The Second World War was characterised by invasion, conquest, subjugation, and eventually by liberation. Thus it is a surprise to many Americans that the largest U.S. battle of World War Two was a defensive battle to which none of these offensive terms apply.
But is simply denying a victory to the enemy still a victory? Can you win a battle just by hanging on?
Those were the questions the United States faced 75 years ago, December 16, 1944, when Adolf Hitler launched his final major western offensive, Operation Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhein) later renamed Herbstnabel (Autumn Mist), but known by the Allies as the Battle of the Bulge.
If D-Day was the key offensive battle of the war in Europe, the Battle of the Bulge was the key defensive battle. Failure in either would have crippled the Allied war effort, but Americans tend to favour action and leadership, giving greater weight to an offensive success rather than a defensive one.
There should be no surprise that the Bulge is sometimes overlooked, but there are three attributes to remember this anniversary.
Hitler’s plan was brazen. The German army was to smash through the Allied lines and advance several hundred miles across territory they had recently lost to reach the Atlantic coast – thereby splitting the western front and shutting down the largest port, Antwerp.
The blitz was based on Hitler’s belief that he had two weeks running room. It didn’t matter that the Allies had superior manpower because it would take Eisenhower one week to figure out what was going on, and it would take him another week to coordinate a response with London and Washington. Two weeks was all Hitler needed to reach the coast and make his gamble pay off.
Hitler had a basis for this belief. He had seen a similar dash twice before, a failed attempt in 1914; and a successful effort in 1940, when Hitler avenged himself of 1914 and shattered Allied lines to defeat France. Why not a third time?
In what was the greatest U.S. intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor, Hitler was able to launch his attack with complete surprise, hurling 200,000 troops against 100,000 GIs.
This takes us to the second attribute: scale. The Battle of the Bulge was not just the largest U.S. battle of World War Two, it remains the largest battle in which the U.S. Army has ever fought. Although the U.S. was caught with only 100,000 GIs when Hitler attacked, it ended with some 600,000 U.S. combatants and another 400,000 U.S. support troops.
Considering that the U.S. military in World War Two peaked at 8+ million in both Europe and the Pacific, the one million participants meant that essentially every American who could get the front was sent there.
The U.S. suffered over 100,000 casualties during the battle, roughly one-tenth of all U.S. World War Two combat casualties. And the numbers alone don’t tell the entire story. One day into the offensive, December 17 1944, some one hundred U.S. forward artillery spotters were gathered for a briefing in Malmedy Belgium.
They were captured en masse by the rapidly advancing Wehrmacht troops. Soon thereafter, a Waffen SS unit appeared and commenced to machine gun the prisoners.
This cold-blooded murder of American PoWs electrified the GIs, set the stage for additional murders of GIs, and likely led to occasional murders of German PoWs as well.
Beyond the PoWs, the Nazis also targeted civilians, as the Bulge was the only territory on the western front that Hitler recaptured. So the Nazis could identify Allied collaborators and send in death squads.
The postmaster, the high school teacher, the village priest who had helped airmen escape or provided intelligence had only recently been celebrated as local heroes – only to be met with a knock on the door. Later, Hitler left stay-behind assassins, code-named werewolves, who were responsible for murdering those who worked with the allies.
More infamously, the Germans launched Operation Greif. In what seems like a Hollywood script, Some 2,000 English-speaking German troops were outfitted in U.S. uniforms and captured equipment to infiltrate American lines. Greif caused little tactical damage, but wrought havoc across American lines with fear of infiltrators.
Remembering the soldiers
Amidst this audacity, massive onslaught, and brutality, let’s take a moment to consider the GIs. The only division in the history of the U.S. Army to be completely destroyed – the 106th – met its doom as it had the misfortune to be the first unit in the path of the German attack.
We know much of what followed because one of the 106th’s GIs went on to write of his PoW experiences. Thank you Kurt Vonnegut.
Or the proverbial kid from Brooklyn, working as a mine-clearer, whose perception of Nazi pretentiousness and buffoonery coloured his later career. Thank you Mel Brooks.
Or the young refugee who was thrown into combat infantry, but when the Army realised he was bilingual, was moved to counter-intelligence to root out the werewolves. The war established his view that statecraft was perhaps the highest calling, allowing nations to avoid armed conflict. Thank you, Henry Kissinger.
Or the kid from Ohio, who enlisted when he turned 18 and was sent to the front Christmas Day to replace a fallen GI. Thank you, Dad.
Hitler launched his offensive in the belief he had two weeks running room, but this might have been his most egregious miscalculation. 75 years ago, on 16 December 1944, he launched his offensive, and that very same day Eisenhower detached two divisions from Patton to throw against this new assault. Before fully knowing what he was responding to, he knew he had to respond.
The two weeks running room lasted not 24 hours.
By 1 February 1945 the bulge had been beaten back and the Allied front lines restored. Kurt Vonnegut was on his way to Dresden where he would live through the Allied fire bombings. Kissinger was to receive a bronze star for foiling the werewolves. Mel Brooks made it to Hollywood. Carl Lavin returned to the family business in Ohio.
16 December 1944 – only the beginning
16 December 1944 was about two weeks away from the worst of the fight, which crested at the end of December, 1944. In my mind’s eye, there is an isolated group of riflemen, Company L, 335th Regiment, 84th Division, in the bitter Belgian winter.
At first there were replacements, then the replacements could not keep up with the losses, then there no more replacements and the unit was ground down. Within 30 days of combat, Company L was reduced to half strength, and Carl Lavin in the top half of seniority of that remaining half.
If I never have a lucky day as long as I live, I will still die a lucky man, such was my luck during the Battle of the Bulge.
A million thank yous to the million GIs who served in that battle. Thanks to the some 50,000 British and other Allies who fought. Prayers for the Germans sent into a foolish battle by a foolish man. Yes, sometimes you win just by hanging on.
Frank Lavin served as Ronald Reagan’s White House political director from 1987 to 1989 and is the CEO of Export Now, a company that helps U.S. brands sell online in China.
His book, ‘Home Front to Battlefield: An Ohio Teenager in World War Two‘ was published in 2017 by Ohio University Press and is available on Amazon and at all good book stores.