The Quartermaster Review
89th Quartermaster Railhead Company in the Battle of the Bulge 1944
On the thinning western flank of the Ardennes Forest, jammed against the Belgium-Luxembourg border, is the village of Gouvy.
Gouvy, straddling the Bovigny-Bastogne rail line which was swallowed up by the initial German success in the Battle of the Bulge was, from October 24th to December 22nd, the site of a Quartermaster truck-head. But from December 18th, when the pounding Germans broke through at St. Vith to the northeast, until December 22nd, when the village was finally evacuated, Gouvy was the scene of stubborn, last-ditch defensive action typical of the American doggedness which checked, held, and turned the Nazi tide.
Garrisoned chiefly by truck drivers, clerks, and laborers of the 89th Quartermaster railhead company which manned its ration dump, Gouvy held out against artillery fire, tank attacks, and infantry sorties for four days. Although constantly under enemy fire, the men never ceased to issue rations to all units whose trucks were able to enter Gouvy, and most of them alternately passed out ration cans and small-arms fire.
While only two Americans of the “bastard battalion” sustained injuries in the four-day engagement, and eight were reported missing, approximately seventy Germans were killed, twenty-two captured, and an unknown number wounded.
First warning of the peril of their position came to the men and officers of the railhead company early on December 18th, when American units retreating from the line before St. Vith began to pass through to the rear. Ration issues became erratic before noon as the tension grew.
At noon, telephone lines from the company to its Corps headquarters went dead, and shortly thereafter sporadic machine-gun fire could be heard to the front and on the right flank of the Quartermaster unit’s positions.
A decision to evacuate was made, and ration dumps were fired in preparation for the movement. Two hundred yards from the railhead, as the troops were moving in convoy to the rear, its leading elements observed ahead of them another column whose three front vehicles were burning and completely blocking the road-the only route westward to safety. Only one course was open-a return to the railhead site, and preparation for the defense of Gouvy. That launched the four-day ordeal of the “garrison of Gouvy.”
Arriving back at their blazing ration dumps, men of the company were ordered to beat out the flames and resume food distribution operations. When this had been done, investigation disclosed that little damage had been caused by the fires, so brief had been the period between the railhead company’s attempted evacuation and return.
Still other members of the company, plus personnel of an Ordnance platoon and the battalion headquarters whose vehicles had been knocked out on the road to the rear, and assorted individual soldiers separated from their units, took up defensive positions against the German tanks and infantry swarming around the area.
Two road-blocks, defending both entrance and exit of Gouvy’s only road, were established, and all available personnel, save for a central reserve of thirty men, were circled about the tiny hamlet in two-man foxholes. At daybreak on December 19th a patrol was sent to the town’s outskirts to determine whether Germans had infiltrated that portion of the village outside the night defense perimeter. They had-but all who had entered were cleaned out of the two buildings they occupied.
Ration issues continued all morning, despite occasional German fire, and shortly before noon a message was received from the Commanding General of the Seventh Armored Division, directing the town’s resistance at all cost resistance which rested entirely with the motley crew of service troops.
Two light American tanks, out of contact with their parent party, skirted the village that morning. One of them was immediately knocked out by fire from the Germans, who nearly surrounded Gouvy, but the disabled vehicle was hauled to the defense circle by a wrecker of the Ordnance group also beleaguered in the hamlet, and installed on one flank of the defense line, where its guns, which still functioned, could offer supporting fire.
Clashes continued throughout the day, and questioning of a group of Nazi prisoners disclosed that strong units of a German division, established less than three miles away, had been charged with the capture of Gouvy. The attackers were seeking not only possession of the town and of the rations held by the Quartermaster railhead company but access to the north-south railway line and the single roadway to the west, which culminated ten miles away in the Allies’ principal supply route.
Throughout the night of the 19th, American artillery fire passed over Gouvy, destined for the attackers to the east and south, and early on the morning of December 20th the railhead company’s commander set out to report his situation to the First Army Quartermaster. He found that it was impossible to leave the Gouvy area.
Ration issues, meanwhile, continued. Some 15,000 daily rations were distributed to the scattered front-line troops which had sufficient force to crowd aside the attacking Germans and reach Gouvy, as they set out for new thrusts at the Nazis. German mortar fire fell repeatedly in the ration dump.
Support, originally promised twenty-seven hours earlier, arrived shortly after noon on the 20th, when a group of light tanks came up seven miles to the northeast-at Bovigny-as a mobile reserve. The tank task force’s commanding officer reached Gouvy only after several hours, and informed the colonel commanding its defense that his armor could be used only in the event of a grave German threat, and that he could not enter Gouvy for its direct defense.
Before the arrival of the tanks another German effort to capture Gouvy had been launched when some fifty Germans piled into two wagons, covered themselves with hay, and succeeded in reaching the outskirts of the village. Almost all of them were killed by the Americans.
Patrols from the Quartermaster combat troops established contact with roving German bands that night, causing casualties. On the following morning orders were received to turn over all remaining rations to the Seventh Armored Division. This enabled the railhead troops to devote all their attention to the skirmishes at hand.
The Germans made several attack attempts on the 21st, each of which was repulsed, with German casualties.
At 6 :00 A.M. on December 22nd, the garrison of Gouvy was ordered to evacuate in five minutes. That the order was issued none too soon, was established by information that within two hours after the evacuation the village was occupied by a sizeable force of German armor.
For two more days after their evacuation the Quartermasters of the Gouvy garrison continued to function as infantrymen in coordination with American tanks in the area. They rode reconnaissance cars, cowboy style; flushed German raiding parties from hiding, and serviced the guns of light tanks.
On December 24th the 89th Quartermaster railhead company reached First Army Headquarters-a proud bunch of guys! They had earned their right to the name of fighting Quartermasters.