Lt. Col. Sherman Fleek (ret) & Major David Musick

12/11/14

Col. Fleek and Major Musick spoke on the Battle of the Bulge.

Major Musick started the presentation with an overview of the battle.  He stated that until this battle, the U.S. Army was not held in high regard by Hitler, or many Europeans, but this battle drastically changed that evaluation.

Before the Battle of the Bulge started, General Montgomery had been given the greatest operational command of Allied forces.  He commenced an operation known as “Market Garden”, which focused on the countries north of France and used extensive airborne assaults.  It failed.  General Patton had led his army into the Lorraine area where it was stuck.  Another Allied assault was made in the Hrtgen Forest, which turned out to be very costly in terms of those killed and wounded in action.  As a result of these actions the Allied forces were essentially tired and fought out.

But notwithstanding the depleted condition of the Allied troops, General Eisenhower thought that the toll that these and other battles had taken on the Germans had broken the German ability to wage war in any major fashion.  Unbeknownst to Eisenhower and the rest of the Allied high command, Hitler was determined to make a total effort in attacking through the Ardennes in an effort to take the city of Antwerp and its port. Hitler believed that the attack would devastate the Allies although none of the German generals gave it any chance of success.

Not expecting any significant thrust in the Ardennes area, this sector was lightly manned with troops sent there to rest along with some new troops that had never seen any fighting.  There were about 70,000 Allied troops in total for the region with Americans making up the majority of those numbers. 

To man the attack the Germans managed to assemble 24 divisions or about 240,000 men and several tank divisions.  In addition to vastly outnumbering the Allied defenders, the Germans strove to use their most battle hardened and effective troops for the offensive.  Nevertheless, by this time much of Germany’s reserves were severely depleted and significant numbers of its force was made up of older men and young boys.

Despite the build-up of such a large force, the German concentration went largely undetected.  Bad weather had restricted the number of surveillance flights and there had been very poor analysis of the movement that was seen.  Some low level pilots of the 9th Air Force thought something was up and General Patton’s intelligence officer believed that there was preparation for a German assault, but these views never reached higher headquarters and it is broadly viewed as one of the war’s worst intelligence failures.

One U.S. unit surrendered quickly after the battle commenced, but for the most part the U.S. troops resisted fiercely.  It was good that they did as the Germans shot many POWs with the U.S. troops retaliating by shooting many Germans they captured.  But the U.S. troops never broke and it was generally acknowledged that they performed extremely well despite the many adversities of surprise, poor intelligence, horrible weather, lack of air support and being badly outnumbered.

Lt. Col. Fleek addressed the air power role in the battle.  He stated that the Major was correct that the weather for the first part of the battle was terrible and prevented any meaningful air support to the defending troops.  The bad weather lasted until December 23 when a so-called Russian High moved into the area clearing the skies and allowing flights to take off.  Col. Fleet said the Germans had counted on bad weather as Allied air power had almost total command of the skies. And they got it.  But when The Russian High took over the air force could resupply Bastogne with air drops and supply gliders.  Plus, they could and did wreak havoc on the German tanks and other motorized vehicles.  The air power thus became a major factor in turning the tide of battle and ending Germany’s last full scale campaign on the war’s western front.

Questions and Answers

Q.  Is it true that the 8th Air force suffered more casualties than the entire Marine Corps did during the war?

A.  We don’t know.  We would have to check, but the air force suffered a tremendous number of casualties so it could be possible.

Q.  You stated that air power can’t do it alone.  What about the fight against Isis?

A.  You will need some direct contact with Isis. 

Q What was the percentage of air crew loss during WWII?

A.  About 40%, but that includes those captured after they bailed out.

Q.  What is the difference in training at West Point now from the way it used to be?

A.  The focus now is on counter-terrorism and using computers to resist and make cyber-attacks.   We also have gotten away from memorization.  Instead we work toward making the cadets more flexible and agile mentally.  We make them problem solvers regardless of the problem’s nature and they are good at it.