The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge/Chapter III

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The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge by Hugh M. Cole
Chapter III: Troops and Terrain

The Order of the Battle[edit]

  • During the long-drawn debate over the extent of the counteroffensive, the objective, and the attack form to be employed, the order of battle for Wacht am Rhein took form. This also led to differences of opinion and interpretation. How should the armies be aligned? What forces, missions, and zones should be assigned to each particular army? How many divisions, armored and infantry, would be available for use in the attack? The answers to these and like questions turned on the "Solution" adopted and the maneuver employed but will be set forth independently in an attempt to bring some order out of the confused interplay between Hitler, Jodl, Rundstedt, and Model.
  • When the representatives of OB WEST and Army Group B first heard of the Defensive Battle in the West, the Führer had given Model, as the commander directly charged with the operation, three armies: the Fifth and Sixth Panzer Armies and the Seventh Army. Subsequently Hitler added the Fifteenth Army for a special role, although it would appear that he did not intend to take the Fifteenth away from Army Group Student until after the battle was joined. At the time Westphal and Krebs rejoined their respective headquarters they were in possession of a rather general plan of maneuver and a list of divisions numbering 29. Hitler had personally promised 30 divisions, of which 12 were to be armored. From this point forward there would be a constant question posed in each draft plan: how many divisions and which divisions? By 1 November, as planning progressed, the Hitler-Jodl estimate of the divisions which could be employed rose to 39, of which 13 would be armored. On the other hand the estimates fed into the successive OB WEST planning papers revolved between 29 and 31 divisions, with 12 armored divisions as a constant. It is the one extra panzer unit found in the OKW order of battle which furnishes the key to the conundrum as to the number of divisions. This unit, the 21st Panzer Division, belonged to Army Group G and was committed as a roving halfback, stiffening those parts of the line where attacks by the Third and Seventh U.S. Armies threatened to penetrate. Rundstedt knew that the 21st simply could not be stripped from the German south flank, already precariously thin. His list of "available" divisions, therefore did not name those divisions already fully committed in sectors where the Allied threat loomed large. Be it noted, then, that the Hitler-Jodl listing of available divisions did not contain a single new formation (from the Eastern Front or Italy for example) but simply reckoned on withdrawing more divisions from other sectors of the Western Front and throwing them into the counteroffensive force.
  • Fancy footwork in extending the length of the order of battle at OKW had a direct correlation with the alignment of forces laid down in Hitler's letter of instructions on 1 November. In this the Sixth Panzer Army would be deployed on the right or north flank of the attack formation and would make the main effort. In the center would be the Fifth Panzer Army; on the left the Seventh Army. This disposition was "unalterable." The decision to let the Sixth Panzer Army gather the largest sheaf of laurel leaves, if any, was politically inspired. Its commander, Sepp Dietrich, was high in the party and the panzer divisions assigned for the attack were SS divisions. Hitler's letter on 1 November calls Dietrich's command the Sixth SS Panzer Army, a Freudian slip for this army did not officially bear the title SS and would not for some time to come. The question at issue, however, was the location of the Sixth Panzer Army. Rundstedt wanted the main effort to be launched in the center and so wished to reverse the position of the two panzer armies in the final deployment. But this was only one of several points at which the deployment outlined by OB WEST in the Martin plan (as finally agreed to by Model) differed from that given by Hitler's 1 November letter of instructions. (See Map I.)
  • The Hitler-Jodl plan provided for an attack to be carried by the three armies of Army Group B advancing abreast. Plan Martin placed the Seventh Army to the left and rear of the two assault armies with its northern corps advancing behind the southern wing of the attack. Correspondingly, the Hitler-Jodl attack issued from an attack front sixty-five miles wide; the Martin attack took off from a forty-mile-wide base. In the first case the southern terminus of the penetration would be Grevenmacher; in Martin this terminus was set at Dasburg. Where the Hitler-Jodl attack moved straight through the Belgian Ardennes, that outlined in Martin skimmed the northern edge of the Ardennes. Of the thirteen panzer divisions listed by Hitler and Jodl, only four would be thrown into the first wave with six following in the second wave. The remaining three were to be held out for later employment in the holding attacks planned for Army Group Student. In Martin, contrariwise, Rundstedt put all of the panzer divisions he counted as available (twelve in number) in the first attack wave. As to reserves, the Hitler-Jodl order of battle counted four divisions in this category but provided for their commitment as the third wave of the attack. Rundstedt, far more concerned than OKW with the potential weakness of the southern flank, would assemble the three divisions of his reserve along the southern boundary of the expanding salient.
  • When, on 10 November, Hitler signed the operation directive Wacht am Rhein, it became clear that Rundstedt's Plan Martin had been sunk without trace. This was nowhere more evident than in the order of battle. The revised Hitler-Jodl list gave an impressive total of 4 armies (the Fifteenth had been added), 11 army corps, and 38 divisions (15 motorized and mechanized and 23 infantry), plus 9 Volks artillery corps and 7 Volks Werfer brigades. By what sleight of hand had Jodl and the WFSt been able to raise divisions for the counteroffensive which the Western Front commanders could not see? The answer is found in a combination of self-mesmerism at Hitler's headquarters and a kind of double entry order of battle. The assignment of the Fifteenth Army, fighting in the Aachen battle, theoretically added six divisions to the attacking force. The Fifteenth Army, however, 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. Furthermore, the actual count of divisions in the Fifteenth Army was deceptive. Two of the divisions (the 49th Infantry and 246th Volks Grenadier) had been merged, the 49th being deactivated. This merger had been reported to the WFSt but the 49th continued on the Hitler-Jodl list. Another organization listed, the 89th Infantry Division, amounted to the strength of a single rifle battalion. Both OB WEST and Army Group B had asked for its disbandment, but this request was refused at the Fuehrer level.
  • An error of potentially greater import existed in the listing of three panzer-type divisions supposedly to come from other sectors of the Western Front. Rundstedt's protest against the nomination of the 21st Panzer Division as "available" has already been noted. Also tied down by the Allied attacks on the Army Group G front was the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division. In addition, the 10th SS Panzer Division, involved in the fight east of Aachen, had a very limited combat capability. But when Model attempted to replace this formation with a green parachute division, OKW turned down the relief because the second division was ticketed for Wacht am Rhein. In effect the felony was compounded insofar as the three panzer-type divisions were concerned. Not only was it very unlikely that they could be taken out of sectors where they already were hotly engaged, but each was so weakened by constant fighting-the 21st Panzer Division and 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division had been in line without a break since the Allied invasion of Normandy-that the two together no longer had the combat value of a single full division.
  • The chain of events leading to the issuance of the questionable Hitler-Jodl order of battle was vicious in its working-but the sequence was not ended. Hitler had determined-on a military solution in which the means were not adequate to the end desired. His commanders at first had attempted to bring the objective into some proper relation to the available means. As a retort to these efforts, Jodl and the WFSt had supported the Fuehrer scheme by an inflated listing of additional available divisions. The higher field commanders then bowed to the inevitable, although they personally were aware that the troop list attached to the final operation directive of 10 November was probably phony, or at least highly suspect. The troop list thereafter would be duplicated in army group, army, corps, and division orders and plans. Commanders and staffs in lower echelons could have little or no knowledge of the questionable basis of the troop list. Each time the list was reproduced it became more of a solid fact. When a corps commander was informed that he would be given one of the divisions whose availability originally had been questioned by Rundstedt or Model, he accepted this as a fact and made his plans accordingly. This was true at the army level-and eventually even at the headquarters of Army Group B. Constant repetition would turn a hypothesis, mendacious by origin, into a military "fact." There is a lesson here for those who may be called upon to plan large-scale military operations in the future.

The Allies Return to the Attack[edit]

  • Rundstedt's immediate reaction to the outline Fuehrer plan brought back to the OB WEST headquarters by his chief of staff on 24 October had been a caveat: the entire project for a German counteroffensive would have to be abandoned if the Western Allies launched any large-scale attack. Rundstedt was not simply being cagey. He was worried by the general quiet which had fallen over the Western Front following the American penetration of the West Wall outworks at Aachen. He anticipated that the Allies would make new attacks in the Aachen and Metz sectors as soon as their divisions were refitted and resupplied. The C-in-C West especially feared a thrust from the Aachen salient to the Ruhr and had so advised Hitler, asking as was his wont for reserves. Rundstedt's request for nine fresh divisions lay unanswered in the files of OKW until Westphal finally brought the news that OB WEST would not be given the nine divisions requested but instead would have to take nine divisions out of the line in the west and prepare them for use in the great counteroffensive. To make matters very much worse, OB WEST would lose two-thirds of its armored and mechanized troops during the rehabilitation period. After the meeting with Model at Fichtenhain, Rundstedt once again asked for additional divisions to meet the impending Allied attack and repeated the warning that an Allied offensive would cancel the German plans. This time (3 November) he specified the areas where the attack would be made: it would be a double thrust, one arm advancing from the Aachen front in the direction of Cologne, the other striking from the Metz sector toward Saarbrucken. Hitler's reply, telegraphed two days later, was unsympathetic. Rundstedt must hold with those divisions he had in the line. Divisions listed for Wacht am Rhein could be committed only if they became involved in a fight while assembling in their future attack positions, although an exception could be made in the event of Allied airborne landings. Otherwise the commitment of any Wacht am Rhein formation must have the express permission of the Fuehrer.
  • Rundstedt's prediction of things to come was made good when the US Third Army opened a two-corps attack on 8 November. Within twenty-four hours Hitler was in touch with OB WEST, reminding Rundstedt that he must keep his hands off the Wacht am Rhein divisions even if this meant giving ground all along the line. As a reassuring note OKW expressed the hope that the Allied attack would burn up divisions which might otherwise face the German counteroffensive.
  • Now the C-in-C West was responsible for two types of Wacht am Rhein divisions, those in the line which he must relieve for rest and refitting, and those which had been organized or rehabilitated in the Reserve Army and dispatched to Rundstedt's command. The weight of armor in the American attack east of Metz and the possibility that this thrust would rupture the German south wing at the joint between the First and Nineteenth Armies, impelled Rundstedt to cling to those tanks which were on the Army Group G front. This he did in flat disobedience of direct orders from OKW. He went a step further on 21 November and ordered the Panzer Lehr Division out of its assembly area and into a counterattack designed to block the American XV Corps, whose drive toward the Saverne Gap threatened to separate the First and Nineteenth Armies. OKW ultimately agreed to this use of Panzer Lehr, but then called off the counterattack on 25 November. The responsible Western Front commanders simply stalled the relief of the Panzer Lehr until it was clear that the division had suffered too much damage to allow any further hope of success.
  • The upshot of the Allied offensive in Lorraine was that two panzer-type divisions scheduled for Wacht am Rhein became irretrievably embroiled in the losing battle being waged by Army Group G, while the elite Panzer Lehr Division limped back to its assembly area much reduced in strength and with badly shaken morale. None of the infantry divisions engaged in the battles east of Metz were scheduled for employment in the Ardennes, but the redeployment in the south of two divisions from the Eifel sector necessitated the premature commitment of two Volks Grenadier divisions from the Replacement Army as their relief. In addition the American attack in Lorraine would cost the Hitler offensive an entire Volks artillery corps, two panzer brigades, and two heavy antitank battalions.
  • The Third Battle of Aachen, begun on 16 November, was even more threatening in the eyes of OB WEST than the Allied drive in Lorraine. Within twenty-four hours the situation was so desperate that Model threw in his only tactical reserve, the XLVIII Panzer Corps. As the German casualties mounted on the Army Group B front, Rundstedt began to bleed his north wing, taking one division after another from Army Group Student. By 20 November the prospect of an Allied breakthrough loomed so large that the C-in-C West asked OKW for the four reserve SS panzer divisions which were being readied to carry the main Ardennes attack by the Sixth Panzer Army. His request was denied. There ensued a tactical merry-go-round catching up divisions all the way from the Netherlands to Strasbourg. Rundstedt would bring in one of the divisions which had been kept on ice for the coming offensive, relieve a battered division in the line, then in a few days shuffle the relieving division back to a reserve position close behind the line-sometimes with OKW approval, but more often without. Meanwhile the German artillery was working desperately to take the place of tactical air support-so marked by its absence. As early as the third day of the attack the light and medium howitzers bolstering the Army Group B positions were dipping into the special ammunition stocks which had been reserved by the Fuehrer for the Ardennes battle and which bore his imprint, Fuehrer Reserve. At the close of the first week of fighting in the Aachen area the German casualties there had risen to 12,000. Replacements who had been sent forward to reflesh the divisions being reorganized for Wacht am Rhein found themselves filling the gaping ranks of formations in the line. By the first week of December the Aachen battle had resulted in the direct commitment or a cessation of training and rehabilitation in the case of five panzer-type and seven infantry divisions. An additional six Volks artillery corps had been tossed into the fray but, made up of over-age reservists, they probably profited by this enforced training period.
  • It is hardly surprising that the impact of the attacks around Aachen and Metz should have further shaken Rundstedt's and Model's already wavering belief in the possibility of any large measure of success for the Ardennes counteroffensive. Model reacted more strongly than Rundstedt, the latter fatigued by the constant tug of war with OKW and more and more adopting the resignation of the aged. When Model again took up the cudgels for the Small Solution, stressing the paucity of forces left for the counteroffensive, he sounded a prophetic warning: "Should the attack be stopped at the Meuse due to the lack of reserves the only result will be a bulge in the line and not the destruction of sizable enemy forces [italics supplied].... The widely stretched flanks, especially in the south, will only invite enemy counteractions." Hitler answered by assuring OB WEST that "the number of units originally projected will be made available." This was on 27 November. The initial target date for Wacht am Rhein had come and gone; the Allied November offensive had been a spoiling attack in the true sense of the term, albeit unwittingly so.
  • The German attack in the west launched on 10 May 1940, in so many respects the prototype for the 1944 counteroffensive in the Ardennes, had been postponed some sixteen times.1 The period of planning and preparation had covered six and a half months. In 40, however, there was no pressing reason to disturb the quiet of the "phony war," nor was the Third Reich seriously threatened on the ground or in the air. The summer disasters in 1944, on the contrary, demanded immediate action to recoup German losses and stave off an immediate threat. There is no question that Hitler's selection of the target date for the start of the offensive, 25 November 1944, was made with every intention that the operation should begin in fact before the end of November. Furthermore, Rundstedt and Model had accepted this date without official question, despite the fact that it would leave them only one month in which to make ready. Rundstedt, however, had added a cautionary note by reminding OKW that the actual attack date would depend upon the arrival of the panzer divisions in their forward assembly positions and the completion of ammunition and fuel stockpiling in the concentration area.
  • There is some evidence that the Fuehrer had chosen November not only for its promise of poor flying weather but also because he hoped to win a victory in the west and release divisions to the Eastern Front before the beginning of the annual Soviet winter offensive. If so, this second desideratum was not considered of really vital importance as planning progressed. The operation directive of 10 November in which Hitler ordered that the concentration period be ended by the 27th clearly referred to the weather and even included provisions for a stop-order to arrest the concentration in mid-flight should the weather suddenly turn fair. The concentration for Wacht am Rhein, already in progress when the US Third Army reopened large-scale fighting on the Western Front, continued at a wobbly pace during the second and third weeks of November. Eventually the impossibility of relieving the attack divisions as scheduled and the delays wrought by the temporary commitment of units like the Panzer Lehr became so obvious as to brook no denial-even by Hitler. His postponement of the attack cannot be pinpointed, but the word probably came sometime after 23 November. On that date Model reported that of the armor slated for Wacht am Rhein only the four SS panzer divisions and the 2d Panzer Division had escaped premature commitment in the battles then raging. In Model's opinion-mark the date the other divisions could not be readied before 15 December.

The Terrain[edit]

  • The area through which Hitler chose to launch his counteroffensive was, with the exception of the Vosges, the most difficult terrain on the entire line of the Western Front. It consists of two major parts, the Eifel and the Ardennes. Although the whole is strewn with the relics of castles and fortified churches, there had been little military history enacted within this area before 1914.2 A straight line between Paris and Berlin will bisect the Eifel and Ardennes, but the movement of armies during the centuries normally had followed the easier roads going around this area: in the north via Liège-Maubeuge or the Flanders plains, in the south via the Metz gateway. On occasion the Ardennes and Eifel had been used by large forces for movement without fighting, battle being joined at the natural defense lines of the Meuse River west of the Ardennes, or the Rhine River east of the Eifel.
  • In 1914, as part of the Schlieffen Plan, three of the Imperial German armies marched from the Eifel through the Ardennes. Schlieffen had predicted that the French would react to the pressure of the heavy German right wing as it swung through northern Belgium by counterattacking into the flank via southeastern Belgium. It was an integral part of the famous plan, therefore, that the German right wing would be covered by an extension through southern Belgium and Luxembourg, and that the Ardennes massif would be used, if needed, as a bastion from which the French flanking attack would be repelled. A portion of the Second and all of the Third and Fourth German Armies did advance through southern Belgium and Luxembourg, the march through the main portion of the Ardennes being covered by the rapid movement of Richthofen's I Cavalry Corps. French reaction was slow and the tiny Belgian Army had been drawn away to defend Liège and Brussels. As a result the Germans marched across the main body of the Ardennes mass without a fight, the ultimate meeting engagements with the French on 22 August taking place in the densely wooded but less rugged segment of the Ardennes (sometimes called the Forest of Ardennes) close to the Belgian-French border in the neighborhood of Neufchâteau and Virton.
  • In 1940 the Ardennes once again was invaded and crossed by German troops, the jangle of Richthofen's squadrons giving way to the roar and grind of Kleist's tanks. This time, at Hitler's insistence, the German maneuver departed from the classic concept of Schlieffen, the weight of the German attack being thrown south of Liège rather than north, while a narrow thrust replaced the bludgeon strokes of a massive wheeling movement. This main effort toward a decisive breakthrough was launched through a narrow corridor marked approximately by Bastogne in the north and Arlon in the south; but the bulk of three German armies debouched from the Eifel and marched across the Ardennes. As in 1914 the crossing of the Ardennes massif was little more than a route march, impeded ever so slightly by brave but tragic and futile attempts at resistance by the Belgian Chasseurs Ardennais. Without detracting from the courage of these few Belgians it is fair to say that the Germans did not have to fight before they reached the Meuse River, and even there they experienced little opposition. The German advance through southern Belgium and Luxembourg in 1914 had demonstrated that a huge modern force could be concentrated via rail in the abrupt, broken country of the Eifel, and from thence be moved afoot or ahorse through the worst of the Ardennes mass.
  • The events of 1940 proved that mechanized forces could move speedily through the Ardennes, and more, that not only was Hitler correct in his insistence on the use of large mechanized forces in the Ardennes, but that the professionals in OKH who had opposed him were wrong. In 1944, as a result, it was known that the terrain in the Eifel and Ardennes was not so bad but that it could be quickly negotiated by modern mechanized armies under conditions of good weather and little or no enemy resistance. What history could not demonstrate, for the lessons were lacking, was whether modern, mechanized armies could attack through the Ardennes and speedily overcome a combination of stubborn enemy defense, difficult ground, and poor weather. Terrain, then, would play a peculiarly important role in the development of the 1944 counteroffensive.
NOVILLE AND STOLZEMBURG. Towns in the Ardennes are small and usually fall into one of two types: a cluster of houses at a crossroads, such as Noville (above), and a river valley settlement, such as Stolzemburg on the Our (below).
Stolzemburg Belgium.jpg
  • Although the Ardennes has given its name to the campaign under study, this area should be lumped with that of the Eifel, the composite of the tablelands to the east which sheltered the German concentration during the late autumn of 1944. These two areas are extensions of the Westerwald, blending almost insensibly into each other and sharing many of the same characteristics. The Eifel is the complex of hill ranges-they can hardly be called mountains-lying between the Rhine, the Moselle, and the Roer Rivers, mostly in Germany. Only the two westernmost of the Eifel highlands or ranges need be mentioned here. East of St. Vith and just inside the German border is the Schnee Eifel, a high tree-covered ridge or hogback. It extends from the northeast to the southwest, a characteristic thrust line in the entire area, and in 1944 was crested on much of its length by the West Wall fortifications. East of Liège is the Hohes Venn, a long table-land topped with lakes and marshes. The Hohes Venn is larger than the Schnee Eifel. Its northeast-southwest course is defined by a line through Malmédy and Monschau on the German face and by a line through Eupen and Spa on the Belgian. In the northeast the Hohes Venn is prolonged by the Hürtgen Forest. As the Schnee Eifel forms a barrier covering St. Vith on the east, so the Hohes Venn is a large outer bastion for Liège. Although the Hohes Venn is geologically a part of the Eifel it is somewhat removed from the other parts of the complex and represents the gradual and sometimes indefinable blending of the Eifel and Ardennes.
  • The Eifel is thickly covered with forests and provides good cover from air observation even in the fall and winter. The area has no large towns but rather is marked by numerous small villages, requiring extensive dispersion for any large forces billeted here. The road net is adequate for a large military concentration. The rail net is extensive, having been engineered and expanded before 1914 for the quick deployment of troops west of the Rhine. The railroads feed into the Eifel from Koblenz, Cologne, and the lesser Rhine bridgeheads between these two. The main rail line, however, does not cross the Eifel but follows the Moselle valley on the southern fringe of the Eifel. Rail and road systems throughout the Eifel are marked by meandering courses and numerous bridge crossings thrown over rivers and deep ravines.
  • The Ardennes, like the Eifel, is not a single and well-defined bloc. The general area may be defined as a wedge with the point between Aachen and Düren. The northern edge is a diagonal: Aachen, Liège, Maubeuge, Landrecis. The southern edge (much debated by geologists) is a more pronounced diagonal running from Aachen southwest to Arlon. The base, formed by the Forêt des Ardennes or French Ardennes, roughly coincides with the Franco-Belgian frontier and the Semois River. The Ardennes has three recognized subdepartments: the High Ardennes in the south, the Famenne Depression in the middle, and the Low Ardennes in the north. The Low Ardennes tends to be open and rolling, but includes two plateaus: that of Herve, between Liège and Aachen, and Condroz, between the lower Ourthe and the Meuse in the vicinity of Dinant. This sector is more readily traversed than is the High Ardennes, but it is relatively narrow, maneuver is constricted by the flanking line of the Meuse River, and entrance from the east presupposes that the invader has possession of Aachen and the roads circling north or south of the Hohes Venn.
  • The Famenne Depression is only a thin sliver of the Ardennes wedge. The Famenne is free from tree cover except for the characteristic buttes which dot the depression. Scooped out of the Ardennes massif, this long, narrow depression originates at the upper Ourthe and extends westward through Marche and Rochefort. It reaches the Meuse between Givet and Dinant, offering a good crossing site which often has been employed by European armies operating on the Meuse. But an invader from the German frontier must traverse much difficult terrain before debouching into this "march through" depression.
  • The High Ardennes is often called the "True Ardennes." It is not properly mountainous, nor yet a forest; rather it is a wide plateau or high plain out of which rise elevations in the form of ridges or higher plateaus erupting from the main mass. These elevations generally are unrelated to one another and combine with large forests to form isolated and independent compartments in which tactical domination of one hill mass seldom provides domination of another. The mass structure extends on a northeast-southwest axis, forming a watershed which drains away to the Meuse in the north and the Moselle in the southeast. Perhaps a third of the area is covered with forest, much of which is coniferous. This timber, however, is scattered all over the High Ardennes and presents a patchwork picture rather than a series of large forested preserves. The main mass is cut in zigzag patterns by winding, deeply eroded rivers and streams, some flowing parallel to the higher ridges, others crossing so as to chop the ridges and the welts on the plateau into separate sections. In some places the watercourses run through narrow, almost canyonlike depressions with steep walls rising from a hundred to three hundred feet. Even the wider valleys are narrow when compared with the western European norm.
  • The road net in 1944 was far richer than the population and the economic activity of the Ardennes would seem to warrant. This was not the result of military planning, as in the case of the Eifel rail lines, but rather of Belgian and Luxemburgian recognition of the value of automobile tourisme just prior to World War II. All of the main roads had hard surfaces, generally of macadam. Although the road builders tried to follow the more level stretches of the ridge lines or wider valley floors, in many cases the roads twisted sharply and turned on steep grades down into a deep ravine and out again on the opposite side. The bridges were normally built of stone. There were ten all-weather roads crossing from the German frontier into Belgium and Luxembourg in the sector between Monschau and Wasserbillig, but there was not a single main highway traversing the Ardennes in a straight east-west direction.
  • There are no cities in the Ardennes, unless the capital of Luxembourg and Arlon are included in this area. The largest villages had, in 1944, populations of 2,500 to 4,000. The normal settlement in the Ardennes was the small village with stone houses and very narrow, winding streets. These villages often constricted the through road to single-lane traffic. Another military feature was the lone farmstead or inn which gave its name to the crossroads at which it stood.
  • The fact that most of the High Ardennes lies inside Belgium leads to some confusion, since one of the administrative subdivisions of that kingdom is named "Ardennes" but is not exactly conterminous with the geographical area. Luxembourg, into which the Ardennes extends, is divided in two parts, roughly along a line from Attert on the west to a point midway between Vianden and Diekirch on the eastern boundary. The northern half generally is considered an extension of the High Ardennes (although one may find as many definitions of the south edge of the Ardennes as there are writers touching the subject); in any case it shares the same physical properties. The southern half of Luxembourg, known appropriately as the "Good Land," is less high, has more open space, and its valleys normally can be traveled. A single river, the Alzette, bisects this part of Luxembourg in a north-south course which takes it through the capital city. But the eastern approach to the Good Land erases much of its military attractiveness. Between Sierck and Wasserbillig the Moselle River forms the boundary between Luxembourg and Germany. In this sector the left or Luxembourg bank of the river is especially difficult even by comparison with the normal terrain obstacles encountered in the High Ardennes. Farther north, where the Sauer River continues the boundary, the river valley is somewhat less formidable but is backed up by a broken, gorge-riven area in the neighborhood of Echternach known as the "Luxembourg Switzerland."
  • It is natural, with the Ardennes mass forming a northeast-southwest divide between the tributaries of the Meuse and the Moselle and with rugged geological patterns twisting and turning these tributaries, that the military hydrography of the Ardennes should be important. The prolongation of the Ardennes in northern Luxembourg is dissected by four rivers. On the eastern frontier the Our River continues the boundary trace begun by the Moselle and the Sauer. In the interior the Wiltz, the Clerf, and the Sure divide the country into water-bound compartments. Their valleys are long and narrow, so narrow and tortuous that they cannot be followed by roads. They are further complicated by "cups" scoured out of the side walls and by cross ravines, deep and narrow.
  • In the Ardennes north of Luxembourg it is possible to cross from Germany into Belgium without traversing a major stream. About twenty miles west of the frontier, however, comes the first of the rivers descending from the High Ardennes into the Meuse; these are the Amblève and the Salm which serve as flankers for the swamp-encrusted tableland of the Hohes Venn and must be crossed in any movement west from St. Vith, Malmédy, or Spa. Next comes the longest of these rivers, the Ourthe, which is the most severe military obstacle east of the Meuse. It originates west of Bastogne as a small creek, then meanders north until it meets the Meuse at Liège. At Ortheuville the Ourthe begins to cut through a narrow and winding defile with steep, rocky sides fringed by pine trees. Just north of La Roche the Ourthe leaves its tortuous canyons and enters the Famenne Depression. That part of the course between Ortheuville and La Roche permits no road adjacent to the river bed; all approaches to the east-west crossing sites are difficult. Just east of the defile through which flows the middle Ourthe lies the Plateau Des Tailles, which rises to over 1,800 feet at the Baraque de Fraiture. Two rivers are found between the Ourthe and the Meuse: the Lesse and L'Homme whose confluence is near Rochefort. Neither of these rivers is too difficult of negotiation, but the main westward crossing for movement toward Dinant and the Meuse centers at Rochefort. At the very edge of the Ardennes in the southwest is the Semois River, which wends its way westward from Arlon to the Meuse. The Semois is deeply sunk through much of its course, flowing between steep walls which descend directly to the water's edge and so deny space for road or rail on the valley bottom Although the rivers of the Eifel, as distinct from those of the Ardennes, would have no tactical significance in the battle of the Ardennes, they were to be of very considerable logistic, or what the Germans style "operational," importance. The northernmost, the Ahr, follows an oblique course northeast until it enters the Rhine at Sinzig. From the Schnee Eifel comes the Kyll, bending southward to meet the Moselle not far from Trier. Paralleling the Kyll in the west is the Prüm River. It is the last stream of any importance before the German frontier is reached. Like the Kyll its sources are in the heights of the Schnee Eifel. The beautiful Moselle attracts numerous small tributaries rushing down from the Eifel, but only the Moselle itself deserves attention. Alternating between scenes of towering rocks and meadow passages, the German Moselle winds and turns capriciously from its entrance on German soil, past Trier and a host of little villages whose names are known to all lovers of the vine, until finally it rushes past the "German Corner" at Koblenz and into the Rhine. Just as the Moselle vineyards of renown alternate from one bank to the other, so the railroad line and the highway crisscross the river throughout its middle reaches; but rail and road come to a focal point only a few kilometers from the Luxembourg frontier at the old Roman city of Trier.
  • Throughout this whole area military routes of movement, regardless of the weather, are synonymous with the road system. The roads of the Ardennes proliferate in accordance with the geological compartments incised in the high plateau by rivers and streams as they recede downward. The main roads tend to follow a north-south axis, although one, from Luxembourg to Namur, cuts across the grain of the main mass in a southeast-northwest direction. In the northeast the chief road centers are Monschau, Malmédy, and St. Vith. The southeastern nodal points are Ettelbruck, Mersch, and, of course, Luxembourg. To the northwest Bastogne, Marche, and Rochefort are the paramount links in the road system. Arlon, Neufchâteau, and Libramont, in the southwest, complete this picture. The Eifel is rimmed by a main road system which hugs the west bank of the Rhine between Bonn and Koblenz then follows the Moselle River until it breaks away cross-country via Wittlich to reach Trier. The circuit is completed by a road which goes north from Trier through Bitburg, Prüm, and Euskirchen, finally bifurcating to reach the Rhine at Bonn and at Cologne. Inside of this circuit the chief communications centers are Mayen, Daun, Kochem, and, attached to the outer ring, Wittlich.
  • The character of the Eifel-Ardennes terrain dictates three major bases of operations for an attack from the German frontier. In the north the Aachen sector is one such base. The direction of attack here would be through the Low Ardennes via Eupen, Verviers, Marche, and Rochefort to the Meuse at Givet. The next base, to the south, lies between Monschau and the Losheim Gap. The westward thrust from this base must go over and between Malmédy and St. Vith. The broadest base of operations is in the south between Prüm and Trier. In this case the attack must be made against the grain of the Ardennes mass except for a penetration from Trier to the French frontier at Virton or Longwy which may bypass the more rugged country to the north by movement through the Good Land of southern Luxembourg. This last route, however, is by far the longest for any attack aimed at reaching the Meuse River.
  • The geography of the Ardennes leads inevitably to the channelization of large troop movements east to west, will tend to force larger units to "pile up" on each other, and restricts freedom of maneuver once the direction of attack and order of battle are fixed. To a marked degree the military problem posed by the terrain is that of movement control rather than maneuver in the classic sense. For the smaller tactical units, the chopped-up nature of the ground plus the peculiar timber formations in which dense wood lots are interspersed with natural or manmade clearings, indicates the development of a series of small, semi-independent engagements once the larger battle is joined. Movement cross-country is limited, even in good weather; movement along the narrow valley floors may be blocked there or in the villages at points of descent and ascent. The backbone of the ridges sometimes offers good observation in the immediate area for detecting movement on the roads which climb the hills and plateaus. Locally, however, the gunner or fighter pilot will find many blind spots formed by the thick tree cover or the deep draws and ravines; the ability of high-angle fire to beat reverse slopes, which really are sheer, steep walls, is limited.
  • What the German planners saw in 1944 was this: the Ardennes could be traversed by large forces even when these were heavily mechanized. An attack from east to west across the massif would encounter initially the greatest obstacles of terrain, but these obstacles would decrease in number as an advance neared the Meuse. In 1914 and 1940 the German armies moving across the Ardennes had no reason to anticipate strong opposition on the ground until the Meuse had been reached and the tortuous defiles left behind. In 1940 the only German concern had been that the French air force would catch the armored columns at the crossings of the Sauer and Our Rivers. In both these earlier campaigns the Germans had thrown a protective screen clear to the Meuse within twenty-four hours after the advance began; the initial objectives of these screening movements have more than historic significance: Bastogne, St. Vith, Arlon, Malmédy, La Roche, and the bridges over the Ourthe River.
  • The ground offered the defender three natural defense positions east of the Meuse, although none of these constituted an impassable barrier to the attacker: (1) a covering line echeloned to the southeast between Liège and the Moselle, this pegged on the Hohes Venn, the rugged zone around Malmédy and St. Vith, and the boxed-in course of the Our and Sauer Rivers; (2) the Ourthe River line; and (3) an intermediate position, shorter in length, based on the plateau at Bastogne and extending along a chain of ridges to Neufchâteau.
  • There remains a word to be said about the climate of the Ardennes and Eifel. This is mountainous country, with much rainfall, deep snows in winter, and raw, harsh winds sweeping across the plateaus. The heaviest rains come in November and December. The mists are frequent and heavy, lasting well into late morning before they break. Precise predictions by the military meteorologist, however, are difficult because the Ardennes lies directly on the boundary between the northwestern and central European climatic regions and thus is affected by the conjuncture of weather moving east from the British Isles and the Atlantic with that moving westward out of Russia. At Stavelot freezing weather averages 112 days a year, at Bastogne 145 days. The structure of the soil will permit tank movement when the ground is frozen, but turns readily to a clayey mire in time of rain. Snowfall often attains a depth of ten to twelve inches in a 24-hour period. Snow lingers for a long time in the Ardennes but-and this is important in recounting the events of 1944-the deep snows come late.3

Endnotes[edit]

  • [1] The numerous postponements of the German 1940 offensive in the west were, for the most part, the result of Hitler's injunction that the attack be made in good flying weather.
  • [2] The older military history of the Ardennes is narrated on a somewhat antiquarian basis in Revue Historique de l'Armee, 1955, IIe Annee, Numero 2. For the 1940 campaign see L. Menu, Lumiere Sur Les Ruines, Paris, 1953; also M. Fouillien and J. Bouhon, Mai 1940: La Bataille de Belgique, Bruxells, n.d.
  • [3] The best of numerous terrain descriptions of the Ardennes was prepared by the German General Staff in 1940, especially for the offensive in the west. It is entitled Militaergeographischer ueberblick ueber Belgien und angrenzende Gebiete. See also the British official publication of 1918: A Manual of Belgium and the Adjoining Territories (ed. The Admiralty). The best analysis of German military thought on the problem presented by the Ardennes terrain is in a manuscript by Magna E. Bauer entitled Comparison Between the Planning for the German Ardennes Offensive in 1944 and for the Campaign in the West in 1940 (1951). OCMH.