Bastogne, Belgium • January 25, 1945
On this date in 1945, in the thickly forested Belgian Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge (referring to the German-induced bulge in Allied lines) effectively ended. The largest, most costly land battle fought by American soldiers in World War II marked in many ways the U.S. Army’s finest performance. Besides four British divisions, the nearly 6‑week‑long battle involved 26 U.S. divisions of 600,000 men. Ranged against the Allies were 400,000 Germans in 38 divisions, which collectively launched a surprise three-prong attack on December 16, 1944.
Adolf Hitler’s objective for “Operation Watch on the Rhine” was to retake the strategically important Belgian port of Antwerp and drive a wedge between Great Britain and the U.S., making one or both Allied partners more likely to negotiate a settlement that would then allow him to concentrate his dwindling military resources against the Soviets in the east.
By December 22 the German Wehrmacht (armed forces) had inflicted enormous combat losses on the Americans: 8,000 out of 22,000 men at St. Vith alone. At Bastogne, a major road junction, dogged defenders of the 28th Infantry, 10th Armored, and 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Divisions held out until Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army’s 4th Armored Division relieved them on December 26. By then Hitler’s generals had concluded that Antwerp could no longer be reached.
The last German assault against Bastogne stalled in early January 1945, after which the Allies counterattacked. When finally eliminated from the Ardennes bulge on January 28, the Germans had lost upwards of 100,000 men, including 11,000 dead, a good percentage of them killed by U.S. soldiers revenging themselves on the enemy for an unforgivable atrocity, the massacre of 84 of their own near Malmedy just west of the Belgian border. Lost to Hitler, too, were some 600 irreplaceable tanks and assault guns and about 1,000 planes. American units lost perhaps 730 tanks and tank destroyers while suffering 75,842 casualties, including 8,407 killed, 46,170 wounded, and nearly 21,000 taken captive. British losses numbered 1,408, including 200 dead.
The Ardennes Campaign was Hitler’s last major offensive on any front. It failed to either shift the battle lines from the original starting point or delay Hitler’s inevitable doom. On December 26 at his forward headquarters, Alderhorst in Central Hessen, a disappointed, self-pitying Hitler told Col. Nicolaus von Below, his Luftwaffe adjutant who for years had worked in the Fuehrer’s immediate surroundings, that he knew the war was lost; he blamed it partly on “enemy superiority” and partly on the Luftwaffe and “the traitors” in the Germany Army. “My best course now,” he told Below, “is to put a bullet in my head.” (Quoted in Beevor, Ardennes 1944, p. 299.) He waited until April 30, 1945, to do exactly that.
Map Showing the Progress of the German Ardennes Offensive that Created the “Bulge” in Allied Lines Between December 16 and 25, 1944
Scenes From the Ardennes Campaign (Battle of the Bulge), December 16, 1944, to January 25, 1945
Left: A German regiment in the Ardennes Forest, December 1944. Hitler selected the Ardennes for his western counteroffensive for several reasons: the terrain to the east of the Ardennes and northwest of Cologne was heavily wooded and offered cover against Allied air observation and attack during the build-up of German troops and supplies; the rugged Ardennes wedge itself required relatively few German divisions; and a speedy attack to regain the initiative in this particular area would erase the Allied ground threat to Germany’s industrialized Ruhr centered around Duesseldorf.
Right: German troops advance past abandoned American equipment. The Western Allies’ string of dazzling successes in 1944, news reports of the bloody defeats that the Soviet armies were administering to the Germans on the Eastern Front, and the belief that the Wehrmacht was collapsing and the Third Reich was tottering on its knees led Allied war planners to pay scant attention to the quiet Ardennes sector. The Americans especially paid dearly for this mindset, as well as for ignoring their own intelligence of the Ardennes counteroffensive preparations.
Left: As many as 44 soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, U.S. 119th Infantry Division were taken prisoner in Stoumont, Eastern Belgium, on December 19, 1944, by men of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, of which Kampfgruppe (battle group) Peiper was a part. Led by 29‑year-old SS‑Obersturmbannfuehrer (Lt. Col.) Joachim (Jochen) Peiper, the 5,000 men in this mechanized Kampfgruppe were Waffen‑SS, members of the “weapons” wing of the SS (short for the Nazi Party’s Schutzstaffel), most of whom had seen grim duty on the Eastern Front. With a despicable reputation for ruthlessness and brutality, the men took pride in their unit’s nickname, the “Blowtorch Battalion,” because of its penchant for setting fire to every building it could and burning to death every man, woman, and child inside.
Right: Several days earlier, on December 17, 1944, Kampfgruppe Peiper reached an American fuel dump in Buellingen, Belgium, where 200 U.S. soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division were taken prisoner and forced to refuel Peiper’s tanks, half-tracks, and other vehicles. This German photograph may show some of the men from the Second Infantry Division being marched back to German lines, where they were locked in POW cages. Nineteen of their comrades in the small Belgian village of Honsfeld (now part of Buellingen) were literally caught napping. From their sleeping quarters they were hustled outside in their boxer shorts and shot dead, with the exception of one GI who was thrown under the treads of a tank.
Left: Scene of the massacre where 84 American soldiers were murdered on the afternoon of December 17, 1944, after having surrendered to Kampfgruppe Peiper near a five-way crossroads called Baugnez, 2‑1/2 miles south of the Belgian town of Malmedy. At least twenty of the victims suffered fatal gunshot wounds to the head, inflicted at very close range. More than 30 men lived to tell about it. “We had one unwritten rule from Patton in the Battle of the Bulge,” 18-year-old Wilbert “Bill” Gates recalled. “If the SS men tried to surrender, we’d tell them to keep fighting because we were going to kill them.” Several weeks after the Malmedy massacre, a U.S. infantry battalion of the 11th Armored Division machine-gunned 60 German prisoners to death in the small village of Chenogne, Belgium, five miles from Bastogne, after receiving an order to take no prisoners. British units who lost members to Wehrmacht warriors exacted their revenge, too. Twenty-five miles to the northwest of Bastogne, at Forrières, two armored cars opened fire on surrendering Germans who had emerged from a wooded area with their hands on their head, mowing everyone down.
Right: Bodies of Belgian men, women, and children murdered by members of the German military during the Ardennes Campaign (location not given). In Stavelot and vicinity alone, Kampfgruppe Peiper murdered about one hundred Belgian civilians. After the war Peiper, Gen. Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, commander of the 6th Panzer Army in which Kampfgruppe Peiper served, and 72 other SS officers and men from Peiper’s command were put on trial by the U.S. military at Dachau, Germany, in May 1946. All but one of the 74 defendants were found guilty. Forty-three were sentenced to hang, including Peiper; 22 received life sentences; and 8 given lengthy prison terms. All death sentences were eventually commuted. The last member of Kampfgrupper Peiper to leave prison was Peiper himself in December 1956. Under a death threat, Peiper’s charred body was found on Bastille Day (July 14) in 1976 in his home in Traves, Eastern France, destroyed in a fire possibly set by veterans of the French Resistance.
PBS’s American Experience Documentary: The Battle of the Bulge