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Nine facts you may not have known about the Battle of the Bulge



The Battle of the Bulge and the Christmas Siege of Bastogne is especially remembered this time of year. The focus is often on the individual units involved, so for those not as familiar with this battle and its many moving parts I wanted to go back to the basics.

 

1. The Battle of the Bulge was not the actual name of the Operation.

The original name for the plan German Colonel General Jodl presented to Adolph Hitler, at Hitler's request, was Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine). The details of the Operation were kept ultra-secret from the units involved, with the exception of Hitler's top Generals immediately involved. The Operation's name implied a defensive operation which was to be focused on protecting the Rhine, rather than an offensive one which would cross the Rhine and move through the Ardennes. The name Battle of the Bulge was dubbed by a reporter for his readers. It was his attempt to portray to his audience a bulging section of the front line caused by one unit of the German's offensive forward progression outracing the others. That segment resembled a bulge on the map and hence the name Battle of the Bulge was born.

 

2. Operation Wacht am Rhein was originally scheduled for November 25, 1945.

The planning was based around when the weather would be overcast and provide the German troops protection from Allied eyes in the air. German covert movements of troops into position would be undetected and the absolute critical element of surprise maintained. Overcast skies would also deprive Allied troops of aerial support or resupply. The second requirement was a new moon rising. This would lend darker conditions to move troops into position without alerting the Allies. Hitler's top Generals Model, Jodl and Dietrich did not believe November 25th date was feasible due to the amount of preparations necessary and eventually, much to Hitler's displeasure it was pushed back until December 16th and given the code name Herbstnebel (Autumn Smoke).

 

3. The Operations critical objective was for two panzer armies to take and cross the Meuse River bridges in two days.  

German infantry divisions would deploy north and south to protect the flanks of the two panzer armies making a run for the Meuse. The armies would be supported by antitank and antiaircraft weapons. Having reached and taken the bridges over the Meuse, the panzer armies would then head towards Antwerp. The goal was to reap confusion and disorganization in the Allied forces thus giving the Germans the advantage. To prevent delay the two panzer armies were to avoid getting bogged down in attacks on villages or resistance holdouts.  The German plan was laid out to divide the sectors of Allied forces in the Ardennes area which would then be decimated by the German infantry following behind the initial panzer movements.  Any delay on the part of the two panzer armies reaching the Meuse objective would endanger the entire plan and Germany would be on the defensive defending their original borders on two fronts. The slaughter of Allied prisoners of war at Malmedy was conducted by the SS troops, known for their brutality. This was a grave error since the Allied troops, many new recruits, now would give ground only at high costs reinforced by the belief they would be killed if they fell into German hands. There resolve was immeasurably strengthened despite their dire straits and the Germans met stiff resistance.

 

4. The holding of Antwerp was key to both sides.

After the invasion of France, the Allies were moved swiftly towards the German border and at least in one spot penetrated it. They were forced to pull back because they had outpaced the supply line necessary for them to continue fighting or hold in place.  The Allies needed control of Antwerp to allow them to bring in the supplies necessary to continue the war effort. Antwerp was also located in close proximity, too close, to the German industrial centers and Hitler was equally determined to keep control of Antwerp out of enemy hands. Hitler's Generals proposed an alternate plan to Operation Wacht am Rhein which involved a pincer movement around Aachen thus cutting off the Allied troops. Hitler refused to consider it.

 

 5. Hitler's efforts to keep the battle plan ultra-secret prevented the German tanks from having the necessary petrol to make it to the Meuse and then continue forward.

Hitler and his commanders presented the plan as a defensive operation, therefore although all the petrol needed for the tanks to make it the Meuse had been scrounged up, the majority of it was left on the East side of the German defensive line. For a defensive line, as the Operation had been represented, petrol would be readily available within the German lines where the Allied attack was expected. However, for the offensive maneuver and the tanks moving rapidly away from their fuel it was made unavailable to the tanks thus compromising their reaching their objectives. The Germans were forced to find petrol where they could while on the move.  

 

6. Bastogne was under Siege, surrounded by the Germans with the 101st Airborne inside.

Because of reduced visibility the lightly supplied Allied troops in the Ardennes were running out of weapons, ammunition, gasoline, and medical supplies. Aerial support was unavailable. Critically low on medical staff as well the Allies were desperate for resupply. The wounded kept pouring in day after day and the makeshift hospital in Bastogne was overrun by casualities. Surgeons/medical staff were desperately needed but things were about to get worse. On Christmas Eve the makeshift hospital was bombed, killing many of the wounded soldiers there and one of the two nurses.

 

7. Gliders carried in medical supplies.

The weather finally cleared on December 26th and 27th and glider pilots who had been asked to volunteer took flight towards Bastogne. The only passengers hauled in the gliders were medical personnel, at least one of which was a surgeon. According to the USAF Statistical Control Reports for the Resupply to the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne gliders also carried in the following:

- 86 lbs. of rations

- 2,975 gallons of gasoline

- 106,291 lbs. of ammunition

- 32,823 lbs. of combat equipment and supplies to include medical supplies.

 

8. An Intelligence failure resulted in gliders shot down.

Although a corridor had been cleared for the tow ship/glider combinations to fly through the message was never passed on. Consequently, rather than flying in the cleared corridor the tow ships/gliders flew right along the heavily German defended corridor. In addition to glider and pilots being shot down, an additional 45,540 lbs. of supplies were lost.

 

9. The Battle of Bastogne was the last great offensive by the Germans.

Hitler had lost the initiative in this last attempt to stave off a direct attack into Germany. However, a direct threat to the homeland reinvigorated the sense of German Nationalism and the Germans fought with what they had left. What Hitler did not know at the time of planning the Wacht am Rhein is he would be dead approximately 6 months later.

 

Selected Sources: Snow & Steel: The Battle of the Bulge, 1944-45; Battle of the Bulge, Robert E. Merriam; USAF Statistical Control Reports; Suicide Jockeys: The Making of the WWII Combat Glider Pilot, Monique Taylor.

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