Shakespeare has generals dancing together in a suitably stately manner, on board ships in his play Antony and Cleopatra. The Battle of the Bulge, a nickname, properly called the Ardenne Offensive, was Hitler’s last and most surprising offenivfe in World War II. It was the greatest ptiched battle in American history, putting up more than 600,000 American soldiers, mostly young and inexperienced, against a mixture of battle-hardened German troops with a heavy admixture of the infamous Waffen-SS, some Hitler-Jugend regiments (boys from 16 – 19 years of age). Together they reached half a million ferocious fighting men who believed their battle must be won against the Allies because the massive and callous Red Army was closing in from the East. The battle between the opposing soldiery was one thing, while the consistent bickering, jealousies, and outright hatred between the US generals and the newly created Field Marshal Montgomery was another. These men were not dancing together, on board ship or knee deep in the snows of Belgium.
. The Allies were preparing to cross the river Rhine in a furiously cold December, 1944. They believed this would be the last stage of the War in Europe. Not a single allied commander thought the Germans capable of mounting such an immense offensive, but they had not counted on the madman in charge of Nazi Germany. Hitler had decided on a desperate gamble, disapproved by al his best fighting genearls from Rundstedt downwards. He would strike through the deep forests, treacherous streams and half deserted villages of the Ardennes, as he had done successfully in 1940. The aim was the divide the British from the Americans, after which he would cross the river Meuse, and then go north to caputre the strategic port of Antwerp.
The offensive was a complete surprise. US Generals Hodges and Bradley simply had no intelligence reports to warn them, and if they had, they must have put them in a drawer for study later. Hitler’s generals (Manteuffel and Gorderian) made a successful salient in the US lines, thus creating the nickname ‘Battle of the Bulge’. The Americans found themselves surrounded at Bastogne. The situation was deadly, but the Germans were under-supplied with munitions, food supplies and methods of transporting both. Many horse-drawn carts were used, diffcult if impossible to defend. The powerful Panzer divisions were also surprised by the courage and guts of the mostly untrained and young US soldiers, who fought the monstrous tanks savagely and efficiently with bazookas. Bernard Montgomery moved fast enough to stop German forces from crossing the Meuse, but was the subject of continuous messages of dislike and distrust from Omar Bradley, Hodges and even Patton, who was there too, pearl-handled six guns on his hips as usual. Montgomery kept on demanding total command over two American armies, but General Eisenhower (at first) would not listen. He, like all American generals, believed that Montgomery was self-centred and simply after glory. To a certain extent he got it too, because the ‘Ike’ the Supreme Commander at a later stage gave him control of all British and Commonwealth forces plus the badly needed US armies, much to the chagrin and fury of generals Bradley, Maxwell, Taylor, Hodges and Patton – all of whom could hardly be in the same room as the bumptious and egotistical Monty.
George Patton, mostly on his own authority, moved his units at incredible speed 75 miles from Alsace to relieve Bastogne at the beginning of January, 1945. By the 7th of February the ‘bulge’ had been repaired. Despoite the in-fighting among the generals, all of whom were behaving like ill-tempered ballerinas, the battle was over when the Germans retired, to the fury of Hitler, who had moved to what would be his last outpost of the War, in Berlin, One hundred thousand Germans lost their lives, and many more were captured, and it must be said that reprisals on both sides for the savagery of the fighting caused summary shooting of prisoners on both sides. News of this caused outbursts of horror from British officers of field rank, though perhaps they were encouraging their troops to follow suit,; if so, there is no evidence to support the theory, whereas documentary evidence exists to prove the shooting of prisoners of war by both German and US troops. This kind of atrocity was of course totally banned by the Geneva Convention, but it happened. It should not cause surprise, as the Ardennes Offensive was fought under the very worst of weather conditions, by soldiers with trench foot, frostbite, sparse medical attention and – worst of all – a deep hatred developed for the first time in the War between the Allies and Germans. Chivalry vanished, replaced by bottomless loathing. It was a filthy battle, fought in atrocious conditions. The men’s morale was not helped on either side by the knowledge that their generals were at each other’s throats too. Hardened fighting officers like Bradley, Taylor and Patton had always been irked by their Supreme Commander, a general who had never been in a fighting war in his life. But he was a favourite of the US President, Roosevelt. He was a brainy politician in a general’s uniform, who later became President of the United States, and got the chance to topple the British Empire at last when Britain and France plotted togtether to re-take the Suez Canal from Egypt. It is on the cards that Eisenhower’s vision of this situation in the Fifties was caused by bitter memories of obstinate and cocksure Field-Marshal Montgomery in the Ardennes.