The Battle of the Bulge
The Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 was the last German offensive of the war. Named after a bulge in the Allied line created by an unexpected German offensive, it was a vicious battle and extremely costly in terms of U.S. casualties. The battle was the largest fought on the western front and the largest ever fought by the U.S. Army. More than 600,000 American soldiers took part; nearly 20,000 were killed, another 20,000 were captured, and an estimated 40,000 were wounded.
The battle began on December 16, when fourteen German infantry divisions, backed by five Panzer divisions, broke through an Allied line stretching between Monschau, Germany, and Echternach, Luxembourg. The troops and equipment had been secretly concentrated in the Eifel region and included captured U.S. tanks and vehicles, which the Germans rightly assumed would confuse the American defenders.
On the day of the attack, the region was blanketed in thick fog, which effectively hid the German invaders until the very last minute. The fog also prevented Allied planes from bombing the German columns that filled the roads leading west.
Eisenhower immediately ordered reinforcements to the breakthrough point and started looking for signs of more dramatic German movement based on intelligence reports of twenty-four German divisions in the Ardennes. The size of the German assault baffled everyone, because it was commonly believed that Germany lacked both manpower and equipment.
The sad fact of the German attack, historians would later learn, was that the majority of the soldiers were teenage boys, many of them younger than sixteen. Lacking experienced fighting men, the German High Command had conscripted anyone strong enough to hold a gun.
The American Defensive
The use of American military equipment and English-speaking German soldiers wearing American uniforms and dog tags was conceived by Otto Skorzeny, a German officer who specialized in commando operations. As anticipated, the plan threw U.S. soldiers into a panic — suddenly, no one in an American uniform could be trusted.
American units, many of them facing much stronger German forces, fought the enemy with everything at their disposal. In one battle, Americans — outnumbered five to one — managed to turn the Germans southward. Slowly, hour by hour, the initial 50-mile bulge began to shrink.
The Fight for Bastogne
But the German offensive was far from over. One of its primary objectives was the Belgian town of Bastogne, which both the Germans and the Allies saw as an extremely important junction; whoever controlled it held access to France. Eisenhower ordered the U.S. 101st Airborne Division to Bastogne and the 82nd Airborne Division to Saint-Vith on the northern end of the bulge.
German forces surrounded and laid siege to Bastogne shortly after the U.S. airborne troops reached the town. Eisenhower had a gut feeling that the German offensive was beginning to weaken and wanted a counterattack that focused on Bastogne. He called General Patton, whose Third Army was along the Moselle River, readied for a long-planned attack, and asked how long it would take him to move his force of 250,000 men and their equipment to the beleaguered town. “Forty-eight hours,” Patton said confidently. What he didn't reveal to Eisenhower was that he had already worked out the plans for the difficult maneuver and was simply awaiting orders to put it into effect.
In Bastogne, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, acting commander of the 101st, was ordered to surrender by the commanders of the German army that surrounded the town. McAuliffe's now legendary response: “Nuts!” When the Germans asked the American officer who delivered the reply what it meant, he told them, “It means, go to hell!”
Allies on the Verge of Victory
Reinforcements eventually arrived, in the form of British and American troops. The Battle of the Bulge ended with the German withdrawal after January 7, 1945.
The Battle of the Bulge resulted in more than 30,000 Germans killed, 40,000 wounded, and 30,000 taken prisoner. The Third Reich, reduced to using children to fight its battles, was on the brink of collapse.
After the repulse of the Bulge, Allied forces drove on toward Berlin. Crossings of the Rhine were a bit easier after the German defeat in the Ardennes, although the German soldiers' defense of their homeland was fierce. The U.S. First and Ninth Armies encircled the strategic Ruhr area, while British forces crossed the Elbe River and moved northeast, toward Hamburg, Denmark, and the Baltic Sea. The American encirclement resulted in the surrender by German Field Marshal Walther Model of more than 300,000 troops. With these POWs secure, the American armies moved east, meeting up with Soviet troops on April 26.