I was sitting in my office wondering, “What is this week’s blog going to be about?” It is cold, even here in Virginia, and I wanted to do a subject that reflected the weather we’ve had for the last week. Then it hit me; this is the anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Bulge – December 16, 1944. For me, it conjures up images of the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division huddled in around the tiny village of Bastogne – and of General Patton’s infamous pivot and drive to relieve them. I’ve known enough paratroopers in my life to know that the men of the 101st still proudly say that they didn’t need relief…and while I share their sense of unit pride, the armored forces were welcomed when they broke the siege.
For me the battle is interesting for a few aspects. One, it was a stunning Allied intelligence failure. The Wehrmacht had assembled an impressive attack force under the noses of the Allied forces almost undetected. No one anticipated that the Germans were even capable of launching a counterattack on the scale that was unleashed that bitter cold winter.
Another reason this battle stands out for me, as a semi-casual historian, is that it was initially a loss for the Allies. The German forces had struck back with more fury and with more success than they had been able to demonstrate on the Eastern front. It is odd the American’s count this as one of their greatest battles given that the first few days of this, it had all but shattered the American forces on the front. This battle, above all other, validated that the war was destined to drag on for some time longer.
The goal of the offensive had been to divide the Allies and in some respects it did just that; just not in the way Hitler had envisioned. After the battle, British General Montgomery had claimed credit for the counterattack which sat poorly with the Americans. Likewise, General Bradley lost some of his clout having suffered the worst of the German offensive and having General Patton playing the role of the cavalry riding in to save the besieged Americans.
It was a battle where nature favored the Germans. If not for the weather, air power would have devastated much of the German offensive capability. As it was, snow and fog provided the Germans exactly what they needed. Once the weather turned and the fighter bombers were in the air, the Germans were ground to a halt and driven back.
There are a myriad of other factors that make the battle interesting for me. Patton’s turn north was, in my opinion, one of his greatest moments as a field commander. I’m sure people would argue against me on this, but I stand by my thinking. Then there’s Otto Skorzeny sneaking in English speaking commandos behind the lines, waging a war of deception and confusion. On the more dark side, there was the Malmedy Massacre – a grim reminder of the horrors of war.
This was not America’s greatest moment in WWII. It was a reminder of just how determined the German enemy was in battle and how they had earned the reputation for battle across Europe. It began with devastating losses, forcing the Americans to improvise and adapt to a dramatically changing battle situation. Perhaps that is why we remember the battle so often on the lists of great American struggles.