ad posed a constant threat in General Eisenhower’s mind ever
ince the counteroffensive had begun in the Ardennes.
Because General Patch’s positions formed a right angle where
ie Franco-German border meets the Rhine, those American divi-
ions in this extreme north-east corner of France would be threat-
ned by entrapment should the Germans launch converging thrusts
gainst them or should the Germans strike swiftly to deny the few
asses through the Vosges Mountains, which stood behind ttierrr.
lecognising that little of strategic importance lay in this low plain
longside the Rhine, General Eisenhower had told Devers at the
leeting in Verdun to yield ground rather than endanger the in-
Bgrity of his forces.
To withdraw all the way to the Vosges would nevertheless involve
iving up Strasbourg, a city which the French looked upon sym-
olically as the capital of Alsace and Lorraine, the provinces lost
d the Germans from 1870 to 1918 and again from 1940 until late
944. To the French, to abandon Strasbourg was to relinquish a
iart of the soul of France.
Yet to defend 124 miles of front, including Strasbourg, the 7th
^rmy had only seven divisions, plus the infantry regiments of three
ew divisions, only recently arrived from the United States in
ssponse to Eisenhower’s call for assistance at the start of the
irdennes counteroffensive. Also available as a last resort were two
ivisions that Eisenhower had managed to cull from the line to
screate a Supreme Headquarters reserve; but these might at any
me have to be sent into the Ardennes.
That left the stratagem of withdrawal in the event of a major Ger-
lan attack perhaps the only recourse.
That the Germans planned to attack either on New Year’s Day
r soon thereafter became clear to the 6th Army Group during the
ist week of December. The attack actually was to begin an hour
iefore the first stroke of the New Year.
The American soldier, victor
When Hitler had first proposed a counteroffensive in Alsace, the
iea had been a heavy strike all the way to the American supply
ase of Metz, but even Hitler had to accept that this was too am-
itious for the available resources. As in the Ardennes, the Fuhrer
imself planned the blow actually delivered-O peration Nordwind.
Attacking west of the Vosges Mountains, two divisions under the
egis of Army Group G (Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz) were
3 make a penetration, whereupon a reserve of two armoured
ivisions was to strike swiftly southward to seal from the rear the
ital Saverne Gap, which separates the High Vosges in the south
'om the less imposing Low Vosges in the north. At the same time
supporting effort by three infantry divisions was to push down
ie spine of the Low Vosges. A few days later, a lone division was
3 cross the Rhine north of Strasbourg, while two divisions were to
ttack northward from the Colmar Pocket, link with the Rhine
ridgehead (encircling Strasbourg in the process), then swing
westward to the Saverne Gap.
The net effect would be to trap all American units east of the Low
osges, the equivalent of five divisions, and those French troops
uarding the northern periphery of the Colmar Pocket.
Sharply conscious of this possibility, General Eisenhower moved
wiftly once the German attack began, and ordered General Devers
3 pull back from his north-eastern salient ail the way to the Vosges,
javing only delaying forces on the low-lying plain.
That meant abandoning Strasbourg, a condition that prompted
ie head of the provisional French government, Charles de Gaulle,
3 send an emissary to Eisenhower’s headquarters to express his
ismay. Rather than relinquish the city, the word was, de Gaulle
Iready had ordered General de Lattre to extend his lines north
nd take over the defence.
Struck by this defiance, Eisenhower's Chief-of-Staff, Lieutenant-
ieneral Walter B. Smith, threatened to cut off American supplies
nd equipment, without which the French army would be powerless
-to which de Gaulle's man responded that the French were pre-
ared to withdraw their troops from Eisenhower’s command.
Although it sounded like an argument in a schoolyard, it was a
erious confrontation. De Gaulle even went so far as to cable the
Thick fog and low clouds, combined with high winds, deprived
the American armour and infantry of much-needed air support.
Here men of the 82nd Airborne Division move through
typical Ardennes Forest terrain
American President and the British Prime Minister for support;
but intercession proved unnecessary. When apprised by General
Smith of the fervour of de Gaulle’s objections and when apprised,
too, by the end of the second day (January 2) of the success of
Patch’s troops in constraining the German main effort toward the
Saverne Gap, Eisenhower withdrew the order. While directing the
French to take responsibility for defending Strasbourg, he told
General Devers to withdraw from the north-eastern salient only as
far as the little Moder river, some 20 miles behind the existing lines.
By January 20 this withdrawal was complete. The Germans,
meanwhile, had succeeded in establishing a Rhine bridgehead
north of Strasbourg, advancing to within 8 miles of the city, and
inducing near panic in the civilian population before comm it
ment of a portion of General Eisenhower's reserve brought them to
a halt. The attack northward out of the Colmar Pocket got within
13 miles of Strasbourg, but the French stopped it at the last bridge
short of the city.
While Devers’ 6th Army Group retained its integrity, Strasbourg
stayed French. Having committed so much to the’Ardennes, the
Germans had simply been unequal to a second blow: ten under
strength divisions were not enough. The fighting in bitter cold and
snow nevertheless cost the Americans 15,600 casualties; the Ger
As the 6th Army Group was meeting its test in Alsace, the Ger
mans managed two last spasms in a dying effort in the Ardennes.
One came from the air, an extraordinary effort by the Luftwaffe.
Early on New Year’s Day, 700 German planes struck at Allied air
fields in Belgium and the Netherlands. The blow took Allied airmen
by surprise and cost 156 planes, most of them destroyed on the
The second blow again was aimed at Bastogne, where General
von Manteuffel had seen his offensive of December 30 collapse in
the face of Patton’s renewed attack. It was a blow of which Man
teuffel himself disapproved. The time had long come, he believed,
to abandon all attempts at maintaining the offensive in the Ar
dennes. Lest the troops in the tip of the bulge be trapped between
Patton and what appeared to be a pending attack by the US 1st
Army from the north, he appealed to Field-Marshal Model late on
January 2 for permission to pull back to a line anchored on Houf
Although both Model and Rundstedt gave their endorsement, Hit
ler refused. The counteroffensive under the original concept of
taking Antwerp and trapping Allied armies, he at last admitted, no
longer had any chance of success; but he had arrived at definite
ideas of how the bulge in the Ardennes might be turned to German
In creating the salient, Hitler reasoned, he had forced General
Eisenhower to employ almost all his resources. That Eisenhower
used elite airborne divisions to do the brutal defensive work of
infantry was proof enough of that. By holding the bulge, he might
keep the Allies widely stretched while pulling out some German
units for spoiling attacks elsewhere — like Operation Nordwind.
That way he might prevent the Allies from concentrating their
forces in the north for a renewed offensive to cross the Rhine and
capture the Ruhr industrial region.
Yet even this strategy begged the capture of Bastogne, for Hitler
required the town both to anchor the southern flank of the bulge
and to deny its nexus of roads to the Americans.
To American troops, Manteuffel’s final offensive at Bastogne,
aimed at severing the corridor into the town, appeared less a con
certed attack than reaction by counterattack to Patton's efforts to
drive on to Houffalize. Lasting two days-January 3 and 4 -th e Ger
man offensive delayed the drive on Houffalize; but it was too feeble
either to pose any genuine threat to Bastogne or to thwart the
American offensive entirely. What was more, it operated on bor
rowed time, for it opened on the same day that Field-Marshal Mont
gomery at last released Hodges' 1st Army to attack from the north.
The pattern of the drive to eliminate the bulge had been set at the
Allied conference in Verdun on December 19 with the decision to
send the 3rd Army to Bastogne. Although Patton insisted, once
Bastogne was relieved, on shifting to the classic though venture
some manoeuvre for eliminating a deep penetration — cutting it off
...and of the whole Ardennes
at its base — he found no support from either Hodges or Bradley.
They were concerned about the limited roadnet at the northern
base and about the effect of winter weather in the more sharply
compartmented terrain along the German frontier. Montgomery
conformed, moving parts of two British divisions to the tip of the
bulge to enable General Collins to shift his 7th Corps slightly north
ward and drive from the north-west for Houffalize. Once the 1st
and 3rd Armies met at Houffalize, both were to sweep, after the
manner of synchronized windshield wipers, on to the German
In other words, they were going to push in the bulge rather than
cut it off. It w as-Field-M arshal von Rundstedt would observe after
the w ar— the ‘Small Solution’.
The nadir of winter
The snow was deeper than ever in the Ardennes, the temperatures
lower, the fog thicker, the winds more penetrating when, early
on January 3, General Collins sent two armoured divisions backed
by infantry south-east toward Houffalize across ground featured
by stretches of high marshland, dense patches of firs, and deep-
cut streambeds. Only three of Sepp Dietrich’s badly damaged divi
sions barred the way, including fragments of the mauled II Panzer
Division. But that was enough, in view of the weather and the ter
rain, to slow the Allied advance to a crawl.
So murky was the atmosphere that not a single tactical aircraft
could support the attack all day, and sorties by little artillery ob
servation aircraft were possible for no more than an hour. It was a
pattern that would undergo little change for a fortnight. On only
three days would fighter-bombers be able to take to the air at all.
Much of the time the men advanced through snow flurries, followed
on the fourth day by a heavy snowfall that piled drifts in places to
a depth of several feet.
Tanks stalled on icy hillsides in long rows. Trucks towing anti
tank guns or artillery pieces skidded, jack-knifed, collided, and
blocked vital roads for hours. Two trucks towing 105-mm howitzers
plunged off a cliff. Deliberate roadblocks formed by felled trees
with anti-tank mines on the approaches could be eliminated only by