December 16, 1944. The Ardennes Forest was supposed to be a quiet sector of the American line, but that illusion is shattered when German tanks and infantry explode in a surprise attack against the thin line of GIs. Hitler has launched his last great offensive of World War II. It will fail, thanks not to the generals - but to the stubborn resistance of small, valiant American units. Welcome to the Battle of the Bulge.
Hope you guys are ready for a SERIES. The Battle of the Bulge, known to historians as the Ardennes Offensive, is a huge and epic battle and there’s too much to cover in one day. To finish off my “year of military history,” it only makes sense to spend some time talking about the largest battle in American history. Today I’ll be discussing the battle as a whole, and why it happened. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about the SS, the journey of a small Nazi battlegroup into the snow-covered forest of Belgium, and the infamous massacre of American POWs at Malmedy. On the 19th, I will talk about how the Germans lost the Battle of the Bulge, and on the 26th I’ll talk about the battle’s most famous event: the encirclement and siege of the 101st Airborne at Bastogne.
If you guys who are reading this really hate my series, I apologize. But the year is almost over, and you won’t have to deal with them in 16 days! So let’s crack on with it.
By late 1944, Nazi Germany was on the verge of annihilation. In the east, the Soviet Union had reached the German border and was prepared to launch their January avalanche that would carry them to the gates of Berlin. In the air, the Allies continued to pummel German cities from the sky with unparalleled ferocity, and most of Germany’s great metropolitan centers were hollowed-out husks. The German Navy had been wiped from the seas, and even the deadly U-Boats were no longer able to carry out their missions. In the West, the British, American, Canadian and French armies were slowly hammering their way through the tough terrain of the German borderlands.
The Western Allies had only been slowed in their advance on Germany by the issue of supplies. To feed and maintain millions of soldiers required a large-capacity port, but the Germans had wrecked most of France’s ports during their retreat after the Battle of Normandy. By September, the British had captured the Belgian port of Antwerp intact, but it couldn’t be used until the approaches through the Scheldt Estuary had been cleared of German resistance. By November 1944, the Canadian 1st Army had liberated the Scheldt and supplies were coming in bulk for the first time since D-Day. The supply bottleneck was loosening, and when it finally opened up nothing would be able to stop the Western Allies from crashing across the German border. Hitler vowed to continue the fight.
Reality told against Hitler’s illusions. His frontline divisions were increasingly full of old men and young boys, the militia-like “Volkssturm” that were really the last gasp of a nightmare authoritarian regime. The Navy and Air Force had been reduced to such a useless state that their personnel were being conscripted to fill the ranks of the Army. Though Germany continued to churn out tanks and guns, their quality was increasingly poor, and for the tanks there was one major handicap: a lack of fuel. In August Germany had lost the Ploiesti oil fields in Romania, its major source of fuel, and ever since then rationing had been so harsh as to end all large-scale maneuvers and even driver’s training for new tank crews. Even as Hitler ranted about wonder weapons, great attacks and brilliant schemes to win the war, teenagers as young as 14 or 15 were being outfitted with grey uniforms and rocket launchers.
It was in this context – surrounded, running on fumes, surviving by sheer force of ideology and grim commitment – that Nazi Germany would make its last bid for victory. Ever since the collapse of the German Western Front with the defeat at Normandy, there had been tentative plans for a major counterblow, and even as the frontline advanced through France, into Belgium, and began to brush up against Germany, planning continued. The German General Staff had a long tradition of looking at every problem as having one solution: a powerful, concentrated attack. They planned on launching the offensive in late 1944, when the Allies would have outrun their supply lines, when winter weather would ground Allied air power, and have weak points in their lines. Their goal would be to split the Allied armies in two.
Hitler was fully on board with a great counterblow that could reverse the course of the war. He modeled himself on Frederick the Great, the Prussian King who had miraculously avoided catastrophe through his aggressive counterattacks and refusal to admit defeat. Even though Germany obviously had one foot in the grave, Hitler had always been a believer in the transcendent power of WILL to overcome all material obstacles. If Germany could launch a great attack, even in its current state, the Allies would be overcome by the sheer willpower and determination to broker an acceptable peace. Then he could turn east to deal with the Russians. Much like Frederick’s unlikely victories in the Seven Years’ War, Hitler could divide and conquer. Germany could still win this thing - or so he thought.
For their last great offensive of World War II, the Hail Mary to end all Hail Marys, the Germans chose the site of their great victory over the French in 1940: the Ardennes Forest. This thickly wooded, hilly region had been where the German panzer divisions sliced through the Allied line and drove the British back to Dunkirk. The French had failed to guard it then, figuring that the Ardennes was nearly impassable to armored units. In one of the history’s great ironic moments, General Eisenhower had failed to place sufficient forces in the area for the same reason.
The Western Allies were continuing their slow push through the German defenses on the border. To the south, Patton’s 3rd Army was slogging its way through the mud of eastern France. To the north, Courtney Hodges’ 1st Army was on German soil, inching its way through desperate Nazi resistance towards the Rhine River. Between these two armies lay the Ardennes, which wasn’t along any main American line of advance. The vast bulk of the U.S. 1st Army was well north of the Ardennes; it was designated a “quiet” sector, where units could train and replenish. Here, Hodges had strung out a few divisions in a thin cordon throughout the dense, bleak wood. Some of these divisions, like the 4th and 28th Infantry Divisions, were recovering and rebuilding after being chopped up in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest back in October and November. Others, like the 99th and 106th Infantry, were brand-new to Europe and Eisenhower wanted them to gain some experience before heading into battle.
Thus, the Germans were actually planning to hit the Allies at the weakest part of their line. For their last great attack of the war, to be launched in the bitter cold of a European winter, Germany amassed all their intact panzer formations. Many of these were the best units in Nazi Germany’s armed forces, including the fearsome SS Panzer Divisions. They would be armed with modern weaponry, like the tough King Tiger and Panther tanks that were so hard for the Allies to destroy. (Of course, many of these "elite" divisions were shadows of their former selves after losses in Normandy or Russia.) They would attack in bad weather to prevent Allied strafing attacks. And they would hit the weakest part of the Allied line, crashing into inexperienced or depleted units, and making their drive for the prize.
The prize was Antwerp, the central Allied supply hub. To get there, the Germans would have to make it 114 miles, and do so before the weather lifted and the Allied air forces could tear them apart. This was going to be a problem. The Germans did not have enough fuel to get their vehicles all the way to Antwerp, even under the best of circumstances. The campaign plan for the Ardennes Offensive literally required the Germans to capture Allied fuel stocks en route, otherwise they would never make it to their target and the battle would be lost. The fact that Germany didn’t even have enough supplies to launch this limited, concentrated attack, its top priority for late 1944, shows how desperate Hitler was at this point.
So, what made the Ardennes Offensive into the Battle of the Bulge? What made a supposed breakout attack into a big shape on the map that the Allies needed to eliminate? Fact of the matter was, the Germans were never going to win this battle. It was a pure toss of the dice, a Hail Mary, a need to do *something* when nothing else seemed to be working. Hitler may have believed that German will could overcome the might of the Jewish capitalists, but none of his generals bought into this fiction. Field Marshal Walther Model, probably Hitler’s best general at this stage of the war and the commander of most forces in the West, believed that the attack lacked sufficient manpower and believed that it could result in German disaster. “The damn plan doesn’t have a leg to stand on,” Model complained, but it was the order. The last throw of the dice. The gamble that could make or break Germany.
In general during World War II, the Allies had the advantage in intelligence and espionage by a long shot. One of their very few failures was a complete failure to predict the Ardennes Offensive. It wasn’t like there weren’t signs. The shivering GIs in their long green coats, looking over endless stretches of snow-covered trees, heard tank engines in the distance and saw an increased German recon presence. Reports indicated that Hitler was preparing something big, just not what. Eisenhower had very few reserves available in case of an emergency: his only formations not currently in the line somewhere were the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, which explains their critical role in the battle to come.
A lot can be said about the Allied failure to predict Hitler’s last great gamble in the Ardennes, but one of the most obvious reasons is that no one expected the broken military machine of Nazi Germany to launch a major offensive in December 1944. It just wasn’t a good decision. And they were right: it was an illogical, whimsical, desperate decision, which was why no one predicted it. But was Hitler ever known for his predictability?
At 5:30 a.m. on December 16, 1944, with no warning, the Germans launched their last great blitzkrieg. Three armies – from north to south the 6th SS Panzer Army, the 5th Panzer Army, and the 7th Army – attacked over 100 miles with 200,000 men and nearly 1,000 tanks in the first wave. The second wave contained thousands more men and hundreds more tanks. They emerged suddenly from the great white stretches of forest, headlights blazing in the night, German soldiers suddenly appearing in white coats from trenches and rushing toward the American lines. Giant panzers crunched over snow and ice to roll out of the treeline and unleash hell on the GIs, even as shrieking Nebelwerfer rockets and howitzer shells pounded the foxholes.
American soldiers reacted in a multitude of ways. Many could not react, because they were dead from the first sudden assaults of fire and destruction. Others hid in buildings, dug like rats into the ground with helmets, mess tins or shovels, and others picked up rifles and shot back. But the German assault would not be denied. On they came, with the full knowledge that they had to conquer or die.
The battle was joined. It was the last German strategic offensive of World War II. It would last for a month, and it would suck a million men from across two continents into the haunted, cold uplands of Belgium’s dark forest. Though days would pass before Allied commanders realized the scale of the German attack, everything was at stake for the Nazis. They would penetrate miles into the winter-swept forest of the Ardennes, their frontline forming the craggy, formless triangle on the maps that would be simply called “the Bulge.” Hence the Battle of the Bulge, where the United States Army experienced its first and last blitzkrieg – and defeated it.
But victory did not seem apparent on December 16, 1944. The German attack fell on underequipped and inexperienced American divisions. The main blow crashed into the 99th Infantry Division to the north and the 106th Infantry Division to the south. Of these, the hardest hit was the 106th Division with its 14,000 totally green soldiers. They stood in the way of the critical crossroads town of St.-Vith, some thirty miles back, but they were just not ready for what was about to hit them. To their north and south, the light American cavalry units crumbled under the ferocious panzer onslaught. The 106th’s commander, Major General Alan W. Jones, was caught so off guard that he had little instruction for his division other than to stand their ground. This would be a fatal error, and it would destroy the US Army’s least experienced division.
The Schnee Eifel heights that the 106th held were a key objective of the initial German attack, and Jones believed he could stop the Germans if he just held tight. But reinforcements were a long way away, and the swirling panzer columns quickly enveloped the 422d and 423rd Infantry Regiments trapped on the Schnee Eifel along with five artillery battalions. As the division command post began to pack up with alarm and head to the rear, destination St. Vith, the abandoned regiments were surrounded in the bleak, white expanse of the Ardennes. The icy wind echoed with the sound of panzer engines as the GIs, their breath crystallizing in the December cold, peering from their dismal foxholes, suddenly realized they were cut off.
On December 18, General Jones finally ordered his stranded units to break out to the west, but by then it was far too late. The regimental cooks made masses of pancakes for the infantrymen, then burned the kitchens as the 422nd and 423rd set off west in a sad column of trucks, jeeps, and limping, cold soldiers. By midday the Germans were slashing at them from either side, artillery pummeling their beleaguered ranks and tanks rumbling out of the silent white. By the end of the day, the Americans were boxed into a last-stand perimeter, and had no choice but to surrender. All told, 7,000 men of the 106th Infantry Division capitulated that day, the largest American surrender of the European war. (Bataan was larger, in 1942). Jones’ division was virtually destroyed; he would be relieved of command, only to suffer a heart attack and be sent back to the United States. For him, the war was over; for POWs like Kurt Vonnegut, the future science fiction author, their ordeal had only begun.
But the story of the 106th Infantry Division was the low point of the U.S. Army in the Ardennes. Though every unit in the path of the German attack suffered terribly, all other divisions managed to conduct a terrible fighting retreat and savage the German attackers on the way. Their resistance was not always effective, lethal, or successful, but it did the important thing: it bought time. Already Eisenhower was sending reinforcements to the growing Bulge as fast as he could, and George Patton was turning his tank divisions northward to strike into the base of the German offensive.
To the north of the crumbling 106th Division stood the 99th Infantry Division, the main target of the 6th SS Panzer Army’s sudden, lunging onslaught. Most of the division retreated west in stunned panic, a “red nightmare” as one officer called it. Wrecked Jeeps, tanks and trucks littered the unimproved roads of the Ardennes as the 99th’s GIs fell back in disarray. The Germans chased them, their panzers roaring and the infantry moving through the small villages and outpost lines. The SS grenadiers stabbed men with bayonets as they tried to climb from their foxholes, tossed grenades into uncleared basements, and riddled retreating American lines with machine guns. American officers burned their records, artillerymen rammed thermite grenades down their gun tubes, and everyone fell back as fast as they could.
The tip of the spear was the 12th SS Panzer Division, the “Hitler Youth” Division, infamous for its murder of Canadian POWs in Normandy back in June. As they bludgeoned the 99th Division, they aimed for two critical crossroads towns: Krinkelt and Rocherath, only tenuously held with the scattered detachments of units. But these pummeled, separated, abandoned American units held on with the iron grip that Hitler had predicted of his own units. The remnants of the 99th fought house to house with grenades, bazookas, antitank guns and knives as the SS men tried to batter their way through. The bazooka teams operated with such lethal efficiency that the Germans called Rocherath “a perfect panzer graveyard.” Smoke spiraled above the white fields as the olive-drab Americans broke the tip of the Hitler Youth’s spearhead.
By nightfall on December 19th, the 99th finally abandoned Krinkelt and Rocherath, leaving the burning towns to the Germans. They had held back the 6th SS Panzer Army long enough for reinforcements to arrive: the 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions, some of the best units in the United States Army. These three units fell back a thousand yards to the high ground of Elsenborn Ridge, a V-shaped crest a thousand feet high. General Omar Bradley packed Elsenborn with hundreds of artillery tubes, including 90mm antiaircraft guns that were converted into antitank use.
The 6th SS Panzer Army had been slated to be the main spearhead of the German attack in the Ardennes, with its heavy SS Panzer divisions kitted with the very best German equipment and the most fuel. They were supposed to slice through the American line like a knife through butter, lancing northwest through crumbling resistance towards Antwerp. Instead, they were delayed for days by the fierce resistance of the 99th Division, and then slammed into the brick wall of Elsenborn Ridge and its tough defenders. The expertise of American artillery had been one of the unsung weapons of World War II, and no better gunner existed in the U.S. Army than 1st Division’s commander Clift Andrus. As many as 35 artillery battalions would soon be bellowing their shells simultaneously at the German onslaught.
It was at Elsenborn Ridge that the German plan of attack truly fell apart. The SS units burned through most of their fuel in fruitless attacks against tenacious American resistance, especially the 26th Infantry Regiment’s sharp defense of Bullingen. Here, whooping charges of white-coated SS men – the Hitler Youth’s best and brightest – were torn apart by white phosphorus shells, and the Panther tanks of the 12th SS’s panzer regiment were knocked out one by one by bazooka teams hiding in basements and garden sheds. The battle was brutal, as SS tanks crushed GIs in their foxholes and the Americans shot down escaping panzer crews. But Bullingen held, and so did Elsenborn Ridge.
All along the lines in the Ardennes, it was the same story. German units were not stopped by intricate battle plans or clever maneuvers, but by the sheer grit and determination of the average American GI. Scattered units would band together to defend a critical crossroads town, or a fuel depot, or even a low ridge that could barely shelter a man standing. It wasn’t just infantrymen, either; scattered support and supply units would grab their carbines and pitch in to slow or stem the German tide. In the shrieking cold of the Ardennes Forest, it was the individual soldier and the platoon leader or company commander who saved the Allied forces from ruin. The Battle of the Bulge, more than anything, was their battle.
As things developed, the 7th Army to the south and the 6th SS Panzer Army to the north both failed to achieve their objectives. The 6th SS would never take Elsenborn Ridge, which had been their Day 1 objective. The 7th Army ran into the veteran 4th and 28th Infantry Divisions, which had learned a thing or two about fighting in forests from their terrible experience in the Hurtgen and clung on for dear life. The main German effort now fell to the center.
The 5th Panzer Army of General Hasso von Manteuffel, a young and vibrant general in the Rommel mold, had been the force that destroyed the 106th Infantry Division. It drove for the two key crossroads towns of St. Vith and Bastogne, which would unlock the roads to the German rear. But both of these would prove harder to take than expected. The 5th Panzer Army would finally take St. Vith after several days of tough combat with the 7th Armored Division, but they would never take Bastogne. The 101st Airborne had arrived to defend that town, and their epic last stand would become the defining episode of the Battle of the Bulge – but that’s a story for later.
As the 5th Panzer Army raced west, they were accompanied by an elite battlegroup of the 1st SS Panzer Division, which was darting with all speed for the American rear, bolstered by King Tiger tanks and some of the fiercest soldiers on the European continent. Colonel Joachim Peiper led his murderous strike force deep into the woods of the Ardennes, and on his bloody trek he would commit some of the most infamous acts of World War II. The Battle of the Bulge had only begun, and there were many more terrible acts to play out.
Tune in tomorrow for the bloody journey of Kampfgruppe Peiper, war crimes darker than night, and his final destruction at the hands of the 82nd Airborne.
Book Recommendations: The best book for the Battle of the Bulge in MY opinion is Charles B. MacDonald's A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge (New York: Bantam Books, 1984.) MacDonald was not only the deputy historian of the United States Army, but also fought as a company commander in the 2nd Infantry Division on Elsenborn Ridge and also published his personal experiences in Company Commander (Ithaca, NY: Burford Books, 1947.)