Nineteenth-Century Military Theory-Clausewitz and de Jomini

Napoleon on Military Education Napoleon was a great believer in a formal military education and, unlike most of his contemporaries, believed that it went beyond the mechanics of laying guns or building fortifications. Whereas most nations were content to focus on the technical skills in their service schools, Napoleon stated: “Tactics, the evolutions, the science of the engineer and of the artillerist can be learned in treatises, much like geometry, but the higher art of war is acquired only through the study of history of the wars and battles of the Great Captains, and from experience.” The formal study of military history thus became a central theme in the service academies of the empire.

HIS695160 Helmuth Carl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, 1898 (oil on canvas) by Lenbach, Franz Seraph von (1836-1904); 85.5×69.5 cm; Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, Germany; (add.info.: Helmuth Carl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (1800-1891)
); © DHM; German, out of copyright

Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800-1891), chief of the Prussian General Staff during 1857-1888, organized and oversaw the German triumph over France. His preparations for war in the late 1860s, which gave the Prussian army strategic and tactical command methods to fight on broad fronts, enabled Prussia and its German allies to mobilize with an unprecedented speed and efficiency in the war with France. This combined with superior tactics and artillery provided an advantage that the French could not overcome. Von Moltke also oversaw actual field operations, including the siege of Paris. His clashes with Bismarck about the actual role of the civilian leadership in wartime offered a foreshadowing of far more serious civil-military clashes among German leaders during World War I.

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, military theorists attempted to unlock the secrets of Napoleon’s success and to understand the nature of war in light of the changes that those years had wrought. If Napoleon’s genius could be understood, it was hoped, it could be emulated, and future generals could achieve the same victories. Explanations for Napoleon’s success came to be broadly divided into two groups, whose leading theorists were Antoine-Henri de Jomini (1779-1869) and Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831).

Jomini, born in Switzerland, served in Napoleon’s army as a staff officer under French Marshal Michel Ney from 1802 until 1813, when he defected to the Russian army and was given the rank of lieutenant general prior to the Battle of Leipzig. Jomini’s theories on war were distilled in his most famous work, Précis de l’Art de la Guerre (Summary on the Art of War), published in 1838, although his ideas had changed little from his first writings on military strategy in 1803. He argued that wars could be explained rationally and that they could be understood by a simple formula that he felt was derived from Napoleon’s methods of warfare. The key to victory was offensive action to combine superior forces against weaker enemy forces at a decisive point. For Jomini, war was a scientific enterprise best understood on scientific principles. Such a focus excluded social, political, and logistical factors and also ignored the human component of war, such as the potential for human error. For Jomini, war was a limited exercise that would be decided by simple decisive actions in battle. Thus, any country could match Napoleon’s success simply by adopting his methods on the battlefield. Jomini’s theories had an appeal to the conservative states that reasserted themselves after 1815, as they were eager to learn the secrets of Napoleon’s military success without having to also adopt the social and political changes that the French Revolution had set in motion.

Clausewitz was a Prussian officer who, after a series of Prussian defeats at the hands of Napoleon, was a leading reformer of the Prussian army between 1807 and 1811. When King Fredrick William III of Prussia bowed to Napoleon’s demands for assistance with his invasion of Russia, Clausewitz and other reformers resigned their commissions to assist the Russians. After aiding the liberation of Prussia, Clausewitz was made the director of the Prussian war academy, a post he held until 1830, a year before his death in 1831. His most famous work, Vom Kriege (On War), was published posthumously by his widow in 1832.

Clausewitz’s theories were in many ways fundamentally opposed to those of Jomini. Whereas Jomini narrowly focused on the battlefield, Clausewitz argued that war could not be separated from social, political, and cultural factors. No longer could war be the exclusive preserve of a narrow band of professionals. The Napoleonic Wars had shown that war would now involve the common people of the country as well through nationalist enthusiasm and mass recruitment. Since war now had a greater capacity for escalation and involved entire populations clashing with each other, it was imperative that political leaders enter into war with specific objectives. War itself was not to be seen as an end but rather as the means to the achievement of political goals. Moreover, in contrast to Jomini’s scientific and rational principles, Clausewitz emphasized modern war’s chaotic nature. Wars and battles were uncertain and unpredictable and were waged by men who were subject to the full range of human flaws, to say nothing of the fog of war itself. Thus the morale of soldiers and officers was vital in order to push forward to victory despite the human errors and confusion that could occur on the battlefield. According to Clausewitz, although war should only be entered into with specific objectives, once it began it had to be waged thoroughly and ruthlessly. The enemy’s armies had to be confronted and destroyed, the enemy’s capital occupied, and its government and people brought to their knees. In essence, modern warfare involved unlimited means to limited ends.

In the first decades after the Napoleonic Wars, Jomini’s theories held sway over military strategists, influencing the generalship in such conflicts as the American Civil War. However, the string of Prussian victories in the late 1860s and early 1870s, culminating in the triumph over France in 1870-1871, saw the emergence of Clausewitz. Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891), the Prussian chief of the General Staff and the architect of Prussia’s victories, had been a student of Clausewitz at the Prussian war academy and had adopted Clausewitz’s theories in his strategies and in his reorganization of the Prussian army. By training officers to think independently and to act as they felt appropriate to further the overall strategic aim, each element of the army would be able to coordinate actions without explicit direction from the high command. This decentralization of the command structure was a means by which the disorder of the battlefield could be overcome. The other major powers were eager to unlock the key of the Prussian victories and turned to Clausewitz’s theories on war. Thus since the 1870s Jomini’s theories have been almost entirely forgotten, while Clausewitz has remained at the forefront of thinking on war into the twenty-first century.

Bibliography Gat, Azar. The Development of Military Thought: The Nineteenth Century. Oxford, UK: Claren- don, 1992. Paret, Peter. Clausewitz and the State. Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1976.

Advertisements

THE TIDE OF WAR SHIFTS I

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

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

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

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

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

A BRIDGE TO NOWHERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE TIDE OF WAR SHIFTS II

THE “BATTLES” OF PORT ANTWERP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPECTACULAR FAILURES

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

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

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

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

Two Strategic Visions – Disastrous Compromise

Field Marshals Erwin Rommel and Gerd von Rundstedt disagreed on the use of German panzers during the D-Day invasion, but neither position prevailed.

It comes as no surprise that the German high command was equally divided on the strategy for meeting and defeating an Allied invasion.

Rundstedt envisioned a classic counterattack once the exact location of the invasion was clarified. He wanted a strong, mobile panzer reserve centrally placed to launch a rapid, vigorous assault that would drive the invaders back into the sea before their bridgehead could be reinforced. Rundstedt’s strategic vision rested on defense in depth, a swift panzer counterattack, and the utter collapse of the Allied invasion.

Rommel previously had firsthand experience in North Africa with the devastating effectiveness of Allied air and naval campaigns. He saw little possibility of rapidly moving panzer reserves to meet the landing forces without sustaining significant casualties. “British and American superiority in the air alone has again and again been so effective that all movement of major formations has been rendered completely impossible,” Rommel wrote.

In his view the Wehrmacht had to stop the invasion at the water’s edge, on the landing beaches. Rommel proposed a strong static linear defense of concrete fortifications. “This will require the construction of a fortified and mined zone extending from the coast five or six miles inland.”

Rommel also wanted the panzer divisions to be placed near the coast where the Allies were most likely to land. They would then launch the decisive counterattacks within the first forty-eight hours of the invasion. The German tanks were meant to counterattack in small packets deployed from behind the beaches. The panzers would attack once the Allies had landed with close encounters to mix in and break up the seaward assault. With this deployment Rommel hoped to avoid being blasted by Allied destroyers firing at point-blank range as previously occurred at the Sicily and Salerno landings. It would be on that “longest day” that the battle would be decided.

Hitler saw advantages in both strategic plans. He kept vacillating, and his lack of decision ultimately doomed the German defense.

Rommel’s worst critic was not Rundstedt but Field Marshal Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg. He was appointed commander of Panzer Troops West in July 1943. His command was positioned near Paris for a potential large-scale counterattack in either Normandy or Pas-de-Calais. Geyr advocated large-scale counterattacks in divisional strength, not Rommel’s battle group tactics. Commit the panzers in mass was his guiding principle. Allied air power might delay movement but not stop them. Properly trained units under aggressive officers will arrive in time at the right location to drive the Allies back.

Rommel knew that control of the armored and motorized units during the critical twenty-four hours after the landings was vital. Northern France had relatively few roads, and many rivers and bridges offered inviting targets for Allied air interdiction. The days of the German Blitzkrieg were over. Geyr, Rundstedt, and the other German commanders learned to regret their failure to support Rommel’s strategy.

Part of their opposition stemmed from the fact that Geyr and Rundstedt were aristocrats with long family military lineages. Rommel was only a commoner, from a family of schoolteachers. Rundstedt also believed Rommel was overrated, one of “Hitler’s officers” who had been overpromoted by the Nazi propaganda machine.

This continuing controversy came to a head on March 19, 1944, when Hitler ordered his generals to attend a conference at his Eagle’s Nest mountaintop hideaway in Obersalzberg. It was preceded by a dramatic procession of field marshals and generals with Erwin Rommel and Gerd von Rundstedt arriving in a 2.3 liter Mercedes-Benz Cabriolet 230 Open Horch command car.

Hitler greeted each commander individually and then ushered them all into lunch. Afterward, over Arabian coffee shipped in at great risk by submarine through the British-held straits of Gibraltar, he began his strategy review.

Hitler had long shared these generals’ opinions that the Allies would land in the Pas-de-Calais sector. Now, without any warning, he changed his view, stating that they were all captives of rigid Clausewitzian military theory. In a prediction that proved amazingly accurate, Hitler contended that the Allied real targets “are the two peninsulas, Brittany and the Cotentin [in Normandy].” These would be the invasion sites since they provided “the best possibilities” for successful bridgeheads serving as a base for their offensive drive through France into Germany.

The Cotentin Peninsula was the probable first choice. The Normandy beaches and hinterlands were more suitable than Brittany’s harsher landscape. They would offer a shorter route for the Allied offensive thrust into Germany’s industrial Ruhr. Hitler appeared to be siding with Rommel’s views when he concluded that wherever the Allies invaded, destroying the landing would be the sole decisive factor in the whole conduct of the war and hence the war’s final result.

Rommel must have been delighted by what he heard, and he again asked that the armored divisions be placed under his command. At first Hitler agreed. Then twenty-four hours later after a protest from Rundstedt, Hitler reversed himself. On March 21 as a compromise, he transferred only three panzer divisions, the Second, Twenty-First, and Sixteenth, to Rommel’s Army Group B as a mobile reserve. Four other divisions, the First SS, Twelfth SS Panzers, Seventeenth SS Panzer Grenadier, and Panzer Lehr, were placed under the direct control of OKW as a central mobile reserve to be released only by Hitler. No one was satisfied by Hitler’s “compromise.”

By April only the Twenty-First Panzer Division had been shifted to the Normandy sector near Caen. Rommel increasingly suspected that the invasion would land in Normandy, at least as a diversion. On May 6 he again requested the release of more panzer divisions but was refused by Rundstedt and OKW. Hitler had thrown away his best chance for victory in the West.

HITLER’S NORMANDY LEGIONS

On a promontory high up over the River Seine stands the Chateau de La Roche-Guyon and its pretty local village. Here Rommel made his headquarters. Nearby at Giverny, Monet had painted his numerous studies of water lilies. Forty miles from Paris, the chateau was centrally located between Pas-de-Calais and Normandy. It was the ancestral home of the Rochefoucauld family, and to maintain cordial relations, Rommel allowed the duke and his family to continue occupying their private quarters. Thomas Jefferson had been a guest there when he was the US ambassador to France.

Tunnels were cut in nearby cliffs to accommodate his officers and staff. Rommel’s rooms looked out on a rose garden, where after a hard day inspecting invasion defenses, he strolled with his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Hans Speidel. Rommel liked being in France. He appreciated its wine, food, people, and scenery. But he was not oblivious to the mood of occupied France as he observed, “What hatred there is against us.”

Rommel also could not ignore the sad state of the Wehrmacht in France. On paper the German army in Western Europe numbered 1,500,000 men, including naval and air force units. The army units totaled 850,000 soldiers—fifty-eight combat divisions, including thirty-three static, reserve, or training divisions (ten thousand men). Most had no transport or mobile artillery. They were assigned mainly to provide coastal defense. For years France had been used by the Wehrmacht as a rest and refitting area mainly for divisions recovering from service on the Russian front. Here they could be reequipped and trained. Some divisions included “ear and stomach battalions” composed of older soldiers who had lost their hearing or men recovering from stomach wounds. Many of these German infantry divisions were either older or younger than the norm. The average age in the 709th division was about thirty-six. Heinrich Boll, an NCO in the 348th Infantry Division, wrote, “It is really sad to see these children’s faces in grey uniforms.”

A group of twelve first-class infantry divisions were also deployed along the coast. By 1944 these stronger divisions had almost thirteen thousand men. (American infantry divisions contained over fourteen thousand troops). Unlike most of the British and American formations, all of these static and first-class infantry units were staffed with a high proportion of combat-experienced officers and NCOs. They had been tested on the battlefield and readily passed on their knowledge and practical fighting skills to many of these inexperienced soldiers.

There were two different types of Luftwaffe ground units. Parachute divisions (sixteen thousand men) were volunteer infantry units of high quality. Luftwaffe field divisions (12,500 men) were surplus personnel from antiaircraft, signal, maintenance, or administrative units that were weaker than regular infantry.

There was also significant variation in the makeup of the German armored units. In June 1944 nine panzer divisions were in Normandy with two additional on temporary detachment to the eastern front. However, even these divisions were not uniform in tank numbers or troop strengths and quality. They ranged from the 21,386 men in the First SS Panzer, down to the Ninth Panzer with only 12,768. The Seventeenth SS was a panzer/grenadier formation (fourteen thousand men), which meant it had half-tracks but no tanks and only one armored battalion equipped with assault guns. The 116th, Twenty-First, Second, Ninth, and Eleventh Panzer Divisions’ tank strength was less than a hundred, about half of British or American equivalents.

On the other hand, the Panzer Lehr Division was manned by soldiers taken from the German armored training schools. They had the best equipment with tank and troop numbers at full strength. The quality and motivation of personnel were very high. General Fritz Bayerlein, an officer from Rommel’s Afrika Korps, was in command. He was told, “With this division on its own you must throw the Allies into the sea. Your objective is the coast, no, not the coast—it is the sea.”

The same high quality of equipment and men were to be found in the First, Second, and Twelfth SS Panzer Divisions. The best recruits were placed in the SS panzer corps. Bayerlein observed, “No good replacements were ever sent to the infantry divisions.”

The SS panzer divisions were larger than their Allied counterparts. The First SS Panzer (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler) was twice as large. But as noted earlier, they too had fewer tanks than the Allied formation. These SS units were composed of six motorized or mechanized infantry battalions, in contrast to only four in the Wehrmacht’s armored divisions. This made all of these SS units larger than their army equivalents.

By June 6, 1944, the Germans had deployed fifty-eight divisions spread from Norway to the Mediterranean to defend Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. When the invasion came, most were in the wrong place.

The brunt of the attack was borne by the Seventh Army of Colonel General Friedrich Dollmann and portions of the Fifteenth Army, Army Group B commanded by Rommel. The German forces that were available included four coast-defense divisions manning fortifications, two infantry divisions, the garrison of Cherbourg, and three panzer divisions in reserve, only one being adjacent to the coast.

About 20 percent of the troops in the Seventh Army were foreign volunteers—Osttruppen. Many had volunteered for the Wehrmacht to escape starvation or disease in German slave labor camps. They included Poles, White Russians, East Indians, Ukrainians, Cossacks, and Hungarians. There was even a contingent of Korean soldiers whose unbelievable odyssey included being forcibly conscripted—captured—and recruited again and again by the Japanese, Russian, and German armies, before finally surrendering to the Americans on D-Day. The German officers and NCOs who commanded these units feared being shot in the back once the invasion began. Some of these Osttruppen deserted to the French resistance. While many surrendered early in the invasion, some of these foreign units fought well during the entire Normandy campaign.

The Twenty-First Panzer Division was close to the British beaches near Caen. It tried to stop the British advance with lighter Mark IV tanks, instead of the larger gunned and heavily armored Panther or Tiger tanks. Many of its soldiers were “foreign volunteers” who could hardly understand orders in German or respond in kind to their NCOs and officers.

To resist Allied airborne assaults, the Germans positioned the Ninety-First Air Landing Division and Sixth Parachute Regiment on the Cotentin Peninsula behind the beaches assigned to the Americans, code-named Utah and Omaha. In the Allied landing zones General Marcks’s LXXXIV Corps deployed two third-rate coastal divisions, the 716th and 709th.

On March 15 Rommel was able to order the first-class 352nd Infantry Division stationed in St. Lo to the coast. They took over the defense of a thirty-mile coastal sector. In its center were the American invasion beaches. Luckily for the US troops, the German division commander, General Dietrich Kraiss, positioned only one artillery battalion and two infantry battalions on Omaha Beach. He then deployed a large reserve battalion twelve miles inland.

In May Rommel visited the 352nd Division and was not pleased with what he saw. He criticized Kraiss for dispersing his troops over a wide front and not placing enough troops in the most threatened shoreline sector in order to enable them to concentrate their fire on the landing zones.

As Kraiss was not one of Rommel’s disciples, he refused to redeploy his division and instead straddled the front. If he had supported Rommel’s tactical ideas, Kraiss would have placed a greater concentration of men on Omaha Beach and moved the division’s reserves closer to the coast. Had he done so, D-Day might have turned out very differently.

Not only were many of Rommel’s units badly positioned, but also overall Hitler’s forces in France were poorly armed to resist the invasion. The Seventh Army’s equipment made it a largely make-do outfit. A hodgepodge of captured enemy equipment tanks, trucks, and artillery led to severe spare parts shortages. All the German units lacked sufficient anti-tank guns and self-propelled assault guns. Even proper caliber ammunition and artillery shells were in short supply.

Moreover, fuel shortages limited the mobilization of the few German motorized vehicles. Regimental commanders used their cars once a week. To make the Seventh Army more mobile, troops were given bicycles. French vehicles with French drivers proved unreliable since the Frenchmen often vanished during air raids.

Only the German ground forces were somewhat competitive with the forces landed by the Allies. On June 1, 1944, the entire Luftwaffe Third Air Fleet in France had only ninety bombers and seventy fighter aircraft. The German air force in Western Europe on D-Day could only muster three hundred planes. The day of the invasion the Allied pilots flew 14,674 sorties, the Germans about 319. Few soldiers knew the situation was so bad. Walter Schwender, a German soldier in an army repair shop, recalled, “We often discussed the Allied landing…. We genuinely believed…that we were strong, we would throw them out in no time. But then we also thought there were several thousand German aircraft ready to come and give us support. We firmly believed that.”

The German Kriegsmarine’s Navy Group West was too weak to stop the Allied cross-channel attack. Its fleet was composed of twenty destroyers, fifty to sixty E-boats (a motor torpedo boat), and twenty-five to thirty minesweepers and submarines. Grand Admiral Donitz, commander in chief of the German navy, had E-boats in France, but only thirty-five ready to sail. He realized that the entire German naval force could inflict “only fleabites” on the Allied invaders.

Hitler’s Options 1943

Back from Stalingrad

Uranus opened first, under the direction of Colonel General Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky. On 19 November, the Soviets struck Romanian formations both north and south of Stalingrad. The front disintegrated, and the Russians encircled the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad, threatening the entire Axis front north of the Caucasus.

Hitler placed Field Marshal Erich von Manstein in command of the newly formed Army Group Don. It was Manstein who had devised the German plan to defeat France in 1940 and who in the summer of 1942 had captured the Soviet Black Sea fortress of Sevastopol. Manstein’s tasks were two: stabilize the front in the south and relieve the German Sixth Army, which had been ordered by Hitler to stand fast in Stalingrad. But throughout November and December, the Soviets kept feeding fresh reserves into the offensive and expanding its front, especially to the north. In late December, the Germans broke off their relief drive toward the Sixth Army and retreated toward the Donets River in an effort to hold Rostov, which would allow the German armies to withdraw from the Caucasus.

Farther north, the Soviet attack against Army Group Center, under Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov, failed. Operation Mars opened on 25 November, but the planned breakthroughs became break-ins in the face of concerted counterattacks. The determined Zhukov, who had directed unsuccessful offensives in the same area in July and August 1942, drove his forces relentlessly until late December, when Stalin ordered the end to the abortive offensive.

Stalin shifted the reserves intended to support Mars and Jupiter in the south to instead reinforce Vasilevsky’s success. The revised Soviet plan now envisioned the destruction of the entire Axis southern front east of the Dnepr River by means of vast encirclement operations. In early February 1943, as the approximately 190,000 men who formed the remnants of the German Sixth Army surrendered in Stalingrad, the Soviet offensive spread across the southern front from Voronezh to the Black Sea.

In Moscow, success seemed assured. Stalin, at Zhukov’s prompting, directed the movement of newly available reserves to the center with the intention of renewing the drive there and collapsing the entire German front. But this new scheme was as overambitious as it was daring. Along the central front, the Germans conducted a successful controlled withdrawal to shorten their lines and gain reserves. In the south, Manstein, reinforced with several fresh mechanized divisions, conducted a masterful counteroffensive against the overextended Soviets. The Germans retook Kharkov and regained most of the Donets line, except for a large salient around Kursk, before the spring thaw brought operations to a close.

Despite Manstein’s notable successes in February and March 1943, the second German campaign in Russia had ended in failure. Hitler had neither knocked the Russians out of the war nor secured the economic objectives he had set for the campaign. Between March and July 1943, both sides worked feverishly to prepare for the renewal of operations in the summer, but the prospects of a decisive Axis campaign in the east in the summer of 1943 were nil.

For the Soviet Union, despite the setbacks west of Moscow and the failure to gain a complete victory in the south, the campaign of 1942–1943 had been a major strategic success. Tactically, the Soviet army could not yet manage the Germans on even terms. But the Russians demonstrated marked improvements in the conduct of their operations, perhaps most apparent in the failure of the Germans to capture huge hauls of prisoners. At the strategic level, the analysis and planning evident in the preparation of Mars-Jupiter and Uranus-Saturn were far superior to German planning for Blau or Barbarossa. The Soviets did outnumber the Germans—that is, they possessed what they termed a favorable correlation of forces. But in 1941, numerical superiority had gained the Russians nothing except the loss of millions of lives. By 1943, the Russians had learned how to offset the Germans’ tactical advantages not only through superior numbers, but also through the development and execution of well-thought-out operational and strategic plans.

In early July 1943, the Germans launched their summer offensive at Kursk codenamed Zitadelle (“Citadel”). The Soviets repulsed the attacks against the haunches of the salient and launched a series of counteroffensives. When Zitadelle failed to produce the expected results, Hitler broke off the attack on 13 July so that the remaining reserves could be employed to meet the ever-expanding Soviet counteroffensives. For the first time since the start of the war in 1939, the Germans were on the defensive in the summer.

The Battle of Kursk

The true turning point of the war in the east was not Stalingrad, but the epic battle of Kursk—the largest tank engagement of the Second World War. Axis defeat at Kursk marked the end of Hitler’s dreams of victory over the Soviet Union.

When Manstein’s February-March 1943 counterstroke in the Ukraine stalled in the spring mud, a large Soviet salient jutted westward into the Axis front near the city of Kursk. This salient became an obvious target for a renewed German offensive, and planning began in April for such an eventuality. The Russians, too, saw the likelihood of such an attack, a surmise confirmed by intelligence sources. As a result, throughout the spring and into the early summer, both sides prepared for the third German summer offensive around Kursk.

Several aspects of German planning attest to the Germans’ declining fortunes. In 1941, the Germans had struck on 22 June along the entire front from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In 1942, the Germans struck on 28 June, a week later, and limited their offensive to the southern sector of the front. In 1943, the Germans did not attack until 5 July and then only along a limited portion of the front around Kursk.

Nor were the Germans of one mind as they planned their offensive. There was a consensus that Kursk was the best place to strike. To pinch off the salient would shorten the German line and produce a haul of prisoners. But there were divisions between those generals who wished to strike as soon as possible and others, with Hitler’s support, who wished to delay the offensive until more units could be outfitted with new heavy and medium armored vehicles, most notably the Panther tanks. As delays mounted, some generals became more and more pessimistic about the prospects of success. Nevertheless, recent scholarship in Soviet archives suggests that the debate was moot. The strength of the Soviet forces in the rear of the exposed salient in May and June 1943 was far greater than the Germans knew.

The Axis plan was simple: to strike at the haunches of the salient from both the north and the south. The Ninth Army would strike from the north, from its positions south of Orel. Army Group South’s Fourth Panzer Army would strike from the area near Belgorod along a northern axis. Originally scheduled for 4 May, the offensive was repeatedly postponed because of rains, a desire to wait for more tanks, and the need to send reinforcements to Italy after the Axis collapse in Tunisia.

Soviet plans for Kursk were innovative. Even Stalin had learned the lessons of 1942 and accepted the fact that it was best to allow the Germans to strike first rather than to preempt them before their forces had been weakened. In that sense, the buildup around Kursk suited Soviet strategy. Having resolved to accept a defensive posture, they developed a defense in depth to meet the German attack and planned an ambitious series of follow-on offensives meant to crush the German front in the center and the north.

Tactically and operationally, the Soviet army of 1943 was vastly superior to the forces that took the field in 1941 and 1942. Moreover, the Soviets achieved their successes in 1943 and 1944 when they no longer possessed the technological superiority they had held in 1941 and 1942, when their T-34 tank was the best armored fighting vehicle on the eastern front. By 1943, the T-34 was in many ways inferior to the newer German medium tanks—the up-gunned medium Pz Kw IVs, Panthers, and heavy Tigers—and would remain so for the rest of the war. But the Soviets had developed superior tactical proficiency and ability to employ combined-arms tactics on the battlefield.

Soviet preparations to meet the expected German blitzkrieg were well thought out. The Russians arrayed their defense in layers to a depth of forty miles. They dug in troops, tanks, guns, and communication lines. Antitank guns and minefields dominated likely approaches. The Soviet high command positioned mechanized reserves to respond to crises that might develop along any axis. Even the Soviet air force prepared to challenge the Germans for local air superiority from the first day of the operation. Moreover, as the battle developed, the Soviet plan envisioned the use of reserves offensively to disrupt the Axis offensive. Gradually, these local counterattacks would expand until they became a counteroffensive that would wrest the initiative from the Germans.

In execution, the battle of Kursk followed Russian and not German expectations. In the north, the German Ninth Army made disappointing progress, suffered heavy casualties, and within four days had ground to a virtual halt. Two days later, the Soviets began assaulting the left flank of the offensive, forcing Army Group Center to shift its reserves and ending all hopes of a continued drive by the Ninth Army. The Germans made better progress in the south. Despite hard going, the Germans nearly drove through the defensive belts. But if Manstein’s troops broke in, they could not break out. In their weakened state, they had to contend with the fresh Soviet mechanized reserves. Moreover, as the mobile battle began, Allied troops landed in Sicily. Hitler now had to contend with a threat to Italy, and the necessary reserves could only come from the eastern front.

The climatic fighting centered on the town of Prokhorovka. For several July days, the SS Panzer Corps and the Soviet Fifth Tank Army traded blows in a bloody battle of attrition. But attrition was Stalin’s game. On 13 July, Hitler decided to end the offensive and shift troops to Italy. Manstein wished to keep attacking, not in the expectation of a victory, but as a means to exhaust Soviet tank reserves. Hitler agreed to allow limited offensive action for this purpose, but basically Zitadelle had ended, and the Germans had lost.

For decades after the war, many historians argued that Hitler lost a great opportunity by prematurely closing down his Kursk offensive. More recent studies using available Soviet documents suggest that Hitler was wise to bring the operation to an end. Manstein was not exhausting Soviet reserves; he was exhausting his own, just as the Soviets hoped that he would before they unleashed their own offensives. On 17 July, when the Russians went over to the offensive on Manstein’s right flank, it became apparent that there was no point in continuing the German effort.

If the Germans did make a mistake, it was to attack at all, or to attack into an area where they knew the Russians had prepared defenses. But Hitler and his generals shared the same misplaced confidence in the operational and tactical superiority of their forces. Few Germans seem to have considered it possible that the Russians could stop a German summer blitzkrieg dead in its tracks.

The ability of Stalin’s army to do just that was more than a defeat: it marked the eclipse of a tactical doctrine the Germans had thus far applied with success. The Russians had not only turned the tide of the war in the east, but they had also demonstrated that a well-prepared blitzkrieg could be defeated. As the follow-on Soviet offensives opened, the Soviets also confirmed that they had developed improved offensive tactics of their own. Soviet infantry and artillery led the assault, and only then did tank and mechanized formations exploit the holes. By mid-1943, not only the strategic, but also the operational and tactical assumptions upon which the Germans had gone to war in 1939 were no longer viable.

Strategic Necessity

The excuse for Hitler’s cancellation of Zitadelle was the Anglo-American landing in Sicily. The Allies expected Husky, as the operation was codenamed, to keep the pressure on the Germans the Mediterranean theater, to secure maritime transportation routes in the Middle Sea, to strike another blow against Mussolini’s regime on its home soil, and to secure a base for further operations against Italy proper.

Husky began on 10 July. The Italian defenders showed little fight, although the German units near the landing beaches counterattacked, unsuccessfully. By 17 August, the U.S. Seventh Army, commanded by Patton, and the Commonwealth Eighth Army, commanded by Montgomery, had cleared the island of its defenders.

On 3 September, the Italians signed a secret armistice, and that same day, elements of Montgomery’s army crossed the Strait of Messina and landed in Italy. Operation Avalanche had begun. Six days later, the Allies’ main force landed at Salerno, south of Naples. The Germans rushed troops to occupy northern and central Italy, while farther south spirited counterattacks threatened the Allies’ landing in its initial stage, although the Allies held on and the Germans retreated. Fortunately for the Axis, the weather and the rugged Italian terrain negated Allied advantages of mobility and air power. The Anglo-American offensive ground to a halt along the lines of the Garigliano and Sangro rivers.

The Allies continued to slog their way north during the fall and winter, in fighting that had more in common with the trench warfare of the Great War than with blitzkrieg. In January, the British and Americans launched an amphibious assault at Anzio, south of Rome and well behind the German front, in an effort to break the stalemate. But the Allies failed to exploit their element of surprise, and the Germans sealed off the beachhead. Farther south, the Allied offensive stalled along the Volturno River line, the key position of which was a mountain peak near Cassino that was crowned by a Bendictine monastery. By March, the British and Americans had given up on their efforts to break out and began to prepare for new offensives in the spring and summer.

The Soviet summer offensives likewise ran out of steam when the autumn rains came to the Ukraine. But the Russians made substantive progress nonetheless. After the failure of the German offensive at Kursk, the Soviets expanded their offensive operations along the entire line in the south and then into the central sector of the eastern front. The largest gains came in the Ukraine, where the Soviets reached the Dnepr River and seized several important bridgeheads. While the Soviets failed to destroy the Axis armies east of the Dnepr, they did trap the German Seventeenth Army in the Crimea.

When winter froze the ground, the Russian advance resumed along the entire front. In the north, the Soviets relieved Leningrad after an epic thousand-day siege. Assaults against the German Army Group Center gained little ground, but in the south, the Russians shattered the German lines, temporarily encircled an entire panzer army, and drove toward the Carpathians, threatening to split the Axis front. But Manstein, and the spring thaw, stabilized the front, though not before the Russians had destroyed the German Seventeenth Army.

In the spring of 1944, the Germans stood on the defensive everywhere. In Russia, Italy, and Great Britain, Allied forces prepared for their offensives. Anglo-American strategic air forces assaulted the Reich in a coordinated, round-the-clock bombing campaign (see “Strategic Bombing”). In the Atlantic, the U-Waffe (submarine force) no longer posed a threat to the Allied shipping.

The Germans’ options were few. They stood no chance to regain the initiative in the east. Italian terrain, while conducive to defensive operations, offered little prospect for an offensive. The Germans had only a single hope—one chance that might allow them to negotiate something less than the unconditional surrender the Allies had demanded at the January 1943 Casablanca Conference. Hitler expected the Allies to launch their long-awaited cross-channel invasion of France in the spring. If the Germans could destroy the landing, that victory might force the Allies to reconsider their policy, or at the minimum, delay full-scale ground operations in the west and allow Hitler to concentrate his forces against the Russians in the east.

Vietnam 1970: From Victory to Defeat? I

If American soldiers in Vietnam found little meaning from the ongoing war, Hanoi’s general secretary of the Central Committee did not share their views. True, Le Duan faced a host of challenges in mid-1970. The Sino-Soviet split had damaged Hanoi’s relationship with Beijing. Morale of the North Vietnamese population seemed to be slipping, requiring a police crackdown against any antiwar sentiment. Within the Politburo, Le Duan met with increased criticisms of his military policies. At the Central Committee’s Eighteenth Plenum, held in January, delegates pushed through a final decree pronouncing that North Vietnam “must answer enemy attacks not only with war and political activity but also with diplomacy.” In a rebuff to Le Duan’s aim of achieving a decisive battlefield victory, the declaration argued that terminating the American presence and support to the Saigon regime would come from more than just military action. The stalemated war had convinced Le Duan’s opponents that diplomacy, backed by the use of force, offered the surest path to resolving the question of Vietnamese independence.

Yet the war still mattered and thus still held meaning. Similar to Nixon’s White House, the conflict had become for Hanoi a question of balancing the demands of the political and military struggle with the wrangling of high-level diplomacy. Le Duan might have his critics, but all senior North Vietnamese leaders agreed on the ultimate aim of national sovereignty and freedom from external influence.

Of course, the American war had exacted a heavy price. Two years after its launch, the failed 1968 Tet offensive still cast a long shadow over the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and, especially, the National Liberation Front (NLF). Le Duan poured resources and manpower into the military recovery effort, prompting opponents to charge he was setting back the DRV’s own social revolution. Americans, for their part, claimed the 1970 Cambodian incursion had derailed Hanoi’s plans for a summer offensive that year. Captured documents, however, indicated that North Vietnamese leaders held no such designs. In fact, at the opening of 1971, Kissinger forwarded a report to the president highlighting “a major U.S. intelligence failure” in evaluating the value of Cambodian ports to the communist war effort. The enemy’s logistics network had proved more extensive than previously assessed, a miscalculation resulting “from deficiencies in both intelligence collection and analysis.” If the war had taken a toll on Hanoi, US analysts remained uncertain by how much.

This ambiguity resulted, in part, from the changing nature of the communist threat after more than a decade of war. While Nixon and his advisors maintained watchful eyes on an enemy buildup in Laos at the end of 1970, US leaders in South Vietnam perceived a slackening of communist influence in the countryside, most notably in the Mekong River Delta region. Military correspondent William Beecher, though, questioned whether “this gain is real or illusory,” and even optimists pointed out that the “current calm and unparalleled prosperity” did not “end the problem.” While the revolution waned in some areas of South Vietnam, NLF cadre remained committed to defeating the “American aggressors.”

Moreover, intelligence analysts still struggled to accurately assess the amount of political dissension within the local population, the damage being done by partisan bickering in Saigon, and the potential impacts of a negotiated cease-fire. Hanoi’s decision to elevate the diplomatic struggle seemed only to further complicate an already convoluted political-military struggle.

The ongoing US troop withdrawals undergirding Nixon’s Vietnamization policy added yet another element to the dizzying array of factors swaying the course of the war. Creighton Abrams, for one, doubted whether the Saigon government could compensate for the diminishing American support. Near the end of 1970, the MACV commander expressed his private concerns over the loss of “adequate intelligence support” for the South Vietnamese armed forces. More importantly, the “acceleration of [the US] redeployment,” Abrams cautioned Pacific Command’s Admiral John S. McCain Jr., “provides the enemy increased freedom of movement and enhances his capabilities and opportunities to significantly interfere with and disrupt pacification and Vietnamization programs.”

Thus, with the United States committed—for most observers, irrevocably—to a withdrawal from Indochina, a major question arose. At what point would American military and civilian leaders fully lose their leverage over the course of events inside South Vietnam? The US nation-building effort had always been a bargaining process, a compromise between the Saigon policy elite and American advisors. By late 1970, however, it appeared as if Abrams and Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker were reacting to events more than commanding them. Even the early 1971 ARVN incursion into Laos suggested an uncomfortable loss of control on the military battlefield. Furthermore, as US ground troops continued their departure from the war-torn country, the threat of coercive airpower seemed, at best, a weak substitute for the prospects of nation building.

The strategic guidance imparted by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird highlighted the inherent problems with maintaining leverage as the American withdrawal progressed. Laird emphasized four goals for MACV in 1970: successful Vietnamization, reduction of US casualties, continued troop withdrawals, and stimulation of meaningful negotiations. Logically, Vietnamization meant strengthening the ARVN, thus accelerating progress in the war effort. In reality, none of these objectives facilitated the larger aims of defeating “externally directed and supported Communist subversion and aggression.” Nor did they aid the South Vietnamese people in determining their future “without outside interference.” Moreover, the 1971 Combined Campaign Plan changed the basic role of US forces. Instead of conducting operations, they would now “support and assist” their South Vietnamese counterparts.

It seems plausible to argue, then, that by late 1970, Creighton Abrams no longer shaped the strategy of the war he was still waging in South Vietnam. His influence, both in Washington, DC, and in Saigon, was clearly waning. Increasingly over the next two years, the president and senior White House advisors would become “particularly critical” of Abrams, Nixon even complaining that the general did not “think creatively.” On two occasions, MACV’s commander nearly lost his job. Meanwhile, South Vietnam’s president sought to distance himself from the departing Americans even as he hoped to secure promises of continued aid for a struggle likely to endure after the last US troops went home.

If Abrams failed to command events on the ground in the war’s final years, he should not bear sole responsibility for the allies’ ultimate lack of success. Surely, the White House had given its principal military commander in Vietnam an unrealistic mission. As a staff study published by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1970 illustratively concluded, “The assumptions on which American policy are based are ambiguous, confusing, and contradictory.” Additionally, Abrams came to realize a hard lesson discerned by previous US military leaders in Vietnam. There quite simply were limits to what American power could achieve in a war that preceded US intervention and would continue long after foreign troops withdrew.

Thus, it seems wrong to assume that Abrams truly fought a war any better than those commanders who came before him. It is even harder to conclude that a war already won in mid-1970 would now be lost by weak politicians at home with no stomach to see the conflict through to its rightful conclusion.

An Expanding War Once More

A resurgent Congress disquieted senior military leaders just as much as, if not more so than, the president. At MACV headquarters, Creighton Abrams watched the unfolding political drama with visible unease. Back in 1968, not long after assuming command, the general had thundered to his staff that it was “really shocking how these politicos in the United States go charging around like a bull in a china shop saying what ought to be done out here politically. God Almighty!” The ongoing debates on Capitol Hill did little to soothe Abrams’s temper. While the House considered the second Cooper-Church amendment, MACV’s commander proposed expanding the war once more, this time with military action against suspected NVA anti-aircraft sites in Laos. The recommendation would prove a harbinger of the civil-military friction endemic in the final two years of the American war.

To at least some observers, the stalemated conflict had also battered, if not nearly broken, the MACV commander. At fifty-six, Abrams had been in South Vietnam for more than four years by late 1970. His health had suffered. Hospitalized three times that year, once to remove his gall bladder, the general had lost weight and a supportive Laird quietly began lobbying for Abrams to replace Westmoreland upon his retirement as the army’s chief of staff. When Frederick C. Weyand pinned on his fourth star in early November, speculation rose that MACV’s deputy commander might take over the war as early as spring.

Abrams, however, had his hands full and left such conjecturing to the press. As 1970 drew to a close, the MACV staff convened special meetings to discuss intelligence reports of a new North Vietnamese buildup in Laos. Though large-scale operations had decreased inside South Vietnam, MACV analysts noted “an increase in terrorism and small-unit harassing actions.” More troubling, however, infiltration of major NVA units appeared along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, forcing Abrams to request a delay—leaked by “Pentagon sources”—in further troop withdrawals. The leak failed to impress the secretary of defense. Upon his return from Saigon in early 1971, Laird declared, according to the New York Times, that “South Vietnamese forces were improving so rapidly that ‘additional thousands’ of American troops could be withdrawn this year.”

The apparent contradictions between MACV estimates and Laird’s optimism stemmed from the continuing inability of American analysts to accurately predict Hanoi’s next strategic move. It made sense for North Vietnamese leaders to avoid expending scarce resources with approximately 50,000 US troops departing every six months. Some Politburo members even suggested that persistent military pressure might slow down rather than hasten American withdrawal timelines. Still, Abrams’s staff watched nervously as regiments from the North Vietnamese 312th Division returned to southern Laos after an apparent six-month absence. If Hanoi leaders had decided 1971 to be a year of transition rather than military offensives, the Laotian buildup, coupled with diplomatic intransigence in Paris, persuaded Abrams and his key subordinates of the need for preemptive action.

Thus, while American warplanes continued their assault against the Ho Chi Minh Trail, MACV began advocating for a cross-border military operation into Laos. Abrams had long been promoting such ideas. Westmoreland, responding to his West Point classmate’s proposal for an assault into the Laotian panhandle back in 1965, had explained that an incursion “was not in the cards for the foreseeable future because of complex political and other considerations.” No doubt, both senior officers resented these political restrictions but Westmoreland knew his place. Moreover, Americans had been quietly operating inside Laos since the early 1960s, conducting “shallow penetration raids,” probing operations, and air strikes. By 1968, US special operations teams were working inside the “neutral” country, hoping to develop a “native intelligence net” in the southern panhandle of Laos that had become “dominated by North Vietnamese forces.”

These initial forays into Laos only whetted the appetites of military brass who believed the success of Vietnamization depended on a “preemptive defensive raid” against NVA enclaves just outside of South Vietnam’s borders. At the White House, Alexander Haig endorsed Abrams’s proposal to employ two ARVN divisions to sever enemy lines of communication inside Laos, a “potentially decisive” operation according to MACV’s chief. Abrams also worked on winning over the Joint Chiefs. Not surprisingly, the service chiefs were an amenable crowd. At the Pentagon, Haig advocated on the MACV commander’s behalf, recommending “authority to use the full range of US air support, to include tactical and strategic bombing, airlift and gunships.” Congress may have prohibited the use of ground troops outside Vietnam, but Abrams still had a deadly arsenal to which he could turn.

Thus, military leaders once more viewed an offensive outside South Vietnam’s borders as a way to bolster Vietnamization. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Thomas H. Moorer argued in late January 1971 that disruption of the NVA logistics hub at Tchepone in Laos would do more than simply increase the Lon Nol regime’s chances of survival. The admiral claimed the operation would also “drastically delay the infiltration timetable for [enemy] personnel, facilitate Vietnamization in South Vietnam, and insure our ability to continue with a rapid rate of withdrawal of U.S. forces.” Though Abrams confessed the South Vietnamese did not have the capacity to support themselves in Laos, Moorer believed US command of the air would more than compensate for the ARVN’s deficiencies. “If the enemy fights, and it is likely that he will,” the chairman declared, “U.S. air power and fire power should inflict heavy casualties which will be difficult to replace. The enemy’s lack of mobility should enable us to isolate the battlefield and insure a South Vietnamese victory.” The coming weeks would prove Moorer an unreliable soothsayer.

The decision to support a Laotian operation, however, rested on more than proving the tenability of Vietnamization. For Nixon, a military offensive could demonstrate, in dramatic fashion, his continuing control over events. By giving “the NVN a bang,” the president could advance his objective of “an enduring Vietnam, namely, one that can stand up in the future.” Moreover, the operation “provided insurance for next year when our force levels would be down.” Critics worried about “slipping into a wide-ranging air war that could last almost indefinitely,” but Nixon thought the benefits far outweighed the risks. His cabinet even pointed to the Nixon Doctrine as a justification for widening the war once more. To the Senate Armed Services Committee in early February, Secretary of Defense Laird defended the use of “sea and air resources to supplement the efforts and the armed forces of our friends and allies who are determined to resist aggression, as the Cambodians are valiantly trying to do.”

Vietnam 1970: From Victory to Defeat? II

Yet below the surface of Nixon’s Laotian decision-making lurked crucial inconsistencies. With no guarantees of battlefield victory, a setback might very well undermine the goals of highlighting Vietnamization’s progress and the president’s leverage over Hanoi. The Laos proposal also disclosed that long-held assumptions on North Vietnam being the source of communist aggression still held sway over many military planners. For years, senior MACV officers campaigned for a cross-border offensive to slash the Ho Chi Minh Trail and isolate the South Vietnamese battlefield. Cut off from its external supply bases, they claimed, the insurgency would wither on the vine. Former congressman Walter Judd agreed, writing to Ambassador Bunker just as the operation commenced that if Hanoi failed to secure its logistical lines, “then it seems fairly clear that it will simply have to call off its aggression and return its forces to North Vietnam with real hope for a good future for Southeast Asia.” Of course, the lines between northern aggression and southern revolution were never so neatly drawn.

Furthermore, MACV’s operational plans proved to be wholly transitory—hit the enemy, temporarily cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and depart. As one senior American official noted, a new incursion “should give the South Vietnamese another year’s grace.” This compared to Hanoi’s more existential objective of remaining in Laos to safeguard their bases from which they could launch future military offensives aimed at terminating the South Vietnamese regime. MACV’s logic thus entailed a crucial flaw. To prove Vietnamization’s worth, overcome the insurgency inside South Vietnam, and build political bonds between Saigon and the rural population required more than just a brief raid into Laos. Neither Abrams nor his senior staff ever articulated how an improved ARVN, one capable of a fleeting cross-border incursion, would facilitate the growth of a southern political community that voluntarily supported Thieu’s vision of the future. Secure borders might be a necessary component of building that community, but nowhere near sufficient alone for its inception and expansion.

Thus, it seems most important to place the Laotian invasion of 1971 within the context of how well the government of South Vietnam, rather than the ARVN, was progressing. Some high-ranking officials did express concerns that the South Vietnamese armed forces needed additional time to mature. Army Chief of Staff Westmoreland shared with Kissinger his support for an alternative plan in which the ARVN conducted smaller raids rather than a frontal assault into Laos. Admiral Moorer, though, affirmed the plan would proceed “exactly like Gen Abrams wants to do it and no other way.” In April, after critics roundly denounced the miscarried operation, Kissinger quietly called Westmoreland to express his regret for not following the army chief of staff’s advice.

These discussions about the size of ARVN’s planned raid concentrated more on the American withdrawal than on South Vietnamese political loyalties. Abrams called the Laos campaign “critical” to the US pullout, while Nixon publicly claimed its purpose to “save American lives, to guarantee the continued withdrawal of our own forces, and to increase the ability of the South Vietnamese to defend themselves without our help.” In March, Kissinger told the president that “we’ve got to get enough time to get out” and ensure that North Vietnam did not “knock the whole place over.” Even South Vietnamese generals, citing high morale after the prior year’s Cambodian campaign, tended to think of a Laotian incursion in narrow terms of border security and cutting Hanoi’s supply routes. Without question, these were important objectives. But such failures in linking military operations to political progress would haunt MACV planners for the remainder of their war in Vietnam.

In the end, Nixon and Kissinger settled for a narrow military offensive to accomplish three primary objectives: to demonstrate the headway being made in Vietnamization, to limit domestic blowback against a widened war, and to buy time for the GVN. Behind closed doors, the president had already determined that US troop withdrawals would continue regardless of the ARVN’s performance in Laos. In truth, then, the White House, not MACV headquarters, was now fully directing strategy inside South Vietnam. This civilian domination of military affairs certainly rankled professional officers who deemed Nixon’s inner circle as far overstepping their bounds. As one senior US Army general recalled, the military assessments of Kissinger’s NSC staff, in particular those of Alexander Haig, “were given more weight that the judgments of General Abrams, other responsible commanders in the field, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

Of course, MACV still had a role to play. Abrams’s planners rushed to conceive an operation that provided logistical and air support to the ARVN while achieving “maximum feasible disruption of the enemy timetable and destruction of stockpiles.” As with the Cambodian operation, though, top secret planning once more excluded the South Vietnamese until the last moment. And astoundingly, despite American officers’ long-standing desire to expand the war into Laos, no detailed contingency plans had been developed by Abrams’s planning staff. The first weeks of December 1970 thus became a flurry of activity inside MACV headquarters. On the 13th, Haig arrived in Saigon and, accompanied by Abrams and Ambassador Bunker, met with President Thieu and Chairman of the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff Cao Van Vien to present the outlines of what would soon be code-named Operation Lam Son 719.

The primary objective of MACV’s four-phased plan aimed to “cut and disrupt” the Ho Chi Minh Trail system in Laos. American forces would first secure lines of communication along the South Vietnamese-Laotian border while establishing logistical and fire support bases. Next, the ARVN 1st Division would attack into Tchepone, establish a base there, and in the third stage commence probes to cut the enemy’s supply routes. The final phase, “dependent on developments,” foresaw an optional attack southwest from Tchepone to clear out enemy base areas and supply caches. A recently passed Cooper-Church Amendment forbade American ground troops from accompanying the ARVN outside of South Vietnam’s borders. The South Vietnamese consequently would be on their own, save US air and artillery support, throughout much of the operation.

Even before Lam Son 719 kicked off, however, signs appeared that trouble lay ahead. In late January 1971, MACV intelligence reported that the North Vietnamese army had been alerted to the impending offensive. CIA estimates that same week anticipated “that if the ARVN operation is marginally effective, it will encourage the Communists to continue their present course.” Senior US officials, with the benefit of hindsight, put into question why Lam Son 719 went forward in the first place. General Bruce Palmer Jr. recalled that “in cold objectivity, it did look very much like sending a boy to do a man’s job in an extremely hostile environment.” Kissinger, for his part, believed the operation “was a splendid project on paper. Its chief drawback, as events showed, was that it in no way accorded with Vietnamese realities.”

Despite the warning signs, Lam Son 719 proceeded as planned. On 30 January, US mechanized infantry units moved to secure the Khe Sanh area in preparation for the ARVN assault on 8 February. The shift of American forces into Quang Tri province, however, alerted the North Vietnamese, who quickly reinforced Tchepone. Already in these early stages, Abrams seemed off balance. Two days before the ARVN crossed into Laos, the general lamented that Washington officials did not understand that the outcome would be totally in his subordinates’ hands. “There isn’t anything I can tell them, or anybody else.” The NVA leadership, in comparison, apparently had no such management problems in reacting to the allied incursion. As MACV reported, “Communist resistance stiffened as ARVN forces penetrated deeper into Laos. Tanks often fought tanks, and hand-to-hand combat ensued. Communist AA [anti-aircraft] fire took its toll of helicopters and TACAIR. The enemy often organized coordinated counter-attacks, and in one instance completely overran an RVN support base.”

By mid-February, the shaky wheels of the Lam Son operation started to come loose. Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam, commanding the South Vietnamese armed forces in Laos, had never led such a large-scale campaign. Throughout, he seemed incapable of managing the complexities of a major offensive in bad weather, the petty rivalries of his subordinate commanders, and the agile response from the defending communists. Worse, as Lam’s forces clawed their way toward Tchepone, they presented “an excellent target for NVA gunners and ‘human assault waves.’ ” Despite encouraging reports from Abrams—ARVN performance was “very good and professional”—the White House worried Lam Son had bogged down in just under three weeks of fighting. To Admiral Moorer, Kissinger divulged that “I do not understand what Abrams is doing.” Worse, the national security advisor failed to glimpse “anything aggressive” along Highway 9 on the route toward Tchepone. Lam Son 719 looked to be floundering.

News from the front only worsened when the White House discovered that President Thieu had decided to abandon the operation and withdraw his forces from Laos earlier than expected. If highlighting ARVN fighting abilities interested Nixon most, the premature extraction of South Vietnamese troops threatened to publicly expose the deficiencies still attenuating Vietnamization. Thieu, though, saw little political gain by remaining in Laos as NVA reinforcements poured onto the scene. Abrams might view Lam Son 719 as “maybe the only decisive battle of the war,” but South Vietnam’s president thought otherwise. The withdrawal decision threw White House leaders into a fit of rage. Kissinger shot off a message to Ambassador Bunker on 9 March, fuming that they had “not gone through all this agony just for the favorable headlines.” Two days later, at a White House briefing, the national security advisor castigated the South Vietnamese as “sons of bitches” for “bugging out.”

The president’s fury, however, soon turned on Abrams. As February drew to a close, Kissinger, already questioning whether MACV’s commander understood the true objective of Lam Son 719, shared Nixon’s dissatisfaction over the operation’s progress with Ambassador Bunker. Reports that Abrams had failed to leave his headquarters during the campaign only heightened White House concerns. Frustrated, in Kissinger’s words, by being “constantly outstripped by events,” an enraged Nixon considered sending Haig to Saigon to replace the now embattled MACV commander. Cooler heads—and Melvin Laird’s faithful support of Abrams—prevailed. Nixon postponed a Haig-led fact-finding mission until mid-March. The damage to Abrams’s reputation, however, had been done. H. R. Haldeman recorded on 23 March that both the president and Kissinger felt “they were misled by Abrams on the original evaluation of what might be accomplished” and “concluded they should pull Abrams out.” With military operations in Laos winding down though, Nixon demurred, arguing it would not make much difference anyway.

But the incursion had made a difference. Lam Son 719 shattered Nixon and Kissinger’s faith in Creighton Abrams. In early June, Kissinger admitted to the president that he “wouldn’t believe a word Abrams says anymore.” Nixon concurred. “You’ve got to go to the local commanders from now on.” Then in September, after Abrams reportedly leaked to the press his reservations about the timetable for withdrawal of US troops, an infuriated Nixon once more considered “withdrawing the son-of-a-bitch.” Kissinger agreed that Abrams was “no longer on top of this,” prompting Nixon to insist on a deputy commander who would keep the senior general “from drinking too much and talking too much.” The exchange over Abrams’s alcohol problems would not be the last. Nor would the Laotian campaign be the low point of American civil-military relations in these final years.

For the time being, Abrams’s near relief remained private, but Nixon now had to confront the public assessments of Lam Son 719. Even before the ARVN’s early departure from Laos, Nixon proclaimed success, arguing the offensive had “very seriously damaged” the communists’ fighting capacity and that the US troop withdrawal schedule would “go forward at least at the present rate.” Abrams, even if out of favor at the White House, loyally supported his president’s case to the press. At a 21 March press background briefing, the general predicted the ARVN would “come out of this with higher confidence.” Though some weaker units withdrew in the face of enemy pressure, the majority “performed well and did not retreat.” Most importantly, Abrams argued, “Lam Son 719 has succeeded in disrupting vital portions of the enemy’s logistical system, capturing or destroying significant quantities of supplies and inflicting considerable damage on enemy units within the area of operation.” By such accounts, the campaign looked to be the most decisive military engagement since Tet.

Yet akin to the 1970 Cambodian incursion, assessments of Lam Son 719 varied widely. MACV reported the enemy lost some 13,000 dead, but the ARVN had equally suffered, losing 8,000 casualties—approximately 45 percent of the total forces earmarked for the campaign. In addition, the enemy downed more than 100 US helicopters supporting ARVN ground troops. Nor did Hanoi’s supply problems seem all that grave. According to Haig, by 7 April, “American pilots reported that NVA truck traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail appeared to be back to normal.” One week later, Lieutenant General Michael S. Davison, the II Field Force commander, reported to Abrams that in Military Region 3 “the enemy continues to sustain himself without major reliance on external sources of supply.” Kissinger hoped the disruption of the Ho Chi Minh Trail would aggravate Hanoi’s supply shortages and limit enemy options in 1972, but evaluations of the North Vietnamese resupply system being “severely hurt” appeared optimistic given the temporary nature of the Laos raid.

Such nuances tended to get lost in White House declarations of success. Still, talking points on enemy kill ratios, numbers of trucks destroyed, or individual weapons captured only persuaded so much. By late March and early April, journalists were writing of a new “credibility gap” and of an “ignominious and disorderly retreat” from Laos. According to the New York Times, Hanoi “won at least a propaganda victory” by blunting the South Vietnamese offensive. Privately, Nixon grudgingly acquiesced to these views even as he lashed out against the press. On 21 April, the president told Kissinger that the war was presenting “a very serious problem. You see, the war has eroded America’s confidence up to this point.” Though he still believed that abandoning “our friends . . . would abandon ourselves,” the president rearticulated the end-state of his Southeast Asian policy. As he imparted to Kissinger on the 23rd, “Winning the war simply means . . . letting South Vietnam survive. That’s all.”

Six days later, the US 1st Cavalry Division, having served for more than five and half years in South Vietnam, wrapped up its guidons and headed home to Fort Hood, Texas. One officer, packing up the division’s last items of gear, worried about getting mortared during the departure ceremonies. “We got hit a few days ago,” he quipped, “and we thought they just might be zeroed in on our parade ground out there. That would have spoiled the party.”