THE FALAISE POCKET AND THE DEEP ENCIRCLEMENT IV

The long envelopment had not been invalidated by the short alternative, however. Had Bradley been single-mindedly focused on the primary aim of destroying the German forces, he could have proposed a thrust up both sides of the Seine to Rouen or beyond (as Patton wanted), possibly augmented by an airborne corps assault on key crossing sites. XV and XX Corps could have executed such a maneuver, with XIX Corps from First Army following and refused to the left (the same switch from one flank to another it would perform slightly later). Meanwhile, XII Corps could have established additional Seine crossings in the Paris area, reinforced in time by VII Corps, thus setting the conditions for a subsequent march on Germany. The Germans could not muster any serious force to stop such a powerful Third Army attack into their rear. Such a decision would have had the additional merit of putting the main effort under the command of the most thrusting, maneuver-minded of the Allied commanders (though it would have necessitated some reshuffling of command responsibilities). With Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies annihilated west of the Seine, there would be nothing of significance (save for sacrificial port-fortress garrisons) to prevent the Allies from picking up territorial gains in any direction. There is little doubt that Montgomery would have endorsed such a plan with enthusiasm (especially if it would have committed large American forces in the direction he favored for post-Normandy operations). Patton’s Beauvais maneuver would have done this, which was presumably the reason behind Bradley’s refusal to countenance it.

Thus, through belated doubts about his short hook proposal, Bradley need not have awarded the Germans an opportunity to rescue something from the wreck of Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies. His conduct of operations became no more decisive, however, in following the new course of action. He imposed a second, two-day operational pause on Third Army when nothing of significance lay in front of it. He sanctioned the establishment of a XV Corps divisional bridgehead over the Seine at Mantes-Gassicourt only reluctantly, and he made no use of it to develop the offensive northwestward to destroy the Germans’ crossing means and their reception centres on the right bank. He devoted only four divisions to the attack up the left bank. The rest of First Army and Third Army (less the now reinforced VIII Corps in Brittany) were switched from the task of encircling and destroying the enemy to that of forcing and then advancing from the Seine above Paris and taking the city. Bradley preferred seizing ground to decisive operational maneuver. He had lost sight of the stated aim of Operation Overlord: destruction of the German forces. He was happy to own up to this, even in retrospect. In his memoirs he wrote of the thrust up the left bank: “Had we not turned that pincer to Dempsey’s aid, we could have swept far east of Paris for more spectacular gains in terrain. But once again we were willing to forego ground in an effort to kill Germans.” Presumably afflicted by victory disease, believing that the enemy in Normandy was finished, his focus had already shifted to post-Overlord operations, and his sights were set on an advance to Germany by the shortest route. This would explain why he peremptorily rejected Patton’s 23 August proposal for a Third Army thrust northward to try yet again to pocket the fleeing Germans, this time in the area from Beauvais to the Channel (another proposal he did not see fit to discuss with his land forces commander).

Yet even the eastward thrust was pursued only in fits and starts. This was partly the result of Bradley’s ever-present concern about possible enemy countermoves and partly because of the logistic pinch that was beginning to be felt at the front. A transport shortage produced fuel supply constraints, which had already contributed to the pause imposed on Patton’s eastward pursuit. As it happened, on this occasion the Germans derived little benefit from this gift of time, as they had utterly inadequate forces with which to restore the front. However, Bradley was flouting a principle when he checked a successful advance to maintain the efforts of another formation that was largely involved in an attritional grind. Logistic problems would rapidly become worse until, within a week or two, they would temporarily close down much of 12 Army Group’s offensive effort. The sure and certain knowledge that this was going to happen should have been a powerful argument in favor of completely destroying the enemy forces in Normandy before pursuing distant objectives.

Bradley did not adjust quickly to his step-up from army to army group. Somewhat pedestrian competence at the lower level was insufficient at the higher. He lacked imagination and breadth of operational vision, responding instead to the ideas of others (mostly Montgomery and Patton). This was probably one reason for his failure to pursue a single aim consistently. He was a naturally cautious commander possessed of limited insightfulness and foresight, and he lacked the ability to put himself in the enemy’s shoes. Consequently, he persistently overestimated German capabilities, especially their ability to inflict damaging counterblows. Threats, such as the putative Fifth Panzer Army attack southeast to escape the pocket or the attack from south of the Loire against either Third Army’s flank or into Brittany, were allowed to delay or prevent action. They were invariably greatly exaggerated or even illusory. These traits contributed to his reluctance to commit wholeheartedly to a single concept of operations and to his frequent vacillations. He would embark on a course of action and then be assailed with doubts, checking or halting moves recently put in train or changing direction. The result was a lack of decisiveness in American operations.

Just as Montgomery’s personality limited his effectiveness as a commander, so too did Bradley’s. His allowed his dislike of Montgomery—a natural reaction to the latter’s attitude and manner, compounded by grievances nursed since Sicily—to warp his judgment somewhat. He was disinclined to work constructively with the land forces commander, preferring to undermine him with the Supreme Commander behind his back. His distaste for and distrust of Patton, combined with his cautious streak, also led him to favor his old friend Hodges. Both prejudices were periodically detrimental to operations. By keeping Montgomery in the dark and cooperating and coordinating only intermittently with 21 Army Group, Bradley diminished the effectiveness of both encirclements and ruled out a third (Patton’s Beauvais maneuver). Although Third Army was conducting potentially more decisive operations—at least until the two attempts to close successive traps on the Germans were handed to Hodges through boundary changes and troop transfers—Patton was left with fewer divisions (if those devoted to the Brittany distraction are discounted). Patton’s army was checked by looming supply difficulties, while First Army was allowed to expend ammunition in indecisive, attritional battles. And Patton was indisputably the more dynamic army commander, better suited to encirclement maneuvers than the pedestrian Hodges.

The Northwest European Theatre: General Eisenhower. Once the plans for the Normandy campaign had been agreed to by Eisenhower and his command team and approved by the CCS, the Supreme Commander found himself a frustrated observer rather than a player in the first couple of months of battle. He had agreed to the appointment of the vastly experienced Montgomery as interim commander of land forces and to his concept of operations. He rightly resisted the temptation to attempt remote control from the wrong side of the English Channel. This did not stop him from fretting about slow progress in what appeared to be a succession of indecisive operations, especially in the British sector, where the repeated failures in the Caen area limited the Allies’ flexibility and grasp of the initiative. Of course, his worries were inevitably more acute and wide ranging than those of any other officer in the theatre, for he had larger concerns weighing on him—concerns of which most others were only dimly aware. Eisenhower knew that, despite the Allies’ declared policy of defeating Germany first, any appearance of stalemate in France might lead to an even greater diversion of American resources to the supposedly secondary Pacific theatre. He was also aware that distant logistic problems could affect his operations, from a looming shortage of replacements to a shortfall in some artillery ammunition natures due to the War Department’s underestimate of needs. And at the forefront of President Roosevelt’s mind, and therefore the mind of Eisenhower’s boss, General Marshall, was the November presidential election and the need to ensure that public opinion was squarely behind their approach to waging war. Eisenhower was badgered by increasingly vociferous complaints about Montgomery’s leadership from most US generals, from his own SHAEF staff (including his chief of staff, Bedell Smith, and British officers from his deputy downward), from Washington, and from the American press. Increasingly they blamed him for his failure to grip his subordinate.

Eisenhower was also in dispute with his British ally over a major strategic issue. The often vituperative argument dragged on for seven months and involved not merely Eisenhower, Marshall, Montgomery, and Brooke but the prime minister and the president as well. Though committed to Overlord, the British also wished to maintain a strong (British-dominated) Italian campaign. The Americans saw this as lacking much strategic relevance once Italy had been driven from the war and heavy bombers had access to Italian bases from which they could pound the Reich; they suspected a British plot to drag them into a Balkan campaign. The Americans wanted to concentrate on the battle for France, complementing the main effort in Normandy with Operation Anvil, an assault on the Riviera coast followed by a thrust up the Rhône valley. They adduced strong arguments: a commitment had been made to Stalin at the Tehran conference; such an offensive would divert substantial German forces by threatening their rear; the liberation of France would be the most logical and politically acceptable use of the substantial French forces being equipped and trained by the United States (while simultaneously exploiting the resistance movement, which was particularly strong in the south); and the possession of Mediterranean ports (especially Marseilles) would greatly ease the logistic situation and speed up the arrival of American reinforcements by avoiding entry bottlenecks.

Launching Anvil at the same time as Overlord plainly had many advantages, but a shortage of assault shipping precluded simultaneity. When this became clear, Eisenhower, left with the decision, prevaricated as long as he could before coming down firmly in favor of Anvil, even at a later date. By 2 July, stasis in Normandy made a fresh landing, even one scheduled for as late as 15 August, attractive as a means of breaking the looming stalemate. With the post-Cobra breakout under way, however, Anvil (now renamed Dragoon) seemed redundant to the British, and Prime Minister Churchill made a last, desperate effort to have it canceled in favor of a smaller, improvised assault in Brittany. Eisenhower, bolstered by Marshall and Roosevelt, remained immovable on the issue. It was a fundamental tenet of American doctrine that the maximum possible force be brought to bear on the enemy’s main forces to smash them by sheer overwhelming weight, and the Riviera campaign was part of that process. It proceeded as planned and was a great, and inexpensive, success. In retrospect, it clearly did not contribute significantly to victory in Normandy. However, it was not obvious at the time that this would be so, and the logistic conduit of the Rhône corridor and the arrival of strong Allied forces in Alsace had a favorable effect on the campaign in the west. (The fact that its gains were not fully exploited was Eisenhower’s fault.) Whether anything substantial could have been accomplished in Italy had forces not been diverted from there is open to debate: Brooke, a vehement opponent of Anvil/Dragoon, doubted it.

By late July, climaxing with the perceived failure of Operation Good-wood, Eisenhower was under much pressure to assume personal command of the land battle. His worry about the semistalemate that had seemingly settled in was compounded by Montgomery’s refusal to recognize (or perhaps admit) that all was not proceeding according to his master plan. It is also possible that, despite his earlier endorsement of the operational concept propounded by his land forces commander, Eisenhower had lost sight of its logic and believed that failure was becoming endemic. He certainly complained to Churchill and Brooke and urged Montgomery to make greater efforts, despite the cost in casualties. But Eisenhower realized there was no room in the bridgehead for his vast, cumbersome SHAEF HQ; in addition, alliance politics made it almost impossible to sack Montgomery, and in any case, it would have been highly undesirable to alter the command structure at a critical time in the campaign. Probably just as important as these calculations was Eisenhower’s habitual reluctance to make decisions before events compelled him to do so. On this occasion, operational developments relieved him of the need to make a decision and endure the consequent confrontation—something he always strove to avoid. The Cobra breakthrough rapidly led to breakout and brought an early victory in Normandy within the Allies’ grasp.

Toward the end of July, Eisenhower was still stressing the importance of the Breton ports. “We must get the Brittany Peninsula,” he wrote to Montgomery. “From an administrative point of view that is essential. We must not only have the Brittany Peninsula, we must have it quickly. So we must hit with everything.” Nevertheless, he enthusiastically endorsed first Montgomery’s decision to downgrade Brittany’s priority in the Overlord plan, then his long envelopment concept, and then Bradley’s short hook response to the opportunity offered by the Germans’ Mortain counterattack. On 7 August he moved to an improvised SHAEF forward HQ in Normandy to keep in closer touch with operations as they developed. However, he had never commanded so much as a battalion in combat and had no feel for battle. He was thus ill equipped to judge the advisability of Bradley’s stop order of 13 August. He backed it, retrospectively endorsing Bradley’s hollow arguments to excuse it. He raised no objection to the later operational pause either, nor to Bradley’s dispersal of effort in search of territorial gains at the expense of encirclement. This was despite warnings from his logistic experts that pursuit beyond the Seine in any significant strength would be impossible because of a severe shortage of motor transport. The obvious conclusion was that the enemy had to be annihilated in Normandy, not just damaged and pushed back. Just as he made no attempt to ensure that Bradley’s operations dovetailed with Montgomery’s, at no stage did he try to refocus the actions of the latter. Instead of closely complementing each other, the operations of the two army groups drifted apart.

Eisenhower had both the clear authority and the responsibility to ensure that cooperation and coordination between the Allies remained close and that their efforts were focused on the declared aim. Because he failed to grip his subordinates, the destruction of enemy forces was only partially accomplished. In effect, Eisenhower remained a spectator throughout August—the Supreme Commander who did not command.

It is possible that Eisenhower’s failure to exercise his powers was attributable to his lack of practical understanding—understandable, given his training and limited experience—of the demands of the operational level of war. This lacuna was certainly there in the opinion of the CIGS, who confided to his diary on 27 July: “There is no doubt that Ike is all out to do all he can to maintain the best of relations between British and Americans, but it is equally clear that he knows nothing about strategy [read higher operations] and is quite unsuited to the position of Supreme Commander as far as any of the strategy of the war is concerned.” Brooke may have been right, but he was also biased by the fact that Eisenhower did not simply accept British guidance uncritically; he was probably unconscious of the irony when he bemoaned the way “national spectacles pervert the perspective of the strategic landscape.” It is likely, too, that Eisenhower’s lack of combat experience made him diffident, or at least cautious, when arguing with those who had a great deal of experience in battle, such as Montgomery. It is quite noticeable how much more confident and assertive Eisenhower became as time wore on and his experience grew. During the Germans’ December 1944 offensive through the Ardennes, he was much more sure-footed, more self-confident, and more decisive than Bradley.

Professional shortcomings aside, Eisenhower’s character and command style (the former determining the latter to a considerable extent) contributed to a lack of decisiveness in Normandy. He wanted to be popular; he preferred to persuade interlocutors to reach compromises and consensus, rather than compel obedience. This approach, combined with his seemingly inexhaustible patience, equable temperament, and goodwill, was the only way to manage the alliance. The Supreme Commander needed to be a diplomat as well as a soldier. The British and American governments, military commanders, and popular press were touchy, convinced of their own infallibility, and suspicious of others. Eisenhower had to act as chairman of the board, a symbol of unity who shaped policy by persuasion, rather than an autocrat who ruled by decree. He had to practice a high degree of decentralization to obtain cooperation and to avoid wasting time dealing with destructive squabbles between nationalities and services. He was often accused of agreeing with whomever he had last spoken. This appearance of bending with the wind was often necessary until he could work someone around to his point of view or at least to a compromise. Command of a coalition force is at least as much a political matter as a military one, and politics has been aptly defined (by Otto von Bismarck) as the art of the possible. Eisenhower also had a politician’s tendency to postpone decisions until further delay became dangerous; events often rendered unpopular decisions unnecessary or at least made them appear inevitable. When required, however, he was capable of decisiveness with regard to such diverse issues as command of the strategic air forces, the date of the invasion, and Anvil/Dragoon.

Eisenhower earnestly strove to maintain unity of purpose in his coalition command while pursuing what he believed to be the best course of action or, rather, the best compromise available. Yet he was inevitably influenced by his military upbringing and by his personal likes and prejudices. These had molded his military brain into certain well-defined channels, and despite his honesty and integrity and his efforts to accommodate others’ points of view, he was inclined to heed some people’s opinions more than others; he was only human. Eisenhower was imbued with the Leavenworth teaching that victory in major war stemmed from continuous offensive action across the front until, by dint of superior resources, US forces so wore down the enemy that he cracked and could then be destroyed in pursuit. So it had been in the Civil War and the First World War, and so it would be in 1944. His views were naturally shared by his closest subordinate commander, his old friend Omar Bradley. Eisenhower spent long hours discussing the campaign and making plans with Bradley during his seventeen often lengthy visits to Bradley’s HQ during the Normandy campaign. In contrast, he saw Montgomery, his principal subordinate, only nine times, and then for the briefest periods possible. Eisenhower disliked the man, was uneasy in his presence, and shied away from confrontation; for the most part, they communicated by letter and telegram. And while Eisenhower was critical of Montgomery’s perceived failures around Caen, his excessive caution, and his sensitivity to casualties, he was indulgent of Bradley’s errors in the west, including the delay in taking Cherbourg, the failure to foresee and then deal with the problem of the bocage and achieve the tempo envisaged in preinvasion planning, and his vacillations in mid-August.

Eisenhower’s approach to command thus had a great deal to recommend it, as long as the strategic and operational situation developed gradually and his principal subordinates were in broad agreement about the concept of operations. It was ill suited to achieving decisive effect in fast-developing situations such as those that pertained in August and September, when those commanders were at loggerheads over the direction the campaign should take. It also required his army group and army commanders to be men of goodwill, prepared not only to compromise but also to live up to the commitments they made, to suppress their egos and prejudices and act in the spirit of his directives, and to cooperate constructively to further the common aim. In the late summer of 1944, this could not be said of Montgomery, Bradley, Patton, or J. C. H. Lee (the chief American logistician).

CONCLUSIONS

The stated aim of Allied operations was the destruction of the enemy’s army. Although very heavy damage was inflicted, that aim was not achieved. It could have been. This would have enabled Anglo-American forces to march into Germany by any or, if they chose, every axis with minimal opposition; they could have closed up to the Rhine along its entire length, taking key economic objectives, in particular the Ruhr, and perhaps threatening Berlin. The stretching of the logistic system would have been a matter of only minor importance if there were no prospect of hard fighting. The Allies could have afforded to advance without bringing their full combat power to bear until at least those immediate objectives had been secured. But if the Germans were able to scrape together enough formations from the strategic depth to provide a screen behind which the remnants from the Normandy catastrophe could be reconstituted, a Teutonic version of the “Miracle of the Marne” (or of Dunkirk) would be possible. Then the Allies would find that their looming supply crisis, despite ample warning by the logisticians, would force an early culmination of their offensive. The enforced operational pause would give the enemy yet more time to field freshly raised and rebuilt forces and prolong the war. The Germans had lost whole armies before—for instance, at Stalingrad and in Tunisia—and had traded space for time to rebuild them. It was about to happen again.

Montgomery was overly optimistic (and had forgotten his painfully acquired knowledge of the Wehrmacht’s resilience) when he assured Brooke in mid-August that German formations that crossed the Seine would be incapable of combat during the months to come. Indeed, more than a dozen divisions that had escaped the Normandy envelopments, albeit much the worse for wear, contributed to the checking of the Allied advance in September. Two of them, 9 and 10 SS Panzer Divisions of II SS Panzer Corps, would, a mere four weeks after evading destruction at Falaise, ensure the defeat of Operation Market Garden, Montgomery’s attempt at a knockout blow. Army Group B had suffered a disaster in Normandy, but it was not the utter catastrophe it could and probably should have been. In the end, the losses in personnel and equipment were serious but not decisive. The Army of the West retained its cohesion and ability to regenerate. The HQs that escaped the partial encirclements in August provided the command and staff expertise necessary to rebuild formations, and fourteen of the surviving divisions (eight of them panzer) were reconstituted and provided most of the combat power for the Germans’ Ardennes offensive in December

After the war, General Eberbach mused: “I still don’t know why the Allies did not crush us at the Seine.” There were several reasons for this failure, but one was fundamental: unity of command was lacking in Normandy. Eisenhower was the titular supremo, but he preferred to fudge issues, delay decisions, seek consensus, and believe (or hope) it had been found; he did not exercise a firm grip. Whether he could have done so effectively if he had been so inclined is another question, but given the waywardness of his subordinates, especially Montgomery, this was a recipe for the indecisiveness that vitiated the campaign. Each operational-level commander lost sight of the declared theatre aim—the destruction of enemy forces—at least sometime during the month of August. Furthermore, national rivalries, occasional mutual incomprehension, and simple personal dislikes limited inter-Allied cooperation. Consequently, there was sufficient dispersal of effort to allow the Germans to avoid complete disaster.

Another important Allied weakness was the lack of awareness in the senior echelons—inevitable, in view of the lack of theoretical foundations or training—of either the possibilities or the demands of the operational level of war. Only insights born of a study of military history, experience, or both provided guidance for the more perceptive generals. Bradley, Hodges, Dempsey, and Crerar never really grasped that army, let alone army group, operations were not simply a matter of tactical solutions writ large. The problem (not that one was recognized) was compounded by the unexpectedness of the breakout. Only the most general planning had been done, and it had not foreseen the very advantageous circumstances in which the breakout took place. The campaign became one of hasty improvisations, and these were not always based on a holistic appreciation of the situation and its possibilities. As a result, battles were not always purposefully sequenced or synchronized, and some were fought unnecessarily. The desirability of maneuver in place of attack was frequently ignored, and the dividends to be gained from deep battle and deep operations were generally passed up in favor of a risk-averse, security-first approach to the exploitation of success. The effects of decisions and actions thus added up to less than the sum of their parts.

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