The battle of the Bulge: Hitler’s final gamble

In 1944, the Nazis launched a huge counterattack in the west aimed at bringing the Allied advance on Germany to an abrupt halt. Peter Caddick-Adams reveals why Churchill hailed the ensuing battle of the Bulge as “an ever famous American victory”...

This article was first published in the November 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

SS troops dash across a road near St Vith, east Belgium on 18 December 1944. Hitler’s Ardennes offensive, spearheaded by 200,000 soldiers and 600 tanks, caught the Allies cold and punched a huge hole in their lines. (Corbis/picture consultant: Everett Sharp)

Nestling deep in the Ardennes, overlooked by hills and woods, Hotton is an unremarkable Belgian town, sitting astride the river Ourthe. This sleepy crossroads community, with its church, stone farmhouses and wooden barns, still bears a close resemblance to the 1940s settlement, although the scattering of modern buildings indicate that vicious fighting once occurred here.

Walk down the main street and you can picture the 5th Panzer Division racing through, on their way to the river Meuse during the Saturday afternoon of 11 May 1940. Clattering down the cobbles from the east – young, keen and scenting victory – the black-clad German tank men easily captured Hotton’s little bridge over the river Ourthe, despite attempts by Belgian pioneers to destroy it. At the same hour three miles south, other panzers belonging to a then obscure major-general named Erwin Rommel were splashing across a ford, at Beffe. Within a matter of weeks, Hitler’s rampaging forces subdued Belgian, French and British forces and, for the time being at least, won the war in western Europe.

Four and a half years later – at 08:30am on the winter solstice, Thursday 21 December 1944 – the panzers returned, following the same route, aiming again for Hotton’s bridge. This time it was men from 116th Panzer Division, called the Windhund – the Greyhounds. And this is how they saw themselves: fast, sleek and straining at the leash to reach the Meuse, 24 miles away.

They were part of a spearhead of panzer divisions, assigned to the last major German attack in the west, codenamed Herbstnebel (Autumn Mist), though now better known as the battle of the Bulge. The campaign had begun at 05:30am on 16 December, when the misty gloom of the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg was ripped apart by a deafening roar. To onlookers, the eastern horizon turned white, “as though a volcano had suddenly erupted or someone had turned a light switch on”.


An American M-10 tank destroyer advances along an Ardennes forest road. Freezing weather grounded Allied air fleets and hampered efforts to repel the German advance. (© Getty)

The sudden cacophony rolled from the pretty half-timbered town of Monschau in the north along 80 miles of front to the resort city of Echternach in the south. Woods were shredded, the earth trembled and the ground exploded in showers of stones and red-hot metal splinters. GIs cowered in their tree-trunk bunkers and stone houses, while every calibre of shell the Third Reich possessed was hurled at them. German infantry and hundreds of carefully husbanded panzers soon followed.

The plan was devised by Hitler personally, and first occurred to him as the germ of an idea even before the Allies had seized back Normandy from German forces. He briefed his generals on his concept on 16 September: three armies of newly raised infantry divisions, supported by tanks, would attack the Allies from the safety of that great system of pillboxes and strongpoints along Germany’s western frontier, the Siegfried Line.

 

Dead of winter

The objective was both political and military. By aiming for the port of Antwerp, over 120 miles away, Hitler hoped to sever the Allies from their logistics, which would bring their forces to a halt as they ran out of fuel, ammunition and rations. He also hoped this shock would be enough to shatter Anglo-US military co-operation, allowing him to make peace with the western Allies on his terms, and concentrate on Russia. The timing was crucial: Hitler’s troops were to attack in the dead of winter when poor weather would ground the Allied air fleets.

Hitler’s generals protested that the aim was too bold. Besides, they had neither the troops nor supplies – especially fuel – to maintain such an attack. Their protests were half-hearted: after the 20 July Stauffenberg plot (when a group of high-ranking German soldiers tried to assassinate Hitler), even objective criticism could be mistaken for treason. They were silenced as much by fear as by Hitler’s insistence on deciding all the details himself. He refused to countenance any alterations to his plans and became obsessive about security. Hitler apprised the divisional commanders of their roles personally only on 11–12 December, leaving no time for reconnaissance, training or rehearsals. More junior commanders had  just 24 hours’ notice.

Orders were transmitted in person by officer courier, meaning that the Allied code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park had little knowledge in advance of the impending storm. Thus, the Allies were caught totally by surprise when 200,000 German soldiers, supported by just over 600 tanks in 13 infantry and five panzer divisions, suddenly attacked the weakest portion of the Allied line, held by the US VIII Corps of General Troy Middleton.

Several days’ march from their start lines, the 116th Panzer Division emerged from the morning mists at Hotton to surprise a few men of the US 23rd and 51st Combat Engineers, armed with an anti-tank gun, a couple of anti-aircraft guns and a few tanks of the 3rd Armored Division. The Greyhounds’ morning assault, and another launched in the gloom of evening, narrowly failed to take the crossing from a handful of defending American engineers, clerks and mechanics “armed with a smattering of bazookas and .50-inch calibre machine guns”, crouching behind hasty barricades of overturned trucks.

Ordinarily the defenders wouldn’t have stood a chance but they had been through the Normandy campaign and were combat-hardened and determined. They knew the value of their little bridge to the column of impatient panzers, and determined to hold out until reinforcements arrived. The Germans were also low on fuel. Although they had captured food and gasoline along the way, they soon ran out again, hampering their ability to manoeuvre around the little town. The defenders noted many Germans wearing GI olive drab. “We could not tell the difference until we got close enough to see… Most of the Germans we killed and captured there were in American uniforms,” recounted LeRoy Hanneman of the US 3rd Armored Division.


Our map shows the ‘Bulge’ that the German offensive punched into Allied lines during the winter of 1944/45. This fell a long way short of Hitler’s overall objective of reaching the Belgian port of Antwerp and severing Allied supply lines. (© Martin Sanders)

Private Lee J Ishmael volunteered to man the little anti-tank gun, firing 16 rounds in three minutes at a German tank almost on Hotton’s bridge. One of his shots wedged between the turret and the hull, preventing the panzer’s turret from traversing, and eventually it was destroyed. Casualties on both sides were heavy, but when the Greyhounds withdrew after two days, looking for another crossing, they left behind a graveyard of Panther tanks, and realised their dream of a breakthrough to the river Meuse had become a nightmare.

Hotton’s inhabitants had no warning of the Germans’ arrival, and only just managed to tear down Allied flags and posters of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, before their old adversaries saw them. Girls who had doted on GIs fled in panic when they recognised the field grey and guttural accents. Bursting into houses, hungry Wehrmacht troopers demanded information on the American defenders as they emptied kitchen cupboards and carried off sides of bacon. A farmer’s wife begged them to leave her family enough to eat over Christmas. “My men haven’t eaten in days. They come first,” was the unequivocal reply from a stern, helmeted officer.

As Hitler anticipated, when the weather was too poor to fly, the offensive made great progress. But Allied airpower would prove crucial in crushing German logistic support for the offensive.

 

The British backstop

Just outside Hotton, along Route N86, and down the appropriately named Rue de la Libération, is a small military graveyard maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In many ways, it sums up Britain’s commitment to continental Europe during the Second World War. Among the 666 headstones, several commemorate men who fell in May 1940 but the vast majority date from January 1945, when British units tangled with their opponents in the last stages of the battle of the Bulge. Most signify UK nationals, but others honour 88 Canadians, 41 Australians, 10 New Zealanders, a Belgian pilot serving in the RAF, a Pole, and 20 who have the misfortune to be unidentified.

This cemetery reminds the visitor that on New Year’s Day 1945 patrols of the British 6th Airborne and 53rd Welsh Divisions arrived in Hotton as reinforcements to help prevent any further breakthroughs. They saw themselves as a ‘backstop’ to the ‘Bulge’ (hence the familiar name of the campaign) created in American lines.

Elsewhere, the advance stalled in front of the route centres of St Vith and Bastogne, but German tanks of the 2nd Panzer Division almost reached the river Meuse on Christmas Day. They were driven back by a combination of airpower, plus counter-attacks by Patton’s US 3rd Army from the south and J Lawton Collins’s US VII Corps (under temporary command of Field Marshal Montgomery) from the north. These formations sealed the breach on 14 January and the following day Hitler ordered his remaining panzers out of the now-shrinking salient, though not all the German gains were recovered until the end of the month. Allied casualties in the Bulge eventually reached nearly 80,000 killed, wounded or captured.

Twice invaded and twice liberated during the Second World War, Hotton – which lay on the edge of the German Bulge into US lines – represents the reality of combat in the Ardennes. The population was defenceless and learned to cope as best they could with every colour of uniform until the battle was over.

The fighting at various times took the lives of Belgians and Britons, Germans and Americans, civilians and soldiers, and underlines the fact that the Second World War in Europe was fought by coalitions.

By December 1944, the Anglo-US coalition included military units from Canada, France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Luxembourg, Czechoslovakia, Poland and others, ably led by American supreme commander Dwight D Eisenhower. Without this rainbow alliance of committed nations, western Europe would not have been freed as quickly, if at all.

None of this detracts from the achievement of US forces in the Ardennes campaign, to whom a grateful and admiring Winston Churchill paid tribute. “Care must be taken in telling our proud tale not to claim for the British Army an undue share of what is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war, and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever famous American victory.”


A German prisoner holds a pair of American army trousers that he’d been wearing. Such ‘imposters’ caused panic behind Allied lines. (© Mary Evans)

The battle of the Bulge, which saw more American ground troops fighting than in Normandy or the Pacific, deprived the Third Reich of the ability to launch another major attack in the west or east again. As Churchill told the House of Commons on 18 January 1945: “I have seen it suggested that the terrific battle which has been proceeding since 16 December on the American front is an Anglo-American battle. In fact, the United States’ troops have done almost all the fighting and have suffered almost all the losses.”

 

Three myths of the battle of the Bulge

Not everything you’ve read about Hitler’s great Ardennes offensive is necessarily true…

1) Allied lines weren’t infiltrated by hundreds of English-speaking German commandos

Much has been made of bands of German commandos – speaking fluent English, wearing American uniforms and driving jeeps – causing mayhem behind US lines. In fact, very few spoke convincing English and only a small proportion infiltrated Allied lines: just 44 were dispatched between 16 and 19 December, all but eight returning.

What hasn’t been exaggerated, however, is the great panic that these imposters caused among Allied troops. Spooked GIs tended to shoot first and ask questions later, causing hundreds of deaths through fratricide. Meanwhile, countless Germans were executed in the belief they were commandos, when in reality they carried captured clothing simply to stay warm. 

 

2) Fanatical Nazis didn’t spearhead the assault

The SS undoubtedly played a prominent role in the Ardennes offensive – the 6th Panzer Army, which attacked the northern flank of the Ardennes sector, included four SS tank divisions and was commanded by Hitler’s former bodyguard, Oberstgruppenführer Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich. However, by the beginning of 1945, SS units were no longer manned exclusively by ardent Nazi volunteers. Within the ranks of all SS units were young and old conscripts, and personnel forcibly transferred from army, Luftwaffe and even Kriegsmarine (naval) units. At this stage, SS units in the Ardennes also contained Ukrainian, Polish, French and even Belgian ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche).

 

3) The brilliant German tank man wasn’t quite so brilliant after all

The heavily decorated Waffen-SS officer Joachim Peiper has traditionally been portrayed as a model tank commander for his drive and willingness to take risks during the Germans’ rapid advance at the start of the battle. In fact, Peiper’s performance was, at best, lacklustre. He made little progress on 16 December (the opening night of the offensive) but instead of pushing on, rested overnight before resuming his advances.

On 17 December, despite having discretion to choose his route, Peiper kept to minor roads, slowing his advance to a crawl in the wintry conditions, on the way perpetrating the notorious massacre of US prisoners near Malmedy. Again he rested overnight before attacking Stavelot (a small town in eastern Belgium) on 18 December, by which time the now-alert US defenders stopped him in his tracks after blowing a series of bridges.

Peter Caddick-Adams is a military historian who lectures at Cranfield University. His books include Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell (Arrow, 2013) and Monty and Rommel: Parallel Lives (Arrow, 2012)

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