Cologne, Germany • November 15, 1944
As the Allied offensive ground on west of the Rhine River, dozens of German tank and infantry divisions gathered in assembly areas northwest of the city of Cologne and in the thick forest cover of the Eiffel mountains on this date in 1944. Conceived by Adolf Hitler, the multi-stage plan, initially codenamed Wacht am Rhein (“Watch on the Rhine,” named for a German patriotic song of the same name, later changed to Herbstnebel, “Autumn Mist”), was to attack through the weakly held American lines in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium and Luxembourg, recapture the strategic deep-water Belgian port of Antwerp, sever Allied supply lines into the the interior, split Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery’s Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group in Northern Belgium and Holland from Gen. Omar Bradley’s U.S. 12th Army Group to the south, encircle as many as four Allied armies, and force the Western Allies to negotiate a peace treaty, separate from the Soviet Union, in Germany’s favor. Once all that was accomplished (a tall order indeed), Germany could buy time to design and produce more advanced weapons (for example, the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet aircraft and the Panzerkampfwagen E‑100 super-heavy tank) and fully concentrate its attention its Eastern Front, which under withering Soviet one-two hammer blows would soon shift nearly as far west as East Prussia.
Warning signs of a pending German offensive had been ignored when, on December 16, 1944, in a carefully coordinated attack, more than 300,000 Germans launched what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, or the Ardennes Offensive. Fierce resistance on the northern shoulder of the offensive around Elsenborn Ridge and in the south around Bastogne (see map below) blocked German access to key roads to the northwest and west that the enemy had counted on for success. The acting commander of the trapped 101st Airborne Division, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, famously replied “Nuts” to the German demand of December 22 to surrender the crossroads town of Bastogne.
The day after Christmas Bastogne was relieved when elements of Gen. George Patton’s U.S. Third Army burst through German lines. Eventually more than a million GIs were thrown into the battle, and by mid-January 1945 Hitler’s gambit had collapsed, the German military high command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) accepting that the Western Front was lost. Hitler, who had arrived in a long motorcade of black Mercedes at his western headquarters at Adlerhorst (“Eagle’s eyrie”) in the German state of Hessen on December 11, 1944, left for his subterranean Fuehrerbunker in Berlin on January 16, 1945, where he met his end 3‑1/2 months later. German losses in the failed western offensive ranged from 60,000 to 100,000 men (half of them prisoners) and more than 600 tanks and heavy assault guns. Official Allied casualties ranged from 90,000 to over 100,000. The Battle of the Bulge/Ardennes Offensive (December 16, 1944, to January 25, 1945) was the greatest single extended land battle as well as the bloodiest that U.S. forces experienced in World War II—19,000 dead and nearly 50,000 wounded. Its net effect, however, was to delay the Allied conquest of Germany by just six weeks.
The Ardennes Campaign and the German “Bulge,” December 1944
Above: The German Wehrmacht (armed forces) launched a surprise attack in Belgium and Luxembourg in December 1944 in an attempt to reach the Belgian port of Antwerp and the North Sea and thus drive a wedge between the Anglo-Canadians in Belgium and the American forces in Luxembourg and Northern France. The Wehrmacht drew on every available resource it had left—300,000 men and boys from the army (Heer), Waffen-SS, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, and Hitler Youth; 970 tanks and assault guns; and 1,900 artillery pieces. This map shows the extent of the German counteroffensive that created the so-called “bulge” in Allied lines between December 16 and 26, 1944. The original German objectives are outlined in red dashed lines. The orange line indicates the Germans’ furthest advance eastward. The German advance was stopped at the Meuse River at Dinant, shown just west of the orange bulge.
Left: A German regiment in the bitterly cold 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 Western Allies’ ground threat to Germany’s industrialized Ruhr centered around Duesseldorf and delay their advance on Berlin. German generals were doubtful of the gambit’s success, but many younger officers and the rank and file were hopeful that an armistice on the Western Front would save their country from a disaster in the making on the country’s Eastern Front, where the Soviet Army was poised to extract their nation’s revenge.
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 weak 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: German field commanders plan their advance through Luxembourg’s Ardennes Forest. In the Battle of Elsenborn Ridge, which lasted 10 days, the American and German lines were often confused. The main drive against Elsenborn Ridge was launched in the forests east of the twin villages of Rocherath-Krinkelt early in the morning of December 17, 1944. This attack was begun by tank and Panzergrenadiers (mechanized infantry) of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. By December 27, the Germans had beaten themselves into a state of uselessness against the heavily fortified American position.
Right: Captured teenage youth from the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. Units of Gen. Leonard T. Gerow’s V Corps of the U.S. First Army held Elsenborn Ridge against the elite SS division, preventing it and attached forces from reaching the vast array of supplies near the cities of Liège and Spa in Belgium, as well as the road network west of the ridge leading to the Meuse River and the city of Antwerp. This was the only sector of the American front line during the Battle of the Bulge where the Germans failed to advance.
Contemporary U.S. Army Film of the Battle of the Bulge