A Lingering Controversy: Eisenhower’s ‘Broad Front’ Strategy
The war of words over the choices by which the war might have been won was, in the end, all but irrelevant. Not only was it politically impossible to have permitted the British to win the war by means of the narrow front, there is ample evidence to question if such a drive, if mounted, could have been logistically sustained beyond the Ruhr.
It has been sixty-five years since Dwight Eisenhower articulated his broad front strategy for ending the war in Europe and the consequences of that decision still linger on to this day. At the time the Allied generals quarreled over Ike’s decision, and from the time the war ended historians have taken sides to praise or condemn it. Some of the war’s most contentious debates have sprung from this decision. For his part, Eisenhower stubbornly never wavered in his belief that he had chosen the correct strategy. This is what it was all about.
The Normandy campaign ended in late August 1944 in a rout and with the German army in complete disarray. As the Allied armies crossed the Seine and began sweeping into Belgium and Lorraine it seemed to many that the Germans were finished and the war would surely be over by Christmas.
In mid-August, Eisenhower announced his intention to assume command of the Allied land forces on September 1. In the spring of 1944, while most were concentrating on the D-day invasion, a small group of SHAEF planners had for many weeks been busy analyzing Eisenhower’s mandate “to undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.” On May 3 they presented Eisenhower with alternative courses of action after Normandy to attain that goal. These included the capture of the Ruhr in order to cripple Germany’s war-making capability, and the capture of Berlin. The four options presented for an advance to the Ruhr were all variations of a broad Allied advance both north and south of the rugged Ardennes Forest. Eisenhower rejected Berlin as a military objective and began to study his two options for seizing the Ruhr by either a frontal assault or through an envelopment. On May 27 Eisenhower affirmed the broad front strategy recommended by his planners. This is the only known document that spelled out SHAEF’s post-Normandy strategy.
For Eisenhower, the student of history, the solution was self-evident. Military commanders dream of the double envelopment, of surrounding an objective on two sides by pincer movements and crushing it behind their combined weight as had been intended at Falaise. When he studied the map of Europe in 1944, Eisenhower was drawn by his knowledge of history to one of his boyhood heroes, Hannibal, the Carthaginian general whose masterful defeat of the Romans at Cannae in 216 B.C. is considered one of the classic battles of history. With the Ardennes as an impediment that of necessity had to be bypassed, Eisenhower envisioned a Hannibal-like Cannae by means of a double envelopment of the Ruhr. A force under Montgomery 21st Army Group would advance north of the Ardennes to strike the Ruhr while a second force consisting of Bradley’s 12th Army Group advanced south of the Ardennes through Lorraine, and swung north to Cologne to complete the double envelopment. Moreover, the scheme bore more than a passing likeness to the plan of another general Eisenhower had studied at length: Ulysses S. Grant and his 1864 strategy for defeating the Confederacy.
Both Montgomery and Bradley began to weigh in with plans of their own that would guarantee them a key role in the post-Normandy battles. Each lobbied hard to win Eisenhower’s approval. Although aware that his days as the acting Allied ground commander were numbered, Montgomery not only argued against changing the command set-up at this late date but pressed ahead to influence future Allied strategy. The sudden collapse of German resistance in mid-August gave rise to a proposal for what he called a single “full-blooded” thrust towards the Ruhr with his and Bradley’s army group marching abreast. This force of some forty divisions “would be so strong that it need fear nothing.”
Montgomery was also convinced, not without justification, that Eisenhower and SHAEF were ill-prepared for the task of running the ground war. “The whole command set up was fundamentally wrong. There was no one who could give his complete and undivided attention to the day to day direction of the land battle as a whole,” he told Australian journalist and military historian Chester Wilmot after the war. Eisenhower “had not the experience, the knowledge, the organization, or the time. He should have been devoting himself to questions of overall strategy, to political problems, and to problems of inter-Allied relations and military government . . . Instead he insisted on trying the run the land battle himself. Here he was out of his depth and in trying to do this he neglected his real job on the highest level.”
As the Normandy campaign had progressed, Montgomery found Eisenhower’s presence more distraction than help. Montgomery conducted meetings in a brisk and businesslike manner, but when Eisenhower was present he was critical of what he believed tended to be too much conversation and too little substance. Montgomery also realized that he stood little chance of winning over Eisenhower at any meeting involving members of the SHAEF staff and arranged to have Eisenhower visit his field headquarters on August 23. Either he or Bradley, he said, should control the ground war, and with the growing insufficiency of supplies, the war could not be won in 1944 unless priority were given his proposed offensive which, he argued, must also include the First U.S. Army on his right flank. Eisenhower agreed to give priority of resupply to Lt. Gen. Miles Dempsey’s Second British Army and, “no matter what the command arrangements,” he “would see to it that Montgomery retained “operational coordination” over the northern flank of the Allied advance.”
On September 5 Eisenhower cabled Montgomery to reaffirm his intention to advance on a broad front, pointing out that with the destruction of the bulk of the German Army in the west, “We must immediately exploit our success by promptly breaching the Siegfried Line, crossing the Rhine on a wide front and seizing the Saar and the Ruhr. This I intend to do with all possible speed … [which] will give us a stranglehold on two of Germany’s main industrial areas and likely destroy her capacity to wage war.” He would give priority to the Ruhr to include the allocation of the precious logistical resources.
In a private office memorandum written that same day, Eisenhower summarized his position. “For some days it has been obvious that our military forces can advance almost at will, subject only to the requirement for maintenance . . . The defeat of the German armies is complete, and the only thing now needed to realize the whole conception is speed. Our rapidity of movement will depend upon maintenance, in which we are now stretched to the limit . . . I now deem it important, while supporting the advance eastward through Belgium, to get Patton moving once again so that we may be fully prepared to carry out the original conception for the final stage of the campaign,” i.e., the broad front.
Montgomery was horrified by Eisenhower’s intended strategy believing he was fully capable of ending the war by thrusting clear to Berlin, provided he was allocated the necessary resources. Nor was Montgomery a victim of the “victory disease” sweeping through Allied ranks. His official biographer notes: “If he bombarded Eisenhower with signals daily more urgent in their appeal for a meeting, for concentrated strategy, for priority to be given to one thrust and for all resources to be thrown behind it, it was because he did not consider the war all but won.”
From mid-August until the end of the war disagreements would proliferate over precisely what Eisenhower’s armies ought to be doing and where. In September 1944 they revolved around a single issue: “which way to Germany?” Eisenhower believed that both strategically and logistically Montgomery’s narrow front strategy was impractical and would shut down all other transportation and virtually immobilize the preponderance of American forces east of Paris simply to support Montgomery’s 21st Army Group.
Eisenhower’s penchant for compromise and consensus led him to approve some of Montgomery’s recommendations. “What Eisenhower was unconsciously counting on was a repetition of November 1918, when the Germans signed the armistice while their armies were still well west of the border. Eisenhower had chosen the safe, cautious route,” notes his official biographer, Stephen Ambrose. Priority of resupply was allocated to 21st Army Group, primarily to enable the British and Canadian armies to capture Antwerp and, equally important, the deadly Crossbow V weapon sites which were now launching the more sophisticated V-2 rocket which struck throughout England without warning. Eisenhower also approved the temporary attachment of Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges’ First Army, to the fury of Bradley who failed to change his friend’s mind.
Their distinctive and disparate personalities and philosophical dissimilarities, and differing styles of leadership separated Eisenhower and Montgomery from one another soon escalated to far more serious proportions. To make his point that a single ground commander was vital, Montgomery even offered to serve under Bradley, never really perceiving Bradley’s total disdain for him. Another misconception is that Montgomery’s sole motivation was to retain the power and prestige of being the Allied ground force commander. Some historians have charged that his offer to serve under Bradley was specious; it was not. Montgomery lacked the guile to make false promises. For all his vanity and at times insufferable insistence on pursuing his own ideas, Montgomery, like Eisenhower, was heartily sick of war and eager to end it quickly. Given the precedent of the independence of the army group commanders, little would have changed with Bradley in command. Eisenhower thus rejected the offer for the same reason he had earlier rebuffed keeping Montgomery: public opinion. The British public, he believed, would not stand for a junior American general in command of a British field marshal and his army group.
Eisenhower’s decision to assume command of the ground war unleashed a tide of emotion. It was greeted by the British press as a national slap in the face that was only partly assuaged when Churchill announced Montgomery’s promotion to field marshal on September 1, the official date Eisenhower assumed command of Allied ground forces. Although the decision had been plainly scripted months in advance, it nevertheless came as “an appalling shock” to Montgomery whose promotion seemed to mollify the British public, but did little to mitigate the disappointment over what he regarded as nothing less than a demotion.
Eisenhower was in a classic no-win quandary. The American press also criticized him but for not taking command and restoring American prestige, which they maintained was being stolen by Montgomery and the British. If Eisenhower was indecisive over the command issue during and after Cobra (July 1944), a telegram from Army chief of staff, Gen. George Marshall on August 19 settled matters. American correspondents were filing increasingly critical stories of Eisenhower that were receiving prominent space in The New York Times and other high profile newspapers across the United States. Through a censor’s mistake, it had been made public that Bradley was now co-equal with Montgomery. Why were British commanders still running the war in Europe? And, why hadn’t Eisenhower assumed control of the ground war? Marshall’s implication was obvious and, not for the first time a prompting from Marshall stiffened his resolve.
Many American officers somewhat cynically viewed Montgomery’s promotion as an unmerited concession by Churchill. Ever the diplomat, Eisenhower smoothed troubled waters at a Whitehall press conference in which he described Montgomery as a “great and personal friend . . . anyone who misinterpreted the transition of command as a demotion for General Montgomery simply did not look the facts in the face . . . Montgomery is one of the great leaders of this or any other war.” Montgomery’s promotion was both a reward for his past successes and also an attempt to keep British prestige from falling any further into the backwash of American supremacy.
With Eisenhower’s assumption of command on September 1, Montgomery’s relationship with him took a downward turn. With the change of command the former honeymoon-like atmosphere between the two men completely unraveled. To the point of obsession, Montgomery suffered from an inability to see the points of view of others or to accept that his beliefs were not always shared. He became overwrought in his refusal to accept the reality that Eisenhower intended to take his job. Instead of accepting what Eisenhower constantly preached, that he and everyone else were members of an allied team, Montgomery could not find it in himself to accept Eisenhower’s way of warfare or his authority. The times had changed, but Montgomery had not changed with them, hence his insistence that the present lines of command remain intact. What made the changeover so bitter was Montgomery’s conviction that Eisenhower was too inexperienced and organizationally ill-prepared to assume the mantle of land force commander.
Eisenhower’s problems were not limited to Montgomery. With Third Army soon crippled by a lack of fuel and ammunition, Bradley and Patton aligned themselves against both Montgomery and Eisenhower whom they believed had sold out the U.S. Army to the British. Once, when a convoy of rations arrived, Patton raged to a sympathetic Bradley that he would “shoot the next man who brings me food. Give us gasoline; we can eat our belts.” To correspondent Cornelius Ryan, Patton declared that there were only 5,000-10,000 “Nazi bastards” blocking the advance of Third Army. “Now, if Ike stops holding Monty’s hand and gives me the supplies, I’ll go through the Siegfried Line like shit through a goose.”
Eisenhower was not unresponsive and had there been sufficient supplies forward to increase Third Army’s allocations, he would undoubtedly have turned Patton loose in Lorraine. As it was, before the fuel tap was all but shut off, Eisenhower gave Bradley and Patton fresh hope by allocating 250,000 gallons of fuel to Third Army on September 5 and an additional 1.4 million gallons over the three-day period that followed, before it ground to a halt along the Moselle River, a tantalizing seventy-odd miles from the then unmanned Siegfried Line. Like children squabbling over who gets the last piece of pie, Eisenhower could please no one. His latest generosity on behalf of Patton brought bitter criticism from Montgomery.
Still, Eisenhower’s broad-front decision sent a discernible chill through Patton and his Third Army staff and seemed confirmation of his pro-British bias. Convinced the winning of the war was being squandered on the altar of Allied cooperation, Patton frequently lamented that they were fighting two enemies, the Germans and SHAEF, writing to his wife, Bea, “God deliver us from our friends. We can handle the enemy.”
The decisions made at this critical moment of the war were, as Patton called it, the “unforgiving minute” of history, which, once taken, could not be easily reversed. “No one realizes the terrible value of the ‘unforgiving minute’ except me,” he seethed in frustration.
During the second half of August Bradley and Montgomery took turns lobbying Eisenhower to accept their plan. Eisenhower’s personal relationship with Bradley did not prevent the latter from aggressively entering the fray. His partisan views and his hostility toward Montgomery would at times overwhelm Bradley’s common sense and help fuel Eisenhower’s feelings against the British general. With his increased stature came what he believed should be commensurate clout as an army group commander. Bradley, by his own definition, was “flying high” and in no mood to be relegated to the second string at the expense of his nemesis, Montgomery.
Bradley proposed his own plan, a thrust across central and southern France through the Frankfurt gap, and into the heart of the Third Reich by both the First and Third Armies. Third Army would advance into Lorraine and breach the Maginot and Siegfried Lines in the Saar while First Army advanced on an axis to the north, both routes Bradley argued were the most direct ones into the Reich.
Eisenhower was beset from all sides by unhappy commanders scrapping for an equal share of the logistical pie. Montgomery’s seemingly endless demands for priority were mirrored by Bradley and Patton who conspired to milk the supply system for all its worth. Caught in the middle was Eisenhower whose authority was challenged repeatedly. For once Bradley set aside his dislike of Patton and willingly supported his efforts to keep Third Army on the move.
Ike’s grandson, David, argues “the thrust of Eisenhower’s position was military,” and that he believed the Germans, while disorganized, were far from beaten. Moreover, Montgomery’s single-thrust plan would actually have made the German defense of the homeland easier by permitting them to concentrate their opposition to the single-thrust advance. “Thus, Montgomery’s talk of defeating the German army and driving to Berlin with forty Allied divisions was ‘fantastic’ – Eisenhower would not ever consider it.”
Eisenhower’s assertion that his decisions were made solely for military reasons was not completely valid. Stephen Ambrose notes that, “No matter how brilliant or logical Montgomery’s plan for an advance to the Ruhr was (and a good case can be made that it was both), and no matter what Montgomery’s personality was, under no circumstances would Eisenhower agree to give all the glory to the British, any more than he would agree to give it to American forces. But as things stood Eisenhower could not make his decisions solely on military grounds. He could not halt Patton in his tracks, relegate Bradley to a minor administrative role, and in effect tell Marshall that the great army he had raised in the United States was not needed in Europe.” Although Eisenhower may well have convinced himself his broad front decision was primarily military, the political aspects simply could not have been ignored. 1944 was a presidential election year in a war being fought by allies. From the time he took command of Torch in North Africa his role, indeed the very basis of his success, had been unity in a war, which would be won by allies, not by British or Americans, acting singularly. Thus, from Eisenhower’s perspective, the controversy was a tempest in a teapot.
Yet, Montgomery’s single most compelling argument was one which left Eisenhower in a quandary that defied resolution: “If we attempt a compromise solution,” he wrote to the supreme commander on September 4, “and split our maintenance resources so that neither thrust is full-blooded, we will prolong the war.”
His memories still bitter after the war, Montgomery said that Eisenhower’s method “was to talk to everyone and then try to work out a compromise solution which would please everyone. He had no plan of his own . . . Eisenhower held conferences to collect ideas; I held conferences to issue orders.” Patton likewise later labeled Eisenhower’s attempts to satisfy everyone by compromise the “momentous error of the war.” Another major point that further muddied the waters was Montgomery’s contention that his offensive encompass forty divisions, a figure wildly beyond the capacity of the logisticians to have supported without the port of Antwerp, which was then still in German hands. The most reasonable figure was a mere twelve divisions. The great argument has focused on whether or not the war would have been shortened had Montgomery’s single thrust strategy prevailed. On this point historians still disagree, as did the logisticians in 1944. Eisenhower questioned, even if given the necessary resources, if Montgomery could have carried out a systematic, aggressive offensive into the Ruhr. He concluded Montgomery could not.
The storm brewing between Eisenhower and Montgomery came to a head on September 10 during a tense face-off between the two men. Montgomery had insisted on a meeting and in keeping with his custom that the senior officer should visit his subordinates, Eisenhower readily agreed. The two met aboard Eisenhower’s aircraft parked on the tarmac at Brussels airport. The meeting began innocently enough until Montgomery pulled from his pocket the signals exchanged between them for the past week. The new field marshal wasted no time launching into perhaps the most intemperate and foolish outburst of his career. In language fit for a drill instructor addressing recruits, Montgomery testily condemned everything about Eisenhower’s plan, and why it would not work. Pulling Eisenhower’s recent signals from his pocket, he exclaimed, “They’re balls, sheer balls, rubbish!” Perhaps only Eisenhower would have the forbearance to sit in stony silence while a subordinate verbally assaulted him. When Montgomery at last paused for breath, Eisenhower put his hand on Montgomery’s knee and gently said, “Steady, Monty! You can’t speak to me like that. I’m your boss.” For one of the few times in his career, Montgomery muttered, “I’m sorry, Ike,” and the meeting concluded in less acrimonious fashion, but with neither general giving in to the other. The broad front advance to the Rhine would continue, declared Eisenhower.
Eisenhower’s refusal to back Montgomery’s single-thrust plan was not only based on philosophical differences, but on intelligence estimates that the Germans were simply too weak to hold the Siegfried Line or to stop an Allied advance on both the Ruhr and the Saar. Privately, Ike was deeply troubled by the rancorous September 10 meeting. Montgomery’s repeated challenges left him openly questioning his loyalty, and he derided Monty’s plan as a “mere pencil-like thrust” inconsistent with his concept that the war would be fought and won by Allies advancing on a “broad front.”
Montgomery’s lack of tact, his frequent letters exhorting Eisenhower to change his mind, and now their face-off in Brussels drove an even deeper wedge in their relations. Montgomery had failed to discern that to attempt to run roughshod over Eisenhower was a waste of time that did more harm than good. Or that behind the calm exterior that permitted free rein to the British field marshal was the unforgiving side of Eisenhower who never forgot the slights and the criticism of his decisions. Montgomery’s pride and his belief in the correctness of his plan left him equally unapologetic. “I’m trying to fight a war, and I can’t help it,” he told his aide.
Two proud men that believed in the validity of their cause was a prescription for an impasse. Eisenhower’s great instinct for compromise influenced his decisions during the most critical weeks of the war. Had the logistical support existed without utterly crippling everyone else, there was a strong case to be made for Montgomery’s bold, single-thrust, the ultimate prize being an end to the war in 1944.
The great void between their differing beliefs was never more evident than when, in rejecting Montgomery, Eisenhower said, “The American public would never stand for it; and public opinion wins wars.” To which Montgomery asserted, “Victories win wars. Give people victory and they won’t care who won it.” Both were right but, in the end, the scheme stood no chance in the climate of coalition warfare nurtured by Eisenhower. Not only the months of controversy but also the intrusion of nationalism and outside pressures into the equation brought a certain inevitability to Eisenhower’s decisions.
Chester Wilmot has made the case for the British point of view and it is as compelling as it was politically impossible. As supreme commander, Eisenhower “had shown himself to be the military statesman rather than the generalissimo. . . except for one brief period early in the Tunisian Campaign, he had never attempted to exercise direct operational control over his armies.” Instead, Eisenhower had done what he did best, establishing the conditions under which his field commanders carried out his strategic guidance. Eisenhower commanded by consensus and compromise and made the Allied teamwork by dint of his ability to accommodate multi-national interests. “When he could gather his commanders and advisors around a conference table, he had a remarkable capacity for distilling the counsel of many minds into a single solution, but when his commanders were scattered over France he was open to persuasion by the last strong man to whom he talked.”
Eisenhower’s voluminous responsibilities were an equally effective argument for retaining a ground commander. The demands on his time and the myriad of problems dumped on his desk for resolution on any given day was staggering. The problems and challenges were endless, but with only a finite number of hours available to Eisenhower to address them. Although civil affairs, administrative matters, and stroking visiting political and military egos all possessed varying degrees of necessity, they often had no direct bearing on the day-to-day problems and responsibilities of a ground force commander. Moreover, without a small operational field headquarters of the sort Marshall would have established, the cumbersome organization of SHAEF simply did not lend itself to managing the battlefield or making decisions in a timely manner.
The war of words over the choices by which the war might have been won was, in the end, all but irrelevant. Not only was it politically impossible to have permitted the British to win the war by means of the narrow front, there is ample evidence to question if such a drive, if mounted, could have been logistically sustained beyond the Ruhr. Thus, as a British historian has noted, “There was, therefore, no real alternative to Eisenhower’s broad front advance.” The final word on the matter belonged to Eisenhower. In rejecting Montgomery’s narrow front strategy, he said, “Such an attempt would have played into the hands of the enemy,” and would have resulted in an “inescapable defeat” for the Allies. Equally telling is David Eisenhower’s blunt assessment. “Often overlooked is the fact that Eisenhower never considered the single-thrust idea – only ways to derail it.”
What was evident but unappreciated by Eisenhower and other key players in the Allied high command in the aftermath of Normandy was the example of earlier campaigns. The German Army was repeatedly shown to be at its most dangerous whenever its back was to the wall or the odds against survival the highest. North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, Cassino, and now Normandy were all examples of tenaciously fought battles and campaigns that were soon to be repeated in Holland, Lorraine, and in the forests of the Ardennes and the Hürtgen. Place names that would shortly become prominent on the Allied battle maps: Arnhem, Aachen, Metz, the Reichswald, Elsenborn ridge, Bastogne, and Saint-Vith would prove startling illustrations that the war was far from over.