There is a long running radio show on the BBC called Desert Island Discs, the premise being that the invited celebrity will pick a number of tunes and books to have while they are cast away. The programme has been around long enough for the iconic Guy Gibson to appear on it some time after he led the Dams Raid of May 1943. If I was to appear on the show now I would be strongly tempted to select this superb book as one of the handful I could take with me.
The doomed Gibson died over the Netherlands in September 1944 around the time Adolf Hitler decided to big up his credentials as a great captain and direct a counter-offensive against the Allies in the West. The upcoming plan went through a number of changes of code name, but the essence was the same – a great panzer army would sweep through the Ardennes and across the Meuse, splitting the Allies in half as it steamrollered on to take Antwerp. Quite where it would go after fulfilling this ambitious objective was way beyond Adolf’s ken. He made absolutely no provision for what his army would do next.
Hitler’s plan triggered a swathe of the vile cronies in his Loony Toons court to try and outdo each other in the race to create new armies and divisions. Chief of these was Himmler, a man with about as much military knowledge as my cat Tilly. Acquiring command way beyond his abilities but not the depths of his evil imagination, he forced a motley bunch of Luftwaffe mechanics and shore based sailors into formations that looked great on paper but were short on substance. The waifs and strays of the Reich were Hoovered up to form Volksgrenadierdivisions. This involved raking the occupied lands for suitable conscripts from the Alsace, Ukraine and elsewhere. The young and the infirm were not safe from these delusions and found themselves in uniform and heading for battle.
It was that time in the withering Reich after the failed July 20th plot when any exhibition of dissent or, to be blunt, realism could prove lethal. Hitler demanded that the innocent families of perceived traitors would be doomed as well. This was no atmosphere in which to run a war. But with his extreme methods Hitler assured his crumbling regime would struggle on to destruction as his delusional paranoia increased. The author explains how this state of affairs insured none of his acolytes would dare attempt to overthrow him. It is so easy to assert that all it would have taken is for someone to put a bullet in the nutter’s head, but his court was filled with maniacal jesters and not men of moral courage.
When battle came the Volksgrenadiers and newly minted Fallschirmjaeger would be forced to attack without adequate provision of artillery, armour, motor transport or hope. Large parts of the attacking force would depend on horsepower to get along and thousands of the hapless beasts were to perish alongside their masters in terrible conditions. Hitler had not a jot of care for his people. They would crash and burn with him. Having ruthlessly sidelined his general staff he alone takes responsibility for the disaster he was about to inflict on his armies in the West. Stuffing it with his favourite SS formations would do no good. All many of them would achieve is odium.
Facing this mixed bunch was a citizens army of veterans and greenhorns spread across a wider front than was clearly advisable even without the gift of hindsight. Allied eyes were fixed on further advances elsewhere and the onset of winter offered the opportunity for much needed rest and refitting. The Ardennes presented a quiet sector where elements of the hard driving US armies could recouperate. When the offensive began on the 16th of December the Allied command, dominated by the moment seizing brilliance of Eisenhower, reacted with determination. He retained complete focus and took steps that proved to be a game changerdefeating even the more modest possibilities arising from Hitler’s doomed adventure. Eisenhower confirmed his greatness at that moment and secured his place in the pantheon.
Despite this, the Allied response to the German onslaught wasn’t universally perfect and the fighting would be terrible with the desperate defence carried out amidst confusion and a degree of panic. But with the weight of resources behind the Allies there could conceivably have been only one result.
The defence of the Bulge added to the legends of some units and built the reputations of others. Men of various ranks rose to the occasion and took crucial decisions and actions that made all the difference. For others there were problems and failures, a situation not unique to the US Army when the crap hits the fan but these inconvenient truths have occasionally been airbrushed from the big picture passed down to us in popular histories. Stuff happens. As the Germans attacked some American leaders were in a state of denial. They simply could not conceive the Nazis had the means to take such a gamble. Omar Bradley and his intelligence staff had cause for regret and Courtney Hodges and his 1st Army headquarters were in disarray, but the leadership of Eisenhower sealed the fate of the German offensive by ordering his army commanders to act. George Patton took up the baton with alacrity and turned his 3rd Army on the advancing Germans doing terrible damage to their ambitions.
Popular history of the campaign has tended to settle on iconic actions that benefited from strong media coverage, a result of pressmen being in the right place at the opportune moment. We learn in this book that there was so much more to the battle than events at Bastogne and Malmedy, important though they are. Significant pieces of the battle have often remained barely known.
After the offensive was defeated a journalist came up with the name Battle of the Bulge. It has been with us ever since and has gathered totems and icons indulged by rubbish like the eponymous 1960s movie and a mixed bag of books and latterly episodes from HBO’s reverential adaptation of Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers.
The battle had all the elements; valour, endurance, terror and murder. As we know, some of it was just nuts.
Peter Caddick-Adams has assembled a genuinely breath taking account of the great offensive. He layers events with great care, moving us across the length and breadth of the battlefield allowing us to picture it through the eyes of a stellar cast of big names and ordinary soldiers. Tellingly, he gives equal emphasis to both sides and enables us to follow the trials and tribulations of attacking Germans and defending Americans in fair measure. It makes sense for us to appreciate what an immense gamble Hitler had made, given his utter failure to understand the true condition of his armies at a time when the lethal paranoia of his Nazi regime was reaching it’s nadir. Hitler was ignorant of the culture and the steadfast discipline of the Americans, who he belittled and underestimated with dire consequences for his foul regime.
Accounts of Nazi atrocities, Malmedy beingthe most infamous;should be taken in context of the personalities involved. Brutalised men fresh from Russia were content to apply the same casualmurderthey administered on the Eastern front to American POWs and Belgian civilians alike. Odious as they were, many had been conditioned to behave in such a way, but what excuse is there for their odious behaviour? One-dimensional impressions of these brutal men do not suffice in the telling of a complex story and the author resists this without a degree of sympathy for the thugs. Far too few were made to face a gallows and it leaves a bitter taste to know many lived contented lives into old age, many totally unrepentant for their sins. After Malmedy some American units were a lot less correct in their attitude to prisoners, especially the SS, something the Canadians had learned during the previous summer.
Hitler was mad and bad, as were so many of his closest acolytes. In stark contrast his democratic enemies in the west were progressing with a crusade to destroy his horrible regime. The Allies biggest problem was maintaining the pressure and with that came the issue of best practice. Some of the history of the disagreement over strategy between the British and Americans has coloured the way the period of the Bulgeis presented. The bad press Montgomery continues to enjoy in the USA was set in stone by his ill-conceived comments at the end of the Bulge. The author is quick to set aside any nonsense and shows unequivocally that victory on the ground in the Ardennes was entirely the achievement of the United States and reminds us that Churchill was quick to hail it as such.
I am in accord with his carefully constructed assertion that this victory was the greatest achieved by the US Army in Europe, greater even than the Normandy campaign. The Germans battered the Americans on some parts of the battlefield during the initial phase; but superior leadership coupled with strength of character and the enduring skill of American arms consigned Hitler’s fantasy to ruin. Coming so soon after the nightmare of the Hurtgen Forest this is especially the case for the survivors of that horror. The final victory of 1945 was assured in the Ardennes.
This immense book sets a standard it will be a challenge for the author to follow.
The scale of the telling is vast and includes a great many extraordinary people, some of them not for the best of reasons. Literary greats and future military and political giants were part of the Bulge story. The make up of a huge citizens army and a free media allows us to admire the involvement of Ernest Hemingway and JD Sallinger; the respected historians SLA Marshall and Forrest Pogue and Cold War heavyweights like Henry Kissinger. There is even room for the father of the late Whitney Houston in this vast saga.
A superb attention to detail coupled with occasional looks at the battlefield today all add to the appeal. That so much detritus of the battle remains in the undergrowth of the Ardennes seems incredible. I have never been to the region and reading this story has made me want to correct this lapse. There is almost something ideal in the timing of the publication of the book so close to the release of Fury at the cinema. The latter may be a work of fiction but it takes a lead from the endurance and resolution of the American armies as the war slipped into it’s final stage. The Rhine and the German heartland was some way off from victory at the Bulge, but it ensured that the end was never in doubt.
The author shows that we have so much more to celebrate and commemorate about the Ardennes campaign. Events had a huge influence on Tom Brokaw for The Greatest Generation and you will definitely findplenty of heroes to honour in the American battle order of that awful winter of 1944. There is another aspect to this book that does good service in that it will entice you away from the well-trodden paths of the Bocageor Hell’s Highway to where America’s victory in North-West Europe was secured. That an Englishman wrote it is neither here, nor there. It’s the history that counts and what we have here is an instant classic.
In truth there is nothing instant about this book. It is the result of years of research and analysis before a single line was written. I cut my teeth on Cornelius Ryan, a man who makes an appearance in this book in 1944 and while I have been a contented reader of his heirs, the likes of James Holland, Rick Atkinson and others; I am sure the author of Snow & Steel has much more to offer and I relish the thought.
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online
SNOW & STEEL
Battle of the Bulge 1944-45
By Peter Caddick-Adams