The Germans had one last great offensive in them, or so Hitler thought. Hoping that history would repeat itself, he planned to throw the weight of his remaining western forces into the Ardennes, where he had launched the attack that crushed the Allies four years earlier and allowed him to capture most of Western Europe. The operation, code-named Autumn Mist but now known as the Battle of the Bulge, was launched on December 16, 1944.
Unbelievably, the Allies had played into Hitler’s hands by dividing their forces to the north and south of the Ardennes rather than concentrating a force where Hitler successfully attacked four years earlier. Worse, the 80,000 troops in the area were either battle weary or fresh off the boat.
The Battle of the Bulge took its name from the fact that a bulge 70 miles wide and 50 miles deep was created in the Allied lines when the Germans moved into the Ardennes and split the American and British forces.
When Hitler’s panzers pounced on the Ardennes with a force of roughly 250,000 battle-tested soldiers, they caught their prey unprepared, undermanned, and ill-equipped. The Germans encircled the inexperienced 106th Division near St. Vith, capturing two-thirds of the men, but were stopped from taking the town by reserves rushed in by U.S. General Omar Bradley.
With Bradley’s forces rushing in from the south and Britain's Field Marshal Montgomery’s from the north, the Allies were able to halt the German advance. Throughout the Battle of the Bulge, the weather limited the ability of the Allies to use their air superiority, but when the weather cleared, the bombers decimated the attacking forces.
A race was taking place meanwhile to get to the town of Bastogne. A German panzer army had crossed into Luxembourg and was trying to cross the Meuse River. The Allies had few men to defend the town and were rushing in reserves. Before they arrived, however, the Germans surrounded the town and gave the Americans one chance to surrender. The American commander, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, gave a famous one-word response, “Nuts!”
Clearing skies allowed Allied aircraft to drop supplies into the town, and the day after Christmas Patton’s Third Army arrived and relieved the pressure on Bastogne. Fighting continued for another week, but the German gambit had failed. Eisenhower wanted Montgomery to counterattack, but he was too cautious to seize the advantage, allowing a significant number of German troops to escape to fight another day.
In the four weeks of fighting at the Bulge, the Allies, almost entirely American, suffered 19,000 casualties and had more than 15,000 men taken prisoner — 9,000 in the battle at Schnee Eifel, the largest surrender in U.S. history after Bataan. The early success of the offensive as the panzers drove 30 miles into Belgium and Luxembourg gave the Germans renewed hope and justified Hitler’s unreal optimism about winning the war. Like dictators even to this day, Hitler totally misunderstood the United States and failed to appreciate either the commitment of the nation or its tremendous resources.
The British and Americans, meanwhile, were forced to reevaluate the prospects for an early victory and acknowledge the Germans still had plenty of fight left in them. Still, it should have been clear that the defeat in the Ardennes was one of the last battles the Germans would be able to fight. The Germans, after all, had lost 100,000 men, 1,000 aircraft, and 800 tanks from their already exhausted supplies. Neither the men nor the machines could be replaced in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, the Americans would soon pour tens of thousands more men into the theater over the coming weeks.
Sources: Bard, Mitchell G. The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War II. 2nd Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2004.