The post D-Day Allied assault that swept through France was halted by Hitler’s unexpected counter-attack through the Ardennes, resulting in a confrontation named the Battle of the Bulge. The Allied battle front in the autumn of 1944 made an end to the war by Christmas look likely. They had liberated most of France in a matter of months, and were now marching towards the Ruhr River, which was the gateway to the heartland of Germany. However, the Allies had moved so far so fast that their supply lines had not caught up with them. The closest dock was where they had landed on D-Day, and the need for a closer port became more persistent everyday.
During the Overlord campaign, which was the landing in France, the Allies had bombed railways extensively to weaken the German defenses. With no railway, roads and trucks were the only way of transporting supplies. This supply problem led to the conclusion by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces, that a closer coastal port needed to be opened. He chose Antwerp, Europe’s largest port, which was located along the Schelde Estuary (Keegan 436-437). Field Marshall Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, commander of the northern front, wanted a quick victory.
He proposed continuing on into Germany, across the Ruhr, and destroying Hitler’s means to make war by demobilizing the numerous factories in the area. Reluctantly, Eisenhower agreed, and Operation Market Garden began on September 17, 1944. The plan called for Allied paratroopers to secure key bridges and establish a foothold in the area so that armed divisions could move in safely. The First Allied Airborne Army, composed of the 82nd and 101st divisions of the United States and the 1st division of the British, were to be used in the operation.
The Americans job was to capture the bridges at the towns of Eindhower and Nirmegan. They succeeded in doing this very quickly with minimal casualties. The British, however, encountered more difficulty. Their job was to secure the more distant bridges at Arnhem, but their tank support that was supposed to relieve them was delayed. The Germans there, consisting of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions, trapped the British soldiers, killing one thousand and capturing six thousand (Keegan 437). The failure of Market Garden proved to Eisenhower that the supply issue must be addressed promptly.
He assigned Montgomery to capture Antwerp at all cost. Montgomery, still wanting to invade the Ruhr, was reluctant to give up any troops to capture Antwerp. He complied, however, and sent the Canadian First Army. The British XII division was then sent in as reinforcements. The German defenders were comprised mainly of the 15th Army who had escaped advancing enemy by ferrying over the Schelde. By the end of the battle, Montgomery had lost thirteen thousand men. Antwerp, the prize of the assault, was still heavily defended by mines, and it took months to actually open the vitally important port (Goalrick 27).
Farther south, General Hodges’ First Army Group was preparing to breach the West Wall and take Aachen, a very important and historical city to the Germans. His attack began on October 2nd, and was a very difficult battle. Two German Panzer divisions were sent to garrison the city. Hodges broke through though on October 21st, marking Aachen as the first major German city to fall into Allied hands (Goalrick 28). On the German side, Hitler was running out of options. Russia has destroyed twenty-five German divisions, the worst defeat ever inflicted on them.
On the western front, the Allies had captured Rome and were attacking 155 miles north. The D-Day invaders had destroyed another two German armies while they pushed through France. He was being surrounded on all sides and needed to make a drastic move. He reasoned that since Allies had come so far so fast, they would have to halt eventually to allow their supplies to catch up with them. During this delay, he planned to launch a major counter-attack to take the Allies by surprise. He decided that the location of this attack should be in the west where it would do the most damage.
One of his commanders, General Alfried Jodl, further explained, “The Russians had so many troops that even if we succeeded in destroying thirty divisions, it would not have made a difference. ” An attack to the west, however, would destroy a third of American army (Goalrick 20-21). Mustering the men for such a tremendous assault was another matter. After five years of war, Germany had lost 3,360,000 men. The Luftwaffe (air force) was nearly useless and many of his greatest divisions had been reduced.
To make up for this deficiency, Hitler told his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbles, to gather-up all surplus workers and ordered the Wehrmacht (army) to cut all non-military jobs. The age limit was moved from eighteen through fifty to sixteen through sixty. From these new recruits he created the Volksgrenadiers, or people’s infantry, from the young men; and one hundred fortress battalions from the old men to defend the West Wall. For artillery, he made ten new Panzer brigades of forty tanks each, composed mainly of the Tiger and Panther tanks.
At the time of the planning of this counter-attack, the western front consisted of Montgomery’s 21st Army Group in the north, Lieut. General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group along the West Wall in the Ardennes, and Lieut. General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army Group in the south along the Saar River. “This battle is to decide whether we shall live or die. I want all my soldiers to fight hard and without pity. The battle must be fought brutality, and all resistance must be broken in a wave of terror. The enemy must be beatennow or never!
Thus lives our Germany”, said Adolf Hitler, talking of the upcoming attack. Hitler was planning to attack when the Allies were least expecting it. Intelligence reports told of attrition on the German lines and that their defense was thin. The Ardennes, the location chosen by Hitler for the attack, was loosely held by four divisions weak from fighting and resting in the bordering French cities. Lastly, the Allied commanders were preoccupied in other places such as the Ruhr and Saar. They disregarded the Ardennes as a formidable threat.
However, Hitler’s commanders were apprehensive about Autumn Mist, codename for the upcoming assault. The leading officers, Field Marshal von Rundstedt and Field Marshal Walter Model, said the plan was unrealistic. Hitler was set on the plan no matter what his generals thought, and he began to prepare the armies just at the winter was settling in. Two Panzer armies, the 5th and the 6th, would be used as the main spearhead in the attack. Each of these was given four Panzer divisions, one parachute division, and one Panzergrenadier division.
The 6th, under SS General Josef Dietrich, was to progress through the north Ardennes while the 5th, under General von Manteuffel was to advance along the Meuse River, eventually reuniting at the selected goal of Antwerp. Smaller divisions were left behind for defense of a counter-attack, and special forces were to be sent it to sabotage targets and demoralize the enemy. On December 16, 1944, at precisely 5:30 a. m. , Hitler’s massive assault began. Artillery pounded all along the eighty-five mile front, and using giant searchlights for artificial light, the infantry moved forward.
Along the defensive front were the 4th, 2nd, 28th, 99th, and 106th American divisions, along with the 16th armored division. They were resting from Hodges’ campaign in the Hurtgen Forest. General Bradley and the rest of the commanding officers knew nothing of the attack and were less prepared than the troops. By December 17, the Americans were in full retreat, blocking the roads with vehicles that prevented the Germany tanks from moving forward. Dietrich’s plan was to send three infantry divisions to break lines to make room for tanks, which would then take the Meuse River and follow it to Antwerp.
The first had to break through the lines though. The American 2nd and 99th were in their way. Dietrich sent in the 12th Volksgrenadier and the 277th and 12th Panzers to push them back. The 99th defended two vital crossroads that the Germans needed to advance. Finally, Dietrich sent enough firepower and arms to force the retreat. Major General Walter M. Robertson, commander of the 2nd division, used a tactic called skinning the cat to fall back. In this tactic, the front and rear lines trade places until they feel back far enough.
The 99th slowly feel back behind the 2nd division’s line, and there they set up a better position upon Elsenhorn Ridge. These two divisions repeatedly fought off the German assault, and not one Panzer got through the line. By the time they were reinforced by the 1st and 9th infantry divisions, Dietrich’s 5th Panzer Group was no longer a strong fighting force . The main blunt of the work was shifted to General von Manteuffel’s 5th Army Group. Manteuffel was highly praised Panzer expert who had fought in North Africa and Russia.
His plan for this operation was to send small infantry units to stealthily bypass enemy positions before main attack came through. His tanks would not attack until night under artificial moonlight created by the huge searchlights. His four infantry and three Panzer divisions would then proceed through the Schnee Eiffel to the key junction of Bastogne (The Battle of the Bulge: The Ardennes Offensive). Manteuffel was in for a surprise at Bastogne, however. He thought it was not to be heavily defended, but Eisenhower had rushed the 101st airborne division to defend the city as a precaution against an attack.
Though heavily outnumbered, the 101st defended it valiantly. By Christmas Day in 1944 Operation Autumn Mist was coming to a halt. Reinforcements sent down from Belgium blocked what remained of Dietrich’s 6th Army Group, and the divisions sent up from Patton’s 3rd Army helped to relive the 101st in Bastogne. The weather cleared for a short period of time, allowing Allied air support to be effective for this first time in the battle. Therefore on January 8, Hitler ordered the withdrawals of the remaining forces. In one month’s time, the Allies lost 34,000 men to either death or capture. Germany, by contrast, lost 100,000 men and 800 tanks.
Hitler has failed to recognize the manpower resources of the American army and had misinterpreted the effect that Autumn Mist would have on the front. In reality, all it did was delay the impending break into Germany by a few months time. With Russia getting closer to Berlin by the day and the Rhine the only obstacle in the way of Montgomery, Hitler’s time was running out. The Battle of the Bulge is best concluded by Sir Winston Churchill, who said “It was without any doubt the greatest American battle of the Second World War and it will, I believe, always be considered as a great American victory. “