The Battle of the Bulge was the single biggest battle fought by the United States Army during World War II. Also this was the most confusing. In the memories of the Americans who tried to understand what happened in those dark days of December in 1944, the name Bastogne is special. The heroic defenses of St. Vith and the Elsenborn ridge area were just as important to the outcome of the area; however, Bastogne remains the enduring symbol of the American fight against odds in the Ardennes.
It is not hard to see why this is so. Bastogne was a battle within a battle, clearly visible and very dramatic. It was big enough to be vitally important and small enough to be easily understood. When he first learned of the German counterattack on the December 16 afternoon, Dwight Eisenhower had ordered two armored divisions, the 7th and 10th, to converge on the Ardennes from north and south to pinch off the penetration. By the next day it was clear that the breakthrough was far too big to be so easily fixed. Eisenhower then reached for his only divisions in general reserve on the continent; the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions. They were stationed near the French city of Reims.
These were the elite divisions, but they had just experienced seventy-two straight days of bitter combat near Arnhem in Holland and they were very tired. Like Troy Middleton’s army divisions stationed in the Ardennes, they were refitting and training replacements. On the night of December 17 sudden orders came through to mount up and move to the front fast.
Since the airborne divisions were set up to go into battle by parachute or glider, just getting them to the Ardennes was going to be a problem. Through the night supply officers searched through nearby army depots to get a fleet of trailer trucks big enough to haul the troops. The next day the paratroopers were routed out to their barracks, issued food and gear, and loaded aboard the trailers. There was much complaining about having to travel like bottom of the ranks infantry. Everything was in short supply including ammunition, weapons, overcoats, and even helmets. There was no time to make the shortages right and by afternoon the two divisions were on the road.
They were being expected by the Nazis. German communications officers tuned in to the Allied radio frequencies and were gaining information by leaps and bounds. American radio security was not what it is today. The orders were not coded and the German high command was pleased to learn that Eisenhower’s only reserves were now committed to the battle. They calculated that the airborne divisions could not possibly be a part of the action in less than two or three days. This would be too late to do any real good. This was good news for the Germans.
Through the afternoon of the 18th and into the foggy night the long columns of trucks rumbled on. Their headlights blazed, defying the Luftwaffe in order to maintain speed. The men were jammed together in the open trailers, cold and wet and miserable. Except for the muffled sounds of the engines and grinding gears, the column moved in utter silence. Not a shout was heard.
The Allied high command intended the paratroopers to take up a blocking position in the center of the Ardennes and seal the breakthrough. But as the battle grew and spread and crisis piled up crisis, the plan had to be changed. Gavin’s 82nd Airborne shifted northward to head off the rampaging Kampfgruppe Peiper. McAuliffe’s 101st turned south, to Bastogne. At Bastogne, like everywhere else on the battlefield, the 18th of December was a day of desperate scrambling. Somehow the German spearheads had to be delayed or Bastogne would be overrun before the paratroopers arrived. As the 101st hurried eastward toward Bastogne, three German divisions—the 2nd Panzer and Panzer Lehr, both armored, and the 26th Volksgrenadier infantry division—were racing westward toward the same target. General...
Bibliography: Goolrick, William K., Tanner, Ogden. The Battle of the Bulge. 1979. Time-Life Books. p. 148-163.
Macdonald, John. Great Battles of World War II. 1993. Courage Books. p. 156-167.
Koskimaki, George. The Battered Bastards of Bastogne. 1994. Casemate. P. 20-307
Ambrose, Stephen E. Band of Brothers. 2001. Simon & Shuster. P. 179-194.
Whiting, Charles. Ghost Front: The Ardennes Before the Battle of the Bulge. 2002. Da Capo Press. P. 171-198.
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