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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

The atmosphere remained tense despite Eisenhower’s fragile attempt at levity when he opened by announcing, “The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster. There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table.” Patton immediately chimed in, “Hell, let’s have the guts to let the sons of bitches go all the way to Paris. Then we’ll really cut ’em up and chew ’em up.” The room erupted in laughter, much of it forced. Eisenhower replied, “George, that’s fine. But the enemy must never be allowed to cross the Meuse.”

The commanders quickly agreed to stop offensive action in all Allied sectors and concentrate on blunting the German drive. Eisenhower’s strategy was to draw a stop-line at the Meuse, beyond which there would be no further retreat. Once the German attacks were contained, the Allies would counterattack. Eisenhower said, “George, I want you to command this move – under Brad’s supervision of course – making a strong counterattack with at least six divisions. When can you start?” Patton replied, “As soon as you’re through with me,” explaining how he had left three sets of instructions with his staff and by telephoning a code-word, could put any plan in motion at once. “When can you attack?” Eisenhower asked. “The morning of December 21, with three divisions,” Patton replied instantly.


Forty-eight hours! Eisenhower was not amused, wrongly assuming that Patton had once again picked a very inopportune moment to act boastful. “Don’t be fatuous, George,” he retorted, in obvious disbelief. “If you try to go that early, you won’t have all three divisions ready and you’ll go piecemeal. You will start on the twenty-second and I want your initial blow to be a strong one! I’d even settle for the twenty-third if it takes that long to get three full divisions.”

Patton, however, was not being flippant. Where others at Verdun came with only vague ideas and without specific plans, Patton, a lifelong student of war, had devised three plans beforehand, each tailored to meet any contingency that Eisenhower and Bradley might direct. “This was the sublime moment of his career,” wrote Martin Blumenson. After more than thirty-four years, it was as if destiny had groomed him for this single, defining instant in which the fate of the war rested upon the right decisions being made and carried out by the men in that dingy room. While near panic existed elsewhere, there was in the Third Army a belief there existed a magnificent opportunity to strike a killing blow. While others debated or waffled, Patton had understood the problem facing the Allies, had created a plan to counterattack the Germans and occupy Bastogne, which although not yet surrounded, was clearly soon to be besieged. By contrast, Bradley, whose army group had been attacked, “mostly observed,” throughout the two-hour conference, “saying little, offering nothing.” Even he realized the only principal players were Eisenhower and Patton.

American POWs are marched away by the advancing Germans

Opinions vary, but certainly the reaction of some present that day was skepticism of yet another smug prediction by Patton that was quite out of place in this somber setting. Strong notes that, “There was some laughter, especially from British officers, when Patton answered ‘Forty-eight hours.’” Patton’s aide, Lt. Col. Charles R. Codman witnessed “a stir, a shuffling of feet, as those present straightened up in their chairs. In some faces skepticism. But through the room the current of excitement leaped like a flame.” John Eisenhower writes, “Witnesses to the occasion testify to the electric effect of this exchange.” The prospect of relieving three divisions from the line, turning them north, and traveling over icy roads to Arlon to prepare for a major counterattack in less than seventy-two hours was astonishing, even to a group accustomed to flexibility in their military operations.”

"It meant a 90-degree turn that would pose logistical nightmares – getting divisions on new roads and making sure supplies reached them from dumps established in quite a different context, for quite a different situation. Altogether it was an operation only a master could think of executing,” notes Blumenson. Moreover, only a commander with exceptional confidence in his subordinate commanders and in the professional skill of his fighting divisions could dare risk such a venture. Patton not only never hesitated, but embraced the opportunity to turn a potential military débâcle into a triumph.

Cigar in hand, Patton illustrated his intentions on the map, by pointing to the obvious “bulge” in the St. Vith, Bastogne sector, and, speaking directly to Bradley, said, “Brad, the Kraut’s stuck his head in a meatgrinder.” Turning his fist in a grinding motion, he continued, “And this time I’ve got hold of the handle.” He then replied to the inevitable questions with specific, well-rehearsed answers. “Patton would have liked to have seen the Germans drive some forty or fifty miles, then chop them off and destroy them, but he recognized that he would never muster support for that kind of daring.” Codman records that, “Within an hour everything had been thrashed out – the divisions to be employed, objectives, new Army boundaries, the amount of our own front to be taken over by [Devers’] Sixth Army Group, and other matters – and virtually all of them settled on General Patton’s terms.” Two of Patton’s three corps were to be extricated for a counterattack into the Ardennes, with Patch’s Seventh Army to take control of most of the Third Army sector in the Saar. Bradley later acknowledged that this was a “greatly matured Patton,” and that the Third Army staff had pulled off “a brilliant effort.” For Patton it was perhaps the most remarkable hour of his military career.

If ever there was justification for Eisenhower to have saved Patton’s career, it was now, and before they parted, Eisenhower remarked, “Funny thing, George, every time I get a new star I get attacked.” Patton shot back affably to remind his friend, “And every time you get attacked, Ike, I pull you out,” (a reference to the debacle in Tunisia at Kasserine Pass, and the time when Eisenhower attained his fourth star).

The morning of December 20 Eisenhower made a controversial decision to split the Ardennes command in two. Bradley and his 12th Army Group staff had clearly failed to exercise control or even to know the situation within the First Army sector which was under heavy attack.

Both Smith and Eisenhower would have preferred to have left Bradley in command. The reality of the situation that existed the morning of December 20 dictated that the shift of command was necessary, and Eisenhower immediately communicated his decision to Bradley by telephone. During the confrontation between the two, Strong could hear the other end of the conversation. Bradley was shouting, “By God, Ike, I cannot be responsible to the American people if you do this. I resign.” Eisenhower pointed out that it was not Bradley who was responsible, then curtly noted, “Your resignation therefore means absolutely nothing.” Bradley’s protests continued vehemently until Eisenhower felt compelled to end the matter with, “Well, Brad, those are my orders.” Once off the phone, Bradley reacted with uncharacteristic cold fury, pacing back and forth while cursing Montgomery, startling even Chester Hansen who was unused “to see Bradley like this.”

Moreover, had Bradley taken the initiative to visit Hodges during the first days of the battle and taken charge, as he should have, Eisenhower might well have decided against shifting command to Montgomery. In short, despite his complaints, Bradley needed to look no farther to determine the reasons for Eisenhower’s decision. His intransigence in failing to move his headquarters away from Luxembourg on the grounds it would create panic did not mean he remain there in isolation.

For the rest of his life Bradley bitterly (and erroneously) blamed Montgomery for inciting the order, and refused to admit there was ample justification for SHAEF’s (and later Montgomery’s) loss of confidence in the exhausted, taciturn Hodges who lacked Patton’s flair “at a time when we needed Pattonesque bravado.” It was a bad beginning to reversing a battle brought about by the abysmal failure of Allied intelligence and Bradley’s uncharacteristic unwillingness to exercise leadership when it was most needed.

Montgomery’s first decision in his new role as commander of the northern sector was to visit First Army to meet with Hodges and Simpson in order to assess for himself what needed to be done. He deliberately flew British pennants on the hood of his staff car that was surrounded by motorcycle outriders. An aide to Hodges described his arrival as like “Christ come to cleanse the temple,” a remark that Bradley would later gleefully repeat in his memoirs. Monty’s object, however, was simply to restore confidence in an organization where morale was bereft. Flying the British flag was his means of demonstrating no one had anything to fear.

Although Montgomery appeared imperious to his new American subordinates his need to exude confidence in the presence of Hodges and Simpson, his demeanor was no different than with his British subordinates. The line between confidence and arrogance is thin and his no-nonsense, take-charge approach to generalship was certainly open to misinterpretation Montgomery’s intentions, however, were clear enough. First and foremost it was to restore the flagging morale that existed at First Army. Hodges was not without resolve, but what he and Simpson lacked was guidance from Bradley. Thus, it was clear to Montgomery that his first task was to provide the necessary leadership to stabilize the front and halt the German attack. What is equally clear is that Montgomery’s air of confidence (his version of Eisenhower’s, “There will be only cheerful faces” remark at Verdun) was misinterpreted as censure.

Montgomery found Hodges in a near state of exhaustion and had he been British, would have relieved him of command; as it was he tactfully suggested to Bedell Smith that it might be necessary to relieve Hodges. Smith did not disagree but said if it were necessary, SHAEF would do it. Montgomery suggested waiting twenty-four hours before any decision was made. The following day de Guingand telephoned Smith and said that, “Hodges is not the man I would pick, but he is much better [today].” Eisenhower later confirmed he would have agreed to Hodges’ relief when he wrote to Monty on December 22: “I know you realize that Hodges is the quiet, reticent type and does not appear as aggressive as he really is. Unless he becomes exhausted he will always wage a good fight. However, you will of course keep in touch with your important subordinates and inform me instantly if any change needs to be made on [the] United States side.”

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