This month marks the 75th anniversary of the World War II Battle of the Bulge, viewed by historians as the greatest ground battle ever fought by the U.S. Army. In terms of its decisive outcome and its staggering losses, it occupies a unique place in contemporary American history.
Echoes of the battle fought against German forces in Belgium’s Ardennes forest resound across the decades to our own time, offering guidance in dealing with various tyrants and megalomaniacs posturing on the world stage.
Almost a million men fought each other in Hitler’s desperate gamble to extract victory from the jaws of defeat. It was his last-ditch effort to save the Third Reich, and he hurled everything that remained in the German war arsenal into this final offensive.
Although the Allies ultimately won, historians point to costly mistakes in military judgment, intelligence and preparedness that took a dreadful toll in American lives.
The Battle of the Bulge, named for the huge “bulge” the Germans created in the Allied formations with their surprise attack, is more than dry history, writes historian Michael Peck in Hitler’s Last Stand. “It is a primer of valuable lessons that still apply today.”
The author cites examples of Allied overconfidence, of ignoring intelligence that portended an enemy attack, and failing to understand how far a desperate enemy will go. These mistakes led to shattering consequences.
Parallels can be seen today, he writes, in military conflicts between Western governments and fanatical dictators and sponsors of global terror. A deeper look at the wild gambles taken by a power-crazed Hitler can be instructive in learning how to deal with some of these evil regimes.
Pitfalls of Complacence
In 1944, the Allied command had good reason to be confident it had the upper hand, just as many in the West are today when assessing the dangers posed by radicalized regimes. A narrow line, however, separates confidence from complacence.
In the Ardennes forest, that line was crossed, with American soldiers paying the terrible price.
The Ardennes offensive drew on Hitler’s megalomaniac belief in himself as a military genius who would crush his enemies and rule the world. None of Germany’s military setbacks made a dent in his delusions. Despite the defeat at Normandy, the liberation of Paris or the Allied advance across France and into Belgium, the maniacal dictator drove his generals forward.
“Germany’s advantage could be restored, he insisted, by one lightning stroke, and he devoted demoniac energy and all of Germany’s military resources to the preparation of that stroke,” wrote NY Times military correspondent Drew Middleton.
Surprise is the key to military success, say experts. The Germans used it to perfection. Not only were they able to concentrate a force of more than 23 divisions close to the American front, but they also managed to assemble the necessary ammunition and fuel without detection.
Terrain and weather worked to their advantage. Allied reconnaissance missions flying over the area failed to spot the Germans as fog and mist shrouded the area, and the massive trees of the Ardennes hid the presence of the German regiments.
Victory Fever Blinded the Allies
How could the Allies have suffered such a colossal intelligence failure?
‘There were definitely indications that the Germans were preparing some kind of attack (Eisenhower’s own intelligence officer warned of them), but most Allied commanders and their staffs were so blinded by victory fever that they ignored them,” writes historian Peck in National Interest.
Allied confidence that a German defeat was imminent was well-founded in December 1944. France and Belgium had been liberated, the German armies in the west had been decimated, and U.S. troops were fighting on German soil. With the Soviet Army crushing the Third Reich from the east, final victory seemed just a few weeks or months away.
Thinking the Ardennes was the least likely spot for a German attack, U.S. commanders had chosen to lightly defend that area of the German-Belgium-Luxembourg border, known as the Siegfried line. That would allow U.S. troops and firepower to concentrate on offensives north and south of the Line.
Many of the U.S. troops were inexperienced replacements, 19- to-21-year-olds sent to relieve those who had been fighting in Europe since the June 6th D-Day invasion. Many had never experienced live combat, and were thus assigned to what was supposed to be a quiet sector in the Ardennes region of Belgium.
On December 13, as American soldiers and their commanders were dreaming of victory scenarios, the German armies plunged into Ardennes in a lighting strike, pounding Allied trenches and command posts. The attack was accompanied by a wave of 600 tanks that crashed through the ranks of the stunned American troops.
It was just the beginning of a brutal battle that ultimately saw entire regiments of American soldiers—up to 15,000 men—taken prisoner by the Germans. Thousands upon thousands of the encircled U.S. 106th Infantry Division raised the while flag. Some were massacred by the Germans. Others were marched off to prison of war camps.
Riding the momentum, the German offensive advanced into Belgium and Luxembourg. But American and British forces recovered from their shock and fiercely counterattacked.
After a bitter month-long struggle, the Allies prevailed and German forces were decisively crushed. But the cost of victory was enormous: 81,000 casualties.
One of the cardinal lessons derived from this debacle, historian Peck notes, “is to never, ever underestimate the enemy.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last time that overconfidence in war exacted a painful toll for Americans, he points out. He cited the case of Vietnam, when the U.S. expectation of victory swiftly collapsed in the face of the Tet Offensive—a massive campaign of surprise attacks by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong.
Those surprise assaults inflicted heavy losses on U.S. forces and eroded American support for the war.
The world witnessed a more recent example of premature “victory fever” in Iraq in 2003. As is well known, after the initial “shock and awe” dissipated, terror groups regrouped and gained footholds in key cities.
A Tactic Dismissed as Crazy Can Be A Madman’s Weapon Of Choice
Another lesson that stands out from the Battle of the Bulge is the realization that a radicalized enemy will resort to actions a rational person would view as crazy.
Even Hitler’s own generals thought his Ardennes offensive was dangerously out of touch with reality, historians say, leading to the assassination attempt on his life by some of his officers in the summer of 1944.
Who would be insane enough to hurl Germany’s depleted resources at an impossible plan that called for sending huge columns of tanks, guns and trucks down narrow, icy, snow-covered roads, and fighting through densely forested hills and over rivers?
Especially when these columns were open prey to Allied bombers who by then ruled the skies?
Nonetheless, Hitler pursued his suicidal plan—and inflicted more than 81,000 casualties in a month.
Tactics deemed too crazy to consider have more than once proved to be a madman’s weapon of choice, defying conventional notions of warfare. A prime example is suicidal attacks, which did not originate in the 21th century.
The Viet Cong put them to infamous use by surging forward in the open and exposing themselves to overwhelming U.S. firepower during the Tet Offensive, asserts Peck.
Insane, yes, but it worked. The sharp rise in the number of American casualties inflicted by these suicidal assaults helped poison Americans back home against the war and force the withdrawal of US troops.
Iran’s End-of-the-World Ranting
Who would have predicted radical Islamists would be able to take down the Twin Towers by boarding commercial airplanes and turning them and themselves into weapons of mass destruction?
And what of Iran’s deranged end-of-the-world ranting and doomsday warnings – “Death to America” and “Death to Israel?” that the world ignores to its own peril?
Some observers are aware of the deeply religious nature of Iran’s regime, and its belief in a violent apocalyptic scenario played out on a battleground stained with “infidels’ blood.”
However, in the United States and Western Europe particularly, references to religious influences in international affairs are either disregarded or vastly downplayed, notes Lela Gilbert, an expert in Middle Eastern theology, in a Jerusalem Post article.
Secular entities simply can’t conceive that religious motivation could dictate policy at the highest level of government.
Iranian scholar Saeed Ghasseminejad who now resides in Washington DC, penned an article a few years ago titled “Iran’s Apocalyptic Policy Makers.” The article makes the point that when assessing Iran’s relentless push toward nuclear armament and instigating world conflict, one would be wise to take note of their apocalyptic theology (the belief that a “godly revelation” will unfold only after a vast bloodbath in the end-of-days—which good Muslims are required to hasten.)
This, notes Gilbert, is more significant than most of us imagine.
Experience teaches that dismissing radical, unprecedented methods of aggression as too “crazy” for an enemy regime to carry out is dangerously naïve.
Flexibility Won the Day
As bad the Battle of the Bulge was, it could have been a lot worse, historians say. Once the Allies recovered from the surprise attack, they rallied under General Patton and struck back, forcing the enemy to retreat into Germany.
Patton’s astounding flexibility in immediately turning his divisions around almost 90 degrees to counterattack the German southern flank, was an extraordinary military and mental feat, wrote historian Simon Worall in a National Geographic article, Snow and Steel: The Battle of the Bulge. It turned the tide of battle.
Flexibility demands as much in the psychological and political realms as in the military one. The ability to recognize one has miscalculated or has been duped, and to then switch mental gears, is perhaps the greatest asset Americans could possess when it comes to choosing their elected leaders.
This agility of mind enables one to recognize how the platforms and priorities of today’s political parties have vastly changed over the decades, how to see through hypocrisy, and to exercise one’s political franchise accordingly.
In view of the upcoming electoral battles that will determine the future course of this country, Americans would do well to take to heart the weighty lessons of the Battle of the Bulge.
Jewish GI’s & the Battle of the Bulge
As the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge is commemorated across the nation, a forgotten chapter of that battle—the ordeal of American Jewish soldiers who fell into German hands—is resurfacing.
Three years before his death, Charles Guggenheim, a 77-year-old Jewish historian and filmmaker who during WWII escaped the fate of thousands of fellow GIs in the Battle of the Bulge, created a documentary to memorialize them.
Guggenheim himself was laid up with an infection that kept him hospitalized in the States at the time.
His documentary, “Berga: Soldiers Of Another War,” uses eyewitness testimony, on-site interviews with survivors and re-enacted scenarios to capture the nightmare of the Berga slave labor camp. It recounts how the Germans singled out American-Jewish POWs for special torture and persecution.
He Would Kill Ten Men Every Hour
Until the moment of Hitler’s surrender, the Nazis continued to unleash carnage and suffering at a ferocious pace.
As the Allied armies were advancing on all sides, the SS raced to construct an underground synthetic-fuel production facility there. A low-level officer was put in charge of the operation. When the emaciated Jewish prisoners he requisitioned from nearby Buchenwald proved “incapable of productive effort,” he found a new supply of slave laborers in Americans taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge.
At a POW camp north of Frankfurt, the Germans pulled out 350 American soldiers from thousands of POWs captured in the Battle of the Bulge. These were sent to a special slave labor camp at Berga in southern Germany.
Among these Americans was William Shapiro, now a retired doctor living in Florida. A medic attached to the 28th Infantry Division, he was captured on Dec. 17, 1944, the day after the battle began. He and his Jewish comrades-in-arms were selected in a cruel process recounted by several soldiers of his own 106th Division who survived the war.
They described how prisoners were ordered to stand at attention in the parade ground. The commandant then gave the order for all Jews to step forward.
“Nobody moved,” said Joseph Littell, one of the survivors featured in the documentary. “The commandant repeated the command. Nobody moved. He grabbed a rifle butt and hit Hans Kasten, our leader, with a blow you couldn’t believe. Hans got up. He hit him again. The commandant said he would kill 10 men every hour until the Jews were identified.”
The group of 350 was eventually pulled out of the crowd. Some Jews identified themselves under pressure from their fellow soldiers; some, like Kasten came forward on their own. Some soldiers were picked by the Germans for their “Jewish-looking” features or Jewish-sounding names.
After several weeks, the group was loaded into cattle cars without food, water or toilets, arriving at Berga six days later, on Feb. 13, 1945.
A Hell Called Berga
The work-to-death policy at Berga, a sub-camp of the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp, was immediately implemented.
American POWs were put to work alongside Jewish concentration camp prisoners who were shipped to Buchenwald from all over Europe. They were forced to dig tunnels into rock cliffs that were meant to form an underground military factory that would produce synthetic fuel.
Housed in lice-infested prison barracks and fed only bread and watery soup, deprived of heat and sanitary facilities and regularly beaten, the soldiers were forced to work 12 hours a day in the air-poisoned tunnels and mines.
“The purpose was to kill you but to squeeze as much out of you as they could before they killed you,” one survivor told documentary-maker Guggenheim.
Many succumbed in short time from injuries, malnutrition and exhaustion. Several were fatally shot by guards for no apparent reason. Some went mad. Gangrene, dysentery, pneumonia and diphtheria all took their toll.
The death toll soared. 120 died in just a few months, 70 in the first two months and almost as many during the first days of the death march. Dozens more died in the days preceding liberation.
In early April 1945, with the American and Soviet armies closing in on Germany, the slave labor camp at Berga was ordered evacuated. A death march began as hundreds of prisoners were driven by SS guards through rain, snow, and bitter cold on a 150-mile procession of death.
Emaciated and starving prisoners were ruthlessly driven by their captors past the point of human endurance. Those unable to keep up were abandoned or shot, eventually buried in roadside graves or church cemeteries.
The nightmare finally ended on April 23, 1945, when advancing American units liberated the surviving prisoners. The war in Europe was over five weeks later.
No Jew Would Have Been Safe in America
While the Russian army advanced, the surviving Americans were marched west; dozens died along the way until the survivors were met by U.S. troops.
Incredibly, only days after being liberated, these men were required to sign security clearances that demanded that they remain silent about their imprisonment, writes NY Times journalist and author Roger Cohen in Soldiers and Slaves.
The reason, he speculates, is that the order was motivated by the desire not to embarrass the West German government –a postwar ally on whom America felt dependant at the dawn of the Cold War.
The persecution of the American prisoners at Berga has thus remained largely unknown, as many of the victims maintained silence about their ordeal, even a half-century after the war.
Berga’s commandant and assistant commandant were convicted and sentenced to death at Nuremberg, but their sentences were commuted to time served and they were released.
After the war, the remains of the Jewish GIs murdered at Berga were exhumed and reburied in America, yet the details of their suffering and death remained a closed chapter.
“I can remember their faces like it was yesterday,” the filmmaker said of the soldiers in his company. I’ve been thinking about it for 50 years, wondering why it didn’t happen to me. If I meet them in the next world, I want to be able to face them. That’s why I had to tell this story.”
“The lesson of Berga,” said Guggenheim, who died six weeks after the documentary was completed, “is that had the Nazis won the war, no Jew would have been safe in America—or anywhere.”
We Are All Jews Here
Sergeant Roddie Edmonds from Knoxville, Tennessee, shipped out in December 1944 with the U.S. 106th Infantry Division. He arrived in Belgium just in time to experience the terror of the German surprise blitzkrieg on American forces in the Battle of the Bulge.
Edmonds and his men stood little chance. They were captured and taken to Stalag 9-B, a German POW camp known as “Bad Orb” that housed more than 25,000 soldiers at a time.
A month later, Edmonds and 1,275 other American soldiers were moved to Stalag 9-A. As a “master sergeant,” Edmonds was the highest-ranking officer among the men.
On the prisoners’ first day at the POW camp, Edmonds received an order from the camp commandant: The next morning, he was to instruct his men that only the Jewish POWs were to line up in formation at the morning roll call.
At this point in the war, the Nazis had exterminated almost six million European Jews. The American soldiers had never heard of Auschwitz-Birkenau but they were aware of the annihilation of Jews all across Europe. It was clear to Edmonds that Hitler’s “final solution” was about to extend to Jewish POWs from the Allied armies
“We will all be here in formation in the morning,” Edmonds told his men, some of them still recall 70 years later in an interview with CNN. “All of us will line up in front of the barracks and I will be at the head.”
The next morning, all 1,275 soldiers stood at attention for the morning roll call. The commander of the camp was furious. He strode up to Edmonds, snarling, “All of you can’t be Jewish!”
“We are all Jews here,” Edmonds responded. Standing next to Edmonds was Paul Stern, a 19-year-old Jewish soldier who heard Edmonds’ words and the exchange with the base commander.
He was 90 years at the time of the interview but remembered every word of the exchange, he told the interviewer over the phone.
With A Gun to His Head
No one knows for sure how many of Edmonds’ soldiers were Jewish. Based on Stern’s testimony and an account of another Jewish POW, Lester Tanner, for many years a prominent NY attorney, there were about 200 Jews.
“The German commander takes out Luger points it at Roddie’s forehead,” recounted Tanner in a PBS documentary. “You will order the Jewish soldiers to step forward or I will shoot you right now.”
Edmonds knew he meant it, as the GIs had all heard of the massacres the Nazis had carried out against American POWs in the region. Still, he resisted.
“If you shoot, you’ll have to kill all of us, and you’ll have to stand trial for war crimes after we win this war,” he said quietly.
The Nazi stared malevolently at the Americans. Then he replaced his gun in his holster, spun around and stroke off.
Edmonds died in 1985, never having shared the story with his family. 25 years later, his son, Chris Edmonds, chanced to meet Lester Tanner and finally learned about his father’s courageous actions in the Nazi POW camp.
Chris used his father’s war diary to find other men who corroborated the story, interviewed some of his father’s fellow soldiers, and collected records about the regiment. He submitted the file to his congressman to see if his father’s actions were worthy of consideration for a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor.
Unbeknownst to the younger Edmonds, one of his friends submitted part of the file to Yad Vashem. The Holocaust museum considered Edmonds’ actions to be exceptional. It awarded him the title of Chasidei Umos Haolom, Righteous Gentile, the only American soldier to ever receive that appellation.