Tag Archives: Battle of the Bulge

Blitzkrieg – the ‘lightning war’

On 10th May 1940 Hitler launched an attack into Belgium and France. What no one could have imagined on that day was that just six weeks later Marshall Pétain would sue for peace, signing an armistice which ceded three-fifths of French territory to the Germans. To add insult to injury, Hitler insisted that the armistice was signed in the same railway carriage in which Germany had been forced to admit defeat at the end of the First World War. So what had gone wrong for the Allies?

Signing the Armistice 1940

World War 1 had been a long-protracted conflict in which the opposing armies were static for the majority of the time, dug-in in extensive trench systems across northern Europe. Between the wars the Allies had assumed that if there were to be another war it would also be trench based and so they had planned accordingly. The French had used their huge defence budget to build a line of super-trenches with fortifications, tunnels, and underground bunkers on the German border (the Maginot Line), whilst the BEF supported French troops on the Belgian border. Therefore, when the British Expeditionary Force arrived in France at the outbreak of the Second World War they were ready for the prospect of a static defensive war. What the Allies were not prepared for, however, was Hitler’s intention to fight a swift, offensive war.

The Maginot Line

At dawn on 10th May 1940 29 German divisions began an invasion of the Netherlands and Belgium; in response the Allied commanders positioned the bulk of their forces defensively inside Belgium, playing into the hands of the enemy. What they were initially unaware of was that this attack was a feint and a further 45 divisions were thrusting forwards through the Ardennes. The French had believed this forested area to be impassable by enemy troops and so had left it woefully undefended. This second German force swiftly breached the Allied right flank, pushing them back towards the English Channel. With the fall of France and the disastrous retreat of the BEF from Dunkirk blame was placed on an innovative German tactic of blitzkrieg in which the enemy used the new technology of tanks and dive-bombers to force a swift victory. In German blitzkrieg means lightning war, a term which seemed apt for surprise attacks which made lightning fast advances into enemy territory, and in which air power supported ground troops to overwhelm the defenders. But blitzkrieg was not, in fact, a completely new idea.

Blitzkrieg – German attack through the Ardennes forest

The key elements of blitzkrieg are speed, surprise and superior firepower, and as such the concept can be traced back to Prussian military tactics in the early 19th century where limited resources meant that the only route to victory for the Prussians was through swift, powerful attack. Carl von Clausewitz, who made a detailed study of generals from Alexander the Great to Frederick II of Prussia, argued in his 1832 book ‘On War’ that all military force should be focussed in a single action against the enemy’s ‘centre of gravity’, its Schwerpunkt. Once this vulnerable point has been identified a frontal attack combined with a double flanking movement should crush the enemy, even if attacking troops had to be withdrawn from other areas and risks taken to achieve this objective.

Carl von Clausewitz

The German Alfred von Schlieffen developed a plan for a swift attack against his country’s old enemy, France, and this plan was put into action at the beginning of the First World War. Developing the ideas of von Clausewitz, Schlieffen’s aim was to achieve a swift victory by using 90% of the German army to move through Belgium and northern France to take Paris in a quick and decisive campaign. The plan was good in principle, but the attacking forces were slowed when they met with unexpected Belgian resistance, and this in turn gave the British time to prepare a defence at Mons. Although the Schlieffen Plan had failed it was believed to have a solid basis and so the idea of a lightning fast attack was used again in the spring offensive of 1918 when German armies reached within 75 miles of Paris before their advance was halted.

Heinz Guderian

Between the wars the theory of blitzkrieg was further developed by Heinz Guderian who advocated the integration of light tanks and dive-bombers to improve the manoeuvrability of the German army, insisting that every tank should have a radio to give them an added advantage. Hitler had fought in the trenches during World War 1 and wanted to avoid further trench warfare if at all possible, so when he saw Guderian’s plan he was very taken with the idea of victory through speed and movement. The German High Command were derisive of Guderian’s plan, telling Hitler that his claim that he could reach the French coast in a matter of weeks was idle boasting, but Guderian insisted that if they could break through the enemy frontline the panic and confusion caused amongst the civilian population would hamper any defending army’s movements to the front and so make success even more assured. Despite the misgivings of his senior officers Hitler was prepared to take the gamble. Germany tested its modern blitzkrieg tactic with a combination of both air and land action in the Spanish Civil war in 1938 and in Poland in 1939, with promising results.

When Germany pushed into the Ardennes in 1940 stukas were sent in just ahead of the armour to soften up the target and destroy rail links and communication centres. The German tanks, supported by infantry in half-track vehicles, began their advance at the same time with the bombing only stopping at the last minute, leaving the Allies no time to re-group. Once the first objective was taken the attacking army moved on leaving civilian refugees to clog the roads needed by the defending army, and also attacking the fleeing civilians to add to the fear and panic. The use of FM radio communication gave yet another advantage to the attacking army, enabling quick decisions to be made based on reliable evidence rather than waiting for orders from HQ. It was left to units following this initial attack to secure the gains made, thus freeing the panzer units to move on to the next Schwerpunkt.

French refugees, 1940

Blitzkrieg was so successful in the initial phase of the war that Germany went on to use the tactic on the Easter Front against the Russians during Operation Barbarossa, and in the North Africa campaign (Rommel, who commanded the German Afrika Korps, had been involved in the May 1940 attacks which forced the surrender of France). The Allies also adopted the ‘lightning war’ tactic in the Western Desert, on the Eastern Front, and after the D Day landings, relying on firepower to establish breakthroughs by fast-moving armoured units. Germany last used the blitzkrieg tactic during the Battle of the Bulge, yet the Allies continued to push forward and by the end of the war Hitler’s Third Reich was defeated by the very tactic which had brought it such success in 1940.

Fall of Berlin

Bibliography:

  • The Roots of Blitzkrieg by James Corum
  • Panzer, a Revolution in Warfare: 1939–1945 by Roger Edwards
  • The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West by Karl Heinz Frieser
  • To Lose a Battle: France 1940 by Alistair Horne.
  • History of the Second World War by B H Liddell Hart
  • A History of Blitzkrieg by Bryan Perrett
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‘Nuts’ – The Siege of Bastogne, Christmas 1944

‘Peace on earth and goodwill to all men’ is a perennial theme of Christmas. But throughout the years soldiers have spent Christmas in terrible conditions, far from their homes and loved ones. The Second World War lasted for six long years and some people didn’t see their loved ones during all that time. Christmas 1944 was one such time for American soldiers with the armies in northern Europe.

The Siege of Bastogne, part of the larger Battle of the Bulge, took place in December 1944 when German forces made a last desperate push towards the harbour at Antwerp. The seven major roads in the Ardennes area of Belgium all converged on Bastogne so Hitler saw control of this town as vital to his plans to divide and defeat the advancing Allies.

bastogne_map_december_19-23_1944

In the early hours of 16th December German infantry forces were ferried across the river Our; two hours later they began to advance under cover of artillery which knocked out the American lines of communication. The Germans had overwhelmingly superior numbers but were held up by a single company of Americans who fought fiercely, holding up the German plans to cross the Clef River for two days. On 19th December the American command post of the 28th Division moved to Bastogne where the Division put up a strong defence, but the 500 men were heavily outnumbered and forced to retreat by the evening.

The German offensive had taken the Allies completely by surprise, and by the end of the second day the 28th Infantry was close to collapse. Reserves were hurriedly pushed forward and units diverted from their assigned targets in order to hold back this last ditch effort by the Germans to retake land lost since D Day and push the Allies back into France. But although the attack had been unexpected the Americans moved quickly, thanks in part to the fast moving M18 Hellcats, and a tank battle was soon in progress, inflicting heavy losses on the German armour.

American M18 Hellcat
American M18 Hellcat

The 101st Airborne formed a perimeter around Bastogne, and three artillery battalions, each with twelve 255mm howitzers, were able to provide firepower in all directions although they were limited by lack of ammunition. The force was enough, however, to worry General von Luttwitz who did not want to have such numbers to his rear so was forced to slow his advance towards Antwerp and encircle Bastogne. On the night of 20th the Germans began an attack which was stopped by the Americans, although all of the seven roads into Bastogne were finally cut by the German forces leaving the Americans totally cut off.

Outnumbered 5 to 1, lacking cold-weather equipment, short on ammunition, medical supplies and food, and with most of the senior officers elsewhere, the situation for the Americans looked desperate. Worse still, there was no chance of re-supplying the forces from the air due to the worst winter weather in living memory. This also made it impossible for the Americans to offer tactical air support. The men on the ground in Bastogne were forced to hunker down in freezing conditions and pray for an improvement in the weather. The situation looked hopeless.

General McAuliffe (on the left)
General McAuliffe (on the left)

On 22nd December von Luttwitz sent a message to Brigadier General McAuliffe who was leading the defence of Bastogne;

To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.

The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.

There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honourable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.

If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.

All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.

The German Commander.

McAuliffe’s reply is one of the most well know military communications of the Second World War:

To the German Commander.

NUTS!

The American Commander

After the response had been translated for von Luttwitz the attacking forces began preparations for their final assault. Bombers attacked during the night whilst panzers attacked from the west where the defences were penetrated at one point. German infantry poured through the breach but were halted by the Americans. Major attacks continued to take place all along the defensive lines, with no break in hostilities to celebrate Christmas Day.

American infantry near Bastogne
American infantry near Bastogne

Patton’s Third Army finally arrived near Bastogne on Boxing Day. After fierce fighting communications with the besieged Americans were restored and supplies began to get through to the cold and hungry soldiers. The 101st expected to be relieved and sent back down the line after such a hard-fought defence but instead were ordered to resume the offensive against German forces. The wider Battle of the Bulge continued unabated into 1945.

Troops of the 101st Airborne Division watch C-47s drop supplies on Boxing Day 1944
Troops of the 101st Airborne Division watch C-47s drop supplies on Boxing Day 1944

One of the main characters in my novel, Heronfield, is caught up in the siege of Bastogne. I wrote about this battle as I wanted to portray the courage and fortitude of the men involved, men who fought against overwhelming odds – vastly superior numbers, cold and hunger – yet refused to give in. Their bravery helped to bring about one of the major turning points of the war. So whilst you enjoy your Christmas celebrations please spare a thought for these men, and all others who have fought and died on many Christmas Days in the past to preserve the liberty and freedoms we enjoy.

Members of C Company, 9th Engineers, conduct a memorial service for those killed during the siege, 22 January 1945.
Members of C Company, 9th Engineers, conduct a memorial service for those killed during the siege, 22 January 1945.