Monty: World War II’s Most Misunderstood General, Part 3
[Note: This is Part 3 of a scheduled three-part analysis of Montgomery’s leadership and battlefield performance in World War II. The first part of this series can be found here. Part 2 can be found here.]
An Armchair General Exclusive by Carlo D’Este.
This final installment about Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery examines his generalship during the most crucial battle fought by the Allies since the D-Day landings in France on June 6, 1944, the desperate Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 that is perhaps the least understood of his colorful military career. The ensuing battle of Normandy and the breakout from the so-called Falaise Gap were also controversial and will be the subject of a future article on Patton and Monty.
At the end of August 1944 the Normandy campaign came to a sudden and dramatic end with an overwhelming allied victory that left the German army in the West in full retreat toward Germany. So crushing was the allied victory that some began to perceive that the war was virtually over. The German army was in complete disarray and with the Allies gobbling up territory at a rapid rate it was assumed by many who should have known better that the war was won. Their number did not include Montgomery, Patton or Eisenhower, all of whom understood a great deal of hard fighting lay ahead.
German losses in the summer of 1944 were staggering and seemingly hopeless: 900,000 on the Eastern Front and another 450,000 in the west. What was overlooked was that there still remained some 3.4 million troops in the German army, over a million of whom were to be committed to the defense of the Reich on the Western Front.
The miscalculation most consistently made by the Allied high command in northwest Europe was the failure to realize – despite repeated examples to the contrary – of the will and tenacity of the German army to resist against overwhelming odds, and in the most appalling conditions. Sicily, Salerno, Cassino, Anzio and Normandy were all examples that were repeated in Holland in mid-September during Operation Market-Garden, the ill fated airborne and glider landings designed to secure an Allied bridgehead over the Rhine.
The original Allied blueprint for fighting the war in northwest Europe was predicated on an orderly German retreat across Normandy, and a solid defense of the Seine River line, not a rout such as had occurred as a result of the great American breakout from the Cotentin Peninsula at the end of July 1944 by the First and Third U.S. Armies and the sudden entrapment of Army Group B in the Falaise pocket. As stunning as the Allied victory in Normandy was, there no longer existed the luxury of a pause at the Seine while the Allied armies regrouped, advanced their logistical bases farther forward, and made plans to resume offensive operations toward Germany. From the North Sea to the Swiss border, British, Canadian, Polish and American forces had advanced as many as 500-miles from their sources of supply, most of which were still located on or near the Normandy beaches.
Montgomery and Bradley discuss operations prior to the closing of the Falaise Gap. Date is 17 August 1944. (National Archives)
While still the acting allied ground commander-in-chief, Montgomery had proposed an invasion of Germany via the Ruhr, with two armies groups abreast – some forty divisions, a force so powerful, he argued, that it "need fear nothing." Montgomery’s rival, the U.S. 12th Army Group commander, Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, proposed an entirely different plan in which his forces would thrust across central and southern France through the Frankfurt gap and into the heartland of the Third Reich. Eisenhower rejected both plans in favor of an Allied advance to the Reich on a "broad front," a strategy that remains a subject of debate more than a half century later.
Neither Montgomery, nor Bradley and the Third Army commander, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., were appeased by Eisenhower’s decision for 12th Army Group to attack eastward toward the Saar (Germany’s most important industrial region after the Ruhr) and the Frankfurt gap. Simultaneously, Montgomery’s armies were to thrust northeast toward the Ruhr but only after capturing the vital port of Antwerp, the largest and best-equipped port in Europe.
The downside of the triumph in Normandy and advances into Lorraine, Belgium and Holland was that Allied supply lines became stretched to the breaking point. Indeed, by early September, Eisenhower’s armies had literally outstripped their own supply lines. The result was a nightmare for the Allied logisticians who could only fill a small fraction of the chronic shortages of fuel and ammunition required to sustain an advance into Germany. On September 14, 1944 the Allies had advanced to where the logisticians thought they would reach only in May 1945.
The inability of the Allies to mount a rapid thrust into Germany provided the Germans with badly needed time to regroup and resist with their usual tenacity. Opportunities were lost for want of the proverbial nail. Without an enormous infusion of supplies, neither Montgomery nor Bradley was capable of sustaining a major offensive. Thus, once across the Seine, logistics, not tactics, had become the dominant factor.
Although the Allies advanced as far as the border of Germany, by December 1944 they were halted in the mud and cold of the winter of 1944-45, the worst in fifty years. The combination of foul weather and intensified German resistance combined to produce a winter stalemate on the doorstep of Germany. From the Saar to Aachen, a series of bloody battles accomplished relatively little except to raise the casualty count. The most costly was an attempt by Bradley and Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges, the U.S. First Army commander, to seize the Roer Dams. American infantry were flung into the Huertgen Forest in a series of futile attacks, at a cost of thousands of casualties in what one military historian has described as "a misconceived and basically fruitless battle that . . . should have been avoided." 1
Sign marking the German border erected by members of the 79th Infantry Division. (National Archives)
In the rugged, heavily forested Ardennes, with its poor road net Bradley had taken what he later termed "a calculated risk" by lightly defending what had traditionally been a major German invasion route. On the thinly-held front lines were only two newly arrived, untested American infantry divisions and two battered veteran divisions in the process of absorbing replacements. In such vile weather it was deemed unlikely the Germans could mount a serious threat. Moreover, despite Germany’s historic penchant for mounting counteroffensives when things looked darkest, it was assumed by the Allied high command that there was simply no way the Germans could pull off such an operation in the Ardennes in secret.
Yet, one of the many lessons learned the hard way by the Allies from fighting the Wehrmacht during World War II was that it never panicked and always fought back tenaciously with whatever reserves could be mustered. Thus, it should not have come as the surprise it did that, with Allied operations at a standstill and the Third Reich on the verge of invasion and defeat, Adolf Hitler elected to gamble the fate of Germany on a last ditch attempt to split the Allied armies by a sudden, lightning blitzkrieg thrust through the Ardennes Forest. Hitler’s intent was nothing less than the destruction of all Allied forces north of a line running from Bastogne to Antwerp. Seeking to repeat the success of the 1940 invasion of western Europe which had worked to near perfection, Hitler believed that once across the River Meuse and into the Belgian lowlands beyond the Ardennes, his armies could drive clear to Antwerp and, with this vital port in German hands, compel the Allies to sue for peace.
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