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IT WAS THE BIGGEST SINGLE BATTLE ON THE WESTERN FRONT in World War II and the largest engagement ever fought by the United States Army. The human losses were staggering: Of the 600,000 GIs involved, almost 20,000 were killed, another 20,000 were captured, and 40,000 were wounded. This was almost as many casualties as in Vietnam over the four-year period from 1965 to 1969 and more than the total number of men in the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg. Two U.S. infantry divisions were annihilated; in one of them, the 106th, some 7,500 men surrendered, the largest mass surrender in the war against Germany. Nearly 800 American tanks were destroyed.

Beyond human and material losses, the U.S. intelligence officers were embarrassed, indeed humiliated, for the attack had come as a complete surprise. From the supreme commander in Paris, through the army group, army corps, and division commanders, down to the lowliest private dozing in a foxhole in the Ardennes at midnight of December 15—16, 1944, not a single soldier in the entire U.S. Army dreamed that it was possible for the Wehrmacht to launch an offensive. Yet in the Eifel—the rough, mountainous country in westernmost Germany—at the spot where Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany meet, the Wehrmacht had gathered more than 200,000 troops and almost 2,000 tanks. That no Americans were aware of anything suspicious going on in the Eifel was an intelligence blunder as bad as Pearl Harbor.

How could Germany, a nation of only 85 million people that had already lost nearly 2 million fighting men in five years of war, hard pressed on three fronts, produce two new armies of nearly a quarter of a million troops? How could Germany, after two years of intensive bombardment by British and American heavy bombers, produce tanks in such numbers? How could the Wehrmacht, after spending 1943 and 1944 in retreat, manage so soon to regain the initiative and the offensive spirit? And finally, why would Germany decide to launch a major attack, one that would surely be its last, into an area devoid of strategic importance?

The answers to these questions help explain why American intelligence was so badly fooled. They illustrate the resourcefulness and strength of the Germans, their great skill in making war, their desperation in 1944, and the fundamental principle that the easiest way to surprise is to do something that makes no sense (e.g., for the Japanese to attack the United States, or for the Germans to attack the Soviet Union).

“The German army has had it,” said a late-September intelligence report from the U.S. First Army. When the Wehrmacht nevertheless managed to create a new defensive line, along the prepared positions of the Westwall, it was assumed that this was a temporary, stopgap achievement. A Third Army officer dismissed the German defenders as “nothing but Poles with ulcers.” In fact, however, the new formations already gathering in the Eifel for the counteroffensive were composed of highly motivated German teenagers. In the German cemetery in Luxembourg, where the Wehrmacht dead from the Battle of the Bulge are buried four to a grave, the headstones tell the stark facts: name, date of birth, date of death. The most common year of birth is 1928; next is 1929. In the American cemetery just across the road, nearly all the dead were born between 1918 and 1925. In short, Hitler’s last offensive was a children’s crusade.

Those young Germans were four or five years old when the Nazis seized power, and they had been deliberately raised for this critical moment. Fanatics who were ready, even eager, to die for Hitler and the Third Reich, they made courageous, if not always very skillful or prudent, soldiers. And they were well armed. Although the American .30-caliber M1 was superior to any German rifle, the German light and heavy machine guns were better than the U.S. models, as were German tanks and hand-held antitank rockets. The German Panther tank carried a long-barreled, high-muzzle velocity, 75mm cannon, while the Tiger fired an 88mm dual-purpose gun that was the terror of the World War II battlefield. Both were also very heavily armored (113 millimeters thick in the turret for the Panther). Against these demons, the American bazooka was little more than a peashooter, and the short-barreled cannon on the standard U.S. tank, the Sherman, was not much better. It took heavy artillery, accurate and well laid on, to stop the Panthers and Tigers. Fortunately, U.S. artillery was at least equal in quality, and superior in quantity, to that of the Germans.

To gain such weight of armor and to carry such a heavy cannon, the German tanks had to be enormous. The 33-ton Sherman was a lightweight compared to the 47-ton Panther and 63-ton Tiger. These new German tanks (the Panther was a 1943 model; the Tiger appeared in August 1944) sacrificed range and mobility for size and were better designed for defense than offense, especially in terrain like the Ardennes, where the roadnet was limited and the sharp turns and steep climbs numerous. The maximum range of the Panther, cross-country, was 62 miles; of the Tiger, 53 miles. (They got about one-third of a mile to a gallon of gas.)

The absolutely critical German shortage, and the place where the Americans had the advantage, was in the mundane but crucial area of motor transport. The Germans simply did not have sufficient numbers of trucks to bring forward the ammunition, gasoline, and other matériel necessary to sustain an offensive; indeed, for all the technological sophistication of the German armament industry, in jet aircraft, in tanks, in rockets, and in other areas, most German matériel was still brought to the front by horse-drawn transport. The Americans, by contrast, were by far the most mobile army in the world. The truck was their secret weapon. (It is worth noting that the truck drivers were black soldiers who, forbidden by the War Department to join fighting outfits, made their contribution to the war effort in strictly segregated, noncombat units.)

Hitler himself devised the plan of attack. He realized that it was a desperate gamble, but recalled Clausewitz’s principle: “He who is hard pressed will regard the greatest daring as the greatest wisdom.” Gerd von Rundstedt, called out of retirement by Hitler to serve as titular commander on the Western Front, was opposed to using up Germany’s last resources in a reckless gamble, as were most high-ranking German officers, but Hitler wanted to win the war, not just prolong it. His plan was to strike in the Ardennes, where the Americans were badly stretched out (four divisions on an eighty-mile front), achieve a breakthrough, cross the Meuse River with armor, capture fuel stocks from the Allies, and drive on to Antwerp. In the process he would split the British and American forces and capture the port on which the Allies depended for most of their supplies. After that, who knew? He would be free to reinforce his Eastern Front. Perhaps then the Russians would drop out of the war, forcing the British and Americans to sue for peace.

Success depended on six factors: surprise; the strength of the blow; the speed of the advance; a slow American response; poor performance by the GIs; and bad weather, which would neutralize U.S. air superiority.

Through superhuman effort, Hitler was able to gather together in the Eifel a force big enough to achieve the objective. He gained surprise through a combination of skill, secretiveness, incredibly tight security, and audacity. Using many of the same techniques the Allies had used to fool the Germans about the time and place of the cross-Channel attack in June—the creation of fictitious units, false radio traffic, and playing on preconceptions—Hitler gave the Americans a false sense of security about the Ardennes, heightened by the fact that there were no cities, supply dumps, headquarters, railroad lines, or highways of strategic importance in that region.

Speed of advance depended on the commitment of the field commanders to Hitler’s concept; for that reason, he put Josef (“Sepp”) Dietrich, a former butcher and SS bullyboy, in command of the Sixth Panzer Army. Dietrich had commanded an SS division in Russia but had no experience of command at army level. His qualifications for this crucial assignment were fanaticism and unquestioned personal bravery.

Hitler assumed a slow U.S. response. He believed that Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt controlled the U.S. supreme commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, as tightly as he, Hitler, controlled German field commanders. He therefore figured that before Eisenhower could call off the major attacks to the north and south to build a defense in the Ardennes, he would have to get approval from Churchill and Roosevelt. Hitler told the Wehrmacht High Command that it would take Eisenhower at least two days to comprehend the seriousness of the situation, then two or three more days of wrangling with his bosses before he could react. By that time, the Germans would be across the Meuse River, if not already in Antwerp.

Even when Eisenhower was free to react, Hitler believed, his forces would be slow to move. For one thing, Americans were unaccustomed to fighting on the defensive—the last time they had done so was almost two years earlier, at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia—and would find it difficult to adjust their thinking and operations. Further, in spite of the terrible pounding the Wehrmacht had taken in France, Hitler was contemptuous of the American army. He thought the Allies had won in France only because of overwhelming air and matériel superiority. He believed the average GI was soft, poorly trained, badly led, and liable to panic.

As for the final factor—bad weather was simply a question of waiting. It was certain to come sometime in the fall in northwest Europe.

THE ATTACK BEGAN AT DAWN ON DECEMBER 16, without artillery preparation. It was cold and foggy. The Americans did not occupy a continuous defensive line but were strung out in isolated groups; thus many German units advanced westward encountering no opposition. Taken completely by surprise, American units, many of them in unfortified villages, were cut off, overwhelmed, and annihilated or forced to surrender. Often the biggest obstacles to the German advance were traffic jams due to the inadequate roadnet.

But where the Wehrmacht ran into American strongpoints, villages that had been fortified, it was a different story. Units as small as squads poured out deadly fire from farmhouses, barns, and crossroad taverns, from behind hedges, trees, and bends in the road. The inexperienced German infantry just kept coming, to be mowed down in waves. It was almost as if it were the First Battle of Ypres and the year 1914. Eventually, by sheer weight of numbers, the Germans eliminated these pockets of resistance, but in every case the Americans managed to slow the advance—so that by nightfall on December 16, the Wehrmacht was already badly behind schedule.

To the north, between Monschau and Losheim, the U.S. 99th Infantry Division, newly arrived in Europe, and the 2nd Infantry Division, which had come ashore at Utah beach on D-Day plus one and had been fighting ever since, did not simply delay the German advance but stopped it along the critical point of the whole battle, Elsenbom Ridge. This low ridge lay across the direct line from the Eifel to Antwerp and was the main objective of Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army.

Elsenborn was the Little Round Top of the battle. Dietrich drove his units mercilessly, but he could not take it. In the vast literature on the Battle of the Bulge, Elsenborn Ridge always yields pride of place to the far more famous action to the south, at Bastogne. Everyone knows about the 101st Airborne at Bastogne; almost no one knows even the names of the 99th and 2nd infantries. Yet it was along the Elsenborn Ridge, on the first and second days, that these two ordinary infantry divisions, largely out of touch with their commands, outnumbered five to one and, worse, outgunned and surprised, managed to stop the Germans on their main line of advance. The Germans never did take the ridge.

The practical effect of the Elsenborn resistance was to force the German thrust southward. Instead of moving out on a northwest line through Namur to Antwerp, Dietrich was now squeezed southwest, toward the Meuse at Dinant. In essence this meant that the offensive no longer had a strategic objective. Rundstedt, and even Dietrich, recognized that immediately. From December 17 on, they wanted to go for the “small solution”—that is, an offensive whose objective was to gain some ground and capture some prisoners while inflicting heavy casualties, rather than to attempt to reverse the entire course of the war. Hitler insisted on continuing to try for the Meuse, then Antwerp. But without Elsenbom, he was never going to get there.

Thus did a bunch of junior officers, noncoms, and privates, many of them new to battle, some of them exhausted by six months of continuous warfare, prove that Hitler was wrong in thinking the American GI could not fight.

In the center, Hasso von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army did achieve a clean breakthrough. To the south, the Seventh Army made some penetrations. All along the line, meanwhile, the Americans were in a state of confusion, and in some cases panic. In Belgium and northern France, American flags hanging from windows were discreetly pulled inside and hidden. In Paris the whores put away their English-language phrase books and retrieved their German versions. In New York the stock market, which had tumbled after the German retreat from France indicated that peace was at hand, became bullish again.

General Omar Bradley, commanding the Twelfth Army Group, which consisted of the U.S. First Army (Courtney Hodges) and the U.S. Third Army (George S. Patton, Jr.), was in Luxembourg City the evening of December 15. The next morning, unaware of an attack approximately 20 miles away, he drove to Versailles; he was out of touch for almost an entire day. He arrived at the Trianon Palace Hotel, Eisenhower’s headquarters, to find his boss in a good mood. Ike had just received word of his promotion to the rank of five-star general of the army.

At dusk, an intelligence officer arrived with news. There had been an enemy attack that morning in the Ardennes. Bradley dismissed it as of little consequence, just a local spoiling attack designed to throw the First Army off-balance. But an hour or so later, another report came in—there were at least 12 German divisions involved, eight of them not previously identified as being on the Ardennes front.

Bradley still thought it merely an irritant, nothing major. Eisenhower disagreed. The absence of any objective of strategic importance in the Ardennes led him to believe that Rundstedt had launched a counteroffensive, not a counterattack. He studied his situation map. Noting that the 7th and 12th armored divisions were out of the line (they were preparing to spearhead the offensives scheduled to begin in a couple of days), Ike ordered Bradley to send the 7th to Saint-Vith on the northern flank, and the 12th to Echternach in the south. Bradley protested that Patton would be furious at losing one of his armored divisions and having to call off his offensive.

“Tell him,” Eisenhower replied, “that Ike is running this damn war.”

To indulge in a bit of hyperbole—with that sentence, Eisenhower won the battle. First of all, because he was absolutely correct in his judgment that getting the 7th Armored into Saint-Vith was critical to the effort to prevent Dietrich from breaking through on the northern flank in the direction of Antwerp. Second, Hodges was preparing a major offensive against the Ruhr River dams, and Patton was about to launch a major offensive in the Saar. Before night fell on the first day of the Battle of the Bulge, Eisenhower decided to switch both armies from offensive missions outside the Ardennes to defensive missions in the forest area. He thus undercut Hitler’s most basic assumption: that the Allied response would be slow and hesitant because Eisenhower would not dare to act until he had cleared his decisions with Churchill and Roosevelt.

In reporting the Ardennes offensive to the War Department, Eisenhower accepted the blame for the surprise. He was right to do so, as he had failed to correctly read the enemy’s mind and had failed to realize that Hitler would take desperate chances. Eisenhower was responsible for the weakness in the line in the Ardennes, because he was the one who had insisted on maintaining general offensives north and south of that area. But despite his mistakes, Ike was the first to grasp the full import of the attack, the first to be able to readjust his thinking, the first to realize that although the surprise and the initial Allied losses were painful, Hitler had in fact given the Allies a great opportunity. On the morning of December 17, Eisenhower wrote the War Department that “if things go well we should not only stop the thrust but be able to profit from it.”

After dictating that letter, he went over the maps and reports with his aides, then handed down a series of orders. He sent half the 10th Armored to Bastogne, which he had identified as a key road junction in the southern half of the Bulge. He ordered the U.S. 101st and 82nd airborne, then resting and refitting after their battles in Holland in September, into the battle, directing the 101st to Bastogne and the 82nd to the northern flank. Since the weather precluded an airdrop, he used his secret weapon, the 2.5-ton trucks, to move the paratroopers to the battle.

On December 19, as Manteuffel’s forces approached Bastogne, where the 101st was arriving to set up its defenses, Eisenhower met with his senior commanders in a cold, damp squad room in a barracks at Verdun, the site of the greatest battle ever fought. There was but one lone potbelly stove to ease the bitter cold. Ike’s lieutenants entered the room glum, depressed, embarrassed. They kept their faces bent over their coffee cups. Eisenhower walked in, looked disapprovingly at the downcast generals, and boldly declared, “The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster. There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table.”

Patton quickly picked up the theme. “Hell, let’s have the guts to let the bastards go all the way to Paris,” he said. “Then we’ll really cut ’em off and chew ’em up.”

Ike said he would not let the Germans get away with emerging from the Westwall without punishing them. He told Patton to switch the direction of his offensive from east to north, to get started in three days, and to make his attack a major blow toward Bastogne.

Within three days after the beginning of the battle, even as Manteuffel’s men circled Bastogne, Eisenhower had sealed off the penetration on both flanks and was rushing troops into the Bulge much more speedily than the Germans had estimated. On December 17 alone, 11,000 trucks carried 60,000 men, plus ammunition, gasoline, medical supplies, and other matériel, into the Ardennes. In the first week of the battle, Eisenhower was able to move 250,000 men and 50,000 vehicles into the fray. This was mobility with a vengeance. It was also an achievement unprecedented in the history of war. Not even in Vietnam was the U.S. Army capable of moving so many men and so much equipment as quickly.

Thus were Hitler’s assumptions about the ability of the Allied high command to respond, and of the Allied armies to move, proved wrong.

GERMAN MOVEMENT, MEANWHILE, WAS SLOW AT BEST. Icy roads, snow, and a shortage of gasoline, combined with American resistance, made a shambles of Hitler’s timetable. The Germans did not have the trucks to bring forward the necessary gasoline. Near Stavelot, however, an American major poured thousands of gallons of gas into a deep road and set it afire to stop German tanks; the German spearhead was stranded for lack of fuel within one-half mile of the U.S. Army’s largest gas dump in Europe.

On December 22, Patton hammered away at Bastogne, without success. Inside Bastogne, General Anthony C. McAuliffe and the 101st beat off German attacks. To the north, the U.S. 106th Infantry Division had surrendered when surrounded, but the 101st never flinched. Some of its members explained later that paratroopers are accustomed to fighting while surrounded—”Hell, we are always surrounded,” one said. When the German commander demanded they surrender, McAuliffe gave him that famous one-word reply: “Nuts.”

The night of December 22, a hard freeze set in; the next day the weather was bright and clear. The Americans got every fighter-bomber, fighter, and bomber they had into the air, blasting away at panzers and dropping badly needed ammunition, medical supplies, and food to the men in Bastogne.

On Christmas Eve the 2nd Panzer Division of Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army got to within a few miles of Dinant on the Meuse River. This was the deepest German penetration in the battle. The American 2nd Armored Division of Hodges’s First Army counterattacked and stopped the advance, and on Christmas Day the Americans all but destroyed the 2nd Panzers. On the 26th, Patton’s 4th Armored Division broke the siege of Bastogne.

Could the Allies now punish the Germans for emerging from the Westwall? Eisenhower was desperately eager to do so. His plan was to attack at the northern and southern base of the Bulge, pinch off the German salient, and destroy the enemy tanks in the Ardennes before Rundstedt could withdraw them in favor of infantry.

Ike was to be bitterly disappointed, as the counterattack failed to take advantage of the opportunity. The fault, ironically, was his, stemming from his decision on December 20 to divide command of the battle between Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, commanding the British Twenty-first Army Group, and Bradley. Ike reasoned that the German advance into the Bulge had split the U.S. First and Third armies and cut Bradley’s communications with Hodges. Since Bradley’s headquarters were on the southern flank, Ike decided it would be best to put Monty in charge of the forces north of the Bulge while Bradley retained command of those to the south. In practice, this meant giving Monty the U.S. First Army.

Bradley was furious. He protested that such a move would discredit the American command. Eisenhower insisted that nevertheless it must be done. Over the telephone, Bradley shouted, “By God, Ike, I cannot be responsible to the American people if you do this. I resign.”

Eisenhower, who had known Bradley since they played baseball together at West Point 30 years earlier, was first shocked, then angry. “Brad,” he said, slowly and coldly, “I—not you—am responsible to the American people. Your resignation therefore means absolutely nothing.” Bradley protested again, this time without any resignation threats, but to no avail.

In the end, the command shift turned out to be a great mistake. Although it made sense on paper, it created an impossible situation. Montgomery was supercilious, haughty, sneering, and much too cautious. Given the command, he strode into Hodges’s headquarters, according to a British officer who accompanied him, “like Christ coming to cleanse the temple.” Monty later claimed that Hodges “seemed delighted to have someone to give him firm orders.” Actually, however, Monty observed rather than directed Hodges’s efforts, the main features of which were already set up by Ike: to hold firm along Elsenborn Ridge, stop the Germans short of the Meuse, and prepare a counterattack along the base of the Bulge.

When Monty did intervene, the result was a near disaster. By December 27, Ike was pushing hard to get the counterattack started. Patton was ready to go in the south. But Montgomery argued that the Germans would make one last assault themselves; he wanted to wait, stop it, and then counterattack. Even worse, he wanted to hit the Germans in the nose of the Bulge, driving them back to their original starting point, rather than along the base, to cut them off and then destroy them.

Eisenhower was almost frantic. When finally informed that Monty had a new plan and that he would launch his attack by New Year’s Eve, Eisenhower cried, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!”

But Montgomery never meant it. On December 30 he told Ike he could not attack until January 3 or later, and once again demanded—as he had been doing since August—that Eisenhower give him sole command of the Allied land armies. He said Eisenhower’s policies had failed and that he must now give way to the more experienced commander. Once in command, he would attack with a single thrust by the Twenty-First Army Group toward Berlin, leaving Patton where he was—something that should have been done months ago, Monty added.

Eisenhower turned Montgomery down on every point. And to enforce his will, he used his ultimate weapon: If Monty kept demanding sole command and insisting on a single thrust, Ike would ask the Combined Chiefs of Staff to choose between them.

Monty initially thought Ike was bluffing. “Who could replace me?” he asked his chief of staff, Freddie de Guingand. To his consternation, de Guingand replied that it was all set—it would be Field Marshal Harold Alexander. Monty went pale. He had forgotten Alex was available. “My God,” he said. “What shall I do, Freddie? What shall I do?” “Sign this,” de Guingand replied, pulling out the draft of a message to Eisenhower he had already prepared. It pledged undying loyalty to Eisenhower and concluded, “You can rely on me to go all out one hundred percent to implement your plan.” Montgomery read it and signed.

But he still did not mean it. He did not start his counterattack until January 3, as he initially had insisted, and then he concentrated on pushing the Germans back from the Meuse rather than on cutting them off along the Our River line. He made matters worse on January 7 when he held a press conference to explain how he had won the Battle of the Bulge. He said that on the first day, “as soon as I saw what was happening, I took certain steps to ensure that if the Germans got to the Meuse they would certainly not get over the river. And I carried out certain movements so as to provide balanced dispositions to meet the threatened danger, i.e., I was thinking ahead.”

He had made no such dispositions, taken no such steps.

Worse followed. After Ike put him in command of the northern flank, Monty later claimed, he brought the British into the fight and thus saved the Americans. (Almost no British troops took part in the battle.) He went on to say that it had been a “most interesting” battle for him, rather like El Alamein—indeed, “I think possibly one of the most interesting and tricky battles I have ever handled.” What he said next all but destroyed Allied unity—that GIs made great fighting men, when given proper leadership.

But most galling about Montgomery’s version of the Battle of the Bulge was his immense satisfaction with the outcome. Patton ranted and raved. If not for Montgomery, he said, “we could have bagged the whole German army. I wish Ike were more of a gambler, but he is certainly a lion compared to Monty, and Bradley is better than Ike as far as nerve is concerned. Monty is a tired little fart. War requires taking risks, and he won’t take them.”

So the victory in the Battle of the Bulge was not complete, and the aftertaste was sour. Nevertheless it was a victory, one of the greatest in the long and proud annals of the U.S. Army. The GIs managed to kill nearly 30,000 Germans, wound 40,000, and take 30,000 prisoner. They destroyed 800 or more German tanks. And they completely frustrated Hitler’s strategic aim.

Montgomery’s boastful nonsense notwithstanding, the credit belongs to the American officer corps, from Eisenhower on down, and to the GIs who fought with magnificent skill, stubbornness, and bravery.

STEPHEN E. AMBROSE, Alumni Distinguished Professor at the University of New Orleans, is the author of Eisenhower (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2 vols., 1983 and 1984). Much of the material in this article comes from interviews with the general. 

This article originally appeared in the Spring 1989 issue (Vol. 1, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Bulge

this article first appeared in military history quarterly

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