The German offensive in the Ardennes during Christmas and New Year 1944-5 is often regarded as the last gesture of a failing regime whose overall outcome was never in doubt. The defence of Bastogne has become part of the folklore of the US airborne forces and the savagery of the fighting, in particular the brutal treatment of prisoners and Belgian civilians is often the focus of interest. Given the inevitability of Allied success (perceived more in hindsight than at the time) the campaign is often regarded as one last futile act of violence by an inhuman regime.
- Antony Beevor
This excellent book takes a more traditional approach, describing who did what, how, where and when. As a historian and ex-soldier Beevor can skip from headquarters to fox hole producing a compelling and comprehensible tale.
It opens with the Allies advancing through the Belgian Hurtgen Forest to the German border. The fighting was brutal and the units involved from the US 1st Army were badly mauled. They were replaced and sent south to a quieter sector. The units that had excelled at D-Day and thereafter were tired. Replacements were inadequately trained and the enormous logistic efforts required were exacerbated by pilfering and a thriving black market. Paris had become known as Chicago on Seine and half of the US Army’s jerry cans had been stolen and sold. Commanders at higher level were tired, in the case of the 1st Army’s Hodge exhausted. Political pressures to maintain allied unity were exacerbated by de Gaulle and particularly the insensitive Montgomery.
Meanwhile Hitler had determined to attack in the West, hoping to split the Americans and the British. As Hitler was barely rational by this time there is little to be gained from seeking to analyse his motives, so Beevor does not bother. In late October Hitler decided to order a re-run of the successful 1940 attack on France by moving a large armoured force 50 kilometres through the Ardennes, over the Meuse and into the plains of Western France. While this had much to commend it, particularly the cover from air attack provided by the forest, there were problems, most obviously the weather and the fact that (unlike in 1940) the Ardennes were held by the enemy –specifically the tired units from the Hurtgen Forest.
However, once the order was given the Wehrmacht got on with it. Incredibly they managed to move two Panzer Armies to their start lines without the Allies having an inkling. Their key problem was fuel as the Allied strategic bombing had massively reduced the rail network’s capacity. Notwithstanding this, they got enough to start and planned on using captured stocks. The attack launched on 16th December achieving tactical and strategic surprise.
It started to unravel at once. They key to success was to get through the Ardennes quickly collecting fuel, bouncing crossings on the Meuse. Unfortunately for the Germans they failed to rout Americans, who fought from where they stood, typically in company sized groups lacking coordination. But they imposed delay, albeit at terrible cost to themselves. From that moment on the Germans were in trouble.
So were the Americans, whose higher commanders were found lacking. Their soldiers were no equipped for fighting in snow and -25C. Their logistic supply was weak, (although they managed to evacuate most of their fuel dumps) and the bad weather prevented them from deploying close air support. Their discipline was failing, and Beevor pulls no punches in revealing the Allied short-comings. But once the Germans were delayed the writing was on the wall for all except Hitler to see. They got to within five kilometres of the Meuse. While the defence of Bastogne was significant, it was the actions of the tired 99th and 106th US Infantry Divisions that dealt the German attack its fatal blow.
This is a simply superb account of the battle. Its insights and balance are matched by great clarity and readability, as one would expect from an author of Beevor’s calibre.