How Allied Glidermen Helped Bring Nazi Germany to Its Knees

By Goodchild A (P/O), Royal Air Force official photographer - is photograph CH 10208 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain,
August 6, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIBattle Of The BulgeNazi GermanyGliderAirborne

How Allied Glidermen Helped Bring Nazi Germany to Its Knees

These special units were important when it cames to seizing and holding key points.

Key Point: These gliders allowed soldiers and vehicles to land behind enemy lines. Here's how these brave souls did their part.

For the cold and hungry GIs of Company B, 1/401st Glider Infantry Regiment, holding the western approach to Bastogne would push the men to the limits of their endurance. During several frigid days in December 1944, the young glider fighters of the 101st Airborne Division fought over a bleak intersection outside the Belgian town. The intersection, nicknamed Crossroads X by the men, quickly became the focus of bloody struggle between the Americans and Germans, as the might of Adolf Hitler’s armored forces desperately sought a way into besieged Bastogne.

Private First Class Carmen Gisi of B Company remembers the contested landscape as if it was yesterday. “After the battle at the Crossroads we found out that we were fighting the first elements of the Germans’ 2nd Panzer Division,” Gisi recalled years later. “We were told we held up the offensive for two days, which was very critical to the Germans.”

Due to the stubborn actions of Gisi’s single company, the might of the 2nd Panzer Division would be stymied in its attempts to break into Bastogne’s “back door” during the early days of the famous siege. The contest for Crossroads X would become brutal and desperate as seasoned Americans faced German armor. In the bigger picture, the valiant holding action by B Company would help put an end to Hitler’s last great offensive in the West, the Battle of the Bulge.

Arriving in the Wake of Bad News

When the glidermen of Company B, 1/401st Glider Infantry leaped from the tailgates of the trucks that brought them to the outskirts of Bastogne on the night of the 19th, many of them had no clue where they were. The hours spent in the exposed trucks had been cold and miserable, and the men were happy the trip had come to an end. Initially, Lt. Col. Ray Allen, the commander of 1/401st Glider Infantry, ordered his companies to take up positions straddling the Marche Road and to prepare to defend the ground past the town of Mande St. Etienne. This location would help protect the road and was closest to the original assembly area, which grew increasingly quiet that night as the last groups of Screaming Eagles marched off to their positions.

Bad news had arrived earlier that evening. The division’s 326th Medical Company had set up a field hospital in an open area to the west of Crossroads X (the intersection of the Marche Road and the Barriere Hinck). It was the 101st’s farthest position west of Bastogne. Almost as soon as they had pitched their tents, the hospital crew, believing they were in a safe rear area, had been attacked by advance elements of the 2nd Panzer Division. Rumors quickly reached the high command that the hospital had been wiped out. In the Heinz barracks headquarters back in Bastogne, the acting division commander, Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe, looked visibly shaken when he heard the news, even if the particulars were unknown at the time. Not only would the division now find itself woefully short of corpsmen, medical officers, and supplies, but McAuliffe was concerned that the Germans had managed to get behind the growing American defensive perimeter so quickly.

The news of the attack was a wake-up call for McAuliffe. He now realized how fast the Germans were moving. He needed to move immediately to regain control of the situation and secure the rear of his defenses around Bastogne.

The Young Captain Robert J. MacDonald

The man leading the mission to recapture the vital crossroads was Captain Robert J. MacDonald, the no-nonsense commander of Baker Company, 1/401st Glider Infantry Regiment. Like many World War II commanders, MacDonald was young. A reporter who knew MacDonald described him: “When young MacDonald stood up straight, he towered over his battalion commander like a beanpole: six feet, three inches tall; soaking-wet weight, 145 pounds. His flesh was so sparse that his shoulders were rubbed raw by the strap when he carried a pack. Only 23 years old, MacDonald had learned his lessons well in combat in Normandy and Holland.”

That night, MacDonald received a warning order around 2230 hours. Shortly afterward, the patrol, led by MacDonald himself, crossed the line of departure and headed west. MacDonald recalled how his company had ambushed a German infantry column marching down a road in Holland several months earlier. He vividly remembered how exposed the Germans were when he ordered his machine guns to open fire. He ordered his men to approach stealthily in the foggy dark, keeping strict noise discipline. MacDonald also divided Baker into two columns. Sneaking through the ditches on either side, each group moved cautiously, purposely keeping off of the Bastogne-Marche Road. As the men approached the crossroads they could see the orange reflection of burning vehicles in the night sky. An even more troubling clue as to the fate of the hospital soon reached their ears.

MacDonald’s men heard the strangest of sounds. It was a loud, continuous wail. Gisi, the young gliderman from New Jersey, remembered how eerie and shrill the noise was in the damp night air. When the Americans climbed a ridge overlooking the crossroads, they viewed a scene of utter devastation.

Laid out in front of them were 16 burning 21/2-ton trucks. The vehicles had been abandoned by the roadside, still in convoy along the Salle-Barriere Hinck Road. A driver’s body had slumped forward in the cab of one of the trucks, lying on the horn and producing the wailing noise. Several bodies lay strewn about the fields near the hospital tents. MacDonald surveyed the scene and quickly began to formulate a plan. First, he sent two scouts down the slope to reconnoiter the area. The GIs crept stealthily away and after several minutes returned to report the Germans were still milling around the area. MacDonald breathed a heavy sigh. He knew Baker Company was about to go into battle again. This time, instead of the dikes and wet fields of Holland, it would be over a misty road junction in Belgium.

Germans at Crossroads X

As MacDonald and his men prepared to recapture the crossroads, the radio operators at the 327th Regimental Headquarters tracked their progress. As the reports came in, they scribbled messages on radio logs to keep their commanders informed. It had been a busy morning so far. One of the men taking notes belonged to Captain William L. Abernathy’s S2 section. For him, the news was not good. At 0045 hours, reports filtered in that the Germans had sent half-tracks mounting heavy machine guns to guard Crossroads X. In addition, the Germans supposedly had captured an American armored vehicle and were using it to defend the same crossroads.

Moreover, if there was any doubt about the fate of the medical company, the report at 0115 confirmed the Americans’ worst fears. A jeep driver had escaped and reached one of the security patrols on the perimeter. The lucky paratrooper was from the 326th Medical Company and reported that indeed the Germans had captured the entire company, including the wounded on litters. As the Germans herded the prisoners together, several of the machine gunners in an African American transport company opened fire with their heavy machine guns. Chaos ensued as men on both sides dove for cover. Bullets zipped and zinged everywhere, slaying friend and foe alike. Within a few moments however, the Germans killed the brave truckers, ending the fight.

During the ensuing chaos, the plucky jeep driver had escaped, frantically making his way back to American lines. The information he provided was quickly relayed to McAuliffe’s headquarters. According to the driver, close to 100 Germany infantrymen had occupied the crossroads. With them were two half-tracks and multiple small arms, which seemed to confirm the earlier report. According to other survivors of the attack, many of the Germans were wearing civilian clothes and American uniforms as a ruse. However, unlike the soldiers, the officers wore the standard German field uniforms. Survivors stated that the German unit had machine-gunned the tents and trucks, even though many were clearly marked with red crosses.

In short, the Germans were at Crossroads X in force. It began to look like Baker Company would have a major fight on their hands.

Carelessness of the Germans

Meanwhile, Gisi could not believe the Germans were being so loud and careless. As one of the pair of scouts that MacDonald had sent to the crossroads to investigate the situation, he and a comrade crouched on their knees just below the short incline to the road, hidden from the Germans by the dark. Cautiously, the two men had snuck up to the road, clutching their M1 Garand rifles, fingers hovering over the triggers.

“It was a miserable night. Dark. Snow flurries,” Gisi recalled. “Sergeant [Mike] Campana [Gisi’s platoon sergeant] instructed me and Charlie Sawyer to head out first, since we were scouts.”