Although the Allied forces had advanced so much that the supplies could no longer catch up, it still threatened the German border, making Adolf Hitler uncomfortable. He decided to call for a large-scale offensive with the intention to cause heavy casualties and to divide the Allied forces, therefore cutting off certain Allied units of their supplies and surrounding others. Should the Allies be dealt a major blow in the west, Hitler thought, he would be in a much better position to defend against a likely winter offensive by the Russians. He realized it was a gamble, knowing that a failed major offensive might spell the final doom for Germany; however, “I am determined to hold fast to the execution of this operation, regardless of any risk,” he said, “even if the enemy offensives on both sides of the Metz and the imminent attack on the Rhine territory lead to great terrain and town losses.” Hitler believed that, due to his lack of understanding of the Allied command structure, that Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower must acquire permission from his superiors before committing major strategic changes, as for how the German war machine had operated. Such communications delays, Hitler thought, would give the surprise German offensive yet another upper hand.
“We gamble everything now”, Gerd von Rundstedt said when he had learned of Hitler’s order for a major offensive on the western front. “We cannot fail.”
The eventual plan was prepared by Alfred Jodl and presented to Hitler on 9 Oct. With some alterations, the plan was adopted and was renamed Wacht Am Rhein, “Watch on the Rhine”; this plan called for an attack by infantry to open a gap in the thinly defended Ardennes forest, allowing German tanks to punch through the gaps. The final destination was Antwerp, the newly acquired port that was critical in the Allies’ logistical operations. Knowing the Allies were intercepting German radio communications, the Germans also put up a major deceptive operation, Operation Greif, that further contributed to the Allied unpreparedness when the offensive was launched. First, the name of the offensive, Wacht Am Rhein, was highly misleading in that it was suggestive of a defensive operation, perhaps near the German city of Aachen. Then, a series of efforts by the daring and innovative Otto Skorzeny convinced the Allied forces to commit their forces at the wrong spots. The first of Skorzeny’s plans called for a Trojan horse mission with the 150th Panzer Brigade driving captured American and British tanks; the objective was the capture of bridges on the Meuse. Then German commandos were to be dressed in American uniforms and sent behind enemy lines; these English-speaking commandos were ordered to report Allied movements, change road signs, and even daringly pose as traffic duty soldiers and misdirect Allied trucks carrying soldiers and supplies. 44 of such commandos were sent, and only 8 returned at the end of the battle, achieving various degrees of success. Finally, Skorzeny also spread out rumors that German paratroopers were going to be dropped behind Allied lines. As these rumors grew, the outrageousness of these rumors grew as well, with several versions noting that paratroopers were to be dropped in Paris to seize Eisenhower. Immediately after the battle began, both real and dummy paratroopers under the command of Colonel Friedrich August von der Heydte were dropped to further “confirm” the rumors to confuse the Allied defenses. An unplanned achievement of this paratrooper rumor was that the Americans put up roadblocks at every road junction and checked every passerby for identification, dramatically slowing the transportation system that was so critical for the Allied war effort; even British General Bernard Montgomery was stopped and checked so many times that he later asked Eisenhower for an American identification card to speed up the process.
The troop preparations were disguised as much as possible as well. As fresh German troops arrived at Cologne for the offensive, the soldiers were told that these were replacement units for the front. Troops moved into the Ardennes under the cover of the night, and during the day the thick forest provided excellent cover. To prevent Allied interception of battle plans, in the final days’ communications were to be carried by officer couriers only.
Although Luftwaffe planes sent flying up and down the front lines drowned out most of the noise, heavy equipment noises were still reported by Allied troops. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel knew that further discoveries of the offensive preparations were unavoidable, so he issued a fake order that had the German troops in the Cologne and Bonn areas prepare for a suspected Allied invasion. Playing well into the Wacht Am Rhein misinterpretation, this order successfully downplayed any Allied suspicion of German preparing for an offensive.
The German units summoned for this Dec 1944 offensive (delayed from its original Nov target date) were:
- Josef Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer Army with two SS Panzer divisions. Dietrich was charged to move northwards and capture the final objective Antwerp.
- Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army, marching in the center toward Brussels.
- Erich Brandenberger’s 7th Army in the south, offensively protecting the offensive’s left flank.
- Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army in the north, defensively protecting the offensive’s right flank.
Overall, the offensive force was 15 divisions weaker than originally called for, plus the fact that many of the troops were the last of Germany’s reserves (those who were too young or too old to be drafted earlier in the war). However, with the element of surprise, Field Marshal Walther Model believed that the 30 German divisions gathered still had an excellent opportunity to strike down the Allied forces on the western front.
The Initial Assault
Aided by weather that grounded most Allied air reconnaissance, the German offensive launched on 16 Dec in total surprise. Barrages by at least 657 artillery pieces along with 340 rocket launchers thundered at 0530 to stun the American defenders, and by 0800 the 5th and 6th German Panzer armies charged forward through the Ardennes at the Loshein Gap. The attack completely surprised the American defenders at the front lines as Jodl had strived for, with many troops surrendering or withdrawing in confusion. Eisenhower noted that combat fatigue played a major part in the initial surrenders and withdrawals:
“Confronted by overwhelming power, and unaware of the measures that their commanders have in mind for moving to their support, the soldiers in the front lines, suffering all the dangers and risks of actual contact, inevitably experience confusion, bewilderment, and discouragement.”
Despite Eisenhower’s statement suggesting that the Allied commanders were organized for such an offensive, the truth was that the surprise was nearly complete. “I told the Fuhrer on the first day of the attack that the surprise had been completely achieved,” Jodl said after the war. “The best indication was that no reinforcements were made in [the American] sector before the attack.” The only American who had the faintest prediction of a possible German assault was Colonel Dickson, the intelligence officer of the First Army. He observed the bolstering of German forces in the Ardennes region and thought it was possible for the Germans to launch a small-scale localized attack to increase morale in time for the Christmas holiday. However, even Dickson underestimated the strength of the attack.
Donald Bennett, an artillery officer claimed that to some of the frontline men had a sense that the invasion was coming, but it was the high command’s failure to recognize the threat that caused the initial losses. He recalled the German assault:
“[I] pushed my way through the disorganized units [with a Sherman tank], primarily infantry, running for the rear. All of them screaming that the [Germans] were closing in. It was one of the most heartbreaking and humiliating sights I had witnessed since driving through the wreckage at Kasserine Pass two years earlier.”
In Robert Merriam’s The Battle of the Bulge and Dark December, he claimed that post-war interviews with Eisenhower and Bradley indicated that both were taken completely by surprise with the German offensive through the Ardennes. However, in Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe, Eisenhower said Bradley indicated to him that “he believed that the only place in which the enemy could attempt a serious counterattack was in the Ardennes region.” Conflicting accounts regarding this surprise attack such as this instance were attributed largely to politics and the need to save face.
On the second day, the American 7th Armored Division was able to halt Dietrich’s 6th Panzer Army at St. Vith, further removing momentum from the 6th Panzer Army who already had a tough time driving their tanks through thick snow. General Bruce Clarke led his men to fight on bravely against overwhelming numbers for four days before turning control of St. Vith to the Germans, and even then they fell back to entrenched positions nearby to continue to hold back German advances. At Elsborn Ridge, a similar episode played as American troops (2nd Infantry and 99th Infantry Divisions) aided by heavy snow slowed the German advance.
Recall Hitler’s earlier assumption that Eisenhower would have to communicate the strategic shift to his superiors before he could cancel his current offensives to deal with the German attack; largely, the German leader was wrong. By the second day, Eisenhower had already set in motion the reinforcements to come to the area. Within a week 250,000 soldiers had arrived in the region, including the American veterans of the 82nd and the 101st Airborne Divisions.
On 17 Dec, the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion surrendered to the 6th Panzer Army outside Malmédy near the Hamlet of Baugnez after a brief battle. An SS officer shot two of the POWs, and the rest of the soldiers followed suit with machine guns. After the 150 American prisoners fell, the Germans allegedly went around to kick each downed prisoner, and shot each that still showed sign of life with their sidearms, reported the 43 Americans who miraculously cheated death. The episode infuriated the Americans, and they called for killing all SS officers and troops on sight without giving an opportunity to surrender. Those responsible for this massacre at Malmédy were later tried and sentenced after the war.
West of Malmédy, the town of Spa at the north slope of the Hohe Venn mountain range held an Allied gasoline dump with 2,500,000 gallons of fuel. The troops of the First Army stationed there, including its command elements, did not imagine this peaceful little town would suddenly become the front until Dietrich’s Panzers rolled near the town. On 18 Dec, the 30th Division rushed in to reinforce the town’s defense and was able to save the town. The Americans were able to save their fuel depot, and perhaps more importantly, delivered a major blow to Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer Army to slow their forward momentum.
Attack on Bastogne
Bastogne was selected as a central logistical location; neither the Americans nor the Germans viewed it with much importance even days before the Ardennes Offensive was launched. However, as the German troops failed to reach the Meuse River as quickly as they originally wished, the German focus turned to the east side of the river to consolidate their gains thus far. Bastogne, a crossroads city, suddenly became strategically important. Hitler himself viewed the town as a threat to German communications and ordered a concentrated attack to take the town. The American 101st Airborne Division and part of the 10th Armored Division, totaling 18,000 troops, garrisoned the town as 45,000 Germans in three divisions surrounded the area on 21 Dec. On 22 Dec, German officers delivered a message from General von Luttwitz of the XLVII Panzerhops demanding the “honorable surrender” of Bastogne to save from “total annihilation”. This demand was actually against Hitler’s orders, as the German leader did not wish to allow the Americans to surrender. Brigadier General McAuliffe, commanding the troops at Bastogne in place of General Maxwell Taylor who was in Washington, responded:
To the German Commander:
The American Commander
“We are giving our country and our loved ones at home a worthy Christmas present and being privileged to take part in this gallant feat of arms are truly making for ourselves a Merry Christmas,” noted McAuliffe. When Joseph Harper delivered the message to Luttwitz and Lieutenant General Bayerlein, the German commanders were rather confused at the meaning of the American slang (so were the British, in fact) but the arrogance in McAuliffe’s response was undeniable; the Germans took no time in pressing on their attacks. On 26 Dec the Fuhrer Escort Brigade disengaged their current targets to attack the narrow neck opening into the town of Bastogne. Meanwhile, Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer Army surrounded the town on three sides. Bastogne was surrounded with little supplies left for the Allied troops, and the enemy troops outside the town reached 8 divisions by 1 Jan 1945. German tactics, however, gave the Americans a fighting chance: Instead of attacking all fronts simultaneously at the surrounded Allies, the Germans attacked in a rather piecemeal fashion and fritted away their strength while giving the Allied troops the luxury of being able to shift men to and from different fronts. Once Eisenhower confirmed that the Meuse River crossings were no longer under any threat, a number of divisions were released to attack the German forces at Bastogne. The defenders of Bastogne held on until George Patton’s Third Army arrived in the region to alleviate some pressure on Bastogne. It only took Patton’s army 48 hours to march from their original positions in south-central France to Bastogne, and it surprised even Eisenhower. Patton’s secret was that as soon as he had learned of the offensive he had prepared his troops for a counterattack. When Eisenhower had finally given the order for Patton to counterattack, his troops moved out the next minute. The final major offensive against Bastogne was launched on 3 Jan, but with the III Corps breathing down the back of their necks, the offensive ended in failure.
Before Patton reached Bastogne to relieve the defenders, however, the defenders endured a hellish series of offensives. German shelling was never constant, but it came at frequent enough an interval that the exploding trees kept the defenders awake, eating away their morale slowly. “The sound was deafening and terrifying”, noted Stephen Ambrose in Band of Brothers, a story of the 101st Airborne Division’s Easy Company who held the lines at Foy near Bastogne. “[T]he ground rocked and pitched as in an earthquake.” The unusually brutal winter also played a factor; the sub-zero temperatures froze the oil in the trucks and the firing mechanisms of rifles.
After the weather cleared up, the men inside the besieged Bastogne received much needed air-dropped supplies totaling 800,000 pounds. Eisenhower believed that without the Allied air superiority that allowed the supply runs by air, the 101st Division, however capable and brave, would not have been able to hold the town against the German pressure.
With the arrival of the Third Army to the region, the Americans planned a counterattack on 29 Dec. The weather also cleared up in the last few days so that air support was now possible. P-47 fighters strafed German troops on the roads, and bombers raided supply dumps behind the lines. In response the Luftwaffe launched a great raid, Operation Bodenplatte, on 1 Jan 1945 against Allied airfields in France and the Low Countries, greatly limiting the air capabilities of the Allies in the short run while destroying or damaging 260 planes. However, this also came at a cost of 277 aircraft and 253 pilots. In the attack, the Allies lost 465 aircraft. The Luftwaffe was never able to mount another offensive in this scale again. “[O]ur losses were so high that a continuation of such attacks had to be given up”, noted Hitler in his personal journals.
On the same day of the great German air raid, Eisenhower called for the Third Army to attack from the south while Bernard Montgomery’s troops were to move in from the north. South of Bastogne, the German troops that originally surrounded Bastogne defended against the counterattack gallantly. In the north, the German troops there continued to apply pressure to Bastogne as Montgomery’s assault never came; the British general objected to launching his part of the offensive as he had believed that his men were not equipped to deal with the cold weather. With the counterattack missing its northern pincer, Eisenhower was unable to trap the German forces in the pocket, and most of the Germans escaped, though leaving behind most of the heavy equipment. Montgomery did not commit his forces until 3 Jan, by then it was too late to surround the majority of the German troops. Americans such as General Omar Bradley was appalled by Montgomery’s inaction, and later in the war, many Americans refused to work with the British general. This was a critical event in the later tension between Montgomery and his American counterparts. To mend the relationship between Americans and the British after the war Eisenhower noted that he had given Montgomery the order that the British would only attack when Montgomery had gathered enough force. However, in hindsight, it was unlikely that Eisenhower would have issued such a vague order when coordinating such an important counteroffensive.
A renewed German offensive was launched in the first week of Jan 1945 in an attempt to keep the Allied troops off-balance. Perhaps suggestive of the name of the operation, the 6th SS Mountain Division and the 7th Parachute Division were transferred southwards from Norway and Netherlands, respectively, to bolster this offensive. A southern pincer column was also launched, with the goal of cutting off the southern maneuver room on the Alsatian plain. The offensive relied on a surprise element, and the Germans did not enjoy surprise this time around. The operation was detected by American intelligence early and prepared defenses that held on to all militarily-important locations, including the city of Strasbourg. Strasbourg was, actually, planned on being abandoned temporarily so that American forces could reach around and cut off German supply lines, stranding German troops within the city. However, Charles de Gaulle furiously protested against such a decision in fear that his own political status would be damaged if this French city would fall. Giving in to de Gaulle’s’ demands, Eisenhower changed his plans and defended Strasbourg successfully against this German offensive.
The Battle Ends
By the end of the first week of Jan 1945, the German forces had not reached their objectives, and the commanders knew that the momentum they enjoyed initially had long been lost. The command decision from Berlin on 8 Jan to transfer the 6th SS Panzer Army back to Germany for refitting for future assignments on the Russian front spelled the end of the actual German offensive. Nevertheless, the Germans had fought with much greater strength and determination than what the Allies believed possible at this stage of the war, but like the Allies out of Normandy, they had outrun their supplies and the ammunition and fuel were running out. Because the offensive was so secretive during its planning stages, even the German soldiers thought the Wacht Am Rhein was a defensive operation, therefore a bulk of the massive amounts of supplies were placed at the east side of the Roer River. As a result, it created unnecessary delays in getting the supplies out to the rapidly advancing armies. Hitler, however delusional at this stage of the war, was not exempt from this realization even though the reports at his desk outlined relatively light losses in men and tanks. He took the advice of the field commanders and ordered a withdrawal on 7 Jan (when he was first approached with a recommendation to withdraw by General von Manteuffel in late Dec, Hitler refused immediately). By 16 Jan, the Allied forces regained a bulk of the territory held before the Bulge offensive, and on 23 Jan St. Vith was retaken. The German offensive was officially declared a failure by the Allied forces on 28 Jan 1945.
As the German forces returned across the Rhine, Allied troops discovered evidence of German retribution on civilians. “Tens or twelve completely burned bodies, charred black, were seen where a small shed had once stood,” an American soldier recalled during an interview with historian Robert Merriam. He continued:
“[I]n the adjacent house, there was the body of a middle-aged woman who had been stabbed with a knife and then shot. Bodies of two boys between the ages of six and ten were seen with bullet holes in their foreheads…. One old woman had been killed by a smash over the head, probably with a rifle butt. There was the body of a young man with his boots taken off; he had been killed by being shot through the back of the head…. Near a foxhole were bodies of a thirteen-year-old boy and a fifteen-year-old girl who had been shot, apparently, as they tried to escape.”
The final tally of military casualties was stunning. The Allies suffered 76,890 casualties (with 8,607 Americans killed) and lost 733 tanks; the German forces suffered an estimated 68,000 casualties with 12,000 killed and lost about the same number of tanks. Among the Americans, about 10% of the total casualties were in the 106th Division, while the 28th Division suffered dearly as well. While the total losses were roughly equal on each side, the Germans had lost a greater percentage of the available men and equipment than the Allies. The men and equipment lost were nearly impossible for Germany to replace at this stage of the war.
After the war, many German leaders were interviewed for their takes on how the Ardennes Offensive had played out. The officers in Berlin believed the offensive was operationally sound as the surprise was completely achieved, and the offensive was only held back by the Allied air superiority. The field commanders saw a different picture, however. The field commanders overwhelmingly thought that operationally it was impossible to maneuver the units as the units were all controlled directly by Berlin, especially the 6th SS Panzer Army, which reported to Hitler himself. The 6th SS Panzer Army was so misused that this fact alone, had it been remedied early, could have turned the tide of the war. During the first seven crucial days of the offensive, the 6th was sitting in a logistical nightmare, sitting in poor and muddy roads in a major traffic jam. Their forward forces were also unable to open a gap for the tanks to charge through if the German tanks were able to do so. Many German field commanders were aching to redeploy these idling tanks elsewhere but were bound by Hitler’s orders. Then there were the inept leaders on the battlefield, characterized by Dietrich, who fought bravely and fiercely but overall lacked the capacity to command such large bodies of troops; they only reached their positions on their unquestioned loyalty to the Nazi leadership. The American leaders attribute the German failure largely to the ability for Allied leaders to recover from the initial surprise and the bravery of American troops at key locations such as St. Vith and Spa.