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Posted on May 29, 2006 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Ike: World War II’s Indispensable General, Part 5

By Carlo D'Este

From Triumph to Controversy: The Bridge Too Far & the Bridge Not Far Enough.

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The dramatically successful end of the Normandy campaign at the end of August 1944 signaled a new phase of the war in Europe that appeared to be a case of two adversaries heading in opposite directions.

When the Normandy campaign ended, SHAEF had become a military Goliath consisting of over two million men. By early September, as the armies of Bradley and Montgomery swept eastward hot on the heels of the remnants of Army Group B, and Jacob Devers’s Sixth Army Group advanced up the Rhone Valley, all signs pointed to an early victory, perhaps by the end of 1944. Monty’s 21st Army Group crossed into Belgium on September 2 and liberated Brussels two days later, while the U.S. First and Third Armies were moving with sometimes dizzying speed to the east. In the three week period between August 18 and September 11 the Allies had captured most of northern and southeastern France, the greater part of Belgium and Luxembourg and were poised to enter Holland. Patton’s Third Army had captured Verdun and advanced to within eighty miles of the German border and the Saar.

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The stunning German defeat in Normandy may have been the most visible sign of how favorably the war had turned in favor of the Allies, but it was by no means Hitler’s only problem. German losses were staggering and winning the war seemingly hopeless: 900,000 on the Eastern front and, in the West, as many as another 300,000-450,000 (no one knows the exact number) killed, wounded or missing in three months of fighting. Hitler’s recent biographer, Ian Kershaw, points out that, “Between June and September . . . losses of tanks, guns, planes, and other armaments were incalculable ….

The war at sea had also by this time been definitively lost by Germany.” [1] To anyone but the intransigent Adolf Hitler, Germany’s days were plainly numbered. With the Luftwaffe all but finished as a fighting force, the Nazi empire shrinking daily, the German commanders who had to conduct the actual fighting viewed continuation of the war as pointless. Rommel, von Rundstedt, von Kluge and, before long, even Field Marshal Walter Model, that most ardent of Nazis and a staunch defender of Hitler, would accept that the war had been lost. Rommel had been gravely wounded in July and, in any event, he would soon die by his own hand; von Rundstedt had been relieved as OB West and replaced by Model, and some of Hitler’s ablest commanders were either dead or captured. When Model insisted twenty-five infantry and six panzer divisions were required to hold in the West, Hitler replaced him and brought back (barely three weeks after relieving him) von Rundstedt as the latest of the revolving door commanders.

On the face of it, the Allies were clearly in the driver’s seat. At the end of August 1944 an unhealthy aura of over-optimism and self-deception swept through the ranks of the Allied high command. The crushing triumph in Normandy followed by Allied gains of as much as fifty miles a day north of the Seine created the illusion that the war was virtually over except for the final mopping up. The so-called “victory disease” swept unchecked through SHAEF leaving in its wake myopically preconceived perceptions that failed to take into account the earlier lessons of the war. The euphoria was magnified by reports of spectacular advances by the Red Army in the Ukraine and in Poland and East Prussia. To be anything but an optimist at this juncture was to risk admonishment.

How could it not be so with the German army in complete disarray and the Allies gobbling up territory at such a rate? Their quality and inexperience notwithstanding, what was overlooked was the fact that there still remained some 3.4 million troops in the German army, of which well over a million were to be committed to the western front and the defense of the Reich. Yet, even these numbers are misleading: in early September 1944 the Allies could easily have penetrated the borders of Germany. What prevented them was that the Allies had long since outstripped their lines of supply.

A rosy intelligence estimate issued by SHAEF in late August proclaimed that “the enemy in the West has had it . . . the end of the war in Europe is within sight, almost within reach.” A week later SHAEF declared that the German army in the west was “no longer a cohesive force but a number of fugitive battle groups, disorganized and even demoralized.” [2] The high level Joint Intelligence Committee in Whitehall loftily declared that, “organized resistance under the control of the German High Command in unlikely to continue beyond 1 December 1944, and . . . it may end even sooner.”

It was in this atmosphere of euphoria that in September 1944 the Allies planned a massive airborne operation in Holland to gain a bridgehead over the greatest obstacle to an advance on the Ruhr, the mighty Rhine River. By outflanking the heavily defended German West Wall, the Allies would have had an unimpeded clear shot into the Ruhr. Moreover, once across the Rhine, Montgomery was convinced that Eisenhower would be obliged to give logistical priority to his single-thrust concept. Breaching the Rhine had important psychological implications as well. An Allied advance into the heart of the Reich in 1944 would have sent a clear signal that for Germany to continue the war would be futile.

On September 10, Eisenhower had given Montgomery a green light to mount a major airborne operation in Holland. Speed was urgent before the Germans could react and on that basis it was quickly approved for the following Sunday, September 17. The operation was to be carried out by the newly created First Allied Airborne Army (FAAA), commanded by Lieutenant General Lewis Brereton, a hedonistic, high-living air commander. How many times have we seen unwanted or ineffective commanders protected by a high-ranking mentor shuffled into new jobs? As a protégé of Hap Arnold, Lewis Brereton’s career was repeatedly protected and his qualifications debatable for this important command.

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