- - Monday, December 15, 2014


Seventy years ago today, the last and most devastating battle of World War II in Europe occurred when Nazi forces staged a surprising, massive attack as Allied forces moved eastward toward the German border.

The confrontation eventually involved over a half-million Germans and an equal number of Americans, no matter that after the D-Day or Normandy invasion in June, it appeared almost certain that the European phase of the war was over. For Allied forces had liberated the Low Countries and France and set their sights on Berlin. However, Adolf Hitler had one last gambit, namely, to take advantage of the few American troops assigned in the mountainous and heavily forested area along the French, Belgian and Luxembourg borders called Ardennes. A successful invasion there, in Hitler’s reckoning, would permit German forces to move on to Antwerp, the Belgian port critical to supplying Allied forces, and provide time to develop more shock weapons such as the V-2 rocket. After an initial September 1944 launch, more than 3,000 V-2s had been produced and fired at Allied sites.

Two centuries earlier, another German leader, Frederick the Great, used the same last-gasp strategy against his enemies, leading to their confusion and division and an ultimate victory — a lesson that Hitler, much to the surprise of his generals, believed he could duplicate.

Taking critically needed troops from the Russian front, Hitler amassed 250,000 men and 1,000 tanks that outnumbered American soldiers by a ratio of 3-to-1 and began an invasion, or bulge, that gave the battle its name in the north-south demarcation line separating the two warring sides.

Its formal name was Operation Autumn Fog. Ardennes’ misty weather, snow and ice made it impervious to Allied air attacks. Ardennes was also a rest and revitalization area, not heavily fortified. As for the more numerous Allied troops, they were distant, waiting for supplies to move nearer the western German border.

Hitler’s planning was almost perfect, too, taking its cue from the Allied forces’ deceptive tactics employed before the D-Day invasion that used phony radio messages and disguised airfields. His “School for Americans” trained 2,000 soldiers to speak English, clad them in captured American uniforms and gave them stolen jeeps. Hence, Nazi infiltrators acted like normal advance squads entering American-held territory, paving the way for a perfect military romp. So confused were American troops that, once snookered, they suspected every new soldier, drilling each with questions about baseball or football statistics.

Within two days after the Dec. 16 invasion, the Germans had advanced 60 miles west and 30 miles north to south, eventually instigating the surrender of 7,500 Americans, their worst defeat in the war. Weary Belgian citizens put away their American flags and, fearing for the worst, scrambled to find swastikas to display. Even Parisians worried that their liberation might be in jeopardy and devised curfews. In an infamous Dec. 17 massacre, 84 American prisoners of war were shot near Malmedy, Belgium. In another Belgian site, Bastogne, German troops surrounded 18,000 American forces on Dec. 21 and demanded an immediate surrender. Replied Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, in the most famous retort of the battle: “Nuts.” Using loudspeakers, Germans queried the encircled Americans: “How would you like to die for Christmas?”

But on Dec. 22, the fog over Ardennes began to lift, perhaps as a result of divine intervention induced by Gen. George S. Patton’s prayer in a Luxembourg church: “Sir,” said the general, “this is Patton talking. You have just got to make up your mind whose side you’re on.”

With Patton’s troops emerging from the south and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s from the north, the tide began to turn. Hitler’s last battle plans didn’t take into consideration that Allied planes could bomb his fuel depots. By mid-January, his troops simply ran out of gas and were forced to retreat to their original position of Dec. 16.

The toll was astounding: 90,000 American troops were killed, wounded or missing; and the Germans lost 100,000 men, 1,000 planes and 800 tanks. Hitler had bought time — but nothing else. Winston Churchill called the encounter “the greatest American battle of the war [that] will be regarded as an ever-famous American victory.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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