Battle of the Bulge

For the 1965 film, see Battle of the Bulge (film).
Battle of the Bulge
Part of World War II

American soldiers photographed in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge.
Date 16 December 1944 - 25 January 1945
Location The Ardennes, Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany
Result Allied victory
Combatants
United States
United Kingdom
Germany
Commanders
Dwight Eisenhower
Omar Bradley
George Patton
Bernard Montgomery
Walther Model
Gerd von Rundstedt
Adolf Hitler
Strength
Dec 16 - start of the Battle: about 83,000 men; 242 Sherman tanks, 182 tank destroyers, and 394 pieces of corps and divisional artillery. Dec 16 - start of the Battle: about 200,000 men, 5 armoured divisions, 12⅔ infantry divisions, and about 500 medium tanks, supported by 1,900 guns and Nebelwerfers.
Casualties
American:

89,987 casualties
(19,276 dead,
23,554 captured or missing,
47,493 wounded)

British: 200 dead, 1400 wounded and missing

84,834 casualties
(15,652 dead,
27,582 captured or missing,
41,600 wounded)
Western European Campaign
Normandy - Dragoon - Siegfried Line - Ardennes Offensive - Elbe
Western Front (World War II)
France - The Netherlands - Dunkirk - Britain - Dieppe - Villefranche-de-Rouergue - Normandy - Dragoon - Arnhem - Scheldt - Hurtgen Forest - Aachen - Bulge - Plunder - Varsity - Aintree

The Ardennes Offensive (called Unternehmen: Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine) by the German military Heeres Gruppe B), officially named the Battle of the Ardennes by the U.S. Army (and known to the general public as the Battle of the Bulge), started on December 16, 1944. [1] Wacht am Rhein was supported by subordinate operations known as Bodenplatte, Greif, and Wahrung. The goal of these operations as planned by the Germans was to split the British and American Allied line in half, capturing Antwerp and then proceeding to encircle and destroy four Allied armies, forcing the Western Allies to negotiate a peace treaty in the Axis’s favor. The Ardennes attack was planned in total secrecy in almost total radio silence. Even Ultra (the Allies’ reading of secret German radio messages) revealed nothing about the upcoming buildup and offensive. Moreover, the degree of surprise achieved was compounded by Allied overconfidence, preoccupation with their own offensive plans, poor aerial reconnaissance, and the relative lack of combat contact by the U.S. 1st Army. Allied intelligence failed completely to detect the upcoming offensive and almost complete surprise against a weak section of the Allies' line was achieved at a time of heavy overcast when the Allies' strong air forces would be grounded. The “bulge” refers to the salient the Germans initially put into the Allies' line of advance, as seen in maps presented in newspapers of the time.[2][3]

Most of the American casualties occurred within the first three days of battle, when two of the 106th Division’s three regiments were forced to surrender. In its entirety, the “Battle of the Bulge” was the most bloody of the comparatively few European battles American forces experienced in WWII, the 19,000 American dead unsurpassed by any other engagement. For the U.S. Army, the Battle of the Ardennes was a battle incorporating more American troops and engaging more enemy troops than any American conflict prior to WWII. Although the German objective was ultimately unrealized, the Allies’ own offensive timetable was set back by months. In the wake of the defeat, many experienced German units were left severely depleted of men and equipment, as German survivors retreated to the defenses of the Siegfried Line.

Contents

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Background

The breakout from Normandy at the end of August 1944, coupled with landings in southern France, saw the Allies advance towards Germany faster than anticipated. [4] The rapid advance, coupled with an initial lack of deep water ports, presented the Allies with enormous supply problems. Aside from the temporary Mulberry harbours established in Normandy and direct landing of LST's on the beaches, the only deep water port in Allied hands was at Cherbourg near the original invasion beaches. Although the port of Antwerp, Belgium was captured fully intact in the first days of September, it could not be made operational until November 28 when the Scheldt which gives access to the port had been cleared from German control. This delay had been caused by priority given to the Operation Market Garden which had mobilized the resources needed for expelling the Germans forces from the riverbanks of the Scheldt. German forces remained in control of several major ports on the Channel coast until May 1945; those ports that did fall to the Allies in 1944 were sabotaged to deny their immediate use by the Allies. The extensive destruction of the French railroad system prior to D-Day, intended to deny movement to the Germans, now proved equally damaging to the Allies as it took time to repair the system of tracks and bridges. A trucking system known as the Red Ball Express was instituted to bring supplies to front line troops; however, for every gallon of fuel that reached the front line near the Belgian border, five gallons of fuel had been expended delivering it. By early October the supply situation had halted major Allied offensives as they paused to build up their supplies.

Bradley, Patton and Montgomery each pressed for priority delivery of supplies to his own army, in order to continue advancing and keeping pressure on the Germans while the supply situation was worked out. General Eisenhower, however, preferred a broad-front strategy—though with priority for Montgomery’s northern forces, since their short-term goal included opening the urgently needed port of Antwerp, and their long-term goal was the capture of the Ruhr area, the industrial heart of Germany. With the Allies paused for lack of supplies, Gerd von Rundstedt was able to reorganise the disrupted German armies into a semi-coherent defense.

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s Operation Market Garden, a September offensive designed to cross the Rhine and bypass the Siegfried Line, was unsuccessful and left the Allies little better off than before. In October the Canadian First Army fought the Battle of the Scheldt, clearing the Westerschelde by taking Walcheren and opening the ports of Antwerp to shipping. By the end of the month the supply situation was easing. The Allied seizure of the large port of Marseilles in the south also improved the supply situation.

Despite a pause along the front after the Scheldt battles, the German situation remained dire. While operations continued in the autumn, notably the Lorraine Campaign, the Battle of Aachen, and the fighting in the Hurtgen forest, the strategic situation in the west changed little. In the east, Operation Bagration destroyed much of Army Group Center during the summer; Soviet progress was so fast that the offensive ended only when the advancing Red Army forces outran their supply lines. By November, it was clear the Soviet forces were preparing for a winter offensive, most likely in December.

Meanwhile, the Allied air offensive of early 1944 had effectively grounded the Luftwaffe, leaving them with little battlefield intelligence and no way to interdict Allied supplies. The converse was equally damaging: daytime movement of German forces was almost instantly noticed, and interdiction of supplies combined with the bombing of the Romanian oilfields starved Germany of oil and gasoline.

The only advantage for the German forces by November 1944 was that they were no longer defending all of western Europe. The front lines in the west were considerably shorter and closer to the German heartland, dramatically improving their supply problems regardless of the Allied air control. Additionally, their extensive telephone and telegraph network meant that radios no longer had to be used for communications, which deprived the Allies of their most powerful weapon, ULTRA intercepts. Some historians also blame the lack of intel on Brg. Gen. Wilson McCutchan, who commanded III Corps’s intellegence HQ.

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Drafting the offensive

Hitler felt that his armies still might be able to successfully defend Germany in the long term, if only they could somehow neutralise the Western front in the short term. Further, Hitler believed that he could split the Allies and make the Americans and British sue for a separate peace, independent of the Soviet Union. Success in the West would give the Germans time to design and produce more advanced weapons (such as jet aircraft and super-heavy tanks) and permit the concentration of forces in the East. This assessment is generally regarded as unrealistic, given Allied air superiority throughout Europe and the ability to intervene significantly in German offensive operations.

Several senior German military advisors expressed their concern that favourable weather would permit Allied air power to effectively stop any offensive action undertaken. Hitler ignored or dismissed these concerns, though the offensive was intentionally scheduled for late autumn, when northwestern Europe is often covered by heavy fog and low-lying cloud, to neutralise the Allied air forces.

When the Allied offensive in the Netherlands (Operation Market Garden) wound down in September 1944, at about the same time as Operation Bagration, strategic initiative briefly swung to the Germans. Given the reduced manpower of German land forces at the time, it was believed that the best way to take advantage of the initiative would be to attack in the West, against the smaller Allied forces deployed there, rather than against the vast Soviet forces. Even the unrealistic encirclement and destruction of entire Soviet armies would still have left the Soviets with a large numerical superiority. Also, in the East, most of the "natural" defensive lines remained under German control.

In the West, supply problems were beginning to significantly impede Allied operations, even though the opening of Antwerp in November 1944 did slightly improve the situation. The Allied armies were overextended—their positions ran from southern France to the Netherlands. German planning revolved around the premise that a successful strike against the thinly manned stretches of the line would halt Allied advances on the entire Western Front.

Several plans for major Western offensives were put forward, but the German High Command quickly concentrated on two. A first plan for an encirclement manoeuver called for a two-prong attack along the borders of the U.S. armies around Aachen, hoping to encircle the 9th and 3rd Armies and leave the German forces back in control of the excellent defensive grounds where they had fought the U.S. to a standstill earlier in the year. A second plan for a blitzkrieg manoeuver called for a classic blitzkrieg attack through the thinly defended Ardennes, splitting the armies along the U.S.-British lines and capturing Antwerp. The blitzkrieg plan was dubbed the "Wacht am Rhein," or "Watch on the Rhine." This name was deceptive in nature, implying a watch and wait strategy on the Western Front (A popular German song also shared this name for the offensive).

Hitler chose the second plan, believing that a successful encirclement would have little impact on the overall situation and finding the prospect of splitting the Anglo-American armies more appealing. The disputes between Montgomery and Patton were well known, and Hitler hoped he could exploit this perceived disunity,[5] If the attack were to succeed, the capture of the port of Antwerp would trap four complete armies without supplies behind German lines.

Both plans centered on attacks against the American forces, due largely to Hitler's view of Americans as incapable of fighting effectively, and his belief that the American home front was likely to crack upon hearing of a decisive American loss. There is no evidence that Hitler realized, or any of his military staff pointed out, that of all the major combatants the United States was the one which up to this point in the war had been damaged the least and had the greatest restorative powers.

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Planning

Situation on the Western Front as of 15 December 1944
Situation on the Western Front as of 15 December 1944

The German High Command decided by the middle of September, on Hitler's insistence, that the offensive be mounted in the Ardennes, as was done in France in 1940. While German forces in that battle had passed through the Ardennes before engaging the enemy, the 1944 plan called for battle to occur within the forest itself. The main forces were to advance westward until reaching the Meuse River, then turn northwest for Antwerp and Brussels. The close terrain of the Ardennes would make rapid movement difficult, though open ground beyond the Meuse offered the prospect of a successful dash to the coast.

Four armies were selected for the operation:

Overseeing the operation were Field Marshals Walther Model, the commander of the German Army Group B, and Gerd von Rundstedt, the overall commander of German troops in the West.

For the offensive to be successful, four criteria were deemed critical by the planners.

The plan originally called for just under 45 divisions, including a dozen panzer and panzergrenadier divisions forming the armoured spearhead and various infantry units to form a defensive line as the battle unfolded. The German army suffered from an acute manpower shortage by this time, however, and the force had been reduced to around 30 divisions. Although it retained most of its armour, there were not enough infantry units due to the defensive needs in the east. These thirty newly rebuilt divisions used some of the German army's last reserves. Among them were Volksgrenadier units formed from a mix of battle-hardened veterans and recruits formerly regarded as too young or too old to fight. Training time, equipment, and supplies were inadequate during the preparations. German fuel supplies were precarious—those materials and supplies that could not be directly transported by rail had to be horse-drawn in order to conserve fuel—the mechanised and panzer divisions would depend heavily on captured fuel. The start of the offensive was delayed from November 27 to December 16 as a result.

Before the offensive, the Allies were virtually blind to German troop movement. During the reconquest of France, the extensive network of the French resistance had provided valuable intelligence about German dispositions. Now that they had reached the German border this source dried up. In France orders had been relayed within the German army using radio messages enciphered by the Enigma machine, and these could be picked up and decrypted by Allied codebreakers to give the intelligence known as ULTRA. In Germany such orders were typically transmitted using telephone and teleprinter, and a special radio silence order was imposed on all matters concerning the upcoming offensive. The major crackdown in the Wehrmacht after the July 20 Plot resulted in much tighter security and fewer leaks. The foggy autumn weather also prevented Allied reconnaissance planes from correctly assessing the ground situation.

Thus Allied High Command considered the Ardennes a quiet sector, relying on assessments from their intelligence services that the Germans were unable to launch any major offensive operations this late in the war. What little intelligence they had led the Allies to believe precisely what the Germans wanted them to believe—that preparations were being carried out only for defensive, not offensive operations. In fact, due to the Germans' efforts, the Allies were led to believe that a new defensive army was being formed around Dusseldorf in the northern Rhine, possibly to defend against British attack. This was done by increasing the number of flak batteries in the area and the artificial multiplication of radio transmissions in the area. The Allies at this point thought the information was of no importance. All of this meant that the attack, when it came, completely surprised the Allied forces.

Because the Ardennes were considered a quiet sector, economy-of-force considerations led it to be used as a training ground for new units and a rest area for units that had seen hard fighting. The US units deployed in the Ardennes thus were a mixture of inexperienced troops (such as the rookie U.S. 99th and 106th Divisions), and battle-hardened troops sent to that sector to recuperate (the U.S. 2nd Division).

Two major special operations were planned for the offensive. By October it was decided that Otto Skorzeny, the German commando who had rescued the former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, was to lead a task force of English-speaking German soldiers in Operation Greif. These soldiers were to be dressed in American and British uniforms and wear dog tags taken from corpses and POWs. Their job was to go behind American lines and change signposts, misdirect traffic, generally cause disruption and to seize bridges across the Meuse River between Liège and Namur. By late November another ambitious special operation was added: Colonel Friedrich August von der Heydte was to lead a Fallschirmjäger (paratrooper) Kampfgruppe in Operation Stösser, a nighttime paratroop drop behind the Allied lines aimed at capturing a vital road junction near Malmedy.

German intelligence had set December 20 as the expected date for the start of the upcoming Soviet offensive, aimed at crushing what was left of German resistance on the Eastern Front and thereby opening the way to Berlin. It was hoped that Stalin would delay the start of the operation once the German assault in the Ardennes had begun and wait for the outcome before continuing.

In the final stage of preparations Hitler and his staff left their Wolf's Lair headquarters in East Prussia, in which they had co-ordinated much of the fighting on the Eastern Front. After a brief visit to Berlin, on December 11, they came to the Eagle's Nest, Hitler's headquarters in southern Germany, the site from which he had overseen the successful 1940 campaign against France and the low countries.

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Initial German assault

Sepp Dietrich led the 6th SS Panzer Army in the northernmost attack route
Sepp Dietrich led the 6th SS Panzer Army in the northernmost attack route
Hasso von Manteuffel led the 5th Panzer Army in the middle attack route
Hasso von Manteuffel led the 5th Panzer Army in the middle attack route
Erich Brandenberger led the 7th Army in the southernmost attack route
Erich Brandenberger led the 7th Army in the southernmost attack route

The German assault began on December 16, 1944, at 0530 hrs with a massive artillery barrage on the Allied troops facing the 6th SS Panzer Army. By 0800 all three German armies attacked through the Ardennes. In the northern sector Dietrich's 6th SS Panzer Army assaulted Losheim Gap and the Elsenborn Ridge in an effort to break through to Liège. In the centre von Manteuffel's 5th Panzer Army attacked towards Bastogne and St. Vith, both road junctions of great strategic importance. In the south, Brandenberger's 7th Army pushed towards Luxembourg in their efforts to secure the flank from Allied attacks.

Attacks by the 6th SS Panzer Army infantry units in the north fared badly due to unexpectedly fierce resistance by the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division and U.S. 99th Infantry Division, which was attached to the 2nd, at the Elsenborn Ridge, stalling their advance; this forced Dietrich to unleash his panzer forces early. Starting on December 16, however, snowstorms engulfed parts of the Ardennes area. While having the desired effect of keeping the Allied aircraft grounded, the weather also proved troublesome for the Germans as poor road conditions hampered their advance. Poor traffic control led to massive traffic jams and fuel shortages in forward units.

The Germans fared better in the center (the 20 mile wide Schnee Eifel sector) as they attacked positions held by the U.S. 28th Infantry Division and the U.S. 106th Infantry Division. The remarkable feature here was that the German attackers lacked any such overwhelming strength as had been deployed in the north; but it succeeded in surrounding two regiments (422nd and 423rd) of the 106th Division in a pincer movement and forced their surrender. That was a tribute to the way that Manteuffel’s new tactics had been applied. The official U.S. Army history states: At least seven thousand [men] were lost here and the figure probably is closer to eight or nine thousand. The amount lost in arms and equipment, of course, was very substantial. The Schnee Eifel battle, therefore, represents the most serious reverse suffered by American arms during the operations of 1944-45 in the European theater.

Further south on Manteuffel’s front the main thrust was delivered by all attacking divisions crossing the River Our, then increasing the pressure on the key road centers of St. Vith and Bastogne. Panzer columns took the outlying villages. The struggle for these villages, and transport confusion on the German side, slowed the attack to allow the 101st Airborne Division (along with units from the U.S. 9th & 10th Armored Divisions) to reach Bastogne by truck on the morning of 19 December 1944. The fierce defence of Bastogne, in which American engineers particularly distinguished themselves, made it impossible for the Germans to rush the town, and the panzer columns swung past on either side, thus Bastogne was cut off on 20 December.

In the extreme south, Brandenberger’s three infantry divisions were checked after an advance of four miles by divisions of the U.S. 8th Corps; that front was then firmly held. Only the German 5th Parachute Division of Brandenberger’s command was able to thrust forward 12 miles on the inner flank to partially fulfill its assigned role.

Eisenhower and his principal commanders realised by 17 December that the fighting in the Ardennes was a major offensive and not a local counter-attack, and ordered vast reinforcements to the area. Within a week 250,000 troops had been sent. In addition, the 82nd Airborne Division was also thrown into the battle north of the bulge, near Liège.

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Operation Stösser

Originally planned for the early hours of 16 December, Operation Stösser was delayed for a day because of bad weather and fuel shortages. The new drop time was set for 0300 hrs on December 17; their drop zone was 11 km north of Malmedy and their target was the "Baraque Michel" crossroads. Von der Heydte and his men were to take it and hold it for approximately twenty-four hours until being relieved by the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, thereby hampering the Allied flow of reinforcements and supplies into the area.

Just after midnight 16 December/17 December 112 Ju 52 transport planes with around 1,300 Fallschirmjäger (German paratroopers) on board took off amid a powerful snowstorm, with strong winds and extensive low cloud cover. As a result, many planes went off-course, and men were dropped as far as a dozen kilometres away from the intended drop zone, with only a fraction of the force landing near it. Strong winds also took off-target those paratroopers whose planes were relatively close to the intended drop zone and made their landings far rougher.

By noon a group of around 300 managed to assemble, but this force was too small and too weak to counter the Allies. Colonel von der Heydte abandoned plans to take the crossroads and instead ordered his men to harass the Allied troops in the vicinity with guerrilla-like actions. Because of the extensive dispersal of the jump, with Fallschirmjäger being reported all over the Ardennes, the Allies believed a major divisional-sized jump had taken place, resulting in much confusion and causing them to allocate men to secure their rear instead of sending them off to the front to face the main German thrust.

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Operation Greif

Main article: Operation Greif

Skorzeny successfully infiltrated a small part of his battalion of disguised, English-speaking Germans behind the Allied lines. Although they failed to take the vital bridges over the Meuse, the battalion's presence produced confusion out of all proportion to their military activities, and rumours spread like wildfire. Even General Patton was alarmed and, on December 17, described the situation to General Eisenhower as "Krauts... speaking perfect English... raising hell, cutting wires, turning road signs around, spooking whole divisions, and shoving a bulge into our defences".

Checkpoints were soon set up all over the Allied rear, greatly slowing the movement of soldiers and equipment. Military policemen drilled servicemen on things which every American was expected to know, such as the identity of Mickey Mouse's girlfriend, baseball scores, or the capital of Illinois. This latter question resulted in the brief detention of General Omar Bradley himself; although he gave the correct answer—Springfield—the GI who questioned him apparently believed that the capital was Chicago.

The tightened security nonetheless made things harder for the German infiltrators, and some of them were captured. Even during interrogation they continued their goal of spreading disinformation; when asked about their mission, some of them claimed they had been told to go to Paris to either kill or capture General Eisenhower. Security around the general was greatly increased, and he was confined to his headquarters. Because these prisoners had been captured in American uniform they were later executed by firing squad; this was the standard practice of every army at the time, although it was left ambivalent under the Geneva Convention, which merely stated that soldiers had to wear uniforms that distinguished them as combatants. In addition, Skorzeny was an expert at international law and knew that such an operation would be well within its boundaries as long as they were wearing their German uniforms when firing. Skorzeny and his men were fully aware of their likely fate, and most wore their German uniforms underneath their Allied ones in case of capture. Skorzeny himself avoided capture, survived the war and may have been involved with the Nazi ODESSA ratline escape network.

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Malmedy massacre

The Malmedy massacre
The Malmedy massacre
Main article: Malmedy massacre

In the north the main armoured spearhead of the 6th SS Panzer Army, Kampfgruppe Peiper, consisting of 4,800 men and 600 vehicles under the command of Waffen-SS Colonel Jochen Peiper, pushed west into Belgium. At 0700 hrs December 17 they seized a U.S. fuel depot at Büllingen, where they paused to refuel before continuing westward. At 1230 hrs, near the hamlet of Baugnez, on the height halfway between the town of Malmedy and Ligneuville, they encountered elements of the American 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. After a brief battle the Americans surrendered. They were disarmed and, with some other Americans captured earlier (approximately 150 people), sent to stand in a field near the crossroads. Here they were all shot. It is not known what caused the shooting and there is no record of an SS officer giving an execution order; such shootings of prisoners of war (POWs), however, were more common by both sides on the Eastern Front. News of the killings raced through Allied lines. Afterwards, it became common for soldiers to take no SS or Fallschirmjäger soldiers prisoner. Captured SS soldiers who were part of Kampfgruppe Peiper were tried in the Malmedy massacre trial following the war.

The fighting went on and, by the evening, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Division spearhead had pushed north to engage the U.S. 99th Infantry Division and Kampfgruppe Peiper arrived in front of Stavelot. He was already behind the timetable as it took 36 hours to advance from Eifel to Stavelot; it had taken just 9 hours in 1940. As the Americans fell back they blew up bridges and fuel dumps, denying the Germans critically needed fuel and further slowing their progress.

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The Wereth 11

Main Article: Wereth 11

Another, much smaller, massacre was committed in Wereth, Belgium, approximately a thousand yards north-east of Saint-Vith, on 17 December 1944. Eleven African-Americans, after surrendering peacefully, were tortured and then shot by men of the 1st SS Division, belonging to Kampfgruppe Hansen. The identity of the murderers remains unknown, and the perpetrators were never punished for this crime.

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The assault of Kampfgruppe Peiper

Peiper entered Stavelot on December 18 but encountered fierce resistance by the American defenders. Unable to defeat the American force in the area, he left a smaller support force in town and headed for the bridge at Trois-Ponts with the bulk of his forces, but by the time he reached it, the retreating US engineers had already destroyed it. Peiper pulled off and headed for the village of La Gleize and from there on to Stoumont. There, as Peiper approached, the American engineers blew up the bridge and the American troops were entrenched and ready to fight a bitter battle.

His troops were cut off from the main German force and supplies when the Americans recaptured the poorly defended Stavelot on December 19. As their situation in Stoumont was becoming hopeless, Peiper decided to pull back to La Gleize where he set up his defences waiting for the German relief force. As no relief force was able to penetrate the Allied line, on December 23 Peiper decided to break through back to the German lines. The men of the Kampfgruppe were forced to abandon their vehicles and heavy equipment, although most of the unit was able to escape.

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St. Vith

In the centre, the town of St. Vith, a vital road junction, presented the main challenge for both von Manteuffel's and Dietrich's forces. The defenders, led by the U.S. 7th Armored Division, and also including one regiment of the U.S. 106th Infantry Division, and additional elements of the U.S. 9th Armored Division and U.S. 28th Infantry Division, all under the command of General Bruce C. Clarke, successfully resisted the German attacks, thereby significantly slowing the German advance. Under orders, St. Vith was given up on December 21; U.S. troops fell back to entrenched positions in the area, presenting an imposing obstacle to a successful German advance. By December 23, as the Germans shattered their flanks, the defenders' position became untenable and U.S. troops were ordered to retreat west of the Salm River. As the German plan called for the capture of St. Vith by 1800 hrs December 17, the prolonged action in and around it presented a major blow to their timetable.

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Bastogne

Wacht am Rhein—the German offensive, 16–25 December 1944
Wacht am Rhein—the German offensive, 16–25 December 1944
Main article: Battle of Bastogne

On December 19, the senior Allied commanders met in a bunker in Verdun. Eisenhower, realizing that the Allies could destroy German forces much more easily when they were out in the open and on the offensive than if they were on the defensive, told the generals, "The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster. There will be only cheerful faces at this table". Patton, realizing what Eisenhower implied, responded, "Hell, let's have the guts to let the bastards go all the way to Paris. Then, we'll really cut'em off and chew'em up". Eisenhower asked Patton how long it would take to turn his Third Army (then located in south-central France) north to counter-attack. He said he could do it in 48 hours, to the disbelief of the other generals present. Before he had gone to the meeting, in fact, Patton had ordered his staff to prepare to turn north; by the time Eisenhower asked him how long it would take the movement was already underway (Citizen Soldiers, p 208). On 20 December, Eisenhower removed the 1st and 9th American Armies from Bradley's 12th Army Group and placed them under Montgomery's 21st Army Group command.

By December 21 the German forces had surrounded Bastogne, which was defended by the 101st Airborne Division and Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division. Conditions inside the perimeter were tough—most of the medical supplies and medical personnel had been captured. Food was scarce, and ammunition was so low that artillery crews were forbidden to fire on advancing Germans unless there was a large, heavy concentration of them. Despite determined German attacks, however, the perimeter held. The German Commander sent this request to the American commander in Bastogne.

To the USA Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne: The fortune of war is changing. This time strong German armored units have encircled the USA forces in and near Bastogne. . . . There is only one possibility to save the encircled USA troops from total annihilation; that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. . . . If this proposal is rejected, one German Artillery Corps and six heavy AA Battalions are ready to annihilate USA troops ... all the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity. . . . -The German Commander

When General Anthony McAuliffe was awakened by a German invitation to surrender, he gave a reply of annoyance that has been variously reported and was probably unprintable. There is no disagreement, however, as to what he wrote on the paper delivered to the Germans: "NUTS!" That reply had to be explained, both to the Germans and to non-American Allies.[6]

Rather than launching one simultaneous attack all around the perimeter, the German forces concentrated their assaults on several individual locations attacked in sequence. Although this compelled the defenders to constantly shift reinforcements in order to repel each attack, it tended to dissipate the Germans' numerical advantage.

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The Meuse

To protect the crossings on the Meuse at Givet, Dinant and Namur, on the 19 December Montgomery ordered those few units available to hold the bridges. This led to a hastily assembled force including rear echelon troops, military police and Army Air Force personnel. The British 29th Armoured Brigade, which had turned in its tanks for re-equipping, was told to take back their tanks and head to the area. XXX Corps in Holland began their move to the area.

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Allied counter-offensive

The Germans fell far short of achieving their objectives
The Germans fell far short of achieving their objectives

On 23 December the weather conditions started improving, allowing the Allied air forces to attack. They launched devastating bombing raids on the German supply points in their rear, and P-47s started attacking the German troops on the roads. The Allied air forces also helped the defenders of Bastogne, dropping much-needed supplies—medicine, food, blankets and ammunition. A team of volunteer surgeons flew in by glider and began operating in a tool room.

By December 24 the German advance was effectively stalled short of the Meuse River. Units of the British XXX Corps were holding the bridges at Dinant, Givet, and Namur and US units were about to take over. The Germans had outrun their supply lines and shortages of fuel and ammunition were becoming critical. Up to this point the German losses had been light, notably in armour, which was almost untouched with the exception of Peiper's losses. On the evening of the 24th, General Hasso von Manteuffel recommended to Hitler's Military Adjutant a halt to all offensive operations and a withdrawal back to the West Wall. Hitler rejected this.

Patton's Third Army was now battling to relieve Bastogne. At 1650 on December 26, the lead element of the 37th Tank Battalion of the Fourth Armored Division reached Bastogne, ending the siege.

Charles Boggess drove the first vehicle from the 4th Armored into the lines of the 101st Airborne. He was followed by Capt. William Dwight. 'How are you, General?' Dwight asked General McAuliffe, who had driven out to the perimeter to greet them. 'Gee, I'm mighty glad to see you', McAuliffe replied'. (Citizen Soldiers, p 248).
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Germans strike back

On 1 January, in an attempt to keep the offensive going, the Germans launched two new operations. At 0915 the Luftwaffe launched Operation Bodenplatte, a major campaign against Allied airfields in the Low Countries. Hundreds of planes attacked Allied airfields, destroying or severely damaging some 465 aircraft. However, the Luftwaffe lost 277 planes, 62 to Allied fighters and 172 mostly because of an unexpectedly high number of Allied flak guns, set up to protect against German V-1 flying bomb attacks, but also due to friendly fire from the German flak guns that were uninformed of the pending large-scale German air operation. While the Allies recovered from their losses in just days, the operation left the Luftwaffe "weaker than ever and incapable of mounting any major attack again". (A World At Arms, p 769, Gerhard Weinberg).

On the same day, German Army Group G launched a major offensive against the thinly stretched, 110 km line of the Seventh U.S. Army. Operation Nordwind, the last major German offensive of the war on the Western Front, soon had the weakened Seventh U.S. Army, which had, at Eisenhower's orders, sent troops, equipment, and supplies north to reinforce the American armies in the Ardennes, in dire straits. By 15 January, the Seventh U.S. Army VI Corps was fighting for its very life on three sides in Alsace. With casualties mounting, and running short on replacements, tanks, ammunition, and supplies, Seventh U.S. Army was forced to withdraw to defensive positions on the south bank of the Moder River on 21 January. The German offensive finally drew to a close on 25 January. In the bitter, desperate fighting of Operation Nordwind, VI Corps, which had borne the brunt of the fighting suffered a total of 14,716 casualties. The total for the Seventh U.S. Army is unclear, but the total casualties included at least 9,000 wounded and 17,000 sick and injured.(Smith and Clark, "Riviera To The Rhine," p. 527.)

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Allies prevail

While the German offensive had ground to a halt, they still controlled a dangerous salient in the Allied line. Patton's Third Army in the south, centred around Bastogne, would attack north, Montgomery's forces in the north would strike south, and the two forces planned to meet at Houffalize.

The temperature during January 1945 was unseasonably low. Trucks had to be run every half hour or the oil in them would freeze, and weapons would freeze. The offensive went forward regardless.

Erasing the Bulge—The Allied counter-attack, 26 December – 25 January
Erasing the Bulge—The Allied counter-attack, 26 December – 25 January

Eisenhower wanted Montgomery to go on the offensive on January 1, with the aim of meeting up with Patton's advancing Third Army and cutting off most of the attacking Germans, trapping them in a pocket. However, refusing to risk underprepared infantry in a snowstorm for a strategically unimportant area, Montgomery did not launch the attack until 3 January, by which time substantial numbers of German troops had already managed to successfully disengage, albeit with the loss of their heavy equipment.

At the start of the offensive, the two Armies were separated by about 40 km. American progress in the south was also restricted to about a kilometre a day. The majority of the German force executed a successful fighting withdrawal and escaped the battle area, although the fuel situation had become so dire that most of the German armour had to be abandoned. On 7 January 1945, Hitler agreed to withdraw forces from the Ardennes, including the SS Panzer Divisions, thus ending all offensive operations.

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Controversy in the Allied high command

On the same day as Hitler's withdrawal order, 7 January, Montgomery held a press conference at Zonhoven in which he gave credit for the victory to the "courage and good fighting quality" of the American troops, characterizing a typical American as a "very brave fighting man who has that tenacity in battle which makes a great soldier". He went on to talk about the necessity of Allied teamwork, and praised Eisenhower, stating that "Teamwork wins battles and battle victories win wars. On our team the captain is General Ike."

The conference caused some controversy when his comments were interpreted as self-promoting, particularly his claiming that when the situation "began to deteriorate", Eisenhower had placed him in command in the north. Patton and Eisenhower both felt this was a misrepresentation of the relative share of the fighting played by the British and Americans in the Ardennes. In the context of Patton and Montgomery's well-known antipathy, Montgomery's failure to mention the contribution of any American general beside Eisenhower was seen as insulting. Focusing exclusively on his own generalship, Montgomery continued to say that he thought the counter-offensive had gone very well but did not explain the reason for his delayed attack on January 3. He later attributed this to needing more time for preparation on the northern front. According to Churchill, the attack from the south under Patton was steady but slow and involved heavy losses, and Montgomery claimed to be trying to avoid this situation.

Montgomery subsequently recognised his error and later wrote: "I think now that I should never have held that press conference. So great were the feelings against me on the part of the American generals that whatever I said was bound to be wrong. I should therefore have said nothing." Eisenhower commented in his own memoirs: "I doubt if Montgomery ever came to realise how resentful some American commanders were. They believed he had belittled them - and they were not slow to voice reciprocal scorn and contempt".

Bradley and Patton both threatened to resign unless Montgomery's command was changed. Subsequently Bradley started to court the press, and it was stated that he would rarely leave headquarters "without at least fifteen newspapermen"; it has been suggested that he and Patton began to leak information detrimental to Montgomery. Eisenhower, encouraged by his British deputy, Tedder, was minded to sack Montgomery. However, intervention by Montgomery's and Eisenhower's Chiefs of Staff, Major-General Freddie de Guingand, and Lieutenant-General Walter Bedell Smith allowed Eisenhower to re-consider and Montgomery to apologise.

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Strategic situation after the Bulge

Although the German advance was halted, the overall situation remained dangerous. On 6 January Winston Churchill once again asked Stalin for support. On 12 January, the Red Army launched the Vistula-Oder Offensive in Poland and East Prussia. Soviet sources claim this was done ahead of schedule, while most Western sources doubt it, and instead claim the Soviet offensive was delayed because of the situation in the West, with Stalin waiting until both sides had militarily exhausted themselves.

The Battle of the Bulge officially ended when the two American forces met up on 15 January 1945.

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Aftermath

Battle of the Bulge memorial in Belgium
Battle of the Bulge memorial in Belgium

Casualty estimates from the battle vary widely. The official US account lists 80,987 American casualties, while other estimates range from 70,000 to 104,000. British losses totaled 1,400. The German High Command's official figure for the campaign was 84,834 casualties, and other estimates range between 60,000 and 100,000.

The Allies pressed their advantage following the battle. By the beginning of February 1945, the lines were roughly where they had been in December 1944. In early February, the Allies launched an attack all along the Western front: in the north under Montgomery toward Aachen; in the center, under Courtney Hodges; and in the south, under Patton. Montgomery's behaviour during the months of December and January, including the press conference on January 7 where he downplayed the contribution of the American generals, further soured his relationship with his American counterparts through to the end of the war.

The German losses in the battle were critical in several respects: the last of the German reserves were now gone; the Luftwaffe had been broken; and the German army in the West was being pushed back. Most importantly, the Eastern Front was now ripe for the taking. In the East, the German army was unable to halt the Soviet juggernaut. German forces were sent reeling on two fronts and never recovered.

The Americans were short of available in-theater reinforcements. The American Military History says:

"Faced with a shortage of infantry replacements during the enemy's counteroffensive General Eisenhower offered Negro soldiers in service units an opportunity to volunteer for duty with the infantry. More than 4,500 responded, many taking reductions in grade in order to meet specified requirements. The 6th Army Group formed these men into provisional companies, while the 12th Army Group employed them as an additional platoon in existing rifle companies. The excellent record established by these volunteers, particularly those serving as platoons, presaged major postwar changes in the traditional approach to employing Negro troops."

"The 101st Airborne still had a complaint. As the story of the Battle of the Bulge is told today, it is one of George Patton and his Third Army coming to the rescue of the encircled 101st, like the cavalry come to save the settlers in their wagon circle. No member of the 101st has ever agreed that the division needed to be rescued! (Ambrose 191)"

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The battle in popular culture

The Battle of the Bulge has been the setting of several movies, novels, and other media.

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Films

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Games

The computer game Battlefield 1942 allows players to reenact the battle, as does the United Offensive expansion pack for Call of Duty, but the games are generally considered focused too heavily on Bastogne to be considered a full reenactment. "Decisive Battles: The Ardennes Offensive" and Close Combat IV: Battle of the Bulge (1999 by SSI) are seen by many as the most accurate implementations of the full battle, though the latter focuses on platoon-sized battles translated onto a much larger strategic map and bear little resemblance to the actual battle. The WWII first person shooter Medal of Honor: European Assault and Medal of Honor: Spearhead also feature the battle. Hearts of Iron 2 offers a very well designed stratigic situation of that battle.

The award-winning WWII-themed board game Memoir '44 also contains a scenario that reenacts the battle. A number of other board games deal with this battle in various degrees of complexity, but in greater detail than Memoir '44. There are also two Historical Modules for Advanced Squad Leader depicting the fighting by Kampfgruppe Peiper during the battle. Other games have included Battle of the Bulge Bitter Woods by The Avalon Hill Company, "Wacht am Rhein" by SPI & Decision Games, Tigers in the Mist and Ardennes '44 by GMT Games and "Ardennes" by The Gamers & MMP.

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Notes

  1. Contrary to popular belief, it was not the last major German offensive on the Western Front during World War II; to the south Operation Nordwind began on 1 January.
  2. This offensive has several other names, including the Von Rundstedt Offensive (in reality von Rundstedt had little to do with it) and, officially to the U.S. Army, the Ardennes-Alsace Campaign. Several historical works (notably David Eggenberger's Encyclopedia of Battles) describe this battle as the Second Battle of the [Ardennes.
  3. U.S. Military History of Battle of the Ardennes. Retrieved on 2006-10-14.
  4. Operation Overlord planned for an advance to the line of the Seine by D+90 and an advance to the German frontier sometime after D+120.
  5. perhaps comparing it with the fragility of relations between Axis nations.
  6. Nuts can mean a number of things in American English slang, including "dammit," "crazy," and testicles (similar to the British English bollocks). In this case, however, it signified rejection, as in "forget it," and was explained to the Germans as meaning "go to hell."
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External links

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References

World War II
Theatres     Main events     Specific articles     Participants    

Prelude:
• Causes
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Main theatres:
• Europe
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General timeline:
• Timeline

  

1939:
• Invasion of Poland
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1940:
• Invasion of Denmark and Norway
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1941:
• Invasion of Soviet Union
Battle of Moscow
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1942:
Battle of Stalingrad
• Second Battle of El Alamein
• Operation Torch

1943:
• Battle of Kursk
• Invasion of Italy

1944:
Battle of Normandy
• Operation Bagration
• Operation Dragoon
• Operation Market Garden
Battle of the Bulge

1945:
• Battle of Okinawa
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• Operation August Storm
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• more...

  

Blitzkrieg
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Civilian impact and atrocities:
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The Allies
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The Axis
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See Also

Category: World War II
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