10 Things You May Not Know About The Battle Of The Bulge

10 Things You May Not Know About The Battle Of The Bulge

Stephanie Schoppert - July 5, 2016

On December 16th, 1944, Allied forces were camped on the Western front in the Ardennes forest in southern Belgium and Luxembourg. They had no idea that Hitler was ready to attack with a Blitzkrieg force of 450,000 men and thousands of tanks. Hitler wanted to stop the Allied use of the Belgium port of Antwerp and he wanted to split the Allied forces. So he began what is known as The Battle of the Bulge. The massive force caught the Allies by surprise. The surprise attack and the size of the offensive gave the initial upper hand to the Germans but by the time the battle ended on January 25th, 1945, the Allies came out on top. Both sides experienced tens of thousands of casualties and it ended up having the highest number of American casualties of any operation during the war. The Allied defeat of the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge marked the end of the Axis offensive on the Western Front.

Here are ten facts about the battle of Burge that you haven’t heard.

10. The Name Comes From a “Bulge” Left in the Allied Lines

10 Things You May Not Know About The Battle Of The Bulge

This battle actually has a number of different names which tend to vary based on who you ask. The Germans codenamed the buildup Wacht am Rhine (Watch on the Rhine) and the offensive itself Unternehmen Herbstnebel (Autumn Mist). The Allied command named it the Ardennes Counteroffensive while the French forces called it La Bataille des Ardennes. If you look at a map of the battle, you will notice a line in semi-circle form, a product of the German blitzkrieg attack on the Allies’ forces. Although Hitler did not manage to split the Allied front in two, he did manage to inflict a bulge in the front lines of about 50 miles north-south and 70 miles west. For two weeks, the Germans achieved breakthroughs in half a dozen places, and it appeared that they would reach at least the Meuse River (a penetration of more than seventy miles). It was mostly American troops along the lines and some of them had very little experience in combat. The well-trained troops of the U.S. 28th and 106th Infantry Divisions collapsed and created a gap (known as the bulge) allowing the 58th Panzer Corps and the 47th Corps to pour through it. The name Battle of the Bulge was given by the media to describe the inward-looking line in the wartime maps. The catchy name would become the most recognized name for the battle.

While the bulge took a huge effort by the Germans, just a month after the start of the Battle of the Bulge, the bulge was no more and the Allied front line was back where it was before the battle had occurred.

9. It Involved More Than a Million Soldiers and 3000 Tanks

10 Things You May Not Know About The Battle Of The Bulge

At the start of the battle on December 16th, about 400,000 German forces, 1,600 artillery pieces and 1200 tanks lashed out toward 200,000 Allied troops and a few hundred tanks, most of them Americans. Reinforcements on both sides were called in with the numbers rising to 540,000 on the Allied side and 450,000 on the German side by December 24th. The Allies also brought in 1,000 more tanks and hundreds of artillery pieces. As the battle continued to its climax in early January, the numbers reached 400,000 total German soldiers against 700,000 Allied troops and more than 2,000 Allied tanks against the few hundred German tanks that remained. The Germans did not have the draw of troops and tanks that the Allies did and therefore could not call on substantial reinforcements like the Allies were able to. This was hampered by the fact that the Allies were able to bomb the German supply lines.

Of the 500,000 Germans, between 65,000 and 120,000 were wounded and killed, 700 tanks were missing, and 1,600 aircraft were damaged beyond repair. On the other hand, the Allied Forces suffered about 90,000 casualties, 300 tanks, and 300 aircraft, with the majority of these losses being incurred in the first week. However, the Allied Forces could make up their losses, and this enabled them to hold the Germans until the war ended. The Battle of Bulge is said to be the largest and costliest battle (in terms of casualties) the U.S army ever fought during World War II. Apart from the soldiers from both sides, an estimated 3,000 civilians died during the fighting, and some were executed by the German combat and security forces.

8. The American Army Was Caught by Surprise

10 Things You May Not Know About The Battle Of The Bulge

The German plan for the invasion Watch on the Rhine was carried out in complete secrecy. Masterminded by the Fuhrer himself, information was passed through motorized runners and landlines within Germany. Since no radio transmissions were used to transmit the details of the plan, the ULTRA codebreakers, a British decipher unit, could not intercept any vital information and inform the command. The Allied command disregarded the buildup of the Germans near Ardennes and ignored warnings from captured German prisoners that a major attack was coming.

There are a few reasons why the Allied troops may have disregarded the subtle signs that an attack was coming. The first was that they were bolstered by their success as the Allies had kept the Germans on the defensive since D-Day. The second and most likely reason the warnings were disregarded was the belief that the Ardennes was too unfavorable terrain for a counterattack. The Ardennes portion of the front was left only with two small divisions, one of them being the 106th Golden Lions Division, supported by the all-black 333rd Field Artillery Battalion. The troops were not only thinned out along the front lines, but they were still new to real combat and they were exhausted. Significant portions of the divisions initially guarding the Ardennes front were captured or killed.

The Germans took advantage of the inclement winter weather conditions, which prevented aerial reconnaissance. In the end, they never saw it coming. According to Hitler, surprise was crucial to all his plans and it was a strategy that he became known for during World War II. It had proved successful throughout the war and it was initially successful at the Battle of the Bulge, but the quick response of reinforcements for the Allies meant that this time the blitz ultimately failed.

7. German Forces Stole U.S Uniforms to Infiltrate their Lines

10 Things You May Not Know About The Battle Of The Bulge

A major goal of the Battle of the Bulge was to capture one of the bridges over the Meuse River. To help ensure that his troops would make it to the Meuse, Hitler devised a sinister plot to create confusion behind Allied lines. Code named Operation Grief the plan was to take the Panzier Brigade 150 and capture one of the bridges over the Meuse before the Allies destroyed it. Hitler assigned Otto Skorzeny to the mission and suggested that it might be easier if the men stole Allied uniforms and used Allied vehicles. Additionally, Hitler suggested that the men could cause confusion by giving false orders, changing signs and cutting phone lines, leading to upset communication and poor morale among troops who would not know why they were being given wrong orders. Men in the unit were the best English-speakers in the German army and they were even sent to POW camps in order to spend time learning English from U.S. POWs.

At the start of the battle, the Germans dressed in Allied uniforms were able to get behind the Allied lines. After being able to cut some communications, change road signs and spread confusion, rumors spread after discovering some of the pretenders. The U.S soldiers started to set up checkpoints and ask trivia questions to everyone about American life, sports, culture and geography in order to identify them. The operation was successful in creating hysteria and confusion among the Allied soldiers. Suddenly soldiers started seeing spies everywhere and they were willing to pounce on anyone that missed a question. U.S soldiers shot the tires of British Marshall Bernard Montgomery, and U.S General Omar Bradley was detained for a while after a soldier thought he had answered incorrectly about the capital of Illinois.

44 German soldiers crossed over to the Allied lines and all but 8 returned, they were not able to capture a bridge but they did create confusion in the Allied troops. It just was not enough to change the outcome of the battle.

6. The Fuhrer’s Generals Were Against the Decision

10 Things You May Not Know About The Battle Of The Bulge

The German offensive was masterminded and pushed through by Hitler himself months before, to the discomfort of his generals and lieutenants. Hitler believed that disagreements existed among the Allied command and that a blitzkrieg attack would be able to break the alliance. Which is why he proposed Operation Watch on the Rhine. The plan required a fast and secret build-up as well as an attack across the Meuse River to the port of Antwerp. Hitler expected his troops to break through the front lines and make it to the Meuse in just a matter of days.

Generals, such as Gerd von Rundstedt, thought the plan was too ambitious and raised their concerns about the schedule, place and amount of forces required (since Germany was also fighting an eastern front). The Generals were concerned about the plan largely for the same reason that the Allies were so certain that the Germans would not attack them. The Ardennes were covered in snow and ice, and the offensive would mean sending massive columns of men and troops through narrow, slippery and frozen roads. Even if the Germans got to the Meuse it was still another 125 miles to the Antwerp port that Hitler wished to catch. Walther Model wrote out a number of protests and alternative strategies and gave them to Hitler, Gerd von Rundstedt did the same. Because of this, Hitler trusted most of the plan to his own party army, the SS (Schutzstaffel). In the end, his plan not only failed but also cost the Germans their last reserves in veteran troops, tanks, and mechanized artillery and vehicles. Despite some desperate moments, the “Battle of the Bulge” ultimately proved to be Hitler’s last great offensive on the Western front.

5. The U.S Army was Desegregated for the First Time

10 Things You May Not Know About The Battle Of The Bulge

Due to the desperate need of soldiers during the battle, U.S General Dwight Eisenhower decided to desegregate the U.S. military. Prior to this battle the African Americans who joined the war effort, approximately 1 million of them, were typically kept in their own noncombatant divisions. These divisions were white-led and kept from fighting alongside their white comrades. Despite the fact that African American men had fought alongside white soldiers during the Civil War. When Allied American troops were caught by surprise by a German force that doubled their own, the need for reinforcements were desperate. So Eisenhower decided it was time to experiment with using African American divisions in combat and alongside their white comrades.

More than 2000 African Americans were involved in the conflict, fighting alongside the white divisions, with only a few hundred dying. Black battalions such as the 578th Field Artillery, and 969th and 333rd Field Artillery Battalions sustained heavy damage by assisting the 106th Golden Lions Division and helping mount a defense in Bastogne, respectively. The so-called 761st “Black Panthers” were the first black tank unit to participate in the war with General Patton in command. Many of them received awards and distinctions.

It was after this battle that Generals spoke that the African American men performed very well and that there was no reason why they would not perform as well as white infantrymen if they were given the same training. This battle combined with the performance of the Tuskeegee Airmen during the war and the hard work of the truck drivers and mechanics of the black divisions led to a new respect for African Americans in the military. After the war when President Truman saw that returning African American men were being attacked in South Carolina and Georgia, he passed sweeping Civil Rights reforms that included desegregation of the armed forces.

4. An Admirable American Defense was Put on Bastogne

10 Things You May Not Know About The Battle Of The Bulge

During the early German advance through the Ardennes, the town of Bastogne stood in their way to cross the Meuse River. The small Belgian town rested at a crucial road junction, all seven roads through the Ardennes converged there. On December 19th the Germans attacked and had the town under siege by December 20th. The 101st Airborne Division under the command of Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe and other divisions were surrounded by German troops by December 21st and outnumbered 5 to 1. The men were low on supplies, had no cold-weather gear, little ammunition, and no senior leadership as most of the commanders had been dispatched elsewhere. With terrible weather conditions, reinforcements were slow and there was no way for planes to drop supplies or provide tactical support.

Despite the bad situation, the G.I.s responded with defiance and sarcastic comments. When an ultimatum was given by the Germans to surrender, General McAuliffe did not know what to answer. His men, remembering a funny response he had given to his superior, urged him to respond the same way: “Nuts!”. In a typewriter, the 4-letter word was written and sent to the Germans, which had to be translated. The bravery of the men at Bastogne never faltered despite suffering heavy losses. The divisions held the city on their own until December 26th when General Patton arrived with his 3rd Army and pushed the Germans back.

3. Lack of Supplies and Shortages of Fuel Greatly Weakened the Germans

10 Things You May Not Know About The Battle Of The Bulge

The German Panzer and Tiger tanks were devastating war machines but they were gas guzzlers. By early-to-mid January of 1945, the Axis forces could not advance due to fuel shortages because it was becoming harder and harder to get the fuel supplies they needed. Despite the fuel shortages that Axis forces were experiencing Hitler made sure to set aside 5 million gallons just for the Battle of the Bulge. However, the road network in the Ardennes was narrow and rough making it difficult for suppliers to reach the armies in time. Supply lines got shorter and could not re-supply the troops. The 5 million gallons of fuel destined for the battle were insufficient once inclement weather, poor road conditions, and missteps did not allow them to reach those in need. Because of that, and the Ardennes’ terrain, the German infantry was forced to use around 50,000 horses to bring in fuel and supplies.

It did not help that even when the army stopped, trucks still had to be run every thirty minutes to keep them from freezing in the cold. The offensive was taking more fuel than estimated and fuel was taking longer to get to the front lines. Therefore, the German high command changed their battle plans to revolve around capturing American fuel depots as they advanced. But as Allied forces retreated, they preferred to burn thousands of gallons of gas than to give it to the enemy. By the end of December, many German tanks were out of gasoline. With no possible way to advance the Germans were forced to pull back as there was no way to advance across the Meuse river without fuel or supplies.

2. The Weather Helped in the Outcome of the Battle

10 Things You May Not Know About The Battle Of The Bulge

Besides tanks and bullets, both sides had also to deal with the inclement weather at Ardennes. The weather was the reason why the American troops had not begun their invasion of Germany, they wanted to wait until early January for better weather. The weather was part of the reason why the Germans were able to have the element of surprise. Air reconnaissance could not see the massive force through the fog and Hitler knew that the weather would prevent the Allied forces from getting air support. However, this was a double-edged sword since it also stopped the Luftwaffe from helping in the assault. The visibility was so bad that the Allied troops on the ground did not see the massive offensive force until it was almost upon them.

As the battle continued, snowstorms and rain reduced visibility and blocked roads. The month of January in 1945 was one of the coldest in the year, and many soldiers suffered during that time. The freezing temperatures covered the ground in ice and tanks would freeze overnight. The trucks needed to be run every 30 minutes, so the oil didn’t freeze as well. Even soldiers’ guns were freezing over and in order to thaw them out quickly, the men would urinate on them. Both Germans and U.S suffered from frostbite and trench foot, while hundreds of wounded froze to death before rescue. The weather also did not allow the Germans to continue as fast as planned, with blocked roads and heavy resistance breaking their schedule.

Field Marshall Von Rundstedt remarked that “Weather was a weapon the German Army used with Success.” But the problem with weather is that it is fickle and it affects both sides the same way. On December 23rd, the weather cleared enough for the Allies to get air support and the resulting aerial attack decimated the German front lines.

1. A Bad Phone Connection Led to One of the Largest Mass Surrenders of U.S. Troops of World War II

10 Things You May Not Know About The Battle Of The Bulge

The 106th Golden Lions Division under the command of Major General Alan W. Jones was spread out over a large section of rugged terrain known as the Schnee Eifel. As per the Army Service Manual, one division should not be responsible for more than 5 miles of front line, but prior to the battle, the 106th was covering 26 miles. As the Germans mounted their offensive, Jones worried that the rear of his 422nd and 423rd regiments were too exposed to a German attack. He knew they had to be withdrawn or risk being sitting ducks to the Germans.

He phoned Lieutenant General Troy Middleton and urged him to withdraw the troops to safety. But the connection was so bad that Middleton misheard the General and believed that he was being ordered to keep his men in position. The men stayed and were attacked on December 16th. They were encircled and cut off by German forces. The men regrouped and tried to counterattack in order to break through the German forces, but they were unable to get through.

With no escape and cut off from any support, the men were low on ammunition and being rained on by heavy artillery fire. The men knew there was no choice and on December 19th, 6.500 men were forced to surrender to the Germans. The official army record states that 7,000 men were lost during this battle but the number could be as high as 9,000. There was also a substantial loss in arms and equipment. All told, it was the worst reverse suffered by American forces during the 1944-1945 operations in Europe.