HITLER PLACES HIS BET
At some point in every account of the Ardennes campaign, given the initial surprise, shock, and tactical success the Germans achieved, the question always arises:
How far could Hitler have gone?
Which brings up a symmetrical secondary question:
How far did Hitler PLAN to go?
And to that question, most wargamers are inclined to add yet a third, extremely hypothetical, question:
Given how effective the initial German attacks were, and assuming that EVERY Allied division opposing them had shattered like cheap windshield glass, was it even remotely possible for Germany to have actually WON the war at this late date?
THE BLITZKRIEG REDUX? WE DON’T THINK SO…
I’ve enjoyed some robust debates with various grognards about that, ever since SSI published “Tigers in the Snow”, the first really believable Battle of the Bulge simulation, back in the mid-Eighties. It has always been apparent that most gamers prefer to command the German side in titles based on this campaign, just as they do in most Russian Front simulations – the challenge, after all, is to see whether or not one can “do better than Hitler”, which isn’t so hard, really, if you already know, and can avoid repeating, Hitler’s most egregious mistakes! However faithful a simulation may be in its historical details, there IS something a bit futile-seeming about investing 20-plus hours of one’s time re-fighting a battle one is almost guaranteed to lose – one needs to believe that victory and defeat are not immutably ordained by the odds’ tables and the algorithms, , but are at least partly dependant upon one’s own skill and sophistication as a digital field marshal!
Even so, I maintain that a complete reversal of Germany’s strategic prospects, even if Hitler had gotten ALL the breaks, was by this time simply not possible. The Allied industrial output had become so prodigious and so efficient (not to mention so blissfully unhampered by enormous bombing raids!) that Germany could not even dream of regaining parity, even if every steel mill in North America had mysteriously burned down overnight. The disparity in resources was just too overwhelming for any combination of good luck and/or “super weapons” to overcome. Even when Hitler managed actually to field some of his most impressive new killing-macines, (the Me-262 jet, or the fearsome long-range “Vengeance” rockets) -- he could not produce them in sufficient quantities to make the slightest difference in the outcome. The strategic resources and production facilities he needed to mass-produce them were either beyond Hitler’s reach or already hammered to rubble. Without mass production, even a weapon as potentially lethal to heavy bombers as the ME-262 could never amount to anything more than a murderous curiosity.
So let’s amend our third question so that it reads:
What, REALISTICALLY, could Hitler have hoped to gain from a successful Ardennes counteroffensive?
THE FUHRER’S SHOPPING LIST…
The simplistic answer, of course, is “To buy time”. But while that is certainly true, as far as it goes, it is also an answer that tells us very little, really. When an all- powerful commander seeks to “buy time” with his strategy, we need to ask the follow-up question: what, specifically, Hitler planned to buy, so to speak, with the breathing room his surprise attack might gain for the Reich if it succeeded? What would constitute “victory”? Hitler’s objectives had to be large indeed, if they were to be commensurate with the scale, the risks, and the desperation of the undertaking, for the Ardennes offensive was no mere large-scale“ spoiling attack”, as Omar Bradley wrongly characterized it during the first 72 hours of fighting.
In preparation for launching his surprise attack, Hitler had assembled:
• 28 fresh divisions (about half of them either “armored”
or heavily mechanized, and all of them wrought-up to a high pitch of
morale); for a total of 250,000 infantry;
• 1, 126 tanks and armored assault guns;
• 3.8 million gallons of fuel;
• 1900 pieces of artillery
• 50 trainloads of ammunition
• 170 bombers;
• 90 ground-attack aircraft;
• approximately 1,500 fighters
He planned to unleash this powerful force against a hitherto somnolent 60-mile stretch of Allied front defended by only five mediocre American divisions, the best of whom were still depleted and recovering from their heavy losses during the recent, and extremely bitter, battle for Aachen and none of whom were expected to offer more than speed-bump resistance.
It was, in short, an all-out effort, too meticulously, even brilliantly planned, too ferociously launched, and directed with too much consummate professional skill (the one military asset the Germans still possessed in abundance) to fit any known category of “spoiling attack”. Yet even while he was assigning Antwerp and the Meuse River crossings as primary objectives, Hitler did not try to impose upon his commanders a fantastic vision of a miraculously lop-sided, war-winning German victory. He probably knew they would consider that kind of hyperbole to be nonsensical.
And yet from many of his surviving remarks, it’s clear that Hitler DID have a concept of “victory” and believed he had a good enough chance of achieving it to risk everything in the attempt.
It Depends on What You Mean by “Victory”…
If he wasn’t buying more time to increase the inventories of more super-weapons (which he simply couldn’t do without breaking open the crippling strategic bottlenecks that impeded their mass production), it is worth going more deeply into his reasoning to see if we can pinpoint what he WAS trying to “buy”.
This is not so straightforward a proposition as you might think… First of all, if his main concern was “to buy time”, he could have deployed all those new and carefully hoarded combat resources to thicken the main defensive lines on both the Western and the Russian Fronts – that strategy would have bought him a hell of a lot MORE time, in fact, than he could expect to gain from launching an offensive that resulted in anything less than a sudden and total enemy collapse. But in many ways, Hitler was a traditionalist, and one of the hoariest maxims inculcated in German training was the one that claimed:
“Wars are not won on the defensive.”
That’s utter balderdash, of course; a fair number of wars HAVE been won by skillful and tenacious defensive strategies; recently, Field Marshal Heinz Guderian – no shrinking violet when it came to launching vigorous assaults -- had advocated a major German redeployment to implement an almost purely defensive strategy, but before Guderian could even finish listing its perceived advantages, Hitler had rudely growled him into silence. And Hitler, by the second week of December, was in such a bad place, psychologically, that he was filled with an almost feverish need to STRIKE BACK. The morale of his army required a successful counter-blow; the mood of the German people demanded it; the very balance of the stars seemed to require it. Hitler had conquered most of Europe with the brilliance and slashing speed of his Blitzkrieg attacks, and he, more than any other German soldier, needed the boost of a come-back that he would derive only from a new and dramatically successful counteroffensive. Just let him stage a counterattack strong enough, devastating enough to capture headlines, on BOTH sides of the Atlantic, and his enemies would learn to fear him again, even as his people’s faith in him would be rekindled. To be sure, the forces gathered in the forest were strong enough to buy a huge amount of time, if they were deployed in a defensive posture. But that kind of strategy just wasn’t on the table; it was almost as though Hitler kept muttering to himself: “Given enough firepower and a suitably hard-to-cross river, ANY half-way competent officer cadet can win a defensive battle! But only a superior leader can plan and execute a daring assault, when the odds are not overwhelmingly in his favor. I was once such a leader and I made Europe tremble at the thunder of my armored stride! I shall soon do so again!”. He would attack because…because he MUST; there simply was no other option. He had gathered those forces to strike a major, situation-altering blow, and by God that was what he intended to do; no alternative course of action even whispered in his mind!
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