Some scholars suggest that the Battle of the Bulge had its beginnings in the victory of the Allied forces in Normandy, June of 1944. The success of the D-day invasion was so spectacular that the Allied high command bordered on over-confidence in the following months and failed to recognize the determination of the Germans to push back. Throughout the fall of 1944, while Hitler and his generals were preparing for the Ardennes Offensive, the Allies were indeed vulnerable in some sense. This is not to say that the American troops did not fight valiantly along the Western front but rather everyone was unsuspecting of the tenacity for Germany to launch an attack like the one fated in late December.
In the fall of 1944 Allied operations were slow moving and overextended. The prime example of this reality was exhibited along an eighty mile stretch across the rugged Ardennes forest through Belgium and Luxembourg. Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, commander of the US Twelfth Army Group, delegated three newly arrived green infantry divisions to the front to gain combat experience. Along with the 106th Infantry Division, the 14th Cavalry Division, and the 9th Armored Division were also three battered veteran divisions, the 2nd, 4th, and 28th Infantry Divisions all in the process of incorporating replacement troops. The area where these divisions were extended was so quiet and inactive that it became known as the Ghost Front and as such defense was significantly relaxed.
Meanwhile, Hitler was planning his last desperate attack in an attempt to split the Allied forces in the Ardennes and push across the Meuse River and capture Antwerp. The counteroffensive was called Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine). Many of Hitler’s top generals considered the plan delusional and attempted to talk the Führer out of the objective but Hitler was insane and insistent. While the Allies were under the impression that Germany was suffering from massive supply and manpower shortages, the Wehrmacht (German Army) was swelling with a quarter of a million drafted men and young boys as well as transfers from the crippled Luftwaffe (Germany air force) and Kriegsmarine (German navy). Indeed Germany was suffering from shortages but Hitler made use of every possible means of ingenuity (including drafting boys as young as ten for combat). The offensive recruits were parsed amongst twenty divisions and moved with little notice from the Allies to the Northwest front along with fourteen hundred tanks and two thousand guns.
All Quiet on the Western Front
On December 15, 1944 the Ardennes forest and the quaint little villages sprinkled across the area were peaceful and un-threatened. The only concern was the hinting noise of rumbling engines of armored movement coming from the German side of the line and an occasional Belgium complaining of amassing Germans. The signs were clear but any uncertainties were quickly hushed as the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expedition Forces (SHAEF) had recently issued a report suggesting the Germans were effectively defeated.
At 5:30 am on December 16 every American soldier, commander, and Belgium or Luxembourg family were blasted awake by the sound and shaking of mortars, rockets, railroad guns, and every other kind of artillery fire descending in a barrage of surprise. The bombardment continued throughout the entire day as generals scrambled to figure out what was happening. By nightfall the situation was still unclear and even the SHAEF was in denial. Many commanders had convinced themselves it was merely a spoiling attack intended to divert attention.
“Crawling with Krauts”
December 17 continued the blitz with 17 hours of intense fighting. German General Kampfgruppe Müller’s SS-Panzer Division, Hitlerjugend pushed the line held by the US 3rd Battalion, US 393rd Infantry and the 99th Division. By sundown the US 23rd Infantry and 741st Tank Battalion were overwhelmed. The twin villages of Krinkelt and Rocherath were overcome and Clervaux had fallen to the Germans. Also on the 17th Eisenhower released the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions in reserve in Mourmelon France to relieve the front. These divisions were trained paratroopers and were typically dropped behind enemy lines from cargo or passenger planes, but this time they were driven in, riding in the back of cattle trucks.
By December 18, the 50 columns of German troops had pushed as far as 30 miles in some places between Echternach and Monschau and the Bulge was getting larger as the day progressed. Eisenhower called off Patton’s attack on Saar and redirected the 3rd Army towards the Ardennes although it would be over a week before they arrived. Also on the 18th, Schönberg fell and the battle over St. Vith was raging.
The 28th Infantry abandoned Wiltz and headed frantically towards Bastogne, three German divisions under the command of General Heinrich von Lüttwitz were between 10 and 20 miles of the village, the most important transportation junction in the Ardennes. Now it was a race between Lüttwitz and the reserves troops of the 101st and 82nd coming from Mourmelon. Who would reach Bastogne first? Also headed to defend this village was Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division, commanded by Colonel William Roberts.
December 19, the mayhem was without cease. 8,000-9,000 American troops surrendered under the white flag by order of their commanders Colonel George L. Deschenaux of the 106th Infantry Division and Colonel Charles Cavender of the 423rd Infantry. The Schnee Eifel had fallen along with the village of Wiltz and Noville.
The Ardennes was swarming with Germans and retreating Americans. On December 20, General MacAuliffe met with General Troy Middleton of the VIII Corps in Neufchateau. MacAuiffe said the 101st could hold Bastogne for at least 48 hours and with that he headed towards the village. Within an hour the Germans cut off the Neufchateau highway.
Bastogne was under siege, soon to be a bubble within the bulge.