Hitler’s final gamble, an offensive through the Ardennes in the middle of winter, as told by Gerald Prenderghast.
After the Battle of Normandy, Allied offensive operations during the autumn of 1944 had included the Lorraine Campaign, the battles of Aachen, Hürtgen Forest and Operation Market Garden, the attack on the Rhine bridges. During this period, however, the speed of the Allied advance had greatly exacerbated the problems of supply, so that supply over the beaches from invasion craft rapidly became insufficient, and it was not until the end of November 1944, when Cherbourg and Antwerp were partially operational, that the situation eased and made heavy equipment available to replace Allied losses. Despite their massive efforts, these logistic problems meant that the strategic situation in the west had changed little; the Allied armies were still pushing towards Germany, but without any major breakthroughs. With his men worn-out from weeks of combat and inadequate logistical support, Eisenhower decided to stop his advance and occupy the Ardennes region, giving the overstretched First Army time to recover and allow the supply situation to be properly organised. No future American offensive was planned here and US intelligence indicated it was also a German rest area, so the Ardennes seemed safe enough.
However, the Wehrmacht was becoming desperate. There were 96 full strength Allied divisions within reach of the Front and ten more en-route from England, together with additional airborne units. Against this the Wehrmacht could field only 55 under-strength divisions. Hitler was still convinced he could win however, and on the 6 September 1944 he revealed his master-plan to a group of bewildered and ultimately sceptical generals. He intended that Walter Model’s Army Group B break through the Allied northern lines and then capture Antwerp and Brussels in a classic Blitzkrieg attack. To achieve this, Army Group B would have to pierce the thinly held lines of the US First Army between Monschau and Wasserbillig, move their armour through the Ardennes, reach the River Meuse between Liège and Dinant and finally capture Antwerp and the Scheldt estuary, all in just four days. The Allied lines were thinly manned and Hitler considered that his offensive would bring Allied forces on the Western Front to a standstill. With four of their armies cut off behind German lines, the Allies would have to surrender, thus giving Germany time to develop new weapons to deal with the advancing Soviets. None of the highly experienced field officers commanding the Panzer Armies thought they had a hope of adhering to Hitler’s timetable and so Model and von Rundstedt, overall commanders of Germany’s Western Forces, suggested a more limited offensive against US forces east of the Meuse. Hitler, however, rejected this alternative plan and insisted that planning for what was eventually designated Operation Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (translated as Watch on the Rhine) should begin immediately, with Model and von Rundstedt responsible for its implementation. However, the German designation was soon changed by newspapers of the period to the Battle of the Bulge, because of the salient or bulge produced in the lines by the German offensive.
Since the attempt by Wehrmacht officers to assassinate him on 20 July 1944, Hitler had come to rely increasingly upon the SS and its heavily armed military wing, the Waffen-SS. During the Normandy Campaign however, the SS lost many of its best commanders, so the Sixth Panzer Army was given to Joseph ‘Sepp’ Dietrich, an officer with no military training at all. The central and southern commanders were better choices however; Fifth Panzer Army was led by Hasso von Manteuffel, while the southerly Seventh Army was commanded by the veteran Erich Brandenberger.
Planning for the Bulge offensive began in September 1944, emphasising secrecy and deployment of overwhelming force. The small size of the German front meant that the Wehrmacht could do without radio communication and was able to rely entirely upon the telephone and motorised runners carrying orders within Germany. These measures, together with the most dire threats from Hitler, ensured that the timing of the attack was not detected by ULTRA code-breakers and consequently came as a complete surprise to the Allied commanders because intelligence from a large variety of Allied sources was interpreted as being that Germany was preparing for defensive operations, not an assault. The signs for the offensive were there, but most Allied intelligence officers refused to consider them seriously.
The offensive was to go through the Ardennes and although the forest offered difficult terrain, if Monschau, Höfen, and the twin villages of Rocherath-Krinkelt just east of Elsenborn Ridge and Bastogne in the south could be taken, the Panzers would control the only roads suitable for rapid tank movement in the entire area. Once through the forest there was good tank country as far as the bridges on the Meuse, which led on to the main targets, Antwerp and Brussels. However, if these offensives were to succeed, four criteria had to be met. There had to be complete surprise; weather conditions had to be poor, neutralising Allied air superiority; progress had to be rapid, with every unit adhering to a strict timetable and Antwerp and the Scheldt captured by the fourth day; and Allied fuel supplies would have to be captured intact along the way, the General Staff estimating they had only enough fuel to get halfway to Antwerp.
The morale of German soldiers was high, with many viewing the offensive as an opportunity to strike back at their enemies. The presence of so many young, fanatical Waffen-SS soldiers was undoubtedly a contributing factor in the brutality of the campaign and the subsequent war crimes.
The attacking German forces
Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army had the leading role, reinforced by units of the Waffen-SS; 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, to which Kampgruffe Peiper belonged, and 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. They were also given priority for supplies and equipment as well as the shortest route to Antwerp, via the good roads leading from the Elsenborn Ridge. Fifth Panzer was to advance to the south of the Sixth, thus covering their flank and capturing the Bastogne crossroads, whilst Brandenberger’s Seventh Army pushed towards Luxembourg, in an attempt to protect the southern flank from Allied counter-attacks.
The assault began at 5:30am on 16 December with a 90-minute artillery barrage. At first, the Americans assumed that this was a localised counter-attack but when Sixth Panzer began its slow advance upon Monschau and the other villages east of Elsenborn Ridge, despite poor roads and bad weather conditions, the Americans responded accordingly, ordering the inexperienced 99th Division to remain in their fortifications on the Elsenborn Ridge, while the 2nd Division abandoned their recently captured positions at the Heartbreak Crossroads and moved gradually back through Hünningen and the twin villages of Rocherath-Krinkelt, until they joined the 99th Division on the ridge, although significant numbers of US troops stilled manned fortifications in the twin villages.
On 17 December, Peiper’s unit was still on its way to Elsenborn via Lanzerath, where it was delayed by 18 men of a US Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon, who held up Sixth Panzer for 20 hours. The US position having been outflanked and the platoon captured, Pieper’s men, now an all-but disastrous 36 hours behind schedule, moved on and at both Baugez, near Malmedy, and Honsfield they found and murdered groups of US POWs. At Honsfield, the Gruppe also refuelled but now they found themselves running out of options; two of the routes near the Elsenborn Ridge, which they had intended to use, were still in Allied hands, and only the much more difficult, southern Rollbahn D was available for the drive west. Unfortunately, Rollbahn D was even worse than expected, just a collection of winding, single-track, unmetalled roads on which the Panzers were spread out and unable to concentrate their forces. Groups of US Engineers were also blowing up every bridge on Peiper’s, route and late on 17 December 62nd Armoured Field Artillery destroyed 40 of Peiper’s tanks, impeding his progress still further. Having bypassed Elsenborn, Peiper eventually arrived in front of Stavelot, in Liège, which his unit successfully captured on 18 December, along with Stoumont, although the towns’ fuel stores were destroyed before Peiper’s men could reach them. On 22 December, the Gruppe finally moved to St Glieze where, with their fuel tanks empty, they set up defences and waited for reinforcements, on the east bank of the Amblève River, barely halfway to the Meuse. Relief never came and, abandoning their vehicles on 23 December, 800 members of the unit managed to reach their own lines, although without tanks or artillery.
Meanwhile, Sixth Panzer Army and their attached infantry were attempting to push the 2nd and 99th Divisions out of Krinkelt-Rocherath and back to the Elsenborn Ridge. They succeeded on 19 December, despite the arrival of US reinforcements from 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions in the south on 17 December. The Germans had also planned a parachute drop on 17 December (Operation Stösser), to capture a vital crossroads and disrupt supply lines, but this was a complete disaster.
For another seven days, Sixth Panzer attacked the well-fortified American positions on Elsenborn Ridge with little success, their plans lacking co-ordination and further impeded by difficult terrain, American artillery fire and attacks by the US Army Air Force. Unable to occupy the ridge, on 27 December Sixth Panzer found themselves in difficulties, with supplies, including fuel, disastrously low and when the Americans counter-attacked on 16 January, Sixth Panzer was hurriedly transferred to the Russian Front.
Fifth Panzer Army at St Vith
In the centre, von Manteuffel and his Fifth Panzer Army were doing better than Dietrich and his picked SS troops. XLVII Panzer Corps had temporarily detached to capture the road junction at Bastogne, the remainder of Fifth Panzer attacking St Vith and capturing two regiments of the 106th Division at Schnee Eifel between 19 and 21 December. Montgomery ordered St Vith evacuated on 21 December, First and Ninth Armies having joined his 21st Army group that day, and a disciplined withdrawal was made to prepared positions further west, reinforced by 82nd Airborne. By 23 December, these positions were unusable and a withdrawal over the Salm River was made, leaving Fifth Panzer a clear run to the Meuse bridges.
In accordance with the original plan, XLVII Panzer Corps under Panzer General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz left Fifth Panzer in an attempt to capture the vital Bastogne road network. Despite American infantry delaying the tanks, von Lüttwitz’s Panzer units were closing in on Bastogne by 19 December, although fortunately for the Americans, German transport difficulties allowed 101st Airborne and parts of the 9th and 10th Armoured Division to arrive at Bastogne on the same day, where they organised a defensible perimeter. The Wehrmacht’s forces completed its encirclement of Bastogne on 21 December, with 101st Airborne, 969th Artillery Battalion and part of 10th Armoured trapped inside. Despite repeated German attacks, the perimeter held, although vital materials were in short supply until the weather cleared on 23 December, and American aircraft began supply drops. Prior to this improvement, on 22 December von Lüttwitz delivered an ultimatum, demanding that the Americans surrender to which the US commander, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, famously sent a one-word reply, “Nuts.” Although the situation at Bastogne looked desperate, by 17 December Eisenhower had realised that this was a major offensive and within a week had moved over 250,000 extra troops into the area. Patton had also turned his Third Army northward and they were now racing for Bastogne.
Despite some initial success, on 22 December 2nd Panzer and the Panzer-Lehr Division from von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzer Corps moved away from Bastogne towards their original objective, the Meuse bridges, leaving only a small Panzer detachment and the 26th Volksgrenadier-Division to continue their unsuccessful attacks on Bastogne, which was relieved by Patton’s Third Army on 26 December.
Having captured St Vith, Von Manteuffel’s advance now moved quickly towards the Meuse bridges, while Montgomery hastily assembled a heterogeneous collection of British troops to defend them. After capturing the towns of Hargimont and Marche-en-Famenne on 23 December, the Fifth Army’s spearhead, 2nd Panzer Division, was ordered to turn west towards the Meuse and its crossing at Dinant, the advance proceeding down a narrow, rapidly closing Allied corridor, while the remainder of Fifth Panzer halted at Marche-en-Famenne, awaiting reinforcement by the Ninth Panzer Division. The Second was still moving fast but it was subjected to continual flanking attacks and by 24 December, the advance had been stopped at Celle, within sight of the Dinant bridge, the Panzers surrounded and dangerously low on fuel.
The Battle of the Bulge was not just fought by conventional troops in German uniform. On 14 December, a Waffen-SS officer, Otto Skorzeny, successfully infiltrated part of his battalion of English-speaking Germans behind the Allied lines, in Operation Greif. Wearing American battledress, their initial orders were to capture one of the Meuse bridges, and although this part of their mission failed, their presence caused enormous confusion, rumours spreading quickly about huge numbers of Germans in US uniforms causing mayhem. These rumours resulted in an enormous increase in US checkpoints, which slowed the movements of troops and equipment almost to a crawl and caused the US MPs to implement a checking system which made a dire situation worse. However, a number of Skorzeny’s men were captured and shot as spies and their leader was tried for war crimes as a result of this operation, although he was found not guilty and released.
Further south, Brandenberger’s Seventh Army began crossing the Our River on 16 December, before moving south against detachments of the 106th Infantry and 28th Infantry Divisions. Brandenberger’s three infantry divisions were quickly halted by divisions of the US VIIII Corps after an advance of only four miles, the 5th Parachute Division managing twelve miles before being stopped.
When the weather cleared on 23 December, the Allied counter-offensive began with almost continual bombing raids on German supply points and attacks on troops still using the roads. However, the Allied generals failed to capitalise on this good start and with the three German armies at a standstill for want of supplies they proved unable to surround and capture significant numbers of troops. Von Manteuffel was convinced of the pointless nature of the offensive by 24 December and recommended a halt to offensive operations and an immediate withdrawal to their original positions on the Siegfried Line. Hitler refused and it was not until 27 December, that the German High Command decided that no further offensive action was possible. Most of the German troops had already begun a tactical withdrawal, but shortage of fuel ensured that almost all the Wehrmacht’s irreplaceable heavy equipment remained in US hands.
Patton and Montgomery launched an attack on 3 January, intending to catch the remaining German troops in a pocket west of Houffalize and flatten the bulge, although by then most of the Wehrmacht had slipped past them and were on their way back to the Siegfried Line, despite Hitler not agreeing to this withdrawal until 7 January 1945. St Vith was recaptured on 23 January and all German units which had escaped destruction were back in their original positions on the Siegfried Line by 25 January.
Discover more about collecting the uniforms worn by the SS Panzer crews here.
Learn about the medals awarded to American forces and collecting them here.