As a result of the decision to deploy our maximum effort in the Aachen sector and to sustain the successful progress of the Saar-Wissembourg operations with the balance of available forces, other stretches of the front were weakly held. In particular the Eifel sector of some 75 miles between Trier and Monschau was held by no more than four divisions. In this disposition of our forces I took a calculated risk, based on the absence of strategic objectives or large depots in the area and also on the relatively difficult terrain.
When the attacks from Aachen toward the Roer had to be suspended pending the capture of the river dams and the southern thrusts began to slow down, however, it was noticeable that the German panzer units started to withdraw from the line, their places being taken by Volksgrenadier divisions. All intelligence agencies assiduously tried to find out the locations and intentions of these panzer units, but without complete success. My Headquarters and 12th Army Group had felt for some time that a counterattack through the Ardennes was a possibility, since American forces were stretched very thinly there in order to provide troops for attack elsewhere and because Field Marshal von Rundstedt had gradually placed in this quiet sector six infantry divisions, a larger number than he required for reasonable security. However, we did not consider it highly probable than von Rundstedt would, in winter, try to use that region in which to stage a counteroffensive on a large scale, feeling certain that we could deal with any such effort and that the result would ultimately be disastrous to Germany. Nevertheless, this is exactly what the enemy did, employing for a second time the plan of campaign and strategy which had made his first break through in 1940 a complete success, and taking advantage of a period of bad weather which prevented our air power from operating. In order fully to appraise the desperate risk which the enemy undertook in making this venture it must be recognized that he aimed his blow, above all, at the will of the Allied Command. If he could weaken our determination to maintain that flaming, relentless offensive which, regardless of his reaction, had carried us from the beaches to the Siegfried Line, his sacrifice would not be altogether futile.
The attack started, after preparations of the very greatest secrecy, on Saturday, 16 December. General Bradley had just arrived at my Headquarters for a conference on replacements when we received word that some penetrations of the American line had been effected, with the enemy using tanks. Sensing that this was something more than a mere local attack, I immediately advised General Bradley to move the 10th Armored Division from the south and the 7th Armored Division from the north, both toward the flanks of the attack. Army Commanders on both flanks were directed to alert what divisions they had free for instant movement toward that region if necessary. My own staff acted at once to move our reserve divisions forward. Of these movements, the most significant and important was that of the 101st Airborne Division, which was in SHAEF reserve and which was directed to Bastogne.
The following morning, the 17th, General Bradley returned to his own Headquarters to keep a close grip on the situation, and during that day and the next it became clear that the enemy was making an all-out effort to split us and throw our campaign into disorder.
The enemy's general plan, as we initially analyzed it and as events subsequently confirmed, was to break through our thin line of defenses in a sudden blitz drive to the Meuse in the Liege-Namur area. Having seized Liege, which was our key maintenance and communication center feeding 12th Army Group from the north, the enemy hoped to drive rapidly and with as much strength as possible to Antwerp, our great port of supply. Seizing or destroying this, he would have made our supply position practically untenable and would at the same time have split the British armies, together with the American Ninth Army and part of the First, in the north from the American and French forces in the south, isolating them and making possible their destruction in detail by attacks from Holland in the north and by his striking force in Belgium. The attack upon Antwerp itself would probably have been coordinated with an assault by paratroopers and infantry from Holland.
In all, the enemy employed three armies for the battle, the Fifth Panzer Army and the Sixth Panzer Army supported by the Seventh Army, totaling some 14 infantry and 10 panzer and panzer grenadier divisions. Field Marshal von Rundstedt was in personal charge, and from field orders subsequently captured we obtained confirmation of our belief that this attack was in the nature of a final, desperate blow into which every available reserve was thrown. In addition to the main attacking forces, the enemy employed one panzer brigade which operated in American equipment with the mission of spearheading German combat units and spreading panic and confusion in and immediately behind our front line. Parties of paratroops were dropped throughout the battle area and particularly in the Malmedy area where about one battalion was employed, while small paratroop units and agents who bad remained behind during our advance were active in attempting to sabotage key bridges and headquarters as far to the rear as Paris. For the first time also since our landing the Luftwaffe rose to give active combat support to the ground forces, not only by engaging our air forces off the ground but by attacking the airfields and installations throughout Belgium. On 1 January, for example, the German Air Force attacked our airfields in Holland and Belgium with the largest concentration of planes employed since D-day. Some 800 sorties were flown in an all-out air offensive and losses to our planes on the ground were considerable, although on this one day alone German losses amounted to 200 aircraft.
As soon as confirmation had been received of the extent of the enemy's effort to bring about a break through, I immediately ordered the cessation of all attacks along the whole front and the gathering up of every possible reserve to strike the penetration on both flanks. My plan was to hold firmly the shoulders of the penetration, particularly the Monschau area on the north and the Bastogne area on the south, prevent enemy penetration west of the Meuse or in the Liege-Namur area, and then to counterattack with General Patton's Army in the general direction Bastogne-Cologne. This counterattack was to be followed by an attack by the forces under Field Marshal Montgomery, directed as the result and progress of General Patton's operations should indicate. I directed General Devers also to reach out as far as possible to his left to relieve Third Army, and to make available every single United States division that he could, retaining as his own mission merely the covering of vital communications. He was told to give ground if necessary in order to keep his thus stretched forces intact. This order was given verbally on the morning of 19 December at Verdun, where I had directed all interested ground and air commanders to assemble. Later I amplified this order by directing him to be ready to move back to the general line BelfortVosges in order to save the troops in the pocket lying between the Vosges, the Rhine, and the Siegfried Line. The same general instructions were given to Field Marshal Montgomery with respect to the northern flank.
On 19 December, when it became apparent that General Bradley's left flank was badly separated from his right and that the situation of his own Headquarters, located at Luxembourg, limited his command and communication capabilities to the area south of the penetration, I realized that it would be impracticable for him to handle the American forces both north and south of the large salient which was being created. I therefore fixed a boundary running east and west through the breach in our lines, generally on the axis Givet-Prum, giving both places inclusive to the Northern Group. All forces north of the boundary, including the major part of the U. S. First and Ninth Armies and part of the Ninth Air Force, I placed respectively under the operational command of Field Marshal Montgomery and Air Marshal Coningham, Commander-in-Chief of the Second Tactical Air Force. This left General Bradley suitably located to command the forces on the southern flank of the salient, comprising mainly the U. S. Third Army and XIX Tactical Air Command, considerably reinforced.
The full brunt of the enemy assault was met first by the four divisions deployed along the thinly held Eifel-Ardennes sector: the 4th, 28th, and 106th Infantry Divisions and the 9th Armored Division. In spite of being bypassed and divided by the penetration, these forces slowed the enemy thrust and the 7th Armored Division denied him the important area of St-Vith during the critical early clays. The momentum of the breakthrough was further reduced by the arrival in the battle area on 18 December of the 101st and 82d Airborne Divisions, moved from reserve in the Reims area to the command of 12th Army Group. The 101st Airborne Division, reinforced by armor, then held the vital road center at Bastogne although completely surrounded for 5 days and under constant attack by forces many times superior in strength. The commitment of these divisions, however, removed the last Theater Reserve and the 11th Armored Division, newly arrived from England, was directed to assemble rapidly in the Reims area to protect the center and to meet a head-on attack on the Meuse if necessary. The 17th Airborne Division was also ordered over from England to help the 11th Armored Division secure the Meuse line south of Givet. To reestablish and maintain a reserve, additional infantry divisions then in England were brought to the Continent in advance of schedule.
As the week wore on we succeeded in bolstering up the northern shoulder of the penetration, at the same time collecting a United States Corps under General Collins for use in counterattack. From the south, General Patton began a transfer of six divisions to the north of the Moselle. The 21 Army Group likewise collected reserves and placed a corps under Lieut. Gen. Horrocks in the Brussels area. The Ranks of the penetration at Monschau and Echternach were held and the salient gradually stabilized by these measures. However, the penetration directly westward was still moving and, while on the north it had been possible with the 17th Airborne Division and the 11th Armored Division to cover the Meuse bridges adequately down as far as Givet, south of that the crossings remained alarmingly weak. To defend them I directed that all available rear echelon troops and service units as well as six French infantry battalions be moved to the Meuse co-protect the crossings at all costs and in no event to permit any bridge to fall intact into the hands of the enemy.
Because of the difficult situation in the region of Bastogne, where the 101st Airborne Division and other elements were steadfastly holding out against greatly superior forces, General Bradley felt that he should start General Patton's Third Army attacking to the northward from the Arlon-Luxembourg area no later than Friday, 22 December. General Patton was authorized to begin the attack, but prior to launching it he was instructed to make absolutely certain of the safety of his right flank in the Trier region from which a new offensive by the German Seventh Army still threatened. He was also to attack by phase lines. holding all forces carefully together in order to avoid any risk of dispersion or wastage of strength before Field Marshal Montgomery was in a position to join the attack from the north.
Prior to the 22d the weather bad been most unfavorable. From the 16th to the 22d the enemy had the advantage of being able to attack under cover of a thick ground fog which deprived us of practically all air assistance apart from limited and extremely hazardous missions. His ground troops were able, as a result, to move against our defending forces with maximum surprise. On the 22d, however, the weather began to improve and our air forces commenced their paralyzing attacks upon enemy communications at the same time that the Third Army attack was launched northeastward from the Arlon-Luxembourg area. Since the enemy initiated the attack, prior planning of air operations (such as for the Normandy battle) was impossible. The object of our air attacks against the enemy's rail system, carried out in spite of the bad weather (both in the target area and over the bases in England), was to force back the enemy's railheads ; the mounting of their offensive and the continued supply of the German forces were largely dependent on rail communications. The heavy bomber attacks achieved their object and made the closer-range attacks against road movements all the more effective in helping to strangle von Rundstedt's efforts. Throughout the period the Strategic Air Forces battered marshalling yards east of the Rhine and blocked centers of movement such as St-Vith, while the medium and light bombers of the Tactical Air Forces destroyed bridges, headquarters, dumps, and other targets in the battle area. The fighter-bombers ranged far and wide in and beyond the battle area creating havoc in enemy road and rail movement, their efficacy in starving the enemy of fuel, food, and ammunition being amply testified to by prisoners. A concerted attack on the German Air Force airfields on 24 December helped to reduce the activity of the enemy fighters and thus afforded our fighter-bombers still greater opportunity for concentration on ground targets rather than on air fighting, which had up to this time been as intense as any the enemy had proved capable of offering since D-day.
The 4th Armored Division of the Third Army, attacking northward against heavy resistance toward Bastogne, was able by 26 December to make firm contact with the defenders of the important road net there, who had meanwhile been supplied by air, and to check the enemy's advance on that flank. This attack also drew strong enemy forces away from the north of the salient. By the 26th also, additional reserves had been so disposed along the Meuse as to relieve anxiety over this sector, and it was then clear that the enemy had failed in his main intention. By the time the German drive was halted, the enemy had breached a 45-mile gap in our lines from Echternach to Monschau and had penetrated over 60 miles westward to within 4 miles of the Meuse near Celles.
As soon as the enemy's advance had been checked, my intention was to cut his lines of communication into the salient and if possible to destroy him by launching ground attacks from both north and south in close coordination with continued heavy air attacks designed to extend paralysis of movement and communication over a large area. Simultaneously the strategic air effort which had been employed so effectively in the battle area was released to resume its normal tasks.
The counterattack from the north, aimed at Houffalize in the center of the salien t, was launched by the First Army on 3 January on a two-corps front, with a corps of the British Second Army conforming on the west flank. On 9 January, the Third Army, which had been maintaining strong pressure in the Bastogne area, launched a fresh attack also directed towards the Houffalize road net. Both these attacks were hampered by adverse weather over snow-covered mine fields and were met by stubborn enemy resistance. Slow progress was made, however, and the gap between the attacking armies had by 10 January been narrowed to some ten miles. By this time the enemy had begun to withdraw from the western tip of his salient, but still strongly opposed our pressure against his northern and southern flanks. Nevertheless, on the 16th, attacking forces of the First and Third Armies established firm contact at Houffalize and turned their full strength eastward against the retreating enemy. St-Vith fell to the First Army forces on the 23d and by the end of the month our line was approximately what it had been at the beginning of the breakthrough, while advance forces attacked beyond this in the direction of Bonn.
With the establishment of contact between the First and Third Armies and the reopening of direct communications between General Bradley's Headquarters and General Hodges' First Army, the operational command of the First Army reverted to the Central Group of Armies. The U. S. Ninth Army was retained within the Northern Group of Armies under Field Marshal Montgomery.
The German counteroffensive had opened on 16 December and had been brought under control by the 26th. The initiative in the battle had passed to our forces shortly thereafter, and by 16 January, 1 month after the initial attack, our forces were in a firm position astride the Houffalize road network, ready to counterattack strongly into enemy territory. Within this month, the enemy, although failing to reach even his initial objectives on the Meuse, had nevertheless succeeded in stopping our attacks against the Ruhr and the Saar. Operations to deal with the enemy offensive had occupied a full four weeks and were not, even by the 16th, completed. A certain regrouping was essential prior to the mounting of a full-scale offensive by our forces, and at that time I estimated that the enemy attack had delayed our offensive operations by at least six weeks. In addition to this disruption of our effort, the Strategic Air Forces had of necessity been drawn into the battle, thus leaving oil, aircraft, and communication targets deeper in Germany free of attack for nearly a month.
The counteroffensive, however, was not without its effects upon the enemy. Land and air forces had been carefully built up for months, and supplies, particularly of fuel, had been carefully hoarded for this all-out effort. During the month ending 16 January, my commanders estimated that the enemy suffered 120,000 serious casualties and lost 6oo tanks and assault guns. He also lost about 1,620 planes-a severe blow-and his fuel stocks, after nearly a month of large-scale effort, were reduced to a bare minimum. The tactical aircraft claims for the month included also over 6,000 motor transport destroyed and 7,000 damaged, together with some 550 locomotives destroyed and over 600 damaged. By the end of our own counteroffensive the enemy had lost 220,000 men, including 110,000 prisoners of war. More serious in the final analysis was the widespread disillusionment within the German Army and Germany itself which must have accompanied the realization that the breakthrough had failed to seize any really important objective and had achieved nothing decisive.
During the progress of the Battle of the Ardennes, the enemy had also, as a diversionary and containing measure, mounted an attack on the 6th Army Group front with the apparent purpose of regaining the Alsace-Lorraine plains westward to the Vosges. It had initially been our plan to press the attacks against the enemy in this sector and to establish an easily held defensive line on the Rhine in order to be in a position to move forces northward for the main attack into Germany. The Battle of the Ardennes had made it immediately necessary to transfer to the north strong forces under command of General Patton prior to attaining our full objectives in the south. The 6th Army Group had, as a result of the shift northward of these forces, been compelled to abandon the plans to clear the territory west of the Rhine, and was left with only the minimum forces required to maintain the defensive on its original line. Moreover, it was faced with an unhealthy situation in the area of the Colmar pocket.
After General Devers' troops had broken through the Vosges Mountains in November, it had appeared to him that the remaining German forces around the Colmar pocket could and would be quickly mopped up by the French Army. Consequently he had, according to plan, turned north with the bulk of his forces to assist General Patton who had fundamentally the same offensive role of securing the Rhine Line. It was expected that as soon as the Colmar pocket had been reduced, the French Army itself would be capable of holding all Alsace-Lorraine and the entire Seventh Army could be employed north and east of the Vosges sector. As time went on, however, the enemy was able to stabilize the Colmar pocket, and to reinforce the area. Consequently, when the German thrust came through the Ardennes in great strength, we had on our extreme right flank, instead of the strong, easily defended line we expected, a situation that was inherently weak from a defensive standpoint. The entire VI Corps was lying to the east of the Vosges facing north, while the U. S. 3d Infantry Division had to be maintained with the French First Army in order to sustain the integrity of our lines in the Colmar pocket. The danger, clearly recognized by all of us from the start, was that the enemy would attempt to drive southward along the west of the Vosges and at the same time possibly try to erupt with a secondary attack from the Colmar pocket. In this event, VI Corps would not only have been unable to provide us with any reserves for the rest of the front, but would actually have had to turn and fight its way out of an awkward situation.
In view of this unsatisfactory position, and because General Devers' local reserves should manifestly be stationed west of the protective mountain barrier, I ordered a general withdrawal of the VI Corps line to the Vosges, retaining in the area north of Strasbourg only light reconnaissance elements that would have had to withdraw under any sizeable enemy advance. This move would, of course, have exposed Strasbourg to occupation by enemy forces and would have forced the left flank of the French Army to swing back into the mountains. It would, however, give General Devers the strongest possible defensive line along his eastern flank, since our forces had failed to gain the Rhine, and he would be enabled to collect into his own reserves at least two armored divisions in the regions south of the Siegfried Line and west of the Vosges. This would have given us opportunity to employ two U. S. divisions as a SHAEF reserve farther to the north, leaving General Bradley free to devote his entire power to the offensive.
General Devers planned to execute this movement by stages, and until it could be completed we obviously had to leave the two divisions scheduled for SHAEF reserve under his control. Throughout the planning of the movement the French were kept informed. As the plans crystallized, however, the French became convinced that a withdrawal from the Strasbourg area would have unfortunate political repercussions in their country, bringing about perhaps even the downfall of the de Gaulle Government. They were so convinced of the necessity of putting up a fight for Strasbourg, rather than of voluntarily withdrawing to a better defensive line, that they were prepared to defend the city with the few French troops that could be hurriedly gathered together. These would have been so unready for battle and so inadequately equipped, however, that nothing could have been accomplished.
After closely studying the French views in the matter, and recognizing the political importance of Strasbourg, I felt compelled to alter the original plan for withdrawal. Originally, I had considered that the matter of Strasbourg was merely a conflict between military and political considerations and that I was completely justified in handling the question on a purely military basis. However, as I studied the French views, it became evident that the execution of the original plans for withdrawal might have such grave consequences in France that all our lines of communication and our vast rear areas might become seriously affected through interference with the tasks of the service troops and through civil unrest generally. Clearly, the prevention of such a contingency became a matter of military as well as of political necessity.
The plan was accordingly altered so that VI Corps merely withdrew from its sharp salient and its left rested in the Vosges with its right extending toward Strasbourg. In the meantime, preparation of defensive positions in the Vosges went on, conducted mainly by service troops. In view of my orders to go over to the defensive, to withdraw from the salient, and to place in reserve or send northward all available divisions, the enemy made some progress against our lines with a total force estimated at 14 divisions. Between Saarguemines and Neunhofen attacks shaping up into two prongs were made on 1 January in the direction of Rohrbach and toward the Saverne Pass, southeast of Bitche. Six days later the enemy succeeded in pushing troops across the Rhine, a few miles north of Strasbourg, and gained ground in a thrust northward from the Colmar pocket. This latter drive threatened to overrun the Alsatian Plain and to isolate Strasbourg. General Devers' forces inflicted heavy losses upon the enemy and with vigorous countermeasures, in spite of the difficulties under which they labored, succeeded in stabilizing the line so that no militarily essential ground in the Vosges was lost and Strasbourg itself no more than threatened.
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