WWII's Battle of the Bulge Tested Democracy's Resolve

US troops bent but did not break when Germans attacked 50 years ago today

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TODAY marks the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, which began Dec. 16 as a massive German counteroffensive, conceived by Hitler himself, and ended some six weeks later in a defeat that left Germany bereft of reserves, open to the final assault from both east and west. American folklore remembers Gen. Anthony McAuliffe's reply of ``Nuts!'' to German demands for surrender of the surrounded Bastogne he commanded, but there was much more in both thought and action during this great campaign.

First, the United States Army was surprised as 20 German divisions surged out of the rough terrain west of the Rhine to stun four understrength US divisions thinly spread over a 95-mile front. Not that the intelligence men on the spot hadn't been worried. An American officer had told his British counterpart: ``On the other side of those hills, there is a forest, and in that forest they are now forming the Sixth Panzer Army, and any day [it] is going to come right through this room and out the other side, cross the Meuse, then swing right and go north to Antwerp.''

This was indeed Hitler's plan, but the Allied generals dismissed it - even though many German armored units could not be traced in early December, just as many Japanese aircraft carriers had disappeared in the days before Dec. 7, 1941.

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Nevertheless, the US generals were unconcerned. Their picture of the German Army, which they had routed from France and Belgium, was of a defeated force, on its last legs, and certainly incapable of a major offensive. In reality, the Germans had created a 400,000-man army astride the Rhine - in complete secrecy.

Hitler also underestimated his enemy. Two years of struggle with the US Army had not shaken his conviction that those ``mongrel'' Americans, with all their racial impurities, would collapse without British backing. A blitzkrieg to the North Sea, led by his beloved SS, would divide the two allies and force the encircled British into a separate peace, even as the cowardly Americans withdrew from the Continent. He ignored questions of gasoline shortages, of Allied air supremacy, and of congestion on the narrow, icy Ardennes roads. Let his general staff, blind as they were to the great strategic question that only a genius such as he could understand, tend to these trifles.

Of course, they were not trifles, as the Americans in the Ardennes soon demonstrated. The region is hilly, with many deep streams and thick woods that channel movement along a few roads. The Americans retreated but - aside from the green 106th Division, which disintegrated - these veterans maintained cohesion and fighting spirit. They destroyed bridges, blocked roads, held roadblocks until outflanked, turned the stone farmhouses into fortresses, and greatly slowed the German spearheads.

A deadly race began Dec. 16. Would the Germans overcome this resistance and sprint 60 to 80 miles to the bridges across the Meuse River, the decisive obstacle on the path to the sea? Or would US reinforcements arrive in time to block them?

The US won the race at every point. The 82nd Airborne arrived to strengthen the northern flank, and the 101st Airborne reached Bastogne barely hours ahead of the Germans. Patton pivoted several divisions 90 degrees to the north and advanced to relieve Bastogne, while other divisions began knitting together the lines just shattered by Hitler's tanks.

Though the campaign lasted some six weeks, the Americans stabilized their positions within a week, despite bad weather that grounded Allied air power and a bare equality with the Germans in numbers and armor. A harsh campaign followed, fought in the depth of winter at close quarters in sudden, wild furies of attack and defense by small, hastily improvised battle groups, spearheaded by tanks and backed by artillery.

All this from a nation of citizen-soldiers, whose army in 1939 had numbered some 190,000, standing 17th in the world - behind Romania. Yet within five years the Americans were able to defeat the best forces Hitler could field. A partial explanation lay in US productivity, in the economic power of Detroit and Pittsburgh. But ``the essence of war lies in the hearts of men,'' as the Marechal de Saxe, that thoughtful 18th-century warrior, put it. By 1944, the US Army had gained sufficient cohesion, confidence, leadership, and moral authority to equal any in the world.

We need only consider the Vietnam War after 1968 to see what happens when these factors are lacking. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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