In late 1944, Adolf Hitler, still recovering from the shock of a failed attempt on his life and the setback of the Allied landings at Normandy, decided to make one last desperate push against his enemies. It was a bold move, aiming to catch the complacent Allies unaware by driving toward the port of Antwerp through the Ardennes. Total victory was no longer in the cards for Germany, but Hitler believed that if he could split the British and U.S. forces, disrupting their logistics and undermining their morale, it might allow him to press for a negotiated peace rather than unconditional surrender. Allied intelligence had not taken the prospect of a final German push seriously enough, and so German forces initially achieved surprise and made progress. For the Americans, this turned out to be the toughest and most costly battle of World War II: some 19,000 U.S. servicemen were killed. But the Germans lacked the capacity to sustain a long campaign, and their effort to do so left the German army exhausted, outnumbered, and outgunned—so depleted that there was little left for the actual defense of Germany in the following months.
The German offensive came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge because of the shape of the German advance. To mark its 70th anniversary, a number of books have been published that seek to capture its drama and intensity. By far the most substantive of these is Caddick-Adams’ Snow and Steel. Caddick-Adams leaves nothing out, and the details can be overwhelming. But the book’s comprehensiveness and rigor will make it hard to supersede as the most authoritative history of the battle. Caddick-Adams explores the challenges faced by commanders on both sides. The Allies had to regroup mentally in response to an unexpected challenge; German generals demonstrated professional skill even in a situation they knew to be hopeless. One of Caddick-Adams’ most telling observations is how dependent the Germans were on horses, such that their mobility was little better than it had been during World War I.
The grittiness and brutality of the fighting comes through in Caddick-Adams’ vivid blow-by-blow account based on the recollections of veterans. Some 40 days of wintry conditions, fatigue, and bloodletting make for grim reading. The episode that stands out is the siege of the small Belgian town of Bastogne. If the Germans had moved more quickly, the town would have been theirs. But the U.S. 101st Airborne Division managed to get there first. When the German command demanded surrender, the response from U.S. General Anthony McAuliffe—“Nuts!”—passed quickly into U.S. Army legend. Schrijvers provides a lively account of the fighting and does a particularly good job of describing the experiences of the city’s civilians, terrorized by the Nazis and surviving the siege by hiding in cellars. Barron, in his gripping description of the conflict, concentrates on the challenges faced by U.S. General George Patton’s Fourth Armored Division as it struggled to break the siege while airdrops kept the Germans supplied. Patton himself, however, features less prominently than the book’s title suggests.