Gliders over Bastogne

When the US 101st Airborne* were besieged in Bastogne during the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ in Dec 1944, they were re-supplied from the air, not just by parachute but by gliders too.

Until Dr Peter Caddick-Adams mentioned it in his excellent online lecture** on ‘The Battle of the Bulge’ last week, I’d either forgotten that or just didn’t know about it.

Hitler’s last gamble in the Ardennes began on 16th Dec 1944, but got held up by stubborn US Army resistance almost immediately, which slowed the German panzer divisions approach to Bastogne by several days. The 101st Airborne division arrived just in time on the 19th, but they and the rest of the garrison were encircled and quickly cut off .

Supplies of everything – ammunition, fuel, & rations – began to dwindle quickly but what really bothered the commander, Gen. McAuliffe, was the lack of medics. The 326th Airborne Medical Company, or at least most of it, had been captured by the Germans on 19th. So, he called for urgent supply drops by parachute, starting with a glider drop of combat surgeons.

That came with a single glider on Boxing Day, carrying five surgeons, four surgical assistants and 600lbs of equipment. The success of that mission triggered a stream of glider landings in the fields around Bastogne over the next few days, carrying tons of ammunition, petrol, and other supplies.

Some sixty-one Waco gliders, often with no co-pilot to save weight, flew into Bastogne under enemy fire. It is an amazing and heroic story told by the pilots themselves in great detail in this video…

Glider pilots are a special breed. Unlike ordinary pilots they get just one shot at landing, and it’s not in a friendly and familiar airfield, it’s often under fire and not knowing what the landing ground is going to be like – is it mined? Are there unseen ditches or obstacles? And then, having survived that trauma, they have to become infantrymen. No winding down with a cup of tea in the NAAFI or several pints in the local pub! Hats off to them!


* with others!

** Part of the #HistoryFromHome series organised by military historian Dan Hill, to keep our minds alive during COVID-19 quarantine. You may still catch the lecture in Dan’s Archive on the site.

Feature Photo: Waco gliders in the snow (not at Bastogne though) from the Carl Gwartney Collection via Flickr.

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