101st Airborne Division troops watch as C-47s drop supplies over Bastogne, 26 December 1944.
During the Ardennes offensive, the initial German attack in the early morning hours of 16 December 1944 surprised the Allies completely. The Fifth Panzer Army under General Hasso von Manteuffel formed the southern thrust of the German drive on Antwerp. The spearhead of the Fifth Panzer Army was General Heinrich von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzer Korps, consisting of the Panzer-Lehr Division, the 2nd Panzer Division, and the 26th Volksgrenadier Division.
Initially, the XLVII Panzer Korps headed directly toward the city of Bastogne, an important traffic junction. Seven main roads, a railway, and several minor roads met there. The Panzer-Lehr Division had orders to approach the city from the south and to occupy the undefended town before 18 December, if possible. Bad road conditions and misleading information from the Belgian population prevented them from getting there before midnight 18 December.
In the meantime, the Allies finally realized that the German attacks were the start of a major offensive, rather than just spoiling attacks, as they originally thought. All along the front, they quickly started pulling back in order to buy time to organize a more effective defense. The first American forces to arrive in Bastogne, thirty kilometers from the initial German line of attack, were elements of the 10th Armored Division, commanded by Colonel William L. Roberts. They reached the city at sunset on 18 December and immediately blocked the roads running east and northeast from Bastogne.
The Panzer-Lehr Division, under General Fritz Bayerlein , arrived at Bastogne shortly after midnight on 19 December. They attacked immediately, because they knew from radio intercepts that the U.S. 101st Airborne Division was on its way to the city. Elements of that division, however, had already reached Bastogne late at night on 18 December. The U.S. 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment occupied the hills east of the city. The fighting for this high ground and the entrance of the city only lasted three hours on the morning of 19 December. Bayerlein gave up because he sustained high losses and the terrain was not suitable for his Panzers. Thus, the first German attack stopped two kilometers outside the city.
That same day, von Manteuffel decided that in order to continue the westward momentum of the offensive, he would not commit all of the XLVII Panzer Korps to the fight for Bastogne. He ordered the Panzer-Lehr to leave its 902nd Panzer Regiment behind and to continue moving south of Bastogne, He also sent Colonel Meinrad von Lauchert’s 2nd Panzer Division north of Bastogne, so that both would reach the Meuse without delay.
Colonel Heinz Kokott’s 26th Volksgrenadier Division moved up and joined the 902nd PanzerLehr Regiment in the fight for Bastogne. With three infantry regiments in the north and a reinforced reconnaissance battalion in the south, the city was almost completely surrounded, except for one small gap in the west between Champs and Senonchamps.
The defending forces at Bastogne had increased as well, with the 101st Airborne Division arriving in strength. The north approaches to the city were defended by the 705th Tank Battalion, whose Sherman tanks were armed with the high-velocity 76mm main gun. By the evening of 21 December, the Germans had completely encircled Bastogne, cutting off the American defenders in a pocket eight kilometers in diameter.
For two days there was almost no action while the Germans extended their positions and brought up supplies. On 22 December, von Lüttwitz sent a surrender ultimatum to Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe , the acting commander of the 101st Airborne Division. Knowing General George S. Patton’s U.S. Third Army was on its way to Bastogne, McAuliffe reportedly replied with the cryptic statement, “Nuts”—an answer that somewhat confused the Germans at first.
The encircled American troops were supplied by air with ammunition, food, and medicine. That helped them get through the German attack of 23 December, one of the most critical periods of the whole siege. The 26th Volksgrenadier Division, the Panzer-Lehr units, and the Seventh Army’s Fifth Parachute Division then tried to break the defenses from the southeast and the northwest. Even though the Luftwaffe provided support with two heavy attacks, they failed on 24 and again on 25 December. During those attacks, the Germans sustained heavy losses in tanks, materiel, and men. Those also turned out to be the last and the strongest of the attacks directed against the defenders in the city itself.
In the meantime, the Third Army was heading for Bastogne. General Erich Brandenberger’s Seventh Army was supposed to screen the left flank of the Ardennes offensive, but with only four divisions and no tanks there was little they could do to stop the Third Army. On 26 December, elements of the 4th Armored Division’s 37th Tank Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Creighton W. Abrams , reached Bastogne. It had taken the 4th Armored Division five days, and they lost 1,000 men during the heavy fighting along the route of the march. They succeeded, however, in breaking open the German ring around Bastogne. At first, they opened a narrow passage to the city, then they enlarged it. The fight for Bastogne now consisted of enlarging that corridor.
The Germans pulled in more forces. Contrary to the original operational plans, but in accordance with Adolf Hitler’s orders, the Fifth Panzer Army now made Bastogne their main effort. Colonel Otto Remer’s Führer Escort Brigade and elements of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division attacked to close the corridor on 27 December. The attacking force was not strong enough to accomplish the mission. Next, the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division and the 167th Volksgrenadier Division joined the fight. Command of the German operations at Bastogne passed to Lieutenant General Karl Decker of the XXXIX Panzer Korps. On 29 December, Decker received as reinforcements the 1st SS Panzer Division from the Sixth Panzer Army.
Hitler still insisted on taking Bastogne as quickly as possible. On the evening of 29 December, German units assembled around Bastogne for a renewed attack. The XLVII Panzer Korps was upgraded to Armeegruppe Lüttwitz; and the XXXIX Panzer Korps, which had been leading the fight, came under the group’s command.
The next attack started at 0625 hours on 30 December. The Führer Escort Brigade and elements of the 3rd and 15 th Panzergrenadier Divisions headed for Sibret from the west, while in the east, the 167th Volksgrenadier Division and the 1st SS Panzer Division went for the road connecting Bastogne and Martelange. The Germans gained some ground until the afternoon, but then the attack faltered. To the west of the city, the Führer Escort Brigade and the 15th Volksgrenadier Division were checked by units of the Third Army.
In the final days of December, the Germans shifted the entire thrust of the Ardennes offensive. The planned drive to the Meuse River and Antwerp turned into a battle over Bastogne, which devoured one German division after the other. The Germans made almost no progress against the strong American resistance. On 31 December, the Germans committed additional units, including the 12th SS Panzer Division of the I SS Panzer Korps, and the 340th Division. When those attacks failed, Armeegruppe Lüttwitz was dissolved, and its units reverted back to the control of the Fifth Panzer Army.
The German commander in chief in the west, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt , knew that if the Germans failed to destroy all the Allied forces at Bastogne, the Germans would be forced into waging a defensive battle of attrition that they could never win. Hitler, too, steadfastly opposed any halts or rearward movements. Thus the Germans prepared to mount another major attack on 1 January 1945. In the meantime, the Germans had to fend off heavy American attacks along the southern flank of the XLVII Panzer Korps.
As the Americans continued to move reinforcements into the area, they grew increasingly strong in artillery. Also, the Allied air forces were attacking the Germans continuously since the weather had cleared on 24 December. The German positions east of Bastogne were pushed so far back that the attack plans had to be changed completely. Now, instead of attacking from the southeast, the 9th and 12th SS Panzer Divisions, together with the Führer Escort Brigade, were to attack from the north, northeast, and east.
Why did the Germans have to commit an increasingly larger number of divisions as the Ardennes offensive wore on? At the beginning of 1945, the typical German division only had a fraction of its former strength. The 9th SS Panzer Division, for example, started the offensive with 120 tanks and assault guns. Now it had only thirty left. The division’s grenadier battalions were down to only 150 to 175 men. The 12th SS Panzer Division was in no better shape. It had only twenty-five of its 100 tanks left, and its grenadier battalions had only 100 to 125 men. The battalions of the 340th Volksgrenadier Division had 150 to 175 men. At that rate, German strength would soon wither away to nothing. The American units, on the other hand, were in much better condition. They could obtain almost immediate replacements for losses of materiel and men.
The last major German attack began on 4 January and stalled very quickly. Further small actions continued until 8 January. The German hold on Bastogne was broken finally by the Third Army on 9 January 1945. The fight for Bastogne was over. The losses were considerable. The city of Bastogne lost 782 civilians. The Americans lost about 2,700 troops, the Germans about 3,000.
Some 6,785 German soldiers killed in the battles between Malmedy, St. Vith, and Bastogne are buried in the German military cemetery close to Bastogne. The American dead lie in the Henri-Chapelle Cemetery between Liége and Aachen.
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