Bastogne, Belgium (1944 AD)
The Battle of the Bulge was the last major German offensive of World War II and the last major battle to have been fought in Western Europe ever since. Personally organized by Adolph Hitler, the Battle of the Bulge was a last desperate gamble to dislodge the American and British armies approaching the Rhineland and regain the initiative along the Western Front. Despite assembling the last fieldable army, the Germans were soundly defeated after making only small progress towards their strategic objective, the port of Antwerp. The Allied victory at the Bulge sealed the fate of the Third Reich, which surrendered unconditionally a few months later.
Following their tremendous victory at Normandy during the summer, the Allied armies moved inexorably across France. As they gained territory and ports, the Allies grew stronger while the Germans grew ever weaker. As winter approached, most of France was liberated, the British were pressing on the Low Countries and the Americans advanced towards the Rhine. While some began to believe that the war in Europe would truly be over by Christmas, the Allied command nevertheless anticipated one last German offensive.
It turns out that they were correct. Even as the Allies consolidated their gains in the west and massive Russian armies approached from the east, Hitler, who yet believed in the final German triumph, personally ordered a counteroffensive set for the winter. Despite the strenuous objection of several key members of the general staff, the Germans assembled the last effective mixed-arms fighting force in the west. On December 16 they struck.
Despite fears of an attack, the Allies were not immediately prepared for the sudden German advance into Luxembourg and Belgium. Over the course of the first few days of the fighting, the Wehrmacht advanced about sixty miles, but reached their limit well before reaching their strategic goal, the port city of Antwerp. Although the major reason for the stall was the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, the immediate reason for the end of the German advance was the failure to take the key city of Bastogne. The Siege of Bastogne became the epicenter of the battle. Held only by the tenacity of the American 101st Airborne division, the Germans spent five days trying to take the city.
What should have been a quick victory for the Germans turned into a disaster as they failed to dislodge the American force. Before they could take Bastogne, an American counteroffensive led by General George Patton relieved the city and essentially ended the German campaign. Within as few weeks it was all over. Nearly half of the German soldiers were casualties, and the remainder retreated, mostly without equipment, to the Siegfried line. With the conclusion of the Battle of the Bulge, over a thousand years of fighting along the Rhine frontier finally came to an end.
The Battle of the Bulge was fought primarily in and around Luxembourg, but the key engagement took place at the town of Bastogne in Belgium. Because it was a siege with a complete encirclement, there was fighting going on all around Bastogne, and many remnants of the battlefield can still be visited. The most important and popular site by far is the Mardasson Memorial, a great stone and marble monument honoring the American soldiers who died defending the town.
The Mardasson Memorial is located where some of the heaviest fighting took place, about a mile east of Bastogne, approximately 40 miles north of Luxembourg City. The monument and nearby battlefields are open sites. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.visitbelgium.com (official tourism website of Belgium).