AT BASTOGNE, the 101st Division played in luck from the beginning and the luck began weeks before the siege started. In the early part of November a young lieutenant colonel, Julian Ewell (plate 8), commanding the 501st Parachute Infantry on the Neder Rijn front in Holland, took a busman's holiday and spent two days of his leave at Bastogne.1
It was the luck of war that in giving the march order before leaving Camp Mourmelon, General McAuliffe had put the 501st Parachute Infantry at the head of the column.2 It was the luck of war again that Ewell got away well in advance of the column on December 18 and was the first commander to arrive in the vicinity of the bivouac.3 He ran into a wire-stringing detail there, asked what they were doing, found that they were men from the 101st Division and then followed the wires into the Division command post. Then he got ready to guide his own men in.4
(Plates 9 to 17 in the picture section show Bastogne and vicinity from the air and ground, and the 101st Airborne Division Headquarters.)
All down the route over which he had come Colonel Ewell had found the traffic blocking and stopping, and he didn't expect his 501st to come up to him before 2300 because of this congestion.5 But it beat that schedule by half an hour and Ewell's unit was closed into its area by 2400. General McAuliffe knew at midnight that by then he had one regiment ready.6
Earlier in the night (December 18) Ewell had talked to Generals McAuliffe and Higgins. The one thing on which all three commanders agreed was that no one could be sure of anything. Ewell said of himself that he was as much in the dark as any man present. But he told his commander, General McAuliffe, that he thought he should be given a definite assignment. It was a big request, the situation considered. McAuliffe and Middleton conferred on it.
The commander's index finger pointed out along the road run-
ning eastward—toward the ridges where Ewell had walked in November—although neither General Middleton nor General McAuliffe ever knew that he had seen the ground.7 The enemy was coming that way. At Corps headquarters the 9th Armored Division was thought to have a roadblock somewhere around Longvilly and the 10th Armored Division a block farther west toward Neffe. The 9th's block was thought to be surrounded; the 10th's block was supposed to be engaged but not yet surrounded.8
General Middleton had described the situation at these blocks when General McAuliffe had reported to him, and he had said: "There is a battle now going on for Bastogne."9 He spoke of the block out along the Longvilly road as "surrounded" and indicated the positions of the three blocks which Combat Command B of the 10th Armored was maintaining to the east, northeast and southeast of the city.10 The Corps commander had no specific plan for the employment of the 101st Division. The news that he was to have that division had come so recently that he had had no time to prepare a plan. At first General McAuliffe could think of nothing.11 At 2200 he suggested to General Middleton that a combat team be sent east to develop the situation.12 That idea appealed to General McAuliffe simply as a "good old Leavenworth solution of the problem."13 It was wholly consistent with General Middleton's concern for the preservation of the other elements of his command.14A As General Middleton reasoned the problem, so long as the 10th Armored team was already employed in the east, it was not urgent that the 101st Airborne Division develop the situation there, although it was sound practice to reinforce the armored team's roadblock, since it was becoming evident that the weight of the enemy attack was coming down the Longvilly road.14B
Middleton and McAuliffe sent for Ewell. He had been spending a part of his time unprofitably at the road intersections trying to get information from men who were straggling in from the north and northeast. All talked vaguely and dispiritedly. Man after man said to him: "We have been wiped out," and then stumbled away through the dark. They did not know where they had
been. They had no idea where they were going. Colonel Ewell and his officers tried several times to draw these men out, then gave them up as a bad job and paid no further attention.15 Ewell reached his separate conclusion that any quest for information concerning the enemy, other than going out bodily after it, was useless.16
The exact mission given Ewell was to "seize the road junction at 676614 and hold it."17 That would put him out the eastern road well beyond Longvilly. Middleton told him that combat Command Reserve of the 9th Armored Division had a roadblock At that point which was supposed to be "isolated" and that the 110th Infantry was supposedly still maintaining a command post at Allerborn.18 From the assembly area of the 501st Parachute Infantry, it was nine and a half miles to the road junction. However, that distant point did not enter into General McAuliffe's instructions to Ewell or into Ewell's estimate of what the 501st would be able to accomplish. McAuliffe was not sure where the enemy would crowd him first, but he thought it most likely that they would roll on him from the east. That bad as much to do with his assignment of Ewell as did the fact that the armored roadblocks were involved with the enemy.
Then General McAuliffe simply pointed to the map and moved his finger along in the direction of Longvilly. He said: "Ewell, move out along this road at six o'clock, make contact, attack and clear up the situation."19
Ewell didn't ask a question. He said: "Yes, Sir," saluted and went on his way."
Recalling that scene some days afterward, General McAuliffe was to remark: "There were many men and commanders in my operation who did outstanding things. But Ewell's was the greatest gamble of all. It was dark. He had no knowledge of the enemy. I could not tell him what he was likely to meet. But he has a fine eye for ground and no man has more courage. He was the right man for the spot I put him in."21
Of the few maps which the 101st Division had obtained from VIII Corps headquarters, twenty went with Ewell's combat team as it started to march.22 It wasn't enough to go around. Lieutenant
Colonel Clarence F. Nelson, commanding the 907th Glider Field Artillery Battalion, had only one map scaled 1:100,000 from which to provide his firing data. So as the movement got under way, he had sketches drawn up for the forward observers. On the sketches all control points and critical features-such as crossroads, bridges, woods and towns-were marked and numbered. The observers knew the locations of the batteries. In this way the artillery operation was coördinated.23
The offensive mission was limited to the one combat team, Ewell's. McAuliffe bad decided right at the beginning that a successful defense of Bastogne depended on the utmost harboring of his reserves at every stage of operation, and having sent Ewell forth, he decided to sit on Bastogne with the rest of his Division until something new developed.24
That same idea—conservation of force—guided Colonel Ewell in his opening moves. In giving his battalion commanders the march order, he told Major Raymond V. Bottomly, Jr., who was leading out with the 1st Battalion of the 501st, that he was not to put out flank security until he reached Magéret; otherwise, the progress of the column would be much too slow. But in line with the governing principle he added the instruction to all commanders that if they met opposition, they were to "take it slow and easy." Being familiar with his men and their methods in past campaigns, he knew that they tended to throw themselves directly on the target. These methods had worked in Normandy and Holland. But from what he had seen of the Bastogne terrain in November, he had concluded that his main chance lay in "fire and maneuver" rather than in shock action. He felt that his whole operation should be guided by this principle. He said to them; "I don't want you to try to beat the enemy to death."25 (Plate 17.)
The regiment took off at 0600, December 19, passing its command post on the minute.26 Battery B of the 81st Airborne Antiaircraft Battalion—seven 57mm. guns—moved out behind 1st Battalion.27 The 101st Airborne Division's Reconnaissance Troop, which bad been attached to Ewell's 501st Parachute Infantry, started through the town ahead of Major Bottomly's men.28 The
observers and the liaison party from the artillery moved out with the lead infantry company. The artillery battalion stayed in the bivouac area two miles west of Bastogne waiting for the infantry to find the enemy.29
Ewell went forward at 0700. The light was just beginning to break. Already, he felt vaguely familiar with the terrain and the first thing that happened strengthened his confidence in his memory. At the first intersection past the town, he found the 1st Battalion moving down the wrong road—toward Marvie. He saw from memory of the ground, without looking at the map, that they were going the wrong way. He recalled them and got them pointed toward Longvilly. The Reconnaissance Platoon, having proceeded farthest along the wrong road, thus got behind the battalion column, and raced to catch up.30
Ewell's column passed on down the road that follows the line of the creek toward Neffe. (Plates 19, 21.) To their left the hills rose evenly from the edge of the right-of-way-fairly easy slopes up which an infantryman might run without undue exertion. Ahead, they could see very little. The road dipped and turned around the hill facings of the little valley and the morning fog lay so thick that the visibility toward the south, where the land opens up beyond the line of the creek, was limited to 500 yards.31
The 1st Battalion had been on the march for a little more than two hours, and the advance party was being passed through by the Reconnaissance Platoon, when the column was fired on by a machine gun from along the road and just westward of Neffe. (Map 4, page 35.) The first burst of fire did no damage but the battalion hit the dirt. They had need to, for they were looking straight down the groove toward the enemy position; for the last 700 yards the road runs straight and almost level into Neffe. To right of the road, the ground fell off sharply to the creek. To the left were the gently sloping hills, and Bottomly deployed his men that way. Ewell told him to go ahead and develop his situation. Shells began whipping along the road and Bottomly sent word back to Ewell that he thought he was being opposed by two tanks and two platoons of infantry.
Colonel Ewell took himself off, leaving Bottomly to direct his
own fight. He had already tasted the shellfire and he didn't want to tempt it, unnecessarily. Back beyond the road's first turning, about 100 yards from Bottomly's skirmish line, there was a pocket in the hillside to left of the road where a stone house fitted snugly. There Colonel Ewell set up his command post.32
It soon became clear to him that his 1st Battalion would not be able to overcome the roadblock because of the German tanks. The tanks were firing from a defilade close into the hillside where the road runs down to Neffe from Bizory. Bottomly couldn't bring the 57mms. to bear because the Neffe-Bastogne road ran so straight for the last half mile. About 1000, convinced that his 1st Battalion was stopped, Ewell decided to bring the rest of his regiment out of Bastogne. But this was easier said than done.
The VIII Corps was rushing the evacuation of its last units and their troops were streaming through town across the line of march the rest of the 501st Parachute Infantry would have to take. The 2d Battalion fought its way through this traffic during the next hour and Colonel Ewell ordered them on to an assembly area on the reverse of the gently sloping ridge north of Major Bottomly's position. He figured that he would put them out to the left, closed up so that they could be deployed at the most advantageous moment.33
Lieutenant Colonel Nelson, commanding officer of the 907th Glider Field Artillery Battalion, and Captain Gerald J. McGlone, commanding officer of Battery B, 907th, had gone forward to Colonel Ewell the minute the radio flashed word that the 1st Battalion of the 501st had met fire at Neffe. McGlone got his battery into position 500 yards northeast of Bastogne on the left of the Longvilly road, and opened fire as soon as he was in position, which was only a few minutes after 1000, December 19. The fog was still thick and the battery was working under several other handicaps—its radios had never been tested and five of its guns had never been fired. But they spoke now from a distance of only 1,000 yards behind Bottomly's skirmish line. Having weighed the risk that the enemy might flow on around Ewell's narrow front—and accepted it—Nelson decided that one battery was enough in that particular position. He put Battery A, under
Captain Lowell B. Bigelow, into the action from a position near the battalion command post, 1,000 yards west of Bastogne. Luck rode with him. The defilade where he had placed Battery B on the spur of the moment was so well chosen that the guns were to work there for almost a month without receiving a single round of German counter-battery fire.34 (Plate 22.)
This day, however, the batteries had no need to worry about anything coming in on them. The only heavy support for the German attack was from their tanks and it was all close-up fire directed against Ewell's infantry units. The American artillery fire was turned mainly against the tanks and the small groups of German infantry. There were many such targets.35
Colonel Ewell sized up his situation. In 1st Battalion, Companies B and C were in skirmish line, while Company A was collected in reserve. Major Bottomly had deployed most of his strength to the north of the highway but he had managed to find room for one platoon in the ground south of the creek and rail line. The battalion had put two mortars into operation almost immediately and their fire was shaking down the houses around the enemy roadblock in Neffe.36
But an attempt to get the 1st Battalion's left flank forward had failed. From Neffe, the north road climbs gradually through a shallow draw to the small farming community of Bizory. The country hereabouts is all uninterrupted grazing land except for the small but thick tree plantations and clusters of farmhouses which appear as villages on the map. The dominant terrain features are the long and quite regular ridges which run generally in a north-south line. These hills are gently undulating and the hillsides are quite smooth. From the tops of the commanding ridges one can see great distances on a clear day. The reverse slopes of the hills are smooth and are usually accessible from either end of the hills, making them highly useful to artillery and armor. The roads are close enough together so that vehicles can move to the ridges from either direction. When the country is covered with snow, nothing obtrudes on the landscape except the small black patches of forest. The ridges fall away in gently sloping draws which provide clear fields of fire to the flank and
make it easily possible to cover the main lines of communication.37 The road from Neffe to Bizory rises gradually for a distance, providing a perfect slot for fire from the low ground around Neffe. Bottomly had made one pass in this direction and shells from the enemy armor had fairly blistered the little valley.38
Ewell decided that as long as the enemy tanks were in Neffe, his 1st Battalion couldn't move in any direction. He ordered the 2d Battalion to seize Bizory.39 That hamlet is in the same draw up which the tanks had shot at Bottomly's men, but the ground flattens out at Bizory so that the place can't be seen from Neffe. This detail, however, Ewell couldn't see from the rear, but he was curious to find out about it. The map told him that the ridge adjacent to Bizory was the high ground and would be of use to him. He wanted to see if the enemy force east of there was holding a continuous position and he sent his 2d Battalion forward to find out.40
His decision, so casually made, probably contributed as much to the salvation of Bastogne as anything that happened during the first few critical days. Colonel Ewell was still strongly of the opinion that he was being opposed by only a minor roadblock.41 But when he determined to extend the 501st and sweep forward, he made it a certainty that the oncoming Germans would suddenly collide with Americans who were attacking along a broad front. This was the thing the Germans least expected. Until it happened they had been meeting small or disorganized units, which they quickly encircled and overcame.42
The shock of the discovery threw them off stride. They recoiled, hesitated and lost priceless, unreclaimable hours and opportunity because of their own confusion. In that action, a few American platoons hardened the fate of armies. But Ewell thought of none of these things as he ordered his 2d Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry, to seize Bizory. He reflected on them later in his command post in the Bastogne monastery which the German artillery had made one of the best-ventilated buildings in all of Belgium.43