- James Houser
December 22, 1944 - The Siege of Bastogne
Updated: Jun 17, 2021
December 22, 1944. It was a small Belgian town that no one had ever heard of, off the beaten trail of Europe’s great highways and in a forgotten part of the world. But the 101st Airborne Division is now surrounded by the Germans in a perimeter around the town of Bastogne. Today, the Germans demand its surrender – and the reply of the American commander is famous for its brevity and defiance. “NUTS!” This is the Siege of Bastogne.
If you want all the backstory to the Battle of the Bulge, I’ll post the links below. I will begin today’s post with minimum background on the wider battle and focus on the Siege of Bastogne itself.
When the Germans attacked the weak point of the American line in the Battle of the Bulge, bursting with multiple armies of heavy panzer divisions into the winterbound Ardennes Forest of Belgium, General Eisenhower faced a significant crisis: he had almost no divisions in general reserve. The Allied strategy had been to push forward with all possible strength at all parts of the frontline, from the Atlantic coast of the Netherlands down to the Dutch border. The inevitable result was that there were next to no heavy units sitting around for an emergency. Every armored and regular infantry division was committed at some point, albeit in France, the Dutch lowlands, or the German border. Ike’s only reserve divisions at this critical moment were the two American airborne divisions: the 82nd and 101st.
The American airborne units could justifiably be called an elite. Composed largely of veterans from the Normandy and Market-Garden operations, they were undeniably tough and skilled infantrymen. That being said, they probably weren’t the best units in the American order of battle by this time – that honor arguably goes to the 1st and 90th Infantry Divisions along with the 4th Armored Division. While the skill level of the individual paratrooper may have been higher than that of the average U.S. infantryman, the two airborne divisions lacked the motor transport or heavy artillery of a normal American division, and much of their equipment was tailor-made for light transport and quick striking power rather than sustained combat. Nevertheless, they had found themselves in sustained combat time and again in Normandy, in the Netherlands, and shortly in the Ardennes.
After the failure of Operation Market Garden in September 1944, the two divisions had remained in the Netherlands for almost two months holding segments of line and losing valuable manpower. They had just recently been pulled out to be reequipped for a possible landing near the Rhine. The two divisions had taken in replacements and were settling into barracks for Christmas when, on December 17, they got the call to ship out to the Ardennes. Ike was throwing everything but the kitchen sink to try and close the hole that the Germans had just torn. As it turned out, the 82nd Airborne was sent to the north flank of the bulge to confront the murderous Kampfgruppe Peiper. The 101st – which had so little motor transport of its own that it had to borrow trucks from other units – went to Bastogne.
Bastogne was one of the two critical crossroads in the Ardennes, and as such was a vital objective for the attacking Germans. To Bastogne’s northeast was the other crossroads, St. Vith, whose defense I detailed on December 19. The defenders at St. Vith bought valuable time for the 101st to roll into Bastogne and begin to get set up, because the Germans were coming. After a road march of 75 miles, the first elements of the Screaming Eagles – the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment – rolled into the Belgian town on December 19. Since the 101st Airborne had no organic tank or antitank units able to stand up to the German panzers, a battalion of tank destroyers – lightly armed vehicles with armor-piercing weapons – was attached to the division.
The 101st had arrived not a moment too soon. They made contact with a few American armored brigades, elements of the 9th and 10th Armored Divisions, that had been sent rushing north from Patton’s command to try and stem the German tide. Already a large German armored column of the Panzer Lehr Division and 2nd Panzer Division was beginning to advance on Bastogne from the north and northeast.
On December 19 and 20, the 1st Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment joined with Task Force Desobry of the 10th Armored Division in a battle with the German spearheads near Noville, 4 miles northeast of Bastogne. In a bruising, difficult battle, the M18 Hellcat tank destroyers proved their worth, and the Germans reeled from the unexpected ferocity of the delaying action. Nevertheless, the paratroopers and their tanker buddies were forced to withdraw into the developing perimeter around Bastogne, having suffered a third of their number as casualties. The 1-506 was so badly mangled that it remained in division reserve for the rest of the battle.
That early fight at Noville, ironically given its lack of attention in postwar history, was probably the critical event of the Battle of the Bulge. The commander of the 48th Panzer Corps, General von Luttwitz, decided based on this encounter that Bastogne was more heavily defended than it really was. Rather than pushing on with his heavy tank divisions to take the city on December 20 – which he probably could have done, since the 101st was still in the process of setting up its defense – he sent the 2nd Panzer and most of the Panzer Lehr continuing west, north of Bastogne and towards the Meuse River. There they would finally be stopped by the US 2nd Armored Division and elements of the British Army. In the meantime, Luttwitz directed follow-on forces such as the 26th Volksgrenadier Division to loop around either side of Bastogne and try to take it from the rear.
The American forces in Bastogne quickly realized what was happening, and began to put together a 360-degree perimeter to try and stave off the German attacks. While the 101st Airborne is most famous for the defense of Bastogne, they were far from alone. Many of the units that had been chewed up in the first wave of the German attack had retreated to this perimeter and assisted in the defense.
I already mentioned the tank and infantry units of the 9th and 10th Armored Divisions, but there were also multiple artillery battalions, including a large chunk of the all-black 333rd Artillery Battalion, who would get a Presidential Unit Citation for their service in Bastogne. (The remainder of the battalion had been wiped out along with the 106th Infantry Division at Elsenborn Ridge, with some of its POWs being massacred by German SS troops.) Around 600 soldiers from a grab-bag of units wandered into the Bastogne perimeter and were loosely organized as “Team SNAFU,” a fire-brigade of sorts sent to emergency spots in the line. So it wasn’t just the fight of the 101st Airborne; elements of at least six American divisions would do service in the Siege of Bastogne. The Screaming Eagles, 11,000 men strong, made up only half of the 22,000 defenders of Bastogne.
Belatedly, General von Luttwitz realized his error in not taking Bastogne early, and began to push more and more German attacks onto the overstretched perimeter. American paratroopers dug in deep all along the lines, using their shovels to burrow into the frozen earth under constant artillery fire and observation by enemy snipers. The 40 or so tanks inside Bastogne were organized into a quick-response force, and throughout the 20th and 21st of December they ran interference on the southern and western portion of the line. Quick German attacks nearly overran and destroyed some of the artillery positions to the south and west of the town on December 21, only saved by the tankers’ sudden response and the valor of American paratroopers. These German attacks caught much of the 101st rear-area units unawares, and nearly slaughtered the medical company. Though the Americans held out, by the end of December 21 every highway leading into Bastogne was blocked. The Screaming Eagles (and friends) were encircled.
It was not an easy siege. The Americans were outnumbered five to one, and due to their sudden deployment, most men lacked the cold-weather gear, ammunition, and food supplies they would normally have. The 101st had made it to Bastogne in time to stop the Germans, but in their haste to get there on time adequate supply provisions had not been made. Hell, the 101st wasn’t even under its normal commander. Major General Maxwell C. Taylor, the commander of the 101st Airborne, had been recalled to Washington for a staff conference, so the 101st was led by his artillery general, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe. Taylor later said that his absence from Bastogne was one of his biggest disappointments of the war.
The fact that they were surrounded was not new to the 101st – after all, it was their mission to be surrounded. They were airborne. The issue was that no resupply was able to reach them from the air due to the weather, which prevented almost all resupply or air support. The 101st basically had to rely on what it had, which severely limited the expenditure of ammunition and food. The destruction of the medical company during the initial encirclement also made put soldiers’ health on very thin ice. This all occurred during some of the worst winter conditions that American servicemen had ever had to face – yet. (The Chosin Reservoir in 1950 was far, far worse.)
As famous as the Siege of Bastogne has become, one often overlooked aspect of the battle was the German side and how absolutely screwed they were. The Germans had been almost doomed to lose the Battle of the Bulge from the beginning, but it was a major tactical error not to have taken Bastogne as early as possible, and by the time General von Luttwitz realized that he NEEDED that town, it was probably too late. The 101st were dug in too well. Worse, the weather worked against the Germans just as much as the Americans. Fuel was short, and supply was poor thanks to the bad roads – and, you know, the fact that the Americans controlled the critical crossroads that all their supplies needed to pass through. The 26th Volksgrenadier Division, the main force surrounding the Americans, had already been in sustained combat for five days when the siege began and was nearly exhausted.
Not to get sidetracked here, but let’s be very frank: the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge were not at their best. That word I keep using for that division, “Volksgrenadier?” The literal meaning is “people’s infantry,” and that about sums it up. The Volksgrenadier units were a creation of the very late Nazi regime, an act of desperation that shoveled former Navy and Air Force personnel, teenagers, old men, men who had been previously judged unfit for service, and in some cases concentration camp inmates into a skeleton of NCOs and officers with a bit of experience. The result was a poorly trained division that ran on Nazi zeal, a crapload of automatic weapons, and not much else. I mean, this is December 1944. The Nazi regime is falling apart. All their good soldiers are dead. So it’s not like they sent the A-Team into the Ardennes.
All the same, General von Luttwitz assumed he had the Americans over a barrel. On December 22, 1944, he sent General McAuliffe a demand for surrender. In large part, this was a bluff. Most of the heavy panzer units had already continued their journey west, trying desperately to reach the Meuse River. While Luttwitz had some tank units, and more were on their way, he needed Bastogne badly. Already the Germans knew that Patton was assembling a force to the south, with its mission to break through and take the beleaguered town.
The simple truth was that the German situation was more desperate than the American one. Time was running out for them, and without the crossroads of Bastogne their forward units – pushing the tip of “the Bulge” ever farther west – would find it harder and harder to get the supplies they needed. So really, it was McAuliffe who had Luttwitz in a bad position, not the other way around. I’m not locked in here with you, you’re locked in here with me.
Luttwitz sent to McAuliffe:
“To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.
The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units…There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note. If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours’ term. All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.
The German Commander.”
Of course, McAuliffe’s reply is legendary. While it has gone down in history as a massive act of bravado, as I just said – the Germans were bluffing, and McAuliffe knew it. After all, when McAuliffe rejected these surrender terms, the nonexistent German artillery corps certainly did not annihilate the defenders of Bastogne. But McAuliffe replied:
“To the German Commander.
The American Commander”
This wonderful little story is kinda robbed of its impact by one simple fact: the Germans had no idea what this meant. After von Luttwitz stared at the message for a bit, confused more than angry, (my imagination goes “Nuts? Like peanuts? Is he hungry?”) the American envoy explained that it meant something like “Go to hell.” The Germans understood THAT far better. Maybe McAuliffe should’ve just said that?
I’m personally not a big fan of the “NUTS” response. I would’ve said something different. But then again, I’m not a 50-year-old World War II general, and never will be, so who am I to judge?
Luttwitz’s Germans proceeded to strike at the American perimeter for the next three days. Due to his low strength, Luttwitz had to borrow regiments of tanks and mechanized infantry from the 15th Panzergrenadier Division. From December 22 to December 26 the Germans took crack after crack at the men who were calling themselves the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne.” These attacks happened in miserable conditions, as temperatures plummeted and both German and American fought in the snowdrifts, dense forests, and stone villages of the Ardennes Forest.
Though the Germans managed to penetrate at several points and even overran a few battalion command posts, McAuliffe managed his limited reserves well. The paratroopers of the 101st put up a tenacious defense at every point, buying time and contributing more men to the inevitable arrival of the quick reaction force: tanks, Team SNAFU, and artillery pieces. The artillery, lacking aerial observation, was often used in a direct-fire role to blast German tanks over open sights.
All in all, the Americans displayed superior tactical prowess over the Germans at Bastogne. Due to being surrounded, they were able to quickly redeploy reserves to any threatened area. Even when German panzers broke through in heavy columns and tried to make a push down one highway or the other, the American paratroopers clung onto villages and woodline defenses, creating a pivot for the arriving armored vehicles to maneuver behind the German tanks and destroy them. While the Screaming Eagles and their veteran paratroopers were the backbone of the defense, they could not have held their positions without the critical tanks, who always charged in like the cavalry at the moment of greatest crisis.
By Christmas, though, the situation was growing dire. Even though the sky had lightened, opening the way for Allied air power, the Germans had belatedly realized the importance of Bastogne and were beginning to shift troops south to try and crack the nut. The Siege of Bastogne had proved to be an unaccountable drain on German resources, and its continued resistance was like a thorn in the paw of the German blitzkrieg. It had to be eradicated. Among the units sent south to try and wipe out the 101st were the SS Panzer Divisions, including the fearsome remnants of Kampfgruppe Peiper. The Germans planned to deploy them on the northern face of the American perimeter, where Easy Company of the 506th among other units had clung on against all odds.
But help was on the way. George Patton, in one of the greatest achievements of his career, had pulled three veteran divisions from his 3rd Army and realigned them 90 miles to face north and prepare for an attack, and he had done it in a jaw-dropping 72 hours. By December 22, the 26th Infantry and 35th Infantry Divisions were in position to strike north, spearheaded by Patton’s whiplash – the 4th Armored Division, the crack tank unit in the U.S. Army. The tip of the spear would be the 37th Tank Battalion of Lieutenant Colonel Creighton W. Abrams, of whom Patton had said “I’m supposed to be the best tank commander in the Army, but I have one peer – Abe Abrams.”
Patton’s troops had begun to hammer north against heavy German resistance. They were exhausted – Abrams’ tankers had driven 120 miles in 15 hours to get to the start line in time – but they were driven on by the need to rescue the 101st from the tightening German noose. They advanced up a thin highway against heavy German defenses and counterattacks, Sherman tanks slashing forward through the snow with occasional assistance from Allied air power. Abrams’ battalion only had 21 tanks after months of combat in eastern France, when he had started with 70, so he had to make the best use of his limited numbers. The 4th Armored nevertheless beat its way forward, slipping around and behind the German positions, almost unstoppable.
On December 26, 1944 – the day after Christmas – a tank called “Cobra King” under the command of Lieutenant Charles Boggess fought its way through the village of Assenois along with the rest of D Company, 37th Tank Battalion. At approximately 4:50pm on December 26, he made contact with elements of the 101st’s engineer units. The Siege of Bastogne had been lifted, and Patton’s tanks had made it through.
Of course, this was not the end of the struggle. The Germans had been stopped at the tip of the Bulge, and Patton’s relief of Bastogne had stopped them from sending more troops in that direction, but the Nazis still held a big chunk of territory in the heart of the Allied line that needed to be eradicated. With some of their best and toughest divisions defending it, the way forward would be long and hard.
Even the 101st Airborne, which had been surrounded and nearly eliminated in five days of hard combat, had its toughest days of battle AFTER the Siege of Bastogne had been ended. With support from Patton’s tanks, they first had to widen the narrow line of salvation into a broader base; then throughout January 1945 they had to batter their way north against the German SS divisions to eradicate the Bulge. The epic battles of Foy and Noville, which take up such a prominent part in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers”, were a critical part of this brutal trek out of Bastogne – and they only occurred after Patton’s tanks had rolled into town. The Siege was over, but the Battle went on.
Nevertheless, the 101st Airborne probably owes its continued existence to this day to its legendary performance in the Siege of Bastogne. And for all that I’ve tried to place it in context (which necessarily involves killing a little bit of that legend), it was a truly magnificent display of American courage and fortitude when confronted with the armored might of Nazi Germany. The Screaming Eagle paratroopers had proven themselves not just the moral superiors of their German foes, but their tactical and professional superiors as well. It would be hard to find a more explicit example of man-for-man fighting ability being weighted in the Americans’ favor in World War II. It wasn’t just a show of grit or determination or courage: the 101st just OUTFOUGHT the Germans at Bastogne on a tactical and operational level. They weren’t just better soldiers; they were a better army.
Of course, don’t forget that the 101st wasn’t the only unit in there. The tankers, the engineers, the black artillerymen, hell even those scattered refugees of Team SNAFU, all played an equal part in making the Siege of Bastogne legendary. Deprived of supplies, ammunition, and winter clothing, surrounded and isolated, without air cover or adequate artillery support, and facing Hitler’s entire wrath and the last gasp of Nazi Germany, the Battered Bastards of Bastogne derailed fascism’s last great sortie.
So yes. As much as I love to bust my myths, they do deserve their reputation.