Close Call Near Bastogne | HistoryNet MENU

Close Call Near Bastogne

By Leo G. Barron
11/29/2017 • World War II Magazine

In villages leading into Bastogne, two American battalions stave off a massive panzer assault.

In the villages around Bastogne on December 24, 1944, American and German commanders braced for battle. In Rolle, northwest of Bastogne, snow covered the 16thcentury château that served as the headquarters for the 101st Airborne Division’s 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, and the stables and haystacks surrounding the three-story building were crowded with paratroops— some wounded, some simply trying to stay warm on that clear, cold night. In the château’s stone chapel the 502nd’s headquarters staff celebrated Christmas Eve mass. Occasionally the sound of an exploding shell pierced the calm, but the night was comparatively quiet for the men of the 502nd, who had been surrounded since December 18, when they had raced the Germans to Bastogne, beating them there by mere hours.

For the last six days, the Wehrmacht had been stubbornly trying to punch through the American perimeter into Bastogne. Nine roads and one railroad converged at the town, and in order to advance through the dense, rolling Ardennes Forest to the Meuse River, the Germans needed those thruways. Without them, Hitler’s plan to press on to Antwerp, split the American and British armies, and prolong the war would fail.

The 101st Division was undermanned and undersupplied. They had left for the Ardennes with too few weapons and without enough winter clothing. Many of their rifle companies had not yet replenished the losses they had suffered in Holland, and the 502nd itself was only at 85 percent strength. But the men were in high spirits. An airdrop the day before had yielded much-needed food and ammunition; several German attempts to penetrate the American lines had failed; and word of Gen. Anthony McAuliffe’s gutsy response to the Germans’ request for surrender—“Nuts!”—had boosted morale. Though the men surely missed their friends and loved ones that Christmas Eve, they knew that the quickest way home was to give the Germans hell.

In Bras, some nine miles southwest of Rolle, German general Heinz Kokott had planned an attack that he hoped would be the decisive moment of the offensive. Hitler had demanded that Bastogne be taken on the 25th, and the 54-year-old division commander intended to deliver a one-two punch to the Americans’ western perimeter. He would use the 77th Regiment of his 26th Volksgrenadier Division and the recently arrived 115th Regiment of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division—each supported by massive amounts of artillery—to puncture the 101st’s western defenses at two small farming villages, Champs and Hemroulle, that controlled the roads leading into Bastogne and were held by the 502nd and its supporting elements. Then the tanks could roll directly into Bastogne.

Timing was critical. Kokott wanted his forces to be in Bastogne by 9 a.m.; any later and the Allied air forces would arrive to decimate his men before they reached the town. Still, he did not anticipate much resistance. Because most of the German attacks had been on the southern and eastern sides of the 101st’s perimeter, he reasoned, the American forces to the west would be unprepared for an assault—especially on Christmas morning.

In theory, Kokott was right: Though the 101st intelligence staff had identified several Wehrmacht divisions around Bastogne, they had no inkling that the 15th Panzergrenadier Division had arrived on the battlefield. Nor were they aware that the Germans planned to unleash an entire division of combat power against two American battalions, a ratio of three men to one in favor of the attacker—or that the main thrust of the attack would occur near a seam in the American line, where units tended to buckle in the empty space that separated them.

But Kokott underestimated the determination of the men of the 502nd and its supporting elements. Though underarmored and outnumbered, those men knew the stakes, knew that the ensuing battle could decide not just Bastogne’s fate, but the fate of the entire German offensive.

The headquarters staff of the 502nd, led by Lt. Col. Steven Chappuis, turned in at 1:30 a.m. on Christmas morning. At about 3 a.m., the Luftwaffe began a bombing raid near Rolle. Around the same time, the Germans began massive shelling to the west, in Champs, where 1st Battalion’s A Company was stationed. Lt. Col. Patrick J. Cassidy, the 502nd’s executive officer, rushed downstairs and called the A Company commander, Capt. Wallace A. Swanson, to find out what was happening there. Swanson replied that enemy activity on his front had increased, but the Germans’ intentions were still unclear; when Cassidy checked back a half-hour later, Swanson reported that the enemy “was on top of him.” Then the line went dead.

Cassidy woke Chappuis. When they resumed communication with Swanson, he reported that A Company was now heavily engaged in house-to-house fighting. Some 50 Germans of the 77th Volksgrenadier Regiment, virtually invisible against the snow in their white camouflage, had infiltrated from Rouette and Givry and seized the northern portion of Champs.

Chappuis ordered Maj. John D. Hanlon, 1st Battalion commander, to get his B Company from Hemroulle to Champs as support. Hanlon immediately directed the men of B Company to reestablish the roadblock south of Champs, then went to join A Company in the besieged town.

Chappuis then heard from Lt. Col. Thomas H. Sutliffe, commander of the 502nd’s 2nd Battalion, that German forces had infiltrated a small patch of woods on 1st Battalion’s right flank. Sutliffe had extended his left flank to close the breach, but Chappuis was convinced that those men would not be enough to reinforce the perimeter. He radioed Hanlon again and ordered him to dispatch a platoon from B Company to link up with 2nd Battalion and seal the gap.

Hanlon balked at sending any more of his men into the village before first light—the fighting in Champs was too chaotic. In the snowy morning dark, no one could tell who was a friend and who was an enemy. Chappuis made a command decision: B Company would remain behind A Company as a second line of defense. The men of A Company were on their own.

Swanson had no choice then but to continue the bitter struggle for control of Champs. Fortunately for him, a platoon of tank destroyers from the Reconnaissance Company of the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion was still manning a roadblock south of the town. Swanson called over to the platoon leader for assistance, and soon two M18 Hellcat tank destroyers rolled into the village. One of the Hellcat commanders, Sgt. Lawrence Valletta, moved in toward a stone house that sheltered some 30 Germans and blew it apart. Further up the road, he destroyed two more houses; at dawn, he shelled a fourth. By the time he was finished, Valletta had smashed four machine gun nests and wiped out several hiding places for enemy soldiers. Swanson ordered the tank destroyer commander to keep his vehicles in the village in case of another attack. Company A and the 705th had blunted the 77th Regiment’s attack on Champs—but Swanson sensed that something larger and more dangerous was afoot.

The main thrust of the German attack was southwest of Champs. Two armored field artillery battalions, the 1st and 2nd, from Col. Wolfgang Maucke’s 115th Regiment were advancing toward Bastogne from the west. At 5:30 a.m. 1st Battalion, supported by 18 Panzer IV tanks, had engaged American forces in Flamizoulle; a mere 15 minutes later, they had ejected the Americans from nearby Mande-St.-Etienne, and began to charge toward Bastogne. Meanwhile, 2nd Battalion had met little resistance and passed to the north of Flamizoulle.

Spread out against the German juggernaut was Lt. Col. Ray C. Allen’s 3rd Battalion, 327th Glider Infantry Regiment. Reports had begun to filter back to the 327th’s command post as early as 5 a.m. that a group of Panzer IVs were forming up east of Mande St.-Etienne—but the men of 3rd Battalion, straining to bridge the gap between themselves and the 502nd, were unprepared for the massive tank assault heading toward them. By 6 a.m., panzers from Maucke’s 1st Battalion were heading toward Allen’s battalion and, more important, toward the overextended left flank of B Company. Behind the tanks were some 500 Germans.

Around 7 a.m., the 18 panzers burst through the seam between 3rd Battalion’s A and B companies. “The column of 60-ton German tanks began moving into Company A’s positions with their flamethrowers blazing. Each tank had 15 or 16 infantrymen, wearing white sheets, riding on it, and some infantrymen were walking beside the tanks,” Allen later recalled. “They were firing rifles and flamethrowers.” The glidermen could not hold.

From his command post some distance away, Allen called C Company for backup—only to receive more bad news. “Tanks are coming toward you,” reported the company commander.

Allen paused. “Where?”

“If you look out your window,” he answered, “you will be looking down the muzzle of an 88.”

Allen didn’t waste time. He called the 327th commander, Col. Joseph Harper. “Tanks are appearing at my CP,” Allen shouted. “They are firing point blank at me from 150 yards range. My units are still in position, but I’ve got to run.”

Along with two of his staff members, Allen dashed into the woods for cover as the German tanks opened fire. The panzers were now behind American lines. Just west of Hemroulle, the panzer force split in two. The majority of Maucke’s tanks rolled on toward Bastogne; the remaining seven turned north, setting their course for Rolle—and the headquarters of the 502nd.

Inside the Rolle château, Colonel Chappuis was virtually alone. Almost his entire staff was on the perimeter, fighting. Worse, he had lost communication with division headquarters in Bastogne and could not inform them of the assault headed their way. As the château came under artillery fire, Lt. Samuel Nickels, the 1st Battalion S-2 security officer, burst into the command post. “There are seven enemy tanks and lots of infantry coming over the hill on your left!” he reported. These were the same tanks that had penetrated the 327th’s southern defenses, and they were less than half a mile away. All that remained between the Germans and the château was a shallow ravine.

Chappuis had few soldiers and no time. He rallied his staff— clerks, cooks, even chaplains—to mount a last-ditch defense, and assigned Capt. James C. Stone to command the makeshift force. The men positioned themselves to the west, close to the Champs–Hemroulle road, and soon they were joined by any wounded 502nd paratroops still capable of walking. Chappuis, Cassidy, and one radio operator remained at headquarters.

The panzers were now 600 yards from the château. Cassidy ordered Hanlon to leave B Company in position outside of Champs, but to have the men orient their fire southwest, to their rear. Cassidy could not raise C Company on the radio so he dispatched a runner to coordinate their fire. But the men of C Company, still moving to support the rest of the 502nd’s 1st Battalion, did not need a runner to inform them that the panzers were approaching. Their commander, Capt. George Cody, watched as the tanks rolled towards his men and opened fire.

Cody’s men did not panic, withdrawing toward the tree line southeast of the Champs–Hemroulle road. But they needed support: Company C’s main antitank weapon, the bazooka, could pierce up to 100 millimeters of armor, but the gunners could not realistically engage the panzers until they were about 300 yards away. They needed something heavier.

Major Hanlon contacted the 1st Platoon of the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion’s B Company and ordered their tank destroyers into the fray. Two destroyers under Sgt. George Schmidt moved 1,000 yards south toward Hemroulle. Schmidt’s destroyers, with their open turrets, were vulnerable to small arms fire, but had only haystacks as cover. From there, he moved another 300 yards south, where he spotted two Panzer IV tanks and five self-propelled guns. Schmidt’s two tank destroyers didn’t stand a chance against seven armored vehicles, so he decided to return to his original position, and radioed his findings to his platoon commander.

Schmidt’s section never reached its destination. As the tank destroyers tried to return to their original position, the German panzers pounced on them, wiping out the destroyers and killing Schmidt. Still, the tank destroyers’ efforts were not in vain. They drew the brunt of the panzer attacks, allowing the rest of C Company to redeploy to the wood line. The panzer crews did not know it, but this was the apex of their attack—Schmidt’s destroyers were not the only ones in the area.

Staff Sgt. Donald Williams, who commanded a section from 3rd Platoon, C Company of the 705th, had linked up with 1st Platoon earlier in the fight. He was placing his two tank destroyers on the crossroads south of Rolle when Maucke’s panzers appeared. As the destroyers pushed south, a panzer in the wood line south of the crossroads opened fire, and Williams shifted his vehicles to avoid the barrage. He decided to move through the woods toward Rolle so that he could attack the troublesome tank from its rear. Before he could shoot the panzer, the nearby paratroops forced it out of its hiding place with their bazookas. The panzer tried to escape up the road, but Williams sent several antitank rounds slamming into it, stopping it in its tracks. Williams did not have time to celebrate, however: more panzers were upon him now, rolling toward the 502nd’s château headquarters.

Instead of wasting bullets on the heavily armored German tanks, the Americans aimed for the men on top. The Germans turned the panzers north toward Champs to carry the infantry out of the line of fire—but the movement exposed their flanks. Williams and the destroyers from 1st Platoon opened fire from their position in the wood line. Stone’s hodge-podge group— the clerks, cooks, chaplains, and other men Chappuis had rallied at the château—destroyed a German tank almost immediately with bazookas; then Company C knocked out another. One panzer tried to make it to the bend in the road, but the tank destroyers killed it before it could reach cover. The other two panzers failed to reach even the crossroad: with a withering fire, the destroyers turned the tanks into smoldering hulks. With their armored protection gone, the German infantry felt the paratroops’ full fury. When the firing ended, the Americans had captured 35 German soldiers and counted 67 bodies.

Only one panzer now remained of the seven that Lieutenant Nickels had spotted earlier. It penetrated B Company’s defenses and broke into Champs. Capt. James Hatch, the 502nd S-3 operations officer, was at A Company’s Champs command post when he heard the chaos. He rushed outside with his pistol, then stopped dead as he stared down the barrel of the lone panzer’s 75mm gun.

“This is no place for a pistol!” he shouted to the others in the A Company command post as he ran back inside and shut the door. Before the panzer could answer, men from A Company rushed toward the metal beast and annihilated it with bazookas and a towed 57mm antitank gun.

The daring assault was over. A Company had destroyed the last of the panzers that had threatened the 502nd’s regimental head- quarters, and the panzers that had wheeled east toward Bastogne after breaking through the 327th’s defenses fared no better—10 of the tanks had met their end in Hemroulle, caught in a brutal crossfire laid down by four tank destroyers from the 705th, joined by American tanks, glidermen, and men of the 463rd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion. The last remaining tank had been captured intact.

News of the failed attack was slow to reach the Germans. Kokott, who had last heard that tanks from 1st Battalion were on the edge of Bastogne, pestered Maucke from division headquarters. The constant haranguing ended when an artillery round crashed into Maucke’s command post, knocking out communication with the division.

In fact, Maucke had lost contact with his 1st Battalion completely and had no idea its 18 panzers had been wiped out by the Americans. The units he was in contact with were in tatters. He still had his 3rd Battalion north of Flamierge, about seven miles west of Bastogne, but his 2nd Battalion had sustained serious losses. An artillery round had hit the battalion’s command post, wounding or killing the entire staff. Maucke decided to end the bloodletting and ordered his men to go on the defensive. At 9 a.m., as Kokott had predicted, the dreaded American fighter-bombers appeared over the battlefield.

Kokott finally got word that the attack had failed later that morning, when he received reports that the Americans had destroyed the panzers in Hemroulle, and the 77th had ceded Champs to the paratroops to conserve their strength. Kokott called off the attack that afternoon. “To continue the attacks on Bastogne with the now decimated division,” he wrote in that day’s battle report, “would be irresponsible and unfeasible.”

That night, Maucke went forward to find the missing tanks. He searched in vain for survivors but found none; he never knew what happened to the lost battalion.

Lieutenant Colonel Allen of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment did: 17 smoldering tank hulls were all that remained. “Their shattered, blazing hulks were scattered along the road and in the snow-covered field,” Allen recalled. “Most of them had been hit so many times and by so many different weapons that it was impossible to tell what actually stopped them. But none of the tanks had made it to Bastogne.”

The next day, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army punched through the German cordon and relieved Bastogne. Though the Battle of the Bulge would continue for almost a month, the Germans never regained the ground they lost.

The 502nd and its supporting elements did suffer some casualties during the Christmas Day attack—most notably A Company of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment’s 3rd Battalion, which lost 32 of its 77 men. But it was the Germans who suffered most. Though exact figures are unknown, two battalions—more than 300 men—were wiped out, and the remaining forces were, in Kokott’s words, “weakened to such an extent that it was questionable whether they would be able at all to withstand an energetic thrust by the enemy.”

The numbers beg the question: how exactly did the Americans claim victory that day over the Germans, who had not just the element of surprise of their side, but the clear advantage in men and materiel?

Simply put, their triumph over the Germans can be attributed to their veteran status and to their training, which emphasized flexibility, coordination, and energetic and skilled fighting. As Gen. Anthony McAuliffe explained, “I continued to warn my infantry that the tanks would break through, and that they were to be mentally prepared for such penetrations, since they were really nothing to worry about. …Well, [the panzers] did break through—the chief break-through coming on Christmas morning—and they got it from all sides.”

 

Originally published in the February 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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