Adlerhorst Forward HQ, Central Hessen, Germany 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, at his rural Adler­horst (Eagle’s Nest) head­quarters near Bad Nau­heim, Germany, the camou­flaged western com­mand out­post Archi­tect of the Reich Albert Speer had built for him in 1939–1940. “Our task is to teach the enemy by ruth­less strikes that he hasn’t yet won, and that the war will con­tinue with­out inter­ruption.” Four days later, on this date in 1944, elements of four German armies, com­prising nearly 300,000 German troops in 14 in­fan­try and 5 armored (panzer) divi­sions, smashed through the hilly, snow-covered Ardennes Forest in bitterly cold Belgium and Luxem­bourg, their mas­sive onslaught 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.) In a nation­wide radio address shortly after his auda­cious offen­sive began, Hitler exhorted his country­men: “Be confi­dent! What­ever may face us, we will over­come it. There is victory at the end of the road. Under any situ­ation, in battle where the fana­ticism of a nation is a factor, there can only be victory!”

The key to the German victory in the north­ern sec­tor were “Roll­bahns” (primary thrust routes) that lined up with the Allied-held Belgian supply port of Ant­werp—lifeline of the Allies in Western Europe—and the German border near Aachen. Never able to open these land routes, the Germans failed to achieve three objec­tives: retaking Antwerp in­side a week, driving a wedge between the Amer­i­can and British-Cana­dian armies, and forcing a nego­ti­ated armi­stice on their Western Front. 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, ordered evac­u­ated as a lia­bil­ity now by Amer­i­cans on Decem­ber 21 after suffering over 12,500 casu­al­ties and MIAs across four divi­sions. Because the German plan called for the capture of St. Vith by the evening of Decem­ber 17 latest, one day after the start of the Ardennes Offen­sive, the pro­longed action in and around St. Vith dealt a major setback to their timetable.

The Germans failed, however, to take the key town of Bas­togne (popu­la­tion 3,500) south­west of St. Vith. U.S. Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, peppery acting com­mander of the below-strength 101st Air­borne Divi­sion (“Screaming Eagles”) trapped at Bas­togne, vital inter­section of one rail­road and seven hard­top high­ways, famously snapped “Nuts!” on hearing the German sur­render ulti­ma­tum. The ulti­ma­tum threatened McAuliffe’s men and the towns­people with anni­hi­lation by an allegedly over­whelming num­ber of German troops, tanks, and artil­lery. Puzzled, the German truce dele­ga­tion was informed that “in plain English” the expression “Nuts” meant “Go to hell!”

Elements of Gen. George S. Patton’s U.S. Third Army, driving north­ward, relieved the stubborn Bastogne defenders on Decem­ber 26. Germany’s desperate offen­sive came to a com­plete halt in early Janu­ary 1945 amid great losses on all sides. It was the bloodiest of the battles U.S. forces expe­ri­enced in World War II. Over­all casual­ties suf­fered by the 610,000 Amer­i­can troops (strength as of Decem­ber 22/23, 1944) who fought during the Ardennes Offensive (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. Perhaps as many as 2,500 Belgian and 500 Luxem­bourgers perished during the offen­sive, a third of them in Allied air raids. Nearly 90,000 peo­ple lost their homes. Esti­mates of losses on the German side range between 60,000 and 100,000, including at least 11,000 killed. Aside from the human toll, the Germans lost 600 irreplace­able tanks and assault guns. By the end of Hitler’s forlorn mili­tary ven­ture into Belgium and Luxem­bourg, the Nazi leader’s Wehr­macht was a spent force. The net effect of the Fuehrer’s eleventh-hour gamble was to delay the Allied conquest of Germany by just six weeks.

Opening Salvo in the Ardennes Offensive, aka Battle of the Bulge, December 1944

Map of Ardennes Offensive, December 16–26, 1944

Above: Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge), better known by present-day Germans as Unter­nehmen Wacht am Rhein (Opera­tion Watch on the Rhine) than by its later cover name, Herbst­nebel (Autumn Mist). The Germans were counting on their offen­sive, which targeted the weakest part of the Allied front, turning the tide of war or at least post­poning defeat in the West. (In the East, where the whole front threatened to collapse, Hitler had pretty much lost interest.) The map shows Germans swelling “the Bulge,” as Prime Minister Winston Chur­chill famously dubbed the dangerous German salient (red arrows, purple lines), between Decem­ber 16 and 26, 1944. The Allies crushed the Bulge in January 1945. It was a costly price the enemy paid for Hitler’s last folly.

Ardennes Offensive: U.S. POWs-1, December 1944Ardennes Offensive: U.S. POWs-2, December 1944

Left: 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 “Leib­standarte Adolf Hitler,” of which Kampf­gruppe (battle group) Peiper was a part. Assigned a deci­sive role in the Ardennes Offen­sive, Lt. Col. Joachim (Jochen) Peiper’s black-garbed panzer­grena­diers 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 3 miles out­side Mal­medy, Bel­gium (see map). (Peiper’s men con­tinued riddling the bodies of fallen and dead soldiers with machine-gun and pistol rounds as their long snaking convoy of 600 vehicles passed the scene of exe­cu­tion.) Stiffened Amer­i­can resis­tance stoked by hatred and revenge forced Kampf­gruppe Peiper, perilously low on infan­try ammu­ni­tion and fuel, to aban­don its goal of reaching the Meuse River. After destroying and discarding equip­ment, a minor­ity of men led by Peiper him­self trudged east­ward on Decem­ber 24 through deep Belgian snow and intense cold, swam an icy river, and reached German lines on Christ­mas Day. Of Peiper’s 5,000 SS warriors at the start of the Ardennes Offensive, less than 800 survived.

Right: On Sunday, December 17, 1944, twenty-four hours after setting off, Peiper’s Kampf­gruppe 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 Mark V Panthers and smaller Mark IV tanks, half-tracks, and other vehicles. This German photo­graph may show some of the men from the 2nd Infan­try Divi­sion being marched 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. Two villagers forced to face a wall were shot dead in the back of the head.

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

Left: Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, commander of the British 21st Army Group, was one of the first Allied com­manders to realize the gravity of the Ardennes break­through. Monty ordered British Army units to posi­tion them­selves at stra­tegic crossings over the Meuse River, the cen­ter of one of three German attack routes to the west. 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 longer and far more power­ful British 17‑pounder (3‑in) high-velocity gun as its main wea­pon. It was highly valued as the only British tank capable of defeating German Mark V Panther and Mark VI 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. Lt. Gen. William Simpson’s U.S. Ninth Army’s 7th Armored Divi­sion was trans­ferred to Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges’ U.S. First Army, under the over­all com­mand of 12th Army Group Gen. Omar Bradley, and ordered to the Ardennes. Over the course of almost a week, the 7th and ele­ments of other front-line 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.

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

Left: After low-lying fog had lifted, troops of the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion watch C‑47 Sky­trains dis­patched from England, escorted by P‑47 Thunder­bolts, drop 192 tons of ammu­ni­tion, 12 tons of gaso­line, and 35 tons of pro­vi­sions and medi­cal supplies to them in the small South­east Bel­gian road hub of Bas­togne, Decem­ber 26, 1944. Bastogne’s defenders were ringed by a mass of German troops and tanks intent on reaching the Meuse River to the north­west. The P‑47s tarried long enough to plaster the enemy with machine-gun fire and bombs. 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 this 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 gaso­line and other supplies, destroyed bridges, and strafed- and bomb-damaged roads clogged with destroyed German armor. Soon the great bulge began to resemble a gigan­tic Allied pincer rather than a great German threat as U.S. divi­sions reclaimed lost ground. 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 Ardennes Offensive.

Contemporary Newsreel Accounts of the Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge) Recorded by U.S. and German Cameramen

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