Hitler’s Last Gamble

ArdennesBlood, sweat and tears. This is what Winston Churchill offered the stunned British people at the beginning of World War II, when we stood alone against a powerful enemy. By 1944 in Europe, when that hideous and lengthy conflict had brought into its insatiable grip even the Americans whose reluctant President Theodore Roosevelt had finally joined with Churchill and Joseph Stalin in the fight against Hitler and Japan, the war was to all intents and purposes won by the Allies.

In spite of growing doubts expressed by his generals, Adolf Hitler decided to throw his army once more into France. By this time, his paranoia was bordering on madness, two failed attempts on his life increased his sense of isolation but did nothing to increase his sense of reality. With the forces of the Russians bearing down on his country from the East, he took charge of all military strategy and focussed on a doomed attempt to throw the Allied Armies out of Germany and out of the war.

So began the Ardennes offensive, know now by its more familiar moniker: The Battle of the Bulge. With tremendous and successful secrecy, the German army moved soldiers, tank and armaments towards the Albert Canal, which ran from Antwerp to the River Meuse (Maas). From there the intention was to smash their way past the Americans and British and to recapture France.

Partly because the Allies had in mind that victory was in their grasp and partly because this action was unexpected (and with hindsight pointless) initially the Germans were successful in punching through a large area of recently retaken territory. In his new book, Ardennes 1944, Antony Beevor brings to the page yet another masterpiece of research and writing.

mapThe territory was difficult, the weather was appalling and the surprise was absolute. The Panzer divisions smacked right through a weakened front, which because it was wooded, hilly and full of deep escarpments, the Americans had assumed was secure. The effect of the surprise attack was nearly disastrous. Small groups of men were dug in among the trees with little visibility and poor communications, the foxholes were small and not deep because of the tree roots and after days of fierce fighting the Germans won back village after village as the Allies retreated towards Bastogne.

Reading the accounts, garnered from diaries, letters and official records one gets the visceral, bowel-loosening horror of fighting. It was bitterly cold and wet, rations often had to be eaten cold and insomnia, wet feet and misery was increased once the shooting began. In the morning there was fog to contend with, so that the noise of moving tanks, mortar fire and small arms fire was muffled and hard to locate; the Germans had obtained, from their prisoners of war American uniforms, so that road blocks had to be mounted at all times in case of infiltration.

Fortunately for the Allies, the parachute drop behind their lines was a failure, this was partly due to the weather and partly inexperience. Many of the soldiers in this exercise were between 16 and 19 years old, were virtually untrained and were not told that they were dropping into battle stations until they were actually in the air and above the drop zone. In the end, only 150 of them dropped any where near where they should have been, and eventually their commander, Oberst Friedrich August Heydte, told them to split up and try to get back into Germany.

This one theatre of war was costly, there were terrible losses on both sides and the Germans broke several rules of engagement. Among these was the wearing of Allied uniforms and the mass killing of Allied prisoners, the massacre of Malmédy being the most egregious – about one hundred and fifty unarmed Americans were marched into a field and their captors opened fire; eighty-five were killed, several got away into the trees. This was the worst but there were many other examples, and in the end the retaliation and retribution was just as fierce. Belgian citizens were not any better off, many were shot even women and children.

There were remarkable successes for the Germans to begin with, several thousand American troops were captured, although the Germans were astonished at the resistance that the Americans put up, they had been told that this was an all-but-spent force.  However, small groups of determined men fought heroically, holding up the Panzer divisions long enough for the Allies to re-group.  Once the Allies took stock, other enterprises were halted and a concentrated counter attack, led in part by General Patton, turned the situation around and the push towards Berlin began again in earnest.

This is the content of the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. Band of BrothersWhile Antony Beevor gives us the historical detail, the mini-series gives us the visual taste of what it was like, adding also pieces by the surviving soldiers who took part on one of the bloodiest, most brutal and most terribly wasteful theatres of World War II.

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