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