On December 16, 1944, the German Army launched its last great counter - offensive of World War II. The Battle of the Bulge was meant to be Hitler's "last stand" in order to break apart and defeat the Allied forces. Hitler believed the bond was weak between the British, the US, and Russia. Hitler thought that he had enough troops left to launch a surprise attack on the Western Front through the thinly held line in the Belgian Ardennes Forest. He also believed that factors such as bad weather, bad terrain, and the Christmas holiday would help him to catch the Allies by surprise. The Allies regarded the Ardennes as unsuitable for an attack, even though, four years earlier, the German Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) had shattered the Allied front which led to France's surrender.
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In trying to figure out ways to break up the Allies, Hitler planned on reducing Allied air power, taking Antwerp, and thus cutting off a main supply base for the Allied armies on the Western Front. He would then be able to surround Canada's 1st army, Britain's 2nd army, and, in addition, the US's 1st and 9th armies. In Hitler's mind, all of this would result in the northern forces being surrounded and cut off from their supplies. The southern forces would then be pushed out of Germany. Ultimately, he expected it to be an easy battle.
On the night before the battle, Hitler sent in troops to infiltrate the front. Some were dropped by parachute, while others came in driving captured American jeeps. These men spoke perfect English and wore US uniforms. They managed to spread confusion by cutting off telephone lines, giving false directions, and changing road signs.
The battle began at the crack of dawn on December 16th. After a two hour bombardment, Hitler managed to push back American forces. The element of surprise, lack of communication, and the fact that troops were outnumbered, all led to Hitler's success. In spite of this, after two days of fighting, the Germans had made very little progress. Hitler managed to attack two American southern divisions that were in front of Elsenborn Ridge, and surrounded only the least experienced division of the US VIII Corps.
On December 17, 72 American POW's were captured outside the town of Malmedy, which is just south of Ardennes. An SS unit, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Joachim Peiper, massacred these prisoners of war. He simply brought them out to an open field, and machine gunned them to death. Their bodies were then buried beneath the deep snow.
Much of the battle depended on the weather. At the start, the land was foggy and the ground was unfrozen, but not muddy. For Hitler, these conditions were ideal because the Allied air power could not intervene. A little snow had fallen around the Schnee Eifel, a group of low-ranging hills to the east, where the heaviest German concentration had been assembled. According to one soldier, "the rest of the Ardennes lay bare and ugly". The Allies desperately needed fair weather to begin their air attack. However, a great snowstorm fell upon them during the first week.
On December 22, Hitler sent a message to American Major-General Anthony Mcauliffe, at the Bartongre Garrison, telling him to surrender. His response to Hitler's request was simply "Nuts!" On this same day, skies cleared up, and reinforcements were sent by airdrop to the Bartongre Garrison, and Allied airplanes began their attack on German tanks. Then, on December 23, Americans began their first counterattack on the southern flank of the Ardennes "bulge".
At midday on December 24, 16 German jet aircraft attacked a ball-bearing factory and tool-die warehouse in Ciege. They then proceeded to attack railway yards supplying the Allies. This was the first jet bomber attack in history. However, by evening, the German offensive had been halted. Their advance was less than sixty miles, at its furthest point. This was nowhere close to the seventy mile objective of the assault.
The fighting grew more intense on Christmas Day, and for some weeks thereafter. The period of surprise was now gone, and the panzer armies were simply trying to blast their way through the front. Instead of beginning a retreat, more and more guns were sent forward to the Bulge. This was done in an attempt to hold what had been gained, and in order to expand the front, if possible.
Losses from exposure to the cold grew as large as the losses from fighting. The Germans began attacking in white suits, in order to blend in with the snow. Men were fighting for shelter and warmth, in addition to the enemy. Some of the people of Ardennes opened their homes to the American soldiers. They shared food, blankets, and fuel. In addition, these people helped the wounded and the ill.
Germans were plagued by lack of supplies. Tanks simply ran out of gas and could go no further. Lieutenant-Colonel Jochen Peiper, commander of the 1st SS Panzer Division, was eventually surrounded by Allied forces. Peiper's battle group, ringed in and also out of fuel, began to make their way back to Germany on foot. Therefore, tanks and other vehicles were abandoned.
The struggle between the Allies and Germany ended in January, after the Allies' original line in Ardennes was restored. It turned out to be the largest land battle of WW II. Of the American soldiers, there were 81,000 casualties, 23,554 captured, and 19,000 killed. Germany's losses included 100, 000 men who were either killed, wounded, or captured.
Hitler's faith in "the attack as the best defense" proved to be the worst defense. What he believed to be the turning point of the war in Germany's favor, turned out to be nothing but a big disaster.
Gilbert, Martin, The Second World War (New York; Henry Holt and Company,1989)
Hart, B.H.Liddell, History of the Second World War (New York; Putnam's Sons, 1970)
Readers Digest Illustrated Story of World War II (New York; The Reader's Digest Association, 1984)