The aftermath of the Ardennes Offensive in the West.
A week after the start of Operation Autumn Mist, the German offensive had well and truly run out of steam. Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army had been held in check along the Amblève River. To the south, the Fifth Panzer Army had advanced to within 15km (9.3 miles) of the Meuse at Dinant before being turned back by British tanks and Allied fighter-bombers. General of Panzer Troops Hasso von Manteuffel had managed to surround the American 101st Airborne Division in the town of Bastogne. However, a relief column from Lieutenant-General George Patton’s Third Army punched through from Luxembourg to lift the siege on 26 December 1944.
With huge Allied reinforcements now pouring in to counter their penetration, German commanders were convinced that the offensive stood no chance of success. They wanted to pull out the surviving panzer divisions and concentrate them as a counterattack force to help prop up the now threatened Eastern Front. Hitler would have none of this. He wanted a renewed offensive to defeat the Americans, by cutting off Bastogne again to open a new route for further westward offensives.
I SS Panzer Corps was to be sent south to close off the narrow 1km- (0.6-mile-) wide corridor linking Bastogne to Patton’s army. Again the fuel shortages and poor road conditions meant the Waffen-SS panzer divisions took far too long to get into position to attack. The Leibstandarte did not reach its jumping-off position until late on 28 December, and was not ready to attack until late the following day. It arrived ahead of the rest of I SS Panzer Corps, and was sent into action under the command of an army panzer corps.
The division was much reduced in combat power after its heavy losses over the previous 10 days, mustering at the most 50 tanks, including 16 Panthers, 25 Panzer IVs and perhaps 15 King Tigers, as well as 18 Panzerjäger IVs. SS-Sturmbannführer Werner Poetsche now commanded the division’s panzers in the absence of Jochen Peiper, who had been evacuated back to Germany after suffering a breakdown following his dramatic escape from La Gleize. His Kampfgruppe was augmented by remnants of two panzergrenadier battalions. Not all the division’s tanks, particularly the King Tigers, were present at the start of its attack.
Max Hansen’s Kampfgruppe contained the remainder of the division’s infantry and its Panzerjäger IVs. Much of the division’s artillery and Nebelwerfers were massed to support the attack, but they were unable to stockpile very much ammunition.
The Leibstandarte’s westward attack was planned to coincide with an eastward push by the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division and Führer Begleit Brigade, to cut the Bastogne corridor. First to attack were some 30 of Poetsche’s panzers, striking out just before dawn on 30 December. They headed out through morning gloom and, helped by panzergrenadiers, easily cleared out two frontline villages. American tank destroyers then made an appearance, hitting several of the panzers.
As the panzers approached the main road south out of Bastogne across open fields, the Americans mobilized two companies of Shermans to block their path. Now the clouds cleared to allow the intervention of Allied fighter-bombers. For more than two hours, the Thunderbolts worked over the panzer column, claiming seven kills and delaying the advance as the tanks took cover in woods. The American tanks had now taken up ambush positions ahead of the panzers, and were waiting when Poetsche at last got his forces moving again.
Poetsche’s command Panther was knocked out by the first American shot, and soon nine panzers were blazing. The panzergrenadiers had to go to ground until they could pull back as it got dark.
To the south, Kampfgruppe Hansen was led by seven Panzerjäger IVs through the heavy woods surrounding the village of Villers-la-Bonne-Eau at dawn. The Waffen-SS men soon surrounded the defenders in the small village and spent the rest of the morning clearing them out. Early in the afternoon, the advance was pressed forward and, in a few hours, they were through the woods on the edge of the main road south out of Bastogne. Reinforcements were pushed in at nightfall and the Leibstandarte tried to secure its positions overnight. The news that the eastward attack by their army colleagues had failed did little to raise the Waffen-SS men’s sagging morale.
For the next week the Leibstandarte soldiers held their hard-won ground against a series of strong US counterattacks, backed by tanks and large quantities of artillery. The Waffen-SS panzers found themselves “fire-fighting” small local incursions by American tanks on the fringes of the positions held by the panzergrenadiers. Two precious King Tigers and several other panzers were lost in these scattered battles.
As the Leibstandarte was being brought to a halt south of Bastogne, I SS Panzer Corps was being mustered to the north of the town for a final push for victory. Hitlerjugend and Hohenstaufen had been pulled out of the northern shoulder and sent south, along with the 340th Volksgrenadier Division. Field Marshal Model visited the corps headquarters north of Bastogne on 2 January 1945 in order to put his seal of approval on the plans to smash open the American defences the following day. Hohenstaufen was to drive in from north-west of the town and Hitlerjugend would attack from the northeast, as the Volksgrenadiers linked them together. Several Volks artillery brigades were mustered to provide fire support, which was fortunate, because the Hitlerjugend’s guns were stranded to the north due to lack of fuel.
The Americans, however, were quicker off the draw and put in an attack against the Volksgrenadiers during the afternoon of 2 January. As the Americans reached the outskirts of Bourcy, the advanced Kampfgruppe of the Hitlerjugend’s panzer regiment was just driving through the village from the north. Eleven Panthers and Panzer IVs immediately engaged the advance guard of the American column, sending it reeling back to its start-line.
At 09:00 hours on 3 January, the German attack was launched as planned. Led by 20 Panzer IVs, the Hohenstaufen advanced in the face of heavy American antitank fire. The attack stalled in the afternoon when the panzers were caught in open ground. Another attack was attempted in the early evening and suffered a similar fate. The division tried a surprise raid later in the night and penetrated some distance behind American lines before it was beaten back.
On to Bastogne
In the early afternoon the Volksgrenadiers and Hitlerjugend began to move forward. The Volksgrenadiers were soon bogged down in heavy fighting in large forests. Hitlerjugend’s panzer regiment led the division forward along the open ground to the left of the railway track, which headed south into the centre of Bastogne. It put 13 Panzer IVs, 7 Panthers and 15 Panzerjäger IVs into action, along with 28 Jagdpanzer IVs and 13 Jagdpanthers of the attached 560th Anti-Tank Battalion. Panzergrenadiers in armoured halftracks were close behind the German armour, and during the afternoon the armada made steady progress, advancing 3km (1.8 miles) despite heavy American artillery fire.
In a night attack, the Hitlerjugend made a further big advance, reaching the edges of the villages of Magaret and Bizory on the northern outskirts of Bastogne. Panzergrenadiers and Panzerjäger IVs now pressed into the large Azette wood in front of the town, cutting to pieces a US infantry battalion.
More attacks were now launched against Magaret and Bizory in the afternoon by the panzer regiment, but they couldn’t dislodge the defenders. Wild rumours of German breakthroughs caused panic and some GIs fled into Bastogne. Panzers penetrated the villages, only to be driven back by American Shermans and bazooka teams. The line held.
Panzer push on Hill 510
Over on the northwestern edge of the American line, the Hohenstaufen panzers were again pushing forward, making local gains as well as overruning a number of trench lines.
During the afternoon of 5 January the Hitlerjugend panzers made one last lunge to capture Hill 510 outside Magaret, which overlooked Bastogne. Heavy American tank- and artillery fire soon forced the Germans to pull back from the exposed position. This wall of fire was instrumental in blunting the Waffen-SS attack, making it impossible for the Hitlerjugend men to even contemplate further movement towards Bastogne.
An American breakthrough against the northern shoulder of the German front forced the withdrawal of the Hohenstaufen from Bastogne on 6 January. The Hitlerjugend Division was now totally exhausted by its exertions and had to spend the next two days consolidating its hard-won gains. Plans were already in hand to pull the division out of the line when it was called upon to make one last drive to capture Hill 510. Under the concentrated fire of all the division’s artillery and tanks, its panzergrenadiers reached the summit of the hill by mid-morning on 8 January. Yet again, the Americans massed their artillery fire, which swept the hillside and forced the Waffen-SS men to fall back by midday, leaving 50 dead behind.
On 9 January, Hitler finally realized that trying to take Bastogne was a lost cause and authorized the withdrawal of the Waffen-SS divisions. The Leibstandarte was at last able to pull out of its exposed salient into the Bastogne corridor, after Patton launched an attack farther to the east aimed at cutting the division’s escape route. The order to withdraw had come just in time, and the last Leibstandarte convoys were engaged by American tanks as they made their way eastwards, suffering heavy losses. Artillery and air strikes later joined in to pound the Leibstandarte as it made its escape.
The Ardennes Offensive: 26 December 1944–25 January 1945
While I SS Panzer Corps was gathering around St Vith, II SS Panzer Corps found itself locked in a bitter battle with US armour advancing southwards. Das Reich bore the brunt of the defensive fighting until the Hohenstaufen could join the fray. They steadily fell back until orders were issued on 16 January for them to be taken out of the line to join their sister Waffen-SS divisions in Army Group B’s reserve. Fuel shortages and the chaos meant this was not actually achieved for several days. Hitler then ordered the four Waffen-SS divisions and Dietrich’s headquarters to be withdrawn from the Western Front to be refitted for operations on the Eastern Front, where a new Russian offensive was underway.
Operation Autumn Mist was officially over. Hitler’s gamble had failed. The Germans lost 33,000 dead, 22,500 missing and 34,000 wounded. They also left behind more than 600 smashed tanks in the Ardennes. The Americans lost 8600 dead, 21,000 missing and 30,000 wounded, along with more than 733 destroyed tanks.
The Waffen-SS had spearheaded the operation and made some of the deepest penetrations into American lines. Many senior Waffen-SS officers, such as Dietrich, had been sceptical about its chances of success, but had given it their best shot. No one could accuse them of not trying, but no amount of bravery and tactical flare could make up for the fact that Hitler’s plan was too ambitious and the US Army too powerful.
Figures for losses in the Waffen-SS divisions are hard to come by. Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army lost some 10,000 dead in total. The armoured vehicle strength of the Waffen-SS divisions was soon restored to near establishment thanks to the smooth recovery of wrecked and damaged tanks from the early phases of the battle. Harder to replace were officer and noncommissioned officer casualties that ran to nearly 50 percent in some Waffen-SS units.
The departure of Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army – which was soon to be renamed the Sixth SS Panzer Army – did not mark the end of the participation of Waffen-SS panzer divisions against the Western Allies.
In tandem with his plan to strike into the Ardennes, Hitler had long dreamed of pushing into Alsace and retaking the border city of Strasbourg. Army Group G was to strike south in Operation North Wind, with the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division in the lead, in order to outflank the city. The division was rebuilt after being heavily battered around Metz in November 1944 and bolstered with the delivery of 57 StuG IIIs in early December. When the attack began on New Year’s Eve, the Waffen-SS division achieved the deepest penetration of the American lines until strong counter-attacks halted it. Three days of heavy fighting followed in which the division’s commander, SS-Standartenführer Hans Linger, was captured when he took a wrong turn near the frontline as he drove in his command Volkswagen.
Hitler now launched Operation Solstice. Its aim was to drive a pincer around Strasbourg from the south and it was to be conducted under the command of Army Group Upper Rhine. The refitted Frundsberg Division was committed to this offensive on 13 January 1945, and its 36 Panzer IVs and 35 Panthers made good progress until the operation ran out of steam a week later. In a final irony, the veteran Waffen-SS general, Paul Hausser, who had recovered from his injuries received in Normandy, was placed in command of Army Group Upper Rhine for what would be the final months of the war from 29 January.
Soon the needs of the Eastern Front also resulted in Hausser losing the Frundsberg Division. The 17th SS Division was the only Waffen-SS armoured unit to remain on the Western Front until the end of the war. By 25 March, it had been reduced to some 800 men who were desperately holding the last German bridgehead on the west bank of the Rhine. The Frundsberg managed to escape across the mighty river, but the Americans caught up with the division at Nuremberg, where it tried to mount a series of rearguard actions during early April. It then surrendered to the Americans.