Battle of the Bulge, Part 4: Winter hell

Published 6:34 am Thursday, December 19, 2019

Read part 1 here: Autumn Fog

Read part 2 here: Surprise Attack

Read part 3 here: The Siege of Bastogne

Email newsletter signup

With the German advance ending on Dec. 31, 1944, the Allies began the arduous task of recapturing lost ground. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower transferred the U.S. First and Ninth Armies to British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group north of the German position, leaving the U.S. Third Army under Gen. George Patton the sole force in Gen. Omar Bradley’s U.S. 12th Army Group in the south. The move was done for efficiency purposes, but problems soon arose.

Montgomery was known for his ambition, stubbornness and arrogance; one member of his staff once remarked that he “strode into (First Army commander Gen. Courtney) Hodges’ headquarters like Christ coming to cleanse the temple.” He had been pressing Eisenhower for more troops, but despite receiving two additional armies, Montgomery demanded more. His attitude angered Eisenhower, who threatened to have the field marshal fired. Soon thereafter, a frustrated Bradley made the feud public. Hitler was delighted – it was the kind of disunity he had hoped for.

Patton had been actively engaging the Germans since late December 1944. Montgomery, on the other hand, did not launch his attack until Jan. 3, 1945. Realizing their forces were dangerously exposed, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt and Gen. Hasso von Manteuffel urged Hitler to allow German forces to retreat back into Germany to prepare for the nation’s defense. Hitler refused and ordered his men to continue fighting.

The ensuing battle to regain the Bulge took an unprecedented psychological toll on the Allied soldiers involved. They were attacking in the middle of the worst snowstorm Central Europe had seen in two decades. Snow and ice impeded progress; Patton’s Third Army, known for its speed, averaged roughly one mile a day. Freezing temperatures froze the water in canteens and hardened the ground to the point that men had to use grenades to dig their foxholes. Those without proper winter gear suffered from frostbite and hypothermia.

Adding to the misery was the Germans unwillingness to retreat. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. Because the ground was too hard, bodies were left to freeze in the snow. The site of dead bodies became so common that men would sit on them like logs while they ate their rations.

The infantry suffered the worst of the situation. Infantry made up 10 percent of the U.S. Army, but accounted for 90 percent of the casualties during the Battle of the Bulge. To address the need for replacements, training time was cut short, bringing ill-prepared men to the front. Because replacements were frequently killed quickly, veteran soldiers were often cold to them, not wanting to develop friendships with men they viewed as already dead. One officer reportedly told replacements, “Most of you won’t be coming back. Just as soon get used to it now.”

The need for men also kept all but the severely wounded from returning home; those who were not disabled were rapidly returned to the front. Capt. Ben Kimmelman of the U.S. 28th Infantry Division recalled one wounded soldier telling others, “Don’t you guys get it? As long as you can still walk and see, they’ll keep sending you back.”

Despite this, the Allies continued to gain ground. By the end of January, they had recaptured the territory lost to the Germans.

The Battle of the Bulge was the worst battle fought in U.S. Army history. In the end, the U.S. suffered 60,000 casualties, including 20,000 killed, and 20,000 captured. Prior to that, the worst loss of U.S. forces came in 1863 at Gettysburg, a battle in which Americans fought Americans.

For the Germans, the battle was a disastrous defeat. They suffered 30,000 killed, 40,000 wounded, 40,000 captured and thousands of tanks destroyed. German morale plunged on the Western Front. Hitler had transferred many of his best troops on the Eastern Front to the west for his plan, leaving his forces in the east weakened. He had also sacrificed his last reserves, leaving him with little to defend against an invasion.

It was the final gasp from a dictator who would be dead within a few months.