The Battle of the Bulge: A turning point in World War II

By Paul H. Herbert
First Division Museum executive director
Updated 12/16/2014 11:27 AM
  • A machine-gunner of the 26th Infantry guards a section of the road just taken over by his unit in January 1945.

    A machine-gunner of the 26th Infantry guards a section of the road just taken over by his unit in January 1945. Courtesy of First Division Museum

  • GIs pose with a 105-mm howitzer of the 33rd Field Artillery during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.

    GIs pose with a 105-mm howitzer of the 33rd Field Artillery during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Courtesy of First Division Museum

  • A 57-mm anti-tank gun of the 1st Infantry Division is towed through Steinbach, Belgium, in January 1945.

    A 57-mm anti-tank gun of the 1st Infantry Division is towed through Steinbach, Belgium, in January 1945. Courtesy of First Division Museum

  • A 57-mm gun of the Anti-Tank Company, 26th Infantry, gets moved into position on Dec 16, 1944.

    A 57-mm gun of the Anti-Tank Company, 26th Infantry, gets moved into position on Dec 16, 1944. Courtesy of First Division Museum

Seventy years ago, Adolf Hitler's Ardennes Offensive, or "Wacht am Rhein," was so successful initially that it created a huge bulge in the Allied front lines.

German forces penetrated deep into previously liberated Belgium -- but not far enough.

Determined GIs throughout the immense battlefield found their balance and defended critical highway junctions, fatally upsetting the German timetable.

Today, it's best known as the Battle of the Bulge.

By the late fall of 1944, Allied forces were along the western frontier of Germany and its Westwall, or Siegfried line fortifications. The Germans had regained some of their strength after their disastrous evacuation of France and Belgium while Allied forces -- their supply lines severely stretched -- had ground nearly to a halt.

Hitler wanted to regain the initiative in the west and force a settlement there so he could turn his full attention to the Soviet advance on the Eastern Front.

His plan was to concentrate three armies in the rugged, heavily forested Eiffel region of Germany west of the Rhine River. They would attack the lightly defended Allied line, rush through the Ardennes region of Belgium, cross the Meuse River and race north to seize Antwerp, a major port.

The Ardennes was the scene of the hugely successful German invasion of France in 1940, a region some military planners thought impenetrable by large forces. In one stroke, the Germans planned to sever Allied supply lines, capture a major seaport and split the British and American forces.

Surprise and speed were essential to the German plan. They had to seize Antwerp 120 miles away before the Allies could react.

The plan called for capturing crossing sites over the Meuse River in the first 24 hours. To do that required control of five routes through the northern Ardennes, labeled from north to south as Rollbahn A through E. The initial attack would overwhelm Allied defenses and seize ground that controlled the rollbahns. Armored forces would rush along each route to the Meuse, disrupting Allied rear areas and seizing crossing sites for the advance on Antwerp.

Before dawn on Dec. 16, a German artillery bombardment preceded a powerful attack along a 40-mile front that overran the U.S. 106th and 28th Infantry Divisions. More than 8,000 Americans were captured as German formations rampaged west, scattering horrified rear-area troops of the U.S. 1st Army. Initial reports indicated a major disaster -- a huge hole blown in the Allied lines and fresh German panzer (armored) forces pouring through it.

The situation was dire, but not as bad as it seemed.

In the north, the U.S. troops either held their positions or key terrain immediately west of their positions. In one of the epic maneuvers of World War II, the 2nd Infantry Division stopped attacking north, reversed direction 180-degrees, and counterattacked south into the flank of German forces descending upon the 99th Infantry Division.

A chaotic battle for the twin villages of Rocherath and Krinkelt allowed the Americans to hold the Elsenborn Ridge and, with it, access to the Germans' two northern rollbahns, A and B.

Immediately, the German plan was in trouble.

As German forces struggled along the Elsenborn Ridge, orders reached the weary 1st Infantry Division near Liege, Belgium. The Fighting First had been fighting nearly every day since D-Day on June 6 and had just pulled out of brutal combat in the Hurtgen Forest.

Sent to rest and refit on Dec. 5, they had only just begun to do so when the German attack began. Stoically, the division boarded any vehicle that would move and headed south to shore up the southern flank of the 99th Infantry Division on the Elsenborn Ridge.

By the time the 1st Division's lead units arrived there in the village of Butgenbach, some enemy units had penetrated well west along Rollbahns C and D. The 1st Division, therefore, faced south with its left flank at Butgenbach, adjacent to the east-facing 99th Division and its right flank far to the west. This was the northern corner of "the bulge."

The 1st Division's left-most unit was the 2nd Battalion, 26th Infantry, commanded by Lt. Col. Derrill M. Daniels. Daniels decided to advance southeast from Butgenbach toward the next village, Bullingen, only two miles away and in German hands. Little did he know he was advancing down the Germans' Rollbahn C and that the Germans had just decided to pour all their armor down it and the remaining two routes.

Daniels' battalion had three rifle companies, Companies E, F and G, understrength at about 100 soldiers apiece, many of them new replacements. He also had seven 57-mm anti-tank guns, eight .30-caliber machine guns, six mortars, a platoon of three M-10 tank destroyers (armored vehicles) and a platoon of four M-4 Sherman tanks from the Chicago area's own 745th Tank Battalion.

Daniels chose as the centerpiece of his defense a massive stone farm called Dom (for domaine) Butgenbach that was astride the road to Bullingen and another road leading south. He placed his command post in the farmhouse cellar. He then placed his infantry companies well forward in woods to the east and south, forming a perimeter around the farmhouse and physically blocking the roads.

Because of the heavy mist and intermittent snow, Daniels pushed the anti-tank guns forward as well, with the infantry. He instructed these units to dig deep fighting positions with as much overhead cover as possible. He personally walked the perimeter, explaining to his many raw soldiers that they were to stay in their foxholes no matter what; to kill as many enemy infantry as possible; and to let enemy tanks and other vehicles pass by.

Daniels realized his infantry was no match for German armor but could separate the enemy infantry, rendering the armor more vulnerable. Anti-tank guns might get in some lucky shots as well at the short ranges the weather mandated. Stopping the German armor would be the job of the tanks and tank destroyers -- these he placed in the center of his perimeter, where they could maneuver to get good shots across open fields. He also planned to call for artillery fire throughout his own positions -- which was why his infantry must stay in their deep holes.

It is hard to imagine the stress of these soldiers, many of them new, having ridden and marched under hasty orders through severe winter weather 30 miles from Liege, past panicked comrades and refugees streaming away, and now compelled to create a position for a desperate fight in less than a day.

The 2nd Battalion arrived on the afternoon of Dec. 16th and immediately went to work. Freezing GIs now sweated profusely with pick and ax and shovel. Others manhandled heavy weapons into position through ice and mud. Patrols went forward to find the enemy. Minefields were laid, ammunition stockpiled, telephone lines extended, aid stations located. Sergeants barked orders, soldiers cursed, officers checked and rechecked and rechecked positions.

None too soon.

Early on Dec. 17, elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division advanced from Bullingen and probed the 2nd Battalion's positions, hoping to find the road to Butgenbach undefended. Return fire from the Americans disappointed them -- they moved off south to explore Rollbahn D.

The Germans then decided Rollbahn C must be opened and gave the task to the 12th SS Panzer Division. This force probed from the south on Dec. 18th and failed; attacked from the east on Dec. 19 and failed; attacked from both the south and east, reinforced by the 12th Volksgrenadier Division, on Dec. 20, and failed; and then, on Dec. 21, attempted to bypass Dom Butgenbach to the south and west and attack straight north into Butgenbach itself.

This attack nearly succeeded -- some German armor actually got into the village. In each case, however, Daniels and his 2nd Battalion, with timely reinforcements, prevailed. The 2nd Battalion, 26th Infantry, denied the Germans the third of their five critical routes. The Germans could not recover.

Exemplary of the hundreds of soldiers who fought this ferocious battle were Henry F. Warner and Rocco Moretto.

Warner was a 21-year-old North Carolinian in charge of a 57-mm anti-tank gun positioned near Dom Butgenbach. On the morning of Dec. 20, his position came under attack from three German tanks. Taking heavy fire and casualties, his crew knocked out two, but the third came on and the anti-tank gun jammed. Fearless, Warner engaged it with his .45-caliber pistol, killing the tank commander who had exposed himself through the hatch at the top of the turret.

The Germans had had enough and the tank withdrew. Warner, wounded, led his depleted crew in another fight the next morning and destroyed yet another tank when return fire killed him. He earned the Medal of Honor.

Moretto was a soldier with Company C, 26th Infantry, which had been sent to reinforce the 2nd Battalion. After his position was overrun on Dec. 18, he reported to the 2nd Battalion command post in the farmhouse cellar. He remembers the chaos and confusion as he and the other men plainly heard the rumble of German tanks immediately above them.

He remembers Daniels on the radio personally directing artillery from many battalions, saying, "Get me all the damned artillery you can get." Moretto went up the stairs as a lookout but drew fire from the tanks. Other soldiers volunteered to climb to the roof of the farmhouse. From that perch, they took one tank out with a bazooka -- the other tank withdrew.

Such heroism all along the line stymied the German attack. They never reached the Meuse River, let alone Antwerp. The 7th Armored Division held the vital crossroads at St. Vith; the 101st Airborne Division, surrounded, would not give up another crossroads at Bastogne; the 82d Airborne Division held the Salm River; dozens of isolated engineer units built obstacles, blew bridges and laid minefields wherever they were rather than give up.

The weather cleared and Allied air forces went to work on German units strung out along miles of roads while Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army turned 90 degrees, from east to north, and attacked vigorously into the German southern flank to relieve Bastogne.

By January, the Allies were counterattacking everywhere, collapsing the infamous bulge and setting the conditions for the final advance into Germany and the end of the war.

This victory cost the Allies 80,000 casualties -- killed, wounded, captured, missing. It was the largest land battle in western Europe in World War II and the last, desperate, mad effort of Hitler to stave off defeat and ruin. Much very hard fighting remained, but after the Bulge, the outcome of the war was all but certain.

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