68th Anniversary: the Battle of the Bulge

16 Dec

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Winter 1944. A devastating cold has set in across the fields and forests of eastern Belgium and Luxembourg, bringing it with a thick, impregnable fog, effectively neutralizing any available air cover. American troops are dug into thinly defended positions, miles from one another, lightly armed and expecting an uneventful season. They could not have been more wrong. Allied commanders had turned their attention away from Nazi Germany, who, following their humiliating retreat across the River Seine after their brutal defeat at the Falaise Pocket in August 1944, seemed to be on the brink of defeat. Having given chase to the battered and bruised remnants of the once proud Wehrmacht, the Allied forces had a committed a singular error that almost cost them their victory in the war: they had outrun their supply lines. While the Red Army chose to bed down for the winter on the outskirts of Warsaw, allowing the ill-fated city to burn following a failed uprising, as well as resting along the Hungarian and Czechoslovakian frontiers, the Allied armies had kept themselves mobile, continuously hunting an enemy they severely underestimated. They had miscalculated the measure of Germany’s resolve, and, unbeknownst to them, the will of the common German citizen.

In order to look upon the Battle of the Bulge, one must not delve directly into it. The Battle, in a sense, was the completion of a series of Allied offensives and Axis retreats, along with sporadic combat, that had led to the predicament the SHAEF was facing by the autumn of 1944, leading to General Dwight Eisenhower’s disastrous decision to hand over cached surplus supplies, a commodity rapidly becoming scarce due to Patton’s advance to the Rhine and Montgomery’s flanking assault into Belgium, as well as offensive priority to General Bernard Montgomery, commander of the British 21st Army Group, composed of the British 2nd, Canadian 1st, and US 9th Armies. Following Operation Neptune, the amphibious and airborne phase of the larger, and far more grandiose, Operation Overlord, directed at Normandy, France, the Allied armies had been bogged down in heavy fighting in and around the German held cities-cum-fortresses of Caen, Cherbourg, and Saint-Lo, as well as bitter combat in the hedgerow country surrounding these vast, impregnable citadels. From June 6th, 1944, the amphibious and airborne landings in Normandy, to August 21st, 1944, the retreat of the remnants of German Army Group B across the Seine in an attempt to consolidate for the defense of Paris, the Allied armies were heavily committed to offensive operations in Normandy and Brittany, attempting to break the back of the German defenders and force them from the peninsula. Much to their advantage, when that day did come, following the testing battles in the Falaise Pocket, the German armies, or what was left of them, retreated in disarray east to the Rhine and northward, splintering into pockets of resistance in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and along major fortress-cities along the Channel Coast of France, which would not fall until the surrender of Germany in May 1945. And with the retreat of the remains of the once-proud German army, as well as the morale-boosting liberation of Paris on August 25th, following General Dietrich von Choltitz’s failure to destroy the city after a direct order was given him by Hitler to do so, the Allied armies under General George Patton, Courtney Hodges, Bernard Montgomery, William Simpson, Miles Dempsey, Harry Cerar, and Omar Bradley gave chase, with the American armies under Bradley hunting the Germans to the Rhine, and with the British and Canadians under Montgomery hunting them to the River Scheldt Estuary in Belgium and the Netherlands and the Upper Rhine and industrial Ruhr Pocket in northwestern Germany. By October 1944, the first Allied troops, American forces of the 1st Infantry Division under the command of General Patton’s 3rd Army, were involved in offensive operations around the ancient city of Aachen, formerly the capital of Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire, as well as the cite of the treaty that ended the War of the Austrian Succession. Those troops under Patton were the first Allied troops to fight on German soil. Yet a significant problem was facing Eisenhower, as well as Bradley, Montgomery, and the newly arrived Jacob Devers, commander of the 6th Army Group, and Alexander Patch, commander of the US 7th Army, which had landed in southern France during August 1944’s Operation Anvil-Dragoon. Supplies were short. Too short to continue offensive operations, and that was pregnant with horrific possibilities, the worst of which being the consolidation and counterattacking of German armies pinned against the Rhine. If that came to fruition, and were serious enough, it could threaten the Allied armies in west and northwestern Europe, and severely knock them off balance, threatening the whole of the campaign. Yet few of the Allied commanders in autumn 1944 recognized this horrific possibility. They jockeyed and vied for priority supply in order to gain the glory of crossing the Rhine before any of their rivals, a bittersweet objective. Whoever was the first to cross would gain the glory and reputation, but would simultaneously be forced to wage war solo, considering the other commanders lacked the necessarily equipment to support them.

Prior to the Overlord landings in Normandy, the Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Force had waged a brutal, pseudo-scorched earth campaign against the Norman countryside, laying waste to roads, bridges, and, especially vital, railroads. Once these were mostly neutralized (the paratroopers and glider-borne infantry would seize and secure the more heavily defended and more important objectives that could not be destroyed), it would make rapid deployment of German troops, now mostly committed to the Pas-de-Calais peninsula north of Normandy following their being duped by Allied counterintelligence, nearly impossible, allowing for the buildup of Allied forces in Normandy before a potential German counterattack could be mounted against them. If such a counterattack were a possibility during the landing, it could through the landing back into the sea. The campaign was largely a success, yet it was not without adverse effects. With rail systems and roads nearly impassible by Allied vehicles (although the majority of bridges and roads vital to the Allied advance had been taken by paratroopers in the early morning hours of the invasion), the Allied advance had begun to gradually ground to a halt. On June 30th, 1944, the deep water port of Cherbourg fell to American forces under General J. Lawton Collins, yet there was a serious problem: the German defenders had sabotaged the port and neutralized its ability to be effectively utilized for months. In early September 1944, Canadian troops under General Harry Cerar captured the port of Antwerp in Belgium, resting on the River Scheldt Estuary, yet the Dutch portion of the Scheldt remained in German control until October. Along with the fact that the majority of the deep water French English Channel ports were within German hands, all Allied supplies would have to be landed at the Normandy beaches, which could only take a rather diminutive number of supplies. Combined with the fact that the rail systems were nearly completely destroyed, and the outcome was as expected: a commander’s worst nightmare. The third, and final, factor that further injured the Allies’ ability to wage war was the rapid retreat of the German Wehrmacht back to the Rhine. Such a retreat was incredibly bittersweet: the retreat surrendered vast tracts of German held land to the Allies, but simultaneously, the Allied attempts to keep pace with the retreating German armies devastated supplies. By September 1944, the situation was nearly untenable. The Red Ball Express, a system of trucks driven by primarily black soldiers, were trucking supplies to the rapidly advancing armies as a substitute for the lack of rail accessibility, yet the trucks ate up a massive amount of fuel trekking to and from the front, which would be in one place one day, and miles away the next. On September 10th, Eisenhower listened to an incredibly impassioned speech given him by General Montgomery, requesting that Eisenhower give him priority supply in order to execute a particularly daring airborne assault against the German 15th Army in the Netherlands. If the assault, which consisted of three Allied airborne divisions and one airborne brigade seizing eight bridges over several rivers and canals criss-crossing the eastern Dutch countryside and driving an entire British armored corps along that stretch of road and finally outflanking the vaunted defenses of the Siegfried Line, was successful, it possessed the potential to end the war by December 25th, 1944: Christmas Day. Scheduled to be launched on September 17th, Operation Market Garden, as it came to be known, would consist of ferrying over 40,000 British, American, and Polish paratroopers from airfields in southern England to the southeastern Netherlands, along a stretch of road, known as Highway 69, from points twelve to sixty two miles from the nearest British positions in Belgium. The operation revolved around a strict timetable, with British armor scheduled to arrive in Eindhoven, the southernmost objective of the American 101st Airborne Division, twelve miles from the Belgian frontier, within two to three hours, and finally arriving in Arnhem, the northernmost objective of the British 1st Airborne Division, sixty two miles from the Belgian frontier, within two to three days. Once this was completed, the armor, of General Brian Horrocks’s XXX Corps, would hook northeast over the northernmost palisades of the Siegfried Line defending Germany’s heavily forested western frontier, driving fast across the steppes of the North German Plain, and finally terminating their offensive operations in Berlin. The operation was a massive gamble, and ended in a bust for Montgomery. By September 25th, with the 1st Airborne Division and Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade surrounded near Oosterbeek and Arnhem, having lost over eighty percent of their men, respectively, and with the Pyrrhic American victories near Nuenen, Veghel, Uden, Sint-Oedenrode,Nijmegen, and Son, Montgomery terminated the operation, declaring it, controversially, a “ninety percent success”. By October 1944, the Allied lines, especially those of Generals Patton and Hodges, rested within a grenade’s throw of the Rhine. By mid-November, the first frost came, and with it, the first snowfall. The fighting had largely died down, safe for raids into the other’s encampments, primarily in order to capture enemy troops for interrogation. The Allied armies began to dig themselves in in anticipation of a winter expected to be particularly brutal, yet not the way they envisioned. The Allied commanders believed that the German army would collapse beneath another hammer-blow, even one as ineffective as Market Garden, which had done more damage to the Allied, than to the German, morale. Yet with this significant halt in offensive operations, marked by the capture of Aachen by Patton’s troops late in October and the clearing of the Scheldt by Dempsey’s and Crerar’s troops that same month, the Germans did not respect the welcome respite the way the Allies were. They were preparing for a far more vast and intricate offensive operation: Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein. Operation Watch on the Rhine. The Battle of the Bulge.

First dreamt by Hitler while he was recovering from his slight injuries in a Berlin hospital following the July 20th attempt on his life, as well as an attempted coup, by a group of his own officers led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg in Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters, Operation Watch on the Rhine was envisioned on a grand scale of hurling the Allied armies back into the English Channel, and the triumphant Germans armies retaking Paris, as well as all of western Europe. It was, of course, envisioned in Hitler’s particularly excessive and unrealistic way, and was improbable, but by no means impossible. Under correctly placed leadership, and given the proper amount of men and material, the operation had the potential to succeed.Combined with its being aimed at a weak point in the Allied lines, and Operation Watch on the Rhine had the potential to become a real possibility, but Hitler’s High Command suggested he scale back his earlier objectives of seizing all of western Europe and focus on smaller, more easily attainable objectives. After deliberation, it was decided that the German armies, placed under the command of Generals Sepp Dietrich, a Waffen-SS officer who was not only a personal favorite of Hitler, yet also a close friend, and Hasso von Manteuffel, a Wehrmacht general who was a veteran of the fighting in North Africa and the brutal scorched earth war being waged in the Soviet Union, would seize Antwerp, splitting the Allied armies in two, with the British pinned in a pocket to the north in the Netherlands and Belgium, and the American armies to the south in northern and eastern France. Once this was possible, the Germans would advance along the River Meuse, or Maas, and, if possible, retake Paris and northern France, and sue the Allies for peace on their terms, if the Allies did not capitulate before then. The combined German armies, numbering over 200,000 men equipped with over 400 tanks and self-propelled guns, were up against some 83,000 American troops dug in in the Ardennes Forest, along the mountainous Wallonia region and in the heavily forested flat terrain of the Eifel. The American forces were spread incredibly thin, due to Allied overconfidence. The Allied commanders believed, falsely, and similarly to the opinion taken by the French at the outset of the Second World War, that an armored counterattack, especially of the magnitude under the commands of Dietrich and Manteuffel, was physically impossible considering the sheer density of the forest. Yet following the German assault on May 10th, 1940, with their outflanking the subterranean antitank defenses of the Maginot Line on France’s eastern border, the German armies were able to seize Paris by July, a feet that had escaped them in the previous war. Now, the Ardennes were thinly populated by sparse amounts of Allied troops committed from a motley mix of troops from differing divisions all committed to the area from different armies. The German armies, numbering thirteen divisions’ worth of infantry and armor, would fall under the overall command of Field Marshal Walter Model. Originally it had been selected that command be given to Gerd von Rundstedt, yet following a crippling stroke, his ability to command had been severely compromised. The time was set for the night of December 16-17th, 1944. Prior to the German assault, German commandos known by their infamous moniker, the Werewolves, under the command of the legendary SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Otto Skorzeny, the man who had executed the rescue of Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini from his mountaintop prison in September 1943, would jump behind enemy lines clad in American uniforms, speaking English with American accents. These commandos, part of Unternehmen Grief, were to cause chaos in the American lines as they attempted to retreat in that face of overwhelming numerical superiority, namely by changing road signs to send valuable men, armor, and material, to the wrong rallying point, as well as giving false directions and interrupting American communications. 

Prior to the assault, the Germans had built up a massive amount of armor along Germany’s western border with Luxembourg and Belgium, along the River Our. A series of prisoner raids executed by American soldiers had hinted at the overwhelming possibility of a potential German counterattack, yet the Allied commanders had disregarded it, stating that the possibility of such a large scale assault was not only unlikely, but also close to impossible with Germany’s current state, both in regard to supplies and men. With combating Soviet forces in Poland, the Balkans, the Ukraine, and the Baltic States, as well as Allied forces in Italy, France, and the Low Countries, it seemed close to impossible that Germany possessed any offensive capability whatsoever. The Allies’ gross miscalculation led to their poorly defended lines in the Ardennes, which allowed the German troops to break the backs of the defenders, namely men of the 2nd Infantry, 7th Armored, 82nd Airborne, 28th Infantry, and the largely inexperienced 99th Infantry Divisions. Following their seizing Lanzerath, German troops under the command of General Sepp Dietrich, in the 6th SS Panzer Army, began to push in the direction of the crossroads city of Liege. The quickest way to the city was through the Losheim Gap, dominated by the Elsenborn Ridge promontory, which offered a commanding view of the Gap. Whoever controlled Elsenborn controlled Losheim, and, indirectly, Liege. For nearly two weeks German armor, combined with artillery, struck time and again the battered American defenders of Elsenborn, first men of the 28th and 99th Infantry, and later men of the 1st Infantry Division fresh from the Battles of Aachen and the Huertgen Forest to the south. This campaign to take Liege, which would allow German armor to cut south in the direction of Antwerp, the rallying point for the assault down the Meuse, formed the northernmost point of a three-pronged assault. The SS soldiers soon began displaying acts of the utmost brutality in attempting to break the American lines, the most nefarious of which being the infamous massacre at the village of Malmedy, in which nearly fifty American troops were executed at close range by German soldiers following their capture by armored task force Kampfgruppe Peiper, under the command of Joacheim Peiper, an infamous armored ace. The massacre was responded to in a matter in which the Americans chose to fight fire with fire, vowing that if any SS soldiers were captured, they would not be taken prisoner, and would be summarily executed. This mentality resulted in the less infamous, yet no less brutal Chenogne massacre, on New Year’s Day 1945, in which American forces executed a small amount of German prisoners-of-war following their earlier statements regarding prisoners. The northern campaign would continue to be waged by Dietrich until mid-January, when he announced to Hitler that any more offensive effort directed at the resilient and iron-clad defenses at Elsenborn Ridge would prove futile and impossible. Liege would remain in American hands. Further to the south, the situation proved much less turbulent than that of the north. Following the German victory in the Battle of Saint-Vith, the German push in the direction of several key bridges over the River Meuse came to halt by, and under increasing fire, from a peculiar adversary: the British 21st Army Group. The newly arrived forces, a rather small amount combined with the sheer amount of American and German forces committed to the fighting, halted the minute spearhead forces, numbering only a few dozen, who had actually managed to reach the Meuse, although due to situations unveiling the north, with the halt of Dietrich’s Army at Elsenborn Ridge, and von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army at Bastogne to the south, the scout units’ flanks were unprotected, and they were forced to withdraw.

Perhaps the most legendary, well remembered, and cliche moment of the Battle of the Bulge was in the southern portion of the campaign. Following their being dispatched to the crossroads town of Bastogne from their makeshift field headquarters at Mourmelon, France, the men of the 101st Airborne Division came under some of the most intense fire from the advancing German 5th Panzer Army, under the command of General Hasso von Manteuffel. The city of Bastogne was a crossroads town, much like a smaller version of Liege, and thus attracted the attention of the German High Command. If captured, it could be utilized as an expedient to propel the German armies at a quicker rate down the Meuse into northern France, and, if their plan succeeded, into Paris. Yet the men of the 101st Airborne had been dispatched to the town, in the face of the impending German assault, for the purpose of stopping such an attack. They were order to hold the town under all costs, even when their commanding officer, General Maxwell Taylor, was attending a meeting with Chief of Staff George C. Marshall in Washington, D.C., and the power vacuum left by his leaving was forced to be filled by General Anthony McAuliffe, the commander of the division’s artillery regiment. Von Manteuffel chose, in a stunning turn of events, not to strike the city directly, rather, he chose to surround the city and batter its defenders into submission through a prolonged siege, a decision that would cost him the city, and the southern flank of the assault. By New Year’s Day 1945, it was clear that the city would hold, and Dietrich, General Erich Brandenburger, commander of the 7th Panzer Army, and von Manteuffel agreed that further offensive operations would prove futile. Bastogne had held, and Dietrich’s men never came within striking distance of Liege. Scouting parties under Brandenburger came to the frozen waters of the Meuse, but were not only outnumbered and outgunned, but also outflanked by American forces. In mid-January, the siege of Bastogne was finally broken when General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army arrived and surrounded those executing the siege, although they had already begun to execute a fighting retreat in the direction of Germany. To this day, the story of the Battle of the Bulge is one told of Patton coming to the rescue of the 101st, although no member of the 101st who survived the Battle ever agreed they needed saving. The Battle of the Bulge had been a bust for the Germans, much like Market Garden. To this day, it lives on the bloodiest battle in American history, with 89,000 men having either died, been wounded, or captured during the fighting. The Germans had lost a staggering 100,000 men, and the majority of their heavy armor and assault guns, a blow from which they never fully recovered due to their inability to make up for losses, contributed by the brutal Allied air campaign targeting Germany’s industrial infrastructure. On January 25th, 1945, the Germans attempted another counterattack into northern France, known as Operation North Wind under the direct command of Heinrich Himmler, yet this too never fully came to fruition. On March 24th, 1945, following the clearing of the western shores of the Rhine, the Allied armies crossed the aquatic barrier into Germany. On May 8th, the war would be over.       

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