Gambling everything. German infantry is storming American positions in the Ardennes.



Ten thousand trucks and lorries swarmed France's roads in the summer of 1944 to maintain more or less regular supply of the fighting troops with fuels, while Allied commands were swearing and calling names those strategists, who on the eve of the invasion got the idea to demolish, through air raids, France's railway system. Eventually it all got organized, and on 8 November Gen. George Patton, quite well supplied, could resume his advance on Metz. On the way to that city his troops had to cross the Moselle. Patton noted that it was a disheartening sight:
Every bridge on the Moselle River, except one at Pont-à-Mousson, was out, and (...) the Seille River had increased in width from two hundred to five hundred feet. [Patton G. S. (1995).]
It was not until 22 November that his troops, whom he drove sometimes literally with a stick, reached Metz. Yet, that historic fortress held till the mid-December.

On the same day, 22 November, the French division, coming from the south as a part of the American 6th Army Group, reached Belfort. Six days later was liberated Strasbourg, but the French failed to take Colmar. The Germans still kept a part of the French lands on the left bank of the middle Rhine and menaced the right wing of the Allied forces advancing from the Riviera.

In the beginning of December Patton's troops seized bridgeheads on the right bank of the Saar near Saarleutern and were readied to advance on Trier and Mainz. Meanwhile in the north Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, whose troops started their advance on 15 November, before 4 December cleared the left bank of the Meuse, and approached to the Ruhr near Duren. For short, the Allies had overcome the fuel crisis, and were coming out to the Reich's borders, and even crossing them here and there. Those operations were not much efficient though; it was more like pushing the enemy off mile by mile, according to Eisenhower's broad-front strategy. Nevertheless, even those less than impressive, from the operational point of view, operations were bringing the final victory closer and closer. And then the thunder struck...

On 16 December the Germans launched a big counter-offensive. Twenty-five divisions, in this seven armoured and one motorized, rushed across the Belgian Ardennes on a 100km-wide front between the towns of Echternach in Luxembourg and Monschau in Holland. Ardennes are geologically old mountains in southern Belgium, Luxembourg and partly northern France. They constitute the western extension of the Rhenish Slate Mountains. Their highest summit does not reach 700m above the sea level, and the average height approximates 400m. It makes the Ardennes a high plateau rather, but hardly accessible, with few roads and bridges. That is why the Allied defence was weaker there than in other sectors of the front. German plans foresaw crossing the Meuse, cutting the Allied grouping in halves, reaching their deep rears, and taking Antwerp. The counter-offensive started in bad weather conditions and thick cloudiness, which grounded the Allied air forces. Those conditions were meticulously calculated by the German meteorological services, and that was probably the only case when they did not fail. German AFV's - there were more than thousand heavy tanks alone - were emerging like ghosts from the mist, crushing and rolling everything in their way. And quite correctly that operation was codenamed Herbstnebel, which in German means "Autumn Mist". Panic spread throughout the reconquered areas: people feared the German revenge. And they were right - special Gestapo units were following the army troops. They intended to show no mercy to anyone, who welcomed their liberators.

In command of the German grouping was Field-Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. Once sacked from the command of the German forces in the West, he was back in favours. Adolf Hitler could not do without that man - he had sacked Rundstedt many times, and always called him back. Apparently, he appreciated that perfect military professional, completely indifferent to the sense of the Nazi war.

The surprise was complete. Allied staffs not only did not expect a counter-offensive of such dimensions - they did not expect any counter-offensive at all. General Dwight Eisenhower received the first reports about the German operation calmly. He, as well as his whole staff, was convinced that it was just a diversion, although perhaps with bigger forces than usually. Similarly reasoned Gen. Omar Bradley. But he was bound to change his mind very soon. In his memoirs he honestly admitted his mistake:
Instead of the tactical diversion I had accused von Rundstedt of staging as an antidote to Patton's advance in the Saar, the German counteroffensive had been marshaled as a master stroke that was to regain the initiative in the West. Antwerp was to be the primary objective, for the enemy reasoned that if he could sever our major supply lines from that port, he would have isolated four Allied Armies north of the Ardennes. Though he did not delude himself with dreams of victory in the West, he nevertheless anticipated abundant rewards in Allied losses and disorganization. If successful in the Ardennes counteroffensive, the enemy might stall our Western drive long enough to strike the Red army then massing its strength on the Vistula.

Moreover, it was thought that the psychological effect of a German offensive might stave off the despair that by now had infected so many Germans. For as the Allied Armies neared those cities already devastated by air, the German people began more clearly to comprehend the catastrophe that came with defeat. But it was not primarily for morale that the enemy had devised this Ardennes counterattack. Instead he had chosen to gamble his dwindling resources on the slender chance of achieving a strategic upset. [Bradley O. N. (1999).]
But Bradley was wrong, however, if he thought that the Germans had not had any hope for victory. It was Hitler himself, who conceived the idea of the counter-offensive in the Ardennes. He thought that a powerful blow dealt to the Western Allies would knock them down for the time long enough to enable transfer of the troops to the East and stall the imminent Soviet offensive, and above all, would win time to produce and deploy new "wonder weapons" (Wunderwaffe). Some of them already were produced in small quantities: jet bomber Heinkel He-343, jet fighter Messerschmitt Me-262, submarines of the XXI and XXII series with extraordinary seaworthiness, or 120-ton heavy tanks Maus; others even had been used in combat: V-1 and V-2 rockets. Hitler fanatically believed in those inventions, and fanatically believed he would have won time for their development. He also dreamt about a great political effects; he believed that the defeat in the Ardennes would force the Western Allies to abandon the principle of unconditional surrender and conclude a separate peace. Then he would amass the remnants of his forces and strike eastward...

And so, the strike in the Ardennes came as a complete surprise. The dimensions of that surprise are best illustrated by this excerpt from Montgomery's order of the day, he issued to his troops on the very 16 December:
The enemy is at present fighting a defensive campaign on all fronts; his situation is such that he cannot stage minor offensive operations. Furthermore, at all costs he has to prevent the war from entering on a mobile phase; he has not the transport or the petrol that would be necessary for mobile operations, nor could his tanks compete with ours in the mobile battle. [Bradley O. N. (1999).]
Well, it happens sometimes, that a great commander of the African campaign makes a blunder in Europe...

Meanwhile, on the other side of the front, Rundstedt wrote in the order of the day to his troops: We gamble everything now - we cannot fail. [Bradley O. N. (1999).] The Germans needed to win the battle at any price. Among the means, designated to win at any price, was outfitting units of German soldiers with American uniforms, weapons and vehicles. Those groups had to infiltrate frontlines in order to carry various subversive actions in the enemy rear; in fact, in most cases, they resorted to ordinary murders of American POW's. From the point of view of the international law, soldiers dressed in the uniforms of their opponents may be, and should be, treated like ordinary bandits. Therefore, the Americans were making short shrift with the Germans clad in American uniforms, especially after they had learnt about the massacre at Malmedy, where murderers from SS simply crushed hundreds of POW's under the tracks of their tanks. This was not an isolated crime the Nazis had committed during the Second World War, but its particular barbarity had shaken American GI's. In general, the number of American soldiers reported missing in action in the Ardennes surpasses that of all other American wars, including the Vietnam War.

Apart from bandits in American uniforms, the Germans had also dropped a number of parachutists in the American rears, and many other units had infiltrated American positions. Those actions had instilled the Americans with a real psychosis. A number of roadblocks were established on all the roads; patrols were chasing literally after everybody, regardless of their uniforms, in order to establish their nationality through inquisitive questions about the imponderabilia of the life in the United States of America. Someone, who, for example, was not knowledgeable in the current rating of baseball teams, or could not name the ex-husband of a popular movie actress, faced a risk of arrest and waste of time. Sometimes the time wasted was really precious, as it happened to this commander of an armoured brigade, who due to the protracted interrogation failed to reach his unit in time.
Neither rank nor credentials nor protests spared the traveller an inquisition at each intersection he passed. Three times I was ordered to prove my identity by cautious GI's. The first time by identifying Springfield as the capital of Illinois (my questioner held out for Chicago); the second time by locating the guard between the center and tackle on a line of scrimmage; the third time by naming the then current spouse of a blonde named Betty Grable. Grable stopped me but the sentry did not. Pleased at having stumped me, he nevertheless passed me on. [Bradley O. N. (1999).]
The German counter-offensive was built around the 6th SS Armoured Army, which struck towards the Meuse across Malmedy and Stavelot, and the 5th Armoured Army, which struck on Bastogne. Two field armies operated on their flanks. Since the first day of the battle there grew a huge wedge, which menaced to split the whole Allied grouping into two parts. In that situation the American 1st Army, cut off the 12th Army Group, was subordinated to Montgomery, and Bradley was in fact commanding an army group of one army, namely Patton's troops.

In his memoirs Bradley noted the question he asked his intelligence officer, posting enemy divisions identified in the attack: Pardon my French, (...) but just where in hell has this sonuvabitch gotten all his strength? [Bradley O. N. (1999).] The answer is simple - staffs and headquarters were saved from Normandy; this way the negligence in fighting that battle had turned against the Allies.

One of the critical points of the German counter-offensive was the town of Bastogne - a very important railway node between Luxembourg and Liege in Belgium. A stubborn defence around the town was built by an American armoured division reinforced by elements of other units. But the pivotal role in the fights for Bastogne played the 101st Airborne Division, the same that took part in the battle of Arnhem. It was deployed in Reims, far from the frontlines, and its soldiers were taking rest in a really manly fashion. There they were plucked out of pubs, as well as various more or less private houses, loaded on lorries and carried to Bastogne, where they arrived on 18 December. As soon as they got sober, they gave the Germans a hell of a beating. That had complicated Rundstedt's situation very badly.

For several days Rundstedt had been running driven by the impetus of his blow and temporary stall of Eisenhower's forces, which did not possess substantial strategic reserves, and whose movements were impaired by the weather. But the weather conditions soon ceased to be the advantage to the Germans. On the Christmas Eve, 24 December 1944, the sky had cleared, and Allied air forces dealt powerful blows to the German groupings and communications. Meanwhile Patton with his 3rd Army was already turning from the Saar towards Bastogne. Having encountered there a stubborn defence, the Germans passed around the town and continued running further, towards the Meuse. But they were not bound to go that far.

Nevertheless, German propaganda was screaming to the whole world about an enormous success. For the first time since very, very long the Germans were listening again to the Sondermeldungen, namely special reports, broadcast on all radio-stations in Germany and occupied territories, about victories, captured towns, and destroyed divisions. Several thousands of American POW's from the 106th Infantry Division, easily crushed on the first day of the offensive, had been conducted through the ruins of Cologne. German radio-anchors were already speaking about Brussels and hinting at Paris. Yet in fact the German offensive lost its momentum already on 26 December at Dinant, still far from the Meuse. And that was the westernmost point that the advanced German assault groupings had managed to achieve.

Already on 21 December Patton struck towards the besieged Bastogne with one armoured and one infantry division. On the Christmas Day he already had there six divisions. Patton's brilliant shift of Third Army, wrote Bradley, from its bridgehead in the Saar to the snow-covered Ardennes front became one of the most astonishing feats of generalship of our campaign in the West. [Bradley O. N. (1999).] The complete change of the axis of advance of a whole army, set in motion by thousands of vehicles within such a short time, was indeed a great achievement.

On 26 December the American 2nd Armoured Division fought a pitched battle with the German 2nd SS Armoured Division near Dinant. According to eyewitnesses, it was a "great slaughterhouse". The Americans knocked 80 German tanks and took 1,200 prisoners. On the same day the 4th Armoured Division from Patton's army broke through to the troops holding Bastogne.

On the New Year day 1945 the German air force summoned all its remaining power to strike against Allies' airfields. But Allied materiel losses by then could be easily compensated within a matter of days, if not hours, while the Germans would need months. Their situation in the matters of human resources was even more dramatic.

Nevertheless, the Germans had no intention to give up in the Ardennes. After all they had "gambled everything". On 2 and 3 January they engaged the bulk of their forces in repeated attacks on Bastogne. On 4 January Bradley personally complained to Eisenhower: We can still lose this war in Europe. [Bradley O. N. (1999).] This little remark testifies to the state of real hysteria, to which this excellent commander was prone sometimes. But first of all it illustrates the tremendous psychological impact of the German counter-offensive in the Ardennes.

Also on the New Year day of 1945 the Germans launched an auxiliary advance in Alsace. It had to stall Patton's forces. On 5 January they stroke across the Rhine in the north of Strasbourg. On the next day the British prime-minister, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, wrote to the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin:
The battle in the West is very heavy and, at any time, large decisions may be called for from the Supreme Command. You know yourself from your own experience how very anxious the position is when a very broad front has to be defended after temporary loss of the initiative. It is General Eisenhower's great desire and need to know in outline what you plan to do, as it obviously affects all his and our major decisions. (...) I shall be grateful if you can tell me whether we can count on a major Russian offensive on the Vistula front, or elsewhere, during January, with any other points you may care to mention.
On 12 January a major Soviet offensive, indeed, began along the Vistula. Towards the end of January the situation prior to 16 December was restored. The Germans had lost 120,000 troops, while Allied casualties amounted to 80,000. However, German losses in equipment and supplies were already irrecoverable.