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 involving four Brit­ish divi­sions, the nearly 6‑week‑long battle in­volved 26 U.S. divi­sions of 600,000 men. Ranged against the Allies were just over 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, in the opening days of this most des­per­ate gamble on Germany’s Western Front, the strate­gically important Bel­gian supply port of Ant­werp, with its access to the North Sea and the English Channel. Hitler hoped that Ant­werp’s capture would drive a wedge between British-Cana­dian and U.S. forces, making one or both Allied part­ners more likely to nego­ti­ate a settle­ment that would then allow him to con­cen­trate his dwindling military resources against Soviet forces in the east. It was a long shot to be sure, but Hitler convinced his generals it was worth the risk.

By Decem­ber 22 the German Wehr­macht (armed forces) had in­flicted enor­mous com­bat losses on the Amer­i­cans fighting in Belgium: 8,000 out of 22,000 men at the little border town of St. Vith alone. At Bas­togne, a major road junc­tion, dogged defen­ders of the vet­eran 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, 10 days after the Ardennes Cam­paign had begun, Hitler’s gen­erals, fore­most among them Gen. Hasso von Man­teuffel, com­mander of the 5th Panzer Army that had been delayed at St. Vith (5 days) and Bastogne, reluc­tantly con­cluded that Ant­werp could no longer be reached: the ini­tial rapid suc­cesses of the German drive through Eastern Belgium and Luxembourg had simply hit too many speed bumps and road­blocks en route to the coast and hence was days behind schedule.

The last German assault against Bastogne stalled in early January 1945 owing to an over­whelming Allied presence. Then 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. The Ardennes Cam­paign was the bloodiest battle fought by Amer­i­cans in World War II. 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

German Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge), December 16–25, 1944

Hitler’s Costly Folly: Scenes From the Ardennes Campaign (Battle of the Bulge), December 16, 1944, to January 25, 1945

Battle of the Bulge (Ardennes Campaign): German grenadiers in Luxembourg, December 1944Battle of the Bulge (Ardennes Campaign): German Waffen‑SS troops advance past abandoned American equipment

Left: A German infantry regiment in the Ardennes Forest, Decem­ber 1944. The German Ardennes break­through caught the Allies off balance. Hitler had selected the loca­tion of 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 build­up 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: Troops of the 1st SS Panzer Division “Leib­standarte Adolf Hitler” sprint past aban­doned and wrecked Amer­i­can equip­ment near Poteau, Bel­gium, in a photo staged for the photo­grapher only hours after the Battle of the Bulge began. 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, nick­named the “ghost front” pre­cisely for its quiet and undis­turbed loca­tion. The Amer­i­cans espe­cially paid dearly for this mind­set, as well as for ignoring their own field intel­li­gence and aerial recon­nais­sance reports of the Ardennes counteroffensive preparations.

Battle of the Bulge (Ardennes Campaign): U.S. POWs-1, December 1944Battle of the Bulge (Ardennes Campaign): U.S. POWs-2, December 1944

Left: Hands raised, 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, 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 2nd Infan­try Divi­sion being hustled 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.

Battle of the Bulge (Ardennes Campaign): Malmedy Massacre of 84 American POWsBattle of the Bulge (Ardennes Campaign): Belgian bodies left by Germans

Left: Snowy scene of the massacre where a convoy of 84 lightly armed Ameri­can sol­diers of Battery B of the 285th Field Artil­lery Obser­va­tion Bat­talion were mur­dered on the after­noon of Decem­ber 17, 1944, after having sur­rendered to Kampf­gruppe Peiper at a five-way cross­roads vil­lage called Baugnez. The village was 2½ 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 the Malmedy Mas­sacre, and their reports were quickly forwarded to SHAEF, Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower’s supreme Allied head­quarters. “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, 5 miles from Bastogne, after receiving an order to “take no pri­soners.” By that time the phrase had become the per­sonal mantra of many U.S. fighting men. 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, battle-worn, 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. At 12 separate loca­tions along Kampf­gruppe Peiper’s line of march, 450 or more unarmed Belgian civil­ians and Amer­i­can POWs were murdered. 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. With one excep­tion all 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 presumably set by veterans of the French Resistance.

History Channel’s Military Heroes: Battle of the Bulge, The Lost Evidence