With the Anglo-Americans closing in on Germany from the west and the Soviets approaching from the east, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler orders a massive attack against the western Allies by three German armies.
The German counterattack out of the densely wooded Ardennes region of Belgium took the Allies entirely by surprise, and the experienced German troops wrought havoc on the American line, creating a triangular “bulge” 60 miles deep and 50 miles wide along the Allied front. Conditions of fog and mist prevented the unleashing of Allied air superiority, and for several days Hitler’s desperate gamble seemed to be paying off. However, unlike the French in 1940, the embattled Americans kept up a fierce resistance even after their lines of communication had been broken, buying time for a three-point counteroffensive led by British General Bernard Montgomery and American generals Omar Bradley and George Patton.
Fighting was particularly fierce at the town of Bastogne, where the 101st Airborne Division and part of the 10th Armored Division were encircled by German forces within the bulge. On December 22, the German commander besieging the town demanded that the Americans surrender or face annihilation. U.S. Major General Anthony McAuliffe prepared a typed reply that read simply:
To the German Commander:
From the American Commander
The Americans who delivered the message explained to the perplexed Germans that the one-word reply was translatable as “Go to hell!” Heavy fighting continued at Bastogne, but the 101st held on.
On December 23, the skies finally cleared over the battle areas, and the Allied air forces inflicted heavy damage on German tanks and transport, which were jammed solidly along the main roads. On December 26, Bastogne was relieved by elements of General Patton’s 3rd Army. A major Allied counteroffensive began at the end of December, and by January 21 the Germans had been pushed back to their original line.
Germany’s last major offensive of the war had cost them 120,000 men, 1,600 planes, and 700 tanks. The Allies suffered some 80,000 killed, wounded, or missing in action, with all but 5,000 of these casualties being American. It was the heaviest single battle toll in U.S. history.