Military history

HITLER’S LAST DESPERATE GAMBLE

On the evening of December 12, 1944, a host of German generals, the senior field commanders on the Western front, were called to Rundstedt’s headquarters, stripped of their side arms and briefcases, packed into a bus, driven about the dark, snowy countryside for half an hour to make them lose their bearings, and finally deposited at the entrance to a deep underground bunker which turned out to be Hitler’s headquarters at Ziegenberg near Frankfurt. There they learned for the first time what only a handful of the top staff officers and army commanders had known for more than a month: the Fuehrer was to launch in four days a mighty offensive in the West.

The idea had been simmering in his mind since mid-September, when Eisenhower’s armies had been brought to a halt on the German frontier west of the Rhine. Although the U.S. Ninth, First and Third armies tried to resume the offensive in October with the objective of “slugging” their way to the Rhine, as Eisenhower put it, the going had been hard and slow. Aachen, the old imperial capital, the seat of Charlemagne, surrendered to First Army on October 24 after a bitter battle—the first German city to fall into Allied hands—but the Americans had been unable to achieve a breakthrough to the Rhine. Still, all along the front they—and the British and Canadians to the north—were wearing down the weakening defenders in battles of attrition. Hitler realized that by remaining on the defensive he was merely postponing the hour of reckoning. In his feverish mind there emerged a bold and imaginative plan to recapture the initiative, strike a blow that would split the U.S. Third and First armies, penetrate to Antwerp and deprive Eisenhower of his main port of supply, and roll up the British and Canadian armies along the Belgian-Dutch border. Such an offensive, he thought, would not only administer a crushing defeat on the Anglo–American armies and thus free the threat to Germany’s western border, but would then enable him to turn against the Russians, who, though still advancing in the Balkans, had been halted on the Vistula in Poland and in East Prussia since October. The offensive would strike swiftly through the Ardennes, where the great breakthrough in 1940 had begun, and which German intelligence knew to be defended only by four weak American infantry divisions.

It was a daring plan. It would, Hitler believed, almost certainly catch the Allies by surprise and overcome them before they had a chance to recover.* But there was one drawback. The German Army was not only weaker than it had been in 1940, especially in the air, but it was up against a much more resourceful and far better armed enemy. The German generals lost no time in bringing this to the Fuehrer’s attention.

“When I received this plan early in November,” Rundstedt later declared, “I was staggered. Hitler had not troubled to consult me … It was obvious to me that the available forces were far too small for such an extremely ambitious plan.” Realizing, however, that it was useless to argue with Hitler, Rundstedt and Model decided to propose an alternative plan which might satisfy the warlord’s insistence on an offensive but which would be limited to pinching off the American salient around Aachen.8 The German Commander in Chief in the West, however, had so little hope of changing the Fuehrer’s mind that he declined to attend a military conference in Berlin on December 2, sending his chief of staff, Blumentritt, instead. But Blumentritt, Field Marshal Model, General Hasso von Manteuffel and S.S. General Sepp Dietrich (the last two were to command two great panzer armies for the breakthrough), who attended the meeting, were unable to shake Hitler’s resolve. All through the late autumn he had been scraping the barrel in Germany for this last desperate gamble. In November he had managed to collect nearly 1,500 new or rebuilt tanks and assault guns, and in December another 1,000. He had assembled some twenty-eight divisions, including nine panzer divisions, for the Ardennes breakthrough, with another six divisions allotted for an attack in Alsace to follow the main offensive. Goering promised 3,000 fighter planes.

This was a considerable force, though far weaker than Rundstedt’s army group on the same front in 1940. But raising it had meant denying the German forces in the East the reinforcements their commanders thought absolutely necessary to repel the expected Russian winter attack in January. When Guderian, the Chief of the General Staff, who was responsible for the Eastern front, protested Hitler gave him a stern lecture.

“There’s no need for you to try to teach me. I’ve been commanding the German Army in the field for five years and during that time I’ve had more practical experience than any gentleman of the General Staff could ever hope to have. I’ve studied Clausewitz and Moltke and read all the Schlieffen papers. I’m more in the picture than you are!”

When Guderian protested that the Russians were about to attack in overwhelming strength and cited figures of the Soviet build-up, Hitler shouted, “It’s the greatest bluff since Gengis Khan! Who’s responsible for producing all this rubbish?”9

   The generals who assembled at the Fuehrer’s headquarters at Ziegenberg on the evening of December 12, minus their briefcases and revolvers, found the Nazi warlord, as Manteuffel later recalled, “a stooped figure with a pale and puffy face, hunched in his chair, his hands trembling, his left arm subject to a violent twitching which he did his best to conceal. A sick man … When he walked he dragged one leg behind him.”10

Hitler’s spirits, however, were as fiery as ever. The generals had expected to be briefed on the over-all military picture of the offensive, but the warlord treated them instead to a political and historical harangue.

Never in history was there a coalition like that of our enemies, composed of such heterogeneous elements with such divergent aims … Ultracapitalist states on the one hand; ultra-Marxist states on the other. On the one hand a dying Empire, Britain; on the other, a colony bent upon inheritance, the United States …

Each of the partners went into this coalition with the hope of realizing his political ambitions … America tries to become England’s heir; Russia tries to gain the Balkans … England tries to hold her possessions … in the Mediterranean … Even now these states are at loggerheads, and he who, like a spider sitting in the middle of his web, can watch developments observes how these antagonisms grow stronger and stronger from hour to hour.

If now we can deliver a few more blows, then at any moment this artificially bolstered common front may suddenly collapse with a gigantic clap of thunder … provided always that there is no weakening on the part of Germany.

It is essential to deprive the enemy of his belief that victory is certain … Wars are finally decided by one side or the other recognizing that they cannot be won. We must allow no moment to pass without showing the enemy that, whatever he does, he can never reckon on [our] capitulation. Never! Never!11

With this pep talk resounding in their ears the generals dispersed, none of them—or at least so they said afterward—believing that the Ardennes blow would succeed but determined to carry out their orders to the best of their ability.

This they did. The night of December 15 was dark and frosty and a thick mist hung over the rugged snow-laden hills of the Ardennes Forest as the Germans moved up to their assault positions on a seventy-mile front between Monschau, south of Aachen, and Echternach, northwest of Trier. Their meteorologists had predicted several days of such weather, during which it was calculated that the Allied air forces would be grounded and the German supply columns spared the inferno of Normandy. For five days Hitler’s luck with the weather held and the Germans, catching the Allied High Command completely by surprise, scored several breakthroughs after their initial penetrations on the morning of December 16.

When a German armored group reached Stavelot on the night of December 17, it was only eight miles from the U.S. First Army headquarters at Spa, which was being hurriedly evacuated. More important, it was only a mile from a huge American supply dump containing three million gallons of gasoline. Had this dump been captured the German armored divisions, which were continually being slowed down because of the delay in bringing up gasoline, of which the Germans were woefully short, might have gone farther and faster than they did. Skorzeny’s so-called Panzer Brigade 150, its men outfitted in American uniforms and driving captured American tanks, trucks and jeeps, got farthest. Some forty jeeploads slipped through the crumbling front, a few of them getting as far as the River Meuse.*

Yet stubborn makeshift resistance by scattered units of the U.S. First Army after the four weak divisions in the Ardennes had been overrun slowed up the German drive and the firm stand on the northern and southern shoulders of the breakthrough at Monschau and Bastogne, respectively, channeled Hitler’s forces through a narrow salient. The American defense of Bastogne sealed their fate.

This road junction was the key to the defense of the Ardennes and of the River Meuse behind. If strongly held it not only would block the main roads along which Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army was driving for the Meuse River at Dinant but would tie up considerable German forces earmarked for the push beyond. By the morning of December 18, Manteuffel’s armored spearheads were only fifteen miles from the town and the only Americans in it belonged to a corps headquarters staff which was preparing to evacuate. However, on the evening of the seventeenth the101st Airborne Division, which had been refitting at Reims, was ordered to proceed with all speed to Bastogne a hundred miles away. By driving its trucks with headlights on through the night it reached the town in twenty-four hours, just ahead of the Germans. It was a decisive race and the Germans had lost it. Although they encircled Bastogne, they had difficulty in getting their divisions around it to renew the drive toward the Meuse. And they had to leave strong forces behind to contain the road junction and to try to take it.

On December 22, General Heinrich von Luettwitz, commander of the German XLVIIth Armored Corps, sent a written note to General A. C. McAuliffe, commanding the 101st Airborne, demanding surrender of Bastogne. He received a one-word answer which became famous: “NUTS!”

The definite turning point in Hitler’s Ardennes gamble came on the day before Christmas. A reconnaissance battalion of the German 2nd Panzer Division had reached the heights three miles east of the Meuse at Dinant the day before and had waited for gasoline for its tanks and some reinforcements before plunging down the slopes to the river. Neither the gasoline nor the reinforcements ever arrived. The U.S. 2nd Armored Division suddenly struck from the north. Already several divisions of Patton’s Third Army were moving up from the south, their main objective being to relieve Bastogne. “On the evening of the twenty-fourth,” Manteuffel later wrote, “it was clear that the high-water mark of our operation had been reached. We now knew that we would never reach our objective.” The pressure on the northern and southern flanks of the deep and narrow German salient had become too great. And two days before Christmas the weather had finally cleared and the Anglo–American air forces had begun to have a field day with massive attacks on German supply lines and on the troops and tanks moving up the narrow, tortuous mountain roads. The Germans made another desperate attempt to capture Bastogne. All day Christmas, beginning at 3 A.M., they launched a series of attacks, but McAuliffe’s defenders held. The next day an armored force of Patton’s Third Army broke through from the south and relieved the town. For theGermans it now became a question of extricating their forces from the narrow corridor before they were cut off and annihilated.

But Hitler would not listen to any withdrawal being made. On the evening of December 28 he held a full-dress military conference. Instead of heeding the advice of Rundstedt and Manteuffel to pull out the German forces in the Bulge in time, he ordered the offensive to be resumed, Bastogne to be stormed and the push to the Meuse renewed. Moreover, he insisted on a new offensive being started immediately to the south in Alsace, where the American line had been thinned out by the sending of several of Patton’s divisions north to the Ardennes. To the protests of the generals that they lacked sufficient forces either to continue the offensive in the Ardennes or to attack in Alsace he remained deaf.

Gentlemen, I have been in this business for eleven years, and … I have never heard anybody report that everything was completely ready … You are never entirely ready. That is plain.

He talked on and on.* It must have been obvious to the generals long before he finished that their Commander in Chief had become blinded to reality and had lost himself in the clouds.

The question is … whether Germany has the will to remain in existence or whether it will be destroyed … The loss of this war will destroy the German people.

There followed a long dissertation on the history of Rome and of Prussia in the Seven Years’ War. Finally he returned to the immediate problems at hand. Although he admitted that the Ardennes offensive had not “resulted in the decisive success which might have been expected,” he claimed that it had brought about “a transformation of the entire situation such as nobody would have believed possible a fortnight ago.”

The enemy has had to abandon all his plans for attack … He has had to throw in units that were fatigued. His operational plans have been completely upset. He is enormously criticized at home. It is a bad psychological moment for him. Already he has had to admit that there is no chance of the war being decided before August, perhaps not before the end of next year …

Was this last phrase an admission of ultimate defeat? Hitler quickly tried to correct any such impression.

I hasten to add, gentlemen, that … you are not to conclude that even remotely I envisage the loss of this war … I have never learned to know the word “capitulation” … For me the situation today is nothing new. I have been in very much worse situations. I mention this only because I want you to understand why I pursue my aim with such fanaticism and why nothing can wear me down. As much as I may be tormented by worries and even physically shaken by them, nothing will make the slightest change in my decision to fight on till at last the scales tip to our side.

Whereupon he appealed to the generals to support the new attacks “with all your fire.”

We shall then … smash the Americans completely … Then we shall see what happens. I do not believe that in the long run the enemy will be able to resist forty-five German divisions … We shall yet master fate!

It was too late. Germany lacked the military force to make good his words.

On New Year’s Day Hitler threw eight German divisions into an attack in the Saar and followed it with a thrust from the bridgehead on the Upper Rhine by an army under the command of—to the German generals this was a bad joke—Heinrich Himmler. Neither drive got very far. Nor did an all-out assault on Bastogne beginning on January 3 by no less than two corps of nine divisions which led to the most severe fighting of the Ardennes campaign. By January 5 the Germans abandoned hope of taking this key town. They were now faced with being cut off by a British-American counteroffensive from the north which had begun on January 3. On January 8 Model, whose armies were in danger of being entrapped at Houffalize, northeast of Bastogne, finally received permission to withdraw. By January 16, just a month after the beginning of the offensive on which Hitler had staked his last reserves in men and guns and ammunition, the German forces were back to the line from which they had set out.

They had lost some 120,000 men, killed, wounded and missing, 600 tanks and assault guns, 1,600 planes and 6,000 vehicles. American losses were also severe—8,000 killed, 48,000 wounded, 21,000 captured or missing, and 733 tanks and tank destroyers.* But the Americans could make good their losses; the Germans could not. They had shot their last bolt. This was the last major offensive of the German Army in World War II. Its failure not only made defeat inevitable in the West, it doomed the German armies in the East, where the effect of Hitler’s throwing his last reserves into the Ardennes became immediately felt.

   In his long lecture to the generals in the West three days after Christmas Hitler had been quite optimistic about the Russian front, where, though the Balkans was being lost, the German armies had held firmly on the Vistula in Poland and in East Prussia since October.

Unfortunately [Hitler said] because of the treachery of our dear allies we are forced to retire gradually … Yet despite all this it has been possible on the whole to hold the Eastern front.

   But for how long? On Christmas Eve, after the Russians had surrounded Budapest, and again on New Year’s morning Guderian had pleaded in vain with Hitler for reinforcements to meet the Russian threat in Hungary and to counter the Soviet offensive in Poland which he expected to begin the middle of January.

I pointed out [Guderian says] that the Ruhr had already been paralyzed by the Western Allies’ bombing attacks…. on the other hand, I said, the industrial area of Upper Silesia could still work at full pressure, the center of the German armament industry was already in the East, and the loss of Upper Silesia must lead to our defeat in a very few weeks. All this was of no avail. I was rebuffed and I spent a grim and tragic Christmas Eve in those most unchristian surroundings.

   Nonetheless Guderian returned to Hitler’s headquarters for a third time on January 9. He took with him his Chief of Intelligence in the East, General Gehlen, who with maps and diagrams tried to explain to the Fuehrer the precarious German position on the eve of the expected renewal of the Russian offensive in the north.

Hitler [Guderian says] completely lost his temper … declaring the maps and diagrams to be “completely idiotic” and ordering that I have the man who had made them shut up in a lunatic asylum. I then lost my temper and said … “If you want General Gehlen sent to a lunatic asylum then you had better have me certified as well.”

When Hitler argued that the Eastern front had “never before possessed such a strong reserve as now,” Guderian retorted, “The Eastern front is like a house of cards. If the front is broken through at one point all the rest will collapse.”12

And that is what happened. On January 12, 1945, Konev’s Russian army group broke out of its bridgehead at Baranov on the upper Vistula south of Warsaw and headed for Silesia. Farther north Zhukov’s armies crossed the Vistula north and south of Warsaw, which fell on January 17. Farther north still, two Russian armies overran half of East Prussia and drove to the Gulf of Danzig.

This was the greatest Russian offensive of the war. Stalin was throwing in 180 divisions, a surprisingly large part of them armored, in Poland and East Prussia alone. There was no stopping them.

“By January 27 [only fifteen days after the Soviet drive began] the Russian tidal wave,” says Guderian, “was rapidly assuming for us the proportions of a complete disaster.”13 By that date East and West Prussia were cut off from the Reich. Zhukov that very day crossed the Oder near Lueben after an advance of 220 miles in a fortnight, reaching German soil only 100 miles from Berlin. Most catastrophic of all, the Russians had overrun the Silesian industrial basin.

Albert Speer, in charge of armament production, drew up a memorandum to Hitler on January 30—the twelfth anniversary of Hitler’s coming to power—pointing out the significance of the loss of Silesia. “The war is lost,” his report began, and he went on in his cool and objective manner to explain why. The Silesian mines, ever since the intensive bombing of the Ruhr, had supplied 60 per cent of Germany’s coal. There was only two weeks’ supply of coal for the German railways, power plants and factories. Henceforth, now that Silesia was lost, Speer could supply, he said, only one quarter of the coal and one sixth of the steel which Germany had been producing in 1944.14 This augured disaster for 1945.

The Fuehrer, Guderian later related, glanced at Speer’s report, read the first sentence and then ordered it filed away in his safe. He refused to see Speer alone, saying to Guderian:

“… I refuse to see anyone alone any more … [He] always has something unpleasant to say to me. I can’t bear that.”15

On the afternoon of January 27, the day Zhukov’s troops crossed the Oder a hundred miles from Berlin, there was an interesting reaction at Hitler’s headquarters, which had now been transferred to the Chancellery in Berlin, where it was to remain until the end. On the twenty-fifth the desperate Guderian had called on Ribbentrop and urged him to try to get an immediate armistice in the West so that what was left of the German armies could be concentrated in the East against the Russians. The Foreign Minister had quickly tattled to the Fuehrer, who that evening upbraided his General Staff Chief and accused him of committing “high treason.”

But two nights later, under the impact of the disaster in the East, Hitler, Goering and Jodl were in such a state that they thought it would not be necessary to ask the West for an armistice. They were sure the Western Allies would come running to them in their fear of the consequences of the Bolshevik victories. A fragment of the Fuehrer conference of January 27 has preserved part of the scene.

HITLER: Do you think the English are enthusiastic about all the Russian developments?

GOERING: They certainly didn’t plan that we hold them off while the Russians conquer all of Germany … They had not counted on our … holding them off like madmen while the Russians drive deeper and deeper into Germany, and practically have all of Germany now …

JODL: They have always regarded the Russians with suspicion.

GOERING: If this goes on we will get a telegram [from the English] in a few days.16

On such a slender thread the leaders of the Third Reich began to pin their last hopes. In the end these German architects of the Nazi–Soviet Pact against the West would reach a point where they could not understand why the British and Americans did not join them in repelling the Russian invaders.

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