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The best Christmas present in American military history

Posted: December 31, 2014 - 12:15am

It was the bitter cold and snowy Christmas eve of 1944, just 70 years ago during World War II. The cocky paratroopers of the American 101st Airborne Division were hunkered down and surrounded by some five German divisions of tanks and infantry in the Belgian town of Bastogne, located in an area known as the Ardennes.

The 101st commander, Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, had just sent a radio message to Gen. George Patton reminding him there was only one more shopping day until Christmas. But this was deadly serious business, as McAuliffe knew that Patton’s 3rd Army was the only hope for the 101st.

The successful D-Day invasion almost seven months before had marked the beginning of the great Allied offensive to liberate Western Europe and inflict a final defeat on Nazi Germany. But, by Nov. 1944, the advancing Allied armies had outrun much of their supplies and unwisely transitioned to a less aggressive strategy.

Adoph Hitler badly needed a major reversal in the fortunes of war to give Germany a chance to negotiate a much more favorable peace agreement. So, Hitler desperately decided to risk everything on a daring winter surprise attack on the sparsely defended American front lines in the Ardennes. The goal was to split the American and British armies and drive all the way to the Belgian port of Antwerp on the North Sea.

The Germans had to move large numbers of troops and tanks at night or in bad weather to keep from getting spotted by Allied aircraft. But, in an impressive feat of stealth that was clearly the worst Allied intelligence failure of the war in Europe, the Germans managed to assemble 250,000 men and 1,000 tanks to launch the massive surprise Ardennes offensive on Dec. 16, 1944.

The thinly manned American north to south front in the Ardennes was overwhelmed by the ferocity of the German assault. The Germans pounded out a “bulge” some 60 miles wide and 40 miles deep in the American lines, thus, this battle will forever be known as “The Battle of the Bulge.”

Right in the middle of the bulge was the vital crossroads town of Bastogne, with its seven roads stretching out from the center of town. It would be the key to the epic battle. Fortunately, shortly after the battle had begun, the Allied Commanding General, Dwight Eisenhower, realizing its importance, had ordered the 101st to be quickly trucked to Bastogne on Dec. 19 where they were instructed to “hold at all costs.”

The 101st arrived in Bastogne just ahead of the lead elements of German Panzers and prepared to withstand a brutal siege. By Dec. 20 they were completely surrounded by German forces, and on Dec. 22 the German commander demanded the surrender of the 101st or they would be “totally annihilated.” After a brief discussion with his staff, Gen. McAuliffe gave his immortal reply – “NUTS.” When Patton was told of McAuliffe’s reply, he said, “A man that eloquent has to be saved.”

In a stunning display of dedication and endurance, three of Patton’s 3rd Army divisions pulled out of their winter positions and did what Ike thought was impossible. They moved almost 100 miles north in 48 hours with no sleep or hot food and attacked fiercely into the southern German flank of the Bulge on Dec. 21. Patton knew the 101st could not last long and he was determined to break through to Bastogne by Christmas day.

Meanwhile, on the northern flank of the Bulge, the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions were stubbornly dug in along Elsenborn Ridge. In spite of the fact they were also greatly outnumbered, they had the high ground and for several days had repulsed numerous German Panzer assaults.

The tough 82nd Airborne Division was sent in to reinforce the northern flank, so the situation on both flanks seemed secure and the large-scale German offensive was somewhat contained. Now, the fate of the battle boiled down to the race to Bastogne.

Christmas day dawn of 1944 brought clear skies to the Ardennes. Patton’s most daring tank commander, Lt. Col. Creighton Abrams (the namesake of today’s Abrams tank) could see American transport planes dropping supplies into the smoky ruins of what was Bastogne, but there was still a strong force of Germans between him and the town. He got on the radio and called for a heavy artillery barrage and informed his superiors that his tank battalion would then fight their way through German lines. He proved to be a man of his word, as on the afternoon of Dec. 26, the troopers of the 101st had their prayers answered when they saw a column of American Sherman tanks lumber into town.

Thanks to the rapid response and gallant efforts of numerous American forces, and with Bastogne secure, the possibility of a German victory had been extinguished. But, the process of removing all German forces from the Bulge would take another month of vicious winter fighting. The Battle of the Bulge remains the largest land battle ever fought by the American military. Some 600,000 personnel were involved, which was the bloodiest American battle of WWII. The casualties were 19,000 killed, 62,000 wounded, and 26,000 missing or captured.

The aftermath of the decisive American victory at the Bulge left the German Army on the Western Front substantially weakened. In a little over three months, May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally.

As we enjoy a healthy and prosperous Christmas season for 2014, reflect back to that anxiety-filled Christmas 70 years ago and give thanks for the honor and bravery of the “Greatest Generation.” And perhaps toast to the determined men of Gen. Patton’s 3rd Army who successfully delivered the best Christmas present in American military history, even if it was a day late.

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