When "Peace On Earth" Was Only A Hope
December 16, 1944, put a halt to the hopes of millions of Americans that the long and vicious war in Europe would end quickly, and additional American casualties would be few. On that morning, in the midst of the some of the worst early winter weather seen in Europe in some time, a heavy barrage of German artillery thundered through the skies, marking the advance of over 200,000 German troops, and several tank divisions. The sudden counteroffensive surprised the American forces, holding the lightly fortified front running through Belgium’s Ardennes forest. The Battle of the Bulge had begun.
The initial losses were stunning to the Americans. Though slowed by heavy snow, the German troops and Panzer divisions cut through the American lines, killing, wounding, and capturing thousands of American troops. The Germans, intent on driving a wedge through the Allied forces, and breaking their will to continue the war effort, held little regard for the Americans. This became clearly evident on December 17, when German SS troops opened fire on captured American prisoners near the village of Malmedy, killing nearly 100 US troops in cold blood.
Despite heroic attempts by the vastly outnumbered US forces, the Germans clearly held the advantage early in the battle.
American commanders, trying to form a line of resistance against the German onslaught, saw the Belgian crossroads town of Bastogne as a key in stopping the German offensive. So on December 17, Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division was sent to secure the town of Bastogne against the hard driving German forces. The remainder of the 10th Armored was assigned to support Patton’s Third Army, in its drive north to counter the German offensive.
The troops of the 10th arrived in Bastogne just in time to set up defensive lines against the Germans. These heroic troops halted the German attempts to capture the town, holding up the advance of multiple German divisions, until being reinforced by the forces of the 101st Airborne Division, which arrived in Bastogne late on the night of December 18. Shortly after the arrival of the 101st, the men of the 10th Armored and 101st Airborne were completely surrounded by the German forces.
The German divisions pounded the outnumbered defenders of Bastogne with their tanks and artillery. On December 22, the German command, believing the Americans had had enough, sent a formal message to the American commander heading up the defense of Bastogne, Gen. Anthony McAuliffe. The document, in part, read, “The fortune of war is changing. This time the USA forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units…There is only one possibility to save the encircled USA units from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town.”
To which McAuliffe gave one of the most eloquent answers in the history of the American military: “Nuts.”
The onslaught continued against the Americans, who were rapidly running out of supplies and ammunition. The poor weather kept American planes on the ground, unable to resupply the defenders. The horrendous winter conditions caused more problems for our troops on the ground. Finally, on December 23, some planes were able to drop supplies to the beleaguered troops in and around Bastogne. Further south, General Patton’s Third Army was making one of the most heroic and dramatic advances in American military history, driving towards Bastogne through the miserable weather conditions, to relieve the town, and halt the German advance in the Ardennes.
The Germans, probably realizing it was now or never, threw everything they had against the town. Christmas Day, 1944, saw some of the fiercest fighting during the siege of Bastogne. But the American defenders held.
On December 26, the vanguard of Patton’s Third Army, reached Bastogne, breaking the encirclement. Though the fighting in the Ardennes continued for many more weeks, the defense of Bastogne, and its result of stalling the German advance, proved critical in the American forces eventual victory in the Ardennes, and the final drive into Germany to defeat the Nazis.
History has celebrated the defenders of Bastogne, and particularly the 101st Airborne. Yet many histories of the siege have forgotten the contributions of the men of the 10th Armored. After the war, Gen. McAuliffe spoke of the men of the 10th, saying, “It has always seemed regrettable to me that Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division didn’t get the credit it deserved in the battle of Bastogne…(They) were in there a day before we were, and had some very hard fighting before we got into it. And I sincerely believe we would never have been able to get into Bastogne if it had not been for the defensive fighting…of the 10th Armored Division.”
So to my father, Sgt. Edward Orlowski, and the other men of CCB of the 10th Armored Division, I say merely this; though most of you are gone now, some of us will never forget, and always be grateful for your heroics that Christmas season so many years ago.