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Posted on Jun 30, 2006 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Ike: World War II’s Indispensable General, Part 6

By Carlo D'Este

However, Hitler’s senior commanders responsible for carrying out his orders had severe misgivings. When they first heard of the plan in late October 1944, both the reinstated Commander-in-Chief West, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, and the commander of German ground forces (Army Group B), Field Marshal Walther Model, opposed Hitler’s Ardennes counter-offensive. Model, who had earned the Führer’s trust, was typically blunt: “This plan hasn’t got a damned leg to stand on,” he said. Both commanders believed that to seize Antwerp was a hopelessly unrealistic goal and attempted to persuade Hitler to scale down its scope. Their advice was ignored, even though Hitler himself understood the extent of his gamble. The alternative was worse: the certain loss of the war and the destruction of Germany in a rear-guard action against the powerful vise of the Russian and Allied armies.


Nevertheless, in early December both Model and his two panzer army commanders, Waffen SS General Josef “Sepp” Dietrich and General der Panzertruppen Hasso von Manteuffel, spoke forcefully at a conference with Hitler, urging that the plan be reconsidered. Hitler once again adamantly refused, and under the cover of the bitter winter weather, more than 1,400 tanks, 2,000 guns and twenty divisions were quietly moved forward into the thick forests of the Schnee Eifel on the eastern fringes of the Ardennes to await the signal to attack.

At SHAEF, Saturday, December 16, 1944, began on a promising note for Eisenhower. He was presented the Polish Medal of Honor at a ceremony and learned that Roosevelt had nominated him for the exalted five-star rank of general of the army. Noted Butcher in his diary, “The man who always cautioned his family not to expect him to be promoted has risen from lieutenant colonel to five-star general in three years, three months, and sixteen days.” Eisenhower seemed elated, “God, I just want to see the first time I sign my name as General of the Army,” he said when congratulated by Bradley’ aide, Chet Hansen.

Bradley arrived later that afternoon to discuss the growing replacement crisis and briefly joined Eisenhower at the reception. The two generals then attended an early evening meeting in the SHAEF war room with Bedell Smith, Spaatz, Tedder and Kenneth Strong, the SHAEF G-2. The meeting had barely begun when Strong was summoned by his deputy, Brigadier General Tom Betts, who appeared at the door, his usual calm demeanor visibly missing. When Strong returned it was to reveal that fragmentary reports revealed a series of powerful German attacks had commenced in the eastern Ardennes at dawn that morning against the weakest link in the Allied front, a thinly dispersed cavalry group and the newly arrived, unblooded 106th Division which had been put there by Bradley primarily to keep them out of harm’s way. Although what SHAEF knew at this point was sketchy, Strong suggested that the attack more than likely posed a serious threat to First Army.

German troops advancing into the Bulge

The German buildup in the sparsely populated Schnee Eifel had, with the exception of the Third Army’s Koch, deceived intelligence officers up and down the Allied chain of command. Despite a steady influx of timely information from Ultra and other reliable sources, the German attack in the Ardennes revealed serious lapses in Allied intelligence whose G-2s had, at the very least, been provided sufficient evidence of the German build-up to discern that something major was afoot in the Ardennes. In mid-November SHAEF had concluded that the Germans were preparing to defend against an offensive which they believed the Allies would launch around Aachen, aimed at Cologne and the Ruhr. That judgment never varied despite fresh evidence of a German buildup to the south. Lulled by deception measures worthy of Fortitude, the Allies, from Eisenhower on down, were convinced that German intentions were purely defensive. The Allies seemed wedded to the belief that it was von Rundstedt who was making the military decisions in the west in December 1944, and failing to grasp that they were not “the rational, ‘traditional’ decisions of von Rundstedt but. . . those of Hitler. The Allied High Command,” wrote French historian Jacques Nobécourt, “was indulging in wishful thinking.”

Eisenhower was ill-served by Strong and his intelligence staff who were reluctant to submit intelligence estimates of a negative nature. A British intelligence officer in the SHAEF G-2, Noel (later Lord) Annan, observes that their intelligence appreciations “were tuned to justify Eisenhower’s policy to attack all along the line. This policy required intelligence to report the German army as being incapable of mounting an offensive. Strong was later to say that intelligence officers were regarded as defeatist if they did not believe the end of the war was in sight. . . . The most spectacular blunder of the interpreters of intelligence was our failure to forecast the German offensive in the Ardennes. . .”

In early December, Strong had warned only of a possible disruptive German spoiling attack somewhere in the Ardennes during a period of bad weather. Bedell Smith took the threat seriously and had sent Strong to personally warn Bradley, who dismissed the forecast with the observation that he had already made provisions to reinforce the Ardennes. The danger, he said, was exaggerated, “Let them come.”

Despite the news on December 16, Bradley again dismissed the reports as merely localized attacks designed to hamper forthcoming offensives by his First and Third Armies. Eisenhower was not misled and at once emphatically disagreed, declaring, “That’s no spoiling attack.” At the instant when decisions were crucial, it was Eisenhower, not Bradley who took the initiative to act without hesitation even though the situation was chaotic and ill-defined. While German intentions were still unclear at this early stage, from the time of the first reports by Strong, Eisenhower was convinced the German attack was a serious attempt to split the Allied front, and reacted accordingly. Why else, he reasoned, would they even bother attacking in an area that led nowhere and contained no tangible objectives?

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