Battle of the Bulge Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Along an eight-mile front in the Ardennes region of France, the Germans launched a desperate surprise attack against the advancing Allied army. The counterattack—one of the bloodiest campaigns in history—slowed but could not stop the Allies’ advance.

Summary of Event

In December, 1944, six months after the successful landing at Normandy, Allied forces were closing in on Germany’s western frontier. The advance across France was so rapid as to overstretch the Allied supply lines that ran five hundred miles back to Normandy and the English Channel. Faced with growing fuel shortages, the supreme Allied commander, General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, gave fuel supply priority to the advancing British forces under Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery as they drove toward the Low Countries and the port city of Antwerp. The U.S. advance farther south ground to a halt as a result of the lack of fuel. As the Allied assault on Germany stalled, Adolf Hitler saw a chance to alter the course of the war by launching a great counteroffensive against the Western Allies. He announced his intentions on September 16 at a conference held at his East Prussian headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair. [kw]Battle of the Bulge (Dec. 16, 1944-Jan., 1945) [kw]Bulge, Battle of the (Dec. 16, 1944-Jan., 1945) Bulge, Battle of the (1944-1945) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];French campaign Bulge, Battle of the (1944-1945) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];French campaign [g]Europe;Dec. 16, 1944-Jan., 1945: Battle of the Bulge[01330] [g]France;Dec. 16, 1944-Jan., 1945: Battle of the Bulge[01330] [g]Belgium;Dec. 16, 1944-Jan., 1945: Battle of the Bulge[01330] [g]Luxembourg;Dec. 16, 1944-Jan., 1945: Battle of the Bulge[01330] [c]World War II;Dec. 16, 1944-Jan., 1945: Battle of the Bulge[01330] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 16, 1944-Jan., 1945: Battle of the Bulge[01330] Bradley, Omar N. Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;World War II Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;battle for Germany Montgomery, Bernard Law Patton, George S. Rundstedt, Gerd von

Hitler’s plan was bold and desperate. It called for an attack against the rugged Ardennes sector, thinly held by U.S. forces. Hoping for a repeat of the highly successful 1940 campaign that led to the fall of France, Hitler aimed at splitting the Allied forces—U.S. troops to the south and the British and Canadians to the north. The German thrust first would obtain the Meuse River and then advance on the strategically important city of Antwerp. Speed and the ability of the advancing German forces to capture key road junctions in the Ardennes were critical ingredients for success. Once this was achieved, the Allied forces (chiefly British and Canadian), north of a line running from Antwerp to the Ardennes, would be destroyed. Hitler hoped that, if the plan worked, the Allied coalition would fall apart, leading to a negotiated peace. It might at least be possible to transfer troops to the eastern front to meet the Russian threat.

Hitler’s generals were less confident of success. They argued that Germany did not have sufficient resources in troops and matériel to carry out such an attack. Nevertheless, by tremendous exertion, two new Panzer armies, the Sixth SS Panzer and Fifth Panzer, were assembled. More than twenty-five German divisions were gathered for the attack along a fifty-mile front opposite five U.S. divisions. Two largely infantry armies, the Fifteenth and Seventh, were to provide support on the right and left flanks, respectively, of advancing Panzer armies. Two hundred thousand troops were mustered, along with six hundred tanks and nineteen hundred guns. Opposite, the U.S. front was held by eighty thousand troops, supported by four hundred tanks and four hundred guns. Special commando units composed of English-speaking Germans dressed in U.S. uniforms were assembled to spread chaos behind the U.S. lines.

As the Germans marshaled their forces for the attack, strict secrecy was imposed on all involved. Poor weather and the rugged territory of the Eifel region opposite the U.S. sector covered German preparations. Radio traffic directly mentioning the impending counteroffensive was banned. Although the Allies had various clues that something was being planned, underestimation of German potential led Allied intelligence World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];military intelligence to disregard the accumulating evidence of a possible enemy winter offensive. Allied intelligence considered the broken terrain of the Ardennes region unsuitable and therefore unlikely to be attacked. Intercepted German radio traffic that mentioned fuel shortages was interpreted as a positive indicator that the Germans were incapable of launching an attack. In reality, fuel was being prioritized for the assembled German forces in the Eifel.

On the morning of December 16, advancing out of the winter gloom, the German forces under General Gerd von Rundstedt obtained complete tactical surprise as the great offensive began. Two U.S. divisions, depleted by earlier fighting, were shattered by the initial blow. Rapid gains were made by the attacking Germans, as they drove on the key road junctions at St. Vith and Bastogne. The German advance, however, immediately ran into difficulty. Even cut-off and surrounded U.S. units continued to fight with a ferocity unanticipated by the Germans. If the Allies underestimated the German ability to launch a great counteroffensive, Hitler also seriously erred by underestimating the fighting abilities of the U.S. troops.

U.S. soldiers from the 289th Infantry march through the Belgian portion of the Ardennes in January, 1945.

(National Archives)

For six days, U.S. troops at St. Vith held the critical road junction against German attacks. The 101st Airborne Division encircled at Bastogne held on in the face of tremendous pressure from the Fifth Panzer Army. The commander of the division responded to a surrender demand from the Germans with the famous reply, “Nuts!” To the north, the Eighty-second Airborne Division held on to the shoulder of the bulge. The Germans were unable to widen their initial breach in the Allied line. In the most infamous moment of the battle, on December 17, elements of the First SS Panzer Division participated in the murder of eighty-six U.S. prisoners at Malmedy. War crimes;World War II World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];war crimes A number of the German officers and men involved were later charged with war crimes. The German attack was canalized and proved unable to widen the initial breakthrough that had managed to create only a bulge in the Allied line, from which the famous battle receives its name.

The Allied response to the German attack was swift. Eisenhower halted all offensive operations along the front and concentrated all available Allied forces to stop the German advance. With communications sliced, Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s troops north of the salient were put under the command of Field Marshal Montgomery. In a remarkable feat, Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s Third Army halted the Germans’ advance into the Saar and, after a ninety-degree turn north, moved to relieve Bastogne.

By Christmas Day, staunch U.S. resistance and critical fuel shortages had stopped the German momentum more than five miles short of the Meuse River, the first objective of Hitler’s battle plan, and one hundred miles from the primary objective of Antwerp. A long but narrow bulge had been created in the Allied lines that was forty miles at the base and nearly sixty miles in depth. The clearing of the skies over the battlefield opened the way for massive Allied air attacks on the German forces. More than five thousand planes moved to cut off the German supply line and support the hard-pressed Allied ground forces. Not until late January, 1945, did the Allies manage to retake the lost ground.

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The Battle of the Bulge, perhaps the greatest battle in the history of the U.S. Army, took staggering tolls: The Germans lost 120,000 men either killed, wounded, or missing, along with six hundred tanks and assault guns. Air strikes to cover the retreating German forces had cost the Luftwaffe (the German air force) more than fifteen hundred aircraft. Allied casualties, chiefly from the United States, totaled 8,000 killed and 48,000 wounded, many of whom suffered from a new battlefield scourge in the form of frostbite, which sometimes necessitated amputation and almost always required lengthy convalescence. In addition, 21,000 Allied soldiers were captured or missing. Nearly 740 tanks and tank destroyers were lost. Among the soldiers, forty-five hundred African Americans saw action.

Hitler’s great gamble had failed without achieving any of its objectives. The Germans, using up their strategic reserves, lost irreplaceable men and equipment that hastened the end of the war. At most, the Germans had merely slowed the Allied advance by weeks. With the destruction of Germany’s reserves, little was left to stop the Russian New Year offensive on the eastern front and the Allied advance across the Rhine into the heart of Germany. Bulge, Battle of the (1944-1945) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];French campaign

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cole, Hugh M. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1965. Detailed official U.S. Army history, essential for any study of the battle. Black-and-white illustrations, maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eisenhower, Dwight D. Crusade in Europe. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1948. An account of the battle from the commander of Allied forces in Western Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fuller, J. F. C. The Second World War, 1939-1945. 1948. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1993. A critical strategic and tactical assessment of the conduct of the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liddell Hart, B. H. History of the Second World War. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971. An interpretative study that includes a chapter on the battle by one of the great military historians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacDonald, Charles B. A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge. New York: William Morrow, 1984. Account of the battle written from the perspective of the front-line infantry soldier, written by a rifle company commander. Black-and-white illustrations, maps, order of battle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitcham, Samuel W., Jr. Panzers in Winter: Hitler’s Army and the Battle of the Bulge. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2006. Book-length study of the Battle of the Bulge from the point of view of the German Panzer divisions at its center. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schrijvers, Peter. The Unknown Dead: Civilians in the Battle of the Bulge. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005. Unearths the narratives of the civilians living in the Ardennes who were caught in the middle of the massive campaign. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of World War II. New York: William Morrow, 1980. Excellent general history that places the battle within the wider context of the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Provides valuable insights on Hitler and Germany during the period leading up to and after the battle.

World War II: European Theater

Germany Mounts the Balkan Offensive

Germany Invades Russia

Germany and Italy Declare War on the United States

Battle of Stalingrad

Invasion of Normandy Begins the Liberation of Europe

Allied Forces Begin the Battle for Germany

V-E Day Marks the End of World War II in Europe

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