|Previous: Operation Queen|
|Concurrent: Siegfried Line campaign|
|Next: Operation Nordwind|
|Battle of the Bulge|
|Conflict: World War II|
|Date: 16 December 1944-25 January 1945|
|Place: The Ardennes: Belgium and Luxembourg|
|Outcome: Allied victory|
While the grim fall battles of the Siegfried Line campaign were being fought, Adolf Hitler was secretly preparing to mount a major counteroffensive. Divisions were withdrawn from the line and reequipped, and Hitler planned to attack through the Ardennes, with his ultimate objective being Antwerp. In this way, he hoped to split the British 21st Army Group from the Americans, and the capture of Antwerp would deprive the Allies of supplies once more. Although his generals were not optimistic, Hitler was determined that the offensive should go ahead in mid-December.
Hitler's counteroffensive in the west, "Operation Wacht am Rhein", was spearheaded by Sepp Dietrich's 6th Panzer Army (consisting largely of SS divisions) in the north and Hasso von Manteuffel's 5th Panzer Army in the south. Manteuffel's southern flank would be protected by Erich Brandenberger's German 7th Army. Facing them in the Ardennes were elements of the US First Army, which was guarding a quiet sector with formations either recovering from the bitter fighting in the Huertgen Forest or fresh from the United States. The Allies did not believe intelligence indicators that the Germans were capable of mounting a major offensive in the hilly and wooded Ardennes in winter, and they were gravely mistaken.
The offensiveOn 16 December 1944, after a sharp predawn artillery barrage and in thick fog which grounded Allied airpower, the Germans opened their offensive. In the north, the narrow winding roads slowed their advance, but one armored battle group managed to break through the American lines and began to head for bridges over the Meuse. Manteuffel had more favorable terrain and made better progress, with some German infiltrators dressed in US uniforms changing signposts around to cause much confusion in the US Army; the Americans confined their commander Dwight D. Eisenhower in his Versailles headquarters for fear that he might be assassinated. Many US units were overrun and forced to surrender or caught while on the move, and it was not until the afternoon that the Allied high comamnd accepted that this was a major attack. The fog persisted, but Dietrich's progress in the north remained slow, and US engineers blocked the SS battle groups' advance by blowing up bridges. However, Manteuffel's army quickly approached Bastogne, a vital center of communications.
Eisenhower agrede that British general Bernard Montgomery should take over the northern part of the salient and temporarily assume command of the US First Army and US Ninth Army; British troops were deployed to guard bridges over the Meuse River. Eisenhower ordered George S. Patton to halt his eastward advance, but Patton had already anticipated this, swinging his US Third Army northward to strike the Germans in their southern flank. Simultaneously, the US 101st Airborne Division was rushed in by truck to reinfroce Bastogne, which was surrounded by the 5th Panzer Army.