Towards the end of 1944, the Ardennes offensive carried Hitler’s vain hopes of retaking Antwerp, splitting the Allied forces and persuading the United States to enter settlement negotiations.
This event was dubbed the “Battle of the Bulge” due to the deep penetration into Belgium achieved by the Germans over little more than a week, which resulted in a significant distortion of the Allied front line.
The German attack
The assault occurred along an undulating, heavily forested eighty mile stretch with limited infrastructure, along the German borders with Belgium and Luxembourg. This was probably the most difficult terrain encountered on the western front, the challenge of traversing it being compounded during poor weather.
At 05:30 on 16 December the four divisions of battle shaken and inexperienced American infantrymen stationed in the area were forced to take cover in their foxholes as 1,900 German artillery guns bombarded them. The low cloud, winter mist and snow combined eerily with the dense forest to create a particularly foreboding set for the entry of the German infantry.
Within a day of bitter fighting the Germans had broken through and the Fifth Panzer Army made rapid progress towards the River Meuse, which it almost reached at Dinant by 24 December. This was partly determined by the nature of the landscape, with the lower, more open part of the region found here and restrictions on aircraft involvement due to the weather.
American resistance stalls the offensive
Although there was a breakthrough to the north as well it was not as deep, with Elsenborn Ridge offering one of the points for defence. The Americans’ dogged resistance to the south ensured that little impact was made by the Seventh Panzer Army. Thus, the shoulders of the advance were held back.
Bastogne, central within the road network, was encircled during the advance and became a focus for American reinforcement and defence. Weather conditions eased from 23 December and the Allied air forces quickly established total supremacy.
Bastogne was relieved by 27 December and the counter-attack was launched on 3 January. The line was pushed back in heavy snow over the following weeks and was more or less re-established on its original path by the end of the month.
This episode constituted a heavy defeat for the Germans that spent their final reserves and, despite great sacrifices, is celebrated as one of the greatest victories in American military history.