On the morning of December 16, 1944, more than 200,000 German troops and almost 1,000 tanks drove into the Ardennes forest, across an 85-mile stretch of the front line, running from southern Belgium to the middle of Luxembourg.
The German thrust shredded Allied lines, held by units sent to the Ardennes to rest and reorganize.
Bad weather held Allied airpower in check, and many American troops were caught off guard. The US Army’s 106th Infantry division was encircled in hours, and two out of three soldiers were caught or killed. US forces settled into wholesale retreat, save for a few pockets of soldiers who fought on but were quickly isolated, though they held crucial road junctions.
The German offensive pushed a 50-mile bulge into the Allies’ lines on the Western Front. US Gen. Dwight Eisenhower saw a chance to break the German war machine, and more than half a million troops were thrown into battle.
The two armies clashed in driving snow and subzero temperatures. Soldiers often couldn’t see more than 10 or 20 yards in front of them.
“Both the enemy and the weather could kill you,” Pvt. Bart Hagerman of the 17th Airborne said in a PBS documentary. “And the two of them together was a pretty deadly combination.”
Casualties mounted for the US, and physical-fitness standards were lowered to pull in more troops. Men suffering from physical or mental wounds were thrown back into the fight.
“It’s very hard to forget the expressions on their faces … a kind of hollow-eyed, lifeless, slack-jawed expression,” Ben Kimmelman, a captain in the 28th Infantry, said in the documentary. “It’s almost as though they’re going to a hopeless doom.”
The battle lasted until the final days of January, when Allied troops returned to their original lines. Almost a million troops were engaged, and 16,000 Americans were killed, with another 60,000 wounded or captured. German losses were thought to be twice that.
A US Army half-track during the Battle of the Bulge crossing a temporary bridge over the Ourthe River in the war-torn Belgian city of Houffalize, in January 1945.
American soldiers checking for identification on the bodies of US troops shot by the Germans near Malmedy, Belgium, in January 1945.
A dead German soldier, killed during the German counteroffensive in the Belgium-Luxembourg salient, on a street corner in Stavelot, Belgium, on January 2, 1945.
A German soldier looking through American ration boxes and uniforms somewhere in the Belgium-Luxembourg salient on January 3, 1945.
American infantrymen of the 290th Regiment, armed with rifles and bazookas, moving through fresh snowfall in a forest near Amonines, Belgium, on January 4, 1945.
Brussels residents viewing the wreckage of a FW 190 brought down by a Spitfire on the outskirts of the city. A white-helmeted Belgian police officer guarded the wreckage, which was being examined by an RAF officer in Belgium on January 4, 1945.
Low-flying C-47 transport planes carried supplies to the besieged American forces battling the Germans in Bastogne, Belgium, during the enemy breakthrough on January 6, 1945.
A German tank unit moving through a village in the Hohe Venn region, near Malmedy, Belgium, on January 6, 1945.
In this image provided by the US Army, soldiers of the 347th US Infantry in heavy winter gear halted their advance to La Roche, Belgium, for a short meal on January 13, 1945.
Members of a field artillery unit of the 30th US Division seen moving along the frontline in the Ardennes region near Stavelot, Belgium, on January 14, 1945.
American infantrymen of an armored division on a road southeast of Born, Belgium, on January 22, 1945.
Troops of the American 7th Armored division looking out for snipers in the streets of Saint Vith, Belgium, on January 23, 1945.
German captives being led past a disabled tank by US troops on January 25, 1945, north of Foy, Belgium, in the final days of the Battle of the Bulge.
The vehicles of an Allied platoon halted in a field in the Ardennes area of Belgium, striped with wheel tracks and splotched with blackened shell craters, on January 27, 1945.
Troops of the 82nd Airborne Division traveled along a snow-covered fire break in the Ardennes region of Belgium on January 28, 1945.
One American tank passing another bogged down in a ditch at the side of the road in Belgium, on January 25, 1945, at one of the northern flanks of the von Rundstedt bulge near Amonines.