The Ardennes is a rugged, forested wilderness that stretches across southern Belgium and into northern Luxembourg, but also includes parts of Germany and France. It played a crucial role during World War II on two separate occasions.
In 1940 the German army launched a surprise attack through the Ardennes which led to their occupation of western Europe. In the winter of 1944–45, the Germans tried to repeat their earlier success with a similar attack. By this point of the war, however, the balance of power had shifted in favour of the Allies, and the German offensive – known as the Ardennes Offensive (and by the Allies as the Battle of the Bulge) – proved not just unsuccessful but a disastrous setback from which the Wehrmacht never recovered.
Codenamed “Wacht am Rhein” (Watch on the Rhine), the Ardennes Offensive was almost entirely the brainchild of Hitler himself. A highly ambitious operation, its aim was to sweep through the Ardennes, seize the bridges over the Meuse River and recapture the key supply port of Antwerp. This would halt the Allied advance into Germany and allow the Nazis to encircle and destroy four Allied armies. Hitler hoped it might even succeed in driving the Allies back to the English Channel and force them to negotiate a peace treaty in the Axis’ favour.
Hitler’s senior generals were highly dubious about the scale of the plan. General Guderian, for one, felt that stalling the Soviet advance on the Eastern Front was of far greater importance and that a big push in the Ardennes would squander vital men and resources. Model and von Rundstedt, meanwhile, believed that aiming for Antwerp was simply too ambitious.
The Allied lines stretched from Antwerp in the north to southern France, but the Ardennes was undermanned, largely because both Bradley and Montgomery had told Eisenhower that a German attack was highly unlikely, especially in such difficult terrain. When the offensive was launched on 16 December 1944, it therefore had the advantage of surprise. The mist and fog that had descended also benefited the German troops, rendering the vastly superior Allied air power initially ineffective.
The main German force comprised three armies: General Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army in the north; General von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army in the centre; and a back-up force of General Brandenberger’s Seventh Army in the south, tasked with protecting the flank. They would find themselves up against mostly American troops: the US First Army and US Ninth Army (both part of Bradley’s 12th Army Group). To maximize American confusion, the Germans formed a brigade of English-speaking soldiers dressed in US uniforms that was sent ahead to infiltrate the US lines – a move which contravened the rules of war and succeeded in generating rumour and paranoia among the Allied troops.
Leading the German attack was the Sixth Panzer Army, commanded by SS- Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich. It was spearheaded by the 1st SS Panzer Regiment, a combat group (Kampfgruppe) led by Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) Joachim Peiper, a young SS officer known for his ruthlessness. His task was to reach the River Meuse and secure the bridges at Huy. Under his command were nearly six thousand troops and seventy tanks, including the powerful and heavily armoured Tiger II. Roads that were little more than tracks meant that progress was slower than Peiper expected, and US troops – though unprepared for the assault and struggling to find adequate defensive positions – managed to slow his progress. Many US troops were killed or captured in the fighting, including 86 massacred near Malmédy after surrendering.
Hitler had envisaged a swift Blitzkrieg-style offensive (as in the previous Ardennes assault), but this time the weather, the terrain and shortage of fuel were working against him. More importantly, once the Americans realized what was happening, they put up formidable resistance. On the northern shoulder of the German advance, the Sixth Panzer Army was effectively halted by the 99th and 2nd Infantry Divisions of V Corps (part of the US First Army). The bitter and often confused fighting lasted around ten days. Initially centred on the twin villages of Krinkelt and Rocherath, the Americans withdrew to nearby Elsenborn Ridge on 19 December. From here, a war of attrition ensued with heavy casualties on both sides, but the Americans were well enough dug in to repel almost everything that the Sixth Panzer Army could throw at them.
The Germans had greater success in the centre, where US troops were outnumbered and gradually overwhelmed by the Fifth Panzer Army. Manteuffel’s immediate aim was to capture the towns of St Vith and Bastogne, both important road and rail junctions which would facilitate German progress towards Antwerp. Blocking his route was the recently arrived US 106th Division which was defending a wide front in the rugged and hilly Schnee Eifel on the Belgium-German border. The American soldiers were inexperienced and poorly trained, however, hindered by strategic errors in the command chain as well as bad weather, which thwarted Allied air support. Due to a miscommunication, Major General Jones, the divisions’ commander, held fast rather than pulling his troops back, with the result that two regiments were encircled and about seven thousand men were forced to surrender on 19 December.
Two days later, American troops withdrew from St Vith and the town fell to the Germans. For Hitler, this seemed like an enormous success, but he had repeatedly ignored Manteuffel’s advice to return to the Siegfrield Line in order to continue the attack. American resistance had put the Ardennes Offensive well behind schedule, allowing the Allies to regroup and plan a counterattack.
Eisenhower was already sending reinforcements along the Ardennes front, with a total of around 240,000 men deployed during the last ten days of December. Because the German advance had split the troops of Bradley’s 12th Army Group to the north and south of the “bulge”, Eisenhower temporarily assigned the American First and Ninth Army from the 12th to Montgomery’s 21st Army Group in the north (much to Bradley’s annoyance). Montgomery immediately sent four British divisions towards the Meuse to protect the river crossings at Givet, Dinant and Namur.
On 19 December 1944, Brigadier General McAuliffe and the 101st Airborne Division arrived in Bastogne, a few hours ahead of three divisions of the Fifth Panzer Army – 18,000 Americans pitted against 45,000 Germans. By 21 December German troops had encircled the town; McAuliffe, his troops and around three thousand civilians were completely enclosed and ammunition and medical equipment were running low. The following day General von Lüttwitz, commander of the XLVII Panzer Corps, issued an ultimatum to the besieged Americans: “There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honourable surrender of the encircled town.” McAuliffe’s official typed reply read as follows: “To the German Commander. NUTS! The American Commander”. More days of fierce fighting followed, but McAuliffe and his men held fast, despite suffering heavy casualties. A large consignment of supplies was air dropped to them on 23 December and the weather had improved sufficiently for squadrons of P.47 Thunderbolts to attack the enemy’s armoured troops.
Meanwhile, three divisions of Patton’s Third Army were heading up from the south, having managed the remarkable feat of turning 90 degrees from their eastward course and pushing north along a 40km front. Unfortunately, Patton’s radio security was poor, allowing the Germans to track the divisions’ movements and slow them down. On Christmas Eve 1944, German bombers began the first of two raids on Bastogne, but by Boxing Day the first of Patton’s troops, the 37th Tank Battalion, finally entered the town.
To the west, the Germans had reached as close to the River Meuse as they would get, capturing the village of Celles, just 9km away from Dinant, on Christmas Eve. Forced back by a combination of the US 2nd Armored Division and VII Corps, the 2nd Panzer Division was dangerously low on fuel, prompting von Manteuffel to order his troops to abandon their vehicles and retreat on foot. Further to the north, Peiper’s Panzer Regiment was in the same predicament and had to turn back towards the German lines with 135 armoured vehicles left behind. Of Peiper’s original elite force of 5800 men, only about eight hundred remained.
The Germans attempted to regain the front foot by launching Operation Bodenplatte on 1 January 1945 – an attack by the Luftwaffe on sixteen Allied air bases in Belgium, France and the Netherlands that was intended to wrest control of the skies from the RAF and USAAF. Though plenty of Allied planes were destroyed, they were replaced in little more than a week, whereas the German losses, both planes and personnel, badly damaged the Luftwaffe – this would turn out to be its last major operation.
It was now the Allies’ turn to take the offensive and finally eradicate the salient (or “bulge”) in their lines. Troops from Patton’s Third Army advanced northwards from the south, while the US First Army headed southwards from the north, the two forces converging on 16 January at Houffalize, or rather what was left of it. Allied bombers had completely destroyed the town, which had been a strategic crossroads on the highway from Bastogne to Liège. St Vith was recaptured on 23 January after which the battle ground to a halt.
Out of a US fighting force of 600,000, around 19,000 men had lost their lives and approximately the same number were taken prisoner. German casualties are disputed, but may have been as high as 120,000 men killed or wounded and about seven hundred tanks destroyed – very significant losses which did lasting damage to the Wehrmacht.
Opened as a museum in 2010, the barracks (just outside Bastogne) were the headquarters of the US 101st Airborne Division during the Ardennes Offensive, and the place from where General McAuliffe sent his famous “NUTS” riposte to General von Lüttwitz. A two-hour tour takes in the operational rooms, in which uniformed mannequins and original wartime equipment create something of the atmosphere of this key command centre. There is also a great collection of military vehicles, including Tiger and Sherman tanks, many of them in full working order. In the centre of Bastogne, the main square is named after McAuliffe and contains a memorial bust of the general.
The Mardasson Memorial was inaugurated in 1950 and commemorates the US servicemen who risked or lost their lives on Belgian soil in World War II. A temple-like structure, designed by Belgian architect Georges Dedoyard, it takes the form of a huge five-point star supported by tall columns, with the story of the battle engraved in gold on the walls of the open gallery. A walkway on the roof of the memorial provides visitors with a panoramic view of the defensive positions held during the siege of the town. The crypt contains a Catholic, Protestant and Jewish altar, each one decorated with a mosaic by the French artist Fernand Léger.
Opposite the Mardasson Memorial is the new Bastogne War Museum, which covers the whole Belgium experience of World War II, rather than just the Battle of the Bulge. The concept of the displays is very high-tech, with a series of “experiences”, including one scene set in the Ardennes forest and another set in a café – with the sounds of war all around. The audioguide, provided as part of the entrance fee, continues the multi-sensory, narrative approach by providing the perspectives of a fictional group of people, including a Belgian child and a German soldier. There are plenty of objects on display, but this museum is more about immersive excitement than quiet contemplation.
The 101st Airborne Museum is located in the former officers' mess of the Belgian army in Bastogne, in a historic building that was later used as a hospital by the Red Cross. The museum’s focus is the Battle of the Bulge, and the exhibition centres on a number of lifelike tableaux. There’s also a recreated bomb shelter, complete with sound and visual effects to help visitors imagine what it was like to be caught up in a raid.
Le Bois Jacques (Jack’s Wood), close to the village of Foy, is where the men of “E” (known as Easy) Company of the 101st Airborne Division dug themselves in on 19 December as part of the defence of Bastogne. Despite being outnumbered, enduring constant bombardment, and with night-time temperatures as low as –28ºC, they managed to hold the enemy at bay. Foy changed hands several times, but was captured by the Americans on 13 January 1945. The “foxholes” and cavities that the soldiers dug in the wood as protection from hostile fire are still visible, and a monument to their courage was unveiled here in 2004.
In the hamlet of Recogne, close to Foy, is a German war cemetery containing the graves of more than 6800 German soldiers between the ages of 17 and 52. About half were killed during the Ardennes Offensive; the rest were brought here from other battle sites in Belgium and Luxembourg. A simple red-bricked chapel marks the entrance to the cemetery. Over 2500 American troops were also buried at Recogne but were subsequently transferred to the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial at Plombières.
With several unique pieces relating to the Malmédy massacre, this modern museum evokes the Battle of the Bulge through historic photographs and film footage, military material and vehicles, and fifteen tableaux depicting the life of an ordinary soldier.
Sixty kilometres north of Bastogne is the village of La Gleize, where the SS combat group led by Joachim Peiper was halted and forced to abandon its vehicles before retreating through the US lines. One of the group’s tanks, a King Tiger, now stands outside a small museum founded in 1989 by local resident, Philippe Gillain, who had been scouring the neighbourhood for wartime remains since he was a teenager. Dedicated to the Ardennes Offensive, the museum has a wealth of military hardware and uniforms on show, many displayed with mannequins set against dioramas.
At the edge of the Belgian Ardennes, about 30km east of Liège and close to the German border, this 25-hectare US war cemetery contains nearly eight thousand American servicemen who died at the Battle of the Bulge and in Germany. The graves are laid out in gently curving lines on either side of a central pathway.
The memorial itself is a rectangle of pale stone bearing a vast relief sculpture of an eagle with wings outstretched on its front and the insignia of all the divisions that served in Belgium on its back. At the eastern end of the cemetery is a colonnade that, with the chapel and map room, overlooks the burial area. The piers of the colonnade bear the names of 463 soldiers missing in action.
Top image: Mardasson Memorial © T.W. van Urk/Shutterstock