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101st Airborne Glider Infantry men at BASTOGNE

U.S. glider troops fought tenaciously to hold the crossroads town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

By Leo G. Barron

Marvie is a quiet town nestled in the Ardennes region of southern Belgium. A farming village with a population of several hundred people, history has almost forgotten the town, but on one day in December 1944, Marvie lay astride a road that led to another town—Bastogne. If the German panzergrenadiers and tanks had overrun the glider infantrymen who defended Marvie, they might have taken Bastogne, and the history of the Battle of Bulge would have been radically different.

Unlike their airborne brethren, the glider infantry of the 101st Airborne Division has lived in the shadows of history. At Marvie, however, the 327th Glider Infantry showed its mettle and earned the moniker of the Bastogne Bulldogs.

Manteuffel’s Dilemma

On December 16, 1944, three German armies crashed through the thin American lines on the Western Front in the area known as the Ardennes Forest. The Germans’ objective was the city of Antwerp, Belgium, a great seaport then in use by the Allies for the supply of their armies fighting toward the German homeland.

The Fifth Panzer Army, under the command of General Hasso von Manteuffel, had the task of securing the southern flank of the German drive to Antwerp and seizing the city of Brussels. To accomplish this mission, it would have to penetrate the American lines along the Our River and seize several crossings at the Meuse River. More important, it had to control two towns, St. Vith and Bastogne.

Manteuffel had to make a difficult choice about Bastogne. The commander of the Fifth Panzer Army wanted Bastogne, but he was not willing to risk losing the Meuse River crossings to get it. During the preliminary operational planning, he ordered General Heinrich Luettwitz, commander of the XLVII Panzer Corps, to attempt to capture the vital town through a coup de main, using the Panzer Lehr Division, under the command of General Fritz Bayerlein. If that failed, the 26th Volksgrenadier Division would surround the town, allowing the other two panzer divisions in the corps (2nd Panzer and the Panzer Lehr) to continue their westward advance to the Meuse.

For Luettwitz the idea of leaving Bastogne in the rear, unconquered, meant greater problems later in the operation, and he strongly believed that he needed to concentrate his forces to capture the town before he could move the bulk of his corps to the west. As events unfolded, history would prove him right.

By December 21, 1944, the XLVII Panzer Corps had attempted several times to capture Bastogne, and each had failed. After a day of bitter fighting, the corps had surrounded Bastogne. Inside the town was the American 101st Airborne Division and Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division. It was clear that Luettwitz wanted to seize the town, knowing that the American paratroopers, so long as they had ammunition and food, would continue to resist his forces and disrupt his supply lines. Bastogne was also an important crossroads town, and control of it could facilitate the westward movement of German forces.

Marvie: Key to Bastogne

Yet, Manteuffel wanted the XLVII Panzer Corps to continue its advance toward the Meuse, northwest of Bastogne. As a result, Luettwitz could commit only one reinforced Volksgrenadier division, the 26th under General Heinz Kokott, to the capture of the vital road hub.

Luettwitz decided to gamble. He sent the besieged garrison a surrender ultimatum on the 22nd. The Americans called his bluff as General Anthony McAuliffe, acting commander of the 101st Airborne, replied famously, “Nuts!”

Luettwitz faced a dilemma. He had to respond with force. Luckily, the 26th Volksgrenadier Division was not toothless. Luettwitz had authorized the transfer of one battle group from Panzer Lehr to remain with the 26th Volksgrenadier Division south of Bastogne. This was not likely a popular decision with Fritz Bayerlein, the commander of the Panzer Lehr Division. He was losing one of his maneuver regiments, the 901st Panzergrenadier Regiment, two panzer companies, and a battalion of artillery. With this force, coupled with the rest of the 26th Volksgrenadier Division, Luettwitz wanted Kokott to squeeze the noose around the neck of the American forces within the Bastogne perimeter and then penetrate it.

n aerial view looking north shows the small village of Marvie during more peaceful times. U.S. glider troops held on at Marvie and blunted the German drive to the key crossroads town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

Kokott sensed that the best place to break though the American lines was near the southern side of the Bastogne perimeter. The 901st Panzergrenadier Regiment controlled the sector and reported that the American forces near Marvie were weak. In addition, both Kokott and Luettwitz sensed that the forces within Bastogne were not strong enough to continue their resistance if the Germans kept up the pressure. In preparation for a major attack on the night of the 23rd, Kokott and Luettwitz decided to increase the pressure around the entire Bastogne perimeter and close any potential gaps in their own encirclement of the American forces during the day.

Kokott’s 26th Reconnaissance Battalion would attack Mande St. Etienne in the west, while the 77th Volksgrenadier Regiment would attack Champs and advance to the south. Meanwhile, a battle group from the 2nd Panzer Division would strike Flamierge. This would close any gaps, tie down U.S. forces in areas away from the main target, and perhaps even draw American forces away from the southeast sector.

For the main attack, Kokott chose the 901st Panzergrenadier Regiment and set the date for December 23. The 901st was relatively fresh and had not sustained serious losses in the prior few days. Next, Kokott decided to attack at dusk because the Americans controlled the skies during the day, and their fighter-bombers were very effective against tanks in the open. Moreover, by nightfall the other operations near Champs and Mande St. Etienne would be complete.

If the 901st penetrated the American defenses, Kokott could then order an all-out assault on Bastogne itself. To accomplish this, the 901st Panzergrenadier battle group had to breach the Bastogne defenses from the southeast and seize the town of Marvie in order to allow for a general attack on Bastogne. The time for its attack would be after 5 pm.

The U.S. Order of Battle

Opposing the 901st Panzergrenadier Regiment was the U.S. 2nd Battalion, 327th Glider Infantry Regiment. The acting commander was Major R.B. Galbreaith, who was the executive officer of the battalion. The original battalion commander, Lt. Col. Roy L. Inman, had sustained injuries during an earlier attack on Marvie on December 20. The battalion held one of the most extensive sectors in the division. It extended from Marvie in the east to the Bastogne–Lutrebois Road in the west. On the eastern flank was the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, while on the western flank was the 326th Parachute Engineer Battalion.

From west to east, Galbreaith arrayed his forces along the high ground that overlooked an east-west road that led to the town of Martelange to the west. His westernmost unit was a platoon from G Company. Farther to the east was F Company, which was situated between two G Company platoons. East of F Company was a G Company platoon that occupied the forward slope of Hill 500, the highest terrain in Galbreaith’s sector. After Hill 500, a road bisected the battalion area of operations and ran directly north into Marvie. To the east of the road was a platoon of engineers. In addition, along the easternmost flank, was E Company.

The entire frontage for the battalion was nearly two miles, almost double the area a battalion could doctrinally defend. Colonel Joseph Harper, Galbreaith’s boss and the commander of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, did not have much of an option. His regimental area of operations extended from Marvie in the east to Mande St. Etienne in the west, which was a distance of more than four miles. He had no choice but to stretch his forces thin to cover the entire southern approach to Bastogne.

The location of Marvie in relation to the crossroads at Bastogne is clearly visible on the map.

The glider men were not the only soldiers in and around Marvie. Team O’Hara, from Combat Command B, 10th Armored Division, was also in the southeastern sector of the Bastogne defenses. Lt. Col. James O’Hara commanded a combined-arms task force of medium and light tanks, mechanized infantry, and engineers. The force was mainly north of the Bastogne-Wiltz highway on a reverse slope, located to the northeast of Marvie.

O’Hara’s total force comprised 19 officers and nearly 300 enlisted men, whom he divided among several armored infantry companies and attached tank platoons. More important, he owned six M4 Sherman medium tanks, a forward observer Sherman tank, one Sherman tank with a mounted 105mm howitzer, four M5A1 Stuart light tanks, and four 75mm howitzers mounted on M8 armored cars.

On the night of the 23rd, Team O’Hara had assembled a significant amount of firepower to block any German attempt to flank Marvie from the north. South of the road, O’Hara had positioned two light machine guns and one heavy machine gun. They covered a minefield and a roadblock. With them was one platoon of infantry from B Company, 54th Armored Infantry. To provide antitank defense, O’Hara buttressed the southern flank with three Shermans, including one with a 76mm gun that the forward observer used.

North of the road was another platoon from B Company. Like the southern platoon, O’Hara had supported it with two tanks; one had a 75mm gun, while the other was a 105mm howitzer mounted on a Sherman. Between the two platoons, O’Hara had placed a pair of outposts to overlook the roadblock, while in the building just to the south of the road was the B Company command post. On the far northern flank were two heavy machine guns, and their principal direction of fire was to the north. Behind the primary fighting positions were O’Hara’s headquarters and a heavy machine gun, which his engineers operated. Finally, far to the rear was his platoon of five light tanks, which were laagering at the main intersection where the east-west Wiltz Road crossed the north-south Marvie Road.

Setting Up the Attack

The terrain around Marvie favored the attackers. For observation and fields of fire, the Germans possessed the high ground to the south of Marvie, and with it they could observe most of the American perimeter in this sector. An extensive forest called the Te’re dol’Hesse ran along the southern length of the Remoifosse Road, which would screen the German forces assembling for an attack on Marvie. The same woods that provided concealment would also, however, be an obstacle for the German forces and would severely restrict much of their mechanized units. Therefore, the German tanks would have to use the roads and trails until they reached the open fields.

From Hill 500 the Americans could observe German movement within the wood line. If the Germans seized it, however, they could lay enfilade fire on the American forces in Marvie to the northeast. The most likely avenue of approach for German mechanized forces would be along the north-south road that bisected the Remoifosse Road and led directly into Marvie and on to Bastogne.

Colonel Paul von Hauser, who commanded the 901st Panzergrenadier Regiment, planned his attack along several lines. The decisive operation would advance up the road that ran directly north into Marvie, while the main shaping operation would move up the highway that ran between Remoifosse and Bastogne. A second shaping operation would inch its way northward along the road that connected Wiltz and Bastogne to fix the American forces to the northeast of Marvie. If everything went according to plan, Kokott would then order his general assault once his forces had achieved a decisive penetration. The only variable was the glider men of the 327th. How would they react to Kokott’s plan? He would have his answer soon.

This map details the night battle at Marvie on December 23-24, 1944.

The Assault Begins

At approximately 5:15 pm, the German attack began. Tanks fired from a position in the forest hollow of Martaimont several hundred meters to the southeast of Marvie, while German machine guns opened up along the entire wood line. Their target was the men of 2nd Battalion. Their mission was to suppress the glider men in order to prevent them from responding with accurate fire against the German forces. Meanwhile, panzergrenadiers dressed in snowsuits edged their way forward from concealed positions in the wood line. Tracers crisscrossed the night sky.

Around 5:35, as the panzergrenadiers dashed and rolled from covered position to covered position, their first objective became clear to the glider men. It was the lone platoon from G Company at the base of Hill 500. The American platoon leader was Lieutenant Stanley Morrison. He had already been a POW briefly during the attack on Marvie on the 20th, but when that attack broke down the Germans left him behind in the town. For this attack, the Germans committed the 2nd and 6th Companies of the 901st Panzergrenadier Regiment to seize the vital hill and then the town. In addition to the panzergrenadiers, four tanks accompanied the infantry to provide suppression fire, while a platoon of 120mm mortars and a platoon of 75mm guns provided indirect artillery fire to secure the flanks of the attack.

The Americans immediately responded with two batteries of 75mm howitzers from the 463rd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, firing from the town of Hemroulle. Their target was the area just south of Hill 500, and by 6 pm, B and D Batteries had saturated the area with over 75 rounds of high explosives.

The other shaping operations now began in earnest. At 6 pm, 12 more tanks with accompanying infantry struck F Company near the Remoifosse-Bastogne Road. Some of the panzergrenadiers quickly overwhelmed and destroyed a squad from F Company defending a copse of trees north of the road to Remoifosse. While some of the Americans escaped, the Germans killed or captured most of the squad. In response, the B and D Batteries from the 463rd Parachute Field Artillery shifted their fire toward the intersection due south of Remoifosse. The 463rd called for additional assistance from the 377th Parachute Field Artillery, and this battalion began to fire on the same area.

Because of this massive artillery concentration and his dogged resistance, Lieutenant Leslie Smith’s platoon, which overlooked the Remoifosse–Bastogne Road, temporarily blocked the German tanks. Smith’s heaviest weapons were bazookas. The fighting was fierce. German tanks fired 15 rounds into Smith’s command post, which subsequently caught fire. Smith refused to leave the burning building and decided to continue the fight from the basement. At one point, two German tanks closed within 50 yards of Smith’s lines but were turned back. During the night, Smith’s men repelled three separate attacks.

“We’re Still Holding On”

Elsewhere, however, the American main line of resistance was beginning to buckle. Despite the massive steel storm, the German panzergrenadiers inched forward, and by 6:40 they had reached the base of Hill 500. Once there, they infiltrated the houses that surrounded the base of the hill and slowly began to envelop Morrison’s platoon.

Sensing the threat, Morrison ordered some of his men on the flanks to fall back to prevent the enemy from turning him, but the Germans had fixed his platoon. Soon they would cut him off from the rest of the battalion. Believing they had neutralized the threat, some of German tanks then turned their attention toward the town of Marvie and began to hurl rounds into the village while two Mark IV tanks began to advance toward the town.

Morrison had very little to stop the clanking metal monsters. The only significant antitank weapon available was a 57mm gun mounted in a half-track. Colonel Harper had placed the gun at the base of Hill 500 to prevent German tanks from using the road that led into Marvie and then to Bastogne. Originally, a 37mm gun had been placed there, but Harper wanted something with more punch. He asked O’Hara for a tank, but O’Hara declined and offered the 57mm instead.