History of the Second World War, Volume 6

ad posed a constant threat in General Eisenhower’s mind ever ince the counteroffensive had begun in the Ardennes. Because General Patch’s positions formed a right angle where ie Franco-German border meets the Rhine, those American divi- ions in this extreme north-east corner of France would be threat- ned by entrapment should the Germans launch converging thrusts gainst them or should the Germans strike swiftly to deny the few asses through the Vosges Mountains, which stood behind ttierrr. lecognising that little of strategic importance lay in this low plain longside the Rhine, General Eisenhower had told Devers at the leeting in Verdun to yield ground rather than endanger the in- Bgrity of his forces. To withdraw all the way to the Vosges would nevertheless involve iving up Strasbourg, a city which the French looked upon sym- olically as the capital of Alsace and Lorraine, the provinces lost d the Germans from 1870 to 1918 and again from 1940 until late 944. To the French, to abandon Strasbourg was to relinquish a iart of the soul of France. Yet to defend 124 miles of front, including Strasbourg, the 7th ^rmy had only seven divisions, plus the infantry regiments of three ew divisions, only recently arrived from the United States in ssponse to Eisenhower’s call for assistance at the start of the irdennes counteroffensive. Also available as a last resort were two ivisions that Eisenhower had managed to cull from the line to screate a Supreme Headquarters reserve; but these might at any me have to be sent into the Ardennes. That left the stratagem of withdrawal in the event of a major Ger- lan attack perhaps the only recourse. That the Germans planned to attack either on New Year’s Day r soon thereafter became clear to the 6th Army Group during the ist week of December. The attack actually was to begin an hour iefore the first stroke of the New Year. The American soldier, victor of Bastogne... When Hitler had first proposed a counteroffensive in Alsace, the iea had been a heavy strike all the way to the American supply ase of Metz, but even Hitler had to accept that this was too am- itious for the available resources. As in the Ardennes, the Fuhrer imself planned the blow actually delivered-O peration Nordwind. Attacking west of the Vosges Mountains, two divisions under the egis of Army Group G (Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz) were 3 make a penetration, whereupon a reserve of two armoured ivisions was to strike swiftly southward to seal from the rear the ital Saverne Gap, which separates the High Vosges in the south 'om the less imposing Low Vosges in the north. At the same time supporting effort by three infantry divisions was to push down ie spine of the Low Vosges. A few days later, a lone division was 3 cross the Rhine north of Strasbourg, while two divisions were to ttack northward from the Colmar Pocket, link with the Rhine ridgehead (encircling Strasbourg in the process), then swing westward to the Saverne Gap. The net effect would be to trap all American units east of the Low osges, the equivalent of five divisions, and those French troops uarding the northern periphery of the Colmar Pocket. Sharply conscious of this possibility, General Eisenhower moved wiftly once the German attack began, and ordered General Devers 3 pull back from his north-eastern salient ail the way to the Vosges, javing only delaying forces on the low-lying plain. That meant abandoning Strasbourg, a condition that prompted ie head of the provisional French government, Charles de Gaulle, 3 send an emissary to Eisenhower’s headquarters to express his ismay. Rather than relinquish the city, the word was, de Gaulle Iready had ordered General de Lattre to extend his lines north nd take over the defence. Struck by this defiance, Eisenhower's Chief-of-Staff, Lieutenant- ieneral Walter B. Smith, threatened to cut off American supplies nd equipment, without which the French army would be powerless -to which de Gaulle's man responded that the French were pre- ared to withdraw their troops from Eisenhower’s command. Although it sounded like an argument in a schoolyard, it was a erious confrontation. De Gaulle even went so far as to cable the Thick fog and low clouds, combined with high winds, deprived the American armour and infantry of much-needed air support. Here men of the 82nd Airborne Division move through typical Ardennes Forest terrain American President and the British Prime Minister for support; but intercession proved unnecessary. When apprised by General Smith of the fervour of de Gaulle’s objections and when apprised, too, by the end of the second day (January 2) of the success of Patch’s troops in constraining the German main effort toward the Saverne Gap, Eisenhower withdrew the order. While directing the French to take responsibility for defending Strasbourg, he told General Devers to withdraw from the north-eastern salient only as far as the little Moder river, some 20 miles behind the existing lines. By January 20 this withdrawal was complete. The Germans, meanwhile, had succeeded in establishing a Rhine bridgehead north of Strasbourg, advancing to within 8 miles of the city, and inducing near panic in the civilian population before comm it­ ment of a portion of General Eisenhower's reserve brought them to a halt. The attack northward out of the Colmar Pocket got within 13 miles of Strasbourg, but the French stopped it at the last bridge short of the city. While Devers’ 6th Army Group retained its integrity, Strasbourg stayed French. Having committed so much to the’Ardennes, the Germans had simply been unequal to a second blow: ten under­ strength divisions were not enough. The fighting in bitter cold and snow nevertheless cost the Americans 15,600 casualties; the Ger­ mans, 25,000. As the 6th Army Group was meeting its test in Alsace, the Ger­ mans managed two last spasms in a dying effort in the Ardennes. One came from the air, an extraordinary effort by the Luftwaffe. Early on New Year’s Day, 700 German planes struck at Allied air­ fields in Belgium and the Netherlands. The blow took Allied airmen by surprise and cost 156 planes, most of them destroyed on the ground. The second blow again was aimed at Bastogne, where General von Manteuffel had seen his offensive of December 30 collapse in the face of Patton’s renewed attack. It was a blow of which Man­ teuffel himself disapproved. The time had long come, he believed, to abandon all attempts at maintaining the offensive in the Ar­ dennes. Lest the troops in the tip of the bulge be trapped between Patton and what appeared to be a pending attack by the US 1st Army from the north, he appealed to Field-Marshal Model late on January 2 for permission to pull back to a line anchored on Houf­ falize. Although both Model and Rundstedt gave their endorsement, Hit­ ler refused. The counteroffensive under the original concept of taking Antwerp and trapping Allied armies, he at last admitted, no longer had any chance of success; but he had arrived at definite ideas of how the bulge in the Ardennes might be turned to German advantage. In creating the salient, Hitler reasoned, he had forced General Eisenhower to employ almost all his resources. That Eisenhower used elite airborne divisions to do the brutal defensive work of infantry was proof enough of that. By holding the bulge, he might keep the Allies widely stretched while pulling out some German units for spoiling attacks elsewhere — like Operation Nordwind. That way he might prevent the Allies from concentrating their forces in the north for a renewed offensive to cross the Rhine and capture the Ruhr industrial region. Yet even this strategy begged the capture of Bastogne, for Hitler required the town both to anchor the southern flank of the bulge and to deny its nexus of roads to the Americans. To American troops, Manteuffel’s final offensive at Bastogne, aimed at severing the corridor into the town, appeared less a con­ certed attack than reaction by counterattack to Patton's efforts to drive on to Houffalize. Lasting two days-January 3 and 4 -th e Ger­ man offensive delayed the drive on Houffalize; but it was too feeble either to pose any genuine threat to Bastogne or to thwart the American offensive entirely. What was more, it operated on bor­ rowed time, for it opened on the same day that Field-Marshal Mont­ gomery at last released Hodges' 1st Army to attack from the north. The pattern of the drive to eliminate the bulge had been set at the Allied conference in Verdun on December 19 with the decision to send the 3rd Army to Bastogne. Although Patton insisted, once Bastogne was relieved, on shifting to the classic though venture­ some manoeuvre for eliminating a deep penetration — cutting it off ...and of the whole Ardennes campaign at its base — he found no support from either Hodges or Bradley. They were concerned about the limited roadnet at the northern base and about the effect of winter weather in the more sharply compartmented terrain along the German frontier. Montgomery conformed, moving parts of two British divisions to the tip of the bulge to enable General Collins to shift his 7th Corps slightly north­ ward and drive from the north-west for Houffalize. Once the 1st and 3rd Armies met at Houffalize, both were to sweep, after the manner of synchronized windshield wipers, on to the German frontier. In other words, they were going to push in the bulge rather than cut it off. It w as-Field-M arshal von Rundstedt would observe after the w ar— the ‘Small Solution’. The nadir of winter The snow was deeper than ever in the Ardennes, the temperatures lower, the fog thicker, the winds more penetrating when, early on January 3, General Collins sent two armoured divisions backed by infantry south-east toward Houffalize across ground featured by stretches of high marshland, dense patches of firs, and deep- cut streambeds. Only three of Sepp Dietrich’s badly damaged divi­ sions barred the way, including fragments of the mauled II Panzer Division. But that was enough, in view of the weather and the ter­ rain, to slow the Allied advance to a crawl. So murky was the atmosphere that not a single tactical aircraft could support the attack all day, and sorties by little artillery ob­ servation aircraft were possible for no more than an hour. It was a pattern that would undergo little change for a fortnight. On only three days would fighter-bombers be able to take to the air at all. Much of the time the men advanced through snow flurries, followed on the fourth day by a heavy snowfall that piled drifts in places to a depth of several feet. Tanks stalled on icy hillsides in long rows. Trucks towing anti­ tank guns or artillery pieces skidded, jack-knifed, collided, and blocked vital roads for hours. Two trucks towing 105-mm howitzers plunged off a cliff. Deliberate roadblocks formed by felled trees with anti-tank mines on the approaches could be eliminated only by 246 2247
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