Alphen, Netherlands. 16 December. Seventy years ago today not far from here deep in the depths of a bitter winter in the snows of the high Ardennes four German armies including the the 5th Panzer Army under General von Manteuffel and the 6th Panzer army under SS General Dietrich launched Operation Watch on the Rhine. This massive attack on US forces became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The frankly bizarre strategic aim of the offensive was to retake Antwerp from the British and Canadians with the aim of splitting the Allies. The operation was doomed from the outset as Hitler desperately tried to rekindle his success of 1940 when he had driven tanks through the Ardennes forest against divided British and French forces.
The German offensive initially made some progress although never fast enough to achieve what by any military standards were extremely optimistic objectives, mainly due to the stout defence of relatively small US formations. Von Manteuffel and his 5th Army employing new tactics made good use of the poor weather that prevented the tank-busting Royal Air Force Typhoons and US Army Air Force Mustangs from striking the 54000 German troops and 345 tanks committed to the offensive, including the powerful Tiger IIs. German forces were hampered at all times by fuel shortages and the very snows that the offensive had used as cover. Moreover, by late 1944 German forces in the West were a shadow of their former selves and the implied link to a new Blitzkrieg was illusory and although the Luftwaffe did launch attacks it was only at the cost of losing their last capable air force.
The offensive pivoted on the little Belgian town of Bastogne, the junction of 11 tarmac roads vital if German forces were to make the rapid progress upon which the entire offensive hinged. The town was defended by the 101st Airborne Division (Screaming Eagles) and Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division. By 21 December German forces had surrounded Bastogne but were unable to take it due to the determined American defence. At one point, the officer commanding US forces Brigadier-General Anthony C. McAuliffe received a note from his German opposite number Lieutenant General Heinrich Freiherr von Luttwitz seeking his surrender. McAuliffe’s written reply has passed into military folklore; “Nuts!”
German forces then attempted to bypass Bastogne but it was by then already too late as improved weather enabled air attacks to slow their progress. And, although Bastogne faced a series of assaults by 25 December all the attacking German tanks in the vicinity of the town had been destroyed. On 26 December elements of Patton’s 4th Armored Division broke through to relieve the 101st in Bastogne, although the Screaming Eagles famously suggested that although low on ammunition, food and medical supplies they did not in fact need relieving.
Critically, the German offensive stalled before the River Meuse halfway to Antwerp where the British XXX Corps held the bridges over the Meuse at Dinant, Givet and Namur using air power and their Tiger-killing Sherman Firefly tanks to marked effect. With General Patton’s Third Army pushing hard up from the south it became progressively clear to German commanders that they were in danger of being trapped in a pocket not dissimilar to that which had effectively destroyed an entire German army at Falaise in Normandy the previous August.
Initially, Hitler refused to countenance a withdrawal and in keeping with Germany Army doctrine repeated counter-attacks and infiltration raids were launched by German forces. However, in spite of local gains all these attacks ultimately proved futile and on 7 January, 1945 Hitler finally gave the order for German forces to withdraw. However, it was not before 25 January that the Allied line was straightened and the pocket closed.
As per usual at this time success was not achieved without a good deal of bickering between US General Patton and British Field Marshal Montgomery as Patton’s Third Army attacked north from Bastogne and Montgomery came south. There was an interesting footnote to the Battle of the Bulge. American commanders accused Montgomery of attempting to claim credit for what in the end was a hard fought American victory. They had a point because for every one British soldier committed to the battle there were between 30 and 40 Americans. However, von Manteuffel himself said of Montgomery, “The operations of the American First Army [of which Montgomery had assumed command on 20 December] developed into a series of individual holding actions. Montgomery’s contribution to restoring the situation was that he turned a series of isolated actions into a coherent battle fought according to a clear and definite plan”.
However, the Battle of the Bulge was an overwhelmingly American victory and must be remembered as such. Indeed, “The Bulge” was the largest and most costly battle US forces fought in World War Two. Over 600,000 US soldiers took part in the battle of whom some 83,000 were injured and some 19,000 killed. German forces are believed to have lost killed, wounded or captured between 67,000 and 100,000 personnel. In effect the Battle of the Bulge marks the end of offensive operations by the Germany Army in the West. On 12 January, 1945 the Soviets launched the massive Vistula-Oder offensive which committed over 2 million infantry and over 4000 tanks to the battle and marked the beginning of the final destruction of Nazism.
Winston Churchill said of The Bulge, “This is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as a famous American victory”.