Six months after the audacious landing at Normandy had pierced Fortress Europe, Adolph Hitler’s last desperate gamble to stop the Allies advance on the Western Front was launched. Three German armies, numbering nearly a quarter million troops, attack suddenly through the Ardennes forest in Belgium. Taken by surprise, American units fought desperate battles to stem the German advance, but steadily lost ground.
The Allies defensive lines eventually reformed at St.-Vith, Elsenborn Ridge, Houffalize and Bastogne. While the Allies troops suffered tremendous losses in both territory and manpower, the Germans initially never broke the American lines. But through cold and dark days in December 1944, the entire European Theatre operations fate hung in the balance. The battle began on December 16, the three German armies launched a lighting attack to initial success despite the poor road and the rugged forest of the Ardennes.
The Allied command did not believe that Germans had the capability to launch a significant counter-offensive and as such only had few divisions in the Ardennes. Half of these divisions lacked significant combat experience. Conversely, the German units that attacked were capable and vicious. Some of the worst war crimes committed against the American Soldiers happened during the Battle of Bulge, including the execution 84 captured GIs during the Malmedy massacre. The stunned American forces were first reinforced by troops from the rear including the 101st Airborne. The days in December where the 101st airborne was surrounded in Bastogne has been the stuff of legends ever since. Most famously by commanding General MaCuliffe’s reply when called on to surrender by the German forces. The one word reply, “Nuts” is still repeated to the men and women entering basic training today over fifty years later to remind them of the military tradition which they are joining.
Most historians cite two major factors in the failure of the German attack. The first was lack of supplies, ammunition, and fuel for the German forces and the American forces destroying their supply dumps as they retreated. In many ways, the German advance literally ran out of gas. Second, Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s successful maneuver directly into combat from over 100 hundred miles away gave the American forces the firepower to counter attack the Germans. The forced march of the Third Army into battle is still a wonder of modern warfare and would not be matched until 1991 Desert Storm invasion of Kuwait. Even though the Allied force eventually stopped and repelled the German advance. The Battle of the Bulge took a terrible toll on our fighting forces, which suffered over 100,000 casualties. Most men and women that survived that December in the Ardennes would carry the memories of cold and horror with them every day until the end of their days.