Remembering the bulge that broke the Nazis’ back
This week marks the 75th anniversary of a major turning point in World War II. Officially called the Ardennes Counteroffensive but popularly dubbed the Battle of the Bulge, it was the most costly single engagement of the war in terms of American casualties.
Last month I wrote about the long, long Allied drive up the Italian peninsula during the war. The Battle of the Bulge was mercifully much shorter, lasting only a few weeks. But its significance was much greater.
By the time the German offensive turned back and retreated through the Ardennes Forest, the loss to German troops, equipment and precious fuel was overwhelming. Germany remained in a losing defense for the remaining four months of the war before finally declaring unconditional surrender in May 1945.
The Battle of the Bulge, a last-ditch brainstorm of Adolf Hitler himself, was designed to make a desperate, lightning-fast strike westward through Allied lines in northeastern France, Belgium and Luxembourg, then take a right turn and speed northward to capture the great port of Antwerp, Belgium, the primary supply port for the Allies. Hitler demanded that Antwerp be taken in only four days after the start of the blitzkrieg.
From there, in Hitler’s dreamscape, Allied supplies would be shut off, and German V-2 rockets could blitz England at will. And maybe, just maybe, the Americans and British could be persuaded to sign a separate peace with Germany, leaving the Wehrmacht free to throw its entire force against the fearsome and revenge-driven Russians, who were advancing relentlessly along the Eastern Front.
The whole idea was unlikely at best.
Hitler’s top military advisers unanimously warned against its success. But Hitler would not be dissuaded.
The Allies had landed in Normandy six months earlier and had pushed the Nazis back out of France, Belgium and Luxembourg to the German border.
As winter descended in late 1944, Gen. Eisenhower had deployed the ever-growing Allied army in two concentrations. The British were congregated to the north and the Americans to the south.
Where the two met was the Ardennes Forest, thickly wooded and full of hills and valleys. Hitler remembered his own Blitzkrieg’s success back in 1940, when his troops, artillery and warplanes roared through the Ardennes to conquer Paris, the rest of France and western Europe.
Ike relied on the dense forest and the relatively thin layer of forces he had stationed there to make a German counterattack unlikely. He placed only four divisions of troops to defend the Ardennes.
Winter proved to be Hitler’s friend.
Heavy, foggy weather prevented Allied air reconnaissance and bombing runs in the area, and the long winter nights allowed German panzer tank divisions to gather stealthily east of the forest.
At 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 16, Hitler launched his attack with eight tank divisions and thousands of troops, aided by searchlight beams bouncing off the low-hanging clouds.
The Allies were totally taken by surprise.
Some 10,000 American troops surrendered almost immediately; in the war only the disaster in the Philippines exceeded that number.
The Germans had airdropped English-speaking German troops in English and American uniforms behind the Allied lines, and they quickly spread false information among Allied forces to confuse the situation.
For a few days, the operation gained ground. The west-thrusting salient of territory captured by the Germans created a bulge about 60 miles long in the front that gave the operation its popular name.
But victory was not to be for Germany.
In a memorable episode of the battle, the Germans surrounded the American garrison in the village of Bastogne, located at a strategic road intersection. The German commander demanded that the Americans surrender or be annihilated.
Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuiliffe sent a one-word reply: “Nuts!”
The English-speaking German lieutenant who had brought the surrender demand told McAuliffe’s aide he didn’t understand what that meant. The aide explained that “in plain English it is the same thing as ‘Go to Hell!’”
On Dec. 19, three days after the offensive began, Eisenhower rushed from his headquarters to Verdun in northeast France to confer with his senior commanders. Ike commanded the group to consider the situation an opportunity rather than a crisis.
The Germans had thrown most of their remaining tanks, artillery and fuel and a big chunk of troop strength into the attack. Defeating them would exact a heavy toll on the Nazi war machine, and would likely prove decisive in bringing an end to the war.
Eisenhower asked Gen. George Patton if he could swing three of his east-facing divisions 90 degrees northward and launch an attack. Patton had already seen that as a possibility and had taken measures along those lines. Within 48 hours, his troops swung into battle and shortly relieved the Bastogne garrison.
On Dec. 22, six days after the start of the battle, the skies cleared and Allied air power swooped down on the German forces. Meanwhile, the Russians opened their own offensive and pushed the Germans back, reaching the Oder River by the end of December, just a few miles from Berlin.
By the second week of January, Hitler saw his desperate offensive had failed, and he allowed what was left of his war machine in the West to withdraw back into Germany. The whole episode lasted about one month.
Some 450,000 German troops and 610,000 Allied forces met in the Battle of the Bulge.
It claimed 70,000 Allied casualties, including 19,000 killed, most of them American.
German casualties were more than 100,000.
The battle ate up most of Hitler’s last reserves of men, armor, aircraft and all-important fuel.
Thereafter the end was apparent.
On April 30, Hitler shot himself in the head in his bunker 55 feet below central Berlin as Soviet troops occupied the city. Germany surrendered a week later.