Battle of the Bulge

The Battle of the Bulge, December 16, 1944 to January 28, 1945, represented German’s final major attempt to defeat the Allied forces in Europe. The Germans began an offensive campaign, the Ardennes Offensive, by sending over 250,000 troops across 85 miles of the Allied front in Belgium and Luxembourg. The German troops advanced 50 miles, pushing the Allied lines back and creating a “bulge” in the lines. The United States and the Allies counterattacked in an effort to “plug” the “bulge” in their defenses. 

The Battle of the Bulge was the largest battle on land during the war and was last battle in which the United States took part. Over one million troops fought in the Battle of the Bulge: 600,000 German troops divided into two Armies of ten corps, 500,000 American troops divided into three Armies of six corps, and 55,000 British troops. During the battle 119,200 soldiers were killed, captured or wounded, including 19,000 American soldiers killed and 62,000 captured or wounded, 200 British soldiers killed and 1,200 captured or wounded, and 100,000 German killed, captured, or wounded.

The Battle of the Bulge Overview

The German position was perilous in late 1944. The Allies had invaded France at Normandy on June 6 and liberated Paris in August. German’s European ally, Italy, had already been captured and liberated by the Allies. Allied forces were moving quickly through France into Belgium and Luxembourg and approaching the German border. German cities were under constant air bombardment by Allied bombers and the Russian Red Army was advancing on Germany from the east.

The War in 1944

Adolf Hitler and the German command planned an offensive to reverse Germany’s deteriorating strategic position, break the alliance between Britain, America, and France, and break the Allied troops supply lines. Hitler hoped to force the Allied forces to accept a negotiated peace in order to avoid the ignominy of accepting a forced peace settlement imposed by the Allies. In a September 1944 meeting with his generals in East Prussia, Hitler assigned the planning of a major counteroffensive on the western front to Alfred Jodle. The offensive was to take place in the Aachan region on the southern Luxembourg-France border to take advantage of the weak Allied position there. This stretch of Allied lines was held by one armored and four infantry divisions of American troops.

The plan was that Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army would lead the attack to capture Antwerp. Hoss von Manteuffel would attack the center of the American lines with the Fifth Panzer Army and capture the road and rail center of St. Vith before driving onward to Brussels. Brandenberger and the Seventh Army would attack in the south to prevent Allied reinforcements from attacking Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army. The Fifteenth Army was to counter any Allied attacks. Hitler planned this offensive to begin between November 20 and November 30. The speed and accuracy of the attack and the cover given by the Ardennes forest were to be Germany’s weapons in the offensive. Hitler believed the plan would surround Canada’s First Army, Britain’s Second Army, and America’s First and Ninth Armies, cutting them off from their supply lines.

Jodle returned a plan for the offensive to Hitler on October 9. Jodle’s plan included five possible directions of attack, which Hitler expanded to include two northern routes. While Germany’s military supplies were dwindling, the plan called for four to five million gallons of fuel and fifty trainloads of ammunition. Hitler and his generals chose the Ardennes forest as the final location of the offensive for strategic and symbolic reasons: the forest would provide cover for the buildup of German troops and Hitler’s 1940 surprise attack on France was launched from the same location. The plan’s code name was Wacht am Rhein in order to appear defensive and confuse the Allies, but was later changed to “Autumn Mist”.

The Ardennes Offensive

Hitler’s generals thought the offensive would fail and tried to convince Hitler to change his plan. They thought that poor state of the German army and its supplies would not support taking Antwerp. Instead of Hitler’s grand offensive, his generals suggested a smaller attack to weaken the Allied forces in the Ardennes region and advised abandoning the attempt to take Antwerp. Hitler refused to scale back his attack despite the lack of German air support and supplies for the offensive.

The German army began its offensive at 5:30 a.m. on December 16, 1944 by bombarding Allied lines for two hours with over 657 guns and howitzers and 340 rocket launchers. After the bombardment, eight German armored divisions and thirteen infantry divisions attacked five U.S. divisions.

The initial German attack was successful, owing to three factors: the element of surprise, sabotage, and favorable weather. The Allies had little intelligence on the German troop buildup and were surprised by the offensive. Before the bombardment, German soldiers dressed in American uniforms infiltrated Allied lines to spread misinformation, change road signs, and cut telephone wires to weaken the Allies’ ability to respond to the coming attack. The foggy conditions also prevented the Allies from employing their air support against German tanks.

German success began to falter after two days of attack and a 60 mile advance. The German armies’ lack of fuel made a sustained armored attack impossible. As the weather cleared, the Allies were able to employ their air support, which was an effective counter to German armored divisions. As the German armored divisions began to run out of fuel, some were forced to abandon their tanks and vehicles and retreat on foot.

The Battle of the Bulge Troop Movements and Maps

The Fifth and Sixth Panzer Armies broke through the Loshein Gap, the Fifth Army heading south and the Sixth heading north. The Fifth Army overwhelmed the inexperienced U.S. 106th Infantry Division in the south, surrounding and cutting off two regiments, which quickly surrendered. The Sixth Army moved north to attack the U.S. positions at Elsborn Ridge. The troops at Elsborn Ridge held off the German attack and blocked the northern route of German advance.

On December 17, the American 7th Armored divisions successfully halted the advance of the Sixth Panzer Army at the town of St. Vith. The Americans held out for six days and denied the Germans the road to the Meuse River and Antwerp, slowing down the German attack and foiling its timetable.

Allied troops moving from Aachen to strengthen the defenders at St. Vith became victims of the bloodiest massacre in the European theater on December 17 at Malmedy. Near the Baugnez Crossroads, the Allies met Joachim Peiper’s 1st SS Panzer Division. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Allies surrendered after an initial attack. The Germans fired on the 150 prisoners of war, killing 80. Wounded soldiers who escaped the massacre by feigning death alerted American troops of the massacre. Rumors of the atrocity strengthened Allied resolve.

The Malmedy Massacre

Allied troops held the town of Bastogne for the entirety of the battle, thwarting German efforts to widen the southern advance along the Sauer River. Bastogne sat at the junction of seven major roads and was critical for German resupply and reinforcement. The American 101st Airborne division, Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division, survivors of the 110th Infantry Division and Combat Command R of the 9th Armored Division arrived in Bastogne on December 19, 1944. Two Panzer divisions and two Germany infantry divisions of the Fifth Panzer Army arrived and engaged the Americans later that day. The Germans surrounded Bastogne, cutting the Americans off from their supply lines. German troops under a flag of truce demanded the surrender of the Americans on December 22, to which General McAuliffe famously replied, “Nuts!”. American air support dropped critical food, ammunition, and medical supplies to the defenders on December 23, after the foggy weather had cleared. After heavy fighting, the American 4th Armored division’s Combat Command R reached the 101st’s outposts on December 26, opening a corridor for the Allies. Supplies and reinforcement troops were able to enter the area and attack the Germans.

The Defense of Bastogne

On December 29, the Allies launched their counteroffensive. General Patton’s Third Army broke off its offensive and attacked the Germans’ northern flank and the First Army attacked the southern flank. The First and Third Armies were to meet at Houffalize and trap the German forces. On January 3, the First and Ninth Armies and British forces attacked the northern flank of the Bulge. Cold, wet winter conditions hampered both German and Allied soldiers and resulted in many injuries and deaths on both sides.

On January 1, Hitler launched a secondary offensive, Operation NORDWIND, in the south to destroy Allied air support. The German air force, the Luftwaffe, also launched a campaign against Allied positions in Belgium, Holland, and northern France. The Luftwaffe destroyed over 460 Allied aircraft but the loss of 277 planes and 253 pilots critically weakened the air force. 

By January 7, Hitler and his staff agreed to pull back most of the German forces from the Bulge and on January 8 the troops withdrew. On January 16, the First and Third American Armies met at Houffalize and retook St. Vith on January 23. The Battle of the Bulge officially ended on January 28. The Luftwaffe in ruins, the army reserves gone, and supplies at critically low levels, the German army was broken and its eventual defeat was clear.

The Aftermath of the Battle of the Bulge