It had never been easy for German commanders to argue with Hitler. After the 20th July bomb plot it had become virtually impossible. By the time Hitler had briefed his Generals for the Ardennes offensive the paranoid atmosphere surrounding him meant that anything less than whole hearted support was likely to be interpreted as defeatism, which was now equated with treachery.
Major-General F. W. von Mellenthin had already been pulled out of the line for making an “unauthorised retreat” during the fighting in the Autumn and put in a general reserve of officers on the General Staff. On 28th December he was recalled and given command of 9th Panzer Division. It was his job to retrieve what he could from the situation:
On the 29th I set off for 9 Panzer Division, which was in the wooded hills north-west of Houffalize; the ice-bound roads glittered in the sunshine and I witnessed the uninterrupted air attacks on our traffic routes and supply dumps. Not a single German plane was in the air, innumerable vehicles were shot up and their blackened wrecks littered the roads. When I reached my Headquarters I found that we were holding the most forward positions in the defensive line of 5 Panzer Army.
Looking at the situation map I noted the violent American attacks on both flanks and the grave danger facing the Panzer divisions in the noose of the salient. But we were ordered to stay where we were and so we did, defending ourselves with mobile tactics.
Most of my men were Austrians, and in spite of heavy losses their morale was still high. The Panzer regiment was left with twenty tanks, and the two Panzer Grenadier regiments each had about four hundred men. But the artillery regiment was very strong and of high quality.
We beat off the American attacks until 5 January, when orders were received to get out of this hopeless position and withdraw eastward; I was put in command of the rearguard of 5 Panzer Army.
My experiences in Russia stood me in good stead; I knew all about the problems of moving through snow and ice – a subject in which the Americans still had much to learn. By day our armoured group resisted in chosen positions; all movements were carried out at night to evade the fighter-bombers, but even so concentric artillery fire on our flanks inflicted considerable casualties.
By mid-January 9 Panzer Division had reached the line of the River Our, where we stood firm on the original start line of the offensive.
The results of the Ardennes fighting were more than disappointing; we had suffered excessive losses in men and material and only gained a few weeks’ respite.
It is true that American forces were moved from Lorraine, and the pressure on Army Group G slackened; however, this relief was only temporary (at the beginning of January Army Group G was strong enough to launch an offensive, which had some prospects of recapturing Strasbourg). The same results could have been achieved by a limited attack at Aachen, after which our operational reserves could have been switched to Poland.
The Ardennes battle drives home the lesson that a large-scale offensive by massed armour has no hope of success against an enemy who enjoys supreme command of the air. Our precious reserves had been expended, and nothing was available to ward off the impending catastrophe in the East.