Bastogne, Eastern Belgium January 3, 1945

Beginning on this date and the next in January 1945 the German Wehr­macht (armed forces) began a risky, last-ditch attack on the U.S. garri­son at Bas­togne in East­ern Bel­gium. Adolf Hitler, in planning his mas­sive onslaught against Anglo-Amer­ican forces via the densely forested Ardennes region shared by Bel­gium, France, and Luxem­bourg (Opera­tion Watch on the Rhine), recognized Bas­togne’s impor­tance. Not only was the small village (popu­lation less than 4,000) a com­muni­cation hub—one of three in the Ardennes—from which seven major hard-surfaced roads emanated from its town square, but an enemy-held Bas­togne could hinder the Wehr­macht’s thrust to the Belgian coast and constitute a danger to the German flank.

General der Panzertruppe Baron Hasso von Man­teuffel, com­mander of the 5th Panzer Army, was deter­mined as ever to “erase” the Amer­ican garri­son at Bas­togne, calling it the “cen­tral prob­lem” now that the Ger­man Ardennes Cam­paign, better known in the West as “The Battle of the Bulge,” had sputtered out in early Janu­ary 1945. Just days before, more than 100,000 men of the 5th Panzer Army were assem­bling in the Bas­togne sector, ready to con­verge on the town (another 30,000 were en route) and strike a victory or at least chew up Amer­ican divi­sions that poured into the fight. Though armored spear­heads of Gen. George S. Patton’s U.S. Third Army managed late on Decem­ber 26 to relieve Man­teuffel’s siege of Bas­togne (Decem­ber 20–27, 1944), Patton, following a visit there on New Year’s Day 1945, con­fided in his diary on Janu­ary 4 after a letup in fighting around Bastogne that day and the previous one: “We can still lose this war . . . the Germans are colder and hungrier than we are, but they fight better.”

However it was the Germans who lost the war in the West (and with it, Bas­togne) when, on Janu­ary 16, 1945, Patton’s Third Army at last met up with Gen. Courtney Hodges’ U.S. First Army at Houf­falize, now a moon­scape of charred rubble less than 20 miles north of Bas­togne. The once 60‑mile‑deep (Decem­ber 26, 1944) Ardennes sali­ent had shriveled and was now closed off, and the war-weary players in Hitler’s scheme to force a nego­tiated peace on the Western Allies had totally exhausted them­selves on a fool’s errand. The most heroic and famous epi­sode in the Battle of the Bulge, namely the week­long siege of Bas­togne, claimed 3,000-plus American lives and an unknown number of Germans.

After staving off the enemy for over a month at great human cost (nearly 92,000 casual­ties between Decem­ber 16, 1944, and Janu­ary 25, 1945), the Western Allies swiftly reas­serted them­selves. By early Febru­ary 1945, some 2 mil­lion U.S., British, Cana­dian, and Free French sol­diers were ready for a steam­roller assault on Ger­many’s western heart­land in the Ruhr pocket and Rhine plain. On the Eastern Front, Soviet forces and their allies had launched a steam­roller of their own on Janu­ary 12, 1945. The apoca­lyptic collapse of Hitler’s Thou­sand Year Reich following the Fuehrer’s suicide in Berlin on April 30 was three months away.

The Legendary Defense of Bastogne During the Battle of the Bulge, December 20–27, 1944

Bastogne crossroads, winter 1944–45

Above: Control of its Bastogne’s crossroads was vital to the German offen­sive directed at the Allies’ vital supply harbor at Ant­werp, Bel­gium, because all seven main roads in the Ardennes Forest (five roads and one rai­lway station are iden­ti­fied in this photo) con­verged on this small Eastern Bel­gium town. The German siege of Bas­togne lasted from Decem­ber 20 to 27, 1944, after which it was broken by ele­ments of Gen. George S. Patton’s U.S. Third Army. Not until Janu­ary 9, 1945, based on Ultra inter­cepts, did the Allies learn that the enemy, half-starved, lacking trans­port, yet struggling to push vehicles and heavy equip­ment in extreme cold, was aban­doning the Bastogne sector, or pocket. On Janu­ary 11 the German retreat was under heavy American artillery fire.

Bastogne: Brig. Gen Anthony C. McAuliffe, 1898–1975Bastogne: Gen. Heinrich Luettwitz, 1896–1969

Above: Brig. Gen Anthony C. McAuliffe (1898–1975) (left frame), a division artil­lery com­mander thrust into role of acting com­mander of the 101st Air­borne “Screaming Eagles” Divi­sion, famously called German Gen. Hein­rich Frei­herr von Luett­witz’s bluff. Luett­witz (1896–1969) (right frame), an armored corps commander who knew the cap­ture of the Bel­gian cross­roads town of Bast­ogne would be costly and time-consuming with his forces at hand, on his own initi­a­tive sent two emis­saries under cover of a white flag to McAuliffe’s com­mand center on Decem­ber 22, demanding sur­render of the town. Bas­togne, Luett­witz alleged in his note, was sur­rounded by strong armored forces (his), soon to be rein­forced by artil­lery and heavy (non­existent) anti­aircraft bat­talions. McAuliffe had a mili­tary, moral, and life-and-death deci­sion to make for his besieged men and Bastogne’s civil­ians. His mono­syllabic, all caps deci­sion carried back to Luett­witz, “NUTS!” (equiv­a­lent to Bloed­sinn in German), never did provoke crippling Ger­man punish­ment, though the Luft­waffe did hammer the town on Decem­ber 24 and 30, the latter in a 73‑plane raid. U.S. C‑47 air­drops of medi­cine, ammu­nition, and food on Decem­ber 21, 23, and 26, the latter delivery aug­mented by 11 Waco engine­less gliders bringing medi­cal perso­nnel and fuel, helped sus­tain the defenders, out­numbered approxi­mately 5 to 1. After dusk on Decem­ber 26, a tank bat­talion of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army broke the town’s siege, opening a southern supply corr­idor. The corridor was so narrow “you can spit across it,” one officer remarked.

Three U.S. soldiers on Bastogne street, 12-25-44U.S. supplies reach Bastogne, late December 1944

Left: On a rubble-filled street in Bastonge on Christ­mas Day, 1944, three members of the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion walk past bodies of fellow soldiers killed in a German bombing raid the night before. The 101st Air­borne Divi­sion received a Presi­dential Unit Cita­tion for their heroic defense of Bastogne. On Decem­ber 30, 1944, Patton person­ally awarded McAuliffe the Distin­guished Ser­vice Cross, the second highest mili­tary award that can be given to a member of the U.S. Army. Three days later the Army promoted McAuliffe to major general and gave him com­mand of the 103rd Infan­try Divi­sion, which he led from January to July 1945.

Right: U.S. supply trucks and replacements for the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion roll through the bomb-cratered, shell-torn streets of Bas­togne following the town’s deliv­erance on Decem­ber 27, 1944. By then the Ardennes initi­ative had passed from Ger­man to Amer­ican hands, as both sides realized. Ger­man media aban­doned head­line treat­ment of the Ardennes Cam­paign to focus on developments in Nazi-occupied Greece and Hungary.

Battle of Bastogne, December 20–27, 1944