The battle of the bulge: at war in the winter. As another year passes and American soldiers still fight abroad, it pays to put their sacrifices into perspective.
Many Americans may not realize that the largest land battle ever waged by American forces was a winter battle fought during 1944-1945. This is that story.
Not since Pearl Harbor had the Americans received so rude a shock as when the dawn of December 16, 1944 was broken by the thunder of a thousand German guns, heralding the onslaught of what the Germans called "The von Rundstedt Offensive," named after their commanding officer on the Western Front. Known elsewhere in Europe as "The Ardennes Offensive." it was the brainchild of Germany's supreme leader, Adolf Hitler, who believed that, if German forces could capture Antwerp, Belgium, the Western Front could be stabilized long enough for the Germans to fortify the Eastern Front, where the Soviet Red Army was threatening to break through.
Since July of 1944, the German army had been building up a reserve of a quarter million soldiers. It was not enough for a two-front war, nor were these the veteran soldiers of earlier conquests, but it was still. a force capable of delivering a heavy blow. It was commanded by Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt, who had performed a near miracle when he stabilized the German line after the Allies successfully crossed the English Channel to invade Nazi-occupied France at Normandy the preceding June. He performed another near miracle by concentrating German forces in the Eifel (the area of western Germany near the border with Luxembourg and Belgium) without attracting the attention of the American High Command. Suspicious troop movements had been reported by prisoners, civilians, and airmen, but their significance was discounted by the Americans. They thought that the Germans were beaten and would never think of launching a major attack in the middle of winter through the thickly forested Ardennes region that the Americans were occupying.
Just as the Ardennes had been the weakest sector in the French line of defense when the Germans invaded in 1940, this sector was now the weakest in the American line of defense. General Courtney Hodges, commanding the U.S. First Army, was holding an 85-mile front with only five divisions (approximately 100,000 soldiers), three of which had suffered heavy casualties in recent fighting. Only 100 miles to the northwest was the great harbor of Antwerp, which the Allies had recently liberated and was now serving as a huge supply base. The Germans were very familiar with the narrow roads of the Ardennes, and bad weather was expected to nullify Allied air superiority. In addition. Colonel Otto Skorzeny's Panzer Brigade, disguised in American uniforms, would cause confusion behind the lines.
When the attack came. General Sepp Dietrich's Sixth S.S. Panzer Army in the north fell upon General Leonard Gerow's U.S. V Corps and thrust toward the Belgian city of Liege, the main communications center of General Omar Bradley's U.S. 12th Army Group. The Americans were driven back but, in three days of fighting, denied the Germans the direct road to Liege. A German armored column did succeed in moving forward through the Belgian towns of Malmedy (where American prisoners were infamously massacred). Stavelot, and Stoumont but, fortunately for the Americans, narrowly missed both the Allies' main fuel dump and General Hodges' headquarters in Spa. By December 19, the Sixth S.S. Panzer Army advance had been brought to a halt.
The German Fifth Panzer Army in the center, under the command of General Hasso von Manteuffel, made much more progress, after achieving tactical surprise by attacking without a preliminary bombardment. Von Manteuffel's onslaught shattered General Troy Middleton's U.S. VIII Corps, which was strung out along a long front, and reached the outskirts of the Belgian towns of Houffalize and Bastogne.
The Attack Begins
Jim Pelletier of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, served in the 110th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division. He told his war stories in the book Return to Memory by Bob Knops, in which he related the early days of the Ardennes action in the central sector of the front as follows:
On the night of December 16, I and four others from my company were called on to head down the road about a half-mile from Clervaux and set up a roadblock with a 50-caliber machine gun placement. Some of the other squads had pulled back into the town for the night. They had reported no action. During the night we encountered no enemy activity but heard shells dropping near town. As daylight broke early the next morning, we looked up and saw German Panther tanks surrounding us on the hillsides and ridges above Clervaux. The town, along the Clerf River, was in a valley and its roads were narrow, winding and unpaved. The main east-west highway was up on the ridge overlooking Clervaux. I'm not sure our command realized the scope of the German offensive at this time. Small-scale skirmishes had been common several miles east at the front. We were on a road hemmed in by the valley and knew there was no way to escape the tanks above. We grabbed the machine gun, and all five of us retreated to our castle headquarters. Other squads were following suit. The castle walls were thick, made out of large stone, a fortress that had probably been used many times over the centuries to protect the town and valley and to secure the use of the Clerf River. It was only several blocks from the C.P. [Command Post] in the hotel. It would be our last line of defense against the attacking Germans. Immediately we were confronted by gunfire from advance German infantry patrols just entering the town after daybreak. Their numbers multiplied dramatically during the next few hours, and included tanks, half-tracks and other heavier firepower. Our 707th Tank Battalion was still active outside of town, trying to stop the oncoming German tanks. However, enemy firepower kept increasing against our castle defense. All we had was our 50-caliber machine gun, some hand grenades and our rifles. The two bazookas we had were ineffective in that we didn't have enough room to fire them, and they wouldn't reach the enemy tanks unless they were inside of about one hundred yards. Our communications officer, Captain John Aiken, tried to keep communicating with our Regimental Command Post down the street, and with other headquarter facilities, but he was having more difficulty reaching anyone as the day wore on. In a. nutshell. the 110th Infantry Regiment was being overrun throughout its entire defensive front. We fought through the night with whatever weapons still had ammunition, by now just our small arms. But the Germans could not break through the defense of the thick stone, castle walls. Around mid-morning on December 18, we made last contact with the 28th Division Command in Wiltz. Down to our last rounds of ammunition, we set our radio equipment on fire, which promptly set a part of the roof overhang ablaze. This was put out, but German tank and artillery fire had already started fires elsewhere on the roof. With fire, smoke and no ammo, we were done fighting. Captains Mackey and Aiken decided to give up. Captain Aiken gave the order, "Destroy all weapons. We're going to surrender." It was a kick in the groin. None of us had ever considered being a prisoner. Later on we looked back and considered that maybe we lucked out. A short number of miles away in the town of Bovigny, at about the same time, the Germans took all their captured GI's into a field and machine-gunned them down.
The German Seventh Army in the south under General Erich Brandenberger was supposed to advance toward the Meuse River. It initially made some progress but, after a few days, was held up by the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and 9th Armored Division.
Adapting to Conditions
General Dietrich's failure to the north meant that the Germans were not going to capture Antwerp, so Hitler decided to exploit von Manteuffel's breakthrough.
Meanwhile, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower ordered General Bradley to attack each flank of the German breakthrough with an armored division. Eisenhower saw that, if the Germans succeeded in widening the shoulders of the bulge they had created in the American lines, then Bradley's army group might be split right down the middle, so he placed all of the U.S. forces north of the breakthrough under British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, leaving Bradley in command of the forces to the south.
Eisenhower was willing to give up around, rather than let his line break. Generale, George Patton's U.S. Third Army was ordered to disengage from the front in the Saar region, further to the south, and drive northwards. The U.S. Sixth Army Group in Alsace was to cover the gap left by Patton. Although American forces were now stretched thin in the Saar and Alsace sectors, the Germans were in no position to mount an offensive in that area.
It was the American tanks that won time for Eisenhower's measures to take effect. The 7th Armored Division prevented the Germans from taking the Belgian town of St. With until December 21. The 10th Armored Division delayed von Manteuffel's forces long enough to allow the 101st Airborne Division to establish itself in Bastogne, where it set up a staunch defense. Unable to drive through Bastogne, the German Fifth Panzer Army had to go around it, requiring the Germans to use considerable forces to contain the improvised American fortress. When summoned to surrender on December 22, American General Anthony McAuliffe famously answered, "Nuts!"
Robert Schneider of Hortonville, Wisconsin, served as a truck driver in the 151st Signal Company of the llth Armored Division delivering fuel to the tanks. In a personal interview with THE NEW AMERICAN, he looked back on some of his memories of the campaign:
My unit was still in England when the battle started on December 16. We were initially told that we were going over to France and then to the front line somewhere to the south. We crossed the English Channel in naval vessels called landing ship tanks, with our trucks parked bumper to bumper. The drivers had the choice of either staying with their trucks or going up on deck. I was not on deck long, because the navy guys were going down into the hold and stealing stuff off our trucks. Once we got across the Channel, we were given new orders to proceed to the Ardennes sector. On the way to the front, we billeted in sheds and houses and barns. Sometimes I had to sleep on the ground underneath my truck. Man, it was cold sleeping in the snow! As we approached the combat zone, I could hear heavy artillery off to the north of our position. ... We eventually heard about the 101st Airborne Division trapped in Bastogne and how the American general said, "Aw, nuts!" when the Germans ordered him to surrender. It was said that the German interpreters had trouble translating that but eventually figured out that the Americans were not going to surrender. Our unit was one of the armored divisions that broke through the German lines surrounding Bastogne, but we didn't spend any time there. We just tried to drive through the main street of the town, which was cluttered with all kinds of vehicles and masses of telephone cables that the Americans had laid out. Many didn't work when installed, so they had to keeping laying out new ones. There were different colored parachutes everywhere because Bastogne had been supplied by air, with different colors showing what the supplies were: one color for food, another for ammunition, and so on. I managed to get one as a souvenir. As a truck driver, I could haul a lot of booty. The infantry guys could only take as many souvenirs as they could carry with them, which wasn't much. ... Christmas was just another day, and the war went on. Somehow we got our hands on some bread and somebody found some eggs in a chicken coop. We took pieces of bread, scooped out holes in them, and cracked eggs into the holes. Then we cooked the eggs in the bread and called it "a pig in a poke," even though it was actually a chicken in a hole!
Donald Hahn of Pittsville, Wisconsin, served in the 28th Infantry Division, 112th Infantry Regiment. His unit received a citation of honor and distinction from General Eisenhower, and part of the citation, describes the action it saw during the first seven days:
On 1.6 December 1944 the 112th Infantry Regimental Combat Team from Lutzkampen Germany, to Leiter, Luxembourg, was holding six and one half miles of the front line sector assigned to the 28th Infantry Division. During the period 16 to 18 December, 1944, despite repeated enemy infantry and tank attacks involving the elements of nine enemy divisions, the 112th Infantry Regimental Combat Team held its ground. In this period it inflicted estimated casualties on the enemy of 1600, including over 200 prisoners taken and successfully evacuated. All elements of the 112th Infantry Regimental Combat Team were involved in this action. The 229th Field Artillery Battalion was engaged in direct fire on the enemy at a range of 150 yards. The Cannon Company of the 112th Infantry Regiment and Company C. 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion, by direct fire, succeeded in disabling 18 enemy tanks. Company C. 103d Engineer Battalion together with the 2d Battalion, 112th Infantry Regiment, repeatedly counter-attacked enemy penetrations. The Headquarters, Headquarters Company, and Service Company manned the lines and drove off by fire a number of groups of the enemy which had infiltrated into the rear areas. The kitchens, being overrun on the night of 16-17 December 1944, the kitchen personnel fought with rifles to recover the positions. All this was done under withering small arms and artillery fire from enemy positions throughout the entire front. On the night of 17-18 December 1944 under orders from higher headquarters, the 112th infantry Regimental Combat Team was withdrawn to the high ground west of the Our River. This withdrawal was accomplished successfully in spite of strong enemy infiltrations throughout the entire sector. From 18 until 23 [December] 1944, the 112th Infantry Regimental Combat Team was continually engaged in rear guard action covering the withdrawal of the right flank of the First American Army. On the night of 23-24 December 1944 the action of 112th Infantry Regimental Combat Team was especially notable. Being ordered by higher headquarters to act as a covering force for units withdrawing to the American lines it held its position under furious enemy infantry and tank attacks until the Regimental Headquarters and 1st Battalion, 112th Infantry were surrounded. The 1st Battalion then fought its way clear to friendly lines bringing with. it a number of vehicles and personnel of other units.
Charles Katlic of Weatherford. Texas. served in the 99th Infantry Division. One of his written accounts of the battle recently appeared in The Weatherford Democrat:
It all began at 0500 hours. I recalled being on watch 68 years ago, December 16, 1944. in the Ardennes, one of 70,000 men in four and a half divisions, covering a 70-mile front. I looked out across the Siegfried line from my log fortified, snow-covered foxhole. The quiet was shattered by German artillery and mortars, as the enemy opened up on the 99th Division. The Battle of the Bulge had begun. The weather was cloudy and cold and artillery landed in our area all day and night. Company F was awake and on the alert when it started, but thank God we had covered our foxholes with logs. I believed that the logs were the only thing that saved me and my buddies from being ripped to shreds by shrapnel and wood shards from trees blasted to smithereens. Some men who were caught out of their foxholes were wounded or killed. Artillery continued to hit our positions on December 17 as German and American planes went at one another overhead. Eventually the German artillery ceased. The 2nd Battalion was surrounded by Germans and separated from their regiment. We received orders to withdraw and we did, leaving a covering force to an assembly point near Hunmgen, Belgium. No artillery fell December 18 and the evidence of the past two days' barrage was concealed under a blanket of new snow. The temperature dropped to near five degrees and circumstances grew dire as we were low on ammo and food. The Germans were closing in for the kill. We moved along a draw but the mortar rounds started landing in the draw so the company moved into the woods where we were temporarily held up for a few hours. The company was given orders to fix bayonets. Company F and the rest of the battalion moved toward Menigan. At about 1500 hours, a German burp gun opened up on our column and pinned us down. Heavy weapons were called for.
The Americans attacked the German positions and met stiff resistance. Our company commander was given command of the battalion. Lt. Goodner led the battalion through the draw to the town of Elsenbom, believed to be in Allied control. But the battalion fell under intense artillery and small arms fire. We were wet and cold and hungry and the 2nd Battalion was given up as lost in action.
Rumors of the battalion's demise were premature. We reached the outskirts of Elsenborn and the men of Company F slept in a barn until about 1000 hours. Hot chow was served around noon; hot pancakes and syrup--a feast. It was our first hot meal in days.
The company moved to Elsenborn Ridge to take the high ground. We dug foxholes and set our defenses. Our meals would be cold C rations until our kitchen was set up in Eisenborn. We improved our positions and sent out patrols. On Christmas Day, we were served a cold turkey dinner.
Meanwhile, to the north. the Sixth Panzer Army got going again and two Panzer corps drove westward until, on Christmas Eve, the 2nd Panzer Division was within sight of the Meuse River, just three miles east of the Belgian city of Dinant. But it was there that the German attack lost momentum and ground to a halt.
Americans on the Offensive
With the weather finally clearing, the Allied counterattack was able to get under way. Five thousand Allied warplanes started attacking German supply columns stretching all the way back to the German border. In addition, air drops supplied Bastogne and allowed the American forces there to hold out, while waiting for General Patton's Third Army to push up from the south and lift the siege.
The U.S. 2nd Armored Division cut off and destroyed the. German spearhead near Dinant on Christmas Day, and the U.S. 4th Armored Division, part of Patton's Third Army, broke through to Bastogne the very next day, creating a narrow corridor. Thus ended the first phase of what the Americans would eventually call "The Battle of the Bulge."
An article Donald Hahn wrote for the November 2011 edition of The Bulge Bugle, the official publication of Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, Inc., describes "A Christmas I Will Never Forget":
Prior to the start of the Battle of the Bulge we were in a holding position next to the Siegfried line. We were there for a couple weeks because intelligence figured the war would be over by Christmas. On the morning of the 16th a company of Germans attacked us and after a firefight they gave up. Over on the next hill German tanks were in a clearing but they couldn't get to us because there was a river between us. They were shelling the hell out of us and we were surrounded for two days. On the second night we fought our way out and left our wounded and dead behind. From then on it was hold, fight and retreat. The night before Christmas we ended up in a pine forest: no snow yet but everything was very cold and we had nothing to eat for [a] couple of days. The next day. Christmas, we retook a Belgian town and stayed in some of the houses. There was an infantry unit nearby but all they could spare in food was turkey and pineapple. The next few days were fight and retreat. One night they moved us into the edge of this large town. it was awful cold and some stayed on guard while the rest of us went into a house where there was a fire. Again we had no food for a couple days. A Belgian woman came down into the room and motioned to us if we were hungry so she bought potatoes and carrots we helped her and she made a stew for us. The next morning they relieved us and we dug in on a hill overlooking the town. The 7th Armored Division was moving out and we wondered what was going on. We could see in the distance German tanks coming. but as soon as the last 7th Armored Division tanks went over they blew the bridge. That was the first day of sunshine and American planes came out so we could watch the dog fights, it was quite a sight. That was the only time we had armored artillery make a direct hit on a foxhole; nothing left of the poor soldier. After a few days we started to take back some ground. We went over a river, which was frozen and all day long we fought in a snowstorm and suffered lots of wounded. I don't remember the name of the town but the Germans had killed all the people in their houses. We stayed one night and next night they brought in a regiment of the 106th infantry Division. We left there after spending the night and in the morning trucks were waiting for us to load up. They drove all day and night until the morning and were back in France.
By Christmas Day von Rundstedt realized that the battle had been lost, but Hitler was not prepared to admit defeat or to cut his losses. Instead. Hitler thought up a new offensive. The German forces would begin by taking Bastogne, then turn north and attack the American First Army
Bastogne was still the center of the storm. The corridor to the west of town, created by the aforementioned U.S. 4th Armored Division breakthrough, was only a mile wide in places. Patton was determined to drive off the. two German corps that were squeezing its lifeline. At the same time von Manteuffel was concentrating for the attack which would rid him of that thorn in his side. On December 30 they met head on and engaged in a fierce battle that ranged through the snowywoods and ravines of the Ardennes.
By the time the battle died down, the Germans were spent. On January 8, 1945, Hitler reluctantly agreed to limited withdrawals, and Patton broke out of Bastogne on the following day. Helped by a break in the weather, the Germans began to disengage their forces. On January 13, owing to the Soviet winter offensive on the Eastern Front, the German Supreme Command ordered the Sixth S.S. Panzer Army to withdraw from the Ardennes battle and permitted a general retreat. Patton and Hodges joined forces at Bouffalize on January 16, and Bradley was able to resume command of his army. By January 28 it was all over, as the original battle line was restored.
The battle cost the Allies more than 90,000 casualties, but it ruined the fighting capability of Hitler's last reserve army. The Soviet Army had launched its massive winter offensive on January 12, and Hitler no longer had any reserve forces to meet it. The results of "The von Rundstedt Offensive" had a terrible price for the six week's delay imposed on the Western Allies. The Germans lost 70,000 soldiers as casualties and 50,000 as prisoners, on top of almost .600 tanks and 1,600 aircraft.
In addition to the tanks already mentioned, the American and British air forces destroyed more than. 3,500 railway engines and cars, trucks, other types of motorized vehicles, and horse-drawn pieces of equipment.
WWII was not over by Christmas, or even that winter. The Germans didn't capitulate until May 8, 1945, and the Japanese continued fighting until August 15, with American troops continuing to suffer the deprivations of war.
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|Title Annotation:||HISTORY-PAST AND PERSPECTIVE|
|Publication:||The New American|
|Date:||Jan 7, 2013|
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