The Battle of the Bulge was Hitler’s final throw of the dice. With Germany in retreat across all fronts and a worsening situation at home, Hitler hoped to force the Western Allies out of the war before turning his full attention to the Soviet Union. Just as they had done in 1940, German tanks were to smash through Allied lines in the Ardennes forest and head for the coast, in this case, the vital Allied port of Antwerp. Germany amassed over 300,000 men, 2,100 tanks and assault guns, and around 1,900 artillery pieces for an attack on just 80,000 unprepared American soldiers.
But it wasn't 1940 anymore and the circumstances surrounding this attack were completely different. Even the men who planned the offensive didn't believe it would work. To succeed it required complete surprise, poor weather, a rapid advance, and the capture of Allied fuel to facilitate it all. Without any one of those things the entire plan could all fall apart.
The attack began at 5.30 am on 16 December 1944, but problems quickly emerged. Dogged American resistance slowed up the German advance allowing Allied reinforcements to flow in. Though there were only 80,000 Allied troops in the Ardennes at the start of the battle, there were over 500,000 by Christmas eve. By then the poor weather had started to clear and the Allies were able to play their trump card, destroying the German forces from the air. German forces did create a bulge in the Allied line, from which the battle gets its name, but by the end of January that bulge was closed.
In the end, the Ardennes Offensive shorted the war and essentially ended Germany’s ability to resist both in both the east and west. When the Soviets launched their winter offensive in January, they swept aside German resistance and advance 300 miles closer to Germany in a matter of weeks. Two months later, the Allies would do the same crossing the Rhine into Germany itself. Soon the war in Europe would be over.
The video below contains flashing images that may be harmful to some viewers.
Hitler's final offensive
In this episode of IWM Stories, curator Adrian Kerrison takes an in-depth look at the Battle of the Bulge and why it failed.
On the 16th of December, 1944 German troops began their final major offensive of the Second World War. Just as they had done in 1940, tanks were to smash through Allied lines in the Ardennes forest and head for the coast. They planned to split the British and American armies in two causing their alliance to fall apart and allowing Germany to focus all its resources on its real enemy, the Soviet Union.
Except none of that came to pass. After all, this was 1944 and the circumstances surrounding this attack were completely different. After dogged American resistance slowed up the German advance, the Allies were able to play their trump card and destroy the German forces from the air. The Germans were able to create a bulge in the Allied line, from which the battle gets its name, but by the end of January that Bulge was completely closed and the Allies had a clear route into Germany itself.
So what went wrong for the Germans? Why couldn't they replicate their success from 1940? And was the offensive doom to fail from the beginning?
By September 1944 the Germans are on the defensive in almost every direction. In the west, the Allies had broken out from Normandy and had raced to the German border, in the east the Soviets had launched the massive Operation Bagration, and even in the south, the Germans are struggling to hold the Allies moving up through Italy.
The problems continued at home. Supplies, resources and manpower were all dwindling fast as German cities were pounded by Allied bombers day and night. It seemed that it was only a matter of time before Germany was defeated.
Nothing could be more significant of a march of events than what these pictures show. In almost the same month when Britain was disbanding her Home Guard, the Nazis were forced to organize the German equivalent.
But despite all of that, German leader Adolf Hitler still believed that one final offensive could turn the tide.
He also believes that the relationship between the US and Britain is fragile and can fracture in a crisis such as a major counter-offensive against the Allies. But most importantly Hitler saw no way forward on the eastern front. Soviet manpower seemed limitless and Soviet territory was way too vast. By launching a decisive attack on the west he believed he could then negotiate a peace with the Allies and then turn his full attention to the Soviets in the east.
So this was the plan. Codenamed Operation Watch on the Rhine, 3 army groups would make a concentrated attack along a 60-mile front on American lines in the Ardennes forest from Malmedy in Belgium, to Echternach in Luxembourg. The area was considered a quiet part of the line and had just six weakened American divisions defending it. Some green troops newly introduced into the line and others resting after heavy fighting earlier in the year.
The attack was to be conducted by the 5th SS Panzer Army, 6th Panzer Army, and 7th Army making up 29 divisions, 12 of which were armoured. The 7th Army under Eric Brandenburger would protect the southern flank, the 5th Panzers under Hasso von Manteufel would cross the river Meuse and drive to Brussels, and the 6th SS Panzers under Sepp Dietrich would cross the Meuse further north and drive to the primary objective of Antwerp.
Without Antwerp, the already-stretched Allies would be forced to continue supplying from the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches all the way back in Normandy. Once captured all Allied forces north of the drive, who were mostly British, could be cut off and destroyed. Hitler believed that this would then cause the Anglo-American alliance to fall apart and lead to a negotiated peace favourable to Germany. However, his Generals were less than convinced.
Hitler's plan was opposed by most of his top commanders that were involved in the planning of the offensive. This included Field Marshals Gerd von Rundstedt who was Commander-in-Chief West as well as Field Marshals Walter Model in command of Army Group B. Both believed that crossing the Meuse river and reaching Antwerp would not be possible. They also believed that by creating this bulge in the Allied lines they'd be dangerously exposed on either side and would invite Allied counter-attacks. Both von Rundstedt and Model had proposed alternative plans to Hitler, but both of these plans were categorically rejected by Hitler.
He believed that he could recreate the success of his Ardennes attack from 1940, which defied his General's predictions and won a famous victory. If you want to find out more about how and why it worked so well you can watch our video in the description. Needless to say though this was not 1940 anymore and the circumstances surrounding this offensive were completely different.
Having lost over 3.2 million men since the beginning of the war Germany first needed more manpower in order to mount the attack. The volunteering age was lowered to 16, while the conscription age was raised to 60. Men from the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine were transferred to the army and workers who weren't vital to the war effort were also drafted in. Most of those troops were formed into new Volksgrenadier divisions. These were essentially economized versions of normal infantry divisions bulked out by new inexperienced troops. To complement them, experienced Panzer and Waffen-SS divisions were pulled in from the eastern front to lead the attack. They were given priority for newly built tanks, vehicles, and armaments.
In addition, Hitler put Otto Skorzeny, the man who achieved prominence when he carried out the audacious rescue of Mussolini, in charge of a specialized operation. Skorzeny and his commandos were to drive captured American vehicles and dress in American uniforms causing havoc behind the American lines. He also ordered a reactivation of a small parachute formation from the Fallschirmjäger regiments. Hurriedly trained and inefficiently used, they were captured without playing an active part in the battle.
In the end, despite their relative poverty, the Wermacht were able to pull together over 300,000 men, 2,100 tanks and assault guns, and around 1,900 artillery pieces. So the Germans now had a substantial ground force, but in the air it was a different story.
At this point in the war the Allies are completely dominant in the air. German troops can barely move out in the open without being harassed by Allied fighter-bombers and bombers. It's extremely important that the weather is bad for this offensive because the Germans want to make sure that they can do their build-up and launch the offensive without being harassed by Allied airpower.
The Germans were also severely lacking in fuel.
Germany had suffered devastating attacks from Allied bombers against its synthetic oil industry and the production of fuel became a massive problem for them. Because the attack mainly relies on armoured and mechanized units, fuel is essential. They were able to stockpile about 5 million gallons of fuel for the offensive, enough to last for six days, but this wasn't even enough to reach Antwerp. A key part of this therefore relied on capturing Allied fuel dumps. Without capturing Allied fuel dumps the offensive would grind to a halt.
Indeed the only thing that hadn't changed from 1940 was that Germany was still numerically inferior. German forces could not afford to get bogged down in a battle of attrition which the Allies would surely win. Therefore the timetable for advance was strict. By the second day, German forces were to have taken St Vith and Bastogne to allow the crossing of the river Ourthe. By the fourth day, they were to reach the river Meuse. Then onto Antwerp and victory.
To achieve maximum speed there was also a huge German emphasis on surprise. Military security had been especially tightened after the 20th of July plot to assassinate Hitler and those involved with the Ardennes plan had to sign oaths that they would not leak any information on penalty of death. On the ground, the woods of the Ardennes offered good concealment for the massing German armies and bad weather prevented Allied reconnaissance from spotting them. Although the Allies had decrypted German codes, because most of the communications took place inside Germany, the Allies had few chances to intercept them.
Despite that small silver lining though, it's easy to see why Hitler's generals did not believe in this attack. To work it required complete surprise, poor weather, a rapid advance, and the capture of Allied fuel to facilitate it all. Without any one of those things it could fall apart. Nevertheless on the 16th of December Hitler rolled the dice one final time.
From 5:30 a.m German guns pounded the Allied lines for 90 minutes before 200,000 German troops crashed into just 80,000 Americans.
The first indication of the attack the American 110th regiment got was when the shells started exploding around them.
At first, things seemed to go well. The attack was a complete surprise and the terrible weather kept Allied aircraft on the ground. Quickly though cracks began to show in the offensive strict timetable. In the north, the 6th SS Panzer army tried to take the vital high ground of Elsenborn ridge on route to the river Meuse but were completely blocked by the 99th Infantry Division and those problems continued further south.
The German plan stipulated that St Vith had to be captured by the second day of the offensive, but the American troops defending St Vith were able to hold out for five days until eventually evacuating. Like St Vith, Bastogne was another critical part of the German plan. The Americans had realized the significance of Bastogne as soon as the battle began pretty much and quickly sent the 101st Airborne Division as well as the 10th Armored Division to reinforce the town. They both arrived on the 19th and quickly set up defences. A few days later they were completely encircled by the Germans and they had to hold out for over a week but with dwindling supplies food and ammunition.
Those are just a few examples of the valiant American delaying actions which happened up and down the Allied line. The terrain of the Ardennes made road junctions extremely important and by holding these key points small Allied forces could delay multiple German units buying time for reinforcements to arrive. While there were only 80,000 US troops in the Ardennes when the battle began, by Christmas eve there were half a million Allied soldiers from different nations.
On the 19th of December General Eisenhower made the controversial decision of giving the command of all troops, American and British, north of the bulge to Field Marshall Montgomery and on the same day 30th British Corps which had been taken into reserve to prepare for a continuance of the British advance in the north was moved south to cover the Meuse bridges.
As reinforcements arrived the German advance slowed down even more. Remember they were supposed to have reached this line from St Vith to Bastogne by December 18th and the river Meuse by the 20th. Instead, these were their lines on the 24th. Worse still for the Germans, fuel was also becoming a major problem.
It was possible that the Germans may have been able to capture Allied fuel stocks in the rear areas, but because they were too slow a lot of the fuel dumps were either evacuated or destroyed and a lot of this work was actually done by African-American drivers of the Red Ball Express in trucks like these. Additionally Germany's inability to capture vital roads meant that there were a lot of traffic jams that formed and this meant that the fuel that they did have wasn't able to be brought up to the front to the units that needed it most.
One thing that had gone the way of the Germans was the weather. This was one of the coldest winters on record in the area with average temperatures around -7 degrees celsius. That not only kept Allied aircraft at bay but also affected US ground forces who did not have adequate winter clothing. Many were forced to rely on cotton field jackets and wool gray coats.
One of these Americans was Lieutenant Ben Rugg of the 2nd Infantry Regiment. Rugg, who was wearing this helmet, was immediately sent into action with his regiment attacking the town of Berdorf on Christmas day. Rugg was actually wounded on the 26th, receiving a penetrating wound in the shoulder, but went on to fight and eventually captured the town. And you can actually see how violent the battle was because there, in addition to the wound he received, he also received either shrapnel or a bullet to his helmet.
On the 23rd though the weather conditions finally started to lift and the Allies were able to bring their air superiority to bear. Attacking German tanks and supply routes and dropping much-needed supplies to the surrounded men at Bastogne. The tide of the battle was turning as Allied counter-attacks began.
The first major counter-attack was led by General George S. Patton who commanded the US 3rd Army. At the time of the attack, Patton was actually preparing his army for an offensive into the Saar region of Germany, but he was quickly ordered to attack northwards relieving the besieged Americans at Bastogne. The 3rd Army was able to achieve this within a few days, breaking the siege on the 26th and this really represented a herculean feat of logistics because it was done so quickly.
The offensive was quickly turning into the battle of attrition that the Germans had hoped to avoid. In a desperate attempt to regain the initiative, the Germans launched two new offensives in January. First Operation Baseplate which aimed to temporarily gain air superiority so that the Ardennes Offensive could continue. The Luftwaffe did manage to destroy around 300 Allied aircraft, but they lost over 200 irreplaceable pilots in the process. A loss from which they would never recover.
The second was an offensive further south in the Alsace-Lorraine region codenamed Nordwind. This was designed to break through the American lines which were now stretched due to the departure of Patton's 3rd Army. However, the Americans had anticipated the attack and halted it with heavy losses. All the while Allied counter-attacks continued in the Ardennes. The next major counter-attack was launched on the 30th of December and another major counter-attack was launched in the north a few days later. By the end of January the bulge had been completely closed up and the lines had returned to what they were before the German offensive had started.
At the end of the battle, both sides had suffered. The Germans had taken 80,000 to 100,000 casualties and the Allies around 75,000. But unlike the Germans, the Allies could rely on a steady flow of replacements to fill the gaps. Amongst those casualties were soldiers killed on both sides in a series of massacres. The most famous were at Malmedy and Chenogne, but other lesser-known massacres were committed by the 1st SS Panzer Division. Including the brutal murder of 11 African-American pows in the town of Wereth and the massacre of nearly 300 Belgian civilians in the towns of Stavelot, Ster, Renardmont and Parfondruy.
Hitler's gamble had come at a high cost with next to no reward. Everything needed to go right for the offensive to work, but the Germans had forgotten an old maxim 'no plan survives contact with the enemy'.
Yes, the Germans achieved surprise. But the first objective, crossing the Meuse, is never achieved even though the plan hinges on it being crossed by the fourth day of the offensive. Although the weather works in their favour for the first week, when the weather clears on the 23rd the Allies are able to resume their air offensive against the Germans on the ground.
Alongside their own problems, the German army was essentially fighting a completely different enemy from the one they destroyed on the same ground in 1940. The few American units in the area fought with tenacity. Slowing up the German advance and allowing the Allies' air superiority and mobile armoured reserve to mount counter-attacks in a way they never could years earlier. Pulling Germany into the battle of attrition it couldn't hope to win.
If you're wondering if the offensive was doomed to fail before it began you only need to ask the German commanders who organized it. But let's imagine that everything goes right for the Germans and they're able to reach Antwerp. What happens next? They're hoping for a negotiated peace with the Allies, but it's very hard to see this happening given all the effort and resources that the Allies poured into the invasion of Europe and the campaign that followed.
The Battle of the Bulge, with its slim chance of success, was Hitler's hail mary, his final throw of the dice before the inevitable. In the end though it simply shortened the war and essentially ended Germany's ability to resist in both east and west. When the Soviets launched their winter offensive in January they swept aside German resistance and advanced 300 miles closer to Germany in a matter of weeks. Two months later the Allies would do the same thing, crossing the Rhine into Germany itself. Soon the war in Europe would finally be over.