Decision at Strasbourg – Book Review
Decision at Strasbourg: Ike’s Strategic Mistake to Halt the Sixth Army Group at the Rhine in 1944. Author: David P. Colley. Publisher: Naval Institute Press (October, 2008). Hardcover: 320 pages. $34.95
By destroying Germany’s First and Nineteenth armies, “the gateway to southern Germany would have been wide open and the war in Europe might have ended within a few weeks.”
This book could have been subtitled ‘the Supreme Conciliator and the Forgotten General’. In Decision at Strasbourg, military historian David P. Colley shows Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower at his worst, blindly rejecting a brilliant plan to stick with the "broad front." At the same time, Colley rescues from obscurity Gen. Jacob Devers, commander of the Sixth Army Group, an unsung hero of the European Theater who just might have delivered the Nazis the decisive blow. This is a fresh look at why the Allies paused and gave the Germans a breather late in 1944 when German defenses on the western front were in disarray. Many believed that autumn that there would be a German surrender by the holidays. Could there have been?
The opportunity presented itself in November. Most of the Allied armies had stalled near the Rhine River, exhausted and short of supplies after pushing the German army from France. Eisenhower faced the well-known question of whether to use a broad front or single, concentrated thrust over the river for the final drive to victory. Only two months earlier Ike had authorized Bernard Montgomery’s well-documented Market-Garden failure at Arnhem in the Netherlands. In another attempt to break the stalemate, without telling headquarters, Devers prepared for a plan for a crossing far south in the Alsace region around Strasbourg.
Here’s why Devers believed he could deliver the winning blow. After its successful landing and campaign to clear southern France, the Sixth Army Group, which comprised both America’s Seventh Army and French forces, formed the western front’s southern end. Unlike the central and northern portions of the front, the Sixth group was fully manned, ready to attack and had fewer supply problems, due to its lines from the Mediterranean.
According to Colley’s account, all Devers faced along stretches of the Rhine’s West bank opposite Strasbourg were empty pillboxes. Devers planned for eight battalions of the Seventh Army to cross the river, mostly on pontoon bridges, establish a bridgehead and then turn north along the river’s east bank until the Americans reached the Siegfried line and the German First Army troops manning it. Devers’ 15th Corps on the West bank could have also attacked the German defenses from its positions, and together these attacks would have freed George Patton’s stuck Third Army to push east, squeezing the Germans on two sides, and allowing Patton to capture the Saar industrial region and swing north to attack the Ruhr industrial area. Ultimately the coordinated attacks could have culminated in “unhinging the enemy’s entire western front,” writes Colley. By destroying Germany’s First and Nineteenth armies, “the gateway to southern Germany would have been wide open and the war in Europe might have ended within a few weeks.”
Ike and Omar Bradley, who commanded the army group that included Patton’s forces, visited Devers shortly before the planned crossing. Instead of blessing the attack, Ike and Bradley informed Devers that he would have to give two divisions to Patton and that the Seventh Army’s role was and would remain to protect the Third Army’s flank. Devers fumed.
Eisenhower needed to hold together the allies, of course, but he also had little respect for French troops and their officers and, as Montgomery often said, Eisenhower had little strategic imagination. Even more important was Eisenhower’s disregard for the blunt and confident Devers, with whom Ike had clashed earlier in the war.
A Pennsylvanian of Dutch heritage with turned-out ears and a big grin, Devers was the odd man out in the SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) fraternity, never having played cards or polo with Ike, Patton or Bradley. As a result of some combination of these factors, Ike “chose not to pass to the open man” but “to throw into coverage,” slowly grinding the enemy, Colley writes. Tragically, Ike may have missed a chance to shatter remaining German resistance, undermine or avoid the December panzer offensive in the Ardennes and shave months from the European war.
Of course, the "what-ifs" about the German front are endless. But before reading this, I would have said Eisenhower’s biggest mistake was his failure to insist that Montgomery get the port of Antwerp clear for service sooner. Now I’m not sure.
Although this is a very readable work of military scholarship, there were times I wanted to pull the string tighter on Colley’s narrative to cut out some repetition. My difference with Colley comes over his placing too much blame on Ike, who remained loyal to the charismatic, infuriating Patton and necessarily tolerant in dealing with the equally infuriating Montgomery. Tellingly, Devers never penned a memoir. Modesty? Yes. But Devers may have lacked the personal tact needed to win Ike’s respect for his ideas. He may have needed a charm arsenal. And if that was true, it is a shortcoming that belonged to Devers, not Ike.