The upcoming anniversary of the final victory of the allies in WWII encourages us to once again review its various stages. Back in the summer of 1941, victory seemed so distant that many thought it to be impossible. However, in winter of 1944-45 it was no longer just a shared desire but an event that was inevitably approaching. Germany had been defeated on all the fronts. However, there are no easy victories in war and the winter of that year proved it. The enemy was close to being defeated, but still dangerous. This was clear both on the Eastern and Western fronts, near Budapest and near the Ardennes Mountains. The Wehrmacht’s last large-scale offensive against the Allies in Belgium, in December, 1944, became the stuff of numerous myths and legends. Soviet propaganda was busy covering up the difficult situation in which the allies were at that time, and there was a great deal of confusion because of the German subversive actions. At the same time they stressed how helpful the Red Army’s offensive against Poland was, as if it really was of any help. They belittled Allies’ contribution to the general victory only because they wanted to hide their own problems and limitations. As usual the reality was quite different.
The summer of 1944 was a catastrophe for the German Army. In June the Allies carried out an assault in Normandy in the Western France. Two months later there was another successful subsidiary assault operation which landed near Marseilles in the south of the country. Even though the Allied forces could not completely destroy the German Army in France and Belgium, the offensive was quite successful. Paris was freed in August of that year and the Allies were decisively approaching the German borders. In the middle of the summer the Red Army launched its operations in Belarus and the western Ukraine. On both fronts the losses of German Army exceeded one million people, its strategic situation had suddenly deteriorated significantly. After Finland withdrew from the war in September, Germany was left without any allies in Europe. Germany’s victory was out of the question. The only thing that they could hope for was to delay any military actions in the hope of a breach in the alliance between the USSR and its Western allies. This was what Hitler hoped for. To encourage this he decided to launch a huge offensive in the West, with the hope of dividing the front and defeating the British and American Armies. This was to be achieved by dividing the front into a northern and southern section, capturing the important port of Antwerp as well as the Allies’ fuel and other military stocks.
The plan had several advantages. It could reduce the energy crisis, which Germany was facing after it lost the oil deposits in Romania, ease the military pressure on the Western front, and give Germany the possibility to use its reserves in the East. Hitler thought that a huge military offensive would result in a complete defeat of British forces in Belgium and Holland, another Dunkirk if you will. That way American forces would be isolated in France, forcing Allied leaders to enter separate negotiations with Germany. That would have been conceivable in the spring or summer of 1940, but not in the winter of 1944-45. Hitler had long since lost his touch with reality. Moreover, both Hitler and the German generals underestimated the military qualities of the American Army, which Germans considered as poor fighters. Quite a strange thought, if one were to consider the fact that until the middle of October, the Wehrmacht’s forces were constantly retreating, leaving behind almost the whole of France, a part of Belgium and the Netherlands. This was primarily due to American Army attacks.
In September Hitler gave an order for German generals to devise a plan for the great offensive operation in the West, which later was named “Wacht am Rhein” (Watch on the Rhine). Hitler was fond of catchy titles, which is why he changed the word Wache to the more poetic one — Wacht. Americans referred to it as the Battle of the Bulge, whilst in England they called it the Battle of Ardennes. The American name reflects the fact that German troops were attacking in a narrow front and it created a bulge in the disposition of allied forces. We use the name Operation Ardennes more often.
On November 3, the Chief of the Wehrmacht’s Operations Staff Chief Alfred Jodl made a report to Hitler about the operation plan. The launch date was set for November 25. However, much of the German leadership, including Western Army Commander Gerd von Rundstedt, disagreed with the plan. German troops would not be able to prepare themselves physically. It was impossible to mobilize the extensive forces required under such short notice. The operation plan involved the participation of 27 divisions, ten of which were supposed to be tank divisions. They also had to wait for a break on the Eastern front, so that they could use two tank divisions from there. The troops that had to be involved in the operation needed some rest, personnel replacement, and material supply. They also needed to wait for suitable weather, with low cloud cover in order to prevent the Allies from using their advantage in air forces. Hitler was impatient. There was a huge group of American forces getting ready for an offense on the Saar. If they would start the attack, it would be impossible to carry out the operation in the Ardennes. The Germans would then have to move the troops that were supposed to take part in it to the South. After long debates with Hitler the launch date was put off until December 12, but due to weather conditions they had to wait for another four days.
The German group included two armies and 10 corps. They planned on using 30 divisions, over a thousand of tanks, almost three thousand shells and mortar-guns, and over a thousand of airplanes. On the seventh day of the operation they planned to come to the area near Antwerp and drive a wedge between the American and English forces. The Belgian city was chosen as a target of the offensive not only because of its strategic location. It was the third largest port in Europe and a large part of Allied supplies went through it. In September and October their offensive withered away due to the supply crisis. Ports along the shores in Normandy Brest, Sherbur, and Nant were destroyed by the Nazis. Moreover, they had limited capacity and were located far from the front line. French railroads could not cope with the increasing need for transportation. That is why it was extremely important for the Allies to control a large port and keep it functioning uninterrupted. At the same time it was important for German army to prevent them from having such an advantage. The distance between Brussels and Antwerp from the Ardennes was not excessive and it looked like German tank formations could fairly easily repeat their feat from 1940. However, it would later prove overly ambitious and impossible to fulfill.
At the beginning of the operation Germany had three advantages. The first one was surprise. German commanders managed to gather a large group of troops in the area near the Ardennes. All the preparations for the operation were top secret: the communication of orders through the radio or telegraph was forbidden. Even the commander in chief of the Western group, Gerd von Rundstedt, knew nothing about Hitler’s plans in the Ardennes until just before their commencement. Another factor which played in favor of the Germans was the poor quality of the Allies intelligence services. The local people in France regularly provided American and English troops with information. Allies intelligence processed thousands of documents and a great number of intelligence reports. However, locals in the east of France and Belgium supported the Nazis and refused to cooperate with the Allies. The sources of information dried up as the Allies delved deeper into enemy territory. Finally, the weather was also to the Nazis advantage. The low cloud cover reduced Allied air forces visibility, and the intelligence groups sent to the Germans’ rears disappeared without a trace. Germans managed to gather a large group of almost 500,000 soldiers and officers in the Ardennes totally unnoticed by the Allies.
American generals expected a German attack in the Ardennes. The American general, Omar Bradley, discussed this possibility with his staff in October 1944. He concluded: “We do not have enough people, we cannot be strong everywhere. That means that we have to loosen our defenses at some place. There is information that the enemy will attack precisely in this place. Great, let them attack if they want to do so. We have to completely destroy their army at some place, and if they begin their attack in the Ardennes, it would be even better. We need to get them out of their hole.” Somewhat later, Bradley described weakening the American defenses in the Ardennes as a calculated risk. While it may have been calculated, it still managed to catch both sides unawares.
EVERYTHING LOOKED GOOD ON PAPER
The German attack in the Ardennes began on the morning of December 16, 1944. Only four American divisions, with reduced strength and sent to the area to recuperated, were forced to resist the German formation. Two of those divisions had never seen a battle before and were there for training purposes. Naturally they had no chance against the war-hardened divisions of the Wehrmacht. The front was broken on the very first day; a couple thousands of American soldiers were captured. The German tank divisions were virtually unstoppable. However, soon after the initial success, the first worrying signs began to appear. Some of the more battle-hardened American units persisted in defensive actions effectively. General Troy H. Middleton, in charge of the American forces, managed to reorganize his troops. The tempo of the offensive slowed down and the first-day goals were not achieved. Nearly 50,000 Americans managed to resist against 250,000 enemy soldiers of the first echelon.
The Allies’ intelligence services uncovered German plans very quickly. General Dwight Eisenhower later wrote that they had a clear picture both of the targets of the Germans’ attack and the forces that they used. The narrow front of penetration made it possible to repeat the German army attack and further strike into the base of the bulge. The first thing to do was to strengthen the two most important road junctures – the cities of Bastogne and St.Vith. A few hours before German forward units arrived at those cities, they had been occupied by the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions respectively.
By the time German forces reached Bastogne on December 18, the city had been turned into a fortress. It was defended by units of 101st Airborne, Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division, and 463rd division of field artillery. Seven important roads went through the city. Due to a harsh winter they were covered in ice, making communication difficult. This was further complicated by the surrounding mountains. The delay and blockade of Bastogne crippled the Germans’ offensive plans gave the Allies time and opportunity to move up new reserves.
Things were no less complicated near St. Vith. After three days of fierce fighting the Americans retreated because they ran out of ammunition, and due to the non-flying weather they could not organize air supplies. However, that retreat changed little if anything. Germans could not expand the front line. The only road free of ice was jammed with troops; the units involved in the offensive couldn’t get any supply; the Wehrmacht’s tank subunits had to stop often due to a shortage of fuel. Allied hopes for holding the city had been dashed, yet they managed to carry out a substantial amount of fuel and the rest was burnt. Small mobile stocks, which were seized in the first days of the offensive did not solve the problem. Germans’ attempts to force their way through to Liege and Namur, where Allied big stocks were located, failed. In fact, Americans switched over to the offensive at that point, and eliminated any possibility for an attack in that direction. The most important fact was that the Germans did not manage to capture the strategically important city of Bastogne, and because of that the speed of the offensive was ground down to a standstill. After seven days of fighting, the attackers had moved a mere 80 km forward. The German forces could no longer dream about Antwerp; they did not even reach the Meuse River. The entire plan turned out to be a disaster.
The first assault of Bastogne was a complete failure for German forces. The next four attempts had the same result. All they could do was to arrange a blockade. Americans were offered to surrender with honor. When General Anthony McAuliffe, acting commander of the 101st brigade, was told about Germans’ offer he did not understand it right away. The general was certain that it was the enemy who wanted to surrender. After the staff interpretor explained him the idea of what was suggested to them, he responded, “Us surrender? Aw, nuts!” became famous. This is how it sounded in German airborne commandos’ translation. General Bradley once wrote that the McAuliffe’s actual reply was much stronger.
The weather remained favorable for German troops. Bastogne’s defenders had to count only on themselves because Allied air forces continued to be bogged down. The Germans had to redirect all their main forces to the siege of Bastogne, and because of the great resistance could not use highway networks to their full extent. At the same time, the German Army, under the command of General Sepp Dietrich, continued the attack aimed at the Meuse River and force a crossing. They were defeated once more. By December 24, when there were less than 10 kilometers to the bridge over the Meuse in Dinant, the 2nd Panzer Division, which was attacking in the vanguard of the 5th Panzer Army, was surrounded at Celles. It was the westernmost point of the German attack in the Ardennes. On that day, the former German-ally, the weather, switched sides. The sun came out and thousands of attack aircrafts assaulted German troops. Their black silhouettes were easy to spot on the white snow. The enemy lost over 300 airplanes, and over 200 tanks in air battles, in one day.
The Germans faced two other dangerous moments before December 20. Even though the penetration front was nearly 30 kilometers wide and they had advanced almost 80 kilometers into their enemy’s rears, the situation near the base of the bulge was becoming unstable. The 1st Canadian Army and seven American divisions, from the formation led by English field marshal Montgomery, were getting ready to attack the northern flank, while Patton’s Third Army was getting ready for the southern one. They covered 120 km to get there. The Germans made a last desperate assault of the city on Christmas day, failing once again. The city’s defenders began to receive ammunition and food supplies and in two days one of the Patton’s divisions joined the defenders. The threat of the Wehrmacht’s group in the Ardennes being surrounded suddenly became very real. The German generals had to think about saving their forces. They suggested to Hitler to start with a withdrawal of troops to the starting positions, but the Fuehrer would not listen to them. In order to relax Allied pressure on the troops in the Ardennes the German generals launched a mock operation in Alsace called Unternehmen Nordwind (Operation North Wind). The plan was to surround and destroy the formation of the Seventh American Army north of Strasbourg and continue the advance west. But the 19th German Army got itself surrounded, in the so-called Colmar Pocket, and was defeated by American and French troops.
On New Year’s Eve over a thousand German airplanes attacked Allied airfields. The strike was unexpected and over 250 English and American airplanes were destroyed. Air battles went on for the whole next day until the evening. The Germans lost over 350 airplanes, but even more importantly, they lost nearly 200 experienced pilots. Allied forces lost only 170 airplanes in air battles that day, but they soon replaced them.
After the aerial defeat the Germans were defeated on the ground. German troops were bombed from the air along the entire front line. From the Bastogne area general Patton went toward Montgomery group. At that point even Hitler realized that the battle had been lost. He agreed to retreat. The weather was favorable to the Germans again. Low cloud cover and a strong blizzard did not allow air forces to enter the battle; the narrow ice-covered roads reduced the mobility of Allied forces. Nearly 50,000 German soldiers managed to get out of the encirclement, though over a 100,000 soldiers were captured in those battles.
The Germans suffered a total of 150,000 casualties in the Ardennes, over 300,000 captured. The corresponding numbers for Allied forces were 86,000 casualties and 50,000 captured. It was a significant though not a crucial loss for the Allies, but for the Germans it meant disaster.
OPERATION GREIF FAILURE
During the preparations of the offensive a special saboteur group, led by well-known Otto Skorzeny, who kidnapped dictator Benito Mussolini in Italy, and dictator Miklos Horthy in Hungary, was created. It was named Panzer Brigade 150. It had nearly 2,000 people in it. They were gathered from the entire Western Front; there were sailors and even criminals in it. The main condition to join the group was the knowledge of English. Their tasks included the organization of diversions behind enemy lines and the seizure of bridges over the Meuse River and the Albert Canal. The saboteurs actions had to be coordinated with aerial operations, whose main task was to defend the bridges before the tank formations arrived.
The saboteurs were trained for almost three months somewhere near Berlin. Skorzeny, with characteristic confidence, promised the Fuehrer to turn American rears into hell. Skorzeny considered the democratic ways prevailing in the American Army to be its most important drawback which would enable German forces to humiliate the American brats, who had no idea about what a real war was. They took American military uniforms and captured weapons from German storage sites on the Western Front. Either because of the lack of time, or because of excessive self-confidence, the selection of uniform and weapons was done hastily, and they did not quite correspond with those in the American Army. Besides, the Germans did not take into account the differences between the British and American variants of English. There were two reasons for this. The first was that Skorzeny himself was not that well-educated, as he was churned out of the University of Vienna, and probably did not know this detail. The second reason was that all the specialists were in the Abwehr, but Skorzeny was strongly against involving them as he feared infiltration. Hitler shared his position on that. The operation received the code name Greif, which meant “seizure.” They even planned to capture general Eisenhower, general Bradley, and field marshal Montgomery. The plans were as cursory as they were hubristic.
On the first day of the operation the saboteurs infiltrated American troops and began spreading disarray in the rears. For the first two days everything went according to the plans. They managed to considerably damage communication and to cause a lot of panic. Patrols and liaison officers disappeared, fuel tankers exploded, mines were tripped, checkpoint and block posts officers were killed in broad day light.
Soon the situation changed drastically. In the confusion of the retreat Americans managed to capture a German officer who had documents about Operation Greif. In his memoirs Skorzeny grieved for the mistake of giving those documents to the officer. In this complicated situation Allied counterintelligence agents remained calm and acted methodically and competently. To their great surprise, in the first days of the offensive operation, many staff officers with briefcases filled with plans, orders, and operational maps fell into their hands.
The wild card, always appearing at war, turned out to be a group of saboteurs who got lost and appeared near the Canadian lines. The presence of “Americans” who spoke a peculiar variation of British English put a counterintelligence officer on his guard. The saboteurs were disarmed, and everything became clear right after the first interrogation. The information was passed on to American counterintelligence and military police. A real saboteur hunt began. Skorzeny’s hope for the naivety of outwardly democratic Americans was in vain. The discipline in their Army was not for show, it was real.