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The Battle of the Bulge

Hitler aimed his last great offensive squarely at the Americans, because he believed that if he hit them hard enough, their multiethnic citizen army would fall apart and run. By mid-December 1944, he had assembled his last reserves of men, tanks, and guns in the hilly, misty Eifel region of Germany, opposite the thinly held American lines in the Ardennes. In one of the great failures of military intelligence, the American high command didn't know they were there.

On the morning of December 16, the German forces charged out of the forests. Their aim was far-reaching: to smash straight through the American defenses, cross the Meuse River before Allied reinforcements had time to intervene, capture Brussels and the port of Antwerp, split the American army from the British and Canadians, and break the Allied coalition.

The führer's ambition outstripped his means, but in the Ardennes he had overwhelming strength for the attack: 300,000 against 80,000 on the first day. A few of the hard-hit American defenders "bugged out," but most held their ground until forced back or overrun. Savage struggles all across the Ardennes propelled the names of obscure towns, villages, and places into the history books: Rocherath and Krinkelt, the Elsenborn Ridge, Malmédy, Stavelot, Trois Ponts, La Gleize, Sankt-Vith, the Skyline Drive, Clervaux, Wiltz, Bastogne. The action was dubbed the Battle of the Bulge, for the shape the front took as German forces pushed through the middle of the Ardennes.

The lightly armed U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions were rushed in to stem the German armored tide until heavier reinforcements could be brought to bear. While the 82nd fought no-quarter battles with SS troops who had massacred American prisoners and murdered Belgian civilians, the 101st found itself cut off in Bastogne, holding the vital road junction there.

On December 26, the enemy spearhead was destroyed just a few miles short of the Meuse. General George S. Patton's Third Army, counterattacking from the south, relieved Bastogne. More weeks of heavy fighting pushed the German army back to its start line. Hitler's great gamble had failed, with German casualties above 100,000 out of 500,000 engaged.

The victors were the ordinary GI's who, in the depths of winter, outnumbered and faced with a surprise offensive by a still powerful foe, refuted Hitler's contemptuous opinion of them. The price of victory was 81,000 American casualties out of 600,000 engaged: 19,000 killed, 47,000 wounded, and 15,000 captured. Memorials all over the Ardennes bear witness to their sacrifice.

Those of the fallen not repatriated, or still lying in the Ardennes forests, rest at the military cemeteries of Neuville-en-Condroz and Henri-Chapelle. Both are U.S. soil, given in perpetuity by the people of Belgium. So many names on the long rows of white crosses and Stars of David rest on the carefully tended lawns, and so many "known but to God."

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