The Battle of the Bulge, also known as the Ardennes Offensive, was the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front during World War II. The battle lasted from 16 December 1944 to 28 January 1945, towards the end of the war in Europe. It was launched through the densely forested Ardennes region between Belgium and Luxembourg. It overlapped with the Alsace Offensive and subsequently the Colmar Pocket, another series of battles launched by the Germans in support of the Ardennes thrust.
The primary military objectives were to deny further use of the Belgian port of Antwerp to the Allies and to split the Allied lines, which potentially could have allowed the Germans to encircle and destroy the four Allied forces. Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, who since December 1941 had assumed direct command of the German army, believed that achieving these objectives would compel the Western Allies to accept a peace treaty in the Axis powers‘ favor. By this time, it was palpable to virtually the entire German leadership including Hitler himself that they had no realistic hope of repelling the imminent Soviet invasion of Germany unless the Wehrmacht was able to concentrate the entirety of its remaining forces on the Eastern Front, which in turn obviously required that hostilities on the Western and Italian Fronts be terminated. The Battle of the Bulge remains among the most important battles of the war, as it marked the last major offensive attempted by the Axis Powers on the Western front. After their defeat, Germany would retreat for the remainder of the war.
The Germans achieved a total surprise attack on the morning of 16 December 1944, due to a combination of Allied overconfidence, preoccupation with Allied offensive plans, and poor aerial reconnaissance due to bad weather. American forces bore the brunt of the attack. The Germans attacked a weakly defended section of the Allied line, taking advantage of heavily overcast weather conditions that grounded the Allies’ superior air forces. Fierce American resistance on the northern shoulder of the offensive, around Elsenborn Ridge, and in the south, around Bastogne, blocked German access to key roads to the northwest and west that they counted on for success. Columns of armor and infantry that were supposed to advance along parallel routes found themselves on the same roads. This congestion, and terrain that favored the defenders, threw the German advance behind schedule and allowed the Allies to reinforce the thinly placed troops.
The farthest west the offensive reached was the village of Foy-Nôtre-Dame, south east of Dinant, being stopped by the U.S. 2nd Armored Division on 24 December 1944. Improved weather conditions from around 24 December permitted air attacks on German forces and supply lines, which sealed the failure of the offensive. On 26 December the lead element of Patton’s U.S. Third Army reached Bastogne from the south, ending the siege. Although the offensive was effectively broken by 27 December, when the trapped units of 2nd Panzer Division made two break-out attempts with only partial success, the battle continued for another month before the front line was effectively restored to its position prior to the attack. In the wake of the defeat, many experienced German units were out of men and equipment, and the survivors retreated to the Siegfried Line.
The Germans’ initial attack involved 410,000 men; just over 1,400 tanks, tank destroyers, and assault guns; 2,600 artillery pieces; and over 1,000 combat aircraft, as well as large numbers of other armored fighting vehicles (AFVs). These were reinforced a couple of weeks later, bringing the offensive’s total strength to around 450,000 troops, and 1,500 tanks and assault guns. Between 63,222 and 98,000 of these men were killed, missing, wounded in action, or captured. The battle severely depleted Germany’s armored forces, which remained largely unreplaced throughout the remainder of the war. German Luftwaffe personnel, and later also Luftwaffe aircraft (in the concluding stages of the engagement) also sustained heavy losses.
From among the Americans’ peak strength of 610,000 troops, there were 89,000 casualties, including about 19,000 killed. The “Bulge” was the largest and bloodiest single battle fought by the United States in World War II and the third-deadliest campaign in American history.
The thing that I’ve always found striking about this pivotal moment in the history of not just the US and/or Germany, but of Western Civ itself, is the photos of the dauntless American GIs who fought in it. Look at them: these aren’t boys here, they’re men. In comparison to today’s simpering, overly-feminized boy-men, these men have been there and done that, and it’s written all over their war-weary faces.
This is not merely a matter of chronological age, understand—the average age of an enlisted US infantryman in WW2 was only 22. An old but evergreen Austin Bay post might help to explain some of the differences between then and now.
Captain and medical doctor James E. Kreisle’s Dec. 6, 1944 letter, posted from Clervaux, Luxembourg, begins with a chest thump: “Dear Mum, Dad and Peg: I’ve just returned to my outfit after a leave which allowed me two days in Paris.”
Leave? Impossible, Captain. Fall 1944’s cold, wet weather and illness kept Army doctors busy, especially surgeons in “separate” units like Kreisle’s 14th Cavalry Group. Then luck struck. The young Texan viewed his Paris trip as a wartime idyll. He hit a nightclub, the Lido. He managed “Christmas shopping”; perfume for Mum and Peg “six dishes” for the family in Austin.
Forty-eight Parisian hours compensated for the “chilly” to and fro in a deuce and a half that bounced him through Belgium and France, and then returned him to the 14th Cav, the Allied covering force in the Western front’s quiet sector, the Ardennes Forest.
Lean, white-haired Kreisle introduced himself to me in 1996, in an Austin, Texas, barbershop. He said he enjoyed my books. I might appreciate his WW2 letters. “I was in the 14th Cav,” he said. “You know where we were Dec. 16 (1944)?” Yes … Losheim Gap. He said: “I survived The Bulge.”
“Of course, it wasn’t really quiet,” Kreisle told me, after I read his letters and his tragic account of the Battle of the Bulge: “we thought we were close to winning the war. 14th Cav, in the Losheim Gap, scattered from Vielsalm (Belgium) to Germany (border). …We had the 106th Infantry Division on a flank — very green. On the German side, Sixth SS Panzer Army was assembling. We didn’t know it. Until December 16th.” Bulge “was a psychological about-face.”
The defense of Bastogne made the 101st Airborne the world’s most famous division. Bastogne was the Alamo as a victory. However, critical battles erupted throughout the “bulge” Hitler’s gamble carved in allied lines. Some of the most critical occurred Dec.16 and 17 as elements of 14th Cav, 99th ID, 2nd ID, 7th Armored Division and the ill-fated 106th ID delayed Panzers for five minutes here, 10 there. The 28th ID soldiers made a stand at Clervaux, surrendering after a Panzer broached the castle walls. Troop A, 14th Cav engaged 1st SS Panzer at Honsfeld. Panzers, Kreisle wrote, “immune to our light weapons, rolled right into the village and leveled their guns at the command post, which had apparently been pointed out by civilians.”
Jim Kreisle’s Bulge was escaping under fire in an ambulance. “One sensed an atmosphere of suppressed panic,” he wrote. He commanded a surgeon’s retreat over forest trails, west from Herresbach — through snow, mud and sporadic artillery fire. His medics directed wounded men tasked with carrying more severely wounded men “in this gloomy place.”
Dec. 24: clear weather, U.S. aircraft strike German columns. Dec. 27: As remnants of two 14th Cav troops counter-attack, Kreisle writes, “Dear Folks … the German tide has been fairly well stemmed.” Dec. 28: After 13 days of continual action, his ambulance and aid men are relieved.
“I’m glad you liked the memoir,” Kreisle told me. “The battle was … confusion. The setback really stunned us.” His letter home of Dec. 15, “the day before,” thanked relatives for sending him tamales and chili, food so “reminiscent of Texas.” His favorite Bulge history: Robert Merrimam’s “Dark December.” Dr. Kreisle died in 2002. God bless him, and the brave soldiers of his generation.
A most hearty “amen” to that. We shan’t see their like again, and must remain eternally grateful that we ever did at all. I’ve said it many times: if we had to rely on the contemporary generation to fight off another Hitler today, we’d best be learning to sing Deutschland Über Alles in the original German toot fucking sweet.