The Battle of the Bulge: Hitler’s Last Gamble

Background

Hitler’s political career was a series of audacious political, diplomatic and military gambles, which were dramatically successful until June 1941. Then hubris took hold and the gambles became losers. In Summer 1941, Hitler’s diplomatic coup of 19391 unravelled with Operation Barbarossa. The invasion was faltering by December when Hitler declared war on the USA. Hitler immediately threw Britain a military lifeline with a full-blown alliance with the USA against Germany. Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad, February 1943, meant Hitler’s fate was sealed. Eighteen months later he planned the battle of the Bulge.

Hitler’s dream of a 1,000 year Reich was in tatters in late 1944. The Allies were remorselessly progressing towards Germany. Germany’s unprotected cities were subject to merciless, indiscriminate raids and there were severe shortages in every key sector. The Soviet Union’s seemingly limitless manpower was supplemented by the USA’s industrial might. Hitler’s two-front war was the disaster Bismarck predicted.

Strategic Context: 16th December 1944 – 25th January 1945

The eastern front was collapsing as the Soviet army advanced towards Berlin.2 By mid-January 1945 they were 350 miles away in Warsaw. The Soviet army’s superiority3 meant defeat was inevitable. Hitler’s battle hardened generals knew this and yet remained loyal to him.

The USA Air Force and RAF had air supremacy and by December 1944 the Luftwaffe ceased to be a meaningful combat force. “…. [the] 52,000 AAF and 12,000 RAF sorties [in four weeks] against German positions and supply lines immediately doomed Hitler’s last offensive.”4 The Allies also had numerical and logistical supremacy on the ground.5

Germany’s counter-attack was doomed because they were outnumbered on both fronts.

The Battle of the Bulge: a planned fiasco

German generals knew and understood the strategic insights of Bismarck and Clausewitz. Neither strategist would have approved of Hitler’s plan as it had no ingredients for success. Germany’s generals also studied military history. In 215 BC the Romans were defeated in a tactic which is universally known as a Cannae (see map below). It’s a tactic which has been admired by generals ever since and is taught in every military school. Hitler’s massive counter-attack was on a narrow front against overwhelming odds (see map below). Germany’s armies weren’t lured into a Cannae, like the Romans. They created their own Cannae with allied forces on three sides. Whatever they did they were trapped.

 

The battle of the Bulge December 1944- January 1945

Hitler’s amateurish thinking was aided and abetted by the General Staff. The effect was the sacrifice of one of the world’s greatest armies. Their agony lasted an astonishing five weeks.6 At no point was it conceivable there would be any other result than an allied victory. Hitler’s blunder demonstrated the power of Bismarck’s Law: two-front wars end in defeat. Whilst the battle of the Bulge was being fought, Soviet armies were advancing westwards. The German armies were, man-for-man, better than the Allies but they were out-gunned and out-numbered. Hitler’s gamble failed before a shot was fired.

Conclusion

On the 16th December 1944, Germany’s fate was sealed as two super-powers advanced on Berlin from the east and west. Instead of a negotiated peace, Hitler launched a suicidal attack, the Battle of the Bulge. The battle plan involved the creation of a Cannae. Germany’s armies were immediately attacked on three sides. After 40 days of brutal combat the Germans were defeated and the remainder of the war was an elaborate ‘mopping-up’ process ending on 7th May, 1945.

Notes

1 The Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement gave Germany a free hand in western Poland.

2 Eastern Front (World War II) – Wikipedia

3 The Soviet Union outnumbered the Germans in every category. The had five times more troops, six times more tanks and four times more self-propelled artillery weapons.

4 Air warfare of World War II – Wikipedia

5 Allied advance from Paris to the Rhine – Wikipedia

6 The battle began with a slight advantage to the Germans but this was their maximum force. As losses increased during the five weeks they were becoming steadily weaker whilst the allies grew stronger in every sector. At the end of the battle, 16th January 1945, the allies had 2428 tanks in comparison to 216 German tanks. Battle of the Bulge – Wikipedia

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