Belgium’s King Albert and other dignitaries marked the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge today, honouring thousands of American soldiers who died fighting Nazi Germany’s desperate bid to stop the Allied advance across Western Europe.
The ceremonies began with a parade of veterans, marching bands, WWII-era jeeps, trucks and ambulances through Bastogne. The battle raged for six-weeks across the Ardennes hills of southern Belgium and Luxembourg, but the market town of 14,000 bore the brunt of the fighting.
Veterans from across the United States returned to find Bastogne covered in snow and buffeted by biting winds – just as it was during that bitter cold December of 1944.
The old soldiers, wearing military berets and caps, were greeted with warm applause, hugs and kisses from a grateful crowd that lined the streets.
“The American veterans who have returned 60 years later to the battle site represent those who gave their lives on our soil so that today we can live free,” Bastogne Mayor Philippe Collard said in French at a memorial honouring US General George S. Patton.
He added in English: “We will never forget. You are home here.”
Veterans and Belgian officials paid homage to Patton’s leadership, laying wreaths at his memorial. Helen Patton, granddaughter of the legendary military leader, said she was proud of her family’s role.
“His fatherhood continues in an amazing way,” she told Belgian media.
Later, the Belgian king was to lead US officials and war veterans in special commemoration at the vast star-shaped Mardasson Memorial, which is an epitaph to those who died in often brutal fighting to stop the Nazi offensive. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest World War II land battle that US forces took part in.
King Albert – joined by Dennis Hastert, speaker of the US House of Representatives, Tom Korologos, the US envoy to Belgium and hundreds of war veterans – will pay homage to 80,000 Americans who died or were wounded in fighting that also claimed 120,000 German lives.
Rising out of the Champagne fields of northern France, the Ardennes highlands sweep across south-eastern Belgium, cover much of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, then flow into western Germany’s Eiffel range.
Sixty years ago, their valleys, trout streams and rolling hills were the scene of Hitler’s last gamble.
In December 1944, his panzer divisions smashed through the forests, catching the Allies by surprise and driving the front westward in a “bulge” that ran deep into Belgian territory.
There was so much destruction that it’s impossible to know exactly how many people were killed in action, how many went missing and how many were wounded.
The Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge in Arlington, Virginia, says 19,000 American troops died in the battle.
Bastogne is central to all manner of Battle of the Bulge commemorations spread over several weeks. In December 1944, the town was virtually encircled by Germans and was heavily damaged.
There will be guided walks along the defensive perimeter south of Bastogne that was relieved by Patton’s Third Army, which rushed north from France to help defeat the Germans.
Ahead of the official commemoration, there will also be a military parade crossing Bastogne’s central square, named for Anthony MacAuliffe, the acting commander of the 101st Airborne division, whose paratroopers repulsed repeated attacks.
On December 22, 1944, MacAuliffe was given two hours to surrender by the Germans or face “total annihilation”. His now famous reply: “Nuts!”
The battle drew in more than a million troops – 600,000 Germans, 500,000 Americans and 55,000 Britons – who fought in bitter cold from December 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945.
The vast Mardasson Memorial on the edge of Bastogne, the spot where German artillery bombarded the Americans in the town below, rises 40 feet tall and honours the memory of American soldiers who were killed and wounded during the Ardennes offensive.
The memorial bears the names of US Army units that participated in the action as well as the names of the then 48 US States in bronze letters. There is also a plaque that says, “Liberatoribus Americanis Populus Belgicus Memor,” or “The Belgian People Remember Their American liberators.”