Why was the small Belgian town of Bastogne a stick in the wheels for the Germans in December of 1944? The town was the last obstacle in their way before bridges across the Meuse river and success of the Ardennes offensive, codenamed "Watch on the Rhine".
The Fuhrer's Ardennes Adventure
Hitler, who envisioned this operation, expected success to change the course of the war. He was not wrong: defeat of 25-30 Allied divisions pushing to Germany would stabilize the Western Front for a long time, allowing Germany to move significant forces east, against the Red Army. The biggest problem was that this plan was a gamble from the beginning. There was no other way: the state of Germany in 1944 left few reliable problem solving options.
The goal of this offensive was an assault on the Allies' supply lines, followed by a breakthrough to the Netherlands, to Antwerp. Two main German tank groups were key instruments in achieving this: the 6th SS Tank Army commanded by Sepp Dietrich and 5th Tank Army commanded by Hasso von Manteuffel. Army generals weren't too keen on being neighours with the SS, but Hitler insisted. He assumed that competition between the Wehrmacht and the SS would be key to success, but in reality poor coordination between the two groups played a more negative role.
On paper, the participants in "Watch on the Rhine" looked menacing indeed, but these numbers lost meaning by late 1944. For example, the 5th Tank Army had 56 PzIV vehicles, 72 Panthers, and 59 SPGs, with 19 Jagdpanzer IVs and 19 StuGs in reserve. To say the least, there were few tanks, and even these had problems with fuel supplies. This was going to be remedied by capturing Allied supplies.
Hitler almost left luck to fight Allied air superiority, relying on expectations of bad weather and short days. In optimal these conditions, airplanes would be stuck on their airstrips until it was too late.
German generals knew that luck alone can't win battles, but Hitler was demanding, and insubordination wouldn't end well.
A City in the Way
At first, things were going well for the Germans. Allied commanders repeated the mistake of 1940, considering the Ardennes to be impassable for large tank forces, especially in the winter. The front line here was held by only a few infantry divisions with almost no chances of stopping a tank attack. The Wehrmacht had better luck here than the SS: while the 6th army was stuck in battle, the 5th was confidently moving forward. However, Manteuffel didn't know what awaited him, same as the citizens of Bastogne, who didn't know that their city was about to become a turning point in the war.
Bastogne was necessary to both sides. The Germans needed it as a transportation center, since seven roads through the Ardennes converged here, a priceless luxury in "unpassable" terrain. According to German plans, tank forces were supposed to move forward as fast as possible, bypassing centers of resistance, but the capture of Bastogne would make supplying their forces significantly easier. The Germans made an exception to take the city as quickly as possible.
The Allies needed Bastogne as a defensive line. By morning of December 17th, only Bastogne and St. Vith separated Manteuffel's tanks from the Meuse. The same thing happened in 1941 where, having encircled a large amount of Soviet forces at Vyazma, the Germans rushed to Moscow. Then, their path was blocked by tank brigades and paratroopers from the 5th Airborne Corps. The Americans reacted in the same way: several battle groups were sent to Bastogne composed of tank divisions and soldiers from the 18th Airborne Corps, two divisions from which (82nd and 101st) were in Northern France at the time.
The first unit to fight for the defense of Bastogne was the 9th Armoured Division. In the evening of December 18th, it was attacked by the 2nd German Tank Division commanded by Meinrad von Lauchert. After a brief battle, remaining American soldiers and tanks retreated to Bastogne, The Germans did not pursue, von Lauchert thought it was more important to reach the bridges across the Meuse and the city could be taken by the 26th Volksgrenadier division and the Panzer Lehr.
Lucky for the Americans, trying to somehow spread their forces out between the roads to Bastogne, the commander of the Panzer Lehr, Fritz Bayerlein, decided to be careful and not rush into the city. Instead, he bypassed Bastogne using secondary roads, not the best solution in winter Ardennes. Meanwhile, the Americans feverishly pulled everything they could into the city, prepared their defenses, placed minefields. In the night from December 18th to December 19th, the advance guard of the 101st "Screaming Eagles" Airborne Division arrived at the city after a 100+ km march from Reims.
The first attack direction on Bastogne was carried out on December 19th. The delay stemmed from heavy losses suffered by the 902nd Panzergrenadier Regiment, which was caught in an ambush. The Germans partially compensated the bitterness of that defeat, attacking and defeating an American tank column. Their prize was 23 undamaged Sherman tanks, 15 guns, 50 Jeeps, and rear echelons of the 10th Infantry Division.
That night, Bastogne was semi-encircled. Instead of attacking the city from three sides, the Germans tried to reach the Meuse. Soon, the offensive stalled, even though only one engineering battalion separated the Germans from the river.
By then, Bastogne was home to the 101st Airborne Division, a battle group from the 10th Armoured Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and seven gun batteries. While von Lauchert awaited fuel for his tanks, the Allies started constructing defenses on the western shore of the Meuse. Montgomery's last insurance was the 43rd Wessex Infantry Division, blocking to road to Antwerp.
In these conditions, the commander of the German 47th corps didn't want to lose any precious tanks in street fighting and tried to bluff his way to victory. He sent an envoy to the city, offering the Americans and honourable surrender. If not, he threatened to wipe the city off the map with artillery, and the Americans with them.
The reply of the American commander consisted of only one word. Since none of the Germans spoke enough English to understand slang, the envoy enquired if the answer was affirmative or negative. Colonel Joseph Harper who delivered this message was happy to explain that the answer was as negative as humanly possible.
The problem the Germans faced was that they had no way of carrying out this threat. Their artillery was hopelessly stuck somewhere in the rear. Pleas to superiors had no effect, as anything that could be issued would also get stuck. The only thing that could help was aircraft, but German aviation was in a pretty sad state by 1944. The only thing the Luftwaffe could achieve was weak bombing runs in the following four days, which did not impact the defenders of Bastogne.
German forces fruitlessly attacked the city for several days. By December 22nd, they had less than one day's worth of fuel for their tanks. Their worst fears came to life on the next day: the weather improved. The American side of the scales was joined by the heavy weight of Allied aircraft. On the first day of good weather, 140 tons of cargo was delivered to the defenders. Especially valuable among it was ammunition for the howitzers of the 463rd squadron, whose crews nearly spent their last shell repelling German tanks. The guns fell silent, keeping the last few shells in reserve for potential attacks. While supplies fell on Bastogne, bombs fell on its attackers.
While it was obvious that the offensive has failed, the Germans attempted to storm the city several more times. The last strong attack happened at dawn on December 25th. Manteuffel later wrote: "While elements of the 5th Tank Army still tried to move forward, Bastogne was akin to a whirlpool, sucking in German forces, including those meant for breaking through to the Meuse."
In a critical moment, Bastogne tied down nine German divisions. German offensive plans fell apart. While it seemed certain that Bastogne would fall, the city held, while also ending the enemy offensive.
Original article available here.