The Battle of the Bulge: Hitler’s last push
On the eve of the 75th anniversary, Neil Faulkner analyses the thinking and planning behind Operation Autumn Mist, and charts the course of Hitler’s last offensive in the West.
Though he was the grand master of strategic mobility, Napoleon considered defence the foundation-block of warfare. Military strength has to be husbanded, lines and positions protected, enemy thrusts anticipated and guarded against, as the essential basis for an offensive strike.
But matters change when wars are being lost. When you are strong, you are reluctant to risk all in a desperate gamble. When you are weak, when little hope remains, the temptation is for an all-or-nothing rolling of the dice.
Hitler maintained his rule by terror and compelled his people to fight on to the bitter end. His last-ditch gamble was, of course, the Ardennes Offensive of December 1944.
We have no doubt that the offensive was doomed. We share the opinion of most German generals at the time and most military historians since that it could not have succeeded. We see Hitler’s ability – in defiance of all serious military reasoning – to launch this ‘last charge of the Third Reich’ as a measure of the totalitarian grip of the Nazi Party on the whole of German society in the last year of the war.
But the Ardennes Offensive remains rich in lessons – about over-confidence (of the Allies), about indifference to intelligence (by Allied commanders), about the resilience of military power in adversity (of the Germans), about the effects of weather, surprise, and armoured mobility (in the initial German break – through), about the decisiveness of mass in attritional warfare (in the eventual Allied riposte), and much else.
The Ardennes. More than 4,000 square miles of hills and ridges, thickly forested, dissected by streams and rivers, its few roads punctuated by chokepoints. One of Western Europe’s ancient wildernesses.
Nothing was expected here. Troy Middleton’s US VIII Corps was spread thin along 80 miles of front. Two of his divisions, 99th and 106th, had yet to face battle. The other two, 4th and 28th, had been battered in recent fighting in the Hürtgen Forest; they had been moved to the Ardennes sector for rest and refit. The men were off guard, sleeping, playing cards, getting ready for Christmas.
At 5.30 in the morning on 16 December, well before dawn, the German guns opened fire, 1,900 of them. The GIs stumbled from sleeping bags to foxholes and cowered amid the blizzard of exploding hot metal.
An hour and a half later, as the firing ended, the trees were illuminated by an eerie overhead light that cast sinister shadows across the forest. The Germans were bouncing searchlights off the clouds to guide the advance of their infantry.
Some forward units, surprised and cut off, fought back bravely, but only briefly, such was the massive weight of the attack, with some 200,000 German infantry in motion.
Soon the panzers were on the move. Coming through the forest, they could be heard before they were seen, a roar of engine power and a screeching and clanking of metal tracks growing louder in the distance: a steamroller of modern armour, more than 600 tanks, including 68-ton King Tigers, with frontal armour 4 inches thick and an 88mm cannon in the turret, supported by more than 700 tank destroyers and assault guns.
It was the last great charge of the Third Reich, and it was delivered with such power that it shattered the front of US VIII Corps.
The German attack
Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth SS Panzer Army was deployed on the right. Its mission was to punch straight through the northern Ardennes, cross the Meuse, break out into the open country beyond, and head northwest for Antwerp.
Hasso von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army formed the German left. Its mission was to guard the outer, western flank of the German thrust, protecting Dietrich’s Sixth as it swung around in its drive to the sea.
Timing was critical. A window of foggy weather offered the Germans an opportunity to drive their armour forwards in daylight hours without the risk of aerial attack. A rapid advance would limit the numbers of Allied units that could be redeployed to plug gaps and organise counter-attacks.
But against the advantages of surprise and stealth were placed the disadvantages of lack of reconnaissance, planning, and preparation. To maintain secrecy, few German commanders had been informed of their mission until the last minute: too late to study the problem and survey the ground. And if the weather grounded Allied aircraft, it also disrupted German observation and coordination.
Still, below senior rank, among junior officers and many rank-and-file soldiers, confidence was high. The offensive was conducted with élan and imagination.
English-speaking commandos wearing US combat jackets and driving captured US jeeps were infiltrated behind enemy lines to turn sign-posts, cut telephone wires, hang red ribbons to suggest roads were mined, and in other ways create confusion in the rear. Some taken captive told their interrogators of plans to assassinate Allied commanders; Eisenhower, in consequence, ended up a virtual prisoner of his own security guards.
Bradley later reported on the chaos caused by Otto Skorzeny’s commandos:
A half million GIs played cat and mouse with each other each time they met on the road. Neither rank nor credentials nor protests spared the traveller an inquisition at each intersection he passed. Three times I was ordered to prove my identity by cautious GIs.
More effective, though, were Manteuffel’s front-line ‘storm battalions’. He had won Hitler’s personal approval for these, as he explained after the war:
I proposed to form one storm battalion from each infantry division, composed of the most expert officers and men. (I picked the officers myself.) These storm battalions were to advance in the dark at 5.30, without any covering artillery fire, and penetrate between the Americans’ forward defence posts. They would avoid fighting if possible until they had penetrated deep. Searchlights, provided by the flak units, were to light the way for the storm troops’ advance by projecting their beams onto the clouds, to reflect downwards. I had been much impressed by a demonstration of this kind which I had seen shortly beforehand, and felt that it would be the key to a quick penetration before daylight.
Dietrich’s army made little headway on the far right, where his 1st SS Panzer Corps was held up by the dogged resistance of US 99th Division, backed by elements of US 2nd Division. The fierce defence of the town of Monschau anchored this part of the American line.
The southern arm of Dietrich’s attack burst through, however, achieving a 30-mile advance in two days. In the vanguard was Joachim Peiper’s 1st SS Panzer Regiment, which had most of the 1st SS Panzer Division’s 100 or so tanks, including some of the massive King Tigers.
Peiper was a ruthless 34-year-old Nazi fanatic. When his advance was stalled by a blown bridge, he redirected his tanks through an uncleared minefield, accepting the loss of half a dozen tanks so as not to lose time. He also had several batches of American prisoners murdered by machine-gun fire.
Narrow defiles, blown bridges, and hastily improvised American roadblocks, including in one place a barrier of burning fuel, caused Peiper to divert, still well short of the vital Meuse bridge which it was vital for him to take.
Eisenhower’s initial response – ordering Bradley to reinforce Middleton’s VIII Corps – was already bearing fruit. Patton had been told to send his 10th Armoured from the south, while 7th Armoured was dispatched from army reserve in the north. Tanks and infantry of the latter came into action on the 18th, helping to hem in Dietrich’s spearheads, and also to reinforce the garrison of the key road-centre of St Vith immediately to the south.
This is an extract from a 14-page special feature on the Battle of the Bulge, published in the October 2019 issue of Military History Matters.
The Ardennes Offensive, also known as the Battle of the Bulge, was Hitler’s last push against the Allies at the end of the Second World War. Our special this issue anticipates the 75th anniversary of the Offensive. In the first of his features, MHM Editor Neil Faulkner assesses the planning of the Offensive. In his second, he analyses the execution of the plan, discussing how it accelerated the bitter end of one of history’s most brutal regimes.
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