December, 1944: Battle of the Bulge Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

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 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.

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 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.

Hilter’s Plan

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 Soviet threat.

Hitler’s generals were less confident of success. They argued that Germany did not have sufficient resources in troops and materiel 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.

Battle of the Bulge, 1944–1945

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 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.

The Offensive Begins

On the morning of December 16, advancing out of the winter gloom, the German forces under General Karl 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. Yet the German advance 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.

An American soldier guards some of the fifty thousand Germans captured at the Battle of the Bulge. (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 breech 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. 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

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 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 January 21, 1945, did the Allies manage to retake the lost ground.

American casualties of the Battle of the Bulge. (National Archives)

Aftermath

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, 48,000 wounded, and 21,000 captured or missing. Nearly 740 tanks and tank destroyers were lost. Among the soldiers, 4,500 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, hastening 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 Soviet New Year offensive on the Eastern Front and the Allied advance across the Rhine into the heart of Germany.

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