World War II’s Battle of the Bulge pitted just 80,000 American troops against 250,000 German soldiers.

Quick notes

  • The Battle of the Bulge was the Nazis’ last major offensive against the Allies during WWII

  • Hitler wanted to take the port of Antwerp and cut off the Allies’ access to supplies

  • The Allies had received little intelligence about Hitler’s plans and were surprised by the attack

On December 16, 1944, the Germans launched the Ardennes offensive — more commonly known as the “Battle of the Bulge.” After the Allies’ successful D-Day invasion at Normandy, France, Hitler wanted revenge. He was going to cut through the American forces in a way that would turn the tide of the war in his favor.

Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go as planned. The battle was a brutal, bloody mess that lasted for three weeks. The Americans lost tens of thousands of soldiers to illness or injury. The Germans lost even more.

Hitler’s absurd plan

After the Allies soundly pounded Hitler at Normandy, he was hungry for payback. He planned a MASSIVE attack using three armies: The Sixth Panzer Army, the Fifth Panzer Army, and the Seventh Army. The goal was to capture Antwerp, capture the strategic road and rail center of St. Vith, and drive the Americans into Brussels.

It looked like a solid plan on paper. However, as Germany had been in retreat since D-Day, its military was running dangerously low on supplies and would be facing the combined might of America, Canada, and Great Britain. Still, Hitler decided to move forward.

The Allies were taken by surprise

One thing Hitler did have going for him was the element of surprise. The assault began at dawn on December 16, 1944, when the Germans threw 250,000 soldiers at 80,000 completely unprepared Americans. The Allies believed their location in the Ardennes was too difficult to traverse and did little to protect the position.

Photo Courtesy: [The U.S. Army]/[Battle of the Bulge] via Flickr
The Germans experienced great success right off the bat. In addition to the Allies’ lack of preparedness, the weather was downright brutal. Low clouds and fog meant that the Allies’ air force could not be used. The Germans were able to easily move tanks across the hard, frozen ground with little to no resistance.

Germans in disguise

One particularly effective tactic the Germans employed was the use of English-speaking Nazi commandos. These well-trained soldiers infiltrated American lines using stolen U.S. uniforms, trucks, and jeeps, wreaking total havoc on allied communications. The ploy caused chaos behind American lines, where suspicion among troops grew to a boiling point.

“The Nazis were carefully groomed for their dangerous mission,” LIFE magazine reported in 1945. “They spoke excellent English and their slang had been tuned up by close association with American prisoners of war in German camps.” Unfortunately for them, once they were captured, they were put to death under the Hague Convention.

The American counter attack

The success of the Germans was short-lived. They managed to advance 60 miles in just two days, but from that point on, they were at a stalemate. “When the Germans sent a message demanding the surrender of the 101st on December 22, they got a one word response from its commander, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe: ‘Nuts!’”

“It was here that American and German combat soldiers met in the decisive struggle that broke the back of the Nazi war machine.”

By that time, the weather started to clear — and the Allies were able to bring in the air power. On Christmas morning, the tanks and air forces were able to be operated in tandem, giving assistance to all of the soldiers who had been previously blocked off. By January 25, the Allies had claimed victory and headed for Berlin.

Could the Germans have won?

The war ended less than five months after the Battle of the Bulge, with Germany’s surrender on May 7, 1945. In his 1969 book, The Bitter Woods, John S.D. Eisenhower, wrote, “It was here (in Ardennes) that American and German combat soldiers met in the decisive struggle that broke the back of the Nazi war machine.”

The offensive lasted for three weeks, resulting in a huge loss of life on both sides. Almost 20,000 American troops were killed, another 20,000 captured, and 40,000 wounded. The Germans lost over 100,000 to death, sickness, and desertion.

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