On the morning of July 25, 1944, more than 2,400 American bombers and fighter-bombers launched an aerial assault on a narrow sector of the German front in western Normandy. The aircraft, approaching at an altitude of 12,000 feet, flew directly over the heads of awed American infantry below. Four thousand tons of explosives tumbled out of the bomb bays in great rectangular carpet patterns, and most of the bombs found their way to Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr Division, dug in awaiting another American ground onslaught. The carnage on the ground was awful, and Bayerlein compared his front line to the face of the moon. In an instant, 1,000 of his men died. The day before, the division had confidently shaken off the first American attempt to crush the line with airpower, but not today. As the stunned Germans tried to recover from the shattering effects of the new bombardment, American ground forces under the command of Major General J. Lawton Collins slowly began to exploit the breach. This was Operation COBRA, the long-awaited American breakout from the hedgerows of Normandy.
By August 1 Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, commander of the American Twelfth Army Group, finally deployed Patton’s Third Army. Seizing on the opportunity presented by the hard work of Collins’s men, Patton, who had taken command of VIII Corps, rapidly pushed two armored divisions south through a bottleneck at Avranches at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula and began to pour into Brittany to execute the pre-OVERLORD plan. This southward thrust of American armor startled Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge, who declared, “If the Americans get through at Avranches they will be out of the woods and they’ll be able to do what they want.” Kluge, however, had already conceded that his left flank had collapsed. Even as Patton began to fully deploy Third Army, Hitler conceived a bold stroke to regain the initiative in Normandy.
In a snap decision on August 2, Hitler ordered Kluge to concentrate a strong panzer force in the American sector, regardless of the repercussions in the British sector, to attack Third Army’s lines of communications (LC) between Avranches and Mortain. Kluge, utterly shocked at the implications, tried to lecture Hitler on the fact that tanks were the backbone of the German defense in Normandy. If they were committed to such an operation, which looked from all angles to be a perfect trap, Kluge exclaimed, “catastrophe was inevitable.” Hitler scoffed at Kluge’s realistic assessment and considered the operation a “unique, never recurring opportunity for a complete reversal of the situation.”
In the early-morning hours of August 7, General der Panzertruppen Hans von Funck’s XLVII Panzerkorps, consisting of the 1st and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions (PDs) and 2nd and 116th PDs, with some 300 combined panzers and assault guns, launched Operation LÜTTICH and achieved tactical surprise. ULTRA intelligence, however, provided sufficient information from German communications to permit the timely redeployment of American units. In his frustration, Hitler stated, “How does the enemy learn our thoughts from us?” The panzers made some progress in the direction of Avranches and overran several American positions, but stout resistance by the American 30th Infantry Division at Hill 317 east of Mortain, the intervention of intrepid American dive-bombers, and the effectiveness of bazooka teams eventually crippled the attack. The failure of what the Americans called the “Mortain counteroffensive” quickly complicated Hitler’s strategic dilemma. As Kluge had predicted, its failure led to catastrophe. Within two weeks of the operation, the entire German front in Normandy had given way, and a large part of the Seventh Armee was compressed and mostly destroyed in the “Falaise Pocket” as it desperately tried to fight its way east.
It is a commonly held assumption that the German collapse in Normandy represented a turning point, in that Germany simply played out the rest of the war like a football team watching the game clock tick down in a losing effort. In reality, Hitler continued to calculate strategically and never abandoned the spirit of LÜTTICH. He was bent on regaining the initiative somewhere in the west. Hitler was not overly concerned that the Allies had crossed the Seine River in pursuit or that the disaster of the Falaise Pocket was only hours old when he conceived another large counterstroke. On August 19 Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, chief of the Wehrmachtführungsstab (WFSt) at the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), noted in his diary: “Prepare to take the offensive in November when the enemy air forces can’t operate.”
In early September Jodl told Hitler that for an offensive in the west to have a chance of success, Allied airpower had to be negated by a lengthy period of bad weather, and an operational reserve of twenty-five divisions had to be raised. Hitler quickly authorized the latter and on September 13 ordered the creation of the Sixth Panzer Armee to oversee the rehabilitation of the specific army and SS panzer divisions that would be pulled out of the line. November 1 was considered the earliest date that any sort of operation could be launched. The idea of striking the Allies in the Ardennes finally crystallized in Hitler’s mind during a routine briefing on September 16 at the Wolfschanze (Wolf’s Lair), the Führer’s field headquarters at Rastenberg in East Prussia. Jodl, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, and Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, inspector-general of panzer forces, were all present. While outlining the situation on the Western Front, Jodl mentioned the Ardennes in passing. Hitler cut him off and after some tense seconds said, “I have made a momentous decision. I shall go over to the offensive . . . here, out of the Ardennes, with the objective Antwerp.” This vital port supplied the bulk of Allied logistical needs on the Continent. Guderian, no stranger to deep, strategic-level operations, was dumbfounded. The Germans were actually doing a decent job of holding the Allied advance in the west, but he pointed out the critical situation in the east. In Guderian’s opinion, taking desperately needed resources away from the Russian Front was grossly irresponsible.
Irrevocably set on the counteroffensive idea, Hitler turned his attention to holding sufficient ground in front of the West Wall, a belt of concrete fortifications running along the German frontier, to permit the preparation and concentration of the necessary forces. By the time he had settled on an offensive in the west, Patton’s Third Army was threatening the West Wall in Lorraine. Hitler, however, had identified Third Army as a threat much earlier, issuing orders on September 3 for an attack against Patton’s southern flank to shield the withdrawal of Nineteenth Armee and LXIV Armeekorps from southern France, as well as to protect the construction work in progress on the western defenses.9 General der Panzertruppen Hasso Eccard von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Armee struck Third Army’s armored spearhead on September 18. At the cost of hundreds of factory-new Panther tanks, Manteuffel blunted Patton’s hard charge to the frontier fortifications in a week of heavy fighting.
By early November Hitler identified three danger areas on the Western Front: Metz (where Third Army was), Aachen, and Venlo. On November 9 he ordered no retreat in these areas, and even if Fortress Metz was encircled, the Nied River line (extending southeast of Metz) was to be held at all costs. However, the Germans were unsuccessful in holding any of these positions up to the beginning of the offensive. By December 7 Hitler signaled all commanders that holding the West Wall was critical because it was “superior as a fortification to all other possible natural obstacles,” and penetrations had to be prevented “at all costs.”
Hitler never doubted that any counteroffensive aimed at gaining a breather for Germany would have to be launched in the west. Options in late 1944 were extremely limited. As Jodl reflected, “We had to attack in the West because the Russians had so many troops that even if we succeeded in destroying 30 divisions, it would not make any difference. On the other hand, if we destroyed 30 divisions in the West, it would account for more than one-third of the whole Invasion Army. . . . Italy offered more hope . . . but the railhead connections were much worse than in the West. . . . The West was the only place in Europe where we had a chance of success.”
Cultural considerations also motivated Hitler’s decision to strike the Americans first. It is clear that he understood and feared American industrial might well before 1939, and a considerable argument can be made that his entire geopolitical strategy, including invading the Soviet Union, was designed to prepare Germany for an ultimate showdown with the American economic juggernaut. When Hitler declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941, in response to the request of the Japanese ambassador, Baron Hiroshi Oshima, the German High Command was shocked by the addition of such a powerful foe to Germany’s list of enemies. The declaration seemed all the more fantastic because the Tripartite Pact, which bound Germany, Japan, and Italy in a loose alliance, did not specifically state that Germany had to give aid to Japan in the event of war with the United States. After declaring war on the world’s greatest economic power, Hitler publicly hurled abuse at President Franklin Roosevelt and arrogantly announced that America’s entry into the war would make little difference in the long run.
Hitler was even less fearful of American martial prowess. After three and a half gruesome years of battling the hated Bolsheviks, Hitler grudgingly admitted their toughness in unimaginable conditions. Their astounding capacity for punishment led him to conclude that they were far tougher opponents than the British, Canadians, and Americans. His contempt for the Americans in particular was evident in March 1943 when he declared, “There is no doubt that of all the Anglo-Saxons the English are the best.” Hitler’s disregard for American fighting power coincided with the fact that the Americans were thinly deployed in the Ardennes, and when his almost slavish obedience to history is considered, his decision to attack through the forest (next to the Vosges mountains to the south, the most difficult terrain on the Western Front) seems almost inevitable.
Throughout September and October, Jodl and the General Staff developed Hitler’s concept under conditions of extreme secrecy while pushing forward their own alternatives to match the actual resources of the Reich. They even proposed two operations to address the threat posed by Patton’s Third Army in Lorraine: Operation LUXEMBOURG, a double envelopment from central Luxembourg and Metz to seize Longwy, and Operation LORRAINE, a double envelopment from Metz and Baccarat to converge on Nancy. Neither Generalfeldmarschall Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt, Oberbefelshaber (commander in chief) West (OB West), nor Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model, commander of Heeresgruppe (Army Group) B, were brought into the picture until late October. The chosen army commanders—Manteuffel of Fifth Panzer Armee, SS-Obergruppenführer und Panzergeneral Josef “Sepp” Dietrich of the Sixth Panzer Armee (not officially designated SS yet), and General der Panzertruppen Erich Brandenberger of Seventh Armee—were not enlightened until October 27. Rundstedt exclaimed that the choice of the Ardennes was a “stroke of genius,” but he was nonetheless “staggered” by the scope. “All,” he lamented, “absolutely all conditions for the possible success of such an offensive were lacking.” The fiery Model’s first reaction was outright condemnation. “This plan,” he stated, “hasn’t got a damned leg to stand on.” Rundstedt and Model differed on how best to employ Hitler’s new strategic reserves but agreed that Antwerp was an impossible objective.