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 Eifel Moun­tains on this date in 1944. Con­ceived by Adolf Hitler, the plan, code­named Wacht am Rhein (Opera­tion Watch on the Rhine), was to attack through the weakly held Amer­i­can lines in the Ar­dennes Forest in Luxem­bourg, recapture the strategic deep-water Bel­gian port of Ant­werp, sever Allied supply lines, split Field Marshal Ber­nard Law Mont­go­mery’s army in Northern Bel­gium and Hol­land from Gen. Omar Brad­ley’s armies to the south, and force the West­ern Allies, sep­a­rate from the Soviet Union, to nego­ti­ate a peace treaty in Ger­many’s favor. Once that was accom­plished, 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 on defeating the Soviets on the Eastern Front.

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 last-ditch 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 by train for his subter­ranean Fuehrer­bunker in Berlin on Janu­ary 16, 1945, where he met his end, a suicide, 3½ 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, nearly 50,000 wounded, and over 4,000 taken prisoner. 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

Ardennes Campaign, December 16–26, 1944

Above: The German Army 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 British and Amer­i­can forces in North­ern France. The army drew on every avail­able resource it had left—300,000 men, 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 west­ward. The Ger­man advance was stopped at the Meuse River at Dinant, shown just west of the orange bulge.

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

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.

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 (German armed forces) 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.

German field commanders plan their advance through the Ardennes Forest, December 1944Captured soldiers of 12th Panzer Division

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