FOCUS ON: BATTLE OF THE BULGE:
Their Holiday Season, December 1944 – January 1945
On December 16, 1944, the largest battle the US Army had ever fought in history began among the snow-covered evergreens of the Ardennes forest in Belgium. US intelligence had determined that the Ardennes sector was ideal for the rest and reorganization of American combat infantry units, since, by their research, it was defended by limited-service veterans, severely wounded soldiers missing an arm or an eye, too young or too old to pose a serious threat. As a result, the Army used this area for the training of newly arrived, untested infantry divisions fresh from the States.
In reality, 30 of Germany’s crack divisions were forming up for a counter offensive designed to cut the Allied army in two, and ultimately capture the port of Antwerp. It was the first time in the war that the US Army faced such a well equipped German attack of this magnitude. In combination with a spell of poor weather, German tanks rolled unhindered by Allied air attacks and caught most GIs at the front completely by surprise. The US 106th Infantry division was encircled in the opening hours of the attack, leaving two out of three soldiers killed or captured. GIs up and down the line were in full retreat, with the exception of isolated, scattered groups of tenacious soldiers, fighting to delay the German onslaught.
What the Allied command first thought to be a German counter attack was now confirmed as a major offensive. Units from all over France were rushed to reinforce the “bulge” in the line. Confronted with a manpower shortage, local commanders on the scene began forming provisional infantry units. Soldiers serving in support roles, such as cooks, mechanics, etc., were sent to the front as riflemen.
The Germans had pushed 60 miles beyond American lines before their advance was checked, which finally happened after Patton’s Third Army arrived toward the end of December, and the weather broke, allowing US flight operations to resume. By January 28, 1945, the Americans had pushed the Germans back to their initial positions of December 16, 1944. Nearly one million soldiers were engaged during the six-week battle, resulting in 67,000 American and more than 100,000 German casualties.
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The 106th Infantry Division, December 16, 1944
On December 11, 1944, the newly formed 106th Infantry Division relieved the battle-hardened 2nd Infantry Division in the quiet area of Schnee Eifel in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. Five days later, the 106th Division’s baptism of fire was delivered by the German 6th SS Panzer and 5th Panzer Armies at 5:30 am on the morning of December 16.
The green troops of the 106th were quickly surrounded and cut off from other American units. Two of the three regiments comprising the division were captured. With the exception of nine officers and 70 men, every soldier in the encirclement was either killed or captured. Captain Neil P. Stewart and future American novelist Kurt Vonnegut were among the 7,000 prisoners the Germans captured from the 106th Infantry Division.
Captain Neil Stewart, 106th Infantry Division
Captain Stewart was the commanding officer of F Company, 422nd Infantry Regiment, 106th Division during the Battle of the Bulge. He wore these dog tags around his neck during the battle, his capture, and forced march of several hundred kilometers to a POW camp in Poland. Upon his arrival at POW camp Oflag 64, Stewart was issued the rectangular German prisoner of war identification tag below. Captain Stewart endured nearly five months of captivity before being liberated by Allied forces in late April 1945.
The 99th Infantry Division, December 16, 1944
The 99th, much like the 106th, was a fresh division that had just arrived from the States and had little to no combat experience. Unlike the 106th, the 99th Infantry Division was able to fall back to defensive positions on Elsenborn Ridge, the dominant terrain feature in that area. From there, they were able to force the German offensive to bypass them, and hold out until the arrival of reinforcements.
Lieutenant Lyle Bouck, 99th Infantry Division
Twenty-year-old Bouck was in command of an Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon of less than two dozen men. Far out and ahead of the rest of the 99th Division, Bouck’s command post looked over the village of Lanzerath, Belgium. It was here that the spearhead of the German offensive would pass. Hear how Bouck and his handful of men delayed the German advance for 12 hours.
And visit the Museum's Digital Collections online to view more firsthand accounts and Oral Histories.
Until the Second World War, military campaigns typically wound down during the winter as both sides sought shelter from the elements. In fact, the first winter of the war, 1939 – 1940, was so quiet that it was called the Phony War. By the end of World War II, the idea of not campaigning in winter had changed drastically. During the Battle of the Bulge, combatants fought not only each other but also the brutal weather during one of the coldest winters in history.
At 5:30 am on December 16, 1944, the temperature in Bastogne, Belgium was 14˚ Fahrenheit. Poorly equipped American forces suffered greatly while German forces, drawing on years of experience of fighting in the Soviet Union, were equipped with warm and practical clothing. Shown here are a number of the different types of jackets and coats used by both the Americans and the Germans. Many of these jackets are on display in the Road to Berlin: European Theater Galleries exhibit, located in the Campaigns of Courage pavilion.
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The Longest Winter: The Battle of the Bulge and the Epic Story of WWII's Most Decorated Platoon
by Alex Kershaw
Gifted storyteller Alex Kershaw details the experiences of the 99th Infantry Division when they found themselves directly in the path of the main thrust of Hitler's massive Ardennes offensive. Despite being outnumbered, they held their position "at all costs." Only when they had run out of ammunition did they surrender. As POWs, the platoon experienced an ordeal far worse than combat. Yet, miraculously, all of the men of the platoon survived and became America's most decorated platoon of World War II.
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Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany
by Stephen Ambrose
In this riveting account, historian Stephen Ambrose continues where he left off in his #1 Bestseller D-Day. Ambrose again follows the individual characters of this noble, brutal, and tragic war, from the high command down to the ordinary soldier, drawing on hundreds of interviews to re-create the war experience with startling clarity and immediacy. From the hedgerows of Normandy to the overrunning of Germany, Ambrose tells the real story of World War II from the perspective of the men and women who fought it.