Guns & Patriots

The Last Jump: Chapter 62

Chapter Sixty-Two
Spa, Belgium – December 18, 1944

“The nature of the ground is often of more consequence than courage.”
Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, Military Institutions of the Romans, c. AD 378

More than any other ground campaign in the War, the Battle of the Bulge was a battle for roads.  It was about securing and moving rapidly along the few usable roads and denying them to the enemy.  Whoever controlled the roads controlled the fight.  In this fluid struggle for force mobility, the crossroad villages and road hub cities became the most important real estate in the Ardennes Forest.

Bastogne was a small market town serving the surrounding farming villages as both a commercial center and the major road hub.  With a population of 4,000, Bastogne stood on a high plateau 1,600 feet above sea level.  Its surrounding grazing land and rolling hills were a stark departure from the densely forested river-cut ravines and violently undulating terrain that characterized most of the Ardennes.  While there were occasional patches of thick pine trees to break up the pastures, Bastogne had no natural defensive features.  The Americans would occupy the sturdy stone farmhouses surrounding the town and use them as fortified strong points.  Their defensive line would encircle the town to protect the nexus of five major and three minor roads.

St. Vith, less than fifteen miles from the Schnee Eifel, was closest to the front line.  The 7th Armored Division was directed to St. Vith in a failed attempt to extricate the 106th Infantry Division from their predicament on the Schnee Eifel.  They arrived too late but provided the backbone for the defense of St. Vith.  In addition, the village became a collecting place where retreating American formations coalesced, rearmed and turned back to the fight.

Bastogne was further south and farther away from the breakthrough.  It was the headquarters of VIII Corps, which watched stunned and helpless as its front collapsed and the Germans raced westward.  General Troy Middleton received scant reinforcements in the form of Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division.  That was all the help available until the two divisions of paratroopers were alerted and sent in to put out the fire.

Major General James M. Gavin walked into the Grand Hotel Britannique, Headquarters of the United States First Army, in Spa, Belgium.  It was 0900 hours on 18 December and he had been on the fog-shrouded roads all night under a cold, driving rain.  A twist of fate had made the thirty-seven year old general responsible for executing orders that were vague and required clarification.  The best way to do that, he reasoned, was to visit General Courtney Hodges, commanding general of the First Army.

“Welcome, Jim,” Hodges extended his hand.  He breathed a slight sigh of relief.

Gavin took the hand warmly, shook it and looked around the room.  It was relatively quiet but he could sense the chaos.  Staff officers were moving about hastily.  Some were writing on a clear plastic overlay of a map of the Ardennes.  Others were on telephones or radios.  Typewriters were clicking and coding machines were whirring.  A small group of NCOs were packing up files.  To anyone else Hodges might have looked gaunt and haggard but Gavin had previously served under him in the Philippines and knew that was how he always looked.

“Thank you, sir.  I got here as fast as I could.  What’s the situation?”

“Well Jim, the Krauts have ripped open a pretty big hole in our lines.”  He walked Gavin over to the large wall map, which was marked with danger points in red grease pencil.  The map looked like it had the measles.  “They caught us with our pants down.  We’ve identified twelve new divisions.”  Hodges shook his head.  “Where the heck did they get all these new divisions?”

Gavin studied the map.  The situation looked bleak.  Hodges pointed to the bottom of the map.  “They’re pretty much having their way with us right now but I think we can hold this southern shoulder.”

Gavin nodded but his attention was drawn to the center.  Hodges continued.  “They caved our center, ripped it to pieces.  Chewed up the Twenty-eighth and they have two regiments of the Hundred and sixth surrounded.”  Hodges was pointing to the Schnee Eifel.  “I don’t think we can get them out, Jim.”

Gavin nodded again.  Courtney Hodges was highly regarded in army circles.  After washing out of West Point for academic reasons, he joined the army as a private, earned a commission and won the Distinguished Service Cross in World War I.  He was a protégé of General George Marshall and advanced quietly through the officer ranks to command of the Infantry School.  Although widely revered, the Georgia-born gentleman was humble and modest and never sought headlines.  He was simply an extremely competent and compassionate commander.  Gavin knew the loss of so many men was wearing on him.

Hodges then pointed to an egg-shaped blue grease pencil marking around the town of St. Vith.  “We’re going to make a stand around St. Vith.  It’s an important road junction and I’ve already sent the Seventh Armored there along with one Combat Command of the Ninth Armored.”

“How long can we hold?”

“We have to hold until we can organize a counterattack.  The Krauts took Clervaux late last night and are almost out of the river valleys and into open tank country.  We have to deny them the roads.  We’re still not sure what they’re up to or where they think they’re going.”

“Is that where you want us, sir?”

“No, Jim.  It’s the northern boundary that has me worried.  Their First SS Panzer Division is running wild along this stretch.”  Hodges made an east west tracing with his finger from the villages of Losheim to Werbomont and back.  “Twelfth SS Panzer is right behind them.  If your boys can hold them up, it’ll take pressure off of St. Vith.”  Hodges paused.  “There are more Panzer Divisions attacking in the center.  Regular Wehrmacht.  Not SS.  They’ll probably flow around St. Vith and isolate it but we can’t let them have the roads through the town.  We have to force them onto fewer roads, create bottlenecks and congestion in their supply trains, and slow down their advance by virtue of its own weight and volume.”  Hodges paused.  “We’re going to hold at the shoulders and squeeze his attack into the narrowest possible front.  When we have ample forces on his flanks, we’ll counterattack and cut him off at the knees!”

Gavin was elated Hodges had not abandoned his aggressive spirit.  Other generals in his position might have collapsed under the pressure and went on the defensive but his approach was textbook.  Strengthen the shoulders, reinforce the flanks, and let the penetration overextend itself.

“But we’re not at that point yet,” Hodges explained.  “We’re still moving blocking forces into position.  Right now we have to slow the Krauts down and buy some time.”  He went back to the map and put his finger on the northern boundary.  “These SS Panzer Divisions are still a threat to break out to the north to the cities of Liege or Huy on the Meuse River.  The main roads to these two towns cross at the village of Werbomont.  I need one of your divisions to defend that city and deny those roads to the Krauts.  Who’s first in your column?”

“Eighty-second, sir,” Gavin answered.

“Eighty-second it is. I have another job for the Hundred and first.”

Gavin frowned ever so slightly and Hodges picked up on the facial gesture.  “What is it?”

“Nothing, sir.  I was hoping to deploy our two airborne divisions side by side.   They’re the two best infantry divisions in the world and with some armor and artillery help they could crush anything the Krauts could throw at us.”

“That would be something to see, Jim.  But right now I have to deal with another Panzer Corps breaking out to the south of St. Vith.  They’re headed for Bastogne.  We have to block those roads too.  That’s where I need the Hundred and first.”

“Of course, sir.  I understand.”  Gavin nodded to his G-1 Operations Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Al Ireland, who began issuing the orders using the powerful headquarters radio.

“When will your two divisions arrive?”

“They’re on the road now, sir.  They’ll arrive tonight and should be deployed and dug in by tomorrow morning.”

“Excellent, Jim.  I don’t know many generals who could move two divisions on ‘R and R’ a hundred miles and be ready for combat in a single day.”

Gavin smiled.  “It’s come as you are, sir.  We’ll need everything, clothes, guns, ammo, and medical supplies.  We were virtually in our pajamas when we got the fire call.”

Hodges allowed himself a small chuckle.  “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of supplies.”

“Thank you, sir.  With your permission, I’d like to recon the positions around Werbomont before my division gets here.  General Ridgway should be here late tonight to assume command of his corps and I’d like to start being a division commander again.”  Gavin thought for a moment.  “Then I’ll personally carry your written orders to Bastogne to make sure there is no misunderstanding.  I’ll be back tonight.”

“We won’t be here,” Hodges glanced at the soldiers packing the equipment.  “We’re moving headquarters to the Hotel Des Bains in Chaudfontaine.”  Hodges touched his protégé on the shoulder.  “Be careful, Jim.  We don’t need to have you captured on top of everything else.”

Hodges was about to let Gavin leave when he remembered one last thing.  “Jim, this northern spearhead, the SS units…we have reports of them shooting American prisoners.”

Gavin stared back at Hodges, absorbing the gravity of his words.  He snapped a salute.  “That’s good to know, sir.”

Colonel Ireland joined Gavin as they returned to the jeep.  Waiting for them was Gavin’s driver, Lieutenant Sky Johnson.  They mapped a course for Werbomont eleven miles to the southwest and took off down the crowded road.

It was “Hitler weather” as the Germans called it; low clouds, deep gray sky with a heavy overcast.  Nothing could fly in these conditions.  The Germans counted on the bad weather since the Allies owned the skies and the Luftwaffe could not stop the Allied fighter-bombers from ravishing the German columns.  So the Panzers prowled through the twisting valleys of the Ardennes protected by a blanket of thick fog and zero-visibility skies.

The roads were heavy with traffic in both directions.  The little jeep darted in and out of the flow.  At one brief stop, Gavin observed a group of Negro soldiers loading supply trucks.  He stared hard at the scene with a look of deep concern carved on his face.  There was something in what he saw that deeply disturbed him.

The jeep traveled on through light rain and cold sleet as Gavin observed the terrain with the trained eye of a master tactician.  The rolling hills and patches of forests made for decent tank country.  If the Nazis could claw their way out of the twisting Ambleve River valley onto this plateau, they would become a much more formidable foe.  Hodges was right.  They had to be stopped before they could get here.

It was early afternoon on 18 December when Sky rolled the jeep up to a two story stone farmhouse, the only building in the crossroads village of Werbomont.  Army combat engineers manned the single sandbagged roadblock.  It was set up to check traffic heading north and was surprised by the lone jeep traveling south.  Two scruffy GIs behind the sandbagged position leveled a .30-caliber machine gun at the jeep while a third soldier, a private, turned to face it.  His M-1 Garand was tucked under his armpit and a cigarette dangled lazily from his mouth.

“Password,” he demanded with anxious eyes.

Sky stepped out from behind the driver’s seat.  “We’re not from this command, soldier.  We’re about to take over this section of the front.  We don’t know your freakin’ password.”

The lone sentry hesitated for a second.  “Okay, then.  Who’s married to Betty Grable?”

“Harry James,” answered a relieved Sky Johnson.

“Wrong,” the soldier raised his M-1 into firing position and leveled it at the jeep.  “Hands up!”  Sky was wide-eyed.

A lieutenant stepped out from the farmhouse.  “At ease, Hatfield.  That’s the right answer.”

“Really?  Shucks!” was all the surprised soldier could say.  He lowered his rifle, disappointed.  The two soldiers behind the machine gun stifled a chuckle with their glove-covered hands.  Gavin couldn’t help but allow himself a slight smile.  Just like typical American GIs, he thought.  Playing pranks and finding a little black humor in the worst of places.

“If you’re going to ask those kinds of questions, Hatfield, you damn well better know the right answer.”  The lieutenant saw Colonel Ireland and saluted.  “Sorry, sir.  We’ve had reports of Krauts in American uniforms driving American vehicles all along this sector.”

When Gavin exited the jeep, the lieutenant saw the two muted stars on his helmet and stiffened and saluted again. “General, sir.  My apologies, sir!”

“At ease, Lieutenant.  I’m Jim Gavin, Eighty-Second Airborne.  What outfit is this?”

“Two-ninety first engineers.  Able Company.  I’m First Lieutenant Al Edelstein.”

The Combat Engineers had been almost single-handedly holding off the Panzers by blowing bridges and offering resistance at different choke points.  Edelstein’s dirty face and sleep-deprived expression testified to the lonely, desperate struggle they had been waging.  “My division is taking over the defense of this area and Werbomont.  We should be dug in by tonight.”
Edelstein studied the shoulder patch.  Eighty-Second Airborne, he thought.  The paratroopers are coming. Those lousy Krauts are in for it now!

Gavin continued.  “I need to do a recon of our forward positions and the terrain.  Would you accompany us and give me the lowdown?”

“I’d be glad to, sir.”  Edelstein hopped into the back seat of the jeep and directed them south out of Werbomont.  He was familiar with the area and pointed out the various terrain features and American positions while Colonel Ireland made markings on a map.  Gavin and Ireland agreed the ridgeline just outside of town made for a good defensive position.  The jeep continued south as Edelstein provided more information.

“We’re headed for a hamlet called Habiemont near Lienne Creek.”

“What’s there?” Gavin asked.

“Another bridge.  We blew the bridges at Trois Ponts this morning but the Krauts got over the Ambleve River at Cheneux.  If they plan to go north through Werbomont, they’ve got to get past this creek and cross this bridge.”

“Is it still up?”

“Yes, sir.  My orders were to prepare it for demo but don’t blow it until we see the Krauts approaching.  The creek is not wide or deep but the banks are too steep for tanks.  Infantry can make it so if the Krauts want to come across here, they’ll have to do it without their armor.”

The jeep rolled slowly into the hamlet of Habiemont.  A staff sergeant rushed out from behind an ancient gray stone building waving his arms.  Edelstein knew him.

“Lieutenant Edelstein.  Pull the jeep behind this building, sir.”  Sky stopped the jeep as directed and the sergeant froze when he saw General Gavin step out.  The other officers dismounted as well but it was the sight of a two-star general with an M-1 that startled the sergeant.

Edelstein spoke first.  “Sergeant Pigg, what the hell is going on?”

“Follow me, sir.  The Krauts are approaching the far side of the bridge.”  The sergeant led the small group around the house and they knelt behind a sturdy low rock wall.  There were more buildings between their position and the bridge but the vantage point offered a clear view between the structures.  Gavin took out his binoculars and scanned the bridge and the far bank.  The sound of squeaking bogey wheels led Gavin to look up the steep mountainside.  In the fading light, between the thick pine trees, he could see the shadows of German tanks and scout cars proceeding slowly down the mountain road.  One more switchback and they would come around the last curve and be level with the bridge.

“Sergeant, is that bridge wired?” Sky asked.

“We have enough TNT under that bridge to blow it twice.”

The tanks prowled closer, creeping cautiously.  Colonel Ireland coughed nervously.  “Any time now, Lieutenant.  What do you think?”

Edelstein looked at his sergeant with an inquisitive stare.  “Sir,” the sergeant began.  “Those damn Krauts have been beating the crap out of our guys for two days now.  I was hoping we could wait long enough to get some of them on the bridge before we blew it to shit.”

“Sounds like a damn good idea to me, Sergeant,” said Gavin without taking his eyes from his binoculars.

They all turned their attention to the creeping column as it wound its way around the last bend in the road.  German paratroopers, pressed into infantry duty, accompanied the first vehicle as it motored toward the bridge at walking pace.  It was a captured American M4 armored car whose white star markings had been marked over with the Iron Cross.

“Aw, shit,” Pigg commented.  “I was hoping to get us a Tiger.”

The column suddenly stopped.  The third vehicle was a Panther mounting a high-velocity long barrel .75-millimeter gun.  It fired one round with a loud concussive shriek.  It hit the first building in the tiny hamlet and sent rock splinters flying through the air.  The four men ducked behind the cover of the low wall.

“They don’t know we’re here,” Pigg suggested.  “My platoon has orders not to fire back and give away their positions.”

“All you have here is a platoon?” asked Sky incredulously.

“That’s right.  Just one pissed off platoon of combat engineers sick and tired of these Krauts having everything go their way!”  He waved his hand as the dust cleared and got the attention of another GI who was behind a different building across the narrow street.  “Besides, no armor is getting to this side of the creek.  If the infantry wants to make a try for it, we’ve got the entire bank zeroed in a crossfire.”

The first few vehicles began to move again.  They crept toward the bridge.  The infantry was walking ahead now.  The vehicles followed and cautiously crawled onto the bridge.  When they were halfway across the bridge, Pigg raised his right hand and made a circular motion.

He looked over at the officers.  “Gentlemen, it’s time to hug some dirt.”

Pigg watched as everyone hit the ground at the base of the wall.  He saw the brilliant flashes of the string of igniters along the length of the bridge, followed immediately by a huge explosion.  Men and vehicles were hurled wildly into the air.  The earth trembled with the shock wave as the bridge disintegrated into fractured pieces soaring randomly in all directions.  Debris rained down from everywhere.  When the smoke finally cleared, there was a yawning gap where the small sturdy bridge once stood.  The Americans waited to see if the infantry would make a try for the small town without their armor.  But there was no point in attacking the village if they couldn’t get their tanks across.  After a few minutes, the column began to backtrack up the winding road.  The Panzers would have to find another way to Werbomont.

“Good work, men,” Gavin complimented and looked to Sky.  “We have to go.”

The four officers piled back into the jeep and sped back to Werbomont.  Gavin left Colonel Ireland with Lieutenant Edelstein to prepare for the arrival of the 82nd.  He and Sky found the N-15 Highway and started heading south for Bastogne.

Gavin reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of gold-colored second lieutenant’s bars. “I’m sorry we couldn’t do this the right way with a ceremony.”  Gavin fastened the gold bars to Sky’s collars as he was driving.  “These were mine.  Now they’re yours. Charm school will have to wait until we’re finished with this business.”  Gavin then took out his bayonet and carefully removed Sky’s stripes.

“Thank you, sir.  It’s a great honor.  This is much better than the right way.”

“Well we can’t have a general being driven around by a mere sergeant, Can we?”  Gavin let out a hearty laugh.

It was already dark but still foggy and the jeep ran with its headlights blazing.  They intermixed with a convoy of various units heading for the battlefield.  At ten miles out from Werbomont, most of the southbound military traffic on the highway turned east toward Vielsalm on the road to St. Vith.  There was no sign of the enemy as the two officers continued another ten miles into the town of Houffalize.  Bastogne was eleven miles away.  The fog thickened and Sky slowed the jeep down considerably.  The sounds of artillery could be heard not far to the east.  They drove slowly through the small village of Noville.  They passed some houses, a few barns, a church and what looked like a schoolhouse and a beer hall.  The wind picked up and swept debris across the street like a ghost town of the old west.  The small village appeared deserted.  There were still some abandoned American vehicles parked on the narrow side streets and fresh but empty foxholes dug along the main road.  Someone had left in a hurry.

They picked up speed and rode the straight highway through the small village of Foy.  They passed several ragged formations of confused and defeated soldiers retreating westward.  The ragtag groups hardly paid them any attention as the jeep sped by.  The steady stream of troops retreating from the battlefield appalled Gavin.  He assumed they were following orders, if only to assuage his own personal disgust at the sight of retreating American soldiers.

After more challenges from nervous MPs, they made their way into Bastogne.  Sky parked their jeep in front of the Heintz Barracks, the CP for the VIII Corps, at 1730 hours.  They made the dangerous trip in under an hour.  The street outside headquarters was filled with trucks, tanks and armored cars all with engines running.  It was a welcome sight.

Gavin stepped quietly into the large war room.  The scene was reminiscent of the evacuation routine he had just witnessed in First Army Headquarters.  The staff was piling papers and equipment into boxes.  One of the corps staff officers acknowledged Gavin and signaled him to queue up along with other officers waiting to speak to General Middleton.

In the center of the room, in front of a large wall map, stood Middleton.  Gavin knew him to be a bright man, a reserve infantry officer, World War I veteran and a previous dean of admissions at Louisiana State University.  He was cleaning his thick glasses as he spoke to a colonel from the 10th Armored Division.  Gavin slid silently along the wall to get within earshot.  When he was close enough he unslung his M-1 and he leaned against the cold brick wall.

“Colonel, how many teams can you make up from your command?”  Middleton asked Colonel William L. Roberts in his thick southern drawl.  Roberts commanded Combat Command B (CCB), which comprised approximately one third of the 10th Armored Division.

“Three, sir, but…”

“I know, Bill,” Middleton interrupted.  “Armored warfare doctrine frowns on committing forces piecemeal.  I get that.  My problem is there are three roads from the east that the Krauts already have columns on.  I need to stop, or at least delay, all three until we can fortify the town.”

Roberts nodded.  He empathized with the general’s predicament and didn’t want to become an irritant over doctrine.  “Which roads, sir?”

Middleton went to the map.  “My biggest threat this minute is Longvilly out four or five miles to the east.  Combat Command R of the 9th Armored is involved out there with some Kraut forward units.  The situation is unclear.  Send one team out there and stiffen their spine.”

Roberts turned to an aide.  “Advise Colonel Cherry.  Call sign, Team Cherry.”  Roberts was referring to Lieutenant Colonel Henry T. Cherry, commander of the 3rd Tank Battalion.  He turned back to face the general.

“Send the next team south along this road,” Middleton was back at the map fingering the road southeast to the town of Ettelbruk.

“Lieutenant Colonel James O’Hara,” whispered Roberts to his aide.  “Team O’Hara.”

“Send your third team to the northeast, to Noville.  And Colonel, you need to hold these outposts until relieved.”

“We’ll hold, sir.  May I ask one thing, sir?”

“What is it?” asked an impatient Middleton.
“I would like your permission to stop all of these units retreating through town.  I’m seeing artillery battalions with full ammo trains, tanks and tank destroyers in good condition, supply trucks and troops who seem fit to fight.   If we’re going to make a stand here, we could use all the help we can get.”

Middleton nodded.  “I agree.  I’ll issue the orders.  You’ll have that authority.”

“Thank you, sir.”  Roberts headed for the door when a tall, lanky major stepped into the room.  Roberts pulled him over to the side.  “Bill, I was just looking for you.  We have orders.  I need to send your team northeast to a village called…” Roberts looked at his map, “Noville.”

Major William Robertson Desobry nodded and also looked at the map.  “Up this road, past Foy?  Yes, sir, of course.”

Gavin observed the exchange between the superior and the subordinate.  It was more like a father-son discussion.  He stepped up to the two men.

Colonel Roberts had his hand on Major Desobry’s shoulder.  “We don’t know what’s up there.  You need to take the town and hold it, whatever happens.”

The young major nodded vigorously.  “We’ll leave right away, sir.”

The major turned to leave when Roberts grabbed his arm.  “Bill, don’t withdraw until I order you to do so.”  There was an ominous look on Roberts’ face.

“Don’t worry, sir.  I’ll obey my orders.”

Gavin edged closer to the two men.  “I just came through Noville not more than thirty minutes ago.  It’s deserted.”

“Thank you, General Gavin.” Roberts recognized him.  It wasn’t difficult to recognize the youngest divisional commander in the army, especially since he was universally known to tote an M-1 Garand around with him everywhere he went.

“How big is your combat team?” Gavin asked.

“One armored infantry battalion, about four hundred men, twelve Shermans and some engineers.”

Gavin looked at Roberts.  It was a pathetically small force to confront the potent Panzer Divisions bearing down on Bastogne.  Roberts just shook his head and looked at the floor.  He wasn’t at all happy about sending his men to sure annihilation.

“Well, Major,” Gavin looked at Desobry and spoke in an upbeat voice. “As soon as I’m done here I’m heading back to Werbomont.  I’d be happy to accompany your column as far as you’re going but then I have to continue on through Houffalize and beyond.”

“Glad to have your company, General.”

As Roberts and Desobry left the war room, another general stepped in through the door.  It was General McAuliffe, acting CO of the 101st Airborne Division.  Being far ahead of his convoy, he decided to stop by VIII Corps HQ to get the latest news.  He ran right into Gavin at the door.

“Jim, am I glad to see you.”  McAuliffe shook his hand.  They had not spoken since the day before when Gavin issued the orders to move both airborne divisions to the Ardennes.

“Likewise, Tony.  I’ve got your orders from First Army.”

“Gentlemen,” interrupted Middleton as he waved them closer to the big map.  “It’s great to see the airborne here.  How far behind are your troops?”

“Sir, I have orders from General Hodges,” Gavin began.  “Hundred and first is temporarily attached to VIII Corps and ordered to defend Bastogne.  Eighty-second is on its way to Werbomont to be attached to V Corps.”  Gavin handed the written orders to Middleton.

“You mean we’re not fighting the two airborne divisions together?” asked McAuliffe.

Gavin shook his head in the negative.

“Nuts,” declared McAuliffe.

Middleton scanned the orders quickly then turned to the map.  “We’ve identified three German divisions bearing down on Bastogne.”  He waved his hand up and down the map in the general direction east of the city.  “The Second Panzer, Panzer Lehr and the Twenty-sixth Volksgrenadier Division make up the Forty-seventh Panzer Corps under Manteuffel and are closing in on the city.  I’m pushing out armored columns along these three roads to hold them back until we can fortify the town.”  Middleton ran his index finger along the roads to Noville, Longvilly and Ettelbruk.

“Is that all you have to stop them?” asked McAuliffe.  “What happened to the Twenty-eighth Infantry Division?”

“They were overrun.”  Middleton rubbed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.  “Two regiments of the Hundred and sixth Division are surrounded and cut off on the Schnee Eifel.  Both these divisions held up the Krauts while outnumbered at least five to one.  They blew up Jerry’s timetable and bought us the two precious days we needed to fortify Bastogne.”  Middleton shook off the bad news and straightened up.  “They paid a hefty price.  Let’s not waste it.”  Then he looked at McAuliffe.  “So, where is your column?”

McAuliffe answered by pointing at the map just to the west of Bastogne.  “Right about here, sir.  We’ll be in the city in strength by the morning.”

Middleton nodded.  “Good, because I’m pulling corps headquarters out of the city tomorrow.  We’re re-establishing in Neufchateau about twenty miles southwest of here.”  He placed his hand on McAuliffe’s shoulder.  “The city is all yours to defend and I have to say there is nothing to stop Jerry from flowing behind Bastogne and cutting you off.  You’ll be surrounded in short order.  No doubt about it.”

McAuliffe chuckled.  “We’re always surrounded, sir.  That’s how we make our living.”

Middleton continued.  “Your orders are to deny the Krauts use of the road network that flows through this city.”

“Yes, sir!”

“And, one more thing, the Seven-oh-five tank destroyer battalion is on its way here.  That’s all I can give you, Tony.  Everyone in Bastogne will be under your command.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well, gentlemen,” Middleton concluded the impromptu conference.  “Good luck.”

The two generals walked toward the door.  McAuliffe spoke first.  “It appears I’m going to have to hold Bastogne with the second string.”  He was referring to the fact that the division’s regular commander and many of the line officers were out of theatre and not present.

“Second string for the airborne is still enough to beat the crap out of the Krauts.”  He patted McAuliffe on the shoulder.  “You’ll do just fine here, Tony.  Maybe even make history.”

Gavin took his M-1 from against the wall and clamped the sling onto his shoulder.  His jeep was waiting outside, engine running and ready to go.

“Where to, boss?” asked Sky.

“Back to Werbomont.  The way we came is the fastest.”

The jeep pulled out and made its way through the center of town.  The main road was lined with trucks and tanks from Combat Command B.  The jeep veered left at a fork onto Highway N-15.    They observed an armored column bearing right at the same fork on the way to Longvilly.  Team Cherry, Gavin remembered.  N-15 was a straight, hard packed macadam highway and in thirty quick miles Gavin would be back with his division.

As they proceeded north they began to pass a row of trucks and Sherman tanks pulled over to the side.  Gavin concluded it was Team Desobry.  When he saw the command jeep, the one with multiple high whip antennae, he asked Sky to pull over.  Major Desobry was in the front seat.  He snapped a salute as Gavin startled him.

“What’s the holdup, Major?”

“We’re waiting on our supply train, General Gavin.  It’s overloaded with everything we need and I don’t want those trucks traveling up this road without the protection of my armor.”

“It’s your call, Major, but getting to Noville first, before the Krauts, is more important.”

“I’ve sent a recon team up ahead.  Scouts out on the flanks.  If they see or hear any Krauts we’ll haul ass up there.  It’s only about five miles.”

Gavin nodded.  “Good.  I’d love to wait around and drive up with you but I’m in a bit of a hurry.  So we’ll be on our way.  Good luck, Major.”

Gavin’s jeep jerked into motion and disappeared into the swirling fog.

“And good luck to you, sir,” Desobry mumbled at the mist shrouded road.

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