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Posted on Oct 12, 2005 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Monty: World War II’s Most Misunderstood General, Part 3

By Carlo D'Este

To accomplish this Herculean task, Hitler assembled in great secrecy a massive force in size and scope to launch the first and only German counteroffensive of the war in northwest Europe. He named it Operation Wacht am Rhein ("Watch on the Rhine"), a defensive-sounding cover name.

Hitler’s senior commanders responsible for carrying out his orders had severe misgivings. When they first heard of the plan in late October 1944, the 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 and a reputation on the Eastern Front as "Hitler’s fireman," was typically blunt: "This plan hasn’t got a damned leg to stand on." Both commanders believed that the seizure of Antwerp was a hopelessly unrealistic goal and attempted to persuade Hitler to scale down its scope. Their advice fell upon deaf ears.

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Paratroopers hitch a ride atop the back deck of a King Tiger. (National Archives)

Nevertheless, in early December 1944 both Model and his two panzer army commanders, Waffen SS General Josef "Sepp" Dietrich and Gen. Hasso von Manteuffel, spoke forcefully at a conference with Hitler, urging that the plan be reconsidered. Hitler 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 rugged Schnee Eifel on the eastern fringes of the Ardennes.

Operation Wacht am Rhein (now re-named Herbstnebel) began in heavy fog early on the morning of December 16, 1944 when two panzer armies launched the main attack against the most lightly defended sector of the U.S. First Army. It caught the Allies entirely by surprise. Thinly held lines were quickly overrun and within hours it was clear that the Germans had unleashed a major counteroffensive. The Ardennes became bedlam as American units became entangled in a series of desperate battles around St. Vith, Elsenborn Ridge, Houffalize and other small villages and rivers with names no one had previously heard of.

Although the German advance appeared unstoppable, in the some of the most gallant individual and small unit actions of the war, weary American fighting men gained time for reinforcements to arrive by either holding their positions or slowing the German juggernaut by precious hours.

The key to German success lay in the panzer spearheads securing bridgeheads west of the Meuse and to do so they first had to control the town of Bastogne through which all major roads in the Ardennes passed. Bastogne was held by the U.S. 101st Airborne Division which was blocking the advance of Fifth Panzer Army. Although soon surrounded, the acting commander of the 101st, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, responded to a German surrender ultimatum with the now famous one-word reply: "Nuts!"

Several key members of the SHAEF staff went forward to assess the situation in the northern sector of the Ardennes where American units were under heavy attack, something the 12th Army Group staff failed to do. Those who visited First Army HQ at Spa, and later after it displaced rearward to Chaudfontaine, returned disturbed by the chaotic conditions and the lack of leadership they encountered. The previous command post at Spa had been so hastily abandoned in utter panic that top secret maps were found still pinned to the walls, along with classified documents strewn on desks; even unopened Christmas presents had been left behind. Later, when the commander of the U.S. 7th Armored Division, Brig. Gen. Robert W. Hasbrouck, arrived seeking information about the situation at the front, he not only found the CP deserted, but that First Army had decamped without leaving a forwarding address. After the war tales abounded that Hodges played no role in the crucial first two days of the battle. What has been established, notes the official U.S. Army historian, is that "the First Army commander was incapacitated for at least two days and that [his chief of staff, Maj. Gen. William B.] Kean, in effect, operated as the commander of the First Army. Kean later stated that Hodges had been "confined to his bed, barely conscious with viral pneumonia, an account disputed by another member of the staff who reported that his commander "was sitting with his arms folded on his desk, his head in his arms." 2 Although the official historian records the various reasons for First Army’s failure to predict the German counteroffensive, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Walter Bedell Smith, trod where official historians are not permitted: "First Army had a very bad staff," he said, and "Hodges [was] the weakest commander we had," he said. 3

It was left to the V Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow to exercise the initiative lacking from First Army by deploying his corps to confine the penetration by defending the key terrain of Elsenborn ridge along the northern shoulder in what became one of the outstanding defensive actions of the war.

Brigadier General Tom Betts, the deputy SHAEF G-2, also visited First Army at its new headquarters at Chaudfontaine and brought back similar disturbing reports. "I found the place a terrible mess," he said, "they just didn’t know what was going on. As far as fighting a war was concerned the 1st Army . . . seemed to have no plan at all for meeting this attack. And I couldn’t see any orders going forth." Betts reported to his boss, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Strong, the G-2 and Smith to whom he took the unprecedented step of recommending the relief of Hodges. 4

Montgomery was likewise greatly disturbed from afar by the state of paralysis in First Army and by the serious situation in the north and conveyed his misgiving to the visiting Maj. Gen. J.F.M. "Jock" Whiteley, the SHAEF deputy G-3. Although occasionally one of the field marshal’s sternest critics, Whiteley nevertheless returned to SHAEF the night of December 19 convinced that Montgomery must be given immediate command of the northern sector before it was too late. Placing a telephone call to Montgomery, Whiteley said, "If Ike asked you to take over First Army when could you do it?" Montgomery replied he could do so the following morning. Whiteley made it clear that nothing had yet been decided. Montgomery not only did not press the matter but also exerted no pressure in favor of the idea.

Whiteley found an ally in Strong who was receiving a steady stream of reports that led him to independently conclude it was "absolutely essential to inform Bedell Smith about my growing doubts whether the Allies were matching up to the situation," and his belief that neither Bradley nor his staff appreciated the severity of First Army’s dilemma.

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Elements of the 327th Glider Infantry move through Bastogne. (National Archives)

About midnight the two generals awakened Bedell Smith and explained the urgency of an immediate decision. After Smith’s morning staff conference on December 20, he informed both Strong and Whiteley he would put their proposal to Eisenhower. During his own morning staff conference Eisenhower telephoned Bradley and emphatically stated, "Where is the line you can hold the best and the cheapest? I don’t care how far back it is." Bradley was in no position to supply answers to Eisenhower. What had convinced Smith that a changeover was vital was that 12th Army Group had lost communications with First Army for more than forty-eight hours. Moreover, Bradley had no idea whatsoever if Hodges had the situation under control, which, as has been conclusively shown, he did not during the crucial, first days of the battle. The truth was that Bradley had nothing under control and was in no position to influence the outcome of the battle from his headquarters in Luxembourg. Smith called it "an open and shut case."

At this point Smith raised the question of a reorganization of command in the Ardennes. Eisenhower accepted Smith’s recommendation to split the Ardennes front in two until the situation could be brought under control, with Montgomery to be given temporary operational command of all Allied forces (principally the U.S. First and Ninth Armies) in the northern half of the Bulge, and Bradley to command only the southern flank (Third Army).

Both Smith and Eisenhower would have preferred to leave 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 his aide, Lt. Col. Chester Hansen.

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. 5

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. 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.

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1 Comment

  1. Carlo D’Este wrote this? Mr. D’Este is a person whose work I continue to view as one of the standards of USA layman’s military history. Yet this work, “Monty: World War II’s Most Misunderstood General”, isn’t even remotely of such a quality. My words to follow are critical of Mr. D’Este’s effort…but frankly, am far more critical of the editor who chose to allow this to go to print. Essentially, Editor, what were you thinking? The topic of Monty’s career is certainly worthy of thought. And engaging Mr. D’Este to share his thoughts on the matter is without question a valuable addition to Armchair General’s body of work…so, one must ask, other than the title, Editor, where might you point to such a discussion? Mr. D’Este effort might well be published, but for Pete’s sake, change the title….

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