Hidden stories of the Battle of the Bulge

9 lesser-known facts about the battle

American soldiers near Bastogne after the battle (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

American soldiers near Bastogne after the battle
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

How much do you know about the trivia of the bloodiest American battle of World War II? The Battle of the Bulge was Hitler's final attempt to change the course of the war on the Western Front.  Although it is one of the most famous battles of the war, it still has some lesser-known details. Here are some facts you might find interesting and might not have heard of before but first, let’s have a generic overview of the operation.
 
On December 16, 1944, Nazi Germany launched its last major counterattack on the Western Front during one of the coldest winters of all time. The offensive was called Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (“Operation Watch on the Rhine”) by the Germans and was launched with around 400,000 men of three armies against the unprepared Allied forces who were taken completely by surprise. In many cases, the troops had to fight under extreme weather conditions in deep snow and temperatures sometimes below -18 °F (-28 °C) with food and ammunition running low. Thousands of servicemen trying to find shelter in their foxholes among the fierce German shelling were affected by cold-related injuries such as trench foot and frostbite. Back-to-back with other units, the encircled 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division courageously held the line during the siege of the small Belgian town of Bastogne until they were relieved by General Patton’s Third Army. More than 1 million Allied soldiers, including around 500,000 U.S. troops, were involved in the battle. Twenty Americans received the Medal of Honor during the battle for their “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty,” a fact that stands testament to the grit of Allied soldiers in the face of the German onslaught. Six weeks of vicious fighting ended with Allied victory on January 25, 1945. Both sides suffered terrible losses accounting to almost one hundred thousand killed, wounded, taken prisoner or missing in action. While the Allies were able to replenish their armies, the Germans could not replace the men and material lost. In a couple of months, the Third Reich was defeated by the Allied forces pushing toward the heart of Nazi Germany.
 
1. It was the greatest and bloodiest American battle of World War II
The Battle of the Bulge was one of the largest and deadliest battles of World War II. The Americans had an especially hard experience; the Ardennes was considered a quiet sector, and was therefore used as a training ground for new, inexperienced units and as a rest area for battle-hardened, exhausted troops. The soldiers were not prepared for the frigid winter conditions of freezing snow and dense fog, and the fact that they were low on ammunition, fuel, medical supplies and other necessities made it even more challenging to fight in this area. It resulted in about 19,000 American fatalities, 47,500 wounded, and 23,000 missing thus constituting the largest and deadliest combat action for the United States in World War II and the third-deadliest battle in American history.

American infantrymen fighting in the fresh Belgian snow (Photo: U.S. Army)
American infantrymen fighting in the fresh Belgian snow
(Photo: U.S. Army)

2. The Germans did everything to keep the offensive a secret
The entire operation had to be carried out with great secrecy and the Germans went all the way to make that happen. Hitler personally named the officers who were to carry out the secret plans and executions were expected to be meted out for the smallest breaches of security. 

Measures were taken to prevent the Allies from detecting the conception and the initial implementation of the plan. For example, even the most highly classified war diary of the overall commander of the Wehrmacht on the Western Front made no mention of the counteroffensive; instead, a separate diary was kept by a small group of officers involved in the planning. The exchange of information was carried out by liaison officers whose movements were closely monitored by military and Gestapo agents. All forms of communication, including teletypes and telephone lines were constantly monitored and those involved in the planning had to take multiple oaths of secrecy.
 
The Germans took many steps to inhibit the Allies and their recon flights from detecting the movement of troops, such as using charcoal instead of coal to reduce smoke or implying that the operation was only defensive rather than offensive in nature. It was named Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (“Operation Watch on the Rhine”) after a 19th century German patriotic song, which gave the Allies the impression that it was a defensive operation. However, the Allies did pick up on some clues that an attack was imminent, such as increased radio traffic and the movement of German troops and cargo. They were able to intercept and decode some of the German radio messages, and they also observed increased activity by German jets. Additionally, the Allies have intercepted a Japanese diplomatic message explicitly mentioning “the coming offensive.”

A German propaganda poster about the operation (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
A German propaganda poster about the operation
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

3. A U.S. intelligence officer was one of the few people who saw the battle coming
Although Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley later admitted that they had not anticipated the extent of Hitler's major attack, there was one U.S. intelligence officer who had a sense of what was coming: Colonel Oscar W. Koch. Koch had been tracking the movements of German tank divisions during the winter of 1944. He knew that there were 15 such divisions in total, but only five of them could be accounted for in early December. Colonel Koch suspected that the remaining divisions might be part of a large counteroffensive through the Ardennes, and he shared this information with his superior at a briefing a week before the German attack on December 9. Fortunately, the superior heeded this warning and made preparations to be ready for a German offensive. The name of the superior was General George S. Patton.
(Read our earlier article – The wars of George S. Patton)

Colonel Oscar W. Koch, Patton’s intelligence officer (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Colonel Oscar W. Koch, Patton’s intelligence officer
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

4. One of the largest mass surrenders of U.S. troops took place here
The 106th “Golden Lions” Infantry Division suffered a major disaster during the Battle of the Bulge, although their position was not attacked by the Germans directly. The division, which was mostly made up of inexperienced soldiers, was assigned to defend a large area known as the Schnee Eifel against a German attack when they realized they were encircled by the German troops. Their strategy included one column trying to attack through the Losheim Gap to the North of the Schnee Eifel, while another column was breaking through the U.S. lines to the south. As a result, the 422nd and 423rd Regiments of the 106th Division were cut off from supply and out of contact with the neighbouring units, leading to the surrender of around 6,500 soldiers in one of the largest mass surrenders of U.S. troops during World War II. Major General Alan W. Jones, the distressed commander of the 106th later said, "I've lost a division faster than any other commander in the U.S. Army." Famous American writer Kurt Vonnegut served in this division and wrote about his experiences as a soldier and prisoner of war in his book Slaughterhouse-Five.

American POWs after surrendering to German soldiers (Photo: US Army Center of Military History)
American POWs after surrendering to German soldiers
(Photo: U.S. Army Center of Military History)

5. The U.S. Army was desegregated for the first time during World War II
The U.S. military was not officially desegregated until 1948, but it still turned to African-American soldiers on multiple occasions due to the dire circumstances during the battle. Approximately 2,500 black troops fought in the operation, including those in the all-black 333rd and 969th Field Artillery Battalions, both of which sustained heavy casualties while supporting the 101st Airborne in the defence of Bastogne. The 969th was later awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation, the first ever presented to a black unit. Other black soldiers, including those in the segregated 578th Field Artillery and the 761st "Black Panthers" Tank Battalion in General George S. Patton’s Third Army, also saw action. As the battle progressed, Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and John C.H. Lee requested that black troops be sent to the front to help compensate for Allied losses. By the end of World War II, over one million African-American men and women served in all the branches of the U.S. armed forces combined.

Black-American soldiers enlisting to the U.S. Army Air Corps (Photo: Bettmann Archive)
Black-American soldiers enlisting to the U.S. Army Air Corps
(Photo: Bettmann Archive)

Despite the huge contribution black soldiers made to the war, they experienced many atrocities in the military and back at home as well. The U.S. military did not allow black soldiers to fight alongside white ones until the later stages of the conflict, and the former received very dispiriting treatment from their white officers at army bases. Black soldiers also suffered targeted killings from German soldiers. One example of such is the Wereth Eleven, 11 Black American soldiers who were massacred and mutilated after surrendering. During the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944, British and American commanders made sure that the victory was portrayed as “whites only” and did not allow black soldiers to participate in the celebrations.
 
African-American soldiers returning to the United States after the war faced violent white mobs who resented their military service and saw it as a threat to the segregationist social order. In addition to facing racial violence, black soldiers were often denied tuition assistance, job placement and home and business loans, all benefits they were entitled to under the G.I. Bill. With civil rights activists pointing out the hypocrisy of the U.S. as a democratic nation with a segregated military, and with Southern politicians opposing full racial equality for black Americans, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in July 1948 to desegregate the U.S. armed forces. Full integration, however, did not occur until the Korean War.

General George S. Patton presenting the Silver Star to Private Ernest Jenkins of the 761st Tank Battalion (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
General George S. Patton presenting the Silver Star to
Private Ernest Jenkins of the 761st Tank Battalion
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

6. Plans for the German advance were unrealistic and asked for desperate measures
The success of the offensive depended on several crucial elements: the element of surprise, Allied air being disabled by unfavourable weather conditions, the need for swift progress, and the capture of Allied fuel reserves to sustain the fuel-limited offensive. The German army's feared Panther and Tiger tanks required a lot of gasoline to operate, and by late 1944, the struggling German war effort was having difficulties procuring enough fuel to keep them running. The Third Reich allocated almost 5 million gallons of gas for the operation, but much of the fuel never reached its intended destination due to poor road conditions and logistical issues.
 
German infantry divisions were forced to look for other solutions and they used around 50,000 horses to haul much of the equipment in the Ardennes. The German high command's battle plans revolved around capturing American fuel depots during their advance. Allied forces, however, either evacuated or destroyed millions of gallons of gas to prevent it from falling into enemy hands, and many German tank units were running low on fuel by Christmas. Without the ability to continue its advance across the Meuse River, the counterattack quickly collapsed. By mid-January 1945, the Allies had succeeded in eliminating the bulge in their lines and pushing the Germans back to their original positions.

Horse-drawn German supply train in France, 1944 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Horse-drawn German supply train in France, 1944
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

7. Allied troops suffered one of the worst war crimes of World War II during the battle
The “Malmedy Massacre” occurred on December 17, 1944, when a group of over 100 Americans, mostly artillerymen from the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, were captured by German SS troops from a Kampfgruppe (“battle group”) under the command of Obersturmbahnführer Joachim Peiper. While the exact details are still debated by historians, around 84 American soldiers being held as prisoners of war were killed when German machine gunners shot them. Kampfgruppe Peiper carried out several more massacres, which resulted in the deaths of about 100 civilians. Approximately 21 prisoners managed to escape and report the murders, but the ongoing battle made it impossible to conduct a proper investigation until mid-January 1945.

U.S. soldier views the corpses of POWs summarily executed in the Malmedy Massacre (Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

In 1946, 46 members of the Waffen-SS, including Joachim Peiper, were sentenced to death at the Dachau trials for their crimes against Allied POWs. Most of these sentences, however, were reduced or commuted by 1951, including Peiper’s. In 1954, his sentence was further reduced and he was eventually released from Landsberg prison in 1956. It is generally believed that Peiper faced justice in 1976, when he was recognized by some civilians and eventually burned in his home in France, 30 years after his trial at Dachau. (Even though the charred body found on the site was not identified beyond doubt.)

Malmedy Massacre memorial at the site of the atrocity
(Photo: Author’s own)

8. Luxembourg resistance had some exceptionally fierce fights
The Battle of the Bulge wasn’t only fought in Belgium but also in the northern part of Luxembourg, where the Luxembourg resistance made a lot of heroic efforts to fight the German forces. Luxembourgish citizens noticed the large number of German troops concentrated in the Bitburg region before the beginning of the German offensive. Some civilians risked their lives to warn Allied troops about this and luckily managed to avoidbeing arrested by the Germans. Unfortunately, U.S. troops did not take any action based on their warning. However, this did not stop the Luxembourg resistance to fight openly against the Germans. On November 19, 1944, the Battle for Vianden Castle took place, the most significant event in the history of the Luxembourg resistance against Nazi Germany. The thirty members of the militia defending the castle and the nearby town suffered only light casualties (1 dead and 6 wounded), while the 250 Waffen-SS soldiers sustained heavy losses (23 killed). During the Battle of the Bulge, most members of the Luxembourgish militia continued their activities to help the U.S. forces in Belgium.

Luxembourgish civilians flying the country’s flag after liberation (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Luxembourgish civilians flying the country’s flag after liberation
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

9. The 1965 war film was so poorly made that former President Eisenhower came out of retirement to publicly criticize it
The film Battle of the Bulge (1965) is widely regarded among war movie buffs as one of the most historically inaccurate war movies ever made. In the opening of the film, for example, the narrator misplaces the British 8th Army, stating that it was in Europe's north when in reality it was in Italy. The film also portrays the weather at the time of the German offensive as clear, despite the fact that bad weather severely impacted the Allies' air superiority and allowed the German armies to advance more quickly. Additionally, the movie features incorrect uniforms, vehicles that were not yet developed during WWII, incorrectly performed salutes, anachronistic weapons, and wrongly dated magazines. The film received significant backlash, including a press conference in which President Eisenhower publicly criticized it for its historical inaccuracies.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower gives a speech at the White House (Photo: Library of Congress)
President Dwight D. Eisenhower gives a speech at the White House
(Photo: Library of Congress)

If you’d like to learn more about this part of history and honour the memory of the soldiers who fell in the bloodiest American battle of World War II, book our 80th Anniversary Bulge Tour taking place in December 2024 or our other tours that visit Bastogne and sites of the Battle of the Bulge!

Battle of the Bulge promotion

Pay in full and get 15% off until January 25

An American soldier in an attack on German forces in December 1944
(Photo: U.S. Army, Tony Vaccaro)

We will start 2023 with a promotion in remembrance to the men who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. In the current four-week promotion period you can get a 15% discount on our select tours by booking and paying full by January 25, 2023. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it cannot be combined with other special promotions. The offer excludes those three tours in 2024 which include the 80th anniversary D-Day commemorations in Normandy. If you have any questions related to this promotion or our tours, feel free to contact our travel consultants.

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