By Tim G.W. Holbert

It was time for a break, and they had earned it. For the past six months, the men of E Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division had been embroiled in almost constant battle. From their legendary drop into France on D-Day, the push through Normandy toward Paris, to the attack on German forces in Holland and Operation Market-Garden, Easy Company—the Band of Brothers—had led the way on what had been a remarkably quick drive toward the German border. The war in Europe would soon be over. They could feel it. They had done their job, and it would be up to the rest of the American, British, and Canadian armies to finish off Hitler in the west. And now stationed near the small French town of Mourmelon-le-Grand, it was time to relax and enjoy the Christmas season.

Some of the men were planning to take advantage of some leave time. On the morning of December 16, 1944, Ed Shames, then a Lieutenant in command of E Company’s 3rd platoon, was told by a regimental commander that he and some of his men would be free to go to Paris the next morning. Brightened by the news, a number of the men started celebrating a little early, as, after all, they were stationed right in the middle of the Champagne district of France. Others, still filled with the adrenaline of months of battle, unleashed their pent-up energy playing sports. Lynn “Buck” Compton, commander of the 1st platoon, put together a football team among the men, many of whom had been college football players back in the States. Compton himself would coach the team, preparing them for a game against another outfit on Christmas Day of ’44. But on the morning of December 17, practice was cancelled. The men who were about to leave for Paris were told to load up the trucks immediately, that they would be heading somewhere else, to a town in Belgium named Bastogne. Hitler’s armies had just unleashed a massive attack on the thin Allied lines in the Ardennes Forest.

In the waning months of 1944, it seemed the Allied armies were virtually unstoppable against the retreating Germans. Following the breakout from Normandy in August, the Allies dashed across France and toward the heart of the Reich. And though they had been slowed by poor supply lines and failures in Holland, the Allies still believed that the German war machine, under constant assault on two fronts, was near defeat. The formerly invincible Luftwaffe had been shattered, and control of the skies was in Allied hands. Hitler realized that Germany could not long hold out against attacks by the Anglo-American armies on one side, and the Red Army on the other. For the Reich to survive, the Germans needed victory, or at least a draw, on at least one of the fronts. The situation on the Eastern front was dire. The Soviets, livid over Hitler’s betrayal three years prior, would not negotiate, no matter how many casualties they sustained. But the Americans, Hitler believed, were fundamentally a weak people, and with a massive strike, could be brought to sue for a peace that would work in Germany’s favor. Concealing his armies in the hilly forests of the Eifel region of Germany, Hitler ordered a blitzkrieg offensive through the weakly defended Ardennes, cutting the Allied armies in two before turning north. The German army would be in Antwerp before Eisenhower knew what happened.

Hitler had made a massive miscalculation. While he had achieved complete surprise in his attack, Eisenhower, despite the advice of his staff, ordered immediate reinforcements into the Ardennes, as he saw that this was the major offensive that nobody believed the Germans were still capable of mounting. He at once had seen Hitler’s plan, and was determined to halt the attack well before Antwerp. Looking at his map, Eisenhower found where the major road intersections were located that had to be defended at all costs. It all centered on the town of Bastogne. It was here the Allies would make their stand, and where the Band of Brothers would experience their defining moment.