Fifty years ago, in late January 1945, the Allied armies on the Western front of Europe had overcome their greatest obstacle: They had crossed the English Channel. After that they had surged across France and liberated Belgium, Luxembourg, and part of the Netherlands. All the way from the North Sea to the Swiss border, they had come up to the main defense of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.
But at that point two things stalled their advance. First, they ran out of fuel. Not enough fuel -- or ammunition and other supplies -- was reaching the front to sustain a broad advance. Second, German resistance stiffened along the length of the Sigfried Line.
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commanding the British forces at the north end of the Allied line, had been given priority for fuel in the hope that he could drive along the North Sea coast and close down the source of the ''flying bombs'' (V-1 and V-2 rockets), which were doing great harm to London. But on Sept. 17, ''Monty's'' drive eastward was blocked.
He had done probably the boldest parachute drop of the war on the far side of the Rhine. But the last chance to get across the Rhine on the crest of the wave that carried the Allies right across France ended in the Netherlands at Arnhem, where Montgomery was unable to sustain a small, tenuous beachhead across the river. It was ''A Bridge Too Far.''
Then the Nazis launched an unexpected counteroffensive that caused a great deal of anxiety at Allied headquarters, which by that time was in France, and also in London and Washington.
At 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 16, a German force of 28 divisions, nine of them armored, struck northwest through the same Ardennes Forest Hitler had used in 1940 at the beginning of his assault on the West. The strike had the advantage of complete surprise, and it had weight. There were one-quarter of a million troops in that Nazi thrust across a 50-mile front, with only about 80,000 Allied men facing them.
The sheer weight of the attack was enough to carry it forward. By Dec. 24, the eighth day of the offensive, a spearhead of the German 5th Panzer Army had reached the Belgian town of Celles, 60 miles from the starting line.
That was as far as the second Ardennes offensive ever reached. At that point the 5th Panzer Army ran out of fuel. And by that time Allied air superiority had prevented the Nazis from bringing up reserves of fuel and men. Hitler's last big offensive was finished.
But the Allies had been shaken, and they could not know then that Hitler had shot his last bolt. There was still the gallant US garrison at Bastogne to be rescued and the whole Allied front to be reorganized from a defensive posture to an offensive one. The Ardennes battle had delayed the Allied advance by some six weeks, broken its momentum, and reminded everyone that the German Wehrmacht, in spite of its staggering losses in Normandy and in the retreat across France, was still a highly skilled militar y organization. It was equipped with excellent weapons wielded by soldiers whose fighting morale was still amazingly high.
While the battle in the Ardennes was making the major news of the war, a new factor was building far to the east. The Russians had secured bridgeheads across the Vistula River facing Warsaw. Intelligence reports reaching Hitler's headquarters told of a vast massing of forces across the river. A major Russian offensive was imminent. The reports were so alarming that, by Jan. 7, Hitler reluctantly agreed to allow his generals to begin the withdrawal from ''the Bulge.''
The order was issued from the Eagle's Nest at 2 a.m. Jan. 8. It authorized the beginning of the withdrawal and pulled the 6th Panzer Army, an elite SS unit, back to form a tactical reserve. It was a recognition that the German Army would have to fall back on the defensive in the West while bracing itself for the oncoming Russian tide in the east.
Stalin had promised the Western Allies that he would launch his ''end the war'' drive after the Western Allies had made good their invasion of the Continent. He honored his promise. As the British, Americans, and French fought their way to the German frontier in the west, Stalin massed a huge force of men, tanks, and aircraft facing Warsaw.
Hitler's last and decisive blunder was failure to break off the war in the west in time. Until Jan. 8, he was still hoping to break open the western front. Three days after he finally abandoned the Ardennes salient, the Russian storm broke. On Jan. 11, the Russians surged across the Vistula.
On the first day of their offensive, Russian Field Marshal Ivan Konev's troops overran the three German divisions that had been containing the Baranov bridgehead and advanced 10 miles. They made another 10 miles the second day. By Jan. 14, Russians surged out of two more bridgeheads across the Vistula and also opened a second offensive into East Prussia.
Stalin put 180 divisions into this great offensive in Poland, aimed first at Warsaw and then at Berlin. Hitler had a total of 133 divisions on his eastern front, but half of these were defending either Hungary or East Prussia. On the Warsaw front, Hitler was hopelessly outnumbered. By the third day of the Russian advance, Hitler's whole eastern front was collapsing, and he admitted privately to an aide, ''We have no hope.''
DURING the next six weeks, Hitler did what his generals had long been begging him to do. He ordered some 40 divisions pulled off the western front and hurried them to the east. But it was far too late. Hitler's own sense of strategy, which he had imposed on his unhappy generals, finally paid off -- for the Allies. From the Stalingrad campaign on, Hitler had consistently resisted every proposal from his generals for timely withdrawals from the west to save men and units in the east. He insisted on holdin g every foot of ground despite the odds. His ''no withdrawal'' policy lost an army at Stalingrad. It lost more armies in Normandy and still more in the retreat westward.
By the end of January, 50 years ago, the Allies were getting ready for a ''Big Three'' conference to try to settle the shape of Europe after the war. There was still another war to finish on the far side of the world in the Pacific, but the war in Europe was won. Hitler had listened to the wisdom of his generals too late. He lost the war, largely because of his own mistakes.