On December 16, 1944, Germany launched a massive surprise counter-attack on American lines in the Ardennes (a forested area in Belgium and Luxembourg), breaking through to create a 45-mile salient in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Prior to the attack, 83,000 Americans in four divisions (the 28th, 4th, 106th, and 99th) held an 80-mile, thinly stretched line that crossed through the Ardennes region. It was supposed to be a quiet front, and two of the divisions were there to recover from battle, and the other two were composed of green troops.
At 5:30 a.m. on December 16th, with almost no warning, the Germans attacked the American line, first with artillery and then a rush of infantry. The German goal was to break through the line and charge onward to Antwerp, an important Allied port that had recently been reopened. By doing so, the Germans planned to choke Allied supplies and split their forces in two. American troops in many places along the line were initially overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of German troops (200,000), artillery, and armored vehicles, and German forces were able to create a 45-mile salient into Allied territory, though they failed to reach Antwerp. Due to weather, the Allies couldn’t send in air support for more than a week.
After the weather cleared, the Allies were able to send in powerful air support and to air drop supplies, and Allied forces from the north and south began to fight their way to the middle. However, these ground forces were delayed, which allowed many of the Germans still in the bulge to withdraw before they were trapped. The battle was considered over on 25 January, when the last of the German forces withdrew from the salient.
Fighting was fierce in the Battle of the Bulge, and it was the biggest battle on the European western front. In fact, about 1 in 10 American combat casualties in the entire war occurred during the battle. It’s estimated that more than a million men, and 600,000 Americans, participated. Casualty estimates vary, but American dead is usually placed at 20,000 with three or four times that wounded, captured, or missing. German casualties are even harder to pin down, but estimates generally place them at roughly equal to or greater than the Americans’. At least 2,500 civilians were also killed.
The battle was a costly loss for Germany, since the attack didn’t appreciably slow the American invasion of Germany but did cost the Germans large numbers of troops that could have potentially been used later to defend their western border.
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