The Battle of the Bulge: Definition, Facts & Timeline

The Battle of the Bulge: Definition, Facts & Timeline
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  • 0:00 The Battle Of The Bulge
  • 1:05 Background
  • 2:55 The Attack
  • 5:35 Consequences
  • 6:15 Timeline
  • 7:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
In December 1944, the end of World War II in Europe seemed close at hand. This lesson discusses the Battle of the Bulge, Germany's last-ditch attempt to halt the Allied drive on Berlin, and a dismal reminder that the war would not end easily, or soon.

The Battle of the Bulge

It was supposed to be over by Christmas.

That's what everyone was saying in the winter of 1944. World War II had just turned five years old - five years since Nazi Germany invaded Poland, which started the world's greatest catastrophe. It had been four and a half years since France had fallen, almost three since the U.S. had been dragged in, and almost six months since D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy in northern France, the biggest invasion in human history and the supposed 'beginning of the end' for Hitler's 'Fortress Europe.'

But then, in December, the German army - which was supposed to be as good as defeated - roared back to life, launching one of the largest offensives of the entire war against the overextended U.S. and British forces. The Battle of the Bulge, as it came to be called, was the end of the Allied breakout and the end of the belief that the war might be over before 1945. It was also one of the Allies' finest hours.

Background

On June 6, 1944, the U.S./British invasion force under Dwight D. Eisenhower hit the beaches at Normandy, beginning the Allied return to Europe. What followed, after the initial landing, was a five-week slog through the hedgerows of northern France. Finally, the breakout from the Normandy pocket had begun at the end of July, and it seemed like there was no stopping the Allied forces - they rolled through occupied territory with hardly a break, moving faster than supply lines could keep up. By December and the first snows of the winter, the Allies had reached the threshold of the German border.

Adolf Hitler refused to listen to his general staff's request to withdraw Germany's forces in a more orderly fashion, a 'fighting retreat' to solidify and shorten the line, in order to better defend the German frontier. Instead, Hitler called for a massive assault, with a general goal of slowing the Allied advance and a more overarching purpose - to force a split in the alliance between Great Britain, the U.S., and France. (Hitler had convinced himself that this was possible and that a defeat at this stage of the war would provoke a dissolution of the unified forces facing him).

The attack would focus on a region of the French and Belgian border called the Ardennes. This was a densely forested region, mountainous and difficult to traverse; it was also the site of Germany's breakthrough in its attack on France in 1940. It is more than a little ironic, then, that the Allied commanders, during their rush across northern France, had decided that the Ardennes was a region that could be more lightly defended during the winter slowdown. Given how demanding the terrain was, it seemed unlikely German forces would, or could, attempt another breakthrough there.

The Attack

On December 16th, fourteen German army divisions punched through the Ardennes and struck the Allied line. Around 250,000 troops and five panzer (tank) divisions overwhelmed around 80,000 American soldiers who were, on the whole, utterly surprised at the assault. The Germans had spread a number of English-speaking soldiers in U.S. uniforms along the line, moving in advance of the main force, sabotaging communications and sowing confusion. The assault also had the benefit of lucky weather; heavy fog and snow effectively grounded the Allied air forces, which, given the heavily degraded state of the German Luftwaffe, was a major advantage for the attackers.

The German forces pushed deep into the Allied line, forming a distinctive 'bulge' on map representations (which is where the battle's unusual name derives). In two days, the German forces advanced 60 miles.

Despite the disastrous opening of the battle, there were pockets of fierce American resistance. Most famously, elements of the 101st Airborne Division - who had been rushed to the front, without winter gear, low on food and ammunition - had dug in around the town of Bastogne. Surrounded and heavily outnumbered, the paratroopers of the 101st fought the German forces to a standstill, holding up the advance and providing invaluable time to bring up reinforcements. At one point, German commander Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz, sent a lengthy request for surrender to the commander of the 101st, General Anthony McAuliffe. McAuliffe's reply was legendary: 'Nuts!'

By December 18th, the German advance had paradoxically run into the same problem that had plagued the Allies - it had moved too far, too fast, and its supply (particularly of gasoline) couldn't keep up. The offensive ground to a halt, and the Allies began to shift from a defensive mode.

On December 17th, German forces at the town of Malmedy captured around 150 U.S. troops; for reasons that remain unclear, members of the SS battalion that was guarding the prisoners opened fire, massacring at least 84 of the soldiers.

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