In September 1944, recovering from jaundice, Hitler had a brilliant idea to split the Allies in the Ardennes, a region of forests, rough terrain, rolling hills and ridges formed by the Ardennes mountain range in Belgium and the Moselle and Meuse Rivers. He astounded his staff by calling for an offensive that would strike westwards to Antwerp, hitting the American and British armies at their seam and breaking them apart. With generals sworn to secrecy on pain of death, his commanders tried and failed to steer Hitler away from a vision that promised to fling precious remnants of the German military against Allied armies that boasted huge material superiority.
Hitler believed he could split the Allied forces and compel the Americans and British to settle for a separate peace, independent of the Soviet Union. Success in the west would give the Germans time to design and produce more advanced weapons – such as jet aircraft, new U-boat and tank designs – and use these to fight the Russians in the east.
Emerging grim-faced from meetings, his generals consoled each other that the whole grand design was another of Hitler’s “map fantasies”, as author Antony Beevor describes it. But there was no denying the delusional Führer.
Germany’s surprise attack against the Allies through the snows of the Ardennes in December 1944 was described by one of its commanders as “the last gasp of the collapsing Wehrmacht”.
Throwing 300,000 troops plus 900 precious tanks and assault guns into the mountainous, forested area during the icy grip of winter seems like such a monumental waste of life that one has to wonder about the sanity of the German high command.
Blind faith in success seems to have been limited to SS fanatics and those deluded by Nazi propaganda. “Fighting until the last moment gives a people the moral strength to rise again,” one SS commander wrote shortly before the offensive began. “A people that throws in the sponge is finished for all time.”
The “Battle of the Bulge” may seem futile compared with the vast conflicts taking place on the eastern front. When Hitler’s hammer-blow fell in December, many American units were taken completely by surprise. Some fled. Others, in places such as St Vith or Bastogne, fought heroically, derailing the German timetable. It was the Americans who bore the brunt of the attack, and it is the experiences of these GIs and Doughboys in the face of mortal adversity that is the central theme of Beevor’s book.
Among new weapons being used were artillery shells which burst over the treetops to rain shrapnel down on those below. Some suffered combat fatigue or “the shakes”, which meant they had to be relieved. And there were dreadful defeats: the US 106th was overrun early in the battle and wiped out; more than 8,000 men surrendered, the biggest loss of its kind outside the Pacific. Where they were well led, though, the GIs inflicted stunning reverses on their enemy. The author says that, even with the advantage of strategic surprise and a great deal of combat experience, the Germans “did not achieve the universal panic and collapse expected”. They underestimated the Americans.
As the battle continued, and as desperate attackers found reality was parting company from heroic fantasy, their behaviour degenerated. Allied prisoners and Belgian villagers were murdered, homes torched. And for all their esprit de corps, several SS formations got bogged down, and it was two regular panzer divisions that pushed the “bulge” furthest, around 90km.
Once the tide had turned, American soldiers proved just as ruthless as the Germans, with many hell-bent on revenge. In one incident, 60 German prisoners were murdered by US soldiers. General George Patton, commander of the Third Army, conceded: “There were some unfortunate incidents… I hope we can conceal this.”
The battle also saw the usual displays of resentments and disagreements between the Allied high command. Montgomery, in particular, annoyed the Americans by giving the impression he had dominated the fight in a last big “push” against Hitler’s forces.
Ultimately, Beevor gives us a vital historical insight. While the Ardennes offensive might have been futile, it was not pointless. The verdict of two of the Führer’s most senior generals after the war still stands. What in their view was the strategic consequence of Hitler’s plan?
By diverting two panzer armies to the Belgian border, away from the eastern front, he paved the way for the Red Army’s final offensive on Germany. Despite punching a bulge into the Allies front line, the Germans could not capitalise on this. The Germans had based their attack on a massive armoured onslaught. However, such an attack required ample fuel to maintain it and by this stage of the war, the Germans, thanks to Allied bombing, had simply “run out of gas”. But perhaps the Germans’ greatest mistake was to have misjudged the soldiers of an army they affected to despise.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (14/8/15).
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