This Christmas season, devoted to charity and peace, is also the anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle U.S. troops have ever fought. The U.S. military remains engaged in Afghanistan and involved elsewhere on the globe, even with withdrawal from Iraq. Do lessons of World War II apply? Absolutely.
On Dec. 16, 1944, Nazi Germany began an enormous armored military offensive through the previously quiet Ardennes forest in Belgium. Adolf Hitler and his planners in Berlin achieved total surprise, and initially, German forces gained considerable ground. For many Europeans among the Allies, the attack was eerily reminiscent of the German drive in 1940, which overran France and secured Nazi domination of the continent. At Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters, fear was visible along with alarm.
The tide of the battle did not clearly turn until the day after Christmas, when Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army broke through to the 101st Airborne Division, surrounded by the Wehrmacht in the crossroads town of Bastogne. The overall battle continued into the new year before the Allies could claim clear victory and begin the final strategic drive into Germany.
Other battles in our history were in certain respects more costly or complicated. During the Civil War, Gettysburg and other engagements resulted in a higher percentage of casualties among combatants. During World War II, enormous amphibious invasions such as Normandy, Iwo Jima and Leyte Gulf in the Philippines were inherently more complex in logistical terms than the Bulge. In the European theater, the overall scale of the war on the eastern front was greater than in the west.
Nonetheless, in American history, the Battle of the Bulge remains our largest single land battle. Approximately a quarter-million U.S. troops were engaged with a comparable number of German forces.