Gliders and “Nuts!”

439th [TCG] [91st TCS] glider taking off for Bastogne resupply 27 December 1944.

The heroic efforts of American forces in action at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge need no retelling. However, few historians give more than a casual mention of the part that gliders and glider pilots played in this important action during late December 1944. Flying their frail aircraft into a hail of enemy flak and ground fire, the glider pilots who participated in this battle carried to the besieged defenders badly needed ammunition and medical supplies that enabled them to hold out and secure the ultimate victory.

Several iconic images and phrases emerged from the Second World War: the raising of the American flag on Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima; St Paul’s Cathedral bathed in light through the smoke of nearby burning buildings following a German air raid on London in late December1940; the encouragement of the navy chaplain to his shipmates during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, ‘Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition;’ Winston Churchill’s speech to the British House of Commons, and to the world, that ‘never was so much owed by so many to so few; and General Douglas MacArthur’s declaration following his ordered departure from the Philippines, ‘I shall return.’ But, it is arguable that one of the most famous in this collection of war-time memories for the ages is the response to a demand to the American general, Anthony McAuliffe, that he surrender his garrison of beleaguered troops who, in late December 1944, were holding Bastogne against superior numbers of German forces that surrounded the town. The general’s written response was terse and mystifying to its intended audience: ‘Nuts!’

It was one of the coldest winters in years as Allied soldiers huddled to stay warm and somehow defend a front that stretched for eighty-five miles through the Ardennes forest. And, it was this very combination of foul weather and a thin line of enemy troops that persuaded Hitler to punch through and drive toward the prize of the port of Antwerp. Taking this seaport would shutter the supply line that was bringing men and materiel to the both the British and Americans who had made advances toward the German Siegfried Line.

In the early morning hours of 16 December 1944 the Germans launched a massive offensive of 200,000 troops and columns of Panzer tanks that had been gathering unseen under cover of the forests of the Ardennes. The 83,000 Allied defenders along the Luxembourg and Belgium line were “too thinly dispersed to offer any great resistance against the powerful enemy attack and were forced to fall back.” By 21 December the German advances penetrated through to a depth of nearly sixty miles along a Panzer created thirty mile-wide bulge in the line of Allied defenses.

For fear of losing the gains the Allies had made since the Normandy landings on D-Day, Eisenhower brought in reserve forces including the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions who had only recently been fighting in the Market Garden campaign in Holland. But, by 20 December the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne found themselves surrounded in Bastogne, a transportation center with seven highways and three rail lines spreading out from the village.

Because Bastogne was the key to the road-net not only to the northwest but to southwest and south as well, and since nobody knew for sure at the time which way the Germans wanted to go, the need to hold Bastogne never came into question.

Supply drops to the forces in Bastogne by C-47s from England could hardly be considered a milk run since the weather and fog forced the pilots to fly low and on instruments, easy targets for German gunners on the ground. Although they brought in 300 tons of supplies at a cost of eight planes, what the ground forces needed most was gasoline and ammunition, items not conducive to successful parachute drops.

Also desperately needed were medical supplies and doctors for the more than 400 wounded soldiers, their surgical and care needs unmet as the result of the Germans capture of a field hospital and its doctors and other medical personnel, a clear violation of Geneva Convention. McAuliffe’s Christmas Eve greetings to his troops answered the question many troops in the battered city may have asked: What’s so Merry about this Christmas? We have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the North, East, South and West. And to the German Commander’s proposal that we surrender, my response was, “Nuts!”

On the next day, Christmas, McAuliffe sent an urgent request for glider-delivered combat surgeons, gasoline and ammunition, the highest priority given to the medical teams. The first glider carrying two volunteer medical teams arrived on the 26th after about an hour’s flying time from its base in Étain, France. This flight was soon followed by ten additional gliders carrying additional medical personnel, gasoline and artillery shells.10 Fifteen minutes after the last glider touched down in its LZ, Patton’s first tanks broke through from the south. On the following day, an additional fifty gliders were dispatched from Châteaudun, France to fly to Bastogne, this time meeting heavy ground fire and suffering multiple hits, from anti-aircraft guns and machineguns, rounds ripping through the canvas and pinging off the metal frame, some piercing the Jerry cans of gasoline.

One of the pilots who flew into Bastogne remembers that:

   Orders quickly came for twelve gliders to be loaded with five gallon Jerry cans of gasoline stacked double decked. I was one of the “lucky guys” assigned to fly the gasoline tankers! One tracer bullet and KABOOM! Hey, someone had to do it, and by that time we had all heard about Gen. McAuliffe’s one word reply to the Kraut’s surrender ultimatum: “NUTS!” Our loaded gliders sat on the tarmac a couple of days when word came (that) the Gooney Birds could immediately take off for Bastogne towing our loaded gliders, including my lil ole gasoline tanker. At the moment I really had big time mixed emotions. I really wanted to fly into Bastogne, but I really wasn’t all that excited about flying that gasoline tanker.

Another pilot recalls that:

The timing of the arrival was good. The sun had already set and the moon had not yet risen. We came in between five and six hundred feet which meant the enemy had difficulty in getting our range. Every glider landed with nearly all gasoline intact, although some of the cans of gasoline had been pierced by small-arms fire, none, fortunately, had been hit by incendiary bullets.’

McAuliffe and the 101st Airborne got a monumental amount of well-deserved glory as did Patton and his 4th Armored Division for breaking through the Krauts to relieve Bastogne. But the volunteer combat glider pilots who flew into Bastogne received very little, if any, recognition for what they did, and no glory at all! But ask the troopers of the 101st whose gas tanks were empty and who were running out of ammunition and ask those medics who were in desperate need of medical supplies and they would tell you how they felt about those “unknown pilots” who wore the silver “G” wings.

And in the final analysis, isn’t it the thanks and admiration of your fellow soldiers that matter most? Isn’t it satisfaction enough to know that you had been responsible for saving the lives of some of your comrades by flying in teams of medical personnel, and that you were just ‘doing your job?’

During the Battle of the Bulge, two supply operations were flown with gliders; 11 were dispatched on 26 December 1944, 50 were sent on the 27th. Sixteen pilots of the 72 sent out were reported as missing in action, one was wounded, none were killed.

The Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge, Bastogne, Operation Repulse—the battles fought here were bloody and muddy. It was miserably cold, and it cost thousands of lives. The campaign:

… which delayed the Rhineland Campaign for six weeks secured no major terrain objectives for either side. The Germans who had employed some of their best remaining units, lost nearly 250,000 men, 600 tanks and assault guns, and about 1,600 airplanes. The Allies suffered 72,000 casualties.

A correspondent for the U.S. serviceman’s magazine, Yank, reported the grizzly side of the conflict at the Battle of the Bulge:

The Ardennes campaign was more than a fight against the strongest German attack we had faced since the early days in Normandy. It was also a fight against almost daily snowstorms in near sub-zero temperatures and face-freezing winds which doubled the difficulty of rolling back the German advance.

     We learned a lot about winter warfare in the Ardennes. Some of it was learned the hard way, by frostbitten hands and feet, pneumonia, and even death by freezing. Besides physical difficulties, there was the added trouble of frozen weapons, equipment, and even food.

     … (D)own the street is a US Army hospital, formerly a Belgian schoolhouse, which was evacuated this morning. The wounded and sick who slept there last night are now in ambulances and trucks, bouncing over that road which has just been bombed … Our jeep stalls beside a bomb crater on the right side of the road … in the muddy crater are two American bodies and an abandoned stretcher. They had been pushed off the road so that the passing vehicles would not run them over. An Army blanket covers each corpse. Beside one body is a helmet with a medic’s red cross painted on it. There is a hole drilled clean through it.

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