As 1944 drew to a close, many American and British leaders believed that the German army was on its last legs. But that easy assumption was shattered in mid-December when the German army launched a massive surprise attack in the lightly defended Ardennes Forest. Adolph Hitler believed that a strong, successful attack would allow his troops to recapture Antwerp, weaken the Allied resolve, and lead to a negotiated peace.
The American press labeled it the “Battle of the Bulge” because the attack caused a distinct protrusion in the Allied lines. But those lines never broke. It was, in essence, a desperate gamble by the Germans that they lost.
British historian Antony Beevor examines this critical engagement in Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge. As with his other books on the major campaigns in Europe during World War II, he deftly moves from the fox hole to the command post and provides candid portraits of the leading figures on both sides, frank judgments about strategy and tactics, and a brutally honest picture of the horrors of combat.
The German attack caught the Allies flat-footed. Beevor writes: “There were indeed many fragmented pieces of information which taken together should have indicated German intentions, but as in almost all intelligence failures, senior officers discarded anything which did not match their own assumptions.”
Yet despite having achieved complete surprise, the German advance soon flagged.
The key factor was that the often green and inexperienced American troops fought bravely and delayed the German advance. Most readers with a casual knowledge of World War II will be familiar with the intense fighting around Bastogne where Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe simply replied “Nuts” to a German demand that he surrender or be wiped out. That stubborn refusal to buckle characterized American efforts across the board both at places that are well known to military historians – like Bastogne and the Elsenborn Ridge – and at dozens of nameless crossroads and small hamlets that dot the Ardennes. Heroism was commonplace – 32 Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded after the fighting ended, most of them posthumously.
Historians have long agreed that the inclement winter weather favored the attackers because it kept the Allied air forces grounded. But Beevor makes clear that the weather delayed the German advance: the terrain was alternatively frozen – which meant that German vehicles often slid off the roads – or muddy, and therefore nearly impassable.
Beevor is highly critical of the Allied military leadership. British General Bernard Montgomery is portrayed as an ego-maniac and the author even speculates that he “suffered from what today would be called high-functioning Asperger syndrome.” Lt. General Courtney Hodges who was responsible for the section of the Allied lines where the Germans attacked apparently suffered a nervous breakdown during the fighting. General Omar Bradley is alternately embittered, angry, and jealous. Only Eisenhower and George Patton (as egotistical as ever) are presented in a remotely favorable light.
Readers may be taken aback at the atrocities committed by both sides. It is widely known that the Germans machine-gunned 84 American soldiers who had surrendered at Malmédy. Less well known is that when word of this reached the American lines, they too decided to shoot Germans who surrendered, especially if they were members of the Waffen SS. American military leaders appeared to welcome the decision. This is war at its most gruesome and horrific.
Even readers well-versed on the war in Europe will welcome this book. It is exhaustively researched and full of fresh insights and thoughtful explanations. Those who want to understand how the attack unfolded and why it failed will not find a more valuable addition to the literature on World War II.
But this is a detailed military history and readers should be prepared for exhaustive descriptions of troop movements. (For example: “The 2nd Battalion of the 393rd Infantry had been attached to the 2nd Division, which had just started a new V Corps advance north towards the Roer dams near Schmidt.”) The book contains a number of excellent maps, but not all of the places and engagements cited are shown. It’s easy to get bogged down in the minutia.
From the start, Hitler’s plans were opposed by his generals who knew that their armies lacked the troops, equipment and supplies to drive all the way to Antwerp. They hoped, realistically, to push the Allies back to the Meuse River in France. They got close. But stiff Allied resistance coupled with the Wehrmacht’s inability to resupply their troops, devastating Allied artillery support, and the improved weather that allowed Allied airplanes to take to the skies turned the tide and the advance ground to a halt. Within a couple of months, the Allies had pushed the Germans back to the original lines and readied themselves for the final push into Germany.
Beevor, like all of today’s military historians, is sensitive to the relationship between the fighting on the Eastern and Western fronts and he makes a telling observation. As the advance slowed in the West, German military leaders pleaded with Hitler to let them redeploy troops to Poland to blunt the expected Soviet attack. Hitler refused.
“There can be little doubt,” concludes Beevor, “that the commitment and then the grinding down of German forces in the Ardennes, especially the Panzer divisions, had mortally weakened the Wehrmact’s capacity to defend the Eastern front.” So the ultimate impact of the largest battle fought in Western Europe during World War II may well have been to help ease the way for the Soviet armies to occupy Berlin.