Over the course of human history, there have been countless wars of various scales. The twentieth century will always be remembered by the bloodiest and most devastating war that involved the entire planet and led to millions of deaths, the ruination of cities and infrastructure, and the first-ever use of atomic weapons. During the course of World War II, many battles were won and lost, and some battles were of significant importance or they became turning points in the war. Thus, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was significant because it forced the USA to enter the war in 1941. In 1943, the Battle of Stalingrad became the turning point of the Second World War because it stopped the advancement of Germany’s armed forces to the east and set the forces of the Allies on their path to victory. In 1944, the famous Battle of Normandy, or D-Day, led to the liberation of France that was under the Nazi occupation and gave the Allies a chance to attack the Axis Powers in mainland Europe. Another important battle that became a turning point during the final stages of World War II was the Battle of the Bulge. This battle was Hitler’s last effort to launch a counter-offensive against the Allied forces to split them and it lasted for a little more than a month. The goal of this paper is to show the importance of the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.
Background of the Battle of the Bulge
In mid-1944, it became apparent that Hitler’s Third Reich would not last much longer. Little by little, Germany lost its allies and the Axis ceased to exist. For example, fascist Italy, which was one of the main allies of Nazi Germany, capitulated in 1943. Japan, Germany’s other ally, suggested that it was better to start negotiating with the Soviet Union about surrender or peace. By the end of August, Germany lost Bulgaria and Romania since they joined the winning side, the Russians. In September, Finland and the Soviet Union reached an armistice, which weakened the position of Germany in Scandinavia. Without Finland, Germany was left with Hungary and Croatia.
In addition to losing almost all of its allies, Germany suffered from heavy losses in men. During the summer of 1944, German losses on both fronts, the Western and Eastern, reached almost 1,200,000 wounded, dead, and missing. Moreover, almost 230,000 German troops ended up in such a position that would lead to their surrender because of the rapid advance of the Allied forces in the west. Additionally, materiel losses were on par with human ones.
Hitler’s Germany was in a difficult position since its war industry suffered from being cut off from such strategic resources as Romanian oil, Russian manganese, Swedish high-grade ore, French mercury, Spanish bauxite, etc. The neutral countries no longer wanted to sell resources to the side that was about to lose the war. The territories taken by the Allies would not supply the enemy with resources either.
As for the Allied forces, their situation was as follows. On June 6, 1944, the Allied troops invaded Normandy and moved towards Germany, hoping for a victory on the Western Front. The Allies had yet to decide on the best ways to attack Germany. Bernard Montgomery, the Field Marshal of the British Army, wanted to attack it with a single thrust, having concentrated all resources and supplies and moving into Germany. However, the plan had a drawback because there was a possibility that Germans would simply circle the British troops. Slower but a more reliable plan was suggested by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied forces, who chose a broad-front strategy. According to this strategy, the Allied troops would be spread thin, but they would move forward together. The advance of the troops would be slower, but this strategy was more reliable than that one of Montgomery.
The troops of the Allies required supplies to be delivered all the time. With winter approaching, it was difficult to use the invasion beaches to deliver supplies to the Allies. New ports were extremely important for the forces to advance into mainland Europe. The port of Antwerp was one of such ports. The British 11th Armored Division liberated Antwerp in September 1944, but the mouth of the river Rhine was still under German control. Only by the end of November 1944, the Allies managed to receive supplies through the port of Antwerp.
Planning the Offensive
At the staff conference on July 31, 1944, Hitler spoke about planning the counter-offensive operation against the Allied forces. He did not like the fact that the Allies had managed to break out of Normandy and advance in France. Hitler had just survived an assassination attempt several days prior to the conference, but the main subject of his speech was the operation on the Western Front that would require all resources even at the expense of other fronts. The breakthrough of the Allies in Normandy seemed more dangerous to him than the advance of the Soviet Army on the Eastern Front. His main goal was to seize Antwerp, which would cut off the Allies from the supply lines and separate the American troops from the British troops. Hitler assumed that such a setback would force Britain and the US to settle for a separate peace. Thus, the Western Front would be closed for Hitler and he would be able to concentrate on the Eastern Front where the Soviets fought.
On August 19, Hitler announced that the planned offensive was set to begin in November. He expected that bad autumn weather would not allow the Allies to use air forces. Hitler was right in his assumptions as the weather was indeed very bad and the bombers of the Allied forces were not a threat to his troops. Besides, the German armies resisted the attacks of the Allies and held their positions stubbornly. In addition, Germany’s war industry managed to pull itself together and provide Hitler with an army he had demanded from Goebbels.
Hitler expected that the Allies would notice extensive preparations and wanted to hide them by making everyone, including his own troops, think that the forces that he accumulated on the Western Front were defensive. The build-up of forces was done in secrecy. Only a few top officers of the army knew about the operation that was given the code name ‘Watch on the Rhine’ that was meant to conceal the purpose of the operation if the Allies had found out about it. Hundreds of tanks and pieces of artillery were secretly transported to the thick forests around the Ardennes. In should be noticed that the Germans used as much deception as possible to cover their true actions. The troops concealed their hiding places and used charcoal instead of wood for cooking so that smoke wouldn’t reveal their whereabouts. Even the tracks of the vehicles were brushed out to hide the movement of equipment to hiding places. The Germans transmitted false messages to the units that never existed. To confuse the enemy, even more, the Germans transported trainloads of tanks to some sections of the Western Front and then at night, moved them to the Ardennes. Bad weather did not allow the Allies to use reconnaissance planes effectively, which allowed the Germans to prepare for the counter-offensive successfully.
Watch on the Rhine
In mid-September 1944, Hitler stated that the attack on the Allied forces was to go through the Ardennes, but the main objective was Antwerp with its port. The region of the Ardennes was chosen for several reasons. First, German troops had used the getaway several times – in 1870, 1940, and 1941, which made it historic for Germany. Second, Hitler knew that as the Ardennes part of the Allies’ line served as the junction between the US troops and the British, it was thinly manned since the Americans did not expect anyone to attack it. Third, due to the configuration of the area and limited ground for maneuver, the number of required divisions would be relatively small. Fourth, as it has been previously mentioned, thick woods in the area hid the tanks and artillery rather well, which made an aerial observation of the area difficult.
In the very early morning of December 16, 1944, many American soldiers died when the German divisions attacked the American outposts in the Ardennes. Since the attack was well prepared, the Americans could not do much. Their artillery positions and command posts were destroyed by rocket batteries. They could not report about the attack because radio frequencies were jammed and phone lines were disrupted.
Fog and the element of surprise were on the side of the attackers, which enabled the German assault troops to destroy or overwhelm many American outposts. However, having recovered from the unexpected attack, American soldiers fought bravely and the attack on the northern part of the front in the Ardennes lost momentum. Nevertheless, the Germans managed to make some progress in the southern part, creating a bulge behind American positions. It should be noted that the Battle of the Bulge was not one specific battle but several battles that had been fought at different times over a large area.
The Germans wanted to take control of small towns Bastogne and St. Vith that were highly important road centers. It should be said that they managed to surround the town of Bastogne and heavy fighting was held at St. Vith. Successful attacks of the German troops lasted for two days only as the Americans recovered from the initial shock. The ferocious fighting brought the battle to stalemate. The Germans could not move too far into the territory controlled by the Americans because their attacks were based on the use of armored vehicles that required a lot of fuel. They simply did not have enough fuel for that.
By the end of December 1944, it became evident that the German attack had slowed down. Besides, the weather conditions were very harsh, and many soldiers froze to death or got sick. The Germans faced a lack of fuel for their vehicles and, sometimes, they simply abandoned them and went on foot.
Artillery, tanks, and infantry troops that came to reinforce the Allied forces signified the failure of Hitler’s counter-offensive attack. On January 16, 1945, the battle ended as the Allies took control of the line and eliminated the bulge.
Importance of the Battle of the Bulge
As it has been already stated, the Battle of the Bulge was very important for the outcome of World War II and victory of the Allied forces. The Germans suffered enormous losses after the last attempt of Hitler’s army to turn the tide of the war. In the Ardennes, where Germany lost approximately 300-400 tanks, the German Army was damaged beyond recovery. The air force suffered a devastating blow because hundreds of planes were not suitable for repair. Losses of manpower were serious as well. Germany would not be able to gather or train enough people to continue the war and win battles
The losses of the Allied forces were terrible but less serious than the German ones. The American Army lost almost 77,000 men – 8,600 dead and 47,000 wounded. 21,000 men were captured or missing during the Battle of the Bulge. The Americans lost many tanks but they managed to replace everything rather quickly.
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While it cannot be said that the Battle of the Bulge was a turning point in the war since that point had been reached after the Battle of Stalingrad, Hitler’s counter-offensive showed that Germany had no chance at winning the war and its defeat was inevitable. Germany no longer had reserves to fight the war and counter-offensive only quickened the defeat. It was exhausted and demoralized after the defeat. Regarding the Allied forces, their victory at the Battle of the Bulge boosted the soldiers` morale that only consolidated the Allies in their common goal, which was the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Had the Germans won the Battle of the Bulge and split the Allied forces, they could have forced them to negotiate for a separate peace. Luckily, that did not happen and the Western Front was not closed. Otherwise, the world would have been different than it is now.
Hitler’s last offensive was ordered out of a desperate attempt to change the course of the war, to divide the allies, to force them to stop advancing across Europe to Germany and sign the peace treaty on Germany’s terms. To achieve that, Hitler ordered to strain the already exhausted economy of Germany. The operation was planned in a clever and careful way in order for the Germans to manage to deceive the Allies and hide an army under their noses. The Germans struck at the inconvenient moment for the Allies when the weather was bad and they could not use their air forces. However, Hitler only worsened Germany’s situation and his failed operation damaged the army beyond recovery. He underestimated American soldiers and their will to win the Battle of the Bulge, which cost him dearly in the end.