After the breakout from Normandy at the end of July 1944 and the landings in southern France on 15 August 1944, the Allies advanced toward Germany much faster than anticipated.
The Allies were faced with several military logistics issues: troops were fatigued by weeks of continuous combat, supply lines were stretched extremely thin, and supplies were dangerously depleted.
General Eisenhower (the Supreme Allied Commander) and his staff chose to hold the Ardennes region
The Ardennes region was occupied by the First United States Army. The Allies believed the Ardennes could be defended by as few troops as possible due to the favorable terrain, minimal road network, and limited number of Allied operational objectives. The Wehrmacht was known to be using the area to the east across the German border as a rest-and-refit area for its troops.
The speed of the Allied advance coupled with an initial lack of deep-water ports presented the Allies with enormous supply problems. Over-the-beach supply operations using the Normandy landing areas and direct landing LSTs on the beaches were unable to meet operational needs.
The only deep-water port the Allies had captured was Cherbourg, west of the original invasion beaches, but the Germans had thoroughly wrecked and mined the harbor before it could be taken. It took the Allies many months to build up its cargo-handling capability.
The Allies captured the port of Antwerp intact in the first days of September, but it was not operational until 28 November.
The Allies first had to clear the estuary of the Scheldt River that controlled access to the port of both German troops and naval mines. The limitations led to differences between General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery over whether Montgomery or American General Omar Bradley in the south would get priority access to supplies.
German forces remained in control of several major ports on the English Channel coast until May 1945.
The extensive destruction of the French railway system prior to D-Day, successful in hampering German response to the invasion, proved equally damaging to the Allies, as it took time to repair the system’s tracks and bridges.
A trucking system nicknamed the Red Ball Express brought supplies to front-line troops, but transportation took five times as much fuel to reach the front line near the Belgian border as was delivered. By early October the Allies suspended major offensives to improve their supply lines and availability.
Montgomery and Bradley both pressed for priority delivery of supplies to their respective armies so they could continue their individual lines of advance and maintain pressure on the Germans. General Eisenhower, however, preferred a broad-front strategy.
He gave some priority to Montgomery’s northern forces, who had the short-term goal of opening the urgently needed port of Antwerp and the long-term goal of capturing the Ruhr area, the industrial heart of Germany.
With the Allies paused, German Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt was able to reorganize the disrupted German armies into a coherent defense.
Field Marshal Montgomery’s Operation Market Garden only achieved some of its objectives, while its territorial gains left the Allied supply situation worse than before.
In October the Canadian First Army fought the Battle of the Scheldt
This cleared the Westerschelde by taking Walcheren and opening the port of Antwerp to shipping. As a result, by the end of October the supply situation had eased somewhat.
Despite a lull along the front after the Scheldt battles, the German situation remained dire. While operations continued in the autumn, notably the Lorraine Campaign, the Battle of Aachen and fighting in the Hürtgen Forest, the strategic situation in the west changed little. The Allies were slowly pushing towards Germany, but no decisive breakthrough was achieved.
The Western Allies already had 96 divisions at or near the front, with an estimated ten more divisions en route from the United Kingdom to the battle zone. Additional Allied airborne units remained in England. The Germans could field a total of 55 understrength divisions.
Adolf Hitler promised his generals a total of 18 infantry and 12 armored or mechanized divisions “for planning purposes.”
The plan was to pull 13 infantry divisions, two parachute divisions and six panzer-type divisions from the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) strategic reserve. On the Eastern Front the Soviets’ Operation Bagration during the summer had destroyed much of Germany’s Army Group Center (Heeresgruppe Mitte).
The extremely swift operation ended only when the advancing Red Army forces outran their supplies. By November it was clear that Soviet forces were preparing for a winter offensive.
Meanwhile, the Allied air offensive of early 1944 had effectively grounded the Luftwaffe, leaving the German Army with little battlefield intelligence and no way to interdict Allied supplies. The converse was equally damaging; daytime movement of German forces was almost instantly noticed and interdiction of supplies combined with the bombing of the Romanian oil fields starved Germany of oil and gasoline.
One of the few advantages held by the German forces in November 1944 was that they were no longer defending all of Western Europe. Their front lines in the west had been considerably shortened by the Allied offensive and were much closer to the German heartland. This dramatically reduced their supply problems despite Allied control of the air.
Additionally, their extensive telephone and telegraph network meant that radios were no longer necessary for communications, which lessened the effectiveness of Allied Ultra intercepts.
Nevertheless, some 40-50 decrypt messages were sent per day by Ultra. They recorded the quadrupling of German fighter forces and noticed that the term used in the intercepted Luftwaffe message—Jägeraufmarsch (Fighter Marshalling Point)—implied preparation for an offensive operation.
Ultra also picked up communiqués regarding extensive rail and road movements in the region. In addition, Ultra picked up German orders that movements should be made on time.