101st Airborne Division – (401-GIR) – December 25 1944


Operations :
1st Platoon, Baker, 401st Glider Infantry Regiment
101st Airborne Division
Bastogne, Belgium, Dec 25 1944
Personal Experience of a Platoon Leader
Capt John T. O’Halloran

In late autumn of 1944, as the Allied Armies approached the formidable defenses of Western Germany, Allied strategy for penetrating these defenses was molded. The Allies would continue the offensive, striking the enemy at the Ruhr and Saar. In carrying out these separate offensive thrusts it would be necessary to hold thinly some sectors of the front in order to build up strength at the attack points. Before this decision was finally consummated, the Allied High Command carefully considered the capabilities of the enemy. It was felt by Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, that before Germany submitted to total defeat she would concentrate her every effort in an attempt to regain the initiative lost with the Allied landings in Normandy. The conclusion reached was that this attempt would, in all probability, be made in the Ardennes sector. However, Gen Omar N. Bradley, Commander of the 12-AG, analyzing this possibility with Gen Eisenhower, pointed out several salient factors favorable for continuing the offensive. Foremost among these factors was that stagnation of the front would allow the Germans to perfect their defenses and afford him ample time to train his troops, thus prolonging the war. The disposition of the 1-A and 3-A then poised on the flanks of the Ardennes preparing for the offensive penetration of Germany, able to be immediately employed against the flanks of any German counter-offensive; the logistical difficulties the enemy would have to cope with; and finally, the certainty that the enemy could be prevented from crossing the Meuse River. During this discussion, Gen Bradley traced on a map the maximum estimated penetrations he thought the enemy could effect. These factors coupled with the Supreme Allied Commander’s strategic concept for defeating Germany, resulted in Gen Eisenhower’s decision to take a calculated risk and unleash the offensive designed to crush German resistance, occupy the Fatherland and force Germany to surrender. The 1-A’s attack against the dams over the Roer River jumped off on December 13 1944, meanwhile, the 3-A was preparing for renewal of its offensive against the Saar. This attack was to begin six days later, on December 19, 1944.

Gen Omar N. Bradley, 12AG and Gen Lawton J. Collins “Lightning Joe”, VII Corps

General Situation
At 0530 on the morning of December 16 1944, the contemplated all-out German counter-offensive was launched striking at the VIII Corps defenses. Broadly, the German offensive scheme was to protract the Allied offensive plans by attacking in a lightly defended sector with the immediate objective of severing Allied lateral communications. The ultimate objective was to seize the important port of Antwerp, Belgium, the loss of which would introduce a serious problem of supplying the northern Allied Armies. The enemy, supported by long-range artillery concentrations along the entire VIII Corps front, followed by strong infantry-tank attacks had, by the evening of December 19, driven two gaps into the lines of VIII Corps. During this period, CCB/9-AD was released from V Corps and attached to the 106-ID. The 7-AD was attached to VIII Corps (9-A). On December 17 1944, the 82 and the 101-A/B were released to Gen Bradley from SHAEF Reserve. The 101-ABD attached to VIII Corps went into the assembly area near Bastogne on December 18 1944. The mission assigned to the Screaming Eagles was to stand and defend Bastogne, Belgium. The situation confronting the 101-A/B was highly fluid and tactical confusion resigned. It was not until December 20 1944 that defenses around Bastogne were established according to any plan.

At 1330, December 20, operational control of VIII Corps was given to 3A. Order of the battle of VIII Corps at this time consisted of these elements :

– 4th Infantry Division
– 7th Armored Division
– 9th Armored Division
– 10th Armored Division
– 28th Infantry Division
– 101st Airborne Division
– 106th Infantry Division

The Germans continuing their advances had, by the morning of December 21, completely cut off the defenders of Bastogne composed of the 101-A/B with :

– CCB/10th Armored Division
– CCR/4th Armored Division
– 705th Field Artillery Battalion
– Charlie, 9th Armored Engineers
– 969th Field Artillery (attached)

At 1130, December 22, the besieged garrison of Bastogne received a demand to surrender. The fortune of war is changing. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two-hour term. All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity. After Gen Anthony McAuliffe short answer NUTS was delivered, the enemy continued his attacks against the Bastogne perimeter with renewed fury.

On this same day, III Corps of 3-A made up of the 80-ID and 26-ID and the 4-AD began counterattacking the southern shoulder of the enemy penetration. The Army Air Forces, immobilized since the German breakthrough because of inclement weather, effected aerial re-supply to the 101-A/B on December 23. A total of 260 aircraft took part in the operation, dropping 334 tons of critically needed supplies. Continued good weather permitted the Army Air Forces to successfully drop additional supplies on December 24 and also to work over the German tanks and artillery with Thunderbolts. Christmas Day found the defenders of Bastogne still surrounded and the enemy launching determined attacks to capture the town. The 327-GIR (101-A/B), with the 1/401-GIR attached, defended the western segment of the Bastogne perimeter. Able and Baker of the 1/401-GIR, defended the northern sector of this segment.

At 0710 on Christmas Day, the Germans made a concerted tank-infantry assault against Able Co and coursed along the left flank of Baker 401-GIR. By 0720 the enemy had rolled over both companies only to be repulsed by point blank artillery fire. Simultaneously, another strong German tank-infantry attack was probing the 502-PIR north of the 1/401-GIR in the vicinity of Champs. Savage fighting raged between the opposing forces the entire morning, but by midday the German attacker had been ejected, and the two companies, Able and Baker, were disposed in their original early morning positions.

On December 25, the 1st Platoon, Baker 401, theoretically in reserve, had the mission of defending the open ground between Able and Baker in the event of enemy penetration. This defense was to be accomplished from the position then occupied. Understrength upon arrival in Bastogne, the platoon had been further reduced by battle casualties to fifteen men and one officer. In an earlier German attack against the battalion in the vicinity of Flamierge – Flamizoulle, a seven men rifle squad, separated from Charlie Co, was absorbed by Baker Co and subsequently attached to the 1st Plat. This force in its entirety was deployed along the left of the company sector on the morning of December 25. Although not according to its Table of Organization and Equipment, the platoon was well equipped. Morale was superior. The troops were seasoned combat veterans, the aerial resupply and friendly air strikes against enemy armor, the inspirational Christmas Eve message from Gen McAuliffe, plus the knowledge from the south, all contributed to produce this high state of morale. When the enemy attacks of the morning trundled over Able Co, the platoon remained in its positions. The deadly accurate enfilade fire delivered by the platoon forced the enemy to drive to the east thus preventing him from turning northward and rolling up the flank of Baker Co.

Shortly after noon, suffering only minor casualties from the sharp morning conflict, the platoon consolidated and reorganized its position. The early afternoon hours were comparatively quiet with only sporadic artillery and unaimed small arms fire falling in the area. Close to 1545, Capt Robert J. MacDonald, the company CO, called the platoon leader to the company observation post. Upon researching the CP, the company commander without formality began orienting the platoon leader. Pertinent points of the orientation were as follows :

During the last two hours, German soldiers had been infiltrating into a group of farm buildings located approximately 700 yards to the right front of the company observation post and almost 900 yards forward of the 2nd Plat entrenchments. Neutralization of this build-up by artillery and mortar fire was not possible because of a shortage of ammunition. The massing of these enemy troops indicated a probable night attack…

After a brief discussion of the enemy capabilities, the vulnerability of our lines, and the combat effectiveness of the platoon, the company commander made a snap decision. The 1st Plat, supported by a tank destroyer, would attack. Mission of the platoon was to break up the enemy attack preparations and capture a prisoner if possible; time of attack, 1615; line of departure and attack formation to be selected by the platoon leader. The tank destroyer commander would report to the platoon CP for the attack briefing and to effect coordination. The tank destroyer at this time was settled in the woods occupied by the 2nd Plat.

The terrain over which the platoon was to attack offered neither cover nor concealment. The ground sloping gently forward rose gradually to the left of the objective. Beginning at the military crest of this rise, a clump of woods extended westward. A ridge line running in a northerly direction behind the farm dominated the attack area. A slight hollow wandering toward the objective leveled out about halfway across the field. Organization and equipment for the attack was not complex. The assigned personnel of the platoon were formed in to three rifle squads of five men each, consisting of a squad leader and his assistant, two riflemen, and an automatic rifleman. All were armed with an M-1 cal 30.06 rifle with the exception of the automatic rifleman who carried his individual weapon (Browning Automatic Rifle). Each man carried at least two fragmentation hand grenades (MK-2A1). The attached squad from Charlie Co was composed substantially as the organic squads with two additional riflemen.

Plan of Attack
His estimate of the situation already formulated, the platoon leader returned to his CP only moments before 1600. Realizing that time dictated hasty preparation for the coming attack, he ordered his platoon sergeant and squad leaders to assemble at the company observation post immediately. As soon as the non-commissioned officers reported to the observation post, the situation was quickly explained to them and the platoon attack order was given. The platoon, with the tank destroyer attached, would cross the line of departure at 1615 and move in a platoon column within squad columns to a point indicated by the platoon leader. The formation would move out with the first squad leading, followed by the Charlie Co squad, and the second and third squads in order. Here, upon order from the platoon leader, the platoon would form a skirmish line and using assault fire, move rapidly into the cover afforded by the outlying buildings. The platoon would push its attack until ordered to disengage. The same route used for the attack would be used for returning to the company area.

The tank destroyer would support the attack from the edge of the draw between the main company position and the 2nd Plat. As soon as the platoon reached the assault position, the tank destroyer would follow up the advance of the platoon and move into a close support position. The position selected for the tank destroyer was behind a rise short of the farm proper. The platoon sergeant would bring up the rear. The platoon leader would be at the head of the column. No aid men were to accompany the platoon. The platoon on moving to the line of departure would file passed the company ammunition point and secure any additional ammunition needed.

The Attack
The attack formation crossed the line of departure at the specified time. Although control was not considered a problem, the platoon moved slowly until the entire column had cleared the line of departure. The tank destroyer was not tailing the column. Without the support of the tank destroyer to neutralize hostile observation and fire, the advance to the objective would be difficult. Consequently, the platoon leader increased the speed of movement in order to reach the assault position with a minimum of exposure. After advancing almost three hundred yards, the attack leader glanced rearward and observed the tank destroyer clanking into its initial support position. At this time the platoon sergeant was signaled forward to join the platoon leader. About two hundred yards short of the objective the platoon deployed as skirmishers so as to attack the enemy stronghold frontally. The first two squads formed the right portion of the line while the remaining squads led by the platoon sergeant filled to the left. The situation at this time was unique. The tank destroyer had not fired a round and further movement forward by the platoon would mask its fires. The attackers, although well within range of the enemy small arms, had not been fired up-on. The objective and the commanding ridge line to the rear was devoid of enemy activity. Quick interpretation of these facts led the platoon leader to believe that the enemy might have withdrawn from his position.

A little more than a hundred yards from the farm buildings the platoon leader gave the order to commence firing and waved the tank destroyer forward at the same time. The latter was accomplished by hand and arm signals, the only means of communication available. By this time the troops were within fifty yards of the objective. As the men measured the distance anxiously, a withering fire swept the left sector of the assault wave. Hitting the ground, the men melted into the irregularities of the terrain to seek escape from the devastating fire. The reminder of the troops, faltering momentarily upon hearing the firing, cautiously continued their advance. At this time the platoon leader directed a German speaking soldier of his command to about a surrender ultimatum to the enemy garrison. For an answer the Germans delivered saturation fire against the attackers. Up until this time this group had not been subjected to any enemy fire. With all the troops pinned down, the decision was made to send a messenger to the rear with instructions to have the tank destroyer move forward and assist in the assault.

After delivering these instructions the messenger was to report to the company commander, give him the platoon situation, and request rocket launcher teams be dispatched to the aid of the platoon. The problem of reaching the protection of the buildings without sustaining crippling losses presented itself. Movement was practically impossible, yet immobility would eventually spell annihilation. Signaling for increased rates of fire the squads were ordered to move forward and the messenger was sent to the rear. Surging forward the men gained the cover of the buildings in one bound. As soon as the buildings had been reached a hasty reorganization was effected. Casualties had not been too heavy in light of the action. One man had been killed and two were seriously wounded. Unknown to the platoon leader the messenger sent to the rear had also been killed. Ammunition supply was more than adequate. The situation of the remainder of the platoon had improved only slightly. Two riflemen had taken up a position behind a small tree on the extreme left of the left squads, and were pumping effective fire into the buildings.

The plight of the platoon was precarious. Half of the men were transfixed by enemy fire while the other half, shielded by the buildings, were stymied, unable to persist in the attack. Gathering the first and second squad leaders together, the platoon leader quickly outlined his plan for regaining the initiative. The plan, if successful, would permit the other squads to reach the protection of the outlying buildings. The plan was simple. A few men of the first squad would slip around the right side of the buildings to the rear and knock out what weapons they could. The rest of the men would throw grenades into the open loft above the ground floor in an attempt to set the building afire. The second squad would cover the action of both these groups by fire.

Without further preparation of this phase of the attack was instituted. The platoon and first squad leader, an automatic rifleman and the rifleman moved as planned. Upon reaching the right rear corner of the building, two enemy soldiers evidently bent on a similar mission appeared. A burst of fire from the automatic rifleman cut them down before they could react. An enemy machine gun protruding from a basement window to the rear of the men began firing but was ineffective because of its restricted traverse. The squad leader, with his back to the wall, eased up to the window and dropped a grenade into the opening. The gun was silenced, but in doing so the squad leader was seriously wounded. With the silencing of this weapon, the platoon leader ordered the men to fall back to their original position. Meanwhile, the other men had set the hay loft on fire with a white phosphorus grenade.

Sensing the opportunity these diversionary actions had created, the men in the open had closed into the building area. The two men on the extreme left had not vacated their position and were still firing. Command of this group had been assumed by the leader of the third squad after the platoon sergeant and the fourth squad leader became casualties. Total casualties of the platoon now mounted to three killed, (including the platoon sergeant and the messenger), four seriously wounded, and an undetermined number of slightly wounded. The platoon huddled in small groups behind the outlying buildings were stalemated their combat effectiveness completely neutralized. The farm building was burning slowly, and knowing that the building would soon become untenable for the enemy, the platoon leader made another decision. He would set up a killing zone to the right of the farm. This would prevent easy withdrawal of the enemy to the rear. Immediately after this decision was carried out, the platoon was racked by fire from behind. The tank destroyer having moved to within fifty yards of the platoon was firing all its guns into the objective. All attempts to signal and shout cease fire orders to the tank destroyer were futile. Consequently, the platoon leader ran to the tank destroyer and ordered the commander to lift his fire from the building, shift to the right and cover the ridge to the rear.

The platoon in the meantime was hammering the enemy with everything at their disposal. The loft, smoldering rather than flaming, was choking the enemy out of their positions. Some enemy attempting to escape met deathly fire from the riflemen from the flanks. The enemy who were able to survive this fire were caught in the fire of the tank destroyer now firing from its new position. Returning to the platoon, leader gave orders to continue firing but stipulated that under no circumstances would the platoon advance forward of their present position. At dark the platoon would withdraw, evacuating their casualties as far to the rear as possible. A messenger would be sent to the company to guide personnel forward to assist in the further evacuation of the non-ambulatory cases. Request would also be made to have a jeep-ambulance brought forward to the company area for immediate evacuation to the battalion aid station of the more seriously wounded.

Minutes later, as twilight faded into darkness, the enemy fire from the buildings slackened considerably, but the ridge line in the rear of the objective erupted violently. Heavy concentrations of small arms fire from automatic weapons exploded to the right and rear of the platoon. At the same time the enemy broke from the objective, withdrawing under cover of the fire from the ridge. The tank destroyer responded quickly to this retrograde maneuver and placed a heavy volume of fire upon the ridge including high explosive shells from its 76,2-MM gun. The fifty caliber machine gun manned by the tank destroyer commander was searching the open ground between the objective and the ridge. The effectiveness of this fire could not be fully determined because of the limited visibility.

Under the screen of nightfall and the enemy’s own retirement, the platoon leader dispatched a messenger to the rear with requests for the aid previously decided upon. The squad leaders were ordered to prepare for withdrawal. The second squad was designated to cover the withdrawal.
Shortly after these orders were issued the enemy fire from the ridge ceased as abruptly as it began. The platoon instituted their withdrawal, carrying out their evacuation of casualties as planned. Halfway to the rear, remnants of the attacking force were met by several members of the company and the operation was completed without incident. After remaining in the objective area for several minutes, the platoon leader and the covering force withdrew to the main company positions.

Reorganization of the platoon revealed that manpower losses sustained in the attack had been costly. Three men were killed, one man was missing in action, five had been seriously wounded, and four men had received slight wounds.

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