The Battle of the Bulge, the encirclement of Bastogne, and the 101st Airborne Division’s valiant stand are fixtures in the American popular history of the Second World War. While the 101st Airborne and its exploits are certainly deserving of their renown, the Siege of Bastogne is only a small scene in the overarching drama that the U.S. Army calls the Ardennes counteroffensive. This action, which was bloodier than the invasion of Normandy, is rife with under-recognized heroes.
In the winter of 1944, the pressure on Germany was mounting. The Battle of Stalingrad had been lost a year prior, and Germany was in retreat in the East. Meanwhile, the Allies had taken Sicily and were pushing up the Italian Peninsula past Rome and Florence. Finally, the D-Day landings in June 1944 and the amphibious invasion of Southern France six weeks later meant that the Reich was collapsing on three sides.
The German commanders were ordered to mount an offensive against the approaching American and British forces in the West, in the hopes of forcing an Allied surrender, allowing Germany to throw it’s might against the Red Army in the East. The Germans turned to a strategy that had nearly won them the First World War: a lightning invasion through Belgium. Germany’s plan was to use its armor divisions to spear a hole in the Allied line and seize the port city of Antwerp, cutting off supplies to the Allied forces and crushing the crippled armies.
On December 16, 1944, in the bitter cold and heavy fog, 13 German divisions and over 340 tanks launched their offensive against the Americans. While they succeeded in bowing the front line inward, their objectives were unrealized. This was in part because of the terrible weather conditions and in part because of exceptionally fierce American resistance, especially by 18,000 Americans still clinging to the major crossroads town of Bastogne.
The German offensive had stalled by Christmas, but for the Americans trapped behind German lines in Bastogne, Christmas 1944 was a difficult one. The 101st Airborne and elements of other units caught in the retreat were trapped behind German lines, and the thick cloud cover meant American air support was nowhere to be found. Not only that, the capture of the divisional medical company some days earlier meant that the 101st’s wounded were without proper medical personnel or supplies. Morale in the division was as low as it could get.
A young paratrooper named Vincent Speranza was assigned to the 101st during those fateful days in Bastogne. His good friend Joe Willis had been wounded and was lying in a makeshift casualty collection point in the ruins of a church. Willis asked Speranza for a drink, to which Speranza politely responded by reminding him that their unit was surrounded. There were no supplies coming in. Luckily, the makeshift medical facility was not too far from the ruins of a pub. Speranza rooted through the tavern and at last came to an untouched, tapped barrel. He looked around for glasses, but all had been destroyed in the bombing. Speranza turned then to his trusty M1 helmet. He filled his helmet with beer and rushed back to the hospital. Needless to say, every wounded GI was enthralled at the prospect of a swig of Belgian beer, even if it was out of a helmet. Private Speranza would make two more trips bringing beer to his comrades before an officer caught wind of what he was doing and stopped him, since the beer could prove fatal to those with intestinal wounds. Nonetheless, the actions of Private Speranza proved to be a morale booster for the wounded troops of the besieged 101st. The story would continue to circulate, not just among troops, but also among local Belgians. Decades later, the story would spawn the “Airborne Beer.” Brewed in Bastogne by a local brewer, the beer’s label depicts a smiling American GI marching gleefully with a helmet full of beer. It’s served in a ceramic miniature American helmet. You can still order an “Airborne” in many taverns across Belgium.
What is it about Belgian beer that makes it so delicious? There isn’t any one thing that makes Belgian beer especially Belgian. That small country, about the size of Maryland, has over 150 breweries, ranging from the massive Inbev Corporation to mom-and-pop microbreweries. These produce over 1,000 different varieties of beer ranging from Flemish Reds to Pale Ales. In fact, if Belgian beer has a unifying theme at all, it’s a willingness to experiment and push brewing to its limits.
Belgian brewers regard their craft as a time-honored tradition that borders on national pastime. The first recorded beer brewing was in the 1100s. Under church auspices, abbeys were permitted to brew and sell beer and other beverages as a method of fundraising. This tradition continues today, as beers known as “Trappist” beers are brewed by Trappist monks, with the proceeds from the beer supporting the upkeep of the Abbeys’ facilities or charitable works of the monasteries. Trappist beers such as Orval, Westmalle, and especially Chimay are available in most bars around the world.
Belgian beer is brewed to exacting perfection. Yeast is considered a unique and invaluable part of the brewing process. Many brewers in Belgium fear their yeast stock being “tainted” by other strands of yeast, and will keep cultures of their most profitable yeast strains in universities and labs, where the chance of contamination is low. The final unique piece of Belgian beer-making is the glass. Almost every kind of beer has an accompanying glass or ceramic vessel that is uniquely shaped to enhance the drinking experience. Whether the iconic glass of Stella Artois, or the ceramic helmet of Airborne Beer, the vessel influences the exposure of the beer to air, the head on the pour, and other factors that ensure the beer is consumed as it was meant to be.
For the 101st, artisanal Belgian beer could only do so much to boost morale. What they needed in late December 1944 was to take back the offense and put the German war machine on its heels. The airdrop of supplies to Bastogne on December 27 helped, and certainly Gen. George S. Patton’s armor linking up with the 101st allowed casualties to be evacuated to the rear and badly needed medical personnel to be brought in. However, the Germans were still on the offensive, and the Americans were fighting a defensive battle.
Unbeknownst to Patton and the Third Army, the Germans had redoubled their commitment to taking Bastogne. They felt their push to Antwerp could not continue without taking the village. Nine German divisions took up positions in the towns surrounding the 101st. Patton, unaware of this development wanted to see the 101st launch an offensive, pushing outward from the besieged city.
Thankfully, the disastrous plan would not be executed. Another unsung hero of the Battle of the Bulge, Gen. Troy Middleton intervened, and talked Patton down from his ill-advised plan.
Middleton was in many ways Patton’s opposite. Patton was bombastic and Middleton was soft-spoken. Patton was abrasive where Middleton was tactful, even friendly. Patton would famously slap and berate his own soldiers. Middleton carried on a civil, even friendly, dialog with the opposite German general at the Battle of Brest. Nonetheless, Patton and Middleton struck up a friendship at the Command and General Staff School. Despite their differences in demeanor, both were legendary soldiers. Middleton would see 480 days of combat in World War II, from the invasion of Sicily to Germany’s defeat, more than any other general. As a young officer in the First World War, Middleton would take command of a regiment and attain the rank of colonel at age 29.
During the Battle of the Bulge, Middleton was a corps commander under Patton and famously cooled Patton’s hotheadedness as Patton was about to send the 101st on the offensive. Middleton proposed instead that the untested 87th Infantry (“Golden Acorn”) Division be used to slice northeast through the German “bulge” in the line. By taking a few key towns like Libramont, St. Hubert, and Tillet, the German resupply routes would be cut, leaving the heavy Panzer divisions effectively immobile. The 87th and other American units waded through vicious combat as the Germans attempted a counterattack. In every town, the German resistance was tenacious, and the fighting was often house-to-house, even hand-to-hand. Staff Sgt. Curtis Shoup, an infantryman with the 87th, would be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions during this fighting. Middleton’s faith in the Golden Acorn was well founded, and the 87th succeeded in wresting town after town from German control. As German supply lines grew more tenuous, the German guns and tanks fell silent, and American forces began to counterattack en masse, driving the Germans back, never to return.
The German Army never recovered from the defeat in the Ardennes, and they fell into total retreat. By late January, a little over a month after the start of their offensive, the German lines were pushed back to their original boundaries.
The Battle of the Bulge, or the Ardennes Counteroffensive as it is officially known, proved to be the bloodiest period for America in the European Theater, costing even more men and materiel than the D-Day landings. The battle marked the last decisive fight for Germany. At the time, Allied victory was not a foregone conclusion. It was only through the actions of innumerable actors, including the unsung heroes Vince Speranza, Troy Middleton, and the 87th Infantry Division, that Allied forces would prevail and beat back the German war machine. And that is definitely something worth drinking for.
Paul Lewandowski is a graduate student, veteran and writer. He prefers a good gin gimlet to just about anything else. America is his favorite country and his favorite color is a tie among red, white, and blue.
Photo credit: Paul Lewandowski