For most Americans celebrating life this time of year, fighting the battle of the bulge means pushing back from the table before a second or third helping of holiday bounty, cutting back on the eggnog or passing on another piece of pumpkin pie. For me -- and for anyone else who appreciates the pivotal nature of World War II in our history -- it means a lot more. Those of us who understand concepts like service and sacrifice mark the Battle of the Bulge for what it was in the dark days of 1944-45 when free people the world over were engaged in a massive, bloody fight to keep the axis powers from completing their plans for conquest and subjecting all opposed to tyranny of the most brutal nature.
December 16, 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of a pivotal battle fought in Belgium, France and Luxembourg in the midst of one of Western Europe's bitterest winters as Hitler's massed tanks, artillery and infantry made one last big push to turn the ebbing tide of war in their favor. Because the German army's surprise attack along a relatively quiet sector caused a massive warp in Allied lines on battle maps, it quickly became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Inside that bulge some of the most brutal, intense and bloody fighting of the entire war took place over six weeks in shocking cold, blowing snow and dense fog that grounded much of the Allied airpower needed to stem the enemy's desperate push. It's no exaggeration to say that had the allied forces -- lulled by a series of sweeping victories in the European Theater of Operations up until that time -- been unable to stem that unexpected, last-gasp assault through the dense forests of the Ardennes just days before Christmas in 1944, the final butcher's bill in World War II might have been much higher than it eventually was when the war in Europe ended nine months later.
In case your Internet access has been crimped by power-demands of neighborhood Christmas lighting displays, here's a little primer on the Battle of the Bulge. It's worth the time out of shopping, trimming or wrapping to consider what Christmas must have been like for the soldiers trapped in the Ardennes and fighting for their lives seventy years ago.
The German offensive was essentially planned to drive a wedge between the British and American sectors of the Allied line that winter when planners suspected the nasty weather and difficult terrain of the Ardennes forests would preclude much defensive activity and take the Allies by surprise. The ultimate ground objective was capture of the vital port of Antwerp, Belgium which would sever Allied supply lines supporting further advances toward the German homeland. Hitler hoped the massive armor and infantry push along a previously quiet sector of the enemy line would do a number of valuable things for his war effort. Given success, he might surround and destroy four Allied armies, force a negotiated peace treaty in the Axis favor and then turn his efforts to halting the Russian juggernaut advancing on his eastern flank. The German offensive was planned and staged in utmost secrecy, involving the best troops and equipment Hitler could muster for a lightning strike, breakthrough and ultimate drive to Antwerp.
When the guns, tanks and infantry roared into action on December 16, the Germans attacked a weakly defended section of the Allied line, taking advantage of overcast weather conditions which kept overwhelmingly superior Allied airpower grounded. Fortunately, the shocked and scattered elements of the American and British forces along the Ardennes line regrouped and fought back furiously to keep the German forces from capturing vital fuel dumps and using roadways for armor advances around major junctures such as at Bastogne, Belgium. Key roads that the Germans required for their armor advances to the northwest and west were blocked by thrown-together elements of Allied forces that fought desperately to stem the assault all along the bulge. In the face of such stubborn and unexpected resistance, the German assault fell behind schedule and devolved into a series of bloody set-piece battles rather than the sweeping advances Hitler had planned.
Halfway into the grinding advance, German commanders realized they would not have enough fuel for their armored vehicles to continue unless they could capture Allied fuel supplies. American and British forces fighting along the line of enemy advance began to encounter tanks abandoned for lack of fuel to keep them running and turned their attention to keeping the Germans from capturing fuel supplies. Gas and oil reserves were rapidly shifted or destroyed while scatterlings from depleted infantry and artillery units fought the Germans in snow and freezing temperatures, hoping to hold until the enemy eventually ran out of fuel. It was a close run fight that eventually cost Allied forces more than 19,000 killed in action and more than half a million men wounded. Eventually, the German assault ground to a halt and the surviving forces retreated east toward static defenses of the Siegfried Line. The bulge in the allied lines was pulsed back and re-straightened ending one of the bloodiest battles fought in World War II.
That's the broad-brush concerning the Battle of the Bulge but what amazes me; what I think about this time of year as winter freezes much of the United States, is the courage and tenacity of the individual GI's and British Squaddies, many of whom fought through the Bulge in little leaderless groups to save the day. When I see the holiday tables groaning under festive meals, I think about those guys chipping away with trench-knives at frozen rations. When I see the winking Christmas or Hanukkah lights in my neighborhood, I think about the flash of mortars or massed artillery that lit the snow-covered horizon during the Battle of the Bulge. And when night falls on my little part of the world, I realize I'm standing in the shadow of heroes who fought to give me yet another year in a great nation with much to celebrate.