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Bastogne, a historically significant town located in the Ardennes region of Belgium, played a crucial role in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.

Although World War Two (1939-45) battles left no geographical scars on North American soil, the international conflict profoundly marked American and Canadian lives, politics, society and history. North American soldiers helped liberate Europe with fierce determination, courage and fortitude. Victory in Europe was won step-by-step, village-by-village, and battle-by-battle.

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For decades, Mark Vinet has pursued his passion for ‘entertaining education’ as a historian, author, professor, scholar, radio host, lecturer, researcher, podcaster, and enthusiastic traveler. He presents eclectic topics in a positive manner with respect for family, faith, and freedom. His traditional approach is refreshing and uplifting in times of radical historical revisionism. Mark’s ultimate goal is painting a colorful canvas that illuminates the past to make history accessible and fun for everyone!

The Battle of the Bulge was the largest land battle of WW II and Germany’s last offensive in the west. It lasted from December 16th, 1944 to January 28th, 1945. More than a million soldiers fought in this battle including 600,000 Germans, 500,000 Americans, and 54,000 British, including one battalion of Canadians under British command.

Bastogne

In September 1944, Germany and its Axis power allies were losing the war. In Europe, the Russian army was closing in on the Eastern front while devastating Allied bombing was leveling German cities. The Italian peninsula had been captured and liberated, and following the Normandy invasion in June 1944, Allied forces swept rapidly through France and advanced steadily through Belgium and Holland but became stalled along the German border in September. Hitler knew Germany faced defeat unless the Allied advance was halted. To accomplish this, he devised an attack plan through Belgium’s hilly and wooded Ardennes country. Hitler wished to launch the offensive in late November. He was confident the Allies would not be able to react in time to stop the surprise offensive. His plan was dependent upon accuracy and speed. The woods would provide the cover and the speed would be provided via the terrain. Also important to the plan was the winter weather. Hitler was hoping the attack would occur during weather that would prevent the Allied Air forces from being effective.

The plan was deceptively code-named “Wacht am Rhein” (Watch on the Rhine). Hitler thought the name of the plan, when leaked, would confuse the Allies into believing it was a defensive operation. His true aim was to drive an armored wedge through the Ardennes Forests, across the River Meuse, all the way to the vital seaport of Antwerp in the Netherlands. This wedge would divide the British and Canadian forces in the north from the Americans in the south. The Ardennes was selected as the best location for the offensive because the area provided enough cover for a massive buildup of troops and because it was the same location where Hitler had initiated a surprise attack on France in 1940. Hitler firmly believed the coalition between the Allies was fragile and could be weakened by retaking Antwerp. In doing so Hitler hoped to create enough confusion and buy enough time to build up troops, work on secret weapons, and transfer German forces east, to launch a similar blow against the Red Army.

Several of Hitler’s military commanders in charge of the offensive tried to convince him to change the plans. They did not believe that the German army could take Antwerp at that time. Hitler was presented with a new smaller plan that called for launching a limited attack to diminish the Allied forces in the area rather than launching an all out attack to retake Antwerp… Hitler refused. During the planning, Hitler allowed the German General Staff to nevertheless make numerous minor changes to his original concept for the operation. When the battle began, the German code-name for the operation was Autumn Mist.

Without a doubt, Hitler’s ambitious plan to retake Antwerp was risky. German ground forces would have no air support and the supplies needed were lacking. Also, Hitler’s expectations from retaking Antwerp were misguided. The bond between the Allied powers was tenuous, but they were unified in one main objective… destroying the German fascist regime. Many believe Hitler was physically ill and unstable by this time in the war and would not listen to his advising generals. An assassination attempt had recently been made on his life causing him to trust no one.

At dawn on December 6th, 1944 twenty-one German infantry and armored divisions launched a powerful attack on American positions. The German force broke into the Ardennes through the Loshein Gap against the American divisions protecting the region. They created a “bulge” in the Allied lines and advanced 31 miles into Belgium and Luxembourg, but their advance was halted near the Meuse in late December. The Belgium city of Bastogne was a strategic position that both the Americans and Germans wanted to occupy. The American 101st Airborne divisions got there first and occupied the city. Not far behind, the Germans surrounded and laid siege to the city.

North Americans defend the Ardennes and Bastogne

Bastogne was a key strategic location for the Allies because it could be used as a base to launch a counteroffensive. On December 22nd German officers, under the flag of truce, delivered a message demanding the surrender of the city. After receiving the message, U.S. Brigadier General Mcauliffe exclaimed “Nuts!” which was also his official written reply to the request for surrender … the siege continued. Surrounded, the only way the Americans could get supplies was by airdrops, however, poor weather caused supply planes to be grounded. The Yanks had to survive difficult conditions until the weather finally cleared up. The winter of 1944 proved to be one of the coldest. The troops at Bastogne were relieved when the U.S. VII Corps moved down and widened the American line. This allowed General George S. Patton’s Third Army to counterattack the Germans surrounding Bastogne and push them back.

The Allies launched a counteroffensive on December 29th as the 101st Airborne division left their entrenchments to fight the Germans. The weather had cleared up, finally permitting Allied air support. This counteroffensive also involved the U.S. Third Army striking to the North while the U.S. First Army pushed to the South. The two armies planned to meet and trap the German combatants in a pincer movement at the village of Houffalize in Belgium. In response, Hitler launched “The Great Blow” on New Year’s Day – a plan to eliminate Allied air power. For more than two hours, German fighter airplanes swarmed over Holland, Belgium, and northern France bombing Allied airfields and destroying over 200 aircraft. The plan was devastating, however, to the German “Luftwaffe” Air Force with the loss of 300 planes and over 250 trained pilots.

Realizing his great offensive had failed at Bastogne, Hitler ordered his troops to withdraw from the tip of the Bulge on January 8th. By January 16th, the U.S. Third and First Armies had finally joined at Houffalize. Managing to avoid being cut off by the Allied pincer movement, the Germans withdrew to their own lines. By January 28th the Allies controlled the original front of Bastogne, signaling an end to the Battle of the Bulge.

The soldiers of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion were the only Canadians to fight in the Ardennes campaign. The Battalion was Canada’s first airborne unit, having been formed on July 1st 1942 and trained in Shilo, Manitoba. By March 1943, Canada had its elite Parachute Battalion. The Battalion’s first taste of combat was the Normandy invasion. Six months later, on January 2nd, the Battalion arrived at the front to help in pushing the Axis forces back, out of Belgium and the Ardennes. The Canadians were positioned to complete day and night patrolling and defend against any enemy attempts to infiltrate the area. The battalion’s push forward took them through the Belgium towns of Marche, Aye, Bande and Roy. The taking of Bande signaled the end of the fight for the Bulge and the Battalion’s participation in the battle.

The Battle of the Bulge was very costly to both sides in terms of equipment and men. The operation had exhausted the bulk of Germany’s Air power and trained fighting men. The Allies, on the other hand, still had plenty of equipment and soldiers. Casualties included 81,000 U.S. soldiers with 19,000 killed, 1400 British soldiers with 200 killed (no Canadians killed), and 220,000 German combatants killed, wounded or captured. Hitler’s last desperate attempt to save Nazi Germany from eventual defeat had failed. The heavy losses to the German war machine during the Battle of the Bulge contributed to the Third Reich’s ignominious collapse a few months later in early May 1945.

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"Bastogne and the Ardennes – The Battle of the Bulge" History on the Net
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June 12, 2024 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/bastogne-and-the-ardennes-the-battle-of-the-bulge>
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