Anthony Tucker-Jones, the Battle of the Bulge (or Ardennes Offensive) is one of the most famous clashes of the Second World War, and you’ve chosen to write about it from the German perspective. Why do you think we’ve not heard Germany’s side of the story?
Well, I think the primary reason for that is the Battle for Bastogne. The heroic and defiant defence of the town by the US 101st Airborne Division caught the public imagination, but this tends to skew perceptions of Hitler’s attempt to recapture Antwerp. After the war German commnders could not understand the American preoccupation with Bastogne. General Hasso von Manteuffel, who commanded 5th Panzer Army in the Ardennes, later grumbled, ‘The Battle of the Bulge was not fought solely at Bastogne.’ Also with the benefit of hindsight there is a tendency to write off what Hitler was attempting to do as futile. I was inspired to write the book by the question of whether Operation Watch on the Rhine or Autumn Mist could have ever have succeeded.
This was the largest battle fought by the Americans during the war, but where does it rank for the Germans?
It was a big operation for them as it involved three entire armies, two of which were armoured. The problem they faced by the end of 1944 was that they were firmly on the defensive on both the Western and Eastern Fronts as well as in Italy. Hitler was increasingly desperate to regain the initiative, but by this stage it was almost impossible. Hitler hoped his Ardennes offensive would open up a political rift between the British and Americans that would then delay their advance on the Rhine. Having done that he then wanted to turn east to conduct a similar counter offensive against the Red Army. He clung to the delusion that he might get a separate ceasefire or peace deal with the Western Allies, which would enable him to concentrate all his resources against the Russians.
Before the battle the iconic Tiger II tank was made available, in small numbers to German Panzer regiments. It wasn’t as effective as its reputation suggests was it?
The simple answer is no it wasn’t really effective at all. The Tiger II was a very impressive looking beast, but its weight made it a liability especially when it came to the bridges in the Ardennes. It had been designed as a breakthrough heavy tank to pierce enemy defences, to create a breach for lighter tanks to exploit. To achieve this, it needed open country, such as the Russian steppe, where it could exploit its long range 88mm gun and its thick armour. The Tiger II was wholly unsuited for deployment in the mountainous and heavily forested Ardennes where its standoff capabilities were completely neutralised. Jochen Peiper in charge of one of the 1st SS Panzer Division’s spearheads saw them as a liability so kept his in reserve. In the close confines of the villages of the Ardennes brave American bazooka teams were able to hunt them down. Most of the Tiger IIs ended up abandoned.
SS Lt Col Peiper is held responsible for atrocities at Malmedy on the 17th To what extent is he guilty, and in addition his commanding officer, Brigadier Mohnke (who was responsible for the defence of the central government district at the Battle for Berlin a few months later)?
Wilhelm Mohnke and Peiper were responsible in the sense that they were commanders of the 1st SS Panzer Division, which carried out the atrocities. Many SS units experienced a completely different code of conduct on the Eastern Front where they systematically committed atrocities against both the Red Army and the civilian population with impunity. Although known as the Malemdy massacre the killings of American prisoners and Belgian civilians actually took place at a dozen different locations. The SS seem to have carried out most of these murders because they did not want to escort their prisoners to the rear. Peiper and others were found guilty after the war but their death sentences were commuted.
Atrocities were not isolated to the Germans. The Chenogne massacre saw 80 POWs murdered. Was there a link between this event and the earlier one at Malmedy?
Yes, almost certainly. The Chenogne massacre was perpetrated by members of the US 11th Armored Division, which formed part of Patton’s US 3rd Army, on 1 January 1945. This was undoubtedly in revenge for Malmedy but no action was ever taken to punish those responsible. The prisoners shot had taken part in the Battle of the Bulge but they were not members of the Waffen-SS.
The Offensive was ultimately a failure for the Germans, and generals such as von Rundstedt sceptical as to its prospects. Was it always doomed to failure?
Even if Hitler had by some miracle got to Antwerp he would not have been able to hold the bulge. In the post-war debriefs of all the senior commanders involved, such as Gerd von Rundstedt, Sepp Dietrich, Hasso von Manteuffel and Erich Brandenberger, made it clear they had opposed the operation. My suspicion was that they were just saying this with the benefit of hindsight to save their military reputations. However, the more I researched it became very evident that they were opposed from the very start. Hitler had a number of options on the table in late 1944 and the Ardennes was certainly not the one favoured by his senior generals. Dietrich who was appointed commander of the 6th Panzer Army did not want the job nor did he have any faith in the attack. Planning was extremely inadequate from start to finish with every aspect of the operation.
There are a number of depictions on film of the battle, from the American side, including The Battle of the Bulge (1965) and episodes 5-7 in the HBO series Band of Brothers. Do you have a favourite?
The Battle of the Bulge has been a regular source of inspiration for Hollywood, and the 1965 movie certainly helped put it on the map, much in the same way that A Bridge Too Far did with Arnhem. The Bulge movie though was woefully inaccurate dispensing with key elements of the battle, most notably the bad weather. Furthermore, it was shot in Spain and the terrain bears no resemblance to the Ardennes – so all in all a bit of a mess. The earlier and highly melodramatic Attack staring Jack Palance and Lee Marvin made in 1956 stuck with me. This was set during the Battle of the Bulge but again is plagued with notable inaccuracies. Ultimately director Steven Spielberg with Band of Brothers did his upmost to make it look and feel authentic and it goes a long way to show just how harsh the winter conditions were. However, it is very firmly from the American perspective.
The battle area has been fertile ground for American veterans, but is there interest from the German side?
There is always a greater fascination in a battle for the victors rather than the vanquished. It is also very important to remember, and again I tried to bring this out in the book, that Hitler actually launched four separate operations in the winter of 1944-45. Now these were supposed to be mutually supporting, but it did not work out like that. The result was that the three other operations had very little impact on the Battle of the Bulge. Furthermore, German commanders were more preoccupied with the Eastern Front, especially once the Red Army reached the Oder and began to threaten Berlin. Nonetheless, I think it is vitally important that we are able to put ourselves in the Germans’ shoes in order to fully understand their motives. Hopefully Hitler’s Winter goes some way to achieving that by taking the reader from senior command level right down the soldiers on the ground.
Aspects of History Issue 10 is out now.