Driving back from Luxembourg on a cold winters day, I passed through the Ardennes town of Bastogne and stopped at the (aptly named) “Place MacAuliffe” to have a look at the little statue and the Sherman tank next to it. I looked down the roads, radiating from that little town. And suddenly, on that cold and grey day with steadily falling snow, I got a feeling for what the battle for this town must have been.
The siege started on December 20, 1944 when three German Panzer divisors, commanded by Heinrich Freiherr van Lüttwitz attacked the little crossroads town in order to establish control over the seven roads radiating from it.
The town was quickly surrounded by the German Panzer Divisions but moving in and taking it proved to be a hard job.
It was defended by elements of the 9th and 10th US Armoured Divisions, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and the “Screaming Eagles”, the US 101st. Airborne.
The US forces, hastily trucked in the day before, were completely isolated. And the worst winter weather in memory made tactical air support or re-supply by air impossible.
And still, despite being outnumbered 5:1, without cold-weather gear or clothing, with little ammunition, even fewer medical supplies and almost no food , the US soldiers fought the attacking Germans to a standstill.
By December 22, the German commanding officer, General von Lüttwitz, decided to tell the Americans defending the town that it was time to stop. He sent this message:
To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.
The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.
There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honourable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.
If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.
All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.
The German Commander.
A little later,McAuliffe sent his historic reply:
To the German commander
The American commander
This reply baffled the Germans until someone finally realized it meant “Go to hell!”
The battle for Bastogne raged on until December 26th, when elements of the 3rd US Army reached the encircled town. Instead of being relieved, the 101st was ordered on the offensive. During the next weeks they fought alongside other US units, facing elite German units such as the 1st SS Panzer division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. On January 17, after two weeks of heavy and tenacious fighting, the US troops had pushed the Germans back to the positions they had started from.
The 101st Airborne bore the brunt of the German onslaught and suffered 2.000+ casualties (out of 3.000+ for all Allied forces).
The Belgian population still honours the sacrifices made by the US soldiers, by monuments and even a special series of postage stamps, issued to commemorate the siege of Bastogne.