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  • James Houser

December 19, 1944 - The German Defeat in the Battle of the Bulge

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

December 19, 1944. The senior Allied commanders meet in a bunker near Verdun, France to discuss the issue on everyone’s mind: how to stop the Germans? The German attack in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium looms large on the situation map, creating the famous shape that gives the Battle of the Bulge its name. Will the Western Allies defeat Hitler’s final gamble for victory? Will Montgomery claim all the credit? Yes to both.

With Nazi Germany on its last legs, and desperate for a way to break the ring of the Western Allies in the west and the Soviet Red Army in the east, the Nazis mounted the Ardennes Offensive on December 16, 1944. With 400,000 men, over 1,000 armored vehicles, and much of Germany’s last fuel and resource reserves, the Nazis attacked a weak section of the Allied line in the Ardennes forest of Belgium. Surprise was complete, and the thin cordon of American infantry divisions was quickly ruptured. The rookie 106th Infantry Division was overwhelmed and many of its units forced to surrender, and the panzer columns galloped west into the snowy forest, their goals being to seize the bridges over the Meuse River and continue their march to the key Allied supply port of Antwerp.

At least, that was the plan. As I described on December 16, the German effort was probably doomed from the start. The panzer columns did not have enough fuel to make the trip to their objectives, so their battle plan often required them to capture Allied fuel depots intact – a pretty bad sign for an army that functioned on its powerful armored vehicles. The Germans also attacked during a period of bad weather, which they hoped would nullify overwhelming allied air superiority. This also put them on a strict timetable, since the clock was ticking to the point where the weather would clear and dreaded American P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers would reign supreme once again. Finally, the Germans predicted that American resistance would crumble completely when they were struck.

All of these “ifs” would end up killing the plan. Any battle plan that relies on so many uncontrollable variables is usually doomed, because Murphy always gets a vote. Things always go wrong. By December 17, the German SS panzer spearhead was hung up on the tenacious American defense of Elsenborn Ridge, and the fast attack group of Kampfgruppe Peiper was slowly being encircled and fenced off. Somehow, massacring American POWs at Malmedy did not translate into a war-winning strategy. The Germans had not captured all the fuel they needed. But the most troubling sign was the bitter resistance of small American units all along the route of advance. Most of these fragmented remnants of infantry regiments and artillery battalions could never hope to STOP the German blitzkrieg – but they could slow it down. And the more they slowed it down, the more time the Allies had to react, and the closer the Germans got to those clear skies that would bring Allied air power down on their heads.

Aside from Elsenborn Ridge, which stuck the SS attack to the north fast, the main sticking points for the Germans ended up being two crossroads towns in the center of their advance. These were the towns of St. Vith and Bastogne, and their capture was a no-fail task that had to be accomplished for the German offensive to proceed. This was a fact well-known to the Americans as well as the Germans, and as soon as the scale of the German attack became apparent, General Eisenhower was rushing troops to the threatened sector.

Due to the unexpected nature of the German attack and the commitment of all available troops to the constant push towards Germany, Eisenhower only had two divisions in reserve: the highly trained elite American airborne divisions, the 82nd and the 101st. Any other divisions would have to be pulled directly out of the American frontlines and their gaps filled by other units, and this would take time. Eisenhower dispatched the 82nd to guard St. Vith and the 101st to guard Bastogne. The 82nd would never make it to St.-Vith, since they would get caught up in stopping and annihilating the black-coated murderers of Kampfgruppe Peiper. The 101st would make it to Bastogne, of course, and in so doing would deny that crossroads to the Germans for the whole battle. But that is a story for December 26.

St. Vith, about 28 miles northeast of Bastogne, was the immediate target of General Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army. With the SS hung up on Elsenborn Ridge, Von Manteuffel’s men would unexpectedly take the lead in the Ardennes Offensive. Von Manteuffel’s units consisted of some of the most experienced panzer units Germany still had left, including the battle-hardened 2nd Panzer Division and 116th Panzer Division. The 116th contained many veterans of Stalingrad and Normandy. It was these units that swept through the snowy forests and bleak white foothills of Belgium, guns blazing and tracks clanking, headed to the west. Their goal was to capture St. Vith by December 17 and keep rolling to the Meuse.

In their way was a mixed bag of American units. The broken remains of the 106th Infantry Division had gathered at St. Vith, as well as rapidly arriving units from other sectors of the front. Among them was Combat Command B of the 7th Armored Division, led by Brigadier General Bruce Clarke, who took command of the composite force at St. Vith. Clarke realized very quickly that he could not hope to hold St. Vith for long against the German onslaught, but also understood that by clinging onto the town he could buy time for the Allies to gain their footing. The stand at St. Vith would help to doom the German offensive as Manteuffel’s panzers tried over and over to hammer their way through the desperate American defenders.

As the Germans streamed around St. Vith to the north and south, it functioned as a breakwater, a thorn in the paw of Von Manteuffel as he tried to push his way to the east. Already his troops were approaching Bastogne and meeting the unexpected resistance of the 101st Airborne and its attached units of the 10th Armored Division. Without St. Vith or Bastogne, the 5th Panzer Army could not move forward. Forced to decide, Von Manteuffel concentrated on St. Vith, since it was farther east and closer to Kampfgruppe Peiper.

Fighting erupted around the city on December 18 and 19, but the Germans were thrown back by Clarke’s tanks, the infantry remnants of the 106th Division, and other broken units rallying on the town. Combat engineers, a combat command of the 9th Armored Division, and other units joined the American defense. As the Germans threatened to envelop the town supplies ran scarce; howitzers were limited to seven rounds a day, and riflemen were told that for each pull of the trigger a German had to die. St. Vith was holding – but for how long?

It was in this environment that the American leaders met on December 19, 1944 in a bunker near Verdun to discuss their next move. Eisenhower presided over the meeting, where he made it clear that the Germans had launched a massive attack with the potential to disrupt all their plans for 1945. Bradley, Patton, and Jacob Devers all gathered at the conference, where the winter gloom was evident. Eisenhower encouraged optimism. “The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity and not disaster,” he ordered. “There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table.” The message was clear: the Germans had poked their heads out of their fortifications and defenses along the German border. Hitler had thrown out his hand for a Hail Mary, and this was their chance to cut it off. Patton was the most aggressive, stating that “Let’s have the guts to let the bastards go all the way to Paris. Then we’ll cut ‘em off and chew ‘em up.”

As staff officers laid out the situation for the generals, Eisenhower’s plan came into focus. The Bulge loomed large on the map, a broad and thick lump cutting into the American lines. Eisenhower ordered Bradley, north of the Bulge, and Patton south of it to turn their forces inward and cut at the base. By knifing into the vulnerable neck of the German attack, they could cut off its head.

Eisenhower asked Patton how quickly he could have forces pulled out of his frontline and ready to pivot north. “On December 22,” Patton said without pause. “Three divisions.”

Eisenhower considered this assertion – a tall order, to transfer three full combat divisions over 100 miles and plan their attack within that time – and replied “Don’t be fatuous, George.”

“I’ll make a meeting engagement in three days,” Patton said. “I’ll give you a six-division coordinated attack in six days.” When someone laughed, Patton turned his head sharply. “We can do that.”

Though no one believed him, Patton could do what he had promised. The rapidity of his response and the ferocity of his attack, on zero notice during the height of winter, would be one of George Patton’s greatest accomplishments and would save the 101st Airborne from destruction at Bastogne. Just as importantly, his counterblow surprised the German attackers, and they had to divert troops to the south to try and hold back his tanks. The 4th Armored Division was an elite formation, possibly the United States Army’s best unit of World War II, and its star tank battalion commander was Lieutenant Colonel Creighton Abrams. The Germans had reason to be worried.

Patton’s attack to the south, and the continued resistance of the 1st, 2nd, and 99th Infantry Divisions to the north on Elsenborn Ridge put hard clamps on the Bulge that the Germans had created. Their only hope now was an increasingly difficult penetration into the center, and this was still hung up on St. Vith and Bastogne. Von Manteuffel had renewed his attacks on St. Vith, and the ferocity of the German attack was not only felt in combat; in what was becoming a trend in the Battle of the Bulge, some SS soldiers had massacred African-American POWs of an artillery unit.

Help was on the way for the Americans, though not in the form they wanted. With command coordination difficult due to the German attack splitting the American line, and with a need for reinforcements in the sector, Eisenhower had no other choice than to turn to his most difficult subordinate. Bernard Montgomery, the Field Marshal commanding British forces in Europe, had several spare divisions on hand but was reluctant to release them. Only when Eisenhower granted Montgomery temporary control over the northern half of the Bulge did the British general ever so graciously release his units to come down and help the Americans.

Though Bradley was incandescent with rage at Eisenhower’s decision, to the point that PATTON of all people had to talk him down from resigning, Eisenhower had a tough political tightrope to walk that Bradley didn’t have to deal with. Managing an Allied coalition is never easy, and Eisenhower knew that American pride would have to be sidelined in order to win the Battle of the Bulge. In the end, the responsibility would get the better of Montgomery.

When Montgomery took charge of the Americans on the north face of the Bulge on December 20, he decided that St. Vith was untenable. It had delayed the Germans for a good while, but Montgomery correctly perceived that General Bruce Clarke’s combat groups there were in danger of being surrounded just like the 101st Airborne at Bastogne. He ordered Clarke to evacuate St. Vith on December 21 and fall back a few miles – which still put Clarke in the way of the German advance. Only by December 23, a full eight days after the initial German attack, was Clarke finally forced to the northwest and out of the path of Hitler’s offensive.

Von Manteuffel’s men, though, had suffered a serious setback at St. Vith. The German offensive had lost its momentum in the fierce fighting around the small town, and many white-coated German grenadiers and jager troops lay dead around its perimeter. It had taken the commitment of Von Manteuffel’s few King Tiger tanks to finally breach the town amidst the blazing blizzards of a North European winter, and the unexpected insanity of the American defense had caused significant delays. Even though many American olive-drab vehicles were now hollowed-out wrecks by the roadside, the Germans had planned to take St. Vith by December 17. Only on December 23 were they passing through without molestation from a hidden bazooka team or minefield, a delay of almost a week – and it would cost them severely.

The Meuse River bridges that were the German objective were already being packed with troops. From the north Montgomery had sent several British divisions, including some of his best: the veteran 51st Highlander, 6th Airborne, and 11th Armored Divisions. Also rumbling down from the north was the American 2nd Armored Division, one of the two “heavy” armored divisions in the American arsenal. It had twice the number of tanks as a normal American unit of its type, and was commanded by General Ernest N. Harmon, America’s premier large-unit tank commander since North Africa. These were the units that the German spearhead would have to tangle with if it wanted to reach the Meuse.

Von Manteuffel launched his last desperate attempt on December 23, striking westward with the elite 2nd Panzer on the northern flank and the Panzer Lehr on the southern flank. But already the odds were stacked against the Germans. The resistance at Elsenborn Ridge to the north had stopped the 6th SS Panzer Army dead. The bloody trek of Kampfgruppe Peiper, supposed to be the nail in the Allied coffin, had already been stymied by the American 30th Infantry and 82nd Airborne, and its remnants were soon to be streaming into Von Manteuffel’s lines.

On the southern flank, the 101st Airborne at Bastogne was holding up masses of German reinforcements and Patton’s counterattack was demanding still more attention. Instead of the overwhelming blow that the Ardennes Offensive was intended to be, the two divisions of Von Manteuffel’s spearhead were all that was left. The German offensive had been winnowed down to a thin penetration, and it was about to run into the stone wall of all the forces converging to stop it.

The German panzer troops moved forward as fast as they could, but the long delay at St. Vith soon caught up with them. Every village was a hive of American resistance, a hive that had to be overcome on the path to the Meuse River. American units were popping up that had been reported a hundred miles away only a week before, like the 84th Infantry Division or the 3rd Armored Division. Worst of all for the Germans, the weather had cleared up and clear blue skies reigned on December 23. A nice sight for a tourist, but a bad sight for the Wehrmacht, this meant that Allied air power was once again free to strike. Soon American fighter-bombers were plastering every German column they laid eyes on, nailing Von Manteuffel’s panzers to the ground even as they tried to inch forward against increasing Allied resistance.

As tall as the odds were, the Germans made it farther than they had any right to. On December 24, 1944, the Germans reached their farthest penetration of the Battle of the Bulge. To the south, the Panzer Lehr Division had reached the town of Celles. Here the fumbling tankers with their Panthers and self-propelled artillery pieces were punched in the face by the U.S. 2nd Armored Division, a horde of Sherman tanks bursting from the trees and pummeling the Germans. Almost out of fuel, the Krauts had little room to maneuver as they were held down by the Americans. To the north, the 2nd Panzer Division had the Meuse River bridges at Dinant in sight before they ran into the British 29th Armored Brigade defending the area. The German spearheads had been checked. They were about to be checkmated.

By now, the German advance had crystallized into the famous “Bulge” of battle maps ever since. The 2nd Panzer and Panzer Lehr Divisions were stuck at the apex, while all along the line the Germans now had to defend an increasingly vulnerable position. While the Germans would try and fail to break out to the west, Patton was carving a path from the south to relieve Bastogne. Matthew Ridgway’s XVIII Airborne Corps, having destroyed Kampfgruppe Peiper and full of bloodlust after the truth of the Malmedy Massacre had been revealed, was pressing on the Bulge from the north. The German offensive had only had a glimmer of hope at the beginning, but at this point it was long gone.

It would take until January 1945 for Hitler to finally admit defeat before he cancelled the Ardennes Offensive. In the meantime the Germans would continue to try hammering forward, even as the US 2nd Armored Division broke the back of their nemesis the 2nd Panzer Division at Celle and Dinant. The Germans would hammer at the perimeter around Bastogne, even as Patton’s columns reached the beleaguered city and fed more and more troops into it. The Germans would launch an abortive and miserable parachute attack behind American lines, only for it to be surrounded and destroyed. Elsewhere on the Western Front, the Germans launched even more attacks to try and draw American troops from the Bulge, but these all met with stupendous failure. The Ardennes Offensive had badly misfired, and the United States had finally defeated the German forces in an open, decisive battle.

But not to hear Montgomery tell it. When Montgomery claimed to the press that the Battle of the Bulge was a “great British victory,” and used his pull to pressure Eisenhower for command of all Allied ground forces in Europe, he finally went too far. Montgomery had always been Eisenhower’s most difficult subordinate, but his relatively minor role in the defeat of the German Ardennes Offensive caused him to overstep boundaries. His open contempt of Eisenhower’s broader strategies and concepts finally caused the Supreme Commander to lose control. Eisenhower threatened that if Montgomery continued along this path, he would demand that “one of the two of us has to go.” With sudden clarity, Montgomery realized that if anyone was fired it would be him, and subsequently backed down. It was the last great showdown between Britain’s greatest military hero and the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces. It was also a firm reminder as to who was REALLY in control of the Allied armies by this time.

The Germans had been halted. Though the Battle of the Bulge was almost certainly never going to be a German victory, by quick action and the fighting ability of the American soldier it had been ground to a halt well before inflicting serious damage on the Allies. Hitler’s Hail Mary had ground down before the quarterback even threw the pitch. Even if Von Manteuffel’s tanks had taken a bridge over the Meuse, by December 24 there was no way they could have held it, and it might have been worse if they had tried.

The real credit didn’t go to Ike, Montgomery, or even to Patton. It went to hard-pressed junior American commanders, the isolated platoon leaders and company commanders with their handfuls of men in nameless Belgian towns, to low-ranking generals like Bruce Clarke or Anthony McAuliffe who made last stands at St. Vith and Bastogne, to the infantrymen hunting King Tiger tanks with bazookas or breathing on their machine guns to thaw the firing mechanism. It fell to African-American supply units and artillery observation battalions who never expected to fight, yet held their ground against Hitler’s panzer troops in the miserable conditions of a tough European winter. Credit went to the tankers, commanding their Shermans and Jacksons on steep roads and narrow forest trails to confront the enemy who had invented the concept of blitzkrieg. It came to the American everyman to overcome the vaunted German superman in the dense forest of the Ardennes.

The Battle of the Bulge was their victory. Book Recommendation: I already recommended Charles B. MacDonald's A Time for Trumpets, but I will also recommend Alex Kershaw's newer book The Longest Winter: The Battle of the Bulge and the Epic Story of World War II's Most Decorated Platoon (Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 2014), about an intelligence platoon that stood off Joachim Peiper's SS troopers near Lanzerath for almost 24 hours in one of the many heroic stands of a small platoon in the Bulge.

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