Ardennes: Hitler's Final Gamble by Antony Beevor, review: 'formidable'
Nicholas Shakespeare is mesmerised by a gripping account of the bloody battlefields of the Ardennes
26 May 2015
Antony Beevor, photographed by Andrew Crowley
Shortly after Nazi tanks thundered into Paris in June 1940, like “steel pachyderms let loose from the zoos of hell”, a former British military attaché in Belgium told the Joint Intelligence staffs: “Even the Germans say that if they entered France at 60km an hour, they expect to leave at twice the speed.” By the end of August 1944, Paris had been liberated, and the Wehrmacht was indeed in hectic flight, having lost 156,726 men on the Western Front.
It was in these circumstances, on September 16, that Hitler, still shaken by the July 20 attempt on his life, and bedridden with jaundice, had a powerful vision. He communicated it to an astonished entourage. A German general wrote in his diary: “Decision by the Führer, counter-attack from the Ardennes, objective Antwerp.” Two panzer armies, assisted by 1,500 fighter planes, would split apart the western Allies to create “a new Dunkirk”.
Hitler had selected the Ardennes because it was thinly held by American troops – General Bradley had allowed for only four divisions. Plus, Hitler hoped to repeat the German army’s surprise dash through the pine forests in 1940 (as well as in 1914 and 1870). Obsessed by secrecy, he ordered total radio silence and the execution of anyone leaking details. Privately, Generalfeldmarschall Model calculated the operation “had not more than a 10 per cent chance of success”, but “it was the last remaining chance”.
Just tell the story. This is the instruction of the eminent military historian Hew Strachan. Once again, Antony Beevor obeys it to the letter. While he doesn’t have quite the same richness of archival material to draw on as in his ground-breaking Stalingrad, under Beevor’s brisk control the story of Hitler’s final gamble is another example of the kind of action-packed, densely informed narrative that has proved such a formidable model.
When the Germans broke through at zero hour – 5.30am on December 16 – no one expected them. Only the day before, newly promoted Field Marshal Montgomery had barked that German shortages “precluded any offensive action”. Hearing loud explosions, an American lieutenant wrote in his diary: “must be a dream”. It was a while before senior officers understood a ferocious counter-attack was under way, one that would bring “the terrifying brutality of the Eastern Front to the west”. Outmanoeuvred, General Bradley stared at the situation map through his bifocals in fascinated horror: “Where in hell has this son of a b---- gotten all his strength?”
Beevor relishes exposing the rivalry between furious Allied generals, their reputations at stake. The “rhinoceros-hided” Montgomery had given Hitler breathing space to organise his armies. Instead of clearing and consolidating Antwerp, Montgomery had agitated to be awarded single command for a “dagger-thrust” at the heart of Germany (“butter-knife thrust” more like, sneered Bradley). Yet it was Montgomery’s insufferable egotism that led Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, to label him “a psychopath”, and General Patton to call him “a tired little fart”. Beevor even wonders whether Montgomery didn’t suffer “from what today would be called high-functioning Asperger syndrome”. At the same time, he defends the British commander from Bradley’s destructive sniping. Immobilised with resentment at having his 12th Army Group transferred to Montgomery, Bradley “completely… failed to understand what was really happening”. None the less, it was in large measure Montgomery’s fault that these rivalries dictated Allied strategy, leading to an American triumph and, for the British, political defeat – in the Anglophobia that rampaged through America, and which Beevor ascribes to Eisenhower’s anger, 11 years later when he was that country’s president, at Britain’s perfidy during the Suez crisis.
A confused chain of command was not the Allies’ only problem. The Germans dispatched a commando unit of fake American soldiers who rode around in stolen Jeeps, with orders, apparently, to penetrate Paris and capture Eisenhower. The rumours turned the Americans “into victims of their own nightmare fantasies”. At roadblocks, Military Police challenged every vehicle, devising bizarre questions to ascertain whether officers were genuine. Asked who won the World Series in 1940, British actor David Niven, seconded to the American Ninth Army, replied: “I haven’t the faintest idea. But I do know that I made a picture with Ginger Rogers in 1938.” Even General Bradley was detained, despite having given the correct answer for the capital of Illinois.
With no less authority, Beevor strides out of the officers’ mess into the combat zone. Constant rain and fog meant that soldiers lay shivering in foxholes, in uniforms drenched by mud and wet snow. Trench foot and malnourishment were widespread. So was combat exhaustion, accounting for 8,000 cases of “neuropsychiatric breakdown” among American forces (but none among the Germans, who refused to recognise the condition). A rare joke circulated. After five days in the forest, you talked to the trees; on the sixth, you started getting answers back. Patton summoned an army chaplain to pray for the freezing drizzle to stop and, when it did, decorated him with the Bronze Star. Waking up to a bright Christmas Day, Patton wrote in his diary: “Lovely weather for killing Germans.”
The savagery on both sides was unprecedented and dehumanising. An American battalion commander told his men that “the German is a breed of vicious animal which… must be exterminated”, while a German sniper company was taught that every shot must kill a “British Swine”. The casual massacre by Joachim Peiper’s panzer troops of 84 American prisoners at Malmédy set off a chain reaction, with the 11th Armored Division taking its revenge on 60 captured Germans. “I hope we can conceal this,” Patton wrote in his diary. Beevor is right to be shocked that a number of generals, from Bradley down, openly approved, and that there survive so few details in the archives or in American accounts.
A rare witness to the shooting of German POWs was the underrated novelistWilliam Wharton, who served in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, alongside writers such as Hemingway (called “Henningway” in the Nazi press) and J D Salinger. Interestingly, it was as a novelist that Beevor launched his own distinguished career; The Faustian Pact (1983) saw Beevor learning the ropes of his narrative technique, and exploring his aptitude for invention (“A face like a grenade range; that was how they described a girl with a rough complexion”; “Susie sat curled up in an armchair flicking through a copy of Vogue”). Ardennes 1944, by contrast, plunges us straight in at ground level, with short, unpretentious sentences – and few heroines (its unassuageably male world indexes a mere four women). Impatient of frills, the author rarely lingers on any one scene or character. A single sentence suffices (“Peiper was 29 years old and good looking with his brown hair slicked back”). Commendably unconcerned to be “a writer”, Beevor is, rather, a field marshal of facts, organising his armies of chaotic and swift-moving events, deploying these so that the reader will not be confused, and reaching a punchy conclusion not deformed by analysis.
The story of Hitler’s last gamble ended with the flattening of whole villages. Swallows returning the following spring were disoriented. To this day, Beevor tells us, local landowners can’t sell their timber “because of the shards of metal buried deep in the massive conifers”.
480pp, Viking, £20 (RRP £25, ebook £11.99). Call 0844 871 1515 or seebooks.telegraph.co.uk
Ardennes 1944 Review - Antony Beevor's Gripping Account of Hitler's Last Gamble
Hitler's final attempt to turn the course of World War II in his favour is brilliantly told
24 May 2015
In the early hours of 16 December 1944, the Germans launched their last great offensive of the second world war against weakly held US positions in the Ardennes Forest, the site of their original Blitzkrieg success against the French in 1940. They would enjoy the same early breakthrough, but this time against inexperienced American troops who, taken completely by surprise, either surrendered or fell back (thereby creating the famous bulge in the allied line that gave the battle its more familiar name). But there the comparisons end.
In 1940 German troops were attacking solely on the western front against two largely bankrupt armies: the French and the British. By late 1944 they were fighting on multiple fronts – on the Rhine, in Italy and in Poland – against the combined might of the (rejuvenated) British and Commonwealth, US and Russian armies. The allies enjoyed almost complete air superiority and a massive advantage in firepower, particularly tanks and artillery pieces. There was, as a result, no longer any realistic hope that a single offensive – however successful – was likely to change the course of the war.
Of course – as Antony Beevor explains in this wonderfully compelling follow-up to D-Day – Hitler did not agree and was prepared to gamble everything on an attack that would, he hoped, split the western allies, force the Canadians out of the war and the British into “another Dunkirk”. It was “an act of desperation”, admitted one of Hitler’s senior commanders, “but we had to risk everything”.
Two panzer armies – the bulk of Germany’s remaining armour – were assigned the task of reaching the Belgian port of Antwerp. Few of Hitler’s generals believed this was possible, preferring a “small solution” such as the envelopment of the US armies holding the Ardennes sector or reaching the river Meuse; others argued that the concentration of all German reserves in the west would leave the east vulnerable to the expected Russian offensive on the Vistula in Poland. But Hitler was adamant. “In our current situation,” explained his operations chief, “we cannot shrink from staking everything on one card.”
For the many ardent Nazis taking part, the objective was not ultimate victory but the phoenix-like rebirth of the nation (a concept made popular by the great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz). “Fighting until the last moment,” claimed one, “gives a people the moral strength to rise again. A people that throws in the sponge is finished for all time.”
Elite Waffen-SS formations featured prominently in the attack: the panzer army spearheading the offensive contained no fewer than four SS panzer divisions, including the infamous 9th Hohenstaufen that a few months earlier had decimated British airborne troops at Arnhem (“a bridge too far”). The SS were given the pick of the best equipment and tanks, and would be responsible for numerous murders. They were not, however, the most effective soldiers. A senior commander later claimed that the non-SS panzer formations should have led the breakthrough, and not vice versa.
The initial success enjoyed by the German offensive was, according to Beevor, down to a number of factors: the element of surprise (not even middle-ranking German officers knew about the attack until the very last moment); a failure of allied intelligence; and the poor quality of many US troops facing the onslaught. “The replacements,” wrote one veteran, “both officers and men, are green. They don’t know how to take care of themselves. They become casualties very fast sometimes… It is hard to get them worked in as members of the team.”
This enabled the Germans – attacking in a snowy landscape of “thick woods, rocky gorges, small streams, few roads and saturated firebreak trails” – to make deep inroads into the US defences during the first few days of combat. But for every unit that capitulated without putting up a decent fight, another fought heroically, thus slowing down the German advance while reserves plugged the gap.
The most famous defensive action was fought at Bastogne, a crucial road and rail junction, where the 101st Airborne held out until relieved on Boxing Day. Beevor gives the 101st its due, but also mentions that other less heralded artillery and armoured units played their part.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the battle was the willingness of both sides to commit atrocities. The Waffen-SS troops routinely shot captives and civilians, notably at Malmedy where 84 American prisoners were murdered. But the US troops responded by executing not only German soldiers in American uniforms – some of whom were Otto Skorzeny’s American speaking commandos who were sent behind the lines to cause chaos – but also ordinary Wehrmacht. Especially troubling to Beevor is the fact that “a number of generals… openly approved of the shooting of prisoners in retaliation”.
Of those allied generals, few emerge from the battle with much credit. The exceptions are Dwight D Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander, who kept his head when all about him were losing theirs; George S Patton, who rapidly and selflessly moved troops to the threatened sector (thereby giving up plans for his own offensive); and Bernard Montgomery who, recognising the seriousness of the breakthrough, made early moves to protect the vital bridges over the Meuse (and was rewarded with the temporary command of two US armies). But Montgomery then overplayed his hand by exaggerating his contribution and demanding strategic control of the allied invasion of Germany, and was subsequently sidelined. “Monty is a tired little fart,” wrote Patton. “War requires the taking of risks and he won’t take them.”
In the end the Germans never got near the Meuse, let alone Antwerp, and the battle was effectively over by Christmas Day, though it took another month of hard fighting to flatten the “bulge”. Both sides suffered about 80,000 casualties – only 20,000 more than the British army sustained in a single day’s fighting on the Somme in 1916 – though a further 30,000 civilians were killed and wounded.
It was a short, brutal and ultimately futile battle – the last spasm of a dying regime – and no one has recounted it better than Beevor. His gripping, beautifully written narrative moves seamlessly from the generals’ command posts to the privates in their snow-covered foxholes, and confirms him as the finest chronicler of war in the business. His particular genius is for ferreting out those telling details that paint a picture. “One man,” he writes, “found a friend dead in the frozen street face down with a cat sitting on his back, profiting from the last of the body’s heat.”
Having sown the wind in the Ardennes, Hitler reaped the whirlwind on the eastern front when the Russians’ January offensive made huge gains. The German leadership had gambled and lost in the west by misjudging, in Beevor’s words, “the soldiers of an army they had affected to despise”.
Ardennes 1944 is published by Viking (£25). Click here to order it for £20