Those Who Hold Bastogne: Locking Shields

The Battle of the Bulge was Hitler’s last gamble, intended to force the Allies to negotiate a peace treaty by punching a hole in their lines, dividing the British and American forces and recapturing the port of Antwerp. Caught unawares, American forces took heavy casualties and the plan might have succeeded were it not for the tenacious American defense of the small Belgian town of Bastogne. Despite being completely encircled by German forces ten times their own size, the defenders valiantly held out for eight days until General Patton’s Third Army relieved them. The battle has proven to be one of the memorable set pieces of WWII, most notably immortalised in the episode of Band of Brothers simply entitled ‘Bastogne’.

To mark the 70th anniversary of this remarkable resistance the Yale Books blog is hosting a series of extracts from Those Who Hold Bastogne, historian Peter Schrijvers’ dramatic account of the 1944-5 winter of war. In his book Schrijvers draws on diaries, memoirs and other sources to illuminate the experiences not only of Bastogne’s 3000 citizens and their American defenders, but also of German soldiers and commanders desperate for victory. This extract takes up the story as the German forces encircle the town.


Locking Shields

On the morning of Monday, December 18, with the 110th Infantry savaged and torn to pieces, the approaches to Bastogne lay wide open for the German armor and infantry. Still, General Middleton in VIII Corps headquarters in Bastogne kept his cool. He carefully studied maps, as well as the messages that kept filtering in via radio and telephone. Just moments before, higher headquarters had informed him that the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were already on their way to the Ardennes front, and that at least one of those was destined for Bastogne. Middleton now knew that if he could somehow slow down the German juggernaut for another 24 hours, he would have an experienced and hardened force of at least 11,000 paratroopers at his disposal for the defense of Bastogne. The Mississippian reasoned that the arrival of such a crack unit might suffice to deny the Germans use of the vital Belgian crossroads. He was well aware that this could help knock the wind out of the dangerous enemy offensive in the Ardennes.

At Eisenhower’s Supreme Allied Headquarters, the bigger picture was already showing that the main effort by Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army in the north was being slowed to some extent. Although Kampfgruppe Peiper, a powerful combat force of the 1st SS Panzer Division, had succeeded with a dangerous penetration, stubborn resistance by the men of Major General Gerow’s V Corps had derailed the timetable of most of the other armored divisions of the Waffen SS. Potentially, however, this meant that Middleton’s sector might only gain in importance in the next few days, should it become clear that the Schwerpunkt was shifting to von Manteuffel’s Wehrmacht. There were early indications that this was the case. Like von Lüttwitz on the left, Walter Lucht, commander of the LXVI Corps in von Manteuffel’s army, was being delayed on the right. But in the center of the Fifth Panzer Army, armored divisions were picking up speed as a massive gap beckoned from Bastogne to beyond Gouvy, a small town northeast of Houffalize.

Middleton grimly assessed the reserve forces still available to him to delay the Germans east of Bastogne for another day. His most powerful corps reserve was Combat Command R of the 9th Armored Division. Even this, however, was no more than a regiment-sized force that had already suffered some losses in attempts to shore up the 110th Infantry at key points. Beyond that, there remained no more than two combat engineer battalions and one armored artillery battalion. Given the stubbornly overcast weather, no help was to be expected anytime soon from the powerful Allied air forces.

Middleton carefully weighed up all the information and decided that, despite the desperate picture, there was a fighting chance that his men could hold on to the crucial Belgian crossroads. He came to that conclusion because he knew that yet another force was on its way to Bastogne and was scheduled to arrive possibly even before dusk that same day. As early as on the evening of the first day of the offensive, General Bradley, commander of the 12th Army Group, had ordered General Patton, commander of the Third Army, to release the 10th Armored Division from a rest area in France for support on the southern flank of the VIII Corps near Luxembourg City. Middleton, judging the situation at Bastogne to be critical, had just urged Combat Command B to split off from the division and hurry all the way up to the threatened Belgian town. If these tank crews managed to arrive in time to link up with his 9th Armored Division reserve late on Monday, they might just buy enough time for the paratroopers to arrive next.

Amidst all the hurried calculations and reasoned gambles that Monday morning, one thing stood out clearly and starkly: Middleton’s pitiful corps reserve would, like the 110th Infantry, be asked to pay a heavy price to keep Bastogne safe.

By midnight on Sunday, Colonel Duke Gilbreth, in charge of the 9th Armored Division’s Combat Command R, had hastily set up two roadblocks on the N12, the main road leading into Bastogne from Clervaux to the northeast. The northern roadblock, led by Captain Lawrence Rose, stood at Antoniushof, a junction near the village of Lullange. Three miles to the southwest, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Harper was in control of a task force at Allerborn that blocked another N12 crossroads, this one no more than nine miles from Bastogne. Combined, Task Forces Rose and Harper consisted of 30 tanks and a little more than 1,500 men. They were the last major force standing between Bastogne and multiple German divisions. The Battle of the Bulge was their very first action in the war.

The Antoniushof junction near Lullange was on a desolate, windswept plain, broken only by a few patches of forest. As night began to lift with its excruciating wintry slowness, tense tank crews and infantrymen peered ahead, scanning the horizon. They did not have to wait long to detect movement. At dawn, figures in field gray could be seen weaving in and out of a copse. These were reconnaissance elements of the 2nd Panzer Division, and almost immediately they began probing the American roadblock. Support from howitzers of the nearby 73rd Armored Field Artillery helped keep the Germans at bay for several hours. By noon, however, the impatient veteran division was bringing its full force to bear against Task Force Rose. White phosphorus engulfed the American positions in flames, tanks blasted the infantry from their foxholes, and smoke screens allowed the German infantry to creep up from three sides. At 1405, Colonel Gilbreth, from his command post in Longvilly, just northeast of Bastogne, put in a phone call to VIII Corps headquarters and asked for permission to have Task Force Rose “fight their way out.” For General Middleton, who now expected the 10th Armored Division’s Combat Command B to arrive at any moment, each minute gained was of crucial importance. He denied the request. Barely half an hour later, the Germans overran and silenced the American position near Lullange.

The men of Task Force Harper at the N12 junction near Allerborn knew what was coming their way. For several hours they had listened in alarm to the sharp noise of battle just miles away. Now the sudden silence was even more nerve-wracking. Advance elements of von Lauchert’s armored division began harassing the Americans in late afternoon. Darkness fell soon after, and it was as if the enemy had been waiting for this to launch the decisive push. The night tactic unnerved the American defenders, perhaps because the enemy tanks had the advantage of infrared sighting devices. German Mark IVs and Panthers set American tanks and half-tracks alight, mowing down anyone spotted moving amidst the dancing flames. Panzergrenadiers swiftly infiltrated the American ranks, and the confusion of the inexperienced troops quickly turned into full-blown panic. Task Force Harper disintegrated in no time. One Sherman tank tried to draw a bead on a Panther, but could not move its turret because too many soldiers were clinging to the armored vehicle for dear life. Lieutenant Colonel Harper, the task force commander, was killed trying to escape the inferno in a half-track, and that signaled the end of organized resistance. Crews scrambled out of their tanks and joined armored infantrymen in a headlong rush for safety in the darkness.


Extract taken from ‘Locking Shields’, Chapter 2 of Those Who Hold Bastogne.

Bastogne book jacket

 

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