Reference is made to yesterday's blog post to set the stage for where we are.
By Christmas eve, 1944, the American artillery in Bastogne was out of ammo. The Germans could move their tanks without fear of an artillery strike. The skies were cloudy and snowy, limiting the ability of the U.S. Army Air Corps to resupply Bastogne, which was completely surrounded by the German Wehrmacht. The sun did not rise until 8 am. The sun set at 4pm. There were sixteen hours of cold darkness. And still the Germans came with their tanks. And still the 10st held.
On Christmas eve day, the Germans attacked the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment outside of Bastogne. This was Easy Company, made famous by Stephen Ambrose's great book Band Of Brothers. When the battle ended, the Germans having been thrown back by a combination of rifle, machine gun and mortar fire, one member of Easy Company counted thirty-eight German bodies. In his book Band Of Brothers Ambrose writes " The men of Easy Company, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne Division came together in 1942... Some were desperately poor, others from middle class. One came from Harvard, one from Yale, and a couple from UCLA...They were citizens soldiers... By the spring of 1944 they were an elite company of airborne light infantry...at the peak of its effectiveness...it was as good a rifle company as there was in the world."
All of that would be needed and more as Christmas came to the Ardennes forest. And on that Christmas eve, 76 years ago, here was the gift the 101st gave America and the world. General McAuliffe issued his Christmas message to the 101st. It is worth reading in its entirety. It explains what American exceptionalism really is. It is what we are made of. This is what we, this Christmas, huddled in our homes, fearful of an unseen enemy should be thankful for and remember. That in 1944, in weather below zero, a few thousand American men, dug some holes in a forest and said to their buddies "We stop them here". And they did. It may just be the greatest Christmas gift one group of American men gave their nation.
HEADQUARTERS 101ST AIRBORNE DIVISION
Office of the Division Commander
24 December 1944
What’s Merry about all this, you ask? We’re fighting — it’s cold, we aren’t home. All true but what has the proud Eagle Division accomplished with its worthy comrades the 10th Armored Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and all the rest? Just this: We have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the North, East, South and West. We have identifications from four German Panzer Divisions, two German Infantry Divisions and one German Parachute Division. These units, spearheading the last desperate German lunge, were headed straight west for key points when the Eagle Division was hurriedly ordered to stem the advance. How effectively this was done will be written in history; not alone in our Division’s glorious history but in World history. The Germans actually did surround us, their radios blared our doom. Their Commander demanded our surrender in the following imprudent arrogance:
December 22nd 1944
“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 Ourthe near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompres-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 honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.
If this proposal should be rejected the 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 hour’s term.
All the serious civilian losses caused by this Artillery fire would not correspond with the well known American humanity.
The German Commander”
The German Commander received the following reply:
22 December 1944
“To the German Commander:
N U T S !
The American Commander”
Allied Troops are counterattacking in force. We continue to hold Bastogne. By holding Bastogne we assure the success of the Allied Armies. We know that our Division Commander, General Taylor, will say: “Well Done!”
We are giving our country and our loved ones at home a worthy Christmas present and being privileged to take part in this gallant feat of arms are truly making for ourselves a Merry Christmas.
/s/ A. C. McAULIFFE
It does not get better than this. Think about those men, all gone now, Cold, far from home, dug in a forest, when you sit down with your family for Christmas. Think about them dropping from the sky into Normandy, France, to lead the liberation of Europe. And think about those same men, holding a line, in a small town during the worst winter in Europe in over 100 years. Fearsome German Panzer tanks bearing down on them. No artillery. No air cover. A little ammunition. Short on everything but courage. This is the Christmas present they gave us. For the rest of our days, it is what we will think about every Christmas.
Merry Christmas and G-d bless the United States of America that we can produce citizens like that.
Post Script: On December 26, 1944, elements of General George S Patton's Third Army broke through the German lines and "liberated" Bastogne and then pushed the Germans back across the Rhine River. Portrayed in the movie Patton, what Patton did was much more ingenious and a testament to his abilities as a commander. Beginning in November, Patton began planning for a massive German counter-offensive. Ten days before the German assault began, Patton's intelligence officers began to see a pattern. German panzer divisions had "disappeared". By December 14, Patton had contingency plans to counterattack a German attack to the North of the areas he was attacking. This included the area of Bastogne. He directed his staff to prepare plans for his Army to disengage, turn ninety degrees and prepare to counterattack. Prior to December 18, Patton had already sent his 10th Armored Division to the north of his position to counter the German attack. On December 18 he met with his superior- General Omar Bradley, who told him he needed to attack to the North. Patton was prepared. The 4th Armored Division, the 26th and 80th Infantry divisions had already disengaged and headed towards Bastogne. Within three days Patton's divisions were engaging the Germans and pushing them back. In another three days his troops entered Bastogne.
To their dying day the men of the 101st Airborne division would never admit to being "liberated" by elements of Patton's Third Army. Many a late night bar fight in the US broke out when members of the Screaming Eagles would cross paths with one of Patton's men. While what Patton did was almost unique in the annals of modern warfare, to the 101st, it was not needed- they never forgot what one of their own said when the situation was at its darkest- "they have us surrounded, the poor bastards."