Wolf’s Lair, Rastenburg, East Prussia, Germany September 16, 1944

On this date in September 1944, at his forward head­quarters in East Prussia, Adolf Hitler laid out his demands for a sur­prise counter­offen­sive on the Western Front that came to be known as the Ardennes Offen­sive, or Battle of the Bulge. Septem­ber’s date is no­ta­ble because the Allied push through lib­er­ated France to the German border was losing steam. Opera­tion Mar­ket Garden, British Field Mar­shal Bernard Law Montgomery’s attempt to cap­ture the Lower Rhine River crossings at Arn­hem, Eind­hoven, and Nij­megen in the Nether­lands, ulti­mately failed; U.S. Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s drive in German-held Lor­raine in North­eastern France was stymied; and U.S. Lt. Gen. Court­ney Hodges’ 88-day cam­paign to pierce the Huert­gen Forest in the Aachen sec­tor would come up sadly short. Accord­ing to Hitler’s propa­ganda minis­ter Joseph Goebbels, autumn’s news of Allied set­backs was enough to lift the som­ber spirits of a weary com­mander in chief who narrowly sur­vived an attempt on his life two months earlier.

In his boldest move since Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s grand-scale inva­sion of the Soviet Union in June 1940, Hitler chose to engage both the Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group under Mont­gom­ery and the U.S. 12th Army Group under Gen. Omar Bradley instead of striking the Red Army on Germany’s Eastern Front; at the moment he couldn’t con­ceive of any oper­a­tional or stra­tegic objec­tive in the East that might weaken the Soviets’ polit­i­cal and mili­tary resolve to stay in the war. The Western Front was the para­mount thea­ter of opera­tions any­way. If Germany’s armed forces could drive a wedge between the British- and Amer­i­can-led armies the Western alli­ance just might col­lapse. Hitler reasoned that the British, after five grueling years of war, would throw in the towel and leave their American friends in the lurch.

The top-ranking few in the map room when Hitler revealed his Ardennes plans expressed serious doubts. Gen. Heinz Guderian, acting chief of staff for the Army High Com­mand (Obe­rkom­mando des Heeres, OKH) and directly respon­si­ble for mili­tary oper­a­tions on the Eastern Front, urged Hitler to give priority to attacking the Soviets, now on East Prussia’s border. Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl, repre­senting the Armed Forces High Com­mand (Ober­kom­mando der Wehr­macht, OKW) respon­sible for managing the war on the Western Front, warned of matériel short­ages and the West’s aerial suprem­acy over the pro­jected battle zone. Field Marshal Gerd von Rund­stedt, whom Hitler had reap­pointed Com­man­der in Chief West, was “stag­gered,” saying later: “It was obvi­ous to me that the avail­able forces were far too small for such an extremely ambi­tious plan.” Field Marshal Walther Model, Hitler’s choice to com­mand the Ardennes offensive, fumed: “This damned thing hasn’t got a leg to stand on.”

Still skeptical, the men in the map room dutifully lined up behind their Fuehrer. The OKW presented operational plans to Hitler in early October, and on Novem­ber 10, 1944, he issued the order to prepare for the Ardennes Offen­sive. Strict German secur­ity and a logis­tics marvel delivered 406,342 men, 557 Tiger and Panther tanks, 667 tank destroyers and assault guns, 1,261 other armored fighting vehicles, and 4,224 anti­tank and artil­lery pieces to the jumping-off point on the Belgian-Luxembourg border.

All this late-year activity to the east of Allied lines drew the atten­tion of senior com­manders and intel­li­gence agencies. Army group com­manders Mont­gom­ery and Brad­ley pro­fessed that the “situ­a­tion is such that [the enemy] can­not stage major offen­sive oper­a­tions.” Patton, com­mander of the U.S. Third Army, begged to differ. Not­with­standing the Allied high com­mand’s un­wor­ried mind­set, intel­li­gence reports con­tinued to hint at an alarming German build­up. Photo recon­nais­sance reported con­sid­er­able enemy activ­ity oppo­site Hodges’ U.S. First Army front. And German POWs revealed that a big attack was slated the week before Christ­mas. At 5:30 a.m., Decem­ber 16, 1944, Hitler launched his great German counterstroke, his last roll of the dice.

The Ardennes Offensive and the German “Bulge,” December 1944

Ardennes Offensive from December 16 to 26, 1944

Above: The German Wehrmacht (armed forces) launched a sur­prise attack in Bel­gium and Luxem­bourg in Decem­ber 1944 in an attempt to reach the large Bel­gian port of Ant­werp and the North Sea and thus split down the seam the Anglo-Canadians in Bel­gium and the Amer­i­can forces in Luxem­bourg and North­ern France. “If Germany can deal a few heavy blows, this arti­fi­cial coali­tion will collapse with a tremen­dous thunder­clap,” Hitler assured his generals. For 2½ months in one of the greatest logis­ti­cal feats of World War II, the generals drew on every avail­able resource they had left—300,000 men and boys from the army (Heer), Waffen-SS, Luft­waffe, Kriegs­marine, Hitler Youth, and even new con­scripts from prisoner-of-war camps; 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 reddish dashed lines. The orangish or rust-colored line indi­cates the Germans’ furthest advance east­ward. The German advance was stopped at the Meuse River at Dinant, shown just west of the orangish bulge.

Ardennes Offensive: German grenadiers in Luxembourg, December 1944Ardennes Offensive: German 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. 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.

German field commanders plan their advance through the Ardennes Forest, December 1944Ardennes Offensive: Captured 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. The attack against this boo­mer­ang-shaped piece of high ground 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 teenagers from the 12th SS Pan­zer Divi­sion Hitler­jugend. (The divi­sion took the title Hitler­jugend because it was com­posed mainly of young men from the Nazi Party’s para­mili­tary Hitler Youth organi­za­tion.) 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