After seven decades, it’s time to set the record straight on the myths and realities of the U.S. Army’s greatest battle.
GREATEST BATTLE – GREATEST VICTORY
December 16, 2014, marks the 75th anniversary of the opening shots of the powerful German Ardennes Offensive that evolved into the greatest battle ever fought by the American Army, the Battle of the Bulge. At its end five weeks later, the battle had become, in the words of historian Charles B. MacDonald, who had fought in it as an infantry company commander, “the greatest single victory in U.S. history.”
The participation of over 600,000 U.S. ground troops in the Battle of the Bulge dwarfs American involvement in most of the country’s other famous battles: Yorktown, 1781 (8,800 Americans allied with 7,800 French); New Orleans, 1815 (5,000); Chapultepec, 1847 (7,200); Gettysburg, 1863 (150,000 total Union and Confederate); Meuse-Argonne, 1918 (500,000); Okinawa, 1945 (183,000 Army and Marine Corps invasion troops); Operation Desert Storm, 1991 (about 500,000); and Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2003 (300,000 U.S. and coalition troops). Only the six-week-long Meuse-Argonne Offensive in World War I produced more American casualties (122,000).
Yet this epic battle led to some of the longest enduring myths and misconceptions in U.S. Army history. Despite the appearance of myth-dispelling works by noted historians – including MacDonald, Russell Weigley, Forrest Pogue, Hugh Cole, Stephen Ambrose, Carlo D’Este, Rick Atkinson, and John and David Eisenhower – the legends persist. Many people still equate the entire five-week-long battle with only one portion of it, the weeklong siege of Bastogne, and believe that General George S. Patton won the battle single handedly with his brilliant counterattack into the bulge’s southern flank. Unfortunately, much of what we “know” about the U.S. Army’s greatest battle is either wrong or so clouded by myth making that the realities of the Battle of the Bulge have been lost.
HITLER’S ARDENNES OFFENSIVE
The German Ardennes Offensive that precipitated the Battle of the Bulge was Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s scheme to reverse Germany’s failing fortunes in the war by launching a surprise, devastating blow against the Western Allies, chiefly the United States, Britain, Canada and France. Hitler hoped this would gain him a negotiated peace with the Western Allies so that he could turn his armies’ full effort against Josef Stalin’s Red Army advancing from the east. Hitler chose as the offensive’s point of attack the rugged, restricted terrain of the lightly defended Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg – the same place that German armies had successfully attacked in 1870, 1914 and, most dramatically, 1940.
Working in unusually strict secrecy (little information was gleaned by the Allies via ULTRA, the successful code-breaking effort that their commanders had become dependent upon by that stage of the war),Hitler gathered his last reserves of soldiers, panzers, artillery and aircraft, and these were organized into the offensive’s three armies: 6th Panzer Army, under Oberstgruppenführer SS (General of the SS) Josef “Sepp” Dietrich; 5th Panzer Army, led by General Hasso von Manteuffel; and 7th Infantry Army, commanded by General Eric Brandenberger. (See Battle of the Bulge map, p. 45.) The plan was for6th Panzer Army to conduct the German offensive’s main attack in the north, racing to cross the Meuse River as quickly as possible and thereby forging a decisive breakthrough of the Allied front line to isolate the British and Canadian armies in the north from the American armies farther south. Meanwhile, 5th Panzer Army’s advance would support 6th Panzer’s main attack and 7th Army would anchor the offensive’s southern flank. Over 200,000 German infantrymen, 1,000panzers and nearly 2,000 artillery guns formed the initial assault force that eventually grew to500,000 German troops during the battle.
U.S. VIII Corps, commanded by Major General Troy H. Middleton, bore the brunt of the German attack. Spread thinly through the rugged Ardennes to enable Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower to maintain Allied offensives to the north and south of the region, approximately 80,000 U.S.infantrymen, supported by only 240 tanks and about 400 artillery guns, defended an impossibly wide front line that was over 80 miles long –three times longer than a normal corps combat frontage. Containing a mixture of brand-new units and depleted divisions badly chewed up in the Hürtgen Forest fighting in November, the Ardennes was described by historian MacDonald as “the nursery and the old folks’ home of the American command.”
The German surprise attack struck at 5:30a.m. on December 16, 1944, and then it overran the outnumbered American defenders and created the westward “bulge” in the front line that gave the battle its name. Eisenhower immediately recognized the attack as a major enemy offensive and quickly set in motion actions to slow, then stop, and ultimately turn back the German advance. Ike rapidly reorganized the entire Allied front, set units in motion to the threatened Ardennes region, adjusted the command structure where necessary and organized counterattacks. Eventually, more than 600,000 U.S. troops(backed up by 55,000 British troops) supported by 1,300 tanks and 2,000 artillery guns took part in defeating Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive. By the end of January 1945, the bulge in the front line had been eliminated and the stage was set for Ike to launch the final Allied push into Germany to end the war.
The cost in casualties was high on both sides. The Germans lost at least 100,000 troops (plus irreplaceable panzers, artillery and aircraft), while U.S. killed, wounded and captured totaled nearly 90,000soldiers (50,000 in the battle’s first week). British casualties in this“American” battle numbered about 1,200. More than 3,000 Belgian and Luxembourg civilians also were killed, hundreds of them victims of despicable Nazi atrocities.
We owe it to the American soldiers who fought and won the Battle of the Bulge – and especially to those who perished in it – to set the record straight on the myths and realities of the U.S. Army’s greatest battle.
THE REAL KEYS TO VICTORY
The widespread but mistaken belief that the American triumph in the week-long siege of Bastogne was the key to victory in the Battle of the Bulge is understandable. The heroic defense of the town by 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division along with several other U.S. units was a remarkable and inspiring feat of arms that rightfully belongs in a place of high honor in U.S. Army history. On December 22, during some of the darkest days of the siege, the dramatic and defiant “Nuts!” reply by the senior American officer at Bastogne, 101st Division Artillery Commander Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe, in response to the German surrender demand epitomized the defenders’ indomitable spirit. Widely reported throughout all American forces fighting in the Battle of the Bulge – and to the homefront back in the States – McAuliffe’s “Nuts!” reply galvanized the resolve of Americans and quickly became the most famous “sound bite” of World War II in Europe. (See “Sound Bites,” p. 50.)
Certainly, the more than 3,000 U.S. soldiers who were killed or wounded during the siege should be remembered and greatly honored for their courage and sacrifice fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds while enduring horrific weather conditions. Yet the disproportionate attention habitually paid to the siege of Bastogne by war correspondents at the time and by historians ever since has for too long masked the truth about the real keys to victory in the Battle of the Bulge.
The main effort of the German offensive was assigned to 6th Panzer Army, operating far to the north of Bastogne. This was the unit on which Hitler was pinning all his hopes for victory in the offensive and it was the one the Allies had to stop to win the battle. Bastogne was actually in 5th Panzer Army’s sector, and that unit’s mission was to conduct a supporting attack to help 6th Panzer’s main attack reach and cross the Meuse River as quickly as possible. The two crucial fights that were the real keys to American victory in the Battle of the Bulge took place at the even more important Ardennes crossroads at St. Vith and just to the north of St. Vith along the Elsenborn Ridge, high ground that ran parallel to the German main axis of advance and that became the “northern shoulder” of the bulge. The famed “impenetrability” of the Ardennes region was largely due to its primitive and very limited road network.Therefore, any rapid advance by 6th Panzer depended on the unit capturing and controlling the road network in the north – the vital crossroads at St. Vith, the roads crisscrossing the Elsenborn Ridge,and the ones running parallel to and in the very shadow of the ridge’s high ground – the “classic” Ardennes invasion route.
The American units on the Elsenborn Ridge included the new-to-combat 99th Infantry Division, the veteran 2d Infantry Division and several other divisions quickly sent there to reinforce them, backed up by masses of U.S. artillery that were rushed to the area. These units not only kept the Germans from seizing the ridge, the artillery banging away from the Elsenborn quite literally “choked to death” the main6th Panzer Army attack that was trying to move west along the northern Ardennes invasion corridor. Stymied in their attempt to grab the Elsenborn and under tremendous pounding from U.S. artillery, the Germans were forced to pin their hopes of continuing the main advance on seizing the road network passing through St. Vith, making it the most important crossroads in the Ardennes.
Disaster for the Americans struck early east of St. Vith when the German advance surrounded and captured two regiments of the brand-new U.S. 106th Infantry Division during the battle’s first two days. The capture of these 8,000 U.S. soldiers represented the largest surrender of American troops in Europe and was exceeded only by the number of Americans taken by the Japanese at Bataan and Corregidor in the Pacific in 1942. The 106th’s commander, Major General Alan Jones, was totally overwhelmed by events that were moving too rapidly for him to react, but fortunately one of the real heroes of the Battle of the Bulge, Brigadier General Bruce C. Clarke, had just arrived in St. Vith with his Combat Command B, 7th Armored Division. (See Leader, p. 80.)
Jones, visibly shaken and clearly out of his depth, turned to Clarke on the afternoon of December 17 and said, “You take command. I’ve got nothing left.” Clarke immediately set to work mounting a brilliant mobile defense of the vital crossroads that delayed the German attack for a full week. In fact, Clarke’s defense was so effective that after the war his German opponent told him that he thought he was facing an entire U.S. armored corps, not merely Clarke’s brigade-sized combat command. From December 17 to 23, Clarke kept the Germans from seizing the St. Vith road network and then was able to extract his unit intact from the closing enemy circle and prepare it to continue in the battle.
To reach and cross the Meuse quickly and in strength, 6th Panzer Army had to seize the Elsenborn high ground and capture St. Vith early in the battle. Although Bastogne was far from a sideshow, it definitely was not the key to victory, as it has been and continues to be portrayed. Instead, when the American units on the Elsenborn Ridge held fast, and after Clarke’s brilliant defense of St. Vith held off overwhelming numbers of enemy soldiers for a full week, the German offensive was doomed. “Elsenborn” and “St. Vith” ought to be the names we remember as the real keys to victory in the Battle of the Bulge.
THE FORGOTTEN DEFENDERS OF BASTOGNE
The image of the siege of Bastogne that has become embedded in Americans’ popular memory has also led to another unfortunate misconception. Patently unfair to half of the soldiers from the several U.S. Army units that defended the town during the siege is the mistaken belief that only 101st Airborne Division paratroopers mounted the defense. A large number of the infantrymen defending Bastogne, the vast majority of the artillerymen and guns providing crucial fire support during the siege, and certainly every one of the tanks and tank destroyers that helped prevent German panzers from overrunning the town were from units other than 101st Airborne. Although precise numbers are difficult to determine given the extremely confused situation at the time, a reasonable estimate is that about 11,000 101st paratroopers were at Bastogne out of a total U.S. force there of about 23,000.
In fact, the 101st was somewhat of a latecomer among the ranks of those defending Bastogne. When the Screaming Eagles arrived by truck convoy on December 19, they joined soldiers of other units that had been defending the approaches to the town for three days or that had arrived during the desperate combat. These other units included Colonel William Gilbreth’s Combat Command R, 9th Armored Division, which was in Bastogne at the start of the battle; several artillery battalions (58th and 420th armored field artillery battalions and755th and 969th field artillery battalions of VIII Corps artillery) that had been firing in the area since the beginning and chose not to retreat but to stay and fight it out; Colonel William Roberts’ Combat Command B, 10th Armored Division, which had arrived on December 18after being rushed north from Patton’s 3d Army; Lieutenant Colonel Clifford D. Templeton’s 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, which had raced south over treacherous, icy roads from 9th Army’s area to joinBastogne’s defenders on December 19; hundreds of members of 35th and 158th combat engineer battalions who had been fighting as infantrymen since the first hours of the battle; numerous VIII Corps support unit soldiers who were pressed into service as combat troops to defend the town; and hundreds of 28th Infantry Division soldiers who had been driven into Bastogne after heroically delaying the brunt of the German attack toward the town during December 16 to 18.
Indeed, the German attack would have overrun Bastogne long before the 101st arrived had it not been for the courage and sacrifice of the units that were in the town and surrounding area before the paratroopers showed up. The desperate combat that made it possible for the 101st to establish defenses in and around the town had already been fought in the area east of Bastogne. Principally, that “Bastogne-saving” fight was mounted by 28th Infantry Division along with numerous small tank-infantry-combat engineer teams personally controlled by VIII Corps commander Major General Troy Middleton from his corps headquarters in Bastogne.
The epic fight that Middleton’s combat teams and the soldiers of 28th Division waged from December 16 through 19 is nothing less than an inspiring tale of heroism and astounding determination in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Middleton, especially, has never received the credit due to him for his masterful control of the fighting east of Bastogne. He kept his finger on the pulse of the battle, directing combat teams to critical road junctions and vital positions to meet every German advance, fighting for the time he knew was necessary for Ike to rush reinforcements to the area. One of the Army’s best infantry tacticians at the time (he had taught at the Infantry School under then-Colonel George Marshall’s leadership in the interwar era), Middleton not only knew exactly what to do, he instinctively knew how to go about it. And while he was waging this fight, the infantrymen of 28th Division, particularly its 110th Regiment under veteran Colonel Hurley Fuller, were locked in a death struggle with waves of advancing German infantry and panzers. Although most of Middleton’s combat teams and the 28th eventually were overrun and succumbed to overwhelming numbers, without their sacrifice that bought the precious time for other units to assemble at Bastogne, there could have been no defense of Bastogne.
Along with “Bastogne,” the only other name that many Americans associate with the Battle of the Bulge is “George S. Patton.” Again, this is completely understandable. Patton’s seemingly incredible accomplishment of swinging 3d Army’s axis of advance 90 degrees in a few short days to launch the army on a powerful counterattack into the southern half of the bulge was one of the greatest military maneuvers ever pulled off by an American commander in U.S. military history (or any commander anywhere for that matter). It was Patton’s finest hour among his many “fine hours” during his World War II leadership. However, classifying the counterattack, as many do, as a “singular stroke of genius” by one man does a great disservice to Patton, his 3d Army staff, and above all his 3d Army soldiers who accomplished it.
Third Army’s bulge counterattack was not a singular stroke of genius by George Patton – as if he only needed to wave a magic wand – but instead was Patton and his 3d Army doing what they did best on countless battlefields from Normandy to the heart of Germany in 1944-45. “Genius” in this case was actually composed of vision, foresight, planning, discipline, skill, hard work, morale, motivation, endurance, initiative, and maximum sustained effort by an experienced combat team of leaders and soldiers functioning like clockwork at every level from Army commander down to the lowest private. Simply chalking all that up to “a stroke of genius” misses the real story of a commander, his staff and his troops operating at the top of their form.
WAR CRIME: MALMEDY MASSACRE
One of the most egregious misconceptions some now hold about the Battle of the Bulge concerns the battle’s most infamous incident, the December 17, 1944, “Malmedy Massacre.” It has become somewhat fashionable in some circles to say that this cold-blooded murder of at least 75 captured U.S. soldiers by 1st SS Panzer Division “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” at Baugnez Crossroads was simply a tragic occurrence of war and to offer a mountain of excuses to justify the perpetrators’ actions. This sort of argument is particularly prevalent among those who for whatever reason stoutly defend Hitler’s Waffen SS. These apologists adamantly claim that the Waffen SS was simply an exceptionally effective combat organization, distinguished from Germany’s best regular army units only by its elite status and superbly high morale. Such characterization is outrageously misguided and a gross misrepresentation of these ideologically motivated killers in uniform. The true story of the Malmedy Massacre exposes the naiveté or downright ignorance of the Waffen SS defenders.
In an interview some years ago, Eugene Garrett, a Malmedy Massacre survivor, described the real story of this war crime. As a 19-year-old private, he endured the horrors inflicted on his unit, Battery B, 285th U.S. Field Artillery Observation Battalion, by a battle group of 1st SS Panzer Division under the overall command of ObersturmbannführerSS (Lieutenant Colonel of the SS) Joachim Peiper.
Garrett’s battery, a “sound and flash” outfit that located enemy artillery positions, was part of 7th Armored Division artillery convoying from 9th Army’s area in Holland to the Ardennes. Since the convoy had been stopping and starting throughout the long road march, Garrett did not think it unusual when after passing through Malmedy the trucks stopped at Baugnez Crossroads, located south of Malmedy on the direct route to St. Vith. In fact, he did not even bother to take his weapon with him when he dismounted at what he assumed was a rest halt.
Suddenly, however, Garrett realized it was no routine stop when German Waffen SS troopers began swarming over the convoy and rounding up the American soldiers. He knew they were in trouble when shortly after the prisoners were lined up one U.S. officer protested the Germans stealing the Americans’ watches and a German officer put a pistol to the American’s forehead and murdered him on the spot. Garrett said he foolishly called the soldier ransacking his pockets a “son of a bitch,” after which the German “butt-stroked” Garrett with his rifle, drawing blood, and said in perfect English, “This will teach you to cross the Siegfried Line!”
All of the American POWs were soon marched to an open field at the crossroads and forced to stand in ranks; Garrett was in the rear ranks. Not long afterward, a German halftrack pulled up and a Waffen SS officer in the back of it stood up, pulled out his pistol and murdered a U.S. medic standing in the front row, even though the medic’s red cross was clearly visible on his helmet. This signaled the German machine guns to open up on the POWs, and their deadly firing mowed down the ranks of helpless Americans. Garrett dropped to the ground and pretended to be dead, although his only injury was from the earlier “butt stroke.” For several hours, German vehicles passing along the road apparently headed for St. Vith fired indiscriminately into the piles of bodies, seemingly just for “fun.”
Finally, Garrett said he could stand it no longer and was on the verge of freezing to death lying on the frozen ground. He jumped up and ran for the woods at the far end of the field, while several other survivors also got up and fled. However, those who tried to take shelter in the only building near the field, the Café Bodarwé, were all killed after the Germans set fire to it, forcing the soldiers to flee outside. Garrett eventually made his way several miles north to American lines in Malmedy, yet due to rampant rumors of Germans in American uniforms masquerading as U.S. soldiers, he was treated “like a captured German” for hours after gaining what he thought was his freedom.
Even with horrific accounts like the one told by Garrett, there are still those who ardently defend the Waffen SS and inexcusably claim that the Malmedy Massacre was just a “tragic incident.” It was undeniably cold-blooded murder, and that myth should be rectified once and for all.
REAL HEROES OF THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE
Seven decades after the U.S. Army fought and won its greatest battle, we should remember and salute the real heroes of the Battle of the Bulge, the individual infantrymen, tankers, artillerymen, combat engineers and support troops who chose to stand and fight – and too often die – while stopping and then defeating the German attack under truly appalling conditions. The Battle of the Bulge was ultimately a “Soldiers’ Battle,” fought and won by the thousands of American troops who refused to run away and instead dug in their heels, took on the best the German army had to offer, and in the end triumphed. Men like Adam Davis and Milford Sillars of 28th Infantry Division; Lieutenant Lyle Bouck of 99th Infantry Division; Sergeant Al Alvarez, a 1st Infantry Division artillery forward observer on the Elsenborn Ridge; Lieutenant. L. Martin Jones of 106th Infantry Division; Colonel Roy U. Clay, commanding 275th Armored Field Artillery Battalion; Lieutenant Bill Knowlton of 7th Armored Division; Colonel William Roberts of 10th Armored Division; Colonel Hurley Fuller, commanding 110th Infantry Regiment; Captain Jimmie Leach of 4th Armored Division; and thousands more whose names unfortunately we will never know. These men are the real heroes of the Battle of the Bulge.
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, is “Armchair General” Editor in Chief. His book “Generals of the Bulge: American Leadership in the U.S. Army’s Greatest Battle” was published by Stackpole Books in 2015.
Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Armchair General.