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Battle of the Bulge

German offensive through the Ardennes forest on the Western Front towards the end of World War II

Top 10 Battle of the Bulge related articles

Battle of the Bulge
Part of the Western Front of World War II

American soldiers of the 117th Infantry Regiment, Tennessee National Guard, part of the 30th Infantry Division, move past a destroyed American M5A1 "Stuart" tank on their march to recapture the town of St. Vith during the Battle of the Bulge, January 1945.
Date16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945
(1 month, 1 week and 2 days)
Location
Result

Allied victory

  • Western Allied offensive plans delayed by five to six weeks.[1]
  • German offensive exhausts their resources on the Western Front.
  • German collapse opens way for the Allies to ultimately break the Siegfried Line.
  • Soviet offensive in Poland launched on 12 January 1945, eight days earlier than originally intended.[2]
Belligerents
 Germany
Commanders and leaders
Units involved

12th Army Group:

6th Army Group:

21st Army Group:

1st Allied Airborne Army:

Army Group B:

Strength
16 December
228,741 men
483 tanks
499 tank destroyers and assault guns
1,921 other armored fighting vehicles (AFVs)
971 anti-tank and artillery pieces
6 infantry divisions
2 armored divisions
24 December
~541,000 men
1,616 tanks
1,713 tank destroyers and assault guns
5,352 other AFVs
2,408 anti-tank and artillery pieces
15 infantry divisions
6 armored divisions
1 armored brigade
2 January
~705,000 men
2,409 tanks
1,970 tank destroyers and assault guns
7,769 other AFVs
3,305 anti-tank and artillery pieces
22 infantry divisions
8 armored divisions
2 armored brigades
16 January
700,520 men
2,428 tanks
1,912 tank destroyers and assault guns
7,079 other AFVs
3,181 anti-tank and artillery pieces
22 infantry divisions
8 armored divisions
2 armored brigades[3]
16 December
406,342 men
557 tanks
667 tank destroyers and assault guns
1,261 other AFVs
4,224 anti-tank and artillery pieces
13 infantry divisions[a]
7 armored divisions
1 brigade[4]
24 December
~449,000 men
423 tanks
608 tank destroyers and assault guns
1,496 other AFVs
4,131 anti-tank and artillery pieces
16 infantry divisions
8 armored divisions
1 armored brigade
2 infantry brigades
2 January
~401,000 men
287 tanks
462 tank destroyers and assault guns
1,090 other AFVs
3,396 anti-tank and artillery pieces
15 infantry divisions
8 armored divisions
1 armored brigade
2 infantry brigades
16 January
383,016 men
216 tanks
414 tank destroyers and assault guns
907 other AFVs
3,256 anti-tank and artillery pieces
16 infantry divisions
8 armored divisions
2 infantry brigades[3]
Casualties and losses
American
89,500[5][b]
(includes killed, wounded, missing, captured)
733 tanks and tank destroyers lost[6]
~1,000 aircraft lost, over 647 in December[7] and 353 during Operation Bodenplatte[8]
British
1,408 (200 killed, 969 wounded, and 239 missing)[9]
German
63,222[10][11][c] – 98,000[12]
(includes killed, wounded, missing, captured)
554 tanks, tank destroyers and assault guns lost[13]
~800 aircraft lost, at least 500 in December and 280 during Operation Bodenplatte[8]
Approximately 3,000 civilians killed[14]
Map showing the swelling of "the Bulge" as the German offensive progressed creating the nose-like salient during 16–25 December 1944.
  Front line, 16 December
  Front line, 20 December
  Front line, 25 December
  Allied movements
  German movements

The Battle of the Bulge, also known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive, was a major German offensive campaign on the Western Front during World War II, and took place from 16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945. It was launched through the densely forested Ardennes region in Belgium and Luxembourg towards the end of the war in Europe. The offensive was intended to stop Allied use of the Belgian port of Antwerp and to split the Allied lines, allowing the Germans to encircle and destroy four Allied armies and force the Western Allies to negotiate a peace treaty in the Axis powers' favor.

The Germans achieved a total surprise attack on the morning of 16 December 1944, due to a combination of Allied overconfidence, preoccupation with Allied offensive plans, and poor aerial reconnaissance due to bad weather. American forces bore the brunt of the attack and incurred their highest casualties of any operation during the war. The battle also severely depleted Germany's armored forces, and they were largely unable to replace them. German personnel and, later, Luftwaffe aircraft (in the concluding stages of the engagement) also sustained heavy losses. The Germans had attacked a weakly defended section of the Allied line, taking advantage of heavily overcast weather conditions that grounded the Allies' superior air forces. Fierce resistance on the northern shoulder of the offensive, around Elsenborn Ridge, and in the south, around Bastogne, blocked German access to key roads to the northwest and west that they counted on for success. Columns of armor and infantry that were supposed to advance along parallel routes found themselves on the same roads. This, and terrain that favored the defenders, threw the German advance behind schedule and allowed the Allies to reinforce the thinly placed troops. The farthest west the offensive reached was the village of Foy-Nôtre-Dame, south east of Dinant, being stopped by the U.S. 2nd Armored Division on 24 December 1944.[15][16][17] Improved weather conditions from around 24 December permitted air attacks on German forces and supply lines, which sealed the failure of the offensive. On 26 December the lead element of Patton's U.S. Third Army reached Bastogne from the south, ending the siege. Although the offensive was effectively broken by 27 December, when the trapped units of 2nd Panzer Division made two break-out attempts with only partial success, the battle continued for another month before the front line was effectively restored to its position prior to the attack. In the wake of the defeat, many experienced German units were left severely depleted of men and equipment, as survivors retreated to the defenses of the Siegfried Line.

The Germans' initial attack involved 410,000 men; just over 1,400 tanks, tank destroyers, and assault guns; 2,600 artillery pieces; 1,600 anti-tank guns; and over 1,000 combat aircraft, as well as large numbers of other armored fighting vehicles (AFVs).[4] These were reinforced a couple of weeks later, bringing the offensive's total strength to around 450,000 troops, and 1,500 tanks and assault guns. Between 63,222 and 98,000 of these men were killed, missing, wounded in action, or captured. For the Americans, out of a peak of 610,000 troops,[18] 89,000[5] became casualties out of which some 19,000 were killed.[5][19] The "Bulge" was the largest and bloodiest single battle fought by the United States in World War II[20][21][22] and the third-deadliest campaign in American history.

Battle of the Bulge Intro articles: 170

Background

After the breakout from Normandy at the end of July 1944 and the Allied landings in southern France on 15 August 1944, the Allies advanced towards Germany more quickly than anticipated.[d] The Allies faced several military logistics issues:

  • troops were fatigued by weeks of continuous combat
  • supply lines were stretched extremely thin
  • supplies were dangerously depleted.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower (the Supreme Allied Commander on the Western Front) and his staff chose to hold the Ardennes region which was occupied by the U.S. First Army. The Allies chose to defend the Ardennes with as few troops as possible due to the favorable terrain (a densely wooded highland with deep river valleys and a rather thin road network) and limited Allied operational objectives in the area. They also had intelligence that the Wehrmacht was using the area across the German border as a rest-and-refit area for its troops.[23]

Allied supply issues

The speed of the Allied advance coupled with an initial lack of deep-water ports presented the Allies with enormous supply problems.[24] Over-the-beach supply operations using the Normandy landing areas, and direct landing ships on the beaches, were unable to meet operational needs. The only deep-water port the Allies had captured was Cherbourg on the northern shore of the Cotentin peninsula and west of the original invasion beaches,[24] but the Germans had thoroughly wrecked and mined the harbor before it could be taken. It took many months to rebuild its cargo-handling capability. The Allies captured the port of Antwerp intact in the first days of September, but it was not operational until 28 November. The estuary of the Schelde river that controlled access to the port had to be cleared of both German troops and naval mines.[25] These limitations led to differences between General Eisenhower and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commander of the Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group, over whether Montgomery or Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, commanding the U.S. 12th Army Group, in the south would get priority access to supplies.[26] German forces remained in control of several major ports on the English Channel coast into the autumn, while Dunkirk remained under siege until the end of the war in May 1945.

The Allies' efforts to destroy the French railway system prior to D-Day were successful. This destruction hampered the German response to the invasion, but it proved equally hampering to the Allies, as it took time to repair the rail network's tracks and bridges. A trucking system nicknamed the Red Ball Express brought supplies to front-line troops, but used up five times as much fuel to reach the front line near the Belgian border. By early October, the Allies had suspended major offensives to improve their supply lines and supply availability at the front.[24]

Montgomery and Bradley both pressed for priority delivery of supplies to their respective armies so they could continue their individual lines of advance and maintain pressure on the Germans, while Eisenhower preferred a broad-front strategy. He gave some priority to Montgomery's northern forces. This had the short-term goal of opening the urgently needed port of Antwerp and the long-term goal of capturing the Ruhr area, the biggest industrial area of Germany.[24] With the Allies stalled, German Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshal) Gerd von Rundstedt was able to reorganize the disrupted German armies into a coherent defensive force.[24]

Field Marshal Montgomery's Operation Market Garden achieved only some of its objectives, while its territorial gains left the Allied supply situation stretched further than before. In October, the First Canadian Army fought the Battle of the Scheldt, opening the port of Antwerp to shipping. As a result, by the end of October, the supply situation had eased somewhat.

German plans

Despite a lull along the front after the Scheldt battles, the German situation remained dire. While operations continued in the autumn, notably the Lorraine Campaign, the Battle of Aachen and fighting in the Hürtgen Forest, the strategic situation in the west had changed little. The Allies were slowly pushing towards Germany, but no decisive breakthrough was achieved. The Western Allies already had 96 divisions at or near the front, with an estimated ten more divisions en route from the United Kingdom. Additional Allied airborne units remained in England. The Germans could field a total of 55 understrength divisions.[27]:1

Adolf Hitler first officially outlined his surprise counter-offensive to his astonished generals on 16 September 1944. The assault's ambitious goal was to pierce the thinly held lines of the U.S. First Army between Monschau and Wasserbillig with Army Group B (Model) by the end of the first day, get the armor through the Ardennes by the end of the second day, reach the Meuse between Liège and Dinant by the third day, and seize Antwerp and the western bank of the Scheldt estuary by the fourth day.[28]:1–64[29]

Hitler initially promised his generals a total of 18 infantry and 12 armored or mechanized divisions "for planning purposes." The plan was to pull 13 infantry divisions, two parachute divisions and six panzer-type divisions from the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht combined German military strategic reserve. On the Eastern Front, the Soviets' Operation Bagration during the summer had destroyed much of Germany's Army Group Center (Heeresgruppe Mitte). The extremely swift operation ended only when the advancing Soviet Red Army forces outran their supplies. By November, it was clear that Soviet forces were preparing for a winter offensive.[30]

Meanwhile, the Allied air offensive of early 1944 had effectively grounded the Luftwaffe, leaving the German Army with little battlefield intelligence and no way to interdict Allied supplies. The converse was equally damaging; daytime movement of German forces was rapidly noticed, and interdiction of supplies combined with the bombing of the Romanian oil fields starved Germany of oil and gasoline. This fuel shortage intensified after the Soviets overran those fields in the course of their August 1944 Jassy-Kishinev Offensive.

One of the few advantages held by the German forces in November 1944 was that they were no longer defending all of Western Europe. Their front lines in the west had been considerably shortened by the Allied offensive and were much closer to the German heartland. This drastically reduced their supply problems despite Allied control of the air. Additionally, their extensive telephone and telegraph network meant that radios were no longer necessary for communications, which lessened the effectiveness of Allied Ultra intercepts. Nevertheless, some 40–50 messages per day were decrypted by Ultra. They recorded the quadrupling of German fighter forces and a term used in an intercepted Luftwaffe message—Jägeraufmarsch (literally "Hunter Deployment")—implied preparation for an offensive operation. Ultra also picked up communiqués regarding extensive rail and road movements in the region, as well as orders that movements should be made on time.[31]

Drafting the offensive

Hitler felt that his mobile reserves allowed him to mount one major offensive. Although he realized nothing significant could be accomplished in the Eastern Front, he still believed an offensive against the Western Allies, whom he considered militarily inferior to the Red Army, would have some chances of success.[32] Hitler believed he could split the Allied forces and compel the Americans and British to settle for a separate peace, independent of the Soviet Union.[33] Success in the west would give the Germans time to design and produce more advanced weapons (such as jet aircraft, new U-boat designs and super-heavy tanks) and permit the concentration of forces in the east. After the war ended, this assessment was generally viewed as unrealistic, given Allied air superiority throughout Europe and their ability to continually disrupt German offensive operations.[34]

Hitler's plan called for a Blitzkrieg attack through the weakly defended Ardennes, mirroring the successful German offensive there during the Battle of France in 1940—aimed at splitting the armies along the U.S.—British lines and capturing Antwerp.[35] The plan banked on unfavorable weather, including heavy fog and low-lying clouds, which would minimize the Allied air advantage.[36] Hitler originally set the offensive for late November, before the anticipated start of the Russian winter offensive. The disputes between Montgomery and Bradley were well known, and Hitler hoped he could exploit this disunity. If the attack were to succeed in capturing Antwerp, four complete armies would be trapped without supplies behind German lines.[35]:19

Several senior German military officers, including Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model and Gerd von Rundstedt, expressed concern as to whether the goals of the offensive could be realized. Model and von Rundstedt both believed aiming for Antwerp was too ambitious, given Germany's scarce resources in late 1944. At the same time, they felt that maintaining a purely defensive posture (as had been the case since Normandy) would only delay defeat, not avert it. They thus developed alternative, less ambitious plans that did not aim to cross the Meuse River (in German and Dutch: Maas); Model's being Unternehmen Herbstnebel (Operation Autumn Mist) and von Rundstedt's Fall Martin ("Plan Martin"). The two field marshals combined their plans to present a joint "small solution" to Hitler.[e][f] When they offered their alternative plans, Hitler would not listen. Rundstedt later testified that while he recognized the merit of Hitler's operational plan, he saw from the very first that "all, absolutely all conditions for the possible success of such an offensive were lacking."[35]:24

Model, commander of German Army Group B (Heeresgruppe B), and von Rundstedt, overall commander of the German Army Command in the West (OB West), were put in charge of carrying out the operation.

In the west supply problems began significantly to impede Allied operations, even though the opening of the port of Antwerp in late November improved the situation somewhat. The positions of the Allied armies stretched from southern France all the way north to the Netherlands. German planning for the counteroffensive rested on the premise that a successful strike against thinly manned stretches of the line would halt Allied advances on the entire Western Front.[37]

Operation names

The Wehrmacht's code name for the offensive was Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein ("Operation Watch on the Rhine"), after the German patriotic hymn Die Wacht am Rhein, a name that deceptively implied the Germans would be adopting a defensive posture along the Western Front. The Germans also referred to it as Ardennenoffensive ("Ardennes Offensive") and Rundstedt-Offensive, both names being generally used nowadays in modern Germany. The French (and Belgian) name for the operation is Bataille des Ardennes (Battle of the Ardennes). The battle was militarily defined by the Allies as the Ardennes Counteroffensive, which included the German drive and the American effort to contain and later defeat it. The phrase Battle of the Bulge was coined by contemporary press to describe the way the Allied front line bulged inward on wartime news maps.[38][39]

While the Ardennes Counteroffensive is the correct term in Allied military language, the official Ardennes-Alsace campaign reached beyond the Ardennes battle region, and the most popular description in English speaking countries remains simply the Battle of the Bulge.

Planning

There is a popular impression that the chief trouble in the Ardennes is the lack of good roads. As anyone on the ground will agree, the Ardennes has a fairly good road system. It is not the lack of roads as much as the lack of almost anything else on which to move that matters.

— Theodore Draper,
84th Infantry Division in the Battle of the Ardennes, December 1944 - January 1945, 1945, p. 11 of 58

The OKW decided by mid-September, at Hitler's insistence, that the offensive would be mounted in the Ardennes, as was done in 1940. In 1940 German forces had passed through the Ardennes in three days before engaging the enemy, but the 1944 plan called for battle in the forest itself. The main forces were to advance westward to the Meuse River, then turn northwest for Antwerp and Brussels. The close terrain of the Ardennes would make rapid movement difficult, though open ground beyond the Meuse offered the prospect of a successful dash to the coast.

Four armies were selected for the operation. Adolf Hitler personally selected for the counter-offensive on the northern shoulder of the western front the best troops available and officers he trusted. The lead role in the attack was given to 6th Panzer Army, commanded by SS-Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich. It included the most experienced formation of the Waffen-SS: the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. It also contained the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. They were given priority for supply and equipment and assigned the shortest route to the primary objective of the offensive, Antwerp,[28]:1–64 starting from the northernmost point on the intended battlefront, nearest the important road network hub of Monschau.[40]

The Fifth Panzer Army under General Hasso von Manteuffel was assigned to the middle sector with the objective of capturing Brussels. The Seventh Army, under General Erich Brandenberger, was assigned to the southernmost sector, near the Luxembourgish city of Echternach, with the task of protecting the flank. This Army was made up of only four infantry divisions, with no large-scale armored formations to use as a spearhead unit. As a result, they made little progress throughout the battle.

The German plan

Also participating in a secondary role was the Fifteenth Army, under General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen. Recently brought back up to strength and re-equipped after heavy fighting during Operation Market Garden, it was located on the far north of the Ardennes battlefield and tasked with holding U.S. forces in place, with the possibility of launching its own attack given favorable conditions.

For the offensive to be successful, four criteria were deemed critical: the attack had to be a complete surprise; the weather conditions had to be poor to neutralize Allied air superiority and the damage it could inflict on the German offensive and its supply lines;[41] the progress had to be rapid—the Meuse River, halfway to Antwerp, had to be reached by day 4; and Allied fuel supplies would have to be captured intact along the way because the combined Wehrmacht forces were short on fuel. The General Staff estimated they only had enough fuel to cover one third to one half of the ground to Antwerp in heavy combat conditions.

The plan originally called for just under 45 divisions, including a dozen panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions forming the armored spearhead and various infantry units to form a defensive line as the battle unfolded. By this time the German Army suffered from an acute manpower shortage, and the force had been reduced to around 30 divisions. Although it retained most of its armor, there were not enough infantry units because of the defensive needs in the East. These 30 newly rebuilt divisions used some of the last reserves of the German Army. Among them were Volksgrenadier ("People's Grenadier") units formed from a mix of battle-hardened veterans and recruits formerly regarded as too young, too old or too frail to fight. Training time, equipment and supplies were inadequate during the preparations. German fuel supplies were precarious—those materials and supplies that could not be directly transported by rail had to be horse-drawn to conserve fuel, and the mechanized and panzer divisions would depend heavily on captured fuel. As a result, the start of the offensive was delayed from 27 November to 16 December.

Before the offensive the Allies were virtually blind to German troop movement. During the liberation of France, the extensive network of the French Resistance had provided valuable intelligence about German dispositions. Once they reached the German border, this source dried up. In France, orders had been relayed within the German army using radio messages enciphered by the Enigma machine, and these could be picked up and decrypted by Allied code-breakers headquartered at Bletchley Park, to give the intelligence known as Ultra. In Germany such orders were typically transmitted using telephone and teleprinter, and a special radio silence order was imposed on all matters concerning the upcoming offensive.[42] The major crackdown in the Wehrmacht after the 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler resulted in much tighter security and fewer leaks. The foggy autumn weather also prevented Allied reconnaissance aircraft from correctly assessing the ground situation. German units assembling in the area were even issued charcoal instead of wood for cooking fires to cut down on smoke and reduce chances of Allied observers deducing a troop buildup was underway.[43]

For these reasons Allied High Command considered the Ardennes a quiet sector, relying on assessments from their intelligence services that the Germans were unable to launch any major offensive operations this late in the war. What little intelligence they had led the Allies to believe precisely what the Germans wanted them to believe-–that preparations were being carried out only for defensive, not offensive, operations. The Allies relied too much on Ultra, not human reconnaissance. In fact, because of the Germans' efforts, the Allies were led to believe that a new defensive army was being formed around Düsseldorf in the northern Rhineland, possibly to defend against British attack. This was done by increasing the number of flak (Flugabwehrkanonen, i.e., anti-aircraft cannons) in the area and the artificial multiplication of radio transmissions in the area. The Allies at this point thought the information was of no importance. All of this meant that the attack, when it came, completely surprised the Allied forces. Remarkably, the U.S. Third Army intelligence chief, Colonel Oscar Koch, the U.S. First Army intelligence chief and the SHAEF intelligence officer Brigadier General Kenneth Strong all correctly predicted the German offensive capability and intention to strike the U.S. VIII Corps area. These predictions were largely dismissed by the U.S. 12th Army Group.[44] Strong had informed Bedell Smith in December of his suspicions. Bedell Smith sent Strong to warn Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, the commander of the 12th Army Group, of the danger. Bradley's response was succinct: "Let them come."[45]:362–366 Historian Patrick K. O'Donnell writes that on 8 December 1944 U.S. Rangers at great cost took Hill 400 during the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest. The next day GIs who relieved the Rangers reported a considerable movement of German troops inside the Ardennes in the enemy's rear, but that no one in the chain of command connected the dots.[46]

Because the Ardennes was considered a quiet sector, considerations of economy of force led it to be used as a training ground for new units and a rest area for units that had seen hard fighting. The U.S. units deployed in the Ardennes thus were a mixture of inexperienced troops (such as the raw U.S. 99th and 106th "Golden Lions" Divisions), and battle-hardened troops sent to that sector to recuperate (the 28th Infantry Division).

Two major special operations were planned for the offensive. By October it was decided that Otto Skorzeny, the German SS-commando who had rescued the former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, was to lead a task force of English-speaking German soldiers in "Operation Greif". These soldiers were to be dressed in American and British uniforms and wear dog tags taken from corpses and prisoners of war. Their job was to go behind American lines and change signposts, misdirect traffic, generally cause disruption and seize bridges across the Meuse River. By late November another ambitious special operation was added: Col. Friedrich August von der Heydte was to lead a Fallschirmjäger-Kampfgruppe (paratrooper combat group) in Operation Stösser, a night-time paratroop drop behind the Allied lines aimed at capturing a vital road junction near Malmedy.[47][48]

German intelligence had set 20 December as the expected date for the start of the upcoming Soviet offensive, aimed at crushing what was left of German resistance on the Eastern Front and thereby opening the way to Berlin. It was hoped that Soviet leader Stalin would delay the start of the operation once the German assault in the Ardennes had begun and wait for the outcome before continuing.

After 20 July attempt on Hitler's life, and the close advance of the Red Army which would seize the site on 27 January 1945, Hitler and his staff had been forced to abandon the Wolfsschanze headquarters in East Prussia, in which they had coordinated much of the fighting on the Eastern Front. After a brief visit to Berlin, Hitler traveled on his Führersonderzug ("Special Train of the Führer" (Leader)) to Giessen on 11 December, taking up residence in the Adlerhorst (eyrie) command complex, co-located with OB West's base at Kransberg Castle. Believing in omens and the successes of his early war campaigns that had been planned at Kransberg, Hitler had chosen the site from which he had overseen the successful 1940 campaign against France and the Low Countries.

Von Rundstedt set up his operational headquarters near Limburg, close enough for the generals and Panzer Corps commanders who were to lead the attack to visit Adlerhorst on 11 December, traveling there in an SS-operated bus convoy. With the castle acting as overflow accommodation, the main party was settled into the Adlerhorst's Haus 2 command bunker, including Gen. Alfred Jodl, Gen. Wilhelm Keitel, Gen. Blumentritt, von Manteuffel and Dietrich.

In a personal conversation on 13 December between Walter Model and Friedrich von der Heydte, who was put in charge of Operation Stösser, von der Heydte gave Operation Stösser less than a 10% chance of succeeding. Model told him it was necessary to make the attempt: "It must be done because this offensive is the last chance to conclude the war favorably."[49]

Battle of the Bulge Background articles: 88