‘Peace on earth and goodwill to all men’ is a perennial theme of Christmas. But throughout the years soldiers have spent Christmas in terrible conditions, far from their homes and loved ones. The Second World War lasted for six long years and some people didn’t see their loved ones during all that time. Christmas 1944 was one such time for American soldiers with the armies in northern Europe.
The Siege of Bastogne, part of the larger Battle of the Bulge, took place in December 1944 when German forces made a last desperate push towards the harbour at Antwerp. The seven major roads in the Ardennes area of Belgium all converged on Bastogne so Hitler saw control of this town as vital to his plans to divide and defeat the advancing Allies.
In the early hours of 16th December German infantry forces were ferried across the river Our; two hours later they began to advance under cover of artillery which knocked out the American lines of communication. The Germans had overwhelmingly superior numbers but were held up by a single company of Americans who fought fiercely, holding up the German plans to cross the Clef River for two days. On 19th December the American command post of the 28th Division moved to Bastogne where the Division put up a strong defence, but the 500 men were heavily outnumbered and forced to retreat by the evening.
The German offensive had taken the Allies completely by surprise, and by the end of the second day the 28th Infantry was close to collapse. Reserves were hurriedly pushed forward and units diverted from their assigned targets in order to hold back this last ditch effort by the Germans to retake land lost since D Day and push the Allies back into France. But although the attack had been unexpected the Americans moved quickly, thanks in part to the fast moving M18 Hellcats, and a tank battle was soon in progress, inflicting heavy losses on the German armour.
The 101st Airborne formed a perimeter around Bastogne, and three artillery battalions, each with twelve 255mm howitzers, were able to provide firepower in all directions although they were limited by lack of ammunition. The force was enough, however, to worry General von Luttwitz who did not want to have such numbers to his rear so was forced to slow his advance towards Antwerp and encircle Bastogne. On the night of 20th the Germans began an attack which was stopped by the Americans, although all of the seven roads into Bastogne were finally cut by the German forces leaving the Americans totally cut off.
Outnumbered 5 to 1, lacking cold-weather equipment, short on ammunition, medical supplies and food, and with most of the senior officers elsewhere, the situation for the Americans looked desperate. Worse still, there was no chance of re-supplying the forces from the air due to the worst winter weather in living memory. This also made it impossible for the Americans to offer tactical air support. The men on the ground in Bastogne were forced to hunker down in freezing conditions and pray for an improvement in the weather. The situation looked hopeless.
On 22nd December von Luttwitz sent a message to Brigadier General McAuliffe who was leading the defence of Bastogne;
To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.
The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.
There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honourable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.
If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.
All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.
The German Commander.
McAuliffe’s reply is one of the most well know military communications of the Second World War:
To the German Commander.
The American Commander
After the response had been translated for von Luttwitz the attacking forces began preparations for their final assault. Bombers attacked during the night whilst panzers attacked from the west where the defences were penetrated at one point. German infantry poured through the breach but were halted by the Americans. Major attacks continued to take place all along the defensive lines, with no break in hostilities to celebrate Christmas Day.
Patton’s Third Army finally arrived near Bastogne on Boxing Day. After fierce fighting communications with the besieged Americans were restored and supplies began to get through to the cold and hungry soldiers. The 101st expected to be relieved and sent back down the line after such a hard-fought defence but instead were ordered to resume the offensive against German forces. The wider Battle of the Bulge continued unabated into 1945.
One of the main characters in my novel, Heronfield, is caught up in the siege of Bastogne. I wrote about this battle as I wanted to portray the courage and fortitude of the men involved, men who fought against overwhelming odds – vastly superior numbers, cold and hunger – yet refused to give in. Their bravery helped to bring about one of the major turning points of the war. So whilst you enjoy your Christmas celebrations please spare a thought for these men, and all others who have fought and died on many Christmas Days in the past to preserve the liberty and freedoms we enjoy.