The advance through the Ardennes forests along the borders with Belgium and Luxembourg in November 1944 was Hitler’s great last-ditch effort to turn the war back in his favour. A personal obsession for the Führer, it was effectively designed as an abridged version of the Sichelschnitt plan and harkened somewhat desperately back to the glorious victory of 1940.
The attack was absorbed and repelled by the Americans over a six-week period that is commonly regarded as one of the nation’s greatest military victories.
Hitler’s offensive was aided by the element of surprise, as the Allied commanders dismissed the notion posited by intelligence officers that the Germans were planning an assault for Antwerp. A sizeable force was assembled under as much secrecy as possible, with the Ardennes forests offering a layer of concealment from Allied air craft reconnaissance.
The German advance
Had the German advance succeeded, it was envisioned that splitting the Allied forces, removing the Canadian First Army and re-establishing control of the vital port of Antwerp would force the Allies into negotiation and allow the German troops to concentrate their efforts on battling the Red Army in the east.
Ambitiously, to say the least, Hitler intended that the corridor of German forces would be spearheaded by the Panzer divisions to the River Meuse, well over fifty miles from the front line, within forty-eight hours. They would then take Antwerp within fourteen days.
The speed of this proposed assault was partly conditioned by an acceptance that there was a distinct insufficiency of fuel for the German tanks. Nevertheless, Hitler disregarded the lack of the strength in depth that would have been necessary to sustain the offensive and defend the gains made from Allied counter-attack.
A clandestine operation by SS commandoes dressed as American troops, launched on 17 December, failed in its intention to take control of a bridge over the Meuse but succeeded in spreading a degree of panic. Unsubstantiated reports of German plots to assassinate Eisenhower and the other High Commanders spread the following day.
French civilians were also distressed by rumours of an assault on the capital, which is unsurprising given that they had only been liberated less than three months prior, and Paris went into lock-down as a curfew and news black-out were enforced.
The tide turns
In reality, however, the the Wacht am Rhein operation was far more limited in its scope than the reclamation of Paris and was ultimately doomed to failure. This fact was not lost on Hitler’s generals, who were distressed by their leader’s fantastical notions of a decisive victory when he had first revealed his proposal.
They were unwilling to confront Hitler with the reality of Germany’s heavily depleted resources, even if it meant that they were left a spent force.
As the Americans dug in, Bastogne became the focus of German attention rather than Antwerp 100 miles to the north. Although repelling the Ardennes offensive cost the Americans dearly in terms of troops lost, Hitler’s losses were even greater. He was left without the manpower, arms or machines to continue fighting with any real effect in either the west or east and German-held territory shrank rapidly thereafter.