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Victory in Europe, 1945
The Last Offensive of World War II
By Charles B. MacDonald
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Prelude to Victory
By the third day of January 1945, the Germans in the snow-covered Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg had shot their bolt. The winter counter-offensive, one of the more dramatic events of World War II in Europe, was not over in the sense that the original front lines had been restored, but the outcome could no longer be questioned. A week earlier the Third U.S. Army had established contact with an embattled American force at the road center of Bastogne, well within the southern shoulder of the German penetration. At this point it could be only a matter of time before the Third Army linked with the First U.S. Army driving down from the northern shoulder. Adolf Hitler, the German Fuehrer, himself admitted on 3 January that the Ardennes operation, under its original concept, was "no longer promising of success."
On this third day of January the First Army began its attack to link with the Third Army, to push in what had become known as the "bulge," and to reach the Rhine River. It was an attack destined to secure the tactical initiative that the Allied armies had lost temporarily in the December fighting but which, once regained, they would hold until after Hitler was dead and the German armed forces and nation were prostrate. One day later on the fourth, the Third Army, which had been attacking in the Ardennes since 22 December, was to start a new phase in its campaign to push in the southern portion of the bulge.
On these two days in early January, deep in the Ardennes, the Allies began, in effect, their last great offensive of the war in Europe.
Not that the entire front—stretching some 450 airline miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border—burst immediately into flame. (Map I) Indeed, the Germans no longer ago than New Year's Eve had launched a second counter-offensive—Operation NORDWIND— near the southern end of the Allied line in Alsace. This would take more than a fortnight to subdue. Yet the fighting in Alsace, no matter how real and trying to the men and units involved, was a secondary effort. The true turn the war was taking was more apparent in the north, where the last offensive materialized slowly, even gropingly, as the First and Third Armies sought to eradicate the last vestiges of the enemy's thrust in the Ardennes. One by one the other Allied armies would join the fight.
As soon as the Western Allies could repair their ruptured line, they could get back to what they had been about that cold, mist-clad morning of 16 December when the Germans had appeared without warning in the forests of the Ardennes. Not only could the attacks and preparations that had been in progress be resumed in somewhat altered form but also a lively debate could be renewed among Allied commanders as to the proper course for Allied strategy. The debate had begun in August after the extent of the enemy's defeat in Normandy had become apparent.
In planning which preceded the invasion of Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force, and his advisers had agreed to build up strength in a lodgment area in France, then to launch two major thrusts into Germany. One was to pass north of the Ardennes to seize the Ruhr industrial region, Germany's primary arsenal, the other south of the Ardennes to assist the main drive and at the same time eliminate the lesser Saar industrial area.
In the event, the extent of German defeat in Normandy had exceeded anything the preinvasion planners had foreseen; the Allies had gained the proposed limits of the lodgment area and had kept going in an uninterrupted drive against a fleeing enemy. When it appeared likely that failing to pause to allow the armies' logistical tails to catch up soon would limit operations, the senior British field commander in the theater, Field Marshal Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, had asked Eisenhower to abandon the secondary thrust. Concentrate everything, Montgomery urged, on one bold, end-the-war offensive north of the Ardennes, to be conducted primarily by Montgomery's command, the 21 Army Group. The commander of the 12th U.S. Army Group, Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, favored instead a thrust by his First and Third U.S. Armies generally south of the Ardennes along the shortest route into Germany. One of Bradley's subordinates, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., had insisted that his command alone, the Third Army, could do the job.
Unmoved by the arguments, General Eisenhower had continued to favor the preinvasion plan. While granting concessions to the main thrust in the north, including support from the First U.S. Army and the First Allied Airborne Army and a temporary halt in offensive operations by the Third Army, he had held to the design of advancing on a broad front.
As operations developed, the 21 Army Group with the First Canadian and Second British Armies had advanced generally north of the Ardennes through the Belgian plain into the Netherlands, while the First U.S. Army had provided support with a drive across eastern Belgium into what became known as the Aachen Gap. The Third Army, meanwhile, had moved across northern France into Lorraine. In the south a new Allied force, the 6th Army Group, commanded by Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers and composed of the Seventh U.S. and First French Armies, had come ashore in southern France and extended the Allied front into Alsace.
At that point the Germans, strengthened along their frontier by inhospitable terrain and concrete fortifications (the West Wall, or, as Allied troops called it, the Siegfried Line) , and by proximity to their sources of supply as opposed to ever-lengthening Allied supply lines, had turned to fight back with surprising effect. Through the fall of 1944 they had limited Allied gains in the south to the German frontier along the Saar River and the upper Rhine. In the north, despite a spectacular airborne assault in the Netherlands by the First Allied Airborne Army, they had held the 21 Army Group generally south and west of the Maas River and the First Army west of the Roer River, less than 23 miles inside Germany.
Through the fall campaign, debate over a concentrated thrust in the north as opposed to Eisenhower's broad-front strategy had continued to arise from time to time in one form or another. Tied in with it was a long-standing tenet of Field Marshal Montgomery's that Eisenhower should designate a single, over-all ground commander, presumably Montgomery himself. To both arguments, Eisenhower had continued to say no. The front was too long, he said, for one man to control it all; that was the reason for having army groups and armies. As to advance on a broad front, he believed it would be "very important to us later on to have two strings to our bow."
Yet what persuasion could not effect, the enemy counteroffensive in part had wrought. With the German drive threatening to split the 12th Army Group, Eisenhower had given Montgomery temporary command of all forces north of the penetration. Not only was the First Army included but also the Ninth U.S. Army, which had entered the line in October north of Aachen between the First Army and the British.
The debate had arisen again as the year 1944 came to a close. As soon as the Ardennes breach could be repaired, General Eisenhower revealed, he intended to return the First Army to General Bradley's command and to resume operations within the framework of the broad-front strategy. The First and Third Armies were to drive from the Ardennes through the Eifel to reach the Rhine south of the Ruhr, while the 21 Army Group was to retain the Ninth Army and make a major drive to the Rhine north of the Ruhr.
Even as the fighting to eliminate the enemy in the Ardennes developed momentum, the British Chiefs of Staff emerged in clear disagreement with Eisenhower's views. On 10 January they asked formally for a strategy review by the Combined Chiefs of Staff (U.S. and British) , under whose direction General Eisenhower served. In reply to inquiry from General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and a member of the Combined Chiefs, Eisenhower insisted that in order to concentrate a powerful force north of the Ruhr for the invasion of Germany, he had to have a firm defensive line (the Rhine) that could be held with minimum forces. Once he had concentrated along the Rhine, the main thrust would be made in the north on the north German plain over terrain conducive to the mobile warfare in which the Allies excelled. A secondary thrust was to be made south of the Ruhr, not in the vicinity of Bonn and Cologne, as the British wanted, because the country east of the Rhine there is tactically unfavorable, but farther south near Frankfurt, where a terrain corridor that runs south of the Ardennes extends across the Rhine through Frankfurt to Kassel.
Stopping off at Malta en route to top-level discussions with the eastern ally, the Soviet Union, the Chiefs of Staff of the British and American services—sitting as the Combined Chiefs of Staff—would on 2 February accept the Supreme Commander's plan. They would do so with the assurance that the main effort would be made north of the Ruhr and that this main thrust would not necessarily await clearing the entire west bank of the Rhine.
For all its aspects of finality, this decision was not to end the matter. As plans for broadening the last offensive progressed, various ramifications of the controversy would continue to arise. Yet for the moment, at least, the air was clear.
Allied Versus German Strength
In returning to the offensive, General Eisenhower and his Allied command were dealing from overwhelming strength. By 3 January 3,724,927 Allied soldiers had come ashore in western Europe. They were disposed tactically in 3 army groups, 9 armies (including one not yet assigned divisions) , 20 corps, and 73 divisions. Of the divisions, 49 were infantry, 20 armored, and 4 airborne. Six tactical air commands and thousands of medium and heavy bombers backed up the armies. A highly complex, technical, and skilled logistical apparatus, recovered at last from the strain imposed by the pursuit to the German frontier, rendered support; behind the U.S. armies, this went by the name of the Communications Zone. The Allies would be striking with one of the strongest, unquestionably the best-balanced, military forces of all time.
At first glance German ground strength available to the Commander in Chief West (Oberbefehlshaber West), Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, appeared equal, even superior, to that of the Allies, for Rundstedt controlled, nominally, eighty divisions. In reality, many of these had been drastically reduced in the fighting. The 26th Volks Grenadier Division, for example, which had fought in the Ardennes, had a "present for duty" (Tagesstaerke) strength of 5,202 but a "combat effective" (Kampfstaerke) strength of only 1,782; this against a table of organization calling for approximately 10,000 men. Nor did the Germans have the trained replacements to bring units back to full strength.
By contrast, Allied units, despite losses in the Ardennes and despite a pinch in American infantry replacements, would quickly be reconstituted. The 28th Infantry Division, for example, literally shattered by the opening blows of the enemy thrust in December, would be virtually at full strength again by the end of January, even though Allied tables of organization called for from two to four thousand more men per division than did German tables. Only the 106th Infantry Division, which had had two regiments captured early in the fighting, would not be returned to full strength.
The German forces opposing the Western Allies were organized into four army groups. In the north, Army Group H (Generaloberst Kurt Student) held the line from the Dutch coast to Roermond with the Twenty-fifth and First Parachute Armies, its boundaries roughly coterminous with those of the 21 Army Group's First Canadian and Second British Armies. From Roermond south to the Moselle River near Trier, including the Ardennes bulge, stood Army Group B (Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model), the strongest—by virture of having been beefed up for the Ardennes operation—of the German army groups. Army Group B controlled the Fifth and Sixth Panzer Armies and the Seventh and Fifteenth Armies, generally opposing the First, Third, and Ninth U.S. Armies. Extending the front to the northeast corner of France was Army Group G (Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz) with only one army, the First, opposite portions of the Third and Seventh U.S. Armies. Also controlling only one army, the Nineteenth, Army Group Oberrhein (Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler) was responsible for holding the sector extending south to the Swiss border and for conducting the other winter counterblow, Operation NORDWIND. For various reasons, among them the fact that an exalted personage of the Nazi party such as Himmler hardly could submit to the command of an army leader, Army Group Oberrhein was tactically independent, in effect, a separate theater command.
Unusual command arrangements, which in this particular case would not last beyond mid-January, were nothing new on the German side. The Commander in Chief West himself, for example, never had been a supreme commander in the sense that General Eisenhower was. The real supreme commander was back in Berlin, Adolf Hitler. To reach Hitler, Rundstedt's headquarters, OB WEST, had to go through a central headquarters in Berlin, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) , which was charged with operations in all theaters except the east. (Oberkommando des Heeres—OKH—watched over the Eastern Front.) Jealousies playing among the Army, Navy, Luftwaffe (air force), Waffen-SS (military arm of the Nazi party) , and Nazi party political appointees further circumscribed OB WEST' s authority.
There could be no question as to the overwhelming nature of Allied strength as compared with what the Germans, fighting a three-front war, could muster in the west. Allied superiority in the west was at least 2½ to 1 in artillery, roughly 10 to 1 in tanks, more than 3 to 1 in aircraft, and 2½ to 1 in troops. Nor could there be any question that long-range Allied capabilities also were immensely superior, since much of the great natural and industrial potential of the United States was untapped. German resources in January 1945 still were considerable nevertheless. If adroitly handled, some believed, these resources might enable the Germans to prolong the war and—should Hitler's secret weapons materialize—might even reverse the course of the war.
Despite the demands of five years of war and saturation attacks by Allied bombers, German production had reached a peak only in the fall of 1944. During September 1944, for example, Germany had produced 4,103 aircraft of all types. As late as November 1944, the Luftwaffe had more planes than ever before—8,103 (not counting transports) , of which 5,317 were operational. On New Year's Day 1,035 planes had taken to the air over the Netherlands, Belgium, and northern France in support of the Ardennes fighting. Some 25 new submarines—most equipped with a snorkel underwater breathing device—had been completed each month through the fall. Tank and assault gun output would stay at a steady monthly level of about 1,600 from November 1944 to February 1945. A few newly developed jet-propelled aircraft already had appeared over the Western Front. In light of V—1 flying bombs and V—2 supersonic missiles that had for months been bombarding British and Continental cities, a report that soon the Germans would possess an intercontinental missile was not lightly dismissed.
In manpower the Germans still had reserves on which to draw. Of a population within prewar boundaries of some 80 million, close to 13 million had been inducted into the armed forces, of whom 4 million had been killed, wounded, or captured in five years of war. Yet not until January 1945 would Hitler decree that older men up to forty-five years of age be shifted from industry to the armed forces. As late as February, eight new divisions would be created, primarily from youths just turned seventeen. As the roles of the Navy and Luftwaffe declined, substantial numbers of their men could be transferred to the Army.
To these points on the credit side of the German ledger would have to be added the pertinacity of the German leader, Adolf Hitler. Although shaken by an attempt on his life in the summer of 1944 and sick from overuse of sedatives, Hitler in January 1945 still was a man of dominant personality and undiluted devotion to the belief that even though a German military victory might be impossible, the war somehow could be brought to a favorable had served to feed his conviction that he alone was capable of correctly estimating the future course of the war. He would tolerate no dissenting voices.
Excerpted from Victory in Europe, 1945 by Charles B. MacDonald. Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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