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Generals in Dark and Snow

By (November 1, 2015) One Comment

Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulgeardennes1944
By Antony Beevor
Viking, 2015

Had Hitler had his way, it would have been called The Battle of Antwerp, and it would have been a pivotal Nazi victory.

The plan, called “Watch on the Rhine,” was madness on its face, but it was the kind of madness that had worked just often enough for the German Fuhrer in the past to create a narrow, inviting rear door to any logical consideration of odds. German forces, penned behind the Siegfried Line all along the Western front in late 1944, would amass in secret and make a concerted drive west and north for the port city of Antwerp, with the goal being to capture the town, divide the Allies, and compel either the destruction or the evacuation, in “another Dunkirk,” of the British Expeditionary Force.

In Hitler’s dream, the gamble would be conducted in the Ardennes region of Belgium and northern Luxembourg, in winter, relying on surprise and on the region’s well-known bad weather to shield it from the US Air Force that by now had virtually unchallenged command of the skies over the European theater of war. In this dream, specially-constituted and strengthened Nazi forces would strike through the undermanned and unsuspecting Allied lines, seize the all-important Allied fuel dumps, and establish a beachhead in the West fast enough to then turn and throw back the advances being made by the oncoming Russians in East Prussia. It would be, as all those who knew about it characterized it, one last throw of the dice, one last card played in a desperate game to prevent the total defeat of Nazi Germany.

It never had the slightest chance of success. It’s true that, working in complete secrecy and cleverly shielding their activities even from Allied air patrols, the Germans had managed to assemble a technical superiority of men and firepower. But not only were the men an uneven lot mostly comprised of specially-recruited “panzergrenadiers,” the largely untrained dregs of German society, with a sprinkling of battle-tested but exhausted Eastern front veterans throughout, but there were no more of them, no reserves, whereas the Allies in France had an enormous reservoir of manpower to draw from. And Hitler was flatly planning on bad weather lasting as long as he needed it to – the instant the skies cleared, thousands of Allied planes would pound his divisions into so much scrap metal.

The plan showed scattered glimmers of the weird genius that had sometimes graced Hitler’s strategic decisions early in the war (“Hitler still had the capacity,” historian Ian Kershaw writes, “to make the impossible seem possible”); its combination of blitzkrieg and psychological warfare elements was designed to exploit both the complacent Allied assumption that Germany was a beaten foe and the fault lines of tension that had always run through the Anglo-American alliance. Because blitzkrieg had worked during his glory days, Hitler believed it would always work, and because he himself was deeply distrustful, he believed in the distrust of his opponents. In his vision, the lightning-strike of panzer forces seizing Antwerp would not only drive the British into the sea but set his enemies at each other’s throats, giving him the freedom to turn his greatly reduced resources toward stopping the Russian advance in the East.

In truth, since long before December 1944, western Europe was an entirely American protectorate. The roads, the troops, the equipment, the tanks, the planes, the fuel dumps, the supply-lines of food and clothing and medicine – all of it was American. The Supreme Commander of the entire theater, General Eisenhower, was an American, exclusively prioritizing American objectives. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s numerous cables to Washington DC – all of them understandably peremptory and bloodthirsty – were by this point routinely ignored. When Hitler launched his Ardennes campaign in December of 1944, he wasn’t launching it against an alliance constantly teetering on the edge of dissolution; he was launching it against the bulk and bureaucracy of the American military juggernaut. And even if his forces had somehow reached Antwerp, they’d have found themselves facing an Atlantic controlled and patrolled by US warships.

nazisoldierbattleofbulgeThe German breakout that launched in the predawn hour of 16 December 1944 caught the Allies completely off-guard. The offensive had three prongs: to the south, the 7th Army under General Brandenberger took 200,000 men in 18 divisions supported by some 600 tanks to rebuff Allied attempts to turn the southern flank of the main attack; to the north, the 6th SS-Panzer Army, led by Hitler’s favorite soldier, Colonel-General Sepp Dietrich, made the main feint toward the coast; and in the vital center, the 5th Panzer Army under the command of bantam, superb General Manteuffel, would barrel right into the main Allied line, overwhelming, capturing, and killing as it made a muscular lunge for the River Meuse. Manteuffel privately considered the Meuse just about the limit of what his forces might achieve in this campaign – neither he nor any of Hitler’s commanders thought it was possible to reach let alone take Antwerp – and he’d been against the showy predawn artillery bombardment, advocating instead that he simply advance his troops without warning against the sleeping American pickets. The initial day of fighting would have been incalculably worse if he’d been allowed to do that, but the fighting was incalculably bad even so: what was to become known as the Battle of the Bulge – for the month-long distortion it made in the German front line – would end up being some of the fiercest fighting the American Army did in the whole of the war in the West.

Even without Manteuffel’s option, that first morning was like something out of a nightmare for the US servicemen, many of whom were inexperienced, having been sent to what Allied command considered the relatively quiet front of a beaten enemy. That enemy was now attacking in overwhelming strength, and bestselling historian Antony Beevor, in his new book Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, perfectly captures the dark, dreamlike atmosphere created by the terrain:

South-east of Aachen, the Hurtgen Forest was a semi-mountainous expanse of deep pinewoods, with a few patches of oak and beech and some pastures on the ridges. Before the noise of war dominated its eerie peace, the only sounds were those of the wind in the trees and the mew of buzzards circling above. The forest, riven diagonally by ravines, had all too many vertiginous slopes. They were too steep for tanks and exhausting for heavily laden infantry, slipping and sliding amid the mud, rock and roots. The pine forest was so dense and so dark that it soon seemed cursed, as if in a sinister fairy-tale of witches and ogres. Men felt that they were intruders, and conversed in whispers as if the forest might be listening.

Beevor has written expertly gripping accounts of the Normandy invasion, the siege of Stalingrad, and the fall of Berlin (as well as an intensely good one-volume history of the whole war), and in writing the history of the Ardennes campaign, he uses his signally effective blending of wide-scale overview and small-scale detail – a perfect technique for oscillating between the organizational maneuvers and counter-maneuvers of the larger campaign and the smaller-scale moments of personal heroism and barbarity that give the 44 days of the Ardennes their particular renown. Beevor’s sharp intelligence ranges across the whole command structure of both sides, providing readers with stern assessments that are if anything more stern with the Allies than with the Nazis. He has little patience in particular with British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, whose posturing he sees as incredibly divisive – and whose coddling by Eisenhower he rates as a “grave mistake”:

He needed to be explicit. Eisenhower knew that he could issue direct orders to [General Omar] Bradley and General Jacob L. Devers, the two American army group commanders, who were his subordinates. But he gave too much leeway to Montgomery because he was an ally and not part of the US Army chain of command. Eisenhower should have known by then that General Marshall in Washington would back him as Supreme Commander, and that Churchill no longer had any influence with President Roosevelt, especially when it came to military decisions. Eisenhower’s reluctance to insist that the time for discussion was over and that his orders must be followed enabled Montgomery to keep questioning a strategy with which he disagreed, and chiselling at it constantly to get his own way.

Likewise Beevor seems exasperated by some of the very kinds of cowboy American behavior about which Hollywood movies are made. When his narrative reaches an incident near Cheneux when regimental commander Reuben Tucker learns that his companies, encountering fierce opposition, have pulled back to the woods in their rear:

On hearing of this, Tucker ordered them to attack again. They managed to get closer in the dark, but barbed-wire fences across the fields held them up. Exposed to an even greater concentration of fire, men torn on the fences were shot down on all sides. The attack was about to stall when Staff Sergeant George Walsh yelled, “Let’s get those sons of bitches!” Only a handful of men made it to the roadblock on the edge of the village. One managed to throw a grenade into a flak half-truck and a second cut the throat of a gunner on another. But the two companies suffered 232 casualties, including twenty-three killed. Their action was heroic, but Tucker’s gung-ho decision was shockingly wasteful.

battleofthebulgeArdennes 1944 covers all the famous side-shows of the campaign, from the notorious massacre of captured American troops by an especially ruthless band of Nazi veterans at Malmady to the uncanny incident of the Nazi brigade recruited and trained to pose as Americans and infiltrate behind Allied lines. But the centerpiece of this, as of any history of the Ardennes campaign, is the key crossroads town of Bastogne, where an American force faced a much larger German force, quickly became surrounded, and doggedly held out, displaying what Beevor succinctly refers to as the US Army’s “proud dislike of abandoning ground.” Bastogne became immortal in military annals when its American commander, General McAuliffe, was presented with a German demand for surrender and sent back his famous reply, “Nuts!” (Manteuffel, Beevor relates, was furious when he learned that this ultimatum had been issued in the first place; “He regarded it as as stupid bluff, because the Germans simply did not have the artillery ammunition to carry out the threat”). Enduring brutal cold, a shortage of food and clothing, and a series of all-out German assaults, the troops at Bastogne become an emblem for stubborn defiance. “Despite the terrible cold which made men shiver uncontrollably in their foxholes, morale was high within the Bastogne perimeter,” Beevor writes. “Although the paratroopers and 10th Armored looked forward to relief by Patton’s forces, they rejected any idea that they needed to be saved.”

Many, many books have been written on the phenomenon of Bastogne, and Beevor gives it plenty of attention, but Ardennes 1944 is resolutely comprehensive, sweeping all around the war-zone and covering as much of the civilian experience as the military one. The minute-by-minute tactical decisions of the commanders of course shape the action (and as in other major accounts, the speed with which Eisenhower recognized that the German attack was more than just a strong sortie is given due praise; a less nervous commander might have waited a critical day longer to rush reinforcements to the Belgian frontier), but Beevor is at his best when dramatizing the little details of life in the conflict for the many innocents trapped in their homes, as in the attack on the town of Dinant:

Taking refuge in cellars as artillery shells began to fall, Belgians had no idea of the state of the battle. They could, however, identify the different sounds made in the street by American boots with rubbery soles and the hobnailed jackboots of the Germans. They backed away when Germans entered, not just from a fear of violence, but also because they knew the enemy soldiers were covered in lice.

The heroic stubbornness of the men holding out in towns like Bastogne and St Vith notwithstanding, when the Allies shook off their initial surprise, their counter-offensive was flatly overwhelming. The American First Army moved 60,000 troops into the Ardennes region in just a single day, and a seemingly endless stream of supplies began to flow to frontline troops. Shortly before Christmas the skies began to clear and the Allies retook those skies, General Patton’s 3rd Army broke through the encirclement of Bastogne, and even those German units who remained intact had no fuel or ammunition to continue fighting. At virtually every stage, their advance had been slowed by dogged American resistance; even their fastest, most forward units only came within sight of the Meuse but never reached it. Andtwerp remained an utter impossibility. General Manteuffel and others urged Berlin to authorize a retreat, and for far too long their pleas were rejected until, as Beevor points out, it no longer made a difference:

Although Hitler refused to face reality until it was far too late, German generals realized that the great offensive was doomed by the end of the first week. They may have achieved surprise, but they had failed to cause the collapse of American morale that they needed. It was German morale which began to suffer.

Far more than German morale suffered, of course. The shattering of Hitler’s mad gamble left the Third Reich with only the barest minimum of defenses. The Ardennes offensive cost the Allies nearly 90,000 casualties, including 19,000 killed, but the Germans lost far more men, far more equipment, and any last vestige of hope that any part of the war could be won. It’s a testament to Beevor’s narrative skill that he can make such a well-known story so tense and such a firmly fated campaign feel so open-ended. Ardennes 1944 is the best book on its subject since Peter Caddick-Adams’ Snow & Steel, although it will certainly not be the last: the story – with its gashes of desperation on both sides, its stark climate, its last flashes of valor as the war came to an end in the West – is simply too tempting, maybe even too instructive, and certainly too plain-and-simple good to resist.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.