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 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 was turned back 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. A dis­appointed, self-pitying Hitler told Nicolaus von Below, his Luft­waffe adjutant who for years had worked in the Fuehrer’s imme­diate sur­roundings, that he knew the war was lost, and that he wanted to “put a bullet in his brain right now.” 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

Scenes From the Ardennes Campaign (Battle of the Bulge), Decem­ber 16, 1944, to January 25, 1945

German grenadiers in Luxembourg, December 1944German troops advance past abandoned American equipment

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.

U.S. POWs-1, December 1944U.S. POWs-2, December 1944

Left: Soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, U.S. 119th Infantry are taken prisoner by men of the German 6th Panzer Army Kampf­gruppe Peiper (battle group Peiper) in Stou­mont, Eastern Belgium, on Decem­ber 19, 1944. Led by 29-year-old SS‑Ober­sturm­bann­fuehrer (Lt. Col.) Joachim (Jochen) Peiper, the men in this mech­a­nized task force 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 were taken prisoner and forced to refuel Peiper’s tanks. 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. Seven­teen 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.

Malmedy Massacre of 84 American POWsBelgian bodies left by Germans

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.

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 to 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. Peiper was murdered in France in 1976.

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