The Battle of the Bulge in Retrospect



The 1944-45 Ardennes Offensive, which everyone in the United States calls the Battle of the Bulge, should need no introduction for Americans. After the Western Allies reached Germany’s western borders in the early Autumn of 1944 following the breakout from Normandy, Hitler had the OKW—Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (High Command of the Armed Forces)—draw up plans for a bold counter-offensive to break through to the port city of Antwerp in northern Belgium, the primary transit depot and supply port for the entire Western Front.

The Plan

The proposed offensive went through multiple iterations. All versions called for an attack on the American held portion of the front, but Field Marshals Walter Model and Gerd von Rundstedt were turned off by the extreme unlikeliness of success for such an ambitious operation this late in the war and this gravely outnumbered and outgunned, so they combined their own ideas for an offensive and proposed a “small solution” codenamed Herbstnebel (“Autumn Mist”), a more localized attack to destroy a large chunk of American divisions in the Aachen-Monschau area instead of a go-for-broke drive through the Ardennes to Antwerp; if the operation met with success, then another offensive toward Antwerp on a narrower front could be considered.

Hitler decided to stick with his own “big solution” instead, which was given the operational name Wacht am Rhein (“Watch on the Rhine”), although confusingly just before the offensive began Model renamed it Herbstnebel, the same name as his previously proposed.

The attack would be against the most weakly defended area of the Allied line, which happened to be the Ardennes sector on the German border with Belgium and Luxembourg, the same place where the breakthrough leading to France’s defeat in the 1940 campaign had occurred.

Conducting Hitler’s planned attack would be three of the four Armies of Model’s own Army Group B; the Sixth Panzer Army under SS General Sepp Dietrich would attack in the north on a front running from Imgenbroich to Krewinkel. Just to the south Fifth Panzer Army under General Hasso von Manteuffel would attack on a front from Roth bei Prüm to Gemünd. South of Fifth Panzer Army, the Seventh Army under General Erich Brandenberger would attack on a front from Stolzembourg to Girst. The Fifth and Sixth Panzer armies were the focal point, both would dash toward the Meuse River as quickly as possible, cross it, and then fight their way to Antwerp. The Seventh Army would attack out to an area west of Neufchâteau and defend the southern flank of the offensive from counter attacks.

Sepp Dietrich, commander of the Sixth Panzer Army
Hasso von Manteuffel, commander of the Fifth Panzer Army
Erich Brandenburger, commander of the Seventh Army

The northernmost army of Model’s Army Group B, the Fifteenth, would not be involved in Herbstnebel; there had been preliminary planning for it to play a limited role in the offensive, but it was too heavily engaged defending the Hürtgen Forest and Düren areas (and coming off of the loss of Aachen) from constant American attacks to participate. The possibility of the Fifteenth Army moving west to cover the right flank of the Sixth Panzer Army after it crossed the Meuse was still juggled around at OB West headquarters, but von Rundstedt thought it would take a miracle to even get to the Meuse, let alone crossing it and getting to Antwerp, so no serious planning was done its involvment.

Despite their dire situation and manpower shortages the Germans amassed an impressive force of several hundred thousand men in the Eifel region (the portion of the Ardennes that extends into Germany) only a few miles behind the Siegfried Line/Westwall, and all under the noses of the U.S. army.

Hitler had suspicions of a major intelligence leak, so only the highest ranking officers involved were briefed on the upcoming attack until the last 48 hours before kick off. Orders for units and equipment to be transported to the staging area were primarily delivered by telegraph lines or couriers rather than radio. Allied intelligence had become so reliant on the enigma decrypts (codenamed Ultra) that the rather muted wireless traffic on their end was seen as a sure sign that the Germans would just sit tight for the winter waiting for the enemy to come to them, and the mindset of “hey, the war is pretty much over at this point anyways, ain’t it? Surely the krauts realize that…” didn’t help either. This was in spite of aerial reconnaissance showing a build up of German forces in foreword areas, and most damningly bridging equipment being moved to the front — building bridges for armies to cross is not exactly associated with defensive strategy. The result was that the day Operation Autumn Mist was launched, the 16th of December, the U.S. Army was caught completely by surprise.

The front line in Ardennes on the day before the attack

The Battle

The opposing American formations were part of General Courtney Hodge’s First Army, which also happened to be the largest Allied army in the field. However most of its divisions were tied up fighting the German Fifteenth Army to the north; this area was the site of the main U.S. effort to penetrate the Siegfried Line that had cost so many American casualties in the Autumn months, and was still causing many casualties in the Hürtgen Forest where yet another offensive was underway by December. The ones actually defending the Ardennes were six divisions and various smaller units spread out on a front 60 miles long.

When the offensive began in earnest the Fifth Panzer Army in the center landed devastating blows on the U.S. army; the defending 106th and 28th Divisions disintegrated as cohesive units within the first two days. However, Manteuffel’s army was then stalled in protracted fighting at the vital crossroad towns of Sankt Vith, which didn’t fall until December 23rd, and the far more famous Bastogne. The 101st ‘Screaming Eagles’ Airborne Division along with two armored combat commands had arrived in time to set up a defense before being encircled, forcing Manteuffel to bypass Bastogne and badly interrupt his chain of supply. Despite these setbacks Fifth Panzer Army’s spearheads almost reached the Meuse….only to then get counter attacked and smashed on Christmas Day within a few miles of the river. In January 1945 the Allies launched a counter-offensive to reduce the massive salient created by Herbstnebel, and the Fifth Panzer Army was back at its starting positions by early February.

Brandenburger’s Seventh Army had a much more difficult time in the south, here the defending American force held a front along the Sauer River. The attack on its right flank went well, but on the left the veteran 4th Infantry Division held its own around Echternach for several days, resulting in the army’s whole axis of advance being forced much further northwest than their objective. When Patton’s Third Army raced from the south to relieve the encirclement of Bastogne, it was Brandenburger’s lead units that were standing in his way. Initially frustrating attempts to relieve Bastogne, Brandenburgers army was quickly pushed north by the relief force, before being mauled by the allied counter-offensive in January.

German troops moved toward the American line in Luxembourg on the southern wing of the offensive, December 1944.

The Sixth Panzer Army under Sepp Dietrich had the shortest and most direct route route to Antwerp, but its attack on December 16th was a misfire. The northernmost prong of its advance was violently repulsed at Monschau, and one of the two attacking SS Panzer divisions of Hermann Priess’ I. SS-Panzerkorps was severely delayed by a holding action at the twin villages of Krinkelt and Rocherath. Only the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler division moving through the Losheim gap (after having been significantly delayed itself) was able to make a clean breakthrough in the American line. The main spearhead of the LSSAH division was Kampfgruppe Peiper, a provisional battlegroup lead by Colonel Joachim Peiper. KG Peiper advanced the furthest of any German unit in the early phase of the battle, but by 20th December it was boxed in from all sides in a valley around the villages of Chêneu and La Gleize. On Christmas Eve Peiper’s battlegroup had to give up much of its heavy equipment and trekked back on foot through enemy territory to get back to friendly lines, ending all hopes for a breakthrough to the Meuse. After being pushed back by the Allied counteroffensive in January the Sixth Panzer Army was withdrawn for use on the Eastern Front.

It turned out that Rundstedt and all the other naysayers were right: the offensive didn’t make it to the Meuse, let alone Antwerp.

In Retrospect

The basic overview of the battle out of the way, this was probably the defining campaign for the U.S. Army during World War Two. In the European Theater it was second only to the campaign in Normandy in terms of bloodshed, but nearly half of the Allied forces involved there were from Britain and the Commonwealth nations.

Unlike Normandy, the Bulge was a very American-centric affair. While there was an entire British Corps brought down from the Netherlands to defend the crossing points of the Meuse, they served as a back up blocking line; the actual German spearheads that came within striking distance were dealt with by American units brought in from the north, British troops weren’t used until later in comparatively minor actions at the tip of the Bulge. The RAF similarly gave air support to Americans fighting on the northern shoulder of the Bulge, but had a muted role compared to the USAAF. Instead the most significant British involvement was in leadership. On 20th December the U.S. 9th and 1st armies were removed from Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group and put under the command of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, leaving only Patton’s army under Bradley’s control (all of First Army units in the south being moved to Patton’s army) until January 16th, when the Germans had been pushed back far enough and he resumed command of all three of the American armies again.

The decision by SHAEF to place two American armies under Montgomery’s command was very controversial, but necessary. Eisenhower had requested that Bradley move his HQ west out of Luxembourg to avoid being cut off from the units in the north but he refused, while Montgomery was simply better able to command the defense of the northern shoulder. Certainly Monty brought with him a more balanced view of the battlefield, avoiding a suicidal last beyond the Salm River that one of his Corps commanders pushed so hard for being one example, but sometimes his caution was il-advised. One of the most dramatic American victories of the battle came when General Joseph Collins ignored Monty’s defensive orders and counter attacked the German spearhead at Celles that had come closest to the Meuse. Nevertheless his brand of calm and calculated risk assessment worked out just fine for the mission at hand.

Field Marshall Montgomery with the commanding generals of the four armies subordinate to him during that Winter. From left to right: Miles Dempsey, Courtney Hodges, Bernard Montgomery, William Simpson, Harry Crerar

Overall there are many misconceptions about the battle. For example, that it was “insane” to launch an attack in the Ardennes, that it damaged the Wehrmacht more than the U.S. Army, and that it had no hope of success. It may be true that it was a one in a million shot given the difference in firepower and numbers at this point, but that’s better than the alternative of a zero in a million shot. The Germans were running out of resources and men fast, a defensive strategy of fighting the Allies to a stalemate simply couldn’t work with such a numerical disparity, they couldn’t make up the losses while the Allies could. That’s the same problem with even the more feasible small solution, a tactical victory over the Allies in the Aachen area could inflict a lot of casualties, but those loses wouldn’t cripple the Allies, in fact any plan to simply inflict heavier losses on the enemy than what their side was taking was a losing strategy, the Germans had already been doing that for the last five years, and the casualty ratio was no longer as strongly in their favor even compared to 1943.

The strike at the Western Allies would have to be a massive blow with large implications, and capturing Antwerp, as unlikely as it was, was still theoretically possible, and it was supply issues that helped grind the Allied march into western Germany to a halt in the Autumn; even though Antwerp itself was captured by the British in September, it wasn’t until the German held Scheldt estuary was cleared in a costly battle that dragged into November that shipping from the channel could pass through. Given how most of the channel ports such as Dunkirk and Calais were still defended by German holdouts and the next usable port was Brest on the opposite end of France (the rest were either too small or had been so badly sabotaged they would take months to repair), Antwerp was the bottleneck that could prove to be Eisenhower’s undoing. A shot in the dark is better than no shot at all. As it was, the offensive failed, albeit with heavier American than German casualties, and there was certainly some errors in the operational plan.

Another big misconception is the weather. The iconic images from the Bulge are of the snow covered landscapes, but while snow had fallen earlier in the month there was a sudden thaw. The first week of the offensive was instead characterized by rainsqualls during the day and light snowfall at night that quickly melted the next day. The lack of a deep freeze until Christmas time meant wet soil and muddy roads, badly effecting the German advance, but they had decided to launch the offensive anyways as their perquisite of low clouds and heavy fog to prevent the intervention of allied airpower was met.

Having the most direct route and yet falling the shortest of its objectives, the attack by Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army in the north has remained the most scrutinized part of the offensive. However while it’s true that his army failed to make headway to Antwerp, it faced greater obstacles than the other two armies.

The SS armored formations of Dietrich’s army were the focal point (or schwerpunkt in German-speak) for the attack in the north, yet the plan called for Volksgrenadiers to break through the first line of defense to allow the armored units to pass through. Volksgrenadier divisions were a late war replacement for standard German infantry divisions but with less troops, artillery, and training; fine for defense but just not suited for breakthough operations. Whereas the Volksgrenadier formations in Manteuffel’s army had room to maneuver, Dietrich’s were cut down in the forests outside Krinkelt-Rocherath. The 12th SS “Hitlerjugend” Panzer Division had to be brought foreword in order to breakthrough at Krinkelt-Rocherath but became stuck in a costly attritional fight, fatally delaying their time table. The 1st SS Division further south made a hole in the defenses south of the twin villages, leading 12th SS to follow this path and try to attack the Elsenborn Ridge from the south at Bütgenbach, but these attempts had all failed by the end of 22 December.

A severe looking Swabian raised by devout Roman Catholics, Sepp Dietrich (who’s first name was actually Josef) was the odd man out of the three Army-level commanders: he was a Waffen SS general rather than a member of the regular German army, and although he was the oldest and all three of them had served in the First World War, he had the least experience at high level command. Regardless, the accusations about his supposed mismanagement of the northern prong of the offensive are grossly overblown. Compared with Manteuffel, Dietrich’s army was severely lacking in bridging and engineering equipment, and was attacking on a narrower, better defended front; his principle attacking formation, I. SS Panzerkorps, was facing one mechanized cavalry group and two infantry divisions on the first day alone (they were quickly reinforced by another division within 36 hours), while against Manteuffel’s leading XLVII Panzerkorps there was only a single American infantry regiment. Due to the density of forces opposing Dietrich, he did not have the luxury of out maneuver warfare from the start as was the case with Manteuffel.

As for what the generals themselves had to say about the fighting in the Bulge you can read them in PDF format here: Dietrich, Manteuffel, Brandenburg, and Kramer.

Troops of the 2nd Infantry Division digging in on the Elsenborn Ridge

Overall, while the offensive may have been a failure, it did inflicted massive losses on the US army; 90,000 casualties versus 65,000 for the Germans. Whether the offensive lengthened or shortened the war is still a debate, but it was the only option for a country backed up against the wall.

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