In Western Europe, the Allied Forces had routed the Nazis in France, destroying two armies and opening the way to the German frontier. British and US troops were slowed more by lack of supplies than German resistance. After the breakout in Normandy, the Army dashed across France and the Low Countries, only wheezing to a stop at the German border. Just as soon as the logistical tail could catch up, the columns of tanks, infantry and artillery would finish off the the feldgrau Wehrmacht. The Nazis were on the brink of collapse. Everyone knew it. It was only a matter of months, weeks, days…
But on the morning of December 16, 1944, a bitterly cold, foggy day saw a truly massive German counterattack against the weakest point of the Allied lines. The Ardennes forest was held by a tissue thin layer of troops. Green units that hadn’t heard a shot in anger, and units bled white in other battles were more a string of outposts than any sort of defense.
The Germans had amassed an incredible three field armies for the counteroffensive. Extraordinary security measures had kept Allied intelligence in the dark. The Allies knew reserves were being built, but failed to grasp the scale and the likely avenue of attack. Instead, the Allies though only strong local counterattacks were likely, and those were expected in the north.
The German aim was to split the Allied front, cross the Meuse river, and roll onto the vital port of Antwerp, the key logistical hub of the Allies. Having split the British and the Americans, the Germans intended to defeat them in detail, buying time in the West to focus on the Russians in the East.
The Ardennes had several times before been the favored German route of attack to the west. Armchair strategists have long criticized American generals for the weak defense of this sector. But the enormous frontage covered across Europe, and the relatively small numbers of troops available meant the US and British couldn’t be strong everywhere. The decision to leave a light screen across the Ardennes forest was a risk, but it was a calculated one.
The appalling weather of December 16 meant a key component of Allied strength would be absent. Low clouds, fog and snow meant Allied airpower was grounded. Indeed, a forecast of bad weather was a key factor in the German timing of the attack.
When the Germans slammed into the American lines, some units were simply overrun. Others melted away in panic, and others fought doggedly if ultimately futilely. Casualties and confusion were the order of the day. It took Allied leadership time to first grasp the scale of the assault, and then to tamp down incipient panic. If the Army’s nose was badly bloodied, there had been no knockout punch.
Hitler, who had crafted the plan almost singlehandedly, had visions of victorious troops slicing their way through the lines to victory in the West. But like most Hitlerean plans, the Ardennes offensive had grave flaws. The US Army in the Ardennes in 1944, thin as it was, was far more agile and mobile than the French forces the Germans had steamrolled in 1940. And even without airpower, those forces had far more firepower than the French of 1940. Further, for the most part, the US forces were a well trained, well blooded force, stubborn and with an esprit de corps the French could only dream of. And terrain too played its part. The very thing that made the Ardennes an attractive avenue of attack also made it a poor one. The Ardennes was lightly held because it was just a forest, with little infrastructure or industry, and an extremely poor road network. The Germans had three armies for the assault, but in reality, only fragments of each could be fed into battle at any one time. Without holding the hubs of the few road networks in the region, such as at Bastogne, the bulk of the German forces would spend the offensive sitting idly, useless as if they’d never been gathered.
Recognizing this, the Allies moved heaven and earth to hold key towns and roads. The Battle of Bastogne, memorialized in books and movies, has come to symbolize the Battle of the Bulge. The intersection of five main roads made Bastogne, an otherwise unremarkable town, the center of the world’s attention in December 1944. Troops from the 101st Airborne, and a hodgepodge of other divisions, cut off, surrounded, and under constant attack by overwhelming German forces seemed ripe for the picking. Urged by the German commander to surrender his hopeless position, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, the senior American in the town, gave the most memorable reply –“Nuts!”
Eventually, Patton’s Third Army, lead by future Chief of Staff Creighton Abrams and his 37th Armor, would relieve the siege of Bastogne. And eventually, the Americans would halt the German penetration, and attack to regain the initiative. Countless German soldiers who could have been used to defend the Western Wall or the far bank of the Rhine, were instead caught in the open in Belgium. German losses mounted, and mounted again. The war wouldn’t be over in weeks or days, but the loss of so many troops did mean that the Germans would collapse in months.
The Battle of the Bulge remains to this day the largest battle in the history of the United States Army. Countless stories of valor and struggle came from it. Legends and traditions that inspire to this day arose from the battle. Sleepy villages across bucolic regions of the Benelux today were, 68 years ago, the scene of some of the most epic struggles in the history of warfare.