By William R. Trotter
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
“The Battle of the Bulge” was surely the inevitable historical shorthand name for what should more properly be called “The Ardennes Counteroffensive”. The origin of the popularized name was surely obvious to anyone who looked at a situation map at any point after, say, noon on December 22, 1944. By that time, the narrow spikes of the initial panzer penetrations had combined into a trademark pseudopod-like salient that would expand but not change its basic shape until December 26. That was the date when Patton’s Third Army (after brilliantly executing a massive pivot down near Martelange, Luxembourg, in a virtuosic performance during which Patton and his staff managed to re-direct, in only 46 hours, the axis-of-advance for an entire mechanized army, whose units carried out that dangerous and complicated maneuver with the precision, alacrity, and even the grace of a world-class ballet troupe – and then drove north, like the Hounds of Hell, in an epic 250-mile forced march aimed at breaking the siege of Bastogne) started squashing the German perimeter into something that looked more like a thick, writhing tentacle.
But during the crisis period, a “bulge” it resembled and “The Bulge” it became to the GIs who lived through that most bitter of winters. The war correspondents, of course, glommed on to that name for their own obvious reasons: American newspaper readers could SEE “The Bulge” looming, threatening, expanding, and then slowly being squeezed out of existence as the Germans ran out of steam (and gasoline). Headlines promising fresh news about “The Bulge” were what many eyes locked on to first when American subscribers opened their morning papers.
It was a good, punchy, iambic battle-name, and it practically vibrated with drama when it was set in 24-point type. It alerted readers instantly as to what the descending copy was “about”, whereas even those who knew the location of “The Ardennes Forest” were not quite sure whether or not to show off their erudition by pronouncing that pesky final “s”. Did the Belgians follow French conventions in such matters, or did they have some quirky indigenously “Belgian” way of doing it? (And just who the hell were the “Walloons”, anyway? Some quaintly old-fashioned religious sect in rural Pennsylvania?)
So “The Battle of the Bulge” it became, and “The Battle of the Bulge” it has remained, at least in the popular imaginations of the nations whose soldiers fought and died within the frigid white cauldron that became so familiar from the newspapers’ maps.
But in a broader more formal sense, that name distorts history. It suggests a single, discrete engagement, albeit one of colossal size (rather like Waterloo on steroids and re-fought with Tiger tanks and Messerschmitts), which in turn compels the modern-day history buff to focus overmuch on images associated with just one dramatic episode: the 101st Airborne’s epic stand at the vital crossroads town of Bastogne.
No amount of picky revisionist cant should be allowed to down-size the importance and ferocity of the fight for Bastogne, and certainly not to impugn the matchless valor of the young paratroopers who defended the town; nor should we understate just how close the Germans came to annihilating them. But we should remember that “the Battle” of the Bulge was in reality a huge campaign, a vast and violent mosaic that ended up sprawling over roughly one-fifth of the entire land mass of Northern Europe.
The “battle” officially lasted from December 16, 1944 until January 9, 1945, when the commanders of the once-invincible Wehrmacht tacitly admitted failure and began pulling out their battered and shrunken formations, whose men and vehicles would be savaged, along every mile of their retreat, by devastating Allied air power.
But during four weeks of heavy combat, the outcome was often in doubt, and by the time it was over, The Bulge had sucked in more American soldiers than any other engagement fought in the European Theatre – approximately 600,000 men in all, of whom 20,000 were killed, 40,000 wounded, and another 20,000 taken prisoner or reported as missing when the smoke cleared. Two entire American divisions were effectively wiped out, and one – the hapless 106th Infantry -- staged the third-largest mass surrender in U.S. military history (after the debacle on Bataan and Lee’s capitulation at Appomattox), sending 7000 men into Nazi captivity during a single forlorn afternoon.
The Germans once again displayed their apparently innate genius for conceiving, organizing, and hiding their preparations for, an offensive operation of incredible scope, audacity, complexity, and blood-chilling risk. For a couple of anxious weeks indeed, it seemed, to the bedizened staff officers at Eisenhower’s headquarters, as though the “Krauts” were actually going to pull off one of the greatest upset victories in military history.
There can be no doubt that in a short-term, tactical sense the German attack was, literally, a smashing success. It stunned and demoralized the Allied defenders, not only because of the size and quality of the conventional forces Hitler unleashed, but to a great extent because of the confusion, menace, and insecurity generated by “Operation Griffon”, the ambitious and imaginative “special forces” venture masterminded by Hitler’s super-commando, Otto Skorzeny. By infiltrating small parties of German agents, dressed in American uniforms, speaking flawlessly “American-sounding” English, and sometimes driving brazenly through U. S. lines in captured Jeeps and scout cars, Skorzeny’s bold raiders raised hell with Allied communications, fragmented the chain of command, spooked untold thousands of GI’s into almost shooting friendly strangers just because they couldn’t offhand remember which team had won the last World Series, and fostered at atmosphere of panic all out of proportion to their rather modest numbers.
By the afternoon of December 17 that contagion was starting to infect everyone, including General Eisenhower, who had received all-too-credible reports that a fanatical hit-squad of German infiltrators was heading for his field headquarters, determined to kill or capture him. Ike and Omar Bradley had a working lunch together that afternoon, and the atmosphere surrounding them was both grim and manic. Newly arrived squads of MPs were hurriedly building machine gun emplacements and stringing new belts of barbed wire around the perimeter. Both American generals had strapped on holstered .45s as soon as they were awakened that morning, and both had started shouldering loaded carbines whenever they had to venture out-of-doors, which they did as seldom as possible due to the danger from lurking snipers. Everyone around them was wired tight, jumpy as hell, and the rumors were growing to fantastic proportions. Stringent new security arrangements were being implemented as far away as Paris!
As the two generals were trying to relax and enjoy their post-prandial coffee and cigarettes, Ike’s chief of intelligence brought in the very latest appreciation of the enemy’s strength, compiled from both ULTRA decryptions and POW interrogations. What the generals read in these new documents was almost impossible to believe: in just the first 36 hours of the German offensive, Allied intelligence had positively identified TWENTY FOUR apparently fresh German divisions taking part in the attack. Bradley digested the numbers with a look of disgust. Three weeks ago HIS intelligence experts didn’t think Hitler even HAD 24 fresh divisions, not anywhere along the whole western front. Now Bradley’s 12th Army Group was fighting for its life against SS panzer formations that supposedly did not exist!
Paper-clipped to the intel sheets was the most recent authenticated snapshot of Adolph Hitler and he certainly didn’t look like a feeble-minded, terminally ill old man (as the persistent rumors about throat cancer had long suggested). On the contrary, he looked as hale, sharp-eyed, and dangerous as he had during his prime. That image in itself was bad news. Both Bradley and Eisenhower had fully expected to wrap up the European war in a matter of two or three months and both men were enormously eager to go home. Now it looked as though their war was far from winding down, much less coming to a victorious end, and the hated Nazi dictator was positively glowing with vitality.
Suddenly Bradley’s hand lashed out and he smacked Hitler’s image angrily across its nose, growling: “Where did this little son of a bitch find so much troop strength?”
Well, it hadn’t been easy and it hadn’t been quick, but find them the little S.O.B. had; and he had also managed to give them a lot of excellent equipment to fight with. Moreover, by a combination of iron-clad security procedures and masterful camouflage, he had concealed both the scale and disposition of his attacking units from Allied detection despite the total sir supremacy they enjoyed, and even despite their ability to decipher coded German radio traffic. In fact, to make sure no hint of his intentions went out through the air waves, Hitler forbade ANY orders pertaining to the Ardennes operation, no matter how routine or innocuous-looking, from being transmitted by wireless; directives were issued either in person, in the form of hand-delivered memos, or over short, utterly secure telephone circuits. A few vaguely worried-sounding reports had come in, from pilots flying recon missions, concerning some unusually big formations of German heavy stuff they’d spotted under snow-sheet camouflage tarps or hull-down under the ice-capped fir trees, but there was no coherent pattern to these reports which might have indicated the true magnitude of the threat. At worst, they were regarded as signs of possible German “spoiling attacks” – something to keep an eye on, surely, but nothing remotely as dangerous as the avalanche Hitler was really planning to unleash, just as soon as his meteorologists could predict, with reasonable certainty, a period of foul weather lasting long enough to neutralize the defenders’ air power.