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The Battle Of The Bulge

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by Robin Cross

From BBC World Wars in-Depth

Battle of the Bulge by Robin Cross

As World War Two was drawing towards its close, in late 1944, the Western Allies were infected with the over-confidence that flowed from the sweeping victories they had gained four months earlier, and that had carried them to the borders of the Third Reich. They were confident that the war would soon be over.

They were confident that the war would soon be over.

In mid-December 1944, American General Dwight D Eisenhower was also in relaxed mood. He had just received a fifth star, becoming General of the Army. And on the evening of 16 December, he was to meet General Omar Bradley, commander of US 12th Army Group, at his headquarters in Versailles, to discuss the Allied manpower shortage problem and then play a few hands of bridge.

But the German leader, Adolf Hitler, had been planning his last great offensive in the west. And as Bradley arrived for his game of bridge, reports were beginning to filter in of enemy activity in the Ardennes, a range of rolling, heavily-forested hills and steep-sided valleys in eastern Belgium and Luxembourg. Bradley dismissed the reports as nothing more than details of localised fighting, but Eisenhower immediately sensed danger, telling Bradley, 'That's no spoiling attack!'

A 'quiet sector'

The Ardennes sector was held on an 80-mile front by only six American divisions. It was considered a 'quiet sector', suitable for introducing raw formations to the front line, and resting units that had been battered in heavy fighting. In their time out of war, soldiers amused themselves by shooting wild boar from spotter aircraft.

The Ardennes was not destined to be a quiet sector for much longer. Poring over his maps in the 'Wolf's Lair', his headquarters at Rastenburg in East Prussia, Hitler had spotted an opportunity to deliver a devastating counterstroke to his enemies, at a moment and a location that the Allies had not anticipated.

Hitler had spotted an opportunity to deliver a devastating counterstroke:

On 16 September 1944, he told General Alfried Jodl, his principal executive officer, 'I have made a momentous decision. I shall go over to the offensive... out of the Ardennes, with the objective Antwerp.'

Just as they had in May 1940, when they had settled the fate of France in one day, German armies would drive through the forest of the Ardennes to cross the River Meuse, then sweep north to retake Brussels and seize the port of Antwerp. Cut off from their American allies, the British Second and Canadian First Armies would be enveloped and destroyed. The Western alliance against the Axis would collapse, freeing Germany to deal with the mounting pressure being exerted on the Eastern Front by the Red Army.

An impossible plan

This was the last occasion in the war when Hitler, an inveterate gambler, still possessed enough chips to double his stake. It was a bold plan, sweeping in concept and impossible to execute.

When Hitler unveiled it on 24 October, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, his Commander-in-Chief West, was:

'staggered... It was obvious to me that the available forces were far too small - in fact no soldier really believed that the aim of reaching Antwerp was really practicable. But I knew by now that it was useless to protest to Hitler about the possibility of anything.'

Even the fanatically loyal General Sepp Dietrich, commander of Sixth SS Panzer Army, one of the two armies tasked with the operation, was not confident of success. He complained, 'All Hitler wants me to do is to cross a river, capture Brussels and then go on and take Antwerp. And all this in the worst time of the year ... when the snow is waist deep ....'

Hitler resisted all attempts by von Rundstedt to reduce the operation to a more modest scale, aimed at rolling up the American forces, which had pushed beyond the city of Aachen to the River Roer. The Führer was now seeking what the German General Staff referred to as a 'total decision'.

The plans were drawn up in the greatest secrecy, with Hitler obsessively controlling every detail. When Rundstedt received the final orders, the words 'Not To Be Altered' were scrawled across them in Hitler's spidery hand.

... with Hitler obsessively controlling every detail.

Thoroughly dispirited, Rundstedt relinquished overall control of the operation to Field Marshal Walther Model, commander of Army Group B, and spent the greater part of the offensive reading novels and drinking cognac.

Build-up of force

Hidden from Allied air surveillance, a formidable force assembled in the narrow, mist-shrouded valleys and thick forests of the Eifel hills on the eastern edge of the Ardennes. In the north was 6th SS Panzer Army, commanded by General Sepp Dietrich. In the centre of the line was 5th Panzer Army, under General Hasso von Manteuffel, tasked with supporting Dietrich's left flank. Further south was 7th Army, a follow-up force shielding Manteuffel's left flank.

Between them, Dietrich and Manteuffel fielded 28 divisions, ten of them armoured. In the armoured divisions were concentrated 1,250 of the 2,600 tanks and assault guns amassed for the Ardennes offensive, now code-named Autumn Mist.

... a formidable force assembled in the narrow, mist-shrouded valleys and thick forests ...

Most of the armoured divisions had been brought up to strength, but there was a significant shortage of fuel. Only 25 per cent of the minimum required was available when Autumn Mist was launched, the greater part of it held east of the River Rhine. The Germans planned to make up the shortfall with captured American fuel.

In the build-up to the offensive, the Allies had received a stream of tantalising hints about the German preparations. These came from decrypted German messages sent on the Enigma enciphering machine, and by 1944, the Allies were reading some of the messages in 'real time'. But they interpreted the movement detected in the area of the Ardennes merely as an indication of the through passage of German formations, predictably concentrating against Allied thrusts to the north and south of the region.

Autumn Mist

After several postponements, the attack was launched at 5.30am on 16 December 1944, on a 70-mile front from Monschau in the north to Echternach in the south. The first blow fell on US 2nd, 99th, 106th and 28th Divisions, the last still recovering from fierce fighting in the Hürtgen Forest. In the American rear, German infiltrators wearing American uniforms cut telephone wires and spread confusion.

At first there was something approaching blind panic behind the American lines. Scattered bands of US infantry wandered about the wintry forests, fighting the Germans when they collided with them, or trying to link up with larger formations. The fighting was confused and vicious. On 17 December, a battle group of 6th SS Panzer Army captured 125 men of a US field artillery observation battery in the town of Malmédy, and some two hours later mowed them down in cold blood, leaving 86 dead.

... there was something approaching blind panic behind the American lines.

It took four days for the Americans to pull themselves together. On the northern shoulder of the German advance, US V Corps had blocked the drive by 6th SS Panzer Army. In the centre, on 17 December, Manteuffel had arrived at St Vith, from which a valley road led to the River Meuse and Belgium, to find his path blocked by US 7th Armoured Division. On a windswept plateau 30 miles to the southwest, the vital road hub of Bastogne was also denied to 5th Panzer Army by 101st Airborne Division, rushed up by truck from Rheims. Manteuffel was forced to bypass Bastogne as he pressed on for the Meuse.

Eisenhower, however, began to exert a firm grip on the battle. General George S Patton was ordered to swing his US 3rd Army through 90 degrees and drive north to strike at the southern flank of the 'bulge' driven into the Allied line. To prevent the swelling German salient severing communications between the troops of US 12th Army Group on the northern and southern sides of the 'bulge', Eisenhower also gave Field Marshal Montgomery, commander of the British 21st Army Group, operational control in the north.

The American troops besieged in Bastogne held out. When on 22 December the Germans offered their commander, Brigadier-General Anthony McAuliffe, either surrender or annihilation by massed artillery, his celebrated reply was 'Nuts!'.

St Vith had been taken by 5th Panzer Army on 23 December, but two days later Manteuffel's most advanced units were fought to a halt by US 2nd Armoured Division three miles short of the Meuse. They were then subjected to a merciless pounding as they came to a halt, their petrol tanks empty. By now the mist that had masked the German concentration and initial assault had cleared, and Allied fighter-bombers ranged the battlefield.

... the mist that had masked the German concentration and initial assault had cleared ...

On 26 December, Bastogne was relieved by US 4th Armoured Division. Hitler ordered his generals to slog on, but the game was up. On 29 December Major-General FW Mellenthin, on his way to join 9th Panzer Division near Houffalize in the centre of the salient, noted:

'The icebound raids glittered in the sunshine and I witnessed the uninterrupted air attacks on our traffic routes and supply dumps. Not a single German plane was in the air and innumerable vehicles were shot up and their blackened wrecks littered the roads.'

Counting the cost

On 3 January 1945 the Allies went on to the offensive, and on the 16th units of the US 1st and 3rd Armies had joined hands at Houffalize, closing the last German escape route from the forward end of the salient.

Autumn Mist had inflicted 19,000 casualties on US 12th Army, and had taken 15,000 American prisoners. But the cost to the German Army had been 100,000 men killed or wounded and 800 tanks destroyed - losses which could not be made up.

In contrast, Autumn Mist had merely caused a hiccup in the Allied preparations to break into Germany, while denying desperately needed reinforcements to the German Army on the Eastern Front.