70 years today since the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s bloodiest attack on US lines

Never turn your back on a wounded animal, as this is when it may attack. The Allies learned that lesson the hard way after they’d stormed France and Belgium and begun to eye the crossing over the Rhine towards Germany. While they were occupied and distracted, exulting in their recent successes, the German army struck.

To say that this attack was unexpected would be an understatement. The German army was by this time severely overstretched, and the Allies assumed that all its strength would be required just to prop up its Western and Eastern Fronts. However, Hitler had formulated a grand plan to pull together 24 German divisions, including 10 armoured, and drive through the densely wooded Ardennes Forest all the way to Antwerp. The idea was to split up the US and Anglo-Canadian forces, and cut them off from their main supply port so that they would both starve; if Germany succeeded in doing this German morale would rocket, and the Allied Commanders would likely fall out in blaming each other for the defeat. In truth Germany really did not have enough men for such an offensive, but Hitler ordered universities, small businesses, schools and every other establishment that could possibly offer troops to be vigorously canvassed. In this way, he managed to scrape together three full armies to participate in ‘Operation Wacht am Rhein’ or ‘Watch on the Rhine’.

Conditions were with the Germans. Not only were the Allies not expecting an attack in country considered unsuitable for open battle, they literally couldn’t see it coming due to the dense cloud and heavy snowfall sheltering the approaching force. The Allied troops on the spot were all inexperienced in battle or meant to be resting, and the lines were far from solid in this region, with just 80,000 troops spread out along a 90 mile front. At 5.30 am on December 16th 1944, before the American VIII Corps and 9th Armoured Division knew what had hit them, suddenly they were under fire from one of the heaviest artillery barrages any of them had ever experienced while wave after wave of enemy infantry leaped out of the mist and tanks followed. It was the start of a six-week conflict that would wreak havoc on both armies.

According to ‘Campaigns of World War II Day by Day’, edited by Chris Bishop and Chris McNab, to the north of ‘the bulge’ the US troops were pummelled by the Sixth SS Panzer Army under the fearsome Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich, a former bodyguard of Hitler himself. In the centre was the Fifth Panzer Army under General Hasso von Manteuffel, while to the south the Seventh Army advanced under the command of General Erich Brandenberger; 200,000 men in all. In front of the main assault, 1250 paratroops under Colonel von der Heydte were dispatched to capture any major strategic points they could find, including bridges, cross roads and US Army headquarters. While they did this, an elite group of English-speaking Germans, especially trained to emulate US slang, forfeited their rights under the Geneva convention by dressing in US army uniforms and driving US army vehicles in an attempt to spread chaos within the Allied frontline itself. It was essentially a suicide mission, as every man involved knew he would be shot if caught.

The actions of this elite group were far less horrifying than those of Joachim Peiper’s 1st SS Panzer Division, spearheading the northern attack. As this unit advanced the unfortunate US soldiers in its path were quite simply massacred. The Germans shot 19 prisoners at Honsfield, past the gap in the US line, a further 50 at the Büllington petrol dump, then committed their greatest crime at the Malmédy cross-road before pushing on to Stavelot, executing no less than 100 unarmed men on 17th December. Their actions were so atrocious that they actually spurred the US soldiers on to fight with utter abandon, partly out of terror at the thought of their fate if they were defeated, partly out of white hot hatred

In those first days of the offensive the Germans made excellent headway, having the element of surprise on their side as well as twice as many men and many more tanks. By 20th December they had pushed the Allied line back by 60 miles in its weakest spots. However, the Allied commanders had not been idle in the intervening days, and had been frantically organising a counter-attack. As ‘Atlas of World War II’ by Richard Natkiel explains, Eisenhower was forced to dig deep pull in all his reserve troops, including the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, which were meant to be resting after the failed Operation Market Garden.

The 82nd made it to St Vith, where they blocked Peiper’s advance along the Ambléve River Valley, before becoming embroiled in further battles at Manhay and Bra. The 101st, meanwhile, met von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army at Bastoge and became pinned down in a week-long siege, before being relieved by General George Patton’s 4th Armoured Division. Apart from the latter, Patton managed to swing round two Infantry Divisions of his Third Army, the 80th and the 26th, from near Saarbrücken in Germany to the Ardennes within 48 hours of being ordered to prop up the hopelessly outmatched VIII Corps. It was an incredible feat of organisation, and Patton can definitely be said to have saved the day. Meanwhile, the First Army under Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges and the Ninth under William Hood Simpson, both under the command of Field Marshall Montgomery on Eisenhower’s orders, reinforced the northern flank of the ‘bulge’. By the 23rd of December the Allied counter-attack began, and by Christmas Day 1944 the German threat was considered to have been neutralised, though the fighting would drag on for another month after Hitler declared himself satisfied with German progress on the 28th, but stopped short of withdrawing his troops. Had he done so, many lives could have been saved. It was not until February 1945 that the lines were back the way they had been before the German attack.

The Battle of the Bulge was immensely costly to both sides, with 82,000 German casualties to the US’s 77,000. It was bloody and nasty, and although the Germans came very close to winning it, can be held up as another example of Hitler’s military ignorance. He spent a lot of men, tanks and supplies trying to reach Antwerp when he should have been devoting his attentions to the Eastern Front. The Russians were breathing down Germany’s neck, and Hitler’s failure to properly appreciate the danger from that quarter arguably lost him the war.

Read more about the battle in Forces War Records' Historic Library here: https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/library/search/?SearchQuery=battle+of+the+bulge

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