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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

This was the first occasion since he had assumed command of Allied ground forces that Eisenhower was able to influence the outcome of a battle. Other than to approve it, he had played no role in Market-Garden. Since then he had been beset by the day to day problems brought about by the weather and the breakdown of his broad front strategy. Now, when it mattered most, he was at the center of a seminal battle whose outcome would determine the final course of the war.

On December 16, facing a dilemma that was a direct result of the broad front strategy, Eisenhower had no theater reserve to commit to the battle. The only two units available were the veteran but lightly-armed U.S. airborne divisions, the 82d and 101st, both still refitting near Reims from the savage fighting in Holland in September. Neither was adequately equipped for sustained ground combat. Eisenhower’s other dilemma was the same old problem that had plagued SHAEF from the time of its relocation to France: communications. It had taken until early evening on December 16 to learn even fragmentary details of the German attack. To make informed decisions, a commander must have knowledge of the situation he faces. On this day Eisenhower had neither knowledge nor the other vital ingredient, timely intelligence. By early afternoon on December 16, the First Army G-2 already had a captured copy of von Rundstedt’s order of the day which “confirmed that an all-out offensive was under way,” notes the official First Army historian. Yet, the First Army staff still could not agree (or would not accept the evidence) of a major offensive and by as late as December 18, “First Army headquarters had little idea of the status of the battle.”


As the two generals weighed the initial Allied reaction, Bradley remained noncommittal, while Eisenhower made a decision to alert the 82d and 101st Airborne for urgent deployment to the Ardennes as a stopgap measure. Although unwilling to be seen interfering personally in the conduct of Bradley’s command of his army group, Eisenhower did press Bradley to move quickly to reinforce the Ardennes, pointedly suggesting, “I think you’d better send Middleton some help.” There were two obvious options in the form of two uncommitted armored divisions, the newly arrived 10th Armored in Third Army, and the 7th Armored, then located north of the penetration, in the Ninth Army sector. Bradley was openly apprehensive at the prospect of issuing orders he knew Patton would loudly and heatedly dispute, but Eisenhower was in no mood for Patton’s histrionics and snapped, “Tell him that Ike is running this damn war.” Bradley’s inertia and Eisenhower’s pro-active stance was the first inkling of what would shortly become an open rift between the two friends.

It was early evening when Patton was summoned to the telephone and ordered by Bradley to commit the 10th Armored immediately. The division was to report to Troy Middleton at the crossroads market town of Bastogne which the VIII Corps commander had already identified as a vital choke-point.

The decision to shift forces into the Ardennes made, Eisenhower and Bradley attended a second reception for the newlyweds. Before returning to the war room to spend a sleepless night awaiting fresh developments, they played five rubbers of bridge with Everett Hughes and another, and drank a bottle of champagne and the best part of a bottle of Scotch whiskey to celebrate Eisenhower’s promotion.

Bradley remained sufficiently unconcerned that he did not return to his headquarters in Luxembourg until the afternoon of December 17. Just how inaccurate Bradley had been in his assessment was grimly evident during the first two days of the battle. Seventeen German divisions had already been identified, with more to come. From all sections of the Ardennes the news was dismal. The so-called “spoiling attack” had turned into a torrent as the Germans pressed their attacks with surprising vigor – and success. As the initial penetration deepened, it soon became an enormous “bulge” on the map, hence the nickname given the battle.

On December 17 and 18 Eisenhower and his staff developed the broad outlines of the Allied response. These were to contain and delay the German counteroffensive until a plan of action could be worked out and implemented to defeat it. Eisenhower ordered the two airborne divisions to the Ardennes by truck in a race against time, and summoned Matthew B. Ridgway’s XVIII Airborne Corps HQ from England. The decision where the airborne would be sent Eisenhower left to his staff to determine. Eisenhower’s most powerful weapon, the Allied air forces, remained grounded as the bad weather made any aerial response impossible.

The road net in the Ardennes is sparse and two sites were vital to stopping the German spearheads: St. Vith and Bastogne, where the main east-west roads converged, both of which the Germans armored columns had to pass through to attain bridgeheads over the River Meuse and before gaining access to the plains of Belgium beyond. Three men played key roles: Bedell Smith, Strong, and the deputy G-3, British Major General J.F.M “Jock” Whiteley, who was one of Eisenhower’s most trusted staff officers and generally regarded as the ablest British general in SHAEF. Although officially he was the deputy G-3, Smith also employed Whiteley in an unofficial capacity as his deputy chief of staff. The third participant was Kenneth Strong.

When the three generals closely examined a map of the Ardennes spread out on the floor it seemed evident that the German attack was aimed at splitting the British and U.S. army groups. It was equally clear that a grave risk existed unless the shoulders of the penetration held firm in the northern and southern Ardennes, and the German advance confined to the corridor in-between where it could be controlled and eventually defeated. Using a captured German sword they trained it at potential choke points, searching for places critical for the Germans to capture. The point of the sword barely wavered before soon settling on Bastogne, one of the few towns where the road net in the Ardennes converged.

After Smith was assured that reinforcements could reach Bastogne by road it was quickly decided to employ the 101st Airborne Division. After a race against the clock, the 101st arrived in Bastogne in the nick of time to join an element of the 10th Armored and several other units just as the Germans began attacking the town which was soon surrounded and under siege. In the days that followed the 101st would fight the bitterest battles in its distinguished history. The acting commander of the 101st, Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe, soon attained immortality when he rejected a German demand to surrender with a single word: “Nuts!” Thereafter, Bastogne would come to symbolize one of the finest hours of the U.S. Army.

General McAuliffe

Back in his headquarters in Luxembourg, Bradley glumly studied his operations map and muttered, “Pardon my French. . . but where in hell has this son of a bitch gotten all his strength?” Bradley summoned Patton to Luxembourg on December 18 where he displayed on the map the depth of the German penetrations which were far more serious than Patton had previously thought. Asked what Third Army could do, Patton replied he would have two divisions on the move the next day, and a third in twenty-four hours, if necessary. Although disappointed that his Third Army offensive in the Saar was cancelled, Patton shrugged it off with the observation that: “what the hell, we’ll still be killing Krauts,” grinning when Bradley assured him they would “hit this bastard hard.” Later that evening Bradley telephoned Patton and directed him to report to Verdun the following morning to meet with Eisenhower and the other SHAEF commanders to determine the Allied response.

On December 19, 1944, one of the most crucial days of the war, Eisenhower, Bradley, Devers, Patton, and other key staff officers converged on Verdun, the scene of the bloodiest battle in history in 1916.. Before departing for Verdun, Patton briefed his staff and two of his corps commanders at Third Army headquarters in Nancy, explaining that Third Army would be called upon to come to the relief of First Army. How and where would be decided at Verdun.

The meeting site was a dismal second floor room of a French stone barracks “a huge heavy structure set in quadrangle form in a sea of mud.” Very little warmth emanated from a pot-bellied stove, and most kept their coats on to ward off the pervasive chill. Other than a table and chairs, the room was bare save for the easels upon which would eventually repose Kenneth Strong’s situation maps. Accompanied by Tedder, Eisenhower arrived at 11:00 A.M. in his armor-plated Cadillac escorted by military police jeeps with machine-guns “looking grave, almost ashen.” His mood was soon brightened by the presence of Bradley who awaited him upstairs, and Patton, his stern war-face firmly in place arrived a short time later, followed by Devers. As always during periods of crisis, Eisenhower’s chief weapon of motivation to defuse tense situations was optimism. However, the cheerfulness he exuded at Verdun seemed forced and the usual Eisenhower smile could not hide the grimness and the aura of crisis that was visibly present in the room.

Present were Eisenhower, Tedder, Bedell Smith, Bradley, Devers, Patton, and a handful of SHAEF staff officers. Montgomery was absent and had sent de Guingand to represent him. Most thought Monty’s absence a calculated insult to both Eisenhower and themselves but David Eisenhower has suggested a more plausible reason, “that the British did not want to complicate matters,” over what was primarily an American battle. Eisenhower’s impatience was apparent when Strong and “Pinky” Bull arrived a few minutes late. “Well,” snapped Eisenhower, “I knew my staff would get here; it was only a question of when.”

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