World War II: Battle of the Bulge

Two German foot soldiers pass by a burning tank during the Battle of the Bulge

Corbis Historical / Getty Images

The Battle of the Bulge was German offensive and key engagement of World War II, which lasted from December 16, 1944 until January 25, 1945. During the Battle of the Bulge, 20,876 Allied soldiers were killed, while another 42,893 were wounded, and 23,554 captured/missing. German losses numbered 15,652 killed, 41,600 wounded, and 27,582 captured/missing. Defeated in the campaign, Germany lost its offensive capability in the West. By early February, the lines returned to their December 16 location.

Armies and Commanders



Background and Context

With the situation on the Western Front rapidly deteriorating in the fall of 1944, Adolf Hitler issued a directive for an offensive designed to stabilize the German position. Assessing the strategic landscape, he determined that it would be impossible to strike a decisive blow against the Soviets on the Eastern Front. Turning west, Hitler hoped to exploit the strained relationship between General Omar Bradley and Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery by attacking near the boundary of their 12th and 21st Army Groups.

Hitler's ultimate goal was to compel the U.S. and U.K. to sign a separate peace so that Germany could focus its efforts against the Soviets in the East. Going to work, Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (Army High Command, OKW) developed several plans including one that called for a blitzkrieg-style attack through the thinly defended Ardennes, similar to the assault conducted during the Battle of France in 1940.

The German Plan

The final objective of this attack would be the capture of Antwerp which would split the American and British armies in the area, and would deprive the Allies of a badly needed seaport. Selecting this option, Hitler entrusted its execution to Field Marshals Walter Model and Gerd von Rundstedt. In preparing for the offensive, both felt that the capture of Antwerp was too ambitious and lobbied for more realistic alternatives.

While Model favored a single drive west then north, von Rundstedt advocated for dual thrusts into Belgium and Luxembourg. In both cases, German forces would not cross the Meuse River. These attempts to change Hitler's mind failed and he directed his original plan to be employed. 

To carry out the operation, General Sepp Dietrich's 6th SS Panzer Army would attack in the north with the goal of taking Antwerp. In the center, the assault would be made by General Hasso von Manteuffel's 5th Panzer Army, with the goal of taking Brussels, while General Erich Brandenberger's 7th Army would advance in the south with orders to protect the flank. Operating under radio silence and taking advantage of poor weather which hampered Allied scouting efforts, the Germans moved the necessary forces into place.

Running low on fuel, a key element of the plan was the successful capture of Allied fuel depots as the Germans lacked sufficient fuel reserves to reach Antwerp under normal combat conditions. To support the offensive, a special unit led by Otto Skorzeny was formed to infiltrate the Allied lines dressed as American soldiers. Their mission was to spread confusion and disrupt Allied troop movements.

Allies in the Dark

On the Allied side, the high command, led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was essentially blind to German movements due to a variety of factors. Having claimed air superiority along the front, Allied forces typically could rely on reconnaissance aircraft to provide detailed information on German activities. Due to the decaying weather, these aircraft were grounded. Additionally, due to the proximity to their homeland, the Germans increasingly used telephone and telegraph networks rather than radio for transmitting orders. As a result, there were fewer radio transmissions for Allied code breakers to intercept.

Believing the Ardennes to be a quiet sector, it was used as a recovery and training area for units that had seen heavy action or were inexperienced. In addition, most indications were that the Germans were preparing for a defensive campaign and lacked the capabilities for a large-scale offensive. Though this mentality permeated much of the Allied command structure, some intelligence officers, such as Brigadier General Kenneth Strong and Colonel Oscar Koch, warned that the Germans might attack in the near future, and that it would come against the U.S. VIII Corps in the Ardennes.

The Attack Begins

Commencing at 5:30 AM on December 16, 1944, the German offensive opened with a heavy barrage on the 6th Panzer Army's front. Pushing forward, Dietrich's men attacked American positions on Elsenborn Ridge and Losheim Gap in an attempt to break through to Liège. Meeting heavy resistance from the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions, he was forced to commit his tanks to the battle. In the center, von Manteuffel's troops opened a gap through the 28th and 106th Infantry Divisions, capturing two U.S. regiments in the process and increasing pressure on the town of St. Vith.

Meeting increasing resistance, 5th Panzer Army's advance was slowed allowing the 101st Airborne to deploy by truck to the vital crossroads town of Bastogne. Fighting in snowstorms, the foul weather prevented Allied air power from dominating the battlefield. In the south, Brandenberger's infantry was essentially stopped by the U.S. VIII Corps after a four-mile advance. On December 17, Eisenhower and his commanders concluded that the attack was an all-out offensive rather than a local assault, and began rushing reinforcements to the area.

At 3:00 a.m. on December 17, Colonel Friedrich August von der Heydte dropped with a German airborne force with the goal of capturing crossroads near Malmedy. Flying through foul weather, von der Heydte's command was scattered during the drop, and forced to fight as guerillas for the remainder of the battle. Later that day, members of Colonel Joachim Peiper's Kampfgruppe Peiper captured and executed around 150 American POWs at Malmedy. One of the spearheads of 6th Panzer Army's attack, Peiper's men captured Stavelot the next day before pressing onto Stoumont.

Encountering heavy resistance at Stoumont, Peiper became cut off when American troops retook Stavelot on December 19. After attempting to break through to German lines, Peiper's men, out of fuel, were forced to abandon their vehicles and fight on foot. To the south, American troops under Brigadier General Bruce Clarke fought a critical holding action at St. Vith. Forced to fall back on the 21st, they were soon driven from their new lines by the 5th Panzer Army. This collapse led to the encirclement of the 101st Airborne and the 10th Armored Division's Combat Command B at Bastogne.

The Allies Respond

As the situation was developing at St. Vith and Bastogne, Eisenhower met with his commanders at Verdun on December 19. Seeing the German attack as an opportunity to destroy their forces in the open, he began issuing instructions for counterattacks. Turning to Lieutenant General George Patton, he asked how long it would take for Third Army to shift its advance north. Having anticipated this request, Patton had already begun issuing orders to this end and replied 48 hours.

At Bastogne, the defenders beat off numerous German assaults while fighting in bitter cold weather. Short on supplies and ammunition, the 101st's commander, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe rebuffed a German demand to surrender with the famed reply "Nuts!" As the Germans were attacking at Bastogne, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was shifting forces to hold the Germans at the Meuse. With Allied resistance increasing, clearing weather allowing Allied fighter-bombers to enter the battle, and dwindling fuel supplies, the German offensive began to sputter, and the farthest advance was halted 10 miles short of the Meuse on December 24.

With Allied counter attacks increasing, and lacking fuel and ammunition, von Manteuffel asked for permission to withdraw on December 24. This was flatly denied by Hitler. Having completed their turn north, Patton's men broke through to Bastogne on December 26. Ordering Patton to press north in early January, Eisenhower directed Montgomery to attack south with the goal of meeting at Houffalize and trapping German forces. While these attacks were successful, delays on Montgomery's part allowed many of the Germans to escape, though they were forced to abandon their equipment and vehicles.

In an effort to keep the campaign going, a major offensive was launched by the Luftwaffe on January 1, while a second German ground offensive began in Alsace. Falling back the Moder River, the U.S. 7th Army was able to contain and halt this attack. By January 25, German offensive operations ceased.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Battle of the Bulge." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: Battle of the Bulge. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Battle of the Bulge." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).