On 16 December, 1944 Hitler launched a surprise attack into the lightly defended Ardennes Forest in order to split the American and British armies, capture their main port of supply, Antwerp, and force the Western Allies to a negotiated peace. With only two minor exceptions, no one expected the Germans to attack. German Gen Walter Model’s thirty divisions in three armies, the 6th SS Panzer, 5th Panzer, and the American’s old nemesis from Normandy – the 7th, crashed into LTG Troy Middleton’s VIII Corps of four divisions from the 1st US Army: two were brand new, the 106th and 99th, and two were bloodied and mauled in the Hurtgen Forest, the 4th and 28th.
The American commanders dismissed the initial reports as spoiling attacks intended to prevent the US V Corps from seizing the Roer river dams, or Patton from seizing the Saar River industrial region (north and south of the Hitler’s offensive respectfully). So sure that the Germans were defeated, all of the important Allied commanders were disconnected from the soldiers they commanded that day: Bradley went far behind the lines to Versailles, Eisenhower attended the wedding of his driver, and British Field Marshal Montgomery golfed.
The surprise was complete. Total chaos reigned along the American lines in the Ardennes on 16 December. Model had every reason to believe his troops would be on schedule and make the Meuse River in three days, just as they had done to the French four years before in 1940 (which forced the French to surrender). But the Germans only had enough fuel and supplies for three days full assault. They had to reach the Meuse River in that time. After that, the American’s considerable flexibility, not to mention air power, would be brought to bear. The first few days were decisive.
On 16 December 1944, the 99th was penetrated, and most of its troops broke, and the 106th was crushed and bypassed. The 28th’s initial defensive positions were overrun and the 4th fell back. By all contemporary metrics the American’s were defeated.
But although the majority of the American units in the Ardennes collapsed, some did not, despite the German’s best efforts. Those platoons and squads, led by sergeants and young lieutenants and captains, that didn’t break bought the time necessary for the Allies to seal off the “Bulge” created by the German offensive. By the end of the 16th, 80,000 Allied soldiers were enroute to the battle, 250,000 more would follow over the next week. By the end of the day the Germans strict timetable was already irreparably upset, although this was unknown to the Allies at the time. By the 18th the northern and southern shoulders of the bulge were solidly in the hands of the Allies, and Model’s main effort was switched to the center of his increasingly narrow penetration.
It is said that generals and politicians win wars, but sergeants, lieutenants and captains win battles. This was no truer than in the snowy hills of the Ardennes Forest on 16 December 1944.