May 19, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

What Was the Battle of the Bulge?

11 min read

The Battle of the Bulge is a long and somewhat complex battle near the end of the Second World War, following D-Day (June 6, 1944). The situation was highly contextualized, while the battle itself had many smaller components to it. The first section of this article is a summary of the battle, while the last is a broad timeline of events. 

The middle section is composed of smaller topics that do not necessarily follow the chronology of the battle. (One of the clearest ways to show the simultaneous nature of war was displayed in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017).) To see the chronology, jump to the last section for the timeline.

Contextualized – influenced by previous and current events

Components – parts

Chronology – arranged in order of when they happened

Simultaneous – at the same time

A Summary of the Battle of the Bulge

The Battle of the Bulge took place between December 16, 1944 and January 16, 1945. It occurred 6 months after the Allied push into Europe on D-Day and lasted approximately 1 month. The Germans, pushed by the Russians on the Eastern Front (the battle zone east of German territory), needed to consolidate their forces on that side to resist them. 

At the same time, if the Germans did not deal with the combined Allied forces on the Western Front (the battle zone west of German territory), they would sacrifice German territory to resist Russia. Because of this, the Germans decided to launch a dedicated attack on the Allies on the Western Front and push them out. 

The Allied forces pushed forward into the Ardennes in Belgium, a forested and hilly land. (This is why you will sometimes also see “Ardennes Forest” in reference to this area.) This was a difficult area to mount any attack in. The Allied forces suspected nothing while Germany planned its entire advance around it. 

Germany launched several near-simultaneous attacks on December 16, 1944. “Near-simultaneous” because the terrain that made surprise attacks perfect also slowed down the counteroffensive. The Allies were first caught off guard, and it took some time for them to realize that the attacks were part of a full counteroffensive rather than isolated skirmishes. 

However, as communication across the lines showed the magnitude of the attack, the Allies held out and pushed back. While Germany did drive a wedge into the Allied lines, pockets of Allied soldiers held out long enough for backup forces to shore them up and push the Germans back.

The Germans eventually pulled back, resisting the attempt of the Allies to cut off their forces in a pincer attack. They returned to German territory, with such losses as to make realistic resistance on either the Western or Eastern Fronts impossible. The Battle of the Bulge was the last push of Germany on the Western Front, and opened the door for the Allies to continuously push forward into German-held territory until the end of the war in Europe (May 8, 1954, Victory in Europe (V-E) Day). 

Counteroffensive – An attack (offensive) launched in response to an offensive

Isolated – Alone, singular, non-collective

Skirmishes – Irregular fighting, often smaller conflicts than battles

Magnitude – Largeness of 

Wedge – Shaped slimmer on one end and wider at the other and designed to widen a slim gap

To shore up – To “shore” means to “prop”; to shore up means to prop up something with a risk or possibility of collapsing or falling

Pincer attack – To come around from both sides to pinch whatever is in the middle of the “pincers”

Where did the name “Battle of the Bulge” come from?

According to Time Magazine, war correspondent Larry Newman developed the term in an effort to illustrate the appearance of the army lines on the map to readers. The “bulge” in this case described how the line of the German army had pushed the Allied forces back. 

It is interesting that the name describes the initial success of Germany, and nothing more than that. Nothing in the name suggests who won (although maybe if Germany had won, we would know it by Wacht am Rhein, Watch on the Rhine, the name of their counteroffensive). As far as the name goes, it could have been the Allied forces that pushed into Germany.

Be that as it may, we now know it as one of the greatest Allied victories on the Western Front, and the battle that ended Germany’s capacity to launch counter offensives for the duration of the war. 

War correspondent – Someone who regularly writes to people or newspapers, in this case for updates about the war

Initial – Beginning or starting

Duration – Length of time

The Situation on the Eastern Front

It may be said that Germany created their own Eastern Front problem, and that would not be far off from the truth. Germany had originally signed a nonaggression treaty with Russia to functionally cover its Eastern (right) flank. Russia supplied Germany with natural resources both from its own lands and what they had through trade with East Asia. 

It also helped in the occupation of Poland after September 1, 1939 (Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland), and the holding down of Eastern European states such as Estonia and Latvia. However, Germany wanted Russia’s natural resources, as well as full security on its eastern side. On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded Russia through Unternehmen Barbarossa, Operation Barbarossa, what would become the Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voyna (Great Patriotic War) of Russia

Three million-and-a-half German soldiers entered Russia, taking Kiev (at that time Ukraine was part of the Russian federation of states) and nearly taking Moscow, the capital of Russia. They suffered over 700,000 casualties, killing 800,000 Russians with 6,000,000 more Russian casualties. The operation lasted nearly 6 months, ending in December 1941 when Russian troops and their winter weather launched a counteroffensive that caused Germany its first major land war loss in World War II. 

Following this operation, Russia joined the Allied forces, with the understanding through various meetings that they would occupy part of Berlin and Germany postwar as reparations for Operation Barbarossa. In truth, according to The Guardian, the Western Front looms large in Western European and North American memories but the Eastern Front was more of a nightmare for Germany. 

The German casualties at the Eastern Front were 9 times worse. The threat, with no separation by any body of water whatsoever (unlike the United Kingdom from the rest of Europe, which was mostly German-occupied at the time), was much more imminent. D-Day had rather less of an impact on Hitler’s mind than the Eastern Front, which is why the Battle of the Bulge was supposed to be a one-and-done endeavor before the forces were redirected to resist at the Eastern Front. 

Russia moved against Germany in June 1944, doing its part in reclaiming German-occupied territory as the Western Allies pushed forward. They were still seen as the major threat, and their presence is part of what caused the Battle of the Bulge to be as large as it was for the German troops. They needed the Western Allies out of the way to look to the Eastern Front. 

Nonaggression treaty – A treaty saying two or more parties will not take aggressive or possibly violent action against one another

Natural resources – Usually raw materials such as oil, wood, stone, etc.

Reparations – Payment for damage caused

Imminent – Extremely likely to happen

Endeavor – Attempt

The Supply Line Dilemma

It is rather challenging to talk about laws against looting and pillaging during World War II. The Geneva Conventions and other international laws such as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court were not developed until after World War II. In fact, many of the laws were developed as a result of World War II.

What we know, however, is that it was important for the Allied Forces to come into German-occupied Europe as the deliverers (to use the word loosely), and not as another burden into the already suffering region. They needed newly-liberated parts of Europe on their side.

In other words, while troops might accept gifts from civilians in Europe (such as there were after several years of war), they were unlikely to take food of any kind without due compensation. They also could not travel with much of the food they would have found there. England, while unoccupied, had shifted to war-time economy and rations, with their major European trade partners now German-occupied and unable to transact with England.

To supply the massive numbers of men who entered Europe during D-Day (around 156,000 soldiers), the supply lines stretched across the Atlantic from the United States to the United Kingdom via ship and plane. To reach mainland Europe, supplies would need to be shipped or flown across the Channel. As soldiers pushed inwards towards Germany, the supplies would need to catch up with them via land, as it was not always possible to airdrop them.

However, wartime necessities cause their own problems. Before D-Day, targeted bombing weakened Germany’s ability to send troops to Normandy. The bombing took out roads and trains, all of which would later be out of commission when the Allies needed to send food and other supplies to their troops at the front.

As a result, the Ardennes Forest was seen as the perfect place to rest and resupply. The forested land would cover the troops, as would the hilly terrain. Winter was coming. It was likely (so the Allies thought) that both Allied and German troops would stay put and have as quiet a Christmas as two armies could have in wartime. 

Dilemma – A rather large problem

Looting – Stealing

Pillaging – Stealing violently, particularly during invasion or wartime

Liberate – Free (action word)

Civilians – Non-military personnel

Mainland Europe – Mostly-landlocked Europe

Via – Through

Out of commission – Unable to be used

Terrain – Condition of land (hilly, swampy, flat)

The Role of the Enigma 

The German code-generating “Enigma” was not simply one machine, and different code settings were used for the Army, the Navy, and so forth. Each branch of the military would routinely reset their Enigma code, causing the British code-breaking Operation Ultra at Bletchley Park to scramble until 1940, when the first breakthrough was made. 

Still, code-breaking was just the first step. The code needed to be broken, transcribed in the original German, translated, and then transported along with any other intelligence to analysts, who would use this semi-processed information to draw conclusions and make recommendations. 

The sheer volume of messages being sent often overwhelmed the code-breaking bombes as well as the transcribers and translators, not to mention the couriers and then, of course, the analysts. They needed to make wartime decisions with limited and possibly false or misleading information as quickly as they could, while the information was still viable. 

The well-known Alan Turing and his fellow engineer Tommy Flowers developed the Colossus, which could code-break and transcribe to German simultaneously. It could also handle a great number of transmissions at once, leaving the work to just the translators and couriers before the information reached the analysts. This was in 1942. 

By 1944, D-Day, Ultra intelligence was so good that it even allowed the Allies to plant false information about where the troops would land if ever they made a move. As a result, they much lessened the number of German troops at the Normandy beaches when the time arrived. This overdependence on code breaking became one of the main reasons the Battle of the Bulge was so successful initially. 

Transcriptions – Written copy of audible words, sounds, or symbols

Courier – Messenger

Viable – Possible

Transmission – Something sent from one point to another point

German Anti-Ultra Preparation

At this point, the Germans were aware that the Allies had code-breaking power. Information, as in any war, is the heart of military strategy. As a result, the Germans could do the same thing the Allies did: plant misinformation. And, with a great amount of forethought, they banked on the Allies’ overdependence on Ultra information to keep them apathetic. It worked.

To bring supplies close to the Ardennes, routine road construction was set up before the repair of any major areas began. The construction was noted, the repair of major roads unnoted. Large military pieces were pulled into place as low-flying planes disrupted Allied listening posts. When possible, horses were used to pull equipment so as to lessen the sounds of engines.

Troop movements were kept to a minimum, and the troops were spread out. They only used charcoal fires, to lessen the smoke that could be spotted or reported. High-ranking officers donned lower-ranking uniforms when they moved near to the front lines, to lessen the possibility of anyone reporting that the area was of military interest to Germany.

Because Ultra reported no significant movement, the Allied forces could rest in the knowledge that no major attack was incoming. As a result, it took some time before the full attack could be confirmed to the troops on the front lines. The initial push was deadly and fully surprising because of this. 

Strategy – Plans to reach a goal

Forethought – Thinking ahead

Apathetic – Not caring

Routine – Regular

Disrupt – Cause a break or disturbance in

Minimum – As little as possible

The Presence of the 12th Panzer Division Hitler Jugend

The Hitler Youth had begun in 1926, well before Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933. They were loyal to his name, and to his cause, and their fanaticism (such as it was) carried into the war. The 12th Waffen-SS, the 12th armored Panzer Division, was made up almost exclusively of teenagers and young men, some of whom had been Hitler Youth since 1926. 

The division was known for its resilience, even in the face of Allied forces. Eighty percent of the division was lost at Caen on June 7, 1944, one day after D-Day (D-Day + 1). Despite being outnumbered, they are one of the reasons the Allies slowed down at Caen. The news made it to the Australian press, where Allies were encountering soldiers of 17 or 18  years old. 

The 12th Panzer Division was sent to take the Belgian port of Antwerp, securing it and therefore cutting off the Allied forces from needed supplies. However, they were held and blocked by American foot soldiers until the end of the battle, when all German soldiers were called back. They later went to Hungary on the Eastern Front to fight the Russian troops. The division only surrendered at the surrender of the nation on May 8, 1945. 

Fanaticism – Loyalty to the point of irrationality

Resilience – Ability to resist and recover

Timeline of the Battle of the Bulge

The timeline is taken from a Library of Congress archive document, printable with maps. 

December 16, 1944 – The beginning of the attack. The Allied Forces were strung out on a thin and sometimes porous line through the Ardennes. The German troops on the other side of the line were around the same amount, but their number would double the next day as the plan was set into motion.

December 18, 1944 –  The Germans push at two areas, one in the north, and the other in the middle (the “bulge” that gave the battle its name). Their actions also cause the Allied Forces to move troops to those two focal points.

December 19, 1944 – The Germans nearly reach Bastogne, where the 101st Airborne (made famous by the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers (2001)) was waiting in the town. The 6th episode of the miniseries, “Bastogne,” is set in this town during the Battle of the Bulge.

December 21, 1944 – The Germans are unable to take Bastogne through a direct march and advance instead through the Ardennes.

December 23–25, 1944 – The Germans surround Bastogne, but General Patton’s Third Army has arrived and gives them some trouble on the other side of their line.

December 27, 1944 – The Germans fail to take Bastogne as more Allied troops arrive at the bulge.

January 1–3, 1945 – More Allied troops arrive, and the bulge begins to cave in on itself as German troops withdraw little by little. The withdrawal does not end. 

January 15–18, 1945 – The Germans have almost completely pulled back, the bulge is reduced to a curve, and Germany looks again to its most imminent threat: the Russians on the Eastern Front.