In September and October 1944, Field Marshall Walter Model, commander of German Army Group B, caused General Eisenhower no shortage of headaches. After the 20 July failed plot to kill Hitler and the rout of the German Army in the West after the fall of Paris, Hitler ordered Model to prevent the Allies from advancing into Germany at all costs. And for almost four months, against overwhelming Allied air and material superiority and constant tactical interference from Hitler, Model, the monocle wearing son of a music teacher from Saxony, did exactly that.
In the north, Model rallied the defeated Wehrmacht in the west and every Allied misstep was exploited. He deftly extricated the 15th Army from certain doom at Antwerp and bludgeoned the Allies with it in the Netherlands for the rest of the year. With the 15th Army and his reconstituted reserve, the II SS Panzer Corps, Model defeated Montgomery in the battles for the Dutch bridges in September (Operation Market Garden) and removed the Allied capability to conduct airborne operations for the foreseeable future. The Allies did not cross the Rhine at Arnhem until January, 1945, nor conduct another airborne operation until Operation Varsity in March, 1945.
In the south, Model’s First Army stopped Patton cold in Lorraine. On 18 September, the day after Operation Market Garden began, Model’s Fifth Panzer Army, led by Gen Hasso Von Manteuffel, counterattacked MG John S Wood’s 4th Armored Division resulting in the Battle of Arracourt, the largest tank battle on the Western Front up to that time. Patton’s famous “dash across France” lasted exactly 49 days. Around Arracourt, American crew quality, mechanical reliability, agile leadership, and responsive fire support defeated German technical and material superiority after 11 days of constant fighting. The Battle of Arracourt, Patton’s Pyrrhic victory, is virtually unknown today because of Patton hagiography and the more famous concurrent battle further north in Holland.
Nonetheless, Patton’s advance was stopped, not by Eisenhower as the famous books and movies like to trumpet, but by the Germans. Popular history likes to blame Patton’s delay on Eisenhower’s decision to prioritize supplies to the British, but that decision didn’t come until the 23rd of September, a week after Market Garden began, not before. And it was only in response to unexpected German resistance in Holland. (Patton’s fuel was briefly curtailed in late August, simply because it was more efficient at the time to prioritize Montgomery and Hodges, who were both closer to Normandy than Patton and within striking distance of V2 sites. Patton’s fuel resumed his fair share shortly thereafter on 4 September, almost two weeks before Market Garden. Patton was slowed more by the “250 mile” tank maintenance rule than by fuel. ) Patton had enough fuel to continue the attack but defeating Manteuffel’s counteroffensive drank fuel at a prodigious rate. Eisenhower’s 23 Sep decision didn’t stop Patton, Manteuffel did that, but it did prevent Patton from regaining his momentum. Mantueffel bought just enough time for the newly formed but static Volksgrenadier Divisions to dig in. For the next two months, famed tanker and maneuver warfare expert George Patton was forced to slug it out in battles that resembled the First World War twenty five years prior, and those against second and third rate German troops. The gateway city and ancient fortress of Metz, and the surrounding fortifications, particularly Ft Driant, didn’t capitulate until early December.
In the center, General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group closed in on the German frontier. Model reinforced the old Siegfried line defenses, and combined with Allied supply difficulties caused by his orders to destroy all French port facilities, forced Bradley to a standstill. Despite this, Eisenhower ordered the capture of Aachen, a German city on the border with Belgium. Aachen was of no special military or industrial value, but it was of immense propaganda value: It was the first German city threatened with capture by the Allies and it was the historic capital of Charlemagne’s “First Reich”. Model turned Aachen into a fortress and its defense made Eisenhower’s decision one of his few regrets as Supreme Allied Commander. Model’s defense of Aachen and the Huertgen Forest to the city’s immediate south delayed Bradley for three months. The Americans only captured Aachen in mid-November. Even worse, US troops only secured the town of Schmidt, the initial (September) objective in the Huertgen Forest operations, in January 1945. Model embroiled Bradley in vicious street fighting in Aachen and lured him into the near perfect defensive terrain in the Huertgen Forest for what were America’s worst defeats of the war. Although Model lost Aachen, he caused Bradley 45,000 casualties in the process and wrecked the American 12th Army Group. Model obliged Bradley to stop his offensives, reinforce his depleted divisions, and train the tens of thousands of new replacements that were required to advance into Germany any further.
In particular, the 28th Infantry Division of the Pennsylvania National Guard earned its nickname “The Bloody Bucket” in these battles, and the veteran US 1st Infantry Division, “The Big Red One” took 70% casualties at Aachen and Huertgen. In early December, these two divisions were so maimed that they were assigned a quiet sector of the front to rest and recuperate: the Ardennes Forest.
The Ardennes was directly in the path of Model’s December offensive to restore stability on the Western Front, Unternehmen Wacht am Rhine, “Operation Watch on the Rhine” more commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge.