Adolf Hitler and Walter Model versus Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and Bernard Montgomery: The Germans under Hitler and Model launch a massive surprise attack against the Americans in the Ardennes to reverse the situation on the Western Front. Can Eisenhower, Bradley, and Montgomery react quickly enough to prevent the audacious German plan from recreating the 1940 breakthrough? Also known as Operation Wacht am Rhein, Watch on the Rhine, and the Ardennes Offensive. Includes the Battles of Clerveaux, Monschau, Elsenborn Ridge, St Vith, Bastogne, and the Malmedy Massacre.
Significance of the German defeat
Hitler’s Ardennes offensive must be viewed as a German defeat and may have only accelerated the German defeat. In addition to the 74,500 army personnel casualties (Dupuy, 1994: 471-477), the Germans lost 780 aircraft (10% of total strength), 600-800 tanks and assault guns (25% of total strength), as well as an uncountable number of trucks and other logistics (Parker, 1991:291-296). While the Allies also suffered significant personnel and equipment losses, theirs were made up in the matter of 2 weeks, whereas the Germans’ were never replaced (Elstob, 1971: 370). While not even coming close to achieving its grandiose objectives, the offensive did delay an Anglo-American offensive in the West (6 weeks according to Eisenhower) due to disruption and losses, and weakened the Anglo-American command structure somewhat (Elstob, 1971: 368). Parker argues, probably correctly, that the battle was not one of the great decisive encounters or turning points of World War II, but was “the last serious expression of the rough military might that had terrorized Europe a scant two years before” (1991: 290).
The battle was more significant politically with the clear winner being Stalin. Hitler’s throw of Germany’s last strategic mobile reserve against the Western Front allowed Soviet forces to collapse German positions on the Eastern Front much more quickly and with fewer losses. This gain of territory strengthened Stalin’s position at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, gaining valuable concessions for the post-war order (Parker, 1991: 297), as well as increasing Anglo-American trust of Stalin because he had bumped up the timeline of the Soviet offensive to relieve some pressure off Anglo-American forces during the offensive (Elstob, 1971: 389).
Hitler’s reasoning for the offensive
It is within the political context that it is possible to understand Hitler’s reasoning for such a bold offensive in the West. At this stage in the war, Hitler increasingly viewed himself as a modern Frederick the Great, the Prussian leader-general who had somehow saved Prussia from inevitable defeat in the Seven Years’ War; this was possible by the chance death of Empress Elisabeth of Russia and the succession of pro-Prussian Peter III, resulting in Russia switching sides against Frederick’s enemies. Hitler was confident a similar miracle would occur and he thus sought a victory to produce a favourable peace (Parker, 1991: 17).
On a personal level, Elstob points out that Hitler’s paranoia after the failed assassination against him in July 1944 may have led him to believe the Allies could be wedged apart more easily than was reality (1971: 12). Hitler was also likely influenced by his own participation in Ludendorff’s 1918 offensives on the Western Front, which nearly won World War I. In his early autobiography, he had written:
It was my luck to be in the first two and last offensives [of 1918]. They made on me the most tremendous impressions of my whole life; tremendous because for the last time the struggle lost its defensive character and became an offensive as it was in 1914. In the German army’s trenches men breathed anew when, after three years of hell, the day for squaring the account had at last arrived. (Quoted by Parker, 1991: 22)
The Allied intelligence failure
Much has been made about the Allied intelligence failure to foresee the German attack in the Ardennes, which often occurs any time intelligence staffs are not wholly correct. Dupuy, on a more balanced note, describes a number of Allied weaknesses in intelligence and explanation for them. (1994: 35-44). I argue that the intelligence “failure” is more mixed than would appear. Noticing the withdrawal of German panzer divisions from the front-line as early as Oct 1, Allied intelligence staffs were aware of 6. Panzer Army’s formation in Army Group B’s rear. (Dupuy, 1994: 3). However, virtually all of them at the strategic level (keeping in mind there were intelligence staffs in many units at many levels) assessed that it would be used to attack Allied flanks when they attacked into the Ruhr industrial area (Elstob, 1971: 15). Only the SHAEF G2 (the “2” being the now-NATO standard designation for intelligence staff) assessed that this mobile reserve may be used in a counter-attack, pointing to the Ardennes as the likely sector; neither Bradley or the 12 Army Group G2 were impressed with this assessment (Dupuy, 1994: 3-4).
In this sense, Allied intelligence had made some mistakes in its tradecraft. Threat consists of capabilities multiplied by intent. In late 1944, Allied intelligence assessed German intent but not capabilities (Dupuy, 1994: 361). It was assumed 6. Panzer Army would be used against Allied flanks in their planned Ruhr thrust without considering its capabilities of counter-attacking in the Ardennes. The intelligence problem in this battle underlines John Boyd’s argument that orientation/interpretation is the most important part of his famous OODA loop (observe-orient-decide-act; see Frans Osinga’s excellent Science, Strategy and War on Boyd’s theories), which is closely related with the intelligence cycle. Allied intelligence did a lot of good work in observing and identifying 6. Panzer Army but never properly interpreted its purpose.
To its credit, the German deception plan was nearly flawless. 6. Panzer Army was positioned perfectly to give the logical impression it was going to be used in the Ruhr while maintaining its freedom of action to quickly deploy to the Ardennes (Elstob, 1971: 15). The Wacht am Rheinoperational plan was also deliberately leaked in radio traffic as a defensive operation in the Ardennes while the Germans attacked Allied thrusts into the Ruhr (Parker, 1991: 39); Hitler had rightly come to believe the Allies had broken German signals codes and used this to his advantage. Operational security was maintained by keeping the real plan within the high command’s inner circle, German soldiers not told of the real plan until the day before although some may have noticed the build-up of materiel (Parker, 1991: 27).
In defence of Allied intelligence, they were correct in assessing the Ardennes as an unsuitable sector for a German counterattack. Intelligence staffs conduct intelligence preparation of the battlespace (IPB). While it may not have been done in a rigorous or formal sense, Allied IPB of the Western Front was correct in its assessment of the Ardennes as a sector heavily favouring the defender and slowing down the attacker with its thick forest and few roads. The Germans attacked through the Ardennes in 1940 but actual combat did not occur until the spearheads were at Sedan on the Meuse River. Parker writes that
the Wehrmacht in 1940 had proved that a heavily motorized force could rapidly advance through the Ardennes forest in good weather and under the cover of air superiority. The question that had not been answered, however, was whether a tank-heavy force could fight through the rough terrain in inclement weather against a stubborn and resourceful enemy.
The Battle of the Bulge answered that question in detail. The lessons indicated that the Ardennes massif provided an imposing advantage to a determined defender. Small isolated US detachments clung like beggar’s lice to crossroads, villages and bridges to deny the Germans the free use of the road net. The difficulty of outflanking defensive positions recommended a methodical advance as a remedy for this problem (such as the Allies used to squeeze the Germans out of the Bulge). Unfortunately for Hitler, with only temporary tactical superiority, Wacht am Rhein could afford nothing less than a rapid and total breakout if it was to succeed. (1994: 52)
Unlike many other great defeats such as Waterloo, the Battle of the Bulge was not a “near-run thing” at all but the logical result. In a sense, Allied intelligence was not wrong to discount the possibility of a successful German offensive in the Ardennes. However, even if your enemy is committing a serious mistake, it is still best to be aware of their intentions and capabilities to carry out such an action.
Reasons for the German defeat
Many German officers involved in the offensive, as well as historians, have developed lists of reasons for the German failure. Universal to all of them is poor roads, something already discussed above, which accounts for a number of other listed reasons. For example it is much easier to offer tougher resistance to a superior enemy and deny him use of the road network when terrain favours the defender. I wish to highlight three additional factors for the German defeat. The first is an obvious one common to every list: supply. The most telling fact is that 6. Panzer Army only had 80 km or 50 miles worth of fuel on hand, when its objective was 200 km or 125 miles away (Parker, 1991: 289). The idea that the German supply system would be able to quickly resupply the spearhead panzer divisions as they got further away, and as Allied air attacks began to concentrate in the Ardennes was not realistic.
The second factor I wish to discuss is the committal of German reserves. Manteuffel said after the way that Hitler and Model were too slow to shift the main effort and reserves to his more successful 5. Panzer Army (Elstob, 1971: 386-387). Manteuffel is probably justified in his complaint; the German breakthrough was wider and deeper in the center, and doctrine dictates that reserves should reinforce success, not failure. While not likely to change the overall result of the battle, perhaps Manteuffel would have achieved more success in encircling Allied divisions at St. Vith or capturing Bastogne if reserves had been more quickly sent to his sector. However, arguments that Hitler and Model withheld reserves from the Ardennes when they could have influenced the battle are based on a lack of understanding of military operations. First, the commitment of more troops would have worsened the traffic and supply issues unless the offensive had achieved a wider breakthrough to create more space. Second, the Ardennes offensive was a multi-phase operation which required sufficient follow-on forces to defeat in-depth Allied forces and continue the advance once the initial forces reached the Meuse. Even if the Germans reached the Meuse with these reserves, they would have been in a worse situation to actually cross the Meuse – defended by a whole, fresh UK corps – and have sufficient strength to reach Antwerp. If the offensive could not reach its immediate objectives with forces provided, Hitler and Model were right to withhold reserves intended for the subsequent objectives.
The third factor I wish to discuss is the quick and timely Allied reaction to the German offensive, recognized by German generals involved as a significant factor. Some histories of the battle make a big deal that Eisenhower only had two divisions (82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions) in reserve, something Dupuy argues is misleading; Dupuy points out that Eisenhower also had two new divisions in Britain (UK 6th and US 17th Airborne Divisions) as well as new divisions arriving in Europe to relieve veteran divisions for deployment elsewhere (1994: 33-34). Allied army groups and armies in Europe also had substantial reserves themselves which eventually participated in the battle. Eisenhower is also credited for his strong reaction to the offensive, stopping attacks elsewhere to transfer forces to the Ardennes (Elstob, 1971: 383-384). Bradley also responded quickly by sending two divisions (7th and 10th Armoured Divisions) to the Ardennes, one of which, 7th Armoured Division, proved vital to the defence of St. Vith to delay the Germans (Elstob, 1971: 383-384). The actual movement of 7th Armoured Division from 9. Army to 1. Army was achieved so quickly because it was done informally by a telephone conversation between the two commanders and lifelong friends, Simpson and Hodges, an “irregularity never envisaged by the German planners” (Elstob, 1971: 380).
This animation could not have been completed without Danny S. Parker’s excellent Battle of the Bulge. This book is extremely concise and well-organized. It was also perfect for my purposes because it describes events largely at the divisional level, and includes a map showing all of their locations for each chapter. My own animation sequences and narrations parallel Parker’s chapter organization, with the exception of his final chapter, which I broke down into two (Jan 12-16 and Jan 17-26). Thank you, Danny S. Parker for your contribution to military history. You set a high standard for scholarship and clarity.
I only really consulted three books for this animation (see below). This may seem low given the mass of work on the battle but quantity does not necessarily mean quality. I require conciseness, brevity, and accuracy to properly animate a battle. Much of this mass or work focuses too much on stories and anecdotes of those involved at the lowest level, which while important, is not very helpful for my purposes. On a more critical note, many authors (without naming names) seem to lose interest in the battle they are writing hundreds of pages on before the battle is over. One even ended his account of the battle Dec 26 just after Patton enters Bastogne, a full month before the battle actually ended. I found a lot of books on this battle but many omitted proper description of the final German assaults on Bastogne and the Allies’ struggle to close the pincers at Houffalize. The three I have relied upon are all highly recommended, and fully cover the battle.
Contrary to all the books about Hitler’s “Last Offensive/Gamble,” the Ardennes offensive was not Hitler’s last. That infamy goes to Operation Sonnenwerde or Solstice, Hitler’s hopeless, failed offensive against Soviet spearheads near Berlin in February 1945, using Steiner’s 11. SS Panzer Army. This operation is best known for its inspiration for the scene in Downfall in which Hitler angrily explodes at his generals; this scene later gained popular culture fame for its various reincarnations in memes in which people change the sub-titles. Hitler’s OperationNordwind offensive in Alsace-Lorraine also began after the start of the Ardennes offensive.
As in the Gallipoli animation, I have omitted the corps level of command for the sake of clarity. Viewers can still click army labels to view corps groupings and commanders if they wish to learn more. I have also only depicted units of a brigade or larger for the same reason. There are therefore a few regiments and battalions that are simply not on the map. I have added front-lines to properly show the dispositions of each side. Without these, sometimes invisible units would be blocking the enemy advance.
As usual, my numbers require some explanation. There many different figures out there for each side, many of which are not wrong, just calculated in different ways. The strength figures I have given for each side are based only on units which are shown on the map. This means that I have counted 11th Panzer Division’s strength into the German side because it appears on my map even though it never saw combat during the offensive; for the sake of universal clarity, if it was in the Ardennes, it was available for immediate use in the Ardennes. To apply this to another setting, just because Napoleon Bonaparte did not use the Imperial Guard at Borodino, keeping it in reserve for the entire day’s battle, does not mean I would not count it.
I used numbers based on Dupuy’s extensive and detailed personnel and materiel strengths tables (1994: 462-486). For corps and army headquarters I have only included troops strength and not headquarters strength; troops strength includes corps- and army-level assets that would be deployed in combat and combat support (artillery, signals, etc.) whereas headquarters strength may include any number of personnel not likely to influence the battle in the same way. I have estimated strength of units not included in Dupuy’s tables but counted by myself as taking part in the battle (see above); I have estimated their strength based on similar formations’ typical composition. For materiel, artillery includes both towed and self-propelled and all calibers from light to heavy to rockets. I have excluded assault guns and tank destroyers from my figures for tanks for each side. This distorts each sides’ relative tank strength as the Allied numbers include all of their light tanks, compared to the Germans’ much heavier tanks in general. However, including tank destroyers and assault guns does not change the fact that, while personnel strengths are relatively similar, the Allies had a massive relative advantage in materiel regardless of what measure is used. Compare the relative strength of a typical US infantry division and German Volksgrenadier division:
The motor vehicle and artillery figures are most telling of the relative capabilities of each side’s infantry-type division. Plus, many of the US divisions were larger than their authorized strength with attached troops included (a tank battalion (30-50 tanks) was attached to most US infantry divisions by this time of the war), while German divisions were often under strength.
I did include any animation or mention of Operation Stosser, Heydte’s silly paratroop drop behind Allied lines as ordered by Hitler. It accomplished little to nothing and did not influence the battle. Animating it would have given it more importance than warranted.
This animation probably has the most detailed, impressive map of all my animations. It was very time-consuming and frustrating however, largely because I was forced to create my map from a number of different maps, one with roads, one with terrain, etc. You would think that because maps have a scale that they are all proportionate but this is simply never the case from my experience.
– Jonathan Webb
Dupuy, Trevor N., David Bongard, and Richard C. Anderson Jr. Hitler’s Last Gamble: The Battle of the Bulge December 1944-January 1945. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Elstob, Peter. Hitler’s Last Offensive. London: Sacker & Warburg, 1971.
Parker, Danny S. Battle of the Bulge: Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive 1944-1945. Philadelphia: Combined Books, 1991.
United States Library of Congress. “World War II Military Situation Maps: The Battle of the Bulge.” 1945. http://www.loc.gov/collections/world-war-ii-maps-military-situation-maps-from-1944-to-1945/articles-and-essays/the-battle-of-the-bulge/ (accessed Apr. 15, 2015).
Adolf Hitler: http://blog.bhadesia.com/2008_08_01_archive.html
American aircraft: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_P-51_Mustang
American artillery: http://www.redlegsofthebulge.com/the-weapons
American infantry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Bulge
American tank: http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/US/M4_Sherman.php
Bernard Montgomery: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Montgomery,_1st_Viscount_Montgomery_of_Alamein
Courtney Hodges: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courtney_Hodges
Dwight Eisenhower: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dwight_D._Eisenhower
Erich Brandenburger: http://www.generals.dk/general/Brandenberger/Erich/Germany.html
George Patton: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_S._Patton
Gerd von Rundstedt: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerd_von_Rundstedt
German aircraft: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messerschmitt_Bf_109
German artillery: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/10.5_cm_leFH_18/40
German infantry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Bulge
German tanks: http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/nazi_germany/Panzer-V_Panther.php; http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/nazi_germany/Panzer_IV.php
Josef Dietrich: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josef_Dietrich
Map of the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_map_projections
Map of Western Europe: http://www.westpoint.edu/history/SitePages/WWII%20European%20Theater.aspx
Masso von Manteuffel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hasso_von_Manteuffel
Omar Bradley: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omar_Bradley
Walter Model: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Model