By the end of 1944 Germany was losing on all fronts. Her generals, faced with ever increasing armies armed with superior technology, fell back under the combined assaults in Italy, the Eastern Front, and France.
Optimism was absent from the German command. In September 1944, as the Russians halted their advance on Warsaw and the Allies stalled in Holland in Operation Market-Garden, Hitler stunned his generals with a bold plan reminiscent of the 1940 campaign. Panzer divisions backed by Volkssturm units would smash through the weakly defended Ardennes and head for Antwerp, cutting off the Allied supply lines. Special English-speaking units in modified German armor and captured American equipment would range out ahead of the Panzers, causing confusion and creating fear among the ranks.The bold plan included a large, desperate attack by the remaining Luftwaffe units on the Allied airfields.
His generals demurred, arguing the attack would never succeed. Hitler overruled them. A buildup in Germany's Eiffel region began, draining tanks and men from other fronts. Most of these soldiers were fifteen and sixteen years old.
Meanwhile, the Allies ignored the warnings of the German buildup. An intelligence officer than claimed a coming German offensive would start in the Ardennes was sent on leave. Reports of the few divisions in the area that new units were entering the area were discounted. Ultra reports were less important because the Germans used landlines instead of radios to issue orders. German prisoners-of-war were radiating confidence and did not seem to be beaten.
Supply lines extended all the way back to Cherbourg in Normandy. Germans dug in the channel ports denied them to the Allies, and they held out until the end of the war. Not until Antwerp was captured and opened to shipping on December 11 did the Allies have a port that was close to the front. Meanwhile the “Red Ball Express” — mostly African-American drivers running a fast-moving convoy 24 hours a day — drove gas, ammunition and food to the front, sometimes under fire from German units holding the roads. Winter clothing was sacrificed to make more room for gas and ammunition.
The Americans had only a few divisions, including the 106th division, in the Ardennes guarding a fifty-mile front. The area was used to rest and refit divisions coming off the line, or to organize new units. The Germans poured fourteen infantry divisions and five Panzer divisions into this front, smashing the new 106th division out of existence. 7,500 men surrendered in the largest American mass surrender in the European Theatre of Operations.
The Germans raced for Antwerp, led by a SS armored column under the command of SS Gruppenführer Joachim Peiper. Peiper's tanks had to capture gas from the Americans as they went. On December 17, Peiper ordered the execution of hundreds of Americans captured by his column. He also massacred Belgian civilians in the town of Stavelot.
Initially, confusion over the nature of the offensive went as far as SHAEF headquarters in Paris. Bradley thought it was just an attempt to delay the offensive in the Rhine, but the British, mindful of the same tactic in 1940, warned that it might be a full-blown offensive. By noon of December 17 the Allied intelligence counted twenty-four new German divisions. The Americans laconically nicknamed the offensive the “Battle of the Bulge.”
Finally realizing that this was a major offensive, Eisenhower sent the Airborne divisions refitting after Market-Garden to take Bastogne and Saint-Vith. The 101st Airborne, whose defense of Bastogne would become legendary, arrived by truck just hours before the town was cut off and surrounded, supported by units of the 10th armored. “Visualize the hole in a doughnut,” the 101st radioed SHAEF Headquarters in Paris, “That's us.” Bad weather grounded the Allied air forces and prevented resupply.
They were to hold the town with little supplies and few tanks or vehicles. A store of flour in a Belgian warehouse fed the 101st with flapjack pancakes. American GIs retreating from the German advance stopped and joined in the defense. Artillery was set up in the center of town to give the defenders support anywhere along the lines, and from their arrival on December 18th until the day after Christmas, the 101st beat back German attacks. During the battle, the German commander charged with taking the vital crossroads sent a long letter to General Anthony C. McAuliffe, calling for his surrender. McAuliffe's one-word reply, “NUTS!” indicated the determination of the 101st to hang on.
Meanwhile, Americans all over the battlefield were showing incredible courage. Sometimes outnumbered five-to-one, infantry units stopped or held up the German advance. Many others broke ranks and fled, leading to the only execution for desertion in World War II by the United States Army. Private Eddie D. Slovik was found guilty and executed in a controversial decision after refusing to fight.
The American manpower shortage was becoming critical. With the success of the liberation of France, production goals for ammunition were lowered, and the effects were first felt in the Ardennes in December 1944. An offensive coupled with a lack of ammunition meant the Americans were facing a crisis. the weather prevented the Allies' superior airpower from taking off. Marching bands, cooks, command staffs, anyone who could carry a rifle was put into the front lines. Units like the Rangers, who had very high requirements for volunteers before the Normandy invasion, were simply given replacements like every other unit.
After the 101st arrived on December 18, Eisenhower asked Patton how long it would take to wheel his Third Army around 90 degrees and attack the Germans to relieve Bastogne. Patton shocked everyone by announcing he would attack in forty-eight hours. The Third Army, led by the 4th Armored Division, moved through the Ardennes in a lighting maneuver. It would take them six days to reach Bastogne.
Meanwhile, Eisenhower faced the greatest command crisis of the war in the west. British units were needed to plug the gaps in the Allied line, and Montgomery took command of two of the three Armies under Bradley's 12th Army Group. Bradley threatened to resign but did not. One American who was present at Montgomery's arrival to take command remarked that he looked like “Christ coming to cleanse the Temple.”
Eisenhower's move was necessary to keep operational communication open. Montgomery moved slowly to close the gap, finally counterattacking on January 3, 1945. Many Germans escaped before the Bulge was closed, but the bulk of German armor was destroyed.
Montgomery took full credit for saving the American armies during the battle, and insinuated that he had “handled” the battle. He also managed to knock American leadership. Bradley, Eisenhower, and Patton were furious. Churchill had to make a public statement to the House of Commons to calm things down praising the Americans for the their conduct in the battle.
It was an American battle. The largest battle in the West during the war, some 600,000 Americans fought it, and 80,000 were killed, captured, or wounded. The Germans lost 30,000 dead, 40,000 wounded, and 30,000 were POWs.
Hitler lost some of his personal prestige, as it was his plan. The failure of the Ardennes meant that those tanks and soldiers would not be available for the defense of Germany herself. Hitler's gamble shortened the war by months.