December 1944 – January 1945:
The beginning of the end
Advertisement feature by Wallonia Belgium Tourism
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Ardennes, the last major German offensive of WWII, which took place in the Wallonia region of Belgium. To mark this date, Wallonia Belgium Tourism examine the build up to the German offensive, and the Battle’s opening manoeuvre. Wallonia is easily accessible from the UK, and its rich cultural heritage beyond the connection with the Second World War means you won’t be disappointed should the following advertising feature inspire you to visit the Ardennes and find out more for yourself.
The Allied landing that began in Normandy on 6 June 1944 was a resounding psychological defeat for the German Army.
Within a month, almost a million Allied soldiers were in action in France, and for the most part the Germans were forced to retreat. To begin with, Allied progress was slow, but then came a lightning breakthrough across northern France and Belgium. In the centre was the 1st US Army of General Hodges; on his right the 3rd US Army commanded by General Patton; on his left the 2nd British Army headed by General Dempsey.
Paris was liberated at the end of August; freedom came to Tournai, Brussels and Antwerp in early September; Mons, Namur, Liège and the Ardennes were liberated by the end of the month.
After a hasty retreat, the German units established their defences behind the Siegfried Line. The 1st Army of Hodges captured Aachen, while Patton’s 3rd Army prepared to invade the Saarland. Between the two fronts, General Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, took the calculated risk of weakening the sector, believing that the difficult terrain and wintry conditions would dissuade the German Army from launching a counter-attack in the Ardennes.
But the German High Command had other ideas, and drew up plans for a large-scale offensive. They would strike through the Ardennes, cross the River Meuse, sweep across Belgium and recapture the key port of Antwerp. This would prevent the transport of troop reinforcements and fresh supplies of fuel, munitions and food for the Allies, and it would separate the British and American armies, forcing one or both to capitulate and sue for peace on the western front. The German Army could then be transferred to the eastern front to halt the progress of the Russians, who were moving steadily towards Berlin.
It was a daring plan that some historians consider bordered on the reckless: success would depend on several factors going the Germans’ way. They needed low and long-lasting cloud cover to prevent the intervention of Allied aircraft; a rapid initial breakthrough to capture the Allied fuel dumps; the control of important crossroads and the subsequent widening of the breach.
The main thrust of the German offensive was to come from the 6th Panzer Army of Hitler’s former chauffeur and bodyguard, Field-Marshall Dietrich, which would have to cross the Elsenborn ridges and the River Meuse between Huy and Liège. The 5th Panzer Army commanded by General Von Manteuffel was given the task of capturing important crossroads at Saint Vith and Bastogne, crossing the River Meuse between Dinant and Andenne, and advancing towards Antwerp via Brussels.
The northern flank of the offensive would be covered by the 15th Army of General Von Zangen. On the southern flank the 7th Army of General Brandenberger would have to withstand any possible counter-attack by General Patton’s 3rd US Army.
In order to create confusion, specially trained groups were to create mistrust and suspicion among the American troops. These groups were the commandos of Colonel Skorzeny, dressed in American uniforms and using captured GI equipment, who were to seize the bridges of Huy and Amay to enable the crossing of the German armoured columns.
To oppose any American reinforcements coming from the north and moving towards the combat zone, it was foreseen that Colonel Von der Heydte and his 800 parachutists would drop onto the Hautes Fagnes, the peat bogs in the Ardennes, and control the crossroads at Baraque Michel.
By night, observing radio silence over several weeks, the German High Command brought in around 250,000 men, 600 tanks and assault guns, and 1,900 field guns and howitzers.
The German offensive finally began on the freezing, foggy morning of 16 December 1944 over a front of about 80 miles. Codenamed Wacht am Rhein (Rhine Guard) the fierce conflict would later be known as the Battle of the Ardennes or, in American parlance, the Battle of the Bulge.
A heavy artillery barrage pounded the American forward positions, followed by the infantry onslaught and the breakthrough by the armoured columns. The 6th Armoured Army of Field-Marshall Dietrich, consisting of the 1st Panzer SS ‘Leibstandarte Adolph Hitler’, the 12th Panzer SS ‘Hitler Jugend’, the 2nd Panzer SS ‘Das Reich’, the 9th Panzer SS ‘Hohenstaufen’ and the Volksgrenadier Division, sped towards the River Meuse.
At the same time, on the left flank, the 5th Armoured Army commanded by General Manteuffel advanced towards the Meuse with its Panzer Lehr Division – the 2nd and 116th Panzer Divisions supported by Volksgrenadier Divisions.
The Americans were caught unawares. The 2nd and 99th Infantry of General Gerow’s V Corps, the 106th, 28th and 4th Infantry, and units of the 9th Armoured of General Middleton’s VIII Corps numbered in total 80,000 men, but their defences were penetrated at several points before they were able to organise effective resistance. The British, meanwhile, were training for the forthcoming German campaign some distance to the north in the Netherlands. The two Allied armies had been separated, just as the Germans had planned.
History aside, Wallonia has so much more to offer and you don’t have to wander too far to get to it. Cross the channel in 35 minutes and in less than 2 hours from Calais you’ll be set up for a green and pleasant adventure close to home. Driving from one side to another takes just three hours so it’s easy. In just one weekend you could take in picturesque villages and charming towns with historic architecture, dense forest and stunning scenery for great walks and cycle rides, majestic castles and gardens (Belgium is full of them) and of course hearty Belgian cuisine with great beer culture. So much to list and fun to be had that you really ought to check out our website: www.walloniabelgiumtourism.co.uk.
This is an advertisement feature written by Wallonia Belgium Tourism.