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 Eiffel moun­tains on this date in 1944. Con­ceived by Adolf Hitler, the multi-stage plan, initially code­named Wacht am Rhein (“Watch on the Rhine,” named for a German patriotic song of the same name, later changed to Herbst­nebel, “Autumn Mist”), was to attack through the weakly held Amer­i­can lines in the Ardennes Forest in Bel­gium and Luxem­bourg, recapture the strategic deep-water Bel­gian port of Ant­werp, sever Allied supply lines into the the interior, split Field Marshal Bernard Law Mont­go­mery’s Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group in Northern Bel­gium and Hol­land from Gen. Omar Brad­ley’s U.S. 12th Army Group to the south, encircle as many as four Allied armies, and force the West­ern Allies to nego­ti­ate a peace treaty, sep­a­rate from the Soviet Union, in Germany’s favor. Once all that was accom­plished (a tall order indeed), 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 its atten­tion on its East­ern Front, which under withering Soviet one-two hammer blows would soon shift nearly as far west as East Prussia.

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 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 Bel­gian port of Ant­werp and the North Sea and thus drive a wedge between 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 red dashed lines. The orange line indicates the Germans’ furthest advance east­ward. The German advance was stopped at the Meuse River at Dinant, shown just west of the orange 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

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