Monday, March 17, 2008

Military History and Warfare: World War II: Why did the German Ardennes offensive of 1944 fail to achieve its goals?

The Ardennes offensive of December 1944 is often regarded as Hitler’s last throw of the dice. In a final effort to turn the tide of the war on the western front, Germany launched a surprise offensive designed to catch the Allies off guard and retake the vital strategic port of Antwerp. Initially, the offensive went well and succeeded in advancing sixty miles into Belgium, taking thousands of US prisoners in the process as well as shattering Allied myths regarding the continued fighting capabilities of the Wehrmacht. However, by Christmas day of 1944 it was clear that the German offensive had run out of steam. Allied forces began a series of counterattacks that eventually drove the Germans back to their start line by the middle of January 1945. Devastating German losses destroyed any future hopes of Germany retaking the strategic initiative. By March 1945, the Allies had crossed the Rhine and annihilated the remnants of the Wehrmacht in Western Europe. However, had the Ardennes offensive succeeded in achieving its goals the situation might have been very different. The attack followed the same route as that of the 1940 German invasion four years earlier. The potential consequences of the offensive succeeding would have seriously undermined the Allied strategy for ending the war by 1945. Given the large scale German preparations for the offensive and the initial success of the attack, it is important to examine what exactly the goals of the German Army were and why they failed to break through and achieve their objectives.

The battles in Normandy and the rest of France following D-Day had seriously depleted the Wehrmacht’s fighting strength. However, the shortcomings of Allied supply logistics as well as the failure of Operation Market Garden in September 1944 gave the German army much needed breathing space to reorganise and rebuild. From September Hitler began to gradually assemble a strong force of panzer divisions. On 22nd October 1944, the German commander in the West, Gerd von Rundstedt and the commander of Army Group B, Field Marshall Model, were informed of the Fuhrer’s plans. These called for a major offensive from the Eifel and across the Ardennes by three re-equipped armies. Sixth SS Panzer under Sepp Dietrich, Fifth Panzer under von Manteuffel and General Brandenberger’s Seventh Army, all supported by some 1,400 aircraft of the Luftwaffe. The plan was to strike a heavy blow against the Allies in the West, splitting their forces in two, inflicting heavy losses and capturing their main supply base, the port of Antwerp. The attack would smash through the US First Army in the southern Ardennes and drive north-west towards Antwerp, crossing the River Meuse between Liege and Namur.

Each of the armies involved had a definite task. In the north, Dietrich’s SS Panzer Army was to capture Monschau and Bugenbach and then pass three infantry divisions though to hold the northern flank of the attack east of Liege. The 1st and 12th SS would then thrust west for Malmedy and Stavelot, whilst an advanced striking force commanded by SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny, disguised with captured American uniforms and equipment would rush west and seize the Meuse bridges. In the south, Hasso von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army would thrust for the key road junctions at St.Vith and Bastogne, cross the River Our and drive on for the Meuse. To protect these advances, Brandenberger’s Seventh Army would provide a flank guard from Arlon to Luxembourg.

In theory, the plan held some merit. The thick forest and natural valleys of the Ardennes forest were almost impenetrable to Allied aerial surveillance. This would allow the Germans to build up large forces and supplies without arousing the suspicions of Allied intelligence and gain the advantage of surprise. To ensure absolute secrecy, Hitler forbade the use of wireless traffic in the area during the weeks before the attack. To give the impression that any forces detected were for defensive purposes only, the plan was codenamed ‘Wacht am Rhein’, later changed to ‘Herbstnebel’ (‘Autumn Smoke’). On the 16th December 1944, the Germans managed to throw eight panzer divisions, twenty infantry divisions and two mechanized brigades into the offensive. This totalled 200,000 men, initially supported by 500 tanks and 1,900 guns and mortars. Despite these preparations, Rundstedt and Model thought the plan for a thrust on Antwerp was ill-advised and too ambitious. They proposed an alternative plan aimed at damaging the forces opposite the Ardennes rather than trying to destroy them. Hitler refused to accept anything other than an all-out offensive and their plans were rejected.

Hitler hoped that a major defeat in the West would impel the Allies to the conference table. Even if the attack failed, Hitler considered that it might give Germany some useful time to produce more of its new technologically sophisticated weaponry and turn the tide of the war. German industry was finally starting to produce large numbers of jet-fighters that might yet curb the bomber offensive. The German navy could also renew its U-boat offensive on Allied convoys with the newly developed schnorkel submarine. In addition new V-weapons could be used in increasingly large number on British and continental cities inflicting casualties and sapping enemy morale.

Facing the Germans on the Ardennes front on the 16th December were 83,000 men with 242 Sherman medium tanks, 182 M-10 tank destroyers and 394 guns of various calibre. These forces had a long front to cover of some 104 miles. The 28th Division alone held a front of some thirty miles. In addition to being spread thinly the 4th and 28th Divisions had recently lost some 9,000 men in the Huertgen battles and the survivors were exhausted. The 106th Division had only been in the area for four days and the 9th armoured division lacked battle experience. These forces were woefully inadequate for the German onslaught.

The attack came as a complete surprise to the Allied forces in the area. Thousands of US prisoners were taken and the 106th Division ceased to exist as a fighting formation. By 21-23rd December the German advance had got to within four miles of Dinont on the Meuse. However, the US divisions encountered were still intact and the Meuse bridges were now securely held by the British. Crucially, the key road network at Bastogne was still held by the now besieged American forces. By Christmas Eve, the offensive had reached its highwater mark and Allied forces began counterattacking, ending German hopes of crossing the Meuse, let alone seizing Antwerp.

There were many factors involved in the failure of the German offensive. Although the US forces initially facing the Germans were overrun and destroyed, they had still managed to delay and inflict significant casualties on their attackers. The 28th and 106th US divisions had worn down the impetus of the German Panzer Divisions on the first day of the attack. The success of the German attack depended upon reaching the Meuse bridges and seizing them intact. Every moment of delay was critical for the Germans. Individual groups of US troops who held their ground contributed merely by slowing the German forces down for a few hours at a time and thereby allowing a counterattack to be assembled by US forces outside the ‘Bulge’. The successful deployment of the US 101st airborne division who arrived almost literally at the last moment in Bastogne, denied the Germans the use of the vital cross-roads and transport network that would have allowed them to deploy reinforcements with ease. US resistance at Bastogne tied up vital German resources at a time when they were desperately needed to support the forward elements of the advance. German difficulties at the start of the attack had been also increased by the fact that, in the interests of security, some units had been forbidden to carry out reconnaissance. Colonel Wilhelm Osterhold of the 12th Volksgrenadier Division claimed afterwards that ‘I never took part in an attack which was worse prepared’.

Throughout the battle, there was a large gulf between the performance of German armoured and infantry formations. The panzers and SS attacked with their usual energy and aggression. However, the supporting infantry displayed a shocking lack of enthusiasm, skill and training which made a significant contribution to German failure. Newly reconstructed German infantry divisions were not of the same quality as those that had been destroyed in Russia in 1942/3 and during the Normandy battles of late summer 1944. The 62nd Volksgrenadier Division contained many Czech and Polish conscripts from regions annexed to the Reich who spoke no German at all and belonged in sympathy to the Allies. The 352nd Volksgrenadier Division was rebuilt from airman and sailors and the 79th Volksgrenadier Division had been formed out of soldiers ‘combed out’ of rear headquarters.

By Christmas day, most of the lead Panzer units had ran out of fuel and had had to abandon their vehicles. The fuel reserves required had originally been calculated by the German High Command as being at 17,000 cubic metres. However, by the start of the attack only 50 per cent of the required fuel had been delivered. Therefore several armoured divisions only had fuel reserves for a distance of 60-80 km when they started because fuel consumption had been abnormally high during deployment. The success of the German offensive depended upon its lead elements capturing American fuel supplies as they advanced. German reinforcements simply could not reach the battle and make the required impact because of poor road conditions and above all, the lack of fuel. It is arguable that the fuel shortage contributed as much as Allied resistance to stopping the Panzers.

Tactically, the Germans made several errors which hindered their ability to exploit local successes and continue the advance. By the evening of the 17th December, Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army had become bogged down by US resistance. The Americans still held St.Vith and Butgenbach, so Model suggested to von Rundstedt that the weight of the attack and the available reinforcements, amounting to five divisions should be put towards Manteuffel’s attack in the south. Manteuffel’s Fifth Army was making good progress in the centre and requesting both support and fuel. Instead, Hitler insisted on trying to force a breakthrough on the southern flank with Dietrich’s Army. He decreed that the SS divisions should be sent to Dietrich in the north, whilst the remaining three armoured divisions would go Manteuffel. This division of reinforcements meant neither army received adequate support. On the evening of the 21st December, Manteuffel’s fuel supplies ran out stranding the 2nd Panzer Division at Teneville. Had Hitler agreed to switch his assets from the Sixth Panzer Army to the Fifth Army, it might have been very different. By contrast, the Allied commanders, having initially been taken by surprise, quickly worked out an effective strategy for blunting the offensive.

On the 20th December, Eisenhower had confided command of operations against Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army on the northern part of the Bulge to Field Marshall Montgomery. In the south, Patton had already began to move his armoured divisions to counterattack the German southern flank. The Allies were by now fully aware of German intentions since the Germans had broken radio silence and their intelligence codes had been broken. Montgomery brought British troops down from northern Belgium and secured the Meuse bridges. Having shored up the defensive line, American armoured divisions were by now in place to launch counterattacks. After Christmas Day the weather improved significantly enough for the Allied tactical airforces to begin bombing German positions. The Luftwaffe were unable to provide adequate support to German ground forces. Instead, Goring wasted his remaining assets and the fuel reserves of his air force by launching an all-out attack on Allied air fields on New Year’s Day 1945. It was clear by now that the German offensive had run out of steam.

The fighting in the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ continued for much of January. By the end of the battle the offensive had cost the Germans between 80,000 and 100,000 casualties as well as hundreds of tanks, armoured cars and artillery. US casualties were 80,987 men, making the Bulge the most costly battle the Americans fought in North-west Europe. The Allied advance into Germany was only delayed by seven weeks and the Germans had lost irreplaceable forces. These resources would have been better spent preparing for the Russian offensive on the eastern front which eventually took the Russians all the way to Berlin.

From the outset it was difficult to envisage the Germans succeeding. The forces assembled for the offensive lacked the power to sustain such an ambitious operation in the face of overwhelming superior Allied forces. The Allies were able to move forces around the battlefield with their huge fleet of logistical vehicles and almost unlimited fuel. For the German army to succeed in its aims would have required a combination of extremely favourable circumstances. Foggy weather hindering Allied airpower, usable roads and the absence of any tactical mistakes would all have been necessary for the offensive to succeed in reaching Antwerp and surrounding some thirty enemy divisions. The objectives of the operation were hugely ambitious for the limited resources available to the Germans in late 1944.


Robin Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine 1944 (London, 2005)

John Keegan, The Second World War (London, 1997)

Heinz Magenheimer, Hitler’s War (London, 1998)

Max Hastings, Armageddon: the Battle for Germany 1944-45 (London, 2004)

Richard Holmes, Battlefield: Decisive Conflicts in History (Oxford, 2006)

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