Saturday, October 15, 2011

Battle of the Bulge

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Germany was clearly losing the war. The Red Army was marching in on the Eastern front and the Allied Forces were decimating German occupied cities with heavy bombing on the Western front. Hitler knew that unless the Allied Forces could be stopped, the war would be over in a matter of months. He soon came up with an attack plan.

Hitler sat down with Wilhelm Kertel and Alfred Jodl to give a status report on the German Army. During this meeting Hitler told Jodl to devise an attack plan that would slow down the Allied advance in Europe. Jodl was told that the attack had to be between the Aachan area and the Southern Luxembourg-France boundary, because Hitler knew there was only a single armored division and four small infantry divisions.

Jodl soon returned a plan to Hitler. This plan had five possible attack routes with the final goal being Antwerp, a major port that the Allied Forces use for shipping supplies and troops. He chose to take Antwerp by going through the Ardennes Forest. Hitler decided to send his forces through the Ardennes because it was a very large forest with incredibly minimal defense. It would also allow him to conceal many thousand troops and tanks from aerial reconnaissance. One of Hitler’s biggest reasons among the many for trying to regain Antwerp was because he felt a blow here would strike the seam between the British and Americans and lead to political as well as military disharmony between the Allies.” Some of the other major decisions were the distance from the Ardennes to Antwerp was short, the forest allows for little maneuvering allowing for minimal decision making and if they were to regain Antwerp it would minimize the threat on the Ruhr.

Around the 5th of September Hitler ordered Jodl to begin a mass examination of the plan to develop all of the small details. They knew what had to happen, but nobody was sure how exactly they were going to make it happen. The initial objectives were to capture the bridgeheads over the Meuse River between Liege and Namur. With all major bridges under German control they could begin the march to Antwerp. It was expected that an enormous battle would ensue along the north Antwerp-Liege-Bastogne line that would eventually annihilate the Canadian and British forces. An attack of this magnitude required an absolute minimum of approximately 0 divisions, 10 of which had to be armored. Nearly the entire German artillery and air support were to be on call should they be deemed necessary. With nearly all of the German forces being tossed into this attack called Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine), the entire operation was based on tactical speed and surprise. Should either speed or surprise be lost at any point in time the entire operation would have lost its initiative and the operation would almost immediately fail.

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When Hitler sat down with the Generals that would carry out the plan, General der Kavellerie Siegfried Westphal and General der Infanterie Hans Krebs, they were first forced to sign a secrecy agreement. If the plan leaked out for any reason, they would be shot. The plan, Hitler told his Generals, was designed to surround and destroy the British and American forces in and surrounding Antwerp. There were two phases; the first was to close in and capture all bridgeheads along the Meuse River. The second phase was to surround and capture the small port city on Antwerp. Hitler explained that not only would this cause disharmony between the Allies, the people of Great Britain would loose faith in Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister. They would loose faith because Antwerp would once again place the German V- rockets within striking distance of many important cities. The Generals were later shuffled to a smaller meeting, between Hitler and the two Generals only. They were told that Army Group B would have a full three armies for the attack, the Fifth and Sixth Panzer Armies would be leading the attack, with the Seventh Army covering the vulnerable Southern flank. At this time they had set certain dates for the attack; November 5th was the scheduled date for the attack to begin. The Furher’s personal meteorologists’ selected this date with his demand of at least 10 days of bad weather. With such poor flying conditions the Allied Air Superiority would be grounded, eliminating any supply drops, leaving many troops without enough ammunition, food or clothing. Hitler also wanted to have the attack coincide with the new moon, making it all the more difficult for any night drops or bombings. The Generals soon received word they would receive 18 infantry and 1 armored or mechanized divisions for reinforcements.

Hitler was probably met with great skepticism, without surprise. There had been many past promises of reinforcements that never arrived. Hitler gave his assurances to the Generals that they would receive the men. He also gave a pledge that the Luftwaffe would support them with approximately 1500 fighters, 100 of which would be Hitler’s new secret weapon the deadly jet fighter. They were also promised 4,50,000 gallons of fuel for the counter offensive. Hitler’s only warning was that some of the reinforcement division may have to be called back to the West line.

Many of Hitler’s field leaders felt that an attack of this magnitude would place too much strain on the already very strained German army. As quoted later an old Field Marshall said all, absolutely all conditions for the possible success of such an offensive were lacking.” Some of the leading intelligence officers expected the Allied forces to be two to one on the Germans. A majority of the Generals involved in the operation felt that all this attack would do is create a small bulge in what would only be a holding operation. Both the Northern and Southern flank of the entire moving force would be dangerously exposed through out the entire operation, growing more and more open with each mile gained. Despite all that seemed to be against them Hitler’s two other top military advisors changed certain aspects that would allow them to conquer the most land and maximize damage with minimal risk.

On November 10th Hitler signed the operation directive Wacht Am Rhein. After all the changes and modifications, the plan gave an impressive troop count. They had 4 armies, 11 army corps 8 divisions (15 motorized and infantry), plus Volks artillery corps and 7 Volks Werfer Brigades. It was wondered by many Western Front Generals how Hitler and his plan designer Jodl were able to come up with so many divisions that they either couldn’t see or just didn’t have. This was something that Hitler had not informed his subordinates. One of the Armies that would participate, the Fifteenth Army, was already fighting in the Aachen Battle and would not be employed until the Allied Forces had reacted to the German attack. So the Generals, in the beginning, would be short nearly six divisions then what they were told that they would have.

An error that could have nearly cost the plan to fail in the beginning was the calling of three Panzer divisions from other parts of the Western Front. Two of the three had been at the front lines since the invasion on Normandy and with the two put together did not have enough to make a single division, let alone help lead a massive attack toward Antwerp. The 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division and the 1st Panzer Division were the two that had been called. These two Panzer divisions were to lead the counteroffensive. With two divisions not even equaling one the attack would be doomed to failure from the start. Luckily for the Germans the two divisions were soon reoutfitted, but still not to there full strength. Two other divisions were merged, the 4th Infantry division and the 46th Volks Grenadier division, decommissioning the 4th Infantry division.

Hitler sent a message to all his Field Commanders they had to hold all of their lines with the troops that they had, even if it meant giving up some ground. All of the forces that were to be used had to be rested and restocked with supplies and ammunition. Patton’s Third Army opened a two corps attack, soon after several advisors making predictions of a large thrust due to the general ease in holding back the Allied advance. Hitler warned, once again, that none of the divisions for the attack could be used in any part of the line.

Hitler knew that if any of his plans leaked out then the entire operation would completely loose all affect, knowing this he devised very clever cover plans. His main plan to confuse the Allied Forces was to say “Germany fears that the U.S. First and Ninth Armies would achieve a real breakthrough and drive to the Rhine in the sector between Cologne and Bonn; in preparation for this untoward event the Fuehrer is amassing a major counterattack force northwest of Cologne” . It was many false reports that helped to make everyone, including Hitler’s own fighting troops confused and worried. Hitler made sure that many different rumors and false reports made it to the Allies, through neutral forces, double agents and intercepted radio transmissions.

On the night of the 15th of December German company commanders gave their men the watchword which came from the Fuehrer himself Forward to and over the Meuse! , with the objective, Antwerp. Hitler’s idea of the ‘Big Solution’ had prevailed. The Allies were not to be just simply beaten back in brute force, but were to be surrounded with a turning motion from the river beyond the Meuse. The main effort was to be from Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army on the north wing, then cross the Meuse on both sides of Liege, wheel north, and then strike for the Albert Canal. From there they were to fan out and extend a front from Maastricht to Antwerp. Meanwhile infantry were to be following from the rear which would form the north shoulder of the advance.

As the massive German attack, containing an estimated 00,000 troops and two full Panzer Armies, moved toward the Allies many of the troops were just overwhelmed by the huge moving mass of vehicles, tanks and troops. Many thousand surrendered, many more thousand ran back as far and as fast as they could. Most troops were shocked by how many Germans there were. After all, Germany was nearly finished. With thousands and thousands of troops either retreating or giving up, a counter move to this attack was to send in fresh troops that would be going on the line. The line was near the small city of Bastogne. One of the first divisions to replace the retreating troops was the 101st Airborne Division.

The German attack soon surrounded the city of Bastogne and ordered the unconditional surrender of the entire division of the 101st. The division commander General McAuliffe’s simple reply to this demand was “NUTS!”, upon which the division kept fighting, despite having minimal food, ammunition, clothing and medical supplies.

At this point in time the Germans were running low on fuel. Some vehicles had to be abandoned because they were out of fuel. Many of the early Allied air strikes had been targeted at fuel depots and storage points, for this very effect, to cause shortages and to hopefully immobilize the German mechanized army. The plan from the beginning for the Germans had been to just capture Allied fuel from the retreating soldiers and use that. But at this point the Allies had had enough time to reorganize their forces and send them back to the front lines, slowing down, if not stopping all German forces. After several Allied divisions had retreated, they realized what the Germans were doing with the fuel, so as they retreated they burned anything else that they couldn’t carry.

General Patton at the time was in control of the U.S. Third Army. He knew what kind of distress the divisions in Bastogne were in. He also knew that unless a major strike was put into place then the Germans would be able to slowly but surely push there way toward their, at the time, unapparent goal. He had received orders from Eisenhower not to move his Third Army at any point, unless specifically ordered to from Eisenhower. Patton had wanted to move in earlier and deliver the final blow that would knock the German forces off their feet and cripple their military. Eisenhower, on the other hand, wanted to deliver several smaller jabs that he thought would destroy the morale of the troops. After several small jabs he wanted to have a huge line slowly move forward pressing on against anything. No one to this day can really understand why he wanted to do this. After the German attack had gone on for some time Patton, against orders, moved his entire Third Army into the southern flank of the German attack and siphoned off supplies and reinforcements. All the while he pushed back all German forces, saving all of our troops on the 6th of December that had been surrounded in Bastogne. To this day not a single trooper of the 101st will admit that they needed to be rescued, at any point in time, by Patton or anyone else.

The German forces had tried to make it to Antwerp by going through the Ardennes. They failed to achieve their goal. The most that they had been able to accomplish was to create a huge bulge in the Allied front lines. Thus the enormous battle was labeled The Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle of World War II. It amounted in extreme casualties on both sides of the line. Unfortunately for the Germans, it crippled the rest of their forces making it a simple march into Germany with minimal resistance (as compared to earlier in the war).

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