Remembering ‘The Bulge:’ Key Facts of a Major WWII Battle

During the winter of 1944-1945, vehicles were camouflaged with white paint for use in snow conditions. Here, the lead M8 Greyhound armored car has been painted, while the following M8 has not.

During the winter of 1944-1945, vehicles were camouflaged with white paint for use in snow conditions. Here, the lead M8 Greyhound armored car has been painted, while the following M8 has not. Courtesy photo

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.

M4 Sherman tanks line up in a snow-covered field near St. Vith, Belgium, as the town is liberated during the Battle of the Bulge. Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps. Digitally remastered by National Archives Still Picture Branch

M4 Sherman tanks line up in a snow-covered field near St. Vith, Belgium, as the town is liberated during the Battle of the Bulge. Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps. Digitally remastered by National Archives Still Picture Branch

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.

A map of the Battle of the Bulge

A map of the Battle of the Bulge

Invasion Begins 

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.

Soldiers fought through large snowdrifts during the bitter-cold Battle of the Bulge. National Archives photo

Soldiers fought through large snowdrifts during the bitter-cold Battle of the Bulge. National Archives photo

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.”

A flag and photo are left by a caretaker at the grave of Army National Guard Sgt. Emmett P. Clark during a Memorial Day ceremony in 2013 at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery. Photo courtesy of David Torres

A flag and photo are left by a caretaker at the grave of Army National Guard Sgt. Emmett P. Clark during a Memorial Day ceremony in 2013 at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery. Photo courtesy of David Torres

Heavy Losses 

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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10 Responses to Remembering ‘The Bulge:’ Key Facts of a Major WWII Battle

  1. paravet says:

    Thank You DOD for REMEMBERING. Attended 4 in The Footsteps of 82nd ABN DIV with a number of those who fought in The Bulge. 505th 325th,508th and 551st PIB Veterans. From 2000 until 2005. It was an Extreme Honor for this Paratrooper to have shared time with them in areas they fought in. ABN Infantryman 1973-80 ALL THE WAY AND THEN SOME

  2. deadhead says:

    Thank you for this article. This battle has always fascinated me and I have tried to learn all I can about it. My father was in France along with two of my uncles.

  3. Given up on Sports says:

    Should have mentioned the massacre of Amercan GI POW’s by Nazi SS troops on December 17 at Malmedy, Belgium in the article. Still a great piece.

  4. Richard W Knoles says:

    My uncle Richard R Knoles was Killed on December 18th in the Battle of the Bulge.

  5. Tom Kearney says:

    Judi’s Uncle Bill was severely wounded during the first few days of the Bulge and was treated at a field hospital by his family physician from Berlin, NJ

  6. dougiefresh85 says:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJvqsUaU8W8

    A slide show I made for my movie script about the Battle of the Bulge and some lesser known heroes,
    God bless the Men who fought in the Bulges.

  7. Jim Hultman says:

    Thank you for posting the accurately, abbreviated essay of the Battle of the Bulge – one of my favorite segments of the war in Europe. I’m an avid student of WWII.

  8. Lawrence Myers says:

    Good piece, but I must take issue with “Four battle weary divisions of the U.S. Army’s VIII Corps were left to fend for themselves for a week before backup arrived”. As a matter of fact, VIII Corps was being reinforced as early as December 17 with the 7th Armored Division being rushed south to St. Vith and Combat Command B of the 10th Armored ordered north from Third Army to hold Bastogne with other units following shortly thereafter. The speed of the American reaction to their counterattack surprised the Germans and played no small part in the final outcome. As for “four battle weary divisions”, I think only two would qualify: 28th Infantry and 4th Infantry, recovering from their being mauled in the Huertgen Forest, while the other two, the 106th was brand new having only been in the frontline since 10 December and the nearly as green 9th Armored. The Ninety Ninth Division was also new but we’re under Gerow’s V Corps.

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