The Northwest European Theatre: General Eisenhower I

Ike, Monty, and Bradley outside of Ike’s offices.

Eisenhower proved to be a mediocre practitioner of operational art in the summer of 1944. This was hardly surprising, given that he had spent his military career as a staff officer, with a brief spell commanding a battalion and no combat experience at all before being catapulted into theatre command in 1942. He had studied military theory and history assiduously, but no amount of study can give a feel for battle or adequately prepare one for it—both essential for the practical problems of command. Nor was Leavenworth’s interwar teaching a wholly reliable guide to fighting the Wehrmacht in 1944. Although it was certainly biased toward victory through attritional employment of superior firepower, it did not preclude operational maneuver. This was plainly what was required in the late summer of 1944, when an all but total enemy collapse afforded opportunities for the victors that were limited only by their logistic constraints—a situation never anticipated by the doctrine writers. Like all doctrine, Leavenworth’s should have been considered a guide to action without being prescriptive, but over time, it became unthinking dogma.

The dominant Allied problem in post-Normandy operations was logistics. It was especially acute for the Americans. Unlike the British, they would be moving farther away from their source of supply, while their ally took ports in the course of the advance on Germany. Eisenhower understood this from the day he decided against an operational pause on the Seine. However, the answers he found were inadequate. He stressed from the time of the Cobra breakout that the Breton ports were urgently needed, but he did not press his commanders with sufficient force or even logic. Several times he reiterated his requirement for the reduction of Brest, the last time on 13 September. He wrote: “We never counted on [Brest] as much as we had from Quiberon Bay. . . . experience of the past proved that we were likely to be vastly disappointed in the usefulness of the Brittany ports. Not only did we expect them to be stubbornly defended but we were certain that they would be effectively destroyed once we captured them.” Yet on 3 September he accepted the abandonment of the Quiberon Bay project while persisting with Brest—only to accept on 14 September that Brest would not be utilized. Despite this decision, he allowed attacks to continue at great expense in casualties and ammunition until the port’s fall five days later.

Of course, the progressive ditching of the Breton ports as the armies’ lines of communication stretched beyond the breaking point made sense if alternatives were becoming available. The investment of Le Havre at the beginning of September was promising, but it would be over a month before it could be opened for even minimal discharges. Of vastly more importance was the seizure, on 4 September, of Antwerp with its facilities intact. Eisenhower had been warned in the clearest of terms that this windfall would be useless without the clearance of the Scheldt estuary. He repeated, several times, his injunction to Montgomery to make this a priority, but in such terms that the field marshal felt the need to do nothing more than issue vague reassurances while overtasking First Canadian Army. Moreover, Eisenhower critically weakened his demand by acknowledging the primacy of the Market Garden offensive. He had succumbed to victory disease, as his office memo of 5 September illustrates: “The defeat of the German armies is complete and the only thing now needed to realize the whole conception is speed.” By 15 September, he was writing to Montgomery about a rapid march on Berlin. It was not until 9 October, after the failure of the venture and following a warning by Ramsay that Canadian operations were being hamstrung by an ammunition shortage, that he returned to the Antwerp issue and addressed it in blunt terms in a telegram:

I must repeat, we are now squarely up against the situation which we have anticipated for months; our intake into Continent will not support our battle. All operations will come to a standstill unless Antwerp is producing by middle of November. I must emphasize that I consider Antwerp of first importance of all our endeavors on entire front from Switzerland to Channel. I believe your personal attention is required in operation to clear entrance.

Even that injunction did not convince Montgomery to shift his priority from Second Army operations to clear the west bank of the Meuse. It took another blistering rebuke in a letter of 13 October to force Montgomery to take Eisenhower seriously.

By early September, the Supreme Commander knew that polite suggestions and reminders would be insufficient to deflect Montgomery from his chosen course. Only an unpolished, explicit order would suffice for an issue of such paramount importance as the opening of Antwerp. Eisenhower should have given such an order the moment he realized that bland assurances were not being matched by immediate action on the ground following his first, tactful directive of 5 September. Of course, he should have thought the problem through and offered troops—VIII Corps, which was now pointlessly besieging Brest, was the obvious choice—to help the overstretched 21 Army Group accomplish this vital task. It was too important and too urgent for anything but decisive action, and Eisenhower was the only man who could take it. Unfortunately, his thinking about Antwerp was neither clear nor consistent. During the critical period when the Germans were adjusting to the unexpected loss of the port and starting to organize their defense of the estuary, Eisenhower was apparently seduced into gambling on the Arnhem operation precipitating a German collapse that would make Antwerp unnecessary. He apparently failed to understand that if the gamble did not pay off, critical time would be lost. Too late, he realized that the end of Market Garden would find Montgomery’s command overextended and scattered, unable to make up for time lost in clearing the Scheldt. His belated provision of two American divisions to 21 Army Group was too little too late to prevent the full flowering of the logistic crisis that was paralyzing Bradley’s forces.

In deciding on his theatre’s operational formation and form of action, Eisenhower automatically followed the Leavenworth teaching and opted for an advance all along the front with only the airborne army as a reserve. The enemy would be kept under continuous pressure everywhere and ground down by superior firepower, with no opportunity to rest his formations, form a reserve to contest the initiative, or shift resources from one sector to another. Sooner or later he would crack somewhere, and this would enable the more mobile and flexible Americans, aided by air supremacy, to destroy him in pursuit. Normandy was seen as a vindication of this approach. Given the short frontage the Germans had to defend and the consequent density and depth of the defense, only relentless attrition could break their front, and this was finally achieved in Operation Cobra. There was, perhaps, a tendency to forget that Cobra’s success was due in large measure to First Army’s unusual concentration and deployment in depth for the attack. At any rate, none of the American armies would achieve similar concentration and depth in the autumn offensives, when there was a somewhat similar semi-stalemate.

In an advance against a withdrawing enemy, especially given superior mobility and armor and command of the air, there is much to be said for the broad-front concept. As the line of contact widens after the breakout, the enemy’s ability to hold strongly everywhere diminishes; attacks can be mounted against weak spots, penetrations can be achieved and exploited, and further ground can be gained before the defense is restored. Then rapid regrouping can enable fresh blows on weakened sectors, and the process is repeated until the enemy’s cohesion disintegrates. Once this happens, the advance becomes a pursuit as the enemy becomes a more or less helpless victim, reacting ever more belatedly and ineffectually to thrusts that can become bolder with impunity. Unless and until he can muster fresh forces to restore the situation, the size of this problem will become progressively more daunting; he may win the occasional tactical battle, but any elements that do so will be engulfed in a spreading operational catastrophe. In this way, the defeat of a corps may end in the disintegration of an army group.

One major argument adduced for the broad-front approach does not carry much weight in the circumstances of September 1944. The fear that halting Third Army would allow the enemy to reinforce against First Army or even mount a counteroffensive can be discounted. The Germans’ divertible strength in Lorraine was meager and lacking mobility; they had to take seriously the possibility of Patton renewing his drive at any time; and the Dragoon forces advancing rapidly up the Rhône valley were a looming threat to southern Lorraine and Alsace.

However theoretically desirable, an effective offensive on a broad front requires the right conditions to be set. One of these conditions is the establishment of some operational reserves, at least at army level. Without them, it is usually difficult to exploit rapidly and turn tactical into operational success or to switch axes in good time to prevent the defense from solidifying. The American operational-level commanders generally neglected this precaution, and their offensives suffered in consequence, especially when they compounded the problem by persisting in unprofitable attacks such as Hodges’s in the Hürtgen Forest and Patton’s on Metz. Eisenhower did nothing to correct this. Another precondition is the creation of a logistic system that can sustain the forces involved to the planned depth of the operation. This did not exist as US forces began their exploitation over the Seine in August, aiming for objectives about 1,000 km (620 miles) from their source of supply; this was due to the unexpected way operations had developed and the design of the system—Eisenhower’s fault in only a small way. The Supreme Commander had been worried about American logistic constraints as early as 24 August. Nevertheless, he was determined that both First and Third Armies should force the West Wall and cross the Rhine in a simultaneous advance. He knew that COMZ could maintain only ten to twelve divisions in the advance, even on reduced scales, and that this figure would decline even further. A general offensive would overstretch the enemy, but it would also inevitably overstretch his own forces; however, he persevered in the hope that the enemy would undergo political and/or military implosion before his own offensive culminated. It was a gamble, but one he believed worth taking. It was also a gamble that enabled him to avoid, or at least postpone, making a decision to halt a major formation and thus antagonize some influential players. Military logic—the importance of prioritizing the main effort and the greater effectiveness of fewer properly supported divisions in pursuit versus many inadequately supplied ones forced into an unpredictable stop-and-go pattern of activity—was lost to sight. An operational concept without sufficient means to implement it is a concept that should not be pursued.

It is clear that Eisenhower did not think through the implications of his directives, particularly for 12 Army Group, to the depth of his proposed operations. This was not the only example of his lack of operational-strategic foresight. He had consistently championed Operation Anvil/Dragoon in the teeth of British opposition. Yet he developed no concept for use of the forces coming up the Rhône corridor beyond tying down Nineteenth Army while the battle for Normandy was going on. When the newly designated 6 Army Group came under SHAEF control on 15 September, on Eisenhower’s insistence, its forward troops had reached the Epinal-Belfort line, skirting the High Vosges mountains. Eisenhower had assigned it, in essence, two tasks: destroy enemy forces within boundaries (the linkup with Third Army had been too late to trap the retreating Germans), and cross the Rhine–West Wall from Strasbourg southward. On 15 September he speculated in a letter to Montgomery that Devers would execute a thrust eastward, aimed at the Augsburg-Munich area. This mission would involve not only forcing the Rhine and its fortifications but also pushing through 50 km (30 miles) of the all but impenetrable Black Forest to seize objectives almost 400 km (250 miles) distant and of negligible importance to the German war effort. Little thought went into finding a useful role for 6 Army Group, even though it had its own supply chain from the Mediterranean ports. Eisenhower’s ideas never went beyond expressing a hope to Bradley that supply for Third Army’s operations in Lorraine could be eased by Devers’s logisticians and that his actions would support Patton’s right; later in September he transferred XV Corps to Seventh Army to relieve COMZ of the burden of supplying it, thus shifting the army group boundary north. The Supreme Commander seems never to have considered continuing an offensive north on the Epinal-Saarbrücken axis (about 160 km [100 miles]) to envelop the enemy facing Patton, or a more promising deep turning movement Epinal-Strasbourg-Mainz (about 360 km [225 miles], skirting the High Vosges). Eisenhower may have thought the latter move unworthy of consideration, as it could not commence until October, by which time he hoped victory would be clinched further north. He may have seen 6 Army Group as too marginal a force to contribute meaningfully to the campaign; it comprised five French, mostly colonial, divisions and only three American divisions, although more could and would be sent to it. He may have been influenced by his deep antipathy toward Devers. Whatever the excuses, he showed a lack of vision in his employment of a far from negligible asset when he confined it to Alsace, a strategic backwater.

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