The 16th of December will mark the 70th anniversary of “The Battle of the Bulge”. This look back is dedicated to the veterans still alive who fought in the battle and those who have passed on, including my father who served in an artillery unit in Patton’s 3rd Army. We salute you all and thank you for your service.
The “Battle of the Bulge” was coined by the press to refer to the Allied
line bulged inward on wartime maps. It was also known as “Operation Watch on the Rhine”, “Battle of the Ardennes”, and the “Ardennes Counteroffensive”.
Since it was felt that Germany’s defensive stature to this point only offered a delay to defeat, it was decided to mount an offensive attack. Two plans were presented to Hitler. The first considered the retaking of Antwerp as too ambitious and did not involve the crossing of the Meuse River. The second involved a blitzkrieg attack through the Ardennes Mountains. This was the plan Hitler decided to use, despite the objection of many German generals. He felt the Americans weren’t capable of fighting effectively and the home front would collapse on hearing of such a decisive loss.
The port of Antwerp, Belgium, was used as a landing point for supplies
needed by the thinly spread allied troops after the breakout on Normandy. General Eisenhower determined the Ardennes area needed the least number of troops to defend and thus ranked low for replacements and supplies.
Seventh Army, protect the flank, and the Fifteenth Army, hold American forces in place and possibly launch their own attack if possible. The original attack was planned for November 27th but had to be delayed to December 16th due to the difficulties in delivering troops, equipment and supplies to the Ardennes.
The success of the plan rested on complete surprise, poor weather conditions, the Meuse River would have to be reached by day four, and the Allied fuel supplies would have to be taken intact. The captured fuel supplies were desperately needed for any further advancement.
At 05:30 December 16th the Germans began a 90 minute artillery
barrage, using 1,600 artillery pieces across an 80 mile allied front facing the 6th Panzer Army.
Heavy snowstorms grounded Allied air support but also reeked havoc on German ground advancement causing huge traffic jams and fuel shortages.
In the north the 6th Panzer Army was kept in check by a single 18-man reconnaissance platoon from the 99th Division and 4 Forward Artillery Observers for almost 10 hours causing a bottleneck that would delay attack on Liege and Antwerp by 24 hours. The 99th Division as a whole, outnumbered five to one, would inflict a casualty ratio of 18 to one. A historian would later remark, “… the action of the 2nd and 99th Divisions on the northern shoulder could be considered the most decisive of the Ardennes campaign.”
On December 17th outside the town of Malmedy the Germans encountered units of the U.S. 7th Armored Division after a brief battle
the Americans surrendered and along with other prisoners, totaling about 150, were taken to an open field to await transport. A short time later an SS unit came and for reasons unknown to this day opened fire on the unarmed men killing 84. Their bodies were left in the field for American forces to discover when they passed through. The survivors stories and reports of the discovery of the bodies spread like wildfire through the American ranks causing outrage toward all German forces. Also on December 17th 11 black American soldiers surrendered, were tortured and shot by the 1st SS Panzer Division outside Wereth. On New Year’s Day, having received orders to take no prisoners, American soldiers shot 60 German prisoners near Chenogne.
On December 19th units of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division were dropped at La Gleize and essentially halted the German advancement. The German units held their ground until it was determined reinforcements would not reach them, then they fought their way back to their lines.
Meanwhile in the center, the Fifth Panzer Army fared better and moved on toward St. Vith. In St. Vith they were met by units of the 7th
and 9th Armored Divisions as well as 28th Infantry Division. They managed to slow the German Advancement but Field Marshall Montgomery would order the town be evacuated on December 21st. The original German plan was for the town to be taken 18:00 December 17th and the delay dealt a severe blow to their timetable.
Further south they encountered the 112th Infantry Regiment of 28th Infantry Division which held up the crossing of the River Our and the push on to St. Vith and Bastogne for 2 days. The 109th and 110th did not fare as well. The 110th was spread out along an 11 mile front while a whole battalion was held in reserve. Though they did not halt the German advance they did delay it long enough for the 101st Airborne Division as well as elements of the 9th and 10th Armored Divisions to reach Bastogne on December 19th.
In the south the German Seventh Army was held in check by the U.S. VIII Corps and 82nd Airborne Division. Only the 5th Parachute Division was able to break through Allied line and partially fulfill it’s mission.
By December 21st Bastogne was surrounded trapping the 101st
Airborne Division and Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division inside. By December 22nd food was scarce, medical supplies and personnel had been captured, and artillery ammunition was limited to 10 rounds per day. When Brig. Gen. McAuliffe was asked to surrender he replied “Nuts!” On the 23rd the weather cleared and supply drops, mainly ammunition, were made for four of the next five days. The town’s perimeter was maintained.
By the 21st of December 2 panzer Divisions had moved forward out of Bastogne leaving only one to capture the town. Due to lack of men and exhaustion the Germans concentrated on assaults on individual locations rather than a simultaneous assault from all sides. The attacks failed and all their tanks were destroyed.
General Eisenhower, at a staff meeting asked Gen. Patton (whose Third Army was fighting in northeastern France), how long it would
take to turn them north for a counterattack. To the disbelief of all at the meeting he replied he could attack with two divisions within 48 ours. What they didn’t know was that he had already turned a corps sized unit toward Bastogne before he had left for the meeting. On December 26th the spearhead of Patton’s 4th Armored Division opened a corridor to Bastogne ending the siege.
On January 7th Hitler agreed to pull all German forces from the Ardennes. Fighting would continue for another three weeks, with Americans retaking St. Vith on January 23rd and German forces returning to their starting points on January 25th thus ending all German offensive operations.
Winston Churchill reflecting on the battle stated, “This is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory.”
Casualty estimates for the battle vary widely. The official U.S. account
lists 80,987 American casualties, while other estimates range from 70,000 to 108,000. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, American forces suffered 89,500 casualties including 19,000 killed, 47,500 wounded and 23,000 missing. An official report by the United States Department of the Army lists 108,347 casualties, including 19,246 killed, 62,489 wounded, and 26,612 captured or missing. The Battle of the Bulge was the bloodiest battle for U.S. forces in World War II. British losses totaled 1,400. The German High Command’s official figure for the campaign was 84,834 German casualties, and other estimates range between 60,000 and 100,000.
I hope you take the time to reflect on the hardships suffered by these heroes of the past and take the time to thank the heroes of the present.