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Battle of the Bulge: George S. Patton and the U.S. Army's Finest Hour of World War II


Adolf Hitler once predicted that the Third Reich would “last a thousand years,” but by December 1944, every day brought Nazi Germany closer to destruction. With American and British forces bearing down on Germany from the west and the Soviet Union closing in from the east, Hitler decided to launch a massive counterattack against the western Allies. By sending three armies composed of nearly 250,000 troops and 1,000 tanks to smash through the Ardennes Forest along the German borders with Belgium and Luxembourg, the Führer hoped to seize the vital port of Antwerp and to drive a wedge between the Americans and the British. If his offensive bloodied the western Allies badly enough, Hitler believed they would be compelled to settle for an armistice. Then, German forces would be free to focus all of their attention on stopping the unrelenting and vengeful Red Army in the east. Hitler thought that this coming battle would "decide whether we shall live or die." As he told his top commanders, "The enemy must be beaten-now or never! Thus lives our Germany!"

With the loss of nearly 3.8 million German soldiers over five years of brutal warfare, Hitler’s senior military commanders did not believe they had the power to sustain a major offensive and opposed the Führer's plan. Nonetheless, Hitler would have his way. With the operation initially Code-named Watch on the Rhine and then later renamed to Autumn Fog, it was up to men like Field Marshal's Walter Model and Gerd von Rundstedt to set the offensive in motion. Despite the doubts of those two and many others in the German high command, "The morale of the troops taking part was astonishingly high at the start of the offensive," recalled Rundstedt. "They really believed victory was possible."

The face of a German soldier in the midst of the Ardennes Offensive in December 1944. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

After breaking out from Normandy, France and driving towards the Franco-German border, the Allies on the Western Front had paused to regroup. Despite signs that the Germans were amassing troops and equipment from the Eastern Front, and the fact that German armies had attacked through the Ardennes in 1870, 1914, and 1940, “American intelligence considered an attack unlikely,” according to historian Rick Atkinson. It was a blunder that would have devastating consequences.

The German counteroffensive began at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday, December 16, 1944, striking the U.S. First Army’s VIII Corps in what historian Winston Groom describes as the “heavily forested and lightly defended area of the Ardennes,” and wreaking havoc. This area contained American units who were inexperienced and still undergoing training or battle-weary troops who had been sent there to rest and recuperate. Fighting through knee-high snow, German forces smashed U.S. outfits and took many prisoners, but American troops in the north and in the south desperately held on, “squeezing the German thrust into a 40-mile wide and 55-mile-deep protuberance in the Allied line whose shape on the map gave the engagement its name: the battle of the Bulge,” as recorded by historian Andrew Roberts.

Because the German Luftwaffe had suffered such heavy losses in the war and could no longer match Allied airpower, Hitler timed the offensive to coincide with bad weather to prevent enemy planes from taking to the air. Snow, sleet, and fog all worked together to keep Allied aircraft grounded. While the Germans took advantage of the weather, they also used deception to further frustrate the American response to their onslaught. Among the forces fighting on the ground was a unit of 32 English-speaking German soldiers who wore American uniforms, “creating havoc behind American lines-turning signposts, giving false information, sabotaging, and spreading confusion,” as noted by Groom. Atrocities were also committed. Roberts writes that German SS troops committed the “war’s worst atrocity against American troops in the west when they machine-gunned eighty-six unarmed prisoners in a field near Malmédy, a day after executing fifteen others.”

Victims of the Malmédy massacre. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the sheer power of the German offensive, isolated pockets of Americans stubbornly fought on, resisting the enemy at every turn. It was the valiant stands made by men like 20-year-old Lieutenant Lyle Bouck Jr. and the 18 men of his Infantry and Reconnaissance platoon that made all the difference in a battle of such immense magnitude. On the opening day of the German offensive, Bouck and his small band of warriors faced hundreds of elite German paratroopers and beat back three major assaults. Ordered to hold their position "at any cost," they fought all day until their ammunition was expended. Although Bouck and his men were ultimately captured, their heroic stand slowed the Germans down so much that it prevented them from scoring a major breakthrough during the early stages of the battle.

There was no shortage of bravery in the American ranks, but the intensity of the German offensive could only be overcome by a master of command who knew how to strike fast and hard. Luckily for the Americans, they had just the man. Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr. was ready to meet the enemy head-on.

On the eve of his big counterattack during the Battle of the Bulge, Patton wrote to his wife, “Destiny sent for me in a hurry when things got tight. Perhaps God saved me for this effort.” Based on the information his Third Army’s intelligence had intercepted, Patton suspected that the Germans were up to something and when word came that the First Army was under attack, he immediately alerted his staff to plan for the possibility of moving his troops to the frontline of the crisis to help repel the enemy. Nicknamed "Old Blood and Guts," Patton was the hardest fighting commander in the United States Army and when the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower called on him, he was passionately resolved to save the day, just like he had done before in the war.

General George S. Patton Jr. When asked which American commander impressed him most during World War Two, German Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt replied, “Patton was your best.” (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Repositioning his battle-hardened Third Army where it was needed was no easy task. Patton had to withdraw his force from its current fighting front while it was “locked in combat with the enemy, wheeling it 90 degrees, and then transporting it with all its accoutrements over icy roads in subfreezing weather more than a hundred miles north to fight a battle against an attacking force,” as Groom explains. It was a task that only a master commander like Patton could have pulled off, and he certainly did.

In the middle of a giant snowstorm on December 22, Patton’s three-division army attacked, smashing the German flank along a twenty-mile front and driving it in seven miles. Patton never took the fighting spirit of his men for granted, taking time to write in his diary, “The men are in good spirits and full of confidence. The situation at Bastogne is grave but not desperate.” Fighting at Bastogne was severe and Patton would do his part to assist the Americans tenaciously defending the Belgian town.

Two American soldiers manning their .30-caliber light machine gun in a frigid foxhole east of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army/Stars and Stripes)

Bastogne was the scene of some of the most intense combat during the Battle of the Bulge. When the German offensive began, the 101st Airborne Division rushed to the town and fought with an unbreakable resolve to defeat the enemy. Despite the heroic resistance of the Screaming Eagles, the Germans surrounded the defenders “in a pocket barley five miles in diameter,” as cited by Atkinson. As Patton was aware, the situation was “grave,” but the besieged Americans refused to quit. When the German commander sent a surrender demand under a flag of truce, the 101st’s commanding officer Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe unforgettably replied, “Nuts!”

As American forces continued to fight for every inch of ground on December 25, Patton recorded in his diary, “A clear cold Christmas, lovely weather for killing Germans, which seems a bit queer, seeing Whose birthday it is.” The following day, Patton's Fourth Armored Division broke through to Bastogne, and as Groom writes, created “a narrow, five-hundred-yard-wide corridor through the German defenses.” Despite German counterattacks, the Americans held the corridor open. Patton later drove through Bastogne in a jeep, “passing quite close to the Germans,” and pinned the Distinguished Service Cross, the United States military’s second highest honor, on General McAuliffe.

Patton awarding the Distinguished Service Cross to Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The fighting at Bastogne remained ferocious, leading Patton to compare it to the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. German forces continued to launch counterattacks, but American units held on, forcing the enemy to pay a heavy price. Patton, who was always good for a headline, told reporters, “I don’t care where he fights, we can lick the Germans any place … We’ll find him and kick his teeth in.” While the Third Army commander exuded confidence publicly, what he had witnessed led him to write in his diary, “We can still lose this war. The Germans are colder and hungrier than we are but they fight better … They are vicious fighters.” The intensity of the onslaught carried out by the Germans pushed U.S. forces to the limit, and though the Army bent, Patton and the many American soldiers on the ground ensured it did not break.

Shortly after launching the offensive, German Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt recognized that his forces were overstretched and “wanted to withdraw after a week of fighting,” according to Atkinson. Desperate for his offensive to succeed, Hitler refused and as U.S. forces rallied, hard-fought German gains were soon erased. On December 23, weather conditions finally improved, allowing American fighter planes and bombers to take to the air and strike the enemy. German tanks also began to run out of fuel while still 70 miles from Antwerp.

On January 22, 1945, the German order to retreat was finally given. Roberts writes that by January 28, “there was no longer a bulge in the Allied line, but instead a large one developing in the Germans.” Six weeks of some of the war’s fiercest fighting had cost the Germans approximately 98,024 battlefield casualties, including over 12,000 killed, 700 tanks and assault guns, and 1,600 aircraft. Hitler’s gamble had failed, “leaving little to protect the fatherland,” as noted by Atkinson. In the days that followed, the western Allies would soon begin the final drive to victory. Patton wrote that U.S. soldiers “were chasing a sinking fox and babbling for the kill.”

American engineers in the vicinity of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

Enduring the harsh snow and bitter cold, Americans fought from foxhole to foxhole across 2,000 square miles of Belgium and Luxembourg, eventually driving the enemy back and restoring the original battle lines. At Bastogne and many other places along the battlefront, U.S. troops stared down the enemy and ultimately persevered to survive this ordeal. Decisive and unwavering leadership from men like Patton was essential to victory. For Patton and every other American who did their duty, the Battle of the Bulge was the U.S. Army’s finest hour of World War II. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed the fight was “undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war.” He was convinced that the clash would be “regarded as an ever famous American victory.” Churchill was most certainly right.

Costing nearly 81,000 casualties, including over 19,000 dead, the Battle of the Bulge was America’s deadliest fight of the Second World War. Victory did not come easily and claimed the lives of many good men, but as Patton said of his Third Army, which was also true of the other countless numbers of American soldiers who fought and bled in the battle, “The results attained were made possible only by the superlative quality of American officers, American men, and American equipment. No country can stand against such an army.”

Sources

Scottmanning.com: A Closer Look at Churchill’s Battle of the Bulge Quote.

The Generals: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall, and the Winning of World War II By Winston Groom.

The Longest Winter: The Battle of the Bulge and the Epic Story of World War II's Most Decorated Platoon by Alex Kershaw.

The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War by Andrew Roberts.

U.S. Army Center of Military History: Battle of the Bulge.

Washingtonpost.com: Battle of the Bulge Remembered: When Patton Stared Down Defeat.

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