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World War II Europe: The Western Front

The Final Battles

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World War II Europe: The Western Front

American soldiers of the 75th Division in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944/January 1945.

Photograph Courtesy of the US Army
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Racing Across France

Following the Allied breakout, the German front in Normandy collapsed with troops retreating east. Attempts to form a line at the Seine were thwarted by the rapid advances of Patton's Third Army. Moving at breakneck speed, often against little or no resistance, Allied forces raced across France, liberating Paris on August 25, 1944. The speed of the Allied advance soon began to place significant strains on their increasingly long supply lines. To combat this issue, the "Red Ball Express" was formed to rush supplies to the front. Using nearly 6,000 trucks, the Red Ball Express operated until the opening of the port of Antwerp in November 1944.

Next Steps

Forced by the supply situation to slow the general advance and focus on a more narrow front, Eisenhower began to contemplate the Allies' next move. General Omar Bradley, commander of the 12th Army Group in the Allied center, advocated in favor of a drive into the Saar to pierce the German Westwall (Siegfried Line) defenses and open Germany to invasion. This was countered by Montgomery, commanding the 21st Army Group in the north, who wished to attack over the Lower Rhine into the industrial Ruhr Valley. As the German's were using bases in Belgium and Holland to launch V-1 buzz bombs and V-2 rockets at Britain, Eisenhower sided with Montgomery. If successful, Montgomery would also be in a position to clear the Scheldt islands which would open the port of Antwerp to Allied vessels.

Operation Market-Garden

Montgomery's plan for advancing over the Lower Rhine called for airborne divisions to drop into Holland to secure bridges over a series of rivers. Codenamed Operation Market-Garden, the 101st Airborne and 82nd Airborne were assigned the bridges at Eindhoven and Nijmegen, while the British 1st Airborne was tasked with taking the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. The plan called for the airborne to hold the bridges while British troops advanced north to relieve them. If the plan succeeded, there was a chance the war could be ended by Christmas.

Dropping on September 17, 1944, American airborne divisions met with success, though the advance of the British armor was slower than expected. At Arnhem, the 1st Airborne lost most of its heavy equipment in glider crashes and encountered much heavier resistance than expected. Fighting their way into the town, they succeeded in capturing the bridge, but were unable to hold it against increasingly heavy opposition. Having captured a copy of the Allied battle plan, the Germans were able to crush the 1st Airborne, inflicting 77% casualties. The survivors retreated south and linked up with their American compatriots.

Grinding the Germans Down

As Market-Garden commenced, fighting continued on 12th Army Group's front to the south. The First Army became engaged in heavy fighting at Aachen and to the south in the Huertgen Forest. As Aachen was the first German city to be threatened by the Allies, Hitler ordered that it be held at all costs. The result was weeks of brutal urban warfare as elements of the Ninth Army slowly drove the Germans out. By October 22, the city had been secured. Fighting in the Huertgen Forest continued through the fall as US troops fought to capture a succession of fortified villages, suffering 33,000 casualties in the process.

Farther south, Patton's Third Army was slowed as its supplies dwindled and it met increased resistance around Metz. The city finally fell on November 23, and Patton pressed east towards the Saar. As Market-Garden and 12th Army Group's operations were commencing in September, they were reinforced by the arrival the 6th Army Group which had landed in southern France on August 15. Led by Lt. General Jacob L. Devers, the 6th Army Group met Bradley's men near Dijon in mid-September and assumed a position at the southern end of the line.

Battle of the Bulge Begins

As the situation in the west worsened, Hitler began planning a major counteroffensive designed to recapture Antwerp and split the Allies' forces. Hitler hoped that such a victory would prove demoralizing for the Allies and would force their leaders to accept a negotiated peace. Gathering Germany's best remaining forces in the west, the plan called for a strike through the Ardennes (as in 1940), led by a spearhead of armored formations. To achieve the surprise required for success, the operation was planned in complete radio silence and benefited from heavy cloud cover which kept Allied air forces grounded.

Commencing on December 16, 1944, the German offensive struck a weak point in the Allied lines near the junction of the 21st and 12th Army Groups. Overrunning several divisions that were either raw or refitting, the Germans swiftly advanced towards the Meuse River. American forces fought a valiant rearguard action at St. Vith and the 101st Airborne and Combat Command B (10th Armored Division) were surrounded in the town of Bastogne. When the Germans demanded their surrender, the 101st's commander, General Anthony McAuliffe, famously replied "Nuts!"

Previous: North Africa, Sicily, & Italy | World War II 101 | Next: The War in the Pacific Begins
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