deep mud into frozen ground, CCB of the Seventh Armored, and the other units under Clark’s command gradually withdrew in the action which would later become the U.S. Army’s textbook example of the use of armor in defense. All in all, these units held St. Vith for six days, against overwhelming odds, totally disrupting the German timetable. “The Battle at St. Vith” was later cited by the commanding general of the 5th Panzer Army, General Hasso Von Manteuffel, as the key event in the failure of German forces to succeed in the overall offensive.
After finally yielding at St. Vith, CCB of the 7th Armored Division received General Eisenhower’s personal thanks, a nights sleep, a couple of hot meals, and orders to return to the front. After a month of bitter fighting, a sign was erected on a road to the east which read “You Are Now Re-entering St. Vith Courtesy of the 7th Armored Division”, and the Battle of the Bulge was over.
So on this 70th anniversary, I want to honor and to thank my father, S/Sgt George A. Shropshire of Aurora, IL, and my namesakes, S/Sgt Thomas Forkin of Pittsburg, PA, and S/Sgt Dale Hoskins of Ramsey, IL, and the rest of the allied forces who fought with such valor. But a special thanks to you, Field Marshall Montgomery, for the decision on December 22, 1944 which saved the life of my father, two years before I was born.