Sixty-eight years ago tonight was the last night several hundred thousand Allied soldiers would get a good night's sleep in several weeks. A battle, the likes of which GIs in Europe during WW II had not seen the likes of, was about to begin.
Thousands of soldiers awoke at dawn on Dec. 16, 1944, to find that what appeared to be the whole German army was headed right for their foxhole. The Allies were caught entirely by surprise, as had been the case three years earlier in December at a place named Pearl Harbor.
The ensuing battle goes by several names. The official one as assigned by historians at the headquarters of the U.S. Army is The Ardennes Counteroffensive. The Germans called it Operation Herbsnebel, but its most recognizable name is the Battle of the Bulge.
The Allies were caught by surprise because Adolf Hitler, Germany's supreme leader, had lost confidence in his generals and had assumed command of the Army himself. And since he trusted no one, no one knew much about the plan, and no one was allowed to talk about it on the radio.
Since it was winter in Western Europe, the weather was also a problem. It was cold, snow was everywhere, and overcast skies precluded aerial operations. So when 25 German divisions attacked along a 60-mile front, gains were initially very rapid.
Entire divisions were decimated, and the U.S. 106th Infantry Division was virtually destroyed. There is a survivor of the 106th in Leavenworth, and I hope to be able to share his story with readers soon.
Many historic exploits occurred during the Battle of the Bulge. Lt. Gen. George Patton defied logistics, tactics, and several other tried and true military tenets by leading his entire army through horrible weather to relieve pressure on the bulge.
The most storied event was when the Germans demanded that the surrounded and outmanned 101st Airborne Division surrender. The commander at the scene, Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe, gave the most famous one-word reply in military history when he told the German delegate "Nuts."
An American colonel had to explain to his German counterpart the answer meant, in essence, "No thank you, not at this time."
Another famous event was when Patton told his chaplain to prepare a prayer for good weather.
It was printed on thousands of leaflets and when the weather allowed, dropped by aircraft on the troops.
Whether a result of the famed "Patton's prayer" or not, the weather finally cleared, and at last Allied aircraft could have a field day interdicting German troops.
The battle went on for more than a month, with hard fighting that cost the U.S. some 75,000 casualties, and the Germans some 100,000.
Page 2 of 2 - Another former Leavenworth citizen, the late Hans Petersen, was a German soldier in the battle. As well as I got to know him before he moved to Louisiana, and as many war stories as he told of his participation in other battles, all he would ever say about the Bulge was, "It was not a good time for us."
I must have heard that a dozen times as I tried to pry information from the old warrior. For the record, he was a sergeant in the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, the first and premier fighting force in the Waffen-SS.
With Allied aircraft retaking control of the air, it was a matter of time before initial German successes were reversed. By the end of January 1945 U.S. units had retaken all ground lost in the initial onslaught. Hitler's "last gasp" as it was dubbed had expended irreplaceable German reserves, and when it was over, the end of the war in Europe was in sight.
But it still took four more months for The Big War to finally end in Europe.