101st Airborne Command Post, Bastogne, Belgium December 25, 1944

On Christmas Eve 1944 in the German-besieged Eastern Bel­gian town of Bastogne (popu­la­tion 3,500), soldiers of the armor­less U.S. 101st Air­borne Divi­sion, the 9th and 10th Armored Divi­sions, and several com­bat engi­neer and field artil­lery bat­tal­ions received rations of brandy and listened to the Amer­i­can crooner Bing Crosby sing “White Christ­mas” over and over and over again. Here and there Christ­mas trees had been deco­rated with tinsel by GIs using cut strips of alu­mi­num foil intended for radar-jamming. About a hun­dred men attended mass in front of an impro­vised altar lit by candles set in empty C‑ration cans. Soldiers manning Bastogne’s defen­sive peri­meter wished each other a Merry Christ­mas, the lucky ones visited by an officer passing around sips from a bottle. Outside the peri­meter GIs could hear their enemy singing “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” Gen. George S. Patton, pushing his Third U.S. Army to its limits as it toiled northward in deep snow, freezing temper­a­tures, and diffi­cult terrain to reach the German salient and rescue the Amer­i­cans from what looked like a costly dis­aster in the making, sent his Christmas greetings: “Xmas Eve present coming up. Hold on.”

Bastogne’s stillness and darkness ended after nightfall on Decem­ber 24 when a German bomber dropped magne­sium flares on the town. This was followed by two sorties of low-flying, twin-engine Junkers Ju 88s dropping bombs and strafing streets with their machine guns. Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe’s com­mand post was hit, and the three-storey Institut de Notre-Dame, an aid station, collapsed in dust and flames, killing and wounding dozens, including a score of para­troopers. The town itself had no anti­aircraft defenses, the weapons having been dispatched to the perimeter.

General of Armored Troops (General der Panzer­truppe) Hasso von Man­teuffel of the Fifth Panzer Army ordered the Bastogne garri­son be taken on this date, Decem­ber 25, 1944. The Luft­waffe’s visit the night before was simply the initial phase. The Christ­mas morning thrust into the town was to be provided by an armored group from the 15th Panzer­grenadier Divi­sion before U.S. P‑38 fighter-bombers could take to the air. How­ever, almost nothing went according to the enemy’s plans. Some German regi­ments never had time to join the battle or carry out their assigned tasks; others had not been given suffi­cient time to recon­noiter or coor­di­nate with other armored units. Manning the peri­meter, sharp­shooting Amer­i­cans piled machine-gun lead and bazooka rounds onto German tanks festooned with white-cloaked panzer­grenadiers, blowing tanks and passengers to pieces or at least stunning or dis­abling them. Reports that German tanks were in the streets of Bastogne never arrived at Adolf Hitler’s forward head­quarters at Adler­horst (Eagle’s eyrie) in the German state of Hessen, the whys and where­fores a mystery. By early after­noon, when the 15th Panzer­grenadier Divi­sion reported that it had hardly a battle­worthy tank left, the Germans called off their attack, just a thousand yards from the edge of town.

The last “desperate effort,” as a German field com­mander him­self termed it, occurred in the morning hours of the 26th. Amer­i­can howit­zers massed west of Bastogne literally blew a German infan­try assault apart. Four German tank destroyers were brought to a halt by a large ditch and, while maneu­vering, were put out of action by U.S. artil­lery and tank destroyer fire at close range. More bad news arrived at Hitler’s head­quarters that after­noon. Following fierce village-by-village fighting in frigid temper­a­tures, Patton’s spear­head 4th Armored Divi­sion breached the German ring around Bastogne to link up with McAuliffe’s men a little after dusk, there­by lifting the enemy’s siege but setting the stage for even heavier fighting in the Bastogne combat sector the next month.

Defense of the U.S. Bastogne Garrison, December 20–27, 1944

Besieged U.S. Bastogne garrison and U.S. front line, December 21–23, 1944

Above: Control of Bastogne’s cross­roads was vital to Adolf Hitler’s Ardennes Offen­sive (Opera­tion Wacht am Rhein) directed at the Allies’ vital supply harbor at Ant­werp, Bel­gium, because all seven main roads in the Ardennes Forest con­verged on this small town. By Decem­ber 20 Bastogne had become an armed camp with four U.S. air­borne regi­ments, seven battal­ions of artil­lery, a self-propelled tank destroyer battal­ion, and the sur­viving tanks, infan­try, and engi­neers from two armored com­bat com­mands—all under the 101st Airborne Division’s tem­porary com­mander, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe. Bastogne’s defenders were out­numbered 5 to 1 and lacked sufficient cold-weather gear, ammu­nition, medical supplies, and food.

U.S. Bastogne garrison: Civilians evacuating besieged town, December 1944 U.S. Bastogne garrison: Pulverized Bastogne street after Luftwaffe attack

Left: Refugees evacuate Bastogne in wagons and on foot. Con­fu­sion reigned supreme among the locals at the onset of the siege: some people streaming in from east of town stayed to fight; others, realizing the roads to the west were still open, headed in that direction.

Right: Around 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve, German bombers began the first of two aerial attacks on Bastogne, laying waste to an aid station. The Luft­waffe hammered the town again on the nights of December 29/30 in a 73‑plane raid and December 31.

Besieged U.S. Bastogne garrison: C-47s drop relief supplies, December 26, 1944 Besieged U.S. Bastogne garrison: Soldiers retrieve air-dropped medical supplies, December 1944

Left: Paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Divi­sion watch waves of C‑47 Sky­trains drop 320 tons of supplies to them, Bastogne, Decem­ber 26, 1944. Jeeps and trucks are parked in a large field in the near dis­tance. The day’s air­drops were aug­mented by 11 Waco cargo-carrying gliders ferrying in medi­cal person­nel and fuel. Two earlier air­drops of medi­cine, ammu­ni­tion, and food on Decem­ber 21 and 23 helped sus­tain the defenders. Late on Decem­ber 26 a tank battal­ion of Patton’s Third U.S. Army broke the town’s siege, opening a south­ern supply corri­dor. The corridor was so narrow “you can spit across it,” one officer remarked.

Right: 101st Airborne paratroopers retrieve medical supplies from a drop zone near Bastogne during the German siege.

Battle of Bastogne, December 20–27, 1944