The View From The Bunker – The Battle of the Bulge should’ve been the end for the western Wehrmacht

By Jeff Ward 01 Jun 2015 0

So we now come to the third installment of my semi-regular inexplicable military decisions series. And this particular choice is the one that has utterly baffled me ever since that 1965 movie incited an undue fascination with what might well be the most famous conflict involving American soldiers. 

Though I will say the sight of Telly Savalas riding around in a turretless Sherman tank firing a hand-held 50 caliber machinegun still makes me chuckle. Apparently he had that rare water-cooled variety. 

With the possible exception of Gettysburg, no single battle captures the American imagination like the last German offensive of the Second World War. The Bulge, once and for all, tested that still questioned American mettle and, instead of becoming a complete disaster, it became a defining moment. 

Not only that, but part of that fascination comes from the facets of this 30-day confrontation that became legend. 

The Germans managed to amass 250,000 men, 1,500 tanks and 2,000 artillery pieces, most of it shipped all the way from the Russian front, without the allies batting a single eyelash. The fact those astute Bletchley Park folks dutifully warned of an impending offensive didn’t matter. Those SHAEF generals were already convinced that Berlin was a done deal and they ignored the Enigma warnings. 

German soldiers clad in American uniforms wreaked havoc behind the lines. General George S. Patton’s insistence upon a prayerful plea for clear weather was truly unique. Most folks credit the Bastogne defenders for stemming the advancing tide, but it was the 7th Armored Division’s and 424th Infantry Regiment’s stalwart defense of St. Vith that caused the first major Nazi headache. 

Of course, that statement in no way diminishes the efforts of the 101st Airborne and assorted stragglers who denied those infamous crossroads for the duration. We’re all aware of General Anthony McAuliffe’s single word response to that insistent German Bastogne surrender demand too. 

While not at all uncommon on the Eastern Front, this was the first time the Americans had to contend with a POW slaughter like the one at Malmedy. The high command’s response was a take no prisoners order that lead to a bit of revenge at Chenogne. This was a no-holds barred battle. 

But before I completely give in to my tendency to ramble on, the point of this series is how wargaming provides the kind of perspective that allows us to look back at a military operation and ask, “Was that really the best decision?” 

Because whether it was SPI’s Wacht Am Rein, SSG’s The Ardennes Offensive, or any number of TOAW III Bulge scenarios, the Germans have one sure strategy. Like Horace Greeley demanded, they have to move west to the Meuse as fast as they flippin’ can. Damn your flanks, damn your losses, and damn your lack of petrol, because once that yellow sun pierces the cloud cover, the fat lady starts singing and those German tanks are toast! 

Conversely, the only way the U.S. can screw it up is by not getting the 101st to Bastogne before the Germans get there. After that, it’s simple matter of waiting for the clouds to part and those panzers to run out of fuel. Thus, I’ve never seen a German board game commander, nor his AI counterpart, come out of this battle victorious. 

That doesn’t mean I don’t understand why Hitler took this massive gamble. Given the fatherland’s dire situation, it was the only choice to make. That said, under no circumstances was there going to be a repeat of the first Ardennes offensive. 

But that’s where all the sure things end. After reading innumerable books and playing every bulge simulation ever made, including SSI’s Tigers in the Snow (Yes – I still have an extra copy in the shrink wrap!), any American player worth their salt cuts off the salient at its base and virtually destroys the entire western German army. 

And because the Wehrmacht has no choice but to sprint towards Antwerp, I’ve done it every single time I’ve played a game as the allies. So I’ve never been able to comprehend exactly why Ike let the Germans slip out of that closing noose. It is the singular military decision that still boggles my mind. C’mon! Can all those game developers be wrong? 

Once Patton pulled off the impossible it should’ve been a done deal. After extricating the Third Army from an eastward attack and turning that massive group 90 degrees northward in 48 scant hours, those beleaguered Bastogne defenders were relieved the day after Christmas. Then, his army and Monty’s north side Brits should’ve cut off the German spearhead essentially ending the war in the West. 

But it didn’t happen! 

I’ve read authors who’ve said that’s what Patton wanted to do, but Ike vetoed it. Others said that Montgomery wouldn’t commit his troops to a major assault in a snowstorm. Perhaps Eisenhower was fearful of what a trapped German army might do to the helpless French civilians. But whatever the reason, the allies missed a golden opportunity to march into Berlin first which would’ve have completely changed the face of the cold war. 

I’m no fan of General Bernard L. Montgomery, most of whose military successes came at the hands of Operation Ultra, but when he said, “Eisenhower? Nice chap, no soldier” he was dead on. Though you really do have to give Ike a boatload of credit for keeping that often fragile coalition together. 

But instead of a total allied victory, the Russians, having correctly discerned that the Bulge meant the German defenses there were paper thin, launched the January 12, 1945 Vistula-Oder offensive which put them just 70 kilometers of Berlin. 

And the rest, as they say, is history! 

Again, this is why I love wargaming. History books are great, but nothing beats seeing it for yourself. 

 

 

Jeff Ward is a free-lance writer, radio show host, and former opinion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times Media Group. He got hooked on wargames immediately after he picked up that copy of Avalon Hill’s Midway from Hobbymodels in Evanston, Illinois in 1970. You can reach Jeff at jeffnward@comcast.net.

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