BREACHING THE SIEGFRIED LINE
The Road to Germany
The shadows were growing long as five men from the Second Platoon, Troop B, 85th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, 5th U.S. Armored Division, reached the west bank of the Our River. To cross and claim credit as the first patrol on German soil, their commander had told them, they would have to hurry.
Though the bridge over the Our had been demolished, the water was shallow enough for the men to wade across. On the far bank they climbed a hill to a cluster of farm buildings. Nearby they could see some nineteen or twenty concrete pillboxes. Around one somebody had built a shed for chickens.
The men made only a hasty inspection before starting back. An hour later the report of their crossing was on the way up the chain of command. At 1805 On 11 September 1944, the report read, a patrol led by S. Sgt. Warner W. Holzinger crossed into Germany near the village of Stalzemburg, a few miles northeast of Vianden, Luxembourg.1
Sergeant Holzinger's patrol preceded others only by a matter of hours. In early evening, a reinforced company of the 109th Infantry, 28th Division, crossed the Our on a bridge between Weiswampach, in the northern tip of Luxembourg, and the German village of Sevenig. Almost coincidentally, southeast of St. Vith, Belgium, a patrol from the 22d Infantry, 4th Division, also crossed the Our near the village of Hemmeres. Men of this patrol spoke to civilians and, to provide proof of their crossing, procured a German cap, some currency, and a packet of soil.2
The armored and infantry divisions which furnished these patrols were units of the V Corps of the First U.S. Army. Their presence along the German border marked the start of a new phase in the execution of a directive that the Combined Chiefs of Staff of the Allied Powers had given earlier in World War II to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. General Eisenhower was to "undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces."3
As the First Army's patrols crossed the border, three Allied army groups and seven armies were deployed in a grand arc stretching from the North Sea to Switzerland. On the Allied left wing was the 21 Army Group under Field Marshal Sir
Bernard L. Montgomery, consisting of the First Canadian and Second British Armies. (Map I)* In the center was the 12th Army Group under Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, with the First and Third US Armies and the new Ninth US Army, which had become operational on 5 September and was reducing the Breton coastal fortress of Brest, far behind the current front lines. On the right wing were the 1st French and Seventh US Armies, destined to become on 15 September the 6th Army Group under Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers.4
The crossing of the German border on 11 September was another strong draught contributing to a heady optimism with which Allied troops and their commanders were reeling. Operating along the Channel coast, the Canadians already had captured Dieppe and the 1st British Corps of the First Canadian Army was putting the finishing touches to conquest of Le Havre. The Second British Army had overrun Brussels and Antwerp, the latter with its deepwater port facilities almost intact.5 The First Army had taken Liège and the city of Luxembourg. The Third Army in northeastern France was building up along the Moselle River and already had a bridgehead near the Lorraine city of Metz.6 Having successfully landed in southern France on 15 August, the two armies in the south soon would become part of a single western front. During 11 September a patrol from the Third Army made contact with French units from the south near Dijon.
Most of the fighting immediately preceding the crossing of the German border had been pursuit warfare. The Germans were on the run. Except for the Third Army, which had been handicapped for five days while bearing the brunt of a general transportation shortage and gasoline drought, the Allied drive had reached its zenith during the, period 1-11 September. During these eleven days the British had traveled approximately 250 miles, from the Seine River to the Belgian-Dutch border. The First US Army had taken time out near Mons, Belgium, to bag about 25,000 Germans in a giant pocket and make an abrupt change in direction., but still had covered approximately 200 miles. By 11 September the Allies had reached a general line which pre-D-Day planners had expected would be gained about D Plus 330 (2 May 1945). The advance thus was far ahead of schedule, some 233 days.7
A most encouraging feature of Allied success was that casualties had been lighter than expected. Exclusive of the forces in southern France, Allied casualties from 6 June to 11 September were 39,96 1 killed, 164,466 wounded, and 20,142
missing, a total of 224,569, or a little more than 10 percent of the total strength committed.8 Since the landings in Normandy, the Germans had lost approximately 300,000 men, while another 200,000 were penned in various redoubts.
Despite an acute shortage of ports, Allied build-up in men and matériel had been swift. By the afternoon of 11 September a cumulative total of 2,168,307 men and 460,745 vehicles had landed in Normandy.9 General Eisenhower, who had assumed direct operational command in the field on 1 September, controlled on the Continent 26 infantry divisions (including 1 airborne division) and 13 armored divisions (not including a number of cavalry groups and separate tank battalions). Of this total the British and Canadians had furnished 16 divisions (including 1 Polish armored division), while the Americans had provided 23 (including 1 French armored division).10 As soon as General Eisenhower assumed direct command of the forces in southern France, he would gain 3 American infantry divisions (not including an airborne task force of approximately divisional size), 5 French infantry divisions, and 2 French armored divisions. The total for the Western Front would then be 35 infantry and 14 armored divisions. In addition, 2 US and 2 British airborne divisions, 1 Polish airborne brigade, and a British air portable infantry division were in Supreme Headquarters reserve.
General Eisenhower's 49 divisions were opposed, theoretically, by about 48 infantry and 15 panzer-type divisions, plus several panzer brigades. As noted by Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, who on 5 September began a second tour as Oberbefehlshaber West (Commander in Chief West), these forces actually existed only on paper.11 While Allied units were close to full strength, hardly a German division was. Most had incurred severe losses in both men and equipment, and many were badly demoralized from constant defeat in the field. The equivalent of five divisions had been corralled in the Channel Islands and the coastal "fortresses." Rundstedt estimated that his forces were equivalent to about half the number of Allied divisions. Allied superiority in guns was at least 2½ to 1 and in tanks approximately 20 to 1.12
The disparity between forces was less striking on the ground than in the air. The Allies had three tactical air forces: the IX and XIX Tactical Air Commands (both under the Ninth Air Force) and the 2d Tactical Air Force (British). Operating from bases in the United Kingdom and France were 5,059 American bombers, 3,728 American fighters, 5,104 combat aircraft of the Royal Air Force, and additional hundreds of miscellaneous types for reconnaissance, liaison, and transport.13
The enemy's one tactical air force in the West, the Third Air Force (Luftflotte 3), had only 573 serviceable aircraft of all types. In the entire Luftwaffe the Germans had only 4,507 serviceable planes, and most of these had to be retained within Germany to contest Allied strategic bombers.14
The ground front was too fluid during the early days of September for Field Marshal von Rundstedt to accomplish much toward forming one of the new lines which Adolf Hitler designated with febrile frequency. Nevertheless, by 11 September Rundstedt and his subordinates were making honest efforts to conform to the latest decree, to man a new line that was to be held "under any conditions." The line ran from the Belgian coast, including the banks of the Schelde estuary—which might be employed to deny use of Antwerp even though the port had been lost—southeastward along the Dutch-Belgian border to the West Wall (the Siegfried Line) and along the West Wall to the western boundaries of Lorraine and Alsace.15
For all the catastrophic nature of the retreat from France, Rundstedt's order of battle at army and army group levels looked on 11 September much as it had before the Allied invasion. On the right wing, along the Dutch border and within the northern half of the West Wall opposite the 21 Army Group and the First US Army, was Army Group B under Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model. Model, whom Rundstedt had replaced as Commander in Chief West, controlled the Fifteenth, First Parachute, and Seventh Armies. On the left wing was Army Group G (Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz), composed of the First Army, which confronted the Third US Army, and the Nineteenth Army, which faced what was to become the 6th Army Group. What was left of the Fifth Panzer Army was assembling behind the German border. The Germans had a sound framework upon which to hang reinforcements—if reinforcements could be found.16
Allied strategy, as expressed in pre-D-Day planning at Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), looked toward the ultimate objective of Berlin; but on the way the Allies wanted an economic objective, which, if captured, "would rapidly starve Germany of the means to continue the war." This was the Ruhr industrial area, the loss of which, together with Belgium and Holland, would deprive Germany of 65 percent of its production of crude steel and 56 percent of its coal.17
The widespread deployment of the Allied armies on 11 September reflected General Eisenhower's pre-D-Day decision to go after the Ruhr and Berlin on a broad front. Later to become known as the "broad front policy," this concept was not appreciably different from the time-tested military strategy of multiple parallel columns.
In considering which routes of advance were best, SHAEF planners had seriously studied four: (1) the plain of Flanders; (2) the Maubeuge-Liège-Aachen axis north of the Ardennes; (3) the Ardennes; and (4) the Metz-Kaiserslautern gap.18 After deliberation, they had ruled out Flanders, because of too many water obstacles, and the Ardennes, because of rugged terrain and limited communications. The other two avenues merited greater attention.19
The northern route via Maubeuge-Liège-Aachen (the Aachen Gap) obviously leads more directly to the Ruhr. The terrain is relatively open, particularly beyond Aachen on the Cologne plain. Although an advance via Metz-Kaiserslautern leads also to another industrial prize, the Saar Basin with its mines and smelters, the terrain in both Lorraine and the Saar is broken. Advance to the Ruhr after reaching the Rhine along this route is canalized up the narrow Rhine valley. Although both avenues had exercised attraction in modern and earlier wars, the northern route had commanded almost obligatory attention since the northward shift of German industry about 1870 and since the neutrality of Belgium and the Netherlands ceased to command respect. In terms peculiar to the war at hand, the northern route offered promising intermediate objectives: a chance to meet and conquer major German forces expected to be concentrated in defense of the Ruhr; elimination of the enemy's strategic reserve; access to the best airfields between the Seine and Germany; a secure left flank resting on the coast; proximity to air bases in England; and access to the Channel ports, including Antwerp, lack of which would severely limit the forces that could be maintained.20
Before the invasion, General Eisenhower had concurred in the planners' recommendation that the main advance be directed toward the northeast "with the object of striking directly at the Ruhr by the route north of the Ardennes." He also had agreed that a "subsidiary axis" be maintained south of the Ardennes to provide a threat to Metz and the Saar. This was understood to mean an "advance on a broad front North and South of the Ardennes," which would avoid committing the Allied forces irretrievably to one or the other of the comparatively narrow gaps.21 General Eisenhower looked to Field Marshal Montgomery's 21 Army Group to make the main thrust in the north; the Americans under General Bradley, the subsidiary effort in the south.
When the breakout from the Normandy beachhead had turned into wholesale pursuit, Allied commanders had been confronted with glittering opportunities at every turn. Yet the whirlwind advance also introduced logistical complications of a distressing complexity. Though supplies already ashore were for the moment adequate, the explosive advance so stretched lines of communication that a transportation system geared for slower, more methodical moves proved totally unequal to the prodigious tasks suddenly thrust upon it. Having neither the strength nor the transport to exploit all the tempting possibilities, the Supreme
Commander had to face the fact that some kind of deviation from the original concept of a broad front advance had to be made. Out of this undeniable reality emerged decisions which were to affect the conduct of operations in the fall of 1944 throughout the course of the Siegfried Line Campaign.
Meeting with Bradley and Montgomery on 23 August, General Eisenhower remarked the likelihood that the logistical situation soon might crimp Allied operations severely. The crux of the problem, as General Eisenhower saw it, was in the ports. To provide a solid base for sustained operations, an invasion force must have ports; yet the Allies at this point had only the Normandy beaches and Cherbourg. Perhaps it would be best, while the momentum of the advance continued, to forego some of the glamorous tactical opportunities in favor of more utilitarian objectives.
Between the Seine River and the Pas de Calais, on a direct route north toward the Channel ports and Antwerp, sat the enemy's Fifteenth Army, the only sizable reserve the Germans still possessed in northern France. Were the 21 Army Group to attack northward through the plain of Flanders, this reserve might be eliminated even as the Channel ports were captured, whereupon, with a firm base assured, Montgomery might reorient his drive more specifically in keeping with the direction SHAEF planners had intended. In the process, the other intermediate objectives along the northern route, like the airfields and the flying bomb launching sites, also might be attained. In the meantime, the Americans might be establishing their own firm base by opening the Brittany ports and might be preparing to continue their subsidiary thrust.
Though Field Marshal Montgomery proved receptive to General Eisenhower's plan, he insisted on having an entire American army moving along his right flank. Since General Eisenhower already intended reinforcing the British with the airborne troops at his disposal, he thought Montgomery overcautious; but in order to assure success, he acceded to the request. The location of the First US Army dictated its selection for the supporting role, while the Third Army was to clear the Brittany ports and amass supplies for an advance eastward through Metz.22
As developed in detail by Field Marshal Montgomery, the First Army's mission was to support the British advance by establishing forces in the area of Brussels-Maastricht-Liège-Namur-Charleroi. At the suggestion of General Bradley the boundary between the two army groups was adjusted so that Brussels was allotted to the British, the boundary then swinging distinctly northeast at Brussels. This adjustment would eliminate the possibility that the British might be pinched out at Antwerp.23
In essence, the decision emerging from the 23 August meeting resulted in a temporary shift of the main effort from the Maubeuge-Liège-Aachen axis to the plain of Flanders, a route that preinvasion planners had blackballed as a primary axis into Germany. Yet the shift was more
FIELD MARSHAL MONTGOMERY AND GENERAL EISENHOWER during an informal discussion at Montgomery's headquarters in France early in September 1944.
tactical than strategic in that it was made for the purpose of gaining intermediate objectives vital to a final offensive along the lines of the original strategic concept. It could be argued that it involved no real shift of any kind because of the broad interpretation that had come to be accorded the route "north of the Ardennes." The most salient change from original planning was the new location of the First Army. General Eisenhower had intended to employ both the First and Third Armies South of the Ardennes. Though both Eisenhower and Bradley were to try to get at least parts of the two armies moving together again, the fact was that through the course of the Siegfried Line Campaign the First and Third Armies were to be separated by the barrier of the Ardennes. The First Army—not the British—was to attack through the preferred Aachen Gap and eventually was to be designated the Allied main effort.
More than the shift of the First Army, the fact emerging from the August discussions which upset General Bradley was that the priority assigned the northern thrust meant severe restrictions on supplies for the Third Army. Both Bradley and the commander of the Third Army, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., reacted to the decision as if Montgomery had stolen their birthrights.24 General Bradley wanted instead a "modified double thrust," one that would achieve the goals in the north with the help of only one American corps, while the rest of the First Army joined the Third on the southern route.25 Patton, for his part, thought his army by itself could get across the German border in record time if properly supplied. Even after General Patton had felt the stringent logistical pinch which held him immobile for five days along the Meuse, he still had visions of one thrust taking the Third Army across the Rhine River.26
General Eisenhower had no intention of abandoning the subsidiary thrust. Revelation of this fact prompted Field Marshal Montgomery to voice an objection as
strong or stronger than those registered by Bradley and Patton. The crux of Montgomery's argument was that the thrust toward Antwerp should not be looked upon as a limited objective operation but should be broadened into "one powerful full-blooded thrust across the Rhine and into the heart of Germany, backed by the whole of the resources of the Allied Armies. This would involve relegating some sectors of the Allied front to a "purely static role."27
Both Montgomery's and Patton's "one-thrust" theories probably will attract polemic disciples through the years, despite the damage done these theories by German tenacity in later stages of the war. Yet even as Montgomery and Patton promoted their ideas, planners at SHAEF labeled them castles of theory built upon sand. A drive by General Patton's army alone was logistically and tactically feasible, the planners noted, only so far as the Rhine and thus was unlikely to force any decisive result. One thrust in the north, the planners admitted, might succeed in capturing the Ruhr and even in reaching Berlin; but it was neither tactically nor logistically feasible unless certain conditions were met. One was that by September all Allied armies would have reached the Rhine; another, that by the same date Antwerp would have been receiving at least 1,500 tons of supply per day. Neither premise had shown any immediate signs of becoming a reality.28
As an army commander, General Patton had few channels for making his voice heard on the subject after the first refusal. Not so Field Marshal Montgomery, who was both an army group commander and the top military representative in the theater of one of the major Allies. In one form or another, Montgomery was to raise the issue repeatedly, though the Siegfried Line Campaign was to open in an atmosphere of accord because of a temporary settlement reached on 10 September. Meeting Montgomery at Brussels, General Eisenhower refused to accept the view that the field marshal's priority should prevail to the exclusion of all other operations. Nevertheless, he agreed to a temporary delay in clearing the seaward approaches to Antwerp, a project which he felt should have chief emphasis, while Montgomery extended his northern thrust to gain a bridgehead across the Neder Rijn (Lower Rhine) in the Netherlands. Although Montgomery had failed to gain unqualified support for his northern thrust, his army group still retained the role of Allied main effort.29
The Shadow of Logistics
The fervor with which Allied commanders contended for supplies stemmed directly from the critical nature of the logistical situation. Perhaps the most dramatic and widely publicized result of the supply crisis was the enforced halt of the entire Third Army when it ran out of fuel along the Meuse River from 1 to 6 September. Yet the units in the north
had their problems as well, despite the priority assigned the northern thrust. A corps of the Second British Army, for example, was halted for two weeks west of the Seine so that its transport could help supply the rest of the army. A corps of the First Army also had to halt for four days in Belgium for want of gasoline.
It was not shortage of supplies on the Continent that plagued the Allies. Buildup of supplies in Normandy had exceeded expectations. It was shortage of transportation, a problem created and intensified mainly by the sporadic and explosive nature of the tactical advance.30
For all the lack of deepwater port facilities and a steady, orderly advance, supply echelons could have built a sound logistical structure had they been afforded a reasonable pause after the breakout from the confined Normandy beachhead. That was how the invasion had been planned: a pause at the Seine River for regrouping and amassing supplies. But the planners had not foreseen the nature of the German defeat in France. Every path strewn with gems of tactical opportunity, Allied field commanders had felt compelled to urge their armies to go faster, faster. They had leaped the Seine briskly and kept going.
While the timetable prepared by preinvasion planners was admittedly conjectural, it was nevertheless the only basis upon which those charged with delivering supplies could estimate the men, matériel, and transport needed. In gaining the D Plus 330 line by D Plus 97 (11 September), the armies had covered almost the entire distance in the last 48 days. The kind of logistical system that planners had expected would be developed over 233 days obviously could not be created in 48. Furthermore, the preinvasion planners had stipulated that in early September twelve U.S. divisions could be supported as far east as the Seine; in actuality, sixteen U.S. divisions were more than 200 miles beyond the Seine in early September and several others were fighting in Brittany. The fact that these divisions could be maintained in any fashion under these circumstances came under the heading of a near miracle, for the exploitation of the tactical situation had produced a ruthless disregard for an orderly development of a sound communications zone.
During the period of confinement in Normandy, the inadequacy of the Norman rail net had not been felt too keenly. Distances were short and trucking proved equal to the demands placed upon it. When the armies spurted eastward, they uncovered a more extensive rail network, but it had been damaged severely by Allied bombing and French sabotage. Trucking companies had to carry their loads farther and farther forward. Despite extensive improvisation and emergency supply, deliveries to the armies during the last few days of August dwindled to a few thousand tons.
At the end of August the First Army estimated its daily average tonnage requirement as 5,500 tons. Even after General Eisenhower vested supply priority in the First Army and halted the Third Army, only 2,225 tons daily reached the First Army.31 In addition to immobilizing an entire corps for four days for want
of gasoline, the First Army had to halt the armored divisions of the two advancing corps for periods as long as twenty-four hours.32 When recorded receipts took a turn for the better on 5 September to reach 7,000 tons, General Bradley altered the previous allocation to split the available tonnage equally between his two armies, providing each with 3,500 tons. That was how the Third Army got moving again.
The day the new allocation went into effect the First Army claimed that the Communications Zone had failed by 1,900 tons to meet the 3,500 figure. This kind of thing was all the more serious because the army's meager reserves had long since been exhausted. By the end of August 90 to 95 percent of all supplies on the Continent lay in depots near the beaches.
There were two solutions: (1) Pause while the Communications Zone moved depots forward. Doing this would upset the momentum of a victorious advance and afford the enemy additional time to put the West Wall into shape. (2) Get new ports closer to the front. This Hitler himself had circumvented, over the objections of his generals, by designating the ports as "fortresses" and directing that they be held to the last, even though valuable troops would be sacrificed in the process.
The alternative to these solutions was a variation of the first. The 12th Army Group stated it as early as 27 August. "It is contemplated," the army group noted, "that the Armies will go as far as practicable and then wait until the supply system in rear will permit further advance."33 The pursuit would come to no dramatic end. It would sputter out.
In an effort to keep the armies moving, commanders from divisional units all the way back to the Communications Zone took extraordinary measures. That the advance carried as far as it did was attributable in no small part to these improvisations.
Though rail reconstruction was pushed with vigor, it hardly could have been expected to keep pace with the violent spurts of the combat formations. Nevertheless, by 30 August, railroad engineers and French civilians working round the clock had pushed two main routes as far as Paris. The network beyond the Seine was less severely crippled; but to get supplies through the damaged yards of Paris and beyond the destroyed rail bridges of the Seine, they had to be unloaded and trucked through the city. In the First Army area, reconstruction crews quickly opened a line from Paris northeast through Soissons and by 18 September were to push it to a point just west of Liège.34
For all the accomplishments under this program, motor transport had to assume the principal burden, even though production difficulties in the United States had imposed limitations on trucks long before D-Day. When confronted with the engulfing demands of the pursuit, available motor transport could not deliver even daily maintenance, much less provide stocks for intermediate or advance depots. To make the most of available facilities, commanders decided on 23 August to establish a special truck route, the Red Ball Express. By closing off civilian traffic on two parallel routes to points
southwest of Paris and by pushing the trucks and their drivers to the limit, they delivered 89,939 tons in eight days between 25 August and 6 September. Beginning on 25 August with 67 truck companies, the Red Ball attained peak capacity on 29 August when 132 companies, using 5,939 trucks, moved 12,342 tons of supplies. The Red Ball was to continue operation for another eleven weeks and was to serve as the prototype for several less ambitious express services.
The armies themselves took over much of the hauling. On 22 August General Bradley told both his armies to leave their heavy artillery west of the Seine and use the artillery trucks for transporting supplies. Because Communications Zone depots were far in the rear, trucks of the First Army often had to make round trips totaling 300 miles or more. On a few occasions truck companies searched for supplies all the way back to the invasion beaches. The First Army quartermaster scouted for advancing gasoline trains from a cub airplane. The First Army had 43 Quartermaster truck companies, which were supplemented by 10 to 20 provisional companies made up from artillery and antiaircraft units. The infantry divisions advanced either on foot or by shuttling in trucks borrowed from their organic artillery and attached antiaircraft.35
Though emergency air supply proved highly valuable, tonnage delivered by this method fell short of 1,000 tons per day. Most of this went to the Third Army. The vagaries of weather, lack of serviceable Continental airfields, and the need to withhold planes for their primary mission of training for and executing tactical airborne operations imposed severe restrictions on the airlift program. Another restriction developed when the city of Paris was liberated far ahead of schedule. Responsible for providing 1,500 tons of supplies daily for civil relief in the capital, the 12th Army Group had to obtain 500 tons of this from the airlift.
Major efforts were made to speed construction of fuel pipelines, but this task was inherently slow and was retarded further by the limitations on moving pipe imposed by the transportation shortage. While construction sometimes reached a record 30 to 40 miles a day, the combat troops were going even faster. During the early days of September the terminus of the pipeline was some 170 miles southwest of Paris.
Combat commanders urged strictest supply economy.36 All units rationed gasoline. Food was of emergency types, mostly C and K rations, supplemented in the First Army by approximately 75,000 captured rations that added a new monotony of canned fish to the diet. The Third Army captured huge quantities of German beef, not to mention the exciting acquisition of great stores of champagne. Cigarettes became so scarce in the First Army that the soldiers accepted even the mostly ersatz German cigarettes with relish.
Gasoline was the main problem, not because enough had not reached the Continent but because it could not be moved forward overnight and because worn-out vehicles used inordinate amounts. Ammunition presented no great problem during the mobile warfare of the pursuit, but it would, should a pitched battle develop at the gates of the West Wall. With all available transport used for daily
maintenance and none for reserve stocks, what would happen should the armies run into intense fighting? How to equip the men with heavier clothing now that winter was coming on? How to replace the worn-out items of signal, quartermaster, medical, engineer, and ordnance equipment?
Had the effects of the logistical crisis disappeared with the close of the pursuit, the costly, miserable fighting that came to characterize the Siegfried Line Campaign might never have occurred. Yet the fact was that the pursuit ended because of the effects of the logistical crisis. The imprint of a weakened logistical system on the conduct of operations was to be marked for at least two more months. As many an Allied commander was to discover during the fall of 1944, a logistical headache is a persistent illness.
The Germans in the West
For all the implications of the logistical crisis, sober appreciations of the situation were none too common during late summer 1944. The German army was "no longer a cohesive force but a number of fugitive battle groups, disorganized and even demoralized, short of equipment and arms."37 This was the Allied view. Political upheaval within Germany or insurrection within the Wehrmacht was likely to hasten the end.38 The First Army G-2 believed that the enemy was concentrating all he had left opposite Metz and along the Lower Rhine, "leaving a gap from Trier to Maastricht which he is attempting to fill with everything on which he can lay his hands." This, the G-2 declared, "had proved his undoing."39
This kind of optimism reflected no fleeting impression. In mid-September, when a corps commander took temporary leave of his troops for a short assignment elsewhere, he declared it "probable" that the war with Germany would be over before he could return.40 On 15 September the First Army was almost sanguine over the possibility of enemy collapse in the Rhineland and the "enormous" strategic opportunity of seizing the Rhine bridges intact.41 As late as the last week in September, the First Army commander believed that, given two weeks of good weather, Allied air and ground forces could "bring the enemy to their knees."42 Although a few dissenting voices tried to make themselves heard, caution was not the fashion during the late summer season of 1944.
In many respects the true German situation nurtured optimism. In five years of war the German armed forces had lost 114,215 officers and 3,630,274 men, not including wounded who had returned to duty. The bulk of these had been Army losses. Many had been incurred during the recent months of June, July, and August, which had brought the Germans their most disastrous defeats in both East
and West. During these three months the Army alone had suffered losses in dead, wounded, and missing of 1,210,600, approximately two thirds of which had been incurred in the East where both sides employed larger masses of men. Losses in transport and equipment also were tremendous; during August alone, for example, a total of 254,225 horses were lost.43
Not counting "paper units," which had headquarters but no troops, the Third Reich in early September possessed some 252 divisions and 15 to 20 brigades, greatly varied as to strength and capabilities. They were deployed in five theaters. In Finland, the East, and the Balkans they were supplemented by approximately 55 allied divisions (Finnish, Hungarian, and Bulgarian), for which the Germans had little respect. Most of the total of some 7,500,000 men were in the Field Army (Feldheer), the Replacement Army (Ersatzheer), or the services of supply. About 207,000 were in the Waffen-SS, a mechanized Army-type force originally made up of volunteers from Nazi-party organizations.
Of the 48 infantry and 15 panzer or panzer-type divisions which Field Marshal von Rundstedt controlled in the West, two represented a new class of 18 divisions which had been in process of formation since early July. These 18 divisions—15 of which went to the East and 1 to Scandinavia—were the first of the "volks grenadier" divisions, an honorific selected to appeal to the national and military pride of the German people (das Volk). The troops were hospital returnees, converted naval and Luftwaffe personnel, previously exempt industrial workers, and youths just reaching military age.
When Hitler in late August began to consider how to stop the headlong retreat in the West, he settled upon a plan to increase the number of volks grenadier divisions. On 2 September—already seriously planning a large-scale operation designed to regain the initiative—he directed creation of an "operational reserve" of twenty-five new volks grenadier divisions. They were to become available in the West between 1 October and 1 December.
Organization and equipment of the new divisions reflected a tendency, current in the German Army since 1943, to reduce manpower while increasing fire power. Early in 1944 the standard infantry division had been formally reduced from about 17,000 men to 12,500.44 By cutting each of the conventional three infantry regiments to two rifle battalions apiece and by thinning the organic service troops, the volks grenadier divisions were further reduced to about 10,000 men. Attempts were made to arm two platoons in each company with the 1944 model machine pistol (known to Americans as the burp gun), increase the amount of field artillery, and provide a larger complement of antitank weapons and assault guns (self-propelled tank destroyers). Approximately three fourths of the divisional transportation was horse drawn, while one unit, the Fuesilier battalion, had bicycles.
To supplement divisional artillery and antitank guns, Hitler ordered formation
of a number of general headquarters (Heeres) units; 12 motorized artillery brigades (about 1,000 guns), 10 Werfer (rocket projector) brigades, 10 assault gun battalions, and 12 20-mm. machine gun battalions. These were to be ready along with the last of the 25 volks grenadier divisions. In addition, Hitler on 4 September assigned the West priority on all new artillery and assault guns.
Two other steps were of a more immediate nature. As the month of September opened, 10 panzer brigades were either just arriving at the front or were being formed. These were built around a panzer battalion equipped with about forty Mark V (Panther) tanks. On the theory that the Mark V was tactically superior to the US Sherman tank, the panzer brigades were expected to make up temporarily for Allied numerical superiority in armor.
The other step was to commit to battle approximately a hundred "fortress" infantry battalions made up of the older military classes and heretofore used only in rear areas. About four fifths of these were to be assigned to the West. Calling the battalions a "hidden reserve," the First US Army later was to credit them with much of the German tenacity in the West Wall.45
Had Allied commanders been aware of the enemy's necessity to resort to expedients like these, it probably would have fed their optimism. Neither could they have been impressed by the command situation as it had developed at the top level. After the reverses on the Eastern Front during 1941-42, Hitler had assumed more and more the role of supreme military leader, so that by the fall of 1944 the concept of maneuver had been all but stultified by a complete centralization of command. Hardly anybody could do anything without first consulting Hitler. After the unsuccessful attempt on his life in July, he looked upon almost every proposal from a field commander with unalloyed suspicion.
To reach the supreme military leader, field commanders in the 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.) Hitler's impression of the situation thus stemmed directly from a staff far removed from the scene of action.
OB WEST, the headquarters in the West that was comparable to SHAEF, was a supreme headquarters in theory only, for the ties imposed by OKW were stringent. The jealousies that played among the Army, the Luftwaffe, the Navy, the Waffen-SS, and Nazi party political appointees also limited OB WEST's independence.
Hitler's order for early September to hold "under any conditions" a line from the Schelde estuary along the face of the West Wall and the western borders of Lorraine and Alsace had shown little appreciation of the difficulties facing OB WEST. This was despite the fact that Field Marshal Model, who had preceded Rundstedt as Commander in Chief West, had done his best to convey some sense of the crisis by sending report after report couched in dire terms. The retreating troops, Model had warned, possessed few heavy weapons and little else except carbines and rifles. Few of the eleven panzer divisions had more than five to ten tanks in working order. Artillery in both in-
FIELD MARSHAL MODEL
FIELD MARSHAL VON RUNDSTEDT
fantry and panzer divisions was almost a thing of the past. The troops were depressed by Allied superiority in planes and tanks and by the contrast between their own horse-drawn transport and the motors of their enemy. In Alsace a wide gap had developed between the two groups of armies that could not be filled with less than three fresh infantry divisions. 'Hardly had Model reported this gap than he wrote it off as no longer of primary concern. The entire Western Front, he pleaded, needed propping up lest it give way completely.46
On 4 September Model had given a detailed appraisal of the front of Army Group B, which Model himself commanded in addition to his major post as Commander in Chief West. His army group alone, Model had said, needed a minimum of 25 fresh infantry divisions and 5 or 6 panzer divisions.47
To this plea Model received not even the courtesy of a reply. It was at this point that he was replaced in the top half of his dual command responsibility by Rundstedt.
Field Marshal von Rundstedt's return to his former command on 5 September came on the heels of personal indoctrination from Hitler. The Allies, Hitler had told him, were outrunning their supplies and soon would have to halt, at which time counterattacks could cut off the "armored spearheads" and stabilize the
front. The West Wall, Hitler insisted, had all the elements of impregnability and would afford the much-needed respite. Hitler's final instructions were much like the earlier order to hold "under any conditions." Rundstedt was to stop the Allies as far to the west as possible, then was to counterattack along the boundary between the two army groups into the south flank of the Third US Army.48
After assuming command in the main OB WEST command post near Koblenz, Rundstedt's most urgent problem was the restoration of a collective strategy for the whole of the Western Front, something to which Model, in his preoccupation with Army Group B, had paid scant attention. Rundstedt correctly held out little hope for the counterattack; for continued advances by the Third Army denied mounting one in any appreciable strength. Yet the very fact that any troops were on hand to counterattack lessened this particular threat. He could see no solution for two other threats: one against the Ruhr, particularly via Aachen, and another in uncommitted Allied airborne forces, which he expected might attack either in rear of the West Wall or east of the Rhine.
Rundstedt's first estimate of the situation, forwarded to OKW on 7 September, echoed Model's pessimistic reports. After emphasizing the overwhelming Allied superiority in divisions and in armor, Rundstedt insisted on the immediate need of at least five, "and better ten," infantry divisions. He needed tanks and tank destroyers desperately, he said, to counter the threat at Aachen. At the moment the only reserves of any description were a "weak" 9th Panzer Division, a "weak" Sturm panzer battalion, and two assault gun brigades. All of these already were on the way to Aachen.49
The answer from Berlin must have been as frustrating to Rundstedt as earlier responses had been to Model. Spike down the front as far to the west as possible. Pull out the shattered divisions for reconstitution. Counterattack into the flank of the Third US Army. No promise of any immediate assistance. As the American First Army noted, "The moment called for a real soldier."50
Subsequent events might prove that in Field Marshal von Rundstedt the moment had found the soldier it called for. The German situation in the West was bad, even desperate. Yet it was a situation that a strong leader still might make something of.
The true German situation was perhaps most aptly described by one of the few voices of caution raised on the Allied side during the halcyon days of pursuit. On 28 August the Third Army G-2 had put it this way:
Despite the crippling factors of shattered communications, disorganization and tremendous losses in personnel and equipment, the enemy nevertheless has been able to maintain a sufficiently cohesive front to exercise an overall control of his tactical situation. His withdrawal, though continuing, has not been a rout or mass collapse. Numerous new identifications in contact in
recent days have demonstrated clearly that, despite the enormous difficulties under which he is operating, the enemy is still capable of bringing new elements into the battle area and transferring some from other fronts . . . .
It is clear from all indications that the fixed determination of the Nazis is to wage a last-ditch struggle in the field at all costs. It must be constantly kept in mind that fundamentally the enemy is playing for time. Weather will soon be one of his most potent Allies as well as terrain, as we move east to narrowing corridors . . . . 51
The fact was that the German penchant and respect for organization and discipline had preserved organization at the headquarters levels basically intact. Though some top commanders and many staff officers had been lost, the Germans still had enough capable senior officers to replace them. Nor had the Germans as a nation resorted to total mobilization before the fall of 1944.52
This is not to say, the Germans had not full justification for alarm as the first patrols crossed their border. The situation still was chaotic, but the ingredients for stabilization were present. In the north, for example, opposite the British and the First US Army, though the Seventh and Fifteenth Armies were skeletons, the army and corps staffs still functioned and each army had at least ten division staffs capable of attempting to execute tactical assignments. Upon news of the fall of Antwerp, Hitler had rushed to the Netherlands headquarters of a training command, the First Parachute Army, to fill a gap between the Seventh and Fifteenth Armies. Though the First Parachute Army brought with it little more than its own headquarters, it was able in a matter of days to borrow, confiscate from the retreating masses, or otherwise obtain functioning staffs of one corps and several divisions. Winning a war with a setup like this might be impossible, but it could be effective in stopping an overextended attacker long enough to permit creation of something better.