Exactly seventy years ago, Allied forces in Europe experienced an all-too-common occurrence in war: a huge intelligence failure that led to a surprise attack, followed by a horrific battlefield disaster. That it was transformed into victory by the Allies
was due, in large measure, to the incredible bravery of young Americans, who were outnumbered, outgunned, and fighting in some of the worst physical conditions of World War II.
Seventy years later, the Battle of the Bulge is not as celebrated as the D-Day invasion or Iwo Jima, but it was far deadlier than either of those battles. Indeed, it was the costliest encounter for the United States in the entire war. More than 19,000 Americans were killed in the thick Ardennes forest between December 16, 1944, and January 25, 1945, 62,000 were wounded, and more than 26,000 were either captured or missing.
It was the last great offensive by Germany, which attempted to cut the Allied armies on the Western Front in half. A large part of its initial success came from the complete secrecy in which it was orchestrated. There were signs that should have been picked up beforehand—the code-breaking machine Ultra provided cables that might have tipped off the Allies, and there were even intelligence officers who predicted a counteroffensive at that time. Neither was taken seriously by the high command. The Allies had pushed through France and into Belgium in just six months following the Normandy invasion, and GIs talked about the possibility of being home for Christmas.
The reason it is called the Battle of the Bulge is that an obvious “bulge” was created on the maps that many people followed daily back home. The Germans had a two-to-one troop advantage in the initial assault, and they had more tanks and artillery as well. That part of the front was lightly defended by the Allies. The Germans, however, had fewer troops in reserve, which would prove consequential. It was the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, and it almost succeeded.
One key factor that should have worked against the Germans was the almost complete control of the skies that the Allies commanded over Europe by that point. That domination came at a high price after two years of horrific air battles. But even that worked in Germany’s favor at the start of the Bulge because the weather turned awful. Heavy overcast followed by bitter cold temperatures grounded practically every plane in Europe. With complete surprise, superior numbers, and terrible weather, the Germans devastated everything in their path.
In some cases, strict orders for utmost speed led to massacres, the worst of which took place in the small Belgian town of Malmedy. There, a unit of the First SS Panzer Division, commanded by Joachim Peiper, could not be bothered with prisoners. In a snow-covered field, SS troops machine-gunned 84 Americans to death. This led to vicious, take-no-prisoners fighting on both sides over the next month. Peiper was convicted of war crimes in a military tribunal in 1946 and sentenced to death. The order was later commuted because of efforts by both governments to move past the war, and he was released after 12 years in prison. In 1976, after careers at Volkswagen and Porsche, Peiper, a Nazi hardliner, was shot to death by unknown assailants, and then his home was burned to the ground. No one has ever taken responsibility.
One of America’s most courageous moments—and it was truly heroic—came at Bastogne with the 101st Airborne. Vastly outnumbered and running low on everything from food and medical supplies to ammunition, the paratroopers held their ground and the strategic city never fell into enemy hands. That stand is one of the few parts of the Bulge that has been re-created by Hollywood, first in the 1949 classic Battleground, starring Van Johnson and James Whitmore, and, more recently, in the HBO series Band of Brothers.
Although some green troops placed at the front, and even some with combat experience, completely folded in the wake of the massive German onslaught, there were Bastogne-like stands throughout the Bulge that were crucial in slowing the German advance. Just as critical were American supplies, which, once they started moving again, seemed limitless. It was almost exclusively a German-American fight, and it was the Americans that eventually gained the upper hand. Afterwards, Winston Churchill said, “This is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory.” Churchill was wrong on his last thought; other battles have surpassed the Bulge in our national memory.