On 16 December 1944 the Germans launched a major attack on Allied forces in the area around the dense Ardennes forest in Belgium and Luxembourg, in an attempt to push the Allies back from German home territory.The Battle of the Bulge was intended to stop the Allied use of Antwerp, a Belgian port, and to split the Allied lines, which would then allow the Germans to encircle and destroy four Allied armies. This, they hoped, would force the Western Allies to negotiate a peace treaty.
The Allied armies in western Europe lost momentum during Autumn 1944. Meanwhile, the German defence was being strengthened with reserves including the Volkssturm (home guard) and by troops who had managed to withdraw from France.
Delayed by two weeks as the Germans waited for their Panzer divisions and infantry formations to prepare, the operation began to the sound of 1,900 artillery guns at 05:30 on 16 December 1944 and ended on 25 January 1945.
Referred to by the Allies as the Ardennes Counteroffensive, the Battle of the Bulge was characterised by three main phases.
The Ardennes forest was generally regarded as difficult country, so a large-scale offensive there was thought unlikely. It was considered a ‘quiet sector’, suitable for introducing new and inexperienced troops to the front line, and for resting units that had been involved in heavy fighting.
However, the thick woods were also able to provide concealment for the massing of forces. Allied overconfidence and their preoccupation with offensive plans, combined with poor aerial reconnaissance due to bad weather meant the initial German attack came as a complete surprise.
Three Panzer armies attacked the north, centre and south of the front. Over the first 9 days of the battle the Fifth Panzer Army punched through the startled American line and gains were rapidly made through the centre, creating the ‘bulge’ the battle was named after. The spearhead of this force was just outside of Dinant by Christmas Eve.
However, this success was short-lived. Limited resources meant that Hitler’s ill-conceived plan relied upon the River Meuse being reached within 24 hours, but the combat strength at his disposal made this unrealistic.
The Sixth Panzer Army also made some progress on the northern shoulder of the front but was held up by dogged American resistance at Elsenborn Ridge during a decisive 10 day struggle. Meanwhile, the 7th Panzer Army made little impact in northern Luxembourg, but it was able to make gains just over the French border and had surrounded Bastogne by 21 December.
On 17 December Eisenhower had already decided to reinforce the American defence at Bastogne, a key town giving access to the limited road infrastructure of the Ardennes. The 101st Airborne Division arrived 2 days later. The Americans tenaciously held out at the town over the following days, in spite of limited ammunition, food and medical supplies, and the siege was lifted on 26 December by the arrival of the 37th Tank Battalion of Patton’s Third Army.
Bad weather at the time also worsened German fuel shortages and subsequently disrupted their supply lines.
Having limited the German gains, improved weather allowed the Allies to unleash their formidable air attack from 23 December, meaning the German advance ground to a halt.
Despite the German air force damaging Allied air bases in north-west Europe on 1 January 1945, the Allied counteroffensive began in earnest from 3 January and gradually eroded the bulge that had been created in the front. Although Hitler approved German withdrawal on 7 January, combat continued over the following weeks. The last major re-capture was the town of St Vith, achieved on 23 December, and 2 days later the front was restored.
By the end of the month the Allies had regained the positions they held 6 weeks earlier.
American forces had borne the brunt of the German attack, incurring their highest casualties of any operation during the war. The battle had also been one of the bloodiest, yet whilst the Allies were able to offset these losses, the Germans had drained their manpower and resources, forfeiting their chance of maintaining any more prolonged resistance. This also ruined their morale as it dawned on the German Command that their chances of ultimate victory in the war were gone.
These huge losses enabled the Allies to resume their advance, and in early spring they crossed into the heart of Germany. Indeed the Battle of the Bulge turned out to be the last major German offensive on the Western Front during the Second World War. After this, their held-territory shrank rapidly. Less than four months after the battle’s end, Germany surrendered to the Allies.
If D-Day had been the key offensive battle of the war in Europe, the Battle of the Bulge was the key defensive battle, and a vital part of the Allied victory.