By Joseph Andrew Lee
The Battle of the Bulge was so named because of the distinct protrusion created in the European front after a surprise attack caught the Allies off guard. The struggle to regain the integrity of the line lasted for nearly a month.
It was the bloodiest battle of World War II, and 75 years ago, Adolf Hitler tasted bitter defeat as the tides turned against Nazi Germany. On January 7, 1945, Hitler gave the order for his tank divisions to withdraw from Belgium after a failed last-ditch push against the Allied line in Western Germany.
Cut off from food, ammunition, and supplies, Corporal Stanley Wojtusik was among hundreds of American soldiers with the 422nd Infantry Regiment forced to surrender on December 19, 1944 - surrounded by Germany’s Second SS Panzer Division.
Half a century later, both the Luxemburg and Belgium governments would bestow knighthood on Sir Stanley Wojtusik for leading the effort to erect a suitable monument to honor the 19,000 American lives lost during the Battle of the Bulge.
The Lead-Up to the Battle of the Bulge
After the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, Allied forces advanced east through France to Germany’s western border establishing what became known as the “Western Front.” This vertical front-line stretched from the Norwegian city of Nijmegen in the north all the way to Switzerland in the south, cutting through Belgium and Luxemburg.
By winter of 1944, Hitler was quickly losing ground. In desperation, he launched a surprise attack on December 16, sending dozens of Panzer tank divisions to attack Allied troops holding a weak portion of the line near Belgium’s densely forested Ardennes Mountains. The goal of the attack was to cross the Meuse River and recapture Antwerp, a valuable port city taken from the Germans by the Allies during their eastward advance.
A week before the attack, the newly established U.S. Army 106th Infantry Division was sent in to relieve the 2nd Infantry Division near Schonberg, Germany. Not yet “baptized by fire,” the inexperienced 106th Infantry Division was now the only thing keeping the Nazis from recapturing the vital port city – and the soldiers seemed to know just how “green” the unit was.
Germany’s Surprise Attack
The Germans began the assault at dawn with a 90-minute barrage from 1,600 artillery pieces across an 80 mile section of the front. Wojtusik and the 106th stared directly down the barrels of the Second SS Panzer Division.
“They surprised everyone along the line with the attack,” said Wojtusik. “There were always some little skirmishes with patrols, but this one was the real deal – Hitler’s last big hoorah.”
Wojtusik had heard stories in weeks past of how the new Panzer VI “Tiger” tank had been “raising hell along the Allied lines.”
“We hadn’t received our supplies and were short of Bazookas,” he said. “But I don’t know if that would have really stopped them unless you hit them right in the bogey wheels – we surely couldn’t stop them with our M1 rifles.”
Wojtusik and his comrades fought hard against the German infantry as the waves of armor and troops moved in. There was little they could do, however, to stop the column of tanks as they rolled right over top of wounded Allied and German soldiers alike, hell-bent on reaching the narrow mountain roads through the Ardennes.
“Those tanks weren’t stopping for anything,” recalled Wojtusik. “But once they were on that narrow mountain road, if one swerved even slightly, it would end up in the gully and wouldn’t be able to get out. So of course we did everything in our power to try and make that happen.”
To the north of Wojtusik and the 106th, the 99th Infantry Division was holding its own against one of the most skilled German tankers of the day, Joachim Peiper. Peiper led one of the best equipped German tank divisions on the Western Front - the First SS Panzer Division, also known as “Kampfgruppe Peiper.”
Outnumbered five to one, the 99th was credited with inflicting casualties in the ratio of 18 to one. The division lost 20 percent of its effective force, but German losses were said to be much higher.
“The Germans paid a hell of a price for this attack that first week,” said Wojtusik. “They were trying to take as much ground as possible, but it was hard-fought ground. We were able to shoot most of the ground troops, but we had no defense against the tanks.”
A Brutal Winter in the Battle of the Bulge
While the Germans did pay for their effort, so did the Allies. The 19,000 American dead was a number unsurpassed by any other WWII engagement. Historian John S.D. Eisenhower wrote specifically of the 99th Infantry Division battle, “…the action of the 2nd and 99th Divisions on the northern shoulder could be considered the most decisive of the Ardennes campaign.”
After three days of arduous combat, two regiments of the 106th Division, the 422nd and the 423rd, were cut off, surrounded, and forced to surrender on December 19, 1944. Wojtusik didn’t eat or sleep for three days before his capture. He was in the 422nd Infantry Regiment, and watched as the Germans approached his unit under the protection of a white banner.
“We all saw that white flag and we thought they were surrendering to us,” said Wojtusik. “Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. They were there to let us know we were surrounded.”
The two regimental commanders met with the German commander and after communicating with the rest of the division, the two American colonels decided surrender was the only option if they wanted to limit American casualties. Wojtusik was captured, along with the remainder of the 422nd and 423rd Infantry Regiments.
In the week that followed, the Germans made massive headway toward the Meuse River during one of Europe’s worst winters in decades. All seven main roads in the Ardennes mountain range converged on the small town of Bastogne, and control of its crossroads was vital to the German goal of recapturing Antwerp. The siege of Bastogne lasted from December 20 to 27, but American forces were finally relieved by elements of General George Patton’s Third Army, which made a dramatic shift in its combat operations in the south to come to their rescue.
A Break for the Allies
The pace of the German assault was too fast for its own good, however, and improved weather conditions allowed for Allied air strikes on German supply lines. Starved of ammunition, food, and supplies, the German tank divisions were thwarted and on January 7, 1945, Hitler gave the order to retreat.
Shortly after re-establishing the Western Front, Allied forces attacked Germany in unison, eventually leading to their surrender and the end of World War II in Europe.
“This is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory,” Winston Churchill was quoted saying when he addressed the House of Commons shortly after the Battle of the Bulge.
Wojtusik and his fellow prisoners of war were rescued by Soviet forces and turned over to Allies in May 1945, shortly after the end of the war in Europe.
-The USO first published this story in 2011. It has been updated in 2020.
More from the USO
Apr 3, 2020
5 Ways Your Donor Dollars Are at Work Supporting the Military During the COVID-19 Pandemic
While the United States adjusts to quarantines and drastic changes in daily life, American service members are leaving their families to serve on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. Find out how your donations to the USO are supporting military families during COVID-19.
Apr 2, 2020
A Military Spouse’s Guide to Staying Resilient During the COVID-19 Pandemic
It's been a few weeks since COVID-19 forced one military spouse and her family to hunker down at home. See how she is tapping into lessons she's learned as a 17-year military spouse to help guide her through this time of uncertainly.