SHAEF HQ, France · December 16, 1944

“It is essential to deprive the enemy of his belief that victory is cer­tain,” Adolf Hitler told his gene­rals on Decem­ber 12, 1944. Four days later, on this date in 1944, ele­ments of four Ger­man armies, com­prising nearly 300,000 Ger­man troops in 14 in­fan­try and 5 pan­zer divi­sions, smashed through the Ar­dennes Forest in bitterly cold Bel­gium and Luxem­bourg, their mas­sive counter­attack trapping thou­sands of surprised and stunned Amer­i­can soldiers in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, or the Ar­dennes Offen­sive. (See map below.) A simul­taneous cam­paign by the Luft­waffe was to have kicked off on the same date, but it was repeatedly delayed due to bad flying weather until New Year’s Day 1945, when im­proved weather per­mitted the start of German air opera­tions. The key to the Ger­man ground advance in the north­ern sec­tor were “Roll­bahns” that lined up with the Allied-held Bel­gian supply port of Ant­werp. Never able to open these land routes, the Ger­mans failed to achieve their objec­tives of retaking Ant­werp, driving a wedge between the Amer­i­can and British armies, and forcing a nego­ti­ated peace in the west. To the south, in the cen­ter of the bulge, the Ger­mans had more suc­cess cap­turing the key Belgian-German road and rail­road node in St. Vith, evac­u­ated as a lia­bil­ity now by Amer­i­cans on Decem­ber 21–22 after suffering over 12,500 casu­al­ties. They failed, how­ever, to take the key town of Bas­togne (popu­la­tion 3,500) south­west of St. Vith. Maj. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, acting com­mander of the trapped 101st Air­borne Divi­sion (“Screaming Eagles”) at Bas­togne, vital junction of seven hard-top roads, fa­mously replied “Nuts!” to the Ger­man sur­render ulti­ma­tum lest his men face anni­hi­lation by an over­whelming num­ber of Ger­man troops and tanks. (The German com­mander was in­formed that “in plain English” the expres­sion “nuts” meant “Go to hell!”) Ele­ments of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army, driving north­ward, relieved Bas­togne on Decem­ber 26. The Ar­dennes Offen­sive came to a com­plete halt in early Janu­ary 1945. It was the bloodiest of the battles U.S. forces expe­ri­enced in World War II, one in which nearly 76,000 Amer­i­cans were killed, maimed, cap­tured, or went missing. Ger­man casu­al­ties were put at 84,834, but other esti­mates range between 60,000 and 100,000. The net effect of the month-long Ger­man gamble in the west was to delay the Allied conquest of Germany by just six weeks.

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Opening Salvo in the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944

Map Battle of the Bulge, December 16–26, 1944

Above: Battle of the Bulge (Ardennes Offensive), known by the Germans as Unter­nehmen Wacht am Rhein (“Opera­tion Watch on the Rhine”). The Ger­mans were counting on the Ardennes Offen­sive turning the tide of war in the West. The map shows Ger­mans swelling “the Bulge,” as Prime Minis­ter Win­ston Chur­chill famously dubbed the German salient (red arrows, purple lines), between Decem­ber 16 and December 26, 1944. The Allies crushed the Bulge in January 1945.

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

Left: As many as 44 soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, U.S. 119th In­fantry Divi­sion were taken pri­soner by mem­bers of the Ger­man 6th Pan­zer Army Kampf­gruppe (battle group) Pei­per in Stou­mont, Eastern Belgium, on December 19, 1944. The black-garbed men of Kampf­gruppe Pei­per soon earned a mur­derous reputa­tion among GIs, partic­u­larly for the hor­rific mas­sacre of 84 (out of 114) dis­armed U.S. artil­lery­men, infan­try­men, medi­cal per­son­nel, and mili­tary police in a frozen field out­side Mal­medy, Bel­gium. (Lt. Col. Joachim Peiper’s men con­tinued firing machine-gun and pistol rounds into the bodies of the fallen men as their armored convoy of 600 vehicles passed the scene of exe­cu­tion.) Stiffened Amer­i­can resis­tance forced Peiper’s men to aban­don their equip­ment and trek east­ward on Decem­ber 24 through deep Bel­gian snow for safety behind German lines. Of Peiper’s 5,000 men at the start of the Ardennes Offensive, only about 800 survived.

Right: 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. Over­all casual­ties suf­fered by the 610,000 Amer­i­can troops (strength as of Decem­ber 22/23, 1944) who fought during the Battle of the Bulge (Decem­ber 16, 1944, to Janu­ary 25, 1945), num­bered 75,842, including 8,407 killed, 46,170 wounded, and nearly 21,000 captured. Equip­ment losses included some 730 tanks and tank destroyers. British losses totaled 1,408, including 200 dead. Esti­mates of losses for the Ger­mans ranged as high as 100,000, including at least 11,000 killed. Ger­mans also lost 600 irre­place­able tanks and assault guns.

British "Firefly" tank at Namur, Belgium, December 1944 M4 Sherman tanks near St. Vith, December 1944

Left: During the Battle of Bulge, the British 29th Armoured Brigade formed part of the defen­sive line on the Meuse River, the cen­ter of one of three Ger­man attack routes to the west. Tanks of the 3rd Royal Tank Regi­ment met the van­guard of the Ger­man push to the river before the Ger­man panzers were turned back. This photo shows a British Sher­man “Firefly” tank in the south­ern Bel­gian town of Namur on the Meuse River, December 1944. The Fire­fly was a British vari­ant of the Amer­i­can M4 Sher­man tank and was fitted with the power­ful British 17‑pounder (3‑in) anti-tank gun as its main wea­pon. It was highly valued as the only British tank capable of defeating German Panther and Tiger tanks.

Right: M4 Sherman tanks of the U.S. 7th Armored Divi­sion in tem­porary defen­sive positions near St. Vith, Bel­gium, a criti­cal road and rail center needed by the Ger­mans to supply their Ardennes Offen­sive. The 7th Armored Divi­sion was trans­ferred to U.S. First Army, under com­mand of Gen. Omar Brad­ley, and ordered to St. Vith. Over the course of almost a week, the 7th and ele­ments of other divi­sions absorbed much of the weight of the Ger­man drive, throwing the Ger­man time­table into great dis­array, before being forced to fall back to entrenched posi­tions to the west on December 23, 1944.

C-47 air drop at Bastogne, December 26, 1944Mardasson Memorial, Bastogne, Belgium

Left: Troops of the 101st Airborne Division watch C‑47 Skytrains drop sup­plies to them in the small south­east Bel­gian road hub of Bas­togne, Decem­ber 26, 1944, ringed by a mass of Ger­man troops and tanks intent on reaching the Meuse River. On the ground Gen. George Patton’s Third Army disen­gaged from its own offen­sive in the Ger­man Saar region and wheeled north toward Bas­togne. The 4th Armored Division, Patton’s spear­head, made con­tact with the 101st Air­borne on the same day as the air­drop. The relief of Bas­togne and the pro­longed action in and around St. Vith and else­where dealt a major set­back to the Ger­man advance, almost halted now by a lack of sup­plies. Soon the great bulge began to resemble a gigan­tic Allied pincer rather than a great Ger­man threat. As the year ended, so did Hitler’s dream of ultimate victory in the West.

Right: Mardasson Memorial near Bastogne, Belgium, honors the memory of American soldiers who were killed, wounded, or went missing during the Battle of the Bulge.

Bastogne and the Heroic Stand of the 101st Airborne Division