Hitler launched the surprise offensive – his last of the conflict – on December 16, 1944, pushing US soldiers back to the town of Bastogne in the Ardennes region, as depicted in an episode of Stephen Spielberg’s award-winning Band of Brothers. The desperate battle which followed was one of the bloodiest in the western theatre.
At a ceremony at the Mardasson memorial in Bastogne, Belgium, US secretary of defence Mark Esper paid tribute to more than 19,000 US troops who died.
He told assembled dignitaries including Belgium’s King Philippe and Queen Mathilde and Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives: “Their efforts not only defended America but also ensured that the peoples of Europe would be free again.
“It was ultimately the intrepid, indomitable spirit of the American soldier that brought victory.”
Artificial “snow” falls in Bastogne
Thousands of US servicemen died in Bastogne
Even though German deaths also exceeded well over 10,000 in the battle that stretched deep into January, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier took special time to thank the US troops.
He said: “On this day, we Germans would like to thank the United States of America.
“The American armed forces, together with their allies, liberated Europe and they also liberated Germany. We thank you.‘
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Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge at the ceremony
“Those who died were victims of hatred, delusion, and a destructive fury that originated from my country.”
Those gathered for the ceremony also watched a display at the Mardasson Memorial, where actors representing the troops were covered in fake snow, serving as a reminder of the harsh conditions troops faced in Bastogne.
Hitler had hoped the advance would change the course of the war by capturing the port of Antwerp and forcing US and British troops to sue for peace, thus freeing Germany to focus on the rapidly advancing Soviet armies in the east.
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US defence secretary Mark Esper
King Philippe with Nancy Pelosi
Out of the blue at dawn on December 16, more than 200,000 German troops counter-attacked across the front line in Belgium and Luxembourg, smashing into battle-weary US soldiers positioned in terrain as foreign to them as it was familiar to the Germans.
Yet somehow, the Americans blunted the advance and started turning back the enemy for good, setting Allied troops on a roll that would end the war in Europe less than five months later.
This battle gained fame not so much for the commanders’ tactics but for the resilience of small units hampered by poor communications that stood shoulder to shoulder to deny Hitler the quick breakthrough he so desperately needed.
Bastogne is in Belgium
Even though the Americans were often pushed back, they were able to delay the German advance in its crucial initial stages.
In Bastogne, surrounded US troops were cut off for days with little ammunition or food.
When Brig Gen Anthony C McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne received a December 22 ultimatum to surrender or face total destruction, he offered one of the most famous – and brief – replies in military history: “Nuts.”
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Four days later, US troops broke the Nazi encirclement and ending once and for all Hitler’s hopes of conquering Europe.
Former Armed Forces Minister Mark Francois told Express.co.uk: “The Battle of the Bulge, made famous in the 1960s film and also the brilliant TV series ‘Band of Brothers’, commemorates the epic defence of Bastogne and the surrounding areas by the US 101st Airborne Division and supporting units.
“It is a classic example of sheer courage in the face of overwhelming odds, as the outnumbered US paratroopers held back several panzer divisions for days – and thus thwarted one of Hitler’s last desperate gambles to avoid defeat.”