The surprise attack caught the Allied forces completely off guard. American forces bore the brunt of the attack and incurred their highest casualties of any operation during the war. The battle also severely depleted Germany's armored forces, and they were largely unable to replace them. German personnel and, later, Luftwaffe aircraft (in the concluding stages of the engagement) also sustained heavy losses.
The Germans officially referred to the offensive as Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein ("Operation Watch on the Rhine"), while the Allies designated it the Ardennes Counteroffensive. The phrase "Battle of the Bulge" was coined by contemporary press to describe the bulge in German front lines on wartime news maps, and it became the most widely used name for the battle. The offensive was planned by the German forces with utmost secrecy, with minimal radio traffic and movements of troops and equipment under cover of darkness. Intercepted German communications indicating a substantial German offensive preparation were not acted upon by the Allies.
The Germans achieved total surprise on the morning of 16 December 1944, due to a combination of Allied overconfidence, preoccupation with Allied offensive plans, and poor aerial reconnaissance. The Germans attacked a weakly defended section of the Allied line, taking advantage of heavily overcast weather conditions that grounded the Allies' overwhelmingly superior air forces. Fierce resistance on the northern shoulder of the offensive, around Elsenborn Ridge, and in the south, around Bastogne, blocked German access to key roads to the northwest and west that they counted on for success. Columns of armor and infantry that were supposed to advance along parallel routes found themselves on the same roads. This, and terrain that favored the defenders, threw the German advance behind schedule and allowed the Allies to reinforce the thinly placed troops. Improved weather conditions permitted air attacks on German forces and supply lines, which sealed the failure of the offensive. In the wake of the defeat, many experienced German units were left severely depleted of men and equipment, as survivors retreated to the defenses of the Siegfried Line.
The Germans' initial attack involved 410,000 men; just over 1,400 tanks, tank destroyers, and assault guns; 2,600 artillery pieces; 1,600 anti-tank guns; and over 1,000 combat aircraft, as well as large numbers of other AFVs. These were reinforced a couple of weeks later, bringing the offensive's total strength to around 450,000 troops, and 1,500 tanks and assault guns. Between 63,222 and 98,000 of their men were killed, missing, wounded in action, or captured. For the Americans, out of a peak of 610,000 troops, 89,000 became casualties out of which some 19,000 were killed. The "Bulge" was the largest and bloodiest single battle fought by the United States in World War II and the second bloodiest battle in American history.
Nazi soldiers in the Kampfgruppe Hansen fight against American soldiers.
Liege, Belgium. Dec. 18, 1944.
American prisoners-of-war from the all-Black 333rd Battalion, photographed by their Nazi captors.
Many of the men captured on this day were stripped of their weapons, walked out into a field, and massacred. Near Malmedy, Belgium. December, 1944.
A heavily-armed German soldier marches into Belgium. Dec. 18, 1944.
A war correspondent looks down at the dead body of a young Belgian boy, murdered by Nazi soldiers. Stavelot, Belgium. December, 1945.
The bodies of Belgian civilians litter the streets. Belgium. Dec. 15, 1944.
The blasted ruins of Bastogne after a raid by German bombers. Bastogne, Belgium. Dec. 26, 1944.
A Nazi tank abandoned on the streets of Stavelot after crashing into the wall of a family's home. Stavelot, Belgium. Dec. 18, 1944.
American soldiers march toward Wiltz, determined to fight back and reclaim the territory they lost. Wiltz, Belgium. Circa December, 1944 - January, 1945.
An American ambulance waits outside of a bombed-out building in Bastogne after an air raid. The soldiers are inside the building, searching for survivors. Bastogne, Belgium. Dec. 26, 1944.
American troops help Belgian refugees flee Bastogne, a city under siege by the Nazi army.Bastogne, Belgium. December, 1944.
A German tank disguised to look like an American vehicle. Belgium. December, 1944.
Nazi soldiers fight their way through a forest. Luxembourg. Dec. 22, 1944.
American soldiers, stripped of their equipment and one robbed of his boots, lie dead at the crossroads. Honsfeld, Belgium. Dec. 17, 1944.
A row of captured American soldiers march forward. Belgium. December, 1944.
The scene of the Malmedy Massacre.
About 70 soldiers are stripped of their weapons, sent out into a field, and gunned down unarmed by Nazis soldiers after surrendering. Malmedy, Belgium. Dec. 17, 1944
Nazi commanders inspect a map, planning their next move. Luxembourg. Jan. 4, 1945.
Two American soldiers on the streets of Bastogne, a city under siege by the German army. Bastogne, Belgium. Dec. 19, 1944.
American tank destroyers push through the fog, moving to cut off the German offensive. Werbomont, Belgium, Dec. 20, 1944
An American patrol searches the woods for Nazi paratroopers. Between Eupen and Butgenbach, Belgium. Dec. 18, 1944.
A German armored infantry car moves through the Ardennes. Belgium or Luxembourg. December, 1944.
The devastated ruins of a Belgian city. Stavelot, Belgium. Dec. 30, 1944
American soldiers in Bastogne walk by the dead bodies of their friends, killed in a late-night bombing on Christmas Eve. Bastogne, Belgium. Dec. 25, 1944
Christmas during wartime.
Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe and his staff celebrate Christmas in the barracks, surrounded by Nazi soldiers. Bastogne, Belgium. Dec. 25, 1944.
On the road to liberate Bastogne, the 5th Armored Regiment gathers around a tank and opens their Christmas presents. Eupen, Belgium. Dec. 25, 1944.
The 347th Infantry Regiment pause for a meal in the frozen forests of Belgium. Near La Roche, Belgium. Jan. 13, 1945.
Soldiers outside of Bastogne keep an eye out for German planes. Bastogne, Belgium. Jan. 11, 1945.
An American soldier uses a piece of equipment stolen from the Germans to watch for their planes. Bastogne, Belgium. Jan. 11, 1945
The crew of the "Black Widow" prepare to shoot at a German plane. Bastogne, Belgium. Jan. 11, 1945
The destroyed rubble of an Allied plane. Bastogne, Belgium. Dec. 1944.
An infantryman charges out into the open on his own, protected only by the cover fire of a brother-in-arms. Dec. 24, 1944.
After running into a Nazi patrol, American soldiers drag back a prisoner: an officer of the SS. Bra, Belgium. Dec. 25, 1944.
American soldiers of the 289th Infantry Regiment march along the snow-covered road on their way to cut off the Nazi offensive. January 24, 1945.
American soldiers out on patrol, dressed in a crude camouflage of white bed sheets. Lellig, Luxembourg. Dec. 30, 1944.
Generals of the 101st Airborne under a sign that reads: "The Bastion of the Battered Bastards of the 101st." Bastogne, Belgium. Jan. 18, 1945.
American soldiers arrive safely in Bastogne. These men had held off the Germans in Wilts, refusing to give up the ground until their last bullet was expended. Bastogne, Belgium. Dec. 20, 1944.
A gunner draws a swastika on his antiaircraft gun for every Nazi plane he shoots down. Sourbrodt, Belgium. Dec. 31, 1944.
American vehicles get trapped in the deep, thick snowbanks of the Belgian winter. Wallerode, Belgium. Jan. 30, 1945.
American infantrymen move through the thick snow. Amonies, Belgium. Jan. 4, 1945.
American Infantrymen crouch under snow-filled trenches, struggling to fend off the onslaught of the German army. Kinkelt, Belgium. Dec. 14, 1944.
A soldier stumbles upon the dead body of a fallen paratrooper. Bastogne, Belgium. Jan. 12, 1945.
Another shot from the site of the Malmedy Massacre, where American prisoners-of-war were gunned down, defenseless and unarmed, by their Nazi captors. Malmedy, Belgium. Dec. 11, 1944.
The dead body of a soldier killed in Malmedy is carried out on a stretcher. Malmedy, Belgium. December, 1944.
Troops make their way through a snowstorm. Herresbach, Belgium. Jan. 28, 1945.
A tank rolls through the thick snowbanks, on its ways to reclaim a location lost to the Germans. Herresbach, Belgium. Jan. 28, 1945.
American soldiers fire across an open field. Bastogne, Belgium. December, 1944.
An airdrop of supplies lands on the sieged city of Bastogne. Bastogne, Belgium. Dec. 26, 1944.
The British Royal Air Force drops a payload of bombs down on the German army. St. Vith, Belgium. Dec. 26, 1944.
A dead German soldier lies on the streets. Stavelot, Belgium. Jan. 2, 1945.
American troops take prisoners. Belgium. January, 1945.
Young boys in the Hitler Youth, thrown into war in a Panzer division of the Nazi army, are captured alive by American troops. Belgium. December, 1944.
American soldiers march a line of Nazi prisoners. Belgium. December, 1944.
German prisoners-of-war are put to work digging graves for the men who died defending Bastogne. Bastogne, Belgium. December, 1944.
A rifle squad fires a volley for men who died defending Bastogne. Bastogne, Belgium. Jan. 22, 1945.
A lone soldier takes a peaceful walk through a forest outside Bastogne.
Bastogne, Belgium. Dec. 27, 1944.