Sergeant Joseph Rogan took a long drag from a cigarette as he stared intently at the terrain that disappeared into the darkness and fog to his front. It was about 3:30 a.m. on December 25, 1944, and Rogan was spending his second Christmas overseas in a foxhole on the outskirts of Bastogne, Belgium. His partner, Corporal Restor Bryan, was resting in the corner of the hole, enjoying a rare moment when he could sleep in this intensely cold, snow-covered region.
Rogan and Bryan were forward observers for the 463rd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion. Their battalion command post was in the village of Hemroulle, about a mile northwest of Bastogne. A machine gun crew from Company A, 401st Glider Infantry Regiment, was within a stone’s throw of the two men, and a third member of the 463rd, Corporal William Everhardt, was in a slit trench not far behind their position.
The sound of distant shells and bombs crashing around Champs did not even stir the exhausted infantry and artillerymen, leaving Rogan alone to think about home and happier Christmases. The 594 men of his artillery battalion should have been sleeping off their hangovers from Christmas Eve celebrations in Mourmelon, France. They had arrived there only 13 days earlier with orders to join the 17th Airborne Division once it came in from England. Instead, the holiday found them battling German tanks and troops desperately attempting to pierce the American defenses around Bastogne.
Never willing to dodge a fight, the 463rd’s commander, Lt. Col. John Cooper, had volunteered his unit to Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, the 101st Airborne Division’s acting commander, as soon as he heard the division was being rushed to Belgium to help repel a major enemy breakthrough. Cooper’s zeal was a lucky break for the men of the 101st. The veterans of the 463rd had already distinguished themselves in combat in Sicily, Italy and southern France.
The 463rd’s odyssey to this Christmas morning in Belgium began in February 1942, when the War Department authorized the creation of the first test parachute artillery battery. That experimental unit would become Battery B, 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion. Colonel Harrison B. Harden Jr. was designated the new battalion commander. The battalion’s first combat jump was in Sicily on the evening of July 9, 1943, in support of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
The battalion’s primary mission was to fire at enemy troops and tanks utilizing a high arc, or indirect fire. During the intense Battle of Biazza Ridge, however, the battery had scored its first victory against enemy tanks using direct fire. Following the Sicilian campaign, the battalion was split up. Batteries C and D remained with the 82nd Airborne Division and transferred to England to prepare for the invasion of France. Headquarters Battery and Batteries A and B supported the 1st Special Service Force and participated in the Italian campaign battles for Monte Cassino, Anzio and Rome. In February 1944 the three batteries were redesignated the 463rd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, with Major Hugh A. Neal as battalion commander. Neal’s command was short-lived, however, for less than four months later an enemy shell seriously wounded him. He was replaced by Cooper, who remained the battalion commander for the duration of the war.
In early July, the 463rd received 200 replacements, which were used to create Batteries C and D. Now a complete battalion once again, the 463rd was attached to the 1st Airborne Task Force and jumped into southern France on August 15.
By the end of the month, the 463rd was transferred to the French Maritime Alps to assist in blocking any attempted German escape from France into Italy. At the beginning of December the battalion was transferred to Mourmelon, where it arrived on December 12. By then, a large number of the 463rd’s members had been overseas more than 19 months.
The battalion was ordered to rest and refit while waiting for the 17th Airborne Division, then in training in England. As it awaited the arrival of its new division, the battalion was temporarily attached to the 101st Airborne Division for administration and rations.
A few of the artillery battalion commanders in the 101st, unfamiliar with the 463rd, thought the battalion consisted of a bunch of greenhorns just arriving from the States. During one dinner discussion between Cooper and officers from the 101st, a debate developed about the ability of a 75mm pack howitzer to knock out a German tank. At one point, Cooper said, ‘We certainly can knock out Mark IV tanks with a 75 pack howitzer.’ An artillery officer from the 101st responded, ‘Do not ever say, in your after-action reports, that you knocked out a tank, because General Anthony McAuliffe says you might disable, but you’ll never knock out a tank.’ Incredulous, Cooper was quick to respond to the taunt. ‘We have spent more time waiting for our parachutes to open,’ he said, ‘than you guys have spent in combat since the invasion of Europe.’ Cooper would soon have an opportunity to back up his words with deeds.
Fate had placed Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, the 101st’s artillery commander, in acting command of the division when word reached Mourmelon that the Germans had launched a major offensive in Belgium. Major General Maxwell Taylor, the 101st’s commander, was in the United States, and his deputy, Brig. Gen. Gerald Higgins, was in England along with five senior divisional commanders and 16 junior officers to discuss the recently concluded operation in the Netherlands.
After being alerted by XVIII Airborne Corps headquarters, McAuliffe called a division staff meeting at 9 p.m. on December 17 to mobilize the division. To his shocked and sullen officers he announced, ‘All I know of the situation is that there has been a breakthrough, and we have got to get up there.’ He informed them that they should be ready to move out by truck the next morning for Werbomont, Belgium.
As the meeting broke up, Cooper approached McAuliffe and the acting division artillery commander, Colonel Thomas Sherburne, to remind them that his unit was only temporarily attached to the 101st and requested permission to join the division in its advance. McAuliffe directed Cooper to talk to Colonel Joseph H. ‘Bud’ Harper of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, which lacked direct support artillery. Cooper found Harper, who had just made it back from England, and asked, ‘Do you need me?’ Harper replied, ‘You’re goddamn right.’ As a formality, Cooper returned to his battalion and gave his officers a choice of whether to stay and wait for the 17th or to join the 327th. To a man, the officers voted to go.
The division’s convoy began leaving Mourmelon at 9 the next morning. Since the 463rd would be supporting the 327th, which was the last infantry regiment to leave, Cooper’s battalion did not set out until 9:30 that evening. After more than a year of active campaigning Cooper knew that you could never have enough ammunition and directed the battalion’s truck drivers to pass by Mourmelon’s ammunition dump yard. ‘As we passed the ammo dump,’ Cooper remembered, ‘I turned and took the whole battalion through with orders to load as much 75mm ammo as we could carry in any vehicle, regardless of how crowded they were.’ This extra ammunition would come in very handy a few days later when the Germans cut all supply lines into Bastogne.
By the time the 463rd entered Belgium, the division’s destination had changed from Werbomont to Bastogne. The 327th was directed to cover a position to the west of the town. Cooper’s command deployed its guns around the small village of Hemroulle, about a mile northwest of Bastogne. The command post and fire direction center were set up in a house across the street from the village church, which was designated as the battalion aid station. While the primary mission of the 463rd was to support the thinly covered western and southern sector held by the 327th, it was called on daily to assist in repelling the Germans from the other sectors of the 101st’s perimeter.
On the 19th, the Germans cut off the 463rd supply train, which Cooper had sent back for more ammunition. The next day, they succeeded in blocking all roads into Bastogne and launched major assaults on the 101st’s positions northeast and east of the town. Even with the extra ammunition they had brought with them, by the 22nd–after supporting efforts to repulse earlier German attacks–the battalion had little more than one day’s worth of rations and ammunition left.
The temperature on the morning of the 23rd was 10 degrees above zero, and it remained painfully cold throughout the day. Despite the freezing temperatures, the men’s morale improved somewhat when they looked up around noon to see the sky filled with red, yellow and blue parachutes dropped by 16 Douglas C-47s. It was an early Christmas for the ‘Battered Bastards of Bastogne.’ One of the planes was shot down by enemy fire and crash-landed near the 463rd’s position.
Every morning during the siege the division’s artillery commanders would gather to discuss their situation and to prepare for the day ahead. Remembering Cooper’s earlier boast about his battery’s effectiveness against enemy tanks, at every one of the meetings either Lt. Col. Edward Car-michael, the commander of the 321st Glider Field Artillery Battalion, or the commander of the 377th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, Lt. Col. Harry Elkins, would ask, ‘Cooper, have you knocked any tanks out yet?’ His answer was always, ‘No, not yet.’ That was about to change.
The 24th was clear and bright although still very cold. Another 160 planes dropped an additional 100 tons of supplies. Foragers from the 463rd found flour, sugar, lard and salt that had been left by the VIII Corps when it hastily departed Bastogne at the start of the German offensive. Even though they were surrounded, the morale of the men remained high. By the afternoon of the 24th, division headquarters was convinced that an attack was likely in the 327th’s sector either that day or the next. For the past week, German troops and tanks had tried to puncture holes in the 101st’s defenses east and south of Bastogne. Troop deployment to defend against these attacks had weakened defenses west and north of the city. Almost half of the 101st’s line was now covered by the 327th.
On Christmas Eve, the 101st’s operations officer, Lt. Col. Harry W.O. Kinnard, had regrouped the defenders around the perimeter of Bastogne, a line almost 16 miles long. Kinnard attached the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion, two platoons of the 9th Armored Engineer Battalion and four platoons of the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion to the 327th along with an amalgam of infantry, tank destroyers and tanks.
Sergeant Rogan knew little of divisional intelligence estimates, but he could hear the sound of armored vehicles being deployed in his front as the sun went down on Christmas Eve. Unknown to him and the others huddled nearby in their foxholes, these tanks and their supporting infantry were making final preparations to come crashing through their lines early the next morning.
Rogan, Bryan and Everhardt were acting as forward observers in support of the men of the 1st Battalion, 401st Glider Infantry Regiment, which was serving as the 327th’s third battalion. Nearest to the three artillerymen were the 77 men of the 401st’s Company A, commanded by 1st Lt. Howard Bowles. The lieutenant’s men defended a large section of the flat, frozen plain west of Hemroulle. They were deployed across a 1,200-yard front line along a ridge about 25 feet high. There were two small woods on top of the ridge about 50 yards apart, with an open field between them. One of the woods concealed two tank destroyers. Two more tank destroyers were in a group of trees some 400 yards to the left of Company A’s position.Company B of the 401st was dug in on the right side of Company A on the ridge, extending about 1,100 yards to a roadblock on the Champs to Mande St. Etienne road. The troops were also armed with machine guns and supported by four tank destroyers. The battalion’s Company C was kept in reserve near the 463rd’s command post at Hemroulle.
Anticipating an attack along his front, Cooper positioned outpost guards with telephone communications to battalion headquarters and battery commanders. He deployed the antitank guns in mutually supporting positions. Experience had taught him that a tank will attack a gun head-on, so he had another gun that would have a side shot at any approaching tank. Each of Cooper’s guns had 20 rounds of hollow charge antitank ammo to provide direct fire against enemy armor.At about 3:30 a.m., Rogan radioed his battalion’s operations officer, Major Victor Garrett, that he and his supporting company had been overrun by an enemy tank column accompanied by white-capped infantrymen, some riding on the back of the panzers. He informed Garrett that the tanks were moving toward Hemroulle.
Rogan had seen 18 whitewashed Mark IV tanks belonging to the 115th Panzergrenadier Regiment of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division move through his position and pass between the two wood lots. The column was accompanied by two battalions of the 77th Panzergrenadier Regiment. Each tank had 15 or 16 infantrymen, wearing white sheets, riding on it while others walked beside the tanks. As the Germans crossed Rogan’s position, they fired rifles and flamethrowers, probing and trying to identify the American frontline positions. When they pierced Company A’s line, the Germans killed four Americans, including Rogan’s companion Restor Bryan, and wounded five. Allowing the tanks to pass, the survivors re-emerged from their holes and prepared to do battle with the infantry that was following behind the tanks.
After driving through what he believed was the weakly held American front line, at 4:15 a.m. the German tank commander radioed headquarters that his advance was proceeding successfully. He reported that the only evidence of American resistance were pockets of enemy infantry and tank destroyer fire. A half-hour later he informed his superiors that his panzers had reached the western edge of Bastogne. German headquarters was elated, but the celebration was short lived. Word of continued progress toward that long-sought objective never came; instead, German forward observers reported hearing the crash of artillery fire and mortars from the direction of Hemroulle.
The 18 Mark IVs and their accompanying grenadiers had actually only advanced to the outskirts of Hemroulle, mistaking it for Bastogne. As they approached the road between Hemroulle and Champs, the German armored force split up. Seven of the tanks headed in the direction of Champs, while the others moved to a ridge overlooking Hemroulle and parked.
Shortly after receiving reports of the enemy attack, Garrett woke Cooper with the information that German tanks had pulled off the road near one of the 463rd’s outposts. The panzers had assembled behind a line of trees on a ridge overlooking Hemroulle. Garrett informed Cooper that the enemy tank crews had dismounted and appeared to be preparing breakfast. The artillerymen counted 11 tanks and a large number of German soldiers, including all of the tank crews.
Since it was too dark to positively confirm that these were truly enemy tanks, Garrett told his men to sit tight until they could see either the muzzle brakes on the tanks’ guns or the crosses painted on the side. Cooper knew that American armor was on the way to relieve Bastogne and did not want to pour fire on friendly tank crews.
The panzers were directly in front of three of the 75mm guns deployed in antitank positions, about 500 to 600 yards away. Garrett directed the gun commanders to quietly bore sight their guns on the tanks and prepare to fire as soon as they could confirm that these were indeed the enemy. Cooper’s plan was to have one of the three guns shoot the first tank in the line while the other two went after the remainder. All the battery’s other guns would then fire at will. Garrett spoke with the commanders of the other guns, directing them to remain quiet and not begin firing until he gave the order, ‘Let the shit hit the fan.’
Once the tanks began to move, the artillerymen could make out the muzzle breaks on the guns, and Garrett ordered, ‘Let the shit hit the fan.’ Cooper later remarked that with those words, all hell broke loose. Several tanks were immediately disabled by the 463rd’s guns, their crews scurrying from the turrets of the burning panzers.
The artillery was quickly joined by soldiers from Batteries A, B and C with bazookas, machine guns and rifles firing at the tanks and the enemy infantry around them. Since most of men of the 401st were busy with the infantry that had followed the tanks on foot, Cooper’s men were part of the thin buffer blocking the German armor and infantry from the center of Bastogne, less than a mile away.
As soon as the fighting began, Cooper called division headquarters and informed them that the 463rd had been attacked and would hold out as long as possible. To the question ‘Cooper, are you telling me the facts, that you are under attack?’ Cooper replied, ‘If you don’t believe it, look down this way, and you will see five spirals of smoke, which represents five tanks burning–no, there are six spirals of smoke, which makes six tanks burning.’
Cooper did not know how long his battalion could hold out, but he was determined that his guns would slow the enemy advance, if not stop it. By 8:30 a.m. enemy infantry had approached to within 200 yards of the 463rd’s command post in Hemroulle. Cooper ordered all classified documents and the M-209 cryptographic machine destroyed. Captain Victor Tofany of Battery D and the other battery commanders ordered their men to stack their barrack bags in a pile, ready to be burned if the enemy broke through.
There was no need. The fight in and around Hemroulle ended at about 9 a.m. with the destruction of the last of the German tanks that had attacked the town. The seven panzers that had veered away from the column heading toward Champs met the same fate. Although panzers knocked out two tank destroyers from the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, they were themselves destroyed by a combination of fire from American tank destroyers and bazookas fired by members of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment near Champs.
While his battalion fought the tanks outside of Hemroulle, Rogan had been with the remaining men from the 401st as they shut the door behind the tanks and dealt with their supporting infantry. Brought out of reserve, C Company of the 401st joined the fight against the 115th until daybreak, when American artillery and mortars could deal with the enemy infantry, which was now outlined against the snow-covered slopes west of Hemroulle. Battered by increasingly accurate American artillery fire and the small arms of the 401st, the Germans tried to dig in and hold what they had gained, but the ground was frozen. Instead, they hugged the earth and waited for the artillery to stop. During a brief lull their commander, Colonel Wolfgang Maucke, had his men retreat to a hill southeast of Flamizoulle. Allied aircraft soon began battering Maucke’s isolated men. By nightfall it became clear that the German force that attacked early on Christmas morning had been almost completely destroyed, with the bulk of the men dead, wounded or captured.
Soon after the fighting ended, Carson ‘Booger’ Childress, a member of Battery B, radioed Cooper to tell him that he had captured one of the tanks in good running order. Childress informed Cooper that when the firing started, the tank crew had tried to get into the panzer, but it was hit on the turret, killing the first man trying to enter. The rest of the tank crew members ran for cover and were later captured by the 463rd’s tank stalking party, commanded by Lieutenant Ross Scott.Cooper drove out to the tank and placed a white undershirt on the tube to identify it as captured. Ever the resourceful soldier, Childress figured out how to drive the Mark IV and followed Cooper back to his headquarters. The lieutenant colonel then called Colonel Sherburne, the acting division artillery commander, and told him that he had a Christmas present for him but that he would have to personally come to pick it up.
McAuliffe, Sherburne and a few commanders of other artillery battalions later arrived to view the scene of the Christmas Day battle. As they approached the wreck of each tank, McAuliffe asked, ‘Which gun knocked this out?’ They could clearly see ricochet marks across the snow in front of two tanks and could see the gun from which the shot was fired. McAuliffe stated, ‘I give you credit for these two tanks.’ Cooper asked him whether these tanks were knocked out or disabled. He replied, ‘They’re damn sure destroyed and knocked out.’ Cooper then turned to those present, including some of the officers who had been chiding him about the ineffectiveness of pack howitzers, informing them that his battalion had knocked out and destroyed at least two tanks with direct fire. The remaining tanks had been fired on from so many directions that McAuliffe and Sherburne felt it was not possible to confirm which weapon disabled them. Even though there had been other American tanks and antitank units in the vicinity, Cooper was convinced that since his guns had all 11 panzers in their sights, they had been responsible for the destruction of the entire force moving against Hemroulle. But as some of the tanks had moved after being struck, there was no way to confirm the kills. All that could be certain by the end of the day was that 18 panzers had attacked early on Christmas morning, and by 9 a.m., all had been destroyed, disabled or captured.
When Sherburne returned to his headquarters, he prepared his after-action report with a written commendation for the 463rd. Since it was impossible to prove that his battalion had destroyed more than two tanks, Stuart Seaton, the executive officer, and Cooper decided that in their report they would claim to have knocked out two panzers and captured one. Cooper did not want to begin a controversy with Sherburne by insisting that his battalion had actually knocked out eight tanks and captured one. Years later Cooper stated, ‘It is immaterial to me now what anybody thinks, but the battle Christmas morning at Hemroulle was strictly a 463rd encounter.’ Cooper and Rogan both received Silver Stars for gallantry in the action that Christmas morning. Bryan was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star.
The next day, December 26, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s 4th Armored Division broke through the German ring around Bastogne. The 463rd remained in Hemroulle providing support fire around the perimeter of Bastogne until January 15, 1945, when it joined the 101st in its final push into Germany. On January 31, Cooper received orders to transfer his command to the 17th Airborne Division, the unit his battalion was originally designated to join. General Maxwell Taylor, however, intervened by stating, ‘The 463rd is firmly united with this [the 101st] Division and any change will result in serious loss of morale and efficiency both to the division and the battalion.’ Headquarters then agreed, and the ‘Bastard Battalion’ officially became a member of the Battered Bastards of Bastogne.
This article was written by Martin F. Graham and originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of World War II.
Martin Graham’s father was a member of Battery B, 463rd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion. He has extensively researched the battalion’s history. For further reading, try: The Battered Bastards of Bastogne, by George Koskimaki.
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