Arthur I. Cyr
The Salem News
---- — 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.
Basic lessons of the Bulge involve personnel and material. Eisenhower’s skills included remarkable capacity to get difficult personalities to work together, plus constant attention to logistics. Casualties on both sides were enormous, in both men and supplies. The Allies could replace them; the Germans at that point could not.
Flamboyant Patton was always controversial, in part for harsh discipline. Yet he immediately, instinctively recognized the great threat of the Ardennes attack, and Third Army troops performed with monumental ability, moving rapidly over difficult terrain in terrible winter weather.
African-American soldiers, generally prohibited from serving in combat, manned the Red Ball Express, the gigantic truck convoy system that supplied the front. Under enormous pressures generated by the Bulge, they were offered the opportunity to serve in combat units but had to sacrifice earned military seniority.
Thousands volunteered on these terms and were vital to Allied victory.
At the tactical level, Cpl. Henry F. Warner near Dom Butgenbach, Belgium, knocked out two German tanks, and then his 57 mm anti-tank gun jammed. He was firing a pistol at a third approaching tank when the German driver backed up and withdrew. One of Warner’s shots had killed the commander, and the crew was unable to proceed — a common reaction of German and Japanese troops.
American, Australian, British and other Allied soldiers were much more likely to improvise and continue fighting after their officers were hit. Warner, killed later in combat, received the Medal of Honor.
This season, we should reflect on these lessons and give thanks for our distance from the Bulge.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of “After the Cold War.” Email firstname.lastname@example.org.