THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE... SIXTY YEARS ON
In December 1944 the Allied armies had recaptured most of Hitlers conquests in Western Europe. The frontline had advanced to pretty much the pre-war boundaries between Germany, France, and Belgium, with the exception of the Netherlands, where a skewed situation with an allied-held corridor pointing towards Arnhem had developed since the partly failed Market Garden Operation in September 1944. The main fighting took place in the northern and southern sectors of the front – mainly in the Aachen area by the US 1st Army under Hodges and in Alsace-Lorraine by the US 3rd Army under Patton.
Between the two of them lay a stretch of less than one hundred kilometres along the borders of Belgium and Luxembourg with Germany. Ever since US troops first ventured here in September this region had seen little fighting. In fact, so calm had duty in this area been that GI’s dubbed it the "Phoney Front" – because apart from the occasional potshots and a few mortar rounds the opposing sides lobbed at each other every now and then, combat activity could in now way be compared to, say, the bloodletting in the Huertgen Forest.
Covering this part of the front was the US VIII Corps under General Troy Middleton. With only four divisions his troops would have been considered dangerously outstretched… were it not that the Ardennes Forest behind his back did not necessitate a larger troop deployment…
But was that so? After all, the old Ardennes massif, with its rugged terrain and dense woods had been easily traversed by Hitlers panzers in May 1940. Had the German troops not had such a terrible beating in summer 1944 – not only in the West but also in the East, where the entire Army Group Center had been annihilated – and had there been no general mood among Allied troops that the end for the Germans was near, more cautious generals would have remembered 1940.
Hitler did. As early as September he embarked on plans to attack through the Ardennes again, and had the plans for Fall Gelb (Case Yellow, the 1940 conquest of Western Europe) brought to him again. All through the autumn, and despite his generals being aghast at the preparation of yet another offensive when the country was in dire need of adequate defenses, Hitler assembled three armies to be used in the undertaking, which had first gotten the codename Herbstnebel (Autumn Mist) and then Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine), to suggest a purely defensive operation.
Why did Hitler think an attack was a sound idea? Partly it was his sense for self-aggrandization: he could simply not limit himself to purely defensive operations when he still had an armoured card to play out. One has to admit, though, that if the forces at his disposal had been even stronger (say, twice) the plan might have worked out "fine" – read, with devastating results to the Allies. Indeed, Allied operations in the northern sector had led to a large mass of Allied troops perched together between Arnhem in Holland and the old German city of Aachen (the Canadian 1st, Britsh 2nd, US 1st and US 9th Armies). The strong US 3rd Army was far to the south in Alsace Lorraine. By smashing his way through the weakly defended Ardennes and racing for the Belgian port of Antwerp, the Allies’ most important supply port in Europe, the four Allied armies would be cut off in a gigantic "bag" encompassing most of northern Belgium and southern Holland. As their lifeline would be cut off by the taking of Antwerp, very likely these forces would soon run out of ammo and supplies. Hitlers plan foresaw that the southern army of his thrust through the Ardennes would hold up Patton long enough for the rest of his troops to annihilate the entire northern sector of the Allies, moreover, these troops would also be attacked from the north by armoured counterattacks by General Students forces north of the Maas and Waal rivers. Surely, from a military point of view the whole plan had its merits. There was one caveat: the German forces, comparatively strong as they were for that stage in the war, were still hopelessly understrength for such an undertaking. Hitler was over-ambitious and deluded himself as to the capabilities of his troops.
German losses throughout summer and autumn had been atrocious. Between June and November 1944 the total of casualties on all fronts had been a staggering 1,400,000. Entire armies had been lost both in the East and the West, and divisions had limped away from the battlefield as mere shadows of their former self. For instance, the famous 2nd Wiener Panzerdivison under Von Luettwitz had arrived in September in the Eifel (the continuation of the Ardennes on German soil) with just three tanks left. The entire 2nd SS Panzer Corps, consisting of the Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg SS Panzer Divisions, had on September 17th, day of the airborne landings in the Netherlands, a combined strength of less than 10,000 troops, whereas a full-blown SS Panzer Divison counted almost 20,000.
Nevertheless, by scraping the bottom of the barrel, tapping the few hitherto untouched reservoirs of manpower including personnel from the cultural sector (even opera performers!) and a miraculously revived German war industry, Hitler was once more able not only to stabilise the Western front by the beginning of October, but also to carefully nurture behind the frontlines the attacking force which would, he hoped, repeat the success of 1940.
(German Heavy Tiger II tank, commonly referred to as Koenigstiger)
It is interesting to look at the composition of this attacking force, since regardless the evil nature of the Nazi regime one cannot help but be astonished at how the Germans were able to assemble so quickly so large a force of three armies with between them 21 divisions (ultimately 29), of which 10 were Panzer of Panzergrenadierdivisions. These armies were, from north to south, the 6th SS Panzer Army under Sepp Dietrich, the Fifth Panzer Army under Von Manteuffel and the 7th Army under Brandenberger. Of course, even as the front stabilised during October and bad weather hampered large-scale Allied operations, occasionally several divisions from this powerful array had still to be sent to plug a gap left and right, or to shore up a threatened sector. Since Hitler apparently preferred his precious SS divisions remain untouched (at least till the great day), Army divisions were chosen for this ungrateful job, resulting at them standing at the starting line with less than their full complement. E.g., the elite Army panzer training Division Panzerlehr and the 2nd Panzer Division counted on December 16th, the day when Wacht Am Rhein started, 60 and 88 tanks respectively, far below their SS counterparts' allotment. But not even trying to keep those last ones unscathed during October and November could reinstate them to their former status and the Nazi command had to resort to organizational tricks to get those divisions’ tank strengths to an acceptable level. In the case of 1st SS Panzer Division this was done by incorporating a panzer unit which was normally independent and not even intended to operate within a divisional frame. (a Heavy SS Tank battalion, the 501st). Still, when comparing both a typical Army Panzer division and a typical SS Panzer divison, one has to conclude that the latter had virtually twice the strength (armoured and otherwise) of the former. This perfectly illustrates the disrespect Hitler had for the regular army units as compared to his "personal" Waffen SS troops.
Even in their non-completed state, the three German armies had between them some 250,000 troops and close to 1,400 tanks and assault guns – thus, on a front line of a mere 80 kilometers almost as many armour as along the entire 1,600 kilometer or so of the Eastern Front!
Opposing them was the US VIII Corps under General Middleton, consisting of:
•the 14th Cavalry Group
•the 106th Infantry Division
•the 28th Infantry Division
•the 4th Infantry Division
All in all, basically not even four divisions "holding" a front line (20 kilometers per division) with very few tanks, and of whom 106th had just arrived, as green as can be, from the States and the 28th was recuperating after having been severely mauled in the ill-fated operation in the Huertgen Forest. When one also counts that the Germans obtained complete surprise, it is easy to see why the first days of the offensive were such a tremendous success for the Germans.
(map via Europeanmilitarytours)
The map shows the maximum penetration of German forces during the Ardennes Offensive - 130 kilometers for the 2nd Panzer Division, or just 6 kilometers from the Belgian town of Dinant along the Meuse river!
(To be continued)