The German offensive, which opened early on 16 December, caught the Americans completely by surprise. General Heinrich von Lüttwitz's XLVII Panzer Corps, the spearhead of the southern German thrust, made for Bastogne, some 20 miles from the German line of attack. The Germans expected to occupy it no later than 18 December, but the poor state of the roads and misinformation provided by Belgians delayed their arrival. Meanwhile, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower correctly concluded that this was a major German offensive rather than a spoiling attack and ordered up reinforcements, including the 101st Airborne Division. Traveling in cattle trucks, the 101st arrived at Bastogne near midnight on the 18 December. The first American units to reach the city, however, were elements of the 10th Armored Division, which had arrived there a few hours earlier.
Major General Fritz Bayerlein's Panzer Lehr Division reached Bastogne just after midnight on 19 December. It attacked immediately, as Bayerlein was aware from radio intercepts that the 101st Airborne was on the way. The Americans beat back the German attack but were under constant German pressure from that point and were completely encircled in a 6-mile-diameter pocket by the evening of 21 December. The Germans now brought up supplies and reinforcements.
On 22 December, four German soldiers, one carrying a white flag, walked toward an American outpost near Bastogne. They carried an ultimatum addressed to "the U.S.A. commander of the encircled city of Bastogne." The message urged Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, in command of the division in the absence of Major General Maxwell D. Taylor, to save his troops with an "honorable surrender." McAuliffe's response to the Germans was memorable: "To the German Commander: Nuts. The American commander."
Even though the Germans pressed their offensive all around Bastogne, they failed to take the city. The Allied forces did not break, and Lieutenant General George S. Patton's Third Army was rushing to relieve Bastogne from the south. Patton told an unbelieving Eisenhower that he could wheel his army 90 degrees and strike north into the bulge with three divisions in only two days. He accomplished this feat in one of most memorable mass maneuvers of that or any war.
On 23 December, the weather cleared, freezing the ground and making it passable for armor. Allied planes filled the skies, and transports dropped resupplies to the defenders of Bastogne, then down to only 10 rounds per gun. On Christmas Day, 2nd Armored Division gunners had a "turkey shoot" near the Meuse, destroying 82 German tanks. On 26 December, Lieutenant Colonel Creighton Abrams's 37th Tank Battalion of the 4th Armored Division broke through the German lines, lifting the siege of Bastogne.
The battle now expanded as both sides poured in reinforcements. Fifth Panzer Army made Bastogne its principal effort, as the planned German drive on Antwerp turned into a struggle for Bastogne. Meanwhile, the Americans brought up significant amounts of artillery and armor. Allied aircraft also attacked the German armor without letup, destroying large numbers of tanks. The last major German attack on the city occurred on 4 January. Other smaller attacks took place until 8 January, with the battle ending the next day. The fight for the city had claimed about 2,700 American and 3,000 German casualties; Bastogne itself lost 782 Belgian civilians.
William Head and Spencer C. Tucker
Cole, Hugh M. U.S. Army in World War II, European Theater of Operations—The Ardennes: The Battle of the Bulge. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1965.; Dupuy, Trevor N., David L. Bongard, and Richard C. Anderson Jr. Hitler's Last Gamble: The Battle of the Bulge, December 1944–January 1945. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.; Forty, George. The Reich's Last Gamble: The Ardennes Offensive, December 1944. London: Cassell, 2000.; MacDonald, Charles B. A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge. New York: William Morrow, 1985.; Marshall, S. L. A. Bastogne: The Story of the First Eight Days. Washington, DC: Infantry Journal Press, 1946.