Hitler’s Hail Mary

The Battle of the Bulge, the Third Reich’s final major offensive, was a military failure that still managed to surprise the Allies, claim thousands of lives, and prolong the war.

As early as September 13, 1944, General Dwight David Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary forces in Europe (SHAEF), confided to his boss in Washington, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, that the “termination of the War in Europe might be expected by the end of 1944.” Ike was not a naïve man, and his was not a naïve statement.

By the time Eisenhower wrote that letter, the formidable German war machine had been badly mauled on both the Eastern and Western fronts. The Normandy campaign had reached its climax in an orgy of destruction when the Allied armies and air forces trapped the retreating German divisions in the Falaise pocket, where 70,000 Wehrmacht troops were killed or captured. The Normandy campaign as a whole had cost the Reich something like half a million combat-hardened men, 1,500 tanks, and 20,000 other vehicles.

In the east, Hitler’s losses were far worse. Soviet forces had deftly enveloped the German 4th and 9th Armies, annihilating some 28 divisions. As Peter Caddick-Adams observes in Snow & Steel: The Battle of the Bulge, 1944-45, his powerful and detail-packed new history of the last great German offensive of World War II, losses in the East amounted “to a military catastrophe double the size of Stalingrad, and in terms of materiel and losses of experienced man power ranked as the most calamitous setback of the war, one from which the Wehrmacht would never recover.”

German losses in the West following the Falaise fiasco certainly would have been devastating had it not been for the fact that the British and the Americans had advanced so fast they had outrun their perilously inadequate supply lines. Major offensive operations were called to a halt in October while Canadian forces struggled to clear the major port of Antwerp of its stubborn German defenders. This delay gave the Germans precious time necessary to redeploy powerful air and ground assets from the east and west behind the Siegfried Line along the fatherland’s western border. These forces were particularly concentrated just to the east of the rugged hills and forests of the Ardennes forest in Belgium and Luxembourg.

Ultra intercepts from Bletchley Park, in addition to a welter of reports from Allied intelligence-gathering organizations in late November and early December, gave strong indication that an offensive operation might be brewing, but these reports were uniformly discounted by the Allied high command. After all, the Russians were about to mount a winter offensive of their own. The Germans couldn’t possibly afford to go on the attack in the West, given that reality. Or so it seemed.

Besides, victory fever had spread like wildfire throughout the Allied armies. Intelligence analysts pulled their punches for fear of being labeled defeatist. The senior commanders from Ike on down were “thinking only in terms of what they could do to the enemy, but rarely what the enemy could do to them.”

In the event, the enemy did plenty—far more than SHAEF, or for that matter the German high command, imagined possible. Professor Caddick-Adams, a retired British Army combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who has led tours through the Ardennes battlefield for some 20 years, captures the explosive violence of the opening salvos of the Battle of the Bulge with the same keen eye for terrain and the telling detail that characterizes his reconstructions of scores of combat engagements, from squad to corps level, in this mammoth 40-day slugfest:

At precisely 05:30 a.m., Saturday, 16 December 1944, the misty gloom of the Ardennes was ripped apart by a deafening roar. To those who happened to be watching, the eastern horizon turned white, “as though a volcano had suddenly erupted or someone had turned a light switch on.” The sudden cacophony rolled from the resort city of Echternach in the south and along 89 miles of front, to the pretty half-timbered town of Monschau in the north. Woods were shredded, the earth trembled and the ground exploded in showers of stone and red-hot metal splinters. GIs cowered in their tree-trunk bunkers and stone houses, while every caliber of shell the Third Reich possessed was hurled at them.

All manner of weapons, from huge railway guns to V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets, were added to the range of firepower, hurtling their way beyond American lines to Liege, Brussels, and Antwerp. At 3:20 p.m. one of the V-2s hit the Rex cinema in central Antwerp, killing 567 people, including 296 servicemen; they were part of a capacity audience watching Buffalo Bill, starring Joel McCrea and Maureen O’Hara. In the Ardennes, hunkering deeper, the U.S. Army wondered what to make of the sudden storm of steel as nearly 2,000 guns and rocket launchers made their lives hellish for 90 long minutes.

Those 90 minutes announced the beginning of a mechanized counterattack through the Ardennes forest, spearheaded by five armored and eight infantry divisions. Many more German divisions would enter the fray over the next few days. The U.S. forces that took the brunt of this powerful armored thrust, some 69,000 soldiers of the VIII Corps of the 1st U.S. Army, were largely untested in combat or recovering from the exhaustion of months of steady fighting. What’s more, they were covering a front three times the distance recommended by Army doctrine for a force of their size.

Naturally, they were completely overwhelmed. So were a great many other units behind them, as Allied commanders struggled to withdraw their units in good order, and horrific weather, before they were chewed to pieces by the German juggernaut. Chaos and confusion reigned throughout eastern Belgium as the three-pronged mechanized offensive punched a salient—a “bulge”—almost 60 miles deep and 80 miles wide at its base into Allied territory.

The main effort in the attack was carried out by the infamous Waffen SS 6th Panzer Army. Its objective was to cross the Meuse River within four days, and capture sufficient Allied fuel to retake Antwerp, splitting the American and British armies in the process. It would seek to cut off the main Allied lines of supply and communication. What would happen next was a bit cloudy in the mind of the Fuhrer and his generals, but it seems they had in mind negotiating a separate peace with the Americans and British, buying Hitler time to develop his “super weapons,” which were pretty well along by this stage of the game, and then reverse the tide of the war in the East.

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Bad winter weather and heavy cloud cover precluded the use of Allied air power in the initial phase of the battle, and the use of English-speaking Germans in U.S. uniforms behind American lines sowed confusion and doubt as to how and where to counterattack. Snow & Steel reveals in graphic detail how U.S. and British armies on the south and north shoulders of the gaping German salient fought tenaciously to constrict the German advance, and how isolated and outnumbered U.S. forces at two road junctions indispensable to the success of the offensive, Bastogne and St. Vith, as well as the Elsenborn Ridge—broke the momentum of the advance. The battle then broke down into literally hundreds of vicious, desperate firefights, often in close proximity to one another, but completely unconnected.

In the end, as we all know, the Panzers never made it to the Meuse, but they got very, very close, and committed some heinous atrocities in the process. When the skies cleared the day before Christmas, the Allied air forces began to decimate the enemy’s armored columns, while George Patton’s 3rd Army broke into the salient from the south at record speed, and powerful U.S. forces under General Courtney Hodges came crashing in from the north, sending those German forces yet untouched by air power reeling back to the east. Ike had thrown in virtually every reserve unit in Europe into the fight, in addition to fresh divisions rushed to the battlefield from England.

In fact, the Battle of the Bulge turned out to be the largest battle in the West in World War II, and the largest single engagement ever fought by the United States Army. More than 600,000 U.S. soldiers participated; 90,000 became casualties or POWs; 19,000 Americans were killed in the horrendous fighting.

Steep as those losses were, they could readily be replaced. The same could not be said for the 100,000 Wehrmacht troops killed, wounded, or captured. So it was that the Battle of the Bulge set the stage for the rapid and triumphant Allied invasion of the German heartland from the West.

Caddick-Adams has some important things to say about the origins of the battle that go some way toward mitigating Allied culpability for being caught by surprise. He argues persuasively that the decision to launch the attack was completely contrary to reason and good military judgment. It made no sense at all, even to the Wehrmacht’s senior commanders and strategists. General Gerd von Rundtstedt, supreme commander in the West, claimed to have “protested against [the operation] as vigorously as I could. The forces at our disposal were much, much too weak for such far reaching objectives.” General Walter Model, who commanded the forces tasked with taking Antwerp, remarked that Operation HERBSTNEBEL (“Autumn Mist”) “hasn’t got a damned leg to stand on.”

Indeed, the driving force behind the operation was none other than the Austrian corporal himself, and Snow & Steel offers up a devastating portrait of the Fuhrer in late 1944 as delusional, drug-addicted, physically debilitated, and even more megalomaniacal than one had imagined—which is saying something. The Fuhrer’s “various medical conditions had long been affecting both his decision-making and his ability to process information—crucial factors missed by previous historians of the Bulge campaign.”

In demanding that the operation go forward against the best advice of men who knew better, Hitler committed the cardinal Clausewitzian sin of leaving “the likely reactions of his opponent out of the equation. He devised an operation based on what his Wehrmacht was capable of achieving, even though he was using 1940 as the benchmark, not 1944. The U.S. Army did not feature into calculations whatsoever.”

Unfortunately, Storm & Steel is a narrative history that paradoxically suffers as well as benefits from its author’s encyclopedic grasp of his subject. The opening of the battle narrative begins on—get this—page 266! The first 265 pages do contain vital background and context, but they also include a mind-numbing series of detailed commander and unit profiles, and glosses of petty disputes and other extraneous information that will test the patience of even the most ardent order-of-battle enthusiasts. Here is a case where one wishes the book’s editor had put forward that tried and true literary maxim, “less is more.” Many of the thumbnail biographies and unit sketches would have worked better if they’d been salted into the battle narrative rather than placed before it.

Still, Storm and Steel is an impressive achievement all around: once we get into the story, the writing is lively, the analysis fresh and interesting, and the depth of the author’s research on the German side as well as the Allied lends the story a kind of dynamism and balance seldom found in the vast literature in English on World War II in the West.

The Battle of the Bulge began 70 years ago this month. As terrible and costly as the battle proved to be, it’s hard not look back with a certain measure of both pride and wistfulness at what a great army of citizen soldiers managed to accomplish. Of course, they knew that every man, women and child in America—every sentient person in the free world—was pulling for them to break the back of Germany’s final offensive. That had to give them an enormous reservoir of moral strength and solace.

And surely, it’s both a shame and a tragedy that the brave American soldiers who’ve fought and died in the murky shadow wars of our current century haven’t been so blessed.