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A Brief History of WWII

The Battle of the Bulge

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While the Allies bludgeoned their way into the border marches of the Reich, Hitler carefully husbanded Germany's last reserves of tanks and infantry for a desperate attempt to reverse the situation in the west. On 16 December powerful German forces struck the lightly held sector of the First Army front south of Monschau in the Ardennes. German armored spearheads drove toward the Mouse River, aiming at Antwerp. Aided by bad weather, a variety of deceptive measures, and the failure of Allied intelligence correctly to interpret the signs of an impending attack, they achieved complete surprise. Elements of five U.S. divisions plus support troops fell back in confusion. Two regiments of the 106th Infantry Division, cut off and surrounded atop the mountainous Schnee Eiffel, surrendered after only brief fighting -- the largest battlefield surrender of U.S. troops in World War II.

Partly as a result of the decision to continue attacking throughout the autumn, U.S. forces were spread thin in areas such as the Ardennes, and the Americans had few reserves to meet the attack. SHAEF immediately ordered available units into the threatened area, sending an airborne division into the important communications center of Bastogne. By 18 December the magnitude of the German effort was clear, and Eisenhower ordered Patton's Third Army to disengage from its offensive toward the Saar and to attack the enemy's southern flank. Scattered American units, fighting desperate rearguard actions, disrupted the German timetable, obstructing or holding key choke points -- road junctions, narrow defiles, and single-lane bridges across unfordable streams -- to buy time. Defenders at the town of St. Vith held out for six days; V Corps troops at Elsenborn Ridge repelled furious attacks, jamming the northern shoulder of the enemy advance. To the south armored and airborne troops, although completely surrounded and under heavy German attack, held Bastogne for the duration of the battle. German efforts to widen the southern shoulder of the bulge along the Sauer River came to nothing.

Short of fuel, denied critical roadnets, hammered by air attacks, and confronted by American armor, the German spearheads recoiled short of the Mouse. Meanwhile, Patton had altered the Third Army's axis of advance and attacked northward, relieving Bastogne on 26 December. On 3 January First and Ninth Army troops and British forces launched attacks against the northern shoulder of the bulge. Meanwhile, a secondary German offensive, Operation NORDWIND, failed in the south. Eisenhower had ordered the Sixth Army Group to fall back, pulling out of Strasbourg. General de Gaulle, the French leader, was enraged. After heated negotiations, Allied troops remained in Strasbourg, and the German attack lost its momentum. By the end of January the Allies had retaken all the ground lost in both German offensives. The Battle of the Bulge was over.

Just as the Allies' August breakout had failed to achieve a war-winning decision, so, too, the German attempt to reenact its victory of June 1940 failed. The Allies, however, could make good their losses, while Hitler had squandered almost all his remaining armor and fighter aircraft. To make matters worse for the Reich, the Soviets on 12 January opened a large-scale offensive in Poland and East Prussia that carried their troops to within forty miles of Berlin. German forces that survived the Ardennes fighting had to be hurriedly shifted eastward to meet the growing Russian threat.

This text has been converted from "A Brief History of the U.S. Army in World War II" published by the U.S. Army Center for Military History.

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