By late 1944, Germany was unmistakably losing the war. The Soviet Red Army was closing in on the Eastern front, while strategic Allied bombing was wreaking havoc on German cities. The Italian peninsula had been captured and liberated, and the Allied armies were advancing rapidly through France from west to east. Therefore, Adolph Hitler knew that the end was near if something could not be done to slow the Allies' advance.
After the triumphant breach of Normandy in August 1944, the Allies rushed across France with amazing speed. But before they could cross the Rhine River, they would have to face a last-stand German onslaught.
The Battle of the Bulge, so named because of the westward bulging shape of the battleground on a map, lasted from mid-December 1944 to the end of January 1945. It was the largest land battle of World War II in which the United States directly participated. More than a million men fought in the battle 600,000 Germans, 500,000 Americans, and 55,000 British.
The battle was fought on an 80-mile front running from southern Belgium through the Ardennes Forest, and down to Ettelbruck in the middle of Luxembourg. Hitler's real target was the British-American alliance, and he saw the battle as a Juggernaut to break apart and defeat the Allied forces. That "surprise attack" would supposedly divide British and American forces, leaving the way wide open for the Wehrmacht (German army) to swing north and seize the port of Antwerp. Thus they could cut off the main supply base for the Allied armies on the Western Front.
Hitler believed that he could force the western Allies to negotiate a peace treaty in the Axis' favor. He also believed that such factors as bad weather, bad terrain, and the Christmas holiday would help him catch the Allies by surprise. In other words, he anticipated it to be a decisive battle to win. After all, the Allies were very much inferior to the Germans as far as their military strength was concerned. At the battle's beginning, the U.S. Army was equipped with 80,000 men, 400 tanks, and 400 guns, while the Germans had 200,000 men, 600 tanks, and 1,900 guns.
The night before the battle, Hitler sent in soldiers to infiltrate the front. Some were dropped by parachute, others came in driving captured American jeeps. Those German soldiers spoke fluent English and wore U.S. uniforms; therefore they managed to spread confusion by giving false directions, changing road signs, and cutting telephone lines.
The Battle of the Bulge began with a German attack on the morning of December 16, 1944. Under cover of heavy fog, 38 German divisions struck along a 50-mile front. The German army managed to push American forces back nearly to the Meuse River and surround the town of Bastogne in Belgium. At that time, when ordered to surrender Bastogne, Brig. General Anthony C. McAuliffe famously replied: "Nuts." That same day, reinforcements were sent by airdrop and Allied airplanes began their attack on German tanks. Lt. General George Patton's Third Army rescued the defenders of Bastogne. Allied leaders, including General Omar Bradley and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, were surprised by the force of the German attack.
Much of the battle was affected by the weather. Great snowstorms were a big problem. Trucks had to be run every half hour to keep the oil in them from freezing. Weapons froze, so men urinated on them to thaw them. The temperature during January 1945 was the coldest on record, and casualties from exposure to the cold grew as large as the losses from fighting. The Germans attacked in white uniforms to blend in with the snow.
The Malmedy Massacre. On December 17, 1944, halfway between the town of Malmedy and Ligneuville in Belgium, an American battalion was captured by an SS force. About 150 POWs were disarmed and sent to stand in a field. About 80 men were killed by gunfire, and their bodies were left where they fell. Many prisoners escaped into nearby woods. News spread quickly among Allied soldiers, and an order went out that all SS officers and paratroopers should be shot on sight. The Malmedy Massacre is regarded as the worst atrocity committed against American troops during the course of the war in Europe.*
On December 23, American forces began their first counterattack on the southern flank of the "Bulge." On January 1, 1945, the Germans launched two new operations in an attempt to keep the offensive going and create second fronts in Holland and northern France. The Luftwaffe (German air force) launched a major campaign against Allied airfields and succeeded in destroying or severely damaging more than 460 aircraft. The Luftwaffe also sustained an incredible number of losses 277 planes. While the Allies recovered quickly from their losses, the operation left the Luftwaffe weaker than ever. After 20 days of fighting, American forces fell back, having sustained more than 11,000 casualties but inflicting 23,000.
On January 7, 1945, Hitler agreed with his staff to pull back most of his forces from the Ardennes, thus ending all offensive operations. On January 8, German troops withdrew from the tip of the "bulge." Their losses were critical. The last of the German reserves were gone, the Luftwaffe had been broken, and the German army in the west was being pushed back. Most importantly, the Eastern Front was now ripe for the taking by the Soviets. With the majority of its air power and men lost, Germany had few forces left to defend the Third Reich. Germany's final defeat loomed just a few months away.
Casualty estimates from the battle vary widely. American casualties are listed as 70,000 to 81,000, British as 1,400, and German casualties at between 60,000 and 104,000. More than 100,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner. In addition, 800 tanks were lost on each side, and 1,000 German aircraft were destroyed.
*It is not known why the massacre happened there is no record of an order by an SS officer. The shooting of POWs was common on the Eastern front, but rare on the Western front. American forces recaptured the site where the killings took place in mid-January and recovered the bodies of the murdered soldiers. After the war, the SS soldiers met justice in the controversial Malmedy Massacre Trial. Forty-two former SS officers were sentenced to death, although no death penalty was ever carried out. Most served sentences varying from 10 years to life imprisonment.
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Quotes regarding Battle of the Bulge.
By George S. Patton Jr. Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Actually written by his chief chaplain, James H. O'Neill