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Waffen-SS: Defeat of the 6th Panzer Army, 1944

Background

By the end of December 1944, the German offensive in the Ardennes had ground to a halt and the Americans had relieved Bastogne. But Hitler insisted on a fresh attack by the Sixth Panzer Army. This resulted in a futile effort to retake Bastogne, which only served to wear down the armoured strength of the Waffen-SS panzer divisions fighting in Belgium.

Hitler orders a renewal of the offensive

A week after the start of Operation Autumn Mist, the German offensive had well and truly run out of steam. Dietrich's Sixth Panzer Army had been held in check along the Ambléve River. To the south, the Fifth Panzer Army had advanced to within 15km (9.3 miles) of the Meuse at Dinant before being turned back by British tanks and Allied fighter-bombers. General of Panzer Troops Hasso von Manteuffel had managed to surround the American 101st Airborne Division in the town of Bastogne. However, a relief column from Lieutenant-General George Patton's Third Army punched through from Luxembourg to lift the siege on 26 December 1944.

Hitler wanted a renewed offensive to defeat the Americans, by cutting off Bastogne again to open a new route for further westward offensives. I SS Panzer Corps was to be sent south to close off the narrow 1km- (0.6-mile-) wide corridor linking Bastogne to Patton's army. The Leibstandarte did not reach its jumping-off position until late on 28 December, and was not ready to attack until late the following day.

The Leibstandarte's attack

The Leibstandarte's westward attack was planned to coincide with an eastward push by the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division and Führer Begleit Brigade, to cut the Bastogne corridor. First to attack were some 30 of Poetsche's panzers, striking out just before dawn on 30 December. They headed out through morning gloom and, helped by panzergrenadiers, easily cleared out two frontline villages. American tank destroyers then made an appearance, hitting several of the panzers.

As the panzers approached the main road south out of Bastogne across open fields, the Americans mobilized two companies of Shermans to block their path. Now the clouds cleared to allow the intervention of Allied fighter-bombers. For more than two hours, the Thunderbolts worked over the panzer column, claiming seven kills and delaying the advance as the tanks took cover in woods. The American tanks had now taken up ambush positions ahead of the panzers, and were waiting when Poetsche at last got his forces moving again.

For the next week the Leibstandarte soldiers held their hard-won ground against a series of strong US counterattacks. The Waffen-SS panzers found themselves "fire-fighting" small local incursions by American tanks on the fringes of the positions held by the panzergrenadiers. Two precious King Tigers and several other panzers were lost in these scattered battles.

I SS Panzer Corps' assault

As the Leibstandarte was being brought to a halt south of Bastogne, I SS Panzer Corps was being mustered to the north of the town for a final push for victory. Hitlerjugend and Hohenstaufen had been pulled out of the northern shoulder and sent south, along with the 340th Volksgrenadier Division. Field Marshal Model visited the corps headquarters north of Bastogne on 2 January 1945 in order to put his seal of approval on the plans to smash open the American defences the following day. Hohenstaufen was to drive in from northwest of the town, and Hitlerjugend would attack from the northeast, as the Volksgrenadiers linked them together. Several Volks artillery brigades were mustered to provide fire support, which was fortunate, because the Hitlerjugend's guns were stranded to the north due to lack of fuel.

At 09:00 hours on 3 January, the German attack was launched as planned. Led by 20 Panzer IVs, the Hohenstaufen advanced in the face of heavy American anti-tank fire. The attack stalled in the afternoon when the panzers were caught in open ground. Another attack was attempted in the early evening and suffered a similar fate. The division tried a surprise raid later in the night and penetrated some distance behind American lines before it was beaten back.

The advance to Bastogne

In the early afternoon the Volksgrenadiers and Hitlerjugend began to move forward. The Volksgrenadiers were soon bogged down in heavy fighting in large forests. Hitlerjugend's panzer regiment led the division forward along the open ground to the left of the railway track, which headed south into the centre of Bastogne. It put 13 Panzer IVs, 7 Panthers and 15 Panzerjöger IVs into action, along with 28 Jagdpanzer IVs and 13 Jagdpanthers of the attached 560th Anti-Tank Battalion. Panzergrenadiers in armoured halftracks were close behind the German armour, and during the afternoon the armada made steady progress, advancing 3km (1.8 miles) despite heavy American artillery fire.

In a night attack, the Hitlerjugend made a further big advance, reaching the edges of the villages of Magaret and Bizory on the northern outskirts of Bastogne. Panzergrenadiers and Panzerjöger IVs now pressed into the large Azette wood in front of the town, cutting to pieces a US infantry battalion.

More attacks were now launched against Magaret and Bizory in the afternoon by the panzer regiment, but they couldn't dislodge the defenders. Wild rumours of German breakthroughs caused panic, and some GIs fled into Bastogne. Panzers penetrated the villages, only to be driven back by American Shermans and bazooka teams. The line held.

The end of Autumn Mist

An American breakthrough against the northern shoulder of the German front forced the withdrawal of the Hohenstaufen from Bastogne on 6 January. The Hitlerjugend Division was now totally exhausted by its exertions. On 9 January, Hitler finally realized that trying to take Bastogne was a lost cause, and authorized the withdrawal of the Waffen-SS divisions.

Operation Autumn Mist was officially over. Hitler's gamble had failed. The Germans lost 33,000 dead, 22,500 missing and 34,000 wounded. They also left behind more than 600 smashed tanks in the Ardennes. The Americans lost 8600 dead, 21,000 missing and 30,000 wounded, along with more than 733 destroyed tanks.

The Waffen-SS had spearheaded the operation and made some of the deepest penetrations into American lines. Many senior Waffen-SS officers, such as Dietrich, had been sceptical about its chances of success, but had given it their best shot. Figures for losses in the Waffen-SS divisions are hard to come by. Dietrich's Sixth Panzer Army lost some 10,000 dead in total. The armoured vehicle strength of the Waffen-SS divisions was soon restored to near establishment thanks to the smooth recovery of wrecked and damaged tanks from the early phases of the battle. Harder to replace were officer and noncommissioned officer casualties, which ran to nearly 50 percent in some Waffen-SS units.