4-618 Editorial Note on the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Date: December 1, 1944

Subject: World War II

Editorial Note on the Battle of the Bulge

December 1944

On the morning of October 11, Marshall had traveled through the quiet Ardennes sector in relative safety and ease from Bastogne to Saint-Vith, Belgium, and on toward Aachen, Germany, visiting units on the U.S. First Army front. Less than ten weeks later, for him to have made this journey would have meant fighting his way across the line of attack of three German armies—five armored and a dozen infantry divisions: over two hundred thousand combat troops—that had smashed into the American lines on a sixty-mile front on the morning of December 16. Allied military leaders had anticipated some sort of German autumn or winter counterthrust, but they had generally assumed that it would occur north of the Ardennes. The Germans’ initial objective was to seize bridgeheads over the Meuse River between Liege and Namur. Hitler directed that his forces ultimately retake Antwerp, which he hoped would thus divide the Anglo-American armies and allow him to destroy the trapped forces; such a success, he hoped, would cause the coalition opposing him to disintegrate under the shock of defeat. (Regarding Marshall’s October inspection trip, see editorial notes #4-540, and #4-542, Papers of George Catlett Marshall [4: 621-22, 624-25]. For a history of the Ardennes offensive, see Hugh M. Cole, The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge, a volume in the United States Army in World War II [Washington: GPO, 1965]. See also Pogue, Supreme Command, pp. 359-97.)

More than a day elapsed before intelligence officers were able to establish that this attack constituted a major German offensive and another day and a half before they could assemble an accurate estimate of the size and identity of the German forces engaging them. December 19 was the German armored spearhead’s best day, but even then their speed was less than planned, largely because the American response had been quicker and more vigorous than German planners expected. Tenacious delaying actions, such as the one holding up the German right at Saint-Vith (which was finally abandoned only on December 23) or at the key road junction of Bastogne (which the Germans surrounded on the twentieth), bought time for American reorganization and reinforcement. Between December 20 and 22, American forces “jammed” the salient’s shoulders so that it could not expand; this constricted German transportation and communications and left the advanced elements increasingly exposed to flank attacks, such as the one George Patton’s Third Army was launching south of the salient. (Cole, The Ardennes, pp. 332, 422, 459, 670.)

Marshall’s initial reaction to the Ardennes offensive was cautious. There was a general inclination in the War Department and in the European theater to regard the Ardennes activity, as Bradley noted in his memoirs, as merely “a spoiling attack . . . to force a halt on Patton’s advance into the Saar.” Secretary of War Stimson noted in his diary that he and Marshall “agreed that the Germans could not get very far.” The attack would at least “help our cause of waking up Americans to better production.” Stimson was optimistic that the offensive would result in a more rapid German collapse. (Omar N. Bradley, A Soldier’s Story [New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1951], p. 455; December 18, 19, and 20, 1944, Yale/ H. L. Stimson Papers [Diary, 49: 99, 103, 105].)

On the morning of December 21, Stimson went to see Marshall about developments in the Ardennes salient (or, as it was increasingly being called, the battle of the Bulge) in order to prepare himself for his 10:30 A.M. press conference. “I wanted Marshall’s views of the fortunes and prospects of the field so as to give me perspective for my weekly review of events. I found that he had already been alive to that possibility for my wanting it and had prepared a short summary of his views. . . . Like all his work it was very good. I took it and made it the beginning of my weekly review.” (December 21, 1944, Yale/H. L. Stimson Papers [Diary, 49: 108].) Marshall’s draft statement follows (Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #4-619 [4: 706]).

Recommended Citation: ThePapers of George Catlett Marshall, ed.Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens(Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 4, “Aggressive and Determined Leadership,” June 1, 1943-December 31, 1944 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 704-706.

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