Hitlers Last Shot at Victory: Battle of the Bulge
Fall of 1944: The beginning
In the fall of 1944, the German army was facing disaster. The pressure was building on both the Eastern as well as the Western front. Marshal Zhukov, the chief Russian general was heading towards the fatherland. In the west, the Allies had successfully breached the Atlantic wall and landed at Normandy in June 1944. They were heading towards Germany. The situation was alarming and the Fuehrer knew that his position was becoming hopeless. He was a realist and surmised that a way must be found to break the stranglehold enveloping him. With his knowledge of military history, he was aware that the only way out was a counter-attack. This could perhaps throw the Allies off balance.
It must be appreciated that Hitler was not a novice in military matters. He had more than a rudimentary knowledge of military tactics and history. Many opine that he had some ability. It is worth recounting that he had studied Clausewitz, Von Moltke, and Fredrick.
A two-front war had been Germany's bugbear for almost 200 years. Yet by a quirk of fate coupled with his own folly, he was fighting on two fronts. His attack on Russia on 22 June 1941, was a folly which he now was faced with. The two-front wars against both Russia in the East and the allies in the West were his bugbear. He now had to make his own plan to break the stranglehold of the allies. He hoped that success in this plan would help him to negotiate a separate peace in the west. In case he was successful, then he could move his armies and panzers to face the Russians in the East.
Hitler realized that a daring strike would be his forte. He, therefore, planned a strike in the west. He was confident that the stranglehold around his neck would be loosened and the allies would negotiate an armistice.
In the present era when we study this plan, we realize that the plan in some manner had too many variables. In addition, it now is palpably clear that Hitler miscalculated the resolve of the Allies especially after the last conference at Yalta, where the Allies had approved a point of "unconditional surrender."
In early November, Hitler called for a conference of his generals at his headquarters in Eastern Prussia, popularly called "wolfs lair." The two Generals Field Marshal Von Rundstedt and Field Marsh Model were also summoned. They were the German commanders in the west.
Both the Field Marshal’s had their own plans for an offensive as both believed that defensive strategy would mean losing the war outright. Before meeting Hitler they discussed the plan among themselves and decided to dovetailed their plans and present a single plan to Hitler. Hitler was contemptuous of the plan and put forward his own plan. He envisaged a strike deep through the Ardennes and follow up towards Antwerp and capture it.
Hitler’s plan envisaged driving a wedge in-between the Allied armies. Once this was done he planned an all-out assault on Antwerp which was the main supply port. The plan if successful would have cut off the American and British army. Four Army groups would have been encircled and the Germans could then have pulverized them.
˜It was a daring plan and if successful would have prolonged the war. Hitler expected the Allies to accept his offer of an armistice. He would then be free to move his entire army and panzers to the Russian front.
Field Marshal Von Rundstedt was made the overall commander. He was of the view that the plan was not realistic and there were too many variables. But students of history feel the plan was brilliant, though there were many variables. A notable variable was the weather which was expected to be bad thus denying air cover to allied troops.
The Ardennes was chosen for the offensive. Hitler had some experience of this earlier as in 1940 the Wehrmacht had attacked France through the Ardennes. As it was a mountainous area and with lots of snow natural camouflage was available. Hitler also chose this area as it was defended by the Americans who the Feuherer felt were soft opponents. This perception in hindsight appears wrong.
Hitler also miscalculated the effect of Allied air Power which was the dominant force at that time and had achieved air superiority over entire Europe. Hitler had studied the military commanders but never studied the theory of air warfare as enunciated by Guilio Douhet and others. Thus he started his campaign with one arm tied behind his back.
Hitler built up a massive force. He was able to collect nearly 1000 panzers and 450,000 troops. With bad weather all around he was able to mass these troops in the Ardennes forests. The Allies were ignorant about this massing of German force. The allies’ air forces were unable to carry out any air reconnaissance due to the bad weather. Another factor was that the American commanders General Patton, and General Omar Bradley did not expect an attack at that time. Hitler gave the signal for the assault on 12 Dec 1944. The success of the plan hinged on secrecy and Germans achieved this. The allies' intelligence failed and never detected the attack until it commenced.
On 12 December 1944, the attack commenced. A heavy artillery bombardment gave the cover for infantry and panzers to move forward. The attack was a success as the Germans achieved complete surprise. The American troops were caught unawares and the Germans had some easy victories. The Americans also suffered heavy casualties. The onslaught had a deleterious effect on the allies and the Americans and they suffered the maximum number of casualties in any single campaign of the Second World War. This was indeed a ferocious assault and speaks volumes for the morale of the Wehrmacht and their loyalty to Hitler.
The Germans plan had a number of variables. It hinged on bad weather continuing, to prevent the allies’ air forces from operating to their full potential.
The Germans advanced forward in what has come to be known as the ‘Battle of the Bulge’.
They had tremendous initial success and Hitler felt that Antwerp could be reached. The bad weather disappeared and the skies cleared. This was an act of providence. At the same time, the American resistance stiffened and they began to engage the German troops. As the weather cleared the RAF and the USAAF began around the clock strafing of the German army. The Germans had no air cover and as such there advance was blunted and finely ground to a halt. Basically it was air power that turned the tide against the panzer led forces.
Von Rundstedt realized that the operation had failed. He accordingly sent a message to Hitler informing him that the offensive had stopped. At the same time, he ordered a withdrawal to save as many troops as he could. The gamble cost Germany a lot and they suffered over 100,000 casualties.
The Americans suffered 69000 casualties including 21,000 dead. General Patton the allied commander ordered a counter-attack and drove the last nail in the German offensive.
In the east, the Russians launched their massive winter offensive on 12
Jan1945. The fate of Germany was sealed.