The Bulge: An American Epic


AS WE HAVE seen, many German soldiers asserted in 1944, and have maintained ever since, that they fought until the end in fear of Soviet vengeance. It was ironic, therefore, that the next phase of the titanic struggle for Germany—Hitler’s winter offensive in the Ardennes—inflicted a severe check upon the advance of the Allies on the Western Front and gravely weakened the Wehrmacht’s ability to resist the Russians in the east. It is true that the Allied zones of occupation had been fixed, but no lines had been drawn for halting the armies. If the Anglo-Americans had been able to advance further faster, many Germans would have been spared the fury of the Red Army in the last days of war.

None of this, of course, was of the smallest interest to Hitler, who had no intention of remaining among those present if Germany was defeated. As far back as August, when his panzers’ assault at Mortain was being destroyed by Allied fighter-bombers, he formed a design for a major counter-attack in the west. He told Keitel (Chief of Staff of OKW, the armed forces), Jodl (Chief of OKW’s Operations Staff) and Speer that in November, the season of “night, fog and snow,” he would strike at the Allies when they could not deploy their airpower. On 16 September, he informed his operations staff at the Wolf’s Lair, his headquarters in East Prussia, that the attack would be made in the Ardennes, and codenamed Wacht am Rhein. His intention was to lunge sixty miles across Luxembourg and Belgium; seize Antwerp, the Allies’ vital supply base; and separate the Americans from the British and Canadians. He did not delude himself that the German Army could expel the Allies from the continent altogether. But he believed that sufficient damage could be inflicted to fracture the Anglo-American alliance, buy time to strike anew against the Soviets, and allow his swelling arsenal of V-weapons to change the course of the war. He believed that a resounding defeat could persuade the Western allies, whom he held in little respect, to make terms. By contrast, he recognized that no military reverse would deflect the Russians.

Hitler’s generals never for a moment shared their Führer’s fantasies. It was true that the Americans in 1944 had followed the French in 1940 by deploying only a thin screen of troops in the Ardennes, which could easily be pierced by a determined assault. But in the Second World War the outcome of an offensive against a powerful enemy was seldom decided by the events of the first hours or even days. It hinged upon the ability of the attackers to sustain momentum, reinforcing constantly as fresh troops passed through tired ones, feeding forward the huge supplies of ammunition and fuel necessary to keep punching, while the defenders were rushing men, tanks, aircraft to the battlefield. In the winter of 1944, even after shifting large armoured forces from the east while the Russians were relatively quiescent, the Germans no longer possessed the resources to achieve this. Worse, they lacked fuel even to get their armour as far as Antwerp, unless they captured large stocks. Every German tank went into the Ardennes battle carrying just 150 gallons, enough for 150 miles, perhaps two or three days of combat. Once these were gone, the panzers would be in the hands of God or the devil. Germany’s generals did not doubt that they could give the Americans a bloody nose, by hitting hard where the Allies were weak. But they anticipated that, when the offensive ran out of steam against strengthening Allied resistance, Germany would have expended its last strategic armoured reserve to gain only a few hundred square miles of snow-bound fields and woodlands.

Model and von Rundstedt—who was deliberately kept in ignorance of Hitler’s plan until December—instead proposed a limited operation, designed to maul the American divisions holding the Ardennes front and dislocate Allied preparations to cross the Roer. Germany’s warlord rejected this out of hand. He decreed that an assault should be made on the grandest scale: 200,000 men of Fifth Panzer, Sixth SS Panzer and Seventh Armies would strike a sector in which the Americans deployed only 83,000 troops. In the famous words of Sepp Dietrich, once the Führer’s chauffeur and now commander of Sixth SS Panzer Army: “All Hitler wants me to do is to cross a river, capture Brussels, and then go on to take Antwerp. And all this at the worst time of the year through the Ardennes when the snow is waist-deep and there isn’t room to deploy four tanks abreast let alone armoured divisions. When it doesn’t get light until eight and it’s dark again at four and with re-formed divisions made up chiefly of kids and sick old men—and at Christmas.”

“He [Hitler] was incapable of realising that he no longer commanded the army which he had had in 1939 or 1940,” said General Hasso von Manteuffel, the brilliant little forty-seven-year-old Prussian who had risen swiftly to command Fifth Panzer Army. Von Manteuffel was adored by his men, as a commander who always led from the front. Once, in a battle on the Eastern Front, a young tank officer heard a knock on his turret hatch, and thought it was Soviet shrapnel. Instead, it was von Manteuffel’s stick, as the general personally brought his tanks new orders. Now, von Manteuffel wrote of the chasm between Hitler’s ambition and his army’s capabilities: “It was not that his soldiers now lacked determination or drive; what they lacked were weapons and equipment of every sort.” Von Manteuffel also considered the German infantry ill trained. Lieutenant Rolf-Helmut Schröder, adjutant of the 18th Volksgrenadiers, agreed. He felt confident of the quality of his unit’s officers, but not of the men: “some were very inexperienced—and paid the price.” Schröder held the Waffen SS in high respect, yet he was irked by the manner in which they were always given the best available equipment, at the expense of the Wehrmacht. His own unit was issued with new assault rifles before the Ardennes, only to have them withdrawn a few days later, with the explanation that such weapons were solely for SS use.

Von Manteuffel and his fellow generals were disconcerted by Hitler’s appearance when they reported to him for a personal briefing at his headquarters near Ziegenburg in Hesse on 11 December: “a stooped figure with a pale and puffy face, hunched in his chair, his hands trembling, his left arm subject to a violent twitching which he did his best to conceal, a sick man apparently borne down by the burden of his responsibility. When he walked he dragged one leg behind him . . . he talked in a low and hesitant voice.”

Yet many rank-and-file German soldiers showed themselves more willing to believe in the Ardennes offensive than their commanders. Autumn Mist—the plan’s new codename—revived briefly, but in surprising measure, flagging hopes: “Our soldiers still believed, in the mass, in Adolf Hitler,” wrote von Manteuffel. “Somehow or other, they thought, he would once again turn the trick, either with the promised miracle weapons and the new U-boats or some other way. It was their job to gain him time.” Colonel Gerhard Lemcke, commanding the 89th Volksgrenadiers, said: “My comrades and I entered the battle with great confidence.”

The Allies’ failure to anticipate Hitler’s assault was the most notorious intelligence disaster of the war. It derived chiefly from over-confidence. For years, thanks to the fabulous Ultra decoding operation, German deployments and intentions had become known to the Combined Chiefs of Staff before orders had even reached German forward positions. American and British commanders had come to take for granted their extraordinary secret knowledge and even—in Montgomery’s case—sometimes to profess that this stemmed from personal insight, rather than from his privileged view of the enemy’s hand. Allied intelligence officers puzzled somewhat about the whereabouts of some German forces. An Allied summary of 13 December pondered “how long Sixth [SS] Panzer Army can remain isolated from the battle . . . There is much the enemy can gain by holding his hand with these formidable formations, and much to lose by committing them prematurely.”

But “orbat” intelligence about German unit deployments had diminished as the Germans withdrew across Europe, because they made more use of telephone landlines, impervious to interception. Moreover, Hitler imposed the strictest security on the build-up for Autumn Mist, including wireless silence. Allied air reconnaissance, anyway hampered by the winter weather, was unable to penetrate the great green canopy of the Ardennes forests, beneath which the panzers were gathering. German tank officers were ordered to adopt infantry uniform when reconnoitering the assault sector, though precious little prior inspection of the American lines was permitted at all. In a gesture reminiscent of Napoleon’s wars, the hooves of horses bringing guns forward were muffled with straw. Men were issued with charcoal for cooking, to prevent woodsmoke from betraying their presence.

The Allies’ most conspicuous error was to expect rational strategic behaviour from their enemy. There were clear pointers from intercepted communications, not least those of the Japanese ambassador in Berlin, that an offensive was brewing. There was much logistical evidence from Ultra of German accumulations of ammunition and fuel behind the quiet Ardennes sector, while these commodities were in desperately short supply in other, heavily engaged areas. Yet such pointers were ignored, because a German offensive seemed futile. Eisenhower, Bradley, Montgomery and their staffs made the same calculation as Germany’s generals. Yet during five years of war the Allies had been granted plentiful opportunities to recognize Hitler’s appetite for gigantic follies against the advice of his commanders. Five months earlier, the Anglo-Americans had profited from one of the greatest of these. The Führer had refused to allow a phased withdrawal in the west and insisted that Army Group B should fight in Normandy until it was largely destroyed. Yet in the winter of 1944 some Allied staff officers even suspected that his control of events was slipping. Hobart Gay, Patton’s Chief of Staff at Third Army, wrote in his diary on 16 November that he believed Hitler was no longer in charge of Germany.

The outcome of all this wishful thinking at the highest level was that, when the Germans attacked on 16 December, the Allies were wholly unprepared. “Madness,” wrote Winston Churchill, “is . . . an affliction which in war carries with it the advantage of SURPRISE.” On the south of the front, the U.S. 6th Army Group had closed on the upper Rhine from Basle to the German border, save that the enemy still held out in the Colmar Pocket. Third Army had achieved some penetrations of the Siegfried Line, and was preparing a big new assault. First Army was close to the banks of the Roer, and preparing to attack its dams. Ninth Army and Montgomery’s 21st Army Group were still struggling in eastern Holland. SHAEF Intelligence estimated that the Germans possessed seventy-four nominal divisions in the west, equivalent to less than forty full-strength formations. The Allies mustered fifty-seven divisions.

The three German armies fell on the Americans some thirty miles south of the Roer sector upon which Bradley’s attention was focused. In the Ardennes three American infantry divisions—the 4th, 28th and 106th—were extended across a frontage of eighty miles, supported by the inexperienced 4th Armored. The 2nd and 99th Divisions faced the northern wing of the German assault. The 4th and 28th Infantry were weary and much depleted after their sorrows in the Hürtgen. The 106th was newly arrived and unpractised. The essential ingredients of a successful defence are obstacles covered by fire. Because the Americans were not expecting to be attacked, they had done little in the way of laying wire and minefields or digging deep bunkers. They occupied a few pillboxes inherited from the Germans, but had prepared no demolitions of bridges and culverts. The U.S. Army had traditionally paid little attention to defence, and in December 1944 saw little reason to do so. When American soldiers halted and entrenched, they did so only to pause between assaults. “Neither the 99th nor 106th divisions had dug in or made proper provision to meet an attack,” wrote Sergeant Forrest Pogue at V Corps after the battle began. “There is not the sort of all-night minelaying done by 2nd Division.” In some places, GIs even lacked good foxholes, because the frozen ground was impenetrable to entrenching tools, unless assisted by explosive charges.

Somewhat lackadaisical American patrolling, together with reports from local civilians, indicated heavy activity behind the German front, but this was not taken seriously. Noticing that most American units withdrew from outposts at night, the Germans exploited their absence. Even after the 106th Division heard tanks and vehicles moving on the night of 14 December, no one thought of investigating. The overriding enemy for every American soldier in Belgium and Luxembourg in the hours before the storm was not Germany, but the cold. It ate into men’s spirits as much as their bodies, seeped into every corner of foxholes and tents, ruined houses and vehicles, where fires flickered and sentries stamped their boots in the icy darkness. There was a very unAmerican shortage of antifreeze, which caused difficulties for soft-skinned vehicle drivers. Some men still lacked proper winter clothing. Many formations were suffering alarming casualties from trench foot. GIs explored desperate expedients. A buddy of Private Eugene Gagliardi in the 7th Armored Infantry Regiment tried to keep his hands warm with his Zippo lighter. “We couldn’t sleep, so we took our shoes off and took turns sticking our feet under the other guy’s armpit,” said Private First-Class Jack Pricket of the 393rd Infantry. Private “Red” Thompson desperately needed to wear his overcoat, but found that he could not run in it. He compromised by cutting off the bottom twelve inches of cloth, which cost him a reprimand from his disgusted platoon commander. A few hours later, officers had more urgent things to worry about.

On the evening of the 15th, the Germans who were to make the assault received a bottle of schnapps and a hot dinner apiece. There were peaches in rice for the engineers of 12th Volksgrenadier Division, “a feast for us,” in the words of Private Helmut Stiegeler. Then they began to advance in “goose march” formation—single file—in silence through the darkness. Light reflected off the snow enabled each man to see those in front of him quite clearly. There were spasmodic halts, as officers checked the route. “The villages through which we marched lay peaceful in the December night,” wrote Stiegeler. “Perhaps a dog barked here and there, or people were talking and looking at the passing soldiers. Out of an imperfectly blacked-out window a vague light shone out. With all these sights, most of our thoughts were of home in the warm houses with our families.” Suddenly, a glow spread across the night sky. The Germans had switched on searchlights, deployed skywards to guide the advance of 3rd Parachute Division, traversing paths cleared by the engineers. A short, sharp, furious German bombardment began to play upon the American positions. At 0530, the armour and infantry attacked.

As the first column of German tanks emerged from the trees near Losheim, the local American outpost commander called for artillery fire. Nothing happened. The defenders’ guns and mortars were, in many sectors, unready to fire effectively in front of their own positions. When the Germans closed in, they encountered pockets of brave and dogged resistance. But their spearheads were able to pierce the line in many places. There were far too few American soldiers to man a continuous line. On the 394th Infantry’s front, anti-tank guns had been positioned for a week, but their gunners had not bothered to emplace them. As German shells started falling, the crews fled into the infantry lines. Two anti-tank men tore the cover off a K Company foxhole, and were promptly shot by its occupants. Soldiers of the 394th’s B Company watched a German medical orderly work steadily at tending his unit’s wounded in front of their positions. He glanced up only once, to shake his fist at the Americans. Soon afterwards, the company’s survivors attached a white undershirt to a machine-gun cleaning rod and waved it aloft. Firing stopped, and they were herded to the rear as prisoners.

The 28th and 106th Divisions, in the centre of the front, held most of their positions on the first day largely because the Germans were content to bypass them and clear up later. The 28th Division, however, inflicted some sharp reverses on poor-quality German infantry formations. The attackers’ difficulties were increased by the fact that, in the interests of security, some units had been forbidden to carry out reconnaissance. “I never took part in an attack which was worse prepared,” said Colonel Wilhelm Osterhold of 12th Volksgrenadier Division. Some of his men cut the telephone wires to their own artillery, mistaking them for American booby-trap cables. This communications breakdown caused German shells to start falling among the Volksgrenadiers, inflicting serious casualties and stalling the regiment’s advance.


From the outset, there was a remarkable gulf between the performance of German armoured and infantry formations. The panzers, and especially the SS, attacked with their familiar energy and aggression. The infantry displayed a lack of enthusiasm, skill and training which shocked their own officers and contributed importantly to the German failure. This was emphatically not the Wehrmacht of 1940. Officers’ narratives resemble to a marked degree the tales of woe familiar in Allied accounts of offensive operations.

The forward American positions were bound to fall sooner or later, once the panzers had crashed through gaps in the line. A directive from Sixth SS Panzer Army emphasized the importance of such tactics, before the offensive began: “Watch for every opportunity to make flanking movements. Bypass enemy strongpoints and large towns.” This indeed the Germans did, seeping through the front wherever they encountered weakness, leaving isolated defenders to be mopped up by the following waves.

Private Donald Doubek’s platoon of the 106th Division had moved into the line on 15 December, with little idea where they were going or what they were supposed to do. They were ordered to dump their greatcoats and packs in a hamlet named Eigelscheid. Early next morning they found themselves being shelled and were ordered to fall back, which further confused and dismayed them. They took up defensive positions in the south-west corner of the village of Winterspelt, and lay awake all night listening to distant firing and watching flares go up. There were explosions nearby. Ray Ahrens, their scout, scuttled hastily through the door of a neighbouring house and found himself in a toilet. He stayed there for a while, feeling safer. The shelling became more intense next morning, 17 December. Their company commander was killed. His replacement told the men, “I’m going for help,” and disappeared, not to be seen again. Men began to slip away towards the rear, “not wounded, but dazed and wandering aimlessly.” At dawn Doubek’s platoon was sixteen strong. By the time the Germans took the survivors prisoner, there were only four of them. Doubek, hit in the hip by grenade fragments, found himself loaded into a captured Dodge weapons carrier, and driven away towards a PoW camp. His mother was handed a telegram reporting him “missing” just as she walked down the main street of El Dorado, Kansas, to buy stock for her little hat and dress shop. She collapsed and had to be taken to hospital.

Many men learned of the German assault the hard way. Lieutenant Feinsilver, supply officer of the 2/12th Infantry, was riding his jeep to Berdorf in 4th Division’s sector to collect laundry when he suddenly saw German soldiers advancing across a field beside the road. The jeep was fired upon as it performed a hasty U-turn, wounding the driver. Feinsilver seized the wheel and raced to the divisional CP in Consdorf with his companion slumped beside him. Soon afterwards, the officer commanding 12th Infantry’s cannon company drove up, having bailed out of Berdorf after a fierce firefight. Battalion headquarters was near the church, where there was a big crowd of civilians. They were gathered for a local double wedding. The two brides and grooms walked from the ceremony in the burgomaster’s office to the church for a service. An American officer said: “For God’s sake, get this thing over with and tell these birds to get the hell home. I’ll marry them myself if it’ll help.” A few minutes later, German shells started falling around them.

Word came to evacuate the entire 800-strong civilian population of the town. To the bafflement of the Americans, many preferred to remain in the cellars of their homes. Behind the front, “the tension in Luxembourg City was very great,” said an American officer, “and could be seen written all over people’s faces.” Private Murray Mendelsohn, a combat engineer from New York, was initially exasperated by the German offensive because he had left a precious roll of unit snapshots to be developed by a chemist in the village of Ettelbruck, which was burned out in the first days. When he first heard that the Germans were closing on Bastogne, the name rang a bell. Just a week or two earlier, he had bought some perfume for his mother there.

On 28th Division’s battlefield, a young officer of the 109th Infantry, Lieutenant James Christy, found himself struggling to persuade two tanks and a platoon composed of unwilling new replacements to advance into action. When Christy told Technical-Sergeant Stanislaus Wieszcyk that he was now platoon sergeant, the horrified NCO said: “Listen, lieutenant, I got these stripes for running a consolidated mess hall at Camp Fannin, Texas!” On the road to Fouhren at the southern end of the front, in deepening darkness, the tanks refused to go further without infantry leading them. Christy ordered his sergeant to take a squad to the point, and Wieszcyk said: “The guys have had more than enough today. They won’t go.” Lieutenant Christy doggedly set out down the road, leading the tanks alone. After a few minutes, Wieszcyk and a squad caught him up. “OK, lieutenant,” said the sergeant resignedly, “you made your point.” They marched on. The 28th Division inflicted significant damage upon the advancing Seventh Army, an overwhelmingly infantry force, though the 28th’s positions were demolished one by one over the days that followed. The Division’s 110th Infantry lost 2,750 men, virtually its entire strength, before the battle was over.

Further north, in the 99th Division’s sector, Lieutenant Lyle Bouck’s outpost of the 394th Regiment overlooking the Losheim Gap maintained one of the most dogged defences of the first day, until towards evening Bouck was wounded and his position overrun. He spent his first night as a prisoner lying among a crowd of Germans in a café in Lanzerath. Suddenly a King Tiger roared up the road and halted outside. A cluster of panzer officers swaggered in. They pulled out a map, pinned it to the wall with a couple of bayonets and began to berate the local infantry commanders for their sluggishness. The tankers’ leader was Colonel Joachim Peiper, commanding a battle group of 1st SS Panzer designated to form the spearhead of Sixth SS Panzer Army. Peiper, a Knight’s Cross holder, was the archetypal brave, gifted Waffen SS commander, just twenty-nine years old, with a record of brutality on the Russian Front which commanded respect even in SS circles. In one advance, Peiper’s battalion claimed 2,500 Russians killed and just three captured. In his burning haste that first day in the Ardennes, the beak-nosed panzer officer wilfully ordered half-tracks into minefields, accepting the loss of six, to clear a path for his tanks. Like almost everything else in Peiper’s savage but effective existence, half-tracks were expendable. Now, he demanded infantrymen to accompany the armour. Colonel Helmut von Hoffman, commanding 9th Parachute Regiment, acceded only after fierce argument. Peiper wrote: “I had the disgusted impression that the whole front had gone to bed instead of waging war.”

At last, the SS officer and his men mounted their tanks once more and roared off into the early-morning darkness with paratroopers clinging to the Tiger hulls, leaving the café at Lanzerath to a few resentful German soldiers and their American prisoners. Lieutenant Bouck, of course, had understood nothing of the row he had witnessed, save that the SS were extremely cross. Shortly before dawn, the young American realized that his badly wounded platoon sergeant was dying. He laid the man’s Bible and girlfriend’s photograph on his chest and said a few words of prayer. He pledged his sergeant that, though they were now to be separated, they would meet again back in the States. The man’s hand squeezed that of Bouck. Then he died.

Beyond chaos at the front as panzers crashed through the snowclad trees, disarray prevailed at most American headquarters. The Ardennes assault inflicted a psychological blow upon the Allied command at least as severe as the tactical damage to its front. The German bombardment had cut many phone lines, above all those from forward positions to artillery. Wireless communications were impeded by enemy jamming and poor terrain conditions.

Courtney Hodges, the taciturn fifty-seven-year-old Georgian who commanded First Army, was among the less esteemed American generals in Europe. He had started his military career as a private soldier, having failed his exams at West Point. His courage was not in doubt, and he was famously considerate for the welfare of his men. Bradley held him in great respect. But Hodges lacked force and presence. Many senior Americans asserted scornfully that First Army was run by its Chief of Staff, the unloved Major-General William Kean. In the early days of the German attack, First Army headquarters lapsed into an almost catatonic state, which appalled those obliged to do business with it. Three American pilots who flew their L-4 spotter planes out of Bullingen a few hundred yards ahead of Peiper’s spearheads on 17 December reported to First Army HQ about their experience. They were soothed by a staff officer who assured them that 2nd Division had reported nothing amiss; since the pilots themselves were new to combat, they had “probably got spooked.” Why didn’t they just find their way to the mess hall and get themselves something to eat?

Throughout the first day, Hodges declined to cancel his planned attack on the Roer dams. Then he panicked. An officer who called on his HQ at Spa early on 19 December was bemused to find the table laid for breakfast, a decorated Christmas tree, phones and papers strewn around the offices, but only a lone woman civilian in occupation. Hodges had shifted his headquarters in acute alarm that it would be overrun. In the early hours of 20 December, a British liaison officer reported to Montgomery that “it was evident that the [First] Army commander was completely out of touch. His Chief of Staff was more completely informed but cagey or out of date. Neither of them seemed to be aware of the urgency of the situation.”

Initial information was so scanty and confused that, on the evening of the 16th, Bradley believed the Germans were merely making a local counter-attack, and was no more willing than Hodges to dislocate deployments for his own impending attack. That first night, a bewildered Allied intelligence officer wrote: “Until more is known of this new enemy venture, it is probably unwise to speculate about its scope . . . There is no immediate objective of any special importance, and an advance limited to local gains of ground has nothing to recommend it. If he is bent on striking, the enemy is looking further afield.” At this critical moment, Eisenhower’s instinctive caution proved inspired. He ordered 7th Armored Division from Ninth Army in the north, together with 10th Armored from Patton’s Third Army in the south, to move to cover the flanks of the threatened sector—just in case the German operation turned into something big. Patton, who believed himself on the brink of a breakthrough into Saarland, protested strongly, but acceded.

As every fresh signal, together with the capture of enemy documents, reinforced awareness that the Germans were making a huge effort, some Allied commanders remained bemused. “Pardon my French,” said Omar Bradley, “but I think the situation justifies it. Where the hell has this sonofabitch gotten all his strength?” Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff Bedell-Smith said: “Well, Brad, you’ve been wishing for a counter-attack—this is it.” Bradley answered: “Yes, but I hadn’t wanted it to be this strong.” By the evening of 17 December, an Allied intelligence officer was writing: “Big issues are involved . . . If the venture is desperate, it is also well staged.” German officers would have contested the second part of this assessment, but it is scarcely surprising that a shaken Allied headquarters should take such a view when the panzer vanguard was already twenty miles behind the Allied front. Model’s forces had advanced further in two days than most of Eisenhower’s men had moved in the preceding three months. They had demonstrated that neither the terrain nor the weather need be insuperable obstacles to a breakthrough, though both factors soon began to exert a baleful influence.

It is impossible not to detect perverse satisfaction in Montgomery’s first comments to Brooke. The British field-marshal perceived a vindication of all his bitter criticisms of Eisenhower:

It looks as if we may now have to pay the price for the policy of drift and lack of proper control of operations which has been a marked feature of the last three months . . . The present American tendency is to throw in reserves piecemeal as they arrive, and I have suggested a warning against this. I have myself had no orders or requests of any kind. My own opinion is that the general situation is ugly, as the American forces have been cut clean in half, and the Germans can reach the Meuse at Namur without any opposition.

This was a wilful overstatement. Indecision at American higher headquarters was being redeemed by some cool and professional performances nearer the front. Gerow, commanding V Corps at the northern edge of the German thrust, decided by noon on the first day that the Germans were serious, and cancelled his formations’ preparations for their own attack. He pulled back 2nd Division four miles under heavy German fire, to meet the threat to the Allied left flank alongside the 99th. At the headquarters of the U.S. 30th Infantry Division, the staff was engrossed in planning its crossing of the Roer. The G-3 interrupted to report to Hobbs, the commander: “General, there’s some rumor that there’s some sort of German attack going on down in front of VIII Corps. We don’t know anything about it yet.” The 30th Division knew all about it soon enough, as its units took post between Malmédy and Stavelot, and found themselves suffering heavy punishment. As the scale of the crisis became apparent, and amid the shattering of one of his regiments, the 119th, Hobbs turned to his assistant commander, Brigadier-General William Harrison, and asked: “What shall I do?” The brigadier urged the immediate relief of the local commander, and himself drove forward to take over the defence north of Stoumont.

Also in the north, Collins of VII Corps placed 1st Division on six-hour alert by 1100 on the first day, well before the Allied army commanders perceived the weight of the German assault. The “Big Red One” moved forward to join the battle that night, and was engaged next morning. Major James Woolnough, commanding its 16th Infantry Regiment, described the advance to the front as “the most frightening thing you can imagine: no intelligence, all those rumors of paratroopers dropping in, getting strafed. It was pitch black, and people were running every which way.” Eisenhower’s strategic reserve, the Airborne Corps, was rushed forward from its camps at Rheims. The 82nd Division went north, to move into line on the right of 30th Division. The 101st was sent south, to the vital road junction of Bastogne, which its leading elements reached around midnight on 18 December. The British 6th Airborne was hastened across the Channel from its camps in England to join 21st Army Group.

The Germans were making ground, and taking thousands of American prisoners in the forward areas. In the village of Honsfeld alone, a rest area of 99th Division, Peiper’s men seized intact some fifty American reconnaissance vehicles including half-tracks. The Germans also captured useful quantities of American petrol, and set prisoners to work emptying cans into their panzers. “The enemy was in total confusion,” said Captain Werner Sternebecke, commander of Peiper’s reconnaissance group, describing their arrival at Bullingen. “There was no organized resistance apparent.” In one respect, Hitler’s hopes were fulfilled: through the first week, interminable as it seemed to the Allies, poor weather prevented the air forces from joining the battle. In the rear areas, tens of thousands of American stragglers, service and support units, refugees from the initial German assaults, clogged roads and villages, fleeing in unashamed terror.

Some American armoured units performed poorly. Tank crews showed themselves reluctant to move at night, even in the face of desperate emergency. The German 276th Volksgrenadiers, supported by just seven self-propelled guns, deterred 102 Shermans of 10th Armored Division from engaging seriously in the first days of battle around Echternach. The American historian and Ardennes veteran Charles MacDonald passed withering comment upon the reluctance of either 9th or 10th Armored Divisions to provide effective support for the infantry of 4th Division, even though these U.S. formations suffered negligible casualties in the early stages of the battle. They seemed as protective about the welfare of their tanks, McDonald wrote, as an old-time cavalryman about his horse. Many American armoured crews endured the experience of Sergeant Jones of the 743rd Tank Battalion. An infantry captain warned him that a German tank was approaching. Jones fired as soon as he saw it—and watched the shell ricochet off its armour. “Did you see that?” said the infantry officer wonderingly over the radio.

MOST HUMAN BEINGS in peace or war are disorientated by finding themselves victims of the unexpected, whether a car crash or bank robbery or—in December 1944—the arrival of Germans in places where Americans had not the remotest expectation of encountering them. Men who have been briefed and trained for a military operation, who know what they are doing and where they are going, possess an immense advantage over those who are surprised. In the first two days of the Bulge offensive, tens of thousands of Americans found themselves in predicaments for which they were unprepared psychologically or militarily. A soldier of the 394th Infantry wrote, after being captured by Joachim Peiper’s men in Honsfeld: “I hated to give up like that, but I guess it was the best thing to do. If we had started shooting we would have been slaughtered like a bunch of cattle.”

All along the front, the impact of sudden appearances by enemy armour, together with the infectious fever of retreat, was compounded by rumours about the activities of Colonel Otto Skorzeny’s commandos in American uniform. A few German paratroopers were also dropped in the American rear areas. They made no impact upon the battle, but provoked an outbreak of fifth-column paranoia. In the clear icy air, sound carried for miles. Men who heard shooting often supposed it to be far closer than it was. Colonel Pete Heffer of VI Corps recorded in disgust the panic-stricken behaviour of an officer in charge of a fuel dump who, upon hearing unfounded rumours of approaching Germans, personally smashed open 4,000 gas cans with an axe: “lots of equipment and matériel was prematurely destroyed.”

The morning report of Company G of the 112th Infantry on 23 December recorded a long list of men “Missing In Action—Battle Casualty at Evacuation Hospital Unknown—Circumstances: Position Overrun by the Germans.” The combat-fatigue toll included two technical-sergeants, six staff-sergeants, three sergeants, two technical personnel, and thirty-four other ranks. The executive officer of one battalion survived the battle, but died of a heart attack a few days later. Many other units suffered similar losses. On the night of 17 December, the officer commanding the 2/394th Infantry was described as “a quivering hulk.”

Fierce anger spread through the American ranks at news on the second day of the offensive that SS panzer units were killing prisoners—nineteen at Honsfeld, fifty at Bullingen, eighty-six in the “Malmédy massacre” by men of 1st SS Panzer, the Leibstandarte Division. The Germans in the Ardennes offensive shot prisoners on a substantial scale, and even more contemptibly, murdered in cold blood more than a hundred Belgian civilians. Yet it was absurd to pretend—as did Allied propaganda at the time, and war crimes prosecutors later—that the killing of prisoners was a uniquely German practice. Some American formations were notorious for dealing summarily with captives. The 90th Division had a joke about the officer who asked what had happened to nineteen prisoners sent to the rear and was assured that five had reached the PoW cage. From top to bottom of the U.S. Army, the Malmédy massacre intensified a reluctance to take SS prisoners. Bradley expressed surprise on Christmas Eve, hearing that four PoWs from 12th SS Panzer had been brought alive to the cage. “We needed a few samples,” said an officer apologetically, “that’s all we’ve taken, sir.”

A soldier of the 22nd Infantry remarked on the difficulty of taking prisoners to the rear amid intense artillery fire during the Hürtgen Forest fighting: “If you try to take them back you’re taking your life in your hands twice. Once going through that terrain to get them back. If you get through it safely that time and don’t get killed then you still have to go back up front after you get rid of them. So a lot of them never reached the rear that way.” Private Bill True of the 101st Airborne was shocked when he saw a sergeant walk up to a wounded German lying in a ditch, exchange some words with him, then fire two rounds into the man’s chest and walk on.

Sergeant Forrest Pogue at V Corps wrote:

The whole matter of killing prisoners has been on my mind since the Hürtgen Forest fight. I recalled ugly stories about a unit’s record in regard to the killing of prisoners . . . [In the Ardennes battle] I visited a headquarters on the Malmédy road and was told that a sniper had just shot one of their men on an outpost. The men were looking for the German, and said that if they captured him they would shoot him. An armored infantry lieutenant, noting my surprise, said that his outfit had captured enemy soldiers on a recent occasion and, after saving two for questioning, disposed of the rest. His excuse was that, being tankers, they couldn’t handle the rest. Others spoke of opening fire on enemy soldiers who seemed on the point of surrendering, so that there would be no need to shoot them later . . . A massacre like that at Malmédy is brutal only because it is larger, or calculated to provoke terror.

Few men in the line, however, possessed Pogue’s academic objectivity about such matters. The Malmédy massacre provided a focus for all the fears, losses and humiliations of the first days of the American retreat. It generated a sense of grievance which possessed little rational justification amid brutalities which differed only in scale, not in kind, on the two sides of the line. But outrage about the atrocity was of great service to the American defence at a critical time. It aroused among GIs a hatred of their enemy that was conspicuously absent for much of the north-west Europe campaign. It helped to make many Americans fight harder in the vital days of December, and it made them disinclined to mercy. “This was the only time I saw American troops kill German soldiers that were trying to surrender,” wrote Private Donald Schoo of the 80th Infantry Division. “If they wore the black uniforms of the SS, they were shot.” Like many men, he did not know that every German tank crew wore black.

All over the battlefield, groups of Americans cut off from their own people and their own formations were struggling to regain cohesion and purpose amid chronic uncertainty about what was going on. Nothing did more harm to the morale of ordinary American soldiers in those first days than their ignorance. “We were in a state of confusion and without much of a leadership,” said Corporal Max Lehmann of the 99th Division’s 394th Infantry. “We had no idea what was going on in the next town to us, let alone the big picture,” said Private Murray Mendelsohn, a combat engineer. Major Melvin Zais found himself sheltering in a cellar with two other officers, the more senior of whom set about slicing some potatoes he found and cooking them over a candle. Zais thought wryly: “If this is the way it is for a full colonel, I don’t want any part of this army.” On 20 December at V Corps, Sergeant Pogue scribbled in his diary:

remarkable how little we know of situation; how much the high-ranking officers deal in rumor-mongering. It seems remarkable that few expected counter-attack. It was only way Germany could relieve pressure, restore waning hope of her people, forestall unrest, disrupt our plans, postpone the war of attrition. When the attack is beaten back, if we have enough stuff to follow them through, we may gain the Rhine and beyond quicker than we would have done otherwise.

Stalin agreed. “Very stupid,” he observed, when he heard of the German offensive. The German Army was already thinking likewise.


FOR THE WEHRMACHT, the first days of the offensive yielded a brief surge of exhilaration and hope. “Enemy morale was higher than at any time during the campaign,” acknowledged a U.S. Army post-war report. A certain Lieutenant Rockhammer, whose tank unit is unidentified but who was evidently an ardent Nazi, wrote to his wife on 22 December:

For once, we find ourselves a thousand times better off than you at home. You cannot imagine what glorious hours and days we are enjoying. It looks as if the Americans can’t hold our big push. Today, we overtook a retreating column and flattened it . . . we got past them by taking a back road through the wood; then, as if we were on manoeuvres, we lined up along the road with 60 Panthers. This endless column approached us, their vehicles side by side, hub to hub, filled to the brim with men. We were able to concentrate the fire of 60 tank guns and 120 machine-guns on them. It was a glorious bloodbath, vengeance for our devastated homeland. Our men can still show the old zip . . . Victory never seemed as close as it does now. The decisive moment is at hand. We shall throw these arrogant big-mouthed apes from the New World into the sea. They will not get into our Germany . . . If we are to save everything that is sweet and lovely in our lives, we must be ruthless at this decisive hour of the struggle.

Far away on the Italian front, Allied troops occupying a house vacated by the Germans found a letter on the kitchen table addressed: “For English soldiers.” It read: “Dear Kamerad, on the Western Front German troops are attacking the line of Americans. German tanks have destroyed a great deal of the enemy troops. The new German Luftwaffe is on the West Front and she is very, very good. The war is in a new station, she is over when the Germans are victorious. Germans are fighting for their lives. The English are fighting for the Jews. AN GERMAN SOLDIER.”

“The roads are littered with wrecked American vehicles, cars, tanks,” Lieutenant Belmen of the Wehrmacht’s 1818th Artillery gloated in his diary on 19 December. “Another column of prisoners passes. I count over a thousand men. Nearby there is another column of 1500, with about 50 officers, including a lieutenant-colonel who had asked to surrender.”

The Germans had given the Americans an impressive tactical demonstration of how to launch an assault in difficult terrain, using infiltration and encirclement rather than allowing themselves to be pinned down in front of pockets of resistance, as the Allies so often did. In the first five days of the Ardennes battle, the Germans destroyed 300 American tanks and took 25,000 prisoners. Some American historians have sought to argue that only support troops or isolated individuals broke and fled. “A belief would long persist that when the Germans first struck, some American troops fled in disarray,” wrote Charles MacDonald. “. . . That was patently false. No front-line American unit fled without a fight.” It is impossible to accept this view. Eyewitness evidence of panic in some units, and of pathetic tactical failure in others, is overwhelming. When 1st SS Panzer attacked Stoumont, for instance, eight American tank destroyers were overrun without firing a shot after being abandoned by the infantry company alleged to be supporting them. On the first day, the 394th Regiment suffered 959 casualties, of which just 34 were dead and 701 “missing.” There is no reason to regard any of this, however, as ground for unique national embarrassment. Men of every army run away when their front is broken or they find themselves enveloped by superior forces. The British often did so, and the Russians—and the Germans. If guilt and shame were appropriate, these belonged at American higher headquarters.

A critical point about the Ardennes battle is that instances of American chaos, of hysterical men fleeing for the rear, created a misleading picture. Any soldier might be forgiven for succumbing to fear as seventeen enemy divisions crashed without warning into his front. The wider reality, however, was that from its first day the ill-conceived German assault went as wrong as the British drive to Arnhem three months earlier. Much has been made of Allied blindness to the offensive possibilities of the Ardennes forests. Bradley had manned the region weakly, because it was considered difficult country through which to move large bodies of men and vehicles. So indeed it proved. From the first hours of 16 December, massive German traffic jams developed behind the front, as vehicles struggled to advance along the constricted approaches, while engineers made slow work of bridging rivers and streams.

German vehicles suffered immense difficulties on steep, narrow, twisting mountain roads. Guns sometimes had to be winched round hairpin bends. On 17 December, von Manteuffel and Model met on foot, both commanders having abandoned their transport in despair. Peiper, leading his battle group of 1st SS Panzer, had to walk six miles when the tanks became stuck. During its November retreat, the Wehrmacht had blocked the road between Dasburg and Clerf with fallen trees. Now, these proved frustrating obstacles to the German advance. Panzer Lehr was seriously late getting across the Our river. Von Manteuffel called the collapse of the German timetable in the first days “a very grave disappointment.” In 1940, Hitler’s armies had achieved a breakthrough in the Ardennes in summer weather, against a weak enemy. In December 1944, it proved a nightmare to move tanks and horse-drawn guns and equipment along forest roads and tracks that became slush-filled morasses. The terrain did much more than the defenders to check German deployment in the first vital days. And all this, of course, was before the weather allowed the allied air forces to intervene.

While German armour displayed its usual proficiency, the performance of supporting infantry, especially those of Seventh Army on the southern flank, was as feeble as von Manteuffel had feared that it would be. Ill-trained replacements, some of them newly transferred from the navy or air force, stumbled bewildered on to the battlefield. They proved completely lacking in the skills indispensable to German success. American defenders were taken aback to see some enemy soldiers advancing as uncertainly as sheep, clustering together and going to ground under fire, just as Allied infantrymen were often criticized for doing. Ferocious young Nazis such as Peiper and Skorzeny were exasperated by the poor showing of the footsoldiers. It was no more use for German tanks to advance deep into enemy territory without effective infantry support than for Allied ones to do so. The panzers had broken through on a forty-mile front and were driving west. But the infantry had shown themselves “incapable of carrying out the attack with the necessary violence,” recorded a bitterly frustrated von Manteuffel. Officers were disgusted to find their men lingering to loot the prodigious quantities of American equipment and rations which fell into their hands. Wehrmacht discipline in December 1944 was nothing like that of the German Army which had died in Russia. The offensive lacked the sustained power to fulfil its objectives.

This became plain to the German commanders as early as the second or third day, when von Rundstedt appealed in vain to Hitler to break off the operation. On both flanks, American forces were holding their positions, with reinforcements arriving to shore up the shoulders of the front, preventing the Germans from widening their penetration. Kampfgruppe Peiper missed a notable opportunity after taking Bullingen. Had its tanks continued onwards to Wirtsfeld and Krinkelt–Rocherath, they could have turned the flanks of two American divisions, the 2nd and 99th. Major-General Lauer of the 99th said afterwards: “The enemy had the key to success within his hands, but did not know it.” This was an overstatement, yet there is no doubt that Peiper could have caused much trouble for the Americans. Whatever the achievements of Germans at regimental level and below, in the Bulge battle their command and control were lamentable. Army and corps commanders, hampered by poor communications and misjudgements, again and again missed opportunities. Bullingen provided a striking example. If Peiper had been allowed to exploit a local situation where he discovered American weakness, instead of being obliged to persist rigidly with the plan devised before the operation began, he might have fared better. Instead, the Americans used their breathing space to plug a dangerous gap. As darkness was falling on the evening of 17 December, on a reverse slope between Bullingen and Dom, Lieutenant-Colonel Derrill M. Daniel of the 2/26th Infantry told his company commanders that no one should think his battalion proposed to emulate those who had broken or quit. “We fight and die here,” he said. The performance of Daniel’s men during the days that followed was among the most impressive of the battle.

Henceforward, weakened German units began to meet powerful, well-led U.S. formations, thrown into battle knowing that they were expected to fight for their lives. Lieutenant Rolf-Helmut Schröder of 18th Volksgrenadiers, fresh from the Eastern Front, was reluctantly impressed by the physical quality of American prisoners, “so many big, fit, well-fed men.” In defence, winter darkness was invaluable to the Germans for resupply and redeployment beyond the reach of Allied airpower. But, in attack, Model’s forces were badly handicapped by the short December days, for it was so hard to move tanks at night. Ever since Normandy, Allied commanders had complained about high tank losses. General “Pip” Roberts of 11th Armoured Division observed: “Whenever you attack the enemy with tanks, you get heavy casualties. When you inflict the casualties is when he attacks you.” Now, it was the Germans’ turn to confront that reality, and they possessed vastly fewer reserves than the Allies.

The once-mighty Panzer Lehr Division went into the Ardennes battle with just fifty-seven tanks, barely the strength of an American armoured battalion, and it was soon losing them. As the Germans pushed westwards, they suffered mounting attrition from pockets of resistance at crossroads and villages. At St. Vith and Stavelot and scores of other Belgian villages, their dash was impeded sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, by groups of Americans supported by Shermans and tank destroyers. Even the inadequate 57mm anti-tank gun took its toll. Artillery, the outstanding arm of U.S. forces, began to play havoc with the German columns once it had restored communications and forward observation lost in the first stages of the battle. A single 105mm howitzer battalion fired 10,000 rounds in one day.

Seventh Armored Division, in the north, inflicted one of the first important checks on the German advance. On 17 December, 1st SS Panzer Division approached the vital road junction at St. Vith, in the midst of the German assault front, and some ten miles west of its start line. Beyond lay open country towards the Meuse and the Belgian plain, together with the huge American fuel dumps, which the German tanks desperately needed, north-westwards at Stavelot. The tale of Peiper’s panzers being cut off from the dumps by a wall of fire, from fuel set alight by the defenders, is mythical. The German never got near the 2.5-million-gallon treasure trove. Belgian guards indeed created a wall of flame, but this caused delay only for units of the U.S. 30th Division, hastening to get past it into action. The Americans ordered the fires put out. The first units of 7th Armored arrived just in time to block the Germans. Led by Brigadier Bruce Clarke, the 7th’s Combat Command B conducted an eight-day stand which was as critical, and as courageous, as the defence of Bastogne. St. Vith was later abandoned for a time, but the defence achieved its vital objective—delay. An American historian suggests that here was some belated consolation for the miseries of the Hürtgen Forest fighting in November. If U.S. forces had not held the Hürtgen and its outlying villages, it would have been harder to present a “strong shoulder” to the right flank of the German assault.

The Bulge battle provided many examples of achievement by improvised American units, fighting in the sort of battle groups which the German Army routinely assembled but which were unfamiliar to the Allies. A battalion of combat engineers was assigned to the defence of Wiltz on 17 December, supported by six tanks, four assault guns, four three-inch tank destroyers, a battery of artillery and some bandsmen, clerks and cooks from 28th Division headquarters. Three days and nights of battle later, a third of the survivors were recommended for Silver or Bronze Stars. Two NCOs, Garland Hartsig and Eugene Baker, received battlefield commissions.

The “Twin Villages” of Krinkelt and Rocherath were scenes of some of the fiercest fighting. The officers of 12th SS Panzer were already fuming because traffic jams behind the front had stranded much of the division behind the West Wall, while its spearheads strove to achieve a breakthrough. The Germans suffered heavy losses of armour attempting to secure the villages with scanty infantry support. German recovery crews achieved their usual miracles in restoring some damaged tanks and tank destroyers to service within hours. Several immobilized German tanks were remanned and used as static pillboxes. But none of this diminished the Panzers’ difficulties, when they found themselves bogged down in village fighting. “I spotted our battalion commander,” wrote Lieutenant Willi Engel, a Panther platoon commander in Rocherath. “His face mirrored dejection and resignation. The failed attack and painful losses obviously depressed him severely. The knocked-out Panzers offered a distressing picture. At that moment, a single panzer approached the Command Post. Suddenly, only about 100m away, it turned into a flaming torch . . . It was later determined that an immobile but otherwise serviceable Sherman had scored the hit . . . Both sides fought with bitter determination.”

Lieutenant Willi Fischer said: “When I reached the vicinity of the church [at Rocherath], a gruesome picture was waiting for me. Beuthauser was bailed out . . . His loader was killed by rifle fire as he bailed out . . . Brodel’s tank stood next to me, burning brightly. He sat lifeless in the turret. In front of me, more panzers had been put out of action and were still burning.” The U.S. V Corps had suffered serious casualties, but could afford them vastly better than the Germans. It had inflicted a notable defeat on one of the best formations in Hitler’s armies. A 12th Army Group staff officer watching reinforcements moving forward experienced an unaccustomed surge of respect and understanding for the American infantryman: “Everywhere there is a feeling of humility—we know that his fight is the only real fight in this war.”

Many of the actions that saved the American front reflected cool professionalism. On the extreme northern flank of the German push the 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron laid eighty truckloads of barbed wire, thickly laced with trip-flares and booby traps, in front of its positions. None of its men attempted to fight from houses, which often promised more protection than they provided. The defenders dug or blew foxholes in the steel-hard ground. The squadron lost only fifteen men. Its colonel, Robert O’Brien, said afterwards: “The whole action was an example not of any heroic action, but of what an efficient, active defense can do. There was no great lot of leadership: the men didn’t need it.” O’Brien’s men did not endure the weight of attack that fell on units further south, but as American forces began to recover their balance the Germans found themselves facing ever-increasing attrition. The 37th Field Artillery was supporting the 1/23rd Infantry of 2nd Division. The Americans watched German infantry advancing towards their positions near Murringen. What followed was a textbook affair. The gunners dropped a round right, another left, one short, one beyond the approaching grey lines. Their forward observer in the church steeple, Captain Charles Stockwell, then called: “Fire for effect!” The 1/23rd’s commander, Lieutenant-Colonel John Hightower, wrote: “Everything fired right on target. Charles yelled for them to fire the concentration again, and then once more. He then said: ‘That is perfect. The infantry thanks you, and I thank you.’ ” The Germans fled back into the woods whence they had come. When they regrouped and renewed the attack, they suffered the same fate.

Many American officers on the battlefield maintained cooler heads than those at higher commands. “Headquarters continues to be a madhouse,” recorded Hansen at Bradley’s 12th Army Group on 20 December, “with too many people running in and out—too many telephone calls. Traffic is heavy, too, with the new divisions coming to reinforce our effort . . . they have helped at least to abate the alarmist sentiment that was so evident yesterday.” When officers of reinforcement units asked local headquarters for information, again and again they heard only: “The front is fluid.” The drivers of Allied tank columns rolling through the night hours to reach the front struggled to hold the road amid snow and ice, their only guide dim masked headlights, and the tiny reflector on the stern of the vehicle ahead. Amid the relentless engine roar of his Sherman of the 743rd Tank Battalion, Lieutenant Joseph Couri watched flares go up in the distance and glimpsed the tail glow of German V1 rockets heading for Liège: “My eyes were red, swollen and irritated from the grime and dust travelling behind another tank at close quarters with the turret open and standing all the time.” Fighting a tank in the depths of winter was almost as tough as living in a foxhole. The Sherman’s air intake sucked a constant icy blast into the turret, causing the commander and gunner to suffer special misery. Periscopes frosted. Condensation formed into icicles inside hulls. Starting up was often a major operation, and crews had to use “little joe” generators to keep batteries charged when their engines were still. Nervous infantrymen were grateful for armoured support, but complained about the noise generated by tanks in close proximity, fearful that it would draw German fire.

ON THE MORNING of 19 December, Panzer Lehr advanced to within two miles of the key road junction at Bastogne, on the south side of “the Bulge,” as the shape of the German penetration was already causing the battle to be known among the Allies. Just a few hours earlier, the 101st Airborne had arrived in the town after a hundred-mile dash through the darkness from its rest camp at Rheims. Many of its soldiers lacked winter clothing, arms, ammunition. As they filed forward into action, they scrounged weapons from the broken fugitives and ravaged units falling back on Bastogne from the old front. The 101st possessed just enough arms, just enough men and more than enough old-fashioned guts to close the road to Panzer Lehr. The German formation was a shadow of its pre-Normandy greatness, but it remained a powerful threat to lightly armed paratroopers. Brigadier-General Anthony McAuliffe, commanding the 101st, was lucky to have the support of some forty tanks and the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion.

Major William Desobry, commanding some fifteen Shermans of 10th Armored Division at Noville north-east of Bastogne, kept meeting stragglers “who told us horror stories about how their units had been overrun.” He tried to persuade them to join his own outfit and stiffen the defence, “but their physical and mental condition was such that they would be more a burden than a help.” He let them stumble on through his positions towards the rear. A unit of combat engineers which he embodied turned out to be a liability rather than a reinforcement: “They just weren’t effective.” But he acquired an armoured infantry platoon of 9th Armored, which proved somewhat more useful.

At 0400 on 19 December, Desobry heard a firefight up the road. He went out and stood listening by Noville church. His outpost men pulled back into the town, headed by an NCO shot in the mouth, who reported that German half-tracks were on the way. When the outpost team first heard vehicles, they had thought these might contain retreating Americans. Only when the Germans opened fire at close range were they disabused. There was an interval of silence in Noville, during which the Americans lay over their weapons, waiting apprehensively. Then through the thick dawn fog they heard the clatter of armour. Desobry thought: “Oh brother! There really is something out there!” As the first units of von Manteuffel’s 2nd Panzer Division appeared, the Americans opened fire. They hit the two leading vehicles. As the Germans paused and began to deploy across their front, Desobry sent engineers forward to lay charges on the disabled enemy half-tracks, to ensure that they stayed where they were, blocking the road. A tank destroyer unit rolled up from Bastogne to stiffen the defence.

The Germans now occupied ridge lines overlooking Noville, from which they brought down heavy fire on the little town. Desobry felt that it was essential to regain this high ground. The 1/506th battalion of the 101st Airborne arrived and prepared to attack, some of its men begging weapons from Americans in the town even as they deployed. Yet just as the Airborne moved forward, so did the Germans. The rival attackers met, and a furious two-hour battle took place. Desobry could not rid himself of a sense of unreality, as he saw German prisoners being brought back: “These guys look funnier than heck.” When one of them gave the Hitler salute, he thought: “This is getting like a Charlie Chaplin movie.”

The Americans were simply not strong enough to make ground against the schwerpunkt—the principal concentration of force—of a panzer division. The Airborne abandoned the attack on the ridge line. “We said ‘okay, good try—but let’s pull back into the town.’ ” Just as the paratroopers were reorganizing, an American maintenance vehicle drove into Noville and stopped by Desobry’s CP. The Germans spotted it and immediately called down painfully accurate artillery fire, which inflicted severe American casualties. Desobry himself was hit in the hands by shell fragments. As he was being driven to the rear in a casevac jeep, they were stopped by Germans. When the panzergrenadiers saw wounded men on litters, they waved the vehicle on. The driver got lost. Desobry was the only one of four casualties on his jeep to reach a field hospital alive, though he became a prisoner. A counter-attack by the 101st next day, 20 December, enabled the Americans encircled at Noville to withdraw into the Bastogne perimeter. The robust defence of the little town had imposed an important twenty-four-hour delay on 2nd Panzer’s advance.

The 101st Airborne’s stand at Bastogne became one of the American legends of the Second World War. Just praise has been heaped upon the achievement of the “Screaming Eagles.” Less has been said about the medley of stragglers and survivors from all manner of units who found themselves participating in the town’s eight-day siege whether they liked it or not. Staff-Sergeant Charles Skelnar, a baker from Omaha, Nebraska, now serving as a cook with the 482nd Anti-Aircraft Regiment, first heard of Bastogne as he manned a .50 calibre machine-gun on the kitchen truck of his unit on the Longvilly road, feeling very frightened in the midst of “absolute chaos.” Until 16 December, he and his unit had scarcely heard a shot fired in anger. Now, they were suddenly ordered to abandon their half-tracks and pull back to Bastogne. About half his battery made it. The rest were lost on the road.

Dr. Henry Hills was a member of one of six field surgical teams which were landed by glider outside Bastogne on 26 December, to relieve the desperate shortage of medical aid. Three surgeons were killed by German fire before they landed, and every glider was hit in the air. As soon as they crashed, the medics dashed out of the wreckage and ran into the town perimeter. They were taken to a garage.

As soon as you lifted up that [garage] door to go in, you could smell gas gangrene. There were some women trying to help, giving them water and so forth. [Men] were dying like flies. They’d been there for ten days. The only light was on the far side, where mechanics did repairs. There was a field stove there with coffee brewing, and four tables set up—stretchers on saw horses. After a case, we dumped all the instruments into a great big vat filled with alcohol. We had no gowns or masks, of course. The bottom floor of the garage had 400 serious casualties. The top floor had 400 walking wounded. We didn’t bother with them.

The doctors had lost all but six pints of plasma in the glider crash. They had sulpha but no penicillin. As they worked, an infantry colonel came in and said he had received complaints that there were too many amputations: “Understand you’re taking them off right and left here.” Hills nodded: “Yep, those that need to come off.” The colonel said: “Well, I’m not sure they do.” Hills picked up a discarded limb and handed it to him. The colonel turned ashen, and left without another word.

Fifty hours after the medics arrived, they were relieved. Hills’s last case was a minor compound fracture of the forearm. The anaesthetists were busy, so the doctor instructed a cook on how to inject the man progressively with a syringe of pentothal. When they finished the operation, the cook said: “Now I’ve done everything in this army.”

The Germans bypassed Bastogne, leaving the town surrounded, and pushed on beyond St. Hubert, only twenty miles from the Meuse. But with the 101st in their rear it was immensely difficult for the panzers to exploit their advance. Von Manteuffel considered it one of the major German errors of the battle to leave Panzer Lehr to deal with Bastogne while pushing forward 2nd Panzer without support. Each division was independently too weak for its task.

Meanwhile on the northern flank, early on the morning of 21 December 12th SS Panzer launched the strongest attack thus far on the positions of the 2/26th Infantry north of Bullingen. German artillery and mortars began their bombardment long before dawn, and engineers had laid mines on the road approaching Colonel Daniel’s positions. The colonel called for an artillery “ring of steel” to support his infantrymen. Twelve American 105mm howitzer battalions, drawn from three divisions, were made available to give fire support. The Americans were amazed by the suicidal courage of the advancing German infantry. It was in vain. The artillery swept them away in a storm of explosives, smoke and heaving earth. Corporal Henry F. Warner became one of the American heroes of the battle, fighting a 57mm anti-tank gun until he was mortally wounded by machine-gun fire from a Mark IV he had knocked out. German armour achieved a brief breakthrough on the 2/26th’s right flank, and began crushing infantrymen in their foxholes. But an American tank destroyer entered the fray and hit seven German tanks in succession. Five others continued to advance, but two were wrecked by two Shermans before they, in turn, were knocked out.

The surviving Germans began to fire on the manor house which sheltered Daniel’s command post. Just when his position began to seem desperate, a platoon of American self-propelled 90mm guns arrived. Under cover of a smokescreen, they hit two of the German tanks. The last survivor retired. Several hundred Germans had died, and the enemy had lost some forty-seven tanks and self-propelled guns. The Americans suffered 250 casualties. Colonel Daniel’s force was now so weakened that he began to wonder if he should pull back. Yet the arrival of an additional company of reinforcements persuaded him that he could hold on. He was right. The Germans had exhausted themselves. The 2/26th had performed a memorable feat of arms, of the kind which decided the outcome of the battle. The regiment’s performance caused the commander of 12th SS Panzer to describe 21 December as “the darkest day of my life.” At Hitler’s insistence, Sepp Dietrich’s men continued to press forward against the Elsenborn Ridge for four more days. But the critical moment had passed. Model now recognized that, if a breakthrough was to to be achieved anywhere, it would have to be made by Fifth Panzer Army in the south, not Sixth SS Panzer Army in the north.

ON 20 DECEMBER, despite Bradley’s bitter protests, Eisenhower gave Montgomery command of the entire northern flank of the Bulge, placing most of Hodges’s First Army and Simpson’s Ninth under his orders. This was a stroke of wisdom of the kind which justified all the Supreme Commander’s claims to his authority. Montgomery, as has been observed, was the object of intense dislike among his American peers. It would have been understandable if Eisenhower had thus felt unable to give the British field-marshal authority over U.S. troops. Yet in this crisis he showed his statesmanship and was rewarded by a highly competent performance from Montgomery. Now that the Germans had broken wireless silence, Bletchley Park was decoding a flood of signals about their deployments and intentions. Montgomery therefore possessed advantages denied to his American counterparts in the first days. Yet other generals, possessing the same access to intelligence, remained unnerved by the German lunge. At a time when there was disarray, if not panic, at First Army headquarters, the foxy little field-marshal kept his balance. Coolly and calmly, he redeployed British and American forces to create a solid northern front against the German advance.

The British XXX Corps at Dinant was shifted to block the last miles to the Meuse. It was scarcely called upon to fight, for the Bulge was an American battle. But Montgomery displayed the quality most vital to a commander in a crisis—grip. Many even among those Americans who detested him applauded his contribution to the defence against Germany’s winter offensive. When Brigadier William Harrison of the 30th Division met 21st Army Group’s commander, he thought: “Here is a guy who really knows what he is doing.” Von Manteuffel asserted afterwards that the Allied response to the Ardennes offensive was very much better co-ordinated than the original German attack.

Yet even in this crisis Montgomery could not bring himself to behave gracefully. At a meeting with Hodges of First Army and Simpson of Ninth, instead of inviting the Americans to brief him on the battle situation as they huddled over maps on the bonnet of his Humber staff car, the British commander turned to his young British liaison officer, Major Carol Mather. “What’s the form?” demanded Monty, inviting Mather to explain the battle situation. The British officer wrote: “Our American friends . . . looked severely discomfited. It was a slight uncalled for.” Montgomery’s official biographer, Nigel Hamilton, said of his treatment of Hodges: “He humiliated the shyest . . . of American generals in his hour of shame.” Bill Simpson, fortunately, seemed impervious to Montgomery’s discourtesies. The gaunt, lanky, unassuming Ninth Army commander was a West Point classmate of Patton, and passed out of the Academy second from bottom. A rancher’s son from Texas, much decorated in the First World War, Simpson proved himself one of the most sympathetic as well as most competent American officers in Europe. Not least among his virtues was a patience and good nature towards the British in general and Montgomery in particular, which deserved a more generous response than it received.

From the beginning of the battle, it became evident that Montgomery intended to exploit the crisis to pursue his familiar demand that an overall Allied ground commander should be appointed. On the very day Eisenhower gave the field-marshal command of the northern flank of the Bulge, Brooke felt obliged to send Montgomery a weary, strongly worded letter urging him to abandon his delusions about taking over the Anglo-American armies: “I think you should be careful about what you say to Eisenhower himself on the subject . . . especially as he is now probably very worried over the whole situation.” The next day, Brooke reinforced his message: “I would like to give you a word of warning. Events and enemy action have forced on Eisenhower the setting-up of a more satisfactory system of command . . . It is important that you should not even in the slightest degree appear to rub this unfortunate fact into anyone at SHAEF. Any remarks you make are bound to come to Eisenhower’s ears sooner or later.”

The Bulge battle began at a time when American enthusiasm for the British was at a low ebb. James Byrnes, director of the Office of War Mobilization and sometimes known as Roosevelt’s “assistant president,” noted that even before the events of mid-December U.S. generals in France had been complaining about the “passivity” of Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. There was ferocious U.S. criticism of British military intervention against the communists in Greece, which was considered to reflect not only Churchillian imperialism but a willingness to enforce this by diverting British troops from the west European battlefield, thus increasing the burden upon the Americans. Roosevelt told Stimson that he was frankly “fed up” with the British. “Something very like a crisis exists beneath the surface in the relations between the Allies who are fighting this war,” the columnist Marquis Childs wrote in the Washington Post on 8 December 1944. “. . . I believe that most Americans who think about these things are deeply troubled about the turn of events in Occupied Europe.” Representative Barry of New York said in Congress: “We Americans haven’t suffered more than half a million casualties to divide Europe between Great Britain and Russia.” The Manchester Guardianobserved in a considerable understatement: “Anglo-American relations seem rather unhappy just now.” With the trauma of the German assault in the Ardennes overlaid upon existing tensions, this was no time for a British commander to provoke the Americans.

Yet on 22 December the field-marshal wrote to Brooke in terms which reflected the conceit and self-delusion which he would soon afterwards expose in public: “I think I see daylight now on the northern front, and we have tidied up the mess and got two American armies properly organised. But I can see rocks ahead and no grounds for the optimism Ike seems to feel. Rundstedt is fighting a good battle.” The following day, Montgomery reported: “I do not think Third U.S. Army will be strong enough to do what is needed. If my forecast proves true, then I shall have to deal unaided with both Fifth and Sixth Panzer Armies. I think I can manage them, but it will be a bit of a party.”

Patton had been deputed to restore the southern front of the German penetration. He responded with a feat of command and staff work which won the admiration of history, by wheeling three divisions of Third Army through ninety degrees in seventy-two hours, to launch a drive north to Bastogne and beyond. Montgomery did not have to “deal unaided” with Fifth and Sixth SS Panzer Armies, nor was it ever likely that he would. By 22 December, the crisis of the Ardennes battle was over, though plenty of hard fighting still lay ahead. The field-marshal displayed admirable professionalism in reorganizing the northern front. But he did nothing then or later in the battle which suggested brilliance.

Moreover, his rhetoric deprived him of gratitude even from those who might otherwise have been willing to offer it. On 28 December, he reported smugly to Brooke about a meeting with Eisenhower:

I said he would probably find it somewhat difficult to explain away the true reasons for the “bloody nose” we had just received from the Germans, but this would be as nothing compared to the difficulty we would have in explaining away another failure to reach the Rhine . . . [Eisenhower] was definitely in a somewhat humble frame of mind, and clearly realised that present trouble would not have occurred if he had accepted British advice and not that of American generals.

Even after the initial crisis of the battle had passed, some American units continued to suffer pain from the Germans’ furious, frustrated thrashings. “Our outfit broke,” Private John Capano of the 30th Division’s 120th Infantry said frankly. His unit’s first inkling that the Germans were moving came from Belgian civilian women, who trickled into their positions around the Lingueville–Malmédy road early on 21 December and volubly proclaimed that the enemy was close. “When the trouble started, we had no foxholes dug. Suddenly, there was the Luftwaffe bombing us. We’d been told the Luftwaffe was washed up. When we heard tanks, we all started to run for cover. We didn’t know which way to go. We were firing into the trees. We figured that we just ought to make as much noise as we could. We thought: ‘Somebody’s fouled up.’ The armored guys were our saviors. We rode out on top of their tanks.” In reality, it should be said, although the 120th was badly mauled by the 150th Panzer Brigade—led by some of Otto Skorzeny’s men in American vehicles and uniforms—the regiment later rallied.

Lieutenant William Devitt of the 330th Infantry was hit one night by mortar fragments which also brought down his platoon sergeant. “My first reaction was fear. I was afraid I was going to die. Concurrent with the fear came a prayer, something like ‘God help me!’ But simultaneously, I started to talk to myself: ‘Don’t panic. Seek help.’ ” He called quietly for a medic. The corpsman who responded explained apologetically that he had lost his torch. But within ten minutes stretcher-bearers took Devitt to the rear, with shrapnel wounds in his hand and abdomen. A few days later, he found himself sharing a room in a Welsh hospital with a young officer who had lost his leg. “I really don’t give a Goddam any more,” said his roommate. “How’ll I play tennis? I had a football scholarship from Texas Christian waiting for me. I just don’t want to live this way.” The boy got his wish, for he died of septicaemia. Devitt, who had been so eager a month earlier to experience combat, was profoundly grateful now to be through with it.

Major Hal McCown, commanding the 2/119th Infantry of 30th Division, was captured on 21 December while visiting forward positions, along with his wireless-operator and orderly. He was taken before Joachim Peiper, and conversed with the SS officer through a German interpreter who had spent sixteen years in Chicago. McCown said later: “The Germans’ morale was high, despite the extremely trying conditions.” He talked to Peiper for most of the night: “I have met few men who impressed me so much in so short a space of time as did this German officer. He was completely confident of Germany’s ability to whip the Allies.” Peiper waxed lyrical before the American about V2s, new submarines, fresh divisions. In the two days that followed, heavy American artillery fire fell around Peiper’s headquarters, killing one American prisoner and a guard. On the afternoon of 23 December, McCown was summoned once more to Peiper. His panzers had run out of fuel. He was withdrawing on foot, leaving behind the wounded prisoners, but taking the American major with him. In the early hours of the next morning, 800 Germans slipped silently into the woods. Two hours later, the fugitives heard the first explosions as charges on their abandoned tanks began to detonate. All next day, the Germans probed for an escape route, once being challenged by an American sentry. Peiper and his staff disappeared. The other Germans pressed on, carrying their own wounded, until that night the column collided with American positions. In the ensuing firefight, Major McCown was able to escape into friendly hands, and tell his story to men of the 82nd Airborne.

The weather had cleared on 23 December. “There was an other-worldly beauty in the battlefield for those who had the comfort and leisure to observe,” wrote the Australian war correspondent Alan Moorehead.

When you drove past the frozen canals and the tobogganing children up to the heights of the Ardennes, the sun broke through and it was like a spot-lighted stage, mile upon mile of untrodden snowfields under the clear and frosty lamp of the winter sun. If you turned your back to the ruined villages and forgot the war for a moment, then very easily you could fancy yourself to be alone in this radiant world where everything was reduced to primary whites and blues; a strident, sparkling white among the frosted trees, the deep blue shadows in the valley, and then the flawless ice-blue of the sky.

For Allied defenders gazing up at the sunshine, lyrical beauty was to be found in the fact that their aircraft could fly. Supply drops rained down on Bastogne. At last, fighter-bombers descended in full force upon the battlefield. In St. Vith, Lieutenant Rolf-Helmut Schröder watched the impact of the first strikes on his depleted unit of the 18th Volksgrenadiers and thought bleakly: “This is not going to be easy.” A veteran of the Eastern Front, Schröder had never before experienced heavy air attack. His commanding officer was wounded. They began to retreat under the command of a colonel newly arrived from Norway who, Schröder noticed with dismay, wore a tunic bare of battle decorations. His fears were confirmed during an American counter-attack. The colonel excused himself, saying: “Schröder, I’m afraid my foot is playing up.” It should never be supposed that the Wehrmacht was led only by brave men.

American control of the battlefield reasserted itself slowly but surely. German tanks reached the furthest point of their advance, sixty miles from their start line and a few miles short of the Meuse, on 24 December. The panzers’ clockwork had run down. Most enemy armoured units were starved of fuel. They were battered by aircraft and concentrated artillery fire. The American genius for mobility had enabled the defenders already to double their infantry numbers and treble their armoured strength in the embattled sector. The Bulge looked alarming on the map, yet no longer presented a strategic threat. “The fact that the Hun has stuck his neck out,” wrote Tedder at SHAEF as early as 22 December, “is, from the point of view of shortening the whole business, the best thing that could happen. It may make months of difference.” Time was always the friend of the Allies, the enemy of the Germans. Hitler’s armies had lost their race.

Matthew Ridgway, commanding XVII Airborne Corps, was absent in England when the German offensive began. Gavin of the 82nd filled his place superbly through the first days, returning to his own division when the corps commander arrived. The force of Ridgway’s personality is stamped upon every line of his correspondence, every record of his conversations. After days in which some senior officers who should have known better panicked, it is striking to contrast Ridgway’s remarks to his formation commanders on Christmas Eve: “The situation is normal and completely satisfactory. The enemy has thrown in all his mobile reserves, and this is his last major offensive effort in this war. This Corps will halt that effort; then attack and smash him . . . I want you to reflect that confidence to the subordinate commanders and staffs in all that you say and do.” Ridgway told Gavin: “Now, I know your men are tired, they’ve done a magnificent job out there, and they need you to go and pep them up a little bit. I don’t know of anyone who can do that better than you. Will you get that across?”

Ridgway sent a biting letter to the officer commanding the 75th Division in his corps, asserting that its performance had been sorely inadequate: “I want every man imbued with the idea how lucky he is to be here, where the decision of this war will be reached, and where he can contribute his utmost to putting the 75th up alongside of the best divisions in our army. That upclimb starts today.”

At least one man of the 75th Division which Ridgway was addressing, Harold Lindstrom, a twenty-two-year-old farmboy from Alexandria, Minnesota, felt nothing like “lucky to be here.” A bespectacled rifleman in F Company of the 2/289th Infantry, Lindstrom arrived in France on 15 December and had been growing steadily more unhappy ever since. First, the tough, respected staff-sergeant who had been with his company through training succumbed to combat fatigue on their sixth day in the war zone, without hearing a shot fired. Lindstrom himself was nursing a feverish cold. The unit chaplain, a man he had never cared for, came by. To his own surprise, the soldier found himself grateful to see the priest: “things were different. I was ready to listen. I was afraid of the future and was looking for all the help I could get.”

His company trudged forward, cold, weary, hungry and thirsty. They passed jeeps loaded with wounded, wrecked vehicles crushed into twisted steel and broken glass, trucks with their tyres still burning. Abandoned kit lay everywhere: “It was scary to see equipment just like that I was using. They had to have been guys just like me . . . After seeing that mess I was deathly afraid of German tanks, and I think most other guys were, too.” Their neighbours in K Company were strafed by American P-38s. On Christmas morning, the 289th deployed for an attack, three battalions in line, towards the blazing Belgian village of Grandmenil. Tracer streaked towards them. As Lindstrom’s platoon mortarman set up his tube, a German round ricocheted off the baseplate, striking sparks. For hours, they lay inert while German machine-gun fire hosed monotonously up and down the line, wounding a few men. Lindstrom felt the snow melting under him as he lay. Darkness came. At last their platoon leader, a thirty-five-year-old named Lavern Ivens, shouted: “Men, we can’t lay here all night and wait to get hit. Start crawling up the hill towards that clump of trees.” They were thrilled to receive orders and gingerly started moving. Then they heard an engine start, a German voice, and laughter. They lay still again. Rollie Combs called to Roy Mitchell: “Mitch, Mitch, which way should I lay? Facing or away from them?” Then somebody cried: “Let’s get the hell out of here before they start shelling us.” They trickled miserably back down the hill. A wounded man begged Lindstrom for his overcoat, but he felt so cold that he refused. Somebody else obliged and made Lindstrom feel guilty: “I am sure I would have given him mine. I just had to get used to the idea. I suppose I came across kind of poorly.” They reached a field kitchen and sat gratefully eating their chow. That night, their battalion CO was relieved of his command.

Next morning, they were told to be ready to attack again. “That made me feel kind of desperate . . . I had never been so frightened as I was the night before, and now we were back at it again. I asked God to help me.” F Company scouting officer asked for volunteers for a patrol. No one moved. At last, a few came forward. As they began to advance, American shells fell close. The line broke and ran towards the rear. Lindstrom looked in horror at a man with one eye hanging out; another with his legs blown off, smoking a cigarette under a tree; a stray boot with a foot in it; a sergeant being carried screaming to the rear by stretcher-bearers. He noticed that the NCO’s body was a bloody mess below the waist, and wondered if he had lost his penis and testicles.

For four days after that, they lay in foxholes under shellfire. They had no idea where they were, nor that they were taking part in “the Battle of the Bulge.” Lindstrom wrote: “Most of the time, I responded to simple dog-like commands such as ‘move out,’ ‘hold up,’ ‘set up firing positions,’ ‘keep your head down.’ I was always thinking about how cold I was.” When he saw his first dead Germans, he envied them their peace: “The war was over for them. They weren’t cold any more.” Everybody was familiar with a U.S. government propaganda film about how the war was being fought for a typical all-American family and their dog Fido. Now, men would say to each other: “Remember, we’re doing this for Fido.”

Lindstrom’s portrait of the experience of combat, in all its discomfort, bewilderment and fear, possessed a far greater resonance for most men who took part in the Second World War than the reminiscences of those who won medals. If anyone had told the Minnesotan and his comrades in their foxholes that merely by hanging on in there, by the fact of their survival, they had helped to win a great battle, they would have been bemused. Yet such was the reality. With such top-class American divisions as the 1st, 2nd Armored and two airborne formations reinforcing the line, the Germans were now simply beating themselves to death against the Allied positions, or struggling to win a breathing space for retreat. Bridges across the Ourthe had been blown in advance of 116th Panzer, and indeed at every turn American demolitions denied river crossings to the enemy. Joachim Peiper fumed about “the damned engineers.” Only very late in the battle, as units began to capture large numbers of German pan-zers abandoned with empty tanks, did Allied commanders begin to grasp the scope of the Germans’ fuel difficulties. When the U.S. 743rd Tank Battalion got into La Glieze, its men were excited to find thirty Tigers and Panthers standing intact, with empty tanks. The Americans enthused briefly about taking over the panzers, but the maintenance problems seemed insuperable.

At 1650 on 26 December, elements of Patton’s 4th Armored Division broke through to the 101st Airborne. Brigadier Anthony McAuliffe hastened out to the perimeter to meet the tank men. Captain William A. Dwight saluted and asked: “How are you, General?” McAuliffe said: “Gee, I’m mighty glad to see you.” The 101st Airborne had suffered 1,641 casualties, 10th Armored 503, while 4th Armored Division lost 1,400, and other units in proportion. The fighting around Bastogne was not over, and the link between the town and the main American front remained precarious. But it was no longer in doubt that the positions could be held.

The Bulge crisis provoked a hasty combing of rear areas for service corps personnel who might replace the heavy infantry casualties. Private Charles Felix, an artilleryman, was stricken by despair when told in late December that he was being transferred to infantry. An unwilling draftee, Felix had been relieved to see his papers stamped “Limited Service” because of poor eyesight. He was correspondingly crestfallen to be sent overseas at all. On arrival at his battalion, he seized the opportunity to claim non-existent radio experience and to his overwhelming relief was posted to battalion CP rather than to a rifle company. Omar Bradley liked to tell a story of a man who kept telephoning the Stars & Stripes Paris office for news of the battle. After repeated calls, he was asked which commander he was calling for. “I don’t represent any general,” the man responded gloomily. “I’m one of the Com-Z people slated for transfer to infantry.” At one moment during the frantic search for reinforcements, Eisenhower asked Washington to make available 100,000 Marines, an extraordinary admission of desperation. His request was rejected.

IN THE NORTH in the last days of December, 2nd Armored Division from Hodges’s First Army met its German counterpart 2nd Panzer Division just west of Dinant, and destroyed almost every one of von Manteuffel’s tanks that had not already run out of fuel. 2nd Panzer started the battle with 116 tanks and assault guns and ended it with virtually none. Far southwards, in front of Patch’s Seventh Army, the German Army Group G launched a second offensive in the Saarland, designed to increase pressure on the Allies, and make it harder for Eisenhower to reinforce the Ardennes. The initial assault gained a little ground and inspired a resurrection of Hitler’s hopes. But this German assault, too, faltered and died in the first days of 1945.

On 27 December, SHAEF Intelligence recorded: “The tempo of the enemy’s efforts has slowed almost to nothing.” Corporal Iolo Lewis, a Welsh wireless-operator in one of Montgomery’s Shermans, waiting for the Germans with XXX Corps above the Meuse, watched the enemy’s tanks advancing in extended line, infantry among the panzers. The British felt relaxed and confident, their own tanks deployed hull down in overwhelming strength, as backstop for the American front. “As the sun came out, we knew the Germans were finished,” said Lewis. “When the Typhoons came down on them, you could see crews jumping out of the panzers even before they were hit.” On New Year’s Day 1945, the Luftwaffe made its last big effort on the Western Front. Its fighters destroyed on the ground 140 Allied aircraft, including Montgomery’s personal transport, in a series of surprise strafing attacks on airfields. But the German pilots suffered punishing casualties they could not afford, while Allied losses were quickly made good.

Since 24 December Guderian had recognized the failure of the Ardennes offensive, and begged Hitler in vain to allow the panzer divisions to be withdrawn east, in readiness to meet the Soviet onslaught which OKH, army high command, knew was approaching. Only Hitler’s personal folly maintained the Ardennes battle, encouraged by Jodl, who persuaded him that maintaining pressure in the west was dislocating the Anglo-Americans’ offensive plans. Indeed, it was Jodl who ordered the subsidiary attack in Alsace-Lorraine at this period, in defiance of Guderian’s insistence that the vital priority was now the Vistula Front. Only on 3 January did Hitler belatedly sanction a withdrawal.


FROM THE FIRST days of the Ardennes offensive, the ebullient Patton urged that the panzers should be allowed to drive for Paris if they wanted. He was confident that the further the Germans pushed west, the fewer of them would ever go home. “Provided the two ‘gateposts’ hold,” Alan Brooke wrote in his diary on 21 December, “there may be a chance of annihilating a great many of the sheep that have broken through. If only the Americans are up to it.” Allied strategic superiority was overwhelming. The obvious challenge, once the Germans’ momentum was spent, was to attack their salient at its base, cutting off their retreat. From 29 December onwards, von Manteuffel and his fellow commanders were urgently warning OKW of this peril to their exhausted and exposed formations. Yet Eisenhower, Bradley and Montgomery showed no enthusiasm for exploiting success. They were content patiently to shepherd the retreating enemy eastwards, hitting him from the air at every turn, destroying large numbers of his tanks and vehicles, but never seriously attempting to deny the Germans an escape route from the battlefield. Patton stood alone in urging a more imaginative stroke, to envelop the flagging enemy.

Third Army’s dramatic drive north to Bastogne had filled the front pages of America’s newspapers. Patton’s Chief of Staff Hobart Gay reflected in his diary for 1 January 1945 on the irony that his chief was once again a national hero, a year to the day since he had been sacked as commander of Seventh Army, following the notorious “slapping incidents” in Sicily: “It’s a fickle world . . . It is a crime that newspaper people, particularly men whose own standards are not very high, can take it upon themselves not only to try to ruin an individual, but also to react very adversely towards the success of the armed effort of a great nation.”

Patton’s pleas to strike at the base of the German salient were rejected. Gay was correct in asserting that his chief had once again become a national hero, for Third Army’s energetic publicity apparatus ensured that Patton’s soldiers were loaded with laurels for their drive north. Yet this stirring tale, which America was eager to hear after the humiliations of earlier days, masked some embarrassing truths about Third Army’s role. Patton had indeed performed a notable feat of command and staffwork by dispatching two corps to support First Army within forty-eight hours of Eisenhower’s initial request. Yet thereafter the piecemeal commitment of formations across a broad front cost his men substantial pain and casualties. On 3 January, Patton commented ruefully to his staff on the German Seventh Army: “They are colder, hungrier and weaker than we, to be sure. But they are still doing a great piece of fighting.” It was argued that the Germans possessed the advantage of holding some formidable natural defensive features, but these had not proved decisive in American hands a fortnight earlier. Third Army’s notoriously poor radio discipline also gave the German interception service generous notice of its movements and intentions.

Once again, Patton had shown himself skilled in driving his forces into action and gaining credit for their successes. But he proved less effective in managing a tough, tight battle on the southern flank. The Americans prevailed, but they did not destroy their enemy as comprehensively as von Rundstedt and Model feared was inevitable. Patton loudly advocated decisive action, but himself contributed to the failure to make it good. “Lightning Joe” Collins, that outstanding American corps commander, remarked with characteristic feistiness as the campaign approached its close: “I’m sure that, 50 years from now, people will think that Georgie Patton won the war . . . but he couldn’t hold a candle to Bradley in the broader sense.” Collins spoke as a loyal subordinate of Bradley’s, and in truth there is little doubt that Patton was a vastly more imaginative warrior. But Collins’s words reflected the view of many able American officers, that Patton talked a better game than he played when the going got tough.

The Allies opted for slow, steady pressure to squeeze out the Bulge, in an unglamorous series of operations which lasted until mid-January. It was a familiar story, resembling the failure to close the Falaise Gap in August 1944: the Allies were content with success. Until the last weeks of the war, they neither seriously sought nor successfully accomplished a triumph on a heroic scale. Even when Bradley belatedly achieved an envelopment in the Ruhr three months after the Bulge, it was of debatable significance. The allies knew how hard the German soldier could fight, especially to break out of an encirclement. The piecemeal destruction of the enemy sufficed. They declined the risks of pursuing the wounded tiger into the thicket.

The world was told only on 5 January that Montgomery had assumed temporary command of American forces north of the Bulge during the battle. On 7 January, the field-marshal held a press conference at his headquarters which proved one of the most lamentable episodes of his career. It was plain to every thoughtful British officer that the Americans felt chastened, even humiliated by the mauling the Germans had given them in the first days of the battle. Indeed, some U.S. officers overdid this sentiment and forgot that what matters on a battlefield is which combatant remains upstanding after the tenth round. In this case, it was certainly not the Germans. American soldiers and airmen had inflicted a major defeat on von Rundstedt’s forces. It had been the function of the British merely to hold the ring. Yet for days British newspapers—which reached many Americans in Belgium—proclaimed with shameless relish that the British Army had been called upon to pick American chestnuts out of the fire. Bradley’s aide Chester Hansen wrote on 1 January: “Their [the British] press is building up a well of resentment among our American troops that can never be emptied, a distrust that cannot be erased.”

Yet on 7 January Montgomery emptied a petrol can on to Anglo-American tensions, then used the personal pronoun to ignite it: “As soon as I saw what was happening in the Ardennes, I took certain steps myself to ensure that if the Germans got to the Meuse, they certainly would not get over that river,” he told assembled correspondents at his headquarters. “. . . You have thus a picture of British troops fighting on both sides of American forces who have suffered a hard blow . . . The battle has been most interesting; I think possibly one of the most interesting and tricky battles I have ever handled . . .”

Even after sixty years, it remains astonishing that a highly intelligent man who had reached the summit of command could be capable of such vainglorious folly. From Eisenhower downwards, every American who read Montgomery’s words reacted with disgust. Beyond the absurdity of making such exaggerated claims for British participation in the battle, it was baffling that Montgomery felt able to regard the Bulge as a great feat of generalship. In reality, it was a battle fought by men in tanks, planes and foxholes with few imaginative interventions from their commanders. The defeated enemy was allowed to make a measured retreat—just as Rommel had been able to do after the Battle of Alamein in November 1942. A British intelligence officer recorded with rueful admiration on 10 January: “Without haste and without any trace of disorder, the enemy has today carried his withdrawal a stage further, and has left the snow and minefields to check Allied efforts to follow up.” Zhukov would never have allowed to the Germans the licence which Eisenhower, Bradley and Montgomery accorded them when they were plainly whipped in the Ardennes.

“Monty did a good job, but I think it could have been done quicker,” conceded Major Tom Bigland, one of his staff officers. “Monty privately admitted later that he underestimated American powers of recovery. The Americans, it must be remembered, had good equipment and fresh troops, whereas we had been at war for five long years, and were very tired.” Montgomery represented the most extreme example of a conceit that ran through his nation’s army: a belief that the Americans, having entered the war late and only under Japanese compulsion rather than as a matter of principle, were less competent fighting soldiers than the British. Alan Brooke regarded Eisenhower with contempt and Marshall with condescension. He believed that he himself could and should have been Supreme Commander in Europe. Churchill observed to Brooke in July 1944: “The Arnold–King–Marshall combination is one of the stupidest strategic teams ever seen. They are good fellows and there is no need to tell them this.” Churchill once described Spaatz, the American air C-in-C in Europe, as “a man of limited intelligence.” Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris said: “You pay him too high a compliment.”

The British have always considered Americans boastful. Yet Churchill’s people, impelled by regret at their own shrinking power, during the Second World War often spoke and behaved less graciously than their transatlantic allies. Churchill’s private secretary wrote: “The more I contemplate the present trend of opinion and of events, the more sadly I reflect how much easier it will be to forgive our present enemies in their future misery, starvation and weakness than to reconcile ourselves to the past claims and future demands of our two great Allies. The Americans have become very unpopular in England.” Dwight Eisenhower was a steelier and less genial figure than his public persona allowed. Yet the Abilene boy who grew up in classically humble rural American circumstances, the poker-player who retained a lifelong enthusiasm for dime Western novels, always behaved in public as one of nature’s gentlemen. Montgomery, the bishop’s son educated at St. Paul’s and Sandhurst, never did. He was a cleverer man and a far more professional soldier than his Supreme Commander, but his crassness towards his peers was a fatal impediment to greatness.

No Allied general on the Western Front matched the verve displayed by Zhukov and his fellow marshals in the east. The Germans were persistently surprised by the sluggishness of the Western allies in attack, especially when the tide of battle was running as strongly their way as it was after the Ardennes offensive collapsed. Yet it can be argued that Allied generals achieved as much, or as little, as the performance of their soldiers would allow. It was a source of constant frustration to aggressive American commanders such as Ridgway and Gavin that on the battlefield U.S. troops failed to match their high ambitions. After the failure of an attack on 13 January, Ridgway sharply quizzed Leland Hobbs, commanding 30th Division, about “the poor showing of the 119th Infantry.” Hobbs said apologetically that one of its battalion commanders had been summarily relieved. Ridgway declared that there had obviously been a failure of leadership all the way through the regiment. Demanding to be given its casualty figures, he exploded on hearing that just fifty-eight men had been lost to all causes. “He said that confirmed his view that enemy resistance had been insignificant.”

Gavin raged at the limitations of other formations beside whom his paratroopers had to fight. “We are training our men to drive tanks and tank destroyers, since our armoured supporting people frequently abandon their vehicles when threatened in an attack,” he wrote in his diary on 18 January.

If our infantry would fight, this war would be over by now. On our present front, there are two very weak German regiments holding the XVIII Corps of four divisions. We all know it and admit it, and yet nothing is done about it. American infantry just simply will not fight. No one wants to get killed . . . Our artillery is wonderful and our air corps not bad. But the regular infantry—terrible. Everybody wants to live to a ripe old age. The sight of a few Germans drives them to their holes. Instead of being imbued with an overwhelming desire to get close to the German and get him by the throat, they want to avoid him if the artillery has not already knocked him flat.

In the second week of January, even German propaganda broadcasts were obliged to recognize the reality of failure in the Ardennes. “The Winter Battle,” as the Ardennes offensive had been described, now became “the defensive battle.” German listeners were encouraged to translate their hopes to Alsace. Berlin’s pundits emphasized “the miracle” of continued German resistance. After the surge in Wehrmacht morale in mid-December, now many men once more succumbed to despair. “If only this idiotic war would end!” Private Heinz Trammler wrote miserably in his diary in the Bulge. “Why should I fight? It is only for the survival of the Nazis. The superiority of the enemy is so great that it is pointless to struggle against it.”

On 7 January near Bastogne, a battalion commander in 9th SS Panzer Division wrote to his friend Otto Skorzeny, complaining bitterly about the quality of the replacements that were reaching him—mostly Ukrainians who do not even speak German. There is a shortage of everything, but here it is the men that count. I have learnt what it means, for instance, to have to attack without heavy weapons, because there is no transport to bring forward mortars and anti-tank guns. We have to lie out on frozen ground, a target for enemy fighter-bombers. Still, it is not going any better for the Americans. If only we had just one division here, trained and equipped and with the élan we both knew in 1939, so long ago! Well, we shall and must win one day. My best regards to you and also to my old comrades of Vis and Orianberg. Heil Hitler!

Major William DuPuy, commanding the 1/357th Infantry, believed that the Germans at the end of the Bulge battle “didn’t so much lose heart, as they lost organization. They just finally fell apart. They were strained beyond the elastic limit.” Lieutenant Rolf-Helmut Schröder of 18th Volksgrenadiers felt bitterly disillusioned. “That’s it—we’ve lost the war,” he thought. He took over command of a battalion which was reduced to just eighty men. Yet as late as 13 January British Second Army Intelligence recorded respectfully: “The enemy can claim to have wrested the initiative from the Allies . . . He has provided his people with a tonic which they sorely needed, and for at least a week took their minds off the gloomy situation at the end of a disastrous year . . . he has gained time . . . Against this, however, the cost was tremendous for the results achieved.”

As the Allies renewed their advance, they were plagued by the profusion of mines laid as usual by the Germans as they retreated. In mid-January, the 743rd Tank Battalion lost fifteen tanks to mines in two days. They were crossing ground that had been the scene of savage fighting. Private Ashley Camp leaped up in horror when he discovered that the snow-clad mound on which he sat down to eat his chow was composed of bodies. Sergeant Cockperry Kelly’s tank track hit the feet of a frozen corpse, which sprang rigidly upright against the hull. From positions near Bellevaux, Lieutenant Joseph Couri wrote on 14 January: “This was the coldest night that I experienced in the war. After going through the forest with the turret open and the snow tumbling down from the trees, I was completely wet. The tank . . . was a Frigidaire, and we were going to try and sleep in it. We were better off than the infantry, for it was impossible to dig a foxhole . . . They asked if they could bed down under our tanks, and they did. There was not much sleep that night. The shelling from both sides was continuous.”

The Germans were losing ground steadily, but showed no sign of outright collapse. Incautious actions were punished as brutally as ever by Model’s soldiers. The British 13 Para was approaching the Belgian village of Bure down an open hillside one afternoon early in January when the Germans, who could see them coming, unleashed a mortar and artillery bombardment. Within the space of just fifteen minutes, the unit suffered 160 casualties, including sixty-five dead. During fighting in Diekirch on 25 January, men of the 3/2nd Infantry captured thirty-seven Germans. As they routinely disarmed and searched their captives, they were taken aback to find that one of them was female. Sergeant Clifford Laski reported laconically: “It wasn’t until she took her helmet off and revealed those long locks of hair that we knew her to be a woman, because she wasn’t particularly chesty.” Staff-Sergeant Charles Skelnar’s last memory of Bastogne after its relief was of a 101st Airborne sergeant herding prisoners towards the cage. Every time he saw a German wearing GI boots, the NCO smashed his rifle butt down on the man’s feet. “They fought to the bitter end,” recorded a sardonic Allied intelligence report on 29 December, on the interrogation of 1st SS Panzer prisoners, “and they are still insolent.” Yet Private George Sheppard of the 319th Infantry enjoyed taking prisoners, and found their arrogance broken: “I felt proud. Here was the army of the Master Race, they’ve got their hands up, they’re shouting ‘Kamerad!’ they’re down on their knees begging for you not to shoot them.” Interestingly, a British expert on the Waffen SS believes that Joachim Peiper, symbol of German fanaticism and brutality in the Ardennes, suffered some kind of moral or physical collapse following the offensive’s failure. Peiper’s name disappears from all Waffen SS unit records until he emerges again in Hungary late in February 1945. If this is true, it reflects a tendency to hysteria not uncommon among fanatical young Nazi warriors. More than a few killed themselves, like Hein von Westernhagen of the 501st Heavy Panzer Battalion, under the stress of defeat. Not unreasonably, the Americans shot eighteen of Otto Skorzeny’s men whom they captured in GI uniforms. The night before their execution, their captors allowed some German nurses who were also prisoners to sing carols to them in the cells.

“LIGHTNING JOE” COLLINS said he was convinced the Bulge battle had shortened the war by six months. While the drastic depletion of Sixth SS Panzer Army and Fifth Panzer Army was obviously significant, it is hard to accept Collins’s judgement. At the summit of American command, the most notable consequence of victory was a despondency which persisted even after German failure was plain. Colonel Chester Hansen, Bradley’s aide, recorded: “There was a serious discussion at the top about sitting down and waiting for spring.” During the half-hearted German offensive in Alsace, there was talk at SHAEF about allowing 6th Army Group to retire into the Vosges. The battle inspired a resurgence of caution among Allied commanders and intelligence staffs. Alan Brooke believed that it “considerably retarded the defeat of Germany.” The victors recognized that the battle had destroyed Hitler’s principal armoured reserve. But they failed to perceive how desperate the overall predicament of the Third Reich had in consequence become, and thus to exploit the new situation with vigour. Fears were expressed at SHAEF that, unless the Allies could finish the war quickly, new German weapons, above all jet aircraft, would enable the enemy to continue the war through the summer of 1945. “Upon the conclusion of the Ardennes campaign,” declared the official U.S. army post-war report on the campaign, “it was estimated that the Allies had no marked superiority over the Germans in ground force strength.” This assertion would have aroused hysterical mirth at any German headquarters. SHAEF determined to establish the Allied armies in “strong defensive positions” along most of the front, “to free others for attack . . . In late January, the enemy’s combat strength was not considered markedly inferior to that of the Allies.”

The Bulge offensive cost the Germans between 80,000 and 100,000 casualties. The Americans lost 4,138 men killed, 20,231 wounded and 16,946 captured or missing, between 16 December and 2 January. In the second phase of the battle between 3 and 28 January, American casualties totalled a further 6,138 killed, 27,262 wounded and 6,272 captured or missing. Defeating Hitler’s winter offensive thus cost an overall total of 80,987 men, making the Bulge the most costly battle the Americans fought in north-west Europe, though one for which the “butcher’s bill” was far smaller than that for any major eastern encounter. The January figures illustrate how toughly the Germans continued to fight, even when they were being forced back after the failure of their own operation, starved of fuel and under constant air attack.

The Ardennes struggle rendered Eisenhower less willing than ever to take risks. His nerve had been badly shaken. The best U.S. corps and divisional commanders on the battlefield had shown more pepper and grip during the battle than their superiors at 12th Army Group and SHAEF. Hodges should have been relieved of First Army’s command after his poor showing. But the mood among the Americans in mid-January inclined towards celebrating heroes rather than sacking scapegoats. The Western allies did not recommence major offensive operations on their own account until mid-February. It took seven weeks for Eisenhower’s armies to recover their balance after the shock of the Ardennes.

Yet from the outset it was hard to envisage a scenario for German success. Von Rundstedt’s armies lacked the power to sustain such a vastly ambitious operation to its conclusion in the face of overwhelmingly superior forces. American mobility was decisive. German movements were crippled by difficult terrain and inadequate fuel. Indeed, it is arguable that the fuel shortage contributed at least as much as allied resistance to stopping the panzers, even before Allied air power was committed. During 1944–45 Hitler’s armies achieved remarkable feats when they were immobile and dug in, for they were hard to see and to hit. They were savagely mauled, however, whenever they moved and exposed themselves to air attack as they did in December and January. The Allies were able to move forces freely to the battlefield with their huge inventory of vehicles and almost unlimited fuel, amid negligible interference from the Luftwaffe. Tactically, the Ardennes was one of the worst-conducted German battles of the war, perhaps reflecting the fact that none of the generals giving the orders saw any prospect of success. The sorrows of those American soldiers who proved unable to resist the German panzers were erased by the triumphs of those who finally defeated them.

The principal beneficiaries of the Bulge battle were the Russians. The German Seventh Army was never impressive, but Fifth and Sixth SS Panzer Armies were among the most formidable forces Hitler had possessed in December. Their absence from the Eastern Front when Stalin launched his Vistula offensive was of significant value to the Soviet armies. Even when the panzer formations were belatedly transferred eastwards late in January, they had been devastated by their experience in Belgium and Luxembourg. It is unlikely that Dietrich’s and von Manteuffel’s tanks could have altered the outcome of the eastern battle, but their presence would have made the task of Zhukov and his colleagues much harder. The German fuel famine was strangling the ability of Hitler’s empire to maintain its resistance, almost irrespective of events on the battlefield. But the Ardennes attack imposed in weeks a level of attrition upon German armoured forces which might have taken months had they been deployed in defence. Stalin was always contemptuous of the battlefield contributions of his American allies. But he owed them a debt for the defeat they inflicted upon the Germans in December 1944. He might better have appreciated their achievement if his nature had allowed him to care more about the tens of thousands of Russian lives saved by the failure of Autumn Mist.

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