Strategic Background

In December 1944, the Allied armies looked back at an incredible six-month period. In June 1944, the long-awaited invasion of Europe had begun, and after the landings at Normandy and a bitterly fought breakout, the German army had been dealt a crushing blow. By September 1944, the German Western Front was collapsing, and the Wehrmacht was retreating toward the German homeland. The Allies pursued, using their advantage in mechanized warfare and industrial might, but by October had failed to inflict a mortal blow. The combination of a lack of strategic focus, untimely poor weather, dwindling logistics and the remarkable resiliency of the German army did not allow the Allies to push on as rapidly as desired. Recent offenses into German soil, such as the attack on the Hurtgen Forest near Aachen, had revealed that without the use of airpower or imaginative maneuver, front-line combat could still descend into the horrors of World War I.

Allied leaders pondered the next move and accepted that there would be little change in conditions in December 1944. They were not aware of the massive enemy preparations only a few kilometers to their east.

As a supreme dictator, Adolf Hitler had no need or desire for staff feasibility studies. He relied on his “intuitive” and once he made a decision, the German General Staff was held to executing his will. This bizarre environment was evident Sept. 16, 1944, when Hitler first revealed to his senior generals that he had made a “momentous” decision. The German army would resume the offensive and attack through the thickly forested Ardennes Forest in southern Belgium. The timeframe for the attack would be the dead of winter.

The winter of 1944 was one of the worst in a generation. Snow and rain slowed ground movement. Fog grounded air operations for days on end. U.S. tactical air operations were inflicting devastating results on the German army. Movement by daylight brought deadly strafing fire from ubiquitous Allied fighter-bombers. Hitler knew this and thus directed the offensive when the weather was at its worst, denying the Allies the full use of tactical air.

Hitler recognized that he could not defeat the mighty Allied juggernaut, whose logistic base, under steadily increasing American presence, was developing to a point where losses of men and material were replaced within days, if not hours. In Hitler’s mind, the political alliance of the United States and Great Britain was “unnatural” and could be exploited if dealt a massive military blow. He would devise a scheme of maneuver whereas under intense secrecy, newly created and equipped German armies would slash through the Allies’ weakest front, the Ardennes Forest, seize the critical port of Antwerp and deal a mortal blow to the political will of the alliance. So weakened, the Allies would begin to bicker and break to the will of their angered citizens. With the war in the west suspended, Hitler could turn to his mortal enemy, the Soviets.

These were the illusions of a madman, and the German generals, notwithstanding only the most fanatical, knew this when this fanciful plan was revealed to them. Knowing they could not change Hitler’s mind, some German generals focused on the mission at hand and the situation’s few positive aspects. By the immense will of the Fuhrer, a powerfully equipped, reconstituted force now stood poised to deal a powerful blow. If undetected, it could surprise the ill-prepared and thinly placed American lines and penetrate quickly to deep strategic objectives. Speed and momentum were essential to success.