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U.S. soldiers inspect a German tank that was abandoned after it ran out of fuel in eastern Belgium and its crew surrendered. The tank had been on its way to reinforce Nazi troops during the Battle of the Bulge.
U.S. soldiers inspect a German tank that was abandoned after it ran out of fuel in eastern Belgium and its crew surrendered. The tank had been on its way to reinforce Nazi troops during the Battle of the Bulge. (U.S. Army file photo)
U.S. soldiers inspect a German tank that was abandoned after it ran out of fuel in eastern Belgium and its crew surrendered. The tank had been on its way to reinforce Nazi troops during the Battle of the Bulge.
U.S. soldiers inspect a German tank that was abandoned after it ran out of fuel in eastern Belgium and its crew surrendered. The tank had been on its way to reinforce Nazi troops during the Battle of the Bulge. (U.S. Army file photo)
Two U.S. soldiers, dug into the snow and dirt east of Bastogne, Belgium, man .30-caliber light machine guns as they keep an eye out for German troops.
Two U.S. soldiers, dug into the snow and dirt east of Bastogne, Belgium, man .30-caliber light machine guns as they keep an eye out for German troops. (U.S. Army file photo)
U.S. soldiers hastily dig foxholes in the snow-covered terrain as enemy artillery fire opens up near Bérisménil, Belgium, The soldier lying in the foreground had been shot.
U.S. soldiers hastily dig foxholes in the snow-covered terrain as enemy artillery fire opens up near Bérisménil, Belgium, The soldier lying in the foreground had been shot. (U.S. Army file photo)

British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was so high-spirited about the situation that he applied for Christmas leave to England, and went to play golf.

It was the day that U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was presented with his fifth star, and attended the wedding of his chauffeur.

It seemed just another day in the war as the season to be merry approached 45 years ago. The Allies had for months been rolling the Germans back like a beat-up carpet, and the GIs manning the thin American line in the Ardennes Forest thought of it as a piece of Christmas cake. There were worse places to spend the holidays in war, and some outfits, chewed up in bitter fighting just to the north in the Hürtgen Forest, were happy to be where the action wasn't.

When the action that wasn't was over, after U.S. Gen. George Patton and his tanks came crunching and skidding through the ice and snow to rescue the "Battered Bastards" of Bastogne, some 76,890 Americans were dead, missing forever, wounded or taken prisoner,

Before all that, such was the confidence of the Allies that Montgomery had just the day before given his all-is-well situation report to a group of colleagues: "The enemy is at present fighting a defensive campaign on all fronts. His situation is such that he cannot stage any major offensive operations."

Thus spoke Monty, and who in the glow of optimism of that time was willing to say he was wrong?

There was the man named Adolf Hitler, for one. Despite their reverses both in the west and east since the Normandy invasion in June, the morale of the German people, well-insulated with propaganda and blind faith in their Führer, was still high in the autumn of 1944. Indeed, in a Germany seemingly staggering backward on punched-out legs, Hitler raised some 700,000 new recruits, many of them too old and too young, but most of them still believers.

He was raising something else: an old-time thunder-and-lightning blitzkrieg force of such stunning power and numbers that it was beyond the interpretive grasp of those piecing together the Allied intelligence picture. Data was gathered, but even the few who began to see the threat in the picture were not taken seriously. An intelligence colonel, so out of touch with the upbeat spirit of the day as to predict a serious attack impending in the Ardennes, was advised to go to Paris — take a rest, have fun.

The conquering Allies had closed menacingly toward the German border along a thousand-mile front, a front too broad not to have weak spots. Especially was this true, as Winston Churchill wrote in Triumph and Tragedy, "in the weak center ... in the Ardennes sector where a single corps, the 8th American, of four divisions, held a front of 75 miles." But the Allies weren't thinking Ardennes, weren't thinking defense; the last thing they were thinking was defeat and mad enemy offensives.

Hitler was thinking, dreaming and plotting all of that. He dreamed of the glorious spring of 1940, when his war machine, full of the fuel of triumph, hammered like a hundred thousand Thors out of the Ardennes and then onward to the sea, cutting Allied forces in two. Even then the Allies had been blind to the Ardennes, concentrating their forces to the left and right, considering the great thick forest in the center as impassable.

If those who couldn't remember such recent catastrophic history were doomed to repeat it, so much the better for the Führer. His dream was to strike again through the Ardennes, to again split the seams of the Allied armies. This time his goal was to seal off British forces in the north, snap the stretched-thin American supply lines, and take the key port of Antwerp 125 miles from the Ardennes. If all that was delivered, he would seek a peace he could live with on the Western Front, and throw his armies against the driving Russians in the east. Grandiose, indeed. But as some of his generals later recalled, the Führer had that hypnotic fire back in his eye, seemed ready to do another victory jig.

Using the same bunker that had served him so well in the great blitz of '40, he turned the flame up under his commanders in a speech that rattled on for two hours. The coming battle was to decide nothing less than "whether we live or die," he exhorted. "The enemy must be beaten now or never!"

He urged them to supreme fighting savagery in this battle, to dispense with "human inhibitions."

The plan, first called "Watch on the Rhine," later changed to "Autumn Fog," was carried forward with great secrecy. Surprise was critical.

Some of his senior commanders had deep misgivings, feeling they were risking it all too early. They still had the natural barrier of the Rhine to fall behind, but Hitler felt the defensive war was going nowhere; the daring, decisive blow must be struck. By his order the officers who heard the plan had to sign in writing that they would not reveal it to anyone, under penalty of death. He had been hoarding and re-equipping armored divisions, and others were pulled in from Russia. Air Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring promised (that's all it would turn out to be, a promise), 3,000 airplanes to support the final effort.

As if in league with the Führer, heavy freezing fog rolled in and cloaked the treetops like a vast parachute canopy, completely hiding the advancing force from the eyes of superior Allied airpower.

Morale was high as 10 German panzer and 14 infantry divisions clanked forward through the shrouding mist. The Allies, meanwhile, relaxed along their peaceful front, firing a few shots now and then, and there was much non-violent patrolling. It was not a bad way to spend a war if you had to be in one.

Then came Saturday, Dec. 16, 0529 hours. The greatest pitched battle on the Western Front in World War II was one minute away.

The grand deception started, military historians note, in conventional fashion, with the rackety thunder of artillery barrages rolling though the sky for 90 minutes.

It shook the Americans, completely taken by surprise, out of their complacency. Beginning with the invasion of Normandy, the attacking initiative had always rested with the Allies. Now, here came nearly 300,000 Germans blowing forward into Belgium on a front extending from Monschau in the north to Echternach in the south. To their amazement, here came 1,400 tanks, 2,000 big guns and 1,000 fighter-bombers ... the first American dose of blitzkrieg.

The air was so full of fog and smoke and "everything blowed to hell so we didn't know what was going on," recalled a Yank with the 28th Div. "We were surrounded and out of ammo. Not a bullet." Taken prisoner, he was marched through the bitter cold for eight days back into Germany, a blanket wrapped over him to keep off the snow, hoarding a piece of bread deep in his coat pocket "as if it were the last piece on Earth." He and his buddies had never dreamed any of that would happen.

It happened most terribly to the "Golden Lions" of the 106th Div, a unit pieced together with more green than golden troops, more kittens than lions, just arrived and suddenly caught in a precarious position out on the Schnee Eifel, an icy ridge spearing through the German defensive wall.

Two German armies hit at the American flanks, but it was the potent 5th Panzer Army under Gen. Hasso von Manteuffel that bulldozed through the mushy center like a Tiger tank through a field of frozen custard. "Panic, sheer panic flamed ... all day and into the night," wrote the division's historian.

Thousands of Americans running away like bug-eyed rabbits, abandoning their equipment, surrendering, wandering lost in the fog, crawling desperately through the snow on their bellies to keep from being slaughtered — that was not the stuff of heroic legends. Indeed, when the commanding general of the 106th was told he was being relieved of his command, he keeled over in a heart attack.

Some 7,000 Americans surrendered in one swoop, and German newsreel cameramen had a field day. Analysts call it the worst day of the European war for the Allies.

Adding to the monumental confusion was a secret plan initiated by Hitler, in which groups of highly trained English-speaking German commandos infiltrated American lines dressed like GIs and driving captured U.S. vehicles. They spread wild rumors, turned road signs around, blew up ammo dumps, cut communication wires. Dazed GIs reacted, overreacted in a frenzy of suspicion in many cases, by setting up hundreds of roadblocks and questioning passing soldiers about sports, baseball, movie stars and other Americana. Gen. Omar Bradley was halted and made to prove his identity three times.

"The first time by identifying Springfield as the capital of Illinois — my questioner held out for Chicago," Bradley would recall. "The second by locating the guard between tackle and center on a line of scrimmage; the third by naming the current spouse of a blonde named Betty Grable. Grable stopped me, but the sentry did not. Pleased at having stumped me, he nevertheless passed me on."

As the Germans broke through 8th Corps in the center and rumbled toward the two important communications towns of St. Vith and Bastogne, the U.S. 5th Corps halted its own offensive in the north to block the spread of the German push northward, while the U.S. 4th Div moved to blunt the southern edge of the blitz. Patton's Third Army, meanwhile, pressing toward the German Saar region farther south, wheeled in its tracks, prayed for good weather, and prodded onward by a man as obsessed with victory in battle as any Hitler, thundered northward.

To the west, Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower hurriedly threw in his reserves, the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions, still licking their wounds from earlier battles.

The 82nd moved to the northern flank and the Screaming Eagles of the 101st, not yet equipped for hard winter war, rushed toward Bastogne. So did the Germans. So did the brutal, blizzardy weather.

Somehow, despite all the confusion and early panic, the tattered American line in the Ardennes had delayed the German onslaught long enough for other Yank units to get themselves in gear.

Valley Forge had nothing on the perils of the shivering GIs who would be caught in the middle of the German storm, who would hold out desperately on the edges of the storm, slow it in places like St. Vith, and stop it dead cold at Bastogne. Running short of ammunition and everything else, they fought nearly snowblind in forests where visibility was often down to a few yards. Opposing forces, said one account, groped through the snow and thick white fog to "materialize like ghosts" before each other, and once "both sides fled in surprise without firing a shot."

As their dead sprawled around them, faces frozen red as wine, soldiers with bleeding hands hacked into the ice and snow with mattocks as deep down as they could to gain shelter. At times, rather than blow away with artillery any structure that might give warmth, no matter how battered, they closed with their enemy and did it with bayonets and rifle butts. A Yank who had almost become one with the frozen earth said, "I cannot ever remember being warm."

Once the Americans cranked up, they rallied forward reinforcements faster than anything Hitler's dream of a swift, smashing triumph could have envisioned. In day one alone, 60,000 Americans rolled into the critical area — despite roads clogged, at times careening with trucks, jeeps, ammo carriers and even kitchen trucks crammed with soldiers in full flight from the enveloping German storm.

By the fourth day, Yank strength had doubled to 180,000 in the Ardennes. In the first week of the Battle of the Bulge, the American First Army swung 248,000 troops and 48,000 vehicles forward to help counter the offensive, and steadily the pressure from all that began to steadily narrow the Bulge.

Asleep at the switch in the beginning, the Yanks were in motion with everything they had now, indeed almost too fast and frantic at times.

By Dec. 20, the Germans had surrounded and sealed off Bastogne, that vital road junction, with its 3,500 citizens, its 11,000 paratroopers and smaller numbers from other units within a 35-mile perimeter. Other panzer columns rumbled around the town that Hitler had ordered must be captured, and headed toward the Meuse River, toward Brussels, toward Antwerp.

Until the cloud cover lifted enough for planes to drop in supplies, the besieged soldiers and civilians inside the bombarded circle would find themselves desperately low on everything except spirit. And flour. Somehow they had tons of it, and they ate a lot of flapjacks.

As the Germans bombed and shelled, turning the area of the town square into a .shrapnel-riddled mess of houses, burning vehicles and trees with the tops blown off, Bastognians huddled in the rubble, cramming 50 to a cellar, sometimes praying, sometimes cursing the Nazis as the roofs and walls of their lives fell down around them.

As word of a massacre of captured Americans at Malmedy 30 miles to the north by panzer SS troops spread through the paratroopers' ranks, it made the "battered bastards" even more determined to hold on. Hitler had ordered a wave of terror, but neither terror nor furious charges were budging the men dug in at Bastogne.

Attacking across the snowy, barbed-wire-strung fields with tanks and thousands of foot soldiers in white camouflage snowsuits, the Germans (the Yanks had hastily bedraped themselves in Belgian sheets and white tablecloths) were stopped again and again. At times GIs stopped firing and heard screaming in the fog, and for days frozen Germans hung like bloody ghosts in the wire. It was so cold GIs blasted holes in the icy earth with blocks of TNT, and crawled down in them out of the wind.

After a stubborn defense, St. Vith would finally fall to the blitzers, and Hitler wanted Bastogne wrapped up no later than Christmas. On Dec. 22 the Germans figured the Bastogne defenders had had enough. German emissaries came up the road. They carried a white flag. Dirty, unshaven paratroopers looked up out of their holes like wild animals sniffing the wind.

The emissaries asked if the Americans were ready to surrender. Not at all, said the paratroopers. Did the emissaries wish to surrender?

A message was then delivered to the 101st's commander, Gen. A.C. McAuliffe, noting that the "fortune of war" had changed, and unless the surrounded defenders threw down their arms, they faced "total annihilation."

The emissaries waited for the answer. The general pondered how to phrase it. By one account, he wadded up a paper full of verbal lettuce and tossed it to the floor, snorting a small word of disgust. That was it, what it all boiled down to. His reply, pure damn Yankee, baffled the Germans. But never had "Nuts!" been stated so eloquently.

As if a clarion call for pluck under pressure been heard, the next day the heavens opened up and supplies came parachuting down to the cheering defenders. And from the south, Patton's armored columns came in a crunching fury toward Bastogne like some rolling Attila the Hun, stopping for nothing, moving faster, said "Old Blood and Guts," than any army had ever moved.

The morning of Dec. 26, his 4th Armd Div hit the southern edge of the enemy encirclement with three converging columns and fought hand-to-hand with the 5th German Parachute Div. Charging American tanks burst into a village outside Bastogne with cannons and machine guns blazing, even as their own artillery fire exploded around them.

On a country road a mile south of Bastogne, one of McAuliffe's battered but grinning troopers climbed out a hole, and shook hands with one of Patton's crunchers.

The siege was technically broken but the Germans fought bitterly on through the blood and snow trying to snuff out the narrow corridor ("about three yards wide," noted Patton), launching attack after attack day after day (17 in one day) into January. Then, grudgingly, almost imperceptibly, the Germans began withdrawing northward through the deep crippling drifts.

Hitler's dream battle had turned into a nightmare everywhere. His panzers had plunged 60 miles into Belgium to within four miles of the Meuse River where, gasping for fuel, they literally sputtered to a stop and were mauled by swooping American bombers.

In the end, their tanks scattered into smoking scrapheaps along the roads, their infantry wrapped in fags and blankets and robbing corpses of anything that still worked or was in one piece, the blitzers limped back to Germany. They had suffered some 120,000 casualties and seen their carefully hoarded reserves of manpower and equipment devastated.

Among the critical factors leading to the German defeat, analysts point to the valiant resistance at St. Vith and the epic defense of Bastogne, which had narrowed the front and seriously slowed the German blitz, which relied above all on speed.

Historians have judged, however, that Hitler's Ardennes dream, brilliant and recklessly daring, was probably doomed from the start. It was not 1940 after all, although for a moment, the shadow of the German eagle had passed chillingly over the Ardennes. But the Führer had asked too much. His once-fearsome force, bloodied and weakened, faced a mightier force.

By the end of January 1945 the Bulge had virtually disappeared, the Nazi war machine was a wreck, and the battle for Germany was on.


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