From the bestselling author of Stalingrad, a brilliant account of Hitler’s ill-fated Ardennes offensive of 1944.
GERMANY’S surprise attack against the allies through the Ardennes region of Belgium in December 1944 was described by one of its commanders as “the last gasp of the collapsing Wehrmacht”. Throwing 300,000 troops, plus 900 precious tanks and assault guns into the mountainous, forested area during the icy grip of winter seems like such a monumental waste of life, that you have to wonder: what on earth were the Germans thinking?
So futile was the “Battle of the Bulge”, particularly compared with the vast conflicts taking place on the eastern front, that many have been tempted to relegate it to the margin of history. But there is a broader relevance about what happened in this brief campaign, especially now, with Vladimir Putin insisting that all the key battles were fought by the Red Army.
When, in September 1944, Hitler called for an offensive that would strike westwards to Antwerp, hitting the American and British armies at their seam and breaking apart their political common will, he astonished his staff. As planning proceeded, with generals sworn to secrecy on pain of death, his commanders failed to steer him away from a vision that promised to fling precious remnants of the German military against Allied armies that boasted huge materiel superiority. Emerging grim-faced from meetings, they consoled each other that the whole grand design was another of Hitler’s “map fantasies”, as Antony Beevor describes it.
Belief in success seems to have been limited to SS fanatics and those deluded by Nazi propaganda. “Fighting until the last moment gives a people the moral strength to rise again,” one SS boss wrote shortly before the offensive began. “A people that throws in the sponge is finished for all time.”
Once the assault was unleashed on December 16, the hills, forests and narrow tracks of the Ardennes quickly channelled the battle into a nasty close-range killing match, one that would claim about 80,000 casualties on each side before Germany’s temporary gains had been reversed. In this unforgiving country, precious panzers became trapped in traffic jams and fuel started to run low. Battalions hundreds-strong would disappear in a few hours, “like a drop of water on a hot stove”.
Beevor weaves a brilliant narrative out of all this drama. As in his previous books, his gifts are strongest in focusing on telling detail from different perspectives.
A cold war: American Sherman tanks in the Ardennes, 1944 (Galerie Bilderwelt)
When Hitler’s hammer fell, many American units were taken completely by surprise. Some fled; others, in places such as St Vith or Bastogne, fought heroically, derailing the entire German timetable. It was the Americans who bore the brunt of the attack, and it is the experiences of these GIs, Doughboys, Dogfaces — call them what you will — in the face of mortal adversity that is the central thread of Beevor’s book.
There was the American firing squad, for instance, about to execute German commandos caught in US uniform, who, before carrying out the sentence, let the condemned men hear Christmas carols sung by German nurses interned nearby. Or the American military police nervously manning a roadblock, on the lookout for enemy infiltrators, who realised that an unusual officer they had stopped was David Niven, and couldn’t resist some Hollywood banter. One GI, on leave in Paris, was so keen to make the most of his time that he picked up VD after having sex with seven prostitutes in eight hours.
If every allied soldier had fought with the same energy as that one American, the Germans would have been stopped in their tracks. Instead, the US 106th Division was overrun early in the battle and wiped out; more than 8,000 men surrendered, the biggest loss of this kind outside the Pacific.
Where they were well-led, though, these GIs inflicted stunning reverses on their enemy. One reconnaissance platoon, for example, cut down 400 German paratroopers for the loss of one man. Beevor’s main analytical point is that, even with the advantage of strategic surprise and a great deal of combat experience, the Germans “did not achieve the universal panic and collapse expected”. They underestimated the Americans.
As the battle continued, and as desperate attackers realised that reality was parting company from heroic fantasy, their behaviour degenerated. Allied prisoners and Belgian villagers were murdered. And for all their preening self-regard, several SS formations got bogged down, and it was two regular panzer divisions that pushed the “bulge” furthest, around 90km.
And once the tide had turned, American soldiers proved just as ruthless as the Germans, with many hellbent on revenge. In one incident, on January 1, 60 German prisoners were murdered by US soldiers. General George Patton, commander of the Third Army, wrote: “There were some unfortunate incidents…I hope we can conceal this.”
Beevor, I think, skates a little too lightly over these war crimes. Though he censures US officers for loss of control, we needed more on this systematic breakdown of order, which was accompanied by nods and winks from those in command.
Like much Second World War history, the Battle of the Bulge is bedevilled by tedious nationalistic narratives and counter-narratives; about fights between allied generals, or questions about whether it was a sideshow compared with what the Red Army was doing. Beevor steers deftly around these and, given the importance of his 1999 history, Stalingrad, can hardly be accused of downplaying the Soviet role.
Instead, he gives us a vital historical insight. For while the Ardennes offensive might have been futile, it was not pointless. Putin may belittle the American role in defeating Hitler, but the verdict of two of the Führer’s most senior generals still stands. Questioned after the war, they described with great clarity the strategic consequence of Hitler’s plan. By diverting two panzer armies to the Belgian border, away from the eastern front, he “paved the way”, they made clear, for the Red Army’s final offensive into Germany.
Viking £25/ebook £25 pp480
Mark Urban’s latest book is The Edge
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