Jewish World Review Dec. 16, 2004 / 4 Teves 5765
Sixty years ago at dawn
On December 16, 1944, General Bradley came to my headquarters to discuss ways and means of overcoming our acute shortages in infantry replacements. Just as he entered my office, a staff officer came in to report slight penetrations of our lines in the front of General Middleton's VIII Corps and the right of General Gerow's V Corps in the Ardennes region. . . . - Dwight Eisenhower, "Crusade in Europe"
It had started with the dawn: an unexpectedly heavy artillery barrage. How had the retreating Germans managed to mass so many guns? Was this just a local attack, or a feint to distract the attention from a major blow elsewhere?
Soon it became clear that the enemy had massed more than artillery. The Sixth Panzer Army, a mobile reserve that had disappeared from the view of Allied intelligence, reappeared. When the barrage lifted, German armor came pouring out of the woods, headed for the seam between the British and American armies.
Instead of sheltering behind the Siegfried Line, the "retreating" Germans were advancing. Through an only lightly defended 50-mile stretch of the Ardennes.
Allied intelligence had collected reports of a transfer of German troops from the Eastern to the Western front in the fall of 1944, and there was ample evidence that they were being reassembled in the Ardennes, but word never filtered up to headquarters. No one had connected the dots. (Sound familiar?)
The weather wasn't on our side, either. The coldest, snowiest winter in European memory made Allied air superiority irrelevant. The panzers sped on, opening a growing wedge. Allied headquarters was compelled to sacrifice unity of command as the German advance split the British and American armies; Ike had to designate separate commanders for each sector of a crumbling front.
In the heat of battle, confusion reigned. Disguised as American MPs, English-speaking, American-accented Germans were sending relief convoys down the wrong roads, or into murderous ambushes. Just liberated French cities were exposed again, and Paris was jittery. The British press demanded that Eisenhower turn command of the land forces over to Montgomery - or anyone else competent.
Von Runstedt and his staff had taken everything into account except the sheer cussedness of the American resistance. The 7th Armored held onto the crossroads at St. Vith longer than anyone would have imagined possible. And at Bastogne, the key to the battle, the 101st Airborne refused to yield at all, and entered legend.
According to the German battle plan, Bastogne was to be overrun on the second day of the operation; it never was. General Anthony McAuliffe's one-word response to the German commander's surrender terms would become a classic summation of American defiance: "Nuts!"
Forced to split up and go around isolated pockets of American resistance, the German advance slowed. Unlike 1940, there was no breakout. Methodically, the Allied command drew up new defensive lines, then held. And to the South, Patton was turning the whole Third Army on a dime and hurtling to the rescue . . . .
Before it was over, the Battle of the Bulge would involve three German armies, the equivalent of 29 divisions; three American armies, or 31 divisions; and three British divisions augmented by Belgian, Canadian and French troops.
More than a million men would be drawn into the battle. The Germans would lose an estimated 100,000 irreplaceable troops, counting their killed, wounded and captured; the Americans would suffer some 80,000 casualties, including 19,000 killed - that's a rate of 500 a day - and 23,554 captured.
But the Allied forces held. And the war went on, moving across the Rhine and then into the heartland of the enemy. Against all bitter expectations, the conflict in the European theater would be over in four months.
There's a different kind of war on now, but war itself remains the same brutal experience. And it invokes the same admixture of fear and desperation, bloody miscalculation and incredible heroism, over-confidence and unchanging defeatism.
Much was gained by that decisive victory in the Ardennes 60 years ago, but victory obscures as much as it reveals. How the Battle of the Bulge turned out may seem inevitable now that history has unfolded but, as Wellington was supposed to have said of Waterloo, "it was a damned close-run thing."
The passage of time erodes memory, and we tend to forget the pain, the sacrifices, the mercurial swings of public opinion, the alternating hopes and fears, the daily uncertainty of war . . . and the necessity of endurance.
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