I Have Made a Momentous Decision!

THE FIRST OF September, the day of Rundstedt’s reappointment as OB West, also witnessed the capture of Dieppe by the Canadians – a poignant moment for they had suffered great casualties there in Operation Jubilee, their ill-fated raid of 19 August 1942, one of the early attempts to test the German defences on the Continent. The day additionally saw the liberation of Brussels, an event perhaps more symbolic than militarily significant, but the third European capital city to be freed after Rome and Paris. Just as the Free French 2nd Armoured Division had rescued their own capital in August, the Piron Brigade, named after its commander and composed entirely of Belgian and Luxembourg nationals, was hurried forward and entered their city on 4 September.

The Dutch Princess Irene Brigade was also readied for the move into their own country, while Eisenhower could also call on Stanisław Maczek’s Polish Armoured Division and Major-General Alois Liška’s Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade. The Belgian, Dutch and Czech brigades were all self-contained battlegroups of around 3,000 personnel, including infantry, engineers, artillery, transport, signals, medical and armoured car units, and evidence of the political importance Eisenhower attached to a broad alliance of nations liberating Northern Europe. Cumulatively these amounted to a well-trained, sizeable military force of committed soldiers dedicated to destroying any German formation they met. The Belgians immediately raised other battalions from enthusiastic members of the Resistance and one of these, the 5th Fusiliers, was deployed to the Ardennes in November and fought in the subsequent campaign under US command.

The Allies advanced at a tremendous pace, storming Sedan on the River Meuse on 1 September. A captured German diary recorded the moment: ‘We reached Sedan again in a very hasty retreat – much faster than our advance four years ago – but there is only one fifth of our regiment left. The rest of the men and vehicles do not exist any longer. It is impossible to describe what happened to us during the last five days …’1

On the following day, Hodges’ US First Army freed Mons, but of strategic importance was Antwerp’s liberation on 4 September, the port facilities being captured intact by the local Resistance. This offered great logistical possibilities, providing both German-held banks of the Scheldt estuary, which stretched from the port to the North Sea, could be cleared. By 6 September, the Poles had liberated Ypres, the Flemish city forever associated with 1914–18, and the Americans Liège (Lüttich, as we’ve seen, to the Germans); US forces reached the Dutch border at Maastricht on the 8th and two days later liberated Luxembourg, the fourth capital city to be freed.

On 6 September, as the German army flooded back to the borders of the Reich, and recognising the overwhelming might of Allied air power, the OKW War Diary noted, ‘Führer agrees with the assessment of [Jodl’s] planning staff that a large decisive attack in the west is not possible before 1 November, when the enemy is unable to fly. [Italics in original.] What matters is to withdraw as many units for refitting, to be operational by then. Meantime, keep the front as far west as possible’.2 Jodl had concluded that any carefully husbanded reserves would be needed to prevent a further Allied advance, rather than initiate Hitler’s planned decisive attack. This would impose a delay until November, by which time the Front might have stabilised, an attacking army could be assembled and the onset of poor weather would remove the Allies’ crushing might in the skies. Such was the predominant motivation: to find a way of circumventing Allied control of the skies, which had created such carnage in northern France.

This was a development of Hitler’s 31 July/19 and 31 August ideas, fused with extensive calculations from Jodl. Although Keitel, the lackey, was head of OKW, it was the planning genius Jodl who was scoping the counter-offensive. The winter attack was already germinating in Hitler’s mind, coupled with the need to avoid destruction from the air. Jodl had calculated that it would need an extra twenty-five divisions, which would require a huge effort, and men would have to be combed out of the other services.3Meanwhile, OKW recorded that 211,000 Hitler Youth and RAD (Reichsarbeitsdienst – the Reich Labour Service) workers were hard at work strengthening the Westwall.4

The initial reason for this 6 September discussion at the Wolfsschanze was the Allied capture of Antwerp two days earlier, which the Führer realised could solve the Allies’ logistical problems and possibly allow them to outflank the Westwall in an early attack. As we shall see, Eisenhower and Montgomery did not view the opportunities offered by Antwerp with the same sense of urgency as OKW, where its loss was regarded as a strategic setback ‘of the first order’. Also on 6 September, Major-General ‘Gee’ Gerow’s US V Corps began pouring into the lightly defended Ardennes and over the next couple of days pushed across the Ourthe river, reaching St Vith on 10 September, and beginning the US Army’s acquaintance with that densely wooded region. Americans commanders seemed not to have realised that for a few days the opportunity existed to push through the Westwall and deep into Germany – but it was only a fleeting chance and risky. Small penetrations were also difficult to sustain logistically and liable to be overwhelmed if not quickly reinforced.

At this time, OKW assessed the strength of all its forces in the west (excluding those encircled in ports) as thirteen infantry and three panzer divisions fully combat-effective, with forty-two infantry and thirteen panzer divisions incapable of concentrated action, being scattered and worn out. Model’s Army Group ‘B’ could only field about 100 battle-ready tanks.5 Moreover, the defenders were in disarray because officious local Nazi Party leaders, working with Himmler’s authority, were requisitioning army vehicles and personnel to create ‘alert units’ in the event of an American breakthrough, while roadblocks and barriers prevented the movement of vital logistics, including ammunition, forward. Local German commanders appealed that ‘this nonsense be stopped, otherwise it will be impossible to provide supplies and handle communications in the combat zone’.6 Such conflicts between the army doing its job and Nazi Party leaders jealously guarding their authority soon became commonplace as the fighting moved into the Reich itself.

Besides a few scattered SS and army battlegroups, the 116th Panzer Division (down to 600 men and eighteen tanks), there were only eight German ‘fortress battalions’ covering seventy-five miles of the Ardennes front at this stage. It says much for German improvisation and urgency that, by 14 September, a very worried Rundstedt had increased the eight battalions to thirty-two, totalling some 16,000 men. According to Milton Shulman, an intelligence officer of Ukrainian extraction serving with the First Canadian Army, by late 1944 much of the German defence in the west had come to rely on over 200 of these ad hoc fortress battalions, who comprised veterans and conscripts unfit for combat on account of age or medical impairment, but able to undertake limited military duties, and used to garrison the permanent fortifications of the Westwall and elsewhere.

While still in uniform, Shulman was fortunate to interrogate many senior German officers, and used his intelligence reports with the interview material to publish his 1947 bestseller Defeat in the West. Decades later, his work holds up well, though he tended to ridicule some aspects of the Wehrmacht, including these fortress battalions. Shulman referred to ‘Stomach’ and ‘Ear’ battalions, comprising men afflicted with specific ailments of those organs, who could nevertheless bear arms, noting of the ‘Ear’ battalions:

The problems that beset such a formation were practically insurmountable. Verbal orders could only be given by a frantic series of gestures. Inspecting the guard at night was a nerve-racking and hazardous task since the men on duty could not hear anyone approach. Thus when suddenly confronted in the dark they fired first and attempted to find who it was later. In one Ear battalion, two sergeants of the guard had been killed in this way shortly after the unit went into action. Casualties from artillery fire were also inordinately high because the men could not hear the sound of approaching shells and therefore took shelter much too late.7

With hindsight it makes an amusing read, but in 1944 Allied troops could be confronted by an opponent whose skills varied between the comically inept, as here, or the deadly, as in almost any Waffen-SS unit. In 1943–4, the fortress troops were gathered together into so-called battalions, a few hundred strong, commanded by a captain or major. Many would be absorbed into new Volksgrenadier units and sent into the December battles in the Ardennes, regardless of their infirmities. In no way did these fortress units resemble regular combat battalions in structure, equipment, motivation or capability. Yet, to Hitler’s eyes, they represented another pin on the maps in his headquarters. Ranged against them, Eisenhower fielded nearly forty combat-ready divisions, including twenty American, thirteen British, three Canadian, one Polish and one French, never mind numerous independent tank and artillery brigades.

On 8 September, Rundstedt and Model were finally allowed by OKW to withdraw units to man the Westwall, there being no more positions forward capable of being defended, which caused one German soldier to record, ‘My total estate now fits into my little bag as I have now lost everything else. The words “hot meal” sound like a foreign language. We are gaining ground rapidly but in the wrong direction.’8

That same evening, Hitler was ecstatic when the first V-2 rockets were launched successfully and landed on London. Four earlier attempts, from locations at St Vith and Houffalize (both sites soon to be fought over in the Ardennes) were technical failures, but the later missiles were detonated at Epping, north of London, and Chiswick, west of the capital, where a ten-metre crater was gouged out of Staveley Road, killing three, injuring twenty-two and demolishing six houses. The forerunner of modern intercontinental ballistic missiles and designed by Werner von Braun, who later conceived the Saturn V rocket, the projectile’s original title was the A-4, but Goebbels renamed it Vergeltungswaffe-zwei (Vengeance Weapon 2), or V-2. In all, over 1,300 were to be fired at England, killing 2,724 people; slightly more struck Antwerp and Paris with thousands more casualties, but from these few details it is obvious that the V-2 was a tactical terror weapon, not the strategic war-winning device the Reich expected it to be.9

Hitler’s mantra throughout 1944 had been that new secret weapons would suddenly change the course of the war. More and more he alluded to them, without explaining what they were, as if relying on a deus ex machina fantasy to alter history. Speer, as Armaments Minister, noted that he was asked frequently when they would be arriving, which illustrated how widely such rumours had circulated, encouraged and incited by Goebbels and Hitler.10 Goebbels eventually ended such false reports, but Hitler believed his own fantasies, gloating, ‘Sheer panic will grip the masses and drive them out into the open countryside … It will be an avalanche of misery and suffering … What parliamentary government can survive that! There will be such a storm of protest and war-weariness that the government will be overthrown’.11 Yet troops who had been stationed near V-1 ‘doodlebug’ and V-2 rocket launch sites and saw explosions on take-off or premature landings, immediately dubbed, with soldierly humour, the earlier vengeance weapons Versager-eins (Failure-1).12 Neither V-weapon was affected by weather, which grounded the Luftwaffe’s aircraft, and throughout the Ardennes offensive troops of both sides observed V-1s flying overhead towards Antwerp’s docks and Brussels, the glow of the tail motor at night and tell-tale drone featuring distinctly in many veterans’ memories.

The eleventh of the month witnessed the first hostile troops setting foot on German soil in combat since the days of Napoleon: a patrol from Troop ‘B’, 85th Reconnaissance Squadron of Major-General Lunsford E. Oliver’s US 5th Armored Division waded across the Our river on the Luxembourg–German border, near Vianden – an area that would be the focus of a battle between the local Resistance and the Waffen-SS in November and contested again during the December campaign.13 Although this was more of a symbolic setback, the scale of German reverses in the west escalated during 12 September when Oberst Eberhard Wildermuth was obliged finally to surrender the port of Le Havre, which his men had meanwhile rendered completely inoperable. This again drew attention in Hitler’s mind to the importance of the Allies’ logistics and ports. At about this time, one source indicates that the Führer, who had taken to his bed with poor health, sent for Jodl and they spread out maps of Belgium on the bed sheets. It seems that on this informal occasion together they devised the basics of the winter offensive, deciding to strike through the Ardennes and make for Antwerp. At this stage all these rough appreciations were geared towards a start date on 1 November, a time determined by the assumed onset of the poor weather that would clear the skies of hostile marauding aircraft.14

A couple of days later, on 14 September, in preparation for, in his words, the ‘großen Gegenangriff’ (great shock), Hitler ordered the appointment of staff for a new formation, Sixth Army (renamed Sixth Panzer Army on 8 November), which was to refit armoured units withdrawn from OB West.15 This was the first mention of the new army to be commanded by his one-time bodyguard, SS-Oberstgruppenführer Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich, and another indication of Jodl’s detailed plans for the attack, which were at this stage advancing on a daily basis.16 Dietrich was the last of the three army commanders featuring in the Bulge to be appointed, following the earlier elevations of Manteuffel and Brandenberger. Yet it would take weeks to find the necessary personnel and support units for the new organisation, so that Sixth Panzer Army was created formally only on 26 October at Bad Salzuflen, Westphalia, a mere seven weeks before its first major commitment.17 At this stage none of the three new army leaders had even the remotest inkling that Hitler was intending a major offensive with their formations, merely that he had assembled their forces for a defensive campaign.


Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich (1885–1966) was Hitler’s bodyguard in the nascent Third Reich, and one of the earliest recruits into the SS. No party ideologue, he was at heart a warrior, having cut his teeth in the First World War as a sergeant-major in Imperial Germany’s tank corps. On 14 September 1944, Hitler placed him in charge of the Sixth Army, the first army-level formation entrusted to the Waffen-SS, but by the time of the Ardennes, Dietrich was thoroughly disillusioned with Hitler’s leadership of the war. A front-line soldier, he had no talent for paper work and leant heavily on his chief of staff, Fritz Kramer, who gave up his own division to join Dietrich in the Ardennes. (Author’s collection)

By 16 September, the Allies had reached and began to besiege Dunkirk, the scene of the British evacuation after the Anglo-French debacle of May 1940. Perhaps the name of another port triggered something in Hitler’s mind, for that afternoon in his headquarters events took an unusual turn. Earlier, the Führer had experienced some kind of minor seizure, presumably brought on by stress, and his third in five days, but he recovered to sit through the usual afternoon military conference. Afterwards he asked a chosen few to join him in his study, one of the many camouflaged bunkers within the Wolfsschanze complex.

They included Keitel, Jodl, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian of the OKH, SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein, Himmler’s liaison officer at the Wolfsschanze, General Walther Buhle, on the OKW staff, who had been wounded on 20 July, Ambassador Walther Hewel, chief diplomatic liaison official, and Luftwaffe acting chief of staff, General Werner Kreipe, representing Göring – who was at the Wolfsschanze, but curiously not present.18 Of itself, this specific guest list indicated a major strategic gathering rather than a straightforward military briefing, Kreipe noting in his personal diary, ‘Führer situation discussion without Göring, very brief. Immediately thereafter special meeting with a small circle.’19

At this second assembly, Hitler first asked Jodl to summarise the military situation in the west. It was a sobering brief; the Reich had suffered over a million casualties in the previous three months, half of whom had been lost in the west. Hitler’s long-standing vision of a decision in the west was coming to pass: for the first time the loss statistics in France and Belgium had exceeded those of the Eastern Front. The Wehrmacht was being pushed out of southern France, while in the north they were forming defensive lines along waterways in Belgium and Holland or defending old nineteenth-century forts like Metz.

Jodl announced there was one area of concern. The Reich had virtually no defences in the Ardennes, which the Americans had just reached. At the mention of ‘Ardennes’, Hitler (according to Kreipe, who kept a transcript of the meeting) ordered Jodl to pause, stood up and stabbed at a map. ‘I have made a momentous decision! I shall go over to the attack, here, out of the Ardennes’; a rhetorical flourish and another stab at the map: ‘objective Antwerp. It will be a new Dunkirk!’ he exclaimed.

His whole demeanour had changed, he stood erect, shoulders squared and eyes blazing, as though his recent illnesses, including his seizure of that very morning, kept secret from this audience, had never happened.20

We should realise that Hitler’s sudden order for an attack out of the Ardennes, with the objective of Antwerp, made in East Prussia on Saturday, 16 September, was no mere spontaneous gesture to his generals. Possibly rehearsed beforehand with Jodl, this was Hitler the actor, ever the political showman. But why all the drama?

Hitherto, historians of the Bulge have interpreted the campaign purely in military terms. We know that Hitler had been looking for opportunities to go over to the offensive ever since Avranches (first the failed Operation Lüttich, then attempts to get Manteuffel to counter-attack from Lorraine). The method and timing of this announcement suggest the fundamental reason for the Ardennes undertaking was political, not military. What was at stake was Hitler’s hold on power in Germany. The Führer needed to demonstrate to those who might still pose a threat to him that he was still in control, that he had direction and purpose. The army would always be a threat: it had helped him to power in 1933 and demonstrated in July 1944 that it could remove him. He had been extremely lucky to escape.21

As Professor Theodore Hesburgh, one of the foremost scholars of modern leadership, has observed, ‘The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion.’22 That was exactly the purpose of Hitler’s ‘dramatic moment’ on 16 September, like Saul’s on the road to Damascus. Hitler loathed the laborious General Staff method of testing and analysing options. That wasn’t his style. A sudden conversion was both more noteworthy and credible – and far more Hitleresque.

He knew he had drifted ever since the shock of 20 July, lost the initiative and now had to demonstrate to the Reich he was back in control, mentally and physically. He chose his audience carefully, for he needed Guderian, Buhle and Kreipe (representing the army and air force), Fegelein (for the SS) and Hewel (of the diplomatic corps) on his side; he understood that if they were convinced, they would sell his plan to their commands. The Ardennes offensive was, in short, Hitler’s response to 20 July, far more so than murdering those who had plotted against him. Militarily, it was irrational, counter-intuitive, even suicidal. The concept in Hitler’s mind was not merely of a military counter-attack, but a political game-changer that would shatter the coalition ranged against him. It would also restore the power and prestige of the Third Reich and – crucially – of his own person within the regime.

The Third Reich is best envisaged as a series of competing power blocs, rather than Hitler sitting on high, commanding everything. There was Göring, his undisputed second-in-command, chief of the Luftwaffe, who also accumulated great wealth through the number of ministries and industries he ran throughout the Reich. Himmler controlled much of the security apparatus – the police forces, the SS, Gestapo, the camps, and after 20 July, the Ersatzheer. Then came the army, less powerful after the Stauffenberg plot, though still numerous. The ‘gatekeeper’, Martin Bormann, head of the Party Chancellery, a schemer who controlled access to Hitler and kept files on absolutely everyone. Also influential was Bormann’s younger brother, Albert, a Gruppenführer of the NSKK (the Nazi Motor Corps), another of Hitler’s chief adjutants and member of the inner circle; he was considered far more popular and trustworthy by everyone in the Führerhauptquartier than his sibling, with whom his relationship was caustic.23 There were more: Speer with his six million armaments workers; Goebbels the ideologue, who controlled all the media; the Abwehr (secret service) and their spies; and the diplomats. Hitler’s fortune was that they generally detested one another.

In the chaotic, divisive and toxic environment of the Third Reich, the Führer liked the notion of courtiers and ministers competing with one another, so that in his pseudo-Darwinian world only the strongest emerged; admittedly inefficient, it also kept all of his potential rivals busy, defending their own turf. In an interview after the war, Speer recalled how there was no unanimous handling of state affairs, ‘all the big stars of Hitler’s government were doing things on their own. Hitler liked this, but there was always some overlapping and this caused natural friction. His aim was to divide and rule. It also was in the interests of Bormann, his secretary, the most powerful man, more powerful than Hitler, because [everyone] had to go via him to Hitler.’24

The Führer had absolutely not foreseen the attack from Stauffenberg and realised he was vulnerable to other power blocs within the Third Reich. Hitherto he had stayed in power by playing these conflicting parties off against one another. But what if they were to find their Führer wanting, and united against him?

There was a precedent, for it was almost exactly ten years since the 30 June 1934 ‘Night of the Long Knives’. At the time, the crackdown was justified by the Nazi media as forestalling an SA coup, led by Röhm against Germany, though Himmler’s and possibly Hitler’s interpretation was subsequently that of a plot against Hitler himself. Perhaps the Führer may have pondered the fact that so many of his senior colleagues – Göring, Himmler and Goebbels – who frequently attended briefings at the Wolfsschanze, had been absent on 20 July 1944, though all subsequently rushed to Rastenburg to be seen offering congratulations at his survival.

Despite Hitler’s decree of 29 June 1941 that ‘if I should be restricted in my freedom of action, or if I should be otherwise incapacitated, Reichsmarschall Göring is to be my deputy or successor in all offices of State, Party and Wehrmacht’, Himmler’s subsequent instruction to the Gestapo ‘to investigate Göring’s connections with the revolt’ may have been motivated by opportunism rather than suspicion.25 The SS leader was certainly heard to remark to Dönitz, head of the Kriegsmarine, that if Hitler had died, ‘It is absolutely certain, Herr Großadmiral, that under no circumstances would the Reichsmarschall have become his successor.’26 Much later on the evening of 20 July, when Hitler broadcast to the Reich announcing the plot and his survival, he invited Dönitz to address the nation after him, and before Göring – the Reichsmarschall’s star was no longer in the ascendant, being rapidly eclipsed by Himmler’s, with the latter playing his own game.

In this respect, Hitler’s decision to initiate the Ardennes offensive was similar to the Argentinian junta in 1982 deciding to invade the Falkland Islands. Although the Malvinas were an attractive prize, it is generally accepted that the Galtieri government’s real motivation for the attack was to perpetuate their military rule of Argentina. The method adopted was to unite its population in a patriotic cause – invasion and recovery of the disputed islands – in order to distract attention away from their nation’s chronic economic problems, political suppression and human rights violations.

The 16 September announcement, and the dramatic fashion in which it was made, was to demonstrate, even and perhaps especially to loyal servants like the SS, that Hitler was still in control. Fegelein, a thirty-eight-year-old Waffen-SS general, Himmler’s eyes and ears in his headquarters, was no fool. A Knight’s Cross-wearing, accomplished front-line commander, he had married Eva Braun’s sister to advance his own career. Fegelein’s master and the Schutzstaffel were so powerful, Hitler may have realised, that they could constitute an alternative power base to himself: he had to present der Führer as a strong, credible leader, with a viable plan for the future. The Ardennes offensive was the answer: it was both an end in itself, with its military and political objectives, but also the very Machiavellian means to a different end.

Yet the conference drama was a conceit, for Hitler had suffered a seizure that very morning and his health would continue to collapse, although this was hushed up. Other historians have tended to neglect this aspect of the story.

It may have appeared to those present that on 16 September Hitler had suddenly made his ‘momentous decision’. But we now know that since 31 July, Jodl’s trusted staff, including Major Schramm, had been planning the operation quietly behind the scenes.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!