TCS Daily

"What's Merry About All This, You Ask?"

By Sallie Baliunas - December 23, 2005 12:00 AM

Snow storms trapped and drained wearied American troops, desperately short of ammunition and supplies as German forces surrounded thinly-held Bastogne. The 101st Airborne Division and their comrades would be seeing Christmas 1944 not in peace and warmth but in the cold, jagged terrain of the Ardennes forests of Belgium. When even blankets ran too few to protect the wounded from frostbite, soldiers fighting on the front handed over theirs to wrap injured fellows.

The Allied advance toward Germany across northern France, Belgium and Luxemburg in the summer and autumn of 1944 had been considerably slowed by strong German defense and planned counterattack.

In September Hitler had gathered his high army staff of the OKW to devise a plan to sweep from "out of the Ardennes, with the objective - Antwerp." In a strategy meant to market to building troop morale, the plan was christened for one of Germany's best battlefield leaders, Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt, although von Rundstedt thought the scope of the plan he would have to execute too grandiose for success.

The covert operation to mass troops was code-named Wacht am Rhein (Watch on Rhine), and the cover story for Allied spies was that German troops were mobilizing near the Westwall, the guarded concrete structures near the border of western Germany and Belgium. Scanty Allied intelligence missed the magnitude and importance of Panzer Armies concentrating in the Ardennes. Bastogne, connecting vital roadways of the region, was a clear, high-priority target.

At H-hour of the Rundstedt Offensive, 0530 on 16 December, artillery from German emplacements on Schnee Eifel - where the German army had launched successful attacks against France in 1870, 1914, 1918 and 1940 - rained on Allied troops.

Late on 16 December Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley responded to the German attacks. Troops would have to be sent to Lt. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges, commander of the First Army and in the thick of battle, and the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were so ordered on 17 December.

As action and events turned, the 101st Airborne, and elements of Combat Command B, 10th Armored Division, 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and others, officially designated Team SNAFU, arrived in Bastogne late on 18 December, and as Charles B. MacDonald relates in The Mighty Endeavor, "for what was to become - as the men of the division later called it - a 'rendezvous with destiny.'"

Allied air bombardment and supply drops couldn't penetrate the miserable snowy, foggy and cloudy weather that had dominated most of December. That left battle outcome in the forest to tanks, artillery, infantry, grit and guts.

On 19 December at a meeting in Verdun Gen. Eisenhower ordered Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., to what was becoming a pivotal arena - Bastogne, and then to drive northeast. Patton obligingly agreed, "Hell, let's have the guts to let the sonsabitches go all the way to Paris," where they would "cut 'em off and chew 'em up," as MacDonald reports. Patton promised to deploy on incredibly short order, by 22 Dec. On that day Patton told his troops, "Drive like hell."

Even in fierce fighting the 101st Airborne had stubbornly refused the line at Bastogne. Acting commander Brigadier Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe had been given clear orders, "Hold Bastogne." On December 22 the German commanders Generals der Panzertruppen Hasso von Manteuffel and Heinrich von Luettwitz sent their ultimatum. Unless the "encircled U.S.A. troops" agree to the "honorable surrender" within two hours of its delivery to McAuliffe "one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops" of Bastogne. Further, if American troops did not surrender, the collateral deaths of civilians, the note rationalized, would not be the fault of the German attack and "would not correspond with the well known American humanity."

McAuliffe described the demand two days later in his Christmas Message to the troops as "impudent arrogance." To it McAuliffe had sent his now well known, one-word reply, "NUTS!"

On Christmas Eve 1944 Team Snafu still held Bastogne, and McAuliffe sent a Christmas Message to the troops.

"What's Merry about all this, you ask? We're fighting - it's cold - we aren't home," he began. McAuliffe described the strength of enemy forces, "We have identifications from four German Panzer Divisions, two German Infantry Divisions and one German Parachute Division." Yet light infantry forces and artillery upon meeting tank forces "stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the North, East, South and West."

As for where they would spend Christmas, McAuliffe said, "We continue to hold Bastogne." They did, despite fierce attacks on Christmas Day and beyond. Patton and his Third Army held off the Fifth Panzer Army in horrific fighting. Maj. General "Lightning Joe" Collins of the VII Corps defeated the 2d Panzer Division further west near the River Meuse on Christmas Day.

"How effectively this was done," wrote McAuliffe on Christmas Eve, "will be written in history; not alone in our Division's glorious history but in World history."

Extreme gratitude goes to the 101st Airborne and Team SNAFU and their comrades for spending Christmas in Bastogne and the Ardennes in 1944. And thank you, 101st Airborne, for working to free the peoples of Iraq from despotism and tyranny this Christmas, over 60 years after the Battle of Bulge.

Good Reading:

Hugh M. Cole, The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge, The United States Army in World War II: The European Theater of Operations 1965 Office of the Chief of Military Hitory, Department of the Army

Charles B. MacDonald The Mighty Endeavor 1969 Oxford University Press

Col. Ralph M. Mitchell 1986 The 101st Airborne Division's Defense of Bastogne Sept. 1986 Combat Studies Institute


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