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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 First Army staff, already resentful of the change of command, is alleged to have been less than pleased to be under British command. Such resentments, and many seem to be of postwar creation, were not evident to James Gavin, the 82d Airborne commander, when he dined with Hodges and his staff several days later. “The staff spoke of Montgomery with amusement and respect. They obviously liked him and respected his professionalism.” For his part, Gavin was impressed with Montgomery as a soldier. “I took a liking to him that has not diminished with the years.”

With the exception of Patton, Montgomery was the only senior commander to regularly visit his troops at the Ardennes front. Montgomery’s presence and his decisions to reassign responsibilities and realign units of both First and Ninth Armies was precisely the fitting remedy. For American commanders, to cede ground was considered sinful, however, after visiting St. Vith and determining that if the 7th Armored remained it would be annihilated, Montgomery decreed that further defense of the town was futile and, with Hodges’s concurrence, ordered what was left of the division to withdraw to new positions on December 22. The 7th Armored’s brilliantly orchestrated defense of St. Vith against near-impossible odds had stemmed the advance of Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army until December 23, when the last elements evacuated the shattered town. The defense of St. Vith was a key factor in the German failure in the Ardennes. The official U.S Army historian wrote that Montgomery’s decision reflected his “ability to honor the fighting man which had endeared him to the hearts of the Desert Rats [of the British 7th Armored Division] in North Africa: ‘They can come back with all honor. They come back to the more secure positions. They put up a wonderful show.’” The defenders of St. Vith were unambiguous about their feelings toward the field marshal. “Montgomery saved the 7th Armored Division,” said Robert Hasbrouck.


On December 23 Eisenhower issued his first Order of the Day since D-Day in which he exhorted everyone to fight back and turn the enemy’s “great gamble into his worst defeat. So I call upon every man, of all the Allies, to rise now to new heights of courage, of resolution, and of effort. Let everyone hold before him a single thought – to destroy the enemy on the ground, in the air, everywhere – destroy him.” Those that knew Eisenhower intimately could discern the message as yet another indicator of just how deeply Eisenhower detested his foe. Undoubtedly the massacre of 350 American troops and one hundred Belgian civilians, including eighty-six GIs in a snowy field near the town of Malmedy by SS troops of Lt. Col. Joachim Peiper’s Kampfgruppe contributed to Eisenhower’s barely-restrained outrage.

On December 23 and 24 the skies cleared to permit the Allied air forces to fly for the first time in days and to strike back at the Germans and, more importantly, to airdrop desperately needed supplies into beleaguered Bastogne. Help came on the ground the afternoon of December 26 with the arrival of units of the 4th Armored Division, but Bastogne still remained surrounded and under siege on three sides. Although Bastogne had held, the Battle of the Bulge was far from over, and the bloodiest battles of the winter war in the Ardennes were yet to come.

By the end of December Hitler’s strategic aim of splitting the Allied front in half was doomed to failure and Germany’s ultimate defeat had become only a matter of time. Nevertheless, considerable heavy fighting lay ahead before the battle of the Bulge could be called over. As the fighting raged around Bastogne, Patton observed in his diary on January 4 that, “We can still lose this war. The Germans are colder and hungrier than we are, but they fight better.”

The forecast by Hitler’s generals that the German counteroffensive was doomed to failure was proven right by the heroic American stands at St. Vith and Bastogne. Although the encircled 101st Airborne “Battered Bastards of Bastogne,” and McAuliffe’s famous reply of “Nuts” when the Germans demanded his surrender, have become the focus of the story of the Bulge, Bastogne would have fallen had it not been for the stalwart defense of St. Vith by Combat Command B of the 7th Armored Division. For eight critical days the 7th Armored and an ad hoc collection of hastily assembled troops from the 28th and 106th Divisions, successfully averted disaster. The stubborn defense of St. Vith and the 1st, 2d and 99th Infantry Divisions’ equally valiant defense of Elsenborn Ridge – the Bulge’s “northern shoulder” — frustrated the German advance long enough to permit the Allied commanders to rush reinforcements and plug the gaps. Gavin’s 82d Airborne Division also fought tenaciously and contributed mightily to the ultimate German failure by denying Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army the rapid breakthrough that was the key to the success of the counteroffensive. Manteuffel well understood the cost of failing to break St. Vith meant the Fifth Panzer Army offensive would never reach the Meuse and recommended to von Rundstedt that it be cancelled. And, how close it was. The Germans never knew that “the biggest filling station in Europe,” located in the Ardennes, near Stavelot, contained 2.5 million gallons, enough fuel to have kept Sepp Dietrich’s fuel-starved panzers on the move, and perhaps changed the outcome of this deadly campaign. The only unit to advance near to the Meuse was the 2d Panzer Division that ran headlong into Ernie Harmon’s 2d Armored Division that all but annihilated this vaunted German unit in a pitched battle.

“The real victory in the Ardennes belonged to the American soldier,” wrote historian Charles B. MacDonald, “for he provided time to enable his commanders – for all their intelligence failure – to bring their mobility and their airpower into play . . . the American soldier stopped everything the German Army threw at him,” a sentiment that Eisenhower would have wholeheartedly endorsed.

The Bulge reflected the best and worst of Eisenhower’s leadership style. His commitment to a unified SHAEF and to the broad front never wavered even when under the twin and increasingly strong pressures from Montgomery and Bradley. Devers who was never in favor with Eisenhower, played a minor supporting role and rather than attempt to influence Eisenhower, tended to stay out of his way. Eisenhower disliked face-to-face meetings with Devers as much as those with Montgomery and on at least one occasion sent “Pinky” Bull, to convey his orders to Sixth Army Group.

After his capture at the end of the war, von Rundstedt heaped praise on Patton; “he is your best,” said the field marshal. Everett Hughes reported to Patton that Eisenhower had said, “Do you know, Everett, George is really a very great soldier and I must get Marshall to do something for him before the war is over.” Patton remained embittered that Eisenhower would never tell him to his face. More than anything he wanted the approval and praise of his oldest friend. Few things were to disappoint him more deeply. For his part, Patton had kept his promise made nearly a quarter of a century earlier at Camp Meade to be the Stonewall Jackson to Eisenhower’s Robert E. Lee. Eisenhower genuinely appreciated Patton’s accomplishments, but seemed incapable or uninterested in praising the one friend and associate who would have thrived on his words.

Omar Bradley’s role in the battle of the Bulge was primarily irrelevance. Not only did Bradley and his staff have no discernible appreciation of the situation in First Army, but also it was Patton and Third Army that planned and carried out the initial counterattacks in the Ardennes. Both Hodges and Bradley, notes J.D. Morelock, “possessed an incredibly poor appreciation of the true tactical situation,” as evinced by the fact that until Gerow did so on his own initiative, no action had been taken to halt a V Corps offensive on the Roer River dams. Bradley not only remained cooped up in Luxembourg but, unlike Montgomery, had all insignia removed from his vehicles as a security precaution. “Frequent visits to forward units and subordinate commanders had been such a hallmark of Bradley’s battle leadership up to this point that it is nearly inconceivable that he proposed to Ike that he command the toughest battle to be faced in the war solely by radio and telephone.” Moreover, at no time during the thirty-three day battle did Bradley ever meet with either Hodges or Simpson, instead he sulked and took pot shots at Monty who accomplished what he had failed to do.

Controversy once again swirled around Montgomery who was either revered or condemned for his role in the Bulge. Most of it was second-guessing. And, while both Ridgway (XVIII Airborne Corps) and J. Lawton Collins (VII Corps) both would have preferred an earlier American counterattack, the hard-nosed Collins defended Montgomery’s generalship, calling it “probably the most effective Allied cooperation of the war. For the Army’s part of this success Monty deserves much credit . . . Eisenhower was right, in my judgment, in placing Montgomery temporarily in command of all troops on the north side.”

American troops during the Battle of the Bulge

All sorts of other silly charges were leveled, including the assertion that he had compelled Eisenhower to appoint him to command the U.S. forces in the northern sector and once in command, had mishandled them by not counterattacking soon enough to satisfy his critics. Another is that he contemplated a withdrawal behind the Meuse and that by failing to rush British troops into the breach, Montgomery left the U.S. Army to bear the brunt of the battle – and the casualties. Neither charge has ever had merit. An objective account of the Bulge by Robert Merriam, an American combat historian present during the fight for St. Vith, puts some badly needed perspective on the controversy. Merriam points out, “National spirit, which we have in abundance, sometimes blinds us to good sense and understanding . . . .To criticize Montgomery for not counterattacking in the midst of the hell swirling around him is only to indicate ignorance of the situation.” Moreover, “the brutal criticism of Montgomery’s tactics does not square up with the facts . . . many of the mistakes he is charged with were not of his making.”

Lost in the controversy over the timing of Monty’s counterattack is what would have been the high cost of failure had he acted too soon. According to the First Army official historian, “One of the main reasons for the field marshal’s reluctance to take the offensive was a serious lack of infantry, especially riflemen . . .” First Army lost over 41,000 men in the second half of December but received only 15,295 replacements. “On 23 December Montgomery warned that the V Corps’ four divisions were short 7,000 men, mostly infantrymen . . . Before First Army could attack, it would have to replace heavy losses in equipment as well.”

Unfortunately, the crisis in Anglo-American relations would only worsen in the days ahead. Bradley’s childish behavior and Monty’s ham-handedness would both insure that Eisenhower had yet more problems with which to cope in 1945.

Not until January 12 could the bloody three-week battle be declared won when three American divisions broke the back of the siege and erased the final German salient, dooming some 15,000 of Hitler’s best troops to capture. As the crisis in the Ardennes faded, for the first time in weeks Eisenhower seemed more relaxed. Kay Summersby saw tangible evidence of it the evening of January 17 when Ike invited Spaatz to his quarters for a film and instructed him to bring his guitar with him. “The two of them let off the past month’s accumulated steam by booming out a medley of slightly off-key but boisterous West Point songs.”

In its aftermath, Eisenhower was asked if he had been frightened by the German counteroffensive. “Well, not at the time,” he said, then added with a grin, ‘But I was scared stiff three weeks later when I got around to reading the newspaper accounts.”

Reference notes:

1) Weigley, Eisenhower’s Lieutenants, 458. For a fuller description of Koch’s and Third Army’s role during the period preceding the Bulge, see D’Este, Patton, Chap. 43.
2) Hugh M. Cole, The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge (Washington, 1965), 485-86.
3) Oscar W. Koch, G-2: Intelligence for Patton (Philadelphia, 1971), 86-87.
4) D’Este, Patton, 676.
5) J. D. Morelock, Generals of the Ardennes (Washington, 1994), 58.
6) Weigley, Eisenhower’s Lieutenants, 464.
7) Ambrose, Eisenhower, 365.
8) Hitler named the counteroffensive Operation Wacht am Rhein [italics] (“Watch on the Rhine”) which was later changed to “Autumn Mist.”
9) Butcher diary, Dec. 16, 1944.
10) Hansen diary, Dec. 16, 1944.
11) Postwar alibis later included an alleged lack of Ultra intercepts, an excuse thoroughly debunked when its existence was revealed in the late 1970s. For a detailed analysis of the intelligence picture, see Hinsley, British Intelligence in the Second World War, Vol III, Part 2, Chap. 52, and Ralph Bennett, Ultra in the West, (London, 1979), the first analysis of the role of Ultra during the campaign in Northwest Europe.
12) Jacques Nobécourt, Hitler’s Last Gamble (New York, 1967) , 140.
13) Annan, Changing Enemies, 117. Annan’s account of the intelligence side of the Battle of the Bulge is a damning indictment a major Allied failure. Of the Bulge, Annan writes, “Those dead and wounded are the measure of our failure.” (Chap. 6, 123.)
14) Pogue, The Supreme Command, fn 20, 365, and Strong, Intelligence at the Top, 159.
15) Harold C. Deutsch, “Commanding Generals and the Uses of Intelligence,”Intelligence and National Security, July 1988.
16) David W. Hogan, Jr., A Command Post for War: First Army Headquarters in Europe, 1943-1945 (Washington, 2000), 209 & 215.
17) Weigley, Eisenhower’s Lieutenants, 458, and John S.D. Eisenhower, The Bitter Woods (New York, 1969), 215.
18) Maj. Gen. J.F.M. “Jock” Whiteley was one of the British Army’s most experienced and able staff officers. When the war came in 1939 he was serving in the operations directorate of the War Office before being sent to the Middle East as the Ops/Plans officer in GHQ, Middle East in Cairo under Wavell and Auchinleck. Before his assignment to AFHQ where he served as Eisenhower’s deputy chief of staff, Whiteley was the chief of staff of the Eighth Army under Lt. Gen. Neil Ritchie.
19) Crosswell, The Chief of Staff, 283-4. In the aftermath of the triumphant defense, “numerous officers stepped forward to claim the credit for picking the city,” notes historian J. D. Morelock. “Troy Middleton dismissed most of the posturing by saying that, ‘you didn’t need to be a genius to know that Bastogne was a key location in the Ardennes. All you had to do was look at a map.’” (Monograph by Morelock, “Darkest of Times: A Critical Analysis of Bradley’s Leadership in the Battle of the Bulge.”)
20) Hansen diary, Dec. 18, 1944.
21) Bradley, A Soldier’s Story, 469.
22) Principal sources for this account of the Verdun meeting are: Weigley, Eisenhower’s Lieutenants, 499-501; Patton, War As I Knew It, 190-92; Charles B. MacDonald, A Time For Trumpets (New York, 1985), 420-21; Nobécourt, Hitler’s Last Gamble, 219-22; Bradley, A Soldier’s Story, 470-73, and A General’s Life, 358-59; DDE, Crusade in Europe, 389-92; Blumenson, The Patton Papers, Vol. II, 599-601; Miller, Ike the Soldier, 727-28; Ambrose, The Supreme Commander, 558-59; John S.D. Eisenhower, The Bitter Woods, 256-57; David Eisenhower, Eisenhower: At War, 1943-1945, 566-69; Charles Codman, Drive (Boston, 1957), 231-33; Strong, Intelligence at the Top, 161-63; the diary of Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers; Patton diary Dec. 19, 1944, and his letter of Dec. 21 to Beatrice Patton.
23) Patton noted sarcastically in his diary, “The fact that three of these [six] divisions exist only on paper did not even enter his head,” a reference to Middleton’s three divisions badly battered in the Hürtgen and unfit for further combat.
24) Montgomery’s official biographer has written, “What stunned Eisenhower was not the speed with which Patton reoriented his divisions, but the alacrity with which. . . Patton abandoned his planned Saar offensive. Eisenhower was bewildered. Was this the same commander who had railed against Monty’s call for concentration of the main Allied land forces since August, and had made it a matter of American honor that his Saar offensive not be closed down?” (Nigel Hamilton, Monty, The Battles of Field Marshal Montgomery [New York, 1994], 481.)
25) Strong, Intelligence at the Top, 163.
26) MacDonald, A Time For Trumpets, 421.
27) Ibid. The unhappiest participant at the Verdun conference was Lt. Gen. Jake Devers. Taking over much of Third Army’s sector meant Seventh Army would have to cease offensive operations at a time when Devers believed that 6th Army Group was being called upon to bail out 12th Army Group “just as we are about to crack the Siegfried Line.” Although he understood fully the necessity for his new role, Devers’ views were never made public until the publication of the official history in 1993. It was, he said, a “tragedy” because SHAEF “has not seen fit to reinforce success on this flank.” Devers was also privately critical of Montgomery and Patton whom he thought guilty of “wild and inaccurate statements.” (Sources: Devers diary, Dec. 19, 1944; Jeffrey J. Clarke and Robert Ross Smith, Riviera to the Rhine [Washington, 1993], 491, and Michael A. Markey, “Quartermaster to Victory,” Army, Aug. 1994.)
28) At Camp Meade, Maryland, in 1919 or 1920, Patton had predicted, “Ike, you will be the Lee of the next war, and I will be your Jackson.” Whether or not Eisenhower qualified as Robert E. Lee, Patton was about to assert a definite resemblance to Stonewall Jackson. Third Army was poised to pull off one of the most remarkable feats of any combat army in history, “a maneuver that would make Stonewall Jackson’s peregrinations in the valley campaign in Virginia and Gallienini’s shift of troops in taxicabs to save Paris from the Kaiser look pale by comparison.” (See Chapter 14 and MacDonald, A Time For Trumpets, 421.)
29) Bradley, A General’s Life, 363; Ambrose, Eisenhower, 368, and Crosswell, The Chief of Staff, 284-87. Ambrose’s description of the telephone conversation is based on an interview of Strong.
30) Hansen diary.
31) Without their own on the spot evaluations the 12th Army Group was of little help to First Army. The fact that the two staffs held each other in contempt was equally unhelpful. In particular, the respective G-2s, First Army’s Dickson and 12th AG’s Edwin Sibert never saw eye to eye on intelligence matters.
32) Bradley’s behavior in the aftermath of Eisenhower’s decision, which he deemed a loss of confidence in his leadership, was ample justification for the supreme commander’s order to shift First Army to Montgomery. Bradley’s insistence he could control the battle by telephone from Luxembourg was probably the last straw, for Eisenhower still retained vivid memories of Fredendall and his bunker in Tunisia.
33) Wilmot, The Struggle for Europe, 662.
34) DDE to Montgomery, Dec. 22, 19
35) Gavin, On To Berlin, 244 and 184.
36) Cole, The Ardennes, 413.
37) Morelock, “Darkest of Times.” Brig. Gen. Bruce C. Clarke who organized the defense of Saint-Vith was equally impressed with Montgomery. “From Hasbrouck, Clarke later learned what Montgomery’s attitude was: the 7th Armored mission was to delay the Germans three days. They had delayed them now a full working week, accomplishing the mission beyond the call of duty. These troops would be needed later. They should be pulled out immediately.” (William D. Ellis and Thomas J. Cunningham, Jr., Clarke of St. Vith [Cleveland, 1974], 128.)
38) Eisenhower’s Order of the Day is reproduced in Butcher’s diary, Dec. 23,1944 and numerous other sources.
39) DDE’s ringing sentiment could well apply to the United States in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
40) Patton diary, Jan. 4, 1945.
41) Yergin, The Prize, 347-48.
42) MacDonald, A Command Post for War, 618.
43) Quoted in Frederick Ayer, Before the Colors Fade (Boston, 1964), 181.
44) Everett S. Hughes diary, Jan. 18, 1945.
45) “But this was the kind of war that he [Patton] disliked,” wrote Eisenhower shortly before his death. “Throughout the European campaigns [I] used him, whenever and wherever possible, in situations of great fluidity. In this kind of advance he has had no modern equal.” (DDE, “Patton” in unpublished evaluations of World War II associates, Box 7, Post-Pres Papers, A-WR series.)
46) Morelock, “Darkest of Times.”
47) Ibid.
48) In his two memoirs Bradley criticized SHAEF, Eisenhower and Montgomery.
49) J. Lawton Collins, Lightning Joe (Baton Rouge, 1979), 195.
50) Robert E. Merriam, Dark December (New York, 1947, republished in 1978 as The Battle of the Bulge), 179-80. Merriam points out that Montgomery sent the XXX British Corps into blocking positions on the Meuse, rather than injecting them into First Army, “where they would have wasted precious days adjusting to American ways. . . The question of using British forces east of the Meuse was discussed and rejected because to move them there would have entailed their crossing communication lines of both First and Ninth Armies, and the resulting tangle would have been chaotic.” (178.)
51) Hogan, A Command Post for War, 225.
52) Summersby, Eisenhower Was My Boss, 214.
53) Davis, Soldier of Democracy, 524.

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