American Forces Press Service
DIEKIRCH, Luxembourg, Dec. 14, 2004 – Veterans, servicemembers and government and military representatives are arriving here along the Belgium-Luxembourg border to begin a full week of events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
Sixty years ago this week, Allied and German forces faced off in the Battle of the Ardennes, more commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge because of the "bulge" the Germans placed on the thinly held Allied lines in the region.
Commemoration events will include ceremonies, concerts, parades and wreath- layings, and planners say veterans should turn out in droves in what is expected to be an increasingly rare event as their numbers dwindle. Already, Bastogne is flying scores of U.S. and Belgian flags in honor of its annual Battle of the Bulge observance on Dec. 18.
The Battle of the Bulge proved to be one of the largest and bloodiest battles of World War II one that demonstrated the resolve of the U.S. Army despite being heavily outnumbered and faced with extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
In the winter of 1944, Germany was losing the war. The Allies had invaded France in June and were driving the Germans east. But Adolph Hitler, not about to accept his fate, had directed an ambitious counteroffensive as a desperate, last-ditch effort to halt the Allied advance that began six months earlier during the D-Day invasion.
He had hoped the offensive to be a turning point of the war in Germany's favor, but ultimately it turned out to be a disastrous mistake that claimed tens of thousands of lives.
During its four-week course, more than 1 million soldiers fought the battle: some 500,000 Americans, 600,000 Germans and 55,000 British. Each side lost more than 800 tanks, and the Germans lost 1,000 aircraft.
Some 30 Germany divisions launched the counteroffensive in the early morning hours of Dec. 16, 1944, against the Allies in the heavily forested Belgian Ardennes region. Besides being outnumbered, the Americans were taken by surprise, because at the time, the Ardennes was being used as a rest and recuperation area.
The front stretched 85 miles along the borders of Belgium and Luxembourg. U.S. units facing the main German offensive included the war-weary 26th Infantry Division, the unseasoned 106th and 99th divisions, the 2nd Division, an element of the 9th Armored Division, and some smaller units.
After a two-hour bombardment, the German forces had pushed back the Americans, using the element of surprise, lack of communication, their overwhelming numbers and bitter winter conditions to their advantage.
A huge snowstorm also worked against the Allies, who were unable to call in their air power to intervene.
On Dec. 22, Hitler sent a message to the acting commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne, U.S. Maj. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, calling for his surrender. Despite being outnumbered and surrounded, McAuliffe made his now- famous response to Hitler's request: "Nuts!"
Later that day, the skies cleared, reinforcements were airdropped to McAuliffe's garrison, and Allied planes began their attack on German tanks.
On Dec. 23, the United States troops began their first counterattack on the southern flank of the Ardennes "bulge." The struggle between the Allies and the Germans continued until Jan. 16, 1944, after the Allies' original line in Ardennes was restored.
Military scholars attribute the U.S. victory on the battlefields of Belgium and Luxembourg to small-unit actions, which deprived the Germans of the key commodity they needed to win: speed.
On the first day of the attack, the U.S. 99th Infantry Division and 291st Combat Battalion held most of their ground against the German 6th Panzer Army, creating what would become the northern shoulder. Also significant, historians say, was the holding of St. Vith four days beyond the Germans' timetable by the 7th Armored Division, 106th Infantry Division, along with elements of the 9th Armored and 28th Infantry divisions.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later called the victory at the Battle of the Bulge one of the greatest of the war.
But that victory came at a tremendous cost, with the toll severe on both sides of the Atlantic. About 19,000 U.S. soldiers died, and 47,500 were wounded and more than 23,000 missing. The British suffered 1,400 casualties with 200 killed. And the Germans had 100,000 soldiers killed, wounded or captured.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in telling the story of the Battle of the Bulge last week to troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, called it "part of a struggle that brought freedom to a huge part of the world in Europe and helped make this country much more safe and secure."
He told the troops that they're doing the same thing today, 60 years later, and that history will remember them and their sacrifices.
"It is a sacrifice that I believe your children and grandchildren will look back (on) and say, you were part of another great generation," Wolfowitz said.