The war was all but over, or so they thought. The British War Cabinet was convinced it would be finished by Christmas. The American War Production Board canceled contracts for artillery shells. The Allies were in France; the Germans were in retreat. It was late summer 1944, and combatants on both sides were past exhaustion.
But peace was not at hand.
“The German army’s extraordinary capacity to recover from disaster had been shown time and time again on the eastern front as well as in the west,’’ Antony Beevor writes in “Ardennes 1944,’’ his masterly study of the Nazis’s last-gasp attempt to launch a major counteroffensive to recoup some momentum in a war they were clearly losing. “Morale was bad, but the determination to fight on had not collapsed entirely.’’
In this latest installment in the war chronicles that he has produced in recent years, Beevor makes clear that there was still fighting to be done, and not just between the Axis powers and the Allies. Dwight Eisenhower would wrestle with Bernard Montgomery; Charles DeGaulle would struggle with just about everybody; German soldiers and German civilians would have their own psychological battles.
Beevor paints a searing portrait of a world weary of war but unable to stop it as the combat dragged on in conditions so full of misery and privation that German soldiers — 60 percent of whom were infected with lice — eyed regimental horses for food. A plan proffered by US Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morganthau and publicized by German authorities to transform a defeated Germany into an agrarian backwater only served to stiffen that nation’s resolve.
“The German people must realize that we are engaged in a life and death struggle,’’ a leading Nazi newspaper proclaimed, “which imposes on every German the duty to do his utmost for the victorious conclusion of the war and the frustration of the plans of destruction planned by these cannibals.’’
Reflecting the Allies’s miscalculation of the situation, Eisenhower had ordered the demobilization of resistance forces in Belgium in November. Adolf Hitler had other ideas. Since mid-September he had been thinking about a new offensive, a notion fortified by his conviction, which turned out to be correct, that the Allied coalition of capitalists and communists was inherently unstable, and his view, which also proved right, that a final lightning attack would catch his opponents off guard.
But two rights in this case made for a dreadful military wrong.
Planning for this Nazi offensive proceeded in the strictest secrecy, enforced by a death penalty for infractions of the silence. Regimental commanders weren’t informed until the day before the move. But, fatefully, Hitler had an exaggerated sense of the resources at his command and was increasingly lost in a fog of delirium. “His mood swings,’’ Beevor tells us, “were highly erratic, from total dejection to groundless optimism.’’ The result, as Field Marshal Walter Model put it, was “the worst prepared German offensive of this war.’’
It was so totally irrational that it came as a total surprise.
This was, on the Allied side, a failure of intelligence, but also a failure of imagination. “The Allies,’’ he writes, “could not believe that the Germans in their weakened state would dare to undertake an ambitious strategic offensive, when they needed to husband their strength before the Red Army launched its own winter onslaught.’’
The German attack began with an aerial bombardment. An American army built for forward movement and attack was on its heels. In Paris, imprisoned collaborators celebrated amid fantasies of their own liberation. A German lieutenant wrote to his wife: “Our soldiers still have the same old zip. Always advancing and smashing everything. The snow must turn red with American blood. Victory was never as close as it is now.’’
With insufficient food and artillery shells, the Allies battled on, fighting hard frost and cold wind. Beevor’s battle descriptions crackle with you-were-there authenticity.
In one case, the award-winning historian details how entire Belgian villages, their residents summoned to central squares by the tolling of church bells, contributed bedsheets to be used to provide the GIs, whose uniforms stood out against the white snow, with camouflage. Unfortunately, the soldiers soon discovered that their protective coverings rustled when wet and frozen.
By Christmas it was clear the Germans could not prevail, especially because the American air drops of supplies (and Christmas packages from home) fortified the combatants on the ground. Hitler told his Luftwaffe adjutant that the war was lost but added, “We may go down, but we will take the world with us.’’
A battle enabled by Americans’ failure to defend the Ardennes front sufficiently resulted in what Winston Churchill called “undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever famous American victory.’’ But the real meaning of this battle, and this book, is broader than this conflict alone: It led to American military supremacy that would have no challenge, at least in the West, to this day.
The Battle of the Bulge
By Antony Beevor
Viking, 451 pp., illustrated, $35