January 5, 2015 by crew
At last we come to the end of our Battle of the Bulge series, where I team up with Beast of War community members Gladesrunner and Amphibiousmonster to take a “gamer’s view” at some of the closing engagements of this historic campaign. If you need to catch up on what’s happened so far, the series begins HERE, but for now let’s close the book on this titanic battle that ended 70 years ago this month.
ENGAGEMENT TEN: LIFTING THE SIEGE OF BASTOGNE – DEC 26, 1944
As we’ve seen previously, the Belgian town of Bastogne was critical to both sides during the Battle of the Bulge as one of the largest road junctions in the area. When the German XLVII Panzer Corps (Fifth Panzer Army) failed to storm the town on December 19, they instead surrounded and bypassed Bastogne, leaving the 26th Volksgrenadier Division and part of the Panzer Lehr Division to strangle it into submission. Yet despite nearly a week of constant attacks and shelling, the US forces in Bastogne (101st Airborne, reinforced by elements of 9th and 10th Armoured Divisions) refused to give in. As Christmas approached, however, the Germans surrounding Bastogne had been significantly reinforced. It was clear that the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne” needed relief, and soon.
One of the most famous episodes of the Battle of the Bulge is Lieutenant-General Patton’s counterattack to relieve Bastogne. Patton’s Third Army was huge, about twelve divisions strong (upwards of 200,000 men), but they were all engaged along the German border far to the south when the Ardennes offensive struck. Yet Patton had foreseen the possibility of a German attack through the Ardennes, so even when the offensive first opened, Third Army already had contingency plans, timetables, routes, and operational orders drawn up and distributed through all levels of command. Thus, when Eisenhower and Bradley (12th Army Group, Patton’s immediate superior) asked when Third Army might be able to apply pressure against the southern German wing, Patton famously stunned them with his reply, “I can attack with two divisions in forty-eight hours.”
Normally this was an impossible feat, and would have been if Patton hadn’t put the administrative wheels in motion well in advance. I usually hold the view that Patton is somewhat “over-remembered” in American military history, but this is one of the moments for which he truly deserves recognition. With his foresight and operational planning, he proved that a general’s most formidable weapon is not the tank or the artillery shell, but the typewriter and the radio, combined with an all-star staff of army, corps, and divisional officers in the field.
The lead division in Patton’s attack toward Bastogne was the famous 4th Armoured, which had spearheaded the Third Army’s drive across France the previous summer. Pulling 15,000 men and thousands of vehicles out of a winter battle, pivoting ninety degrees on narrow country roads, and driving north through one of the worst European winters on record, the 4th Armoured covered 150 miles, fighting through the German Seventh Army and the south wing of the Fifth Army. On December 26, they finally broke through to Bastogne, leading off with the 37th Tank Battalion under Lt. Colonel Creighton Abrams. Lt. Colonel Abrams, of course, would later become a general and have the American M1 “Abrams” main battle tank named after him.
ENGAGEMENT ELEVEN: CLOSING THE TRAP – LA ROCHE – JAN 5, 1945
Once the German “bulge” penetration was finally contained, the Allied plan was for the bulge to be “sliced off” with converging attacks from the north and south. As we’ve just seen, Patton and his Third Army certainly did their part from the south. But in the north, things were different. For one, the German forces were much tougher on the northern side of the bulge since that was where they’d been trying to effect a breakthrough. And Field Marshal Montgomery, temporarily in command of the northern part of US First Army, was somewhat hesitant in launching his northern part of this converging attack.
For our eleventh Bulge game, we tried to recreate part of the US 2nd Armoured Division’s drive south toward Houffalize in 15mm Axis & Allies “hexless” miniatures. Their opponents are the elite 2nd SS “Das Reich” Panzer Division, hardened veterans of almost every campaign since Poland in 1939. The Americans would eventually reach Houffalize, but thanks to a late start, most of the Germans to the west managed to escape back toward Germany. This meant that reducing the rest of the Bulge would be a bloody, frontal grind rather than a flanking blitz, and would cost many more Allied lives than the initial German assault in December.
Montgomery often catches a lot of blame for taking too long to get this northern arm of the Allied counteroffensive in gear. But this northern sector of the battlefield had been hit much harder by the initial German offensive, and many of these American units temporarily under his command were in very bad shape. Accordingly, Monty wanted to bring in additional British divisions from his 21st Army Group to help stabilize the Allied position before going over to the offensive.
Still, Monty’s trademark caution, in addition to his patronizing attitude afterwards about how “he” won the Battle of the Bulge, earned a furious backlash from the American public, soldiers, and officer corps. Finally, none other than Winston Churchill had to step in and smooth things over. As with so many things in life, its less about what you did and whether you were right or wrong…than it is about your attitude.
Generals aside, it should be remembered that although the dark days of December get all the ink in Bulge history books, the battle in fact lasted until January 16 and it was in these latter weeks that most of the Allied casualties were sustained. Admittedly, this article series is just one more example of this general trend, but in our efforts to build historically-accurate games, we have to work with what we have.
ENGAGEMENT TWELVE: OPERATION NORDWIND – JADGTIGERS AT RIMLING – JAN 9, 1945
It bears noting that the whole “Wacht am Rhein” offensive was just the largest part of a broader series of German offensives along the Western Front in the winter of 1944-45. On December 31, as their Ardennes offensive really started to come apart, the Germans launched “Operation Nordwind” (North Wind), an attempt to draw Allied reserves away from the battlefields in Belgium and Luxembourg. Nordwind struck much further south, against the US Seventh Army in the Alsace-Lorraine region of north-eastern France, near Strasbourg. Not only does including Nordwind help give a complete picture of that terrible winter 70 years ago, but it also gives us a chance to use one of the rarest units of the German army…the dreaded “Jagdtiger” tank destroyer.
The Jagdtiger was the heaviest armoured fighting vehicle ever actually committed to combat, combat-loaded at 79 tons. Built on the chassis of a Porsche-variant Tiger II chassis, it carried not an 88mm… but a 128mm main gun in a turretless casemate. Ridiculously slow, the Jadgtiger proved terribly vulnerable despite its 250mm of armour. It was also slow-firing, since the ammunition was so huge that each shot had to be loaded in two pieces. It was also a nightmare to maintain and supply, with a fuel efficiency of eight GALLONS to the MILE (no, I didn’t type that backwards). Yet despite all these weaknesses, we wanted to use this beast on the table at least once.
The Jagdtiger’s strengths and weaknesses reflected well in both Panzer Leader and Axis & Allies 15mm. In our Panzer Leader game, the Jagdtiger was too slow to cross the open terrain with any kind of speed, and its lack of a turret precluded it from taking advantage of “split move and fire” rules afforded to turreted AFVs. Thus, they were caught in the open by superior numbers and hammered into junk. In our smaller Axis & Allies game, my Jadgtiger literally moved at the pace of running infantry, and was soon swarmed by American bazooka teams and outflanked by Shermans.
Jadgtigers or no Jagdtigers, in the end Operation Nordwind accomplished almost none of its intended aims. Although the US Seventh Army was thrown into momentary disarray (many of its reserves and supplies had been diverted north to help secure the Ardennes), the situation was soon stabilized and the Germans eventually pushed back to their starting positions in the Siegfried Line. Between the Ardennes offensive and Nordwind, Germany had lost well over 100,000 of its last men and thousands of vehicles, including over 600 tanks and assault guns. Never again could the Third Reich mount a major offensive in the West, and Nazi Germany would be crushed utterly in a little over 100 days.
This concludes our 70th Anniversary commemorative Battle of the Bulge article series on Beasts of War. Keep the discussion going with questions, comments, or debate in the comments below! I’d also like to take the opportunity to thank my worthy gaming opponents Gladesrunner and Amphibiousmonster for taking their share of lumps while dishing out plenty of their own. I’d also like to thank Ben, my Beasts of War editor, for publishing all my ramblings on this site. Lastly, I’d like to thank the folks at our local gaming store here in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, GXE Games, for hosting all our Axis & Allies Miniatures battles.
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"Patton famously stunned them with his reply, “I can attack with two divisions in forty-eight hours.”..."
"The Jagdtiger was the heaviest armoured fighting vehicle ever actually committed to combat..."