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CHAPTER 16
LOW EBB OF SUPPLY

 

DESPITE the deceptively inactive appearance of the front, the defenders of Bastogne had actually reached the lowest ebb of their fortune by the night of December 22. The crisis was a matter of supply.1

General McAuliffe's confidence thus far had been well founded. In manpower, he had been able to maintain a very favorable balance between his reserves and his deployments. His infantry losses had been light. The circle of defenses had been scarcely dented. The German forces, which as a whole had been rapidly moving in the Bulge offensive elsewhere, had so signally failed to put on a coordinated attack against his all-around front that he had been able to beat down each of their separate thrusts by massing the fire of his artillery.2

The gun pits of all the defending 105mm. batteries were complete circles. At different times during the siege nearly all guns fired around the whole 6,400 mils of the compass. Most of the artillery fired in support of each infantry battalion against every major attack the Germans made.3

More than that, however, the artillery could not do. All day long the infantry commanders witnessed the enemy build-up opposite their sectors. Tanks and half-tracks loaded with German infantry moved freely and contemptuously along the lateral roads, making no effort at concealment although they were within easy range of the howitzers. It made the defenders frantic.4

For by noon of December 22 the 463d Field Artillery Battalion, which was supporting the 327th Glider Infantry, had only 200 rounds of ammunition left and the other battalions were in a similar plight.5 During the first three days there bad been shells enough. Now, in the face of the enemy build-up, the pinch was really hurting and General McAuliffe was about at the point where he would have to ration his guns to ten rounds per day.6

There was a delightfully ironic touch even to that restriction, for the supply had dropped very low indeed. Checking the bat-

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talions on that day, Colonel Sherburne, the artillery commander, found that with the exception of one battalion which had several hundred rounds of short-range 105mm. ammunition which it alone was equipped to fire, the batteries were down to less than ten rounds total per gun. Still, he kept his own counsel, and when men and officers asked him how the general supply of artillery ammunition was faring, he lied cheerfully and skillfully. At times members of the staff became confused between the true figures and the figures which Sherburne was quoting publicly for the sake of morale. The shell shortage continued to be General McAuliffe's worst, in fact, his only real worry. He told his batteries not to fire "until you see the whites of their eyes."7

The infantry commanders and the few remaining artillery observers screamed their heads off about it. One commander phoned General McAuliffe, "We are about to be attacked by two regiments. We can see them out there. Please let us fire at least two rounds per gun."

Colonel Kinnard listened to this plea and later recalled General McAuliffe's reply, "If you see 400 Germans in a 100-yard area, and they have their heads up, you can fire artillery at themóbut not more than two rounds.

At the same time, the Bastogne defenders were running low on small-arms ammunition.8

So with somewhat mixed feelings the word was received among the regiments at 1530 on that evening that a column from the 4th Armored Division was coming up from the southwest to support the 101st Airborne Division and would be able to give the 101st relief in time.9

It was still a neat question whether that relief would come before the ammunition ran out.

In the smaller units which were attachments to the 101st perhaps the strain was even greater.10 Confidence can come of numbers around the headquarters of a large organization. Talking with his staff, General McAuliffe gained the impression that none doubted the outcome.11 But out on the fire line, friends shook bands as the darkness came, figuring that all might be overwhelmed before morning.12 They could take no measure of

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the reserve strength of the position. What they saw was how few rounds per gun they had left and how large were the numbers of the enemy. The paratroopers were somewhat accustomed to being surrounded by enemy, but it was a new experience for the units who stood with them, unwavering.

The first message from the 4th Armored said, "Hugh is coming." When General McAuliffe had visited General Middleton (commander of VIII Corps) in Neufchâteau on the night of December 20, he had been told that General Patton was attacking east of Bastogne. The two commanders then set up a simple code, each town along the route getting a letter. Bastogne was "K." Others were designated A, B, C. Now the word was that "Hugh [Major General Hugh J. Gaffey, commanding the 4th Armored Division] is on his way."13

On the heels of that assurance came another message equally bright. VIII Corps radioed that pathfinders, would arrive in Bastogne at 1600 and that resupply by air would start coming in at 2000.14 Colonel Kohls, G-4, 101st Division, had waited all day long for that appointment, for on the day before VIII Corps had told him to prepare for "resupply tomorrow if weather permits."15

Directly west of the houses of Bastogne are large, clear fields on a gentle hillside, close to where the 101st Division had made its command post. This was the designated spot.

Under average operating conditions resupply bundles are recovered by Quartermaster and Ordnance companies and their items of matériel are then segregated in Class I, III and V dumps under Division control. At Bastogne, Colonel Kohls had no Division supply forces available either to pick up the resupply or manage the distribution. The regiments were therefore told to send at least five quarter-ton trucks to the field to handle the supplies directly and haul them to unit dumps. The units were told to report what supplies they had each recovered and then to distribute them according to orders which would be given by the G-4 Section.16

At 0730 on December 22, the task of recovering the aerial resupply was given to Major William H. Butler, S-4 of the 501st Parachute Infantry, and Captain Matheson, S-4 of the 506th.

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They went to the drop zone, got the crews and vehicles alerted, put out the panels to guide the plane and then waited.17

Nothing happened during the day. In the late afternoon came the message from VIII Corps. At 1605 Corps said that the pathfinders would be dropped at 1723 and that the flight would be two planes with ten men each.18 Captain John M. Huffman, Assistant to G-4, went at once to the drop zone to notify Major Butler. However, at 1641 the operation was cancelled because of ice conditions.

Then the Division rear base radioed at 1700 that sixty C-47s would drop supplies on the first flyable day. However, VIII Corps had not yet given up. At 2115, it radioed that an attempt de will be made to drop a portion of the supplies."19

Colonel Kohls again alerted Butler who went to the drop zone and put out the fluorescent panels. Nothing happened. Out of great expectation came only great disappointment.

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