The Battle of the Bulge

In Western Europe, the Allied Forces had routed the Nazis in France, destroying two armies and opening the way to the German frontier. British and US troops were slowed more by lack of supplies than German resistance. After the breakout in Normandy, the Army dashed across France and the Low Countries, only wheezing to a stop at the German border.  Just as soon as the logistical tail could catch up, the columns of tanks, infantry and artillery would finish off the the feldgrau Wehrmacht. The Nazis were on the brink of collapse. Everyone knew it. It was only a matter of months, weeks, days…

But on the morning of December  16, 1944, a bitterly cold, foggy day saw a truly massive German counterattack against the weakest point of the Allied lines. The Ardennes forest was held by a tissue thin layer of troops. Green units that hadn’t heard a shot in anger, and units bled white in other battles were more  a string of outposts than any sort of defense. 

The Germans had amassed an incredible three field armies for the counteroffensive. Extraordinary security measures had kept Allied intelligence in the dark. The Allies knew reserves were being built, but failed to grasp the scale and the likely avenue of attack. Instead, the Allies though only strong local counterattacks were likely, and those were expected in the north.

The German aim was to split the Allied front,  cross the Meuse river, and roll onto the vital port of Antwerp, the key logistical hub of the Allies.  Having split the British and the Americans, the Germans intended to defeat them in detail, buying time in the West to focus on the Russians in the East.

The Ardennes had several times before been the favored German route of attack to the west.  Armchair strategists have long criticized American generals for the weak defense of this sector. But the enormous frontage covered across Europe, and the relatively small numbers of troops available meant the US and British couldn’t be strong everywhere. The decision to leave a light screen across the Ardennes forest was a risk, but it was a calculated one.

The appalling weather of December 16 meant a key component of Allied strength would be absent. Low clouds, fog and snow meant Allied airpower was grounded. Indeed, a forecast of bad weather was a key factor in the German timing of the attack.

When the Germans slammed into the American lines, some units were simply overrun. Others melted away in panic, and others fought doggedly if ultimately futilely.  Casualties and confusion were the order of the day. It took Allied leadership time to first grasp the scale of the assault, and then to tamp down incipient panic.  If the Army’s nose was badly bloodied, there had been no knockout punch.

Hitler, who had crafted the plan almost singlehandedly, had visions of victorious troops slicing their way through the lines to victory in the West. But like most Hitlerean plans, the Ardennes offensive had grave flaws. The US Army in the Ardennes in 1944, thin as it was, was far more agile and mobile than the French forces the Germans had steamrolled in 1940. And even without airpower, those forces had far more firepower than the French of 1940. Further, for the most part, the US forces were a well trained, well blooded force, stubborn and with an esprit de corps the French could only dream of.  And terrain too played its part. The very thing that made the Ardennes an attractive avenue of attack also made it a poor one. The Ardennes was lightly held because it was just a forest, with little infrastructure or industry, and an extremely poor road network. The Germans had three armies for the assault, but in reality, only fragments of each could be fed into battle at any one time. Without holding the hubs of the few road networks in the region, such as at Bastogne, the bulk of the German forces would spend the offensive sitting idly, useless as if they’d never been gathered.

Recognizing this, the Allies moved heaven and earth to hold key towns and roads. The Battle of Bastogne, memorialized in books and movies, has come to symbolize the Battle of the Bulge. The intersection of five main roads made Bastogne, an otherwise unremarkable town, the center of the world’s attention in December 1944. Troops from the 101st Airborne, and a hodgepodge of other divisions, cut off, surrounded, and under constant attack by overwhelming German forces seemed ripe for the picking. Urged by the German commander to surrender his hopeless position, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, the senior American in the town, gave the most memorable reply –“Nuts!”

Eventually, Patton’s Third Army, lead by future Chief of Staff Creighton Abrams and his 37th Armor, would relieve the siege of Bastogne. And eventually, the Americans would halt the German penetration, and attack to regain the initiative.  Countless German soldiers who could have been used to defend the Western Wall or the far bank of the Rhine, were instead caught in the open in Belgium. German losses mounted, and mounted again. The war wouldn’t be over in weeks or days, but the loss of so many troops did mean that the Germans would collapse in months.

The Battle of the Bulge remains to this day the largest battle in the history of the United States Army. Countless stories of valor and struggle came from it. Legends and traditions that inspire to this day arose from the battle.  Sleepy villages across bucolic regions of the Benelux today were, 68 years ago, the scene of some of the most epic struggles in the history of warfare.

The Army has a nice website with more information and pictures.

3 thoughts on “The Battle of the Bulge”

  1. I think there are criticisms that can be made about the battle. The one that bears directly was outrunning the logistical tail. A lot of that was the fault of Eisenhower who repeatedly showed favoritism to the Brits because of Montgomery’s narcisism and trying to use short rations to hold Patton back. Bradley and Patton ended up nearly being at war with Smith and Eisenhower because of it and Ike was stung by being called the Brit’s best General. Frankly, Eisenhower was a poor choice as CG SHAEF simply because he was unwilling to recognize the best axis of advance as well as who had the best chances of moving fastest. Montgomery was not the man for bold leadership as he was at best a plodder who pulled laurels after better people than him had already worn down the Afrika Korps. His plan in Sicily was an abortion that kept the allies from trapping at least two of Germany’s best divisions because of his tentative leadership.

    The rest was beyond the control of anyone in the ETO. The decision had been made early to limit the Army to 90 divisions to allow building an Air Force, particularly the 8th. This cost an enormous amount of money for little return (the Strategic Bombing Survey said the 8th AF was at best helpful. The TACs were far more useful and were decisive weapons in their own right.

    Some have said that limiting the Army to 90 divisions nearly cost the war. I’m not sure I can agree with that, but it certainly came to haunt the Army in France because of the losses sustained in the drive across France.

    1. I tend to think Eisenhower was indeed the best man for the job of CinCSHAEF. The other leading candidate would have been Mark Clark, and I tend to think he was too vain to be truly effective in leading the contentious personalities of the theater.

      And I’d argue that Eisenhower knew quite well which was the best axis of approach to Germany. It was, unfortunately, the northern axis. It is the shortest route, has the best terrain, and leads to the industrial heartland of Germany and to Berlin. But circumstances beyond his control dictated that British Forces would have to occupy the left of the Allied line, and thus be on the northern axis. In fact, that was one of the first posts I wrote here. Long story short, Eisenhower was forced to use his weakest army against his strongest opposition. Also, don’t forget that, while Eisenhower was indeed the Supreme Commander, he still had to answer not just to Marshall, but also to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, and often to Roosevelt and Churchill personally. To say they had some influence on the conduct of the war would be an understatement.

      I certainly share your criticisms of Montgomery. It’s been said of him that he had the gift of obtaining modest results from massive resources. And that’s pretty true. But he also had enough sense to know there were very real limitations on just how hard the British Army could be pressed without risking collapse. We forget just how ghastly their losses were in World War I, and for all the British Bulldog spirit, the British were determined not to shed similar amounts of blood in the second World War.

  2. Alas, terrain doesn’t necessarily determine the best axis of advance. Because Patton was on the right, that turned out to be the best as he was the best the Allies had in the ETO.

    I doubt Clark would have lasted through North Africa. He showed himself to be less than a military genius in Italy. He was a worse plodder than Montgomery.

    While David Irving is pretty well hated because of world Jewry’s antipathy towards him, his book on the allied commanders and the fights they had amongst themselves is a very interesting read. The name of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff escapes me, but Montgomery had a very close relationship with him, and was they weer working together to undermine Eisenhower at every turn.

    While Eisenhower had to worry about a number of people, he was most sensitive to the British and because the US Chiefs of Staff were 3500 miles away, the Brits had far more influence on him. It lead to many, if not most, of the problems of command in the northern ETO, and played a very large part in setting up the Battle of the Bulge. Militarily, Patton would have been a better choice. His personality, however, would have had the Brits screaming, even though most of his decisions probably would have been correct (he was certainly correct about Sicily, even after he was handed a scut job, still wildly outperformed Montgomery and Alexander was willing to admit it). Eisenhower was the better choice for one reason only, he was far more maleable and his weakness allowed Montgomery to get away with things he should never have been able to get away with.

    Had I been FDR I would have insisted on Patton in command, and if the Brits started screaming, I would have asked them if they wanted us to negotiate a separate peace with the Germans. The other option would have been to set Montgomery up as a separate theater commander and let him work out his own salvation with British resources and we live off ours. I’d bet a dollar to a donut, we’d beat him across Germany and have fewer casualties as a result.

    Eisenhower’s decisions, on the other hand, probably lengthened the war by at least 4 to 6 months. Montgomery’s stupidity at the Falaise gap allowed a full field Army to escape a kessel, and we saw those troops again in the Ardennes that fall and early winter.

    As an aside, the Ardennes was about the only place the Germans could attack. It was impossible to get the entire Army engaged funneling it through there, but Hodges was by far weaker than Patton was, in spite of the handcuffs Eisenhower tried to place on Patton through the supply situation. Patton pulled Eisenhower’s irons out of the fire and Eisenhower was utterly ungrateful for it.

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