A look at air power in the Battle of the Bulge

  • Published
  • By Dr. Robert Allen
  • 352nd Special Operations Group Historian
If you had been an American military member stationed in East Anglia during December 1944, you would probably have been involved in the campaign to stop the surprise German attack that developed into the Battle of the Bulge. A little historical imagination can move us and our units 65 years back in time. But first, a little background on what was happening....

On Dec. 16, 1944, German artillery erupted and tanks (panzers) suddenly appeared out of the mist in a quiet sector held by American troops. The battle raged until Jan. 13, 1945 in the Ardennes, a forested area near the conjunction of Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.

The German goal was to break through U.S. First Army defenses and capture the port of Antwerp (200 miles away), while splitting British and American forces.

U.S. ground force resistance was tougher than the attackers expected. All that Hitler got for his irreplaceable losses of troops and tanks was a brief 80-mile bulge in the battle line.

Many stories have been written about the bravery of U.S. soldiers who prevented a German breakthrough in spite of harsh winter weather, as well as about the logistical problems and occasional brutality that were part of the German advance.

All of those are worthy subjects in discussing the largest single battle the U.S. ground forces fought in during World War II (more than 1,000,000 men in about 29 German, 28 American and four British divisions), but one aspect of the battle is relatively overlooked: air power.

As soon as it became obvious that the Germans (who had been retreating for six months since D-Day) were actually launching a major offensive, American air units were marshaled to counter the threat.

Bad weather, including persistent fog and record cold, prevented tactical air support during most of the first several days. That helped the German panzers, which were vulnerable to Allied air superiority, but did not protect German supply lines and logistics centers behind the lines.

The 100th Bomb Group and its fellow B-17 (and B-24) units soon focused their bombing missions against roads, bridges, railway junctions and airfields within a 100-mile radius of the Ardennes.

Among the targets were Frankfurt, Kaiserslautern and Koblenz. German vehicles and supplies were forced to travel at night by smaller and less direct roads, making it very difficult to maintain the momentum and replace the losses of the Wehrmacht and SS units pushing to the west.

By Dec. 22, the important road junction of Bastogne had been surrounded by three German divisions. The defenders, members of the 101st Airborne Division and parts of the 9th and 10th Armored Divisions, needed supplies of ammunition, food, medical supplies. There were also hundreds of Belgian civilians trapped in the city.

Only precise airdrops in the face of enemy fire and winter weather could save the city and its brave defenders.

At that point, the theoretical 352nd Air Commando Group* would have sent its C-47s and expert crews to save the city. Fortunately, the weather cleared enough on Dec. 23 to make airdrops possible.

During the next few days, 961 C-47s and 61 gliders dropped 850 tons of supplies and ammunition to Bastogne.

The stubborn resistance of the city's defenders helped to slow down the Germans, who failed to reach any of their major objectives before beginning their retreat Dec. 26.

Also on that day, the first tanks from Lt. Gen. George Patton's Third Army broke through German lines to end the siege of Bastogne. In just six more months, Allied forces would end the Third Reich.

There are many reasons to remember the Battle of the Bulge.
Professional ones include reminders of the cost of being surprised**, the brave examples set by our forces and the need for joint service effort to win battles.

Personal reasons could include the probability that someone in our family or hometown fought in the huge battle that fatally weakened Nazi defenses along Germany western border, and also today Bastogne and nearby sites are worthwhile places to visit during leave.

Finally, our predecessors' hardships and bravery remind us that our deployed military members are still in deadly places far from home and need our support this holiday season as they did long ago.

*Note 1. Three air commando groups did serve with distinction in China, South and Southeast Asia from 1944 to 1945.

**Note 2. If U.S. generals had known local history better, they would have placed more U.S. troops in the Ardennes; the Germans had successfully broken through defenders here in 1914 and 1940.