Battle of the Bulge
Germany’s last offensive on the Western Front
16 December 1944 - 25 January 1945
author Paul Boșcu, January 2017
The offensive was launched through the Ardennes sector of the Western front, a heavy forested region. Its aim was to stop the Allied use of the port of Antwerp, and to encircle four Allied armies. Thus, the Germans hoped that the western Allies would be forced to concede to a negotiated peace. The failure of the operation severely drained German forces and set the stage for their subsequent defeat in the following spring.

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The Battle of the Bulge was the last major German offensive of World War II. The offensive was launched through the Ardennes sector of the Western front, a heavy forested region. The operation took place in France, Belgium and Luxemburg. In Germany the offensive was known as Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein, or Operation Watch on the Rhine. Its aim was to stop the Allied use of the port of Antwerp, and to encircle four Allied armies. Thus, the Germans hoped that the western Allies would be forced to concede to a negotiated peace. The failure of the operation severely drained German forces and set the stage for their subsequent defeat in the following spring.

The American offensive around Aachen had drawn a number of German divisions into a costly battle. These were part of the troops which were supposed to be used in the great attack. Thus, the plans were postponed from the end of November to the middle of December.

The defeat of the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge was a victory for the U.S. soldier. He had stood the test of everything the Wehrmacht could throw at him, particularly early in the battle, when he was outnumbered and unprotected by air cover.

The plan for a counter-offensive originated in August, as the American break-out from Normandy was developing. It was tentatively scheduled for November, when the Allied air forces would be hampered by weather, and had been set for the Ardennes area.

‘I strongly object to the fact that this stupid operation in the Ardennes is sometimes called the “Rundstedt Offensive”,’ Gerd von Rundstedt complained after the war. ‘This is a complete misnomer. I had nothing to do with it. It came to me as an order complete to the last detail. Hitler had even written on the plan in his own handwriting “Not to be Altered”.’ Rundstedt said he felt it should instead be called ‘the Hitler Offensive’.

The German success in restoring the Western Front in September 1944 allowed Hitler to consider a major effort to regain the initiative. The question was where. To the east, the Soviets were still inactive in Poland. Even during the desperate struggle to rebuild the Western Front, Hitler considered the possibility of a major counter-offensive. He rejected a strike against the Soviets, since there appeared to be no operational objective that would undermine Stalin’s political will. But Hitler held the Anglo-Americans in considerably less respect. Perhaps a major attack could divide them or even drive the British from the war.

Given the atmosphere in the Reich as Himmler’s agents pursued those responsible for the 20th of July assassination plot, there was little opposition to the Führer’s dreams among his senior military leaders. Guderian did urge Hitler to give priority to the Eastern Front, but Hitler, underestimating Soviet strength as he had so often in the past, discounted the advice and turned to the west.

The Germans enjoyed a three-to-one advantage in manpower, a two-to-one advantage in tanks, and general superiority in artillery. But they did have a significant disadvantage in air power. That is precisely why Hitler launched the offensive during a period of bad weather.

The plans were for the Allied front to be split open by a hard and quick blow dealt to the Americans by thirty new and rebuilt German divisions. These, in Hitler's view, could make only a minor difference on the Eastern Front. Crossing the river Meuse quickly and striking for Antwerp, the Germans could cut off and destroy the 1st Canadian, 2nd British, and 8th and 1st American armies. Such a blow would change the whole situation in the war. Either the enemy coalition would break or, at the very least, the victory in the west would make a massive shift of troops to the East possible.

General Heinz Guderian, the army Chief of General Staff, objected to the whole idea of employing Germany's last reserves in the west. However, Hitler hoped to be done in the west before the anticipated Soviet winter offensive could start. Guderian, who was charged with opposing the Red Army’s coming winter offensive in the east, did not want any offensive to take place in the west, but rather argued for the reinforcement of the Eastern Front, including Hungary.

What Hitler referred to as a ‘second Dunkirk’ inflicted on the British would, even if accomplished, hardly relieve Germany of major pressure in the West. All debate in the ensuing weeks focused on the details, not the wisdom, of the planned operation.

Hitler's view of the Americans as incapable of fighting effectively and of the American home front as likely to crack under a heavy blow at the front reflected his long-held perception of the United States. There is no evidence that Hitler realized - or that a single one of his military advisors pointed out to him - that, of all the major belligerents, the United States was the one which up to this point had been least damaged by the war and had by far the greatest recuperative powers. Even a major defeat was less likely to have a serious impact on the American war effort.

The commanders in the west, Field Marshals Gerd von Rundstedt and Walter Model, preferred an offensive with more limited objectives. But they could never explain why Germany's last reserves should be expended on such an operation. Rundstedt, Model, Manteuffel and other generals in the west wanted a limited Ardennes offensive that knocked the Allies off balance. This would give the Germans the chance to rationalize the Western Front and protect the Ruhr.

The divisions assigned for the attack were being rebuilt or organized and moved to the front with careful attention to concealment, the commanders of divisions were being harangued by Hitler, and the last preparations made. The main thrust was to be made by the 6th SS Panzer Army to the north and 5th Panzer Army to the south, with 15th Army providing flank support on the right and 7th Army on the left.

When the preparations were made and bad weather arrived, some 200,000 German soldiers and 600 tanks, supported by about 1,900 guns, attacked. The front was held by approximately 80,000 American soldiers, 400 tanks, and 400 guns.

The OKW began pulling SS and army Panzer divisions off the Western Front, including both the Sixth and Fifth Panzer Armies. Albert Speer’s industrial empire was still producing considerable amounts of military equipment, while convalescent soldiers and new conscripts filled up the ranks. The Luftwaffe received the task of protecting the major Rhine bridges lying behind the Ardennes.

Eisenhower had left the semi-mountainous, heavily wooded Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg relatively undermanned. He cannot be wholly blamed for this. He was receiving intelligence reports from Bradley stating that a German attack was ‘only a remote possibility’ and one from Montgomery saying that the enemy ‘cannot stage major offensive operations’.

Even after the offensive had actually begun, Major-General Kenneth Strong, the Assistant Chief of Staff (Intelligence) at SHAEF, produced his Weekly Intelligence Summary No. 39 which offered the blithe assessment that ‘The main result must be judged, not by the ground it gains, but by the number of Allied divisions it diverts from the vital sectors of the front.’

For all the débâcle of 1940, the Ardennes seemed uninviting for armored vehicles, and important engagements were being fought to the north and south. With Wehrmacht movement restricted to night time, and the Germans instituting elaborate deception plans, surprise was complete. Although four captured German POWs spoke of a big pre-Christmas offensive, they were not believed by Allied intelligence.

Only in the north around Monschau, where the 99th Division was supporting an attack against the Roer River dams, did the Americans possess adequate strength in the Ardennes. From Monschau south, VIII Corps held a weak line: the 106th Infantry Division, recently arrived from the United States, was deployed to guard the Schnee Eifel. Next in line, the badly battered 28th Infantry Division, which had suffered over 6,000 casualties in the Huertgen, held front along the Our River. Finally, the 4th Infantry Division, almost as badly battered in the Huertgen, guarded a stretch of front to the boundary with Third Army south of Luxembourg City.

Eisenhower had demonstrated that Allied military leadership thought the Ardennes of little importance by sending the First Army to its north and the Third Army to its south. By October, the Americans were using the area to introduce new divisions to the war and to rest badly battered divisions.

Despite overwhelming evidence—including air reconnaissance and reports from frontline divisions—the Allies clung to the delusion that the Germans could not launch a major offensive. Among the Allied commanders, only Patton divined that the Germans might take such a huge risk. He noted: ‘The First Army is making a terrible mistake in leaving the VIII Corps static, as it is highly probable that the Germans are building up east of them.’ Some junior officers were also less optimistic than their senior commanders.

The offensive blow struck the American front largely by surprise. When the Germans struck, the American lines held in the north but buckled in the south. The 6th SS Panzer Army ran into solid American defenses on the Elsenborn ridge and at St Vith. The latter was quickly reinforced at Eisenhower's orders by the 82nd Airborne Division. In the following days, repeated thrusts by the Germans, with SS armored divisions leading the way, failed to crack the Elsenborn ridge but did succeed in pushing forward some distance and eventually taking St. Vith. This, however, was less than halfway to the Meuse river. The intended main thrust of the German offensive had been halted.

A massive artillery bombardment hit U.S. positions throughout the Ardennes. Within hours, heavy infantry and armor attacks hit the hard-pressed American positions.

The attack took place through knee-deep snow, with searchlights bouncing beams off the clouds to create artificial illumination for the troops. Perhaps to make up for their failure to make more than minimal gains, at least one of the SS units, 1st Panzer Division, engaged in an all too frequent SS activity. In what came to be known as the Malmédy Massacre, a large number of American prisoners was murdered. News of these atrocities quickly spread among American soldiers. The SS officer commanding the troops, SS-General Wilhelm Mohnke, was never prosecuted for the crime. Mohnke strongly denied the accusations, telling historian Thomas Fischer, ‘I issued no orders not to take English prisoners or to execute prisoners.’

Thirty-two English-speaking German soldiers under the Austrian-born Colonel Otto Skorzeny were dressed in American uniforms in order to increase the confusion behind the lines. It probably caused more confusion by its existence and the resulting suspicion than by its actions. Those of its members captured in American uniforms were shot.

Two of the best German generals, Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Josef (‘Sepp’) Dietrich and General der Panzertruppen Baron Hasso-Eccard von Manteuffel, led the attacks in the north and south respectively, with the Seventh Army providing flank protection to the south. Yet even seventeen divisions would not be enough to dislodge the vast numbers of Allied troops which had landed in north-west Europe since D-Day. ‘He was incapable of realising that he no longer commanded the army which he had had in 1939 or 1940,’ Manteuffel later complained of Hitler.

For the most part, U.S. soldiers reacted with discipline and initiative. Engineers blew up bridges to delay the Germans; artillery batteries remained at their posts until the situation became untenable; and ad hoc units held out until they had exhausted their ammunition or fallen in battle. By their courageous resistance, American troops, most of whom either had little combat experience or were badly battered by the fall fighting and were spread across the length of the Ardennes, robbed the Germans of the tactical and operational fruits of strategic surprise.

Initially, the American high command missed the significance of the German attack. Eisenhower and Bradley did not even find out what was happening in the Ardennes until the evening of the 16th. Bradley’s immediate reaction was that the German offensive represented only an attempt to disrupt the ongoing attack on the Roer dams. Further intelligence, particularly from Ultra, disabused him of that notion. By the next day, the extent of the threat was clear to everyone in the U.S. high command. Already on the evening of the 16th, Eisenhower had ordered reinforcements to move to the Ardennes to bolster a deteriorating situation.

The 101st and the 82nd Airborne Divisions were in reserve. Several of the most important airborne commanders were elsewhere. The XVIII Airborne Corps commander, Major General Matthew B. Ridgway, was in England. The 101st Airborne Division’s commander, Major General Maxwell D. Taylor, had gone to Washington to look for a more prestigious command. Thus, Major General James M. Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne, assumed command of XVIII Airborne Corps.

The soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division embarked by truck to Werbomont on the north side of the growing bulge. The 101st, under Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe as the acting division commander, moved toward Bastogne. There other American units were gathering to defend the crucial crossroads that ran through the town.

Eisenhower met with his senior commanders to devise a coherent response to the growing German penetration through the Ardennes. Patton had his own ideas: ‘Hell, let's have the guts to let the sons of bitches go all the way to Paris. Then we’ll really cut ‘em up and chew ‘em up.’

At the start, the strength and ferocity of the German attack caught the American generals completely by surprise. Thereafter, with the exception of Patton, they reacted as though the balance of the war had dramatically changed to favor the Germans. Eisenhower, stunned and disheartened, requested that the Joint Chiefs of Staff send every soldier available in the Continental United States to Europe. He even entertained the idea that 100,000 marines might be put at his disposal. This was an astonishing admission of pessimism, given his prejudices against the Marine Corps.

In a gesture of desperation—disastrous because of its impact on the Anglo-American bargaining position at Yalta—Allied commanders begged the Soviets to begin their long-awaited winter offensive in Poland. Finally, when the Germans had been stopped, the American high command, led by Bradley and Hodges, chose merely to drive the enemy out of the Ardennes rather than to destroy him.

In the north, Dietrich’s Sixth SS Panzer Army had aimed to break through American positions and then drive along four major arteries leading west to the Meuse. But the 99th Infantry Division put up tough resistance over the course of the first day. While many of its units broke the next afternoon, the 2nd Infantry Division, involved in the attack on the Roer dams, had time to switch fronts and form a strong defensive position in front of the Elsenborn Ridge. After the 2nd Division pulled back to the ridge, the Americans would hold the northern shoulder of the growing German salient for the remainder of the battle.

The US V Corps in the north and 4th Division in the south managed to hold on to their positions, squeezing the German thrust into a 65 km wide and 90 km deep protuberance in the Allied line whose shape on the map gave the engagement its name: the battle of the Bulge. The Sixth SS Panzer Army failed to make much progress against the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions of Gerow’s V Corps in the north. They came close but never made it to a giant fuel dump near the town of Spa.

The Germans did slip an armored task group of the 1st SS Panzer Division led by a hard-bitten veteran of the Eastern Front, Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper, through the gap that opened up almost immediately between the 99th and 106th Infantry Divisions. Nevertheless, with that exception, Dietrich’s army failed to achieve its objectives.

In the South, Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army surrounded the 106th Division in front of St Vith, and forced its 8,000 men to surrender. This was the largest capitulation of American troops since the Civil War. St Vith itself was defended by the 7th Armored until it fell to Manteuffel. Although the Americans were thinly spread and caught by surprise, isolated pockets of troops held out long enough to cause Herbstnebel to stumble, and to give time for Eisenhower to organize a massive counter-attack. 60,000 men and 11,000 vehicles were being sent as reinforcements, and over the following eight days a further 180,000 men were moved to contain the threat.

Although the Germans, seeing failure in the north and some success in the south, put more resources into the southern push, it too began to slow down. They were experiencing shortages of gasoline and facing increasing American resistance, especially at Bastogne, with counter-attacks against the weak German 7th Army on the southern flank of the bulge driven into the Allied lines. In bitter fighting, the Germans now tried simultaneously to push forward to and perhaps across the Meuse and also to clear the road junction of Bastogne. In this way they could supply their own front and their further attack westwards.

The Fifth Panzer Army’s attack struck the inexperienced 106th Infantry Division and two depleted regiments of the 28th Infantry Division. Over the course of the first day, the 106th Division held the Germans to limited gains. But an inexperienced division commander, Major General Alan Jones, failed to recognize the strength of the German attacks and the seriousness of the enemy’s penetrations. As a result, Jones ordered his troops to hold their exposed positions. The front collapsed and the Germans engulfed two regiments of the 106th Division. They captured nearly 8,000 Americans.

The 106th’s troops on the right flank covered the key road junction at St. Vith. There, its beleaguered soldiers, outnumbered and without winter clothing, held for a few days under terrible pressure. The Germans had hoped to capture St. Vith by the second day in order to use the roads through the central Ardennes. The tenacious American defense denied the Panzers use of the roads for over five days.

In the southern portion of the offensive front, the 5th German Panzer Army broke through relatively quickly, effectively destroying the two American divisions (1o6th and 28th) in its path. Driving forward rapidly in bad weather, which kept Allied planes out of the air, the Germans headed for Houffalize and Bastogne. They pushed westwards between the towns, took the former but failed to seize the latter as American troops fell back on this key road junction, which was reinforced at the critical moment by the American 101st Airborne Division. The town held until relieved by General Patton’s forces.

The 101st Airborne Division arrived in the nick of time at the town of Bastogne, only hours before the Germans reached its vital crossroads. With 18,000 Americans completely surrounded there, the commander of the 47th Panzer Corps, General Heinrich von Lüttwitz, gave Brigadier-General Anthony C. McAuliffe the opportunity to surrender. McAuliffe’s single-word reply – ‘Nuts!’ – was a slang term that the Germans nonetheless understood perfectly well.

Christmas Day saw a massed German attack on Bastogne, which had to hold out until the US Third Army could come to its rescue from the south. ‘A clear, cold Christmas, lovely weather for killing Germans,’ joked Patton, ‘which is a bit queer, seeing whose birthday it is.’

After surviving a spirited German attack that broke through the defensive perimeter on Christmas Day, Bastogne was relieved by Patton’s 4th Armored Division on Boxing Day. By then Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army had started to run short of fuel. Although its 2nd Panzer Division got to within 8 km of the town of Dinant on the Meuse, General Dietrich had not committed his mechanized infantry reserves in support of Manteuffel, ‘because such a manoeuvre was not in Hitler’s orders and he had been instructed to obey his instructions to the letter’.

The Germans had no chance of reaching their goals. After heavy fighting, the 101st Airborne Division and an assortment of other units were in firm control of Bastogne. Of the two armored divisions in Manteuffel’s army headed for the Meuse, the 2nd Panzer Division found its way blocked by an American force at Noville just north of Bastogne. Meanwhile, an ad hoc force, including Canadian foresters, blew up the bridges along the Ourthe River and effectively halted the 116th Panzer Division.

Both German efforts failed. The spearheads of the 5th Panzer Army reaching for the Meuse were stopped by American armor east of the river. Bastogne held out, even when surrounded by German forces. These defensive victories were primarily due to the recovery of American forces on the ground, and shortly afterwards greatly assisted by clear weather which enabled the Allied air forces to intervene in the struggle. The Air forces attacked German columns, supply routes and the transportation system in the rear areas.

German units in the bulge found themselves exhausting their strength in numbers, equipment and supplies as routes were choked behind them. The turn of emphasis from a rapid advance to a siege of Bastogne could only favor the Americans. The siege was soon broken by an American counter-offensive from the south.

The Germans had run out of yet another precious resource – time. Better weather allowed the Allies to harry their Panzer columns from the air, with 15,000 sorties flown in the first four days after the skies cleared. Hitler’s luck ran out. A weather front from Russia pushed the scudding clouds out of Central Europe, and the skies over the battlefield cleared. The drastically improved weather allowed Allied tactical air forces to savage the Germans across the breadth of the front. Meanwhile, C-47s and C-46s carried out mass drops of ammunition and supplies to the beleaguered garrison in Bastogne.

When being debriefed by Allied interviewers, Rundstedt put the defeat down to three factors: ‘First, the unheard-of superiority of your air force, which made all movement in daytime impossible. Second, the lack of motor fuel – oil and gas – so that the Panzers and even the Luftwaffe were unable to move. Third, the systematic destruction of all railway communications so that it was impossible to bring one single railroad train across the Rhine.’ All three of these factors involved airpower to a greater or lesser extent.

General Patton quickly broke off the offensive his 3rd Army was developing south of the bulge, swung the forces in a new direction, and struck northward toward Bastogne instead of eastward into the Saar area. In a few days, his armored units broke through the southern portion of the ring around Bastogne and held firm against a series of furious German counter-attacks.

With Ultra starting to become available again after the assault, confirming the Meuse as the German target, Eisenhower could make his dispositions accordingly, and prevent his front being split in two. It fell to Patton’s Third Army in the south to break through General der Panzertruppen Erich Brandenberger’s Seventh Army.

Patton had succeeded in turning the Third Army a full 90 degrees from driving eastwards towards the Saar to pushing northwards along icy roads in mid-winter straight up the Bulge’s southern flank. ‘Brad,’ the ever quotable Patton said to his commander, ‘the Kraut’s stuck his head in a meat-grinder. And this time I’ve got hold of the handle.’ Even Bradley had to admit in his memoirs that Patton’s ‘difficult manoeuvre’ had been ‘one of the most brilliant performances by any commander on either side of World War II’.

The Americans had recovered their balance. As good as his word, Patton had rearranged Third Army’s boundaries with Seventh Army so that he could pull two full corps out of line. Under dreadful winter conditions, the Third Army’s divisions were in a position to strike. By this point in the battle, the Germans had completely cut off Bastogne. They were applying intense pressure on the defensive positions that surrounded the town.

Patton had six divisions committed. The result was a series of savage battles that steadily ground Manteuffel’s forces down and limited German options elsewhere—in particular in the south, where a limited German attack had threatened Strasbourg for a short time.

Because the situation appeared to be stabilizing in the north, the most significant problem was how to dam up Manteuffel’s advance. Patton had already prepared three possible responses by Third Army. Thus, he was able to telephone his staff the codeword for one of those alternatives at the conclusion of his meeting with Eisenhower and Bradley. The Third Army immediately sprang into action. Patton’s instinct was to drive at the base of the salient. But Eisenhower, astonished at the speed with which Patton promised to respond, decided on an advance on Bastogne.

The great offensive petered out, with the US First and Third Armies linking up, and the German order to retreat finally being given. There was no longer a bulge in the Allied line, but instead a large one developing in the German line.

The Germans had reached their high-water point. That is not to say they would not launch further attacks. They battered Bastogne despite the fact that the Third Army had driven a relief column through to the besieged town. German attacks that attempted to take the city and cut its lifeline failed because the Third Army had so rapidly supported its forces in the Ardennes.

With Omar Bradley on the southern side of the bulge and often out of touch with the 1st and 9th Armies on the northern side, Eisenhower temporarily placed Bernard Montgomery in charge of all forces north of the German spearheads. This had the advantage of providing a more coherent command structure on the north flank of the bulge and making British divisions available as a reserve behind the American 1st Army front. The short-term problem was that Montgomery applied his slow methodical approach to a counter-stroke which came far too late to prevent the Germans from withdrawing the bulk of their forces.

Montgomery explained to Alan Brooke that he had no confidence in the American 3rd Army attack and expected to ‘have to deal unaided with both 5th and 6th Panzer Armies.’ Three days later Montgomery was in a complete panic. He called for vast withdrawals in the south, including the evacuation of all of Alsace and Lorraine. Otherwise there could be no offensive in the north in the spring or summer of 1945. These predictions, which were completely erroneous in regard to the Americans, the 3rd Army attack, and the whole course of the fighting, explain his caution when a very different approach might well have been appropriate.

With the defeat of the German counter-offensive, the question confronting the Americans was what objectives their own counter-attack should seek. Montgomery, commanding U.S. forces in the north, had been astonishingly tactful in handling his American subordinates. In contrast to Bradley and Patton, Montgomery favored a counter-offensive later rather than sooner. Patton argued for deep enveloping attacks at the base of the salient by the First and Third Armies to put German forces in the bulge in the bag. But Bradley had no stomach for risks. Hodges argued that the primitive road network in the north would hamper his troops.

Montgomery supported the more limited solution of pushing the Germans out of the bulge rather than attempting to cut them off. Thus, the collective wisdom of the other Allied senior commanders overruled Patton. The First and Third Armies would attack toward Houffalize in the center of the bulge rather than toward the east. They would then sweep on to the German frontier.

The position at the tip of the bulge, where the German spearhead units were approaching the Meuse, still remained uncertain for the Americans. The 2nd Panzer Division slipped past the flank of the U.S. 84th Infantry Division and moved on toward the Meuse. Montgomery had ordered Hodges to hold the reinforcements he was receiving for the eventual counter-attack, which was already in the planning stages. Nevertheless, the First Army allowed Collins to commit the recently arrived 2nd Armored Division to attack the Germans before they reached the Meuse.

With the support of Allied fighter-bombers, the Americans smashed the lead German spearheads just 3 km from the Meuse. By evening on Christmas day the enemy was withdrawing, abandoning over 80 tanks in the wreckage of defeat.

As soon as the situation improved and thus confounded every one of his predictions, Montgomery called a press conference. There he made a fool of himself by making it appear as if he had personally retrieved with British forces—of which practically none were engaged—a disaster created by the Americans. By this extraordinarily unwise gesture he ended all hopes he and Brooke still held of permanently attaching substantial American forces to his command. The opportunity provided by the German offensive of pinching off a major assault force as well as of recreating any Allied ground command under Eisenhower had evaporated.

‘I salute the brave fighting man of America; I never want to fight alongside better soldiers,’ Montgomery told a press conference at his Zonhoven headquarters. ‘I have tried to feel I am almost an American soldier myself so that I might take no unsuitable action to offend them in any way.’ This encomium made no mention of his fellow generals, however. His press conference served to inflame tensions among the Anglo-American High Command.

Although he spoke of the average GIs being ‘jolly brave’ in what with studied insouciance he called ‘an interesting little battle’, he claimed he had entered the engagement ‘with a bang’. He left the impression that he had effectively rescued the American generals from defeat.

Patton and Montgomery had long loathed one another. Patton called Monty ‘that cocky little limey fart’, Monty thought Patton a ‘foul mouthed lover of war’. As the United States overperformed Great Britain in almost every aspect of the war effort, Montgomery found himself unable to face the new situation. He became progressively more anti-American as the United States’ prominence became more evident.

Saying that Montgomery was ‘all-out, right-down-to-the-toes mad’, Omar Bradley told Eisenhower that he could not serve with him. He would prefer to transfer back to the United States. Patton immediately made the same declaration. Then Bradley started courting the press himself. He and Patton subsequently leaked to the American press information which was damaging to Montgomery.

In the words of one of Bradley’s press officers, the ex editor Ralph Ingersoll, Bradley, Hodges and Lieutenant-General William Simpson of Ninth Army began ‘to make and carry out plans without the assistance of the official channels, on a new basis openly discussed only among themselves. In order to do this they had to conceal their plans from the British and almost literally outwit Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters, half of which was British.’ The British and American generals in the west from 1943 to 1945 did indeed have a special relationship: it was especially dreadful.

Montgomery gave his extensive press briefing to a select group of war correspondents. It was a disgraceful performance by anyone’s estimation. Even his personal staff were shocked by his ineptitude, or some thought his malice. ‘General Eisenhower placed me in command of the whole northern front,’ boasted Monty. ‘I employed the whole available power of the British group of armies. You have this picture of British troops fighting on both sides of American forces who had suffered a hard blow. This is a fine Allied picture.’

Montgomery certainly ought to have paid full tribute to Patton’s achievement of staving in the southern flank of the Ardennes offensive. But Patton was not a wholly attractive man. The obverse side of his intense racial pride in himself was his anti-Semitism. His belief in the Bolshevist-Zionist conspiracy was in no way lessened after the liberation of the concentration camps. By the end of his career, the US Army had placed a psychiatrist on his staff to keep an eye on him, and were monitoring his phone calls.

The Germans staged a subsidiary offensive in Alsace and a massive air operation designed to keep the Allies off-balance. These too failed.

The offensive in Alsace was designed to keep the initiative and to take advantage of Allied transfers to meet the offensive further north. But beyond minimal gains and an angry quarrel between Eisenhower and de Gaulle about a possible evacuation of Strasbourg, this operation had no substantial effect.

More important in its implications was a massive German air operation. Coordinated mass attacks on Allied airfields were designed to strike a major blow on the Allied air forces but had the opposite effect. Although the 1,000 German planes involved destroyed about 180 and damaged close to 100 planes, they themselves lost 277 planes. The operation left the German air force weaker than ever and incapable of mounting any major attack again.

Hitler had been warned by Rundstedt and Model that the offensive would only lead to a drastic weakening of the Reich’s power to resist the Russians on the Eastern Front, without any concomitant advantage in the west. Nonetheless, he was willing to gamble all, as so often before in his career. The hopes of many Germans that the Red Army could be kept back were thus sacrificed for an offensive in the west, against an enemy far less vicious and rapacious than the one bearing down on them from the east.

‘Only Hitler’s personal folly maintained the Ardennes battle,’ records historian Max Hastings, ‘encouraged by Jodl, who persuaded him that maintaining pressure in the west was dislocating the Anglo-Americans’ offensive plans.’ So it was, but only at a greater cost to Germany’s defensive plans. Hitler was never able to undertake a major offensive again.

It was unusual for Hitler to have been influenced by Alfred Jodl, the Chief of the Operations Staff of OKW throughout the war. Jodl’s attitude towards his Führer can be gleaned from his speech about the coming victory to Gauleiters in Munich in November 1943, when he said: ‘My most profound confidence is based on the fact that at the head of Germany there stands a man who by his entire development, his desires, and striving can only have been destined by Fate to lead our people into a brighter future.’

At Nuremberg, Göring told Leon Goldensohn that he thought Wilhelm Keitel should not even be on trial because ‘although he was a field marshal, [he] was a small person who did whatever Hitler instructed’. Head of the OKW throughout the war, Keitel, in the estimation of the British historian John Wheeler-Bennett, had ‘ambition but no talent, loyalty but no character, a certain native shrewdness and charm, but neither intelligence nor personality’.

‘Why did the generals who have been so ready to term me a complaisant and incompetent yes-man fail to secure my removal?’ Keitel wrote in his memoirs before he was hanged at Nuremberg. ‘Was that all that difficult? No, that wasn’t it; the truth was that nobody would have been ready to replace me, because each one knew that he would end up as much of a wreck as I.’ There is some justification to this. Certainly Kleist felt that because ‘Hitler wanted a weak general in that powerful position in order to have complete control of him,’ other generals could not have borne the job. ‘If I had held Keitel’s position under Hitler,’ Kleist later claimed, ‘I wouldn’t have lasted two weeks.’

Had Keitel and Jodl shown more backbone with the Führer, as Guderian did, they might have been able to instil a sense of proportion into his strategy. Keitel’s attitude was summed up in his remark to his Nuremberg psychiatrist in May 1946, when he said: ‘It isn’t right to be obedient only when things go well; it is much harder to be a good, obedient soldier when things go badly and times are hard. Obedience and faith at such time is a virtue.’ Hitler had plenty of people still willing to give him obedience and faith.

During the fighting, both sides suffered heavy losses. But, while Allied forces could replace such losses, the Germans could not afford them. The offensive served as a temporary morale booster for the German soldiers. On the Allied side, the Americans recognised that heavy fighting still lay ahead of them. At the command level, Montgomery’s stubbornness created some bad blood between the British and their American allies. The offensive also helped the Red Army in the East. With their attention turned towards the West, the Germans were not ready for the massive Soviet offensive in the East.

About 80,000 Germans and 70,000 Americans were killed, wounded and missing, with a large contingent of the latter. Each side lost about seven hundred tanks and other armored fighting vehicles. This balance, however, obscures the fact that the Germans had used up their last reserves. The Allied forces, while no longer growing, could replace their losses.

Shifting the aim of Germany's new weapons, the V-1 and V-2, from London to Antwerp, caused some casualties and damage there but hardly interfered with the effective operation of this key harbor. Already in December over a quarter of American supplies were being unloaded in Antwerp. In the following months it continued to carry the largest or next to largest share of the load.

Inside Germany and in the German army, the temporary return to the offensive did have major favorable repercussions on morale. But the failure of the whole project eventually had an even more depressing effect. Here the analogy to 1918 was too close for comfort. The dashing of hopes attached to what was understood to be a last throw of the dice necessarily had a redoubled impact both at the front and at home.

In the American army, there was a fuller recognition that a great deal of hard fighting still lay ahead. After initial confusion and setbacks, the soldiers and the commanders had pulled themselves together. Success at Bastogne had shown that determined and well led American soldiers could face Germans with tanks better than their own and hold.

The hesitations of Montgomery which had allowed a German army which might very well have been completely cut off to withdraw for a third time were contrasted with the dash of Patton's shift to the offensive northwards. The press conference incident infuriated the Americans. The British leaders, especially Brooke and Montgomery, were more certain of American incompetence than ever before.

As the Western Allies had to rebuild their own forces for the final assault on Germany, the commitment of Germany's last reserves to the offensive in the west guaranteed a rapid advance of the Red Army once its winter offensive got started. The German army Chief of Staff, General Guderian, had warned about this beforehand. He repeatedly called for ending the Ardennes offensive in order to transfer troops east while that offensive was under way, but to no effect.

By the time it was obvious that both German offensives in the west had entirely failed to attain any strategic objective, the other elements in German hopes of reversing the tide of the war had already been dashed as well. The strategy of denying supplies to the Western Allies by holding on to the ports had, in effect, collapsed with the opening of Antwerp to Allied shipping.

The employment of Germany's last reserves in the failed offensive in the west and the collapse of Germany's industrial system under the pounding of Allied bombers combined to set up Germany and what remained of its European satellites—Hungary, the puppet states of Slovakia and Croatia together with Mussolini's ‘Social Republic’ in northern Italy—for their final defeat.

The counter-attacks of the Western Allies, squeezing out the bulge in the west, and the slow but continued advance of the Red Army in Hungary were harbingers of new major offensives to come: the Soviet winter operation and the resumption of offensives by the Allied forces in the West and also in Italy.

The effect on Allied morale was powerful. ‘The Germans were going to be defeated,’ concluded a British tank commander who had fought in the battle, ‘and not only in their Ardennes adventure but in their whole mad attempt to dominate the world.’

According to the report given by the Hungarian Fascist leader Ferenc Szâlasi to the Japanese ambassador, Hitler had not entirely rejected his advice to reach an understanding with the USSR, whereas there was no possibility of a compromise with the Western Powers. But all Soviet incentive and interest had vanished by this time. It was obvious to the Soviet political and military leaders that there was still hard fighting ahead, but the possible gains in Europe were substantial.

In an air of unreality, the German high command responded late, if at all, to the disasters confronting it. Hitler remained optimistic about prospects in the west until late December. Even then he proved unwilling to sanction anything but last-minute withdrawals. Thus, the German response to a deep envelopment of the Ardennes might have led to another Falaise.