The Battle for Western Europe, Fall 1944: An Operational Assessment

The Battle for Western Europe, Fall 1944: An Operational Assessment

by John A. Adams


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This engrossing and meticulously researched volume reexamines the decisions made by Dwight D. Eisenhower and his staff in the crucial months leading up to the Battle of the Bulge. In late August 1944 defeat of the Wehrmacht seemed assured. On December 16, however, the Germans counterattacked. Received wisdom says that Eisenhower’s Broad Front strategy caused his armies to stall in early September, and his subsequent failure to concentrate his forces brought about deadlock and opened the way for the German attack. Arguing to the contrary, John A. Adams demonstrates that Eisenhower and his staff at SHAEF had a good campaign strategy, refined to reflect developments on the ground, which had an excellent chance of destroying the Germans west of the Rhine.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253354358
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 04/09/2010
Series: Twentieth-Century Battles
Pages: 392
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

John A. Adams is author of If Mahan Ran the Great Pacific War (IUP, 2008).

Read an Excerpt

The Battle for Western Europe Fall 1944

An Operational Assessment

By John A. Adams

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2010 John A. Adams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35435-8



I have used one principle in these operations ... and this is to fill the "unforgiving minute with sixty seconds of distance run." That is the whole art of war, and when you get to be a general remember it. ... I have never given a damn what the enemy was going to do or where he was. What I have known is what I intended to do and then have done it. By acting in this manner I have always gotten to the place he expected me to come about three days before he got there.

George Patton, letter to his son, 21 Aug. 1944

On 6 June 1944, forever "D-Day," five Allied divisions stormed the Normandy beaches. Seven weeks of frustrating fighting in the Bocage, the hedgerow country, followed. Territorial gains were smaller than planned, and casualties were staggering. The opposing armies deadlocked.

To break the impasse, U.S. First Army brilliantly executed a penetration attack — Cobra — on 25 July. (See map 1.1.) Omar Bradley, the First Army commander, envisioned a major air strike to create a hole in a narrow section of the front and then positioned concentrated American ground power, echeloned in depth, to rip that hole open. On the day before the attack, Dwight Eisenhower, supreme allied commander — "Ike" — cabled Bradley: "My high hopes and best wishes ride with you on your attack today ... [conditions thus] allowing you to pursue every advantage with an ardor verging on recklessness and with all of your troops."1 Subsequently he signaled, "We will crush him [the enemy]."

Bradley entrusted Major General "Lightning Joe" Collins and his VII Corps with executing the breakout. VII Corps, brought to the size of a mini-army with three infantry and two armored divisions, made the main effort. After an incredible air bombardment that included most of Eighth Air Force's heavy bombers, American infantry moved forward. Bombing and shelling had disintegrated Panzer Lehr. In some sectors Americans advanced against little opposition except wreckage and bomb craters. In others Germans shuffled into the breach put up fierce resistance. Initial infantry advances were slow as GIs picked their way between broken limbs, deafened and dumbfounded German survivors, and bomb craters. Would this be another of a string of failed attempts to break free of seemingly unmovable German defenses that had hemmed in the Allies for the last seven weeks?

Constant Allied grinding had worn the Germans down. Earlier attacks (such as Goodwood) ordered by British General Bernard Montgomery, overall land commander, and executed by Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey's British Second Army, while unsuccessful at creating a breakout, had pulled most German armored reserves over to the British sector.

German defenses before VII Corps lacked depth. Although a clear breakout had not occurred by early morning of the second day, Collins smelled German defenses melting. Without hesitation, he gambled and committed his exploitation force, 2nd Armored Division (2AD) and 1st Infantry Division (1ID) specially motorized for this role, to push through. The initial Cobra plan envisioned a penetration of German lines, then a left hook to cut off Germans opposing the rest of First Army. The exploitation force was to consolidate on a line between Coutances and Caumont, well inside of Normandy. This would have created a sack less than 25 kilometers deep and brought American spearheads to rest pointed at the west coast of Normandy 20 kilometers north of Granville.

By the 27th a clear penetration was developing. Bradley, who had not scripted what was to happen after the first three days, made the decision to commit several corps into the exploitation. Neither Bradley nor anyone else envisioned what actually happened next. Tankers found daylight. Racing southward, they took first Coutances, then Granville, then Avranches. American armor started barely 30 kilometers from the American D-Day beaches. On the 28th, Bradley ordered Collins to open up full-scale exploitation. To support the Americans, Montgomery ordered British Second Army to execute Operation Bluecoat, a shift of resources from its left flank to its right, and to begin attacking at Caumont, near the inter-army group boundary on 30 July. The Allied ground force commander was doing his job. However, the official American historian complained, "If the original intention was to hold German forces in place ..., Blue Coat came too late." 4 The American attack had begun on the 25th. After 1,200 bombers pounded frontline German defenders, British 11th Armored Division moved out smartly. Exploiting a gap in German lines they uncovered, British tankers moved onto high ground east of Vire.

By the 31st, VII Corps armor crossed the Normandy-Brittany border — a 120-kilometer advance in six days. And little but open road and a few German stragglers lay ahead of the American tanks (map 1.1.) From that point on, the Americans ad-libbed based on the opportunities that lay before them.

The first of August brought about preplanned changes in the Allied command structure that reflected the increased size of their forces that had landed on the continent. Dwight David Eisenhower remained the Allied supreme commander; British Air Marshal Arthur Tedder was his deputy. At the next level British Admiral Bertram Ramsay commanded all naval forces and British Air Marshall Andrew Cunningham commanded the tactical air forces. After 1 September, General Eisenhower would also act as overall ground commander. Before that date British General Bernard L. Montgomery remained temporarily in overall command of all Allied ground forces for the month of August. As his commander, General Dwight Eisenhower — supreme commander — said, "one battle, one commander." In addition, Montgomery retained his "permanent" command of 21st Army Group, which included British Second Army (Lieutenant General [LTG] Miles Dempsey) and Canadian First Army (LTG Henry D. G. Crerar). LTG Omar N. Bradley moved up the newly created 12th Army Group, which contained his old command, U.S. First Army (now under LTG Courtney Hodges), and newly formed Third U.S. Army (LTG George S. Patton).

Again, as part of the plan, the rampaging spearheads came under Patton. Actually he had been "observing," kibitzing and urging Collins on, for several days. From the beginning, planners and generals alike knew that port capacity to supply the invaders would be at a premium. During June, GIs struggled to wrest the port of Cherbourg from the tenacious Germans. When they finally captured their objective, the Americans took control of one of the most thoroughly wrecked harbors in military history. Most supplies would continue to land over the beach. This was something no logistician thought was possible. While they might cope for a little while longer in summer weather, real ports would be needed by fall.

During World War I, the doughboys and most of their supplies debarked from their trans-Atlantic crossing onto the deep water quays of Brest. Those facilities lay at the tip of Brittany, 300 kilometers west of Avranches. But Berlin was 1,200 kilometers to the east! Which way should 12th Army Group go? Patton knew, but even he was hesitant to say, since the slapping incident in Sicily that had almost sent him home in disgrace.

During the first week of August, Patton's lead divisions ran amuck, but in the wrong direction. Overlord planning designated the 14,000-ton capacity of the large ports in west Brittany as Third Army's objective. Sixth Armored wound up on the outskirts of Brest. Fourth Armored pulled up in front of the Bretagne port of Lorient.

Nearly every senior Allied commander itched to go east — toward the heart of Germany. Patton was one of the most vocal. But he was allowed to turn only one of his four corps toward the center of Nazi power.

In June, Montgomery's planners had studied Allied objectives beyond Brittany. By the 2nd of August, Eisenhower urged Montgomery to begin exploiting east. As Ike cabled the American chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, who was back in Washington, "I would consider it unnecessary to detach any large forces for the Conquest of Brittany, and would devote the great bulk of the forces to the task of completing the destruction of the bulk of the German Army" to the east. On the 3rd, Eisenhower traveled to the continent to confer with Bradley and Montgomery. On 4 August, Montgomery ordered a major departure from Overlord. His stated intent was to force the Germans back against the Seine, trap them there as Allied airpower had dropped all the bridges, and destroy them. U.S. First Army was to turn east as well as Patton's three corps that had been moving south. Twenty-First Army Group was to attack southward into the developing sack no later than 8 August.

Developments in Normandy were also being monitored closely in Germany. On 2 August, Hitler ordered a full panzer army to attack westward near the little town of Mortain toward Avranches. His goal was to cut off Patton's Third Army and seal off the Allied breakout.


While Eisenhower had to deal with the fear of stalemate in Normandy during July and the planning to break out, the British decided to again raise objections to the planned invasion of southern France (Dragoon). Montgomery had originally objected to a landing in southern France in February. That operation was also motivated by the overarching battle of the ports. Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) planners and Eisenhower wanted the huge capacity of the port of Marseilles on the south end of their projected line to complement the port of Antwerp on the north. Forces for this operation were to be taken from the Italian campaign, effectively stalling its advance just north of Rome, which was captured on, of all days, the 5th of June.

Any detached strategist would immediately concur with taking resources away from a subsidiary theater to focus on the decisive one. But the British had a political agenda in the eastern Mediterranean not shared by the Americans. They wanted to regain their prewar sphere of interest in that part of the world.

Much of this inter-Allied fight was carried out among the Combined Chiefs. When Marshall, in support of Eisenhower, proved immovable, Churchill attempted to get around him by haranguing Eisenhower, who, conveniently, was in London.

On the 4th, Eisenhower learned Churchill had appealed to President Roosevelt about Dragoon, code name for the invasion of southern France. All of this forced Eisenhower to cable Marshall on the 5th of August:

I learn that the Prime Minister has sent a message to the President relating to Dragoon. I will not repeat nor under any conditions agree at this moment to a cancellation of Dragoon.

On the 7th, Churchill met with Eisenhower at his forward headquarters, Shell burst, in an apple orchard in western France. For six hours, while Patton's breakout was unfolding and the Falaise Gap was forming, the prime minister pleaded, cajoled, and threatened Ike while trying to convince him to support canceling the invasion of southern France and accepting reinforcements via Brest instead. During Ike's 9 August meeting at 10 Downing Street, Churchill again picked up his cudgel and beat the SHAEF commander further about the issue. Finally the invasion itself went off with few casualties on the 15th. The Marseilles docks, the real prize, were captured intact. Soon supplies and vehicles were swinging onto them from shipside. Until the end of the war, Marseilles would rival Antwerp in the tonnage landed.

While carefully and tactfully guiding his subordinates in the middle of a decisive battle, Ike has to deal with prime ministerial interference in a separate but critical part of his campaign. Imagine what one of Ike's days must have been like!

Hitler attempted to isolate the American breakout with an armored counterattack at Mortain. Its objective was to slice through to the coast at the juncture of Normandy and Brittany. If it had been successful, Third Army would have been cut off and the Allied breakout contained.

American forces, especially the 30th Infantry Division (30ID), frustrated Hitler's ill-conceived effort to cut off Third Army. A subaltern could see that German strength was far insufficient to achieve this objective. Many Allied generals rated the Mortain counterattack as one of Hitler's greatest blunders of the Western campaign. By forcing this attack, Hitler had placed most of his armor in the wrong end of a sack developing between the American and British army groups. A great opportunity, a "once in a century" opportunity in Bradley's words, developed.

By 7 August the Americans had stopped the German attack at Mortain. Hitler demanded that the effort be redoubled no earlier than the 11th. Meanwhile Bradley's armies were marauding to the south and east. By the 11th a sack was forming. Its open end was Falaise, at the opposite end and 60 kilometers away from Mortain. Virtually the entire German Seventh Army as well as Panzer Group West was in the bag. If the Allies could seal it shut, Army Group G would be finished.

On the evening of 6–7th Eisenhower penned into a memorandum about Dragoon:

The attack by the Canadian Army this morning south from Caen met the stiffest kind of resistance and has not made much progress. It therefore appears to me that the American right wing on this front should swing in closer in an effort to destroy the enemy by attacking him in the rear. On a visit to Bradley today I found that he had already acted on this idea and had secured Montgomery's agreement to a sharp change in direction toward the Northeast instead of continuing directly toward the East, as envisaged in M517 [Montgomery's most recent field order of 6 August, which directed a wider swing to the east to Paris and the Seine by Third Army].

Despite what he said to Eisenhower, Bradley hesitated. On the 9th, Patton wrote, "If I were on my own, I would take bigger chances than I am now permitted to take. Three times I have suggested risks and been turned down and each time the risk is warranted." Patton kept working on permutations that maximized the amount of combat power he could send east. Unknown to each other, both Patton and Montgomery favored a wide encirclement of retreating German forces by sending American forces westward down the Seine to the English Channel.

On the 11th Monty was assaying how best to close what had become known as the Falaise pocket. Initially Argentan appeared the best point for the northern pincer, Canadian First Army, to meet the southern one, Third Army, which had XV Corps in the lead. Eighty kilometers separated the two Allied forces.

Canadian II Corps was commanded by the highly regarded Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds. According to M517, Canadian First Army was to take Falaise. However Simonds's exploiting divisions, 4th Canadian Armored and Polish 2nd Armored, were new to combat and making mistakes expected of green units. Canadian II Corps had been bogged down for three days by skillful German resistance.

XV Corps, a component of Third Army, reached Argentan just before midnight. Now the gap was less than 40 kilometers. XV Corps commander, Major General Wade Haislip, signaled he had no orders to go beyond that city. However, he was prepared to advance northward until XV Corps linked with the Canadians. Doubting 21st Army Group's ability to reach Argentan, Patton called his boss Bradley, who had just been elevated to Commander 12th Army Group (First and Third American Armies). Patton requested permission to advance beyond the army group boundary. Stating he would rather have "a solid shoulder at Argentan than the possibility of a broken neck at Falaise,"10 Bradley halted the American thrust.

If Bradley had given Patton permission to close the gap, history would have recorded it as a bold decision consistent with his Commander's Intent (close the gap). Bradley might have communicated more forcefully with his commander, Montgomery, who was temporarily overall ground commander as well as Commander 21st Army Group (British Second and Canadian First Armies), but he didn't. Certainly this was not Bradley's most sterling hour. This will not be the last time a subordinate of one army displays less than sparkling communication skills with his commander in another color of uniform. A renowned American military historian, Carlo D'Este, is even more severe: "The crucial decisions were solely Bradley's. He created the Falaise Gap and ultimately he failed to close it." Bradley apparently was afraid of the combat power that German units caught in the Falaise pocket still had. Major Alexander C. Stiller, an aide to Patton, records a meeting between Patton and Bradley about the time forward elements of Third Army reached the Seine. Bradley related to Patton that German forces still trapped were more than Third Army could contain at that juncture and advised him to keep open an escape route for them.


Excerpted from The Battle for Western Europe Fall 1944 by John A. Adams. Copyright © 2010 John A. Adams. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Maps
1. Culmination
2. Logistics
3. SHAEF's Plan
4. It Wasn't Arnhem versus Antwerp
5. Concentrate, General Bradley
6. Patton's Lorraine Campaign
7. November Rerun
8. Opportunity in the South
Conclusion: Unity of Command

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