By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Pearl Harbor is remembered every December as what launched America into World War II, but the month also marks the anniversary of one of the most decisive and bloodiest battles that would help bring it to an end.
The Battle of the Bulge began on Dec. 16, 1944, and was a sneak attack by Hitler on exhausted American troops in the hills of Belgium’s Ardennes forest. It was his last major stand, really – one that could have changed the tide of the war in his favor. Instead, it solidified an Allied victory.
My great uncle, 27-year-old Army National Guard Sgt. Emmett P. Clark, died in the waning days of the Battle of the Bulge. The valor he and thousands of other American troops showed in fending off the Germans is why it’s considered one of the greatest battles in American military history.
In their honor, here are a few key facts about it to keep the memory of their sacrifices alive.
A Plan is Hatched
By late 1944, it seemed like World War II was all but won. The invasion of Normandy was a success, and the Allies were advancing further into Europe. Hitler’s power was fading – members of his own military tried unsuccessfully to assassinate him in July. But that only seemed to drive him further. In August, the Fuhrer secretly started building a reserve force to carry out his last big bid to regain momentum, despite the advice of his generals.
Hitler focused his attention toward the Ardennes – 75 miles of dense, snow-covered forest with few roads along the Belgian-German-Luxembourg border. It’s where the U.S. Army sent battle-fatigued and inexperienced soldiers to rest and train. Allied defenses there had been thinned.
The plan: To cut west through those American forces, cross the Meuse River and capture Antwerp, a major source of Allied supplies. If successful, it would split the Allied forces in two, isolating and annihilating the troops to the north.
Hitler’s attack was a surprise, but it shouldn’t have been, considering the region had been used as a German invasion route into France in 1940 and during World War I. It wasn’t easy to get large armored vehicles through the terrain, so American generals seemed to think it was safe. It wasn’t.
Snowy weather grounded Allied planes in mid-December, giving the enemy an advantage. On Dec. 16, 1944, more than 200,000 German troops and 1,000 tanks burst through their defensive fortifications known as the Siegfried Line and pushed into Allied territory, quickly forming a “bulge” into the American front (hence the battle’s name).
Four battle-weary divisions of the U.S. Army’s VIII Corps were left to fend for themselves for a week before backup arrived, fighting in deep snow drifts and delaying the Germans from taking vital crossroads. They hid and destroyed gasoline stocks the Germans needed, and they used obscure American trivia to stump Nazi infiltrators who had stolen American uniforms to create more chaos.
Holding On, Pushing Back
The line surrounding the town of Bastogne was a crucial road and rail junction for the Allies. As the Germans approached, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division was sent to defend it, barely getting there ahead of them. They were then surrounded by the enemy, but they did as they were told – hold the town – even as German troops demanded their surrender.
When the weather finally cleared, American airpower took to the skies again, attacking the Germans and bringing much-needed supplies to Bastogne. A few days later, the 4th Armored Division, 37th Tank Battalion of the Third Army – having moved more than 100 miles in five days – was finally able to break the siege from the south, and the enemy never recovered. German commanders convinced Hitler to allow them to withdraw.
Across the Ardennes, the U.S. First Army had shifted to the north, stopping enemy tanks from getting to the Meuse River, as British troops halted any further German progress to the west. While a Nazi loss was imminent, the battle continued through Jan. 25, until all German troops were driven back over the Siegfried Line.
To quote the great Winston Churchill, “This is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory.”
The Battle of the Bulge may have been an Allied success that solidified the end of Hitler’s Germany, but it came at a high cost. The U.S. suffered more than 75,000 casualties – 19,276 were killed in the 41-day conflict, nearly 47,500 were wounded and thousands more were reported missing.
My great uncle was one of those 19,276. He now rests at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Hombourg, Belgium, with 8,000 other American soldiers whose bodies never made it home.
Today, the American Battle Monuments Commission maintains more than 50 American military cemeteries and memorials in 16 foreign countries. Most of them commemorate the lives of those who were lost in World Wars I & II. They are known to be some of the most beautiful and meticulously maintained shrines in the world.
Every year on Dec. 16, ambassadors and veterans from the U.S., Belgium and Luxembourg gather here at home at Arlington National Cemetery to pay tribute to the heroes of the Battle of the Bulge. If you have a little time this year, you should tip your cap and do the same.
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