The Falaise Pocket

All the senior German commanders were fully aware of the futility of renewing the offensive toward Avranches and of the mortal danger facing Seventh Army and Panzer Group Eberbach. They were equally aware of the pointlessness, even personal danger, of suggesting retreat to the Führer. Von Kluge found a way out. With the unanimous backing of his army commanders, he persuaded a reluctant Hitler that a preliminary operation would be necessary before resuming the attack to the west. XV Corps, marching into the rear of the attack grouping, would have to be dealt with first, and a critical supply route (and, by the same token, withdrawal route) would have to be reopened. Hitler agreed and, on 11 August, ordered a counterstroke on a southeastward Carrouges–Le Mans axis. So fast did Haislip’s force advance, however, that von Kluge was compelled to change the axis to an easterly direction and to divert forces to stop the American drive at Argentan. The move to the assembly area was chaotic and slow (Eberbach’s HQ took six hours to move a mere 30 km [18 miles]), as routes were congested and littered with the wrecks left by air attack, fuel was in short supply, and organization and communications were breaking down. Then an enemy column overran the assembly area even as the concentration was getting under way. The panzer group had to transition to defense to sustain the southern shoulder of a closing trap.

The Germans had very little offensive capability left. Their command and control and logistic systems were in dire straits, and 1 SS, 2 SS, 10 SS, and 2 Panzer Divisions could muster a total of only seventy-three combat-ready tanks by 11 August. Of course, the C-in-C of Army Group B had not wanted to mount a counterstroke at all; he merely needed an excuse to disengage from the Mortain area and withdraw to the east, sure in the knowledge that events would overtake the whole notion of further offensive action. The Canadian offensive toward Falaise and XV Corps’ advance north from Alençon had begun forming an encirclement that was frighteningly familiar to many veterans of the Russo-German front. It was time to get out while that was still possible. Nonessential administrative elements were unofficially dispatched eastward. Plans were readied, based on experience gained in the USSR: more capable formations would hold the flanks of the pocket to protect the retreat; a corps HQ would divest itself of troops and devote itself full time to traffic control; and II SS Panzer Corps, with two divisions (actually, only two small, tired battle groups with twenty to twenty-five tanks between them), would assemble at Vimoutiers, outside the pocket, to counterattack and reopen an exit when the Allied jaws snapped shut. But Hitler still clung to the illusion that the counteroffensive could be resumed. He did not authorize withdrawal until the late afternoon of 16 August.22 By then, it ought to have been too late. The pocket was 56 km (35 miles) deep (i.e., west of the Dives) and 20 km (12 miles) wide at the neck (the Canadians having taken Falaise on 16 August). No major east-west road was left to the Germans. The retreat, taking place under conditions of acute logistic shortages and chaos, would have to be over hilly terrain and two rivers, with Allied artillery and fighter-bombers able to reach every nook and cranny of the shrinking pocket. But the Allies gave the Germans the one thing they needed to get significant elements out of the trap: time.

The Allies were not unaware of the German plight. Ultra, tactical SIGINT (Army Y), and air reconnaissance, supplemented by other sources, followed the abortive plans to renew the Avranches counteroffensive, the changing groupings and movements, and the Germans’ increasingly precarious logistic situation. During the period 12–15 August, all intelligence sources suggested that the enemy, understanding the threat of a double envelopment, had contemplated a counterattack against XV Corps to check the southern pincers. It became increasingly evident, however, that tank, fuel, and ammunition shortages and general confusion had forced the abandonment of this plan in favor of a counterpenetration. It was also apparent that, although tactical withdrawals were being carried out, the bulk of German combat power remained west of the Falaise-Argentan road, with a defense building up on either side of Argentan to protect the south side of the salient. Then, on the evening of 16 August, Ultra reported von Kluge’s morning request for permission for a general withdrawal, followed by Army Group B’s order to start such a withdrawal to the Orne that night and to the Dives the next. Late that night, Montgomery told the CIGS there was good reason to believe there were still six panzer and SS divisions inside the pocket (an assessment with which First Army’s intelligence concurred). There was, in short, still ample incentive on 16 August to make vigorous efforts to close the pocket along the Dives.

On both the northern and southern wings of the encirclement, a combination of delays, inadequate forces at the decisive place, and poor tactical handling, not to mention effective German reactions, prevented the effective sealing of the pocket before 20 August. Even so, Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies were shattered. Constant air attack and artillery fire inflicted enormous and growing casualties. A partial count of equipment losses amounted to more than 300 tanks and SP guns, 200 light AFVs, 2,500 SSVs, and 300 guns.24 Of the approximately 100,000 men left in the pocket at the beginning of the withdrawal on 14 August, approximately 10,000 were killed and more than 40,000 were missing or captured. However, up to 40,000 escaped, as Ultra reported on 22 August. To that number must be added those units that had been withdrawn before the encirclement got under way and those outside the intended pocket. Intelligence estimated that there were 250 tanks and SP guns and 75,000 troops still west of the Seine (actually, there were about 115,000 men). These forces had to be destroyed before they could cross the river. If they were merely driven eastward, Allied logistic constraints (evident as early as 16 August) would soon limit and then halt further efforts and give the enemy the opportunity to rebuild his strength, using the escaped elements as cadres.

The Deep Encirclement

Even as the pincers were closing on the Falaise pocket, the minds of the Supreme Commander and the army group commanders were turning to post-Overlord campaigning. There was, however, unfinished business: the considerable enemy force still attempting to escape the Normandy catastrophe. On 19 August Montgomery met Bradley, Hodges, Dempsey, and Crerar to plan their destruction. US combat power was building up on the south side of the salient, with XV Corps already at Dreux and XIX Corps completing its concentration 15 to 30 km (9 to 18 miles) west of the town. Third Army had its XX and XII Corps halted in the Chartres-Orléans area. There was thus no prospect of a German breakout to the southeast through the Paris-Orléans gap on the most direct route to the Reich. That left only one exit, subject to interdiction by the AEAF: northeastward over the Seine between Vernon and the estuary. Late on 17 August, Ultra reported a list of ferry sites in operation in that sector.

The solution agreed on was a thrust down the west bank of the Seine for a second encirclement. To accomplish the task, Bradley offered transport to shift two Second Army divisions round US First Army via Avranches to its right flank. However, the necessary forces were already there, with two divisions of XV Corps at Mantes and XIX Corps’ three divisions in the area west of Dreux. The inter–army group boundary was temporarily redrawn to run north from Verneuil to west of Rouen to allow the two US corps to sweep north toward Elbeuf and cut off the fleeing enemy for 21 Army Group, advancing eastward, to crush him on an American anvil. Meanwhile, Third Army would advance to the east and seize bridgeheads over the Seine south of Paris, in addition to the one to the north at Mantes. These Seine bridgeheads would render the river useless to the Germans as an obstacle and provide a springboard for a 12 Army Group advance on Germany.

The conclusion of the Normandy campaign with the Allied drive to the Seine.

On 21 August Third Army duly resumed its eastward push against light opposition. By 25 August, XX Corps had advanced 90 to 120 km (55 to 75 miles), seizing three bridgeheads over the Seine 40 to 70 km (25 to 45 miles) upriver from Paris. XII Corps’ lead division went even further to take Troyes, 170 km (105 miles) from Orléans, 145 km (90 miles) southeast of Paris, and only 250 km (155 miles) from the Rhine. For all his spectacular seizure of ground, however, Patton had not lost sight of the original aim of operations—destruction of the enemy. On 23 August, with his forces rapidly closing on the river, the general proposed that XX and XII Corps turn north from their bridgeheads, together with XV Corps (already across at Mantes), and head north toward Beauvais to trap those Germans who had escaped over the Seine. Bradley rejected the idea in favor of a continued thrust to the east, despite a looming crisis in fuel supplies as the increasing distances between depots and the front stretched available transport resources.

Although the German forces attempting to retreat over the Seine were still numerous, their state of organization, equipment, and command and control was very weak (save for LXXXVI Corps on the coastal sector), and they had no prepared positions to fall back on to facilitate an organized withdrawal. Seventh Army was unable to prepare even an approximate strength return, and Fifth Panzer Army, apart from two infantry divisions recently arrived on the Seine from Fifteenth Army, produced only a partial one for I and II SS Panzer Corps on 21 August. This showed that the five panzer divisions remaining west of the Seine could muster only five understrength infantry battalions, about sixty tanks and twenty-six guns. This was the core of the organized rear guard covering the withdrawal over the Seine. First Army defending Paris and all the land east to the Rhône-Saône corridor was similarly lacking in combat power: it possessed two poorly trained, ill-equipped infantry divisions; shattered elements of three formations that had survived Normandy; some security units; and, arriving too late to defend the Seine line, two SS panzer “divisions” that were actually understrength infantry regiments without armor. Nor was there any relief from constant air attack. The Luftwaffe dispatched an extra 800 fighters to cover the retreat, but their largely novice pilots were no match for the Allies and did not affect Allied air supremacy; in a short time, about half of them were shot down, destroyed on the ground, or overrun on their airfields.

Starting on 20 August, 5 Armored Division of XV Corps advanced between the Eure and the Seine, reaching Louviers on 25 August. The corps’ other division, 79 Infantry, was left to hold the Mantes bridgehead. Its neighbor to the west, XIX Corps, advanced with an armored division and an infantry division up and a third initially refused to the left. The Americans advanced on a front of 45 km (30 miles), going down to 25 km (15 miles), and to a depth of approximately 35 to 50 km (20 to 30 miles) in five days to come up to Elbeuf and Louviers. Ten British and Canadian divisions were involved at one stage or another in a frontal pursuit from the Dives, over the Touques and Risle, to the Seine, advancing up to 80 km (50 miles) in five to ten days. There was an inevitable entangling of US formations establishing the stop line and Anglo-Canadian ones advancing from the west; however, generally good staff work and inter-Allied cooperation prior to and after the meeting enabled the Americans to withdraw south of the army group boundary and their allies to complete the clearing of the west bank and establish bridgeheads over the river before the month was out.


While First Army’s XIX Corps and newly acquired XV Corps were having another stab at cutting off the German retreat, this time on the Seine, its VII Corps and V Corps, pinched out by the elimination of the pocket, were reorganizing.26 They would now advance on the army’s right. The boundary with Third Army was redrawn on a line from Chartres to Melun, removing Paris from Third Army’s zone of advance and placing it in Hodges’s (specifically, in V Corps’). As an objective in its own right, Paris had not loomed large in SHAEF thinking; however, as the most significant communications hub in all of France, its possession would be essential to any push to the east. Eisenhower had initially intended to bypass the city and capture it through encirclement, without the need for costly street fighting or the earlier-than-inevitable diversion of the 4,000 tons of supplies per day the logisticians believed the food- and fuel-starved city would need. Accordingly, the FFI, recognized by the Allies as the official face of French resistance under SHAEF control, ordered the resistance in Paris to maintain a low profile and avoid provoking the Germans. This purely military calculation took no account of French political realities. The enduring truth that he who holds Paris controls France meant that both Gaullists and leftists were eager to claim credit for the capital’s liberation, and no faction would be content to play a passive role. By 19 August, encouraged by the approach of American forces, the disintegration of the Pétain government, and the feebleness of the German reaction to widespread strikes and defiance of authority, the city was in a state of insurrection. Lacking both the fighting power to crush the uprising and the stomach to implement Hitler’s order to reduce the city to ruins, the military commandant agreed to a rather ill-defined truce with the insurrectionists. This was due to expire at noon on 23 August.

De Gaulle had been lobbying for the early liberation of Paris, to be led by 2 French Armored Division. Leclerc, a fervent Gaullist, had been pressing the same demand with his unheeding corps and army commanders, refusing to allow his division to become decisively engaged with the enemy in the Falaise encirclement battle, whatever the orders issued by Gerow or Hodges. By 22 August, influenced by French political pressure and by the growing belief that the Germans would not contest the city, which was now believed to be largely in FFI hands, Eisenhower had changed his position on Paris. Leclerc was sent to liberate the city, reinforced by 4 Infantry Division, when, yet again, the French general ignored his corps commander’s orders as to axis. On 25 August Paris was surrendered to the provisional government of France, thus realizing de Gaulle’s ambition to preempt a communist seizure of power and to present a fait accompli to a somewhat unfriendly US government.

The Extent of the Disaster Suffered by Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies

Allied air interdiction efforts combined with the long envelopment proved to be less decisive than hoped. On 21 August AEAF’s main effort was shifted from interdicting the Seine to attacking retreating forces north of the river and preventing the establishment of a defensive line on the Somme; Leigh-Mallory equated the destruction of the permanent bridges with the sealing of the barrier. The ground forces advanced with more circumspection than vigor and failed to close the crossing sites, even though significant numbers were still on the left bank. Montgomery did not seem unduly perturbed by these developments or by the failure of the ground forces to seal all escape routes over the river in good time. He had already decided, as he wrote to the CIGS on 18 August, that “all German formations that cross the Seine will be incapable of combat during the months to come.” All the same, suspecting that significant numbers of the enemy had managed to cross the river, Montgomery ordered an inquiry into the magnitude of the escape. The conclusion confirmed his suspicion: between the Dives and the Seine, about 240 tanks and SP guns, 250 light armored vehicles, 4,450 other vehicles, and 230 guns had been destroyed or abandoned; about 80,000 men had been killed or captured. But the inquiry also established that in the last twelve days of August, approximately 240,000 men, 28,000 vehicles, and 195 tanks and SP guns had managed to cross the Seine. Clearly, air action had not made the river an impassable barrier (a fact made obvious even before the retreat by the number of divisions from Fifteenth Army that had reinforced Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies in July and August). A partially destroyed railway bridge in Rouen, three pontoon bridges, about sixty ferry and boat crossing sites, and many more small, improvised crossings had enabled considerable numbers to avoid death or capture. The bulk of those that escaped the trap did so over 26–27 August—that is, after First Army’s sweep north closed off 60 km (40 miles) of river but stopped at Elbeuf.

British and American works on Normandy are meticulous when dealing with Allied casualties during the campaign. From D-Day until the end of August, these totaled 209,672 among the land forces (about 60 percent of them American). They tend to be more cavalier about German figures. The commonly quoted total is 450,000 casualties (about 240,000 killed and wounded and 210,000 prisoners), statistics that probably originated in unreliable wartime estimates. A study based on a careful examination of the documentary evidence suggests that German losses actually amounted to 288,695 (including 198,616 missing), although this figure is for the whole of Oberbefehlshaber (High Command) West and includes well over 65,000 lost in the south of France and the retreat from the south and southwest. Given that as many as 640,000 Germans fought in Normandy, it is clear that substantial numbers were going to be available to reconstitute formations—given time.

Five severely mauled divisions had to be sent to Germany for rebuilding. The remnants of the other eleven infantry divisions provided only four improvised, underequipped divisional battle groups, and the eleven panzer and panzer grenadier divisions had only some five to ten tanks and one battery each.30 Both of the Normandy armies were, over the course of only four weeks, rendered combat-ineffective. Only the scratch First Army and the much-depleted Fifteenth Army remained to contest an Allied eastward march on Germany. It would take time to summon additional forces from other theatres (and none could be diverted from the eastern front, where even greater disasters had been engulfing the Wehrmacht). On the one hand, a window had been opened for a potentially decisive strategic exploitation. On the other hand, if it were not effectively utilized, the men who had escaped could form the core of rebuilt or fresh divisions. Most importantly, of the one army, seven corps, and twenty divisional HQs caught in the pocket, only one corps and three divisional HQs had been destroyed. The enemy had a substantial number of men almost immediately available in Germany—two shadow divisions (bodies of combat troops organized like divisions, but without logistic infrastructure), nine fortress battalions, and seventeen replacement battalions—but they were not an integrated force. There were also six parachute regiment equivalents, albeit without artillery or much antitank weaponry, in training in the Netherlands. The command and control elements that escaped from Normandy ensured that there would be experienced, efficient brains to direct the refitted formations and the new bodies that would be created, and some logistic and administrative structures to keep them going.


Army Level

The key decisions were made at the higher operational level, and army commanders operated with only limited freedom of action. Indeed, Bradley, and especially Montgomery, tended to exercise tight supervision and control, allowing little room for creativity. Dempsey, Crerar, and Hodges accepted this as right and proper. Patton, however, was inclined to interpret his orders as creatively as possible, exercise initiative, and exceed the goals set in his mission. It was fortunate for the Allies that the circumstances in which Patton’s army entered battle were so favorable to his aggressive, risk-taking style of command. That the German defense in Normandy unraveled so completely and, above all, so quickly was due largely to Patton’s energy and audacity, often in spite of the wishes of his more cautious superior.

Second British Army: Lieutenant General Dempsey. General Dempsey had spent the twelve weeks prior to Operation Bluecoat engaged in the thankless task of pinning the bulk of German combat power on the British sector of the front through an attritional struggle. Sandwiched between the newly activated First Canadian Army to the east and US First Army to the west, he had no maneuver room. He would have to create his own opportunities to carry out operational maneuver by breaking through the defense and then inserting exploitation forces through the gap. He failed to accomplish this up to and including Operation Goodwood, but he succeeded in Bluecoat. A rapid, skillful, covert regrouping of two-thirds of the attack grouping onto a quiet and weakly defended sector ensured surprise. Initially, this was fully exploited by O’Connor’s VIII Corps, which eschewed customary tactical caution at critical moments and thus achieved an early breakthrough. However, fear of overextension soon reasserted itself, and exploitation gave way to the consolidation of gains. Dempsey did not press O’Connor to take risks but concentrated instead on trying to coax a more energetic performance out of XXX Corps. The opportunity to turn Seventh Army’s withdrawal into a rout was lost.

From the fourth day of operations, Second Army slipped away from a maneuver-based approach aimed at dislocating the enemy, forcing him into an untenable position and back into attritional operations to grind him down. There were arguments in favor of this reversion to the familiar. The primary aim of the operation had been achieved; the Germans had been prevented from shifting II SS Panzer Corps to the west to stop the Cobra breakthrough. Methodical operations were believed to conserve the force, a major consideration for an army facing a manpower crisis (so acute that 59 Infantry Division was about to be broken up to provide replacements for other formations). And such operations were controllable and low risk, unlike an attempt at vigorous pursuit, which could lead to confusion, uncertainty, and exposure to damaging counterattacks that could weaken morale. It is, however, difficult to shake the suspicion that Dempsey’s Second Army was happy to get back into its comfort zone, despite the fact that the operational circumstances of early August had made bolder action both safer and more desirable. The Germans lacked the strength, the logistic support, and the ability to achieve even temporary and local air superiority to wrest the initiative back from the British while simultaneously attempting to stem the American breakthrough. The Allies knew this, thanks to their excellent operational-level intelligence.

Post-Bluecoat operations were not—indeed, could not be—characterized by the usual lengthy buildup to achieve strong concentrations on narrow sectors and by the expenditure of massive stocks of ammunition created over many days. Rather, following the expensive and therefore very short-lived Operation Grouse, there was pressure across the front by all three corps (until VIII Corps was pinched out by the shrinking of the pocket). However, by the middle of August, pressure had largely given way to merely following up the German withdrawal. Formations were, of course, grateful for the rest and the opportunity to refit. However, the British lack of aggressiveness meant that the German withdrawal was hardly discommoded. Enemy formations were not pinned to allow more time for the encirclement to be completed and to prevent enemy disengagement in the west to concentrate for a break-out to the east. Strong thrusts were not mounted into the German northern flank of the pocket to cut off and destroy individual retreating groupings. XII Corps, decreed the main effort after the failure of the Canadians’ Operation Totalize, was not strongly reinforced, and it advanced at a very deliberate pace (though, admittedly, the ground greatly favored the defense). The inevitable opportunities for the pursuer created by a chaotic retreat were not seized upon, such as when 11 Armored Division failed to prevent 10 SS Panzer’s crossing of the Orne during the night 17–18 August. The pursuit to the Seine following the elimination of the pocket was similarly unthreatening to an even weaker enemy; the Germans were pushed toward US First Army’s anvil but not hammered on it. In short, there was a persistent failure to capitalize on the enemy’s weaknesses and conduct the vigorous pursuit that turns battle success into campaign victory. However, Dempsey did look ahead to post-Normandy operations and ensured that they could start as soon as his commander desired. He planned to seize bridgeheads over the major obstacle (the Seine) through forced crossings from the line of march, thus avoiding the delay that would have attended a more deliberate approach.

Dempsey was plainly right to reject Bradley’s rather extraordinary offer to ferry two British divisions round US First Army to complete the wide encirclement on the Seine. The scheme (presumably designed to free all American forces for an immediate march eastward on Germany) would have been disruptive, logistically impractical, inadequate in strength, and, above all, too tardy in execution to catch many of the enemy. Altogether more sensible was the general agreement on a temporary boundary change to allow a XIX and XV Corps attack between the Eure and the Seine, across the line of the British advance. Second Army’s HQ worked well with US First Army to deconflict the two armies advancing on converging axes. (Of course, there would have been no problem to solve if the US thrust had been directed up the east bank of the Seine.) Dempsey’s incautious (and possibly misquoted) remarks about being delayed by American slowness in clearing his line of march were unfair and out of character; he was normally the soul of tact. Montgomery, demonstrating a sensitivity that was often lacking in his own dealings with the Americans, smoothed over the affair, and no lasting harm was done to Dempsey’s relations with his allies. It did, however, illustrate the level of dislike, even hostility and distrust, that was increasingly infecting Anglo-American relations, to the detriment of sound decision making.

In late August the much weakened, disorganized, and logistically starved enemy was in the most vulnerable state imaginable, but Second Army appeared happy to leave his destruction largely to the Allied air forces and other armies. This assertion presupposes, of course, that Second Army was capable of acting in any other way. It was well trained to conduct the set-piece battles on which doctrine placed so much emphasis, and it had acquired much practical experience in putting that training to good use. However, in its long working-up period in Britain prior to the invasion, it had not been prepared for maneuver warfare and pursuit—certainly not at the formation level. For the most part, commanders, staffs, and formations were used to relying on massive, sometimes unnecessary and logistically unsound use of firepower and very deliberate, overly cautious tactics. Unlike the Germans, they lacked sufficient relevant training and experience to conduct fluid battles, and neither HQs nor their commands displayed the agility demonstrated time and again by the Wehrmacht. Awareness of this disparity in capabilities reinforced the British inclination toward caution. This was unfortunate, for by mid-August, caution was no longer an appropriate response to developments. When the enemy is badly damaged, unbalanced, in logistic difficulties, under great psychological pressure, and forced into increasingly belated and therefore ineffectual improvisations, that is the time when ruthless exploitation of the initiative and risk taking pay the greatest dividends. It is the time when the main concern should be not what can the enemy do to us but what can we do to him. In August, Second Army seemed unable to rise to the occasion. It had not yet become the somewhat more versatile and agile force that would fight the post-Normandy campaigns.

It seems that Dempsey did not encourage, or display himself, the boldness and ruthlessness that characterize an effective pursuit—either that, or he was restrained from doing so by Montgomery. Powerful influences undoubtedly constrained him, including an instinctive reaction to the prospect of casualties and knowledge that the British component of the AEF was reaching the bottom of the manpower barrel. But the real reason was his very British desire for a tidy battlefield, along with the concomitant impulse to exercise tight control through detailed, prescriptive orders and close supervision of subordinates. This was the very antithesis of the mission command style that brought such great victories to other very mobile, armor-heavy armies enjoying unlimited air support.


First Canadian Army: Lieutenant General Crerar. Like Operation Bluecoat, Totalize achieved more than its predecessors in Normandy. II Canadian Corps drove a salient up to 15 km (9 miles) deep and 8 km (5 miles) wide into the German defense. In doing so, it reduced a fresh infantry division to 50 percent, inflicted significant losses on 12 SS Panzer Division, and greatly alarmed Army Group B. With his Caen hinge weakened to breaking point and the Americans advancing almost unopposed northward from Le Mans, von Kluge could see that his worst fear—encirclement of most of Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies—was about to be realized. Nevertheless, the operation failed to achieve its aim of cutting the German withdrawal route through Falaise. This failure, coupled with the operational pause before the effort was resumed in Operation Tractable, would have far-reaching repercussions.

Despite some halfhearted claims to ownership by Crerar, it is clear that Operation Totalize was the brainchild of II Canadian Corps’ GOC Lieutenant General Simonds. He had reflected on the causes of the expensive failure, a fortnight before, of his Operation Spring. The Totalize plan contained novel features designed to negate those aspects of the German defense that had made previous attacks so costly and inconclusive: heavy night bombing in close proximity to ground troops; an attack by massed armor at night; and the use of APCs to get infantry rapidly into the enemy’s tactical depth, undisrupted and with only light casualties. These innovations ensured surprise and, in consequence, a speedy penetration of the defense. Phase one was completed at low cost and largely according to plan. However, the battle started to go wrong immediately thereafter. Momentum was lost and never regained.

One reason for this turn of events was the effective way the Germans reacted. Although untested and now shocked and disrupted, units of 89 Infantry Division fought on, despite being overrun or bypassed. Even more critical in the battle for time was the speed and tactical acumen with which German commanders at all levels reacted. Meyer and Eberbach both made early, on-the-spot appreciations and decisions, saving precious time in the decision-action cycle. Their characteristic, reflexive counterattack failed to recover ground and resulted in irreplaceable casualties, however. Simonds had anticipated this, and the first echelon was consolidated and ready. Conversely, the subsequent delaying action won the time needed to establish a defense in the Potigny area and, eventually, on the line of the Laison. The defensive action that followed the spoiling attack was also active and maneuver based. The tanks were not deployed with the infantry to stiffen the defense but concentrated in the Quesnay woods for countermoves, as Worthington Force found at the cost of its destruction. That the Germans would react so quickly and effectively was, of course, predictable, even in the case of a poor, green division like 89 Infantry. That had been the pattern throughout the campaign, most recently in their response to the initial penetration in Bluecoat. Even at this late date, intelligence and commanders often failed to understand the enemy.

Imaginative and innovative as it was, Simonds’s plan contained major flaws that gave the Germans a chance to recover from their surprise and reestablish a coherent defense. Many of these flaws were inherent in British operational and tactical methods and thinking. In other words, they were systemic. The first flaw involved the faulty use of airpower. There was a growing reliance on the massive use of heavy bombers to supplement artillery in the task of burying resistance under hundreds of tons of high explosives. In neither Goodwood nor Bluecoat had this been the hoped-for panacea. In Totalize, the effect was adverse. The preliminary night bombing was only partially successful, but dependence on it meant that initial infantry attacks on fortified villages were mounted in inadequate strength and without artillery and tank support; consequently, casualties were significant, and the flanks of the advance were not cleared on schedule, impacting the forward displacement of artillery for phase two. Critically, the second bombing was counterproductive. It had little effect on the defense, largely hitting empty ground and the dummy concentration at St. Sylvain, but it inflicted serious damage and disruption on the two AGRAs supporting the phase two attack. Most significantly, the afternoon air strikes were considered so essential to the breakthrough of the second position that a long tactical pause was deemed acceptable; as it turned out, it was six to eight hours before the Polish and Canadian armored divisions crossed their LDs. That was just enough time for the Germans to restore the integrity of the defense. An air plan involving the employment of Bomber Command and Eighth Air Force was necessarily inflexible, being set in stone well in advance of the operation and not subject to any change after H–5 or cancellation after H+8. Even if ground operations were proceeding well, they would still have to stop and wait for the air attacks to go in, and neither the air plan nor ground plan could be adjusted if the enemy did the unexpected. Both these things happened on 8 August.

During the planning stage of Totalize, Crerar had noted the lengthy interval between phases one and two. This violated the principle of maintaining momentum and the initiative. However, he did not press the issue, even after Ultra’s revelation that much or most of 1 SS Panzer Division had been redeployed. It was unfortunate that Crerar, the man with the authority to cancel the second bombing, lacked the courage of his convictions, was somewhat intimidated by the forceful and more experienced Simonds, or feared offending the senior airmen, to the possible detriment of future support from the heavy bombers. He had, after all, expended political capital to arrange it.

An obsession with the firepower delivered by strategic bombers obscured more successful and less controversial air techniques. Actually, airpower could have made a decisive contribution to Operation Totalize had reliance been placed on its tactical arm, properly used. Continuous air interdiction of the battlefield would have severely delayed the march of BGs Krause and Olboeter, the battle groups principally responsible for repulsing the Canadian attacks on 9–10 August. Close air support could have contributed mightily to deepening the penetration. With artillery unable to displace forward in time to give continuous support, fighter-bombers would have provided an alternative source of firepower. Their effectiveness against point targets, especially vulnerable ones like antitank guns and artillery, would have been greater than in previous battles, as the Germans would be neither well dug in nor camouflaged during an increasingly fluid battle. To ensure immediate responsiveness, some fighter ground-attack units could have been continuously in the air over the battlefield, using the cab-rank concept developed by AVM Broadhurst in late 1943. Any necessary surge effort could have been mounted at short notice from other squadrons held on cockpit alert and ready to fly on order.

Had Simonds and Crerar reposed the confidence in the break-in plan that it actually merited, they would have dispensed with the crutch of the second heavy bombing. This would have left II Canadian Corps with the flexibility to exploit the initial success immediately (although broad preplanning of this exploitation would have been necessary to avoid delay and confusion). At the very least, elements of the first echelon could have pressed forward with the barest of pauses for reorganization. Better still, predesignated combined-arms battle groups of reinforced battalion strength, probably drawn from the second echelon, could have pushed south on either side of the N158 in advance of their formations’ main bodies to seize the high ground just west of Potigny and a crossing over the Laison immediately to the east. They would have enjoyed a high priority for air support. The aim would have been to preempt the enemy onto key points on the favorable defensive line in his depth and hold them until the second echelon could deploy and make its way forward to reinforce the leading units. Disruption of the German defense and a speedy advance to render nugatory his reactions would have reduced the time required and thus the element of risk. It is likely, too, that the armored divisions could have come forward more rapidly had there been greater urgency about the move; as it was, there was no need to be on the LD much before the H-hour determined by the air effort.

In the event, when the second-echelon attack went in, it was against a first-class enemy that was beginning to recover his balance. The two armored divisions would have to fight their way forward. The Germans, however, were still vulnerable to well-conducted attacks mounted by a force that enjoyed considerable numerical superiority. Though this was especially true on the afternoon of 8 August, it remained so through the next day. It was therefore unfortunate that both second-echelon divisions were inexperienced and thus prone to the failings of green formations. The Poles had not grasped the importance of fighting in combined-arms battle groups, and Canadian interarm cooperation was weak. Neither formation was prepared for night fighting (with especially tragic consequences for Worthington Force). Both were guilty of poor battle procedure and committed tactical errors. Simonds and Crerar blamed the very disappointing results not only on inexperience but also on commanders’ lack of drive and incompetence; Simonds castigated commanders down to the unit level accordingly. Their failure, however, was due in large measure to faults in the plan. That 4 Armored Division left its LD almost three hours late owed much to the poor staff work that placed Gaumesnil inside the bomb line and allocated it as an objective (in phase one) to two different divisions; the egregious failings of Brigadier Booth, commanding 4 Armored Brigade (which did not result in his dismissal), were merely a complementary factor. Moreover, each armored division was allotted a narrow zone of advance (scarcely more than 1 km [half a mile] wide) and therefore lacked the maneuver room to bypass opposition as Simonds demanded. Yet II Canadian Corps could have expanded its actions considerably to the east. The weak German LXXXVI Corps, which held the right flank facing I British Corps, held a 20 km (12 mile) frontage from the sea to La Hogue. This was increased overnight by 7 km (4 miles) by 51 Highland Division’s advance. It would be extended that same distance again with the German night withdrawal on 8–9 August. Stretched, lacking mobility, and with almost no armor, LXXXVI Corps was poorly placed to elongate its defensive flank southward in sufficient strength to repulse an Allied effort to turn the right flank of the main defense.

Crerar’s failure to exploit the boundary between I SS and LXXXVI Corps is hard to explain and harder to excuse. From the end of phase one, 51 Division and 33 Armored Brigade played only minor roles. Reverting to I British Corps’ command on the afternoon of 9 August, they merely kept up with the Canadian advance and covered its flank. They, together with one of the armored divisions, could have been used under either corps to widen the operation’s spatial scope and overstretch the defense while the rest of I Corps pinned the enemy to their front. Such a task would have been consistent with preparing the way for a thrust toward Rouen, which Crerar believed would be the post-Totalize role of his army. This would not have overstretched Crerar’s forces, as he still would have had 2 and 3 Canadian Divisions and an armored division and brigade in hand for the direct attack on Falaise.

The outcome of the attacks on both 8 and 9 August was far below expectations. The lesson not learned was that a thrust narrowly confined to a few kilometers on either side of the N158 would become subject to diminishing returns. The plan for 10 August was based on a belated recognition of the central importance of the Quesnay woods to that axis. A predictable, frontal attack by 3 Canadian Division was repulsed. This failure was an expensive reminder that, without surprise, careful planning, and a well-constructed fire plan, an improvised attack was unlikely to succeed against a capable enemy that had been given time to prepare.

With that sharp reminder of the force’s limitations, it took two and a half days to generate the fresh set-piece attack that Simonds and Crerar deemed necessary, despite Montgomery’s demand for urgency. Neither general accepted that the Totalize plan had been flawed in any way, ascribing failure to the incompetence of their subordinates. Thus, Operation Tractable was largely a reprise of its predecessor. It once again relied on the use of heavy bombers (a reliance that was not fully justified by results and not without serious consequences); it saw the same use of tightly massed tanks and APC-borne infantry; it substituted obscuration through smoke for the cover of darkness; it was tightly controlled, leaving little room for initiative when the plan went wrong. And go wrong it did when the river Laison proved to be a tank obstacle in many places (a fact that better intelligence work would have revealed). The attack lost cohesion and, with subordinate commanders having no idea how to react when the unexpected happened, fizzled out in a mix of confusion and passive waiting for fresh orders.

Rather than persisting in frontal attacks against an increasingly coherent defense, it might have been better, even as late as 10–11 August, to seek a solution on either flank. A subsidiary attack was started on the west bank of the Laize on 11 August by 2 Canadian Division to complement the thrust southeastward from the Grimbosq bridgehead by XII British Corps—an effort that gained momentum with the departure of BG Wünsche on 8 August. The ground, however, was not favorable to a much larger deployment and a rapid increase in tempo. On the left, had Crerar willed it, there was a possibility that II Canadian Corps, in cooperation with I British Corps, could have broken through the now grossly overextended LXXXVI Corps and turned the flank of I SS Panzer Corps. Of course, at this stage of the offensive, having failed to exploit earlier opportunities, the Canadian army really could have used additional formations to regain momentum. Probably because he rated Crerar so lowly, Montgomery was not inclined to reinforce him as readily as he would the more trusted Dempsey. This lack of esteem led to his exclusion from critical C-in-C’s meetings to discuss the operational situation. For instance, this happened when Montgomery met with Bradley and Dempsey on 13 and 16 August and made decisions that directly affected First Canadian Army.

Operations Totalize and Tractable demonstrated the flaws and limitations in both Canadian operational thinking and tactical competence. Surprise was seen as a combat multiplier, but there was insufficient appreciation of the transience of its effects; every hour that passed without exploitation was pure gain for the enemy. At bottom, Simonds and Crerar thought there was no substitute for sheer volume of fire—the more the better. This led to overreliance on the effects of bombing, carefully prepared fire plans, and impractically rigid timetables. Tempo was a secondary consideration that was apparently considered to be of secondary value, even though the enemy had amply demonstrated time after time that momentum (and the paralyzing shock it induced) was the main weapon of armored forces. As Kurt Meyer scathingly remarked: “A tank attack which is divided into phases is like a cavalry charge with meal breaks.” He also pointed out: “You just cannot lead a tank battle from behind an office desk. The place for the responsible unit commander has to be with the foremost elements of his attacking spearhead so as to be able to take decisions according to the situation and to deliver annihilating hammer blows.” This was not the way of Canadian divisional commanders, who tended to be desk bound, planning off the map rather than going forward to see the ground for themselves, assess how their units were faring, and provide leadership. They took their lead from their seniors.

While Simonds spent considerable time with his division commanders, it was because he (rightly) reposed little trust in their tactical competence. His cold, critical presence inspired mainly fear. He commanded forcefully, rather than led. Crerar preferred to stay at his main HQ, generally 60 km (40 miles) from corps HQs, where he involved himself in the details of staff work and frequently had problems distinguishing among the essential, the important, and the trivial. He made forward visits, usually daily, but did not go below corps level. Both Crerar and his HQ lacked experience of actual battle, and in August it showed. His generalship was immature and flawed, being prone to half measures because of a mixture of fear of failure and overoptimism (as well as some dubious British doctrine). The planning of the operation was left largely to Simonds, the man Montgomery would have preferred as army commander. For the most part, Crerar found that he was reduced to being a conduit between Montgomery and Simonds, and he was sometimes bypassed even in that role. His contribution was largely exhortatory, although he did play an important part in obtaining heavy bomber support from the air forces. Both Crerar and Simonds were firmly wedded to British concepts of secure bases and flanks; massive fire plans (including air) to avoid unnecessary casualties; tight, centralized control; and balance—that is, the avoidance of risk as an important principle of combat. Neither displayed a feel for the way battle developed, insisting on sticking to the complex plan and blaming subordinates when that plan went wrong. Simonds, however, would eventually develop a “fingertip feel” for battle, which Crerar never did. Simonds’s judgment was both sounder and far more creative.

US First Army: Lieutenant General Hodges. Hodges’s first real test as army commander came five days after he assumed command. Ultra gave only a few hours’ notice of the beginning of the German counterattack at Mortain, insufficient for any tactical preparation. Bradley and Hodges had been concerned about the threat to Avranches yet, curiously, had missed warning signs in the first of several bouts of overconfidence.41 From 1 August onward, Ultra had recorded the Germans’ dismay at Seventh Army’s open flank. Yet Allied generals did not ask themselves why the Germans were taking the risk of fighting so hard west of the river Vire when timely retreat would be the more prudent option (as Montgomery had pointed out in his M516); indeed, as reinforcements arrived at long last from Fifteenth Army and more from the south of France, they were fed into the forward battle instead of preparing a fallback line to cover a withdrawal. Nor did the generals pick up the hints provided by intelligence in the first week of August. A series of SIGINT reports on 4–6 August about a growing armored concentration under XLVII Panzer Corps on the enemy’s left wing should have suggested that the Germans intended to restore the situation by counterattack, especially as fresh infantry divisions were relieving panzer units in the line. Air reconnaissance also detected elements of the counterattack grouping.

Fortunately, First Army was well placed to repulse the blow. The Avranches corridor had already been prudently expanded to a comfortable width, and the high ground around Mortain was firmly occupied. With more than six US divisions (including one French) in or near the battle area and massive air support, the weak, hastily organized, ill-reconnoitered German attack was doomed from the start. The unfussed, efficient reaction by First Army in harnessing maximum air and artillery support helped VII Corps ensure that the enemy made a minimum of progress. It was clear by early on 8 August that the attack had run out of steam, with Hodges reporting as much. Though the possibility of renewal could not be discounted, it was clear that without surprise and substantial reinforcements, which were simply not available, the German counteroffensive had culminated. Now badly unbalanced, damaged, and crippled logistically, and with command and control becoming increasingly precarious, the Germans were vulnerable to further Allied attacks.

At the higher operational level, the Allies were determined to exploit the Germans’ open southern flank by executing an encirclement of the attack grouping to close the pocket on the line of the Falaise-Argentan road. At his lower level, however, Hodges seemed slow to exploit the same vulnerability. Frontal pressure was exerted against the main strength of the German grouping all the way from Vire round to Mortain and Barenton, rather than conducting primarily pinning attacks and economy of force measures while pulling formations out of the line and sending them, as fast as possible, round the German left. In fact, V Corps and then XIX Corps were not redeployed until they were pinched out by the British advance across their front. Similarly, VII Corps attacked into the strongest part of LVII Panzer Corps until 12 August when, pinched out by XIX Corps’ advance, it started to sideslip 4 and then 9 Infantry Divisions to the southeast. Meanwhile, 1 Infantry and much of 3 Armored Divisions waited in the Mayenne area and were not committed to a thrust on the Domfront-Flers axis until a week later, on 13 August, by which time the Germans’ withdrawal had apparently started. Hodges presumably wished to wait until he could launch a powerful, concentrated, flank-secured VII Corps in a northerly direction. This gave the enemy the breathing space he badly needed to adjust his dispositions. It also rendered nugatory the mobility advantage enjoyed by the Americans (enhanced by mastery of the air, which inhibited enemy maneuver) and thus sacrificed the tempo of which the American forces were capable and which would have kept the enemy off balance. Moreover, it delayed closing the gap between First Army and XV Corps, attacking on the Alençon-Argentan axis. Instead of putting maximum effort into attacking where the enemy was absent, into his flank and rear to disrupt the defense, Hodges preferred head-on attacks into strength over ground favorable to the defense and improved by mining. The casualty rate from 6 to 11 August was over 1,000 per day, with a peak of 1,796.

Had relations between Hodges and his allies been more collaborative than competitive, he could have sought to take advantage of British Second Army’s early success in Operation Bluecoat. The Americans’ V and XIX Corps had been making heavy weather of their advance on Vire until the British advance compelled XLVII Panzer Corps to withdraw from Tessy-sur-Vire on 31 July; by 2 August, the critical town itself was defenseless against attack by VIII Corps from the north. Hodges could have welcomed a British seizure of this important road centre and thrust into the flank of the enemy opposing his army’s advance; then he could have used the opportunity to shift his focus to the right to further unbalance the Germans. Later on, he refused Crerar’s eminently sensible offer of an exchange of liaison officers and information as elements of First US and Canadian Armies closed on Trun-Chambois, raising the specter of fratricidal clashes. It was perhaps typical, and certainly small-minded, to take refuge in bureaucratic excuses to explain his noncooperation. Hodges was understandably angry at Leclerc’s persistent avoidance of his orders and importunate demands to be allowed to liberate Paris, but he seemed not to appreciate that, while under his command, the Frenchman presented a special case. As the senior military representative of an ally, he could not be disciplined or ordered around as if he were an American. When he had to do so, however, Hodges could work with his allies. The complicated work of coordinating with Second British Army and its XXX Corps to disentangle American and British forces after the former had taken Elbeuf and the latter had closed up to the army group boundary was accomplished efficiently and relatively smoothly.

By 16 August, Bradley had decided to hand over American responsibilities for closing the pocket to First Army. The subsequent mix-up between V Corps and the provisional corps at Argentan and the slow resumption of attacks northward were due to Bradley, not Hodges. The latter was presiding over the complex and impressive maneuver of XIX Corps from the army’s left to the extreme right wing and the start of its attack on the Elbeuf axis. However, the advance of both XIX and XV Corps to the west of the Seine was, at 7 to 8 km (4 to 5 miles) per day, not fast enough, given the weakness and disorganization of the enemy, and it was too slow to trap the remnants of the two pocketed German armies. Army HQ had considerable communications problems as a result of the great distances involved, but it is hard not to conclude that Hodges failed to press his subordinates (as Patton did) to eschew plodding, deliberate methods in favor of improvisation, vigor, and risk taking. This was certainly not because he did not go forward to assess the situation for himself. Early in the campaign, he frequently visited corps and division commanders (although such forays tailed off as time went on). His presence, however, was not inspirational; indeed, his incessant worrying about detail made such visits something to be endured rather than welcomed. His absence did not mean that his subordinates were left to execute their missions as they saw fit. Hodges had little trust in any of his commanders, save for Collins at VII Corps. He demanded minutiae in reporting that was more appropriate to an HQ one or two levels below army, and he issued detailed, prescriptive orders. He was another commander who could not live comfortably with the chaos of war.

Hodges has frequently been referred to as the US Army’s foremost tactician. Unfortunately, he did not rise above tactics to become a practitioner of operational art. First Army’s war diary has a revealing entry for 30 July: “General Hodges . . . felt since the beginning that too many of these battalions and regiments of ours have tried to flank and skirt and never meet the enemy straight on . . . believing it safer, sounder, and in the end quicker, to keep smashing ahead, without any tricky, uncertain business of possibly exposing yourself to being cut off.” He was most comfortable at infantry unit level, conducting attritional battle. Concepts such as surprise, Cobra-like concentration on narrow sectors and economy of force elsewhere, maneuver in which open flanks were an acceptable risk, and clever sequencing of battles were on the margins of his military thought, crowded out by an obsession with a methodical approach and minor tactical details. The idea that battle might best be avoided in favor of maneuver to place the enemy at a disadvantage did not seem to cross his mind. His judgment was suffused with caution, even when boldness would be appropriate, and he lacked the ability to think beyond the current battle. At best, Hodges was a competent plodder and a safe if uninspiring manager. Neither professional growth nor imagination and flair had qualified him to command an army by August 1944.

US Third Army: Lieutenant General Patton. The principal mission originally envisaged for Third Army had been the capture of the Brittany ports. Even though this had been reduced from an army to a corps task, Patton set about it in a typically bold but not foolhardy fashion, given the enemy’s weakness and Allied air supremacy. Dispensing with phase lines, intermediate objectives, and other appurtenances of linear battle, he instructed his armored division and corps commanders to bypass opposition and seize distant objectives without fretting about their flanks. Though striving to achieve his assigned operational goal, Patton, like Montgomery, had doubts about the operational idea from the outset. He questioned whether Brittany had become a distraction, given the opportunities opening up to the east. Like Montgomery, Patton favored a long hook round the open southern flank to trap the enemy at the Seine. This demonstrated a sound appreciation of the operational situation and an instinctive feel for the way it was developing. He was accordingly delighted when Bradley, on Montgomery’s prompting, limited the Brittany operation to a single corps and directed the main body of Third Army in the general direction of Paris.

Haislip was imbued with Patton’s way of warfare. His XV Corps advanced from the Fougères-Vitré area to Le Mans at 30 km (nearly 20 miles) per day, placing it in a favorable position to execute Bradley’s post-Mortain idea of a short hook. Patton (like Montgomery) had doubts about the northward swing from Le Mans, though. He believed the original long envelopment to the Seine would have a better chance of trapping significant German forces. Given the superior mobility and mastery of the air enjoyed by the Allies, he was probably right. However, he implemented Bradley’s instructions with his customary vigor. When ordered north, XV Corps moved more than 25 km (15 miles) per day to Argentan, 10 km (6 miles) beyond the army group boundary. This tempo in the advance scattered the few forces the Germans could muster to oppose it before they could organize into an effective delay force. It wrecked the remains of the logistic organization of Seventh Army and massively disrupted its command and control, placing the whole army in considerable peril. The very speed of the American advance brought security. The enemy was given no time to redeploy against it, even if sufficient forces had been available and had been able to move expeditiously (neither condition pertained, given the unrelenting pressure exerted by the other three armies and the omnipresent Allied fighter-bombers). However, Patton was mindful of the need for concentration, as XV Corps was being placed across the line of retreat of a major enemy grouping. Before the operational focus was unexpectedly changed, he had intended to send XX Corps (reinforced by 4 Armored Division from Brittany) north on Haislip’s left to partially fill the gap between First and Third Armies. But he would not risk losing the initiative by slowing the tempo of his operations to wait for Walker to come up. He ordered Haislip to continue this advance north from Argentan, believing, probably correctly, that XV Corps could take Falaise before the Canadians, stalled since 10 August, could do so. Patton was correspondingly irritated by Bradley’s vacillation when the stop order was issued. The principle of maintenance of the aim had been jettisoned because of, he wrongly believed, British jealousy or ignorance of the situation as well as Bradley’s fears.

Thwarted at Argentan, Patton was nevertheless determined to maintain unrelenting offensive action to prevent German recovery and the reestablishment of a viable defense. He believed the best course of action was a reversion to the long envelopment, and he urged this course on Bradley. Receiving permission to head east again with part of XV Corps and all of XX and XII Corps (the latter now to include 4 Armored Division), he again stressed the preemptive value of speed. The rate of advance to Dreux, Chartres, and Orléans, establishing bridgeheads over the Eure, was at least 35 to 50 km (20 to 30 miles) per day (although it took two days to completely clear the latter two cities). Then Bradley, who was assailed by doubts, according to Patton, again applied the brakes. After a two-day halt, XV Corps was allowed to advance 40 km (25 miles) to Mantes-Gassicourt and (with Bradley’s reluctant consent) establish a bridgehead over the Seine; the task was accomplished in two days. Then on 21 August the brakes were taken off and XX and XII Corps advanced at 25 to 40 km (15 to 25 miles) per day to force the Seine at Melun and Troyes, taking the bridges intact. These were spectacular rates of advance, and Patton, always looking forward to the next operation, was determined to establish bridgeheads over any obstacle he reached, not merely stop on it. Any chance the Germans might have had of establishing a defense along the Seine was forestalled.

Bradley deprecated Third Army’s achievement. In his memoirs he wrote:

But while the world gaped over the speed of Patton’s spectacular advance to the Seine, it was Hodges’s almost anonymous First Army that sweated through the laborious in-fighting against the Falaise pocket. . . . Patton measured his successes in miles; Hodges in enemy dead. . . . If casualties offer an index to the rigors and ordeals of combat . . . First Army can claim to have borne the brunt of our advance. . . . First Army suffered 19,000 casualties . . . almost twice the number sustained by Third Army on the enemy’s open flank.

In so writing, Bradley suggests a clear bias toward the traditional American approach of grinding the enemy down through frontal attacks in overwhelming force. This illustrates his imperfect grasp of the potential payoff from operational maneuver. It is true that the conditions for Patton’s success were set by the other three armies fixing the bulk of the enemy force, enabling his maneuver. It is also true that mere occupation of ground is seldom worthwhile as an end in itself. However, Third Army’s seizure of terrain contributed decisively to the physical destruction of the enemy, even when centres of resistance were bypassed, as was Third Army’s wont. Patton’s deep and rapid advance netted a claimed 73,000 prisoners by the end of August, almost twice the number taken by the Allies in the Falaise pocket. More important, it dealt a fatal blow to the logistic infrastructure of Seventh Army. It severely disrupted the command and control of the enemy’s major formations (e.g., by causing the precipitate flight of Seventh Army HQ from Le Mans and of Army Group B’s from near Mantes). It preempted the possibility of the Germans forming a succession of depth defense or even delay lines, up to and including the Seine. It demoralized their forces and commanders. And it created conditions for the physical destruction through encirclement of the entire Normandy grouping.


Patton displayed greater operational vision than his army group commander. He was quick to recognize the error of committing too strong a force to Brittany in pursuit of the outdated Overlord plan. Instead, he (like Montgomery) envisaged a long envelopment to destroy the enemy on the Seine. He believed in a concentrated effort and was frustrated by Bradley’s insistence on guarding against illusory threats at the expense of the main effort. He was less convinced than Bradley about the wisdom of going for a short hook in the changed circumstances of the German defeat at Mortain; if the Germans had reacted more quickly and initiated an earlier withdrawal, too many would have escaped. However, Patton threw himself boldly into the new maneuver. Whether the envelopment was short or long, the key to its success would be speed in execution to keep the enemy off balance, in a reactive posture, and always a step behind. He saw that speed, and the surprise it engendered, could be used as a weapon in maneuver warfare. When Bradley terminated XV Corps’ drive north but allowed much of XV, XX, and XII Corps to thrust eastward to the Dreux-Chartres-Orléans line, Patton renewed the suggestion of a wheel down the river to seal German exits from Normandy over the Seine. In doing so, Patton was keeping the operational aim firmly in mind: destruction of the enemy, rather than the mere conquest of territory. The same is true of his 23 August suggestion for yet another envelopment, this time on the Beauvais axis. It was not Patton’s fault that Bradley fumbled the opportunity to complete both the short envelopment and then the long one.

Patton has often been criticized for his reckless conduct of offensive operations. This accusation, leveled by those who were still thinking in terms of the tempo achievable by infantrymen on foot, was unfounded in Normandy. Although he saw that speed in the advance would be the main protection for open flanks, he employed forces where necessary (the minimum possible). For instance, on 2 August he dispatched 5 Armored Division to protect the flanks of both VIII and VII Corps during the breakout into Brittany. When XV Corps was moving alone into the enemy flank on the Le Mans–Argentan thrust, he sought security by having the corps advance two-up, with two divisions trailing and thus ready to drive into the flank of any enemy attempting to exploit the first echelon’s flank. (This was his favorite operational formation.) He also had 80 Infantry Division deploy in a screening role between Mayenne and Le Mans, and before the halt order led to a change in operational focus, he had intended to commit XX Corps into the gap—offensively, of course. When his army’s main thrust was redirected toward the Seine after the short hook was stopped, the axes of his corps’ advance were within mutually supporting reach. However, Patton deprecated overinsurance, as he rightly interpreted Bradley’s demand for ground forces on the Loire flank and the overly long retention of 6 Armored Division in Brittany; sufficient security could be derived from demolished bridges covered by FFI elements and IX Tactical Air Command and Ultra’s early warning. In general, he thought that Bradley, like Hodges, was too cautious, too conservative, insufficiently appreciative of the fact that flanks could look after themselves if the enemy was unbalanced, and thus unable to exploit theoretical vulnerabilities.

Patton was unique among Eisenhower’s principal subordinates in being prepared to accept, even welcome, the chaos of a fast-moving war. Others attempted to impose order and tidiness on the battlefield and were continuously concerned about operational security. Patton preferred to remind himself of his own maxim not to take counsel of his fears; he always pondered what he could do to the enemy, not what the enemy could do to him. This sangfroid stemmed from an unusually keen, instinctive understanding of and feel for the battlefield, as well as his grasp of the devastating potential of maneuver and speed in the advance. It also reflected his grasp of another demand of generalship at the operational level. He was concerned not with how to beat the enemy tactically—that was the task of his subordinates—but with where to beat him in order to gain positional and temporal advantage. Patton was not one to pore over the large-scale maps so beloved by his fellow army commanders.

Army Group and Theatre Level

The first of August brought two major changes to the Normandy campaign. Montgomery’s operational idea of fixing the enemy on the left and breaking through on the right finally came to fruition. Third Army was out of the Cotentin Peninsula and the bocage and was free to advance west, south, or east with no immediate, organized opposition to overcome. And with the activation of 12 Army Group, the Americans were no longer directly under Montgomery’s command. While he remained the temporary head of the land forces (a position Eisenhower intended to assume himself on 1 September), he was in practice only a primus inter pares. Bradley was now a fellow army group commander, with a larger and still growing force under him and a much closer relationship with the Supreme Commander. Bradley’s view of the relationship was clear:

I had not [earlier] asked to be freed from Montgomery’s British Group command. He had neither limited our authority nor had he given us directives that might have caused us to chafe. As long as Montgomery permitted this latitude in US operations, we were content to remain under his command until the tactical situation necessitated a change. . . . Until SHAEF was permanently established in France Eisenhower directed that Monty would act as his agent, exercising temporary operational control over the US Army Group. The Briton’s authority would be limited primarily to coordination and the settlement of boundaries between our Groups. Despite this delegation of powers to Monty, Eisenhower would captain the team. . . . After having granted me so free a hand as an army commander, there was no reason to believe that Monty would now curtail me at Army Group.

The sudden collapse of the German western flank took the Allied commanders by surprise. How should they continue the campaign, now that the original plan had suddenly become obsolete? There was now no need for a plodding expansion of the Overlord lodgment area south to the Loire and east to the Seine, no need to open the ports in Brittany, and no need for an operational pause to allow a steady logistic and force buildup for the next stage, the march on Germany. The stated aim of theatre strategy remained the destruction of the German armed forces and an advance into the heart of Germany. How should this be achieved in the light of these changed operational circumstances (including the successful Allied attack on the enemy’s southern flank, which began on 15 August with landings on the French Riviera)? Where should the main effort now lie? Which offensive action should be supporting, and where should economy of force be practiced? How could surprise continue to be achieved and prolonged to keep the enemy wrong-footed? What security measures would be necessary during exploitation to ensure that the enemy could not recover the initiative? What steps would be needed to obtain close cooperation among armies, army groups, and air forces and ensure that their combined achievements were more than the sum of their individual parts? How could logistic sustainability be ensured for weeks and months to come, now that the operational pause originally envisaged to allow for a buildup would no longer take place? Senior operational commanders and staffs would have to address all these questions in August if the campaign were to come to a rapid, complete, and triumphal conclusion. The opportunity was there. How well did Montgomery, Bradley, and Eisenhower grasp it?

21 Army Group and Land Forces Command: General Montgomery. Montgomery was the first senior commander to appreciate that the suddenness and completeness of the breakthrough had changed the operational calculus of the campaign. Completion of the Overlord lodgment west to Brittany’s shores, south to the Loire, and east to the Seine could be done concurrently rather than consecutively because Brittany was now largely defenseless, having been denuded of troops to feed the battle for Normandy. The contingency foreseen in SHAEF’s Lucky Strike option had come to pass, and its concept could be adopted. On 1 August, after discussing the situation with Bradley and Dempsey, Montgomery directed the former to limit operations in the province to a single corps (he would have sent a smaller force, but SHAEF logisticians insisted that the ports would still be needed). Bradley was to make Third Army’s main effort a wheel toward Paris; this would be aided by an airborne operation in the Chartres area to cut the enemy’s line of retreat. The success of this long envelopment, an idea already mooted by 21 Army Group planners as early as 10 July, would clearly depend on fixing the bulk of the enemy forces and preventing them from establishing a viable fallback line of defense. Montgomery was already setting these conditions. US First Army was ordered to swing eastward, Second Army was already knocking away the hinge of one potential line on the Le Bény-Bocage–Mt. Pinçon ridge, and the Canadians would soon deal with another in their attack on Falaise, ordered on 3 August.

Montgomery formalized and elaborated his ideas in his M516 directive of 4 August, promulgated after discussion with Eisenhower and Bradley. Correctly, he wrote that the enemy front was “in such a state that it could be made to disintegrate completely.” If the Germans devoted sufficient forces to holding firmly on their right flank in the Caen sector, they would be unable to restore their left wing (now open for about 130 km [80 miles] from Mortain to the Loire). If they attempted to build up their left, they would find their right collapsed by the upcoming Canadian attack toward Falaise (to be mounted no later than 8 August); this attack would preclude an enemy delaying action on the substantial obstacle of the Orne and might trap significant elements. The only course open to the enemy, he opined, was to execute “an orderly, staged withdrawal to the River Seine.” Montgomery wanted to ensure that the withdrawal was neither orderly nor deliberate. If possible, he wanted to convert retreat into rout, giving the enemy no opportunity to carry out a scorched-earth policy in the vacated area and, especially, preventing the same type of destruction of the Seine ports that had left Cherbourg handling only 80 percent of its planned capacity as late as 4 August (thirty-five days after its surrender). Accordingly, minimal forces would be devoted to Brittany, as “the main business lies to the east.” The whole Allied force would press the Germans back to the Seine, with Patton’s army exploiting their open flank to conduct a long envelopment to expedite the process. The enemy would be crushed on the obstacle.

Montgomery’s appreciation was logical—but wrong. As happens so often in war, the enemy chose the one course of action that had not been considered—on this occasion, because of its likely disastrous consequences for the Germans. The Allies were fashioning a noose, and the enemy, obligingly, placed his head in it by mounting the Avranches counterattack. After discussing the matter with Eisenhower, Bradley proposed the short hook on 8 August as a variant on Montgomery’s operational idea. The latter willingly adopted it, at least provisionally, with the proviso that the long envelopment option be retained in case a speedy junction could not be achieved in the Falaise-Argentan area.

In the early days of August, Montgomery displayed sound operational judgment and, at the same time, flexibility in his approach. He kept the principal aim firmly in mind: destruction of the enemy’s main forces. Territorial gains, even those that were central to the Overlord plan, such as the Brittany ports, were secondary considerations; they would be achieved, sooner or later, with the enemy’s elimination. The implied gamble—that sufficient Channel port capacity could be taken quickly—was worthwhile, given that delay in taking the ports would be no worse than waiting for the Brittany alternatives, and at least the Channel ports were considerably nearer to Germany. Relentless offensive action was to be maintained, with an emphasis on hitting the enemy where he was most vulnerable, on his weak flank. This would retain the initiative, prolong the effects of surprise, and keep the enemy off balance. It was, however, debatable whether there was a sufficiently clear delineation of main and supporting efforts, both within the land forces as a whole and within 21 Army Group, and the consequent requirements for concentration. It is, of course, arguable that such distinctions carried less weight during pursuit, when attacking all along the front is more justified than when the enemy is balanced and in the possession of reserves. An economy of force approach was obviously intended for Brittany.

Unfortunately, Montgomery appeared to lose some focus and clarity of purpose as the month wore on. By unexpectedly switching 21 Army Group’s attack from the left to right flank at the end of July, he had achieved surprise and sufficient concentration to make gains on an axis and at a time that greatly helped the development of the Americans’ Cobra offensive. However, Second Army’s attack had definitely culminated by 11 August at the latest, despite its reinforcement by an infantry division and an armored brigade a week before. Moreover, with the adoption of the short encirclement, the main effort clearly should have shifted back to the east. If Canadian First Army’s attack to close the pocket at Argentan from the north were to succeed quickly, it needed weight. This point was emphasized when Operation Totalize ran out of steam by 10 August, when it was still more than 30 km (18 miles) short of the town. It would be renewed under the new designation Tractable on 14 August, a day after XV Corps reached Argentan (and six days after the German effort at Mortain failed). That day, too, Montgomery directed that in addition to taking Falaise, the offensive would be extended almost 20 km (12 miles) to the east to include Trun. The next day, offensive action would also be mounted by I Corps, which was to attack toward Lisieux, 40 km (25 miles) due east of Caen. Thus, First Canadian Army would be responsible for approximately 60 km (40 miles) of frontage and attacks on two divergent axes.

The preponderance of 21 Army Group’s strength still lay with Second Army, even though it had only about half the frontage of First Canadian Army and its attacks, if effective, would drive the enemy out of the trap being set by the latter. In the middle of the month, Dempsey had six infantry and three armored divisions and four independent armored brigades; Crerar had four infantry, a small airborne, and two armored divisions and three brigades. Not until 15 August was one division sent from Dempsey’s Second to Crerar’s First Canadian, and that was the sum total of the shift of emphasis (even though two other divisions were out of the line, resting). Montgomery told Dempsey to move his main effort to his left flank, to support XII Corps’ drive on Falaise, but that was an inadequate response to the problem, given the nature of the terrain it had to cross and the limited number of routes and deployment room. First Canadian Army was plainly overtasked, and the limited help it received from its right was barely a palliative.

Montgomery must therefore take considerable responsibility for the failure to seal the Falaise pocket in good time and in adequate strength, whether in the Falaise-Argentan area or the Trun area. Crerar could have made good use of another corps HQ and four to five divisions or brigades to widen and accelerate his offensive southward. It is possible, of course, that Montgomery never really believed in the short hook idea or that he became disillusioned by the slow, halting nature of the Canadian advance and was therefore unwilling to invest heavily in it. It is noticeable that, when meeting with Bradley and Dempsey on 11 August, he did not suggest an alternative method of closing the pocket—shifting the army group boundary northward and calling for a reinforced US First Army effort in an attack north from Argentan. His M518 of that date certainly suggested doubts about the short encirclement and a renewed interest in the long envelopment, “should it appear likely that the enemy may escape us here.”

If he had really given up on the short hook, he should have put more combat power into the northern wing of the deep envelopment on a general Mezidon-Lisieux-Rouen axis to play his part in sealing German exits over the Seine. The very weak and increasingly overextended LXXXVI Corps would not have been able seriously to delay a force more than twice as strong as the I Corps drive. Moreover, he could have contemplated an airborne operation on the east bank of the Seine to interrupt Fifth Panzer Army’s resupply and escape routes and establish bridgeheads for a subsequent advance to the north. Montgomery failed to recognize that, even before the middle of August, Second Army had become an operational backwater, and decisive effect could be achieved only on 21 Army Group’s left. This failure to assess priorities correctly was a serious lapse in judgment.

It is, of course, appropriate for a land forces or army group commander to be less concerned with current operations than with the big picture and the development of optimal concepts for the next one or even two operations. Thus, from his 17 August conference with Bradley until the end of the month, Montgomery was increasingly preoccupied with shaping the post-Normandy campaign according to his preferred course of action. Already afflicted with “victory disease”—the belief that whatever the Germans salvaged from the wreck of Army Group B would be of no future significance—he regarded the ongoing battle as having a foregone conclusion that required no further input from him. In lobbying to get his way in the next round of the game, he took his eye off the ball in the current round. Given his subordinates’ dependence on his guidance—a reliance he had assiduously fostered—this proved unfortunate. His armies pursued territorial gains, not the destruction of the enemy, and they did so with habitual caution and only a moderate expenditure of effort (and therefore casualties). Similarly, he allowed the air forces to lose the correct focus for their activities; interdiction on the Seine was largely dropped in favor of deeper missions, allowing the Germans to carry out crossings in broad daylight. The long envelopment fell short of annihilating the enemy.

Most of the desirable attributes of command are evident in Montgomery’s handling of the climax of the Normandy campaign. However, his character prevented him from being a good coalition commander or, in many ways, even a good subordinate. He had a natural talent for getting people’s backs up, especially the Americans’. He did make an effort to deal with his US ally with more sensitivity and less arrogance than a year or even a month or two earlier (i.e., before his prestige, and with it his security of tenure, had been shaken by the Goodwood failure). This, for instance, was apparently the cause of his sudden and arbitrary change of the inter–army group boundary on 1 August, preventing VIII British Corps from taking the important and defenseless town of Vire. Later he handled Bradley with admirable tact, consulting him before issuing directives, and he exhibited patience and discretion in view of Bradley’s vacillations. Montgomery was also reasonably patient with and supportive of Crerar, although the latter had no doubt that his army group commander wanted to replace him, ideally with Simonds. Certainly Montgomery had small faith in Crerar’s abilities and reposed much greater trust in Dempsey. Alas, it was impossible to erase the negative perceptions built up since the campaign in Tunisia eighteen months before. Most Americans, including his Supreme Commander and especially his fellow army group commander, had developed a strong distaste for Montgomery’s arrogance, his refusal to admit error, and his style of discussion, which always sounded didactic at best and insufferably patronizing at worst. Characteristically, he did not understand the antipathy generated by his manner and dogmatism until post-Normandy operations were well under way. This failure would have unfortunate repercussions.

It is possible that his distrust of Crerar dissuaded Montgomery from reinforcing First Canadian Army to the level required by its necessarily enhanced role beginning on 8 August. If that is the case, then he allowed prejudice to distort his understanding of the operational situation (including the unfortunate truth that a less experienced or less able subordinate often needs more resources to accomplish a mission than a more gifted colleague would require). Certainly, his insight, professional judgment, and flexibility were deficient in the critical last three weeks of August.

Montgomery was frequently criticized by Americans for his excessive caution. Though he was generally risk averse (and not without reason), this criticism was not wholly justified. It is perhaps easy to note the deliberate, often plodding tactical methods favored by the British and extrapolate an equal lack of operational imagination and risk taking (as there had been in North Africa and Italy). However, Montgomery’s early modification of the Overlord plan was audacious, especially logistically, as well as decisive and perceptive. So, to an extent, was the concept of the long envelopment, and he always approved of Patton’s bold, sweeping advances, whereas Bradley expressed concern and suggested the desirability of pauses. In September Montgomery would display a daring that the uncharitable could describe as rash, but other than that, he rarely departed from the tried, tested, and conventional. It can be argued, of course, that, given the Allies’ overwhelming strength, there was no need for risk taking—but that would overlook the fact that greater operational daring might have brought an earlier victory at less cost and with a more advantageous postwar political situation.

12 Army Group: Lieutenant General Bradley. Bradley’s elevation to command of the newly activated army group could not have come at a more promising or challenging time. The development of Operation Cobra had created the longed-for breakout, ending weeks of semistalemate, and Third Army was about to enter the fray to exploit. Bradley was not as quick as Montgomery to conclude that Brittany was now a less critical objective and, in fact, one that was unlikely to pay a worthwhile dividend if the Cherbourg experience was any guide. By 3 August, though, the ease with which 79 Division had executed its flank-defensive deployment to Fougères had convinced him that XV Corps could push southeast to the Mayenne River. He was soon receptive to the idea of only a minimal deployment into Brittany and a Third Army drive on the Seine, as propounded in Montgomery’s M516.

There is little doubt that Patton could have closed on the Seine in plenty of time to seal the river against retreating German forces. After all, XV Corps could have advanced from Le Mans to reach Mantes-Gassicourt in a mere six days or less, had it not been diverted north and thereafter received two stop orders. From Mantes it could have turned north up the east bank, perhaps to link up with an airborne corps drop on its lower stretch (north of Louviers or Elbeuf). The rest of Third Army, reinforced at the expense of First Army, would form the inner southern wing of encirclement and strike into the flank of the retreating Germans. Any attempted breakout would be unlikely to succeed in the face of superior American mobility, armored strength, and airpower, not to mention British and First Army pressure to fix the defenders. While First Army would lose a corps to Third Army in this scenario, it could have assumed control of VIII Corps operations in Brittany as a replacement.

The concept of the short hook, born of the Germans’ colossal error of judgment when they attacked at Mortain, also had some merit. It was a “shallower and surer move,” as Bradley described it, and it would not strain the logistic system as much as the long one would. It was undoubtedly less radical than the envelopment at the Seine and perhaps more likely to fail. If the enemy perceived his peril in good time and reacted expeditiously (which was likely), he might well succeed in pulling most of his forces the 60 km (40 miles) back over the Orne before XV Corps could advance the 80 km (50 miles) from Le Mans to Argentan—assuming I SS Panzer Corps could prevent a reasonably brisk Canadian advance of 50 km (30 miles) from Caen to Argentan. This plan also ignored the fact that the continuing attacks by First and Second Armies would, if successful, drive the enemy out of the pocket before it was fully formed. In the event, however, the Germans, thanks to Hitler, were very slow to respond to the threatened encirclement; this failure was offset by the poor progress of the Canadians, who took nine days to advance just under 30 km (18 miles). Many Americans unfairly blamed Montgomery’s perennial caution, but Patton was convinced, correctly, that XV Corps could have pressed on to Falaise to close the pocket if it had not been denied permission to do so by Bradley. The latter produced various unconvincing rationalizations for his 13 August stop order: the sacrosanct nature of the army group boundary (which had already been crossed and was clearly negotiable); reluctance to take Falaise for fearing of offending British sensibilities (risible); the fear of a fratricidal meeting between Americans and their allies (avoidable with good staff cooperation, Phantom patrols, and special liaison officers and, in practice, a nonproblem at Chambois and later on the Seine); and, contradictorily, the idea that too many German formations had already escaped (not what most intelligence was reporting at the time). The true reason was his preference “for a solid shoulder at Argentan to the possibility of a broken neck at Falaise. . . . Nineteen German divisions [sic] were now stampeding to escape the trap,” and Haislip’s corps would not have been able to hold them. XV Corps would transition to the defense, relinquishing the role of hammer for one of anvil while waiting for the Canadians to turn up. If the encirclement failed, it would not be Bradley’s fault.

The fact that XV Corps was somewhat out on a limb actually was Bradley’s fault. His short hook scheme of maneuver was not part of a holistic army group plan. It merely involved a change of axis for some of Third Army. He should have ordered First Army to ease up on its frontal attacks to create a new attack grouping, based on 1 Infantry and 3 Armored Divisions, which were already in the Mayenne area; this grouping then should have attacked as Four early as possible on the la Ferté axis to close the gap with Haislip, strengthen his flank, and broaden the threat to the enemy’s. This was not done in a timely fashion, and Bradley would not yet countenance the release of 4 and 6 Armored from Brittany or the early return of 35 Division to Patton. Worse, he dispatched the two pinched-out infantry divisions of V Corps to besiege Brest, more than 300 km (185 miles) to the west, despite previously acknowledging the greatly reduced relevance of Brittany operations and the need to concentrate on destroying the enemy in Normandy.

Actually, by 13 August, VII Corps was belatedly advancing from Mayenne and meeting so little resistance that its progress was rapid; by the next day, it would close the gap to a mere 10 km (6 miles). This ought to have caused Bradley to rethink the stop order. So too should have the available intelligence, most of which indicated that the enemy had not begun a major withdrawal. The Germans had been contemplating a counterattack to the southeast, but their command and control was patchy, their logistic situation was dire, their every daylight move was subject to air attack, and their armored strength was reduced to fewer than eighty tanks and SP guns, all of which Bradley knew. With well over 500 tanks and tank destroyers, superior artillery, and abundant air support, not to mention elements of XX Corps behind it and VII Corps coming up fast on its left, was XV Corps really in mortal danger of being “trampled . . . in the onrush”?

In vetoing a further offensive American role in the short hook, Bradley was, as Patton would have put it, “taking counsel of his fears.” Whether or not the judgment was correct, it was surely wrong of Bradley not to discuss one of the most critical decisions of the Normandy campaign and its implications and alternative courses of action with his land forces commander when he met with Montgomery and Dempsey just after noon on 13 August. Instead, prompted by a frustrated Patton, he plumped the next day for a reversion to the march on the Seine by half of XV Corps and all of XX and XII Corps. Their six divisions set off at ninety degrees to the northerly axis agreed on with Montgomery, and by 16 August, Patton had four divisions in the Dreux-Chartres area and another two approaching Orléans. Bradley was presumably embarrassed when, on 15 August, Montgomery proposed a new junction for the Canadians and Americans at Trun, as well as continuing with the long hook. By this time, only three divisions were left in the Argentan area. In implementing his part of this renewed attack, Bradley so confused the arrangements for command and control that it went in only on 18 August—five days after a stronger blow could have been delivered against a weaker enemy, and two days after the Germans had been allowed to begin a full-scale retreat (untroubled, since 17 August, by Allied air attack, now that the pocket was too small to allow the drawing of bomb lines).

Bradley seemingly alternated between boldness and doubt, between force-oriented and terrain goals. His vacillation resulted in a dispersal of effort, with no clear operational focus. At the decisive place in mid-August—the Argentan area—there were only three divisions out of his immediately available eighteen, and only one of these managed to advance far enough to link up with the Canadians. Bradley’s hasty, poorly thought-out improvisations had dissipated his forces and thus condemned his own proposal—the short hook—to at least partial failure as enemy forces belatedly flooded through the open neck of the pocket.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Phung Hoang: The Phoenix Program

Original unissued patch

Except for the significance of Tet ’68, the Phung Hoang (Phoenix Program) was the most misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misreported event or program of the Vietnam War.

Though the surprise Viet Cong offensive at Tet ’68 was a psychological victory for the Communist forces, it was a devastating defeat for both the VC military forces and the VC infrastructure in the South. The Viet Cong forces, having come out of hiding and committed themselves, could not sustain their offensive and hold the objectives they had seized. They were overwhelmed by U.S. and ARVN forces and suffered tremendous casualties from which they never recovered. The Viet Cong infrastructure who surfaced during this offensive likewise suffered enormous losses, both from the fighting itself and from the fact that, now identified, they could be targeted and eliminated by the Phoenix Program. These losses and the successes of both the Chieu Hoi and pacification programs ultimately led the North Vietnamese government to abandon their guerrilla war strategy in favor of more conventional attacks.

The Phoenix Program certainly ranked high among the most controversial and notorious programs of the Vietnam War. Critics of Phoenix claimed it to be a barbarous program of assassination, abduction, and intimidation that resulted in the murder of thousands and the illegal incarceration and torture of thousands more (often innocent) civilians. Unfortunately, this was the view portrayed broadly by the U.S. media.

The program’s proponents cited the necessity of attacking the Viet Cong infrastructure (VCI) as an essential component of a successful counterinsurgency strategy. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong documents, which have come to light in the years after the war, reflect deep concern on their part regarding the effectiveness of the Phoenix Program.

Phoenix was a creation of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Implemented in 1967 as ICEX (Intelligence Collection and Exploitation), the program was intended to target the Viet Cong “shadow government,” whose infrastructure existed from the very top of the government down through the village and hamlet level in every part of Vietnam. For example, in Dinh Quan District there was a VC district chief and staff, and similarly VC chiefs for every village and hamlet. There were VC tax collectors, propaganda and recruiting teams, and corresponding officials at all levels. These “officials” generally lived in the surrounding jungle areas, but frequently entered the occupied areas at night to tax, recruit, propagandize, or terrorize the population. In some cases members of the VCI were seemingly respectable loyal citizens by day, but clandestinely served as Viet Cong agents, supporters, or insurgents at night.

The Phoenix Program was an intensive intelligence operations program at the district and province levels that targeted these individuals. Each district had a District Intelligence Operations Coordination Center (DIOCC) at which information was collected, intelligence leads analyzed, and dossiers developed on suspected VCI. The DIOCC was an operational partnership between the police and military, with each party sharing information and jointly planning intelligence activities and operations. When sufficient evidence was amassed on an individual, he or she would be brought in for interrogation.

Special efforts were made to locate known members of the VCI who were targeted for arrest or elimination, and military operations were mounted to carry out their apprehension. Much of the public outcry against Phoenix was this latter aspect of targeting for elimination members of the “civilian” population. Critics never seemed to acknowledge that these “civilians” and the Viet Cong were one and the same. They somehow made a distinction between the Viet Cong operating in military units and living in base camps in the jungle, and the Viet Cong who posed as an innocent civilian by day and either picked up a weapon and served as a Viet Cong by night or provided clandestine leadership activities for the VC as a member of the shadow government. Both were the enemy of the Republic of Vietnam and served in the revolutionary forces. My conscience never bothered me when one of the targeted VCI was killed as a result of a planned operation.

Each district advisory team had an intelligence officer whose main function was to advise and assist in the operation of the DIOCC. In Dinh Quan during my tenure that was initially Captain Backlin, and later Captain Hughes. The DIOCC coordinated activities of the district headquarters, the Special Police, the National Police Field Force (NPFF), and local military forces as necessary. In addition, Hughes coordinated his activities through the CIA officer assigned to the Province Intelligence Operations Coordination Center in Xuan Loc. Locally, Hughes relied on his counterpart, 1st Lt. Dong Van Thanh, the Vietnamese district intelligence officer (S-2), for coordination of intelligence activities. The district chief had delegated the day-to-day operation of the DIOCC to Lieutenant Thanh. Thanh was an older officer, not anxious to be too aggressive or to make waves. Working with him was pleasant but frustrating for Hughes because change was suspect and progress was slow. Captain Hughes’s access to funds, however, provided him considerable influence in intelligence operations. In addition to paying the Provincial Reconnaissance Units and providing money to pay for agents and information, he had discretionary funds to use as he felt necessary. This issue was sensitive to the Vietnamese, so Hughes was careful to coordinate his activities with Lieutenant Thanh.

The action arm for the Phoenix Program was a volunteer force called the Provincial Reconnaissance Unit (PRU). These units, which ranged in size from company (100 men) to squad (10 men), were comprised of individuals with a variety of motivations: defectors from the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army, ardent anticommunists who sought revenge for some VC atrocity against their family members, draft dodgers, mercenaries, or criminals avoiding prison—an interesting bunch. In its own way, it reflected somewhat the mentality of the legendary French Foreign Legion. In some areas of Vietnam, U.S. Army Special Forces or Navy SEALS provided direct leadership for these groups—not so in Dinh Quan.

The PRUs had several distinct advantages in their efforts to recruit. First, since they were funded by the CIA, their pay was much higher than that of the Vietnamese soldiers. Second, since they operated only regionally, an individual could join and remain in his home area. And finally, the PRUs had somewhat of a mystique about them—they were tough by reputation, notably successful in their operations, and a valuable resource to the district. They made raids against the VC, captured VCI, conducted ambushes, and were a valuable source of intelligence through their reconnaissance, prisoners, and the documents they frequently recovered during their operations. The prisoners were interrogated and the documents were analyzed at the DIOCC before being forwarded through the intelligence chain to the province headquarters. They often provided critical leads on VC strength, equipment, morale, and operations. They also frequently identified other VC or VCI, often leading to their capture or elimination through subsequent operations.

In Dinh Quan, the PRUs consisted of a single squad-sized unit who worked directly for Captain Hughes in his role as intelligence officer. They were an interesting collection of individuals who had earned themselves a respected reputation within the district. Hughes oversaw the PRU operations through the DIOCC.

One particularly memorable event involving the PRU centered upon a bag of documents recovered during a PRU raid on a suspected VC cadre safe house in the jungle north of the predominately Chinese hamlet of Loi Tan. Among the sizable pile of documents was a scale drawing of the floor plan of our team house. Each room was accurately detailed and functionally described. Especially disturbing to me was the annotation on that portion of the sketch that represented my room at the right rear corner of the house: labeled neatly on the rectangular bed space was “Thieu-ta Becket.” They not only knew who and where I was, they also knew exactly where I slept! Not a comforting thought. Of course, they had misspelled my name, so how good could their intelligence be?

Although other team members weren’t identified by name, their bunk locations were accurately depicted. The discovery of this sketch made everyone, particularly me, a little uneasy for a time. How had the VC gotten this level of detail? Although we all trusted Ba, the two Cos, and our interpreters—those with total access to the team house—as we watched them go about their daily duties, we nonetheless secretly wondered if the information could have come from them. Jokingly we had often accused Ba of being a VC; this incident made us realize that in truth she, or any of the other Vietnamese, could be. In reality, a number of the Vietnamese officers, soldiers, and civilians were in our team house every single day, and during our movies—God alone knew who was there in the darkness. We never discovered the source, and the incident ultimately passed. The sketch was merely yet another uncomfortable reminder of our own vulnerability—a fact we tried not to dwell on, but knew all too well.

Shortly after lieutenant hughes’s arrival, he decided to accompany the PRU on an ambush operation. It was to be his “cherry” mission. Through a number of intelligence sources, the DIOCC had gotten word that a VC political cadre and propaganda team was going to try to infiltrate one of the hamlets. An ambush was planned on the logical route leading into the hamlet. As Hughes reported later, all went well: they moved into the ambush sight just after dark, set up the Claymore mines, and deployed in a standard L-shaped ambush. Hughes and Houston positioned themselves at the bend in the ambush formation and settled in. Just before dawn, Hughes was sound asleep, as it was Houston’s shift to be alert, when the dead stillness was shattered by the earth-shaking explosions of two Claymore mines detonating nearly simultaneously. At the same instant, the entire ambush formation erupted with automatic small-arms fire. Hughes, startled awake by the explosions, was groggy and totally disoriented. As he attempted to clear his head, the PRU members all around him were scrambling to their feet, screaming and charging across the opening to their front. Not knowing what the hell was going on, but determined not to be left behind out there in the jungle darkness, Hughes stumbled along behind them with heart pounding and adrenaline flowing. In the near light of the coming dawn, Hughes could make out the soldiers converging on a large dark mass on the edge of the clearing. By the time he arrived, they had knives and machetes out and were hacking away, each frantically working to get his share of the meat of the dead water buffalo that had wandered into the ambush. Hughes watched with amazement. There was no security, no unit discipline—this was meat for the table or for the market, and it was every man for himself.

The VC political cadre, whether tipped off about the ambush or not, had apparently changed their plans and had not come out that night. The PRU, however, did credit itself with one VC water buffalo. Hughes took gas from the team members for his “successful” ambush and from Ba for not bringing home any fresh meat!

The national police Field Force located in Dinh Quan was another action arm of the Phoenix Program. They participated in intelligence collection and analysis, operated roadside checks, conducted searches and ID card checks during the frequent cordon and search operations, and were most frequently dispatched to arrest a suspect residing in one of the hamlets. The RF/PF also conducted operations in support of the Phoenix Program. In addition to their local security mission, they provided the cordon for cordon and search operations and conducted operations against larger suspected targets such as local VC units or armed VC tax collection teams.

The companion component of the Phoenix Program was the Chieu Hoi or Open Arms program. If Phoenix was the stick used against the Viet Cong, the Chieu Hoi Program was the carrot. This highly effective program offered rewards and incentives for individuals who defected from the VC or NVA to the Vietnamese government, including amnesty, security, resettlement, and cash. As the war wore on; as military pressure increased on the VC; as VC strength and morale were severely hurt by the Tet ’68 outbreaks; as B-52 raids and artillery continued to rain down terror; as lack of supplies and medical aid worsened and living conditions deteriorated; as disenchantment grew within the VC ranks; and as the effectiveness of Phoenix increasingly identified and eliminated the VCI, the incentive to defect became greater and greater, and as such more and more ralliers (hoi chanhs) surrendered to the government.

The establishment of goals for the provinces and districts added increased pressures and assuredly contributed to false accusations and arrests as officials sought to meet those goals. I cannot speak to the alleged abuses by government officials—no doubt they existed and no doubt some number of innocent civilians were killed or imprisoned. I can only speak to Phoenix operations in Dinh Quan District. The Phoenix program there was a small-scale, reasonably effective program that successfully identified a number of the VCI cadre and resulted in their arrest or elimination. The net result was a weakening of the Viet Cong influence in the district. It also made recruitment by the VC more difficult and improved the credibility of the local government officials.

Captured Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), the North Vietnamese headquarters for Viet Cong forces in the South, documents and other documents subsequently released by the North Vietnamese after the war describe the deep concerns of the VC and NVA about the effectiveness of the Phoenix and Chieu Hoi Programs in decimating local VC units and limiting their ability to recruit and operate. It was this very effectiveness in eliminating the influence and strength of the Viet Cong that led the North Vietnamese ultimately to abandon their guerrilla war strategy and resort to a conventional war strategy—ironically, fighting and winning the very kind of war that the U.S. had unsuccessfully been trying to fight in all the years prior to our withdrawal.

It didn’t take me long to figure Dinh Quan’s role in the VC scheme of things: Dinh Quan represented a lucrative tax base for the Viet Cong. I am convinced that it was precisely this role that kept VC attacks within the district to a minimum. There were three primary sources for these taxes: the farmers and villagers, the trucks moving on the highway, and the loggers.

The farmers would be “taxed” in the fields by armed VC tax collector teams and forced to pay piasters or, more often, a portion of their crops. To resist meant death. Occasionally a farmer would be abducted for service with the Viet Cong. The villagers would be subjected to taxes as they went into the jungle to hunt or gather firewood. Less frequently, the VC would enter the hamlets at night to collect taxes, recruit, and deliver propaganda messages. As security improved, these nighttime visits became more and more difficult for the VC.

Captain Backlin and I quite stupidly stumbled onto a VC tax cadre at work one morning. He and I were returning from an inspection of several tons of pierced steel planking that had been delivered at the airstrip when we noticed a number of people gathered at the edge of the woods about a hundred meters from the road. Curious as to what was going on, and without thinking, we pulled over, climbed out of the jeep, and proceeded toward the group of perhaps twenty people. We had only our .45-caliber pistols with us, and unsuspecting as we were, they were still snugly holstered. As we approached the group, they stopped talking and just stood there looking at us. At about thirty meters, after some apparent indecision on their part, the group split in half. About a dozen slipped back into the jungle, out of sight, and the remainder scurried back toward us. As they approached, they kept their eyes down and headed right past us toward the hamlet without a word. Just about then Backlin and I simultaneously uttered “Oh shit!” as the truth struck us like a bolt of lightning. We had walked right into an armed VC tax cadre collecting taxes from the villagers. Our suspicions were later confirmed through an intelligence report from an informant in the hamlet. They either thought we were the bravest dudes they had ever seen or the dumbest. More than likely the latter! In any event, after some indecision, they chose to slip away rather than take us on. Had they chosen to fire, I am convinced there was no way we could have survived. We were within thirty meters of them, in the open with no cover available, and armed only with pistols. Once again, fate had decided in my favor.

National Highway 20, which ran the width of the district and carried hundreds of cargo-laden trucks daily between Dalat and Saigon, was likewise a lucrative target for VC tax collection teams. They would spring from the cover of the jungle at some deserted stretch of highway, halt the vehicle, and demand a tax according to the cargo being carried. The driver would have no choice but to pay. The VC would then melt back into the jungle. The attitude of the drivers was that this was an irritating nuisance, but the price of doing business. If the driver bothered reporting the incident at the next checkpoint, by the time Vietnamese security forces reacted (if they did), the tax team would be long gone. The U.S. project to widen, straighten, and resurface Highway 20 later played a major role in reducing the vulnerability of these trucks and the effectiveness of the VC tax collection teams. The jungle was pushed back farther from the highway and the road was straightened, allowing security units greater visibility. These improvements allowed the trucks to move at greater speed and security units to react more quickly. In addition, there was an effort on the part of the district chief to improve highway security and more aggressively react to incidents on the highway. The net result was a marked decrease in the exploitation of truckers in Dinh Quan.

The greatest source of tax revenue for the Viet Cong, however, came not from the farmers or truckers, but from the loggers who worked the heavily forested areas north and south of Highway 20. As a group, the loggers represented the biggest target for the VC tax collection cadres in Dinh Quan. First, the loggers were the most vulnerable, as they worked deep in the surrounding jungle. Secondly, the teak, ebony, and other hardwoods they harvested were extremely valuable and brought premium prices in Saigon. The estimated wholesale value of the lumber harvested in the district exceeded 430 million piasters a year, roughly $3.7 million U.S. Approximately 25 percent of the population of Dinh Quan District was involved in the logging industry. It was not only the major economic engine of the district’s economy, but also a significant source of tax revenue to the Vietnamese government. Loggers in Dinh Quan paid nearly 100 million piasters (more than $800,000) in taxes to the Vietnamese government each year.

In the spring of 1970, I did a study of the logging operations in Dinh Quan. Estimated taxes being collected by the VC averaged nearly 15 million piasters a month, or 180 million Ps per year. That was almost $1.5 million—nearly twice as much as what was being collected by the GVN. My study, which was forwarded to the province and subsequently up the chain of the CORDS organization, recommended several measures that I believed could severely cut back the taxes being collected by the VC.

The problem as I saw it was simple. The Vietnamese Ministry of Forestry, which controlled logging operations nationwide, had restricted logging operations in Dinh Quan to an area that ran 6 kilometers on both sides of Highway 20 across the width of the district. The belief was that security could be provided to loggers operating in this narrow band. Unfortunately, the designated 12-kilometer belt had long since been completely harvested of all significant hardwood trees. The loggers had to go deeper and deeper into the jungle in search of harvestable trees. The logging trucks were required to be brightly painted so they could be identified and monitored from the air. Unfortunately, when they left the authorized cutting areas and went into the restricted areas, they frequently became targets for U.S. and Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) aircraft. There were repeated incidents of these aircraft engaging the lumber trucks without clearance from the district headquarters. Of course, the farther they went, the more vulnerable they were to the VC cadres. In addition to being heavily taxed, their trucks often were commandeered to haul VC supplies and equipment. The profitability of the logging business, however, encouraged the locals to take the risks and to pay the heavy taxes being exacted.

It seemed to me to be clearly in the best interest of the GVN to promote and protect this profitable industry and deny this lucrative source of taxes and in-kind services to the Viet Cong. The industry could be promoted by extending the authorized logging areas farther than 6 kilometers from Highway 20. By such an extension of the authorized area, the loggers could be protected from being fired upon by patrolling aircraft. In order to deny access to the VC, I recommended that one battalion of the 43rd Regiment of the ARVN 18th Division, in whose tactical area of operation these loggers worked, be assigned to heavily patrol these areas and provide necessary security to the loggers. The economic benefits to be gained were obvious. I also assumed the tactical benefits were obvious. Because the payoff was so high, I knew that the VC would take extraordinary risks to collect taxes, thus increasing their own vulnerability in the heavily patrolled area. This would result in some real tactical successes for the 43rd Regiment. I learned, however, that while everyone seemed to agree my plan made a great deal of sense, like many other great plans in Vietnam it was never implemented. Years later, in 1995, I was pleasantly surprised to come across my handwritten study in a dusty bin in the National Archives. It had been annotated favorably as it had worked its way up the chain of command, but somewhere along the line it had lost its way and was quietly buried in the bureaucratic morass of some higher headquarters.

Ronald L. Beckett

Germany under Pressure 1943 Part I

The repulse in December of Hoth’s attempt to break through to Stalingrad enabled the Soviet command to reactivate one of the original elements of ‘Saturn’, the attempt to cut off the retreat of Army Group A from the Caucasus. The General Staff recommended that the Southern (formerly Stalingrad) Front, while directing its main effort towards Rostov-on-Don, should use some of its forces to take Tikhoretsk; by so doing it would cut off Army Group A from Rostov, and threaten the rear of its 1st Panzer Army. Simultaneously, the Black Sea group of the Transcaucasus Front was to thrust northwards to meet the Southern Front’s forces at Tikhoretsk, and expand towards Krasnodar and Novorossiysk, while its Northern Group was to keep the Germans too busily engaged to break away or manoeuvre.

Shtemenko says anxiety was caused by information that the Germans had learned of the preparations for the Novorossiysk operation, but ‘further investigation did not confirm that there had been a leak’. This is rather disingenuous; as mentioned earlier, that a major offensive was intended in Transcaucasus was among the information on four such operations (including ‘Mars’ but not ‘Uranus/Saturn’) mentioned earlier as deliberately ‘leaked’ in Agent Max’s 4 November 1942 message to Gehlen, composed in the General Staff and approved by Shtemenko himself. That the Germans knew what was coming is also indirectly confirmed by Shtemenko’s own statement that ‘the enemy did not wait for us to put our plans into practice. At the very moment when GHQ issued its directive concerning the attack on Tikhoretsk, the Nazi command began withdrawing its 1st Panzer Army from the Terek to the north-west’, though he attributes this to the realisation ‘that its rear was unavoidably threatened by Southern Front’, a dubious attribution, since on his own testimony the Directive to the Southern Front was not issued until 31 December, and by then Hitler had already authorised withdrawal from the Caucasus. The 1st Panzer Army withdrew across the Don and held the vital crossings at Rostov until 14 February, while on the Mussolini had already in November 1942 begun urging Hitler that the 17th Army pulled back westwards, completing by 6 February its retreat to the ‘Gothic Line’ and Taman peninsula, from where further withdrawal into the Crimea could and would be made over the relatively narrow Kerch Straits. The withdrawals were skilfully conducted, as were those by Army Groups North and Centre from the Demyansk and Rzhev salients in the following few weeks, but, as Churchill said about Dunkirk, ‘wars are not won by withdrawals’.

However, a withdrawal on one sector can provide resources for an attack elsewhere, and that is precisely what happened. About seven divisions-worth of German units, freed in the early stages of abandonment of the Rzhev salient, were dispatched to the southern end of Army Group Centre’s line, to reinforce the 2nd Panzer Army. Five of them (two panzer and three infantry divisions) helped bring to a halt the poorly planned, inadequately supplied and over-ambitious offensives that Stalin insisted on the Western, Bryansk, Voronezh and Central (formerly Don) Fronts undertaking before the spring thaw in March–April.

Manstein’s counter-offensive took the form of a strong strike by Army Group South against the left wing of Vatutin’s South-West Front in the Donbass area, and was applied at full force on 19 February 1943. It achieved complete surprise; though Vatutin belatedly ordered his men on to the defensive, they were unable to hold their positions, and by the beginning of March had retreated to the line of the Seversky Donets river. This in turn exposed the left flank of Vatutin’s northern neighbour, the Voronezh Front, which had recaptured Kharkov on 16 February and was still attempting to advance. The Front Commander, Colonel-General F.I. Golikov, was even slower than Vatutin to react to the danger, and hastily ordered his forces to take up defensive positions only on 3 March. They had no time to do this in an organised way, because on the next morning the 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf attacked from south-east of Kharkov, driving the Voronezh Front back to the north and north-east, with heavy casualties, partial loss of control and several instances of troops fleeing in panic, abandoning their guns and tanks. By 14 March the Germans had encircled Kharkov, and they retook it two days later.

Stalin judged the situation serious enough to order Zhukov and Vasilevsky to the Voronezh Front on the day Kharkov fell, because, as Shtemenko delicately put it, ‘it was impossible to compile an objective picture from Golikov’s reports’. They succeeded in ‘not only un covering but partially rectifying major inadequacies in the directing of our forces’ and also studied the situation at another danger point further north, the junction between the Western and Central Fronts. There had previously been another army group, the Bryansk Front, between them, but in order to centralise control over the forces attempting to take Orel this had been abolished and its forces resubordinated to the two neighbouring Fronts. However, since it was at the extreme flanks of both, neither Sokolovsky at Western nor Rokossovsky at the Central Front ‘had been able to give it the necessary attention’. Zhukov and Vasilevsky recommended reconstituting the Bryansk Front, sending Golikov to command it and replacing him at the Voronezh Front with Vatutin, who had previously commanded it in 1942. In view of their criticisms of Golikov, their recommendation that he command the recreated Bryansk Front was surprising, and Stalin accepted it only as a temporary measure; by 31 March Golikov had been replaced by Vatutin, was in effect ‘kicked upstairs’ to head the Personnel Directorate of the General Staff, and was never again entrusted with a field command. Zhukov is unlikely to have shed any tears over that; during the 1937–38 purges Golikov, who at that time outranked him, had sought to have him investigated as a potential ‘enemy of the people’ (an episode described only in post-Soviet editions of his memoirs). By 25 March, after the Voronezh Front had retreated 100–150 kilometres (about 62–93 miles), its line was stabilised, and the onset of the spring thaw then enforced a pause on both sides.

Despite the setback in the south, the increases in Red Army manpower and equipment that had made the Stalingrad counter-offensive possible were continuing, and shifting the balance further against Germany. To economise on manpower and create reserves, Army Group North between 15 and 28 February abandoned the Demyansk salient, until then held by 12 divisions, and between 2 and 31 March Army Group Centre abandoned in stages its positions nearest to Moscow (about 112 miles from the Kremlin), in the Rzhev-Vyazma salient, which it had successfully defended for over a year against repeated Soviet attacks. The heavy cost to the Soviets of Operation ‘Mars’ in November–December 1942 (discussed previously) has to be assessed against the fact that the successful German defence of the Rzhev-Vyazma salient had required 30 divisions, at least three of which had already been packing to go south, and would have been joined by others if ‘Mars’ had not been mounted. Abandonment of the salient in March reduced the front line in that sector from 330 to 125 miles, releasing most of the divisions deployed there for Army Group Centre to use elsewhere or put into reserve; at least six of them subsequently fought in the battle of Kursk in July.

The evacuation of the two salients was presented to the Soviet public as the consequence of successful Red Army offensives. In fact both were well-organised and skilfully conducted withdrawals in stages behind strong rearguards, and the pursuing Soviet forces received at least as much damage as they inflicted. There was, nevertheless, an element of truth in the Soviet claims. Successful offensives had indeed prompted the evacuations, but they were those of Operations ‘Uranus’, ‘Little Saturn’ and ‘Ring’, where the destruction of 20 German divisions in the Stalingrad pocket, six more outside it, heavy losses in several others, and the virtual elimination of the Romanian 3rd and 4th, Hungarian 2nd and Italian 8th Armies had intensified the already manifest German manpower shortages. The strategic and psychological effects on both sides were also strong, in the obvious removal of any residual threat either salient might pose to Leningrad or Moscow, and the shortened line freed not only German but also Soviet forces for use elsewhere. At Leningrad the blockade would not be completely lifted for another year, but the effects of Operation ‘Iskra’ (‘Spark’) in January, achieving limited restoration of land links with the ‘mainland’, were also becoming tangible. Over two years the perilous ‘Road of Life’ over the frozen lake in winter, and ferries in the other seasons, had taken in 1.6 million tonnes of food, ammunition, fuel and equipment, and brought out 1.4 million evacuees, but now was no longer needed. In the far south the North-Caucasus Front ended its Krasnodar offensive on 16 March, after advances of up to 70 kilometres (44 miles), and on 28 March the Central (formerly Don) Front did the same, after advancing about 150 kilometres (93 miles). In these areas, as at Demyansk and Rzhev-Vyazma, much of the action presented to the Soviet public as resulting from victories in battle was really pursuit of a skilfully withdrawing enemy, but that the Germans found it necessary to withdraw at all was a moral victory additional to those gained on the Volga-Don battlefields.

During the weeks of inactivity imposed by the spring thaw both sides began planning for the coming summer. In the interim, Zhukov secured Stalin’s agreement to reinforce the Voronezh and Central Fronts with three entire armies (1st Tank, 21st and 64th) from Stavka Reserve. Granted a Soviet ‘army’ was much smaller than a German one, the contrast manifested the changing balance of forces; while Germany was having to abandon long-held positions to save manpower, the Red Army was fielding substantial new forces. Furthermore, it was also out-producing Germany in the tanks, guns and aircraft needed to equip them. The early trickle of Lend-Lease supplies was now becoming a torrent, almost doubling from 2.45 million tons in 1942 to 4.8 million in 1943. Supplies of American trucks and jeeps (118,000 during 1942 alone, over three times as many as the 34,900 produced by Soviet plants) gave the Red Army’s infantry and artillery mobility on a scale Germany could not match, and enabled the Soviet vehicle industry to concentrate on producing tanks and self-propelled guns. American deliveries of transport aircraft similarly freed Soviet factories to produce fighters and bombers of new and improved types with which to take on the Luftwaffe.

When the situation stabilised, the Central Front was occupying the northern and Voronezh Front the southern face of an enormous salient, about 120 miles from north to south and over 60 miles from west to east, centred on Kursk, between two German salients, around Orel to the north and Kharkov to the south. The Kursk salient became the focal point of both sides’ planning for the summer campaigning season.

In German planning the rivalries between OKH, responsible for the Eastern Front except for the Finnish sector, and OKW, in charge of that sector and of all other theatres, soon showed themselves. In the spring of that year 187 (67.5 per cent) of Germany’s 277 divisions were on the Eastern Front, and demand for manpower was increased by Hitler’s insistence that OKW reinforce the North African theatre, to prevent or at least postpone collapse there, because if the Anglo-Americans were victorious, their next move would be a return to the European mainland.

Despite the reinforcements sent to North Africa, Axis resistance there collapsed in May, and the enhanced risk of an Anglo-American invasion prompted senior OKW officers such as Jodl and Warlimont to argue for divisions to be withdrawn from the East to strengthen the Western and Mediterranean theatres. However, their chief, Field-Marshal Keitel, gave them no support, deferring, as ever, to Hitler’s preferences. Guderian, recently restored to service as Inspector-General of Armoured Forces, strongly opposed mounting any major offensive at all in 1943. He saw such an undertaking as entailing the premature employment of the new Tiger heavy and Panther medium tanks, with their mechanical reliability yet untested, their crews not yet adequately trained or experienced to exploit their advantages and cope with any shortcomings, and their numbers too small to implement his maxim ‘klotzen, nicht kleckern’ (‘downpour, not drizzle’), all factors likely to prove important when the expected Anglo-American invasion added pressure in the West to the Wehrmacht’s increasingly heavy burdens in the East.

OKH, not surprisingly, saw things differently. Manstein later said in his memoirs that he had wanted to eliminate the Kursk salient at once, even before the spring thaw, but that proved impossible for lack of reserves. Hitler’s general instruction for the war in the East in 1943, Operations Order no. 5 of 13 March, stated:

It can be expected that after the end of winter and the spring thaw the Russians, after creating reserves of material resources and partially reinforcing their formations with men, will renew the offensive. Therefore our task consists of pre-empting them if possible in the offensive in different places, with the aim of imposing our will on them on even one sector of the front, as at the present time is taking place on the front line of Army Group South [i.e. Manstein’s offensive at Kharkov]. On the remaining sectors our task amounts to bleeding the attacking enemy. Here we must create a firm defence in good time.

In the North Caucasus Army Group A was simply to hold its positions on the River Kuban and ‘free forces for other fronts’. Army Group North was to prepare for another strike at Leningrad, while Army Groups Centre and South were to plan to destroy the Soviet forces in the Kursk salient. To achieve this Army Group South must ‘strike northwards from the Kharkov region in cooperation with an assault group of 2nd Army, to destroy the enemy forces operating before 2nd Army’s front’, and Army Group Centre was to create ‘an assault group to be used for an offensive in cooperation with forces of the northern wing of Army Group South. Forces for this are to be freed by the withdrawal of troops of 4th and 9th Armies from the Vyazma area to a shortened line…’. While Field-Marshal Kluge was arranging this, Manstein was to undertake ‘formation of an adequately combat-capable panzer army, concentration of which must be finished by mid-April, so that it can go over to the offensive at the end of the spring thaw’.

So the general concept of the German offensive at Kursk had been decided by mid-March. However, the proposal to launch it before the end of April, immediately after the thaw, proved totally unrealistic; neither troops nor equipment, especially adequate numbers of the new tanks, could be made available so soon. Delays in tank production, and also the time taken to satisfy Model’s needs for making up to strength divisions worn down in Operation ‘Mars’, prompted Hitler to postpone the offensive several times, eventually to ten weeks later than originally intended; and, as will be seen, the Soviet forces in, around and behind the salient made good use of the time gained by the successive delays.

Hitler issued Operations Order no. 6, for the offensive, codenamed Operation ‘Zitadelle’ (‘Citadel’), on 15 April. Army Group Centre’s 9th Army (Colonel-General Walter Model), with forces made available by its withdrawal during February–March from the Rzhev-Vyazma salient, and the 2nd Panzer Army (General Rudolf Schmidt, soon replaced by General Erhard Raus) were to attack the Central Front at the northern neck of the salient, while the 4th Panzer Army (Colonel-General Herman Hoth) and Army Detachment Kempf of Army Group South attacked the Voronezh Front at the southern neck. Their aim was to break through and advance to link up near Kursk, then, in cooperation with the 2nd Army’s foot soldiers on the salient’s west face, to destroy the encircled Soviet forces. Success in ‘Citadel’ was to be followed by the transfer of the 2nd Army and units from High Command Reserve to Army Group South, for an immediate south-eastward offensive (Operation ‘Panther’) ‘to exploit the confusion in the enemy ranks’, and to retake those parts of the Donbass industrial and mining area not regained by Manstein’s March offensive or ceded by line-shortening tactical withdrawals.

Forces of both army groups were to be concentrated in rear areas well away from their start-lines, and to be ready any time after 28 April to start the offensive six days after receiving orders to do so, 5 May being set as the earliest possible date. In the meantime Army Group South was ordered to mislead the enemy by conducting ostentatious preparations for Operation ‘Panther’, including ‘demonstrative air reconnaissance, movement of tanks, assembly of pontoons, radio conversations, agent activity, spreading of rumours, air strikes, etc.’ Army Group Centre was not required to play such elaborate tricks, but should deceive by devices such as moving forces to the rear, making fake redeployments, sending transport columns back and forth in daylight hours, and spreading false information dating the offensive to not earlier than June. All real movements were to be by night, and all units newly arriving must maintain radio silence.

Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad and the evident imminence of a strategically comparable debacle in North Africa was causing some urgent rethinking among her allies. Italy had not stood to gain any territory or much economic benefit from Germany’s war with the Soviet Union, and Mussolini’s main reason for committing the Italian 8th Army to that war was the hope of ensuring that Hitler would respond in kind, after the expected rapid crushing of the Red Army, by making major forces available to help achieve the Duce’s primary ambition, victory over the British in the campaign to dominate the Mediterranean basin and North Africa. A quarter of a million Italians served on the Eastern Front; about 80,000 of them died in battle or captivity, and over 43,000 suffered wounds or frostbite; the survivors cursed the Duce for sending them to Russia, and their German ‘brothers in arms’ for their arrogance and uncooperativeness. Mussolini had already in November 1942 begun urging Hitler to make peace with Stalin so as to concentrate Axis forces against the anticipated Anglo-American invasions, first of Italy and eventually of the rest of German-occupied Western Europe. An indication of senior Italian military opinion was that General Ambrosio, the Army Chief of Staff, who had been insisting since November that all remaining Italian troops in Russia must be brought home, was promoted on 1 February 1943 to head the Commando Supremo, and before the end of May all the surviving members of the 8th Army had arrived back in Italy. With the surrender in the middle of that month of all German and Italian forces in North Africa, the Berlin–Rome ‘Axis’ effectively became a dead letter, with Mussolini’s dictatorship under threat and Italy beginning to seek a way out of the war.

Equally strong effects on other sufferers from the Stalingrad debacle, Romania and Hungary, would soon become apparent. By the opening of the battle of Kursk all Romanian forces had been withdrawn from Soviet territory, except from Moldova and Transdnistria, adjacent to and claimed by Romania, and only two divisions of the Hungarian 2nd Army remained with Army Group South, which employed them on occupation and anti-partisan duties, not as front-line troops.

The ‘Conducator’ of Romania, Marshal Antonescu, and the ‘Regent’ of Hungary, Admiral Horthy, had both begun covertly seeking contact with the British and Americans, in hopes of making peace with the West while continuing to fight against the approach of Communism from the East. Mussolini, on the other hand, continued to advocate coming to terms with the Soviet Union in order to concentrate forces against the expected Anglo-American invasion of Italy, and again wrote to Hitler to that effect on 17 March. But his grip on power and Fascism’s hold on Italy were already loosening; on 25 July he was deposed and arrested.

At the other extremity of the Eastern front, Finland hitherto had been Germany’s militarily most competent and reliable ally, but maintained that its war, unlike Germany’s, was defensive, a continuation of the ‘winter war’ of 1939–40, aiming not to destroy the Soviet Union but merely to recover the territories lost by that war. Marshal Mannerheim, who had been a lieutenant-general in the pre-revolutionary Russian Army, was well aware of the dangers of over-provoking Finland’s giant neighbour, and had agreed to resume the post of Commander-in-Chief only on condition that Finnish forces would on no account take part in any attempt to capture Leningrad. As early as August 1941 President Ryti, on Mannerheim’s insistence, had twice rejected requests from Keitel for the Finnish Army to advance north and east of Lake Ladoga, to link up with German forces advancing along its south shore, and thereby isolate Leningrad. To exercise more pressure Keitel sent his deputy, Jodl, to Finland on 4 September 1941, but Mannerheim remained firmly uncooperative, so exasperating Jodl that he burst out, ‘Well, do something, to show goodwill!’ To get rid of him, and not pre judice Finland’s negotiations with Germany for 15,000 tonnes of wheat, Mannerheim agreed to arrange a small diversionary offensive, but in the event did not make even that limited gesture.

The main constraint on Finland’s independent posture was its dependence on Germany for food and fuel. This dependence became even greater after the United Kingdom, an important pre-war trading partner, bowed to Soviet pressure and declared war on Finland on 6 December 1941, a day ironically significant in two ways: first, it was Finnish Independence Day, and secondly, it was the day that Mannerheim ordered the Finnish Army to go on to the defensive on all sectors immediately after capturing Medvezhegorsk, which it was about to do. He had already begun demobilising older soldiers at the end of November, and by the spring of 1942 had released 180,000 of them. Coincidentally, Zhukov launched the counter-offensive at Moscow on the day before Mannerheim ordered his army to cease attacking, and the day after he did so, Japan brought the United States into the war.

The Soviet victory at Moscow made a prolonged war inevitable, hence even more straining Finland’s limited resources, and this was further intensified after Stalingrad. On 3 February, the day after the last German units there surrendered, and four days after the end of Operation ‘Iskra’ at Leningrad, President Ryti took the prime minister and two other ministers to confer with Mannerheim about ‘the general situation’. They all agreed that Finland must seek a way out of the war, but that it could not do so immediately because of its economic dependence on Germany. On 9 February, at the defence minister’s request, Mannerheim’s Head of Intelligence, Colonel Paasonen, addressed a closed session of Parliament, ending his speech by advising the members to ‘get used to the possibility that we shall once again be obliged to sign a peace treaty with Moscow’. On the 15th the opposition Social-Democratic Party brought the issue into the open with a public statement that ‘Finland has the right to get out of the war at the moment it considers it desirable and possible’. An American offer of mediation was conveyed through the US embassy in Helsinki, and Foreign Minister Ramsay was sent to Berlin to tell the Germans of the American approach and try to extract a promise that German forces in Northern Finland would withdraw voluntarily if Finland requested their removal. No such promise was forthcoming; on the contrary, Foreign Minister Ribbentrop demanded that Finland not only reject the American approach, but also undertake to conclude neither truce nor armistice with Moscow without German consent. Ramsay conceded neither demand, so Ambassador Bluecher suggested applying pressure by restricting supplies of food and fuel, but for the time being Ribbentrop declined to go that far.

Germany under Pressure 1943 Part III

Battle of Kursk – Aviation Art by Nicolas Trudgian.

All the members of the ‘Red Orchestra’ networks of Soviet agents in Germany and occupied Europe had been executed, imprisoned or ‘turned’ to work for the Abwehr between August 1942 and January 1943, so none of them could have provided any advance information about plans for a future German offensive against a salient that came into existence only in March 1943.

Another possible source would be ‘Lucy’ in Switzerland, the codename of Rudolf Roessler, a German exile apparently with sources in the High Command. Moscow initially treated him with suspicion because he refused to disclose his sources (he never did), though it eventually came to regard him as highly reliable. Contrary to the fanciful account by Accoce and Quet, who claim Roessler was providing information to the Soviets from the spring of 1941, including the complete text of the ‘Barbarossa’ plan, and that he met his Soviet controller, the Hungarian Communist Sandor Rado, at that time, all Soviet accounts agree that the details of ‘Barbarossa’ were not known in advance (if they had been, Stalin would not have made the erroneous assumption that the main assault would come south of the Pripyat marshes), and Rado wrote in his memoirs that he acquired Roessler only in November 1942.

Messages from Lucy from the first half of 1943, cited in Rado’s memoirs or other sources, included nothing as high-level as plans for a major German offensive. Besides, the changes in Soviet plans necessitated by gaps in Intelligence between mid-November 1942 and mid-February 1943 suggest that Lucy did not provide especially valuable information in that period either. Even if he then began to produce much better-quality Intelligence, Stalin and Zhukov were hardly likely to have come to trust him so unconditionally by early April as to base their entire strategic plan on messages from him. Furthermore, the former NKVD/KGB general Sudoplatov pointed out that many of Lucy’s reports were similar or even identical to paraphrased Ultra material passed on officially by the British, and therefore concluded that he was a British ‘plant’. The British had indeed succeeded in planting an agent in Rado’s group, so Sudoplatov’s claim is credible, but it is probably not the full story, especially as the most authoritative account of British Intelligence in the Second World War does not mention Operations Order no. 5 among the messages Bletchley decrypted during March.

Roessler also worked for Swiss Intelligence; Switzerland, then entirely surrounded by German or German-occupied territory, necessarily kept a very close eye on the Wehrmacht, and a tight rein over disclosing its findings. Roessler cannot have been its only source of information, and since Switzerland’s interests were better served by a Nazi defeat than a Nazi victory, it may well have passed information to Roessler, fully intending it to reach the British or any other of Germany’s enemies. Paul Carell’s view was that Swiss Intelligence was the actual source of messages received from Roessler’s sub-source ‘Werther’. He noted that all messages received from Werther after 11 February 1942 gave misleading information that Manstein’s forces were withdrawing rather than concentrating for his March counter-offensive, but claims this was because Manstein did not inform OKH or OKW, so officers there, including Werther, drew the same erroneous conclusion as the Soviets. It took a visit to Manstein’s headquarters to dispel Hitler’s misgivings on this issue, so Carell has a point; but an alternative possibility is that the source was a double-agent and the February messages were intended to disinform.

One Russian author has in fact suggested that Lucy was a German disinformation agent, basing his arguments mainly on manifest inaccuracies in some messages cited by Rado. For example, a Kursk-related message of April 1943, allegedly listing the divisions in the 4th Panzer Army of Army Group South, included five that were there and six that were not – the false identifications included one each then in Norway, Germany and with Army Group Centre, and three that did not exist then or ever. If the purpose of the message was indeed to disinform, such an exaggeration of Army Group South’s strength would aim at deterring the Soviets from attempting an offensive immediately after the spring thaw, but if it was not so intended, then Roessler’s sources were clearly nowhere near as good as Accoce and Quet or Rado claimed.

Two other Lucy messages received in June also appear calculated to deceive. The first, on 17 June, said that the Germans considered an offensive at Kursk too risky in view of the Soviet strength, and the second, on the 21st, stated that Army Group South was regrouping so as to threaten the flank of an expected Red Army offensive. Both could only be attempts to dissuade the enemy from expecting an attack that in reality was only two weeks from launching.

Another ground for suspicion of Lucy is that not one of Roessler’s alleged sources surfaced after the war ended. If they were really members of OKW or OKH, both defined by the victors as criminal organisations, their careers, incomes and prospects had been terminated by the Wehrmacht’s defeat and disbandment, and they faced the prospect of at least a denazification hearing or possibly even a trial as war criminals. Their reception by Moscow would have been problematical; on returning there both Rado and Leonid Trepper, the Red Orchestra’s ‘Big Chief’, were charged with having been German-controlled double agents, ‘rewarded’ with 10-year jail sentences, rehabilitated and freed only after Stalin’s death. However, American or British Intelligence services would surely have welcomed Lucy’s ‘sources’, and even have sought to recruit them as double-agents in the rapidly evolving Cold War, and that would have considerably improved their lives in devastated post-war Germany. Could it be that if Roessler had provided names, then the British, Americans or Soviets would have tried to contact them directly, and would then have found that they did not exist?

The contention that Lucy was a German-controlled double agent is inconsistent with the fact that it was German pressure that obliged the Swiss in October 1943 to locate Rado’s transmitters and shut his ring down. However, there are at least three possible explanations for that. First, that it was a genuine espionage ring, to which the Sicherheitsdienst or Gestapo failed to apply the preferred counter-espionage solution of turning at least some of its members, as they did with the Red Orchestra, and as the British did with all German agents sent to the UK, and the Soviets did with agents sent in to support Max. Secondly, it may have been felt to have outlived its utility as disinformation, and that the Soviets were no longer reacting as expected. Thirdly, it could even be, as is not uncommon in espionage, that the right hand, Gestapo or Sicherheitsdienst, did not know what the left hand, the Abwehr, was doing. That no arrests in OKW or OKH accompanied the shutdown suggests that if Roessler had sources there, they were extraordinarily good at covering their tracks, or were indeed participants in a ‘disinforming’ operation shut down because it had outlived its usefulness. Or it could be that the information was, as Sudoplatov claimed, ‘planted’ by the British, or came from Swiss Intelligence, and that the Swiss complied with the German demand because by October 1943 it was clear that Germany’s defeat, though not imminent, was inevitable. The ring was therefore no longer needed, and continuing risked exposing their own role, prompting a German blockade or even invasion. Evidence to establish the truth is not in the public domain, and probably never will be.

Advance Ultra information from Bletchley may have been among the factors influencing Stalin’s decision of 12 April, but was not definite enough to have been the only factor. Its main utility was that later messages provided useful information about German preparations to the Soviet General Staff planners of the defensive battle. The British official history noted the first signs of German preparations in the third week of March 1943, from decrypted Luftwaffe messages ‘about the movement of panzer divisions on the central sector of the eastern front, and a re organisation of GAF [German Air Force] commands which brought Fliegerkorps VIII back to the Kharkov area for close support operations’. Then on 13 April another Luftwaffe message first used the codename ‘Zitadelle’ (‘Citadel’), and on the 19th another disclosed that Luftflotte (Air Fleet) IV ‘was sending forces allocated to Zitadelle to GAF Command East’. If the messages from the third week of March were passed quickly to Moscow, officially in paraphrased form or unofficially by one of the ‘resident’s’ agents, they could certainly have been taken into account in the Soviet decision-making, and may help account for what Stalin told Mikoyan on 27 March, but those of 13 and 19 April cannot have influenced the principal decision about how to fight the battle, because Stalin had already taken that on the 12th, when he endorsed the proposal Zhukov had made on the 8th.

The same reservation applies to the most comprehensive of the early indicators deciphered by Bletchley, a message from Field-Marshal von Weichs, commanding Army Group B, transmitted some time after 15 April and decrypted on the 25th. The gist of it may have been passed on officially to the Soviets, but according to two post-Soviet publications the State Defence Committee received a translation of the actual text from the NKVD ‘resident’ in London on 7 May; one of the accounts says it had been passed to him by Philby, who had received it from Cairncross. A post-Soviet account of Soviet Intelligence operations during 1941–45 devoted an entire chapter to Cairncross. It said that,

in his new job at Bletchley Cairncross received access to a whole range of deciphered German documents, which were immediately passed to Moscow. Philby also had access to a range of such documents – they were sent to him by the Chief of Intelligence. Blunt also sometimes managed to acquire some materials. But Cairncross had these documents in his own safe, and could use them as they arrived, i.e. without great delay. He passed on very important information about the offensive the Germans were preparing on the Kursk salient, indicated approximate dates for the offensive, the technical parameters of the new German ‘Tiger’ tank, and other information. By his self-sacrificing work he made a serious contribution to our victory at Kursk and on other fronts.

The same post-Soviet account credited the NKVD ‘resident’ in London with 14 agents altogether; since MI5’s post-war investigations did not, at least publicly, identify anything like that many, there may have been more than one still unidentified ‘mole’ passing on information. Certainly the Weichs message and anything else the ‘resident’ obtained about ‘Citadel’ would be very helpful to the General Staff planners, but Stalin had taken the crucial decision two weeks before Weichs’ message was deciphered, and four weeks before the State Defence Committee received its translated text. As for technical details of Tiger tanks, the Soviets did not need them; as noted below, they captured several between November 1942 and April 1943, and put them through comprehensive tests in April.

Although Ultra information from Bletchley cannot have been the sole or principal source of Zhukov’s and Stalin’s confidence as early as April about German intentions, information, particularly from Cairncross, about the methods employed in deciphering may nevertheless have played a role in the Soviet decision-making. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the British decided not to share the Ultra secret, believing Soviet security to be German-penetrated, and expecting the Red Army would be speedily defeated. After both assumptions proved wrong, they took to passing on important information from Ultra, paraphrased and without disclosing the source, beyond dropping vague hints about an agent in the German High Command. The Soviets pretended to believe them, but obviously knew exactly what the source was, on information from Cairncross, Philby, Blunt and maybe others among the alleged 14 agents. Perhaps even more important than any information they passed on would be the messages’ evidence that many Enigma-based systems (and, as with the Weichs message, even the more complex ‘Tunny’) had been broken, and that large numbers of messages were being deciphered daily, often within only a few hours of transmission, to the great benefit of the Anglo-American war effort. Even before the war the Soviet Union had had a large interception and decrypting organisation (Sudoplatov mentioned that they were deciphering messages to or from several foreign embassies, including those of Japan, Italy, Turkey and Bulgaria), and the discovery from their British agents that the German cipher systems were breakable would justify a large commitment of intellectual and material resources.

In that connection the account mentioned above goes on to say:

Along with material of a military-operational character, Cairncross passed on data about the machine-cipher Tunny, which was used by the British to decipher German radio messages. On the basis of these data an analogous example of this machine was designed…In the operational file there is a task set by the Centre to the London residency. In particular it is stated that the Germans have made some changes in the machine’s design, and that therefore additional data are required, data that maybe are known to the British and accessible by Cairncross. The data were received from the source and sent on to Moscow. There is no information in the file about the further fate of this deciphering machine.

Tunny was Bletchley’s codename for the German SZ40 (Schluesselzusatz, ‘key-adder’) cipher machine and its derivatives, several versions of SZ42, used for communication at the highest military levels, such as between OKW/OKH and the headquarters of army groups, and including the message from Weichs, mentioned above. It was first observed in use in mid-1941, and by January 1942 Bletchley ‘understood its design and method of operation’. It was far more sophisticated than Enigma, so decryption was ‘normally too laborious to be undertaken by hand, and the first stage of mechanisation was the provision of a decyphering machine, delivered early in June 1942’. As to the unknown ‘further fate’ of the machine, if the reference is to the British machine, it is quite wrong. The first machine-deciphering successes were achieved in early May 1943 by a machine codenamed ‘Robinson’, replaced in February 1944 by Colossus 1, the first programmable computer. The reference must be to an attempted Russian counterpart to ‘Robinson’, otherwise why would Moscow ask its London ‘resident’ for data that could be obtained only from someone actually working at Bletchley? The most likely reason why there is nothing further on file is simply that they could not make the Soviet machine work, but that they even tried suggests a high level of cryptanalytical effort.

Bletchley could not acquire much Enigma traffic from German army units on the Eastern Front. Every division commander had an Enigma machine and radio transmitter in his command vehicle, but except when actually on the move most communication after December 1941 was via landlines, making use of radio too sporadic and the amount of traffic picked up by UK-operated intercept stations too small to decrypt on a regular basis. The best source of information about the Eastern Front remained the Luftwaffe general (‘Red’) cipher. ‘Fish’ messages, though taking longer to decrypt, were also valuable because the information they contained was more high-level, and consequently took longer to become outdated.

The Soviet situation was different. Landlines could be, and frequently were, tapped. During the Battle of Moscow for example, a German unit reported killing a Soviet officer who was doing so. General S.P. Ivanov, Vatutin’s Chief of Staff at Stalingrad, mentioned in his memoirs both receipt of a decrypted message that had been transmitted less than 36 hours previously, and a successful tapping operation against the Romanian 3rd Army. Line-tapping was also among the tasks set for partisans operating behind the German lines.

Radio interception of enemy traffic was frequently mentioned in Front commanders’ reports from late 1942 onwards, though in most cases the references were to voice communication, especially between German aircraft and ground controllers. It is also relevant that Bletchley found Luftwaffe cipher systems easier to break than those of the army or navy. German army operations depended heavily on air support, and in early 1943 about 60 per cent of the Luftwaffe was on the Eastern Front. Luftwaffe liaison officers (Fliegerverbindungsoffizieren, or ‘Flyvos’), each with an Enigma machine, were regularly attached to army units, and their messages frequently provided valuable clues about army operations.

The many secrets unveiled in the post-Soviet era have as yet included very little about the role of cryptanalysis in the Soviet–German war. That high-level Soviet communications were very secure is clear from the experience of Bletchley’s German counterpart, the B-Dienst; it found Soviet low-level tactical military ciphers easy to break, but had no success above that level. Front or higher-level Soviet commanders used Baudot machines and landlines, so messages could not be regularly intercepted, and Soviet diplomatic traffic used codebooks plus one-time pads of randomly generated figures; if these are properly used, messages can be deciphered only by those holding both book and pads. It is therefore reasonable to assume that Soviet expertise in codes and ciphers was of a high standard; the simplicity of tactical ciphers was mainly because low-level transmission resources were often primitive, originators and receivers of messages were not highly trained cryptographers, and any action proposed or requested in tactical-level messages would usually be taken before any third party could decipher or act on them.

In addition to a massive intellectual and technological effort, the British mounted substantial operations (e.g. a commando raid on the Lofoten Islands, seizure of German weather ships in the North Atlantic, recovery of machines and documents from captured U-boats) in order to secure single Enigma machines and associated documentation such as key tables. The surrender of the German 6th Army and part of the 4th Panzer Army at the end of January must have provided Soviet cryptanalysts with a number of Enigma machines and associated documentation far beyond what any British or American operation acquired. Each of the 20 division and 5 corps commanders had one such machine; the 6th Army headquarters had at least one, and may have had a ‘Fish’ machine as well. Some Flyvos probably escaped on returning supply flights, but by 17 January the Soviets had taken six of the seven local airfields, and made the seventh unusable by artillery fire and air attacks, so there were no landings or take-offs in the remaining days before the final surrender, and most Flyvos must still have been in the city. Even if only five were still there, that brings the total of Enigma machines in Stalingrad to 30. The troops were freezing and starving, ammunition, explosives and fuel were almost all gone, the ground was frozen too hard and the troops too weak to destroy or bury the machines. They could at most take a rifle-butt to them, and in some cases not even that – one last message ended with ‘the Russians are breaking in…’. It is also unlikely that key tables, operational documents and manuals were all destroyed, and it is entirely speculative, but not unreasonable to postulate that the haul of machines and documents at Stalingrad facilitated a ‘last heave’ by an already existing programme that had made progress, but not yet resolved all the problems.

This treasure-trove became available only in the first week of February, too late for much exploitation before Manstein’s offensive at Kharkov, but during March it may have become possible to decipher some Enigma traffic, including messages between divisions and armies concerning preparations for ‘Citadel’. Divisions on the move would sometimes have to resort to radio transmission – the order to observe radio silence applied to operator chatter and plain text messages, but not to enciphered traffic, because the Germans did not learn until 27 years after the war that the British had broken their ciphers. Interception of such transmissions could have been among the factors giving Zhukov the confidence about German intentions that prompted his message to Stalin on 8 April. Information from Front Intelligence and partisan observations of eastbound rail traffic would certainly also have been involved, but the most significant preliminary move, the German IX Army’s withdrawal from the Rzhev-Vyazma salient, took place by stages between 1 and 14 March. As noted above, this released up to 22 divisions to IX Army reserve, and hence to eventual availability for ‘Citadel’. However, with movement impeded by the spring thaw, and the need to employ several of these divisions to stop the attempted offensive by the Bryansk, Central and Voronezh Fronts, major redeployment into starting positions for ‘Citadel’ could not have been far enough advanced by the first week of April to account by itself for the confident tone of Zhukov’s message to Stalin.

Bletchley’s analytical effort naturally depended mainly on mathematicians, and although the relevance of chess-players is less obvious, work there did attract a number of them, including several of high international ranking. Russia was not short of mathematicians and chess champions, and given what it learned about Ultra from Cairncross and others, Soviet Intelligence must have devoted a large effort to Enigma-breaking. Intelligence failures up to mid-February 1943 suggest no or very limited success until then, but the least implausible explanation for the very marked improvement thereafter is successful exploitation of materials captured at Stalingrad.

No Russian account gives any details about where Stavka received the information that led it three times (on 2 and 20 May, and 2 July) to notify the two Front commanders in the salient that the German offensive would begin within a few days. In fact Hitler first set the date as 3 May, but changed his mind on 29 April, because he considered the numbers of the new tanks, assault and anti-tank self-propelled guns so far available to the attacking divisions insufficient. He then set a new date of 12 June, but ‘events in the Mediterranean’ (specifically the surrender of all Axis forces in North Africa on 12 May) forced another postponement, and even raised the possibility of abandonment. However, on 21 June he fixed the launching date for ‘Citadel’ as 3 July, then on the 25th changed it to 5 July. Stavka’s warning to the commanders on 2 May fits with Hitler’s original starting date of 3 May, and it is just possible that it was based on intercepted traffic. Hitler’s original order specified that Army Groups Centre and South must be able to launch ‘Citadel’ on five days’ notice. A launch on 3 May would therefore have to be ordered by, at the latest, 29 April, the date on which Hitler cancelled it. There is no information in the public domain to indicate whether any orders had been issued before the cancellation. The 20 May warning was simply wrong, but no Soviet or post-Soviet source has said on what it was based. The third warning, on 2 July, was absolutely correct, and its timing is interesting. It was only on 1 July that Hitler assembled at his Rastenburg headquarters the marshals and generals who would lead ‘Citadel’, Manstein, Kluge, Model, Hoth, Kempf and the commanders of the two air fleets, von Greim and Dessloch, and ordered them to start it on the 5th. The time of day of this meeting is not known, but since Hitler, like Churchill and Stalin, habitually worked into the small hours and then slept until at least mid-morning, it was unlikely to have taken place before 10 a.m. German summer time, which was 11 a.m. Moscow time. Stalin’s message warning the Front commanders that ‘Citadel’ was likely to be launched ‘during the period 3–6 July’ was transmitted at 2.10 a.m. Moscow time on the 2nd. That is 1.10 a.m. German time, at most only 15 hours after the meeting at which Hitler gave his generals their final orders.

This rapidity suggests two possibilities. One is that by then some Enigma traffic was being read. After the meeting, and before leaving headquarters, Manstein, Kluge, Model and Hoth, and probably also both air fleet commanders, would necessarily send orders to their own Chiefs of Staff to start alerting subordinate formations to prepare for battle, though without telling them the starting date. Messages from OKH to the headquarters of Army Groups Centre and South would probably use the more complex Fish machine cipher, and be sent by landline, but those from army headquarters to divisions or corps and to Luftwaffe units would be enciphered on Enigma machines, and some of them would be transmitted by radio, therefore vulnerable to interception.

The other, simpler, possibility is that the Soviets could intercept but not decipher Enigma messages, but concluded from traffic analysis that action was imminent because of the sudden large increase in traffic caused by the messages that Army Groups Centre and South and the army and air force HQs under them had to send, to alert their subordinate formations. Either possibility fits the speed of Stavka’s warning to the Fronts better than the idea of messages going from a source in OKW or OKH to Roessler in Switzerland, then through one of his intermediaries, Schneider or Duebendorfer, to Rado, who would then have to encipher it and contact one of his operators to have it transmitted to Moscow. Messages that Rado cited in his memoirs invariably took two or more days to be delivered.

The Philippines 1944: Japanese Preparations and Plans I

Preparations for the defense of the Philippines did not start in earnest until March 1944, when the IGHQ issued “Battle Preparations No. 11,” aimed to bolster the strength of the Fourteenth Army. The enemy landing at Hollandia in April 1944 finally convinced the IGHQ that no time must be lost in strengthening the defenses of the Philippines.

Defense Preparations, October 1943–June 1944

Between October 1943 and March 1944, the Japanese defense preparations in the Philippines were limited to preparing the islands as rear operational base for support of a decisive battle along the Marianas-Carolines–western New Guinea line. Yet the Japanese did not prepare any plan to reinforce the Philippines against an enemy invasion. One reason was that Japanese resources were already heavily taxed elsewhere. The Japanese also believed that the Allied advance could be stopped at the forward defense barrier before the Philippines were seriously threatened.

After the Japanese conquest of the Philippines in April 1942, the 24th Army, with four “mixed” (composite) brigades, was left as the occupying force. Its main task was to crush the growing guerrilla movement in the Philippines. In October 1943, the IGHQ directed the Fourteenth Army, responsible for the defense of the Philippines, to complete necessary base facilities by the spring of 1944. All the existing 13 airfields were scheduled for improvements, while an additional 30 airfields would be built. The plans also called for the expansion of other rear-area bases and communications routes.

The IGHQ directed additional personnel to the Philippines to accelerate the entire construction program. In late March 1944, the IGHQ’s Army section ordered a change of command organization for the southern area (put in effect on 5 April 1944). The Southern Army’s area of responsibility was enlarged to encompass deployment areas of the Fourteenth Army in the Philippines, the Second Army in western New Guinea and the eastern NEI and Fourth Air Army. The Fourteenth Army was directed to start defense preparations, with the focus on defense of Mindanao.

In April 1944, the commander of the Fourteenth Army, Lieutenant General Shigenori Kuroda, regrouped his forces to occupy better positions against the enemy’s possible invasion of the archipelago. The 16th Division (minus one infantry regiment), plus one independent mixed brigade and some other minor elements designated as Army reserve, was transferred from Luzon to Leyte. Two other brigades were deployed to northern and southern Luzon, respectively. The 30th Division, after its arrival from Korea in late April, was deployed to Mindanao.

By early May 1944, the Fourteenth Army consisted of only the 16th Division and four independent mixed brigades. The staff of the Fourteenth Army estimated that at least 15 divisions would be required to fight a decisive battle in the Philippines. However, because of the demands of reinforcing the Marianas–western New Guinea line there was little hope that these forces could be available for the defense of the Philippines.

Beginning in May 1944, the IGHQ relieved the Southern Army commander of all responsibility for the defense of eastern New Guinea. At the same time, the Eighteenth Army and other units were redeployed to new locations in western New Guinea. In mid-May, Field Marshal Terauchi transferred his headquarters to Manila to ensure more effective control over operations in that part of the theater. In addition, the 3rd Shipping Department HQ was relocated from Singapore to Manila.

During June 1944, approximately 15,000 to 20,000 additional Japanese troops were redeployed to the Philippines. The Fourteenth Army was directed to reorganize and increase each of its four independent mixed brigades to a division-size force. The new divisions were located at Davao (100th Division), Cebu (102nd Division), Baguio, Luzon (103rd Division), and Las Banos, Luzon (105th Division). In addition, two new brigades were activated in Luzon, while another newly organized brigade was transferred to Zamboanga (western Mindanao) via Cebu. Another brigade raised in Japan was also assigned to the Fourteenth Army. However, two out of the four newly created divisions lacked large unit training, and their recruits were poorly trained. Hence, teams of instructors were sent from Japan in June and July to help in training. Nevertheless, these brigades were not fully combat ready by the time of the enemy invasion of Leyte.

As part of their defense preparations, the Japanese also started a process of increasing reserves of logistical supplies for the Southern Army. The Southern Army’s Lines of Communications Command was established on 10 June. This headquarters consolidated the control of all transportation units in the Philippines and the logistical support for the Southern Army.

Naval Preparations

After the Japanese conquest of the Philippines, only small forces for local sea defenses were deployed in the archipelago. The main responsibility for naval defense of the Philippines belonged to the Southwest Area Force. Its area of responsibility stretched from central New Guinea in the east to Burma in the west. After July 1943, the Southwest Area Force HQ was temporarily in Penang, Malaya. It was moved back to Surabaya in February 1944. On 12 July, it was again relocated from Surabaya to Manila to assume closer control of naval bases and surface forces in the Philippine waters.

The 3rd Southern Expeditionary Fleet, subordinate to the Southwest Area Force, was specifically tasked for the defense of the sea approaches to the Philippines. In early May 1944, this fleet consisted of only ten, mostly small and obsolete vessels. All of them were involved in escort duties in the Philippine area.

In March 1944, the naval air strength in the Philippines consisted of the 32nd Air Group at Sarangani and the 31st Air Group at Nichols Field (Luzon). The Navy used only a dozen of airfields and seaplane bases in the archipelago. Initially these fields were used for pilot training, but later they were converted into frontline air bases. Sites for new airstrips were surveyed, especially at Davao and Manila areas, as additions to the Army’s airfields at Bagorod and the Clark Field area. Construction of the new and larger air bases progressed rapidly. An additional 21 naval air bases were planned for completion by the end of 1944.

The Japanese Navy did not concentrate its efforts on the defense of the Philippines until May 1944. Combined Fleet used the bases at Tawi-Tawi, Sulu Archipelago, and the Guimaras Strait in the Visayas. In March 1944, a decision was made to use Davao Bay as the main naval base in the southern part of the archipelago. New communications equipment was installed there because of the anticipated relocation of the Combined Fleet HQ from the western Carolines to Davao. It was also planned to move the First Air Fleet HQ from the Marianas to Davao. In mid-May 1944, the Combined Fleet arrived at Tawi-Tawi and spent about one month there before beginning its A-Operation, which led to the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

Air Preparations

The Japanese recognized that the key factor in the successful defense of the Philippines would be air power. Consequently, the Battle Preparations No. 11 issued in March 1944 directed that the defense of Halmahera and the Philippines would be the responsibility of the air forces and assisted by Navy and ground forces. On the basis of the IGHQ’s assumption that the enemy would land on the Philippines in or after mid-November, training of the aircrews was scheduled for completion by the end of October.

The 4th Air Division directed the major part of the airfield construction. However, the Army troops would be mainly used for the construction. This, in turn, considerably affected their combat training and state of beach defenses. Construction of the airfields and aircraft shelters was completed by the end of September 1944.

At the beginning of 1944, the Japanese situation concerning land-based aircraft in the Philippines was extremely unsatisfactory. The 6th Air Division lost virtually all of its remaining aircraft in Hollandia. The 7th Air Division was fully committed in the defense of the island of Ceram, Moluccas. Operations in Burma prevented the Japanese from timely redeploying their aircraft to the defense of the Philippines if needed. Land-based naval air strength was limited to only the 26th Air Flotilla, redeployed from the Rabaul area to Davao in February 1944 for reorganization and training.

Shortly before issuance of Battle Preparations No. 11, the IGHQ’s Army section ordered the transfer of the 2nd and 4th Air Divisions from the Second Air Army in Manchuria to the Philippines. The 4th Air Division was directly assigned to the Fourth Air Army in late May, when the first increment of these reinforcements arrived in the Philippines. On 1 June, the Fourth Air Army HQ completed the planned transfer from Menado, Celebes, to Manila.

In April 1944, the Japanese Navy had in the Philippines only three air squadrons plus some training units. After the fall of the Marianas in July 1944, there was an urgent need to reconstitute naval air forces. The then newly organized Second Air Fleet was not employed in the Marianas because of its poor state of training. Its strength was gradually built up at its main basing area on Kyushu. The First Air Fleet was redeployed from Yap to Davao and then to the Clark airfield cluster. A plan to reconstitute that fleet encountered many obstacles because of enemy air strikes on its bases in September 1944. Also, the availability of aircraft had been severely reduced by maintenance difficulties and a lack of spare parts.

Operational Plans

Allied advances in the spring and early summer of 1944 gave an increased urgency to prepare plans for the defense of Japan’s inner zone, the Philippines in particular. By late spring, the Japanese had concluded that the fate of the Philippines would determine the outcome of the struggle to defend the entire southern area. The Allied landing at Hollandia, which reportedly took the Japanese by surprise, reinforced their conviction that defenses in the Philippines had to be strengthened and the sooner the better.

Planning Process

Operational planning in the Japanese Army and the Navy was conducted by the respective general staffs and major field commands. The Army and Navy sections were organized along similar lines. The Army was a senior service, and, not surprisingly, its staffs were larger than the Navy’s. The Army section consisted of a number of “bureaus” or departments. The most important were the 1st (Operations), 2nd (Intelligence), 3rd (Transportation), and 4th (Communications) bureaus.

Operational plans were developed separately for each service in the 1st Bureau of the respective general staffs.20 Plans for a major operations prepared by the Army or the Navy were usually made without the input of the other service. Often, Army-Navy disagreement over a certain joint operation would result in the delay or even abandonment of the effort. Even when an agreement was reached, the operation would normally be executed not by a joint commander, but by respective service commanders. Unity of effort would be ensured by the terms of the pertinent Army-Navy Central Agreement.

The most important plans for the employment of Japanese naval forces normally originated within the IGHQ’s Navy section. The chief of the Navy section closely cooperated with the Navy Minister prior to the adoption of any operational plan. However, once the operation started, the Navy Minister did not have any direct or indirect control over operational matters.

The second highest planning echelon in the Navy was Combined Fleet HQ. The plans prepared at the Navy section and the Combined Fleet HQ were afterward elaborated in more detail by the numbered naval and air fleets, area fleets, and subordinate tactical commands. Within the Navy section, operational planning was the responsibility of the 1st Bureau’s 1st Section. Logistics planning was the responsibility of the 2nd Bureau. The 3rd Bureau provided intelligence, while all communications planning was the responsibility of the 4th Bureau. The Special Section of the 4th Bureau provided radio intelligence.

Final plans were prepared after discussion between the CINC, Combined Fleet, and the chief of the Navy section. Joint operations were discussed at the liaison conferences between the Army and the Navy, while the most important plans were discussed at the IGHQ. Agreement had to be reached with the Army section before a plan was submitted to the Chief of the Navy section for final approval. After a joint operation was agreed upon, the Navy and Army general staffs issued identical orders. If a joint plan involved the participation of other government agencies, then the Navy minister’s agreement had to be obtained. If a forthcoming operation exceeded the authority delegated by the Imperial Directive to the chief of the Navy section, the plan was submitted through the IGHQ to the emperor for approval. Afterward, the plan was issued as an order of the Navy section.

Sho Plans

The Allies’ penetration of the New Guinea defense line and invasion of the Marianas convinced the IGHQ of the need to fight a decisive battle to protect the inner defense area. The Allies were advancing, and the Japanese expected them to attack the Philippines first. Simultaneously, they had to prepare contingency plans for the defense of Taiwan or Nansei Shoto, or possibly even Home Islands. The IGHQ’s basic order for the Sho-Go (Victory) operations was issued on 24 July 1944. The basic variants of the plan were as follows:

•   Sho-1: Defense of the Philippines

•   Sho-2: Defense of southern Kyushu, Nansei Shoto, and Taiwan

•   Sho-3: Defense of Honshu and Shikoku, and, depending on the situation, the Ogasawara Group (Bonin Islands)

•   Sho-4: Defense of the Hokkaido area

Broadly, the Sho plans were aimed at preventing the enemy from obtaining a foothold within the inner defensive perimeter running from Home Islands–Nansei Shoto–Taiwan–Philippines–Timor–Java–Sumatra. The basic strategic principle was that the IGHQ would designate as the “decisive battle area” whichever part of the inner defense area was attacked by the enemy’s main strength. Afterward, all available Japanese sea, air, and ground forces would be quickly concentrated to destroy the enemy forces. The prospective area of the “decisive battle” was Home Islands, Nansei Shoto, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

Sho-1’s strategic objective was to prevent the enemy’s forces from seizing control of the Philippine archipelago. The most important initial operational objective was to preclude enemy forces from obtaining a lodgment in the Philippines. The original Sho-1 plan, drafted in late July, envisioned a full-scale battle in Luzon fought with all three services, while naval and air forces would be primarily employed in defense of the central and southern Philippines.

The Japanese anticipated that the enemy’s possible (operational) objectives would be first to seize Mindanao, and then in decreasing order of probability, Leyte, San Bernardino Strait, and central Luzon. They believed that the best way to prevent the enemy from accomplishing his objectives would be to obtain command of the local sea area through a decisive defeat of enemy naval forces at the time of landing. Afterward, Japanese reinforcements could land without difficulty, enhancing prospects for a successful ground battle.

The Sho plans contained an “Outline of the Decisive Battle.” The IGHQ assumed that the enemy would apply the same amphibious landing scheme used in the invasion of the Marshalls, Hollandia, and Saipan. In all variants of the Sho plans, it was contemplated that the Second Air Fleet would provide the major part of the striking power for the decisive battle. In conducting the decisive battle, the initial priority would be to destroy enemy task forces (U.S. carrier groups), especially “regular” (fast) carriers. Afterward, the entire enemy invasion force would be destroyed in a single blow delivered by concerted efforts of the Japanese air, sea, and land forces. Attacks against the enemy carriers would be conducted predominantly at night and in bad weather. Attacks during daylight hours would aim to immobilize a large part of the enemy carrier force before the next night action, or to capitalize on the results of night attacks by mopping up any carriers that hadn’t already been sunk or crippled. Attacks on enemy transport convoys would be launched in daytime and aimed to reduce the strength of enemy landing forces before they hit the beaches.

The IGHQ’s outline of the decisive battle also envisaged the withdrawal and dispersal of the naval land-based aircraft in the face of the enemy air attacks before the enemy’s main landing. However, once enemy landing forces were engaged in the battle ashore, the naval land-based aircraft, cooperating with other naval forces and the Army air forces, would do their utmost to destroy those forces ashore.