New research reveals secrets of the Ardennes offensive

Researchers have uncovered new information about one of the largest and bloodiest engagements of World War II.

The Battle of the Bulge was fought between the Allies and Nazi Germany in the Ardennes region between December 1944 and January 1945, and was the last major German offensive of the war.

Because of the rough and densely forested terrain of the vast battlefield area, which stretched across Germany, Belgium, and Luxemburg, much about the campaign remains unknown.

Recently, however, archaeologists have used specialised scanning equipment to investigate a section of the battlefield, revealing hundreds of previously hidden features and artefacts.

Launched on 16 December 1944, the Ardennes offensive was a last-ditch attempt by Nazi Germany to split and halt the Allied advance, in order to deal with the encroaching Soviet armies in Eastern Europe.

The surprise attack formed a ‘bulge’ in the Allied lines, from which the battle got its name. Despite initial success, the German offensive halted in January 1945 due to a lack of fuel and the air superiority of the Allies.

Fought in freezing winter conditions, the battle was extremely costly for both sides, with some 80,000 casualties among the Allies and between 63,000 and 100,000 among the Third Reich.

One of the dugouts uncovered by the survey in the Ardennes forest. The dense terrain has made the vast battlefield difficult to survey. Image: Antiquity

A team of researchers, led by Dr Birger Stichelbaut of the University of Ghent, carried out a drone-mounted SLAM-LiDAR survey of a portion of the battlefield, the results of which were recently published in the journal Antiquity.

The team found various dugouts, bomb craters, and trenches, as well as smaller artefacts, such as fuses for artillery shells and plates for food.

They also established that German forces may have used abandoned Allied fortifications during their initial advance, as the remains of Nazi hand grenades were found in the vicinity of American gun emplacements.

‘Either the Germans were reusing the positions to take shelter, or there was fighting in that area,’ Stichelbaut explained.

High-resolution LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) was used on small sections of the battlefield, enabling researchers to interpret what they saw on larger, low-res maps already available. SLAM technology saves time by allowing the drone to locate itself and the LiDAR to map the area automatically.

Stichelbaut spoke of the importance of preserving the history of the offensive. ‘Before long, we won’t be able to talk to the veterans any more,’ he explained. ‘Only the landscape will remain as a witness.’