BATTLE OF THE BULGE
After five years of war on a global scale December 1944 was a time of crisis for Germany. Reeling back from remorseless attacks on three fronts, it was the moment to choose between contracting their over extended fronts into one last defense of the Fatherland itself or to gamble all on one last major offensive.
With Adolph Hitler exercising complete and absolute control over Germany and every soldier from private to Field Marshall there was never any question, it would be an offensive, a Blitzkrieg on the 1940 pattern which would dramatically change the situation on the Western Front in Germany's favor.
Without alerting Allied intelligence the German's had raised and secretly transported twenty six divisions including ten Panzer numbering 250,000 men and 1,000 tanks into the Eifel hills east of an eighty five mile sector of the Allied front running from Monschau in the north through the Ardennes to Echternach in Luxembourg.
This sector was defended by 80,000 men of the American Eighth Corps under Major General Troy Middleton comprising four Infantry Divisions two of which had been severely mauled in recent fighting and the other two were completely green and untried.
The German's had assembled their forces into three armies and placed them under the command of some of their best field commanders and subordinate officer corps from the Russian Front.
Although Field Marshall Gerd Von Rundstedt was Supreme commander of all German forces on the Western front, for the offensive, Army Group B as this force was called, would be under the direct commanded of Field Marshall Walter Model, a master of improvisation who had prevented total German defeat on the Eastern Front on three separate occasions.
FIELD MARSHALL MODEL
For the offensive Model possessed a strong army of Crack Waffen SS Panzer Divisions and their supporting infantry Grenadiers, a regular Whermacht Panzer Army containing the best of the remaining German Panzer Divisions and an under strength Infantry Army for protecting his southern flank .
The Sixth SS Panzer Army under the command of SS General Josef 'Sepp' Dietrich was to spearhead the assault in the north. From 1939 until September 1944 Dietrich was commander of the famous 1st SS Panzer Division - LiebstandarteAdolphHitler (Hitler's Bodyguard).
The Fifth Panzer Army commanded by Hassovon Manteuffel, another fighting General from the Russian front, was to attack through the center. Covering the expected long southern flank of the assault was given to the German Seventh army under General ErichBrandenberger.
DIETRICH MANTEUFFEL BRANDENBERGER
The German plan was to break through the Ardennes to the river Meuse, swing north and northwest and capture the strategic sea port of Antwerp on the Dutch coast. This would sever the Allied lines of supply and cut their forces in two thus trapping the U.S. 1st, U.S. 9th, British 2nd and Canadian 1st armies in the north.
Once the isolated northern army group had been destroyed, Hitler believed the Western Allies would then be ready to make a separate peace and Germany could then divert all her strength against the Russian's in the East.
The night before the attack was to commence, English speaking German commando units dressed in American uniforms infiltrated behind the Allied lines and caused havoc and mayhem by changing road signs, spreading misinformation and cutting telephone lines.
At 05:30 on the morning of December 16th 1944 the silence and calm of the fog shrouded Ardennes was shattered by the sudden thunder of 2,000 German artillery pieces and heavy mortars. After an extensive three hour barrage the German offensive went forward.
THE WAFFEN SS WERE HEAVILY ARMED
At the outset Sixth SS Panzer Army ran into the right flank of the U.S. 1st Army in the act of advancing towards the German border. After bitter fighting and heavy casualties the American's managed to prevent the first waves of German shock troops from advancing.
Dietrich was astonished to find such strong enemy forces so close to his debarkation area and ordered the reserve elements of his 1st and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions to rush forward. The American 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions along with the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion resisted fierce enemy assaults continuing to deny the German's access to the town of Leige.
One German armored spearhead under the command of SS Colonel Jochen Peiper did however break through the American defenses and continue with the advance. On December 17th they seized a small U.S. fuel depot at Bullingen where they paused to refuel before continuing westward.
Near the Belgium town of Malmedy, Kampfgruppe Peiper encountered elements of the American 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. After a brief engagement the American's were forced to surrender. The 86 survivors were disarmed and sent to a nearby field were they were then summarily executed by SS troops.
Peipers battle group would continue onward towards Stavelot and Staumont threading its way through deep valleys and rolling hills until their own petrol supplies ran dry and they were forced to abandoned their armor and vehicles just one mile short of the largest Allied fuel dump in the entire Western theatre of operations.
Having failed to capture a single objective, the complete and utter failure by Dietrich's elite Sixth SS Panzer Army meant that by December 19th, a mere three days into the offensive, Model's entire right wing had been stopped dead in its tracks and forced onto the defensive.
It was in the center however that General Von Manteuffel's weaker but better led Fifth Panzer Army would achieve the breakthrough needed to convince Hitler that all was not lost and to continue with the operation.
The sacrifice of the U.S. 10th Armored Division held up Manteuffel's advance long enough to allow 18,000 men of the American 101st Airborne Division to arrive (by truck) in and around the town of Bastogne on the 18th.
After a very determined and stubborn defense by the U.S. 7th Armored and 106th Infantry Divisions the strategic road junction of St. Vith fell to Manteuffel's Fifth Panzer Army early on December 21st.
The fall of St. Vith allowed Fifth Panzer to rapidly advance unopposed towards Bastogne completing the towns encirclement on the evening of December 21st. The loss of this vital road, rail, supply and communications center would have dealt a crippling blow to the Allies in their attempts to halt the German offensive.
THE GERMANS BYPASS BASTOGNE
On the German southern flank Brandenberger's Seventh Army comprising mostly teenagers and medically unfit Volks - Grenadier units (Peoples Infantry) found it increasingly difficult to capture their objectives and protect Manteuffel's left flank. Only the elite Fifth Parachute Infantry Division managed to keep pace with Fifth Panzers lightning advance.
By severing the front of General Omar Bradley's 12th Army Group, the Germans had made it impossible for him to exercise command over his two armies north of the German salient. Allied Supreme commander General Dwight D Eisenhower therefore placed British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery in temporary command of all Allied troops north of the Bulge.
Model now ordered Manteuffel's 2nd and 116th Panzer divisions to bypass Bastogne and continue westward leaving the 26th Volks - Grenadier Infantry Division under Major General Heinz Kokott and a battle group from Panzer Lehr along with the 901st and 902nd Panzer Grenadier Infantry Regiments under Lieutenant General Fritz Bayerlein behind to capture the town.
Manteuffel angrily protested this decision arguing these were forces he desperately needed to continue his advance and reach the Meuse. Having no provision for failure, Model was trapped by the inflexibility of Hitler's plan. Model therefore had no choice but to firmly deny his best commander. Model did however decide to exploit Manteuffel's success by shifting units south from Deitrich's Sixth SS to widen the breakthrough area.
During the early morning hours of December 22nd, Kokott sent envoys into Bastogne threatening its immediate annihilation if they did not surrender. During the proceedings American Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe was handed a Telex stating " PATTON'S THIRD ARMY IS ON THE WAY " armed with this information McAuliffe defiantly responded ''Nuts'' to the German ultimatum.
In response Kokott launched a pre dawn assault against Bastogne's eastern defenses. Tanks and self propelled guns supported by a battalion of Volks Grenadiers advanced from the town of Bixory against the sector held by the American 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment.
After a pitched battle lasting over an hour, the German attack began to waiver as concentrated American tank, artillery and heavy machine gun fire began to take a heavy toll on the German attackers eventually forcing them to fall back.
All during the next day Kokott and Bayerlein organized and assembled their forces for a more determined attack to capture Bastonge. Just after dusk Panzer Lehr, the 901st and 902nd Panzer Grenadiers along with the 26th Volks - Grenadiers Launched an all out attack to breach the American defenses.
After a two hour artillery bombardment covering the entire American defense lines from the town of Foy in the north to Marvie in the south, the German's advanced. The assault began with a thrust consisting the bulk of Panzer Lehr's heavy armor supported by the 26th from the north east between Foy and Bixory.
This was followed by an attack down the road from the town of Neffe with tanks and armored fighting vehicles supported by the 901st, lastly the 902nd supported by self propelled guns advanced through the fields between Neffe and Marvie.
The attack by Panzer Lehr and the 26th Volks - Grenadiers started off badly as they advanced into a rolling fog which had drifted through their ranks from the north. They soon ran up against well defended positions under Colonel Sink and his 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment supported by two platoons of the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion.
Both sides now engaged in a running fire fight blindly targeting the gun flashes of the other through the thick fog, snow and complete darkness. With no sense of position, direction or cohesion the fighting soon degenerated hand to hand and would continue throughout the night.
As the 901st advanced towards the American positions held by 501st under Colonel Ewell, he ordered all eleven artillery battalions within Bastogne to saturate the road and surrounding area with a wall of shells.
The devastating bombardment scored numerous direct hits on the enemy forces knocking out several German tanks and armored personal carriers. The speed and accuracy of the American rate of fire sent the remnants of the German armor reeling back towards Neffe, leaving the Grenadiers to be cut down by heavy machine guns.
The 902nd made little progress as their advance got bogged down in the deep snow preventing the Grenadiers keeping pace with their armored support. Leaving the infantry behind the German self propelled guns continued onward and fought their way through the American defense lines.
The American's now scrambled their forces pouring in ordinance from every available weapon which could be called upon, often over open sights and at point blank range. After a desperate struggle in which the American Paratroops almost abandoned their positions, artillery rounds suddenly poured in from the 501st stopping the German Panzers dead in their tracks.
As the 902nd finally approached the scene all that remained were the burning hulks of German tanks illuminating the darkness. The Grenadiers were now met with a hail of shrapnel from artillery and heavy machine guns. Unable to advance even a single step through the murderous carnage, the Grenadiers turned and fled back across the open fields in complete disarray.
As dawn broke on the 23rd it became evidently clear that the German assault to capture Bastogne had completely failed. Dead German infantry and burning vehicles littered the Eastern approaches to the town.
As the fog dissipated over the American northern sector it was quite apparent just how desperate the fighting had been throughout the night and how close the Paratroopers had come to being overwhelmed.
The failure of the German attack had left their forces weak and exhausted. Because of the heavy losses suffered, the German encirclement was now reduced to no more than a thin line of strong points connected by infantry patrols.
The situation was no better for the besieged, they too had absorbed terrible casualties and their supply stocks were at a critical level, they had not been re supplied for the last six days due to the heavy fog and snow grounding the Allied Air Forces.
The reality of the situation was that the German's could no longer launch any further serious offensive operations against Bastogne and the American garrison could not hold the city in the face of another determined assault.
During the afternoon of the 23rd small breaks in the fog cover appeared in the skies. The Allied Air Forces wasted little time in getting airborne. The Allies main priority was the re supply of Bastogne. Two hundred and forty one C - 47 Transport planes flew in under a protective screen of Lightning fighter bombers and dropped 1500 bundles of much needed supplies.
The German anti aircraft batteries around Bastogne made a good account of themselves knocking twenty five C - 47s out of the skies. Only the reappearance of heavy fog prevented the Allies from launching any further sorties.
Mantueffel now insisted that Generals Kokott and Bayerlein could not be expected to overcome the strong defenses around Bastogne with the under strength 26th Volks - Grenadiers and the single armored battle group of Panzer Lehr.
Field Marshall Model also intervened and added weight to Mantueffel's arguments. The German High Command reluctantly agreed and finally released their strategic reserve. The 115th Battle Group comprising four battalions of infantry, 100 self propelled guns and 25 Panzers along with the 15th and 39th Panzer Grenadier Infantry Divisions and the 77th Infantry Regiment.
During the morning of the 24th, spearheads of Manteuffel's 2nd Panzer Division reached the village of Celles and occupied the surrounding heights overlooking the Meuse, a mere four miles off in the distance. Within sight of his main objective, the fog completely lifted exposing the battlefield to the skies above, Mantueffel knew he could go no further.
One hundred and sixty C - 47s now dropped an additional 900 bundles of supplies into Bastogne for the loss of twenty aircraft, while the accompanying Lightning's methodically pounded German positions outside the defense perimeter.
During the lapses in the Allied air assault, Bayerlein and Kokott skillfully began regrouping their forces for an early morning attack scheduled for Christmas Day. The plan called for the German forces stationed to the east of Bastogne to launch small probing attacks to keep the American's believing that another major attack was forthcoming while the fresh divisions from the German reserve were to sweep around and launch the main assault against Bastogne from the west.
Their timetable called for the attack to begin at 0400 hours, for the American perimeter to be broken at 0600 hrs and for the German's to be in the center of Bastogne by 0900 hrs at the latest before the dreaded Allied fighter bombers could arrive.
At 0300 hrs the German Luftwaffe made a surprise appearance and flew in support of the artillery barrage knocking out several key front line communication posts. After an intense hour long bombardment, the German ground attack went forward.
Almost immediately units of the 15th Panzer Grenadiers and American Paratroops became engaged in hand to hand fighting for every house and street within the village of Champs. Meanwhile the 115th Battle Group had struck from the village of Flamizoulle and easily smashed their way through the American outer defenses.
Once penetrating the American forward positions, Bayerlein split the Battle Group into two forces sending the Panzers along with 25 self propelled guns, the 39th Panzer Grenadiers and two battalions of infantry to strike towards Bastogne.
At 0845 on Christmas morning this force reported to Kokott they had reached the western edges of Bastogne and were now less than one mile from 101st Airborne's command post.
Bayerlein's second attack group comprising 75 self propelled guns, the 77th Infantry Regiment and two battalions of infantry attempted to seize the village of Hemroulle in an attempt to draw American reserves away from the bitter fighting in Champs and lure them out into the open for his heavy guns to destroy.
During their advance towards Hemroulle they became exposed to weaponry from all over the battle field, artillery, heavy machine guns, tanks and numerous bazookas (which were acquired in great quantities during the last supply drops) along with the precision air strikes of Lightning fighter bombers which had now joined the fight.
The appearance of a platoon from the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion ( in the process of transferring from Bastogne's eastern defense lines ) moved in and closed the gap behind the German penetration, trapping the entire German Battle Group.
The American's now repeatedly shelled, bombed and strafed the encircled German forces. The German's could form no front, flanks or rear guard to defend themselves as they were continually assaulted from all directions. As the day continued the German Battle Group was hammered and compressed into an ever tighter pocket with no chance of escape.
After receiving the first optimistic messages from Bayerlein's the first attack group, General Kokott could not get any information with regards to the status of the battle until nightfall when it was reported that the German assault had been virtually annihilated.
After the destruction of the German battle group, American reinforcements began to arrive at the village of Champs and push the 15th Panzer Grenadiers out into the open fields where they were set upon by artillery, mortars and fighter bombers.
Fourteen miles south of Bastogne General Patton was getting very impatient with the progress of U.S. Third Armies advance and ordered it to continue throughout the night to relieve the stricken 101st. Against mounting loses and the advice of his subordinate commanders Patton continued to allow his armored formations to move along small roads through enemy countryside held by the German 5th Parachute Division.
The commander of 5th Para, one Colonel Heilmann had concluded that his defense lines were already overextended which made the division to weak to hold Patton's advance. He therefore ordered his forces to pull back into a more connected defense, choosing to concentrate on a screen of strong points dominating the small roads along Patton's route.
In and around the small villages of Chaumont and Burnon, Patton's 4th armored division would come under heavy fire from anti armor personal weapons of the 14th Parachute Regiment hidden in the dense forests lining the roadways.
After several hours hard fighting in which the 14th Para fought a skillful rearguard action back upon the villages of Warnach and Martelange to link up with their sister Regiment the 15th Para, they had cost Patton 25 Tanks and a company of armored Infantry.
Patton now sent in the U.S. 26th Infantry Division to support 4th armored in taking Martelange and Warnach. Although the two German Regiments fought hard and with great courage, they could not withstand the insurmountable odds against them and were forced to withdrawal northward and join forces with 13th Parachute Regiment in the town of Bigonville.
In some of the bitterest fighting since D - Day, Patton's 3rd Corps struggled to occupy the town. After fierce fighting the American's had managed to gain positions which allowed them to launch an enveloping movement to encircle the town which would also be supported by a strong double assault from the South and West.
While this maneuver was under way an entire field artillery battalion supported by hundreds of fighter bombers shelled and bombed the German positions but the 5th Para fought back with great skill and determination to deny the American's the approaches to the village.
As dawn approached Heilmann took stock of the situation before him. His three Regiments of Parachute Infantry had done all and more than had been required of them. They had fought with courage and ferocity for nearly five days and nights limiting Patton's entire U.S. Third Army from advancing no more than a few miles a day.
Heilmann could no longer ignore the depleted strength of his division, he could simply not allow these brave men to be annihilated in the next days fighting. He therefore ordered the remnants of 5th Para to withdrawal north east towards the town of Villeroux.
On December 26th U.S. 7th and 8th Corps cut off then crushed the advance elements of the 2nd Panzer Divisions at Celles forcing General Mantueffel to call an immediate withdrawal as his flanks began to crumble in upon themselves.
Adopting the General's fighting withdrawal techniques which had served him so well on the Russian front Mantueffel's entire Panzer Corps consisting the 2nd, 116th and Panzer Lehr now began the desperate fight eastward to reach the safety of the German lines.
The hasty withdrawal of 5th Para now allowed the U.S. 4th Armored Division to form a protective cauldron along the main highway into Bastogne, where for the next two days hundreds of ambulances set about evacuating the severely wounded.
Eisenhower now ordered General HodgesU.S. First Army to strike south and General Patton's Third Army to continue with their advance north and take the towns of Houffalize and SaintVith, thus slicing the German held salient in two.
Patton had been finding the inheritance of Bastogne and the surrounding area an increasingly heavy burden. The stubborn defense by the remnants of the 26th Volks - Grenadiers, battle group Panzer Lehr, the 901st, and 902nd Panzer Grenadiers along with the elite 5th Para had allowed Mantueffel's shattered Panzer Corps to reach the safety of the German lines on December 30th.
On January 1st the Luftwaffe launched a surprise attack on the enemy airfields with the goal of eliminating Allied air power over the region. Although the attack destroyed 400 enemy aircraft and rendered many air bases inoperable, the German's lost 200 aircraft and pilots which were irreplaceable where as Allied losses were replaced in a few days.
From January 3rd - 9th U.S. 1st and 3rd Armies steadily closed the pincers around Houffalize and SaintVith. Fighting a determined and skillful delaying action, Field Marshall Model just managed to extricate the bulk of his forces before they were trapped.
Model hastily set about forming a new defensive front but the news from his commanders was not good. General Von Manteuffel reported that both his 2nd and 116th Panzer Divisions were practically destroyed as a fighting force and Panzer Lehr had been badly mauled.
General's Kokott and Bayerlein also informed Model their Regiments and Battalions existed in name only, with each numbering a mere few hundred men. They also had to abandon most of the remaining Panzers and heavy guns of battle group Panzer Lehr due to exhausted fuel stocks.
On January 13th Hitler grudgingly authorized Model to order a general retreat. Three days later Patton and Hodges finally made contact at Houffalize and over the next two weeks five Allied armies systematically destroyed the remaining German forces within the bulge.
GERMAN TROOPS BEGIN TO SURRENDER
By January 28th the remnants of the German armies in the west had been pushed back to within the borders of Germany itself, for the Third Reich the end was near, Hitler knew he had gambled all - and lost.
The Ardennes offensive had drawn thirty three Allied and twenty nine German divisions into the largest pitched battle fought on the Western front throughout the war. The German's suffered 100,000 casualties with 30,000 taken prisoner along with 500 Tanks and 800 Artillery pieces. In contrast the American losses numbered 80,000 casualties with 24,000 taken prisoner, 250 Tanks and 200 Artillery pieces.
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