THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE
“Soldiers of the West Front! Your great hour has arrived. Large attacking armies have started against the Anglo-Americans. I do not have to tell you anything more than that. You feel it yourselves: WE GAMBLE EVERYTHING! You carry with you the holy obligation to give everything to achieve things beyond human possibilities for our Fatherland and our Fuhrer”
So read the December 16th, 1944, Order of the Day of Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt
The Ardennes offensive, was spearheaded by an elite Panzer battlegroup and led by Jochen Peiper, one of Germany’s most daring and charismatic field commanders.
Montgomery had tried to annihilate the German defences at Caen and launched something called “Operation Goodwood” in the latter half of July 1944. The SS panzer divisions though…, fought off copious quantities of armoured attacks and knocked out huge numbers of allied tanks.
As British and Canadian troops moved slowly into the ruins of Caen, Montgomery was busy putting the final touches to his next chief offensive. He planned to toss in three armoured divisions – with 877 tanks which were to be backed by 10,000 assault infantry and 8000 vehicles – into the fray. The biggest preparatory bombardment so far in the campaign – involving some 712 guns, 942 British and 571 US heavy bombers – would deliver a massive 300,000 shells and some 7823 tonnes (7700 tons) of bombs on to the Germans.
Operation Goodwood would be launched from the small bridgehead over the Orne River, to the east of Caen. The target for Operation Goodwood was the Bourguebus ridge above Caen. Standing in the way of the British was a defensive position laid out in considerable depth by the newly appointed German commander of the Caen sector, General Heinrich (SEE image) Eberbach. The frontline was held by the remnants of the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division. Behind it were the remnants of the 21st Panzer Division, supported by 88mm flak guns and the thing that the allies dreaded; the Tiger tanks.
In reserve on the Bourguebus ridge were the Leibstandarte SS (Wittman, Peiper & Wunsche) and part of the Hitlerjugend Divisions (Meyer), and these units were to go into action under the command of Josef “Sepp” Dietrich….
This would be the first main test of the Leibstandarte’s panzer crews and many of its panzer grenadiers who had only arrived at the front just a week or so earlier…. It is estimated that only some 14,000 men of the division were committed to the Normandy battle, because nearly 6000 trained recruits and logistic personnel were left behind at various depots in Belgium.
After more than a month’s continuous fighting the Hitlerjugend Division was resting in reserve, except for a strong kampfgruppe under Max Wünsche, which Hitler ordered to the coast at the Orne estuary to counter a bogus invasion threat. Therefore the initial brunt of the coming fighting would fall directly on the Leibstandarte’s Panzer Regiment under the command of Joachim Peiper, with 59 Panzer IVs and 46 Panthers. The division’s assault gun battalion had approximately 35 StuG IIIs ready for action and ALSO backup from the 101st SS Battalion’s 25 Tiger I’s. The famous conqueror of Villers-Bocage Michael Wittmann was now in command of this unit.
In total, the Germans could scrape together some 4800 infantry, around 200 tanks and 50 assault guns. In addition to this relatively; so the British General thought, unimpressive ‘power’, they had 36 75mm anti-tank guns, 72 88mm flak guns, 194 field guns and 17 rocket launchers. Their ability to blunt Operation Goodwood was thought to be extremely doubtful by Montgomery…
Operation Goodwood begins 05.25hrs
The Allied artillery assault began at 05:25 hours on 18th July, approximately 10 minutes later British bombers appeared overhead and started to …drop their deadly load of bombs on the positions of the 21st Panzer and 16th Luftwaffe Divisions.
After nearly 1000 Lancasters had passed over the target zones south-east of Caen, two further waves of bombers, mainly B-17s of the USAF, added to the carnage. Hundreds of Germans were killed or wounded and much of their equipment was damaged or destroyed. The bombing was so fierce that massive 56 ton Tiger tanks were turned upside down, and some German soldiers were driven almost crazy by the sound and terror and carnage that ensued.
But Montgomery’s high expectations of SUCCESS for the offensive soon proved to be very erroneous. When the last bombers disappeared just before 09:00 hours, the stunned German defenders emerged from their bunkers, their trenches or from underneath their tanks to man their defences. While the Luftwaffe division was devastated by the air attack and did not offer serious resistance, the German reserve positions were, most surprisingly not too badly hit. The Waffen-SS units were left virtually untouched, and Sepp Dietrich immediately alerted them to be ready to counterattack damned hard!
The remnants of the 21st Panzer’s assault gun battalion had already started to engage the 29th Brigade’s lead regiment, the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, destroying more than 20 Shermans. It was to conduct a fighting withdrawal towards the Leibstandarte’s “stop line” on Bourguebus ridge.
By 10:00hrs Wittmann’s Tigers had already moved up and were ripping the Sherman tanks apart.
The Leibstandarte’s commander Brigadeführer Teddy Wisch, was engaged in conducting a detailed reconnaissance. For once, the Allied fighter-bombers were unsuccessful in stopping the movement of the German panzers, and by noon Peiper’s Panther battalion was lying in wait. It had moved up into hull-down ambush positions on the northern slopes of the Bourguebus ridge, where a series of sunken roads provided superb cover for the Waffen-SS tanks. While the Panthers held the British advance, Wisch intended to use his assault gun battalion in order to hit the British armoured formation in the flank.
Operation Goodwood – Peiper’s “Hit and Run” tactics!
Peiper’s Panthers fought a fierce mobile battle. While his Panzer IVs and Tigers held their ground, he led the Panthers forward four times on r…aids blasting into the British tanks defences before withdrawing to cover in order only to rearm and reorganize!
By 12:4hrs the Panthers moved forward again to the village of Soliers to engage the 29th Brigade for the first time. In the space of just a few minutes, the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry lost an astounding number of tanks, 29. After Peiper’s onslaught the regiment ceased to exist as a fighting formation!
It took two hours for the British command to form a rescue column by the 23rd Hussars, who had been bogged down fighting the 88mm flak guns in Cagny. When they arrived below Bourguebus ridge they were greeted by the sight of dozens of Shermans burning across the hillside. Barely had the Hussars arrived when they started taking hits from the combined force of Peiper’s Leibstandarte Panthers, Wittmann’s Tigers and the 21st Panzer’s StuG IIIs. Four tanks exploded within minutes of entering the battle, and soon another 16 were put out of action.
At this point the Leibstandarte’s StuG IIIs started to arrive. A further 20 British tanks were destroyed and the 29th Brigade began to falter, it did stay together for just long enough to enable the Northamptonshire Yeomanry to attempt another move forward. But all of this was to no avail, and when 16 of its Cromwell tanks were knocked out, the regiment literally lost heart.
By nightfall the panzer crews of the Leibstandarte were looking out on a tank graveyard. At least 160 of the 29th Brigade’s 200 tanks were smouldering wrecks. The Fife and Forfars and the 3rd Royal tank regiment had each lost more than 40 tanks, while the Guards Armoured Division lost more than 60 tanks in its futile engagement of the 21st Panzer Division around Cagny.
By September 1944, the tide of the war in Europe had finally changed in favour of the Allies. The armies in France had finally managed to breakout of Normandy and in the process had destroyed many of the Wehrmacht’s best… men and material in the Battle of the Falaise Gap.
The war in the east was an unmitigated disaster, the Red Army rolling up many of the German gains from Operation Barbarossa. The Wehrmacht was facing a fierce enemy in the Ardennes, that forest through which the Germans had launched two very effective surprise attacks; Hitler had another Ardennes surprise for the Allies….that surprise was Kampfgruppe Peiper!
Operation Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine) had been developed by Hitler and one of his most trusted Generals, Alfred Jodl; the title being chosen to mask their plans from Allied code breakers, making them think that the build-up was purely a defensive measure. The true objective of Operation Wacht am Rhein was in fact to breakout of the Ardennes, cross the Meuse River, and take the Belgian port of Antwerp; it would become known as the Battle of the Bulge.
The most important role for the operation fell to the 6th Panzer Division under Sepp Dietrich, who divided his forces into separate strike forces. The thrust of the assault would be a Kampfgruppe, a German combat formation, that would be led by an SS officer of almost legendary status; SS Lieutenant Colonel Joachim Peiper.
Hitler’s favourite commando Otto Skorzeny once said that Peiper reminded him of…”a highly trained, nervous hound begging to be let off his leash”. At 29yrs of age Peiper was already the most highly decorated tank commander of the Third Reich, having spent months fighting on the eastern front. Peiper was also known as an intelligent and confident individual, he would play a pivotal role in Hitler’s plan for the assault through the Ardennes.