Battle of the Bulge: December 16, 1944 - January 28, 1945
Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt announced the following to his men in the West on the evening of 15 December 1944: “Soldiers of the West Front! Your great hour has arrived. Large attacking armies have started against the Anglo-Americans. I do not have to tell you anything more than that. You feel it yourself. WE GAMBLE EVERYTHING. You carry … with you the holy obligation to give everything to achieve things beyond human possibilities for our Fatherland and our Führer!” This stirring message was read to his attack troops as they moved up to their start-lines. At 05:30 hours the following day, 1600 German guns drenched the American frontline in deadly shrapnel.
The Wehrmacht’s code name for the offensive was Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein. Its objective was to split the Allied armies by means of a surprise blitzkrieg thrust through the Ardennes to Antwerp, marking a repeat of what the Germans had done three times previously — in September 1870, August 1914, and May 1940. At first, it made good progress, aided by low cloud that denied the enemy air cover. But the road cover in Ardennes was not suitable for the large-scale armoured advance, and soon the Wehrmacht armoured columns were facing traffic jams and stiff American resistance.
The German offensive began at 5:30 am on 16 December with a massive artillery bombardment. Three German armies launched the deadliest and most desperate battle of the war in the west in the poorly roaded, rugged, heavily forested Ardennes. The once-quiet region became bedlam as American units were caught flat-footed and fought desperate battles to stem the German advance at St.-Vith, Elsenborn Ridge, Houffalize and, later, Bastogne, which was defended by the 101st Airborne Division. The inexperienced U.S. 106th Division was nearly annihilated, but even in defeat helped buy time for Brigadier General Bruce C. Clarke’s brilliant defense of St.-Vith. As the German armies drove deeper into the Ardennes in an attempt to secure vital bridgeheads west of the River Meuse quickly, the line defining the Allied front took on the appearance of a large protrusion or bulge, the name by which the battle would forever be known.
A crucial German shortage of fuel and the gallantry of American troops fighting in the frozen forests of the Ardennes proved fatal to Hitler’s ambition to snatch, if not victory, at least a draw with the Allies in the west. Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s remarkable feat of turning the Third Army ninety degrees from Lorraine to relieve the besieged town of Bastogne was the key to thwarting the German counteroffensive. Before it ended, the Battle of the Bulge would involve a million men and thousands of guns, tanks and other fighting vehicles. The Battle of the Bulge was the costliest action ever fought by the U.S. Army, which suffered over 100,000 casualties while Germans forces suffered some 85,000 casualties.