Thursday, October 11, 2012

Battle of the Bulge

German Self-Propelled Artillery, Bastogne Barracks

At 5:30 in the morning on the 16th of December, 1944 a massive artillery bombardment was launched by the German army at Hosingen in Luxembourg, marking the start of what later became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

German Panzer tank, Houffalize, Belgium
Shortly after the D-day landings on July 31, 1944 Hitler held a staff conference and began to plan his counter stroke.  He insisted over and over that the final decision would come in the west.  He would wait until winter when weather conditions would ground allied aircraft eliminating allied air superiority and support.  He would gatehr his armored forces in one last desperate gamble using the same historic geography of 1870, 18914 and 1940 -- the Ardennes forest.  His goal was to push through the allied defences and capture the port of Antwerp cutting off the mainly British forces in the North and leading to a second Dunkirk.  The plan was given the name "Wacht am Rhein" -- Watch on the Rhine -- a deliberate piece of misinformation.

Ike demands action
The German forces, led by the Sixth Panzer Army with all its Waffen SS armored divisions, was in the vanguard against weak American forces on what had been  a "quiet" part of the front.  On learning of the German offensive Eisenhower was quick to recognize the significance of the German attack.  "We must rush two armored divisions to the aid of Middleton's VII corps!", said Eisenhower. The 101st Airborne division was sent with no time to prepare and little winter equipment via truck 100 miles to Bastogne.  The commander of the 101st was Brigadier General McAuliffe who was only in command due to the absence of Maxwell Taylor who was on Christmas vacation in the states.  McAuliffe was principally known up to this point as a desk general.

German forces quickly pushed forward and managed to surround Bastogne which occupied a critical road nexus in the German's path.

Brigadier General McAuliffe, "Nuts", Bastogne

"On the 22nd December 1944, general Heinrich Freiherr von Lutwitz, Commander of the German troops which were besieging Bastogne sent Major Wagner and Lieutenant Helmut Henke with a demand for the surrender of the American garrison.  When Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe, the Town Commander in Bastogne. was brought the note he laughed, and made his legendary comment, "Nuts".  He was then reminded that the emissaries awaited a written reply, to which he asked: "What should I say then?"  "Your first comment is exactly right, Sir," opined Colonel W. O. Kinnard.  Those present laughed and applauded, while McAuliffe sat down, writing as his answer a single word - "NUTS!".  Colonel Harper handed the intermediaries the answer, but Lieutenant Henke, the spokesman was uncertain.  "Is the answer to the affirmative or to the negative?"  "Certainly not to the affirmative, said Harper, "Go to Hell!"  Source: The Battle of the Bulge, Jean Milmeister, 2011.

Bastogne was besieged and bombarded from the air and attacked throughout Christmas week.  American forces were resupplied by air drops in C-47s from the UK.  The "battling bastards of Bastogne," who lacked a medical headquarters, refused to surrender.

Commander K. at Patton monument, Bastogne, Belgium
In his finest hour, General George S. Patton drove the fourth division of his Third Army forwards to counterattack the Germans and relieve the siege of Bastogne.  On the 26th of December near Ettelbruck Belgium "Lieutenant Boggess drove his Sherman, guns blazing, through the village and towards a wood.  At the edge of the wood there could be seen some shadowy figures.  Were they German or Americans?  Bogges cautiously opened his turret and called: "Come here!  This is the 4th Armored Division!"

Commander K. and Sherman tank, Bastogne, Belgium
Suspiciously, a couple of heads emerged from foxholes.  A figure came cautiously near.  "Lieutenant Webster, 326th Engineer Battalion, 101st Airborne Division."  Bogges leant forward and shook hands.  After a four day encirclement the German siege was broken.  Source: The Battle of the Bulge, Jean Milmeister, 2011.

The Battle of the Bulge was a decisive American victory in the Second World War.  By the end of January, the Germans had been thrown back to their original starting positions.  Out of approximately 500,000 Germans engaged in the battle, there were 81,834 casualties including 12.652 killed.  Out of approximately 600,000 Americans who fought in the battle of the Bulge there were 80,987 casualties with 10,276 killed.  Hitler had fired his last bolt and missed.  The Germans had been critically weakened making it easier for the Red Army in the East to sweep forward towards Berlin and for the Allies to cross the Rhine into Germany.

If you have a chance to visit the Bastogne area today, you will find many museums and monuments dedicated to the bloody events of December 1944.  Stephen Ambrose's book Band of Brothers and the HBO miniseries (filmed on location in the UK, by the way) has brought new popularity to the Battle of the Bulge.  There is a "Nuts" Cafe on the square in Bastogne.

Nuts Cafe, Bastogne, Belgium
You will find monuments to Easy company which is representative of all Americans soldiers engaged in the battle...

"Easy" company roadside monument, Belgium
You can even still walk around the woods and find foxholes that were used by soldiers of the 101st...

Commander K. in "Easy" company foxhole, Bois Jacques, Belgium
The German cemetery in Recogne is another reminder of the horrible cost of war...

Wasted Youth, German cemetery Recogne, Belgium
I recommend staying at the Hotel Melba ( which has a friendly English speaking staff.  They serve a hearty breakfast and are a good value.

Special thanks to Henri Mignon who guided us through Bastogne on Monday 10/8.  Henri was born in Belgium in 1936 and was a child witness to the battle -- he remembers hearing the distinctive piercing whine of V-1 and V-2 rockets flying overhead on their way to England.  His father, a Belgian forester, was sadly killed during the battle shrapnel from an artillery shell.  You can reach Henri to book a tour at

Henri Mignon and US Sherman tank turret

You can now find Commander Kelly's first book, America Invades,  here or on Amazon

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