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The 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment in the Battle of the Bulge

By Frank van Lunteren. 368 pp.
Casemate, 2015. $32.95

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his engaging volume reflects a deep love affair between the people of Nijmegen and troopers of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment that began in September 1944. The 504th’s exploits at the Dutch city that month included an episode immortalized in the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far. Robert Redford portrayed Major Julian Cook leading the men of the 3rd Battalion across the fast-flowing Waal River in flimsy canvas-and-wood boats in the teeth of withering German machine-gun fire to secure the north end of the vital Waal Bridge.

The author, an Arnhem native who studied in Nijmegen, chronicled that action and more in his 2014 book The Battle of the Bridges. His latest volume follows the 504th after the Waal crossing, from the Ardennes through the Siegfried Line to the Hürtgen Forest, focusing on the American paratroopers’ containment and defeat of Kampfgruppe Peiper. Readers need little introduction to the perpetrators of the massacre near Malmédy, Belgium, where on December 17, 1944, they slaughtered 84 American POWs. The same killers spearheaded Hitler’s audacious drive into the Ardennes.

Kampfgruppe Peiper carried heavy weapons, was fanatically loyal to the Nazi regime, and had ruthless leadership in the form of its commander, SS Lieutenant Colonel Joachim Peiper. The encounter between this force and one of lightly armed paratroopers in dense woods and small villages might not have the screen appeal of massed troops crossing a swift river under fire, but required no less courage.

The sequence began when the 1st Battalion of the 504th attempted the night of December 20, 1944, to seize Cheneux, Belgium, just south of the Amble`ve River. Held by one of Peiper’s reinforced panzergrenadier battalions, the hamlet gave the SS man access to open country otherwise unavailable, since Peiper’s vanguard was blocked in the confines to the north of the river. As B and C Companies of the American paratroopers assembled to assault, they came under mortar and 75mm anti-tank fire. Command promised but did not deliver tank destroyers or a preliminary artillery barrage, forcing the parachutists to advance unsupported across fields crisscrossed with barbed wire, fired on by German flak wagons, their barrels leveled. Almost unbelievably, the Americans gained a toehold that a flank attack by the 3rd Battalion exploited the next day. At Cheneux the 504th lost 225 dead and wounded—but was instrumental in stymying Peiper, who on the night of December 22, his moment of the Bulge over, destroyed his heavy equipment and withdrew accompanied by a fraction of his original force.

Van Lunteren’s work is exhaustively researched, compellingly written, and supported with detailed maps. It’s a story of raw courage in the face of seemingly impossible odds—and it’s a great read.

—Harold R. Winton is a professor at the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base. 

Originally published in the March/April 2016 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.