This week marks the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s last throw of the dice, known to Germans as the Ardennes Offensive and to Americans as the Battle of the Bulge.
In December 1944, the Nazis were on the ropes, with the Soviets closing in on Germany’s eastern borders and American, British, Canadian, free French, and free Polish forces hammering away on the West. German tanks were greatly superior to those of the western allies, and still available in large numbers, but with the failure of the Wehrmacht to seize Soviet oil sources in the Caucasus — and the destruction of the Axis’s own oil-production facilities in Ploeşti and Leuna by American bombers — the panzers had virtually no fuel with which to operate.
So every drop of fuel left in the Reich was scavenged to give the remaining Nazi Panzer divisions a final chance to engage in Blitzkrieg mobile warfare. According to the plan, they would depend upon overcast December skies to negate Allied air superiority, and, with the advantage of surprise, break through the weak American infantry forces guarding the Ardennes forest to make a run for Antwerp. Antwerp was the primary port of entry supporting the vast logistical demands of the American and British armies on the Western front. If the Germans could take it, the Allied supply position would become untenable.
The plan was clever, almost brilliant in a diabolical way, but it had a deadly weakness: The Germans did not have enough fuel to reach Antwerp. To succeed, they would have to capture American fuel reserves. In particular there was one huge depot, near Stavelot in eastern Belgium, containing 2.5 million gallons of fuel, which the German army absolutely needed to take. Because of its critical nature, the task of seizing the Stavelot depot was assigned to the most fanatically committed elite unit in the Nazi armed forces, the 1st SS Panzer Division or Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler — literally, “Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard” — with Heinrich Himmler’s ruthless protégé, Obersturmbannführer Jochen Peiper, placed in command. (Peiper had earned this key post through his performance as commander of the SS’s “Blowtorch Battalion” on the Eastern Front in 1943, during which he developed a reputation for herding Russian and Ukrainian villagers into churches and setting them afire.)
The Germans opened their offensive on December 16, 1944. Achieving complete tactical surprise, they overran the American positions, taking many prisoners. On the first day, Peiper’s rapidly advancing division caught 50 GIs on the roadside near Bullingen manning jerry cans. Peiper made them fill his tanks, after which he had them all lined up and methodically dispatched with pistol shots to the backs of their heads. The Nazis then moved rapidly to the west, taking several hundred more Americans captive in the area south of Malmedy on December 17. Not wishing to be slowed down by the need to manage POWs, Peiper ordered the captured GIs herded to an open field, where they were machine-gunned. Peiper gave his men time to crush the survivors’ heads with their rifle butts, and then drove on. Storming the bridge across the Amblève River, Peiper led his battle group into Stavelot. After several hours of fierce street fighting, the hodgepodge of American units in the village was overwhelmed and forced to retreat east, leaving the 1st SS free to advance on the giant fuel depot just north of the town.
The only forces available to defend the fuel dump against Peiper’s full SS Panzer division were a few lightly armed infantry units who had escaped the debacle at the front, plus some non-combat elements from the 291st and 202nd engineering battalions. With just three puny anti-tank guns on hand, the GIs made the oil itself their weapon. Frantically, they rolled oil drums into a ditch that ran alongside the dump and set them ablaze, creating an inferno of smoke and fire across Peiper’s line of advance. Rather than risk running his Panzers through the flames, Peiper decided to turn west and circle around to try to take the dump from another side.
But as he attempted to flank the fuel depot, the engineers raced ahead of him in jeeps, blowing up one bridge after another before he could cross, until his fuel ran dry. Emerging from the hatch of his immobile Tiger tank, the enraged Peiper reportedly raised his fist at the GIs on the other side of the river and railed, “Those damn engineers!”
The fuel depot was saved. Within a week, the German offensive was dead, staved off by the heroic stands of American forces, including famously the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions and the 99th Infantry. The latter, outnumbered five to one, killed 18 Germans for every man it lost before the cloud cover broke and American P-47 fighter-bombers came screaming down out of the sky to blast the paralyzed German Panzer divisions. Abandoning their useless vehicles, the Germans began a long, hopeless trudge home through the snow. Nazi Germany had run out of gas.
It would be false to argue that the Bulge, or World War II more broadly, was won by the Allies’ oil superiority. Wars are won not by oil or other resources but by the courage and self-sacrifice of the people who do the fighting. Yet, without question, it was the control of oil that tipped the scales of victory in the end. This was true not only in the European theater, but in the Pacific as well. Once the Japanese military was cut off from its Indonesia-based oil supplies by American submarines, Tokyo’s war effort became virtually impossible to sustain. Indeed, when, on August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay arrived over the city of Hiroshima, she needed no fighter escort, for none of the 11,000 Japanese planes produced during 1945 had any fuel with which to fly.
So, in remembering the war, let us certainly honor the men who fought it, but also not forget the material means that gave them the edge they needed to prevail. In 1944. the USA produced 2/3 of the world’s oil. Today we produce 1/8. That, thanks to the fracking revolution, is a dramatic improvement from the situation a decade ago, when we produced less than 1/15, but American energy security remains at risk, threatened by the unpredictable, endless ideologically driven political warfare.
And that threat has great implications for the future. It raises the question: Should there ever be another global struggle, will we win or lose? The issue at stake in energy security is not whether the price of gasoline will be $2 per gallon or $3 per gallon, it is who will determine the fate of humanity. If we want it to be us rather than the enemy, we need to act now.