Further south on Manteuffel’s front, the main thrust was delivered by all attacking divisions crossing the River Our, then increasing the pressure on the key road centers of St. Vith and Bastogne. The more experienced 28th Infantry Division put up a much more dogged defense than the inexperienced (or “green”) soldiers of the 106th Infantry Division.
The 112th Infantry Regiment (the most northerly of the 28th Division’s regiments), holding a continuous front east of the Our, kept German troops from seizing and using the Our River bridges around Ouren for two days, before withdrawing progressively westwards.
Belgian civilians killed by SS units during the offensive
The 109th and 110th Regiments of the 28th Division, however, fared worse, as they were spread so thinly that their positions were easily bypassed. Both offered stubborn resistance in the face of superior forces and threw the German schedule off by several days.
The 110th’s situation was by far the worst, as it was responsible for an 18-kilometre (11 mi) front while its 2nd Battalion was withheld as the divisional reserve. Panzer columns took the outlying villages and widely separated strongpoints in bitter fighting, and advanced to points near Bastogne within four days.
The struggle for the villages and American strongpoints, plus transport confusion on the German side, slowed the attack sufficiently to allow the 101st Airborne Division (reinforced by elements from the 9th and 10th Armored Divisions) to reach Bastogne by truck on the morning of 19 December.
The fierce defense of Bastogne, in which American paratroopers particularly distinguished themselves, made it impossible for the Germans to take the town with its important road junctions. The panzer columns swung past on either side, cutting off Bastogne on 20 December but failing to secure the vital crossroads.
In the extreme south, Brandenberger’s three infantry divisions were checked by divisions of the U.S. VIII Corps after an advance of 6.4 km (4 mi); that front was then firmly held.
Only the 5th Parachute Division of Brandenberger’s command was able to thrust forward 19 km (12 mi) on the inner flank to partially fulfill its assigned role.
Eisenhower and his principal commanders realized by 17 December that the fighting in the Ardennes was a major offensive and not a local counterattack, and they ordered vast reinforcements to the area. Within a week 250,000 troops had been sent.
General Gavin of the 82nd Airborne Division arrived on the scene first and ordered the 101st to hold Bastogne while the 82nd would take the more difficult task of facing the SS Panzer Divisions; it was also thrown into the battle north of the bulge, near Elsenborn Ridge.
Siege of Bastogne
By the time the senior Allied commanders met in a bunker in Verdun on 19 December, the town of Bastogne and its network of 11 hard-topped roads leading through the mountainous terrain and boggy mud of the Ardennes region had been in German hands for several days.
Two separate westbound German columns had bypassed the town to the south and north, the 2nd Panzer Division and Panzer-Lehr-Division of XLVII Panzer Corps. The Corps’ infantry (26th Volksgrenadier Division), coming due west, had been engaged and much slowed in outlying battles at defensive positions up to sixteen kilometres (10 mi) from the town proper—and were gradually being forced back onto and into the hasty defenses built within the municipality.
Also, the sole corridor that was open (to the southeast) was threatened and it had been sporadically closed as the front shifted, and there was expectation that it would be completely closed sooner than later, given the strong likelihood that the town would soon be surrounded.
Gen. Eisenhower, realizing that the Allies could destroy German forces much more easily when they were out in the open and on the offensive than if they were on the defensive, told his generals, “The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster. There will be only cheerful faces at this table.”
Patton, realizing what Eisenhower implied, responded, “Hell, let’s have the guts to let the bastards go all the way to Paris. Then, we’ll really cut ’em off and chew ’em up.”
Eisenhower, after saying he was not that optimistic, asked Patton how long it would take to turn his Third Army (located in northeastern France) north to counterattack. Patton replied that he could attack with two divisions within 48 hours, to the disbelief of the other generals present.
However, before he had gone to the meeting Patton had ordered his staff to prepare three contingency plans for a northward turn in at least corps strength. By the time Eisenhower asked him how long it would take, the movement was already underway.
On 20 December, Eisenhower removed the First and Ninth U.S. Armies from Gen. Bradley’s 12th Army Group and placed them under Montgomery’s 21st Army Group.
U.S. POWs on 22 December 1944
By 21 December the Germans had surrounded Bastogne, which was defended by the 101st Airborne Division and Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division. Conditions inside the perimeter were tough—most of the medical supplies and medical personnel had been captured.
Food was scarce, and by 22 December artillery ammunition was restricted to 10 rounds per gun per day. The weather cleared the next day, however, and supplies (primarily ammunition) were dropped over four of the next five days.
Despite determined German attacks, however, the perimeter held. The German commander, Lt. Gen. Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz, requested Bastogne’s surrender.
When Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, acting commander of the 101st, was told of the Nazi demand to surrender, in frustration he responded, “Nuts!”
After turning to other pressing issues, his staff reminded him that they should reply to the German demand. One officer, Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard, noted that McAuliffe’s initial reply would be “tough to beat.”
Thus McAuliffe wrote on the paper, which was typed up and delivered to the Germans, the line he made famous and a morale booster to his troops: “NUTS!”
That reply had to be explained, both to the Germans and to non-American Allies.
Both 2nd Panzer and Panzer Lehr moved forward from Bastogne after 21 December, leaving only Panzer Lehr’s 901st Regiment to assist the 26th Volksgrenadier Division in attempting to capture the crossroads.
The 26th VG received one panzergrenadier regiment from the 15th Panzergrenadier Division on Christmas Eve for its main assault the next day. Because it lacked sufficient troops and those of the 26th VG Division were near exhaustion, the XLVII Panzer Corps concentrated its assault on several individual locations on the west side of the perimeter in sequence rather than launching one simultaneous attack on all sides.
The assault, despite initial success by its tanks in penetrating the American line, was defeated and all the tanks destroyed. The next day, 26 December, the spearhead of Gen. Patton’s 4th Armored Division broke through and opened a corridor to Bastogne.
On 23 December, the weather conditions started improving, allowing the Allied air forces to attack. They launched devastating bombing raids on the German supply points in their rear, and P-47 Thunderbolts started attacking the German troops on the roads.
Allied air forces also helped the defenders of Bastogne, dropping much-needed supplies—medicine, food, blankets, and ammunition. A team of volunteer surgeons flew in by military glider and began operating in a tool room.
By 24 December, the German advance was effectively stalled short of the Meuse. Units of the British XXX Corps were holding the bridges at Dinant, Givet, and Namur and U.S. units were about to take over. The Germans had outrun their supply lines, and shortages of fuel and ammunition were becoming critical.
Up to this point the German losses had been light, notably in armor, which was almost untouched with the exception of Peiper’s losses. On the evening of 24 December, General Hasso von Manteuffel recommended to Hitler’s Military Adjutant a halt to all offensive operations and a withdrawal back to the West Wall. Hitler rejected this.
However disagreement and confusion at the Allied command prevented a strong response, throwing away the opportunity for a decisive action. In the center, on Christmas Eve, the 2nd Armored Division attempted to attack and cut off the spearheads of the 2nd Panzer Division at the Meuse, while the units from the 4th Cavalry Group kept the 9th Panzer Division at Marche busy.
As result, parts of the 2nd Panzer Division were cut off. Panzer Lehr tried to relieve them, but was only partially successful, as the perimeter held. For the next two days the perimeter was strengthened. On 26 and 27 December the trapped units of 2nd Panzer Division made two break-out attempts, again only with partial success, as major quantities of equipment fell into Allied hands.
Further Allied pressure out of Marche finally led the German command to the conclusion that no further offensive action towards the Meuse was possible.
In the south, Patton’s Third Army was battling to relieve Bastogne. At 16:50 on 26 December, the lead element, Company D, 37th Tank Battalion of the 4th Armored Division, reached Bastogne, ending the siege.
On 1 January, in an attempt to keep the offensive going, the Germans launched two new operations. At 09:15, the Luftwaffe launched Unternehmen Bodenplatte (Operation Baseplate), a major campaign against Allied airfields in the Low Countries. Hundreds of planes attacked Allied airfields, destroying or severely damaging some 465 aircraft.
However, the Luftwaffe lost 277 planes, 62 to Allied fighters and 172 mostly because of an unexpectedly high number of Allied flak guns, set up to protect against German V-1 flying bomb attacks and using proximity fused shells, but also by friendly fire from the German flak guns that were uninformed of the pending large-scale German air operation.
The Germans suffered heavy losses at an airfield named Y-29, losing 24 of their own planes while downing only one American plane. While the Allies recovered from their losses in just days, the operation left the Luftwaffe weak and ineffective for the remainder of the war.
On the same day, German Army Group G (Heeresgruppe G) and Army Group Upper Rhine (Heeresgruppe Oberrhein) launched a major offensive against the thinly stretched, 110 kilometres (70 mi) line of the Seventh U.S. Army.
This offensive, known as Unternehmen Nordwind (Operation North Wind), was the last major German offensive of the war on the Western Front. The weakened Seventh Army had, at Eisenhower’s orders, sent troops, equipment, and supplies north to reinforce the American armies in the Ardennes, and the offensive left it in dire straits.
By 15 January, Seventh Army’s VI Corps was fighting on three sides in Alsace. With casualties mounting, and running short on replacements, tanks, ammunition, and supplies, Seventh Army was forced to withdraw to defensive positions on the south bank of the Moder River on 21 January.
The German offensive drew to a close on 25 January. In the bitter, desperate fighting of Operation Nordwind, VI Corps, which had borne the brunt of the fighting, suffered a total of 14,716 casualties. The total for Seventh Army for January was 11,609.
Total casualties included at least 9,000 wounded. First, Third and Seventh Armies suffered a total of 17,000 hospitalized from the cold.
U.S. 6th Armored Division tanks moving near Wardin, Belgium, January 1945.
While the German offensive had ground to a halt, they still controlled a dangerous salient in the Allied line.
Patton’s Third Army in the south, centered around Bastogne, would attack north, Montgomery’s forces in the north would strike south, and the two forces planned to meet at Houffalize.
The temperature during January 1945 was extremely low. Weapons had to be maintained and truck engines run every half-hour to prevent their oil from congealing. The offensive went forward regardless.
Eisenhower wanted Montgomery to go on the counter offensive on 1 January, with the aim of meeting up with Patton’s advancing Third Army and cutting off most of the attacking Germans, trapping them in a pocket.
However, Montgomery, refusing to risk underprepared infantry in a snowstorm for a strategically unimportant area, did not launch the attack until 3 January, by which time substantial numbers of German troops had already managed to fall back successfully, but at the cost of losing most of their heavy equipment.
At the start of the offensive, the First and Third U.S. Armies were separated by about 40 km (25 mi). American progress in the south was also restricted to about a kilometer a day. The majority of the German force executed a successful fighting withdrawal and escaped the battle area, although the fuel situation had become so dire that most of the German armor had to be abandoned.
On 7 January 1945, Hitler agreed to withdraw all forces from the Ardennes, including the SS Panzer divisions, thus ending all offensive operations. However, considerable fighting went on for another 3 weeks; St. Vith was recaptured by the Americans on 23 January and the last German units participating in the offensive did not return to their start line until 25 January.
Winston Churchill, addressing the House of Commons following the Battle of the Bulge said, “This is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory.”
Controversy at high command: Field Marshal Montgomery and General Eisenhower
As the Ardennes crisis developed, at 10:30 a.m. on 20 December, Eisenhower telephoned Montgomery and ordered him to assume command of the American First (Hodges) and Ninth Army (Simpson) – which, until then, were under Bradley’s overall command. This change in command was ordered by Eisenhower, as the northern armies had lost all communications with Bradley, who was based in Luxembourg.
The northern flank of the front had lost all communications, not only with the US command structure, but also with adjacent units. Without radio or telephone communication Montgomery managed to improvise an effective command and control system based on those of the Duke of Wellington’s ‘gallopers’ of the Battle of Waterloo.
Describing the situation as he found it on the 20th December, Montgomery wrote; “The First Army was fighting desperately. Having given orders to Dempsey and Crerar, who arrived for a conference at 11 a.m., I left at noon for the H.Q. of the First Army, where I had instructed Simpson to meet me. I found the northern flank of the bulge was very disorganised.”
“Ninth Army had two corps and three divisions; First Army had three corps and fifteen divisions. Neither Army Commander had seen Bradley or any senior member of his staff since the battle began, and they had no directive on which to work. The first thing to do was to see the battle on the northern flank as one whole, to ensure the vital areas were held securely, and to create reserves for counter-attack.”
” I embarked on these measures: I put British troops under command of the Ninth Army to fight alongside American soldiers, and made that Army take over some of the First Army Front. I positioned British troops as reserves behind the First and Ninth Armies until such time as American reserves could be created. Slowly but surely the situation was held, and then finally restored. Similar action was taken on the southern flank of the bulge by Bradley, with the Third Army.”
Due to the news blackout imposed on the 16th, the change of leadership to Montgomery did not become known to the outside world until eventually SHAEF made a public announcement making clear that the change in command was “absolutely nothing to do with failure on the part of the three American generals”.
This resulted in headlines in British newspapers. The story was also covered in Stars and Stripes and for the first time British contribution to the fighting was mentioned.
Montgomery asked Churchill if he could give a conference to the press to explain the situation. Though some of his staff were concerned at the image it would give, the conference had been cleared by Alan Brooke, the CIGS, who was possibly the only person to whom Monty would listen to.
On the same day as Hitler’s withdrawal order, 7 January, Montgomery held his press conference at Zonhoven.
Montgomery started with giving credit to the “courage and good fighting quality” of the American troops, characterizing a typical American as a “very brave fighting man who has that tenacity in battle which makes a great soldier”, and went on to talk about the necessity of Allied teamwork, and praised Eisenhower, stating, “Teamwork wins battles and battle victories win wars. On our team, the captain is General Ike.”
Then Montgomery described the course of the battle for a half-hour. Coming to the end of his speech he said he had “employed the whole available power of the British Group of Armies; this power was brought into play very gradually … Finally it was put into battle with a bang … you thus have the picture of British troops fighting on both sides of the Americans who have suffered a hard blow.”
He stated that he (i.e., the German) was “headed off … seen off … and … written off”. “The battle has been the most interesting, I think possibly one of the most interesting and tricky battles I have ever handled.”.
Despite his positive remarks about American soldiers, the overall impression given by Montgomery, at least in the ears of the American military leadership, was that he had taken the lion’s share of credit for the success of the campaign, and had been responsible for rescuing the besieged Americans.
His comments were interpreted as self-promoting, particularly his claiming that when the situation “began to deteriorate,” Eisenhower had placed him in command in the north. P
atton and Eisenhower both felt this was a misrepresentation of the relative share of the fighting played by the British and Americans in the Ardennes (for every British soldier there were thirty to forty Americans in the fight), and that it belittled the part played by Bradley, Patton and other American commanders.
In the context of Patton’s and Montgomery’s well-known antipathy, Montgomery’s failure to mention the contribution of any American general beside Eisenhower was seen as insulting.
Indeed, General Bradley and his American commanders were already starting their counterattack by the time Montgomery was given command of 1st and 9th U.S. Armies.
Focusing exclusively on his own generalship, Montgomery continued to say he thought the counteroffensive had gone very well but did not explain the reason for his delayed attack on 3 January. He later attributed this to needing more time for preparation on the northern front.
According to Winston Churchill, the attack from the south under Patton was steady but slow and involved heavy losses, and Montgomery was trying to avoid this situation.
Many American officers had already grown to dislike Montgomery, who was seen by them as an overly cautious commander, arrogant, and all too willing to say uncharitable things about the Americans.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill found it necessary in a speech to Parliament to explicitly state that the Battle of the Bulge was purely an American victory.
Montgomery subsequently recognized his error and later wrote: “Not only was it probably a mistake to have held this conference at all in the sensitive state of feeling at the time, but what I said was skilfully distorted by the enemy.
Chester Wilmot (The Struggle for Europe, p. 611) has explained that his dispatch to the B.B.C. about it was intercepted by the German wireless, re-written to give it an anti-American bias, and then broadcast by Arnhem Radio, which was then in Goebbels’ hands.
Monitored at Bradley’s H.Q., this broadcast was mistaken for a B.B.C. transmission and it was this twisted text that started the uproar.”
“Distorted or not, I think now that I should never have held that press conference. So great were the feelings against me on the part of the American generals that whatever I said was bound to be wrong. I should therefore have said nothing.”
Eisenhower commented in his own memoirs: “I doubt if Montgomery ever came to realize how resentful some American commanders were. They believed he had belittled them—and they were not slow to voice reciprocal scorn and contempt.”
Bradley and Patton both threatened to resign unless Montgomery’s command was changed. Eisenhower, encouraged by his British deputy Arthur Tedder, had decided to sack Montgomery. However, intervention by Montgomery’s and Eisenhower’s Chiefs of Staff, Maj. Gen. Freddie de Guingand, and Lt. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, moved Eisenhower to reconsider and allowed Montgomery to apologize.
The German commander of the 5th Panzer Army, Hasso von Manteuffel said of Montgomery’s leadership:
“The operations of the American 1st Army had developed into a series of individual holding actions. Montgomery’s contribution to restoring the situation was that he turned a series of isolated actions into a coherent battle fought according to a clear and definite plan. It was his refusal to engage in premature and piecemeal counter-attacks which enabled the Americans to gather their reserves and frustrate the German attempts to extend their breakthrough.”
Casualty estimates for the battle vary widely. The official U.S. account lists 80,987 American casualties, while other estimates range from 70,000 to 108,000.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, American forces suffered 89,500 casualties including 19,000 killed, 47,500 wounded and 23,000 missing.
An official report by the United States Department of the Army lists 108,347 casualties, including 19,246 killed, 62,489 wounded, and 26,612 captured or missing
The Battle of the Bulge was the bloodiest battle for U.S. forces in World War II.
British losses totaled 1,400. The German High Command’s official figure for the campaign was 84,834 German casualties, and other estimates range between 60,000 and 100,000.
The Allies pressed their advantage following the battle. By the beginning of February 1945, the lines were roughly where they had been in December 1944. In early February, the Allies launched an attack all along the Western front: in the north under Montgomery toward Aachen; in the center, under Courtney Hodges; and in the south, under Patton.
Montgomery’s behavior during the months of December and January, including the press conference on 7 January where he appeared to downplay the contribution of the American generals, further soured his relationship with his American counterparts through to the end of the war.
The German losses in the battle were critical in several respects: the last of the German reserves were now gone, the Luftwaffe had been shattered, and the remaining German forces in the West were being pushed back to the defenses of the Siegfried Line.
In response to the early success of the offensive, on 6 January Churchill contacted Stalin to request that the Soviets put pressure on the Germans on the eastern front.
On 12 January, the Soviets began a massive Vistula–Oder Offensive, originally planned for 20 January.
During World War II, most U.S. black soldiers still served only in maintenance or service positions, or in segregated units. Because of troop shortages during the Battle of the Bulge, Eisenhower decided to integrate the service for the first time.
This was an important step toward a desegregated United States military. More than 2,000 black soldiers had volunteered to go to the front. A total of 708 black Americans were killed in combat during World War II.