Eisenhower had left the semi-mountainous, heavily wooded Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg relatively undermanned. He cannot be wholly blamed for this, since he was receiving intelligence reports from Bradley stating that a German attack was ‘only a remote possibility’ and one from Montgomery on 15 December saying that the enemy ‘cannot stage major offensive operations’. Even on 17 December, after the offensive had actually begun, Major-General Kenneth Strong, the Assistant Chief of Staff (Intelligence) at SHAEF, produced his Weekly Intelligence Summary No. 39 which offered the blithe assessment that ‘The main result must be judged, not by the ground it gains, but by the number of Allied divisions it diverts from the vital sectors of the front.’ For all the débâcle of 1940, the Ardennes seemed uninviting for armour, and important engagements were being fought to the north and south. With Wehrmacht movement restricted to night-time, and the Germans instituting elaborate deception plans, surprise was complete. Although four captured German POWs spoke of a big pre-Christmas offensive, they were not believed by Allied intelligence. Only six American divisions of 83,000 men protected the 60-mile line between Monschau in the north and Echternach in the south, most of them under Major-General Troy Middleton of VIII Corps. They comprised green units such as the 106th Infantry Division that had never seen combat before, and the 4th and 28th Infantry Divisions that had been badly mauled in recent fighting and were recuperating.
The attack took place through knee-high snow, with searchlights bouncing beams off the clouds to create artificial illumination for the troops. Thirty-two English-speaking German soldiers under the Austrian-born Colonel Otto Skorzeny were dressed in American uniforms in order to increase the confusion behind the lines. Two of the best German generals, Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Josef (‘Sepp’) Dietrich and General der Panzertruppen Baron Hasso-Eccard von Manteuffel, led the attacks in the north and centre respectively, with the Seventh Army providing flank protection to the south. Yet even seventeen divisions would not be enough to dislodge the vast numbers of Allied troops who had landed in north-west Europe since D-Day. ‘He was incapable of realising that he no longer commanded the army which he had had in 1939 or 1940,’ Manteuffel later complained of Hitler.
Both the US 106th and 28th Divisions were wrecked by the German attack – some units broke and ran to the rear – but the US V Corps in the north and 4th Division in the south managed to hold on to their positions, squeezing the German thrust into a 40-mile-wide and 55-mile-deep protuberance in the Allied line whose shape on the map gave the engagement its name: the battle of the Bulge. The Sixth SS Panzer Army failed to make much progress against the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions of Gerow’s V Corps in the north, and came close but never made it to a giant fuel dump near the town of Spa. They did, however, commit the war’s worst atrocity against American troops in the west when they machine-gunned eighty-six unarmed prisoners in a field near Malmédy, a day after executing fifteen others. The SS officer responsible, SS-General Wilhelm Mohnke, was never prosecuted for the crime, despite having also been involved in two other such massacres in cold blood earlier in the war.
In the centre, Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army surrounded the 106th Division in front of St Vith, and forced its 8,000 men to surrender on 19 December – the largest capitulation of American troops since the Civil War. St Vith itself was defended by the 7th Armored until 21 December, when it fell to Manteuffel. Although the Americans were thinly spread, and caught by surprise, isolated pockets of troops held out for long enough to cause Herbstnebel to stumble, and to give time for Eisenhower to organize a massive counter-attack. By midnight on the second day, 60,000 men and 11,000 vehicles were being sent as reinforcements, and over the following eight days a further 180,000 men were moved to contain the threat. Because the 12th Army Group had been geographically split to the north and south, on 20 December Eisenhower gave Bradley’s US First and Ninth Armies to Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, in the former’s case for four weeks and in the latter’s until the Rhine crossing. It was a sensible move that nonetheless created lasting resentment. ‘General Eisenhower acknowledges that the great German offensive which started on December 16 is a greater one than his own,’ blared out German loudspeakers to troops of the US 310th Infantry Regiment. ‘How would you like to die for Christmas?’
With Ultra starting to become available again after the assault, confirming the Meuse as the German target, the Supreme Commander could make his dispositions accordingly, and prevent his front being split in two. It fell to Patton’s Third Army in the south to break through General der Panzertruppen Erich Brandenberger’s Seventh Army. ‘Sir, this is Patton talking,’ the general peremptorily told Almighty God in the chapel of the Fondation Pescatore in Luxembourg on 23 December. ‘You have just got to make up Your mind whose side You’re on. You must come to my assistance, so that I might dispatch the entire German Army as a birthday present to Your Prince of Peace.’ Either through divine intervention or human agency, the 101st Airborne Division had already arrived in the nick of time at the town of Bastogne, only hours before the Germans reached its vital crossroads. With 18,000 Americans completely surrounded there on 20 December, the commander of the 47th Panzer Corps, General Heinrich von Lüttwitz, gave Brigadier-General Anthony C. McAuliffe, a veteran of Overlord and Market Garden who was acting commander of the division, the opportunity to surrender. McAuliffe’s single-word reply – ‘Nuts!’ – was a slang term that the Germans nonetheless understood perfectly well. Christmas Day thus saw a massed German attack on Bastogne, which had to hold out until the US Third Army could come to its rescue from the south. ‘A clear, cold Christmas, lovely weather for killing Germans,’ joked Patton, ‘which is a bit queer, seeing whose birthday it is.’
On 22 and 23 December he had succeeded in turning the Third Army a full 90 degrees from driving eastwards towards the Saar to pushing northwards along a 25-mile front over narrow, icy roads in mid-winter straight up the Bulge’s southern flank. ‘Brad,’ the ever quotable Patton had said to his commander, ‘the Kraut’s stuck his head in a meat-grinder. And this time I’ve got hold of the handle.’ Even Bradley had to admit in his memoirs that Patton’s ‘difficult manoeuvre’ had been ‘One of the most brilliant performances by any commander on either side of World War II’. Less brilliant was the laxity of Patton’s radio and telephone communications staff, which allowed Model to know American intentions and objectives.
After surviving a spirited German attack that broke through the defensive perimeter on Christmas Day, Bastogne was relieved by Patton’s 4th Armored Division on Boxing Day. By then Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army had started to run short of fuel, and although its 2nd Panzer Division got to within 5 miles of the town of Dinant on the Meuse, Dietrich had not committed his mechanized infantry reserves in support of Manteuffel, ‘because such a manoeuvre was not in Hitler’s orders and he had been instructed to obey his instructions to the letter’. It was true: contrary to Model’s advice, Hitler had insisted that Dietrich, described by one historian as ‘Hitler’s SS pet’, should deliver the decisive blow, even though he had not got a quarter as far as Manteuffel. By then the Germans had run out of yet another precious resource – time – as better weather allowed the Allies to harry their Panzer columns from the air, with 15,000 sorties flown in the first four days after the skies had cleared. When being debriefed by Allied interviewers, Rundstedt put the defeat down to three factors: ‘First, the unheard-of superiority of your air force, which made all movement in daytime impossible. Second, the lack of motor fuel – oil and gas – so that the Panzers and even the Luftwaffe were unable to move. Third, the systematic destruction of all railway communications so that it was impossible to bring one single railroad train across the Rhine.’ All three of these factors involved air power to a greater or lesser extent.
The great offensive petered out by 8 January 1945, with the US First and Third Armies linking up on the 16th and the German order to retreat finally being given on the 22nd. By 28 January there was no longer a bulge in the Allied line, but instead a large one developing in the Germans’. ‘I strongly object to the fact that this stupid operation in the Ardennes is sometimes called the “Rundstedt Offensive”,’ Rundstedt complained after the war. ‘This is a complete misnomer. I had nothing to do with it. It came to me as an order complete to the last detail. Hitler had even written on the plan in his own handwriting “Not to be Altered”.’ Rundstedt said he felt it should instead be called ‘the Hitler Offensive’. In fact, neither man’s name was to be appended.
‘I salute the brave fighting man of America; I never want to fight alongside better soldiers,’ Montgomery told a press conference at his Zonhoven headquarters on 7 January. ‘I have tried to feel I am almost an American soldier myself so that I might take no unsuitable action to offend them in any way.’ This encomium made no mention of his fellow generals, however, and his press conference served to inflame tensions among the Anglo-American High Command. Patton and Montgomery had long mutually loathed one another – Patton called Monty ‘that cocky little limey fart’, Monty thought Patton a ‘foulmouthed lover of war’ – and as the United States overhauled Great Britain in almost every aspect of the war effort, Montgomery found himself unable to face the new situation, and became progressively more anti-American as the United States’ preponderance became more evident. So when on 7 January SHAEF lifted the censorship restrictions it had imposed nearly three weeks before, Montgomery gave his extensive press briefing to a select group of war correspondents. It was a disgraceful performance by anyone’s estimation, including that of his personal staff who were shocked by his ineptitude, or some thought his malice. ‘General Eisenhower placed me in command of the whole northern front,’ boasted Monty. ‘I employed the whole available power of the British group of armies. You have this picture of British troops fighting on both sides of American forces who had suffered a hard blow. This is a fine Allied picture.’ Although he spoke of the average GIs being ‘jolly brave’ in what with studied insouciance he called ‘an interesting little battle’, he claimed he had entered the engagement ‘with a bang’, and left the impression that he had effectively rescued the American generals from defeat.
Saying that Montgomery was ‘all-out, right-down-to-the-toes mad’, Bradley told Eisenhower that he could not serve with him, but would prefer to transfer back to the United States. Patton immediately made the same declaration. Then Bradley started courting the press himself, and he and Patton subsequently leaked to the American press information damaging to Montgomery. In the words of one of Bradley’s (many) press officers, the ex-editor Ralph Ingersoll, Bradley, Hodges and Lieutenant-General William Simpson of Ninth Army began ‘to make and carry out plans without the assistance of the official channels, on a new basis openly discussed only among themselves. In order to do this they had to conceal their plans from the British and almost literally outwit Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters, half of which was British.’ The British and American generals in the west from 1943 to 1945 did indeed have a special relationship: it was especially dreadful.
Montgomery certainly ought to have paid full tribute to Patton’s achievement in staving in the southern flank of the Ardennes offensive, but Patton was not a wholly attractive man. The obverse side of his intense racial pride in himself was his anti-Semitism, and his belief in the Bolshevist-Zionist conspiracy was in no way lessened after the liberation of the concentration camps. By the end of his career, the US Army had placed a psychiatrist on his staff to keep an eye on him, and were monitoring his phone calls. He was to die in his sleep on 21 December 1945, twelve days after fracturing his neck in a collision with a truck near Mannheim, in which no one was speeding. ‘The God of War, whom Patton worshipped so devotedly, clearly has a wry sense of humour,’ wrote one reviewer of his biography, and Patton himself acknowledged beforehand that it was ‘a helluva way to die’. Perhaps the Almighty had not appreciated Patton’s impertinence in being told to make up His mind and take sides in the struggle between civilization and barbarism.
The battle of the Bulge cost the Germans 98,024 battlefield casualties, including over 12,000 killed, but also 700 tanks and assault guns and 1,600 combat aircraft, against Allied (the great majority American) casualties of 80,987, including 10,276 killed, but a slightly larger number of tanks and tank-destroyers lost. The great difference was that in matériel the Allies could make up these large losses, whereas the Germans no longer could. The effect on Allied morale was powerful. ‘The Germans were going to be defeated,’ concluded a British tank commander who had fought in the battle, ‘and not only in their Ardennes adventure but in their whole mad attempt to dominate the world.’ The time-frame was another matter: on 6 February Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks wagered Montgomery £10 ‘that the German war will be over by 1 May 1945’. He lost by a week.
Hitler had been warned by Rundstedt and Model that the offensive would achieve only a drastic weakening of the Reich’s power to resist the Russians on the Eastern Front, without any concomitant advantage in the west. Nonetheless, he was willing to gamble all, as so often before in his career. The hopes of many Germans that the Red Army could be kept back were thus sacrificed for an offensive in the west, against an enemy far less vicious and rapacious than the one bearing down on the Heimat (homeland) from the east. ‘Only Hitler’s personal folly maintained the Ardennes battle,’ records Max Hastings, ‘encouraged by Jodl, who persuaded him that maintaining pressure in the west was dislocating the Anglo-Americans’ offensive plans.’ So it was, but only at a greater cost to Germany’s defensive plans, and Hitler was never able to undertake a major offensive again.
It was unusual for Hitler to have been influenced by Jodl, the Chief of the Operations Staff of OKW throughout the war, whose attitude towards his Führer can be gleaned from his speech about the coming victory to Gauleiters in Munich in November 1943, when he said: ‘My most profound confidence is based on the fact that at the head of Germany there stands a man who by his entire development, his desires, and striving can only have been destined by Fate to lead our people into a brighter future.’ At Nuremberg Göring told Leon Goldensohn that he thought Wilhelm Keitel should not even be on trial because ‘although he was a field marshal, [he] was a small person who did whatever Hitler instructed’. Head of the OKW throughout the war, Keitel, in the estimation of the British post-war historian of the German High Command, John Wheeler-Bennett, had ‘ambition but no talent, loyalty but no character, a certain native shrewdness and charm, but neither intelligence nor personality’. He was far more sycophantic – Hitler called him ‘as loyal as a dog’ – even than Jodl. Yet he certainly did deserve his Nuremberg punishment: he presided over the so-called Court of Honour that condemned the July Plotters to death; he signed the order to shoot all Soviet commissars on capture, as well as the notorious Nacht und Nebel (night and fog) Decree of 7 December 1941 by which more than 8,000 non-German civilians were kidnapped and executed; he encouraged the lynching of Allied airmen by civilians; and gave the order of 16 December 1942 that in the east and the Balkans ‘Any consideration for the partisans is a crime against the German people.’ Keitel nonetheless resented his nickname, Hitler’s Lakaitel, taken from the word Lackai (lackey).
‘Why did the generals who have been so ready to term me a complaisant and incompetent yes-man fail to secure my removal?’ Keitel wrote in his self-pitying memoirs before he was hanged at Nuremberg. ‘Was that all that difficult? No, that wasn’t it; the truth was that nobody would have been ready to replace me, because each one knew that he would end up as much of a wreck as I.’ There is some justification to this; certainly Kleist felt that because ‘Hitler wanted a weak general in that powerful position in order to have complete control of him,’ other generals could not have borne the job. ‘If I had held Keitel’s position under Hitler,’ Kleist later claimed, ‘I wouldn’t have lasted two weeks.’ Yet had Keitel and Jodl shown more backbone with the Führer, as Guderian did, they might have been able to instil a sense of proportion into his strategy, but Keitel’s attitude was summed up in his remark to his Nuremberg psychiatrist in May 1946, when he said: ‘It isn’t right to be obedient only when things go well; it is much harder to be a good, obedient soldier when things go badly and times are hard. Obedience and faith at such time is a virtue.’ Hitler had plenty of people still willing to give him obedience and faith, the human nullity Wilhelm Keitel at their head, when what he most needed were constructive criticism and sound advice.
It was after a Führer-conference in February 1945 that Albert Speer tried to explain to Dönitz how the war was certainly lost, with the maps there showing ‘a catastrophic picture of innumerable breakthroughs and encirclements’, but Dönitz merely replied, ‘with unwonted curtness’, that he was only there to represent the Navy and ‘The rest is none of my business. The Führer must know what he is doing.’ Speer believed that had Göring, Keitel, Jodl, Dönitz, Guderian and himself presented the Führer with an ultimatum, and demanded to know his plans for ending the war, then ‘Hitler would have had to have declared himself.’ Yet that was never going to happen, because they suspected – half of that group correctly – that there was soon to be only a rope at the end of it. When Speer approached Göring at Karinhall soon after he had spoken to Dönitz, the Reichsmarschall readily admitted that the Reich was doomed, but said that he had ‘much closer ties with Hitler; many years of common experiences and struggles had bound them together – and he could no longer break loose’.
Hitler knew too: on 2 March 1945, criticizing a proposal by Rundstedt to move men south from the sector occupied by the 21st Army Group, he perceptively pointed out: ‘It just means moving the catastrophe from one place to another.’ When five days later an armoured unit under Brigadier-General William M. Hoge from the 9th Armored Division of Hodge’s US First Army captured the Ludendorff railway bridge over the Rhine at Remagen intact, and Eisenhower established a bridgehead on the east of the Rhine, Hitler’s response was to sack Rundstedt as commander-in-chief west and replace him with Kesselring. Few chalices could have been more heavily poisoned than that appointment at that time, with American troops swarming over the bridge into Germany, and Patton crossing on 22 March, and telegraphing Bradley to say ‘For God’s sake tell the world we’re across… I want the world to know 3rd Army made it before Monty.’ Montgomery’s crossing of the Rhine the next day, codenamed Operation Plunder, was watched by Churchill and Brooke and established a 6-mile-deep bridgehead within forty-eight hours. When 325,000 men of Army Group B were caught in the Ruhr pocket and forced to surrender, Field Marshal Walther Model dissolved his army group and escaped into a forest. Having recently learnt that he was to be indicted for war crimes involving the deaths of 577,000 people in Latvian concentration camps, and after hearing an insanely optimistic radio broadcast by Goebbels on the Führer’s birthday, he shot himself on 21 April.