Battle of the Bulge

Battle of the Bulge

By the autumn of 1944 during World War II (1939–1945) Germany’s fate was largely sealed. The Western Allies were driving on Germany from the west, and the Soviets were closing from the east. German leader Adolf Hitler, however, rejected the rational course for his people of surrender. Deaf to all reason, his alternative was a desperate gamble. The resulting month-long German Ardennes Offensive, popularly known as the Battle of the Bulge, only speeded the German military defeat.

With the Eastern Front static for several months and the Allied offensive in the West gaining ground, in September 1944 Hitler conceived of a sudden offensive in the Ardennes region to take the Western Allies by surprise, break their front, and recapture the Belgian port of Antwerp. Hitler hoped at the least that such an attack would purchase three to four months to deal with the advancing Soviets. Commander of German forces in the west Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt thought that the plan was unrealistic, as did other high-ranking officers. However, Hitler refused to budge, and substantial German forces were transferred from the Eastern Front for what turned out to be the largest battle fought on the Western Front in the war and the largest single engagement ever for the U.S. Army.

Hitler could not have selected a better location for his attack than the Ardennes. Allied forces there were weak because General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Allied Expeditionary Force supreme commander, had deployed most of his strength northward and southward. The timing could not have been better for the Germans either, as poor weather initially restricted the use of Allied airpower. German security was excellent, Hitler having restricted all communication to secure land lines, which Ultra radio intercepts could not pick up.

The Western Allies were complacent because Ultra revealed nothing of the German plans and because they believed that only they could launch an offensive. Telltale signs were disbelieved. In an exceptional achievement, the Germans secretly marshaled 410,000 men, 1,420 tanks and assault guns, 2,600 artillery pieces and rocket launchers, and just over 1,000 combat aircraft. While this force was considerably greater than the Allied forces in the Ardennes, it was also dwarfed by what the Allies could ultimately bring to bear.

In the predawn darkness and fog of December 16, 1944, the Germans began their offensive, catching the Allies by surprise. Initially, 12th Army Group commander General Omar N. Bradley and his subordinate, Third Army commander Lieutenant General George S. Patton, did not believe it to be a major operation. Eisenhower did, and on its second day he ordered the battle-weary 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions to the front from a reconstitution camp in France. Traveling in trucks, the 101st Airborne Division arrived at midnight on December 18 near the important road hub of Bastogne. This small Belgian town would play a key role in the battle.

The attacking German force of 24 divisions, moving against 3 divisions of Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges’s First Army, soon drove a bulge in the American lines, which gave the battle its name. The Battle of the Bulge is more a campaign of a series of smaller battles, each lasting a week or more, with the whole extending over a month. The German penetration eventually extended some 50 miles deep and 70 miles wide.

On December 22 four German soldiers under a white flag walked toward an American outpost near Bastogne. They carried an ultimatum addressed to “the U.S.A. commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.” This message called on the American commander (Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, in the absence of Major General Maxwell D. Taylor) to save his troops with an “honorable surrender.” McAuliffe’s response to the Germans was one of the most memorable statements of the war: “To the German Commander: Nuts. The American commander.”

German forces flowed around Bastogne, heading northwest toward the Meuse. Generalfeldmarschall Walther Model, commander of Army Group B and charged with carrying out the offensive, sought to have the Fifth Panzer Army make the main effort. Hitler, ignorant of the situation on the ground, insisted that this be done by SS Oberstgruppenführer Josef “Sepp” Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army.

On the north shoulder of the bulge, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division dug in. The Americans massed 348 artillery pieces that shattered the German attack. In the center, units fighting mostly in isolated formations stood firm, impeding the German advance. Patton’s Third Army rushed to the rescue from the south. Patton had ordered his staff to prepare for just such a contingency, and he assured an unbelieving Eisenhower that he could wheel his army 90 degrees and strike north into the bulge with three divisions in only two days. Patton accomplished this feat in one of the most memorable mass maneuvers of the war.

Other Allied resources were also diverted to the Ardennes fighting. Then on December 23 the weather changed along the front, clearing the sky, freezing the ground, and making the terrain passable for armor. Allied aircraft quickly filled the skies, and transports parachuted supplies into Bastogne, where the defenders were down to only 10 rounds per gun. On Christmas Day the German tanks ground to a halt, out of fuel, while U.S. 2nd Armored Division gunners had a turkey shoot at Celles, almost at the German objective of the Meuse, in which they destroyed 82 German tanks. On December 26 the 4th Armored Division of Patton’s Third Army lifted the siege of Bastogne.

Unfortunately, 21st Army Group commander British field marshal Bernard L. Montgomery had elected to remain on the defensive, overruling U.S. VII Corps commander Major General J. Lawton Collins’s plan to cut off the bulge by striking from each shoulder. Finally, though, the Allies attacked midway up the salient, although this obviated the chance to surround the Germans. Patton held that timidity on the part of Eisenhower and Montgomery allowed the bulk of the German attackers to escape.

On January 1, 1945, as part of the offensive, the Germans mounted an air attack on Allied air bases in Belgium. Operation bodenplatte (base plate) destroyed 500–800 Allied aircraft, most of them on the ground, but also saw about 300 German aircraft shot down and 214 trained pilots lost, many to Allied antiaircraft fire.

On the ground the Battle of the Bulge dragged on to the middle of January. Hitler had already ordered part of the participating Panzer divisions transferred east, but before these resources could arrive the Soviets began their last great offensive. By the end of January the U.S. First Army and Third Army had reached the German frontier and reestablished the line of six weeks before.

The Battle of the Bulge had been fought and won largely by American forces. Of the 600,000 U.S. troops involved, 19,000 were killed, about 47,000 were wounded, and 15,000 were taken prisoner. Of the 55,000 British engaged, casualties totaled 1,400, of whom 200 were killed. The Germans, employing nearly 500,000 men in the battle, sustained nearly 100,000 killed, wounded, or captured. Both sides suffered heavy equipment losses, about 800 tanks on each side, and the Germans lost virtually all their aircraft committed. But the Western Allies could quickly make good their losses, while the Germans could not. In effect, all Hitler had accomplished was to hasten the end of the war.

References

Cole, Hugh M. The United States Army in World War II: The European Theater of Operations; The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1965.

Dupuy, Trevor N. Hitler’s Last Gamble: The Battle of the Bulge, December 1944–January 1945. New York: HarperCollins, 1944.

Eisenhower, John S. D. The Bitter Woods. New York: Putnam, 1969.

Forty, George. The Reich’s Last Gamble: The Ardennes Offensive, December 1944. London: Cassell, 2000.

MacDonald, Charles B. A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge. New York: William Morrow, 1985.