Shivering and stamping their feet in the snow, three American soldiers warmed their hands over a small fire at an observation post. They were weary, dirty, and hungry, and a long way from home.
Three other GIs shuffled along to relieve them after a while, and one said, “Merry Christmas.” The first three looked up in surprise, and one of them replied slowly, “We thought tomorrow was Christmas.”
The soldiers were helping to guard the perimeter defense line around the town of Bastogne in southeastern Belgium, not far from the Luxembourg border. They were surrounded by German forces, and there was not much Christmas cheer to go around that cold, snow-covered, fog-shrouded December more than 70 years ago.
Yet, although they did not know it at the time, those GIs of the 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagle” Division were writing a glorious chapter in the history of their army. The name of Bastogne would be stitched proudly on American battle flags alongside Valley Forge, Gettysburg, San Juan Hill, Chateau Thierry, the Marne, Bataan, St. Lo, Remagen, and Pork Chop Hill.
Christmas 1944 found the Screaming Eagles, veterans of Normandy and Holland, and Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division defending besieged Bastogne while the Battle of the Bulge—Adolf Hitler’s last desperate counter-offensive of World War II—swirled around them. It was the first major battle fought by American soldiers in winter, and the one in which they suffered the greatest number of casualties: 76,890 killed, wounded, and missing.
Bastogne, an upland town 43 miles south of Liège in the Ardennes Forest region, was the junction of a railroad and seven highways lacing Belgium and Luxembourg. It lay on the center line of the German advance and was a vital strategic objective. Its 10,000 American defenders, outnumbered four to one, held firm. They groused because the enemy breakthrough had deprived them of anticipated furloughs in Paris, but they sang carols and put up makeshift Christmas trees as enemy artillery hammered away and bombs fell.
Breakthrough on the “Ghost Front”
The first snow had fallen in the Ardennes Forest on December 9. Before dawn on Saturday, December 16, 1944, German guns blasted a thinly-held 100-mile front of Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley’s U.S. First Army. The “ghost front,” so called because it had been the quiet sector of the Allied line, was manned by four U.S. infantry divisions—the green 99th and 106th, and the 4th and 28th, which were resting after being mauled in the recent Hürtgen Forest campaign. Three panzer armies—13 infantry divisions and seven panzer divisions—crashed through the American lines. Hitler’s objective was to split the British-Canadian and American Armies, reach the River Meuse, and capture the strategic port of Antwerp in Belgium.
The German breakthrough caught everyone off balance, from the front-line GIs all the way up to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander. Confusion and inertia gripped Eisenhower’s headquarters for several critical hours, and some senior officers believed that the enemy thrust was merely a spoiling attack. But two of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s panzer divisions had cracked wide open Maj. Gen. Troy Middleton’s VIII Corps, and panic was widespread in the field as the German columns thundered westward through Belgium. Allied communications were chaotic, and no one in the outposts or headquarters map rooms was sure of what was happening.
As the panzers and seasoned German infantry punched through the American lines, many GIs threw away their rifles and ran in terror. Large quantities of equipment, heavy weapons, ammunition, and vehicles in good running order were abandoned. Roadsides in the Ardennes were littered with discarded trucks, jeeps, halftracks, and gun carriages. One advancing American tank column was forced to churn across mud and snow covered fields because the nearest available road was choked with fleeing soldiers.
In the Schnee Eifel sector, two regiments of the U.S. 106th Infantry Division, between 8,000 and 9,000 men, surrendered to two divisions of the German 66th Corps. The Army official history called it “the most serious reverse suffered by American arms during the operations of 1944-1945 in the European theater.”
Delaying the German Offensive
But other U.S. units, both seasoned and green, stood and fought valiantly as powerful German Panther and Tiger tanks, followed by infantry, loomed out of the fog and snow. In some locations, small pockets of American resistance, two or three GIs with a machine gun or bazooka and a minimum of rounds, defended a bridge or crossroads and helped to upset the enemy timetable for a few hours. Many Americans died, and their gallantry will never be known.
On a slope overlooking a strategic crossroads at the Belgian village of Lanzerath, a platoon of the untested U.S. 99th Infantry Division led by Lieutenant Lyle J. Bouck halted a column of panzers, paratroopers, and Waffen-SS soldiers for 18 critical hours. The Americans fought until their machine guns and carbines burned up or ran out of ammunition. When the Germans at last overran their position, the stubborn GIs were pulled bodily from their foxholes. Only two Americans were killed in the encounter, but many were badly wounded. The enemy toll was 509 casualties. “We never surrendered,” Bouck reported proudly. “We were captured.”
At another important road junction, St. Vith, troops of the 7th Armored Division under Brig. Gen. Bruce C. Clarke held firm for a week before withdrawing just as the last escape route was closing. And other U.S. units resisted gallantly at Berg, Butgenbach, Spa, Trois Ponts, Stoumont, Stavelot, Houffalize, and Elsenborn Ridge, where troops of Maj. Gen. Leonard Gerow’s Fifth Corps resisted repeated attacks by four Nazi divisions.
Yet, despite the gallant delaying actions fought by U.S. troops at many locations in the Bulge, the Germans had penetrated to 60 miles west of Celles, Belgium, by December 19. At high tide, the enemy columns reached within a few miles of the strategic River Meuse, and, without knowing it, passed within a quarter-mile of the First Army’s main supply depot at Spa, Belgium.
The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions are Called into Action
General Bradley was slow to grasp the gravity of the situation. “Pardon my French,” he muttered in his Luxembourg war room, “but where in hell has this son of a bitch gotten all his strength?” Field intelligence and aerial reconnaissance reports of an ominous German buildup in the Schnee Eifel a few miles east of the Ardennes had been disregarded because the Allied high command believed the German Army no longer capable of a major offensive. Enemy security precautions for the counter-offensive had been watertight.
Even the usually astute General Bernard L. Montgomery, commander of the British 21st Army Group, had summarized on the very morning of December 16, “The enemy is at present fighting a defensive campaign on all fronts; his situation is such that he cannot stage major offensive operations.”
It was not until the evening of December 17 that General Eisenhower took a more realistic view and ordered the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, the only two units readily available, to shore up the faltering American formations in the Bulge as a stopgap measure. The two divisions were still refitting and resting after their battering in the ill-fated Operation Market-Garden, the airborne invasion of Holland, that September. Meanwhile, Eisenhower ordered General Montgomery to take over command of U.S. forces on the northern flank of the Bulge. One of the first Allied commanders to realize the gravity of the German breakthrough, Monty ordered British Army units to hasten to the strategic River Meuse and defend its crossings.
“Old Crock” and the 101st Settle in Bastogne
In France, trucks and semi-trailers of the Army Transportation Corps’ famed Red Ball Express were swiftly marshaled, and the American paratroopers were rushed into action on December 17-18. The 82nd Airborne was trucked to the Werbomont area on the northern flank of the Bulge, while the 101st Airborne raced in a serpentine convoy for 300 miles from its rest area at Mourmelon-le-Grand near Reims, France, to Bastogne. The Screaming Eagles rolled into the Bastogne area to join Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division none too soon. The Germans were closing in, and the strategic town was soon to be under siege.
The men of the 101st Airborne hastily dug in and set up a defense perimeter, led by Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe, a peppery but genial artilleryman and 1918 graduate of West Point. Nicknamed “Old Crock” by his men, McAuliffe was the division artillery commander now serving as temporary divisional leader in the absence of handsome, scholarly Maj. Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, who was in Washington, D.C.
Bastogne was soon pressed by the 2nd Panzer, Panzer Lehr, and 26th Volksgrenadier Divisions led by General Heinrich von Luttwitz. The town was isolated on December 20, but the Screaming Eagles held firm stubbornly and the panzers were eventually forced to swing past them in their westward advance. The timetable of the enemy counteroffensive was being disrupted.