Largest land battle on the Western Front during World War II and the largest engagement ever fought by the U.S. Army. In early December 1944, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower planned major offensives in the northern and southern sectors of the Western Front. To ensure sufficient power for these offensives, he left his 80-mile-wide central sector in the Ardennes lightly defended by Major General Troy Middleton's VIII Corps of the 4th, 28th, and 106th Infantry Divisions; the 9th Armored Division (less Combat Command B); and the two-squadron 14th Cavalry Group. The Allies used this area for new commands to gain experience and to train replacements. The rugged Ardennes terrain and presumed light German force gave Eisenhower reason to deploy fewer troops there. Further, the Allies saw no tactical or strategic objectives in the area.
Neither the 9th Armored nor the 106th had experienced combat, and the 28th and 4th were absorbing thousands of replacements after suffering massive casualties in fighting in the Hürtgen Forest. From south to north on the Corps front were the 4th and part of the 9th Armored, the 28th on a 25-mile front, and the 106th holding 1 of almost 16 miles. The 14th Cavalry screened a 5-mile sector between Major General J. Lawton Collins's VII Corps to the south and Major General Leonard T. Gerow's V Corps to the north.
With the Eastern Front largely static and with the Allies gaining ground in the west, German leader Adolf Hitler meanwhile prepared a massive counteroffensive into this lightly defended area to retake the port of Antwerp. He hoped thereby at a minimum to purchase three or four additional months to deal with the advancing Soviets. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, German commander in the West, thought Hitler's plan too ambitious and tried to dissuade him, as did other high-ranking officers, to no avail. Preparations for the offensive began in September 1944 with strict security and no radio communication. As a consequence, Allied code-breaking did not learn of the German plans. Other information that might have given Allied commanders pause was ignored.
Early on the morning of 16 December, Field Marshal Walther Model's Army Group B mounted the attack. Bad weather prevented Allied air intervention. Attacking German forces included General der Panzertruppen (U.S. equiv. lieutenant general) Hosso-Eccard von Manteufel's Fifth Panzer Army, Generaloberst (U.S. equiv. full general) Josef "Sepp" Dietrich's Sixth Panzer Army, and General der Panzertruppen Erich Brandenburger's Seventh Army. Army Group B numbered 250,000 men, 1,900 artillery pieces, and 970 tanks and assault guns and was supported by 2,000 aircraft.
In the north, the 99th Division of V Corps stopped the 12th, 277th, and 326th Volksgrenadier Divisions (VGD). But the 14th Cavalry was forced back, and elements of the 3rd Parachute Division (Sixth Panzer Army and 18th VGD [Fifth Panzer Army]) made headway against the 106th Division. The 28th's northern regiment, the 112th, held against elements of the 116th Panzer Division and 560th VGD (Fifth Panzer Army). The 110th Infantry Regiment in the center - hit by the 2nd Panzer Lehr Division, elements of the 116th Panzer Division, and the 26th VGD (Seventh Army) - was decimated. Small, isolated fragments of U.S. forces were surrounded and destroyed. In the south, the hard-pressed 109th held back the 352nd VGD and 5th Parachute Division (Seventh Army). Elements of the 9th Armored and 4th Divisions south of the 28th stopped the 276th and 282nd VGD (Seventh Army).
German forces soon created a bulge in the Allied lines, which gave the battle its name. Ultimately it was 50 miles wide and 70 miles deep. Eisenhower correctly assessed the offensive as a major German effort and immediately ordered the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions up from rest areas in France. Traveling by cattle truck, the 101st arrived in the vicinity of the key road hub of Bastogne, Belgium, at midnight on 18 December.
The day of 19 December was pivotal. Eisenhower also sent the 7th and 10th Armored Divisions to support VII Corps. Combat Command R (CCR), 9th Armored Division; Combat Command B (CCB), 10th Armored Division; the 755th Armored Field Artillery Battalion; 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion; and remnants of the 28th Infantry Division joined the 101st. Major General Maxwell D. Taylor, commanding the 101st, was not with the division, which was then commanded by Assistant Division Commander Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe.
Both the 28th and 106th had been destroyed by 19 December, but these two U.S. divisions had irretrievably set back the German timetable. The Germans surrounded and forced the surrender of the 106th's 422nd and 423rd Infantry Regiments, but the 424th extricated itself and withdrew west of the Our River. CCB, 9th Armored Division and the 7th Armored Division under Brigadier General Robert W. Hasbrouk came in on the 424th's north flank. The 112th Infantry of the 28th Division bolstered its south. This diverse force under Hasbrouk defended Saint Vith until 21 December and then withdrew to new positions, which it defended for two more days before withdrawing through elements of the 82nd Airborne and 3rd Armored Divisions.
Also on 19 December, Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, commanding the 21st Army group, on his own initiative deployed his XXX Corps (43rd, 51st, and 53rd Infantry and the Guards Armored Divisions) into positions between Namur and Brussels, blocking further German advance. Meanwhile, the 1st Schutzstaffel (SS) Panzer Division spearhead under Lieutenant Colonel Joachim Peiper was slowed, then halted by U.S. troops.
From 19 December until it was relieved on 26 December, the 101st, aided by armor, artillery, and other miscellaneous units, defended Bastogne against determined attacks by the Panzer Lehr, 26th VGD, and elements of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division. When called on to surrender, McAuliffe replied, "Nuts!" The U.S. stands at Saint Vith and Bastogne ruined German hope that their counteroffensive would succeed. From 18 December on, German rear areas had been chaotic. The road net, inadequate to support the German offensive, was jammed with traffic, denying the front badly needed reinforcements, supplies, and ammunition.
On 22 December, Major General John Milliken's U.S. III Corps of the 26th and 80th Infantry and 4th Armored Divisions (from Lieutenant General George S. Patton's Third Army) attacked to the north to relieve Bastogne. That same day, too, a thaw set in, slowing tank movements. By 22 December, the Sixth Panzer Army wallowed in mud and rain, the Fifth Panzer Army was hampered by fog and snow, and supply lines were assailed by continuous snow. Clearing weather permitted Allied aircraft to inflict heavy losses (especially on German armor) and to further snarl German traffic and resupply efforts throughout the Bulge. Fighting continued until late January, when the Germans were finally forced back to their original positions.
For the Allies, the Ardennes Campaign was a classic example of a tactical defeat but a strategic victory. The brief delays by the 28th and 106th Divisions, the stands at Saint Vith and Bastogne and on the German flanks, and the snarled traffic in the rear (compounded by Allied air attacks) all bought valuable time. This allowed the Allies to strategically reallocate and realign troops to contain and then destroy the German salient. Both sides sustained heavy casualties in the battle: for the Germans some 100,000 men (almost one-third of those engaged), 700 tanks, and 1,600 aircraft; for the Allies (mostly American, of whom 700,000 were ultimately engaged) 90,000 men, 300 tanks, and 300 aircraft. The difference was that the United States could replace its losses, but Germany could not. Hitler's gamble was an irretrievable disaster. It delayed Eisenhower's campaign by five weeks, but it also devoured already slim German reserves of personnel, tanks, guns, fuel, and ammunition. Germany surrendered four months later.
Uzal W. Ent
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