On 1 September 1944, Eisenhower took over day-to-day control of all ground forces from Montgomery, much to the latter’s chagrin. Eisenhower’s plan was for a broad advance into Germany, whereas Montgomery wanted a narrow ‘single thrust’ into the heart of the Reich, spearheaded by his 21st Army Group. On the same day that Montgomery put forward this plan, Patton produced one in which his Third Army led the way instead, with characteristic immodesty calling it ‘the best strategicall [sic] idea I’ve ever had’. Writing twenty years after the war, General Günther Blumentritt, who was commander of the Fifteenth Army from December 1944 onwards, admitted, ‘We had the highest respect for General Patton! He was the American Guderian, an excellent and bold tank corps leader.’ Omar Bradley, meanwhile, felt that his drive on Frankfurt ought to be the centre of operations. It is sadly impossible to believe that the best demands of grand strategy, rather than their own egos, actuated these soldiers, and Eisenhower had the difficult task of holding the ring between them and imposing his own view. His greatness – doubted by some, like Brooke and Montgomery – stems partly from his success in achieving that.
There were a number of major problems with Montgomery’s scheme, which would have needed flank protection from the largely undamaged German Fifteenth Army to the north, and would have required the Scheldt estuary to have been used as a direct supply route, though the Germans continued to hold it until long after the fall of Antwerp in September. Montgomery’s plan to strike off across the North German Plain towards Berlin, crossing important rivers such as the Weser and Elbe in the process, made little military sense considering the level of resistance that the Germans were still offering even comparatively late on in the war. The 1,500 bodies in the British Military Cemetery at Becklingen, between Bergen–Belsen and Soltau, are testament to how hard the fighting was between the Weser and the Elbe as late as April 1945. Moreover, it would have reduced the American forces, especially the Third Army, to the minor role of flank protection. Eisenhower had to ensure a rough equality of glory, in order to keep the Western alliance on track. It is likely that the plan to reduce Patton’s role to mere tactical support of himself was one of the reasons it commended itself to Montgomery, but Eisenhower was later gently to belittle the scheme as a mere ‘pencil thrust’ into Germany.
Instead, the Supreme Commander adopted the less risky ‘broad front’ approach to the invasion of the Reich, which he believed would ‘bring all our strength against the enemy, all of it mobile, and all of it contributing directly to the complete annihilation of his field forces’. Partly because of the efficacy of the V-weapon flying-bomb and rocket campaign against Britain – which could be ended only by occupying the launching sites – the main part was still to be the 21st Army Group’s advance through Belgium north of the Ardennes forest and into the Ruhr, which would also close off Germany’s industrial-production heartland, and thus deny Hitler the wherewithal to carry on the fight.
The 12th Army Group, which had been commanded by Bradley since August and was the largest force ever headed by an American general, was split by Eisenhower. Most of Lieutenant-General Courtney Hodges’ First Army was sent north of the Ardennes to support Montgomery, leaving Patton’s Third Army to march on the Saar, covered to his south by Lieutenant-General Jacob Devers’ 6th Army Group which had made its way up from the Anvil landings in the south of France. Even though Patton had crossed the Marne by 30 August 1944 and was soon able to threaten Metz and the Siegfried Line, lack of petrol along his 400-mile supply lines to Cherbourg – he had only 32,000 gallons but needed 400,000 for his planned advance – held him back, to his intense frustration. Patton’s personality was immense, but his battlefield achievements matched it. ‘I want you men to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country,’ he told his troops. ‘He won it by making the other dumb bastard die for his country… Thank God that, at least, thirty years from now, when you are sitting around the fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks you what you did in the great World War II, you won’t have to say, “I shovelled shit in Louisiana.” ’ To the widow of Second Lieutenant Neil N. Clothier, who was shot through the heart at Morville on 16 November leading his platoon towards a German machine-gun position, Patton wrote: ‘I know that nothing I can do can assuage your grief except to point out to you that since all of us must die, there is comfort in the fact that your husband died gloriously doing his duty as a man and a soldier.’
Brussels fell to the Canadians of the 21st Army Group on 3 September and Antwerp the next day, but here Montgomery made a significant error. Antwerp was next to useless to the Allies until the River Scheldt was free of Germans, but clearing its banks was to cost the Allies – mainly Crerar’s Canadian First Army – as many as 13,000 casualties, because it was not concentrated upon immediately. Allied ships did not reach Antwerp until 28 November 1944. Until that point supplies still had to reach the 21st Army Group via Normandy, an absurdly long route. (Dunkirk wasn’t liberated until 9 May 1945.) For Churchill, who had understood the vital importance of Antwerp in the Great War so clearly that he had led a mission there as first lord of the Admiralty in 1914, and for Brooke, Montgomery, Eisenhower and others so to underestimate the inland port’s strategic value is hard to understand even today.
Clearing the estuary was always going to be tough work; this is John Keegan’s description of a day in the life of Peter White’s platoon in the 4th Battalion, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, part of the 52nd Lowland Division whose job it was to open the mouth of the Scheldt in late 1944:
To get up each morning, after a day that had been itself an escape from death, to swallow tinned bacon, hard tack and chlorine-flavoured tea, to plod forward across soaked fields in which every footstep might set off a lethal explosive charge, to lie for hours in freezing water while shells raked the landscape, to rise as darkness fell in the hope of finding a dry spot to shelter for the night after a mouthful of bully beef and hard biscuit.
By contrast with Antwerp, Churchill’s tardiness over liberating the Channel Islands was understandable – for, as he told the War Cabinet on 26 November, now that it had ‘Come to [the] crunch’ the issue was ‘food’. There were 28,000 Germans stationed there who ‘can’t get away’, whereas ‘if [they came] over here [we would] have to feed them.’
The food situation in liberated Europe was dire, especially in Holland where the destruction of transport, flooding of several dykes and continued disorganization as a result of continuing operations created fears of mass starvation. As late as 12 March 1945 Churchill had to tell the War Cabinet that ‘Some of the inhabitants will need to take their food intravenously.’ When he had been read a report on how the Americans expected primarily British food reserves to be used in saving Holland, the Prime Minister exploded in anger and launched this (hitherto unpublished) tirade:
The United States are battening on our reserves, accumulated by years of self-denial. I am resisting that: but for an acute emergency we can and should use our reserves… Now is the time to say firmly that the US soldier eats five times what ours does. US civilians are eating as never before. We will never be behindhand with them in sacrifices: but let them cut down themselves before presuming to address us.
In September 1944 – two months after his sacking – Rundstedt was recalled as commander-in-chief west, a post he was to hold until March 1945 when his urging of Hitler to make peace earned him his third dismissal. Nicknamed der alte Herr (the old gentleman), he was sixty-eight at the time of his final appointment. Watching the Hitler Youth Division retreating over the River Meuse near Yvoir on 4 September, Rundstedt said what many German officers were thinking, but few dared state: ‘It is a pity that this faithful youth is sacrificed in a hopeless situation.’ A week later, on 11 September, the Allies set foot on German soil for the first time, when American troops crossed the frontier near Trier, yet Hitler still had armies numbering several million men, albeit far too widely dispersed. His West Wall – also known as the Siegfried Line – seemed formidable, and his reappointment of Rundstedt as commander-in-chief west was good for the Wehrmacht’s morale, with Field Marshal Model remaining in charge of Army Group B, Rommel and Kluge both having committed suicide after being tangentially implicated in the Bomb Plot. Later that month, Churchill, by now convinced that Hitler was a hopeless strategist, ridiculed him in the House of Commons:
We must not forget that we owe a great debt to the blunders – the extraordinary blunders – of the Germans. I always hate to compare Napoleon with Hitler, as it seems an insult to the great Emperor and warrior to connect him in any way with a squalid caucus boss and butcher. But there is one respect in which I must draw a parallel. Both these men were temperamentally unable to give up the tiniest scrap of any territory to which the high-water mark of their hectic fortunes had carried them.
He went on to liken Napoleon’s strategy of 1813–14 to that of Hitler, who ‘has successfully scattered the German armies all over Europe, and by obstination at every point from Stalingrad and Tunis down to the present moment, he has stripped himself of the power to concentrate in main strength for the final struggle’. Yet even while the House of Commons was laughing at the Führer’s strategic blunderings, Hitler was planning for a concentration of German force in the Ardennes such as would once again astonish the world – but for the last time.
Montgomery’s bold scheme to use the British 1st and the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to try to capture the bridges over the great rivers of the Maas (Meuse), Waal (Rhine) and Neder Rijn (Lower Rhine), and thereby help the land forces to encircle the Ruhr to the north, came to grief in mid-September 1944 in and around the Dutch towns of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem. Despite heroism of the highest order, mistakes were made in the planning stages – principally by Lieutenant-General F. A. M. ‘Boy’ Browning, on the intelligence side – which meant it was doomed before it began. It was the largest airborne assault in history, but intelligence that should have warned the 1st Airborne Division of two Panzer divisions that were refitting near Arnhem was given insufficient weight, and it therefore did not take enough anti-tank weaponry to the drop-zones. Operation Market, the airborne assault of Friday, 17 September, was initially successful, but the simultaneous ground attack by General Dempsey’s British Second Army and XXX Corps, codenamed Operation Garden, reached Eindhoven on the 18th and Nijmegen on the 19th but could not break through determined German resistance in time to relieve the paratroopers at Arnhem. Montgomery’s orders to Dempsey to be ‘rapid and violent, without regard to what is happening on the flanks’, seems not to have been taken sufficiently to heart. XXX Corps suffered 1,500 casualties compared with five times that number of Britons and Poles at Arnhem, who were massacred on the Lower Rhine by tank, mortar and artillery fire, with their food and ammunition exhausted. Treacherous flying conditions prevented reinforcement or resupply by air, and on the night of 25 September around 3,910 of the 11,920 men of the 1st Airborne Division and Polish Independent Brigade Group managed to withdraw to the south side of the river, the rest being either killed, wounded or captured. The 1st Airborne Division’s casualty figures were twice as high as the combined totals of the 82nd and the 101st Divisions. It was, nonetheless, to be the British Army’s last defeat.
What became known jointly as Operation Market Garden used up scarce Allied resources, manpower and petrol at precisely the moment that Patton was nearing the Rhine without insuperable opposition. Once the Allied armies stalled for lack of supplies, however, they would be unable to cross the borders of the Reich for another six months. The Germans meanwhile used the breathing space bought by their temporary victory in Holland to rush defenders to the Siegfried Line, which had previously been under-defended. Between late September and mid-November, Eisenhower’s forces found themselves fighting determined German counter-attacks in the Vosges, Moselle and the Scheldt and at Metz and Aachen. Hoping to cross the Rhine before the onset of winter, which in 1944/5 was abnormally cold, Eisenhower unleashed a massive assault on 16 November, supported by the heaviest aerial bombing of the entire war so far, with 2,807 planes dropping 10,097 bombs in Operation Queen. Even then, the US First and Ninth Armies managed to move forward only a few miles, up to but not across the Roer river.
Hopes that the war might be over in 1944, which had been surprisingly widespread earlier in the campaign – Admiral Ramsay wagered Montgomery £5 on it – were comprehensively extinguished just before dawn on Saturday, 16 December 1944, when Field Marshal von Rundstedt unleashed the greatest surprise attack of the war since Pearl Harbor. In Operation Herbstnebel (Autumn Mist), seventeen divisions – five Panzer and twelve mechanized infantry – threw themselves forward in a desperate bid to reach first the River Meuse and then the Channel itself. Instead of soft autumnal mists, it was to be winter fog, snow, sleet and heavy rain that wrecked the Allies’ aerial observation, denying any advance warning of the attack. Similarly, Ultra was of little help in the early stages, since all German radio traffic had been strictly verboten and orders were only passed to corps commanders by messenger a few days before the attack.
Suddenly on 16 December no fewer than three German armies comprising 200,000 men spewed forth from the mountains and forests of the Ardennes. Rundstedt and Model had opposed the operation as too ambitious for the Wehrmacht’s resources at that stage, but Hitler believed that he could split the Allied armies north and south of the Ardennes, protect the Ruhr, recapture Antwerp, reach the Channel and, he hoped, re-create the victory of 1940, and all from the same starting point. ‘The morale of the troops taking part was astonishingly high at the start of the offensive,’ recalled Rundstedt later. ‘They really believed victory was possible. Unlike the higher commanders, who knew the facts.’ The highest commander of them all, however, believed that the Ardennes offensive might be the longed-for Entscheidungsschlacht (decisive battle) as prescribed by Clausewitz.
The German disagreements over the Ardennes offensive were really three-fold, and more complex than Rundstedt and others made out after the war. Guderian, who was charged with opposing the Red Army’s coming winter offensive in the east, did not want any offensive in the west, but rather the reinforcing of the Eastern Front, including Hungary. Rundstedt, Model, Manteuffel and other generals in the west wanted a limited Ardennes offensive that knocked the Allies off balance, and gave the Germans the chance to rationalize the Western Front and protect the Ruhr. Meanwhile, Hitler wanted to throw the remainder of Germany’s reserves into a desperate attempt to capture Antwerp and destroy Eisenhower’s force in the west. As usual, Hitler took the most extreme and thus riskiest path, and as always he got his way.