|PURCHASE FROM THE BWL STORE|
By December of 1944, Hitler’s Nazi Germany appeared defeated, its once great cities reduced to rubble. The British, Canadians, and Americans had freed France; Paris was liberated. The Russian army menaced from the east. Why, the GIs might be home by Christmas.
But Hitler had a few tricks up his sleeve, a plan to turn the tide in Germany’s favor. Code named Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine), the plan would defeat the Allies by capturing the port of Antwerp, Belgium. Aware he’d need increased manpower, Hitler extended the draft for males sixteen to sixty.
Here we should state the opposing chains of command. As head of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces), Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was in command of all Allied forces in the West. Under him, Gen. Omar Bradley commanded all of the American armies. Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery commanded the British and Canadian armies.
In Germany, Hitler had absolute control of the German armies both in the East (Russia) and in the West. Under him, he gave command of the German army in the West to Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, an aristocratic officer who held Hitler in utter contempt.
Bruised and battered from a recent battle against the Germans, several American divisions recuperated in the Ardennes, a forested area of gently rolling hills that borders France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. This, during one of the coldest winters Europe had experienced.
Early on the morning of December 16, ‘44 (a Saturday) three German armies smashed through the American lines in the Ardennes. The front of the attack hit four American divisions: the 4th, the 28th, the 106th, and the 9th Armored division.
That the attack caught the Americans by surprise was not due to faulty intelligence. The British had broken the German code (ULTRA), and friendly Belgians had warned the Americans of increased troop and tank movements behind German lines. As we would say today, the Americans didn’t connect the dots.
Numerous small villages, many of them inside Germany, dot the Ardennes.Villages such as Malmedy, Honsfeld, St. Vith and La Gleize will forever remain part of the historical record.
According to Hitler’s plan, once the Volksgrenadier (people’s army) achieved its breakthrough, Col. Jochen Peiper was to drive through the northern reaches of the Losheim Gap. Peiper was a handsome, well-bred SS officer who spoke fluent English. He was one of Hitler’s favorites. (After the war, Peiper was charged with war crimes, although he probably was not present when men of his command in Kampfgruppe (Battlegroup) Peiper massacred American soldiers who had surrendered with their hands up. He was tried and sentenced to die by hanging. Later, the sentence was rescinded, but he served several years in prison. In his later years, he died when left-wing terrorists burned his house down.)
Another of Hitler’s favorites was SS Officer Otto Skorzeny. Hitler gave him a specific task: sow confusion among the Americans. Find as many soldiers as possible who spoke English, grab uniforms from dead American soldiers. Confuse the Americans. Soon, the confusion took a ridiculous turn, when even Eisenhower had to present his ID to Military Police. Successful at first, changing signs and giving false directions, too soon German ignorance of American habits gave them away. For instance, a Jeep will hold four people. So didn’t it make sense to seat two in front and two in back? But Americans didn’t operate that way. One of Skorzeny’s men was flummoxed by opening a pack of American cigarettes. Those Germans who were captured faced the firing squad.
The American divisions fought bravely, but caught by surprise and outmaneuvered, they were forced back (west), eventually fifty miles. Hence the title Battle of the Bulge; it actually made a bulge in the American line. The 106th Division had to surrender, all 8,000 men.
The battle had its lighter moments. Gen. Fritz Bayerlein commanded one of the Panzer (armored) divisions. In the course of the battle, his division came into contact with an American field hospital. There, he became so entranced with a “blonde, beautiful” American nurse that he dallied when he should have been moving.
At first, the Americans didn’t realize the magnitude of the German offensive. Before long, it became obvious that this was a major battle. Eisenhower called a meeting of his generals, those affected by the offensive. Noting their glum faces, he told the men he wanted them to look on this battle as an opportunity. He instructed Gen. Bradley to order Patton–fighting a separate battle farther south– to swing his army north to aid the Americans in the Ardennes. When Patton protested to Bradley, and Bradley relayed the protest to Eisenhower, the latter said, “Tell him Ike is running this damn war.” After that, Patton's Third Army fought bravely, making a huge difference in the fighting.
Within days, the Americans stopped the Germans at the Elsenborn Ridge, forcing them to take a less favorable route through the Ardennes.
Soon, the battle became a race for Bastogne, a major road center. The 101st Airborne Division under Gen. Terry McAuliffe reached Bastogne first, but were soon surrounded by Germans. Under a white flag, the German commander sent a message to McAuliffe. Surely he could see he was surrounded; why not surrender to save further bloodshed? To this, McAuliffe had a one word answer, “Nuts.”
By the latter part of December, the skies cleared, enabling the Army Air Force planes to find their targets. But the Germans didn’t give up easily. It wasn’t until the end of January that the battle was over. Hitler’s gamble had failed. Henceforth, it was referred to as Hitler’s last offensive.
Months of horrific fighting and many deaths loomed ahead. (One of the author's neighbors was killed while driving a truckload of ammunition that hit a mine.)
By May of ‘45, Hitler had committed suicide. (cyanide pill) The British, French and Americans held western Germany. The Russians held Berlin and the eastern portion of Germany, a division that would have tragic consequences in the coming years. Germany faced utter defeat. When one of Hitler’s generals asked von Rundstedt what they should do, the general snapped, “Surrender, you fool! What else?”
The Battle of the Bulge marked the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. Although caught by surprise and outmaneuvered at first, initially driven back, the Americans soon recovered and fought bravely. As Capt. Charles B. MacDonald relates in his excellent history of the battle, it was “A Time for Trumpets.”
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