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Battle of the Bulge
Battle of the Bulge
by Chester H. Philips, LtCol. Arty USAR. Ret
in WWII Capt., Asst S-3 VIII Corps Arty in charge fire direction.

Fortunes of War - How the 101st Airborne's Good Luck helped win the Battle of Bastogne

The dawn that followed the dark and frigid night of December 15, 1944, was foggy, dreary, and foreboding to the troops of the VIII Corps in their positions along the front line between Echternach and just south of Konschau in Belgium, a distance of approximately 75 miles, facing the defensive structures the Germans called the Siegfried Line.  It had been a quite sector since early October, and the American front was thinly held, with three infantry division on the line and an armored division in reserve.  But it would have been "thinly held" if it had twice those troops, consisting as it did of widely separated strong points connected generally by a few motorized patrols.

But there was no strong or aggressive force facing them, at least in the supposedly trained judgment of unit, divisional, and corps intelligence.  They were consequently taking what general Eisenhower described as a "calculated risk" when he had depleted VIII Corps' strength by numerous units to assist Field Marshal Montgomery's planned attack in the north.

However the risk must have considered extremely slight, for commanders all the way down the line were urged to make their men comfortable for the hard winter ahead, and to take measures to reduce the serious problem of trench foot, a disabling disorder resulting from repeatedly wet feet in very cold wet weather.  As a result of this, there was a considerable lessening of aggressive patrolling which, combined with weather that completely precluded any air observation, meant that very little intelligence was being gathered.

Accordingly, the VIII Corps G-2 Report issued daily continued to declare that the enemy's capabilities were limited to holding in place with weak forces, the Corps Artillery, however, to perform its mission of long range artillery fire, had available perhaps the best source of intelligence in the corps in its Artillery Observation Battalion, which could, and always did, establish as many as six to eight observation posts for locating enemy artillery positions both by "flash" (visual observation) as enemy guns fired, and simultaneously "sound" (determining gun locations by the use of powerful microphones).  These OPs were always as far forward as possible, and therefore picked up many other indications of enemy activity as well, both visually and by audio equipment.

VIII Corps' Observation Battalion had been reporting for several weeks prior to December 16th the sound of many tracked vehicles moving behind enemy lines and that flash locations indicated that much German artillery was moving to positions on the Schnee Eifel Ridge, a long and wide promontory rising from approximately the center of the German positions opposite VIII Corps and stretching diagonally to the northeast.  This apparent massing of enemy troops on the Schnee Eifel should have been of great interest to Corps G-2.  Even a rudimentary knowledge of German military history would recall that every attack German armies had launched against France began with an assault from the Schnee Eifel.  This information did not, however, cause any change in Corps G-2's intelligence estimates, nor did it encourage more aggressive patrolling.  Corps Artillery, on the other hand, took the precaution of having its battalions prepare two rearward positions that could be occupied successively if a withdrawal should become necessary.  When the attack came on December 16th, it was by two Panzer armies; there was no time to occupy any of the secondary positions when the heavy battalions had to withdraw, and most of the time not even any American infantry between them and the advancing panzers.

The secrecy with which the Germans had prepared for the attack was amazing, even taking into account the laxity in America patrolling and the inability of observation planes to fly.  Just their ability to get 2000 artillery pieces into position, with ammunition and supplies, get them surveyed and tied into each other, with targets assigned, timed and coordinated with the advances of the infantry and armor they supported, was phenomenal, particularly when most of the movement was made at night.

The German artillery preparation began just before daylight.  It was the first serious shelling in a long time against anything but frontline infantry and an occasional harassing mission of a few rounds.  And it not only surprised American commanders with its considerable volume but also its accuracy, indicating that the enemy had remarkably good target information of American installation, including some that were well to the rear of the front-line troops.  This was verified by captured German intelligence maps, which showed the location and identification of just about every American unit facing them.  There was nothing lax about German intelligence.

The coordinated assault by infantry and armor followed rapidly after the artillery preparation, with the infantry concentrating on the numerous pockets of American resistance, the elimination of which was usually necessary to permit the tanks to advance by the most desirable routes.  That these pockets of resistance put up a real fight is proved by the fact that none of the German columns had attained its objective by the end of the first day, and the Panzer units were taking alternate routes on poor roads to bypass American defenses and struggling to get into our rear areas.  The "Blitzkrieg" was not what it had been in the Wehrmacht's better years.

Thus began the "Rundstedt Offensive" which very soon became (some say with Churchill's help) the "Battle of the Bulge" and was officially entitled "The Ardennes Offensive".  Each of these titles was significant; the first because Field Marshall Von Rundstedt, considered at the time to be the best of the German generals, was thought to be the planner of it, as well as the master who executed it; (The plan was Hitler's brainchild, and the OKW (top army staff) organized it.  Von Rundstedt, while in nominal command, had nothing to do with it, having correctly predicted that it was doomed to failure from the start).  The "bulge" designation of course resulted from the shape of the enormous salient the attack carved in American held territory as it progressed almost to the River Meuse at Dinant, a distance of some eighty miles from its start; and the reference to the Ardennes recognizes that a great part, if not most of the battle was fought in that heavily pine wooded area, where tanks are completely "canalized" (forced to remain on the roads, and are thereby deprived of their ability to maneuver and advance over wide areas, as they do best in desert terrain).

This canalization of the enemy's armor had a distinctly advantageous effect for the vastly outnumbered Americans.  It made it possible for small, determined groups of infantry with perhaps a few tanks, possibly some artillery or tank destroyers, to hold up and delay the otherwise overwhelming assault of the panzers, particularly when these defenses were concentrated around crossroads, road junctions, or intersections that were critical to the progress of the attack.  These delays varied from a few hours to several days, the latter notably in St. Vith and Bastogne, in both of which the main (and essential) east-west roads ran thru the town directly, creating logistical problems if the towns had to be by-passed.  All of the delays were of importance to the American command, since they provided priceless extra time to organize, occupy, and prepare defensive formations to reduce the speed of the advancing point of the attack and to maneuver large forces on the shoulders of the salient for a counter attack.

Very contributory to the later success of the American defense was the battle around St. Vith, where the reserve of the 106th Infantry Divsion (one regimental combat team) had retreated from the bad mauling the rest of the division had taken in its position in the nearest slope of the Schnee-Eifel.  The 7th Armored division rolled in from the northwest just barely in in time, with their Combat Command B, followed by CC A and CCR, to hold off the German assault.  The timely arrival of the 7th Armored was due to the resistance of determined American units in the front lines of the VIII Corps Area, including the entrapped 106th Infantry Division, of which the survivors of the two regimental combat teams ultimately surrendered, part of the 28th Infantry Division, part of the 9th Armored Division, and part of the 14th Cavalry Group.  In almost every one of these pockets the American troops fought with courage and perseverance as long as ammunition held out or until they were overrun; then those who survived withdrew into St. Vith to become part of the 7th Armored's attached troops.

The five day delay achieved by the remarkable defensive action by these forces, who had to fight their way out of the St. Vith salient when the time came for the inevitable withdrawal, contributed enormously to the successful defense of Bastogne, the next all important road junction some thirty miles to the west.

Bastogne was the headquarters of General Troy Middleton's VIII Corps and was a major objective from the start of the offensive, containing as it did, the junction of no less than seven major roads communicating with all parts of the area.  It could not be by-passed by the Panzer attack, therefore, without seriously endangering their supply lines and the possibility of reinforcement.  When successive withdrawals of American troops made it apparent that Bastogne would be assaulted next, VIII Corps Headquarters retired to the vicinity of Neufchateau, about 20 miles southwest of Bastogne, and the 101st Airborne Division were moved by truck from a rest area near Rheims, France where they had been refitting after a rough time in the ill-fated Market Garden Offensive in Holland and occupied Bastogne.  VIII Corps Artillery, consisting of six or seven battalions of 155mm howitzers, 155mm guns, and 8 in. howitzers, and which had been withdrawing in successive moves without being able to occupy their prepared rearward positions because forward Panzer elements were hard on their heels, were assembled northeast of Neufchateau, having had one battalion of medium howitzers overrun by the enemy.

The 101st Airborne column arrived in Bastogne by 0900 Dec 19th, due largely to a fortuitous decision made by Col. Sherburne, the Division Artillery commander, who was in charge of, and leading the column, which was heading for the town of Werbomont, north of Bastogne.  As a crossroads west of Bastogne he ran into the tail of a column that was moving at a snail's pace.  Sherburne decided to detour thru Bastogne to avoid the jam, and upon arrival there found that General Anthony McAuliffe, the 101st's acting commander, had just been told to bring the division into Bastogne.  Thus, whether by mental telepathy or just good fortune, the Airborne troops arrived several much needed hours earlier than they would have otherwise.[1]

As the leading elements of the 101 Airborne moved into Bastogne, Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division was also arriving, and survivors of the 110th Infantry and some combat Engineers and Combat Command R of the 9th Armored Division were being forced west into the outskirts of the town as well.  Three 155mm Artillery battalions soon joined them, as well as an additional armored field artillery battalion sent from Ninth Army in the north.  Also from the latter source came the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, an indispensable source of anti-tank fire power.  These forces were about to face two Panzer and two Infantry Divisions, part of the fast moving attack of the 5th Panzer Army.[2]

The newly arrived airborne troopers, together with these now attached heavy units, fought a series of the delaying engagements that had been so valuable much further east around St. Vith.  These were at first all to the north and east, but the second Panzer Division's leading elements were already by-passing Bastogne to the north, and soon feeling their way to the west, seeking a crossing over the Ourthe River that would give them a quick route to the Meuse River at Dinant.  This made it immediately necessary to establish a defense along the western perimeter, and it was obvious that the southern part of the circle would soon be occupied by the advancing troops of the Panzer Lehr and 5th Parachute Division, at which time the encirclement would be complete and all contact with higher headquarters and supply sources would be terminated.

The hard fighting north and east of Bastogne during the night of December 19th and the next day caused anxiety and tension about the 101st and its attached troops in and around the town and their chances for holding out for long against what appeared to be devastating odds, both among the troops themselves and higher headquarters.  At this time the attack by the 4th Armored and III Corps up the Arlon-Bastogne Road was just in the planning and initial movement stage, and would not take off until the 22nd, in itself one of Patton's greatest achievements since it involved turning most of Third Army 90 degrees from east to north.  The Bastogne Neufchateau Road was still open, but tenuously so, since 5th Parachute enemy Recon elements were very near it.  For some reason no effort was made to make a defended corridor out of it, something which could have been accomplished because on Tuesday, Dec. 19th, one combat command of the 4th Armored moved at General Middleton's request, to an area halfway from Neufchateau to Bastogne, but was withdrawn at III Corps' command to rejoin 4th Armored for the attack.  The road was cut sometime on Thursday morning, probably early, but certainly before noon.

It is likely that higher headquarters did not know that it had been cut because during the morning of Thursday, a very strange thing occurred:        

A Verbal order was issued by Army Group to VIII Corps to have the 101st Airborne Division and its attached troops evacuate Bastogne.

The order further directed VIII Corps Artillery to get its six battalions of medium and heavy artillery into positions to fire a protective "box barrage" around the Bastogne-Neufchateau road to isolate the withdrawal from enemy attack.  (A barrage is artillery fire upon a line; it was used during the static trench warfare of World War I, but in World War II all artillery fire against enemy troops was in the form of area fire, called concentrations).

The effect of this order on the Corps Artillery staff, in spite of the fact that it was anxious to get its battalions back into action, was utter amazement.  In the first place, it had become an accepted fact that Bastogne would hold out until relieved, which we expected would happen soon (III Corps attack to relieve the siege was to start on the 22nd); moreover, the danger of a collision between the march formations of a withdrawing 101 Airborne and the Panzer Lehr was acute, and could hardly mean much less than disaster for the former.  These problems in complying with the order were further complicated by the time (probably a day, maybe more) necessary for the artillery to reconnoiter and occupy positions and complete survey and registration for accurate fire.  Finally, the question of infantry support for the artillery, without which it is subject to being overrun and destroyed, was not addressed.

Sometime later, with reconnaissance for the position areas for the artillery already started, word was received to cancel the withdrawal order because the only road available for it, the Bastogne-Neufchateau highway, had finally been cut by the enemy (undoubtedly by the Panzer Lehr and 5th Parachute Divisions, and probably in the night before the withdrawal was ordered).  Withdrawal from Bastogne was now impossible.

The 101st Airborne had sent all of its supply trains west out of Bastogne (presumably empty) during the night of Dec 21st (and just in time: they were shot at by recon elements of the 2nd Panzer, who were looking for a crossing over the Ourthe River) and now that the encirclement was complete, there was no chance of getting more ammunition, food and medical supplies, already badly needed, except by air, and no planes could fly due to "Hitler's weather".  The fog and snow continued until the morning of Saturday, December 23rd when the temperature plummeted, the sky dawned clear and bright with unlimited visibility, and the longed-for air drop became possible.  The resulting 1446 bundles parachuted in by low-flying C-47s (several were shot down) surely saved the defenders of Bastogne, for ammunition was so low that artillery batteries were firing air-dropped shells while the air drop was still under way.

On the previous day four Germans had appeared under a flag of truce with a written demand for the Americans' surrender.  When shown the message, General McAuliffe had just been awakened and uttered a one-word contemptuous reply.  This word has been variously reported, but there is no disagreement as to what he wrote on the paper delivered to the Germans.  It was the now famous "Nuts", which had to be explained to the Germans, and incidentally, also to civilian Belgian and French friends.  The latter, when told it was a gesture of defiance, replied "Ah, the word of Combrun", referring to an unprintable that Napoleon's General Combrun had used under similar circumstances.  There is now a "Nuts" street in Bastogne, as well as a "Place McAuliffe".

In spite of the air drops, fighter-bomber support, and McAuliffe's "beau geste", the situation within the (now reduced) perimeter became daily more serious before relief became possible.  They took many casualties and lost much equipment in the all-out enemy attacks that ensued, sending VIII Corps a radio message Saturday evening, Dec. 23rd, "Only one more shopping day before Christmas".[3]

But Christmas brought no relief to the battered defenders of Bastogne.  In fact the enemy attacks on that day were among the heaviest and most vicious they had to endure.  The 4th Armored, which had suffered heavy losses in men and tanks on its advance from Neufchateau, now had all three combat commands committed in parallel, CCA and CCB on the right and center and CCR on the left.  CCR came within five miles of Bastogne by Christmas night, the closest of the three.  And now the 101 Airborne's guardian angel smiled on them one more time.

The 37th Tank Battalion of CCR, commanded by Lt. Col. Creighton Abrams (later to reach four star rank and become Army Chief of Staff) had been ordered to attack the town of Sibret, to his left and seven miles from Bastogne.  It was apparent to Creighton, however, that Sibret was heavily defended, while Assenois, a smaller village and the only obstacle between him and Bastogne, was more lightly held.  So at his own discretion he changed his plan of attack and charged thru Assenois, successfully, and reached the airborne infantry outposts just before 5 pm, Dec. 26th, with just four tanks.[4]

But the corridor held, narrow and tenuous at first, but daily growing wider and safer, and the rest is history.  Supplies and reinforcements poured into Bastogne; III Corps advanced on the right (east); VIII Corps was reconstituted as a fighting force, with a new armored division and a new airborne infantry division on the way.  Then all attacked the side of the Bulge.  The 101 Airborne Division, at the request of it Commander, took part in the attack (still part of the VIII Corps) but with a limited objective at the point of a pie-shaped sector where it was "pinched out" and withdrawn for a much needed rest and refitting.

Overall, throughout the initial German attacks against Bastogne, the reduced perimeter, the encirclement and the sustained defense against all-out German efforts, the 101 accomplished the heroic achievement of fighting off Panzer corps (the XLVII) and deserves the enormous credit and accolades it has been accorded.  Without the very respectable amount of additional infantry, artillery, tanks, tank destroyers, and detachments of engineers that assisted them, however it might have been a different story.

Incidentally, no part of the entire German offensive ever crossed the Meuse River, although its point was stopped only 6 miles east of Dinant on the Meuse, out of fuel, out of tank ammunition, and about out of food.  Thus Von Rundstedt's evaluation of the plan was correct: it was doomed to failure from the start.

In addition to the help the 101 Airborne received from its attached troops, it was aided by a phenomenal amount of just plain heaven-sent luck.

First, there was Col. Sherburne's decision to detour the division column thru Bastogne instead of continuing on a snail's pace to Werboment saving precious hours needed to get the troops into position just in time to fight off the early German attacks; second, the advent of clear weather just in time for the sorely needed resupply by air; third the fortunate arrival of armored forces (about two combat commands) from the 9th and 10th Armored Divisions, the extra artillery battalions (including at least two of medium, or 155mm size), the tank destroyer battalion, and the various infantry units and remnants, without all of which they could not have stopped the Panzer attacks; fourth, and possibly the most fortunate occurrence of all - the action of Panzer Lehr and 5th Parachute divisions in cutting the north-south road, and completing the encirclement, preventing, again just in time, the 101's compliance with an ill-advised order that might have resulted in disaster.  Finally their amazing streak of good luck held when Lt. Col. Abrams decided, against orders, to make a dash for Bastogne thru Assenois instead of attacking Sibret, thereby relieving Bastogne at the eleventh hour.

The decision to defend Bastogne has been heralded as a "stroke of genius" as General Patton called it in his complimentary letter to General Middleton, VIII Corps commander, of April 25, 1945.  The fact that for a short time the decision to EVACUATE and NOT defend it, and that this order was in effect until cancelled by the two German divisions that completed the encirclement has never been widely known, and I believe never published.  It probably will not be found in the after action reports of the division, Corps, or Corps artillery.

Tolstoi, who tried to establish, in his great novel "War and Peace", that battles are won by fortuitous circumstances, chance, and accidents rather than by military genius, would have been fascinated.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2003 Chester H. Philips.

Published online: 06/23/2003.
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