The Belgian market town of Bastogne sits astride seven roads in the midst of the Ardennes Forest. The Ardennes comprises thick stands of fir and pine trees, gorges, brambled hills and rolling plateaus. Roads are at a premium here, vital links to the tiny farm towns that dot the rough countryside. With 14,000 residents, Bastogne is the largest town in the Belgian Ardennes and the heart of the region. Its geographic importance guaranteed Bastogne a central role in one of history’s greatest battles.
In December 1944, Nazi Germany was on the verge of defeat. In the east, the Soviet armies had pushed to the very borders of Germany itself. On the western front, an Allied coalition led by the United States had liberated France and most of Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland and had even overrun parts of western Germany. With defeat staring him in the face, Hitler decided to gamble on a last big offensive to turn the tables on his enemies. Under strict secrecy, he amassed an army of about 250,000 soldiers, including his best remaining armored and mechanized infantry divisions, for a major attack. The German goal was to slash through the thinly held American lines in the Ardennes, cross the Meuse River, capture the supply port of Antwerp, cut the Allied armies in two and then negotiate a favorable peace. For the Germans, any chance of success depended upon speed. On December 16, under cover of adverse winter weather that negated Allied air superiority, the Germans launched their surprise attack.
The Germans had to capture Bastogne to control those seven vital roads so they could use the town as a transit point, communications center and supply depot for their northward thrust to the Meuse. Their plan was to take Bastogne by the second day of the offensive. But even though the Germans tore a gaping hole in the American front line, small groups of American soldiers fought so tenaciously in dozens of places around the Ardennes that the German timetable was overturned. The Americans made use of the defensible terrain and narrow roads to bottleneck the German armored columns. By December 19, Hitler’s soldiers had gotten within a couple miles of Bastogne but could not take the town.
Three days into the bitter fighting, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower was rushing reinforcements to counter the German offensive. The Americans set up a desperate defense along the three roads that led into Bastogne from the east. There, in the small suburbs of Noville, Longvilly, Neffe, Mont, Marvie and Magaret, soldiers from various units, including Combat Command Reserve of the 9th Armored Division, Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division, the 28th Infantry Division and the newly arrived 101st Airborne Division, made an epic stand in worsening weather against a numerically superior German attacking force. The Germans surrounded them and demanded surrender. In response, the American commander, General Anthony McAuliffe, uttered his famous refusal: “Nuts!” So the Germans continued to besiege Bastogne, shelling it mercilessly and launching attacks until 4th Armored Division tanks under General George Patton fought their way through to relieve the Bastogne garrison on December 26. To a great extent, the defeat of the German offensive—what later came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge—began with that stand at Bastogne.
Today, the town is completely rebuilt. Yet reminders of the desperate 1944 battle are everywhere. At the center of Bastogne is McAuliffe Square, a place that during the battle was under constant shellfire and choked with the wreckage of burning vehicles. Now it teems with traffic, sidewalk cafés, shops and apartment buildings. In the middle of the square, a battered Sherman tank stands sentry outside the visitor’s center. Across the square, several roads converge at a busy intersection, with signposts pointing the way to Wiltz, Clervaux, Arlon and other towns that figured prominently in the fighting. Several blocks south of McAuliffe Square, the venerable Catholic church remains the most prominent building in town. Within its courtyard and walls, American doctors and medics worked frantically during the battle to save the lives of many hundreds of wounded soldiers. On the northeastern outskirts of town, the Bastogne Historical Center and Museum rests atop a prominent ridge that in 1944 was defended by American artillerymen. Just outside the museum is the Mardasson, a four-story memorial commemorating the sacrifices of American soldiers at Bastogne. A climb to the top of the monument affords a panoramic view of the surrounding terrain.
The heaviest fighting raged in the suburbs. One can drive, or even hike, from one battle site to another: the Catholic grotto west of Longvilly, where an armored task force under Lt. Col. Henry Cherry fought to extinction against powerful German attacks; the villages of Neffe and Mont, where combat engineers and paratroopers battled the Panzer Lehr division; Noville, where another task force under 26-year-old Major William Desobry stalemated the better part of the 2nd Panzer Division for two days; the pillbox at the southern edge of Bastogne, where 4th Armored tanks first made contact with the surrounded U.S. garrison; the Bois Jacques woods south of Foy, where the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (including Easy Company of Band of Brothers fame), fought the Germans, the snow and the cold from the dubious shelter of crude foxholes, many of which still remain.
Some of the suburbs that ring Bastogne feature historical markers that explain each village’s role in the battle. But the sight of bullet- and shrapnel-scarred churches and stone barns tells the story of the bulge like nothing else can.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.