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 “Screaming Eagles” 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 make­shift 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 bitter cold in front of an impro­vised altar lit by candles set in empty C‑ration cans. Other religious services were held as well. Soldiers manning Bastogne’s defen­sive peri­meter wished each other a Merry Christ­mas, the lucky ones visited by an officer passing around sips from a liquor bottle. Outside the peri­meter GIs could hear their foes singing “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” Gen. George S. Patton pushed his foot-slogging U.S. Third Army to its limits as it toiled north­ward in deep snow, freezing temper­a­tures, fog, and on icy and cratered roads to reach the German salient and rescue the Amer­i­cans from what looked like a costly dis­aster in the making. His Christ­mas greetings to the besieged men: “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 that set fires to dozens of buildings and strafing streets with their machine guns. Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe’s com­mand post was hit, and the three-story Institut de Notre-Dame, a medical 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 German 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 sea­soned 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/­914 meters 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 two of McAuliffe’s troopers manning a road­block 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 a rail­road and seven main high­ways in the Ardennes Forest con­verged on this small town close to the Luxem­bourg border. 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, peppery but genial Brig. Gen. Anthony ”Old Crock” McAuliffe, dec­o­rated vet­eran of Normandy (Oper­a­tion Over­lord) and Holland (Oper­a­tion Mar­ket Gar­den). 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 1944U.S. Bastogne garrison: Pulverized Bastogne street after Luftwaffe attack

Left: Refugees evacuate Bastogne in wagons and on foot. Con­fu­sion reigned supreme among local civil­ians at the on­set of the siege: some people streaming in from east of town stayed to fight or pro­vide what help they could as nurses or priests; others, realizing the roads to the west were still open, headed in that direc­tion. Late on Decem­ber 21, German troops cut the last road leading in and out of town.

Right: Around 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve, German bombers began the first of two aerial attacks on Bastogne, laying waste to a medi­cal aid station, burying 20 patients in the debris, and setting fire to dozens of buildings. 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, 1944Besieged U.S. Bastogne garrison: Soldiers retrieve air-dropped medical supplies, December 1944

Left: Paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Divi­sion watch waves of Douglas C‑47 Sky­trains drop 320 tons of much needed supplies to them, Bastogne, mid-after­noon, 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 fuel and medi­cal person­nel: 9 medi­cal offi­cers and enlisted tech­ni­cians to assist a trauma sur­geon flown in the day before. Two ear­lier air­drops of medi­cine, ammu­ni­tion, and food on December 21 and 23 helped sus­tain the defenders, though 11 C‑47s were lost on the December 23 air­drop. Foraging parties were sent out to help alleviate shortages.
Right: 101st Airborne paratroopers retrieve containers of medi­cal supplies from a drop zone near Bastogne during the German siege. The few doc­tors and enlisted medics who were left inside the siege zone had used a rapidly dimin­ishing supply of medi­cine and plasma to treat the wounded who flooded Bastogne’s over­crowded aid sta­tions. Late on Decem­ber 26 a battered tank battal­ion of Patton’s Third Army—the 37th Tank Bat­tal­ion, 4th Armored Divi­sion reduced en route to Bastogne to just three M4 Sher­man tanks and carrying a few armored infantry­men—broke the town’s siege, opening a south­ern supply corri­dor. The corridor was so narrow “you can spit across it,” one officer remarked. Fierce fighting raged for several more days but the 8‑day ordeal for McAuliffe’s brave men and the heroic townspeople of Bastogne was over.

Battle of Bastogne, December 20–27, 1944