CIVILIAN refugees with woeful tales of burning villages and Germans in close pursuit tumbled into Bastogne, “an ancient town in the dreariest part of the Ardennes,” as a tourist guidebook had once described it. Dray carts piled high with furniture and scuffed baggage clogged the main square despite Army placards warning that “unattended vehicles will be impounded by military police.” Shops along the Grand-Rue pulled tight their shutters after the power failed on Sunday, and by midday Monday, December 18, the grumble of artillery could be heard even in the cellar corridors of the Sisters of Notre Dame, a boarding school where hundreds took refuge.
The first paratroopers from the 101st Airborne arrived at dusk on Monday after a sleet-spattered hundred-mile drive from Reims. XVIII Airborne Corps under General Ridgway had been directed to help seal the twenty-mile gap between V Corps and VIII Corps, with Gavin’s 82nd Airborne making for Werbomont, southwest of Spa, and the 101st bound for Bastogne. Sergeants had trotted through the troop barracks the previous night, bawling, “Get out of the sack. You ain’t reserve no more,” and officers interrupted a ballet performance in mid-jeté to order paratroopers in the audience to assemble for battle.
Since leaving Holland in November the 101st had been plagued with several dozen AWOL incidents each week, as well as the usual drunken brawls; troopers held contests to see who could punch out the most windows in Reims. Worse yet, many of the division’s senior leaders were absent. They included the commander, Major General Maxwell D. Taylor, who had flown to Washington; his assistant commander, who was in England with seventeen officers to lecture on MARKET GARDEN; and the chief of staff, who had killed himself with a pistol a week earlier. That left command to the division artillery chief, a short, genial brigadier general from Washington, D.C., named Anthony Clement McAuliffe. Having graduated from West Point at the end of World War I, McAuliffe had risen slowly through the ranks of the interwar Army as a gunner with an interest in both technological and sociological innovation: before joining the 101st, he had worked on development of the jeep and the bazooka, and on a study of race relations in the service. He had parachuted into Normandy and landed by glider in Holland; now he drove to Bastogne at the head of a division he led by default.
Several thousand replacement troopers who had received barely a week of field training jammed into open cattle trucks behind him—“like olives in a jar,” as one account noted. Some, without helmets or rifles, pleaded for both from the retreating GIs who clogged every road west of Bastogne. COMZ dispatched an emergency convoy hauling five thousand entrenching shovels, two thousand sets of wool drawers, and five thousands pairs of arctic overshoes, sizes six to fourteen. Through Monday night and early the next morning, twelve thousand cold, sodden paratroopers and glidermen poured into Bastogne, where the American predicament was described as “fluid and obscure.” By ten A.M. on Tuesday, all four regiments had arrived, accompanied by a few disoriented artillery and armor units press-ganged along the way. General McAuliffe put his command post in the Hôtel de Commerce, facing the train station, and his first wounded into a local seminary. Early Wednesday morning, after a few parting words of encouragement, General Middleton decamped in his Packard for a new VIII Corps headquarters in Neufchâteau, eighteen miles southwest.
Bearing down on Bastogne were three divisions from Fifth Panzer Army, well aware of U.S. reinforcements thanks to careless American radio chatter. Little in the battle had unfolded according to the German master plan, starting with that nettlesome resistance by Cota’s 28th Division in Luxembourg. Fuel shortages pinched harder with each passing hour. Panzer tracks chewed up byroads so severely that wheeled vehicles by the score were abandoned in mud sloughs; with few engineers to clear mines, tank crews took up the task with harrows and rollers found in farm sheds. Foot soldiers slouching westward almost outpaced Manteuffel’s motorized columns, and Field Marshal Model now privately doubted that HERBSTNEBEL could achieve even the modest goals of the so-called small solution, much less the seizure of Antwerp.
Bastogne and its seven radial roads assumed ever greater importance—“an abscess on our line of communication,” in a German commander’s phrase—and field-gray spearheads smashed into the feeble roadblocks east of town, setting Army half-tracks ablaze with tracer rounds, then picking off GIs silhouetted against the flames. Two straggling artillery battalions at Longvilly fired over open sights at two hundred yards before the survivors stumbled back into Bastogne, half their howitzers lost. Forty Sherman tanks were demolished in a single night, and defenders in Neffe retreated under showers of incendiary grenades. “We’re not driven out,” one officer radioed, “but burned out.” Under the onslaught of those three divisions—2nd Panzer, 26th Volksgrenadier, and Panzer Lehr—the American defenses buckled and bent.
But did not break. The Longvilly gunfight cost the Volksgrenadiers four precious hours of daylight on Tuesday. Farther north on the same day, U.S. combat engineers dynamited culverts and bridges, felled trees, and laid abatis with such obstructive skill that the frustrated LVIII Corps countermarched up various blind alleys in search of easier routes west.
* * *
No less vital in delaying the enemy was a combat command from the 10th Armored Division, which Middleton on Monday night had ordered to defend a trio of strongpoints outside Bastogne. An especially vicious brawl unfolded in Noville, a foggy sinkhole four miles north of town, where fifteen Sherman tanks and other armor arrived in time to confront much of the 2nd Panzer Division. A murky dawn on Tuesday brought the telltale rattle of German tank suspensions, followed by vague gray shapes drifting from the east. The Americans answered with artillery—aimed “by guess and by God” because of map shortages—and even pistol fire. Soon the fog lifted like a raised curtain to reveal German armor and grenadiers spread thickly across a slope half a mile distant. American tank destroyers ripped into nine panzers, leaving three in flames. German infantrymen turned and fled, pursued by bullets.
All morning and through the afternoon the battle raged. A battalion of 101st paratroopers from Bastogne attacked on a dead run at two P.M., colliding in a brutish mêlée with another German assault just beginning to boil across a smoky ridgeline. Enemy barrages pounded Noville to rubble, killing the paratrooper commander and badly wounding his 10th Armored counterpart; only artillery counterfire kept grenadiers on three sides from overrunning the American redoubt.
At midday on Wednesday, December 20, a radio message to the Hôtel de Commerce advised, “All reserves committed. Situation critical.” McAuliffe authorized survivors to fall back into Bastogne at five P.M., cloaked in smoke and darkness; for want of a tank crew, paratroopers drove one of the four remaining Shermans. American casualties exceeded four hundred men, but the 2nd Panzer had lost over six hundred, plus thirty-one panzers and at least two days in the division’s drive toward the Meuse. A few hours after Noville fell, Gestapo agents murdered seven Belgians who had survived the siege, including a schoolmaster and the village priest.
Strongpoints east of Bastogne, now reinforced by the 501st Parachute Infantry, proved just as formidable for Panzer Lehr and the 26th Volksgrenadier. Barbed wire and musketry near Neffe snared German skirmishers in what paratroopers called a “giant mantrap.” “We took no prisoners,” a captain reported. “We mowed them down as if they were weeds.” Renewed enemy attacks on Wednesday ran into “a dam of fire” laid by scores of guns firing from Bastogne.
Little profit had been found in frontal assaults, and belatedly the Germans revised their tactics. Manteuffel urged 2nd Panzer to press westward past the Ourthe River despite gasoline shortages so severe that the division wasted a day waiting for fuel trucks. Panzer Lehr would leave a regiment to besiege Bastogne with the 26th Volksgrenadier, but most of the division now sidled to the left to bypass the town on the south.
Among the few heartening reports to reach Fifth Panzer Army on Wednesday was the annihilation of a 101st Airborne medical detachment, which had failed to post sentries at a crossroads encampment west of Bastogne. Shortly before midnight a German patrol of six panzers and half-tracks raked the medical tents and trucks with gunfire—“the bullets were so close that I thought I would have to brush them off,” one private reported. Within minutes the division surgeon had been captured, along with ten other medical officers, more than a hundred enlisted men, and litters, wounded patients, surgical instruments, and penicillin.
* * *
“Above all,” Middleton had instructed McAuliffe, “don’t get yourself surrounded.” Precisely how eighteen thousand Americans, under orders to hold Bastogne at all costs against forty-five thousand Germans, should avoid encirclement was not clear, particularly in weather so dismal that Allied aircraft on Wednesday flew a total of twenty-nine sorties in Europe, only nine of them over the Ardennes. A day later, on Thursday morning, December 21, an enemy column severed the last open road south, and Bastogne was indeed cut off. Resurgent optimism flared through the German chain of command.
At 11:30 on Friday morning, a delegation of four Germans carrying a white flag appeared in a spruce copse dusted with new snow southwest of Bastogne. “We are parliamentaires,” an English-speaking captain told an American officer, then presented a note composed on a captured American typewriter, with each umlaut inserted by hand, and addressed “an den amerikanischen Kommandeur der eingeschlossen Stadt Bastogne.” An appended translation to the American commander of the surrounded city of Bastogne explained:
The fortune of war is changing.… There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: 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 AA battalions are ready to annihilate.… All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.
The note had been authorized by Lieutenant General Heinrich von Lüttwitz, commander of XLVII Panzer Corps.
At 12:25 P.M. the ultimatum reached McAuliffe in his smoke-stained command post, which reeked of cordite from a bombing raid the previous night. Encircled or not, the 101st remained almost at full strength; only five battalions among the four regiments had so far seen intense combat. Six hundred stragglers, mostly from the 28th Division, had been fed a hot meal and mustered into Team Snafu, a quick-reaction battalion. The Bastogne arsenal included forty Shermans; armor officers mimeographed useful tips on tank tactics for their infantry brethren. Six artillery battalions were arrayed in circular gun pits to allow each battery to shoot at every compass point, although McAuliffe, a field artilleryman for a quarter-century, had advised his cannoneers not to fire “until you see the whites of their eyes.” Vehicles were slathered with whitewash for camouflage, and Belgian linen closets provided sheets for snow capes. The men now received only two meals a day, but cooks had whipped up excellent flapjacks from doughnut flour discovered in a Red Cross pantry.
Perhaps inspired by the legendary epithet uttered by a French general when asked to surrender at Waterloo—“Merde!”—McAuliffe offered a one-word answer to the ultimatum: “Nuts.” A paratrooper officer then handed it to the “parliamentaires,” whereupon a baffled German officer asked, “Is the reply negative or affirmative?”
“The reply is decidedly not affirmative,” the American said. “If you don’t understand what ‘nuts’ means, in plain English it is the same as ‘go to hell.’ … We will kill every goddamn German that tries to break into this city.”
“We will kill many Americans. This is war.”
Only after the event did an irate Manteuffel learn of Lüttwitz’s gambit. “This is crazy,” he told the corps commander. “Now we must find the artillery and bomber force to make good your threat and level the town.”
* * *
As Bastogne was a poisonous thorn in General Manteuffel’s left flank, St.-Vith had become an irksome nettle on his right. The town had been named for Saint Vitus, a Sicilian boy martyred during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, and the holy patron of dancers, dogs, and chronic oversleepers. Various unpleasantries had befallen St.-Vith since its founding in the twelfth century, including pillages in 1543, 1602, and 1689, but none was uglier than the battle that engulfed the town in December 1944. Despite swift destruction of the 106th Division on the Schnee Eifel, the German plan to occupy St.-Vith by six P.M. on December 17 fell short, and Manteuffel’s frustration grew longer day by day.
Gunfights had erupted around the town on December 18 and 19, but German lunges were thrown back, first by two engineer battalions, then by General Clarke’s Combat Command B from the 7th Armored, bolstered on his right by remnants from the 106th and a combat command from the 9th Armored Division. Now the easternmost U.S. redoubt of any size in the Ardennes, St.-Vith in three days had become a breakwater, with a “German tide rushing past on the north and south and rising against its eastern face,” in the description of the Army official history.
With supply lines cut, howitzers were limited to seven rounds per gun each day. Gunners rummaged for ammunition in abandoned dumps; some batteries reported firing “old propaganda shells just to keep projectiles whistling around German ears.” Riflemen on December 20 were told that “for every round fired, a corpse must hit the ground.” In St.-Vith’s pinched streets, broken glass crunched beneath the hooves of cattle fleeing a burning slaughterhouse. Exhausted officers gobbled amphetamines, and greasy smoke blackened the faces and uniforms of soldiers trying to stay warm over sand-filled tins soaked in gasoline. One soldier later described mounting a local counterattack with a “cold, plodding, unwilling, ragged double line plunging up to their knees in snow.” A survivor from the 106th wrote, “Here I was to grow into an old man and die over and over again.”
Manteuffel on December 20 ordered two Volksgrenadier divisions to finish off the town, supported by SS tanks. On Thursday, December 21, German artillery tree-bursts lacerated American trenches, as gray waves of infantry swept through the dense woods and Panthers fired flat-trajectory flares to blind Sherman crews. “Goddamn it,” a company commander radioed at 7:35 P.M. “They’re blasting my men out of their holes one at a time.” Half an hour later, Clarke’s line had been punctured in three places. At ten P.M. he ordered his troops to fall back onto high ground a kilometer west of town, but nearly a thousand GIs had been killed or captured, and twenty thousand others remained vulnerable in a shrinking salient east of the Salm River.
General Hodges had given XVIII Airborne Corps responsibility for all First Army forces south of Stavelot, and Matt Ridgway now struggled to control a corps front that abruptly tripled in width from twenty-five miles to eighty-five. If the 101st Airborne could continue to fight effectively while surrounded, Ridgway wondered why a comparable combat force in the Salm salient could not do the same. But by early Friday, December 22, that force showed signs of disintegration: patrols simply vanished; an entire battalion staff at Neubrück, three miles south of St.-Vith, had been killed or captured; Clarke reported that his combat command had lost half its strength and would soon be supine.
“This terrain is not worth a nickel an acre,” Clarke added, and urged withdrawal. The 7th Armored Division commander, Brigadier General Robert W. Hasbrouck, now encamped at Vielsalm, twelve miles west of St.-Vith, warned that fuel and ammunition shortages had become dire. Just after eleven A.M., Hasbrouck told Ridgway in a message, “If we don’t get out of here … before night, we will not have a 7th Armored Division left.” To an old friend, Brigadier General William M. Hoge, whose combat command in the 9th Armored also faced dismemberment, Ridgway said, “We’re not going to leave you in here to be chopped to pieces.… We’re going to get you out of here.” Hoge replied plaintively, “How can you?”
Reluctantly, Ridgway in midafternoon on Friday ordered Hasbrouck to withdraw all U.S. forces across the Salm. Montgomery, who had watched the St.-Vith drama with mounting anxiety, rejoiced. “They can come back with all honor,” he said. “They put up a wonderful show.”
Fourteen hours of December darkness and a cold snap that froze the mud on Friday night allowed most to escape, narrowly averting a catastrophe even worse than the Schnee Eifel surrender. A radio dispatch to a field commander instructed, “Your orders are: Go west. Go west. Go west.” GIs urinated on frozen M-1 rifle bolts to free them, then tramped single file on forest trails and farm tracks, each man gripping the belt or pack straps of the comrade ahead. Others flattened themselves onto tank hulls beneath a scorching fretwork of enemy tracers. German artillery searched roads and junctions, and only the late arrival of a ninety-truck convoy lugging five thousand shells permitted prodigal counterfire by gunners west of the Salm. “Wrapped in scarves and mufflers, only their eyes showing,” as one lieutenant wrote, retreating troops made for the bridges at Salmchâteau and Vielsalm; Hasbrouck stood on a road shoulder to welcome his men to safety. An 82nd Airborne trooper south of Werbomont called to a passing column, “What the hell you guys running from? We been here two days and ain’t seen a German yet.” A weary voice replied, “Stay right were you are, buddy. In a little while you won’t even have to look for ’em.”
Ridgway estimated that fifteen thousand troops and one hundred tanks escaped. As many tanks were lost, and casualties east of the Salm approached five thousand, atop losses incurred on the Schnee Eifel. Clarke and Hasbrouck would long resent Ridgway for delaying the withdrawal, but the fighting retreat meant that nearly a week went by before Fifth Panzer Army controlled St.-Vith and the radiant roads that Manteuffel had hoped to take in two days. “Nobody is worried down here,” Ridgway told First Army by phone at nine P.M. Friday night. “We’re in fine shape.”
German troops ransacked St.-Vith yet again “in a kind of scavenger hunt,” snarling traffic so profoundly that both Model and Manteuffel dismounted and hiked into town from Schönberg. The field marshal even stood at a crossroads with arms flailing to wave tanks and trucks westward. “Endless columns of prisoners,” a Volksgrenadier officer wrote. “Model himself directs traffic. He’s a little, undistinguished-looking man with a monocle. Now the thing is going.… All the advancing units are picking up American vehicles to become motorized.”
Looting was best done quickly: beginning on Christmas Day, Allied bombers would drop seventeen hundred tons of high explosives and incendiaries on St.-Vith, obliterating the train station, St. Josef’s Kloster, and the fourteenth-century Büchelturm stone tower. The raids reduced most houses to stone dust and ash, entombing hundreds of Belgian civilians. With roads smashed by the bombs, German engineers routed traffic through the rail yards and along a circuitous dirt track to let the conquerors of St.-Vith continue their pursuit. “We shall throw these arrogant big-mouthed apes from the New World into the sea,” a German lieutenant wrote his wife. “They will not get into our Germany.”
* * *
A GI shivering in an Ardennes foxhole asked, after his first glimpse of a German Me-262 jet streaking overhead, “How come we don’t ever have any secret weapons?” Yet thousands of enemy troops now sensed what many American soldiers still did not know: that a secret weapon no bigger than a radio tube was being used in ground combat for the first time across the Bulge, enhancing the killing power of U.S. artillery with what one enthusiast would call “the most remarkable scientific achievement of the war” except for the atomic bomb.
The new weapon’s origin dated to 1940, with a recognition that on average 2,500 antiaircraft artillery shells would be needed to bring down a single enemy plane. Both field artillery and antiaircraft rounds exploded either on contact or when a fuze detonated the shell after a preset flight time; neither technique offered killing precision. Scientists and engineers instead sought a fuze that could sense proximity to the target, causing a shell to blow up not when it randomly reached an altitude of ten or fifteen thousand feet, but rather when it detected an airplane within the kill radius of exploding fragments. Such a fuze would have to withstand the stupendous strain of cannonading, including a g-force of twenty thousand upon leaving a gun muzzle and the centrifugal forces of a shell spinning at five hundred rotations per second. It would also have to be simple enough to build by the millions on an assembly line, and sufficiently miniaturized to squeeze into a shell nose roughly the size of an ice cream cone.
The resulting device, eventually known by the code designations “VT” or “T-98,” and by the code name “pozit,” contained a tiny radio transmitter, which broadcast a signal in flight. When the beam bounced off a solid object, a receiver in the fuze detected the reflected signal and tripped a firing circuit that detonated the shell. A 5-inch pozit shell, fired by U.S.S. Helena in the South Pacific, had for the first time brought down a Japanese plane in January 1943. But for eighteen months the fuze could be used only over open water or friendly territory, for fear that if the enemy retrieved a dud, Axis engineers could copy the design. Pozit shells were secretly used against V-1s aimed at London—British officials considered them up to five times more effective than time-fuzed rounds—and to defend Cherbourg harbor and the Mulberries off Normandy. More recently, British Lancaster bombers had flown an emergency consignment of pozit fuzes from a Cincinnati plant to Antwerp for use against German flying bombs.
Pozit variants had been developed for the field artillery, using radio signals bounced off the approaching ground to detonate shells fifty or seventy-five feet up. Experiments in North Carolina showed that regardless of terrain, weather, or darkness, even entrenched targets were highly vulnerable to a lethal spray of steel shards from such airbursts. One senior Army general called it “the most important new development in the ammunition field since the introduction of high explosive projectiles.”
With approval from the Charlie-Charlies, SHAEF in late fall fixed Christmas as the day gunners in Europe could open fire with pozit shells. More than a thousand commanders and staff officers were briefed on the secret, with firing demonstrations in six Allied armies. Hitler hastened the day: when HERBSTNEBEL began, Eisenhower moved up the release by a week. A gunner in the 99th Division described “piles of shells with many men using wrenches and hammers to bang off the one [fuze] and install the other.” Within days of the first use by field artillerymen, reports described “the slaughter of enemy concentrations east of Bastogne and interdictions of the principal enemy supply routes west of St. Vith.” Twelfth Army Group cheerfully reported that the pozit fuze “is a terror weapon.” SHAEF concluded that “the enemy has been severely upset.”
Three hundred American companies would soon mass-produce nearly two million fuzes a month at $20 each. “The new shell with the funny fuze is devastating,” Patton wrote the Army’s ordnance chief in late December. “The other night we caught a German battalion, which was trying to cross the Sauer River, with a battalion concentration and killed by actual count 702.” Such exaggerations—and Patton’s tallies often proved inflated—were common, and many unsubstantiated claims of pozit lethality would emerge from the Bulge. In the event, fewer than 200,000 pozit rounds were fired by 12th Army Group in the Battle of the Bulge: a modest fraction of the total, although it did include one-quarter of the Army’s heaviest shells. Nor was the new technology flawless. Tall trees, chimneys, steeples, and straying spotter planes could cause premature detonations.
Yet the pozit would prove as demoralizing to German troops as it was heartening to GIs. Some enemy officers called it the “electro shell” or “magnetic igniter,” believing that terrestrial magnetism triggered the fuze. “It hangs in the air until it finds just the right place to explode,” one captured soldier insisted. Shell fragments were said to slice through thick logs atop enemy bunkers, and a single 155mm airburst reportedly could shred every square foot within a seventy-five-yard diameter. Such mayhem was “pure manslaughter,” another German prisoner complained. “The devil himself could not escape.”
* * *
But what of the devil’s henchmen? No better target could be found for pozit fire than Lieutenant Colonel Peiper’s homicidal Spitze at the head of the 1st SS Panzer Division, and for several days American gunners had been shooting the new shells at the column as it tacked across Belgium.
Peiper’s drive toward the Meuse seemed ever more quixotic. After halting for the night outside Stavelot following the killing spree near Malmédy, the SS spearhead had turned southwest toward Trois-Ponts, unaware of the huge Allied fuel dumps just to the north. U.S. engineers blew all three bridges in Trois-Ponts, including one with German soldiers atop the span. Thwarted and desperate for gasoline, Peiper swung north through broken terrain along the Amblève, harried by both P-47 fighter-bombers—at least two panzers and five half-tracks were demolished from the air—and artillery. Gunners from the 30th Division fired 3,000 rounds at one bridge approach, cooling their red-hot tubes with cans of water.
More spans were demolished by American defenders or were too frail for sixty-ton Tiger tanks. Probes toward Werbomont and Târgnon proved bootless, as did a German scheme to drop fuel cans into the Amblève in hopes that Peiper would recover a few of them downstream. A two-day fight engulfed the St. Edouard Sanatorium, perched on a hill in Stoumont, while 260 convalescent Belgians cowered in the cellar. Panzers fired point-blank through the windows, counterattacking Shermans did the same, and grenades clattered back and forth down the corridors. A priest gave general absolution to his terrified flock when part of the roof collapsed, but the Germans finally withdrew without a single civilian badly hurt.
Peiper had traveled some sixty miles, but sixteen more still separated him from the Meuse. With the risk of encirclement growing, at dusk on Thursday, December 21, he ordered his men to fall back four miles from Stoumont to La Gleize, a hamlet of thirty houses hemmed in by hills. Here his fifteen hundred survivors and two dozen remaining tanks dug in with more than a hundred American prisoners in tow. That night in a farmhouse cellar, Peiper took time to explain himself to a captured battalion commander, Major Hal D. McCown. “We’re eliminating the communist menace,” the young lieutenant colonel said in his excellent English. “We will keep what is best in Europe and eliminate the bad.” The “bad” evidently included Belgian civilians murdered in recent days, along with more defenseless GIs.
By late Friday, American machine guns, tanks, tank destroyers, and artillery had so battered La Gleize that SS troops called it der Kessel, the cauldron. Self-propelled guns fired point-blank over open sights from a nearby château. Gripping a machine pistol, Peiper dashed between rubble piles, shouting encouragement while his adjutant burned secrets in the cellar. Luftwaffe transport planes at eight P.M. dropped gasoline and ammunition to the besieged men, but GIs recovered most of the supplies except for a few bundles containing cigarettes, schnapps, and a crate of Luger pistols. Army Air Forces bombers targeting La Gleize hit Malmédy instead, an error that would be repeated twice, killing more than three dozen GIs and many Belgians.
“Position considerably worsened. Meager supplies of infantry ammunition left,” Peiper radioed early Saturday morning. “This is the last chance of breaking out.” Not until two P.M., as the Americans pressed nearer, did permission to retreat arrive in a coded message from I SS Panzer Corps. White-phosphorus and pozit shells carved away the La Gleize church, where German troops sheltered under choir stalls. A soldier caught removing the SS runes from his uniform was placed against a broken wall and shot for desertion. Peiper used the bombardment to mask the sound of explosives scuttling his last twenty-eight panzers, seventy half-tracks, and two dozen guns.
At two A.M. on Sunday, December 24, the SS men crept south from the village in single file, led by two Belgian guides. Major McCown was prodded along at gunpoint, although more than 300 wounded Germans and 130 other American prisoners remained behind in the La Gleize cellars. Crossing the Amblève on a small bridge, the column snaked down a ridgeline near Trois-Ponts into the Salm river valley. At daybreak, when spotter planes appeared overhead, Peiper hid his men beneath tree boughs and parceled out provisions: four biscuits and two swigs of cognac each. During a brief firefight with an American patrol, McCown slipped away, whistling “Yankee Doodle” as he wandered through the woods until challenged by pickets in an 82nd Airborne outpost.
At a ford in the frigid Salm, the tallest SS troops formed a human chain to help the column cross the forty-foot water gap. Early Christmas morning, Peiper would reach the German line at Wanne, a few miles southeast of La Gleize. Of his original 5,800 men, 770 remained. Hurried along by more gusts of American artillery, their uniforms stiff with ice, they left a blood spoor across the snow. Peiper and some of his henchmen were later accused of murdering 350 unarmed Americans and 100 or more Belgian civilians in their weeklong spree. But for now justice would be deferred, and a day of reckoning delayed until after the war.
* * *
Across the Ardennes, heavy snow had been followed on Saturday, December 23, by killing cold in the continental weather phenomenon known as a Russian High. Alan Moorehead described a “radiant world where everything was reduced to primary whites and blues: a strident, sparkling white among the frosted trees, the deep blue shadows in the valley, and then the flawless ice blue of the sky.” Radiators and even gas tanks froze. Airborne troopers refused to allow grave diggers to collect frozen German corpses, which were stacked like sandbags around infantry redoubts. GIs donned every scrap of clothing they could scavenge, including women’s dresses worn as shawls. “Everyone seems about the same age,” wrote Martha Gellhorn, “as if weariness and strain and the unceasing cold leveled all life.”
Troops fashioned sleds from sheet metal, and olive-drab vehicles were daubed with camouflage paint improvised from lime wash and salt. Belgian lace served for helmet nets, and mattress covers, often used as shrouds for the dead, made fine snow suits. Inflated surgical gloves dipped in paint decorated hospital Christmas trees, but “in this cold the life of the wounded is likely to go out like a match,” wrote the paratrooper Louis Simpson. GIs suffering from head and chest wounds filled one ward, in a nurse’s description, “with breathing giving a rattle that sounds like an untuned radio going through the tent.”
Clumsy skirmishes and pitched battles flared along the front, without deference to the holiday season. Peiper’s repulse and Sixth Panzer Army’s shortcomings had extinguished hopes for a breakthrough on the German right; 237,000 American mines, 370 roadblocks, and 70 blown bridges further impeded the north shoulder. In the far south, faltering progress by Seventh Army had exposed Manteuffel’s left flank even as Fifth Panzer Army tried to lance the Bastogne abscess. So desperate were shortages of spare parts and gasoline that new panzers in the Rhine valley were being cannibalized to avoid burning fuel by sending them intact into battle.
But west of St.-Vith, in the German center, grenadiers vaulted the Salm and Ourthe Rivers, and by December 23 panzer spearheads approached Marche, more than twenty miles beyond Vielsalm and a short bound from Dinant, on the Meuse. Model had shoehorned a dozen divisions along a twenty-five-mile battlefront. Although plagued with fuel and ammunition shortages, they remained a potent killing force on the march.
New anxiety beset First Army headquarters, which had again fallen back, to Tongres, near Maastricht, only hours before German bombs demolished the Hôtel des Bains in Chaudfontaine. Ridgway evinced his usual grit, telling his division commanders by phone at six A.M. on December 24:
The situation is normal and entirely satisfactory. The enemy has thrown in all of his mobile reserves, and this is his last major offensive effort in the West in this war. This corps will halt that effort, then attack and smash him.
Others were far less sanguine, yet the Russian High brought clear skies for the first time since the German attack began, and Allied aircraft took wing in great flocks. In a campaign known as “processing the terrain,” twelve thousand offensive sorties were flown in the two days before Christmas, battering highways, airfields, and bridges, as well as rail centers in Koblenz, Trier, and Cologne. Whooping GIs craned their necks as wave upon wave of Marauders and Fortresses, Liberators and Lancasters appeared from the west in the heaviest attacks of the war. “The bombers have fine, feathery white streams of vapor streaked across the sky,” a 99th Division soldier wrote his wife, “and the fighters scrawl wavy designs as they try to murder each other.” Ice and deep snow entombed German convoys west of the Rhine; horse-drawn plows could hardly clear enough routes for three attacking armies. Model’s resupply and reinforcement echelons offered fat targets for Allied fighter-bombers, known as “Jabos” to enemy soldiers. “We prefer to walk instead of using a car on the main highway,” a German lieutenant near St.-Vith told his diary. “The American Jabos keep on attacking everything that moves on the roads.… [They] hang in the air like a swarm of wasps.”
* * *
Clear skies also permitted resupply of Bastogne, besieged but unbowed after the rejected surrender ultimatum. Shortly before noon on Saturday, the first C-47s dropped parachute bundles originally intended for the doomed 106th Division on the Schnee Eifel. By four P.M., more than 240 planes had delivered 5,000 artillery shells, almost as many mortar rounds, 2,300 grenades, a dozen boxes of morphine, 300 units of plasma, and 1,500 bandages. Jeeps tore around the drop zone on the western edge of Bastogne, where paratroopers scooped up the bundles and hauled ammunition directly to gun batteries and rifle pits. More sorties the next day would bring rations, a quarter-million machine-gun rounds, and almost one thousand radio batteries. General McAuliffe also had the invaluable services of Captain James E. Parker, a fighter pilot who had arrived several days earlier as an air support officer with enough radio crystals in his pocket to talk directly to the P-47 squadrons now bound for Bastogne. Swarming wasps by the hundreds attacked fast and low with napalm and high explosives, vectored by Parker to Manteuffel’s panzers, trucks, and assault guns. Tracks in the snow made them easy to find.
Bastogne was reprieved but hardly delivered. German attacks from the west and southwest grew so intense on Saturday night that despondent American officers shook hands goodbye. Despite aerial replenishment, the garrison was reduced to five hundred gallons of gasoline and a day’s rations; 101st Airborne gunners who had been rationed to ten rounds daily heeded McAuliffe’s advice to look for the whites of enemy eyes. With a defensive perimeter only sixteen miles in circumference, every corner of Bastogne came under fire. The town, one major wrote, “seemed to have been sandblasted with steel filings.”
More than three thousand civilians remained trapped with the Americans, and carbolic acid sprinkled in cellars did little to relieve the stench of excrement. Several hundred wounded GIs lay in sawdust on a church floor; others languished in a Belgian army garage ripe with the odor of gas gangrene. Dust grayed their hair, a witness observed, and “their faces were old with suffering and fatigue.” Two surgeons toiled by flashlight in a tool-room operatory, lopping off limbs. The moribund lay along a wall reserved for the hopeless; other buildings served as a morgue and a ward for trench-foot victims. The walking wounded filled a roofless structure formerly used as an indoor rifle range. Scavengers found coffee and Ovaltine in an VIII Corps warehouse, as well as a cache of sugar hidden behind a wall. This booty went to the wounded, along with cognac and crème de menthe served as analgesics. Two thousand burlap bags discovered in a storeroom were used by troopers in foxholes to wrap their boots.
Napalm fires ringed the town, and the chatter of machine guns carried on the wind as the short day faded. A chaplain in vestments held Christmas Eve services with a portable field organ and candles guttering on an improvised altar. “Do not plan, for God’s plan will prevail,” he advised. “Those who are attacking you are the enemies of Christ.” In a vaulted seminary chapel, where tattered canvas covered holes in the stained glass, soldiers sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” In the whitewashed Belgian barracks that served as the 101st headquarters, a GI clerk sat at a switchboard humming, off-key, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” A coded message from Patton that afternoon had promised, “Xmas eve present coming up. Hold on.” Yet no sign of a relief column from the south had been reported. McAuliffe hid his disappointment from the men, but told General Middleton in a phone call, “We have been let down.”
At 5:10 P.M., an intrepid pilot in an L-4 Grasshopper, guided by flashlights, landed on a snowy field with a crate of penicillin. That was the last good thing to happen in Bastogne on Christmas Eve. Barely two hours later, beneath a brilliant moon that silvered the streets, German bombers struck the town in the first of two raids. One bomb landed on an aid station near the Neufchâteau road, caving in the roof, burying twenty soldiers, and killing a civilian nurse. Flames crackled around the Hôtel de Ville. Several patients burned to death on their litters, and the smell of charred flesh added to the other stinks that wafted through Bastogne on this holiest of holy nights.
* * *
Patton attended a candlelight communion service on Christmas Eve in the crowded, frigid Episcopal church in Luxembourg City, ensconced with Bradley in a pew once reserved for the German kaiser. A Red Cross volunteer described Patton’s “brick-red face, with its round, receding forehead sparsely framed by silvery-white hair.… I saw a tired, aging man, a sorrowful, solitary man, a lonely man, with veiled eyes behind which there was going on a torment of brooding and introspection.” She may have misread her man: even if the Ardennes had worn him down, battle lightened his heart as nothing in this world.
Scanning the starry sky outside, Patton muttered, “Noel, noel, what a night to give the Nazis hell.” Careering about in an open jeep, one pistol holstered outside his parka and another tucked into his waistband, blue eyes watering from the cold, he barked at MPs to keep the convoys moving, and he personally challenged sentries to ensure that they knew the day’s password. This was a moment to “root-hog or die,” he told his staff. “If those Hun bastards want war in the raw, then that’s the way we’ll give it to them.” He had asked God for fair weather, just as Achilles petitioned Zeus to lift the fog before the walls of Troy. The Almighty had heeded his supplication, he informed his diary—“a clear cold Christmas, lovely weather for killing Germans.”
Patton had made good on his brash promise at Verdun to attack north with three divisions by December 22. The feat was prodigious, requiring most of Third Army to swing sharply left while keeping the Saar front secure. The maneuver also required distributing fifty-seven tons of new maps, uprooting and reinstalling an extensive signal-wire network, and stockpiling fuel and ammunition, including shells for twelve hundred guns in the army’s 108 artillery battalions. No SS prisoners were to be taken alive, Patton told his staff. At his urging, an extra skin of armor plate was welded to the front of some Sherman hulls, for a total thickness of four inches, and these “Jumbo” tanks were to lead the columns churning north. “Drive like hell,” Patton urged. “We have an opportunity of winning the war.”
Both commander and commanded had also made missteps. Poor MP radio security allowed German eavesdroppers to track Third Army troop movements by route, unit, and destination; a surprise dagger thrust would soon become a plodding frontal assault on a thirty-mile front. Tank crews that failed to sweep the snow off their fluorescent recognition panels were strafed by P-47s. The hard freeze permitted cross-country mobility for the first time since October, but ice caused many a skidding wreck. When the 4th Armored Division was seven miles south of Bastogne, Patton ordered a perilous night attack that gained only four hundred yards and left one tank battalion with just fourteen Shermans. A German ambush in Chaumont—an “ugly, manure-strewn hell of a village”—smacked a combat command back more than a mile at a cost of eleven more Shermans and thirty-six hours. “The troops built little fires of anything that would burn,” an armored officer wrote. “The dead lay frozen and stiff and when the men came to load them in trucks, they picked them up and put them in like big logs of wood.”
“This was probably my fault, because I had been insisting on day and night attacks,” Patton confessed to his diary. Even now, after almost four decades as a soldier, he reflected on how “it takes a long time to learn war … to really learn how to fight.” He had predicted that Third Army would reach Bastogne on December 24, but with 4th Armored making little progress—German paratroopers kept infiltrating back into cleared villages—Patton twice phoned an irate Eisenhower to apologize for delays. “This snow is God-awful,” he said. “I’m sorry.” To a subordinate Patton added, “I am unhappy about it.”
In search of a seam through enemy defenses, Combat Command R early Christmas morning looped thirty miles from 4th Armored’s right flank to the division’s far left, near Neufchâteau. Reduced to twenty Shermans, the 37th Tank Battalion led the attack north under Lieutenant Colonel Creighton W. Abrams, Jr., the thirty-year-old son of a New England railroad mechanic and among sixty men in the West Point class of 1936 who would eventually earn generals’ stars. When a blown bridge halted the battalion, Abrams, chewing a cigar and eating aspirin by the handful, ordered a bulldozer to demolish a stone wall and push the debris into the creek as a causeway.
On Monday afternoon, December 26, the battalion crested a ridge three miles southwest of the Bastogne perimeter. Thirteen artillery batteries fired more than five hundred rounds into the farm village of Assenois. With friendly shells falling close enough to wound several GIs, Shermans and half-tracks charged through streets darkened by smoke and dust, as Volksgrenadiers poured from the cellars in what the official history would call a “shooting, clubbing, stabbing melee.” Before surrendering with five hundred other defenders, a German officer reported by telephone, “They are through Assenois and going to Bastogne.”
Five Shermans and a half-track raced north under Lieutenant Charles Boggess. Gunfire ripped through the fir trees, shooting down surprised Germans standing in a mess line, and three tank shells killed a dozen more in a concrete blockhouse. Boggess spotted colored parachutes scattered in a field and foxholes flanking the road ahead. “Come here!” he yelled, standing in his turret. “This is the 4th Armored.” Several helmeted figures in olive drab emerged from their holes, and at 4:50 P.M. the siege of Bastogne was over. Twenty minutes later, McAuliffe greeted Abrams with a polite “It’s good to see you, Colonel.”
“Kilroy Was Stuck Here,” someone had chalked on the charred wall of a ruined barn. Now that ubiquitous, sardonic liberator had himself been liberated. Seventy ambulances and supply trucks soon rolled into the smoldering town, and seven hundred enemy prisoners marched out; a 101st Airborne sergeant scrutinized their footwear, smashing his rifle butt onto the toes of any German wearing GI boots. The eight-day defense of a drab market town in Belgium had cost more than two thousand American casualties. Losses in the 4th Armored added another thousand to the tally, and the division’s tank strength hardly equaled that of a battalion. But Rundstedt’s chief of staff would later list the “failure to conquer Bastogne” first among seven factors that caused HERBSTNEBELto fail.
Patton had his own assessment. Never averse to historical grandiosity, he told reporters a few days later that the battle at Bastogne would be considered “just as important as the battle of Gettysburg was to the Civil War.”