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Brief historical account of the Battle of the Bulge

Final German counteroffensive in mid-December 1944 in a wooded hills area in south Belgium. It also is known as the Ardennes offensive.

In late 1944 Hitler's Third Reich was bleeding from every vein. On each front — west, south, and east — Allied power was headed toward Germany. In the west Anglo-American forces were poised on the Siegfried Line; in the south they were surging northward up the Italian Peninsula; and in the east the Russians were hammering the Germans in East Prussia and headed toward Berlin via Warsaw and Budapest.

It was a disastrous situation for Nazi Germany, but Hitler, against the advice of his generals, called for a massive counterattack in an operation code-named Herbstnebel (Autumn Fog). He would send all available forces to his West Wall and strike at Belgium's Ardennes Forest, the favorite hunting ground of German strategists. His intelligence experts informed him that in this area Allied forces, mostly inexperienced young troops and veterans in rest areas, were thinly spread. He would hit them a surprise blow in bad weather when their planes were grounded, smash through in open country, seize the bridgeheads over the Meuse, bypass Brussels, and drive on to Antwerp, main port of the Allies. That this would mark a turn to victory, Hitler said, was a "guaranteed certainty."

The Fuehrer began his preparations as early as September 1944. On Dec. 11-12 he summoned his top officers to the Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden and outlined his plan. Now stooped, with pale, puffy face and trembling hands, the result of the attempt on his life, he spoke for an hour and a half. He named Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt to lead the counterattack. He ordered 20,000 troops, "fresh, completely battleworthy," many of them transferred from the eastern front, to be ready for the assault. He would hit the Allies with 20 (later 25) divisions, including the 7th Army and the 5th and 6th Panzer units. Von Rundstedt was hesitant and openly advised against the operation. Hitler replied adamantly: "Nevertheless, I am determined to go ahead with this attack."

At 5 a.m. on Dec. 16, 1944, three German Armies (5th, 6th, and 7th) with 25 divisions struck at six American divisions. Von Rundstedt unleashed his forces with an emotional Order of the Day: "Soldiers of the Western front! Your great hour has struck! Everything is at stake!" The weather was bad, which was just as Hitler had wanted it. After a massive artillery barrage, German troops pushed forward on a 70-mile front to meet the Americans commanded by Gen. Omar Bradley. Germans in American uniforms had already penetrated the Allied lines.

Von Rundstedt's offensive utilized all the experiences of the first German Blitzkrieg in the Ardennes. It took the Americans by surprise. Within 48 hours the Germans pushed 15 miles into the enemy lines. American infantrymen desperately tried to stem the advance, but they were engulfed by the German avalanche. Fog, snow, and freezing temperatures added to the chaos. The whole front disintegrated. Some days neither side knew which one held a give town or village. The Germans claimed that Bradley's 12th Army Group was cut into two parts.

At the center of the German advance was Bastogne, key to the southern Ardennes. Here the Germans collided with contingents of the 10th Armored Division and their big Sherman tanks. Von Rundstedt's troops bypassed Bastogne, leaving it deep in German-controlled territory as the Germans swung northwest to Liege and the Meuse.

By Dec. 24 the Germans had cut into Allied-held land to a depth of 65 miles on a fluid front ranging from 10 to 25 miles. The prognosis was good for a major German victory.

The breakthrough was due more to German efficiency than to Allied negligence. Allied air power was grounded by the weather. Angered by news of the capture of 8,000 American ground troops, the Allied Supreme Command acted with dispatch. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower named British Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery to command all the Allied forces north of the Ardennes salient and appointed Bradley to command those in the south. He then dispatched Lt. Gen. George S. Patton and his battering ram of U.S. 3rd Army tanks to the bulge. Von Rundstedt soon found both sides of his salient squeezed by powerful American forces.

When the weather cleared, more than 5,000 Allied aircraft took to the air to smash at the Germans and cripple their supply system. On the ground the Germans were pounded by artillery shells equipped with proximity fuses. Hitler desperately threw more troops, mostly old men and ill-trained youngsters, into the gap. It was too late.

By January 1945 the Ardennes front was reestablished to the point at which it had been in early December. On the news that the Russians had started a gigantic offensive in the east, Hitler ordered a massive withdrawal from the Ardennes and transferred the bulk of his troops to the eastern front. He had lost the Battle of the Bulge.

A million men were involved in the chaotic battle. The Germans lost 120,000 men, whether killed, wounded, prisoners, or missing; more than 500 tanks; and 1,600 planes. The American casualties were approximately 76,800 killed, wounded, or missing.

Little was changed. The massive German counteroffensive only delayed the end of the war. Military strategies were puzzled by Hitler's thinking. He had withdrawn valuable veteran units from the Eastern Front, where they were desperately needed, and sent them on a questionable mission to the west. It was not clear what he intended to do with Antwerp once he had taken it or how he proposed to hold a long corridor to the North Sea between increasingly powerful enemy forces. He was confident of his military genius, even if his generals were not.

The Battle of the Bulge cost many American lives, but it demonstrated that American troops could hold their own with picked Panzer units. Churchill called it "the greatest American battle of the war."

Bibliography. R.E. Merriam, Dark December (1949); H.M. Cole, The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge (1965); J. Nobecourt, Hitler's Last Gamble: The Battle of the Bulge (1967); and J. Strawson, The Battle for the Ardennes (1972).