BASTOGNE — a self-guided tour
Bastogne — a place ranking alongside St. Mere Eglise as one of the most famous sites of American airborne combat, this time in a defensive action instead of an attacking one. The fighting in Bastogne took place when a surprise German attack tore a hole along an 85-mile-long section of the American front on 16 December 1944. The locals call it the Battle of the Ardennes; we call it the Battle of the Bulge.
Only 92 miles from Brussels, Bastogne was a busy, picturesque little Belgian town at the center of an open plain, surrounded by birch- and pine-covered hills of the Ardennes. Sitting on the major road junction in the area, its crossroads were vital to allow the German forces to move through the area on to Liege.
The ground conditions were too muddy to allow mass movement of German armored vehicles across the countryside, so Bastogne had to be taken. If held by the Americans it would hinder German communications to the rear and threaten the flank of the 5th Panzer Army.
As history recalls, 743 officers and 10,386 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division, plus 276 officers and 3,781 soldiers of other units attached to the 101st at that time, held out against overwhelming German odds from 19-26 Dec 44.
This heroic stand by the 101st Airborne Division and the conglomeration of other hastily scraped together American forces halted the German forces long enough for the Allied armies to plan and launch a counterattack. The 101st’s appalling casualty figures of 500 killed, 2,500 wounded, and 400 missing or captured give some idea of the ferocity of the fighting around Bastogne.
The fighting took place in the small villages (often only a few small cottages), and fields and woods encircling Bastogne, which by the end of the battle was almost in total ruins from the heavy shelling.
The thousands of Americans visiting Bastogne each year find themselves warmly welcomed by the townspeople. Several annual events, parades and exhibitions commemorate the fighting in the Ardennes and Bastogne.
For a full day, self-guided tour of Bastogne, the surrounding area, monuments and museums that commemorate the siege, it’s best to have a rental car, as most visitors come from Brussels. The town and sites are so close together and easy to find that it’s easily done in your own vehicle. Here are some “must-see” sights for Americans in Bastogne.
Your first stop is the paved-stone square in the town center, now a parking lot. Surrounded on two sides by two-story shops and busy streets on the other sides, it’s hard to imagine what this square looked like in 1944. Old photographs show devastated ruins of shattered, snow-covered buildings, and crumbled piles of red bricks when it was the epicenter of the battle.
An olive drab Sherman tank proudly stands guard in one corner. Visitors can read about the tank’s history in a book found in the Information Center. Look for the holes punched in the rear and left side of the tank, evidence of close combat.
The square is now called Place McAuliffe after the 101st Airborne acting divisional commander, Brigadier-General Anthony C. McAuliffe, who led the resolute defense of the town. A bronze bust of McAuliffe with the 101st Airborne crest is mounted on a concrete stand near the tank. Nearby, several bronze plaques list the various units that fought here. One plaque states “In honor of the valiant men of the 10th US Armored Division who gave their lives for freedom in the 1944-1945 Ardennes Campaign and in the Bastogne area.”
Another interesting site in the square is a Liberty Way marker, a four-foot-tall, white concrete obelisk, with a red flaming torch. These markers start at Utah Beach, Normandy, and are found every kilometer along the 899-mile route of Patton’s 3rd Army to Bastogne.
Fifty meters from the tank a circular, glass-sided tourist information center stands on one side of the square; a small, green, fold-out tourist map of Bastogne is available there.
Take some time to browse the books in the Information Center, several of which, written by local historians who lived through the battle, are found nowhere else.
Au Pays d’Ardenne Museum
A three-minute walk across the square is the Musee Au Pays d’Ardennes, or Museum of the Ardennes Countryside (20 rue de Neufchateau), a great warm-up for your tour. Outside is a uniformed model of an American soldier. Flags hang down above the en-trance and the narrow entry hall has dozens of genuine WWII memorabilia for sale.
The small room downstairs is crammed with an amazing variety of military artifacts and weapons picked up from the battlefields around Bastogne or donated by the locals. Other memorabilia graphically tell the “Bulge” story: a shredded American helmet, German helmets riddled with bullet holes, a carved wooden bust of Hitler, Nazi flags, German officers’ hats and soldiers’ caps, medical supplies and battle dressings, cigarette packets, playing cards and more paraphernalia that will bring back memories to veterans of WWII
The historical photos are rarities, and you won’t see them in the books.
From the museum, take the second road on the right and walk a few hundred meters down the hill until you come to a con-crete wall with the engraving of General George S. Patton’s face, unveiled in 1963 by Patton’s grandson.
Heading out of town, toward the Bastogne Historical center, is the turret of a Sherman tank mounted on a two-foot-high stone platform on the roadside, gun facing away from the town. This denotes the defensive perimeter of the besieged town, a lot closer than you’d think.
Bastogne Historical Center
This irregular wooden shingle- sided museum exhibits professionally designed exhibits and a comprehensive range of Ger-man and allied uniforms, weapons and equipment. Outside sits a Sherman tank and other military vehicles and artillery pieces.
Inside are concentric rings of displays; give yourself at least an hour to walk through this fascinating museum. A self-guided audio tour accompanies the exhibits. Lifelike uniformed wax models of Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton (with Ivory-handled revolvers) and models of almost every allied and German service involved in the Battle of the Bulge are arranged in long curved rows of glass cases.
U.S. uniforms on display include those of a Red Cross nurse, an American tank driver, a GI with anti-tank weapon, an Army mortar man with mortar and ammunition, a machine gunner with weapon and fully loaded ammunition belt, airmen, and soldiers in snow camouflage,
German soldiers are likewise posed in uniform: a grenadier, the standard field gray Wermacht uniform, SS, Fallschirmjager paratroop, a German mortar man, a tank captain, a signals officer, a field marshal, a Luftwaffe pilot and others.
The authentic Bastogne road sign, pitted with bullet holes, is displayed. A comprehensive collection of allied and German weapons includes hand grenades, German and American bazookas and anti-tank rockets, etc.
Other display cases show all sorts of rusted personal items and equipment; eating utensils, pocket knives, dishes, gas masks, soap, a water canteen shredded with bullet holes, US Army Field Ration K Dinner Units, ID tags for wounded soldiers, com-passes, and other artifacts. Lastly, a small theater shows a 30-minute documentary about the Battle of Bastogne.
The museum’s outer walls contain dioramas of painted battle scenes with lifelike model soldiers, tanks, American and German military vehicles.
The Mardasson Monument
A few hundred meters from the Historical Center is the enormous five-pointed-star-shaped concrete monument to the 76,890 U.S. casualties from the Ardennes campaign. Forty feet high and 260 feet across, it looks like an immense temple — a clear indicator of how Belgians honor the sacrifices made by the U.S. forces here.
From the rooftop, reached via a winding staircase, is a great view of Bastogne, only a couple of miles away — the same view had by the German artillery battery that set up on a field just below.
A memorial plaque in the central circle of the monument reads, “The Belgian people remember their American Liberators.” A crypt lies beneath the memorial.
Going back toward Bastogne, turn right up the N30 at the crossroads and drive a short distance to the small town of Foy (pronounced fwa). There, the 101st Airborne stopped the German forces cold, taking severe losses, before retreating back a few kilometers to the positions they held for the remainder of the siege.
German military cemetery, Recogne
Before you return to Bastogne from Foy, turn right along the N30 then left down a side road signposted “Cimitiere Allemand,” following it a short way to the German military cemetery.
The rough-hewn gray lime-sandstone crosses are roughly aligned, three soldiers buried at each gravesite and three others buried on the other side of each headstone, six to each plot. A total of 6,807 Germans are buried there.
Some poignant sights include inscriptions that simply say “Ein Deutscher Soldat,” (a German soldier). The crosses have birth dates and dates of the soldier’s death written on them. Grenadier Otto Koller, 5.10.26-20.12.44, sadly records an 18-year-old’s demise; the oldest soldier buried there was 52. The headstones with recurring dates indicate several soldiers were killed; days of hard battle with high losses.
On the way to the cemetery is a memorial plaque on the roadside marking where the original American temporary cemetery at Foy was located from 1945-1948. The bodies were repatriated to the U.S. or interred in the two American Military cemeteries in the Ardennes.
A visit to Bastogne gives you a different perspective of the Battle of the Bulge. There’s nothing like visiting the town and countryside to bring history to life. There are a number of hotels in Bastogne (for hotel listings visit www.logis.be or www.bastogne.be).