On this day, British Gen. Bernard Montgomery gives a press conference in which he all but claims complete credit for saving the Allied cause in the Battle of the Bulge. He was almost removed from his command because of the resulting American outcry.
On December 16, 1944, the Germans attempted to push the Allied front line west from northern France to northwestern Belgium. The Battle of the Bulge (so-called because the Germans, in pushing through the American defensive line, created a “bulge” around the area of the Ardennes forest) was the largest battle fought on the Western front. The German assault came in early morning at the weakest part of the Allied line, an 80-mile stretch of poorly protected, hilly forest that the Allies believed was too difficult to traverse, and therefore an unlikely location for a German offensive. Between the vulnerability of the thin, isolated American units and the thick fog that prevented Allied air cover from discovering German movement, the Germans were able to push the Americans into retreat.
Fresh from commanding the 21st Army group during the Normandy invasion, and having suffered an awful defeat in September as his troops attempted to cross the Rhine, Montgomery took temporary command of the northern shoulder of American and British troops in the Ardennes. He immediately fell into a familiar pattern, failing to act spontaneously for fear of not being sufficiently prepared. Montgomery was afraid to move before the German army had fully exhausted itself, finally making what American commanders saw as only a belated counterattack against the enemy. As the weather improved, American air cover raided German targets on the ground, which proved the turning point in the Allied victory. Monty eventually cut across northern Germany all the way to the Baltic and accepted the German surrender in May.
Montgomery had already earned the ire of many American officers because of his cautiousness in the field, arrogance off the field, and willingness to disparage his American counterparts. The last straw was Montgomery’s whitewashing of the Battle of the Bulge facts to assembled reporters in his battlefield headquarters—he made his performance in the Ardennes sound not only more heroic but decisive, which necessarily underplayed the Americans’ performance. Since the loss of American life in the battle was tremendous and the surrender of 7,500 members of the 106th Infantry humiliating, Gen. Omar Bradley complained loudly to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who passed the complaints on to Churchill. On January 18, Churchill addressed Parliament and announced in no uncertain terms that the “Bulge” was an American battle—and an American victory.