There is an axiom that weather on the battlefield is divided equally between the combatants--but its impact on military operations is not equal in amount or direction. The German selection of a target date for the commencement of the Ardennes offensive turned on the prediction of poor flying weather. This type of weather had a useful side effect during the rupture of the American lines since it veiled the attacker with fog and mist, a very important feature of the initial German successes just as it had been in the great offensives of 1918. The high pressure system which came in from the Atlantic on 18 December, however, worked momentarily against the attacker. A thaw set in which slowed his tanks and the erstwhile heavy ground fog began to show sudden openings, such as those which exposed the German tanks and infantry during the fight at Noville. On the 20th and 21st the higher ground began to freeze in patches, leaving stretches of the Ardennes roads slippery and muddy. By the 22d competing weather systems from Russia and the Atlantic had brought on a hodgepodge of snow, blizzards, fog, and rain. In the north the Sixth Panzer Army was bogged by rain and mud, in the south the Fifth Panzer Army was hampered in its swing around Bastogne by fog and snow, and along the German supply roads back over the Eifel snow fell continuously.
The dramatic change of the 23d, brought by cold, dry winds from the east, stripped the German armies of their immunity to air attack. But this was not the whole story. Snow began to drift in the Eifel hills, bringing traffic on the main supply roads west of the Rhine almost to a standstill. Horse-drawn snowplows were few and ineffective, hastily erected snow fences were torn down by troops scrounging for firewood, there was no gravel available, and a large number of the engineer construction battalions had been taken west for employment as infantry. By the time power snowplows reached the Eifel the American fighter-bombers were strafing and bombing every large vehicle that moved. Engineers were brought into the Eifel, but their very efforts delayed the German truck columns so urgently needed farther west.1
For five days the weather favored the Americans, in the air and on the ground. Superior numerically in tanks, the Americans benefited more than the Germans from the sure footing the big freeze provided for armor. Then, on 28
December, came clouds and overcast followed, a day later, by arctic air from Scandinavia, heavy snows, blizzards, and greatly reduced visibility at ground level. Vehicular movement was slow, the riflemen exhausted themselves wading through the drifts, and the wounded--those in a state of shock--died if left in the snow for more than half an hour or more. This was the state of the weather when, on 3 January, the Allies began their final counterattack.
The Opposing Troop Strengths
On the morning of 16 December the American forces in the path of the German counteroffensive comprised four and two-thirds divisions with an effective strength of about 83,000 men. The heavy weapons then available numbered 242 Sherman tanks, 182 tank destroyers, and 394 pieces of corps and divisional artillery. These troops and weapons were deployed on a meandering front of 104 miles.
The enemy assault divisions posed to the east had concentrated behind some ninety miles of the front manned by Army Group B, and during the night of 16 December over 200,000 combat troops gathered in the forward assembly area, about three miles in depth. The German attack, as it developed during the course of 16 December, was made on an assault front of sixty miles and included 5 armored divisions, 12 2/3 infantry divisions, and about 500 medium tanks, the whole supported by the fire of 1,900 guns and Werfers.
Although it is impossible to measure the exact number of rifle battalions and tank battalions committed by the Germans during the initial breakthrough attack, it is probable that the over-all ratio of German infantry to American was three to one, with a ratio of six to one at points of concentration. German armored superiority was somewhat less pronounced during the first-day assault, only about two to one in medium tanks. If the self-propelled guns employed in a tank role are considered, the superiority enjoyed by the attacker was about four to one.
By 2 January 1945, the eve of the Allied attack to destroy the Ardennes salient, the Germans had thrown 8 armored divisions, 20 infantry divisions, and 2 mechanized brigades into the Battle of the Bulge. During these eighteen days the Americans had employed 8 armored, 16 infantry, and 2 airborne divisions in the line.2 This tabulation of the opposing divisions, however, does not give a true measure of the relative combat strength deployed in what may be called the German phase of the winter battle in the Ardennes.
The American rifle division in 1944 was organized at a strength of 14,032 men, and most of the divisions engaged in this operation entered the fray at full complement. The personnel strength of the German infantry divisions varied, at the time of their commitment,
between 8,000 and 17,000, the lower figure representing those divisions which had been refitted at 80 percent of the 1944 Volks Grenadier division table of organization and equipment and the upper figure, which can be applied to only three or four divisions, representing those, like the 26th Volks Grenadier Division, which retained the older, regular infantry division composition. The strength of the German infantry divisions across the board probably averaged little more than 10,000 men. The normal German rifle regiment numbered 1,868 as contrasted with the American infantry regiment of 3,207 officers and men.
The majority of the German panzer divisions had the same manpower configuration as the two U.S. square armored divisions (the 2d and 3d), that is, a little more than 14,000. The six remaining U.S. armored divisions had the new triangular organization with a roster reduced to 10,666 officers and men. The armored weight of the opposing divisions, however, strongly favored the Americans, for the German panzer division brought an average of 90 to 100 medium tanks into the field whereas the American triangular division was equipped with 186 and the two square divisions had 232 medium tanks in their organization tables. Hitler personally attempted to compensate for this disparity by ordering the attachment of separate Army tank battalions of 40 to 50 Panther or Tigers to the regular panzer divisions.
The battle area during the period of 16 December through 3 January has to be measured as a salient in which the relation between the width of the base and the depth of the penetration represents a measure of the adequacy of the forces employed and their operational mobility. The German failure to break through on the north shoulder at Monschau had considerable impact on the width of the planned assault front, and by 18 December the base of the salient had stabilized at a width of forty-seven air-line miles, narrower than desired. The greatest depth of the German penetration, achieved on the tenth day of the attack, was about sixty air-line miles. On that date, however, the average width of the salient had been reduced to thirty miles and at its tip measured no more than a five-mile front facing the Meuse. Indeed, the width of the assault front proper can be considered as the range of the 75-mm. guns of the 2d Panzer tanks. By this time the Americans had something approaching a coordinated and homogenous line as a retaining wall north and south of the salient, with a frontage of nearly seven miles per division on the north flank and a little more than thirteen miles on the southern flank.
The Opposing Weapons
Although winter in the Ardennes placed severe limitations on the use of armor, the tank was a major weapon in the hands of both antagonists. The Sherman tank, a medium of the thirty-ton class, bore the brunt of all American armored action, while the light tank was relegated to minor tactical tasks. The Sherman (M4) was battle tested, and most of the mechanical bugs had been removed. Its major weakness--tank gun and armor--by this time were well appreciated by the user. A new model, the M4A3, had been equipped with a
high-velocity, long-barreled 76-mm. gun to replace the old, short-barreled 75-mm., but not many of these were in the European Theater of Operations. Also, a very few Shermans had been modified to carry a heavier weight of armor plate--the so-called Jumbo tanks. The Jumbos, which had been tried out during the autumn fighting, proved so successful that General Patton ordered their use as lead tanks in the drive to Bastogne--but most American tankers never saw the Jumbo in December 1944.
The Germans had a family of three main battle tanks. The Mark IV, which received its first real combat test in May 1940, weighed twenty-seven tons, had somewhat less armor than the Sherman, about the same maximum road speed, and a tank gun comparable in weight of projectile and muzzle velocity to the 76-mm. American tank gun but superior to the short-barreled 75-mm.
The Panther, Mark V, had proved itself during 1944 but still was subject to mechanical failures which were well recognized but which seemingly could not be corrected in the hasty German production schedules. This tank had a weight of fifty tons, a superiority in base armor of one-half to one inch over the Sherman, good mobility and flotation, greater speed, and a high-velocity gun superior even to the new American 76-mm. tank gun.
The Tiger, Mark VI, had been developed as an answer to the heavy Russian tank but had encountered numerous production difficulties (it had over 26,000 parts) and never reached the field in the numbers Hitler desired. The original model weighed fifty-four tons, had thicker armor than the Panther, including heavy top armor as protection against air attack, was capable of a speed comparable to the Sherman, and mounted a high-velocity 88-mm. cannon. A still heavier Mark VI, the King Tiger, had an added two to four inches of armor plate. Few of this model ever reached the Ardennes, although it was commonly reported by American troops.
Exact figures on German tank strength are not available, but it would appear that of the estimated 1,800 panzers in the Ardennes battle some 250 were Tigers and the balance was divided equally between the Mark IV and the Panther. Battle experience in France, which was confirmed in the Ardennes, gave the Sherman the edge over the Mark IV in frontal, flank, and rear attack. The Panther often had been beaten by the Sherman during the campaign in France, and would be defeated on the Ardennes battleground, but in nearly all cases of a forthright tank engagement the Panther lost only when American numerical superiority permitted an M4 to get a shot at flank or tail. Insofar as the Tiger was concerned, the Sherman had to get off a lucky round or the result would be strictly no contest.
American and German divisional artillery was very similar, having followed the same developmental pattern during the 1930's. Differences in corps artillery were slight, although the Germans placed more emphasis on long-range guns in the heavy calibers, 170-mm. and above. The German Army, as the result of its battles on the Eastern Front and experiences with the Soviet rocket artillery, placed great faith in the Werfer, a multiple-tube rocket launcher. This weapon was easy to produce and
could be easily transported, a major design feature when the production of heavy trucks and artillery prime movers began to fall off in the Reich. The 150-mm. version weighed only 1,200 pounds and could fire a quarter-ton of high explosives in ten seconds; the 210-mm. model weighed about a ton and a half and could discharge over half a ton of high explosives per salvo. These weapons lacked the accuracy and fire control features of conventional artillery, and because of the blast could be readily spotted, but their mobility seems to have been a major feature in carrying German firepower forward during the Ardennes offensive.
American and German doctrine and organization for the employment of infantry-support weapons had followed different paths during the development cycle between the two World Wars when the problem of the "infantry-accompanying gun" had plagued all armies. The German Army ultimately opted for a self-propelled 75-mm. assault gun designed to help the infantry platoon forward in the assault and, at the same time, to provide a real antitank capability. The concept and the weapon had proved themselves on the Eastern Front, but the battle wastage of this weapon, like that of the assault infantry it supported, was extraordinarily high. In December 1944, the German infantry used a battle drill and tactics "leaning" on an accompanying weapon which no longer could be issued in proper numbers to even the most favored divisions. German battle commanders invariably point to the lack of this weapon in explaining particular failures of their infantry in battle.
The American approach to this problem reflected the opposition of the U.S. Army to dual-purpose weapons, and as a result the U.S. rifle regiment carried both a cannon company and an antitank company. On the whole neither of these units performed as desired during the Ardennes battle. The howitzers of the cannon company seemed to fire effectively only when tied with the divisional artillery, the 57-mm. antitank gun lacked the punch to meet German tanks, and, what was worse, most division commanders looked upon these weapons companies as providing additional riflemen to put into the foxhole line. So it was on the thinly held American front of 16 December.
The American self-propelled 90-mm. tank destroyer and the 88-mm. German equivalent were much feared, or at the least highly respected, for they had the power to penetrate the armor they faced, they could jockey for position along the winding Ardennes roads and defiles, and they were hard to destroy. Both antagonists used 75-mm. towed antitank weapons and both lost these towed weapons and other towed artillery in large numbers. In the mud and snow, and under direct fire and infantry assault, the task of limbering gun to truck or tractor was difficult and hazardous. Furthermore, in heavy and close combat the tow vehicle often was shot up or immobilized while the gun, dug in, remained intact. The mobile, tactically agile, self-propelled, armored field artillery and tank destroyers are clearly traceable in the Ardennes fighting as over and over again influencing the course of battle. Their record should be pondered in the design of tactics
The difficult terrain on which the winter campaign was fought, the prevalence of pitched battles at night and in fog, the tactical failure of the American 57-mm. antitank gun, and the paucity of German assault guns and self-propelled tank destroyers brought the bazooka into a place of prominence on both sides of the line. Admittedly the bazooka was a suicide weapon, but there were always brave men--mostly platoon and squad leaders--to risk its use against an enemy tank. In the autumn of 1944 the German Army recognized that it was too late for building tank destroyers in the numbers required and that in any case fuel was lacking for their transport into battle. Therefore the decision was made to build hand rocket weapons and rely on the courage of the "single fighter"--a decision like that made in 1917-1918 when the Kaiser's army turned to armor-piercing rifles in the hands of the single fighter to stop Allied tanks. In December 1944 both sides learned that infantry companies armed with bazookas could not do the work of tank destroyers.
The success of field artillery as an antidote to the tank is difficult to assess quantitatively. American and German doctrine taught that long-range artillery could be used to break up tank concentrations before these reached the infantry zone. In the Ardennes, however, American artillery groupments not only performed this interdiction role but on numerous occasions stopped the tank assault right at the rifle line. Surprisingly enough, in several of those battles where causative agents in tank kills could be determined by postmortem possession of the battle area, the high explosives fired by American field artillery accounted for a large share of the kills made, although the actual damage inflicted may have been no more than a broken track or sprocket wheel.
Mortars, machine guns, and rifles functioned in a comparable manner on both sides of the line. Here the design of the infantry weapon proved less important in the bloody competition of the fire fight than the supply of ammunition, the numbers employed, and the small unit tactics. The single exception is the machine pistol, which had been issued in large numbers to the new Volks Grenadier divisions and was very successfully employed by the German special assault companies formed in each infantry regiment.
Weapons and fire control turned mainly on wire communications, laid forward to observation posts and back to command posts. The vulnerability of telephone wire was adequately demonstrated on the morning of 16 December and throughout the campaign--yet it continued to be the primary means of tactical communication. Radio, of the type used in late 1944, lacked the necessary range and constantly failed in the woods and defiles. Both sides engaged in jamming, but for the most part the really damaging interference came from friendly transmitters.
Three additional items of equipment deserve attention in the history of the December battle: the V-weapon, the searchlight, and the proximity fuze. The V-weapon turned out to have no tactical significance, although the German high command stepped up the attack on the Allied depots at Antwerp and Liège during the Ardennes offensive, averaging at least 121 firings a week against Liège
and 235 against Antwerp. These mostly were the pilotless aircraft or V-1 type, bearing 2,240 pounds of explosive. The military casualties inflicted by this V-weapons attack were slight, except for one strike on 16 December which destroyed an Antwerp cinema, killing 296 British soldiers and wounding 194.
Searchlights had been used by the Allies to illuminate the battlefield during the North African and Italian campaigns. However, the six battalions of tank-mounted searchlights (Canal Defense Lights) which the Americans brought into Normandy had been reconverted in November for normal armored use on the grounds that no "operational requirement" for the Canal Defense Light existed. The Germans had produced a large number of searchlights for use with flak batteries in the defense of major target centers in the Reich. In early December OB WEST ran two tests of searchlights in a ground role, with and without troops. These tests showed that an accidented battlefield could be extensively illuminated in front of attacking infantry. As a result some two hundred searchlights were gathered immediately behind the assault front and, on the morning of 16 December, flicked on to guide the first waves of infantry and to point targets, by cloud reflection, during the artillery preparation. Although very successful in assisting the assault companies over the first one or two thousand yards, the 60-cm. lights (with a ground range of little more than three thousand yards) could not keep up with the attack, and a number of German detachments, supposed to guide on the searchlight beams, wandered away from their objectives. Some of these smaller lights were brought forward and appeared in attacks as late as 18 December, but the ponderous 150- and 200-cm. lights seem to have been left behind at the original line of departure.3
The proximity fuze, a tightly guarded American secret design for detonating projectiles by external influence in the close vicinity of a target, without explosion by contact, got its first battle test in a ground role during the Ardennes. This fuze, also known as the VT or POZIT fuze, had been prepared for some 210,000 rounds of artillery ammunition on the Continent in December. Most of this stock was antiaircraft artillery ammunition, and the 12th Army Group had proposed to try it out in the so-called Liège River Belt, the cordon of antiaircraft gun battalions which was organized to shoot down the V-weapons in flight to Liège. On 16 December a few field artillery battalions in the First Army had small stocks of the new ammunition, a few had witnessed demonstrations, and a very few had fired it. Two battalions in the VIII Corps artillery had been issued some rounds of VT ammunition, but so far as can be determined none were fired on the first day of the German attack. Actually this highly secret ammunition was employed on only a few occasions prior to the Allied counterattack in early January, and then usually at night or in poor weather when the American gunners could not get sensing for normal time fire missions. The postwar claims as to the value of the much touted
VT fuze in halting the German advance are grossly exaggerated.4
American records on the causes of combat wounds and deaths are woefully inadequate and German records for this period do not exist. In the Third Army it is reckoned--in a very broad manner--that during the period 1 August-31 November 1944 the causative agent for between 27 and 30 percent of the total wounded admitted to Army hospitals was the gunshot wound, while high explosive agents (artillery shell, mortar shell, bombs, mines, and the like) accounted for between 50 and 60 percent of the monthly rosters of wounded. During December these two causative agents respectively accounted for 25 percent and 60 percent of the wounded. There is no accurate accounting for the causative agent in the case of men killed in action.
The Artillery Arm in the Ardennes
The dramatic and successful offensive operations of the German Army in the early years of World War II had featured the extensive employment of assault aircraft to punch the holes through which the panzers poured. At the close of 1944 the Third Reich lacked the planes which once had provided the airborne "artillery" of blitzkrieg. So Hitler, the infantryman of World War I, turned to the time-tested tactic he knew, massive artillery preparation for the ground assault. In many ways the German use of the artillery arm on 16 December was a carbon copy of the artillery preparations for the great offensives in 1918. But there were some major differences. Intense counterbattery fire, a necessary feature of the artillery preparations in 1918, no longer was possible; Germany lacked the huge ammunition stocks required. Captive balloons and observation planes had directed the movement of artillery fire in 1918. These auxiliaries were missing in the Ardennes, and ground observation there normally favored the Americans. Ludendorff had been able to mass ninety heavy caliber guns per kilometer for the March offensive. Model would have fewer than twenty tubes for each kilometer of the assault front.
Hitler, looking back to 1918, had demanded a massive artillery preparation lasting for two or three hours, and this in full daylight. Probably at Manteuffel's instigation, he finally agreed that a short, sharp, predawn artillery preparation--of the sort conventionally practiced on the Eastern Front--would be used in the Ardennes. There seems to have been no gigantic, homogeneous artillery fire plan on 16 December, as had been the practice in 1918. In the Sixth Panzer Army a 30-minute preparation was fired on villages and deep assembly positions to the rear of the American line, and followed by unobserved area fire along the main line of resistance. The guns and Werfers in the Fifth Panzer Army fired forty rounds per tube in the first twenty minutes against predesignated targets, then commenced a rolling barrage, the old World
War I Feuerwalze, with sixty rounds at each piece.
There were deviations from this pattern in accordance with the ground and estimated American strength. The 26th Volks Grenadier Division, for example, advanced behind a preparation fired by three hundred tubes which, for seventeen minutes, worked over targets illuminated by searchlights. The Seventh Army, which had a relatively small number of artillery and Werfer battalions, was forced to concentrate its fire on a few selected target areas. The most intensive preparation fired here was in support of the two assault regiments of the 5th Parachute Division: to smooth its advance seventy-two guns fired ninety rounds each as fast as the cannoneers could work their pieces. All three of the armies relied upon the speed and shock of the initial assault to overrun any deep American artillery groupments which might be in position to menace the infantry and armored advance.
There is no doubt that the German artillery helped the assault waves forward during the rupture of the American forward defensive positions. It is equally clear that the German artillery failed to keep pace with the subsequent advance, nor did it come forward rapidly enough to assist substantially in the reduction of those American points of resistance which had been left in the rear of attacking echelons. The relative immobility of corps and army artillery may be ascribed to bad roads, the lack of heavy, fully tracked artillery prime movers, and traffic congestion. The road jam at the Our bridges delayed the forward displacement of the LVIII Panzer Corps artillery until 19 December, and then only a few batteries crossed the river. The switch southward of the Sixth Panzer Army's main effort on 17 December blocked the roads on which Manteuffel was moving the Fifth Panzer artillery. The artillery corps attached to the II SS Panzer Corps took five days to reach firing positions east of Butgenbach, just to the rear of the original American line.
All these delays had a mirror-image in the transport of ammunition. This resulted in an early decision by the artillery officers of the three armies to leave about half of the guns and Werfers behind. Werfer battalions and brigades were not moved up to share in the battle until the end of December, and only a few reached the front lines. In the main the German assault infantry were forced to rely on the fire support given by tanks and assault guns, rather than massed artillery fire. There were exceptions, however, and by dint of great effort the Germans occasionally were able to create artillery groupments which, following the practice learned on the Eastern Front, became artillery "centers of gravity." This was done by the Seventh Army commander in an attempt to get his flank moving on 19 and 20 December, and a similar groupment was prepared by Model and Manteuffel to pave the way for the Bastogne counterattacks at the close of December.
Throughout the exploitation and stabilization phase of the German offensive the Americans enjoyed an immense superiority in the artillery arm. This was not true, however, during the first hours of the German attack to rupture the American defenses. On 16 December the VIII Corps artillery was caught off balance, since eight of its nine battalions
were positioned to support the untried 106th Division. The 99th Division, on the north flank, had only one battalion of corps artillery in support. And the records show only 2,500 rounds shot by American corps artillery in planned defensive and counterpreparation fires on the first day of the battle.
There are a number of reasons for the American failure to apply the full weight of the artillery arm on 16 December. The initial enemy shellfire did severe damage to the U.S. artillery communications net. Even after repairs were made, intelligence as to the German locations and intentions moved very slowly from command post to command post (the 559th Field Artillery Battalion, for example, received no warning of the German force to its front until 1215). The firing battalions supporting the 106th Division were hampered by "no-fire" lines earlier established by the division, and there seems to have been little or no attempt to lift these restrictions as the enemy assault waves swept forward to grapple the American infantry. Corps artillery proved quite as vulnerable to a fast-moving ground attack as the divisional gunners, and as early as 1035 the VIII Corps artillery was displacing rearward on orders. The towed battalions, particularly the 155-mm. and 8-in. artillery, took long to limber and even longer to find a place on the crowded roads leading west; it is not surprising that they fell prey quite as often to German infantry as to panzers. A large portion of the VIII Corps artillery was forced to displace so often that two to four days would elapse before the battalions finally settled long enough to engage the enemy. Other battalions simply were whittled away by enemy action every time they went into firing position (the 687th Field Artillery Battalion was overrun in front of Wiltz, in Wiltz, and west of Wiltz). Observation was very poor until midafternoon on the 16th, no artillery planes got up, and unobserved fire on the German West Wall positions pounded assembly areas long since left behind by the enemy moving west.
The artillery fire fight on the first day of the attack and for most of the second was carried by the divisional howitzer battalions, which began to engage observed targets two and a half to three hours after the start of the German preparation. Many of these battalions were firing with only one eye, since wire to a number of observation posts went out by 0630, others were systematically engulfed during the morning by the German assault companies, all microphones for sound-ranging were out of operation by the evening of the 16th, and several of those batteries which were firing lost their ammunition trucks in the melee along the roads to the rear. Many of the forward batteries were put out of action as soon as the infantry line to their front broke; others fired until the evening of the 17th and still were able to withdraw successfully.
Did the American gunners blunt or delay the first German thrust? At Monschau the artillery stopped the attack cold, effectively narrowing the German assault front. In the 99th Division sector the division artillery held its ground until the close of the 17th when the V Corps artillery groupment at Elsenborn took over the fight with such a weight of metal that one infantry battalion was covered by a defensive barrage of 11,500 rounds during the night of 17 December. The Fifth Panzer Army, on the contrary,
was little impeded by the scant collection of American artillery to its front. On the German left wing the Seventh Army advance was damaged considerably by the American howitzers, for the batteries here retained their link to the observation posts on the heights overlooking the Sure River and succeeded in delaying the German bridging efforts for many hours.
As the American defense solidified along the shoulders of the salient or at strong points, such as St. Vith and Bastogne, the artillery arm really commenced to make its weight felt. Experienced German artillery officers estimate that their American opponents finally had a superiority in guns and ammunition of ten to one. This estimate is far too high: the Americans fired about 1,255,000 artillery rounds during the fighting covered in this account and by 23 December had brought a total of 4,155 artillery pieces into action. Just as in 1918, however, the attacker had driven the defense back upon its artillery base of fire, meanwhile progressively losing his own firepower. The Germans tend to characterize the American artillery fire as methodical, schematic, and wasteful. There is considerable indication that the German commanders quickly recognized and made gainful tactical use of the gaps at division and corps boundaries where the defenders conventionally failed to provide overlapping fire between zones. Also, it is probable, as the enemy alleges, that the American gunners fired a very considerable weight of ammunition for each German killed. On the other hand the record is replete with instances in which the attacker was diverted from his axis of advance and his scheme of maneuver was destroyed by American artillery fire, even when he suffered little physical damage. This phenomenon became even more apparent after the American spotter planes took to the air.
The German offensive phase of the Ardennes operation, with its high degree of fluidity and dispersion, may offer profitable suggestions for the future fluid battlefield. The experience of the First Army, which generously sent its medium artillery reserves south to stiffen the defense, showed the hazard in moving isolated and road-bound units with heavy equipment across the grain of the enemy advance, even when the attack was believed to be miles away. Medium and heavy corps artillery units were quite as vulnerable to enemy ground attack as the forward divisional artillery, particularly when the attacker was moving cross-country and the artillery equipment was difficult to displace and bound to the road. Displacing single batteries by leapfrog tactics in order to maintain unbroken defensive fires failed repeatedly during the first days of the Ardennes, largely because of the splitting effect of the German ground assault that isolated firing batteries and crippled control or resupply by the headquarters battery. Those forward American batteries which worked their guns, brought them off, and lived to fire another day, normally owed their tactical survival to other arms and weapons. The artillery battalion of 1944 was not organically constructed or equipped to beat off close-in infantry or armored assault, but the fortuitous attachment of antiaircraft weapons sections, although these no longer did much service in their primary role, gave the gunners an antipersonnel weapon which
proved to be murderously effective. The attachment of tank destroyers to the artillery battalions also paid substantial dividends in the early days of the campaign. The most effective defense of beleaguered field artillery units, however, was that provided by prompt counterattack delivered by neighboring infantry or tanks, a tactic which turned on accurate local intelligence, unbroken communications, and the enemy inability to deflect the counterattack force with heavy supporting weapons or mines.
The Air Weapon
Postwar estimates of the Luftwaffe operational strength assigned to support the ground attack on 16 December set the number of first-line planes at about fifteen hundred.5 But German planes never, in the course of the campaign, appeared over the battle area in any such number. OB WEST records 849 sorties dispatched to assist the ground attack on 18 December, the largest Luftwaffe attempt to intervene directly in the Ardennes battle. The tabulation of German sorties is somewhat misleading, however, because a relatively small proportion of these sorties ever reached the battlefield in a ground support role and most were engaged by the Allied air forces far to the east of the ground combat zone. On 24 December, for example, a day characterized by the IX Tactical Air Command as the heaviest Luftwaffe effort since D-day, the Third Army--whose counterattack obviously invited retaliation from the air--reported the sighting of only one enemy squadron. During the first ten days of the campaign the Luftwaffe sorties sent into the air varied between six and eight hundred per day. In the last six days of December the Luftwaffe was driven back to the air space over the Third Reich and the number of planes actually reaching the battlefield numbered between sixty and eighty a day, most of which struck under cover of darkness, as in the case of the 73-plane raid over Bastogne on 30 December.
At no point in the story of the ground battle can any crippling impact of German air attack be discerned. Nor was the Luftwaffe notably successful in defending the supply lines west of the Rhine. The German fighters did exact a heavy toll from the Allied planes hammering at rail yards, bridges, and supply installations. Thus the 391st Bombardment Group, flying Marauders without escort to attack the Ahrweiler railroad bridge, was jumped by about seventy-five German fighters, and lost one-half of its thirty-six planes, though it did knock out the bridge.
In the first week of the German advance the well-established Allied superiority in the air hardly made itself felt in the battle area, although two fighter-bomber groups from IX Tactical Air Command did intervene in the fighting around Stavelot and Malmédy on 18 December. But the adverse weather which denied the tactical air forces access to the fight on the ground did not halt the bombers and on 18 December bombers from the RAF, began an interdiction attack seventy-five miles or more to the east of the battle line. It is difficult to measure the damage done the German rail system west of the Rhine
by Allied bombing during this early phase because the exorbitant amount of military traffic moving to support the attack resulted in severe congestion which, on a number of feeder lines, forced troops and equipment to detrain far to the east of their planned destination.
When the weather altered on the 23d, battlefield operations started to take precedence over the Allied interdiction effort. The IX, XIX, and XXIX Tactical Air Commands flew 294 sorties against targets in the forward edge of the battlefield, but this effort still represented only a minor fraction of the Allied air operations designed to stall the German advance. The Eighth Air Force and 9th Bombardment Division dropped 1,300 tons of bombs on the enemy supply lines west of the Rhine, while the Royal Air Force Bomber Command hit the Seventh Army railhead at Trier with 150 planes.
On 24 December the Allied air forces threw into action the greatest number of planes employed during the Ardennes. The Americans flew 1,138 tactical sorties (of which 734 were ground support missions in the battle zone) and 2,442 bomber sorties. Most of the latter were aimed at German airfields, but 1,521 tons of bombs were laid on rail centers and bridges. The 2d Tactical Air Force (British) flew 1,243 sorties during the day. There followed three days of good flying weather which gave the American and British fighter-bombers opportunity for a sustained attack against German supply movement, road centers, and armored vehicles. Commencing on 28 December very poor flying weather intervened to give the German divisions some respite from air attack. The Allies put up less than a hundred battlefield sorties on this and succeeding days, but even such a limited effort had an important effect on the ground battle, as witness the intervention of the 406th Bombardment Group in the Bastogne fight on the 30th.
The direct damage inflicted on the German ground formations by the Allied fighter-bombers is difficult to gauge and, of course, varied greatly. A regimental attack set by the 26th Volks Grenadier Division on 23 December had to be postponed until the Jabos quit for the day; on that same date the entire 116th Panzer Division marched in broad daylight from Hotton to Marche without difficulty. Yet there was a very appreciable increase in night attacks by the German ground forces as the Jabos' killing power mounted, beginning on Christmas Day and culminating in Model's order on the 26th forbidding major march movements in daylight.
The Allied tactical air operations in the main were directed against armored fighting vehicles, motor transport, and large troop concentrations. The thin-skinned supply vehicles which lacked tracks to carry them off the narrow, winding roads presented an easy target. German tanks were another matter. The IX, XIX, and XXIX Tactical Air Commands and 2d Tactical Air Force (British) claimed the destruction of 413 enemy armored vehicles. But a sample ground count of stricken German armor sets the number of kills inflicted by air attack at about a tenth the number claimed by the fighter-bomber pilots.6
Air attack against the choke points that developed along the main and subsidiary German supply roads seriously impeded both tactical and logistic movement, but much of the over-all delay should be charged to poor German traffic control and road maintenance. Here again the record of achievement by the air is uneven. Movement on the Koblenz-Trier autobahn, a major supply artery for the two southern armies, never was seriously restricted by Allied air attack. As might be expected, the overall effectiveness of air attacks along the roads turned on the configuration of the ground. The 9th Bombardment Division put 136 tons of high explosive on St. Vith, which stood in the open with a wealth of bypass routes around it on relatively level ground, and stopped the German traffic not at all. Even when the RAF dropped 1,140 tons in a carpet bombing attack at St. Vith, the road center was out of commission for only a day. Yet a mere 150 tons put on La Roche over a period of two days stopped all major movement in this sector of the Ardennes road net. La Roche, be it noted, lay at the bottom of a gorge with access only through deep defiles.
The damaging effect of the Allied air attacks against rail lines, bridges, and marshaling yards at and west of the Rhine is quite clear in the history of the Ardennes campaign, but the time sequence between specific rail failures and the resulting impact on German front-line operations is difficult to trace. From 2 December to 2 January the Eighth Air Force, 9th Bombardment Division, and Royal Air Force Bomber Command made daily attacks against selected railway bridges and marshaling yards using an average of 1,800 tons of bombs per day. Yet the day before this bombing campaign began, feeder rail lines in the Eifel had been so crippled by air attack that through movement from the Rhine to the army railheads was no longer possible and supplies were being moved by truck and wagon between the "traffic islands" where rail movement remained in effect. German reports indicate that this transshipment from one mode of transport to another--and back again--cost at least forty-eight hours' delay. By the 26th railway bridges were out on the vital Ahr and Moselle lines, supporting the two southern armies, and the Seventh Army railhead had been pushed back to Wengerohr, near Wittlich. On the 28th the rail center at Koblenz, supporting the German left wing, was put out of operation. And by the close of the year German repair organizations could do no more than attempt to keep some of the railroad island traffic moving.
In retrospect the German effort to keep the railroads operating in support of Army Group B was phenomenal. Five of the eight railroad bridges across the Rhine were put out of service temporarily, generally by bomb damage to the bridge approaches, but all came back into service. Allied air inflicted eighty-five breaks on the Army Group B rail lines west of the Rhine and fifty-four of these were repaired. But in the last week before the Allied ground counteroffensive any hope of maintaining a satisfactory ratio between damage and repair had vanished. Of nine railroad bridges over the Ahr, Moselle, and Nette Rivers, which were designated as high priority targets for air attack, eight were put out of operation on one or more occasions, while for the
six restored the average repair time was five days per bridge. The cumulative effect of this kind of damage simply saturated the German capabilities for rail repair.7
Despite Allied domination of the air over the Ardennes, the Eifel, and the Rhine plain, the battlefield itself and the German armies therein never were isolated. Could the isolation of the battlefield have been accomplished? The terrain, with its sequence of river barriers and multitude of winding, steep gradients, was favorable to air interdiction. But the tactical ingredients and formula to achieve complete success were missing in late 1944. Sturdy rail bridges, particularly when defended by ground to air fire, proved hard to damage and even harder to destroy. Even the smaller bridges, such as those attacked in the Ahr River campaign, took some 250 tons of high explosive to cripple. Rail cutting attacks caused traffic islands but never succeeded in rooting out these islands or the movement between them. Movement by thin-skinned vehicles on trails, roads, and highways seemed particularly vulnerable but the physical blockage of the roads, as distinct from vehicular destruction, could be achieved only at particularly favorable points and for relatively short intervals of time. Finally, the Allied inability to operate aircraft in a ground assault role during the night and the long stretches of bad flying weather provided a built-in guarantee that the minimum supply and reinforcement requirements of the German armies would be met.
Although the Allied air forces failed to isolate the Ardennes battlefield, they did succeed in these days in dealing the Luftwaffe a mortal blow, thus making the task of their comrades on the ground much easier in 1945, on both the Western and the Eastern Fronts. Generalleutnant Adolf Galland, commander of the Luftwaffe fighter arm, has written the Luftwaffe epitaph in this manner: "The Luftwaffe received its death blow at the Ardennes offensive. In unfamiliar conditions and with insufficient training and combat experience, our numerical strength had no effect. It was decimated while in transfer, on the ground, in large air battles, especially during Christmas, and was finally destroyed."8
During the years following the invasion of Poland the German munitions of war had wasted away, so much so that in December 1944 the German armies in the Ardennes were fighting a poor man's battle. The total stock of 105-mm. gun-howitzer ammunition at the beginning of November 1944 was only half the size of the stock available on 1 September 1939 and the number of 105-mm. rounds was less than a third the number stocked in Germany at the beginning of the Polish campaign. It was still possible even so to gather a substantial ammunition reserve for the Ardennes offensive, and after the war
the supply officers at OKW were able to say that before the U.S. counterattack on 3 January 1945 there was no shortage of artillery ammunition in the field. This statement merely reflects the rarefied and isolated view of the high headquarters, for despite the 100 ammunition trains of the special Fuehrer Reserve the troops in the Ardennes operation did suffer from a shortage of ammunition.9 This shortage was reported as early as 21 December by the divisions attacking at Bastogne. Thereafter, as the American front solidified, the Germans consumed ammunition at a rate of 1,200 tons per day, a rate much higher than predicted by the OKW planning staffs but less than the tactical requirements of the battle. The lack of ammunition should be charged to transport failure rather than to paucity of artillery shells at the Rhine dumps. The Panzer Lehr Division, for example, first reported that it had run out of gas, then on 28 December reported a shortage of ammunition because of the "lack of transport."
The American troops, by contrast, never suffered any notable failure of ammunition at the guns. In fact, the only munitions which appear to have been in short supply during the German offensive were antitank mines and bazooka rounds. The demand for these items and rifle and machine gun ammunition was constant, but the supply line was kept full by calling forward bazooka rockets and small arms ammunition from ships in the English Channel and North Sea. Also, the 12th Army Group had built up a very sizable reserve of artillery ammunition during the first half of December in preparation for the Roer River attacks. Most of the American ammunition stocks were put on wheels (trucks or railroad cars) after 19 December. The Third Army, for example, was able to move an average of 4,500 tons of ammunition per day during the last half of December and consumed, on the average, only 3,500 tons per day.
German tank losses during the operation are unknown but appear to have been very high, probably as much from mechanical failure as from battle damage. For the 1,700 to 1,800 tanks and assault guns in Army Group B, there were only six tank repair companies. Even worse was the shortage of tank retrievers, and, after 23 December, the few available were extremely hard hit by air attack. The spare parts situation was so bad that new German tanks were cannibalized at a depot west of Koblenz. Three hundred and forty new tanks were assigned to the Western Front during the campaign, but only 125 can be traced as actually reaching the armored divisions.
The First and Third U.S. Armies had a full complement of medium tanks when the Germans struck, that is, 1,882 between them. During the last half of December the two armies lost a total of 471 medium tanks. These losses were partially made up when 21 Army Group released 351 Shermans which had been allocated for British use. A few American ordnance companies were overrun in the first hours of the battle, but most of the tank maintenance personnel
and equipment were moved out of enemy reach and continued to function effectively. The losses in divisional artillery pieces were replaced in part by a British loan of 100 25-pounders plus 300,000 rounds of ammunition for them. The 2,500 machine guns lost during the German attack were promptly replaced from American ordnance depots.
The problem of transport for supply and evacuation was one which the Germans failed to solve in December 1944. Perhaps the German staffs and commanders had been so long on the defensive that they had forgotten the special transport requirements engendered by offensive operations. In this respect Hitler and Jodl, in their borrowing from 1918, failed to remember Ludendorff who, when preparing to construct the mobile attack divisions for the German offensives, stated that the shortage of horses was the single most important problem in mounting the German attacks. Truck wastage through mechanical failure and combat attrition had been extremely heavy all through 1944, and it is estimated that the new trucks coming off the production lines numbered less than half those destroyed in the field during the same period. Not only were there too few trucks but many divisions were equipped with poor, worn-out booty vehicles that simply fell by the wayside along the bad roads of the Ardennes and had to be abandoned because there were no repair parts. At one time the German armies had been able to rely on the railroad system as the backbone of army transport. From the beginning of good flying weather on 23 December this was no longer possible and by 27 December it may be concluded that the offensive in the main was fed and armed by a road transport system quite unequal to the load forced upon it.
When it is remembered that some of the German divisions in the Ardennes had more horses than the German infantry division of 1918, one has a clearer picture of the supply problem. Resupply was accomplished over very long distances, often clear back to the Rhine, over bad roads which could not be kept in repair, and with much transport geared to horsepower which sickened and died. The heavy snowfalls on the supply roads over the Eifel, particularly after 24 December, coupled with the damage done by Allied air attack at road centers and against moving supply columns are reflected in German estimates that rated road capacities were reduced in fact by at least a third. From Christmas on, some of the supply trains from forward combat units were going back as far as Bonn for ammunition and supplies. On the last day of the year the Panzer Lehr commander ruefully noted that a supply train he had sent to Merlscheid near St. Vith, on 25 December had not yet returned.
In some respects the American transport system opposed an enemy system which had many of the outdated characteristics of 1918. Not only did the American divisions have a very large number of vehicles and trailers organic to the unit, but the number of line of communications trucks and trains available in the forward area was enormous. Perhaps even more important, the movement of American ground transport was unaffected by harassment and attack from the air. The First Army moved
more than 48,000 vehicles to the battle zone during the period 17-26 December, and the XII Corps used only two roads to move 11,000 vehicles in four days over a distance of 100 miles. In contrast to the bitter German experience, the American tactical and supply moves seldom were beset by road stoppages and traffic jams, except, of course, in the initial hours of the German penetration. Although it is manifestly true that the Germans made good intelligence usage of the American radio traffic control net, this was balanced by the speed and certainty with which American transport moved.
One may also contrast the tactical availability of the great American supply complex which had been built up east of the Meuse with that prepared by the Germans east of the Rhine River. The German offensive forced the Americans away from the forward truck-heads, with their limited capacity, back on the almost unlimited resources available at railheads. Certainly there was some danger involved in the maintenance of the great supply depots so close to the uncertain battle line. Brig. Gen. Robert M. Littlejohn was ordered on three occasions to evacuate the big depots at Liège, but instead simply brought in more supplies. American supply officers seem to have learned something about logistic flexibility as a result of the pursuit operations across France in the summer of 1944. Finally, the much criticized weight of the American logistic "tail" paid off during the Ardennes, for there always was enough extra transport to meet unusual demands for supply and troop movement.
Despite the decline in the production of liquid fuel during 1944, Hitler was able to amass a POL reserve for the Ardennes offensive which equaled that available to the German armies on the eve of the Allied invasion, and the final figure of the POL allocated to Army Group B was over four million gallons. Using the German measure of one "consumption unit" as the amount of fuel required to move all the vehicles in a formation a distance of sixty-three miles, it may be reckoned that of the five consumption units requested by Model only one and one-half to two were at corps dumps on 16 December; yet there may have been as much as nine or ten consumption units available at railheads near the Rhine River.
The course of the campaign showed at least three errors in German planning. POL distribution failed to move with the same speed as the armored advance. The bad terrain and weather encountered in the Ardennes reduced the mileage gained from a tankful of fuel by one-half. And, finally, the expectation that the spearheads would move in part on captured gasoline was mistakenly optimistic. Army Group B POL consumption reached a peak of close to 2,000 cubic meters on 18 December, but by 23 December the daily usage rate was about half that figure. In other words, the supply of liquid fuel failed to keep pace with the tactical demand.
There are two phases in the history of German liquid fuel supply during the Ardennes campaign--the one before and the one after 23 December when the Allies took to the air over the battle zone. During the first phase the movement of POL was impeded by bad roads and traffic congestion. Vehicles failed or ran out of fuel and were
abandoned by the roadside, thus reducing the total transport tonnage for bringing POL forward. The attempts to introduce horse-drawn supply or artillery columns into the stream of motorized traffic during the first days of the offensive greatly slowed the distribution system. As early as 20 December the 12th SS Panzer Division, scheduled as one of the leading formations in the Sixth Panzer Army advance, was brought to a halt because there was no fuel except a few gallons for the mechanized reconnaissance battalion. On 21 December the 2d SS Panzer Division was ordered to relieve the 560th Volks Grenadier Division in the battle at Fraiture but was unable to move for thirty-six hours because there was no POL. In the Fifth Panzer Army there were reports as early as 19 December of a "badly strained" fuel situation. Three days later Luettwitz, the XLVII Panzer Corps commander, told Manteuffel that the advance of his armor was "gravely endangered" because of the failure of fuel supply. During this phase there seems to have been considerable pirating, in a disorderly manner, from the forward POL dumps. Eventually German commanders learned to send a reconnaissance detail to the fuel dumps before they committed their supply trains in a fuel-consuming trip to what might be a dry supply point. It can be concluded that the German offensive already was seriously crippled by the failure of transport and the POL distributing system before the Allied Jabos entered the fight.
The supply phase after 23 December is characterized by Allied fighter-bombers pounding roads and supply points while snowdrifts stopped the movement of traffic through the Eifel. The POL shortage in the Sixth Panzer Army seems to have assumed drastic proportions in the period 23 to 25 December. The Fifth Panzer Army was in dire straits by 24 December, in part because of the arrival of armored and mechanized formations which had come into the army area without reserve fuel. Even when bad flying weather blunted the edge of the Allied air attack, the sporadic stoppage of supply movement at the ground level continued. By the end of December three of the five divisions in the XLVII Panzer Corps were practically immobile. All this while, however, the 10th SS Panzer Division of the OKW Reserve sat in an assembly area just west of Bonn with a total POL load of eight consumption units in its train. Quite obviously the German problem had been transport rather than an overall shortage of fuel.
There is no indication that American units suffered seriously from the lack of POL, although, of course, there was always the tactical difficulty of withdrawing from contact with the enemy at night for fuel resupply, particularly in the more mobile phases of the campaign. Some American gasoline was lost to Peiper, but the total amounted to probably no more than 100,000 gallons. It is known that Peiper's supply officer had a map of American POL installations, but this did Peiper little good. Between 17 and 19 December American supply troops successfully evacuated over three million gallons of POL from the Spa-Stavelot area. The biggest Allied loss to the enemy was 400,000 gallons of gasoline, destroyed on 17 December by a V-1 strike at
The Germans "fueled" their horses with greater ease than their motor vehicles. Straw and hay were plentiful in the area, although an order had to be put out forbidding the use of straw as bedding material for the troops, and those units which came late into an area found foraging sparse. Potatoes and livestock were taken from the local population in large quantities, but the supply of breadstuff was barely adequate, chiefly because of troubles in transporting bulk flour to the field bakery units. It was necessary therefore to reduce the bread ration to all but front-line troops. The Americans, as usual, were well fed during this operation. The only notable change was the new demand for the compact K ration in place of the augmented ration, with its fresh meat and coffee beans, which had been issued during the slow-moving fighting in the autumn.
In transporting their wounded, the Germans experienced grave difficulty. By the close of December the Fifth Panzer Army was having to haul its casualties clear back to Andernach on the Rhine at the expense of those freshly wounded in the firing line. The Americans lost a number of hospitals, medics, and wounded to the German spearhead formations, but on the whole were able to maintain a high standard of medical care, even in this fluid battle. In accordance with accepted Army practice both the First and Third Armies were equipped with hospitals to take a peak casualty load. On 1 January 1945, there were a total of nearly 9,000 vacant beds in the hospitals of the two armies.
Despite the fame of the German Army staff corps as masters of supply and logistics, a reputation which dated as far back as the Franco-Prussian War, the Ardennes Campaign showed little evidence of this earlier prowess except in the management of military rail transport and its rapid rehabilitation under attack. Perhaps the German staff work in the field was as good as ever, although there is evidence that it had deteriorated in the SS formations. But quite clearly the wishful thinking in which Hitler and the OKW staff indulged was no substitute for rigorous logistical analysis and planning, and these higher personalities, not the field commanders, dictated the control and management of the logistic support for the German armies in the Ardennes. One must conclude that the German offensive of December 1944 lacked the matériel and service support necessary to achieve any real measure of success and, furthermore, that Hitler and the OKW staff understood neither the importance of supply nor its effective organization.
The Turning Point in the Ardennes
When did the attacking German armies lose the initiative in their drive to cross the Meuse, and why? Surprise, the first element in successful offensive operations, had been attained by the attacker on 16 December. The defense had been surprised by the speed of the initial assault, by the weight of the attack, and, later protestations to the contrary, the American commands--both high and low--had been deceived as to the point of the attack. The German assault forces ruptured the American defenses on the first day of the advance,
but not quite as planned. In the Sixth Panzer Army sector the German staffs had expected that the infantry assault would penetrate to a depth of three to five miles by noon, thus assuring a complete breakthrough within the first twenty-four hours of the offensive. This objective was not achieved. On the extreme north flank the LXVII Corps made no progress in its drive to reach the Vesdre River in front of Eupen, never succeeded in penetrating the Monschau position, and eventually gave over this attack to bring the German north flank infantry screen forward. The assault to punch a hole at Losheim went so slowly that the spearhead armor of the 1st SS Panzer Division was delayed at its line of departure for at least six hours longer than anticipated.10
The first-day attack by the German center had been predicated on minimal initial delays for bridge crossings within three or four hours; the minimum actual time of construction proved to be seven to eight hours. Furthermore, no account had been taken of delays which might be incurred on the west banks as the result of American demolitions, bomb cratering, and the like. On top of this the German motorized assault as it left the river line, was forced onto exit roads which brought the Germans squarely against organized American strongpoints. The adverse impact of this collection of terrain and tactical factors is best attested by the experience of the armored reconnaissance battalions leading the 26th Volks Grenadier assault: these formations were delayed at the river by ineffectual bridge builders, they were slowed on the Gemünd-Hosingen road by bomb craters and abatis, and, when they reached the western ridge, the American defense of Hosingen forced a long halt and ultimate detour. This episode proved to be only one of numerous delays on the Fifth Panzer assault front, and that army, as a result, did not reach its first-day objectives until after midnight of 17 December.
On the German south wing the Seventh Army had even more trouble with its bridges than the northern neighbor. The green and ill-equipped 212th Volks Grenadier Division took forty-eight hours to throw a 16-ton bridge over the Sure, and along the entire army front the infantry elements were forced to carry the assault for the first three days without direct heavy weapon support. The LXXX Corps, fighting to bring the left wing of the Seventh Army into a favorable blocking position, did not reach its first-day objectives until the evening of 19 December. At the close of the first day, then, it can be said that the German attack had ruptured the American positions at a number of points but had not done much to widen the gaps so created and had failed signally to destroy the tactical continuity of the defensive positions at the shoulders of the assault zone.
The exploitation phase of the offensive may be timed from the hour at which Peiper's armor shook itself loose from the melee at Losheim and broke into the open, that is, 0400 on 17 December. Peiper's progress, therefore, is a good measure of the speed, planned and actual, of the German advance. The 1st SS Panzer Division and at least one other armored division of the Sixth Panzer Army were supposed to be across the
rugged plateau of the Hohes Venn by the close of the second day, with their leading elements along a north-south line through Spa and Stavelot. In 1940 a German armored column had covered this distance in nine hours, albeit with very slight resistance, and a second column, following the more circuitous route now taken by Peiper, consumed only a day and a half on the road. Despite all the delays on the 16th, Peiper did reach Stavelot on the night of 17 December, but at Stavelot he was forced to halt--a marked departure from the German experience of 1940. Recall as well that the second of the Sixth Panzer Army's breakthrough armored divisions, the 12th SS Panzer still was involved in a bitter fight back on the line of scrimmage at the end of this second day. The Fifth Panzer Army was in even worse case: no armored exploitation was yet in progress by the night of 17 December.
If Hitler and OKW expected the armored columns to reach the Meuse in forty-eight hours, as has been reported, the German offensive was seriously behind schedule at the close of the second day of combat. If, as the German Army commanders agree, Model's own plan called for the Meuse to be reached and crossed on the fourth day of the offensive, then it seems reasonable to assume--as the Army commanders did assume--that the lost time could be regained. The immediate problem was to get armored columns into the open and into the lead--thus Rundstedt's order on the late evening of 17 December that the armor must at least keep up with the foot elements.
On the third day of the attack the German armor began to acquire momentum; the greatest gains made by the armored spearhead columns actually were achieved during the night of 18 December. With the way west thus clearing, the German mass maneuver behind the armored columns picked up speed on 19 December, this day representing the most rapid movement of the entire offensive. Yet even now the bulk of German armored weight was not forward nor operating with the speed and mobility expected of armor. For this reason the Fifth Panzer Army was assigned the task of exploitation, in place of the Sixth, on 20 December.
The offensive had gone out of control, and now would follow a series of haphazard improvisations. Why had the German armored mass failed to come forward as planned? These reasons seem paramount:
The initial American defense had been more tenacious than anticipated; complete and rapid rupture of the defensive positions had not been achieved.
Tactical support and logistic transport had not kept pace with the advance of the combat formations.
Close operational control and fluidity of movement for the mass of maneuver required free use of the road net in the salient. This had been denied the attacker, most notably at Bastogne and St. Vith but at other points as well.
The flanks of the salient had not been brought forward to keep pace with the drive in the center; the shoulders of the salient had jammed.
The operational build-up of the forces in the salient had taken place so slowly as to deny real depth to the attack.
The tactical reaction of the American forces and their commitment of
reserves had been more rapid than anticipated.
The German failure to build up the attacking forces in the salient must be attributed to Hitler and the OKW staff since they controlled the operational reserves set aside for the Ardennes offensive. Nonetheless, there is some reason to believe that the German High Command held back the OKW Reserve divisions because of the physical difficulties attendant on feeding more troops and vehicles onto the crowded, tortuous, muddy roads during the breakdown of the German transport system in the first days of the attack.
Rundstedt made his first request for troops from the OKW Reserve on 17 December, asking for the Fuehrer Begleit Brigade, which was in readiness only thirty-five miles to the rear. He was given the 9th SS Panzer Division, which was seventy miles from the battlefield, and it required three separate petitions from Rundstedt to change the Fuehrer's mind. Subsequent requests by OB WEST for the release of two armored divisions scheduled for early commitment, the 10th SS Panzer and 11th Panzer, produced no result until 23 December when two Volks Grenadier divisions were brought west in their place. Even these Volks Grenadier formations had a string attached by OKW. When, on 26 December, Model asked for a free hand with all OKW reserves, specifically mentioning the 10th SS Panzer and 11th Panzer plus three or four armored divisions from other theaters, he was given a stone--the two Volks Grenadier divisions brought up on the 23d.
The one thing that a high command can do in modern war to influence the battle once it is joined is to allocate reserves. Hitler and Jodl repeated in 1944 the mistake made by Ludendorff during the Amiens battle of 1918 when the latter failed to throw in the reserves needed to exploit the unexpected success of the Eighteenth Army. Specifically, Hitler and the OKW staff failed to recognize that the only real hope of success, after the Sixth Panzer Army failure, was to reinforce Manteuffel and the Fifth.
The story on the American side was quite different, surprisingly so to Hitler and his entourage who held as an article of faith that the American commanders, for political reasons, would make no major troop movements, particularly if these involved the British, without prior reference to the White House and Downing Street. This attitude probably explains the German estimate that no major units would be committed by the defense until the third day and that the Allied build-up of a counterattack force would be made west of the Meuse. Not only did the German planners fail to comprehend the degree of initiative that training and tradition have placed in the hands of American corps and army commanders, they also misunderstood the American doctrine, largely unwritten but universally accepted, that major formations having no prebattle relationship may, under fluid conditions, unite on the field after the battle is joined. Hitler seems to have made another and important personal miscalculation, namely that the weak German forces holding the sectors of the Western Front north and south of the Ardennes still retained sufficient strength to grapple the American divisions opposite them, and that the Allied commanders would
therefore hesitate to weaken their forces in these sectors by stripping away divisions to meet the German attack.
When did the German armies lose the initiative in the Ardennes? As early as 20 December there are indications that small clouds of niggling doubt were present in the minds of some of the German field commanders, this because of the Sixth Panzer Army's failure to adhere to the offensive timetable. By 24 December the crippling impact of Allied air attack, resumed the previous day as the weather broke, was clearly discernible. Then, too, the course of the ground battle on that date was equally adverse. The counterattack by the Third Army menaced the whole southern flank of the German salient, while the XLVII Panzer Corps, now leading the Fifth Panzer drive, was so lone and exposed that the corps commander recommended a withdrawal of his forward elements until such time as the German flanks at the tip of the salient could be covered. This combination of threats in the air and on the ground led the Fifth Panzer Army commander to conclude on 24 December that "the objective could no longer be attained."11
It is a truism that morale is a governing factor in war. Christmas in the Ardennes, 1944, very clearly is a case in point. Brig. Gen. S. L. A. Marshall has graphically described the mood of the American troops in Bastogne on the Holy Evening and shown the somber aspect of nostalgia on the part of men engaged in the grim business of war, far from home and loved ones. But in the German camp the sixth Christmas of the war seems to have made a truly indelible impression. The field postmaster for Luettwitz' corps remarks on the decline in the amount of Christmas mail reaching the front--particularly gift parcels. The German Army newspaper bitterly features a story on the Christmas gift presented by a Spanish restaurateur to Goering--a large supply of caviar. And the commander of the 276th Volks Grenadier Division, whose unit fought its hardest battle on Christmas Day, expresses the hope that in the ultimate withdrawal to the cover of the West Wall his troops will be able to recapture the Christmas spirit.
The German Christmas traditionally was celebrated on two days, the 25th and 26th, and at this emotional nadir of war-weary soldiery the German armies in the Ardennes sustained a series of crushing reverses: the left wing of the Seventh Army was driven back to the Sauer River, over which it had crossed ten days before; the German ring around Bastogne was broken by Patton's troops; the 2d Panzer Division received orders to escape from the Celles pocket; and throughout the day of the 26th a developing "crisis" in supply and communications was noted in the journal at the headquarters of OB WEST. At 1915 on 26 December General Krebs, Model's chief of staff, made an appraisal of the German situation, "Today a certain culminating point [has been reached]."12
It may be concluded that by the evening of 26 December the initiative had
passed from German to American hands. Before this time the American and Allied forces had reacted to German designs and had abandoned their own. From this point in time the German attacker would be off balance and would take a series of false steps (notably at Bastogne) which were elicited by the operations of his opponent and divergent from the assigned larger objective.
Even at the time there was recognition in both camps that 26 December had been the day of decision. On the 27th the German press and radio abandoned the headline treatment of the Ardennes to feature news from Greece and Budapest. This same day the SHAEF propaganda bureau issued instructions that Liège, obviously no longer in danger, should be shown as the goal of the German offensive.
There seems to have been a slight resurgence of forced optimism in the higher German field headquarters toward the end of December when the appearance of more troops and guns gave some flicker of hope that Bastogne finally might be captured. But this optimism, if it was anything more than a disciplined and soldierly façade, quickly faded. On the last day of December the OB WEST journal notes that if Bastogne cannot be taken "that is the end of the offensive operation." Hitler, no matter what exhortations he may have dispatched to Model and Rundstedt, had turned his attention away from the Ardennes. On 29 December Rundstedt received a message that sixty-three new tanks had come off the assembly line but that OKW (for which read Hitler) would decide whether personnel replacements and artillery should be sent OB WEST in their stead--precisely the first step always taken by the Fuehrer when abandoning a military venture and denuding one fighting front to reinforce another.
The Place of the Ardennes Offensive in World War II
The German attack in the Ardennes was to be the last in the long series of great offensives and military adventures initiated by Hitler's Third Reich in September 1939. The subsequent attempts at counterattacks in Alsace and on the Lake Balaton front were bloody military divertissements occasioned by Hitler, nothing more. There would be days of stubborn fighting in the Ardennes during January 1945, but the roads back over the Eifel led straight to the decimation and collapse of the German armies on the banks of the Oder River, along the Danube, in the Ruhr pocket, and, at last, to the bunkers of Berlin.
What was the true military purpose of the Ardennes offensive? It has been alleged by survivors of the German High Command that this operation was intended to re-establish the military prestige of the Third Reich, carry its people through the grueling sixth winter of war, and win a favorable bargaining position for a suitable and acceptable peace. It seems more probable, from all that is known of Hitler's thought processes in these last months of his life, that, as in February 1918, the German decision was not between war and peace but between defense and attack. Are the military and political reasons set forth by Hitler for his choice of an offensive on the Western Front, and in the Ardennes sector, to be accepted at face value? History will
never know. But there is the strong possibility that Hitler and his top generals were motivated by the same impulse which triggered so many of the bloody and useless offensives of World War I--to seize the initiative for its own sake without a viable strategic objective in view.
In late December German propagandists claimed that the object of the Ardennes offensive had been to cripple the attack capabilities of the Allied armies and chew up their divisions east of the Meuse. There also is considerable evidence that Model, and perhaps Rundstedt, accepted this as a reasonable tactical objective in the operations from Christmas onward. The attainment of this goal, to chew up Allied divisions and dull the cutting edge of the American armies, was achieved in only limited fashion. The attack of twenty-nine German divisions and brigades destroyed one American infantry division as a unit, badly crippled two infantry divisions, and cut one armored combat command to pieces. The total of American battle casualties reported for the period 16 December through 2 January (although these probably were incomplete returns) numbered 41,315 officers and men, of which 4,138 were known to be killed in action, 20,231 were wounded in action, and 16,946 were reported missing. During the same period the American formations in the Ardennes received 31,505 replacements, or "reinforcements" as these individual soldiers now were named. The matériel losses inflicted by German action represented only a temporary diminution in the fighting strength of a few of the American divisions and normally were replaced within a fortnight.
What all this cost the Wehrmacht is impossible to say. It is known that losses in matériel were very high--and these no longer could be made good. The only general indication of German casualties is found in railroad reports which show that about 67,000 troops were evacuated from the Army Group B area by rail during December. This figure, of course, would include some of the battle casualties from the earlier fighting east of Aachen, as well as disease cases. A number of German division commanders have made personal estimates of the casualties suffered by their own divisions during the last half of December, and in the cases of those formations continually in the line from 16 or 17 December the average is between two and three thousand "combat effectives" lost per division. Whatever the true number of casualties may have been on both sides, it is a fair assessment that over-all, in this particular instance, the troops on the offensive sustained heavier losses than those on the defensive.
Detailed analysis of the ebb and flow of battle shows that the German armies in the Ardennes never came close to the narrow margin between success and failure. The fortunes of war never were put in precarious balance as they had been in the spring of 1918, and it is not surprising that General Eisenhower refused to issue a "Backs to the Wall" order of the day like that wrung from Haig on April 1918.
Nevertheless, in December 1944 there was an early, emotional Allied reaction to the first speedy triumphs of the German armies which conceived of the attack as being another, albeit late, irruption of the military might which
had reached out to the Atlantic and the Caucasus, the Sahara, and the Arctic Circle. On the other hand, a decade after the close of World War II, still living members of the higher German commands would classify the Wehrmacht of late 1944 as a "paper tiger." The history of the Ardennes Campaign, as recounted in the present volume, shows that neither one of these extremes was true. Probably the American war correspondent, Drew Middleton, most closely approximated the truth when, in the first days of the Ardennes battle, he characterized the offensive as "the Indian summer" of German military might.
In the long view of history the decision to attack in the Ardennes represents only another--and risky--attempt to solve the old German dilemma of fighting a major war on two fronts. Hitler deliberately assumed the risk involved in weakening the Eastern Front so that a powerful blow could be struck in the west. When, on 14 December, he told his generals that German industry had been preparing for the Ardennes offensive for months, he meant this quite literally. Of the total production of armored fighting vehicles which came out of German assembly plants in November and December 1944, the Western Front received 2,277 while only 919 went to the East. As late as 5 January 1945 all the German armies on the Eastern Front possessed only two-thirds the number of panzers employed in the Ardennes. Equally important, of course, was Hitler's decision on 20 November to shift the Luftwaffe fighter strength to the Western Front. This diversion of matériel to the west (which began as early as September and included artillery, Werfers, tractors, machine guns, and many other items) was accompanied by a reallocation of military manpower. On 1 December 1944, the total number of combat effectives under OB WEST command was 416,713, and one month later 1,322,561 effectives were carried on the OB WEST rosters.13
There seems to have been an early recognition on the part of the higher German theater commanders that Hitler's "intuition" had led to a mistaken choice between operations on the two major fronts. General Westphal later alleged that Rundstedt personally addressed himself to the Fuehrer on 22 December with a plea that the Ardennes offensive be brought to a halt in order to reinforce the Eastern Front.14
Guderian, directly charged with operations against the Russians, used the occasion of official visits on Christmas Eve and New Year's Day to petition Hitler for the movement of troops from the west to the east. It is said that at the end of December, in the Ardennes headquarters, "everybody looked with dismay to the east where the big Russian offensive was about to begin any day."15 Hitler stubbornly refused to accede to all these requests, even after the Allied counterattack on 3 January began to collapse the German salient. Inexplicably he waited until 8 January to start the Sixth Panzer Army moving for the east--this only four days before the commencement of the Russian winter offensive.
The proximity in time of the German Ardennes offensive and the wholesale
offensive of the Red Armies on 12 January would have untoward results, not only for the Third Reich, but for the relations between east and west in the postwar era. In February 1945, Stalin issued an order of the day acclaiming the recent victories on the Oder front and boasting that "The success of this [Soviet] drive resulted in breaking the German attack in the West." Unfortunately, and unwisely, Winston Churchill opened the door to this and a flood of similar Russian propaganda claims by addressing a telegram to Stalin on 6 January 1945, in which he personally asked for Soviet help by the prompt beginning of a major offensive. Only a few years later, representatives of the USSR engaged in negotiations on American claims for the repayment of wartime shipping loans would allege that these debts had been canceled when the Russian armies "saved" the American forces in the Ardennes. Postwar Russian propaganda in this same vein reached a peak in a series of articles by Col. N. Nikiforov alleging that the Soviet attack in January 1945 "averted the danger of the rout of the Anglo-American armies."16
Was the risk assumed by Hitler and his senior military advisers in the Ardennes offensive a valid one? Field Marshals Jodl and Keitel, the artisans but not the architects of this venture, gave a joint answer shortly before their execution: "The criticism whether it would have been better to have employed our available reserves in the East rather than in the West, we submit to the judgment of history."17
Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (XXIV) * Next Chapter (Appendix A)
1. See description in MS # B-172, Army Group B Engineers, 1-25 January 1945 (Generalleutnant Richard Wirtz).
2. The German order of battle for the period of 16 December-2 January was as follows: 1st SS, 2d SS, 9th SS, 12th SS Panzer Divisions; Panzer Lehr and 2d, 9th, 116th Panzer Divisions; 3d and 5th Parachute Divisions; 3d and 15th Panzer Grenadier Divisions; 9th, 12th, 18th, 26th, 62d, 79th, 167th, 212th, 246th, 272d, 276th, 277th, 326th, 340th, 352d, 560 Volks Grenadier Divisions; and the Fuehrer-Grenadier and Fuehrer Begleit Brigades. The American order of battle for the same period included: the 2d, 3d, 4th, 6th, 7th, 9th, 10th, and 11th Armored Divisions; the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions; the 1st, 2d, 4th, 5th, 9th, 26th, 28th, 30th, 35th, 75th, 80th, 83d, 84th, 87th, 99th, and 106th Infantry Divisions.
3. For the characteristics of this equipment, see H. A. Koch, Flak: Die Geschichte der Deutschen Flakartillerie (Bad Nauheim, Germany: PodzuhnVerlag, 1954).
4. As an example see Vannevar Bush, Modern Arms and Free Men (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1949): "The proximity fuze may well have saved Liège," p. 31. The conclusions reached in the text above are based on the rigorous analysis in Royce L. Thompson's Employment of VT Fuzes in the Ardennes Campaign (1950). MS in OCMH files.
5. Office of the Director of Intelligence, U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe, Allied Air Power and the Ardennes Offensive (n.d.).
6. 2d Tactical Air Force Operational Research Section, Report 19, The Contribution of the Air Forces to the Stemming of the Enemy Thrust in the Ardennes, 16-26 December 1944 (September 1945).
7. This section is based on the extensive research done by Charles V. P. von Luttichau in his manuscript German Rail Communications in the Ardennes Offensive 1944-1945, and Royce L. Thompson's equally careful and detailed study, Tactical Air Phase of the Ardennes Campaign. Neither of these manuscript studies has been published, but both should be of great interest to students of logistics.
8. Adolf Galland, The First and The Last (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1960), p. 242.
9. This reserve was only fifty of the normal ammunition trains; each had been divided in two for protection against air attack. On 13 December the ammunition on hand and in shipment for Army Group B totaled 15,099 tons, but 5,353 tons were allocated to the Fifteenth Army, which did not, as planned, take part in the offensive.
10. For these plans, see the LXVII AK: KTB Anlagen, 12 Dec 44.
11. Manteuffel in MS # B-151a, p. 160. It is significant that the OB WEST G-4, Colonel John, also picks this date as the turning point in the German offensive. See Headquarters 12th Army Group, Consolidated Interrogation Report 1, 12 June 1945.
12. Contained in OB WEST: KTB, 26 Dec 44.
13. OKH: Org. Abt. KTB; see also Schramm, Merkbuch.
14. Heer In Fesseln, p. 283.
15. MS # A-874 (Waldenburg).
16. The USSR Information Bulletin, 12 May 1948, and Novoye Vremya, No. 18, 18 February 1948. The most recent of such Soviet claims is that made by Marshall Grechko in Pravda, 9 May 1960.
17. In answers to a questionnaire submitted by the Historical Section, USFET, on 20 July 1945, which answers were signed by both Jodl and Keitel.