By late 1944, most on the Allied side thought the war was won. Whilst no-one now thought it would be ‘over by Xmas’, the general view was the Germans would not be able to continue to offer the levels of fierce resistance seen so far and certainly not launch any kind of offensive operation. However, the conventional wisdom was wrong!
Behind the German lines, following an order from Hitler, plans were being drawn up for a major offensive to be launched through the Ardennes, with the intention of reaching Antwerp and splitting the Allied armies. His hope was that this could force the British and the Americans to agree to peace, leaving Hitler to turn his full attention back on the Russians. Success may also provide time for the Fuhrer to develop his new super weapons and allow them to influence the outcome of the war.
The operation was planned in great secrecy, with very few in the German command structure aware of what was happening. The operation was given the name ‘Operation Watch on the Rhine’ so that even if the allies did learn of its existence, they would assume that it was of a defensive nature.
Over 200,000 men had been allocated to the initial phase of the attack and around 350 armoured vehicles, including a number of the new King Tigers. Overall command of the German forces for the offensive was held by Gerd Von Rundstedt and Walther Model, neither of whom had great faith in its prospects of success. The two main elements were the 5th Panzer Army (Manteuffel) and the 6th Panzer Army (Sepp Dietrich) and the aim was to target the weak spots in the American lines.
A key to the success of the operation would be the ability to advance at speed, capture the bridges over the Meuse and to locate and capture Allied fuel dumps as, by this stage of the war, the Germans were very low on fuel. The plan also envisaged the use of English speaking German troops, led by Otto Skorzeny, dressed in American uniforms going ahead of the advancing panzer armies to seize key points and spread chaos behind Allied lines. This proved to have limited value and led to the execution of some of the soldiers involved.
The attack began on the 16th December, aided by poor weather conditions, which the German High Command had been relying on and which prevented the Allied Air forces from playing a role. The assault was preceded by a 90 minute artillery barrage from over 1500 guns.
The advancing armies, one group being led by the tank ace Jochen Peiper, had some initial success and for a time panic set in among the Allies with the Germans punching holes through the their lines. However, the American armies threw every available soldier into the defence and fought back bravely, even though many were not front line troops and were inexperienced. In addition, the lack of fuel and the inability to capture more was telling and the Germans ground to a halt after only a few days.
One of the most best know stands in the campaign was made at Bastogne, a key town, where the 101st Airborne held off much larger German forces. Who can forget the response of their Commander, General McAulliffe, when asked to surrender- ‘To the German Commander- Nuts- From the American Commander!’
Then, by December the 22nd, the weather had started to improve which meant that the Allied air forces could once again get involved in the battle. The offensive had been halted and the Americans started to counter attack. Patton had put in place a rapid about turn and was rushing to aid the beleaguered US forces. After the initial German advance in many areas the position was one of stalemate and the nature of the fighting was brutal, often hand to hand and all done during a time of appalling weather with periods of heavy rain and intense cold. The position resembled the trenches in WW1 with problems like trench foot being seen among the infantry.
As 1945 dawned the tide was really turning as the Allies started to push the opposing forces back. The lack of fuel had been critical and meant that vehicles were simply being abandoned and the forces of the Wehrmacht were forced to walk back to their own lines and their Fatherland.
Casualties were high with the Americans losing over 80,000 men and the Germans 100,000 killed, wounded or captured. Some argue that this offensive shortened the war as, if Hitler had simply maintained a defensive posture, the task of invading Germany would have been made more difficult.
MHT are returning to the Ardennes in January 2016, after a great first trip in 2015. Why not join us and our guide, Major Bob Darby, and see the key points of interest. You can follow in the footsteps of the panzers on ‘Peipers Ride’, see the King Tiger and the fascinating Museum at La Gleize, visit the furthest point of the advance, see the defensive positions in the woods near Foy held by Easy Company (Band of Brothers fame), Batsogne (scene of the famous ‘Nuts’ response of General McCauliffe) and pay respects to those murdered at the Malmedy massacre.