“When you initially attacked for seven days and nights without halting for rest, you met and defeated twice your own number. Your advance required the enemy to turn fresh divisions against you, and you in turn hacked them to pieces as you ruthlessly cut your way deep into the flank of the â€œbulge.â€ Your feats of daring and endurance in the sub-freezing weather and snow-clad mountains and gorges of Luxembourg are legion; your contribution to the relief of Bastogne was immeasurable. It was particularly fitting that the elimination of the â€œbulgeâ€ should find the Yankee Division seizing and holding firmly on the same line held by our own forces prior to the breakthrough. I am proud of this feat by you as well as those you performed earlier. We shall advance on Berlin together.”
â€” Feb. 1, 1945, Headquarters 26th Infantry Division, W. S. Paul, Major General, U.S. Army Commanding (Stars and Stripes)
On a cold, snowy December day 66 years ago, German forces began a great offensive along the Western Front designed to divide the Allied forces and oblige them to sue for peace (thus isolating the Soviet forces on the Eastern Front). It was seen by many as a desperate and doomed plan, championed by Hitler in his final days.
More than a million men would be engaged by the time the battle officially ended on January 25th, resulting in the deaths of some 19000 Americans and 200 British soldiers; total casualties from both sides was around 200,000.
Conditions were brutal. Often fighting in sub-zero temperatures, the Allies were caught unprepared for an assault on the quiet Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg, and for the first few days the Nazi blitz was effective, advancing over fifty miles and creating a salient, or bulge, in the front.
Historians often discuss the strategic decisions that eventually won the battle. But in the first few days the fighting was on the tactical level. Pockets of resistance fought desperately against overwhelming odds. Their tenacity was costly – many died and many were captured – but they fought on. â€œ’We are taking three trees a day,’ an officer conceded, ‘yet they cost us 100 men apiece.’â€ (historynet.com)
Slowly but surely, their herculean efforts began to take a toll on the blitzkrieg, and the German timeline began to slow.
In Bastogne, a critical crossroad that became the focus of the offensive (the original goal was Antwerp), Allied forces found themselves completely surrounded by December 21st, but they refused to yield. When confronted with an offer to surrender, the American commander Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe replied, “Nuts.” Bastogne never fell.
On the strategic level, Eisenhower reacted quickly and within a couple of days his decisions began to have an impact. British forces in the north, and Patton’s Third Army in the south began a pincer movement designed to cut off the invaders. Supply lines were cut by aerial attack (after the weather cleared), further isolating the Germans from their homeland.
In the end, the invasion failed. Germany lost men and equipment that they could never replace, and would be unavailable for the defense of their homeland. Four months later the war in Europe was over.
I met a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge once. He was limping and having trouble getting to his seat on a plane. As I helped him he mentioned that his leg had bothered him for a long time. With a little prodding he acknowledged that he had been shot during the fight in the Ardennes. He never elaborated, but said what they all say: he was just doing his job. I felt privileged to shake the hand of a hero.
Those who were there, those who fought through bitter cold, poor visibility, overwhelming odds, and isolation during the first days of the invasion, I salute you. You won one of the greatest battles in WWII, and are our heroes of the week.