A Port Too Far

MONDAY, 25 SEPTEMBER, was the ninth and final day of Operation Market Garden. Although he should have been buoyed by the news that his troops were prevailing over the Allied elite at Arnhem, Hitler’s health was at rock bottom and he was diagnosed with jaundice. He had taken to his bed, and perhaps reaching for a positive tonic in his life dictated his wishes for the Ardennes attack to Jodl. He required, remembering the First World War bombardments he endured, a massive artillery preparation to clear the way for an infantry assault, after which his panzers would roll.

This was a curious reversal of the traditional blitzkrieg tactics that had worked in the Ardennes during May 1940, where tanks preceded infantry, except in river crossings. However, in 1944, panzers were in short supply, and the Führer felt his troops, fuelled with the spirit of National Socialism and thirsting for revenge after the destruction of their cities by American bombers, would triumph easily over their adversaries. ‘There was only one thing for me. Either to win with Adolf Hitler or to die for him,’ a storm trooper remembered candidly: ‘The personality of the Führer had me in its spell.’1

Once the initial wave of tanks had seized bridges over the Meuse, a second wave would follow on. Hitler anticipated the new Sixth Panzer Army under SS-Oberstgruppenführer Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich, would administer the Schwerpunkt (main effort) of the assault, a desire clearly prompted by the disloyalty of the army on 20 July, but also the recent performance of the Waffen-SS at Arnhem. Of course, Hitler had no knowledge of the intelligence-gathering operation at Bletchley Park, but he was paranoid about security. Very few were ‘in’ on the plan to begin with, and those close to Hitler and admitted to its secrets, even Manteuffel and Dietrich, had to sign pledges of secrecy, with their threats of Sippenhaft (summary execution for next of kin). Hitler’s paranoia meant no signals were sent over the air by Enigma encoding device or any other transmitter, and most communication was face-to-face, or conveyed by trusted officer-courier.

With the Ardennes planning at an advanced stage, it was only on 12 October that Hitler drew his Armaments Minister aside and shared the news with him, warning him not to spread the secret. Speer was tasked to organise a special corps of his Organisation Todt workers, who were motorised and able to carry out all types of bridge-building. ‘Stick to the organisational forms that proved their value in the western campaign of 1940,’ Hitler ordered. Speer countered that he was gravely short of transport but was instructed: ‘Everything else must be put aside for this, no matter what the consequences. This will be a great blow which must succeed.’ The long shadow of 1940 again. In the event, each attacking army would have a brigade of Speer’s civil engineers, all expert in bridging, which acknowledged the poverty of the army’s own engineering resources at this stage of the war. The move was fine in theory, and his men may have been expert at bridge-building, but few had any military experience, training, uniforms or equipment, and were likely to be under fire at the chosen crossing sites. Later on, Hitler expounded on his fantastical vision to Speer:

A single breakthrough on the Western Front! You’ll see! It will lead to collapse and panic among the Americans. We’ll drive right through their middle and take Antwerp. Then they’ll have lost their supply port. And a tremendous pocket will encircle the entire English army, with hundreds of thousands of prisoners. As we used to do in Russia!2

Here was Hitler again reaching for examples of past successes to repeat: whether 1940 or the early days of Barbarossa, but without regard to the changed circumstances of the war. There is no evidence of reality in his pronouncement, no sense of Allied airpower or superior capabilities; no recognition of the Wehrmacht’s chronic fuel shortages or the difficulties of fighting in mid-winter. The concept, language and justification for the attack had also shifted in Hitler’s mind. From being advertised in the Wolfsschanze as a counter-attack to force the Western Allies to agree to a peace with Germany on Hitler’s own terms, then shift focus back to Russia, his Ardennes offensive seems here to have become a classic encirclement battle of annihilation, leading to the military defeat of the British and American armies. Or was he hoping that in shattering the Western alliance against him, he could cause such unrest in America that its army would be recalled? History is unclear, probably because Hitler was unclear in his own mind. In a later address to commanders before the attack, the archives recorded his words: ‘When we strike a few heavy blows here, then it may happen that at any moment their artificially upheld alliance suddenly collapses with a gigantic thud.’3 In his mind, the operation had almost taken place already; his demeanour suggested that he could already sense victory. As usual, Hitler had interpreted the coming operation as a struggle of willpower: his against that of the Allies.

Mid-October 1944 also saw another drama from the 20 July plot being played out. Hitler’s former favourite, Field Marshal Rommel, since wounded in Normandy, had been implicated. The degree to which he was involved will probably never be conclusively ascertained, but he was likely to have had ‘guilty knowledge’ of something afoot (Speidel, his chief of staff, was a leading conspirator), even if not directly in league with Stauffenberg’s friends. On 14 October, Hitler discreetly sent two generals to his house at Herrlingen, near Ulm, carrying the incriminating evidence, but bearing an offer. The popular field marshal would be spared the humiliation of the Ehrenhof, People’s Court and a possible death sentence, provided he take the proffered cyanide capsule. He could die with his reputation intact. Rommel’s consequent widely reported demise, attributed to wartime injuries, does not necessarily prove his guilt to historians, but the author John Toland recorded that in death his face was apparently ‘marked by an expression of colossal contempt’.4

Had he survived, the audacious Afrika Korps commander would no doubt have been the leading light of the Ardennes offensive, which he had done so much to inspire through his daring leadership in this exact region four years earlier. Rommel had led his 7th Panzer Division into Belgium at Hemmeres, five miles south of St Vith, advanced via Montleban and Chabrehez on 10 May 1940, to the River Ourthe which he traversed in three places, using a ford at Beffe (just south of Hotton), an engineer bridge at Marcourt and a captured crossing at La Roche on the 11th. Moving through Chéoux and Marche, his tanks had then followed minor roads via Haversin and Ychippe to the Meuse, where his reconnaissance battalion splashed across an old weir between Houx and Leffe (a suburb of Dinant), overnight on 12–13 May. All of these are names and routes that would resurface in the drama of the Bulge.

Rommel would have been the first to point out the difficulty of this terrain, as did Major Percy Schramm, where all the major roads ran north–south, and those few lanes which wound east–west were challenging enough for armoured columns in the fine conditions of May, never mind the snows of December. It was Rommel’s 1940 performance here that had brought him a very high profile within the Reich, although he was already known to Hitler, having previously commanded his bodyguard battalion. Rommel’s three-day achievement of reaching the Meuse through this very locale in May 1940 directly inspired the Führer and Jodl to replicate the attempt in December 1944.5

Still in mid-October 1944, Hitler had learned that Hungary’s Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, was negotiating in secret with the advancing Red Army. To forestall this, he despatched SS-Lieutenant Colonel Otto Skorzeny to remove Horthy from power. The Führer had come to rely on the tall Obersturmbannführer, a fellow Austrian, as a ‘fixer’ in times of crisis: in September 1943, he had rescued Mussolini from captivity in central Italy, while a year later he had helped crush the 20 July plot in central Berlin. Against a very tight deadline, Skorzeny devised Operation Panzerfaust, in which he lured Horthy’s son to a supposed meeting with Soviet mediators, kidnapped him at gunpoint, dramatically rolled him up in a carpet and flew him to Vienna. Resisting the blackmail, Horthy broadcast an armistice with the Russians over national radio, which the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party immediately countermanded, while Skorzeny surrounded Horthy’s HQ with Tiger tanks; the admiral capitulated on 15 October and Hungary remained an Axis partner. Six days later, on the 21st, Hitler sent for his favourite commando (though even he had to sign the obligatory Sippenhaft oath of secrecy, which still exists in the files) to offer congratulations and ask him to undertake another special mission.

In the battle for Aachen, which would fall that very day, Hitler recounted to Skorzeny how the Americans had used captured German tanks, still in their national colours, to penetrate the defenders’ positions – actually a not uncommon and perfectly straightforward ruse de guerre. Could, the Führer wondered, Skorzeny do something similar on a larger scale to precede his Ardennes operation? Perhaps in terms of capturing bridges and spreading confusion? From his recorded conversations, as we shall see, Hitler was also under the spell of the ancient Germanic warrior Arminius, who had created similar mayhem in the Teutoburg Forest against the advancing Roman legions of Varus in ad 9. Skorzeny left the Wolfsschanze with a secret brief to raise a unit of American-speaking troops, who would use captured weapons and equipment to achieve Hitler’s wishes. His part in the forthcoming offensive had a Wagnerian ring to it – the mission would have a special codename: Operation Greif – after the half-lion, part mythical griffin, which bore extremely sharp claws.

Most of Skorzeny’s unit, innocuously titled 150 Panzer Brigade, were to talk, behave and appear as GIs, wearing US uniforms. Supplemented by ‘normal’ SS combat units bearing support weapons, some of Skorzeny’s men, travelling in captured tanks and jeeps, would accompany Dietrich’s SS panzer columns with a mission to dash ahead and seize three crossings over the Meuse for their Sixth Panzer Army colleagues. Others in the special unit, wearing GI olive drab, were to infiltrate American lines in their jeeps and roam about, creating confusion behind the front, radioing back tactical information to the panzer spearheads, spreading rumours, switching signposts and cutting communications links. Skorzeny later recorded how his men, at their secluded Amerikanischschule(American School) training camps at Grafenwöhr and Friedenthal, assumed they were all heading for Paris in an assassination attempt on Eisenhower. This belief, which he did nothing to discourage, and uttered by Skorzeny’s men when captured, would eventually produce confusion and fear on a catastrophic scale, far beyond the original intent.

Hitler gave him a Führerbefehl to requisition whatever he required in terms of equipment, particularly captured US Army booty – highly prized by the Wehrmacht – and recruit anyone he needed. He eventually assembled 57 jeeps, American rations, documentation, radios, weapons, helmets and uniforms – though some of the latter had to be taken from prisoners or removed from the dead. Even gathering the uniforms proved difficult. Sergeant Michael W. Collins of Kentucky, captured in Tunisia when serving with the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, remembered the authorities in his prison camp, Stalag 3B near Frankfurt, requesting ‘American uniforms to clothe a captured GI unit that did not have garments’. Smelling a rat, he and his comrades ‘walked to the centre of the barracks and added their American uniforms to the pile. But the day before each prisoner had taken a scissors and slashed his uniform to ribbons.’ Their red-faced jailer ‘stared at the pile of slashed American uniforms, then turned on his heel and stomped out of the barracks’.6

Other vehicles for Skorzeny had to be adapted from German-manufactured stock. He expected a unit of about 2,500 comprising fluent English speakers, but acquired fewer than 1,000 former merchant seamen, bartenders and students who had worked or studied in the States at one stage. Hardly any were fluent, but about 300 might ‘get by’ if not drawn into a detailed conversation with genuine GIs. Obergefreiter Gries, a radio operator on one of Skorzeny’s Trojan tanks, recalled the tensions of having a trained English speaker in his crew. ‘The loader was a “speaker” … His job included operating a medium-wave radio with an umbrella aerial on the turret [to contact Skorzeny’s commandos]. The deployment of “speakers” in panzer crews was controversial as they hadn’t any specialist panzer-crew training. We were afraid they would weaken our combat strength by making operational mistakes … Leutnant Gertesnschläger was keen to get rid of him at the first opportunity.’7

Skorzeny’s unit was designed to assist Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army only: another sign of the favouritism Hitler accorded the Waffen-SS. However, a setback for his clandestine force arrived within days of leaving the Wolfsschanze when he encountered a widely circulated notice, issued in the name of Keitel, requesting ‘English-speaking officers and men from all three services to volunteer to serve in a special operation’. The leaflet, entitled ‘Secret Commando Operations’, detailed that ‘approximately two battalions’ of volunteers were sought for ‘use on the Western Front’, who were required by 10 November and should report to ‘Dienststelle Skorzeny’. The Obersturmbannführer went apoplectic at the security breach, complaining directly to the chief SS liaison officer at the Wolfsschanze, General Fegelein, that as his mission had been so blatantly compromised it should be cancelled. The latter agreed this was an unfortunate development but suggested the honour of the SS was at stake and ordered Skorzeny to proceed nevertheless – ‘surely he must know that his part in the offensive could not be put off unless they went to the Führer about it. And how could they confess such a mistake to Hitler, even if not their fault? The mission must proceed as planned.’8 Had it not borne Keitel’s name, the originator of the leaflet might otherwise have been shot for treason. As Skorzeny feared, a copy, issued by LXXXVI Corps on 30 October, soon fell into the hands of Allied intelligence. They knew precisely who Skorzeny was, but assumed – because of the stupidity of the wide distribution – it was propaganda: German mischief-making at its worst, and that no such unit was intended.9

The thirty-six-year-old Skorzeny was very much a protégé of Hitler. An extremely capable charmer, a natural businessman and charismatic leader in his own right, he usually ‘got things done’, whatever the circumstances, and would remain loyal to his boss and his ideals long after the war. A well-connected bon viveur, he bore a dramatic scar on his left cheek, which was in fact a duelling Schmiss – a highly sought-after sign of bravery. That Hitler took to him, seeing the light of a ‘true believer’ in his eyes, is obvious, because Skorzeny was one of the first to be told of Hitler’s plans outside the tight circle of the Wolfsschanze – even before the field marshals and army commanders who would eventually launch the attack. Skorzeny was clever enough to check immediately with German lawyers the interpretation under international law of what he was ordered to do. He received assurances that the body of international legal opinion was that only the use of weapons was forbidden, but the wearing of a foreign uniform was permitted. Weapons could be fired and conform with international law if the user wore his own uniform underneath and discarded any disguise before opening fire.10


Otto Skorzeny (1908–1975) was an extremely capable charmer, natural businessman and charismatic leader in his own right, Skorzeny usually ‘got things done’, whatever the circumstances, and would remain loyal to the Fuhrer and his ideals long after the war. (Author’s collection)

In retrospect, given the extensive modern use of Special Forces troops, it is surprising that Germany made little use of Skorzeny-type units. Although the British had developed a wide range of specialist troops in the Special Air Service (SAS), Long Range Desert Group, Parachute Regiment, Commandos and SOE, among others, and the US had their Rangers and OSS, the answer lies in the fact that very few German units had received such specialist training. A tiny number of SS commandos had performed such functions in 1939–40, but by 1944 the Reich were the occupiers, on the defensive, and had not planned on the need for infiltration troops: in this respect, the Germans fought a remarkably ‘conventional’ war. What is surprising about Skorzeny’s mission was that it hadn’t been tried before by any side on such a scale, and wasn’t practised more extensively in the Ardennes. The sanction of any such deployments was also in the hands of Hitler personally; while he had flashes of battlefield genius, the mind of the First World War Gefreiter did not travel in such unconventional directions. He was also acutely nervous of sending German troops behind Allied lines for fear they would desert; the Greif commandos came under SS control, and hence their numbers were limited to a controllable quantity.

There was one other use of unconventional forces built into Hitler’s plan, prompted by Market Garden and examined in the previous chapter: the decision to use paratroopers in their traditional role for the first time since Crete. Whereas the loyal SS warrior Skorzeny was told of his small part in the big attack even before the generals, the Fallschirmjäger commander was not warned of his task until 8 December. This was only eight days before deployment, and perhaps symbolic of the Führer’s lack of trust in the Luftwaffe, under whose command Germany’s paratroopers fell.

Meanwhile, Unternehmen Christrose (Operation Christmas Rose) was the provisional codename for the outline plan that Jodl had submitted to Hitler, which included the minutiae of paratroops, and SS commandos disguised as Americans, seizing bridges across the Meuse and disrupting US reactions to the attack. OKW records also refer more generally to the Abwehrschlacht im Westen (Defensive Battle in the West) which had been used to describe the battles around Aachen and early plans for the Ardennes. Perhaps because of its religious associations, but more likely because of Hitler’s deep paranoia about security, he immediately altered it from Christrose to Wacht am Rhein (Watch, or Guard, on the Rhine), after the nineteenth-century popular song which exhorted citizens to defend Germany’s western frontier.

Using this name tapped deep into the psyche of the Fatherland. ‘The Watch on the Rhine’ had become a patriotic favourite in the early days of building the German nation, with huge sales of books, sheet music and picture postcards on the theme of guarding the frontier against the traditional western foe; later German migrants took some of this culture with them to the United States, where the song, in English, was also popular. From the 1870s, the Kaiserreich, as we shall see, very deliberately used the imagery of guarding the Rhine to evoke images of collective defence against other adversaries, such as Roman legionaries and Catholic French knights, and so it seemed natural for the Nazis to include the US Army in this category.

An unlikely survivor of post-1945 denazification was the giant Niederwald Monument near Rüdesheim on the Rhine. Commissioned by Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1871 as a national symbol, its central figure is a thirty-foot-tall Germania, holding crown and sword, overlooking the great river. Beneath Germania is a large relief engraved with the ‘Wacht am Rhein’ lyrics. Hitler first saw it in 1914 en route to war, and it summed up the Fatherland to him.11 In the post-First World War occupation of the Rhineland, all the Allied occupation forces (French, Belgian, British and American) twisted the knife by referring to ‘their’ watch on the Rhine, which only incensed all patriotic Germans.

In the ambiguous history of ‘Germany’, only united as a single state in 1870, the one common denominator for all German speakers in the west was the Rhine. Apart from being a huge source of trade, since Roman days it delineated the western boundary of the German language. There was no such easy border to the east or south of the Fatherland. Consequently the Rhine represented historical continuity and a sense of nationhood for all Germans, and its symbolism was exploited by the Kaisers after 1870. The Rhine, and the necessity for guarding it, was drummed into all Germans as an essential ingredient of statehood, as was compulsory military service. The majestic river was – and remains – a source of pride for most Germans, and consequently the post-1918 Allied occupation of the Rhineland became a festering sore.

Thus offspring from the union of African American and French colonial Rhineland occupation soldiers with German girls were singled out for particular contempt in Mein Kampf, and eventually sterilised under the Third Reich; Hitler described children resulting from such marriages as a contamination of the white race ‘by Negro blood on the Rhine in the heart of Europe’, which would guide Nazi policy when African American prisoners were taken in December 1944. All of this kept the Rhine in the public eye until Hitler sent his newly created Wehrmacht marching in on 7 March 1936, reuniting this ‘lost’ province with the rest of Germany: a hugely popular move and his first conquest. Hitler’s Ardennes operation is still known by many as ‘Wacht am Rhein’, perhaps because the title is both clever and memorable, although, as we will discover, technically speaking they are wrong, for its codename was changed again, for a final time, on 2 December.

Meanwhile, a Canadian intelligence officer came across a German propaganda leaflet, aimed at the Wehrmacht, similarly titled ‘Watch on the Rhine’, which depicted a medieval German knight, equipped with flowing cloak, chain mail and sword, standing guard over the Rhine, with the words:

Comrade, the enemy means to outflank the Westwall at the very point where we are and to cross the Rhine into Germany! Shall our people, shall our families, have suffered five years in vain? Shall they suffer misery and starvation amid the ruins of our cities in a conquered Germany? Do you wish to go to Siberia to work as a slave? What do you say about it? Never shall this happen. Never shall the heroic sacrifices of our people prove in vain! Therefore everything depends now on your courage! The struggle against an enemy who at the moment is still superior is tremendously hard. But for all of us there is no other way than to fight on with knives if need be. It is better to die than to accept dishonour and slavery! It is better to be dead than a slave! Therefore – keep the Watch on the Rhine steadfastly and loyally.12

The operation’s title and devices like this leaflet (which was bound to fall also into Allied hands) deceived Hitler’s own Wehrmacht and population as to his intentions: until briefed as to the real nature of the operation, any German commander was likely to think that Wacht am Rhein was an operation to husband reserves behind the great river, ready to defend its banks to the last when the Allies attacked, which they surely would. Hitler’s move was doubly advantageous, for, unbeknownst to him, it also deceived the Allies who were monitoring and decoding OKW signals traffic at Bletchley Park. They saw exactly what they expected: an operation to prevent the Anglo-US-Canadian crossing of the Rhine. Despite the events of 1940, there was never a hint that an offensive was being planned from the unlikely terrain of the Ardennes. The observation of Général Lanzerac in 1914, that ‘If you go into that death-trap of the Ardennes you will never come out’, still applied to most military minds.13

On 22 October, the day after Hitler’s meeting with Skorzeny, the chiefs of staff of OB West (Generalleutnant Siegfried Westphal) and Army Group ‘B’ (General Hans Krebs), both newly appointed, were summoned to the Wolfsschanze, with no foreknowledge of the purpose. They were nervous, due to the fall of Aachen the day before, and anxious to squeeze more reinforcements out of OKW to prevent what seemed like an imminent Allied breakthrough to the Ruhr. Both were surprised at having to surrender their briefcases and sidearms, and sign the pledge of secrecy threatening Sippenhaft, in connection with a mysterious operation called Wacht am Rhein.

Westphal and Krebs arrived at Rastenburg in time to attend the usual midday situation conference, and were then summoned to a much smaller private meeting where Hitler and Jodl briefed them on a forthcoming operation to be undertaken, much to their astonishment, in the area of Army Group ‘B’. By the time Hitler and Jodl had briefed Westphal and Krebs, the Führer’s notions had taken concrete form; the planning for Wacht am Rhein was firmly in the hands of Jodl and his staff, who had observed that 1 November was too soon and the key dates were moved back to 20 November for the end of all preparations, and 25 November for the beginning of the offensive. The latter date had been selected by the Reich’s meteorologists in response to demands for a period of at least ten continuous days of poor flying weather.

The attack was to be made through the Ardennes on a sixty-mile front between Monschau (twenty miles south-east of Aachen) and Echternach (a similar distance north-east of Luxembourg), with an initial object of seizing bridgeheads over the Meuse between Liège and Namur, thereafter aiming for Antwerp. Rundstedt and Westphal both pointed out after the war that there was almost no planning for the phase beyond the Meuse to Antwerp, and none whatsoever following the port’s capture.

In order to achieve this, Jodl had recommended a minimum of thirty divisions, including ten armoured, distributed among two attacking formations, Fifth and Sixth Panzer Armies, and two infantry-heavy outfits, Seventh and Fifteenth Armies, which were to guard each flank, all supported by vast numbers of Flak (anti-aircraft) regiments from the Luftwaffe, plus a host of artillery corps and Nebelwerfer brigades. Göring’s Luftwaffe would have to support the operation on an unprecedented scale, and every effort made to achieve operational surprise and maintain a high tempo, while secrecy was vital and the absolute minimum of individuals should be admitted to the plan before Null-Tag (D-Day). Hitler assured his visitors of substantial Luftwaffe support (the records are at variance as to whether 1,000, 1,500 or 3,000 aircraft were promised), of which a hundred would be the new Messerschmitt 262s. Keitel, seemingly his only part in the whole drama, promised 17,000 cubic metres (4,250,000 gallons) of fuel and special reserves of ammunition.

All this was presented to them, for transmission to their respective bosses, as a ‘done deal’. Westphal remembered, ‘Throughout September we kept demanding reinforcements from OKW. On 22 October Hitler told us we would get them at the end of November or beginning of December; he identified twenty infantry and ten armoured divisions and a lot of special troops, and promised three thousand planes. However we would not be allowed to use them to reinforce the front. Hitler said they were a miracle and miracles didn’t repeat themselves. Therefore we would use them to attack.’ Westphal and Krebs flew back from East Prussia and reported to their bosses, Rundstedt and Model. ‘We knew we could only succeed if we were able to cross the River Meuse within two days,’ Westphal later observed. He left unsaid ‘before the Americans reacted’.14

Two days was a tall order indeed, given that in the brilliant conditions of May 1940 it had taken Rommel three days to achieve the same result. Hitler had also ended on the ominous note of anticipating Nebel, Nacht und Schnee (‘Fog, night and snow’), possibly in a Wagnerian sense, but it seemed certain to threaten Westphal’s estimate of two days to reach the Meuse.15

Apart from the obvious slight that they had been excluded from the early planning processes, the two field marshals were horrified at the military implications of such a huge undertaking. Rundstedt was forthright about this exclusion. ‘I had nothing to do with it. It came to me as an order complete to the last detail … When I was first told about the proposed offensive in the Ardennes, I protested against it as vigorously as I could. The forces at our disposal were much, much too weak for such far-reaching objectives.’16

Although in September Rundstedt had advised OKW that the ‘ultimate objective for all strategy in the West should be a counter-offensive to inflict a decisive defeat on the enemy’, by mid-October his sole aim was simply for the front to survive intact; there were no forces available and no logistics to sustain any sort of counter-stroke. The Wolfsschanze to them seemed suddenly very out of touch with the reality of life in the west. Rundstedt would observe after the war: ‘It was a nonsensical operation, and the most stupid part of it was the setting of Antwerp as the target. If we had reached the Meuse, we should have got down on our knees and thanked God – let alone try to reach Antwerp.’17

Behind the scenes, as the Kriegsakademie had taught generations of staff officers to do, Jodl studied other possible options to go over to the offensive, identifying five: a single thrust from Venlo also to Antwerp, and four other double-pronged encirclements of Allied forces at different places along the Western Front. Of these, though less ambitious in its reach, an envelopment launched simultaneously from northern Luxembourg towards Liège and from north of Aachen angled south offered the destruction of US forces in the Aachen salient, and Jodl began to scope this also. Schramm would observe after the war that of all the possibilities to go over to the offensive, Hitler seemed to have unerringly chosen the most promising terrain on the whole Western Front. There then followed a period until 1 November when Jodl at OKW and Model and Rundstedt, all unbeknownst to each other, drew up similar alternative offensive plans to dilute their Führer’s ambitions, keeping east of the Meuse, united in their certainty that the forces allocated were far too inadequate to reach all the way to Antwerp.

The port of Antwerp, in Model’s view, was beyond their grasp unless substantially more forces were available. His reaction to Krebs’ verbal account of Hitler’s scheme was succinct and dismissive: ‘This plan hasn’t got a damned leg to stand on.’18 Model protested to Hitler via Jodl that ‘Antwerp was too far to reach, and beyond our means. The troops around Aachen would be a danger to our advance unless they were wiped out first,’ the field marshal argued. Jodl countered after the war that ‘Hitler and I believed we could not wipe out the very strong and well-armed Allied forces around Aachen. We thought our only chance was an operation of surprise which would cut the life-line of the Allied forces at Aachen and in that way alone neutralise them.’19

Memoirs show that while relations between Rundstedt and Model were ‘correct but not cordial’, they were nevertheless united in believing that Antwerp was too ambitious and there was no point in attacking beyond the Meuse. Initially their two headquarters produced slightly differing solutions – Rundstedt wanted an envelopment around Aachen, whereas the Army Group ‘B’ plan, code-named Herbstnebel (‘Autumn Mist’), called for a single thrust by Fifth and Sixth Panzer Armies, with Seventh Army following as a second wave. Westphal wrote later of Hitler’s plan, ‘It appeared out of the question that the Seventh Army would be strong enough to protect the southern flank for long. Nor could the Allied troops adjacent to the breakthrough front be expected to stand back politely and make way for the attackers. What would happen if they stood fast, or, as was probable, launched counter-attacks? Even if Antwerp were reached, it would be impossible to hold onto the ground covered by the advance. And it was hardly worth aiming at such an objective if it must be given up almost at once.’20 This is where Hitler’s dreams departed from reality: he left the likely reactions of his opponents out of the equation. He had devised an operation based on what he assumed his Wehrmacht was capable of achieving, even though he was using 1940 as a benchmark, not 1944. The US Army did not feature in his calculations whatsoever.

Without the knowledge of Hitler or OKW, on 27 October in a meeting that lasted several hours, Rundstedt and Model and their staffs debated various alternatives along with Manteuffel, Dietrich and Brandenberger, the commanders of Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Armies. Thereafter, all (very few could be let in on the secret) decided to combine their intellectual horsepower to produce a collective, less ambitious plan, which they hoped would be acceptable to Hitler, still promising maximum damage to the Allies but at greatly reduced risk. All agreed that a range of active deception measures would be vital to ensuring surprise – their greatest weapon – and that (in Rundstedt’s post-war analysis), ‘all, absolutely all, conditions for the possible success of such an offensive were lacking’ in Hitler’s plan. The result was the kleine Lösung (‘Small Solution’), a synthesis of the ideas of both headquarters, proposing an envelopment of the US Army east of the Meuse around Aachen and Liège, which Model’s staff drew up on 28 October.21

Meanwhile, Jodl and Hitler were having a similar debate in East Prussia. The former, too, had dismissed Antwerp as an objective too far, on the basis of an inadequate number of fresh divisions, and proposed his own kleine Lösung, not dissimilar to the Rundstedt–Model concept, an envelopment of US forces east of the Meuse and the seizure of Liège. Hitler, however, refused to budge, or allocate more resources to his own scheme. Only after ten fruitless days of impasse at the Wolfsschanze did Jodl bow to the inevitable and issue further operational instructions for Hitler’s plan on 1 November, which were delivered to Rundstedt by special courier during the night of 2 November. They contained a covering letter from Jodl warning that ‘the venture for the far-flung objective [Antwerp] is unalterable, although from a strictly technical standpoint, it appears to be disproportionate to our available forces. In our present situation, however, we must not shrink from staking everything on one card.’22

At least six forthright written protests against Hitler’s plan were lodged with the Wolfsschanze by Model and Rundstedt in November/December, each time presenting versions of their kleine Lösung as more practical. Initially Rundstedt objected on 3 November, but was completely ignored. Hitler’s 10 November operations directive specifically forbade any attack by Fifteenth Army, the northern arm of the Rundstedt–Model ‘Small Solution’ encirclement, on the spurious grounds that ‘the enemy must not be warned in advance by secondary attacks’.23

Meanwhile, operations in the Hürtgen Forest and at Metz prompted Model to request permission to use troops earmarked for Wacht am Rhein against Hodges’ US First Army and Patton’s Third. With the resources to reach Antwerp diminished further, Rundstedt wrote again to Hitler on 18 November, observing, ‘A surprise attack directed against the weakened enemy, after the conclusion of his unsuccessful breakthrough attempts in the greater Aachen area, offers the greatest chance of success.’

On 20 November, Model again protested to Hitler of the plan’s inadequacies, and argued for an alternative improvised envelopment, which stood a good chance of destroying the fourteen US divisions belonging to US First and Ninth Armies in the Aachen area. It would, Model observed, certainly offer as much tactical and psychological success as Wacht am Rhein. Hitler’s unequivocal answer on 22 November stated simply, ‘Preparations for an improvisation will not be made’. On 26 November they tried again, only to be told ‘There will be absolutely no change in the present intentions’. As Hitler’s throat (the polyp) required he move to the capital for an operation and the Russians were in any case nearing the Wolf’s Lair, the next conference to discuss Wacht am Rhein took place at Wilhelmstraße 77, Berlin – Hitler’s Reichskanzlei (Reich Chancellery) – on 2 December. Rundstedt absented himself in disgust, and Model, Manteuffel and now Sepp Dietrich, in command of the new Sixth Panzer Army, argued for the smaller offensive, but Hitler was adamant in refusing to concede. Eventually, in Berlin, he did alter two details, allowing minor changes to Manteuffel’s method of attack and changing the title from Wacht am Rhein to Model’s ‘Small Solution’ codename – Herbstnebel – almost an insult, but not quite. That was all.

Originally, Wacht am Rhein had envisaged two flanking attacks to support the main thrust: one using Brandenberger’s Seventh Army in the south but a second employing General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s Fifteenth Army to the north. The fifty-two-year-old Zangen had considerable combat experience under his belt from the First World War, Russian and Italian campaigns, had led his formation with enormous energy since 25 August and would be responsible for a successful series of delaying actions that denied use of the port of Antwerp to the Allies in the coming months. Along with the tiny First Fallschirm-Armee (Parachute Army), Fifteenth was responsible for most terrain north of Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army to the Belgian–Dutch coastline.24 Zangen’s assigned mission for Wacht am Rhein/Herbstnebel was to protect the northern flank against Allied counter-attacks, but with a qualification. Hitler was aware that US forces had fought hard and paid dearly to gain Aachen and felt that a frontal assault there, if only to support Dietrich’s panzer attacks on their left, would be suicidal folly. Therefore, he directed that ‘The Fifteenth Army was not to be employed until the Allies had reacted in force to the German attack, and in any case could not be expected to launch a large-scale attack until the Allied front east of Aachen had been drastically denuded of troops.’ In fact, a US 2nd Infantry Division assault on the Fifteenth Army’s area would fix Zangen’s men in place, so none played any significant role in the Ardennes battles.

The squabbles over Herbstnebel (as we shall now refer to it) boiled down in the end to a clash of wills, and seems to have had little to do with military logic. In the end, on principle, Hitler’s will had to prevail. Compromise was not a word he had ever understood. It was almost as though he perceived his most senior and loyal generals, Jodl, Rundstedt, Model, Westphal, Krebs, Manteuffel, Brandenberger – even Dietrich, his old bodyguard commander from over twenty years before – as the ‘enemy’, and not the Americans.

Besides, Hitler was obsessed with his Reich retaining the military initiative, which all knew had been surrendered since Normandy; grand, proactive offensives were part of his psyche, as he’d revealed far, far earlier in Mein Kampf. There is no doubt that in 1944 he intended to relive the early, heady days of the March 1918 offensive in which he personally took part: ‘I had the good fortune to fight in the first two offensives and the last. These became the most tremendous impressions of my life; tremendous because now for the last time, as in 1914, the fight lost the character of defence and assumed that of attack. A sigh of relief passed through the trenches, and the dugouts of the German army when at length, after more than three years’ endurance in the enemy hell, the day of retribution came. Once again the victorious battalions cheered … Once again the songs of the Fatherland roared to the heavens along the endless marching columns …’25

With the plan finalised, it was time to admit more participants into the secret and fill in the details: for example, the Fallschirmjäger commander needed time to make his preparations. On 8 December, Luftwaffe Generaloberst Kurt Student, himself an ex-paratrooper but by then commanding Army Group ‘H’, covering Holland with twelve divisions, summoned Oberstleutnant Friedrich Freiherr von der Heydte to his office. The Luftwaffe lieutenant-colonel was to assemble immediately a 1,000-man unit of trained jumpers to be deployed soon on the Eastern or Western Fronts (Student couldn’t, or wouldn’t, be more specific). With a Knight’s Cross swinging at his throat, the thirty-seven-year-old von der Heydte was one of the Reich’s most experienced and decorated soldiers, having jumped into Crete in 1941 and seen action in Russia, Tunisia, Italy and Normandy; his Fallschirmjäger were some of the toughest combat veterans in the Wehrmacht. Soon he was told his mission, dubbed Operation Stösser (named after the penguin-like auk): his men were to jump into the Ardennes forests very early one morning, when it was still dark, and seize road junctions and bridges ahead of Dietrich’s Sixth Army. Some had never jumped before, most not since Crete, and very few at night or into woods. Few transport aircraft were available, and none of their aircrew had worked with parachutists before.


By the summer of 1944 Walther Model (1891–1945) had been promoted to Generalfeldmarschall in command of Army Group ‘B’ and was the main driving force behind Herbstnebel, though he had no part in its planning. He only learned of it when Hitler revealed the plan to his chief of staff, General Hans Krebs, summoned to the Wolfsschanze for the purpose on 22 October 1944. Model’s verbal reaction was succinct and dismissive: ‘This plan hasn’t got a damned leg to stand on’. As late as 12 December, when approached by Colonel von der Heyte to cancel the parachute drop with which he had been tasked, Model confided, ‘It is necessary to make the attempt since the entire offensive has no more than a ten percent chance of success’. (Author’s collection)

Dispirited by his meagre resources, on 12 December von der Heyte approached Model to suggest his mission be scrubbed. The normally caustic field marshal on this occasion seemed quite fatherly to the younger officer: ‘Do you give the parachute drop a ten percent chance of success?’ he asked von der Heyte. With an affirmative answer, Model then confided in the astonished Luftwaffe lieutenant-colonel, ‘Then it is necessary to make the attempt since the entire offensive has no more than a ten percent chance of success. It must be done, since this offensive is the last remaining chance to conclude the war favourably. If we do not make the most of the ten percent chance, Germany will be faced with certain defeat’.26

Did Model really believe the whole offensive stood any chance of success? In the fifty-one days of preparations, since Model first heard of Hitler’s ideas via Krebs on 22 October, his own view of it had moved hardly at all. His earlier utterance that ‘This plan hasn’t got a damned leg to stand on’ essentially had not changed with this ringing endorsement on 12 December that it had a ‘ten percent chance of success’. By this astonishing testimony (given by von der Heyte to US interviewers in 1948), even Model, Hitler’s most loyal of army commanders, had realised the war was lost and the Führer had imprisoned himself in a fantasy world; yet after 20 July, none dare oppose him – perhaps because they already had too much blood on their own hands.

The Fallschirmjäger lieutenant-colonel was instructed to discuss the forthcoming operation with Sixth Panzer Army’s commander, Dietrich, and his chief of staff, Fritz Krämer, a meeting which did not go smoothly. Neither had worked with parachutists before and they were unsympathetic to von der Heyte’s complaints about shortages of trained men, equipment and aircraft. Ordered to drop in advance of Sixth Army’s panzers, at night, deep inside US lines, when the paratrooper asked simply where American troops were known to be, Dietrich exploded, ‘I am not a prophet. You will learn earlier than I what forces the Americans will employ against you. Besides, behind their lines are only Jewish hoodlums and bank managers.’ Von der Heyte asked about communications – even more vital to paratroopers than other formations – and requested carrier pigeons if his radios were broken in the descent, a not unreasonable request. This was too much for the SS commander: ‘I am leading my panzer army without pigeons, you should be able to do the same!’

There were three subtexts here. The most senior SS leader after Himmler, Dietrich would have known that von der Heyte’s political credentials were highly suspect in the post-20 July world. The paratroop commander was a much-travelled, well-connected aristocrat, who had studied international law in Vienna, The Hague, Munich and Switzerland on an American-funded Carnegie Scholarship, but was tainted chiefly as a cousin of Claus von Stauffenberg. Any hint of a lack of enthusiasm on his part would be interpreted as treason. The writer Patrick Leigh Fermor encountered von der Heydte in Vienna during a trek across Europe made during 1933–4. He remembered him as ‘civilised, quiet, thoughtful and amusing, he belonged to a family of Catholic landowners and soldiers in Bavaria, but his style and manner were far removed from what foreigners consider the German military tradition; and with the Nazi movement he had still less in common … A few years later he had become a cavalry officer, rather like ancien régime Frenchmen, I think, who followed the profession of arms in spite of their hatred of the government.’27

Secondly, Dietrich, the former butcher’s son and NCO, was a world away in terms of class and background from the languid aristocrat Heydte. Finally, the discord between them underlined how poorly different branches of the German armed forces cooperated. Sixth Army’s responses to the Luftwaffe commander betrayed their ignorance of parachute operations, in a way that would be considered laughable today. The antagonism of Dietrich and Krämer also emphasised the arrogance with which the Waffen-SS had come to regard the army and Luftwaffe.

Meanwhile, the éminence grise Himmler, Dietrich’s immediate boss, lurked in the background, still accumulating power and watching everyone. The army interpreted the creation of Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army, staffed solely by the Waffen-SS, as a further extension of the SS leader’s power. Perhaps the result of lobbying by the Reichsführer himself, Sixth Panzer was the first SS army, and evidence of the ever-growing influence of the Schutzstaffel. After one of his tours of the front in the autumn of 1944, Himmler had been tactless and brash enough to sign one of his letters to Rundstedt as ‘Supreme Commander in the West’, obviously challenging the latter’s position as OB West. Westphal noted enigmatically, ‘Although we never discovered whether Hitler had in fact appointed him as such for a time, his rival authority was speedily eliminated.’28 Instead, Himmler, who had never commanded so much as a platoon in training, shortly afterwards had himself appointed Commander of Army Group Rhine by Hitler, who thought his loyal disciple would succeed where his generals had failed.

In 2000, I interviewed a panzer commander who encountered Himmler at this time; Hauptmann Otto Carius told me that he met the SS chief on the latter’s personal train, sitting on tracks deep in the Black Forest, far away from the Rhine, and shunted into a nearby tunnel whenever an air raid was sounded. On receiving a Knight’s Cross from Himmler’s hands, when the two were alone, the Reichsführer apparently asked him, ‘Can we really win this war?’ Unless this was a clumsy attempt to trap him, Carius felt sure this was an indication that even the SS leader was having private doubts about the war in late 1944.29 History’s verdict is that as commander of an army group Himmler proved remarkably incompetent, issuing ‘a deluge of absolutely puerile orders’, and when he moved on two months later, Westphal recalled, he ‘simply left behind a laundry basket full of unsorted orders and reports’.30

Husbanding resources for the planned offensive proved as difficult as deciding its route. Ammunition and fuel reserves for the big assault taxed the Reich’s dwindling war economy to the maximum. Generalmajor Alfred Toppe, the Oberquartermeister, had managed to scrounge 15,099 tons of artillery ammunition by 13 December for Army Group ‘B’, which sounded more impressive that it actually was. Model’s logisticians reckoned on a daily ammunition consumption of 1,200 tons, but that excluded the planned opening barrage. In other words, there was enough for a maximum of ten days’ worth of artillery support, period. Air defence had relatively more at its disposal for the Luftwaffe’s III Flak Corps, with its sixty-six heavy and seventy-four medium and light batteries. The biggest headache of those final days, and one which would ultimately spell doom for the entire enterprise, can be summarised in one German word: Benzin.

Page after page of the relevant OKW, OB West, Army Group ‘B’ and lower formation war diaries are obsessed with records of urgent discussions as to the whereabouts of promised gasoline. By 16 December, Generalmajor Toppe and Deutschereichsbahn (the German state railway) had delivered 4,680,000 gallons, though much of it was still on the eastern banks of the Rhine when the attack started. Every historian of the Bulge pounces on the panzers running out of fuel, but the Germans’ challenge could be described more accurately as having the fuel but not being able to get it to the front when and where it was needed. Likewise, an astonishing 2,000 trains (1,502 troop and around 500 supply trains) conveyed men and matériel to the assembly areas in the Eifel under the noses of prowling Allied aircraft, without detection. Before 16 December, 144,735 tons of supplies had been unloaded, but, like the Benzin, much of it was detrained far away on the eastern banks of the Rhine, and too much would never reach the formations for which it was intended. Concerns of operational security overrode the practicalities of logistics and combined to give the Germans more headaches than were ever necessary.

Poor weather to mask the Ardennes from prowling Allied reconnaissance aircraft was still a vital ingredient of Hitler’s plan. In early December, word went out to Admiral Dönitz’s U-boats in the North Atlantic that they were to take and transmit meteorological readings, though for what purpose they were not told. Bletchley Park intercepted the requests, but had no context to understand their significance. Foreknowledge of the conditions that Herbstnebel needed – heavy sleet and snow showers, with temperatures that would generate fog – was crucial to decide the start day; weather reports from the Western Atlantic, off the North American and Canadian coasts, could provide Berlin with about a week’s warning before the same conditions hit Europe.

Null-Tag31 for the offensive was also tied to the speed with which troops, equipment and combat supplies could be moved and concentrated, the infantry divisions in the Eifel, the armour around Cologne. Most convoys were rail-bound and as Allied bomber fleets continued to strike at railway bridges over the Rhine, marshalling yards and other vulnerable transport hubs (none too specifically so as not to betray the Ultra secret), Hitler’s timetable was interrupted, and the start date postponed several times. On 26 November, the Führer decided on 10 December for Null-Tag. This date slipped again because of fuel shortages and several units being still en route by rail to their assembly areas. The bombing of railway lines caused delays on 11 and 12 December with the result that Null-Tag, which had already been postponed several times, was delayed to 15 December, and finally to the following day; there it rested. Meanwhile, a last protest was made by Rundstedt and Model on 6 December with the final draft of the Herbstnebel operations order, which Hitler simply ignored, endorsing his original plan that had changed not one jot since 22 October.

With the dates set and all machinery in motion, there then followed secret briefings to all the divisional and corps commanders, overseen by the SS, held over two consecutive nights, on 11 and 12 December. After the second address on the 12th, when Hitler had departed, the commanders stayed behind to celebrate the seventieth birthday of Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt. Two briefings were required simply because there was not enough room for a single gathering in the operations room at the Adlerhorst – the new Führerhauptquartier – in the shadow of Schloss Kransberg at Ziegenberg, where Rundstedt’s OB West had also relocated, and where we began.32

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