Hitler's selection of the Ardennes as the sector in which the western counteroffensive would be launched was based in the main on the obvious advantage of attacking the Allies where they were weakest. Even so, although the Western Allies could not be strong everywhere along the line from Switzerland to the North Sea, they did outnumber the Germans in men, tanks, guns, and planes, they were possessed of greater facility for rapid movement of large forces, and they-not the Germans-had the strategic initiative. At the first word of German preparations in the Eifel and Ardennes the Allies could terminate one or both of their major offensives and divert large forces into the threatened area.
The accepted strategic gambit, practiced with great success by German commanders in the west during World War I, would be to deliver a series of large-scale attacks in sectors well removed from the area from which the main counteroffensive was to be launched. But the divisions and the logistic support for such diversionary attacks did not exist. The German armies in the west could not uncover the enemy's jaw by a blow in Holland or a kidney punch in Alsace; instead they had to rely on the adroit misdirection practiced by the conjurer, turning Allied eyes away from the Eifel long enough to complete the massive preparations therein.
The German military profession had a record of some notable achievements in the attainment of strategic surprise. The Ludendorff March offensive in 1918 had been a brilliant example-indeed a model-of a great offensive whose preparation had completely escaped detection. The meticulous detail employed by Ludendorff's planners had achieved such success that the 1918 plans for the cover and movement of artillery simply were copied in the artillery build-up for the Ardennes. The German offensive in 1940 likewise had been a marked example of strategic surprise, despite the forced landing on Belgian soil of a German plane carrying two liaison officers who had been entrusted with the attack plan. The chief security tenets adopted in preparation for the 1940 attack had been personally dictated by Hitler, and the first formal security order issued by OKW in preparation for the Ardennes counteroffensive was a restatement of the Fuehrer Directive of 11 January 1940. (This time, however, liaison officers party to the plan were expressly forbidden to travel by plane.) Subsequent security measures would reflect or rephrase those which had been so successful in l940.1
Probably the Fuehrer's personal influence
was felt most directly in limiting the circle of those privy to the plan during its conception and initial implementation. Hitler, the highest authority in the German armed forces, personally named the officers who were to be admitted to the great secret; furthermore, he possessed the power to exact the death penalty for violations of security, a power he could be expected to exercise on the slightest provocation and without regard to the rank or prestige of the offender. Even the well-disciplined, high-ranking officers of the Wehrmacht seem to have been apprehensive of the personal risks which each encountered the moment he was admitted to the plan. So strict was the limitation of knowledge that in those headquarters charged with the command of the counteroffensive, OB WEST and Army Group B, the only officers brought into the planning phase were Rundstedt and Model, plus the chief of staff, the G-3, the quartermaster officer, and one aide in each of their respective staffs. In OB WEST, for example, the daily and most secret war diary contained no reference to the counteroffensive; instead a separate war diary was maintained, without benefit of secretary or stenographer, by the few officers working on the plan. The exchange of information between the responsible headquarters was carried by liaison officers whose every movement was watched by military and Gestapo security agents. All teletype and telephone lines were monitored the clock around and the officers in the know were so informed. Hitler had a mania for "oaths." Everyone admitted to the plan took not one but ofttimes several oaths to maintain secrecy, signing at least one statement which accepted the death penalty for any personal breach of security. Later, division and corps commanders would be compelled to take an oath that during the advance they would not trespass in the attack zone assigned neighboring units. The death penalty attached to this as well.2
Although the immediate planning staffs could be drastically limited, it was obvious that some hundreds of officers would have to be involved in the actual handling of troops and supplies during the concentration period, that is from about 10 November, when the major reshuffling of headquarters and larger troop units would commence, until the date selected for the jump-off in the Ardennes. The German system of staff work, based on the rigid allocation of authority and unquestioning obedience to orders, was well designed to cope with this situation. Furthermore, the Allied attacks in November were launched on such a scale and achieved such success as to give real meaning to the Hitler-inspired cover plan, The Defensive Battle in the West. Until the very last hours before the counteroffensive the Western Front German commanders accepted as gospel the idea that the massing of matériel and the progressive withdrawal of divisions from the line was intended to provide fresh troops for the defense of the Ruhr and the Palatinate. Indeed the field commanders were much perplexed in the last days before the Ardennes counteroffensive by reason of what they regarded as the high command's capriciousness and folly in refusing to throw its reserves into the defensive battles
then reaching a climax in the Aachen and Saverne Gap sectors.3
The cover and deception plan, personally devised by Hitler, turned on a half-truth. A part of the strategic concentration would be made in the Rheydt-Jülich-Cologne area east of Aachen. Here the preparations for the counteroffensive would be paraded before the Allies. To the south, at the entry to the chosen path of attack, the Eifel concentration was to be accomplished under conditions of greatest secrecy behind the thin line manned by the weak Seventh Army. Then, at the last moment, the troops from the northern concentration area would slip south to join the main buildup in the Eifel. The cover plan, as propagated through the German commands on the Western Front and retailed to the Allies by neutrals and double-agents, had this scenario: Germany feared that the U.S. First and Ninth Armies would achieve a real breakthrough and drive to the Rhine in the sector between Cologne and Bonn; in preparation for this untoward event the Fuehrer was amassing a major counterattack force northwest of Cologne; a secondary and relatively small force of burned-out divisions was being gathered in the Eifel to contain the right flank of the expected Allied penetration.4
The main actor in this play was the Sixth Panzer Army. Ostensibly its headquarters remained northwest of Cologne. Four of the armored divisions actually assigned to this headquarters also assembled in this area. The intensification of rail and road traffic which began here about mid-November was only partly concealed. Much movement was made in daylight. A program of road repair and civilian evacuation was begun with little attempt at camouflage. Radio traffic was increased commensurate with the troop concentration. Additional antiaircraft battalions came into the area and with them special allotments of ammunition to produce a thickening of fire which the Allied air forces could not possibly fail to notice. To emphasize further still what was transpiring here in the north, a ghost army was brought into being on 20 November; this, the Twenty-Fifth, supposedly had an order of battle of ten divisions including some of the panzer divisions which in fact belonged to the Sixth Panzer Army.
In contrast to this northern concentration, that in the Eifel was the product of secrecy carried to the limit. The Eifel terrain was well adapted to concealment. Thick forest cover cloaked its slopes, its valleys and plateaus. Small villages, singly not worthy of aerial investigation but in sum capable of harboring large forces, offered excellent dispersal. Camouflage had become second nature with the German soldier in the west-indeed since Normandy the art of camouflage had become the science of survival, and the Eifel made this task relatively easy. Strict traffic regulation confined all rail movements and road marches to hours of darkness. Special security detachments prowled the Eifel, and woe to the commander who allowed a vehicle park to grow beyond normal size. A radio blackout was thrown over the concentration area except for those units actually facing the enemy in the covering positions. No artillery registration was permitted except by guns in the line, and even they
were limited to a few rounds per day. Reconnaissance was confined to a handful of higher officers; combat patrolling on the Ardennes front was almost entirely limited to nighttime search for American patrols.
There were a few potential weaknesses in the screen thrown around and over the Eifel. At one time the Allies had flown night reconnaissance missions across the Eifel, using flares for photography. Even Rundstedt was worried lest a repetition of these missions disclose the German secret. Next was the problem of deserters. A quiet sector, particularly in an area as rugged as the Ardennes and Eifel, offered numerous chances for a malcontent to slip over to the enemy. The so-called Volksdeutsch (Alsatians, Transylvanians, and the like) had the worst record in this regard; these were combed out of all forward units and would not rejoin their outfits until the battle began. Hitler himself required a special daily report from OB WEST listing all known deserters for the 24-hour period. As it turned out the number of deserters was surprisingly small, only five on the Western Front during the first twelve days of December.5
There remained the problem of widening and improving miles of road in the Eifel without attracting undue enemy attention. Furthermore the roadblocks and barriers thrown up as part of the West Wall defenses had to be removed in those sectors where the initial armored penetration would be made. Such activity hardly could be concealed. The answer was to undertake road construction in both the northern and southern areas of concentration, tying this to the cover plan.
German discipline and experience, backed and enforced by all the security paraphernalia of a police state, might be able to divert enemy attention to the north and prepare a real strategic surprise in the Eifel. In the long run success or failure would turn on Allied activity in the air. Could the preparations for the counteroffensive be completed before enemy planes spotted the Eifel concentration of troops and vehicles?
The Allied attacks in November had as their objective the decisive defeat of the enemy west of the Rhine and the seizure of a foothold on the east bank of that river. By the end of November, the US First and Ninth Armies, charged with the main effort, had made some gains in the direction of Bonn and Cologne. The 21 Army Group, in the north, had crossed the Waal River, the left arm of the lower Rhine. The US Third Army had put troops on the Saar River. Farther to the south the US Seventh Army had captured Strasbourg and reached the Rhine. The 1st French Army, on the extreme south flank, meanwhile had liberated Belfort and entrapped sizable German forces in the Colmar pocket. Although Allied losses had been high, those inflicted on the enemy had been even greater, probably on the order of two or three to one. But the Allies had failed to achieve their main strategic goals: they had not decisively defeated the German armies west of the Rhine, nor had they crossed the river. (Map I)
On 7 December General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Air Chief Marshal Sir
Arthur W. Tedder, Field Marshal Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, and Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley met at Maastricht to lay plans for future operations. There was general agreement that the Allies should launch an all-out offensive on the Western Front early in 1945 but considerable variance between the views of Eisenhower and Montgomery as to the future scheme of maneuver and disposition of forces. Montgomery held, as he had since September, for a single strong thrust across the Rhine north of the Ruhr and the restriction of all other operations to containing actions by limited forces. Eisenhower agreed with the proposal for a main attack north of the Ruhr by Montgomery's 21 Army Group and was prepared to give the field marshal the US Ninth Army. But he was unwilling to abandon his oft-expressed concept of the one-two punch with Patton's Third Army swinging a secondary blow toward the Frankfurt Gate.6
After the Maastricht meeting, Eisenhower set plans in motion to continue pressure on the enemy and chew up as many German divisions as possible before the main offensive in the north. To accomplish this the Supreme Commander gave permission for the Third Army to mount an offensive along the Saar front on 19 December and directed Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers, the 6th Army Group commander, to support the drive with elements of the Seventh Army. In the meantime these two armies continued heavy local attacks, Patton driving on Saarlautern while Lt. Gen Alexander M. Patch's Seventh Army turned north into the Saverne Gap.
At the opposite end of the long Allied line, Montgomery gave orders in early December for the British Second Army to "tidy up" the 21 Army Group position on the Meuse with an attack calculated to erase the Heinsberg salient. This operation was flooded out, however, and on 16 December advance parties were moving north as the first step in a major shift to the left preparatory to the attack toward Krefeld and the Ruhr, now tentatively scheduled for the second week in January. South of 21 Army Group Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson's US Ninth Army liquidated the remaining enemy forces in the Jülich sector and by 14 December had closed along the Roer River. Lt. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges' First Army, to the right of the Ninth, also had reached the Roer, after the bloody Hürtgen battle, but could not risk a crossing attack while the Germans held the Urft-Roer dams. A series of air attacks was launched early in December to breach the dams and remove the threat of enemy-controlled floods, but with so little success that the deal passed to the First Army.7 Bradley ordered Hodges to seize the Schwammenauel and the Urftalsperre, the key points in the Roer valley system of dams, and on 13 December the First Army commander put the V Corps, his center, into an attack toward the dams. His northernmost corps, VII Corps, was assigned a support role in this attack and would attain its limited objectives by 16 December.
The mission and deployment of Maj. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow's V Corps later
GENERAL BRADLEY, AIR CHIEF MARSHAL TEDDER, GENERAL EISENHOWER, AND FIELD MARSHAL MONTGOMERY
had a direct effect in determining the initial American reaction to the German attack. Gerow had four infantry divisions, two armored combat commands, and a cavalry group at his disposal. A new division, the 78th, was deployed in the corps center on a front extending from Lammersdorf to Monschau. On the left, the 8th Infantry Division fronted along the Kyll River line. The right wing was held by the 99th Infantry Division, whose positions reached from Monschau to the V-VIII Corps boundary in the Buchholz Forest northwest of the Losheim Gap. The first phase of the V Corps attack was to be carried by the 78th and 2d Infantry Divisions, the latter coming up from an assembly area at Camp Elsenborn and passing through the 99th Division left. The 8th and 99th would confine their efforts initially to demonstrations and line-straightening. The first day of the attack went as planned, but on 14 December the enemy stiffened and on the 15th counterattacked; the 78th Division became involved in a rough battle at Rollesbroich and Kesternich, while the 2d bogged down in a slow-moving fight for individual pillboxes in the Monschau Forest. This was the situation when the enemy onslaught hit the 9th Division
and its VIII Corps neighbors on the morning of 16 December.
Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton's VIII Corps on First Army's right flank had no part in the Allied attacks of early December. Two of Middleton's infantry divisions were weary and casualty-ridden from the intense fighting of the November push to the Roer. The third was newly arrived from the United States. The corps mission, then, was to train, rest, re-equip, and observe the enemy. Nonetheless this was no Blighty, a haven for second-rate troops and bumbling commanders. The 28th Infantry Division (Maj. Gen. Norman D. Cota) and the 4th Infantry Division (Maj. Gen. Raymond O. Barton) had distinguished themselves in the bloody battles of the Hürtgen Forest. The veterans of this fight were well equipped to train and hearten the replacements for some 9,000 battle casualties the two divisions had sustained. General Middleton himself had a fine combat record reaching from World War I through Sicily, Normandy, and Brittany. Deliberate and calm but tenacious, he was regarded by Bradley and Patton as one of the best tacticians in the US Army.
As the result of the relief of the 83d Infantry Division, en route to the VII Corps, the deployment of the VIII Corps (as it would meet the German attack) took final form on the 13th. The 4th Infantry Division abutted on the Third Army at the Luxembourg-French frontier and followed the Moselle and Sauer Rivers, marking the German border, as far north as Bollendorf. A combat command of the 9th Armored Division, as yet inexperienced, had taken over a narrow sector to the left of the 4th on 10 December. The second combat command of this division, earlier comprising the corps reserve, was assigned to V Corps and started its march north on 13 December. The veteran 28th Infantry Division held the corps center, fronting on the Our River. The newly arrived and green 106th Infantry Division had completed the relief of the 2d Infantry Division in the Schnee Eifel sector on 12 December. Here the German West Wall turned northeastward following the Schnee Eifel crest. In the Losheim Gap, at the northern terminus of the Schnee Eifel, a light task force of the 14th Cavalry Group maintained a screening position between the 106th and 99th Infantry Divisions. It should be noted that this was the seam between the VIII and V Corps.
Although the VIII Corps forward area possessed many terrain features favoring the defender, notably the
Schnee Eifel on the left wing and the river sequence fronting the corps center and right, there were numerous points of entry for an attack moving east to west. The three infantry divisions under Middleton's command were responsible for a front of about eighty-five miles, a distance approximately three times that normally assigned an equivalent defending force by US service school teaching and tactical doctrine. On the morning of 16 December the total assigned strength of the VIII Corps was 68,822 officers and men. Immediately after the Battle of the Bulge, the tag "a calculated risk" would be applied to the attenuated VIII Corps front as it existed on 16 December. Middleton was well aware of the risk-indeed he had made this clear in discussions with his superiors. Somewhat after the event General Eisenhower wrote General of the Army George C. Marshall (on 10 January 1945) that in early November he and Bradley had discussed the possibility of a German counteroffensive in the Ardennes but had agreed that such a move would be unprofitable to the enemy. The line of reasoning, as set before Marshall, was this: the "Volkssturm" would be no good in offensive operations, winter in the Ardennes would render continuous logistic support impossible, and Allied strength was so great that the Germans could not push far enough to reach really vital objectives.8
Whatever thought may have been given to the Ardennes, the Allies were on the offensive and preparing for yet greater offensive operations well to the north and the south of the VIII Corps sector. Losses during November had been high and the reserve of new divisions in the United States was running low (in the United Kingdom such a reserve no longer existed). The old military axiom that the line cannot be strong everywhere applied with full force to the Allied positions reaching from Switzerland to the North Sea. Almost automatically Allied strength would concentrate in those areas where the offensive was the order of the day and where decision might be reached. The Ardennes sector seemed no special risk, it had been quiet for weeks, it offered-or so it seemed-no terrain attraction for the enemy, and there was no recognizable indication that enemy forces opposite the VIII Corps and 99th Infantry Division outnumbered those deployed on the friendly side of the line. If there was a "calculated risk," therefore, it was no more precise or specific than that taken wittingly by any commander who thins his front to mount an attack while knowing that he has over-all superiority and the ability to retain the initiative.
In the years that have passed since the close of World War II the Ardennes has ranked close to Pearl Harbor as an episode inviting public polemic, personal vituperation, and ex parte vindication. Sentences, phrases, and punctuation marks from American intelligence documents of pre-Ardennes origin have been twisted and turned, quoted in and out of context, "interpreted" and misinterpreted, in arduous efforts to fix blame and secure absolution. There no longer is point to such intensely personal examination of the failure by American and
Allied intelligence to give warning of the Ardennes counteroffensive preparations. The failure was general and cannot be attributed to any person or group of persons. The intelligence story on the eve of the Ardennes is not germane in terms of personal opinions or the men who held them. What counts are the views held at the various American headquarters and the gist of enemy information which reached those headquarters.9
In mid-September the Western Allies had felt imminent victory in their hands. Flushed with their own dazzling successes and heartened by news of the bloody defeats which the Soviet armies were administering to the Germans on the Eastern Front, the Allies saw the Wehrmacht collapsing and the Third Reich tottering to its knees. The pervasive optimism dissipated as the surprisingly revitalized German armies stood their ground in defense of the West Wall, but it never completely disappeared. When the Allied attack began to roll again in late November and early December, some of this earlier optimism reappeared. A 12th Army Group intelligence summary issued on 12 December echoes the prevailing tone: "It is now certain that attrition is steadily sapping the strength of German forces on the Western Front and that the crust of defenses is thinner, more brittle and more vulnerable than it appears on our G-2 maps or to the troops in the line." This optimism, particularly when heightened by reports that the enemy no longer had fuel for tanks and planes, conditioned all estimates of the enemy's plans and capabilities. It may be phrased this way: the enemy can still do something but he can't do much; he lacks the men, the planes, the tanks, the fuel, and the ammunition.
Another aspect of Allied thinking would contribute to the general misconception of German capabilities and intentions. The return of Field Marshal von Rundstedt to command in the west had been marked with much interest by Allied intelligence staffs. Accepted in military circles as one of the best soldiers in the world, Rundstedt's reputation, even among his opponents, rose to new stature as the result of the stubborn German defense in the autumn of 1944. Here, then, was a commander who could be expected to act and react according to the rational and accepted canons of the military art. He would husband his dwindling resources, at an appropriate time he would counterattack in accordance with available means, and ultimately he would fall back to the Rhine for the major defensive battle. Had Rundstedt actually commanded in the west, as the Allies believed, this analysis would have been correct. (Rundstedt's effort to delimit the scope of the Ardennes counteroffensive in order to achieve a reasonable symbiosis between the means and the end proves the point.)
But Hitler alone commanded. Intuition, not conventional professional judgment, would determine German action. Unaware of the true nature of the German decision-making process in the west, the Allied commanders and staffs awaited an enemy reaction which would be rational and therefore predictable. If the thought ever occurred to an Allied intelligence officer that Germany would
gamble on one last great effort west of the Rhine, staking everything on a single throw of the dice, this idea disappeared in the aura of high professional military competence which attached to Rundstedt. In a way this may have been the field marshal's greatest personal contribution to the Ardennes counteroffensive.
It is impossible to determine the extent to which the Hitler cover plan deceived the Allies into accepting the area north of the Ardennes as the focal point for the anticipated German reaction. Here the Allies were making their greatest effort and it was natural to assume that the German reserves remaining would be committed to meet this effort. Even the US Third Army, far to the south, relaxed its normally parochial view of the front and predicted that the Sixth Panzer Army would be employed in a spoiling attack in the Aachen-Düren sector. Here, too, lay the direct route to the Ruhr. It long had been an article of faith in Allied strategy that Germany would make its greatest efforts in defense of what Eisenhower had called the two hearts of Germany: the Ruhr, the industrial heart, and Berlin, the political heart. Furthermore, the area between the Roer and Rhine Rivers represented good tank-going for the Allied armored divisions. Duly impressed with their own armored successes, the Allies expected that the enemy would throw his reserve armor into battle here in an attempt to prevent a repetition of the August tank race across France. Perhaps German deception did make some confirmatory contribution, but regardless of this Allied eyes were fixed immovably on the front north of the Ardennes.
One item would cause Allied intelligence some concern, although it seems that this concern was more academic than real. Where was Rundstedt's armored counterattack reserve, the Sixth Panzer Army? Allied situation maps of early December still carried the headquarters of this army in the vicinity of Cologne, and assigned four or five uncommitted panzer divisions as available to this command. But the actual location of the Sixth Panzer Army was a matter of debate. The 12th Army Group thought that it might be concentrated around Bielefeld, northeast of Cologne. The US First Army placed it rather indefinitely between the Roer and the Rhine. The US Third Army plumped for a location between Düsseldorf and Cologne. The US Ninth Army apparently did not care to enter this guessing game. SHAEF intelligence summed up the matter nicely in the report of 10 December: "There is no further news of Sixth SS Panzer Army beyond vague rumours."
There was general agreement that Rundstedt's armored reserve would be thrown against the First and Ninth Armies in an effort to blunt their drive in the Roer area, although the severe German reverses sustained in the south during the second week of December led to some thought that divisions might be stripped from the Sixth Panzer reserve to shore up the defenses of the Palatinate. The two US armies carrying the attack in the north were agreed that the Sixth Panzer Army would be committed after their attack had crossed the Roer River. The 12th Army Group expected the same timing and anticipated the German reaction would come as a coordinated counterattack. There was less
Allied interest in the Fifth Panzer Army than in the Sixth. The former had been sorely handled in the fight on the Roer front and the appearance of the Fifteenth Army in this sector, identified in the second week of December, led to the assumption that the Fifth and its most badly battered divisions had been withdrawn for rest and necessary overhaul. On 12 December the 12th Army Group reported the Fifth as assembling its weary divisions between Cologne and Koblenz.
American intelligence summaries, periodic reports, and briefing precis, for the month prior to the 16 December assault, gave only fragmentary and skeletal information on the enemy opposite the VIII Corps. German planners had predicted that the American high commanders would accept the theory that the rugged terrain in this area, particularly in poor weather, effectively precluded large scale mechanized operations. Perhaps there was some subconscious assumption by American staffs that the Ardennes was so nearly impassable as to be ruled out of consideration. But there were more tangible reasons for the scant attention accorded this sector. It had been a quiet sector of the Western Front since the Allied dash across France had halted in September. The German divisions identified here as fairly permanent residents were battle weary, understrength, and obviously in need of rest and refitting. At various times fresh divisions had appeared opposite the VIII Corps, but their stay had been brief. By December it had become axiomatic, insofar as US intelligence was concerned, that any new division identified on the VIII Corps front was no more than a bird of passage en route to the north or the south. As a result the Ardennes assumed a kind of neutral hue in American eyes. Important happenings, it seemed, transpired north of the Ardennes and south of the Ardennes, but never at the division point itself. This mental set offers a partial explanation of why the 99th Division in the V Corps zone identified only three of the twelve German divisions assembling to its front, while the VIII Corps identified only four out of ten divisions before 16 December.
Was there any warning note sounded for the VIII Corps and its troops in the line during the days just prior to the German onslaught? With the advantage of hindsight, seven items can be discerned in the corps reports for the period 13-15 December which might have given the alarm. Two divisions, the 28th and 106th, sent in reports of increased vehicular activity on the nights before the attack. The 28th discounted its own report by noting that this was the normal accompaniment of an enemy front-line relief and that the same thing had happened when a German unit had pulled out three weeks before. The 106th was a green division and unlikely to know what weight could be attached legitimately to such activity. In fact one regimental commander rebuked his S-2 for reporting this noise as "enemy movement." A third incident occurred on 14 December when a woman escapee reported to the 28th Infantry Division commander that the woods near Bitburg were jammed with German equipment. Her answers to questions posed by the division G-2 apparently were impressive enough to gain the attention of the VIII Corps G-2 who ordered that she be taken to the First Army headquarters.
PANTHER TANKS EN ROUTE TO THE FRONT
The woman arrived there on 16 December.
The four remaining incidents attach to the capture of German prisoners on 15 December, two each by the 4th and 106th Infantry Divisions. The time of capture is important: two at 1830, one at 1930, and one at an unspecified time thereafter. All four claimed that fresh troops were arriving in the line, that a big attack was in the offing, that it might come on the 16th or 17th but certainly would be made before Christmas. Two of the prisoners were deserters; they themselves did not take the reported attack too seriously since, as they told their captors, all this had been promised German troops before. The other two were wounded. One seems to have made some impression on the interrogators, but since he was under the influence of morphine his captors decided that further questioning would be necessary.
Of the seven incidents which in retrospect may be considered signposts pointing to an impending attack on the VIII Corps front, only four were reported to the corps headquarters. Three of the
four prisoners seemed to be parroting wild and baseless rumors of a sort which was fairly common, and these three were bundled into prisoner of war cages without further ado. The incidents reported to the VIII Corps were forwarded to the First Army and duly noted by that headquarters on 14 and 15 December. Only one incident was deemed worthy of 12th Army Group attention. This, one of the reports of extraordinary traffic, was mentioned in the commanding general's briefing as confirmation of the predicted relief of the 326th Infantry Division. This briefing began at 0915 on 16 December.10
Perhaps the appearance of these seven indicators might have been treated in combination to uncover the German preparations and allow the VIII Corps at least a minimum tactical preparation for the attack. Whether any commander would have been justified in making major alterations in his troop disposition on the basis of this intelligence alone is highly questionable. One might more reasonably conclude that the American acquisition of only this limited and suspect information was a tribute to the security measures enacted by the enemy.
What of air intelligence, the source of Rundstedt's greatest worry? Bad weather during the first half of December did reduce the number of Allied reconnaissance sorties flown east of the First Army front but by no means produced the kind of blackout for which the enemy hoped. In the month prior to the Ardennes attack the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Group (IX Tactical Air Command), supporting the First Army, flew 361 missions of which 242 were judged successful. From the 10th through the 15th of December the group flew 71 missions with varying degrees of success; for example, on 14 December planes flown over Trier by the 30th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron reported the weather clear, but two hours later a second mission ran into haze and was able to see very little. Only one day, 13 December, in the five critical days before the attack found all US air reconnaissance grounded.11
The pilots belonging to the 67th Group and the 10th Photo Reconnaissance Group, the latter attached to the Third Army's old partner, the XIX TAC, actually constructed an imposing picture of German buildup west of the Rhine in the month preceding the Ardennes counteroffensive. In the last week of November the number of enemy columns on the roads showed a marked increase. On 30 November US reconnaissance planes reported a drastic heightening of rail activity west of the Rhine and this was confirmed by the fighter-bombers flying "armed-recce." Special indications of forthcoming attack were numerous: a large number of hospital trains on the west bank of the Rhine, several groups of flatcars carrying Tiger tanks, and fifty searchlights in one location. Lights representing large-scale night movements were consistently reported, although the two available night fighter squadrons were
so badly understrength (averaging no more than ten P-61's operational) that their contribution perforce was limited.12
The intelligence problem presented by the US air effort was not that of a paucity of information but rather one of interpretation. Both the Allied ground and air headquarters expected the enemy to reinforce those sectors to the north and south of the Ardennes where the First and Third US Armies were attacking. The main special indicators of coming attack were identified in transit areas on the routes to the Roer and the Saar. The trainloads of Tiger tanks, for example, were seen on the Euskirchen rail lines. This line ran northwest to Düren and the Roer, but a branch line led south to the Eifel. The reports of searchlights, turned in on the night of 6-7 December, came from the vicinity of Kaiserslautern, opposite the Third Army. Kaiserslautern, however, was only a few miles by rail from Trier, one of the chief unloading yards opposite the VIII Corps. There was considerable information, then, of the enemy's growing strength west of the Rhine. But the interpretation of his intentions was precisely what he desired: reinforcement of the Sixth Panzer Army counterattack reserve on the Roer front and piecemeal movement to shore up the divisions being battered by the Third and Seventh Armies.
Was there any special attempt at air reconnaissance over the Eifel? A large number of missions were flown here in November, that is, before the final assembly for attack began. During the first half of December the 67th Group rather consistently included Eifel targets in its daily mission orders; however, these missions were given low priority and often were scratched. In the critical period ( 10 through 15 December) the 67th flew only three missions directly opposite the VIII Corps, on 14 December over Trier. Numerous requests for air reconnaissance were made during this time by the VIII Corps divisions, but even when accepted by higher ground echelons and forwarded to air headquarters these missions retained so low a priority, when contrasted with the demands from the Roer and Saar fronts, as to fall at the bottom of the missions list. In sum, it can be said that the reconnaissance flown over the Eifel between 16 November and 15 December gave much information on enemy activity, but that this was interpreted as routine troop movement through the Eifel way-station en route to the north and the south. Thus, the SHAEF intelligence summary of 10 December gives air reports of "continuing troop movements towards the Eifel sector" and concludes that "the procession is not yet ended."
Could the proper combination of air and ground intelligence have weakened the Allied fixation on the Roer and Saar sectors? Perhaps, but this is extremely hypothetical. One thing seems clear. Although the ground headquarters were charged with the final analysis of photos and pilot reports secured by the air, there was little cooperation and liaison between the air and ground headquarters as to the initial interpretation placed by the air forces on the data gathered through aerial reconnaissance. The official US Army Air Forces account of this episode states the case justly: "Perhaps the chief fault was one of organization,
for there seems to have been a twilight zone between air and ground headquarters in which the responsibility had not been sufficiently pinned down." 13
On 15 December the Allied air commanders' conference at SHAEF convened to review the big picture. Here the SHAEF G-3 told the assembled airmen that the Roer dam operations had failed to provoke a move by the main enemy armored reserve; as for the VIII Corps front, "nothing to report." Then the A-2 rose to sketch the activities of the Luftwaffe: it had continued the movement westward, closer to the battlefield, which had been noted in recent days, but all this was "defensive" only.
The prelude to the Ardennes counteroffensive of 16 December can only be reckoned as a gross failure by Allied ground and air intelligence. One of the greatest skills in the practice of the military art is the avoidance of the natural tendency to overrate or underestimate the enemy. Here, the enemy capability for reacting other than to direct Allied pressure had been sadly underestimated. Americans and British had looked in a mirror for the enemy and seen there only the reflection of their own intentions.
Hitler's operation directive of 10 November set 27 November as the date for completion of the huge concentration preliminary to the Ardennes counteroffensive, with a target date two days earlier for the attack by the divisions in the initial thrust. But his commanders in the west, better versed in logistics, recognized from the first that the attack could not be made before the very last of the month. The Allied attacks in the Aachen and Metz sectors made further postponement unavoidable, pinning German divisions to the front long beyond their planned date of relief and bringing others back into the line when refitting had only just begun. Inside the Greater Reich the Replacement Army, charged with creating and training new Volks Grenadier divisions for the offensive, proved Hitler's optimism ill-founded. The task of building new divisions from air force troops, sailors, and the products of Goebbel's raid on the remaining civilian population was immense, the timing necessarily slow. In early December, when Hitler's target date had come and gone, another factor intervened to cause delay. The preliminary movement of armored divisions and vehicular columns had burned up far more fuel than German quartermasters had reckoned. The attack would have to be delayed until the diminished fuel tanks west of the Rhine could be replenished.
The concentration period, therefore, would run until 16 December but even these added days gave all too short a time for such a formidable array of preparations. The original plans called for the movement and assembly of 4 armies, 11 corps, 38 divisions, 9 Volks artillery corps, and 7 Volks Werfer brigades, plus service and support troops. By the beginning of December OKW's inflated order of battle had been reduced to about 30 divisions (the Fifteenth Army now was deleted from the initial attack order, although still envisioned as the subsidiary attack force), but the logistics
problem remained of staggering proportions.
The area in which the Army Group B would concentrate its forces, equipment, and supplies was delimited on the south by the Moselle River and had as its base the Rhine crossings stretching from Düsseldorf to Koblenz. On the north there were actually two limits. That farthest north ran from the Rhine west on the axis München-Gladbach and Roermond. South of this line Allied intelligence officers watched, as they were intended to watch, the daylight, only half-disguised, movement of German troops and supplies. Farther south a second and true limit defined the main concentration area. Here the line extended from Bonn, through Euskirchen, to the front north of Monschau. The trick, then, would be to effect a large and secret concentration south of this second line while at the same time preparing to sideslip the forces from the north into this sector in the last hours before the attack.
The first problem of organization was that of rail transport.14 Troops, tanks, and guns had to be brought from East Prussia, Poland, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway. Fuel and ammunition had to be hauled across the exposed Rhine bridges and unloaded quickly and quietly at the Eifel dumps. A number of divisions, in particular those assigned to the Sixth Panzer Army, would have to be shuttled from the battle front back across the Rhine to training and refitting areas, then be moved across the Rhine again and into the concentration zone.
Probably no railway system in the world was better able to handle this tremendous task than the Reichsbahn (the German State Railroads). It had been modernized on the eve of the war, was a model of efficient management, and, through a program of systematic looting, had more than replaced the rolling stock lost to air attack. The cars and the locomotives in large freight yards, as many American soldiers will remember, read like a European railroad gazetteer. Militarization of the German railroads was complete. The German Army had been the first in history to employ railroads for a great strategic concentration, and the successes of 1870 had led to a tradition in General Staff thought and training which looked to the rail system as the primary means of strategic concentration. The rail lines along the Rhine and west of the river had been located in accordance with military desires. The Eifel branches had been constructed in preparation for the First World War, then had been reinforced for the campaign of 1940. But there was more than the tradition of the great General Staff to dictate this reliance on rail: Hitler's scheme for a military superhighway system, the Reichsautobahnen, had been cut short by the war; the Allied attacks against motor fuel production had depleted German stocks, although hardly to the extent that Allied intelligence estimated in the autumn of 1944.
The major threat, of course, was the overwhelming superiority of the Allied air forces and their ability, no longer effectively challenged by the Luftwaffe,
to look and to strike almost at will. German railway preparations, as a result, had to take count of three dangers: Allied air reconnaissance over the Eifel and its rail approaches, bombing attacks to knock out the Rhine rail bridges, and rail-cutting attacks stepped up to the point where repair efforts could no longer hold the pace. In the short run, decisions on the form of the air war reached in the higher Allied councils during the autumn of 1944 made the German task much easier; in the long run, these same decisions contributed to the final failure of the Ardennes counteroffensive.
British and American air leaders had found themselves consistently at loggerheads on the issue of transportation versus oil targets. The American view was that the German rail system constituted too complex a target to be demolished in any reasonable time, but that enemy oil production was so highly concentrated (particularly in the synthetic oil plants) as to permit a killing blow in the time and with the effort available. Before 16 December the American view held first priority. Indeed, during the month of October second place was accorded to attacks-subsequently judged as "rather inconclusive"-against ordnance depots, tank assembly plants, and motor vehicle production. Eventually, at the close of October, the British succeeded in raising the priority on rail attacks, although this remained second to those on oil. November was the big month for attacks against the latter, the Allied strategic air forces dropping 37,096 tons aimed at German oil production. In the second half of the month, however, the rail campaign stepped up; the Eighth Air Force and the RAF actually delivered more bombs against rail than against oil targets. The Rhine bridges presented a special problem. In November the SHAEF G-2 asked that the air mount a campaign to cut these bridges, but on this the American and British air commanders were in accord. The great Rhine bridges, heavily guarded by flak, were tough targets for the bombing techniques then current and the Allied air forces succeeded in staving off this demand.
German records, fairly full for the final quarter of 1944, give this picture of the effects of Allied air attacks. The Reichsbahn moved troop strength by rail equivalent to sixty-six divisions before the attack.15 Forces equivalent to seven divisions were moved by road Twenty-seven of the division-size rail movements were affected in some way by air attack, in most cases before they actually entered the buildup zone. Delays normally were no longer than one or two days, although from 10 December on some divisions were forced to march an extra fifty to sixty miles on foot. A number of units lost essential organic equipment during these attacks, the deprivation inevitably inhibiting their later performance. Very noticeable effects of Allied air efforts came on 10 and 11 December. On the first day a noon attack over the Koblenz rail yards left more than a hundred bomb craters. Nonetheless, the yards were in full operation twenty-four hours later. The main double-track line supporting the Sixth Panzer Army assembly (Cologne-Euskirchen) was hit so severely as to stop all rail traffic on 11 December; but
the line was running again on the 12th. Two Rhine rail bridges took hits in November and four were under repair as the result of attacks during October. In all cases at least one rail line per bridge remained operable. An Allied plane hit one bridge with one bomb during the first half of December. Supply shipments generally went unscathed in the actual concentration area. About five hundred trains were employed to effect this buildup, of which air attack in October and November destroyed only fifteen carloads.
In sum, the greatest menace to the German rail concentration came from attacks by bombers and fighter-bombers against railroad tracks, stations, and yards. Hardly a day passed without one or more breaks somewhere in the system at and west of the Rhine. During the first two weeks of December the Allied air attacks inflicted 125 breaks on the rails feeding the Western Front, 60 of which were in the concentration area. German engineers, still working on November cuts, repaired 150 breaks of which 100 were in the concentration area. There was, then, an uneasy equilibrium between Allied air attacks and the German rail repair capability. Be it remembered, however, that the Allied air campaign against the Reichsbahn thus far was dispersed and a matter of second priority.
If nuclear weapons do not succeed in entirely removing rail transport from the logistic systems of future war, the German handling of the Ardennes buildup will stand as a military model. As a part of military history, the story of this German success, achieved despite Allied dominance in the air, merits some attention. One of Hitler's first concerns, following the fateful decision to gamble everything on a single stroke in the west, was to assure himself that the Rhine bridges would be secure and that the Reichsbahn could bear the weight he intended to impose upon it. Sometime during September-an exact date is lacking-the OKH Chief of Transportation, General der Infanterie Rudolf Gercke, was admitted to the tiny circle of those entrusted with the Ardennes plans. His initial task was to deal with the Rhine River crossing sites; this was the priority through September and October. First the pillars and piers supporting the Rhine bridges were reinforced so that a lucky hit could not send an entire bridge into the Rhine waters. Next, a number of ferries were modified to carry trains and a few highway bridges were strengthened for track-laying in the event that the regular railroad bridges failed. Special heavy spans of military bridging were floated into waiting positions along the banks. (At one time plans were made to expand two mining tunnels which ran under the Rhine so that troops could be marched from one side to the other.) Ruhr industry contributed large stocks of steel girders and plates; these stocks were then distributed for quick repair jobs at the main rail bridges. Early in October reinforcement was introduced on a number of bridges to permit the passage of trains carrying the 70-ton King Tiger tanks. By early December eight railway bridges were ready immediately behind the assembly area, plus an equal number of highway bridges and twelve Rhine ferries capable of handling locomotives. An additional four rail bridges, lower down on the Rhine, were scheduled for use if needed.
The Allied decision to forgo any intensive attacks against the Rhine crossings gave this segment of the German rail system relative immunity during the buildup The actual trackage and the freight yards, particularly those west of the Rhine, had no such immunity and would come under increasing attack in late November just when the concentration was swinging into full stride. Almost completely bereft of any friendly air cover, how did the Germans keep their rail transport functioning? Recall that the Wehrmacht had been forced to perfect the art of camouflage, that the traditionally severe German discipline functioned nowhere better than in the rigorous control of troop movement, and that the Reichsbahn was an integral member of the body military.
The first measure adopted to protect military trains from Allied observation and attack aimed at the utmost use of darkness and bad flying weather. All rail movement west of the line Bremen-Kassel-Ulm, a distance of 150-200 miles from the fighting front, was confined to those times when air reconnaissance would be stymied. A few exceptions, for purposes of deception, were permitted in the Aachen area. Control was decentralized and even the smaller rail stations were tied in to the main German weather service so as to wring the most mileage out of any local change in the weather. Supply trains were organized east of the Rhine and there allocated a particular line and army. Every effort was made to load down the branch lines, particularly when it became apparent that the Allies tended to concentrate on the main lines.
Train movement was very carefully controlled. The thick forests of the Eifel, plus an unusual number of rail tunnels near the chief supply dumps, gave considerable chance of concealment. Wherever possible the run was made to the unloading point and back to the west bank of the Rhine in one night. On double-tracked lines the movement was restricted to one-way traffic, then reversed. A host of small stations were given extra siding so that trains could be stationed serially all along the line and unloaded simultaneously. This system also permitted quick distribution to the many small, concealed dumps. Earlier it had been discovered that engine crews often were killed by Allied strafing while the locomotive remained intact. Special light armor plate therefore was introduced on all cabs. Also, it had been noticed that fighter-bomber pilots tended to work on a train at relatively high altitudes when subjected to antiaircraft fire. All trains, then, would carry a section of light flak. So successful were these measures that a number of divisions actually detrained at railheads only eight to twenty miles behind the front.
There were four main double-track lines running into the Eifel. From 4 September to 10 December all were under the control of the Seventh Army, but on 10 December the two panzer armies moved in to take command of their own sectors. In the north, two lines, Cologne-Düren and Bonn-Euskirchen, handled the bulk of Sixth Panzer Army traffic. The Ahr River line, fed mainly by the Remagen bridge, supported the Fifth Panzer Army. The Moselle line, following the old Napoleonic "cannon road," handled the Seventh Army trains plus some traffic for the Fifth. Although less rich in rail than
areas to the north and south, the Eifel possessed a substantial, crisscross net of feeder lines. There was one main lateral line quite close to the front, that via Euskirchen-Kall-Ehrang-Trier. Until 16 December the main troop detraining points were Schleiden, Stadtkyll, Prüm, Niederweiss, the west station at Trier, and Konz. In addition there were four chief areas for unloading supplies: Rheinbach, Mechernich, Muesch (near Ahrdorf), and Kall.
The amount of ammunition and POL required to support the attack imposed a severe load not only upon the dwindling German war economy but on the Eifel rail system as well. Hitler had allocated one hundred trains of ammunition to nourish the counteroffensive, this coming from the special Fuehrer Reserve. Over and above this special reserve, Generalmajor Alfred Toppe, the Oberquartermeister, figured on scraping together four units of what in German practice was considered a basic load. Of these units, one was allocated for the artillery barrage preparatory to the attack, one half would be used in breaking through the enemy main line of resistance, and one and a half would be fired to keep the offensive rolling. Toppe had planned to have two basic loads of ammunition in the hands of troops when the attack commenced and did deliver the loads as scheduled. However, he had not counted on the Allied attacks, furnishing only enough extra ammunition for the normal day-to-day battle in the west. By the second week of December the two basic loads had been whittled down to one and a half. Even so, on the last day reported-13 December-Army Group B had 15,099 tons of ammunition in its dumps. The heavy concentration of antiaircraft artillery scheduled to support the attack was better off than the ground gunners: the III Flak Corps, with 66 heavy and 74 medium and light batteries, had 7 basic loads of ammunition. In net, the Army Group B logisticians estimated the attack would average a daily ammunition consumption of about 1,200 tons. Needless to say this figure was based on a fast-moving exploitation once the breakthrough was accomplished.
Motor fuel, a notorious logistic problem in German armies at this stage of the war, was the greatest headache in the Western Front headquarters, particularly in the last days before the attack. The journals of OB WEST are jammed during this period with messages attempting to trace promised trainloads of POL. By 16 December, however, the quartermaster and rail systems had combined to put the promised 4,680,000 gallons in the hands of OB WEST, although perhaps half of this was in dumps back at the Rhine.
During the period 9 September-15 December the Seventh Army, or main, concentration area received 1,502 troop trains and approximately 500 supply trains, most of which were earmarked for the counteroffensive. The Eifel rail net in this time unloaded 144,735 tons of supplies. At some point the Eifel rail system would be saturated; this point was reached on 17 December when OB WEST was forced to detrain its incoming reserve divisions on the west bank of the Rhine, a factor of some significance in the ensuing history of the Ardennes battle.
With the Allies hammering at the Roer, pushing along the Saar, and converging on the Saverne Gap, the Ardennes
target date-25 November-passed into discard. On that day Hitler reviewed the situation with his household military staff. The enemy offensive, said he, had fulfilled the major prerequisites for a successful German attack. The Allies had taken heavy losses and had been forced to deploy their reserves close behind the attack front or feed them into the line. Now, more than ever, the Fuehrer was convinced of the Big Solution's feasibility. From somewhere in lower echelons the idea had been broached that the Meuse crossing sites should be seized on the first day. This brought hearty concurrence. Advance battalions should try for the Meuse bridges in the early morning (Hitler probably referred here to the end of the first 24-hour period). Again Hitler stressed the need for penetrations on narrow fronts, but once the breakthrough was accomplished he foresaw considerable maneuver as the two panzer armies hit the Meuse. To ensure flexibility in the choice of bridgeheads, he extended the Sixth Panzer Army zone (on the right) to include the crossings at Huy, while the Fifth Panzer Army southern boundary moved down to Givet. It may be that in this same briefing the Fuehrer set a new D-day. In any case Jodl visited Rundstedt on 26 November and delivered the news that Null Tag (D-day) would be 10 December. This date finally was scrapped because the fuel dumps were not full and a number of the assault divisions were still en route to the concentration zone. On the 11th Hitler approved further postponement until 0530 on 15 December, then on 19 December altered the attack order to read the 16th, with the usual proviso that if good flying weather intervened the whole operation would stop dead in its tracks.16
The rail movement of the initial attack divisions had nearly ended by 11 December, although the transport of the second phase formations, belonging to the OKW reserve, still had a few days to go.17 The Seventh Army, quondam caretaker on the Ardennes front, had most of its divisions in the line but in the nights just before the attack would have to shift some of these southward into the final assembly area designated for the Seventh on the attack left wing. The Fifth Panzer Army, slated to make the attack in the center, had begun its concentration in the Remagen-Mayen area of the Eifel as early as 26 November, but some of its armor was coming from as far north as München-Gladbach -one attack division, the 116th Panzer, would not complete detraining until 16 December. The Sixth Panzer Army, which in Hitler's mind and in OKW plans represented the main effort and whose four SS panzer divisions were expected to pace the entire counteroffensive, by 6 December had closed its armor in a zone stretching from west of Cologne to southwest of Bonn. The question remained whether the Sixth infantry divisions, some of which were in the Roer battle line, could be pried loose and moved south in time for H-hour. The Fifteenth Army, once intended to cover the north flank of the Sixth Panzer
Army advance, had its hands full on the Roer front. Here there was no immediate assembly problem, although the army would have to plug the gaps left as divisions pulled out for the Ardennes. Ultimately, however, the Fifteenth might be reinforced from the OKW reserve and join the attack. If the Fifteenth Army is excluded the German attack front extended for 143 kilometers (89 miles). The main armored concentration, however, would take place on a frontage of 97 kilometers (6 miles) .
The timetable for final assembly in attack positions required three days, or better, three nights, since nearly all movement would be confined to hours of darkness. To prevent premature disclosure by some unit wandering into the assembly area, all formations except those already deployed on the original Seventh Army front or immediately behind it were banned from crossing the Army Group B base line, twelve miles behind the front, until the final assembly was ordered by Hitler. Once across the base line every movement had to follow rigid timing. For further control the infantry and armored divisions were each assigned two sectors for assembly. Infantry Area I was marked by a restraining line six miles from the front; Area II extended forward to points about two and a half to three miles from the front. Armor Area I actually was east of the base line which served as the forward restraining line; Area II was defined by a line six to ten miles from the front. The armored divisions, of course, would be strung out over greater distances than given here but their assault echelons would be fitted inside the two armored areas.
Timing was defined by coded days from the alphabet. Since O-Tag or D-day was in fact 16 December the calendar dates can be given for what in the plan was merely an undated sequence of events. On K-Tag (12 December) troops were alerted for movement. As yet they had no knowledge of the offensive; they would receive this information the night before the attack jumped off. By L-Tag ( 13 December) all units were supposed to have their forward detachments up to the base line; most of them did. During the night of 13 December the clockwork march to the final attack positions began. Those infantry divisions not already in place moved to the forward restraining line of their Area I. This also was the night for the guns and howitzers belonging to army and VAK batteries to move. Using horses from the neighboring infantry artillery regiments, and liberally employing straw to muffle the wheels (just as had been done in 1918), the batteries were dragged into positions about five miles to the rear of the ultimate firing emplacements. The rocket projectors, easier to camouflage, were hidden immediately behind their firing positions.
On the night of the 14th the infantry divisions not already in place marched quietly into Area II. Motorized artillery went to assigned firing positions while low-flying German planes zoomed noisily over the American listening posts, or it was dragged forward by horses. The rocket projector crews dug their pieces into the pits from which the preparation for the attack would be fired. The tracked elements of the panzer division assault groups churned into Armor Area II over roads which only two days earlier had been iced completely and along
which treacherous stretches remained. Wheeled units moved up to the Area I restraining line. This armored movement in the dark of night was difficult indeed, but to avoid entanglement each panzer division had been given a road of its own and in no cases did the distance traveled during the two nights total more than fifty miles; for most it was less. On the night of 15 December all formations marched to the line of departure or to forward combat positions. It would appear that nearly all units were in place an hour or two before H-hour, 0530 on the morning of 6 December.
Although the troops knew nothing of their mission until the night of the 15th, save what they could surmise, the commanders had been given the picture in time to do some individual planning. By the end of the first week in December all corps and division commanders knew what was expected of them. Most of the division staffs seem to have been briefed on 10 December. Hitler received the commanders entrusted with the attack in two groups on the nights of 11 and 12 December. Most of the visitors seem to have been more impressed by the Fuehrer's obvious physical deterioration and the grim mien of the SS guards than by Hitler's rambling recital of his deeds for Germany which constituted this last "briefing." 18
The forces assembled for the counteroffensive were the product of an almost psychotic drive by Hitler to put every last man, gun, and tank that could be stripped from some part of the declining German war establishment into the attack. Thirteen infantry and seven armored divisions were ready for the initial assault. Five divisions from the OKW reserve were on alert or actually en route to form the second wave, plus one armored and one mechanized brigade at reinforced strength. Approximately five additional divisions were listed in the OKW reserve, but their availability was highly dubious. Some 1,900 artillery pieces-including rocket projectors-were ready to support the attack.19 The seven armored divisions in the initial echelon had about 970 tanks and armored assault guns. The armored and mechanized elements of the immediate OKW reserve had another 450 to swell the armored attack.20 If and when the Fifteenth Army joined in, the total force could be counted as twenty-nine infantry and twelve armored divisions.
These divisions and heavy weapons might or might not suffice for the task at hand, but the total represented the best that the Wehrmacht could do. Of the armored complement on the Western Front-2,567 tanks and assault guns-Army Group B and OKW reserve had been given 2,168. About a third of this latter total would have to be left for the time being with the Fifteenth Army to shore up the right-wing defenses in the Roer sector. Some four hundred
tanks and assault guns were all that remained to German divisions on the rest of the long Western Front. The hard-pressed armies on the Eastern Front likewise had been denied the armored matériel to replace their heavy autumn losses. At the beginning of December the Eastern Front total in operational tanks and assault guns was roughly 1,500.21 Despite Hitler's personal emphasis on the power of the artillery arm and the very substantial number of tubes allocated for the offensive, the greatest portion of OB WEST artillery had to be left for corseting where armor and infantry had been pulled out, and, because of the scarcity of prime movers, a large number of batteries scheduled for the attack never got forward at all. The artillery flak and rocket projector support for the entire Western Front actually numbered 7,822 pieces on 16 December.
As proof that the Western Front's armored strength in December 1944 equaled that of the halcyon days at the beginning of the war, Hitler's personal staff compiled a special report which showed that 2,594 tanks had taken part in the victorious 1940 campaign in the west. Nobody, it would appear, cared to look at comparative figures of air strengths in previous campaigns. In the Polish campaign some 50 German divisions had been given direct support by 1,800 first-line aircraft. The Balkan campaign had seen 1,000 aircraft supporting 17 divisions. The victorious advance into the Soviet Union had brought 123 divisions into the line, with 2,500 first-line attack planes in the air.22 Now, for the 25 divisions certain to be committed in the Ardennes, Goering could promise only a thousand planes. By this time Hitler was chary of Luftwaffe promises and watered down this figure to 800-900 planes when he presented it to OB WEST. Hitler's estimate would be met-but only for one day and that when the ground battle already had been decided.
In December 1944, Germany was fighting a "poor man's war" on the ground as in the air.23 This must be remembered when assessing the actual military potential of the divisions arrayed for the western offensive. Motor transport was in sorry shape; the best-equipped divisions had about 80 percent of their vehicular tables of equipment, but many had only half the amount specified in the tables. One of the best mechanized divisions had sixty different types of automotive transport. Spare parts, a necessity in rough terrain and poor weather, hardly existed. There was only a handful of prime movers and heavy tank retrievers. Signal equipment was antiquated, worn-out, and sparse; the same held for engineer tools and vehicles. Antitank guns were scarce, the heavy losses in this weapon sustained in the summer and autumn disasters having never been made good. The German infantryman would have to defend himself against the enemy tank with bravery and the bazooka, or so the field service regulations read.
German military poverty was nowhere more apparent than in the stocks of ammunition and POL which had been
laboriously amassed to support the attack. The Sixth Panzer Army artillery commander, for example, had pleaded for twelve to fifteen units of artillery ammunition for the first ten days of operations.24 On 16 December there were only one and a half units with the Army Group B guns and only two additional units in prospect. Although OB WEST appears to have estimated a daily POL consumption of 260,000 gallons per day for the Ardennes force, a number of the higher German quartermasters predicted that Army Group B would burn four times that amount on each day of the operation. 25 The armored divisions had in their vehicles and trains enough fuel for perhaps go to 100 miles of normal cruising, but battle in the Ardennes could hardly be considered normal travel. Though it is a commonplace that commanders and supply officers at the tactical level always want more shells and gasoline than they probably can use, there is no question but that the Ardennes counteroffensive began on a logistical shoestring.
On 15 December the intelligence staff at Rundstedt's headquarters took one last look at the opposite side of the hill.26 In the days just previous there seems to have been a growing uneasiness that the Allies had recognized the impending attack and begun redeployment to meet it. Probably this was no more than a nervous reaction to the continued postponement of D-day, for on the 15th the picture was rosy. The US 4th, 28th, 106th, and 99th Infantry Divisions and their respective boundaries remained unaltered. The enemy "lack of interest" in this sector was "underlined" by the paucity of aerial reconnaissance. The only new American division to arrive on the Western Front, the 75th, had been identified the day before in the Roer sector. For several days it had been recognized that the US 12th Army Group lacked "large operational reserves." Agents working in France had reported on 7 December that the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions were assembled at Mourmelon preparing for another airborne operation. These two divisions appeared to be the only US forces uncommitted. The "rubber duck" operation on the VIII Corps front in which Special Troops from the 12th Army Group simulated an additional division had been reflected for some days on German situation maps by a question mark. On the 15th, however, OB WEST was satisfied that no new division existed and the question mark disappeared.
The 4th and 28th Infantry Divisions were known to be exhausted and it was doubted that they were up to strength. There appeared to be relatively little armor opposite the three assault armies, probably no more than 370 tanks at the maximum. Although restrictions on patrolling had limited any recent information on exact tactical locations, there existed a complete file carefully built up since September. New arrivals on the Ardennes front had tended to occupy the same positions as their predecessors, and on this habit the Germans counted. The three communications intelligence companies operating under Army Group
B were pleased to report that American carelessness in the use of radio and commercial telephone nets was up to par and that no reinforcements were en route to the Ardennes.27
Across the line intelligence staffs were equally placid-although with less reason. The 12th Army Group G-2 situation map of 15 December showed no changes. For the sector from the Moselle to Monschau only five German divisions appeared, with a sixth apparently withdrawing from the Eifel. The Sixth Panzer Army symbol still crowded the dot on the map representing Cologne. All panzer divisions, except the 9th SS and the 12th SS, which bore question marks, remained in locations north of the Eifel.28
In the German camp there was one last hitch. On 15 December Model asked Rundstedt to postpone the attack, but the latter ruled that O-Tag would be as scheduled and so informed Fuehrer headquarters. At 1530 an officer named Waizenegger telephoned from OKW to give Hitler's confirmation of Rundstedt's decision; the liaison officers waiting with Rundstedt's staff departed for their commands at once, bearing the attack orders. And at midnight on the 15th the officer keeping the OB WEST War Diary made the last entry of that date: "Tomorrow brings the beginning of a new chapter in the Campaign In the West."