2 August 2015

CapX Reviews: Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble


This is ideal holiday reading, but there is a caveat. It is an anti-social book. You are part of a house party in Provence. There are plans to deploy allied appetite superiority, advance on the village and lunch chez le Patron Mange Ici. You will be strongly tempted to dodge the column and continue reading about Patton’s drive to relieve Bastogne or Montgomery’s appalling behaviour towards Eisenhower and Bradley. Antony Beevor is a distinguished war historian. His latest offering commands the reader from the first page to the last.

In the autumn of 1944, the atmosphere was relaxed among allied troops in Paris. There were quite a few visits to le patron mange ici. General John Lee, the American in charge of commissariat arrangements, had taken over 315 hotels including, for his personal use, the Georges Cinq. Some French wag claimed that SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) stood for Societe des Hoteliers Americains en France.

But it is hard to blame the allies. Soldiers who have won victories and survived hard fighting are entitled to a few pleasures, especially when the war seemed to be going well. In the three months after D-Day, the Germans lost nearly 750,000 men. Admittedly, three-quarters of them were on the Eastern front, but they all depleted Hitler’s Reich, which was also being pounded from the air. The almost infinite resources of American industry were pouring ashore, while German materiel was under relentless pressure. No wonder some German generals had plotted to remove the Fuhrer. In October/November 1918, the German position had simply imploded. A lot of allied strategists thought that there would be a repetition, and that the war could be over by the New Year. The Americans began to divert resources to the Pacific.

One senior Westerner was not convinced. Perhaps because he himself was daemonic, Churchill had an insight into Hitler’s demonic personality and knew that he would never stop fighting. Even so, no-one expected an offensive. Although the Germans had struck at France through the Ardennes in 1914 and 1945, it was thinly defended in December 1944, because it never occurred to General Bradley that this aspect of history would repeat itself. Who would be crazy enough to launch an offensive in the Ardennes during the depths of winter? Answer: Hitler. He made three calculations.

First, that bad weather would neutralise Allied air superiority; planes could not fly. Second, that if the panzers could smash their way through to Antwerp, thus cutting off the British and Canadians from the Americans, allied unity would be broken. The British and Canadians would be knocked out of the war. Third, that despite the evidence of the past few months, the Americans were a race of degenerate mongrels incapable of resisting Aryan steel.

His first point had some validity. For a few days the allies were unable to use their air forces effectively. The rest was rubbish, as most of his generals recognised. Guderian – hardly a reluctant warrior – knew that as soon as the soil was frozen hard in Silesia, the Russians would fling wide the gates of Hell. Hammer-blow after hammer-blow would fall on the German front. He wanted every available formation to be sent East, not wasted in the Ardennes. In one sense, it did not matter. The Russians could not have been stopped. But in rational strategic terms, Guderian was right.

Hitler was beyond rationality or strategy. Since the failure of the July plot, no general could stand against him. So he had his way. The result was the fiercest, largest battle of the Western front, conducted in impossible weather and inflicting unimaginable hardships – though the allies were always going to win. Our author is good at describing horror, for his prose is always restrained. He knows how to allow the facts to speak for themselves. Cold, hunger, fear: Belgian civilians, who had been over-run in 1940 and then liberated earlier in 1944, when they thought that their sufferings over, were starving, frozen, afflicted by dysentery, huddling in cellars as the shell-fire crashed overhead, while those who had been driven out of their wits moaned helplessly, sometimes in a chorus with wounded and terrified farm animals.

Antony Beevor recounts instances of children asking their mothers if they were all going to die. Not all the children who would have asked that question did live. In the ruins of smashed churches, in the midst of pain and grief and death, men must have echoed Christ’s question on the Cross: “My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”
When allied planes could fly and bomb, there were inevitable civilian casualties. Even Patton, who never quailed before the horrors of war and knew that battles always meant a butcher’s bill, was moved to verse.

O little town of Houffalize,
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy steep and battered streets
The aeroplanes sail by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
Not any Goddamned light;
The hopes and fears of all thy years
Were blown to Hell last night.

But there is one antidote to evil: courage. It is impossible to read this book without being moved to awed admiration by the powers of endurance displayed by the grunts. In the case of the Americans, they were a long way from a homeland that had not been menaced. They could have been forgiven had they been reluctant to fight and die in a European cause. Yet they did stand and fight and they ultimately prevailed. It was one of the proudest episodes in American history, especially as far too many of the troops had not been adequately trained in battlefield cunning. Casualties were higher than they need have been; some generals should not escape censure.

That said, none of them were as culpable as Montgomery. In the first place, once Antwerp had fallen, he failed to secure the Scheldt estuary. He had been told that Antwerp would be as much use as Timbuctoo until that was done. He ignored the advice and in so doing, prolonged the war in the West. Thousans of allied troops owed their deaths to his negligence. Second, he appears to have been entirely uninterested in any aspect of the campaign which did not enable him to gratify his own ego. On at least two occasions, he was almost sacked, but Eisenhower displayed a saintly forbearance. That may have been wrong of him. There is no place for sainthood among supreme commanders.

I would defy any American to read this book without a renewed pride in his country, and in the men who renewed the glory of Old Glory. I fear that any Brit reading this book will squirm with embarrassment when reading the passages about Montgomery. Our author cannot conceal his own anger. His readers will share his feelings.

Given the subject-matter, it might seem odd to describe this book as enjoyable. But it is a gripping, compelling read. Antony Beevor is used to winning awards. This could well lead to another one.

Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble. Antony Beevor, Penguin, RPP £25.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator