'Wacht am Rhein' was the German final major offensive of World War II against the Western Allies, and colloquially known as the 'Battle of the Bulge' (16 December 1944/15 January 1945).
This major effort was supported by a number of subsidiary operations including 'Hermann' (ii) otherwise known as 'Bodenplatte', 'Greif' (iv), 'Nordwind' (iii) and 'Währung', and had as its overall objective a breakthrough of the Allied front in the thinly held sector of the Ardennes region between Monschau in the north and Trier in the south, so splitting the Allied armies into separate northern and southern groupings, and thus paving the way for a German drive to seize Antwerp and the vast stocks of Allied supplies in its docks. This, Adolf Hitler believed, would further open the way for the German encirclement and destruction of four Allied armies (from north to south General H. D. G. Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army, Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army, Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 9th Army and Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army) and thus compel the Western Allies to negotiate a peace which would make it possible for Germany to concentrate its military efforts against its perceived mortal enemy, the USSR.
Although unsuccessful, the offensive nevertheless tied down much of the available Allied resources, and the Allies' slow response to the resulting gap in their line imposed a delay of several months on their timetable for the defeat of Germany. On the other hand, the offensive also allowed the Allies to tackle and effectively destroy much of Germany’s strength on the Western Front well forward of the fixed defences of their 'Siegfried-Linie', destroyed much of the matériel which could have been used for the defence of western Germany, and exhausted the very limited supplies available to the remnants of the Germans' western armies. This greatly facilitated the Allies' subsequent assault on Germany.
Their break-out from their Normandy lodgement late in July 1944 had opened the way for the Allies to surge rapidly across north-eastern France. This drove the Germans back in disarray and paved the way to the rapid liberation of most of northern France, but presented enormous logistical problems as the Allies' northern armies' constantly lengthening lines of communication stretched back to Cherbourg, the only deep-water port which the Allies had been able to capture relatively intact: other port towns had been captured since the invasion, but the Germans had been careful to wreck them thoroughly before losing them, so these were of little use to the Allies.
Adding to the problem was the almost total destruction which had been wrought by the Allied air forces on the of the French railway network before the launch of 'Overlord'. This air effort had been designed to deny the Germans this primary source of movement to relocate, reinforce and resupply their armies, but the destruction was now just as much of a hindrance to the Allies in exactly the same way, although the Allies did not need to fear German air attacks, and also possessed the bridging equipment and other equipment to make good at least part of north-east France’s road network. Thus the Allies relied on a massive road transport system known as the 'Red Ball Express', but by the time this system had been extended to the Franco-Belgian border it meant that the delivery of one unit of fuel required the burning of five more units.
Although the German forces continued to fall back, initial disarray fading to later disorder, by a time early in October the supply situation was so acute that the Allied armies were unable to maintain the impetus of their advance. Each of the Allied army group and army commanders pressed for all of the supplies to be given to his own formation in order to bring at least a single army to full offensive capability for a narrow-front drive to pierce the German front and penetrate deep into Germany. But the Supreme Allied Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, maintained his trust in a broad-front strategy, though with priority for the Allied Expeditionary Force’s northern group of armies since its short-term goals included opening the urgently needed deep-water port of Antwerp and its long-term object was the capture of the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heart.
With the Allies forced to check their advance and regroup to allow supplies to reach them, the Western Front started to stabilise along the general line of Germany’s 'Siegfried-Linie' defences in October and November 1944, and this made it possible for Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber 'West', to start the reorganisation of the surviving German armies into smaller but more effective defensive formations.
The failure of the Allies' interconnected 'Market' and 'Garden' operations, designed to open the way to a crossing of the Nederrijn (Lower Rhine) river at Arnhem and so allow the Allied armies to pass round the northern end of the 'Siegfried-Linie' defences and plunge into northern Germany with the aid of supplies which would arrive from the port of Antwerp now fully opened for business, left the Allies in a position little better than before. In November Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army eventually won the Battle of the Scheldt, and so cleared the way for the opening of Antwerp: by the end of November the Allies' supply problems were decreasing, although the Allied forces were still spread all over France, Belgium and Luxembourg. As the Allied situation eased, that of the Germans deteriorated steadily.
Early in the summer of 1944, the Soviet 'Bagration' offensive had come to an end after destroying Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', in the process liberating Belorussia and taking eastern Poland. The Soviet progress had been so rapid that the offensive ended not as a result of anything which the German armies had managed to achieve, but rather as a result of Soviet exhaustion and logistical problems. Now, several months later, it was clear the Soviet forces were preparing for a winter offensive, probably to begin in December.
Meanwhile, the Allied air offensive of the period early in 1944 had effectively grounded what was left of the Luftwaffe, leaving the Germans with little battlefield intelligence and no way to interdict Allied supply movements. The converse was equally damaging: daytime movement of German forces was almost instantly noticed, and the continued interdiction of German logistical movement combined with the bombing of the Romanian oilfields to starve Germany of petroleum products except for the increasing but still inadequate quantities of synthetic fuel which Germany could manufacture. The only advantage for the German forces at this time was the fact that they were no longer defending all of western Europe.
The front line in the west was considerably shorter and closer to the German heartland, dramatically reducing the logistical problem of keeping the German forces fed, supplied and equipped despite the overwhelming nature of the Allied air superiority. Moreover, the availability of an extensive national telephone and telegraph network meant that radio equipment was no longer so important for communications, and this deprived the Allies of their most powerful weapon, the 'Ultra' system to intercept and decrypt German radio signals, and thereby gain a keen and almost instantaneous insight into their military thinking, situation and plans.
Fighting eased with the end of 'Bagration' in the east and the Canadian success in the battle of the Scheldt in the west, and as autumn began to make its effects felt in Europe, the only fighting involved the limited operations during the Lorraine campaign in east central France and the battle for Aachen farther to the north.
Clearly suffering from a diminished capacity to reach any valid assessment of the military and political situation, Hitler felt that his armies might, in the longer term, be capable of mounting a successful defence of Germany if only, in the shorter term, they could find a way to stymie the Allies on the Western Front. The German leader felt that such a neutralisation might split the Allies, cause the Americans and British to reach a separate peace with Germany, and so leave Germany free to concentrate its armies on the Eastern Front with the USSR. He also hoped that the success of any western offensive would buy the German armaments industry the time with which to complete the design and production of some of Germany’s more advanced weapons.
However, the success of any such offensive was extremely doubtful from the start, as without German air superiority it would be only a question of time and weather conditions before any German offensive would be neutralised by an Allied counter-offensive with massive air support. This analysis of how the weather might affect the situation proved correct, as once the adverse weather on which the Germans relied had been replaced by better conditions, the Allied air forces joined the counter-offensive in overwhelming strength and soon turned German advance into German retreat.
Several senior officers made this very point to Hitler before the start of 'Wacht am Rhein', but their concerns were either ignored or rejected out of hand. It is an indication of how desperate were the German straits that the offensive was finally scheduled for a time when a massive warm front would produce heavy fog and low cloud, effectively grounding the Allied air forces in the area for the first few days of the operation: what was never discussed was now the German forces were to hold their gains after the weather had cleared and the Allies were once again able to use the whole of their overwhelming tactical air power.
When 'Market' and 'Garden' ended, at about the same time as the close of 'Bagration', control of the war’s pace swung for a short time to the German side, and it was felt by some Germans that if they were to ever regain the military initiative, this would probably be the last opportunity to do so. Given the decimated quantity and quality of the German forces of the Eastern Front at this time, the greater possibility seemed to be offered on the Western Front against the smaller numbers of troops fielded by the Allies. On the Eastern Front, the encirclement and destruction of entire Soviet armies would still have left the Soviets with a vast numerical advantage. On the Western Front, logistical problems were exercising a significant impact on Allied operations, even though the opening of Antwerp was starting to improve the situation.
The Allied forces were strung out along a line running from southern France to the middle of the Netherlands along a discontinuous front which included several thinly held sectors, and here the Germans hoped that a successful offensive might neutralise the entire Western Front for some time to come.
Several plans for major western offensives were suggested, but the German high command quickly reduced them to two basic concepts. 'Herbstnebel' was a pincer offensive designed by the staff of Model’s Heeresgruppe 'B', to trap and destroy Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army and Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s 9th Army between Luxembourg and eastern central France in the region to the north of Colmar, thereby leaving the German armies back in control of the excellent defensive territory in which they had fought the US forces to a standstill earlier in the year. 'Martin' was based on a classic Blitzkrieg offensive and was designed by von Rundstedt’s staff to drive through the thinly defended Ardennes, dividing the Allied armies in two and leading to the capture of Antwerp.
Both 'Herbstnebel' and 'Martin' were centred on attacking the US armies, largely as a result of Hitler’s perception of the Americans as indifferent soldiers and his belief that the US 'home front' would possibly crack upon hearing of a decisive American loss. It was the latter plan which Hitler preferred and which was thus developed into 'Wacht am Rhein'. Hitler believed that even though the encirclement plan might effect a slight reduction in US fighting capability, it might have little real effect on the overall situation as there would still be the British and several other US armies in the area. So the possibility of dividing the British and US armies with a Blitzkrieg offensive seemed to offer greater possibilities. The major differences of opinion between Montgomery and Patton were well known even on the German side of the front line, and Hitler believed that the two men’s strategic and operational differences would worsen if the tide of events turned against the Allies.
If the attack succeeded and Antwerp was taken, both the latest and the original Allied lines of communication would be severed, and four armies would be trapped in a northern pocket bounded on three sides by the Germans and on the fourth by the southern reaches of the North Sea. Hitler even hoped that such a success would lead to a repetition of the Allied defeat and 'Dynamo' evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940.
Hitler’s decision for an offensive though the Ardennes had thus been made, and imposed on the German high command, by the middle of September. The primary German formations allocated to the operation would strike out west through the sector held only by the formations of Major General Troy H. Middleton’s VIII Corps of Hodges’s 1st Army and then, on reaching the line of the Meuse river between Liége in the east and Namur in the west, swing to the north-west to drive on Brussels and Antwerp. The most difficult part of the undertaking would be the first phase, for this would be made over much the same terrain as the 'Sichelschnitt' operation of May 1940, and this was difficult enough to render progress hard. Once the line of the Meuse river had been reached, however, the Germans believed that the going would be easier and therefore faster, facilitating the drive to the coast at Antwerp.
In was on this basis that the German plan began to take shape under the designation 'Wacht am Rhein', deliberately selected in the hope that if they discovered the name the Allies would think it signified a defensive operation to protect the Rhineland from an Allied river-crossing operation.
The three primary formations earmarked for 'Wacht am Rhein', under the overall control of Heeresgruppe 'B', were SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Josef Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzerarmee in the north with the task of spearheading the northern part of the offensive to break out past Liége and strike out for Antwerp, General Hasso-Eccard Freiherr von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzerarmee in the centre 1 with the task of driving straight to the west toward Namur and Dinant on the Meuse river before striking out for Brussels, and General Erich Brandenberger’s 7th Army in the south with the task of driving though Diekirch and advancing toward Martelange and Neufchâteau to shield the southern flank of the offensive. A subsidiary role would also be played in the north by General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army.
In the north of the German offensive was the 6th SS Panzerarmee 2, which had been created on 26 October 1944, and included some of the best Waffen-SS formations still available. In the south of the German offensive was the 7th Army 3, whose task was to provide the operation’s southern flank guard against the attentions of the 3rd Army, and as such the army was to take and hold a line between Luxembourg and Givet.
Limited Luftwaffe support was provided by Generalmajor Dietrich Peltz’s II Jagdkorps and Generalleutnant Wolfgang Pickert’s III Flakkorps.
Also involved in a subsidiary capacity, as noted above, was the 15th Army, recently rebuilt after the losses it had suffered in the heavy fighting during 'Market' and 'Garden': this army was located on the northern flank of the three primary armies, between Stadtkyll and Monschau with the task of pinning the forces of the US 1st Army in the area, but with the possibility of launching its own attack given favourable conditions.
The Allied formations which were to bear the brunt of the German offensive was Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group, and more specifically Hodges’s US 1st Army 4 and Patton’s US 3rd Army 5.
For the Germans, poor weather conditions were essential to neutralise Allied air superiority and the damage this would otherwise inflict on the German offensive and its supply lines. Progress had to be rapid and could brook no delay: Model declared that the line of the Meuse river must be reached by the offensive’s fourth day if there was to be any real chance of success. The original plan was based on the use of just fewer than 45 divisions, including 12 Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions forming the armoured spearhead, and various infantry units to form a defensive line as the battle unfolded. The German army was suffering an acute manpower shortage by this stage of the war, however, and the force had been reduced to some 30 divisions. Although it retained most of the originally specified armour, the operation lacked adequate infantry divisions, largely as a result of the demands of defensive operations on the Eastern Front.
The reality of the situation now facing Germany was reflected in the fact that 30 divisions allocated to 'Wacht am Rhein' were rebuilt formations using some of Germany’s last manpower reserves. Among them were Volksgrenadier divisions comprising a mix of battle-hardened veterans and recruits formerly regarded as too young or too old for combat. Training time, equipment and supplies were all inadequate during the offensive’s preparatory phase. German fuel supplies were so limited (matériel and supplies which could not be directly transported by rail had to be delivered by horse-drawn transport to conserve fuel) that the Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions would run out of petrol unless they could capture Allied fuel dumps, and in an effort to save additional fuel the start of the offensive was delayed from mid-November to 16 December.
It is worth noting that in the period before the launch of 'Wacht am Rhein', the Allies were virtually blind to German troop movements. During the liberation of France the Allies had received much intelligence of this nature from the French resistance network, but this was no longer the case now that the campaign had moved onto German soil. In France, moreover, German orders, enciphered by Enigma machine, had been despatched primarily by radio and had been intercepted and decrypted by the 'Ultra' system. In Germany the orders were sent primarily by telephone and teleprinter, and a special radio silence order was imposed on all matters related to 'Wacht am Rhein'. The onset of true autumn weather also prevented Allied reconnaissance aircraft from correctly assessing the ground situation. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the Allied high command decided that the Ardennes was a quiet sector, this decision being based on intelligence assessments that the Germans were unable to launch a major offensive operation at this late in the war, and were instead concentrating on defensive measures. This meant that the attack came as a total surprise to the Allies.
The US units deployed in the Ardennes were a mix of green troops such as Lauer’s 99th Division and Jones’s (from 22 December Brigadier General Herbert T. Perrin’s) 106th Division, and battle-hardened troops such as Robertson’s 2nd Division and Cota’s 28th Division, sent to that sector to recuperate.
Within 'Wacht am Rhein' provision was made for a pair of special operations. By October it had been decided that SS-Sturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny, the commando who had been credited with the rescue the former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from his mountain incarceration in the 'Eiche' gliderborne undertaking, would lead a task force of English-speaking German soldiers in 'Greif' (iv). The soldiers were to be dressed in British and US uniforms, and wear the 'dog tags' taken from corpses and prisoners of war. The task of the 'Greif' (iv) party was to enter the US rear areas and change signposts, misdirect traffic, cause any other disruption it could, and seize bridges across the Meuse river between Liége and Namur.
By a time late in November another ambitious special operation had been added as 'Stösser', in which Oberstleutnant Dr Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte was to lead a paratroop Kampfgruppe, based on the commander’s 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment, in a nocturnal drop behind the Allied lines to capture and hold a vital road junction near Malmédy.
German intelligence had fixed 20 December as the most likely date for the launch of the imminent Soviet winter offensive, aimed at crushing the remnants of German resistance on the Eastern Front and thereby opening the way for a Soviet advance in Berlin, and the German high command hope that the Soviet dictator, Iosif Stalin, would delay the start of the operation once the German assault in the Ardennes had begun and then await the outcome of the German offensive before continuing. In the final stage of preparations Hitler and his staff left the 'Wolfsschanze' headquarters in East Prussia, at which they had co-ordinated much of the fighting on the Eastern Front and, after a brief visit to Berlin on 11 December, travelled to the 'Adlerhorst', Hitler’s headquarters in southern Germany and the site from which he had overseen the successful 1940 campaign against France and the Low Countries.
'Wacht am Rhein' started at 05.30 on 16 December with a great artillery bombardment on the Allied formations opposite the 6th SS Panzerarmee. By 08.00 all three German armies were moving forward through the Ardennes, their assaults falling on the totally unprepared formations and units of the VIII Corps and two divisions of the V Corps. In the northern sector the 6th SS Panzerarmee assaulted the Losheim gap and the Elsenborn ridge in an effort to secure a breakthrough to Liége. In the centre the 5th Panzerarmee attacked in the direction of Bastogne and St Vith, which were road junctions of great operational and tactical significance. In the south the 7th Army moved to the west toward Luxembourg in its task of securing the southern flank of 'Wacht am Rhein' from any Allied intervention from the south. In a conscious emulation of the tactics which the Soviets had used against them so successfully in 'Bagration', the Germans' first wave consisted mostly of infantrymen, who cleared the way and opened the initial gaps which could be exploited by armoured elements.
The initial advance took the sector’s US divisions wholly by surprise, and while many forward-deployed units surrendered, sturdier resistance farther back soon started to reduce the pace of the German advance. The only reinforcements available to the 1st Army were Major General James M. Gavin’s 82nd Airborne Division and Brigadier General (from 2 January Major General) Anthony C. McAuliffe’s 101st Airborne Division of Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s XVIII Airborne Corps, which were resting near Reims. These were rushed up to the front as the 9th and 3rd Armies, in the south and north of the salient being formed by the German offensive, were ordered to ready Major General Robert W. Hasbrouck’s 7th Armored Division and Major General William H. H. Morris’s 10th Armored Division to hold the vital shoulders of the salient as further reinforcements (Major General Ernest N. Harmon’s 2nd Armored Division, Major General Frank L. Culin’s 87th Division and Major General William M. Miley’s 17th Airborne Division) were brought up. In the meantime a mere six US divisions had to check the German thrust.
The infantry assault in the north by the leading formations of the 6th SS Panzerarmee fared badly as a result of unexpectedly fierce resistance by the 2nd Armored Division and 99th Division at Lanzerath and on the Elsenborn ridge, stalling the German infantry’s advance and forcing Dietrich to send in his Panzer formations at a point earlier than had been planned. Starting on 16 December, however, severe snowstorms had swept over the Ardennes. This kept Allied aircraft on the ground, a fact much desired by the Germans, but was also a hindrance to the Germans as poor road conditions slowed their advance, and thousands of vehicles were stalled in great traffic chaos. The Germans fared better in the centre and the south as they attacked positions held by only two formations, Cota’s 28th Division and Jones’s 106th Division. All along the line, however, the inexperience of some of the German troops was evident: these poorly trained infantrymen tended to attack from the open and moved with no thought of concealment, both of factors making them prime targets for American ambush. The advent of the recently developed proximity-fused artillery shell also opened the way for a heavy toll to be taken of German troops in the open.
Hitler had predicted that it would take Eisenhower some two or three days to realise that the fighting in the Ardennes was not a local counterattack but a major offensive, but he was wrong. Before the end of 16 December Eisenhower, ignoring the advice of his staff, had ordered a major reinforcement of the Ardennes sector. The 'Red Ball Express' ceased the delivery of supplies in favour of the movement of troops. Within a week 250,000 soldiers had been sent into the sector. At the same time the 101st Airborne Division, together with a combat team of the 10th Armored Division, was ordered to move to and hold the town of Bastogne. The 82nd Airborne Division was also thrown into the battle in the area to the south-east of Liége on the northern side of the salient the Germans were creating.
Originally scheduled for the early morning of 16 December, 'Stösser' was delayed for a day because of bad weather and fuel shortages. The new drop time was set for 03.00 on 17 December on a drop zone 7 miles (11 km) north of Malmédy. The operation’s target was the 'Baraque Michel' crossroads. von der Heydte and his men were to take and hold this for some 24 hours until relieved by Kraas’s 12th SS Panzerdivision, thereby hampering the Allied flow of reinforcements and supplies into this area on the northern shoulder of the salient the Germans were creating.
Just after 24.00 on 16/17 December, 112 Junkers Ju 52/3m transport aircraft carrying about 1,300 Fallschirmjäger troops lifted off in a snowstorm, with strong winds and widespread low cloud. As a result, many aircraft lost their way and men were dropped as far as 7.5 miles (12 km) from the intended drop zone, with only a fraction of the force landing near it. Strong winds also took off-target those paratroopers whose aircraft were relatively close to the intended drop zone and made their landings far rougher. By noon a group of around 300 airborne soldiers had managed to assemble, but this force was too small and too weak to counter the Allies. von der Heydte therefore abandoned the plan to take the crossroads and instead ordered his men to adopt guerrilla tactics and harass the Allied troops in the vicinity. The far-flung dispersal of the jump, resulting in reports of German airborne troops all over the Ardennes, persuaded the Allies that a jump of divisional size had taken place. This led to considerable confusion, and caused the Allies to allocate men to the securing of rear areas, which were in fact not under threat, instead of their despatch to the front to face the main German thrust.
In 'Greif' (iv), Skorzeny infiltrated a small part of his battalion of disguised, English-speaking Germans behind the Allied lines. Although the Germans failed to take the vital bridges over the Meuse river, the battalion’s presence produced confusion out of all proportion to its military activities, and rumours spread like wildfire. Even so, checkpoints were soon set up all over the Allied rear areas even though this greatly slowed the movement of soldiers and equipment. Military policemen drilled servicemen on things which every US soldier was expected to know. The tightened security nonetheless made things harder for the German infiltrators, and some of them were captured. Even during interrogation they continued their goal of spreading disinformation: when asked about their mission, some claimed that they had been ordered to go to Paris and kill or capture Eisenhower. Security around the general was greatly increased, and he remained at his headquarters. Because these prisoners had been captured in American uniform they were later executed.
In the north the main armoured spearhead of the 6th SS Panzerarmee, the Kampfgruppe 'Peiper' of 4,800 men and 600 vehicles under the command of SS-Standartenführer Joachim Peiper, pushed to the west into Belgium. At 07.00 on 17 December the Kampfgruppe 'Peiper' seized a US fuel depot at Bülligen, where it paused to refuel before continuing to the west. At 12.30, near the hamlet of Baugnez on the height halfway between the towns of Malmédy and Ligneuville, the Germans encountered elements of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, and after a brief fight the Americans surrendered. They were disarmed and, with some 150 other Americans captured earlier, sent to stand in a field near the crossroads. A tank pulled up and a truck shortly thereafter. A single SS officer pulled out a pistol and shot a medical officer standing in the front row, and then shot the man standing next to his first victim. Other soldiers then joined in with machine gun fire. It is not known why this happened: there is no record of an SS officer giving the order.
News of the killings raced through Allied lines, and after this the order went out that SS and Fallschirmjäger troops were to be shot on sight.
The fighting continued and, by the evening, Mohnke’s 1st SS Panzerdivision had pushed to the north to engage Lauer’s 99th Division, and the Kampfgruppe 'Peiper' had arrived in front of Stavelot. Peiper was already well behind schedule, though, for it had taken his force 36 hours to advance from Eifel to Stavelot, a route which had taken the German forces just nine hours in 1940. As the Americans fell back they blew up bridges and fuel dumps, denying the Germans critically needed fuel and further slowing their progress. Peiper entered Stavelot on 18 December but encountered fierce resistance by the American defenders. Unable to defeat the US force in area, Peiper left a small support force in town and with the bulk of his command headed for the bridge at Trois Ponts, but by the time he reached this small town the retreating Allies had already destroyed the bridge. Peiper next headed for the village of La Gleize and then Stoumont where, as the German force approached, the US engineers blew up the bridge.
US troops were also entrenched in Stoumont and ready to fight. Peiper’s force was cut off from the main German offensive and any possibility of resupply when the Americans recaptured the poorly defended town of Stavelot on 19 December. As their situation in Stoumont was becoming hopeless, Peiper decided to pull back to La Gleize, where he set up his defences and awaited the German relief force. As no relief force was able to penetrate Allied defences, on 23 December Peiper decided to break through back to the German lines. The men of the Kampfgruppe were forced to abandon their vehicles and heavy equipment, although most of the men were then able to escape.
In the centre of the German offensive’s northern sector, the town of St Vith, a vital road junction, presented the main challenge for both von Manteuffel’s and Dietrich’s forces. The defence, led by Hasbrouck’s 7th Armored Division and including Lauer’s 106th Division as well as elements of Leonard’s 9th Armored Division and the 28th Division, all under the command of Brigadier General Bruce C. Clarke, successfully resisted the German attacks and thereby imposed a significant delay on the German advance. The Germans managed to capture St Vith on 21 December, but US troops fell back to entrenched positions in the area, presenting an imposing obstacle to a successful German advance. By 23 December, as the Germans shattered their flanks, the defenders' position became untenable and the American troops were ordered to retreat west of the Salm river.
As the German plan had demanded the capture of St Vith by 18.00 on 17 December, the prolonged action in and around the town represented a major blow to the German timetable.
On 19 December the senior Allied commanders met at Verdun. Realising that the Allies could destroy German forces much more easily when they were on the offensive and thus in the open than when they were on the defensive and therefore in prepared positions, Eisenhower told his subordinate commanders that 'The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster. There will be only cheerful faces at this table.' Seeing what Eisenhower implied, Patton responded 'Hell, let’s have the guts to let the bastards go all the way to Paris. Then, we’ll really cut 'em off and chew 'em up.' Eisenhower asked Patton how long it would take to turn his 3rd Army, then located in south central France and facing east, toward the north and start a counterattack. Patton said he could do it in 48 hours, to the disbelief of the other generals present. Before he had gone to the meeting, in fact, Patton had ordered his staff to prepare to turn north, and by the time Eisenhower asked him how long it would take the movement was already under way.
By 21 December the German forces had surrounded Bastogne, which was defended by McAuliffe’s 101st Airborne Division and Combat Command 'B' of Morris’s 10th Armored Division. Conditions inside the perimeter were tough as most of the medical supplies and personnel had been captured. Despite determined German attacks, however, the perimeter held. When McAuliffe was awakened by a German invitation to surrender, he gave a reply that has been variously reported and was probably unprintable. There is no disagreement, however, as to what he wrote on the paper delivered to the Germans: 'NUTS!' Rather than launching one attack all round the US perimeter, the German forces concentrated their assaults on several individual locations attacked in sequence. Although this compelled the defenders to undertake a constant shift of reinforcements in order to repel each attack, it dissipated the Germans' numerical advantage.
On 23 December the weather finally started to improve, allowing the Allied air forces to attack. The air forces launched devastating bombing raids on the German supply points in their rear areas, and Republic P-47 Thunderbolt heavy fighter-bombers started to destroy the German troops on the roads. The Allied air forces also helped the defenders of Bastogne, dropping much-needed supplies of medicine, food, blankets and ammunition. A volunteer team of surgeons arrived by glider and immediately began work.
By 24 December the German advance was effectively stalled, at points well short of the Meuse river. They had outrun their supply lines and shortages of fuel and ammunition were becoming critical. On this date the German formation that had moved farthest to the west was von Lauchert’s 2nd Panzerdivision, which had reached a point just short of Dinant, held by Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s British XXX Corps.
Up to this time the German losses had been comparatively light, especially in armour, which was almost untouched with the exception of Peiper’s losses. On the evening of 24 December von Manteuffel recommended to Hitler’s military adjutant that there be a halt to all offensive operations and a withdrawal back to the 'Siegfried-Linie' defences of the 'Westwall', but when told of this suggestion, Hitler rejected it.
The 3rd Army was now battling to relieve Bastogne. At 16.50 on 26 December the lead element of the 37th Tank Battalion of Gaffey’s 4th Armored Division reached Bastogne, so ending the siege.
On 1 January 1945, in an attempt to keep the offensive going, the Germans launched two new operations. At 09.15 the Luftwaffe started 'Bodenplatte' (otherwise 'Hermann'), a major campaign against Allied airfields in the Low Countries: hundreds of aircraft attacked Allied airfields, destroying or severely damaging some 465 aircraft. However, the Luftwaffe lost 277 of its own aircraft: 62 fell to Allied fighters and 172 to anti-aircraft fire. Most of the latter succumbed to Allied guns, of which there were an unexpectedly high number to protect against German V-1 flying bomb attacks, and a smaller but nonetheless significant number to the 'friendly fire' of German Flak guns whose units had not been informed of the pending large-scale German air operation and believed that all aircraft now operating over of behind the front were Allied. While the Allies recovered from their losses in just days, the Luftwaffe could not recover in terms of aircraft, fuel and pilots.
On the same day, the Germans launched 'Nordwind' (iii) as diversionary attack into the Alsace region. The fighting ranged over 90 miles (145 km) between Saarbrücken in the north and the Rhine river in the south. After 13 days of bitter fighting, the Americans fell back, having taken some 11,609 casualties but inflicting 23,000.
When 'Wacht am Rhein' ground to a halt, the Germans controlled a dangerous westward-bulging salient in the Allied line, from which their armoured forces could, in theory, wreak havoc.
The Allied counterattack was slated to begin on 1 January. The 3rd Army in the south, centred around Bastogne, would attack north, and Montgomery’s forces in the north would strike south, and it was planned at the two onslaughts through the shoulders of the German salient to pinch it off be meeting at Houffalize. Many of the men slated to attack could not believe that after two weeks of heavy fighting they were now being told to spearhead a major offensive. Exhaustion a factor, but adding to this the temperature during January was the coldest on record: trucks had to be run every 30 minutes or the oil in them became solid, weapons froze, and the men typically wore multiple overcoats and slept with two to four blankets.
Eisenhower had put the US forces in the north (the 1st and 9th Armies) under the command of Montgomery’s Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group. Eisenhower wanted Montgomery to go on the offensive on 1 January with the aim of meeting up with the 3rd Army and cutting off most of the attacking Germans, trapping them in a pocket. Refusing to commit men he considered under-prepared and in a snowstorm, Montgomery did not launch the attack until 3 January, a date by which substantial numbers of German troops had already managed to disengage, albeit with the loss of their heavy equipment.
At the start of the offensive, the two Allied armies were separated by about 25 miles (40 km). US progress in the south was slow, in the order of 0.6 mile (1 km) per day. The Germans undertook a fighting retreat, doing their best to delay the Americans. The majority of the German force escaped the battle, although the fuel situation had become so dire that most of the German armour had to be abandoned. On 7 January, Hitler agreed to pull back most of the forces from the Ardennes, including the SS Panzer divisions, thus ending all German offensive operations.
'Wacht am Rhein' was now effectively ended, leaving the Allies to mop up the remaining German stragglers. Although the German offensive had been halted, on 6 January Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked Stalin for support, and on 12 January the Soviet army launched its 'Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation' in Poland and East Prussia. Soviet sources soon claimed this was done ahead of schedule to aid the Allies, while most western sources doubt it and instead claim the Soviet offensive was delayed because of the situation in the West, with Stalin waiting out until both sides had militarily exhausted themselves.
The 'Battle of the Bulge' officially ended when the two US forces met on 15 January.
The statistical data for 'Wacht am Rhein' are difficult to ascertain. The Germans probably started their offensive with 600,000 men of whom 200,000 were committed in the initial assault, slightly more than 600 armoured fighting vehicles and 1,600 pieces of artillery as well as 955 rocket launchers, and their losses were 81,834 men (12,652 dead, 38,600 wounded and 30,582 missing) and all their armour, which had been supplemented by another 100 vehicles during the fighting. The Americans started the battle with some 500,000 men, 400 or more armoured fighting vehicles and just fewer than 400 pieces of artillery, and their losses were 80,987 men (10,276 dead, 47,493 wounded and 23,218 missing) and 733 armoured fighting vehicles, which had been considerably boosted in number during the battle.
This made the 'Battle of the Bulge' the largest and costliest single battle fought by the US forces in World War II.
The British losses were 1,408 men.
After the battle the Allies pressed their advantage, and by the beginning of February 1945 the front line was approximately in its position of December 1944. Early in February 1945 the Allies launched an offensive all along the West Front, in the north under Montgomery, in the centre under Hodges and in the south under Patton. The German losses in this campaign were critical for several reasons: the last of the German reserves were now gone; the Luftwaffe had been broken; and the German army on the West Front was being driven back, even though it had inflicted a six-week delay in the Allied advance into Germany.