A massive artillery barrage in the early morning hours of 16 December 1944 signaled the beginning of a massive German assault on Allied positions in the Ardennes forest.
By 0800 hours three German armies attacked through the Ardennes. Waffen SS General Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth SS Panzer Army moved toward the offensive’s primary objective: Antwerp, to capture the critical Allied supply depots there – most especially the fuel dumps. In the center von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army attacked toward the strategic road junction cities of Bastogne and St. Vith.
To the north at Lanzerath, Belgium and the Elsenborn Ridge, attacks by the Sixth SS Panzer Army’s infantry units encountered unexpectedly fierce resistance by the U.S. 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions. On the first day, an entire German battalion was held up for 20 hours by a single 18-man Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon from the 99th Infantry Division, causing a bottleneck in the German advance.
As it became obvious to the Allied High Command that the German attacks represented a major Nazi offensive, snowstorms engulfed the Ardennes. While having the desired effect of keeping the Allied aircraft grounded, the weather also proved troublesome for the Germans because poor road conditions hampered their advance. Poor traffic control led to massive traffic jams and fuel shortages in forward units.
The Western Front, showing the German "Bulge" Ardennes Offensive 16-26 December 1944.
The main armored spearhead of the Sixth SS Panzer Army was Kampfgruppe Peiper; 4,800 men and 600 vehicles of the 1st SS Panzer Division under the command of Waffen-SS Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) Joachim Peiper. At 07:00 on 17 December, they seized a U.S. fuel depot at Büllingen, where they paused to refuel before continuing westward.
At 12:30, near the hamlet of Baugnez, on the height halfway between the town of Malmedy and Ligneuville, forward elements of Kampfgruppe Peiper captured troops of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, U.S. 7th Armored Division. The Americans were disarmed and sent to stand in a field near the crossroads, where approximately 150 of them were machinegunned to death.
The Malmedy Massacre
Even though executing prisoners and shooting civilians were a trademark of Waffen SS operations, news of the killings raced through Allied lines. Although there is no record of an SS officer giving an execution order, following the war SS soldiers of Kampfgruppe Peiper were to be held accountable during the Malmedy massacre trial.
Belgian civilians killed by SS units during the offensive.
The fighting went on. By the evening of the 16th Peiper was already behind schedule; it had taken him 36 hours to advance from Eifel to Stavelot, compared to just 9 hours in 1940. As the Americans fell back, they blew up bridges and fuel dumps, denying the Germans critically needed fuel and further slowing their progress.
In the central 'Schnee Eifel' sector, the Fifth Panzer Army surrounded two regiments (422nd and 423rd) of the 106th Division in a pincer movement and forcing their surrender. The official U.S. Army history states: "At least seven thousand men were lost here (the figure was probably closer to eight or nine thousand). This substantial amount of manpower, arms and equipment represents the most serious reverse suffered by American arms during the operations of 1944–45 in the European theater."
American soldiers taken prisoner by the German Wehrmacht
Further south the main German thrust crossed the River Our, increasing pressure on the key road centers of St. Vith and Bastogne. The 112th Infantry Regiment (of the US 28th Division), held a continuous front east of the Our, keeping German forces from seizing and using the Our river bridges around Ouren for two days before withdrawing progressively to the west.
The 109th and 110th Regiments both offered stubborn resistance in the face of superior forces, keeping the German offensive days off schedule. Denied their intended avenues of approach, Panzer columns took outlying villages and widely separated strong-points in bitter fighting, slowed in their advance to Bastogne.
An American road-block with .30 caliber machine gun in the Ardennes, December 1944.
By 17 December Eisenhower and his principal commanders realized that the fighting in the Ardennes was a major offensive and not a local counter-attack, and they ordered vast reinforcements to the area. Within a week 250,000 troops had been sent. In addition, the 82nd Airborne Division was also thrown into the battle north of the bulge, near Elsenborn Ridge.
In the center of the 'Bulge' salient the town of St. Vith, a vital road junction, presented a major challenge for German Wehrmacht forces. The defenders included the 7th U.S. Armored Division, and remnants of the 106th U.S. Infantry, with elements of the 9th U.S. Armored and U.S. 28th Infantry, all under the command of General Bruce C. Clarke.
Clarke's forces successfully resisted the German attacks, significantly slowing their advance. Under orders from Montgomery, St. Vith was given up on 21 December; U.S. troops fell back to entrenched positions in the area, presenting an imposing obstacle to a successful German advance. By 23 December, as the Germans shattered their flanks, the defenders’ position became untenable, and U.S. troops were ordered to retreat west of the Salm River. As the German plan had originally called for the capture of St. Vith by 18:00 on 17 December, the prolonged action in and around the city presented a major blow to their timetable.
U.S. M4 Sherman tanks take up positions on the outskirts of St. Vith, 20 December 1944.
The struggle for the villages and American strong-points, 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. In fierce defensive fighting, the American paratroopers denied the Germans their critical objective Bastogne, with its important road junctions. Panzer columns swung past on either side, cutting off Bastogne on 20 December but failing to secure the vital crossroads.
According to Wehrmacht plan, by 19 December the town of Bastogne and its network of eleven hard topped roads leading through the mountainous terrain and boggy mud of the Ardennes region were to have been in German hands for several days.
Eisenhower realized 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. Meeting with senior Allied commanders met in a bunker in Verdun, Ike 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."
General Dwight Eisenhower poses with a group of soldiers during a visit to the Battle of the Bulge battlefield. The soldiers were members of the 334th Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) Battalion.
By the time of that meeting, two separate west-bound German columns were to have by-passed Bastogne to the south and north, the 2nd Panzer Division and Panzer-Lehr-Division of XLVII Panzer Corps, as well as the 26th Volksgrenadier Division. Instead these units had been engaged and slowed in frustrating battles at outlying defensive positions up to ten miles from the town proper.
Members of the 101st Airborne Division armed with bazookas, on guard for enemy tanks. On the road leading to Bastogne, Belgium, 23 December 1944.
Eisenhower asked Patton how long it would take to turn his Third Army (located in northeastern France) north to counterattack. To the disbelief of the other generals present, Patton said he could attack with two divisions within 48 hours. Before he had gone to the meeting, Patton had already 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 Bradley’s 12th Army Group and placed them under Montgomery’s 21st Army Group.
By 21 December, the German forces had Bastogne surrounded. Conditions inside the Bastonge perimeter were tough — most medical supplies and medical personnel had been captured, food was scarce, and by December 22 artillery ammunition was restricted to 10 rounds per gun per day. The weather cleared the next day, however, and supplies (primarily ammunition) were dropped in by parachute over four of the next five days.
The perimeter held despite determined German attacks. The German commander, Generalleutnant Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz, requested Bastogne's surrender. When acting commander of the 101st General Anthony McAuliffe was told of this, he responded with a frustrated, "Aw, nuts!" After turning to other pressing issues, his staff reminded him that they should reply to the German demand. One officer (Lt. Col Harry W. O. Kinnard) recommended that McAuliffe's initial reply would be "tough to beat". Thus McAuliffe wrote on the paper delivered to the Germans: "NUTS!" The famous reply - a morale booster to his troops - had to be explained both to the Germans, and to non-American Allies.
General Patton pinning the Distinguished Service Cross on BG Anthony C. McAuliffe, acting commander of the 101st Airborne Division during the Siege of Bastogne
Both 2nd Panzer and Panzer Lehr moved forward from Bastogne after December 21, 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 PzG 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 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, December 26, the spearhead of the 4th Armored Division broke through and opened a corridor to Bastogne.
In the extreme south, Brandenberger’s three infantry divisions were checked after an advance of four miles (6.5 km) by divisions of the U.S. VIII Corps; that front was then firmly held. Only the 5th Parachute Division of Brandenberger’s command was able to thrust forward 12 miles (19 km) on the inner flank to partially fulfill its assigned role.
To be continued . . .