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Hitler's Last Offensive by Peter Elstob

Peter Elstob
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
Last year I gave notice to stop doing book reviews. I did not have the time (having since taken an offer I could not refuse, I now have all the time in the world). I stayed on the Reviewers list, just in case, and glad I am that I did.

The publisher's information tells me the book was first published in Great Britain in 1971. It's safe to say then, that the last time I read this book, it was a first edition. It left such a mark on me that I took it with me around my postings. Until I lent it to a scouse REME VM Corporal who promptly got posted. I haven't forgiven or forgotten you, Eddie B.

I saw this book on the list and grudgingly agreed to a review in December. The book may well have been reprinted for the 70th anniversary of the so-called Battle of the Bulge, but coupled with my then lack of time and the fact that I received it mere days before that anniversary, this review was never going to be ready in time. Humble apologies.

As I've said, the book was first published in the UK in 1971, barely a quarter century on from the battle (and nearly three times closer to the event than we are now. Where did the years go?). The author had been a sergeant tank commander in 3RTR, part of 29 Armoured Brigade, sent as a fire-fighting party by Montgomery to ensure that Army Group B could not break out toward Antwerp before First US Army could restabilise the front. His tank was a trip wire.
Orders were that if the Germans appeared in strength the bridge at Dinant would be blown and the tanks on the wrong side of the river would hold up the advance as long as possible placed in such a position as to form a roadblock when they were knocked out. None was to come back.
I think this proves the author's credentials.

For those who don't know the story. The Allies were in amongst the German West Wall. As soon as the weather turned, they'd start their Spring Offensive and the war would be lost.

Hitler managed secretly to cobble up an entire army group of three armies unbeknownst to the Allies. Believing that Hitler was beaten and that anyway, no offensive could be made through the Ardennes, the Americans sent their green and their beaten-up, war weary troops there for battle indoctrination and R&R respectively.

Hitler posited that his troops could smash through the American lines and along the Allied Army Group divide to the recently reopened port of Antwerp and force the logistic point of entry back to the Normandy beachhead.

Elstob must have spent many of the years between battle and publication reading up, interviewing and walking the battlefields. He points out that most histories of the Ardennes Offensive skip over the first three days, simply because the Americans were overwhelmed and record-keeping was poor. He, on the other hand, puts an incredible amount of effort into describing these times, because they have an immense bearing on events. In particular, that by the time the siege of Bastogne commenced, German field commanders already knew that any hope they had of even reaching the Meuse was gone, never mind reach the ultimate goal of Antwerp, because of the time and manpower lost during that time.

Despite being an battle between army groups, Elstob describes in detail many actions often down to company level, because many such encounters had bearing on the outcome. It is possible to follow the infamous Kampfgruppe Peiper from their start line, through Malmedy (explaining as he goes what really happened at the crossroads) into the Ambleve valley where bridge after bridge was denied and his panzers ran out of fuel.

The book lays bare some uncomfortable truths about Hitler's supposedly elite forces in the last months of the war, 12 SS Panzer Division, Hitler Jugend, in particular failing utterly in their role.

Elstob concludes with a chapter fittingly entitled A Summing Up.
  • What could Hitler do?
  • What should Hitler do?
  • What if he hadn't launched this offensive?
This last is of particular interest to Cold War Warriors. Had he shored up the eastern instead of the western front, could he have ended the war with the Russians 100 miles further east? But I shan't dwell on this summing up. Elstob has done a good job.

I loved this book when I first read it four and a half decades ago. I still love this book, and I am overjoyed to have a copy again.

I do have some criticisms though. The book runs to some 400 pages in the modern paperback style, being as big as a hardback. My first edition paperback, in the old, smaller format, ran as I recall to some 700 pages. There is a prodigious amount of bang for your buck (if you'll pardon the pun) even at £16.99 for the paperback. That's a lot of reading and an awful lot of fingers in pages as the scene moves from one front to another and back as time moves on. Three German armies, one US army plus reinforcements: that's a lot of units to keep track of alone.

There are maps. These are probably my biggest disappointment. They were adequate in the first edition: it seems to me that they were simply blown up to fill the bigger pages of this. Which laid bare their inadequacy. The table of contents tells me there are five maps (not including, my checking suggests, the situation maps on 15 December and 24 December at the start of the book):
  • German Attacks in the North
  • German Attacks in the South
  • German Attacks in the Centre
  • The Furthest Advance
  • The Defence of Bastogne
There is so much information that they are difficult to read. Had the maps been reworked, the larger page size could have been a distinct advantage, but all we see is place and unit names written large. Worse, the place names that appear on the maps don't particularly tie in with the names of the places where the battles were fought, so that you stop reading with finger holding page to consult a map, then you scour the map and don't find the place you seek mentioned.

I did once previously sit and read an official history with Google Maps open in on a computer. I commend this method to anyone who reads this history.

However, in case you missed the underlying theme of this review, it's a great history of the Ardennes Offensive and I was barely dissuaded from giving it five Mushroomheads.

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