One cannot but marvel at Adolf Hitler’s quite remarkable audacity when he launched four major operations in the winter of 1944. This was at a time when the Allies were relentlessly advancing on all fronts and his exhausted armies were in a complete state of disarray after a series of devastating defeats. The destruction of Nazi Germany appeared only a matter of time. Yet all was not as it seemed. Hitler had secretly re-equipped two entire panzer armies with 800 tanks, that were to be supported by an array of deadly state-of-the-art flying-bombs, rockets, jet-fighters and jet-bombers, led by an armoured brigade masquerading as American GIs.
On paper at least it seemed as if his highly daring plan to deny the Allies the vital port of Antwerp, by striking through the highly forested and hilly Ardennes, might just work. Antwerp represented the Holy Grail for Hitler. Although the Allies had liberated Antwerp in early September 1944 it had taken them three long months to reopen the docks. In May 1940 Hitler’s armies had dramatically sliced through the Ardennes to decisively pierce French defences at Sedan. He believed he could replicate that triumph. In reality in 1940 the attack had been conducted in the spring after months of meticulous planning. Not at short notice in the midst of winter.
At the same time as his attack toward Antwerp, Hitler planned for his V-weapons to rain death and destruction down on its docks. In the air once the forecast bad weather lifted his fast jets would outrun the Allies and the Luftwaffe was to launch a massed grand slam assault on forward Allied airfields. In the meantime, in Alsace to the south a diversionary attack was to drive a deep wedge between the American and French armies resulting in the recapture of the French city of Strasbourg.
According to Hitler’s meteorologists his forces would have over a week of bad weather which would screen them from the might of the Allied air power. This meant the German attack would have a day to pierce the American defences, a day to get their panzers through the Ardennes and a day to reach the Meuse. Once over and in open tank country this would give them about three days to get to Antwerp. It was an impossible timeline, especially as the Germans had to cross up to eight rivers before even reaching the Meuse. To make matters worse the attacking forces only had five routes they could use, which meant any hold ups would inevitably result in terrible bottlenecks and further delays.
Hitler’s generals were aghast at what he was proposing. They reasoned it would be a waste of valuable forces that were urgently needed elsewhere. In the case of Antwerp, they felt it was ‘a bridge too far.’ Surely, they argued, the liberation of the lost German city of Aachen would be a much better and more achievable objective. In pinching off the American salient there they could trap a dozen US divisions. It would be even more sensible to place the rejuvenated panzer armies on the natural defensive barriers of the Rhine and the Oder ready to repulse the Allies. Hitler though would not be swayed by the voice of reason. He was obsessed with recapturing the gory of the early blitzkrieg years and wanted a decisive blow.
None of Hitler’s generals were prepared to openly defy him. The offensive was launched on 16 December 1944 and for the next two weeks the German armed forces drove themselves into a giant noose as they fought to reach the Meuse. The tip of the attack penetrated about 40 miles. Then the weather cleared and the rest as they say is history. The German armoured columns ran out of fuel and were decimated by marauding Allied fighter-bombers. At Bastogne the German troops found themselves engaged in a desperate two front battle with the Americans as they sought to take the town and prevent General Patton’s armoured relief force from reaching the garrison.
By the end of January 1945 it was all over and Hitler withdrew one of his battered panzer armies to try and hold the Red Army at bay in Hungary. This operation was also to end in failure. Was Hitler’s Ardennes offensive or any other of his operations launched in the winter of 1944 an act of strategic brilliance or simply a case of wishful thinking? This is what my latest book Hitler’s Winter: The German Battle of the Bulge seeks to answer, by giving the reader a bird’s eye view of German decision making and their desperate race against time.