WITHOUT FULLY REALIZING IT, the defenders of Bastogne passed their crisis on December 23 (Map 17, page 128). They could not measure the change, nor did they know how many elements were acting in their favor. But quite suddenly everything began to come their way. This was not a matter alone of successful local tactics against the enemy. Nor was it only that the measures taken by the VIII Corps and the larger forces concerned with the relief of the defenders were at last beginning to bear fruit, as evidenced by the arrival of the resupply missions. For one thing, such a vital matter as the weather continued to favor the defense.
In the beginning there had been fog and acute dampness which appeared at first blush to doubly jeopardize the situation of a force that was having to feel its way to the enemy and was suffering from shortages of clothing and blankets. Yet all that happened in the opening encounters during the first two days Bastogne's fate was in the balance proved that the atmosphere served almost as a protecting screen for the defenders and wrought confusion among the oncoming forces.1 Had there not been fog of course there could have been air support.2 But it is a question whether that support could have been greatly effective during a period when it would have been difficult to distinguish between the retreating remnants of the broken American divisions and the advancing German columns.3 Again, an early intervention by the air power might have forestalled those concentrations of German armor and other vehicles which were to provide such inviting targets when the opening at last came.
On December 19 Captain James E. Parker, of the Ninth Air Force, reported into Bastogne as air controller for the defense. His equipment consisted of a pocket full of radio crystals; what he needed was a high frequency radio that would give him contact with American planes. He searched the whole 101st Division without success, then found that the attached 10th Armored Di-
vision units had two radios of the type needed—one in a tank and the other in a jeep. The tank could not be spared but the jeep and a technician from Ninth Air Force, Sergeant Frank B. Hotard, were given to Captain Parker. By December 21 his radio equipment was complete and he was ready to work with supporting planes. But the fog still enveloped Bastogne to keep the planes away. Parker had to wait two more days.4
While the fog held, the first snow flurries came and the weather grew increasingly cold. On the night of December 21 came the first heavy snowfall, adding to the hardships of the front-line troops and the hazards of patrolling.5 The overcast was still thick and the ground fog irregular. On the morning of December 23, for the first time since the Bastogne defenders were committed to action, a day dawned fair and clear though with freezing temperatures. It looked like the hour of opportunity.6
By then the defenses of Bastogne had become so closely knit, and there was such complete harmony and mutual confidence among the oddly assorted groups of the defense, that it seemed certain that all of the changes in the natural conditions of the battlefield would work only to the disadvantage of the enemy. The defensive lines were set. The crisp clear air insured that if the Germans came on, their snow-suit camouflage would not be overly helpful; at least their features and their weapons could be seen.7 The roads from Bastogne to all parts of the perimeter were like the spokes of a wheel. They were generally good roads. But particularly around the northern half of the defense they entered the perimeter over ground where a stout roadblock might well hold up an armored regiment for hours.8 The German armor and its support had largely held to the roads during the period of build-up; and they were still out there, daring the lightning. Wire communications from Bastogne command post to all parts of the perimeter were working as strongly on behalf of the defense as was the axial highway system.9 Only a few times had the wire gone out. The 101st's practice of emphasizing a net of lateral wires, which set up several ways of reaching the outfits on the perimeter, had saved a number of situations that might other-
wise have been blacked out. And foresightedly, the Signal Company had brought in plenty of extra wire.10
Now that there was the sure prospect of air resupply, the artillery situation was looking up. It had suffered thus far only from its fears that the ammunition wouldn't last.11 By the 22d, General McAuliffe's supply had dropped down to twenty-odd rounds per gun and Colonel Roberts' about as low, and some guns were down to ten rounds.12 But both commanders were certain that as long as the artillery ammunition lasted, Bastogne would hold.13
The opening engagements had reaffirmed the power of an ample artillery properly directed, and by committing their forces piecemeal the Germans had played right into the hands of the defense which had staked its life on the massed fire of its guns.14 The guns of Combat Command B, 10th Armored Division, were capable of getting 11,000 yards out of their 105mm. ammunition while the same ammunition in the short 105 tubes of the Airborne Artillery units could only reach about 4,500 yards. The Armored Artillery was therefore the real power of the defense together with the twenty 155mm. howitzers of the Artillery battalions that had been caught in the town15 (the 755th and part of the 333d Field Artillery Group).
During the first stage, the great natural strength of the position and the vast superiority of the American artillery had worked together for the salvation of Bastogne. The German artillery had been little more than a cipher, save for the fire from the tanks and self-propelled guns. At times it seemed to consist of single guns and their shoots were never very long.16 The town itself had not yet been given any steady shelling by the enemy guns and the command posts were able to maintain their liaison with little difficulty.
This lack of power in the German artillery and the inability of the German foot and armor to coordinate their assaults against different parts of the perimeter-probably because their communication system had broken under the pressures of the advance-minimized the moral strain which would normally afflict a body of troops that found itself surrounded.17 The command and staff of the defense were not feeling what they had expected
to feel from the lessons they had learned at Leavenworth and Benning.18 They knew they were cut off. The G-2 reports and the incessant patrol activities against all portions of the defensive circle told them so. But they did not feel cut off.19 They remained mobile and mentally able to promote all of the tactical advantages of their interior position. The thought that there were Germans all around them brought no particular extra worry. They were confident that help from the outside was just around the corner.20
However, the most decisive gains of the period had been in the work of the fighting men themselves and in their feeling about one another. In the beginning the different elements of the defense were almost out of communication one with the other. Things had happened so fast that they had been compelled to engage the enemy before giving a thought to their own liaison.21 But in the course of battle the infantry, the armored force and the tank destroyer crews had taken full measure of each other and found the measure sufficient.22 The birth of mutual confidence and respect had produced not only tactical cohesion but comradeship in such a degree that before the siege was over these units were to ask their higher commanders whether it wouldn't be possible for them to be joined permanently in one large force. They had come to believe that together they had become irresistible.23
After their first tilt in which each had spoken bluntly and made his point, General McAuliffe and Colonel Roberts tabled their feelings and worked together to perfect the team play of their respective forces. As McAuliffe's advisor on armor, Roberts found himself among "the best and keenest staff" he had ever seen.24 Not only did they radiate extreme confidence but they proved to be "great bird dogs" in detecting early enemy build-ups.25 As soon as the first signs of an enemy attack became apparent, Colonel Roberts would alert his Division reserve and get it moving toward the likely area of irruption. He would then concern himself with building another Division reserve. He never bothered General McAuliffe with these details.26 If it chanced that Colonel Cherry, the Division reserve commander, got cut up, or if the 101st Division troops moved over during an action and drew parts of Team Cherry into the front line, there
was always Team O'Hara with 14 tanks which he could get out of line quickly in case of necessity.27
Colonel Roberts' force had more than paid for itself during the first two days. He had taken his greatest losses in tanks and men in the opening engagement, but that sacrifice had staved off the Germans and gained the exact amount of time needed for the 101st to establish itself solidly.28 After the first two days Colonel Roberts' two chopped-up teams were consolidated as one and this part of the force became his Division reserve. The number of tanks available for it varied from day to day between six and ten.29
Lieutenant Colonel Templeton, the Tank Destroyer commander (705th Battalion), took hold in the same strong way, an even having his men fight as infantrymen when they could not be employed otherwise.30 On the other hand he was never loath to make his point strongly any time he thought the higher commanders were planning to make an unwise employment of his forces.31 Colonel Templeton's command post was only a hundred yards from the command post of the 101st Division, so coordination was simple. In turn he received from the battalion commanders of the 101st the kind of support that rewarded all of his effort. During relief periods the infantry platoons covering his tank destroyers made the security of Templeton's guns their first concern.32
Colonel Roberts, too, was learning from Templeton as they went along. He had reached the conclusion that, properly employed in a defense like Bastogne, some tanks must be up with the infantry and some in reserve in the "socker" role.33 But what bothered him was the discovery that while his tankers were actually having to work as tank destroyers about 98 per cent of the time, the tank destroyer men seemed so much better trained to get away with it. This was strongly reflected in the ratio of losses in the two forces when compared with the damage done to the enemy armor.34
At 1000 on December 23 Captain Parker at his radio heard that supporting planes were on their way. Within a few minutes he was telling them where to strike. The strongest enemy buildups at this time were west and northwest of the town, threatening
the sectors held by the 502d Parachute Infantry and the 327th Glider Infantry regiments. The infantry front lines had been hearing and seeing the arrival of these concentrations during the past two days. But because of the shortage of artillery ammunition, there had been no real check against them. The planes dropped low and came in fast against the enemy columns, gaining complete surprise.35 The German vehicles were on the road facing toward Bastogne when the first bombs fell among them. Such was the execution that one of the pilots later said to General McAuliffe, "This was better hunting than the Falaise pocket and that was the best I ever expected to see."36
On that first day the Germans did not use their antiaircraft guns against any of the dive bombers.37 If this reticence was due to a desire to cover up the positions of the guns, it was a view quickly changed because of the damage the Ninth Air Force planes had done during the first day. For thereafter the German flak was intense over the front at all times and the air units had no further hours of unopposed operation.38
They made the most of their opening opportunity. The snow was a great aid. Clearly visible tracks pointed to forest positions which were promptly bombed.39 The fir forests burst into flames from the fire bombs and before the day was out the smoke from these blazing plantations and from the brewed-up enemy columns made a complete circle around the besieged forces until it seemed almost as if the fog was closing in again.40 The air people hit every nearby town at least once with explosive and fire bombs. Noville was hit ten times.41
The entire air operation was carefully systematized and then supervised in detail. As planes were assigned to the 101st Division by VIII Corps, they checked in with Captain Parker by radio. He put them on a clear landmark such as a railroad or highway as they came in toward Bastogne. Several check points were then given to them from the map. When the approaching planes were definitely located, an approach direction was given that would bring them straight in over the target. This procedure eliminated all need for circling and searching and helped them surprise the enemy. When the bombs and gun ammunition were
expended, the planes were ordered up to a safe altitude to patrol the perimeter of the defenses or were given specific reconnaissance missions. Their reconnaissance reports were used as the basis for giving targets for succeeding flights and for giving the ground forces advance information on the build-up of enemy strength. After the first flight there were always targets listed ahead. Captain Parker, carefully monitoring the air, also came across flights assigned to other ground forces battling in the Bulge which had no missions for their bombs. He would then call to them and he often succeeded in persuading them to drop their bombs in the Bastogne area. In a few minutes these planes would be back on their assigned missions.42
During the first four days of their support, December 23 to 26, the planes averaged more than 250 sorties daily.43 After that there were two days of bad weather and then the weather came fair again. But it was on December 23 that the air support clanged the bell most loudly and thereby assured decision for the American forces. Colonel Roberts, watching the planes at work, said with enthusiasm that the effect was worth two or three infantry divisions.44 General McAuliffe bracketed their work with the overwhelming superiority of his artillery and the supreme courage of the men on the ground in his analysis of why Bastogne was saved.45
It was not unusual during the siege to have an infantryman call in that five tanks were coming at him and then see six P-47s diving at the tanks within 20 minutes.46