December 26, 2006
Aging veterans of another war are this week recalling their battles, their sacrifices, their losses and their triumphs. This is the 62nd winter since the "Battle of the Bulge" in World War II.
In 1944 the combined allied armies of the European Theater, made up mostly of British and American troops under the Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower, landed in Normandy, France on D-Day, June 6th. The armies assaulted the German defenders of "Fortress Europe." Casualties on both sides were staggering. On D-Day alone, total Allied casualties were estimated at 10,000, including 2,500 dead.
After D-Day, the Allied armies plunged into the German defenders and fought their way across France. From June until December, 1944, the Allies advanced while the Germans retreated, all the while each side inflicting heavy casualties upon the foe.
On July 20, 1944, a senior German staff officer, Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, planted a bomb at Hitler's "Wolf's Lair" - his command post for the Eastern Front in Rastenburg, Prussia. Hitler survived.
In the purge that followed, along with many others, Germany's hero of the North Africa campaign, the "Desert Fox," Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who also had commanded the German defenses in France and along the Atlantic Wall on D-Day, was implicated in the plot and eliminated by Hitler.
In December of that 1944, German ground forces were struggling but unbowed. Besieged by Russia in the east, Hitler elected to surge his forces westward in the face of the Allies in an attempt to retake the port of Antwerp. The Allies were assembled in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium and poised for the final lunge into Germany itself.
Because Adolph Hitler would not suffer a defeat while he still had combat ready troops, the world's best tanks, and other military assets still ready for a fight, the "Battle of the Bulge" may have been inevitable.
Hitler's forces began to ramp up their activity with probing attacks along the American lines as early as November 27, 1944. Even so, Hitler's gambit which became known as the "Battle of the Bulge" took the allies totally by surprise.
Germany launched the assault on December 16, 1944. In the winter snows of Belgium, the Nazis used their Blitzkrieg tactics forged in battle all over Europe.
Germany's Generals were under no illusions when they launched into what would become known as the "Battle of the Bulge." They knew this assault may be the last gasp of a mighty army.
But the Germans, aided by dense cloud cover which prevented Allied air power from attacking them, attacked on the ground with speed and ferocity.
For Germany, this battle was an all or nothing affair. The Germans raced for Antwerp, led by an SS armored column under the command of SS Gruppenfuhrer Joachim Peiper. Peiper's had to capture fuel for his tanks as they attacked forward. Peiper took no prisoners, ordering the execution of hundreds of Americans captured by his column. He also massacred Belgian civilians in the town of Stavelot.
The fighting was fierce.
A participant at the Belgian town of Bastogne recorded the events this way: "We were not well equipped, having just gotten out of combat in Holland. We were particularly short of winter clothing and footwear....We became completely surrounded by Germans and our field hospital was overrun by a German attack. We had put the hospital in what would normally have been a safe place, but no place is safe when you are completely surrounded. At this time, we were not able to receive air resupply because the weather was absolutely frightful. It was very, very cold and snowy. Visibility was often measured in yards."
The German commander demanded that the Americans surrender.
The American commander, acting Division Commander General Tony McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne, penned a one word reply to his German counterpart: "Nuts."
The Americans prevailed. Colonel Edward Shames of the 506th Parachute Infantry, 101st Airborne, wrote, "After 29 days of hell, we were relieved from the area around Bastogne and headed elsewhere to fight the remaining battles of World War II."
Two days before Christmas the weather began to lift and Allied air power began to pound the Germans. Meanwhile, Patton's Third Army made the largest and fastest redeployment from one enemy line to another in the history of the U.S. Army.
The day after Christmas, the siege of Bastogne was over but the "Battle of the Bulge" and spin-off engagements would rage for almost one more month.
The Allies could not be certain that the Germans had been defeated in their plan until January 25, 1945. The "Battle of the Bulge" had raged for more than 40 days.
Today we remember and salute our fathers and grandfathers who fought so bravely to bring us our freedom and end World War II especially those participants of the "Battle of the Bulge."