Surprise German counteroffensive in the Ardennes region (Belgium-Germany-Luxemburg) during December 1944. The attack threatened Allied forces with a strategic defeat before superior Allied air and ground power restored their previously dominant military situation.
After three disastrous months of retreats following the D-Day Invasion, the German army made a surprising recovery in September 1944. New reserves, replacements, and weapons flowed to the front, while the Allies struggled with long supply lines, transportation failures, and blocked ports. The Allied armies arrayed on the Western Front now faced another set of deliberate battles for the Rhineland. Allied commanders abandoned any hopes of winning the war by the end of 1944.
By November, U.S. forces had managed significant advances to the German cities of Aachen and Strasbourg and Germany’s Saar industrial region, despite heavy resistance and worsening weather conditions. These advances left the Allied line thin in places as they set in for a wintry stalemate. Meanwhile, the Germans were embarking on a carefully concealed month-long buildup of troops. On December 16, 1944, these forces burst on the thin U.S. lines facing the Eifel Mountains in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
The Germans surprised the U.S. First Army in its thinly defended sector, where rough terrain normally discouraged offensive action. Exploiting this weakness and bad weather that grounded Allied air power, the Germans attacked with three armies hoping to pass through the worst terrain before any Allied reinforcements appeared. The immediate military objectives were the bridges of the Meuse River that controlled access to the region. Strategically, Hitler and other German leaders hoped for a deep penetration into Allied lines to capture the key port of Antwerp. If successful, the attack could destroy almost half of the Allied forces in the west and buy Germany time to gain a negotiated peace.
The German timetable, which aimed to reach Antwerp in two weeks, soon unraveled as overwhelmed U.S. forces made desperate stands in villages and ridges of the Ardennes. Although two unproven U.S. infantry regiments of one division surrendered, other U.S. divisions and detachments held on to vital road junctions at the towns of St. Vith and Bastogne. Meanwhile, the nearby armies of U.S. general George Patton and British field marshal Bernard Montgomery counterattacked to narrow the German penetration, hence producing a bulge into the Allied lines. The return of clear weather exposed the Germans in the bulge to ruthless punishment by the Allied air forces. U.S. reinforcements stopped and then counterattacked the German advance elements with devastating effectiveness. The supreme Allied commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, called off further counterattacks on February 7, 1945, in order to turn Allied attention to other fronts. The Allies suffered 81,000 casualties compared to 100,000 for the Germans.
The initial assault by German forces was devastatingly successful, but the Germans failed to move over to the defensive after the attack had run its course. The pounding endured by the exposed German troops left them too weak to properly defend the Rhineland and the Ruhr in the spring of 1945. The attack, meant to prolong the war, likely shortened it by exhausting Germany’s last fresh reserves.
Patton, George; U.S. Army; World War II
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