The Battle Of The Bulge: Hitler Doubles Down. Americans Hold. Nazis Busted.

by Daniel Russ on September 1, 2009

US 290th Regiment in Belgium

US 290th Regiment in Belgium

The Ardennes Offensive was Hitler’s last ditched attempt to stop the inevitable. The Red Army was literally pushing a hundred worn down German divisions out of Russia. The Allies had put 160,000 men on the beaches of Normandy and British, Canadian and American troops were slogging their way through France and Belgium and into Germany. Still, the Wehrmacht was so powerful and so disciplined, that even in retreat they could inflict devastating casualties. More dangerous than a wounded tiger, the German Army had lost most of its most blooded soldiers, and home guards units had to be brought up to fill in gaps that it’s SS Panzer Grenadiers could not. That said, the 20 Panzer divisions that punched through the Ardennes Forest in the dawn of December 15th 1944 were the last of the experienced Nazi SS troops to fight in the war in large numbers.

The plan was bold in only the way the Germans could be bold. If Hitler were a gambler in Vegas, he would be the guy who would have doubled down on every bet and won most of them. The Battle of the Bulge was his last big bet, the house covered him, and he almost made it. The Ardennes Forest sat between northern Germany and Belgium and the Meuse River. Beyond that was the port of Antwerp where the Allies would bring in supplies. He thought if he could stop the supply line then he could forestall the end of the war. At some point Hitler was waiting for the Allies to offer him a deal, land for peace as it were, and the survival of Germania. The Allies, particularly the Russians who saw the genocide and utter devastation the Germans had wrought upon Russian on their way in, were in no mood to compromise. The fact is, the Germans had killed so many people and destroyed so much that this would be fought to the bitter end no matter what Hitler might have accomplished in the Ardennes Offensive.

He put one of his workhorse generals in charge: Walter Model. Walter Model was also one of Hitler’s most effective Generals. He was not a Field Marshall, and that’s probably because he was fairly cut throat in regards to other German commanders under his purview. One does not fire dozens of well connected generals and still rise to the top. He would sack a commander in the blink of an eye for what he saw was insubordination or worse, failure to achieve his combat objectives.

Omar Bradley was an in experienced general who made his way up the ladder primarily as an organizer and a politician. This may seem to be a harsh judgment on an American hero. This is just connecting the dots when you look at his decisions and the effects they had and compare them to the decisions of his major rival: George S. Patton.

General Walter Model, The Commander In Charge of the Ardennes Offensive

General Walter Model, The Nazi Commander In Charge of the Ardennes Offensive

Walter Model was not liked by commanders but he was loved by his soldiers, because he refused to kiss ass, and he won and often. He was dedicated Nazi who killed with impunity and was brutal to his prisoners. Model was not a maneuver general in the tradition of the Prussian maneuver generals who populated the German command staff. He was known for his defensive battles, his ability to stop breakthroughs and grind down enemies. Hitler praised him often and treated him as one of his go-to generals.

Omar Bradley was a general who never saw real combat until the invasion of Sicily where most of the fighting decisions were made by Patton. Many think his appointments were made by Ike to protect him and keep him from fighting. The fact is that Bradley did see vicious action as commander of the US 1st Division which took the most casualties at Omaha Beach. Still, Ike was no fool. He knew for a fact that Patton and British General Montgomery were much better field commanders than Bradley. That said, Bradley was placed in the command of the lightly defended and stretched thin lines of the Army outside of the Ardennes Forest because no one ever expected an Army Corp sized offensive would ever be made through a forest. Tanks work better in open territory than the thin roads of a forest. Then again, their timing was fortuitous, because fighter bombers that can eat up tank columns were grounded for weeks due to low clouds, and zero visibility. If the winter the bane of the Wehrmacht in Russia, it was protecting them in the Ardennes.

Model did not like the plan. As a ground commander he knew intimately how tired his troops were, how ragged their equipment was becoming, he knew that reinforcements were out of the question at this stage in the war and what could actually be accomplished. It might also be stated that these troops had fought their way 1000 miles into Russian and had to fight their way back out. They had seen the massive counter attack coming from the East. Like Hitler they were more worried about the Russians crossing the Vistula and striking into the heart of Germany than they were worried about the Allies in the west. Their commanders knew that even if they succeeded in taking their objectives, they were likely simply going to head east and fight a blooded Red Army again. We have all probably heard of Operation Valkyrie, the attempt on Hitler’s life at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia. If the early attempt to kill Hitler had succeeded Germany may have won the war. Model’s idea was to take the German divisions and surround the Allied troops, most of them utterly green, and crush them where they were gathered in northwest Germany. Hitler said no. The plan to capture the port of Antwerp was his order, it was not be questioned and so Model knew he had only one plan of action: what Hitler ordered.

Omar Bradley was described as incredibly polite, a man who never asked anyone to do anything without basic manners first. He was also insecure, prickly, and easy to offend, as evinced by his sacking of over a dozen commanders. He disliked Patton and hated Montgomery. The movie Patton has Carl Mauldin portray Bradley, a very likeable man, and understandably, Bradley was the technical advisor on the set of the movie and made sure to depict Patton a man who loved battle and cared little for the level of casualties inflicted on his troops. The same could be said for Ulysses S Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Then again, they won.

Prior to the Ardennes Offensive, locals were reporting troop movements through the forest roads. Bradley ignored the warnings; obviously a huge armored offensive wasn’t coming through a forest! Model ordered full camophlage regimen. Blackened faces, night marching sock over boots to soften the crunch of the hard ground underfoot. The advance took 20 divisions through the forest on narrow roads, led by Tiger Tanks and followed by infantry. Tanks would seize the river crossings at break neck speed followed by infantry and combined arms that would strengthen the middle. On the evening of December 15th, Bradley and Eisenhower were in Paris attending Eisenhower’s promotion. Bradley received news of the attack and waited a full day before discussing it with Eisenhower. The size of the attack stunned Eisenhower. Green US troops thinking that a sweet cold Christmas was on the way were overrun, decimated, captured, and thrown back in disarray.

The German thrust was divided into three huge elements. To the North was the Sixth Panzer Army under SS General Josef “Sepp” Deitrich. In the center the Fifth Panzer Army forces were under General Hasso Von Manteuffel; and in the South was the German Seventh Army under General Erich Brandenberger. A total of 500,000 men, about 1800 tanks or over 20 outsized divisions. Some authors claim this figure is way too high and only 300,000 men made the attack. The reason it is called the battle of the Bulge is the bulging salient that expanded from the Ardennes Forest to the town of Dinant, only 50 miles from the original line.

It wasn’t a total disaster for the Allies as units in the Elsenborn Ridge where the US 7th Armored Division and the last regiment of the US 106th Infantry held their ground there and at St. Vith. Two regiments did surrender, ultimately 20,000 Allied prisoners were taken.

Bradley returned to his headquarters and soon found himself cut off from his main army by the “bulge” in the line. Worse, both Bradley and Eisenhower received news that German commandoes who spoke perfect English, and disguised their tanks to look like Allied tanks had infiltrated the line on a mission to kill Allied commanders. Eisenhower stayed in his command bunker and Bradley wore large coats to cover his own rank. The commandoes raised hell behind US lines. Guards were asking Germans headed their way questions that only Americans know. If you didn’t know who won the 1936 World Series, you were likely to get a 30-06 round in the head.

Seven key roads through the pristine country-side converged at Bastogne. If Model was to move his forces to Antwerp, he had to take Bastogne. The longer the thrust took, the more time the Allies had to set up defensive perimeters and slow it down. Ike wanted to parachute US Army Rangers, but inclement weather prevented the drop. So the rangers loaded into trucks and drove about 120 miles into the town to set up defensive barricades. They had 60 mm mortars, their own rifles, a few towed field guns and a good morale. The battle for Bastogne is a bigger story and deserves its own telling. Needless to say, the invincible German Army simply could not break the 101st’s desperate hold on the town. A judicious use of mortars that had to be shifted from one side of town to the next proved an effective way give the Germans the impressive that the town was filled with mortar teams. Bombardment didn’t work, infantry assaults didn’t work, and ultimatums didn’t work. Just when the men were about out of ammunition the weather broke, and US fighter-bombers devastated German tank and artillery positions that were sitting out in exposed positions surrounding the town.

When Given The Chance To Surrender, General Anthony McAuliffe Told The Germans: "Nuts".

When Given The Chance To Surrender, General Anthony McAuliffe Told The Germans: "Nuts".

The very next day, the US Third Army, some 20,000 men and 500 tanks had penetrated the German lines and reinforced the town. Patton had been sitting in Calais to the southwest in an attempt to fool the Germans, giving them the impression that another offensive was coming through the south. He was happy to be asked to relieve Bastogne and his move through the line happened in six days even though Patton promised it in two days. It didn’t really matter beyond that because for Model, this was the end game. Montgomery was given command of Bradley’s forces in the north, which infuriated Bradley. My guess is that Ike knew he needed his best maneuver generals Bradley wasn’t one of them. Bradley’s sidelining was temporary; infuriating, but temporary nonetheless.

The Germans attacked knowing that they did not have the fuel supplies to make it to Antwerp. Their plan was to move so fast they would capture Allied fuel caches on the way to coast. This did not work that well as Allies managed to secure most of their fuel depots and starved the spearhead German armored force of fuel until they basically had to abandon their tanks and walk back through a reduced bulge.

29 Year Old SS Colonel Joachim Peiper Was Behind The Malmedy Massacre

29 Year Old SS Colonel Joachim Peiper Was Behind The Malmedy Massacre

A key mistake the Germans made: An SS Commander named Joachim Peiper under the SS Sixth Panzer Army captured 150 US troops and placed them in a field at Malmedy, France and shot most of them down. The news spread like wildfire and the message basically told Americans that they would be better off fighting to bitter end.

And that’s what we did.

Patton won the day. Bradley won the battle. Model committed suicide one month after the offensive began, and he did pretty much right where he had started the campaign, back to square one.

The end of the day was a real win for Americans. 89,000 casualties versus German’s 91,000 casualties. We could replace the forces. They could not. And the rest is history.

Sources: Wikipedia; Great Battles of World War II, Dr. Chris Mann, Paragon Press. 2008; The History Channel.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Louis August 22, 2017 at 7:16 am

Model was a Fieldmarshall as early as September 1944, when he basically stopped Monty from getting Arnhem. And he commited suicide in late April, which was after the Allies crossed the Rhine…
Patton was aleady busy with beating Germans around Metz, with a whole army (3rd US to be precise), so he did not really go from Dover to Bastogne. What he did do, and that is still something talked about by military profesionals (who talk logistics, not tactics.. ;)), was change the axis of attack of that whole army from basically due east to due north, within three days from the start of the German attack. Something Ike himself thought impossible.
And the 101st was definitly not a Ranger division (which did not exist at that moment, at least not in the ETO (European Theather of Operations), as it was one of the two US airborne divisions within the ETO, and, together with its brother airborne division (82nd), the only strategic reserve available there. 82nd was sent to St. Vith, where they gave Peiper a bloody nose, and 101st was sent to Bastogne, where they were surrounded.
Sorry for nitpicking, but the things mentioned above were just plain wrong in your piece. Most of the rest of your text is (in my opinion of course) generalisation, or artistic license, which I can live with.

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