Reviewed by Robert Citino
By Danny S. Parker
Da Capo Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2004
On December 16, 1944, a great force of three German armies (Sixth SS Panzer, Fifth Panzer and Seventh Army)— some 24 divisions in all, including no less than 10 panzer divisions—launched an offensive against the six defending divisions of the U.S. V and VIII corps strung out along 100 miles of the Ardennes Forest. For this operation, code-named Wacht am Rhein, the Wehrmacht had assembled as complete a package as it could by that point in the war: the 1st SS Panzer Division, Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, possibly the most elite German armored unit; the 150th Panzer Brigade under Otto Skorzeny, equipped with captured jeeps and other vehicles with U.S. Army markings; Lt. Col. Friedrich August von der Heydte’s parachute battalion, making the last German combat jump of the war; and even Einheit Steilau commando teams, German soldiers fluent in the exotic idioms of American English, who were trained to infiltrate and spread confusion behind U.S. lines.
The course of the offensive is well-known. The Germans hit one U.S. Army division (the 106th) hard enough to cause mass surrenders, but elsewhere there was fierce resistance, one of the finest hours in American military history. An army is best judged by its reaction to adversity, how it fights when things go bad: when its front is torn open and it’s out of communication with HQ, for instance, or when there’s no air support and it’s winter. The U.S. Army passed all these tests in the Ardennes. The 7th Armored Division distinguished itself in the defense of St. Vith, while the 101st Airborne hung tough at Bastogne, even after it was completely surrounded. The presence of these two divisions along the main east-west roads through the forest broke Wacht am Rhein. The legions of contemporary historians who continue to demean American fighting qualities (Max Hastings comes immediately to mind) have never really been able to explain the Ardennes.
That is why it’s good to have a new edition of Danny S. Parker’s Battle of the Bulge. When it first appeared in 1991, the book marked a culmination point of sorts for the author. A well-known independent researcher and wargame designer, he had already published several commercial simulations dealing with the Bulge: Dark December (Operational Studies Group, 1979), Hitler’s Last Gamble (World Wide Wargamers, 1989) and Battle of the Ardennes (originally published by Simulations Publications, Inc., in 1978 and still available commercially from Decision Games). Indeed, to the finicky and detail-obsessed grognards of the wargaming community (and yes, I plead guilty to being a card-carrying member), Parker was “Mr. Bulge”—a figure who could be counted upon to know it all, from the precise position of the 1000th Sturmmörser Kompanie on any given day of the fighting to the exact number of U.S. artillery tubes on Elsenborn Ridge.
That knowledge, in fact, is still the best reason to read Battle of the Bulge. To Parker, the Bulge is an obsession, and it is the obsessive attention to operational detail that elevates the book over many similar ones. The analysis of the five potential operations that German planners were weighing is a case in point: complete, lucid and detailed enough for any Bulge aficionado. So, too, is the deft narrative of the opening moves from the point of view of each of the three German armies. Expecting to crack through the American line in the opening hours and climb onto the five hard-surfaced roads through the Ardennes toward the Meuse (the Rollbahnen, as they were known in German planning), all three armies got a lot more American resistance than they had bargained for. As a result, instead of a quick breakthrough, they got mired in one of the great traffic jams of the war, a congested mass of men, vehicles and horses just behind the German start line that frustrated Wehrmacht staff officers never did sort out.
Parker’s chapter on the terrain in the Ardennes is another strong point. A subject that often gets a perfunctory nod in popular operational histories receives the full treatment here, an incisive operational analysis that goes far beyond the “winding trails and dense forests” that is typical of Bulge books. Likewise, no other book has delved so deeply into the always tricky waters of orders of battle. Not only does Parker evaluate every division involved, he also gives a great deal of space to the “forgotten legions” of the Ardennes: the African-American field artillery battalions that found themselves inside the cauldron at Bastogne, along with the first black tank battalion, the 761st, which dueled the Führer-Begleit Brigade on the St. Hubert road; the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion, the heroes of Elsenborn; the all-but-forgotten separate infantry regiments (such as the 29th and 118th), detailed for rear-area security after rumors surfaced of widespread German paratroop and commando activity; and the Belgian 5th Fusilier Battalion, guarding the crucial fuel depot at Stavelot. Even the weather gets its own daily chart here, an aid to interested scholars and wargame scenario designers alike.
If there is a unifying argument throughout this often-diverse body of information, it is that Wacht am Rhein was a losing proposition from the start. With the Wehrmacht already scraping the bottom of its manpower pool, the opening blow relied on the fighting qualities of a mass of new Volksgrenadier divisions, filled with men who had been “combed out” of services in the rear area or who had been convalescing in hospitals inside Germany. Hastily thrown together, given rudimentary training and often underequipped, they fought about as well as could be expected—that is, not quite well enough. They lacked the punch to open a rapid and complete operational hole in the U.S. lines. The Germans had to scrap the original plan—to insert the panzer divisions only when they had operational freedom to dash ahead—and use them in the breakthrough phase instead. It was a fatal blow to the timetable and indeed, by the evening of day three (December 18), General Gerd von Rundstedt was already certain that Wacht am Rhein had failed.
Even if they had broken through, however, Parker argues that German forces were so low on fuel at the start of the offensive that they might have been able to make it to the Meuse, but certainly not get over it. And what of Adolf Hitler’s strategic target, Antwerp? Impossible. By December 19, the spearhead of Sixth SS Panzer Army, the battle group of the maniacal SS-Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper, was already running out of fuel. Making matters worse, that day saw U.S. forces recapture Stavelot and sever his supply line—permanently, as things turned out. The rest of Sixth SS Panzer Army was still far to the rear, beating its head against U.S. forces holding fast on Elsenborn Ridge. Elsenborn is the Bulge in a nutshell: a tenacious infantry defense, to be sure, but one backed up by an uninterrupted and powerful line of artillery, the war-winning arm for the Americans.
The book is not without its faults. Parker is no one’s idea of an elegant writer, and there are far too many sidebars interspersed throughout the text, on topics alternately illuminating (Skorzeny and Operation Greif) and distracting (the battlefield adventures of Ernest Hemingway). Nagging mistakes pop up throughout: “Clauswitzian [sic] doctrine” did not espouse the “superiority of attack”—just the opposite, as the author later recognizes; it was not Rundstedt who called Hitler “that Bohemian corporal,” but the deceased German field marshal and president Paul von Hindenburg. Finally, the book is wedded to an outdated “brilliant German generals–stupid Führer” scheme of analysis that has by now been thoroughly discredited in the literature. The German generals made their share of blunders in this offensive, as they had throughout the war.
Even with these faults, Battle of the Bulge deserves a large readership. And to those who think that the U.S. Army did not measure up to the Wehrmacht, let me offer the wit and wisdom of that great American philosopher of war, Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe: “Nuts!”