Battle of the Bulge

The Battle of the Bulge was the largest American land battle of World War II and one of the bloodiest, but the U.S. Army performance was outstanding under extremely difficult circumstances. During the four weeks of the battle, more than 1 million soldiers were engaged. Although exact numbers are not known, there were approximately 500,000 Americans, 600,000 Germans and 55,000 British soldiers in action. Each side lost more than 800 tanks, and the Germans lost 1,000 aircraft. About 19,000 U.S. soldiers were killed and 47,500 wounded. The British bore 1,400 casualties with 200 killed. German units had over 100,000 killed, wounded or captured.

U.S. Army 289th Infantry Regiment soldiers march through the snow-covered Ardennes on their way to cut off the Saint Vith-Houffalize road in Belgium, during the last days of the Battle of the Bulge, 24 January 1945
U.S. Army 289th Infantry Regiment soldiers march through the snow-covered Ardennes on their way to cut off the Saint Vith-Houffalize road in Belgium, during the last days of the Battle of the Bulge, 24 January 1945.

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Genesis of the Battle of the Bulge

Map of the Battle of the Bulge
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By late fall of 1944, three Allied army groups had advanced from the initial landings in Normandy (D-day, 6 June 1944) to the Siegfried Line, closing in on Germany itself from the west. The Allies paused to allow logistics to catch up in preparation for planned attacks by Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley's U.S. 12th Army Group in the Aachen area, the Saar, and the Ruhr valley. In December the First U.S. Army was attacking east of Aachen toward the Roer, north of the Ardennes, and Lt. Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army, south of the Ardennes, was advancing on the Saar. To provide more divisions for those operations, the heavily forested Belgian Ardennes region in the center was thinly defended.

Hitler had long anticipated this position and in September 1944 began plans for an attack through the Ardennes, similar to the plan effectively used in World War I and the Belgian Blitzkrieg of 1940. The German operational objective was to quickly slice through Bradley's 12th Army Group, break out onto the Belgian plain, cross the Meuse river between Namur and Liége, rush past Brussels, and capture Antwerp, the Allies main supply point since 26 November. Success would mean cutting the supply lines and trapping 35 Allied divisions in another Dunkirk. On an even higher level, Hitler hoped a successful offensive would split the British-American coalition with dissension over their losses and achieve a stalemate in the west so he could devote more forces against the Red Army in the east.

On 11-12 December 1944, Hitler held a Commanders' meeting at the Eagle's Nest in Bavaria for all officers who had a part in the Ardennes offensive, code named "Wacht am Rheinübung" (Operation Watch on the Rhein) and "Herbstnebel" (Autumn Fog) for the actual attack. Hitler exhorted every soldier to advance or die in this last chance battle to change the course of the war. On 15 December, Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt, Commander, Army Group West and overall commander of the operation, issued orders for the attack.

Opposing Forces for the Ardennes Battle of the Bulge

As the Battle of the Bulge opened in heavy fog on the morning of 16 December the American forces in the path of the German attack comprised less than five divisions, about 83,000 men equipped with 242 Sherman tanks, 182 tank destroyers, and 394 pieces of corps and divisional artillery. These troops and weapons were deployed on an 80-mile front in southern Belgium in the Ardennes Forest, and down to Ettelbruck in central Luxembourg. Two of the divisions were green troops, with no combat experience.

The German divisions poised to strike from the east were concentrated behind the front held by Field Marshal Model's Army Group B. During the night of 16 December over 200,000 combat troops gathered in the three mile deep forward assembly area. The German attack included 5 armored divisions, twelve infantry divisions, and about 500 medium tanks, the whole supported by 1,900 guns and Werfers (multiple rocket launchers). The Luftwaffe contributed about 2,400 tactical aircraft, all that could be mustered. Overall, the Germans had about a 3:1 advantage in infantry, even higher at points of concentration.

The simple Wehrmacht operational plan had the Sixth Panzer Army (mostly SS divisions) conduct the primary attack with strong support on its left flank by the Fifth Panzer Army, comprised of regular Wehrmacht troops. The Fifteenth Army was to pin Allied troops in the Aachen area on the penetration's northern shoulder, and the Seventh Army was to block Patton on the southern flank.

The First Days of the Battle of the Bulge

As the coldest winter in nearly a century besieged Western Europe, the Ardennes attack achieved its intended surprise. The attack was prepared in radio silence and German operational orders used deceptive code names and phrases to mislead about intentions. Ultra, the Allied decryption of German codes, revealed supplies being sent to the far side of the Ardennes but Allied intelligence did not predict the attack. The plan intentionally took advantage of the long winter nights and poor weather. Heavy cloud cover and the dense Ardennes forest helped conceal the preparations. The surprise was multiplied by Allied overconfidence, preoccupation with their own offensive plans, and poor aerial reconnaissance due to the weather.

Despite miserable weather and resulting poor road conditions, the offensive pushed more than 12 miles into the Allied lines on the first day. In the fog and snow, tactical chaos reigned, the front collapsed and German units met initial timetables, although all American units put up a fight. Attempts to stop the advance with roadblocks failed as motorized German units went over or around the improvised defenses. German troops disguised as GIs tried to sow panic behind American lines, but had little success.

But trouble for the Germans started in the center of the bulge, at the Belgian town of Bastogne, hub of the road network in the southern Ardennes. Von Rundstedt's forces clashed with 10th Armored Division tanks in and around the town, but the Americans held. German columns bypassed the town, moving westward, and attempted to envelop it in a pincer. But the town remained in American hands, a thorn in the middle of German plans.

On the northern shoulder of the salient, Sixth Panzer Army failed to meet their objectives against U.S. Army units, making the bulge narrower than German plans intended and giving 7th Armored Division time to reach St. Vith on the major road leading to the Meuse River and Antwerp. A vigorous defense at St. Vith by the American units held up the German timetable by four days until it fell on 22 December.

Eisenhower's Counterstrategy for the Battle of the Bulge

By 20 December General Eisenhower had developed a counterstrategy and modified his command structure to meet the threat. Eisenhower focused on confining the penetration to as narrow a front as possible, holding the crossroads at St. Vith and Bastogne to slow down the German timetable and threaten their supply lines. Montgomery's 21st Army Group established a blocking position to limit the depth of the bulge at Givet and Maastricht and to deny the Meuse River crossings. Patton's 3rd Army was turned against the southern side of the bulge and ordered to break through to relieve Bastogne with a drive to start 23 December.

The 101st Airborne Division had reinforced the 10th Armored at Bastogne on 18 December, and had to hold it at any cost until Patton could get there. On 21 December, the German commander offered surrender terms to Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, the senior officer of the American units surrounded at Bastogne. McAuliffe's famous one word reply: "Nuts!"

Clear Weather Dooms the Wehrmacht in the Bulge

On 23 December the weather cleared, and 5,000 Allied airplanes were unleashed to carpet bomb German logistics while dropping supplies to Allied units. The Luftwaffe attempted to provide support for Von Rundstedt, but the Allied air forces' layered defense kept them out of the ground battle and protected the Allies' own aircraft. Most of the Luftwaffe planes were built for air to air combat, ill suited to ground support needed in the Ardennes.

The clear skies enabled the resupply of Bastogne by air, which by 23 December had run critically low on ammunition and rations. Between the morning of 23 December and the afternoon of 26 December, when the siege was broken, 850 tons of supplies were delivered to the Bastogne defenders, with the loss of nineteen C-47s.

On 24 December, British and American units met the German Panzer columns at Celles, Belgium, 3 miles east of the Muese, stopping their advance. Aided by air strikes, they inflicted heavy losses and ended any chance of the Wehrmacht crossing the Muese. The maximum penetration of the Germans was halted about 60 miles from where the attack had started, but less than half way to Antwerp.

The Relief of Bastogne

Units of Patton's 3rd Army turned north from their former eastward path of advance, and in just three days elements of the 37th Tank Battalion, 4th Armored Division fought through the surrounding Germans to the beleaguered Bastogne garrison, reaching them on 26 December. They opened the "Assenois corridor" and immediately began ground resupply and medical evacuations. The relief of Bastogne was one of the most astonishing military operations of the war. Third Army’s unprecedented swift change of direction and attack hit the still advancing Panzers from the rear, deflating the German offensive and preparing the way for the Allied counterattack in January 1945.

Conclusion of the Battle of the Bulge

With the German offensive halted and contained, and with the corridor opened to Bastogne, the Germans were in an impossible position, squeezed from three sides. Von Rundstedt knew he was beaten, but Hitler insisted on pouring more divisions into the battle.

On January first, Hitler launched a plan to eliminate Allied air power with coordinated Luftwaffe attacks across Belgium, Holland, and northern France. The raids destroyed 206 aircraft and many base facilities, but the Luftwaffe was never able to recover from its losses of over 300 planes and their pilots.

Allied ground counterattacks to close the bulge began on 28 December and were increased in tempo starting 3 January 1945. The Allied forces ground up the German units still in the bulge during the first two weeks of January. On 13 January the Germans withdrew from Bastogne. By 28 January 1945 German units had been pushed beyond their initial positions of 16 December 1944 and The Battle of the Bulge was over.

All Hitler gained from The Battle of the Bulge was a little time. The Allies were forced to abandon their attacks on the Roer dams and the Saar, and to delay their final offensive toward the Rhine River, but only for two months. The Final Campaign of World War II in Europe was about to begin.

Recommended Books about Battle of the Bulge: Ardennes, December 1944

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