World War II
Germany, Battle of the Bulge in World War II
During the summer of 1944, while British and American troops stormed through France toward the German border, Soviet armies swept just as rapidly toward Germany from the east. Between June and August their 600-mile front advanced more than 300 miles, destroying more than seventeen German divisions and inflicting more than 300,000 casualties.
The Soviet advance was relentless—and also brutally cynical. In August, the Soviets encouraged the lightly armed Polish Home Army to rise against the Germans occupying their nation and promised to assist them if they did. When the Polish patriots in Warsaw rebelled, the Soviets just watched while the Germans slaughtered more than a quarter million Poles. By the time the Soviets moved into the destroyed city, the Polish nation they intended to occupy following the war was decimated.
By the end of the year, the Soviets had all but driven the Germans from Eastern Europe. In December, Russian armies began to cross the border in Germany.
Faced with Allied armies on both borders, Hitler decided to take the offensive in December 1944. Germany’s situation was grim, but he recognized that the Allies’ extended supply lines gave him time for one desperate action. An attack on the western front against American and British forces in Belgium could accomplish several things. It could reclaim the critical port at Antwerp, further disrupting Allied supply lines. A jolt to the British and American forces might also encourage them to accept a negotiated peace—separate from the communist Russians who, he realized, scared the British and Americans as much as they did him. Moreover, with a little more time, he might be able to develop new weapons, in particular even heavier tanks and jet airplanes.
Therefore on 16 December, German forces launched an attack at the relatively thin Allied lines in the Ardennes Forest. Almost inconceivably, more than 250,000 men and 1400 tanks hit the American lines by complete surprise. Eisenhower rushed re-enforcements to the forest, but by then the Germans had forced a 70-mile wide “bulge” in American lines.
Toughness in the trenches, brilliant leadership from General George Patton, and limited German resources combined to stall the Nazi attack. American troops tenaciously held the line at the tip of the bulge. Patton whipped his army abruptly to the north and crashed the bulge along its left flank. And by Christmas, the German tanks were running on fumes. Stopping dead in their tracks, the mighty panzers turned into sitting ducks for the American gunners.
The simple fact was that while Allied supply lines were stretched, their supplies were not. The German army befitted from interior lines; but since Allied planes dominated the skies and were wreaking havoc on Germany’s industries, Germany’s capacity to restock its desperate army was broken.
In January 1945, Hitler ordered a surprise attack on the Allied airfields in Belgium. He had great success, destroying more than 500 planes. But while American manufacturers in Long Beach, Wichita, and Oklahoma city could spit out replacement craft in relatively short order, Hitler’s decimated industries could not replace the 300 planes he lost in the raid.
These last ditch German offensives took a deadly toll. At the Battle of the Bulge, the Allies suffered close to 70,000 casualties, most of them American. But the effort cost the Germans far more: 200,000 men, and 800 tanks and 1500 planes that could not be replaced. To add salt to their wound, the Germans gained virtually nothing; by February, the bulge had been flattened.
In the spring of 1945, the Allies unstoppable advance across Germany resumed. British and American forces swept north taking the heavily industrialized Ruhr Valley and critical ports along the North Sea. Another army swung further to the south mopping up along the Danube River. American General Omar Bradley’s army advanced across central Germany, but after considerable debate, did not march on Berlin. The German capital was left to the Soviets who were dead set on reaching Berlin first.
Bradley was willing to let the Soviets have the glory of eating the heart of the Third Reich. He correctly estimated that capturing the city would take more than 100,000 lives. But British and American politicians debated the post-war consequences of ending the war with only Soviet troops in Berlin. As the Russians had advanced across Eastern Europe, they had left a heavy footprint. Anxious to build a string of Pro-Soviet governments along their border, they had installed communist puppets in every country they “liberated.” On each occasion Roosevelt had challenged Soviet Premier Stalin, but Stalin reminded the American president that he had not been consulted before the British and Americans had decided to leave Darlan in power in North Africa or Badoglio in power in Italy. In other words, they had set the precedent that the liberator of a territory determined the political disposition of that territory.
It was a hard argument to refute, and therefore the stakes attached to the capture of Berlin were huge. Would Stalin impose a communist government in Berlin? Would he refuse to allow the British and Americans to join in determining Germany’s future? Ultimately, the Russians did turn over sectors of the German capital to other Allies. Despite bearing the brunt of the casualties in its capture, they did agree to the formation of joint Allied council for Germany. At this stage in the conflict, in other words, there still seemed room for compromise.
All of this meant more to the politicians than the military commanders in the field. What mattered most to them was by the last week in April, most of Germany was under Allied control and Berlin was sinking fast. On 28 April, Hitler married his mistress, Eva Braun. After a two day honeymoon, the two committed suicide. One week later, the next and last president of the Third Reich, Karl Dönitz, surrendered.