It was about six months since the Allies had come ashore at Normandy on D-Day. The long, hard, and bitter fight to drive the Germans back to Germany was well along. Hitler, feeling the advancing pressure of the Allies, in desperation, surprised the American elements of the advance on 16 December 1944 with a massive counter-attack involving some five Divisions of German Infantry forces, including two divisions of Hitler Youth and Panzer Tank Divisions in the Ardennes Forest. This would become known to history as the Battle of the Bulge. The scale of this battle was enormous.
The winter that year was extremely harsh. There were heavy snows, low clouds, and freezing cold temperatures. When the German counter-attack began on the 16th, General Eisenhower redirected convoys of 11,000 American supply trucks, called the Red Ball Express, to the fight and ordered that the town of Bastogne, Belgium, be held at any cost. The fight was on.
The American forces were made up of the 82nd Airborne Division and the “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne Divisions. The Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division, under General Anthony McAuliffe, were given the job of defending Bastogne.
As they approached Bastogne, they were met by the retreating troops from the U.S. Army’s 28th Division, who had been badly mauled at the opening of the counter-attack. The men of the 28th Division were overwhelmed and in a panic to get out of there. The men of the 101st heard many of them saying, “Go back, there’s millions of them out there.”
They would not, of course, go back. They were “Airborne,” they always go forward. That’s, at least, how they felt then. Their own bravado would be put to the test soon enough.
The fighting was intense everywhere, but especially for the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne. The Germans would eventually surround them with superior forces. With heavy artillery divisions, as well as their infantry and tank forces, the Germans hit the Screaming Eagles defending Bastogne hard and long.
The 101st, though running out of supplies and taking heavy casualties, had more than enough fight in them. They held the Germans off for several days.
At one point during the siege of Bastogne, the German commander sent a note to General McAuliffe offering him and his troops an “honorable surrender,” to which McAuliffe replied with the now-famous one-word American colloquial retort: “Nuts!”
One wonders how much steam that took out of the German General’s confidence. He must have thought that these Americas were indeed nuts. They certainly were not going to give up. There was a hell of a lot more fight in them yet.
The winter weather during most of the battle was horrendous. The Americans were low on supplies and were not dressed for the weather, and the German attacks were relentless. It was not until 23 December that the skies cleared enough for air support to come to play. That support came finally with bombers, fighters, and the incredibly needed supply planes.
At this point, the battle turned against the German counter-attack, and the Americans began again to push the Germans back towards Germany and liberate the rest of Europe from the Nazi aggressors.
You will get a personal feel for this battle in the comments of one of the 101st Airborne veterans who was there. It is incredibly poignant and weighty commentary. It is a description of war’s awful costs and terrors that can only come from one who has been there.
We owe those who fought at Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge profound respect for their courage and their determination in the face of a relentless, still-powerful, and desperate enemy in the wintery hell of the Ardennes Forest of Belgium that December in 1944. Their stand there and their defeat of the German counter-attack marked the final push, the beginning of the end of the Nazis’ war on freedom and democracy. Those Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division truly were of the Greatest Generation. They lived up to their motto: Rendezvous With Destiny!