Operation Wacht am Rhein was the name given by Hitler for his plan to break through the Ardennes.
Hitler had chosen the region of the Ardennes because the front was weakly defended by four Infantry Divisions and by only one Armored Division, approximately 50,000 men.
- the 99th Infantry Division with no combat experience – Major General Walter E. Lauer
- the 106th Infantry Division with no combat experience – Brigadier General Herbert T. Perrin (as of December 22nd, 1944)
- the 9th Armored Division with no combat experience – Major General John W. Leonard
- the 4th and 28th Infantry Divisions exhausted after the Hürtgen Forest three months battle sent to rest in the Ardennes region – Major General Raymond O. Barton for the 4th Infantry Division / Major General Norman D. Cota for the 28th Infantry Division
Operation Wacht am Rhein plan consisted in a frontal attack by three armies of Heeresgruppe B (Army Group B) under the orders of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model (1891 – 1945) with approximately 240,000 troops of the 420,000 troops available on the Western Front!
- the 6th SS Panzer Army under the command of Oberst-Gruppenführer Josef “Sepp” Dietrich (1892 – 1966)
- the 5th Panzer Army under the command of General Hasso Eccard von Manteuffel (1897 – 1978) whose objective was to take Antwerp by crossing the river Meuse between Namur and Liège
- the 7th Army under the command of General Erich Brandenberger (1892 – 1955) whose objective was to progress all the way to Givet, France (D-949) and secure the southern flank
DECEMBER 16TH, 1944
On December 16th, 1944, Operation Wacht am Rhein commenced with a major offensive in the West. The German artillery started a fierce barrage in the fog!
Three German armies attacked at 0800 hours on a 120 km (today 103 km of road network) wide front between Monschau (Germany) and Echternach (Luxembourg).
During the first hours of Operation Wacht am Rhein, the American troops were bumped into, some sectors of the front were falling back, losses were heavy, and many soldiers were made prisoners.
Despite having been taken by surprise, some units of the green boys and the ones exhausted after the Hürtgen forest campaign showed fierce resistance costing valuable time to the Germans!
The consequences for the Germans were:
- in the North, the 6th SS Panzer Army was shuffling about with only the Kampfgruppe Peiper making good progress.
- In the Center, the 5th Panzer Army was advancing but not as fast as initially planned.
- In the South, the 7th Army was taking substantial losses while trying to protect the southern flank of the 5th Panzer Army.
While the North held firm their positions, the soon to be famous town of Bastogne, symbol of resistance against the Nazis, in the South came under attack.
The troops of the 28th Infantry Division and the 9th Armored Division were fighting bravely against the enemy but unless they received troops support, supplies, munitions they wouldn’t be able to hold much longer their positions!
To make matters worse than it was already, the fog kept the US Air Force grounded.
In Versailles, France, the scale of the offensive was not immediately apparent to General Eisenhower and General Bradley!
DECEMBER 17TH, 1944
The day after the German attack, December 17th, 1944, the Allies reacted promptly, taking the right decisions, giving out orders, finally realizing the magnitude of the German offensive!
Reinforcements were rapidly sent to the Ardennes to hold and defend strategic towns/crossroads/rail centers such as Bastogne and Saint Vith.
In the North, the 7th Armored Division, under the command of Brigadier General Robert W. Hasbrouck, were sent to Saint Vith to defend the key crossroad against the 5th Panzer Army.
Meanwhile near Reims, the famous French champagne region, soldiers on leave were urgently called back to their barracks. Supplies, munitions were given out to the soldiers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions with marching orders toward Belgium!
Combat Command B, 10th Armored Divisions, under the command of Major General William H. H. Morris Jr., were also sent to Bastogne and were the first combat troops to reach the threatened town
Genera Patton in the south canceled his offensive on the Sarre region and made his 3rd Army swing ninety degrees to head off to Bastogne as fast as possible.
DECEMBER 18TH, 1944
December 18th, 1944, the desperate resistance of the 110th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division and Combat R of the 9th Armored Division facing several German divisions made it possible for the reinforcements to arrive right on time in Bastogne before being totally surrounded.
Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division under the command of Colonel Roberts arrived late afternoon.
Colonel Roberts deployed rapidly three teams to the north and east of Bastogne to block the access to the enemy with roadblocks.
- Team Desobry on the road between Noville and Bourcy – Major William Desobry facing the 2nd Panzer Division
- Team O’Hara at Wardin – Lieutenant-Colonel James O’Hara, facing the Panzer Lehr
- Team Cherry at Longvilly – Lieutenant-Colonel Henry T. Cherry, also facing the Panzer Lehr
The first elements of the 501st PIR of the 101st Airborne Division under the command of Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe entered the division assembly area 4 miles (6.4 km) west of Bastogne during the night of December 18th / 19th, 1944.
The 82nd Airborne Division coming from Camp Suippes and Sissonne, France finally headed to Werbomont (N66) with the objective to hold back the advance of Kampfgruppe Peiper, a more or less 220 km journey.
DECEMBER 19TH, 1944
Early in the morning of December 19th, 1944, the first units of the 101st Airborne Division deployed north and east of Bastogne to reinforce the Teams of Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division.
The timing was perfect as elements of the 2nd Panzer Division and Panzer Lehr Division were at the gates of Bastogne!
In the village of Noville, the Desobry Team of the 10th Armored Division suffered 412 losses but succeeded with the 1st Battalion of the 506th PIR of the 101st Airborne Division to stop the 2nd Panzer Division which, in two days, lost 30 of their tanks!
The same day the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Templeton made it to Bastogne with orders to reinforce the defensive line with his Tank Destroyers M-18 Hellcat.
Late in the evening, the 101st Airborne Division Clearing Station of the 326th Airborne Medical Company at Barrière-Hinck (N826) was overrun by reconnaissance elements of the 2nd Panzer Division who had bypassed Bastogne by the north.
They attacked with armored vehicles and infantry. The hospital was sprayed by machine-gun fire for at least 15 minutes with a lot of soldiers killed or wounded. The ones who survived became prisoner of war.
DECEMBER 20TH, 1944
December 20th, 1944, the enemy were succeeding in bypassing the town and putting pressure on the American troops.
General Eisenhower then decided to give Montgomery command of the northern sector of the Battle of the Bulge where the Americans were resisting the German offensive and kept General Bradley in command of the south.
Meanwhile, Combat Command B Teams of the 10th Armored Division, who had received reinforcements from the 101st Airborne, had no choice but to withdraw.
In Noville, the 3rd Battalion of the 502nd PIR and 3rd Battalion of the 506th PIR succeeded in holding off the enemy and made their withdrawal to Foy. This is where from 1945 to 1948, two thousand seven hundred and one Americans had a temporary burial ground.
To say the least, Bastogne was an issue for the Germans, who had not foreseen such resistance and were now losing precious time!
General von Manteuffel ordered the panzer divisions of the 5th Panzer Army to bypass Bastogne by whatever means and rush to the river Meuse.
In the meantime, the 26th Volksgrenadier Division under the orders of Generalmajor Heinz Kokott (1900 – 1976) reinforced with a Kampfgruppe of the Panzer Lehr Division received the mission to take Bastogne. For Hitler, Bastogne was a symbol of resistance that had to be crushed!
The defense for the Americans was to attack continuously! At one point the ammunition ration was eleven rounds to a gun. No planes were able to break through the low ceiling to bring support and supplies. There were too many wounded for the medics to handle. When was this all going to end?
DECEMBER 21ST, 1944
The 26th Volksgrenadier Division succeeded in surrounding Bastogne on December 21st, 1944 and attacked the American troops from all sides.
The last road still opened, Neufchâteau (N85), was finally taken and cut off by the Germans.
Agents of the German secret police, the SIPO-SD captured 20 hostages in Noville, eight of them were executed.
18,000 American troops under the command of Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe (1898 – 1975) of the 101st Airborne Division were trapped, totally surrounded by the enemy and if you could make matters worse, on that day it started snowing!
Brigadier General McAuliffe forces then were composed of:
- the 101st Airborne Division
- the remnants of the 28th Infantry Division
- the Combat Command R, 9th Armored Division regrouped to compose team “SNAFU” (Situation Normal All Fucked Up)
- the Combat Command B, 10th Armored Division
- the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion – Lieutenant-Colonel Clifford Templeton
- elements of the 969th Field Artillery Battalion – Lieutenant-Colonel Hubert D. Barnes
- elements of the 755th Field Artillery Battalion – Lieutenant-Colonel William F. Hartman
An artillery battle took place in Senonchamps (near the N4). Kampfgruppe Kunkel of the 26th Grenadier, advanced from Sibret which fell on December 20th, 1944 and Villeroux (near the N85) to attack the Americans using 155 mm guns but thanks to the reinforcements the assault was pushed back.
Nearby, the Château-d’Isle-la-Hesse (near N4) was used briefly as a tactical headquarters for the 101st Airborne Division because of the night-time bombardments on Bastogne.
DECEMBER 22ND, 1944
On December 22nd, 1944 in the southern sector of the perimeter, four German emissaries under the cover of a white flag brought the American defenders of Bastogne a message.
The two German officers were escorted by Private First-Class Ernest D. Premetz of the 327th GIR, 101st Airborne Division to the Kessler farm.
General McAuliffe was informed about the message of the demand of surrender, his response which made history was without any hesitation: “NUTS”
Not sure to understand the meaning of “NUTS”, PFC Premetz translated it to the German officers by saying it meant “Go to hell”.
Meanwhile, the situation for the American troops was getting worse, with shortage of supplies, munitions, medics.
To make matters worse, the town being totally surrounded, the wounded could not be evacuated and because of lack of drugs, some wounded sadly died due to the lack of appropriate medical treatments.
In the south, the 4th Armored Division tanks and infantry, under the command of Major General Hugh J. Gaffey, were fighting fiercely to try to clear a path for the defenders of Bastogne without success.
They had raced northwest into Belgium and covered 150 miles in 19 hours, entering the battle on December 18th, 1944!
General Patton Third Army massive offensive began that day, his armored units met fierce German resistance, mainly at Hompré (near N4), where Generalmajor Kokott 26th Division of the Volksgrenadier had his headquarters.
DECEMBER 23RD, 1944
Since Operation Wacht am Rhein had started the weather conditions were horrible, fog, cold and snow but on December 23rd, 1944, the weather improved, the fog lifted, and the sky was clear and blue!
The Ninth US Air Force bombers organized bombing raids to destroy the means of communications of the enemy by blowing up the road and railway bridges in order to prevent the enemy to provide reinforcements and supplies on the front.
Thanks to the good weather conditions it was finally time to launch Operation Repulse consisting in an air resupply of the surrounded troops of Bastogne.
Back in England, at Chalgrove, at dawn twenty pathfinders of the 506th PIR climbed aboard two C-47 planes, which took off at 0645 hours. They were to be the only paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division to be dropped on Bastogne with the same mission as in Normandy, guide the C-47s! Code name, Operation Repulse Kangaroo
The lead plane was piloted by Lieutenant-Colonel Crouch, the second by 1st Lieutenant Lionel E. Wood.
The first pathfinder team jumped at 0931 hours, three minutes after landing the smoke signal was set off and by 0955 the second pathfinder team was also on the ground.
The two pilots flew a few times in circles to check the reliability of the Eureka radio system and when satisfied, flew back to England.
The pathfinders were now ready to guide the first waves of C-47 scheduled later in the morning.
The first C-47 arrived above the drop zone at 1145 hours and dropped its load at 1150 hours.
Hundreds of C-47 dropped accurately, thanks to the pathfinders, 144 tons of ammunitions, food, and medical supplies over Bastogne!
The troops on the ground were astonished by the bravery of the pilots who stuck to their flight path in spite of being under the murderous flak (anti-aircraft artillery) of the enemy, which shot down a number of aircraft.
Meanwhile in the south, the fierce enemy resistance facing the 3rd U.S. Army of General Patton slowed down their progression toward the besieged town.
Worse, the few bombers still available of the Luftwaffe succeeded in bombing Bastogne and hit the Field Hospital of Combat Command B, 10th Armored Division causing many casualties.
Among them one of the two Angels of Bastogne. They are both resting today at the cemetery near the Barracks.
DECEMBER 24TH, 1944
On Christmas Eve, December 24th, 1944, the German artillery pounded Bastogne while Generalmajor Heinz Kokott led an attack on Champs (N854) with the 15th Panzergrenadier and the 77th Infantry Regiment of the 26th Volksgrenadier, with the objective of taking the town.
The village was used by the enemy to launch attacks against Bastogne, but the 502nd PIR of the 101st Airborne Division under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Steve A. Chappuis, surrounded, fought fiercely and succeeded in holding back the enemy thanks to the support of an anti-aircraft regiment.
Tanks engaged each other in combat on the road between Champs and Hemroulle while hand to hand fighting continued in the village of Champs, in the houses, in the cellars.
The survivors called this place between Longchamps and Champs “misery wood”!
Except for one, all the Panzers were destroyed!
In the nearby school of Champs, a German officer had found the time to write on the blackboard: “May the world never experience another Christmas Eve such as this one! There is nothing crueler and more terrible than to be violently killed far away from one’s mother, wife and children. Is it right to rob a mother of a son, a wife of a husband and small children of their father? Life is given to us, in order for us to love and respect each other. From the ruins, the blood and death, no doubt a universal brotherhood shall be born.”
DECEMBER 25TH, 1944
The day of Christmas was you could say a miracle!
On December 25th, 1944 Major Howard F. Serrel, a qualified surgeon who had volunteered to come as reinforcement to treat the heavy wounded, successfully landed in a Piper Cub (L-I) inside the town’s perimeter. In 36 hours, assisted by the medical personnel, he did 15 surgical procedures!
The enemy that day launched an important attack in the northern sector of Bastogne with tanks and infantry, pushing thru the lines and reaching the village of Hemroulle (N854), 4 km from Bastogne.
Even though it was Christmas, there was no truce and the bombers of the Luftwaffe that day caused heavy losses among the population and the American troops.
At the Barracks of Bastogne, a Christmas dinner was organized with the following participants:
- Brigadier General McAuliffe, 101st Airborne Division, Acting Commanding General of the Division
- Brigadier General Gerald J. Higgins, 101st Airborne Division, Assistant Division Commander
- Colonel Thomas L. Sherburne, 101st Airborne Division, Acting Division Artillery Commander
- Lieutenant Colonel Ned D. Moore, 101st Airborne Division, G-1
- Lieutenant Colonel Paul Danahy, 101st Airborne Division, G-2
- Lieutenant Colonel Harry W. O. Kinnard, 101st Airborne Division, G-3
- Lieutenant Colonel Carl Kohls, 101st Airborne Division, G-4
- Colonel Curtis Renfro, 101st Airborne Division, Liaison Officer and Special Troops
- Colonel William L. Roberts, 10th Armored Division, Commander Combat Command B
While some were trying to celebrate Christmas and have a bit of recomfort, General Patton Third Army was now only 9 km from Bastogne!
DECEMBER 26TH, 1944
The next day, December 26th, 1944, after a day of fog, the sky was clear again enabling Operation Repulse to start again!
Hundreds of C-47 dropped the precious resupply and for the first-time gliders were used.
Eleven of them managed to land in the defense perimeter with, on board of one of them, a surgical team of the Third Army, which landed at 1600 hours! Their names:
- Major Laman Soutter, MC
- Captain Stanley P. Wesolowski, MC
- Captain Foy H. Moody, MC
- Captain Edward N. Zinschlag, MC
- Captain Henry M. Mills, MC
- Four enlisted surgical assistants
Altogether 1,000 C-47 planes and 61 CG-4A gliders flew during the four days of Operation Repulse.
More than 800 tons of ammunition, fuel, rations and medical resupply were recovered easily identified by the soldiers with parachute color codes.
- Red – ammunition
- Orange – explosives, bazookas and projectiles
- Yellow – medical resupply
- White – food
- Green – to