16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945
With the ultimate failure of Operation Market-Garden, the Allied advance came to a halt to be replaced by several months of almost static combat against defending German forces, with no Allied airborne operations being planned or executed. This period was broken, however, when a major offensive was launched by the Germans on the orders of Adolf Hitler; on 16 December 1944 Operation “Watch on the Rhine began, with three German armies attacking through the Ardennes, hundreds of thousands of German troops and tanks breaking through Allied lines. The operation took the Allied forces completely by surprise, and several units under the command of First Allied Airborne Army became involved in the Allied attempt to first halt, and then repel the offensive; these units were principally the 101st Airborne Division, 82nd Airborne Division and the 6th Airborne Division (Click here to see how allied airborne units were organized).
The Battle of the Bulge (also known as the Ardennes Offensive and the Von Rundstedt Offensive to the Germans) was a major German offensive (die Ardennenoffensive), launched through the densely forested Ardennes mountain region of Wallonia in Belgium, hence its French name (Bataille des Ardennes), and France and Luxembourg on the Western Front. The Wehrmacht’s code name for the offensive was Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (“Operation Watch on the Rhine”), after the German patriotic hymn Die Wacht am Rhein.
The German offensive was supported by several subordinate operations known as Unternehmen Bodenplatte, Greif, and WÃ¤hrung. Germany’s goal for these operations was to split the British and American Allied line in half, capturing Antwerp and then proceed to encircle and destroy four Allied armies, forcing the Western Allies to negotiate a peace treaty in the Axis Powers’ favor. Once accomplished, Hitler could fully concentrate on the eastern theater of war.
The offensive was planned with the utmost secrecy, minimizing radio traffic and moving troops and equipment under cover of darkness. Although Ultra suggested a possible attack and the Third U.S. Army’s intelligence staff predicted a major German offensive, the Allies were still caught by surprise. This was achieved by a combination of Allied overconfidence, preoccupation with their own offensive plans, and poor aerial reconnaissance.
Near-complete surprise against a weakly defended section of the Allied line was achieved during heavy overcast weather, which grounded the Allies’ overwhelmingly superior air forces. Fierce resistance, particularly around the key town of Bastogne, and terrain favouring the defenders threw the German timetable behind schedule. Within a week 250,000 troops had been sent. Gen. Gavin of the 82nd Airborne Division arrived on the scene first and ordered the 101st to hold Bastogne while the 82nd would take the more difficult task of facing the SS Panzer Divisions; it was also thrown into the battle north of the bulge, near Elsenborn Ridge. Allied reinforcements, including General George S. Patton’s Third Army, and improving weather conditions, which permitted air attacks on German forces and supply lines, sealed the failure of the offensive.The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle that they fought in World War II.