Tuesday, December 15, 2009

December 16th The Battle of the Bulge

Today is the 65th Anniversary of The Battle of the Bulge.

On this day, 65 years ago, Germany launched their final offensive in an attempt to change the course of the war on the Western Front. The Germans had marshaled the best of their remaining forces and on December 16th began a massive attack that caught the Allies completely by surprise.

In the first 48 hours German Army and Waffen-SS formations made impressive thrusts into and through the American lines. The 106th and 28th Infantry Divisions were both destroyed (the 106th losing 7,000 men taken prisoner) though they would both be rebuilt and fight again. In addition the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 30th, 78th, 80th and 99th Infantry Divisions were all badly damaged. Their paratrooper brothers in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions also suffered heavy losses, and while their casualties were less than the infantry, the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 10th and 11th Armored divisions sustained heavy losses as well. (733 tanks and tank destroyers were lost.)

However, key American units held their ground and over the next few weeks the Ardennes Offensive developed into the largest battle ever fought by the US Army.

Although most of the heavy fighting took place in December, the front was not restored to its original position until the end of January. By then the Americans had suffered over 81,000 casualties including 19,000 killed and over 23,000 taken prisoner.

Losses for the Germans were equally grim, but unlike the Allies, the tanks and soldiers lost could not be replaced. Exact numbers for German losses are unknown and depend upon which units are included. Numbers range from 81,000 to 100,000 (if Luftwaffe air and ground units are included). Among the losses were nearly 14,000 killed, 39,000 wounded and over 30,000 missing. Again, the actual numbers may be far higher. The 6th SS Panzer Army alone reported over 37,000 casualties.

On a tactical level the Germans won several engagements, delayed the planned Allied offensive by some six weeks, and proved beyond any doubt that the German Army and Waffen-SS still had teeth. However, on a strategic level, the Ardennes Offensive was a decisive defeat and an unmitigated disaster for the Germans.

The Germans brought out their best units for the Ardennes Offensive, and although they made impressive initial gains they were also exposed to Allied firepower. The Americans took full advantage of the opportunity. The Germans could not make good their losses and these powerful Army and Waffen-SS tank units would be sorely missed on the Eastern Front. Indeed, there has been much speculation that had the Germans remained on the strategic defensive the war might have gone on into 1946. That of course is impossible to know, but one can only imagine the additional losses the Allies, particularly the Soviets, would have suffered attacking these powerful German formations in prepared defensive positions.

As Winston Churchill noted in the House of Commons on January 18th: “This is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever famous American victory.”

Hollywood Loves A Famous Battle

Generally speaking Hollywood and History do not get along well even though many famous and much lauded Hollywood films are based upon well known historical events. Not surprisingly the Battle of the Bulge is no exceptions. That being said, most films about the battle have been only fair at best

Robert Shaw as Colonel Hessler (supposedly based upon
Waffen-SS Colonel Peiper) in the 1965 film The Battle of the Bulge

Perhaps the absolutely worst film is also the only film to deal with the entire battle. Released on December 16th 1965 by Warner Brothers the Battle Of The Bulge gets very little of the history correct with the notable exception of the uniforms, which are impeccable. Indeed the film plays so fast and lose with history that after watching the film in Munich, the former commander of the 5th Panzer Army, Hasso von Manteuffel commented:

The content of this film is completely fictional and has hardly anything to do with the events of those days… It also presents a distortion of the facts and actual conditions under which the battle took place … The film is an insult not only to the American soldier who fought in the Ardennes, but also a scandal for all soldiers including those on the other side. (Battle of the Bulge by Danny S Parker, c1991, p313)

Unfortunately the fiction that is this film has infiltrated the public conscious and become accepted as “fact.”

One of the events portrayed in the film, in a highly fictionalized form, is the Malmedy Massacre. Despite much scholarly research into this incident the IMDB internet bio of Charles Durning, a survivor of that event, describes the Malmedy Massacre as it is presented in the Warner Brothers film, not as it actually happened.

All in all, with the exception of the uniforms, this film is to be avoided.

Better are the handful of films that deal not with the battle as a whole but with small groups caught up in the events of that December. As with all films some are better than others and that judgment has more to do with personal taste that historic objectivity.

Some of the better, or at least more noteworthy films:

Battleground 1950 MGM

Band of Brothers Episode Six: Bastogne 2001 HBO

A Midnight Clear 1992 A&M Films

The Execution of Private Slovik 1974 Universal

Silent Night 2002 Fast Carrier Pictures

Slaughterhouse Five 1972 Universal

Saints and Soldiers 2003 Go Films

“What they should have done…”

With the possible exceptions of Gettysburg and Waterloo, no battle has as many games devoted to it than the Battle of The Bulge. Even though research shows that the Germans had no real chance of winning this battle the Ardennes Offensive has proven to be very popular with gamers and a new take on the battle appears almost every year.

One of the very first was Avalon Hill’s The Battle Of The Bulge. Released in 1965, what this game lacked in historical accuracy it more than made up for in playability. Indeed it was a hallmark of the Avalon Hill Company to favor playability over accuracy, just as it was the tendency of their rival, SPI, to favor historical accuracy to the point of rendering some of their games frustratingly unplayable.

Both Avalon Hill and SPI cranked out several games on this battle and these now out of print classics are much sought after by both players and collectors alike. Two in particular, Avalon Hill’s Bitter Woods and SPI’s "monster" game Wacht Am Rhein, have enjoyed a new life as updated and expanded games produced by L2 Designs and Decision Games respectively. So popular was the update of Wacht Am Rhein that it too is now out of print with copies on E-Bay fetching as much as $400.

Video games have also dealt with this battle to varying degrees of success. Most are now out of print and those that are available tend to be “First Person Shooters” that happen to have the Battle of the Bulge as one of their many scenarios. The exception to this is HPS Simulations who continue to publish an excellent operational level game Bulge ’44.

A Few noteworthy games on the Battle of the Bulge:

Battle of the Bulge 1965, Avalon Hill

Bastogne 1969, SPI

Ardennes Offensive 1974, SPI

Hitler’s Last Gamble 1975, 3W (Designed by Danny S Parker an authority on this battle)

Bastogne 1976, SPI

Wacht Am Rhein 1976, SPI

Dark December 1979, Operational Studies Group

Battle of the Bulge (2nd Ed) 1981, Avalon Hill

Battle of the Bulge 1985, Epoch

Wave of Terror 1987, XTR Corp

Ardennes 1994, The Gamers

The Last Blitzkrieg 1994, 3W

Bastogne or Bust 1994 Terran Games Inc

Bitter Woods 1998, Avalon Hill

Tigers in the Mist 2000, GMT

Bitter Woods 2003, L2 Designs (revised AH game)

Ardennes 44 2003, GMT

Iron Tide 2003, Pacific Rim Publishing

Wacht Am Rhein 2005, Decision Games (revised SPI game)

Axis & Allies Battle of the Bulge 2006. Avalon Hill/Wizards of he Coast

The Significance of the Battle Today

Outside of those interested in Military Science or the history of World War Two, the Battle of the Bulge, despite its historic importance, would seem to hold little relevance to our present day. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The Malmedy Massacre, and in particular the trial that is spawned, have a direct bearing on our present circumstances.

Although closely studied, the actual events of that day at the Baugnez crossroads south of Malmedy remain somewhat cloudy. There are several competing versions of what happened and the absolute truth will probably never be known with certainty.

What can be said is that Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion ran into the leading elements of Kampfgruppe Peiper, the armored spearhead of the 1st SS panzer Division. After a brief firefight the surviving GI’s were taken prisoner and moved into an open field next to the crossroads. Several soldiers were detailed to watch the prisoners while the rest of the battle group, urged on by their commander Joachim Peiper, pushed on down the road in the hopes of capturing an American general reported to be in the next town.

Waffen-SS Colonel Joachim Peiper

A few minutes later one of the SS tankers, later identified as Private Georg Fleps, fired two shots from his pistol into the group of prisoners, killing an officer. Another US officer yelled for his men to stand fast, but then more shots rang out and there was a mad dash for the woods. Few made it to safety. Any GI’s left in the field who showed any signs of life were shot by SS panzergrenadiers moving among them. For the next few hours panzergrenadiers on passing tanks and halftracks took potshots at the bodies lying in the field. Surprisingly, despite all of this, several GI’s did survive, making it safely to American lines.

Bodies of American GI’s killed at the Baugnez Crossroads

News of the massacre was quickly disseminated throughout the American command and did more to stiffen American resistance and resolve than anything else.

After the war a trial was held at Dachau in which 74 members of the Waffen-SS were tried, convicted and sentenced, in many cases to death. However, because the prosecution had used “enhanced interrogation” on the prisoners, and the tribunal had knowingly admitted the evidence so obtained, the convections were instantly called into question. After several reviews of the trial, including one by the US Senate, several of the convictions were over turned and all death sentences were commuted to life in prison. These sentences were themselves reduced upon subsequent review. The last defendant to be released, Joachim Peiper himself, was set free in 1956.

Even though it is clear that a war crime was committed against American GI’s by members of the Waffen-SS, because of the use of evidence obtained by “enhanced interrogation” those defendants, many of whom were guilty, walked free. It seems clear that the use of “enhanced interrogation” serves no useful purpose. It is not only counter productive but undermines the very foundations upon which our judicial freedoms and rights are built. Our failure to follow our own laws serves only to allow those who have wronged us to walk free. What was true in 1946 is still true today.


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

"It seems clear that the use of 'enhanced interrogation' serves no useful purpose. It is not only counter productive but undermines the very foundations upon which our judicial freedoms and rights are built."

Brilliantly put. An excellent post.

Narukami said...

Thank you Vicky, you are too kind.

In an earlier post on this Blog I went into greater detail about the Malmedy trial and how an Atlanta born lawyer (Colonel Willis M Everett) took up the cause of the defendants not because he thought them innocent, but because he believed in the strength of the American judicial system and that all defendants deserve a fair trial.

That post can be found here: