As the winter of 1944 approached the Allied forces in Europe went into winter quarters. It was increasingly cold, deep snow was falling across Belgium and the Netherlands, and this wasn't enough to keep warm, let alone fight battles.
Having just concluded Operation Market Garden in September 1944, clearing large areas of Holland in October, and with the landings on the Walcheren Island in November, finally the port of Antwerp was open – and supplies could be delivered nearer to the Allied lines. While the weather prevented further operations, at least they could build up for the next big attack.
The war appeared to be going well. Then suddenly all that changed.
In the early hours of 16th December 1944 more than 1,600 German guns opened fire on the American positions in the Belgian Ardennes. This was considered a ‘quiet’ sector and was defended largely by American troops that had limited combat experience. Suddenly they found themselves under attack from shell fire, then tanks and then masses of German infantry, including some of the best German troops available in the West.
Operation Wacht Am Rhein, or later known as ‘Autumn Mist’ had begun. It was Hitler’s bold plan to break through the American positions, push them back from the German border, and re-take the port of Antwerp stopping the vital supplies from coming in.
The German onslaught took the Americans completely by surprise, and in most sectors their lines were overrun, resulting in heavy losses including many prisoners. Some German SS units murdered American prisoners, most notably at Malmedy, and several cases of battlefield atrocities against Belgian civilians also happened at this time. Soon the town of Bastogne was surrounded, where men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne gallantly held on.
When called on to surrender, their commander’s reply was “Nuts!”
As the situation was critical, British troops from 21st Army Group were asked to come and support their American Allies. Tankers from the 7th Armoured Division, the Desert Rats, who were out on rest suddenly found themselves travelling to the snowbound Ardennes where they took on German tanks.
Paratroopers from 6th Airborne, who had fought on D-Day, were sent in as infantry, and men from the 53rd (Welsh) Division were among many British units that fought here – something that many are unaware ever happened, as The Bulge is often seen as an ‘American battle’. Fighting alongside their American comrades, these Allies stopped the Nazi War Machine and the Battle of the Bulge proved a costly failure for Germany.
A visit to this area today is an incredible experience, as it is the largest open-air WW2 museum in Western Europe. The woods reveal 75 year old foxholes, there are original WW2 tanks and guns to be found in many villages, and the cemeteries bear witness to the terrible cost of war in 1944. At Hotton War Cemetery nearly 700 British and Commonwealth soldiers lie in rest, a quiet testimony to the Forgotten Battle of the Bulge.
You might find the following tours of interest and focus on this particular area: Battle of the Bulge a 4-day tour from £299, Panzers in the Ardennes a 5-day tour from £549 and Beer and Battlefields in the Ardennes a 5 day tour from £499.
For more information on Leger's Battlefield Tours please visit www.legerbattlefields.co.uk or call 01709 385 900.