The Battle of the Bulge: Tenacity Wins

The soldiers lined up for chow in the pre-dawn darkness. They were wrapped against the bitter cold that had frozen the ground and brought heavy snow. The GIs looked forward to a hot meal and maybe some coffee. They looked up as artillery boomed to the east.

The Ardennes Forest of Belgium had been quiet, so the 99th Infantry Division’s green soldiers were surprised by the sudden change. The heavy cloud cover lit up and seemed to glow, silhouetting the snow-covered trees against the dim illumination.

Shapes emerged from the tree line, trotting toward the curious soldiers. Suddenly, a machine gun flashed, ripping the cold air with hot tracers. The winter camouflaged shapes began firing as they ran, adding to the sudden chaos. The GIs dropped their mess kits, breakfast forgotten, as they unslung their rifles.

German soldiers Battle of the Bulge
German infantry advances past an abandoned American Jeep during the Battle of the Bulge. (

The oncoming attackers were checked as the Americans returned fire. The 99th had no combat experience but they were well-trained. The fight raged for most of the morning before the Germans pulled back, leaving 75 of their comrades sprawled in the snow. The GIs lost half that number.

The Americans looked around as they assessed their situation. Where had that come from? They’d been told that the Germans were already beaten, yet the sounds of battle raged all around them. They dug in and reloaded, waiting to see what would happen next. They didn’t have long to wait as German infantry and armor swarmed the forest roads.

It was December 16, 1944. The Battle of the Bulge had begun.

Wait, I Thought We Were Winning

December of 1944 saw the US Army riding high. The Allied juggernaut had carried everything before it since the Normandy breakout in July. General George S. Patton’s Third Army had dashed across France, reaching Germany’s fortress city of Metz. The south of France was liberated in late summer as the US Sixth Army barreled up the Rhone Valley after its August landing on the Mediterranean coast.

Then, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s great airborne assault through the low countries tried to go “a bridge too far” in September. Hard fighting freed much of Holland from the Nazi yoke, but the operation’s ultimate failure to breach the Rhine River all but dashed any hope of ending the war in 1944.

Beginning in October, the Canadian First Army, supported by the British XII Corps, endured the brutal wetlands of the Scheldt Estuary, opening the deep-water Belgian port of Antwerp by mid-December. Despite their material superiority, the Allies were hindered by the need to truck vast amounts of supplies from far away. It was never enough, and everything was rationed. Access to Antwerp meant that, for the first time since the June 6 Normandy landings, Allied supply and reinforcement efforts benefited from first-class port facilities close to the front. It happened none too soon.

Despite the Allied setback in Holland, the German Army seemed in full retreat, increasingly squeezed between the Red Army in the East and Anglo-American forces in the West. As winter set in, American and British commanders planned to consolidate and position themselves for the final drive to crush Germany once and for all. But, as always, the enemy gets a vote, and Adolf Hitler had other plans.

Hitler’s Last Gamble in the West

Adolf Hitler was nothing if not a gambler. Boldness defined his entire political career. As 1944 drew to a close, the German dictator had one more card to play and he was convinced he had an ace. Hitler recognized the importance of Antwerp to the Allies and its danger to his own forces. He envisioned a surprise winter offensive to seize the Belgian port, denying the Allies its use. If successful, the operation could also trap the British 21st Army Group and part of the US 12th Army Group in the process by cutting off their supplies.

The offensive would launch through the lightly defended Ardennes Forest, where the wildly successful German attack had unhinged the Allied defense in May 1940. Hitler correctly identified the Ardennes as a weak spot, but he failed to recognize that things had changed in the last four and a half years.

German Panther tank Battle of the Bulge
German infantry hitches a ride on a Panther tank during the Battle of the Bulge. (

The Germans succeeded in moving through the Ardennes in 1940 because it was “well known” that the forest was impassable to modern mechanized armies. The heavily wooded hills confined all movement to the narrow, winding road network, which was considered unsuitable for military purposes. The French and Belgians purposely left the forest all but undefended. The area did not even figure in Allied air reconnaissance plans.

But the Germans knew better. Many of them, including General Heinz Guderian, had passed that way in 1914. Guderian was perhaps the top German armor expert in 1940, and when presented with the Ardennes plan, he enthusiastically endorsed it. Guderian’s XIXth Corps led the move through the forest and forced the breakthrough at Sedan. The French were completely surprised when Guderian suddenly emerged from the trees on the banks of the Meuse at Sedan and proved incapable of containing his hard-charging armored spearheads,

But it Wasn’t 1940

Hitler planned the 1944 attack himself, only confiding in a select group of officers whose help he needed to prepare. Units and supplies were transferred only at night to hide them from Allied air reconnaissance. They were also held in a defensive posture along the German Westwall line, giving the impression, to friend and foe, that they were building up against the expected Allied offensive in 1945. Field commanders were briefed only days before the attack commenced, with most units moving to their jump off points at the last minute under cover of darkness.

American soldiers with machine gun Battle of the Bulge
American GIs man a machine gun as they await a German assault. (Getty Images)

But 1944 was different from 1940. Though lightly held, the Ardennes contained elements of the US Army’s VIII Corps, meaning that any attack would be opposed. Hitler, of course, knew that. His attack objectives show that he understood how his armies would have to operate. But he failed to anticipate how even minimal defenses, combined with the difficult terrain, could upset his sensitive timetable.

In addition, the Americans of 1944, with their mobile capability, were far better able to cope with a German breakthrough than had the static French Army in 1940, when the Sedan breakthrough became an actual breakout. When the Germans jumped off before dawn on December 16, they found the Ardennes passage far more difficult than four years previously, giving the Americans time to shore up the rear to contain any possible breakthrough.

A Mobile Campaign

The German Wehrmacht pioneered the return of mobility to the battlefield after the bloody trench fighting of the First World War. Even after the beating they had taken since late 1942, the Germans were still masters of the art. The key to the 1944 Ardennes offensive was exploiting the road infrastructure before the Americans could react.

The rough terrain meant that controlling the roads, bridges, and road junctions would determine the campaign’s outcome. If the Germans seized their objectives before the Americans could block or destroy them, they had a good chance to reach the Meuse River and force a crossing to assault Antwerp. If they failed, the attack would bog down, forcing the Germans to punch through a series of bottlenecks with little opportunity to bypass them. Surprise, therefore, was paramount.

American BAR man wrapped against the cold
An American BAR man wrapped against the bitter cold. (

A German Surprise

The Germans indeed achieved complete surprise when they unleashed a massive artillery barrage at 0530 on December 16. The weather helped. A brutal cold snap meant that unpaved roads were frozen solid, providing excellent conditions for the heavy German Tiger and Panther tanks. Accompanying overcast skies grounded Allied fighter-bombers, hampering reconnaissance, and freeing the German columns from aerial harassment.

The Germans maximized the pre-dawn overcast by bouncing powerful searchlights off the low-hanging clouds, creating what they called “artificial daylight.” Infantry units surged forward to seize bridges and road junctions for the armored columns scheduled for that afternoon. But, despite literally catching their enemies with their pants down, isolated resistance disrupted the timetable almost immediately.

A Thin but Determined Defense

Few American units were at full strength when the Germans attacked on December 16. The Ardennes was supposed to be quiet, and several divisions had been sent there to recuperate and refit after being mauled in the infamous Hürtgen Forest. Two unblooded infantry divisions, the 99th and 106th, were posted to the Ardennes to gain some light frontline experience before being committed to hard combat.

Others sent numerous soldiers on leave to Paris or Luxembourg since no action was expected. Major General Maxwell Taylor, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, had been called to Washington for consultations. His deputy commander, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, would gain undying fame in his absence.

Tenacity Wins

Despite this disadvantage in the face of concentrated, experienced German troops, American tenacity bought Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower precious time to marshal a defense and launch a counterattack. Even delaying the Germans by a few hours, or a day, threw off the attackers’ timetable, causing massive traffic jams and allowing American engineer units to blow critical bridges and mine the roads.

From the beginning, American units fought hard against sometimes overwhelming odds. The inexperienced 99th Infantry Division gave as good as it got, and not just from the soldiers surprised at breakfast.

Lieutenant Lyle J. Bouck, Jr.’s reconnaissance and intelligence platoon, posted on a knoll in the critical Losheim Gap, stacked up an entire regiment of the German 3rd Parachute Division, despite having no support. The survivors of Bouck’s 18-man platoon were eventually overrun and captured when they ran out of ammunition. But they had blocked a main attack route for most of December 16, setting back the Germans’ tight timetable by more than 12 hours. As midnight struck, heralding December 17, Bouck turned 21 years old.

Bouck’s story was repeated across the entire Ardennes sector. American units were forced to fall back across the front, but they did so stubbornly, felling trees to block roads and forcing the attackers to assault each one. Every time the Germans were deployed to storm or flank a strong point, they slowed down, causing huge traffic jams in their wake as they fell behind schedule.

Battle of the Bulge map
The Battle of the Bulge was named for the “bulge” it caused in the American lines. (

The German Fuel Crisis

The delays hurt the Germans elsewhere as well. Despite weeks of preparation, the attackers were still short of fuel for their tanks. They were told that they would have to seize American fuel supplies as they moved forward. They did so on several occasions, most notably Lt. Colonel Joachim Peiper’s First SS Panzer Regiment, the only German unit to even approach its objectives.

But the miles-long traffic snarls caused by the unexpected American defense efforts meant that tanks and trucks were left idling away precious gasoline when they were supposed to be racing forward. The delays not only gave the Americans time to lay mines and blow bridges, but they also cost the Germans thousands of gallons of fuel that they could not spare seeking alternate routes through the forest road network.

Despite being hemmed in by Allied units, Peiper was eventually stopped because he could no longer supply his still formidable force with gasoline. His men abandoned their tanks and took to the woods to walk back to German lines.

Even in Defeat…

The 106th Infantry Division was the least combat-ready division in the US Army. Formed in the United States, many of its trained soldiers had been pulled as replacements for older divisions already fighting the Germans. Shipped to Europe before it was ready, the 106th was sent to the quiet Ardennes sector for badly needed training and seasoning before the final push into Germany.

Posted on the Schnee Eifel, a hill that protruded dangerously through the German Westwall defenses and skirted by two east-west roads, the 106th found itself facing a main German thrust toward the critical road junction at St. Vith, only ten miles to the rear. The Schnee Eifel formed the southern boundary of the lightly defended Losheim Gap, through which a small detachment of the US 14th Cavalry Group was soon driven.

American soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge
GIs man a roadside ditch as a makeshift defensive line. (US Army)

German divisions swept around the Schnee Eifel’s base, cutting off two of the 106th’s regiments on the hill. The 106th’s commander, Major General Alan W. Jones, was given permission to withdraw his men, though he was also promised reinforcements from the US 7th Armored Division by dawn. Jones chose to stay.

Unfortunately, the 7th Armored did not arrive on time and, by that time, the 106th’s soldiers were hard-pressed indeed. The poorly trained men attempted a breakout toward St. Vith but were decimated as they moved haphazardly through the German assault divisions. The division was so badly mauled that the Army decided not to reconstitute it after the battle.

But, even so, the piecemeal breakout attempt tied down German mobile units for the better part of a night and the next morning, causing further delays. The Germans did not take St. Vith until well after they were scheduled to do so, throwing off the timetable of the entire northern Ardennes attack group. The ruined 106th Infantry Division contributed to that effort, even in defeat.

The Battered Bastards of Bastogne

The battle’s most famous stand occurred at the crossroads town of Bastogne. Hitler himself had identified Bastogne’s importance, as it controlled no less than six main roads branching out in all directions. Capturing Bastogne would allow the Germans to attack on a broad front, foiling American efforts to contain the breach.

American planners also identified Bastogne as a crucial objective. The recuperating 101st Airborne Division was rushed forward to fortify an arc defending the northeastern, eastern, and southeastern approaches against the hard-charging Germans. Once again, the scrappy American front-line units provided the time for the 101st to reach their positions.

American soldier in luxurious foxhole
An enterprising GI mans a foxhole built to withstand the subzero temperatures during the Battle of the Bulge. (

The Americans also benefited from some well-timed misdirection from courageous Belgian civilians who purposely misled the crack Panzer Lehr Division commander General Fritz Bayerlein into a short cut that was nothing of the sort. By the time Bayerlein got his tanks unglued from the boggy “shortcut,” the road to Bastogne was blocked.

Encountering unexpected resistance from the 101st’s artillery, Panzer Lehr and other German units used secondary roads and forest tracks to surround Bastogne. THE 101ST’s Deputy Commander, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, returning from a conference with VIII Corps commander Lt. General Troy Middleton, made it into the town just before the trap closed.

McAuliffe was given permission to withdraw from Bastogne but refused, drawing Middleton’s approval. The corps commander’s last words to McAuliffe were “Now don’t get yourself surrounded.” Little did Middleton know that the 101st had the Germans right where they wanted them.

McAuliffe not only had his well-trained paratroopers, but also half of the 10th Armored Division and the crack 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion. That day, December 20, McAuliffe estimated that he could hold Bastogne for two days, perhaps a little longer.

American soldiers Battle of the Bulge
US soldiers in the heavy snow. The M1 Carbines could mean these men were clerks, cooks, or truck drivers pressed into emergency service as infantrymen. Thousands of service troops were forced into that role and performed well. (US Army)

On December 22, McAuliffe learned that the 4th Armored Division of General Patton’s Third Army was moving to Bastogne’s relief. Later that day, he received a surrender demand from the encircling Germans, who had the better part of two armored divisions and other units poised to attack. McAuliffe’s now legendary reply read:

To the German Commander:


                                    The American Commander

The reply was delivered by Colonel Joseph H. “Bud” Harper, who commanded a battalion of the 327th Glider Regiment on the southeastern perimeter. When handing the reply to the German officer who had delivered it, Harper growled “If you don’t know what ‘Nuts’ means, in plain English it is the same as ‘Go to Hell.’ And I’ll tell you something else – if you continue to attack, we will kill every G**damn German that tries to break into this city!”

Despite continuous German assaults, Bastogne held against all the odds. Air drops kept the men minimally supplied with food, ammunition, and medical supplies while Bastogne’s civilians provided much-needed care for the many wounded.

Elements of the 4th Armored Division broke through to the town as night fell on December 26, four days longer than McAuliffe’s two-day estimate. Bastogne was relieved, though the paratroopers have never admitted they needed saving.

Too Little, Too Late

The Germans had no hope of achieving their objectives after being repulsed at Bastogne. But those hopes had been dwindling for some time. Even had everything gone right, with German armored units crossing the Meuse and securing Antwerp, they lacked the wherewithal to strengthen and hold any gains they might have made. Two strong Allied army groups were positioned on their flanks and the Germans would have been dangerously overextended with little ability to resupply themselves.

American Sherman tanks
American M4 Sherman tanks during the US counterattack in January 1945. (

Hitler would have delayed the assault from west, but he could not have stopped it. As it was, the American resistance, combined with strong pressure on the attack’s shoulders to confine the Germans to a narrow advance, meant that it fell far short of Hitler’s intentions. Only Peiper’s command approached the Meuse, but they were surrounded and ran out of fuel four miles from the river’s banks.

In the end, the Battle of the Bulge, so named because of the “bulge” it created on Allied battle maps, wasted some of Germany’s best troops that could have been better employed in defense of Germany itself. Thanks in large part to stubborn American soldiers, including some who were so poorly trained that they should not even have been in Europe, Hitler’s great gamble failed, hastening his eventual defeat.

Tenacity was perhaps the defining feature of the World War II American soldier. Nowhere was it on greater display than the Battle of the Bulge.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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