Bastogne – A Cold Winter’s Week

As the snow gently fell in northern Illinois last night, winter music played on the computer and I sat thinking about how cold it must have been at Bastogne this week 65 years ago. I popped on YouTube and began watching the comments of the members of Easy Company from the Band of Brothers episodes Bastogne and Breaking Point. I wondered if it was as bad as they said.

By the fall of 1944, the invasion of the beaches at Normandy and the quick, sharp advance of Allied forces had now come screeching to a slow crawl. As the front got closer and closer to Germany, the more the Germans fought back. Despite the advance by British, Canadian, and American troops, German forces had never launched a large counter attack since D-Day. Soon, the Germans would attack. On December 15, 1944, Operation Watch on the Rhine began. It is more commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge or the Ardennes campaign. With over 500,000 Germans, it was the largest attack by the Germans against the Americans during the war.

Within a few days, the German Panzer Division quickly created a bulge in the Allied line engulfing a surrounding Command B of the 10th Armored Division and the 101st Airborne Division under the command of General Anthony McAuliffe near the town of Bastogne. On the 22nd, the German commander, Generalleutnant Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz, requested Bastogne’s surrender. General McAuliffe
responded, “Nuts!” (Go to hell!) One of McAuliffe’s staff recommended that McAuliffe’s initial verbal reply would be “tough to beat”. McAuliffe wrote on the paper, delivered it to two awaiting Germans, and the line was a morale booster to his troops.

On the strategic conditions of the area, Colonel Ralph Mitchell writes:

As it was, the Germans had much to be concerned with when in the vicinity of American artillery. The cold, hungry, and exhausted artillerymen manning the guns repeatedly stated their willingness to endure any deprivation if only they could get some more ammunition. American morale was excellent, and no German tank within range of American artillery was safe. The encirclement and the widely disseminated 22 December surrender note were considered amusing incidents rather than awe inspiring threats. On Christmas Eve, an entry in one battalion journal read, “Christmas Eve, and all personnel here wish for plenty of ammunition and one good supply route.” On Christmas day, the entry read, “Three cooks in C Battery took a little time from their regular chores to kill two Germans in a tank with a grenade, and captured six others.” That same day, another artillery battalion, under attack by seven tanks and accompanying infantry, employed its howitzers as antitank guns and destroyed two tanks, captured one intact, killed a number of infantrymen, and captured twenty-four others. Similar actions occurred throughout the operation. On 20 December alone, no less than seven battalions fired 2,600 rounds solely at enemy armor. The incomprehensible German failure to attempt to destroy or neutralize American artillery only served to bolster the cannoneers’ confidence and determination. In his after-action report, one direct-support battalion commander wrote, “After arriving at Bastogne and going into position, we found ourselves in exactly the situation we had been trained to handle.” Perhaps that was ultimately why they acquitted themselves so well.

But what made Bastogne so famous was not the fact the 101st Airborne was surrounded, but rather the conditions in which they were surrounded.  101st Airborne soldier Ed Peniche writes:
By Friday, December 22d, the heavy blanket of snow covered our entire sector and we were surrounded by the enemy. We were now with “F” Co and Co. “D” had moved to our right; they were being shelled by enemy self-propelled guns. It was incredibly cold; the water in our canteens was freezing. We also had to rub each other’s feet to prevent frostbite. From our foxholes, despite the horrible weather, it was fascinating to gaze at the wintry scenery, the snow was pretty deep and very white. The wind had picked up; it was much, much colder – – I was terrified by the thought of freezing to death; being a 19-year-old soldier from the Yucatan in southern Mexico, I had never experienced snow on the ground, much less standing and sleeping on frozen ground.

Luckily for Mr. Peniche and the rest of the 10st, the 23rd brought planes and supplies. Not only was their ammunition and food, but batteries for the phones as well. The clearing of the sky also brought allied air attacks.

Pineche forther adds:
On Sunday, December 24th, our P-47s and P-38s came over at daybreak. We were told that the enemy had given the division an ultimatum to surrender but it had been refused. – – We all got a big kick when we heard that General McAuliffe had said “NUTS” ! to the enemy. – – We also knew that things could get worse ….More supplies came by air and except for the freezing weather, we were in high spirits and sort of confident. The vigil of Christmas began rather badly. That night, Christmas eve, the Lufftwaffe bombed Bastogne twice. – – Yet, on that unholy night, history has recorded an unforgettable mass that took place in town; wounded Airborne soldiers shed tears at the tune of “Silent Night”. The German POWs were visited by Gen. McAuliffe himself as they were singing “Stille Nacht” and ” O Tannenbaum”. He wished them a Merry Christmas.

On Christmas Day, Peniche writes
That very night, on the opposite side of our lines, the enemy activity had increased . — We did not know it at the time, but the Germans were having a large scale deployment to launch a major attack against the northwestern sector of the Bastogne perimeter; the area defended by the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment – – Bastogne, indeed, would make a worthy Christmas present for the Fuhrer. It was going to be, indeed, an unholy night for the 502d!

Suddenly, around 0300 a.m. the first barrages crashed against our positions, a few German planes droned over regimental headquarters and dropped bombs. Minutes later, wearing snow suits, the first grenadiers crept forward against our lines, supported by a few tanks. The fire fight in our left flank intensified – – “A” Co. 1st Bn, was catching the brunt of the assault. The enemy was determined to break though – – but the “Deuce” was not about to yield easily. Champs and Hermoulle were the objectives, no doubt about it, it was a major assault.

As the ground shook under the impact of the heavy shelling, the snow covered battlefield soon became an spectrum of bright flares and deafening explosions and machine-gun tracers …. The attack was on, it was Christmas Day already, lying face down in the bottom of my icy foxhole, I remember praying both in English and Spanish. A few mortar rounds exploded in front and behind our position, yet the activity to our left was gaining intensity. Our outposts between Longchamps and Champs had been reinforced and our machine gunners were delivering flanking fire against the attacking German infantrymen. Our own parachute infantry was also being deployed to meet the enemy threat; these men were the brave rifles from Co “E” 2nd Bn. 502d P.I.R. To me, personally, this was a defining moment in my life as a soldier and as an American, to see well disciplined courageous fellow soldiers well motivated to follow orders under the most hellish of circumstances yet, without hesitation, at that very trying moment everyone seemed to know what had to be done and they DID IT!

The enemy attack ended in failure. The Five-o-deuce had held firm. The assault force had suffered heavy casualties and was forced to withdraw. There were also, of course, American casualties, in grotesque forms the death froze into eternity.

For over a week, the 10st took every thing the Germans could give them and gave it back when they could. Despite the conditions, the mental training of the 101st had just as much to do with their combat training. When General George S. Patton and his third army arrived on the 27th of December, he declared himself the savior of the 101st. The 101st said they did not need saving. Rather than being relieved of duty, the 101st kept going north and attacking German forces through January of 1945 before they were so duly relieved.

So why did the German attack at Bastogne fail?

According to Colonel Ralph Mitchell:
1. Poor terrain and a road net had caused disastrous traffic jams that disrupted their timetable
2. Poor weather favored a German advance until 23 December but created a thaw which kept German tanks bound to the roads.
3. Allied air superiority made any German advance difficult
4. Supply depots could not be moved forward with the advance, nor could fuel depots remain operational for long.
5. American forces were allowed time to react at each decisive sector where the Germans attacked, thus preventing any serious breakthroughs.
6. German generals also expressed admiration for the Americans who rapidly met the German offensive with strategic forces.
7. The continuing ability of American artillery units to fight was also cited.

In the final equation, moral strength, luck, and the “fog of war” must also be considered. The Americans had advantages in all three of these categories. The right combination of events and situations-conditions unfavorable to the Germans and favorable to the Americans-produced the American victory at Bastogne. At Bastogne, a light infantry division, properly augmented by good artillery and armor support, was able to defeat a numerically superior and heavier opponent. But the conditions of that victory were particular, not universal in application.

Further Reading:
Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose
The 101st Airborne Division’s Defense of Bastogne by Colonel Ralph M. Mitchell


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