The German Army in The Ardennes 1914

Strategy and Tactics

The defeat of the French 4th Army by the German 4th Army in the Battle of the Frontiers spelled the failure of the French war plan. Combined with the Russian defeat at Tannenberg, the Entente strategy for simultaneous Russian and French attacks against Germany had also failed. French losses were far higher than German, and the resulting disparity in combat power meant that the French were not even able to hold the last significant terrain obstacle, the Meuse.

These victories were not accomplished by superior war planning or by operational excellence. The French had anticipated the German advance to the north of the Meuse and had devised an excellent means defeating it. The German advance through Belgium was hardly the thing of wonder that it has been made it out to be. That the French plan did not succeed, while the German plan did, had nothing to do with strategy, but was solely the product of German superiority at the tactical level.

There is a school of thought which maintains that the German ‘genius for war’ was the product of the excellence of the German Great General Staff, that is, German victories were due to superiority at the operational and particularly at the strategic levels. There is no evidence to be found for this proposition either in the Battle of the Frontiers as a whole or in the Ardennes on 22 August. The Chief of the General Staff, the younger Moltke, did nothing to give German planning operational coherence: the seven German armies acted virtually independently of each other. The German 5th Army attack plan for 22 August, written by a General Staff major general, left a corps-sized gap in the army centre that was not filled until late afternoon, and which nearly resulted in a French breakthrough, while the army right flank was hanging completely in the air. The 5th Army plan was not coordinated with the 4th Army. The 4th Army moved to the south on its own initiative at the last minute to cover the 5th Army right flank, in turn leaving the 4th Army’s own centre outnumbered and dangerously thin. Due to the 5th Army’s poorly thought-out attack, of the ten German corps in these two armies, two corps could only be brought into action late in the day and one not at all, while all the French corps were engaged. The only German senior officer to display sound operational ability in the Ardennes was the commander of the 4th Army, the Duke of Württemberg, a capable professional soldier but also the hereditary ruler of a German state and hardly the prototypical General Staff officer. But the real victors on 22 August in the Ardennes were the officers and soldiers of the divisions of the German 4th Army, which dealt the French 4th Army – the French main attack – the most stinging defeats in the entire Battle of the Frontiers.

The German Army

The German army’s 1906 infantry regulation presented an effective tactical doctrine based on the need to gain fire superiority as well as on offensive action based on fire and movement. German training in this doctrine was realistic and thorough, and concluded every year by several weeks of live-fire gunnery exercises and tactical problems conducted at MTA. French doctrine did not include the concept of fire superiority and the French did not have adequate training areas. German doctrine and training also emphasised the meeting engagement and individual initiative at the tactical level; the French, on the other hand, emphasised linear engagements tightly controlled at the division, corps and army levels.

The German army won the Battle of the Frontiers because of superior peacetime doctrine and training. German patrolling and reconnaissance were vastly superior to the French. In almost every instance, German reconnaissance provided excellent reports on French movements while blinding French cavalry reconnaissance. French air reconnaissance was largely ineffective in the forested Ardennes; the French senior headquarters formed an entirely erroneous impression of German movements and intentions. On 22 August none of the French divisions had any idea that major German forces were in their immediate vicinity.

On 22 August the two French armies were advancing to the northeast, while the two German armies were attacking to the west. All of the subsequent battles were meeting engagements. German units moved quickly and deployed smoothly. French movements suffered from friction and their deployment was slow and uncertain. Once engaged the Germans smothered the French with rifle, MG and artillery fire and gained fire superiority. If the Germans were on the defence, this fire stopped the French attack. If attacking, the Germans then closed with and destroyed the French infantry by fire and movement. Widespread myths notwithstanding, there were no trenches, and the only barbed wire encountered was that which the Belgian farmers used to fence in their livestock.

German Infantry

Prior to the war there had been considerable concern that the nerves of the troops would not stand up to the terrors of modern combat. As Otto von Moser noted, these battles proved beyond a doubt that the German troops were equal to the task. To Moser’s observations it must be added that the French troops were often not equal to the requirements of the modern battlefield; after a few hours of combat, most French units cracked. This was due to inadequacies in French training.

This was not to say that everything went flawlessly. In particular, the infantry often attacked without waiting for the fire support of MG and artillery to soften the enemy up. Losses were even higher than the most sobering peacetime projections: in Moser’s units more than a third of the officers and nearly a third of the enlisted men became casualties on 22 August. But French casualties were even higher. As The commander of the 25 ID, speaking of IR 116 and IR 117 at Anloy, said:

‘In spite of these (terrain) difficulties, in spite of the casualties and the intense enemy fire our troops worked their way forwards. As was characteristic of our men at this time, they got the bit in their teeth and pushed forward, which cost us a great many casualties … Nevertheless! Who would dare to criticise the wonderful aggressive spirit of our soldiers?’

In the battle the general was describing, the terrain was very close and the action was taking place at 400m range or less. Artillery support was practically impossible. Using fire and movement, the German troops pushed back the French, one terrain feature at a time. There were no ‘bayonet charges’. The German infantry simply kept on battering the French, undeterred by casualties.

The performance of the German infantry on 22 August 1914 was exceptional, the result of high morale, intelligent doctrine, effective training and excellent leadership.

German Artillery

The commander of the VI RK listed the common complaints about the performance of the German artillery. The infantry pushed quickly forward and the artillery was too slow to keep up. The German artillery was especially slow in occupying covered positions. The result was that the German artillery often fired into its own infantry. The French gun had a maximum effective range 2,000m greater than the German gun. The French artillery was better trained and more tactically proficient; the French operated flexibly, by batteries, the Germans employed clumsy three-battery sections.

Most of these criticisms seem to have been coloured by experiences later in the Marne campaign. During the French withdrawal, their artillery was very effective as a rear-guard. During the battle of the Marne the French emptied their magazines, firing prodigious quantities of shells that smothered the German infantry.

But during the meeting engagements on 22 August in the Ardennes the German artillery was almost always superior to the French. If it was sometimes slow to get into action, the French artillery was slower. The Germans were usually able to fight combined-arms battles; the French infantry was often destroyed before the French artillery got into action. The Germans frequently brought individual guns right into the skirmisher line, where they provided highly effective fire support at point-blank range; the French never did so. The German light and heavy howitzers proved their worth.

Both the German and the French artillery soon discovered that frequently the terrain did not provide observation of enemy positions. Rather than do nothing, both artilleries employed unobserved area fire (Streufeuer) against suspected enemy locations. This was not provided for in either the French or German pre-war artillery doctrines, because it was felt to be ineffective and wasteful of ammunition. However, both sides used it from the first day of combat on, and to good effect.

German Cavalry

German doctrine emphasised that cavalry needed to be aggressive during the battle in developing opportunities to both participate in the battle as well as to operate against the enemy flank and rear. Doctrine also stated that cavalry was the arm best suited to conduct pursuit.

While the 3 KD and 6 KD had been very effective in the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance roles before the battle, during the battle they accomplished nothing. The 3 KD commander decided that the terrain prevented the division from accomplishing anything and resigned himself to inactivity. 6 KD was used to guard the army left flank. Neither division conducted a pursuit, either on 22 or 23 August, although the Colonial Corps would seem to have offered a fine target for 3 KD and the right flank of the French VI CA an even better target for 6 KD.

It appears that the cavalry learned during the approach march that a mounted man presented a fine target and that even small groups of infantry were capable of blocking cavalry movement. By 22 August the senior cavalry commanders were thoroughly intimidated: they avoided serious contact and were unwilling to attempt to move large bodies of cavalry anywhere that they might be subject to small arms or artillery fire. Coupled with the unimaginative operations of the 5th Army headquarters, the timidity of the cavalry leaders cost the cavalry the opportunity to have made a major impact in the battle.

Command and Control

The German army discovered that modern means of communications were unreliable, an observation that would be repeated by practically every subsequent army. This included the telephones that connected army headquarters to OHL, which utilised the seemingly infallible civilian telephone net. As Crown Prince Wilhelm complained, the telephones became so overloaded with traffic that the command and control system at times broke down completely. Nevertheless, German reporting was good and with the exception of the breakdown between V AK and XIII AK German senior HQs kept each other informed.

Liebmann’s Evaluation of German Doctrine and Training

In his study of how German doctrine and training withstood the test of combat in 1914, Liebmann concluded that ‘In 1914, none of our enemies possessed a doctrine which was superior in combat to that of the German army, even though we must acknowledge that German doctrine had weaknesses’.

‘Foremost among these errors was a failure to recognise the effect of firepower, even though German doctrine was based on firepower … It must also be recognised that even the most conscientious preparation in peacetime does not insulate against similar errors.’

‘The German infantry proved itself to be superior to that of the enemy. Its high morale and discipline and its powerful offensive spirit, the product of its traditions and decades of training, allowed it in many cases to simply overrun the enemy infantry’. But Liebmann said that this superiority applied only to mobile warfare, and contended that attacks later in the war against a prepared enemy defence failed disastrously.

Liebmann said that conducting the firefight with thick skirmisher lines was effective and that the casualties incurred were acceptable as were forward bounds by individuals or by squads. Casualties only became serious when long lines bounded forward or entire fronts conducted assaults. And although the German army emphasised fire superiority, gaining and using it in actual practice proved difficult. A much more serious deficiency in German doctrine and training was the failure to recognise the difficulties in infantry–artillery cooperation. In German exercises the problem was glossed over. On the other hand, the German cavalry performed its reconnaissance function everywhere with distinction.

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25th July-Operation SPRING

Infantrymen of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles advancing through fields during Operation SPRING near Ifs, France, 25 July 1944.

Operation SPRING was launched by the II Canadian Corps at 0330 hours on 25th July to coincide with a major US First Army offensive on the western flank codenamed COBRA. At this time Dietrich still had the 272nd Infantry Division, supported by elements of 2nd Panzer and 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, defending the left-hand section of his Corps area to the east of the Orne, the 12th SS Panzer Division HJ in defence in the Vimont sector and 1st SS Panzer astride the Route Nationale 158, the main Caen to Falaise highway. As an important reserve he had the balance of 9th SS in position to the north-west of Bretteville-sur-Laize. Dietrich had been told by von Kluge on 23rd July that both the LAH and HJ would shortly be relieved by infantry divisions; but before this was to happen the LAH, and indeed the 272nd Infantry Divisional Group, would have to withstand the onslaught of operation SPRING.

The aim of the operation, as defined by Montgomery, was to capture the area Fontenay-le-Marmion, Point 122 (also known as Cramesnil spur) and Garcelles-the exact area held by the Leibstandarte. To help in this task II Canadian Corps had been allocated the British Guards and 7th Armoured Divisions, giving it a total of four divisions, two of them armoured, and an additional armoured brigade. The successful conclusion of this operation was to be followed by a XII Corps attack west of the Orne on the 28th to capture Evrecy and Amayé, and finally VIII Corps was to attack through II Canadian Corps, down the Falaise road, to cover the capture by the British Guards of the large wooded area to the east of Garcelles. When all this had been achieved, Monty intended to launch several armoured divisions towards Falaise in a re-run of GOODWOOD. The role of the LAH in frustrating Montgomery’s plans would therefore be crucial.

How was 1st SS deployed to meet Operation SPRING? Starting on the east side of the Caen-Falaise highway, the area from inclusive Ia Hogue to just north-east of Tilly-la-Campagne (Tilly) was defended by Max Junge’s 2nd SS Panzer-Grenadier Battalion of Sandig’s 2nd Regiment, together with the 3rd SS (88mm) Flak Company. Tilly itself had been made into a strongpoint, with Dinse’s 3rd SS (SPW) Panzer-Grenadier Battalion, Wolff’s 7th SS Panzer (Mk lV) Company and a company of Scheler’s 1st SS Pioneer Battalion. To the west of Tilly, near the Caen-Falaise highway, Herford’s 2nd SS Grenadiers of the 1st Regiment were in position with the revamped 2nd SS StuG Company.

There were strong forces in depth-the 1st SS Panzer-Grenadier Battalion of Sandig’s Regiment was to the north of Secqueville, the 2nd SS Werfer Company just south of Tilly, the rest of Scheler’s SS Pioneers in Garcelles and, most importantly, Kling’s 2nd SS Panzer Battalion, less the 5th and 7th Companies, was in reserve just to the east of Garcelles.

The vital area from the Caen-Falaise road to and inclusive of Verrieres, was held by Fritz Lotter’s 1st SS Panzer-Grenadier Battalion less its 3rd Company, the 12th SS Heavy PanzerGrenadier Company of Graetz’s Battalion and the 15th SS (Pioneer) Company, all from Schiller’s 1st Regiment, together with SS Lieutenant Werner Sternebeck’s 5th SS Panzer Company and the reorganised 1st SS StuG Company. Forward of these main positions in Torteval there was a screen force provided by the 1st SS Reconnaissance Battalion and, in depth behind them at Rocquancourt, there was a strong reserve comprising four SS Grenadier Companies from the 1st Regiment and the 3rd SS Sturmgeschütz Company. The other two SS 88mm Flak companies were at Caillouet and St Aignan where the rest of Knittel’s 1st SS Reconnaissance Battalion provided yet another reserve.

On 25th July the 2nd SS Panzer Battalion had forty-one operational Mk IVs and the 1st SS Sturmgeschütz Battalion had been re-equipped with thirty-two StuGs. It is unclear whether Kuhlmann’s 1st SS Panzer (Panther) Battalion was still with the LAH at this time or had been pulled out to reinforce the Hitlerjugend. Hubert Meyer says that by 31st July it was part of a reinforced KG Wünsche reserve force but he does not say when it moved across. The Leibstandarte TV/I by Lehmann and Tiemann records it as part of the LAH armoured reserve to the east of Garcelles on 24th July and goes on to mention it taking part in a counter-attack on the evening of the 25th. However, this must be questioned since it says the Battalion had only ‘about ten Panzers’ when we know that in reality it had thirty-one operational Panthers on that day. Certainly Jochen Peiper’s 1st SS Panzer Regimental Head- quarters was located in the Chateau at Garcelles-Secqueville at this time.

With or without the 1st SS Panzer Battalion LAH, the whole defensive layout facing II Canadian Corps was typical of German military thinking and destined to cause major problems for the attacker. Lieutenant General Guy Simonds’s plan called for Major General Foulkes’s 2nd Canadian Infantry Division to take May-sur-Orne and Verrieres, and Keller’s 3rd Division to capture Tilly. Erskine’s British 7th Armoured Division was due to advance down the centre-line to seize the Cramesnil spur, whilst the 2nd Division pressed on to Fontenay-ie-Marmion and Rocquancourt and the 3rd Division to Garcelles. The British Guards Armoured Division was to clear the woods to the east of Garcelles once the 3rd Infantry had secured the village. It was an ambitious plan involving an advance of over 10km.

Although the Canadian plan for SPRING looked on the face of it reasonably simple and logical, in reality it left a lot to be desired. For example, it sounds perfectly reasonable for an Infantry Division to be given the task of capturing Tilly; the attack was however to be carried out, not by the Division, not even by one of its Brigades, but by just one Battalion-the poor North Nova Scotia Highlanders. Only after Tilly had fallen and the ‘Desert Rats’ had secured Point 122, was the Highland Light Infantry of Canada due to advance on Garcelles. The rest of Brigadier Cunningham’s 9th Infantry Brigade and the whole of Foster’s 7th were being held for the exploitation phase and the entire 8th Brigade of Brigadier Blackader was, inexplicably, to be in reserve. The only thing which can be said for this plan is that it was simple.

The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division’s plan was quite the opposite, over complicated and seriously flawed. In the first place the selected Start-Line for the attack, the St Andre to Hubert-Folie road, was not even in Canadian hands; and then, almost as if to ensure that there would be chaos, the three Brigades of the Division were muddled up. The 6th Brigade lost two of its battalions to the other Brigades so that they could secure the Start-Line, but then each of those two Brigades lost one battalion to Brigadier Young’s 6th Brigade in order to provide a reserve. The main attack was to be delivered against Verrieres by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI) and against May-sur-Orne by the Calgary Highlanders. A second phase, due to begin at 0530 hours, was to involve Lieutenant Colonel Cantlie’s Black Watch of Canada and a tank squadron of the 1st Hussars taking Fontenay-le-Marmion, with the Royal Regiment of Canada (Royals) and another Hussar squadron passing through Verrieres to capture Rocquancourt.

Perhaps to add even more flavour to this ‘cocktail’, ‘Looney’ Hinde’s 22nd British Armoured Brigade was to move forward from Ifs in a counter counter-attack role and to be ready to exploit to Point 122 and, just for good measure, the British 27th Armoured Brigade, from a different Corps, was to secure the left flank. If the reader is now thoroughly confused, he will know what it was like for those who attended General Simonds’s ‘O’ Group on 23rd July.

Although the Allied heavy bomber force was now required to support the American breakout attempt in the west, medium bombers were available to help the Canadians in SPRING, as was a powerful force of Canadian and British artillery.

On the evening of 24th July sixty medium bombers took part in a preliminary air attack on the German positions, but due to very effective German Flak only fifteen aircraft succeeded in attacking their targets.

The main night attack by the Canadians which began at 0330 hours was meant to be helped by what was termed ‘artificial moonlight’-light created by reflecting searchlight beams off clouds. According to the commanding officer of the North Nova Scotias, all it achieved when it did come on, was to silhouette his men as they advanced from Bourguebus towards Tilly. Despite heavy artillery support, his three attacking companies had little hope anyway against Dinse’s Battalion of SS Panzer-Grenadiers, supported by Pioneers and Wolff’s Mk IV Panzer Company. During the attack seventy-four medium bombers bombed the woods to the east of Tilly, around la Hogue, for two hours beginning just after 0600 hours, but it did nothing to help the Canadian attack, and even when the rest of the Nova Scotias were thrown in, together with their carriers and SP anti-tank guns, they could not prevail. The unit War Diary noted that A and C companies were pinned down when ‘the enemy opened the door, let them in and trapped them’ and the 9th Infantry Brigade Diary described the Battalion as being ‘decimated’. The squadron of Fort Garry Shermans allocated to support the attack complained that it was unable to help effectively ‘as Panther tanks remained between our tanks and the advancing infantry’. It withdrew at 1715 hours having lost eleven of its sixteen tanks. Eventually permission was given for the surviving Canadians to withdraw back to Bourguebus. About 100 made it under cover of darkness. The Battalion had suffered 139 casualties, including sixty-one killed. According to the Official Canadian History the LAH, ‘had fought with genuinely fanatical determination and skill.’ Considering many of its soldiers were much younger than their Canadian counterparts and had received less than three months training, this was praise indeed.

Manfred Thorn, the nineteen-year-old driver of one of Wolff’s Mk IVs in the 7th SS Panzer Company, described his part in the day’s events:

Our Panzer was well camouflaged, huddled up against the wall of a house. . . . the three [Canadian] tanks had not seen us yet. One shot from our gun would have brought us certain death. . . . I turned the motor on and put it in reverse . . . We wanted to fire at the three tanks, which were still standing in the same spot, from behind. . . . We moved along the road to the east, out of Tilly. . . . turned south again, back toward Tilly. . . . When we were about 20m from the tanks we opened fire. The first one burst into flames and the other two took some hits. The crews bailed out.  

A platoon commander in Wolff’s Panzer Company, SS Second Lieutenant Stiller, gave a wider picture.

The [SS] infantry crouched in their foxholes. The Panzer crews lay under their Panzers. Mortar and artillery shells rained down on us. . . . The sun was still low when Tommys’ tanks approached from the north-west. That was good for us; they had to aim right into the sun. Our orders were, ‘Let them get closer!’. . . . Finally the white flare went up! Fire at will! The tracer trajectories shot out of our ambush positions. Shell after shell flew out of the barrels, and more Panzers raced up to join our line. Five minutes of that and the Tommys [sic] stopped in their tracks. . . . Behind us, however, there was a thundering sound. Heavy Nebelwerfers pulled up, and for 500m in front of us the terrain turned into a hell. The Tommys fled from the field like rabbits. One of the tanks must have taken a direct hit, for it simply disappeared. Others stopped where they were and became smoking witnesses to the destruction. . . . We hunted down some more Canadians who had left their vehicles and hidden in the houses.  

The attack by the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division was over. It will not surprise the reader to learn that the commander of the 9th Infantry Brigade and two of his commanding officers were sacked.

 

 

The Revolution’s Dunkirk, August 29, 1776

TRAPPING GEORGE WASHINGTON

For all that can be said for a deterministic view of history—for the inevitability of what T. S. Elliot called “vast impersonal forces”—chance and luck (two related but altogether different phenomena) also play a part. How else to explain the events of mid-August 1776, when, badly beaten at the Battle of Long Island (Brooklyn, actually), George Washington and his small army faced what seemed to be certain annihilation by a larger British army, one of the world’s best. As David McCullough points out, nothing less than the independence of the United States was at stake. But the whims of weather were beyond prediction then, as they often still are. Perhaps in this case the most you can say about inevitability is that Washington almost always had the knack of seizing the right moment.

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The day of the trial, which will in some measure decide the fate of America, is near at hand,” wrote General George Washington in mid-August 1776 from his headquarters in New York. The Declaration of Independence had been signed in Philadelphia only days before, on August 8—not July 4, as commonly believed—and for six weeks an enormous British expeditionary force, the largest ever sent to dispense with a distant foe, had been arriving in lower New York Harbor.

The first British sails had been sighted at the end of June, a great fleet looking, as one man said, like “all London afloat.” It was a spectacle such as had never been seen in American waters. And the ships had kept coming all summer. On August 13, Washington reported an “augmentation” of ninety-six ships on a single day. The day after, another twenty dropped anchor, making a total of more than 400, counting ten ships-of-the-time, twenty frigates, and several hundred transports. Fully thirty-two thousand well-equipped British and hired German troops, some of the best in the world, had landed without opposition on Staten Island—an enemy force, that is, greater than the whole population of Philadelphia, the largest city in the newly proclaimed United States of America.

The defense of New York was considered essential by Congress, largely for political reasons, but also by General Washington, who welcomed the chance for a climactic battle—a “day of trial,” as he said. Yet he had scarcely 20,000 troops and no naval force, not one fighting ship or proper transport. His was an army of volunteers, raw recruits, poorly armed, poorly supplied. The men had no tents—to cite one glaring deficiency—and few were equipped with bayonets, the weapon employed by the British with such terrifying effectiveness. As a surgeon with Washington’s army wrote, “In point of numbers, or discipline, experience in war . . . the enemy possessed the most decided advantage; beside the importance of assistance afforded by a powerful fleet.”

Among the considerable number of the men who were too sick to fight was Washington’s ablest field commander, Nathaniel Greene. Few American officers were experienced in large-scale warfare. Washington himself until now had never led an army in the field. The battle to come was to be his first as a commander.

With no way of knowing where the British might strike, Washington had chosen to split his troops, keeping half on the island of Manhattan, while the rest crossed the East River to Long Island, to dig in on the high bluffs on the river known as Brooklyn Heights—all this carried out in disregard of the old cardinal rule of never dividing an army in the face of a superior foe. When, on August 22, the British began ferrying troops across the Narrows to land further south on Long Island, about eight miles from the little village of Brooklyn, Washington responded by sending still more of his army across the East River, which, it should be noted, is not really a river at all, but a tidal strait, a mile-wide arm of the sea with especially strong currents.

“I have no doubt but a little time will produce some important events,” Washington wrote in classic understatement to the president of Congress, John Hancock.

In fact, it was a situation made for an American catastrophe. With at most 12,000 troops on Long Island, Washington faced an army of perhaps 20,000. Should there be no stopping such a force, he and his amateur soldiers would have to retreat with the river to their backs. Which is just what happened.

The furious battle of Long Island was fought several miles inland from Brooklyn Heights on Tuesday, August 27, 1776. The British, under General William Howe, outflanked, out-fought, and routed the Americans in little time. The British officers under Howe included James Grant, Henry Clinton, Lords Cornwallis and Percy, and all performed expertly. As John Adams was to conclude succinctly, “In general, our generals were outgeneralled.”

Astride a big gray horse, watching from a hillside, Washington is supposed to have said in anguish, “Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose!” By later estimates, his losses were higher than he knew; more than 1,400 killed, wounded, or captured. Two of his generals had been taken captive. Many of his best officers were killed or missing. British use of the bayonet had been savage and on men who had surrendered as well, as one British officer proudly recorded, explaining, “You know all stratagems are lawful in war, especially against such vile enemies of the King and country.” Washington and his exhausted men fell back to the fortifications on the Heights, waiting as night fell for a final British assault, the river to the rear.

And right there and then the American cause hung in the balance. The British, as Washington seems not to have realized—or allowed himself to think—had him in a perfect trap. They had only to move a few warships into the East River and all escape would be sealed. Indeed, but for the caprices of weather, the outcome would have been altogether different.

What actually happened was extraordinary. What so obviously could have happened, and with the most far-reaching consequences, is not hard to picture.

To be sure, the individual makeup of the two commanders played a part. On the day following the battle, influenced no doubt by his experience of the year before at Bunker Hill, General Howe chose not to follow up his victory by storming the American lines on Brooklyn Heights. He saw no reason to lose any more of his army than absolutely necessary, nor any cause to hurry. William Howe almost never saw cause for hurry, but in this case with reason—he had, after all, Washington right where he wanted him.

For his part, Washington appears to have given no thought to a withdrawal, the only sensible recourse. All his instincts were to fight. On Wednesday, August 28, and again on Thursday, August 29, his food supplies nearly gone, his time clearly running out, he ordered that still more reinforcements be rowed over from New York, a decision that seems almost incomprehensible.

His men, for all their bravery and devotion to him, were worn out, hungry, and dispirited. And it had begun to rain. On August 29, the temperature dropped sharply and the rain came in torrents on the unsheltered army. During the afternoon, according to a diary kept by a local Brooklyn pastor, “Such heavy rain fell again as can hardly be remembered.” Muskets and powder were soaked. In some places men stood in flooded trenches in water up to their waists. Expecting the enemy to attack at any moment, they had to keep a constant watch. Many had not slept for days. A New York man who saw them after it was all over said he never in his life saw such wretched, exhausted-looking human beings.

Washington’s presence along the lines and his concern for the men were felt day and night. Seldom was he out of the saddle. On both August 28 and August 29, he appears to have had no rest at all.

But in their misery was their salvation. The driving rain and cold were part of a fitful, at times violent, nor’easter that had been blowing off and on for better than a week, and for all the punishment it inflicted, the wind had kept the British ships from coming upriver with the tide. For the new nation, it was an ill wind that blew great good, so long as it held.

Meantime, as the British historian Sir George Otto Trevelyan would write, “Nine thousand [or more] disheartened soldiers, the last hope of their country, were penned up, with the sea behind them and a triumphant enemy in front, shelterless and famished on a square mile of open ground swept by fierce and cold northeasterly gale . . .”

In a letter to John Hancock written at four o’clock in the morning, August 29, the crucial day, Washington reported only on the severity of the weather and the lack of tents that Congress had failed to supply, but said nothing of a retreat. He had seen five British ships attempt to come up the river and fail; and so he appears to have been banking on no change in the wind. Possibly he believed, too, that obstructions in the harbor—hulks sunk as hazards—had truly blocked the passage of all but small craft, a notion that was to prove quite wrong. In any event, having been outflanked on land, he stood perilously close to being outflanked by water.

The decision that so obviously had to be made came only later in the day, after it was learned that the British, under the cover of dark, were advancing by “regular approaches”—working through the night, throwing up entrenchments nearer and nearer the American lines—and after Washington at last accepted the likelihood of the British fleet at his back. Importantly, as he himself was to emphasize, the decision came on “the advice of my general officers.”

According to one first-hand observer, it was General Thomas Mifflin, a self-assured thirty-two-year-old “fighting Quaker” from Philadelphia, who was the most emphatic. Mifflin, who had come over from New York with the last reinforcements only the day before, had been the one who, on his night rounds, discovered that the British were digging their way forward. Immediate retreat was imperative, the only remaining choice, he told Washington. Lest anyone question his character for making such a proposal, Mifflin asked that he be put in command of the rear guard, by far the most dangerous of assignments in a retreat.

With the rain still pounding down, Washington and his generals gathered for a council of war in the Brooklyn Heights summer home of Philip Livingston, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who was in Philadelphia attending Congress. The time was early afternoon. The purpose of the meeting, as stated in the official minutes, was “whether under all circumstances it would not be eligible to leave Long Island.” Two of the reasons given for an affirmative resolution were that the northeast wind might shift and that the consoling thought of obstructions in the harbor was now considered erroneous.

So it was decided. Preparations were set immediately in motion. An order from Washington went over to New York to collect every boat “from Hellgate on the [Long Island] Sound to Spuyten Duyvil Creek [on the Hudson] that could be kept afloat and that had either sails or oars, and have them all in the east harbor of the city by dark.”

It was said the boats were needed to transport the sick and bring still greater reinforcements over to Brooklyn. Officers on the Heights, meanwhile, were to be ready to “parade their men with their arms, accoutrements and knapsacks at 7 o’clock at the head of their encampments and there wait for orders.”

In all, it was a straightaway lie by Washington, intended to keep the truth from the men until the last moment—and thereby reduce the chance of panic—and hopefully to deceive the British—and the innumerable British spies in New York—once the roundup of boats was under way.

Most of the troops took the order to mean they were to go on the attack. A young captain of Pennsylvania volunteers, Alexander Graydon, would recall men taking time to write their wills. He, however, sensed something else was afoot. “It suddenly flashed upon my mind that a retreat was the object, and that the order . . . was but a cover to the real design.” Yet who was to say? None of the other officers who listened to his theory dared believe it. Never in years to come could he recall the long wait without thinking of the chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry V, describing the “weary and all-watched night” before Agincourt.

The first boats began crossing as soon as it turned dark. How it was all managed is almost beyond imagination. Every conceivable kind of small craft was employed, manned by Massachusetts men—soldiers from the ranks but sailors and fisherman by trade—from Marblehead and Salem, under the command of General John Glover and Colonel Israel Hutchinson. It can be said that the fate of the American army was in their hands. How readily the night could turn disastrous on the water, no less than on land, was more apparent to them than to anyone.

Everything was to be carried across—men, stores, horses, cannon. Every possible precaution had to be taken to keep silent—oars and wagon wheels were muffled with rags; orders were passed on in whispers. Every boat that pushed off, every crossing, was a race against time, and in black night and rain.

At one point, all seemed lost. Sometime near nine, the northeast wind picked up at ebb tide. The wind and current were more than sail could cope with, even in expert hands, and there were too few rowboats to carry everyone across before daylight. But in another hour or so, the wind mercifully fell off and shifted southwest, becoming the most favorable wind possible; and so the exodus resumed, all boats in service.

It went on hour after hour almost without a hitch. If ever fortune favored the brave, it was that night on the East River. Washington, who had proven considerably less than impressive in his first battle command, handled this, his first great retreat, with a steadiness and dispatch that were masterful. As untrained and inexperienced as his men may have been, however wet and miserable, they more than rose to the occasion. They stood for hours waiting their turns, then when told, moved off as silent ghosts, heading down the slopes to the river in pitch darkness, to the Brooklyn ferry landing, which was about where the Brooklyn Bridge now stands.

As the night progressed, and one regiment after another was withdrawn, the front lines grew perilously thin, to the point where there was almost no one left to stop an attack, should the enemy discover what was happening. It was the rear guard under Mifflin that had to stay to the last, keeping campfires burning and making sufficient noise to maintain the illusion of the full army in position.

The one hitch happened about two in the morning, when somehow Mifflin received orders to withdraw, only to learn on the way to the landing that it had been a dreadful mistake and that he and his men must return at once to their posts. “This was a trying business to young soldiers,” one of them later wrote. “It was nevertheless complied with.” They were back on the line before their absence was detected.

Another officer, Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge would recall, “As the dawn of the next day approached, those of us who remained in the trenches became very anxious for our own safety . . .”

Troops in substantial numbers had still to be evacuated and at the rate things were going, it appeared day would dawn before everyone was safely removed. But again “the elements” interceded, this time in the form of pea-soup fog.

It was called “a peculiar providential occurrence,” “manifestly providential,” “very favorable to the design,” “an unusual fog,” “a friendly fog,” “an American fog.” “So very dense was the atmosphere,” remembered Benjamin Tallmadge, “that I could scarcely discern a man at six yards’ distance.” And as daylight came, the fog held, covering the entire operation no less than had the night.

Tallmadge would recall that when the rear guard at last received word to pull out, and “we very joyfully bid those trenches adieu,” the fog was still “as dense as ever.”

When we reached Brooklyn ferry, the boats had not returned from their last trip, but they very soon appeared and took the whole regiment over to New York; and I think saw General Washington on the ferry stairs when I stepped into one of the last boats . . .

When the fog lifted at about seven o’clock, the British saw to their astonishment that the Americans had vanished.

Amazingly, the entire force, at least 9,000 troops, possibly more, plus baggage, provisions, horses, field guns, everything but five heavy cannon that were too deep in the mud to budge, had been transported over the river in a single night with a makeshift emergency armada assembled in a matter of hours. Not a life was lost. It is not even known that anyone was injured. And as Tallmadge remembered, Washington, risking capture, had stayed until the last boat pushed off. As it was, the only Americans captured by the British were three who stayed behind to plunder.

The “day of trial” that Washington had foreseen deciding the fate of America had turned out to be a night of trial, and one that did truly decide the fate of America as much as any battle.

It was the Dunkirk of the American Revolution—by daring amphibious rescue a beleaguered army had been saved to fight another day—and tributes to Washington would come from all quarters, from those in the ranks, from officers, delegates in Congress, and from military observers and historians then and later. A British officer of the time called the retreat “particularly glorious.” A latter-day scholar would write that, “A more skillful operation of this kind was never conducted.”

But what a very close call it had been. How readily it could have all gone wrong—had there been no northeast wind to hold the British fleet in check through the day the Battle of Long Island was fought, not to say the days immediately afterward. Or had the wind not turned southwest the night of August 29. Or had there been no fortuitous fog as a final safeguard when day broke.

What the effect would have been had British naval forces come into play off Brooklyn Heights was to be vividly demonstrated just weeks later, when, with favorable wind and tide, five warships, including the Renown with fifty guns, sailed up the East River as far as Kips Bay and from 200 yards offshore, commenced a thunderous point-blank bombardment of American defenses on Manhattan. “So terrible and so incessant a roar of guns few even in the army and navy had ever heard before,” wrote a British naval officer. Earthworks and entrenchments were destroyed in an instant, blasted to dust, while American troops fled in terror.

Had such overwhelming power been brought to bear at Brooklyn, the trap would have been closed tight. Washington and half the Continental Army would have been in the bag, captured, and the American Revolution all but finished. Without Washington there almost certainly would have been no revolution, as events were to show time and again. As the historian Trevelyan would write, “When once the wind changed and leading British frigates had . . . taken Brooklyn in the rear, the independence of the United States would have been indefinitely postponed.”

Significantly, the same circumstances as at Brooklyn were to pertain again five years later, in 1783, except that the sides were switched, when American and French armies under Washington and Rochambeau had the British trapped at Yorktown, a French fleet at their back, sealing off any possible escape and leaving the British commander, Cornwallis, and more than 7,000 men no choice but to surrender.

“Oh God! It is all over!” Lord North, the British prime minister, is said to have exclaimed on hearing the news from Yorktown. It is what might well have been heard in the halls of Congress or any number of places the summer of 1776 had there been no fateful wind and fog at Brooklyn.

THE TIDE OF WAR SHIFTS I

On September 4, the day the Allies captured the city of Antwerp, Hitler reinstated Rundstedt as commander in chief in the West. His steady hand would now compound Ramsay’s worst fears as Rundstedt immediately sought to deprive the Allies of port facilities in France and Belgium, thus swinging the tide of war in Germany’s favor. By securing the north and south shores of the Scheldt, while simultaneously defending the English Channel fortresses of Le Havre, Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk, Rundstedt would starve the Allies of the logistical support needed for the advance into Germany. This would give Rundstedt time to gather forces to reman the Siegfried Line and frustrate a rapid invasion of Germany.

Rundstedt expected Montgomery on September 4 to advance immediately and seal off Walcheren Island and the South Beveland Peninsula from the mainland. If Monty had done so, the German Fifteenth Army would have been trapped and eliminated. The Allied halt enabled Rundstedt to rescue the remains of General Hans von Zangen’s encircled Fifteenth Army under the cover of darkness. A scratch fleet of two ancient Dutch freighters, Rhine river barges, small craft, and even rafts evacuated over 100,000 troops, artillery, vehicles, and even horses across the three-mile mouth of the Scheldt Estuary into the South Beveland Peninsula. The Germans were surprised that the convoy met with no Allied naval force interference. Stiffened by fresh troops, the Germans regrouped around strong positions along both sides of the river. The causeway on South Beveland connecting it to the mainland could be defended by a small number of troops. Across from Beveland, Walcheren Island was very heavily fortified with nearly thirty batteries of powerful coastal guns, from nine-inch to three-inch in caliber, as well as other strongholds.

The German navy laid a variety of mines and put other deadly obstacles in place. The ship channel leading to the Port of Antwerp would have to be thoroughly cleared before freighters could use it. As the channel is seventy-three miles long and varies in width from 300 to 1,400 yards, this presented a clearance task of great magnitude and complexity. Port access between Antwerp and the sea was locked up tight.

The initial Allied response to this German buildup was insufficient. It began on September 13, nine days after Antwerp’s capture, and included Crerar’s First Canadian Army and the First and Fourth Polish Armored Divisions. Their tanks were largely useless for canal attacks. Canadian infantry support was ineffective. This first attack met with disaster. The Canadians abandoned the initial bridgehead across the Leopold Canal due to heavy German fire. As it was decided that the Canadians needed additional forces, the Scheldt operation was abandoned in favor of clearing French ports. For three additional weeks no opposition was offered to the continued German additional fortification of the estuary.

During these critical weeks the Allies’ attention was focused elsewhere. It was placed on the rushed planning, execution, and recovery from Montgomery’s “full-blooded thrust” to the northeast, Operation MARKET GARDEN.

A BRIDGE TO NOWHERE

Montgomery’s recent rapid advances culminating in the capture of Brussels and Antwerp had created considerable optimism in the Second Army. This lightning drive showed that British armor could match Patton’s tanks. Monty was fixated on bypassing what was left of the German Fifteenth Army and dashing nonstop over the Rhine to the Ruhr and beyond. If he had continued his push on September 4 for about thirty-six hours, the British armor could have raced through almost undefended country between Antwerp and the Rhine.

Montgomery’s Operation MARKET GARDEN called for a quick thrust to the Reich through a sixty-mile corridor. The “MARKET” component of the operation would involve the use of the First Airborne Corps comprising the American Eighty-Second and 101st and the British First Airborne Divisions, commanded by the British lieutenant general Frederick Browning. These forces would land at three drop zones running from west to east: Eindhoven (101st US), Nijmegen (Eighty-Second US), and Arnhem (First British). This airborne operation was monumental in scope, deploying about five thousand fighters, bombers, transports, and over 2,500 gliders. This huge air army was deployed in an unprecedented daylight attack complete with their equipment and vehicles. Owing to a shortage of aircraft to carry paratroops, these landings would be conducted over a three-day period, thus giving German defenders advance warning that a major offensive was in progress. These divisions would then link up with the “GARDEN” component, the ground force, the British XXX Corps, and part of Montgomery’s Second Army, led by Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, which would advance from their present positions into Holland.

MARKET GARDEN had two major objectives. First, the British Twenty-First Army with the airborne army was to cross the two branches of the Rhine at Nijmegen and Arnhem. Second, Hodges’s American First Army was to drive on Aachen and reach the Rhine at Cologne.

The aim of MARKET GARDEN was an advance beyond the Rhine to surround the Ruhr industrial region. This advance would clear the west bank of the Rhine and outflank the German forces on the Siegfried Line, rendering it useless. Finally, the British could advance from Arnhem and capture the port of Rotterdam.

Due to recent Allied successes, optimism was running high. Eisenhower was both intrigued and impressed with Montgomery’s bold, imaginative plan. This was the kind of innovative mass attack he had been looking for. In a September 14 letter to Marshall, Eisenhower was extremely optimistic that MARKET GARDEN would carry the Allies up to and across the Rhine.

The daring nature of the MARKET GARDEN operation was strangely out of character for Montgomery. Indeed he was later to admit that MARKET GARDEN was his greatest mistake as a commander. He was well-known for his detailed planning of future operations and was quite successful in staging set-piece battles. However, he had been criticized for unnecessary caution due to his failure to deploy armored divisions in situations where they had the potential to strike rapidly and effectively. Uncharacteristically Montgomery conceived and rushed through the planning of MARKET GARDEN in a matter of weeks.

Critically, Montgomery ignored vital intelligence on the feasibility of this operation. Ultra decrypts and reports from the local Dutch resistance forces indicated that two SS panzer divisions had been sent to Arnhem to refit. Also the Fifteenth Panzer Army had been moved into Holland and was well positioned to attack the left of the advancing Allied land forces. The Ninth and Tenth SS Panzer Divisions were fanned out to the north, east, and south of Arnhem. Also deployed around Eindhoven were the thirty thousand paratroops and Luftwaffe troops that formed the core of General Kurt Student’s First Parachute Army.

Montgomery’s plan produced a shock wave at his Twenty-First Army Group headquarters. After he received the go-ahead for MARKET GARDEN from Eisenhower on September 10, he outlined the operation on a map for one of Britain’s pioneer airborne experts, Lieutenant General Frederick Browning who would command the operation. The paratroops and glider-borne forces were to secure five major bridges along a sixty-four-mile invasion corridor. They would hold the corridor open until they were relieved by British armored forces. This unsettled Browning. Pointing to Arnhem, he asked Montgomery, “How long will it take the armor to reach us?” Monty answered, “Two days.” Still studying the map, Browning responded, “We can hold it for four. But sir, I think we might be going a bridge too far.” Montgomery did not want to hear it.

Other objections followed. The Dutch underground information and Ultra intercepts so worried Major Brian Urquhart, the First Airborne Corps’ intelligence officer, that he called for the information to be confirmed again by British aerial photographs. The air reconnaissance pictures clearly identified numerous German panzers in the Arnhem air drop zones or nearby. Urquhart relayed all of this damaging information to both Eisenhower and Montgomery. Ike was so alarmed that he sent Smith to discuss this with Montgomery, but Monty lightly dismissed it all.

Montgomery chose to ignore this potentially cataclysmic information and treated it as a peripheral matter rather than as a reason to cancel MARKET GARDEN. Moreover, he now took extraordinary steps to discredit Urquhart’s intelligence effort. Monty sent a senior staff medical officer, Colonel Arthur Eagger, to confirm reports that Urquhart had become “hysterical.” Urquhart told the medical officer that the intelligence reports made it clear that the proposed MARKET GARDEN operation was “madness.” Eagger immediately diagnosed Urquhart as suffering from exhaustion and sent him on medical leave, thus removing him far from the immediate scene.

But the intelligence question would not go away. A distinguished air intelligence officer, Wing Commander Asher Lee, also deeply investigated the Ultra information. His findings were conclusive regarding the presence of substantial German armored units at Arnhem. He personally conveyed his report to Montgomery’s headquarters. But he only was seen by junior staff officers, thus again dismissing the importance of this vital intelligence.

General Brian Horrocks, the commander of the XXX Corps in the MARKET GARDEN operation later lamented, “Why did I receive no information about the German formations which were being rushed daily to our front? For me, this has always been the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question.” Elizabeth Coble states, “It is unforgiveable for intelligence of this magnitude to be withheld from subordinate commanders. Without all available intelligence, subordinate commands could not plan and equip their forces properly.”

Even before the operation began on September 9, General Dempsey, commander of the Second Army, had grave doubts, as he wrote in his diary,

It is clear that the enemy is bringing up all the reinforcements he can get his hands on for the defense of the ALBERT Canal, and that he appreciates the importance of the area ARNHEM-NIJMEGAN. It looks as though he is going to do all he can to hold it. This being the case, any question of a rapid advance to the North-East seems unlikely…. Are we right to direct Second Army to ARNHEM?

We do not know if Dempsey challenged Montgomery on the intelligence issue. However, it is important to note that this was the only diary entry from the onset of the Normandy invasion in which he questioned an order.

Eisenhower also was receiving further information casting doubt on the soundness of this operation. Bradley warned him that the terrain for Montgomery’s drive was unsuitable for a rapid advance as the Netherlands had numerous canals and waterways that the Germans would defend. Bradley later stated, “My opposition…was not confined to the British diversion of effort. I feared also that Monty in his eagerness to get around Model’s flank might have underestimated German capabilities on the lower Rhine.” Eisenhower, however, did not exercise his authority to cancel MARKET GARDEN. Smith lamented, “Having authorized him [Montgomery] to proceed, Eisenhower did not feel he could now instruct him not to do so, even though the head of his intelligence staff predicted a defeat.”

Brooke, the one man who might have convinced Montgomery to cancel MARKET GARDEN, had left London with Churchill and the other chiefs of staff on the morning of September 5 for the Quebec Conference, five days before Eisenhower authorized Monty to proceed with MARKET GARDEN. He did not return until September 23 by which time the operation was being wound down. It is interesting to note that MARKET GARDEN is not mentioned in his war diary.

MARKET GARDEN is another example of Montgomery’s inflexibility in altering his plans. He also failed to provide subordinate commanders with relevant intelligence. On D-Day, invasion commanders did not know that the Twenty-First Panzer Division was deployed to oppose their seizure of Caen. The failure to seize Caen seriously impeded the progress of the Normandy campaign and cost lives. This time it would take even more lives.

On September 17, MARKET GARDEN operations were launched with a massive airborne assault. German general Kurt Student, paratroop commander, and his chief of staff stood on the balcony of Student’s cottage in Holland as this massive air armada went past. Student remembered they “simply stared, stunned, like fools…everywhere we looked, we saw chain of planes—fighters, troop carriers and cargo planes—flying over us…. This mighty spectacle deeply impressed me.”

Montgomery’s plan relied on the accelerated progress of Horrocks’s XXX Corps’ tank and infantry forces down one main highway to link up the invasion corridor and relieve the paratroop divisions. The progress of the Allied armies was slower than expected, as they encountered a fierce and well-conducted German resistance. As a result, it took longer than expected to capture their first objective, Eindhoven. The Germans fought stoutly for Nijmegen and its vitally important bridge, which eventually fell to a determined attack by infantry units of the Guards Armored Division. The road to MARKET GARDEN’s final objective, Arnhem, was theoretically open.

A defect in the planning was the task given to the land forces to advance over the polders (fields lying close to or below sea level) that were too marshy to support the weight of tanks. Once the Nijmegen bridge was secured the tanks and infantry of the Guards Armored Division were forced to advance in single file on the road to Arnhem, meeting determined German resistance along the way.

This check of the XXX Corps’ advance doomed the First Airborne Division at Arnhem. They valiantly defended their isolated position for ten days rather than the two that Montgomery had planned. On September 25, they were forced to surrender. About six thousand Allied soldiers were captured, half of them wounded; 1,174 died. At night 1,900 paratroopers were evacuated across the lower Rhine. The British First Airborne and Polish First Parachute Brigade were effectively destroyed as fighting units. Total Allied MARKET GARDEN killed, wounded, and missing exceeded seven thousand, five thousand more than on D-Day.

Afterward, Montgomery insisted that the operation had been a justifiable risk. Although Montgomery described himself as “bitterly disappointed” by Arnhem and admitting mistakes were made for which he bore responsibility, he proclaimed in his memoirs, “I remain MARKET GARDEN’s unrepentant advocate,” noting, “In my—prejudiced—view, if the operation had been properly backed from its inception…it would have succeeded in spite of my mistakes.”

Military historians, however, have roundly criticized many facets of the MARKET GARDEN operation. Nigel Hamilton, Montgomery’s chief biographer, stated that in every military dimension, “strategic, tactical, intelligence, logistical, personal…it was…a complete disaster…[a road] that led nowhere.” Arnhem was a completely avoidable disaster. Norman Davies concludes that “it was not an act of responsible generalship.” Alun Chalfont agrees that “Arnhem…showed a serious error of judgement on Montgomery’s part.” The lightly armed airborne troops were no match for the heavily equipped SS panzer corps. Funneling the British supporting armor down narrow roads through marshland was a disaster waiting to happen.

David Bennett offers this summary judgment of MARKET GARDEN: “The truth was that the operation was too ambitious. In launching it with a tenuous supply line, no reserve build-up of supplies, a shortage of ground transport, and both VIII and XII Corps [support units to XXX Corps] unready at the start, Montgomery’s professionalism had deserted him.”

At this juncture in the campaign, everyone on the Allied side was frustrated, angry, and depressed. The MARKET GARDEN debacle had cured the earlier “victory disease.” “There was a change of mood after Arnhem,” a British captain remembers. “One just didn’t feel the same. We were getting rather tired.” Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands lamented, “My country can never again afford the luxury of another Montgomery success.”

Clearly Eisenhower had backed the wrong offensive. He had not backed Patton’s southern thrust to the Ruhr while forcing Montgomery to seize both banks of the Scheldt Estuary to open up the Port of Antwerp. Long after the war Eisenhower admitted, “I not only approved MARKET GARDEN, I insisted upon it. What we needed was a bridgehead over the Rhine. If that could be accomplished, I was quite willing to wait on all other operations. What this action proved was that the idea of ‘one full-blooded thrust’ to Berlin was silly.”

For both Eisenhower and Montgomery, Arnhem was a major mistake that served to diminish them. For Eisenhower, it was a vain attempt to masterfully end the war in 1944 as the successful supreme commander of a difficult Allied coalition. As for Montgomery, it ended his dream of being the commander of a victorious British-led drive to Berlin, securing the restoration of British prestige, and marking the capstone of his military reputation. Only Montgomery’s unrestrained ego remained, which continued to plague Eisenhower to the war’s last act and even afterward.

Alan Moorehead summed up the situation well when he wrote, “For the Allied army now no hopeful alternatives remained. There was only one way—the hard way. The immediate essential for all this was the opening up of Antwerp.”

THE TIDE OF WAR SHIFTS II

THE “BATTLES” OF PORT ANTWERP

Planning for the clearing of the Scheldt Estuary (code-named Operation INFATUATE) was begun by mid-September with Admiral Ramsay working closely with the designated land commander, the highly respected lieutenant general Guy Simonds, head of the II Canadian Corps (Crerar had been placed on sick leave). Ramsay appointed Captain Anthony Pugsley as the commander of Force T. In this role, he would plan and then lead the naval assault on Walcheren, the strategically important Dutch island on the northern side of the Scheldt Estuary.

As September drew to a close, the Allied supply was in an exceedingly precarious position. On October 5 a high-level meeting was held at SHAEF in Versailles. Those attending included Eisenhower, Bradley, Brooke, Montgomery, Ramsay, Tedder, and Leigh-Mallory. Ramsay recorded in his diary,

Very interesting exposition of situation on Army Group fronts. Monty made the startling announcement that we could take the Ruhr without Antwerp. This afforded me the cue I needed to lambast him for not having made the capture of Antwerp the immediate objective at highest priority & I let fly with all my guns at the faulty strategy which we had allowed…. I got approving looks from Tedder and Bedell Smith, and both of them together with C.I.G.S. [Brooke] told me after the meeting that I’d spoken their thoughts and that it was high time someone expressed them.

Brooke’s diary confirms that he was not pleased with what he had heard at Versailles. He noted that one fact stood out clearly: “Antwerp should be captured with the least possible delay. I feel that Monty’s strategy for once is at fault. Instead of carrying out the advance on Arnhem he ought to have made certain of Antwerp in the first place. Ramsay brought this out well in discussion and criticized Monty freely.” We can only speculate that if Brooke had not been at the Quebec Conference, he might have strongly pushed Montgomery over opening Antwerp while preparing later for MARKET GARDEN offensive.

On October 8 an obviously pleased Ramsay noted, “I understand that the 21st Army Group plan of campaign has now been modified to give greater priority to the 1st Canadian Army at expense of 2nd Army so as to concentrate on capture of entrances to Antwerp.” He was to be disappointed. Montgomery did issue fresh orders on October 9, but he placed clearing the Scheldt as only the third priority for his army group.

On October 8, a major English Channel storm had struck again at the Mulberry harbor and even damaged the harbor at Cherbourg. Eisenhower enraged at Montgomery’s stubborn denial of logistical realities and sent a clear message, but it was still not quite a direct order on October 10 regarding opening the port:

I must repeat that we are now squared up against the situation which has been anticipated for months and our intake into the Continent will not repeat not support our battle. Unless we have Antwerp producing by the middle of November our entire operations will come to a standstill. I must emphasize that, of all our operations on our entire front from Switzerland to the Channel, I consider Antwerp of first importance.

General Frederick Morgan (the former head of COSSAC, who was then on the SHAEF staff) reflected how “it became increasingly difficult to explain to our American Commander what, on the face of it, was little short of refusal to comply with orders on the part of his British subordinate.”

However remember the advice Montgomery gave to Patton in 1943 during the Sicily campaign on how to handle a disagreeable order from their supreme commander: “Let me give you some advice. If you get an order from Army Group that you don’t like, just ignore it. That’s what I do.”

Eisenhower told Smith to pursue Montgomery and get to the bottom of his intransigence. Smith telephoned Montgomery and demanded a firm date when the Scheldt would be opened. Montgomery would not be bullied. He stuck to his one-man script. The Ruhr, not Antwerp, remained the principal objective. The Americans needed Antwerp, not his Twenty-First Army Group.

Apoplectic with rage, Smith called Morgan to his office and handed the receiver to Morgan. Morgan then listened as Montgomery repeated the same arguments. Finally, during a brief pause, Morgan told Monty that unless he immediately began the Antwerp operation that the Twenty-First Army Group would receive no more supplies.

This further incensed Montgomery who sent an imperious memo to Smith demanding a complete overhaul of the SHAEF command structure. Monty was in the midst of an effort to gain control of the European campaign. This memo asserted, “All our troubles can be traced to the fact that there is no one commander in charge of the land battle…. SHAEF is not an operational headquarters and never can be…. The present organization for command…is not satisfactory.”

On October 8, Montgomery met with General George C. Marshall who was then in France. Montgomery arrogantly voiced his opinion that since Eisenhower had taken command of the land battle, Allied operations had become “ragged and disjointed…we had got ourselves into a real mess.” Marshall recorded that in reaction he nearly lost his temper: “[I]t was very hard for me to restrain myself because I didn’t think there was any logic in what he said, but overwhelming egotism.”

In response to these two outbursts, on October 13 a letter was sent to Montgomery by Eisenhower on which Ike, Marshall, and Smith had collaborated. It contains two key statements: “I have been informed, both by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and by the Chief of Staff of the United States Army that they seriously considered giving me a flat order that until the capture of Antwerp and its approaches was fully assured, this operation should take precedence over all others.” It continues, “If you…feel that my conceptions and directives are such as to endanger the success of operations, it is our duty to refer the matter to higher authority for any action they may choose to take, however drastic.”

As Montgomery then realized that the top authorities were not in his court, he replied on October 16 that he was giving top priority to the Scheldt campaign. After Montgomery belatedly issued his unequivocal orders for Operation INFATUATE, positive results soon followed.

On October 24 a brigade of the British Fifty-Second Division under the command of Captain Pugsley arrived by landing craft on the southern shore of South Beveland, the most easterly of the two German occupied islands on the north bank of the Scheldt. After five days of fierce fighting, the German commander on the island surrendered.

The stage was now set for a campaign on the island of Walcheren, which was connected by a causeway with South Beveland. As a large part of the island lies below sea level, the Dutch had built dikes to keep the sea out. RAF Lancaster bombers were called in to bomb the dike near the town of Westkapelle, on the western side of the island. By mid-October the dike had been breached in no less than four places, which would allow the Royal Marine Commandos to propel their landing craft into the breaches and attack the Germans from the rear.

On October 30 Ramsay set up his headquarters in Ghent next to those of Canadian general Simonds. Together they coordinated their forces for the invasion of Walcheren, which began on October 31. On that day Canadian troops began fighting along the causeway from South Beveland to Walcheren. On November 1 after a heavy shelling by the veteran battleship Warspite and two smaller monitor ships, all with 15mm guns, commando units landed in the Westkapelle area. At the same time following intense air and artillery attacks, the British Fifty-Second Division and Canadian troops landed at the island’s main town, Flushing. It took these forces four days to drive out the Germans from the town and docks. On November 3 two British infantry brigades landed on Walcheren’s eastern shore to outflank German defenders that had confined the Canadians into a bridgehead on the causeway from South Beveland. Five days later, two thousand Germans from the Seventieth Division surrendered. The fighting to open the port had been bitter. The Canadians sustained thirteen thousand casualties clearing the Scheldt.

On November 4, Ramsay was able to order more than ten squadrons of Royal Navy minesweepers (more than 150 vessels) to clear the Scheldt of the mines that the Germans had laid in September. Sadly one vessel struck a mine and was lost with all hands. They completed their task, removing no fewer than 267 mines, by November 26, one week earlier than had been forecasted.

On November 28, Ramsay returned to Antwerp to witness the success of Operation INFATUATE. He took part in a ceremony welcoming the first ship of the first convoy to arrive at Antwerp in four and a half years. By mid-December Antwerp was unloading twenty-three thousand tons per day. It only reached full capacity in early 1945.

Antwerp was at last open but no fewer than sixty days after the British first captured its dock facilities. This unnecessary delay, caused by Eisenhower’s acquiescence in Montgomery’s decision to stage Operation MARKET GARDEN and Montgomery’s failure until mid-October to give INFATUATE the priority it needed, destroyed any remaining chance that the war in Western Europe could have been won in 1944.

SPECTACULAR FAILURES

In Raymond Callahan’s judgment, Operation MARKET GARDEN “failed spectacularly.” The same can be said of Montgomery’s astounding misjudgment in failing to immediately open up the Scheldt Estuary after the capture of Antwerp. (Though Ramsay’s Operation INFATUATE succeeded once Eisenhower forced Montgomery to commit adequate forces to this effort.) Unusually for him, Montgomery later did admit that this was an error: “I must admit a bad mistake on my part. I underestimated the difficulties of opening up the approaches to Antwerp so that we could get free use of the port. I reckoned that the Canadian Army could do it while we were going for the Ruhr. I was wrong.” These two failures added to an already long list of OVERLORD’s strategic blunders, missed opportunities, and tactical errors.

Eisenhower backed the wrong offensive. His failure to support the Bradley/Patton plan gave the Germans an opportunity to regroup their shattered forces in Western Europe. The Allied armies starved of supplies were stalled at the German border because of the unnecessary delay in opening the Port of Antwerp.

The extension of the war produced the abortive US Hurtgen Forest offensive and gave Hitler the opportunity to launch his doomed Ardennes offensive (Battle of the Bulge). Both resulted in major Allied casualties.

OVERLORD failed to achieve its ultimate goals: invading Germany, capturing Berlin, and ending the war in Europe. In our final chapter we will review how national rivalries tested the command structure of the Allied alliance and how the divergent leadership qualities of the principal commanders and personality clashes among them jeopardized the success of the Normandy campaign.

THE HUMBLING OF THE TANK II

The surprise attack had a paralyzing effect on much of the Israeli command. “You break into a cold sweat and your mind freezes up,” a deputy division commander would later say. “You have difficulty getting into gear and you react by executing the plans you’ve already prepared, even if they’re no long relevant.” Mental circuits shorted as commanders tried to simultaneously grasp what was happening, how it could have happened, and what had to be done.

The men in the field, soldiers and officers, were spared these excruciating deliberations. They only had to figure out how to stop the enemy and stay alive. Battalion commander Emanuel Sakel would relate that his men went through the difficult battles “like Prussians,” without despair. “If your men see you in your turret, everything is all right.” A brigade commander would later say that officers in his category, even when they continued to function and seemed unaffected, generally needed two days before the shock wore off.

General Gonen, still at his headquarters in Beersheba, more than 150 miles from the front, tried to discern from the reports pouring in where the main Egyptian crossing points were. Around midnight, he asked Elazar for permission to attack an Egyptian position half a mile north of Orkal. He was oblivious to the fact that the causeway leading to Orkal was a death trap that had consumed every tank that reached it. His proposal, which would have put Israeli forces in a better position to attack Port Said, was totally irrelevant to the desperate defensive battle under way along the canal. Permission was not granted.

At 1:30 a.m., with most of Mendler’s tanks already knocked out, Gonen told the journalists attached to his headquarters that the Egyptian crossing was a failure since they had not moved their armor across the canal. In fact, several hundred Egyptian tanks attached to infantry divisions had already crossed, although they would not go into action until the morning. “Gonen arrived at conclusions without taking counsel,” General Adan would write. “Instead of having his staff officers take part in the process of assessing situations, he relied on his intuition, based on his previous experience with the Egyptians, whom he held in deep contempt.” Not until 2 a.m., twelve hours after the war’s start, did Gonen fly by helicopter to his forward command post at Umm Hashiba.

Division commander Mendler did not share Gonen’s illusions but he too did not draw the necessary conclusions from the picture unfolding before him. In the war room of the Sinai division, General Mendler sat quietly to the side, his eyes fixed on the large wall map which his staff was constantly updating. Having issued his brigade commanders their marching orders—basically, to defend the canal line—he gave hardly any further instructions and rarely spoke on the radio net. His injunction to Shomron—“Do the best you can”—was the last directive the brigade commander received from him this day. To an officer in the room, Mendler seemed to wear a thin, bitter smile as he stared fixedly at the map. “I said to myself,” the officer would later recall, “why doesn’t the man talk? A whole world that he built and trained for is collapsing in front of him and he keeps silent.” The red circles and arrows his aides drew on the map were a parody of Dovecote, showing Egyptian bridgeheads expanding and Israeli units being pushed back. Periodically, Mendler would disappear into his office until the next staff meeting. He did not have the authority to order the evacuation of the forts but he did not request it.

The garrisons on the Bar-Lev Line could not understand why they were being asked to remain in the beleaguered forts when the circumstances were clearly hopeless. The decision not to evacuate them would prove calamitous for both the garrisons and the tanks trying to reach them. In some forts, most of the men were already casualties. Those who weren’t were mostly service personnel, not combat troops. They pleaded with the tankers who reached them to take them out. The request was passed up the command chain but the response was negative.

Darkness provided cover for the Egyptian tank hunters who were now covering all approaches to the forts. Capt. Yaron Ram, commanding a force at Lituf, sent two tanks to locate a disabled tank. The rescue tanks were ambushed and communication with them lost. Shortly before dawn, one of their gunners came on the radio. Keeping his voice low, he said that only he and another crewman were still alive. They had been fending off Egyptian soldiers for more than an hour but ammunition was almost gone and they were now using grenades whenever enemy soldiers drew close. Captain Ram asked him to indicate his whereabouts by firing a shell. A moment later, a flash could be seen two miles away.

Three tanks were sent to the rescue. As they drew close, one was disabled by an RPG and the others driven back. Ram asked Major Shuval for permission to go himself with the three tanks remaining. Shuval refused. Ram’s tanks were the only force blocking the road to the Gidi Pass. Ram told the trapped gunner that his only chance was to play dead when the Egyptian soldiers climbed aboard. Two minutes later, the tank’s radio went silent. When the tank was recovered the next day, the gunner and his comrade were dead inside.

Reshef received the last of the division’s reserves at 1 a.m., a battalion under Lt. Col. Amram Mitzna. On its way toward Hizayon, fire was opened from the side of the road. The tanks’ projectors revealed several dozen soldiers firing from shallow foxholes. “Attack,” ordered Mitzna. The Egyptian infantrymen rose with RPGs as the tanks charged. They were tall black men, apparently Sudanese. Some managed to get off shots but all were cut down. One tank officer was killed.

Close to the canal, the battalion passed between two rows of stationary tanks, some of whose crews were sitting on the ground drinking coffee. It was an encampment of Egyptian T-55 tanks which had just crossed. The surprise was mutual. After a brief exchange of fire, Mitzna broke contact.

Air attacks on the bridges were called off at midnight. It was more dangerous flying at night because the pilots could not gauge the distance of the SAMs fired at them in the dark and thus could not outmaneuver them.

Twice during the night, Israeli tanks broke through to the canal and inflicted damage on bridges and ferries. “Through the night, commanders of [Israeli] sub-units, even individual tanks, fight on,” General Shazly would write in his war diary. “They are evidently made of better stuff than their senior commanders.”

A battalion commanded by Lt. Col. Amir Yoffe was ordered to link up with Forts Mifreket and Milano in the northern sector. The thirty-three-year-old Yoffe, nephew of a distinguished general, had a reputation as a hard-bitten, punctilious professional—the kind of officer, General Adan would say, whom you would not want to serve under in peacetime but to whom you would readily entrust your life in war. During the hasty organization of combat formations at the armor school the day before, he had not noticed that his younger brother, Eyal, a cadet in an officer’s course, had been assigned to him as a tank commander.

Yoffe was guided through the boggy terrain by Yom Tov Tamir, whose battalion had been destroyed a few hours before. Yoffe first proceeded with half his tanks to Mifreket where they engaged RPG teams swarming over the approaches. Entering the fort, Tamir found that the radioman was now in command. Tamir’s request by radio that the garrison be evacuated was denied.

Firing at a bridge north of the fort, a tank stalled on the canal embankment but continued shooting even though it was now a sitting target. The gunner, Sgt. Yadin Tannenbaum, a flautist, had been hailed before his army service as a musical prodigy. The nineteen-year-old had been singled out for praise by conductor Leonard Bernstein. After hitting the bridge, Tannenbaum knocked out a bulldozer widening a passage through the Israeli rampart and then hit an Egyptian tank coming through the opening. A shell hit his tank, killing him and his tank commander.

Sgt. Eyal Yoffe’s tank followed that of his platoon commander, Lt. Michael Vardi, through a narrow, S-shaped entrance into the Mifreket compound. He could hear shouts in Arabic in the trenches. He and his men fired into the darkness around them with their machine guns and Uzis. As they approached the main bunker, members of the garrison ran out and climbed atop Vardi’s tank. The officer descended and led them back to the bunker. He had orders, he said, to evacuate only wounded. He tried to assure the remainder that rescue would shortly come. Eyal Yoffe, in his tank outside, heard his brother on the radio ordering Vardi to join him north of the fort. Without identifying himself, Eyal said he would pass on the message.

It was difficult for him to grasp that this was reality, not an exercise. Darkness added to the disorientation. As Eyal followed Vardi northward, he saw an Egyptian tank thirty yards away. In his excitement, he forgot the protocol for issuing a fire command. “Ehud,” he shouted to his gunner. “Quick. A tank to the right. Fire.” The first shot hit. In the light of the burning tank, its four crewmen descended and ran toward his tank. Eyal stopped them with his machine gun. His tank hit an Egyptian bulldozer and fired at the bridge. Reality had begun to disentangle itself.

From time to time, Eyal Yoffe and Vardi reentered Mifreket to strike at Egyptians who had returned and to encourage the men in the bunker with their fire. Before dawn, the garrison’s wounded, together with wounded tankers, were placed aboard Eyal’s tank for evacuation. One man had lost both legs and an arm. Eyal saw his brother issuing orders nearby. The battalion commander did not recognize him in the darkness until he heard his voice. He was startled to discover that his kid brother was serving under him.

“How you doing, Ili?” he asked.

“Doing fine,” responded Eyal, taking off his tanker’s helmet for this moment of intimacy.

Transporting the wounded to the rear, he returned to Mifreket as it began to dawn. Lieutenant Vardi, he discovered, was dead. Most of the remaining tanks were either mired in marshes or trying to extricate others which were.

The Yoffe brothers, together with another tank commander, fired on enemy vehicles moving inland until Eyal’s tank was hit by a Sagger. His brother placed him inside his own tank. Eyal had suffered burns on his face and could not speak but nodded to indicate to his brother that he would be all right.

As Tamir had done, Yoffe requested evacuation of the Mifreket garrison. Colonel Shomron was likewise asking permission to evacuate the forts in the southern sector. “If we don’t do it now we won’t be able to do it in the morning,” he said. Mendler said he had not been authorized to evacuate the forts.

Tamir had gone back to guide brigade commander Amir and the rest of Yoffe’s battalion to Milano. The fourteen-tank column moved through East Kantara, a ghost town since its abandonment in the Six Day War. But Egyptian troops had now returned. Two tanks became lost in side streets and were destroyed by RPGs.

Reaching Milano, Colonel Amir found the situation surprisingly calm. The fort commander, Captain Trostler, said they had beaten off several attacks during the day and had sunk a number of boats crossing the canal. He had lost four men but the defenses were intact and he was not in need of help. Tamir led the tanks out before first light by a route that avoided Kantara. Of the fourteen tanks, only five returned. Of the eighteen tanks Yoffe had brought to Mifreket, another five returned. Had they been authorized to evacuate the forts there would have been purpose to their sacrifice.

In the southern sector, the commander of a lone tank reported that he had stalled. He was told to put his gear into reverse and fire a shell. The recoil succeeded in starting the engine and the tank rejoined the remnants of Shomron’s brigade, which had fallen back to the Artillery Road.

Mendler finally received permission late Sunday morning from Gonen to evacuate the forts, more than twelve hours after Elazar had authorized evacuation of most of the Bar-Lev Line. But it was too late. All the forts were surrounded now by masses of Egyptian infantry, and tanks as well. Mendler asked Shomron if he was able to evacuate the forts in his sector. “Any attempt will cost a battalion,” replied the brigade commander. “It’s your decision.” The decision was negative. The battle for the waterline was over and the Egyptians had won it.

The conceptual failure of the Bar-Lev Line had been brutally exposed. By the early hours of Sunday, the import of the past day’s events was beginning to be absorbed by the IDF command. In twelve hours, almost two-thirds of the Sinai Division’s tanks had been knocked out, the bulk by Egyptian infantry. Of the division’s 280 tanks, only 110 were still operational. Reshef’s brigade had only one-quarter of its tanks left.

Virtually every assumption by the Israeli command about the nature of the coming war had proven wrong—that AMAN would provide ample warning, that the air force would somehow cope with the SAMs and save the day, that the IDF could get by with limited artillery and infantry, that “armor shock” would stampede the enemy, that the Arab soldier was a pushover and the Arab military command inept.

The Israeli command had permitted itself to believe that given the nature of the enemy—“we’re facing Arabs, not Germans,” as one officer put it—Dovecote could somehow cope with a five-division crossing. The General Staff failed to think through the implications of the massive amount of antitank weapons known to be in the hands of Egyptian infantry. Duels at fifty paces between tanks and individual soldiers wielding RPGs was not what armored warfare was about.

The tank crews, conscripts mostly aged nineteen to twenty-one, and their field commanders had fought with supreme courage and exemplary skill. But they had been thrown into a meat grinder. The Bar-Lev garrisons, including those of the Jerusalem Brigade, had fought outstandingly but their situation was hopeless from the start.

Of all the fuzzy thinking in the high command, reliance on air support was the fuzziest. Air Force Commander Peled had made clear that he would need the first forty-eight hours of war to deal with the SAMs. Yet Elazar and his generals permitted themselves to believe that the air force, still wreathed with the magical aura of the Six Day War, would somehow find a way to deal with enemy ground forces as well. Compounding the problem, the IDF deployed only a few dozen artillery pieces and heavy mortars on a hundred-mile-long front because it relied on the air force. Without meaningful artillery and air support, the IDF lacked firepower even more than manpower.

AMAN’s failure went deeper than the failure to warn of war. It failed to prepare the IDF for the kind of war that might overtake it. It failed to suggest the innovative tactics the Egyptian army would employ or point to the motivation and training that would make the Egyptian soldier of 1973 different from the soldier of the Six Day War. A common factor behind all these failings was the contempt for Arab arms born of that earlier war, a contempt that spawned indolent thinking.

The surprise of the Arab assault would be a staggering psychological blow for Israel that would impact on the rest of the war. However, it was not surprise that was most responsible for the debacle on Yom Kippur day but basic unpreparedness and inept generalship on the southern front. Even if there had been no surprise, the IDF was not prepared to cope with the Egyptians’ new antitank tactics, the air force was unable to provide assistance to the ground forces in areas dominated by SAMs, and Dovecote would still have been a suicidal response.

For Israel, there was one bright spot—the performance of the tank crews and their field commanders despite the disastrous tactics imposed on them.

The Sinai Division had been mauled but not destroyed. Most of its damaged tanks would be returned to action, some within a day, and its command structure was largely intact. Many of the wounded would return to duty, replacements would fill the gaps, and appropriate lessons would be drawn.

The reserve divisions now approaching the battlefield would have to learn these lessons for themselves.

Exhausted by the day’s battle, the surviving tank crews pulled back before dawn to refuel and rearm. The men had hardly eaten since the onset of Yom Kippur, which seemed a lifetime ago, and they had not slept. Thinking about what they had been through and what the morrow might bring, thinking about their dead and wounded comrades, they fell into a brief and troubled sleep.

In the Egyptian lines this night, soldiers who could doze off did so on the wings of euphoria. There had not been a feat of Arab arms like this since Saladin defeated the Crusader army near the Sea of Galilee in the twelfth century. No matter what was yet to come, Egypt’s soldiers had restored Arab honor.

ENCIRCLEMENT OF THE ALPINE CORPS

EARLY JANUARY 1943

Divisional commanders and officers of the Alpine Corps received little “official” news of the overall progress of the war while on the Don front. German liaison officers attached to the headquarters of each division provided their main sources of information. They could monitor radiograms transmitted from various German units operating in the region. It was only in this manner that commanders of the Alpine Corps heard about the encirclement of German troops in Stalingrad, the fall of the Romanian Third Army, the collapse and withdrawal of the Italian Eighth Army on their right flank, as well as assaults on the Hungarian Second Army to the north of their lines.

Lieutenant Egisto Corradi of the Julia Division wrote about the lack of verifiable news: “We didn’t know Stalingrad was now irreparably encircled and close to falling. We didn’t know 7,000 survivors out of 35,000 or more of the Italian Thirty-Fifth Corps remained encircled in Cerkovo, and Italian divisions, other than the Ravenna and Cosseria, were swept away from the front. We knew nothing about any of this even up to January 15….”

Between January 1 and 17, there was increased Soviet air surveillance and artillery fire across the Don, leading the alpini to believe it was only a matter of time before they would be attacked.

Across the Don on January 9, Revelli and his men could see Russian trucks and armored vehicles heading south with headlights turned on.

Toward January 10, alpini in the Vestone Battalion (Tridentina Division) began to hear ominous news. Two alpini in Sergeant Rigoni Stern’s unit who had gone to the kitchens to draw rations, overheard several mule drivers say the Russians had encircled the Alpine Corps. Reports based on radio scarpa (the rumor mill) created an uneasy atmosphere of anxiety and tension among the men. Several alpini even asked their sergeant to tell them how many kilometers existed between their strongholds and Italy. Rigoni Stern was also feeling uneasy. He had noticed Russians across the river were cutting brush and undergrowth at night to “widen their field of fire.” At night to the south, he could see flashes of light resembling “summer lightening.” At other times, he could hear what sounded like rolling wheels across the river. Nevertheless, rations and mail arrived on schedule.

One evening shortly after January 10, Lieutenant Moscioni, commander of the stronghold, told the sergeant he had received orders in the event the alpini should have to withdraw from the Don. There followed a careful examination of all automatic weapons. The alpini under his command turned their bunker into a virtual “workshop,” dismembering machine guns, mortars, and the heavy machine gun, cleaning them, and “retempering the springs to adapt them more to the cold.” Once tested, soldiers wrapped the “four machine guns, the heavy machine gun and the four 45mm mortars” in blankets and tent tarps to protect them from “the fine sand, which filtered into the dugout and penetrated everywhere.”

On the evening of January 15, units of the Tirano Battalion (Tridentina Division) received orders to “shunt all material to the rear, even weapons and stove emplacements, as if in a normal transfer. Mule drivers were sent back to their bases and [the battalion] went from one alarm to the next. Temperatures dropped below -40°.” To the south, the alpini could hear thunderous firing from the Edolo Battalion of the Tridentina. Revelli writes, “From company headquarters a strange order arrived; every alpino had to build a sled with whatever materials he could find.”

General Reverberi, commander of the Tridentina Division writes, “On January 15, 16, and 17, enemy forces amounting to approximately two regiments supported by numerous batteries of mortars of all caliber, and katyushas, commenced attacking the zone between the Tridentina and Vicenza Division [now deployed in the zone the Julia had previously occupied before moving south].”

Sergeant Rigoni Stern describes several attacks occurring on the lines held by the Vestone Battalion of the Tridentina. Before dawn, the Russians began firing mortars at various strongholds of the battalion. At dawn, the firing ceased as Russian soldiers began crossing the river to the left of Rigone Stern’s stronghold where there was a small island in the middle of the now frozen river. They took cover on the island and subsequently ran toward the riverbank, close to the positions the alpini held. Mortar shells from the alpini hit that section of the riverbank and it seemed that this was the end of their attempt to gain ground.

That same evening the Russians commenced firing with artillery and mortar rounds. This time, as they attacked they slid down in the snow to the riverbank and began running toward the alpini across the river shouting their battle cry, “Ura! Ura!” The alpini managed to fend them off, killing and wounding a good number. When a few Russians reached the barbed wire, the alpini threw the equivalent of a whole case of handgrenades; they failed to explode.

Shortly after, enemy forces began advancing once more. The alpini fired but Sergeant Rigoni Stern realized the Russians were gathering up their wounded. He shouted: “Don’t shoot! They’re gathering their wounded. Don’t shoot!” Surprised the alpini had ceased firing, the Russians quickly gathered their wounded, placed them on sleds and dragged them back to their side of the river. They even removed their dead, except for the ones who had reached the barbed wire.

Following this latest attack, Lieutenant Moscioni collapsed owing to days and nights of no sleep. He had been monitoring the situation intensely, constantly moving from one position to another, checking weapons and taking care of his men. Rigoni Stern writes, “He fell from sheer exhaustion, like a mule.” Moscioni told Rigoni Stern (once they returned to Italy), “It was like being turned into ice…I couldn’t feel my legs any more. I couldn’t feel anything. It was as if I’d only a head and very little of that. It was terrible.” Rigoni Stern took command of the stronghold until another lieutenant could arrive to replace Moscioni.

The Russians began to attack once more, but this time with a different twist. The alpini could hear someone behind the soldiers, “shouting encouragement in Russian” [probably a political commissar]. The sergeant could make out a few words: “country, Russia, Stalin, workers.” The alpini held their fire as the Russians moved out of the woods and slid down to the riverbank. The moment they reached the bottom Stern ordered the alpini to fire, pinning them down. The same Russian voice began shouting again as Russians at the edge of the woods began to retreat back to their trenches, but then a new wave of soldiers appeared and without hesitation began running across the frozen river. It was broad daylight and few survived the barrage of firing from the alpini. A few Russians lay on the snow playing dead, then rose and dashed toward alpini strongholds. They never succeeded. The alpini lost several men during that attack.

General Reverberi noted that the Russians attacked the Vestone Battalion seven times on January 15, leaving “800 dead enemy soldiers in front of their lines.”

Bianco Assunto, who served with the 1st Alpine Regiment of the Cuneense Division, recorded efforts on the part of General Battisti to press for an early withdrawal of the Alpine Corps from the Don. The source of Assunto’s information comes from a meeting held in Cuneo, Italy after the war was over, between Giuseppe Lamberti, commander of the Monte Cervino Battalion, and Major Lequio, at which time Lequio shared the following information with Lamberti.

“General Battisti sent me away from the front at the end of December, having realized following the defeat of the Italian infantry divisions south of the Kalitva River that the Alpine Corps risked encirclement.” Lequio also noted General Battisti tried to persuade General Nasci (commander of the Alpine Corps) and other superior officers to withdraw the Corps around January 10 (a week earlier than the actual date of the withdrawal, January 17) “because that way at least ninety percent [of the alpini] could be saved.”

Battisti could not convince General Nasci. In a last chance effort, Battisti sent Major Lequio to Italy by private plane in an attempt to persuade Prince Umberto of Piedmont to exert his influence on the military authorities in Rome. This effort failed as well.

It is interesting to note that General Battisti makes no mention of these events in his final report, written when he returned from Russia.

Although a withdrawal of Italian troops from the Don was probable by the end of December, and a certainty by January 1943, “nothing was done to organize it except for the pathetic suggestion to the troops to throw together [with whatever means] some little sleds to transport materiel.” Trucks and mules needed for transport of the troops should have transferred in a timely manner from rear zones to the front. Planning to distribute much needed supplies of warm clothing and provisions from warehouses stuffed with food and winter clothing did not occur. There was no careful preparation for a withdrawal route with planned stops and planned distributions from centers located in rear zones.

During this period of rapid escalation of fighting, historian Giorgio Rochat characterizes the leadership of generals Gariboldi and Nasci as “disastrous.” There was a complete “collapse of professionalism and attention to the troops that has never been sufficiently underlined, and it was the myth of the alpini that covered up the failure of their commands.”

On January 10, 1943, orders from central headquarters of German Army Group B arrived, directing the Alpine Corps and the Second Hungarian Army to “hold the lines on the Don up to the last man and the last bullet. No withdrawal from the front was permissible…without orders from the [German] command.” Although these orders were clearcut, General Battisti and his officers remained greatly concerned. Obviously enemy forces could attack the Alpine Corps frontally, but now a possible attack could come from the rear as well. On January 14, Battisti received a call from the headquarters of the Alpine Corps instructing him to prepare for a move of his entire division to another zone. Written orders to this effect would follow shortly.

Lieutenant Egisto Corradi recalled that the alpini didn’t realize the Hungarians deployed to the north of the Alpine Corps were withdrawing from their lines, even though German Army Group B had expressly forbidden a withdrawal. The Hungarians began withdrawing January 16, assuming sole responsibility for their action, following another negative response from the Germans stating that orders from Hitler were not up for discussion. In actuality, even before their official decision to withdraw occurred, various Hungarian formations had pulled back twenty-four hours earlier. Hungarian units directly deployed to the north of the Tridentina Division failed to notify head-quarters of the Tridentina of their intentions. “The confused and disorderly Hungarian withdrawal quickly became a chaotic rout. In the following days, Soviet mobile forces would attack the alpine divisions as they marched west by taking full advantage of the dissolution of the Hungarian sector.”

OPERATION “OSTROGOZHSK-ROSSOSH”

As early as December 20, 1942, the Soviets were mapping plans for their third offensive. The goal was to encircle and destroy the Hungarian, and remaining Italian and German forces on the Don front, and liberate the major railroad lines Liski-Valuiki, and Liski-Kantemirovka, in order to advance toward Kharkov and the Donets Basin.

Operation “Ostrogozhsk-Rossosh” consisted of two main and four secondary attacks. The two main attacks included strikes in the north against the Hungarian Second Army, followed by an advance south toward Alekseevka. From the south, strikes southwest of Kantemirovka, followed by a north and northwest advance toward Alekseevka, would achieve a pincer-like encirclement behind the lines of the Alpine Corps and the Hungarians. Of the four secondary attacks, two were to occur within the pincer formation while two were to take place outside of it.

On January 13/14, the Russians attacked the Hungarian Second Army, to the north of the Alpine Corps, penetrating deep into zones behind their lines. On January 14, the Russians attacked and destroyed units on the German lines held by the XXIV Panzer Corps in and around Mitrofanovka. Russian tanks quickly pushed through those lines, and that same evening they struck the headquarters of the German XXIV Panzer Corps where the commander, General Wendel, lost his life in the ensuing battle.

On January 15, masses of Soviet tanks continued to attack the weakened Hungarian positions in the north, as well as residual units of the XXIV Panzer Corps to the south and southwest of the Alpine Corps. They decimated the German 27th Panzer Division, and the 387th Infantry Division suffered significant losses. The Russians managed to open a large breach in the area held by the Germans and were now able to push north, toward Rossosh, site of the headquarters of the Alpine Corps. In Rossosh, alpini of the Monte Cervino Battalion engaged in a desperate battle against attacking Soviet armored units. All available military personnel in the area, including those with no combat experience, fought in this battle. Approximately twenty Russian tanks roamed the streets of Rossosh, demolishing warehouses, storehouses, and any truck in sight. Using any available means—mines, incendiary bottles, and hand grenades—alpini of the Monte Cervino and auxiliary personnel managed to put five tanks out of commission. German ground-attack aircraft took out another seven or eight. The remaining tanks moved into Italian rear guard zones. That same afternoon, the head-quarters of the Alpine Corps transferred from Rossosh to Podgornoje. Military hospitals were evacuated, as well as personnel from various auxiliary services. By noon of January 16, the Russians had occupied Rossosh.

On the morning of January 16, a Russian plane dropped leaflets near the lines where the Julia Division was still fighting. On one side of a very small leaflet of yellow paper (written in Italian) it read, “Italian soldiers! You are surrounded.” On the other side, written in Italian at the top and Russian at the bottom it read, “Lasciapassare” (pass or permit); “To all officers and soldiers who surrender we guarantee life, good treatment and your return to your homeland as soon as the war is over.” The leaflet was signed, “Command of the Red Army of the Don.”

A second leaflet, written in Italian on light blue paper with more text, guaranteed the same rights to prisoners as that written on the yellow paper. In addition, the text advised Italian soldiers to “agree with your trusted companions to act together so you can avoid surveillance by [your] officers and their spies.” It also advised soldiers to distance themselves from their commanders during a withdrawal, to fake a limp, and remain hidden in an izba until Russian soldiers arrived. “During a Russian attack, raise your hands. If there is a traitor in your midst, tie him up or better yet, kill him. Don’t in any case take off your uniform. The international directive requests this. For Russians the rules of war are sacred. Every pass is valid for as many who surrender. If you don’t have a pass, learn to shout these words loudly, ‘Russ sdaius!’ (‘I surrender’).”

On January 15, the ARMIR command requested permission from German Army Group B to withdraw the Alpine Corps along with the Hungarian Second Army, which was already withdrawing at that point. Hitler refused to allow the Alpine Corps to withdraw, but he permitted some troops of the German XXIV Panzer Corps to withdraw north of the Kalitva River.

General Karl Eibl, who had assumed command of the XXIV Panzer Corps, ordered all remaining German troops operating with the Julia Division to withdraw. Vicentini writes, “The design of the German command was evident, namely to forge ahead of the Julia Division in the by now inevitable withdrawal, leaving the Julia Division to form their rearguard, and at the same time having a clear road ahead in order to move rapidly ahead of the Italians. This action weakened the already gravely tested Julia, but most of all it left its flank, south of Krinichoje, completely exposed.”

As German troops to the south and southwest of the Julia Division began to withdraw, alpini of the Julia had to quickly extend and rearrange their defensive positions. ARMIR headquarters informed the command of German Army Group B that it was imperative to authorize the withdrawal of the Julia Division, as well as the other alpine divisions still positioned on the Don, so as to prevent their encirclement.

Despite tight German control of the Alpine Corps, General Nasci and his officers had actually mapped out a plan for a possible with-drawal. It included a specific itinerary the divisions were to follow once a retreat commenced. On January 15, General Battisti received written orders for the withdrawal of the Alpine Corps from the Don. These orders opened with the following statement: “Unfavorable events in other parts of the front constrain the Alpine Corps to withdraw in order to prevent encirclement.” The three Alpine divisions (including the Vicenza Division, incorporated into the Alpine Corps since November 20), the German XXIV Panzer Corps, and all troops and service units posted in the Rossosh zone were to move toward the “alignment Valuiki–Rovenki as quickly and efficiently as possible.” Furthermore, the orders stated that once the troops so deployed, a new defensive line would be drawn, fortified by German troops arriving in that zone.

The orders included specific routes for the divisions to follow. However, as General Battisti notes, operational orders for the withdrawal were developed during the night of January 15, before columns of Russian tanks and troops had reached and occupied Rossosh, and two days before the Russians captured the strongpoints of the proposed line of defense: Valuiki–Rovenki.

In actuality, the overall situation on the ground had changed radically even before the withdrawal was to begin. In order to realize necessary deviations and to change course from the original plans for the withdrawal, there should have been close and constant communication between the Alpine divisions and their corps headquarters, as well as communication with the superior commands, namely the Germans. In fact, in the case of the Cuneense Division, communication between that division and the headquarters of the Alpine Corps ceased on the morning of January 15 (on January 20 a very brief radio connection was reestablished for only a short period).

Already on January 15, General Nasci had ordered alpine units on the front lines to transport heavy equipment from supply depots and camp hospitals to Popovka and Podgornoje. Soldiers in charge of horses and mules located behind the lines received orders to move the animals to the front in order to transport these heavy loads. Some units failed to reach the front with quadrupeds because of Russian attacks. Consequently many alpine units, especially those of the 2nd Regiment of the Cuneense Division, began their withdrawal with approximately twenty mules per company. This of course had grave consequences for the mobility and survival of men in those units.

The following order, received by General Nasci at 0600 on January 17, clearly demonstrates the control the Germans had over the destiny of the Alpine Corps: “TO LEAVE THE DON LINE WITHOUT ORDERS FROM ARMY [Group B] IS ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN. I WILL MAKE YOU PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE TO EXECUTE THIS [ORDER].”

Although enemy forces had encircled the Alpine Corps, General Nasci reported that the Corps was still in good shape, even though it remained under strict control by the Germans.

At 1000 of the same day, Nasci received orders from ARMIR head-quarters to withdraw from the Don, and to maintain close contact with the Hungarian Second Army deployed to the north. The General was also informed that Russian tanks had reached Postoialyj, which confirmed the fact that the Corps was completely encircled. In addition, German Army Group B placed the XXIV Panzer Corps under Nasci’s command. It was now equipped with only four tanks, two self-pro-pelled guns, and scant artillery including a battery of rocket launchers. Nasci noted that the 385th and 387th divisions of the Panzer Corps were “reduced to shreds,” and their fighting ability could be considered “negligible.”

At 1100, General Nasci received another message from the head quarters of the ARMIR, authorizing the withdrawal of the Alpine Corps from the Don. The message ended with the following: “God be with you.” The message also stated that the withdrawing Alpine Corps should maintain close contact with the Hungarian Second Army. Of course, that was impossible. By now, Russian forces had overrun the Hungarians and already there were reports of disorganized units of Hungarians near Opyt, northwest of Podgornoje. That same day, General Nasci received news that the Russians had occupied Pos-toialyj and Karpenkovo. The encirclement of the Alpine Corps was now complete.