The 30th Division: The Top-Rated American Infantry Division in Europe in World War II
Robert W. Baumer
Stackpole Books, Guilford, Connecticut, 2017, 584 pages
Book Review published on: August 24, 2018
Our society today seems obsessed with rankings, from the “Best Places to Live” to “power rankings” for sports teams, to even the “Best Breed of Dog” for the family pet. It should come as no surprise that the military likewise engages in this activity and has historically. On 1 December 1944, during the midst of World War II, Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, commander of the 12th Army Group, forwarded Gen. Dwight Eisenhower a ranking of thirty-two generals in the European theater of operations (ETO), based on their contributions to the war.1 (It should come as no surprise that Bradley ranked Eisenhower’s own chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Walter “Beetle” Smith, first, cementing the bond between mentors and protégées that linger in the active force today!) Ranking the units was a more difficult task. On 16 March 1946, Col. S. L. A. Marshall, chief historian of the ETO wrote to Lt. Gen. Leland Hobbs, former commander of the 30th Infantry Division, that his staff “picked the 30th Division No. 1 on the list” of “which divisions we considered had performed the most efficient and consistent battle services.” Author Robert Baumer has taken this singular, and suspect, piece of evidence as justification for his claim that “Old Hickory” was the “Top-Rated Infantry Division in World War II.”
If Baumer had included any other piece of evidence to support his claim, then Old Hickory: The 30th Division might have made an interesting comparative analysis of the various combat divisions of World War II. Any objective rankings would require a comparison of leadership, days in combat, ground gained, strength of opposition, casualties sustained and inflicted, and a host of other metrics that Marshall presumably performed but are not presented to substantiate the claim. But, other than a short preface by the commanding general of the North Carolina National Guard, the division’s lineal descendant, and a brief twenty-two page chapter on stateside training maneuvers, the remaining 482 pages of text are a blow-by-blow combat chronicle of the division’s service in World War II. While it is a welcome resource, and while its operational history can be used to sustain an argument, the author largely fails to provide any analysis or additional evidence to support his claim. There are no comparisons with other divisions or analysis of how certain operations, which includes the attack on St. Lo and breakout in Operation Cobra, the famous defense at Mortain, the liberation of Aachen, the defense of the northern shoulder of the “Bulge,” and the assault crossings of the Roer and Rhine Rivers, compare to those of other divisions.2 Thus, while the 30th Division certainly has a commendable combat record, the author fails to sustain the argument boldly splashed across the book’s cover.
The main problem with relying on Marshall’s conclusion is that many of his other famous pronouncements have been thoroughly debunked, including his bold claim that 75 percent of soldiers never fired their weapons in combat. Marshall has also been accused of misrepresenting his own service, claiming to have led soldiers in combat in World War I while assigned to a rear-echelon engineer unit. In a 1988 RUSI [Royal Uniformed Services Institute] Journal article, Dr. Roger Spiller concluded that Marshall’s “‘systematic collection of data’ appears to have been an invention.”3 Unfortunately, Marshall’s apparently liberty with his statistics throughout his career calls his entire ranking of combat divisions into question.
The assertion that the Germans even dubbed the division “Roosevelt’s SS” as a sign of respect, as mentioned in the preface is also of questionable validity. The name came about after 30th Division soldiers allegedly swore to stop taking prisoners after the German atrocity at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge—when over one hundred of the division’s soldiers were murdered in cold blood by stormtroopers of Joachim Peiper’s Kampfgruppe of the 1st SS Panzer Division. Upon learning that “American troops are now refusing to take any more SS prisoners,” the Ninth Army commander, Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson’s war diary recorded that “While we cannot order such a thing, the CG himself personally hopes that every GI will hear these stories and make that a battle rule; as the 30th Div. did. The CG feels very strongly about this. The Jerry has come to call the 30th ‘Roosevelt’s Butchers.’”4
There is no doubt that the 30th was a fine division, even if they did take occasional liberties with the Geneva Convention. The Ninth Army chief of staff, Brig. Gen. James E. Moore, later recalled that the 30th “was a crack Division,” and that he and the Army commander, Simpson, thought it “was the best infantry division in the Ninth Army”; they were certainly in a position to know.5 Simpson consistently assigned the division the toughest tasks, including the assault crossing of the Rhine, and he handpicked the division for reassignment to Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges’s First Army during the Bulge penetration. But Simpson speaks for only one of the four American armies engaged in sustained combat in the theater. Old Hickory’s combat record, which Baumer exhaustingly details, is certainly impressive and makes the book a worthwhile read. But, as an academic history, which requires an argument and supporting evidence, his assertion about the 30th Division’s standing among all of the fine combat divisions of World War II is unsubstantiated. And arguments without adequate supporting evidence are simply opinions.
Book Review written by: Christopher M. Rein, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
- A copy of the memo can be found in file 5, box 3, William H. Simpson Papers, Army Heritage and Education Center, Carlisle Barracks, PA.
- On Mortain, see Mark Reardon’s excellent Victory at Mortain: Stopping Hitler’s Counteroffensive (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002).
- Roger J. Spiller, “S.L.A. Marshall and the Ratio of Fire,” RUSI Journal (Winter 1988): 63–71.
- William H. Simpson, war diary, 23 December 1944, file 4, box 7, William H. Simpson Papers, Army Heritage and Education Center, Carlisle Barracks, PA.
- James E. Moore, oral history, p. 113, box 3, James E. Moore Papers, Army Heritage and Education Center, Carlisle Barracks, PA.