On October 21 Aachen, a large urban metropolis with a prewar population of 165,000, was the first German city to fall to the Allies, and the heavy concentration of American forces there worried both Rundstedt and Model. From late October to mid-December they tried to limit the counteroffensive to outflanking and destroying a portion of First United States Army, perhaps two or three corps, east of the Meuse River in the Aachen area to preempt what they saw as the biggest threat to the important Ruhr industrial area to the north. Hitler ridiculed the idea, declaring it a half measure with no real prospect of success. Moreover, he had no intention of attacking straight into the heart of American strength. He fended off every effort by his senior commanders to scale down the operation, and in the end, the scope and objective laid out in the final operations order on December 9 were unchanged from Rundstedt and Model’s first briefing in October. To silence all further argument, Hitler emphatically scribbled the words “Not to be altered” on the final order for the attack.
Hitler’s strategic intent was to split the Allies both physically and psychologically. He took great comfort from the fact that during the Seven Years’ War his hero, Frederick the Great of Prussia, had managed to hang on against what appeared to be an overwhelming coalition of France, Austria, Russia, the Holy Roman Empire, and Sweden until fractures in the alliance undermined its strength. By retaining the initiative and inflicting decisive tactical defeats such as Rossbach and Leuthen in late 1757, Frederick had been able to withstand setbacks long enough to get him to the Treaty of Hubertusburg, which restored the prewar balance of power and recognized Prussia as a great power.
The Western Front was divided among four army groups: Heeresgruppe H in the north held the Twenty-Fifth and First Fallschirmjäger Armees; Model’s Heeresgruppe B contained the Fifteenth Armee, Sixth and Fifth Panzer Armees, and Seventh Armee; Heeresgruppe G contained only one army, the First; and Heeresgruppe Oberrhein (commanded by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler since November 30) contained the Nineteenth Armee. Heeresgruppe B was to execute the counteroffensive. The final objective was to reach Antwerp and thereby set the conditions for the destruction of a significant portion of First Army, all of the Ninth United States Army to the north, and the entire Twenty-First Army Group, consisting of the First Canadian and Second British Armies, north of the Antwerp–Brussels–Bastogne line. Such a feat would “set the stage for the annihilation of the bulk of twenty to thirty divisions,” declared Hitler. “It will be another Dunkirk.”
As a strategic objective, Antwerp looked tantalizing, but the terrain of this line of action presented a formidable military obstacle. The Ardennes was a wedge-shaped region covering areas of Luxembourg, Belgium, and northern France, bounded on the west by the Meuse River, on the north by the Hürtgen Forest, on the south by the French Ardennes (Forêt des Ardennes) and the Semois River, and on the east by the Our and Sauer Rivers. The Ardennes was subdivided into three distinguishable terrain areas. The Low Ardennes in the north was restricted on the west by the Meuse River and on the north by the Hürtgen Forest. The area consisted of low, rolling hills and two generally open areas suitable for movement—the Herve Plateau near Viviers, and the Condroz Plateau between the Ourthe and Meuse Rivers. This northern sector of the Ardennes also contained the Hohes Venn, a high plateau of lakes and marshes running southwest from Monschau toward Stavelot, as well as more marshland between Laroche and Vielsalm and, to the southwest, the great forest of St. Hubert. The Hohes Venn plateau was a terrain feature larger than the Schnee Eifel (Snow Mountains), a high, tree-covered ridge running southwest to northeast on the east side of the Our River and on which stood significant portions of the West Wall fortifications. In the gap between the Laroche–Vielsalm marshland and the St. Hubert forest ran the Ourthe River, a twisting, winding gorge.
The High Ardennes in the south is often referred to as the “true Ardennes.” It consisted of a wide plateau from which rose generally unrelated ridges or higher plateaus. This basic fact, combined with patchwork sections of heavy forest, had a direct impact on tactics because possession of one hill did not necessarily ensure domination of another. The High Ardennes was divided into the Hautes Fagnes (High Heaths) around Bastogne and Neufchâteau in the north and the Forêt des Ardennes, which extended to the Semois River, in the south. The average altitude in the Ardennes region was 1,600 feet. Cutting through the middle section of the Ardennes was the third distinguishable terrain feature, the Famenne Depression, a long, narrow, nearly treeless “trench” extending from the upper Ourthe River near the Belgium–Luxembourg border westward through Houffalize–Marche–Rochefort to the Meuse River near Dinant and Givet. In the northern part of Luxembourg the Wiltz, Clerf, and Sûre Rivers followed long, deep, narrow, and tortuous valleys.
The road net in the Ardennes was relatively good because the Belgians and Luxembourgers had invested heavily in auto tourism just prior to the outbreak of war. All the main roads were hard-surfaced macadam, and ten all-weather roads crossed the German frontier into Belgium and Luxembourg between Monschau and Wasserbillig. However, there was not a single main road that traversed the Ardennes in a straight east-west direction. In 1914 and 1940 the French High Command had placed great faith in the forest’s ability to block German penetrations. The German Third and Fourth Armees had successfully penetrated the forest on their way to meet the French at the pivotal Battle of the Marne in 1914, and the bold march of the bulk of the panzer forces through the area in May 1940 had been the key to German victory over the larger combined British and French armies. In both 1914 and 1940 the Germans had essentially conducted route marches through the area in excellent weather conditions, but winter conditions posed major problems for German planners as they assigned troops to tasks and considered logistical requirements.
Heeresgruppe B was to assemble east of the Our and Sauer Rivers in the Eifel, a complex of heavily forested hills that stretched all the way to the Rhine. The road and rail net in the region was adequate for a large military concentration. The success of both the marshaling of necessary forces and their advance through the Ardennes was heavily dependent on a guaranteed period of bad weather to blind and degrade Allied airpower’s striking effectiveness beyond the cover afforded by the forest. Model was to execute a frontal penetration attack (Durchbruchsangriff) rather than an envelopment to smash through Twelfth Army Group, destroy the continuity of its front, and advance rapidly west and northwest while simultaneously enveloping the shoulders of the breakthrough.
Model estimated that there were five divisions with 300 tanks opposite Sixth Panzer Armee, three divisions with 150 tanks opposite Fifth Panzer Armee, and two divisions with 100 tanks opposite Seventh Armee. In the north he estimated fifteen divisions with 1,450 tanks opposite Fifteenth Armee. His schwerpunkt (center of gravity) was estimated to be the weakest point of First Army, VIII Corps, holding a sixty-mile front from Monschau to Echternach. From north to south, VIII Corps consisted of the 106th Infantry Division, 14th Cavalry Group, 28th Infantry Division, Combat Command A (CCA)/9th Armored Division, and 4th Infantry Division. Sixth Panzer Armee in the north, built around a heavy concentration of SS panzer divisions, was Model’s main effort oriented on the boundary separating V and VIII Corps. Dietrich’s army frontage was some twenty-three miles, but his actual attack frontage was less than half that, a fact that would have an immediate negative impact on operations. Dietrich was expected to have his leading panzer elements at the Meuse astride Liège within twenty-four hours, followed by a second panzer wave. The establishment of strong, north-facing defensive positions along the Albert Canal was critical to facilitate the final advance on Antwerp.
To facilitate Dietrich’s penetration to the Meuse, a small airborne operation code-named STÖSSER (Auk) was to be led by Oberst Friedrich August Baron von der Heydte. His small Kampfgruppe (KG) of around 800 men would drop in advance of the panzers onto the Hautes Fagnes to seize key road junctions and block reinforcements from the north. Simultaneously, SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny’s makeshift Panzer Brigade 150 would try to cause havoc in the American rear areas on Dietrich’s line of action by disrupting communications and redirecting traffic. Skorzeny had rescued Mussolini from Gran Sasso in the Abruzzi mountains in September 1943 in a daring glider-borne operation, and Hitler placed considerable faith in his ability to function as a force multiplier.
In the center Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Armee was to protect Dietrich’s southern flank. Fifth Panzer Armee would attack the 106th Infantry Division and part of the 28th Infantry Division, cross the Meuse between Amay and Namur, and then turn northwest alongside Sixth Panzer Armee to prevent Allied forces from attacking Dietrich’s rear from west of the Antwerp–Brussels–Dinant line. In the south Brandenberger’s Seventh Armee was to attack the remainder of the 28th Infantry Division and the 4th Infantry Division and act as flank protection for Manteuffel, all the way to the Meuse and Semois Rivers, in the event that Patton’s Third Army in Lorraine was redeployed against the counteroffensive.
Hitler added Generaloberst Gustav Adolf von Zangen’s Fifteenth Armee to the order of battle on November 10, with the intent of having it open a secondary offensive code-named SPÄTLESE (Late Harvest) north of Aachen on December 18. However, Hitler had no stomach for directly attacking American strength around Aachen, and SPÄTLESE was restricted until the American positions east of that city had been severely weakened. Generaloberst Kurt Student, commander in chief of Heeresgruppe H, pressed for a complementary operation by his army group but was denied. Hitler rationalized that withholding simultaneous supporting attacks elsewhere along the front was low risk because he anticipated a quick penetration to the Meuse, thereby presenting a wider range of options for employment of the flanking armies. His belief in the ability to carry out that quick penetration was built on his faith in the SS and the deception measures he had stringently enforced. Surprise was to be another key force multiplier.
Although Hitler canceled SPÄTLESE, he would authorize a subsidiary offensive code-named NORDWIND in Alsace, which would commence on January 1, 1945. NORDWIND represented the last large-scale German offensive of the war. Hitler would vainly try to orchestrate a counteroffensive against Marshal Polkovnik Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front west of the Danube in early March 1945 with the remnants of Sixth SS Panzer Armee, but the depleted panzer force was destined for a precipitous retreat to the Austrian border.
The Germans must be given considerable credit for their preparations in the fall of 1944. Assembling the necessary combat power entailed considerable risk in withdrawing forces from the line, holding critical ground forward of the assembly areas, rehabilitating the assigned forces, and assembling the requisite classes of supply. This was all done under cover of a sophisticated deception plan. The deceptive code name for the Ardennes operation, WACHT AM RHEIN (Watch on the Rhine), did not appear in the ULTRA signals because Hitler forbade its use over the telephone or wireless telegraph. However, the code name ABWEHRSCHLACHT IM WESTEN (Defensive Battle in the West) was purposely disseminated through German radio traffic to reinforce the defensive nature of the fighting around Aachen and the intention to employ Sixth Panzer Armee in a counterattack role west of the Rhine. Tracking the various armies was also problematic because each had a cover name, and the Germans made it a complex game of hide-and-seek. Sixth Panzer Armee was Rest and Refit Staff 16, Fifth Panzer Armee was Jagerkommando zur besonderen Werwendung (zbV, “for special purposes”), and Fifteenth Armee was Gruppe von Manteuffel.
The success of the operation depended on many things going right. The probability of everything aligning for a rapid advance to the Meuse and beyond was low. If the original plan faltered, it would be imperative to have anticipated where and when problems might occur and to be ready with contingency plans. Main efforts might have to be shifted once other opportunities presented themselves. Hitler and his commanders needed to have true situational understanding to identify points at which new decisions had to be made. Although the main plan was well articulated, contingency planning was unrefined, perhaps because Hitler placed so much faith in Sixth Panzer Armee’s ability to accomplish its task. WACHT AM RHEIN had strong points and weak points in its grand tactical scheme of maneuver and main effort, and those weak points reduced the probability of achieving the goal of reaching Antwerp. It must be remembered that it had been almost two years since the last successful German strategic counteroffensive, back during Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s brilliant victory at Kharkov following Stalingrad. Much had changed since then to degrade the German war-fighting system.