The Conference

WE’VE CRAWLED THROUGH the snow-covered pine needles with GIs and grenadiers, experiencing their war through the first days, but how did the Allied high command react?

Saturday, 16 December, had begun for Eisenhower with receipt of a letter from Montgomery, formally requesting authority to travel home for Christmas, but also demanding settlement of a bet the two had made on 11 October 1943 that the war would not be over by Christmas 1944. Eisenhower had thought it would. ‘For payment, I think at Christmas’, Monty had written, in his own handwriting. Ike said he still had nine days. The former was playing a round of golf at Eindhoven, in Holland, when a messenger arrived with a note about ‘a hell of a row’ happening in the Ardennes. His own front, he knew, had not been attacked, so he alerted several of his personal liaison officers and the Phantom Regiment with David Niven to head for First Army’s sector via Hodges’ headquarters in Spa, and relay the true situation back to him. Meanwhile he abandoned the game and returned to his Twenty-First Army Group HQ (code-named ‘Lion’) in Zonhoven, in Belgium, where he had quit his famous caravans and wintered indoors for nearly three months, between 9 November 1944 and 7 February 1945.1

At the Hôtel Trianon Palace, in Versailles, Eisenhower was holding his usual mid-morning conference with Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder (his British deputy), and Generals Walter Bedell Smith (SHAEF chief of staff), Harold R. Bull (his chief G-3) and Kenneth Strong (the British chief G-2), when Thomas J. Betts (the American deputy G-2) knocked and whispered the first, tentative stirrings of news from the Ardennes attack to Strong, who announced it to the wider audience. At this early stage, it was disregarded as a spoiling attack and the day proceeded smoothly.2

When news of a captured copy of Rundstedt’s Order of the Day was transmitted to SHAEF via First Army at about 11.00 a.m., the mood began to alter, not enough, though, to put a dampener on the wedding of Ike’s orderly, Sergeant Mickey McKeogh, to Pearlie Hargrave, a popular WAC at SHAEF, in the Palace’s rococo royal chapel. That morning Ike had also received word of his promotion to the five-star rank of General of the Army, which had been passed by Act of Congress two days earlier. Ike’s advancement removed the embarrassment of having a British five-star field marshal (Montgomery) serving under him. His new appointment coincided with the similar elevations of George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur and Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold to the old civil war title that had expired with the death of General of the Army Phil Sheridan in 1888. Marshall’s surname was apparently one reason why the British equivalent rank was not considered: Field Marshal Marshall would be too … undignified. As Captain Harry Butcher, Ike’s personal aide, observed, Eisenhower had been a major for sixteen years, but in three years, three months and sixteen days he had risen six grades from lieutenant-colonel to five-star general.3


The ring of five stars on Eisenhower’s shoulder announce that he has just been promoted to General of the Army – a rank equal to that of Montgomery’s Field Marshalcy. Ike received the rank on the same day the Bulge started, but his position here – seated between his two army group commanders, Bernard Montgomery and Omar Bradley – reflected the fact that his biggest challenge was keeping the peace between these two feisty subordinates. (Author’s collection)

In the afternoon, the Polish General Kopansky arrived to award his country’s Virtuti Militari medals to Eisenhower and Bedell Smith, and toasted the pair with Piper-Hiedsieck champagne. As dusk settled over Europe, Ike’s old friend General Omar Bradley – Brad (they had known each other since West Point) – arrived in time to join him for a glass of champagne after the Polish medal ceremony. Ostensibly the Twelfth Army Group commander had come up to discuss the shortage of infantry replacements in Europe, but it was not often the Supreme Commander could lower his guard with an old confidant. The weather had prevented flying – just as Hitler’s meteorologists predicted – so Bradley had spent much of 16 December driving from Luxembourg, over 260 miles of icy roads to Paris, hence his late arrival. Regardless, Eisenhower planned for them to retire later to his villa at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and relax with a bottle of his favourite Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch whisky and several rubbers of bridge.

The villa had been ‘inherited’ from Field Marshals Rundstedt and Kluge, the two successive commanders of OB West. While the actual OB West headquarters had been a few hundred yards away in the Pavillon Henri IV, Rundstedt’s own quarters, which Ike used, was the Villa David.4The last German staff had decamped hurriedly on 24 August 1944, though when I visited it to find where Rundstedt and Eisenhower had once lived, I found the Wehrmacht’s reinforced concrete bunkers still in place, discreetly hidden among the rhododendrons. This was the ultimate symbol of triumph: in occupying his opponent’s house, Ike was merely following in the footsteps of what that other great warrior, the Duke of Wellington, had done after Waterloo, when the latter acquired Napoleon’s residence in Paris.5

Major-General Strong interrupted the bridge-playing with a serious update on the military situation. ‘There had been,’ he announced with that gentle apologetic air all British exude when announcing bad news, ‘five major German penetrations into Middleton’s VIII Corps front during the day. Size and extent still as yet unknown, but they had started early in the morning.’6 The news caused concern, but not enough to end the evening, which finished when the Black Label was consumed.7

At this moment Bradley no doubt recalled his defence to General Strong of his own G-2’s relaxed intelligence assessment. This was the meeting at his Twelfth Army Group headquarters in Luxembourg, only two days earlier, when Bradley had exclaimed in exasperation, ‘Let them come’. Now, it appeared, the Germans had come knocking on his door. Bradley, knowing there were no strategic objectives in the Ardennes or anywhere east of the Meuse, had been, as we’ve seen, inclined to dismiss the report as a series of spoiling attacks, designed to disrupt the obvious forthcoming offensives by his First and Third Armies. Eisenhower ruminated, and perhaps for the very reason he was able to distance himself, immediately disagreed, announcing, ‘That’s no spoiling attack’.

In retrospect, this was perhaps the most defining moment of his Supreme Command. Eisenhower’s personal vulnerability was that he had never commanded troops in battle. He was a lucky desk warrior and he knew it. This was the moment of his own testing. Unlike Major-General Alan W. Jones at the 106th Division, faced with similar uncertainties at the same time, Eisenhower was confident of himself and his judgement. Hitler had assumed that Allied bureaucracy would require Ike to check with Roosevelt and Churchill, Marshall and Brooke (behaviour he would expect of his commanders before they made any such dispositions), but the thought never entered Eisenhower’s head. That’s how command worked in a democracy: authority was entrusted and delegated to the field commander.

At the very moment when immediate decisions were crucial, Ike rose to the occasion and overruled his friend. What was happening in the Ardennes was something more than a distraction. His conclusion, however, would begin to sow the seeds of dissent between the two old friends, and their friendship would never be the same again, or as strong, as it had been at the start of this night.

Eisenhower acted without hesitation even when the situation was shrouded, literally as well as metaphorically, in the fog of war. Rundstedt’s intentions – everyone from SHAEF downwards assumed it was the elderly Oberbefehlshaber West who was running this operation – were still unclear in those initial hours. Nevertheless, from Strong’s first briefing Eisenhower was convinced the German attack was a strategic attempt to split the Allied front, and started to react accordingly. He may have reasoned that there was no other point in attacking a region that contained nothing worth seizing. Looking at the map, the Germans weren’t even after Aachen. Eisenhower also had history on his side, for he knew this was exactly what the Imperial German Army had done in March 1918, under similar conditions of surprise. They had mounted a series of attacks along the Western Front, aimed at pushing the British and French back in different directions, splitting the Great War allies in two. Ike hadn’t, of course, served in the First World War, but the work he did in drafting A Guide to the American Battlefields in Europe was unexpectedly useful to him now. In some ways he knew more about that war than those who had served in it, and the parallels with 1918 must have struck him.

In the words of one historian, ‘This was the first occasion since he had assumed command of Allied ground forces that Eisenhower was able to influence the outcome of a battle … Now, when it mattered most, he was at the centre of a seminal battle whose outcome would determine the final course of the war.’8 However, at this time, partly because of his controversial broad-front strategy, which was, as we’ve seen, why Middleton’s VIII Corps was so stretched, SHAEF had few theatre reserves. In fact the only combat-ready formations to hand were two tired American airborne divisions, the 82nd and 101st, still recovering and re-equipping in the Reims area after Operation Market Garden in September. Neither was ideal, for airborne divisions by their very nature were lightly armed (they possessed very few vehicles and relatively little artillery, for example) and not equipped for sustained ground combat.

SHAEF had another bugbear that December evening, and Bradley’s long journey had emphasised it. The Allied intelligence picture of the German attack was extremely opaque and communicating any worthwhile conclusions or orders between the Allied headquarters – Ike in Paris, Bradley in Luxembourg (code-named ‘Eagle’), or Hodges in Spa (with the name of ‘Master’) was challenging. The Twelfth US Army Group commander and First Army headquarters appeared to be on opposite sides of the battlefield, which, if events snowballed out of control, might sever communications between the two.

Patton’s view of a command post was that ‘you must always have a road net from which you can move forward to any portion of your line. A CP situated at a spot where it is necessary to move to the rear is disadvantageous. In this connection it is always best, where practicable, to drive to the front, so that soldiers can see you going in that direction, and to save time, fly back by [Piper] Cub so that you are never seen going to the rear.’ 9 The Ardennes would provoke the greatest challenge to the Allied system of command and control throughout the war. In order to make reasoned decisions at the operational level of war, a commander needed to be reasonably close, with a sense of the terrain, a measure of his opponents – who in this case appeared infused with fresh spirit, numbers and equipment – and knowledge that his own forces and their commanders were able to undertake his wishes. Ike on 16 December possessed none of these.

Nor did he know very much about the situation. Perhaps Eisenhower inwardly regretted that Montgomery, that constant thorn in his side, was nevertheless the originator of some excellent military practices. One of these was the team of trusted liaison officers whom Monty despatched everywhere as his personal representatives, with secure links back to his HQ, to bridge exactly the kind of information void the Supreme Commander was now facing. Another Monty innovation was his specialist GHQ Signals Regiment (called ‘Phantom’), staffed by bright, confident young officers like David Niven, among others, which also enabled direct communication with every headquarters. The first SHAEF had known of the German incursions was General Strong’s mid-morning briefing. Even these sparse facts were at best fragmentary. On 16 December, Eisenhower was battling against an information blackout from his own side, never mind the Germans.

To add to this, Bradley and his subordinate, Hodges, as far as Eisenhower could see, were in denial. Bradley remained non-committal that first evening about the nature of the attack, despite the fact that by early afternoon the stand-in for First Army’s G-2 (Colonel ‘Monk’ Dickson at this stage was actually nearer Eisenhower in Paris than Spa) had already received a captured copy of Rundstedt’s Order of the Day. Jones’s 106th Division had discovered the details of Operation Greif. Later that evening, Berlin Radio broadcast its news item about ‘a present of Antwerp for the Führer’, yet General Sibert, the G-2 chief in Bradley’s HQ, seemed unable to accept he was witnessing a major offensive. Initially, Hodges refused even to contemplate calling off his Roer dams offensive. ‘Monk’ Dickson, meanwhile, had received word that very night from Sibert that something ‘was up’ and set off at dawn on the 17th to see him in Luxembourg.10

The three key players on Eisenhower’s staff who would have a pivotal role in planning SHAEF’s response to the Ardennes were its ubiquitous chief of staff, Walter Bedell Smith (known as ‘Beetle’ because of his nervous energy), and the British officers Kenneth Strong and Major-General J.F.M. ‘Jock’ Whiteley, its Deputy G-3. The latter had worked for Eisenhower since late 1942 at Allied Forces HQ in the Mediterranean and was one of the few British officers Ike positively insisted on taking with him to SHAEF in 1943. Although he was officially Deputy G-3, Whiteley’s ability, trustworthiness and general likeability was such that ‘the Beetle’ also employed him as an unofficial deputy chief of staff. Whiteley was particularly valuable because of his close personal bond with Monty’s chief of staff, the affable Major-General Francis ‘Freddie’ de Guingand, although the relationship between the two headquarters was tempestuous. Noel Annan, a British intelligence officer at SHAEF, noted how ‘it became the mark of a good British SHAEF officer to express dismay at the behaviour of Montgomery. Had he not challenged Eisenhower’s broad-front across France? Had he not then intrigued to be reinstated as Commander in Chief of land forces and usurp Eisenhower’s position? Did he not treat Eisenhower with contempt, refusing to visit him at his headquarters?’11 To prevail against this new threat, the Allies would need to put aside such personal differences – if they could.

That first evening, with maps spread out on the floor, Bedell Smith, Strong and Jock Whiteley reasoned the road network of the Ardennes led the eyes of even a casual observer straight to the two transportation hubs of St Vith and Bastogne. Control of both these towns would regulate the speed and extent of any German advance. Apparently using an ancient German sword (of all portentous items), tracing routes and pointing to towns, they went on to deduce correctly that the German attack was aimed at splitting the British and US army groups. It was equally clear to them that, to manage the German penetration, its flanks needed to be contained, preferably at the northern and southern shoulders; the corridor in between could then be controlled and eventually choked, like slowly sealing a breach in a dam. After Bedell Smith was assured that reinforcements could reach Bastogne in time by road, they recommended this course of action to Ike.

Thus, Eisenhower alerted his only strategic reserve available – the 17th, 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions – for emergency deployment to the Ardennes. That was his function as the strategic commander. The 82nd and 101st were already in France and could move immediately; the 17th would have to fly from England when weather permitted. There are, however, certain rules in the management of a military command chain that make for smooth running; one of these is that the man at the top should never bypass several levels of command to issue direct orders to those at the bottom – principles that Montgomery and Patton often forgot, or ignored. In terms of operations, Eisenhower had no wish to bypass or overrule his friend Bradley in the latter’s command of Twelfth US Army Group. Ike would advise, but not order.

While Ike had alerted his strategic reserves, with the 82nd Airborne eventually destined for Werbomont, on the northern flank, and the 101st for Bastogne, it was up to Bradley to deploy his operational reserves. Eisenhower felt he needed a nudge: ‘I think you’d better send Middleton some help,’ he advised. Fortunately, there were two newly arrived US armoured divisions, William H. Morris’s Tenth, nicknamed ‘the Tigers’, with Patton’s Third Army, and Robert W. Hasbrouck’s 7th Armored in Simpson’s Ninth Army sector, north of the Ardennes. Bradley was openly reluctant to order the effervescent Patton to surrender his newest armoured division which would, he knew, trigger howls of profane outrage and protest. ‘Tell him that Ike is running this damn war,’ Eisenhower told his friend.

Thus Patton was summoned to a secure telephone link in his ‘Lucky Forward’ headquarters at Nancy and ordered by Bradley’s chief of staff, Major-General Leven C. Allen, to commit the 10th Armored straightaway, sending one of its Combat Commands immediately to join the 101st Airborne, also just directed to Bastogne. There was, as predicted, a heated debate. ‘As the loss of this division would seriously affect the chances of my breaking through at Saarlautern, I protested strongly,’ wrote Patton later, ‘saying that we had paid a high price for that sector so far, and that to move the Tenth Armored to the north would be playing into the hands of the Germans.’

Bradley then had to make a personal telephone call after Allen to nudge Patton into compliance. ‘General Bradley admitted my logic, but said that the situation was such that it could not be discussed over the telephone.’ 12 The armoured division was to report to Troy Middleton at his VIII Corps headquarters in Bastogne, which both readily identified as a key intermediate objective for any force in transit through the Ardennes. Although from his command post at the Caserne Molifor Patton may have protested vigorously, he was also aware of the intelligence concerns of his own G-2, Colonel Oscar Koch, a man he trusted, and who had been part of his intimate command group since Tunisia, over eighteen months earlier. Koch had predicted a German attack, and there it was. Eventually, Patton fell into line because he saw the opportunities for an offensive, if different from the one he had planned.

The US Ninth Army commander, William Hood Simpson, was (in Bradley’s words) ‘big, bald and enthusiastic’. From his headquarters in Maastricht, code-named ‘Conquer’, he was altogether more gracious than Patton in surrendering his 7th Armored Division on 16 December and sending it to St Vith. This was the ‘Workshop’ formation that Middleton had told the beleaguered General Jones, of the Golden Lions, was on its way to help him. The professionalism of Simpson’s Ninth Army was demonstrated by the speed with which the 7th Armored Division reacted to the order to move to St Vith. They were first warned on 16 December at 5.45 p.m. to move south as soon as possible, with an advance party leaving 105 minutes later: an impressive achievement even by the standards of today. Simpson was a West Point classmate of Patton’s, and regarded as extremely capable; his headquarters ‘was in some respects superior to any in my command’ thought Bradley, while possessing none of the defects of First Army’s.13Eisenhower observed of his dependable and professional Ninth Army commander, ‘If Simpson ever made a mistake as an Army commander, it never came to my attention. Alert, intelligent, and professionally capable, he was the type of leader that American soldiers deserve.’14


‘Big, bald and enthusiastic’, General William H. Simpson confers with Churchill, Montgomery and Brooke, while surrounded by Allied war correspondents amidst the ‘dragon’s teeth’ of the Siegfried Line. The likeable US Ninth Army commander sent his 7th Armored Division with alacrity to help Middleton’s VIII Corps in the opening days, and worked well with Montgomery when placed under his command. (US National Archives)

Simpson had served in France in 1918, latterly as a divisional chief of staff, and progressed through Leavenworth and War College to reach three-star rank by 1943. Simpson’s own chief of staff was General James E. Moore and the two forged an unusually close relationship, where, in the words of Simpson’s biographer, ‘they understood, trusted and admired each other … Often while Simpson was in the field, Moore would issue orders in the Commander’s name, then tell Simpson later. So closely did the two work together that in many instances it is impossible to sort out actions taken or ideas conceived.’15 This in so many ways reflected the synergy needed for a successful campaign headquarters.

After D-Day, when Simpson sent his staff officers to study how First and Third Armies worked, the differences between the two were analysed thus: ‘First Army, probably reflecting its Chief of Staff Kean’s suspicion and resentment of outsiders, would allow only Simpson and his chief of staff to visit his headquarters and staff sections. On the other hand, Simpson’s West Point classmate, Patton, allowed anyone from Simpson’s staff to visit his army – all were welcome at Third Army headquarters.’16 The amenable Simpson and his Ninth Army had also already served under Montgomery for a while, a development which Bradley felt would not have worked so well with Hodges, and certainly not Patton. As the winter set in, there are records that Simpson, with more foresight than his fellow army commanders, ‘directed the initiation of a massive supply effort designed to issue winter clothing’ to his troops. Eisenhower found an echo in Simpson, who was one of the most diplomatic of American commanders, having charmed Montgomery and hosted the important 7 December conference at his Maastricht headquarters.

Late on 16 December, as soon as Simpson’s headquarters received the order to despatch the 7th Armored, its Combat Command ‘B’ under Brigadier-General Bruce C. Clarke went on ahead to liaise with Middleton in Bastogne, before moving on to St Vith, where Clarke arrived towards midday on 17 December. The rest of Clarke’s formation battled against the flow of retreating traffic to arrive soon afterwards and deployed from their line of march straight into combat. Clarke’s early arrival ensured that St Vith would be held until 23 December, and bought a valuable week for the Americans to stymie the Germans and reorganise themselves. In due course, Clarke would take over command of St Vith from the traumatised General Jones of the Golden Lions. While it may have been Clarke’s personal drive that brought him to St Vith in time, it was Simpson’s tutelage that prepared him for his starring role in the drama unfolding. From the beginning, it was Simpson, far more certainly than Bradley or Hodges, and less grudgingly than Patton, who identified the German attacks as a major offensive and offered what help he could, sending not only 7th Armored, but the 30th Infantry and 2nd Armored Divisions as well. Within ten days, Simpson’s Ninth Army had committed seven of its divisions to battle in the Ardennes.

The way these decisions came about challenges the view that the Ardennes was all ‘prearranged’, from the American perspective; that Middleton’s front was deliberately weak in order to lure the Germans out from the safety of their Westwall and attack with their remaining panzers; that two US armoured divisions had been stationed north and south for just such an eventuality; and that Eisenhower and Bradley were prepared to sacrifice the lives of tens of thousands of GIs to bring about an early end to the war. In The Last Assault, Charles Whiting had looked at the end result, then worked back to spin his speculative conspiracy. The circumstances of the two armoured divisions’ arrivals in theatre, the timing of the German attack and Patton’s protests serve to undermine his argument.

With the decisions to alert the airborne forces and move their armour finalised for the moment, there was little else the pair could do, so Eisenhower and Bradley returned to their five rubbers of bridge, accompanied by the Scotch whisky to celebrate Ike’s promotion, an honour Bradley would one day receive himself.17

On the morning of 17 December, Eisenhower, in a demonstration of his true self-confidence, sent a letter to Marshall, his boss, shouldering the blame for the surprise, but concluding, ‘If things go well, we should not only stop the thrust, but be able to profit from it’.18 One might have thought Bradley sufficiently concerned to have raced back to his own headquarters in Luxembourg first thing on 17 December, as ‘Monk’ Dickson had done, but he lingered at the Trianon Palace, perhaps to get more of the picture. It was remarkably fortunate that Bradley was in Paris with Eisenhower when the news first broke. Had the two commanders been in their own separate headquarters, Ike may well have deferred to Bradley’s more sanguine views of the situation – being much closer to the Ardennes – and Hitler might have gained at least another day. Bradley, too, demonstrated that he needed a nudge from Ike to deploy the two armoured divisions, as well as some moral back-up from his boss to confront an angry George Patton, sore at having to surrender his 10th Armored Division.

Meanwhile, Eisenhower and his SHAEF staff, now energised by having a ‘real’ campaign to fight, rather than pursuing endless turf wars over logistics and civil affairs, developed a response to the Ardennes attack. In some ways, SHAEF could be its own worst enemy. Noel Annan, working on its intelligence staff, described the set-up:

Supreme headquarters was gigantic. The forward echelon [at Versailles] to which I belonged was equivalent in numbers to a division; how large the rear echelon was I never discovered. Strong’s [intelligence] staff alone numbered over a thousand men and women. It was not as if the vast staff helped Eisenhower to make strategic decisions: they had already been taken at meetings between Eisenhower, his army group commanders and General Patton … as a result the plans SHAEF produced were rarely clear or convincing, since they were a series of compromises; and the staff spent more of their time producing papers to justify these decisions to the Combined Chiefs of Staff than in producing the data on which plans could be made … intelligence at SHAEF had been governed by what one might call the ‘Happy Hypothesis’, that the German Army had now been so shattered in Normandy and battered in Russia that it was only a matter of two or three months before the war would end.19

Big modern military operations, such as those seen in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan (in all of which I worked), are baffling assemblies of very senior staff officers of many nations writing reports and advancing national agendas; they can best be summed up by the term ‘warehouse generalship’, where colonels are more in abundance than corporals. Noel Annan’s diaries prove that today’s coalition headquarters are merely slimmed-down versions of SHAEF in 1944–5. The tens of thousands of personnel comprising SHAEF rear echelon had remained in London. SHAEF Forward (code-named ‘Shellburst’) moved twice in September 1944, first to Granville on the Cherbourg peninsula, thence to Paris. ‘No one can compute the cost of that move in lost truck tonnage to the front,’ Bradley lamented privately, at the height of the logistics squeeze.20

This shatterproof, semi-transparent balloon, of the sort in which modern politicians tend to live, is what Eisenhower had overcome with his clear thinking, unattended by distracting minions, on that December night with Bradley when the crisis was first apparent. Everyone realised that their most powerful weapon – the Allied air forces – would remain grounded for the foreseeable future as the bad weather made any aerial response impossible; they were going to have to learn how to craft a land campaign for the first time without the assumption of lavish aerial support. Initially their stratagem would be to contain the German counter-offensive east of the River Meuse, allowing the First and Third Armies breathing space to devise a coordinated plan to destroy it.

Having ordered the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to the Ardennes by truck in great haste, Ike also called over the 17th Airborne Division from England, and summoned Major-General Matthew B. Ridgway’s XVIII Airborne Corps headquarters to command the three divisions. Days earlier, Ridgway had accompanied senior commanders of the 101st (the ‘Screaming Eagles’, after their shoulder insignia) back to England to lecture on their experiences during Market Garden. He had already sent its commander, Major-General Maxwell D. Taylor, back to the US on 5 December for staff conferences in Washington, DC. Thus the commanding generals of both the XVIII Airborne Corps and 101st were out of country when the storm broke in the Ardennes. Major-General James M. Gavin and Brigadier-General Anthony C. McAuliffe, the latter normally in charge of 101st’s artillery, were in temporary command of the corps and division, respectively. With so many of the senior leaders out of theatre, their airborne troopers reasoned, they were unlikely to be deployed in combat operations in the near future.

A West Pointer, class of 1917, Ridgway had taken over the 82nd Infantry Division from Omar Bradley in 1942 and converted it into an airborne force. In mid-training the 82nd lost a cadre, taken away to form the nascent 101st Airborne, and thereafter a fierce rivalry developed between the two divisions. At that time, Ridgway commanded the former, with Max Taylor leading the division’s artillery and Gavin a regiment of its parachute infantry, and in due course they became arch-competitors. After Major-General Bill Lee, the 101st’s commander, was incapacitated by a heart attack in 1943, Taylor left to lead it, and the rising star, Gavin, moved up to become Ridgway’s number two and chief planner for airborne aspects of Normandy. Afterwards, when Ridgway rose to command the XVII Airborne Corps, Gavin replaced him as commander of the 82nd (known as the ‘All American’, as the original formation contained men from every state), mirroring Taylor’s position at the 101st. Ridgway earned his spurs commanding a corps in Market Garden, and – reasoned Ike – a spare, battle-tested, higher-formation headquarters led by a reliable commander was always a handy asset to have in a fluid campaign.

Missouri-born Maxwell Taylor had graduated from West Point in 1922, and shot to notice in September 1943 when he operated, in uniform, behind enemy lines in Italy to coordinate the deployment of 82nd Airborne Division into Rome airport in conjunction with the Salerno landings. On realising the proximity of German forces he cancelled the mission on his own initiative, though the division was already airborne and en route. When Lee suffered his heart attack in late 1943, his two possible successors were Taylor or Gavin. On the grounds of his cool performance in Rome, as well as age and seniority (Taylor was forty-three, Gavin thirty-seven), Taylor took over the 101st which had been raised at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, in August 1942, jumping with them into Normandy and Arnhem.

Taylor was, as noted above, in Washington, DC, when the Bulge erupted, and in great haste took a series of cargo planes from Washington to Paris, then flew to Luxembourg. War correspondent Walter Cronkite remembered sharing the farmhouse CP of Lieutenant-Colonel Creighton W. Abrams’ 37th Tank Battalion on 27 December when in strode Taylor, ‘still sporting the dress uniform he was wearing in Washington DC when word reached him that his men had been surrounded at Bastogne’.21 He and Taylor were old friends, as the twenty-eight-year-old Cronkite, then star reporter for United Press, had landed in one of 101st’s gliders during Market Garden. As he climbed into his jeep to run the gauntlet of German fire down the only road into the besieged town, Taylor had offered a lift to Cronkite, who refused, feeling sure the 101st’s boss was on ‘a certain suicide mission’. Taylor never forgave himself for missing the Ardennes fighting; Cronkite likewise for not taking up the general’s offer of a brush with death – ‘the story would have been great – first correspondent into Bastogne,’ he mourned later.22

In December 1944, Jim Gavin was the US Army’s most experienced airborne soldier and its youngest divisional commander. Illegitimate and adopted, he had joined the army underage, was largely self-educated, and fought hard to win a place at West Point, graduating in 1929. He worked his way up through sheer ability to command a regiment of the 82nd in Sicily, where he won a Distinguished Service Cross and promotion to brigadier-general. After Normandy he was the natural successor to command the 82nd when Ridgway was promoted to command the Airborne Corps. The rivalry between Taylor of the 101st and Gavin grew more intense as each rose to higher responsibilities, both vying to be ‘Mister Airborne’ in the public mind, with the youthful Gavin normally capturing – and conquering – an admiring female fan club.

After the liberation of Paris, Gavin had joined a distinguished table at the Ritz for lunch, where the other guests were Ernest Hemingway, Collier’s war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (then Hemingway’s wife), Hemingway’s mistress Mary Welsh and Marlene Dietrich. Gavin’s drive and youth were irresistible to Gellhorn, and the two swiftly embarked on an affair. Gellhorn would be reporting in Italy when the Bulge broke, but managed to reach Belgium to cover the closing stages in January. In the meantime, Gavin had become ensnared by the charms of the other unattached lunchtime guest, Marlene Dietrich, who was ‘crazy about him’ during her pre-Ardennes tour of France and Belgium. In between, he indulged with his pretty English WAC driver.23

Anthony C. McAuliffe, who would become the future ‘star’ of the Bulge, though he lacked some of Gavin’s charm, had become assistant division commander of the 101st following the death of his predecessor on D-Day. He had just missed the First World War, graduating from West Point days after the Armistice in November 1918, then spending some of the inter-war period in the Supply Division of the US War Department overseeing the development of the 4 x 4 Willys Jeep and bazooka. He had already performed well during the thirty-three days of his division’s deployment in Normandy, and another seventy-two days in Holland. Bastogne would later win him a division of his own.24

Eisenhower’s instructions to move the two France-based airborne divisions translated into action immediately, recalled Eduardo A. Peniche, an anti-tank gunner with Company ‘D’ of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. In the early hours of 17 December, he remembered ‘the US Army MPs out in force clearing bars, bistros and bordellos in the city of Reims in northern France … My buddies and I were among the first to heed the MP’s orders. There was, of course, a lot of bitching and complaining, and some of the troopers, drunk or not, were using profanity to express their dissatisfaction. And why not? We had just come to France for R & R barely two weeks before, after seventy-two days of continuous fighting in Holland, where we had participated in Operation Market-Garden.’ 25 Peniche’s division, the 101st, packed their gear through the 17th, and he ‘went to the motor pool area to check our 1/4 ton prime-mover (jeep) and to the gun shed to clean and bore-sight our anti-tank gun, a 57 mm … This move to the front lines was going to be different from Normandy and Holland; in both of those operations we had landed behind enemy lines by parachute and glider, this forthcoming movement to Belgium was going to be by truck.’ 26


McAuliffe’s role in the Ardennes reflected the Allies’ unpreparedness beforehand. With Matthew Ridgway, the XVIII Airborne Corps commander, away in England and the 101st’s general, Max Taylor, in the United States, the youthful James M. Gavin was in temporary charge of the corps and Anthony C. McAuliffe (1898–1975), usually coordinating the 101st’s artillery, was acting commander of the ‘Screaming Eagles’ Division. Taylor would not manage to return until 27 December, by which time McAuliffe had led his division to Bastogne, held the town, and rejected a German surrender summons with his famous reply. ‘Nuts’ McAuliffe was rewarded with his own division on 15 January 1945. (NARA)

Packed and ready, at 5.00 p.m. on Monday, 18 December, Peniche’s unit left by truck for Bastogne, 120 miles distant. ‘We travelled all night with black-out lights. Sergeant Joe O’Toole and two others were travelling by jeep pulling the AT gun. The long convoy was moving rapidly, under the circumstances, yet we managed to get two or three pee calls; the night was pretty chilly and one could feel the cold air in those open trucks. Being packed like sardines helped a bit, but it was standing room only. As we approached the Bastogne area we were able to hear in the distance the sound of artillery, ours and theirs.’ By early Tuesday morning, 19 December, they had arrived outside the village of Longchamps, three miles north of Bastogne.27 Driver Bill Albright of the 146th QM Truck Company drove some of the Screaming Eagles from Soissons: ‘I don’t think those airborne boys really enjoyed their trip because they were standing up the whole time.’28

To move the airborne divisions into place and transport others, SHAEF was able to lean on the organisational framework created for the Red Ball Express, wound down only weeks earlier. Since the embarrassment of empty quartermasters’ stores in the autumn, the Red Ball had worked hard to create a combat reserve in case of just such an emergency, running gasoline, ammunition, rations and clothing into depots at Liège, Charleroi and Verdun. The war had by now become one of trucks and fuel. The US First Army moved 48,000 vehicles into the battle zone between 17 and 26 December. At the same time, Patton at Third Army noted that, during the month-long battle, seventeen divisions were moved an average distance of 100 miles to various points in Luxembourg and Belgium.

The operation to move the entire 101st began as Peniche moved out, with 3,801 trucks being employed, the last airborne soldiers arriving by 8.00 p.m. on 19 December. Others in the 101st ‘were loaded on to the cargo beds of “Jimmies” and onto semi-trailers with some standing the entire trip, and driven through the night into Bastogne’.29 As a result of Eisenhower and Bradley’s meeting, on 17 December alone, some 11,000 trucks were on the road moving 60,000 men plus their combat supplies into the Ardennes. Within a week, 250,000 Americans had been redirected into the threatened sector – this was a war of logistics that Hitler could not hope to win. It is the sheer quantity of military matériel, moved by the unseen logistical heroes, that makes victory in modern war possible.

John Axselle, also of the 146th QM Truck Company, recalled how tired the drivers were after delivering their cargoes of airborne personnel. ‘The drivers were dead beat from hauling these guys in and they’d pull up on the side of the road to get a little sleep and an MP came along and butted a carbine on the cab door. “You’d better get this s**t wagon outa here. The Germans are coming”, and they could hear the tanks, so they left.’ John E. McAuliffe (no relation) remembered those long truck journeys, too. ‘We stopped for nothing. Being on the tailgate, I was the one who emptied the urine from the steel helmets that were passed down. Along the way I saw many wrecked vehicles, disabled tanks and strewn equipment; the ravages of the initial German breakthrough. Houses were bombed out, gutted, the countryside was a very bleak sight, and covered by deep snow.’30


Fifty years after it was fired, the author found this unexploded anti-tank shell in December 1994, in the vicinity of Buchholz station, along the route of Kampfgruppe Peiper. About eight inches long, in all probability it was fired on 17 December 1944 from an American 57mm anti-tank gun at oncoming German armour. A veteran anti-tank gunner told the author how these shot solid rounds tended to deflect if they failed to hit a panzer at or near an angle of 90 degrees to the armor plate. At Bastogne, paratrooper Ed Peniche of the 101st Airborne Division crewed a gun firing these shells. (Author’s collection)

There were many divisions that had arrived in the ETO (European Theater of Operations) that autumn who would find themselves in the Ardennes. Amongst them was Brigadier-General Alexander R. Bolling’s 84th Infantry (the ‘Railsplitters’), who had begun arriving in France from 1 November. En route from Pier 58 in Manhattan, veterans remembered, they were given absentee ballots for the presidential election between Franklin Roosevelt and New York State governor Thomas E. Dewey.31 With them, assigned to Company ‘G’ of the 335th Infantry Regiment, was Private Henry A. Kissinger. The onset of the Bulge would find him with the Divisional Intelligence squad, quartered in Marche (a few miles from Hotton), as a German-speaking translator-driver, and later he would move on to the Counter Intelligence Corps.32

Eisenhower knew he had the US 87th (‘Golden Acorn’) Infantry Division, who had arrived in Le Havre on 28 November, and the US 11th Armored had landed in France that very day; he was also aware that Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks’ XXX Corps were out of the line, and available for deployment. Also loitering in England was the third US airborne division, Major-General William M. ‘Bud’ Miley’s 17th; during Operation Market Garden they had been in training, but Eisenhower, assured they were ready, had ordered them forward on 16 December too. Delayed by poor flying weather, they arrived only between 23 and 25 December and were then trucked hastily into Belgium, where they were attached to Patton’s Third Army and deployed along the Meuse. Other formations training in England had their instructional periods cut short and were hurriedly sent to build up a continental combat reserve for instant deployment.

Among these was Major-General Herman F. Kramer’s 66th Infantry Division, ‘the Black Panthers’, newly arrived in England. On 26 November their 262nd and 264th Regiments were herded on to an 11,700-ton old Belgian Congo liner, SS Leopoldville, for the short trip across the Channel. She had nosed her way across the waters and was within sight of Cherbourg on 24 December when she was struck by a torpedo fired from U-486. The liner took three hours to sink, but a series of confusing signals misled shore agencies as to the gravity of the situation. The result was that more than 750 American servicemen drowned or died from hypothermia out of 2,235 GIs who had set sail. A completely avoidable tragedy, on a par with the Titanic, the episode was excised from official records until the details were uncovered in 1996 by Clive Cussler, best-selling author of Raise the Titanic!

The Leopoldville tragedy was a symptom of the extreme concern the Ardennes offensive had created at SHAEF, though, once he was back at Twelfth Army Group headquarters in Luxembourg, Bradley seemed still under Noel Annan’s ‘Happy Hypothesis’; when he studied his maps, he exclaimed as much to Sibert as to anyone, ‘Pardon my French … but where in hell has this son of a bitch gotten all his strength?’

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