On December 16, 1944, in the relative quiet of an icy-cold, fog-bound winter morning, U.S. Army troops, worn out from months of fighting across the battle-scarred countryside of post-invasion France woke to the sound of Tiger tanks and troop carriers emerging from the “impenetrable” forests of the Ardennes region of Belgium. It was the beginning of what would come to be the largest and costliest land battle of the European War for Americans who had fought their way out of the beaches of Normandy, through the deadly “hedge rows” and to a point virtually within sight of Germany itself. Seduced by their successes, confident of victory, and unwilling to believe the few intelligence reports to the contrary, Allied commanders whose troops had outrun their supply lines and badly needed a rest felt safe in relaxing their vigilance with the approach of Christmas and a need to regroup, reinforce and bring up much-needed replacements.
In one of his occasional bouts of brilliance, Hitler over-ruled all his field commanders to bring about the secret and remarkable mobilization of nearly 500,000 fighting men, 1,800 tanks and 1,900 artillery pieces timed to take advantage of the worst winter weather in European history to attack the weakest spot in 100 miles of Allied defenses. What the Germans called “Operation Watch on the Rhine” and what the Allies would forever after know as “The Battle of the Bulge” was on.
The American units, without any air power to support them in the bitter non-flyable weather conditions were quickly either overrun or surrounded. In the month-long battle we would suffer 89,500 casualties, of whom 19,000 were killed and 47,500 wounded. At the same time, an astounding 23,000 were taken prisoner by the rapidly-advancing enemy, including my friend and colleague, Lt. Clayton Jordan who would use his last bullet to kill the officer who was taking him prisoner, and would end up in Stalag Luft III as an “incorrigible”. And that brings us to the “Battling B - - - - - - s of Bastogne”.
The key objective of the German drive, and the lynch pin in reaching their real target – the port of Antwerp - was the ancient city of Bastogne, where seven roads met and where the men of the 101st U.S. Airborne waited. Hugely outnumbered and outgunned by four reinforced Panzer Divisions, the Americans were armed mostly with light infantry weapons, and commanded temporarily by a Brigadier General who was an artillery officer. Running low on food, ammunition and medical supplies, the defenders refused to surrender. General Tony McAuliffe became famous for his use of the word “Nuts” in response to the invitation to surrender from the German commander. The determined resistance to the siege by the men of the 101st supplied needed inspiration for the men up and down the lines as they awaited the arrival of George Patton’s 3rd Army, which would help to turn defeat into victory.
In the end, airpower would seal Hitler’s fate on the battlefields of Belgium and the German Wehrmacht would never recover from the losses suffered in that last great offensive.
Postscript: On Dec. 12, 2011 as this column was being written, the “Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service” was awarded to Augusta Chiwy, a Belgian nurse who is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of wounded Americans in encircled Bastogne, and who was thought until just recently to have died in a later bombing.
Long lines of captured U.S. soldiers await transport to German POW camps where they will endure unremitting cold and starvation diets until the end of the war in Europe. The enemy’s reluctance to deal with the problem of prisoners no doubt led to the Malmedy massacre and other atrocities during the “Bulge” campaign.
German Federal Archives
Brigadier General Anthony Clement McAuliffe, temporary commander of the 101st Airborne
Division troops at Bastogne in December, 1944. His inspired leadership won him the respect of his soldiers, a Distinguished Service Medal and the first of two Bronze Stars. His one-word message “Nuts” to the German commander became perhaps the most famous message of the Second World War. He rose to the rank of full General before retiring in 1956. He died in 1975 and is buried with his family at Arlington.
U.S. Army photo
Al Cooper’s weekly radio talk-show on Cedar City’s KSUB 590 now in its tenth year on the air can be heard every Monday at 4:00 PM.